Being Christ among the exiles: reflection for Week 13/Proper 8

Jeremiah 28.5-9; Romans 6.12-23; Matthew 10.40-42

Today’s gospel reading concludes the tenth chapter of Saint Matthew, in which disciples are given their role of presenting Christ to the world. In last week’s passage (verses 24-39), they were given the task of speaking words on the Lord’s behalf, proclaiming aloud all that had been taught in secret. They were also to suffer with him, embracing his ‘unavoidably divisive’ gospel and facing the cross in consequence (Benedict Green).

 

This week, the disciple hopes to be ‘received as Christ’, representing him in the world just as he represents the Father. It is on those who welcome a disciple as Christ, even with so little as a cup of water, that Christ will bestow his own reward.

 

During ordination season it is tempting to think that this imitation of Christ in public is the proper work of the ordained, leaving the laity to busy themselves with their own professional and private lives. This would be an error. We all participate in the apostolic task according to our ability and disposition, being Christ in our communities not through theatrical impersonation or caricature, but by a process much more like the formation of a musician through assiduous daily practice.

 

In Romans 6, St Paul is clear that this process of growing recognisably more Christ-like begins with a decision as fundamental as Moses’ invitation to ‘choose life and blessings’ (Deuteronomy 30.19), or Joshua’s declaration that he and his household will ‘serve the Lord’ (Joshua 24.15). For Paul, Christ’s followers have been set free from sin, whose end is death, so that they might, under grace, be slaves of righteousness, whose reward is life (Romans 6.14-18). Disciples have exchanged one master for another; an old life for a new. And death shall have no dominion.

 

Those who have grown up inhaling the final fumes of Christendom will find this a challenge. Since Constantine, people have ‘just been’ Christian, without any need to stand out from the crowd. But today’s readings suggest that for the Church, as for the Church-goer, this is an inadequate response. Once we have decided for Christ, we must rally to his banner and ‘present ourselves to God as instruments of righteousness’ (Romans 6.13), living as heaven’s exiles in the world.

 

Like those taken in captivity to Babylon, we cannot predict when our exile will end or how our life will be. It might be hard to distinguish between Christ’s command not to be afraid, and the Prophet Hananiah’s confident optimism that all will quickly come right. Jeremiah’s more cautious view, vindicated as events unfold, is that things will turn out in their own and God’s good time, as God uses unexpected people as instruments of the divine will. As the exiles must live and prosper under the foreign rule of Nebuchadnezzar, caring for their temporary city and making it fruitful, we too must make a home in this fallen, fragile world, never forgetting whose slaves and disciples we are, nor where we have come from. When we authentically demonstrate for our neighbours what the ruler of our true homeland looks like, they may welcome us for the sake of such a King, and in turn be blessed by him.

On Cassocks and Celebrity; and to #NewRevs a blessing

For the Christian Church in the West it is once again the season of Petertide: the celebration of the apostles Peter and Paul (29 June), one of the principal times in the Church year for making deacons and ordaining priests. We gather the harvest of colleges and courses, giving thanks for the ability, transformation and grace seen in those to be set apart for public ministry. We celebrate and focus on God’s provision, trying not to be lured into making ourselves the centrepiece. We recall the extraordinary fact that the leaders of the Church are drawn from the wounded and fallible, just as God’s chosen people and Christ’s apostles were themselves needy and problematic.

 

And how else can grace shine, except out of weakness? How can eloquence be measured or vision marvelled at if not heard and seen in those who, without God’s grace, would miss the mark, squint and stumble in the world’s dark morass? It is perhaps this sense of humanity being salvaged for divine usefulness that imbues ordination services (and the parties afterwards) with such immense joy. For the newly-ordained themselves (or #NewRevs as we are invited to call them), Petertide is a time of understandable and undiluted happiness, usually the culmination of years of struggle with discernment and faith. It is also an exciting moment of departure as they begin the rest of their lives with no certainties ahead of them except an immediate training parish and eventual death.

