Clergy Blogs

Periodic contributions from Revd. Giles King-Smith, Vicar of the three coastal parishes. We also continue to show contributions from the late Associate Minister Revd. Linda Walters

These are the blogs written by Revd. Giles King-Smith

Still small voice

I was sitting there quietly, waiting to start our midweek Eucharist at St. Sabinus'. Doing my best to be still, both outwardly and inwardly, but still a bit fidgety. And then: that little voice of dissatisfaction, which says things like "You're not doing this right", "You're too easily distracted", and sometimes, "You're really not much good at praying, are you?"

And then ... from absolutely nowhere, with no warning, no fanfare, just a murmur really: I'm here anyway.

This was an intervention, in the gentlest, most understated way possible. A reminder that when I'm flailing about, wondering what exactly I have to do to make the big connection with God ... I'm here anyway.

In other words: never mind what you're doing or not doing, what you're feeling or not feeling ... I'm here anyway.

A bit like when you wave someone away, saying - I'll be fine, you can go now - and they say - I'll stay anyway.

I'm here, I'm just here, you don't need to call me, you just need to know that I'm here. Anyway.

And I thought: everything about my ability, or inability, to proclaim and represent and embody the love of God depends entirely on my knowing this about him: I'm here anyway.


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Meeting as equals

Here's the Gospel reading from last Sunday, and my address:

Matthew 15: 21-28

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish."

This intriguing reading always provokes questions. You may have noticed that I like asking questions, especially when there are multiple possible answers. And (not just to cover myself but because I believe it's true) one of the exciting and liberating things about the Bible is that, time and time again, it asks questions of us which don't necessarily have a single correct answer. As we read the Bible, God opens up possibilities rather than closing them down. Often, we would prefer him to give us the definitive answer, to tell us exactly what to do and how to think. But he has made us free and creative and enquiring beings, and he calls us into a relationship with him in which - as in any genuinely free, genuinely reciprocal relationship - there will be questions which open up possibilities, rather than merely answers which shut down the conversation.

So - what is going on here, in this story? How does Jesus' rude and dismissive response to this woman in her time of need fit with our cherished view of him as the embodiment of God's compassionate love? How does he come to change his mind, and what does it mean that he does? Or does he know all along what he's going to do? Is it all a game, a stance he adopts to bring out the unstoppable force of the woman's desire for what she needs from him? And where does this story fit into the perplexing to and fro of Jesus' attitude towards non-Jews? (I told you - I like questions.)

Sorry, but I'm not even going to try to give clear and definitive answers to all these questions. I like them just being there as questions - they make us think, they make us wrestle with the strange, confounding reality of the man who is God. This is Jesus, who comes to prod, to provoke, to awaken, to turn things upside down - not to provide neat, textbook answers to all life's questions. He comes to do the opposite of what we expect, and nowhere more so than in this encounter. "What? Did he really do that? How can he say that?" These are the reactions Jesus provoked in those who came across him, and he still discombobulates us, if we really listen to him. The bad son gets a party, and the good boy gets nothing. What? He's going to visit the very worst person in town. What? The idlers who turn up at the last minute get paid the same as the guys who've been slaving all day in the hot sun. What? The prostitute is praised for her loving nature. What?

At the very least, we see that this Jesus wants to wake us up, so that we notice something quite new is happening. Something to do with a generosity that is reckless and offensive. Who deserves this love? No one. Who gets it? Everyone. And so we learn to let God be who God is, and we no longer insist that we know best when it comes to the appropriate limits for love.

And here, with this story, can I suggest that the real provocation, the thing which makes us roll our eyes - what's he up to now? - is that Jesus in his humanity engages so fully with the Canaanite woman in hers that she is able to make him think again. In other words, he gives her what is essential for any true, and truly fruitful, relationship - the possibility that we are able to change one another, for good. He does the exact opposite of pulling rank: he lets go of his status, his wisdom, his power, so that this can be a real encounter of equals, for a moment, rather than the imposition of the divine will.

