No Dogs Please

Daisy the Vicarage Dog is great with people. The six-year-old cocker spaniel can often be seen around the villages with the local vicar. She loves pastoral visiting and is greatly admired in return (Daisy that is – the vicar is too, of course). And yet, despite having lived with many of them and also bred her own pups before coming to us 18 months ago, Daisy doesn’t like other dogs. There’s a story there somewhere.

So, in an effort to help other canines maintain social distance, she now sports the words ‘No Dogs Please’ on her lead. Some dogs are better at reading than others and pass by without a sniff. Others though have owners who tell us how friendly their dog is: ‘Ours isn’t…’ we reply.

It seems to be the same with our own walks in these strange times, doesn’t it? Some give plenty of room and say ‘Thank you’ in the process. Others seeming to be dealing in feet rather than metres.

In a previous post, I reflected on how in contrast to the Good Samaritan we are now actively encouraged to walk by on the other side… and the consequences that has for many, even when it is for the greater good as we wait for better times to come.

Many have taken to wearing metaphorical signs stating ‘No People Please’ to the extent of not leaving their home out of anxiety and loss of confidence.

We will all have our story of these current times – whether it’s the practicalities of home schooling, working or being furloughed, the loss of normal social contacts, the opening and closing of churches. Stories of people we have lost or nearly did, of our own emotional and mental health struggles in the uncertainty and confusion and whether or not we tested positive or even ever had a test. There are and will continue to be many stories of the kindness of strangers, the heroics of key workers and the effect of the vaccine.

All the same, some of us will not want to hear those stories because, as the BBC’s Clive Myrie put it recently, ‘We’re all scared’. Some of us will want to carry a ‘No People Please’ sign for a while. Others of us will want to tell our story – because we need someone to listen. We need people to put down their sign and come close again.

However they may be told, many of us can benefit from listening to other people’s stories.

All the people who ever met Jesus have a story to tell (there’s some on my new website at astorytotell.org.uk). All ordinary people who encountered an extraordinary person.

We too can have such encounters when we put down the signs we carry – and the one marked ‘No God please’ too.

 

 

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The Christmas Post

‘Bah! Humbug!’

Ebenezer Scrooge’s comment on Christmas is one I share.

It probably dates back to childhood times when excitement and disappointment both arrived neatly wrapped. I really don’t like Christmas that much: or rather the way the world (and, to an extent, the church) has chosen to represent it. Christmas also exacerbates the more uncomfortable side of feelings that I don’t fit. All the same, I do wish you a very happy and safe Christmas!

But even my dislike of Christmas with all its ‘fripperies’ as John Betjeman put it, was mellowed this last Sunday when carols were sung at our churches once again (outside, of course). There seemed an added poignancy to the fact we hadn’t sung at all for 9 months… it’s been a difficult pregnancy hasn’t it?

As many have said, although some have stated the opposite, Christmas is not cancelled – but perhaps the absence of many of the ‘usual things’ (hard as that is) will enable us to focus more clearly on the Christ in the story.

To focus on the coming of Christ into our own selves.

The Christ who is ever present and never disappointing.

The Christ who calls us to be people who don’t fit.

 

 

 

The Coming of Christ

It’s always good to have one’s prejudices challenged.

This Advent, I’ve been reading Celtic Advent by fellow BRF author, the excellent David Cole. In one of the daily reflections, he writes about the hymn known as ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’. Now, a long time ago, this was sung in a Sunday morning service: all nine verses of it… or was it ten… what a dirge it was and I have never liked it since.

But like many prejudices, our judgment on things once encountered, forever discounted is due to the fact we don’t understand things fully.

Attributed to St Patrick, it’s a prayer of protection and was subsequently translated by Cecil Frances Alexander (she of ‘All things bright and beautiful’ – another victim of prejudice, perhaps…). It is in a tradition of Irish Celtic prayers and can be found again in a version called ‘God’s Aid’ in the Carmina Gadelica and more recently, the song ‘Everything’ by Tim Hughes.

David Cole writes, ‘The verse which sits as the key point of this prayer is the one which states that Christ is within us and in every other surrounding area of us and our life:

Christ be with me, Christ with me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me
Christ in mount of friend and stranger.’

