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.

Welcome to the House of Joy — a look at war and terror, life and love

I’m ashamed, but when I saw that Evensong last Sunday at St Paul’s was a commemoration of former choristers who had died in the First World War, I wasn’t thrilled. I prepared myself to enjoy the music and endure the sermon, then I’d hurry to school to take my own chorister son into town for tea and buns.


The service began unremarkably. As always, I smiled at Psalm 147. God ‘hath no pleasure in the strength of an horse,’ we were assured: ‘neither delighteth he in any man’s legs.’


An impenetrable portion of Zechariah gave way to a wonderful Magnificat – the Collegium Regale by Charles Wood. The whole canticle is a joyful proclamation of faith, culminating in a soaring Gloria that insists with assurance that, as it was in the beginning, the glory of God is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.


This was a theme reflected in a letter that was read to the congregation by a descendant of its author. Written in France before a big ‘Push’ in 1917, he informs his family that he is not worried about death, but ‘perfectly happy to leave the issue in the hands of God’ in whose ‘good time’ he hopes to be reunited with all his ‘dear ones’.


The letter segued into the anthem, The Great Silence, a setting by the contemporary composer Samuel Bordoli of some words by Ivor Gurney, written in 1916 and entitled Song and Pain.


Out of my sorrow have I made these songs,

Out of my sorrow;

Though somewhat

of the making’s eager pain

From Joy did borrow.

Someday, I trust, God’s purpose of Pain for me

Shall be complete,

And then – to enter the House of Joy …

Prepare, my feet.

Ivor Gurney (1890-1937)


This is an unexpected statement of faith from a poet who suffered much and asked in his poem To God, ‘Why have you made life so intolerable?’ As Bordoli explains, Gurney ‘reflects the mood at the end of the war that from the ashes, the soldier poet will endure his pain and enter the House of Joy.’


The anthem, a very fine piece, ended with the names of each of the twenty-four fallen choristers sung by a cantor, a roll-call (as they would have heard at school) of those who were mown down or blown up by guns or bombs or mines. And then there was silence, for us as for them. But the names (perhaps once painted in gold on honours boards to mark a cricket captaincy or exhibition) continued to echo in our heads, leading us to focus on boy after boy with the lingering attention of a camera.


There was a further remembrance of the twenty-four: their successors, unequivocally alive, standing in the stalls that they themselves had occupied, robed as they had once been robed, singing from the same Prayer Book the very same words. They were as far from any thought of warfare as the previous generation must have been, neatly embodying Edwardian propriety and completely ignorant that the gates of hell were about to open and flood the world with demons.


It is unthinkable that any of the current choristers be caught up in the sort of barbarity that silenced the two dozen young men we were commemorating. Yet, for all its golden grandeur, St Paul’s seems unexpectedly vulnerable, the apple of the nation’s eye and, like Westminster, an icon for aggressors’ hate, a symbol to be destroyed. In truth it is at no higher risk than any of us: it is terror’s random striking that makes it most effective. We are at risk in central London, yes; at risk on the trains; at greater risk, no doubt, in a crowded pub or provincial sports ground. We are at risk in the shopping arcade; in the park; in the sleepy market town a hundred miles from London where – you can hear the news reporter’s quiet voice – ‘ordinary people were going about their daily business, never imagining that such devastation was about to strike.’


But strike it will. This is the nature of evil’s war with good. More and more of us will know people ‘who were there’. We ourselves will be the ones who only just missed the bomb or avoided the carnage by half a street. New names will be read out, mine or my loved ones’ names among them. Such are the days in which we live, violence no longer confined to the vasty fields of France, but brought by blind and hateful fervour to our own front door.


Our young grow up, and we all grow old, in a new age of fragility. Once we fell victim to the plague of disease. Now we contend with violence. It is an epoch requiring courage; but more urgently it calls for wisdom. There is the wisdom of those elected to guide and govern. And there is the wisdom we all must cultivate: wisdom to see clearly; to value ourselves and each other; to be agents of goodness and peace for all the earth; to spend time’s treasure in every passing moment as if it truly were our last. We must, in short, learn the wisdom of love, for love will never be defeated. Its ever-creative offering of new possibility will always prove stronger than the urge to kill. Like the untameable jungle reclaiming the land, love marches on, the heartbeat of reality.


