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.

Amen.

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.

Bibliography

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.

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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Advent Waiting

2020 has felt like “the longest year,” this advent has felt like the “longest advent,” and, if we are honest, we do not know what we are waiting for. A few weeks ago I read part of John of the Cross’ dark night of the soul.

This 16th century poem, written in five stanza’s of eight lines each, narrates the journey the soul takes as it becomes united with God.  The poem, which shows the importance of contemplation in our Christian journey, speaks of a presence in absence. As we contemplate God in the darkness of the night we are drawn to a closer union; our emptiness is filled by the presence of God. 

And, if you think, this kind of idea is a quaint trait of 16th century mystics, I recently came across the soul moving song “After the Storm,” performed by Mumford & Sons. In this song we encounter a set of profound spiritual truths which can be hard to understand. 

“And after the storm, I run and run as the rains come. And I look up, I look up, on my knees and out of luck, I look up.”

I wonder when you were last on your knees. When you last encountered a “dark night” of the soul. Christian life is full of such moments. No matter how positive we make faith look, we all face dark nights. We all face moments where we fall to our knees in the middle of the storm. 

We all face moments when we want to look up and scream.

It is interesting that these moments, these experiences of darkness tend to push out the positive. They outweigh any good and make us want to focus on the dark. To stay in it, alone. 

“Night has always pushed up day. You must know life to see decay. But I won’t rot, I won’t rot. Not this mind and not this heart, I won’t rot.”

Yes, it is easy to focus on the darkness, but both St. John and Mumford & Son’s 

allude to a greater truth. The truth that we are not alone. 

“And I took you by the hand. And we stood tall, And remembered our own land, What we lived for.”

One of the blessings of advent is that it opens up a new opportunity. As we prepare for a king we are reminded that God came to us. We are reminded that we do not need to perform religious acts, or build taller towers, but in fact God leans down and meets us in the form of a child. Emmanuel, God with us. God comes to us and meets us, often in the darkness, and shows us love. 

“And now I cling to what I knew. I saw exactly what was true. But oh no more. That’s why I hold, That’s why I hold with all I have. That’s why I hold.”

Once you have seen the truth. Once you have encountered the love shining in the darkness it is hard to turn back. Even when the tears blind us, or the pain cripples us, we can hold onto something else and in the midst of the darkness we can abandon our pain and greet the one who calls us by name. 

I abandoned and forgot myself,

laying my face on my Beloved;

all things ceased; I went out from myself,

leaving my cares

forgotten among the lilies.

On this, the darkest of nights, I am reminded that we all have darkness to face. We all have things that we hide in the storm. Yet, in the midst of the storm, we are not alone. We encounter one who offers us rest. He may not take away the pain, or solve the problem, but as the tears flow and the rain falls, we encounter one who wants to hear our pain. One who wants to take our sorrows upon himself and offer us peace. 

On this darkest of nights, why not light a candle, play a song, and try and cast your cares on God.

Because…

there will come a time

You’ll see, with no more tears

And love will not break your heart

But dismiss your fears

Get over your hill and see

What you find there

With grace in your heart

And flowers in your hair

That may not be tonight, but it will come, for the grace of God does not exclude. It does not stop. We may be in the storm but we are being prepared for more.  We are being prepared for a time when there will be no more tears. We are being prepared for the time when we will see God’s face and feel no more fear, rejection or pain. A moment when all we will feel is love. 

But, for now, on this darkest of nights, why not light a candle, play a song, and try and cast your cares on God.

For, the journey can be hard I know that too. But in the darkness God may come and offer you some rest for your soul. 

I pray, that tonight, God offers you rest for your weary soul and a song for your struggling heart.

So, light a candle, and sit. Sit and wait for God will come and ease the weary tears. God will come and sooth the pain. 

God will come.

Just as God came that first Christmas morn.


God will come. 

God’s not fair

It’s unfair, it’s unfair, it’s unfair. 

How come he got the promotion.

How did she get that car.

How did they afford that house. 

It’s unfair, it’s unfair, it’s unfair. 

Black Lives Matter, LGBTI+ rights, equal pay, we live in a world where we have come to understand that life is not a fair place to live and that we should strive to make it more just. But justice and equality are different. Equality is the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, or opportunities. Justice, on the other hand, is about our behaviour and our treatment of those who are different from us. That, when observed through the lens of justice, this passage teaches us more about God’s love than we care to admit and that once we have seen it we cannot be changed.

God’s love is radical. 