Advent is a time of preparation. Preparing for the first coming of Christ in human form, as a baby at Christmas. Advent is also a time to remember we are preparing for the second coming of Christ: returning in glory to the earth at a time to come.

In Celtic Christian spirituality, there is a third coming that sits in-between the two:

The coming of Christ into our own selves.

‘This is not just a single event,’ Cole writes, ‘a moment of conversion or becoming a Christian. This is a continual activity in every part of our lives on a daily basis.

‘(This) may happen multiple times a day, and in every decision we make… This isn’t about eternal salvation; this is about Christ being intrinsically involved and interwoven in every part and aspect of our everyday lives.’

This Christmas, and in the days before and beyond it, may we all experience the coming of Christ into our own selves.

‘I got it wrong’

We’d witnessed chaos and conflict. People lost sleep and found anxiety. There were accusations with no evidence. No one willing to say they got it wrong. No one willing to accept defeat. It was a sad sight.

Then last Saturday, at around 10am Pacific Standard Time (6pm GMT), a rainbow appeared in the skies above Venice, Los Angeles, California.

It was as if the world had breathed a sigh of relief.

As history looks back on the Trump presidency, only time will tell whether it’s President-Elect Biden who makes America great again.

Back in 2003, when I was interviewed for what became my final job, I was asked about what strengths I brought to the role. ‘I will always admit to my mistakes,’ I remember saying. And it’s a tenet I stuck with through the intervening years both at and away from work. And continue to do so.

That said, I can be forthright in presenting evidence if the accusation is incomplete of the facts.

The problem is when accusations are made and the ‘accuser’, for want a better word, neither offers explanation nor substantiates their claim. When one is left in a state of limbo: left feeling ‘I honestly don’t know what I did wrong. Will someone please tell me!’

Those who have wronged us are sometimes, deep down inside, never truly forgiven. Anger, hurt and bitterness can be carried for years. Ruminating about what happened over and over again. Blaming other people. Blaming ourselves. Blaming God.

Having reminded his readers of Jesus’ words, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself,’ Paul’s letter to the Galatians highlights the cost of living in the desert of unresolved dispute: ‘If… you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another’. (Galatians 5:13-15)

When, in his victory speech that Saturday evening, Joe Biden quoted the words from the Bible that for America it was ‘A time for healing’ (Ecclesiastes 3) it was to strengthen another tenet that perhaps all of us can benefit from, whether Republican or Democrat, Tory or Socialist, church or, even, another church: “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again…. to make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies,” he said.

The desert of unresolved dispute is a harsh and barren place. Let us always be ones who bring water to such a land.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us.

 

 

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Walk on By

Many have said we live in strange times.

Not least perhaps are some familiar phrases we can no longer use: ‘Is this seat taken?’, ‘May I join you?’

The ‘elbow bump’ has usurped the handshake. The ‘distance hug’ an inadequate replacement for the security and warmth of being held.

Two’s company, six is a crowd…

Even the great principle of the Parable of the Good Samaritan has been turned over – we are now actively encouraged to walk by on the other side… and many have been left lying by the road, trapped by the restrictions, local lockdowns and the fear of leaving their home.

Many good Samaritans have paid a price today too. Not just in the rightly applauded NHS – although the pressure of being ‘heroes’ is taking its toll on many. But also the oft-forgotten care homes and overlooked domiciliary workers. And then there are the hidden helpers, quietly applying bandages to local communities and neighbourhoods and many a  university campus and workplace too.

We also see the equivalents of the priest and the Levite (a priest’s assistant). Both these passers-by saw the wounded traveller but did not reach out. No doubt on their way to something important – torn between many competing needs. Who are they today? Some might say government but could any of us really do better? Or maybe Covid-conspiracy theorists protesting against loss of freedom while others suffer because of it or the ones who simply flout the advice and requests to socially distance? But aren’t they also expressions of fear…

And what about the robbers, the people who attacked the unfortunate traveller. Is there a parallel for them? What led to them to committing the crime? Who will meet their needs?

And finally, we have the innkeeper. The one to whom the Samaritan took the man who’d been attacked. Who are they today? The ones who are in it for the long haul, sticking by, regardless of cost – financial, physical or emotional?

But of course there is also the donkey – the ones who carry the whole load.

Jesus’ parables were often based around real events – and no doubt incidents such as people being robbed while travelling actually happened. As we considered in the previous post, the parables were not always meant to be taken literally but this one has found its way into many aspects of our attitudes towards others today.

