Monday, February 26, 2018

Sheffield colours

In lieu of a longer break at half-term, we had 48 wonderful hours in Sheffield over the weekend, spent with friends from university and post-university days—also an opportunity to take our children to the city where all three of them were born. Walking around on Saturday afternoon, I was struck by colour: it felt like the whole world was saturated with the colours of God.

Sheffield & Tinsley Canal

Park Hill Flats

Sheffield Cathedral

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Us and them

Holy Communion. Matthew 7:7-12.

“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children…

We tend to divide the world into those (like us) who are good, and those (other people) who are evil; those who are fundamentally good people, who do good things, and those who are fundamentally bad people, who do bad things.

Jesus calls that out as BS. He tells those who would follow him, who wanted to learn from him (that is what being a ‘disciple’ means) and by extension the crowd listening-in that they are evil. But he also states that those who are evil know how to give good gifts, or, do good. There are no good people who do good things and bad (or, evil) people who do bad (or, evil) things: just people, who, though they are evil, also know how to do good.

People, who are part of the problem, or, all that is wrong with the world; and part of the answer, or, all that is right with the world.

Every so often, we need to recalibrate: we need the divine insight, or revelation, that brings our view of ourselves and our neighbour back in line with God’s.

Keep on asking, keep on searching, keep knocking on the door.

Light, praying

This morning I was interrupted twice while at Morning Prayer. Ordinarily I might respond, “I’ll be with you after Morning Prayer,” and, perhaps, “Would you like to join me?” But today both interruptions were things that needed to be dealt with in the moment; and dealt with by me. So, after the second interruption, I gave up, and left the praying to the light falling through the window.

How can light pray? Well, if Isaiah can speak of the mountains and hills bursting into songs of praise, then I think I can speak of sunlight praying.

The vocation of light is to illuminate, to shine in darkness. At times, the light falls diffuse through the window; and when it does so, the white-painted walls reflect it back, uniformly. But at other times, it shines with focused intention, and dances across the darkened wall, in patterns of delight. And that, at least it seems to me, is how light prays; how that which is created responds to its Creator.

At times, we find it hard to pray, perhaps due to interruptions, or distractions, or ill-health. Like light, we can still fulfil our vocation—the purpose we were made for—in such times; even if we are unconscious of doing so. At other times, we can articulate prayer, with or without words. To do so is good, and makes a difference to the world, not least in and through the one who prays. But when we can’t, we are not abandoned. Jesus prays for us, the Holy Spirit prays within us—and all creation prays around us, even the light.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018


Tuesday morning, and the Minster is full of the sounds of six small children. One tiny tot of a girl has the expansive heart of an adventurer. She moves confidently through the side chapel, where I am sat reading; down a step, up a step, and slips under the wooden communion rail into the sanctuary, the still space surrounding the high altar; then slips back under the rail and sits for a long moment in the choir stall, contemplating the east window and its vision of heaven. All watched by an attentive but not interfering adult.

I know that this spirit will be squashed, as much by misplaced ideas of reverence as anything else*. But I pray that it will never be entirely lost. I know that it will be buried; but I pray she will know resurrection.

The children have left, the only sound now is the cry of gulls wheeling overhead. An elderly couple come in, sit on the front pew, lean in against each other, heads close, and reminisce. After a while, I go over to talk to them. Their memories are important to them, more-so than when they were younger. So much has been obliterated, torn down and built over. The homes they lived in as children, as newly-weds. The peace they find in this space is precious, and they pray that the world might know peace. Why is there so much trouble and violence in the world, they wonder, when it costs nothing to be kind?

I draw their attention to the east window in front of them: it only exists because the previous window was blown-in by a bomb in WWII. There is violence in the world, but it does not have the final word: we are continually starting over. In and through Christ, God is reconciling all [torn-apart] things...

*it was reported this week that at one church elsewhere, a campaign had been mounted against the vicar and church wardens, who were seeking to have a toilet installed in the church building, because (among other reasons) “toilets attract children”—and heaven forbid we should welcome little children...

Tuesday, February 13, 2018


Morning Prayer.

I am struck by these verses:

‘...He [Joseph, son of Jacob, dreamer] came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” “I am seeking my brothers,” he said; “tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.”’
Genesis 37:14-16

Joseph is estranged from his brothers, and it will be many years before they are—miraculously—reconciled. But the stranger’s question cuts to the heart of Joseph’s mission, and Joseph’s answer reveals his deepest longing. And in a very real sense, the stranger is God, and Joseph is each one of us.

Thursday, February 08, 2018


The Lectionary readings for Holy Communion continue to juxtapose Solomon, son of David, and Jesus: 1 Kings 11:4-13 and Mark 7:24-30.

