Feel The Fear – Stand in the Darkness

Fear remains a theory until it actually grabs you for real. No matter how hard you try to get into the experience of, say, an earthquake happening under your house, or being caught up in a war zone and having to flee the next bombing raid with only the clothes you stand up in, or knowing a family whose child has been killed by a crazed gunman running riot in their school, it remains the business of strangers.

I’m not implying that we’re really impervious to suffering, or that we always deal with frightening things by passing quickly on to something less emotionally taxing which, in my case, would be a quick fix with a few Instagram reels about horses. The Instagram reel distances the event. It helps to numb the fear, although I still feel it, but more as a kind of permanent under-current that affects, without my perhaps realising it at the time, how I sleep, how I behave with other people, and even how I pray.

I pray earnestly, though somewhat dutifully, about the state of the world. I try to empathise with specific contexts and situations but there is only so much reality I can cope with, to borrow from T.S Eliot – even perhaps when the reality threatens to hit closer to home.

In the wake of the latest school shootings in the US, I fear, I really fear, for my American grandchildren. Part of the fear is informed by not being able to begin to understand why a country could allow legislation that permits people to go about their daily business with loaded guns. I also fear for the way this strange freedom must inform the thinking of everyone, not just about violence itself, but about the potential for indiscriminate violence which perhaps lurks in all of us.

I have to admit that some of my favourite ‘go to’ TV dramas feature quite a bit of violence, and even glorify it. The one who is quickest off the mark when it comes to shooting to kill usually wins the day. Sometimes it’s not entirely clear whether, even given their specific legal remit, they are justified in doing so, but the viewer is seldom invited to consider this question. It seems that a successful TV drama is one that draws millions of viewers by posing the least number of meaningful questions, questions that may invite us all to consider our complicity in making it so easy for citizens to murder each other, at least in countries where this appears to be the case.

I do not know what causes a person to overstep the line from reality to lived out fantasy. All I know is that this can happen, seemingly anywhere at any time. There is something about unpredictable violent madness which, because it cannot be explained in the moment, points to a kind of dark anarchy at work just beneath the surface of society itself. If I were to describe it in biblical terms, I would appeal to the writer of the letter to the Ephesians who was concerned not only with physical evil; violence on the streets and guns in general, but with the ‘cosmic powers of this present darkness’ (Eph. 6:12). I think this idea of cosmic powers, and of the present darkness in which they operate, helps to anchor the kind of evil we are seeing when we hear of yet another shooting spree taking place in an American school.

In her courageous book We Need To Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver invites us to consider evil and whether a person can be born evil. Ultimately, she leaves us asking whether such evil is surmountable. Read the book and decide for yourself. What concerns me though, are the forces required to turn the tide in a country that so far has failed to tame the anarchic force that seems to be at work at the heart of its life, that informs its very self-understanding and identity. It is also what returns me to the imagery employed in the letter to the Ephesians. The will to ‘stand’ against the powers of evil is a litmus test of faith itself. It’s not a matter of weighing up the pros and cons and then deciding the best course of action, or what opinion to hold about any one issue.

Neither is faith is about simple belief, although that may have its place in certain contexts. It is about a kind of defining knowledge in regard to what is fundamentally evil, a knowledge which comes from having had ones mind made up by the knowledge, or experience, of a deeper and greater good. This knowledge is a light that we carry within us and which we can choose to allow to sputter out, or nurture until it becomes at one with the true Light that lightens the world, as it is described in St. John’s gospel (John 1:9).

As I write this, Christians are approaching the beginning of Holy Week. We shall be reflecting on and re-visiting the events that led up to God’s ultimate confrontation with the anarchic powers that the writer of the letter to the Ephesians is referring to. The Cross of Christ obliges us to confront those powers in ourselves and to see how they connect with the same powers at work in our world and society. In this respect, it is interesting to note that the writer of the letter to the Ephesians exhorts his readers to ‘Stand firm in that evil day’.

The letter was originally written in Greek. The Greek word for ‘stand’ is rooted in the word ‘stauros’ which means cross. For me, this points to the mystery at the heart of the Cross of Christ, that in all things that we fear most deeply, and can barely admit even to ourselves, we are invited to hold to the Cross, to ‘stand’ in the heart of the darkness around us, not as the helpless victims of our own inadmissible fears, but as ones who bear witness to the light which has not been overcome by that darkness.

Mothering Sunday

Mothers. We all have them. Even if we have never met our biological mother, she is still out there somewhere, whether she’s alive or not. Some of us are mothers ourselves, or grandmothers. Being a mother entails coming to terms with having had a mother of some sort, adopted or biological, present in varying degrees, or completely absent, loving or indifferent, or a mixture of both, depending on how she herself was coping with being a mother to any one child at any one time.

