This is an intriguing pair of words put alongside each other.  Complacency is the naughty little child and contentment the good little child.  Let’s deal with the naughty one first.

None of us would like be accused of being complacent, and we sometimes fend off the potential criticism by saying ‘I don’t want to be complacent, but’ as if our carefully chosen words would prevent us falling after exposing a little too much pride.

But complacency isn’t confidence.  Anyone who plans anything must have some confidence that their planning is at least good-enough.

Complacency is more likely to lead to no planning at all.  Its source is idleness. In terms of the seven deadly sins complacency is connected to sloth as much as it is to pride.  And, perhaps I could say in passing that I am not convinced that the western tradition is right in making pride the most deadly of the deadly sins.  Theologically it is a car-crash of an attitude, of course, because ultimately pride is the devil’s sin – to put oneself in God’s place.  But that is a rather specialized and particular form of pride; and one that isn’t the biggest worry in our secularized world – though of course megalomaniacs and narcissists are capable of horrendous evil and of generating untold suffering as they strut their way towards destruction.

But our focus is on complacency, not megalomania.  It’s an attitude created by several deeper sins and which is seen in the biblical Pharisee who prays in terms of self-commendation while the poor publican says, ‘Lord have mercy on me a sinner’.

And complacency is a terrible spiritual danger for us who have seen the flourishing possible in the era of peace and prosperity which Europe and North America have enjoyed since the Second World War.  We have delighted in economic and political progress, and from time to time preened ourselves that we are not only significantly wealthier but also far better educated and much longer lived than our parents were; and that we enjoy a lifestyle that those who were our age seventy years ago would be staggered by.

All this came to a symbolic high point when a book was written in the 1990s called ‘The End of History’.  The author has since recanted it; hardly surprisingly given the way in which so many things have gone wrong since, let us say, September 2001.

It’s relatively easy, of course, for us to look back a decade or two and think – ‘goodness me how complacent – we didn’t have nearly enough on our worry-about it lists, our pray-about-it lists and we didn’t make up our to-do lists with anything like enough of a global perspective or even medium-term temporal reference.  Our priorities were, in retrospect, complacent, even if we experienced ourselves at the time as busy and rather important.

Hindsight is beautiful thing, they say, but not when what you see in the rear-view mirror of your life was a younger person of great complacency. It’s at that point that we realize that our sins are only as scarlet when our faces flush with embarrassment and shame at what we allowed ourselves to have become by not observing or caring enough.

Complacency is a very horrid thing – but most of us can be reasonably sure that if we were complacent then we are probably complacent now; it’s just that we haven’t got the angle of vision on ourselves to see where our complacency lies.

But if complacency is horrid, and common, contentment is wonderful, and rare.  If complacency is the woe, contentment is the beatitude.  It’s contentment that allows us to rest and relax, to lie down in peace whether to sleep or in fact to die.

And it’s contentment that is the antidote to that most pernicious and problematic of sins – the contemporary expression of greed that is called insatiability; that never-satisfied hunger and longing for more, for difference, for novelty, for better for faster, for consumption, for praise and for personal affirmation and reward.

We have a service of Compline in King’s Chapel four times a term and the most difficult line for the cantor to sing is the first half of the first verse of Psalm 31. ‘We will lay us down in peace and take our rest’.  I find it a challenging sing. But it’s also a challenging attitude.

And yet some kind of spiritual peace in the midst of life, even when we know that all is not well, and where our insatiability tells us that there is so much more that we could say or do or enjoy or eat or collect … some kind of spiritual peace in life is what we all crave and the best form of it must be contentment.

