Unbelievable Truths?

Address given on 31 January 2021

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple: Readings Malachi 3: 1 – 5 Luke 2: 22 – 40

One of my favourite Radio programmes is Radio 4’s “The Unbelievable Truth”, hosted by David Mitchell.

The show’s contestants essentially spout nonsense, but try to smuggle in 5 highly improbable, but true statements. And it’s the job of the others to try and identify those facts before anyone else.

One of the facts that I learned, this week, was that the second person to throw himself over the Niagara Falls in a barrel was an Englishman, Bobby Leach, – who accomplished this feat in 1911.

And the unbelievable truth was that Bobby Leach survived this hugely risky fall – only to die 15 years later, after slipping on a piece of orange peel! Bizarre but true!

The second odd thing that I’ve gleaned is that there is a condition called Galanthomania, which means being besotted with, or even addicted to, snowdrops – those innocent little clumps of white flowers
that decorate our churchyards and hedgerows
at this time of year.
Apparently some people just can’t get enough of them.
And the unbelievable truth is that, in 2015, one bulb –
one tiny snowdrop bulb – sold for £1,360
(+ £4 postage and packing)!

That was a rare variety of snowdrop called “Golden Fleece” – perhaps because it was worth its weight in gold; and perhaps because we might think whoever paid that amount has been well and truly “fleeced”!

In any case, it’s the more common, pure white ones
that I want to think about this morning. These “proper” snowdrops used to be known as Candlemas Bells – appearing as they do just around the Feast of Candlemas.

And they were often used to decorate churches –
as a symbol of both hope and warning:
the green shoots celebrating the new life of spring,
but the snow white petals cautioning that winter has not lost its icy grip just yet.

And that’s where these Candlemas Bells tie in with the Gospel reading we’ve just heard.

Simeon’s prophecy is of the great and wonderful things that this tiny child will go on to achieve; but also of the hardship and suffering that will be caused along the way.

And what begins as a perfect picture of Jewish ritual – two parents fulfilling the Law of Moses –
soon starts to become more than that,
as Simeon describes Jesus as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” – the non-Jewish nations of the world –
as well as “the glory of his own people”.

A promise of greatness, and yet,
ahead lies the pain of separation – first of Jewish Christians exiled from the Synagogues, and also of Jews and Christians over the centuries since.

A promise of greatness, and yet
Jesus himself would face the fierce disapproval of both religious authorities and secular powers –
causing his family “grief” in more senses than one.

No wonder then, that Mary and Joseph were amazed by Simeon’s words – astonished at the prospect of what lay ahead of them.

Six verses later, in Luke’s Gospel,
we find the teachers gathered in the Temple for Passover listening intently as the 12 year old Jesus questions them.
And they are amazed at his words – and his evident wisdom – both an inspiration and a challenge to their own authority.

Both experiences are awesome (in the literal sense!) – something to be marvelled at, but also profoundly unsettling – leaving the onlookers to wonder at such unbelievable truths, and the collision of hope and fear that they seem to provoke.

And perhaps that’s a tension we can identify with – as we enter this vague “in between” time in the church’s year, and as we look out at the world around us.

The green shoots of hope are beginning to poke through into our consciousness: how could we not be amazed at just how quickly Covid 19 vaccines have been developed, and vaccine centres organised – with thousands of vaccinations having already been given here in Wilton?

And yet, we can’t quite escape the “icy grip” of fear, or at least anxiety, when we’re presented with headlines about more than 100,000 Covid-related deaths in the UK. There’s no disguising the human misery in those figures.

Our Cathedral, made the international headlines last week – with a very nice piece in the New York Times – celebrating not only one of the most tranquil settings in which to “have your jab” – but also the fact that the Cathedral Organists were busy providing musical accompaniment in the background.

Nothing to fear there, you might think –
but there were complaints, that this was not a proper use for a church – one Instagrammer called it a “desecration”!
Really?! Was that just fear of something new and out of the ordinary?

Given that Jesus was not exactly shy of healing in the Temple, even on the Sabbath – and his fairly blunt response to the religious busybodies who criticized him – I think the Cathedral Chapter were absolutely right to open their doors in this way.

Another musical news story appeared on Thursday – in which two negatives merged to form a positive!
We’ve been aware for some time of Long-Covid – of people who’ve survived Covid 19 but who are left with damaged lungs and other ongoing health problems.

At the same time there has been a real crisis in the performing arts, with venues closed and most live performance prohibited.

And out of these two causes of anxiety, a new hope has emerged.

Members of English National Opera have begun offering online group singing lessons – to Long-Covid sufferers – working through simple melodies and lullabies, to relieve anxiety; teaching techniques of breath control, in order to make best use of their damaged lungs, whilst also providing valuable work for the singers themselves.

Despite the real challenges of a virus we still don’t fully understand, and the negativity of some of our “neighbours” – there are still pleasant surprises,
and surprises which should amaze us.
The green shoots are bursting through.
And perhaps that’s the final lesson of the humble, common snowdrop.

No matter what the previous year has thrown at them – wet; dry; scorching hot; bitterly cold – come February, those persistent little flowers will be back.

New shoots appear, and slowly, quietly
transform the landscape – almost without our noticing –
until one day we look up and see that transformation.

Then, in turn, we might be changed
by the freshness and beauty of that new growth –
as our anxiety is turned again to wonder.

In a similar way, it seems to me,
our recovery from this time of uncertainty is not just down to us, any more than the natural cycle of the snowdrop. No matter what we do or feel – life goes on, one way or another.

But perhaps we can train ourselves
to recognise and celebrate those first signs of progress, to face the weeks ahead not just with grim determination, but with that same active persistence.
Simeon and Anna were faithful and persistent in their belief that they would see the Christ, and were rewarded.

Can we, like them, be persistent in prayer – even when we don’t much feel like it – so that hope is kept alive in us?
Can we be persistent in looking for the signs of redemption, even when the headlines are grim?

Malachi remained confident that God’s messenger would come to purify and restore his people.

Can we make this period of uncertainty the time of our purification – shedding those negative things which weigh us down, or at least putting them into perspective – so that we will be ready to share in the new life that will flourish, in ways we don’t yet see?

However we get on with any of that,
and wherever it might lead any of us,
perhaps we can all be encouraged by the
resilience of our little snowdrops –
seemingly fragile, and easily crushed,
yet somehow able to spring back again and again.

May we pray and trust that God’s life-giving Spirit
will give us that same strength and resilience.

What are you waiting for?

Address for Advent Sunday 2020

“Wake up!” – seems to be the message of this morning’s gospel reading – and possibly not a bad one for Morning Prayer at the end of November!
But, I think, the appeal to keep awake needs to be heard against the broader Advent themes of Watching and Waiting.

Waiting is certainly one things we’re accustomed to just now – waiting for announcements of new tier systems; waiting to hear what will or will not be possible this Christmas.
And there has been an anxious wait for the production of a vaccine, as the only real solution to our currently restricted way of life. And so, now, we celebrate the good news that, earlier than expected, more than one vaccine looks likely to be widely available soon.

