REFLECTIONS: NEWSLETTER COMPENDIUM

By Revd Dr David Attwood

The Affluenza Virus

It’s tempting but risky for a preacher to sound off about temptations which he doesn’t feel very strongly.  That’s partly why I don’t often preach about “materialism”, and wealth and related topics.  Of course I feel the lure of money in my own way; but I am lucky enough neither to have to worry about it all that much, nor to feel the need to compete as some do.

I have just been lent the book by Oliver James entitled “Affluenza”.  It makes depressing reading.  The key concern which drove James, a psychologist, to write the book, is the fact that modern wealthy societies show more signs of depression and anxiety than they did a generation ago. He illustrates this concern with a series of case studies, and goes on to outline some of the causes and some possible remedies.  The book is quite anecdotal, much more told with stories than with careful argument.  But there is no doubt that he has a point.

The “Affluenza Virus”, as he calls it, is nothing new.  It is essentially the problem of valuing ourselves by comparison with others, and particularly by our wealth.  We set store not by what we really enjoy for its own sake, but by whether we are doing as well as other people.  The warning against the temptations of money is as old as history; and it is one of the biggest themes in the gospels.  Jesus was constantly warning against money.  Some of the things he said seemed to be directed at wealth in and of itself, saying that the poor will inherit the Kingdom; and implying strongly that the wealthy can hardly be saved at all.  This seems to spring from his concern that the concern for money blinds us to the things of God.  “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  It is so easy, he said, for our desire for money to prevent us from desiring God; for our work in the service of wealth to make it impossible for us to serve God.  Preachers usually sum this up by saying that the problem is our attitude to money, more than the possession of it.

One of the points of Oliver James’s book is that we should value things for their intrinsic worth; rather than because we possess them, or because others say they are good, or because they are a means to some other thing.  It sounds obvious enough.  But our society is permeated by values which effectively deny this simple insight.

Charles Darwin and the certainties of science

For many people, the rise of modern science has been a very strong reason to stop believing in God.  Belief in God, many think or feel, is a way of trying to account for all the mysteries of life, and all the things we  don’t know or don’t understand.  Now that we know and understand so much more, belief in the supernatural world becomes dispensable. Darwin was one of the key people in discovering how evolution took place, and he changed biological science for ever.  This was all the more significant as it helped understand how human beings themselves had come into being.  Unfortunately some clergy of his time opposed his theories (and some still do), and this helped to set up a false opposition between Christian faith and scientific knowledge.

I think the success of science has had another result.  Some of the technologies that have come about as a result of scientific knowledge have been dramatically effective.  Nowadays I expect things to work well, to be safe and reliable—my car, my heating, my computer and so on.  I have come to depend on these and many other things.  Mainly as a result of this, there is a tendency to think that everything can be like that, including the human institutions and even the     people around me.  This tendency is based on an illusion, and can be dangerous.

I could give many examples.  The quest for certainty is a major cause of the credit crunch.  As I understand it, one of the causes of the banking crisis was the aim of guaranteeing profits by using mathematical formulae.  The risks of    everyday banking were believed to be neutralised by various complex equations. We also seek for certainty in everyday life, looking (for instance) for infallible medicine, or complete regulation by officials in many areas. I could go on here about the limits of the concern for health and safety, and no doubt many other topics.  The quest for certainty and complete security can be more costly than accepting at some level that accidents sometimes happen.

But I want to come back to the nature of Christian faith.  Faith does itself no service if it tries to answer the alleged certainties of science with a similar kind of theological certainty.  This I believe is at the root of some versions of “fundamentalism”.  But although it is good (and important) to be confident about faith, this is always confidence rather than provable certainty.  Faith    belongs to our humanity, not to the technical realm.

Christ and the Credit Crunch

I know I am far from the only one watching the credit crisis unfold.  There is a horrific fascination to it all, perhaps because so many people’s livelihoods for the next few years depend on what happens.  I am also trying to make sense of it all – What is happening and why? Who is to blame? What should be done?

It looks as if there ought to be some easy pickings for the moralist!!  There are some rather obvious morals about greed and about debt; and about the unreliability of money as the chief goal in life.  But I would venture to say that any moralist who had not noticed that these were issues two years ago should not be proud of suddenly spotting a problem now.  Anyway, I think most people hate being in debt;  and the current crisis springs from some strange accidents in the financial markets.  Credit cards and mortgages are not the immediate issue here.

Jesus’ warnings about wealth were mainly directed at our tendency to trust in money, making it a top priority in life.  He said this was foolish, because (a) money does not offer true security (b) “you can’t take it with you”, and most of all the pursuit of money blinds us to the search for God, and prevents us finding a true way of life.

So what do Christ’s teachings have to say about the credit crunch?  Well we have all been surprised that even the banks, even the most reputable banks, may not always be ultimately safe.  Better than hiding the money under the mattress, to be sure, but still occasionally and scarily fallible.  Better put your trust in God than Lloyds or Barclays (no I have no crystal ball..!)

However, if I’m not mistaken, we trust in other human inventions even more than we do in banks.  We trust in human ingenuity and technology to sort out any problems that are more than 5 years away.  We feel we can devise techniques and systems that deal with any kind of future risk.  Ironically, one of the causes of the financial meltdown was the belief that risky investments could be made safe by clever methods of spreading them out.  When risks increased, the effect was to poison almost the whole system. My point is that there are some future threats we need to guard against now.

I think Jesus would (perhaps) say to us “Don’t think you can eliminate risk, and be entirely self-sufficient”; and also “Be wise. Read the signs, and take avoiding action to avoid future disaster”.  There are several dangers that could threaten our future: climate change: oil and water shortages: global imbalances between rich and poor.  Here are some risks which the nations need to consider carefully.  Whether they have the ability to work together to prepare against these risks is one question; whether they have the collective will to act together is another.  I actually think that the concerted action now being taken over finance is an encouraging sign.  It’s no more than a sign, but it’s still positive.

Writing about Art

I have just made the mistake of asking someone for suggestions what I should write about.  I hope the response wasn’t meant to be taken seriously – first “suicide”, then “house prices”.  My own ideas weren’t any better – clearing out junk, or failing that Sir Alan Sugar and The Apprentice.  (I know Sir Alan sets himself up as a kind of wealthy ogre; but I still remember him as the provider of ancient hi-fi amplifiers and then the Amstrad PCW, on which I wrote my PhD thesis about 20 years ago.)

