Saturday, November 30, 2019

Almost Advent

Tomorrow is the start of Advent. For many years, I’ve posted a daily photo and/or reflection throughout Advent. This year, I don’t know what I am going to do, yet.

Perhaps it is because we block certain memories, but I’m more aware of more of those I care about struggling right now than I recall in a long time. Putting their heads down, and just about getting through each day. Or perhaps this is part of a bigger trend?

The Season of Advent is all about acknowledging that the world is not as we long for it to be, and yet supporting one another to hold on to hope and not sink under despair. In other words, this Advent comes (as, perhaps, it always comes) at just the right time.

Perhaps I might riff on these things this year.

One of the traditional ways of engaging with the four weeks of Advent is to reflect on death, judgement, heaven, and hell. That might be out-of-step with commercial Christmas, but, then again, rediscovering these themes might just be the antidote we need.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Of kings

The Gospel set for Holy Communion today: Luke 19:11-28.

Conditioned as we are to see any king in Jesus’ parables as referring to God, I can’t tell you how many sermons I’ve heard on this passage on how we are all given gifts by God and expected to put them to good use. But that is a nonsensical interpretation. This despot ruler has to derive his authority from an external source in a distant land. Moreover, we are explicitly told that Jesus tells the parable to calm a growing fervour that the kingdom of God is about to sweep away the status quo.

Herod the Great, who ruled in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ birth, came to power at the patronage of Rome, client to the emperor. So, the Herodian dynasty displaced the Hasmonean dynasty. In his will, he divided his rule between three of his sons: to Herod Archelus, Judea to the south; to Herod Antipas, Galilee to the north; and to Philip, territory to the east of the river Jordan. But as it was not his to give, the three sons had to travel in a delegation to distant Rome to make their claim. In his benevolence, emperor Augustus agreed to the terms of Herod’s will. But Herod Archelus was a bit rubbish, and so was stripped of his status and direct Roman rule imposed on Jerusalem through the provincial governor. At the time of Jesus’ death, this was a man named Pontius Pilate. When Jesus was brought before him, not long after giving this parable, Pilate sent him before Herod Antipas, in whose territory Jesus had been most active. But already, this Herod Antipas had been the one to arrest Jesus’ cousin John the baptizer, and later have him beheaded.

The king in this parable shimmers between Augustus, before whom Herod the Great’s three sons had been made to give account; and Herod Antipas, ruler (at the reward of Augustus, though as servant and not king) over Galilee. He is an everyman king, for any ruler exercising worldly power. He is most emphatically not God.

This parable, then, is ultimately about a different way of being king, a way Jesus would model. The rational way would be to flex wealth and violence. The irrational way, folly, would be to rise up in revolt against Rome. But there is a third way, the trans-rational hope that glory might be revealed through self-sacrifice, and the world transformed, in time, by those who followed, even to death, a man who would hang naked, battered and bleeding, dying on an executioner’s instrument of torture. That no king, no emperor, could stand against this. And so, it proved. And so, it still proves.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019


In temperatures below the freezing-point of water, I walked to work today through vapour clouds of my own breath. A reminder of the biblical life-breath, often translated ‘soul’. My soul, made visible.

Materialists deny the concept of a soul, but in Hebrew thought at least, it refers to the essential life-breath, which departs at death, when, clearly, the body remains, but the person is no longer present. The witness of the ancient Hebrew texts is that this animating breath is given us by God. The very act of breathing, of living, is to participate in receiving life, one breath at a time, and offering it back to the Giver, trusting in the giving of another breath; and, in the end, when that breath is withheld and our material being returns to unanimated dust, still trusting the One who has shown themselves trustworthy.

This life is, as the ancient writer Qohelet noted, merest breath (Ecclesiastes chapter 1). Real, but ethereal; fleeting, but dependably given. We do not know when we will breathe our last. Enjoy each breath. Make the most of it. Give it back, in love of God, the Giver; and our neighbour, whose soul also projects from them on such cold mornings as today.

Friday, November 15, 2019


This morning, just after nine o’clock, we were walking along the path that runs along the north bank of the Wear, between the Queen Alexandra Bridge and the Wearmouth Bridge. All along the path, there was a debris of mussel shells. The Wear produces large mussels, and the local crows feast themselves on them, picking them out of the mudflats at low tide, and breaking them open on the concrete cycle path. Big, black birds with big, black shells held pincered between their beaks, all along the riverbank.


