Retirement Angst

Is it normal for retired people to look back over their working life and ask themselves, What was it all for, anyway? What did I actually achieve? Was it all worth it, after all?

Or is it just retired clergy who have that kind of problem? Perhaps it’s something to do with vicaring being the kind of calling where it’s very difficult to see and measure results. Some clergy can say, When I came to this parish there were only two old ladies and a cat, but now the Sunday attendance is over 800! But not many, I suspect. For most of us, it’s more like: I tried to love and minister faithfully to these people for 25 years, but really attendances declined over the years as people grew old and died and were not replaced… many people in the area knew and loved me, and valued me taking their family weddings or funerals, but mostly they had other things they preferred to do on Sundays, and indeed on every other day of the week, than have much to do with God.

And meanwhile… When you raise your eyes from the furrow you’ve been ploughing, and look around at the wider landscape1

It suddenly seemed to me, as I reflected on that landscape at the weekend, that the Christianity which seems to be being believed by large numbers of people in the world, and the one that is perceived by many more, isn’t the religion that i believe in. It’s not that I’ve abandoned Christianity, but that what passes for Christianity has abandoned me. It’s become something dogmatic, bigoted, judgmental, death-dealing, joyless, trivial, irrelevant, narrow, exclusive. Not what I signed up for at all. So here I have been, toiling away for 37 years in the parish, trying to make the world a better place, and I look around and the world is a much much worse place than when I started. And ‘Christianity’ (please do note the inverted commas) must bear quite a bit of the blame, along with most other religions.

And here’s one of the really dismaying things: there are ‘Christians’ in some places who are happy that the world is a much worse place. Because it means that we really are in the kind of end times they wish for. When things have got bad enough, it’ll be the end of the world, and Jesus will return to make everything right.

It looks like it’s time for me to take a healthy dose of letting go and having faith (not in the Church any more, but in God) and trusting that everything will be all right. Where’s that Dame Julian when you need her? “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

  1. Yes I know this doesn’t work: if you want to plough a straight furrow you don’t look at the furrow, but the far end of the field that you’re making for. Just bear with me, I’m only a townie.

Bear with

WordPress has changed since I last used it, so the new blog and its control panels are taking some getting used to. I think the stats panel is showing me that people have read some of my posts, and two have even commented. But the process of approving comments, and making sure they don’t get thrown into Spam, is still opaque to me. So if you comment, and it hasn’t appeared after what seems like a reasonable time, don’t be afraid to contact me some other way and ask me what’s happening.

I live in hopes of understanding what’s going on; though it does look like another case of technology getting so clever that it increasingly leaves behind people who were previously more than confident about working it.

Children’s worship songs (2)

And then there’s that Hillsong Kids worship song I mentioned in my last post. Alison came home complaining about having the words and tune stuck in her head, so like any loving husband, instead of saying “Don’t expletive well give it to me, then!” I googled it.

These, it turns out, are the lyrics:

He’s the one who makes the sun shine
He’s the one who puts the moon in the sky
He’s the one who hung the stars
One by one

He’s the one who makes the birds sing
He’s the one who makes your dreams so high
He’s the one who makes me smile
Day by day

Jesus you’re my superhero
You’re my star, my best friend
Jesus you’re my superhero
You’re my star, my best friend

Better than Spiderman Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah
Better than Superman Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah
Better than Batman Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah
Better than anyone Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah

Jesus you’re my superhero
You’re my star, my best friend
Jesus you’re my superhero
You’re my star, my best friend

Better than Yu Gi Yo Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah
Better than Barbie Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah
Better than Action Man Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah
Better than anyone Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah

You can listen to it here on YouTube, if you dare: Jesus you’re my superhero.