The mother daughter relationship is not the same as the mother son relationship. Both are subtle and variegated. Either way, the relationship plays into all our emotions, almost without exception. My relationship with my own narcissistic mother has been the defining bench-mark against which I judge myself as a mother and in which I take responsibility for the way my daughters are themselves mothers, both of them being, as mothers, a world away from anything I was or experienced, both as a mother and as the daughter of a narcissist. I have four talented and much loved grandchildren. They have had good mothering or, as I occasionally remind my daughters, ‘good enough’ mothering which is better than just good. The ‘good enough’ mothering they have received will give my granddaughters something to do differently when their time comes, if they want to.

This Sunday is Mothering Sunday. As always, it will be overlayed with sentiment, especially if it is a beautiful Spring morning and the church is full of posies for children to give to their mothers. But how many of the children collecting these posies do so feeling puzzled, if not for themselves, then perhaps for a friend? When they visit their friend’s house, things are not the same as they are in their own homes. It is hard for them to give a name to what they feel about what goes on there, or by the repeated absence of the person their friend refers to as Mum. She never seems to be there and yet she is much talked about. She is not in church, but the child whose mother she is will take the flowers home all the same. Who will he give them to? Perhaps he will throw them away, angrily, before he even gets home. If she does happen to be at home when he gets back from church, he won’t tell her there were flowers to be given to her this Mothering Sunday.

For those of us who did not have ideal relationships with our mothers, the Church, on Mothering Sunday, often presents us with hymns and prayers that don’t fit the emotional scenario we ourselves grew up with, so we try to sublimate them into vague ideas of Mary and her relationship with Jesus. We forget that she was a mother like any other mother and he a quite ordinary little boy, though exceptionally gifted, who, from the age of about twelve, was given to having profound theological conversations with the religious teachers of the day. This is guess work, of course. He could have been younger, but it is not a bad age for picturing the moment when his desperately anxious parents, who had been looking for him for a whole day, and were now having to retrace their steps, spoke to him quite sharply. Who wouldn’t? And then there was the time when his adoring fans were blessing the mother who bore him and he appears to deny her altogether. We have to take such moments as they are, without embellishments.

Perhaps it would be helpful if churches were to treat Mothering Sunday in this way as well. How many preachers are brave enough to talk about mothering as it all too often is for many people? It shouldn’t be all that difficult to do, if you look at it from the mother’s perspective as well as from the child’s. If the congregation is an older one, there will be women there who love their children and grandchildren but know that their own lives were seriously curtailed by the expectations in regard to motherhood that they grew up with. They may have been faced with agonising choices, the forfeiting of careers and with them financial security, the making do with what was on offer because they had little choice. They resent being made to feel guilty about not having been ‘better mothers’, whatever that was supposed to mean. They did their best but there were times when, if they are honest with themselves, their best was not enough, especially when judged by today’s standards. They think of their own mothers. Some of them may be in the congregation. Were they any better, coping as they may have done, in the context of a war and the blitz? Added to this, these grandmothers, or great grandmothers, may have had to foster other people’s children and resented it. The emotional demands made on them were perhaps just too great. They would be re-visiting those feelings right now, during one of the hymns, perhaps. They probably don’t feel like singing hymns. Life has not treated them fairly. They would rather go home and quietly curse God for placing them where he did in history and in the social context they inhabited. But they are here all the same in what has come to be known as Mother Church.

The Church is, or ought to be, the model of God’s mothering of his children, a place where all are loved and valued for who they are and for what they have brought to society, to a particular community, to a family. As with all mothering, this is an ongoing task for the Church, one that has to be undertaken day by day, and not only on Sundays, with special efforts made on those big Sundays when a local church can expect more than its customary single figure congregation.

 If the Church is to be true to itself on Mothering Sunday, it must focus outwards throughout the rest of the year, day in day out, embracing all those mothers and grandmothers who society may have failed in the past, through sheer ignorance as much as anything else. On this particular Sunday, a public thank you to all the mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers who tried to do their best, but didn’t always manage it, along with a sincere word of sorrow and repentance for the children who, as a result of their own mothers’ unhappy stories, were neglected or abused, would be in order.

This might be a new beginning for the Church itself. So if you are in church this Mothering Sunday, just give the posy to the woman sitting nearest you. Look at her with empathy and gratitude. She’s someone’s daughter and quite likely to be someone’s mother too.

Making Conversation

There are some conversations that are best entered upon sideways. Discreetly might be a better way of putting it. Perhaps, on thinking about it, this is true of just about all conversations. Think how different the world would be if political preferences, in regard to party politics rather than to the burning issues of the day, were entered upon discreetly. The burning issues of the day often call for something more forceful than party politics in any case, even leading, as they do from time to time, to revolution.

I had two such conversations yesterday, both of them discreet but both of them revolutionary. Each in their different way turned on the subject of God but barely touched on religion itself. In the first, we learned from each other, not so much about God as about certain attributes of God. We learned about Wisdom and about purity of heart, two rather abstract concepts which are easy to dismiss as too difficult to get one’s head around, but if seen as part of a bigger picture they start to acquire a value of their own.

