Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Ash Wednesday

Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.

Sunday, February 16, 2020


Many translations render Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:27, “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” However, the Greek word translated ‘span of life’ can also be translated ‘stature’ and the Greek word translated ‘hour’ is in fact ‘cubit’ (about one-and-a-half feet), and so a better translation would be, “... add one cubit to your height?”

I’ve noted earlier that the word Jesus uses for ‘body’ translates both literally as your ‘body’ and metaphorically as your gathered congregation. And so, it is not really a stretch to say that, among the layers of meaning here, is, “And can any of you by worrying bring about the numerical growth of your church?”

As ironic humour would have it, after the service this morning — at which, for a variety of reasons, quite a few members of the congregation were absent — two members were lamenting how small the congregation is, compared to a couple of larger independent churches local to us, and how hard it is to know what to do about it ...

Well, firstly, don’t be anxious! Size does not equate to health, nor to long-term commitment. And, in any case, we aren’t comparing like for like, as the Anglicans are simply spread across the city in smaller gatherings — which have their advantages, as well as disadvantages. If greater size was the best yardstick, we should close all our churches and gather together at the Minster — but I don’t fancy the chances of that proposal being well-received, for some very good reasons, as well as, inevitably, some unhealthy reasons.

As the old hymn goes, God made them great and small. And as the saying goes, comparison is the thief of joy.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

On anxiety

I’m thinking about anxiety, and this coming Sunday’s Gospel, which is relatively familiar and, therefore, widely misunderstood.

Jesus is addressing the experience of anxiety, which must be very common: at least, I experience anxiety, fairly regularly; other people tell me that they experience anxiety — and I see it up-close in those closest to me; and the bookshops are filled with titles addressing anxiety. So, this would seem to be a live issue.

The Greek word Jesus uses for anxiety is brilliantly descriptive: it describes being pulled apart.

The word he chooses for ‘life’ refers to the soul, or life-breath that animates us. In biblical imagery, we have heart and mind and strength and soul. Heart refers to our will, or capacity to choose, between right and wrong, good and evil; and how such choices, repeated over time, shape our character. Mind refers to our capacity for insight, informing our choices, and again, over time, shaping our disposition. Strength refers to our capacity to exercise force, in the Physics sense, to act on the basis of our informed choices. Soul refers to our life-breath, to these elements being held together, as a living person, at the sovereign decree of God.

Anxiety attempts to pull them apart. The experience of anxiety can even lead to panic attacks, to breathlessness, or the physical suggestion of a loss of soul. Again, the use of language demonstrates Jesus’ incredible insight.

Jesus also chooses a word for the body which both refers to our bodies, in the physical sense, and is a metaphor for our community — as in the use, later in the New Testament, of the term body of Christ for the church. A playful word.

So, Jesus is addressing anxiety in relation to our selves and our community, to the network of relationships that are an inextricable part of who we are. And Jesus’ concern is for wholeness, or shalom.

And the summary of Jesus’ advice (to skip the middle, which I’ll come back to) is: desire to know the reign of God over every area of your life, and to know his approval of the life he has given you, and you will find that all these elements that have been pulled apart by anxiety are brought back together. Wholeness.

Jesus’ point is not that if you seek to obey God you will not experience anxiety, but, that if you desire to know God then this is how you can respond whenever you feel anxiety rearing its head. Which, in my case at least, is often.

So, how do you do that? Firstly, Jesus invites us to look beyond ourselves. Notice the birds. They don’t sow or reap or gather into barns — this last, a play on words, the same root as the synagogue or the gathering of the people to worship. But the point isn’t really a comparison, it isn’t about us, whether workaholic or lazybones, devout or never coming to church. It is about birds, who don't experience anxiety, but, most of all, it is about God’s sovereign activity.

Likewise, the observation about the flowers of the field, except that this one also weaves in reflection on the past story of God’s dealing with his people.

If God is sovereign over our community, however it looks, and over our past or history or story; and if that sovereignty is expressed through delight, through approval and provision; then we can desire to know that in our lives too.

And so, we are invited, in all things, in the place of anxiety, the thing we are anxious about, to imagine God’s reign in this place. To eagerly anticipate that this might be so, and soon, and to look for even the smallest signs of that breakthrough. For example, by praising God for who God is and for what God has done and for what we trust that God will do again.

