Monday, June 21, 2021

Training


Yesterday, I ran 10K in around seven minutes faster than I have done over the past year, including six of the ten kilometres at a (sustained!) sub-5-minute pace. Encouragement along the route helped. Needing to pee from before the start, and being determined not to stop to use any of the port-a-loos on the way, may have helped. But what really made it possible was the kilometres run in training, with my club, including far more experienced runners, and under the direction of a great coach overseeing regular track sessions.

Yesterday, I also composed three short sermons ‘on the hoof,’ each in about the time it takes me to run a kilometre. The key is the same, but whereas I have been running through Sunderland for about six years, I have been covering the ground of the Bible for forty-nine. (There remains a lot of room for improvement, in my running and in my proclaiming the gospel, but I have a significant head start in the latter.) My advice to almost anyone starting out in the skill, and discipline, of preaching is, spend less time focussing on the event of any particular sermon preparation, and set apart more time to the training it stands or falls on—to immersing yourself in the story, attending to the lives of those who will hear, learning from others who do it well.

(Oh, and when it comes to delivering a sermon, the needing to pee thing may help, which is why vicars, at least, train our bladders with more tea.)

 

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Rooted


The Old Testament reading at Evensong today was Jeremiah 10:1-16, a text that highlights the futility of idols. Here are some extracts:

‘For the customs of the people are false:
a tree from the forest is cut down,
and worked with an axe by the hands of an artisan;
people deck it with silver and gold;
they fasten it with hammer and nails
do that it cannot move.’ (Jer. 10:3, 4)

and, later,

‘Everyone is stupid and without knowledge;
goldsmiths are all put to shame by their idols;
for their images are false,
and there is no breath in them.’ (Jer. 10: 14)

I am about half-way through reading A Burning In My Bones, Winn Collier’s authorised biography of Eugene H. Peterson. Peterson was an American pastor, who loved the language of the Bible—the Hebrew and Greek—and the ordinary people in his congregation; who loved connecting the words of God and the people of God; and whose broadest legacy was to write a transliteration of the Bible into the idioms of the American English spoken by his congregation, published, in stages over many years, as The Message version.

Though he was a Presbyterian pastor, Peterson was born into a Pentecostal family, in Montana. His father was a butcher; his mother, an itinerant preacher in the Assemblies of God. In an early chapter, Collier recounts a story from Peterson’s early years. Each year, at Christmas, his father would drive them into the forest, where they would choose a tree which his father would cut down with an axe, put on the truck, and drive home, where it would be decorated. One year, his mother announced that there would be no tree. She had read Jeremiah chapter 10, and decided that this custom was false in God’s eyes.

This did not go down well; and the following year, without any discussion, the tree was back.

This might sound funny, but in fact Peterson’s mother was quite correct in recognising that the customs of our culture (whether American, or British, or any culture) do not necessarily align with God’s values. Those who would live in faithfulness with God will need to weigh our own culture against the patterns we see in scripture, in the stories passed down to shape our communal lives. And we will want and need to do so humbly, open to saying, with Peterson’s mother, ‘We didn’t get that quite right’ at times.

When a tree is cut down, removed from the soil, from the blessings of the sun and the rain, and transported inside, it can point to something bigger than itself, but, eventually, it will die, its needles will drop to the floor. In the same way, if we cut ourselves off from the breath of God’s animating Spirit, we remain in the world as no more than idols. Indeed, this is how we view other people: perhaps, at this moment of Euro ’21, perhaps, footballers, worshipping them when they win, and toppling them when they fail to win.

But if we remain rooted in the love of God, in the wisdom, the grace, the mercy, the forgiveness of God, then we are not idols, but icons: windows onto the majesty of God's glory, pointing beyond ourselves to something far greater, wilder, life-giving.

 

World Refugee Day


Today is World Refugee Day. The New Testament reading set for Morning prayer today is Acts 27:1-12, in which we hear part of an account of Paul undertaking a long, complicated, and perilous sea journey. He has left his own country, his own people, because there are those there who seek to take his life on account of his religious beliefs. He is trying to get to Rome, where he hopes that he will receive a fair hearing, and the possibility of a fresh start. As it happens, he will not; and, ultimately, he will lose his life in the place where he hoped for welcome and refuge. It is an incredibly pertinent reading for today.

