Saturday, 14 May 2022

"A New Commandment"

How would you describe the history of the Christian faith? A small group of believers, who were convinced that - against all logic, science and sense - their leader was alive, whose conviction was so great that they were prepared to die themselves for this claim. And even though the forces of an empire were against them - and even though you were better off socially and economically if you stuck with the established religion - yet the power with which they told people about their leader was such that they spread like cow parsley in an ornamental border. After 2,000 years of persecution - by others, of others, and of each other - the followers of Jesus eventually reached the point where they could hold church meetings that could spend hours discussing what power replacement light bulbs they should use in the church toilets.

Something gets lost, and has to be rediscovered over and over again.

And it's not the structures and attitude of the early Church. We have Paul to let us know that the early Church was as prone to argument, selfishness, and sheer silliness as we are. When church groups claim they are trying to reproduce the early Church - which early Church are they considering recovering? Galatia or Corinth? That's why the Primitive Beaker Folk sect have such a problem. How can you go back to a Primitive Beaker Christian movement that existed before Jesus himself walked the earth? A lot of imagination, obviously.

And yet we know we have constantly to be called back to our roots. Called back to what we fundamentally know forms the basis of our faith.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another." (John 13:34) 

Now, "love one another" is in one very important way not a new commandment at all. When you consider what is called "The Golden Rule", do to others as you would have them do to you - that's all over the world's religions. And that's pretty much the definition of loving one another. The "Second Commandment" as defined by Jesus is there  in Leviticus 19:17-18: "Love your neighbour as yourself." So what's new?

"As I have loved you".

How has he loved us?

All the way from heaven to earth. Because Jesus's love is not just like our love. It's the love of God the Son giving up all rights to become one of us. A human like us. Not a god in disguise - the actual God who is actually a human.

All the way to a cross. Because "love one another as I have loved you" is not just about being nice. Jesus's love for us is in the end a total sacrifice. And I struggle to define how that love as sacrifice works. There are so many models for it, and yet not one can capture the sheer depth of what Paul called "a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks." But the idea that things can only be made right when a god dies is written deep into our human condition, I believe - scattered across so many religions in fragments of truth as gods die. And this God dies with our names carved in his hands - the death he did not deserve, the love we did not deserve.

All the way from the cross to the dead. Not just dead as in a human body devoid of life. Beyond that. When the Apostles' Creed declares, "he descended into Hell", I take that to mean - the completion of that cry on the cross, "My God, my God - why have you forsaken me?" The separation from the Father - the loss of that relationship that Jesus had known naturally his whole life, a life lives as the man who was also God. And so "he dscended into Hell."

But as the Roman soldiers took the cross down ready for its next victim, and the demons crowed in victory, the discovery was made in Hell. Jesus had smuggled God in even there, hadn't he? 

Now, I know some people believe that every word of the Bible is literally true. But when King Hezekiah said "Those who go down to the grave can no longer hope in your faithfulness", as quoted in Isaiah - he didn't know everything, did he? Would have been better off listening to King David:"even if I go down to the depths, you are there."

How has Jesus loved us? All the way to an empty grave. Beyond all hope, as the bravest of women weep as they approach their teacher's tomb - and they find there is nothing there. In the midst of death, Mary Magdalene finds life.

So we are called - as we always are with Jesus - to an impossible standard. How can we ever love one another as he has loved us? Well, then in that case we know how to love - as if others are our neighbours, knowing that Jesus's love is measured in its costliness, its generosity, and its power. And knowing that what love we give comes from God. If we love one another, simple as that is, then we are sharing in the love that the Father has for the Son. Sharing it out as the Spirit uses us. Being remade in the image of our three-in-one God who loves us, has always loved us, and will always love us. That other book with John's name on it says, we love because he first loved us. So we we are called to love other people with a love that is a reflection of Christ's love, as moonlight is the reflection of sunlight.

That's all a long way from most of what our behaviour as Christians tends to be about. So if we are to love as Christ has loved us, we always need to start with repentance - with turning from what we'd often rather do - bitch about each other, score points - and look again and again at how Christ has loved us. To love is not - as CS Lewis said in the Four Loves - a safe place. To love makes us vulnerable. Well, see Jesus on a Cross. To love means to care for the good of those we don't like - well, Jesus died for people who hated him. To love means to be caught up in the love God gives, and to share the love God gives. Well, that's a taste of the immortal. If we are sharing God's love, we are preparing ourselves and others for heaven.