Wisdom is more than intelligence. It is intuited understanding about the difference between right and wrong and about God. Purity of heart comes with Wisdom. It amounts to uncluttered intelligence, to the ability to think from the heart, but to think clearly, to yearn for the transparent, for the ability to see through things and people to the divine that lies hidden within them.

When it comes to talking about God, and about his Christ, as opposed to only about religion, these two concepts act as a kind of bridge between the way we think and the way we feel. They free us from the limited confines of the rational, so that all of a sudden anything is possible, anything is believable.

Some Christians will be shocked to read this. They will see it as a dangerous form of syncretism or boundary-breaking, as if I am questioning everything that Christ says about who he is in relation to God and to the whole created order, as if I am trying to reduce him to a single element in the order of things when, as the conversation I’ve just referred to demonstrated, he remains integral to every microcosm, to the smallest molecule or atom in the universe and beyond. ‘All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being’ (John 1:3). I think we both understood this but discretion required us not to state it in so many words. Instead, we tried to make connections with the way each of us arrived at a relationship with God. Again, without saying so in so many words.

My first conversation partner is intimately connected with the Wisdom of God through her experience of the natural world. She sees the beauty and intrinsic worth of the tiniest blade of grass, the most ordinary wild flower, as well as of the rare and extraordinary. She is able to wonder at these things. She knows God in them. I understood the wondering as something I experience myself, though coming at it from a different direction. I tend to make a conscious decision to allow the mystery to take hold of me wherever I am and whatever I’m doing at any given moment. Sometimes this happens without my allowing anything in particular. It is a great privilege although I don’t think such an experience is restricted to people who go in for ‘spirituality’, whatever you take that word to mean.

Thinking back on this conversation, I realised that Jesus never once mentions spirituality, although he does talk a lot about the Spirit and the idea of worshipping ‘in spirit and in truth’. But these words, if I’m honest about it, can also take us into the realm of religion and, as my conversation partner remarked, the minute you mention religion, or faith, you move into dangerous areas of conflict, so she prefers to avoid these words altogether. This returns me to what Jesus might have been saying to us, had he been party to that conversation. I think he might have responded with that rather enigmatic turn of phrase he uses, ‘blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ (Matt.5:8).  But “What does ‘seeing God’ entail?” you might well ask. I don’t think he’s talking about visions of God descending from clouds on high as something we are to expect right now, although he does foretell it for later (Matt. 25:31).

And this brings me to my second conversation, which took place in a hospital setting with someone who spends her days caring for people but who is deeply wounded by a Church which doesn’t appear to care for her very much. It doesn’t seem to appreciate what Jesus would have called her purity of heart, her ability to see God in all the people around her and in the work she does, the Wisdom that she gains from that seeing, and which the Church could benefit from if it would allow itself to do so.

The difficulty for the Church, in regard to this particular person, is that people who are pure in heart and, as a result, see God in a pretty much uninterrupted way can be fairly unpredictable. They can even be dangerous. They don’t do ‘spirituality’ in a way that feels safe. The institutional Church likes things to be safe and predictable. It does not like interruptions. In its defence I would say that interruptions, even those that are of the Holy Spirit, can wreak havoc with well ordered services and finely crafted liturgy and music and, as a result, be a source of embarrassment and a stumbling block to some. This is not helpful. But it is a mistake to outlaw those who are gifted with the Holy Spirit, whatever form that gift may take. A person who is gifted in this way is not necessarily asking for any particular status, or even a job, in the Church, but they do ask to be taken seriously and, as a result, to be made to feel that they belong. My friend in the hospital has been consistently made to feel that she does not belong.

For most of his ministry, Jesus concerned himself with people who for one reason or another were made to feel that they did not belong in the religious establishment of his day. Some were outlawed from society altogether. Many of these misfits were the ‘pure in heart’ and the ‘poor’. One or two of them were part of the establishment, but tended to keep their heads down as far as possible, visiting Jesus by night and making discreet enquiries of the authorities when it came to insuring that he had a decent burial. We come across such people in the Church today and when we do, we are reminded that the Church carries within itself something of God. These people need to be made more visible and their voices heard. They are perhaps the Church’s only hope, embarrassing and difficult as they may sometimes be.

Lent. What’s Your ‘Driver’?

Lent can easily be mistaken for the season of drivenness, so it’s ironic that the first Sunday of the season is marked by Christ being ‘driven into the wilderness, there to be tempted by Satan’. (Matt. 4:1) Although the verse is more often translated as ‘led’ rather than ‘driven’, I think ‘driven’ chimes more accurately with the modern mindset. We are a very driven people.

Most of our ‘drivers’ have to do with the need to achieve and prove something to ourselves,  so Lent very quickly becomes a test of the will and of determination. It has to be got through. We have to do something about it, or that is what we tell ourselves. All this leaves very little mental space for asking why we should be doing something.  