The reading from Acts is paired by the Lectionary with an Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy 11:1-15. The Israelites, whom God brought out of Egypt and has journeyed through the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula with for a generation, are on the cusp of crossing the Jordan into the land promised to their ancestors. What really comes across is how much the Lord their God loves this land, and wants to share it with people who will love it as much as the Lord does. Who will notice it, cherish it, tend it—honour the way in which it will resist being enslaved and domesticated, but will share its bounty with a people who will love it?

Later, God will temporarily remove this people from the land—as God temporarily removes various other people who have settled there—when they fail to love the land. It is not possession, nor even birth right (even if God has intended to share it) but gift. And it is gift extended to a community of homeless, stateless refugees.

As I reflect on the tide of humanity fleeing the lands of their birth in the face of oppression, and seeking a place of welcome, I wonder, are those who truly love this land willing and able to share that love, in the hope that new arrivals will come to love it also?

The evidence of truly loving a country includes being able to name any lack of love, of heart and soul, for what it is. And taking delight in making room for others to come in from their displacement, their wilderness years.

May this city be a city of sanctuary. And may we delight in introducing others to it: to the river that cuts through it, spilling out at the harbour; to its green and hidden spaces; its beaches; its built and cultural heritage. May those who have no home find a home, here.

 

Sunderland City 10K




00.49.23

new 10K PB (previous 10K PB 00.51.27)

242nd of 1241 finishers


 

Laid down


Today’s (continuous readings at Holy Communion) Old Testament reading is 1 Samuel 17:32-49, the account of David and Goliath. Goliath was a giant. Literally. A benign tumour on his pituitary gland had caused him to grow to enormous size. But that same tumour pressed on his optic nerve, giving him double-vision. Met on his own terms, Goliath was a formidable opponent, a champion unbeaten in close-quarter hand-to-hand combat. But when David runs at him from a distance, taking aim with a sling, Goliath could not judge the depth of the trouble he was in.

Goliath sees a boy with two sticks. And, indeed, a shepherd boy would habitually carry two sticks. A long, narrow rod, pressed against the flank of a wayward sheep, to steer it along a safe path. And a hefty staff, with which to attack predators, lions and bears. (There is a verse in the Proverbs that says, ‘Spare the rod, and spoil the child.’ It has been used to justify corporal punishment as a form of discipline. In fact, it means that without dependable loving-presence and consistent guidance, a child cannot flourish and may even go off the rails.)

But we are informed that David was only carrying one stick, when he approached Goliath. The staff, for facing predators. Though Goliath, in his double-vision, saw both the rod and the staff, David had laid his rod down. Had laid down his identity as the shepherd of the sheep. Had laid down his life; only to later take it back up again. In this, David is a type, a fore-telling, pointing us to Jesus, the Christ, who laid down his life for his sheep and dealt the enemy of our souls a mortal blow.

 

Saturday, June 19, 2021

On running : 5


As I contemplate the wisdom of running in the Sunderland 10K tomorrow, I am also contemplating five times the Bible draws on running to impart wisdom…

 

Hebrews 12:1

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,

A confession: one of the things that most puts me off competing in races is the crowds of spectators. Not that I am embarrassed to be seen out running—I like passing other folk out and about, and saying hello!, or thank you! if they step aside—but I hate crowds. They are my idea not of heaven but of hell. And so it is sheer gift that, for my first road race, spectators are being actively discouraged. Nonetheless, I am sure that I shall see several other members of the running club—both competing and cheering on from the sides—and that their encouragement will energise me, renewing my strength on my way.

We don’t know who wrote the letter to the Hebrews, though one possibility is Prisca/Priscilla, which would make her our only female athlete in the pack. She urges us to remove excess baggage, those unnecessary burdens that weigh us down—think back to Ecclesiastes—and the sin that distracts us, that is, whatever gets in the way of our relationships, coming between us and others. A competitiveness that inspires us to do our best, and bring out the best in others, is good; a competitiveness that seeks to boost our egos by taking others down, or that diminishes our self-image in comparison with others, destructive. Life itself is not a competition: we run together, rejoicing in the gift of life, each one who takes part receiving the goody bag with its t-shirt, medal, and other gifts. And Prisca continues, if you want to know how to do this well, look to Jesus, our founding chairman and our team coach.