It is a work of the heart and the mind and the strength — our wills choose it, as an informed choice, on which we act, hard though it might be at first, until we find that, God delighting in the soul he has created, our whole being is brought back together. Anxiety is defeated, not once-and-for-all, but, over and over again, day after day.

Desire births desire, delight births delight. Worship brings our scattered lives back into wholeness. Anxiety is, more or less, universal; but, there is a cure.

[Update: this became a sermon, here]

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Come to church

Here are some good reasons to attend church services, locally and on a regular basis:

[1] Building predictable patterns into our lives builds our resilience — and building predictable patterns into our communal lives (including being known) builds up the resilience of our neighbourhoods. We have tended towards doing things — eating, going to bed — when we feel like it, rather than at set times; and it is no coincidence that we have become, and raised children who are, less securely rooted.

[2] We need ritual in our lives, to help us make sense of this wonderful, fleeting tragic-comedy, to be fully alive in the light of our inevitable, inescapable death. That is why, for example, we light candles at the deepest moments of our shared existence. The church gathers around ritual, centrally, the sharing of broken bread and poured-out wine, the sensory, participatory reminder that God has taken on our substance and our brokenness in order to remake us, whole.

[3] People are dickheads. The documents of the early church are clear: whether circumcised dickheads or uncircumcised dickheads, doesn’t matter. Our only option is between radical forgiveness, and cutting people off. As a society, we seem to be choosing the latter, with ever-increasing speed. In part, this is because we are by nature creatures of over-reaction, and in the past have endured abuse, within all of our institutions including the church, in silence. But I am talking about a lack of charity towards our neighbour. When the church gathers, we admit that, since we last gathered, we have, ourselves, been dickheads; and learn to receive and to extend forgiveness, and the hard work of making amends. In this, the church trains us for living well together. You may find some hypocrites in the church, but the vast majority stay away.

[4] The church is a community of people who are seeking to help one another to live life well, within and for the good of the local community in which they are set. This is grounded in practices, such as eating together, according to the resources at hand and the needs that might be met. In this, the church, as community, is focused on Jesus, who not only modelled what it looks like to be fully human but, we believe, also empowers us to go and do likewise— however imperfectly. This is, of course, easier (not easy) in community with others than on our own.

[5] On the whole, the quality is not very professional. And in a society where every sphere of life is under ever-increasing pressure to be improved, this is both freeing and refreshing. Not that we don’t seek to do important things, such as safeguarding, well; but that we use the gifts that are at hand among us, to the best of our abilities, rather than chase some unsustainable experience or artificial goal.

Word of mouth

175 people registered on the first night of our running club’s annual Beginners group. 136 of them came back on week 2 (not everyone will complete the course, but there are also those who are committed, but, because of work shifts etc. can’t make every week). And 48 new people also signed up in week 2.

This is entirely down to word-of-mouth, to the sharing of a good news story.

People talking to people at work, to members of their families, in person and on social media.

Our church congregations need to pay attention.

Monday, January 27, 2020


Birthday celebrations. Romantic dinners. The self-care of a deep bubble-bath. A family remembering a loved one who is no longer with us. A community keeping vigil in the wake of a tragedy.

Sometimes electric light just doesn’t cut it. Some moments cry out to be candle-lit.

This Sunday, 2nd February, is Candlemas. Bring along a candle to be blessed at the 10.30 a.m. service at St Nicholas’.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020


I walk to the Minster along the cycle path, and back again along the main road. Both routes now take me past arson sites: a burnt out rubbish bin, and a large pile of fly-tipped rubbish (the fire was dealt with by the fire brigade, but the council have not removed the hazardous waste; nor, of course, was it dealt with before the arsonists targeted it) along the cycle path; and the pedestrian subway under the main road.

Much of such arson is the activity of youths. In addition, here in the north east, there has been an increase in incidents of groups of youths starting fires to bring out the fire brigade, and then pelting them with missiles as they work to put the blaze out. This is completely unacceptable, and not to be tolerated.

It is also a cry for help. A cry for attention. To not be ignored.

And it will not do to say that this is the work of an anti-social tiny minority. That is like saying that a person whose skin is covered in little red chicken pox blisters does not have chicken pox in 99% of their body, but only where there are spots. As a society we have given rise to a generation who feel at best ignored, at worst demonised. And yes, at times their actions may well encourage us to further ignore, or demonise, them. But who are the grown-ups in this?