Now that that the longed for vaccine has become a reality – the anxious waiting might just morph into anxious questions: Will it really work? And for how long?
Is it really safe? What might the side effects be?
And, if I get the right answers to that lot,
when will I be able to get some?
Waiting for an ideal, then, does not necessarily mean that we are prepared for it – when we are finally confronted with it as a concrete reality.

And so, to Advent – when we’re reminded that we are still waiting – for Christ to bring all things to completion. Whether we think in literal terms of Christ’s Second Coming, at the end of time, or of a more gradual outworking of his promises – there is unfinished business in the struggle against evil.

Our first hymn uses the word “longing”:
“longing for light we wait in darkness”,
and it implores Christ to “be our light”.
In the Book of Psalms, the psalmist cries out: “When? When shall I come before the presence of God?”

Here again there is an urgency in the waiting – an overwhelming desire to see God – to see Christ face to face – and perhaps to know then, for sure, that faith has not been in vain.

But how will that reality feel when we finally get to encounter it?
We might imagine ourselves, like the disciples, sitting at Jesus’ feet as he explains to us the things we’ve never really understood.

Or we might think back to last week,
and the image of Christ as judge,
before whom we’ll stand in fear and trembling
– in which case we might be happy to wait a bit longer!

Perhaps we have no clear preconception of what that reality will be like – just a strong sense of being called to that eternal home which still lies beyond our grasp, but not quite out of sight or mind.

St Paul contends that the faithful are already enriched in Christ and strengthened by him; that Christ is already present among us, and visible in the spiritual gifts that he has given and continues to draw out from us.

And so, if we really do long to see the face of God, it’s not entirely a matter of waiting for God to act – it requires us to be awake and alert, and to watch for the signs of Christ’s presence among us – to recognise the gifts we share, here and now – to give thanks for them
and to put them to good use.
This season of Advent reminds us that, as Christians, we live in a kind of dual time zone – engaging fully in the everyday reality of our mortal life, while eagerly anticipating the eternal reality of life in God’s presence.

Advent reminds us that the kingdom of God is both “now and not yet” – IS already being established here but not yet complete.

Advent calls us to sit still long enough to notice what’s there under our noses: the gifts and graces that counter our fears and anxiety – the eternal light that continues to shine through each temporary darkness.

This is not a time for busy-ness then – a time to “prepare” with plans and “to do lists” and frantic running around – but a time to prepare ourselves –
to cultivate an attitude of mind: of openness to present realities we haven’t seen before; of glimpses of all that lies beyond those present realities.

And, as we watch and wait for the signs of God’s life among us, awake to the opportunities that he sets before us, perhaps we may see more clearly the next steps in our own lives that will bring us closer to the kingdom of God.

What’s in a name?

Address given at (virtual) Remembrance Sunday service 8/11/20

Readings: Ecclesiasticus 44; Romans 8: 18-27

If there were a prize for the most over-used phrase of 2020, two very strong contenders would be “new normal” and “unprecedented times” – both of which have become pet hates of mine!
“New normal” would seem to suggest that we’ve all somehow changed now, and arrived at a settled state of being – whereas in reality things seem to change and keep changing with alarming speed.
And as for “unprecedented times”, that would seem to suggest that there’s never been anything as bad as this before – but I suspect that many of our ancestors would beg to differ.
We ourselves may never have known anything as bad as this, but that doesn’t mean that similar things – and worse things – haven’t happened before.
After all, what is Remembrance Sunday for – if not to call to mind the sufferings of those who lived through the great conflicts of the past AND the strength of the human spirit to endure and overcome those things?

And perhaps our experiences of 2020 bring us closer to understanding that war-time experience which most of us haven’t lived through: the curbing of certain freedoms; separation from our loved ones; the starker reality of death; and the anxiety and uncertainty that flows from all those things.
Those sensations, it seems to me, reflect both past and present realities.
And now, as in the adversities of war, we see both the best and worst aspects of humanity displayed, in the flowering of community-spirit and human compassion, but also in thoughtless or deliberate selfishness.
In World War 2, and the years which followed – many things were subject to rationing, as certain foods and materials were in short supply.
In 2020 we’ve also experienced those shortages – but largely due to panic-buying – individuals taking far more than they need, without any concern for other people.
However “new” our present “normal” may be, human nature is still as complex, and fallible as it ever was.
Of course 2020 has not just been about Covid 19.
It’s been argued this week that the pandemic has provided the perfect smoke screen, behind which terrorist organisations have begun to regroup.
And there’ve been fresh acts of violence in France, Afghanistan and Austria – resulting from a “war of ideas”: the determination of some to impose their own ideology on others, or to destroy those who stand in the way.

In the build up to the American Presidential elections, we’ve witnessed a particularly fierce tribalism – a trait from which our own domestic politics is not immune.
Such tribalism is perhaps inevitable in a time of war – when a defined enemy has to be defeated; and the people emboldened for the long haul. But in a time of peace, manipulating those same tribal instincts is a dangerous game – and in the time of a pandemic, possible a fatal one.

Faced with all those challenges, and more, we may either despair, or we can recognise evil for what it is and refuse to give in to it – to strive for better and determine to change what we can.

The Lebanese writer, Khalil Gibran, writing at the turn of the 20th Century, said: “I have learned tolerance from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet, strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers.”
The suggestion then that, in recognising what is wrong, we can in fact chose to do what is right, with greater clarity and resolve.
In rejecting the intolerance of the religious fanatic; the irresponsible egotism of the populist politician; the selfishness of the panic-bulk-buyer; we may in fact discover what human nature is meant to look like – what we can become when we truly love our neighbours as ourselves.


St Paul speaks of hope – not so much in the things that we see around us, but in the things we do not yet see – not, we might say, in any “new normal”, but in what is constantly being revealed to us about the way ahead.
We can already glimpse that future hope, in the words and actions of the people around us.
Yes, there are those whose sole concern seems to be to “make a name” for themselves – to win power, influence and instant recognition – irrespective of any guiding principle, or concern for the common good.
And yet there are countless others working tirelessly – to do whatever is necessary to keep things going – to get us through this pandemic – to help us reach the “promised land” of a world where new, safe vaccines can free us from our present anxieties.
Like the soldiers of the World Wars, and other battles, we will never know who all those people are – and yet, we can still recognise the value of what they do – of the personal sacrifices that they have made for good of us all. “Their glory will never be blotted out”, as the writer of Ecclesiasticus expressed it.

And from the past, we can learn the lessons of war – that the suffering and hardship of 2020 is neither “normal” nor “unprecedented” – and that, while we are living through them, those things seem all too real and never-ending – in truth life will not always be like this – human societies and organisations can be rebuilt.

