Monday, 12 February 2018

Patience! Monday before Ash Wednesday 2018

Patience is a virtue easily lost today. Food, news, replies to email, everything has to be fast. The hunger for the next instant fix seems insatiable: forty days seems a lifetime. Lent is an exercise in patience. Many will dismiss it as irrelevant or ignore it altogether, but perhaps it really is more relevant now than ever, when the world craves a Tweet-length ‘sign.’
The impatience of our age does not seem to be making us happier. Rarely do you see the faces of those who constantly tap out their addiction on glowing screens glow with equal ardour. Generally their faces are harassed and tense, anxious as the little red message count rises, so engrossed in their virtual world that the real world of, say, families and children becomes an obstacle met with frustration. Parents get angry with their children for interrupting the non-stop screen time, then wonder why the little ones grow up incapable of meaningful relationships or even basic social interaction.
Patience is certainly not my forte (as my wife will tell you). It is what twenty-somethings call a ‘first world problem,’ but much of it is to do with the sheer range of choices available in almost every aspect of life. Which TV streaming service should I choose, which internet provider, which train company for my upcoming trip, which supermarket for dinner? There are those who would say that these are nice problems to have. Yet under the illusion that choice equals freedom, we can end up trapped in a cycle of administrating our lives rather than living them.
How does Lent address this? By encouraging us to fast. This is an ancient discipline common to many religions, which might cause confusion. So, before we can be clear about what it means, let us consider for a moment what it absolutely does not mean.
Fasting does not mean earning God’s favour by doing a good deed, even when we give the money we save by fasting as alms to charity. Nor does it mean giving up on fatty foods so that we can get bikini-ready for summer.
In fact, it means quite the opposite. Fasting is a way of removing the attachments we have to things which get in the way of our relationship with God. If we are fasting for any other reason than to get closer to God, then we are merely perpetuating the capital sin of idolatry: putting something of creation in the creator’s proper place.
Rather, fasting is about entering the suffering of Christ. For many religions, suffering is something to be overcome, an undesirable necessity. This is where we find Christianity’s USP - and not a very marketable one. For Christians, suffering has a purpose, and the path to wisdom is found by entering that suffering. Some enter it deeply, such as the monastics who give up all worldly goods to live in solidarity with the poor, or the many Christians who give up their time and money as volunteers to share and ease the suffering of others. We too can enter it by giving up something which we love but which risks distracting our hearts and minds from union with God.
So ask yourself this Lent, what is it that draws me away from God? Away from inner peace? Away from the love of my friends and family? It may be chocolate or alcohol, I suppose: but perhaps there is some more significant attachment to remove. And when it is removed, perhaps you will find more time and energy to spend with God (in prayer) and with neighbour (in love).
I can promise this: the more honest the penance, the greater the joy of forgiveness; the greater the fasting, the greater the joy of Eastertide when it comes.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Jeremiah's calling and yours

Jeremiah was born in the Kingdom of Judah, just outside its capital, Jerusalem, seven centuries before Christ. These were times of political and religious unrest. The small Jewish nation was under threat from great empires which surrounded it, including Egypt, Assyria and, to the North, Babylon.

