Pentecost and the love of language

This is the second of a series of reflections inspired by readings from the Book of Acts. Acts is a book of beginnings and the focus of this reflection is on what began at Pentecost through the gift of language.

This is Acts 2:1-6 (I’m using the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition):

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Now there were devout Jews from every people under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.

In short, Luke describes a violent rush of wind that shakes up our settled ways of living and possessing. Life can never be the same again. Settled structures are blown apart and the apostles together with some women and some others (Acts 1:14) are blown to join thousands of others through the gift of language and a miracle of hearing.

Language has always been a barrier between people (from Babel) but this miracle brings people together who would have been stranger to each other. Here words are translated by love and the words are taken to heart by people from all parts of the world – “here at last, someone speaking my language”. Alongside that violent rush of wind there is this enormous sigh of people understood – the sigh of relief that here at last, someone is speaking my language.

What does it take to speak the language that makes sense to others, that makes their heart sing? To speak to people in a language they understand requires us to keep silent while we listen to them, while we learn from their words and the emotional history that lies behind them. To speak to a people in any way that makes sense requires an emotional intelligence and empathy that inspires the confidence in one anther that we have something worth saying to one another, and worth hearing from one another. Words on their own will never do because body language communicates far more in the bearing we bring to our words. For a miracle of hearing there needs to be nothing short of love.

The language of vulnerable people is often lost on people of power and many a language has been lost. The English used to forbid the use of Irish in the Irish pig markets insisting that English is the perfect language to sell pigs in. “That English is the perfect language to sell pigs in” is a line from Michael Hartnett’s poem A Farewell to English in which he announced to the world that he would no longer write in English. He did this as resistance and as a way of treasuring the Irish language.

When we think of the languages we are taught in school, they are all the languages of empire, the languages that are supposed to help us get on in life, that help us to get jobs in successful companies. Compulsory language education takes many forms. In the UK language education is benign, but Willie James Jennings writing from an Afro-American perspective, invites us to imagine something far more sinister. In his commentary on Acts he writes: “Imagine centuries of submission and internalised hatred of mother tongues and in the quiet spaces of many villages, many homes, women, men and children practising these new enlightened languages not by choice but by force.”

What of those who insist on the language of empire, who insist on the Queen’s English (should that now be King’s English)? They deprive people of language and understanding : their values, practical wisdom and subtlety are imperilled by a colonising power which conscripts the other for empire. They rob people of their past, present and future. They are responsible for the loss of language. Language makes the store and story of history and all of us want to have ourselves heard and understood. But so many have lost their language, and with it the store and story of their histories.

The book of Genesis sees languages as the curse of empire builders. The story of the Tower of Babel is a story of powerful people thinking they could build all the way to heaven. The seeds of confusion that were sown through their different languages were intended to prevent them getting above themselves.

The way of the empire is not the way of the Spirit or of Spirited people. The Spirit uses the languages long forgotten by the powers that be. In the beginning of this book of beginnings which is Acts Luke goes into detail where everyone has come from. Often readers skip over this long list. They shouldn’t because everyone of them heard the disciples speaking their language. Every one counts and not one of them should be overlooked by us readers.

Imagine this:

Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” Acts 2:7-11.

We might add other language barriers that would have been present – the young, the old, men, women, deaf, disabled – “we all hear them speaking our language”. This is a beginning for all of them. Now that they have heard God spoken to their heart they now have their own language for God-talk to take back home to their villages and communities. That was a beginning for them.

But we live in a world where divisions won’t go away, where little empires everywhere build their walled communities of exclusion. How do we make sense to one another through the thick walls of separation and in environments made increasingly hostile? What is the way of the Spirit of God? There is a promising beginning in this miracle of Pentecost. The gift of language, the gift in their tongues, is not for one way communication. It is a gift which enables the believers to join others and to enter into their language and life. It is for the act of living together, for the art of heartfelt conversation and for the creation of new relationships.

This is the way with God, embracing others with a love that is utterly understandable. Love translates, and only translates as good news.

Acts 2:1-21 is read in churches at Pentecost.

Mission that ends ends: preaching from Ascension to Pentecost

This is a sermon preached at Holy Trinity, Leamington for Easter 7(A), the Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost. (I am hoping it will be the first in a series of reflections inspired by readings from the Book of Acts.)

The text is Acts 1:6-14.

When we were finding our way round, when we moved to Leamington nearly two years ago, people kept telling us, “you don’t want to go to Coventry”. 

Apologies to those of you who live in Coventry. Never mind. People will be flocking to Coventry if they beat Luton in the play off final next Saturday, possibly taking the place of my team in the Premier League.

It was a punishment to be “sent to Coventry*. Being sent to Coventry meant people turned their back on you, refused to talk to you, shunned you. 

The origin of the sentence probably dates back to the 1640’s to the English Civil War. Royalist troops captured in Birmingham were taken as prisoners to Coventry which was a parliamentarian stronghold. They were not received warmly by the locals. That’s what happened when they were sent to Coventry.

Samaria from this morning’s reading is the Coventry of its day. “You don’t want to go to Samaria” would have been the equivalent for the Jewish people who found a way round Samaria rather than going through it. Part of the power of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that the hero is a Samaritan and that there was a Samaritan that could be called good.

But Jesus puts Samaria on the mission map, along with everywhere else that was considered off limits.

According to Luke, these are the last words of Jesus before his ascension: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

Yes – to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth!

Before this, the disciples ask Jesus this question: Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel? Jesus refuses to give a direct answer. It was an old question, reflecting the old troubles of nationalism brought on by too narrow a view of God’s love. 

Instead of a direct answer to their question, Jesus gives them his last word: a promise of power as witnesses, not just in Jerusalem and Judea, but even in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

These last words of Jesus are the first words in the beginning of the church’s missionary journey, a journey which takes us further that we could ever imagine, and a journey which undermines any boundaries which prevent God’s love reaching where God desires, to the ends of the earth.

To the ends of the earth – that is beyond the boundaries, the borders and margins of our current imaginations, undermining any attachment to nationalism, undermining the certainties and conservatism of our belief systems. Guy Garvey of Elbow sings (in Come On, Blue), love transcends anything that ever ends. Love transcends anything that ever ends, including the ends, limits, boundaries set by our imaginations and culture. 

