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.

Thought for the week, 9th March; Form filling

Back in the 6th century, large numbers were drawn to live together in Christian communities, as monks or nuns. There was no agreed way on how these men and women should live. St David, who we commemorated a few weeks ago, advocated a life of particular simplicity and austerity but there was a danger that of competition between communities to see who could follow the most harsh way of living. The sin of pride can take many forms. A monk called Benedict sought to avoid issues such as this by setting out a series of simple but sustainable rules whereby a community could live together, combining work and prayer. The rule of St Benedict is still followed by many Christian communities today. However, at its heart the rule is about how any group can live well and virtuously together. Part of this involves doing mundane and boring jobs; those of us in work will know that reminders to fill in risk assessments or attend to safeguarding training rarely bring joy. These were not issues Benedict and his monks had to face, but there were equally unglamorous jobs that faced those living in communities and Benedict wrote about these,  as part of the discipline of humility. He devotes part of the rule to tell monks to put their tools away tidily and return plates and dishes to the cupboard. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has recently commented on this.  “Part of our responsibility as a member of a community is to make sure that the material circumstances we share are well organised. That too is prayerful attention. That too is creating the environment in which the likeness of Christ will grow”. Physical tidiness and attention to forms play there part in helping us all to live together in community.

Thought for the day, 2nd March; St David’s Day

March 1st is St David’s day, the patron saint of Wales. He lived in the 6th century and was possibly a grandson of one of the kings who ruled South Wales. It is always difficult to know for certain the history of figures such as David who lived in the Dark Ages, but he seems to have been a genuinely popular figure in South Wales, where he lived and worked as a Bishop. He founded a number of monasteries where he taught his followers a rule of particular austerity; they were to live only on a bread and water diet. I doubt this was any more attractive in 550 than it would be today, but David led by personal example and was loved for his integrity and the simplicity of his own life. Famously on his death bed, he told his followers to “do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about”. In a violent and brutal age, David was a force for good. Many miracles have been attributed to David; modern observers may be sceptical of these. However, there is one tradition about David that in its own way, is miraculous. David was said to have been born after his mother Non, was raped. Out of an act of violence and brutality, a voice of holiness and goodness spoke, a rebuke to evil. As a Christian, that is a pattern I recognise as Christ-like.

Thought for the week, 24th February; RIP Aleski Nevalany

The picture below is of Aleski Nevalany, who many will know has just died in unexplained circumstances in a Russian penal colony. He spoke out against the rulers of Russia. At his original trial, he quoted words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”. I have taken the picture and the accompanying text from a Facebook posting. Those on Facebook may wish to post it.

Thought for the week, 17th February; miserable sinners

I finished my sermon for this coming Sunday a few days ago. It will be the first Sunday in Lent, the time when Christians are called to be especially disciplined in their spiritual life, to prepare for Easter. And the sermon does include some stirring words on this topic. Then I heard “Thought for the Day” this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. The speaker talked about what she called “that unfashionable topic” of sin. And I realised I had forgotten something in my sermon… The word “sin” often has negative associations; of a vengeful God, taking our his anger on us; in some presentations, killing his own son to satisfy his own wrath and indignation. Particularly those like myself who would consider ourselves to be liberal Christians find it much easier to talk about God’s unconditional love. There is however a danger in this, that we ignore part of who we really are and our need to change. Each day we are all faced with moral choices with our words and actions; if I am honest, by this evening I will probably have said something, however briefly, that I will regret. I can pretty well guarantee I will have had some ungracious thoughts about individuals. Hopefully there will be no great consequences as a result of any of these, not least because the people I may speak harshly to, or think of badly, will probably have done the same themselves, if not to me then to someone else. At its heart, sin is about our own inevitable failings. Lent is an opportunity to think about the big questions of existence and that includes are own inability to act and think as we know we should. Sadly, this is one of things that binds us all together; it is part of our common humanity. I am called to be honest about myself, but my faith as a Christian is that, with the help of God, I can daily work to change who I am and be forgiven.