Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Advent 2022 Day 4


There’s a cumulative moment, towards the end of Paul’s letter to the deeply divided church in Rome, where he exhorts them to ‘Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God’ (Romans 15:7). By and with and in Jesus, the Gentiles had been included within God’s expanding people; but the house churches of Rome were divided along ethnic and cultural lines, Christians of Jewish and of Greco-Roman heritage. And Paul writes, Welcome one another. Receive one another. Take one another in to yourselves. Just as Christ welcomed you. Received you. Has taken you into himself.

Mary gives birth to her firstborn son in the room shared by her husband’s family, because there is not enough room for her to give birth, attended by the women of the house, in the guest room where the newly-weds were sleeping. In the main room, shared at night by humans and their livestock, there was room. Room for Jesus to be born, to be welcomed…but first and foremost, room for Jesus to welcome us. To welcome you.

In this expanding welcome, all my ancestors are welcomed in me, just as I shall be welcomed in my descendants. All those whose choices, and restricted choices, have benefited and impaired me. All those who will be benefited or impaired by my choices. In this welcome, constraints run to the third or fourth generation, and blessing unto thousands.

Hope is the conviction that in the end all shall be well. More, that we shall all be witnesses on that Day, when the Sun of Righteousness dawned for those living in darkness and the shadow of death.


Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Advent 2022 Day 3


We experience hopelessness when we feel we have no effective agency, when our agency, to transform a situation we consider unjust, is overwhelmed by the collective agency of others who hold a vested interest in the status quo. So, hope has something to do with agency. And the paradox of agency is that it is not self-determined, but conferred upon us, by those who came before us, and, ultimately, by God, who confers on us a kingdom, co-heirs with Christ.

If hope is the conviction that in the end all shall be well, then our agency is first and foremost expressed in bearing witness to God-with-us, the God who has such love not only for the lovely but for the unlovable. With us, in every situation and circumstance, however yet-to-be-well.

David will become a lauded general and king, but we first meet him as a shepherd boy, overlooked by his father and looked down upon by his brothers. Even Joseph, whose brothers hated him so much that they conspired to kill him, had one brother who looked out for him, and one he loved; but David is alone in the fields with his father’s sheep. One day in the future, he will have a son, Solomon, who will send envoys to all the royal courts of the ancient world, and receive envoys in return, upholding a worldwide web of knowledge and of wisdom. And at the coming of God into the world as the infant Jesus, Bethlehem shepherds and an angel army, and magi from distant courts, converge on the descendant of David and Solomon. That is to say, the agency of David and Solomon and the agency of those shepherds, perhaps even those hosts of heaven, and of those wise men some thousand years later is as one. In those agents of the nativity, David and Solomon bear witness to the newborn king.

And that, in turn, is to say that our agency may be to witness, more nearly in a temporal sense, what our ancestors hoped for, or to hope for what our descendants will witness more nearly than us. But our ancestors look through our eyes, as we shall look through the eyes of our descendants, and what matters most is not whose eyes but the grace to see, God-with-us in our otherwise hopeless state. Hope lives, because Christ is born, and we have seen his glory.


Monday, November 28, 2022

Advent 2022 Day 2


Hope is the conviction that in the end all shall be well.

Hope is far more robust than optimism. Optimism tends to imagine that things will improve, in the direction we wish for, soon. Optimism tends towards magical thinking, that if we can only stay positive in our thinking, that will bend events as we wish them to bend. Optimists must deal with a great deal of disappointment, and gradually compromise their definition of good to accommodate those disappointments.

Hope is the conviction that in the end all shall be well. Not all shall conform to my desires, but shall somehow, beyond the limitations of my imagination, nurture room for the deepest, truest, made-holiest desire of all creation. And this hope is grounded not on our best efforts, but in the One who came into the world in vulnerability as a baby boy some two thousand years ago, and who ‘will come again to judge the living and the dead, whose kingdom has no end.’ This hope is grounded in God being with and for us.

I have been listening to some of the Ukrainians who came to the northeast of England in the spring of this year, full of optimism that they would be going home soon, that six months’ welcome into the homes of strangers would be more than enough; and whose optimism has more recently run out on them. Optimism is an illusion (as is pessimism) and when our illusions are stripped away—when we are disillusioned—then hope gets to her feet, bloodied but undefeated.

