Thursday, September 29, 2022

Michael part 3


Today is the Feast of St Michael & All Angels. And earlier today, I reflected on two passages of Scripture that speak of angels descending and ascending. Except that they don't. Looking again, I am reminded that both passages, Genesis 28:10-17 and John 1:47-51, speak of angels ascending and descending:

‘And [Jacob] dreamed that there was a ladder [a ziggurat] set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.’ Genesis 28:12

‘And [Jesus] said to [Nathanael], “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”’ John 1:51

Another passage set for today is Revelation 12:7-12, which opens:

‘And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven [or, they lost strength, and no region was found for them in heaven]. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.’

So, the angels of God ascend and descend, and the rebellious angels rise up and are thrown down. In both cases, the movement is up > down. Emissaries who approach the throne of God and are sent out from God’s presence. Whose purpose is to bring representation to God—this is why Accusation, false rumour, is so serious an offence, a betrayal of God and of angels and mortals—and to carry messages from God in return. To Jacob, and to his offspring Jesus and to all his offspring: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:15)

This offspring, the Son of Man or faithful remnant community, with Jesus as their representative, are the new humanity, the new ground, earth animated by the life-breath of God’s very word.

May you hear that word, carried by angel messengers, spoken over you today. And may it restore your weary body and soul to life.


Michael part 2


Today I celebrated the Feast of St Michael & All Angels in this space, dedicated in thanksgiving for the archangel who contended against the great dragon, the ancient serpent known as the Devil and as Satan, and threw him out of the heavens down upon the earth. And we are told that the Accuser is overcome by the blood of the Lamb—that is, Jesus—and the testimony of saints and angels. As we see in the East window, the testimony that plays its part in overcoming the Accuser is the FORGIVNESS OF SINS. May we, therefore, declare this testimony over one another.


Michael part 1


Today is Michaelmas, the Feast of St Michael & All Angels. (Happy feast day to all Michaels/Mikes & Angelas among my friends!)

In one sense, Michael is an unusual saint, in that almost all saints are humans whose lives demonstrate an unusual awareness of the presence of God. The exceptions are the few angels whose names are revealed to us, including Michael, and in this greater sense Michael is an exemplary saint, for the angels live in unbroken awareness of God’s presence.

Michaelmas is to Michael as Christmas is to Christ: (not a birthday, but) a season of great thanksgiving for what God has done. In Christmas, we celebrate the incarnation, that, in Jesus, God has become one with God’s creation. In Michaelmas, we celebrate divinization, that, by and with and in Christ, creation is being caught up in union with God. Michaelmas is a consequence of Christmas, and its near-completion, as, in the Church calendar, we move towards the Feast of Christ the King.

There is a story in Genesis of a broken man running away from the mess he has created, who, in the restless sleep of drained exhaustion, is graced the vision of angels descending to earth and ascending to heaven. Sent from and returning to God, their beginning and their end. And early in John’s Gospel, Jesus calls another runaway to follow him, saying he shall see the angels of God descending and ascending on the Son of Man, that is, the faithful community which is focused on Jesus, the Alpha & Omega, the source and completion, of angels and disciples alike.

According to later legend, Michaelmas is the day on which Michael defeated the rebellious angel Lucifer, and threw him down to earth; the fallen angel, who landed in a briar patch. Some say you should not pick its fruit, the blackberry, after this date. But if you are looking to celebrate the Feast of St Michael, a blackberry crumble would be appropriate.

Happy Michaelmas! In these days, may you become increasingly aware of God’s presence in our world, in our midst.


Tuesday, September 27, 2022



Whenever the library we call the Bible presents us with accounts of human encounters with God, it is always as a simultaneous revealing and concealing. The coincidence of both these elements is the essential prerequisite for Mystery. And this is as true of the human as it is of the divine, even if the human concealing is as childlike as covering their eyes (note I say childlike, not childish: there is deep insight in such action; I do not look the congregation in the eye when I preach, for they would not bear to see my soul directly, nor I theirs, despite sharing in the care of those very souls).

Of the many ways God is described, one is as dwelling in blinding light, and another, as dwelling in thick darkness. These are not mutually opposed images, but necessary counterparts. And each invites us to walk, with God, by faith not sight. The psalmist goes so far as to declare that the sun shall not strike you by day nor the moon by night, because God is present within and rules over both light and dark.

Learning to walk in the dark is part of being a pilgrim people. (Learning to walk in the light, also; though this can be harder, as we too easily assume that we can accurately see what lies ahead.) It requires trust, patience, and attentiveness. It evokes wonder and opens the door to experiencing awe.

