Monday, January 31, 2022

The Responder, baptismal and otherwise


Two things I am known for: helping people prepare for baptism and watching tv dramas.

The Responder follows a police officer over several days, as his life falls apart. It is a fine performance from actor Martin Freeman, including the most convincing Scouse accent by a non-Scouser I have heard on tv. Indeed, this gritty, harrowing tale is full of fine performances from an excellent cast. And every single character, no matter what part they play in the story, is just about at breaking point.

It is easy to dismiss drama as exaggerating for dramatic effect. Or to rail against portrayals of corruption as unhelpful. If you work within an institution—the police force, for example, or the Church—it is easy to become defensive about portrayals of corruption (in fiction, or the news) as misrepresenting an overwhelming majority of good people. But, as The Responder sees with wide-eyed clarity, good people—or people who try to do good, or to do ‘the right thing’—make bad decisions when they feel forced into a corner. When they or their families are threatened with violence, or even loss of face. This is even more likely when we are under a more general stress pressure. And, like the full range of people from diverse backgrounds in The Responder, so many of the real people I know in real life are living with unbearable loads right now.

(This crisis response is as old as human nature: in the Old Testament reading set for Morning Prayer today, we see Sarah trying to cover herself when her eavesdropping is uncovered; and in the Gospel reading we see Pilate make successive and increasingly desperate attempts to save Jesus from a lynch mob, ultimately putting his own skin and that of his family ahead of the life of an innocent stranger.)

At the heart of Baptism are four questions and responses, made for ourselves or, in the case of an infant, by parents and godparents on their behalf. In their most simple form, these are:

Do you turn away from sin?

I do.

Do you reject evil?

I do.

Do you turn to Christ as Saviour?

I do.

Do you trust in him as Lord?

I do.

These questions and answers acknowledge the reality that The Responder depicts.

That there is a distance that grows between us—‘sin’—even between us and those we love the most, that must be turned away from if we are to close that gap, if we are not to vanish from our own lives.

That the refusal to love our neighbour—for that is the definition of ‘evil,’ an indifference towards others—must also be strongly, and communally, rejected. You cannot mitigate against indifference by indifference: this is not a vaccine scenario where a small dose of indifference immunises society against potentially fatal indifference.

But also that we find ourselves, from time to time, in a hole where to keep on digging would only make it deeper. We need saving, from those who would harm us, including our own actions. In Christ, God is with us and for us, not necessarily rescuing us from consequences, but rescuing us from the disaster we catastrophise by bringing life out of death.

For, in all things, he is at work to reconcile all things—relationships, conflict, pain, the good we fear losing but cannot hold on to however hard we try—to bring about not a neat resolution and a Happily Ever After fairy-tale ending, but fresh beginnings and a true peace even in the most complex and challenging of circumstances.

I would recommend The Responder to your viewing. But I would recommend baptism preparation—or, for those who have been baptised, a revisiting of the baptismal promises; and, for those christened as a child who have never made the rite your own through Confirmation—even more so.


Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Storytelling for Candlemas


God-Most-High loved our world and often walked the earth, making lasting covenants with his friends, heroes of old such as Noah, and Abraham. Many generations later, Abraham’s descendants were living in Egypt. Shepherds, they had gone there when famine stalked the lands. God-Most-High had prepared the way for them, but that is another story. Now they were conscripted labourers, forced to build temples to the unruly gods of Egypt. When their cries were carried to God-Most-High seated on his throne in the realm of the heavens, he thought about what to do, and then he wrapped himself in his great cloak of darkness and set off to find Moses. He found him, at last, hiding at the back of beyond, as far across the wilderness from Egypt as you can imagine and then further still. Why Moses was hiding there is yet another story. Sitting in a tree that blazed with fire that did not consume it, God-Most-High introduced himself to Moses by the name ‘I AM WHO I AM,’ I will be whom I will be.

