Hidden Figures, Hidden Faults

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 1st Sunday of Lent, Year A.

How can we know right from wrong?adam-eve-serpent-colour

Our Lord was tempted by the Devil, who even tried to trick Him by quoting Bible verses. But Jesus knew what was truly right, and resisted.

We’re unlikely to have a face-to-face encounter with Satan. “But the serpent was the most subtle of all the creatures God had made.” What the Devil began, the World continues. Just as the serpent questioned whether God had forbidden eating the fruit, so the world around us today questions whether our Catholic values are the right ones.

Before Lent began, I preached about the challenge to tackle those temptations we know we have but don’t want to face up to. Today I want to talk about something different – about our hidden faults. There are things that we don’t recognise as sins because we don’t know the Church’s teaching well enough – or because we aren’t willing to recognise the Church’s teaching as correct.

I went to see a film last week. Hidden Figures is set in the USA at the time when there was still segregation between black and white people. It tells the story of the African-American women mathematicians who helped NASA win the space race. There’s a memorable scene between Dorothy, the black woman who organises her team, and Vivian, the white manager who isn’t helping Dorothy secure a promotion to supervisor. “I have nothing against y’all,” says Vivian. “I know,” says Dorothy, “I know you probably believe that.” It’s a classic example of how a person can be blind to injustice because they have become so used to the culture around them.

When the world around us agrees with our Catholic values, that’s a mixed blessing. If we agree that a particular action is sinful, society quickly declares it shameful. This deters people from committing the sin, but also tempts the rest of us not to show mercy and compassion to those who couldn’t resist. One sad example is in this week’s news reports from the time in Ireland’s history when it was so shameful to be an unmarried mother, that the mothers and their babies were hidden away in special homes.

On the other hand, when society disagrees that something should be shameful, the church finds itself having to encourage us to swim the other way against the tide of people’s opinions.

The thing is, it’s not up to us to make the rules – that’s the point of the story of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It doesn’t make a lot of sense if you say the Eden story is about knowledge. After all, if Adam and Eve didn’t know the difference between right and wrong, how could they avoid sinning? But St John Paul II gave us a deeper way of reading the story. He explained it’s not about knowing the difference, but about who gets to decide what’s right or wrong. We human beings sometimes want to say that something is OK when God’s already said that it’s not OK.

For those of us who have responsibility as employers or managers, this Lent might be an opportunity to look at how we treat our staff. Do we treat our employees in the way we would want to be treated in their place? Maybe you’ve never stopped to see it from that point of view before, but that’s what the gospel requires. This is the heart of what is known as Catholic Social Teaching – which brings the call to “love one another” into the workplace and to wider society.

There’s a lot of talk about migrants at the moment. We might worry whether some immigrants might be terrorists, or be concerned whether there are enough jobs for British people. But it’s not OK for us, as followers of Jesus, to withhold good will from strangers, even when many politicians are voicing views about immigration.

On sexual matters, too, public views have changed. That old serpent whispers into our society that marriage is really about saving up for the big party. That’s not what we believe, as Catholics. What’s really important in Christian marriage is that a man and a woman make a public promise to each other, to God and to us that they will stay together through thick and thin. If your values are truly Catholic, you will get married in church before you start a family, even if you can’t afford the wedding of your dreams. By doing that, you prove that God is more important than money, or what your friends think of you. If you think it’s OK to start a family before you’re married, you’ve fallen for the subtle voice of the serpent, which can take something beautiful – love! – and put it in the wrong place. He failed when he tried to tempt Jesus to jump off the Temple’s pinnacle. The time for Jesus to ascend from the Earth only came after he vowed himself to his bride, the Church, at the altar of the Cross.

Sometimes society changes for the better. Hidden Figures showed a time when racial segregation was slowly being overcome, and we can celebrate that. But society often changes to say that things are OK when they go against God’s law. We can’t always change the world, but we can always encourage one another to resist the world’s temptations. While the world celebrates hidden figures, this Lent is a time for us to find our hidden faults.

How can we know right from wrong? It’s time for us to go deeper, and ask how God’s Law asks us to behave, in areas we haven’t thought of before or where the world has made us blind. Let’s behave as the saints that God is calling us to be. Let’s change – and let’s BE the good news!

Behold, I do a new thing!

CCRW-roundel

Homily given at morning Mass at the Revival Weekend Conference run by the National Service Committee for Catholic Charismatic Renewal in Wales. (The Gospel of the day was the Parable of the Talents.)

Today, 31st August, the Catholic Church in England has the option of celebrating “Saint Aidan and all the Saints of Lindisfarne”. I’m going to borrow that feast for use in Wales as a celebration not only of Lindisfarne but of all our Celtic saints.