 

So there is absolutely no need to subvert our celebration of ordained ministry by celebritising ordained ministers. I am fearful that there is some evidence of this in the pictures of ordinations published by the church press, especially on their front covers. Now, this subject divides us as surely as Marmite and Shine, Jesus, Shine. Some undoubtedly welcome the fashion for showing clergy in cassocks running exuberantly through the hills or leaping into the air like A-level students on results’ day, as if ordination were (as one twitter wit has put it) a ritualised form of midlife crisis. It is even true that the hearts of some are strangely warmed by shots of new deacons buddy-punching their ordaining bishop, but for others such sights are painful, and no amount of Anglican compromise can help us to a common mind.

 

These are largely questions of opinion and taste. I myself have never enjoyed the sight of anyone frolicking in a cassock. I think we’re wise to preserve the beauty of holiness, lest it lose its capacity to nourish and heal us. Yes, I see that a picture of choristers abseiling for charity or enjoying a snowball fight is made all the more vivid if they are wearing robes. I understand that the costume frames the story, and that my objections can be capricious, pompous and humourless, a disproportionate level of emotion to be aroused by a simple black coat.

 

But then it’s not a simple black coat, but a sacral tribal garment deeply embedded in the theology and psychology of those who do or don’t make use of it. Church choirs are closely wedded to theirs, and would rather change the doctrine of the Trinity than the precise shade of maroon in which they’re vested. Some cathedrals are well-known for the colour of their cassocks: Durham purple, Salisbury green, Lincoln blue. Many go for red, often trespassing on the crimson scarlet that is ideally the preserve of Royal Foundations.

 

The cut of the cassock also reveals much, as it were. Low and broad churchmen traditionally favoured the double-breasted ‘Sarum bag’ tied with a leather belt, like Elijah. Those who opt for these will rarely be too bothered by their ecclesial appearance. Swathes of stocking or trouser-leg will frequently be visible beneath the hem. They may even be worn, however scandalously, with brown shoes.

 

At the other end of the spectrum is the full thirty-nine-button single-breasted soutane. This is, or was, the preserve of the Romish, and is often ornamented with super-cuffs and over-sleeves, or augmented with a cape. It tends to have a heavy hem with a kind of bristly draught-excluder round the bottom, the type (as we used to say) that beats as it sweeps as it cleans. Those proud of their figure prefer the five-pleat rear view. The rest of us make do with three. The number of buttons is no doubt the result of a gradual settling of practice. In Anglican circles, they are said to represent the Prayer Book’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, though if a button were removed for each rejected Article, the sort of clergy likely to wear the soutane would be reaching for the leather belts of their more Protestant colleagues. (More piously, the buttons are thought to refer to the number of lashes one is able to endure without dying. If the dog collar is a symbol of slavery to Christ, the cassock is a reminder of persecution.)

 

There is incidentally a wonderful irony of double-cream delightfulness that this increasingly obsessive interest in clerical clothing (to which I gleefully contribute) should be happening just as Synod rescinds the requirement to officiate at church services only in garments hitherto stipulated by canon. The message is mixed, but clear: pole-vault, pancake-toss and piglet-chase in cassocks for the photo-opp; then change back into unthreatening tracksuits for worship. We live in interesting times.

 

And there’s more. This concerns not only a perceived glamorising of clergy but deals more importantly with their place among the whole people of God. My fear is that after decades of insisting that ‘going into the church’ refers to baptism and not ordination; after reports like All Are Called, and ceaseless vigilance against clericalisation and the infantilising of the laity, we do now seem to be in danger (I put it no more forcefully) of yielding to a culture in which the clergy take pride of place, with a duty to court celebrity as successfully as they can, aided by the technology in every pocket and handbag that makes us all a film director, broadcaster, publisher — even an occasional essayist.

 

I am not speaking of that entirely proper concern to use all available resources in the task of telling the good news. I do suspect, moreover, that the gospel is better communicated in the slow quiet drip of conversation than by the sudden viral whoosh of a telly vicar juggling for Jesus or doing unspeakable things on Britain’s Got Talent. And the fact that, if I were a juggler and invited onto The One Show, I would be there before you could say Sue Lawley, only makes matters worse. When we who are worried can see our own susceptibility to what worries us, our worries grow.

