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

An uncertain future

Who knows what the future holds? 

In terms of our politics and our society, we seem to be living through a time of uncertainty. Our new government proclaims loudly that we will leave the EU on October 31st, "do or die" - but nobody really knows what that might mean. Nor do those who want to resist "no deal", many of whom would prefer a further referendum, have any clear vision of what would happen if they had their way. I seem to have spent several lifetimes listening to well-qualified political commentators outlining what might or might not happen - but in the end it always seems to come down to "We don't know".

We want to know, of course, and not knowing makes us anxious. And if we believe in God, we may expect some kind of divine clarification, so that we know what's coming.

But - perhaps - faith is actually about not knowing the future, while trusting that God will be with us, however it pans out. This is true as much for the big events which haunt the headlines, as for the unknown futures of our personal and family lives. 

"It will be all right, won't it?" is the anxious question that lies behind our wish to know what lies ahead. Part of our job as Christians is to meet this anxiety - in ourselves and others - not with bland assurances that nothing will ever go wrong, but with a deep-rooted faith that the only sure thing about the future is God's loving presence with us.


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Being gracious

I missed the absurdly exciting end of the cricket World Cup Final - because I had to lead an evening Communion service at St. Mary's! This may well constitute the finest example of dedication to duty in the recent history of the Church of England. But I'm being very gracious about it all, I think - partly because England won, and partly because (as I keep telling everyone) in a couple of weeks I'm off to watch the first day of the Ashes series at Edgbaston.

So, in a way, I can afford to be gracious. It's not too hard to be gracious from a position of strength; but real graciousness is the ability to respond positively, without rancour, to defeat or failure. Real graciousness is what New Zealand's captain, Kane Williamson, showed in his response to his team's undeserved defeat - the second time, in recent months, that a Kiwi has shown the world something important about leadership. 

"Ungracious" is a word none of us would like to be tagged with. The sense that our political leaders are graceless, as they insist they are right and refuse to acknowledge the good in their opponents, has contributed to the erosion of trust in them. Can we, as a church, contribute to a revival of graciousness - especially when things aren't going our way? 


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Everyone is a theologian...

...and everyone is an evangelist.


Well, yesterday, preaching on the bit in Luke's Gospel (chapter 10) where Jesus sends a load of people out to spread the Good News of his Kingdom, I had a little epiphany - i.e. a new light bulb came on in my head.

I realised that anyone can do what Jesus was telling his disciples to do all those years ago. Not the casting out demons and treading on snakes and scorpions bit, but the simple instruction to bring, and declare, God's peace in every place they go and to every person they meet.

We can all be peace-bringers, we can all embody - not always perfectly, but often whole-heartedly - the loving presence of God in each situation of our lives. And so we can all say, either aloud or with our actions, what Jesus told his first evangelists to say: "The Kingdom of God has come near".

And so, we are all evangelists. Without having to rattle off any of the tiresome slogans we associate with evangelism, without needing to shout in people's ear that God loves them, we are all able to be ambassadors of God's peace. We are all able to pray for peace, to wish for peace, to stand for peace. We are all able, in this way, to be a blessing to others. 

And, in the same way, we are all able to be theologians. A theologian isn't a clever person who has learned lots of words no-one else understands. A theologian is anyone who says anything true about God. And I think we can all say, when the occasion requires: "God is real - God is love - and God loves you and me and all people".

This is both a blessing and a burden. The burden is: once we have understood that our lack of learning and/or low self-esteem form no barrier to being an evangelist (and a theologian!), we have no excuse for not doing it.

And the blessing? I've only glimpsed this, but I would say - some kind of wonderful freedom in knowing that the simplest act of loving-kindness, the most basic offering of peace, really can bring God's Kingdom near. 


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Leaders - the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

For the last 7 years, part of my job - occupying the equivalent of one day a week - has been working as an Assistant Diocesan Director of Ordinands. I know, that's quite a mouthful - but what it means is quite simple: I'm one of several clergy-people around the Diocese who give a bit of their time to accompany those who are exploring a possible call to ordination. Usually, I will meet with any given "candidate" (I know, the jargon is a bit daunting) every 6 weeks or so, over a period of 12 to 18 months, right up to the point where they go off to a Selection Conference, and a decision is made (not by me!) as to whether or not they can start training for ordained ministry. And usually, at any one time I'll be meeting regularly with about half a dozen different people. (A few years back, one of them was our own Ann Lewis - so somebody got something right!)

