Monday, July 13, 2015

The Greatest Day?

For publication in the Staffordshire Sentinel 15 July 2015. 

Some might think that the life of a Priest is dull and boring and not a little humourless. Not at all. At least not if you are able to laugh at yourself. 

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Let me explain …
Just a week ago, the second week in July, I celebrated a wedding in our lovely Church of the Sacred Heart, Jasper Street in Hanley.
The Bride is a regular at Mass, and over the time of preparation for their big day, I have come to know the couple well. Just a few days before the ceremony, we had the rehearsal and all was set for this wonderful day. Guests had travelled from as far afield as Zambia, and there was an excited, expectant air in the Church.
The Bride entered (almost on time) to the traditional Bridal March, and there were, during the service, the usual couple of hymns. Bride and Groom also asked for some recorded music, two pieces. The first,a song by Elbow, during the signing of the registers, and the second by Take That, as they processed out of the Church. I try to accommodate wishes if the music doesn’t detract from the prayers and worship itself, which these choices certainly didn’t.
So, fancying myself as something of an expert with technology, and possessing some of the latest devices, I downloaded the music requested, and set up both pieces to play on my smart phone, which I duly connected - by cable - to the Church’s sound system.
Now, my most recently acquired device, which I wear about my wrist, does several amazing things. One of these is telling the time (I know, astonishing isn’t it?). Another is that it acts as a remote control for my phone.
Great, I thought. Rather than walk to and from the sound system, I can control the music for the wedding from my wrist.
So, after the exchange of the vows, we moved to a table, in Our Lady’s Chapel inside the Church, to sign the registers. As rehearsed, I tapped the watch, and the music came in on cue. I could adjust the volume from my Wrist, pause and repeat the track if necessary. It worked perfectly.
After the registers, we returned to the main body of the Church to sing “Shine Jesus Shine”. The weather outside was a bit blustery, but in the Church there were plenty of smiles shining on the faces of family and friends.
The singing completed, I wished everyone well, congratulated the couple, encouraged a generous donation to the work of our Church - all the usual stuff - then gave God’s blessing to all those assembled.
The couple now linked arms, and waited for the Music - ‘The Greatest Day” by Take That - which would accompany their procession out of the Church.
Smiling, I tapped the face of the device on my wrist.
I looked at the watch, grinning a little less, and tapped it again.
Still silence.
The couple smiled, indulgently. I shrugged my shoulders, apologised, and began to walk the short distance to the sound system, where the phone was connected.
There was a low muttering in the Church
And then - the music started to play. Relieved, I turned to the couple. The bride smiled with relief and then together, arm in arm, bride and groom turned to face the congregation and begin their procession.
It was at that point that a voice sang out through the sound system, loud and clear, not Take That, but Band Aid: “It’s Christmas Time …”
My embarrassment was complete, my face flushed, though thankfully the Church rang with laughter.
I rushed to the equipment, corrected the error and soon Take That were restored to their rightful place.

And the moral of tale (not that there need be one)? The Greatest Day? It's Christmas Time!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Do Dogs go to heaven?

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For publication in the Staffordshire Sentinel 15 April 2015. 

On Good Friday, our dog, Ben, died. A sad irony, you may think, that a Catholic priest should suffer a loss on the day of the death of Christ himself.

Ben and his surviving brother, Joe, Cavalier King Charles, have been part of our household since they came to us as tiny, cute, charming puppies almost 10 years ago.
We will miss Ben very much. If you have lost a dear pet you will understand this. From a youngster with boundless energy, and appetite to match, he grew and grew and became comfortable in his easy routine of meat, treats and snoozing. Cavaliers snore very loudly, so we always knew where he was. When the Archbishop came to visit I didn’t think it would matter that the two were asleep in the room where we met - until we tried to make ourselves heard over snores more characteristic of hippopotamuses than small dogs. Whenever we called Ben’s name his tail would be heard banging loudly on the floor - no need for him to run and meet us (far too much effort). He would lie still on the floor, raising only his eyelids to spy the scene with cautious curiosity. No point in putting himself out …
Unless of course, it involved food, not just the meals which were set before him, nor the far too many snacks and treats, but also food left for his brother, scraps which had tumbled to the floor, cooked meats deep in bags of shopping and even - when young and lively enough to manage it - the leftovers in the kitchen bin.
He wasn’t the brightest dog ever. If his water bowl ran low he would turn it over and scratch at the floor to search for more. Not much a problem-solver, our Ben.
Yet of course, we loved him - especially my wife, whose dog he really was - and we remember him now with great affection, and of course sorrow.
For those who have never shared their lives with companion animals it may be hard to understand. Yet if you have had a pet, you know very well the pain of loss, which is not so very different from a human bereavement.