 

As does our concentration on the numbers of the ordained: another worry. On the one hand, it is thrilling that a call has been recognised, discernment fruitful, selection successful, and formation begun in another new deacon or priest. And I, who adore being a priest, pray that all the ordained will be fulfilled and blessed as I have been. But surely the important statistic (if there is one) is the number of baptisms, or of those otherwise participating in the Church’s life within the community. A concentration on the folk in fancy dress has just a slight whiff of the Roman Empire in decline. It’s as if we’re shouting “The numbers are up!” because we fear our number’s up.

 

I’m not the only one to think like this. But neither would I want us to flee from the catwalk only to reinvent the heroic, solitary, all-enduring slum-priest in battered biretta and egg-stained soutane. Last week a blog post invited us https://aleteia.org/2017/06/25/a-cassock-work-clothes-not-a-dress-uniform/amp/ to wear salt-stained cassocks (salty on the front from tears; on the back from hard labour). And for all its trowelled-on piety and deeply purple prose, this portrait of the cassock as death-shroud will speak eloquently to many.

 

But this too is a road I cannot take. I went through most of my deacon’s year wearing my old Mirfield cassock. It was sewn up the side to turn it into a habit, with a high collar that meant I didn’t need to wear a clerical shirt. I thought I was the last word in radical poverty and monkish chic. I probably just looked weird, and achieved no more for the gospel than if I had worn a sensible black shirt and dog collar, with a plastic suit from Tesco (competitively priced and machine washable). It is not, admittedly, the sort of uniform from which strips can be torn to improvise bandages, as the Aleteia blog recommends in a hyperbolic flourish. But bandages are happily available in all pharmacists; they are clinically clean, and won’t spread disease. So there’s absolutely no need for the clergy to start shredding their clothes and wandering the streets like Tom o’ Bedlam. Dress and behaviour that are simple, sensible, and unexceptionable will do very nicely indeed.

 

And that, perhaps, is all I want to say. It is wonderful that men and women respond to the Lord’s call to labour in his harvest-field in all sorts of ministries, including the ordained; and we rejoice in the gifts given to them, to be perfected by grace. There is no need for anyone to disappear down alleyways of nostalgia and mediaevalism, or to fashion a culture of celebrity. The faithful daily walk of prayer, study, labour and the building-up of community is more than enough for any of us. It is our proper business and will be joy and health to us and to the world around us.

 

I conclude with the best description of a Christian life I’ve come across. It is on a plaque in Southwark Cathedral, erected in the early 19th century in memory of the Revd William Winkworth, who was said to be ‘Pious without Ostentation, Zealous with Discretion, Active in the Cause of Distress, Humble and Laborious in the Ministry of the Word. He fell asleep in Jesus, a Debtor to Grace.’ None of us could hope or pray for more, in cassock or track-suit. As we all rejoice with the newly- and almost-ordained, we wish you many years of such joyful and fruitful service. God bless you, and those among whom you will live and work.

 

Broken bread, broken curse: thoughts on Corpus Christi and the fire at Grenfell Tower

There is no bread in the Garden of Eden. The menu is confined to the fruit of plants and trees, with bread appearing only after the Fall[1]: as part of the consequences of human disobedience and our ejection from Paradise, we will earn our bread through hard labour and the sweat of our brow. Bread is therefore contentious stuff, tainted by banishment and curse, a constant reminder of what should have been, and of the need to get things right.

 

Admittedly, the Hebrew Bible does offer a variety of images in which bread is entirely positive. It ‘strengthens the heart’[2] and symbolises God’s blessing.[3] It expresses gratitude, mercy and love;[4] or contains an invitation to safety and security as Boaz draws Ruth into marriage through the age-old allure of a picnic[5]. So the curse of the bread can be broken, though never for long. It is never universally positive. Its status as the hard-won food of rebellious humanity is echoed by the Prophet Hosea who denounces faithless Israel as a mother who takes bread from a succession of worthless lovers.[6] In similar vein, the bread given with the ‘mess of pottage’ by Jacob to Esau in exchange for his birthright, is a symbol of betrayal, of loosening the ties that should be held in highest honour.[7]

 

But by far the most potent reference to bread in the Old Testament is the unleavened Passover bread eaten by the Hebrews before their escape from slavery in Egypt to life in the Promised Land.[8] Then, as the wilderness brings hunger and complaint, God provides them with manna (the superabundant ‘daily bread’ that returns symbolically in the New Testament in the stories of the feeding of the multitudes by Jesus.[9]) But even this gift goes wrong as the travellers try to hoard it, perhaps fearful that the Lord will not manage to maintain the supply. To no avail: their personal stash goes bad, ‘breeding worms and becoming foul’.[10] If the curse is to be lifted, hoarding is not the way.