"As I have loved you, so you must love one another." It's an impossible command. But it's the one to live.

Saturday, 7 May 2022

The Diary of a Mocker

With the flatterers were busy mockers
 who gnashed upon me with their teeth.
(Psalm 35:16)

5 am - Alarm goes off. Showered and brushed teeth ready for a big day's gnashing.

6 am - Gym and wild swimming

7 am - Train into Town. Mocked on train.

8 am - Breakfast at desk. Gnashed teeth.

9 am - Pre-meeting meeting with the flatterers. Did some mocking.

10 am - Gnashed teeth.

11 am - Engineered takeover of multinational.

12 noon - Lunch appointment. Mocking.

1 pm - Gnashing teeth.

2 pm - Meeting with flatterers.

3 pm - Mocking.

4 pm - Gnashing teeth.

5 pm - Wash-up meeting with flatterers.

6 pm - Gnashing teeth at The Union.

7 pm - Train home. Gnashing teeth at commuters.

8 pm - Mocking taxi driver. Home.

9 pm - Evening Gnashing.

10 pm Last mockings.

11 pm Bed.

Monday, 2 May 2022

The Broken Ground of Being

Archdruid: And so, as we relight the Eternal Flame after Saturday's intervention by the Buckinghamshire Fire Brigade, we know the depths of the light of the universe that enlightens the human mind...

Young Keith: Mum, can I ask you something?

Archdruid: You have to call me "Archdruid". We're on duty.

Young Keith: OK, Archdrduid - can I ask you something?

Archdruid: Course you can. I'm your mum.

Young Keith: It's just... you know how everything we do is a metaphor and about lifting us up or expanding our vision or increasing our knowledge of creation or something?

Archdruid: Of course. We're a religion.

Young Keith: Well, what if there's something behind it?

Archdruid: How d'you mean?

Young Keith: I mean, suppose God - and I use this word itself in a metaphorical way because after all, how can we use the word "exist" in relation to the very ground of existence? I mean, to say God exists is kind of meaningless because if God exists all existence derives its very existence from God such that you cannot meaningfully say God exists... 

Archdruid: Cut to the chase, Keith.

Young Keith: Suppose God actually exists?

Archdruid: Exists?

Young Keith: Is actually there. Not as a hypothetical that forms a kind of language we can use to imbue our universe with meaning, but as the actual Meaning that imbues our universe in the first place.

Archdruid: You mean, exists?

Young Keith. Yes. In such a way that asking whether we say "he", or "she", or "they", or "God" for God is in itself meaningless because God is beyond our concepts of existence and even to try to apply objective terms to God is to break the mystery down to the mundane?

Archdruid: You mean, exists?

Young Keith. Yes. And cares about what we are up to.

Archdruid: Seems a bit unlikely, doesn't it?

Young Keith: But suppose.

Archdruid: Think I'd better light some more tea lights.

Young Keith: I'll go and lay some pebbles out. Sandstone or limestone?

Archdruid: Sandstone. Gotta be authentic.

Sunday, 1 May 2022

The Scorching Bards of May

OK that was quite a Beltane celebration.

In keeping with the Beaker tradition, the Wicker Person was built on the Upper Meadow. But yeah, a bit close to the Orchard. Some would say. And given the oil price crisis, it was agreed we would use all the Maundy Holy Oils we've been "recycling" for the last few years.

I don't really know how it started. But it comes about because of the annual Anglican oil-blessing that happens at their Maundy Thursday services. The bishops bless three lots of oil - healing, chrism, and the other one. And then they dish it out to the clergy in little vials. And the little vials have little labels on them so the clergy know which is which - "H", "C" and the other one. And then the sticky labels fall off. So the clergy can't tell which is which. And can't remember which smells nice. So they stick them all in the same bottle and use it for everything for the rest of the year.

And 12 months later, they've got half a dose of mixed oils and it's Maundy Thursday again and they tell themselves that this time they'll definitely get it right and put the stickers on better. But they don't know what to do with the left-over oils: which have been blessed by the bishops - so they started giving it to us. And we just put it in a big barrel, on the basis - much-loved by 80-year-old blokes - that it would come in handy one day.

And so last night, we decided it was time to use it. As an accelerant on the Wicker Person.

Well, it was quite a lot of oil.

And it consumed the Wicker Person in no time. Then headed for the trees in the Orchard. And before we knew it, we were battling the latest Beaker conflagration. Chucking water on the situation, of course, would only make matters worse. As we remembered as the ducks got off the pond in short order, and Duckhenge was razed to the ground. Again.

