Thursday, April 09, 2020

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

The fear of the Lord

Did you know that God experiences fear?

That sounds wrong, right? And yet, Christians believe that Jesus is both fully God and fully human, and that if we want to know what God is like we must look at Jesus. And Jesus experienced fear. In an olive grove at the foot of the Mount of Olives, he was so afraid of what might take place that his sweat fell in beads like blood.

Of what was Jesus afraid? Or, to put it another way, what does God fear? Jesus prays that the cup be taken from him. To answer this question, what does God fear, we must ask, what does this cup symbolise?

Over the course of the Passover meal, the remembrance of the exodus from Egypt, four cups of wine were drunk. They relate to the four-fold declaration of God:

“I am the Lord, and I will bring you out [first cup] from under the yoke of the Egyptians.

I will free you from [second cup] being slaves to them, and

I will redeem you with [third cup] an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgement [this is the cup which Jesus reimagined as his blood of the new covenant].

I will take you as [fourth cup] my own people, and I will be your God.”

Exodus 6:6,7

The cup Jesus fears having to drink is the fourth cup, the cup that is a sign that God is taking this people as his own people, and that he will be there God.

Jesus experiences fear at the anticipation of this. Fear that this people will respond with deicide. Fear that God drawing near to them, exposed, will kill them, too.

What is significant is how Jesus—and, hence, God—deals with fear. It is possible to be paralysed by fear. But those who do not know fear act recklessly, endangering themselves and others. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament speaks of the fear of the Lord being the beginning of wisdom. Traditionally, that has been taken to mean, wisdom springs from human reverence for God; but this does not make sense. It does not make sense grammatically, because in every other case, the x of the Lord is taken to refer to God’s initiative and agency—the mountain of the Lord, the arm of the Lord, the eyes of the Lord, the angel of the Lord. And it does not make sense theologically to proclaim human beings as the originators of wisdom. The fear of the Lord is the Lord’s active engagement with the experience of fear, to reveal god-self to us, for the purpose of blessing.

Jesus does not deny fear. He sits in the dark with it, he prays, he looks to the support of his friends, he prays for them. He responds consistent with his character, with the nature of God, as God has always been and always will be, emptying god-self for love of a cranky, quirky, unpromising people. He makes peace with fear, as he will make peace with those of and for whom he has good reason to be afraid. And then, at that moment and not before, the time is right. The fear of the Lord reveals the Lord to those who come to arrest him, and, according to John’s Gospel, they fall on their faces.

Of what are you afraid? At this present time, it may be that every person you come into contact with, in order to offer help, might ultimately kill you or be killed by you. We can be paralysed, or reckless. Or we can look to Jesus. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Liturgy and trauma

While we aren’t simply sitting in front of the tv in these days, we are continuing to work our way through season three of This Is Us. It is, in my opinion, the finest tv show of all, and an incredible study in trauma. Trauma is much more common than is acknowledged, and will be the lasting collective impact of the C-19 crisis.

In the most recent episode we have got to, an older man looks back over his life, disrupted by Vietnam, and says, “First [as a young child] I wanted to be a writer. Then [as a teenager] I wanted to be a doctor, or a scientist. Then [after Vietnam] I didn’t want to be anything.”

When we get through the present suspension of public worship, Church will look very different, and that is a good thing. But I hope that it won’t look completely different, because we have learnt a thing or two about living life to the full—as fully as is possible—with the reality of trauma. And much of this is carried in our liturgy, our habitual words taken up together over and over again, by which our lives are shaped and remade, new every morning.

First, there is the recognition that lives ‘in recovery’ need the structure of regular meeting—at least weekly and sometimes more often than that—with people who go from strangers to family, through commitment to one another and to relentless forgiveness when we, inevitably, let ourselves and one another down. The AA and sister organisations understand this too.

Then, there is the Prayer of Preparation, a beautiful prayer that speaks of God as the one ‘to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden…’ This holds our deepest selves, our God-given longings, including those that have not been fulfilled and might not ever be fulfilled, due to the circumstances of our lives. Nonetheless, we are known and loved and held by this God.