 

The Passover was transplanted into the Christian Church as the celebration of the Eucharist —reading the scriptures and sharing in broken bread together.[11] For the first two hundred years or so, the Eucharist was a real meal, shared by all members of the socially-diverse Christian community. Sadly, it did not take long to be subverted: within a few generations, the remembrance of the Last Supper was divorced from the shared meal: rich and poor could apparently no longer live together and drink from the same cup. Even as early as St Paul’s day (50s CE) things were going wrong. He berated some of the Corinthians for coming to the common table with bulging hampers from which they ate and drank to excess without any consideration for the poor around them. This was eating and drinking to their own condemnation.[12] If hoarding brings rottenness, greed brings judgement. The curse remains.

 

The whole question of rich and poor equitably sharing the resources of the community was thrown into unbearably sharp focus last week as dozens of the poorest citizens of our capital city were visibly and audibly incinerated (the day before Corpus Christi) as a tower block in North Kensington was engulfed by fire.

 

It was noted that Christians and Muslims were among the very first to open their doors to offer food and shelter, and to coordinate the distribution of clothes and other gifts that came from all corners of an openhanded community. This was not surprising. Muslims breaking their Ramadan fast know as surely as Christians fed by the Eucharist that the bread’s curse can be erased only by generosity. This is what St Paul taught at Corinth: Christ is made present only in the sharing of bread with the hungry and the maintenance of community with all neighbours in their need.

 

This is the fundamental truth to which we must cling as we try to digest the events of a horrific year (from Westminster to Finsbury Park, via Manchester, London Bridge and North Kensington).

After the initial horror and the swift response of kindness at Grenfell Tower, there now follow justifiably angry questions concerning the sense of priorities that allows such diverging outcomes for rich and poor in a magnificently affluent city like London in 2017. The prosaic detail of the tragedy, with its litany of absent sprinklers and hoses and composite cladding priced at so many pounds a square metre, illuminates with cruel banality the obscene fact that some human lives merit a greater price tag than others. We have drifted so far from a basic recognition of the dignity of all people, to establish a set of values by which some are provided with the last word in luxury and fire safety technology, while others are reduced to living in accommodation whose standards of health and safety do not begin to approach acceptable levels of adequacy.

 

This appalling event followed just a week after a general election which saw a completely unexpected rise in young voters, and an equally surprising demand for a society run on very different lines. New voices emerged, seeking government ‘for the many not the few’ and a functioning safety-net of housing, health and social care to be provided by a taxation system that recognises the immense disparity between rich and poor.

 

Now this is a tale as old as civilisation and those who have followed the politics of our nation will have seen governments of all parties come and go with little or no lasting change to the status quo. It is even tempting to find strange comfort in an exhausted pessimism. But tragedies like Grenfell Tower (the public enquiry may find other words to describe it) can play a part in changing things. It seems that this has not been the experience in the US after New Orleans, but things here do begin to feel different after a spring and early summer of unsettling, heart-wrenching events. People are talking with urgent and unsilenceable voices about ‘love’ and ‘support’, of watching out for each other, whether in the sphere of national security or the quality of our welfare state. And while all of this requires the foundation of a strong and healthy economy, the old electoral mantra of ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’ may well be changing (as the bishop of Burnley recently suggested) into ‘It’s the relationships, stupid’. The prospect of a fatter wallet may be losing its hold on us as we maybe, just maybe start to envisage a radically reordered society. It’s the sort of society some have called the kingdom of God.

 

Perhaps, then, there has never been a more important time to observe and reflect on Corpus Christi. We have seen that bread hoarded goes rotten. Bread eaten greedily brings judgement. Only bread shared joyfully with all our neighbours lifts the curse of Eden and brings Christ into the world.