This has astonishing implications for our relationship with God. Could it be that Jesus says to us: stop deferring to me, stop keeping me at arm's length, and instead - come, wrestle with me, argue with me, shout your need at me, like this woman, and I will make you whole? Could it be that what he asks of us is to be bold and true, and fiercely insistent that he meets us on level ground, right where we are? If so, then, beyond all the questions, there is a simple and wonderful invitation from him: be yourself with me.


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Sink or swim?

First of all, dear friends, may I - like any high-class political operator - perform a swift u-turn while pretending I've done no such thing (see previous blog entry):

Now that the Government (under pressure from faith groups) has exempted those who lead, read and preach in church from the legal requirement to wear face coverings in places of worship, I am ... removing mine when speaking, provided there is a good distance between me and you. I'm sure my medically qualified colleague will not be happy, but in truth it is extremely difficult to lead worship when you're muffled (and impossible for those who rely on lip-reading to get any benefit whatsoever from all my noise).  

Moving on ... here's the text of my video address from last Sunday, with the Gospel reading from which it springs:

Matthew 14, verses 22 to 33: Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."

Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."

I remember my Mum teaching me to swim. Although (like me) she wasn't the most patient person, she persevered for weeks on end in the swimming baths at (where else?) Bath, and eventually I became a swimmer. And what I remember from her method of teaching me was the way she would step back, a little bit further each time, until I realised that I could bridge the gap between us - by swimming! In other words, the me that assumed I would sink like a stone unless she was holding me was gradually replaced by a me that could sense, and trust in, my own buoyancy. Fear was overtaken by confidence - and, most important, I was able to stop thinking about the whole unlikely business of swimming, and just do it. And now, while I'm not the greatest swimmer in the world, I can enjoy bobbing about like a cork at high tide on Barricane, or pushing out beyond the breakers on the main beach in Woolacombe. While I have, I hope, a healthy respect for the power of the ocean, I know I can stay afloat.

Of course, Peter wasn't trying to swim. He was trying to walk on the surface of the Sea of Galilee, he was trying to do what Jesus was doing. As a fisherman, Peter may have needed to learn how to swim, and in John 21 he jumps out of the boat while it's still a way off shore, in his eagerness to greet the risen Jesus. But his panic here suggests that he knew he was out of his depth - in more than one way!

What interests me, and perhaps connects Peter with me and my Mum, is the difference between the moment when you just do something, without over-thinking it, and the moment when you become aware of all the consequences and risks and potential problems - and you start to sink. "But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out..." Jesus, of course, grabs him, saves him, as he so often does with us all. But his reproach - "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" - cuts to the heart of the difficulty we over-thinking humans often find ourselves in. When we lose faith, we sink. And I don't just mean faith in Jesus Christ; I mean faith in life, faith in goodness, faith in truth (all of which, for us, have their source in God, but we know others will see it differently). When we lose that deep-down faith, life can become an impossible puzzle or a crushing burden; we can feel that we're sinking - and who will grab our hand and pull us to safety? We've all had times like that - and the answer? God is teaching us - not to walk on water, that would make us unbearably pleased with ourselves - but how to swim, how to stay afloat; and more, how to enjoy, how to delight in, our strange and wonderful buoyancy, that comes with faith. We simply need to trust our swimming teacher...

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Protecting others

So, here is the brave (strange) new world of face-covered worship. Last Sunday, every person attending church in our 3 parishes wore a mask of some description (in my case, slightly piratical, I like to think).

I think most of us put up with it, and I hope most understood the reasoning behind the advice from the Church of England: that, although we are not legally obliged to wear face coverings in church, if we take seriously our Christian calling to love our neighbour, we will wear them in order to protect those around us. Face coverings don't protect the wearer, they protect others from the wearer; and though the risk is slight, it is real. 

Much of the push-back against this new norm has focused on the need for those who lead services to be properly seen and heard. "Surely if you stand well back, there's no real danger, is there?" Well, the science is not definitive (yet), but I stand with a colleague who has a background in epidemiology, and who was quite clear that the risk from aerosols (as opposed to droplets) is present whether you are 2 or 20 metres from the speaker. So I will be masking up for the foreseeable...

Having said that, we need to be honest about our feelings of deprivation as we accept all the constraints on our worship. We can't sing, we can't touch, we can't chat over coffee - and now we can't see each other's faces. Some of the joy and freedom has been squeezed out of worship - what are we left with?

