Wednesday, December 28, 2016


Life is bitter-sweet.

That is why, in the midst of Christmas – the twelve-day-long celebration of God coming to be with us – we raise our glasses to remember Stephen (26th Dec), stoned to death by a mob who felt their world threatened by his beliefs concerning Jesus;

and John (27th Dec), exiled to a Roman prison camp, his mind un-hinged enough to see the world more clearly than most ever do;

and the Holy Innocents (27th or 28th or 29th Dec), children murdered on the orders of a ruthless king who brooked no possible rivals.

We don’t wait until Christmas is over. We do not compartmentalise joy and sadness, celebration and anguish; because life does not compartmentalise these things. But neither do they cancel one another out. Instead, they add depth to one another.

Life is bitter-sweet. Savour it this Christmas.

Holy Innocents

Depending on where in the world you live, yesterday, today, or tomorrow is the Commemoration of the Holy Innocents, the day we remember the infant boys of Bethlehem killed on the orders of Herod the Great.

Luke brings together the testimony of Mary’s relatives, Joseph’s family, and the shepherds to demonstrate that the people of Bethlehem, who were fiercely proud of their historical connection to King David, embraced Jesus’ family. Matthew tells us the price they paid when that family came to Herod’s attention, and the entire town refused to bring forward any information as to their flight to Egypt.

This is the story of a community of resistance. Some doubt its historicity, consider it propaganda. But it is reliably historical – and, indeed, has been so, repeated many times over.

On these of all days, we remember before God all children caught up in conflict, and cry, how long, O Lord?

Saturday, December 24, 2016


Today’s #AdventWord is #Celebrate

(The Christmas Eve ‘Christingle’ at Sunderland Minster.)

Friday, December 23, 2016


Today’s #AdventWord is #Live

#lifeinallitsfullness #celebrate

Thursday, December 22, 2016


Today’s #AdventWord is #Animate

The accompanying reflection, by Br. Mark Brown, read:

“The Spirit of God animates us, but it all happens in the flesh: every deed of kindness, every act of generosity, every word of encouragement happens in the flesh. Every embodiment of Christ’s grace or truth or love happens in the flesh – or it doesn’t happen.”

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


Today’s #AdventWord is #Abide

To abide is to remain with Jesus. To go where he goes, and to stop for whom he stops.

Jesus told his disciples to abide in him. In the first instance – the very next morning, he would be crucified – only the women and James’ barely-adult kid-brother John dared do so.

Where will Jesus call us to abide with him today?

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


Today’s #AdventWord is #Prune

In the northern hemisphere, tomorrow is the ‘shortest’ day of the year. Daylight itself is pruned right back, and we are invited to slow right down, and submit ourselves to being enfolded by love, in order that the fruit of love might flourish in our lives.

Monday, December 19, 2016


Today’s #AdventWord is #Simplicity

A digital advertising board has recently been placed beneath the Minster. As I walked past it today, it was advertising...nothing, which instead made it a mirror reflecting what we already have, and might or might not value or be content with...

Friday, December 16, 2016


Today’s #AdventWord is #Awaken

The sun was already starting its descent in the sky when a songbird pierced the fretful sleep-walk of my anxious thoughts, and I awoke to the gift of the present moment. Better late than never.

Thursday, December 15, 2016


Today’s #AdventWord is #Trust

Trust is a choice, to give ourselves to others, that is not dependent on their trustworthiness, or indeed ours, but on God’s character.

Because he entrusts his life to his heavenly Father, Jesus can submit himself to the trust of those who would handle him with care, such as the woman who anointed his feet with perfume; those who would unintentionally let him down, such as the disciples in whose storm-caught boat he slept; and even those who schemed against him, who ultimately subjected him to public execution.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


Today’s #AdventWord is #Surprise

The Royal Mail alternates its yearly Christmas stamp designs between nativity scenes and other seasonal images. (Religious-theme stamps are always available if that is important to you, but you have to specifically ask for them in the ‘other’ years. Personally, I love the alternating mix.) Today four cards arrived, all bearing a jolly snowman - and the stamps blessed me with joy before I ever opened the envelopes. God is not only to be found in a manger, but in all kinds of surprising places.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016


Today’s #AdventWord is #Mend

Earlier this year, the Minster was broken into. Among other damage, an elegant oak door was smashed off its hinges. It was repaired by a specialist wood restorer, who constructed a frame of vice-grips to hold the wood fast while the glue set. You need to know the material you are attempting to mend...

