Catherine Mein on My Son the Awesomest My Son the Awesomest… on My Son the Awesomest Catherine Mein on Silence is not actually golden… Anonymous on Silence is not actually golden… wonderfulexchangeKim… on Silence is not actually golden…
I went to pick up my son from after-school club today. When I found him, there was one of the adult helpers, a lovely Irish lass, talking to him. His cheeks were bright red, and was obviously crying .She was saying in her gentle voice “Well I think you’re the awesomest, I really do”. Very kind, if ungrammatical.
He was as unhappy as I have ever seen him. “I’m in the dark Daddy” he said again and again, in between sobs, as he crushed his face against mine. Some of the children had built a den, and had not let him in. I heard their voices, and saw the cute face of one of his friends gleefully saying “you’re smelly, you’re garbage, get out”. Children are children, but it’s hard not to be angry when they’re saying it to your son.
“That little girl isn’t being kind Daddy” he said, “I don’t want to be her friend any more”
“Maybe she needs help being kind. So maybe she needs you to be her friend, because you’re really good at that.” I felt a bit of a traitor saying that. I wanted to say “Yes she’s a mean spiteful little thing. Thank God you’re nothing like her”. But on reflection I’m glad I didn’t.
As we walked out, he was still sobbing hard. “When I go back there,” he said, “I’m going to build a BIG den, the BIGGEST den. And I’m going to let everyone into my den, even that little girl, so no-one will have to feel as sad as I do now.”
It was then I pressed my face as hard into his as he was into mine. The Irish lassie was right. He is the awesomest.
Lest I get too soppy for words, and just to reassure you, he got out of his sadness quickly enough. About twenty minutes later he did an enormous fart and laughed so hard he was nearly sick. Like I said. The Awesomest.
This is from a few weeks ago, so apologies for the late arrival. The story of the gospel was the healing of blind Bartimaeus. The season was the distressingly commercialised one of Haloween, where people throughout the land hide in fear of children demanding sweeties.
Well as you will have all realised the season of pumpkins is with us once again. Halloween seems to be getting more American by the year, and come Wednesday, Children will roam the streets dressed as Dracula, demanding not the blood of the living, but jelly tots. I never knew vampires had a sweet tooth.
People do seem to love the idea of the supernatural. There is a sort of thrill about the supernatural. And it is a thrill that the church can well do without. I’m thinking of this not just because of Halloween but because of our Gospel. It’s such a tiny little story, so simple. Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus, Jesus says “what do you want”, Bartimaues says he would like to see, and bingo, so he does. Such a simple story, but it raises so many questions.
Can you be healed by your faith? If you are not healed, is your faith lacking? What about those friends and loved ones of ours who are disabled? But particularly for today, does God behave supernaturally? Does God break the laws of nature in order to interact with the world?
We don’t know much about Bartimaeus, but we do know what it would have been like to be blind in those days. It’s not dissimilar from being blind in many countries today. He was utterly reliant on other people, his life was hand to mouth, day to day. There was a strong connexion in his culture between the physical illness and sin, and whilst people would have given him food, there would be a taint about him which must have added to his isolation. He didn’t say “heal me” he said “have mercy upon me”. And that is just what Jesus does. He empowers him, says “your faith has healed you”.
And the question for me is, did he? Did Jesus do something supernatural?
I speak as someone who does not believe in supernatural miracles. I don’t believe in demons, ghosts, astrology, hobgoblins. Halloween does nothing at all for me. I believe in God, I believe in the soul, I believe in heaven, and I think there are good sound reasons for belief in those things.
I do believe in miracles, too. But where I part company with the idea of the supernatural is that I don’t believe any miracles are inexplicable. It seems to me, from observing the universe and through consideration of how God seems to operate, that God has made the world to be understandable, explorable, consistent. I find the whole idea of God behaving supernaturally to an odd one. In our talks on science and religion we have learnt about how beautiful and how mysterious and endlessly fascinating the laws of physics are. Almost anything seems possible, when looking at the natural laws.