Those of us who have faith in Jesus Christ draw hope from his example – of overcoming the worst atrocities of human violence and degradation – and revealing a new life beyond that suffering.
And all of us may draw hope from the power of the human spirit – formed in God’s likeness – that has enabled soldiers to find comradeship in the heat of battle; and sworn enemies to find reconciliation when fighting was done.
All of us may draw hope from the power of nature – which has healed the man-made scars of the battle field.

This year as every other, let us remember all those who have faced the realities of war – and so put into perspective the difficulties we face today (however painful those experiences may be) – and so draw hope for a brighter tomorrow.

“Running up the down escalator!”

Address given on 25 October 2020 (“Bible Sunday”)

Readings: Romans 15: 1-6 and Luke 4: 16-24

Last Sunday saw the enthronement of the 98th Archbishop of York – Stephen Cottrell. And while he may not have that much influence on us, in this southern Province of Canterbury, he is nevertheless an interesting character.

I once heard him preach at St Paul’s Cathedral – back in 2011, when it was surrounded by Occupy London protesters in their multi-coloured tents – but that service sticks in my mind mostly because of the sermon. And I have to confess, for me that is usually NOT the case!

9 years on and I remember him giving both a very erudite reflection on Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”, and also a very human recollection of his childhood.
As a 10 or 11 year old, he said, he enjoyed nothing more than going with his friends to the local shopping centre and indulging in the slightly risky challenge of “running up the down escalator” – pitting himself against the motion of the machinery, and hoping he didn’t meet anyone else trying to come down.

And that “gravity-defying” experience, he said, was rather like that of Christian ministry – which at one and the same time can be both exhilarating and exhausting!
I don’t know if that image is still in his mind as he begins his new ministry as an Archbishop – but there’s no doubt that, like the rest of us, he will face a challenging time in the months and years ahead.

As he spoke on last Sunday, there were two themes that struck a chord with me, and that seem to resonate with this morning’s readings for “Bible Sunday”.

He spoke of the Church as a place where we are called to demonstrate our love, for each other and for our neighbour, through generosity of spirit and active concern for the weak and vulnerable. He spoke of his determination that the Church of England would respond to the recent report on Sexual Abuse not just with hand-wringing and apologies, but with real systematic change. And I’m quite sure that determination will last.

In the context of Covid 19, he described the wearing of face masks as an act love – something which may be inconvenient and sometimes seriously annoying to most of us, but potentially life-saving to some. And so, to paraphrase St Paul, “those who are strong ought to put up with it, for the sake of those who are at risk”.
And I think that applies to other aspects of our church life too. Ever since July, when we took our first steps back into public Worship, there’ve been frustrations for us, both at the things we can’t do yet, and at the way that certain things have to be done differently. And for those of us leading worship, the need to re-think absolutely everything – from wedding rings to Communion wafers, to shorter services without service sheets – that’s all been pretty exhausting. And, sadly, unlike the Archbishop’s escalator game it hasn’t also been quite so exhilarating.

I know that some people are disappointed that I have followed the guidelines quite so firmly – and yet I have to say that I am disappointed that anyone might expect me not to.
Protecting the weak and vulnerable is absolutely at the heart of our faith – not just in the words of St Paul but in Christ’s own ministry and teaching.

And that does mean sometimes doing without things, or doing what we’d prefer not to – seeking through our worship to build up those of our neighbours who most need it, and not just seeking to please ourselves.
The alternative would be to cut the vulnerable adrift and cater for the healthy – and I’m really not sure how that could be seen as a demonstration of our love for each other, and for our neighbour.

The second thing that I picked out from the Archbishop’s comments was that it is his job “to bring alive the Christian message of hope” – again perhaps something of an “uphill sprint” just now but one to which all Christians are called.

As many people, perhaps most people, struggle to grasp the reality of the situation we’re living through – let alone what the future might look like – being able to offer some sense of hopefulness is vital.

And as we celebrate Bible Sunday an obvious place for us to look for that message will be in the pages if Scripture, as Jesus himself did to inhabit the words of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news”.

There is, though, a question of how we do that – of how we offer hope into a context of mixed emotions and fears and levels of understanding.

It’s tempting to start with Scripture and to pull out the things we think people need to hear.
But shouldn’t we really focus on discovering what people are really interested in or concerned about, before we start offering any suggested answers?

Answering questions that no-one is asking cannot bring hope – at best it just leaves us talking to ourselves.

Just as our worship is at its richest when we bring all of our lives before God – “warts and all” – so our use of Scripture is most powerful when we acknowledge the things we’re struggling with, or that we can’t make sense of, and then “mine the tradition” – searching the Bible for meaning that resonates with reality.
Pray the Psalms – with their very earthy mix of despair, of anger, of resilient faith, of hope and salvation.
Read the Gospels with their central message of love triumphant over hatred, of good over evil, of light shining through the deepest darkness.
And if we can do that not only with our own experiences, but also for those of our neighbours, then perhaps we can bring that sense of hope that is so desperately needed.

Just to be clear then, I am not encouraging you to follow the boy Stephen’s example and heading into town to run up the down escalators – you may be relieved to hear!

But I do want us to share his aspiration to be bringers of hope – to do everything we can to listen to those around us, to gauge what the real challenges are, and then to offer some meaning and perspective from the story of our faith;
to express that faith in a way which will be understood and make sense to our neighbours;
to recognise the good things that are happening out there among out neighbours –
the acts of love and self-sacrifice that are too easily taken for granted,
and so to draw hope, and give hope, by celebrating and giving meaning to those things too.

This Bible Sunday reminds us then of both
the rich treasury of our faith –
and the need for humility in sharing that faith.

We do not have all the answers –
we cannot solve all the problems of our community,
let alone the world at large,
but we can be part of that solution.

Our scriptures and our faith give us a unique perspective on the events unfolding around us all.
We are called to offer that perspective
– as ably and as sensitively as we can.

Marking time..

Address given on Sunday 11 October 2020 – marking the 17th Anniversary of Wilton Parish Church’s Dedication

I think it’s fair to say that this anniversary year
has NOT quite unfolded as planned!
Concerts, social events, fund-raising campaign – so many things have been either shelved or postponed as we react to the unplanned events of 2020.

Who would ever have imagined this House of Prayer being closed to the public, or our celebrations of Easter here being cancelled?

And one of the consequences for this Dedication Festival is that I can’t do my usual trawl through the Visitors Book or comments on TripAdvisor – because this year there aren’t any!

So instead, I want to reflect on some of the things that have kept us busy over the past 6 months,
and where this Parish Church now sits in relation to the town it serves, and those many other people who feel some kind of connection to it.
As you will know from experience, this year has demanded a certain amount of creative thinking –
faced with a wall of things we can’t now do, we’ve had to invent new ways to achieve the same goals.
Our efforts to be a parish church – and to reach as many of our neighbours as we can – have most recently involved the filming and then posting online of services like this one.

And within that process I discovered a new phrase. Whenever I take the basic file from the recorder, and ask my computer to convert it into a suitable format for our website and Facebook page, the same phrase pops up.

As I click a button that says “export”, a little blue line appears on the screen, to indicate progress – and above it the two words “consuming” and “time”.