‘I AM’ sent Moses, an un-presupposing man who spoke with a stammer, to challenge the gods of Egypt to a series of ten contests. The prize would be Abraham’s descendants, slaves to the Egyptian gods, shepherds in the eyes of ‘I AM.’ The tales of those contests is also another story. Suffice to say that on the eve of ‘I AM’s victory, he spoke to Moses and laid claim to every firstborn male from among the Israelites, both livestock and human.

Now, their livestock was essentially of two kinds. Sheep, for as already noted they were shepherds. And donkeys, beasts of burden, for they had been conscripted into labouring. They did not own cattle, for the fat cattle who grazed along the Nile belonged to the Egyptian class who ruled over their lives as slaves. And Moses spoke to the people and told them that ‘I AM’ had claimed every firstborn male from among them, as a memorial to his victory. Firstborn donkeys were to be redeemed with the life of a firstborn lamb, or if not, then its neck was to be broken. Likewise, firstborn sons were to be redeemed, in memory of the time ‘I AM’ brought them up out of the house of slavery. They were going to be free, but freedom has a value, if only a symbolic price.

Now, the words of God-Most-High were life to all who took note of them, life-giving and life-sustaining. And these words established a ritual that helped the people, generation by generation, family by family, to step into their identity: no longer slaves—symbolised by the donkey, the beast of burden—but now freed to be shepherds—the identity they had in Egypt before they were enslaved—now, moreover, in a land of their own.

You might think that the people would be grateful, but it was not long before they became restless. ‘I AM’ had called Moses up Mount Sinai to speak about life and freedom and the wisdom through which a just and fair society might be formed from nothing more than donkeys and sheep. The people became agitated and took hold of Moses’ brother Aaron, and dragging him before them, instructed him to create a calf of gold, the fabled cow that pulled the chariot of the Egyptian gods, so that, having run away but having now changed their minds, they might petition them for mercy.

‘I AM’ was angry at the ingratitude of the people and got up to destroy them all. But Moses pleaded for mercy. The people were punished, but mostly spared, and Aaron, too, was restored. Nonetheless, ‘I AM’ decided that he could no longer use the firstborn sons for his intended purpose—that they be priests to ‘I AM,’ to help the people to remember. So, ‘I AM’ decided that, instead, the Levites, the only tribe among the twelve tribes who had not turned back to the gods of Egypt to rescue them, should serve as priests in place of the firstborn sons.

But the word of ‘I AM,’ once spoken, stands forever. So, ‘I AM’ instructed Moses to count every firstborn son from among the tribes of Israel, and that redemption money should be paid for every head over and above the number of the Levites. The sum would be five shekels, and it would be paid to the Levites. One thousand three hundred and sixty-five shekels in all. To this day you will find Jewish fathers who redeem their firstborn son from the Cohens, the descendants of Aaron, in this way.

Now, this explains in part why, centuries later, the man Joseph and his wife Mary bring her firstborn son to the Temple. His name was Jesus, and they were not Levites, being instead of the tribe of Judah. This firstborn son, therefore, will never serve as a priest according to the Law. Joseph comes to throw five shekels into the Temple treasury. (However, it is told that this son will serve as a priest, indeed a High Priest, in another order, that of Melchizedek. This Melchizedek was king of Salem, the very place where this young family now stood, in the days of Abraham the friend of God-Most-High. One day, Abraham secured a great victory in battle, and Melchizedek came out and set before Abraham bread and wine and spoke a mighty blessing over his life. This took place in days of old, long before the giving of the Law, and whereas Aaron would receive redemption money from among his own people, Melchizedek received a tenth of all of Abraham’s wealth.)

But there is more to why this month-old child and his parents appear in the Temple. Joseph comes to redeem a son, to claim and to proclaim a story of deliverance. Mary comes, responding to other words of life spoken by ‘I AM’ to his friend Moses, words concerning childbirth and the rights and care of women at this vulnerable time.