All is not well, and so we know that the end has not yet come.


Sunday, November 27, 2022

Follow the Star


This year, the Church of England’s theme for Advent and Christmas is Follow the Star. I have been cutting out hundreds of card stars, and everyone who comes to any events at St Nicholas’ over the coming month will be given one. The star has five points: one for hope, one for peace, one for joy, one for love, and one for Jesus. At every opportunity I will be inviting people to ask God for whatever they need most right now, HOPE or PEACE or JOY or LOVE, and to write that word as a one-word prayer on the back of the star, before folding it horizontally along the centre of each of the five points, to made a 3D decoration, and place it somewhere they will see it again and again as a reminder of what they have prayed to know more of or more deeply in their lives.


Advent Sunday 2022


Over the four Sundays of Advent, we light accumulative candles in our churches. These remind us of various things, as we prepare ourselves to celebrate Christ’s (second) coming in the light of his first coming into the world. Looking back the candles remind us of the patriarchs & matriarchs; the prophets; John the forerunner, or Baptist; and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Looking forward the candles remind us of the Four Last Things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. Looking around us in the present the candles remind us of hope, peace, joy, and love, and of the call upon us to be a hopeful, peaceable, joyful, and loving people.

These symbolisms entwine more fully than we might at first realise. Death might seem antithetical to Hope, but hope is the conviction that in the end all shall be well, and that entails the knowledge that whatever is not well with the world will not endure for ever but pass from the world as an ever-fading memory. Love and Hell might seem a less obvious pairing than Joy and Heaven, but love comes to us in our hell and harrows its gates. But there is more, much more, to dwell on in the days ahead.

On this first Sunday of Advent, our theme is hope.

What do you hope for?

Where have you lost hope?

What does it look like to be hopeful?

Lord Jesus, renew my hope in you. Amen.


Saturday, November 26, 2022



Club football has paused early for the World Cup, but Arsene Wenger is quoted to have said “Christmas is important, but Easter is decisive.” That might be true of football, but, for me at least, Wenger gets it the wrong way round.

The birth of Jesus is not merely a mark by which we measure time, whether BC:AD or BCE:CE. All time (and space) folds back to the singularity, known as ‘the fullness of time,’ that is the incarnation: the Creator one-with creation; God-with-us in the person of Jesus.

A caravan of astrologer-astronomers were among the first to grasp towards this. Also shepherds, carrying the past in the footsteps of king David; and an angel army choir. The crucifixion, several decades later, demanded by humans and permitted by God, was an early and unsuccessful attempt to prevent it. But the gravitational pull of God entering the world is too great. Easter is important, it really is; but it is Christmas that is decisive.

John described the singularity as irresistible light shining in a dark field. It is the opposite of a black hole. And far from destroying everything drawn into itself, this singularity hallows every other point in time and space, welcoming, sustaining, and transforming them with its own Life. One day, all will be folded in; and then, all shall be well.

Christmas is not the prelude to something greater. It is the biggest thing imaginable, and far bigger than that.


Thursday, November 17, 2022



And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’ Revelation 5:4, 5

As [Jesus] came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.’ Luke 19.41-44

The lectionary text for Holy Communion today, Revelation 5:1-10 and Luke 19:41-44, are linked by weeping.

When we weep, the tears we are unable to hold back affect our vision. At an earthly level, we are unable to see clearly, our sight is blurred, and what is before us is obscured. But at a heavenly level, our weeping enables us to see what before we could not, God come to us. It is when John begins to weep that he is given a vision of Jesus, as he truly is, Lion and Lamb, Root and Branch, Victim and Victor.

Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, a city of people who do not weep and so do not recognise their visitation from God. Through her tears, on the coming Resurrection morning, Mary will identify Jesus as the gardener. From an earthly perspective, this is a case of mistaken identity: he is not the gardener, the keeper of that garden. But from a heavenly perspective, he is the Gardener, who has won back what Adam lost, and Mary sees him as he truly is.