In Jesus’ time, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notorious.  Jesus’ audience (Jewish lawyers and his own disciples) would have known this and thought the traveller a fool. Add to that, the Samaritans were outcasts and the enemies of the Jews so for a man from Samaria to help a Jewish traveller would have shocked his listeners – let alone that the priest and the Levite, for whom another Jew was indeed their neighbour, walked by on the other side.

So Jesus turns everything on its head (not the first or last time). He turns the message from judgement of others to compassion for others.

Martin Luther King once said, ‘The first question the priest and Levite asked was: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But… the good Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

 

 

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All in a Day’s Work

‘Behind the scenes’ documentaries have been part of TV viewing for decades and, with the growth in streaming alongside hundreds of channels, there are a multitude of different settings for the cameras to spy on.

One series I’ve enjoyed recently has been Channel 4’s The Yorkshire Jobcentre. Given my own career of nearly 40 years helping people to find or remain in employment that may not be a surprise.

Up until 2003, I worked in a variety of settings of what is now the Dept for Work & Pensions including in Jobcentres. The programmes have portrayed both job seeker (often maligned as scroungers) and job advisor (often portrayed as unhelpful bureaucrats) fairly and respectfully, observing difficulties and progress, frustration and commitment for both alike.

I certainly recognised the spectrum of customers from the harder to help long-term unemployed through to the harder to help professional and well-educated, and from the unrealistically ambitious to the desperately lacking in confidence. Similarly, I was fortunate to work alongside very committed colleagues, rejoicing together when someone got a job – but yes, there were a few who stuck to rules as if they’d written them.

The series certainly echoed my experience of it being an honour and a privilege to have played a small part in the lives of so many. Watching people make progress is a wonderful thing.

This coming Sunday’s Gospel reading is the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Like many of Jesus’ stories, it’s based on events happening in his time. An employer recruits labourers to work in his vineyard but to our 21st century ears, this parable would raise the hackles of any business person or union representative.

Taken literally, the concept of people who worked one hour and people who worked a full day being paid exactly the same would not go down well – as indeed it didn’t with some of the labourers in the vineyard.

But that’s missing the point of the parable. And the point is not a literal interpretation of the story being told – beyond the fact that for those labourers, among the poorest in 1st Century Palestine, working in the vineyard was a gift, a welcome source of employment.

One common interpretation of the parable is that the owner is God and the labourers are us; the vineyard is God’s kingdom and the wage that is agreed is not only the provision of our daily bread but also our salvation.

Rather than being unfair or unjust, God’s generosity transcends our human ideas of fairness. God is not answerable to the people and can do as he pleases with his gifts.

God’s gift is that everyone – rich and poor, powerful and powerless – receives the same.

In God’s economy, all of us are equally deserving so the reward is equal as well. The reward is not based on each person’s merit or quality or quantity of work but rather from the grace of the one who hires, the grace of God.

As God’s people we are to be those who work in the vineyard because it is a good thing to do rather than because we hope to earn merit or greater rewards or greater recognition by others.

That said, the work itself doesn’t have to be something highly visible or deemed to be more important than others – remember this parable features the poorest of society.

Whatever we do if we do it for the Lord and not for our own personal reward, we will bear witness to God’s kingdom and we will see God’s vineyard bearing fruit.

 

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Uncertain certainty

‘The virus has robbed us of many things. It continues to rob us of any certainty.’

In many ways, those words by BBC correspondent, Chris Mason sum up these last few months.

Our local churches have begun opening for public worship for the first time since March. Many might have hoped to go back to a place of certainty… but with its hand sanitisers, the wearing of face coverings, social distancing, and no hymns or coffee it too has changed. It’s different.

The Gospel reading for today (9 Aug) is very appropriate for the current time (Matthew 14:22-33). It’s an account of when the disciples were in their boat crossing Lake Galilee in the middle of the night. Not unusually, a storm blows up. The boat is blown around. And then out of the tumult, Jesus walks on the water towards them. Given their exhaustion and the darkness, it’s not surprising they think it’s a ghost.

But Peter knows it’s Jesus. Responding to Christ’s call, Peter steps out in faith on to the water… and then he noticed the wind.

