Sunday, 9 November 2014

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candle may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor10 of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen, September - October, 1917

Wilfrid Owen’s poetry introduced me to the reality of war as a student at secondary school, along with Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves these were the writers that helped me see the sacrifice that we ask others to make on our behalf when we send them to fight for us. These writers showed us what they suffered in war, as well as revealing their courage.

All of us have some contact with war today, even if it isn’t with the actual experience of fighting. One experience that stays with me is visiting the S21 prison in Cambodia and seeing the remnants of the appalling Pol Pot regime. It was an experience similar perhaps to those who visit Auschwitz, a chilling and frightening one to witness to the remnant and memory of what people do to one another in war. The element that I found so scary about the Cambodian war was the way in which it seemed impossible to work out and follow who was fighting who – the terror would turn ally into foe in an irrational chaos. But, the museum that this small school had become, the memory of the torture chamber that it was, was honouring the dead. People came, people looked, and people saw what had happened. These places of memory, like the S21 Prison Museum, and the current poppy display at the Tower of London catch the imagination in their different ways, helping those of us who didn’t’ experience the wars first hand, to understand and remember.

But, other than imagining and remembering and honouring, what can we say today?
Can faith take us through war, into war, along with war?
Can faith survive war?

Well- we perhaps can only look to examples of people who have revealed in their lives that faith can not only survive but grow, nourish and bring inner peace in the midst of war.

Etty Hillesum is such a person. She was a young Dutch Jewish woman working in Amsterdam during World War II who kept a series of journals that recorded her spiritual awakening. She served Jewish refugees in a Nazi transit camp before she too was finally transported to Auschwitz, on November 30, 1943, at the age of 29, where she was killed.

An editor of her journals, Anne Marie Kidder, writes that Etty, "is a mystic who, amid the war's horrors, could affirm the goodness and beauty of life and taught herself, as she taught others, to explore the landscape of the soul and the soul's quest for truth and God.” Etty became, in her own astonishing words, "the thinking heart of the barracks”. What does it take to be able to affirm goodness and beauty in the midst of the horror of war?

For Etty, war became the catalyst for the transformation and purification of the heart. Rather than it consuming and destroying her soul, as it did her body, her soul was made perfect through the experience; she rose up to heaven, whilst her body was in hell. In war she found out what peace meant."True peace will come when every individual finds peace within himself; when we have all vanquished and transformed our hatred for our fellow human beings of whatever race--even into love one day. It is the only solution" she writes.

It takes prophets and mystics to transform conversation and power. For men and women of peace are powerless in the face of the world’s actions. Yet, as people of faith we know that the Cross is ultimately greater than any power in this world. Jesus’ abandonment on the cross, his utter powerlessness in the face of the violence and destruction of the world was transformative – he rejected the ways of this world and in self-sacrifice and in peace he transformed the world. For in losing everything of worldly value, we know we can attain everything of the greatest importance: truth, justice, and ultimately peace.

So, this Remembrance Sunday when we remember those who have given their lives for us, we can honour them most effectively by focussing in on our own lives and in dedicating ourselves to developing an attitude of peace in our hearts and minds, a practice that should transform our speech and our personal and public relationships. We must always look for and seek peace so that we do not have to ask young and old to give their lives in active service:

 “Ultimately, we have just one moral duty”, writes Etty,: “to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.”

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Called to be Saints

All Christians have a calling to be saints. Each one of us as a Christian is a saint, one of the blessed ones of God – that is our inheritance and the hope that we have. Child or elderly, man or woman, whoever we are, we are God’s holy children, made blessed.

Jesus’ teaching in the beatitudes* is a description of the lives of Christians, of saints. Our blessedness is to be found in certain qualities; qualities that mark us out, that define us and that enable us to live in God’s eternal kingdom. And they are surprising. They challenge us. We have lived with these ideas in the Western world for a long time, generation after generation, and they have left their mark on our society. But they are challenging and demanding as well as being a gift.

The Christian life is a life held in tension, a tension between blessedness and trial. Jesus’ life is the perfect example of blessing – the healings, the miracles, the relationships and the peace. But on the other hand the extraordinary trial of his suffering and passion. Jesus is the model for all of us, not because we all need to suffer as he did, but because the reality of living a blessed life is the reality of that tension. We cannot express and embody God’s love without experiencing its trials, tribulations and sufferings; we cannot embody and experience God’s love without being overwhelmed by its beauty, its fullness, its extraordinary power to remake and give hope.