It usually takes 30 – 40 minutes to complete that process, so you’ll see why I’ve had time to notice them!
And it occurred to me, while twiddling my thumbs, that depending on where you put the emphasis, those two words could mean quite different things.

I assume it’s meant as “consuming time” –
the time taken for the computer programme to consume the information on my memory card.
But switch the emphasis to the second word, and it suggests a more intriguing concept of
consuming time itself!

And I wondered what would happen if I applied my little word game to the world outside my study.

“Consuming time” makes a lot of sense,
having witnessed this week’s relaunch of Wilton Shopping Village as The Guild. Their marketing has been very skilful, with new road signs, and enticing images on Facebook and Instagram clearly designed to draw us there, and to prompt some conspicuous consumption.

And if we wander into Salisbury,
or one of the larger shopping centres,
we’re likely to observe not only those in the act of spending money and acquiring things,
but also those who seem to draw their retail therapy simply from the atmosphere,
consuming the experience of being there –
albeit a rather changed experience this year.

So whether we approve or not, consuming time seems to be very much a part of our culture today.
But what about my rogue interpretation of consuming time? Are we in fact using well the time we’ve been given – or are other things/other people eating it all up for us?

Many of us always seem so busy –
with little time to enjoy the things we’ve acquired, or even the gifts of nature that we haven’t needed to acquire?

How much time do we spend “On hold” waiting for a real person to speak to us on the phone?
How much time do we spend in meetings or filling in forms before we can actually get on and do something?
How much time do we lose, waiting for our internet provider to actually provide internet access?
How much time to we waste sitting in the traffic queue o the Wilton Road, wondering why our 2 minute journey home is taking for like 20?!

Clearly we can’t only do the things we find fulfilling and avoid those tedious things that have to be done – lovely though that would be – but it’s worth checking the balance now and then.

Are we doing certain things because they are necessary and helpful – to us or to someone else? Or are we doing them just because we think we really ought to?
And if it IS out of a sense of duty – rather than necessity – then we need to be careful, so that we don’t wind up worn-out, confused and no use to anyone.

In the life of a church – an anniversary, such as the one we celebrate now, is as good an opportunity as any to take stock and assess what we are doing, and how we do it.

As we celebrate 175 years of life in this building – are we busily intent now on preserving this building for another 175 years? Or is there more to it?

On one level, we can’t avoid that challenge of maintaining this building, – or the meetings and form-filling involved in keeping it safe.

But might this anniversary also inspire us
to refresh our sense of purpose –
to reflect on the people who’ve cared for and worshipped in his church since 1845,
why they did so,
and what it is we think we’re doing when we come here?

Isn’t the surest way to ensure that this building is still standing in the year 2195 to celebrate the life that is here now, and to try and build on it?

And if we can’t do all those things we used to do,
then let’s seize any new opportunities that arise and do whatever we can now do as well as we can, with whoever wants to be a part of it all.

The chief priests and scribes in today’s gospel reading clearly saw themselves as guardians of the Temple – fulfilling their duty by repelling all innovation or criticism.
And there’s perhaps a warning for us, who know this place so well, not to allow ourselves to become guardians of the past but instead to seek to be enablers of the present.

At this time we have to “guard” the way this church is used, in order to avoid infection. We can’t open our doors every day as we used to. And yet, even without the Morning Prayers that 4 or 5 of us used to offer here each day, easily ten times that number of people ARE now connecting with our daily prayer online.
Even when it is locked, this Parish Church can still be a focus for prayer.
As with so many things in 2020,
we’ve stumbled across new ways of doing things – which may yet prove to be temporary;
or a better alternative to what existed before;
or, more likely, a new opportunity to add alongside the tried and tested.

The important thing is that we don’t denigrate those things when they seem to appeal more to others than to us – “perfect praise”, Jesus suggests, may be found in the most surprising of places and people.

This Temple to God’s glory is not just for us, and neither is it the only place in Wilton where God is to be found.

God is not contained in THIS house,
any more than in the Temple that Solomon built –
and yet, still, his presence can be felt here,
can be seen here reflected in glass and stone –
and can be communicated from here,
through camera lens and phone or computer screen.

Let us give thanks then for the vision of Sidney Herbert and Ekaterina Voronstov, in providing this church
as a window on the reality of God’s presence on earth,
and a glimpse of the life of heaven.

And let us always aim for beauty and truth in our worship, so that there are moments when we find ourselves lifted beyond time – and resting in the timeless presence of God.

“The journey of 1000 miles ..”

(.. begins with a single step!)

Address given on 26 July 2020

Readings: Romans 8: 26 – 39; Matthew 14: 13 – 21

This week, as many of our schools came to the end of term,
the lockdown phenomenon that was “PE with Joe” also came to an end.
Joe Wicks – a fitness instructor from Epsom, in Surrey, had been due to go on a tour of various schools after Easter. And, when lockdown prevented this, he began a daily 30-minute P E lesson via YouTube – at one stage netting almost a million viewers – with whole families joining in as part of their daily routine.

Along the way, he was able to generate more than half a million pounds in advertising revenue which he donated to the NHS. So two contributions to our nation’s health.

Now, after 18 weeks, and with a damaged hand, he’s decided it’s time for a rest – but what incredible things resulted from that initial decision to go online.

I have not been one of those following Joe Wicks: but I have been doing something similar.

Back at the beginning of lockdown, freshly exiled from the leisure centre, I discovered a more local alternative.
Via the unlikely route of Salisbury Cathedral’s Instagram feed, I stumbled across the equally unlikely character of Paddy Watts – who is not, as I might have assumed, in a middle-aged Irishman but a very English tennis coach in his late twenties.
Paddy had also expected to be busy this summer – in the build up to Wimbledon – but instead found himself back, living with his parents, and unable to work.

So he too began offering a free workout – on six mornings a week – via Instagram.
And that became my 8.15 ritual, and a real boost at a time where there were very few fixed points in the day!

As we progressed into April, however, the routine changed, as Paddy really needed to start earning some money again.
Now there would be just 3 freebies – and the other three sessions would be twice as long and charged for.
In addition there would now be personal advice, and sessions would be on Zoom , so that he could actually see us and would know if we were slacking!

And so I had to make a choice – cut back, or step up a gear or three. In the end, my family offered to pay a month’s subscription as part of my birthday present and the choice was made, and I’ve stuck with it since!

Now, if you’d seen me on Tuesday, at about 9am, you would know that I do sometimes struggle with it– “well, that was a tough one” Paddy grinned at the end of the session, “we know” someone else called back: that someone wasn’t me, I was too out of breath!

Those that DO see me in that state of near exhaustion sometimes wonder why I put myself through it, I know.
And if you asked me to explain what keeps me going back – I’d have to say there were three reasons –
a clear sense of progress; a strong sense of fellowship; and a slightly unnerving sense of accountability.

