Friday, February 16, 2024

All about chocolate? Thought for the day, Friday 16th February

How is it going so far?

Barely three days into Lent, and I’ve so nearly failed in my Lenten disciplines already, as yesterday morning my hand automatically stretched out to take the chocolate kindly offered by a colleague after a big memorial service. Salted caramel…pretty much my favourite. Of course I’d like one…Thank you…Except…and so I remembered in the nick of  time the new law that I had established, and swerved away – my resolve unbroken even if my internal monologue was on the decidedly grumpy side.

Sometimes at the start of Lent it can feel as if we have written a whole catalogue of new rules simply to make life harder for ourselves, forbidding things overnight that had been entirely licit only the day before. Whether we are giving things up or taking things on, whether we’ve created a whole new schedule of prayer or are planning to spend 5 nights a week volunteering for some worthy cause, we often seem intent on creating situations which confine us, set us up to fail, load us all with a plethora of new reasons to beat ourselves up.

So – is that really what it’s all about. Lent, a season to make ourselves as miserable as possible and, as a result, to make those around us pretty miserable too? Is the idea that I should become a kind of penance for my nearest and dearest?

Well, obviously not.

While Lent can look like a kind of spiritual assault course, one more desperate attempt at self-improvement at which we’re bound to fail, that’s never the point. Yes, we are called to amendment of life..Yes, we should expect to learn some important truths about ourselves in the coming weeks…but the point of it all is to enable us to focus ever more deeply on God and God’s love.

A  long time ago, I asked a group of primary school children what they thought Lent was about.

“It’s spring-cleaning for the soul” said L – and for me, that hit the jack-pot. This is our season to give up, not just chocolate, but all those things that get in the way so thoroughly, to declutter heart, mind and soul – to attend to those matters that really need attention…Remember, though,  it’s not the obedience to our own internal legislation that matters, any more than it was adherence to the full Mosaic code that spelled salvation for the Galatians.

There’s nothing we can do to make that happen...Nothing we can do to earn our seat at the table, - Christ has already done that for us and it is ours through God’s grace…

But we CAN use these coming days and weeks to strengthen our faith, as we learn to be God’s people once again, touched by God’s love and enlivened by the Spirit. With an agenda like that, chocolate probably doesn’t matter.




Saturday, February 10, 2024

Racial Justice and Transfiguration Sunday 11th February 2024 at Southwark

How clearly can you see?

I’ve just admitted defeat after decades of wearing glasses to drive, and am the somewhat anxious owner of my first pair of variafocals. In theory this should mean that absolutely everything is much clearer, though I’m not completely convinced yet. I asked the Sub-Dean for advice and he simply told me to follow my nose – but I’m not quite sure that my nose knows where I’m heading, which makes me feel rather like an unsuccessful blood-hound., so I’m wearing my new glasses rather less than I should.

However – the whole experience has made me think hard about the gift of sight, and the need to see clearly in order to navigate life without injuring myself or anyone else.

And that seems a good route in to today’s readings – and to Racial Justice Sunday too.

It seems to me that a great deal of what Christian spirituality is about is "seeing."
When Elijah was taken from him, the critical question for Elisha was “would he see it happening”
On that hung so much of his own future hopes in ministry …He would be given a double share of his Mentor’s spirit if he had eyes to see, even if to see is not always a joyful experience. Whenever I read this passage I’m struck by Elisha’s desolation “father, father...the chariots of Israel and its horsemen”

He can see that for Elijah there is no going back. He really is leaving, so Elisha stands, bereft, tearing his garments, confronted by the incontrovertible evidence of his own eyes.

Clear vision isn’t always welcome – as we begin to comprehend things, notice hard truths that we just hadn’t seen before.

When I was a child, Racial Justice Sunday simply hadn’t been thought of. It was first marked in 1995 though it has taken far longer to gain a secure foot-hold. At its best, I imagine that the Church of my childhood was full of benevolent paternalism, that my mother’s view that to be colour blind was the best possible approach was pretty widespread, that nobody had noticed, somehow, that the playing field on which different races and colours were standing was unimaginably far from a level one. It took a long time before anyone felt able to acknowledge that.

It would be great to be able to say “But that’s all gone now...” - except that clearly, it isn’t. If we’d learned, then there might be no need for Racial Justice Sunday at all -….but you’ll know the statistics as well as I much harder it can be to simply get through life, let alone thrive, if, to put it crudely, your face doesn’t fit.