Anyway, there's nothing like singing "summer is ikumen in" while fire takes out your favourite apple trees. It was like being back at Oxford, except without the posh kids breaking their backs jumping in the Cherwell. What made it worse was the Bardic Brotherhood were in the orchard, tuning their lyres at the time. We had to roll them in the Astroturf round the Moot House.

So anyway. Eventually, it went out. The Moot House is still intact. But with all that incinerated scented oil, everyone slept for hours. We were going to get up for a thoroughly woo moment watching Jupiter and Venus at dawn. But I guess it will have to keep till next time they get together in the sky.

Happy May Day.

Sunday, 17 April 2022


 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). (John 20:16)

So the Resurrection is the new Nativity. The pyrotechnics happen away from the main action - angels brought the good news to shepherds in the hills, an earthquake has happened early in the morning, bringing the good news to soldiers who would really rather not have known about it.

The earth which received Jesus has given him up, as if from the womb.

And as the dust settles from the quake, and the angels sneak off and the soldiers sculk round to await the anger and bemusement of the high priests, what's left among the birdsong, the dew, and the smell of unrequired spices? Just the loving humanity of a woman and the teacher she now knows is so much more.

This is beyond expectations - because for all of Jesus's promises before, who would have believed he really could rise on the third day? It wasn't that the disciples were too slow - it was that the truth was too rich.

And the exchange is simple and profound - this man who has conquered death, calls her just by her name. The response - respectful and yet still familiar, still what she has always known him as - "Teacher." Mary stands before the God who has conquered death and hell. Yet he is also the man she knows and loves as her teacher and friend.

But she cannot cling to him now. She has a job to do. She is the first evangelist - the apostle to the apostles - the first witness to the news that the Resurrection starts here, in the man she sees standing before her. The news must go into the world. And it must start with her.

And we celebrate with her, each of us who have known what it is to know our living and saving Teacher, Master, and Friend. Each of us whom he knows by name. Each of us who have received glimpses of the hope for us, and for our world. All who cannot physically cling to him, but yet know he is alive.

If the Blessed Virgin was blessed in receiving the first news from an angel, how blessed is Mary Magdalene in receiving the Resurrection news from our risen God himself? Alleluia - Christ is Risen!

Saturday, 16 April 2022

The Easter Egg Hunt Revisited

 The Guardian carries the news that the incoming food merchandising laws from this definitely-not-nanny-state Goverment means that in future shoppers will have to go on an Easter Egg hunt to find their chocolatey Paschal comestibles.

Of course, the Beaker Folk are way ahead of the game. Which is why the Little Pebbles have today been enjoying their first-ever Easter Carrot Hunt.

We've developed quite a nice back-story. That the Easter Bunny has been dropping carrots around the Lower Meadow, and the children have to go around with their wicker carrot baskets, collecting the tasty treats. Meanwhile Hnaef, Burton Dassett and Yardley Hastings had the job of pulling the Magical Carrot Cart around the community grounds, dispensing additional carrots.


OK. The Magical Carrot Cart idea went west when Hnaef had the idea of using it as a go cart. Smashed to pieces. The carrot, that is. Weirdly, it crash-landed next to an old man and much younger woman, who insisted they hardly knew each other.

But I was so looking forward to the children, relishing their natural and healthy snacks.

They've been crying for three hours now. If the little gets don't come to terms with this new tradition quickly, I'll have to send Young Keith to Tesco.

Thursday, 14 April 2022

Traditions of Maundy Thursday

Today is Maundy Thursday. When overworked clergy at their wits' ends travel to far-off cathedrals for an extra service. And think next year maybe someone will organise next-day delivery for holy oils instead.

When they return to be told that in Parson Marson's day, the churches would have queues outside of people wanting to join the post-communion Watch until 6am on Good Friday. In fact, some years so many people were on the rota for the Watch that they had to put Easter back a week.

In a new tradition, the parish Covid expert (Arthur, who provides the coffee whitener) will insist that the priest cleanses people's feet with anti-bacterial gel, to guard against the risk of the Plague being passed through hand-to-ankle contact. Priests will be told to wear splash visors against the danger of inhaling Athlete's Foot.