So our experience of being a Christian if it is to follow the pattern of Jesus will be an experience of both deep pain and deep blessing – our experience will be Cross and Resurrection shaped at the same time. How do we make peace, for example? Well it’s unlikely to happen without some serious confrontation with conflict, with people’s pain, with anger and hurt. We will have to become a part of that. We will have to experience it with others and take some of that pain ourselves.

What about meekness? Well meek people are not the ones who are most likely to be taking what they want, demanding what they need, and asserting their power and rights on any sort of stage, personal or public. They are likely to be people that through their gentleness, suffer. They will suffer because others will take advantage of their unwillingness to use power to force or control others: but ‘in my weakness is my strength’.  

And what about the pure in heart? Well theirs is a potentially lonely road in a corrupted world. If we are pure in heart we will bleed with the sin and evil that we see, but we won’t condemn or judge it, we will be called to redeem it in and through that purity.

And what of those who are poor in spirit? Poverty as a state of mind will demand discipline in seeking to let go of what binds us. That will mean travelling light and letting go not only of material things, but practices and habits that condemn us to slavery, slavery to the world’s estimation of worth. Such a discipline of poverty will inevitably be at some point, sacrificial; there will be a cost and a pain experienced in those renunciations.

And those who mourn. Why should those who mourn be blessed? Here Jesus seems to be saying that the experience of loss, of losing those we love and suffering because of it is something God desires from us; that if we did not mourn we would not be people who value the gift of life and therefore the gift of the other. If we feel the pain of loss, God is with us.

And persecuted for righteousness’ sake and being reviled for it. We know that when we really get going in our Christian discipleship that we will be asked to make some hard decisions about what we really believe in. We will be asked to put our neck on the line, because the Christian truth is at odds with the world. And we can’t ever escape from that reality. Not everyone will speak well of us, not everyone will be on our side. The meaning behind Jesus’ words, 'I’ve come to bring conflict not peace'… The truth divides.

Being blessed then, being holy, being God’s chosen ones, being those who will worship with the Lamb will mean being washed in the blood (Rev 7:9-17). Purity and holiness are made through and in blood – not in anything else. Christian sanctity is about living that tension, having the strength and faith to live through the trial. The reason why Jesus had to be formed in the wilderness for 40 days to ensure that he was strong enough to cope with suffering that was coming. Why Christians often experience 'the dark night of the soul' as a purifying experience of love. 

We need each other then. Christians need the great cloud of witnesses, the communion of saints, the intercessors, the body of the faithful in the present. Because blessedness is now and not yet. It is good and demanding. Let us be a community that lives that tension, that proclaims the Cross and the Resurrection in the way that we live and the way that we proclaim: 'Jesus as Lord.'


Matthew 5:1-12
*When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’ 

Friday, 31 October 2014


Halloween takes it's name from All Hallows' Eve, the Eve before the Festival of All Saints, when the church remembers those who are hallowed, literally 'blessed': -the saints. Christians sometimes get worried about what Halloween has become, but probably for the wrong reasons. A bit of glorification of things that frighten us is probably harmless enough. But what really matters perhaps is that as a culture we are losing the ability to cope with death. Death is thought of as something threatening and frightening, it becomes about witches, devils and satan; but death in the Christian tradition has been transformed by Jesus' Resurrection. We no longer fear death even if we still experience the pain and loss of death. The Feast of All Saints' and All Souls' is an annual reminder to Christians that we are connected with all the faithful departed who live on with God. We remember those in the past who have truly shown something of God's love by their lives. We will be thinking at All Saints about some of Jesus' key teaching - the beatitudes and what that means for us. Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who mourn.... Matthew 5:1-12. 

As we start to get into that festive spirit of Advent and Christmas as the nights really draw in (we're still waiting for the colder weather) we should be encouraged to consider anew the Christian message. Where is hope and salvation to be found? We could be tempted into thinking that it is found in nostalgia or in material wealth or in power and influence. But the message of Jesus is to tell us and show us that salvation is to be found in the recognition that we are created mortals, vulnerable and dependent and because of that fragile, beautiful and to be cherished. We do have many fears as humans, fears of what can do us harm and it's easier to turn those fears in to scary gory monsters that somehow allow us to think that the danger is really just fantasy. But there are smaller dangers, closer to home that grow in the human heart when it seeks to run away from reality. There is nothing scarier than a human being who thinks he or she is immortal, or who thinks that there are no laws or rules which need to be followed, no common language of value or responsibility.  The Christian faith declares:  We are created. We are mortal. We are loved. We are responsible for one another and the world. We have a duty to follow a moral code of which the summary is and always has been - 'do to others as you would like done to yourself'. 