I often say on occasions like this that while the world is obsessed with Islam as the religion of greatest threat it is perhaps Buddhism that Christians need to pay more attention to.  I heard this phrase in Canada. ‘Show me a bishop and I will show you a business man. But show me a Buddhist and I will show you a holy man.’ (I hope that I will be forgiven the sexism of those quoted remarks.  Personally I suspect that most women bishops are just as businesslike as the men.  And I have no doubt that Buddhist nuns are in many ways more admirable than the monks. )

Of course the little saying isn’t really fair – I have come across some extraordinarily savvy Buddhist monks. But the questions are real, where is holiness to be found? Where can we have peace of mind which is neither complacent nor quietist nor cut off from the pain and suffering and anguish of the world?

Some activists might even question our right to contentment. How can you dare to rest when the hungry are starving, when the weak are exploited, when the vulnerable abused? How can you even want to have peace in your heart when there is such rampant injustice in the world?

In a way these thoughts are nothing much more than a statement of a fairly obvious question:

Is there a form of contentment today that isn’t actually a disguised form of complacency?

Or, to put it in a more Zen-like way, is there a smile that is so genuine, so deep, so kind, so compassionate, and so absent of pity, superiority or cynicism that any person who beheld it would know that it was the smile of pure, compassionate and endless love?

Is there a smile of pure contentment? Is there ever rest without complacency?

These are questions for each person to learn how to answer for him or herself.


This is an edited version of a talk given to the C.S. Lewis Summer Institute in Great St Mary’s Church, Cambridge, 2 August 2017


True Prayer

One of the things about great church buildings and cathedrals in England today that ought to surprise us, but rarely does, is the presence of votive candle stands.  People now expect to see them; and many use them, finding them a helpful way to express some desire or feeling too deep for words. But these stands haven’t been in place for ever, most have been introduced over the last 20 or 30 years. Religion may be on the decline, but the desire to pray has not gone away, and in this sermon I want to offer a few thoughts about this surprisingly persistent, perhaps resurgent, aspect of life.

Prayer is a common, if not universal, human activity. I don’t mean that every individual on the planet prays, but that prayer is found in an extremely wide variety of cultures and contexts. And prayer takes many forms, ranging from the highly controlled to the completely free – though sometimes the highly controlled isn’t as controlled as it looks, and the apparently free can be strangely predictable.

One of the questions we might ask ourselves given the widespread nature of prayer is whether there are any rules that govern it. Is there the possibility of quality control on praying, or of an appropriate critique of our own or anyone else’s prayers? In short, can we distinguish between good prayers and not so good prayers?

We tend to think that prayers are private and personal and that they are what they are; never good, never bad, but vindicated by their authenticity; we tend to think that an heartfelt prayer is an acceptable prayer.  But is it as simple as that?

As well as votive candle stands in Chapel we also allow people to write prayers on slips of paper which we then use in the intercessions at our daily lunchtime Eucharist. We don’t give instructions to people about how to do this or what might be acceptable, but not all prayer requests are equally easy to honour. If a prayer is for someone’s parent with cancer, or a child with leukaemia it is easy to share the sentiment. If, on the other hand, someone simply wants a happy life, or to get into this university, or become prosperous, it’s more difficult.

These prayer slips give a privileged insight into the burdens and issues that people carry in their hearts. Reflecting on them I notice that there are a surprising number of questions for help with fertility issues, and a good number seek spiritual guidance regarding choice of career or help to meet someone they can really love. Names added to prayer slips often suggest that authors either come from Catholic countries or China. The Catholic ones will often list a number of departed relations, whereas the Chinese ones are often closer to personal life wishes, and these remind me of a ‘wish tree’ that I saw in a Buddhist monastery in Shenzen.

As well as the obvious spiritual challenge of how to relate to these prayers, I have found that engaging with them has challenged me to think about the quality of my own prayers – both my personal ones and those that I offer in the course of the services here.  The pitfalls of public prayer are obvious and many: from length, what is too much, what is too little? to many aspects of register and style of language, ‘thee’ or ‘you’; formal or personal; scripted or extempore; contemporary or tested by time and repetition?  Then there is the question of subject matter, to what extent should public intercessions follow the news headlines, and to what extent should we be offering in prayer the issues and places and people that the media tend to ignore?