[1] Genesis 1.29; 3.19.

[2] Psalm 104.15

[3] As in Genesis 14.18.

[4] Exodus 2.20, Genesis 21.14; 45.23.

[5] Ruth 2.14.

[6] Hosea 2.5.

[7] Genesis 25.34.

[8] Exodus 12.8.

[9] Exodus 16.8; Matthew 6.11; 15.35.

[10]  Exodus 16.20.

[11] Acts 2.42; Matthew 4.4; 26.26.

 

[12] I Corinthians 11.20-29.

The Rite to Remain Silent – on not ‘banging on about God’

There is an apocryphal prayer attributed to a university Christian Union of the 1950s which asks quite simply, ‘O God, make slack chaps keen.’

 

The ‘slack chaps’ are those who are perfectly happy to go to church at Christmas and Easter, and who know how to behave if they are ever inadvertently caught up in a harvest festival, but who are sadly never zealous enough for the ‘keen chaps’, the sort who get ordained, or involved in the plethora of quasi-clerical lay-ministries that constitute part of today’s strategy for keeping God’s memory green and the church pension fund in the black. It is the forerunners of this group whom Evelyn Waugh satirises as ‘those with a lay interest in ecclesiastical matters [that] is often a prelude to insanity.’ (Decline and Fall, I.8)

 

But the stand-off between the utterly committed and the less obviously devout is rarely a laughing matter. In the early centuries, it was partly the fear that the legalisation of Christianity would result in a lower quality of witness (now that the risk of martyrdom had ended) that led to the development of monasticism. The churches might be filling with all sorts of spiritually-negligible parvenus, but standards would be maintained by the mothers and fathers of the desert who battled with demons and wrestled with their own self-will and thus safeguarded the purity of the faith. As Plato observed in the Phaedo, ‘many bear the emblems, but the devotees are few.’

 

This disparity between ‘slack’ and ‘keen’ is exacerbating the current challenge to the churches. In her 2016 lecture on The rise of ‘no religion’ in Britain: The emergence of a new cultural majority, Linda Woodhead suggests that it is partly the expectation that people who come to church should be fully involved —in a way that, historically, most Britons never have been— that has driven a wedge between England’s Church and people. The C of E has become a ‘sectarian’ rather than ‘societal’ Church: as Britain has become less religious, ‘religion has become more so’; the people have ‘moved away from the churches’ and, by fostering a culture of conversion and wholehearted belonging, ‘the churches have moved away from them.’

 

This is borne out anecdotally by experienced clergy. A friend of mine recently celebrating his diamond jubilee of ordination reflected that, when he was a curate, couples came for marriage and children for baptism quite naturally and without the expectation of anything more. They were not expected to start talking about Jesus in the post office or praying with people in the cake shop. Things are very different now. Practically before they are through the church door, they are asked for their email addresses, standing orders and gift aid declarations; they’re invited to sign up for the Bishop’s Certificate, and to make at least a provisional agreement to attend next month’s Vocations Day, bringing with them three very good reasons why they shouldn’t be selected and packed off to ‘Vicar School’ forthwith.

 

And one can see why some in the Church might welcome the disappearance of fellow travellers, leaving behind only the true believers. The Revd @liambeadle for example has tweeted that ‘the death of nominal Christianity —moralistic therapeutic deism— is good news’ (14 April 2017), perhaps because it is felt that in dealing only with the enthusiast there comes a liberation, a scraping off of carbuncles and a shaking off of a barely-Christian half-heartedness that holds the Church back in its gospel mission.

 

Ruth Gledhill, the freelance religious pundit, would perhaps agree. On her ‘Christian Today’ website she recently suggested (24 April) that the way to help cathedrals turn their midweek attendance success into financial security is to ask churches like St Helen’s, Bishopsgate and Holy Trinity, Brompton (both in London) to plant their brand of religion, with its dedicated and faithfully-tithing adherents, into a cathedral. She imagines Canterbury ‘rocking to crashing drums, rhythm guitars and the fabulous Hillsong at 6pm every Sunday.’

