A Bounded Freedom

As someone who is called to serve the Church in an ordained capacity, I have been giving some thought to how we can best respond to this calling, and to how the Church is to be for people, once churches are allowed to fully re-open for public worship. What will be asked of it?

 

It seems that these endless weeks of bounded freedom, the only name I can think to give to this period of lockdown, are drawing to a close – for the time being at least.

There will have been days which literally defy description and there will be have been others which have passed like a dream, with day and night merging into a single colourless continuum. We have been thrown back on ourselves and on our own emotional resources. For many people, these resources are now at a very low ebb. Our faith, if we have one, may have been severely tested through depression or loneliness, through disorientation and a strange sense of uprootedness and disorientation, perhaps.

Faith is nurtured through relationship, through human exchange at every level. For Christians it is also nurtured through coming together to seek God on a weekly basis, with whatever words and actions we are given, or that have been handed to us by tradition. Despite everything that is being done online, some of us miss our Sundays, the day that punctuates the week in this rather formal way. We miss our church and its regular pattern of worship and ministry. We miss the communion of it, communion through the sacrament if we have that, and communion with one another at a very real level, real in the sense of being physically present to one another in a shared space that has been used for this purpose for generations.

Church is a place of rootedness. But people are mistaken when they think of church as a sterile environment stuck in the past. If roots are simply ‘stuck’ a plant or tree cannot live. Similarly, if prayer and worship are no more than habit, if it is emotionally stuck or out of touch with people’s lives today, it will not be a channel of life. But if prayer is genuine, if it consists of everything a person has to bring to the moment, worship will be genuine too. It will also be rooted, not boring, repetitive or trite, but sourced in the unchanging nature of God and rooted in the richness of our individual lives.

God does not change and yet God moves, within us and around us. Churches exist to signal this particular reality that we experience together. In the context of a church service, we are present to God from what can only be described as our real self, the place of no pretence where we meet the God who knows us and loves us as we are.  We are also among people we trust, or at least we should be. The purpose of church is to affirm and celebrate this rootedness in God and in one another, to celebrate a trust between people that has accumulated across the generations and throughout the centuries and will continue to do so for centuries to come.

The other name for this is communion, the communion of ‘saints’. Saints are not perfectly holy individuals. They are flawed human beings, past and present, who recognise their need for Christ and try to love one another in that place of need. Some of them will come together on a Sunday and do this in church.

The responsibility for celebrating this communion, or union of people at the deepest level of meaning in God, lies with those who minister the church service. They can be ordained or lay, depending on the tradition of individual churches. Either way, it is a particular calling and one which extends beyond the confines of any one parish or church building.

As someone who is called to serve the Church in this way, I have been giving some thought to how those of us who share in this calling can best respond to it, and to how the Church is to be for people, once churches are allowed to fully re-open for public worship. What will be asked of it?

I am getting a sense of what this might be from the relationships that have been formed or strengthened up and down the lane where I live. It is more than a sense of people looking out for each other, or being more friendly than usual – notably when it comes to negotiating one or other of the few passing places we have along this lane. We smile and make eye contact with the person who gives way, which is not something that always happened in the past. Courtesy is very much part of our shared life these days. We are not in such a hurry as we were. There is deeper communion between us as a result of the restrictions imposed by the Covid pandemic.

Being in deeper communion with one’s immediate neighbours, as a result of our shared experience of lockdown, says something about what it means to be the Church. We are in fact being the Church when we practice courtesy to one another. But there is more to it than that. For the Church, courtesy is a graced action. It comes from having spent time engaging with the source of all courtesy and kindness, with engaging deeply in God. The isolation and solitude of the past months have meant that many of us have had to re-learn the habit of dropping down into silence in a way that sees silence as the source of all goodness, and of life itself. There have even been times, during these months, when silence literally ‘commands’ our attention.

To pay attention is to respond to a command from God to listen deeply to the world and to our immediate surroundings. It invites us to draw people we know into the presence of God, from within our own deepening encounter with silence and with whatever we wrestle with in moments of real solitude. But we also do this in solidarity with our neighbours, naming the ones we know, or simply holding the ones whose names elude us in the ambit of God’s love. This is what the Church of the future will consist of, a body of people who have learned how to hold others in God.

Despite lockdown, some figures suggest that there has been a marked increase in interest in Sunday church services over the past weeks. On one particular Sunday the internet briefly collapsed under the sheer weight of Christian prayer, teaching and worship. This is interesting because there are many parish clergy who have felt lost and disorientated over these past months, despite some of the wonderfully imaginative outreach that has been effected through the internet and despite the pastoral sensitivity and vision of some of our bishops. It has been a wilderness time for them.