Early in his life, as we heard, Jeremiah received his calling as a prophet. It is important to understand what that means. We tend to think of prophets as something like fortune-tellers predicting the future. Although they often did foreshadow future events, that was not the main role of biblical prophets. Jeremiah was not some kind of Mystic Meg. Prophets were called not so much as to forecast the distant future, but to look into the present and speak hard truths about it, especially to the people with the power to make changes before disaster struck - and a recurring theme in the biblical books of the prophets is that powerful people do not always like hearing the truth.
The several kings whom Jeremiah outlived did not always hear his message favourably. Several times, he criticised the policies they were pursuing. He told them that the rampant social injustice they were inflicting on the poor, widows, orphans and immigrants went against the Law of God. He told them that worshipping other gods - some were even taking part in the horror of child sacrifice enjoined by local cults - was a kind of adultery, cheating on God. And he warned them that their policies and injustice would lead Babylon conquering Jerusalem and destroying the Temple. This, he said, would be God’s judgment on them. The kings and priests in charge were not particularly amused. Jeremiah was rejected and punished.
The rulers were even less amused when Jeremiah’s prediction came true. Babylon conquered, and the rulers of Israel were exiled from their homeland for seventy years. Jeremiah stayed on and encouraged the people to stay at peace with their occupiers, watching the signs and prophesying that Babylon, too, would fall: as it did.
Jeremiah’s story from 2700 years ago is not just a matter of quaint historical interest. It is the part of the story of the Jewish people, a repeated story of faithfulness and infidelity to God, of exile from and attempts to restore a homeland, of defiance and resilience of this small race against the attempts of powerful regimes to dilute their religion or even to destroy them forever. The exile of Israel to Babylon foreshadows the Jews’ status as a homeless and hated people through most of the past two thousand years, culminating in the Holocaust of Nazi Germany. We might note that Jeremiah never lost his trust in God even throughout the horrors of his time, just as so many Jewish survivors of the concentration camps and their descendants still keep their faith today, not allowing Babylon or Hitler to destroy it.
And yet, for all Jeremiah’s faith, he was at first reluctant to receive God’s call. He felt the passion for justice and truth pulling at his heart, but he did not think he was up to the task. “I’m just a boy,” he said: but the God who knew him before he was born had always had this role in mind for him, and gave him the courage and grace to perform it. 

What is it that only you can do? 
What is your unique purpose? 
What is holding you back from it? 
Can you learn, like Jeremiah, to trust in God to help you become who you truly are?

Friday, 5 January 2018


While a day like Christmas is fixed in our minds and on the calendars on 25 December, many of the important feasts of the Church’s year move, based upon the date when Easter is set. Following the ancient Jewish lunar calendar, Easter changes each year moving to the Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon and can fall between 22 March and 25 April.

In ancient times before calendars were common, most people did not know the dates for the new Liturgical year. On Epiphany Sunday, the important dates in the Church’s calendar were proclaimed after the gospel in this way:

Dear brothers & sisters,
the glory of the Lord has shone upon us,
and shall ever be manifest among us,
until the day of his return.

Through the rhythms of times and seasons
let us celebrate the mysteries of salvation.

Let us recall the year's culmination,
the Easter Triduum of the Lord:
his last supper, his crucifixion, his burial,
and his rising celebrated
between the evening of the Twenty-ninth of March
and the evening of the Thirty-first of March,
Easter Sunday being on the First day of April.

Each Easter -- as on each Sunday --
Holy Mother Church makes present the great and saving deed
by which Christ has for ever conquered sin and death.
From Easter are reckoned all the days we keep holy.
Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent,
will occur on the Fourteenth Day of February.

The Ascension of the Lord will be commemorated on Thursday, the Tenth day of May.

Pentecost, joyful conclusion of the season of Easter,
will be celebrated on the Twentieth day of May.

And, this year, the First Sunday of Advent will be
on the Second day of December.

Likewise the pilgrim Church proclaims
the Passover of Christ
in the feasts of the holy Mother of God,
in the feasts of the Apostles and Saints,
and in the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed.

To Jesus Christ, who was, who is, and who is to come,
Lord of time and history, be endless praise, for ever and ever. AMEN.

With thanks to Fr Desmond Bannister for reminding me of this tradition! 

