I have often been told, normally as a result of some pastoral care encounter, that if ever I gave upon the priesthood I would have a career in counselling. I suspect most clergy will get something similar. Normally people say these things as a way of saying thank you, just like when they like you they say you would make a good bishop. I’m pretty clear that I would neither be a good bishop or a good counsellor, but I thought it might be interesting to think about the differences between counselling and what clergy and others do as pastoral care. Other than the very obvious – one is based on living out a faith in God – there are significant differences, more, I think, than similarities.

What I do in pastoral care is pretty simple. I try and show people by any means I can, that God loves them, and therefore there is hope, they are blessed, and that whatever they suffer at this moment can be overcome.

That’s a pretty basic description, and of course it doesn’t mean saying “but Jesus loves you” all the time – often silence and shared tears can convey what “Jesus loves you” far better than just reciting those words. But that’s basically the point of what I’m there fore, I think.

There are two main differences between counselling and pastoral care in my own faith context: one is that in pastoral care, I do not try and help them sort of their problems. I don’t focus on their problems. The other is that I make myself as vulnerable as they do, in lots of ways.

Often in a psycho-dynamic form of counselling, and behavioural therapy, there is a desire to unpick the reasons why people are unhappy at this present moment in time, and that often involves going back into their history and finding out the reasons that they behave in certain ways today. In other methodologies, there is a preponderance of focussing on the emotions of the moment, and often allowing the “client” carte blanche on what is being talked about.

I find people who have been in counselling for years and years, who have used counselling as a crutch, and feel a heavy reliance on it and on their counsellor. It feels very important to them, and it feels as though what happens in their counselling sessions is vital to helping them lead better lives. But much of their time spent in counselling is going back to unhappy times and places, trying to work out what went wrong.

But if I spend all my time dwelling on the unhappy parts of my life, whatever conclusions I come to about those times, I end up unhappy. More problematic for me, however is that often counselling in this way gives an intellectual justification to people as to why they behave in ways which are upsetting for them – and often as a result locks them into this behaviour.

Knowledge of self can be a dangerous thing – I know people who have come out of a Myers-Briggs or Eneagram process feeling fully justified in being excessive in their behaviour. I have heard people say “I’m not a good listener because I’m an INTJ” or “I’m sometimes rude to people, but I’m not being rude, I’m just an [insert personality-type here]” Well being rude is being rude whatever your personality. But having a self-diagnosis like this can relax people into patterns of behaviour which are not helpful to them or to others in the long run.

So when I engage in pastoral care, I do so as a friend – a friend in faith, who knows God loves the person I am talking to – that God is in fact love, and that God is in the room with them at that moment. I try and focus on that moment if possible, and find the light in their lives, and enable them to see what is good, loving, kind, generous, about themselves and about the people who are around them. I focus on the good, and I do so, not as an impartial sounding board, but as a friend – a friend who has lived and suffered and rejoiced just like everyone in life, and a friend who is prepared to talk about their own experiences if it’s helpful to the person.

That’s the second major difference as I see it – one which I have been told is fraught with danger. Which is that I am involved in a relationship of trust and love with the person coming to me for pastoral help. That can have a great danger of dependency, or inappropriate relationships built up – or so counsellors have told me. In fact, thought I’ve found that the sort of dependency, crushes or obsessions which I have been told will be the result of this form of pastoral care, are in fact far more common with counsellors, whose relationship with their clients are far more removed and careful – and to my mind, permit the clients to build up an imaginative relationship rather than a real one.

I suppose the form of counselling which is most like what I do is what’s called “client-centred counselling” which, according to the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists, is mainly about allowing a relationship of trust to build up between client and counsellor so that they are able to talk about emotions and feelings that they have. I would say that is the first stage of any pastoral encounter, but only the first stage. Often wearing a dog-collar is something of a short cut to that level of trust (for some I suppose the opposite, but they don’t come to clergy for pastoral care).

It is no surprise that what we often look for in a counsellor is someone who has the skills that we would hope to find in a friend. But the professional consequences of charging a fee do alter that dynamic. Clergy do not charge fees, but counsellors do, and when there is money involved, it no longer becomes two people who look after one another, it becomes one who looks after the other, and can easily become a form of dependency. It also means that a sense of perspective on our own problems can be lost in the process, and the client can feel that they are the only ones in the world with difficulties. As I understand it, counselling rarely if ever involves the counsellor sharing anything of their own life with the client. But one of the most useful things I can do as a pastoral carer is to lay alongside some aspects of my own life in conversation – to show the person involved that bad things happen to everyone, that they are not alone in their pain, and that people who experience the problems they experience, can move on and feel good about life again.