So that's a lot of meetings, with pieces of written work for them to do, and meetings with others who can assess their potential. And it's been quite a privilege to accompany all these people, get to know them, and hear their stories of faith and life - and then, in most cases, to rejoice with them when their calling is recognised and affirmed. But what I'm leading up to (pun intended) is that one of the key criteria for determining whether or not a person has the potential for ordained ministry is their ability to function well as a leader.

You don't need me to tell you (but I will anyway) that there is a general crisis of faith in our leaders. Essentially, we don't really trust them; we are weary of lies and evasions and u-turns, and we suspect that many leaders, in politics, business, education, and other spheres of life, have managed to get themselves promoted beyond their ability - and certainly beyond their moral stature. 

So what can the Church offer as a template for good leadership? First of all, I'd suggest, we need the humility to recognise our failings and limitations, and the courage and honesty to apologise - and mean it - when we get things wrong. One of the most unattractive things about people in leadership is the pathetically unconvincing way they often try to cover up their mistakes, and in doing so forfeit the public's trust. Sadly, enquiries into historic and current cases of sexual abuse within the Church suggest that we too have sought to minimise damage to the Church's reputation, rather than attending to the welfare of the abused. So leaders need to be people of honesty and humility.

And second, there needs to be in them a genuine desire to serve rather than to be served. This, after all, is what Jesus came to do: in John's Gospel, he washes his disciples' feet (to Peter's outrage) and tells them to do the same for others. I'm sure that, at both local and national levels, there are many people in government who entered public life with a sincere desire to serve the needs of those they represent. But often, sadly, that spirit of service withers over the years, and what is left is an ugly shell of self-preservation and self-aggrandizement. After all, putting others first, and doing so consistently, is incredibly difficult; in the Church, we are reminded, week by week, that none of us is free from selfish and presumptuous faults. So the question for potential leaders, in the Church as elsewhere, is: how deeply rooted in you is the call to loving service?

And finally, inevitably, leaders need to be asked - or ask themselves: are you able to work with others, and to help them fulfil their potential? Or are you intending to operate as a lone figurehead? Historically, the ranks of the clergy have, to a degree, been filled by oddballs, misfits and loners, who have relished the sole responsibility of the parish priest, often to the detriment of their congregations. But now, candidates have to come up with solid evidence of their ability to work well in a team, whether as leader or team member; and now, church members are less inclined to defer unquestioningly to the authority of their priest. "Father knows best" has become "If we're going to work with Father, he needs to learn to listen" (please add your own female equivalent - "Mother?")... And while the loneliness of priesthood is still a real issue, especially in remote rural parishes, in most contexts now there is a sense of relief in realising that you don't have to lead on your own.

Well - who are we in the Church to lecture others on how they should lead? But, even though we fail to live up to them, we do have principles of good leadership which we can try to model: humility and honesty, a deep-rooted desire to serve, and a willingness to work with others for the common good. And we can pray, and go on praying, for all leaders everywhere to have these qualities and put them into practice...


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The great I AM

So - yesterday was Trinity Sunday. It's the only major festival in the Church's year that doesn't relate to an event. Instead it's pure theology - a chance to re-examine our understanding of God.

The early Church soon realised that responding to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus would require a radically revised picture of God. It then took them a few hundred years to finalise the doctrine of the Trinity. One God in three persons - how does that work?

Well, what the Trinity doesn't do is give us an exact, definitive, final understanding of God. Actually, nothing can do that. The moment someone claims to have understood God fully, please feel free to call them a delusional fool. You have my permission (for what it's worth). Remember Moses, asking God politely what his name is (knowing it will be easier to sell the whole Exodus thing to his fellow-Israelites if they can pin a name on their God, and thereby define him). The answer is (depending on how you take the obscure Hebrew phrase) "I am who I am" or "I will be who I will be". In other words, mind your mortal business, Moses. I AM is not a God to be put in a box, measured or controlled. Arguably, this God is better understood as a verb than as a noun. After all, nouns - people, objects, places - can be safely located and objectified. This God isn't an object - more like a process.

