Internal grooming – thoughts on going to the barber’s

 

I’ve never cared for pampering. When I was a little boy, my dad took me to his old barber, a Mr Metcalf of Bensham, Gateshead. At four or five I was seated on a box and placed in a pump-up chair, giving me height and dizzying consequence for the first and final time in my life.

His was not an exotic establishment. Comb, scissors, a cut-throat razor sharpened on a leather strop; perhaps electric clippers? It was the 60s, after all. But of pastes and unguents and brightly-coloured phials I remember nothing.

How things have changed! My barber now (and how lovely that that old word has had a come-back, along with red stripy poles and the availability of wet shaves): well, it’s more like a night club than an agency of fairly functional male grooming. Black leather sofas line the walls and young people’s music (I’ve no idea what kind) boom-boom-booms into the room with no reference to the dozen screens that shine on us, emitting adverts and football, cookery and Sky, and music videos that would make sense, only they don’t match any of the music we can hear.

Three or four young barbers (all Kurdish) man the chairs (again, black leather), snipping and clipping and shaving with a concentration that knows that time is money. Their own beards are impeccable, full of dignity and eastern promise. For a moment, you could be anywhere between Thessaloniki and Cairo. Even the street outside takes on a Mediterranean bustle. You reach mentally for coffee and cigarettes. But it’s still just Croydon.

These men are certainly more skilful than ever Mr Metcalf was. Anything beyond a short-back-and-sides and I imagine he was stymied. But they must respond to all sorts of style requests brought to them on phones and briefly flashed before them. Into the close-cropped hair of boys and men they carve geometric lines, like engineers laying down train track. They set fire to the ear-hair of wild old men (briefly, to avoid a conflagration), and tackle their nostrils with hot-wax cotton-buds which they then yank forcefully out, harvesting two small clumps of hair. They chop and quiff my thick grey thatch, before covering me in lemon aftershave or a sickly-sweet pomade that sends me home looking and smelling like someone’s dodgy uncle, the president of a pariah state, or someone who could, in the right circumstances, be mistaken for Spencer Tracey.

But what’s the use, I’d like to know, of all this titivation? It’ll all just grow back again, as Billy Connolly memorably observed. A few more weeks, and I’ll be traipsing back with a tenner and a loyalty card, wondering if today’s the day I get my bottle of free cologne.

Far more useful would be a High Street shop that made changes that would last; calm my fears and order my desires; make me feel more rooted in the deep-down reality of things. A shop that could do something to tidy up my insides, now that would be pretty useful.

And then, when I come out, I see the spire, and I remember.

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Choosing life! A homily

Homily for 18C: Deut 30.15-end; Philemon; Luke 14.25-33

‘Choose life!’ urge all three of today’s related readings, and our culture has taught us well what this must mean. We recognise the hallmarks of a life fulfilled: the endless acquisition of branded goods and personal power, the pursuit of professional advancement, and a glamorous, exotic lifestyle that’s carefully logged on social media for all to see and envy. In short, life is about getting my own way all the time, dismissing any opposition to that process.

This is not quite the vision outlined for the Israelites by Moses. For him, choosing life is to turn one’s heart in faithfulness towards God, to be immersed in the will and ways of the Lord. God’s promised reward is more properly the simple outcome of human congruence with the divine: a just desert.

Jesus also, as he travels on towards Jerusalem for the climax of his earthly work, is keen that the large crowd with him should have a clear understanding of who it is that they are following, what his agenda and programme look like, and what they are to expect. He wants them to budget as carefully as a builder or a military commander for any commitment they feel inclined to make.

For example, choosing the life he offers may cost them their families: to love him may mean ‘hating’ them, as Jesus grafts them into the community of his Kingdom, taking them way beyond their primary biological allegiances.

This is not the only potential sacrifice. They must also release themselves from whatever possessions might constitute and represent their security and sense of belonging. Possessions possess, and must be abandoned if true liberty is to come to fruition. Jesus’ followers have a new home now in the household of faith, and look to the Father alone for daily sustenance and nightly shelter.

All of this is but prelude to the taking up and carrying of a cross (Luke 14.27). It is towards his own cross that Jesus journeys, and we who follow, follow him in this example. But what does the cross entail? Will it hurt like hell, or is it quite harmless now, tame and toothless behind a wall of metaphor and church ornament?