So why do we want to search for something above those laws? Why do we need God to break these rules in order to interact with the world? What sort of God would construct this wonderful universe with the elegant and beautiful laws, and then paint himself into a corner to the extent that the only way that (s)he can interact with the word is by breaking those rules?
So do I think Jesus healed Blind Bartimaeus? Well, I think it possible, but if he did, it was according to the laws of nature. Perhaps the blindness was psychosomatic, perhaps his cataracts were removed, perhaps one of those billion to one things occurred which we would ascribe to the workings of God and others would ascribe to chance.
I know that sounds dissatisfying. It sounds like a get out of jail free card, doesn’t it. Someone said to me, “don’t try and explain it away”. That’s an interesting phrase. As though explaining it removes it, takes it away. As though if we understand something it no longer belongs to God.
We’ve got to be very careful about that. Because that suggests that God’s realm is the supernatural. But if we seek God only in the supernatural, then God becomes merely a lazy explanation for things that we can’t understand. God becomes the stuff of fancy, a super-hero, to be called on in time of need, to perform a miracle and help us out. Prayer becomes the equivalent of sending up the bat-signal. And as we know, as we all know, we pray for miracles and they don’t happen. And when we see God only as the miracle worker, the fix-it man, we feel angry and cheated when he doesn’t work miracles – what’s the point in a superhero who doesn’t save us? And we lose our faith.
If we think that miracles are by definition beyond our understanding, that means that the more we learn about the world, the fewer miracles there are, and the smaller this supernatural God gets. To hang on therefore to our wonder in the idea of God, we have to stay ignorant. And we should never have to choose between knowledge or devotion. We should reject any religion which requires ignorance, for it is by definition blasphemous – it cannot possibly by worshipping the God of truth.
But the worst thing about this supernatural way of looking at God is that we miss the point of the incarnation. The message of Christ’s coming to earth is to say that now is eternal life, that the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near, God is with us.
That should change the way we see the world, because God in every small cell of every creature, in the atoms and nuclei that make everything that is, in the energy of heat and light, from the coldest palest dawn to the burning heat of the sun; and so miracles are miracles, giving sight to the blind is a miracle, whether it is a Doctor with a scalpel or a sudden remission or a course of medicine, these are all the miracles that God works.
When we stop seeing God as supernatural, we begin to see the true magic which is woven into the world. Our knowledge of how things happen is absolutely irrelevant to the fact of the incredible beauty and truth of this God-breathed world. The we begin, in the words of William Blake,
To see the world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wildflower
Hold infinity I the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
Of course God can heal, but if we are to see God as God is then we have to stop confining the sacred to a supernatural realm. He have to see the ordinary as sacred, because all the world is part of God.
Perhaps when we do that we will see that we have the power to heal as Jesus did. We can give sight to the blind. If we have a fiver in your pocket, we can save somebody’s sight, because that what it costs. It’s not as glamorous as a supernatural miracle, but to the person who can see again, it’s just as wonderful.
When we release ourselves from the idea of the supernatural, then we begin to see that miracles are not beyond us, we are capable of being miracle workers. That frees us to live out our calling, to be the ones listening for the cries of the blind, calling to us “have mercy”.
Then we will be free to heal, by the same means which causes all miracles to happen. The compassion which is at the heart of God.
I was preaching this morning, and it was all so nearly so good. We had a grandfather baptising his granddaughter, a collect about how we are all children of God through adoption, which warms my heart as the father of an adopted boy, whose birthday it was on Friday, and if the Gospel began just a few verses earlier, we would have had the complete set – a Gospel about Jesus saying “let the children come to me, for such is the kingdom of heaven”. Instead, I had to preach to the good people of Morningside, renowned as being the wealthiest part of Edinburgh, about howit is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle, than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
We want this story to say something different, less demanding. The story, perhaps of the comfortably well off young Episcopalian. Jesus says to him “give everything you have to the poor, then come follow me”. And the young Episcopalian says unto him, “But Lord, when you say give everything to the poor, surely the poor wont’ appreciate my vintage forty year old single malt?” And the Lord said, “oh I’m sorry my love, I forgot you were an Anglican. Try giving up sherry before Sunday lunch and let’s go from there.”