One guide to prayer that we might look to more carefully is the book of Psalms.  These are prominent at Matins and Evensong and often supply the text of an anthem. They are the prayers of God’s people the Jews, and they were obviously important to Jesus – so important that his cry of dereliction from the cross was a quotation from Psalm 22.

Psalm 70, which was read as our Epistle, is a good example of a Psalm prayer. In fact, it is such a good little prayer that it appears twice in the Psalter – as a standalone Psalm and as the final verses of Psalm 40.

Consider, Psalm 70, for instance – which is a great example of a Psalm prayer. In fact is such a good little prayer that it appears twice in the Psalter – as a standalone Psalm 70 and as the final verses of Psalm 40.

HASTE thee, O God, to deliver me: make haste to help me, O Lord.

Let them be ashamed and confounded that seek after my soul: let them be turned backward and put to confusion that wish me evil.

Let them for their reward be soon brought to shame: that cry over me, There, there.

But let all those that seek thee be joyful and glad in thee: and let all such as delight in thy salvation say alway, The Lord be praised.

As for me, I am poor and in misery: haste thee unto me, O God.

Thou art my helper and my redeemer: O Lord, make no long tarrying

Like many Psalms it involves a rather bolder, more direct form of address to God than today seems polite.  The person who prays is in trouble and they want help, and they want the help now. There is desperation as well as impatience here: ‘haste thee O God’, ‘make haste to help me’, ‘haste thee unto me’, and finally, ‘O Lord, make no long tarrying’.  This is the tranalstion found in the Book of Common Prayer and  modern translation would put it differently, but the energy and sentiment, ‘come on, God!’ would be the same.

I love this table-banging, explanation mark aspect to the prayer of the Psalms – it makes it real. It’s not just, ‘Almighty God, you have infinite power and endless love, if it pleases you I’d be very grateful if you could perhaps give some of your unbounded energy to making my life a bit easier and more pleasant.’ The Psalmist’s demand comes out of real trouble and genuine distress and an urgent need for things to be different.

This is, as it were, the wrapper of this Psalm-prayer. The middle part of it is also pretty raw, and we see that whoever is making this prayer is not suffering from toothache, but suffering from other people, in particular those who, ‘cry over me “there, there’”. Other translators don’t have ‘there, there’ but something like, ‘aha, aha’ or, ‘hurray, hurray’. It’s bad enough to be suffering – but someone is gloating over my distress! No wonder there is irritation in the prayer and a desire that the gloater gets their comeuppance; be brought shame and exposed for what they are, mean-spirited and hurt-inflicting brutes.

And there’s another sentiment in there too – ‘let all those who seek thee be joyful and glad’. We can see an element of self-serving in this. The psalmist would rather like to have his piety rewarded, but the scope is wider. Let all those who seek God find joy and gladness.  And to that we might say ‘Amen’ ourselves.  But if this is going to happen then God needs to hasten to help us because we are a long way from it right now and so the Psalm ends where it began, ‘come on, God!’, except that things are already a bit different because the prayer has been prayed and its in the very act of praying that things begin to move on spiritually.

The book of Psalms is an astonishing and rich source of guidance and inspiration in prayer. If we try to pray with it we will explore aspects of our soul and our relationship with God that unguided prayer will never dare to reach. Sometimes this will make us rather uncomfortable.  But so what? Discomfort is part of the process of spiritual growth. Anyone who seriously seeks God will find themselves squirming over their mistakes and inadequacies again and again; but they will also find that that they are given the spiritual gifts to enable them to handle this and to move forward until, like the book of Psalms itself, they come to an end where the mood music is not lament or despair or impatience, but praise and joy.