Once there was a man named Demetrius, who, having ruled over Athens for a decade and having been deposed, fled to Alexandria, becoming librarian. Founded and named for Alexander the Great, Alexandria, in Egypt, was fast becoming the greatest city in the world, and its library was the epicentre of knowledge. Greeks and Jews lived side by side, the Greeks possessing a certain fascination with their neighbours. To the library, Demetrius summoned seventy-two prominent Jewish scholars, to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. Named after their number, the Septuagint made accessible their ancient books not only to the Greeks but to many Jews, for whom, by this time, Greek had become their first language. This was the Bible Jesus knew.

It is fascinating to me that when Jesus sent out his disciples to go ahead of him into all the towns and villages where he was heading, he should appoint as evangelists seventy or seventy-two (there is some ambiguity).

In so doing, he proclaims himself not only the new Moses, interpreting the words of God to his ancient people, but also the new Demetrius, bringing the Word of God to Jew and god-fearing Gentile alike.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Psalm 23

Here is Robert Alter’s beautiful translation of the twenty-third Psalm:

A David Psalm.

The LORD is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
In grass meadows He makes me lie down,
by quiet waters guides me.
My life He brings back.
He leads me on pathways of justice
for His name’s sake.
Though I walk in the vale of death’s shadow,
I fear no harm,
for you are with me.
Your rod and Your staff—
it is they that console me.
You set out a table before me
in the face of my foes.
You moisten my head with oil,
my cup overflows.
Let but goodness and kindness pursue me
all the days of my life.
And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for many long days.


One of the readings set for Holy Communion today was part of Paul’s letter to Philemon. It is a short private letter, written from one individual to another some two-thousand years ago, but along with Paul’s other letters forms the most influential correspondence the world has ever known.

Philemon was a free born male, citizen of Colossae in Asia Minor. As such, he owned slaves. Slaves were the property of their masters. It was common practice in Philemon’s world for masters to rape both female slaves, and male slaves up to the age of puberty, as what was seen as an entirely natural expression of the order of things. Not simply a social order, but the order of the cosmos. The suppression of slaves was seen as a suppression of the chaos that threatened to overrun the world if left unchecked. Within the same understanding, it was common practice to publicly put runaway slaves to death, at times by nailing them to a cross and leaving them for the vultures to eat, alive. For free born, such practice was indeed a duty, for the benefit of all.

Paul writes to Philemon—who has, at some point, come to share Paul’s astonishing belief that the crucified Jesus was raised by God and proclaimed Son of God, and Saviour and Lord of all—concerning one of his slaves, who has run away. The young man does not even have a given name, only a generic slave name Onesimus, or Useful. He is used to being seen as utility, and has risked everything to gain some self-determination, even as a fugitive. Getting as far as the nearest bright lights, Ephesus, he comes into contact with Paul, who is under house arrest for his crazy beliefs. Now Paul asks him to return to his master, carrying two letters. One is a letter to the community of holy ones who assemble in Philemon’s home. The other is privately to Philemon himself.

Paul writes about what both he and Philemon know. That Philemon has not only the right but indeed the duty to have Onesimus put to death. To ensure that the cosmos continues. But Paul asks him, instead, not only to welcome Onesimus back into the household but to confer upon him the status of brother, of kin.

What Paul is asking, indeed commanding, is explosive. He is asking Philemon to put himself at odds with all the other free men of Colossae, for, if one breaks ranks and pardons a runaway slave, what is to stop any of their slaves running away? What is to prevent the collapse of the cosmos into chaos? The very end of the world as we know it?

That (it survives at all, and) we can read this letter and not see it as utterly revolutionary is testimony to its impact. That we do not assume it is acceptable to own people, to rape them, to publicly execute them—that, when the Church fails to live up to its own profession, as when priests abuse children, we see this as not only hypocrisy but as moral wickedness—is not because we are more civilised—the Greeks and Romans were civilised, were classical civilisation—but because we, in the Western world, are all profoundly Christian, even if we personally are not confessing Christians.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019


There’s a book in the Old Testament called Job, after the central character. Job is portrayed as a righteous man, the servant of God, who loses everything. His flocks and herds are carried away by raiders; his buildings collapse; his children are killed; his intercessary prayers on their behalf no longer appear to have any efficacy; his own body is covered with terrible sores. What follows is a literary masterpiece of theatre, as Job and his friends discuss what has taken place, suggesting reasons why, and what Job might do to restore his fortunes. Themes cover the great existential questions, why do bad things happen to good people, and, if they do, is there any point to being upright?

