Posts by Wealands Bell

Anglican priest, Chaplain of Magdalen College School, Oxford. Husband, father of two boys. Late starter. Don't do football.

Wider still and wider — setting the bounds of a new England on St George’s Day

I have always had a problem with St George: all that flag-flying, God-for-Harrying, Last-night-of-the-Promming fervour. I’ve never been wholly happy to have him in church, thinking he’s probably best left in the cheery care of the Pearly Kings and Queens down Trafalgar Square, jostling with the burger vans and roaming entertainers.

 

The dragon-slayer is now a familiar sight on the Spring outdoor-events circuit, having been brought centre-stage —like his colleagues Saints Andrew, David and Patrick— chiefly by a hospitality industry that is always keen on a knees-up, avoiding in this instance any unwelcome post-Easter/pre-summer slump in sales.

 

The cult of Saint George was initially brought to England by crusaders returning from the Middle East, and some of their more robust and mouthy descendants we no doubt see to this very day in an assortment of high-speed vans, their red-and-white flags fluttering from the windows whenever the nation’s next sporting humiliation draws near.

 

More modest souls would probably prefer his predecessor, the chaste and godly Edward Confessor who built Westminster Abbey, and whose touch alone could cure the most unsightly dermatological complaint. But he was not exactly high-octane on the personal level, and we can see how George might have been considered the more invigorating option and so anointed for the top post-mortem post of patron saint.

 

I say ‘we can see’, but alas we can see nothing, wholly deprived as we are of any consensus on anything.  In recent times, we have gone way beyond the old familiar sensation of being a nation that had lost an empire without finding a subsequent role. After decades of indecision and a bitter and mendacious referendum, we have abandoned our European neighbours and, seeing ourselves as some sort of priapic world player, have chosen to invest our hopes in the USA just at a time when their own choice of leader makes such a decision look somewhat ill-advised. Add strident calls for Scottish independence, intractable problems with the Irish border, and the sense of a kingdom cracking beneath the weight of its own self-induced cock-up is palpable. It’s like being stuck in the storm with King Lear.

 

George as emblematic of England absolutely feeds this ravenous disunity. For the racially-intolerant (whether UKIP’s faux-tweedy Farageistas, or the no longer shaven-headed supporters of the BNP), our dark-skinned patron saint is pressed into incongruous service as symbol of a non-existent whites-only England, as if we were acting out an endless episode of Miss Marple, without any of the racial and cultural diversity that we have in some measure experienced since Boudicca was a girl.

 

And now, with the unspeakable betrayal of the Windrush generation by the Right, and the appalling anti-Semitism that continues to cast its incomprehensible shadow on the Left, we find ourselves called to celebrate St George at a time when we are not so much ‘taking back control’ as completely spinning out of it. Government and Opposition are equally rudderless, significantly damaged by racism and disunity; the historic third party, already decimated, is unable to assume any mantle of responsibility, and with the dangerous uncharted shambles of Brexit just around the corner, one feels that England cannot have been in a worse situation since the throaty aircraft of the Luftwaffe were chugging dangerously through the skies above us.

 

All of which, perhaps, is simply the imperial bully’s just reward for past sins, the whirligig of time bringing in his revenges, and so on. It’s certainly easier to celebrate nationhood in a country that was more colonised than colonising. I lived for a time in Greece and adored celebratory evenings of national culture. They have of course like all of us done some frankly unpleasant things from time to time in their history, but their essential myth of throwing off the shackles of occupation (being true, unlike the supposed Independence Day our Foreign Secretary egregiously wants to fabricate out of the day of the Brexit vote) gives them the liberty we have lacked to drape the flag over their shoulders, tune the bouzouki, throw a bit more oregano in the kleftiko, and make a song and dance like Zorba.

 

So if there’s one thing we need to do urgently in this England in such dire need of renewal, it’s consciously to transform St George’s Day and his flag so that they are associated not with ‘setting the bounds’ of Empire, but opening the hearts and minds of our citizens ‘wider still and wider’. Obviously, such work does not happen overnight, especially when it runs counter to a human instinct to fear difference. This is going to take more than a few bhajis and Victoria sponges to sort out. But it can, must and will be done, and this year’s London celebration of the ‘Feast of St George’ was a great encouragement. The Mayor of London spoke movingly about the English complementarity of his identities of husband and father, Londoner and Muslim. (Had he been gay or a woman or disabled or trans, these notes would also have rung out with an urgency equal to those of race and religion, adding their own indispensable sound to the nation’s much-needed harmony.) He waved his St George’s flag with a gathering of old white Cockneys, while the rainbow people partied on around him, consuming community-building gallons of tea (the drink that cheers without inebriating), and no doubt enjoying much else besides.

