Archive for the ‘Life Today’ Category

Earlier today I preached at the beautiful and famous church of St Thomas, 5th Avenue, New York. It was a real privilege to do so and encouraging to receive many kind comments afterwards. I don’t think I have tried to preach happiness in Lenten sermon before, but the message was well received and several commented on how helpful it was to make a connection with Buddhist teaching. That paragraph (about ‘now’) follows as part of this introduction. My own view is that the instability section is also rather important too so I am highlighting that as well.

The ‘Now’ Paragraph

One of the reasons Buddhism is proving to be so attractive to western people today is its calm and peaceful acceptance of life in the present moment. Practices of mindfulness, which have proved to be so healing and life-enhancing to many, are derived from precisely this insight and conviction. But it isn’t just a Buddhist idea. What that tradition has called the ‘eternal now’ our own Christian tradition calls ‘The Sacrament of the Present Moment’. The past and the future are important – but you only ever get one chance to inhabit each present moment and discover its sacramental quality; its particular gift and grace.

The Insatiability Bit

An opinion piece in the Financial Times recently (‘The holy grail of just having enough’, by Janan Ganesh) explored the puzzle that while there is a correlation between happiness and wealth, that correlation stops once people become reasonably well off. If we think about this a bit it makes sense to us, and maybe we know people for whom excessive wealth is a burden. What’s odd is that this reality doesn’t stop some wealthy people doing all they can to become more and more wealthy.

This is an example of the spiritual sickness of insatiability – the inability to know when enough is enough; the desire to have more when you already have plenty. It’s a common malaise. We are so easily addicted to more: more food, more drink, more money, more treats, more gadgets at home, and all of us would like more time – more hours in the day, more days of the week, more years in our life. (A man aged eighty four was asked by acheeky boy, ‘but who wants to be eighty four?’ The old man paused and answered, ‘someone who’s eighty three’.)

Too many of us, perhaps all of us, are addicted to more. It would be too much to say that the word ‘more’ is the devil’s word, but it is certainly not Paul’s word from prison – why? – because he was living with a sense of the surpassing value of one thing. Knowing Christ Jesus as Lord was for him the pearl of great price. It was his spiritual treasure and it put all other ‘treasure’ in the shade, and delivered him deep joy and gladness.

The Sermon in Full 

The Readings: Philippians 3. 4b-14 and John 12.1-8.

There is something especially powerful about Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He wrote it from prison and yet it is full of joy and it brims over with happiness. This was not because prison life was soft in those days, but because happiness for Paul came from within. A changed man after his encounter with Christ, Paul no longer thought that happiness, fulfillment or peace of mind came as a result for what he did or achieved or earned. He knew that it came from within; that it was a gift of grace.

I wonder whether you have a feel for the improbable happiness to which Paul in prison is such an eloquent witness. And whether you do or not, I wonder whether you regard it as a spiritual matter – a subject fit for the pulpit? A subject fit for Lent?

It was there in the Psalm: (Ps 126 v1-2)

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
then were we like those who dream.

Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy.

There is a tinge of sadness about these verses, though, because they are not about happiness now but happiness then. Those bygone happy days now seem like a dream world, so the Psalmist confesses, and yet the memory is real: back in the day we were overflowing with laughter and joyful exuberance.

Our Eucharistic faith is in good part expressed in remembrance; but just as we remember the self-giving of Christ in order to make it present today, so we should remember the grace of God in order to bring joy into our hearts, and thence into our world, today.

In fact I’d suggest that this is a spiritual duty, though not always an easy one. Remembrance of happiness past can sometimes make us miserable about the disappointments or inconveniences of the present day. But nostalgia isn’t a virtue; nostalgia isn’t a strength. Certainly there are moments when we should grieve the passing of the past, but there are far more occasions when we should delight in the present-ness of the present.

One of the reasons Buddhism is proving to be so attractive to western people today is its calm and peaceful acceptance of life in the present moment. Practices of mindfulness, which have proved to be so healing and life-enhancing to many, are derived from precisely this insight and conviction. But it isn’t just a Buddhist idea. What that tradition has called the ‘eternal now’ our own Christian tradition calls ‘The Sacrament of the Present Moment’. The past and the future are important – but you only ever get one chance to inhabit each present moment and discover its sacramental quality; its particular gift and grace.

