Category Archives: Thought for the week

Thought for the week, 18th May; hanging onto hope

Last Sunday brought mixed emotions for me. The morning service I led was poorly attended; whilst  there were reasons for this, it always feels discouraging when this happens. This was all the more so as I had a strong feeling that the evening service I was going to do the same day would also be low on numbers; some regulars were away and I was going to be in competition with other events. As it so happened,  I was wrong; I did get a good turnout for the evening service, but the events made me reflect on my emotions. It is often said that football managers get too much credit when things go well and too much blame when they go badly. There is a message here about keeping our reactions in proportion, not letting single events, good or bad, weigh too heavily upon us. But beyond this, I think there is a need to ground ourselves in something; to find the will to continue to chose what is good, what is moral, what is right, even when it appears it will make no difference. For myself, as a person of faith, this comes from my belief in God. It is not a naive optimism that everything happens for the best, but it is that the God who is love will have the final word.

Thought for the week, 11th May; looking to the skies

Last week I wrote this column on holiday in Scotland, on the Isle of Tiree in the Hebrides. The topic of that reflection was inspired by a visit to a Celtic monastery, clinging to a headland and facing out to the sea. But that same day, before visiting the headland, we had spotted some birds, soaring high in the sky above us. The bird-spotter in our party confirmed that they were a pair of sea eagles; through a pair of field glasses even I could see their white tails. Later in the walk we saw two more pairs. Whilst we had one eye to the ground that day, we also kept raising our eyes heavenwards, to the sky.

The God of the Bible, Yahweh, is always seen as a sky god, no doubt reflecting the early religious experience of the Hebrew people. Three thousand years of religious reflection has of course resulted in a more mature picture, not least because the so-called “sky-God” came to earth to live, die and rise again in the human that was Jesus. But still the old picture stays with us; this week we have celebrated the ascension of Jesus, when in particular the author of Acts picks up the traditional picture as he describes Jesus lifting up into the sky. Those who share my liberal theology sometimes smirk at this picture, but on this I think they miss the point. There is something magical and inspirational about gazing to the sky, the home of such magnificent creatures at the sea eagle. When showing off in front of other vicars, I might spout forth of how God is beyond Being. But the truth is, that if I want a picture that inspires me, it is that of the Lord of earth and sky, whose power and mystery I glimpsed in the eagles. Lift up your eyes.

Thought for the week, 4th May; Notes from Tiree

I am on holiday on Tiree, the most westerly of the Inner Hebrides in Scotland. It is the windiest place in Britain, the first land encountered by Atlantic gales. Today I walked to the remains of a monastery, well over 1000 years old. It is perched beneath cliffs facing the sea, a collection of stone huts housing a community of perhaps 10. Even in the sunshine today it was wild, it would have been a very hard place to live in 1000. What drew monks to this place of isolation? Perhaps as they gazed out on the Atlantic , I wonder if they saw the wide ocean and the sweeping horizon as a worthy altar to offer their praises to the Lord of sea and sky?

Thought for the week, 27th April; Craftsmanship

As I said morning prayer today, I was pleased to find that one of the Bible passages re-acquainted me with two of my favourite characters from the Old Testament; Bezalel and Oholiab. I first came across these around 15 years ago, in the farewell sermon of a previous vicar of Highley, Clive Williams. They were not great prophets, priests or lawgivers; they were not fearsome warriors or might smiters. They were craftsmen; Bezalel was a wood and metal worker, Oholiab was a weaver and embroiderer. In the story in the book of Exodus, they were chosen to work on the tabernacle; the tent in which the people of Israel believed that God would dwell in when they themselves were nomads, wandering in the wilderness of Sinai. As many will know, my father was an accomplished wood worker and I read this passage at his funeral. I have inherited from him his enthusiasm for wood working, his workshop and tools, but sadly not his skill. No matter, the fact that I need to use screws and glue to hold things where he could rely simply on joints simply increases my admiration of real craft workers. There is something uplifting about admiring finely crafted work; indeed there is something uplifting simply about trying yourself, as my colleague Angie Foster (soon to be a Rev) will testify. I would suggest that these activities can be spiritually uplifting, as we appreciate skill and beauty and perhaps get a glimpse of the source of all beauty.