But Job is no outpouring of individual angst. Though it is set in a far more ancient time, it in fact (most probably) dates from the time of the Babylonian exile, when Jerusalem had been destroyed and her royal court and civil service carried into captivity. Job is a literary cipher for the exiles—and so are his friends. In this, one of the greatest works of literature to survive from antiquity (and arguably one of the greatest literary works ever composed), a community sit down and try to make sense of what the hell has just happened to them.

We could do with a bit more Job today.

World Kindness Day

Today is, apparently, World Kindness Day. Kindness is surprisingly subversive. It is also, and quite clearly if you look at the world and the ways in which we treat one another, not a self-evident or universal virtue, not a given. Though someone of any or no religious belief can show kindness, it is, profoundly, a Judeo-Christian value. Here, then, are words taken from Paul’s letter to Titus, words set for Holy Communion today:

“But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy...”

Titus 3:4, 5

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

God the storyteller

I have really enjoyed reflecting on this passage from the New Testament letter to the Hebrews with other members of the congregation at St Nicholas’ this evening.

The word translated here as received/giving approval is martureo, which means to bear witness, or to give a good report. In other words, we know about these ancients because God told stories about them. God told stories about them, to people who passed those stories own, until they were written down. At least, that is the view of faith. And indeed, there are not other witnesses, so either these stories are completely made up, or God did, indeed, tell them.

The implication, from a faith perspective, is that God might also tell stories about you, as an heir of this long line of stories. About you, and how pleased God is with you. About you, and the struggles you have overcome, the risks you have taken, the scars that tell your story.

I can’t think of anything more honouring.

We’ll be reflecting on a different passage from the Bible most Tuesdays, 2.00-3.00 p.m. and 7.00-8.00 p.m. in the Lady Chapel at St Nicholas’ Church, if ever you'd like to join me.

Love is

My congregation is full of elderly widows and widowers, as well as women whose husbands walked out long before divorce was acceptable, and some who never married. Today I passed a happy hour with one congregation member who has unexpectedly and delightfully found love again at a late stage of life. The other night she was sat at home in front of the tv watching the latest David Attenborough natural history, and her gentleman friend was sat in his home in front of his tv watching the same programme. In this programme we saw a pair of Amazonian poison-dart tree-frogs. Discussing what they had seen over the phone, he coyly asked her if the frogs reminded her of anyone, another couple?

You know someone is in love when they take being compared to a poison-dart tree-frog as a compliment.

Something beautiful

Gospel set for Morning Prayer today: Matthew 5:13-20

Here, Jesus describes what the community of God’s chosen people should be like in the world, using the accessible metaphors of salt and light. Moreover, these sayings contrast being ‘no longer good’ with ‘your good works’. However, the repeated word ‘good’ in the English translates two different words in the Greek.

In the first instance, the word is ischuo, to have strength, power, potency, to prevail. In the second instance, the word is kalos, beautiful, the beauty that flows from noble, worthy and honourable character.

In other words, beauty has a potency in the world, to transform the world. And this beauty flows from godly character, and points to God. It is contrasted with ‘turning to foolishness’—moraino (mo-rah-ee-no)—the literal meaning of the salt ‘losing its taste’.

One way, then, we should measure the impact of what we do in the world is to ask, is the outcome something beautiful?

When the stranger is welcomed, the hungry are fed, the lonely find company; where human dignity is recognised, and, if necessary, restored; the beauty is in the outcome, in those moments of connection that result in the creation of something that was not there before, as nobility meets nobility, worth meets worth, honour meets honour.

(With thanks to clergy colleagues who helped me expand my thoughts, as we reflected on this passage this morning.)