Brown face St George's FlagOne picture on his Twitter feed caught my eye. A young brown girl with pierced lips had painted a red cross in make-up on her face. It needs no interpretation: it is an icon of what all these words have been about.
In all of this, George himself points the way. The only two biographical details the hagiographies give us with any certainty is that he gave his goods to the poor and confessed the name of Christ at the court of his king.  To be generous to the point of folly, and faithful even when persecution is threatened, require a strength which only the gentle can muster, and a realism which only the idealist can achieve. For Christians, the significance of these acts is clear. As the Pope said in his recent visit to the English College in Rome, love of God and of neighbour provide the foundation stones of the Christian life.

 

And for people of all religious traditions and none, the creation of any worthwhile national community involves a commitment to others, irrespective of their background, recognising their inviolable human dignity, especially that of the least fortunate; and a constant search for justice and truth. So perhaps we can cry ‘God for Harry, England and St George’ with an easier mind than we imagined. It turns out that he is as contemporary and necessary as can be.

 

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Dandelions — on the bombing of Syria, 14 April 2018

To bomb or not to bomb?

That is the question.

But I have no answer.

 

I can barely manage ‘Tea or coffee?’

sitting in my sunny cul-de-sac

(neat and tidy, one tree each).

 

On drives and verges cars stand by,

ready for the Tesco run, lunch with Grandma,

and the Five-a-side we’re bound to win.

 

Through tiny lawns

ready for their first Spring cut,

weeds push skywards to a sure beheading.

 

But they’ll be back; for, never rooted up,

other mornings, other lawns

will see them loitering golden, green.

 

On screen, the Dementer-in-Chief,

strutting like a thrice-crowed cock,

showered and pink stands furrowed by the flag,

 

his gameshow grin internalised

(see Power for Dummies, page 13);

a man at last, a blooded warrior.

 

Now bridesmaid Britain, kitten-heeled,

does its favourite Churchill voice

and waves young airmen off to war.

 

And while they rocket overhead,

families beneath them shelter in the caves

of their own arched backs and bloodied arms.

 

Is every prayer a prayer to stop the bombs?

Or is the hell of some no hotter in these flames?

I have no answer, none

 

but that these old tales set out in hieroglyphs

can never be uprooted by a fire.

Only patience can renew the land,

 

or else the great round clock moves on,

seeds take flight

and where they lie fresh hatred grows.

 

Wealands Bell

14 April 2018

 

Preaching in red ink

Of the various congregations I have addressed over the years, it is my current flock of teenagers that poses by far the greatest homiletic challenge and opportunity. Usually, in a parish, the people voluntarily turn up, are more or less signed up, and generously put up with whatever preaching is set before them as nourishment for the week ahead. Theological depth is by no means universally valued. One often gets the impression that what people really want from their preachers is a joke, a heart-warming story and a vignette of vicarage life to make everyone feel involved in the compelling soap opera that is sometimes the Church.

 

This is not my current experience. Working in a school that retains a tradition of compulsory daily chapel, I do not unfailingly encounter a breathless zeal among the masses to hear the Word of God. That said, there is a generally high degree of willing participation in singing, listening and engagement with chapel, suggesting that, provided certain principles are not forgotten, a school’s constituents are likely to accept the essential premise that the Christian tradition in which a school was founded (in 1480 or 1840 or whenever), is one we gain more by maintaining than abandoning, even if we are no longer a recognisably ecclesiastical institution or Christian society.

 

But the provisos I alluded to are fundamental and quite unforgiving. You can’t, for example, simply iterate the tenets of the faith (even from a high pulpit) without saying exactly what you mean by them. To preach that ‘Jesus came down to earth to save me from my sins’ (the staple of so much Passiontide teaching) simply won’t do when delivered without a single word of commentary. An audience that has the blood-red instruction to ‘SAY WHY’ blazoned across its essays every week is unlikely to be understanding of any unsubstantiated glibness in a preacher.

