Archive for the ‘Lent’ Category

This is the text of a talk I gave in Durham Cathedral on Wednesday 27th March 2013. It is much longer than my normal posts.  So maybe make yourself a drink before you settle down to it.

Reading: Matthew 26. 69-75

When he realises that he has fulfilled Jesus’ words by denying him, Peter does not only weep, but he weeps bitterly. What is it that makes his tears so sour? Why do the evangelists insist on that word bitterly, why does J.S. Bach make so much of it in both his great Passions?

It is, I suspect, the bitterness of self-disappointment.

Over the years, I have made something of a study of forgiveness (and yes, it is ironic that I am only now coming round to taking the subject of sin reasonably seriously…). The most common issue that comes up when you talk about forgiveness pastorally is that people say ‘the trouble is, I can’t forgive myself’.

Part of me always wants to say, ‘no you can’t, that’s just the way it is with forgiveness’. But the less analytical and more pastoral part of me understands. What I think people mean when they say that they can’t forgive themselves is that they have let themselves down and feel unworthy of self –respect, and therefore self-forgiveness.  This, I think is a common enough experience.  Not to be taken lightly. Rather to be taken as the salt in the wound of sin, the bitterness in Peter’s tears.

Some commentators have suggested that it is the bitterness in the tears that turns them into repentance.  This is a helpful suggestion and takes us away for the concept of self-forgiveness – indeed it suggests that a Christian reading is very different to a humanistic or straightforwardly psychological reading. The psychologist says,’ let me help you forgive yourself’. The Christian pastor says, ‘nope, you are right, you can’t forgive yourself and realising that is the beginning of repentance – and guess what! – the beginning of repentance is also the end of forgiveness.’

It is when you realise that you can’t forgive yourself that you truly open yourself to God’s forgiveness.

As the aria, Ebarme dich in the Bach’s Matthew Passion has it: ‘Have mercy, my God, for the sake of my tears! See here, before you heart and eyes weep bitterly. Have mercy on me, my God.’

That aria is a six-minute crucifixion on the emotions. In it, I hear the suggestion not that Peter was a bad man but that he was a good man trying his hardest doing his best and discovering that his best was not good enough. He was a strong man at full stretch and then beyond his elastic limit.

Bitter tears come for a soul that knows that it can never spring back into shape again – things will never be the same.  Bitter tears come with the recognition that the projects of self-sufficiency, self-justification, self-forgiveness, are all vain and ultimately useless. Bitter tears are those in the eyes of all who survey the wondrous cross and think to themselves – here is my hope, my only hope.

We have travelled a few steps with Peter these last few days. Seeing him rise and fall, excel and fail, be named the rock and now end up in a soggy mess of bitter tears, realising that his friend knew him better all along; his friend who is going to die alone.  I said on Monday that loneliness is the consequence of sin – not only of the sinner but of those who sinned against. Grace and agape – these are the things that banish loneliness, and if we live in society based on inclusion and social justice – well that helps banish loneliness too.

So the bitterness in our tears is that we can’t forgive ourselves because we no longer like or trust ourselves. And yet that intuition, that recognition, is not a one-way ticket to hell. Rather it is the necessary condition that allows us to avail ourselves of the love and mercy of God. We seek God’s forgiveness not because we would rather like God to do something that we can perfectly well do ourselves – at least on a good day. We seek God’s forgiveness because its only God’s forgiveness that can deal with the issue we have: and the issue that we have is that we are sinners and that our tears are not only copious and salty, but bitter. To say that they (our tears) are full of regret is to understate it. The point is that they are full of truthful self-recognition – and, as we all know, Jesus in the fourth gospel says without equivocation that the truth will set you free. What he doesn’t say is that the truth is very nice and that encountering it will be a pleasant or positive experience.

This short series of Holy Week talks has the title ‘Living with Sin’ and I have been trying to make connections between what you might call a contemporary mind-set and the word ‘sin’ which on the whole doesn’t fit there. We looked a bit at the deadlies yesterday and saw that in some ways it is difficult for us to see just why or how they are deadly.

This evening want to offer you a different range of things that might just help you make some sort of sense of the idea that there are some habits of mind, or attitudes of heart, that have the capacity to keep turning us away from God.   Before launching my list at you let me offer a few hints as to what I might be getting at.

First of all, the sorts of things that are on my list are things that have got the capacity to slip under the radar of self-awareness. I am not going to stand here and tell you that it is sinful to murder people or to steal from them. By the time there is a law against something it has lost, for most people, or at least most of the sorts of people who pop along to Cathedrals to hear talks about sin, much of its allure.