I don’t think I’m doing anything exceptional in this, and I know that where often people call for a priest, what they really need (and wonderfully, often get in our churches) is a good group of friends, who can do a good deal more good than I can.

But anyway, that’s why I hope I’m a good pastoral carer, and would make a rubbish counsellor.


Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Losing weight

It was about this time last year that I decided I ought to lose weight. I had some good reasons for deciding to lose weight:

  • I was too fat.
  • That’s about it.

Actually it’s not as simple as that. I wanted to lose weight because I have a food addiction, and it was winning. Also I was ashamed of how I looked. And I almost always have been.

There are many reasons why people gain weight: there are those who put on weight after an active earlier life, as their metabolism slows down; there are those whose jobs mean that they have lots of eating and not much exercise (clergy a good example); there are those whose diet is limited due to geography or wealth; there are those who discovered beer in University and hang on to the beer habit when the other habits, such as sport, hijinks, and general larks, disappear.

But I am not of their number. I am one of a different group. I am a fatty. I am fat because I have always known I am a fatty.

If you are a fatty, you know immediately what I mean. Fat is truly a state of mind. It isn’t true that handsome is as handsome does (ugly, kind people are not handsome, just kind and ugly), but it is equally untrue that fat is as fat does. If you’re a fatty, then however thin you are, you’re still a fatty.

The criteria for being a fatty are twofold – firstly, you have something of a food addiction. Secondly, you know that your default state will always be fat. I was always being told by well-intentioned parents and grand-parents that I was too fat, and I believed them.

I don’t blame anyone for giving me a complex about my weight – but I certainly had one. I can remembering being ashamed of how I looked when at primary school, secondary school, University and beyond. Even when I had a growth spurt and was skinnier than most of my fellow pupils, I knew that I was just a thin fatty, and that the fat would come back. And of course it did.

Self-image is certainly part of it, but added to that is that famous “unhealthy relationship with food”. For me, food is a constant addiction, only unlike every other addiction you can’t give it up, you can only moderate your need for it. And if there’s one thing that fatties really don’t like the idea of, it’s moderation. We fatties work on a very decent, simple principle – if one is good, two is twice as good, and all of it is just great, thanks very much. When my wife overeats, she feels full for the rest of the day. When I overeat, I feel hungry. Moderation is for skinny people. That’s why they’re skinny, and why, unless I get a control on my eating, I look like a bin bag full of yoghurt.

It’s a socially embarrassing addiction, food, because you bear on your body the marks of your addiction. My shame over how I looked was always a factor in deciding what I did, thin or fat – because to me I was always fat.

Fatties cope with this social shame in two ways:

We might adopt the “happy fatty” routine – being a bon-viveur, enjoying their food. Of course that’s true – we enjoy our food. In fact we’d enjoy yours too if you gave us the chance. But the reality is that if you’re a fatty, you will eat whatever is available, fois gras or Pot Noodle. Alternatively, we might pursue the “there’s something wrong with my metabolism” routine. We only eat white fish and tomatoes in public, talk about glands or suchlike, before going home to finish the contents of the fridge.

I don’t blame people for having no sympathy. For some people it’s simply inconceivable that someone might choose to overeat. After all, all they need to do is to not put things in their mouth. If you’re not the sort of person to be addicted to anything, you won’t be able to understand. You won’t understand alcoholism, drug addiction, over-eating. That’s because you’re different. It’s not the same for you.

For instance, my wife eats little and often. She can break a Mars bar into sixteen bits and eat one a day, and then forget about the rest for days at a time. She can do this without the mars bar calling to her every moment of that day, occupying her every thought, as it would with me. When we go on walks, she has a supply of snacks, eating a little bit, quite often. I never eat when we’re on walks. Because if I started, I’d want to eat the entire contents of the rucksack, up to and including the cagoules.

Does that sound extreme? It is. We fatties are extremists – and the thing is, everyone is keen to help feed our addiction. If you’re overweight, it’s almost certain that you will be given more food and offered seconds far more often than if you are not. That’s the problem with being addicted to something that everyone consumes, and which is a part of everyday life.