Peter sinks down and is grasped by Jesus’ hand. Jesus then climbs back in the boat and calms the storm allowing the disciples to continue their journey.

Stepping out in faith is no guarantee that we will not hit troubled or stormy waters. You’ve probably had your own encounters of stepping out in faith and things being difficult. You will have stepped out… and then noticed the wind.

Jesus said to Peter: ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’

A cruel put-down or words of empathic reassurance?

Did Peter really have little faith? After all, nobody else got out of the boat.

So here we are. We of little faith. A little faith that enables us to step out in the storm. A faith which grasps the hand of Jesus as he reaches out to us.

Jesus places us safely in the boat. He climbs in with us. He calms the storm and takes us on our journey. A journey yes, in to uncharted waters. A journey of continuing change. But also a journey of certainty. A journey in which we will never be abandoned.

Whatever the change. Whatever the loss of certainty.

Do not be afraid.

 

 

(This post is a shortened version of a spoken reflection at St Michael’s, Teignmouth in Devon as it reopened for worship on 9 Aug and that included in the online service for that day.)

Anxious Times Again

In the beginning was the word, and the word was… anxiety.

My wife, Jane and I had just returned from some lovely winter sun in southern Spain when just a week or so later, the first impact of Coronavirus was being felt. Suddenly, things changed and things changed suddenly. It all seemed very unreal – rather like those feelings which accompany bereavement when we think we’re going to see the loved one we’ve lost only to remember that we have indeed lost them.

Indeed, there has been so much loss for so many. Loss of loved ones. Loss of liberty. Loss of the familiar. Loss of the activities and social contact that gave life to life. Loss of sleep. Loss of hugs. Loss of certainty.

It’s felt like life has had to begin again. Walking has become like driving along a country lane and finding ‘passing places’ to maintain social distancing. We’ve washed our hands til they’re sore. Some have been shielding while others clap. Every cough is significant and there’s a whole new meaning to the phrase, ‘Is it me or is it hot in here?’

I thank God I live where I live: far away from socially-crowded cities. I thank God the ten o’clock news is covering other stories again. I thank God I am a natural isolate. I thank God for God.

Yet now several weeks on, maybe the word is still anxiety. These are anxious times again. Anxiety about the easing of lockdown. Anxiety about going out. Anxiety about wearing a face covering. Anxiety about returning to school, the workplace, the shops, to church. Anxiety about becoming closer to others.

There is a difference between having anxious thoughts and having clinical anxiety (and if those feelings are affecting the ability to function then help may be needed [sooner rather than later]). But feeling anxious about the current times is perfectly natural and having anxious feelings does not make any of us a lesser person nor does it mean we are one of little faith.

God knows our anxieties. They are not hidden from God because God’s light is always there to overcome the shadow of their darkness.

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. In him (in that Word, that Jesus) was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not (and does not, and will not) overcome it’ (John 1:1, 4-5)

 

This post is an extended version of some thoughts for the Diocese of Exeter’s Pause & Pray initiative.

Faith Seeking Understanding

One of my all-time favourite radio programmes is The Goon Show.

While not old enough to have heard the original broadcasts in the 1950s, I listened to countless episodes in my 20s and 30s in particular. Their surreal storylines, absurd logic, puns, catchphrases and groundbreaking sound effects influenced my own, at times rather weird, sense of humour. The Goons wouldn’t have been The Goons without all three of Harry Secombe, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellars – and yet they were also each brilliant as individuals in their own right.

Similarly, in a weird sort of way, one can’t think of the travellers from the East without thinking of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – three separate gifts but all part of their singular worship of the young Christ.

June 7th is Trinity Sunday – the beginning of a lengthy season when we reflect on how God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, individually and together, play an important part in our life and faith as Christians. (Here’s a short film you may like watch as well.)

Many have tried to explain the Holy Trinity and many more have been confused by it. There are some Christians and even clergy who don’t even accept the concept of the Trinity. Others think Christians believe in three Gods and yes we perhaps don’t help ourselves by using phrases such as ‘Three in One God’.

Many have suggested ways of how we might understand the structure of the Trinity. Some have drawn a parallel with H2O – we find it in water, ice and steam – all different but still all H2O. You may like to think of the Trinity as a 3-stranded cord – each cord, each person of the Trinity is distinct but together are indivisible and mighty.