 

It’s not quite Rose Responses or Howells Coll Reg. I think she also misses the point that a cathedral already is a place of great musical and liturgical variety, hosting many different national, diocesan and regional events, both sacred and secular. To hand cathedrals over to a single church constituency would immediately rob them of their broad appeal and drive away those who love the beauty of the English choral tradition, who provide the high numbers of visitors and worshippers (‘up to 40,000 a week’) and are hailed as the great success of an institution not often dripping in good news stories.

 

All of which explains why a recent report of a lecture by Sir Simon Jenkins (Daily Telegraph, 5 June) caught many an ecclesiastical eye. He suggests that the cathedrals are doing so much better than the parish churches because they don’t ‘bang on about God’ all the time, but ‘bang on about beauty instead’.

 

This is, of course, arrant nonsense. Cathedrals ‘bang on about God’ ceaselessly. Their very architecture is a massive theological statement; their extensive programme of daily worship is as abundant a theological proclamation as you will encounter, all of it either directly scriptural or based on scripture; and even the driest, most fact-laden spiel to the weary tourist will include something on the religious significance of the artefacts they are duly admiring. So cathedrals certainly do do God, and do God extravagantly, but with dignity, discretion and reserve, and in beautiful 17th century language set to sublime music, expertly performed.

 

What makes cathedrals different is that the congregation is under no obligation to do God back. Sitting behind the proverbial pillar, a person may be tourist, visitor, enquirer or believer: no one can tell, and no one will much care. The worship rolls on through the days and centuries, more than willing to draw you Godwards in its wake, but not at all offended if you’d rather just sit quietly and wonder. Evensong, the weekday service that pulls the biggest crowds in most cathedrals, is best suited to this sort of gentle undemanding invitation. Simply by virtue of offering everything but requiring nothing from those who attend, it provides people with the ‘social, spiritual and moral goods’ which even Linda Woodhead’s ‘nones’ desire, but in which ‘the religion on offer in late modern Britain’ is sadly deficient (Woodhead, op. cit.). Whereas much of today’s worship expects a wordy and animated splashing around (having fun and being seen to be having fun), Evensong by contrast is the liturgical equivalent of floating on your back and soaking up the sun’s rays. Your mind is free to think; perhaps your heart will be moved. Conceivably, you will utter silent, half-formed snatches of what might well be prayer. But no-one’s checking. Unlike the ubiquitous Parish Eucharist or Family Service, Cathedral Evensong makes it easy to exercise the right to silence. But be clear that something will surely be happening, even slowly, in heart and mind. The excellent Theos report of 2012 —Spiritual Capital: The Present and Future of English Cathedrals— showed that of those who visited a cathedral mainly for historic or cultural reasons (‘secular tourists’), 84% then found that a sense of the sacred had been communicated through the building, or by the cathedral’s music (79%) or through the peace and quiet of the place (56%). Clearly, whatever it is that cathedrals do, they do exceptionally well, and the Church risks much by changing it significantly.

 

So let’s hear it for the slack chaps. As the C of E loses 12 members for every single convert, it becomes clear that the future may well lie not with the beaming and the bold who sign up, show up and pay up. It might rather be that the mystery of God is pursued, and the concerns of the Kingdom eventually transmitted by the much broader base of those more modest men and women who jump up and down neither literally nor figuratively, but who sit quietly wondering in quire or nave, disinclined to dogma but moved by the beauty of a Gothic arch or Tudor motet. We cannot know what will develop from this slow propagation of the Word within them. But the keen chaps should know that the Spirit works wonderfully well in all ways and types and times.

 

Let them be patient, and let hands that would meddle be folded in prayer.

Inked in – how your reaction to summer’s tattoos tells you who you are.

He was a lovely gentle man; young, as we all were. It was three decades ago, in Australia. We probably got talking in the backpackers’ place, where speaking to others is the norm, the unspoken expectation that reverses as age sets in and the size of the hotel bill increases. Anyway, what mattered about him and what I’ve been thinking about is that he was pretty much completely covered in tattoos. I say ‘pretty much’: even backpackers’ hostels have minimum dress requirements. A sea of reds, oranges and blues, his body was a mobile exhibition of abstract art, a bright undulation of very permanent ink. Only above the neck and beyond the wrists was his skin untouched: in a suit and tie his canvas would be covered, guarding him against even the most conservative employer’s disapproval.