Added to this, we mustn’t let up on any of the other things we feel obliged to do or to become – a more successful person, a more attractive and/or interesting partner, a better parent. Here I am reminded of my headmistress at school whose favourite mantra was “Good, better, best. Never let it rest. When your good is better make your better best.” Such exhortations can become life-time ‘drivers’. They also prey on our weaknesses.

Satan was not stupid when he devised his plan to try to bring Christ down in the wilderness. He used the tools that were to hand which were the natural human weaknesses that Jesus would have been prey to and which ‘drove’ him, along with the underlying fears that drive all our frenetic activity. Jesus would perhaps be thinking, as he contemplated the idea of spending forty days in the desert doing nothing at all, of time wasted, of not achieving what needed to be achieved before his allotted time on earth was over. He would have experienced anxiety, frustration, despondency, perhaps despair, as we all do in varying degrees from time to time.

Satan, the tempter, had plenty of material to work with. He could start with the quick fix – stones to bread, or jumping off cliffs and being caught up by angels. Either of these would have allowed Jesus to prove what he could do. Or the tempter could resort to the mercurial, what he calls worship. Worship can be conveniently applied to anything that involves making things happen the way we want them to happen irrespective of the cost to ourselves, to other people and even to other nations. The worship of power, along with self-reliance (which is a form of self-worship) are key elements here. If Jesus had ceded to this particular temptation he would be avoiding the slow and painful process of waiting on God whose presence, at this particular moment, seemed opaque, if he was there at all. “You can do it. You know you can. You don’t need God. Go on. Prove yourself” the tempter would be saying.

I think self-reliance, and the drivenness that goes with it, are the two most important areas that we need to concentrate on in this season of Lent. We could do this by first of all reminding ourselves of the purpose of Lent. Lent is a season of joyful preparation. It’s not quite like Advent, because the event that we are preparing ourselves for is preceded by suffering, the suffering of Christ who holds the suffering of the world as well as all the bits of suffering we carry around in ourselves and about which we are frequently in denial.

We often deny the things that really hurt by ‘driving’ ourselves forward through them, as if they didn’t exist, or at least as if we can ‘manage’ and perhaps ‘get over’ these areas of pain and need through sheer self-reliance. Sometimes the drivenness takes the form of having to prove ourselves. We have to prove that we are able to control, or have dominion over, any number of perceived needs, not all of which are bad, but most of which go unexamined. Sometimes there is the need to have dominion over, or to control, other people. (Why do we need to control others? Are we afraid of them?)

On a more personal level, there is the need to stay healthy by exercising more (how much more?), the need to earn more money than is strictly necessary for our happiness, perhaps, the need to ‘get on’ in one’s career (why? What are we trying to prove? And to whom are we proving it?), the need to efface the past by somehow making up for it. These aims and aspirations are the underlying ‘drivers’ of our separate lives. But the real ‘drivers’ lie hidden in the answers to the questions that follow them and behind these questions lies the wilderness. In other words, if we face into our imagined needs, which are whatever answers we can truthfully give to the questions I’ve just posited, we may find that the needs evaporate altogether.

So perhaps this year we could approach Lent in a different way. We could begin by taking an overview of how we spend our days. What are the things that we do because we tell ourselves they must be done? What drives us to do them? I know that I can get obsessive about dog hair. I could, if left to my compulsion, spend a sizeable part of the day hoovering. I know this is ridiculous, but I also know that it is an outworking of some kind of need to achieve perfection, to not put up with anything that is in any way flawed in my surroundings. This is, to say the least, annoying for other people. The task here then, as I see it, is not to let the house go to pot so that I can dominate my obsession with dust and dog hair, but to look at the underlying ‘driver’ and where it is coming from.

 No doubt those of you who are reading this will have other more interesting underlying ‘drivers’, but they all ultimately lead to the same place if we do not face them honestly. They lead to a false sense of having proved something, achieved something, through our own efforts. Looking back on all this self-mastery we are left feeling not only exhausted, but with a strange kind of emptiness, a wilderness, into which we will once more be driven, if we do not own the truth of what it is that really drives us.

So perhaps the most realistic and practical thing we could be doing this Lent is to begin each day in a state of loving attentiveness to how God sees us, not as persons who need to overcome things, or to achieve higher standards, unless these things or habits are a real impediment to our receiving love from others, as well as from God.  Going into the wilderness means letting go of all our ‘drivers’ and allowing ourselves to be led, rather than driven, more deeply into the love of God and of other people.

Lent – What’s It For?

‘What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?’

Words borrowed from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and surprisingly well suited to the season which is almost upon us – Lent.

What is the point of Lent? You could be forgiven for thinking that it’s some kind of masochistic Christian exercise designed to remind us that we are nothing but dust to be trodden underfoot and that we should be mindful of our station at all times and in all places, especially during this season of imposed abstinence.