Now, I don’t have a problem (at least, not more than any other grumpy old man) with the cultural effect this may be having on our grandchildren’s generation… though it does seem inferior in quality to a lot of what’s available on CBeebies. What I wonder about, is the spiritual effect it may be having. Are we really wanting our children to get the idea that Christianity is a Christo-Unitarian faith, without Father or Holy Spirit, in which Jesus alone is the Creator God? And as if giving them a false idea of what the faith is, isn’t bad enough — what effect will it have on the likelihood of them believing at all? Will they grow up thinking, That Jesus is so cool, I’m really going to be a Christian? Or will they more likely pretty soon reach the conclusion, That was so patronising and juvenile, there’s no way that as a teenager, still less an adult, I’m going to carry on believing what those people were trying to sell us?

One of the curious things is, that while Christian children’s evangelism, or teaching, or holiday childcare (whatever this counts as) is dumbing down the message, many of the actual superhero comics and films are tackling really deep, important themes: good and evil, sin and guilt, retribution or redemption, how people or the world can be ‘saved’, and such. It’s as if, when popular contemporary Christianity is trying to turn itself into some emotional-sensual form of entertainment, popular entertainment is stepping up to fill the gap by exploring spiritual issues of eternal importance.

Maybe I’ll stop going to church, and start watching X-men, Spider-Man and Batman instead.

Children’s worship songs (1)

I recently came across a song from Hillsong Kids, which was being sung at a local Christian holiday club for children. I was concerned enough about what it might be doing to the spiritual development of the children (more about this in the next post) to reflect on one of the first hymns I remember from primary school, Percy Dearmer’s Jesus, good above all other. My love for this, which persists to this day, is a product of both the simple yet deep words, and the simple, ancient tune to which it’s sung, Quem Pastores.

Jesus, good above all other,
Gentle child of gentle mother,
In a stable born our brother,
Give us grace to persevere.

Jesus, cradled in a manger,
For us facing every danger,
Living as a homeless stranger,
Make we Thee our King most dear.

Jesus, for Thy people dying,
Risen Master, death defying,
Lord in Heav’n, Thy grace supplying,
Keep us by Thine altar near.

Jesus, who our sorrows bearest,
All our thoughts and hopes Thou sharest,
Thou to man the truth declarest;
Help us all Thy truth to hear.

Lord, in all our doings guide us;
Pride and hate shall ne’er divide us;
We’ll go on with Thee beside us,
And with joy we’ll persevere!

I notice a number of things as I reflect on this. First, in spite of my recent rants about the almost absolute Jesus-centredness of much contemporary Christian worship – amounting almost to a Christo-Unitarianism – Dearmer’s hymn is also addressed to Jesus. But this is a very incarnate Jesus: the emphasis is on his stable birth, his refugee status, his death and resurrection, his human suffering as he bears the sorrows of the world. His human example, and his disciples’ imperative to learn from it. There’s none of the Cosmic Christ who seems almost to make the Father and the Spirit redundant, that we see in some current songs.

Secondly, although the language is simple, it doesn’t offer any hostages to modern usage among primary school children. They tend to be even less familiar with ‘thee’ and ‘thine’ than we were in the 1950s, to their loss. There are quite a few ‘poetic’ changes to normal word order, which would keep a child on their toes. And what about that strange word persevere? Who uses that?

I conducted a little experiment with two of my granddaughters. First I asked Tilly (almost 5 and about to start school), “Do you know what ‘persevere’ means?” She didn’t. Then I asked Libby (aged 7, just finished infants), and she gave me a pretty good definition: “It means trying and trying until you do it.” Apparently Perseverance is one of the school values they’ve learned. So it’s a word that children need to learn (like all the rest) but well within primary school capabilities.

Thirdly, although it’s obviously a hymn written with younger Christians in mind, there’s enough substance, or spiritual meat, there, to nourish a person into late adulthood, as it has me.

All of that seems like a pretty good recommendation for a children’s worship song, I think.