 

He has been lodged in my memory all these years, but my recollection of him is vivid now when rising temperatures lead even staid commuters to unbutton their swaddling clothes, and the carefree expose more flesh than their parents might consider seemly. Now is the time when tattoos that have slept all winter untroubled and unseen are suddenly made visible. On napes and ankles fish swim and birds fly; sprays of flowers climb up calves, and mythical characters loiter in the complex vegetation that creeps across backs. Children’s names are inked on hand and heart while starbursts fall down arms, and Celtic love-knots never fray.

 

For all their meticulous artistic endeavour, some people hate tattoos and hold in contempt those who wear them. Perhaps they remember them from the bad old days when tattoos were confined to sailors’ cabins and smoky pubs, with LOVE and HATE starkly emblazoned on fighters’ knuckles.

 

Or perhaps it is their permanence that puts people off. Despite laser treatments, this filling of pores with pigment is not intended to be temporary, easily erased like an ill-advised shade of green in a back bedroom. This feeds their reputation as the regrettable acts of foolish young men, like Neville in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, who cannot return home to the fastidious Brenda when a declaration of love for the unknown Lotte appears on his bicep after an injudiciously heavy night on the town.

 

But we have come a very long way since then. Tattoos now grace the pool-sides of the fashionable and wealthy, and adorn the bodies of the beautiful. Luminaries like you, dear reader, shelter an elegant dolphin or a yin-yang in a fine and private place. Even David Dimbleby at 76, limbering up for another General Election, does so with a scorpion basking on his right shoulder.

 

So I know there’s no excuse for me. Not having even a tiny tattoo feels like cowardice, an almost moral matter, like shying away from the top diving board — or, in my sorry history of belly flops, any diving board at all. It’s just another of the things I never did, like going to a rock concert or having an ear pierced. For me, these acts remain firmly locked behind the door I never opened, where, with flaming sword, the bookish, bespectacled choirboy in me bars my way, uttering his unanswerable No. It’s not the tattoo’s indelibility to blame, you see, but mine.

 

In the end, this is what all art does. It tells us who we are and what we think. Our delight or dislike (even, perhaps, disdain) for what we see and hear exposes all that normally lies concealed beneath manners and convention. But I do not mourn too miserably. There glides no inky duck across any pasty part of me, but I cope manfully with the deprivation and still have cause to rise each day.

 

For art is not the only fruit of dedicated endeavour. The slow accumulation of virtue and the steady exercise of love are equally fitting testaments to our nature. They shine forth summer and winter, and are never a cause of regret.

Elevating thoughts on Ascension Day

When I was a little boy, my favourite TV show was Trumpton. I enjoyed, of course, the famous roll-call of Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grubb. But the thing that really grabbed me was the fire-engine ladder. “Elevate!” said the story-teller, whenever it rose to retrieve a cat from a tricky roof. “Descend!” he’d say again, every time it came back down. I was always glad when it did: it’s safer for everyone to have both feet on the ground.

 

I think of Trumpton as the Church celebrates Christ’s Ascension into heaven, forty days after Easter. The bible paints him shooting skywards in a hazy whoosh of billowing clouds. As things have turned out, it was a poor choice of image. From where we sit, it looks like a dodgy science-fiction movie, making it all too easy for the truth of Christ’s Ascension to be dismissed as the foolish talk of fearful folk who can’t cope with their mortality. Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev is said to have remarked that Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, ‘didn’t see any God there.’ He’d been as high as you can go, and had found nothing.

 

Khruschev had missed the point. The purpose of the Ascension story is not to promote the idea of a divine territory so many thousand feet above sea level. Rather, it reminds us that the truth of God is revealed in the historic person of Jesus, but insists that Jesus is not limited by history or geography. Just because we weren’t in Galilee twenty-one centuries ago does not limit our ability to know Jesus Christ, or his ability to know us. In his Ascension, he swaps the local for the universal. He who descended to the shop-floor of the human condition is now elevated to a vantage point from where he can see, know, and love us all. He who has battled and been victorious takes his place with the Father at the very heart of reality: and he shares his throne with his creation. We are elevated with him. He budges up, and makes room for us. Our horizon shifts as we re-focus on him; our agenda is altered as we hear his words.