Imagine being a heroin addict, where there are adverts on the television for a new, easy to prepare, delicious type of heroin that is on special offer at your local supermarket. Imagine half the TV programme schedules being occupied with “heroin connoisseurs”, many of whom are also addicts like you, exploring all the huge variety of heroin available in different cultures and geographic regions. Imagine going round to someone’s house and having them say “You look as though you like your heroin, would you like another helping of heroin? There’s plenty.” Imagine having to sit and watch whilst other people take just a little bit of heroin, and seem to manage with just that little bit. It’s bizarre.

Being a fatty is no-where near as horrible as being a heroin addict, but it’s an odd social world to live in. Even now, in a very healthy state, when I go round to lunch at someone’s house, and they have a “help yourself” lunch, ham, cheese, tomatoes, bread, etc, I have to impose strict rules on myself. No cheese, no refills. Otherwise I’d eat everything on the table, and then slope off to see what’s in the cupboards.

So that’s what it’s like being a fatty. Currently I’m in remission, I’m healthy, very fit, and enjoying it immensely. But I know on what shallow soil my health is founded. It doesn’t take much to slip off the wagon, and on to the waggon-wheels.

But why am I writing all this now? Because of my son. My son has put on a few wee pounds – nothing remotely unhealthy, and he’s certainly not overweight by any standards – he’s simply no longer the skinniest boy in school, which he was when we adopted him. He has been worrying about the fact that one or two of his friends have a “six pack” and he doesn’t. His friends tease him for being fat – when he’s not, not remotely. He’s nine years old, for heaven’s sake, and he’s being teased by his friends for not having a six-pack.

Unlike when I grew up, the TV is now full of ultra-styled teens and pre-teens, designed to look like models. There is not a bare male torso on tv, young or old, which isn’t “buff”. The advertisers try and sell junk food by showing skinny, muscular models eating it, and the pressure to be perfect is stronger than it ever has been. When me son is older they will try and sell him stuff to help him lose weight, and they’ll keep trying to sell him stuff that will make him put on weight. It’s a harder, mentally tougher world for the young, and there’s no escaping those pressures.

I’ve done everything I can to tell him he’s fine, that he’s healthy, he’s beautiful, and there’s nothing to be worried about. I hope he believes me. Because it’s true. Because being a fatty is a state of mind –a mental illness. And it’s one which we should not allow society to inflict on the young, in order to sell more stuff.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The myth of “post-fact” democracy.

There has been a change in politics in the last twenty years or so, and it’s a reflection of the change in society. And because of it, I think the type of democracy we have doesn’t really work any more.

A great deal has been spoken in these post-Brexit debates concerning how we are now a “post-fact society” or a “non-fact” culture. I think this is a faddy myth. I think it’s a very convenient way of specialist political-nerds like myself to criticise those who vote against us.

But is this something new? I don’t think so.  I don’t think we are any more or less factual in the way we make our political decisions than we were ten or even fifty years ago. I don’t  think people have ever been particularly fact-based in terms of decision making processes. But we have been given the impression of being more factual in our decision making because of a media and political elite who have, in fact, being doing their job well.

Saying that politicians and newspapers and news media doing their job well is hardly a popular opinion. But I think for years, the political parties and the press have managed to quietly sideline the extremists, the liars, and the egoists. Their nets may well have been a little too wide for many untruths to have been caught, but the big ones, such as the lies of the extreme parties of left and right, and the more bombastic politicians whose egos write cheques their intellects cannot cash, have been found out before they seep into the public eye.

That filter is now at an end. We have seen characters such as Nigel Farage, George Galloway, Boris Johnson and others making untrue claims which have not been filtered and ridiculed by the media and other politicians. We have seen the rise of the far left, and, soon to come, the rise of the slightly-racist-but-bafflingly-respectable far right, which I believe is going to replace Ukip (or is what Ukip will become). And all of them on the ticket of “holding the elite to account”.

So why has it happened? Why have politicians and the media failed in their filtering of the nutty slack?  The big difference between “then” and “now” – both terms which are entirely fictional descriptions of a time in the past when things were normal, and a culture in the present which is by no means pervasive – the big difference, if there is one, is that we no longer trust people who are cleverer than we are. We don’t trust experts.  The notion of an “elite” has become taboo.

