Wednesday, December 06, 2023

Advent 2023: Day 4


Image: a railway platform with the words MIND THE GAP painted for the benefit of those alighting from the train, so that the letters are upside-down from the perspective of those waiting to board the train.


Now is the season for journeys home by train
(it has been too long)
The door jolts open, and a voice
cries out:
‘AaNY teas, coffees, beer, wine—
any snacks?’
shuffles along, cajoles alike both customers and trolley,
negotiates the obstacle of errant arms
and feet that trespass in the narrow way
of passage.
I contemplate his offer,
and decide.


Passengers a-lighting,
please mind the gap
between believing ourselves to be
in no need of refreshment,
and grasping every offered opportunity
through rote conditioning, or boredom.


Tuesday, December 05, 2023

Advent 2023: Day 3


Image: a railway platform with the words MIND THE GAP painted for the benefit of those alighting from the train, so that the letters are upside-down from the perspective of those waiting to board the train.


Now is the season for journeys home by train
(it has been too long)
As we approach
the next stop, fellow passengers shift
in their seats, excuse themselves,
“This is me.” We dance
to rearrange ourselves,
as coats and bags are lifted down
from overhead, and
aisle and carriage-ends are filled
with restless passengers,
anxious now, just to get home.
We pull into a station; idly, I survey
a place, a town—a life that is not mine.
Warm light through windows
spilt on rain-slick streets.


Passengers a-lighting,
please mind the gap
between the life that beckons you
and those that beckon
other lives.


Monday, December 04, 2023

Advent 2023: Day 2


Image: a railway platform with the words MIND THE GAP painted for the benefit of those alighting from the train, so that the letters are upside-down from the perspective of those waiting to board the train.


Now is the season for journeys home by train
(it has been too long)
Twisted, side-on, I edge my way down
a full carriage … 25, 26, 27…
Carriage C, seat 27.
Reserved, from here:
this seat—my seat—
already taken.
Dilemma: a Very British
Problem, to speak,
or not to speak?
“Excuse me, but, you’re in my seat—”
what to be gained, from
Do I keep moving forward,
keep searching for an empty place?


Passengers a-lighting,
please mind the gap
between imposter syndrome
and your God-given dignity.


Sunday, December 03, 2023

Advent 2023: Day 1


Image: a railway platform with the words MIND THE GAP painted for the benefit of those alighting from the train, so that the letters are upside-down from the perspective of those waiting to board the train.


Now is the season for journeys home by train
(it has been too long)
Four strangers sat around a table;
or three—the woman I am facing
has set her bags beside her,
on the window seat.
The young man beside me,
lost in a world of silent music,
stares through the fogged pane
as the world slides by.
I roll my neck and shoulders,
tentatively stretch one leg
along the aisle, and draw it back
again, return to the page.


Passengers a-lighting,
please mind the gap
between the baggage we defer to
and the new world,
fast approaching,
reaching out, calling us


Thursday, November 30, 2023

St Andrew


I don’t often wear my kilt to preside at Holy Communion, but today is both the Festival of Andrew the apostle (St Andrew’s Day, 30 November) and the tenth anniversary (St Andrew’s Day, 30 November 2013) of my being licensed to serve as a priest in Durham Diocese, having previously served in the Diocese of Liverpool—a Durham decade!


Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Why Advent?


Advent is the necessary precursor to Christmas, because Christmas is the joyful announcement of the birth of a Saviour, and Advent must first address the question of why on earth we need a saviour, or, of why a saviour is good news of great joy.

I believe that I am a good person. I believe that you are, too. In fact, I do not believe that there is any such thing as an evil person; for every person is made—created—by God, and in the image of God. God is good, and nothing that God has made is evil. Yet we wrestle with evil, every day of our lives. There is something about evil that is attractive to us—this is why temptation is tempting—and there is something about us that bends away from love towards it—this is sometimes called our ‘fallen nature.’ Good people choose to act in less-than-loving ways, even towards those we desire to love fully and for always, because it is easier, at times, or because we want to—“we have wounded your love and marred your image in us, through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault,” as the Confession puts it—and to justify our actions. It is good people whose relationships break down. And it is possible to choose evil so frequently that it becomes habitual, until it becomes all-but-impossible for us to choose love at all: and this is to find ourselves in hell—and drag others there with us. Imagine how bad the state of things would be if there were such a thing as evil people.

So good people find themselves incapable of doing good—of loving their neighbour—at least consistently and permanently. And this is unacceptable to God, for God made us good and for good, and knows that good is good for us. So God sent his Son into the world, to be our Saviour, to be the one who will judge the living and the dead. The nature of that judgement is entirely without condemnation, or punishment. Rather, it is the perfect insight, to know rightly the evil we have done, and to destroy all evil, without destroying us, the good creature, the object of God’s love. For God, possessing by divine nature perfect judgement in all matters, has determined that love is how evil will be destroyed. The warmth of God’s love will, in time, melt the evil that lies heavy upon us, without harming us in any way, as the warmth of the sun eventually melts the ice without damaging the ground beneath. Indeed, as the warmth of the sun transforms the snow, that impairs our movement, into life-giving water, so the warmth of God’s love ultimately transforms even evil, for good.