This lesson of love was surely what gave these young men confidence to commit their uncertain futures to God. And now their pain is ended and they have been called by name into the House of Joy, where love is endless and triumphant. Today, where they have led, we all must follow.

In praise of imperfection


My ticket said Oxford, but it was more than a city I was travelling to. For thirty-five years, Oxford has been an admonition, an unhappy symbol of all that I have ever failed to do and be. Like many who did not win a place at the university (and it remains a mighty prize, whatever we may say about a more egalitarian age), I have always carried a lurking sense of failure, of having fallen foul of my own shortcomings and life’s caprice. I’m not alone. Gradually, fed by ordinary disappointments and a ceaseless tide of Morse, we ‘Oxford rejects’ can easily stray into bitter counterfactual culs-de-sac of if-onlys and what-ifs, imaging all sorts of other outcomes for our lives — often remarkably similar to the real achievements of our friends. (He’s a bishop, she’s a judge. What have I done with my life?)


It was with such things on my mind that I was recently heading north from Marylebone in one of the swanky new trains of the Chiltern Line, through flat green farmland, past the retail heaven of Bicester Village, with announcements in Arabic and Cantonese to inform the well-heeled shoppers. At Oxford I was decanted from the train into a truly ‘beautiful city!’ that is (as Hardy’s Jude insists) ‘so venerable, so lovely, so serene!’


I was spending next day with future colleagues at Magdalen College School and was generously accommodated in College that night, with Choral Evensong, dinner at High Table and Betjeman’s ‘multiplicity of bells’ to rock me ‘and the sailing clouds to sleep.’


Evensong was perfect. The full sound of a cathedral choir in a chapel’s much more compact space gives a focus and rich intensity, with added intimacy, like a bedtime story. Outside the chapel door, bright young things sauntered through the cloister, talking of Dostoyevsky. From a carefully-striped lawn drifted the thwack of mallet on ball, as if a perpetual game of croquet was mandatory throughout the summer, perhaps from Athanasius to Mary Magdalen. If I’d known my Hardy better, I’d have looked at the players and said bitterly with Jude that ‘my failure is reflected on me by every one of those young fellows.’ I’d have been talking nonsense, of course. But I’d have said it.


Dinner restored me, fending off any subcutaneous negativity. We entered the refectory in a gowned Hogwartish fashion, attended to the Latin grace and fell to our salmon keenly. I had feared being stuck (not least for words) next to a cantankerous historian or maybe a cripplingly shy professor of Syriac. But I need not have worried: the company was as warm as the excellent venison stew. Declining the additional dessert of post-prandial fruit, port and snuff, I returned happily to my room, significantly calmer than when I had arrived.


Next morning, I took in the scene from my window. The walls had a colour between straw and gold; the stone seemed to breathe, alive with the sun’s brightness. Sticky leaves sprouted and clung to a scattering of pigeon-dolloped statues that gazed into the distance, ascending through the foliage. Tower, turrets, spires and crenulations completed the portrait of perfection. But to be in it was enough. My need to be of it had subsided. I no longer yearned to look back on a life of early achievements and carefully-chosen pathways leading to the prize of a glittering career.


All of this can still beguile: Eliot’s rose garden behind ‘the door we never opened’. And I am certain it is very lovely. To publish one’s fourteenth book or speak with distinction in the Lords is no doubt as good and pleasant as opening the bowling from the Kirkstall Lane End or playing Prospero on the big stage at Stratford. But it is not the life that I have lived which, with all its faults and flaws and failings, has been and will by grace remain a wonderful life, replete with incident and oddnesses, loyal friendship and abundant blessing, from Adelaide to Athens, in cathedral and classroom, singing and keeping silent, as novice monk and family man.