Our tears are prayers that rise before God when our mouths and our minds are unable to work together, just as the blood of murdered Abel cried out to God when his mouth and mind were no longer able to do so. The tears of the saints are precious to God. They are not wasted, but gathered up, by God, in a bowl. And our weeping intercessions change earth and heaven, for by them we are given revelation of God-with-us. We weep precisely because all is not yet reconciled, all is not well; yet our weeping points to that day when, all things reconciled and made well, God will dry every tear, and—heaven and earth fully reconciled—we shall see God face to face without distortion nor the need for corrective. More than holding fast to that future, through our weeping, that promise draws nearer.

Often, when I am talking with someone who has been bereaved, as if out of nowhere they start to weep, and, invariably, apologise. I always respond in the same way: don’t you dare apologise for your tears; there is nothing to apologise for. The tears of the saints are precious in God’s sight. Those who would see Jesus do so through drenched eyes.


Tuesday, November 08, 2022



I had a brilliant time this afternoon with 20 pupils and their teachers from the autism specialism school around the corner. We are building a close relationship, and either I go into the school or groups come to me, one or two afternoons a week (the parish gets half of my time, and the school gets half of that time, because they have asked for my involvement).

Today we learnt about baptism and holy communion. Baptism is how we welcome people into the church, not as visitors—I did not baptise anyone today—but as new members of the Christian community within the neighbourhood. I love to pour the water we will use for a baptism into the silver bowl we use as a font, starting just above the bowl and drawing back so there is a waterfall. It makes the most amazing sound. They loved that. One pupil said that it was very moving, profound. Another said it sounded like doing a wee. They’re both right. They asked if it was holy water, and I explained that it was tap water (not wee) but that holy water was what we called it when we had asked God to use it for a special purpose.

When we moved on to thinking about communion, I invited them all to gather around the altar with me, some in front, some behind it standing beside me, a part of the church building few people get to be in. They helped set out the (empty) vessels of wine and water, and enjoyed the loud snap when I broke the big wafer I hold up that you can see from the back of the room. Of course, some of them wanted to know what the wafers taste like. I’d discussed this with the teachers beforehand, and, as none of the children had any allergies, they were allowed to eat a wafer if they wanted to. These were not consecrated wafers—I would not give a child communion without the consent of their parents/guardians, and only after preparation classes—so it was just a ‘learning about’ experience, just as role playing a wedding with children is not the same as conducting an under-age marriage. 12 of the children chose to eat a wafer (all did so respectfully) and 8 decided that they didn’t want to, which was absolutely fine. One said it tasted like an ice-cream cone; another, that it tasted like paper; another that it tasted of nothing much at all. And, as with the water, they were all right. Then I showed them the tiny patten and chalice and glass bottle and pyx we use to take communion to those who are sick or housebound and cannot come to us, and the aumbry (“what’s behind that tiny door?”) where we keep the consecrated wafers until we are able to take them out to those people.

We also had good conversation about the church year (and associated colours, as a tool for learning and a means of participation), and reasons people gather together here, such as to pray as well as for various special occasions. We talked about Jesus, a lot, about his eating habits (he ate with all kinds of different people) and the meal he ate with his friends the night before he died, we talked about his birth and death and resurrection. Children ask great questions. Teachers do too. They are learning more and more about Christian faith, and I am learning more and more about communicating what we believe.

I’m looking forward to the rest of the term, including a Christingle service at their forest school nearer to Christmas.


Wednesday, November 02, 2022

On being dead or alive, part 2


I have no conscious recollection of being dead, I was too young, and now, though I will inevitably experience dying, I shall never know what it is like to be dead. But, theologically speaking, dead was what I was, from my birth in November 1972 until my baptism, when my missionary parents were home on furlough, in September 1973.

At birth, I was severed from my mother, and from God. Not that I was in any way unacceptable to God, any more so than the umbilical cord was cut on account of my being unacceptable to my mother. Birth is a necessary separation, from God and neighbour, or state of being dead. But just as I was placed on my mother's breast, so we might get to know and trust one another, so also was I placed on God's breast. As she watched over me, so too did God.

At my baptism, at St Mary’s Broadwater, I crossed, with Jesus, from death to life. And ever since, I have been learning from him what it looks and sounds and smells and tastes and feels like to be alive. And that will take eternity, and it so happens that we have the time.


