Sunday, December 24, 2017


Today’s #AdventWord is #Believe

Follow the links to experience a global interactive Advent calendar.

Saturday, December 23, 2017


Today’s #AdventWord is #Child

Follow the links to experience a global interactive Advent calendar.

Traditional icons of the Holy Mother and Child often depict Jesus in a very adult form. Icons are not, primarily, paintings to look at, but windows through which we gaze upon mystery. Though Jesus came as a baby, that child contained within itself the potential to become an adult, married with children of his own. That child contained the potential to become a wise and wizened old man. Jesus fulfilled neither of these potentials. Yet there were other things, contained within that baby laid in a manger, that he did fulfil: the potential to point people to God; the potential to bring healing and restoration to community to the weak and excluded; the potential to share love within a family; the potential to inspire others by the manner of his living, and by the manner of his dying...

Every child carries within herself her beginning and her end—and all the potential that will be fulfilled, and all the potential that will be frustrated, between those two points. Every child is an icon, a window onto holy mystery, written by God.

Friday, December 22, 2017


Today’s #AdventWord is #Greeting

Follow the links to experience a global interactive Advent calendar.

’Tis the season for a flurry of Christmas cards.

I haven’t had the emotional energy for them this year. As they have arrived, the envelopes have sat, unopened, on some random surface for a couple of days; before being opened, possibly unread, and left lying on the sofa rather than displayed on a book shelf, mantlepiece or wall. It is not that I am ungrateful, but that I lack the energy to care—not as a general disposition, but as a current circumstance. Indeed, every card has drained me further.

The Christmas story is full of greetings. Some, like that between Mary and Elizabeth, are full of joy. Other times, the greeting itself is troubling.

True greeting never demands reciprocation, for to demand reciprocation demotes our words to mere announcement of our presence.

So, greet others this Christmas, but be sensitive to how you find them. That will take your greeting across the threshold into encounter—perhaps even an encounter that will transform both you and them.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Leap for joy

“For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy.” Elizabeth, to Mary (Luke 1:44)

Luke introduces his account of the birth of Jesus with the account of the angelic announcement and miraculous conception/gestation/birth of John (the Baptist). This is just one of the many ways in which God meticulously plans the birth of his Son. John is sent into the world to go before Jesus and prepare the way for him.

John will do this in many ways: an uncompromising call to repentance, wrestling with his own doubts, in the face of sorrow and tragedy. But the very first way in which John prepares the way for Jesus’ coming, while both are still in their mothers’ wombs, is by leaping for joy.

Let that sink in.

In the Lectionary readings for Holy Communion today, this reading follows Zephaniah 3:14-18, in which God is portrayed as leaping (and, indeed, singing) with joy over his people. So juxtaposed, we are invited to see John’s response as a human participation in that of, and initiated by, God.

Joy is not our only experience. It wasn’t John’s. It isn’t God’s. But it is there, and not as something incidental but as amazing participation in mystery. My prayer for you, and for myself, is that, in the midst of everything else we may be going through, we might experience at least moments of joy this Christmas-time.


Today’s #AdventWord is #Renew

Follow the links to experience a global interactive Advent calendar.

The road around the corner from us has recently been patched. The surface, renewed. I can’t say that they have done a good job. But nonetheless it says something about the nature of renewal, even at the hands of a far greater master-worker.

When our strength is renewed, there is still evidence of our worn-out-ness. When our hope is renewed, we retain the memory of our despair, even if it is no longer raw. When our joy is renewed, our sorrow is not obliterated. To renew is not to return to pristine condition, or to ‘factory settings’. When God raises Jesus from the dead, imperishable, his body bears the wounds of the crucifixion. When God will renew the heavens and the earth, they will bear the scars that tell their stories. Because story matters, and story comes in many layers.

Pray to be renewed—and learn to recognise it.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The sign of Immanuel

‘Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.’ (Isaiah 7:14)

Christians see these words as a prophecy concerning Jesus. However, strictly-speaking this is not prophecy but typology. Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah is threatened by the breakaway northern kingdom of Israel along with a war-ally. God reassures Ahaz, king in Jerusalem, through the prophet Isaiah: Isaiah’s wife will have a son, and before that son is weaned, the two kings set against Ahaz will be destroyed by the Assyrian empire.