It can be very hard indeed to truly see and name the situation for what it is. White privilege remains white privilege whether we acknowledge it or not...and can be internalised in myriad unhealthy ways. I discovered this for myself when I first spent time in India, as part of a diocesan exchange programme. Wherever we went, with our Indian clergy hosts, queues formed to ask for blessings and I discovered that there was an unexpected hierarchy at play, such that the hands of a white British priest, - even a woman- were perceived as somehow more holy than the hands of the faithful Indian priests who served those communities day in day out. It was shocking, unwelcome but undeniable. The myth of white superiority had been so thoroughly absorbed in those rural communities, it was hard to imagine an appropriate response that did not look simply ungracious. And, after all, that myth had its origins in the days of the was my forbears who had taught those communities that they were of second rank, second value.

Simply because I was, in effect, wearing new glasses, this did not change the view for everyone. Seeing clearly can be very hard work…Sometimes the gospel, the truth of God’s unconditional, all-inclusive love, seems to be veiled by the very institutions that exist to embody it – and that is something of which the Church must, and does, repent.

But the truth, of course, is always there, whether we see it or not, just as it was for the disciples on the holy mountain. Listen to these words from Madeleine l’Engle’s wonderful book The Irrational Season:
"Suddenly they saw him the way he was; the way he really was all the time, although they had never seen it before, the glory which blinds the everyday eye and so becomes invisible. This is how he was, radiant, brilliant, carrying joy like a flaming sun in his hands. This is the way he was - is - from the beginning and we cannot bear it. So he manned himself, came manifest to us; and there on the mountain, they saw him; they really saw him, saw his light. Now, perhaps, we will see each other, too."


That must be our task, on this Racial Justice Sunday.

To see ourselves, to see the unconscious privilege that some of us enjoy and to repent of that.

To see the face of Christ in all whom we meet, regardless of race, colour or all the other external markers that might deceive us or threaten to distort our vision.

To see Christ and so seeing, to love and serve him as he loves and serves us all.

So, how clearly can you see?

Perhaps you need new glasses yourself...

As a pilgrim in the Holy Land some years ago, my own experience on the Mountain of the Transfiguration provided the kind of lesson I wish I didn’t need. We visited in January, and as the group emerged from our taxis close to the church, cloud did indeed overshadow us so that we could see – , honestly, precisely NOTHING.

Inside the church building all was gold and blazing splendour – the image of Jesus with Moses and Elijah instantly recognisable and unmissable.above the altar Outside, though, I could barely see the ground at my feet...had no idea where I was heading...was in real danger of falling over my own feet or tripping up others..

I know I can be guilty of that in daily life too. I just don’t see

But perhaps that is the task of priesthood: simply to help others to see.

Or better yet, perhaps we can help each other..

Would you help me?

Together we might learn to see God’s presence in everything and everyone, to see one another with his eyes of love…with no judgement, no comparison, neither anxiety, pride nor fear…

To look at one another and to see, not those features that divide us, those characteristics that irritate...but, like the disciples, only Jesus.

As we begin our journey through Lent, our eyes fixed on the cross and the love that transforms it,, let us pray for that grace to see God’s glory blazing through the ordinary til everything is extraordinary, everything illuminated. May we see that more and more til the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts.

Thought for the Day 24th January 2024


God is our refuge and strength, - a very present help in trouble, therefore we will not fear proclaimed the psalmist...but our reading from Matthew’s gospel leads us into very different territory, as we are taken into the darkness of fear and uncertainty, anticipating the events we will experience once again in a few short weeks as we join Jesus in Gethsemane.

It seems to me that in this passage we encounter Jesus at his most vulnerable...He NEEDS his friends, because the weight of all that is to come is overwhelming, unbearable. It has been suggested that the name “Gethsemane” derives from the Hebrew word for an olive press...Certainly this is the time when Jesus is pressed almost to breaking point.

Is it the anticipation of the physical pain of crucifixion or the knowledge that he may feel himself cut off from his heavenly Father that grieves him, even to death? Is the cup that he longs to set down one of physical suffering or the deep emotional and spiritual trauma of carrying the brokenness of the world and all its pain? We can’t know – and I’m not sure that it matters. The point is that on this, the night before he died, Jesus went from the light and companionship of the passover meal out into the darkness where, even in the company of his disciples, he found himself alone.

