Friday, 30 December 2011

Loving This Passing World ...

A Homily for Holy Communion on
Friday, 30th of December, 2011, 9 a.m.

for the Sisters of the Love of God
Fairacres Priory, Oxford

Readings: I John 2:12-17 & Luke 2:36-40

Loving This Passing World

+ May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.

To say that you have a favourite New Testament scholar is tantamount to admitting that you don’t get out much, but mine is the late Father Raymond E. Brown. Stumped by today’s readings, I turned to the little of my library that lives with me and was delighted to chance on his “Introduction to the New Testament” for some light on the epistle reading. I was not disappointed. His gift was to ask questions about the texts which seek to discern the story behind them in such a way that surely even the most bull-headed, or even bone-headed, fundamentalist could only find fascinating. We may end up feeling we can be certain of less, but wondering more, about the mystery of God revealed in Christ.

What catches my ear about today’s epistle reading is “You must not love this passing world or anything that is in the world”. Taken literally, or perhaps really I mean obviously, this is pretty stark. What, really? Nothing? Is there nothing good in creation? Why ever would God have been born incarnate and died to save a passing world? And here’s the glimmer of light to which Father Raymond directs us (I must call him that, as “Father Brown” sounds like an amateur detective) – the writer knows that we have heard the Good News. Like anyone with a short space of time for talking or writing, he must be concise, and being concise means leaving things out, letting the audience of listeners or readers fill in the gaps. We know that God loved the world enough to send his son to it; we know that we are to love one another, because God loves us just as Jesus loved his disciples; we know that God took real human form, was seen on earth and went about among us. What is meant here is the mistake of loving what is passing, rather than what is lasting – the sensual body, the lustful eye, pride in possessions – these things are passing, but the love of God shown in Christ, in creation, and in one another, is not.

Father Raymond suggests that John the epistle-writer is drawing a picture of a church in schism, and those who have left are the ones who count the material world of such little worth that, perversely, they have ended up cherishing its trinkets more than those left behind, who are seeking to do the will of God in this fallen world. After all, if things have no real value, why not have lots of them? If the body has no significance, why not help yourself to other people’s? Teachings like John’s have been part of our culture for so long that it is difficult at first to see what on earth he is on about – aren’t these things obvious? But watch the television, particularly the sensuality of the adverts, or even of the hoardings advertising the otherwise innocent South Pacific in this fair city, read the news of the money-makers in the city, and we swiftly see that these lessons have been widely discarded. “Why bother about my brother’s welfare, when he’s going to be saved anyway? And now I shall help myself to a few more million quid before going down to the gym, and dazzling everyone with my amazing fitness – as I’ve no need to be good, I might as well be looked at”.

“Fit for life” the slogan goes, but which life? The life of the world that is coming to an end? Or the life that remains for ever, even after we must exchange time for eternity? You choose, says John; choose God’s life, as he chose ours. Amen.

Richard Haggis
December 2011

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Fussing About Words 2: "Love Child"

When I was staying with my parents there was an item in the Daily Mail about a supposed "love child" of the late Sir Jimmy Savile (and presumably there was a mother involved, too - here's the link if you care, and your computer doesn't automatically filter out the Daily Mail -

I'm 45. My parents have been married for 47 years, and at present my mother is my father's 24-hours-a-day nurse as he is laid low by cancer. At 65, that is no easy task, and it is borne without complaint, in fulfillment of vows made, and meant, many years ago.

My mother once told me "we have loved you since before you were even born". I mean no disrespect to the lady in question but, of the two of us, which is the "love child"?

Fussing About Words 1: Does Prince Philip Complain?

Fussing about words 1: did Prince Philip really "complain" about chest pains? I can imagine him observing that he was in discomfort, but I don't see him as a "complainer". Or do we just use that language because we speak of various indispositions as "complaints"?

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Change is in the Air

A Homily for Holy Communion on
Wednesday, 21st of December, 2011, 9 a.m.

for the Sisters of the Love of God
Convent of the Incarnation, Fairacres, Oxford

Gospel - Luke 1:39-45

“Change Is In The Air”

+ May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Perhaps you know the feeling of a having a song in your head, quite unbidden, which won’t go away? It happened to me yesterday as I travelled back from Sussex after a week with my parents, after my father had received a diagnosis of cancer. I rarely listen to modern songs, I’m more of a Bach and Tallis sort of person, with the occasional burst of Cole Porter, and Flanders and Swan, but this song in my head was insistent, and it was insistently wrong. The words were “change is in the air”. The right words are “love is in the air”. But it seemed that even the wrong version might be right.