The book of Psalms not only teaches us the detail of prayer but also the trajectory of prayer – so much so that you could say that the doctrine of resurrection and new life is built into its very structure. However deep and despairing, angry or resentful, or even violently hostile, the prayer of the Psalmist is always looking ahead to Psalm 150 where we hear the sound of the trumpet, the lute and the harp, the crashing of well-tuned and loud cymbals, and the heartfelt cry that everything that has breath should praise the Lord.

Prayer begins in reality and ends in praise, in the vision of God and in infinite beatitude. It is God’s job to take us to endless bliss, and our job in prayer to be honest about where we are personally, practically, politically and spiritually right now. It is the honesty of prayer that makes it true.

A sermon preached in King’s College Chapel, Sunday 14 May, 2017



We give thanks to God for the freedom, peace and prosperity that we enjoy as a national family; and we pray that, recognising the great heritage that we enjoy, we might treasure our political freedom and use it responsibly, supporting all who stand for office, and casting our vote with care. We pray that the virtues and values that lie behind our national life – love, trust and hope, cohesion, courage and stability – might continue to provide a firm foundation for our common life; and at this time of uncertainty we pray that we might more fully entrust ourselves and our country to thy gracious providence.

When we come into the proximity of the cross we are challenged as people, as who we are, as who I am. We might think of this as a double challenge – first to our biography but also as a challenge to our identity.

The challenge to our biography is the challenge to our life story – and the decisions and turning points in it. From time to time we can enjoy celebratory days when we remember with gladness our better decisions, our more loving or courageous actions, our most worthy efforts and even our good fortune or luck. Blessings are there to be counted, and we do a good thing by counting them.

But no one’s life adds up to a relentless list of charitable and worthy actions; none of us love all the time or with a perfect heart; no one knows only blessings in this life. We all have bad days and bad luck and we all mess up. Often it’s because we lack the ability to do a good job, sometimes it’s because we lack the time or other resources.  Other times it’s because we lack the will to do good  or the vision to see what might be done for the best.  Sometimes it’s because our will, our desire, is actually malign and we wish the worst on or for others. For many of us this is not the most common root of our sin and shame, but few indeed have no such poison in their soul. And proximity to the cross is one way of safely letting this come to the surface so that you might be forgiven, healed and restored. Better to come to terms with all this in Good Friday afternoon than to be clogged up with such issues on your deathbed when palliative drugs are fogging your mind.

But there are questions of identity too. If our autobiographical self-inquisition is about our guilt then our identity self-inquisition is about our shame, which is far more deep-seated and pervasive aspect of who we are and what’s ill-at-ease about us. Shame is a hard word to live with, and often seeks to hide itself, but perhaps we can and should sensitize ourselves to the experience of shame. We are in often in shame when we talk of low self-esteem or lack of confidence; shame is at work when people find themselves harming themselves either directly by inflicting open wounds on their own flesh, or indirectly though some kind of substance abuse, or by constantly undermining themselves by listening to a relentlessly self-denigrating internal commentary.

The cross speaks to our shame through the public and total humiliation of Christ. There really is no hiding place on a cross. All is exposed. It’s the worst possible nightmare for the person who lives a life covered with shame, and who enfolds themselves in that terrible garment.

A great deal of western Christian theology has been built on the idea that the cross takes away our guilt and through the atoning work of Jesus who suffers divine punishment that we justly deserve in our stead.  That narrative has a hard time dealing with the realty of shame. A richer and truer one, I suggest, is that it is on the cross that God in Christ is radically and totally exposed in complete and vulnerable humility. And it is as such that God offers grace, healing and salvation to the person in shame, the person without self-confidence, and with a desire to hide in fleshy contingency and verbal obfuscation and even to inflict self-harm physically or mentally.  God on the cross gains identity by foregoing security and self-protection. It is thus Jesus who attains God, not as something in addition to whom he is, but in a way that is ‘new’ in the New Testament sense of being eternally revitalising.