Maybe I can do better than all these topics, or the many other gloomy possibilities that now occur to me.  The news isn’t going to help.  Nor, today, is there inspiration even in the lovely countryside around us – it’s cold, drizzly and dull in a biting easterly wind.  Perhaps I could turn to Christian faith, and the constant renewal of love life and energy in the presence and goodness of God.  But I’ve written directly about Christian faith for at least the last two months, and I try to offer a variety if I can.

I haven’t often written about art, I suppose partly because it’s difficult to write about, and partly because it is something which varies a lot in its appeal.  For some, it’s a closed book.  For others, different artists and different styles have their special appeal and insight.  Recently, for instance, I went to the “From Russia” exhibition at the Royal Academy .  It’s a collection lent by four Russian galleries; and it includes Matisse, Picasso, and other household names from the 20th century.  There were more paintings by the “Russian avant-garde”, which was a great flowering of art in Russia between about 1890 and 1920.  That got closed down by the 1930s, and Stalin’s disapproval.  Recently this art seems to have resurfaced, and various collections have travelled around Europe in the last few years. 

One of my favourites is called “Movement in Space” – a diagonal series of coloured bands, full of hope, life and movement.  I find this a totally affirming and heartening statement of human joy and victory.  (Well perhaps you can see why I don’t try to write on this topic . . .).

Another, which might be worth copying here, is “The Cyclist” by Goncharova. 

Privacy and the Past

You may have heard that David Attwood was a former boyfriend of Cherie Blair.  Apparently he gets a number of mentions in her book,  without him having any say about it, so far as I’ve heard.  Nothing to do with me; he’s a solicitor in Southport .

It did make me wonder for a moment how I would react if my own past was revealed so widely as this David Attwood.  Are we entitled to keep our own secrets and confidences, however big or however trivial?  As it happens, such secrets as I have are of even less interest than this one!!

The Bible doesn’t have all that much, in terms of quantity, to say about privacy, but what it does say is both interesting and very significant.

Possibly the first thing is that we cannot keep secrets from God.  We cannot cover up (as Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden), and think that somehow God will not know or notice.  Every word and even every thought is open to his gaze.  Not only that, our whispered secrets will be shouted from the rooftops, in a famous warning of Jesus.

If that were the whole of it, we would all be in trouble.  As Shakespeare said “Use every man after his deserts, and who would ‘scape whipping?”  We cannot live with this level of publicity.  Nor can we live with every incident, or every word, from our past. 

Here’s the second thing. The past is put behind us.  It is buried at the bottom of the sea, it is separated from us as far as East from West.  We do not have to carry its weight.  There’s a wonderful scene in Pilgrim’s Progress, where Christian’s burden rolls off his back and into a deep pit.  This happens at the cross of Christ.  This is not just an accident of Bunyan’s story, it reaches right to the heart of Christian truth.

Anyone who believes in Christ is identified with him.  We are raised with Christ, we have new life, we have the status of children of God.  And we are also identified with his death, and in that our old self is also put to death and buried.  So, one of the biggest things about the Christian life is the continued assurance that the past need not determine our present.  It is put behind us and forgotten – by God himself.

This can be harder than it sounds – but it’s one of the most exciting challenges of the Christian life, learning each day that we start afresh.

Brief Encounter

I’ve just seen Brief Encounter for the first time.  It is of course a classic film, famous because it is so good.  Everyone has heard of it, and seen references to it.  It was made by David Lean and Noel Coward, with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard as the suburban people who fall in love, though their affair is short and never consummated.

It is an old story about the decision made by people who fall in love; whether to follow that love or remain loyal to their present families.  It is set in 1945.  For some critics it is a weakness in the film that Laura and Alec give up their love, making the definite choice to be loyal.  I side with the other critics who say that the point of the film is the portrayal of the dilemma itself.  I also agree with the comment that this is perhaps the last time (1945), when such a dilemma could be portrayed in this way in film, and with this outcome.  To make “dullness” and loyalty triumph would have been cinematically impossible at almost any later time.

Here is one of the dialogues between Alec (Trevor Howard) and Laura (Celia Johnson):  

Alec     I love you. I love you. You love me too. It’s no use pretending it hasn’t happened cos it has.”

Laura    “Yes it has. I don’t want to pretend anything either to you or to anyone else. But from now on, I shall have to. That’s what’s wrong. Don’t you see? That’s what spoils everything. That’s why we must stop, here and now, talking like this. We’re neither of us free to love each other. There’s too much in the way. There’s still time, if we control ourselves and behave like sensible human beings. There’s still time.”

There are too many moral concerns in the film, too well portrayed, to make it worth offering any easy morals from it.  All I can say is that the telling of the story really brings out the strength, even in dullness and apparent stupidity, of the faithful marriage.  It’s so hard to get across in fiction, whether book, TV or film, how good an enduring relationship is.  Laura finally does keep her secret, and she does “pretend”, but at some level her husband does understand that she has been away and that she has “come back”.  Their relationship is a different kind of love from the brief “violent” love between Alec and Laura.  But it is just as much worth making sacrifices for, as the romance which is so deeply felt.

The Circumlocution Office

In an early episode of Little Dorrit Robert Hardy made a cameo appearance in the circumlocution office.  At least his character was quick to make clear that the enquirer would never get an answer to his question, however many circles he went around.  Nowadays it can be worse, as we think we may get some kind of answer.  A lot of people in Sundridge may have felt they belonged in Dickens’s world, when they tried to get help from BT when the phones were down.  I had a classic case the other day.  My freeserve email has been stopped without warning.  When I asked to make a complaint, I was told I could not complain as I had no account with them and the system could do nothing about my complaint!

Unfortunately many of us may have had the frustrating experience of working in one or other modern version of the circumlocution office.  The rules quite clearly tell us to direct someone to go elsewhere; but we are fairly sure they will do no better there either.  For all the failings of the Church of England’s administration (don’t start!), I have to admit this isn’t its characteristic problem.  You may get a sympathetic ear, or a straight “No”, or prolonged dithering and virtually no response; but you don’t usually get sent round in circles.  It’s understaffed rather than overstaffed, and there are pretty few layers.

But it set me wondering if I have my own version of circumlocution.  At the heart of the problem is the failure to take responsibility.  This runs pretty deep; as is made clear in the story of Adam and Eve.  Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent.  So, come to think of it, this is pretty typical for many of us.

When we’re young, we blame our parents for lumbering us with our faults.  Then we blame those around us.  “If only I had more understanding friends”.  “If only I had more efficient and reliable colleagues”.  “If only my boss was more than halfway decent” and so on.