Thought for the week, 20th April; Taylor Swift

It seems that the world is agog at the release of Taylor Swift’s new album; the Sun newspaper devoted it’s entire front page to the subject and it occupied the slot of Radio 4 immediately after “Thought for the Day”. I admit that until I heard the latter, I had no idea who Taylor Swift was, and after hearing a few bars from one of her songs, I equally had no idea what it was about. To be fair, Taylor Swift will never had heard of me and would probably find my sermons incomprehensible…

Whilst Taylor’s songs may not be entirely to my taste, she is popular because her music deals with serious emotions; it is called “The Tortured Poet’s Department” and much of it focusses on her feelings about past relationships. Critics have said that she is popular because her songs allow so many of her followers to better work through their own emotions. This goes to the heart of what good music can achieve; it moves and addresses its listeners in ways that plain words cannot. In this respect, her music has a spiritual side. The link between Gregorian plainsong from monasteries and the records of best selling artists like Taylor is closer than many people might imagine.

Thought for the week, 13th April; anger and forgiveness

Perhaps the most challenging of all Christian teachings is the command to love our enemies and forgive those who wish us harm. For some, this has proved impossible. The Rev Julie Nicholson, whose daughter was killed in the July 2005 London bombing attacks, resigned her post as a priest because she could not forgive the perpetrators of the attack. I doubt I would be able to offer much forgiveness if I were in her position. I am uncomfortable with the position of some, who seem to regard a refusal to offer forgiveness as a moral failing on the part of the victim. Whilst Jesus certainly did teach his followers to forgive those who had done them wrong, it is interesting that on the cross, the words that St Luke records are that he asked God, his father, to forgive those who were crucifying him; he did not explicitly forgive his tormentors himself.

I have recently been reading a book by TV vicar, Rev Kate Bottley. In a chapter on love, she deals with loving those we find unlovable. For me, she makes the helpful point that it is possible to balance two contrasting emotions. Her example was of a parent dealing with a naughty child; in my own experience it has been the frustration of dealing with an elderly relative. It is possible to feel anger and love together. So I think it is with forgiveness or love and anger; there is a way of holding the two together when we have been hurt.

Thought for the week, 6th April; Indifference

A couple of days ago, a mother of one of the Israelis still being held hostage spoke on the radio. She had no time for Hamas, the kidnappers but she spoke of how she used her pain to understand the pain of the civilians in Gaza. This quality, of using our experience to reach out to others is very important; all to often we are content to shield ourselves behind a wall of indifference.

The same day as I heard of the interview, I was sent a poem by Geoffrey Stothert-Kennedy, a priest who served as a chaplain in World War 1 and was nick-named “Woodbine Willie” because of the cigarettes he would give to the troops. It is called “Indifference” and it chimed with what I had been thinking as a result of the interview.

When Jesus came to Golgotha
They hanged Him on a tree,
They drove great nails through hands and feet,
And made a Calvary.
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns;
Red were His wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days,
And human flesh was cheap.

When Jesus came to Birmingham,
They simply passed Him by;
They never hurt a hair of Him,
They only let Him die.
For men had grown more tender,
And they would not give Him pain;
They only just passed down the street,
And left Him in the rain.

Still Jesus cried, “Forgive them,
For they know not what they do.”
And still it rained the winter rain
That drenched Him through and through.
The crowds went home and left the streets
Without a soul to see;
And Jesus crouched against a wall
And cried for Calvary.