Let us return for a moment to Paul’s letter to the Philippians and note that the happiness that animates this letter is more than a jolly feeling. Paul is delightedly aware of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as his Lord. It’s this that puts everything else in perspective. Beside it, everything else is ‘rubbish’. He’s overstating things here, but I imagine him waving his arms dramatically as he makes the point, and perhaps smiling too. ‘Come on’, he might have written, ‘true faith puts a smile on your face because it clarifies how very little we have to be anxious about.’ And happiness is often the absence of anxiety.

An opinion piece in the Financial Times recently explored the puzzle that while there is a correlation between happiness and wealth, that correlation stops once people become reasonably well off. If we think about this a bit it makes sense to us, and maybe we know people for whom excessive wealth is a burden. What’s odd is that this reality doesn’t stop some wealthy people doing all they can to become more and more wealthy.

This is an example of the spiritual sickness of insatiability – the inability to know when enough is enough; the desire to have more when you already have plenty. It’s a common malaise. We are so easily addicted to more: more food, more drink, more money, more treats, more gadgets at home, and all of us would like more time – more hours in the day, more days of the week, more years in our life. (A man aged eighty four was asked by acheeky boy, ‘but who wants to be eighty four?’ The old man paused and answered, ‘someone who’s eighty three’.)

Too many of us, perhaps all of us, are addicted to more. It would be too much to say that the word ‘more’ is the devil’s word, but it is certainly not Paul’s word from prison – why? – because he was living with a sense of the surpassing value of one thing. Knowing Christ Jesus as Lord was for him the pearl of great price. It was his spiritual treasure and it put all other ‘treasure’ in the shade, and delivered him deep joy and gladness.

Mary – the sister of Martha and Lazarus – was in a similar zone, so to speak, when she cracked open that alabaster jar full of spikenard, and lavishly anointed Jesus with it. This essential oil is derived from Himalayan plants and traditionally has culinary, health-giving and sacred uses. Maybe the family had hidden the pot away, saving it for a special occasion – like that bottle of vintage champagne that’s been in your fridge for ages. It would have cost a bomb, and she blew it all in one go.

It’s so sad that Judas didn’t share the joy. It certainly was an outrageous thing to do, but it was too late to protest. That oil wasn’t going back in its shattered bottle. But this was too much for the treasurer. For Judas, it was the beginning of the end.

We remember them both, and most of us would prefer to be remembered as a Mary than as a Judas.

But we won’t be unless we are prepared to let happiness and joy emerge from the heart of our being and the heart of our faith; faith in the undeserved and un-earnable grace of God, and joy in the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

 

 

 

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The recent British Social Attitudes Survey shows that more people now regard themselves as having no religion than being Christian.  The Guardian today offered a leading article on the subject saying, in essence, that the church has blown it.  Meanwhile an opinion piece has appeared on The Daily Telegraph’s website saying that it’s not too late, we just need more evangelism – understood as advertising the good news.

Let me offer another angle.

The Guardian is right to say that there are many good and liberal minded people who find the way in which the church has failed to move with the times in terms of gender equality and the acceptance of diversity in the area of sexuality to be deeply off-putting. It’s wrong to say that this is primarily a problem for the church’s reputation with the young. There are plenty of silver sceptics out there when it comes to religion.  Religion  – even ‘no religion’ – is not a subject to be ageist about.

The Telegraph is right to say that the church needs to wake up, but wrong to say that evangelism, based on the model of advertising, is the answer.  That could conceivably be the right answer if the church had a product. But it doesn’t. And it doesn’t have a product because God is not a thing. Theologians have been saying this for a very long time, and Rupert Shortt has summarised the argument and pointed out many of its implications admirably in his recent book, God is No Thing.

These are definitely difficult days for religion.  But the difficulty is not the one anticipated by just about everyone since the late ninetieth century. Namely that the tide of religion would flow out, and the tide of a new secular era would flood in. On the contrary, what has happened is that religion has had an extraordinary if very strange and skewed resurgence. So that today those who self-identify as religious are more or less forced to place themselves within a frame on which the horizontal boundaries are created by new atheism and the vertical ones by radical fundamentalism.

