Because I say so

“Because I say so” is the despairing last answer of every parent to the repeated question “why?”

Why? Is a question with a progression that can never be properly answered. “Why does the sun shine?” could be given a scientific answer to do with nuclear fusion and light rays and maybe the eye’s ability to perceive it but is that really an answer to why? Behind it there is always another why? And behind all the why’s there is the ultimate question “why is there something and not nothing?”

Why do people drop rubbish? Lately quite a lot of people have been wondering why local beauty spots have to be ruined by people leaving litter. Sadly, it seems that as each level of lockdown is lifted people flood the great outdoors leaving behind them piles of rubbish.

Why? Some people blame the lack of the old fashioned parkie; others blame the parents.

Perhaps we should look at it the other way round: why not? They are going home. Why should they carry something back or even put it in a bin? The chance of a fine or punishment is tiny. The consequences for them of leaving litter are small if they are not planning to return anytime soon. So why not? Appeals to think of the common good or the environment or future generations fall on the deaf ears of those who believe that we should eat, drink and litter because tomorrow we die.

Maundy Thursday is called Maundy from the Latin mandatum: the new commandment that Jesus gives his disciples to love one another. Mandatum means “given”. In other words we love one another because that is what Jesus commands us to do. We love the poor not because the poor are good but because God is good. And we love each other because Jesus tells us to.

And those who heard the voice of Jesus know that it is the same voice that gave the commandments to Moses and the same voice that said let there be light and created everything out of nothing. All these are “givens”.

As I get older the more I appreciate the gift of life which has been given to me: and I also consider that life is perhaps simpler than I used to think.

All that we have been given by God is a gift for us to treasure and use wisely: above all the gift of his son, Jesus Christ who died that we might share in his Risen life. Why? Because God loves the world.

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You just lost The Game

Warning: while reading this article do not think about the white bear.

One of the joys that some people have rediscovered during lockdown is free-time. That has to be a good thing but there is also an old saying that the devil makes work for idle hands. By being restricted from a lot of activities, most people would say that our mental health has generally declined.

In Luke 11:24-8 Jesus tells of a man who suffered from an unclean spirit. The spirit leaves him and then wanders round in the desert until it decides return to find the man like a refurbished house: in fact, it’s so nice he decides to invite all his demon friends around (the forces of evil are no respecters of lockdown regulations) and the man finds himself in a worse position that before.

We may not use the language of unclean spirits, possession or even evil but there is a human psychological truth here: what we tell ourselves at all cost to avoid, we can’t help but return to. In 1987 David Wengner identified this as “ironic process theory”; trying to deliberately suppress certain thoughts makes them more likely to surface. For example – you may well have been wondering about that warning not to think about the white bear. Which means you have thought of the white bear. And you have lost the Game too. Because when you think about the Game and certainly when you talk about the Game you have lost the Game. Simple? There are actually three rules to the Game (from http://losethegame.com/)

Everyone knows that trying to change the way we behave or think is difficult. It might be that you are simply afflicted with negative thoughts about yourself and others. Instead of trying to tell yourself not to do that, try to think affirming or positive thoughts Instead of trying to just give up bad habits or addictions; replace them with a good habit.

Half way through Lent might seem an odd time to pass on a tip on how to resist temptation. But you can make a new start at breaking old habits any time and not just at Lent and New Year

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In a hurry? Read this short introduction to the shortest Gospel

Mark is in a hurry to tell his story: his is the shortest of what we call the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). We call them that because they can be viewed alongside each other – John’s Gospel stands slightly apart.

Mark’s Gospel, unlike Matthew and Luke begins not with Jesus’s birth but with His baptism; it’s original ending seems different from the other Gospels. Have we lost the beginning and the end somewhere?

Mark’s Gospel these days is considered by most scholars to be the first written Gospel: but there are problems with this theory which is called the Synoptic problem. Whatever the scholars may say, here we have an exciting (the word “immediately” is used repeatedly) story of Jesus the Messiah. But His disciples take some time to understand this, from their first calling by the Sea of Galilee to Peter’s moment of understanding at Caesarea Philippi. The journey takes them from the lowest point on the Earth’s surface by the Sea of Galilee to the heights of Caesarea Philippi: but then the question becomes – what kind of Messiah is Jesus?