Then, there is the regular practice of Confession and Absolution. Of receiving forgiveness for our guilt and cleansing for our shame, over and over again—for that is what the one who has gone through trauma needs, whether, objectively, their guilt or shame is justified or not.
Known. Loved. Held. Forgiven. Cleansed. Again and again, one day at a time. In how we re-imagine Church for these disorienting times, we must not lose sight of these.

Those who suggest that all we need is Jesus are naïve. Jesus himself, having cleansed ten lepers, sent them off to take part in the liturgical response of the faith community, not simply to verify their cleansing to others but also to reiterate it to themselves. Yes, thankfulness was also needed, but we also need one another, and a communal wisdom.

Friday, April 03, 2020

And if you didn't know, now you know

The number of people in (at least, applying for) receipt of Universal Credit grew by almost 1 million in just two weeks. A million citizens who never expected they would need the support of the welfare system this year. And in response, the Government has increased the amount by £20/week, for a year. This is an admission that you cannot live on Universal Credit. It is also an expression of the ideology that there are deserving and undeserving citizens.

In any case, in the past few weeks millions of us have experienced an insight into just how damn mentally, emotionally, physically tiring it is to live with constant anxiety as to whether you will be able to pay your bills, your rent/mortgage, will be able to get hold of food, or medicine should you need it. And this might be a lesson we need to learn.

We’re also being brought to the key realisation of income inequality.

The moral case for a fundamental rethinking of how we do society grows daily. The moral case for replacing much of the current welfare system (which, of course, includes state pension) with a universal citizens basic income grows. This would be affordable, though would take the imagination that, until now, has been unthinkable, especially for the media. The security of knowing that you won't be plunged into poverty is not a disincentive for work—nor is it an undervaluing of anyone else’s work—but a platform (as opposed to a safety net) on which we might be free to be creative in giving our best to the world, through work, through voluntary service and association, through care for others. But whether we go down this route or some other, this crisis is an invitation to system-level change.

Long story

Long story for you.

This is a photo of a postcard of a stained-glass window at St Nicholas’ Church. This story has many layers. The window depicts an event in which some sailors had been given or mis-sold a vial of poison by an unknown evil person. Their lives are in danger, and they know it not. A ghostly St Nicholas appears to then, Obi-Wan-like, and tells them to pour the oil away; and as it hits the sea, it bursts into flames.

That’s it. But to understand the story, you have to dig deeper. Sometime after his death, it was observed that the bones of St Nicholas were miraculously producing an ‘oil’ and that this oil had miraculous healing properties. Various theories have been put forth, from out-and-out fraud to the capillary action of the soft stone on which the bones were laid to rest. In any case, pilgrims came from far and wide in hope of a miracle. I don’t doubt that the vials of oil themselves were freely given; but the pilgrims’ need for food and accommodation, along with generous alms giving to the church, were all good news for the local economy. I also believe that the oil worked, at least sometimes. It is amazing what the power of belief can do. We see it at work in all kinds of ‘magical thinking’ even in our own post-religious, post-secular society.

The story goes that there was an enterprising woman, in Sicily, who bottled poison and sold it to women across Italy who were looking for a way out of unhappy marriages, transporting the poison in the innocent guise of bottles of St Nicholas’ miracle oil. True or no, this came to be widely and deeply believed. It is reported that on his deathbed, Mozart claimed that it was by means of this poison that he had been done for. Perhaps he believed so (remember, belief is powerful). Perhaps he was simply referencing the story (stories are powerful, too). Or perhaps he has been woven into the story itself (stories have a power of their own).

So, we have a miracle oil, and a poison oil, both sought for and highly prized. And within this construct we can imagine that a group of sailors came to Bari in search of hope, and were tricked by someone who had taken advantage of the desperate hope of unhappy wives to inflict death upon random victims. The dealer had no means of knowing to whom the sailors were carrying the vial, but got off on holding the power of life and death over others. An early serial killer, if you will. Foiled, by saintly intervention.

That, then, is the story. I told you that it was long, and layered. And it is not a story with a moral; but it is a story that sweeps us up into it, in the parish of St Nicholas’ with its church with its beautiful window by master-craftsman Leonard Evetts, in a time of pandemic and of a web of stories spinning on social media.