Nonetheless, you can be sure that the sin that best engages, I mean wastes,  your time and energy is not something that causes you to tut-tut, though there are plenty of examples of people tut-tutting against the things that in their life that are most ashamed of. This is tactical tut-tutting, the sort that seeks to set up a smokescreen.  People naively think that if they protest enough against something in others no one will ever suspect that this is, in fact, their own most troubling fault.

Of course it is not an iron rule – people who protest against things are not necessarily practising them, but there is often something going on like this when people become aggressive, or if they go on witch- hunt or start throwing blame around.

When it comes to the sins of our age we are all at them – to greater or lesser degrees. The sins, the thoughts of mind, the habits of the heart which are destructive in any culture tend to be participated in, more or less, by most of the people who inhabit that culture.  Our sins are indeed the sins of wealthy consumerist, late modern people living in the north Atlantic countries

One final word before I share my little list. It must be clear now that the sins that really matter are not the ones that easily make themselves known, not those which are advertised and not those which are themselves illegal.  The sins that matter are those which get under the radar, are insidious, common and sometimes even present themselves as virtues. Some of these are banal, others are things we might indeed feel proud of. It is worth remembering that Peter was in the end caught out in the very area where he felt he was strong – loyalty. ‘Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.’

It is clear that the things on my list are not intended to cause you to say tut-tut about others. More likely they will make you think that I have lost my senses.  Maybe I have.  You must make your own decision, but these are some of the more common ways in which we and others in our culture manage to distance ourselves from God and get in the way of grace. So here is my list of contemporary deadlies:

Niceness, busyness, grumbling, perfectionism, envy, and control-freakery.

I know it’s only six, but it’s enough to be going on with. If you want to add a couple to the list please feel free.

I have put them order of increasing toxicity.

Niceness is the most benign on the list. I don’t mean here to malign good manners, politeness courtesy and the like. There is real virtue here:  and Andre Compte-Sponville has it has the first on this list of 18 great virtues. He puts politeness first because it can be the first step to learning other virtues and I put it first because it can be the first part of the slippery slope.

But by niceness I mean the willingness to take short-cuts to popularity and influence.  Niceness is the sin that squeezes truth into a form that will please the very person who should be distressed by what they hear. Niceness lacks moral courage and is without faith in the reconciling power of grace.  When we are self-consciously and determinedly nice we are conflict and risk-averse.  We prefer to be on good terms than to face a necessary truth. To prioritise being nice is a way of getting on in the world, but that’s all it is.

No 2 is busyness. I have said plenty about this this Lent and persuaded a number of people to try to give it up.  See The idea is not of course to give up on the attempt to make the best use of your time or to live vocationally or sacrificially. The idea is to remove yourself from the corrosive and toxic power of the’ busyness syndrome’ which mistakes activity for action and being wanted for being useful.

Third is grumbling. Benedict was onto this so we can hardly say that it is a new observation.  A few years ago I tried to give up grumbling for Lent – and thence for life. It’s not easy. Impossible in fact- indeed it is impossible entirely to avoid any of these deadly habits – which is why we rely on God’s forgiving grace rather than God’s just reward. Grumbling, however, is a major issue in our culture where the critical faculties needed to be a good scientist, and the sense of entitlement needed to be a demanding consumer, come together to create a social milieu which is often a long way from the values of, say, the Sermon on the Mount.  Someone once told me that her effort to give up grumbling nearly ruined her social life: what else is there to talk about than things that are not as they should be! Well, that’s the issue in a nutshell. If we rely on discontent to bond us we are a very long way from the kingdom of God.

Fourth comes perfectionism.  This is perhaps the silliest of sins. I mean who is ever going to get anything perfect?  And yet it is alive and well in us.  We get hints of this in some of the rhetoric that knocks around places like this – ‘world class’, ‘continuous improvement’ and so on.  These are the aspirations of those who have tasted success and want some more , want it all, perhaps, who want to be world-beaters, world-leaders, the best of the best, the most superlative. Perfectionism has its place – I mean, who wants a slap-dash dentist. But we all know that perfectionism means the striving for an unreasonable standard and letting that striving spoil things at the human level.

I have put envy fifth on my list. It is there propping up the 10 commandments in the form of covetousness and as we noted yesterday recognised by Jungian analysis and its derivatives. Envy is amazing in this capacity to shape our desires.  Just think of the amount of time you have spent comparing yourself with the qualities, successes, attributes or material goods of others.  Envy is necessary to the sort of political economy we have and for that reason perhaps gets a better press than it deserves.