Anyway, after that little excursion ... the point is, the Trinity is the Church's best shot at a picture of God that doesn't mislead us, and equally important, doesn't miss out anything vital. Leave out the Father, the Creator, and there is nothing, literally nothing, to talk about. Leave out the Son, and you miss that critical self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ which gave birth to the whole meaning and purpose of the Church. Leave out the Holy Spirit - God present and active in us and around us - and you're doing no more than worship the past. We need all three. And yet, the wonder is that they are one, they are united in love; and that love is not simply shared among the Trinity, but endlessly poured out on all God's people. On all of us, if we can only notice it, feel it, open ourselves to it.

I did say there'd be some theology. Of course, words can't capture God. But words can still be accurate (as far as we can tell) and helpful - or not. So we carry on praising our wonderfully mysterious God, the Trinity. These words from the book of Ecclesiasticus say it well: "We could say more, but could never say enough; let the final word be: "He is the all"." 

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Eternal life - now

As you may know, every month - usually on the 3rd Monday - there's a gathering called "Agnostics Anonymous" at the Grampus pub in Lee. Generally, there are about a dozen of us there, but this month I think I counted 22, all in a big circle (well, ellipse, technically) in the back room.

Why so many? Was there nothing else on? Or was it the lure of an overtly theological theme - What is "eternal life"? Whatever, it was a good discussion, without too much raw theology - after all, as the title of the group suggests, there is no assumption here about faith or lack of it. The beauty of these meetings, for me, is knowing that if I start spouting vicar-speak, I'll get short shrift, or at least have to explain myself. And that helps me re-examine what I think and believe.

What I was left with, this time, was a sense that most people find eternity in the here and now - often in things that are small and seemingly insignificant. Things which are easy to miss, like tiny flowers beside the path. Things that make us stop and stare - and wonder.

And (not that I tried to say it like this on the night) this fits well with the Christian understanding that eternal life is not so much an endless stretch of chronological time, but a quality of life that can grip us right now, stopping us in our tracks as we realise that God - his life, his love - is as real now as it will ever be.



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Easter People

(a sermon preached on Easter Day, April 21st 2019)

Easter people? Are we?

Well, we may not be the finished article, but we are Easter people - or we wouldn't be here!

And we have some of the characteristics, some of the time, of Easter people...

3 things stand out for me:

1) Easter people are real.

By which I mean: they are human, they mess things up, they know something about failure, they have been humbled by life - usually through a combination of misdemeanour and misfortune. They are not pristine, perfect and pleased with themselves. They have lived, and they have the scars to prove it.

Tiger Woods' extraordinary victory in the Masters wasn't just about golf, but about resurgent life in a man who strayed from the fairway a few times too often. 3 years ago, his back trouble was so severe that, when he fell to the ground, he had to call his 7-year-old daughter and ask her to fetch help, because he couldn't get up. And last Sunday he won the Masters, and it seems that a young man who struggled to relate to others on a human level has matured into a wiser, humbler character whose gratitude and delight are all the more real for being hard-won.

Easter people are real. The sharp corners have been knocked off, there is no more pretending, no more posing or game-playing. These are people who have sat with Peter in the courtyard of denial, failure and regret, and come through to a hard-won self-acceptance. These are people who have been loved by Jesus just as they are.

2) Easter people have hope.

Notre Dame burns, and I go to bed with a horrible feeling that when I wake on Tuesday morning there will be nothing left. But the brilliant and heroic firefighters are able to save the main structure of the cathedral, and after the grief and despair of the night before, people begin to have hope. Money pours in for the restoration fund, architects start to discuss the way forward, and from President to passer-by there is a sense that this will happen - Our Lady of Paris will rise again.

And while we recognise ruefully that even the mightiest cathedral is in reality fragile and vulnerable, and as we process what that tells us about the illusion of permanence in our own lives, we are warmed by hope, and we see that there is no such thing as final destruction. As defined by the risen Christ, our God is always able to bring good out of evil, life out of death. The pain and grief we suffer are real - and they make us real - but they do not have the last word, they are shouldered aside by hope. We shudder at the looming catastrophe of climate change, but a 16-year-old schoolgirl challenges us to hope, and to act out our hope. And, if we are Easter people, we will find a way to respond...