What new atheism and radical fundamentalism have in common is a good deal of historical amnesia, not to say selective memory. And the problem is that once you accept that this is the framework in which you must find yourself as a religious person, you are caught in the same, unforgiving trap. This is cruelly sad, as the real frame of reference for ‘religion’ has been created by centuries of subtle theological reflection, sacred ritual, charitable action, poetry, art and architecture –  all of which seek to help us grow wiser about our relationship with the transcendent, with each other and with ourselves.

But we have all but jettisoned any respect for this huge map of cultural treasure and replaced it by a fascinated focus on a very noisy and ill-tempered squabble.

 

It is this that makes the ‘no religion’ option such an attractive one, not only on a questionnaire, but also when thinking about how to describe one’s personal quest for meaning and purpose. It also lies behind the rise and rise in the number of people who self-identify as ‘spiritual but not religious’.

I wish all the SBNR folk well, but I am sorry if they exclude themselves from the kind of connections with religious practice that seem to me to be so integral to being serious about spirituality. That crucially includes commitments that are deeper than feelings, both when it comes to the company one keeps, and the time for which one adheres to practices which may, in the short or medium term, seem unrewarding or pointless. Indeed, true religion offers its rewards slowly, silently, socially, and often uncomfortably.

This is one reason why evangelism in the form of advertising is so definitley not the answer. Certainly the author of the Telegraph article refers to the importance of significant times of revival, but I don’t believe that the church ever moved from decline into growth by focusing on telling people things.  The first priority of the Wesleys was not ‘church growth’, for instance, but holiness. Now that’s not a word that works very well today, but it’s an important part of the mix – especially if you recognise that today the word ‘holiness’ is better rendered ‘spirituality’.

But whether you call our ineffable struggle with transcendent mystery ‘holiness’ or ‘spirituality’ the word still needs to be qualified. Let me suggest ‘ethical’ or, if that is too priggish, ‘engaged’ as possible adjectives. Or maybe we could have both.

It is only when religions  are truly understood by their practitioners, and those who observe them, as focused on engaged and ethical spirituality that they will have either credibility or integrity. If that tide turns, and I suspect it is already turning, the ‘no religion’ box will begin to lose its attraction. Until then more and more people will put their cross in the ‘no religion’ box, not really knowing what they do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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For three years I have been working on a book about sin, The Dark Side of the Soul. When I started on the project I had no idea just how much I would learn in the process, or just how intellectually, emotionally and spiritually engaging it would be. But now the job is done and I have a copy of the book with its stunning cover in front of me.

It’s an obvious and easy time for a moment of reverie – all that reading and thinking and writing and rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting … (sigh), and editing and correcting. All that work and worry is now safely sealed between those covers.

So I look at my book I ask myself  ‘Why did I write it?’ and, ‘What does it say?’

Why did I write it?

People today tend to think of ‘sin’ either as an excuse for a laugh, or as an excuse for a guilt-trip. Yet the truth is that the idea is not only really interesting, it’s ethically and spiritually important.

To say that human beings are sinful is a genuine, helpful and liberating contribution for Christianity to make to the world today. But it’s a hugely difficult idea to put across because people are so defensive about the suggestion and so dismissive of the language.

One of the slippery things about sin is that it hides under the radar of self-awareness. So a book about sin has to be a bit tricky too. As I say at one point, the idea is to shine a light into the dark side of the soul to give the demons a bit of a fright. Clearly this book isn’t a textbook, thesis or monograph! It’s serious about its subject, but not super-serious.

The last chapter is called ‘Demon Wrestling: A Practical Guide’. Maybe I should have called it ‘demon frightening for beginners.’ One reason for writing the book was to name and startle a few demons. These cheeky monkeys strut around the place full of vanity and pride, pretending that they do no harm, and how easily we let them deceive us.

Not that I really believe in demons. But the idea of demons does point to something about the experience of sin. We often think of it as coming at us from outside. The truth, however, is that what we think of as ‘outside’ us is probably just a bit of the inside that we are not very aware of – the dark side of the soul.

What does it say?

