We're not long back from five great days in Dorset, based at Lyme Regis. I can recommend the Ghost Tour of that town, led by Mr Lovejoy (pictured). A great antidote to the snares of wifi, ipads and smart phones. He entertained us with ghoulish accounts of ghostly goings on. It was fun.
I had always wanted to visit Lulworth Cove, and we did, on a perfect day. Murphy loved it.
I have been thinking lately of Alan Ecclestone's pioneering 'Church Meetings' in his Darnall parish and the business of vertical and horizontal relationships in church life.... (follow 'Read More')
Observed yesterday on a visit to see someone at St Thomas' Hospital, a sign pointing to the 'Dreadnought Dental Centre'. Inspirationally named.
The Ward I visited offered a panoramic view across the Thames and down on to the Houses of Parliament. A party was in full swing on the terrace. It had been the State Opening earlier in the day, causing severe disruption to travel and traffic. Westminster Bridge was still visibly choked with traffic moving at a gnat's crawl, hours after the event. I pondered the impact on countless people and the environment: missed appointments, longer journeys, extra exhaust fumes messing up the air we breath. All for an event in which a person who by lottery of birth reads a text not of her drafting from a government not really of our electing.
I stumbled across this National Public Radio programme A Visitor's Guide to Bach's St Matthew Passion. It is very good. Here is the link. We are in Lent - a timely season in which to discover this remarkable work if you do not know it.
I found myself on my back, trousers and pants around my ankles, and with a woman applying KY jelly to my nether region. We had not been properly introduced. The encounter was the culmination of various tests to see what had been causing discomfort in my groin. The investigative adventures had included the GP sticking his finger up my bum (‘Oh, the indignity of it…’ I heard myself say aloud). Now, and as a last resort, I was in the ultrasound clinic of St Thomas’. A nurse (was she? They seem to have so many variations of helpmates these days – she may even have been a teaching-assistant or ‘community warden’ having taken a wrong turning on the way to work) asked me to lie on the couch and remove my trousers and pants and that ‘the doctor will be along later’. I declined. I saw no reason to lie half naked with the family jewels on display in the middle of some gloomy room awaiting a mere medic's good – and indeterminate – pleasure.
This ‘attitude’ must have been communicated, for the medic arrived with her own attitude. We both got off to a grumpy start. But she saw the humour in my reserve and scepticism about medical self-importance and I responded well to her own dry humour and we parted on good terms, with me thanking her for humanising what had been, until then, an engagement with St Thomas’ which cast me firmly in the role of a health ‘unit’ being processed by various hapless and charmless functionaries. She had redeemed the experience. I was grateful.
The thing about an epiphany* is that it always requires you to take a different route once you've had it. If it doesn't, it's not much of an epiphany. 'And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.' We speak of insights and such like rather casually, don't you think? An epiphany - a startling appearance of some truth - is far more likely to make - require of us - a change in direction.
* Epiphany. Today is the Feast of the Epiphany when the church celebrates the visit by the Wise Ones (indeterminate gender, non-specified number and not described in Matthew as Kings) to the newly born Jesus. It is taken to be how Christ is recognised by the Gentile world, by the outsiders and the marginals.
Walking along an unknown trail near Mendocino in Northern California I rejoiced in being enveloped in its Pacific fog and in being alone. I think about the human invention of ‘time’. The earth gets about its business of revolving and seeks no encouragement, no feedback, no risk analysis, no performance assessment, no under-writing, no audience, no consultant’s improvement advice, no nothing.
It is fair to say that the description 'introvert' is generally thought a negative one. But the worm is turning! To equate the term with being 'shy' is seriously mistaken. It refers to an orientation to the inner and outer worlds. Thanks to Simon for sening me this link (23 Signs You Are Secretly an Introvert). It turns out that we are really valuable to the world. Yippee! And Susan Cain's TED talk helps with the case for the defence.
I know Christian people who do not attend church because their experience has been that it is predisposed to a model they find infantilising...
In 2010 I wrote a short article on power and clericalism. I went back to it today as part of a continuing interest in why the church-as-institution strikes many as unappealing as an avenue for the adventure of faith. My thoughts keep returning to the idea that our entrenched model of being the church tends (tends) towards the infantalisation of the enquirier. Its something I touched on in the article which you can find here (follow the 'read more' link).
Discovering the writing of William Stringfellow some years ago was a memorable find. Here he is on "Career vs. Vocation"
“I had elected then [in my early student years] to pursue no career. To put it theologically, I died to the idea of career and to the whole typical array of mundane calculations, grandiose goals and appropriate schemes to reach them…. I do not say this haughtily; this was an aspect of my conversion to the gospel….