The sweat, if not quite tears, and the dent in the bank balance are worth it because I always feel so much more alive afterwards (though not always straight afterwards!) And the sense that things we once struggled with are now becoming second nature – that brings its own reward.
Secondly, that powerful sense of fellowship – Paddy himself uses the word “community”: none of us have ever met Paddy or each other, in the usual sense. But – in the early days of “isolation” – there was something reassuringly normal about having some regular contact with someone “outside” the 4 walls.
And we quickly started to recognise each other and even each other’s personalities:
Alice who always exercises out in the garden (even when it rains);
Barty who just can’t resist answering his phone, whenever it pings;
Romy, whose Labradors sometimes join in the floor exercises with rather more enthusiasm than she does – and – I’d better not go on!
So that’s been rather nice – but it also brings with it a certain accountability. I know that if I really didn’t feel like it one day, it would be noticed if I didn’t show up. And it would then be on my conscience that someone else might feel demotivated because I hadn’t bothered.
And, of course, there’s the beady eye of Paddy himself – who doesn’t miss anything,
is perhaps best described as a relentless encourager!
Now, if I’m making you feel tired, I do apologise – but I wanted to see if those three motivational strands might apply to us, as we start to rebuild our worship, and our church-life in general.

Can we hold on to any new discoveries -that we’ve made in the past few months – and that we sense have nurtured us in body, mind or spirit?
Can we continue to explore what will feed us, and help to maintain that sense of progress – renewing our faith with fresh energy and understanding?

Can we harness that sense of progress for all of us – for our community – not just my health; my knowledge; my spirituality. Can we try to make sure that our fellowship grows ever deeper, and that we don’t exclude anyone who wants to be a part of it?

And, can we develop our sense of accountability,
to each other and to God, so that we are bold in putting our faith into practice – and so that we can encourage each other to persevere when that gets tough.
St Paul reminds us that the Holy Spirit, who intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words, knows us and holds us together within God’s family – with all the saints and with Christ, the firstborn.

And we are empowered to endure the hardships we sometimes face, and to challenge what is wrong – to speak truth to power; to speak up for those who are persecuted, or vulnerable or neglected.

Faith, through the eyes of St Paul, is not so much about our comfort as our salvation – and the salvation of the world.

But how on earth to we contribute to that?

There are two pointers, I think, in our gospel reading.

Right at the end Jesus sets before us the image of the scribe – who draws on his treasury of stories and images – to plant ideas that can take hold and grow into something powerful – something precious.
We’re all too aware of the negative way in which ideas can be planted in people’s minds – the manipulation of social media for personal gain; allegations of Russian interference in western politics; 5G conspiracy theories in response to Covid 19 and a host of others.

What our gospel seems to demand is that we combat those things with true stories of our own –
personal stories, images from scripture, examples of the good that is being done all the time.

But what can we do against the mighty corporations and international media platforms? Even together we are barely a drop in a very large ocean.

Again, Jesus reminds us, that even the tiniest of seeds – the mustard seed – can eventually produce a sturdy tree, up 25 feet tall apparently (7.6 metres).
Its growth is slow – tiny imperceptible steps each day – yet, the end result is impressive and strong.

And, as with yeast, which transforms stodgy dough into bread ready for baking – just a small amount of goodness is needed to start transforming things for the better.

And so I think what I want to draw out of all those things is that we don’t need to be frightened by the uncertainty, and constant changes that we’re facing now, but should actually be excited at the possibilities.

We can never be certain that we are doing the right thing; we can’t wait for absolute certainty before we speak up or try something new. And what we need is NOT certainty, but a mustard seed of faith:
Joe Wicks didn’t know that his PE sessions would take off at all – he could have found himself broadcasting to noone: Paddy Watts’ first audience included 3 old school friends, out of curiosity, and his mum and aunty, out of loyalty!

But both have delivered more than they might have expected. And so, our small, tentative steps in faith can lead us far beyond the limits of our own vision;
far beyond what we thought we were capable of.
God’s Spirit is calling us afresh – in these strange times – to acknowledge God’s love, which is unconditional and without limit;
and to proclaim that love, in words and actions;
and to remember that,
in everything and despite everything,
we are always in the company him
who is both Christ our Lord and Jesus our brother.

Reckless waste or generous giving?

Address given on 12 July 2020

Readings: Psalm 68; Isaiah: 10-13; Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

Like many others, I suspect, the Rectory Garden has emerged from lockdown in a rather tidier state than it was back in March!
There are now pools of sunlight where the sun has not reached for years, if not decades;
patches of wilderness have been transformed into borders;
dead wood has been cleared;
and the battle of the brambles has been won – at least for now!

And it’s against this background of newfound tidiness that, this week, I observed my wife seeding a new area of grass.

First she weeded the area – then she raked out the stones – then she levelled it – then she scattered the seed evenly over the ground and raked it in – then she watered it, taking care not to under-do it Or to drown the poor seeds.
All in all quite a meticulous operation.

And I suspect that’s the kind of careful attention that a farmer in first century Palestine would have given when sowing their precious crop seed.
With the threat of famine never too far away, surely they would take care only to scatter the seed on fertile ground, and keep it watered. The harvest was too vital to leave to chance.

So what would they have made of the sower in Jesus’ parable – who seems utterly careless – reckless even –
with the precious seed?

He seems content to allow it to fall on the path to be eaten by birds; or to fail on shallow, rocky earth; or to be lost among sturdier weeds. And only a fraction of the seed actually grows on to produce new grain.

I suspect that, to Jesus’ first hearers, so much waste would have seemed bizarre – and even quite shocking.

Don’t forget that the crowds only get the first part of this story – ending with “Let anyone with ears listen”! – almost as if he wants them to be disturbed, and to puzzle over what he’s said.

The explanation is saved for the disciples, later.

We perhaps tend to hone in on the other side of the story – and to wonder what kind of seed we are!
Are we one of those who with a tendency to be distracted from the following God’s call – or too fearful of what others think – or too slow to understand?
Or, is our halo gleaming bright, and the fruits of our labours only to plain for all to see?

A sobering thought perhaps, but don’t worry –
I’m not asking you to answer!

In any case, I’m not sure that really IS the fundamental point of this story.

What if it really IS about the sower, rather than the seed?

Is Jesus actually telling us something important about the nature of God himself?

Are we meant to be shocked by the profligate God who scatters his blessings even on the most unresponsive of us his, children, knowing full well that his love will be ignored by some and rejected others – and that only a few will respond with anything like the gratitude and obedience that is owed.
And in this, are we meant to recognise Jesus himself, who died for all humanity – whether they know it or not – because it is better to save a few at great cost, than none at all?

If that is the case, then what first appears to be reckless waste in fact turns out to be selfless generosity.

That’s not unlike the image in Isaiah – of the rain watering the earth indiscriminately, so that both crops and people can flourish.

No matter if the weeds are given a boost in the process –
this is no empty, futile cycle of rain and sun and cloud, rain and sun and cloud – because by it God’s purpose is accomplished: from that abundance flows life in all its rich diversity.