Lindisfarne is an island off the coast of Northumbria, where St Aidan founded a monastery at the invitation of the local king, Oswald, in the year 635. The Celtic monks often chose islands for their monasteries; they did so in Wales, at Caldey Island in the south and Ynys Enlli – Bardsey Island – the “island of  twenty-thousand saints” in the North. In those days, the first calling of monks was to live lives set apart for prayer, and these remote locations protected the privacy, and hence the rhythm of prayer, for the monks who lived there. When not located on islands, monasteries were often placed deliberately in remote locations. Even so, people came, seeking spiritual guidance, medical advice or education; and the monks offered hospitality to those who came. Some became centres of learning, and the monastery at Llantwit Major became as renowned in Europe as Oxford and Cambridge are today.

It was part of the rhythm of Welsh life that people WENT TO monasteries. They were places of safety, learning and spirituality. Under the guidance of saints like Cadoc and Illtud, Dyfrig and David, they flourished throughout the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries. After 1066, Wales was populated by Cistercian monks, more connected to Rome than the earlier Celtic monasteries, but again, sited in remote locations like Strata Florida.

But then Wales changed. More and more people were living in towns, distant from the monasteries. Something new was needed.

That something new came in the form of the friars, religious orders whose members were called to move from place to place.

Dominicans specialised in preaching; they were present all over Wales, including Cardiff, Brecon and Bangor.

Franciscans specialised in serving the poor, and did so in Cardiff and Anglesey, and even here in Carmarthen.

Carmelites, originally hermits uprooted from their settlement in the Holy Land by the evershifting politics of the Middle East, came to Britain spreading a deep calling to a life of prayer, and founded a friary in Denbigh.

Although the houses founded by these orders were fixed locations – urban locations – different friars came and went, bringing their particular gifts. Through their ministry God’s Word, a new openness to prayer, and charity-in-action were brought to towns, and the townsfolk were blessed. Those who would never have dreamed of travelling to a rural monastery were now able to encounter the Gospel in word and in action.

We are gathered for this weekend’s conference under the title Behold, I do a new thing (Isaiah 43:19). Last night Derek spoke about how the “new thing” in Isaiah’s writing differs from the old.

The old blessing given was when the Israelites passed out of Egypt and took possession of the promised land, on the safe side of the River Jordan. They were a closed-in community. Marriages with strange tribes were discouraged. If foreigners did want to join the community and worship the God of Israel, this was possible, but not something the Israelites went out of their way to promote.

But Isaiah’s new thing was a prophecy of rivers in the wilderness.

What does this tell us about charismatic renewal in Wales?

Last month, in Lampeter, I attended a gathering of about 200 church leaders, as part of the New Wine Cymru network. They were mostly Anglicans or independent church leaders, and they came from all over Wales, not just the big cities, but many of the small villages too. What they all shared in common was a hunger to see Wales blessed by the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Some New Wine leaders shared prophecies they had received about Wales. There said that in the past, there had been a season of blessings which were mainly for the churches. But God was about to release a season of blessings when God’s glory and healing power would stream out of the churches and affect people on the streets. The new wave of blessing is for the whole nation.

In our Catholic experience, we know there was a time when prayer groups were strong and the Carmarthen conference attracted around 400 people. We were like Israel, rejoicing to find ourselves in the promised land; we used the gifts to bless each other within the prayer groups, rather than taking them out to the wider community. Once we had formed groups of people who enjoyed each other’s company, newcomers could find their way in if they really wanted to, but we stopped going out of our way to invite new people in. The Spirit’s gifts were rarely used outside Prayer Groups, Conferences, or Days of Renewal. That wave of blessing has faded and now our prayer groups, where they still exist, are mostly shadows of their former selves.

Isaiah’s “new thing” is meant to be streams of water in the desert. What is the desert, if not the secularised people of Wales today? What are the streams of living water, if not the blessings which God has in store for them? Dare we hope that God is going to pour out healings and prophetic upbuilding on the whole population of Wales, those who never darken the door of a church?

Yes, God can do this!

But how will God do this?

It is not usually God’s way to appear to non-believers in a dream or a vision, to convert them unaided. Yes, God can do that – but he normally appears to them in the form of his body. That’s us!

The Bible leaves us in no doubt that as followers of Jesus, we are called to be filled with the Spirit to do the same works that he did – indeed, even greater things!

Today’s Gospel tells us that God has high expectations. If God has entrusted a gift to us, he expects us to use it. I would go so far as to say that if you’ve had the gift of tongues but hardly used it in your personal prayer, you have let God down. If you’ve known someone who is unwell, but not offered to pray with them for healing, you have let God down. If you know someone who has need of being built up, but you’ve not asked God to inspire a word to share with them, you have let God down. You do not want to find yourself keeping company with the “wicked and lazy servant” who kept God’s gift safe and unused. Yes, trading the sum entrusted to you is a risky business, but it’s what God expects us to do. If God doesn’t deliver the profit we’d like, that’s God’s responsibility. If we haven’t tried, that’s ours.