When we look at the world around us, we might ask, if God is good, and sovereign, then why does evil exist, and so prevalently? And the Church responds, yes, the world is not as it should be; and God has passed judgement, that judgement being transforming love. Were we God, we might choose destruction, to deal with evil by sweeping away evil-doers; but that would include me, you, us all; and, in any case, you cannot deal with the problem of evil using evil as the solution, for that simply perpetuates the problem. Love is slower, painfully slow, for to love is to be present and attentive to pain. Yet, love is what God has chosen, for God is love.

So, Jesus came, long ago, fully human—utterly dependent on love—and fully-God—the source of love. Loving us to the end, even our putting him to death could not banish love: love simply extended its reach to encompass the dead as well as the living. And this Jesus will come again, as love, when love has—finally—won. Then every eye shall see him, and adore him, as he is.

God has acted, is acting, and will complete what has been set in unstoppable motion. This is why Christmas is good news, and not merely a momentary distraction from the darkness. But to welcome the Saviour, we must first recognise our need for salvation—to be transformed, by love, for love.


Saturday, November 25, 2023



On Monday, I went into a shop, picked up what I needed, and approached the till. The sales assistant asked me if I had found everything I had been looking for? which I had. I asked them, How are you today? and they were clearly taken aback. Good, thanks; they replied, and then, after a slightest of pauses, But thank you for asking.

I spent the middle of the week at a residential training event, held at a hotel. One morning, as I walked along the corridor from my room, heading down for breakfast, I passed a member of the housekeeping team. They said, Good morning, and I responded. Again, I asked, How are you today? Again, they were taken aback that a guest would interact with them in such a way.

On the last morning of the residential, I went to the administrator who had put together the training event to thank them. They had had a difficult job, needing to deal with several challenges. I wanted them to know that their work was appreciated, that they were appreciated. They just about fought back the tears, and asked if they could give me a hug.

Most of the time, it costs very little to be kind. Perhaps that is why we value it less than we ought? Of course, there are times when it is costly, even a higher price than we are prepared to pay. But there are few things that have such a disproportionally large impact, and return, that return potentially having a positive impact on whoever happens to come across the person shown kindness in the wake of the act.

If you can, be kind. And when being kind is a stretch too far, may you be on the receiving end of kindness.


Thursday, November 16, 2023



I wonder whether you remember a big event (global politics, sporting, royal) that took place when you were eleven or twelve years old?

Jesus was most likely born in 6 BCE (Before Common Era) (Obviously, Jesus could not be born BC, but those who first calculated that date got it wrong). At some point, this came to the attention of Herod I (the Great) and Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fly by night, seeking refuge among the Jewish diaspora community in Alexandria. In 4 BCE, Herod I died. At this point, it is time to return home; but Joseph hears that Herod Archelaus is now ruling in Jerusalem, and is afraid; so, they go to Galilee instead.

Galilee is under another of son of Herod I, Herod Antipas. But Antipas is not as dangerous a prospect as Archelaus. Archelaus has a reputation for bloodshed and provoking bloodshed; moreover, his position on his throne is contested by his own brothers. Though the emperor is persuaded to back him, his position as ethnarch is contested for most of his reign, from 4 BCE to 4 CE. He then reigns, less contested, for a further two years, before the emperor himself deposes him and imposes direct Roman rule over the Province of Judea from 6 CE.

Jesus is around twelve years old when the emperor deposes Archelaus, who goes into exile in Gaul. Twelve is old enough to be aware. Twelve is old enough to be apprenticed, as a house builder, to his adoptive father, Joseph. Twelve is old enough for conversations between Jesus and Joseph, as they walked back and forth between Nazareth and Sephoris, a new town being built, where there was work to be found: Dad, tell me again why you were so afraid of Archelaus?

Later, when Jesus is around forty (33 CE) (the Gospel According to John is full of irony; John records some opponents of Jesus stating that he is not even forty years old: I would bet against them.) his disciples ask him about big geo-political events. When will the Romans be pushed out? When will there be a king in Jerusalem who was not a client of Rome?

Jesus tells a story about a man (the emperor) who distributes his property between three slaves (Archelaus, Antipas, Philip) before occupying himself overseas; who returns, dispossesses one of his slaves, and redistributes his property (this happened when Jesus was twelve; it will happen again, when Herod Agrippa, a grandson of Herod I, successfully petitions the emperor to remove his uncle Herod Antipas, in favour of Agrippa). This is how Rome works.

Of course, Jesus will triumph over Rome. Not by raising an army, or inspiring a rebellion, but by a revolution of the heart; by men, women, and children, mostly slaves, coming to trust that Jesus (not the emperor) was Lord, and serving their neighbours; and in the submission of the Roman emperor (however murky his own motives) to the risen Christ who had defeated death.

The first disciples will not be around to see it, but it will happen, nonetheless.


Tuesday, November 14, 2023

God's favour


Yesterday, I wrote a long post on the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). In it, I contested against the common interpretation of the parable, that is, that God has given to each person talents, abilities, opportunity, as he sees fit, and expects a return on his investment. I offered a way to understand the parable in its historical context, and its context within Matthew’s Gospel, and the contrast between Roman rule and the kingdom of heaven (or, how we experience God’s reign). In this shorter post, I want to go on to offer some observations on how we relate to God.

[1] You cannot earn God’s favour through what you do for God. You cannot earn your place in heaven by being a good person, or your years of service to the church or your neighbours. You cannot earn God’s favour because, in Jesus, God has already and freely given that favour.