Monday, 13 November 2017

Luke 17: Faith, Reproof and Obstacles

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Obstacles are sure to come, but alas for the one who provides them! It would be better for him to be thrown into the Sea with a millstone put round his neck than that he should lead astray a single one of these little ones. Watch yourselves!
If your brother does something wrong, reprove him and, if he is sorry, forgive him. And if he wrongs you seven times a day and seven times comes back to you and says, “I am sorry,” you must forgive him.’
The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith.’ The Lord replied, ‘Were your faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would obey you.’
- Luke 17:1-6

It is difficult to see the connection between these three snippets of wisdom from Jesus: do not place obstacles in the way of the ‘little ones’ who seek faith, reprove and forgive those who are sorry, and finally, that even the tiniest seed of true faith can perform miracles. Quite possibly they are unrelated and were simply catalogued this way post factum. And yet we are led to believe that God’s Spirit was at work in the Church even as she collated and canonised the Scriptures, so we should not be surprised if, in prayer and reflection, we uncover some unsuspected commonality after all.  
As a school chaplain, I take the first snippet very seriously indeed. It seems to me that the modern culture of relativism, and particularly the idea that leaving ‘little ones’ alone in vast supermarket of ideas to pick and choose their own constitutes responsible parenting, presents significant obstacles to growth of faith. People who would not dream of leaving their children alone in a room of Sabatier kitchen knives in the hope that they might make themselves the next Gordon Ramsey at the same time profess that children abandoned in a marketplace of harmful ideologies will somehow learn to become paradigms of morality. Watch yourselves, Jesus says to us. 
And yet, in the next breath, Our Lord reminds us that there is always a second chance: and a third, and a fourth, even up to seven, the Jewish cipher for eternity - and hence infinity. There is always a chance to repent. This calls to mind the Presupposition of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola (naturally), which in sum says that for spiritual growth, we need always to live on the assumption that our neighbour means well and is speaking with good intent. If, on reflection, he or she really doesn’t and isn’t, then it is time to have the courage gently and subtly to reprove. For me, I think this means I need to watch that I am preaching for people and not at them, ever a danger in my line of work. Hectoring does not build faith or trust. So, apologies for the last paragraph. 
Finally, the Apostles ask for more faith themselves. The Lord seems to be replying that they do not have any. If they had even a mustard seed’s worth, they could achieve the impossible. So what is this ‘faith’ thing, anyway? Professor John Milbank describes it as complete trust in the unknown - an echo, to my ears, of the mediaeval Japanese Buddhist Shinran’s elevation of ‘deep entrusting’ as the sole criterion for enlightenment. So, faith is easy, in one way, the gentle yoke: all you have to do is trust. And yet trust can be the most difficult path, the narrow way, as anyone who has engaged in ‘corporate team building exercises’ knows. 
So here is the connection. What obstacles are we putting before ourselves and each other in the way of deep entrusting in God? How might presupposing the good in others break down those obstacles, and lead us to the trust which can move not just mulberry bushes, but even mountains?   

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Re-membrance over enemy lines

