Archive for the ‘Christian Year’ Category

A sermon for Ash Wedensday delivered at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.

One of the first puzzles that often faces a person who believes that there is a good God who loves us and desires our love in return is this: how do I live with myself? A sense of spiritual inadequacy is one of the most common responses to the presence of God. Faced with the purity, holiness and perfect loving-kindness of God we realize how very different we are and we feel guilty – if there is something specific on our mind. Or, just as often, we feel ashamed that we are – well, such a disappointing human being.

The guilt response is what we heard illustrated in the Psalm that was the Introit to this service. Allegri’s Miserere is David’s long song of lament when he realized just how bad and sad a person he was by misusing his power as King.

And that is rightly where our Ash Wednesday service, and therefore our Lenten journey, begins – with the sense that we are in the wrong. Although some people may have to work hard to generate a sense of penitence or compunction or sorrow, for many it is not far below the surface of smiling happiness or earnest seriousness. It’s one of those things that people think about but don’t talk about; that feeling of not being right with yourself, not being right with God.

But although feeling that sort of feeling is the beginning of the Lenten journey, it is certainly not the end. Lent is not an invitation to wallow in guilt or sink in shame, but to acknowledge it in some way and then to move forward in our relationship with God and our neighbours.

So – what to do for Lent? What to give up? What to take up? Most of us could afford to be rather more adventurous and self-challenging in our Lenten disciplines. There are, after all, no rules that we must obey. We are free to do what we like. My most memorable Lenten exercise was to try to give up grumbling.

I have since persuaded quite a lot of people to try it. No one has found it easy. One person told me it almost ruined her social life. And yet the pleasure of complaining is indeed a sinful pleasure. It does nothing to reflect the glory or grace of God. Sometimes we must protest, sometimes we need to critique, but much of our grumbling and complaining is unworthy of us.

But if giving up grumbling is a new idea, our service this evening will end with an invitation to you to connect with a very ancient idea. Before the congregation is dismissed, a bowl of ashes will be blessed, and those who remain for a minute or two will have an ashen cross smeared on their forehead while the minister says, ‘remember that you are dust and to dust you will return’. This ancient ritual points to the truth that while people imagine the spiritual quest as a struggle upwards, against gravity, as it were, in truth Christian spirituality is mostly about the journey downwards, based as it is on the belief that God can cope with anything other than dishonesty, hypocrisy and pretense.

It’s the real you that God loves, even if you find yourself disappointing.

The journey of Lent is not one of self-improvement, or one in which you discover how to be a perfect, good or impressive person; nor is it a journey that teaches you calm and serenity. It’s a journey that teaches you that God is love, and that God loves you.

To do justice to Lent we need to remember that at the heart of Christian spirituality we do not find the quest to be good, but the struggle to allow yourself to be loved by God as the mortal and the sinner that you undoubtedly are.

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Here are six ideas for Lent for anyone who feels too busy, or rushed, or hassled or stressed out by the pressure of things to do.

Don’t think ‘rush’, think ‘slow’.

Chill, take your time. Things have a habit of working themselves out unless your are in the middle of a full-blown crisis. If you are then you had better do what it takes to get the crisis sorted out and your life calmed down.  Life is not a crisis, it’s an opportunity.

Don’t think ‘busy’, think ‘involved’.

‘Busy’ is one of the more pernicious four-letter words in our vocabulary. Often, it’s a boast disguised as a complaint.  There are plenty of people who would love to have more to do, to feel more valued, and to be more fully involved. If you are too busy it may mean that you haven’t bothered to involve others.

Don’t think ‘me time’, think ‘soul time’.

It’s easy to persuade people to try to have more ‘me-anything’ these days. However, the point about Lent is not to think about your ego-needs but to make time for your soul-needs. Soul time can take many forms – but it’s never ‘all about me’.

Don’t think ‘give up’, think ‘appreciate’.

If we take time to savour and enjoy those petty vices that so often occupy our consciences and dominate our spirituality their power over us may begin to wane a bit and we might turn our attention to higher things. If you love chocolate don’t give it up this year but become a discerning and appreciative chocolate connoisseur – and see what comes of that.

Don’t think ‘work-life balance’, think ‘wholesome living’.

