About this time last year I decided to turn my attention once again to questions of forgiveness. Throughout last summer I reconnected with scholarly literature in psychology, theology and philosophy. It was a very worthwhile exercise, though I now realise it was far from exhaustive. I have recently come across even more that has been recently published, including an impressive series new of books on ‘The Philosophy of Forgiveness’ by Vernon Press.

I have also been aware of ‘forgiveness  issues’ being raised in a particularly overt and deliberate way in recent works of literature and drama.  I am thinking of ‘The Victim’, a remarkable and brilliant short series on BBC One, The Victim BBC One.

Then there is Barry Norris’ play ‘Downstate’, which was recently at the National Theatre, London (having been premiered by the Steppenwolfe Theatre Company in Chicago in 2018). Downstate Review in Evening Standard

And I also recently read Miriam Toews’ novel which creates a fictional response to an actual situation, ‘Women Talking’. Review in NTY of Women Talking

The subject is, I believe, hugely important and difficult in many ways.  So I am glad it is getting much more academic and popular attention.  I am now trying to raise the profile of the discussion myself and will shortly giving a talk in Birmingham entitled ‘Is Forgiveness the Answer? Living Well after Violence, Abuse and Betrayal’. (7pm Monday 13th May, Bournville Parish Church (St Francis of Assisi), Sycamore Rd, Birmingham, B30 2AA). My Birmingham Lecture

In the summer (July 15-19) I am leading a retreat at Sheldon in Devon which will be looking at questions of forgiveness in a different way, taking as the starting point the parable of the prodigal son and the novels of Marilynne Robinson.  I believe that we need insights for literature as well as from various academic disciplines to make progress in our thinking in this area and to ensure we approach the subject with human sensitivity and emotional intelligence. Sheldon Retreat

We also need to pay attention to the ways in which in real life people describe their feelings and priorities when they have been hurt or harmed by the actions of others. This is why the stories collected and curated by  ‘The Forgiveness Project’ are so significant. The Forgiveness Project

So I  invite you to consider attending the lecture or the retreat in July; and certainly to join the emerging conversation about what we might expect of ourselves after we have suffered at the hands of others.

 

 

 

 

 

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I offered this homily at the late evening service of Compline on King’s College Chapel today. The ‘penultimate supper’ is the meal Jesus shared with his friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha which is recorded in the 12th chapter of John’s gospel.  The Last Supper is recorded in John Chapter 13.  In John there is no bread and wine shared, but Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. The questions in my mind here are,’where did he get the idea from?’ and, ‘how surprised are we are that these two deeply intimate stories feature in the Bible at all?’ And I also wonder, ‘what does this mean for us?’

I have long felt that the parallel between Mary’s anointing of Jesus and Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet is something that should get more attention.   First he was anointed: then he washed.   I wonder about Jesus’ creativity here.   Did he intend to wash feet before Mary anointed him with costly oil, or did the experience of that anointing in some way touch his heart and liberate that powerful and transformative idea? I am inclined to think the second, because I don’t believe that Jesus’ ministry was the rolling out of some precise mission action plan on his part, but a set of creative responses to situations as they evolved.   It was always creative and, yet, also always  consistent with his overarching mission which was not only to declare but to express and embody the loving mercy, the transforming grace, of God.

Jesus experienced something profound and grace-filled when he was anointed with the most expensive oil in the house.   He was on the receiving end of extravagant, heart-touching kindness.    That the gospel includes this moment is surely a surprise to many.   Such intimacy! Such vulnerability!  This is not the standard scriptural story.   Paul doesn’t tell us about the loving touch he received from those who cared for him after he had been beaten or flogged.   He doesn’t seem to be bothered about that side of life at all.   It’s the macho side that matters for him; the fact that he risked the beating, got the beating and survived the beating was what it was all about.

But John, the beloved disciple, records that before Jesus went on to wash his disciples’ feet he himself was given a beautiful, extravagant experience of being deeply loved and profoundly cared for.   An experience that affirmed life while it embraced death; that affirmed the terrifying future to come and yet embraced the present moment.