In one of his audio lectures, the theologian Richard Rohr spoke about how we have no mentors. Both individually and as a society, we have fewer people in our society that we will listen to, when they tell us things we don’t want to hear. He speculates the reason for this, whether it was the loss of mentors in the second world war, the rise of the age of questioning in the sixties, the end of modernity etc. But whilst the cause is speculative, it certainly resonates with truth. We have moved from a society which votes for people because of their intelligence, expertise, integrity, to a society that votes for people we would most like to go out for a drink with – people who are like us, because we think they must know best. Hence the move from, say, John Smith, to Jeremy Corbyn; from austere folk such as Edward Heath to clubbable folk like Nigel Farage, from Margaret Thatcher to Boris Johnson. We like the idea of people in the public eye being “like us” rather than better than us.

Is this because we’re now in a “post fact” world? I don’t think so. It’s just that once we trusted people who were really good at discerning facts, and now we insist on doing the job ourselves. We’re not very good at it – and sometimes that’s because we trust people who are really bad at giving us the truth. We have had years and years of the press feeding us bad news stories about politicians – many of which were true. So we trust the people telling us the bad news stories, and not the people telling us the truth – such as more respectable newspapers and media outlets who will give us both sides of a story.

The slow death of newspapers has contributed to their fall from grace as providers of truth.  As circulation has declined, so newspapers have become more populist, giving column inches and headlines to those who people want to read about, rather than actual news. So we have learnt to distrust those in authority. What begun in the sixties with iconoclasm has metastasised into an allergy towards authority figures, and a distrust of anyone who tells us anything we don’t want to hear.

Even the broadcast media, who are regulated by offcom and so have some duty to give the truth an airing, have fallen from grace. Often they live by the golden mean fallacy – where if there are two sides to any story they are given equal weight, under the myth that this is somehow “balanced” reporting – instead of grossly distorting the issue. Recently a professor of meterology was pitted against Nigel Lawson, on the issue of climate change. He is as ignorant as any of us when it comes to climate change, has no qualifications, no experience, no reason to be on the programme other than he is a well known name. The professor he was on against had years of experience, a lifetime dedication to the subject, and was more or less beaten all ends up by Lawson’s ability to win a debate, rather than Lawson’s better command of the facts. He won the debate by simplifying it, dumbing it down, and speaking louder and longer.

And that’s the problem. When we don’t trust the experts, the elites, we trust the loudest, the most bombastic, the ones that say exactly what we want to hear. Not because we are now “post fact” but because we are what we always have been – bad at making good choices. We used to trust other people, experts, to make those choices for us, and now that we have lost our trust in them, we’re lost.

They say every country gets the democracy it deserves.  When I look at the steaming pile that is our current democracy, it’s disquieting to realise it’s a mirror.


Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Now is the time for all good folk to come to the aid of the party.

I have disavowed political parties for some years now. I have said, and I still think, that I can never become a political party member. I know the limits of my patience, and I find that being a member of a political party means that I have to attend lots of meetings and discuss lots of strategies that I have absolutely no interest in. I also have to sign up to opinions that I can’t necessarily hold with integrity. It’s like being in a church but without the freedom of expression, and without the desire to reconcile when we fall out. More than that, I think I can do more good being politically involved in other ways. But I’m going to become a  member, for one reason – I have a right, as we all do, to have a choice when I vote. And as long as Jeremy Corbyn is leader, I have no choices left to me.

If you saw the demonstrations outside parliament in favour of Corbyn, there were lots of Momentum posters, but there were also Socialist Worker banners, and many other left-wing folk who are not members of the Labour party. This was a gathering of the extreme, wearing t-shirts which called “Blairite” MPs “vermin”.

To me the worst, the most shocking thing that happened yesterday involved John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, and Corbyn’s ally. According to several reports, one MP angrily called on McDonnell to call off his “rabble”. The reason for this was that Momentum and SWP members had been campaigning outside constituency offices for some time, calling on MPs who disagreed with Corbyn to resign. And by campaigning I mean threatening.

It is less than a fortnight since one of their number, Jo Cox, was murdered. MPs are frightened, and rightly so. They have a duty of responsibility to their staff, who must also be frightened. It’s still too early to know exactly what happened with Jo Cox’s murder, but my interpretation would be that there were too many dog-whistles in the Brexit campaign – too many things which were too close to racism, and the extreme right wing were excited and motivated. It was enough for one man with mental health issues to break. It was only one man, but one man is enough. You can hardly blame MPs for being worried.