Tomorrow morning, I shall run my (first road) race. I hope it will not be my last. I intend to enjoy it. And I hope that I shall also be an encourager, of my fellow runners.

 

On running : 4


As I contemplate the wisdom of running in the Sunderland 10K tomorrow, I am also contemplating five times the Bible draws on running to impart wisdom…

 

2 Timothy 4:7

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

I love running at this time of year, when the days are long. On Monday morning, before breakfast, I went out for a 10K run with a dear friend of 26 years standing, who had stayed with us the night before. Though we have been friends for such a long time, we had never run together before. It was a glorious morning, the day having not yet become too hot. We set out in a light rain, though that ended almost as soon as we had started. We ran into town, across the bridge, along the river, to the harbour, and back again. I ran again on Wednesday evening, a light training session at the 400m track, focussing on form ahead of Sunday’s race. And on Friday evening, at a steady pace on another route.

I find it so much harder to get out in the winter months, when it is dark. Then, I need the knowing that there will be others with me: the not wanting to let one another down (on the one hand) and the encouraging one another (on the other). Or if it is cold or raining heavily—as was forecast for Sunday, though it now looks like the rain might hold off until Monday. But, then again, it might not.

Paul knew that his life is drawing to an end. He writes to his adopted son, Timothy, passing on the baton to the next generation. And in searching for the right words, he turns to running: I have finished the race. Keep going, without me. Finish your race, too. And in order to do so, you will need to put in the distance, with persistence, whether the days are favourable or unfavourable. You are doing really well. Keep going.

 

On running : 3


As I contemplate the wisdom of running in the Sunderland 10K tomorrow, I am also contemplating five times the Bible draws on running to impart wisdom…

 

1 Corinthians 9:24

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.

This will be my first Sunderland City 10K. I have studied the map, but I have not run the course. I have read through the instructions concerning where to arrive, and at what time, and what I need to do before, during, and after the race. But I have not done any of this before; and, in fact, no one has, entirely, because the ‘usual’ instructions have been adapted in response to Covid-19. I am hoping that there will be plenty of stewards and marshals, and that the course will be well-marked. I have studied maps before, and always found that nonetheless I depend on others to help keep me on track.

In the Greco-Roman world, the Corinthian Games were second only in prestige to the Games at Olympus. The imagery of athletes competing for the victor’s wreath would be entirely familiar to the congregation listening to Paul’s letter being read aloud. They have boasted in their freedom. Paul affirms freedom, but with a necessary corrective: the exercising of freedom requires self-discipline. Athletes must not only train, hard; they must also compete according to the rules, or be disqualified. So, in exercising freedom, they too must run away from that which would diminish a life of love, and pursue that which would be in keeping with such a life.

Such a big part of enjoying running is enjoying the company of those I run with. They are a caring community, supporting one another, helping me to press on, in life as well as racing. I give thanks that they choose to exercise their freedom in this way.

 

On running : 2


As I contemplate the wisdom of running in the Sunderland 10K tomorrow, I am also contemplating five times the Bible draws on running to impart wisdom…

 

Jeremiah 12:5

If you have raced with foot-runners and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you fare in the thickets of the Jordan?

One of the highlights of my week is an early evening 10K run each Friday, always a different circular route, always starting/finishing at the pub just across from my house. It is a gentle way to transition from the week to the weekend, in good company. Wednesday nights are training sessions, with efforts and recoveries; but Friday is a steady pace. As we run, we talk; about our week, our lives, or as a distraction from matters that weigh us down.

Out for a run together, the prophet Jeremiah lays his complaint before God, that the wicked flourish while the righteous suffer. And in reply, God takes him deeper into the experience of running. Stretches Jeremiah out, until he is blowing his cheeks and needs to drop his pace—something I know all to well, from my conversations with fitter, faster runners on Friday nights. Is right there when Jeremiah stumbles and falls—something else I know about, from running with a pack. But this lesson is an intimate moment; for God shares that, just as Jeremiah has been betrayed by his own family, so God has been betrayed by his people. God is not indifferent to their wickedness; Jeremiah is not the only one grieved by it.  And God says that the wickedness will result in the land lying desolate, even emptied of the people; but then, I will once again show my compassion on them, will restore their fortunes.