It is a story that reminds us of the power of stories; of the deep and at times desperate need for hope; of the ways in which belief, itself powerful, is complicit in life and death, truth and the limits of our understanding. It is, if nothing else, a stark reminder that if we do not stay at home any one of us may be carrying death to our friends and family unawares. It is a story to sit with today, to seep up capillary veins and marinate our bones. In the spirit of St Nicholas the gift-giver, it is my gift to you.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

The washing of feet

I know that Maundy Thursday, when we remember Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, isn’t until next week, but I’m thinking about it now.

Their world was awash with disciples. Every Jewish rabbi and Greek philosopher had their students, and they were known as those who followed their master so nearly that they walked in the cloud of fine dust raised by his feet. And so, Jesus’ disciples’ feet were dusty, precisely because they were Jesus’ disciples.

The foot-washing, then, works at several different levels. It is more than skin deep. In washing their feet, Jesus affirms that these have, indeed, been his faithful followers. And yet, in washing their feet clean of the dust he has covered them with, Jesus is also indicating that, where he is now about to go, they cannot, for now at least, follow. Their journey, their active following in his footsteps, has been put on hold.

Deepest layer of all, in washing their feet, Jesus is cleansing them of their shame at not being able to follow. He is cleansing them of their shame of — despite all their protestations — failing to meet his expectations, which, it turns out, are not his expectations but theirs.

I am thinking about these things now because of a conversation with a friend. The highest authorities of the land, the highest authorities of the Church, his friends, including me, and, most importantly, his wife, have all told him to stay at home. And he has resisted, tooth and nail. Conceding defeat, he admitted to feeling not only guilty but ashamed. For to stay at home means to not be able to feed the hungry (personally, and first-hand). Our society is not caring enough, and, to fail in one’s duty to God and our neighbour to feed the hungry, is, indeed, to add to the lack of care.

I suspect that he is not alone. Indeed, I am aware that many of the physically active seventy-somethings in the Church of England are struggling under the burden of the same sense of deep shame.

I could say more about their strong sense of duty, of how it is a double-edged sword. Of how the church as they have known it simply could not continue without them; but also of those younger generations who have walked away from the church not because they no longer believe in God but because there is no room for them to take on any roles. Of how the loyal soldier that served the church well in their youth now holds the church to ransom. But none of this helps address their shame at being asked to stay home, to watch and pray and wait on the Spirit.

No, that requires a foot-washing. Not physical, of course — this, too, is suspended this year. And not a one-off either, but again and again, until they are able to take hold of their cleansing; resisting their Simon Peter zeal that, if they are to be washed, then not only their feet but also their hands and head.

For any church leader who has members of your congregation over the age of seventy, now is the time to take off your outer garment and pick up the towel.

image: Sieger Köder, Fußwaschung

Tuesday, March 31, 2020


I absolutely love This Is Us, and would recommend it to anyone, with the caveat that you must watch from the very beginning and in unbroken sequence — this is not a show you can jump into, or in and out of. It is the simple story of an American family, told over several generations. But the casting is wonderful, the writing exquisite. This is small screen storytelling (four 18-episode seasons to date) at its finest.

What This Is Us boils down to is an exploration of trauma and its effects. The accumulative, generational trauma of turning to alcohol to hide from the monster your parent became through turning to alcohol to hide from the monster their parent became. The sudden, endless trauma of the unexpected death of a loved one. The ways in which our ways of seeking to cope with one trauma sow the seeds of another. And the ways in which our collective way of life — in this case, the American Way, but anyone living anywhere in the West will be able to relate — inflict trauma on all of us. As the story unfolds, we come to recognise that trauma is not a rare exception we can hope to avoid — why me? — but common to humanity.

This could be bleak, but it really isn’t. Heart-breaking, yes, but not bleak. Why? Because, true to life, the lives unfolding before us are shot through with faithfulness, hopefulness, and love that knows no horizon — the very things that transform life into a bitter-sweet tragic comedy and great romance, instead of something meaningless and cruel.

If we are to understand the trauma we all experience, we will need a range of insights to draw on, from the psychologist to the theologian, but, to communicate truth effectively, we shall definitely need skilful, collaborative storytellers. The team behind This Is Us show us how it can be done, and I am thankful for them.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Learning in lockdown

A simple but effective tool for disciples is the learning circle.