On being dead or alive, part 1


I think most people would say that you are born, you are alive, perhaps for three-score-years-and-ten, you die, and then you are dead. This is not the Christian view. Fundamental to Christian faith is the belief that we are (made) alive in Jesus Christ. There are those who are alive in Jesus who have yet to die, and those who are alive in Jesus who have died, but these latter ones are not dead. Rather, the dead are those who are unable or unwilling to recognise, with thanksgiving and devotion, the life that is given in Jesus. Just as those who are alive in Christ include those who have yet to die and those who have died, so also, those who are dead include some yet to die and some who have died. That is to say, from a Christian view, there are plenty of people living among us, breathing and walking around, who are dead; who are yet to come alive.

The Christian pattern, then, is that you are born, you are dead, and then you are alive, and alive forever. Indeed, baptism is a burial, with Jesus, and a passing through death to life, with Jesus.

Life and death are entirely transformed for the Christian. It is not that they are spiritual categories rather than physical or material ones, but, rather, that our material bodies cannot be separated from a greater reality that catches them up within it.

Today is the Feast of All Souls or the Faithful Departed. They are not dead, but alive in Christ, as we are alive in Christ. We are one, in Jesus. They are not in another room, near by; we are held together in the person of Jesus. And Jesus spreads a table where we can sit together, Jesus, and all the alive, seen and unseen. Breaking bread together. Conversing. What a feast!


From values to virtues


At the start of the week, I heard a radio DJ enthuse about a couple of guests coming on his show as being people who ‘have values.’ I think he meant that they were people for whom certain things that were important to him were also important. But values are intensely personal, entirely subjective. Even when two or more people uphold ‘family values,’ for example, what each understands by that will differ.

Last night Jo and I went to see the British New Wave band Squeeze in concert. In my opinion, music doesn’t get any better than New Wave, combining the energy of punk with intelligence and musicality. That is a value statement, and it is subjective. Even if there were a thousand other people in the room who shared that value, to a greater or lesser degree, it is only the temporary gathering of a thousand individual values. We had no reciprocal obligation to one another. We had all paid good money to attend a seated venue, and though there came a point in the evening when we were all on our feet, our shared value did not prevent the inconsiderate actions of the few who stood early, blocking the view of the people behind them, nor the resentment towards them.

Values are important. They add colour to life (I value Impressionism over other styles of painting; I value blues and oranges over reds and greens). But they are morally neutral and lack the capacity to establish a common foundation on which we might agree on matters of judgement. So, we now observe the fabric of ‘liberal values’ or ‘British values’ being torn apart (democracy, the rule of law, individual freedom, and mutual respect and tolerance—the British values, though it is hard to see what is distinctively ‘British’ about any of these—are all being rejected by the Left and the Right).

While talk of values is ubiquitous, of late I have been thinking about virtues: stable character traits, that have an outcome (a generous person will be dependably generous in a wide range of circumstances and regardless of how they feel, that is, not dependant on an emotive response). Virtues are not subjective. They aren’t objective, or universal exactly, but they are reciprocal in a moral obligation to others. While there are many virtues, such as wisdom, or courage, I have been thinking most of all about the spiritual virtues of hope, faith, and charity or loving-kindness.

What does it look like to be a hopeful person, in a rising tide of fear and anxiety? What attributes can we recognise, whether we share them or not? What practices—such as long-term investment in others—might we note?

What does it look like to be a faithful friend? Or to be a congregation of people who are faithful to and within the wider community to which they belong? And to be faithful to a heritage, receiving something from those who came before us and handing it on to the next generation as a treasure? What does it look like to be faithful with the planet we share?

What does it look like to act, consistently, dependably, with loving-kindness, not only towards our closest family members, or driven by emotional attraction, or fluctuating according to mood, but in ways that reach out to embrace and bless the lives of strangers?

Are these things we can widely recognise, and that we have mistakenly labelled values? Or things that have been displaced by values?

Where values are overstated, and so lose their value, how might we reframe the conversation, pointing to an older tradition—virtue—that has waited, patiently, with self-control, for such a time as this to return?


Tuesday, November 01, 2022

All Saints and All Souls


Half of my time is parish-based (the other half is city-centre/civic based) and half of that time is currently invested in one of the local schools, at their invitation. This afternoon, we talked all things Halloween/All Saints’ Day/All Souls Day and from All Saints to St Nicholas (for whom the parish church is named)/Sinterklaas/Santa Claus and from there to Advent and Christmas and evidence for God and back again to death and ghosts and evidence for what they called afterlife and how Christians celebrate our communion with those who have died, held together, as we are, by and in Jesus. A sprawling conversation, with a lot of tangents along the way.