The cross stands at the heart of the New Testament, this we know, but it also stands at the heart of the forever new identity of the baptised, an identity shaped by the constant washing away of the guilty and shameful traces of sin.

From a sermon delivered at Great St Mary’s Cambridge, 14 April 2017

It would be nice if we could imagine the Last Supper as an occasion of peace and fellowship.  Wonderful if we could create in our mind’s eye a picture of harmony and concord among Jesus’ companions and friends – his disciples – his little school of learners.

And yet the stories we hear about the Last Supper in the Bible tell us something different, and frankly more human. Certainly this occasion in an upper room seems to be well set up and traditional. The Passover is being remembered in a regular and respectable way. And there is no doubt that Jesus made the occasion very much his own with some transformative gestures and a declaration that there was here a new covenant.  The gospels vary in their details, and John doesn’t even have any sharing of bread and wine, but the idea is clear: Jesus is doing something profoundly new that is intended to represent and realise his understanding of the relationship between God and humanity.

There was a religious revolution going on at that meal, a redefinition of the human relationship with God that is on the cusp, as it were, of the kingdom of God. But it is only the cusp. It is near, but the gap between the ‘here’ of the gathering and the ‘there’ of the kingdom is very wide indeed.

If we look at the simply human side of it closely, we are inclined to get a bit of a shock. Rather than take their communion reverently, or have their feet washed obediently, the disciples seem to be very easily distracted. Peter’s reluctance to have his feet washed is famous and typical – not least when he quickly changes his mind and asks for a whole bath.  Then there is the Judas aspect.  First the anxiety caused by Jesus saying that there is betrayer at hand but not saying who it is, and then Judas, finding all this to be the last straw and disappearing into the night to hand Jesus over for money.

In Luke’s version that we read tonight we note with some surprise that in this context, of all places, and among these, of all people, a dispute about ‘greatness’ breaks out. It is of course the opportunity for Jesus to give a little speech – the rulers of the nations lord it over their subjects and they call their most powerful people ‘benefactors’.  He goes on to say, by contrast, that leadership and authority among God’s people or, we might say, within God’s politics, is exercised by service.   The mightiest must be as the weakest, the leader as one who serves.  This is the Christ-like example, the briefing memo from the Jesus of Nazareth Institute of Management and Leadership.

Clearly it is an intentional inversion of the accepted norms.  Luke is true to form here, and you can see the echo of the Magnificat’s famous reversals in this passage – setting down the mighty from their seat and exalting the humble and meek.   The principle of reversal continues in Jesus’ very improbable suggestion that this motley crew of out of fishermen will end up judging the twelve tribes of Israel. It seems an odd promise to make – when these same people have just been disputing about their relative greatness.

Jesus in particular, and Christianity in general, is consistent in teaching that humility is the core virtue, and service the most fundamental action.  The disciples are not given future roles that befit their status, because ‘status’ in the normal meaning of the word, the meaning to the nations where the leaders lord it over them, is irrelevant here.  All power and authority belong to Jesus and that power issues not in status, but in service and sacrifice. And that mode of living –  in which serving and giving are the most important things we could possibly do – are as close to the heart of the gospel as are the transformed bread and wine of the Eucharist, or indeed the cross and resurrection of Jesus himself.

There is no form of Christianity that involves merely assenting to certain propositions – let’s call them doctrines – or having certain spiritual feelings – no matter how much we value them or how piously we label them. Christianity is ultimately the most down to earth religion that there can be because it involves nothing more or less than opening ourselves to the love of God so that we might be transformed by that love into God’s companions and servants.

This means that it is also the most heavenly religion too: it is the religion that gives the fullest, best and most reliable understanding of the kingdom of God, and the means whereby this fallen and broken world might be mended, healed and restored to the fullness of joy for which it was created.

The name of the means of that most transformative journey is grace – and everything that we can possibly do in life, whether as organised religion or informal religion, as a joint venture with others or on our own, is, at best, some kind of means of grace, and, at worst, something  from which the grace of God is absent.