Or, even more seriously, we blame God’s arrangement of our resources.  “If I had more time, there’s so much more I could do” (but I don’t do what I actually could do).  “If only God had made me more kind/ patient/ loving/ . . .”  I guess most of us can write our own excuses . . . .  Maybe it’s time to own up and do what is really within our power to achieve, usually more than we think.

The Olympic Circus

The 2008 Olympics have been a wonderful circus.  I have especially enjoyed the sailing.   Quite apart from the British successes, the races have been well televised, so one sees the boats as if close up, while also keeping some track of the racing positions.  Another unforgettable image has been the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, breaking world records in such style.  The TV coverage of such a range of sports has been impressive and addictive.

I don’t agree with the cynics who say that it’s simply a huge, expensive and nationalistic circus.  In fact, I believe that the acting out of national rivalries is possibly for the good.  It offers a way in which the nations can compete, demonstrating their skills and achievements, in a way where everyone gains.  In a serious sense there are no losers at the Olympics.  We are all part of a global show, entertained and dazzled by the talents on display.

But the next question is whether there is more to it than a giant circus.  Can the nations learn to work together on more substantial challenges than joining in this great world competition?  Can the nations discover here how to co-operate to meet environmental challenges?  Can we together learn more about fighting disease and poverty?  We should not dismiss this as foolish and naïve.  It is now about 30 years since the last case of smallpox, probably the only infectious disease to be completely eradicated. As recently as fifty years ago 2 million died each year from smallpox.  A concerted effort by the World Health Organisation was successful in less than twenty years.

Poverty and climate change are unquestionably much more of a challenge.  But the examples of the Olympics and smallpox ought to encourage us not to give up hope.  The nations of the world can work together; they can overcome  challenges which face us all in common.  And I believe that these smaller achievements can help us see how the bigger questions can be tackled.

For instance, the Olympics builds on a host of other bodies and traditions, in all the various sports.  Our response to climate change cannot be global “all at once”; different groups and countries will have to find ways forward which can then be effective around the world.  Each country, each business, each individual; all will in the end have to be included.  We must all start from where we are.  But if we give up hope, then we will be in a much worse state. 

This relates straightforwardly to the Christian hope. We live in God’s world, which he made and which he loves.  We are his people and he loves us and in Jesus Christ gave himself for us.  We should value our  world and all its goodness.  The Olympics are part of that goodness; and if they help us forward to bigger achievements the we should all the more give thanks for that.

Boasting of Weakness?

Being weak doesn’t win any prizes.  A leaky watering can is really not fit for anything.  Just at the moment being a weak bank is a catastrophe, not just a disappointment for shareholders.

The Prime Minister’s face is eagerly or anxiously scanned for signs of worry or unhappiness.  Just at the moment he needs to be strong and happy all the time anyone can see him!

There is, however, an important way in which weakness can actually be an advantage.  The strong person cannot easily sympathise with and support the weak.  Often enough, in order to help someone who is really struggling, you have to be in the same place.  I recently came across a striking example of this.

At a clergy meeting recently, two talked about their experience of Divorce Recovery Workshops. 148,000 divorces occurred in 2006 – involving nearly 300,000 people, not including children and others immediately affected.  The workshops, although often working from Christian motivation, focus straightforwardly on the practical and emotional issues following divorce or separation.  Both these clergy had become involved in leading some workshops because they themselves had been divorced, and they encouraged us all to be more aware of the needs of divorced people.  At the same time, both assured us that they would much rather never have been divorced.  But without that experience, they would never have become involved in helping other divorcees.

St Paul had a different reason for boasting of weakness.  His weakness made it clear that all the glory for his achievements should go to his Lord.  His successes in Christian faith were not to his credit, he insisted; he was like someone with treasure contained in an earthenware pot.  We would say today, like someone carrying thousands of banknotes in a supermarket carrier bag.

All we are asked to do, in the end, is to be honest.  But if we are to boast at all, then maybe better that we boast of weakness. Not that weakness is a good thing of itself.  But it can have its uses, to make it possible, or much easier, to share the load with others.  It also helps us to remember that we owe our strength, our successes, not to ourselves but to God and to his goodness. 

I should not finish this piece without a note about divorce. The Church’s way of condemning divorce has of course meant that many people do not look to clergy for help in this area.  For my part, I should make clear that I am always ready to consider the marriage of those who have been married before.  It is often said that “there is no innocent  party in a divorce”, but even if this were true, I am convinced the Church should actively express the reality of forgiveness in this area of life.

Global warming

The air seems to be thick with warnings of long term disaster to our planet.  It hardly seems,  oooh, only 25 years ago we were all having to worry about nuclear winter.  (Following a possible nuclear war, which did not seem impossible in 1980, it was predicted that the ensuing clouds and debris would darken the earth and bring about a new ice age.)  Now of course we face global warming, which could lead to the melting of the polar ice and bring about extensive flooding of many low lying cities built near the sea.  And this is only one of the more serious possible consequences of what perhaps we thought we might quite enjoy (proper summers in England , regular heatwaves and sunbathing at home . . .)

The Indian Ocean tsunami has reminded us more immediately of the fragility of the earth, and the reality of unpredictable and uncontrollable disasters.  A TV programme advertised a “supervolcano”, apparently overdue a major eruption, and the geologists have no doubt got lots of other scary suggestions up their sleeves.  On a different note, we hear directly about the devastating results of HIV/AIDS in Africa .  Already there are many many thousands of orphans, with the near certainty that there will soon be millions.  In this country, apart from trivial food scares, there is concern about Asian bird flu; and the government seems almost determined to build up the extent of the threat from terrorists or suicide bombers.

Clearly, one side-effect of all these worries is to reassure us of our own present safety, health and security.  Our worries about everyday problems perhaps shrink a bit when put by the side of future, or distant, troubles.  (Mind you, I was solemnly warned soon after moving in that the Rectory is subject to a flood risk – perhaps I should lay in some sand-bags??) 

Is there a middle way between alarm (or panic), and a flippant dismissal of concern, that is not indifference and fatalism?  All three reactions have their logic, but don’t seem to be quite the right attitude.  The response of faith should surely be calm, and practical, but also ready to acknowledge that terrifying things may happen.  There are no guarantees, except of the ultimate victory of God, and in the meantime his promise to give us the courage and the love we need. 

Jesus and Resurrection

I never went to see Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” at the cinema.  But I have watched the BBC “Passion” this week, the week before Easter.