The tradition of Shoe-Shining Bishops has had to be scaled-down to only two or three per town, for safety reasons and to avoid overwhelming the NHS. Asking elderly people to spend several hours in an unnatural crouching position has been associated with seasonal clusters of sciatica. In 2018 at least one bishop, unable to straighten up, had to process down the aisle at the Chrism Mass so bent over, they had to stand his mitre on his back.

There is news that people planning tomorrow's Walks of Witness have been told that, in line with risk assessments, only one person can carry the eight foot long cross at any one time. Crosses of more than 20 feet in length can safely be carried by four people, as long as they wear hazmat suits.

Today is also the one of the Days of Drivel, when traditionally someone who knows less history, religion, and philology than a mung bean will trot out the whole ludicrous "Easter is Really a Pagan Festival" trope. In years gone by, they would be driven far out into the Fens, to improve the average intelligence of the parish.

On Maundy Thursday in Fakenham, nothing happens. The same as the rest of the year.

Wednesday, 13 April 2022

The Ghost of Advent Past

Funny thing. For this evening's "Judas wasn't such a bad chap and probably just went to the wrong public school Wednesday" Tenebrae service, I went to look to see if we had some previously-used Advent Candles.

The Beaker Tenebrae, like all our services, tries to be upbeat. Holy Week can be so serious if you're not careful. So I thought we'd mix in some of the pink "You've lit it the wrong week - pink stands for Mary because she's a girl" candles, as well as the purple ones which are maybe more fitting the occasion. And I figured we'd have a few left over in the cupboard at the back of the Liturgical Paraphenalia Everyone Has Forgotten About Room.

Oh boy. Let me just say that I was glad I asked Burton to go in there and have a look, as he was crushed with the remains of the Advent Candles of years gone by. Clearly every year since time immemorial, as the Advent Wreath is put away on the day after Candlemas, someone has figured "there's some wear in them candles. I'll put them away in case they come in useful." Some of us would say that burying Burton is "useful", so fair enough.

We've sent in a team from Wessex Archaeology, and after carbon dating they reckon the oldest candles come from the 17th Century. This appears to be confirmed by a Christmas Card with the inscription, "A Merry England Christmas From King Charles II." 

Which is all a bit strange, as the Moot House has only been in existence since 2003, and has blown up, collapsed or been blown away many times since. Still, strange things happen in the cupboard at the back of the Liturgical Paraphenalia Everyone Has Forgotten About Room. We found Boris Johnson's moral integrity there once, but we put it back since nobody thought it would be of much use.

Sunday, 10 April 2022

A Triumph of Palms

I mean, really there's a number of options when it comes to entering a city as a king.

You can drive in in glory, with everybody awed by your magnificence and worshipping the ground you walk on. This seems to have been the story that Vladimir Putin and the Russian army swallowed with regards to Ukraine.
Or, if that doesn't work, you can maybe go to option 2 - marching into a cowed and wrecked city with people fearing your presence.

Jesus chooses neither. He takes a donkey - not a war horse. You may remember how Princess Fiona in Shrek thinks that Donkey is a mighty steed - until she notices that Shrek is an ogre. Donkeys are beasts of burden, hard to deal with, and more your middle-class Judean transport, perhaps.

With a side-order of prophecy, from Zech 9:9 -  "Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey."

And here is that king. No armour. No arms. No captives being brought in for slaughter or sacrifice.  A strange and peaceful triumph - of palms, not armed might. A dusty army of dreamers. And their King of Peace. Being welcomed as if he's the one to free Jerusalem.

Which he is, of course. Just not the way anyone is expecting.

I was discussing this week the ever-pressing question of Safeguarding. And reflecting that one thing that put and puts men in power in the position to abuse is a system that encourages deference. That pumps up the bloke up the front. And puts him on a box that says, isn't he great. That says Father - or else the bloke wearing the poshest suit - is always right. That puts people beyond challenge.

Well, here's the model for leadership. Vulnerable - anyone can take him out anytime they like. When he sat round a table he was surrounded by his friends. Not up one end for fear of Judas.

Approachable - anyone can reach out and touch him. Nobody is too small, too poor, or two mired in misbehaviour for him.

He sat and ate with the leaders. Herod wanted to see him. But he turned all that round. Went to Jerusalem. Turned his face to the cross. And died with criminals.

Our God is still hope for the poor today. Even after nearly 2,000 years of the Church using power to reach them, not love.

But the love of God is shown in the face of a man on a donkey. Going into the city in expectation of battle. But a battle nobody expected, against the enemy nobody dreamed would be fought, and which would look a lot like a defeat before a victory was discovered.