Of course your life can start to go wrong if your work is too important to you, or too all-consuming, or if it’s relentlessly stressful.  But this can be true of any activity – not just work. Life isn’t something that starts when work stops.

Don’t think ‘Lent is long’, think ‘Lent is short’.

Because it is. Just as life is short. Just as every day is short. Don’t miss out on life or Lent by rushing around as a lonely busybody, feeling guilty about petty things and starving your soul of the time it needs to breath.

Have a time wise Lent.

For more ideas about how to give up busyness check out this website Give up busyness for Lent

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My collection of poem-prayers Barefoot Ways comes to its natural end with the festival of Candlemas on 2nd February.  I hesitated quite a long time before including the Candlemas entry, as it emphasises the darker side of Luke’s account of the presentation of Christ in the Temple, namely the chilling words of old Simeon to the young mother Mary.

Focusing on them is perhaps especially appropriate this year when news of brutal persecution of Christians and others is all too commonly heard.  And also this year because there is such short gap between Candlemas and Ash Wednesday. We need to move very quickly from celebration to austerity.

Also, as it happens, because my Lent collection of poem prayers Barefoot Prayers begins on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, this year these two collections between them offer a poem-prayer every single day (apart from 4) from 1 December 2015 to 3 April 2016.

Enough of that, however.  The focus of this blog is Candlemas, which commemorates the story told in the second chapter of Luke’s gospel, and on which the following is a meditation.

A Sword

We should have seen it coming, but

no one did. Luke’s version was so

tidy, a tale of two children,

two mothers, one silent man,

an angel, a walk, a leap and

two songs.

And then a third song, different in

tone: tired and yet fulfilled,

glimpsing the longed-for light

yet seeking escape.

A prelude to a blessing, and in the

blessing we had hoped, assumed,

dared to expect …


closure, perhaps.

Now there’s a hope.


How foolish!

How slow of heart!

How self-serving our understanding!


Words come: gnomic, unwelcome.

They speak of

disorder, opposition,

revelation, no less.


We had hoped for a new order.

We are offered a new chaos.

What light is this, but a new darkness?



At last it comes. The word that cleaves

the air and stuns us, arresting our

senses and losing Anna’s delight in its wake.

After this, her presence – calm itself – is lost

to us.


‘There will be a sword.’

A sword, no less.

A sword

through your young soul, young


I ponder that, as I pray to depart

in peace,

in peace,

in peace.

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The end of the calendar year brings its own set of spiritual challenges – among them the perpetually teasing question of how to balance the claims of there past, the present and the future. There is value in looking back, provided the intent is to move forward, but as we do so, another question emerges: while it is pleasant to rejoice in the memory of happy moments, might there not also be causes for joy as we allow memories that are still painful to come to mind?

The mediation that follows is from my book from Barefoot Ways (SPCK, 2015) a collection of ‘poem-prayers’ for every day from December 1st to February 2nd. It is an attempt to draw together the idea of the ‘examen’  – a spiritual discipline of reviewing the past day before sleep – with the rather more hefty challenge of making some sort of spiritual sense of the last twelve months.

Reading it through again myself I notice again the emphasis that it gives to the importance of people. Yet, if I had chance to re-write it I would strengthen this theme. ‘People make places’ they say, but it’s also true that ‘people make years’.  If I had to reduce this examen to one stark question it would be this: who made a difference for you in 2015?

 Examen for the Year’s End

As the year’s final sands fall swiftly

through the narrow hip of the glass,

teasing me that they are speeding up.

Let me find a wayside bench where I can

rest and reflect – just a few seconds

for each month of the year past.


Let me feel again the heart moments that

mattered most, let me think back to

before the problem was solved, the decision made.


Let me recall the faces and voices that

meant much, that cared for me,

drew me on, restrained me with love.


I am grateful for those who

by giving me some unwittingly difficult word

wounded and saved me.


Let me remember the places where

good things happened; where there

was refreshment, delight and social joy;

let me recall feasts and treats, visits and encounters,

where radiance was.


I am grateful for the good days,

the good people,

the good times.


Let me visit once more the

shadows and shades of benighted

minutes and days, the hours

when purpose was eclipsed,

the moments when I met

hostility with fear,

where uncertainty made me anxious,

when I took the opportunity for the cruel look,

the self-indulgent feeling, when

it was my sin that spoke.