Unfortunately, being made to feel like dust (or rubbish), which the Ash Wednesday ritual of ashing the forehead can do, if we’re honest about it, can also have the effect of inducing a kind of groveling self-hatred which is altogether counter-productive, in terms of what Lent is really for (which is to grow closer to the God who loves us for who and what we are), or, at best, turn it into some kind of self-improvement regime. On the whole self-improvement regimes rarely achieve their goals, or so I’ve found, leaving us feeling not only less improved but also that we are thoroughly incapable of sticking to anything we set out to do and hence a dismal failure into the bargain. The paragon of animals, we are not, still less the paragon of virtue.

Here, we start to come a bit closer to what I think is the point of Lent, which is not to make us feel like miserable failures or, at the other extreme, like paragons of virtue, but to make us know that we are loved by God who invites us into a loving relationship with him before we have done anything at all to make ourselves presentable, so to speak. In fact the less presentable we are, the more deserving (for which read needful) of the love of God we are.

Think briefly of the story of the Prodigal Son. Incidentally, it is not that he is more loved than his brother, but he is, I believe, given an extra slice of something, possibly because, unlike his older sibling, he has actually dared to live a life and to fail, ingloriously, but ultimately quite gloriously. He arrives filthy, smelling of the pub he last visited and still slightly drunk from the night before. He has not lived carefully but I would hazard a guess that he has not lived selfishly either. What he hasn’t been cheated of, or just lost, he may well have given away out of a mixture of compassion, naivete and innate self hatred. He hasn’t really thought anything through at all and now it is too late, or perhaps not quite too late. He is a kind of glorious failure. The point of Lent is to show us how to fail gloriously.

The point of Lent is not to waste time trying to clean ourselves up by mastering our cravings for sugar, or violence on TV or the instant reassurances afforded by twitter or snap-chat, dangerous media which can just as easily destroy as build up. The point of Lent is to make us more vulnerable to God’s love. The point of Lent is to give us permission (freedom is the other word) to be fully who we are before God. The last thing required of us, in this respect, is that we should spend the time making ourselves presentable. We will never manage it.

If we manage anything at all, it will be to recognize this fact, and that we would like to be a different kind of person to the one we know ourselves to be. The exercise then becomes a matter of getting to know this real person over a period of forty days or so, so that by the end of it, or better still right at the beginning, that real person can hear their name being called by the one who loves us as we are, by the Risen One. The ashes on the forehead remind us that we need this love.

The Doggishness of Dogs

Our labradoodle has a particular way of running when he is feeling whatever dogs feel when they are happy. His front legs move each to one side as he hurtles towards you full of eagerness and devotion. He is nine years old and weighs 39 kilos. When this happens, the trick is to crouch low on the ground, so avoiding the risk of him cannoning into you, although he probably doesn’t intend doing this, as he usually veers off to one side a split second before the collision happens. These moments of untrammelled joy occur unannounced and seemingly for no particular reason, except that the sun is shining and he finds himself in an open green space in the company of three people who he loves. I use the word love guardedly, only because I can’t think of a better one.

Do we anthropomorphise our animals too much? Many would say that we do. But I think that if we were not to make clear to our animals the depth and intensity of our need for their affection and loyalty we would all be the poorer for it. We do this as we condition them to understand us and in the way we tell ourselves that we understand them, or so we like to believe.

A dog is a pack animal, but one with a difference. Much as I love horses, and those who work with, or own horses will know just how deeply felt this love can be, I don’t credit them with the kind of intelligence peculiar to dogs. It isn’t possible to share a house with a horse, for example. As a child, I had a small Shetland pony who I once persuaded to come upstairs into my bedroom. The experiment, though successful in one sense, was a disaster. He almost did himself terminal damage. He also wrecked the staircase and the whole episode got me into a great deal of trouble. Part of the problem was, unsurprisingly, given the circumstances, lack of trust. The Shetland did not understand why this manoeuvre was necessary.

Dogs seem to have an innate ability to understand the underlying reason for what is being asked of them, whether it involves not fouling the nest we allow them to share with us, or the need to see a blind person safely across a busy road. Perhaps this is in part due to the fact that they are pack animals, rather than herd animals. Horses, who are herd animals, seem on the whole to feel happier doing what all the other horses are doing at any one time. Not so with dogs. Dogs decide whether to really adopt their particular human, an idea which is brilliantly sketched out by Russell Hoban in his post-apocalyptic novel Ridley Walker. That being said, dogs, in Hoban’s novel, revert to a primal pack state where they decide together whether to adopt the human or, in this case, simply eat him. We anthropomorphise, and sentimentalise, our relationship with dogs when we forget what they were originally programmed to be, creatures who kill to eat and who survive best in packs.

This returns me to this morning’s moment with our labradoodle. Have such instincts simply been bred out of him over a few generations of solidly reliable antecedents and responsible breeding by those who ‘engineered’ his existence? We met his mother, a kind and gentle chocolate lab, along with his four siblings who, on meeting us, did the morning joy caper with as much enthusiasm as we witnessed in their brother this morning. He, on the other hand, hid behind the stable door which immediately endeared him to us.