Christianity invites us to embrace the intimacy of physical care and practical love; it calls us to encourage and embolden each other when we face a difficult future; it begs us never to be mean-spirited, and most of all it invites us, when we know we have been loved, to learn the deep lesson of it, and then to find ways of loving others all the more profoundly: to follow Jesus and Mary by expressing and embodying the loving mercy and transforming grace that comes from God, but is made real in human action.

Earlier today I preached at the beautiful and famous church of St Thomas, 5th Avenue, New York. It was a real privilege to do so and encouraging to receive many kind comments afterwards. I don’t think I have tried to preach happiness in Lenten sermon before, but the message was well received and several commented on how helpful it was to make a connection with Buddhist teaching. That paragraph (about ‘now’) follows as part of this introduction. My own view is that the instability section is also rather important too so I am highlighting that as well.

The ‘Now’ Paragraph

One of the reasons Buddhism is proving to be so attractive to western people today is its calm and peaceful acceptance of life in the present moment. Practices of mindfulness, which have proved to be so healing and life-enhancing to many, are derived from precisely this insight and conviction. But it isn’t just a Buddhist idea. What that tradition has called the ‘eternal now’ our own Christian tradition calls ‘The Sacrament of the Present Moment’. The past and the future are important – but you only ever get one chance to inhabit each present moment and discover its sacramental quality; its particular gift and grace.

The Insatiability Bit

An opinion piece in the Financial Times recently (‘The holy grail of just having enough’, by Janan Ganesh) explored the puzzle that while there is a correlation between happiness and wealth, that correlation stops once people become reasonably well off. If we think about this a bit it makes sense to us, and maybe we know people for whom excessive wealth is a burden. What’s odd is that this reality doesn’t stop some wealthy people doing all they can to become more and more wealthy.

This is an example of the spiritual sickness of insatiability – the inability to know when enough is enough; the desire to have more when you already have plenty. It’s a common malaise. We are so easily addicted to more: more food, more drink, more money, more treats, more gadgets at home, and all of us would like more time – more hours in the day, more days of the week, more years in our life. (A man aged eighty four was asked by acheeky boy, ‘but who wants to be eighty four?’ The old man paused and answered, ‘someone who’s eighty three’.)

Too many of us, perhaps all of us, are addicted to more. It would be too much to say that the word ‘more’ is the devil’s word, but it is certainly not Paul’s word from prison – why? – because he was living with a sense of the surpassing value of one thing. Knowing Christ Jesus as Lord was for him the pearl of great price. It was his spiritual treasure and it put all other ‘treasure’ in the shade, and delivered him deep joy and gladness.

The Sermon in Full 

The Readings: Philippians 3. 4b-14 and John 12.1-8.

There is something especially powerful about Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He wrote it from prison and yet it is full of joy and it brims over with happiness. This was not because prison life was soft in those days, but because happiness for Paul came from within. A changed man after his encounter with Christ, Paul no longer thought that happiness, fulfillment or peace of mind came as a result for what he did or achieved or earned. He knew that it came from within; that it was a gift of grace.

I wonder whether you have a feel for the improbable happiness to which Paul in prison is such an eloquent witness. And whether you do or not, I wonder whether you regard it as a spiritual matter – a subject fit for the pulpit? A subject fit for Lent?

It was there in the Psalm: (Ps 126 v1-2)

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
then were we like those who dream.

Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy.

There is a tinge of sadness about these verses, though, because they are not about happiness now but happiness then. Those bygone happy days now seem like a dream world, so the Psalmist confesses, and yet the memory is real: back in the day we were overflowing with laughter and joyful exuberance.

Our Eucharistic faith is in good part expressed in remembrance; but just as we remember the self-giving of Christ in order to make it present today, so we should remember the grace of God in order to bring joy into our hearts, and thence into our world, today.