This is an uncompromising story, It’s a tough story, but it’s a story for our time, and it’s a good news story, and we mustn’t let any sense of guilt about being well off blind us to that.
There’s no denying this is a story which, as the relatively well off west, should give us significant pause for thought. Did Jesus want us to give away everything we have? The answer is probably yes. Does that make me a hypocrite for living in a really very nice house and within reason having almost everything I want? Well, very possibly, and that’s why we should take this story seriously. Just because we find it impossible to do what we think Jesus is asking us to do, doesn’t mean we should pretend that he isn’t asking us in the first place.
And I’m afraid I can’t do this one. I get a lot of spiritual enrichment from my possessions, my books and CDs. There is no way I’m going to make my wife and son homeless. I find this Gospel very difficult, very uncompromising. And I sympathise with the rich young man.
This is a story about wealth, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s is not simplistic – being poor doesn’t make you intrinsically good, and being rich doesn’t automatically make you bad. But being rich means you have far more opportunity to do either good or bad. The wealthier you are, the more moral decisions there are to make.
This story is certainly about money, but it is about more than that. It is about how we are to live as people of “good news”. It is about being free to be joyful, it is about God’s abundance, and about not being trapped by our worries about not having enough.
It’s interesting that Jesus says not just “give all your money away” but “give all you have to the poor”. The rich young man in this story, would have known the poor in his town, probably by name and by family. The widows, the elderly, the orphans, the childless, those who sat at his gate daily, begging for food. Even the able bodied who could work but had no work and no land. We know from other stories of Jesus that people hired casual labourers on a need basis. Times were good for everyone during harvest, but there was no responsibility to the workers at leaner harder times.
But of course the richer you were, the further removed you were from poor people. You had a steward to manage the farm, and to manage the labourers who were begging for work, and the poor who were asking to glean the fields. You might have had a house in the City, where the poor were nameless and unconnected to you. And as we all know the further removed we are from people, the harder it is to be compassionate. And that is I think a lesson for our time. We are far removed from those who make our clothes and gadgets and toys and food.
I love bargains, I love finding things cheaply, but often that comes at the expense of those who have made those things. You can buy a suit in Tesco for £25. It is impossible that the people who made that suit are being paid what we would regard as a reasonable wage. We don’t see it because unlike the rich young man, we don’t know their names and so it’s harder to be compassionate.
So one lesson from this story is that if we are wealthy, we have to work harder than others, we have to be more compassionate, we have to be global in our love for others.
And at the moment’s that’s difficult, because everyone is anxious. There’s a global economic downturn. Banks aren’t lending because they’re afraid of making less profit, the environment seems to have gone out of the window as an issue, because the whole world is covered in a tightening grip of anxiety. And that’s the real problem of having lots of possessions, that’s why the young man went away grieving, that’s the real tragedy of his condition. He was trapped by his wealth
The more we have, the more anxious we are about the possibility of having less. And it is anxiety I think which is the root of this story, the anxiety which wealth produces.
Churches often get locked into this Gospel of anxiety, of privation, where churches are struggling, attendance declining, standards slipping, futures bleak. And what happens when churches buy into that anxiety, is that that they do what the rich young man did. They grieve, and they walk away, and they retrench. Churches become embattled and sometimes embittered, a holy huddle who resents that other people are not there keeping the place financially afloat. This sort of anxiety, although money is not always the root cause, is the same sort of anxiety we have at the idea of having less. And that is not what a church is for. A church is for spreading good news.
When we welcome a child into our church, we aren’t welcoming them into a church which is anxious for the future, or guilty about the wealth we have. It is not our purpose to hand on a burden of worry, or feeling sidelined, or worrying about money. Neither should we hand over an inheritance of guilt at us having so much, and giving as a way of offsetting that guilt. If we are going to live up to the promises we make in batism, we must spread good news, not anxiety.
In our Christian story there are plenty of examples of rich young men who did give away all they had. People like St Benedict and St Francis, whose lives were rich, lives which they abandoned. But the amazing thing about them, is that they were not full of worry about tomorrow, they were full of joy in their new, poor life. Do you ever wonder how they did it, led lives of owning nothing, having no comfort, were near starvation, and yet were full of joy?