To put it at its most stark, the fellowship of the Last Supper is grace, and the dispute about greatness and the decision to hand Jesus over for a bribe are anti-grace. In this life these things are for ever intermingled. The pursuit of purity is pious escapism from the realty into which Christ was born, by which he was betrayed and crucified and which, by his risen life and the power of the Holy Spirit, will ultimately and finally be transformed.

This service is a holy Eucharist – a celebration and reclaiming of the Last Supper for us, in our time, in our messy and anxious reality with all its mixed motives and complex agendas. It is one of thousands being celebrated across the world this evening.  It invites us to draw near with faith and to receive the most reliable means of grace available to us after our baptism. For our own benefit? Well, yes. But that’s just the start. The meal works, so to speak, when we let the grace that we receive become the driving force in our lives. When we let it drive us not to disputation or anxiety, but to confident and humble service, and to modes of self-giving that have that selfless and graceful quality that can make all the difference to the lives of others because they are, in fact, manifestations of gracious love.

We are called to the Eucharist not only so that we can receive, but also so that we have something to give; we are called to the Eucharist so that our lives too can be means of grace. The next three days will both show us the horror and the glory involved in walking the path of grace. Let us pray that it also renew us so that we may lives of generosity, service, and sacrifice and come more fully to know and share the true hope that is at the heart of this meal called Eucharist and this faith called Christianity.

When Judas had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

 Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus answered, ‘Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterwards.’ Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.

John 13 31- end

How do we orient ourselves to Holy Week?

Palm Sunday is the natural gateway, and yet that is such a confusing occasion – is it really triumphant or is it a sedate walk to the scaffold or the performance of winning and saving humility? It’s a complicated day and leaves us bewildered before we have started.

This brief passage from John’s gospel gives us a different starting place, one that uses a more directly theological language. It’s after the last supper – which in John is not an occasion for bread and wine but for foot washing, and the small exchange which has just ended with Judas disappearing into the dark of night.

Jesus then speaks a profound contradiction, ‘now the son of man has been glorified’. Not abandoned. Not betrayed. Not lost. Not himself plunged into darkness, but glorified.  To be glorified might be thought of as to be bathed in light but while the idea of light is implied, the son of man is not reflecting light at this time. Rather the son of man shines with the uncreated, transfiguring light that is the revealed presence of God. For just as John has no bread and wine at the last supper, so John has no transfiguration. Why? Because for John it is the cross which is both transfiguration and resurrection; it is the cross which is glory, and that process of glorification begins right here when Judas steps out into night, into darkness, into the absence of God, into the nothingness of self-interest and fear. It is when sinful humanity reveals its hopelessness, that God in Christ is revealed in glory. That is the beginning and the ending of Holy Week.

However, there is another theme running here too. There is a narrative still to unfold as well as a fulfilment to witness. The disciples cannot go with Jesus. They cannot enter into this glory. We don’t know why, but the point is reemphasised when Peter expresses his deep and doubtless heartfelt desire and sincere promise of heroic self-sacrifice.

But Jesus is clear. Peter cannot follow. The way of discipleship, the way to learn from Jesus, is not the way of heroic individual effort, but the way of love. In fact, it is the way of learning to love. And learning to love is, obviously, something that you can’t do on your own, or by the determination of self-will. Learning to love is, at the very least, a matter of learning to get on with people, and to share in the give and take, the ups and downs, of real human relationships. And it is so much more than that too. It is to learn the meaning of sacrifice, and commitment and to look for joy not in things that pass but in those that endure, in particular in service and mutuality.

The word learn is not incidental here. It’s at the heart of what it means to be a disciple.  Those who think that being a disciple is simply a matter of following Jesus get their comeuppance in this passage. ‘Where I am going, you cannot come’ says Jesus.  To be a disciple is not to be follower except in the sense that it is to be close enough to Jesus to learn his priorities and his values. Learn how to love the real people who are around you. Learn to love your neighbours. Learn to love yourself. Learn to love your enemies.

