I’m farther now from heaven than when I was a boy

My father was a great singer and among the songs he occasionally sung was a lament for lost innocence, which included the words, “for I’m farther now from heaven than when I was a boy!” This is a sentiment based on the idea that we are created good, but from then on – at least for most of us – it is downhill all the way. This, of course, is not true. We may be innocent, when we are born, but we are certainly not yet good; moral goodness is based on choices that we make in life – it is not an original condition. This idea is closely allied to another, namely that when we sin, we make ourselves sinful people, but we do not have to think very deeply to realise that this thought is back the front. For instance, if I do something dishonest, where does that dishonesty come from, if not from within myself? It does not suddenly just appear when I act, it must have already been in me or I would not have acted dishonestly. As the Lord says, “A good tree does not produce bad fruit”; in other words, “you can’t have sin without a sinner”. Thus, if I do something dishonest, it is because I am dishonest; if I do something arrogant, it is because I have not yet learnt humility; and if I do something impure, it is because I do not yet know how to care for others in a wholehearted and loving way.

Some years ago, I gave a retreat to some Catholic men in Liverpool and in one session we were talking about the Christian life when one man said, “The difficulty, Father, is the people you work with. I have one man in my office, who really brings out the worst in me!” In reply, I found myself saying to him, “Well, thank goodness for that – otherwise it would remain inside you and you would not know it was there!” Now, that seems to suggest that in order to know that I am sinful, some sins are necessary – and I remember some years ago being shocked when I read a passage in the writings of Julian of Norwich, which says just that. Julian recounts one of her visions of the Lord and tells how, with great sorrow, she says to him in anguish of heart, “But, Lord, I keep sinning; I sin again and again and again!” and the Lord answers, “Don’t worry, don’t worry; don’t you see that those sins are necessary, for until you realise how weak you are, you will never take my hand”.

The goodness we are invited to by God is not an abstract, isolated self-perfection, but a warm, living partnership with the Lord, who is my friend, my companion and my Saviour. I do not have the source of love and goodness in me – but he does. So, as I dare to look at my sins and come to realise what I am really like, I find myself in a position to choose – choose whether to stay like that or to open myself to the friendship and saving love of Jesus Christ. However, he does not save me by cutting away those parts of myself that I have tarnished or damaged, he saves me by taking them and changing them into something wonderfully new. Thus, the betrayal of Peter on the night Jesus was condemned becomes, by God’s grace, the means by which he becomes the rock; the hatred for Christians in the heart of Saul, becomes the means by which he becomes the great apostle Paul; and the weakness and meanness in my life, which so depresses me at times, will become my glory through the power of Christ.

This is what we Christians mean when we say that we believe in “Resurrection”. Jesus did not rise, having left all the weakness and shame of the crucifixion behind him – he rose with the wounds still in his hands and in his side, for they are now the signs of his glory and power. To bemoan lost innocence is to hope for resuscitation, not resurrection; so we Christians, rather, should rejoice in the weakness and failures that mark us, for by owning them humbly before God, we are shown the doorway to greatness – the way to take hold of the outstretched hand of the Lord.

This is why we gather Sunday by Sunday to offer bread and wine, for in offering these gifts we are offering ourselves – as we are – with all our victories and defeats. It is our true self, in all our “half-formedness” – that we humbly give into God’s hands to be consecrated, for by giving ourselves into his hands, we shall feel his power and know for ourselves the love and goodness, not of a new-born child, but of the one who has walked through the fire with Christ and has been refined.

Diary

The last six or seven weeks have been busy. I have been in several places here in Malaysia as well as Kenya, Indonesia and the Philippines. It ended with a meeting of all the Mill Hill members in Malaysia and we were joined by one of our priests from Ambon in Indonesia and the Mill Hill Councillor for Asia, who is on a visitation. There were 14 of us altogether – 4 who are permanent residents and who arrived here before 1964 and the rest who have been enabled to come since the Government began, a few years ago, issuing missionary visas again. It struck me that with the four older ones either moving into retirement or towards it, that had the Government not begun  issuing visas again, that would probably have been the last Mill Hill meeting in East Malaysia, bringing to an end 130 years of Mill Hill activity here. Instead, what I saw before me was not and end, but a new beginning.

This new beginning is not coming just from new Mill Hill missionaries arriving, but also through as flowering of local missionary vocations. At present, we have one man from Sabah, studying at the Mill Hill House in the Philippines; we have another from the Kuching Archdiocese, who begins his preparatory English course at Penang, in a few days’ time; and a third man, from Sabah, who is preparing himself to join Mill Hill in the Philippines, in July of this year. There is thus a rebirth of “mission” in East Malaysia, not only with new Mill Hill men coming to Malaysia, but Malaysians beginning to answer the call “Go out to the whole world, to proclaim the Good News.”(Mk 16) This, however, has all happened so quickly, that I find myself pushed to work out how to find the money to train these new Malaysian vocations to the missionary priesthood. But that is a problem many countries in the West would like to have!

Our grass-cutting machines at the seminary are in a poor state, with wobbly wheels, broken handles, defunct starters etc. So, I decided that to buy myself a grass-cutter, which I would keep for my own use! I have done so and we had its inaugural run last Wednesday. The grass was very thick, after the long break, so I left off the grass collector from the machine because it was filling up so quickly and as a result the cuttings hit my legs as I was working – and I was wearing short trousers. The next day my legs began to itch and I began to scratch. It is three days now, since the first cutting, but my legs are still itching, despite wearing long trousers yesterday when I was cutting. I am told, however, that it will take a couple of days more for the itching to die away – I hope so.

God bless,

Terry

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