(Come to think of it I don’t recall hearting many sermons against envy.  If I heard an excellent one I’d probably be jealous of the gifts of the preacher and to compensate would grumble about its deficiencies. All sins are connected… )

It’s only when we get beyond envy that we can fully appreciate the way in which God loves and shines through others.  If you are seeing a person though envious eyes you are not seeing what God sees.  If our eyes were but more graceful (grace- filled) we would know less of envy.

Finally I come to control-freakery. This is the desire we have to be in charge, to sort things out, to determine things, to have our own way. This is connected to the idea of will-to-power and it lies behind a phenomenal amount of personal ambition, behaviour as well as banes of modern life such as managerialism.

The neuroscientist Ian McGilchrist has argued that the left hemisphere of the brain is our on-board manager, accountant, planner and analyst and that we would certainly be lost without it.  But he has also argued that the left brain has a huge blind-spot, and that blind-spot lies in failing to appreciate the value of the right brain. Indeed the left brain – the manager – puts a lot of energy into trying to neutralise the visionary, creative, artistic, subtle, sensitive spiritual right hemisphere.

McGilchrist believes that we are at a decisive point in the history of our culture in terms of whether we let the control-freak tendency in human beings finally run the show, or whether we open ourselves to a more enlightened and spiritually open form of living.  We need not over-dramatize this in order to recognise that the part of us which seeks to grab and grasp control is not the grace-open or grace-sensitive part. Control-freakery is animated by fear and anxiety, and the attitude which tends to denigrate the competencies of others and over-estimate the self.

Which takes us back to Peter territory – the territory that takes us on a journey to the cross – but not by a direct route. The journey to the cross for the sinful disciple is not the route of the Via Dolorosa. Rather it is the journey that comes to an abrupt end at cockcrow, and which continues not clear-sightedly, but as we feel our way forward tentatively, our eyes filled with bitter tears which know we cannot forgive ourselves. Tears that are the beginning of the repentance that proves that, after all, we do trust in Christ alone:  for his redeeming, reconciling and renewing love; in a word, for his great accomplishment – his life-giving, sprit-breathing resurrection.

The resurrection alone can deal with our sins. They are never going not be eradicated for us, but if we are to live a radically new life it will be without them, and with and in the fellowship that is God’s will or all those whom he loves. Those whom he sees not as unworthy sinners, but as children who know that they cannot forgive themselves and so who turn to him in an act of repentance which is both the deepest desperation and the most sublime hope.

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This is the text of a talk I gave in Durham Cathedral on Tuesday 26th March 2013. It is much longer than my normal posts.  So maybe make yourself a drink before you settle down to it.

Reading: Matthew 26.31-35

In a famous letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Gordon Lang, Evelyn Underhill said that the clergy ought to be more fully trained in prayer and more fully devoted to it.  She went on to say that ‘God is the interesting thing about religion’. This has always struck me as a curious way of putting things, and one which is not borne out by parish experience where God is often the least likely subject of conversation.  I think there is something of a reverse truth about people which connects with the theme of these talks. So one might say that, ‘sin is the interesting thing about human beings’.

It may sound perverse to say so but the evidence is quite strong. Look at the storylines of novels, films and soap operas. Few are animated by virtue. It’s vice that makes people pay attention.  Think of the number of detective stories there are. Have a look at the’ true crime’ section next time you are in a bookshop. Just think about what makes news, news, especially local news.  Good news is tedious and dull, or so the market –forces suggest and broadcasters tend to go along with it. And it’s true at the level of gossip too – people love telling each other about things that have revealed the sinfulness of another person. ‘You won’t believe what he or she has said or done now…’ You will know that that words like that are unlikely to be the introduction to a story about generosity or kindness or courage.

Sin and the consequences of sin fascinate us. I know this is not good but it does strike me that the church could make a bit more of it.  Of course we are all ashamed that our aspiration to be virtuous and holy is self-thwarted day by day. And this shame is one of the reasons why we try to keep the subject of sin at bay.  Yes, there are other good reasons why we avoid the language of sin: we know that it can be used manipulatively and cruelly. And we know that Jesus warned people against judging each other.  But anyone with an ounce of insight will realise that you don’t need to judge others to talk about sin.

The average Christian is a walking encyclopaedia of sinfulness which can only be read properly from the inside.  But the sad truth is that all too often, rather than developing what you might call sin-literacy, learning how to read the book of sin which is our sorry and ashamed self, we have developed sin-blindness. We work hard to avoid appreciating that the true script of our lives is written in words which are far from flattering: pride, sloth, greed, lust, envy.  These are five of the seven deadlies, handed down to us largely thanks to Gregory the Great.  It is worth noticing, though, that the list of deadly sins has not been without fluidity, a point which I will want to explore shortly. Also worth pointing out that the idea of this list of seven goes back to a hermit called Evagrius.