[2] Moreover, you cannot lose God’s favour through failure to follow God’s commands or meet God’s expectations. Your place in heaven – that is, being in relationship with God, starting in this life and continuing beyond death – is not jeopardised by doing the wrong thing or by not doing the right thing. You cannot lose God’s favour because, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has triumphed over everything that has tried to separate us from that freely given favour.

[3] You can neither earn nor lose God’s favour. You can only live with, or without, an awareness of that favour. There are many people – those who would claim to believe in Jesus, as much as those who do not believe in God – who live their lives unaware of God’s favour, upon them and upon their neighbour, and this is the very definition of hell.


Monday, November 13, 2023

Talents, and what not to do with them


The Gospel reading set for this coming Sunday is Matthew 25:14-30, in which Jesus tells a parable about a man who entrusts his property to his slaves before departing abroad. To one slave he entrusts five ‘talents,’ a weight of money commonly equivalent to 6,000 denarii (one denarius being the daily wage of a labourer), to another, two talents, and to yet another, one talent. Sometime later, the man returns. The first two slaves have doubled the weight given them, while the third, fearful of a master who reaps where he did not sow, had buried his hoard, and returned it in full. The first two slaves are rewarded with additional responsibility and invited to ‘enter into the joy of’ their master, that is, to experience his favour. For not even depositing his talent with the bankers to accrue interest, the third slave is deemed ‘worthless’ and thrown ‘into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

This parable is commonly interpreted in this way: God has given to each person talents, abilities, opportunity, as he sees fit, and expects a return on his investment. But this is to misunderstand the text.

It comes within a larger context, a lengthy conversation (chapters 24 and 25) between Jesus and his disciples, concerning the destruction of the temple. The disciples have come to believe that Jesus is the Son of David – a recurring title for Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel – that is, the rightful heir to the throne in Jerusalem. It is obvious that tension is rising, and that, sooner or later, there will be a crisis moment, in which Roman rule will be overthrown, along with their vassals and collaborators. In the aftermath of this, the disciples expect Jesus to ascend to the throne; but when will this take place?

In fact, the crisis they anticipate will come about in the First Jewish-Roman War (66-74 CE) with widespread destruction of Jewish cities, and the siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple in 70 CE. From the perspective of Jesus, some forty years earlier, this is both inevitable in the broad sense and unknowable in its particulars. And his purpose is to prepare his followers to live through this existential crisis.

The Parable of the Talents comes immediately after the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids and immediately before the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, or the Judgement of the Nations. What Jesus is seeking to get across is that the Day of the Lord – which would mark the end of the present age or geo-political reality – for which his disciples, in keeping with their peers, were hoping for would result in judgement first for the Jewish people (the bridesmaids, who are divided, and half of them locked out from the new age) and (only) then for the gentile nations (who are also divided, some being included in, and some excluded from, the new age).

In the Parable of the Talents, it makes most sense to see the man, who entrusts his property to his slaves before disappearing abroad, but returns to claim his profit, as the Roman emperor; and the three slaves as the sons of Herod the Great.

Augustus (emperor 27 BCE – 14 CE; succeeded by Tiberius, who ruled 14-37 CE) had appointed Herod I (Herod the Great) as a Jewish Roman client king. On Herod’s death, Augustus initially honoured Herod’s will, which divided his territory between his three sons (and his sister). Herod Archelaus was appointed ethnarch of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea. Herod Antipas was appointed tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea. Philip was appointed tetrarch of Iturea, Trachonitis, Batanea, Gaulanitits, Auranitis and Paneas. (Salome I was appointed toparch of Jamnia, Azotus and Phasaelis.) But only nine years later, in 6 CE, Augustus, having judged Herod Archalaus incompetent, removed him, combining his three provinces into one Province of Iudaea, ruled by a Roman prefect. The fifth of these, serving 26-36 CE, was Pontius Pilate.

Parables, of course, are not histories. They do not have one-to-one correlations with historical figures. It could just as well point forward to 39 CE, when emperor Caligula removed Herod Antipas and gave his tetrarchy to another Herod, Agrippa. This parable is not so much a retelling of events that took place in Jesus’ childhood, as a depiction of how things work, under Roman rule. The population of this Province is ruled over, by delegation to client kings or Roman governors, at the emperor’s pleasure. Tiberius gives, and Tiberius takes away. And there will surely come a point when the emperor turns his attention back on this troublesome corner of his empire. Strangely enough, one of the key events that precipitated the Jewish revolt of 66 CE was the emperor – by this time, Nero – ordering the Roman governor – by this time, Gessius Florus – to take seventeen talents from the temple treasury as unpaid tax.

(Emperors didn’t always get their own way. The inevitable Jewish Roman War could have erupted fifteen years earlier than it eventually did. Caligula ordered that a statue of himself be erected in the temple in Jerusalem; fearing war, his governor stalled for a year, before his friend, Herod Agrippa, persuaded him to overturn the order. Jesus anticipates this as a likely event, Matthew 24:15ff.)

This parable serves as the transition between the judgement of the Jewish people and the judgement of the Gentile nations. It is, in itself, a profound warning: there will be no miraculous intervention, in the machinations and rise and fall of earthly empires. There is the in-crowd, who enjoy things, for now, and the in-crowd who will fall from favour and be cast into the outermost darkness, consigned to the scrap heap of history, forgotten. Their tears all the more bitter for having previously enjoyed favour.