“[Later] my renunciation of ambition in favour of vocation became resolute; I suppose some would think, eccentric. When I began law studies, I consider that I had few, if any, romantic illusions about becoming a lawyer, and I most certainly did not indulge any fantasies that God had called me, by some specific instruction, to be an attorney or, for that matter, to be a member of any profession or any occupation. I had come to understand the meaning of vocation more simply and quite differently.
“I believed then, as I do now, that I am called in the Word of God … to the vocation of being human, any work, including that of any profession, can be rendered a sacrament of that vocation. On the other hand, no profession, discipline or employment, as such, is a vocation.” A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow (Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 30-31
The practice of gratitude may be one of the best ‘enhancers’ we can find. I know it runs two risks in the way such a claim is perceived: one is that it is ‘religious’; the other that it belongs to a middle-aged or elderly view of things. It may well be that the best insights of our various religions have come to see its value as an orientation and attitude; and ditto with the wise-older amongst us. So what?
If I want everything then what I do possess will always show a deficit against that target; if I see all as gift (life, senses, other people, what possessions I have, and the fact of the universe, this planet, its without-which-we-would-not-be here Sun) then the formula behind the equation becomes a positive, a credit.
When all things are viewed from this perspective, gratitude seems to spring up and change how we experience things. Certain ‘I wants’ transform into ‘I haves’, though the condition this brings about (it seems to me) is better described as ‘we haves’, since the all-dominant I appears, too, to undergo some welcome change in this marvellous alchemy.
"Humans are most likely the only species that experiences disgust, and we seem to be the only one capable of loathing its own species" William Miller in The Anatomy of Disgust quoted by Richard Beck in Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality and Mortality. What a scary observation. I mused on it with Murphy the Cocker Spaniel, and agreed it seemed plausible.
Note to self and anyone else who might be interested: it is vital (one’s own soul may depend upon it) to avoid sentimentality in Christian liturgy and worship.
The message of love in the Gospels (harsh, costly, electric, realistic and more generous that we can imagine) is distorted by this contagious, hapless condition. What forms does it take? Perhaps the most commonplace is its wish to make participants feel good. The Gospel becomes always, only and pre-eminently a consolation of a sugary kind. The examples are legion. One is so ubiquitous it is not seen: the equation of the Gospel with niceness. Christians who are not ‘nice’ like this are thought deficient even when they are loving and just. Liturgically, sentimentality finds various forms. I have observed the celebrant at the Eucharist, when presiding versus populum (facing the people), repeatedly eye-balling and scanning the faces of the people with a warm and soft expression rather like an ingratiating TV host, even when reciting the words of institution. On this theme I discovered an interesting article about priestly narcissism which points out that since the move from ad orientem to versus populum (the move from having the priest and people face east to having the priest and congregation face each other) the priest becomes, inevitably, the focus of the action and is obliged to become a ‘performer’.  This perspective seems significant and worthy of more thought yet I have never heard it taken up or discussed.
An apparently more harmless liturgical expression of this sentimentalisation of liturgy is illustrated by the postscript some clergy add to the blessing: …And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit be with you and those whom you love, now and forever. On the face of it this is good. Who could object? People like it. Those who attend only when they have to – baptisms, funerals - especially like it. It is inclusive and encouraging and human. All true, I suppose. But what is its unintentional effect? To make God a chum who likes the people we like. And what about that bastard down the road, or the registered sex offender, or the Colonel Gaddafi's of this world? I take the pronouncing of liturgical blessings seriously, and with the same intensity I recoil at those people who unctuously say Bless you! in conversation. I know, I know: I am first cousin to Victor Meldrew. Bless him! But I believe there is a serious point here. Perhaps it is that God is neither partial nor a feel-good god, one we must not trivialise.
 Messing with the Mass: The problem of priestly narcissism today. Paul Vitz & Daniel C. Vitz. Though written from a Roman Catholic perspective the insights apply elsewhere to liturgical activity. See also here in the blog A New Parson's Handbook
A thought came into my head just now, that ‘worship’ really never occurs in church, and that what is called ‘worship’ in church is more like the short-cut on a modern computer’s ‘desktop’ – a cipher, a link to something actually sitting (and happening) elsewhere. I see that this is not an entirely satisfactory view, but it is, I think, fruitful. ‘True’ worship – or maybe I should say immediate, responsive, purposeful and unselfconscious worship – occurs in and through our engagement with life, and that (let’s be honest) happens outside the church-as-building far more than inside it. Think of the numberless moments in life when we act responsibly and conscientiously and generously out of care, wonder, responsibility, delight and truth.