Posted in coronavirus

I will fear no evil: for you are with me

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

The shadow of death has been cast across the world: here in Europe, and in the USA it is particularly dark at the moment; and who knows where it may fall next? Death, which had been almost completely pushed out of our minds and our lives is now out again and walking our streets. There is real, and justified, fear. The older you are, and the more other conditions you have, the more the danger. But the virus is no respecter of persons.

In these days we have no choice but to face again the reality of death. We continue to pray that the number of those who die may be kept as small as possible, but each individual death is an immeasurable catastrophe for those who grieve. However few or many there may be, in our own communities, our own countries or around the world, the fact of death is now present to us in a way that Western culture at least has tried to avoid. Those who sadly die are surrounded by a far greater number who walk into the shadow of death, who encounter the frailty of their mortal bodies as breathing becomes difficult, even impossible without oxygen. Around all of them again are the medical staff who care for them, and their anxious friends and family, often unable to be in touch with their loved ones who are ill. Death has broken out of its prison in care home and hospital, it is no longer an occasional and extraordinary visitor. Naturally, many of us are afraid, and perhaps those who are not afraid are not paying attention. The question then is how to respond to that fear. How do we live, live fully and freely, in the light of the death we can no longer ignore?

The readings set for this Sunday are all about death – and life. In the valley full of dry bones, bones with no possible life left in them, Ezekiel is commanded by God to bring them back to life. That life comes not with the restoration of their physical bodies, but when the breath of the Lord comes back into them. Then they live, and stand up. Jesus comes too late to heal Lazarus – three days too late. He is very definitely dead. And then Jesus summons Lazarus back, the dead man recalled to life. As he comes from the tomb Jesus says ‘unbind him, and let him go’. This being John’s gospel, we are right to look for more than one meaning in Jesus’ words. Lazarus is cut free from the physical shroud, which symbolises his being cut free from the cords of death, and let go back into the world of this life.

These scriptures bring us into the presence of death only in order to show, in dramatic form, that death is no equal to the life-giving power of God. We do not live in a world in which the powers of life and death slug it out like two evenly matched boxers, wearing each other down but neither able to prevail. The biblical message is that life always prevails because God is its source and also its end. Through whatever journey it may need to take, the destiny of all life is to be folded up into the everlasting life of God. It is that promise that Paul sets out in this Sunday’s other reading, from his letter to the Romans: 

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

Romans 8:11

These readings are chosen for today because today we begin to look towards the cross. As Lent draws towards its end, the focus narrows towards the events we remember in Holy Week, of Jesus’ last days in his earthly ministry. We are invited in reflecting on these scriptures to place them in the context of Jesus’ death – and to be reminded through them of his resurrection. These two weeks of Passiontide are bearable because of what concludes them, the event which opens up a new world of resurrection. But that resurrection life lies on the other side of Good Friday.

Jesus went to Jerusalem, walking into the valley, knowing the death that awaited him. In different parts of the world, we are in different parts of the coronavirus valley (or peak). In the UK, we are just beginning our journey through the darkest part, as numbers of cases and deaths mount up and up. Jesus went to his death so that our own journey into the shadow need never be alone, need never be the end.

Beside every person in hospital, struggling to breathe, Christ sits and suffers. Death by crucifixion was in part a death of suffocation; literally, Jesus has been where they are. By his Spirit, he connects those who cannot be physically together, as he prays for us all to the Father.

However dark our valley, however real and present our fear, we can also know that fear is not the last word, just as death is not. The word that overcomes death is life; the word that overcomes fear is love.