It happens that I have to write this letter between Good Friday and Easter Day, before the final part is shown.

On Friday night the violent death of Jesus was shown, in the presence of his mother and some soldiers.  I have enjoyed the portrayal of Jerusalem and some of the minor characters, such as Pilate’s wife, and Joseph of Arimathea.  I have followed the story which I know so well, the story which forms the centre of Christian faith and which takes a huge proportion of the gospel writings.  On the whole I think they have made a remarkably good adaptation, faithful to the accounts we have but ready to give some background colour.

But now they have the hardest thing—portraying the resurrection itself.  It’s an event which is perhaps the hardest scene to convey artistically.  So I await to see how they will tell the story of the burial of Jesus and the finding of the empty tomb.  Well, of course they can do that.  But what of the appearances of the risen Jesus?

There are various things they could draw attention to.  First, that the disciples really didn’t expect this to happen at all.  Not only did they not expect it, they struggled to believe it when the stories started to be told of people who had met Jesus, seen him changed but recognisable.  The film might also tell the story through the eyes of the women—they were the first witnesses to see

Jesus alive.  That is one of the odder things about the resurrection stories, that it is women who first bring the news.  Was Jesus the first feminist?  Certainly, if these stories are made up, or some kind of strange wish-fulfilment, it is very hard to imagine that women would have been made key witnesses.  At that time the testimony of women was not considered worthwhile or reliable.

What I cannot reasonably expect the BBC film to show is the way those events after the death of Jesus revolutionised the lives of his disciples; and within a few years their activity had turned the world upside down.  The living presence of Jesus continues to change people, to this very day.

Happy Easter!

How not to meditate

I’m sorry to say that this month’s letter begins with a traffic jam story. Its not even a particularly good story, nor was I urgently trying to catch a plane / get to a crucial meeting / meet someone in distress, or even have any particular pressure that day. I was caught on the A25 for an hour and a half getting from the other side of Oxted to Sundridge. I had arranged to meet someone at the church on arrival, and by the time I realized I would be anything from 30-90 minutes late, he had already left home. But in the scale of things, it was not really going to hurt me or anyone else much just to sit there for an hour.

So did I make good use of the time? Did I think heavenly thoughts, and turn to communion with God? Did I think through possible sermon topics? Did I consider the things I needed to do, and make some mental notes? Or did I settle to listen to the radio (which had quite an interesting programme on at the time)? I have to tell you I did none of these things.

I fumed, I fretted, I got cross. I listened to traffic announcements telling me about the motorway tailback, which I was trying to avoid. I was annoyed when they said nothing about the trouble being caused on the local roads, including my own traffic jam. I kept recalculating the delay I might expect. I repeatedly hoped that the jam would ease after the next traffic lights (a forlorn hope). In short, I was thoroughly distracted and stressed. In my own defence, I could add that I am usually quite patient sitting in traffic jams, though certainly not serene!

I’m sure there are many lessons for me to learn from this, and many parables in this story. The one that occurs to me is that many of us get into this kind of harassed style from time to time. Not that I have any easy answers, or even any quick advice. But it’s a good time to offer the “serenity” prayer of Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, Trusting that You will make all things right, if I surrender to Your will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen. Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)

Christians Arguing . .

I know that for many people the recent angry debates within the Church of England do not seem relevant.  If the world Anglican communion breaks up, it will have fairly little effect on most of our lives.  Similarly with the debates about women becoming bishops, (which is unlikely to happen before 2014 at the earliest).  (I have tried to give brief account of these issues elsewhere in this edition.)

Nevertheless, there are many who are not committed Anglicans, or even of any Christian faith, who have been concerned and sad to follow the recent news stories and their accounts of rows and disunity.

We need not be surprised at the fact of disagreement. Christians frequently disagree on all sorts of questions, including pacifism, abortion, and other moral issues.  More often they disagree about doctrines. Doctrinal issues have been the cause of most of the abiding splits between churches, such as the nature of the communion service, the right time for baptism, the importance of bishops, and so on.  I don’t think there have been many abiding divisions caused by moral disagreements like the current issue about homosexual relationships.

One of the troubles with this topic is that on both sides of the issue a number of noisy people have become very angry and fearful.  There has been a good deal of shouting, both literal and metaphorical.  Some of the debaters have been concerned only to prove themselves right.  In argument they have too often seemed more concerned to find weaknesses in their opponents’ arguments, than to listen to what they have been trying to say.

The reason this debate has come to the forefront this summer is the ten-yearly gathering of bishops at the “Lambeth Conference”, which is taking place in Canterbury.  Archbishop Rowan Williams has annoyed some people by deciding that the conference would not set out to pass resolutions and make decisions.  Instead there is a chance for church leaders to pray, study and talk together.  It may even be that they can find ways in which Christians can agree to differ, rather than arguing at each other.  I pray that this may be so.

Heaven in ordinary

I’m not sure if the summer holiday is a good or bad time to make a new start in prayer. However, perhaps no time is necessarily better or worse, and there would be better excuses (though no really good ones). So here is a brief thought about prayer.

The striking phrase “heaven in ordinary” comes from a poem by George Herbert, entitled “Prayer”.

The poem offers a number of phrases – to say prayer is like “the church’s banquet”, or “the soul’s blood”. I have long known and loved the last line

“the land of spices, something understood”.

What does “heaven in ordinary” mean? It suggests all sorts of things. Perhaps most naturally, it means finding heaven in everyday life. It means prayer is a taste of heaven here and now.

To pray is to come consciously into the presence of God. It means to bring our requests, and our thanks, for the ordinary everyday things of life. Actually, our prayer should never grow out of this routine asking and thanking – reflected in the old custom of saying grace before meals. But it means more than this – at least it can do.

One of the things we should include in our prayer is a kind of reflection, a pausing to see where we have got to, and where we want to go. What are the priorities? What have we lost sight of? What has been learned? What have we gained, that we don’t want to lose? Heaven is to be found in real business, in practical things, in common routines. Its not just “another world”, something a million miles from where we live.

But is is heaven in ordinary too. George Herbert’s phrase has another depth to it. It is also that God, and the things of God, make their entry into our lives, if we will stop for prayer. Herbert seems to suggest an hour for prayer – but whether it is five minutes or sixty, and most of us I suspect need to start with five, God comes “in ordinary”.

A little yeast

One wet day recently, on my day off, I decided to bake some bread. It’s something I haven’t done for many years, nor did I ever do it very much. But enough to remember how to knead the dough, let the dough rise, knock it back, and bake it.