Today I heard the news that a dear friend has died, unexpectedly and far too soon. I am heart-broken. That is, my ability to make good choices is severely impaired (the heart is the seat of the will). But my mind (the seat of thoughts and emotions, by which we perceive and process the world) is also broken: I am overwhelmed, mentally and emotionally, by a world without her.

My heart and my mind need to be mended. This will be a slow, painstaking process, which has not even begun. My heart and my mind need to be held in place, by a frame.

The frame that is needed to hold my heart is a simple but robust rule of life. I shall continue to say morning prayer, whether or not my thoughts or emotions can engage with the words. The discipline itself will hold me in the place where mending can take place. I will need to be gentle with myself, but I need a frame.

The frame that is needed to hold my mind is quite different, and surprising. This frame is grief. Grief holds my broken thoughts and emotions in place allowing mending to take place. This is the deep knowledge of the skilled Restorer.

May my friend rest in peace, and rise in glory. And may it be so of her friends, too.

Monday, December 12, 2016


Today’s #AdventWord is #Rely

A glass star hangs from a tiny hook by the finest of threads.

Sunday, December 11, 2016


Today’s #AdventWord is #Glow

Even the sky put on rose vestments for Gaudete (Rejoice!) Sunday.

Friday, December 09, 2016


Today’s #AdventWord is #Promise

This nest, against the dusk, caught my eye, and brought to mind Psalm 84.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016


Today’s #AdventWord is #Act

What will you do with the resources God has given you in answer to prayer?

I will seek to offer hospitality, to the few as I would to the many – and to the many as I would to the few.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016


Today’s #AdventWord is #Be

Here is Bede, Sunderland’s great monastic scholar and the Father of English History, as depicted in the window of the Bede Chapel, Sunderland Minster. He kneels on the beach in prayer, and is my companion at Morning Prayer, whether I am found in joy or sorrow, and whether I am fully present or distracted.

Today I have needed to wrestle with many distractions, in order to be present to, and at prayer for, those who are hurting.

I am struck that the word Be is found in the name Bede; and by the way in which both dark and light depict his face, his world, my world.

Monday, December 05, 2016


Today’s #AdventWord is #Commit

Sometimes commitment requires that you hang on in there, however unpromising things look...

Saturday, December 03, 2016


Today’s #AdventWord is #Play

Parkrunners set off at Sunderland Parkrun.

Friday, December 02, 2016


Today’s #AdventWord is #Light

This photo was taken just before the start of the Age UK carol service, each year the first of our season, with over 300 people in attendance today.

Thursday, December 01, 2016


Today’s #AdventWord is #Proclaim

I have had a hell of a day today, beginning with a delayed and stressful train journey. By the time I got home, I felt like I needed one of the stunning the-heavens-proclaim-the-glory-of-God sunsets we regularly get here on the east coast. Instead, I got the faithfulness of the first twinkling stars, appearing despite cloud cover, despite light pollution. A different proclamation, a quieter one – if we can differentiate the volume of silent proclamation – and perhaps the one I actually needed to hear today...

Tuesday, November 29, 2016


Today’s #AdventWord is #Renew

The meditation focused on the idea that Jesus is all in all: that he can be found in various ways, including symbolically, and that where we find Jesus that place – or person – is given back to us, renewed.

The photo is of the floor of our chapel. In the spaces between the stones, not only the form of a cross but the form of a man on a cross, his head tilted to one side. Jesus is found in the ‘negative’ or ‘in-between’ space; and a floor that might be considered in need of renewing – of polishing and re-pointing – is renewed by Christ alone.