Looking at this morning’s reading, about the Visitation, it seemed that surely both Elizabeth and Mary could have joined in humming “change is in the air”. It made me wonder – and let’s be simple Bible Christians for a moment, and lay aside our theological wisdom and ingenious New Testament analysis – whether there were others too, in that week before the Incarnation, who were aware that “change is in the air”.

Were Joseph’s neighbours – doubtless preparing his dinner while Mary was away, as surely a man, then as now, couldn’t possibly look after himself – wondering “what’s got into him? The child can’t possibly be his, and he doesn’t seem to mind”. Did they know that change was in the air?

Or further away, in the fields around Nazareth, or Bethlehem – remember, we’re being simple Bible Christians here, and it doesn’t really matter which – was there a shepherd saying to his colleagues, as they tended their sheep, themselves anticipating the lambing of early Spring, “you know, something’s going to happen this year, there’s going to be a change”. And did his friends raise their eyebrows, and a wineskin, and mutter, “he’s off on one again”?

In Herod’s palace were the obsequious and frightened flunkeys looking at their ailing monarch, and wondering what would happen next? “Look at his sons, the lightweights, there’ll never be another Herod like this one”, pondering where their bread would be buttered in the future? Change, but no credible heir.

And most of all, the Magi, already on their saddled camels, and heading from the East, they knew that change was in the air – they’d seem it in the sky, the star, promising a change so momentous that they wanted to be there to see it; leaving behind the monotonous grind of conjuring for lives and deaths anticipated or willed, spells and potions for cuckolded husbands, and barren wives, or whatever it is that Magi do all day. Change was in the air, and even their camels could smell it. Doubtless everyone else could at least smell the camels.

“Change is in the air”. Most of us don’t like change, but God does. To God it is not “change and decay, in all around I see”, but “new every morning”. And every year God reminds us afresh of the newness of life that is all around us, and epitomised in the birth of Jesus, for, as John Donne put it “all Divinity is Love, or Wonder”.

“Change is in the air”. To mis-remember another popular saw: in Advent, God tells us to “wake up, and smell the camels”. Amen.

Richard Haggis
Littlemore, Oxford
December 2011

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Think Twice, For "He Who Dithers, Is Lost"!


Sunday, 13th of November, 2011

Think Twice, For, “He Who Dithers, Is Lost”!

This was a favourite saying of my first mother-in-law; well, mother-out-law, I suppose, in those barbaric days. She was of the opinion that if presented with a choice, we must make it swiftly, or lose the chance to choose at all. In one of the parishes I served there was a retired military man who had the same view – “always act as soon as you can – if you get it right, you’ve got it right straightaway, and if you’ve got it wrong, you have longer to put it right again afterwards”. Such temperaments and philosophies attract me; my own disposition is very much of the opposite kind, although it seems harsh to call it “dithering”.

Overheard, on the cycle path from Littlemore to the ringroad supermarket, two young ladies in conversation: “So, that’ll make him think twice next time, won’t it?” To think twice is the very opposite of being the dithering loser, it suggests a careful mulling over of the means available to bring something about, and the likely consequences of doing so. In the heat of the moment, you may want to belt your partner in the chops, but think twice, and you realise not only would it be both a crime and a sin (that’s lose-lose, as the Americans and other children would say), but would consume you with guilt, and not actually solve the problem at all, in the long-term at least. Think twice.

I remain torn between the two. When offered my first curacy in Romford my instinct was to say Yes straightaway. I later learnt that that is what the vicar was hoping I would do. But the brain said No, wait, consult, see what other people think. I consulted the wise, and they could put up no obstacle. Two days or so later, I accepted. When I was offered the chaplaincy post at Cambridge I tried the same thing. The wise said No. I was too flattered by the offer to listen. It was a mistake – notwithstanding that I made some good friends there, and heard many fascinating stories. The difference was that in Romford my future colleagues did want me there; in Cambridge, they were at best indifferent. When my sister came with me to look around the place, she said of the chapel “isn’t it cold?” She was spot on. And I knew it at the time; that isn’t hindsight. But I dithered, and was lost.