I used dried yeast, which worked fine. One thing I do remember is the way live yeast works. Mix the sugar into the crumbly little lump of yeast, and an apparently impossible reaction takes place, as the two solid things turn into foaming, bubbling liquid. I know that when I first saw this happen, I could hardly believe it. Then of course that liquid is the essential ingredient which makes bread what it is. Even when bread is made with dried yeast, it seems impressive.

One of Jesus’ shortest parables is about yeast: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until all of it was leavened”.

There’s no further explanation. The gospel writer places the parable after the one about the wheat and weeds (tares in the older versions), and the one about the mustard seed. The first is about God’s patience in judging wrong, and the second about the growth of the kingdom from tiny beginnings. The yeast in bread certainly teaches us patience, and about how a small bit of yeast leavens a lot of flour.

But I wonder if Jesus may not have had in mind the unstoppable nature of yeast. The yeast is also “hidden” in the flour – and the hidden nature of the kingdom is also something he spoke of in other places.

Sometimes we get discouraged when our efforts to serve, and to follow Jesus, seem to have little effect. Perhaps we feel that our good efforts are worthless, or overwhelmed by the scale of what needs to be done. Maybe we should be encouraged to realise the points of this parable. God is patient, he works from small beginnings to large endings. His work is hidden, and it is unstoppable.

The effectiveness of yeast is also demonstrated by the fact that my loaves of bread turned out quite well! Not perfect, but more than edible. Maybe there’s a moral in that too . . .

Clearing out

The Rectory garden is surrounded on all sides by trees and hedges. Good for privacy, and to keep out the wind, but they steal space, light and sunshine. You may perhaps remember there was also a small conifer just outside the front door, in the middle of the border along the front of the house. It’s not there now. Somewhat reluctantly, we thought it was past its best, and out it came. Quite surprisingly, the effect on the border has been dramatic, much greater than I myself had expected. Suddenly the whole border has taken on a different proportion, as you look along it, from one end to the other. The daffodils now in bloom at the far end were barely visible before.

But the little tree had to go, and all that remains now is the trunk, ready for next winter’s fireplace. This little drama has reminded me of the old sayings that less is more, and that the good is the enemy of the best. Sometimes we have to clear out even things that are good in themselves, because they take up space and attention which could be freed up for much better use.

There’s another relevant saying as well: “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees”. As I look through the window I can see a hedge, with the axe waiting for use alongside. But John the Baptist had more in mind than simply a make-over, a bonfire or a boot sale. For him it was an urgent summons to get ready for the arrival of the one who would bring God dramatically close. “Get ready,” he was saying in so many words, “to meet with God as you never have before. Yes, you are indeed God’s people, his chosen nation – but now he is coming to cleanse you in a completely new way. Are you ready for this?”

For John the Baptist, and then for Jesus, there could be no real question about the choice they offered. To be brought into God’s presence (in the “kingdom”), to be restored as children of God, to be free from evil, decay and death, this is worth paying a huge price if we have to. As Jesus said “What does it profit, to gain the whole world, and forfeit one’s life?” Lent is the time we set aside to review our deepest aims and desires, and if necessary clear out some things to give a better view of what is really valuable and attractive.

Politics and Religion

A few months ago my brother-in-law lent me some DVDs of The West Wing, the TV serial about the US President’s staff in the White House. Forgive me if you know the story, but for whatever reason I’ve never watched it on broadcast TV (I do have some other things to do than watch TV!).

The West Wing follows a group of senior White House officials through a series of events, decisions and crises. The scripts are excellent, the acting good, and the dramas on the whole seem credible both on the political and personal levels. We follow the individuals through various personal ups and downs, and at the same time see domestic, international, legal and party political events unfold. Sadly, it all seems more reassuring than real politics. . .

I mention this because many commentators reckon that the votes of right-wing Christians played a key part in the re-election of President Bush. This dismays me, partly because I had hoped Kerry would win, and partly because I don’t agree with many of the Christian views of right-wing Americans. Of course both religion and politics are very different from the British versions. British politics has always distinguished party politics very sharply from moral and religious questions, which US politics doesn’t do. And the Christian scene in the USA also looks very different in all sorts of ways.

But there are more points of contact between US and British politics than there are differences. There is a mixture of personalities and policy decisions, which I find fascinating. What will happen to Blair and Brown? How did Blair persuade so many people to back him over the war in Iraq? Will Michael Howard be able to commend himself to the electorate, and how will he try to do it? And so on, endlessly. I confess I watch all this a bit like a TV serial – a sort of real life version of The West Wing, but with the difference that this is our actual government, with real effect on our lives, our schools, our soldiers, our environment, our economy, and all manner of things.

I’ve just watched an episode of The West Wing where President Bartlet has to decide whether or not to reprieve a convicted murderer. His dilemma, and the result, is very convincingly portrayed.

Christians should continue to pray for those to whom we entrust so much responsibility.

Education, education, education . .

I’ve always enjoyed finding things out, learning new information, and new skills, and making sense of things. Learning seems to me to be one of the best things we can do. It almost doesn’t matter whether its trivia questions or the deep questions about the meaning of life, my own make-up or the love of God. So long as I can make more sense of the world this week than last week, that’s one of the important things to me.

Just at the moment I happen to have quite a bit to do, in small ways, as a governor of both our village schools. I’ve enjoyed things like visiting classes, going to governor training, as well as governors meetings. There’s no doubt in my mind that children now have far more opportunities at school. Not only that, but they’re more enthusiastic, they learn more, and age for age can do many things better than I could. (Not that I went to poor schools – just that things have moved along). So all credit to our schools and our teachers.

One very positive emphasis is that education is not about teaching so much as learning. Its learning which matters in the end. Does our education result in being able to make more sense of the world? Does it enable us to do things better, and respond more constructively to new tasks? Nowadays schoolchildren often check what they have actually learned. Very different from the old definition of a lecture “when information passes from the notes of the lecturer to the notes of the student without passing through the brains of either”.

We all need to keep on learning. I knew an elderly lady who read the newspaper from cover to cover. She rebuked her son, who is a senior professional, for neglecting the sports pages! Perhaps more seriously, there’s always more to know about God, and about ourselves. The Alpha course (next time?) might help you here. It’s the questions and discussion which are the vital part (wild horses wouldn’t get me to relate the hole I dug for myself last week!)