In fact I’d suggest that this is a spiritual duty, though not always an easy one. Remembrance of happiness past can sometimes make us miserable about the disappointments or inconveniences of the present day. But nostalgia isn’t a virtue; nostalgia isn’t a strength. Certainly there are moments when we should grieve the passing of the past, but there are far more occasions when we should delight in the present-ness of the present.

One of the reasons Buddhism is proving to be so attractive to western people today is its calm and peaceful acceptance of life in the present moment. Practices of mindfulness, which have proved to be so healing and life-enhancing to many, are derived from precisely this insight and conviction. But it isn’t just a Buddhist idea. What that tradition has called the ‘eternal now’ our own Christian tradition calls ‘The Sacrament of the Present Moment’. The past and the future are important – but you only ever get one chance to inhabit each present moment and discover its sacramental quality; its particular gift and grace.

Let us return for a moment to Paul’s letter to the Philippians and note that the happiness that animates this letter is more than a jolly feeling. Paul is delightedly aware of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as his Lord. It’s this that puts everything else in perspective. Beside it, everything else is ‘rubbish’. He’s overstating things here, but I imagine him waving his arms dramatically as he makes the point, and perhaps smiling too. ‘Come on’, he might have written, ‘true faith puts a smile on your face because it clarifies how very little we have to be anxious about.’ And happiness is often the absence of anxiety.

An opinion piece in the Financial Times recently explored the puzzle that while there is a correlation between happiness and wealth, that correlation stops once people become reasonably well off. If we think about this a bit it makes sense to us, and maybe we know people for whom excessive wealth is a burden. What’s odd is that this reality doesn’t stop some wealthy people doing all they can to become more and more wealthy.

This is an example of the spiritual sickness of insatiability – the inability to know when enough is enough; the desire to have more when you already have plenty. It’s a common malaise. We are so easily addicted to more: more food, more drink, more money, more treats, more gadgets at home, and all of us would like more time – more hours in the day, more days of the week, more years in our life. (A man aged eighty four was asked by acheeky boy, ‘but who wants to be eighty four?’ The old man paused and answered, ‘someone who’s eighty three’.)

Too many of us, perhaps all of us, are addicted to more. It would be too much to say that the word ‘more’ is the devil’s word, but it is certainly not Paul’s word from prison – why? – because he was living with a sense of the surpassing value of one thing. Knowing Christ Jesus as Lord was for him the pearl of great price. It was his spiritual treasure and it put all other ‘treasure’ in the shade, and delivered him deep joy and gladness.

Mary – the sister of Martha and Lazarus – was in a similar zone, so to speak, when she cracked open that alabaster jar full of spikenard, and lavishly anointed Jesus with it. This essential oil is derived from Himalayan plants and traditionally has culinary, health-giving and sacred uses. Maybe the family had hidden the pot away, saving it for a special occasion – like that bottle of vintage champagne that’s been in your fridge for ages. It would have cost a bomb, and she blew it all in one go.

It’s so sad that Judas didn’t share the joy. It certainly was an outrageous thing to do, but it was too late to protest. That oil wasn’t going back in its shattered bottle. But this was too much for the treasurer. For Judas, it was the beginning of the end.

We remember them both, and most of us would prefer to be remembered as a Mary than as a Judas.

But we won’t be unless we are prepared to let happiness and joy emerge from the heart of our being and the heart of our faith; faith in the undeserved and un-earnable grace of God, and joy in the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

 

 

 

Last Wednesday the BBC broadcasted Choral Evensong from King’s College Chapel live on Radio 3. Not long before the service the producer asked me to replace one of the prayers I had specially written, with one that reflected the turmoil that is such a feature of life at the moment. This is what I wrote and prayed. Some have called it a Brexit prayer.

Hear, O God, the prayers of all who at this time are afflicted by anxiety regarding the future; all who are concerned by the turmoil they see in our public life; all who are saddened when they witness disagreement being expressed without respect; all who are fatigued by controversy and all whose inner resources of hope and love are drained out by prolonged uncertainty. Bless us with the faith to believe that, whatever the future brings, thy love is eternal and all-powerful, that we may be renewed in hope and motivated to love and serve our neighbours near and far.