Long ago, not long after the world was formed and when there was no one to care for it, the gods had made the first humans, the Gardener—his name was Adam—and the Warrior—her name was Eve. And when their son Cain turned his back on gardening and took up the warrior’s blade and killed his brother Abel, then the blood cried out to God-Most-High for a reckoning. Now, childbirth, like war (for childbirth is war against death) is a bloody business, the woman’s body expelling the placenta, the lifegiving interface between mother and child in the womb. But lifeblood is holy to God-Most-High, and cannot be shed without a reckoning, not even in childbirth. All the same, in this act of self-giving to bring forth life (an act of prefiguration, for, in the words of Simeon to Mary, ‘and a sword will pierce your own soul too’) women participate in their bodies in the deep magic of God-Most-High.

In recognition that they do something no man can ever do, however great his renown may be, ‘I AM’ declared that a woman, having given birth, should receive three gifts. First, she should be held exempt from duty towards God-Most-High, for a period of seven days in the case of a son, or fourteen days in the case of a daughter. Not even her husband was to approach her or ask anything of her on those days. Second, she was to be given time and space set apart from public life: thirty-three days for a son, sixty-six days for a daughter (girls, who, potentially at least, will share in this deep magic, are given twice the time and space). Third, this should be followed by a welcome back to public life: a great celebration of the mother, on the fortieth day of her son’s life, or the eightieth day of her daughter’s life. And at the welcome of a mother back into public life, she is to bring a lamb and a dove—or, two doves, if she cannot afford a lamb—one as an offering of thanks ascending to God-Most-High for bringing her through the broken waters of death in bringing forth life; the other as satisfaction to the earth for life blood that has been spilled.

This, then, is also part of what is going on, here in the Temple. Mary is returning to public life, after forty days of seclusion with her newborn son. Forty days and nights kept safe by God-Most-High in an ark; forty days, recalling forty years God-Most-High dwelled in the very midst of the people in the wilderness, before ever there was a Temple in Jerusalem. This is her first public appearance since her son, her firstborn son, was born. Did those old familiar courtyards now feel strange, as if encountered for the first time, again? Strange or no, she makes her return with a thankful heart, and with reverence for the holiness not only of this place but also of life itself.

Why spend so long retelling backstories? Because these are Jesus’ story, and those of his parents, and they have become unfamiliar to us. How, then, might this story become our story too?

Firstly, notice the importance of ritual to inhabiting our identity, which we do not construct for ourselves but are given as gift, handed down from generation to generation. We are not slaves of hard-hearted gods, but a people called to bear the likeness of God-Most-High who cares for us, as a shepherd cares for their flocks. One whose good purposes can be frustrated at times but not defeated, who begins over again. Stop striving to reinvent yourself and receive.

Secondly, notice that those rituals are defined for us who follow Jesus not by the sacrifices of the Law given through Moses (good though they were—and still are, for ‘I AM’s ancient people, the Jews) but by the bread and wine and blessings spoken over our lives by Melchizedek. Communion is a gift; fellowship is a gift. Don’t decline it.

Thirdly, notice that life is a participation in mystery, whether we are daughters or sons. That it calls for that mix of time alone and time celebrating with others, held together in tension. That it reflects self-sacrificial death and resurrection life, in our flesh and blood. Notice, also, the importance of both a thankful heart and a reverence for the sanctity of life, as well as the patterns that sustain thankfulness and reverence. Some of you have been away a long time, perhaps isolating because of fear of Covid. It is time to come back. Others have not been welcome, their bodies considered too much, their presence an offence. They are coming now because God-Most-High is calling them. The period of their waiting for consolation is drawing towards a close, and their salvation is dawning. Will we welcome them, as Simeon and Anna welcomed the Christ-child, with thankfulness and reverence? Thankfulness, that God-Most-High has allowed us to see what salvation looks like today. Reverence, in the light of a bigger story that will long outlive us and be more than we could ever imagine.

In the coming days we remember the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. May we see him with our own eyes in this place, and may our lives be illuminated by his truth and grace.


Notes: see Exodus 13, Numbers 3, Genesis 14 (and 1-4), and Leviticus 12, all from The Five Books of Moses. See also the first-century Common Era texts The Gospel According to Luke 2:22-40 and the Letter to the Hebrews.