In the light of this bleak synopsis of the signs of the times – as convoluted, power-hungry, and precarious as our own day – Jesus instructs his disciples to hold fast. Don’t get caught up in trying to force events, over which you have no influence, nor any right to influence (as John records in his Gospel, Jesus sees the disciples as remaining in this world, but not of it – not playing its games by its rules). Simply trust that I have chosen you and will keep you; that not even death can derail that promise.

But what has any of this to do with us, who live almost 2,000 years later, long after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem? I think it stands as a warning not to take up the ways of this world to shape it to our gain, or exercise rule over the lives of others. Which is not to say that we should not campaign for a more just society; but that even godly ends do not justify ungodly means.

There are many who claim to follow Christ who need to rediscover this parable today.


Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Blessings and curses


I am neurodiverse. I am diagnosed dyslexic, dyscalculic, and dyspraxic—this last meaning that I often am unable to locate information. You might be familiar with walking into a room and having to look around for where you put down your keys. I have this experience within my brain, misplacing names, for example, or the connection between a face and a name. I am also almost certainly, though without formal diagnosis, autistic.

Neurodiverse people sometimes describe their condition as a superpower. I think I understand why, the need to reframe a story of lack, but, at least in my experience, it isn't a superpower at all. I am not a superhuman, I am a (super) human (as are you). For me, my neurodiversities are both a blessing and a curse.

A blessing is the gift of God’s goodness. Blessings are the overflow of that goodness, a gift that keeps on being given, and is never retracted. Blessing is the invitation to live a particular life, that no other lifeform can live in your place. Blessings give permission, delegate authority, and say, “Go, take your place in the miracle of life.”

A curse is a limitation placed upon us, for our own good and for the good of others. Curses are always themselves limited in scope and duration, and always overcome by repentance, that is, a change of mind. Curses are the negative expression of blessing, the page to the ink. They save us from ourselves, from the misdirected desire to be independent of others, while at the same time keeping others dependent on us—from any messiah complex. They push us, willingly or unwillingly, towards interdependence—which we embrace through that repentance, or change of mind.

My neurodiversities are a blessing, to me and for others. I am super creative. I am capable of super focus—note why some people speak of super-powers—while also super-easily derailed. I see things from a different perspective, a perspective that other people value because it shines light on their neurotypical blind spots. (Though mine is not the only or only right perspective, something that immature neurodiverse people often fail to recognise.)

My neurodiversities are also a curse, to me and for others. There are ways in which I will never be independent, or dependable. To an extent there are skills I can learn and tools I should employ to manage this; but skills and tools can also be fashioned into a persona, a false projection of who I want you to see (and, often, who you want to see in me) masking those parts of me that I do not want to be seen, because I am too easily ashamed of them. That persona isn’t bad in itself, but it is false. The particular curses of my neurodiversities—the ways in which I routinely misunderstand others and am in turn misunderstood; the wifi signal inside my mind dropping out at the most unwanted moments; a host of others—the things I have so often tried to hide—are the very limits that should cause me to seek others whose blessings compliment my curses, just as my blessings compliment their curses. At 50, the persona of competence is simply too cracked to hold or hold on to.

The curse is a gift, as much as the blessing: the blessing sending me out from God further and further into the world, the curse calling me back deeper and deeper into God; my true self being found held in this creative tension.

One of the things I do is keep an eye on clergy posts being advertised. Not that I am looking for a new job, or change of role, but because I take an interest in clergy wellbeing. One of the things I notice is how many contexts are seeking, or offering opportunity for, ‘an exceptional priest.’ As a direction of travel, this causes me concern. It is, perhaps, a sometimes-necessary place to begin, but—ironically—has its own in-built limits. Being exceptional turns out to be curse, as much as blessing. If we recognise this, all well and good; there will be pain, but it will be creative, cooperative. If we fail to do so, there will be a lot of destructive pain along the way.


Wednesday, October 18, 2023



This afternoon I have spent two hours with Y4 (children aged 8/9), one hour each back-to-back with two classes, helping them to learn about the Trinity, the Christian belief in One God who exists eternally as three persons. This is part of their wide-ranging RE curriculum. The classes were made up of pupils from a wide range of ir/religious families. I was bombarded by questions—I’ve never seen so many hands raised so quickly and persistently—and the quality of their questions and their own observations was of an exceptionally high standard, ranging over many related issues and exploring similarities/differences between Christianity and Islam with sensitivity and respect. I was seriously impressed by them, really enjoyed their welcome, engagement and company, and look forward to visiting them again in future. Right now, I am exhausted. Apparently some adults spend the whole day, every school day, with these furious balls of energy!?

We explored the Trinity: God, King of the Universe and Father of all; Jesus, the Word of God through whom all things were created, speaking itself into creation as a human, to be with us; and the Holy Spirit, the life-giving, life-sustaining power of God in the world.

I had woven a friendship bracelet of three differently coloured threads as a visual representation; we talked about what colours we might choose to represent Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the children chose to work on their own friendship bracelets as they continue to explore this theme.

