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.

 

 

Saying Goodbye to Books

I’m not a man who has collected classic cars or football trophies. I have not gone in for china or coins or designer clothes. Instead, I have collected books. Hundreds and hundreds of them. From the first few pious titles arranged neatly on the shelves of my bedroom in my early teens (lots of CS Lewis, Peter Hebblethwaite, Naught for your Comfort), books have been my chosen symbol of who I think I am and who I have wanted to become. They have been way-markers on the road to any wisdom I have accrued, and antidotes to that gargantuan ignorance whose recognition is the first step towards knowledge. But now, with a move imminent from a large Edwardian vicarage, where shelves of books have the added function of providing extra insulation, I must cull about half of these intellectual and psychological building blocks that are much more than possessions, and get to grips with what this enforced jettisoning will do to me. It would be a ridiculous overstatement to say that it’s like having half of myself surgically removed. But it’s like having half of myself surgically removed.

 

To sell or give away books is to abandon old friends and the memories they conjure. A dear friend who died abysmally young marked our friendship with the gift of several books. To lose these would be to mourn his loss again. More trivially, there are the addresses written in the back of my very battered copy of John Mortimer’s Voyage, the only remaining link to a group of us gathered one drunken night at university, possessed by the conviction that keeping in touch for ever was critically important. Or there’s my coffee-sodden Times and Seasons, now crinkly-brown like a history project, that takes with it to its recycling skip the memory of that horrific moment when a liturgy-planning session was prematurely ended when a cafetière tripped and tipped on the undulations of my preternaturally untidy desk, leaving me with a warm and soggy set of notes that were dried in front of a roaring fire.

 

More painfully, perhaps, books and their loss can spur us on to future achievements by reminding us of past failures. I will give away my seven volumes of von Balthasar’s The Glory of the Lord, which I set myself the task of reading during the three years of my curacy, two decades ago. It’s too late now, of course. I have neither the shelf space nor the shelf life to commit to these and so I sorrowfully let them go. One day I’ll find someone to tell me what happens in the end.

 

I have at least managed to keep some fairly hopeless cases, like my grubby Ulysses, slowly preserved in sun-tan lotion as I baked one summer on a beach in Andros or Santorini (Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo was cracked beyond repair on the same holiday and binned some years ago). But out, alas, have gone endless volumes of dusty, inexpensive theology — my name written on the flyleaf, joining the names of other owners, retired or dead clergymen, proudly and pointlessly inscribed. These books, with their labels saying 50p or £1, have reminded me of the kind, gentle and cat-obsessed staff of Lichfield Cathedral bookshop, where I spent such happy times combining pastoral visiting with browsing for bargains.

 

It will be argued by some that, with the infinite resources of the web we no longer need books made of card and paper. But do we really want to become a people parroting the unconfirmed assertions of Wikipedia? Is there to be no more to our knowledge than half a dozen bullet points [citation needed]? And although there is Kindle, must we lose the particular madeleine qualities of a book’s weight and colour and smell? Do we want to live without the loving inscriptions or outraged marginalia which give a book its individuality? Wouldn’t we miss the Olympic rings of clumsy coffee cups on the backs of books pressed into service as emergency coasters?

 

Not all memories are happy, of course; neither do all books shine a light on the most glorious chapters of one’s life. I think of a number of highly expensive texts on Eastern Europe and the Balkans I once bought in a fit of deep insecurity, just to impress colleagues who had a genuine and competitive interest in those countries. I so wanted their approval, to be part of their gang, and I saw this as the admission charge. There is mighty relief in ditching these works, in knowing that I no longer need to complete Misha Glenny’s The Balkans, or The Romanians by Vlad Georgescu. I may consequently go to my grave with an imperfect understanding of Gheorghe Mironescu’s leadership, but I know I no longer need to impress anyone, and will not even begin Wilfred Mellers’ Bach and the Dance of God, a purchase made in the ambitious days of my choral youth, significantly beyond my pocket even with the unimaginably generous provision of the student grant cheque.

 

It must be acknowledged, then, that the shedding of books brings as much liberation as regret. I’m glad of the chance finally to admit that some books are simply too hard for me: they are written in a language and register requiring a certain academic formation, an acquired familiarity with a landscape that my life’s circumstance and choices have simply never yielded. So onto the discard pile goes Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, pretty much untouched since the day I bought it in Durham in the excited weeks before I went off to York to read English. Next to him there’s a John Milbank trio (a man finally punished for his impenetrability) and Catherine Pickstock’s After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy. As Bertie Wooster would say, “I mean, what?”