Posted in coronavirus, Mothering Sunday

God’s touch

This is the first Mothering Sunday for quite a while when I won’t be able to see my mum, and give her a huge hug. She’s 97, and the risk of visiting is just too great. But I’ll miss it a lot, and I know so will she. We’ll Skype each other, but it’s not the same without being able to touch.
Touching and being touched are fundamental to our humanity. From a handshake to an intimate embrace, the meeting of flesh to flesh binds us together. It was a sign of their dehumanisation and exclusion from society that the Dalit people in India were known as ‘the untouchables’; touch is a powerful force for binding us together. That of course is why intrusive or predatory touching is so dangerous: the power of touch can be used to break down as well as to build up. But the answer is not to stop: the answer is to use touch to express love and respect, to honour one another for all that we are as God’s children.
And now we are in a time when touch is dangerous, when even being too close to one another carries great risks. On this Mothering Sunday, a day for hugs and kisses, we are being advised for our own good, and for the good of us all, to step back, to keep our distance. We should not underestimate how hard that may be, for ourselves, whether or not we think of our selves as touchy-feely types, and for those around us. But it is still what we need to do, for our own good and the good of our society.
But there is of course another dimension to Mothering Sunday, which makes it more than Mother’s Day, and maybe also means that we can still know that we are, held, embraced, even hugged. The love that we celebrate today in giving thanks for mothers, and for those who show that same quality, mothers or not, is a reflection of the nurturing, creative, caring love of the God who holds all things in his hands. Jesus reflected that in his ministry – he healed by touch, he blessed by touch, he forgave and reassured by touch.
By the gift of his Spirit, Jesus still touches us; resurrected and in glory, he can enfold the whole world in his embrace. He prays for us constantly and brings us into the relationship of love which binds together Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That remains as true now as it ever has been, but the means by which we are often experience that closeness of God are temporarily taken away from us. Most of us can’t gather at the Lord’s table; we can’t greet each other with a touch at the Peace; we can’t even gossip over a cup of coffee – and it is usually through that closeness and contact, through sharing in eating and drinking together, that we also know the closeness of God. But the fact that those things aren’t there makes no difference to the big truth – God still offers us his touch, his embrace.
However separated we might be, we are still all joining together spiritually around the throne of grace. God’s nurturing, maternal love is poured out on us, wherever we are. Spiritually – which means at the deepest, truest level – we are all united together in Christ as his brothers and sisters. Spiritually, we all equally receive the sacrament of his presence. Spiritually, he takes us all in his arms and blesses us.
As we receive that blessing in our own lives, let us also seek the ways in which we can be a blessing to others. In whatever way we can, let us share the touch of God.

Posted in Church of England, coronavirus

Keep calm and carry on? or Be afraid, be very afraid …?

How worried are you right now? Yes, about the new coronavirus and the disease it causes. Whatever your personal state of mind, this is a time to think about what it means for you – and in this post I’m talking to those who identify as Christians. As Christians we are called to follow the example of Jesus – Jesus who associated with the poor, the sick, the marginalised. We are people whose first calling is not to meet our own needs, but to the bear the burdens of others. So we can’t really think about what it means to respond to this outbreak without first thinking about what it also means for others, for our whole community.

So what do we do in the face of advice to self-isolate, to avoid contact, to reduce our contact with and exposure to others? In a world where enough people are lonely already, where many people go around the whole time with their guard up, suspicious of strangers, how do we continue to witness to the love of the God who breaks down barriers, who reaches out to embrace us, who heals and reconciles us by the gift of his own body, his own blood?

Those questions drive us back to the roots of our faith. They make us realise that our response to the coronavirus can’t be merely pragmatic, still less fearful – it must be informed by our faith in God. We come into God’s presence recognising our weakness, our sin and our fear – and opening ourselves to be filled again with God’s gifts of faith, hope and love. In the incarnation of Christ, God comes to share all our human state, including our desire to avoid suffering – ‘Father if this cup can pass from me’, he prayed in Gethsemane – but with complete trust and commitment to do whatever was the Father’s will. Because he has passed through death and defeated death, we too can approach whatever may come, knowing that God will be walking with us.

We live in uncertain times, in many ways, and none of us know how quickly or widely the coronavirus outbreak will spread. We do not come to God for a heavenly insurance policy, to exempt ourselves from what may happen to other people. Our faith does not prevent us getting ill. But it does mean that we know we are always profoundly healed – whether we live all the time with disability or illness, or whether we are afflicted in passing, at root we are whole in Christ. In the light of that wholeness and that promise we can live the life we are given with the joy that Christ gives, day by day, looking forward to the fullness of eternal life. How can we, then, healed and reconciled, continue to be agents of healing and reconciliation to our neighbours and communities?