Life is moving through chronological time between birth and death, when it is interrupted by a kairos moment, a time of heightened awareness of the moment, where time appears to stand still. This can be because we are having the time of our life, or because we are stuck in a fog of grief, or because a pandemic has led to the suspension of normal life and we are held in lockdown for our own safety and the safety of others. And this interruption, like an X on a treasure map, marks the place to dig.

The first step is to observe the situation carefully; then to reflect on our initial observations; making sure to discuss these with another person or persons whose judgement you trust, because we all have blind-spots. However, we are seeking more than sympathy, or even empathy. Together, we need to come up with a realistic plan of what we are going to do; ask that person or persons to help us by holding us to account to do what we have agreed; and then, act accordingly. This brings us back to where we began — hence a circle (the first hemisphere describes metanoia, or how we come to change our mind; the second hemisphere describes pistis, or how we begin to live differently as a consequence of this) — now equipped to move forward as one who is learning from life.

Here is an example:

Lockdown +n days. I observe that I am missing my friends. As I reflect on this, I realise that even as a profoundly introvert person, I need social connection; and perhaps to empathise with others in the same situation, including those who are more extravert in personality. So, we begin to discuss this online, via social media, sharing our experience, need for others, and desire to be there for one another too. Which is great, but of extremely limited help if that is as far as it goes. For one thing, those who feel isolated tend to isolate themselves further. What we need is to come up with a plan. Someone suggests a zoom party. The idea gets pushed back and forth a bit, needing someone to organise it, and others to commit to it, until a plan is hatched; along with the structure in place to ensure that it happens; and then it does. And, having happened, we can learn from that, too, and perhaps duplicate or adapt the plan, going forward.

Healthy bodies in time of lockdown

Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus that the body of Christ (the Church) is one that moves, listens, shares, cares, and learns. In a broader sense, this is true of any healthy community. Any given person within the group may have a differentiated role, collaboratively ensuring that each function is working well and well-integrated, just as the human body is made up of different organs that work together. And, again, this is true of human society in general, with different personalities bringing different gifts to the party.

In times of lockdown, what might this look like, for us personally and in socially-distanced community with others?


Am I getting enough exercise?

Am I getting enough (and not too much) sleep?

Am I eating as well as possible, given present constraints?

Within guidelines, can I shop for anyone? (or, who will shop for me?)


For those living with other people in households, are we taking time to listen to one another?

Is there someone who needs us to listen to them, on a phone- or video call?

Who is anxious?

Who am I listening to ‘out there’? Are they spreading fear, or hope?

How will I limit who I listen to, to a manageable volume? (do I need to restrict my social media use?)

Am I taking regular time to listen to God, in reading the Bible and in prayer?


How might I bring some good news into someone else’s day?
(NB: not by bombarding them on social media!)


Is anyone we know ill?

Has anyone we know been bereaved?

Is anyone we know struggling with their mental health?

Who can I phone (etc.) today?


What am I learning about myself?

Is there a skill I can take up? (learn to speak German ... to play the ukulele ... to bake bread ...)


One week into lockdown, and a fortnight since the Archbishops suspended all public worship. My social media is full of Anglican clergy bereft of public worship and their role within it, actively transferring that role to livestreaming. Yesterday, I hosted a zoom service for members of the congregation at St Nicholas’, and it was good to see and hear them. But I can honestly say that I haven’t missed presiding at the Eucharist, privilege though it is; or gathering in a church building, lovely though the building is and lovely though at least some of the people are some of the time. I certainly haven’t felt any loss of identity, which I have always seen as to disciple people to hear and respond to God for themselves in the context of their own personal and communal lives. The way we have done gathered church has not necessarily helped that, and I am aware that as clergy the choices we make in our present circumstances will nurture the Church towards infantile dependency on us or towards deeper maturity. This is in no way a criticism, but a recognition that we face a fork in the road and must choose wisely which way to take.

A significant part of the reason why I am more relieved than anxious about the present upheaval relates to my past experiences of church in other places, significantly as a teenager at West Glasgow New Church and as a young adult at St Thomas’ Church, Sheffield. And this, in at least three ways.