A survivor’s guilt

Irish Famine Memorial, Dublin

We returned earlier this month from a lovely ten-day tour of Ireland, which took us from Dublin through the southern counties of the Republic, to Galway, Connemara, the Burren and the Ring of Kerry, and back through County Cork. It was a smallish tour, with 25 participants among whom Alison and I were the only English people. (Run by My Ireland Tour – highly recommended!) Tony McGoey was a our driver and tour guide, who informed us, told jokes and stories, even sang to us! And of course, there was a lot of information about the history of Ireland.

I knew about quite a bit of it. But most of what I knew was the story the British tell. So, very little about the penalties imposed on Roman Catholics for much of the 17th to 19th centuries, the attempts to eradicate Irish language and culture, the greed and land-grabbing of the Anglo-Irish gentry. We know of the Irish Potato Famine as a huge, terrible ‘humanitarian disaster’ as we term them now. What the British histories don’t tell us is, that while the Irish peasantry were starving and being driven off their land in their millions, the landowners’ fields were producing bumper harvests of grain, which they were exporting very profitably across the Irish Sea. Recent attempts to rebrand the period as not the Irish Famine but the Irish Genocide make more sense now.

Notice to Quit, served on the Widow Mary Campbell in 1849. Derry Bog Village, Ireland

It was a wretched experience to hear these accounts, along with those of the brutality of the British suppression of the protests and uprisings against the system, and know I was one of the race that is guilty of these atrocities. It’s not much consolation to think, “It’s not me that’s responsible. It wasn’t even my ancestors who were the governing classes or the gentry – my ancestors were the people Below Stairs, or if they were lucky, the clerks slaving away at their writing desks, like Bob Cratchit.”

And all this guilt, if it is guilt, came while I’ve also been reading Simon Schama’s History of the Jews, with its catalogue of the persecutions of the Jews by Christians, ever since – well, forever, really. Certainly since Christianity became the State religion under the Emperor Constantine. History is a long, long record of abominable things that powerful groups of people have done to less powerful people, and the English are among the worst offenders. History may, or must, always be written by the victors, but it’s also true that any of us who have survived (so far) are in fact the victors in the human (rat) race. Even if we are only the victors’ running dogs.

Can we atone for our share in what has been done? No. Do we need to atone? I’m hoping that Someone Else has done that, but perhaps atonement can only work for us, if we recognise that survivors’ guilt isn’t an imaginary thing, but is indeed real guilt. And recognising guilt surely means doing all that we can to avoid guilt by association in the evil things that are still being done. What genocides are the British people still complicit in? Maybe by selling arms to despotic regimes like Saudi Arabia, so that they can kill Yemenis or support Islamist terrorism? Maybe by paying the taxes that pay for the bombs killing people in Syria? Maybe by tolerating Governments that continue to make the rich richer, at the expense of the poorest in society?

When we stand before the Great Assize and the only plea we have to offer is Guilty, I hope it really is true that the Bleeding Charity1 is also greater than anything we have so far imagined.

  1. ‘What do you keep on arguing for? I’m only telling you the sort of chap I am. I only want my rights. I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.’
     ‘Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.’
    C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

How great is our God?

I suffer from a condition which I’m sure is not at all unique. I don’t have a name for it, but its effect is to make me allergic to certain hymns and worship songs because of the associations they have for me. Some of those associations are entirely random and personal. Example: I can never sing ‘The Church’s one foundation’, with its rousing last line in each verse, ‘One Church, one Faith, one Lord’, without it being clouded by the Nazi slogan ‘Ein Volk! Ein Reich! Ein Führer!’

Others are associations with current trends in the Church or world events which I think are entirely legitimate: we should be concerned if our worship songs give a slanted view of God. There’s a trend, especially in Evangelical worship today, to be almost exclusively Jesus-centred. “It’s all about you, all about you, Jesus,” says Matt Redman’s ‘The Heart of Worship’. Sometimes it’s hard to find a single song in a service that’s addressed to God the Trinity, or to the Father. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the Jesus Plan, what with him talking so much about knowing the Father, making the Father known, glorifying the Father.