Monday, November 28, 2016


Today’s #AdventWord is #Love

Walking in the park, my attention was caught by one remaining yellow leaf on an otherwise bare tree. It spoke to me of love. Love that endures the storm, that holds fast. Love that will have to let go, when the time comes; but, please God, not quite yet. And when the yellow leaf falls, in dying, it will give its life back to the tree that gave it life. For when we fall in love, we die to self.

#AdventWord #Love

Sunday, November 27, 2016


This year for Advent I will be taking part in the Anglican Communion’s Global Advent Calendar. Each day they will send participants a short meditation, on a key word, and invite us to pray and then over the course of the day to take and post a photo that expresses that word on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. I’ll be posting to Facebook, and copying the image here.

The first word is Shine.

#AdventWord #Shine

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Of epilogues and prefaces

Again and again at the present moment, the daily lectionary readings are apocalyptic – visionary passages that reveal the death throes of the world as we know it, and the birth pangs of a world to come.

A timely reminder that scripture is not given to shape the communal imagination for holding back the tide, shoring-up a defensive wall against the world as we know it ending;

nor given to shape the communal imagination for hastening the end of the world as we know it, whether by forcing God’s hand or giving God a helping-hand;

nor even given to shape the communal imagination for survival beyond the end of the world as we know it, in some reduced circumstance;

but given to shape the communal imagination for enabling life to flourish, in the midst of the upheaval.

To join in with the One who declares, ‘See – I am doing a new thing!’

The apocalyptic imagination dares us to ask:

How will we shape our community for the flourishing of the asylum-seeker?

How will we shape our community for the flourishing of those whose dead we have buried?

How will we shape our community for the flourishing of the husband and wife pulled apart by dementia, yet held-together by love?

How will we shape our community for the flourishing of those whose world is violently falling apart around them, while those around them carry on as if nothing has happened?

The only answers that have any substance are those that give solid shape to a new world. That is to say, the only answers that have any substance are practices. The practice of eating together. The practice of listening to one another’s stories. The practice of hospitality.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

SPOILER ALERT: if you intend to see Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, do not read this post first! However, if you have seen the film, here are my reflections on it. What do you think?

At its heart, Fantastic Beasts is a delightful Rom Com: two sisters falling in love with unlikely beaus; the two couples also held together by the budding – and equally unlikely – friendship between the men.

At its heart, Fantastic Beasts is a Tale For Our Times, albeit a fairly clunky one:

calling into question the morality of choosing to segregate ourselves from those who are different to us, with whom we perceive greater difference than what we share in common;

exposing the hypocrisy* of Privilege painting itself as victim because it has been asked to curtail its freedom for the good of others;

and exploring the different options of isolationism, competition, and cooperation;

not to mention speaking to our thoughtless attitude towards the survival – indeed, flourishing – of non-human animals, and the evil of trafficking.

At its heart, for all its clunky worthiness, Fantastic Beasts is a lot of fun.

All of which only makes it more frustrating that, while confronting some male stereotypes, it so strongly reinforces female stereotypes.

In a culture dominated by post-truth Alpha-males, Fantastic Beasts presents us with the man who is quite shy, academic but in a hands-on practical way, who never quite fitted-in at school but will go on to write a text book that will inspire generations of children.

In a culture that demonises the working class, Fantastic Beasts presents us with the man who, despite being both overweight and a factory worker, has the vision and energy – though not the financial backing – to do something creative and life-affirming, who has a vocation to bless people through the simple happiness of pastry.

And alongside these stereotype-confronting men, Fantastic Beasts gives us:

the Determined Young Lady, who has contained her femininity and adopted a more-male wardrobe – not only of clothing but of inhabiting that costume – and become a shadow of a man, only to be looked through by men;

the Blonde Bimbo, who knows exactly how men look at her, and colludes with them;

the Excessively-Controlling Mother;

and the black President, who, in the context of the above – not to mention the conspicuous absence of other black characters (the singer in the speakeasy is a black woman – itself another stereotypical role, and hardly the Harlem Renaissance) – seems a very token gesture.

I want to love Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them. It is beautifully filmed, and beautifully acted, and it is in many ways a welcome extension to the wonderfully imaginative Harry Potter universe, being set seventy years earlier and on a different continent.