We recalled Jesus’ baptism—of which they had leant previously—and I brought the silver bowl and mother-of-pearl seashell I use to baptise people “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” pouring water on their heads in three actions. We discussed what Christians do and don’t mean by the terms Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (e.g. Christians don’t believe that God was married to Mary, or is Jesus’ father in a biological sense; and while we believe that Jesus is the second person of the trinity from eternity, ‘Son’ of God was also a term used for the Davidic kings in Jerusalem; we talked about other names for God in the Bible—and Koran—and various ways of describing the Holy Spirit, such as breath, wind, flame, dove).

Thinking about how the Trinity is important to Christian practice, I explained that whenever we gather together for worship, I make the sign of the cross and say “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” and that as we depart, I make the sign of the cross and say “the blessing of almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be with you and remain with you always. Amen.”

And I showed them how Christians can make the sign of the cross, by pressing our thumb, index finger and middle finger together—representing the Trinity—and resting our ring finger and little finger on our palm—reminding us that Jesus is fully-God and fully-human—and then moving our hand from our forehead to our heart (sternum) to our left shoulder to our right shoulder (and then back to the middle of our chest) when we gather or receive Communion or depart with God’s blessing or when we pray.

But their questions! So many! And so deep! About God, yes, and especially about Jesus. Also, about life and death, and life beyond death, and angels, and the devil, and (non-human) animals, and inter-faith marriage and children, and friendship, and betrayal, and doing wrong because you are frightened of other people, and how all shall be well.


Thursday, September 21, 2023



Today (21 September) the Church remembers Matthew, the tax collector who became a follower of Jesus, and for whom the Gospel According to Matthew is named. The Gospel reading for Holy Communion is Matthew 9:9-13, in which Matthew himself enters the story:

‘As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’

There are two treasures hidden in this account. The first concerns the tax collectors and the Pharisees; the second concerns Jesus.

A low-ranking tax collector such as Matthew was told how much revenue they had to secure, with any surplus being what they themselves lived off. Tax collectors were notoriously genius at making up taxes to increase their margin.

“Good morning, sir. I’m going to have to ask you to unload your cart, so we can inspect and weigh your goods and calculate the duty. While my colleague sees to that, I just need to go through some paperwork with you. You are travelling by road, so there’s road tax, obviously; those potholes don’t fill themselves. And this road passes over a bridge, so that’s bridge tax. Cart tax. Your cart today has four wheels, so that’s wheel tax, times four. And I couldn’t help but notice that your cart has two axles.”

“Well, yes. That’s how the wheels turn.”

“Very good, sir. I can see that you paid attention in school. Axle tax, times two.”

“But surely axles should be covered by the wheel tax?”

“Oh no, sir. A wheel is a sort of a disc, on a vertical axis, whereas an axle is a sort of a shaft or pole, on a horizontal axis. They’re two quite different things.”

It isn’t hard to imagine why tax collectors were unpopular. The Pharisees despised them, considered them beyond the pale. But Jesus says to the Pharisees, “You think that you are entirely different from the tax collectors, but you are exactly the same. Just as they crush people under their taxation rules, so you crush people under the rules you multiply for determining who is acceptable and who is not. You need to look again at what it is that God asks of us: compassion towards others, not death by a thousand cuts.”

So, the Pharisees and the tax collectors aren’t so different after all. But Jesus comes to both, to heal all who recognise their own sickness. He calls Matthew to follow him, and Matthew gets up. The word Matthew uses to describe how he responds is the same word Mark uses in his Gospel to describe Jesus risen from the dead. In this moment—that points to that moment—Matthew comes alive. And Jesus leads him to the table in the toll house to eat with other tax collectors. My English translation says that they were sitting, but that is not accurate: in their culture, they ate reclined, or lying down. Jesus is lying down and the tax collectors, and the disciples, are lying down. And it is the same word that Matthew uses when he recounts the angel addressing the disciples, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, at the tomb on the morning Jesus rose from the dead: ‘He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.’ (Matthew 28:6). In other words, Jesus’ action in Matthew 9 points to the end of the story, to the tomb, the house of death and resurrection. Jesus calls the tax collectors (and the Pharisees who are the same as them, though they do not recognise it) to die with him and rise with him. To lose the life they are trying to build over and against others and instead to discover the life God longs for them to know, a life characterised by compassion that embraces the outcast.

Today is the Feast of St Matthew. Today he invites us to join him with Jesus at the table. To recline, and get up, and to follow Jesus to invite others to recline and get up. Today may all that separates you from God and neighbour be put to death. May you know the reconciliation that is already yours, in Christ, and, through him, be empowered to extend that wealth to others.


Thursday, September 14, 2023

Holy Cross


We do not like to be humbled. But being humble is the very character of God, of the god who chooses to be human, the human god Jesus who is revealed to the world on the cross, in public humiliation. Only those who are humble are able to participate in the life of God, a life that defies death. This is freedom.

The ancient Greeks saw the seemingly insatiable appetite of pride as hubris, a transgression against the gods, that brought upon mortals nemesis, the punishment of the gods. But to be humbled, delivered from our appetite for recognition, for being fêted by all, is not a punishment. It is the gift of God.

Jesus did not die on the cross to satisfy the wounded pride of God, but to (more than) satisfy the wounding pride of people, and of the satan, the prideful angel who is unable to embrace humility, who rebels against the humble God. And to all those who have been wounded by pride, their own or that of other people, the risen Jesus holds out life, healing, freedom, joy. Says, walk with me. Walk humbly with your God.

May your day, and mine, be unremarkable.