The other thing I’ve developed an allergy to, is too much emphasis on the greatness of God. After all those videos of Islamist fighters firing off rockets, or suicide bombers blowing themselves up, with shouts of “Allahu akbar!” I’m not interested in some inter-faith contest of “My God’s bigger than your God!” Islam places such an emphasis on the singularity and greatness of God, that it can’t accept the idea of Him (sic) having a Son – or even of the Messiah Jesus actually dying on the cross1. But for me the glory of the Christian faith, is that it tells us about a God who didn’t need to cling on to that greatness, but gave it up, and became little for us. Shared our insignificance in the face of the immeasurable Universe. Became small as a human foetus, as a baby, a child, a refugee, a man living under foreign tyranny, a falsely condemned victim crushed by the military machine. That small.

Charles Wesley, as so often, has it right when he has us sing:

Our God, contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man. (Charles Wesley)

A lot of our more recent hymn writers would benefit from a little immersion in the theology of Wesley’s hymns.

  1. They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to them. (Sura 4.157)

Religiodicy

It’s not theodicy that’s the problem, but religiodicy. How can you justify religion, or religions, in this world where they are perceived as being part of the problem, rather than the solution they always claim to be?

Of course you can take this right back to theodicy when you start to ask, What the fuck was God thinking of, inventing this (or that) religion and starting all this trouble in the first place? Trouble is, I’m convinced God is Somewhere wringing God’s hands and saying, “This isn’t what I meant at all! I didn’t intend this intolerance, bigotry, hatred, persecution, judgmentalism, war. In fact, I spent quite a lot of time in my Scriptures telling people not to do all this. But did they listen?”

So I found myself thinking, as so often before, How can religions which are supposed to be about relating to a loving God, or a covenant God, or an all-merciful all-compassionate God, turn into such ghastly travesties of what they are supposed to be? Citations not needed.

And in a moment of what felt like a revelation, I thought I heard the answer: It happened as soon as people began to ask themselves, How can I use this incredible idea to make people do what I want them to do? 1

It’s just possible some of them had reasonable intentions. They may have started off thinking, I believe God wants us to behave in such-and-such a way. And the next minute it’s, I want what God wants (of course I do), so I want people to behave in such-and-such a way, too. Even St Paul, who at one minute is asking, Who are you to judge the servant of another and tell them how to behave? is very soon giving pretty definite lists of forbidden behaviour.

And by the time of the emperor Constantine, with Christianity being declared the State religion, we’ve come straight to the point of religion being used as a tool for the governing classes to make their underlings behave just how the powerful and wealthy want them to behave. 2 And the sad thing is, there are always enough people who buy into this, who think it’s to their own advantage to say Yes to the powerful, and accept their view of what God wants, rather than take the trouble to discover what God’s character and wishes really are.

So what’s the answer? Some people think the best thing would be to abandon ‘organised religion’ altogether. But I’ve always taken the view, If you don’t like organised religion, just try what disorganised religion tastes like. (It’s a bit like what you’ve got in North America, or in every part of the Anglican Communion where clergy and congregations think they know better than their bishops.) Humans being what we are, it’s better to have some kind of society and authority, rather than everyone just doing what seems right to themselves.

And yet, the answer is also to let go of much of what organised religion has done and said, to go back beyond it to the words and deeds of the founders, and to find in them the traces of the nature of the God we all have it in us to know. For me, yes, the clearest of those traces can be found in the life and teachings of Jesus. At the end of the day, I hope we shall see clearly whatever is true in what each of the religions teaches. For the time being, we travel in uncertainty, trying to untangle the strands of mystery, trying to catch the glimpse of God that most nearly accords with what life has taught us.

Whether we think the questions are much more important and interesting than the answers, or vice versa… perhaps that is one of the things that either justifies the ‘religion’ we hold, or casts doubt on it?

  1. Like with the Internet. Possibly the most wonderful invention, promising true knowledge and free, open-source sharing between everyone in the world, and what do people do? They start asking, How can I make money out of this?
  2. Of course, Islam got there even quicker by having a political structure almost from the word Go.