The Church, like many people, is enduring a wilderness period, not only because its doors have been closed, and may remain so for a while yet, or because collective worship has not been possible, but because we are being invited, perhaps, to deepen into this sense of loss and absence, into the wilderness, and, what is more difficult, to not be in too much of a hurry to emerge from it.

As with lockdown itself, I believe we clergy need to emerge slowly and cautiously from the wilderness we may have been experiencing. We need to own it fully. Owning our own wilderness enables us to minister in the fullest sense to the emptiness and loss which many people experience in their lives, irrespective of Covid. These feelings of loss can be attributed to specific crises, of course, but for the most part they constitute a general state of mind, a sense of purposelessness and futility, a lethargy of the soul. If the Church, and its ordained ministers in particular, are to speak to this soul sickness, and thereby proclaim the good news of the Gospel, those of us who do so in an official capacity will need to re-learn acceptance, acceptance of who and what we are before God (and that takes some doing) and acceptance of the world and the Church itself, as they are before God. In the eyes of God, both the Church and the world are fundamentally good and deeply loved.

Herein lies the paradox of the Church’s prophetic vocation. We are to know ourselves as loved by God, and capable of goodness, while at the same time being acutely conscious of the evil and suffering that is perpetrated in the world and within the Church’s own bounded structures. Holding these two opposites together, the capacity for good and evil, becomes a way of life, not just something we do when we feel up to it, or can find the time, but as the guiding knowledge that we are called to live by.

We also do it in solidarity with previous generations. We inherit both the good and the consequences of the evil that may have begun through their actions, in both the Church and the world. We are in solidarity with the BLM movement now, because injustice and racism continue, but we also bear the burden of slavery itself which, lest we forget, continues, as people are trafficked all over the world into various forms of modern enslavement. We carry the burdens of previous generations, and of our own, but we do all this from within a place of inner silence which is not closed in on itself, but open to the possibilities of redemption and of forgiveness. We do it from a place of knowing that all that we are holding is held in God, as we ourselves are held.

Those called to the ordained ministry will need to have learned to know themselves from within that silence and see it as their ‘default position’, the place or ‘locus’ of understanding to which they continually return in order to rightly understand and live out their calling as deacons, priests and bishops in God’s Church. Lockdown may have helped some of them begin to face the realities of this calling, the seeming loss of direction and purpose, the irrelevance of status and ‘job description’, and of pointless and energy sapping meetings and committees. Without this time-consuming activity, some of them will be feeling marginalised, even redundant. They may even be questioning their calling. This is hardly surprising, since these very skills were probably being sought for when they were first selected, and subsequently trained, for ordination.

But the good news is, that much of what we clergy have become accustomed to, and even comfortable with, is not God’s idea of what it means to be the Church. In fact, without all these distractions from our true vocation, during these wilderness months, the Church’s life is only now just beginning. We can be confident then, that as long as we love one another and God’s world from within that often lonely and silent place, and work together for healing, as the apostle Paul wrote to the clergy in Corinth, we ‘do not accept the grace of God in vain, for now’ he says ‘is the acceptable time; See, now is the day of salvation.’ (2 Cor. 6:3)

 

 

 

Life’s Purpose

 

 

With lockdown now into its eleventh week (longer if, like some of us, you went into self-isolation the minute the alarm bells sounded) I’m beginning to wonder if this is what the ‘new normal’ really looks like. For those whose businesses have folded, who have no familiar routine to return to, or who find themselves prematurely retired, getting out of bed in the morning may be the biggest challenge they will face in the ‘new normal’ day. Despite the long weeks of lockdown, nobody is prepared for this sense of purposelessness and for the depression that comes with it.

The shock of the new, if it is new at all, returns us to the age old problem of solitude and loneliness, of purposelessness. But perhaps we also misunderstand the nature of purpose, when it comes to what our lives are for or about. St. Paul, in his letter to the fledgling church in Rome, writes that God works all things to the good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28) It seems that love, calling and purpose are very closely related. They are bound up in each other.

That, you may say, is all very well for those who have the time to ponder these things, whose thoughts and concerns are not taken up with how to pay the rent and feed their children, once the furlough money stops and their wages with it. And yet there is a connection between loving God and the harsh realities that many people will face post-lockdown. I think it has to do with our ability to somehow anchor our fears and uncertainties in a deep conviction about the transforming possibilities of love.