We run all over the city, through neighbourhoods that appear quite desolate (even here, signs of hope, glimpses of God’s love) and through areas experiencing regeneration. The city as a sermon, delivered on the run.

 

On running : 1


As I contemplate the wisdom of running in the Sunderland 10K tomorrow, I am also contemplating five times the Bible draws on running to impart wisdom…

 

Ecclesiastes 9:11

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to the skilful; but time and chance happen to them all.

I signed up to take part in this run over a year ago. You have to submit an estimated completion time, and friends from the running club encouraged me to make 50 minutes my goal. I was running 52, 53 minutes, so it was a good target to aim for, faster than I had ever covered the distance, but not unrealistic. And then the event was deferred for a year. And then I got injured. And then it never crossed my mind to adjust my time. And now, I am running 56, 57 minutes, and 50 is feeling a stretch too far…

The wisdom of Ecclesiastes is, Don’t sweat the small stuff (and, almost everything is the small stuff). But do be fully present to each moment, for they are fleeting, and they are gift (this is the Big Stuff, so easily overlooked). Breathe deeply, for each breath is fleeting, and gift. Run, with all your might—or don’t run, on this occasion, if your breath can be more fully drawn in some other pursuit—unburdened by comparison. But, don’t run half-heartedly. With less preparation than you hoped, you ran in a surprisingly fast time? That is sheer gift. You over-did your training, and ran out of gas? That, too, is gift, time and chance slowing us down, to savour the moment, that bodily ache, of being alive. Because, one day, you will be dead.

The worst thing that could happen would be to come to the end of life, and find ourselves before God, who asked, “How did you enjoy the gift of life you were given?” and to have to reply, “To be honest, I am disappointed; I always wanted more, from myself, from others, from life…”

My aim for tomorrow is to enjoy every moment. Whatever comes.

 

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Glory

 

‘Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.’ 2 Corinthians 3:15-18

We heard these words read at Holy Communion this morning. A little later, the sun itself was eclipsed by the moon passing between us.

Whenever Moses spent time in God’s presence, his face shone, both reflecting and sharing in the weight of God’s luminous glory; and when he then walked among his neighbours, he covered his face, because they could not bear the weight of it.

I imagine that over the past year-and-a-half, many of us have become accustomed to veiling our faces behind a mask. And a great deal of weight has been laid upon Monday 21 June as our ‘Freedom Day.’ In recent days there has been a stirring-up of wrath, that the UK Government is preparing a ‘new narrative, “data, not dates”,’ to justify delaying Freedom Day by a couple more weeks. But the narrative has always been ‘data, not dates’: that the remaining restrictions would be lifted no earlier than 21 June, not necessarily on 21 June. Whatever takes place, 21 June is not my Freedom Day; every day is freedom day, for, where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

Masked or casting masks aside, we are invited to see the glory of God reflected in the face of all creation—including the majestic sun, veiled, momentarily, by the moon that reflects its light in so mesmerising and winsome a manner—but nowhere more-so than in the faces of human beings. For those with eyes to see, that glory, partly hidden and to some degree distorted—as is the way, with light—is nonetheless visible, in you, and me, in the face of everyone we meet. For all are made in the likeness of God, and the Spirit of God is being poured out on all flesh, inclusive of age and gender and ethnicity.

So, shine. And worry not if your face is covered, whether by a mask out of love for your neighbours, or a dark cloud passing overhead. I see you. And you are glorious.

 

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Tool of the trade

 


This coming weekend marks the eleventh anniversary of my being a priest in the Church of England.

There are, I suppose, various tools of my trade.

The cloak I wear at gravesides. Always borrowed from the church I am serving, not my own; our lives are borrowed, and will be reclaimed from us when we depart.

The home communion set I will use this week for the first time in over a Covid year. A gift to me when I moved on from a previous congregation.

But perhaps the most significant tool of my trade is, in fact, in no way specific to being a priest at all. Deep though that goes, I run deeper, and wider, than the priestly things I do. My pen is the tool that most gives expression to who I am—even though I write electronically as well as in ink—the human activity I do, in a priestly way, rather than priestly activity per se.

And perhaps this is true of many of us. That we are more than specialised selves, but make our mark, our contribution, with common goods.