I sometimes wonder whether those of us who are privileged to be the guardians of dogs, cats or horses (for whom, if there is such a thing as judgment, we will one day be answerable) are at times not quite human. In order to bond with our labradoodle, which I do at great length every night before parting from him until the next morning, I park my sensible human self on a shelf for a few brief moments while I get down on the floor and up close to the dog. If you have a loved horse, you will do something comparable. You will sneak out to the stable and canoodle with her or him for a few last minutes, on the pretext that you are just checking that your beloved is settled and happy.

I have also found that these moments have a profound spiritual intensity to them. While the dog, or the horse, or the cat, all three of whom I count as sentient beings (as opposed to a goldfish or bird, though some birds might qualify as sentient), respond with everything they have to give when they receive these attentions – a succession of sneezes, a wide open maw of appreciation, a gentle nip, or blowing through the nose and a stamp or two – they are limited in how they can reciprocate. What seems to happen instead is a kind of shared understanding, a shared knowing of something unnameable which is unimpeachably good and, I believe, utterly vital to the survival of the human species, as proved when dogs are invited into hospitals. Dogs in hospitals have a marked effect on people’s ability to mend, both physically and psychologically. Autistic kids who are given even a small amount of responsibility for the care of a horse feel a current of healing and calm pass from the animal directly into their often frightened and confused selves.

We may think that our reasons for keeping animals have their origins in the agrarian utilitarianism of centuries past, but they are far more subtle and complex than that. We need the particular response to our love which these animals give us because they afford us with the opportunity to be vulnerable, in other words to trust another sentient being. The way we tend to behave around very young children, and around animals we love, suggests that we are only fully human when we are in this particular state of vulnerability and trust.

An animal we trust is often as close as any of us gets to trusting a God who is revealed in the full and complete doggishness of a dog. Recognising and owning this love for what it is makes us capable of being just a little bit better than we are most of the rest of the time. When you stop to think about it, how will we, and the earth itself, survive if God’s love is not chanelled to us through the doggishness of a dog ?


‘Drilling down’ is something of a conversational catchphrase. I am not sure that conversations are particularly enriched by it, perhaps because drilling is too easily associated with dentists and oil wells. But the phrase does have something to offer when it comes to news overload, although it is the depth, not the aggressive drilling which, seen from a different perspective, may have something to bring to the way we initially react to the conflicts and environmental catastrophes with which we are faced on a daily, if not hourly, basis. We brace ourselves for the news as if it were the dentist’s drill. I think there is a better way to play a part in healing the world’s pain than simply bracing ourselves for the next disaster.

As Christians, we engage with the suffering of others by ‘deepening’ rather than ‘drilling down’ into it. Deepening is not the same as ‘drilling down’. Deepening involves ‘dropping into’ and allowing, rather than forcing ones way into something. There is no pressure involved, and hence no stress. We deepen, or drop into, the world’s suffering, and begin to participate in its healing, by first allowing the initial shock wave of the latest news feed to flow into us and through us, without trying to block or defer it by turning off the computer or phone.

Today, I alight briefly on CNN’s cable news channel to be faced with a report of the latest Israeli raid on the town of Jenin, the worst in over a year. I am tempted to just click on to the next news item, or switch off. It is a typical news overload moment. But neither of these evasive tactics is really an option. Instead, I need to ‘deepen’ into the situation being depicted, and the devastation it has wrought on all those involved, by dropping down into its own darkness.

This is not quite the same as ‘drilling down’. Dropping down is not a search for some pre-defined end, or even for a solution to the problem. It is a matter of letting go of one’s own initial resistance to the suffering of others by ‘abseiling’ down into their suffering and into all the circumstances which surround it.

Abseiling, as defined by Wikipedia, is ‘the controlled descent of a vertical drop’. The abseiler has to both let go and hold on, letting themselves drop down into the unknown while bracing themselves against the cliff face and holding onto the rope. We abseil into the Jenin situation by picturing the human beings caught up in this decades long conflict with no end in sight and by bracing ourselves on the inner strength given to us in the abiding presence of Christ.

When it comes to engaging fruitfully with the world’s pain, we let go and drop down into it in terms of our own inner life. Our inner life, if we pay attention to it, is a constant, so you could say that its constancy means that it is the only life that we can call real. It takes us out of ourselves but it also holds us together. Our other more superficial habits of mind generally return us to an over familiar but far from complete, or real, self.

Following our immediate inclinations or habits of mind, including switching off when we reach news overload, seldom enables us to be more deeply connected to others. It leaves little time for abseiling into the realities that lie behind any news item. In an age defined by the instant and the superficial, depth is what counts, and depth requires trust. Abseilers take a calculated risk as they drop down into the depths while trusting completely in the competence of those around and above them.

For Christians, life in its fullest sense involves this kind of trust. To trust others means knowing ourselves to be connected to them, wherever they are, and taking them with us as we drop down ever more deeply into the life of Christ – the Christ who ‘abides’ with us and in whatever situation we are being faced with in the news, the Christ who provides the foot-hold or ledge on which to brace ourselves when needed as we absail into the depths of our inner life.