 

Of course it pays to have both feet on the ground. But now we need to have our head in the clouds as well.

Running on empty: first steps to receiving the Spirit of God

You know that children are beginning to grow up when they reject their parents’ offers of help. “I’ll do it myself,” they say irritably, fending off adult assistance in the sort of task they wouldn’t have thought of attempting just a few weeks before. Thus they lay claim to one of humanity’s besetting errors, the illusion of self-sufficiency. Even without the necessary skill or agility to carry out the operation, they stand their ground with iron determination, huffing and puffing through gritted teeth until success is granted or failure accepted.

 

It is good that they seek to develop their abilities and increase their knowledge, provided they do not distance themselves from those around them or try to by-pass the dynamic of giving and receiving that characterises healthy and fruitful human relationship. Getting this balance right is crucial to personal development and the ability to take one’s place in family and society.

 

To refuse all help as something shameful, or as if it threatens to make us vulnerable by establishing a sense of obligation to our neighbours —this can quickly lead to a surfeit of pressure and stress, with predictable results of explosion or collapse. On the other hand, failing to nurture skills of survival, and the facility to respond adequately to life’s daily demands, ultimately saps us of whatever confidence in our abilities we might have, reducing us to a miserable and fretful state of mere existence rather than abundant life.

 

When St John writes that ‘the world cannot receive the Spirit of truth because it neither sees him nor knows him’ (John 14.17), he is echoing the continuous insistence in scripture that it is only the ‘poor in spirit’, those who know their need of God (Matthew 5.3) who will be granted a place at table. Without that need, we are too full of ourselves to receive the one God sends. He comes to his own, but we are those who ‘receive him not’ (John 1.11).

 

Our first goal, then, is to learn that, at the most basic level of our existence, our hands are empty. We need God, and have nothing to bring to the party except what God has already given us. We can receive only what we do not have, and what we know we do not have. And if it is not something that we have a desire and longing to receive, we have no hope of doing so.

 

Alas, as 21st century citizens of the west, we think we have it all already. Even when we get a nasty shock like the hacking of the NHS computer system, we do not question our values or doubt our abilities. We stride on, the super men and women of the planet, capable of everything, fearful of nothing. We have not even begun to know our need of God, to ‘receive the kingdom like children’ (Mark 10.15) or to adjust our vision so that we might see and know the one who comes to us as Comforter.

 

It is not clear that things are significantly better in the Church. Pope Francis has repeatedly warned against the ancient heresy of Pelagianism, the mistaken belief that we are able to achieve salvation by our own efforts (‘the way I do things’) rather than receive it through God’s grace freely given.

 

We might wonder where a lot of activity in today’s Church of England derives its sense of direction and drive. Are we really those who are conscious of our emptiness, of a need to receive everything from the Lord’s hand? Or do we secretly believe that we can do it ourselves? If only our worship could be more innovative and eye-catching, our presentation more sleek and glossy, and our daily dealings more efficient and business-like, then surely the salvation of increased numbers would follow as rain follows drought.

 

And would we not then be justified in looking askance at those less obviously successful? Would we not be rightly impatient with those who take to faith more timidly, whose theology probes without ever striking oil, whose discipleship is modest, whose claims are few? If we’ve made it to the spiritual big time by our Herculean efforts, surely the rest are just lazy, frankly deserving of extinction?

 

Many would agree. And yet, perhaps it is these apparent failures who, recognising that they have so little, are thus enabled to receive much more. In knowing their inadequacy and incompleteness, they see and know the Spirit of truth, not as a reward for keeping the rules or playing the game successfully, but as a simple consequence of being ready like bewildered children to receive God’s bounty. In acknowledging the failure of their own efforts to bridge life’s gaps and fill its void, they are the ones, in the end, who receive Christ’s promised gift and encounter the Holy Spirit as Lord and Comforter.

 

But we can only receive with empty hands.