By the way, talking of trivia, that story (from last month’s mag.) about Winston Churchill being born during a dance sounds very dodgy to me. Is there any evidence for that? I know he was two months premature . . .

Europe

“Euro” is now a word with a number of meanings. It’s the currency I need for a holiday or a daytrip to France. It’s the football tournament – I write the day after England won their game against Switzerland – so it’s going OK just now. And it’s also a key word in the debate about Britain’s relationship to the European Community, symbolised both by the recent elections and the present debate about the constitution. It’s not so long ago we even thought we might adopt the Euro as our currency.

In the recent elections for the European Parliament, the main feature was the success of the UK Independence Party, who want to withdraw from the European Community. The new European Constitution is going to be the subject of a referendum, and all the tide runs against that at the moment. Since the Iraq war last year, talk of Britain joining the European currency has been quietly sidelined. On all these levels the political climate seems to say that we don’t really like being part of Europe.

However, look at our leisure and business lives, and a very different picture emerges. We go all over Europe for annual holidays, for longer and shorter breaks. People look to France and Spain for holiday homes, or to spend the winter, or to commute or move abroad for a few years or permanently. We enjoy all these benefits – even including only having to buy one European currency for all our travel!! Our business, our sport, our cultural lives, our food and many other areas of life have been immeasurably enriched by a positive, peaceful and secure international life.

The football tournament highlights both sides of this picture. On the one hand, we celebrate a cheerful football showpiece. Team mates from Arsenal, Real Madrid, Man Utd and the rest compete against each other for their countries. (Beckham’s penalty is saved by his old colleague Fabien Barthez!) But on the other, this celebration takes the form of intense rivalry and competition, with many nationalist symbols and occasional violence, (though to date there’s been mercifully little of that).

For my part, I am glad to be part of Europe. Christians take delight in international friendship, and are surely wary of a heavy concern for “independence”. We belong to one another, and depend on many many other places. The work of co-operation and unity is not promised to be easy, but it is surely essential and worthwhile. Of course there are detailed questions about laws, constitutions and economics. But I think we must put those in the context of a world which must go on learning how to hold together.

Meantime, our summer holiday in Italy is all arranged!

Faking It

This TV programme on Channel 4 recently featured a man who learned to play polo in four weeks. Not only had he never ridden a horse before, after four weeks he played the game well enough for a group of experts to be unable to spot him!

The programme fascinates me for a number of reasons. As you probably know, someone takes up the challenge of learning a new skill, at a fairly high level, in four weeks. Apart from some basic aptitudes, (such as being fit, or musical) they know nothing of the new field before they start. A burger stall man learned to be a chef at a top restaurant. A curate became a car salesman; a cello student a DJ, and so on. Each is assigned to a mentor, someone expert in the field, and they are given a lot of help with clothes, appearance, speaking the lingo and so on. Sometimes they don’t quite make it, which encourages us to believe that the programme itself is genuine!

As we see someone learning a new discipline, we see how it’s done, which is almost always fascinating. Being a top chef seemed only partly about actual cooking skills, and partly about creating new combinations of foods, but a great deal about taking control of a busy, high-pressure kitchen with a lot of staff. This required a lot of confidence, and was clearly difficult. To help build confidence, the would-be chef was made to referee a game of football, in which his mentor Gordon Ramsay fouled shamelessly and needed to be sent off!!

Another attraction of the series has been the people who have been mentors. They have shown persistence, frustration, hope, despair; they invariably work hard at the job of teaching and inspiring. The quality that has been most evident has been their warmth and generosity. For some reason, its not easy for television to show simple generosity and goodness. The human warmth, affection and love which actually plays a central part in most people’s lives is not the stuff of drama. Most fiction depends on various human flaws to give it its cutting edge. Faking It gets its dramatic tension from seeing someone pushed very hard to master something difficult in a very short time. In this setting the mentors come across as generous and kind, often going the extra mile to help their protegees.

Above all, the fascination for me lies in seeing people learn, grow and change. The people of Faking It have gone through some extraordinary transformations in a very short time. Its not just that they’ve learned a new skill, they often learn a great deal about themselves. They find they can do and be things they had never dreamed of. Its not as if these are “special” people – just occasionally they have a hidden talent waiting to be found, but not usually.

Each of us can be changed – that’s also the message of the Christian gospel. More than that, each of us needs to be changed, because we have to become like Christ. That is the destiny which God has for each of us. Only as God’s children, as brothers and sisters of Christ, do we belong to his kingdom. We too can be liberated from the things which hold us back from becoming like Christ. Perhaps one of the best lessons of Faking It is that by setting ourselves to reach a particular target, we can get much further than we ever expected. If you keep Lent, perhaps you might think of setting a target – to achieve something, rather than simply give something up.

Christmas gifts

There are lots of gifts I would like to find in my Christmas stocking in 2003. Some of them I probably will – I’ve more than hinted at one or two of the books I’m hoping to get!

There’s also a parlour game, where you can ask for what you like – things like world peace, or an end to hunger and illiteracy, or basic medical care for everyone. Maybe there actually are some things we can do to help some of those things along, at least for a few people. Some charities are suggesting that among our gift list is a gift for some of the poorest. The Barnabas fund is still getting badly needed aid to Christians in Iraq, for instance. Our own Christmas collections will go to the Armonia project, and the Sharp school. (Armonia is the word meaning “harmony”; and the project works in Jalalpa, a very poor part of Mexico City. The Sharp Memorial school for the blind is in India,).

But in between a book, and world peace, there are lots of things I would like. There are the plain ambitious – such as seeing everyone who comes to church at Christmas find Jesus to be alive for them today. For the Jesus we worship as a baby was, and is, much more than a baby. The risen Christ calls us today to revalue everything we do, in the light of God’s salvation.

Or the middling ambitious – seeing our projects for both church buildings suddenly funded, with ease and goodwill all round! Or that some particular people find their life better, in some crucial ways, than it has been this year.

Then there are some impossible ambitions, or dreams, such as abolishing illness and pain. But this might not be desirable, and anyway is included in the promise of “a new heaven and a new earth”. More modestly, I’d quite like to be a different person in various ways, more gifted (not within my control), or more virtuous (which is within my control to some extent). So many things I’d like to be given – perhaps Christmas is a good time for this kind of dreaming. Who knows, maybe you can help someone’s dream come true, or even one of your own.

Happy Christmas!

Making mistakes

“We all make mistakes”. I tried to comfort myself with this thought when someone pointed out to me that the church Easter card had put April 18th for Good Friday, not April 9th. Oops!