 

The removal of books also changes life at a basic visual level. I have watched these books standing topically and alphabetically to attention, their spines paling and bleaching in the light of two thousand summer suns. The books that remain constitute a new order. My eyes will no longer fall on the dijon mustard of the SCM Old Testament commentaries, or the verdant green of the New. The black bricks of Churchill’s six-volume history of World War II will no longer stand in the top right corner of that shelf there. All that’s left is regrouped and reordered. Richard of York is unseated and the rainbow is reassembled. Even my late father’s cheap edition of Dickens which had pride of place on the sideboard when I was a little boy will no doubt soon be mouldering in piles of unsellable charity books, or disintegrating in a landfill chasm, no longer read, perhaps, but at least providing a home for the worms that will one day consume us all.

 

And that, perhaps, is the ultimate blessing of sloughing off so many books. Like Aquinas, who abandoned his studies when he saw that they were ‘so much straw’, a radically-reduced verbiage may lead us into the deeper and wiser stillness of silence, all the better to prepare us for that day when we downsize for the final time, entering the confines of our last wooden home, with room only for ourselves, and one bright penny to pay the ferryman.

 

Upwind of the Spirit: a homily for Lent II

 

This week’s gospel[1] is not a tale of dispassionate theological discussion between rabbis.  It is, rather, part of the history of bloody dispute between different factions in the first-century synagogue (what we might as well call ‘the Jesus party’ and ‘the Moses party’), each with robust views concerning God’s dealings with humankind, and the relationship of earth and heaven. The disagreement thundered and rumbled for 60 or 70 years after the first Easter until Church and Synagogue finally and irrevocably split. The Fourth Gospel therefore is not so much a historical record of the days of Jesus walking and talking in Galilee and Jerusalem but is rather an account of the proclamation of his resurrection-victory, embraced by some, rejected by others. In this dialogue between ‘Nicodemus’ and ‘Jesus’ we hear exchanges between New Covenant and Old, those of ‘his own’ who received God’s Word and those who received him not (John 1.11f).

 

The claim in 3.13 that ‘No-one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man’ is a typical missile launched into the midst of this protracted divorce process, uttered in contradictory response to other such claims (concerning Moses or Elijah, Enoch or Melchizedek) and in turn eliciting further pantomime ripostes masquerading as sober theological reflection.

 

But who is the ‘Son of Man’, and why does he matter?

 

We tend to imagine[2] that the title ‘Son of God’ is decisive in saying who Jesus is and in expressing his unique relationship with the Father. In fact it is not so. ‘Son of God’ simply means a human being, like David, ‘a man after God’s own heart’, one of the earthly kings of Israel, or a person close to God and following the commandments. It implied none of the familial intimacy that characterises the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

 

For this, counter-intuitively, you need ‘Son of Man’. This character is definitively presented to us in Daniel 7 where in the court of God (drawn as a sort of Albus Dumbledore with added asbestos), a judge sits over the rebellious beasts, one ‘Son of Man’ (not human), given by God dominion and glory and kingship, so that all peoples, nations and languages shall serve him for ever.

 

Both the synoptics and St John appropriate this title for Jesus, seeing him as the One who has come from heaven, carried out his divine mission and returned to heaven, taking with him all that he has achieved or, as the Athanasian Creed puts it, ‘taking the Manhood into God’.  He is thus the guarantor of our eternal life, the link and ladder between earth and heaven, a truly human being who is also the perfect icon of God.

 

What is more surprising and unsettling is to find that in all the gospels the glorious royal victor of Daniel 7 becomes the tortured and broken wreck of Calvary, and that John should see this latter state not just as a staging-post on the road to God’s victory, but itself the moment when all is ‘accomplished’ and the Lord of Life makes his triumphal entrance into heaven.

 

Our inability to comprehend this stems from the fact that we see only the earthly drama of Good Friday as it unfolds. We miss the heavenly dimension, in which God has planned from all eternity that the ‘Son of Man’ should be elevated as judge of all. The twist is that this elevation to pre-eminence is unforeseen and unintended by the rebellious children of Israel who raise Jesus high on the cross, ignorant that he whom they have judged and found guilty has thus become their own exalted judge on whom they will rely for mercy.

 

This, in any case, is the ‘deeper magic’ of the bible narrative. What might be going on mystically and metaphysically at the heart of reality is for philosophers to propose and artists to express. All we can say here and now has to do with our human ability and instinct to recognise ourselves in others, and to respond to their condition as our own.