3) And Easter people are joyful.

Which, of course, is not quite the same as being happy. Happiness comes and goes; joy - once it's lodged itself in your soul - is always somewhere within, like a slow-burning fire that you can turn to when life gets cold and bleak. And sometimes it bursts out, and you feel impelled to shout for joy on a glorious morning, or break into a crazy dance when you know you are loved.

I had an experience of joy, rather unexpectedly, at the Woolacombe School Easter Service a couple of weeks ago. Part of me felt it was all wrong to have a service of Easter celebration while we were still in Lent (nothing to be done - the school holidays were before Easter this year). But a bigger part of me started to hop about in the side aisle while the children were singing "Easter Jubilation" - and then we watched a bunch of 9/10-year-old girls performing "Raise Your Voice" from "Sister Act". Although the words are really about having confidence in yourself, rather than anything obviously Easter-ish, the whole thing had an almost wild sense of joy, as these youngsters gave it everything, clearly loving every minute of it. It was unmistakeably an Easter thing, and while my liturgical self thought, "For goodness' sake, we're not even in Passiontide yet!", I could recognise that this was Easter joy. And I was up next, with what some kind (or sarcastic) person had described in the programme as "wise words from the Vicar". I thought I was going to explode with joy (giving a new slant on "Messy Church"), but I managed to hold it together and say a few words about Easter being a time for exactly the sort of joy we'd just seen and heard from the children. As so often, they'd shown us the way. They had reminded us that we have been given a deep sense of joy at simply being alive, and that - whatever we face - nothing can take this joy from us.

And if, for a while, sadness or pain or fear seem to have buried this joy, Jesus comes from the tomb to greet us, and we remember that we are Easter people, his people, the very people for whom he has won this great and endless victory over death.

Real - hopeful - joyful.

And - will we all be Easter people? Or are some outside the scope of God's merciful love? I hope not, and I believe that this extraordinary event - the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead - is the expression of God's purpose to bring new life to the whole creation.

And if God intends his love to be known and felt and accepted by the whole creation, who are we to say that it cannot be so? 

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Sleepless nights

First of all, I must apologise for failing to keep to my blog promise (of posting every Tuesday or thereabouts) - I will do better!

And second of all, you'd have to be stony-hearted (or a ferocious republican) not to be touched by the delight of Harry and Meghan at the arrival of their son Archie. In this, if not in other ways, they are like any parents of new-born children - reflecting the wonder that many of us remember: here is an explosion of new life, more vibrant, more real than we could ever have expected.

But here's the rub (as brother William helpfully pointed out): these new parents are entering a world of sleep deprivation which is likely, at times, to stretch them to the limit. Even Royals have to get up in the night when their child is crying. Even Mary had to get up to attend to little Jesus (unless we want to believe he was the perfect baby, sleeping right through the night, every night, from the start...).

Parenting involves tiredness; it involves sacrifice. And part of the message of Easter is that real love always means sacrifice - giving up what you want because the welfare of someone else matters more. Thank God, that's not the whole picture, of parenting or of life, but we know our lives would be poorer without the challenge to put the needs of others first - sometimes, in the middle of the night...

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Grief and joy at Easter

It's the end of Easter Week. I've had a short break in Norfolk - doing a bit of bird-watching, with the big bonus of seeing avocet for the first time! - and now, preparing for "Low Sunday" (is it called that because attendances are generally low after Easter?), I'm remembering the various strong and disturbing images and stories that have haunted the past week or so. Notre Dame, to start with; the murder of Lyra McKee in Derry; the protests and speeches about climate change - and of course, the terrible news filtering through on Easter Sunday, of the deadly attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka.

I suppose if there's one theme coming through to me from all of this disparate stuff, it's that we have to find ways to be together and to act together. Or, to put it the other way round, we have to resist all attempts to create division. In terms of Easter, it's the difference between Jesus' friends scattered in fear on Good Friday, and the same bunch brought together in joy and hope after the Resurrection. Which will we be? Which way will we choose?