Every now and then we see these possibilities arising in the most unlikely contexts, in the angry confrontations that we are witnessing on both sides of the Atlantic at the moment, and in the way they oblige us to confront our complicity in what can only be described as the historic sins of slavery, racism and all forms of prejudice. Where we confront prejudice in ourselves, we must turn and seek forgiveness from those we distrust and at the same time fear, because prejudice and fear belong together. But the hardest thing is not the seeking of forgiveness. It is the acceptance of it.

Accepting another’s forgiveness obliges us to open our hearts to those we have wronged, and who we now fear, and then to keep them open. It obliges us to go on accepting love. We have seen small instances of this happening. Riot police taking a knee before protestors and the gentle acceptance of love and forgiveness that follows. Black people refusing to hate white people. The walls of hostility come down, momentarily perhaps, but also irreversibly. Hope replaces despair. Somewhere in all this the loving purposes of God are at work.

The Christian Church is called to embody the loving purposes of God. But it cannot do this unless it re-connects with its own humanity, unless it thinks of itself not as an organisation, or an institution, but as a vulnerable body of human beings called to live out God’s purposes for the world. The Church defines itself as the body of Christ to the extent that it knows itself to be a people whom God loves and who love God. Where there is indifference to God, there is also indifference to the suffering of other human beings. So, for Christians, the living out of God’s purpose begins with self questioning, first in regard to whether we love God and, secondly, in the extent to which others feel our love for God in the way we think of them, speak of them, and act towards them.

All of this returns us to the acceptance of forgiveness which is at the heart of the Christian faith. Accepting that we are forgiven, keeping our hearts open to this often painful reality, disposes us to love others as Christ loves us. We still have time, before the end of lockdown, to decide whether we want to live our lives in the knowledge of this world transforming reality.

Pentecost at Minneapolis

 

Pentecost is upon us, the season of fire and purgation. Is this what we are seeing in Minneapolis? The anger is righteous, though the violence is not. The poet Yeats might have envisaged it as ‘mere anarchy loosed upon the world’. Random chaos, in other words.

It’s easy to think of anarchy as random chaos but this anarchy, that we are seeing right now, is rooted in something. It is not random. It is the unforgiven sins of history being visited upon us, yet again. It is also a kind of holy void which God may be filling with the rage itself.

I have been reading the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament recently and it seems to me that God is not averse to the use of extreme violence, something that I have always found puzzling. But perhaps this is only due to my own partial understanding of the picture, when it comes to the Bible in relation to the violence we are seeing in Minneapolis and elsewhere in the US.

What if we think of these events as reflecting something of Pentecost, the feast of fire which emboldened and enlivened the disciples and the Church of today to stand for the truth? The anarchy we are seeing is dangerous because it has spilled over into attacking one of the last remaining institutions that speaks for truth and objectivity. Suddenly what is righteous dissolves into dangerous anarchy. A reporter is arrested, on camera, while reporting these events. There is a complete absence of law enforcement – no police, no national guard. The streets belong to the angry and the oppressed.

We feel something of this dangerous situation wherever there is a failure or absence of wise governance, or of leaders with integrity who can be trusted. It is almost naïve nowadays to talk of trust in relation to politics, perhaps because politicians so despise the people they are paid to serve that their arrogant patronising of them will, they think, go unnoticed. But sooner or later, far too late, people will wake up to the fact that they are being played for fools. The rage of the oppressed (and there is none so potent) and the contempt of the powerful for their own people runs the risk of spilling over into ‘mere anarchy’, not only in Minneapolis but, as the Cummings affair suggests, also in the UK.

It is time to hold the fire of Pentecost in our hearts, so that its energy can spill over into a world crying out for leaders and law enforcers who will enact justice, speak the truth and let the oppressed go free.

How will the Church, post Covid respond to this challenge?

Social Media and the Virtual Church

There is a great deal of anger and pain being expressed on social media, regarding virtual church services. Are the issues themselves the cause? Or are there other things surfacing in our common life?

 

There is a monumental twitter and facebook spat going on at the moment, having to do with whether and where it is or isn’t right to celebrate the Eucharist outside a church. It’s raised other questions too, about the validity, for want of a better word, of streaming worship and whether church buildings should remain open, and if so for whom. There is a great deal of anger and pain being expressed, to the extent that I find myself wondering whether the issues themselves are the cause, or whether other things are surfacing in our common life of which, until now, we were not aware.