The War was meant to be over by now.
Christmas Eve 1914, on the Front. The everyday rattle of gunfire tonight is silent. Instead, a familiar song drifts over the lines to the Tommies, but with different words: Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht.
Later that night come words the Tommies understand, echoing out in English from the German trenches over No Man's land. "Tomorrow is Christmas. If you don't fight, we won't fight."
Is the enemy playing a trick? Setting a trap for a Yuletide massacre?
Dawn usually brings barrages of artillery fire, but not today. Instead, the wind carries music and sounds of good cheer. Around midday, a Sergeant spots the enemy standing up in full view - dancing, with what looks like a beer tankard in hand.
"Permission to shoot, Sir?"
But his Officer does not know what to do. He goes to find the Commanding Officer. The orders are clear. Under no circumstances must the war stop. But by the time the Officer gets back to his platoon, it's too late. In an act of mutinous disobedience, the soldiers have crossed the lines and are fraternising with the enemy, exchanging gifts and sharing the Germans' beer. You've probably heard of the famous football match that ensued (and the famous score of 3-1 to the German side). What you may not have heard is that some disobedient Army Chaplains also held joint British and German Christmas services: in some cases, services of Communion. The Officers were furious: their orders from the top were to keep on killing.
When we use word "remembrance," we generally just mean calling something to memory. But it has a deeper meaning than that, too. Literally, it means re-membering: putting divided, separate limbs or "members" back together. In the famous Christmas truce of 1914, those two parts of the human race who, from 1914-1918, were so bitterly divided, were re-membered: by beer, by football - and by Communion.
Back home in Britain, people were increasingly calling for a way to be "re-membered" with their sons and fathers who had died. The Church of England responded by recovering the ancient practice of Requiem Masses, Eucharists offered especially for the souls of the dead. Tens of thousands of people gathered in churches throughout the land for these: and this is the tradition we continue today. We remember all who have died in war, civilians, soldiers in wars we won and lost, soldiers who at that time were our enemies, but in death are "re-membered" in the one common Body of Christ. And as we remember them, we are re-membered with them: the Church of the living and the dead united in the sacrifice of Christ crucified through the bread and wine of the altar.
A true Christian community is at heart at Eucharistic community.
The first thing we do at Mass is to confess and receive God’s forgiveness. So first, a Eucharistic community will be one that looks at itself and the world it lives in critically and honestly. A community with a conscience. Those soldiers on both sides in the Christmas truce, repented, laid down arms, and opened their hearts to each other, disobeying what the world wanted, even at the risk of Court Martial. So first, a community of repentance.
Next, in Mass, we listen to God’s word. A Eucharistic community needs to be one that listens to God and each other, looks not for the signs of love. Remember how the Germans called out in friendship. The Officers’ first response was suspicion. But the men listened deeper, and heard the tone of true friendship. We need to give each other the benefit of the doubt, make the best of what each other has to say, not be constantly assuming the worst. A community that is open enough to listen.
Half way through Mass (in the modern Anglican order), we share the peace. We cannot approach the altar until we have put away all enmity and hatred, until we have forgiven our brothers and sisters. Think as we shake hands today of the handshakes those soldiers made a century ago. Repentance and listening were the preconditions for this. God forgives us; we forgive others.
Next, we offer - or more properly, through the bread and wine he has given us, we join in Christ’s offering on the Cross. Through the Mass, Jesus continues to give his entire self, body and blood, no strings attached, for the sake of the whole world. Think of the sacrifice those soldiers were making; the sacrifice made by those at home, the sacrifice made for wars won and lost, for good causes and for bad. It was in a Roman centurion that Jesus found faith ‘greater than that of all Israel.’ Our community needs to be self-giving, always asking what more we can give, not what we can get, and never counting the cost. A community of self-sacrificial service.
And then we feast. In the act of Holy Communion, Jesus invites us to feast with the whole Church of the living and the dead, so that as we remember him, he literally re-members us, joins us back up, with them in his Body. Think of the beer and food shared by those soldiers, its power to unite. A Eucharistic community is a community of hospitality, which welcomes the stranger, brings people in from the cold (people like the homeless man on the Close), re-members them with us in one body, one shared humanity.
After we receive, we give thanks. Eucharist is the Greek for “thanksgiving.” The soldiers exchanged gifts and wrote letters home saying how thankful they were for that one day of peace. We need to be a community that is always thankful for the gifts we receive and the eternal peace God offers us.
The last thing we do is easily missed. The word “mass” comes from the last words the priest traditionally said in Latin: “Missa est.” “Missa” is related to “missile” and “mission,” and it means “sending out.” We need to go out of these church doors changed and ready for action. The Christian life does not end in these four walls. We need to be a community oriented to action, a missional community, sent out to work for everything we learn in the Mass: for repentance and criticism of the powers that be, for listening to the other deeply, for making peace among enemies, for giving ourselves in service of the poor, for inviting the outcast into our friendship. Faith without action is dead faith.
So now, we remember the War Dead - but more importantly, we are re-membered with them, united as one humanity, undivided by nation, by politics, even by death, in the one self-giving Body of Christ, the Church of the living and the dead won by his precious blood.