All Souls' and All Saints is a very important reminder to a culture that would rather forget that death is a reality, but that it has been transformed by the hope we have in Jesus. We live within a wider universe in which the saints are forever worshipping round the throne of God and interceding for us. We have nothing truly to fear when we recognise that we are held within the love of God.  check out this great video, puts it better than I have done!

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Jesus' face on a bank note

Reflections on:
'Give to the Emperor what is the Emperor's and to God what is God's'*

I want us to begin our reflections by thinking about putting Jesus on a banknote.

How would you feel about seeing Jesus’ face on a bank note or a coin?

What would you think? What does it mean?

What does your reaction tell you?

So, let’s think about: where do we see Jesus’ face?

This conversation between the Pharisees and Jesus opens up a huge space for us, helps us, if you prefer, see the difference between God’s kingdom and the kingdom of the world.

Where does the Emperor’s glory lie? It resides in his worldly wealth, power and status. It is present in his possessions and in the people that he controls and governs. He has to make present his glory in his armies and in his ability to exact taxes from the people.

Where does God’s glory lie? Well let’s turn to Moses. There is something about God’s glory and name that is hidden and mysterious. His glory is much harder to define and understand. He reveals it to whom he wishes. And we cannot take on the full extent of his glory, or we would die.

God’s glory rather than being defined in what he owns and controls is to be defined in what he gives freedom to and where his grace is at work. God owns nothing in any way that we understand it. He creates, gives life and sets us free. We can only voluntarily choose to put ourselves back in relationship with God; it cannot be forced upon us.

Yet, he never stops loving us and he wants to see that loved returned, he seeks us out. As Moses wandered the wilderness with a disobedient and unfaithful bunch of exiles he learnt over and again about God’s resolve to be merciful, be lenient and to give them another chance. God would rebuild the tablets of stone and in so doing rebuild his relationship with the people. He would offer them a chance to come back in relationship with him. He would not give up on them. So it is with us. God has made us and loves us and has set us free, but he desires us to recognise him and to live life to its fullest by living with his laws and in his kingdom. It is ‘we’ who can choose to make ourselves God’s possessions, he never forces us. We are free to choose. 

If the Emperor chooses to put his face on a coin, on the system of exchange and control that serves his kingdom and his ends the best, where does God choose to put his face? God’s face can be seen in the lonely and vulnerable being invite into community; in the poor and downcast being raised up; in the merciful and humble rejecting the misuse of power; in a community being created out of the fragments of people’s lives; a home being formed by the lost and the frightened, by the rich and the proud. In its fullest it is seen in the suffering servant, the holy one Himself - in Jesus we see God’s name and glory revealed.

Being part of a Christian community then is about being transformed and being re-formed in the way of the Cross and Christian discipleship. It is about letting go of the things that control us and define us in an oppressive way and stepping into the generous and grace filled rule of God. Where God allows us to discover and make our own choices – to set us free from all sorts of slavery.

What do I owe to or give to God – my allegiance, my faithfulness, my devotion, my everything.

What do I give my country, just my taxes….

We have to keep asking ourselves which kingdom do I want to be in? Where does my allegiance lie? Where is salvation to be found? What will I do with my freedom?

Matthew 22: 15-22      The Question about Paying Taxes

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’ But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the   emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

Exodus 33:12-end    Moses’ Intercession

Moses said to the Lord, ‘See, you have said to me, “Bring up this people”; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, “I know you by name, and you have also found favour in my sight.” Now if I have found favour in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favour in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.’ He said, ‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’ And he said to him, ‘If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favour in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.’

 The Lord said to Moses, ‘I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name.’ Moses said, ‘Show me your glory, I pray.’ And he said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “The Lord”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But’, he said, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ And the Lord continued, ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.’

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Receiving and Giving in Balance

What has God given me?
What do I give to God?