But it is hard to love a film when my wife is underwhelmed, and asks, ‘Really? Strip away all the CGI, and we’re still telling the same old story, with the same stereotypical roles for women?’

It is hard to love a film, set in a universe my children love, when the roles and opportunities it presents my daughter with, and the lenses it holds out to my sons through which to see women, are so short-sighted.

We know the stereotypes already. We know that they are an exaggeration of actual types – whether exaggeration by turning characteristics into caricatures, or exaggeration by over-representation. But surely it is time for some new stories, ones we aren’t over-familiar with? Ones, indeed, we are not familiar enough with, and need to hear, role-models we need to see?

Perhaps the purpose of any given story is not to address every issue facing us. Perhaps the fact that watching Fantastic Beasts with others has raised the issue of how women are represented, and indeed how people of colour are not represented, is enough?

I don’t think so. How long can we keep making those excuses, passing the buck to some unspecified time in the future that never arrives?

*literally, unmasking; or revealing.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Church as place

I often hear it said that ‘church,’ as understood in the New Testament, refers to people, not place. But this is an entirely false distinction.

When Jesus speaks of his church, he uses the word ekklesia. The ekklesia was a gathering of citizens called out of their homes into a public space, for the purpose of deliberation. In other words, place – public space – is a constitutive element of ekklesia.

Elsewhere, the word oikos is used to describe the church. Oikos means ‘household’ – and while a household is made up of people, those people are found in a house. Again, place is a constitutive element, not an incidental detail.

There are, of course, also images used to describe the church. Of these, two key images are of the church as the Body of Christ, and as the Bride of Christ. At first glance, both might appear to reinforce the belief that church is people, not place. But yet again, place forms an essential element.

In the Prologue to John’s Gospel, the incarnation – the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us – is described in this way: he ‘tabernacled’ among us. This is a reference to the time when the people Moses had led out of Egypt lived in tents, and God had a tent with them. A tent, especially a large tent, is a place. Church, as Body of Christ, is a tent among the tents of the people.

John’s account of the last words of Jesus to his disciples before his crucifixion include Jesus telling them that they cannot follow him now, but that he goes to prepare a room for them in his Father’s house, and will return and take them to be with him there. This is the imagery of the bridegroom, who would build a room – in more recent times, an additional floor – onto his parental home, and then come to take his bride to live there with him. This is bride imagery. It is usually taken by Christians to refer to heaven, to a place after death. But in John’s Gospel, Jesus returning to his disciples is seen in the resurrection; and there is no account of his ascension into heaven. So here we have church as Bride of Christ imagery with place where we experience living with Jesus being an essential element.

I would suggest that in trying to establish an understanding of church as something we are part of, not simply something we attend, we have overstated our case. And I would further suggest that this is detrimental to mission.

Human beings are capable of only a finite number of relationships. In contexts with high mobility, church as people wonderfully provides some of the relationships we need. But in contexts of high stability, where most of the population have lived in one place their whole lives, they are already at relational capacity. Nonetheless, these same neighbourhoods have often experienced the loss – over and over again – of buildings of constitutive importance to the identity of the community. That is to say, their experience of the dislocation of high mobility relates to places, not people.

I currently live in such a context.

Earlier this year, we placed a visitors’ book in the Minster. Looking through the comments people have written, two recurring themes stand out:

an appreciation of the building as a place of beauty;

and an appreciation of the building as an oasis of peace.

A warm and helpful welcome from our people matters too, but within the context of place.

It would appear that there is a perceived need for beauty and peace, a perceived lack of beauty and peace in other places.

So how might scripture inform our understanding of church as a place of beauty and of peace?