The controversy seems to be largely focused on church people, ordained and lay, some of them highly placed. Perhaps it has extended itself more widely in the social media scene, and it is only because of my fairly limited following that I’m not aware of whether other people are concerned about these questions, whether they feel they have a particular interest in them. I think I can safely hazard a guess that most of my non-churchgoing friends are fairly indifferent to them.  So where does that leave those of us who, willingly or not, have been caught up in this fracas?

Where it leaves us has to do with what it is about these questions that really matters to the individual and how the whole question of public worship needs to be thought about theologically. It would take a book to answer the second question, even if it were to be limited to the contextual circumstances of a pandemic. But I think there are other more pressing pastoral issues at stake right now. These have to do with feeling very disorientated and afraid in these unprecedented times, and with the attendant anxieties which that fear brings to the area of public ministry, to its relevance and place in our lives. In this respect, it feels that those of us who are ordained are coming adrift from our moorings. It would not be fair to blame bishops or other church leaders for this sense of dislocation because many of them are probably feeling the same way.

Be that as it may, our passionate attachment to the issue of public worship and its attendant questions may also have to do with fearing the loss of a certain kind of purpose, of calling, perhaps. Ordained people are feeling vulnerable, especially those who do not have other paths along which they can minister, such as the continuation of food banks, homeless shelters and other permitted good works. Church buildings witness to the abiding presence of God in our midst in practical, as well as spiritual, ways. We all belong to our buildings, as our buildings belong to us. We also belong to one another in the context of social media.

I am not a parish priest, but I can imagine only too well how at a loss many priests must feel when they have only the internet and the phone to rely on for exercising pastoral and liturgical ministry. The tone of the exchanges on social media does not seem to acknowledge the challenges they face, still less express the affirmation which they must be needing. There is very little kindness in it all. If we were to begin to outdo one another in human kindness, we might find that questions of liturgical practice under lockdown would resolve themselves. Would the Church then look significantly different after Covid?

Quite a bit has been written about the Church’s structural future, but we also need to think about what that structure will embrace, and what it will convey to the world. Will the Church consist of people who are so anchored in God’s love that whatever they do or say will convey God’s love for them and for those they serve?

Right now, we are like the frightened disciples, huddled in the upper room when the risen Christ appears to them. They are busy arguing about the truth of the reports they have heard, as we are busy arguing about how public worship is to be conducted under lockdown. They are unstable and afraid, as we all are right now. Christ breathes peace into their individual fears, as he breathes into ours. He makes it possible for love to take hold of them again.

To be effective in ministry, wherever that takes you, is to know God’s love, to love God in return and to love his people. It also should inform how we conduct discussions online.

On ‘Liking’ Exodus

 

I decided early on in the lockdown that this would be an ideal time to embark on a sustained reading of the Old Testament, a part of the bible that I have rather neglected, apart from a few choice books and passages. It happens that the Church lectionary, whose bible readings I use every morning, is taking us on a journey through Exodus, kindly omitting the lists, genealogies and other more cumbersome sections and sticking to the interesting bits.

This morning we got to the part where the people, in the absence of Moses, who was busy up a mountain, are constructing a golden calf for themselves by melting down all their valuables. They then proceed to ‘worship’ it. When Moses comes back down the mountain he is furious with Aaron, the priest who he had left in charge and who tries to explain to him that a riot was about to break out, so he had to give people something to keep them busy (collecting the gold and making the calf) and which might help channel their aggression into something more creative and positive – ‘worship’, presumably. God is even more furious than Moses and commands that the calf should be melted down and the people made to eat it. End of today’s reading.

History is all very well, but not all history improves the mind of the one reading it, especially biblical history read in the wrong way, with the wrong pair of glasses on, as it were. Allowing for this, we still have this story in the bible and it invites quite a bit of thought about God, specifically, whether the God of the Old Testament, who it appears was quite happy to poison the population in a fit of jealous pique, and the God we have come to know in Jesus Christ, are the same person. Some of us put off thinking about this for as long as possible. Others, in the past, have thought a great deal about it and decided that the OT God is not the same God as the one Jesus worshipped as Father. These thinkers have, for the most part, been written off as heretics.

Be that as it may, it’s tempting to dismiss the question as irrelevant, or even to dismiss God altogether and, given his Old Testament reputation, many people have decided to do just that. But this is also where we can miss the real point of the golden calf story. I don’t think we are being invited to ponder the existence of God here, or even what kind of God he might be.