We can’t give if we haven’t received. The first and most important practice for any of us is to let God love us and fill our lives with His goodness. Each of us needs continually to be reinvigorated and re-inspired spiritually. We need to be fed by the ever-flowing waters of God’s grace and abundance. Our lives of discipleship can get out of kilter if we are only giving or if we are only receiving. We need to seek that balance in our lives where we are both fed and in turn we turn outwards and feed others.

Reflect upon your own spiritual health: do you need to spend some time with God and let Him rebuild you, refill you and nourish you? Without that source renewing us we become dead in our faith and practice. In turn if we only get fed but never give from our own abundance we are betraying the grace that we have been freely given.

God wants us to live lives of abundance and grace; God gives good things that never run out: faith, hope, love, charity, forgiveness, joy, mercy, peace, compassion and everlasting life. God invites all of us to share more and more in his Kingdom and he calls each of us to leave behind the burdens, fears and possessions that weigh us down.

As we travel through life we can accumulate fears and burdens. We may put our trust in the wrong places even in the wrong people. What might God be asking you to leave behind in order to travel light with Him? God calls us all to leave behind the transactional and commercialised values of this world and to enter into the free grace and mercy that abounds in God’s generous kingdom.

Our financial giving must flow out from our giving of ourselves to God. God doesn’t just want our money; he wants us, all of us. He wants us to give financially not out of guilt, but out of thanksgiving and joy.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Do we ask for help enough?

We put limits and boundaries in all of the roles that we as humans occupy. None of us can be everything to all people. In Matthew 15:21-28, we notice Jesus doing just that. He has a clear sense of what his purpose is and what it is not: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’. This sort of role clarity we are surprised at in Jesus because we see him as our universal saviour. But at this point in our history and story Jesus is also a human prophet, and it is only progressively that it is revealed to us (and perhaps even to Jesus himself) that Jesus is to be so much more than a first century Jewish prophet.

Within this context then Jesus’ refusal to respond to the woman’s request, makes limited historical sense. She is an outsider, a nameless non-Jewish woman. Jesus has no relationship to her and feels no sense of duty towards her.

What is fascinating about this passage then is how this woman refuses to be dismissed and ignored by Jesus. Even though she knows that in the Jewish sense of order and hierarchy she is a ritually unclean-impure woman –- indeed Jesus compares her kind to dogs - she persists. She will not let Jesus push her aside, she will be heard, and she will make her plea.

Yet, we are shown exactly what she has to battle against:

o       Jesus did not answer her.
o       The disciples urged him – send her away.

She kneels down before him saying: ‘Lord, help me’.

She is humiliated, she is begging, she is pleading, she is being shooed away like a dog, and she is being rejected and pushed aside. Yet, she kneels before Jesus. She makes herself totally vulnerable. She has no pride. She is disarmed.

‘Lord, help me’.

With this action she at least gets a response from Jesus, she has his attention. But his response is to defend his position: ‘I cannot give to you what is meant for the children’. It is not until she replies: ‘Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table’, that Jesus is himself wrong footed.  Her persistent and courageous faith, together with her humility is rewarded – her daughter is healed.

This unnamed Canaanite woman has shown audacity - to desire the healing that comes from God and from the Jewish faith of which she is not a part. On the other level she has been totally humble, she has not fought against her cultural position, she has simply appealed to Jesus’ mercy in reflecting that, even the smallest amount of what is good and holy can heal even the least and unworthiest of people. It is that extraordinary faith in the goodness of what Jesus represents that compels Jesus to give where he had not planned or even considered giving. In hope and faith she dared to ask for help where she knew it would not be easily forthcoming.

I just want us to reflect on the ways that we approach God as we think about this woman’s approach to Jesus.

What she reveals to us is that we can draw and invite God into our lives by our approach; that persistence in prayer will be rewarded. She says to us: put your hope in God and ask for what you need. Go out of your way to knock on God’s door, to keep asking, especially when things get really bad for you or for people that you love. Then is the time to sit before God and beg him, plead with him.  The things that bring us low so low that we put aside our pride are the very things that will, if we persevere, let God heal us, renew us and save us.