And, if our fear is that it doesn't really matter what we choose, that our words and actions won't make a difference, then remember that so much change for the better - think of South Africa and of Northern Ireland - has had its roots in the faithful praying that refuses to stop until something shifts for good.

Don't give up. Keep praying for the new life which God has promised.




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Raheem Sterling - Hallelujah!

A handful of black footballers, including England internationals Raheem Sterling and Danny Rose, are spearheading a movement of resistance to the creeping resurgence of racist hate speech. They are brave, and they are right - hence my "Hallelujah!"

In an interview on April 8th, Sterling said this:

"Growing up, my mum has always told me that I'm a wonderful black child. I know this."

Although these words are absolutely relevant to the fight against the evil of racism, they also go beyond matters of race. This is a declaration of just how important it is - for everyone - to be affirmed, to be told "You are good - just as you are, whoever you are". There is no better starting point in life, no better antidote to the voices saying "you're rubbish", no better armour against the haters. "I know this" - how powerful those 3 little words are!

In a world where division and prejudice often loom large, if we claim to be Christian - if we claim to be human in the right way - if we recognise the healing power of compassion and acceptance - then our job is to insist: every child of God is wonderful, and nobody has the right to say otherwise!

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Wilderness taunts

This is the title of the book that I've found most helpful this Lent. It's by Ian Adams, who is an artist, poet and priest based in South Devon - go to the "Beloved Life" website to find out more...

"Wilderness Taunts" is a series of 40 imaginative meditations, accompanied by black-and-white photos. Ian's photos are haunting and bleak, but what I really like is the way he gets under the skin of our vulnerable selves, in the taunts that are designed to undermine us and lead us into self-hatred and despair - and then turns the tables, in the second half of each meditation, by responding with a kind of God-perspective that affirms us as we are. 

I suppose it rings a bell with my own experience of times when I feel bad about myself, but more than that: whenever I meet someone struggling with issues of mental or spiritual health (and that's most of us at one time or another), everything seems to go back to an undermining, perhaps from earliest times, of their sense of self. A voice has said: "you are rubbish", and that voice keeps re-surfacing. Worst of all, that voice is often taken to be the voice of God.

Ian's words remind me just how real, how persuasive, that voice can be; but also, more importantly, how the true voice of the God who loves us expresses something quite different - a gentle, deep-rooted acceptance of us in all our frailty. Thanks be to God!

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The Sound of Silence

Seems like a contradiction in terms, doesn't it, but when you experience silence (in other words, absence of outside noise) you realise that it has a kind of hum or whine to it. I'm happy to be corrected on this, but there seems to be no such thing as absolute silence.

Which is no reason to give up the pursuit of silence - or, at least, of less noise. It's a truism that our culture and our daily lives are more or less continously noisy, for a whole variety of reasons - including, I'd suggest, some kind of deep-seated fear of what might happen if we stopped making a racket. For example, what sort of cataclysm would ensue if all restaurants stopped their piped music? Would customers be unable to eat their food? Would they sob into their soup?...demand a refund?...attack the staff? Silence is an unknown quantity, a void, and we're not sure what we might find there...

I'm no better than anyone else at being silent. But I know the value of it. It's the "place" where I have a chance of sensing God, in a way that has nothing to do with words or activities or tasks or all the other stuff I rush around doing.

How to go there? Just stop everything, for 10 minutes or so, sit still, and listen for the God who is so often shoved aside by all our noise.

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Reculer pour mieux sauter

Sorry, showing off again. In case your French is a bit rusty, the title of this post means something like - to retreat in order to jump back better. In other words, it doesn't translate well at all ... but here I am in Brecon, on retreat, and hoping to jump back better. We'll see!

For now, I just want to share with you, in the aftermath of the horror in Christchurch, how moving I found the picture of a man standing outside a mosque in Manchester, with a flat cap, a big smile, and a home-made placard, on which he had written:

"You are my friends. I will keep watch while you pray."

This man is a Christian, but that in itself is no reason for Christians to congratulate themselves. I would have found it equally moving, had I not known that. For me, there is something very beautiful, very much of the God I believe in, in his message, his smile, and his willingness to keep watch so that those who may be feeling threatened can pray in peace. Even the absurdity of this lone watchman guarding against violence is quite lovely - his cheerful smile says that he's not afraid.