Last night, moving around my bedroom in the dark, I hit my toe, hard, against the foot of the bed, so that today the toe is red and the nail black. This was a space I have navigated countless times in the light, and plenty times before in the dark. Nothing had moved, or been moved, within the space; but, half-awake, my senses were dulled and my movement was at the same time too cautious and lacking care.

We do well to recognise that the future that lies ahead of us is concealed from us in blinding light and thick darkness. We do well not to rush in, with overly-bold promises. But neither do we need to fear to tread, in despair. For God is waiting for us in the future, as God comes to us in the present, as testified to in the past. And wherever our mutual revealing and concealing occur, there, even though limping, we stand on holy ground.


Flesh and bone


There comes a time, in a man’s life, when the middle-of-the-night trip to pee has become a nightly occurrence. A necessary, ritual shuffle along the corridor. There will be a night-light on the landing, of course. He isn’t stupid. But so as not to break his sleep cycle, and especially if he does not sleep alone, he will not turn on a light in the bedroom. He isn’t stupid.

So it was that a friend of mine, just a few years older than me, recently broke his toe on the foot of the bed. I was commiserating this state of affairs with him only on Wednesday gone.

And so it also was that I did the same, last night.

My friend was at least on holiday, abroad; can blame an unfamiliar bed, in an unfamiliar space. I was in my own home. Nor was it my first night misadventure (not stupid; but dyspraxic).

The stories of our lives are written in our flesh and bones. The body not only keeps the score; it is a librarian.


Thursday, September 22, 2022

Letting go


Ecclesiastes (Qohelet, in Hebrew) is one of my favourite books of the Bible, a beautiful and at times disturbing work, hard to translate in places. It opens by setting the scene, beginning with the great cry often rendered ‘vanity,’ or ‘all is in vain,’ but perhaps better rendered ‘ephemeral and fleeting as breath. From the moment of birth until the moment of death, every breath is but momentary; insubstantial; cannot be seen, except when the air is cold; cannot be held in the hand. Having breathed in, you cannot breathe in again without first breathing out: every breath must be surrendered. And yet, every breath is a gift, upon which everything else we do depends.

The scene setting continues, with observational insight into the world God has given us to experience and enjoy. The dependability of day following night, the sun rising and setting and rising again. The security of knowing that the sun will rise again tomorrow. The water cycle: clouds dropping rain on the land, water, flowing in streams to the sea, from where it evaporates to form new clouds, and begin again.

The earth is so full of things to experience, in time we are wearied, overwhelmed: it is too much for us to hold on to, however hard we may try.

And, in the end, we are told, there will be no remembrance. This was deeply disturbing to an ancient people for whom not forgetting was so important; and it is disturbing for us today, who fear the erasure of memory to dementia more viscerally than cancer. And yet, to let go of memory, like letting go of breath, is both necessary and a gift.

There are different forms of memory. There is semantic memory: facts and figures, which have no personal impact. The Battle of Hastings took place in 1066. You have already, long ago, let go of almost every semantic memory, the many things you were taught at school. There is simply so much that can be known that, were we not able to let go, we would be utterly overwhelmed.

Then there is procedural memory: skills you have learnt, such as being able to play the piano, or drive a car. Some of these will remain with you forever. Others, again, we let go, as they are no longer required, or must be replaced with new procedures.

And then there is episodic memory: our memories of things we have experienced. Episodic memory is not factual recall. Episodic memory creates stories, in search of wholeness, and the stories we tell ourselves we edit and re-write repeatedly, in search of that wholeness. Hence siblings will remember the same event very differently, one recalling and another responding, ‘That never happened!’ The goal of episodic memory is wholeness, and this requires that we let go of certain things, whole narratives of the story we have told ourselves. This is the reason why we need forgiveness, to forgive others and to forgive ourselves. The ultimate goal of episodic memory is to let go, and surrender ourselves; trusting (as we do every time we breathe out) that we are known and held and loved by God, from before our birth and beyond our death, through every change, in the eternal moment.

Ecclesiastes 1:2-11

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains for ever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
and goes round to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome;
more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
‘See, this is new’?
It has already been,
in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered,
nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
by those who come after them.