Jesus’s words, to the ends of the earth, would be far too one-dimensional if we were only to think geographically about the extent of God’s mission, as if the first disciples had a map of the world at their disposal.

To the ends of the earth is about love’s reach. Think sociologically, think psychologically, not just geographically, think musically, think any way you can – to the ends of the earth, as far as your eye can see, and further – that is where the love of God goes, that is where the love of God comes again and again.

Think psychologically about the ends of the earth, those who are on the very edge, those in the darkest places, those in self harm’s way, those bombarded with cruel internal voices – this is where God’s love goes.

Think as peacemakers – or, better, live as peacemakers. Who have we made enemies? This is where God’s love takes us.

Think socio-economically about the ends of the earth. Who are in the margins? Who’s all at sea unable to make safety on land? To the ends of the earth – encompassing all ages, including children and young people (and it was good to hear about our partnership with Thrive from Ryan last Sunday), including those in their dying days. To the ends of the earth – encompassing enemies, strangers and those we’ve thought beyond the pale. Think the extent from cradle to grave, from prison cell to hospice bed, from palace to hovel, this is where God’s love goes.

To the ends of the earth is the scope of God’s love and the measure of God’s desire. Love isn’t just for Israel but for everyone in God’s creation. Love reaches far beyond our borders and boundaries, undermining those borders and boundaries, challenging wherever we draw the line between who’s ruled in and who’s ruled out, who’s right and who’s wrong.

The Book of Acts is often described as a book of beginnings. Our reading comes from the beginning of this book of beginnings. They are Jesus’ last words which become the first words of mission. To the ends of the earth – anything less doesn’t do justice to the desire and power of God. These are Jesus’ last words which last till the end of time, to the ends of the earth.

Acts reports the early days of mission, on the troubles Jesus’ followers got into on this journey. In the beginnings of this mission Luke shows us all the old certainties being cast to the wind, to the violent wind of Pentecost. He excitedly shows us people of all sorts being joined by the Holy Spirit, their differences and disputes being resolved by the wisdom and love which constitute God’s mission. 

He shows us what these first words of mission means as he spotlights the boundaries undermined by God’s mission and those affected by them. These include boundaries of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class and religion.

Love still struggles against the same borders and boundaries we see beginning to be undermined in Acts, which is why I suggest these days of our lives are still the first days of mission. 

This is the beginning where we have to cast our old certainties to the wind, one of the old certainties being that we aren’t fit for such a tall order of mission. Who am I for such a thing? We are bound by the voices which say we’re not good enough, we’re not clever enough and we know we’re not confident enough.

BUT. Luke tells the story of two men in white who ask the disciples, “why do you stand here looking at the sky”. The disciples had seen Jesus ascend, they’d seen him go. But they kept on looking where he’d gone, where he was no more. The two men in white redirect the gaze of the church. They’re saying, don’t look where he’s disappeared, look for where he comes again.

It’s seeing where he comes again which encourages us and heartens us. 

It is when we see him coming again as we break bread together, as we listen for his word in preaching, teaching and prayer, as we see the wonderful work of reconciliation that we become inspired for the joy of mission, and joined by

the Spirit who makes herself known as the strengthener, the encourager and the comforter, empowering us to reach beyond our comfort zone.

We never know how we are going to be turned out. There isn’t one way of joining mission. There’s no stereotype. 

Paraphrasing Paul, there’s a whole variety of gifts, there’s a whole variety of services, there’s a whole range of activities in the mission of God so some of us will turn out to be wise counsellors, others will become healers, others will have gifts for administration, some will become great encouragers, some will become teachers, or nurses, or the sort of heartening person we are always delighted to meet on our streets, or the shy person who thinks deeply and critically about the way things are. 

When praying in God’s mission none of us ever knows who we are going to turn out to be.

Going back to Coventry. The night of November 14th/15th 1940 must have seemed like the end of the world as 30,000 incendiary bombs were dropped on Coventry, destroying 43,000 homes, 71 factories, the city centre, 2 hospitals, 2 churches, killing 560 people and injuring over 1000 more. 

The Provost of the ruined cathedral, Richard Howard, witnessed Jesus’ words as he chalked his words Father, forgive them on the Cathedral’s sanctuary walls. 

He can’t have known how that would turn out to open up a whole ministry of reconciliation with what happened in Coventry as its capital. Nor could he have known that his words, (Jesus’ words) would be the first words of a missionary journey that has taken the Coventry Cross of Nails to the ends of the earth, to so many situations of conflict.

In those days, the days of prayer between Ascension and Pentecost, the disciples, the men and women gathered together, didn’t know how they were going to be turned out, and how their mission would turn out. Neither did Provost Howard. Neither do we as we wait and pray, with our eyes trained not on where Jesus has disappeared, but on where he comes again in the triumphs of love as well as our falls from grace.

Acts 1:6-14
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying: Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of[a] James. 14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

Note: Acts 1:1-11 is read in churches on Ascension Day and Acts 1:6-14 is read on the 7th Sunday of Easter (Year A)

Redressing the power of kings – a sermon for coronation weekend

A sermon for Easter 5 (A) for St Mark’s, Leamington. May 7th 2023.

The Gospel reading is John 14:1-14.

Who has seen the most coronations? (The maximum is going to be 3, dating back to 1936). I’ve seen two and remember just one. Like many families we got our first TV to watch Queen Elizabeth’s coronation.

Our scriptures are very sceptical about monarchy, probably because these scriptures come from the heart of a people who have been repeatedly traumatised by imperial power. There will be a whole range of positions on the monarchy represented here this morning, from those strongly in favour to those of you who would line up with the anti-monarchist protesters. That whole range of positions can be traced back as far as the time of the prophet Samuel.

The memory of the people of God always goes as far back as the time they were held in Egypt, to the prince known as Pharoah and the memory of how oppressed, exploited and persecuted they were by him. He was always demanding more from them. More bricks, more bricks, more bricks to build his pyramids of power. This Pharoah isn’t named but that doesn’t matter, because, as one wise scholar of these scriptures says, “when you’ve met one pharoah, you’ve met them all”.

The people of God remember injustice, their history of persecution, their repeated exile, their holocaust – and they/we rejoice that God joins them/us in their/our struggle.