A year ago today, I wrote a Facebook post, on the need to topple idols, that was shared over 100 times. In another space, I am closing in on 2,500 posts here on my blog, kairos : kisses. In a sense, the numbers aren’t important, other than pointing to my lifelong love with words. Here’s to the next chapter.

What tool of the trade most expresses who you are?

 

Painted

 

While I mow the lawns to the front and side of the vicarage, the bank immediately behind us is too steep for me. And right now, it is a riot of yellow and orange, pink and white. Beautiful.















 

According to the flesh?

 

Initial thoughts on the Lectionary readings for this coming Sunday, 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 and 2 Corinthians 5:6-17 and Mark 4:26-34.

If I am honest, I don’t think I have ever felt entirely at home in my body. Not because I do not believe the body matters; I do. I hold no truck with a pseudo-spirituality that views the body as of less value than the soul. Nor is it that I feel trapped in the wrong body; though I appreciate that that is the experience of some, including people I know. Rather, it is in part because, in my body, I live with dyspraxia—it is hard to be at ease in/with a body when that body has to work so damn hard to process things that neurotypical bodies take for granted. And it is in part because my body is not mine alone. My shared DNA, in particular as it shapes the contours of my face, is an embodied reminder of a web of relationships, past and present, storied with pain as well as joy and wonder, open wounds as well as old familiar scars. When I look in the mirror, I see too many ghosts, of the living as well as the dead, bodies I am apart from in the body.

There is, then, a longing, not for a day when I shall be freed from the body, but for a day when every wound shall be glorious, in the likeness of the wounds of my risen Lord. Every scar, a history of unfolding, enfolding, grace. But for now, in those ways I rejoice over my body and in those ways I weep over my body, I make it my aim to please him.

It comes down to a matter of heart, the seat of our desire to know God as we are well known to God, and of the will to present my body, on a daily basis, in God’s service. My body, as it is: its strength and weaknesses, in sickness and in health. ‘For the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’ (1 Samuel 16:7b; cf. 2 Cor 5:12)

In our Gospel reading, we hear again two parables of physical transformation, culminating in fruitfulness and purpose. The seed that sprouts, producing first a stalk, then the head, then the full grain to be harvested. And the smallest seed, that grows up to be the largest—and most vigorous—of shrubs. The one to the farmer’s joy; the other, to the farmer’s consternation.

The seed was not made by God to remain in the form of a seed, but to pursue its response to the gift of life. The sower observes the mystery of life, transformed; and also the wider mystery of creation. Day and night do not so much follow one another in an endless dance as change their outward form through unfolding stages of dawn and dusk.

All bodies change through time, whether they simply age from baby to child to youth to adult to maturity and the fading grandeur of decline and eventual decay, or whether the process involves multiple medical procedures, shaping the body to better the purposes of its heart. Whether my body, or bodies with more complex histories, each as well known to God.

The Church has understood itself in bodily terms, as the body of Christ, and lives with the tension of being a body, not wholly at ease in her own skin. But we are seeking to be more at home in the body, by faith, until we see Christ face to face. More at home with our various constituent bodies, both our own—as it transforms—and those of our sisters and brothers, cys-gender and transgender, presently able-bodied (enabled bodies) and for now dis-abled. We are seeking to boast about, and enable, one another's hearts, not pass judgement on outward appearances. And in this, we shall need the grace of God, and forgiveness.



‘But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’’ (1 Sam 16:7)

 

‘From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view [Greek: according to the flesh], we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!’ (2 Cor 5:16, 17)

 

‘He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’

‘He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’

‘With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.’ (Mark 4:26-34)

Monday, June 07, 2021

I am not inferior to you

 

We are still working through Job at Moring Prayer. Job’s speech, in chapter 13, having had a belly-full of his friend’s opinion, and demanding that God give him a fair hearing, is as brilliant as any Shakespeare. How I would love to see this work, unabridged, on the stage.