So what can I, as a priest, say about this?

After all, when we lose a loved one, faith provides a reassurance that there is a hope of life beyond this life, that love is greater even than death. Isn’t this message of Good Friday? And Easter Day? That however great the loss, even greater is the power of Love, the power of God?

So do dogs go to heaven? Do animals have souls?

Here is a theological controversy in which my wife and I take different sides.

With St Thomas Aquinas I say No. Only human beings have rational souls. Only human beings sin, only human beings need to be redeemed.

My wife, on the other hand says Yes. Dogs do have souls. They do go to heaven. (Of course).

Though our views aren’t so far apart.

Many people find it hard to believe in the Resurrection, which Christians celebrated on Easter Day, because they see it in much too narrow a way. A person dying and coming back to life? These things just don’t happen - or if they do there is some kind of rational explanation. How can this be the basis for a whole religion?

But the Resurrection is much more than the anniversary of an historical event. Resurrection is not just about one human being, or even every human being, but about the whole of creation. The Resurrection is Jesus “making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). The power of Love is so strong, that death and sickness and pain and suffering and wickedness and loss are all overcome.

So yes, for once my wife is right: you will find dogs in heaven.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Can't they take a joke?

Published in the Staffordshire Sentinel on 14 January 2015. You can find it on their website here:

The shocking events in Paris last week, particularly the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, have caused great outrage. We are sadly familiar with terrorist attacks, but this assault on a publication which makes jokes, pokes fun at public, political and religious figures alike, is especially abhorrent.

And while the terrorists in no way represent any religious tradition, they have claimed to be doing so in the name of their god. But why attack a satirical magazine? Do religious people in general lack a sense of humour? Do they look down on fun and frivolity, and feel threatened by comedy, especially satire which pokes fun at their beliefs and their practices? 

To be sure, humour can be cruel and offensive, though even the most outrageous ridicule could never justify such heinous violence.

Yet it is true that religious people often seem solemn and sombre. Some Muslim scholars see jokes as fine for children, but not for more serious adults. And there are many examples of Christian disapproval of fun and levity: the Puritan ban on Christmas, in the 17th Century, for example; the Victorian crusade against leisure activities on Sundays; the Temperance movement, against alcohol, of the late 19th and early 20th Century, and the condemnation of particular films, television and popular music since the 1950s: all these left their mark. All too often religious people just seem opposed to anything that looks like fun.  

Yet this is far from the truth. 

In Christianity in particular there is a long tradition of unsettling the powerful and poking fun at those who think they are important. 
"God scatters the proud-hearted and casts the mighty from their thrones," says the Mother of Jesus, in words which are sung every evening in Cathedrals, and convents throughout the world. 

And God scatters the proud in word and jest far more often than by gun or sword. 

Jesus gave His disciples nicknames to pull them down a peg or two: Peter was 'the Rock' - big on words, but a coward when it mattered; James and John, hotheads, were ‘Sons of Thunder’. 

And many of Jesus' stories look remarkably like satire. He spoke about judges who gave justice only after being pestered repeatedly, businessmen who amassed riches only to die the next day, and about priests too precious to help a man who had been beaten up. He talked about people who gave stones in the place of bread, and saw the speck in the eye of another but ignored the log in their own eye. He talked about the blind leading the blind. He called the holy men of his day "whitewashed walls". He even ridiculed the idea of the Messiah itself, entering the Holy City, riding not on a charger, in armour with his standards and his battalions, but on the back of a donkey, cheered along by a crowd waving only branches from the trees. This is satire. This is Charlie Hebdo. 

And when he was arrested, and his followers wanted to take up swords protect him, he told them to lay them down. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews says "The word of God is alive and active; it cuts more finely than any double-edged sword." 
This is precisely the point. The Word is mightier than the sword. And a good deal more powerful, for while swords may break bodies only words can form minds. 

So humour is essential - to the religious and non-religious alike. To be able to joke is to be  free. 
The Islamic scholar Al ibn Ahmad Al Faraheedi expressed it perfectly when he said: “People would feel imprisoned if they did not joke.”