If we were to trace the narrative ark of God’s love through our bible, beginning with Adam and ending with the ascension, we cannot but see that God’s love is radical. The biblical narrative is about a divine creator who wants to be in relationship with us. Think back to the Israelites who rejected and turned away from God’s love. For 40 years they wandered in the wilderness, worshiped idols and failed to hear God’s call. Yet God still provided for them. He provided them Manna to eat, great chunks of food which gave them physical sustenance. He gave them leaders to follow, people who could help reconcile their relationship, and, eventually, he brought them home. No matter how despondent their faith got. No matter how much they moaned and wailed, God still wanted them. He was still jealous for them. He still loved them. 

This love does not stop with the people of Israel. It does not stop even when the Israelites turn away from faith and professionalise their worship in the temple. God still yearned for his people, and this was demonstrated through a truly radical act. God came to earth and offered love. God, in human form, offered us a kind of reconciling love that was totally radical. Jesus’ death on the cross was the most radical act of love. It strived to break down barriers and build connection. It called the people of Israel back into loving relationship and it opened our understanding of love to include us. 

God’s love isn’t fair.

If you struggle with the concept of God’s radical love this next concept is even more difficult to comprehend. God’s love isn’t fair. When we come to God’s holy table we get a glimpse of this. When we recite the prayer:

“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” 

This prayer is not exactly something one would want to say to God. Yet, these words are prayed by Christians in liturgy before receiving Communion.

In this moment we remember our original sin. We are reminded that we can never be perfect and that it is only by God’s love and grace that we are able to approach the altar at all. 

Those words, not only remind us of our original sin but, also remind us that God’s love is open to all. For they take us back to Matthew 8 and the Roman centurion. Jesus, approached by the Roman Centurion who asks for healing for his servant, is so moved by the centurions faith that he offers healing to the servant. In response the centurion says those words we heard a moment ago. But it is Jesus’ response that I want to focus on right now.

‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed…’ When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, ‘Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith…You may go; as you have believed, let it be done for you.’”

There is too much going on in this passage for me to unpack it now, but let me say this. The faith Jesus encounters in this moment demonstrates the unfair nature of love. Jesus offers healing to this “servant” even though he is not of the Jewish faith because he encounters true faith in the words of the centurion. Moved by love Jesus offers the healing of the Jewish people to the world. It may seem fair to us, but could you imagine what the Jewish authorities thought?

But, what about us. How do we understand the unfair nature of God’s love. Well, let’s think about the prodigal son for a moment. Once again this is a complex multi-layered story that I cannot unpack fully. But, let me draw your attention to a few things. The obvious focus point, when discussing what is “fair” is to discuss the son who did not receive his inheritance. Who stayed and worked for his father and, in his own words, didn’t even receive a fatted calf. But, I think there is something even more radical going on. Something that we often fail to notice as we are caught up in the story. The younger brother never truly asked for forgiveness. He admits his fault yes, but he never asks for forgiveness, he never says “Father, please forgive me”. He doesn’t need to, the Father has already forgiven him, even before the words are uttered forgiveness is offered. All is forgiven. 

That is what the radical nature of God’s love is all about. It has nothing to do with us. It isn’t about what we can earn, or what we receive, but it is about a God who constantly offers us forgiveness, no matter what we do. And, it’s not fair. It’s not fair that we can strive our whole life to live by faith and then our friend, or neighbour, confesses on their death bed and are forgiven. It isn’t fair that God forgives the worst of sinners but we experience suffering even though we have lived our whole life by faith. God’s love simply isn’t fair. 

It’s all about grace 

That’s the point though, for God’s love isn’t about what is fair, it is a moment of grace. Grace is the free, undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God. It is free and undeserved. It is offered to all, not just a set of people who look and sound like us, but those who we think are unworthy. It is radical. It is obscene. It is the offer of salvation to a Roman Centurion and his servant. It is the offer of love to a child who is spent up and washed out. It is an offer of safety to a people who have wandered aimlessly unable to hear God’s call. Grace is a radical gift that we cannot predict or contain. It is about a radical love. A love which is completely unfair but is available to anyone who wants to come and receive it. 

Psalm 23: Faith, Trust & Lockdown.

Over the past few months I have been reading Psalm 23 a lot. It has become a bit of a vocational hazard. It has been chosen by many families to be read, or listened too, at one of the most difficult moments faced by all; a funeral. Yet, there is much to be learnt from this psalm beyond the moments of death. 

Psalm 23 is probably one of the most well known, and popular, psalms and although wholly appropriate to be read at funeral services this psalm has as much to say to the living as it does to the bereaved. For this is a psalm which puts our daily activities; our eating, drinking, resting, seeking security, into the hands of God. This psalm shifts our self-entered perspective into a radical God-centred perspective. 