Well ... we still have the comfort of being together; and, more important, we can still seek and find God. Whether we are at home, or out on the beach or on the coast path, or even in the supermarket with all the other masked shoppers, we can know God's presence with us. Perhaps, rather than bemoaning the ways in which we are hobbled by all these restrictions, we need to learn from those stalwart souls we have all known - the housebound, the disabled, the chronically ill - who have both shamed and encouraged us by their refusal to give up and their thankfulness for the life they have. Accept these limitations, be honest about what we're missing, and carry on praising, caring and laughing.


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No more barriers


I found these words of Gloria Steinem, the pioneering campaigner for women's rights, speaking about the challenge we all face and its possible benefits:

The virus knows that race, gender, class and national boundaries are all fictions. This could help us realise we are all passengers on Spaceship Earth. I'm hoping that this crisis not only exposes inequalities, but helps us learn what movements have been trying to teach us: we are linked, not ranked.

All boundaries, all differences are meaningless in a time of Coronavirus. We are one humanity, all of us vulnerable, none ultimately more important or powerful than any other, in the context of our mortality. Can we learn to make more of our linked-ness than the things which divide us? If we can, be sure that we will be doing the work of the Kingdom.

On a different note, I was cheered by another thought of Gloria Steinem:

Laughter is the only free emotion. Obviously, fear can be compelled. So can love, if we're dependent for long enough. But you can't compel laughter. Never go anywhere you're not allowed to laugh, including church.

Amen to that!

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More heroes

I know, I'm easily hero-struck, but are two for your consideration:

- First, Marcus Rashford, whose open letter to MPs led to a policy u-turn which will mean more than a million children will get free school meal vouchers this summer. His eloquent and passionate letter is worth reading in full; when it comes to childhood deprivation, he knows what he's talking about. His incredulity at the grim reality of children going hungry in our country, now, is powerful and unanswerable - except by change...

- And second, the black anti-racism protester who carried an injured white opponent to safety during the demonstrations in London at the weekend. I'm sure he wouldn't claim to be a hero, but I found the picture of his rescue mission very moving. It reassured me that there are people who will step across barriers of distrust and hatred to save life; it underlined the truth that is deeper than our disagreements - we are not so different after all; and it provided an unforgettable image of the strength that stoops down to our weakness, to save us. I'm even more sure this guy wouldn't like to be compared to Jesus - think of it more as an acted parable. 

In the Kingdom, the poor and the weak will be given pride of place. Can we start doing this now? 

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Samuel Johnson wrote: "We cease to wonder at what we understand". To put it another way, all understanding, in the sense of knowledge, definition, measurement, stops short of what is truly wonderful. When we wonder, when we're struck by astonishment and delight at some new marvel, we realise that we're out of our depth, and yet that we are being kept afloat. There is nothing for us to do except wonder. And this wonder has its origin in God, who is beyond our understanding.

For me, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and all the possibilities it discloses, are an endless source of wonder - as real as unexpected kindness or the flight of a swallow, and just as impossible to understand.

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Covid thoughts

Some random reflections on the changes and challenges of the time we're living through:

- Many have rightly pointed to the mental suffering endured by so many during the pandemic. Those who are anxious, lonely or depressed may find their distress heightened, with no obvious sign of relief - though some have suggested that, if you normally struggle with anxiety, you may be better adapted than most to cope with a situation that makes us all anxious. Another issue is the psychological toll on those who have taken the most demanding roles - doctors, nurses, carers. When the crisis has passed, how much support will they need to rebuild their mental strength and confidence? And will our mental health services, notoriously under-resourced before this crisis, be geared up to repair the health of the healthcare workers to whom we owe so much?

- Coming at mental (and spiritual) health from another angle: our time in lockdown has forced many of us to adapt to a different pace of life, in ways that may prove to be beneficial in the long term. Grief counsellor and author Julia Samuel says, "One thing I sense is that many people are questioning how they lived before. The badge of busyness, for instance, has to a degree lost its lustre. Being busy was somehow being important, but maybe people have realised that busyness is essentially an anaesthetic to feeling." To translate that last sentence into the language of faith: if your self-worth depends on being  busy, you will be avoiding the possibility of a deeper relationship with God. Can we recognise the benefits of being slower, and keep them?