Nor was this for want of checking, or with any sense of rush and haste. I had simply not seen it – over and over again. Now there’s very little that hangs on this error, if indeed anything at all. But there are, as we know, mistakes that can have huge consequences. Mistakes by police, security officers, medical staff, railway engineers, anyone in a factory or building site, social workers, clergy, anyone who drives – all of these people can make mistakes which can cost lives.

Now there are mistakes, and there is carelessness and wilful risk-taking. One can make a mistake driving – but its more likely if we use a mobile phone at the same time, or fail to maintain the car properly. We can break speed limits, and perhaps often get away with it – but it increases the risk and the danger. Any “mistake” that then happens deserves to be blamed.

But there are mistakes made by conscientious people, working carefully with the right tools and procedures, which can still have huge consequences. We can never eliminate error, though we are right to “learn from our mistakes”. But we also have to live with those mistakes, and their results. We need to be able to forgive ourselves, and those whose mistakes or wrongdoing have injured us.

Let me briefly reflect on this. Mistakes, honest mistakes, are a part of human life, and we cannot eliminate them. In trying to do so, we search for a security which only God can offer. Finding our security in God enables us to trust one another (and not to have to check up on each other so constantly that we destroy trust). Trust in God also gives us a place from which we can forgive. We can forgive because we are accepted and forgiven, and so have a place of security. I am not at all sure that a purely secular morality can ever really find a place for forgiveness. (I don’t mean to say that people without religious faith can’t forgive.)

Where does the clown come into this? I’ll have to leave that with you.

Addicted to sport

I can’t pretend I didn’t watch the Olympics. I didn’t mean to before they started – well just a little, perhaps. Like everyone else, I hadn’t even heard of synchronized diving. Until we won a medal, that is. So, like at least half the population, I struggled to understand how the cycling races worked, despaired with poor Paula Radcliffe, cheered for Matthew Pinsent and that neck and neck boat race, and marvelled at Kelly Holmes as she won those races with such seeming control and grace.

Its curious that the less I play any sport the more I enjoy watching it. Oddly enough I was playing cricket one day when there was a crucial race – one of Kelly Holmes’s finals. I enjoy playing much more than watching – even when my contribution to the game is as modest as it was that day. (All I can say is I wasn’t out first ball.)

Two things strike me about this. One is that it’s a common observation that its much more tense watching a close tennis match than actually playing it. The other is that I find a real difference between watching sport when you’re actually there, and watching it on TV. The odd thing is that in many sports you get a better view on TV – for instance cricket or tennis – but I’d always much rather be there if I had the chance. TV sport is quite a pure form of escapism – I find I forget most of the things I watch within a few days (but, I hasten to add, not the Olympics highlights, or last year’s Rugby World Cup.)

There’s a lot to be said about escapism. JRR Tolkein defended escapism, in what he called fairy stories – making imaginary worlds. But for him there was a point to his writing – he claimed that it was precisely in order to make the real world seem even more real. He wanted woods and grass and stone to delight and amaze us. As we think of other worlds, we appreciate how wonderful the “ordinary” world actually is.

That probably is a good test of our various addictions and escapisms – do they enrich our experience of reality, or do they enfeeble us? While I think about that, I must go and catch up with the current score in the Ryder Cup… 

Owning up

We all know people who will never admit that there is anything the matter with them; or if there is they can certainly look after themselves very well. On the other hand there are those who only have a small cut or bruise before they are at death’s door. (There was a letter in The Times recently from a mother whose son had helpfully explained why men suffer worse from illness. Since men are on the whole bigger than women, they obviously are going to have more germs in their body!)

I have a very dear aunt who comes into the first category. She did recently admit to me that she comes into the class of people who could be called “a tricky patient”. This may understate things. Perhaps it needs also to be said that she has managed remarkably well on her own for some years, in spite of refusing most of the help and advice of relatives, neighbours, friends, medical staff, and church people. Still, we persist in worrying how she will manage if something goes wrong. In the end, she has accepted the help she needs, but still also refuses it when she doesn’t want it.

It’s not an easy balance to strike. We either cling to the pride of thinking that we can manage fine by ourselves, or we make a tremendous fuss, and make everyone run around doing errands for us. There are many variations on this, some of them quite subtle – I’m sure I’ve used some quite good tactics myself from time to time!

We have a similar balance to strike when we put ourselves in the presence of God. Some of us insist that there is nothing much we have to reproach ourselves with, no moral illness we can’t handle on our own. For others, we have so much wrong – for which we accuse ourselves. Maybe we continually look for moral medicine, various remedies and forgivenesses, or maybe, more worryingly, we believe ourselves to be unforgivable. (I know the Church sometimes gives the impression there are all sorts of sins of this kind – unforgivable sins, that is.)

Just like treating someone who is ill, it’s very difficult for us to get better until we own up to needing help. I suppose we are all “tricky patients”, one way or another. The good news is God keeps on waiting for us . . . .

Roots

One of the characteristic things about our society, our country today, is that it is in many ways rootless. We are very mobile, the pace of change accelerates all the time, and old customs and knowledge are lost. Even when we keep the old ways, we change them to suit ourselves. Bonfire night isn’t usually kept on November 5th – it stretches on for weeks!!

More seriously, the deep roots of our civilization have been cut or damaged a long time ago – more than ten or even fifty years. It probably goes back for hundreds of years. Philosophers give different views about where this started, but they agree that the modern age started to happen many generations ago. Partly it was the weakening of Christian faith as an essential aspect of public life, but it goes much wider even than this.

As an aside, one interesting reaction to our loss of roots is the great interest in our history, especially local history; and with that the excellent concern to preserve as much as possible of our heritage. However, rather than pursue this line of thought, here is the story of the chestnut trees at the entrance to our house.

There are three trees growing close together. Two are horse-chestnuts, and one is a sweet chestnut. When you look really carefully, you can see that most of the canopy comes from the sweet chestnut, and that the two horse chestnuts are both very poorly. Dead branches have been falling off at intervals for a while. There are very few conkers, but lots of prickly sweet chestnuts. The person who worked this out is a professional tree expert, who happened to be visiting. He then went to look at the base of the tree, near the road, and explained to me that you can see where the roots were cut about ten years ago. (I wonder if this was when the garage was erected, and the drive altered.)

Apparently when you cut the roots of a tree like this, it typically takes about ten years for the tree to be seriously affected. But the two horse chestnuts are now dying, and I think will have to be cut down in the foreseeable future. Which leaves me with the question. If a tree can survive ten years with damaged roots, how long can a civilization last when its roots are cut? And can it regenerate its roots, or grow new ones?