 

So phrases like ‘God so loved the world …’ are to be used with particular care, avoiding the landmines of the anthropomorphism that can so easily turn God into Santa Claus, while steering equally clear of the cosmological vagueness that uses ‘God’ only as code for whatever incomprehensible physics permeates the star-spangled cosmos.

 

Where then do we turn to find words that are true and helpful? As always, the best words will be those that are rooted in people’s daily experience. If we’re talking about God’s love, we might find a way into the concept by thinking about the nature of the world as capable of the endless invention and re-invention that allows us (for example) to experience restoration after loss and reconciliation after discord. It is true that this outpouring of love will require for God a role in creation greater than many will be happy to yield; but if we can start to pick a hole through that muddle, it will allow preachers to talk of a God of love when other registers may sound too sing-song, convenient, infantile.

 

And when this talk of loving turns to the ‘only-begotten Son’ of John 3.16, we will need to avoid anything that hints at family trees and sexual reproduction, replacing them with the poetry that speaks of Christ as ‘radiance’ and ‘imprint’ (Hebrews 1) or as ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1.15).

 

As for enjoying ‘everlasting life’, I am not hopeful that many of my listeners would be able to imagine themselves as eternally-experiencing subjects (as my colleagues in the philosophy department would say), but this need not lead us to jettison all attempts at identifying that quality of human life that reflects deepest reality (what we might call divinity), and that enjoys the sort of ongoing significance that could be considered permanent.

 

Now, I know that none of this is news. Using words that can be understood and defended is fundamental to any educational or homiletic task; which is why I suffer such despair when prominent voices address matters as complex as the Passion in markedly unhelpful ways. Consider this Good Friday tweet, for example: ‘From the cross, Jesus cried ‘It is finished.’ That means that every sin you ever committed or ever will commit has been paid for. Your worst secret is known to God and the price has been paid. The only thing left to decide is: Will you accept this gift?’

 

Thus Mr Farron, the former political leader who has already given us a pretty shrewd idea of what he considers ‘sins and secrets’ to include. Leaving aside the question of how healthy it is to conceive of human life as an agglomeration of supposed failings (and I’m clear that it is generally unhelpful and damaging to the point of abuse), this mechanistic account of salvation is strong on certain readings of the Cross, but rather weaker on questions of how and why salvation occurs.

 

I certainly do not want us to go through life thinking that we are immune to all failings and devoid of any faults. That would be an opposite but equal sort of abuse. But I do want a person’s knowledge of Christ to be based on more than a reductionist concept of him as a kind of moral Mr Muscle who removes the grime of sin, leaving everything sparkling clean and good as new.

 

By all means let us talk of sacrifice, but let us begin by considering the sort of reparation we recognise and rely on when our trust is broken and our own relationships falter. Anything else will be in danger of making Tarzan-leaps across gaping chasms that only the already-convinced will find remotely comprehensible.

 

Now, I am aware that in making these remarks I may either sound churlish or simply be stating the obvious. All I can observe from my corner of the vineyard is that being clear about theology (and open to its awkward questions) is the indispensable first step in engaging in faith-talk with lively minds. Too often, the supposition seems to be that, if only we can get the message slick enough, the marketing strategy well enough directed, the teeth white enough and the participants drop-dead cool enough, everything else will follow. This is not my experience.

 

Of course, we who belong to a supposedly life-giving community wish to commend it to others by welcome and example. But this work cannot take place in a theological vacuum. We must seriously and rigorously address pressing intellectual matters if we are to commend to a new generation the faith once delivered to us.

 

Just saying happy stuff from time to time is unlikely to be sufficient.

Mum’s the word … thoughts for Church and World on Mother’s Day

The flower-and-chocolate trade has been in full spate as Mother’s Day is used to plug the nasty retail gap between St Valentine and Easter. All over the country, stereotypically inept husbands and small children wrestle with toasters as they aim for the perfect breakfast-in-bed for the woman of their lives. Motherhood is honoured, as in millions of kindly acts we say thank you to those who have borne us, and quite probably done most of the nurturing, too.

The English Church has historically taken a wider view of this day, seeing ‘Mothering Sunday’ as an opportunity to focus not only on our own mothers, but also on our ‘mother’ the Church, and on Mother Mary. Biologically the Lord’s mother, Mary is by pious adoption the mother of all humanity, the lowly one whom all generations will call ‘blessed’ (Luke 1.48).