There was a time when Israel was governed by prophecy. Israel wasn’t like the other nations, until the elders came to the prophet Samuel asking him to appoint a king because (and this sounds really childish) everyone else has one.

This is 1 Samuel 8

All the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel saying: “you are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us then, a king to govern us, like other nations.’

Samuel prayed about this, and he heard God saying, “don’t take this personally, they have not rejected you, they have rejected me from being king over them.” Then God told Samuel to warn the people about kings and their ways.

So Samuel warned Israel about kings – basically saying that they’re always on the take. “He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and be his horsemen … he will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields, grain, vineyards and orchards. He’ll take 10% of your grain in tax. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys. He will always be on the take, and will always be taking the best.

“Never trust princes” says the psalmist in Psalm 146. Never trust princes, nor any human power, for there is no help in them, speaks the psalm. There are so many people across the world lost, displaced and hated by the powers that be who know the truth of the psalmist – who this morning, like us, on this 5th Sunday of Easter, will be breaking bread, defying their princes as they commit their lives, their trust and their hopes to God, simply because, in the words of Psalm 146, it is the Lord their God who:

  • gives justice to those who suffer wrong
  • Bread to those who hunger
  • Looses those who are bound
  • Opens the eyes of the blind
  • Lifts up those who are bowed down
  • Watches over the stranger in the land
  • Upholds the orphan and widow
  • Turns the way of the wicked upside down

These are all God’s people – those who suffer wrong, who are hungry, bound, blind, bowed down, strangers in the land, widows and orphans – learning from first hand experience, and guided by the wisdom of ages that princes can’t always be trusted even though they are often charming.

That is why what we saw in yesterday’s coronation was a redressing of the power of kings. We saw King Charles being undressed and then being dressed up with the regalia binding him to the kingship of God, and binding him (and us) to those who have been let down by kingdoms and empires.

Here’s how they hemmed him in, how they redressed his power with prayer.

First they gave him spurs, symbols of military honour and chivalry, praying that he may be a brave advocate for those in need.

Then they gave him the kingly sword that it be not a sign and symbol of judgement, but of justice, not of might but of mercy.

Then the bracelets of sincerity and truth, tokens of the Lord’s protection.

Then the robe, that he may be clothed in righteousness and garments of salvation.

Then the orb, set under the cross, that the kingdoms of the world may be seen under the rule of God in the cross.

Then the ring

Then the glove, praying that he will hold authority with gentleness and grace.

Then the royal sceptre

Then the crown that he may be crowned in gracious favour

The whole thing was a dressing prayer for the king, praying for the power of God in his life, so that he comes into his power not to be served but to serve.

The meaning of the word religion goes back to binding. Religion means to be bound. In the coronation service we saw the king being bound by those who are leaders of our religious communities. Our bishops and other faith leaders binded the monarch, as they have repeatedly done over the centuries.

I’m not a chess player but I know the rule of the game is that the king cis bound to only move one square at a time. In fact, he can’t even move as far as the lowly pawn. He relies on the defence of his queen, his castles, his knights, his pawns – and yes, his bishops. The game is set up with the bishops sandwiching the royal couple.

Bishops are anything but straightforward. The rule is that they move diagonally, criss-crossing the board. In yesterday’s service we didn’t see them moving diagonally, we saw them moving diaconally binding the king to the gospel, binding him and his kingdom to the broken hearted, captives, the bruised.

Today’s gospel hasn’t been chosen because it is coronation weekend, though it could well have been. It is the gospel appointed for this Sunday in Easter. In it Jesus addresses those troubled by the state of things and all that they are having to endure. He says, do not let your hearts be troubled, trust in me. He is not talking to the troublemakers. He’s talking to the troubled.

In my Father’s house, he says, there are many dwelling places. This he says to a people whose land is occupied and who have been continuously displaced by others who have wanted their lebensraum or living room. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

My Father’s house is the kingdom. It is the place of longing as we pray for the kingdom to come on earth, as it is in heaven, and it is the place where God longs for us, for our be-longing. Different versions of the Bible translate the many dwelling places as many rooms, or as many mansions. The meaning is the same – that there is so much room that has been prepared for the troubled in heart. It is positively palatial.

This is the metaphorical space we enter as soon as we submit to Jesus as the way, and the truth, and the life, when as his beloved disciples we lay ourselves close to his heart, when we join with him in communion. And this is the place we come to when we pray, when we are troubled by whatever is going on which has a different way, truth and life.

Just as they do in chess, so in yesterday’s service (and I presume in their daily prayer) the bishops were walking diaconally the many spaces, the many rooms, the many dwelling places made ready for us by Jesus for the broken-hearted, the wronged, the bruised.

Maybe one or two of you are more used to coronations then me but I admit to being very moved and surprised by the binding of the monarch, and I ask myself why I am so surprised.

Is it that we have neglected prayer for the queen or the king? Surely our scriptures teach us to pray for kings because their feet are feet of clay. It is because they can’t be trusted that we need to pray for them.

Have we neglected to pray for our bishops, to bind them to their diaconal ministry of gathering the prayers of the people, to hearing and resounding their cries?

Have we neglected to pray for others who have all the power in the world to ruin us? Have we become indifferent to the gross inequalities of this nation and kingdom, much of which is rather close to the home of our king and his family?

When we pray in Christ we pray in the dwelling places made ready for us by Christ. There we may know what is on the heart of the King of kings, what is the prayer of the King of kings. Surely it is this: that the only way, the only truth, the only life for any kingdom is the way of Jesus, and any other way, truth or life is a travesty of justice.

When we pray in Christ we build capacity and room for others to breathe. This is our service. When we serve one another we join with Christ who came to serve, not to be served. These are the very foundations of the royal house Jesus shows those who are troubled in today’s gospel: a palace fit for the King of kings and all those he loves, in which there is so much board, so many spaces, and more than enough room for everything except any other way, truth or life.

As in chess the king needs the binding protection of our prayer, so, for now and for as long as he reigns we pray for/with Charles, for/with his family, for/with his advisers and ministers, for/with those who suffer wrong, for /with those who go hungry, for/with those who are bowed down, for/with those who are refugees, that together we may be saved from the ways of the wicked and the wrongs of the kingdom.