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The Bishop and the Plague

20 August, 573 was a date of great celebration for the people and church of Tour in France. A great celebration, that is, for everyone except one man. His name was Gregory, he was thirty four years old and the reason that he wasn’t celebrating was the same reason that everyone else was: he had just been consecrated Bishop of Tours, much against his wishes, after the representatives of the people overtook him at the court of King Sigebert of Austrasia and pressed him to take the post. Partly it was his genuine Christian humility (one of the traits which recommended him to the people of Tours) but partly I suspect because being a bishop in those days was a hazardous matter.

Tours lay on borderlands. Gregory lived with one foot in the dying world of the Roman Empire and the other in the new culture of early medieval Europe. He also lived on the border between the Frankish culture of the Merovingians to the north and the Roman culture of the south of Gaul. He had to navigate the difficult and often violent politics of his time. And Gregory of Tours also faced the other danger of his time: bubonic plague.

Gregory drew his strength from his firm faith in Christ and in the communion of saints. He was particularly devoted to Martin of Tours, a predecessor of his to whose prayers he credited his recovery from a serious illness (possibly the plague)

In times of danger, fear and change I believe, we, like Gregory, can draw strength and courage from the lives of those who have gone before us with the sign of faith

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The Sunday Mail News Team Zoom Meeting

“Right, I’ve had a request from some friends.

Al, I mean Boris, that’s what YOU call him, of course, well he’s been having a tough week. And there are just so many old pictures of him looking tired (probably hung over actually) that his friends can dig up to generate sympathy. Besides which, “leave him alone, he’s doing the best he can” is what you shout at your kid’s footie match, not really a good look for our Prime Minister, is it?

So we need some dirt on Keir Starmer. And proper stuff, not the sort of thing that we have to delete from Twitter after a few hours.

Come on now – Harry, Ian, what have you got for us? You’ve been sat on his doorstep, trawling through his rubbish for months: I want something as big as the Telegraph’s “bonking prof” story last weekend.

He owns some land?

I was hoping for, I don’t know, extramarital affair, corruption something a bit bigger but go on, what’s this land worth? Where is it? Does he grow drugs on it?

He keeps a donkey on it?

But the land IS worth ten million pounds? Great, we have a story. Go with “Man of the People” Sir Keir Starmer is secretly a millionaire line. I know millionaires aren’t on your “Who we are hating this week” list but it’s the best we’ve got.

Now get off Zoom, and give me 500 words on tomorrow’s lead – Do YOU know a cowardly teacher? Photos of real teachers’ gardens show what they’ve REALLY been doing over the last months! Free white feather in today’s Daily Mail.”

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Stay Alert! (for around 2000 years)

 “Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8 New Living Translation) So the writer of the First Epistle of Peter warns his readers. There has been considerable merriment on social media that our government in England is now telling us to stay alert to an invisible virus. Do we hide behind a bush if we see it coming? Nobody as far as I am aware has noticed that the Prime Minister told us to stay alert against a “devilish” virus. Has he or anyone in this government been reading their Bibles?

For Christians the injunction to stay alert has two related meanings; to be waiting and watchful for the Second Coming of Christ in his glory and to resist the “glamour of evil” as a previous generation of Catholics were asked. This warning is embedded in the baptism liturgy as the candidate is asked “Do you renounce the world the flesh and the devil?” and also points us back to the story of the ten bridesmaids awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom in Matthew 25 as well as Jesus’ other warning to his followers to stay awake and watch and wait.

The problem is that evil comes in many forms, not easily recognised and definitely not conveniently and obviously labelled. Stay alert and resist evil has had a chequered history over the Christian millenia. I’m currently re-reading the Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco with its graphic descriptions of the work of the early Inquisition. It would be hard to argue that no evil has ever been done by Christians. If Christians around the world have found it difficult to discern evil for two millenia it is not perhaps suprising that many in England are now confused by what staying alert may mean for us during the next weeks.