Firstly, every Sunday for the last six years and counting since moving to Sunderland has felt like Psalm 137: ‘By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion ... How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’ Every Sunday has felt like living in exile, having to learn how to worship God away from the forms of corporate worship that have nurtured us, without a significant (critical mass) community of peers working out their faith together. That being so, someone might ask, why have we stayed? And an honest answer would have to include, there have been times we have not wanted to, but God, not least through circumstances out-with our control, has kept us here. But a fuller answer would also have to include, the place you are called to be is not necessarily the place you would choose, is not necessarily revealed in being the place of self-fulfilment, the ‘dream job’. Daniel and his friends did not choose exile (and, again, please hear: this is not a criticism of the church here, which, for others, is home rather than exile). David did not choose to live as an outlaw hiding in caves for many long years. Paul was not stubbornly enduring the wrong place when he spent years in Arabia and Damascus. We are where we are — and God is there, too. So, to those who feel carried away from home, (a genuine) welcome!

Secondly, there was a time in Sheffield, lasting about a year, where the church of which we were a part could not meet together as one. We were a church of many hundred, and had been worshipping in a former nightclub we had taken on (first job: deal with the beer-soaked carpets and black-painted walls) that was eventually condemned as unsafe. And so, on Sunday we were commissioned and sent out, to meet as smaller and lay-led groups in homes and schools and hotels and cinemas (who knew you could hire a movie theatre once a week?) and garages across the city; while the staff team (ordained and lay) figured out innovative ways of holding us together as one local church as we were scattered in many localised expressions. We could still meet together, and we didn’t have zoom; but there are parallels. This lasted about a year, before we were able to build a new home from a campus of engineering buildings, or, enough time to bed-in new patterns that were not simply abandoned when the immediate crisis was past. And that is something hopeful to draw on.

Thirdly, as I have already mentioned, the opportunity in the present moment is one of discipleship. There is no shortage of livestreamed worship to be found on the internet, some of which is excellent but all of which bends us towards being consumers; and there is certainly no shortage of platitudes to stick on your fridge door or Facebook wall. But what our congregations need is a good toolkit for living out their faith in time of lockdown (they will have the time to learn how to use them). Such tools are always best understood communally. The ironic gift of social distancing is that it has the potential to draw us out of self-sufficiency, or even dutiful patronage, to a greater inter-dependency and vulnerable sharing of life than certainly we have ever witnessed since moving to the north east. But further consideration of the discipleship opportunity will be worth further posts.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

On moving

In Jesus’ world there was an invasive shrub called the mustard tree, that, if it broke into your cultivated strip of subsistence land, was hard to drive back again. Jesus used it as an analogy for faith. He said, of you have mustard seed faith, you can say to this mountain, or to this mulberry tree, be uprooted and thrown into the sea, and it will be done.

Mountains, in biblical imagination, stand for meeting places with God. And the particular ‘this mountain’ Jesus was referring to was Mount Zion, the frankly unimpressive hill in Jerusalem on which the Temple was built. The Temple that, within the lifetime of many of his listeners, would be thrown down, stone by stone, by the Roman army.

The sea, in biblical imagination, stands for the chaos that always threatens to overwhelm, and at times succeeds in overwhelming, our lives as we have known them.

Trees, in biblical imagination, stand for people, and in particular, the people of God. The mulberry tree was valued for its medicinal properties.

In these days, our church buildings are shut. These are places where many of us have found that we encounter God in a special way. Yes, God can be — and is — met anywhere; but, nonetheless, in certain buildings the very walls are thin and the very air is thick with generations of family encountering God. And this experience can be translated into the place of overwhelming chaos. It won’t look exactly the same, but the principles can continue. What — and Who — you found on the familiar mountain can still be found on the mountain in unfamiliar surroundings. It isn’t a case of, the mountain never mattered, but, rather, that faith can move the mountain.

This is also true of other gods. At times, we read, the people set up high places, on the hill tops, to worship a vast array of gods. Mountains stand for whatever has given us a sense of stability, security, identity: our workplaces, our parental homes, our local pub, our football stadium. Though I would say that ultimately peace is only found in being reconciled to God, we all have our gods and our mountains; all our mountains are presently shaken; and every mountain can be moved.