The son borne to a young woman is a sign of God’s impending and inescapable judgement; and a call to repentance and trust, and the (re)formation of a people who will live faithfully, as God’s chosen people were called to do, beyond that destruction. A faithful remnant; the stump left when a tree is cut down.

The reason this word is applied, some 600 years later, to Jesus is that Jesus is born as the same type of sign. This time, it is Jerusalem itself that will experience God’s impending and (after John the baptist) inescapable judgement—at the hands of the Romans, in 70AD—and in the face of this there will again be the need for and hope of a remnant community, the followers Jesus gathers around him.

The message of Jesus neither was nor is ‘God loves you’ (though that is true) but, rather, God hates injustice and unfaithfulness, and determined to do something about it, while maintaining his own faithfulness to his chosen, covenant people.

As we prepare to celebrate the sign of Immanuel—God-with-us—let us remember that it is a sign for the over-throwing of those who turn away from God and pursue self-interest, including those who do so in God’s name. Let us pray for mercy on the society that experiences such a visitation—perhaps adding to the Advent prayer ‘Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus’...’but not yet!’—and for the grace to be found faithful.


Today’s #AdventWord is #Embrace

Follow the links to experience a global interactive Advent calendar.

Sometimes there is nothing we can do to change our circumstances, no matter what privilege we may have to draw on. At such times we may default to denial—pretending things are not so bad really; or will surely change, when that is highly unlikely—or to resistance—attempting to do everything in our power to change the situation by force. But, again and again in unbearable circumstances, the needful stance is to embrace them as what they are. Only when we do so are we able to see things clearly. Change will come—even if the change is that we are able to see a way out that we could not see before.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


Today’s #AdventWord is #Open

Follow the links to experience a global interactive Advent calendar.

To be truly open to the Other requires of us an undefended stance in which there is no possibility of going back to how things were before. Surely this is the reason why Jesus—who is uniquely open to the past, the present, and the future—instructs us to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves in relating to others?

Monday, December 18, 2017


Today’s #AdventWord is #Dazzle

Follow the links to experience a global interactive Advent calendar.

Not far from the Minster where I am based, a temporary fairground has been set up, all overwhelming noise and flashing neon colours. Sitting in the chapel this morning, stilling myself in preparation to meet the widow and elder son of the congregation member whose funeral will take place on Friday, I am dazzled by the radiance of the low December sun. It is surer of itself and more stunning than the distractions of the fair. And in this space, all laden air and roaring silence, I become aware of the great cloud of witnesses who have gone ahead of us—more dazzling still.

Sunday, December 17, 2017


Today’s #AdventWord is #Light

Follow the links to experience a global interactive Advent calendar.

‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’ John 1:5

Candle-light, the Mayor’s Christmas Carol Service, Sunderland Minster.

Saturday, December 16, 2017


Today’s #AdventWord is #Among

Follow the links to experience a global interactive Advent calendar.

God is to be found among his people; but usually she goes incognito, and unnoticed.

(Detail: Bede Chapel window, Sunderland Minster, by Thomas Denny.)

Friday, December 15, 2017


Today’s #AdventWord is #Trust

Follow the links to experience a global interactive Advent calendar.

When the stage lights go up, and the house lights go down, will God deliver?

Thursday, December 14, 2017


Today’s #AdventWord is #Wilderness

Follow the links to experience a global interactive Advent calendar.

Turn your back on the incessant distractions and demands of the city, and head in the opposite direction. It is in the wilderness that God meets us, transforming what may look unpromising at first glance—even the commute home on public transport.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017


Today’s #AdventWord is #Voice

Follow the links to experience a global interactive Advent calendar.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017


Today’s #AdventWord is #Watch

Follow the links to experience a global interactive Advent calendar.

Familiar pavements transformed by ice this morning necessitate attentive watching: you can step on crunchy white ice, with care; but almost-invisible sheer black ice will upend you. Advent invites us to watch familiar texts, and contexts, with fresh eyes—at times, whipping our legs out from under us.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Why we need a new (old) story

First posted on Facebook, 11 December 2017:

The other day, I wrote that Jesus was born in the house Joseph and Mary were living in at the time, and not in a stable at the back of an over-full inn as our traditional English nativity plays present it.