The disciples are vulnerable too. For all their longing to support Jesus, they cannot keep awake...falling asleep repeatedly so that Jesus faces his ordeal, wrestling with himself and with God without any tangible human support.

Perhaps its perverse, but I find this ultimately comforting. If JESUS longs to step aside from suffering, if he too would prefer to take another, easier route, if he finds himself at odds with God as he contemplates the way ahead, then it is surely OK for me to to protest against even the second-order challenges of my life and my faith.

In my earliest days of ministry I was sent to visit a lady who had been shaped and supported by her faith all her life long. By the time I landed, a shiny new curate in the church she loved, she was already well advanced on her final journey, housebound as her cancer took its inexorable course. As I spent time with her during those final weeks, she told me something of her fears. No stranger to pain, she was worried that she might face an agony that nothing would alleviate, though her MacMillan nurse promised that it would be managed. Then, one afternoon, she suggested that she was letting God down.

“I’m afraid. Afraid of dying. Afraid God might not be there. Afraid of my own fear”

I was SO inexperienced and for a moment gripped by total panic – but then, wonderfully, this passage landed. Can you think of a time when Jesus felt like that I asked….

Silence, so I prompted “What about Gethsemane?”

There was another silence but then a smile of pure joy spread across her face.


I see.

He’s been there.

He knows how I feel.

It’s going to be OK

Thought for the Day January 17th 2024

I’ve always felt a kind of appalled fascination at the description Matthew’s Jesus presents in this passage, the “Little Apocalpyse” which takes us into an unimaginable future, which will arrive – who knows when? Not as soon as Matthew expected, for sure. He was surrounded by all the baggage of a struggling community and in this writing wanted to give them a rationale for their suffering, a sense that it had purpose and direction….

More, he wanted to make sure they were alert – to both the pain and the potential of the moment, - and in doing so, paints such a vivid picture of a community oblivious to the dramatic events unfolding in their midst.

For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all too will be the coming of the Son of Man”

It’s so easy to imagine life going on as normal – Happy couples celebrating their wedding night...Families gathering around the dinner table...while all the while the world was changing around them.

Indeed, it’s hard to work out what people might more properly do.

Remember those last weeks of February 2020 – that half term break when families headed determinedly to Italy, obstinately refusing to accept that the tide of covid was rising so fast and so high that it might yet sweep all away…?

When confronted by crisis, we tend to seek comfort in the familiar...and that’s both understandable and acceptable up to a point.

But there comes a moment when surely nobody, NOBODY can ignore the lie of the land...When carrying on regardless seems an act not of courage but of wanton stupidity. Jesus makes it clear to his friends that there WILL be signs – and highly dramatic ones at that. Only the foolhardy will choose to ignore them, to pretend that there’s nothing to see here….

As we continue our journey through Epiphany, it’s still all about seeing...and allowing what we see to change and shape us…

I find myself transported unexpectedly back to my childhood, and to the large crucifix that hung outside a local church…As we travelled home by bus, I would find myself on eye level with the words carved beneath

Is it nothing to you, all you that pass by?”...and something in the power of word and image arrested me every time, making it impossible to look away….

But how often we choose that route…

On Sunday’s dog walk in the park I was accosted by a man who was clearly highly disturbed and anything but happy. He was standing next to the tennis courts, swearing voluably at those playing and at all those walking past. I managed to skirt round him on the way out, but as I headed homeward his imprecations became harder to ignore.

EFF YOU...and your dog!”

I paused, uncomfortable, out of my depth, but realising that avoidance was no longer a workable strategy. He was just a few feet away...his anger and distress at the world hitting me in waves. I stopped, offered him a few clumsy words to convey that I had at least tried to listen to his pain

He spotted my collar

You a priest?”...His hand went into his pocket. I froze. Was he going to pull out a knife? No – a fistful of coins...”Take them. Go on. TAKE THEM”…

Which is why I have a single penny in my coat pocket...the least I could get away with taking, but somehow enough to satisfy him.

As I moved away, one of the guys playing tennis nearby called over to me

IGNORE HIM. Don’t engage with him. Don’t looks as if you’ve seen him”

But I did. He was there. I couldn’t look away – and in actually seeing him, saw something of Christ in pain in his broken, suffering child…

Is it nothing to you?

Before we see the Son of Man coming in clouds and great glory, we need to learn to see him in the broken, the weary, the discomforting situations of our here and now.

Behold and see”…

In this season of Epiphany may we see indeed – may we read the signs of the times and respond before its too late.