-  We all know that life will never be the same as it was before. And we sense the possibilities offered by this time of global trauma to re-set, to do things differently, to make changes that enable justice and health for the poor and for the earth itself. Novelist Arundhati Roy describes the pandemic as "a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it." You might find "fight for it" too strong, but when we stand for goodness and truth against evil and falsehood, that's what we're doing. The spiritual fight against evil, in which we enrol those who are baptised, takes place in the decisions we make about how the world will be. We know this, but so often we feel disempowered. Could this be the time when ordinary people everywhere refuse to let the future be dictated by those whose only purpose is to cling to their own wealth and power? I hope so, and I pray for change.

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I can't breathe


These three terrible words will not be forgotten.

There is a disturbing symmetry between George Floyd's cry for life as a police officer knelt on his neck, and the desperate struggle for breath endured by those whose life is being choked by Covid-19.

And you can't mistake the ugly congruence between the injustices suffered by black people at the hands of the police and of civilian racists, and the disproportionately high death toll among the BAME community from Coronavirus. There are, of course, many possible causes of this disparity, but the simple fact is that minority communities are more likely to be poor, and poor people are more likely to be vulnerable, in a range of ways: low pay, poor housing, health problems, and employment in high-risk occupations such as transport, cleaning, security - and healthcare. When you're at the bottom of the pile, your life is precarious, and you're less likely to be treated with respect by those who have power.

In other words, to insist that "Black Lives Matter" is not simply a protest, a howl of grief and rage at a single atrocity. It is a sign that all kinds of people, of all ethnic backgrounds, have woken up to the reality that some lives have been allowed to matter less than others, in all kinds of ways, not just in the US, but here and in every place where wealth and power have overshadowed our common humanity.

If we are Christians, we believe in a saving love, an unimaginably deep compassion, which our God feels for every creature, without discrimination. In his Kingdom, which we are called to proclaim and embody, there is no difference in status - no male or female, no Jew or Gentile, no black or white. All are equally honoured, equally precious. Will we stand up for this great vision, this dream of Martin Luther King, and will we stand against everything that distorts or defiles it? This question will not go away, it will haunt us until we take our stand for justice.

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Prayers for Pentecost


Here are the prayers used at our 24/7 prayer room meeting last Saturday, and again for the service on Sunday - hoping they may be helpful for a little longer...

At Pentecost, as we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the birth of the Church, we come to you, our God, in prayer - to thank you, to ask your forgiveness, and to pray for your Kingdom.

Spirit of the living God - fall afresh on us

Eternal God, as we call to mind our fellowship in the Body of Christ, we give you thanks for all the generosity, truthfulness and mercy which your Church has offered to the world, down the ages. And we thank you for the goodness and beauty you have shown us in our lives of worship and prayer. We remember now those who helped us come to faith and encouraged us on our way - by singing us songs or telling us stories, by inviting us in when we felt distant or unsure, by praying for us without being asked...

Spirit of the living God - fall afresh on us

Eternal God, as we remember the story of your Church, we cannot avoid the shameful reality of the many times that your people have, in the name of Jesus Christ, practised prejudice, coercion and violence towards those they identified as "other"; and we know also that we have struggled, and often failed, to accept those who are different from us. Forgive us, remake us, and help us to see that to live as your people means to be rooted and grounded in the loving-kindness you have shown us in Christ your Son.

Spirit of the living God - fall afresh on us

Eternal God, hear us as we pray for your Kingdom to come  - for the renewal of the whole created order in harmony with you, for an end to our sad divisions, for the establishment of your justice and peace. Give us eyes to see that your Kingdom is already among us, in countless acts of loving service, of tender-hearted forgiveness, of courageous witness to the truth, and of passionate care for the earth. Change our hearts from fearful selfishness and greed to generous, unstinting love for others, so that the poor and the vulnerable may be honoured and protected, and all may know themselves to be your beloved children.

