NAKED EMPERORS IN THE CHURCH
Dear friends, and especially those who are blinded by the light or bewildered by the darkness, Before we begin on the crucial subject of emperors with no clothes on, I have to report good news on one particular front. In my last letter I was moaning about a sad lack of variety in the bird population of our back garden, this in spite of carefully googled research, and a meticulous distribution of specially selected seeds. The other day we heard some television expert state with great authority that house sparrows and tree sparrows have become scarce in recent years. Well, I can tell that expert and any other experts who are interested why that is. They’re all here. The vast majority of these little brown vandals have moved into our garden. They hunt in packs and they eat like fluttering wolves. That was all we saw on our exotic bird-feeder constructions for weeks. However, the news is that there has been a change. A tough guy has arrived, and the sparrows are worried.
The tough guy is a goldfinch. Goldfinches are slightly smaller than sparrows, but they are stunningly beautiful, each one a poem in iridescent gold and yellow and red. In human terms they are the ones who always got off with someone at the dance when you were young and dismally aware that you were dressed like a sparrow. We were thrilled when our goldfinch arrived, but we had never realised what bruisers these creatures are. Our goldfinch has a large, heavy-duty beak, and he doesn’t mind using it. Clinging resolutely to his perch on the Nyjer seed container, he repels all sparrow boarders with sharp-eyed, head-butting, aggressive efficiency. We welcome his colourful visits, but there is something a little disconcerting about the combination of outward brilliance and inner aggression. Mind you, we have occasionally encountered similar phenomena in the church - which brings me rather neatly to the naked emperors.
I mentioned in my January letter that we meet a number of people in the Church who have been abused, dumped or conned by those who see themselves as visionaries at worst, and movers and shakers at best. These serial position-changers can be seductively amiable and inspiring, especially as their main appeal seems to be to disappointed Christians who yearn for authenticity in their spiritual lives. Unhappy sheep are often attracted to self-styled shepherds who redefine the demands of faith just enough to offer a species of safety that appears blessedly secure right up to the point where it definitely is not.
Thirty years ago I was lucky enough, and ill enough, and foolish enough, and willing enough, to stand like the little boy in the story of the emperor’s non-existent new clothes, and comment freely and loudly on the nonsenses and absurdities and inventions and downright lies that had become common and accepted facets of the modern church. I was undoubtedly arrogant and loud-mouthed and quite a long way up myself at the time, but I told the truth about the things I saw. Now, at a time in my life when I listen far more, and have become really rather fond of God, I see no less need to speak out about arrant nonsense dressed as truth.
I’m hoping to say quite a lot more about this in future letters, but in the meantime here’s a sketch that Bridget and I have just begun to perform to our patient audiences. The world in general seems just as anxious to disguise the truth as the wheeler-dealer shepherds I’ve mentioned. Some recent adverts about the selling of funeral insurance are a good example. Death is not a smiling pleasure. Jesus hated it. It’s horrible. See what you think.
George: (brightly) Hello there, Jean who keeps popping in from next door to get her pan back. Come to get your pan back?
Jean: (equally brightly) That’s right! What are you up to, George who lives here? You’re looking very merry and bright!
G: Yes, I’m having a great time! I’m planning my death! I’m just about to sign one of those funeral plan insurance agreements.
J: Ooooh, interesting! What fun!
G: Yes, look, right on the top it says ‘SIGN UP WITH US AND YOUR FUNERAL PAYMENT WORRIES WILL BE DEAD AND BURIED’.
J: (seriousIy impressed) I like that! Witty and reassuring at the same time. I really love that! George, do you think I’d like this firm? In the past I’ve always worried that funeral people might be a bit - you know - insensitive.
G: Not these people, Jean. Listen to this. (reads brightly)
By signing up here, you’ll say ‘Goodbye!’ to fear,
Where kicking the bucket’s concerned,
As you hit the deck, we’ll be writing a cheque,
For your corpse to be buried or burned.
They chuckle delightedly
J: Isn’t that lovely. A lovely light but caring touch! Really makes you feel you’d like to die.
G: That’s exactly how I feel! I want to die now. Really looking forward to it. And I’ll tell you something else, Jean. There’s a feature of this contract that I really admire. You know how you have to make a payment every month for this kind of thing?
J: (fascinated) Yes!
G: Well, get this! Until I’ve signed this form and sent it back, the amount of that repayment is - undisclosed!
J: (wonderment) Undisclosed! Are you sure?
G: (a man of the world) Undisclosed! It’s guaranteed! And that’s not all that’s on offer, Jean!
J: (deeply intrigued) Something else! I can’t believe it, George!
G: (tapping the agreement with his finger) If I die within a year of signing, guess what I get!
J: What’s that then, George?
G: I get a pen! (she gasps with astonishment) Course, the family have to send in the death certificate and all that –
J: (they’re grown-ups) Oh, of course. But the pen’s a definite?
G: It’s here in black and white!
J: A free pen! The family must be so thrilled, George.
G: Oh, they are, Jean. And, of course, they all get a lump sum when I die.
J: Not a pen, then.
G: (laughs roguishly) Not on your life! That’s dad’s little treat. Oh, we’ve had a few laughs at home lately, I can tell you, Jean! My oldest accidentally gave me a little playful push at the top of the stairs the other day. ‘Easy,’ I said, wagging my finger at him in fun, ‘or you’ll be collecting your lump sum earlier than you thought!’
They both laugh loudly and stop suddenly as though a thought has crossed their minds.
Next month, apart from more on this theme, I’ll tell you about an experience Bridget and I had in the wilds of northern New York last year. I think you’ll be fascinated. Meanwhile, Spring really is coming, even in the north of England.
Love to everybody, Adrian.