Conversion of St Paul 2009 (pm)

Evensong, St Mary's Church, Barton-on-Humber
Sunday 25 January 2009 at 18:00
[Conversion of St Paul]
Written and delivered by David Rowett, Priest-in-Charge

Talking about stained glass in a church which might contain a Gordon Plumb is about as sensible as sounding off about physics in front of Stephen Hawking, but I was always a risk-taker. But you all know the sort of stained glass I'm going to mention anyway, that Victorian 'bought-out-of-a-catalogue' stuff which commemorates countless nineteenth-century parish worthies up and down the land. The red glass is the colour of cheap raspberry jam, the yellows remind you of sherbert lemons, and the blue is that particular shade of blue which they used to make glass Domestos bottles out of. And the pictures are a bit like an ecclesiastical photofit or Mr Potato Head kit. Standard issue haloes, praying hands, lilies and what-have you are everywhere. Thus the saints become all much of a muchness, with unisex hair, unisex clothes and unisex colouring.
Out in the big bad world, that impression of the saints doesn't stop in the glassworks, though, and that's serious. Saints are all saccharine, detached Sunday-school-faithful cutouts, full of religiosity and consequently lacking in personality, individuality or interest. As Tolkien once said about the Baggins family of Hobbits, they were so predictable you didn't need to ask them their opinion on anything because you already knew what it would be. Thus, Christians (and especially those hyper-Christians, the saints) will be censorious, puritanical killjoys anxious to butter up God (in contrast to the real people who occupy the real world outside our fairy-tale universe) and there's no need to find out whether that caricature is true. Far better to find a rollicking sinner if you want to look at something interesting!
On this day when we celebrate the conversion of Saul of Tarsus to the Jesus movement, destroying those sanctimonious clichés (which sometimes we wonder whether we should be trying to live up to!) Could have something going for it, not because on our own we're going to shift the world's perception about what the life of faith is all about, but because we can't risk it tainting our own calling. So what is the calling to holiness supposed to do to us?
There is an important strand in Christian writing which talks about our being absorbed into Christ. Paul says, 'My desire is to be with Christ', there's loads in the mystics about it, and one saint, in a striking image, says that they long to be like the drop of water which rejoins the ocean and ceases to exist as itself. And my initial response (like my response to the Nirvana idea of some eastern religions) was extreme unhappiness. It seemed to say that everything we are, everything we do, everything and everyone we experience here are, ultimately, pointless. If we're lucky, these folk seemed to say, we'll end up being one with the great cosmic tapioca pudding called God. This is not a particularly pleasant prospect, I think you'll agree, since what makes us interesting to one another is our differences and individual gifts and enthusiasms. In the TV series 'The Prisoner, the late Patrick McGoohan insists, 'I am not a number', and an eternity of non-being in a heaven based on the sinister village from which there was no escape is a pretty good definition of hell.
So what are these mystics on about?
This is where I come back to my grumble about identikit saints, since a heaven populated by divine clones would be about as inviting a prospect as that of spending eternity at the launderette. And then you realise that the saints are sparky, quirky, eccentric characters with different takes on the universe, the very opposite of a Holy Grey Goo, usually able to laugh at themselves, to handle the world as it is, and not as they would like it to be, and still see a place for hope, love, truth and kindness. To be honest, they don't fit very well in managerial culture, audit trails and annual appraisals because they can't be captured by such systems.
This is because these are people who are close to discovering their true selves - the people whom Christ is calling them to be. One way of understanding the act of creation is to see God enabling the appearance of millions of consciousnesses with unique abilities to be different, thereby enriching even the experience of God - and in case that sounds heretical, it's a fairly logical outcome of that school of Christian thinking called process theology, where God stands with us at every instant helping us shape the future towards growth and love and beauty.
This is what we need to hold alongside with all that business about being absorbed into God - that when this happens, it is not because we are no longer ourselves, but because we have become ourselves, Christ-like, without all the bits that get in the way and trip us up. The Christian end is not extinction of ourselves, but exactly the opposite, where we are able to become united with Christ because we have become what Christ calls us to be.
The theologian Keith Ward observed that one way of looking at heaven was to see it as a place without conflict populated by millions of beings, all of whom were perfectly free to be themselves. We begin to see what he means in the lives of the saints, whose very individuality and difference from one another marks them out as real people who become more real the more holy they become.
At the Nuremberg war trials the comment was made about how banal evil is, and many writers have spotted the tedious monochrome character of despots and tyrants. Is there a more depressing line up of uninspiring, unimaginative dismal clones than Stalin, Amin, Pol Pot, Mugabe and (of course) Hitler? One single script sums them all up. Get power. Keep power. Kill anyone who gets in the way. Cause as much suffering as you want. Die unmourned. Those who look to the rollicking sinners for interesting lives maybe should think twice.
The call to be a saint, the call to be holy, is the call to become ourselves. Unique, multi-faceted, interesting, different. And the drop is swallowed up in the ocean because that's where it feels most at home.


David Rowett (web page by Adrian Worsfold)