Slirit of the living God - fall afresh on us

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Words of wisdom


Talk about setting yourself up for a fall! With a title like that, you can pretty much guarantee that what follows will not be wise - since the starting point for any kind of wisdom is humility. As Proverbs says:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart

and be not wise in your own sight.

I come from a family of know-alls. We like quizzes and hate losing them, we expect our grammar and spelling to be perfect (and tell others off when theirs isn't), and we find it hard to accept someone else knowing something we don't. Unfortunately, this kind of striving to know it all is not only an unwinnable game - it has nothing to do with real wisdom.

The wise person knows that they don't know everything, and is genuinely delighted to find out new things. More than that, the wise person doesn't equate true knowledge with having all the answers; they aim for understanding by considering life's questions slowly and patiently. In God-terms, they know that the divine is to be experienced rather than defined. They are mature enough to forgo the satisfaction of having things sewn up. They are good at waiting and listening. They don't care about coming first.

I would like to be wise like this.

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Brazening it out


We love to judge, don't we? And we know that Jesus told us not to, don't we? So where does this leave us when it comes to a certain senior Government advisor? 

Maybe it helps to remember just how angry Jesus became with those in positions of (religious) authority who failed to live up to the rules they imposed on others. "Woe to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them." (Luke 11:46) Not quite the same scenario, true, but if hypocrisy is the target, then - bullseye!

I'm not sure where to draw the line, in this case, between genuine anxiety for your family's health and the casual arrogance of the rule-breaker. But one thing is clear: the many people who have made sacrifices - with difficult and sometimes heartbreaking consequences - have every right to be infuriated by someone who appears to see nothing beyond his own immediate need.

And the "instinct" argument may be an explanation, but it is no excuse. In the words of John Inge, Bishop of Worcester: "The PM tells us that Cummings "followed the instinct of every father" ... The point is that thousands and thousands of parents, including me, have not been able to follow their instincts because they felt they had to obey the rules!"

And another thing, maybe the main thing, given that we're all capable of hypocrisy and should therefore be wary of judging others for it, is the failure to apologise. But then it's hard to apologise when your career depends on insisting you've done nothing wrong. I suspect the main reason politicians are disliked and distrusted is that they never say sorry. 

Essentially, the anger that's flying about at the moment comes from a sense of injustice. Something is "off" here, and we don't like the pretence that it's all fine, really. Being alert to injustice, and being determined to point it out, as loud and long as necessary, isn't judging - it's being truthful.

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Peering round the door


Now that churches have developed all kinds of online resources and services to help us to continue worshipping during Coronavirus, it appears that many more people are logging in than ever used to come through the door on a Sunday. Why? Maybe partly because you can maintain anonymity online - and we know what a psychological barrier that church door can be for those who are hesitant about commitment, or who had a bad experience last time they ventured in.

Also - when you've had a look (or had enough) online, you can just log out, whereas walking out of church needs a lot of nerve (or an outrageously offensive sermon). So maybe any self-congratulation over the figures for online attendance needs to be tempered by the likelihood that many of those "worshippers" are, in effect, poking their heads round the church door to take a look at what's going on - and then leaving.

Still ... we shouldn't dismiss the possibility that there are many people who, in these strange times, have found themselves drawn to explore God, prayer, spirituality, faith. So one of the questions facing the churches, as we move towards a tentative physical re-opening, is: how can we be as open to the casual, uncertain, hovering worshipper as we were during lockdown?

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The Joy of Art

You may already have found this gem in the TV schedules - and please don't imagine I've spent the whole of my lockdown gazing at screens - but can I recommend "Grayson Perry's Art Club" (8.00 pm, Mondays, Channel 4)? 

Each week, renowned and slightly eccentric artist Grayson Perry invites members of the public to submit their artworks on a theme - the most recent being "What you see from your window". The results are hugely varied and often remarkably good; he also interviews celebrities about their love of art, and gets them to produce some work - all of it displayed remotely, of course. What I love about this programme is the sense of enjoyment and delight which Grayson and his wife Philippa radiate, as they enthuse over all kinds of creations. It's an hour full of laughter and surprise, and it restores my faith in our human creativity.