John McDonnell waved off the complaint, and instead of listening, understanding, and trying to help, immediately walked out to the crowds that the MP was afraid of, and started telling tales: telling the crowd calling MPs “scum” “Vermin” and how they needed to be eradicated, telling them how some MPs wanted them to stop, and how he was on the side of the crowd. It was as near incitement as I could imagine. I can only assume this was out of ignorance rather than malice, but the effect is the same. His MPs were frightened for their own safety, and he has magnified that.

I’m sure there will be a vote of no confidence in Corbyn, and I am sure he will continue to stand. Corbyn is a man of great principle, but he values his own principles far more than he values anyone else’s – and that means Labour can no longer be a broad church. Corbyn wants his values and his understanding to hold sway. I’m not even sure he wants Labour as a party to stand together. He wants the Unions and their money to stay with him, but I think he would regard losing 100 or so MPs in the next election as collateral damage. He will go on as long as he can, and the hard left has joined up in droves to ensure that he continues in post.

So I’m going to join the Labour party in order to vote for whoever I think can make the Labour party a possible option again. Not just for Labour, and its values, but for those who voted LibDem, and Conservative, and Green and UKIP in the last election. Whether you have never voted for Labour, or whether you have only ever voted for Labour, the UK needs at least two electable parties. If Scotland becomes independent, it will need Labour too.

So  whatever your party allegiances, join in. I don’t know if there will be the same opportunity as before – to become an associate, for a one-off £3.00. This is what got Corbyn elected, and I have mixed feelings a to whether it should happen again. But however it happens, I’m going to make sure I vote.  Because I  won’t just be voting for moderation instead of extremism, I’ll be voting for the chance of  democracy.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Anger and Xenophobia in the land of lost content.


The way I react to problems is that I think I remain pretty cool headed and then, when things calm down a bit, I go to pieces. Probably it’s more like channeling all my angst into control-freaking intellectual analysis, and then realises how useless that is.

I had time to think since this referendum, to think of times past, people and places past, and had time to see the  news. The Polish embassy announcing the deatails of threats that their citizens are suffering in Newcastle and London and Cambridge. Banners telling immigrants to “go home”. As someone said on twitter, it’s obviously not true that 52% of the country that voted to leave are racist – but it seems that 100% of racists think that 52% of the country agree with them.

I wrote in a previous blog that Farage’s poster was the nadir of the UK’s xenophobia. I was…

View original post 935 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Anger and Xenophobia in the land of lost content.

The way I react to problems is that I think I remain pretty cool headed and then, when things calm down a bit, I go to pieces. Probably it’s more like channeling all my angst into control-freaking intellectual analysis, and then realises how useless that is.

I had time to think since this referendum, to think of times past, people and places past, and had time to see the  news. The Polish embassy announcing the deatails of threats that their citizens are suffering in Newcastle and London and Cambridge. Banners telling immigrants to “go home”. As someone said on twitter, it’s obviously not true that 52% of the country that voted to leave are racist – but it seems that 100% of racists think that 52% of the country agree with them.

I wrote in a previous blog that Farage’s poster was the nadir of the UK’s xenophobia. I was wrong. So yesterday, in a small calm time, I wept. I wept for the land that I knew, which feels as though it has slipped from my grasp. Temporarily, I am sure, but it is now more distant.

I grew up on the outskirts of Bradford. Our village was pretty monocultural, but the few Indians, Pakistanis and Chinese we knew, were part of our town and comunity. But for me Bradford was a city rich with excitement. A short bus ride and away, and we were in somewhere rich and strange and beautiful.

I had piano lessons from a family friend, who lived in Bradford, a fabulously eccentric old lady, whose house looked like Miss Havisham’s, whose carpets were threadbare, whose furniture was from the Victorian age, and whose piano was a pristine and perfect.

She had lived in her terraced house all her life, born and bred, and to her right and to her left, opposite and back, were Pakistani families. She was frail when I knew her, forgetful and creaky on her limbs, and she was the most looked-after women I have ever known. Her neighbours would come in during our piano lessons and give her food; spicy soups and curries (which, she explained, she used to put in a sieve and pour over with boiling water because they were too spicy for her).

Every white old woman she knew had Indian or Pakistani, Hindi or Muslim neighbours who looked after them. They were normally quite grumpy white old women, but their neighbours didn’t seem to mind. They had a community which they had lost as their families and friends had moved away – and a new community had been given back to them in old age.