Well, yes it says that we are all sinners. I go along with the original sin idea, and I don’t think that there’s much point in thinking about how bad very nasty people are. In fact my chapter on ‘malicious tendencies’ is one of the shortest. The truth, I argue, is that more trouble is created, more harm done, and more people get hurt when no one is intending it and everyone believes him or herself to be acting in a well intentioned, justified or even benevolent way. I don’t say anywhere in the book that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But that’s just because I try to avoid cliches. The point is a good one. Hardly anyone sets out to be horrible. Even trolls think that their actions are justified or helpful. Yet its often when we are high minded that we are at our worst – and vice versa.

One of the things I do in the book is to mash up the seven deadly sins and to come up with a contemporary list of deadlies or vices. My list runs to 23 which I group together in 6 clusters. What all these things have in common is that they are attitudes, habits or actions that, pleasurable or otherwise positive as they may seem, ultimately hurt the person who practices them as well as others.

I don’t think that there is a short list of capital sins from which all the others flow. My image of how sins works is more like a net or web of tiny, almost invisible, filaments. No one filament is that important or that powerful, but between them they ensnare and trap us in such a way that our wriggling and struggling only makes matters worse.

The things I’m most interested in are apparently blameless practices, or even virtues, that go sour on us.  For instance, I’m fascinated by our obsession with the shortness of time these days, and while I think that some time management ideas are really smart, I still see expert time managers getting busier and busier. Indeed, despite my best efforts it’s constantly happening to me.

Busyness is one of my deadlies. It’s okay to be busy – sometimes – but as a way of life it’s bad.  And I add ‘certainty’ and ‘control’ to my list of deadlies too. We tend to believe that if we were only more certain, or if we only had more control, the world would be better place. This is sinful fantasy. The truth is that many things are unknown and mysterious and when we are dealing with anything other than the most crude and basic processes it’s not control but guidance, and companionship, and facilitating the best efforts of others that will bring us closest to happiness, peace and flourishing.

Honestly I don’t think we will get to anything like peace, justice and flourishing without dealing with sin, especially the sin that hides itself in virtue. That’s why I wrote The Dark Side of the Soul.

 

 

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Here are six ideas for Lent for anyone who feels too busy, or rushed, or hassled or stressed out by the pressure of things to do.

Don’t think ‘rush’, think ‘slow’.

Chill, take your time. Things have a habit of working themselves out unless your are in the middle of a full-blown crisis. If you are then you had better do what it takes to get the crisis sorted out and your life calmed down.  Life is not a crisis, it’s an opportunity.

Don’t think ‘busy’, think ‘involved’.

‘Busy’ is one of the more pernicious four-letter words in our vocabulary. Often, it’s a boast disguised as a complaint.  There are plenty of people who would love to have more to do, to feel more valued, and to be more fully involved. If you are too busy it may mean that you haven’t bothered to involve others.

Don’t think ‘me time’, think ‘soul time’.

It’s easy to persuade people to try to have more ‘me-anything’ these days. However, the point about Lent is not to think about your ego-needs but to make time for your soul-needs. Soul time can take many forms – but it’s never ‘all about me’.

Don’t think ‘give up’, think ‘appreciate’.

If we take time to savour and enjoy those petty vices that so often occupy our consciences and dominate our spirituality their power over us may begin to wane a bit and we might turn our attention to higher things. If you love chocolate don’t give it up this year but become a discerning and appreciative chocolate connoisseur – and see what comes of that.

Don’t think ‘work-life balance’, think ‘wholesome living’.

Of course your life can start to go wrong if your work is too important to you, or too all-consuming, or if it’s relentlessly stressful.  But this can be true of any activity – not just work. Life isn’t something that starts when work stops.

Don’t think ‘Lent is long’, think ‘Lent is short’.

Because it is. Just as life is short. Just as every day is short. Don’t miss out on life or Lent by rushing around as a lonely busybody, feeling guilty about petty things and starving your soul of the time it needs to breath.

Have a time wise Lent.

For more ideas about how to give up busyness check out this website Give up busyness for Lent

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The list of cruel things that were done to little Daniel Pelka is a savage scar on our collective self-image today.  There is no argument about this: what happened to him was so far beyond the pale that outraged horror is the only acceptable reaction.

And yet, as everyone says who tries to be serious about this, it has happened before and it will happen again.

I have little to add to the debate about how we might stop it happening again: more and assiduous vigilance all round and greater confidence in acting on our worst fears seem to me to be necessary. How to make this happen is a question both for relevant professionals and ordinary citizens. Yes, for everyone, not just ‘them’. If neighbourhoods are populated with good neighbours such excesses must surely be less likely.