Am I not being a little harsh? If the Lord’s warning in the Bible is too much for you, try the Church’s teaching, from paragraph 3 of Apostolicam Actuositatem:

The Holy Spirit … gives the faithful special gifts also “allotting them to everyone according as He wills” …  From the acceptance of these charisms, including those which are more elementary, there arise for each believer the right and duty to use them in the Church and in the world for the good of men and the building up of the Church…

You have the RIGHT to use the gifts God has given you.

You have a DUTY to use the gifts God has given you.

And here’s the good news: if you haven’t been doing this – indeed, if you feel your fruitfulness in the gifts has faded because you haven’t made good use of them – no less an authority than St Thomas Aquinas teaches us that as soon as we repent through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, God restores us to a place with all the gifts and graces which we had before we sinned. If we, here and now, today, truly repent of keeping the Gifts of the Spirit for ourselves in our prayer groups, God can restore all the gifts to us with the power we once knew. But God expects us to step out and start trading with them, trading our willingness to look foolish, for the healing and salvation of Wales.

(At this point I told a story about how I came to give this talk last year in its final format – I was in two minds whether to include the section on healing, but the healing miracles of Jesus were such a core part of the Gospels I felt I had to include them in any talk on the Basic Gospel Message, even though the Bishops’ brief was to focus on John 3:16. At last year’s New Wine Conference, I was called out in a prophecy workshop and was given the message – by someone who knew nothing of my dilemma about how to focus my talk – that God was saying “stand up in front of bishops and say what you know to be right”.)

Would you like to see people in your town healed by Jesus?

If they just woke up healed one morning, would they know it was Jesus who had done it?

If a Christian prayed with them for healing and it happened, would they know it was Jesus who had done it?

Ah… so which Christians in your town would be the people doing that?

How do you know if you’ve got a gift of healing or not?

Well, you could try praying with a few willing people and seeing if they get healed.

It might not work. Don’t panic! A pastor called John Wimber reached the same conclusion, that faithfulness to God required us to pray for people to be healed. He spent 6 months praying for healing at the end of all his Sunday church services, with no success. Then he got one. Then the floodgates opened! His faithfulness led to the founding of the Vineyard churches in 1982.

We are not only called to bring healing, but to bring the prophetic word.

Would you like to see people in your town receive a word from God which builds them up and restores their faith? Yes?

Who is going to speak that word to them?

Andy can’t do it – he’s in Cornwall.

Derek can’t do it – he’s in Lincoln.

What about you?

Don’t you know that Scripture says that you should “eagerly desire the gift of prophecy”?

Don’t you wake up every morning, bounce out of bed, and pray: “Lord, I’m desperate that you should give me a word today so I can bless someone else?” Don’t you? So you aren’t eagerly desiring the gift of prophecy. Hmmm… room for deeper conversion.

Two years ago, I spoke to about 200 members of the Monaghan County Prayer Group gathered at Knock. On the last day I challenged them to be open to God’s prophetic word, and asked them to pair up and pray silently for two minutes, asking God to show them what to pray for, for their random partner. Then they were asked to share with their partner what they had prayed about. At least half the people present felt God had inspired a very relevant prayer!

In preparing for this conference, our leaders have received Words were given for Wales. There are too many to read out here and now, but they accord with words that Anglican and independent Church leaders in Wales have received recently. And did you know that a charismatic church in Llanelli has just completed 7 years of prayer that God would unblock the wellsprings in Wales so the nation can experience a new outpouring?

If you have the gift of tongues, you have a duty to use it to build up worship.

If you have any prophetic gift, you have a duty to use it to bless your parish and your neighbour.

If you have any gift of healings, likewise.

Friends, the age of prayer groups is over. The age of support cells for people ministering to the lost sheep of Wales is just beginning. Today we celebrate how God blessed Celtic nations in the past with island monasteries, centres of holiness and learning. Tomorrow we must return home willing to bear God’s gifts to the streets and villages where we live.

I can’t tell you how God is going to use you. Two things I do know – that “Jesus heals today” is the most powerful part of our Gospel message, and that we are eagerly to desire the gift of prophecy. We are not worthy of the Spirit’s gifts – that’s what makes them gifts. It is because we are ordinary people, weak in the eyes of the world, that we in Wales can be used by God to bless the three million people who dwell in Wales today. We must become, for Wales, the missionaries of the Holy Spirit. Today, the Lord is going to give to you, or restore in you, many gifts which he can use to bring Revival to Wales. Make no mistake – the stakes are high! Choose to make good use of these gifts, use them to bless others, and God will say to you, “Come and share in your master’s happiness!”. You will shine in the world like bright stars because you are offering it the word of life.