This is how Christians think of prayer. Prayer is a three-way process. We take the world’s suffering, and the suffering of those known to us personally, into our inner life. We bring all this suffering into the presence of Christ who abides in us and in Jenin at the moment and we dare to hope.


‘“It is winter in Narnia,” said Mr. Tumnus, “and has been for ever so long…. always winter, but never Christmas.”’ This is surely one of the most memorable lines from C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The words make me wonder why we are always in such a hurry to remove all evidence of this festive season by midnight on January 6th– or Twelfth Night as it is also known, as if we were in a hurry to get back to the winter Mr. Tumnus is describing.

Some people take their Christmas tree down on New Year’s Eve. I find this haste to get back to workaday normality sad, not just because I’m sorry to say goodbye to the good memories, and the lights and cards, or even because it’s time we finished the Christmas cake, but because it deprives the season of its true meaning. It diminishes the joy of anticipation that we have already known, and cuts short the possibility of hope for the weeks and months ahead. Right now, we are very much in need of that Christmas hope.

Of all the seasons, Christmas is the one we most joyfully anticipate. Advent is a joyful season of preparation, and not only one of fasting and self denial. Christmas begins in a hope that is realised through a promise fulfilled, the coming of the Messiah, and in the giving of gifts that signify the fulfilment of yet more promise, his welcoming of the gentile world, so why are we in such a hurry to tidy it away?

I would dare to suggest that what appears to be our need to be done with Christmas has something to do with the difficulty we experience, both as a Church and in our individual lives, with the receiving of gift. We sense this difficulty in the way we exchange gifts under the Christmas tree. It has become a contractual exercise. There are expectations and wish lists to be met and fulfilled. This creates an atmosphere which makes it hard to be genuinely grateful for the gifts we receive from others, which in turn diminishes our joy in receiving them. Where contractual thinking begins, gratitude and reciprocity end. But the gift of Christmas itself carries no such expectations, only the hope that the Giver will be loved for His own sake, as he was loved by Mary, his mother.

The love between Jesus and his mother is also an invitation to us to be part of that reciprocal love. We are invited to ‘treasure’ the real meaning of Christmas as she treasured the memories that surrounded his birth. We are to carry Christmas with us, and ‘treasure’ its promises into the weeks ahead, through Epiphanytide to the pre-Lent season. With Mary, we treasure the surreal moment of gift giving, as three wealthy foreigners kneel and worship the Child in the house he is living in – or in the stable, depending on how you read the timing.

The mismatch of facts and information concerning these and earlier seminal events in no way diminishes their significance, or their truth. The truth of them endures and enriches our lives because it is made manifest in the context of the people around us, beginning with our own Church family. Christmas was never a private event, so the Christmas story endures and acquires greater meaning to the extent that we go on living it together and receive the Christ Child in one another with unfeigned gratitude. What better place to begin than the Feast of the Epiphany and the short season that follows it?

Finding The Church

Across from where I am sitting right now is a wood that appears to be sliding down a hill. It’s not the Dunsinane of Macbeth’s macabre story, but an ordinary small copse which is seemingly on a downward trajectory because of the lie of the land. Until quite recently it didn’t belong to anyone but now it’s been claimed and, thankfully, continues to be left alone, fenced off from the surrounding grazing land so that sheep and cattle are not tempted to wander in there. It is home to a few foxes and badgers and quite probably to one or two rare kinds of wild flower. Orchids and cowslips are known to grow in this area.

The copse makes me think of the Church, rooted or grounded on ‘rock’ as the Gospel set to be read this Sunday tells us (John 1: 29-42), but appearing to be sliding down a hill to possible oblivion, no more than a staging post for life’s significant events, ending with the one final event, the death event, which, on the whole, we would rather not talk about. The little copse across from me celebrates this event for the whole of the winter season, dancing nakedly and as happily in the gale force winds as it does in a summer breeze. It is unchanging and yet transforms itself entirely from year to year, from death to life.

I have a feeling that the Church could be like this copse if it, and people in general, would allow it. What inhibits its life, and it is nothing less than life that it is offering the world, is an inability to hold together the relentless forward movement which comes through gestation and change, and the immutability that it inherits from having been founded on ‘rock’. The kind of life that I am talking about, in regard to the Church, is not about different ways of doing things, or of ordering its practical existence, including the management of buildings, but has to do with how it values, nurtures and deploys human potential, the gifts it receives through the work and personhood of its ‘saints’.

One of the hymns that we will be singing on Sunday, in one of the churches that I am privileged to serve on a regular basis, gives thanks ‘for all the saints’ for whom Christ was their ‘rock, refuge and might’. These words can be read or sung in one of two ways. They can either be taken as a load of pious waffle, put to a quite rousing tune so that we all go away feeling the better for having taken a few deep breaths in order to sing them. Or they can be allowed to take root in a deep place, where they will remain, insistently, long after coffee is over and the washing up done.