I’m thinking that the Psalms might be a good place to start.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A parable for today

The Gospel reading for Holy Communion today is Luke 19:11-28

As they were listening to this, he went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. So he said, ‘A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return. He summoned ten of his slaves, and gave them ten pounds, and said to them, “Do business with these until I come back.” But the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, “We do not want this man to rule over us.” When he returned, having received royal power, he ordered these slaves, to whom he had given the money, to be summoned so that he might find out what they had gained by trading. The first came forward and said, “Lord, your pound has made ten more pounds.” He said to him, “Well done, good slave! Because you have been trustworthy in a very small thing, take charge of ten cities.” Then the second came, saying, “Lord, your pound has made five pounds.” He said to him, “And you, rule over five cities.” Then the other came, saying, “Lord, here is your pound. I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth, for I was afraid of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.” He said to him, “I will judge you by your own words, you wicked slave! You knew, did you, that I was a harsh man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money into the bank? Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest.” He said to the bystanders, “Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.” (And they said to him, “Lord, he has ten pounds!”) “I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them – bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.”’ After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

Jesus, with his disciples, is on the way to Jerusalem. By this point, he has already told them three times that he will be put to death there – but that his death will not be the end. But they will not have it so. And now something terribly exciting has happened, something that surely vindicates their more hopeful intuition. Here, in Jericho, an incredibly corrupt man has just had a dramatic conversion experience. Let us be generous and assume that Zacchaeus is being genuine when he says that he will give half of his wealth to the poor; and that he will repay anyone he has defrauded four times over. Surely this is a sign that the time is very near when God will make all things right?

So because they are now very near to Jerusalem, and because the disciples suppose as they do, Jesus, for whom time is running out, tells them a parable.

Now, many of Jesus’ parables are concerned with the nature of God, but this is not one of them. This parable is concerned with the nature of the world.

Jesus paints a picture of a nobleman who goes to a distant country in order to secure royal power for himself; a man hated by those over whom he would rule. Surely Jesus is speaking in the first instance of the Herodian dynasty, rulers who gained and then kept hold of their position at the pleasure of the Emperor in Rome; noblemen with no claim to Davidic descent, hated by their subjects? (Though the wonderful thing about parables is their potential to be applied to different contexts.)

And the picture Jesus paints is of a world that is defined by the thirst for power;

by the harnessing of hatred in power plays;

by a way of conducting business that ensures that the rich become richer and the poor become poorer;

with the whole system underpinned by violence.

Within this world, Jesus describes the actions and fate of three slaves.

The first whole-heartedly embraces the way of the world, and finds themselves richly rewarded.

The second half-heartedly embraces the way things are, and he too benefits from a certain amount of status.

But a third slave point blank refuses to play the game, and calls the king out for the despot he is, to his face. He does so knowing full well what it will cost him, which will undoubtedly be his life.

And, having now predicted his death for a fourth time, Jesus walks off towards Jerusalem, leaving his disciples looking at one another and wondering what that was all about, and what on earth it had to do with them.

My enemy

[I first posted these thoughts on Facebook yesterday. The footnote, indicated by an asterisk, is a helpful comment made in response by a friend who is an Adult Mental Health Consultant working in the NHS in the North East of England.]

If you call the President of the United States a ‘loathsome creature’ (and then claim that you were not implying that he is less than human, but merely employing a turn of phrase) or the First Lady ‘[sic] a Ape in heels’ (and then claim that this was not racism, but the personal opinion of one individual concerning another individual) you show yourself to have no understanding of the power words have (first and foremost, over those who use them).

But, quite unintentionally, you also land close to the truth. Because enmity lies at the heart of how every human being positions him- or herself in relation to every person they meet. The roots of enmity are shame (the root of enmity directed at the self, which may in turn result in our lashing out against others as displacement*) and fear (the root of enmity directed at the other). Whether you read Genesis 3 as literal or myth, this is the insight revealed to us there.

This is why the ministry of reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel, or good news. This transforming ministry of reconciliation flows from God, who invites us to join in. Us, who are enemies of God, of ourselves, of one another. It is enemies who need reconciliation. Unless we can admit to this, we cannot enter into it.

*I think envy of others is an important relation to shame - ie we measure ourselves as lesser in relation to a perceived other and rather than trying to emulate or follow, we would rather destroy (literally or with words) in order to lower the other and elevate the self. This of course produces more shame which needs to be sublimated, displaced or projected elsewhere. One can see this enacted in the recent political behaviours.