The call on God’s people was to be a light to the surrounding nations, revealing the glory of Yahweh in his goodness, expressed by mercy and justice. Never was this more fulfilled than in the latter part of David’s reign and early part of Solomon’s. Solomon had an international reputation for wisdom, and splendour; and it was known that his authority came from Yahweh. But as his reign progressed, in accommodating foreign gods alongside his own, this testimony to the nations became compromised. It was no longer clear from whom Solomon derived authority, no longer clear what distinguished his people from the surrounding peoples. This angered Yahweh, who determined to tear Solomon’s kingdom from him, though not entirely.

In this context, dogs become interesting. As forewarned, the majority of Solomon’s son Rehoboam’s territory tears away from him under Jeroboam. But rather than leading the people back to Yahweh, Jeroboam leads them further astray. For this unfaithful response to having been raised up, Yahweh passes judgement on him: his dynasty will be cut off, and ‘anyone belonging to Jeroboam who dies in the city, the dogs shall eat’ (1 Kings 14:11). This comes to pass, and a second dynasty supplants them, that of Baasha. But Baasha acts no differently from Jeroboam. The same fate comes to him and his dynasty: ‘I will consume Baasha and his house, and I will make your house like the house of Jeroboam son of Nebat. Anyone belonging to Baasha who dies in the city, the dogs shall eat’ (1 Kings 16:3, 4). The third dynasty doesn’t even get going; but the fourth gives rise to Ahab, and his Sidonian wife Jezebel. Ahab is recorded as the most wicked of all the kings of Israel. When he and Jezebel conspire to kill their neighbour Naboth, the prophet Elijah announces that where the dogs had licked up the blood of Naboth, they would also lick up Ahab’s blood (1 Kings 21:17-24; note the refrain ‘anyone belonging to Ahab who dies in the city the dogs will eat’). This too comes to pass (1 Kings 22:37, 38). The same fate is predicted of Jezebel (1 Kings 21:23, restated in 2 Kings 9:6-10) and comes to pass (2 Kings 9:30-37).

Dogs, then, are vicious, feral, agents of judgement. (We might also note that three of the psalms of David—22, 59, 68—employ the metaphor of a pack of dogs to describe enemies. Christians have found Psalm 22 to be a close fit for describing Jesus’ crucifixion.) Yahweh reveals himself to be slow to anger but determined to deal with sin, to cut it off and root it out. That may be uncomfortable for us as comfortable westerners, but it is as fundamental to God’s character as loving-kindness.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus, following an episode where he is circled by a pack of enemies, withdraws to the region of Tyre and Sidon. This would count as one of the surrounding nations, to whom God’s people were to be a light. It is also the region from where Jezebel had come. There, a Gentile woman finds him, and begs him to deliver her daughter from oppression by a demon, a ‘god’ in rebellion against the god of Israel. Jesus says to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” to which she replies, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

In referring to the woman and her daughter as dogs, Jesus is not making a racist or sexist slur, but is identifying them, as members of the often-hostile surrounding nations, as those who will be agents of Yahweh’s judgement on his own unfaithful people. This judgement is imminent. Yahweh has determined to judge the nations, starting with his own people for their failure to be a light to the surrounding nations. Israel will be judged; its present ruling dynasty will be removed. In the light of this, Jesus is now offering bread—true sustenance—to the children. The children are not the Jewish nation of the time per se, but those few Jews who, with childlike trust, place their trust in him as the one sent from God. They need to be fed, strengthened for the coming judgement, at which time the dogs will get their fill.

The genius insight of the Syrophoenician woman is that while, yes, she is a member of the pack of dogs, among the Gentiles too there are those who recognise Jesus to be the one sent from God. Here is a dog who wants to be brought into the family of those who will be raised up, in and after the impending judgement, to start again. To be a faithful remnant of Solomon’s kingdom. And through her Jezebel-upending faith, the demonic presence that constrains her own dynasty is driven out. She is the gatekeeper for people like me, Gentiles who put our trust in Jesus the Jew and find ourselves brought into God’s family.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Right to vote

On the centenary of a milestone for women’s suffrage, I am reminded that in a 1917 speech, suffragist Agnes Maude Royden declared, “The Church [of England] should go forward along the path of progress and be no longer satisfied only to represent the Conservative Party at prayer.”

A century on, the Church of England is, at least in my experience, Conservative voters, Labour voters, Liberal Democrats, UKIPpers, Greens, Socialist Workers, possibly even the odd Scottish Nationalist in exile, independents, principled non-voters, and floating voters, side-by-side at prayer.

We may not agree on everything. Indeed, we may disagree robustly (and, at times, losing sight of grace) on many matters. But whenever the Church overly-aligns itself with any political party or philosophy, she sells her soul. The same is true for any given member of the Church.

Maude Royden was right—and she saw the future, however imperfect it remains.

Endings, and everything after

Morning Prayer. 2 Timothy 4:9-22.

I love the humanity of Paul’s final, personal instructions to Timothy, and what they reveal about Paul and the collaborative nature of his ministry.

He asks Timothy to come to him, because he is nearing the end of his life, and feels largely alone.