You can listen to the whole service here Choral Evensong from King’s, 13th March 2019

More Love

This is the script of a sermon preached today in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. In it I try to say something about tough love, intimate love and the love that needs to grow without limit. Mostly I am trying to say that the agenda of love is huge and that it is the breadth and extent of love that needs our fullest attention today.  

‘The greatest of these is love’ so St Paul concludes the most famous passage in his writings – perhaps the most famous passage in the New Testament.  Faith and hope matter, they ‘abide’, but it is love that is the greatest thing.

We take this prioritizing of love for granted, and perhaps even find it something of an awkwardness, not least when we find ourselves facing a human situation that doesn’t seem to invite a loving response – a situation that requires discipline or punishment, correction or rebuke. And yet love could hardly be love if it were only the soft and romantic stuff. There is a difference between being loving and being nice. If happily married couples don’t appreciate this in the early months of their relationship, the birth of a child or two soon makes the point. I’ve never held with the cliché that you have to be cruel to be kind, but I do believe that you sometimes have to do or say things that someone doesn’t want to hear if you are to be genuinely loving. The easy and, paradoxically, selfish thing is often to say what people want to hear, or to give them what they want rather than what they need.  But that’s just a way of spoiling people. ‘Spoiling’ may be an old-fashioned idea but it’s a correct one. If we love people we want them to be happy not only now but in the future; in fact we will care more about the future than we do about the present moment because we know that the future holds very, very many present moments.  And so a loving teacher will give a fair, not flattering, assessment of a piece of work before pointing out what needs to happen if things are improve. A loving parent will spot the development of bad habits or behaviours that, while charming in a toddler, will be repellant in a teenager, or which if indulged in a school child might make them an arrogant but extremely lonely undergraduate.

Love need not always be tough – but it must always have the possibility of being tough because loving someone means committing yourself to caring for the other person, and being at the service of their best interests. Of course there may be some debate about what those best interests are. And that brings us to the art, skill and craft of loving.  Love is absolutely not about dominating or seeking to over-determine someone else’s life. The patience in love, of which Paul writes so beautifully, is not the impatient form of patience that waits for the other to fit into my way of seeing things while I drum my fingers. Rather it is the patent kind of patience which is open to the awkward but beautiful and vital otherness of the beloved.

It is often said that you can only love people, you can’t love objects This ought to be true, but many people do have a kind of love relationship with material things, while others have a love relationship with their own ideas or hopes or plans. This is not true love but a corrupt form of love. True love is always with and of a person, and it combines affection with desire for companionship, pleasure in passing time together, and the rigorous business of sustaining a relationship over time. Sometimes loving relationships involve exceptional and delicate intimacy. It is such relationships, ‘sexual’ is the word I am skirting around, that attract a disproportionate amount of attention in literature, cinema and in the anguished debates of the church.  No sermon on love can fail to point to the Christian understanding that such relationships have the potential to be consummated in a communion so profound that it is as close as the relationship between Christ and the church; which is close as saying ‘this is my body, this is my blood’.  But neither can any sermon on love allow itself to get quite as excitedly distracted about the importance of policing such relationships, or the anxious process of creating boundaries that define the possibility of who may have intimacy with whom, as the church has allowed itself to become.

Our Chaplain often makes the point that it’s the quality of love that matters not the gender of the lover and I want to make the complementary point that it’s not the focus, but the range and breadth and comprehensiveness of love that matters. To make this point I have to invite you to move your mind and hearts and imagination away from the endlessly fascinating arguments around sexuality and to focus them instead on the extraordinary Christian commandments to love your neighbour as yourself and to love your enemy.  These are huge commandments – commandments that we can be never sure we have kept or will keep fully.