When I was a curate on Tyneside, doing lots of funerals and often stumped for something to say about someone who had done nothing very dramatic with their lives beyond work, family and an occasional game of bowls, I would remind the gathering that anyone can get to the moon. All you need is a rocket. The far harder thing for a human (and the more commendable) is to be for an entire lifetime a loving partner and parent, a good neighbour, a reliable workmate. These things require qualities and the sort of unflashy depth of character that an age of success and celebrity no longer appreciates. When even the clergy are constantly televised (or contriving to be), and going viral is the highest mark of value, we easily lose the ability to appreciate the life that we have lived, the good that we have done, the person we ourselves have been and will uniquely be. And in failing to look kindly on our past, we will find it hard to step hopefully and joyfully into our future, to open unknown doors and savour the smell of unfamiliar blooms.

Darling, stand by me — A homily for Easter 4 (Year A)

‘The sheep follow him because they know his voice’ (John 10.4).


There is a strongly-forged link between hearing and obeying at the heart of much of our religious and domestic life. “Hear, O Israel,” begins the Shema (Deuteronomy 6.4f), Judaism’s fundamental call to obedience. The Letter of St James also reminds us to be ‘not just hearers but doers of God’s word’, not passively receptive, but actively obedient (James 1.22). The prophets, too, are constantly enjoining us to ‘hear the word of the Lord’, while Jesus himself completes many of his sayings with the instruction to ‘Hear, you who have ears to hear.’


This is not an exclusively religious turn of phrase. Every parent makes the same point. “Do you hear me?” they ask their children. What they mean is, “Why are you not obeying me?”


This is all clear enough, but as usual the question is, How on earth do we do it? How do we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and respond with obedience? Allow me to offer three pieces of advice. As always, my expertise derives almost wholly from my failure over many years to follow them at all adequately. I pray that you will do better.

1. Stay close to the Shepherd. In the rush and legitimate concerns of the day, it’s easy to lose touch with the Lord. As an antidote to this we must consciously search for God not only as we go about our daily lives but particularly in places renowned for revelation: the beauty of art and creation, the pages of Scripture and the worship of the Church; the wise words of friends and the promptings of conscience.


We do not need to embrace a monastic life to do this, though some of us will. Simply to read a verse or two of the gospels every day, perhaps on a Bible app, is a good beginning. And do not think you must scale the heights of the spiritual life to come close to God in prayer. The holy name of Jesus breathed silently and slowly in and out will attune your heart to the divine dimension, bringing you as close to the Lord as you are to yourself. He will live and speak in your very pulse.

2.Stay close to the other sheep. Scripture often refers to us as sheep, and we do well to remember that sheep thrive in flocks and folds, not tethered individually. The portrait of the early Church painted in Acts 2 (albeit idealised) makes clear that the first Christians were a compact unit, praying, eating, living and working together. We will need to learn from that. And listen to the voice of the centuries as well as the energetic promptings of the moment. In flocks of real sheep, ‘the flock takes its cue from the elders.’ The oldest ewes lead the youngest to shelter and safety ‘and will stand stubbornly if the younger ones try to lead them out to danger’ (James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life, 183f). In families, churches and other groups committed to a common purpose, stay as close as you can bear. It will not always be easy. It will often be dull. But be bold and tenacious. Share your own stories of sorrow and success and budget for hardship, enduring even as Christ himself endured (I Peter 2.19ff).

3.Stay close to yourself. Read the daily story of your life as it unfolds. What attracts the sheep to the Shepherd in John 10 is their experience of him as the one who leads them to good pasture, abundant life. This is not the abundance of wealth or material riches. (Beware the perverted promises of those who preach a ‘prosperity’ gospel.) It is rather the abundance that is harvested through lives of humble service, bringing relief of suffering to those who are served, and peace and joy to those who serve them. The givers also receive, and the receivers give. But this needs planning, decision and perseverance. Please do not simply follow your habits, instincts or appetites. These are deeply, perhaps ineradicably engrained, and they leave too much to chance. Be attentive instead to all that leads you to a sense of consolation and fullness of life. Note it, and pray for grace to avoid all that leaves you empty and desolate.