I don't know whether Andrew Graystone intended this when deciding what to write, but his words remind me of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, pleading with his friends to stay awake, to keep watch while he prays.

And then there's the boldness of declaring to a bunch of strangers, "You are my friends". I think this boldness can only come from a deep belief that those we don't know, those who are different from us, are to be approached, greeted, welcomed as friends. This is a stance, a choice, which offers hope to all of us.

So thank you, Andrew, for your message, your smile - and your flat cap. And for reminding us that we are called to treat everyone as children of God, as brothers and sisters, as friends.

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Resistance is not futile

a sermon preached on Christmas Eve 2017

This morning, being a Sunday morning, I ... went to the cinema.

As you do - or at least, as we do in our family on Christmas Eve. I had cancelled the usual morning services, not to go to the cinema, but - keeping in mind 2 services on Christmas Eve and 2 more on Christmas morning - to avoid ending up as a frazzled heap of brain-dead vicar.

Anyway ... as we trooped off to see "Star Wars - the Last Jedi", I was reminded of my dear colleague and friend Linda Walters, our Associate Minister who died in February - and specifically, of how much she loved going to the cinema. Every time a half-decent film arrived in Ilfracombe or Barnstaple, or sometimes even in Taunton, you could mention it to Linda and she'd say - oh yes, saw it last Thursday - really, really good. Very rare that you could beat her to it.

So, as we watched, I thought of Linda. And (rather sadly) I started thinking about my Christmas sermon. Having seen some of the previous Star Wars films, and read the reviews of this one, I knew that it would be about a bunch of heroes of "The Resistance" defying the interstellar military might of "The First Order" - which is basically an evil empire with ambitions to rule the galaxy. And as I watched, I asked myself the question I'm now going to ask you:

Am I / are we part of the Resistance or part of the Empire?

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Freedom from fear

Sermon preached at Exeter Cathedral Evensong on June 25th 2017

Based on I Samuel 24:1-17 (The outlaw David spares King Saul's life) and Luke 14:12-24 (The parable of the wedding feast)

"Saul lifted up his voice and wept. He said to David: "You are more righteous than I; for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil.""

There are certain situations - or perhaps I should say, certain positions - in which we are particularly vulnerable. While eating, for example, especially when accepting hospitality from others (think Glencoe). Or while sleeping - undefended, unsuspecting, abandoned to a parallel universe.

And, of course, while ... how shall I put this? ... answering a call of nature, doing our business, relieving ourselves ... you know what I mean, even though I shudder to approach this subject - at Choral Evensong - in the Cathedral!

Actually, the most graceful euphemism for this activity, though admittedly rather confusing, is the one used in our Old Testament reading. In a literal translation of the Hebrew, we read that Saul entered the cave "to cover his feet". The use of the feet in the Hebrew Bible to represent parts of the body which cannot be mentioned deserves a whole book, or at least a whole sermon - but not now. (If you're interested, go to Ruth chapter 3, verse 4...)

Bodily functions make us vulnerable, that's the point. In this little scene, with its potent mixture of comedy and poignancy, Saul is vulnerable, and David refuses to capitalize on his vulnerability. A couple of chapters further on, we have another version of this scenario. This time, Saul and his men are sleeping as David and Abishai enter their camp; contemplate the KIng asleep, with his spear stuck in the ground beside him; debate whether or not to kill him, with David dissuading his companion; and then make off with the spear and a water-jar as proof of their incursion, before David calls to Saul and - as in the reading we've heard - uses his refusal to take advantage of Saul's vulnerability to drive home the message that he is not Saul's enemy.

The outlaw David, whom Samuel has already anointed as Saul's successor, will not murder the King who seeks his life. David's instinct as a soldier is to finish Saul off. His interest as a political animal is to claim the kingdom at a stroke. But these are trumped by his conviction that to strike at God's anointed one is to strike at God Himself. Whatever Saul's failings - which have led to the Lord withdrawing His favour from him, and will lead to his downfall - while he lives his life is, for David, sacred, inviolable.

And so we have the strange and deeply sad exchange between these two, father-in-law and son-in-law, present King and King-in-waiting, ending with Saul's outburst: "Is that your voice, my son David? ... You are more righteous than I; for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil."