But why does it matter? Why do I care so much about how the story is told? Well, here are three reasons:

Firstly, the traditional Nativity presents Joseph as incompetent. And as Matthew shows us that the righteous man Joseph is hand-picked by God to raise his Son, this traditional depiction presents God as incompetent in his choosing. Whereas the Gospels, taken together, present a long and careful planning.

Secondly, the traditional Nativity presents Mary as helpless. Whereas Luke presents her as a feisty theologian who sings a song—often called the Magnificat—so revolutionary that it has been banned in many countries around the world. Read it for yourself. It tends not to be sung at Nativities.

Thirdly, the traditional Nativity presents Jewish people as inhospitable, failing to provide (anything more than the most) basic care for a woman at her most vulnerable. This perpetuates anti-Semitism. It is true that as an adult Jesus’ teaching divided the community, but as a child he was welcomed by the people of Bethlehem—welcomed as the son of a descendant of king David in the small and fiercely proud community from where David had come.

Fourthly (yes, consider this a freebie), the stories we are told as children are the stories we hold on to. Hence the cultural resistance to hearing and telling the story of Jesus’ birth in any way that confronts our nostalgia.

Is that enough to be going on with?


Today’s #AdventWord is #Messenger

Follow the links to experience a global interactive Advent calendar.

To be a messenger is to be as exposed and vulnerable as telephone lines connecting houses, where, behind brick walls, some wait with dread for unwelcome news while others long to hear the voice of a loved-one.

Sunday, December 10, 2017


Today’s #AdventWord is #Prepare

Follow the links to experience a global interactive Advent calendar.

Let every heart prepare him room, the carol proclaims. But this work of preparation for the return of the King, a work which takes place in the wilderness, is both a work of a community—the work of the people, or, liturgy; not private personal devotion—and a work dependent on the activity of the King already experienced in the present.

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.
In the name of Christ. Amen.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Home birth

First posted on Facebook, 09 December 2017:

Looking for a story from the life of Jesus that features a donkey, inn, and innkeeper? You want the parable Jesus told commonly known as the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke chapter 10), not the account of his birth (Luke chapter 2).

There is no mention of a donkey or an innkeeper in the account of Jesus’ birth. In several English translations, there is an inn—but this is a mis-translation of the word for the guest room. Jesus was born in a family home, most probably (it is implied but we aren’t explicitly told) the home of Joseph’s parents. Most probably a home with one main room, and a smaller room in which Joseph and Mary were living at the time (and for a couple of years after, before fleeing to Egypt). And no, they didn’t arrive on the night she gave birth. But, we are told, that room had no room (space) for Mary to give birth, attended, as she would have been, by Joseph’s female relatives and in all likelihood the women who fulfilled the role of midwives in the community. So Jesus was born in the living room. A room shared, at one end, by the peasants’ animals at night, their body heat providing warmth for their owners. The manger was a bowl hollowed out of the stone floor, a contained space filled with clean and insulating hay—the ideal place for a new born to sleep.

This is not a story of haphazard lack of planning, or (at this point) battling against the odds, or of a lack of welcome. It is the very opposite: a story of a community functioning as community. A story of God and his people very carefully planning and loving and witnessing something simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary together.


Today’s #AdventWord is #Focus

Follow the links to experience a global interactive Advent calendar.

My varifocal glasses enable me to see sharply. But there is more to focus than that. In the blurred background, my son pores over the pieces of a Lego set he has outgrown and is passing on, making sure none are missing, and keeping in mind that (i) Lego is brilliant, and (ii) there are more than 100 pieces per person in the world, which will never biodegrade but can be recycled.

Friday, December 08, 2017


Today’s #AdventWord is #Mend

Follow the links to experience a global interactive Advent calendar.

We live in a disposable society, where products are manufactured with ‘built-in obsolescence’, designed to be cheaper to replace than to repair. This has had an impact not only on our planet but also on our relationships: if a friend or relative upsets you, cut them off—there are plenty of other people to be with instead.