This is the curriculum of discipleship. It is also the agenda for Holy Week, and the method is that we should train our eyes on the passion and the cross and find ways of seeing through them to the resurrection.

Time will take us to Easter, sure enough, but the question we should expect the risen Christ to ask us on Easter morn is not, ‘can you enter into my glory?’, nor ‘did you weep over your sins?’, nor, ‘did you sweat or sleep at Gethsemane?’, nor, ‘did you lament at Golgotha?’ None of this is of much interest in the glorious light of Easter. It is this question that is of supreme importance: ‘Have you learnt how to love?’ ‘Have you learnt to love your neighbour, yourself, your enemy?’ ‘Have you learnt to love the God who is as present in the pain as in the joy, in the abandonment as in the company, and who is revealed in the fullest glory when all around seems to be deep darkness?’

Have you learnt to love? When you have, your discipleship will be complete and you will be able to say with the crucified and glorified Christ, ‘it is finished’.  Before that, it is indeed Holy Week and it is indeed night.  It is time to learn the meaning and the practice of love.

Delivered as a homily at Compline in King’s College Chapel, 10th April 2017.

Preached in King’s College Chapel, 1st March 2107

Allegri’s great setting of Psalm 51 with which this service began is known by the first word of its Latin translation: Miserere. But what does it mean in English?  The translation of the Psalm that we use here on ordinary days begins with these words, ‘Have mercy upon me O God after thy great goodness’.  On the other hand, a contemporary translation of the Hebrew offers a different opening. ‘Grant me grace, O God, as befits your kindness’.

These two different translations remind us that ‘miserere’ has nothing to do with misery, and that mercy has everything to do with grace. The same is true of Lent.  The word ‘grace’ means gift. In Christian theology ‘grace’ is the word that signals not only that God is giving, but that God is the gift that God gives.

What this means is that whatever else might go on in terms of Christian religion and spirituality we can never, ever, earn the love of God or our own salvation, nor can we ever achieve our own righteousness. Anything of God comes to us as unearned, undeserved, as gift.  And when I say ‘anything of God’ I also mean ‘everything of God’; for God is entirely simple and has complete integrity. God is always and only and fully God.

And just as God is always completely God, so God is always and completely first. God’s love for us is always a step ahead of our own love; God’s forgiveness is real before our repentance has taken shape; God’s guiding light for our lives is there ahead of any attempt of ours to look for it.  God is always first, always prior, always ahead of us. As R.S. Thomas put it, ours is ‘such a fast God’. God is certainly faster than we are.

And it is because God is fast that we can afford to slow down. A few years ago I encouraged people to give up busyness for Lent[1]. The call is still a serious one. We rush about so much that we are in danger of experiencing everything, but missing the meaning. Materialism is a spiritual danger for us all; we are so easily tempted to value the material or financial world as if they are all that matter; but our sins these days are just as often to do with time as with things or wealth.

We underestimate the richness and depth of the present moment as we rush on to the next thing or squeeze in another trivial task or passing pleasure.  We routinely create demands for ourselves or our colleagues that are impossible to achieve without distorting the basic balance of life or making us scrimp on time that should be devoted to things that are intrinsically worthwhile – people, art, and contemplation. ‘What is this life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare?’

Lent is not a time to add things to our to-do lists in the vague hope that by trying harder or doing more we will earn God’s favour. It’s a time when we remember that God’s love is always ahead of us, that God is always ready to be merciful to us – often far more merciful than we are to ourselves. Lent is meant to teach us that mercy is more powerful than guilt or shame; that God’s forgiveness can, if we let it in to our hearts, overwhelm our lack of self-forgiveness.

All that is a lesson that takes time. You could even say it’s what time is for. To discover how deeply and eternally God loves you.

[1] See