“You crown the year with your goodness”, the writer of our Psalm reflects, “and your paths overflow with plenty. May the fields of the wilderness be rich for grazing and the hills be clothed with joy.”
Through God’s generous provision, it seems,
not only do the crops flourish, but even the barren wilderness can be transformed into pasture.
So, is that what we’re meant to recognise in Jesus’ curious tale?
Is that a part of the divine nature that we are meant to imitate, in our own inadequate way?
And, if so, what might that generosity look like in practice?

I want to suggest three areas where that generosity of spirit might just inform the way we think and act.
Our generosity can be seen, I think, in the ways that we adapt, give, and welcome.

In recent weeks we’ve had to adapt, in the way that we shop and do much else, in order to protect one another. And we’re adapting now, in the way we worship together – to make it as safe as we can – so that worship can happen, and can be accessible to as many as possible of those who want to come.

Willingness to adapt, ungrudgingly, for the sake of others takes real generosity of spirit – it costs us – but is necessary for at least some of us to flourish.

In similar vein, the most obvious channel for our generosity is in our giving – what we do with our hard-earned pennies.

Quite rightly, we like to know that any charitable donations are used wisely – to be sure that we are making a difference in the things that are important to us.

And yet, for us in the Church, although there are things that we can instantly recognise and value – brighter, greener lights here; new carpeting at St Catherine’s; the ministry team we rely on– there are other areas that we just don’t see.

We also have to meet the relatively unglamorous costs of administration, maintenance, insurance and the shared burdens of the Diocese and national church – all those hidden things without which we’d gradually grind to a halt.

Generosity, in this case, comes from the willingness to give –
not just towards the things that we personally value,
or benefit from, but to the Church as a whole,
for the life of the whole. And we may well find ourselves funding, or being funded by, other Christians whose beliefs and practices are very different from our own.
That kind of generosity can be difficult,
on all sorts of levels, but it’s what we’re asked to do
as fellow members of the Body of Christ.
Then there’s the generosity of welcome.

And I’m not thinking so much of the events or social groups that we put on for other people – none of which can happen just now – but of the way we think about people who choose to come to us for reasons of their own – because we can now celebrate weddings and baptisms, for example.

It’s easy for us to be dismayed when families come here for a while, before a baptism, and then we never see them again.
Did we do something wrong – or was that always the intention?

It’s hard not to be irritated with couples who seem to treat this building as a glamorous backdrop for their wedding day, apparently without much thought for what it’s actually here for.

And yet, for all that, there are others for whom the impact of coming here – and of being welcomed among us – is profound.

Does it really matter then, if some of those people do soon forget what was here, or remain largely indifferent to it, IF even one person finds God’s love here and responds?
I’m pretty clear in my own mind what Jesus would have to say.

With any of these “life events”,
as with the public, social groups and activity days that we’ll hopefully return to before too long,
what we are doing is sowing seeds – making connections with people so that they can more easily connect with God.

As with Jesus’ parable, some of that seed will remain dormant, only to burst into life much later;
some will never do much at all;
and some will amaze us – or someone else – with their growth.
We simply don’t know what our efforts will lead to – that’s God’s province.

What we can do is “prepare the ground” in the way that we transmit the word of God – taking care over what we do, and the warmth with which we acknowledge others.

We can strive to share God’s gifts as liberally as the rainfall – without pre-judging anyone’s response, our own included.

And then we have to trust –
that God will accomplish his purposes,
through us and those unknown to us,
and at the time of his choosing.

Rebuilding with “living stones”

Address given on 5 July 2020, at the first public worship since “lockdown” began.

The picture on the screen behind me is called “living stones” – and, if you can’t see it, I’ll describe it a series of human-like figures forming a bridge – with a central arch and two uprights – and spanning a ravine.
Across the top of the bridge, another figure appears to be leading yet others who are carrying goods of some kind, their “shared burden”.

And it’s meant to symbolise for us the “living stones” of the Church – and to reflect our dependence on, and obligation to, each other.

There’s also a background theme of wisdom:
it takes wisdom to know that we need to cooperate, in the way that’s depicted here – to recognise that none of us can do everything by ourselves;
it takes wisdom to know how to cooperate – to recognise that not all of us can do any one thing equally well;
It takes wisdom to know where each of us fits within the whole structure.

If one of the girders of our bridge suddenly felt like a stroll across the top instead, then we’d either be faced with a gaping hole, and a rather ominous sagging at one end,
or else one of the other pieces would be forced into taking the strain instead, which may well be too great for them.

There’s wisdom, then, in recognising the particular skills and strengths that we each possess – and those we don’t – and there’s wisdom then in using those skills in the most effective and supportive way that we can.

One of the great lessons of the past few weeks is that everything may suddenly change, and that different circumstances call for a different kind of structure in order to provide what is needed.

One of the biggest challenges – when lockdown kicked in – was that many of those who are normally most active in our community – the army of retired volunteers who serve on committees, run community groups, provide drivers for the Link scheme and so on – they were suddenly taken out of the picture and told firmly to stay at home. And some of them then needed help themselves just to acquire the basics.
We’re feeling the effects of that restriction now in church, as we try to reopen without the majority of our volunteers and with many of our congregations still shielding.

What’s been interesting, more generally, is that when the need arose – other people came into the frame: the response team here in Wilton has been superb;
and also that those who were “locked down” – and prevented from doing those normal tasks – have instead found other ways to stay in touch and support each other.
Shares in the various phone and screen companies must surely have been buoyed up by the amount of traffic between us!

And, even though our normal committee meetings and social groups couldn’t happen, still a lot has been achieved from our various homes; and “virtual” meetings have gradually begun to feel less alien and more productive.

It was particularly good to be part of the Grapevine meeting, a couple of weeks ago, when not only were we able to welcome back Robin Lalonde (from his Devonshire home) but, thanks to the screen-sharing skills of Julian Lyne-Pirkis, we were all transported to Nigeria to see for ourselves the differing challenges of his work place there.

So there have been some unexpected benefits of lockdown which, if anything, have helped to strengthen our sense of connectedness – of fellowship.

The imagery of the “living stones” works well for us, I think, but what then about the concept of wisdom?

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus himself introduces a note of ambiguity. He seems first to praise wisdom, but then thanks the Father for “hiding these things from the wise and intelligent”.

If wisdom is such a precious thing, why would God want to hide anything from those who are wise?

I did just check the Greek original, just in case I could helpfully blame it on the translator, but I can’t – it IS basically the same word for both wisdom and the wise.

So presumably Jesus is making some point here!

Could it be that he’s highlighting for us the difference between ‘wisdom’ and ‘knowledge’?
There are things that we know, because we have learned them or seen them – adding up to the sum total of our knoweldge;
so too there are things that we learn from what we know – by thinking and reflecting on all that we’ve seen and heard – and from which flows wisdom.

Perhaps then it’s over-reliance on our own knowledge – on our own abilities – that Jesus is discouraging here.
True wisdom, on the other hand, draws not only on the experience and insights of other people but on God himself.
Wisdom points beyond ourselves, and deepens our relationship with one another and with God.