Well, firstly, what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean ignoring government guidance, or deluding ourselves into believing that if we’re praying enough then we won’t be infected. The authorities in the UK have adopted a sensible and measured approach, and we are all well advised to follow it: to follow it in adopting sensible precautions, and also in not panicking ourselves or encouraging others to feel more anxious than they need.

As for what it does mean? – well, someone else has done the thinking for me, and I suggest you have a look. Alan Smith, Bishop of St Albans, has suggested four golden rules – which if we can follow, will make this epidemic/pandemic into also an opportunity for Christians to demonstrate the difference that Christ makes.

Posted in Uncategorized

Which way to look?

Janus, the two-headed god of doorways, and of the New Year.

Nostalgia is an under-rated force in history: time goes forward, but people often flee backwards, from crisis and complexity to imagined simplicity and purity. The past can be another country, but it can also be a homeland.

Arabs (Yale, 2019), p289

Tim Mackintosh-Smith writing about Arabs in the early ninth century; seems a very relevant thought for New Year’s Day. Particularly this year?

Great book, too.

Posted in Christmas

We all have a voice; we all have a song

My Christmas sermon from Midnight Mass in Croydon Minster (as broadcast on BBC1). Happy Christmas!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ That’s what the angels sing to the shepherds, still trying to understand the message they’re heard. The very first Christmas carol, you could say – the first song in response to the birth of Christ, sung as the event itself was unfolding: a song of wonder and rejoicing at the amazing thing that God was doing. And from then to now, people love singing carols. As someone said to me one Christmas, why is it that we have to have all those readings, they just get in the way of the carol singing. He was trying to wind me up – but he was onto something. When we sing we open ourselves up; we can be touched by the wonder of God. But it can be risky too – we become vulnerable. As a child I loved singing, but sadly other people didn’t love my singing as much as I did. After being told to be quiet once too often it took me years to discover that actually I could sing OK.

The song of praise that the angels sang, the carols that we sing, invite us all to take the risk of opening our hearts, to God and to the world God loves. They ask us to believe that this birth, this nativity, is the gift of a child not merely to one family, but to the whole world. In the birth of Jesus Christ, the gift of new life is offered to the whole world by God; we are given the chance to turn our lives again toward God and to receive that new life into our own lives. We are all invited to join in the angels’ song and to make it our own; not just something we listen to, but something we live, the rhythm and beat of all that we do and all that we are. It’s the best earworm ever, a joyful song which is still there whatever may be happening in us or around us, even in the darkest places and times a reminder of the hope we have in God.

Each of us is invited to share in the song of Christmas, but there’s even more – the angel’s song does not only praise God, it also talks about God’s blessing on the world. ‘Glory to God in the highest’, the song of praise, leads directly into ‘peace on earth among those whom he blesses’. Living the story of Jesus in our own lives is not merely for our own personal benefit. As those who are living in harmony with God we are called to bring harmony into relationships and situations which are broken and discordant – in ourselves, in our families and communities, in our society and across our world.

Of course, that’s also the risky bit. Singing carols together is wonderful – the singing itself gives voice to that desire which is deep in all our hearts, the desire for a world in which we can live in harmony with one another and with ourselves. But if this song is your song, if it’s what keeps your life in tune, then you need to keep singing it after the nativity set’s been put away. And you might get told to be quiet, like I was as a small boy. Because the Christmas song is about a world turned upside down – or maybe better to say, an upside down world turned back up the right way.

The gift that God gives is the promise of a world made new. The celebrations of Christmas can be an escape from the world and all its pressures and problems – and maybe we all need that. Much more importantly, though, the Christmas gift God brings to us is hope for a world renewed. Those of us who wish to continue singing the angels’ song do so through witnessing to that hope precisely where hope seems hardest to come by. In the practical work of winter night shelters and food banks; in welcoming refugee children seeking reunion with their families; in offering care and companionship to the lonely and the sad; in seeking ways to avert the climate change crisis – in these and in many other ways the angels’ song continues to be sung in our country and in our world.