One thing that really interested me was a remark Grayson made at one point, about the need to be relaxed in order to be creative. This flies in the face of the conventional view that great art arises from some form of mental or spiritual torment. Instead, perhaps we can see creativity as a type of playfulness - a carefree messing about with the gifts and the materials we've been given, without fear of failure or disapproval. 

I don't always manage it, but I like this idea of freedom in creating (whether it's the Sistine Chapel or a sandwich). And - is there an echo of how God feels as he creates, and as he watches us create? Enjoyment, delight, laughter - whether we're creators or spectators, these feelings are worth aiming for, in every part of our lives.

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No more enemies


The other day I watched a short film of a meeting, arranged by the BBC, between the campaigner and lawyer Gina Miller, and a man who had been trolling her - adding his "voice" to the many thousands of spiteful, venomous messages she has received as a result of her opposition to Brexit. It must have taken courage on both their parts to agree to such a meeting. But it worked, and it left me with a couple of thoughts.

First, it was (thankfully) impossible for the troll to maintain his hostility to Gina Miller when faced with the real person opposite him. He backed down (I think "repented" is the technical term here) as he saw that the differences between them are skin deep by comparison with their shared humanity. (I'm sure he wouldn't put it like this, but that's what I think was going on.) I was reminded that it's when we actually meet the person we disagree with, and hear their story, that we are no longer able simply to dismiss them as different, as an enemy.

And, for her part, Gina Miller refused to play the "injured party" card, but instead engaged with her troll by trying to find common ground with him - talking about their similar experience of parenting. At the end of the clip, she expresses her longing for the divisions caused by Brexit to be replaced by a new and deeper sense of being together, by which we can overcome our disagreements. I saw two vulnerable people taking small steps towards a future free from fear of "the other", and I found this inspiring.

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Old and disposable?


The awful scale of illness and death in our care homes is becoming clearer, along with the heroic dedication of staff in these homes, many of whom are poorly paid for looking after our most vulnerable citizens. Questions are rightly being asked about the failure to prepare properly for this eventuality, and about the lack of protective equipment, which has forced staff to work in unsafe conditions. By one estimate, the proportion of care home workers who have died of Coronavirus is double that of hospital staff. One day, when the dust has settled, and we're no longer inhibited from asking "What went wrong?" by the constant refrain of "We're in this together", there will be a reckoning.

For now, I'm reminded that, until this crisis, care homes and their residents and staff were basically out of sight, out of mind. So there are some big questions to ask. Do we, as a society, do enough to ensure the well-being of the old and the frail? And do we recognise (not least by proper attention to pay and conditions) the work done by carers on our behalf? And ... (here you can add in all kinds of other issues, from transport to NHS funding to a green economy) will we learn lessons from this traumatic time, or will we succumb to the pressure to fall back into old ways? 

One other thing: as we look for reasons why this country has suffered so badly from this pandemic, it will be easy, but perhaps misleading, to focus on the failings of individuals. Instead, we will need to expose the systemic failings - lack of preparedness, underfunding of health and social care, deep-rooted inequality - which have made this tragedy so much worse than it might have been. Hindsight is easy, of course; but the failure to create a just society, in which the weak and the vulnerable are honoured and protected, is a disgrace of long standing. 

Oh, and one more other thing: the Church may not have the heft it once did in public affairs, but we can still stand for justice, truthfulness and compassion - the values of the Kingdom - in the way we lead our lives, and in our advocacy for those who are so easily overlooked. Over the time that lies ahead, we can play our part, along with many others, in working for a healthier society and a fairer world.

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Living with uncertainty

We don't like uncertainty - and yet we live with it and can't avoid it. Given that we don't know how each day will unfold - even when we think we have a fixed agenda, it never works out exactly as we expected - or how we will feel and what we will think as it unfolds, uncertainty is pretty much the only thing we can be certain of!

But we don't like it. We crave the security of knowing what's going to happen, even though we know that would be a terrible idea. And when things are going wrong, we long for someone to tell us exactly what needs to be done to put them right. We want our authority figures - doctors, priests, politicians, scientists - to save us from uncertainty by giving us precise and foolproof instructions that will guarantee the right result. But...they can't always do this. SHOCK HORROR!!!

