Sunday, 31 July 2016

Sacrificial living

I freely admit that from time to time I can be rather naive. I’m probably too easily taken in by plausible liars. For example, I was down in London a few years ago - walking down the high street in Hammersmith in fact - when a smartly-dressed young white man with a mobile phone came up to me as we paused outside Sainsbury's. In what sounded like a South African accent he explained to me that he was a visitor to London, and that morning his luggage had been stolen, including his wallet and credit cards. Could I help him by sparing a bit of cash so he could put credit on his mobile and phone his parents back home? My son who was with me at the time quickly grabbed me and steered me off down the street. "That’s one of the best-known scams," he told me. "That guy's probably making two hundred quid or more a day from that story."

Why was I (nearly) fooled? Well, he was a well-dressed young man, well-spoken too; I’m slightly ashamed to admit that his white skin was also probably part of it. Is that latent racism? Or is it just that people who look more like us, well, it’s easier to feel sympathy, perhaps, for their plight. I could spend all day thinking that one through. Would I have found it easier to walk past someone who looked different and disreputable? In fact such a person might well have had much more urgent need of my help. Anyway, despite my son’s protests, I bought a 'Big Issue' from the first vendor I came across, to sort of make up. At least 'Big Issue' sellers are vetted, and required to maintain certain standards of lifestyle and behaviour.

But then, that young South African guy was only the latest in a venerable tradition of London street beggars, who have always had to be inventive in order to be successful; most people with money want to keep it for themselves, and those who've worked hard for what they've got don’t look too kindly on begging and scams. I've been reading a fascinating history of London, with a really good chapter on beggars. They’ve always been there.

And they are there in all the world’s cities, as most tourists and visitors know to their cost. But beggars can hold a special place in some parts of the world. The giving of alms can be seen as a necessary and holy duty, something good people are bound to do. In that case those who beg for alms are themselves enabling others to fulfil their holy duty. This is particularly evident in countries where the Buddhist faith is mainstream. Young men in Thailand may spend time living as monks - they don't take a lifelong vow, and one day they’ll return to the world and marry and have families. But while they are monks they are also beggars, and that’s seen as a holy profession. Dressed in their yellow robes, they live on the alms people choose to give them.

And of course there is also a Christian tradition of the holy beggar. Francis of Assisi in the 12th century chose to live without any possessions of his own, depending entirely on what people were prepared to give him, and he instructed his followers to do the same, to own nothing and hold no money.

Now Francis had been born into a very rich family, but as a young man he turned his back on all that, choosing to build a new life around the principle of a poverty which mirrored that of his Lord. Jesus said: 'Foxes have their holes, and birds their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head' and he also told his disciples to take nothing with them when they went out ahead of him to prepare the way. Franciscans continue to take those words very seriously. I used to visit a Franciscan house in North Staffordshire, and I recall the sisters there saying that sometimes they'd no idea how they'd afford to buy food for the week ahead. Somehow something always turned up. I was always very challenged by the way the sisters at Greystones lived. Close to the edge, but also close to Christ. I often found myself reflecting on whether I could ever have the courage to live like they did, trusting that God would provide.

But then again, wouldn’t I be just as foolish if I put all my faith into worldly goods and possessions? It would be a denial of what I believe to be a fundamental truth - that there's more to me and you than the physical atoms and molecules of our bodies, and the material world around us. Like the man with the storehouses and the barns in the parable Jesus told, I’d be seeing success and achievement only in terms of what I could own and store, worldly comforts. And I’d be turning my back on the most important and fundamental things about being me. For I believe that what in me is truly creative, things to do with love and hope and faith, these are to do with the spirit, to do with me belonging to God, to do with us belonging to one another in God. I was watching a programme the other night about the universe, in which the presenter said that we are all made, literally, out of stardust. That’s an amazing and quite moving thought, but it’s still just to do with atoms and molecules, stuff. The Bible, even more amazingly, tells us we’re made in the image of God.

And Paul, writing to his Church in Colossae, makes an important distinction between heavenly things and earthly things - in other words, between the spiritual things about us as against the things that are material or worldly: human actions that are selfless and loving, as against those that are self-centred and greedy. ‘Put away the things that are of the earth,' he tells his readers. And we know we should, but of course it’s never easy.