Taking sides on the road to Emmaus

A sermon for the third Sunday of Easter (April 23rd 2023) for Holy Trinity, Leamington, based on the gospel for the day – Luke 24:13-35 (text below)

Lovers in Arles by Vincent van Gogh

When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark

At the end of a storm
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark

Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
For your dreams be tossed and blown

Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone.

This Rogers and Hammerstein song has stood the test of time. It was originally part of their 1945 musical, Carousel. It is the anthem of Liverpool. It is also the anthem for Celtic and Borussia Dortmund, several Dutch teams, a Belgian team, and also became the anthem of support for medical workers, first responders and those in quarantine during the pandemic.

It’s an anthem which has stood the test of time. It’s seen us through the pandemic and saw Liverpool fans through Hillsborough and other tragedies. It was sung as a tribute to the Busby Babes at Manchester United’s first home game after the Munich air disaster in 1958 and was also used to support those affected by the fire at Bradford City’s Valley Parade which killed 58. Some of you may have YNWA tattooed on your body somewhere.

This is a song with legs. Behind it is a truth with even longer legs. The last words of Matthew’s gospel are “Remember, I am with you to the end of time”. These are the words of the risen Jesus even though he has walked through the valley of the shadow of death. Remember, I am with you to the end of time. These are the daddy long legs behind the Liverpool anthem and all the songs of faith which have sustained so many on their long and difficult walks to freedom through storms of betrayal, injustice and pain.

In today’s gospel, Jesus, the I AM of “I am with you always”, joins two people on their way home from the festival in Jerusalem. He asked them what they were discussing, and Luke tells us “they stood still, looking sad”. They had reason to be sad. They had hoped that Jesus was the one to free Israel, but their own leaders and priests had handed Jesus over to be condemned to death by crucifixion

They walked on. They walked on with Jesus. They walked on, with Jesus listening to the hope that was in their heart and his response: his explanation of things in all the scriptures about him.

Here, as in other resurrection appearances, Jesus appears as stranger. They don’t know the one who has joined them is Jesus, and only discover his identity when he broke bread with them and reflected on the change of heart they felt as they walked with Jesus.

Jesus becomes known in the breaking of bread and through companionship. Companions are literally those we eat bread with. That is the meaning of the word companion.

When Jesus accepted the invitation of these two (Cleopas and the other whose name isn’t given) he joined them as companions, and they found him in the intimacy of companionship.

Was the revelation, and is the revelation, through the way the bread was taken, blessed, broken and shared? Was it, and is it, through the visibility of the scars and vulnerability. All of us will have our stories to tell about how Jesus has become known to us through the companionship of breaking bread together.

Through Ezekiel (Ezekiel 36:26) God promised God’s people a new heart – a heart of flesh instead of hearts of stone. When the penny drops, Cleopas and his companion say to each other with the benefit of hindsight, “Were not our hearts burning within while he was talking to us on the road?” Is this not the fulfilment of that promise? 

The road home from Jerusalem had been a road of desolation for the two of them – they shared their heartbreak with the one who joined them at their side and then found all the consolation they could ever have wished for, and more. It was with a fresh heart that they rushed back to Jerusalem and told the eleven what had happened to them on the road. We’re not told what happened next for them. We can only assume that their next steps were to walk on, with that fresh heart to their being, with hope at their heart.

I was leading worship in a strange church a couple of weeks ago. It was a service I had never led before. I sat in the church beforehand, on my own when someone joined me, sitting at my side. She was calm, a non-anxious presence, who quietly engaged me in conversation. I knew her slightly – enough for us to have a conversation about what matters to us. So it wasn’t small-talk. I immediately knew what she had done. Of all the things that she could have been doing, she had joined me, she had taken my side.

She will never know the effect of that simple action – taking my side. It was certainly heart-warming. It was immensely encouraging (encouraging literally means heartening). It gave me confidence. I knew I wasn’t on my own.

All of us, feeling vulnerable,
love it when others take our side,
when they sit with us, 
when they walk with us, 
when their heart goes out to us, 
when they make sure 
we never walk alone. 

When they join our side 
with a love that is patient and kind, 
that isn’t boastful or rude, 
that bears all things, 
believes all things, 
hopes all things, 
endures all things – 
well, (in the words of Andrew Lloyd Webber), 
that changes everything, 
doesn’t it? 

Is it not Christ
in such love
who takes our side
even as a stranger?

Isn’t it this love,
joining us at our side
who gives us new heart,
a heart-warming of flesh,
emboldened and encouraged?

Emboldened and encouraged
enough for us also 
through Christ and in Christ
to take the side of others
along their roads of sorrow,
even through the valley
of shadows marked Death

heartened to side with them
as part of the promise
“You’ll never walk alone”,
joined by the insistence of Jesus,
“I am with you always,
to the end of time.”

So, who is it  who has joined you on your journey, particularly when you have felt like Cleopas and his companion? Who has taken your side, particularly when you have felt forsaken? Who has stayed by your side through thick and thin? Who has loved with a love divine? These are the people who have encouraged us and given us fresh heart. These are the people through whom Christ lives his life in ways we often don’t recognise.

We give thanks for them and their presence in our lives – and we pray that we too may commit ourselves to Jesus’ risen life by siding with those Jesus sides with – those who are poor, or lost, or broken – in fact, everyone apart from the proud and self-satisfied – walking with them, standing up for them, taking their side, joining them.

Note: the information about YNWA is from

Luke 24:13-35

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognising him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along? They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it s now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they indeed had seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see him.’ Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near to the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘stay with us because it is almost evening and the day in now nearly over.’ So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

The shocking truth of my feet: a sermon for Maundy Thursday

We decided we wouldn’t stage a “foot-washing” as part of our service this evening.

If we had included a foot-washing I am sure that we would have prepared for it very well. We would have asked for volunteers last Sunday. Those volunteers will have made sure that their feet were in good shape for tonight. In other words, to save embarrassment, all would be well planned and totally expected.

Whereas in this evening’s gospel the foot washing comes as a total surprise to the disciples as we can see from Peter’s reaction. “Are you going to wash my feet? …. You will never wash my feet.”

In other words, we might miss the point of the gospel if we had staged a “foot-washing”.