One of the tests of intimate relationships is not how good they are, or how rewarding to the partners, but how generative they are. That is, how much they help and enable those involved to respond to the great commandments to love God, neighbour and enemy.  If a married couple live faithfully together for decades and decades, but over time become more and more crabbed and bitter, niggardly and mean, then I am not sure that there is much to praise about their relationship. If, on the other hand, people live, let us say, more wayward lives, and yet find that they grow in good-will, generosity, charity, appreciation of others and capacity to forgive, and that they develop a wide-ranging affection, then who am I to be their judge.

Let me conclude by referring to Toni Morrison’s wonderful novel Song of Solomon, which set among struggling black communities in the United States. The most impressive character in the book is a woman called Pilate. An unusual name, but in this novel all the women in a certain family were given their names when, shortly after their birth, their father opened the bible at random and chose the first name he saw – so one is called First Corinthians, another Magdalen, so on. Pilate herself goes through many trials and knows many kinds of suffering; she experiences extreme emotions and resorts, on one occasion, to significant violence, bashing a young man over the head with a bottle because she held him responsible for her daughter’s suicide.  It is indeed a tough book about troubled people, but Pilate is ultimately a hugely loving figure. Towards the end of the novel Pilate says this ‘I wish I’d a knowed more people. I would have loved em all. If I’d a knowed more, I would a loved more.’ (p418)

Love is a Christian virtue and it stands at the heart of Christian life. It is so central that I would venture to say that if you want to know whether or not you are a good Christian ask yourself this:  am I always learning how to love better? And, am I finding that as time goes by I love more and more people?  Love is good. More love is better.

 

This is the text of a homily I gave in King’s College Chapel earlier today.

 

The truth is that we don’t know very much about David except that he was a monk and a bishop and that he lived in Wales in the sixth century. His reputation however is clear – he was tough on himself but a model of kindness to others. Those others didn’t necessarily include his fellow monks. His monastic rule was famously austere – for instance not allowing them to use horses to plough the fields, and it was very mean about how much sleep was allowed at the weekends.

Like all saints he has had a few miracles attributed to him, one of which concerns him as a preacher. His open air preaching was one day not going as well as it might because people could not hear.  As a result that ground began to move and it wasn’t long before our David was standing on a small hill that was created as his open-air pulpit. People have often remarked that the last thing that was needed in west Wales was another hill. Which makes me think it might have been nicer if he had worked his miracle in this, much flatter, part of the world. Another thought is that it would be nice if we could have a David-inspired miracle in this Chapel that instantly solved all the problems that we have with the audibility of the spoken word!

David’s life was written by the magnificently named Rhigyfarch the Wise, that well-known contributor to Thought for the Day in the eleventh century. Although written almost half a millennium after David’s death, this scribe confidently tells us many things about David’s noble qualities as a bishop, describing him as ‘the supreme overseer, the supreme protector, the supreme preacher, from whom we received all content and structure of virtuous living’. Whether or not this is true we cannot decide, but I think it is significant that Rhigyfarch wanted it to be true; that he cared as much about virtue as he did about piety. For him David was ‘instruction to the studious, life to the needy, an upbringing to orphans, support to widows, a leader to Fathers, a Rule to monks, a way of life  to secular clergy; he was all things to all people’.  It’s clear that for Rhigyfarch our David was a genuine all-rounder.

Doubtless David had faults as well as virtues, but over time the faults have melted into the mist and the virtues to have become almost super human. But I am not worried about the distortion so much as inspired by the ambition – the implicit ambition for anyone who adopts the Christian faith, for anyone who seeks to live some kind of life in response to God’s call, whether that is the call of the baptised or the call of the ordained. The picture here is of the all-round Christian who is studious and kind, and who has a serious and ongoing concern for those who need practical help just to get through life.

So as we celebrate David we might well be challenged to think of ourselves not as some kind of specialist Christian who can become adept at one aspect of life, but of the call to be an all-rounder.  It’s easy in a context like this to let scholarship and aesthetics be the primary values but even here we need to give equal priority to kindness, compassion and support of the weak, the poor and the vulnerable. That, at least, is my thought for St David’s day.

Click here to see the talk