The outline of the cross has many forms, as many as there are people. It is not an extra entity in our lives, a stage-property to be found and wielded at the right moment in the drama. We need not seek it at all: the cross will find us quite naturally, in the ordinary people and events of our life. It is not so much a sinister intervention, more an ongoing invitation to live every moment in a Christlike way, in company with Christ as inspiration, pattern and goal.

When we carry our cross, the effects will have a similar quality as when Jesus carries his. They do not operate on the same level or share the same cosmic decisiveness, but they have the same life-giving tendency to set people free from their chains. When I carry my cross, new life springs up in my wake. Light seeps into darkness; joy leavens misery; slivers of hope shine in inky despair. I do not know why this should be so. But I do know that it is so.

My cross also costs me something of what Jesus’ cross costs him. It takes courage, a setting aside of fear; a readiness to see my own will put at the disposal of the Father. I need to risk the transformation of my desires (significant or petty), if I am to see a mighty blossoming of whatever lies dormant within me and others. I carry my cross as a woman carries a child, within me, part of me, bringing it to the full term of its birth, a sacrifice of time and labour to bring about new life (cf Luke 11.27).

St Paul uses the same language of carrying the weaknesses of others (Romans 15.1), and it is perhaps the hardest aspect of life in the Church. Hell is other people, especially when they take views on hard and contentious matters which are inimical to my own, or when they speak thoughtlessly or cause intense pain. We are rarely spared the throes of this process in the Church of England, as current headlines again testify. For release, as the Bishop of Grantham has put it, we look to God in ‘trust’ that a way out of the misery will open up. We carry our cross and one another in hope, knowing that the road towards change can be neither short nor easy.

Letting go of any certainties is never an easy process, as Paul’s Letter to Philemon demonstrates. Scripture suggests that Philemon does, in the end, choose life for Onesimus and for himself, by recognising that newly-baptised Onesimus, once his slave, is now a brother whom he must release even at the cost of his own status and stubborn self-understanding. He thus gives subsequent generations of Jesus’ followers a clear example to follow (Colossians 4.9). He carries (and is carried by) the Pauline group with sufficient patience to reach a reconciliation with himself, bringing to birth new relationships with the previously estranged. He has carried his cross and come to resurrection. The Christ who makes all things new has performed some of that work here, and we might look to him in expectation to do the same for us.

Of course, only you and I, gentle reader, know what it is we grasp so tightly that our hands cannot help us in the rest of our lives. By choosing the life that Christ offers, we will let go of many burdens, set aside many fears, and set free many slaves. This is the blessed and glorious work of the Cross. We begin, as always, by coming to the one who carried it for us, seeking from him the medicine our soul ardently desires.

Three Rs for a new year

Even those of us whose schooldays are long-gone have some sense of September as the start of a new year. Barbecue charcoal and plastic chairs have vanished from the shops, replaced by the Back to School range of tiny white shirts, shiny shoes and attractive stationery which we look at with a mixture of fondness and regret. We too were once nearly five, full of hope and promise and determination. (Watch them as they write their names in their brand new books, their little hands clutching the pen, their tongues curled in concentration.)

Eventually, of course, the page is blotted, the shoes are scuffed and the lovely white shirt is creased. The wrong turning in the road is taken, the poison is drunk, the harmful words are spoken. And however much we might want things to be different, they are always as they are. We always start from here. From the controversial outworkings of democracy, to the fearful state of the nations, to our apparent inability to wean ourselves off cream cakes: all seems flawed and fallen. New Year? It’ll be just the same as the old one.

While such despairing is understandable, we must never give up our vision for the world, or give in to a version of ourselves which has no place for hope. Our value as human beings does not depend on keeping our noses clean and our lives free from error. Our goodness does not lie in attaining perfection. We are good simply because we are made in the image of a good God, made in love, made for love. If we can grasp that idea, all else follows.

We won’t ever return to the purity of childhood, neither will our lives be blank pages. But the three Rs of remembering, reflecting and resolving might just help.

Remember who you really are, full of the dignity of humankind. Reflect on your behaviour for five minutes every day, noting when you live courageously and generously and when you’re mean or fearful. Resolve to live the life you truly hope for, not the life you’re prepared to settle for. And that’ll mean keeping hopeful, even when the shirt and the shoes and the page seem beyond repair.