Cruelty

The tragedy has also prompted me to think about cruelty.  It’s something we don’t think about enough, and when we do we often think around it, not about it. Judith Shaklar makes this point in her book ‘Ordinary Vices’.

That book begins with a chapter entitled ‘Putting Cruelty First’, which, she says, many liberal and humane people would do if asked to rank the worst vices. It is certainly number one on her list. Number two is hypocrisy.

Shalklar makes the pont – which I found quite chilling – that in Christian thinking cruelty is not named as a vice. It is not even on the traditional list of ‘deadly sins’, never mind at the top of the list. No, at the top of that list comes ‘pride’. And, as she points out, Christian depictions of hell are replete with images and descriptions of cruelty. Her implication is that the images suggest there are circumstances which justify physical cruelty.

Shaklar argues that if we want to take cruelty seriously we have to step aside from the great traditions of thought, including all faiths, for they have not been sufficiently against cruelty.

I find this very challenging, finding no mandate for being cruel in my own faith.

However, there is evidence enough that Christian people can be cruel.  They can abuse their power, they can seek their own pleasure at the expense of others, they can willfully harm and deliberately humiliate, they can take the desire to control others to extremes.

Moral Cruelty

Shaklar is acute about the evil of what she calls ‘moral cruelty’ as opposed to the physical sort. She describes it as, ‘deliberate and persistent humiliation, so that the victim can eventually trust neither himself nor anyone else’. This takes many forms.  It suggests that a culture high on cruelty will be low on trust. I wonder: can we connect the low levels of trust that are part of our culture today to an ongoing streak of cruelty and ridicule in public and private life.

When we think of the evil of cruelty today we should of course let our hearts be broken by the thought of innocent bodily suffering of an emaciated, imprisoned child forced to eat salt, bruised and burnt and eventually beaten to death. We should imagine his tears, his despair, his loneliness, his fear, and the collapse of all human hope and joy that he must have experienced. We should do this not to be morbid or to gee ourselves into vigilante anger, but so that we can have a clear sense of the evil of evil.

But what we cannot do is allow ourselves the luxury of saying to ourselves, ‘There, now we know what cruelty is. It’s what those wicked people did to that poor child.’ It is of course that, but cruelty is far more common than that outrage. And if we are to live well we must seek to be vigilant regarding cruelty wherever we see it and however we ourselves perpetrate it, and with whatever degree of subtlety. Much cruelty has some sort of smile on its face.

Cruelty is evil. But it is also more common than we usually recognise. There is much to lament this day. And it includes the common cruelty we often take for granted, as well as the extreme sort which so rightly outrages us.

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I am always foxed by Father’s Day. I don’t know where it came from or when its going to be.  It wasn’t around when I was growing up so I never honoured my Father with a homemade card or posy of wild flowers.

People have told me that it is an American thing, invented to support the card and gift industry. But I can see more to it than that, and suspect it to be a ‘Dadist’ response to Mother’s Day.

I mean ‘Dadist in positive way – like ‘feminist’, not like ‘racist’.  I am a very positive Dadist and am delighted to see the way in which men are being liberated into richer and more integrated parental roles as time goes by.

Which sounds a bit worthy and pompous, so let’s balance it out by looking at Father’s Day cards. Correct me if I’m wrong but have I not observed a tendency towards irreverent jokiness in Father’s Day card’s which is utterly absent from the Mother’s Day range? Card’s for Dad can spoon on the irony where Mother’s Day cards ladle in the slush.

I mean, whoever would send their Mum a card which says, ‘You Are One of My Favourite Parents’ or even ‘Dad, ignore what Mum says, I think you’re alright’, spelt out in the fridge magnet alphabet?

Anyway, here are my questions. I am genuinely puzzled by Father’s Day and its attendant rituals and values, and whether or not it helps the Dadist cause.

    1. Who invented Father’s Day and why?
    2. Do Father’s Day cards really tend to be more jokey than Mother’s Day cards?
    3. Is it Dad’s role to help a child develop a sense of irony as they grow up? (I mean someone has to stop us taking ourselves too seriously)
    4. What does any of this mean for the million UK kids growing up today in fatherless homes?

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