Thought for the week, 30th March; Resurrection

I have just been listening to the Today programme on Radio 4; as I write it is Good Friday. As befits the day, the reports were thoughtful and considered, not reacting to some event with a few sound bites. There was a piece on how Good Friday was being marked in Jerusalem; the reporter commented on how powerful religious belief was and how, for once, it did seem to something that was strangely uniting people.  Then there was a piece on Damiola Taylor, the 10-year old who was stabbed to death back in 2000. Damiola’s father has recently died and the well-known actor John Boyega spoke, for the first time, of how Damiola had shaped his life. The two were friends at school; John still has vivid memories of how the police came to his house to break the news, of  Damiola running round the playground in a silver anorak “flirting with my bloody sister!”. He imagined how Damiola would have grown up to be a writer, perhaps of dramas in which he would have acted. Their friendship was still real. And so I reflected on love that is stronger than death and on the words of a third contributor to the programme this morning, Canon Richard Sewell, Dean of St George’s College, Jerusalem. He spoke of celebrating Easter in spite of all the current horrors in Israel and Gaza, of how the Resurrection shows that life conquers death, love conquers hate. John Boyega’s interview made me think that resurrection is not such a strange idea; if we look, we see examples of it all around.

Thought for the week, 23rd March; What did Jesus mean on Palm Sunday?

This Sunday, 24th March, is Palm Sunday, when we commemorate Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. According to the Gospels, he was greeted by cheering crowds who laid palms before him. Five days later the crowd turned on him and he was crucified. In many churches, on Sunday, palm crosses will be distributed to the congregation; a few will have a donkey, or a donkey-substitute at church as well. The crowd on Palm Sunday would have thought they knew exactly what they were doing with their palms; this was a well known way within ancient Israel of greeting a triumphant leader. It may well have been especially associated in their minds with the Maccabean Revolt around 150 to 200 years earlier, when Israel last successfully rose against an oppressive occupier; palms were laid in the path of the leader who, for a period, won the country freedom by a military campaign. The donkey was not just the mount of those too poor to have a horse; again in ancient Israel, it was also ridden by kings, the rich and the powerful; King David himself rode a donkey. When Jesus picked a donkey to ride, he was almost certainly thinking of a prophecy in the Old Testament that spoke of Israel’s Messiah entering Jerusalem humble and lowly, riding on a donkey, but elsewhere in the prophecy, it looks like this only happened after this Messiah had triumphed in battle to overcome Israel’s enemies.  My guess is that many, perhaps all, in the crowd, would not have understood what Jesus really intended with the donkey; that in him, God had arrived in triumph but unthinkably, the path to his kingdom would lead to his execution as a criminal. Power was being redefined in a way nobody expected. It a lesson we still, so often, do not understand.

Thought for the week, 16th March; Doctored images

The Princess of Wales has been in a lot of trouble for using Photoshop on a picture sent to the press. Personally my sympathies are entirely with her; I do not see why an amateur photographer should be expected to know the code of conduct for the professionals, but perhaps that is just me. The story does raise interesting questions of how we use images for our own advantage. The carefully posed portrait photograph taken by a professional may say very little about the reality of a relationship and painters and sculptures creating work to satisfy their clients is as old as their arts. It is not just photos; every time I speak or appear in public, I project an image of myself. Sometimes I control this image, the smiling and sympathetic vicar visiting his parishioners; sometimes another aspect is on view (how can you drive a car and not break several of the 10 commandments?). The reality is probably somewhere in-between these two images. I suspect most of us are hybrids, not quite as good as we would like to think we are, not quite as bad as we fear we may be. It is important that we take time to reflect on our true nature, to remove the Photoshop additions that we or others apply to us. Some turn to techniques such as mindfulness but the Christian response is prayer. This is not about chatting away with a wish list of 10 things about ourselves we would wish to change; it is about examining our lives, identifying strengths and weaknesses in the presence of the One who is gracious and merciful and who does not need Photoshop to identify our beauty, no matter how much we have spoilt that.