The angel’s song, the carols we sing, express the human yearning for a more complete, a more whole, a more human life. That is God’s desire too; God wants to bless the world. As you celebrate this Christmas, as you sing this story again, my prayer is that you will find in that song a way to live every day in hope, faith and love. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t sing! We all have a voice, we all have a song. In a world of uncertainty and anxiety, may the angels’ song be sung loud and clear: peace on earth, good news to all people. Amen.

Posted in climate change

Whose emergency?

Today is the beginning of the church’s season of creation, part of our liturgical year which rolls around every year. And that is becoming a problem. We still have the feeling that there will be another chance, another opportunity. But the creation itself is already in the last chance saloon. There isn’t any time left, if we want future generations to celebrate a creation that looks anything like it does now. We have an emergency on our hands. (If you don’t believe me, read this.)

Human beings aren’t very good in emergencies, sadly, especially when it’s not obvious that it’s our own emergency. Even in much more immediate settings the bystander effect comes into play.

When a young woman was stabbed to death outside her apartment building while a number of people watched and did nothing has stimulated a study of how people react in an unclear emergency situation. The findings illustrated that the more people who saw the incident, the less likely they were prepared to act. This means that we not only rely on others to recognise the seriousness of the situation but we are also diffusive of responsibility.

So how can the global emergency of climate change, which everyone is watching, how can that possibly become my emergency? Only I think by becoming something that costs me, that I am invested in. If the woman being attacked had been the partner or daughter of any of those watching, i doubt if they would have waited for others to react.

So what is it that makes something important for you? For some, the destruction of the global climate does it. But for most people – as is obvious from the lack of action so far – it needs to be something much closer to home. And it needs ideally to be something that you are doing alongside others. If your friends, or family, or colleagues are doing it too, whatever “it” may be, then each of you reinforce the sense that this is worthwhile and important.

Do something now – something that costs. Money, time, energy, comfort: it doesn’t matter, really, as long as whatever you do is a commitment. Make yourself committed; make this your emergency. Don’t be taken in by the deceptive fact that your individual action won’t make much difference. Yes it’s true, but what will make a difference is when enough people think preserving our planet is their own priority, not someone else’s. Then change will happen.

It’s not going to happen from above, from governments, until they think it will affect their votes. So it has to happen from below, from the actions of millions of ordinary people who know we don’t have time left to wait for someone else to do something. This is your own planet that’s under attack. How will you help to save it?

Posted in politics

Living in God’s time (right now)

Today’s gospel reading had a paragraph which you probably ignored unless you had to read it aloud. It’s the  one when Luke lists all the rulers at the time when Jesus began his ministry: Tiberius the emperor, Pilate the governor and then the rulers of the neighbouring territories, and the religious leaders, working down the ladder of importance and influence.

Right here, right now in the UK there’s plenty to worry about in the politics of our country, with political leaders themselves completely uncertain what will happen next, and, many of them, playing games of party political power while the future of this country is in the balance. The simmering division between those who want to get out of the EU, and those who want to stay, could easily come to the surface again. There are no safe bets.

And then there’s the next sentence of the gospel – ‘the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness’. God is very obviously not communicating through the great and powerful, even the religiously influential. Instead his word comes to an unknown son of a minor priest, already in the wilderness, away from all the centres of learning and prayer and power. Something very different is going on. The world of time and politics is being invaded by God’s time, God’s politics.

So where are we going to live, in God’s time or the world’s time? Human time is the time of kings and rulers, the time that rolls on and on, the time of history. It’s the day to day passing of life which can keep us so busy with everyday necessities that we never ask what they are necessary for. It’s the world of politics and right now of anxiety, uncertainty,  fear and anger.

Against the time of history, the ever-flowing stream, John the Baptist comes like a rock thrown into the water and damming its flow. God’s time is always now, it is about the decision we make now as to how we are to live. John invites us to step out of the flow of earthly time and power into the kingdom of heaven.

Living in that kingdom sets us free from being prisoners to the anxiety and fear pervading our political life. Whatever we might desire ourselves in this world is secondary, for as Christians we have another country, a different and deeper allegiance. As citizens of that country, we can come back into the everyday world as messengers of a deeper hope and a more profound security. Over this next couple of days, and in whatever happens after, our society may need a lot of that.