Thursday, January 13, 2022

Close encounters


The Gospel set for Holy Communion today, Mark 1:40-45, catches Jesus out in a compromising position. He has been in close personal contact with someone from whom he is supposed to be socially distanced—someone who might infect him and others—and subsequently he has tried, and failed, to keep this event quiet, out of the public eye. Now he is at the centre of a storm of unwanted attention.

What is interesting is the agency of the outcast or marginalised man. The word my English translation renders ‘begging’—a word that draws out an emotion of disgust and thoughts of shaming, in my cultural context—combines the Greek words to come close-beside someone and to testify to their character and actions. It can be used as a word to describe encouraging someone or admonishing someone.

The leper comes close beside Jesus, to reveal something about him. What this man acts to reveal is that Jesus is both willing (a question of desire) and able (a question of power) to cleanse him, to address the (albeit temporarily necessary) injustice of his isolation from human touch. The desire and power of the leper reveals the desire and power of the celebrated man Jesus.

That is fascinating and exposes our assumptions of where will (or desire) and the means to act on that will (that is, power) lie.

Regardless of our social standing, we can exercise the will and the power to come close-beside someone else to admonish or encourage them, by witnessing to their will and power to do good, or their refusal to respond with such compassion.

We can stand with others, or at a distance. We can empower others or keep power for our own self-interest. We can move to restore others as quickly and fully as possible, preferring them before ourselves—even at cost to ourselves—or not. We can participate in human dignity, or by our actions send ourselves into exile.


Monday, January 10, 2022

Poverty and riches


A collect is a form of prayer, that helps focus our personal prayers according to a shared theme. There are collects for every week of the year, as well as collects for other events or occasions, and the collect for this coming Sunday has long been my absolute favourite:


Almighty God,
in Christ you make all things new:
transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives
make known your heavenly glory;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.


Here ‘the poverty of our nature’ means a recognition that everything we are and have is a gift. We came into this world with nothing, and we shall take nothing with us when we go. And in-between these two moments, we steward the life given us, the world entrusted to us to hand on to those who will come after us. To recognise this poverty of our nature is freedom from hubris. What might otherwise be tragedy and a cause for resentment is transformed into something beautiful in its time, a life for which we can be truly grateful, by the riches of God’s grace at work in our lives, renewing us, so that the glory of God in whose likeness we are formed is revealed.


Thursday, January 06, 2022



The unspecified number of travellers bearing three kinds of gift to the infant Jesus are most likely a consortium of Persian court astronomers (Magi) and Chinese Han dynasty court astronomers. Their arrival at the court in Jerusalem, enquiring after a child born to be king of the Jews, causes consternation.

There is a pattern in the Gospels of identifying events in the life of Jesus as fulfilling earlier events. For example, Isaiah speaks of a woman, pregnant at the time of his speaking some 600 years before Jesus, and of a judgement that will fall before her son is weaned. That Jesus’ birth fulfils this is not to say that Isaiah prophesies Jesus’ birth, but that Jesus’ birth is a similar but greater sign, and that the earlier sign helps us understand what will happen in and through and to Jesus.

In the same manner, I would suggest that the reality that the Christian church today is growing faster—under persecution by the governing authorities—in Iran and China than anywhere else on earth is a fulfilment of the journey of the Magi.

Happy Epiphany to all, and especially to my Iranian and Chinese friends!


Wednesday, January 05, 2022

On the twelfth day of Christmas


When is Christmas?

That’s not as daft a question as it may sound. Obviously, Christmas Day is 25th December. But for many people in our impatient society, Christmas Day is the culmination of Christmas, or at least the summit before a rapid downhill through Boxing Day and the relief of taking down the decorations and collapsing in a heap.