What we are being invited to reflect on is ‘idolatry’ and its cognate, ‘worship’. Again, it’s easy to dismiss the idea of idolatry as being of interest only to a pious religious minority. But this is not quite the case. Idolatry is very much with us as a deeply destructive inclination which surfaces in the human heart from time to time and takes the form of various kinds of addiction. Addiction fulfils, for a while at least, a need.

One addiction that I, for one, am falling victim to during this pandemic is the hold that social media is starting to have on me. It is a ‘hold’ because I cannot, given the present set of circumstances, see a way of dropping out of it altogether. I need the people out there, even if for most of the time they probably don’t need me. I need the conversation platform which both these amazing facilities offer us. What I don’t need, and certainly don’t like, is how easy it is to unconsciously transfer one’s present mood, be it of anxiety, irritation, boredom, or impatience onto the medium via whatever conversation channel gets me going. I try to think before I tweet and I generally do, which is why I seldom say much. But if you don’t say much, you don’t get much back.

This suggests that neither twitter or facebook, or any other social medium, are conversation partners in the real sense. If you neither give nor receive, being on social media amounts to voyeurism. On the other hand, if you engage full bloodedly you can very quickly find yourself tilting at windmills, with the thread either vanishing into thin air or becoming too stressful to continue with, allowing for all the clever things you can do to mitigate the situation, like ‘muting’ and ‘blocking’. At the end of the day, both of these scenarios are idolatrous because they have failed to meet the need for genuine human exchange, for genuine conversation.

Idolatry is about throwing away one’s soul. Perhaps idolatry creeps up on us because in times of great stress or emotional need, we forget we have a soul. A ‘soul’ is that aspect of a human being that reflects the light and goodness of God, something that is purposed for conversation and relationship with that God. This returns me to Exodus and the anger of God in the face of the people’s idolatry. Idolatry is not just disengaged voyeurism. It requires our passions and intelligence. It requires our souls. It seduces and as a seducer it brooks no competition.

The people were happy to give away their souls in return for a brief period of respite from boredom, anxiety, discomfort and even hardship. They were happy to forget who and what they really were, a people called to be in a proactive relationship with God, not as passive spectators, but as worshippers.

To worship God is to engage full bloodedly with the realities that are going on around us and to try to see them through the eyes of that same loving God. I would say that this puts an altogether different picture on our present predicament, in the context of covid and lockdown, and on how we might relate to one another through social media. There is a way to ‘worship’ fruitfully through social media by engaging the heart and mind with those who need reassurance and kindness, not with a clever retort shot off the cuff in a moment of irritation in which we only bare our own fear and insecurities, but in a gentle ‘like’ or affirming comment. Let’s have the humility and grace to acknowledge, in this time of trouble, how much we all need those ‘likes’ and comments. We know what they really mean to us, so let’s be the first to give them.

 

 

All The Time In The World

There was no internet connection this morning. Like many people, I find being unexpectedly cut adrift in this way frustrating but this morning it induced panic. It takes very little to throw a day off kilter during this pandemic. We need certain structures to stay in place for the various components of the day to hold together, so that the day retains its shape and forward momentum. The internet is vital to structure, but it must not become indispensable.

Perhaps what we need right now is a modified rule of life, broadly suited to the situation we are in but adaptable to individual circumstances and to the kind of stress inducing situations which would normally be quite easy to deal with. We need habits of mind to fall back on, a basic template for living in a way that ensures that a person thrives during this period of lockdown, rather than just surviving it.

We could start by being more kind to ourselves. This is not selfish individualism. Being kind to oneself when there is so much suffering everywhere is quite difficult to achieve, given the feelings of guilt it can induce, and the mental and spiritual distortions that these feelings can lead to. It helps, in this respect, not to get over tired. We need to live within our physical and spiritual means if we are to remain emotionally stable for the duration of this pandemic. Getting up an hour later not only ensures we are more rested, it brings the added benefit of shunting the whole day forward, making the day itself feel a little shorter.

Having got up a little later, spending the first hour of the waking day in the presence of God, sustained by tea if necessary, gives a person a firmer footing on which to begin the day itself. It is important to be honest about what we feel during this hour, while at the same time not allowing yesterday’s preoccupations and emotions to dominate it. A certain equanimity is needed for grace to do its transforming work. Facing one’s real emotions and allowing them to be held by God may provide a way for them to be used as the means for building something new for ourselves or for someone else in the day that lies ahead.

Whether a person lives alone or is part of a household, the way in which they spend the first hour of the day will significantly impact on the hours that follow because during that first hour, we can be open to the possibility of seeing things differently, of noticing things around us. In being available in this way, to the good that is around us, time acquires a value of its own. Learning the habits of openness allows for reflection and for consideration of what others, close to us or far away, might be thinking or feeling at any given moment.