Sunday, September 03, 2023

Take off your shoes


There is a story in the Bible about a man called Moses. You can read it in the book of Exodus. One day, this Moses is going about his life when he is intrigued to notice a bush that is burning, but not consumed by the flames.

Now, Moses is just going about his life, but it isn’t the life he ever imagined would be his. He has experienced childhood trauma and bereavement in adulthood; been rejected by his adoptive family and his family-of-origin. He has built a new life in a far off, out-of-the-way place. In some regards, we would say that his life has become smaller. From another perspective, we would say his life has grown, to accommodate the grief within it, to make space for living despite it. This is what surviving bereavement, of any form, does within us. We are changed, a change that cannot be undone; and yet, despite all, we are not consumed.

Moses stops and turns aside to take a closer look. And God, noticing that Moses has noticed, called out to him from within the bush, ‘Moses, Moses.’ And Moses replied, ‘Here I am.’

We note that God knows us by name, and that the place of encountering God is our life, right where we are, right here where we find ourselves, the life we have, if we are open to such an encounter. Not some other circumstance, the life we had imagined for ourselves, that we had either never found or perhaps had known but had subsequently lost. Some unreal life we grasp at that has no substance. No, but rather, Here I am.

The first thing God wants Moses to know—other than that he is known—is that he must take off his sandals, for he is standing on holy ground. What is this strange command, if not the revelation that God does not want anything to come between us and our standing on holy ground, not even shoe leather? And if Moses can learn how to stand on holy ground here, in this location, he can learn how to stand on holy ground anywhere. For everywhere is holy ground, created by God and giving rise to reverence whenever that is recognised.

Moses asks this God, what is your name? And God responds with what is often translated into English as I AM WHO I AM, but can also be rendered LET THERE BE, AND THERE WAS, as in, ‘And God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light.’ In other words, this God is the one in whom is both existence and purpose. The one who comes to liberate his people into life and into the purpose of love—which, though we resist the thought with every fibre of our being, is sufficient purpose to order the world rightly.

This morning when the church in our neighbourhood were gathered together out of our lives—which for many of us are not the lives we imagined, for some of us include the pain of watching marriages approach their slow parting by death, or some other trauma or bereavement—I invited people to take off their shoes and walk about on the lawn outside, right there in the middle of the service of Holy Communion (Eucharist, Mass). It was a joy to see several take up the invitation.

Photographs: two different depictions of the burning bush in stained glass created by Leonard Evetts for St Nicholas Church; and also, a photograph of my bare feet on the vicarage lawn, after the service.

Thursday, August 31, 2023



TL:DR everybody needs a community they can’t bear not to meet up with.

The apostle Paul and his companions planted churches around the eastern Mediterranean. The first churches they planted in Europe were in Philippi (in the north of modern Greece). On coming to a new city, it was Paul’s usual practice to first seek out the Jewish diaspora community, those with whom he shared a common background. There was no recognised Jewish community in Philippi (not enough Jewish men to form a synagogue), so Paul sought out ‘God-fearers’—Greeks who were drawn to worship the Jewish god at prayer by the river, and from there the first European church was established in the household of a businesswoman called Lydia. But Paul’s activity caused civil unrest, resulting in his being beaten and imprisoned—which led to the establishment of a second house-church led by the officer responsible for the city jailhouse. When it came to light that Paul was a Roman citizen—and as such should not have been beaten or imprisoned without trial—he was asked to leave quietly…

They moved along the coast to Thessalonica. There, there was a Jewish community, but they were not very receptive to Paul’s message. The local Greeks were much more receptive, and a church planted; but the Jewish community were unhappy, and provoked civil unrest, forcing Paul to move on yet again, after little more than three weeks there. They headed on to Berea, and there the local Jewish community were much more receptive. Yet another church was established; but when news reached the synagogue back in Thessalonica, they sent a delegation to incite trouble for Paul in Berea. Yet again he and his companions moved on, this time travelling south, as far as Athens.

At this point, Paul becomes increasingly concerned for his new friends in Thessalonica, from whom he was parted so quickly. So, he sends his friend and co-worker Timothy back north to them. On returning to Athens, Timothy discovers that Paul has himself moved on again, this time to Corinth, where Timothy catches him up, and is able to deliver good news. The church in Thessalonica is doing well, they long to see Paul again as much as he longs to see them. For Paul, for whom being apart from these new friends and fellow-believers was death, this news fills him with joy, makes him feel alive again.

We read an extract from the letter he wrote them (1 Thessalonians 3:7-13) at our mid-week Communion today. And it really was a joy to me to have, among the congregation, two friends visiting from our neighbouring church Sunderland Minster, and an elderly member of the St Nicholas’ congregation who had not made it out to be with us for a long time following a fall and loss of confidence.

I wonder whether this is how we think of church. Whether the days between when we gather together feel like death. Whether we long to see those people, and whether seeing them is a joy. Or whether we who are able to meet regularly come to take one another for granted. Whether we have forgotten how good it was to be able to meet together after the deprivation of lockdowns, and whether we hold in mind those who can no longer join us due to infirmity.

Everyone needs a community that causes us to feel like Paul did in relation to the church at Thessalonica. Who knows, it could even be a church.


Thursday, August 24, 2023



In one of the Bible readings set for Holy Communion today, 1Corinthians 4.9-15, Paul writes of church planters like himself, ‘We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day.’ (v 13b).