Saturday, November 09, 2019


In the last chapter of Luke’s gospel, we are told of two of Jesus’ disciples who are walking away from Jerusalem towards Emmaus on the day Jesus rose from the dead. As they walk, Jesus comes into being alongside them, but they do not recognise him. He asks them, what are these words you are exchanging? and one of them responds, are you the only resident alien dwelling in Jerusalem in these days who has not heard about the things that have come into being, concerning Jesus? (They go on to tell him all about Jesus; and Jesus responds that they haven’t joined-the-dots.) It is when they invite Jesus to stay the night with them in their home that it comes into being that their eyes are opened to recognise him. With hindsight, they describe the experience of being with him as one which caused their hearts to be consumed with fire.

If you then turn over the page, you come to the prologue to John’s gospel. It concerns the word that comes into being in the world. Though the world came into being through the word, the world did not recognise the word. The word came to his own people, and his own people did not recognise him. But those who did welcome him came into being, through him, as children of God. He came and dwelt alongside them, as a resident alien, a tent-dweller on the edge of the city. He was seen by them, a supernatural seeing, one described at least in hindsight as beholding glory, a majestic brightness.

In other words, John begins his gospel exactly where Luke ends his. It is a perfect baton change.

John wrote later than the other gospel writers, possessing a familiarity with them, and apparently believing them to be true as far as they went but having left out too many of the good bits. But he did not write with any expectation that, at a later date, others would collate these writings in such an order that one might come to the end of Luke, turn the page, and begin reading John.

Yet the third-to-fouth-leg hand-over is absolutely flawless.


Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Three things about everyone

Over the past few weeks, I have been reading three books by Joanna Cannon, the novels The Trouble With Goats & Sheep and Three Things About Elsie and a memoir, Breaking & Mending. Cannon is a psychiatric doctor, and her deeply compassionate novels are inspired by the lives of her patients.

Three Things About Elsie is concerned with how what at the time appear to be small, insignificant choices can have the biggest impact on our lives, and the lives of others. But it is also a wonderful exploration of what it is to be human; a fictionalised companion to Prof John Swinton’s Dementia: living in the memories of God.

Swinton speaks of three selfs that, together, shape who we are; and all three can be traced through Three Things About Elsie.

Self 1 is first-person self-awareness in the present moment. This has begun before our first birthday, and we never lose it. This is most apparent in the chapters with a time stamp for a heading. Flo, the first-person narrator, has fallen in her flat and is waiting to be discovered. Flo lives with dementia, but possesses Self 1, and over these chapters, and the course of the novel, is making peace with the present moment.

Self 2 is made up of how we think and feel about ourselves. This is most clearly explored in the chapters headed FLORENCE (first-person narrated), MISS AMBROSE and HANDY SIMON (both told by a third-person narrator), in which three characters reflect on themselves. We see the things they value, even when other people do not share the same values. We see their regrets, and how choices they made have resulted in those regrets. We see them tell themselves stories, constructed from the past, to help them in the present. We note how they compare themselves against others. We note that they (and by extension, we) are not reliable narrators, not reliable constructors of themselves, both in that they are not in full possession of the facts and in their ongoing struggle to accept themselves, to forgive and own and love themselves. Self 2 changes, many times, over the course of our lives, changing through big events (such as moving into sheltered housing, or the death of a friend) and through incremental series of small choices. We can never hold on to our Self 2, though we hoard all our previous Self 2s in the corners of the room of our lives.

Self 3 is social, various social personae, that are and can only be constructed in interaction with others. We see this in how Flo, Miss Ambrose and Handy Simon see each other, and in how each of them is impacted by interaction with a wide range of other characters, past and present. We see this in being a friend (you cannot be a friend without another), a work colleague (how you are seen, and how how you are seen can change, changing, in turn, how you see yourself), in being a vulnerable adult standing in front of a doctor or a policeman.

In the end, there are limits to Selves 2 and 3. We construct our lives, in collaboration with others, but God and nature and time and eternity conspire to save us from ourselves, to tenderly strip away our outer clothing until our Self 1 is present(ed) to us, and we are invited to make peace—or, as Swinton puts it, to make friends—with the present moment.
It is amazing how much energy we put into shaping a Self 2 to our (current) liking, and how much energy we expend on trying to control the input of others into our social Self 3; and how hard we work to push away the Self 1 that was our first self in the world, our only constant self, and the self we will be at the last.

Postscript: there is a sentence hidden in Three Things About Elsie, a landmine in a field. If you have not read The Trouble With Goats & Sheep, you won’t stand on it; but if you have, you will, and, though you keep your weight on it for as long as possible, eventually you will shift and then, only then, it will explode...