What does this mean - "You are more righteous than I"? At the simplest level, Saul is trying to kill David - David refuses to kill Saul. That's the righteousness equation.

But at another level, it's about freedom. Saul is not free - he is gripped by, driven by, jealousy, fear and rage. David is so free that he doesn't need to take Saul's life. He is free to spare Saul, to offer Saul mercy; and we recognise it as the same mercy that Jesus Christ in his risen life offers us in our hopeless vulnerability. David is free to offer Saul God's generous, merciful love - and Saul is free to accept it or reject it. But as we read on, we realise that, for all his sincere contrition, Saul cannot accept the freedom David offers. He is still bound by fear and rage, he is still unable to deal with his own vulnerability in any other way than by the use of force. He doesn't know how to choose freedom.

And so, David is more righteous than Saul.

And so, we come to Jesus, who shows us what a life lived freely looks like. The banquet in his story is freely offered to all. It's a symbol of heaven. It's a picture of what Jesus himself offers people, over and over again. It stands for God's free gift of His generous, merciful love. Freely given to those who are given the freedom to reject it. They have entirely reasonable excuses - pressing tasks which demand their prior attention, and which belong to a quite different order of reality from the mad, intemperate generosity of the host. Who can argue with excuses like these? Especially with the last one, the showstopper - delivered, we can imagine, with a sanctimonious smirk: "Just got married - can't possibly tear myself away - actually, we're off to Barbados tomorrow - sorry, do hope it all goes well. See you soon!"

Actually, no you won't. The invitation is freely given, and the freedom to refuse it is real, but there are consequences to that refusal. When God calls us, we are free to say no, but there are consequences. In truth, my experience - and maybe yours too - is that our God is far more patient than the host in Jesus' story. He keeps on graciously inviting us, and we get more than one chance (far more!) to respond - but the stakes are just as high as in the story. Do we want the new life, the joy, the freedom God offers us; or are we still wedded to our old, comfortable (deadly comfortable) habits? Are we, like Saul, still fearful of what might happen if we stopped trying to control our lives, stopped trying to defend ourselves, and instead believed - actually believed - that this freedom is real? And more: that this freedom is the only way to life.

To be clear: this is not the freedom to do exactly and simply what we want - as David will discover when, as King, he sleeps with Bathsheba and engineers her husband's death so that he can have her, and then is brought to book by the prophet Nathan in one of the Bible's great stories of telling truth to power (II Samuel chapters 11 & 12). David will learn from this the same truth hammered home, centuries later, by Paul (formerly known as Saul) to the wild Christians of Corinth: the freedom Christ brings is an inner freedom, not an outward licence to do whatever you want. It is a freedom from fear and hatred, and a freedom to love. If love rules your heart, you will be free; and out of love, then yes, you may do what you will.

If love rules your heart ... It's a big "if"!