What is it in our lives that might bring us on our knees, imploring God for help? Those moments when we have to approach God out of desperation or need are moments of opportunity – for they enable us to cross the boundaries that usually separate God from humanity. And it is the crossing of boundaries that forms the basis of our living relationship with God. When we have to change in order to reach God, then God will change in order to reach us.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

War and Religion

St Paul is a man who experienced a seismic shift in his understanding of how God relates to His people and to him as an individual. That shift in thinking is dramatised in the road to Damascus episode, which as a story has become synonymous with the experience of dramatic conversion.Paul provides us with a paradigmatic example of the effects of conversion on an individual. His passion for and evangelical zeal for his new found understanding is second to none. Yet with the advantage of hindsight we know that the division between Judaism and Christianity has led to some pretty awful consequences. Paul’s continuing comparison between what he used to believe and what he now believes necessarily casts the Jewish comprehension in an unfavourable light. So much of Christian history has been about casting the Jewish faith as one that has been superseded by the superior Christian one. What can we do about this? We can’t read Paul’s words innocently after the holocaust and we can’t speak uncritically about Scripture as we learn to interpret and live out Paul’s experience of and understanding of Jesus Christ.

These questions are worth raising as we watch with horror as the crisis in Gaza continues to unfold before our eyes, and the implications of national and religious identities make competing claims; claims and counter claims that come directly from certain ways of reading Scripture. Is it worth being for anything anymore? Or should we throw up our hands in disbelief and declare ourselves atheists or humanists? If belief only divides us, what is the point in maintaining it? Has Paul’s definite crafting of a new religion from the old that he so dearly loved caused some of the worst atrocities in the history of the world? Has the birth of a new religion (Christianity from Judaism) just caused needless division and at times hatred?

We have to ask these difficult questions of ourselves, because if religion attempts to construct versions of human community that claim to be better, we need some proof that indeed they are.

I have had a pretty seismic shift in my thinking as I’ve taken on more civic duties here in Rugby – and that is about the necessity of finding a language that is good news for everybody. We need to avoid creating theological communities that talk in a cult-like way that exclude and create barriers for joining. One of the seismic idea shifts that I’m sure St Paul experienced was the revelatory idea that God is the universal creator of all people, therefore One God who loves and redeems all people, creating a world wide family, brothers and sisters together beloved and sustained by One God: ‘For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, and is generous to all who call on him’.  When we consider that at least the three Abrahamic faiths profess one God, we seem to get into some mighty strange tribal battles about how we understand our experience of that God and how he orders us to behave. Perhaps St Paul didn’t help, because as Christians laboured their difference in relation to how they experienced God in Jesus Christ, they forgot the similarities between the old and the new; similarities that we would do well to remember.

Now, I’m not saying that we aren’t emphasising different things in our various religions, nor am I saying that they are unimportant, but sometimes religious zeal borne of the experience of radical conversion of heart and mind, can lead us to jump ahead into the importance of the difference at exclusion of the similarity. Those of us who study and read the Old Testament know that we can talk both about continuity and discontinuity between it and the New Testament. Similarly we know there is continuity and discontinuity between Christianity and Islam.

Faith is common to all these religions and it’s important to ask how faith affects who we are and how we relate to others. For us as Christians, it’s fundamental I believe that we learn to be people of peace, who speak of God’s love and concern for all – the Father of all creation, who unites us, who yes may ask us to give our lives for what we believe, but not in violent attack, always in peaceful resistance. Jesus was led to his death, a life he willingly sacrificed to declare the Father’s love for the whole world, and unite people in his concern for our redemption.

Faith means that we believe in our brothers and sisters, that we always keep believing that they are made in the image of God, that they therefore are sacred and holy, and that we should honour them, as God honours us. Only that sort of faith can maintain peace worldwide and can put an end to the violent destruction of one another that comes from the idea that the others persons gain is my loss, rather than seeing that human flourishing comes when we recognise that the good of the other, is my good too. This sort of faith takes courage, the courage needed to walk on water and not look down and doubt! (cf. Matthew 14:22-33)

Religion is about conversion, a change of heart, a change in understanding and these conversions can be dramatic as well as slow. What is important to reflect on is how we communicate that conversion to others; it has to be done with integrity if it is to be in harmony with the God we profess. Conversions that powerfully demand cult like commitment to alternative communities set apart from others, to me are ones to be avoided and resisted. Christians are the salt of the world, living among everyone, at one with everyone - critical friends often, yes, but divine lovers always first. We are called to be with God’s people whoever they are, and to love them as they are, as Jesus first loved us, coming among us.

Scripture References: 

Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33