I was listening to the comedian Marcus Brigstocke ranting on from an atheist perspective on a radio show not so long ago. He told us that religion was responsible for most of the world's ills, and that he didn't need to believe in a supreme being to know the right way to live. I didn’t entirely disagree with him, he did have some right on his side. I can’t deny that religion is often a harmful force, that can motivate and encourage bloodshed and murder, that can raise barriers, provide an excuse for hatred and division, make one group more important than another.

When religion does that, it is speaking to a part of our human nature that sadly is often all too ready to listen. That part that hurts when people are unfair to us, that is looking for scapegoats to blame, that wants justification for the fight to create a new world, or to defend the old one. But religion used in that way is always false religion, whatever label it may claim, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, whatever. Anything which justifies hatred, anything which encourages the taking of life, cannot be true to God. That the test of true religion - true life in Christ - must always be that it breaks down barriers and removes difference: in Christ we belong to one another. And I don’t think of that as something that just applies in house, so to speak: to Christians and within the Christian community, it’s about how we do mission and service within the world; as a gift and insight we must offer around. For the Church’s call to mission is a call to be clearly and persuasively Christ-like.

Marcus Brigstocke was right to say that he can know what's right and what's wrong without needing God or the Bible to tell him. In fact, that's what the Bible itself tells us. Knowing right from wrong is basic to how we’re made. But to that basic morality, my Christian faith adds this: we are saved through sacrifice, and should live sacrificially. My life as a Christian is a life of service, of pilgrimage and of community, in which I am challenged and called into a living and prayerful relationship with God; and that bad things are not just wrong but sinful, ungodly.

And I am sinful. I do fall short. I should do better. But my own failures - and those of other people - have been answered, healed, redeemed, transcended by the sacrifice of Christ. He gives me and you the freedom to become our true selves. On the cross he takes upon himself the burden of our sin. Paul wrote that Christ has nailed our sins to the cross, and that here the whole world is offered the transforming power of his love. Sinful as we are, we can still choose the way of heaven.

Cities are anonymous places, with their bustle and business. On the streets of London the beggars and conmen, the tourists, the shoppers, the businessmen, all of them melt into one anonymous mass of people with nowhere much to go. But each individual life and story is known to God. Within the courts of heaven each one of us is known, accepted and treasured. And we who are striving to follow Jesus are forgiven and freed, citizens already of heaven - that’s the Gospel heart of our faith. So we dare to love because we know that we are loved already, loved despite ourselves; we dare to give, to be sacrificial, because we are claimed by sacrifice, because more has been given us than we could ever stack into any number of our own storehouses and barns, because we are loved into life, and given a light to pass on. In this simple faith lies all the challenge and call of Christian mission.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

The Remains of the Day

Lights reflect on the oily black water,
as with hardly a sound the stream flows -
through the  secretive arches of bridges,
dark and deep, without splashes it goes.
A man walks the cobbled embankment
and under occasional lamps,
where shadows rise up to walk with him,
brought to life in the chills and the damps.
He thinks of past times half remembered,
he wonders just where he is bound;
like the water that flows through those arches,
he is silent, his feet make no sound.

The stillness is suddenly fractured,
wings whipping and whirling, gulls cry:
with a thump and a rumble of diesel,
and hazards to strobe the night sky,
men are busily clearing the rubbish,
briskly emptying barrows and bins -
silver packaging sparkles, glows briefly,
will be gone as the morning begins.
The metal jaws seize it and swallow,
the remains of a day that is gone;
the man pauses to watch for a moment,
then he turns up his collar, walks on.

We dance a short while and we sparkle,
and perhaps our lives glitter and glow;
but at last the lights fade in the water,
drifting onwards to die in its flow.
So he walks, ducking under the arches,
till at last he is lost from our view;
leaving only the ghost of an echo
of a man we thought maybe we knew.
Now the new day is dawning without him,
and the city’s all clamour and shout,
as the river turns gold in the sunrise,
and the lights on the towpath go out.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016


The thing about hands-free in cars
is that when not driving
your hands are still free, free in this case
to gesticulate wildly -
this must be, I think, quite some conversation -
with someone I can only assume
is miles away, and able to see none of this.