The first hour spent with God also teaches us the value of silence. While it is important not to run from silence by filling the day with internal or external noise, we need to be kind to ourselves where these distractions are concerned. Most of us need social media right now because it connects us with people. It is a great antidote to loneliness and can be a real source of encouragement and support to anyone who engages with it in a generous and creative way. Social media works best when we consciously use it to support or enrich the lives of others. Giving and receiving ‘likes’ and positive comments strengthens our sense of belonging together in these difficult times, so we should be kind to ourselves by not feeling guilty about the fact that we find these positive interactions good and helpful.

It is equally important to have a meaningful project to work on, not just to fill the time, but to give substance to the day and to dilute the stress that comes with living with other people in a more concentrated way than we’re used to. Any project or activity that leaves a person feeling better about themselves, whether it is writing a novel or clearing out a garage, benefits those they live with.

This is a blessing in itself and a direct result of what normality may yet look like for years to come. Perhaps we will have got used to not having to prove ourselves, to achieve and to be driven by the need to work or be busy because we cannot bear the thought of time wasted. Perhaps we will become less in need of proving ourselves and better at living within our limits and at the same time living richly towards God and other people. So much death and suffering may yet teach us to value not only the time that is given to us but life itself.

Lent – What It’s Not

I would like to think that Lent will correspond with what is going on in my veg garden. A time to be weeded of old attitudes of mind and of the things that obstruct love.

I have decided this year, that Lent should focus on what it’s not about. In case anyone is wondering whether that means forget about giving things up, you’re right – in a way. I’m going to focus on not giving up in order to arrive, by grace, at a place where I can begin to give things up, specifically those attitudes of mind and ingrained habits of control that normally govern the business of giving things up for Lent, leaving no space whatsoever for seeking a deeper relationship with God.

Since these attitudes are largely governed by anxiety, as they no doubt are for many people, I shall try to live from within a single short text: ‘Do not be anxious. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’ (Matt 6:33) I do not think that the things that are being promised have much to do with mastering the art of self-control, although that might eventually reveal itself to be directly related to them, as a benefit or by-product.

Rather, they have everything to do with letting go of obsessive control in order to allow God to simply love us as his own, in his own way and on his own terms. Anxiety about giving things up and trying to be a better person gets in the way of this allowing, especially when the two appear to be interdependent. In other words, when you believe that you are only good when you give up the things you said you would, and when you can only manage this giving up if you are an inherently strong, spiritual, self-aware person – or any or all of the above. When this happens Lent turns into a cycle of self-recrimination leading to self-hatred and a sense of hopelessness.

Lent can be very conducive to self-hatred, and even to self-abuse. There is a vaguely punitive sub-agenda that can take over when it comes to giving things up or taking things on. It is as if God will be appeased in some way by our narrowly obsessive attitudes to foregoing chocolate, wine or cake, or that he will be gratified by our guilt-driven acts of false kindness to people we don’t like or relatives we’ve neglected.  

It’s also as if getting through the 40 days of Lent by giving something up, or striving to do something that requires some careful self-examination before embarking on it, is going to somehow make the world a happier place. That will only happen when these things are undertaken in love, and love is not something that can be summoned from nowhere, through rigorous acts of wrong headed self-denial.  It’s also as well to know from the start that we will fail at most of them and thereby end up hating ourselves while experiencing a mixture of shame and anger in regard to a God who is the cause of all this giving up in the first place.

All of these negative and conflicted feelings will be felt closer to home by those we live and work with. Failure brings shame and self-recrimination often expressed in ill temper and resentment, which is in turn fuelled by anxiety and loss of sleep. It seems to me that all this shame and anger-inducing activity is not what Lent is for.

I like to think of Lent as I contemplate the state of my vegetable garden at this time of year. There are a few weeds that need digging up. Most of them have been left by the birds. Given the heavy rain that we’ve had, a great deal of pre-seasonal care and attention is going to be needed if the garden is going to be able to produce anything at all this summer. The soil is sodden and, as a result, utterly starved of nutrients. If I can find enough black plastic I shall cover it over for the next few weeks (keeping the plastic to use again next year) until these vicious storms have passed and it has had a chance to dry out a bit. This will also protect it from rabbits and birds, as well as providing refuge for the frogs and toads who may have become disorientated in the surrounding wet, and wandered from the pond.