 

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Can’t believe what’s going on? Angry? Anxious? Here may be a reason…

Homer Simpson is told that he has one day to live: Doctor Hibbert tells him that he will go through five stages:

denial “I’m not dying”,dr-hibbert-and-homer

anger “Why you little..!”,

fear “What’s after fear, what’s after fear?”

bargaining “I could make it worth your while”

and acceptance “well we all gotta go sometime”.

These are the classic “stages” of grief identified by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her classic 1969 book On Death and Dying. The book is actually about her observations of the terminally ill patients she was dealing with but the 5 stages became rapidly attached to work on those who had suffered bereavement. Dr Kübler-Ross later regretted the language of “stages” as it implied that everyone would go through all the stages in the same order – though obviously not quite so fast as Homer (“Mr Simpson your progress astounds me”). (You can watch the whole clip here)

In fact a bereavement can lead to many mixed emotions even years after the original loss: before one of the first funerals I ever took over twenty years ago a lady described her emotions as being like a rollercoaster: up one minute and down the next. I remembered this as I saw a diagram that showed the stages of grief as being what looks like an unfun rollercoaster.

Do you think some of the feelings that we are having during this lockdown are actually a form of bereavement? We’ve lost some of our freedoms, perhaps our job, our income, the simple pleasures we might have enjoyed, like going to a concert or a football match. All of those things are gone for the moment and may never be the same again. So perhaps we are all grieving and that grief comes out in denial “well I’m young and fit, it won’t be a problem even if I do get it”, anger “it’s all the fault of the government (ours or the Chinese)”  or bargaining “I wish I had their job”.

That final stage is acceptance: but acceptance doesn’t just mean shrugging our shoulders and saying “we all gotta go sometime”. It means being aware that we might be angry with other people because of our loss and maybe taking a moment to consider how we speak to people or post on social media. It means recognising that although some people may be suffering a great deal more, including the loss of loved ones, we are all going through a time of loss. We will continue to experience all those negative feelings but if we can identify where they come from hopefully we can be part of a healing process for ourselves and others.

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Confused by the Bible? Join the club. My take on 1 Corinthians 15:29

Children often ask me, you’re a vicar – have you read the whole Bible? Hand on heart – I can’t say that I definitely have although I probably have. I’ve not read it, all the way through, starting from Genesis and finishing in Revelation, as I know some people have.

However as part of my daily prayers I follow a lectionary, which is a set reading for every day of the year. It makes sure that I read all the Bible and not just my favourite bits. Every now and then it throws up something like this: “What do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf” (1 Cor. 15:29)?

Now I know that this is a very important passage for the Church of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons: it’s why they have the world’s largest genealogical collection. They continue what they believe was the church in Corinth’s practice. Their founder, Joseph Smith instituted the practice in 1840 . Today, these baptisms are also performed as an act of love for unrelated persons selected from their vast archives.

Paul doesn’t condemn whatever the Corinthians were doing. If baptism for the dead actually perverted the gospel, Paul would have denounced it: he never pulls his punches.

I’m not convinced that what the Mormons do is what the church in Corinth was doing: but there is a more fundamental point.

The first thing to do when trying to work out what a puzzling passage of the Bible means is to look at the context. The whole of this chapter is about the resurrection of the dead: Christ’s and ours. It’s also about how faith in the resurrection changes our lives: what follows is a list of Paul’s sufferings for the sake of the Gospel. If Christ isn’t raised from the dead, Paul says, all of this would be useless. It isn’t because Christ is raised.

The second thing we can do is get help: whatever the passage people with a lot more brains will have gone over it before. You don’t need to learn Greek, the language which Paul wrote in, because others have. The phrase “on behalf of” translates the Greek word “hyper” which can mean “for”. It can also mean “above” (it’s where we get words like hyperactive or hypermarket) Martin Luther interepreted it in this way, considering that the people Paul was talking about were being baptised “above” the dead in graveyards.

Tertullian in the early second century, clearly had no idea what “baptism for (or above) the dead” actually meant. If he didn’t then it’s unlikely that we can discover it now. He wrote that Paul’s only aim in referring to the practice of baptism for the dead, “whatever it may have been”, was “that he might all the more firmly insist upon the resurrection of the body, in proportion as they who were vainly baptized for the dead resorted to the practice from their belief of such a resurrection.” In other words again, it is the context that gives us the meaning: baptism of the dead is not what’s important. Jesus’ resurrection and the Christian hope that we will share in it is.