It will take intentional effort to see young people, to hear their cry, to like them despite their unlikeable behaviour. And if central funding cannot be found — and what there was has been torched — then we might just have to re-imagine a different story.

The death of us

“Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful ones.” Psalm 116:15

People routinely assume that December is my ‘busy time of year.’ It isn’t. Yes, there are additional services; but there are also more mundane things that can take a break. Even those extra services place more demand on church wardens and choir members, who are called upon to enable them alongside other commitments, than on stipendiary clergy. We’re not sitting around twiddling our thumbs; but neither, on the whole, is it our busy time of year, compared to, say, our parishioners who work in retail. December brings a variation, rather than significant increase, to what I do.

Surprising from the outside, my diary is often fuller in January and February; not least due to the spike in funerals. As everyone dies, you might suppose deaths to be evenly spread, but they are not. The human spirit is remarkably strong, and many an elderly or terminally ill person finds the will to give their family one last Christmas. And then there is the toll of a hard, cold snap (and, similarly, a summer heat wave).

I have taken receipt of the funeral of an elderly gentleman who has no family. The only instruction he left behind was that at his funeral a particular hymn be sung. I called the nursing home where he died, in search of some sense of who he was. I hoped to find a convenient time to meet with someone there, but, instead, the phone was passed from person to person until someone felt qualified to tell me the most meagre of scraps of information.

I’m sure they aren’t bad people. It’s just the way we live these days. Passing our days in isolation. Resources stretched. Transactional duties done to the best of our ability, but with a nagging sense of embarrassment that there ought to be more to life than this.

We will give him a full and proper funeral, knowing that, even if no-one else remains who knew him, he was known to God, who bears witness to his life. And we will entrust him, and one another, to God’s justice and mercy. For whom we are is ultimately dependent on nothing else; and, moreover, in this is hope of being restored to renewed community, including those who have died before us.

Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful ones.

Gotta hand it to you

The Old Testament reading set for Holy Communion today is the account, from 1 Samuel 17, of David and Goliath. Goliath is a seasoned warrior, an expert in close-quarter, hand-to-hand fighting; whom the young David defeats by choosing ballistics.

In its telling, the story focuses on David’s hands. We are told that he sets out against the giant with his shepherd’s staff in one hand and slingshot in the other. That, in response to the Philistine’s taunts, he declares that “God will deliver you into my hand;” that he put his hand into his bag, took out a stone, and slung it into Goliath’s forehead; that he prevailed over the Philistine with no sword in his hand — but that he then grasped Goliath’s sword, drew it out of its sheath, killed him, and cut off his head with it.

The irony of the tale is that king Saul, himself a giant of a man, who cowered before Goliath, was from a tribe that was renowned for its skill with the slingshot. But Saul was caught in a story he could not break out of.

The account is paired with a Gospel passage, Mark 3:1-6, in which Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. The man’s condition is underlined. Jesus instructs the man to stretch out his hand — potentially exposing his weakness, to ridicule or shame — and when he did so, his hand was restored.

The Pharisees, however, are incensed. They are trapped in a story they cannot break out of, that it was not lawful to heal (a form of work) on the Sabbath.

People regularly tell me the same stories. I don’t mean older folk who are getting forgetful, and don’t remember that they have told me this already, not ten minutes ago. I mean stories told me week by week or month by month, stories they seem unable to break free from. Often, stories that portray someone else — or an institution — as a bully to be overthrown, and yet who still exerts control over their imagination.

But they will never see breakthrough unless they are able to see the situation from a different perspective.

When we come to receive Communion, we stretch out our hands, to take hold of Jesus. And in this simple act of faith, it is just possible that our perspective shifts just enough, and for just long enough, that we might see the world from his perspective. Possible, but not inevitable.

What has a grip on you, restricting your freedom, your ability to take hold of life in all its fullness?

The breakthrough you need today might just be to hand.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The end of the world is nigh

The Bible readings at Morning Prayer this week are concerned with surviving the end of the world.

The Old Testament readings are working their way through the account, in Genesis, of the Great Flood, an account of devastation and new beginning.

The Gospel readings are from Matthew 24, where Jesus draws on the apocalyptic imagination of the prophet Daniel (paying special attention to Daniel chapter 7) to speak about a time of disaster which will be followed by the revealing of the Son of Man.