The favourite nun, who over the years has become a spiritual adviser and a friend, says the goal of discipleship is to draw the mind down into the heart (and how typical that the mind so often regards itself as the loftier party, rarely deigning to trot down the stairs to the heart’s quarters), so the two can act, and be, as one. Easier said than done, of course. The heart may have its reasons, but the mind may well think they are not very good ones. The mind may have its plans, but the heart may find them, well, heartless. Somehow an inner dialogue must begin which tries to draw together the best of ourselves, for the sake of ourselves, and a very selfish and navel-gazing exercise it can seem, too, except that without it, we can actually be selfish and navel-gazing, and make mistakes that simply make work for others as they have to pick up the pieces of our folly and neglect.

I dithered about writing this letter, until something rather unusual happened very late on Thursday night/Friday morning. I interfered. I very rarely do this in anyone else’s life, I am not a giver of advice (they only blame you when they haven’t listened properly, don’t follow it through, and everything goes pear-shaped), but my father’s health was causing me deep concern. In my presence the specialist in charge of his case had said if he got any worse, my parents were to contact him, and he would do all he could to speed up the process. He was getting worse, and I knew they would do nothing until the next appointment, but there was a weekend looming, and no time to lose. So, I got in touch by e-mail, and by return the timescale for his operation was reduced to “probably next week” rather than “maybe in two to three weeks”. This is a timescale that matters. Did I dither? Well, yes, for over two hours, in the dark small hours, with no one to consult, not even the wise, yes I did. We are still in the woods, but now we have a path. I do not regret it.

It is a truism and therefore unremarkable, hence I am remarking upon it, that it is easier to see solutions to other people’s problems than one’s own.

May all your ditherings lead to gain, not loss, your second thoughts be of gratitude, not regret. And, failing that, what the hell, there’s always tomorrow!

With love
Littlemore, Oxford
(December 2011, but written earlier)

Friday, 2 December 2011

Except the Lord build the House ...

A Homily for Holy Communion
at the Church of SS. Mary and Nicholas, Littlemore
Thursday, 1st December, 2011, 7.30 p.m.

Readings: Psalm 127 & Matthew 7:21 & 24-27

Planning Permission

“Except the Lord Build the House: their Labour is but lost that Build it”

Perhaps you have known, as I have, what it is to invest foolishly in something that would never deliver a return. It might be a car, a house, a training course, a job, a relationship. We choose something that flatters us, or for which we are desperate, and we build castles in the air about the success, the security, the confidence, the love, we might enjoy if the investment pays off. And then it comes tumbling down. It was the wrong choice. The wrong thing, the wrong work, the wrong career, the wrong person, it could only be the wrong outcome.

“Except the Lord Build the House: their Labour is but lost that Build it”

Why do we make such obvious mistakes? Why, when we know that judgement is coming, the judgement of parents or children or friends or employers or architects, or doctors or bailiffs, do we still make these mistakes? Why does our vanity make us do stupid things for short-term gain, when it can only bring us long-term unhappiness?

“Except the Lord Build the House: their Labour is but lost that Build it”

Believing people tell us we must trust in God, and we think, quietly, and behind our clenched fists “yeah, right, since when did he pay the bills?”. But they are right. It’s a different kind of investment. We relinquish power in order to share in another authority. We allow love in, in order to be loved. We risk losing our sense of ourselves, in order to understand God’s sense for us.

“Except the Lord Build the House: their Labour is but lost that Build it”

We travel hopefully. We apply for planning permission, and build according to the plan. We seek our weary beds, and the Lord “giveth his beloved sleep”. Will we ever know what we have built? Will we ever know we have laboured at the Lord’s work?

“Except the Lord Build the House: their Labour is but lost that Build it”

No, we won’t know. Not in this life. Not for sure. But we know this – if we don’t even seek to build that house with the Lord, nothing lasting will get built at all.

Lord God, give us wisdom to build the right house, and your helping hand to build it right. Amen.

Richard Haggis, Littlemore, Oxford, December 2011