So, unexpectedly, I find myself having some sympathy for our Government, as they come under fire for not giving us absolutely precise instructions, which would produce absolutely certain outcomes. Beyond legitimate concerns about how we can safely return to work and school, I think the Government is right to say, in effect: "Look, we don't really know how things will go, as we ease the lockdown - we're going to have to play it by ear and make further decisions on the hoof." This, at least, is realism rather than incompetence. 

In terms of faith, the calling (however much we dislike it and cry out against it, like the Israelites in the desert) is to accept that the future is unknown - or rather, the only thing we know for certain about the future is that God will be with us. That doesn't mean planning is pointless, it means planning is conditional. The challenge is to embrace uncertainty, while trying to be clear and purposeful in our response to events as they unfold. Can we enjoy the fact that we don't know what's coming next - or will we always be longing for a map, clear instructions, definite outcomes?...


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A prayer for VE Day


Here is a different kind of prayer - one which expresses a commitment to the cause of God's Kingdom, as we remember the cost of war, and the joy and relief of its end:

Lord God our Father,

we pledge ourselves to serve you and all humankind,

in the cause of peace,

for the relief of want and suffering,

and for the praise of your name.

Guide us by your Spirit;

give us wisdom;

give us courage;

give us hope;

and keep us faithful, now and always. Amen.

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Just ask

It's a lovely thing when someone says, "Anything you want - just ask". In a time of need, this is reassurance, a sense of being held. Of course, there is a danger that the person who says this won't be able to keep their promise. Words are cheap. And - as in fairy tales - it's possible that what we ask for won't be good for us. Add in the reluctance most people feel to ask for help, and the process is clearly not quite as simple as it sounds.

My previous posts have suggested that, to start prayer, we need to stop everything (including what we normally think of as prayer). But obviously that's not all there is to prayer - we generally come to it in order to ask God for something we need. Often we come with an extensive "shopping list", and my advice to drop everything is intended as an antidote to the breathless recitations which can get in the way of our simply being with God, like a weaned child with its mother, resting, content. But then the child looks up at the mother and asks for what it needs, in confidence and trust.

And sometimes, when we're ready to listen, the question comes from God to us :"What do you want?" Remember Jesus, on the road out of Jericho in Mark's Gospel (10:46-52), met by the yelling of the blind beggar Bartimaeus - "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" It's obvious what he's going to ask for, and yet Jesus makes a point of asking him: "What do you want me to do for you?" It matters that Bartimaeus should articulate his need, should shout out the thing he wants most of all. And when he has received his sight, Jesus' parting shot is, "Your faith has healed you." In other words, the moment you asked me, really asked me, for what you wanted is the moment it was done for you.

For me, there's something deep here about God's love for us and how we can respond to it in prayer. We are asked to identify and to voice the thing that we most long for. Not the thing we ought to long for, not the thing that we reckon will please God, but the thing we actually want. Leave it to God to strip away all the unworthy, unhealthy stuff, and to get to the heart of our longing - which will always be some variant of what Bartimaeus asked for: healing, wholeness, hope, for ourselves or for others.

Above all, I think God wants us to be honest in our relationship with him - that is, in our prayers. He knows what we want, but we need to know it, and own it, and say it. Just ask.

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Laughter as grace


I really like this quote from Samir Selmanovic:

"Laughter is one of the ways we cope with the discrepancies of our lives. There is a dream we all have for this world, and then there is, well, this world. There are expectations we have of our religions, and then there are our religions ... Our capacity to love God, ourselves, people and all of life grows with our capacity to laugh. We are ridiculous, and not to laugh at our religions, our worldviews, and our philosophies (that is, ourselves) would be a false witness ... This ability to laugh in the midst of our imperfections in the presence of God is what we call grace."

Especially that last sentence. When, as often happens, I do or say something that would normally send me into a tail-spin of exasperation and shame, just occasionally I find myself laughing instead. And in that moment I am convinced that this is also God's laughter, and it is a freeing thing. 

G.K.Chesterton said something similar: "It is a test of a good religion whether you can joke about it." And maybe it's a test of a good faith whether we can laugh as we fall over, yet again.

Samir Selmanovic's book is called "It's really all about God: how Islam, Atheism and Judaism made me a better Christian". 

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