And it’s that collective wisdom that we need now – to help us make sense of what we’ve experienced over the past few months;
to make sense of the changing knowledge and circumstances with which each day seems to present us;
and, not least,
to work out what on earth we’re meant to do next!

That applies, I think, to our worship and our church life as much as to everything else:
it’s natural now to be craving all that we know –
to want to get back, as quickly as possible,
to all those things that we’ve been deprived of since March.
And yet, at the moment, we can’t go back to doing those things, and I’m not even sure it would be the right thing to do if we could.

If in fact we can take things slowly – over the coming weeks or months – we have a precious opportunity to reflect on whatever we’ve discovered while the churches have been closed – how we managed, or struggled, to pray alone; how we managed to “feed” ourselves in the absence of Holy Communion; how we managed to maintain that sense of fellowship from our own homes – AND what things we really couldn’t find without meeting together in church.

And with the wisdom that comes from those reflections, we can then start to rebuild the structure of our churches in the way that is right for now – and for the new circumstances that will emerge in the months ahead.

If we can, then, let’s focus not on what we are missing, but on who we are missing here.
And by that I mean those who’d normally be in church with us -some of whom will be joining us later from the other end of the camera – but also the far greater number of others who have been watching our services, and following the daily prayers I’ve been posting online.

As we begin to expand our activities again, can we continue to support them?
Can we make space for them within our structures, so that they too can become “living stones” – and support us in return?

Clearly, there is a limit to what we can do – too much weight on the bridge and it will buckle and give way: but that’s where the collective wisdom comes into to play again – in discerning where and how to channel the skills and energies that we have.

We are yoked together in Christ’s service – but, he assures us, that his yoke is easy and his burden is light:
if we are wise, we will learn to carry just what we need,
and how to share the load, so that we all may flourish,
and together build up a ‘spiritual house’ to his glory.

To be a Pilgrim.

Address for Sunday 21 June 2020

We began our worship this morning with the pilgrims of St Albans, retelling the story of their Patron Saint – carrying those giant puppets in procession to the Cathedral.
St Alban was a Briton, and living under Roman rule: he was a well-respected man – known to be wealthy, generous and kind hearted.
It was due to this reputation that a Christian priest, seeking refuge from persecution by the Roman authorities, came to Alban for help. Alban hid him away in his house, and as he got to know him better, Alban was so impressed by the example of this priest – Amphibalus – that he became a Christian.
And when, eventually, Roman soldiers came knocking at the door, Alban put on the priest’s cloak and had himself arrested instead – giving time for Amphibalus to flee.
When the magistrate discovered the truth of what he’d done, he was furious – and insisted that Alban should offer sacrifice to the Pagan gods in order to atone for his wrongdoing. Alban refused, stating that he only believed in the God of Love.
And so he was led away and killed, becoming the English church’s first martyr.

It’s slightly unnerving then, that today’s Collect encourages us to follow his example – not a very enticing prospect!
Perhaps I can rescue us then with the thought that our word martyr – someone who dies for their faith – is a translation of exactly the same Greek word as the word for “witness”, μαρτυσ.
Strictly speaking then, we could say that a martyr is someone who bears witness to the truth whatever the cost.
And while St Alban witnessed to his faith by dying for his friend, most of us are called to witness to our faith in the way that we live.
There we are, it’s feeling better already!
That’s not to suggest that our task is easy – bearing witness to our faith means living by the standards we commend to others, grappling with the challenges of the gospel and not holding back – being both as generous and as faithful as St. Alban.
And at least as challenging for many of us, to be a witness implies a willingness to speak about our faith – something that we may feel is intensely private; something which may feel is TOO precious to even try and explain to someone else.
When we speak of our own religious, or spiritual experience, too often we’re afraid of looking silly – or of making a mess of it and letting the side down, of selling short God’s goodness and greatness.
And yet, very often what other people want to hear is precisely that – our honest reflections on how we come to be mixed up in this curious bunch of people called the Church.
There’s no suggestion that the priest, Amphibilus, tried to cathechize, or teach Alban the doctrine of the Church – it was his nature, we’re told. and the way he spoke about himself that captured Alban’s imagination and led him to follow the way of Christ.
We shouldn’t underestimate the power of plain speaking, of honestly “thinking aloud” about our faith and our struggles with that faith, in communicating the power of the gospel to others. We do also need scholars, and evangelists, and experienced spiritual guides within the life of our Church – but we don’t ALL need to be skilled in all those things in order to pass on our faith, just a willingness to speak of our own reality.

Into that reality Jesus himself speaks some rather unsettling words:
“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
At first hearing that seems rather perverse.
If you WANT to live you’ll die – if you hate living, you’ll live for ever! What kind of morality is that?
Presumably though – if it doesn’t seem to make sense – then that’s not what Jesus is saying. He wants his hearers to do a double-take and think about what he’s said.
Could it be that he’s also talking about the way that we live – about where our attention is focused.
If we are TOO concerned with our present circumstances – surrounding ourselves with whatever we can acquire, always content to stay put and look no further – then there is only one possible outcome: ultimately it will all come crashing to a halt. We can’t preserve this life, unchanging, for ever.
On the other hand, if we are the kind of soul who is always striving for something better – all too aware of our own shortcomings, as well as those of the world around us, and always looking for ways to improve things – then we can expect to be rewarded when finally we pass from this life to the next.
In that light, the prospect of keeping our life in eternal bliss – absorbed into the life of heaven – has rather more to commend it.

And that’s where I want to wander back to the theme of pilgrimage – and to interpret pilgrimage as a deliberate refusal to simply exist, and fade away.
Pilgrimage – in the literal sense – is a sacred journey where we leave behind the familiar, and seek God in new surroundings and among new people, and to learn from them.
And in another sense, pilgrimage is a state of mind – an equal determination to keep seeking truth, to keep seeking beauty, to keep seeking holiness, wherever we glimpse them.
If we are too comfortable with what we already know, with what we like, or with what we think we know about a particular issue or concept – then we’re in danger of falling into the “loving life” category: from which we can only grow stale and lose what life we have.
If we can keep alive the pilgrim’s sense of enquiry, of eagerness to hear the stories of others and to learn from them; if we can view our life as a pilgrimage of faith, then – even if we’re physically unable to travel to new places –we are already journeying towards the eternal joy that Christ sets before his hearers.
All of that, I think, is true for individuals; for church congregations; and for THE Church as a whole – the Body of Christ.
None of us are meant to sit still for too long – to be too sure of who we are and what we do and leave it at that: we are called to strive for the kingdom of God, to seek out the signs of God’s presence in the surrounding that are familiar to us – and to step beyond what is familiar, in order to receive fresh insight, fresh inspiration and the wisdom that others have perceived before us.
In that pioneering, pilgrim spirit there is risk – as Alban would testify – but there is also rich reward for ourselves, and those we encounter.
We have no idea what happened to Amphibalus, the priest whose life Alban saved – but his influence echoed throughout England and beyond through his most notable convert.
And we can be sure that he never forgot about Alban.
Two lives were changed – each one by the other – and countless others have been changed ever since, by their combined witness to Christ.