But all relationships endure wear-and-tear, and need attending to, so to mend the world.

One of my greatest joys is helping couples renew their marriage vows. Though this can be done as the outward symbol after breakdown and reconciliation, in my experience it is more usually undertaken in recognition of all the relationship has made possible, and in preparation for all that is to come. An attentive mending, to last; rather than a major repair, to fix. For a couple celebrating fifty or sixty years of marriage, what lies ahead includes aging and dying; the renewing of vows marking the intent not only to set out well, all those years ago, but now to arrive well.

We are in danger of losing the skills it takes to mend. But it is not too late to learn.

Thursday, December 07, 2017


Today’s #AdventWord is #Heal

Follow the links to experience a global interactive Advent calendar.

‘Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.’
Revelation 22:1, 2

Detail: river of the water of life and tree of life, East Window, Sunderland Minster.

Here’s the (optional) long version:

In the Bible, trees are often a symbol representing the flourishing, or not, of human society. In our own day, facing global environmental crises, we would do well to rediscover this sophisticated ancient language.

The Bible begins with the mythic story of God establishing—or, restoring—order from chaos, and securing life on a world that had suffered a cataclysmic event (this has happened more than once, such as the re-emergence of life after whatever destroyed the dinosaurs). Within this context, God plants a garden full of trees, of which two are noteworthy: the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Now, all trees have properties. Fruit, which may be nourishing or poisonous to human beings. Leaves and bark which may possess medicinal qualities. The tree of life appears to have such healing power—remember, at a societal level—that goes beyond food. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is more complex. It has potential for good or ill, to heal or to harm. Symbolically, it may even extract poison out of the good-but-contested earth, so that—so long as the humans do not eat of the fruit of the tree—it is contained. A filter-system, if you will. Alternatively, this might be the kind of tree that requires an expert apothecary to unlock its properties: keep away from children. But, crucially, this God-created tree is not the origin or source of evil—and neither is the human action of eating of it.

Implicitly, much later in the Story, the Divine Gardener splices these two trees together in the cross on which the Romans executed Jesus.

For here is the experiential knowledge (in Hebrew thought, knowledge—such as the knowledge of good and evil—is experiential, not theoretical) of both good and evil: for on the cross, Jesus experiences both the fierce love of the women who defied occupying soldiers and the religious leaders of their own people to stand with him as he hung in a public death; and also the concentrated will to utterly destroy another human being, through maximum humiliation over a slow and painful death, by which men have historically exercised power over other men.

But here, also, is life: healing for the nation through the way a righteous person endures unjust and unjustifiable suffering. This is another biblical image: one in which injustice is shamed, and, faced with their own iniquity, the people turn back to God in repentance.

By the time we reach the end of the Bible, there is only one tree, albeit retaining two trunks. Evil itself has been fully extracted, and the experiential knowledge of evil has been neutralised. Suffering is taken-up by love, so that the tree may rightly be identified only as the tree of life. And its leaves are for the healing of the nations. Their property is to remedy enmity between peoples.

That is a vision to long for, as we live in the gap between its being promised and being fulfilled.

I love that in the depiction of the tree of life at Sunderland Minster, the leaves are autumn gold. Even in this season, they possess their healing quality. It mirrors the gathered leaves I posted under #Gather.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017


Today’s #AdventWord is #Simplify

Follow the links to experience a global interactive Advent calendar.

When I think ‘simplify’ I think of a clear blue sky. Then I am tempted to consider the messy clouds unwelcome, obscuring the sky from view. But clouds are the sky.

Sometimes, to simplify calls on us to reduce the number of elements. At other times, to simplify invites us to see them as a whole, and be at peace.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017


Today’s #AdventWord is #Gather

Follow the links to experience a global interactive Advent calendar.

To gather together to celebrate can be laden (even, over-laden) with expectancy and joy. But at times our circumstances do not allow us to gather with those whom we might choose. We may find ourselves gathered with others as leaves torn from the trees by an ill wind, and blown together in a lonely drift. And yet in the gathering-together of dreams that have died we may catch a glimpse of the promise of new life...