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Innocence and Experience

A sermon preached at Christmas 2016
William Blake's "Songs of Innocence and Experience" show us the great visionary poet of England exploring the tension, which we all know and feel, perhaps especially at Christmas-time, between on the one hand that primal state of innocence, wonder and delight which we read back into our childhood, and on the other the world-weariness which comes to us as we grow up and journey on through hardships, disappointments and sorrows. I say "especially at Christmas-time" because it seems to me that there is a deep sense of longing, of yearning, which underlies our bright rituals of Christmas, our carols, our light-bearing trees, our gatherings to celebrate and feast. It is the yearning of people who have seen and known too much, for an innocence we fear we may have lost. We long to have hope, to believe in one another as much as in God, and we long for the simple values of goodness and beauty and truth to become real. And we long for the cynical part of us, hardened by bitter experience - and able, in our information-overloaded world, to marshal battalions of dispiriting facts - not to have the last word.
We long for things to be put right
as they once were
at least in our imagining
many Christmases ago.
Here is Blake in his poem "The Lamb", with a voice of innocence:
Little Lamb, who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?
Gave thee life, & bid thee feed
By the stream & o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing, wooly, bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice?
    Little Lamb, who made thee?
    Dost thou know who made thee?
    Little Lamb, I'll tell thee,
    Little Lamb, I'll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb.
He is meek, & he is mild;
He became a little child.
I a child, & thou a lamb, 
we are called by his name.
    Little Lamb, God bless thee!
    Little Lamb, God bless thee!
Blake knew, of course, that there is quite another way of seeing the world, and he expressed this dark, at times hopeless, realism in the "Songs of Experience". Read his poem "London" for a vision of urban misery which finds echoes in the cities of our world today. I've chosen, though, "The Garden of Love", which shines a brutally revealing light on the way organised religion can kill the human spirit:
I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen:
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.
And the gates of this Chapel were shut,
And "Thou shalt not" writ over the door;
So I turn'd to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore;
And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tomb-stones where flowers should be;
And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.
What Blake was after, what he believed in, was something much closer to the radical vision of Christmas and Easter: God - a human child, dependent, defenceless, in no way exempt from the harsh realities of life; and God - a man executed as a criminal, suffering injustice, humiliation and pain. Innocence is apparently crushed by experience - and yet, as countless little stories remind us, day after day, if we can but notice them, there is a goodness which cannot be killed off, which keeps on rising up, like flowers in the desert. If we can believe it, the story of Jesus tells us that innocence wins. Goodness, truth, beauty and love can never be eradicated.
Two people in particular moved me this year, made me think again, convinced me that there is a way of innocence which is the only true response to the evil in our world.
First, Jo Cox MP was murdered (never mind by whom or why), and her husband Brendon, when asked how we should honour her memory, replied: "Fight against hatred".
And second, Father Jacques Mourad, a Syrian Catholic priest abducted by ISIS in 2015, his life unexpectedly spared, spoke about the need to ensure that we "never make decisions out of fear" - and further, spoke of his conviction that we need a "revolution against violence".
"Fight against hatred", "a revolution against violence" - and of course, the fight against hatred cannot be waged with hate, and there can be no violence in the revolution against violence. This is a call to arms of a very different kind: it is a call to insist on love and peace as the motivating forces in our struggle for what is right. It is a call to a sustained innocence - if you like, a willed innocence - which is born out of hard and painful experience. It is exactly the call which the adult Jesus (perhaps remembering - who knows? - the innocence of his birth and childhood) made on his first followers and makes on us now - Unless you become like little children, there's no way in to heaven.
This is the challenge: for us to understand the baby of Bethlehem, like the man of Calvary, as pointing the way for us to reclaim our lost innocence, and to lay hold of a simple, single purpose - love one another. Don't think twice, don't count the cost - just love one another.
May your inner child be re-born this Christmas, so that, as children, you may know the joy that comes from God, and share it.
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All God's Children

I want to say something about the killings at the gay nightclub in Orlando on June 12th - since overtaken in our attention by yet more horrors, but fresh in all our minds as I was writing this for the church magazine in the middle of June.

And I want to use the word "gay", which will stir a variety of reactions in Christians, because I think it's important for the Church, and for all people of faith, to hear that word, to acknowledge the reality of a gay community - some of whom are Christians - and to acknowledge also the reality of a history of prejudice, fear and hatred towards gay people, in which the Church has often played a less than honourable part.

Let me be honest: for a moment, I found it fractionally harder to feel for those killed and injured in Orlando than I would have done if the attack had been on a primary school or a concert hall. And then I realised - this is no different, these people no more deserve such a fate than I do.

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Divine Love at Easter

"He showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, in the palm of my hand, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it with my mind's eye and I thought, "What can this be?" And answer came, "It is all that is made". I marvelled that it could last, for I thought it might have crumbled to nothing, it was so small. And the answer came into my mind, "It lasts and ever shall because God loves it". And all things have being through the love of God."

Some words of Julian of Norwich. We don't know her real name, but we know that she was an anchoress (a hermit living in a cell attached to a church) at St. Julian's in Norwich - hence the name she is known by. She was born in 1342, and on May 8th 1373, during a severe and life-threatening illness, she received a series of 16 "shewings". For 20 years she meditated on what she had been shown, and eventually recorded these visions and her understanding of them as "The Revelations of Divine Love" - the first book known to have been written by a woman in English.

As Julian pondered the meaning of her visions, she was told: "What, do you wish to know your Lord's meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning."

The true meaning of "this thing", this hazelnut-sized thing, the true meaning of everything, is love.

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