Out in the streets, it was full of colour. Brightly coloured Saris, the men all in Achkans, clothing I envied. I remember reading the Pentecost reading from the Acts of the Apostles, and thinking of the scene in the Market in Idle, the part of Bradford my piano teacher lived in, full as it was of colours and smells, noise and bustle.

And they were amazed and wondered, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Par’thians and Medes and E’lamites and residents of Mesopota’mia, Judea and Cappado’cia, Pontus and Asia, Phryg’ia and Pamphyl’ia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyre’ne, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”

It was beautiful. I can still picture it now, vivid and bright and clear.

I saw the same thing happen when the Poles began to come over in the Noughties. The clothes were western, but the effect was the same – older women and men living alone, or elderly couples, finding new neighbours, new friends, new companionship, feeling safer in their homes, knowing they had friends next door, teaching younger children English, speaking about the Polish friends they had met in the war. I saw hard working immigrants coming here, fixing things, working long hours, with a smile on their faces and beautiful manners.  I learnt about their cultures, their lives back home, their hopes and their commitment to working hard for this country, paying their taxes and wanting to become, to belong, I saw them adopting us.

And I felt enriched, and I felt I understood our country better. We have always been a country of immigrants, and when we don’t have any immigrants, we grow stale. We have always been multicultural, and when we become monocultural we become monochrome. I felt as though I had gained a deeper understanding into all the history, the literature and the music I knew. Elgar was the social outsider, Hardy was the same. Delius the German, and Finzi the Italian Jew, we are the stuff of immigration, Irish, Romany, Asian, Black, Jewish, Polish, Lithuanian, Indian and Pakistani, French, German, American, our blood is blessedly impure and all the richer for it. Our country needs to be refreshed and reinvigorated by the grace of the new, of the outsider, of the wayfarer and the traveller.

I felt I knew myself and my country better when I understood that, and I knew just why Nick Griffen and his hoards would never hold sway upon the British. We knew ourselves too well. We did not want to be pure, because pure was not something to be admired and sought for. We are, were and always will be a mongrel nation.

So when I hear Elgar and Delius blaring from tinny speakers as immigrants are told they are the problem, I weep for the Britain which is slipping away. We have always been a land of lost content, but not a land, surely, or borders and barriers and race-hate and closed doors.

I see friends from Europe anxious for their future, as though suddenly we aren’t a Kingdom of immigrants I see suspicion instead of inquiry, I see exclusion where there should be wide open arms.

There are many disenfranchised white British people in this country – as there are first and second and third generation British immigrants.  And that needs to be dealt with. By education and training, by community and belonging, by housing and health, by a renewed understanding of our need for one another.

But not by closed borders. Not by barriers. Not by rejection of the other. Because then we will become something we have never been. Something smaller. Something thinner, and duller. Something worse.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Policing our borders. A sermon on St Paul.

Sermon preached this morning, Sunday 26th, concerning the Breferendum, and other events which I hadn’t mentioned last week because we were at a joint service in another church.

So a lot’s happened since we last met. Or at least since we were last here together. This last week, of course, we celebrated Melrose Week, we rejoiced in community and fellowship.  I  went to the celebration in the abbey, where hundreds of children gathered, singing old hymns, and watching a long, rather dull slow ceremony with people dressed up in unusual robes – and wondered why we think children can’t cope with church…

Part of the celebration of Melrose is riding the boundaries – it’s the same for every town gathering, especially the more ancient ones like Selkirk. These days it’s purely ceremonial but it once had a purpose – not just a physical purpose of repelling incomers, but binding the town together in a unified identity – against the outsider.

We are lucky not to live in the debatable times, when we had to protect the borders of our towns from rustlers, rapists and pillagers. But in St Pauls’ day, not only did every town have a boundary to be policed, it had a wall. Every town was a fortress, many of them still have them, like Jericho, or Damascus. And in spirit, every religion had one too. Every culture had boundaries to be policed, in order to keep its identity and to keep out the unclean and the troublesome.

The letter to the Galatians, is one of St Pauls’ first ever letters. He’s writing to a group of people that he Christianised, that he brought Christ to, and since he left, there is a group of Judaisers, of Christians who are saying that in order to be a Christ, you have to police the boundaries.

And Paul is distraught. Because he used to believe that. He was the most devout Jew, and to be Jewish was not just a religion it was a race. His understanding of Judaism was that you were a people set apart, a holy nation, a special people. You were a Jew by inheritance, it was your birthright. And everyone else were outsiders. And you had to police the boundaries.