Though some take this to predict the future End of the World, apocalypse is concerned with making sense of events we live through in history; and Daniel’s Son of Man functions as a representative for a faithful remnant community, understood to be accused before God through the actions of Gentile empires, but, surprisingly, vindicated by God.

In Matthew 24, the primary and imminent event Jesus sees coming over the horizon is the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans — this took place in AD 70 — and the subsequent emergence of a new form of Judaism, not dependent on a rebuilding of the Temple and a return to its daily rounds of ritual sacrifice. And — though Jesus might not have had this in mind — the divergence of his followers from Judaism.

Of course, in a secondary sense, this continues to speak. Indeed, the Bible, from beginning to end, is concerned with the forming of communities that can survive, in a new form, the inevitable end of the world as they have known it. And not only survive, but thrive.

And the end of the world takes place over and over and over again. For those who experience divorce, or the death of a family member. For communities destroyed by bush fire or flood, famine, or reduced to rubble by missiles in times of war.

There is no guarantee of given individuals surviving the end of the world. Others survive, but fail to thrive. Yet here is a long, tried-and-tested resource, testimony to God’s faithfulness and loving-kindness in a world that, for a host of reasons in complex interaction, is unpredictable.

If you are living through the end of the world right now, may you know the goodness of God, and the adaptable robustness of God’s people.

Monday, January 20, 2020

A long obedience in the same direction

After the service yesterday morning, I was talking with an elderly member of the congregation. He trundles down the road here in his motorised wheelchair, accompanied on foot by his wife. He told me that today as they were on their way to church, a man drove past them on the other side of the road, pulled up, got out of his car, grinned at them, waited for the traffic to pass by, and crossed over to them. “Do you remember me?” he asked. “You used to teach me [many years ago when he was at school]. I often drive past you on a Sunday morning, and it always lifts my spirits.”

“Can you imagine,” my friend asked me, “that an old man in a wheelchair, with an old woman walking along beside him, could lift anyone’s spirits?”

Yes, Bill, I can.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

On performing comedy and scripture

Last night we went to the theatre to see I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. Radio 4’s long-running antidote to panel games is on tour. In between rounds, the host tells humorous anecdotes about local people and places, only the local place names changing from night to night.

Last night we were treated to the tall tale of a well-known local landowner and employer, whose gardener lost most of his limbs in the First World War, but was enabled to keep his job after the War. The nobleman paid for his servant to be fitted with prosthetic limbs — mahogany legs, and arms of oak and leather straps for joints. Years later, asked why her father should go to such expense for the gardener, his daughter simply said that he’d been with the family so long he was part of the family.

audience laughs

The furniture.

audience laughs

The host screws up a piece of paper, and throws it away, muttering, it wasn’t funny anyway

audience laughs

The first time we laugh is like Pavlov’s dogs. We know where this joke is going, and when, and how it will end. We prepare to laugh, feeling clever that we have got there ahead of the teller. And then, even as the laugh erupts, it changes into laughter because he has got the punchline wrong. That wasn’t what we were expecting.

The second laugh is also layered. We laugh because the joke is funny, even if it was messed-up. But this also morphs, as about two-thirds of the audience realise that the ‘mistake’ was intentional, part of the joke ... a knowing laugh with undertones of superiority, for, we are sure, two-thirds of the people in the theatre haven’t got the joke.

The third laugh contains a sympathy for the joke-teller — even professionals screw up sometimes, we’ve all been there — and admiration that a joke can be mined, or saved, by sheer bravado and deflection.

Perhaps most funnily, the members of the panel, who have heard this joke told night after night, still laugh, at every point. For they are watching a consummate pro, who has just pick-pocketed an entire theatre, despite the fact that many in the audience had arrived on their guard, expecting just such an attempt to be made.

The Old Testament reading for today, Isaiah 49:1-7, is similarly layered. It speaks of the Lord’s servant, who is the people of Israel/tribes of Jacob, and the prophet known as Isaiah, and, in the understanding of many people, a passage that speaks of or points to Jesus.

There are layers of knowing. And these layers comfort us by their familiarity ... and unsettle us with their twists. They bring to light our sense of superiority, of being more in-the-know than others ... only to expose our foolish pride. They transform our failures into a work of genius, scripted by a pen that never fails to deliver ... and send us out with glad hearts. They catch up Sunderland, and every other place, in a shared story of being both special and a sorry state, loved in spite of it all.

And, no matter how many times you hear these words, they keep on giving, they never get old.