But such mother-talk is at best ambiguous, at worst obsolete, at least in the New Testament. Unlike John, who happily depicts the disciple sharing a home with Mary after the crucifixion (John 19.27), the synoptics are less willing to accord her any unequivocal position of honour (‘My mother, brother, sister are those who do the will of my Father,’ says Jesus a little huffily —Mark 3.35; Matthew 12.49; Luke 8.21). Perhaps this is the voice of the far-flung Apostolic Church reminding his blood relatives (notably in Jerusalem?) that belonging to Christ is not through blood but baptism — a lesson the Church of England, with its dainty devotion to ‘family life’, still tries hard to forget. It was with good reason that the mediaeval Church emphasised the role not of parents but of godparents, not simply officers of nature but signals and witnesses of divine adoption and new life.

As for ‘Mother Church’, the notion of a maidenly global gaggle, even one protected by the Spirit’s outstretched wings, is one that might easily grate. ‘Reveal her unity’? Guard her faith’ (Prayer G)? Surely, for better or worse, ‘we’ are the church, and we had better say so. Not driven sheep or sheltered chicks: just people, baptised. Perhaps when we’ve had a thousand years of leadership from people who aren’t straight white men, we may be able to revisit the idea of Church as Bride and Mother, but for now these metaphors represent (and maybe even cloak) such an unjust reality for half the world’s population that their use requires vast numbers of footnotes and riders, and might for now be best abandoned.

Secular Mother’s Day is also far from uncontroversial. In addition to those who find the day difficult because of various sorts of maternal experience given, received or denied, there are many social matters to address. Who best provides children with the love they need, and what sort of domestic arrangements best secure it? Solving that question brings the left and the right in their boxing gloves striding towards the ring. For some, the one thing needful is the love and security children require to grow and prosper. Who gives it (and in what combinations of committed carers — two mums, a dad and a grandma, whatever) is inconsequential. For others, only a man and wife spliced together in holy wedlock can be entrusted with the task, and no number of child cruelty stories begin to shake that fundamental view.

So should Mother’s Day be shelved until we have greater consensus? By no means. We have all been carried by a mother and, no matter how that child-bearing was experienced, we should be grateful to her or to any others who have shown us a mother’s love. It is something to celebrate, without reinforcing gender stereotypes or claiming to identify spurious complementarities between the sexes.

Some mothers will have inspired the admiration of their children by a gentle constancy at home, always ready to feed, bandage or celebrate as appropriate. Others will have been remarkable for resilience and determination in the professional sphere, by labour and ability resourcing their family’s life, freeing husbands or partners to stay at home with the sewing and the school run. Still others will not have been mothers at all. Yet, by accepting (like Mary) an unlooked-for role, they have come to be loved like a mother by their unintended children. Relations and friends, old and young, men and women: they have all with indefatigable love assumed as a willing responsibility of care that which was first known as a biological need to suckle. And now love calls out to love in the ungovernable joy of gratitude.

Some people inevitably paint any social change in colours of deep perturbation. But, more cheerily, I find this particular move away from sexual and gender-governed expectation to be wonderfully liberating. It seems to be evidence of humanity at our best, when we receive what evolution bequeaths us, and evolve it further in response to our needs and legitimate desires. Although motherhood has been for centuries a prime opportunity for malign collusion between biology and culture (learning to mistreat women because we could: the loathsome ‘barefoot in winter, pregnant in summer’ trope), we are finding surely better ways of providing for the perpetuation of our species and recognising the delightful diversity of human love and the scope it gives for permanent, faithful and stable relationships. Alas, we are still scoring negligibly on the violence and ecology papers (so ‘perpetuating the species’ suddenly looks a more questionable act), and we must aim to do urgently and significantly better.

If hardship and sorrow are ever present, we need the guidance, affirmation and support of mothers of either sex, those who know us well, and are committed to us for the long haul. There are relationships that can afford to be virtual, trivial, temporary. But this isn’t one of them. It has to be right. And where nature has failed to provide, inventive humanity must make good the lack.

‘Man hands on misery to man,’ says Philip Larkin. ‘It deepens like a coastal shelf.’ With his analysis we might be content to agree, but his solution is grim and wayward. ‘Get out,’ he says, ‘as early as you can, and don’t have any kids yourself.’