I would like to think that Lent will correspond in some measure to what is going on in the veg garden. Might it be a time for allowing myself to be weeded of old attitudes of mind which have, in any case, become rather worn and sodden with the passing of time and with the vicissitudes of this rather difficult year? As St. Paul says, we are God’s garden, so it is not us who do the weeding. (1 Cor. 3:9) From this, I think it is safe to deduce that the order for Lent ought to be one of allowing ourselves to be tended to and thus, the hardest thing of all for many of us, to live constantly in a place of vulnerability to God’s love.

By this I mean that we should consciously ‘will’ ourselves into a place of openness to that love. Many of us find this hard, which is why I say it should be done consciously and wilfully. It is hard because it brings us to a place of having to own that as far as God is concerned, we are worthy of love, not because we have done anything, or given anything up, but simply because we are seen in exactly the same light as God sees His Christ. He sees Christ in us. And we bear Christ in us to the extent that we allow him entry to the deepest and most secret place of our own personhood. Only in allowing him entry can we begin to be transformed in our attitudes to ourselves and to others.

At first, this will be a conscious and deliberate exercise in getting out of the way, in not obstructing God’s love out of a general sense of unworthiness, shame or even anger. Another name for this non-obstruction might be self-denial. Later this act of self-denial will become so much a part of us that it will be no more noticeable than our breathing. It will transform us. This transformation process will be painful only as and when it needs to be, but the pain will be lessened in inverse proportion to the extent that we allow ourselves to know that we are loved, that we have always been loved, and always will be, whatever we decide to give up.

You could say, then, that this gives us permission to be and do whatever we like with ourselves, our lives and the lives of other people, not to mention the planet we inhabit. But the snag here is that if you are consciously allowing, or taking in, the love of another, it would be ridiculous to pretend that in that same moment you would wilfully exploit or destroy those other people and living things that are precious to that person. In the moment of allowing ourselves to be loved by God, at the deepest level of our inner being, we literally ‘give up’ the things that make for violence and hatred in all its manifestations. This, I believe is the meaning and purpose of Lent.

Individualism. Is It About Fear?

Abuse always robs a person of their selfhood. It will place a person in a defensive position in regard to all their interactions with others and how they view their place and obligations to society and to the wider planet.

‘The age of the individual must end – our world depends on it’ writes Tom Oliver in today’s online Guardian[1]. I have a problem with this, not because I don’t agree with Professor Oliver’s basic premise, but because it passes over, a little too hastily, the real problem. In fact it almost avoids it.

The individual is really an artificial construct, its significance and relevance for our particular times hailing from those of Margaret Thatcher, as Professor Oliver rightly points out. But the individual is not the true person. It is not even the person who wrote the article, or the one who is writing this one. This is because the true person is a far more complex emotional being than the individual.

The true person is a self, known to their Creator and known to those whom she or he can entrust with the truth of that selfhood. So for those who have known unconditional acceptance from another person, the self is already rooted in the ‘other’. Over time, the self learns to ‘forget’ itself, so that it can find itself again in helping another person become their true self. The process works itself out in any relational engagement that takes place between one or more human beings and, as a result, becomes the substrata of a civilised and compassionate society.

All of this suggests that the idea of ‘selfishness’ is an oxymoron. It is a denial of what the self, as opposed to the individual, truly is. Selfishness is easily confused with individualism, which we all beat ourselves up about quite a lot of the time, because we do not fully understand what is going on in our true selves.

Individualism, and selfishness, are in fact the manifestation of a fundamental state of alienation, or of distrust. Individualism is a manifestation of fear. The individual is one who must defend themselves from the danger of being robbed of what little has been left to them of their true selfhood. In other words, they are likely to be people who have experienced abuse of some kind at some point in their lives.

Abuse, whether sexual or emotional, always robs a person of their selfhood. Unless abuse is addressed properly at source – at the time when it originally happened, it will place that person in a defensive position in regard to all their interactions with others, and how they view their place and obligations to society and to the wider planet. It may also turn them into abusers, people who need to control others in order to deflect any possible further wounding to their already wounded selves.

All of this suggests that there is work to be done in regard to how we discern and then relate to people who may be the victims of an affliction, an affliction that we could describe as individualism. ‘Individuals’, seen in this light, are a danger to others, as well as to themselves. In its most extreme form individualism manifests itself as a narcissistic personality disorder which can also bestow that individual with a certain charisma, especially potent in those whose individualism is driven by the will to power.