The best evidence for the bodily resurrection of the dead is the persistent hope of the bodily resurrection of the dead, and the lives of billions of women and men oriented, in the here and now, to that hope.

For a narrow scientism, this is no evidence at all. But the failure is one of scientism, not of evidence. In all the known universe, there is not a shred of empirical evidence that love exists. We can measure short-term and long-term physiological changes attributed to love, but evolutionary biologists can and do offer alternative explanations. There is no standardised, universally accepted scale (Hk, hugsnkisses) by which we can measure the love we have for one parent, sibling, or child in comparison with the love we have for another; nor by which we can track the rise and fall of love for a spouse over time. And for scientism (as opposed to scientific enquiry) what cannot be measured cannot exist. Yet deny the existence of love, and you will rightly be pitied.

The apostle Paul said that if there is no resurrection, then Christians are to be pitied above all people. Not commended, as good people who seek to serve their neighbours. Not condemned, as hypocrites who think they are better than others. But pitied.

On the other hand, if our hope is not in vain, we are the most hopeful of all people, for death has no hold over us, now, keeping life at arm’s length from us, or when it comes for us.

Don’t discount evidence simply because it doesn’t look like we were told it should. Evidence for the bodily resurrection of the dead is all around.


For all the saints


The Apostles’ Creed, the baptismal confession of all Christians, says of the Church:

‘I believe in…the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.’

The Nicene Creed expands:

‘We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.’

It is perhaps a commitment to the forgiveness of sins that is the most culture-critical aspect of this confession in my twenty-first century British context (and while the Nicene Creed emphasises baptism as a sacrament of forgiveness, the Apostles’ Creed makes forgiveness of sins, without qualification, a creedal sign of the baptised). But today, we ought to reflect on the communion of saints, on resurrection and life.

Today is the Feast of All Saints, the day Christians are called to give thanks for and rejoice with all those who have gone before us, who have died ‘in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our frail bodies that they may be conformed to his glorious body, who died was buried, and rose again for us’ (taken from the Committal, Common Worship Funeral Service).

Tomorrow is the Feast of All Souls, the day Christians are invited to give thanks for and rejoice with those we have known personally, who have died in this same hope.

One of the local churches I serve has been a confessing community since 930AD. There are many more Saints to rejoice with than Souls. The other has been a confessing community since 1939. There is among our number one man, in his nineties, who was there on Day One. Here, in contrast, the Souls outnumber the Saints.

One of the things I note in Sunderland, among both those who would locate themselves at the heart of the confessing community and those who slip in and out of our buildings to remember their dead before God, is a crisis in confidence in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, and therefore in our ability to look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Every day of the year functions as a truncated All Souls, in which my loss is cut off from the community, becoming individual (that is, atomised) rather than personal (that is, embedded in relationships and an institution that provides meaning). People leave written prayers for the dead, imploring God to take care of their relatives. Every Sunday becomes a day to read aloud the names of those whose anniversary of death has come around, yet again, that week. There is no letting go, and therefore no meeting up again (as with, say, the Mexican day of the Dead celebrations; as All Souls ought to be). There is no receiving the grace to expand around our grief, such that we ourselves are signs of resurrection and participate now in the future breaking-into the present. These things are more peculiar to Sunderland than they are to any of the other cities I have lived in, Glasgow and Sheffield and Liverpool. This is not to say that grief does not break in uninvited, nor that it should be pushed away: rather, that when it comes, we can be confident in the promises that are ours in Jesus Christ and encourage a collective confidence in place of a collective anxiety.

The resurrected person of Jesus Christ bridges the divide between this life and the life of the world to come and holds together those we see and those we see no more. Through him, we are one. Through him, we can engage in conversation, using both shared words (liturgy) and the personal imaginative gift of prayer (our own words, shaped in part by the community). The rhythms of the year, these Feast days of Saints and Souls, are a gift that is both a duty and a joy. They ought rightly to be attended to, in their time. May these days be filled with light and celebration.