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.

 

Posted in refugees, spirituality

Not looking away

Recently I was asked if I could write something for the Fellowship of Contemplative Prayer about praying contemplatively amid the disorder of our world. This is what I wrote.

 

Contemplative prayer is about looking. That’s what the word means. The call to contemplative prayer is to remain focused (another visual image), to bring your attention back time and again as it flits away, to that point of attention which can become the place in which we know ourselves to be seen and loved by God.

After I was asked to write this article, I did a little research of my own and came across  an article quoting some of the more surprising and difficult verses that Robert Coulson, the Fellowship’s founder, had used in his own prayer – verses such as “I will visit upon you the evil of your doings” (Jer 23.2 RV). As the article pointed out, these are verses “that we personally would find challenging, if not impossible, to use in our contemplative prayer time”.

Those verses were of judgement, verses which challenge our sense of ourselves as loved by God. Especially because of our own knowledge that some of our doings are indeed evil, we find it almost impossible to stay with verses like these.

But if we can move in deeper, I think a verse like this can in fact take us closer to God, through the path of mourning. I’d like to invite you if you can to stay with this image in prayer.

This is a picture of the former “Jungle” Camp in Calais before its demolition.
The Jungle, and other even more squalid encampments which have followed it, are our attempt to turn our collective eyes aw2015-11-14 15.20.27ay from those who have come to Europe – some seeking asylum, some “merely” escaping from poverty. We in the UK turn our eyes away by making it uniformly difficult for anyone to get into the country, however justified their claim might be. You can only claim asylum on UK territory – and without travel documents (which most asylum seekers won’t have, naturally) there is no legal way to get here. So people wash around our fortified borders, looking for a way in.

The Jungle was a place of squalor and desperation and danger – and also of extraordinary acts of love and mutual service. But you could only find that love, those signs of God’s presence, by staying with the ugliness and the pain. If you do not look away, but look for God here, you have no choice but to mourn the disorder in our world which has led so many people to prefer this life to the life they were leading in their countries of origin. And in that mourning you cannot help but find that you, like me, like all of us, are not separate from that disorder. We are all implicated; we are all guilty. And there is no simple, easy answer, but there is forgiveness, and so there is hope.

The prayer of contemplative mourning is not one of self-loathing. Seeing, staying with the pain of our world, and acknowledging that we are part of the cause of that pain, is also a way of opening ourselves to be a source of healing. There were extraordinary people in the Jungle, some migrants themselves, others from the UK and across Europe, who dedicated themselves to bringing what hope they could. As you all know, it is not just the active life of service which brings the love of God into the world; the contemplative life is an equally vital, if more mysterious, means of God’s grace. In the painful prayer of mourning, the healing of the world is brought nearer.

Christianity … combines the moral fervour of the martyr with the laid-back ethic of the hippie … Those who live as though the future had already arrived … are prophets, and as such figures marked out as objects of political violence; yet they also live like the lilies of the field and take no heed for tomorrow

Terry Eagleton, Radical Sacrifice, p. 105

Discuss …

Posted in refugees

Welcome to Britain! Here’s the bill

The UK’s Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration is investigating the Home Office’s charging for services in respect of its asylum, immigration, nationality and customs functions. Still bothering to read? You should be.

So, imagine you are a refugee who has recently been granted leave to remain in the UK, you and your spouse and children. You may well have had a senior and well-paid job in your country of origin, but in all likelihood you arrived here with nothing, and your qualifications aren’t recognised in this country. But this is where you want to belong, where you want to be your home country, the place to which you are committed for life. So you take whatever work you can, probably minimum wage, but better than nothing. You get along, just, from month to month, but it’s a struggle.

And then, naturally enough, you want to express that commitment by becoming a British citizen. You realise these processes aren’t completely free. And being of an enquiring turn of mind, you find out about other countries too, just out of interest. If you were in Belgium, it would cost you €200 (currently about £177). If you were in the United States, it would cost you $725 (about £550). In France it’s just €55. And in the UK – £1,330. And if you make one mistake on your form, the application will be turned down without refund. Children are a bargain at a mere £1,012.

You’re told that this is because of the great benefits that citizenship will bring you. and you wonder – is UK citizenship really 27 times more valuable than French? And you also  think – that’s all very well if you’ve got capital to invest, but I don’t, and no-one is yet offering low interest loans on citizenship application fees to people on low and precarious incomes.

You know already, through personal experience, that the UK makes it tough for anyone who wants to get here to claim asylum, unless you’re lucky enough to be included in one of the resettlement programmes. But you’re through that now; no need for a hostile (or even ‘compliant’) environment any more. So what’s all this about?

You try to do some research – and you find a quotation from a research project which makes you even more perplexed:

Research has demonstrated that achieving citizenship is important in migrant integration and social cohesion, among other benefits for both migrants and communities in which they live; cultivating a loyalty amongst migrants for their new home country and its values

So do the government not want me to be loyal? Do they not want me to become integrated into my new society? Do they really, still, not want me at all?