The world has been overwhelmed by a flood, a viral tide. It will reach its furthest extent, and then flow away again; but we have not yet reached high tide. For now, for many of us, at least in the so-called developed nations, our mountains are unscalable. But a persistent faith will throw them into the sea, will give us — and others — solid ground on which to stand.

We see this, to an extent, in the ways in which we have moved to remote working, and, in the church, to meeting online for worship. We see this, to an extent, in the ways we are reimagining and, in some cases, re-discovering community.

Along with the mountain, Jesus speaks of throwing the healing tree into the sea, to take root in a submerged bed. Of a people who are not afraid to position themselves in the chaos and to bring healing in that place. I am seeing examples of this around me too, of this mustard seed kind of faith, both from within and from out-with the church.

When the sea goes out again, the tree planted in it remains. The mountain thrown into it remains. What will the landscape look like then?

Wednesday, March 25, 2020


Today is the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Luke records,

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.

Luke 1:26-56

This year, the Annunciation falls at a time when much of the world is in lockdown. This, inevitably, provides the backdrop against which we hear, again, the exchange between Gabriel and Mary, between Elizabeth and Mary, and Mary’s song. It proclaims the house of David, the house of Jacob, and the house of Zechariah pregnant with new potential, and our understanding of our own households, not ‘known’ by another, as spaces that may be known as holy and transformed in a moment by the creator Spirit and our ‘yes!’

And Mary’s song, as a proclamation for our times. God, scattering the proud, bringing the powerful down from their thrones, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things, sending the rich away empty. I have heard some people say, in these days of fires and floods and pandemic, that these are acts of divine judgement — usually swiftly followed by, on such-and-such a type of person I disapprove of. They are not. But, every moment, every event, is pregnant with both God’s judgement and God’s mercy, and in some times — such as these — even those as distracted as we might see it.

We know, or ought to, that these days will fall hardest on those who have the least resources, unless, of course, we repent of our self-interest and pursue, together, a common good that leaves no one behind, but pays attention to the most vulnerable. And might continue to do so, once the immediate crisis is past, for, there will be others. In global terms, we, in the West, are collectively the proud, the powerful, the rich.

When I read of multi-millionaire chairmen of national chains refusing to support their employees, putting them at risk or sending them away to any port in a storm, I hope that when this is past, not one of their former employees, having found a more just and merciful employer, will return to them; and that no one take their place. That such men be scattered and brought down. If that sounds jarring, coming from a Church of England vicar, then perhaps you have forgotten the soundtrack. But we sing, or say, Mary’s song, the Magnificat, each day at Evening Prayer. A song so revolutionary, it has been banned in certain parts of the world at certain times.

Can you hear her singing?

Tuesday, March 24, 2020


One of the earliest documents of the Church is Paul’s First Letter to the Church in Thessalonica. It concludes with a punchy list of advice in easy-to-memorise form, including:

Rejoice always,
pray without ceasing,
give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

(1 Thessalonians 5:16, 17, 18)

This could just as well be advice for time of lockdown.

When Paul writes, ‘pray without ceasing’, he does not mean 24/7, like an app running in the background, but, without interruption to the regular rhythm of corporate prayer that punctuates the day. So, for those who are part of a community of prayer who find themselves unable to meet together to pray at this time, Paul would say, don’t let the habit slide just because your circumstances have changed. Certainly, practices may have to adapt; but don’t neglect them. In fact, join in with such established rhythms.

This is also good advice, in time of lockdown, for the rhythm of our days, in relation to work, and eating, and exercise. Yes, lockdown means that certain things, many things, will look different now; we will need to work out new ways; but, seek to maintain structure, and especially corporate or communal structure. We will need to be flexible, but also to resist the temptation to throw everything up in the air and see where it lands.

If it is your habit to go for a run three times a week, go for a run — on your own now — three times a week. If it is your habit to meet up with friends on a certain night, do so via technology. As far as you are able, begin and walk away from work-from-home at the same hours you work outside of the home. Break for lunch when you usually break for lunch. (Caveat: children need more flexibility, but nonetheless still need familiar structure; and this will take time to figure out: we have time.)