The will to power is fundamental to the abuser’s way of life. The sexual predator’s will to power is its own aphrodisiac and therefore highly addictive. This is what we saw being played out in the decades of power-driven abuse perpetrated by Peter Ball, the erotic power drive fusing with the sensuality of a distorted spirituality. But, as with other kinds of abuse, it may also have been driven by fear and the religious delusions needed to deal with that fear.

This returns me to the original point being made by Professor Oliver in his Guardian article, that the survival of the world depends on our working together to end the age of individualism. Perhaps there is a collective sub-conscious denial about the amount of damage that has been done to the collective self over the years, by politicians and religious people alike – to our sense of worth as a society or nation and that as a single people we are capable, and have the power between us to make things better. The Thatcherite maxim which denies this creatively empowered sociality is perhaps one of the most dangerous lies that has been served to us this century – the last being the justification for the first World War, supported at the time by the Church of England. If we believe the lie – that in fact we are not persons in the fullest sense, but only individuals battling for control or power over others and over the earth, then the future looks bleak.

As a Christian, I do not believe that it has to be this way. There is something about God’s own will to disempowerment as we see it in the crucified and subsequently risen Christ which calls us out of our fearful individual enclaves, including the power bases of tribal religion on the one hand, and of the institutional Church on the other, into a place of belonging together as a people.  This is where the work of ‘renewing the face of the earth’ begins (Ps.104).  So we need to reach out to one another, across the barriers of fear and distrust that we have created, knowing that we are all called and truly empowered to be a part of it.


[1] Downloaded 20th January, 2020

The Meaning of the Moment

The journey of the Magi acquires a particular significance for us in the ordinariness of our everyday lives, in all the things that need to be done or got through.

Prophecy is not an easily digested concept. The idea that things are foretold and then happen, possibly centuries later, tempts us to draw easy conclusions about the events going on around us right now, in particular the extreme weather phenomena associated with climate change. Human beings do not have the necessary patience to wait for the fulfillment of prophecy, to see the present moment in the context of the bigger picture of the past, as well as of the predicted future.

Fake news depends on our predilection for jumping to easy conclusions and, in doing so, also ignores the tiny truths revealed over the centuries in what I would call prophetic ordinariness. On the whole, prophetic ordinariness is about a build-up of significant moments, culminating in what can only be described as the ultimate moment, or destiny for humanity. It is this destiny that the Christian Church is celebrating in the Holy season of Epiphany, the unconditional manifestation of the Christ to all people without exception.

So the journey of the Magi acquires a particular significance for us in the ordinariness of our everyday lives, in all the things that need to be done or got through. We can assume, for one thing, that these important men had a retinue, a host of minor operatives who were there to make the journey go as smoothly as possible, and it is their individual journeys which are significant for each of us. They were there to attend to detail.

T.S. Eliot writes in his poem ‘The Journey of the Magi’ that there was much to complain of.  They had ‘a hard time coming of it’. Accommodation was scarce and expensive. It was the wrong time of year. The camels were going lame and becoming increasingly disgruntled and uncooperative. Troop morale was at an all time low, but having come thus far it was too late to turn back. So they kept going, believing, rather desperately, that there was a point to this madness.

We can only imagine that the three wise ones at the front seemed oblivious to all this, their attention fixed on their star – perhaps on their own inner star as well. Their journey, and that of their followers, depended on them being continually present to their vision, so that their sense of meaning and purpose, (even if they did not entirely understand it, since it would seem they had no previous knowledge of this new king), lent a military cohesiveness to the whole venture. As a result, the men trusted their three leaders and, since trust ultimately depends on love, they must have loved them as well.

We know the end of the story. They arrive, gifts are given, homage is paid and something greater than homage – something like adoration – happens spontaneously. Neither the wise ones or their retinue are expecting to be so profoundly moved and yet it seems that, for all the madness of the journey undertaken, this coming together in adoration is its supreme meaning.  All the hardship and inconveniences are brought together, offered, and redeemed in this most unlikely of regal settings, and blessed by the young king. Despite the incongruous surroundings, there is not the slightest sense of gene, of unease or embarrassment, such is the king’s humility in the deep silence of the moment.

There are times when we too are brought up short in this way, when for no apparent reason, perhaps, there is an instinctive need for deep silence, or a sense of it overwhelming us and the concerns of the moment. This is the silence of which St. John speaks at the beginning of his gospel. It is the silence that was before ‘anything that was made came into being’. It is the silence of love responding to Love in which human beings find their proper level and in which, if we can engage with it more deeply and more easily, the world may yet be saved from itself.