Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Learning for life

Homily preached at Eltham College on 23rd May 2007.

It’s amazing.

By the time you’re ten,
you’ve learned to walk,
talk and communicate,
and deal with a complexity
of emotions,
intellectual demands
and ways of coping
with grown ups.

Ten years
to master an astonishing array of activities
of enormous complexity and intricacy
is an utterly remarkable achievement.

Science has not caught up
with the basic things that a human being can do.

Where is the computer
that can walk
and talk
and think for itself
and engage with human beings
in a meaningful manner?

The answer is not George Bush:
I did say “able to think”.

The human capacity to learn
is a created miracle.

But where does all this learning start?

How does a human being learn?


A new-born baby learns who it is
by watching and listening.

In the first year of its life,
when it isn’t eating,
or producing smells that could strip
an Indian restaurant
of its flock wallpaper,
a baby is accumulating,
and utilising a vast quantity of information
from what it sees in the world around,
and it doesn’t stop!

Even as we grow
from being a baby to the people we are now,
we are adapting ourselves
according to what we see
in the world around us.

Every experience
imprints itself on our minds
and we are changed
according to how we react
to that experience.

We learn to use a lathe
because we see how a skilled professional uses it.

We learn to solve a quadratic equation,
because we see how our maths teacher
solves a quadratic equation.

We learn by what we see happening around us,
and we are changed
by how we perceive them.

“We evolve into the images
that we have inside our head.

We become what we see.”

[Jerry Mander as quoted by Henri Nouwen]

most of what we see is television
or lies on the other side
of a computer monitor.


We have a brain with
100 thousand million neurons,
which is capable of producing
internal thought pathways
which number 10
to the power of 2.5 billion.

So what is the raw material for its learning?

What is it that is shaping us
as we journey through life?


Grand Theft Auto?

Pop Idol?

The various and vapid spin-offs
from Big Brother?

Do we honestly expect to learn
what it means to be a human being
through what we watch on television?

It is truly depressing
the number of people
that believe that Coronation Street is real.

What do we hope to learn from soaps?

Perhaps they do provide some useful tips
for the correct way to start a fight in a pub,

or to commit perjury in the hope
of some carnal reciprocation

or deal with that awkward social situation
when your mother’s cousin announces
that he’s been having an affair
with your best friend’s aunt
but that he’s discovered he’s gay
and now wants to get friendly
with the family vet.


The only way we learn to live is
by living a real life.

The only way we can become human
is to make those images in our head
as close to the truth as is possible.

Some of us have friends on the internet.

We email,
we interact,
we “talk”,
we share information
–perhaps too much information.

But it is still only a half-world.

We miss information
in the way a person communicates
because we fail to hear
the subtle changes of pitch in the voice,
see the slightly worried look
on the face of a friend.
If we live our lives on email,
then we cannot get any more
than a coarse understanding of the people
our friends are.

There isn’t an emoticon
that can adequately express
“I’m glad to hear from you
but I’m slightly annoyed because
the cat has just coughed up a fir-ball
on the rug behind me.”


This all sounds harmless.



There are many young men
who see nothing but violence
and become both victim
and perpetrator of violent crime.

And this is in London.

They only learn from what they see.

What they see is a disregard for life.

What they see are
ways of getting what they want,
healing a wounded pride
even having fun
by violence.

Their own way is all they seeand getting it at all costs.

The result is a catalogue of names
of lives needlessly snuffed out:

Kodjo Yenga,
Kamilah Peniston,
Adam Regis,
Stephen Lawrence
… the list goes on.

The only hope that they have
is for someone to show them
a different
a better way of living.

They need to see
how respect for other people,
support from other people,
generosity from other people,
actually work.

They need to see this attitude in action
not taught to them in theory.

Who can show them?


“We evolve into the images
that we have inside our head.

We become what we see.”

Who are you evolving into?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Vox Populi Aut Vox Serpentis?

Sermon preached at St Peter and St Paul’s Church, Swanscombe on 20th May 2007, the Sunday after Ascension, based on Acts xvi.16-34.

Can you hear her voice?

There, at the back,
the slave girl in the grubby tunic,
can you hear what she’s saying?

Amid the toil and bustle of Philippi,
all the noises of the street,
all the crowd pressing and milling,
can you hear what she is calling out to you?

This is the girl
who is following St Paul and St Silas
as they preach the wonderful news
about the love of God for human beings.

Listen as she adds her voice to those of the apostles:

"These men are the servants
of the Most High God,
who proclaim to us
the way of salvation."