Monday, September 19, 2022

Pilgrim people


Yesterday, I baptised Oscar, a baby boy. Baptism marks the beginning of a lifelong journey of faith, that ends with our funeral—at which point, a new journey begins. This is why, in some traditions within the Church, the coffin is sprinkled with water from the baptismal font as it enters the church. Between these two points, our baptism and our funeral, we speak of the Christian life as a pilgrimage we undertake with others. At the heart of the baptismal rite, I declare:

N, I baptize you

in the name of the Father,

and of the Son,

and of the Holy Spirit.


‘May God, who has received you by baptism into his Church,

pour upon you the riches of his grace,

that within the company of Christ’s pilgrim people

you may daily be renewed by his anointing Spirit,

and come to the inheritance of the saints in glory.


Over recent days, we have witnessed The Queue, a long procession of people, from all over the world, who have made a journey to the Queen, lying-in-state. For the final stages of their journey, they have walked alongside others, strangers to them, in a shared, and ordered, experience. People of surprisingly diverse backgrounds. Their reasons for making the journey are many and various—selfless and self-centred; we do not get to choose those we queue with—and, for some at least, hard to put into words. As they have walked, strangers have become friends, perhaps even family. As they have reached their desired destination, we have seen people bow, or salute, or make the sign of the cross, or keep their cap on until the last moment so as to doff it. And afterwards, just moments later, they are spilled out, into the city, perhaps into the night. What then? Some have rejoined The Queue, others have returned home. All will carry this experience for the rest of their lives. Will it make a difference? For some, undoubtedly.

Without any doubt, this has been a pilgrimage. And those who don’t ‘get’ that are unable to appreciate what has taken place, and why. Why so many have needed to make this journey, to pay their respects, to give thanks for a life lived in the service of others. They can only dismiss it as folly, scandal even. Which, for me, is yet another evidence that this is a pilgrimage.

The catafalque in Westminster Hall has been a resting place, not only for the Queen’s coffin, but for every pilgrim who has made the journey to stand before it. May they all be renewed for their onward journey. May they all come, at last, to their final destination, the inheritance of the saints in glory.


Balm for the troubled soul


On Sunday afternoon we welcomed over 170 adults, and 12 children, to Sunderland Minster for our monthly Choral Evensong. No, those numbers don’t reflect our usual attendance. England is thoroughly post-Christian. But it is also post-secular, post-liberal, post-rational. Not because we have embraced postmodernism, but because simplistic labelling does not, and never did, do justice to the complexity of reality, of our at times deeply conflicted lives. Perhaps it is because we acknowledge that complexity, and because we invite people into mystery rather than superficial certainty, that in times of great disturbance the community looks to the established Church of England. Again, this is not Christian Nationalism—choral evensong is almost certainly unfamiliar to the majority of those who were present this afternoon; not something recognised as essentially English, though as an expression of Christian public worship it is rooted in our history—but a visible, signposted place where the troubled soul might find rest.

In any case, we gather, not only in times of national crisis, but in ordinary time, full of everyday miracle and tragedy. And it was good to welcome others into that space today. Thank you to everyone who made, who make, that possible.


Thursday, September 15, 2022



The Gospel passage set for Holy Communion today is Luke 7:36-50. In it, we meet a woman who is described as a sinner. A sinner is one who falls short of the wholeness God desires for our lives. We are not told anything about the form of behaviour by which the fragmented nature of her life is expressed; though she is surely aware it is not considered acceptable, and her behaviour, even if it is necessary for any sense of living, may cause her additional shame. We can only speculate, but we must speculate responsibly. Some translations describe her as an immoral woman and as being of bad character. I believe this to be an example of irresponsible speculation. We should, rather, pay close attention to what the woman does, and how others respond. What kind of sinner is she?

Jesus has been invited to a meal, in the home of a Pharisee, someone who seeks to manage their life through very prescribed behaviour. In their culture, meals were eaten lying on the floor, with feet stretched out behind. The woman comes in. Perhaps she is noticed. She is known as someone whose behaviour is not considered acceptable. Perhaps others present are silently pleading, ‘Please don’t make a scene, please don’t make a scene…’

The woman allows herself to approach Jesus, to draw very close to his prone body. She allows herself to break down, to weep, in front of others, not caring what they think or how uncomfortable they feel. She allows herself to touch Jesus’ body, with her hair; and then to rub myrrh into his feet, embalming ointment for the preparation of the dead for burial.

In recent days Ukrainian troops have pushed back Russian invaders, and, yet again, stories have emerged of torture and killings. And I would like us to imagine that this woman, who has grown up in a land occupied by cruel soldiers of another country, knows this only too well. That, far too young, she had witnessed her parents, possibly other family members, die in traumatic circumstances. That she had had to prepare them for burial. That the past intruding into her present, triggered, as we would say today, by the smallest thing. Responding in violent outburst to the accidental brush of a passing stranger; waking her neighbours with her nightmares. A sinner, falling short of personal and relational wholeness. A sinner who dares to reach out and touch a prone body and rub ointment into flesh.