A pilgrim’s prayer
O God, watch over us as we walk in the love of your name, Be for us our companion on the way, Our guide at the crossroads, Our breath in our weariness, Our protection in danger, Our shade in the heat, Our light in the darkness, Our consolation in our discouragements, And our strength in our intentions. So that with your guidance we may arrive safe and sound at the end of the Road and, enriched with grace and virtue, we return to our home filled with joy. Amen.

To boast, or not to boast..?

Address for 14 June 2020

Readings: Exodus 19: 2 – 8 ; Psalm 100: Romans 5: 1 – 8

There’s quite a contrast in today’s readings – between the assurance given by God to the Israelites, in our reading from Exodus, and about God, in the Psalm, and then Paul’s words, in his letter to the Roman Christians.
If you obey my voice – if you really listen to me, and keep my covenant, God assures the Israelites, “you shall be my treasured possession”.
“The Lord is Good”, declares the Psalmist, “his mercy is everlasting”.
But if all that adds up to a divine promise, Paul’s words sound more like a threat!
“We boast in our sufferings, – knowing that suffering produces endurance, and character, and hope.”
If God leads the Israelites to expect ‘special treatment’, then, Paul seems to be advising that suffering is a natural part of the Christian life – something to be expected.
But is it?
Is suffering to be regarded by Christians as natural, or necessary; as something to be welcomed, even, for our greater good?
We can probably all think of someone – that we know, or know about – who has emerged from a period of hardship, with renewed strength and energy and purpose.

At the beginning of lockdown I quoted Terry Waite, Archbishop Runcie’s “special envoy” – who, with his bitter experience of incarceration in Beirut, effectively told us to ‘get a grip’ – not overdo the seriousness of our current inconvenience.
And I’m currently reading his book – Travels with a Primate – which leaves the reader in no doubt that his sense of humour has survived intact.
And so, yes, it seems to be true that suffering can indeed produce endurance and character and hope.

Fundamental to our Christian faith is the suffering and death of Jesus; and his rising to new life.
So we know that good things can come out of even the harshest treatment and deprivation.
And yet, for those who are facing hardship of one kind or another, who are now in the enduring part of the process, there is likely to be little sense of hope or purpose – just the reality of pain or despair – and no real sense of any future perspective.
So I’m not convinced that suffering really IS something to boast about – with quite the enthusiasm that Paul seems to be advocating here.
If, as we profess, God is love – then surely suffering must be seen as a frustration of God’s will, and not something God wishes for us.

Although there may be consequences when we turn away from God, just as there were for the Israelites, his promise is still that he views his people as a “treasured possession”.
He calls us to trust that he holds us – through dark times and rejoicing – and to listen to his voice.
To do justice to Paul, if we had carried on to the very next verse, in Romans, he tells us that because of Christ’s suffering, we are now saved from the wrath of God – Christ suffered, so we don’t have to – a neat reversal of logic!
Perhaps what Paul is really telling us, is that whenever we do face some kind of hardship, we can draw strength from the example of Christ’s suffering and victory over death; we can draw strength from the way other people have overcome even the most formidable challenges; and we can be encouraged when other people’s hardship matches our own (“If they can get though it, so can I”).
I can’t deny that the process he describes – suffering produces endurance produces character produces hope – can work very powerfully – not just for unfortunate souls who themselves endure hardship, but also for those around them, who witness their triumph over adversity.
In the worlds of art and literature, of theatre and dance, it’s sometimes argued that you need a powerful dose of hardship – of real life at its bleakest – before you can really produce your best works, or give a full-blooded performance.
And, perhaps on this Music Sunday, you’ll bear with me as I pay tribute to the composer who I think had the greatest influence on me – as a musician, and also as a young Christian.
Herbert Howells, who lived from 1892 – 1983, was a perfectly adequate teacher, composer and performer of music. He was also a contented family man until, in 1935, tragedy struck.
On a family holiday in rural Devon, his 9 year old son, Michael, contracted polio and, 3 days later, he died. The tune to which we sing the hymn “All my hope on God is founded” was given the name “Michael” in memory of his son.
Without doubt the impact of this loss did indeed transform Howells’ creative powers – from perfectly adequate to something profoundly more individual and compelling.
It would be wrong to suggest that Howells ever really “recovered” from Michael’s death, and his own faith was somewhat ambiguous after that – hardly surprisingly, we might add.
And yet he went on to produce vast amounts of church music that is still sung in cathedrals and churches across the English-speaking world.
And it’s the compelling way he then began to convey, in his music, a sense of yearning for the presence of God – of “pining for beauty” as one of his anthem’s puts it – which captivated MY heart and mind and soul as an impressionable teenager; and led to the fusion of music and spirituality which has carried me ever since.
That feels uncomfortably like “like experience on the cheap” – he suffered, I benefit: pain and loss for him, life-enhancing beauty for me.
Howells certainly endured and grew in stature, but the hope belonged more to others.
I suspect that Howells himself did realise the greater creative energy that he possessed after Michael’s death – but there’s no question that he would have preferred, instead, to see his only son grow up.

And so I can’t accept Paul’s invitation to “boast in suffering” – however much I recognise the strength of human will and the power of God to bring us through.
I can accept that we can learn from suffering – our own and that of others – as with any experience of life. But that doesn’t mean that it’s is something we should seek out, in order to prove ourselves; that doesn’t mean we just accept suffering as inevitable.
Not all suffering is unavoidable: and unnecessary suffering – whether caused by deliberate cruelty, or indifference, or ignorance – is a cause for shame, not boasting.

The recent “black lives matter” protests have highlighted for us the continued hardships caused by inequalities in our global society. And if we are willing to delve further, and closer to home, there are others whose lives are incredibly hard – the key-workers we’ve been so eager to praise during this pandemic, but slow to reward with a decent wage – the victims of the modern “slave trade” who somehow disappear. There is now way that their suffering can be justified or dressed up as something good.
For them, and others, there is natural progression from suffering to endurance to character to hope – it needs other people to give them a cause for hope.

“God proves his love for us”, says Paul, “in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
He calls us to prove our love for him – not by dying, not by choosing to suffer, but by doing all that we can to prevent suffering where we can – and, if when we can’t prevent it, to do whatever we can to support those who are afflicted in some way.
Jesus himself, quoting the prophet Hosea, said “I desire mercy not sacrifice”
To be righteous in his eyes has little to do with some well-meaning martyr complex – a desire to show how holy we are by our hard work, or how much we’ve sacrificed – and more to do with a thankful and loving heart.
Loving Lord,
We thank you for your love so freely given to us all..
Empowered by your Spirit, may we be united in prayer and worship,
And, in love and service,
reach out as your hands across the world.
In Jesus’ name.
Amen