I wonder if there is something that you could not have lived without during these past few months. Whether it be music, or food, or warmth, or the internet (and the dreaded Zoom), things which have enabled you to fill your life and make sure you have been okay. Things which have enabled your life to be comfortable no matter what is going on out there. 

I wonder if you panicked when the shops got low on toilet roll, or if you stocked enough pasta to get you through to Christmas. Did you trust in the kindness of others, or did you cling to self-protection and a culture of grabbing what you needed before looking out for those in need. 

Whatever choices you made there is a passage in the Gospel of Matthew which, when linked with Psalm 23, promotes a different way of life and tells us to trust in a different story. Jesus, speaking to his disciples, says this:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear . . . But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you.” (Matt 6:25, 33 NRSV)

Strive not for the things of the world but, instead, strive for the things of the kingdom. Look first to God, then to the world. Focus on your heavenly needs rather than your earthly ones. This is the message Jesus is giving the disciples and they are words which we need to hear as well. 

As you return to this famous, and often read, psalm. Why not reframe your thoughts. Instead of reading it as a psalm within a context of death and dying instead read it as a psalm about striving to not worry now. For who has added a year to their life by worrying. No-one. Before worrying, pray. Trust in God. Live counter-culturally. 


In our culture we are told to trust no-one. The state will let us down, our friends will let us down, God will let us down. Ultimately, we need to trust in ourselves. For it is only through self provision that we will survive. Yet our Gospel tells a different story. Our Gospel tells of a story of hope in the midst of suffering. Our Gospel tells us that there is someone else to trust and that He died and rose again for us. That has to be something to be thankful for, even when we didn’t have enough toilet roll or pasta!

So, as you re-read this psalm pray that you will trust more in God, and less in yourself. Seek to live humbly and walk faithfully as a child of God. Pray to God trusting that He will answer your prayers when you call. For, as we read in Psalm 23, God provides all our food, all our security, all our hope.

Maybe this, over and above any other, is the reason that I have spent a lot of time with this psalm of the last few months. Not because it speaks of hope, and comfort, at a time of death. But because it reminds us that God is our hope and comfort now and that we can put our trust in Him. Maybe it reminds us all that rather than going it alone we should let God into our life and trust that He will provide for our needs, even when we run out of toilet paper and pasta. Maybe, just maybe, in this psalm we find a purpose and prayer. In this psalm, more than many of the others, we hear of a God who loves us completely and does not want to see us go without. Our God has abundantly more than we can ask or imagine we just need to trust.

St. Thomas – the Way, the Doubt, and the Faith.

John 11: 16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

I am not sure how many of you are aware of our little secret. I remember one conversation which happened not so long after my licensing in which I had to reveal it. Our common name isn’t in fact the churches actual name. Although colloquially known as Norbury Parish Church, our church is actually dedicated to St. Thomas. We are, in truth, St. Thomas, Hazel Grove.

“So are we St. Thomas, Hazel Grove, now you’ve come?”

“Well no. We’ve always been St. Thomas’s theres just a lot of them in the area so Norbury Parish Church works better.”

“So we don’t need to buy more paper.”

“No, not at the moment at least.”

There are many churches named after Thomas, and for good reason. Thomas, the doubting disciple, challenges us to to face the reality of our doubt and faith. We run with Thomas into situations, confident our faith will win out and yet the next minute we are demanding proof, unsure if God is real at all. In Thomas we find an exemplar of the christian challenge of faithful doubting. Something which many of us have now mastered as an art form. Yet, in and through Thomas so much more of our faith is revealed. 

In the passage quoted from John, Jesus is demonstrating the complexity of faith. The disciples, confused by Jesus’ response to hearing that Lazarus is unwell, demand an answer. Not another parable, or riddle, or story, but an answer. How often do we want an answer? How often do we want God to show up and tell us what to do. How often do we sit in silence hoping for a voice. Or sit in the pulpit expecting a neatly packaged plan for life. 

The answer they get must have shock them. Just as it would shock us if Val, or Hugh, or Peter, or Alan, gave us such a direct response to our questions about faith:

John 11: 14 – 15 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead,and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

The absurdity of this must smack the disciples right in the face. Why go somewhere that is dangerous. For Judea, where Lazarus was, was somewhere that was not safe to Jesus. In fact the gospel writer plainly tells us that the Jews had tried to stone Jesus when he was last in Judea. Why go somewhere that is dangerous, when Lazarus is already dead. Well, because that is what faith is about. 

Faith is about those moments when, even though we don’t truly understand, we encounter God more fully. When something of the christian faith is revealed to us. Especially when we didn’t expect it. When we understand, like Thomas, that we need to let go to the very thing we cling to so as to encounter, and be embraced by, God. 