In the Church of England the season of Christmas runs, essentially, from sunset on Christmas Eve until sunset on 5th January, with the season of Epiphany (the Feast of the Epiphany is 6th January) taking up the baton. The Christmas cycle then carries on until Candlemas, on 2nd February. Many churches will take down most of their decorations now, with the crib remaining until Candlemas. I think, though I am not certain, that in the Roman Catholic church the season of Christmas runs until this coming Sunday, the Baptism of Christ, with the Christmas cycle also lasting a little longer into the Sundays before Lent. But small variations aside, what both share in common is that Christmas Day is not the end of the matter but the dawn.

Does it matter, when and how we celebrate Christmas? Well, yes and no. I really don’t think that it matters in terms of when we take down decorations, and even friendly arguments about whether that should be 5th January or 2nd February tend to miss the point.

But I do think that it matters that we, collectively, can’t bear to live in the moment. That we rush to bring the trappings of Christmas into Advent, because it is too stark; that we rush to put away Christmas, because it is too much; that we look for ways to transform our dark and dismal January lives with New Year’s Resolutions because we (think that we) need a New Me. It bothers me that we are, collectively, in such a rush.

It is still Christmas. Joy and peace be with you this day.


Tuesday, January 04, 2022

On giving, and taking, advice at the beginning of a new year


This time of year, there’s a good chance thar your social media feed is full of advice for living well in the year ahead. The New Testament reading set for Morning Prayer today included these verses, from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, chapter 3:

18 Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19 Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly.

20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord. 21 Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart.

It is always hard to translate and apply advice for living well across ages and cultures, and these verses—verse 18 in particular—have been badly mishandled by conservative men and women. But these verses are worthy of a second look.

In the Genesis account of the first man and woman, we are presented with an undifferentiated human, made from the clay of the earth, who is then separated into two equal and non-hierarchical humans: the man, to be the gardener; and the woman, to be the warrior-deliverer, given to rescue the man when he is overwhelmed. The role-description of the woman—Hebrew: ezer, active intervention on behalf of another, especially in military contexts—is one shared by the Lord God.

The word translated ‘submit’ in Colossians 3:18 is a compound of the Greek word for ‘under’ and the word for ‘to arrange.’ Moreover, the word for ‘to arrange’ is used almost exclusively in a military context, for how soldiers arrange themselves in formation. In other words, the form this submission is to take is concerned with fulfilling the vocation to be a warrior. Women are warriors, who fight in all kinds of arenas to deliver, or bring liberation to, men, women and children who experience injustice and oppression. But if you are married, don’t allow the long list of good causes to fight for to come between you and your marriage, which is meant to be a lifegiving and lifelong relationship.

The word translated ‘love’ in verse 19 means to prefer another over yourself. Husbands, prefer your wife over yourself. Put her first, before you. That sounds a lot more like submission, as we would understand the term today, than ‘wives, don’t allow yourself to be distracted out of military formation’ does. Moreover, the advice to husbands—again, lost in translation—goes on to deal specifically with warning against nurturing the fruit of bitterness. In other words, this is a gardening metaphor, addressed to the gardener. If you are married, the primary garden which you are to prefer over your own clay is the clay of your wife’s life, giving yourself to nurture every good fruit that grows there, and to guard against sowing seeds that will produce bitter fruit.

To those given as warriors, remember the focus of who you are called to fight alongside. To those who are given as gardeners, commit yourself to bringing out the very best fruit of the life you care for.

That is pretty good advice, that stands the test of time, and which we disregard at our peril, and great relational cost.

The word translated ‘obey’ in verse 20 is another compound, of the words for ‘under’ and ‘to listen’ conveying the meaning, ‘children, listen carefully to your parents.’ Listen to your parents, they may actually know what they are talking about.

And in verse 21, advice to fathers (advice mothers don’t need reminding of in quite the same way?) not to provoke their children to anger, because the long-term consequence of such provoking will be to dishearten them.

I am a dad. And I would love my children to learn that their mum and dad might actually know what we are talking about when we give them advice...But until they discover this for themselves, I need to take on board the wise advice not to provoke them to anger or dishearten them. Some days I need to hear this more than others, but in any case, I need to be reminded of this on a regular basis.