I can, though; he is parked just opposite.
Of course, he could perhaps be mad,
be quite stark staring,
and not, after all, speaking on any phone.
I do hope not:
there are enough mad people already
driving Beamers.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Not in my name . . .

A poem under construction:

Not in my name;
that’s all I can say.
Those you travel with are taking lives,
those you listen to are ending dreams,
they are closing doors that used to be open,
they are closing hearts that used to be free.
They do not do this in my name;
I am not part of their plans.

If your religion tells you to kill,
if your religion teaches you to hate,
then it is not my religion, or God’s.
If you think you do this, any of this, for me,
or for some perverted idea of what I might want,
what might be to my benefit, and
for my good, then please, I beg you, please,
think again.

Not in my name:
you do not know me,
you do not know my dreams,
you do not share my hopes,
so do not presume to know what is good for me,
and do not claim the beating of my heart
as your own, as your motivation,
your permission to do these things.
You do none of it in my name.
You do not know me,
nor do you know the God I serve.
I wish, I only wish you did.
If only you could learn to listen to different voices,
if only you could learn to sing the songs of peace.
Until you can, then what you do
is not, is never in my name.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

The Lord's Prayer

It's been a while since I posted anything!  Here is my sermon preached today at St Mark's, Marton . . .

Everyone knows the Lord’s Prayer. I wonder if that’s still true, in fact; still, I’m sure most people do. But because we know this prayer so well and can just reel it off, perhaps we don’t realise just how radical these words really are. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, like John the Baptist had taught his disciples, they were asking him to do something quite subversive. The response Jesus gave was what we call the Lord’s Prayer: a prayer that sums up within itself all the things prayer needs to contain; a prayer that makes the radical and subversive statement that we - ordinary people, every man or every woman - we don’t need temples and cathedrals, or priests and prelates, in order to speak to God. We can speak to him direct, and we can speak to him anywhere; and a prayer that begins with the one title for God that means more for Christians than any other: Father, our Father.

Everything else Jesus says in this morning’s Gospel reading builds out of those great opening words of his prayer; he promises that, like the most excellent Father we can imagine, God will hear us and respond, so that we can pray to him with confidence and trust, and out of a relationship of love. This is radical; you could even say that it’s the end of religion. Imagine: people think of Jesus as the founder of a religion, when in reality he came to end religion.

Or perhaps to set religion right. If I’m asked to say what’s distinct about Christianity, as compared to, say, its closest relatives, Islam and Judaism, my answer would have to include two fundamental things about being a Christian: firstly, that every Christian is a priest - more about that in a minute, but the Bible speaks very clearly about the priesthood of all believers; and secondly, that being a Christian isn’t about being good enough for heaven. Heaven is God’s gift to us, a gift of grace; and the Christian life is a thank offering to God for what he has freely given.

And that has to distil down to those two words that begin the prayer Jesus taught us: “Our Father”. We don’t have to placate our God or to be fearful in our praying, even if some of our prayers may feel as if they do that, you know, things like “Almighty and most wonderful God, we do beseech thee.” It’s good I’m sure to remind ourselves of the God is so great and so full of majesty, but he is not unapproachable; he makes himself available to us. We can call him our Father.

Now you may very well be saying, or thinking anyway, that Church feels in practice a lot like other religions. It has hierarchies of ministry, and titles like Reverend and Venerable and Very Reverend, Right Reverend, Most Reverend; It has its rules and customs and expectations, feasts and fasts, days of obligation, canon law - not to mention any number of arguments and divisions about matters of belief and doctrine and practice. I’d want to say this: Jesus came to bring us to faith; so what’s the relationship between religion and faith? The role of religion I think is to be the servant of faith, to be the means by which faith is tested and channelled, and to enable people of faith to work and worship and witness as God is calling them. If those things aren’t happening, then faith and religion are not in balance. And sometimes they’re not.