“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Thomas says to the other disciples. Not really aware what is being demanded of him, or what the way looks like at all. Yet, in this moment, Thomas reveals something to us which is crucial to our faith journey. 

Our faith is wrapped up in life and death. We are called to die to self and live in Christ. We are called to let go of all the truths the world around us believes and believe in God. Even when that doesn’t make sense. Let us then be a little bit more like our patron saint and be willing to jump both feet into this thing we call faith. Fully aware it isn’t easy and never will be. But fully expectant that as we travel as fellow pilgrims we will be able to utter those words that Thomas utters to the resurrected Christ at the end of John’s Gospel. After doubting his resurrection at all:

My Lord and my God. 

Let us die to self and be raised in Christ. Let us be a little bit more like Thomas fully doubting but fully present. Fully human and fully accepting of the work God is doing in us.  Even when we cannot see the light for the darkness. Let us find Christ in the most shocking places and let us follow wherever Christ calls us, even if we forgot the map. 

Black Lives Matter – a challenge to respond written for Norbury Parish Church

In light of the appalling death of George Floyd I want to rededicate myself to become more educated about my own implicit racism. I want to learn how to speak out against racism and support those who suffer because of it. I want to be a minister and pastor who can say black lives matter because God loves all people. What follows may be clumsy. It does not fully articulate the pain and hurt I, or others, feel but it is a response to the current situation. It is a challenge to those who attend Norbury Parish Church to educate themselves and to rededicate themselves to help grow our church into a place which is truly welcoming to all. 

No matter how clunky, or clumsy, our voices may sound we need to speak out. We need to acknowledge the implicit role we all take when a black person dies because of race and we need to be move from silence to lament and out of our lament we need to respond. Our responses may be cautious, clumsy, and in some ways quiet, but if we do not respond the situation will never change.

In the past few weeks it has been hard not to think about racism. The appalling death of George Floyd has sparked a lot of passionate discussion about racism both in America but also here in the U.K. as well. As you read this I am sure you will have your own thoughts and opinions about race and racism in the U.K. but I want to challenge you, and us as a church, to think more deeply about racism. I want to challenge us as Norbury Parish Church to think about what it means to say we are “welcoming to all”, yet our church is monochrome. I want us to think about what we are saying without words, and I want us to become more educated and more compassionate towards those who do not want to come into our building. I want us to be able to respond to both explicit and implicit racism and truly become a community that values people for who they are. 

In 2016 I arrived at Duke University with very little understanding, or knowledge, of my own implicit racism. It was only through sitting through American History classes, and seeing horrific pictures of black people being lynched that I realised I was part of the problem. I had lived a fairly settled life and failed to educate myself on the struggles of others. I had been implicitly racist because I had benefited from a system that was set up for me. For that I can only apologise to those whom I have benefitted from. 

While at Duke, and ever since, I have chosen to educate myself about racism. I have read authors such as James Cone and Ronald Thurman. I attended a Racism Equity Training Course where I further came to terms with my “whiteness” and the role I have played in building a culture which benefits white males. I have listened to black feminist theologians and tried to disrupt the voice in my head that says everything is okay. I may have not protested but I have tried to become more educated. 

I want to urge you to become more educated. I want to urge you to read voices that are different to your own. Challenge yourself to move past the status quo and see things differently. Read Renni Eddo-Lodge’s book, “Why I am no longer talking to White people about race.” Continue to read it even when you feel uncomfortable. Watch videos and TV programs, read black and minority ethnic authors and try to change your perspectives. 

We all play a part in racism, and we as a church play a part in racism. When we gather as a church and feel comfortable we are implicitly being racist. When we say nothing we are implicitly being racist. When we fail to welcome the “stranger” because they do not look or sound like us we are being racist.

I want Norbury Parish Church to reflect the amazing diversity in the Kingdom of God. I want us to stand up and say Black Lives Matter, because they do. I want us to become more educated and I want us to respond out of the discomfort that will cause us. 

 The world is full of injustice and intolerance which we often choose to ignore but I want us to stand up and see it for what it is. I want us to acknowledge the implicit role we play in it and I want us to change. Our response will no doubt be clunky and clumsy. It may be quiet but I hope it is practical. I pray that we as a church we continue to be a community that stands against injustice and intolerance and I challenge you to respond. To listen to the marginalised voice. To acknowledge the implicit role we all take when we benefit from a white culture. And to change. I challenge you to grow in love and to use your voice however timid it maybe. However clumsy, or clunky it may sound, I want us to be a community  that speaks up for change. 

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