The pious reading of this hymn is, of course, utterly fanciful, conjuring up ideas of valour and holiness which are well out of the reach of most of us, and perhaps not particularly desirable in any case. The better reading might appeal to a person’s innate goodness, their capacity for fun, their faithfulness to small tasks that are possibly essential to the life, or even to the survival, of another being, human or animal.

There is a reel currently doing the round on LinkedIn which shows a group of strangers linking hands to rescue a dog that is about to drown in what looks like a dam for generating electricity. https://www.linkedin.com/search/results/content/?keywords=Amazing%20kindness%20Ravi%20Narayanan&sid=hkP&update=urn%3Ali%3Afs_updateV2%3A(urn%3Ali%3Aactivity%3A6995263224543662081%2CBLENDED_SEARCH_FEED%2CEMPTY%2CDEFAULT%2Cfalse) The wall of the dam is too steep for the small dog to climb, or for any one person, so a few bystanders, strangers to one another, join hands to form a human chain to rescue the dog. They are the Church, or at least they are what the Church is meant to look like, strangers linking together to save a life, the life of the world in all its lostness and fear.

 The people rescuing the dog may or may not go to church, but if such a person happens to find themselves in church this coming Sunday, when the hymn may be sung, they should know that the hymn is about them. They may or may not think of themselves as ‘religious’ or as ‘saints’, but the real Church is not a particularly ‘religious’ body, with all the connotations that word brings to mind. It is much more like the copse across the fields from where I’m sitting right now, rooted deeply in something like love, waving it’s branches madly in the air, inviting the world into its madness, inviting it to be part of a life-saving exercise which is desperately needed in this age of political turmoil and extremism of the worst kind.

Love, in regard to the Church and religion is, of course, madness, but it is a holy madness with no apparent rhyme or reason to its existence. But it insists on doing its work through the lives of its unobtrusive ‘saints’. It only needs the rest of us to come and join in the rescue operation.

No Offence

Social media is awash with religious sentiment at the moment, although many of the tropes and sayings are in fact quite profound. It’s just that when they all arrive together their meaning and significance is often lost to the casual scroller. Or perhaps the scroller isn’t really being all that casual. We are just looking for something on which to pin our confused thoughts and feelings in regard to Christmas. Some of us are dealing with events, memories, triggers and conflicting emotions that make it hard to stay on message. By that I mean staying fixed mentally, emotionally and physically to what Christmas is about.

The clumsily designed cards, the carols, the canned music in shops point to a mystery that defies description.  It is a mystery that chooses (because it involves human will, the will of one woman who chose to say ‘yes’ to it) to be revealed in the ordinary, in the routine, in things not being as they ‘should’ be, so that the heart of it can be known and understood by the excluded, the unloved, the anxious and afraid, and by the plain busy.

Christmas carries a health warning. There are times when no amount of will power makes staying on message possible, the reason being that the foundational story itself is not something that one can call upon to make sense of the season as most of us experience it. It is something that captures you unawares, leaving the heart exposed, and this can be annoying, for ourselves, and even frightening.

It is annoying or frightening when it puts us at risk of minding about what is said or done in regard to this particular Christian festival. I am annoyed with myself for the gut reaction I experience when the story, or images that depict it, are twisted in such a way as to make the event totally devoid of mystery, or worse, expose it to ridicule. I am also ashamed for the people who do this because it reflects so badly on them. The story, despite the trite imagery it is subjected to, will endure, as it has done for centuries. Their shallow humour will not.

In that respect, the idea that Christians are ‘offended’ by caricatures and distortions of the Christmas story bears no relation to what some of us actually feel. We do not experience offence. We feel grief. Sometimes we actually weep, not for ourselves, but for the cynicism of the individual and for the way it is reflected in the callous indifference of so many in regard to the deeper meaning of this festival.

This is where the health warning applies, and the cynics probably sense this. There is a real risk that hearts might be touched and minds turned, in less than a nano-second, when the frightening realisation of the truth of this Christmas story is laid bare in a way that is undeniable because it is somehow ‘birthed’ from within a person’s deep consciousness, that place in which we hide the worst and the best of ourselves, where we both know and are known for who and what we are, or could become.

Given all of these considerations, ‘It came upon a midnight clear’, one of my favourite carols, rings more truthfully than ever. Few would deny that the world and individual nations, each in their different ways, are in a ‘midnight place’ right now; a total breakdown of trust in government, the rationalisation of war and violence, the ‘crushing load’ of life that we all bear from time to time, and of which the carol sings, rampant hatred on social media, contempt for the holy. But ‘heaven’s all gracious King’ waits to be gracious to us in all of this. All that is required, for the world’s trajectory, and our own lives, to be radically altered, is a ‘yes’ when the mystery and its truth asks to be acknowledged by each one of us, perhaps while we sing the old carols or open the next Christmas card.

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