“Nearly Everything”

I suppose that coming back from Florence I should write about the great art treasures. All that wonderful Renaissance painting, sculpture and architecture!

They probably had more impact on me, but I also enjoyed the holiday reading – among which was A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson. Perhaps you’ve already read it, or read the reviews. It is a remarkable book, full of interest and instruction, and full too of neat jokes and stories. It travels from the massive scale – the age and size of the universe, and the (much smaller) age of our planet, and the (smaller again) history of life, and again much shorter, the age of human life. Even in the scale of human life on earth, the few thousand years of known history are only a small fraction. Bryson also emphasises how improbable is the chain of events that has led to our existence today.

He does the small scale as well. I enjoyed his account of the living cell. He gives a fairly scary account of all the thousands of things all going on continuously, at a breakneck pace. “The proteins are especially lively, spinning, pulsating and flying into each other up to a billion times a second. Enzymes, themselves a type of protein, dash everywhere , performing up to a thousand tasks a second. Like greatly speeded-up worker ants, they busily build and rebuild molecules, hauling a piece off this one, adding a piece to that one.” (p.457)

Books like this raise different reactions and questions for me. I struggle to get any sense of scale – how small we are, compared to the overall scale of things. At the same time, how big we are, compared to atoms, molecules, or the cells we are made of. Then I wonder if God is big enough, or old enough, to know about all of this, let alone to be the origin and creator of it all. Then I swing to the opposite response – how can I approach a God who is as big and mysterious as this wonderful universe? And there’s the sheer awe-inspiring wonder of the world – something I thought I knew something of, but am reminded how little I do actually know.

Then again, my responses are very close to those of Job – the man who was also struck with all the things we don’t know about the scale of the world, the mysteries of life, the smallness of human power and competence. God asked Job “Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this. Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness?” (38. 18-19). If it’s true that we can now answer some of the questions that baffled Job, our answers have told us that there’s even more we can’t get our heads round.

Our knowledge of science has robbed many people of religious faith. But faith was never meant to fill in the gaps of what we understand. The response of awe at our awareness of the vastness of the world can prompt us towards faith. God is even bigger than we had always suspected. 

WEDDING BELLS

“Four in every ten babies now born to unmarried parents” – a report this month from the 2001 census. That’s just one of the recent news headlines around the subject of marriage, partnerships and cohabitation. In only thirty years marriage customs have gone through a sea-change, which may not yet be complete. The change is from marriage to co-habitation, in various ways. For some it means a permanent partnership, without the benefit of wedding promises. For others it means postponing marriage, sometimes till the birth of the first or second child. For others again it may mean an unwillingness to take on the commitment of marriage at any stage, or the risk of intending a permanent relationship.

Far too many issues and questions are raised to discuss here. Here are two brief comments. The first is that what is happening is a change of social custom, with some pros and some cons. For me, and for the older Christian-based custom, the negatives outweigh the positives. The older custom embodied the Christian teaching that a partnership of love should be committed and permanent. Only sometimes does that happen in an unmarried partnership – and one of the supports for that partnership is missing. Whichever custom a couple decides to follow, the most important question is one of substance rather than custom. And the substance is about the depth and honesty of the mutual commitment, where a permanent, committed and exclusive relationship is the ideal. It is fundamental to society, and especially to the care and upbringing of our children. So the dramatic increase in babies born outside marriage must be a concern for everyone.

The second comment is that the Church of England is losing out in this area. At present, it seems to me, we do too little to encourage weddings. While the rules for state weddings have become much more easy-going, the Church has stuck by its old rules about qualification for marrying in the local parish church. While there are reasons for this, and while there are some modest changes in the pipeline, the whole set-up still gives a negative and unwelcoming message, which I much regret. I hope that over the coming years the Church of England will use its huge resources much more fully to encourage and support people getting married.

On a separate but related topic, the PCC will shortly be discussing the question of remarriage in church for those who have divorced. Do please let any member of the PCC know your views about this – I know they will do their best to pass your views on.

And there are two completely unrelated personal topics. Many thanks to all who have kindly asked after the Rectory. Repairs and redecorations are all but complete for now. A new phase of work is due to happen sometime in 2003 – but for now we are fully moved in and settled! The other is my day off. This will be Tuesday, the same as for Brian Godfrey; but occasionally I will change it for a Saturday. Don’t worry too much about phoning – I’m happy enough to leave the phone unanswered on a day off, and I’ll return calls as soon as I can.

With all best wishes for 2003,

“The Real World”

I have a problem with the phrase “the real world”. The way we use this phrase can often imply that the most important things in our lives are in some way unreal. I don’t think this is just a quibble, as I will try to explain.

The “real world”, I suppose, would be the world of industry, and would include some of the following things. It would be dirty, often rough, harsh, competitive, unforgiving, a place for the tough, the hard, where there are no hand-outs. A place where people work for their own survival, and sometimes where life is “nasty, brutish and short”.

So the real world is a place of physical reality, and excludes ideas of softness, of sharing, of caring for the weak, of protected and provided for environments. It is male rather than female, material rather than spiritual, individualistic rather than community-minded.

Once one starts to look at it, it’s clear that not many people actually belong to the “real world”. I had a student once, training in college for ordination, who was caught up in four “unreal” worlds at the same time. Theological colleges are certainly not in the “real world”. His background, and continuing pursuit, was in the rather geeky world of computing – obviously “unreal”. His baby daughter had a serious heart defect, and was fighting for her life in hospital – a place that seemed something between a dream and a nightmare. (She not only survived but flourished, and is now a happy schoolgirl.) Consequently, life at home had a very unreal feeling as well, as they lived suspended between hope and despair, between life and death.

This is more than a quibble, because of course we do all live in the real world. Our own life is our own reality wherever we happen to be. Whether we are are busy and successful, or whether time just ticks by, we all have the task (and it is a task, to a large extent) of learning to live in the present. This means being still with ourselves, and before God. When we are busy, it’s important to look for a few moments of quiet each day. It can be difficult, but it is time repaid in many ways. I’m fairly sure that it’s more difficult, paradoxically, to be still and reflective, when we are not busy. It’s very difficult in times of uncertainty and waiting.

I’m not suggesting that you wait for Good Friday to do this – but the day when we remember the death of Christ may be a special chance to find some deeper quiet, and that important side of “real life”.

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