Let me fly back over the

months, hovering where I should,

pin-pointing grace and disgrace,

joy and woe, when I have

done well or let myself down.


And all this not for the sake of the

past alone, though it deserves its honour,

but for the joy of the present yet to come.


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This is an edited version of a sermon I preached at St John’s, Bury St Edmunds for Copus Christi.

I don’t want to explore Eucharistic theology this evening, but rather to talk about an attitude, a value, a virtue even which is I think one of the rarely mentioned things that might draw together a rather eclectic congregation like this one.

The virtue of which I speak, is one about which I have read very little. Indeed I have only read one chapter about it and one book. The chapter is in a book called ‘Moral Clarity’ by the philosopher Susan Neiman and in the notes she tells me, and I have no reason to doubt her, that there is only one full-length book on this subject. I was impressed by the chapter and so got the book. It is called ‘Reverence – Renewing a Forgotten Virtue’ and it is by Paul Woodruff who is a professor on the humanities in Austin, Texas.

It may disappoint you to know that Woodruff doesn’t believe that there is an intrinsic connection between religion and reverence. It may disappoint you, but if you think a bit more about it you will realize that this is no cause for surprise. It is possible to be religious, pious, full of faith, spiritual even without reverence. And we know that being a member of a religion doesn’t necessarily make people well mannered, or dignified; it certainly doesn’t necessarily incline them to behave respectfully towards others.

One helpful clarification that Woodruff makes is that reverence isn’t the same thing as respect. Reverence lies being what one might call appropriate respect. If confronted by a bully or a tyrant or a manipulative sycophant you should not respond with respect. You should, however, retain a degree of reverence for them and this should inform the way in which you deal with them and the situation. If so called ‘assertiveness training’ were a bit more thought-through than it is, then you might expect your training day to explore what the virtue of reverence might look like when people are trying to push you around. It will not take the form of acquiescence, but neither will it take the form of violence, or recrimination or anything else that would diminish the people involved.

Having said that, it would be wrong to say that there are no connections between respect and reverence – but reverence is the deeper, more important matter. There isn’t an occasion that does not call for reverence; which is a tough call to those of us who realize that all too often our attitude and behavior is shamefully oafish, and that our sense of humour is crude and even cruel. I wonder whether I am alone in increasingly find what passes for humour as both predictable and unnecessary. Great humour is that it is based on surprise and incongruity and is either self-deprecating or victimless. That’s what comedy will be like in heaven; it has to be, for that will be comedy in which all can laugh and none need feel exposed or embarrassed or roughed up by it.

Reverence the virtue also offers a critique of the way in which we do criticism. I am on record as saying that I am concerned about the lopsidedness of our education system, especially at its higher levels, which outs so much stress on the development of critical faculties. I know that these matter and can, on the whole, hold my own when it comes to being critical. But I also want people, myself included, to have and to exercise constructive faculties and to do both crucial and constructive thinking in a way that is respectful and reverent and therefore appropriate to the humanity of the situation, and indeed, one might say, the implicit spirituality of the situation.

Woodruff spends quite a bit of time talking about reverence in ancient Chinese culture, Confucianism if you want to label it, and it is in this context that he talks about ritual. And here is a point I have been building up to. It’s not what you do but how you do it that matters. Ritual in general, and ceremonial in particular, are really, really different depending not on whether they are done right but on whether they are done reverently.

I know myself well enough to be able to say that I have a fairly tidy mind and I tend to think that structure and systems should be tidy and that so too should living spaces, and that places of worship should definitely be well ordered, tidy clean and so on. When I returned for a funeral in my former parish some of the parishioners were immediately concerned lest I notice that in the interregnum they had reverted to using not inconsiderable parts of the church as a junk store. The point, I hope, was not that they thought I was fussy, but that they agreed with me that this mattered but had just not had the energy to stop the junk accumulating.

Reverence, or lack of reverence, impact son everything we do, but let me emphasize again that is not about the surface detail. It’s a virtuous attitude which will never display itself but which is always apparent. Humility – another rarely mentioned but often-misunderstood virtue – is a close relation of reverence. This is why the Greeks thought that hubris was such a bad thing. We think if it as overweening pride, but the idea goes back to mutilating the bodies of those defeated in battle. Reverence says, ‘No, don’t do that.’