Jesus’ host is confused, but not hostile, and open to Jesus as instructor. If Jesus really were one who can interpret God's will, surely he would know that this woman fell short? And, yes, surely Jesus is perfectly aware; and, knowing God’s will, knows it is God’s will to close the gap between her present state, and wholeness. He speaks of an unpayable debt, as those who are traumatised are held hostage to events in their past, being sent away, setting them free. And he addresses the woman: ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’

Your faith, your commitment to being restored, your trust that this will happen, somehow, in and through Jesus, has healed you; go on, in wholeness, your fragmented life restored to the integrated wholeness God desires for you, for all.

I am responding to the text with my imagination. But might that help us enter the forgiveness of sins, in a tangible way; and to be free to love, not fear, our neighbour, and ourselves?


Thursday, September 08, 2022



The Gospel set for Holy Communion today is Luke 6:27-38

‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…

‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful…’


Jesus’ words are powerful. They call us to honest self-awareness, to recognise that when we love only those who love us, those who serve our best interests and centre us in the story we tell, we are no different from the people we consider to be beyond the pale.

But these are words of conviction, not condemnation. When Jesus declares, Love your enemies—those whom you cannot stand alongside, or be counted with—he is not setting a bar against which God judges us for not being able to attain a certain standard. This is the Word of God, become flesh. This is the Word that declared, “Let there be light.” And there was light. And God saw that the light was good.

This is the Word that declared, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” and “Love your neighbour as yourself.” We have been conditioned to hear this as an injunction, but, while it does set parameters (as the sea sets parameters for the great sea creatures it teems with) these words are, primarily, an act of creation, a release, a setting free to exist. You—personally, and as a community of faith trusting in the Word—shall love. You shall—God declares it into being—love. You shall love—this is what we are set free to bring to the world. And that love shall be whole, for, being awakened to life by that Word, we ‘fill the earth’ that is ourselves, the earth-ling, the hu-mus/man, expanding through our heart and soul and mind and strength.

And, yes, this is a work in progress. But it is upheld, underpinned, sustained by the Word: Love.


Wednesday, September 07, 2022



The new Prime Minister arrived at Downing Street in a torrential downpour. I’m excited that she is going to deliver on making us “an aspiration nation [aka cloud cuckoo land] with high paying jobs.” But I was mostly struck by her recurring motif of being in a storm: landing with “together we can ride out the storm.”

I was reminded of a story from the Gospel According to Mark. In the evening, Jesus had sent his disciples to cross the lake by boat, while he went up the mountain, alone, to pray. During the night, he sees that they are ‘straining at the oars against an adverse wind’ and goes to them, walking on the water. Seeing him, and assuming him to be a ghost, they were terrified, but he calms them, and the wind, and, as a result, they were utterly astounded, because they did not understand the significance of Jesus having fed the multitude, as their hearts were hardened.

The Greek is more vivid and urgent than the English. Their straining conveys torment and torture, being examined or interrogated under torture. Their rowing, pulling on the oars, is also used of wind, and demonic power. The wind itself is described as their adversary, the Adversary being also a title of satanic power. Jesus’ approach causes them to be stirred up, agitated, while their response to his addressing the situation is to be besides themselves, displaced, looking on themselves from a dissociative position. And we are also told that their capacity to exercise desire-decision for moral preference was calcified.

In other words, the wind and the disciples and the demonic and Jesus are all complex, interrelated factors at play in the storm, in which they were not making expected headway. Moreover, they are compromised in their ability to choose what they desire, and what is best, despite themselves.

Such is the manner of the storms that buffet us, storms the Prime Minister quite rightly recognises. And the passage sheds insight on why, with the best will in the world, the party she leads has not delivered on their own aspirations, having had twelve years to do so. And why a change of government would do no better, whether in the short term or the long run. The issue is not one of party politics, but, ultimately, of the human heart.

I wish the new Prime Minister well, as I did her predecessor. I wish us all well. But my hopes will be modest, at best; apart from the hope I have placed in Jesus, from whom I withdraw in fear at times, but who prays for us, and comes to us, and rescues us, so that we do not merely ride out the storm but cross the lake to the place where the most vulnerable, who cannot strive for excellence, find wholeness.