So while I love the Church, I hope I won’t ever be an easy or docile or uncritical churchman. Jesus calls us to be sheep, but not I think to be sheepish. For every one of the sheep of the Church is also called to be a shepherd - not only to follow, but also to take responsibility for one another; not only to learn but also to guide, not only to be supported but to be a support and a friend, not only to be prayed for but also to pray. And we all share a responsibility to do mission, to invite and bring others into the flock. So none of us are pew fodder, consumers of packaged religion; each and every Christian can pray on his or her own, calling God “Our Father” - for we are all also priests: Church is a kingdom of priests.

So what exactly is a priest? Well, you can say this about the role of a priest: a priest is someone who stands between - who stands between the people and God, God and the people. So at the time of Jesus, people went up to the Temple so the priests there could make on their behalf the sacrifices and prayers that they weren’t able or competent to make for themselves. The Lord’s Prayer releases us not to have to do that any more; now we can speak to God direct.

That doesn’t make priests redundant; but it makes us all priests. All Christians share a priestly task of speaking God’s word in the world, and taking in prayer the needs of the world to God. The call to prayer, to mission and to service, is not restricted to some Christians but shared by all Christians, and that means the work of God only happens as it should when everyone gets involved. In practice the Church places limits on who can and cannot do certain things, for example the celebration of Holy Communion, and that’s something done for good purpose - it ensure orthodoxy and agreement on what’s believed and taught and required of churchfolk. But - sticking my neck out a bit - for me that’s a matter of Church order rather than of God’s ordinance, and not something that should lead us into too high a view of ordained priesthood. The Church is greatly weakened if it fails to take seriously what it means to be a priesthood of all believers.

When you read the Acts of the Apostles, you see again and again the Holy Spirit falling on people, all kinds of people, not always the expected people. Jesus speaks of the gift of the Spirit in this morning’s Gospel. It’s the Father’s gift to his children, and it’s freely given to all who ask him. Not all our prayers are answered as we would want; and bad and sad things continue to happen to good people, and there’s another sermon to be preached on that I think. But Jesus does firmly promise this: that the Father will give us his Spirit. And that what we ask for according to the Father’s mind and in order to do his will, he will give.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

The Churchyard by the Pool

You must bury me here, close to the shore,
where the high arch of the old timber bridge
will form a ring for my remembrance
with her rippled sister below;
where the woods stride down through the water,
and the slate-spread wings of the rising heron
reflect in those soft, sunsparkled pools
as she lifts above the salt flats.

You must bury me here, close to the shore,
at that time when the scarlet tides move
to meet the dying sun, and
when the darkening waters of night
hide for a while the secret of the magic dawn.

You must bury me here, close to the shore,
so that when the wild cries of curlew and raven and gull
echo across the high rocks where we stood that day
you will know that I am not far from you,
and I promise that I shall be
close as the gentle breeze on your cheek,
as the feather touch of rain in the April sun,
close as your own breathing, joined
in the one forever stream of love.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

In Memoriam

He was not a man much noticed,
keeping within safe limits, dutiful, obedient,
reliable, of course, and sound:
a man who got the job done,
but you never really noticed the doing of it.

He attended well enough to his
Mondays to Fridays, always quietly there on time;
and then it would seem he kept his weekends
much to himself, a back pew in church on Sunday,
the eight o’clock, when there was one.

Now he is wearing his Sunday suit
for his last church attendance (on a Thursday);
a sprinkling of folk, there for form’s sake, mostly. After all,
he had never really made a splash,
having never gone overboard.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Christopher Street

Today an earthquake will hit Christopher Street.
Its neat suburban semis will all lose their foundations:
they will rock and reel and tumble, while their
neat garden beds, trimmed hedges and lawns lift and shake,
and the neighbourhood sparrows fly up in alarm.

It is ten in the morning, and the sky is dark,
the daybreak sun having gone into hiding.
And on the doormat of number thirty-five lies a letter
delivered a little later than usual
by the friendly postman,
today’s well-meaning bearer of seismic change:
a letter whose scent of honeysuckle and rose,
hint of an unsafe shade of lipstick where the note was sealed,
both attracts and appals.

Daring to open the envelope in her husband’s absence,
she reads the list of demands
thinly veiled behind words of pledge and adoration;
and the tremors lift off the Richter Scale,
the walls around her fall.
It was always sunny in Christopher Street,
and the ground beneath her had always seemed
so safe and stable.
Now it never can be again.