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Don’t judge a book case

I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the last weeks regretting jokes about media studies students : given that some rudimentary knowledge of video editing might have come in useful in lockdown. I’m grenterpriseateful to those who have pointed out, directly or indirectly the amateurishness of my attempts to continue some sort of ministry without personal contact. The lighting, the sound, the framing it’s all a bit rubbish. It’s not suprising; framing was something I thought the Sweeney did to criminals Back In the Day.

And speaking of jokes from Back In the Day, how I used to laugh with my vicar friends about how if one of us was feeling really antisocial we could apply for the job of The Ceefax Vicar (I think that really was a Thing, You Know When) . We’re all Ceefax Vicars now: so what do we have to worry about?

Well thanks to the Internet the things in the background have taken on a whole new importance. Do we celebrate the first British Cabinet meeting by Zoom by having a flag in the background? Does our toddler burst in followed by the wife, commando crawling on the floor? (I was personally disappointed that his next video interview didn’t feature this) Or do we have a bookshelf? Empty? (Labour’s Angela Rayner criticised for that) Or full? (various people, including some clergy criticised) Because if you have an empty bookshelf then, according to some of Twitter, you must be thick. And if you have a full bookshelf then you can’t be “real” or a “man of the people”.

Remember when you got told “don’t judge a book by the cover”, by your Mum? She was absolutely right. If we have to judge people then we should do so by what they say and do, not what’s in the background and I’m sorry for the times I’ve fallen into that trap.

My bookshelf is in the background on my laptop camera view because a few years I moved my desk to stop myself staring out of the window. It says nothing except it’s a place to put my books and it’s not very tidy. Now before we get too much further into Through The Keyhole country I’m off to fix the background on my next Zoom meeting to something exciting…

 

 

 

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War of the Worlds – a lockdown classic

“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own…”

No one would until one, man H G Wells, imagined it in his War of the Worlds (first published in hardback 1898).

Here’s why it is a lockdown favourite of mine and why you should read or reread it now.

Every generation has it’s own War of the Worlds – although I have yet to watch the latest BBC adaptation (still available on iplayer). The War of the Worlds (1953 film) reimagined the Martian invasion for 1950s Cold War America. More recently Steven Speilberg again transposed it to modern America, bringing out it themes of personal survival against the odds in a post 9-11 world in his 2005 movie, loosely based on the book. In perhaps the most bizarre tribute to HG Well’s masterpiece a DVD called Visions of Mars, made by the Planetary Society,  containing the original story as well as an audio recording of the famous Orson Welles radio braodcast was landed on Mars itself by the Phoenix lander in 2008.

Wells’ Martians bring the mighty British Empire to its knees when it is at it’s strongest. The implication is that if the Martians can beat the British Empire the human race has had it. And from the perspective of the end of the nineteenth century you could say Wells had a point. The British Empire was at it’s strongest militarily. And so the battle for the planet is fought, perhaps incongruously to a modern reader, over the English Home Counties. However this kind of imaginary battle was not unknown to readers of the time: a whole genre of invasion fiction was spawned by The Battle for Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer published in 1871. By the time war really did break out in 1914 over 400 stories and books had been published with invasions usually from France and then increasingly from Germany.

When I was younger, I was engrossed in the author’s realistic descriptions of the rapid disintegration of society. The Martian attack with their superior technology and weapons echoed the colonialists defeat of less developed human nations around the world. It served for its original British Edwardian readers both as a salutory reminder of what it was to be on the wrong end of a superior military-industrial complex but also of the fragility of their superiority. Because in the end it is not the might of the British Army, or even the British Navy, whose defeat is described so powerfully and poignantly by Wells, that stops the Martian machines in their tracks. It is, of course, (spoiler alert) germs.

Now as I read it, it means something different to me.  I walked past a building site yesterday, now silent and deserted. Seeing the the abandoned machines in the silence reminded me of Well’s London after the Martian attack: the Martians have been defeated by “the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth”.img_20200207_073738193

And I thought, maybe we are the Martians now.

 

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