Well I’m tempted to say they did it by hanging onto their vintage single malt. But the reality is that they didn’t see their lives in terms of what they didn’t’ have. They didn’t have a Gospel of privation or worry. The saw their lives in terms of what they had, which was the love of God and a beautiful and abundant world. They saw the world in terms of blessing and beauty, they preached a Gospel of God’s incredible abundance.
When people think like that, the church grows, and people are given hope, and the world becomes a better place. When we think like that, the church, the world becomes a place of joy, not worry. When we stop worrying about the future and see the blessedness of the present, then we realise the world is not the frightening place what we thought it was. Our lives are not what we think they are. We lead blessed lives, and sometimes when we are poor enough, either in money or in spirit, to need the help of others, then we realise how surrounded by kindness and love we truly are.
Churches are places of blessing. I am proud to welcome a child into this church because it is my privilege to see just how generous this church is. Churches get a terribly bad press, but I know from my work in it, that people in church will give everything they possibly can, in terms of time and effort and money and resources, for the welfare of those not only they know and love, but those they will never meet and who will never say thank you. They give not according to the amount of thanks but out of sheer goodness. Churches are often very quiet about it, but they are places of reckless generosity. That is the reality of the world that God gives us, that world of abundance, of blessing.
The monks and nuns of old, they prospered and grew, because they had to give everything away. The bought up land, because they kept earning money which they had to do something with, and so the folk who worked for wealthy landowners worked instead for the monasteries, and they received healthcare, some education, and far more feast days, days off. And of course those institutions became corrupt, but when they were at their best, they were places of blessing for everyone because those who had the power to make their own lives better at the expense of others chose not to, because their lives were blessed enough.
We don’t need to try and thread ourselves through the eye of a needle. Because we have enough. And it is our job, our duty and our joy, to go into this anxious fretfulll world, and tell them that good news – say to people, to rich people to the well off, that it will be alright. That there is something richer than worrying about money. That all will be well, and that all manner of things will be well. And if we can share that news, in the rich and anxious west, well then I truly believe that all of God’s children might be fed.
I was at a conference a year or so ago about conflict within churches. I know, dear reader, it will come as a shock to you to know that sometimes, in churches, occasionally, people don’t get on.
Actually, people do seem to be genuinely shocked when there is conflict within churches, but we shouldn’t be – our two new testament readings clearly demonstrate that conflict has been in our church from the beginning. If ever you feel that the church is ripping itself apart – then take heart – it always has been . The letter of James, that beautiful, yearning letter, is trying to stop Christians taking lumps out of each other, and our Gospel in Mark Ch 9 has the Apostles fighting it out as to which of them was the best.
The interesting thing I learnt about conflict in that conference was twofold – firstly, those who specialise in conflict resolution seem to create a lot of the conflict in order to resolve it. The call for tolerance is often accompanied by a pretty intolerant attitude towards anyone not going along with their method. But that’s just a rather catty by-the-by. The thing of specific interest was the ingredients which produce conflict.
What are those ingredients? There has to be a difference of opinion, certainly. But that’s just the catalyst, the difference itself can by tiny or immense. What creates the acrimony itself is fear and silence. Because it is fear and silence which separate us from God and from one another.
We often talk about silence in church as being important, and it is. But there are many different types of silence. Welcoming silence, prayerful silence, hostile silence, awkward silence. The silences that we encounter in our Gospel are the sort of silences which the church can well do without.
The first silence in our Gospel is when Jesus predicts his passion, and the apostles stay silent, because “they didn’t understand, and were afraid to ask.”
So instead of asking Jesus, they came to their own conclusions. And whatever those conclusions were, it resulted in an argument about who was the greatest. Jesus was talking about the pain he was going to have to endure, and they were talking about who was going to be the next bishop.
Hence their second silence, when Jesus asked them what they had been talking about. They refused to say.
The first silence kept them ignorant, the second kept them from a right relationship with Jesus. Silence can sometimes be a corrosive thing in a church.