Evagrius, however, did not talk of deadly sins, exactly.  He thought of the things on his list as seven habits of mind, which inclined the Christian soul in the wrong direction.  For Evagrius the list was not of deadly sins but of ‘thoughts’- and he lists not seven but eight. In her book expounding them, Angela Tilby calls them the ‘diagnostic toolkit’.  That tells us that Evagrius was less interested in forensic issues, or questions of judgement or blame and more interested in issues of health.

Clearly the eight items on his list are not healthy or wholesome habits of thought. But simply casting them as thoughts seems to me to suggest that they are less shameful than if we call them sins.  And this has the liberating consequence that they can become more the kind of think we can talk about in pastoral and preaching contexts, as well as becoming usable as the vocabulary of self-description.

It also raises the possibility that some of these sins or thoughts might not be all bad: anger, for instance. Surely there is place for anger if the weak are being abused by the strong. And sadness – surely sadness is the right thought when faced with tragedy or loss.  Then there is pride: of course arrogance and conceitedness are bad, as is chauvinism, but there is also good pride, both in what you have done well and in the way we delight in the success of others. As one who has struggled with the challenge of not being busy through Lent, I would also want to make a case for sloth.

It’s not always good to be trying to do more. Doing less has its time and its place. Failing to do your fair share of the chores is not really on, but there should always be time, in a good and obedient Christian life, to say, let’s have a break, let’s just leave it for now… in fact let’s just leave it. One of the most important things we can do is sit down and write not a ‘to do’ list but a ‘to don’t’ list. You can neither do it all than you can have it all. These are lies which we pass onto each other in our overly addicted, constantly accelerating culture.

We might want to pause before we start to make a positive case for all the thoughts on Evagrius’ list or sins on Gregory’s, though we should not perhaps be too hard on vainglory (a character weakness rather than a sin perhaps –  I mean, who gets hurt when we get a bit puffed up?). On the other hand, and lust and gluttony do take some justifying. As for avarice or envy… one would struggle to find a good word for it, and yet this is probably the least confessed and least discussed sins. It is so fundamental to who we are to envy others and to keep it quiet.

I was speaking (conversationally) to a Jungian analyst the other day and she said, in passing, that ‘when the envy begins to come out you can be sure that the process of analysis is coming to an end.’ This sounded wise to me.  Of all toxic thoughts we have, all the sinful habits of mind, envy is perhaps the most undermining of the good.  The sludge at the bottom of your soul very probably consists of a lot of envy. It’s worth dwelling for a moment on that: we say in the abstract that Christ died for our sins – and that seems okay. But to say Christ died for our envy… that sounds pathetic. Envy is such a mean and useless thing.  And yet my hunch is that in today’s world it is maybe envy that is the sin of sins. Theology has traditionally said that that place is reserved for pride, and we need to listen to that wisdom- though very carefully as it is easy to mis-hear it.

However there is a book that seeks to rehabilitate all the seven deadly sins. Called the Joy of Sin it takes an evolutionary psychology perspective and makes the case for the adaptive nature of the deadlies.  It’s an interesting approach, not only saying that lust is necessary to ensure that another generation will come along,  but that the desire to do the necessary for the next generation actually lies behind some rather admirable and good behaviours. The suggestion is that it is the more lustful of us who are more likely to behave more like the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ famous story.

The book’s argument about gluttony is in an interesting one.  The author Simon Laham, lists Gregory’s five different ways of being greedy: first simply being too greedy – eating too much. But there is also the sin of eating too early, to expensively and ‘with too much focus on how the food is prepared’. These are, he says, the sins of the French – not the sins of the obese.

Obesity today, he rightly points, out is correlated with poverty.  This is true in our own culture but perhaps not so true globally – the average American is heavier than the average Nepali.  But his point is still worth thinking about as it reminds us that sin is easily read off from a person’s exterior.  He goes on to talk about the way in which our eating is not always driven by desire: habits and mis-readings of the environment are also significant.  For instance, many of us are driven along by the ‘clean the plate’ phenomenon – which is hardly a deadly sin in itself, but which can cause people who are drinking soup in a situation where their bowl, unknown to them, is being constantly refilled from a hidden source beneath their table, to consume copious quantities.