There is a man-made hill in Rome, called Monte Testaccio or the Hill of Shards, carefully constructed from an estimated 53 million pottery amphorae that had contained 6 billion litres of olive oil. It is hard to know when the project began—if it already existed in Paul’s day it would have been small in scale, but it grew to be the largest rubbish dump in the ancient world by the second century CE. Amphorae were used to transport oil, wine, fruit sauce and fish sauce around the Empire, with many supplying the capital, Rome. Those containing other products could be reused, or recycled, broken down to be an ingredient in cement which the Romans used in building. But the amphorae containing olive oil—imported into Rome in huge volumes, mostly from Spain—couldn’t be recycled. The oil left a scummy residue that couldn’t be scraped off the insides of the jar and spoilt subsequent batches. The amphorae didn’t break into small enough pieces, and the oil reacted with lime to form a soap that compromised the concrete (soap not being a successful building material). So, the jars were partially broken and laid down as a rubbish dump, that grew and grew over time.

Today, the Monte Testaccio has a cross on its summit. To prevent erosion, it is not a public pace, but it is possible to visit by arrangement, should you find yourself in Rome and looking to get away from the other tourists. It is said that the hill sings to you as you climb it, the noise of pottery shifting and being ground under your feet.

That seems to me to be a perfect illustration of Paul’s reflection on church planting. The churches he planted were small and periodically faced persecution, but by around the time when Rome stopped adding to the Monte Testaccio, the Church had grown large and displaced the old gods.

Sometimes the church still looks like rubbish. But she still sings when trodden under foot.


Tuesday, August 22, 2023

On rocky ground


Some thoughts on how Jesus builds his church, and how apparent failure is not necessarily failure at all:

One time, Jesus asked his disciples who people said that he was (you can read about it in Matthew 16.13-20). That is, he enquired, of those closest to him, how closely they were paying attention to the wider crowds who followed them around. What conversations had they overheard? And they were able to report back a range of rumours circulating about him. Basically, the popular consensus view seemed to be some hero or other back from the realm of the dead.

That, in itself, is an interesting exercise, that invites us to listen beyond our own echo chambers. Who do those around us say that Jesus is?

Jesus continued, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ That is, perhaps, both ‘What conclusion [however provisional] have you drawn?’ and ‘When you hear these rumours, these competing ideas, how do you respond?’ How are you engaging in the conversation?

Simon Peter jumps in with a typically emphatic response: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!’

Jesus both affirms Peter’s response, and sternly orders his disciples not to go round repeating such things to anyone else. And in between these two statements, Jesus says something very interesting about Peter, and the Church.

To pick up on it, first we need to know that the name ‘Simon Peter’ is composed of ‘Simon’ from the Hebrew for ‘to hear’ and ‘Peter’ from the Greek for ‘rocky’.

In his account of the Jesus story, Matthew has already told us about the time when Jesus told a parable of the Sower, which he had then discussed further with his disciples in private:

‘Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away [xérainó—or ripened].’ (Matthew 13.5, 6)

‘As for what was sown on rocky [Peter] ground, this is the one who hears [Simon] the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.’ (Matthew 13.20, 21)

Simon Peter is rocky ground, the one who hears and responds immediately and with enthusiasm—impulsively, even—but who will deny knowing Jesus three times on the night of his arrest and trial, the events that culminate in Jesus’ execution (Matthew 26.33-35, 69-75).

And Jesus says to him, ‘And I tell you, you are Peter,’—that is to say, Jesus is underlying the point that Simon Peter is rocky ground—‘and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.’

Jesus chooses to build his church on rocky ground.

Jesus—who, before he was an itinerant teacher and miracle-worker, was, for most of his adult life, a house builder—chooses rocky ground as the site to build a house for his people’s assembly (ekklesia); chooses a site where you don’t have to excavate much to reach a good foundation.

And the stream of people exiting through the gate of the realm of the dead—those passing from shadowy half-existence to a qualitive experience of coming alive—won’t overwhelm the house built on such a foundation.

Of course, this makes sense when it comes to building a literal building, but the church—as Peter himself will testify, 1 Peter 2.4-10—is a spiritual house, built on a rejected stone. Why, then, build the church on rocky ground? Let’s dig deeper.

The person who is rocky ground (Matthew 13.21) is not rooted (rhiza, root—or offspring) and lasts only for a fleeting, time-limited season (proskairos). When his or her options are shut down (thlipsis), they ‘fall away’ or cause stumbling or offence (skandalizó).

This is fascinating. Jesus will build his church on those who respond to him with gladness and, experiencing rejection, move on. Indeed, we see this very principle at play throughout the Acts of the Apostles, where persecution drives the establishing of new churches, from place to place. The harvest the Sower hopes for in and through such church planters ripens quickly and then they move away. We see this principle at play today, in the very large numbers of people coming alive in Jesus in Iran and among the Persian diaspora; in China and among the Chinese diaspora; and in the remarkable growth of the church among the regularly persecuted Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities in the UK.

Church, in its outward form, is intended to be short-term—not an edifice, not a set tradition of ‘how we do things here’—and in this very way diverse people are called out of darkness into God’s marvellous light radiating from Jesus (1 Peter 2.9).

This is very hard for those who are invested in the church as an outward form to accept. Moulded to form, they will oppose the very idea. What is required is nothing less than repentance, a renewing of the mind. As the apostle Paul—himself rocky ground—wrote to the church in Rome, ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ (Romans 12.2).