Let’s be adult about entertainment

Homily at St Dyfrig’s for the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

When did you last turn off the television, or walk out of the cinema, because the presentation on-screen was simply unacceptable?

The Word of God this weekend calls upon each one of us to leave our folly, walking instead in the ways of perception. With the Ephesians, each one of you is invited to “be very careful about the sort of lives you lead, like intelligent and not like senseless people.” The Bible continues: “This may be a wicked age, but you [are invited to] redeem it.”

We could apply this in many ways, but today I’d like us to reflect on our viewing and listening habits. I enjoy a good film; I like to see a good drama or comedy on the television. But our 21st century entertainment leaves little to the imagination. The language and the images we’re offered have become more and more graphic. One of the questions film censors ask themselves is: “Have we already permitted this?” This means that each time new ground is broken on so-called artistic merit, the boundary of what’s officially “acceptable” becomes wider and wider.

One of our bishops has said that nowadays, “the unthinkable has become the acceptable, and the unacceptable has become the norm”.

Did you know that, according to current cinema guidelines –

  • 12-rated film is allowed to use the F-word and to show brief sexual activity?
  • 15-rated film may occasionally use an even more offensive word, and show nudity and sexual activity, the only caveat being “without strong detail”?

When I choose a film, I want to be entertained by excellent storytelling and a decent plot. I don’t want my entertainment spoiled by bare flesh appearing on the screen, or repeated use of foul language. But most consumers don’t object to those things, so that’s what the film producers provide. What can we do?

Some of us may feel called to lobby against what is currently permitted. MediaWatch-UK continues the work of Mrs Mary Whitehouse; there’s also a small lobby group based in Wales with the radical title Catholics Unplug your Televisions, which invites you to do just that.

I don’t think our Catholic faith requires all of us to do that. But our faith does require us to live by God’s standards each day of our lives. It’s by living God’s way that we redeem the world.

If you are planning a trip to the cinema, you might want to check out the American Bishops’ Conference website. They have a film review section, which considers each major new release from the viewpoint of Catholic morals. They’ve also got an archive of older reviews. The site will give you not only a standard review of whether the film is good, but also advice that a parent might value (about what would frighten children). It will say whether the plot turns on ideas that go against Catholic morality, and whether the language, sexual imagery, or violence is offensive. I find these reviews useful, because given what a 15- or even a 12-rated film is now allowed to contain, if I only relied just on the film’s rating to know what to avoid, I’d be stuck with a diet of children’s PG rated films. But thanks to the American bishops, I can make an informed decision.

For a moment, I’d like to speak to the University students among us – those at the University of Glamorgan and those currently at home planning to be at college next month. Each one of you is called to be a witness for Christ in a difficult environment – among young adults willing to push the boundaries of what is acceptable. There will be times when you have to push back the other way.

Perhaps you’ll find yourself with a group of friends who decide to watch something which you find too graphic. In these cases, you are being invited to be a witness for Christ. Politely explain that you don’t consider this acceptable viewing, make your excuses, and leave. Don’t condemn and criticise your friends, but do make it clear that you have standards on which you will not compromise. Your friends may call you a prude, or old-fashioned, or worse. But in today’s Britain, there’s a culture of non-discrimination which allows you to demand respect for your stance: it’s an expression of your Catholic faith. Remember – if you’ve received the sacrament of confirmation, you’ve made a commitment to stand up for Christ in this way, in the face of a world which thinks differently. And remember: Jesus promised special blessings to those willing to stand up for what was right, risking possible persecution.

But don’t be a lone voice. Reach out to other people who share the same values. If your University has a Catholic Society, start there. You’ll find that you have a shared set of moral values with the Christian Union and the Islamic Society; at the University of Glamorgan, you’ll find a programme of events at the on-campus Meeting House. Join together with other believers; perhaps even start your own film club. Part of the way you can redeem the world is by creating a place where Christian values can be accepted, celebrated, and lived out.

Finally, a word to both students and to settled parishioners. I’d like to invite you to reflect on the word we use to describe restricted entertainment. It’s commonly called “adult entertainment”, hinting that there’s something positive, something mature, something fulfilling about it. We need to challenge this! It should rightly be called “adolescent entertainment”, meaning it is chosen by those who want to push the boundaries of acceptability. To be truly adult is to take personal responsibility for choosing your entertainment according to God’s law. Truly mature entertainment is that which explores deep themes without the need for gratuitous sex, violence or offensive language. What the world calls “adult” is adolescent trash.

Friends, this may be a wicked age, but Our Lord invites you to redeem it. Do this not by hanging on a Cross, but by choosing good entertainment, and walking away from what is impure. May He give you strength to choose, and to choose well, until whatever is pure and noble once again becomes the acceptable norm.