But none of those give us the whole picture because none show us the relationship between the three and that is an important aspect of understanding the nature of the Trinity.

As human beings, we have a natural disposition towards wanting and needing to understand things. We like to know the whys, the whats, the whens, the wheres, the hows. Indeed, one of the most difficult aspects of our lives is when things happen or don’t happen and we don’t understand why it was or what was going on. Many of us perhaps have those feelings right now in this time of Covid 19 and all that has happened in these last few months. There are probably other things which have taken place in your life about which you still don’t understand.  There certainly are in mine.

Paula Gooder is a theologian who specialises in the New Testament. She has the ability to convey tremendous academic knowledge in very plain, easy to understand language. Last September I heard her speak about the parables and how we are constantly looking to understand and to explain what Jesus was meaning through the telling of them. Paula Gooder pointed out that even the disciples didn’t always get what Jesus was talking about – and they were with him all the time.

‘Most parables are meant to make us go “What?”’, she said. ‘The problem is that we put an interpretation and meaning on them – we struggle with parables because we think we know what they mean.’

For me, that’s the same with understanding the Trinity.

In other words, we do not have to understand absolutely everything about the Trinity, or any other aspect of our faith.

I have often reflected on and quoted to others the serenity prayer

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.

And I wonder if in our ability, inability and perhaps lack of necessity to fully understand things we can substitute the word change with the word understand:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot
understand;
the courage to
understand the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Our belief is, as St Anselm put it, about ‘faith seeking understanding’ – whatever that looks like for each one of us

 

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Come, Holy Spirit

Pentecost is the time when, a few days after Jesus ascended in to Heaven, we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit to the apostles. But what of us, moving through all the post-Easter weeks & finding ourselves at Pentecost once again? What place does the Holy Spirit have in our own lives?

The Holy Spirit is often referred to as the third person of the Trinity. Indeed, we often speak of God the Father, God the Son (Jesus) and God the Holy Spirit. Many churches will say a creed or a statement of faith using words such as ‘We believe in the Holy Spirit’ and services often end with a blessing in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

In a communion service, the spirit is invited to come down upon the people and the bread and the wine but in many churches there is often very little teaching or discussion about the Holy Spirit. Whereas in others, such as in the Pentecostal movement, Protestant and Roman Catholic charismatic churches, and some evangelical churches, the Holy Spirit takes centre stage and is manifested in many different and often dramatic ways.

Recorded by the Gospel-writer, Luke in Acts Chapter 2, coming 10 days after the Ascension and 50 after Easter (Pentecost is the Greek for ‘fiftieth’), this appearance of the Holy Spirit as promised by Jesus must have been a dramatic event.

This same Holy Spirit comes upon us today, enabling us to be a community of believers, a community of faith, which joins us in belonging to each other and belonging to God – even in these times where are unable to gather together in the building we call church, we remain the church of God.

So what is the purpose of the Holy Spirit in our lives?

  • The Spirit is sometimes called a comforter: we often experience comfort through a person (or perhaps an item or a place) that reassures us or makes us comfortable. The spirit is also with us to give comfort through such people or directly through prayer and presence.
  • The Spirit is an advocate: someone to stand alongside us; someone who might speak for us, or speak up for us – that’s what the Holy Spirit does; the word also suggests a lawyer who defends us. The Spirit is sometimes considered as a liberator – offering us freedom.
  • The Spirit is also thought of a guide: guiding us to pray for someone or contact someone. These might be thought of as ‘holy nudges’ – those little prompts that show us how God is at work through the Holy Spirit.

There is a lot more to the Holy Spirit than that too – so maybe take a look at this film offering a further reflection.

In his book, Behold the Beauty of the Lord, Henri Nouwen writes:

‘Let us go back in time. In the story of the Exodus, God is revealed as God for us, father-like – guiding the people out of slavery with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Later, in the story of Jesus, we have Immanuel – God with us – the Son of God accompanying the people in solidarity and compassion. Now in the story of Pentecost, God is revealed as God within us – we are enabled to breathe the divine life ourselves. Thus, Pentecost completes the mystery of God’s revelation as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. By becoming not only a God for us and a God with us, but also God within us, God offers the full knowledge of the divine life.’

God is for us. God is with us. God is within us.

God is for you. God is with you. God is within you.

Come, Holy Spirit

 

 

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