The way to make global progress is not by abstaining from living in committed relationship, but by being boldly involved. For most of us, love will not be particularly heroic or newsworthy, but will be made up of small daily kindnesses, like breakfast on a tray. But even these most basic acts are mother­-and-father to new beginnings: they warm hearts till stone turns to flesh. Any kindness communicates the stuff of God, and that’s why Mother’s Day matters. I pray you’ll have a good one, whatever your circumstances.

Broadening the Vision

In his typically extensive account of the so-called Cleansing of the Temple (John 2.13-22 and synoptic parallels), Professor NT Wright (in Jesus and the Victory of God, 406-428) invites us to think of the Jerusalem Temple as an enormous cross between Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, the seat not simply of pious religious practice but of the nation’s life as a whole.

In fact, says Wright, it was not a cleansing at all: the rot had gone too deep for mere reform; though, to be sure, the Pharisees were recognising that a religious system so heavily reliant on liturgical barbecues would more than probably benefit from a greater emphasis on study of the word. Yet despite this hint of proto-Protestantism, this is no preview of Luther with hammer and nails. We see rather the one who will be crucified performing an ‘enacted parable’ of the Temple’s destruction, a piece of street theatre with the uncompromisingly potent political message that the end was in sight for the phony high priesthood of Herod’s cronies.

And how could he be so sure? Leaving aside the cunning expedient of postponing the writing down of the Gospels until after the Temple had been destroyed (Discuss), there were indications both outside and in that its days were numbered. From without, the Romans, like many empires before them, were keen to bring to heel this irritatingly monotheistic province that would worship neither the classical pantheon nor, even more expediently, the divine emperor. From within, financially-driven corruption gnawed at the integrity of the whole institution, reducing its ethos and purpose to a determination to squeeze yet more income from a sacrificial system no longer affordable to the poorest, so that this ‘House of Prayer for all nations’ became instead a den of thieves.

Only it wasn’t a den of ‘thieves’ in the sense of cheerful burglars and honest swindlers hustling pennies out of old ladies’ handbags. As Professor Wright points out, the word used is lestes or brigands, meaning people like Barabbas, zealots who knifed Roman squaddies by night and kept themselves scarce by day beneath the stalls of the pigeon sellers. Or something like that. Jesus certainly seems to be insisting that anyone who claims loyalty to the Temple and its cult must raise their eyes and broaden their vision far beyond the narrow national interests that did not begin to reflect his conception of the Kingdom of God, which, if it is to be truly that, must make room even for those hostile individuals whom the zealots oppose.

This manifesto commitment is unlikely to impress anyone keen on a career in the anti-terrorist squad. But it nevertheless provides an opportunity to consider the vexed subject of belonging, and to ask ourselves whom we regard (in Mrs Thatcher’s phrase) as ‘one of us’, and whom we relegate far beyond the pale of any dignified membership of our various human communities.

In a world that is so perplexing and sometimes terrifying, it is quite understandable if our default is to keep the shutters of our vision fairly tightly closed. If we cannot see what worries us, or all the people we neither understand nor feel inclined to like, we may just feel calmer and sleep more easily.

But this is not a strategy worthy of any who regard themselves as children of God, or who belong to any of the several constituencies for whom any closed-mindedness should be anathema. And it will not be enough simply to buy sandwiches for beggars or to try to look less disapproving next time we meet someone who writes violin concertos for a living, or who has multiple piercings or purple hair. Or perhaps both.

The distinguishing mark of those whose breadth of vision takes them significantly beyond themselves is surely an ability to see the connection between their own concerns and priorities with the rest of the world, locally and globally. I am, for example, always impressed and delighted when our pupils recognise that, although academic success is important, it only makes complete sense when seen as part of a greater whole. After school, the nurturing and development of a person in university should lead into a productive working life, with continuing attention to a generous hinterland of all the ties and interests that accompany the narrowly professional. Together this wealth of disposition and experience might one day enable them to contribute to an engagement with people with a very different human experience, relating to them in such a way as to reach new levels of mutual understanding and launch virtuous cycles of peaceful abundance.