Jesus begins this passage by remarking that when the sheep fall into the hands of false shepherds they suffer loss and death and destruction. Like them, we too are vulnerable: vulnerable to the many voices that beguile us and lead us astray, promising freedom but delivering captivity, assuring us of happiness and success, but abandoning us with a feeling of miserable failure. It is when we stay close to the Shepherd, close to the flock and to our own inner experience that we are less prone to falling into these traps. We grow in readiness to hear and obey the Shepherd’s voice; to be led by him into the truly abundant life for which we long, one that will gladden our hearts and renew our lives immeasurably.




Much more than getting your kicks


He was punching the head repeatedly; from the sides, from the front: a vicious onslaught of blows. He was kicking too. Turning and spinning, landing kick after well-aimed kick to his victim’s unprotected midriff. None of the many spectators of this midday scene lifted a finger to stop him or raised their voice in any word of protest. And he can’t have been more than twelve years old.


Now before you sink into dudgeon or despair I ought to tell you that all this was happening in a church hall last Sunday as children assembled to take part in their kickboxing ‘grading’, the occasion on which their progress is assessed so that they can pass from one level to the next, each denoted by a coloured belt, taking them from white, yellow, orange — and onwards to black.


And the victim of the boy’s blows was mercifully not human but a ‘BOB’ or freestanding Body Opponent punch-Bag, a heavy rubber statue shorn of arms and legs, with impressive stomach muscles, an unrufflably neat haircut and completely vacant expression. These BOBs stand like pillars round the edge of the hall, silent sentinels whose lot in life is modest and unenviable to say the least.


I may have been the only one of the proud parents waiting to see their children perform who even noticed this particular child’s display. But I found it terrifying, uncomfortably reminiscent of so much of our town and nation’s mindless violence, such as last month’s sickeningly brutal assault in Croydon of a Kurdish Iranian refugee, and all for standing at the wrong bus-stop at the wrong time.


There is a fearful capacity for destruction in the human heart that comes straight from the swamp, from the days when it wasn’t possible to sit in comfort around the fire until beasts had been hunted and enemies slaughtered. A young man could not hope to win the loyal compliance of a fertile mate until he had shown himself adept at providing food and securing the home turf. And although time and civilisation may have commuted these skills to the less flashy arts of sorting out the online Tesco order and switching on the burglar alarm, the instincts behind these acts are ancient, bloody and dreadful.


This is why I was delighted when our tiny eight-year-old performed his jabs and hooks, his upper cuts and side-kicks to a standard that took him from green belt to blue. It was, of course, an achievement for him, a reminder of how crucial it is to find something at which every child can excel and experience the affirming thrill of success. But it was not only his success, but a miniscule step for all humanity on the lifelong, arduous road towards disciplining and channelling the urge to violence which the twelve year-old boy unselfconsciously demonstrated in beating up the BOB. It is a path commended to the children I saw by their master instructor who celebrates with pride and an evangelical zeal the successes and achievements of his older students (these include a string of world and European champions), encouraging the younger children to follow in the same path from primitive instinct to dedicated sportsmanship. The sport he represents leads the children away from a culture of hideously commonplace lagered-up, head-bleeding-onto-concrete violence that mars so much of our public life, setting them on a journey towards something infinitely more noble, productive and praiseworthy.


I never feel comfortable or at home in any sporting context, but I came to recognise that this essentially oriental discipline was responding to human weakness just as, in Christian tradition, men and women have taken themselves off to deserts and monastic cells for ceaseless combat with their lesser selves, to discipline and cleanse their heart’s desires and to consecrate their lives to the ineffable eternal One.


The boys and girls who graded last Sunday are learning to honour and discipline their bodies and minds, to respect their fellow-participants who stand with them on the tatami mat, bowing their heads and silently saluting with a closed fist in an open palm, bringing a little of Japan to Croydon. They make progress in a demanding skill and enrich their communities by promising to use these martial techniques only in defence of themselves or the lives and well-being of others.


Perhaps the politicians who prescribe the content of our primary curriculum should add martial arts to literacy and numeracy. They would arguably make a more positive difference to our nation’s future than much of what our children are currently required to do.