Monday, December 04, 2017


Today’s #AdventWord is #Journey

Follow the links to experience a global interactive Advent calendar.

I took this image from the very edge of the train tracks (the trains were cancelled this morning, so it was quite safe for photographers, if somewhat frustrating for commuters). Only after, when I zoomed-in on the discarded ticket in the foreground, did I discover that by sheer divine coincidence it was dated 09 Nov 17. My birthday.

Sunday, December 03, 2017


Today’s #AdventWord is #Awaken

Follow the links to experience a global interactive Advent calendar.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017


Recently I was asked what advice I would give to someone training for ordination. I replied that I would tell them that, sooner or later, they would feel betrayed by the Church; and that I told them this not to dissuade them, nor cause them dismay, but so that when it inevitably happened it would not be utterly incomprehensible. My observation is that theological college would not prepare them for this; but the good news is that the experience contains the transformative potential to make them not only a better licensed minister but also (and more importantly) more fully human.

The painful experience of betrayal is universal.

Whether we are betrayed by a lover (infidelity, adultery, divorce, death…)

or by a family-member or friend or neighbour or work colleague or community;

or by our self-sabotaging choices or actions

or even by our own bodies (various ‘disorders’, infertility, cancer, dementia…all can feel like betrayal)

sooner or later we are all betrayed;

and sooner or later we all act (through wilfulness or weakness) in ways that leave another human being feeling betrayed.

You have most likely experienced betrayal in one form or another before, and you will most likely experience it again. And yes, if you commit to the Church (or any other relationship or community or shared purpose) you will know it there too.

This is one significant reason why I find the Bible to be the most relevant library available to us. It is, among other things and perhaps before all else, a record of the universal experience of betrayal.

Abraham and Sarah are betrayed by their union, their bodies, their inability to conceive a child. Together, they betray Sarah’s handmaid Hagar and her son Ishmael. The son they do eventually have together, Isaac, will be betrayed by his wife, Rebekah, and one of their sons. That son, Jacob, will betray his brother Esau, before himself being betrayed by his uncle Laban. Jacob’s son Joseph will be betrayed by his brothers who sell him into slavery (and then betray their father by claiming that Joseph is dead), by his master (surely Potiphar knew his wife was lying, or he would have had Joseph killed, not imprisoned?), by his fellow-prisoner who forgets Joseph to rot in prison once he has gone free.

And that is just a snap-shot.

There is a great deal of pain and bewilderment in these foundational stories of human beings encountering God. Encountering God intermittently; but encountering God nonetheless. It almost reads as if the experience of betrayal is the necessary condition or circumstances in which we are displaced enough to meet God. (Or, to put it another way, death is the precondition for new life.)

As betrayal is, apparently, inevitable and universal, this is incredibly hopeful.

One of the problems we humans have is the drive to fix problems. Which is great if the problem that needs fixing is that the village has no safe water supply, so let’s build a well. It can be a good thing when the problem is medical, though pushed to the extreme we lose sight of the people at the heart of the matter. But it is not so great when the problem is betrayal, which may not be fixable, certainly not quickly or easily. Rather than rush to fix the problem—through fight or flight, or numbing, or distraction—we would do better to find ourselves in the place where we are.

Feeling betrayed by an entire nation, Elijah runs away. That takes only a day; but God then sends him on a journey of forty days and forty nights—a highly symbolic number in the Bible, and far longer than needed for the geographical distance he travels. There, on a mountain, he experiences rock-splitting wind, earthquake, and fire, before a sound of sheer silence in which, at last, God was present. This story is best read psychologically (which is not to dismiss its historicity, but perhaps to suggest that God speaks to Elijah’s inner turmoil through corresponding outer energies). Deep emotions are acknowledged, permitted, affirmed; and in time there is stillness and renewal of vision. There is also fresh insight into the experience of other people—for we are not alone—and, with that, deepened authority to invest in the lives of others.

When we find ourselves feeling betrayed, our family history (for that is what the Bible is) leads us to conclude that God might turn up, unexpectedly, in the most unlikely of moments—even if this is not to our timescale. And that our present circumstances do not terminate God’s intention to bless us and to bless others through us. Indeed, they may well open-up whole new seams of blessing.