 

We live in a time at which it is more important than ever to be able to recognise other human beings as fellow human beings, to see them not as a threat to our welfare but as potential allies in our common pursuits; not as a drain on our relative affluence, but as global companions from whom we withhold our bread not only at their physical cost, but at our moral and spiritual decimation. Whether faced with the insular ranting of distant leaders intent upon building walls — both physical and legislative — to keep out their neighbours; or learning to see our own neighbours no longer as partners but as strangers from whom we seek only the financial benefit of commercial relationship, we inhabit a world intent upon making us suspicious and afraid, training our instincts to see in others not those who are like us, but those who are significantly and threateningly different.

 

Things are no better in the Christian Church. We have seen in the Church of England in the past two weeks how years of dialogue, listening and prayer (not to mention episcopal authority) can quickly come to count for nothing. For all our talk of ‘mutual flourishing’, we retreat from this (sometimes quite brutally) as soon as our vaunted inclusivity starts to include those with whom we do not agree, whose vision of the world-wide Catholic Church and the implications of our belonging to it are inimical to those who hold a narrower view of a ‘National Church’ which has been steadily growing (all snazzy logos and slick press releases) like a sort of ecclesiastical UKIP.

 

Nicodemus also is a little inclined to this propensity for separation. Whereas he is impressed by Jesus, admiring his signs and wonders and seeing in him a source of light, he cannot yet jump headlong into Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom as one that admits not only priests but prostitutes, lunatics and lepers, robbers and Romans. Neither is he ready to make the fundamental new beginning of rebirth. For the moment, he is happy to talk a good Kingdom, keeping late hours with rabbis who, if only they can talk long enough, might never have to act.

 

We who claim to be followers of Jesus need to see and believe him absolutely for who he is and to be re-launched into his abundant life by birth in water and the Spirit. It is not enough to be born in water, sign of the natural world; even of the purification of John the Baptist. It is not enough to be baptised (as infants or adults) then to lapse into a kind of post-ritual stupor in which life becomes pretty much as it would have been anyway, decently uneventful, morally tepid, with a few quid reserved for Children in Need.

 

Our need is to see the Son of Man exalted in his agony as it appears in all times and places; to know that this is our agony also; and to respond with an open-handed generosity and open-hearted trust. This will require the regeneration of the Holy Spirit, herald and advance guard of the new age of the kingdom. This is the Spirit that breathes where it will, like the mysterious blowing of the wind. We do not see its source or know its destination but we see its power to change and are invited to put ourselves consciously and decisively into its flight path so that we might be reformed and renewed as witnesses to the Son of Man and servants of the kingdom he proclaims and embodies.

 

Let this continue to be our goal and intention during Lent, as through our fasting, prayer and acts of service our lives take on a new and joyful urgency, and we are made ever more receptive to God’s Holy and life-giving Spirit.

[1] John 3.1-17. I am especially grateful to the commentaries on these verses of CK Barrett and John Ashton.

[2] For a compelling discussion of ‘Son of God’ and ‘Son of Man’, see Daniel Boyarin: The Jewish Gospels, chapter 1.

In praise of neighbours

I blessed a house the other day. It was a wonderful occasion: friends and neighbours gathered as jovially as they could with religion looming; they followed me round the new home, squeezing into each of the rooms as I said prayers, wafting clouds of incense and splashing holy water with a vigour that can’t have been good for fine fabrics or anything electrical.

 

It turned out that quite a few of those present had witnessed house blessings before, though mainly as exorcisms, for the warding-off of what the Bible calls ‘evil spirits’. If things start to go bump in the night, or an inexplicable aroma of suet pudding lurks in the garage, then more people than you’d imagine send for the priest, hoping that prayer might prove effective where wishful thinking has failed.

 

In the Middle Ages, prayer was habitually used as protection: travellers might pay for masses to be said while journeying, just as we might take out holiday insurance. Lines from the psalms were repeated as a charm against the toothache, and holy water was in great demand as a substance to ward off wickedness and cure malady.

 

But in blessing a new home we weren’t shooing off any seventeenth-century chamber-maids or silencing a strange knocking in the back bedroom ― though plenty of people report that prayers confidently said do coincide with such outcomes.

 

We blessed the house to celebrate the fact that our world is made and sustained with God’s goodness at its centre. We can’t deny evil, sickness or mortality; but we can insist that the God shown us by Jesus is a God of blessing. God creates everything out of sheer abundant goodness, which we are called to imitate gratefully. When we ask God for blessings and thank God for them, it is not to insure against their loss. It’s simply because an attitude of gratitude is true to who we are, and helps us become who we will be. We enter and leave this world with nothing. Everything in between times is from God.

 

Of course we need protection, and the company of angels; which is why we need neighbours. Prayers won’t automatically save us from burglars or sickness or blocked drains. But good neighbours, imitating the neighbourly loving-kindness of God, are the best protection going, and a blessing beyond price.