What makes a person great?

Despite all the difficulties, the Olympics will, no doubt, produce moments of greatness. Great sportswomen and men at the top of their game. Gold medals. World records. Memorable moments.

Whether it’s in sport or politics, businesses or churches, I imagine we can all think of people who are great. Some deservingly of that title. Others who have sought it for themselves.

But what makes people great?

25 July is St James’ Day when we celebrate the life of that close disciple of Jesus: sometimes referred to as St James the Great. There were the many people called James (or Jacob to give it its Hebrew root) around at that time so such titles were used to distinguish from others of that name. The one we remember today is the one whose body, legend has it, was carried to Compostela in Spain. He was the brother of John, one of the other disciples: often referred to as the disciple who Jesus loved. James and John were the sons of a well-to-do fisherman, Zebedee and his wife, Salome, thought by many to be the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

James and John were called ‘the Sons of Thunder’ because of, at times, their impetuous behaviour and outlandish requests. They were both key figures among the central group of twelve male disciples and together with Simon Peter, John and James were often to be found with Jesus, but without the others: for example, at the healing of the daughter of Jairus; on the mountain at the time of the Transfiguration and then again in the Garden at Gethsemane.

Matthew’s Gospel records an incident which is instigated by Salome, the mother of James and John. Mark’s account of the same occasion omits that detail but he too records a request made to Jesus: that the two brothers are to sit either side of him in heaven.

Journeys of faith can sometimes be paralleled with stages of life, and this outrageous request to sit on the right and left of Jesus smacks of the self-interest, unrealistic ambition and arrogance of a young and adolescent belief. We’ve all done it. We’ve all asked for things and incurred the wrath of others. And so it is for James and John: the other disciples are angry.

Jesus’ response to the brothers’ misplaced ambition is to ask if they can walk the path that he will walk. Can they drink the cup he will drink – the talk of a cup is a reference to the suffering and death Jesus will undergo. The journey of faith is about the service of others and of God, not about personal gain. Yes we are to be ambitious for Christ and the spreading of his Gospel: but ultimately none of us will drink the cup Jesus drank.

So where does that leave us in our exploration of greatness? As mentioned, we can think of great public figures. We might also think of people we have known personally who are great in our eyes. What is it that makes them so?

I wonder if it’s because we see someone as great simply because they never tried to be?

Perhaps we might see elements of humility, failings, a willingness to admit mistakes: all those things which are, if you like, contrary to what we might call ‘greatness’.

Yet so often, for example among sports people, politicians, business entrepreneurs and yes, in churches, we see people clamouring for greatness. The equivalent of wanting that seat next to Jesus in heaven.

That is not the way of Christ.

‘Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the one who serves.’

 

 

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Do you remember…

… when the FA Cup Final started at 3 o’clock? When there was a piece of card in a Bounty bar? When the BBC used to play a hymn on Ascension Day?

Life is always changing, isn’t it? And in this coming week we see more changes as lockdown restrictions are eased further. Alongside the possibility of going to the theatre and concerts again, we can enter restaurants and pubs. And not least, have the joy of being hugged (cautiously, of course). Indeed, cautious remains a watchword and many will remain anxious too – not least those whose businesses reopen after so many months without the closeness of customers.

These continue to be unsettling and uncertain times.

The one thing that’s certain about change is that change is certain – and over the years I’ve written a number of posts which look at this unsettling companion.

You’ll have your own stories of change and how you managed or have not managed to find stability within them, I’m sure. (I’d love to hear those stories and include them in a new book I’m working on – do please click here to contribute).

On this Ascension Day we remember how the disciples watched as Jesus ascended in to heaven. The Bible tells us about many unusual, perhaps unbelievable events which took place and the Ascension is one of them. To our 21st century rational minds, to speak of someone going up in a cloud is beyond our comprehension. It simply couldn’t happen. It’s impossible.

In essence, the ascension of Jesus represents a significant truth… the physical presence of Christ departs from earth to be replaced by the spiritual presence in the form of the Holy Spirit whose coming we will celebrate in a few days’ time at Pentecost.

So on that day, the disciples, and probably others including many of the faithful women, stand gazing upwards. Perhaps talking about what had happened in those three years that Jesus was with them. ‘Do you remember when he did that…?’ ‘Yeah, that was wicked, man.’

They looked back because the weren’t certain what the future held. They would have found some stability in their memories of Jesus yet the challenge was for their faith to see them in to the future.

The fact is that they, like us, can’t just stand there looking up or looking back.

Some words from Helen Mallicoat…

‘I was regretting the past and fearing the future. Suddenly my Lord was speaking:

“My name is I AM.” He paused. I waited.