Also, look for those moments that give you joy — and share that joy with others. What can we celebrate, together, albeit virtually and at a distance? (Paul, in Athens, was at a distance from his friends in Thessalonica and unable to return to them in person; so started letter-writing, the social media of his day. We don't know whether he was, especially, a letter-writer prior to this.)

And, look for things you can be thankful for. These might be different from those things that give us joy, though there will be overlap. Joy strengthens the heart; thankfulness is the gratitude of the heart, for which, at times, the heart needs strengthened.

Today, I rejoice at — celebrate — the gift of life; and am thankful for the roof over my head. I am also made more aware of my unconscious privilege, and, in prayer, bring my life before God for the service of my neighbours, and in recognition of my need of them.

Monday, March 23, 2020

On freedom

John Locke, the English philosopher who so influenced the American revolutionaries, drew a contrast between liberty — the freedom to do what we ought — and licence — the freedom to do what we want.

Tonight, in the UK, we have (temporarily) lost a fair degree of licence, although many of us still have a great deal of privilege to do those things we want without leaving our own homes. But we have lost none of our liberty, beyond that which we had already given away by elevating licence as an idol. Who knows, but that in this time of national emergency, we might re-learn a deeper freedom, to love our neighbour as we ourselves have been loved by the God who comes to his people and sets them free?

“If the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed.” Jesus, John 8:36

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Third Day

It is now very early in the morning on the third day since (Church of England) public worship was suspended. Very early in the morning on the third day is of symbolic significance to Christians, for it is when Jesus, risen from the spatial distancing of death and self-isolating of the tomb, first met with his disciples.

Of course, we know that our present circumstances — our own spatial distancing, and, for many in our congregations, the sense of being entombed in their homes — will continue. There will be no miraculous end to the suspension of public worship today (for we have not yet even begun to understand what transformative work God is up to in this disruption to our sense of our story).

Nonetheless, today we renew our hope in our risen Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, and draw strength to rise to this new day.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020


As I pray for my neighbourhood and my local church congregation, in the light of the present public health crisis and suspension of public worship, I am reminded of our history.

The streets and homes where I live were, for the most part, built between the Wars. The parish of St Nicholas’ was created in response, and the church itself was dedicated at the end of the first week of the Second World War. The people then knew that it was important to sustain dependable patterns of worship, even — perhaps especially — in times of crisis.

They also knew that, far from ‘non-essential,’ social spaces are absolutely necessary for the flourishing of community. And for perhaps the first forty years of the parish, the church and its halls were a focal-point and hub of an often vibrant community life.

In our time, we find ourselves having to reimagine both how we sustain patterns of worship, and how we nurture community.

We may not have been here before. But it is in our DNA.

Monday, March 16, 2020


At Morning Prayer at present, we’ve been reading through the story of Joseph, he of technicolour dream coat fame, who interpreted Pharaoh’s nightmares as predicting seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Joseph found himself prime minister of Egypt, storing seven years’ surplus, to sell over the following seven years of austerity. In this way, he saved his own family from starvation, bringing them from their home Canaan — for the famine was across the entire region — to settle in Egypt.

Today, we reached chapter 47. Deep into the famine years comes a point where the Egyptians run out of money to buy back grain; so, Joseph sells it to them in exchange for their livestock. A year later, and with the end of famine not yet in sight, they have nothing to give in exchange for grain except their land and their very selves, as slaves.

And so, in this way, all the livestock, the land, and the population of Egypt come into Pharaoh’s possession. The entire population are now slaves; with the exception of the priests of the gods of Egypt, of whom Joseph’s own father-in-law was pre-eminent.

Turn over a few pages, and past living memory, from Genesis into Exodus, and the scene is set for the particular persecution of the Israelites — a subset of slaves within the slave population; the Pharaoh turning one group of his slaves against another — and the stand-off between Yahweh, god of the Israelites, and the pantheon of Egyptian gods, fought over ten epic plague battles.

In other words, Joseph’s actions, which in the short- and medium-term saved both his birth- and adopted-nations, sowed the seeds for the misery of both.

An awareness of history (by which I mean the subjective stories we tell of the past, with all their interpretation and counter-interpretation) enables us to see that our actions always have impact, seen and unseen, intended and unintended, for good and evil — impact that will fall on others long after we are gone.

This should not paralyse us into inaction, but should cause us to act with greater humility.