This is a well known story. It’s a story that needs to be seen through Middle Eastern eyes because shoes and feet have very different meanings in the culture of Jesus, Peter and the Middle East (to this day).

I owe much to Ken Bailey for these insights. He has written a book called Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes. Ken Bailey was brought up in the Middle East. He tells the story from his schooldays in an Egyptian boarding school when an American teacher threw a shoe at an Egyptian student because he wasn’t waking up. The student took it as an insult and reported it, and that resulted in the school being closed for two days. 

Shoes and feet are regarded as dirty and rude. Shoe and feet are four letter words in more senses than one. Some of those who hated Saddam Hussein and all he stood for pelted his fallen statue with their shoes as a way of registering their hatred and disgust. Shoes are shame. So those Saddam Hussein haters were in effect saying “shame on you” when they beat their shoes on the statue.

Worshippers leave their shoes outside the mosque when they go to pray because shoes are ritually unclean. They then bathe their feet and pray in long lines with the soles of their feet virtually in the face of those praying in the line behind them. 

Apparently you will be told to uncross your legs in some middle eastern churches – the reason being that you are bearing the sole of your shoe to others when you have your legs crossed, and that is considered rude and grossly disrespectful.

So perhaps you can see that performing a foot washing in any planned way tonight would scarcely be scratching the surface of what is going on in this passage.

The disciples didn’t have chance to pre-wash their feet, cut their nails or have a pedicure before Jesus was at their feet. Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet. Jesus takes the disciples by surprise and he is doing what no Jewish slave would be expected to do. Normally the Jewish slave would draw the water so that people could wash their own feet. 

This is humble service which would not have been expected from a servant. Jesus is going way above and beyond what a servant would do, and when he says to those who are disciples that he has set an example and that we should do as he has done for us. Jesus is not saying, “do for each other what is expected of service” – but go above and beyond what is expected.

This is a demonstration of costly, unexpected love.

It is no wonder that Jesus said to them “You do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.” That is because it is all about tomorrow, Good Friday, and the costly, unexpected love which gives itself utterly and to the end by dying for us on the cross. 

As well as being the perfect sacrifice, Jesus is also the scapegoat. He is the scapegoat to end all scapegoats, taking on all the iniquities, all the transgressions, all the sins of the people of Israel, of the people of his church – making atonement and addressing all that shames us. That’s tomorrow. But we can see tomorrow today in Jesus’ demonstration of unexpected, costly love in the washing of the disciples’ feet.

Jesus’ behaviour would have been troubling for the disciples. He was doing what he wasn’t supposed to be doing. He was transgressing the cultural boundaries between clean and unclean. It’s Peter who expresses their concern when he tells Jesus “You will never wash my feet”. That wasn’t because Peter was embarrassed by the state of his feet but because his Lord and Teacher was stooping so low to attend to something so very shameful..

But Jesus insists, while still leaving the choice with Peter. “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me”. To be part with Jesus is about being part of the body of Christ and about being part of his mission and church. To have no part with Jesus is about the inevitable distance that would grow between Peter and Jesus if Peter doesn’t accept the shame that Jesus has taken in hand in the footwashing and events of tomorrow, Good Friday.

There is, of course, an elephant in the room. 

The elephant is Judas. Jesus washes Judas’s feet as well.
He knows that Judas hasn’t come clean and has already betrayed him.
But still Jesus washes Judas’s feet in the same demonstration of costly, unexpected love.
These are not the beautified feet of the ones who bring good news.
These are the feet which will march off to the Roman authorities and lead them to the Garden of Gethsemane so that he can point Jesus out to them.
Being good was not the qualification for having their feet washed. Being good enough has nothing to do with it. It is nothing to do with being Goody Goody Two Shoes.

Our shame is in all that we conceal and in the act of concealment and hiding. 

This is what we’re like and what we’ve always been like, ever since Adam and Eve discovered their private parts and hid them behind fig leaves, and Adam went into hiding from God. 

The shame, its concealment, our feet, our shoes is what Jesus takes in hand in tonight’s gospel and in the goodness of tomorrow. We will only be part of Jesus and all he dies for and lives for if we allow him to stoop as low as we go, to the ground of our being and the soles of our feet to take our shame in hand.

On this night, when the moon was full, Jesus gave us a new commandment – to love one another. “Just as I have loved, you also should love one another.” In that room those first disciples had seen how Jesus loved them through an unexpected and shocking act of footwashing that took shame in hand with love. 

All of this happened in one room – with the disciples. The example of footwashing and the commandment to love became theirs to follow. 

What happens next, in the Garden, on this night of the full moon, highlights the disciples’ failures. They fail to keep watch with Jesus. They went to sleep, they scattered, one denied him, another betrayed him. 

None of us are good enough a-part from Jesus. It is by being a part of him that we become good enough. We are bad enough that we need Jesus to stoop so shockingly low to us to deal with our shame. We are bad enough that we need that new commandment of Jesus – to deal with our shame by loving one another.

The only way to deal with shame, with shame as old as time is with costly love. And the only way to be part of Jesus is to love the way Jesus deals with shame.

Ken Bailey, 2007, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes : Cultural Studies in the Gospels

PS. I’m wanting to also work in the idea that our feet turn once we are part of Jesus. Then our feet become beautiful. “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace …” (Isaiah 52:7)

Retracing our steps to our first vocation

Lent 2a

Draft sermon for March 5th 2023

Readings: Genesis 12:1-4a and John 3:1-17

I begin with a blessing written by Jan Richardson. Jan has written a blessing for every Sunday based on the readings. You can find them on her website called The Painted Prayerbook.

This one is called “Beginning with Beloved – a blessing

Before reading it I have to say that I never know how to pronounce “beloved”. How do you say it?
Is our confusion because we don’t use the word enough?
Is it one word or two? Beloved or be loved?

Here is the blessing:

Is there any other words
needs saying,
any other blessing
could compare
with this name,
this knowing?


Comes like a mercy
to the ear that has never
heard it.
Comes like a river
to the body that has never
seen such grace.


Comes holy
to the heart
aching to be new.
Comes healing
to the soul
wanting to begin again.


Keep saying it
and though it may 

sound strange at first
watch how it becomes
part of you,
how it becomes you,
as if you never
could have known yourself
anything else,
as if you could ever
have been other
than this.


Today is the 2nd Sunday of Lent.

Lent gets its name from the Old English and refers to the lengthening of the days during the spring following our wintering, as in “our days are lentening”.

Ancient wisdom has carved out these gifts of time for us. 

It is journeying time,

time for following the Way of Jesus,
for journeying through our difficult and dark age to the day of resurrection and a day without darkness when every tear will be wiped from our eyes, when death will be no more and when mourning and crying and pain will be no more. (Revelation 21 and 22).

Our readings feature Abram and Nicodemus. They are both setting out on journeys of faith.

God told Abram to leave his country, his kindred, his home.
He was 75 years old when he left everything behind for the sake of “becoming a great nation” and to be the blessing for all the families of the earth. 

(As an aside, it is interesting to note that in our moment of history when there is unprecedented migration that those who count themselves as “children of Abraham” – Muslims, Jews and Christians – owe their identity to Abram who made his name Abraham by leaving his country, kindred and home and became a migrant.)

Abram left his old life behind. He left his old age. He left his identity and he even left his name to become Abraham.

The meaning of the name Abraham is “Father of a crowd” or “Father of multitudes”.

God is the making of him and he becomes his name.

Nicodemus’s journey is very different. Nicodemus is mentioned three times in John’s gospel. This is the first – here he comes to Jesus by night. He may be a teacher of Israel but he doesn’t understand what Jesus is really talking about. He is in the dark.

How can anyone be born again? How can someone who has lived so much life be born again? How can anyone who has travelled so far get back to the beginning?
These are the questions that spring to his mind when Jesus tells him that those who want to see the kingdom of God need to be born again.

In the second passage (John 7:45-51) he is part of the ruling council which wants to condemn Jesus – but Nicodemus emerges from their shadow to stand out against them to defend Jesus.

The third passage (John 19:38-42) shows Nicodemus taking responsibility with Joseph of Arimathea for laying Jesus in the garden tomb after his crucifixion.
He is the last person to touch Jesus’ body before his resurrection – and as such he is celebrated as one of the Myrrhbearers by Orthodox Christians on the 3rd Sunday of Easter.

Like Abraham, Nicodemus is on a journey of faith. But Nicodemus’s journey is measured in light. Here we see him coming to Jesus in the dark. By the end of the gospel we see him in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. His movement is from the darkness of not-knowing into the light of knowing. That is how he is born again.

What is true for Nicodemus must be true for us as well. Jesus said, noone can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. We have to be born again to see the kingdom of God. But how? 

How are we born again, and how do we help others to be born from above?

I don’t know about you but I never made anything of the anniversary of my baptism – then I went to the trouble of finding the date and now have that in my diary. This week on March 11th I will have been baptised 72 years. I am sorry for what I have missed by not remembering it. 

Baptism marks the beginning of a journey with God when the church welcomes the new Christian, promising support and prayer for the future. It’s a new life, walking in the light of Christ for the rest of our lives. It’s a new life born by water and Spirit. That’s the theory.

Maybe Lent is an opportunity to retrace our steps to that beginning,
retracing our steps to that time the church started lovingly calling us by name,
when we became precious sister or brother to all the other people of God,
when we were commissioned alongside them,
committing ourselves with all Abraham’s children to grow in friendship with God,
in love for his people,
listening to the word of God and receiving the gifts of God.

If Lent is a journey, maybe it’s time to go backwards in order to move forwards.

Maybe Lent is the time to recall the voice that set us on the path of a new life. 
Maybe Lent is the time to retrace our steps to that beginning when we heard our name called in such a way as to save us, not condemn us – when we heard our name called in such a way as to save us from the old age.

Maybe Lent is the time of recalling ourselves in Christ who was sent into the world only ever to save the world, and never to condemn the world.

Maybe Lent is the time to listen to our name being called without a hint of a curse or judgement.
Henri Nouwen wrote in his book, The Life of the Beloved, “We are beloved. We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children and friends loved or wounded us….”

Maybe Lent is the time to search for our blessing.

Maybe Lent is the time to listen for the same voice that Jesus heard at his baptism, the voice from heaven which said: “You are my son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.”
“You are the one whom I love. With you I am well pleased.”

Maybe Lent is the time for us as church to be born again. It is hard for God’s word to be heard when the church is too guarded in blessing and too quick in judgements. 

In Lent we return to the beginning, to what we have forgotten about the making of us. We begin with the inscription of dust on our foreheads to remind ourselves that God makes life out of dust.
We retrace our often mis-taken steps so that we can begin again the journey of our life time.
We read our scriptures to retrace our blessing.

We turn to Abram (who is the beginning of our faith journey) and Nicodemus
We return to the beginning to see ourselves and others as God intends – as “beloved”.

We are never too old for this journey back to the beginning and then onwards with Jesus.
Part of the blessing is never being written off as too old.

Remember, Abram was 75 when he was told to leave everything, when he said good bye to his old age with its curses and judgements.

It’s always time to start again.

And it’s always time to be there for others who want to start again, 

to remind them by word and deed that Jesus’ mission is to save the world, not condemn it,
to reassure them that it is never too late for a fresh start
to bless them by re-calling them      “beloved”.

Tempters and resistance

A sermon draft for Lent 1a – February 26th 2023 at St Mark’s Leamington

Readings: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11

Today is the first Sunday of Lent, one of the seasons of the church’s year. These seasons are gifts of time in which we can grow as disciples. There are 40 days in Lent as there are 40 days in the Easter season, from Easter to Ascension, as there are in the season between Christmas and Candlemas, and as many think that there should be during Advent. 

40 is just how long it takes to wait. In the Bible it is always 40 – years or days. 40 is the measure of waiting and testing. For example,

  • God flooded the earth for 40 days
  • The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years before entering the Promised Land after being freed from Egypt
  • Goliath mocked and taunted Israel for 40 days
  • Moses and Jesus fasted 40 days

Lent gets its name from Old English and refers to the lengthening of the days during the spring following our wintering – as in lentening days.

Ancient wisdom has carved out these gifts of time for us. What shall we do with this gift of time? 

Our two readings are both dramatisations
– the dramatisation of what it means to be human and loved by God. 
And Lent is a time for staging the drama. 