He continued.

“When you live in the past with its mistakes and regrets, it is hard. I am not there. My name is not I Was.

“When you live in the future with its problems and fears, it is hard. I am not there. My name is not I Will Be.

“When you live in this moment it is not hard. I am here. My name is I AM.”’

 

 

 

Thank you for reading this post – please do share it with others, subscribe and contribute your thoughts at the WorkRestPray Facebook Group. There are also short films about Ascension and Pentecost for you to watch.

Wholly Weak

I am indebted to Canon Mark Oakley for inspiring the title of this post. Writing in the Church Times, he describes how during  the significant days of Holy Week many (not least clergy) wear themselves out journeying through the emotions of them all and they are ‘wholly weak’ by the end of it.

And it is a rollercoaster of a week. The triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Jesus making his mark. But only witnessed by a few? After all, who’s going to notice a man with a donkey in a first century busy, bustling city…

Then he causes havoc in the temple: turning over tables, shouting – calling out the church for what it does that isn’t about God. We’ve heard that message elsewhere…

On Thursday, there’s a meal with his closest followers. An act of fellowship  contrasted by betrayal. The establishing of what we now call the Eucharist or Holy Communion.  An act now so venerated: given a complexity which betrays the simplicity of its symbolism. Is that a message for us too?

Deserted by his friends (…and who’s not experienced that). A brutal arrest, trial and execution. Yet even the person in charge can see the innocence behind the events. Just like before, the city crowds perhaps thought nothing of a man carrying a large wooden beam in the street. One half of the symbol of death awaiting its upright companion. An ironic weapon for the carpenter’s son.

It is the women who remain faithful – and John. Strength for the dying Christ through those who are wholly weak.

The women are there again later on, watching Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus as Friday grows dark once again.

Less than 48 hours later Mary Magdalene, John, Peter and others get their first glimpses. Jesus has done what he promised to do.

David Rhodes wrote ‘The trouble with Easter is it comes too soon. There is simply not enough time between the terrible events of Good Friday and the discovery of the resurrection to make the necessary adjustment. Easter Sunday is in the wrong place. Like an aircraft in a steep dive, we cannot pull out in time. Plummeting down through Holy Week, we are still going down. And so are the disciples.’

For many, the last year in particular has felt like a long Good Friday. The message of the resurrection that the Gospel brings does not deny the reality of our experience.

But if we stay stuck on Friday with its feelings of isolation, anger and bitterness we will never experience the hope that Sunday brings. So Sunday has to follow Friday as clearly as the resurrection follows the crucifixion. As the American pastor Tony Campolo once said, ‘It’s Friday – and Sunday’s coming!’

For the wholly weak will be made wholly strong.

 

 

 

Thank you for reading this post – please do share it with others. If you’d like to follow the Easter journey there are some short films you may like to use.

A lasting influence

Sarah Everard is the latest of many, many people whose tragic death has uncovered deep, long-standing issues within society.

Think too of others – Sarah Payne. Suzy Lamplugh. Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. Emily Davison.

You can probably think of others. People who have been more influential in death than in life.

Throughout history there have been many such seminal moments. Times when as a society and as individuals we are forced to face up to that which has been left unaddressed, avoided or denied.

The Pankhursts. Mother Teresa. Nelson Mandela. Martin Luther King.

Once again, you can probably think of others – why not make a note of them here.

We might think of other occasions which have challenged the status quo and influenced change. In the 1980s, the Faith in the City report uncovered that which had been hidden in our inner cities. In the work I used to do, changes in equality legislation enabled significant improvements; and the work of Dame Carol Black in the mid-2000s brought workplace mental health to the fore. In the intervening decades, the change has been noticeable but is still ongoing.

Will the legacy of Sarah Everard, Black Lives Matter, Me Too, IICSA, Living in Love & Faith make a difference? It will probably be many years before we know the full impact.

People can have a lasting influence on each one of us – I know they have for me. I can think of several individuals I’ve known who through the things they said or did have helped shape the person I am. Perhaps you can recall some too.

I wonder what societal reaction Christ’s death would have if it took place today. An innocent 33 year-old. Killed in a barbaric way. There would be swathes of flowers and social media videos. Maybe protests too. (The resurrection branded as ‘fake news’…)

Would we remember his life, his teaching and the miracles?

As we move on through Lent and gradually approach Easter, maybe it’s a time to reflect on Christ’s lasting influence on society and on each one of us…

 

 

 

Thank you for reading this post – please do share it with others. If you’d like to follow the Easter journey there are some short films you may like to use.

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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