A couple of weeks ago I was present at a very moving and reverential ceremony at the medical school at Cambridge University. It was in the dissecting room – Cambridge is one of the few University left where the medics dissect real bodies rather than models. All the dissecting finished, the bodies were in coffins neatly arranged on the floor and all the 300 first year students gathered with them. This was the occasion on which they learnt the name and something of the life-story of the person they had dissected – whom they thanked on this occasion as their first and most silent teacher. In October these same students will come to King’s Chapel with the families of the donors for a thanksgiving service. All this is, I believe, truly wonderful, something that feeds into the hidden curriculum of reverence. A truly encouraging beacon in a world which is it seems increasingly brutal and dismissive of such considerations.

If there is one core reason why I feel that Anglican catholic liturgy is a gift both to the church and the world it is because of its potential as a theatre and as a school of reverence. I don’t believe that Anglican Catholicism has a particularly distinctive approach to doctrine, nor do I believe that it has an especially direct connection with social justice or community cohesion. However the emphasis on ceremonial, on a non-hectoring more contemplative approach to prayer, a respect of the need that people have for silence and space and beauty and to be involved practically and physically, all this is, to me, vitally important, and again not for the detail, but for the opportunity to do something that shows and encourages reverence.

I like Woodruff’s book but ultimately disagree with the basis on which it is written. For me reverence is not only a virtue it is an attitude that has spiritual depth –that is to say is rooted not in pleasure, or good taste, or better results but in the heart and being of the incarnate God. A theology of reverence is for me absolutely grounded in incarnation, but more than this a theology of incarnation necessarily issue is the ethics and practice of reverence.

So as we proceed in liturgy and life let us, whatever our particular doctrinal convictions or ecclesiastical preferences, seek to be people animated and shaped by the virtue of reverence, and thereby be ever more deeply grounded in the God of love made known in Jesus Christ and shared, we know not how, as we celebrate Eucharist together.

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For Christmas Eve


As the sun slips the horizon

it barely transcended:


degree by degree,

inch by inch.


As the darkness rises

to black the great windows:


colour by colour,

pane by pane.


As the hoarfrost gathers

to glisten creation:


blade by blade,

twig by twig.


Let my prayer rise before you

as tranquil as incense:


cloud by cloud,

plume by plume.


Let my hands be uplifted

as gift and acceptance:


finger by  finger,

palm by  palm.


And let this night fall

with seismic thud


to be vanquished and healed

by the flint-flash of God.

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From a sermon preached at Durham Cathedral 16.3.14

Christianity is fundamentally a religion of grace and freedom, which makes for certain problems. In particular it makes us both anxious and confused – and sadly Lent can aggravate all this for us.

If we were Muslims and this was Ramadan we wouldn’t need to rack our brains wondering what we are going to give up, and then further wondering whether it counts, and whether or not we can have a bit of it on a Sunday.

There are plenty who would seek to turn Christianity into a religion of simple rules, plainly described and bluntly policed.  Lent can sometimes kindle in us a nostalgia for the rigorous ways of simple days, and not all of that nostalgia is wrongly placed.

There is something to be said for simplicity and obedience. It’s just that it isn’t very nice and it’s not very practical. If you want simplicity and obedience get yourself to a nunnery.  Once you get there you will realise how very difficult it is, and it won’t be long before you are complaining about the conditions.

As our culture has become distant from the Christian calendar so aspects of that very calendar have an attraction which is both exotic and nostalgic. People beyond the faith feel the spiritual pull of Lent, just as contemporary Christians feel the spiritual pull of the idealised monastery or wilderness.

But the ideal is itself a snare.

In my own ideal wilderness, for instance, there are always lovely sunsets, and dry enough hollows to sleep in and pure springs conveniently placed to provide lovely mineral water.

I have an idealised monastery too.  My cell has a wonderful mountain view, the temperature is moderate all year round, there is a well-stocked library and working in the garden is a sheer delight.

In these ideal places I am never bored, tired, overwhelmed, worried, cross, confused or irritated. I am never let down by others and never let myself down. Desire and provision are perfectly matched and when in the monastery we are not keeping silence or in worship (the singing by the way is superb) the conversation is warm, informative and invigorating.