Paul’s response to what the Judaisers were doing was to produce one of the most eloquent, beautiful and moving testimonies ever written. Because that was the old way.

His persecution of Christians before Damascas was because he had an image of his religion, his race,  as pure and holy, as unspotted and perfect, and it was his job to keep it that way. God had to be protected, and protected violently.

And that’s what he did. And he did it with anxiety, with anger, with violence, and with the righteous anger of a zealot. IN fact he did it with all of those things he said were “of the flesh” – enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, jealousy.

It reminds me a little of the Indigenous American tale, of a young boy talking to his father. His father tells him, “there are two wolves at war within us, each striving for control. The wolf of envy, anxiety, anger, greed, and hate, and the wolf of love, of generosity, of compassion, of light.”

“Which wolf wins?” asked the boy. His father replied “The one you feed”.

And when God broke St Paul,  he was blind until he found a new vision. He found a deeper truth to the shallow truths he held. He found God not in one pure white religion and culture, to be fiercely protected, he found God everywhere. He travelled, and in every culture, in every society, in every class, be it slave or senator, he found the people of God.

Since we met last in this place, 49 people were killed by a fundamentalist who was policing the boundaries of his religion. One MP was murdered by someone protecting the borders of his country, because the MP was advocating for the unclean to cross the boundaries. And since the referendum, people have set up their camps, their territories, their boundaries, and become enemies. In London and in Newcastle, Immigrants have had letters telling them to leave our country, and people are frightened.

A very odd thing happened to me over the weekend. I wrote a blog article on the morning of Friday, which as they say went viral, receiving over 300,000 views, a hundred times more than most things I’ve ever written on my blog. Which is a shame, because it contained a number of grammatical infelicities. I hadn’t expected it, but goodness I was very glad that I had had clicked the button marked “moderate comments before publishing”.

The comments that are published on the blog are intelligent, reasonable, often generous, and compassionate as well as passionate. Only about half got published. Some of them were rather intemperate. “If you disagree with me, you’re a racist”, said one Remainer. “If you disagree with me, you hate your country”, said a Brexiter. Well I disagreed with both of them, which makes me a racist who hates his own country. Brexiters and Remainers alike, not listening but shouting, wearying, pointless anger from both sides, as they police their boundaries and entrench their positions as to who they are and who they want to be. Full of sound and fury, and in the end, signifying nothing.

That’s the problem with referenda – it’s binary – black and white, good or bad, cowboys and Indians. Complicated issues become simplistic. And some win, and some lose, and we create, and police our boundaries.

And that’s how Paul was, until God broke him, just as sometimes we have to be broken, just as sometimes our society has to be broken, just as sometimes our religion has to be broken, broken apart, broken open, to stop the shouting and start the listening. What Paul saw when his eyes opened that first time, was that there was a deeper truth to the world, and a deeper faith to follow, and a deeper, richer God concealed in every human heart. Perhaps he had thought that before, he thought it and perhaps understood it, but now, he decided to live it. His every living being was focussing solely on that one thing, that God is in every human heart, and that every soul will shine with God, if we only let that light out. His mission, his hunger, his soul was to unlock that light in every human being – Jew or Greek, Slave or Free, Man or Woman.

His despair at the Judaisers was that they could only see one method of allowing that light to shine and they were more in love with the method than with the light. They saw only one culture and one practice wherein God could dwell, and in that they reduced God to a small, feeble thing, a God which needed defending, protecting, policing, not a robust, strong, powerful God whose love inspires and conquers all.

Our questions about referenda and identity and who we are and who we value are secondary questions – they may feel important, they certainly feel hot, but they divide far more than they unite. We need to ask the deeper question, we need to focus on the deeper, richer life that exists beneath the noise and the haste.

Our question for this referendum and for the next should be the same as the question we should ask every day, and it is a question not of others, but of ourselves. How do I, as a child of God, enable another person’s light to shine? How can I see the love in that person, and how do I enable them to see the love in me?

Everything we do should be predicated on that question. Every decision we make, and every hope we have, should be soaked in the hope of that question. How do we let their light shine?

Will it change the world? It could, it might, but that’s not really the point. It will change us. And we shall live in righteousness, a righteousness not based on superiority or vindication, but a righteousness of knowing that we sought to be good – and amid the madness of this world, amid the changes and chances, of this fleeting world, we shall be at peace.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments