From Inclusion to Justice (A sermon preached on Sunday the 25th of April, 2020)

Reading: Acts 4: 1 – 37

Theme: Inclusion, Justice, The Church of England, Racism.

From Inclusion to Justice

The sermon script

I wonder if you will think back with me to a time when you have visited a different church to the one you regularly attend. Whether that be for a family event such as a baptism, or because you are on holiday in a different part of the country. Let’s imagine that this service, or event, is taking place during the service and you have arrived in plenty of time, nervous that you may not find the church or be able to park. You arrive as it is with plenty of time and you enter through the doors, unsure of what to expect. You are greeted by someone who is friendly, potentially too friendly for an “anglican” church. They give you your books, oh the days when we collected liturgies and hymn books before services began, and you enter the main body of the church. Now you face the real dilemma, you see back in your home church you know where to sit. Three pews back on the left, preferably behind the pillar so the Vicar can’t see you snoozing during the sermon. But, here, in this new place you do not know where to sit, you do not know the etiquette of this space, the subtle dance of choosing a seat. Eventually you settle for a seat, because this church does not have pews, 4 rows back and on the right. You feel settled, far enough away to not be noticed but close enough to observe what is going on. Then someone arrives, you know you have chosen the wrong seat, they look at you with disdain as they walk past. You are in their seat. You begin to feel uncomfortable, wishing you could leave, glad you don’t have to come back. You don’t look like this congregation anyway, don’t sound like them, so at the end of the service you slip away, unnoticed, unwelcome, uninvited, unsure who sat in your pew while you were away.

We have all been in a situation where we have felt judged, felt that others have looked down on us because of how we look, what we have said, what kind of education we have received. This does not just take place in society but in the church as well. A fresh light this week has been shone on the Church of England and has demonstrated the extent to which those who are not like “us” have often been sidelined and not heard. I do not know how many of you have watched this weeks Panorama documentary but it was an important moment because it revealed the extent to which the Church of England has failed to include the full diversity of our world in the life of the church. 

The reading we had this morning from Acts (Acts 4: 1 – 37) demonstrates that this problem is not a modern one; power only sees power. It is the same now as it has always been. Those who speak a certain way, hold certain positions and think they are entitled to certain privileges often ignore, or mistreat those who do not have those same privileges. Yet, in the face of the situations in Acts 4, Peter and the other disciples stand in the face of this and proclaim a different message. Often, the church has talked using the language of “inclusion’. In fact a whole charity has been formed to focus on the premise that we can make our churches more inclusive. More and more I find this language disconcerting. In our reading from Acts “Peter stands next to the man God has healed not by the power claimed by the elites…. but only through the Holy Spirit” (Willie James Jennings, Acts: A Theological Commentary of the Bible, Westminster, John Knox Press: Louisville, 2017).. The language of Inclusion creates an image which portrays a certain group as holding the power. It is suggesting that the judges can heal the man without the intervention of the Holy Spirit. Inclusion suggests that we, as Norbury Church, hold the right to invite others to the table. It suggests we can sit in a position above God and choose what our church looks like. 

There is though another way. A way modelled for us by those early disciples. A model that should hopefully move us from “inclusion” to “flourishing”. A system which does not make us into the builder who picks and chooses which stones to build our church but instead becomes a community that reflects the full diversity of the Kingdom of God. Peter, part way through our reading stands and offers this model. He demonstrates that in Jesus we have an example that was rejected, a judge that was judged in our place. “Jesus is the cornerstone of any building effort that would move us towards life. Jesus enacts a new social order that saves. No one else can do this.” There was a powerful moment in a Panorama documentary  this week where the current Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell is presented with a stack of reports which have been written in the last 50 years that depict the issues of racism in the Church. Going all the way back further than the Faith in the City report written in 1985 the Church has known about these issues, the Archbishop acknowledged that he had helped write many of them, but still things have not changed. The elites, who have made it to the top, sit and look down and judge, often thinking they are sitting in the place of God. Yet, “God waits in silence with those brought in courts, standing in front of tribunals, juries, and officers of the law and listening as the judge of this world, not only in courtrooms but also in boardrooms and legislative halls, decide on their future and plan their destines, and God reminds all those in power that a judgement is being brought on their decisions and their lives” (Jennings, Acts). Often God waits in the Church as well. Waiting for us to listen, waiting for us to understand, waiting for us to respond. Hoping, beyond all hope, that we will hear the truth that is on offer. That “Jesus is the cornerstone of any building effort that would move towards life. Jesus enacts a new social order that saves. No one else can do this” (Jennings, Acts). No report, no Task-Force, no one other than Jesus. 

I often return to the writings of James Cone when discussing race because his work is seminal. He understood, and located, that challenge of the black man in America within the arms of Jesus. He saw in the lynchings of the 1960s a proclamation of God’s saving power. Not in the hands of the elites, not in the power of those who judge, but in the dying arms of Jesus on the cross. 

It is in the arms of Jesus, not in a desire for inclusion, that we can all find our equal nature. Jesus came, not to save you and me, not to make a cosy social club of like minded individuals, not matter how inclusive we try to be, but instead to make us all equal. To remind us that God, in all His power, comes to be judged. Comes to enact a new world order; one not based on the power of the elites but a boldness of the oppressed. A boldness to speak out and be heard. I pray that we can do that listening. I pray that we can listened to our brothers and sisters who have not been heard. I pray that we will not be so anxious about loosing control that we will be willing to let others come and occupy this space. A space that God has prepared for all His children. I pray that we will not be like those judges, that we do not become choosy about which bricks to use, but that all may come and find a hope in this place. That all may come and enjoy the fullness of God’s Kingdom, not because we are “Inclusive” but because we have all been included by the saving power of the Cross.


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Disney’s Soul – Jazz, leadership and faith.

The 2020 Christmas release of Soul seems, if you believe rottentomatoes, to be a film which caught the imagination of the audience. With a deep story line, and clever sub plots, the story is a ‘multilayered experience of the musical dimension’…which touches…’our humanity’ (Heltzel, 2012, p.2). Heltzel, is obviously not writing about Soul per se, but his description of jazz holds true of the storyline of Soul. In fact, Soul is based within the world of jazz, and both, offer ‘a new way of experiencing life – life together’ (p.2, 2012). 

The story of Soul is one of a burnt out middle school teacher, Joe, who has dreams of making it as a jazz musician. In search of his “big break” Joe experiences a life changing situation, falling down a manhole and ending up in the “Great Beyond”, where soul counsellors – all named Jerry – manage the intersection between life and death. 

At the heart of Soul is the moment of improvisation. The movie pivots and turns as Joe tries to live out his dream, even in the face of death. Many people think improvisation is all about the experimental, about the new and the bold. I have found it to be the opposite. In fact, the best improv comes from those who truly know their art form. Improvisation does not come from picking up an instrument and giving it a go but from practice. It take time to learn the appropriate scales or discover how to give permission and always say yes. To be good at improvisation you need to be faithful to the process. Or, to put it another way, the journey. 

Soul, I propose, raises two interesting points for those who are Christian. The first relates to our faith and the second looks at how those who minister, mentor, and enable others.

Improvising faith

We cannot deny that 2020 was a year of improvisation. No-one was trained to minister in a pandemic. There was no handbook of expectations. No tick list of tasks to complete. We were improvising. Using the tools given to practice our faith in new ways. But, this was not simply improvisation for the sake of improvisation it was what Cameron defines as faithful improvisation – ‘of finding out how to say the same thing in a different language, different context, to different people’ (2018, p. 60) and it was hard. Just like saying yes can be hard on stage to the other actor or using the skills at your disposal to respond to the musical overtones. Improvisation is not easy but neither is faith. 

As already mentioned Soul is set within the world of jazz and there is much we, as Christians, can learn from jazz to help enrich our faith. Hetzel (2012) puts it like this:

Like jazz, Christianity is a dramatic and musical performance. Like jazz, Christian thinking and acting are improvisational, creative, and hopefully forward-looking. Like, Jazz, they exemplify a dynamic of constraint and possibility.’ 

Christianity is all about creative witness. It is about taking the gifts we have and improvising. That is what we did in 2020. We, as a church, took the gifts God had given us and improvised. We used the deep wells of faith to improvise. We came up with creative ways to reimagine faith and to offer witness to the world. We did not shrink into the darkness but we embraced the possibility and shone. We used our faith and we improvised.

To do this though we needed to develop one particular muscle, we needed to learn to trust. Wells argues that that improvisation ‘is not about being spontaneous and witty in the moment, but about trusting oneself to do and say the obvious,’ (p.13, 2004). Trust is a key skill that any improvisation involves and it is central to the story of Soul. In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown, notes that because of our insecurities and our desire to be strong we can often miss forming strong relationships. Brown writes that “trust is a product of vulnerability that grows over time and requires work, attention, and full engagement’ (p.53). Just like it takes time for the jazz musician to learn the needed skills to improvise it also takes time for Christians to learn to let go and trust God. To trust that God has the rudder and will take our permission giving and the skills we have gained and use them to make something beautiful. 

Faithful Improvising is all about improvising our faith. It is about using the skills that we have sharpened in prayer and being a witness in the world. It is not about being perfect or performing well. It is about taking what we have learnt and using it creatively in the performance that God has put us in. It is about trusting God and letting go, it is about being vulnerable and saying yes. Nothing more, nothing less. It is about saying yes to God’s amazing plan.

Permission giving – a way to mentor others into their full potential

An important part of any improvisation is permission giving. It is about saying yes to the other person. In drama it is about not blocking the other and enabling the show to go on, it is hard. It is hard because it demands trust and vulnerability. At its heart this is what Soul is all about. It is about two lost souls giving each other permission to become themselves and to share in each others vulnerability. It is something that Christian leaders tend to struggle with. 

Soul is a story of two lost souls coming together and gaining trust. By cleverly using skills from jazz the Disney production team demonstrate how trust is won and relationships are formed. This is something that Disney understand intrinsically as it is in their ethos. In Creativity Inc. Ed Catmull demonstrates that the Disney model is based not simply on skill but also on ethos. They create a culture of buy-in and community, something later fostered by both Facebook and Google. Catmull acknowledges that before the ideas are formed the team needs to be right. Before the musicians can improvise they need to trust, and before the mentee can grow the mentor needs to have gained the others trust. 

To do this mentors need to be willing to acknowledge their own weaknesses and strengths. Miroslav Volf (2019) suggests that to do this we need to embrace not exclude the other but to do that we have to acknowledge our own vulnerabilities. We need to be attentive to what is going on in our own lives and welcome people into that. We need to be drawn into communities of sacrifice not gain. For it is through our own sacrifice that we can move closer to the cross. It is only when we are willing to sacrifice our place at the table that others will grow.

Returning for a moment to trust. As leaders we often demand respect due to archaic ties and positional power. So often the minister exert power explicitly. It is only as Joe and 22 come to trust each other that a relationship is formed. It is only when Joe begins to show vulnerability that 22 begins to understand what it might mean to be human and that is to trust. It wasn’t because of Joe’s power but because of his vulnerability that their relationship changed and this is something all leaders need to be mindful of, especially those within the church. Helen Cameron (2012) puts it like this ‘those who do hold authority need to foster imagination, empathy and humility to remain aware of how powerless and vulnerable others may feel.’ Rather than trying to exert dominance, or rely on stature, the leader, or mentor, needs to come alongside the mentee, or team member, and try to understand how to say “yes”. How to enter their life and make them flourish. How to use the gifts they offer and turn those gifts into something for God. 

Improvisation is all about permission giving. It is about enabling the other to trust in themselves, and you, enough to respond. It is about offering your gifts, and weaknesses, even if this makes you vulnerable in the hope that the other person will respond. Jesus ‘got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet’ (John 13, 4 – 5). This moment is the perfect example of the intersection between vulnerability and trust. Jesus, in showing his vulnerability, asks the disciples to trust him. In taking a position of service Jesus demonstrates his vulnerability and asks for permission to show the disciples a better way. How often does our ministry do that? How often do we look to give permission to think outside the box? How often do we ignore the one who may flourish because they do not fit the criteria for ministry? How often do we fail to promote amazing leaders because we fear that they are better than we are? How often do we serve our own aims and forget God’s? 

Soul offers a specific moment in the life of a man who had one dream. A dream which he comes to realise was limiting his very existence. He was so caught up in that dream that he could not see what was going on around him. He failed to give himself permission to let his yes be yes. He could not see a different way. As we move into 2021 we will need to come up with new ways to live out our faith. We will need to be creative in enabling budding leaders to flourish. Fear not however for God has already given us to the tools and the permission, I think it is up to us to say yes and that’s the hard part!

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Why do we eat hot cross buns on Good Friday?

In 2019 the U.K. shopper splashed out an extra £31.8 million on them, taking total sales to £153.1 million by the end of January 2020. These buns are no longer the common bun that I remember from childhood, but they are filled with all sorts of interesting things. The trend of making the hot cross bun into something else seems to be prevalent, but why has this little bun become synonymous with Good Friday and Easter Sunday?

There are many myth’s and legends around cross shaped bread, for it is the cross, I think, that makes this bun unique. The bun seems to become popular in 1733, around the same time that the familiar nursery rhyme first appeared, but in fact it is likely that the bun was around much earlier. Both the Ancient Greeks, and Egyptians, however, baked bread at a similar time of year to mark the beginning of spring. The Egyptian’s even marked their buns with the image of an ox horn to their goddess of the moon. 

Yet, this bun seems to have been strongly tied to the Christian faith. In part this is because of the line in the 1733 rhyme:

“Good Friday comes this Month, the old woman runs, With one or two a Penny hot cross Bunns.”

But, this is not the only rumour, or link. Some link the bun back to a monk of the 12th century who put an incensed cross into a bun. Yet another theory ties the bun to a different 14th century monk  in St. Albans. Or, a more popular protestant theory ties the bun to the Elizabethan era. In her history of English Bread, Elizabeth David, argues that this popular bun was part of a royal decree. It is believed that some time after the reformation Elizabeth I restricted London bakers from making hot cross buns “except it be at burials, or on Friday before Easter, or at Christmas.” This, I think, furthered link the tradition of eating hot cross buns at this time of the year. It became such a strong part of our tradition that Boswell wrote in 1773: “Being Good Friday I breakfasted with him and cross-buns.”

Which ever theory you prefer the truth is that the cross is a common sign in  the Ancient World and it can represent a wide range of things. For us though, at this moment, it reminds us of the cross of Christ. As we have travelled through lent I have reflected much on the feeling of similarity. Normally lent marks a distinct change in the patterns of our lives and the pattern of the church. Yet, much like the commonality of the hot cross bun all year, this year has felt like an extended period of lent. We have all suffered for such a long time; not being able to see family, consigned to our homes, and distant from the church services which connect us to God, our faith has been rocked and we have felt caught between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. 

Yet, there is also much we have gained. When I think about God I am drawn to the idea of mystery. The mystery of the resurrection is one such example. We put our faith in a grander narrative. We trust that God has a greater plan and that we are called to be a part of that plan. This year, more than any other, we need to put our trust in the resurrection. We need to set our sight not on the cross but on the empty tomb. We need to hold fast to the promises of the resurrection knowing that God offers a greater plan. 

One final theory that I came across when researching hot cross buns seemed so far fetched that I almost liked it. A few years ago one C of E spokesperson, responding to a question about the hot cross bun suggested that that in addition to the cross and the communion-ish bread, the bun’s spices “represent the spices Jesus was wrapped in in the tomb”. 

Although almost farcical this is a helpful way to shift our thinking. As we prepare for Good Friday and Easter. I want us to shift our attention from the cross to the empty tomb. As we move further into Spring I want us to focus our attention on the hope of the resurrection. In Roman’s 8 St. Paul writes:

“We know that the whole world has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patient.”

Let us patiently hold onto our hope. Let us shift our gaze from the suffering of the world to the hope of the resurrection. Let us not be like the world, indulging all year round, but let us patiently stand fast trusting in the hope before us. 

Even the fire could not warm my heart as I heard the cock crow. 

Staring through the musky dark I knew I had to go. 

Getting up I searched my heart,

feeling it break apart.

Struggling for words I pulled my cloak tight

ashamed as I took flight.

I could not wait, I had to go, I did not want to see.

I could not watch my Saviour be punished for me. 

One fleetingly look back, the embers of the fire glowing on the ground. The gaze of the bystanders, the tears still stinging my eyes, and then I flee. 

It was going so well, only a few days ago we were riding into Jerusalem celebrating a king. It feels like hours ago that I vehemently told Je.. told him that I would not deny him. Not me Jes… Not me. I would die for you! 

Now I can’t even say your name. 

I could not wait, I had to go, I did not want to see.

I could not watch my Saviour be punished for me. 

I hear that sound once more echoing around my brain. The cockerel  crow taunting me. Telling me to go. It’s know that I abandoned him and now it tortures me, forces me to go.

What else could I do, I could not stand for thee. 

They would torture me. 

And why should I be tortured? You promised to be a king. 

You tricked me. You were nothing more than a fling. 

A fleeting moment of hope in a world full of despair. You were never meant to be king. You are not the Chosen One, the Messiah, you tricked me. I did not flee. They shall never punish me. 

I feel my feet slowing now, my heart stops racing. For a moment I breath deeply and I begin to see. The moment he cleared the temple, the moment of transfiguration. The miracles, the healings, cheap parlour tricks to entertain and confuse. Tricks to hide your real purpose surely. 

I feel the tears begin again, my heart knows even if my head says no. You are more than a political activist, more than a magician, more than some ….., you are my Saviour and you came not just for me. 

The tears burn down my flesh, a reminder of what I have just done. A reminder of the prediction you made of me:

‘Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’

He knew and yet he did not dismiss me, 

he let me journey with him too Gethsemane.

I denied him. I could not even admit to following thee. 

Jesus they will surely hang you from a tree,

and what of me?

Jesus would you truly die for me?

What a fool I have been, there is no hope now. They will kill him and there is nothing that we can do. No words can save him now, no promises, no hope, no glory. Punishment and death. I cannot be a part of that. I cannot go back now. I must flee. I must run. I must not be seen with thee.

Two world’s collided, how could I have known that it would not work? How could any of us have known that following you would lead to our own moments of doubt. Our own moments of Calvary. I wonder where the other disciples are now. Maybe I should find them. Maybe they are like me, confused, scared, alone. Maybe they too are preparing to flee.

Surely Jesus, you did not come to suffer for me?

Surely they will set you free?

What if they set Christ free, what if he is set free and I am not there. What if the others are all waiting for him and I have gone. Just Me? One of his trusted disciples, fled because I was scared of what they would do to me. 

I cannot go back, no I cannot watch, I cannot see any way back for me.

Even the fire could not warm my heart as I heard the cock crow. 

Staring through the musky dark I knew I had to go. 

Getting up I searched my heart,

feeling it break apart.

Struggling for words I pulled my cloak tight

ashamed as I took flight.

I could not wait, I had to go, I did not want to see.

I could not watch my Saviour be punished for me.

What else could I do, I could not stand for thee. 

They would torture me. 

And why should I be tortured? You promised to be a king. 

You tricked me. You were nothing more than a fling.

 Jesus they will surely hang you from a tree,

and what of me?

Jesus would you truly die for me?

Surely, you did not come to suffer for me?

Surely they will set you free?

Reading the Psalms: What’s in it for me?

I wonder what kind of relationship you have with the psalms?

You may be able to remember them being sung in church. You might even be picturing the choir chanting a psalm at evensong. Or you may be able to recite psalm 23, or sing it, it you are confident enough to do so. The psalms are an important part of our bible, yet they can often be missed. They can be consigned to a favourite few, or a sung chant. I want to suggest that in doing this we miss a rich tapestry of our faith which can help draw us closer to God.

The psalter includes some 150 psalms, split into five books. These 150 psalms span the breadth and width of human emotions; there are songs of praise, psalms of lament and everything in between. Rather than being intimately connected these psalms offer both a breadth of emotion as well as a variety of composition. The poetical style does not match, each psalms is different and within that difference we can see the beautiful expanse of God. 

If they are stylistically different they are also written for different purposes. There are psalms which are intimately personal. That speak of the troubles “I” have faced, whether that be from the perspective of David or some other author. But, there are also psalms which are communal. Psalms which call us to come together as a collective and sing or weep. It is important to be reminded that in the psalms we find our collective, and our individual, emotions expressed. They can be used both to connect individually but also to pray corporately. Their purpose vary and yet they all seem to draw us closer to God.

It could be easy to think that if the psalms being stylistically different and vast in number and breadth lacks any structure or way of categorisation. No way to connect to them bar their numerical order. This is not the case, many academics have attempted to categorise the psalms. The easiest set of categories, I think, is offered by Walter Brueggemann, who divides the psalms into three basic types:

Psalms of orientation.

Psalms of disorientation.

Psalms of reorientations. 

As I have said there are other ways of categorising the psalms, the German scholar Weiser, offers another robust division. For this blog however I want to focus on Brueggemann’s division for I think it can help us deepen our use, and understanding, of the psalms. What follows is a brief exploration of the three types of psalms and a look at how this can relate to our every day life.

Psalms of orientation.

In the rawness of life, it is often this group of psalms that help orientate our struggles. In this group of psalms we find the ‘articulation of our deep human experience’ (Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, 4). Think about the last time you were disorientated, or in need of refuge. Think about the last time you went for a walk alone, without a map, and got lost. It is at those moments, the moments of deep panic that we reach out and ask for help, or yell depending on the situation. We can take a similar stance in our daily lives as well. When something rocks us or happens that we did not expect we reach out to find orientation. After a recent difficult situation a friend reached out to me not looking for an answer but to help orientate their experience. To simply be heard and to know that life is hard for all of us. Psalm 57 verse 1 puts it like this:

Be merciful to me, O God…

   for in you my soul takes refuge,

in the shadow of your wings

   I will take refuge.

In our moments of distress the psalms, I want to suggest, offer us a way to find orientation in God. They offer us security, and refuge, when we are struggling. They remind us to look beyond ourselves and trust in God. These psalms of orientation open up new possibilities and create new relationships. They promise that God’s refuge is open to all who believe in him.

Psalms of disorientation.

The most common question I get as a vicar is “why does God allow us to suffer” and although I am not going to answer such a question here it is a good way to frame psalms of disorientation. Brueggemann write: ‘These psalms attest us that the life of faith does not protect us from the pit. Rather, the power of God brings us out of the pit to new life which is not the same as pre-pit existence’ (Praying the Psalms, 35). When God rescues us it does not come with the promise that life will be easy, but instead that our lives will be changed. That our reality will shift from where we were to where we now are. God does not promise a life free of suffering but instead a life lived in relationship. Yet, the psalms of disorientation speak of not the a life lived in relationship but a life lived in the pit. Psalm 30:9, for example, speaks of the pit as a place which is void from God:

What profit is there in my death,

     if I descend into the pit?

Will the dust praise you?

     Will it proclaim your faithfulness. 

These psalms are often the hardest to read, but they are also often the easiest to relate to. They are the psalms we often turn to when life is hard. They give us a vocabulary for our pain. They show us that life is not always simple and that people of faith have walked the same path that we have. 

In lent these psalms act as a reminder that the life of faith is not one of “perfection” but has trials and tribulations within it. There are psalms which vocalise pain, not just physical pain but mental anguish too, loneliness, oppression, bereavement. Yet, this is not a bad thing. It gives us a language to use. A language which we often fail to use in worship, but a language which can connect us to God in the hardest of times. The next time you face suffering I recommend you look at the psalms for in them you will find a voice. In them you will find struggle and hardship and, I pray, you will find a reminder that God is with you even in the darkest of moments. 

Psalms of reorientation. 

If we return, for a moment, to our analogy of being lost there is a great joy when we are found or reorientated. If we think of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15: 11 – 32 the father throws the greatest banquet when his son returns. These psalms of reorientation are similar. They are the moments when the people of Israel celebrate. They include words of thanksgiving and praise:

Yahweh is king! Let the earth rejoice!

      Let the many coastlands be glad. 

(Psalm 97:1)

Yahweh is king!

      Let the peoples trembler!

He sits enthroned between the cherubim!

      Let the earth quake!

   (Psalm 99:1)

The psalms can help us to celebrate the very experiences of our re-orientation. They give language to our moving out of the pit into the new life of God. The papal preacher His Eminence Raniero Cantalamessa speaks of a deep sense of joy that new believers can experience. This is what these psalms evoke as well. There is a deep sense of celebration that what was lost is now found, what was dead is now alive. John Bell describes this as deep praise. Not simply a buttering up of God for our gain but a deeper sense of gratitude of simply being in God’s presence (John Bell, Living With the Psalms, 144). Not singing for the sake of singing but a deeper reverence that God is good no matter how hard life may get. This is what reorientation is about it is a sense of thanksgiving which is not based on the ups and downs of life but is much deeper. It is a reorientation into the very experience of knowing the love of God, of being welcomed home by the loving father.

It is easy to simply dismiss the psalms as something that are too difficult to read, or not relevant to our day to day lives and yet they are filled with so much depth. This lent our church has met each week to discuss different psalms brought by a member of the group. It has been fascinating. There have been moments of praise and moments of lament. Psalms which orientate and psalms of disorientation. Through it all I have been reminded how important the psalms can be in our everyday lives. How often in the psalms we can find words which not only reflect our mood but offer a deeper sense of revelation. Psalms which speak not just to our day-to-day lives but to our very soul as well. If you have not read the psalms I encourage you to use them more. Pray with them, meditate on them, use them to help connect you with God. I encourage you to use them not just because they are part of our Holy text but because they cut through the thousands of years between us and them and speak to our very souls today. They meet us where we are at and minister to us in a way that very little else can. They help remind us that our orientation is not in the world but in the arms of God, and they give us a way to express that even when we are too weary to speak. These are the words of faithful followers of God who have grappled just like us and have trusted in God even when life has been hard. These beautiful prayers offer us a deeper sense of connection to God than many worship songs, or hymns, can today. I urge you therefore not to abandon the psalms but to pray them. Not to ignore them but to engage with them. So that in creating a relationship with them you may deepen your relationship with God.


John Bell, Living the Psalms, (SPCK, 2020)

Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms 2nd Edition, (Cascade Books, 2007)

**Both links take you to Amazon Associates and are paid links.

Weekly Update (8) – The Circle Process

In a world where conflict is an ever present reality. Where political parties and community groups jostle for power over each other and disagree over the smallest of details I have a passion to live out the biblical principles of justice and reconciliation.

In 2 Corinthians 5: 17 – 19, St. Paul writes:

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come. Everything is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation”

This is a ministry we are called into, commissioned for, and it can often be difficult to be involved in. This week’s blog comes with a caveat. If anyone who reads this wants to become more involved in reconciliation, or solve a conflict in their own lives, I recommend they go and receive the appropriate advice and training. It takes a skilled mediator to deal with difficult conflict and more damage can be done by diving into situations unprepared. That being said Christ calls us into this ministry and there are tools that we can use in our day-to-day lives to become more aware of how we respond to conflict.

Something I’ve read

So, this maybe a bit cheeky, but this is not something I read this week but something I looked at in the past however it is such a good book I want to recommend it here. John Paul Lederach, is a key figure in Christian reconciliation, and his book reconcile: Conflict Transformation for Ordinary Christians is a brilliant starting point for anyone who is interested in the idea of reconciliation.

Early on in the book Lederach writes that when we think about reconciliation we often look for tools, processes and techniques, but in fact we should first attend to the question of presence. We should focus not on the tools but on the relationship. Looking at the life of Jesus we see a figure who was more concerned with relationship than the tools. It is through Jesus that we see God’s reconciling love made present. If we are to become true reconciler’s we should first turn and attend to our relationship with the perfect reconciler.

Something I’ve listened too

Early this week I listened to the Guild of Health’s 2020 Duncan Lecture led by Ruth Harvey. I first encountered Ruth through Reconciler’s Together as she headed up our training. Ruth is now leader of the Iona community and someone who everyone who has a passion for reconciliation should spend time with. The brief conversations we had while walking through the Cumbrian hills have stayed with me for a long time.

In her lecture Ruth was attentive to the intersection between healing and reconciliation. She acknowledge that the two fields have much to learn from each other and much to share. She encouraged those with a passion for reconciliation to be healers of communities. She did this through conversation, expertise and attending to her relationship with Jesus, our wounded healer. Once again it is a great lecture to watch for anyone who has an interest in healing and reconciliation.

An Interesting Idea

So, at last, I return to the title of this blog: The Circle Process. I am thankful to Steve Mansfield, vicar and lead for the mediation services for the Diocese of Chester, who led the training. The process, which is meant to be used to facilitate group discussion, is an easy one but it is one that needs to be practiced with care. It is a process which can enable the most difficult stories to be heard and I have experienced it in several different places now. What I appreciated most about this weeks training is the care Steve took to point us towards our mission as reconcilers, as people called by God into the mission of reconciliation. He also explained the circle process well and if the training is offered again I would recommend you go on it. It is the kind of process that works in many environments, not just places of reconciliation, but encourages more attentive listening and a safe space for people to speak. If you want to know more this is a good book to look at by Kay Paris.

As I close I offer this prayer for reconciliation that I came across this week:

God of Peace,

We praise you for people who dare to use their words and actions to model your way of peace.

We pray that others might be inspired to follow in their footsteps.


Weekly Insights (7) – Environmental activism isn’t just for lent it’s for life

Every year people search for lent resources which will help connect them with God in a deeper way. We may be a few days into lent but if you have not found a resource can I suggest you look at the Diocese of Chester’s resources around environmental action. For forty days members from across the diocese will write about how they have been impacted by the environmental challenges we face and offer reflections on how we could change and care for creation.

The environment is not just for lent, it’s for life. Psalm 104 is a beautiful depiction of God’s care for creation. It speaks of the ways God has created everything from tiniest creeping thing to the mighty Leviathan. God’s hands are all over creation and the world demonstrates that glory. When we see a beautiful sunset or stand atop a mountain range we cannot be express praise to God. But, those moments should also challenge us to care more.

Last week I attended an event run in collaboration with Christian Aid. The event launched a report which shows how out of touch the church seems to be on environmental issues. It suggested that if there was not radical change then we would loose many young people because of the apathy and lack of care the church has shown about environmental issues.

In the face of that apathy I challenge you to become more educated. To read, listen and learn about our environment and discover ways you can care more for our creation. I have listed several resources at the end of this blog post which you could use but they are only a starting block. There are so many resources out there that you could become lost in information, overloaded by facts and figures. So, in an attempt to keep this weeks reflections grounded I offer seven suggestions for ways you could change your life that would impact the world around you.

What follows are seven simple ways you could make a difference in your life that will help our planet and align your life with God’s call to care for creation.

  1. Meat Free day’s – Around 14.5 percent of all human emissions comes from animal agriculture and just under half of that is through the production of beef. One way then that you could reduce your carbon footprint would be to have meat free days. Even by stopping eating meat one day a week will make a huge impact not just on our carbon but also on our world.
  2. Reduce single use plastics – This is a much harder challenge. If you go to most supermarkets you will find the shelves littered with single use plastic but this is another serious problem for our world. Why not try and buy vegetables that are not covered in plastic. Or if you live in or around Manchester why not try one of our eco shops in Bramhall or New Mills. These shops allow you to take your own packaging and let you choose how much of any product you want. Similarly they stock things like shampoo and hand soap which can help the reduction of single use plastics as well!
  3. See what your Carbon Footprint is. There are many websites that can help you calculate your carbon footprint and this is a great way to help reduce carbon. If you know how much carbon you use each week then you can slowly reduce it in those areas of your life that it impacts the most!
  4. Drive Less, Walk More. Why not stop using the car as much and make use of that bike you bought five years ago or simply walk to the places you need to go.
  5. Replace the lights in your home. LED lights use 85 % less energy and can last 25 % longer than incandescent lighting.
  6. Recycle More – why not do some research and see if there are things which can be recycled which you used to throw away.
  7. Talk to people – why not talk to more people about the environment. Encourage others too recycle and change their habits. That way your small changes are not just impacting you but impacting others as well!

In Genesis 1 God encouraged us to be stewards of creation. We were not called to dominate or abuse the world but to care for it. Why not use lent to pray and learn more about ways we could care more for creation.


AROCHA – this website has some great ways that the church can promote care for creation.

Christian Aid – another good website to learn more about the impacts we are having on the climate.

Chester Diocese – This lent they both have a lent resource to use and a recent podcast from the environment forum talking about ways we can respond to climate injustice.

Weekly Insight (6) – Racial Justice Sunday

This week Churches Together in Britain and Ireland are holding “Racial Justice” Sunday’s as a church we will be using the resources and educating ourselves. One of the problems we face in Britain is education. Many will ask why we are holding a “racial justice” Sunday well it is so that we can spotlight the biblical importance of such issues. The bible has been used throughout history to oppress and put down. Yet, when I read the gospel’s I read a gospel of love. When I read the writings of Paul I read the letters of a man who cared about justice and wanted to encourage others to follow the cross of Christ. As we are challenged this Sunday. As we become uncomfortable with what is said and the prayers we pray we need to see that as a good thing. We need to become uncomfortable so that we can enact change. This weeks blog suggests some of the things you could read/listen too if you feel uncomfortable and want to know more. These recourses will help you move from conversation to action.

Something to read

There are so many good books that you could read. These books will make most of us become uncomfortable but they have changed my perspectives. More than changing my perspectives however they also gave me the resources to speak out. They showed my “blind” sides and helped me become familiar with the problems our society faced.

Reni Edo-Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race . This is a real uncomfortable read for a white person as it challenges our unconscious bias and makes us think more deeply about the things we say and actions we take.

James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. This book explores the spiritual world of African Americans in 20th century America. Drawing on some of the most violent acts of racism Cone is able to tie together both hope and terror through the lens of the Cross. This is a powerful read especially as we move through lent towards the cross.

Something to Listen too

This week I am going to once again recommend a podcast. Podcast’s are some of the easiest ways to educate yourselves on specific issues, especially now that we have time on our hands. In the Unlocking Us Series by Brene Brown Brene has a conversation with Emmanuel Acho. Emmanuel talks about his experiences as a black person and explains why he wrote the book “Uncomfortable conversations with a Black Man”. One thing that struck me in the conversation was when Emmanuel said that “true allyship moves from conversation to action.” As we pray and worship this week why not ask God to help move us from conversation to action this week.

I also took time to watch the BBC programme Anthony. The story of Anthony Walker, who was killed by two white men in 2005, demonstrates that racism is not some distant issue but that it is closer than we think and has an affect on all of our communities.

An important idea

In here podcast Brene Brown says that there can be “no courage without vulnerability.” Racism can be a difficult issue to speak out against as white people because we can fear that we say the wrong thing, or that can be seen to not have compassion. That attitude however is just as bad as racism for it silences the conversation. As Norbury Church prays and worships this week we will ask God to come and change the narrative. We will ask God to come and transform our community by His grace so that justice will roar through this land. Sometimes it can feel like our voices are not loud enough, or not bold enough. Yet, as we learn, speak and act, we can have a great influence on our friends, our families, and our communities. If we join our voices together we will be able to affect more change than we ever could alone. If we partner with God we can do the impossible. We can see God’s kingdom come and change the earth. That is why we join with God this Sunday and ask that God’s love overpower all the earth and we proclaim together that all lives are important. That black lives matter to us!

Weekly Insights (5) – The importance of History and the story it can tell

I have often the pondered the importance of journaling. On some occasions I have attempted to write down my thoughts at the start or the end of day. Often, however, this is with little or no lasting impact. Yet, as a historian, I am always drawn to the importance of story.

While studying in America I took an American Christianity course which used story. The lecturer, Dr. Lauren Winner, used a lot of stories. Each week our readings would include somebodies story in the form of a journal entry or a letter. It was amazing to read American history in such a way. It was intimate and relevant. It was deep and profound and it was a course which had a great impact on my thinking as a priest and a theologian.

This week I have thought a lot about stories and wonder what kind of legacy we will leave.

Something I’ve read

This week I have finished this book, Facist Voices, by Christopher Duggan. This history of Mussolini’s Italy is written from the perspective of story. Duggan spent a lot of time finding relevant archival accounts and diary entries which tell the peoples story. The book depicts the rise and fall of Mussolini from the perspective of the Italian people. It is well worth a read for anyone interested in modern history and the use of journal entries in an academic account of the Italian state.

Something I’ve listened too

Similarly, I listened this week to a BBC radio production from documenting the interview of Rudolf Hess who was the deputy Fuher by a prominent British psychiatrist . Once again this was a really interesting listen which further opened up the importance of story. In this case through examining the importance of the stories we tell ourselves and how easy it is to become ensconced in a particular story or narrative.

An Interesting Idea

As I have written stories play a crucial role in how we develop and tell history. As Winston Churchill said  history was written by the victors. Yet, there is so much that can be learnt by reading the stories of those who didn’t win. Those who are different to us. Those who come from different places and times. This week, I would love for you to explore history through story. For it is in reading about someone’s life that we learn what it means to live in a different time or a different way. It is by engaging with, and learning about, those who are different to us that we can come to accept who we truly are and grow and learn.

History may have been written by the victors but we have a lot to learn from the losers as well!

Weekly Insights (4)

It is hard to avoid the headlines this week. Hard not to acknowledge the fact that our nation has now lost over 100,000 people to the COVID pandemic. For those keen Manchester United fans out there that is a full to capacity stadium + another 25,000 people. The number is even larger than a full Wembley (90,000) people and each of those people hold a story. Each of those people are more than a number. As we come out of this week I want us to think about the importance of their stories and think about a way we could respond.

Something I’ve read

This week the Archbishops (C of E) wrote to the church. The letter included this:

100,000 isn’t just an abstract figure. Each number is a person: someone we loved and someone who loved us. We also believe that each of these people was known to God and cherished by God( Church of England Website, 2020).

The whole letter can be accessed here. The letter is a helpful read and one which encourages those with faith to put aside time every evening in February to pray. From the 1st of February our archbishops ask us to pray. But, is pray enough?

Is pray enough if you have lost a loved one? Is pray enough if you know someone who has died? The archbishops write this about prayer:

Prayer is an expression of love.

As we cannot gather, or see each other, at the moment maybe prayer is one way that we can remember others. As we name those we know who are ill, or who grieve, or who suffer we offer an expression of love. An expression of hope and a desire for change.

Both the letter, and the call to prayer, are something I would like to attempt in February as a demonstration, and expression, of God’s love.

Something I’ve heard

Well, this week, it is more something I’ve watched. A recent Panorama Documentary (BBC) told the story of those people behind the numbers. For 30 minutes families tell of their pain and suffering. The explain the effects that coronavirus have had on their lives and they tell the stories of some wonderful people who have been lost because of the pandemic.

For those, like me, who struggle to comprehend the number. For those for whom the number is too great then this documentary goes behind the number. As one family member says:

I don’t want to talk about number because they are all people and people we care about.

Even the loss of one life is too many and by listening to the stories of others it helps to understand and appreciate the need for the current guidance. It moved me from numbers to story and stories are always more hard hitting than facts.

An interesting idea

As I have already mentioned our archbishops have asked us to dedicate time to prayer. It may feel that you cannot do a lot at the moment. That you cannot support people in the usual ways so why not pray? Why not do something you can rather than something you can’t.

As we face the truth about the impact of COVID on our communities and loved ones why not reach out to God. If you feel angry; shout. If you feel sad; cry. If you have hope; pray. God is there to listen. To come close and offer hope.

Not just hope for today, but hope for tomorrow. Through the lens of the resurrection we have a deeper hope. A hope which stretches further. On the cross, Jesus shares the weight of our sadness (Archbishops Letter, 2021). How powerful is it to know that God suffers with us. That God suffered for us. And that because of all that God offers us hope.

As you hear stories of those who have died why not simply pray for their families. If you hear of someone who is lonely why not reach out to them and offer to pray. If you see someone in need why not ask God to show you a way to help. For we are all connected by the love of God and we can connect to that love through prayer.

Let us enter February in prayer. Let us pray not just for ourselves but for others. Let us remember that we are all part of a bigger story and let us put our hope in God.

Weekly Insight (3)

This week I have been thinking a lot about leadership, especially church leadership. This is in part because I was writing a blog post about faith, leadership and jazz (shameless link: and also because Norbury Church took part in the 3rd session of lead academy churchNEXT.

For those who wonder what ChurchNEXT is it is a learning community of churches from around the U.K. who want to “embrace the gospel opportunities for the post COVID world.” It has been an amazing opportunity for several of the team from Norbury to gather with other churches and discuss the possibilities and challenges that have risen out of COVID. I may write a specific blog about the process (if there is interest). For now however, I want to dive into my weekly insights with the caveat that leadership has been on my mind A LOT.

Something I’ve read

This week I want to offer to offer insights from two books I read. Well, one I read and one I looked at for a second time.

The first book was by Helen Cameron, Living in the Gaze of God. This book is primarily about ministerial flourishing however there are lots of nuggets of wisdom in it. The book is structured around a need to be attentive to our own needs and expectations as we live in partnership with others. This is especially important for those who are called to supervise others well. Cameron writes:

Honesty to ourselves and others about our perceptions is vital if we are to be safe practitioners, safe containers of pain and suffering of others and if we are to reflect the glory of God at work in us and the world. (9)

I wonder when you were last honest with yourselves and reflected about what you bring to the relationships around you. I found it a challenging question to ponder as I talked to both our leadership team, friends and family this week.

The second book was Sam Wells, Improvisation. Structured around the themes of improvisation this would be good read for anyone interested in jazz, drama or theology. Wells, with his usual style, manages to blend together the art of improvisation and Christian ethics in a way which is poetic and challenging. Definitely one to read if you haven’t before.

Something I have listened too

This week I listened to a podcast by the wonderful author Brene Brown. In this particular episode of her podcast series Dared to Lead Brene interviews president Barak Obama after the launch of his recent book. In this honest, and telling, episode Obama describes the challenges he faced and the practices he put in place so as to help achieve a better world.

I have also spent a lot of time listening to the new playlist for Disney’s Soul. Those who have read my earlier podcast will know why! This was helped by Abbie asking for it every time I brushed here teeth in an evening. Her recommendation for the week would be the song It’s alright from the movie Soul so make sure you check that out!

An interesting idea I came across

One of the key aspects of improvisation, which I knew about before this week, is yes and. Yes and is about the ability to receive what the other offers and improve upon it. About taking the melody played on the piano and adding something to it with the Saxophone. It is about receiving the offer from the other actor and continuing the drama. The opposite of this is to block, to shut down the song or play by simply saying no.

I wonder what you are more prone to do. Are you the kind of person who loves the spontaneity of saying yes and. Or, are you more likely to say no and shut down the possibility? Why not ponder this week which kind of person you are and how you could say yes and to someone in your life this week. It maybe even that you need to say yes and to God.

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