This girl is a marvel.

This girl is gifted with a voice of foretelling.

She can speak with the voice of the future,
and she is responsible
for the well-being
of many of the citizens of Philippi
because of what she says.

Last year, Hermas
the wine-seller
sought her advice over the grape harvest.

She told him it would be a bad year for grapes,
so he prepared himself. In fact not only did he survive the year,
but he also made a tidy profit.

That is why Hermas is richer now,
and happier,
all because of this girl and what she has to say.

He is not the only citizen of Philippi
to have benefited in this way.

So now, what is the slave-girl telling us?

"These men are the servants
of the Most High God,
who proclaim to us
the way of salvation."

St. Paul looks at her in that odd way.
Clearl he is angry.

A prayer to Christ,
a word from him,
and the spirit is cast out.

What’s so wrong with what she’s saying?


"These men are the servants
of the Most High God,
who proclaim to us
the way of salvation."

Isn’t this true?

Why is it that St Paul gets his dander up and casts the spirit out?

Surely the spirit was on the side of God – it was telling the truth wasn’t it?

Perhaps St Paul is jealous
that she is stealing his thunder.

After all, he is just a sexist who doesn’t allow women to teach.

What has he got to fear
from a little slave-girl
who has special powers and is using them
to agree with what he’s saying?

Can’t St Paul hear what this girl is saying?

Can't we?



It’s not the girl who’s speaking.

Listen carefully.

We cannot hear the girl at all!

We have not once heard her voice.

It is not the girl who’s talking,
it’s this spirit of divination,
a spirit that sees the future.

A spirit that has a name.

In Greek,
the spirit of divination is called Python.

In the Greek speaking world,
Pythonian spirits speak through people
using them like ventriloquists’ dummies.

For us less familiar with the beliefs of the Greeks, t
he word Python has only one meaning
– a large snake or serpent.

What images does that conjure up in your mind?


The girl is not speaking
through her own volition,
through her own belief.

She is being controlled by this spirit,
and this is what disturbs Paul.

God has created us to be free to worship Him.

For our lives to be controlled by others,
our choices made by someone else,
our mouths to speak someone else's words
is contrary to the will of God.

St Paul has a choice.

Does he believe the spirit,
or does he cast it out?

And what is Python saying?
"These men are the servants
of the Most High God,
who proclaim to us the way of salvation."

Can’t St Paul use this?


What Python says is perfectly true,
but that’s spirits all over.

If you want a false message to be believed
then you have to wrap it up tightly in what is true.

All spirits are aware of God.

Any spirit can speak of God,
whether they are good or evil.

An evil spirit will use the truth
to win people over
before slowly poisoning them
by twisting the truth very carefully.

These men are the servants
of the Most High God,
who proclaim to us the way of salvation."

It sounds okay,
but listen to the wider context.

The girl is not speaking with her voice.
Why should a good spirit prevent
someone speaking from their own will?

The girl earns a fortune for her masters.

The word of God is freely given to anyone who will listen.

The salvation that God gives
comes to us through Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Why then would a good spirit fail
to mention Him
but rather speak only of Paul and Silas
in the hope of making them seem more important
than the message they have to share.

The spirit has sought only
to tempt Paul and Silas with self-importance
to corrupt the message that Paul and Silas bear.

The spirit is removed.

The girl is free.


Last Thursday
we saw Our Lord ascend into Heaven,
leaving us without a physical presence
of God on the Earth.

How then do we continue
to live without Him telling us the truth?

How do we hear the voice of God
if there are Pythons snaking around us,
hissing half-truths into our ears,
telling us things which sound okay,
but are not?

There are even voices speaking
in the churches which sound okay,
but are not,
really not!

How do we cut through
the voice of the snake
to hear the voice of love?


The only way is to get to know the voice of Love.

The more time we spend listening to God
will we recognise His voice in our lives.

The more we pray,
the more we study,
the more we walk in the Faith,
the more we come together in Church
seeking Our Lord Jesus Christ in truth,
the more easily will we the Holy Voice of God.

So whose voice are you hearing now?

Friday, May 18, 2007

I’m right, you’re wrong.

Well, that’s the inevitable content of the phrase “I believe”: unless you believe what I believe, then you are wrong. Of course, this begs many of those wonderful logical paradoxes such as “I believe I am always wrong.” However, our beliefs in whatever religion/spirituality & c, involve us making a statement of fact which contains some integral premise that we cannot justify with empirical or logical evidence.