For those longing to see a church renewed, we pray.

For those whose joyful yes to Jesus is met with disheartening resistance, we pray.

For those whose options are closing in on them, we pray.

For those through whom many will come alive in Jesus, we pray.

For those coming alive in Jesus, we pray.

Lord, build your church.



Tuesday, August 15, 2023

On prayer as holding space


I have been thinking about intercessory prayer, about what it means to be a community that prays for our wider community, people who pray for our neighbours. I have been thinking about how we pray, and what happens when we pray, and why sometimes we find prayer so difficult, and how we might grow as intercessors. And the wonderful passage from the Gospel this Sunday has been transformative. Let’s take a closer look at Matthew 15.21-28. Our story begins like this:

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out

Now, it doesn’t come across in the English, but the Greek uses the same word, έξέρχομαι (exerchomai) ‘to depart from’, for both Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Jesus departs from, or steps out from, his region—his community—and the Canaanite woman departs from, or steps out of, hers. There is a beautiful mirroring here, a reciprocity of action. Jesus and the woman each crossing the boundary between them, stepping outside of their world to encounter someone from a different world. Between them, they are holding a space between two worlds: between Galilee and Sidon; Jew and Gentile; male and female. There is mutual vulnerability and dignity, and no power imbalance or coercion.

In Jesus we see the revelation of what it is to be God, and what it is to be human. Here in this encounter, we see that when we pray to the Father, in the power of the Spirit, through Jesus the Son, for our neighbours, we are invited to hold space between two worlds. To _hold space between heaven and earth_ or, between the ‘now’ and the ‘not-yet’ of the kingdom of God. We hold a space that we do not control, trusting that God will act to bless and transform those who pray and those for whom we pray. Let’s continue:

… and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’

The English says shouting, but the Greek says κράζω (krazό) ‘to scream, or shriek’. No wonder the disciples are uncomfortable in her presence. This account is reminiscent of Hannah pouring her heart out before God, her anguish at being childless, and bullied for it, and the old priest Eli mistaking her anguish for drunkenness and berating her, trying to move her on. I love that, in contrast, Jesus’ first reaction to the woman is to say nothing, to resist the urge to enter into conversation, to fill the void with words, to offer insight. Sometimes the best possible response—the God-revealing response—is silence, is simply to sit with another so that they know they are not alone, so that they know that they are seen and heard, and not recoiled from.

When we pray for our neighbours, we are invited to _hold space for strong emotions_. If we have truly taken a step from our world into theirs, we can expect shouting (theirs, and ours) and silence (ours, and theirs) as what is on the inside bursts the boundaries of respectable behaviour and break into the outside world. Words can be a barrier, a power game. If our prayers are too neatly packaged, too wordy, too cold, these are sure signs that we haven’t stepped out at all. Let’s continue:

He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’

Lost sheep is again a little misleading. The word for sheep is πρόβατον (probaton) ‘a little sheep’ and the word translated lost is άπόλλυμι (apollumi) ‘to destroy utterly; that is, perishing’. When the disciples plead with Jesus to send away the shrieking Canaanite woman, he responds, ‘I was not sent if not to the little sheep, being utterly destroyed, of the house of Israel’. Jesus is not sent to send away this Canaanite woman, or indeed anyone. Sorry, boys, but it’s a ‘no’ from me. That is to say, the disciples’ prayer is not in line with God’s will, in this situation. Instead, the woman offers a prayer of her own.

But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’

Two words here—τέκνον (teknon) ‘a dependent child’ and κυνάριον (kunarion) ‘a puppy’—add to the image Jesus is building: little sheep, little children, little dogs. All three are vulnerable.

She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’

How is it that food falls from the children’s table? As any parent will tell you, food falls from a child’s table, or highchair, because they are overwhelmed. Because they have not yet mastered the necessary motor skills and hand-eye-mouth coordination. Or because they have not mastered their emotions, their frustration at not being able to communicate with their parent in any way other than to push the bowl over the side. This is not wilful disobedience, but an attempt to communicate, to be understood. And where the child is overwhelmed, the puppy cleans up the mess on the floor.

The disciples are overwhelmed by the presence of a woman who is overwhelmed by the unhappiness of her afflicted daughter. But the woman acknowledges the messiness of her life, where the disciples try to manage it, to keep it out of sight and sound. The woman also recognises that if her prayer is answered, then the disciples will also get what they desire. While, culturally, the disciples would have seen themselves as children and their Canaanite neighbour as a puppy, the woman reveals that she recognises herself in the child and Jesus’ disciples as puppies hoping for scraps. The tables are turned, as it were.

When we pray for our neighbours, we are invited to _hold space for becoming_. This is in direct contrast to the overwhelming conditions we so often find ourselves in that lead to lives being utterly destroyed. Where despair is obvious, we are called to make hope a viable possibility in people's lives again. The little sheep becomes an ewe, with little sheep of her own. The dependent child becomes an adult. The puppy becomes a companion, guard, and guide. None of this occurs overnight.

Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

The woman’s faith is great—or goes beyond the boundaries that life has set for it, creating a more spacious life, for her, for her daughter.

Intercessory prayer, then, is a response to the invitation to hold space between heaven and earth, to hold space for strong emotions, to hold space for becoming.

It is a privilege and an adventure. So let us pray, today and every day. Amen.