Now, regaining Paradise is never without cost and danger. It is not surprising that within a short time of staging his protest, Jesus of Nazareth had been tried and crucified. But a vision so narrow as to include only ourselves and those easily mistaken for us will equally obstruct and constrict our lives until, like the Temple itself, we corrode and perish from within. It is clear which of these roads will lead to life. All we need now is the grace to pursue it.

This is a version of a homily preached on 7 March 2018 in Magdalen College School, Oxford

No Tweeting? Now maybe I’m not quite so sure …

I once had a parishioner who loved to tell the old joke that every morning he would read the obituaries in the local paper. If he didn’t find his own name among them, he concluded that he hadn’t died in the night, and so he got up and began the day.

For many, such active checking back in with the world after an eight-hour off-line sleep takes the form of logging into Twitter as soon as the alarm has sounded, before casting even half an eye on messages, mails, news and weather. First, we need to see whether our American followers have paid due attention overnight to our final Tweets of the day before, re-Tweeting us into more phones and homes and giving us the sort of attention we undoubtedly deserve.

So far, so commonplace. Most of us recognise the part of our insecure selves that craves the unchallenging affirmation of public agreement or smiling approval. And we acknowledge that Twitter is one of the better one-stop shops for finding it. So it seems obviously wise to abstain from the whole experience now and again, to try to wean ourselves off this need for constant positive attention, and to silence the endlessly chuntering, jesting or clamouring voice within that is determined to have its say, no matter how ill-informed the opinions or asinine their expression.

Now, very few of us are sufficiently rich, underemployed and self-obsessed to be in a position to transmit our views continuously all day long but it’s still sensible to know our Twitter limits and to stick to them. In this respect Tweets are a little like cigarettes: more than 20 a day and you’re probably in trouble.

There are also practical benefits to a Twitterfast, not least an increase in available time to devote to other improving literature, owing to a significant reduction in the printed matter that clogs our brain each day, including much of the posing and posturing, the flirting and flouncing that drains of disapproval even those with permanently-pursed lips, and is intolerably hard on even the most understanding nerves.

And yet, despite these benefits, I find myself missing the little blue bird during my own Lenten Twitterfast. This, as the rigorous will point out, is precisely why I should give (and offer) it up. But I miss the company of so many good people that it seems that I have ended up renouncing a blameless ‘them’ rather than a questionable ‘it’. I miss, for example, people I know in real life whom I also find online. They are the guardians of some of my memories, so to some degree they constitute who I am. Yet without Twitter I would probably hear from them only once a year (and they from me) in the printed news and scribbled half-promises of the Christmas card.

Then there are those I do not know well, but have come to recognise and rely on for all that they bring to the common table of the Twitterfeast: something quirky, amusing, challenging, informative; anything from the condition of traffic on the Oxford Road to the latest thinking on whole-class feedback. Or maybe they just have certain little things they like to say, which others are kind enough to listen to; just as in the olden days we’d have listened to each other’s pet hates and hobbyhorses as we loitered in the corner-shop or queued for the bus.

And that’s exactly what Twitter’s like a lot of the time. These aren’t bonds of family or close friendship (not hoops of steel); but they could become such, and for all their lightness of touch the relationships we form with people who are even only tangentially part of our electronic landscape do matter: their words may be only typed on a screen and their faces reduced to an icon or logo. But we know the power of icons and logos and should not too readily abandon them here.

In the past I’ve written in favour of a Twitter detox (Here, 6 January 2016), but I begin to think now that I was wrong. Of course, now that I’ve set my hand to the plough, I’ll have to keep going, but perhaps rather than simply withdrawing into an e-free wilderness, the best means of avoiding any unhelpful dependency on Twitter and all its works is to engage more carefully and reflectively on this characterful pursuit, maybe even in conversation with friends, followers and other social media users.

Now, I may be mightily deceiving myself, like the boozer who thinks they can pop in for just the social half-pint now and then. Time will tell. But despite my no doubt flawed reasons for entering the Tweetzone, I do grow more certain that sharing in a genuinely common life is the only way to cure people and nations of all that ails us. That will surely include the common life of the web. And for that to flourish, perhaps we need to gird ourselves with true wisdom and genuine discipline and, having remembered our password, boldly log on once more.

Dream Large, Live Larger: A homily for Lent I

There’s a fair chance that you are more familiar with the temptation story in Matthew and Luke than with this year’s account in St Mark. Those two writers begin modestly enough with Satan tempting Christ to make bread from stones; then encouraging him to test the swiftness of the angelic rapid-response team by throwing himself off the Temple roof; and to accept his invitation to survey the kingdoms of the world before bowing down to worship him. Each of the temptations is followed by a short burst of Bible-quote ping-pong which remains to this day a game highly favoured by certain individuals.

Mark gives us none of this sense of neat progression. His scheme, quite simply, describes Jesus experiencing Satan’s temptation in the company of ‘wild beasts’, followed by the restorative ministry of angels.

I find that the wild beasts draw my attention to the world of instinct and appetite; to the lower pleasures of a world that is sharp of fang and fleet of foot; that seeks power and domination without limit or mercy, determined to be top dog at the trough and to pass on its selfish genes to generations earmarked by Fortune for global ease and a life of charmed comfort.

Much that tempts human beings in every generation (sin is a leopard that doesn’t significantly change its spots) is a taste for power or pleasure, or a mixture of the two; or the means to fill a gap that we ourselves have created in pursuit of power or pleasure, image or reputation. For creatures with such an endless appetite for novelty, it is astonishing that we allow ourselves to be duped by the same unsatisfying bilge day after day. We know from plentiful experience that saying mean and destructive things (for however great a reward of laughter); or misusing media; or being too dedicated a patron of the hospitality industry; or being too free with friendships or unfathomably fond of financial reward will not make us flourish. We know because we tried them all last weekend or last year — and we were fairly miserable then, too. And yet (O mother Eve, you’re right: we are so beguiled!) we return to these temptations and click on Yes, yes, yes with all the reflective capacity of a somnolent goldfish.

And the endlessly repeated disappointment is so exhausting that we too might gladly opt for a non-corporeal existence and hope that a pure, selflessly angelic love will start to course through our bloodless veins and lead us to an altogether more beautiful life. But we are physical, we do have appetites and we are drawn relentlessly to the quest for pre-eminence by the human condition to which we are subdued. Yet help is perhaps at hand in the form of that disposition which Christ demonstrates in his baptism, now in the temptation, and in all that follows. I refer to the disposition on which we are focusing this half-term at MCS, namely Motivation.

Jesus of Nazareth is motivated throughout his life by an absorbing desire to perform God’s will and to proclaim God’s reign as the ultimate cosmic game-changer and assertion of the deepest possible reality. For us, our motivation may be more modest, yet it will be no less consuming of our attention and formative of our lives.

To give Motivation a chance to do its work with us, I recommend three courses of action for us to pursue this Lent or, if you prefer, until the end of term.

Firstly, believe in the glory of humanity. Whether or not you ‘do God’, please ‘do humanity’, for without a belief in our proper significance and potential we will continue to be easy prey to powerlust and will utterly fail to flourish.

Secondly, devote just 2 or 3 minutes each evening, again whether or not you ‘do God’ or are a Lent-keeping Christian, to an examination of the day. Just look back and see where you experienced joy or consolation, and where there was sadness, emptiness or desolation. Having noted it, ask why it was so, and see what difference this exercise might make to tomorrow.

Thirdly, please dream. Dream proper dreams, not of character-clogging riches or slick beauties who take your breath away as you board the night-flight to Planet Lovely. (For the record, I do naturally hope that you will be swept off your feet at least once in your life, and that it won’t just be your harassed spouse getting handy with the Hoover.) Let your dreams be of a world changed: a world where international aid is neither begrudged nor tainted, but given in generosity and goodness; a world where the orphans of war know peace and love and laughter; where the young people in our cities are kept safe from the danger of knives and any other destruction; and where our old people experience comfort, dignity and companionship. Please dream of a world where we don’t work for just a big house or shiny car, but for a whole world of security, shelter and clean water for all. In short, dream of a world that is as vast and wonderful as dreams should be. Anything duller, smaller or less daring will have no hope of renewing our desires and putting out of reach the fruit of the forbidden tree that causes all our woe.

We will need to help each other to be motivated in bringing any of this about. But in the end there is no reason why we should not be raised to levels far above the brute beasts’, and be made much wiser and more discerning the next time some infernal serpent offers us a dodgy second-hand version of ourselves or our kind. For we have also kept company with the King of the Angels, and we know there is a better way.

Delivered in Magdalen College School, Oxford, Thursday 22 February 2018.