Such is my fantasy. And I know it’s laughable.

But perhaps our fantasy Lents are much the same. We imagine ourselves  serenely engaging in spiritual disciplines for the good of our mind, body and spirit, and we further imagine our divine parent smiling beatifically on us, well-pleased that we are making such a good job of it.

The reality, on the other hand is a good deal less smug and good deal more anxious:

  • Have I given up the right thing?
  • Wouldn’t it be better to take something up rather than give something up?
  • Maybe I am being too hard on myself?
  • Wouldn’t it be better if I were to read a Lent book rather than drive myself crazy because all can think about is the sweets or wine that I am depriving myself of for no reason other than that it seems that you should give something up in Lent?
  • Am I being too easy on myself?
  • Am I thinking too much of myself?
  • Am I too distracted from serious spirituality?

Our capacity for anxiety is endless; as is our capacity for spiritual invention. These are part and parcel of the spirituality of our religion of grace and freedom.

This means that the anxiety is part of the journey.  You have to go through it to get beyond it.  That’s the reality. Everything else is fantasy.

We come to God not though fantasies, or as our ideal selves, but through reality, and as our actual selves.

Lent (like Christianity as a whole) is the invitation not to develop fantasies about ourselves, but to come to terms with the reality.

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It seems to me that there is an unusual amount of muddle out there about Lent this year, especially the question of giving things up.  So here’s a quick Q and A.

What’s the main point of Lent? 

Lent is a time of preparation for Easter. Without Easter, Lent makes no sense.

Is it necessary to give up chocolate, tea or alcohol for Lent? 

No.  In fact there aren’t any rules. It’s up to you what you do in Lent.

Then why do people give things up for Lent?

There are lots reasons. Habit. Conformity. Fun (well, maybe not fun). Then there’s the thought that giving-up may actually be good for your health and well-being.

What’s the best reason for giving something up?

It’s to take on a kind of ‘fasting’ that you actually feel, and which reminds you that you are person who is alive but maybe not quite aligned at the level of desire, need and want.

Really! I thought it was that Christians have got a nasty negative streak and believe that suffering, anxiety and  guilt are good for you?

No. The point is that recognising the truth about the human condition in general, and yourself in particular, is good for you. Christianity teaches that the truth sets you free. So this is truth not for the sake of constraint, still less for the sake of misery, but truth – even if uncomfortable – for the sake of freedom.

What about giving up ‘abstract things’ – indeed you yourself have suggested giving up ‘busyness’ and ‘grumbling’?

I think that there is a point in using Lent as a time to focus on some aspect of your life that is not so good. But this isn’t like giving up something like chocolate. Giving up busyness or grumbling is not a form of fasting from something that is enjoyable and good.  Rather it is an attempt to change your ways at a practical level.

But what if being busy is a good or necessary part of my life?

Don’t give it up then!  The point of my suggestion is that for some people there is an unnecessary, chronic and somewhat performed ‘busyness’ that can get in the way of more important things. Other people may just have a lot to do to get by. But if you are borderline do have a look at

Wouldn’t it better to do something positive rather than focus on the negatives?

Well it might be. And one traditional Lenten practice is to give more money away.  But I would be wary of taking on more to do unless you are well clear of the ‘busy-zone’.

What’s the obsession with ‘Lent books’?

I know it’s a bit much! It’s as if Jesus went out into the wilderness to read a pile of paperbacks. Reading a specific book in Lent probably goes back to the reading over otherwise silent meals that happens in monasteries.  It’s not essential. But it’s another thread in the rope of Lent – not the main thing.

Okay then, what is the main thing?

The main thing is that there are several things, several threads in the rope.  A bit of fasting, a bit of trying to improve your life, a bit of reflecting on your weaknesses, a bit of recognising that you sometimes fall short of the mark and that sometimes you are aiming at the wrong target because your desires are muddled, a bit more time spent in silent prayer or meditation, perhaps a bit more compassionate concern for others, a bit of being neighbourly and constructive.

Is that the lot?

No, the potential is endless. But there is one point I could have made better. The main thing really is Easter.  And that will come no matter what you do in Lent. It’s all a question of whether and how you want to prepare for it.

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