A few years ago, someone in one of my previous churches asked to see me, and launched a pretty angry tirade against me, about some issue or other. Without going into details, the issue was trivial and easily and amicably resolved, but not before they had said some things which from my perspective had been really very hurtful. And I asked them why they had not spoken earlier.
Their answer was “I didn’t want to upset you”.
The months of silence was far more upsetting to me than the words they might have used initially, partly because it resulted in a bottling up of imagined dischord which exploded into anger. Left to our own devices, by the isolating silence which comes from “not wanting to upset people”, the conflict we imagine in the silence of our own minds is often far worse than the reality when shared with people.
There is a very sad, little verse in the Epistle of James. “these conflicts and disputes among you,” he writes, “where do they come from? Do they not come from the cravings that are at war within you?” When by our silence we isolate ourselves from one another and from God, our minds become a playground for our insecurities and our demons.
It’s interesting what those silences do. The apostles’ silence caused by the fear of seeming ignorant, kept them ignorant. Their silence at being ashamed, kept them ashamed. Jesus could not forgive them unless they asked for forgiveness. The silences that we keep with one another because we “don’t want to upset anyone” don’t resolve conflict, or even avoid it. They embed conflict, they ferment it. These are silences which keep us apart from God and our another.
So how do we resolve conflict then, what’s the Christian method of resolving conflict, what was Jesus’ method?
Well it ought to be said that conflict resolution wasn’t his big thing. His life and his passion was a result of conflict between him and the Pharisees was not resolved. We ought to reconcile ourselves to the fact that for conflict to be resolved, both parties have to be willing participants – that’s sort of what I was getting at with the catty comment earlier. You can’t bully people into being peacemakers.
The way Jesus resolved the conflict among the apostles, after their arguments about who was best, was to do one of those enigmatic things that he always did. He shows them a child, and said one of those things we think we understand until we actually examine it.
He said, Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me. Or in other words, when we welcome a child, we are welcoming Christ, we are welcoming God.
Well it’s very easy to dismiss that by saying it means we should just be nice to children, but that’s not the context at all. What is it about children that when we welcome them, we’re welcoming God? Later on he says that heaven consists of those who are like children. What qualities is he saying we need?
Interestingly, many of the “noble virtues” – temperance, diligence, humility, charity, etc, you would not necessarily mark them down as characteristics of children, would you? Not to say children dont’ have them, but it’s hardly the first things which spring to mind.
The more I work with children, the more I think we should really be learning from them rather than the other way round. We should become young church leaders to increase our theological learning, rather than dispense it.
When our children come in or go out of our church, there is rarely any corrosive silence. They come into church heads up, looking around and smiling. And we all respond.
Children don’t have the etiquette which prevents us from drawing closer to one another. Children have no fear of asking questions, they have no suspicion of people’s answers. Every time my son comes to the communion rails, he has a different woman on his arm. When our children come into this church, they think they have a hundred best friends – because it doesn’t occur to them why anyone should not be their friend.
When do we lose that, when do we grow out of that, with etiquette and suspicion and silence?
I suppose as life knocks us about we learn to be suspicious, we learn to avoid conflict because conflict hurts, and the protective shell which we put around ourselves becomes thicker and more isolating. We learn to respond to difference not with questions but silence, not with love but with defence, not with curiosity but suspicion. Silence, defence, suspicion, they’re all learnt behaviours. Whereas questioning, loving, being curious, they are natural, inherent.
Perhaps when Jesus showed the Apostles the child, and told them than welcoming them welcomed God in, perhaps he meant that they had to unlearn the things they had learnt. To unlearn their aggression, their suspicion, their silence. Perhaps he was saying not just that we had to be kind to children, but that we should be kind to the child within us.
Perhaps he was pointing to the child in its vulnerability, without their protective shells of silence, or suspicion, and was saying to them, “you don’t need that, you don’t need those things.” Perhaps he was calling them into the freedom that vulnerability give us. Freedom to be hurt. And freedom to be healed.
There will always be conflict in the church. But there need never be acrimony. For that to happen we must be as fearless as children, to break the silence which divides us, and speak the truth in love.