‘Look, my eye has seen all this,
my ear has heard and understood it.
What you know, I also know;
I am not inferior to you.
But I would speak to the Almighty,
and I desire to argue my case with God.
As for you, you whitewash with lies;
all of you are worthless physicians.
If you would only keep silent,
that would be your wisdom!
Hear now my reasoning,
and listen to the pleadings of my lips.
Will you speak falsely for God,
and speak deceitfully for him?
Will you show partiality towards him,
will you plead the case for God?
Will it be well with you when he searches you out?
Or can you deceive him, as one person deceives another?
He will surely rebuke you
if in secret you show partiality.
Will not his majesty terrify you,
and the dread of him fall upon you?
Your maxims are proverbs of ashes,
your defences are defences of clay.

‘Let me have silence, and I will speak,
and let come on me what may.
I will take my flesh in my teeth,
and put my life in my hand.
See, he will kill me; I have no hope;
but I will defend my ways to his face.
This will be my salvation,
that the godless shall not come before him.
Listen carefully to my words,
and let my declaration be in your ears.
I have indeed prepared my case;
I know that I shall be vindicated.
Who is there that will contend with me?
For then I would be silent and die.

‘Only grant two things to me,
then I will not hide myself from your face:
withdraw your hand far from me,
and do not let dread of you terrify me.
Then call, and I will answer;
or let me speak, and you reply to me.
How many are my iniquities and my sins?
Make me know my transgression and my sin.
Why do you hide your face,
and count me as your enemy?
Will you frighten a windblown leaf
and pursue dry chaff?
For you write bitter things against me,
and make me reap the iniquities of my youth.
You put my feet in the stocks,
and watch all my paths;
you set a bound to the soles of my feet.
One wastes away like a rotten thing,
like a garment that is moth-eaten.’

 

Sunday, June 06, 2021

On the side of the angels

 

Contains no plot spoilers

One of the things I love to do on holiday is get lost in a novel. This holiday, I have read All The Devils Are Here, the sixteenth in Louise Penny’s series of Chief Inspector Gamache Mysteries. These are among my favourite stories. Here’s why.

[1] The way in which Penny evokes place:

Penny understands the joy of discovering certain almost magical places for the first time; and the even greater joy of introducing someone else to that place, and their loving it, too. This, of course, comes with the great risk that they won’t see it for how you saw it: I well remember introducing a friend to the first Gamache mystery, and them hating it, a feeling as intense as my own but the exact opposite. To be honest, it caused me to question their judgement, even their character—in turn inviting me, in a very Penny-like way, to question my own second-guessing and conclusion-jumping in relation to my friend.

Penny also understands how place both changes and stays the same through time (including seasons), and that a dear space can be violated by the actions of others, but can even then be redeemed, scars remaining but adding to its depth of character, the richness of its story-holding.

[2] The insight Penny has into human nature:

Penny understands that everyone is capable of good and evil—and that we must be invited, again and again, to give greater weight to good, to choose good over evil. Even those we love are flawed; have tendencies, and make choices, that make them hard to love, at times. And yet, we are invited to love them, despite their flaws, and even, on account of the flaws we perceive (our own perception being not without flaws of its own). We are invited to choose forgiveness, again and again; and to recognise that it is never too late for the one who is consistently loved and forgiven to change. We are invited, also, to always take responsibility for the consequences of our actions.

Penny believes this—that a person can change, can make amends—because her own life had lost its structural integrity, and spectacularly imploded, by her mid-thirties, only to be redeemed, entirely unexpectedly, by love. This truth is explored not only through the story-arc of various recurring characters, but also by the motif, in several though not all of the stories, of structural engineering.

[3] The way Penny never loses sight of our blind spots:

Penny understands that we are all unreliable witnesses, in as much as we do not only observe things but supply an interpretation to what we see. This is inevitable, but problematic, for the reader as well as the characters. One of the things Gamache does (though it is hardly the focus of novels) is teach a class at the police academy, where his first act each year is to write Don’t Believe Everything You Think on the board. Our mind is a great weapon in the fight against evil, but it is a weapon with which we can shoot ourselves in the foot.

To mitigate, Penny arms Gamache with four other powerful statements, which he imperfectly but habitually lives by, and passes on to others:

I don’t know.

I need help.

I was wrong.

I am sorry.

They are insightful statements, from an insightful author, whose body of work helps me to be a better human. For, as author Neil Gaiman put it, fiction is a lie that teaches us deep truths.

Like Sayers, and in contrast to Conan Doyle or Christie, Penny loves her very human detective creation, flaws and all. She is not alone.