Even science is founded upon belief, that what we encounter with our senses, or can make some measurement to determine quantities, or can infer through the use of reason is in someway an accurate impression of Reality. It is possible for a scientist to hold to a religious belief since this requires making statements about some quantity that has an unobservable aspect which may or may not affect the observable universe. A Christian who happens to be a scientist may conclude that the existence of an unobservable God whose empirically observable effects are beyond the scope of scientific exploration, such as the Beginning of the Universe, or in the keeping track of the behaviour of countless billions of fundamental particles pinging about the universe like a colossally frenetic game of table-tennis – if indeed we can understand particles in that manner. It is impossible to observe the beginning of the universe: it is impossible for us to keep track of each and every particle in the Universe. There is therefore the necessity of belief, even among scientists.

And then of course there are people who disagree with your beliefs. Now, either they can convince you that there is an error in your belief, or not. If they cannot convince you of error, then quite clearly their belief is either wrong or at best incomplete. So now it is your duty to convince them of an error in your belief. Can you do so? If you can, then nothing changes for you and everything changes for the other; if you can’t then there is some form of stalemate. Worse, if your belief is diametrically opposed to the other, then only one of you can be right. But of course, your belief is still intact, isn’t it? If you really believe what you believe then you must believe that you are right, otherwise your belief makes no sense. Thus your belief has to be right, and the other’s wrong.

So what do you do now? Keep trying to convince the other person of your rectitude, or give ’em up as a lost cause?

So here is the dilemma facing Christians. How far can we tolerate other’s beliefs?

Now the word tolerate seems to have gained some rather interesting baggage, particularly among the Liberal wing of the Church. “Tolerate” really means “to bear”, “to put up with”, “to carry something which you regard as wrong in respect of another”. However, this last statement seems to suggest some form of capitulation to that which you tolerate.

Do we allow Moslems into our pulpits? Well, what’s the pulpit for but to spread the truth about Jesus Christ? How does a Moslem preach about Jesus Christ? Well, he doesn’t because he doesn’t believe in Jesus Christ as being the Son of God. It is debatable that the prophet Isa in the Islamic religion is the same person as the Lord. Certainly He isn’t believed in in the same manner in which we Christians believe in Him. Yet some parishes permit an Islamic person to explain their faith from their pulpits? Why?

It is important to engage in dialogue with others; that’s how beliefs are explored, tested and probed. But should this dialogue occur in the pulpit? What if one sits in the congregation in a flurry of doubt and hears the Islamic faith being preached and thus renounces Christianity for Islam? What service has that parish afforded to that one weak in the faith? It’s all done for the sake of tolerance. I say that the Islamic religion is incorrect, and Islamic person would say that the Christian religion is incorrect. Where we will agree is that our beliefs cannot allow us to do anything but disagree about the veracity of the other’s religion.

Surely, if we wish to engage in dialogue with an Islamic person, then it must be done on neutral territory, not in one another’s place of worship.

This is our basis for tolerance. As Christians, we have a duty to engage people in the Gospel of Christ. Realistically, we will preach better if we say nothing and live our beliefs to the best of our abilities. However, we are called to dare to find that neutral ground, walk into its centre and invite others to come into dialogue with us with the utter assurance that our faith gives us that the Christian Faith is the true Faith. We need to dare to enter into conversation, utterly respectful for the other’s freedom to be wrong, utterly mindful of the presence of God within any human being whatever the belief, but utterly prepared for heated discussion (if there is no heat then the discussion will be palliative and platitudinous). Then, at each adjournment of the discussion, we bring all that we gain from this discussion back to our Church and offer it up to God.

This is what the Church is for. The ministry of the Laity is precisely to bring Christ to the coal face of life and to bring that coal-face to Christ. How can we offer this ministry if we accept other viewpoints as possibly being right? Other views may be valid –possible logical alternatives – but if we sincerely believe what we believe, those views are incorrect, inconsistent, or incomplete.

Either we believe, or we don’t. What do you believe? Am I right?

Saturday, May 05, 2007

What is a liturgy for?

I answer this question cognisant of my lack of education on the matter. Do correct me!

Liturgies are a good source of division between Christians, and this is natural. The old formula lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivandi, is perfectly true; we will only live and believe what we sincerely pray. In a world where individualism is rife, we are presented with a multitude of liturgies that we are expected to follow. Each liturgy has the purpose to present us with a passage to God Most High in a way that is meaningful i.e. didactic, unifying, humbling and transcendent.