Today’s Gospel is not really a story for sunny Summer mornings. It is a winter evening horror story. It takes me right back to childhood: Hammer horror films, Quatermass, and episodes of Doctor Who, set in lonely houses, with an old man next to an open fire, with a ticking clock and a noise at the window.
Every culture has its place of horror. Haunted houses, empty churches. For me growing up it was Bolleskin house, a deserted place on the shore of Loch Ness which we visited once on holiday, a place of low mists and dark deeds, where Alasteir Crowley, the Satanist.
But nearer to home, the cupboard under the stairs. Some fool had given me a poem by Vernon Scannel when I was young. It’s about a boy who kills a cat, and hides the body in the cupboard under the stairs. (quoted in full for the blog)
They should not have left him there alone,
Alone that is except for the cat.
He was only nine, not old enough
To be left alone in a basement flat,
Alone, that is, except for the cat.
A dog would have been a different thing,
A big gruff dog with slashing jaws,
But a cat with round eyes mad as gold,
Plump as a cushion with tucked-in paws—
Better have left him with a fair-sized rat!
But what they did was leave him with a cat.
He hated that cat; he watched it sit,
A buzzing machine of soft black stuff,
He sat and watched and he hated it,
Snug in its fur, hot blood in a muff,
And its mad gold stare and the way it sat
Crooning dark warmth: he loathed all that.
So he took Daddy’s stick and he hit the cat.
Then quick as a sudden crack in glass
It hissed, black flash, to a hiding place
In the dust and dark beneath the couch,
And he followed the grin on his new-made face,
A wide-eyed, frightened snarl of a grin,
And he took the stick and he thrust it in,
Hard and quick in the furry dark.
The black fur squealed and he felt his skin
Prickle with sparks of dry delight.
Then the cat again came into sight,
Shot for the door that wasn’t quite shut,
But the boy, quick too, slammed fast the door:
The cat, half-through, was cracked like a nut
And the soft black thud was dumped on the floor.
Then the boy was suddenly terrified
And he bit his knuckles and cried and cried;
But he had to do something with the dead thing there.
His eyes squeezed beads of salty prayer
But the wound of fear gaped wide and raw;
He dared not touch the thing with his hands
So he fetched a spade and shovelled it
And dumped the load of heavy fur
In the spidery cupboard under the stair
Where it’s been for years, and though it died
It’s grown in that cupboard and its hot low purr
Grows slowly louder year by year:
There’ll not be a corner for the boy to hide
When the cupboard swells and all sides split
And the huge black cat pads out of it.
Still gives me the shivers. For the Jews, their place of horror was the desert. The desert was the place where the demons lived; evil spirits who sought for souls to devour. And that was where John the Baptist spent most of his life. John was almost certainly one of the Essenes, an order of hermits, who went into the wilderness deliberately to confront their demons.
They lived in caves, to escape the blinding heat andlight, in a place called Qumran on the shores of the Dead Sea; so called because nothing could live in the sulphurous water. Those who drank from it in desperation were driven mad. And that is where John went, to battle the powers of darkness. Alone, but for the demons who rose to challenge him. It must have sent him to the very edge of sanity.
And then there was Herod. A person of luxury and comfort and indolence. Herod was rich, powerful, and paranoid. He killed anyone he was afraid might challenge him. Like all paranoid dictators, he was eventually deposed, but that doesn’t come into our story. He married his brother’s wife, and eventually killed his brother, out of guilt, perhaps, fear for his throne, who knows.
But John rose out of the desert. It excites me to think that some of the scrolls of Isaiah which were recovered from the Quran caves, hidden in clay jars, which exist to this day, may have been the very scrolls he read from. John read them, drew their words out of the desert. John was the last of his line, the last of the prophets; he dressed like them, he spoke like them, and he challenged as they did. Herod was frightened by his challenge. And so he imprisoned John in the Black Fortress at Machaerus.
Herod does not seem to have been truly evil, although he did evil things. He was perplexed by John, confused by him. But Herod was frightened, by the indolence and lust and greed which consumed him, and his demons eventually got the better of him. We all know the story of Salome, Herodias’ daughter, who asks for the Head of John on a platter. Driven by wine and lust, he was too proud to go back on a public promise. And so John’s life was ended in a prison cell and that was that.
Two men; one of whom confronted and defeated his demons, and one who was consumed by them. I found myself asking, which of the two was the prisoner?
John may have been imprisoned by Herod, but Herod could never escape his demons, his monsters in the cupboard under the stairs. They were always there, however distracted he made himself by wine and food and entertainment. When he spoke to John, I can only imagine John’s eyes of pity, as he regarded this man tormented by his own evil.
You know, In traditional horror stories, you always have a hero. Every Moriarty has a Holmes, every Dracula has a Van Helsing. These days, super heroes are making a comeback, Superman, Spiderman, fantasy figures who defeat fantasy evil.
I always preferred my heroes like Doctor Who, or Sam Gamgee, eccentric people, who didn’t carry guns.
Because there’s a disturbing similarity between super-heroes and villains. When I was at school, I found people liked either being very very good, or very very bad. To do either was a sort of thrill, being either Dracula or Superman.
Playing with ouija boards like Alistor Crowley, or fantasizing about being Luke Skywalker, the desire is the same. What you actually want, is power. People want to be powerful.
Most, if not all, the people who have done the greatest evil are those who have sought power as a way of doing good. Hitler, Stalin, Herod, they didn’t try to be evil. Even Crowley, dubbed the most evil man in the world, thought that, under his control, the world would be a better place. And all were consumed by their ego, their paranoia, their vanity. Defeated by their own demons.
Whereas it seems to me that John the Baptist, were powerless. What frightened Herod, was his lack of need. Herod had so many needs, John had none.
Those would-be dictators and rulers for good, failed to realise that power, and the desire for it, is just another one of those demons with which we all have to battle with; which Jesus and John did in the blinding sun of the desert.
I don’t believe in evil spirits and demons. I don’t believe in that sort of horror. I believe in a different sort of horror.
The real horror of this world, the horror that Herod could never escape, which grew like the cat in the cupboard, are the demons people make for themselves, prisons of anxiety or guilt or fear or desire or lust for power.
People think that empty churches or caves or deserts are scary, because they think that is where ghosts and demons are. But that’s not where the demons are. They are here, in us, always. That is where they are created, where we nurture and give in to them. Churches and wildernesses and quiet places are scary, because they are quiet, and we are afraid of allowing our demons that space. But they are also, deerts and churches, places where we find God, who will allow us to see our demons as they really are; small and pitiable and defeatable. Churches and wildernesses are places of challenge, and places of hope.
I met a man like John the Baptist once, during my time in a Franciscan Friary. He was an itinerant monk, not a romantic figure to look at, an odd, disturbing character, a sort of Christian Vagabond. He said he had started life wanting to be the next Benedict, and found monasteries and create a religious revival. But, he said, Jesus had instead given him the ability to defeat his pride. He was a failure, he rejoiced. He also said one thing which has stuck with me every since.
The gates of Hell are locked from the inside. And the key is humility.
Our God is not a God of closed doors and growing menace. Our God is the one who enables us to open those closed doors wherein our demons lurk, and to face them with the only weapon which casts out all fear. Perfect Love.
The revised common lectionary is a fickle friend. Our Gospel today is from Mark Chapter 6 verses 30 to 56. Only they take out twenty verses in the middle. What we are left with after they do that, is Jesus getting into a boat and then out of a boat, and then doing that again.
What, you might ask, is so dull about middle verses, that the compilers of the Revised Common lectionary thought they should leave it out?
They left out the feeding of the five thousand, and Jesus walking on water in order to leave us with this dynamic and vivid passage of Jesus getting in and out of a boat.
If feels a little like when I have in the past boiled up a chicken carcass for stock, and then without thinking poured away the stock down the sink leaving me with a pile of old bones. It feels as though they’ve thrown away the wrong bits.
But that is deliberate, I think. Because actually the focus on this Gospel is on the Apostles. They have just come back from their great commission, and the are exhausted. There is a contrast here between what Jesus does, and what Jesus tells the Apostles to do. He does what he always does, healing, preaching, teaching, being himself. But what he tells them to do is to rest. To, for want of a better term, to waste time with each other. This Gospel is about wasting time with each other.