There is a beginning which is dramatised in the reading we heard from Genesis, which is reenacted on the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, when the dust from which we are made is inscribed on our forehead.
And there is an end in sight, the day of resurrection, and a day without darkness when every tear will be wiped from our eyes, when death will be no more and when mourning and crying and pain will be no more. (Revelation 21 and 22)

Lent holds the drama of the time between, the drama of the everyday and the here and now which, for us today is dramatised in the reading we have just heard about the temptations faced by Jesus.

The time between the beginning and the end is here and now, in the mean time when time can be very mean. 

These are the days of war, hunger, suffering, poverty, corruption, injustice. This is the mean time, a difficult age, a dangerous age when we get anxious about so much and when there is so much temptation. 

It is in this mean time  and in this difficult age that God shows his love for us.

There is no other time for God to show his love for the world.

The gift of Lent is the opportunity to look our time in the eye and face up to the challenge of how we are going to live in this mean time. 

What are our disciplines going to be as we live with temptation in the wilderness and wildness of our lives?
What is our resistance to evil going to look like? 
How shall we build resilience? 
What are the virtues we are trying to inhabit?

There is so much wrong and there is so much broken in our society.

That is what makes this mean-time and a difficult age.

There is temptation everywhere we look.

I know someone who hears the sound of children in the story we know as the story of Adam and Eve. He sees this as a story about growing up, of growing up from an age of innocence and discovering what it is like to be grown up.

We have a new granddaughter. She is two weeks old and she has a sister who is two and a half. The baby is totally innocent. She sleeps mostly. But we know she will soon grow into a toddler who tests boundaries and begins to know right from wrong (and we look forward to her living that life).
The terrible twos will turn into the terrible threes, into the terrible teens, and then terrible old age, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

There isn’t any age of our lives, which isn’t a difficult age.

Temptation takes different forms as we go through all our difficult ages. Temptation in old age is different to temptation for those who are younger.
Temptation when we are tired, run down or ill (which can lead to despair) is different to when we are feeling fresh and on top of things (which can lead to arrogance).
The temptation of those who are poor may be different to the temptation of the wealthy.
The temptation of those living desperately, with disaster, in, for example Ukraine, Northern Syria and SE Turkey is different to when their lives were more comfortable.

Temptation is contextual. We are all tempted differently.

One of our temptations is to trivialise temptation.
Another temptation we fall prey to is the temptation to individualise temptation – temptation isolates us, then shames us. We hide in our shame and focus on our self as the victim of temptation and as the one to resist temptation.

What is wrong is not individualistic but is societal, systemic and thoroughgoing and is of unimaginable scale.
But the tempters who prey on us are socially networked. 
They are in all our systems,

They are inside us – the voices we hear demeaning us and hardening our hearts. 
They are all around us.
They don’t have horns and a pitchfork. They are well groomed to groom us for their own selfish ends.

They come to us as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Tempters look just like us.

The powers in our lives aren’t always kindly intentioned. 
Think of those who try to scam us,
and the bots used to manipulate our thinking and undermine our democracy,
and the empire builders who groom us and use us to profit their purposes. 

They all come with their tempting offers. 

Even those who are kindly intentioned make unreasonable demands which often show that they don’t really understand us.
Work harder, look better, grow faster, spend more.
They’re all orders that disorder us – these are the temptations of our day and age.

These are temptations in our difficult age in which God, even now, shows his love for us.

I have painted a dark picture of our times – and I have done this deliberately because there are so many whose own interest is to persuade us that now is ok – that “we’ve never had it so good”. That is a temptation. The tempters would love us to believe that everything is hunky dory. That way they can get away with anything.

It is tempting to make light of our darkness.

The tempters would love us to believe that giving up chocolate for Lent is enough resistance to temptation. Hopefully we realise that such gestures are only token gestures and that they need to be first steps on the path to building resistance and resilience. 

But many of these gestures are things we take on on our own. And it is not good for us to be on our own in times like these, in mean times and our very difficult age.

If God created our relationships from the beginning to the end of our difficult age, then it is only through those relationships that we can resist. 

It is by being together as a church and as a family that we can resist. 

It is not good for any of us to be alone in our difficult age. 

It is often by talking things through with those who love us in our homes or church – with those who love us with a love that is divine – that we can make sense of things and find the heart to resist.

All of us are living through that “very difficult age”. It’s not good for any of us to be on our own at this time. 

God recognised that from the beginning and created relationships.

Together we can remind ourselves that the only effective resistance to temptation and tempters is through God, that it is only God who can deliver us from evil.
And so we pray, just as Jesus taught us – Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

This is our greatest act of resistance – to pray together. This is our greatest resistance to the tempters, the powers that be and the wrongs of the difficult age we find ourselves in, however old we are. 

And it is through this particular resistance that we find that God answers our prayer to be led from temptation and to be delivered from evil. That is how we come to know that God loves us – however difficult our age, however mean our times.

This is a reworking of Psalm 139 by Cara Heafey. She had LGBT Christians who may have been wounded by the church in mind when she wrote it. For me, it shows just an example of the importance of our scriptures as texts of resistance. It shows God’s love for us in our mean-time and these words spite the temptation to think that we are not good enough for God’s love.

I made you myself, carefully and lovingly.
I gathered your molecules together,
Scooping them out of the dust, warming them into clay.
I formed you, deftly
With the skill and vision of an artist
Into a unique creation.
A tiny masterpiece.
Your contours bear the imprint of my fingers.
Your imperfections and irregularities are a part of my design;
They are what make you beautiful.
I breathed life into you with my own breath.
To behold what I have brought into being in you
fills me with pleasure and pride.
As I cradle you in cupped hands, how could I feel anything but love?
It is my love for you that brought you into existence.
I know you more intimately than you could ever know yourself.
I know your thoughts before you think them, your words before you speak them,
The pattern and purpose of your days before you live them.
There is no point in hiding or pretending; don’t even try.Who told you that I did not love you?
Who taught you to be ashamed?
Listen to me. Hear the very words that I whispered into you
At the moment of your beginning:
“You are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.
You are my beloved child, I will never let you go.
You are my beloved child; do not be afraid.”

God is our resistance.