I wonder whether we view Demas too harshly: Paul tells us that Demas, in love with this age, has deserted him and gone to Thessalonica; and this is generally understood as a falling-away from ministry (or even faith in Jesus). But the context is that Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia; and that at Paul’s first defence, no one came to his support, but all deserted him—for which he asks that it not be counted against them. Might it not be that Paul is saying that, in contrast to his own acceptance that he is at the end of this life, Demas is not yet ready to depart this life—a decision Paul himself had earlier wrestled with and at that time concluded he still had reason to live on—and has gone to continue his own ministry, among the saints at Thessalonica?

Luke, the author of Luke-Acts, is with Paul. Paul asks Timothy to bring Mark, who was estranged from Paul at an earlier time, but they appear to have been reconciled, as Paul now describes him as a useful partner in ministry. Among the other movements going on, Paul has sent Tychicus to Ephesus, carrying his letter to the church there. Along with bringing Mark, he asks Timothy to bring his cloak, left behind with Carpus at Troas, as winter approaches; and his books and parchments to him in prison. A practical item, and his most precious belongings. And he warns Timothy to beware Alexander (again, he does not speak against Demas as he does against Alexander).

Paul asks Timothy, before he sets off, to greet Prisca and Aquila—that couple in ministry together, with Aquila most often taking a supporting role to his wife—and the run-away-and-returned slave Onesiphorus. He also mentions Erastus, whose public employment kept him in Corinth; and Trophimus who Paul had to leave in Miletus due to illness. And to his own greetings, Paul adds those of Eubulus, Pudens, Linus, and Claudia, along with those of a wider community, who must have had contact with him in prison. So, he is not entirely alone; just longing to see a dear friend—indeed, like a son to him—one last time.

At the heart of this season, approaching death, Paul is aware of the Lord giving him strength and ‘rescuing’ him, to the glory of God.

These are incredible, encouraging verses, that resonate with the experience of facing death as a person held in a fluid network of highly-mobile relationships.

Roses are fleeting

This year, Ash Wednesday (moves around a bit, due to being tied to Easter, which is tied to the Jewish Passover, which is tied to the cycle of the moon) coincides with Valentine’s Day (February 14). The reminder of our mortality gate-crashes the celebration of romantic love.

That might jar, but it seems to me to be incredibly fitting.

At a wedding in a Church of England place of worship, the marriage vows declare:

I, [Name], take you, [Name],
to be my wife/to be my husband,
to have and to hold
from this day forward;
for better, for worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish,
till death us do part;
according to God’s holy law.
In the presence of God I make this vow.

I would suggest that almost all couples say these words in denial of fully half of life.

To be fair, if that were not the case, I’m not sure we’d be brave enough to marry at all. But the vows are not designed with a perfect fairy-tale wedding in mind. They are a carefully considered acknowledgement of what awaits us.

The idea that we are in control of our lives is an illusion. In the analogy of Psalm 23, we live our lives in the shadow of the valley of death, we pass through the dying-experience many times over. But letting-go of the attempt to control what we cannot control—or holding-onto what we cannot hold on to*—is not at all the same thing as fatalism, or despair. The most fitting response to living in the shadow of the valley of death is to drink deeply from the wells of the water of life. And to drink deeply is to discover God’s faithful keeping of his covenant promises**.

As I prepare to meet with those couples getting married at the Minster this year, and for Ash Wednesday a week from tomorrow, I am glad for the gift this year offers.

*The book of Ecclesiastes is one of my favourite books in the Bible. Running through it is the repeated cry ‘hebel,’ often translated ‘meaningless’ or ‘vanity’ but perhaps better—and much more positively—translated ‘fleeting’: fleeting, fleeting, all is fleeting…and beautiful in its appointed time.

**Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a marriage between two people. A marriage is a social contract involving the entire community, with the guests present at the wedding speaking on that community’s behalf, with two people at the centre of this bigger thing. The marriage vows are an expression of our common experience of life—as much for those who have never been married, are divorced, or widowed, as those who are married—alongside the commitment of two people to walk this journey together, with the support of others. Our common experience of life, our inability to control our lives, and God’s faithfulness in all circumstances, are true for those who have a Valentine and those who do not.

Monday, February 05, 2018


Morning Prayer.

“4:1 In the presence of God and of Jesus Christ, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: 4:2 proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.”
Paul, writing to Timothy (2 Timothy 4:1, 2)

It strikes me that Paul (a Jew who had Roman citizenship; writing to Timothy, who had a Jewish mother and a Greek father*) is here employing Aristotle’s modes of persuasion, with verse 1 providing the ‘kairos’ (time-and-place context) and verse 2 commending ‘ethos’ (convince—by your character), ‘pathos’ (rebuke—appealing to emotion), and ‘logos’ (encourage—through the presentation of reason).

I wonder whether we tend to see encouraging as an appeal to emotion, and rebuke as an appeal to reason; and whether we misunderstand both?

*I am assuming them to be the historical Paul and Timothy, but the logic applies even if these are pseudonyms.