The reckless pace of Mark’s Gospel takes us in our grip again today. No wonder they kept getting into boats, it was probably the only peace they could find.
And what Jesus saw that they needed to have a time without agenda, without purpose, just time out, wasting time.
We’ve sort of lost the art of that. When our time is full, when we are busy, we sometimes feel that every bit of time has to be justified, every hour has to be accounted for, and if we take time off, or time out, it has to be purposeful or valuable. I think we’ve lost the art of wasting time.
When I was about to go to University, someone said to me, “remember, when you look back on your University years, you will remember the people, the girls you fell in love with, the eccentrics who taught you. You’ll look back on summer days on picnics and good friends, on playing rounders in the park, of evenings looking up at the stars with friends, of times in a coffee shop talking about love and Wagner, those little moments of ease and joy.”
There’s a real and sometimes poignant truth in that. We work so hard, we do so much stuff, but the moments we look back on as feeling truly alive, the moments that feed us, are moments when we are with God or with one another, with no agenda, with no purpose other than being present.
This Gospel I think gives us leave to find time to be with one another and with God, without a worthy excuse. We must find and make as many opportunities as possible for us to spend time together. That is how communities are built, how friendships are formed, how people learn to love one another. It doesn’t have to have a purpose, any more than prayer has to have a purpose.
Being with each other and with God, without an agenda, is the way we learn to love one another and love God – which is really the point of being alive. Love God and your neighbour.
Love your neighbour as yourself – and that’s actually the second thing I get about this Gospel – about loving yourself.
The Apostles were exhausted, I think, because they weren’t like Jesus. He got his energy from doing those things, teaching, preaching, evangelising. And you can see how they would want to be like that because they admired and loved Jesus so much. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But Jesus could see that this would exhaust them in the end. This time out, this break, was a way of saying to them that they didn’t have to copy him, they could remember what it was like to be themselves
We are called as Christians to try and imitate Christ in many ways, but we are not called to try and copy Jesus, or to do his work. We are called to be truly ourselves.
There’s something very appealing about trying to do God’s work, as they say. I remember a very busy priest rushing past me in the street, waving and saying “can’t stop, doing God’s work”. And I wondered how much better the world might be if everyone stopped trying to do God’s work for him, and instead did their own work, which is loving God and loving your neighbour as yourself.
We like doing God’s work, because God’s work is so much more glamorous. Moreover, we don’t always trust God to do it, so we like to help him out. And we always get it wrong when we do.
We try and make people Christians, but we can’t. Only God does that. Often when we try to, all we are doing is cloning our particular brand of Christianity.
We try and teach people what is right and wrong – but we can’t. Only God can do that, through the Holy Spirit and through conscience. Often when we try to, we just sound like we’re telling people off.
We try and judge people – and we really can’t. Much as we would like to, only the all-loving God can do that. That’s really not our business and we make a horrible horrible mess of it when we try.
Too often I think the church feels it ought to be like some sort of doctrinal sausage factory, churning out people who believe the same thing, stuffing us with the so-called correct ideas about God, teaching us that we have to pray the same way, think the same way, behave the same way. That’s what happens when we try and be Jesus, when we try and do God’s work, instead of our own. It can often close off new ideas about God, it can close off imagination, reduce God’s opportunities for getting through to us. But we are called to a much smaller task. To be attentive to God, to love God and our neighbourl.
So the message from this strange in-between Gospel is twofold.
God made you for a purpose – to be you. Don’t try and do a DIY job on yourself and turn yourself into someone else. Let God be God, and let You be You.
And the second message is that the best way to do that is to spend time with God and with your neighbours; time without an agenda, without a purpose. It is in relationships that the kingdom is built. Don’t’ waste time by doing things. Spend it properly by wasting time with one another.
In the words of CS Lewis:
“The moment you wake up each morning, all your duties and false hopes rush at you like wild animals. The first job consists in shoving it all back; letting that other, larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.”
Amen to that.