When the Dust Settles – a review

A review of When the Dust Settles by Lucy Easthope, published in 2022 by Hodder and Stoughton.

Lucy Easthope is the UK’s leading authority on recovering from disaster and has been an advisor on nearly every major disaster of the past two decades. She is a Professor in Practice of Risk and Hazard at the University of Durham and Fellow in Mass Fatalities and Pandemics at the Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath. She advises government and disaster planners. She is part of a profession that provides a Cinderella service dedicated to cleaning up after the worst has happened. As she says, it is a hidden profession and the book is her attempt to bring this painstaking work into the light. There are stories here of love, loss and hope from someone committed to every detail of loss and all the remains of disaster. The stories are infused with a competence and compassion to inspire trust in the powers of endurance and recovery.

When the Dust Settles helps us to appreciate the inevitability of disaster and the care of responders to every single victim. It is noticeable how Lucy’s professional disaster awareness and experience is entwined with a far more personal account of crises and disasters in her own life (and her living through them). She is disarmingly honest about the difficulties, disappointments and disasters that she has faced and this gives an air of authenticity and integrity to her writing. She understands the risks of disasters and the ripple effects of disasters. Disasters don’t occur in isolation. “They domino into other disasters, and as they unfurl they become entangled with the other challenges in our lives that would have occurred regardless”. (p264)

“Disasters are about total loss. Tangible losses: of a person, a house, a place. And intangible losses: of a feeling of safety, trust in authority.” She makes use of the Welsh word hiraeth (for which there is no English equivalent) to describe the terrible mourning for the “life before”. “Hiraeth is a longing for a place to which there is no return, an echo of something that can never be found, a heartsickness for something that no longer exists and a time that can never be gone back to.”

Lucy writes: “Life after disaster is perpetual, chronic, with a pain that ebbs and flows like tides…. In the floodwaters of Doncaster and the rubble of Christchurch, I discovered a new, long, chronic loss brought about by the loss of everything. The ‘furniture of self’ laid to waste. The never ending ache of hiraeth. But these places also taught me something else. The value of a horizon to swim towards. The importance of trying to build something afterwards. But to stay living, breathing, there had to be a purpose, a future, a bluer sky.” (p124)

A lot of Lucy’s work is providing training and helping people to learn lessons from disasters. I was at the point of asking myself how clergy are prepared to minister and preach through disaster when I read about the clergy training Lucy provided at a special training day on June 13th 2017. That training was around a scenario which Lucy describes as “the sum of all my fears”, involving homes, the destruction of “furniture of self”, a tower block, fire, loss of life and concerns about the actions of local authorities and building enforcement agencies. The following day, June 14th, 129 homes in Grenfell Tower in London were destroyed by fire. At least 72 people were killed. (A few days later I was at a local high school overlooked by the flats for an exhibition of A-level student work organised by my son who was Head of Art there.)

The media often turn to local clergy for a comment when disaster strikes a community. I wonder how prepared I ever was to respond to such a disaster or to endure the long term consequences. I am now more conscious than ever that our scriptures were borne out of disasters by those who suffered them. Those scriptures contain texts that have forged resilience in their readers. Jesus’ teaching and the sorrowful discipleship path he leads his followers on were designed to help us endure disaster. For example, Jesus tells his disciples what to expect in Mark 13. There will be earthquakes, wars, injustice, betrayal, murder and hatred. These things may feel like the end and to some may signal the end, but they never are. They have been with us from the beginning, and from the beginning the people of God have repeatedly helped people live and work through the dreadful consequences.

It is striking just how many disasters Lucy refers to. So many are carefully dated, even to the minute and the moment. This reinforces the sense that life changes in an instant for those who are victims of disaster.

Lucy rather overstates the case that we are all disaster survivors now following the Covid-19 pandemic. A lot of people were relatively untouched by the pandemic, some of them making the most of the opportunity to profit from it, or using it as an opportunity to relocate or learn a new language. What is striking in the last chapter with its focus on the pandemic is the foresight of those who knew we were overdue a pandemic and how, as one, she actively mobilised proactive responses in her local community.

Her final sentence: “All the planners can do now is be the light-bearers, illuminating the traps and helping as many as they can to navigate the next steps.” (p271). When the dust settles we have a lot to be thankful for – not least those, like the funeral directors who are prepared to deal with bodies contaminated by chemicals, and others Lucy highlights as such valuable colleagues. I’m letting the dust settle after reading this book. I learned a lot, I’ve thought again and I hope I am now less inclined to bury my head in the sand of my own preoccupations as disaster strikes again (and again).

Christmas and the cost of living

This poem was inspired by a small and mighty Christmas cards designed by a friend.

Christmas and the cost of living

Why do we make
Christmas so big
when joy’s so short,
innocence lost,
when baby’s squeezed
in a one star place?

Why do we make
Christmas so big
when the word,
from the beginning
was just a whisper
kissed of God?

Why do we make
Christmas so big
when we hang the tree,
lynch the light and
tinsel tight tie
the hostage angel?

Do we there nail
our hope that in
Advent edgeway
such baby-talk
may faithful grow
mercy, love, peace?

©David Herbert

Go Back to Your Own Country

Go Back to Your Own Country

Let me tell you about countries: nobody has their own
and where we come from moves. Our mothers’ wombs
aren’t where we left them. Continents calve. Jerusalem
holds a tray full of glasses which a scrum of men take
and put back, take and put back, unworried for the weight
she must shift. Let me tell you: some of the countries
aren’t where we left them. Someone pulls a string and six
tumble from Yugoslavia’s pocket. Someone halves
Sudan like a branch over their knee. Someone crumbles
a bailey between Berlin and Germany is one place
again. Only Adam had his own country, and he could not
go back. A country is land that’s learned to disown.

Jane Zwart

This poem has been reproduced with the poet’s permission. It first appeared in Contemporary Verse 2.

If a poem has love I will call it lovely. If a poem rings powerfully true I will call it stunning. This is a lovely, stunning poem which begins so well with a request to come alongside and explain. “Let me tell you” – that is such a good way to begin a poem, and such a good way to start to complicate a racist and nationalistic mindset with the thought that wombs and countries are never where we left them.

Jane Zwart teaches literature and writing at Calvin University and co-directs the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.