We have to expect a liturgy to teach us about God because that is the One Whom we are aiming to meet at the culmination of the Mass. We cannot meet Whom we do not know, and while we cannot know Him entirely, we can be brought to know Him better. We should be equipped by the liturgy with all that we need to prepare ourselves for the Truth Inerrant.

We have to expect a liturgy to be unifying. The words of St Paul “though we are many, we are one body because we all share in one bread” demonstrate the purpose of the Mass in the light of St John xvii. We come to Mass to become one with God and to be united in Him. Thus, although we may be individuals and indeed created to be individuals, we need to submit ourselves to the liturgy in order to say and mean that, in the words of Olivier ClĂ©ment, we are all “one human being in the multiplicity of persons”. We bring to Mass with us the complex welter of emotions and memories of our daily experience in the World. We bring with us the imperfections and limitations of our selves. While we seek unity, the potential obstacles to this unity are precisely our persons altered by the disparity of engaging with life which we have to reconcile when we come home to God in the Mass. True unity is something that can only be achieved by God, which is why a liturgy should be one that can be prayed despite who we are. The contents of our hearts and minds must be brought to bear on the task in hand – the worship and adoration (a wonderful word effectively meaning a divine kiss) of the One Who Is.

We have to expect a liturgy to be humbling. The point is that we come to God as we are, as imperfect folk. A liturgy should be something with which we can become familiar so that we can expect to be guided into recognising not only our shortcomings in the Kyrie but also the indelible dignity of love that we have been created to possess in that are permitted to offer Christ as Sacrifice to God through Christ the High Priest upon Christ the Altar. We have to be honest and real with ourselves in our relationship with God. He does not pretend with us, and that’s one of the many reasons that He has instituted the Mass so that we encounter God as He really is in the Consecrated Host. We do not understand that reality, but we understand that He is real. Likewise we have to understand ourselves as being real, not the strange beings that we create in our heads –humility is the key to that and liturgies must force us to realise our true position in the Universe.

We have to expect a liturgy to be transcendent, after all God is infinitely transcendental. (He certainly does not satisfy a polynomial equation – maths joke.) Not for nothing is the word Sacrament translated from mysterium. If a liturgy tries to explain what is going on in simple terms then it cannot be a liturgy. Part of our humiliation in the eyes of God is that we be confronted with the fact that something is happening that cannot be understood. There must be something in the liturgy that will make our minds boggle and wrestle, that will disturb our souls, that will bring a tremor to our knees as we try –and fail – to comprehend the truth that we are in the Presence of God Almighty. In the Western Mass Christ deigns to descend to us, in the East we are lifted up to Christ. The direction of movement we cannot understand for it is beyond the paucity of our dimensions, but nonetheless it happens.

The Liturgy must also transcend history, for we are all part of an Eternal Church where Time is meaningless because God has made it meaningless for us. Now has no meaning different from Then at Mass. We are presented with a different unity, one that spans the ages. As we offer the pax to the brethren whom we can touch, so must we offer our pax to the ones whom we cannot, those before us and those after us. As Christ Himself says, “the first shall be last, and the last first” thus rendering temporal positions and comparisons meaningless in the context of our Humanity.

In the Church of England, it’s easy to worship in a parish in which the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, and Collect for Purity, are habitually replaced with words that have been chosen to make the meaning of the Mass clear to the congregation. The language is basic and uncomplicated - but it does not inspire, it removes the necessity to engage the brain, it prevents people coming up to receive God with furrowed brow as they struggle with what this reality means for them. When the congregation speaks, it is to utter words of submission to love – “have mercy,” “glory!” “I believe,” “cleanse me.” A congregation responds to the love of God, not to utter a magic spell by going through the motions, a liturgy should not inspire automated responses.

However, that’s what we do – automated responses, wandering minds, grudges borne, selfishnesses acted on. I said below that our Masses are all imperfectly presented, but that they are all perfected. Indeed the perfection comes when all the millions of Masses that have ever happened are seen in the context of a single Mass which has taken place in the ages and outside all ages in the Mass in Heaven. For there the Perfect is always present.

I wait with interest for the expected motu proprio of the Holy Father on the Latin Mass will appear, for it seeks to present the Holy See with a better contact with those who are temporally before us. There is very little as humbling as the realisation that one is saying exactly the same words as millions who have gone before, and presenting oneself with them to God Who feeds us with the same food – Our Saviour, Jesus Christ. May the Church never lose this Truth.