Posted in Uncategorized

Clay jars – a sermon on the ordination to the priesthood of Mark Anderson and Stephen Srikantha

2 Corinthians 4:7: we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
KintsugiI know that some of you saw the installation that Alison Clark (who as well as being an artist is also my wife) placed in Southwark Cathedral as part of the commemoration of the terrorist attack on London Bridge. The theme was ‘Broken Beauty’, and Alison took inspiration from the Japanese tradition of kintsugi. Kintsugi is the art of repair – but instead of trying to conceal all sign of the original break, the kintsugi craftsman makes it more visible. The object is whole again, but the line of the fracture is outlined in gold – and I have a bowl here which illustrates the art. A beautiful earthenware bowl in its own right made more beautiful having been broken, and repaired.
We have this treasure in earthen vessels, in clay jars. Paul’s passionate and loving argument with the people of God in Corinth revolves in large part around what it is that makes an apostle – what sort of apostle is he, and does he match up to the competition. In both 1 and 2 Corinthians Paul denounces as foolishness any attempt to demonstrate his superiority by the world’s standards. Instead, he boasts in his weakness, in his sufferings, in his humiliations – if you really want to compete, he says, compete to be the last and the least, not the first and the greatest.
And that is not just a particularly subtle psychological ploy in order to come out on top – the ancient world knew nothing of the cult of the underdog. A slave was a piece of property, to be disposed of at will; being at the bottom of the heap didn’t confer some paradoxical kudos. Paul went this way because he had to as a follower of Jesus. If the Son of God had emptied himself, had taken the form of a slave, given over to the shameful death of the cross, then what other path could his followers take in their turn?
There are several explanations offered by scholars for Paul’s particular use of ‘clay jars’ as his example. One that I find particularly helpful is that he may have been referring to the small, cheap, disposable pottery lamps that were in use in Corinth – lamps filled with oil and with a little floating wick. And that may help us trace the connection back to the previous verse
For it is the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ
Paul is telling the Corinthians, in as many ways as he can – it’s not about me; it’s about Jesus. If you’re still looking at me, and me only, you’re looking at the wrong thing. I am here as the vessel through which the light and life of God can flow into the world. Focus, he says, on my weakness, because then you will be able to see the power that comes from God.
Paul is talking about his own ministry, in contrast to his unknown opponents who appear to have criticised him – for exactly the things that he now wears as his badges of honour. And he in turn accuses them of being concerned in the end for their own glory, and not the glory of God. That has been throughout the centuries the one of the great temptations of the church, and especially of its ministers. Whether it be through accumulating palaces and lands, or power in the state, or perhaps more recently having your own personal aeroplane, those who are called to glorify God have consistently found it difficult to distinguish the glory of God from their own glory. But holding exactly that distinction is one of the first marks of a priest in the church, and one of the most powerful witnesses that we can make to the transforming power of God at work within us.
If I can move with only a slightly awkward change of gear into the contemporary age, one of Leonard Cohen’s finest lines has been echoing in my head – ‘there’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in’. It is through our fragility, our brokenness and our weakness that the light gets in to us – and that is how it shines out again.
We start, all of us who are Christians, with the knowledge that we are sinful and broken people in a broken world. We start with the desire to be re-made by God, to become the people God created us to be. It is that deep knowledge that our lives are centred around God not ourselves, that the love of God has shone in our hearts, that the light has got into us as we acknowledge the cracks that sin makes in us, that is the root of all our Christian discipleship.
And we start there too as those called into ordained ministry. None of us come because we know we are worthy of this calling; on the contrary, it is essential to our calling that we know we are not worthy. Mark and Stephen both come today to this service with many gifts and talents, for which we thank God. In their different ways they are highly skilled, and they have worked hard to learn and to grow into their calling. I have great confidence in them both. But I am most confident because I am sure that for them both their ministry rests most deeply not on all those skills and abilities, but on the grace of God.
The light gets in through the cracks, says Leonard Cohen; the light shines out through the earthen vessels, says St Paul. It is in the wholeness of your humanity, Mark and Stephen, that you are called to serve the church as priests. In your weakness and your uncertainties as much as in those things which flow easily and skilfully. This is not a profession in which you can specialise just in the things that you particularly prefer. To be a priest of the new covenant of Christ is a calling to stand for God to the people and for the people to God in many different ways. Some of them are mundane and frustrating, some are frankly scary and many are deeply joyful. It will be as often through your stumbling and weakness as through your skill that people will see Christ.
We are all on a pilgrimage towards the wholeness of our being in God, but we also bear the signs of our human weakness. This kintsugi bowl has been broken and more than repaired, it has been remade. It is better than before it was broken. As priests, you bring that gift and promise of reconciliation through pronouncing God’s forgiveness of sins and through presiding at the eucharist. The priesthood is nothing less than a calling to embody for the church God’s mission to remake the world, and to enable the whole church to share in that mission.
You cannot do this in your own strength; but you do not need to. You are as Christ’s disciples filled and surrounded by the love of God – in your hearts and shown through the love and support of families, friends and the communities you serve. You have been called as the person you are, not to try to become someone else. As you begin to explore the gift of priesthood in your ministry, let it inhabit you as you inhabit it, so that you can begin to understand for yourself what it means to be a clay jar, a fragile and breakable human being, who is also, and through acknowledging that fragility all the more so, a lamp shining for the world with the light of Christ.