Many people today consider being on a diet virtuous.  It is perhaps a way of keeping the deadly sin of gluttony at bay. Indeed for many people Lent is marked more by a tweak of the diet more than by anything else. We might wonder whether this is, in fact, a good thing, whether it is a way of dealing with or avoiding gluttony.  Experiments have shown that people who are on diets consistently underperform in certain cognitive tests. That means they don’t think as well as people who are not on diets. There are a number of possible reasons for this but if not being on a diet means that a) you are not thinking so much about what you are eating and so have more metal space for more significant matters and b) you have enough oxygen in your blood to make your brain work properly then it could be that avoiding a diet and risking gluttony is the better habit, a less sinful way of operating.


The point on which I ended last night was the idea that our sins stem from our strengths.

It seems to me a fairly obvious point, though it is not one that informs the way we talk about sin. Sin is much more likely to be connected with weakness than with strength. We see ourselves as giving into temptation because we are weak: not as generating temptations for ourselves because we are strong.  But the Christian insight is often that the truth of things is often the opposite of what we once thought.

So let’s dwell for a while on the idea of sin as strength misused or taken to an extreme for a second.  Go to the playground or workplace: it is the physically strong person who is the bully – the imposing presence imposes itself inappropriately. Or the person of high intelligence:  that is the one who will belittle the ignorance of others. It is the quick witted one who will cut into others with a cruel swipe of the tongue.

It follows from his that one way in which we might beging to learn a bit more about ourselves as sinners is to reflect not so much on the negatives, the things we know that are bad or the areas where we know we are weak, but on the areas where we know we are strong.  You could call these sins, tragic sins. They are gifts misused and thinking in a certain way we might say that there is no cause for them.

But there’s another angle on this. I don’t know why, but sin seems to have a quality that makes it particularly difficult to understand and relate to, indeed to live with.  I think of it as a malevolent intelligence. It is slippery and difficult. It is slightly cleverer and certainly a bit quicker than we are.  It is insidious.

So the modern pastor has not only to work with the new problem that the language of sin has been rendered culturally impotent (yesterday’s first point) but also with the older problem that even if you get sin out on to the table, it is no more graspable or controllable than a blob of mercury.

What this means is that the worst sins are not those that appear under the banner headlines, or which cause people to be locked up in high security prisons. On the contrary, these are by and large the sins that speak their own name and, if not, are unequivocally labelled: at least by others.

The sins that are more pastorally and spiritually important are the ones that either slip under the radar, or which have the gall to announce themselves and parade about in public.  These are the vices which disguise themselves as virtues – and it is these that you, and the good Christian people committed to your oversight, are most prone to.  There is nothing salacious or titillating about them, but they are alive and well and largely undiagnosed. We will look at a list of them – the new deadlies – tomorrow.

For now I want to conclude by returning to the story of Peter, which we heard earlier. This is strong Peter, Peter in bragging mode:

‘Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.’

Peter knows that this sounds good. It is what he feels others expect of him. He is the rock, after all. He is Mr Dependable, Mr Reliable.  We can have no doubt that Peter wishes that this were true of himself.  He might even think it is true of himself.  And we are all like Peter in this regard:  generating our own PR and then wanting to believe it… and then actually believing it.

Jesus is not fooled, however, and says to him words that have become among the most memorable in scripture:

‘Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.’

But Peter still will not have it. He doesn’t get it. He can’t accept this vision of himself as weak and fallible. He desperately wants to be the strong one. ‘You can rely on me, Jesus. I will be there for you.’

‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.’

Well, we all know how that story ends.

The question for us to ponder is how our own story ends.

  • Where and how do we over-promise?
  • How and when do we paint a picture of ourselves which is more to do with aspiration than reality?
  • Why do we not only then try to persuade others that it is true – but also manage to dupe ourselves?
  • Why is my sin cleverer than I am?

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This is the text of a talk I gave in Durham Cathedral on Monday 25th March 2013. It is much longer than my normal posts.  So maybe make yourself a drink before you settle down to it.

Reading: Matthew 16.13-23

For some while I have been intrigued by the contrast between the way we talk in church and the way we talk the rest of the time.  This is obvious point to someone who is not often at a religious service and then for some reason appears at one.  They expect the talk to be of God, and spirit and for Jesus to be mentioned and for there to be hymns and other sorts of music together with a certain amount of standing up and sitting down, maybe even a bit of a kneel from time to time.  What they probably do not expect is for people to talk about ‘sin’ and ‘sins’ without batting an eyelid, as if the words were commonly used and universally understood.

As you know, neither is the case.  Francis Spufford in his book Unapologetic puts it like this:

Everybody knows.. that ‘sin’ basically means ‘indulgence’ or enjoyable naughtiness’. If you were worried, you’d us a different word or phrase. You’d talk about ‘eating disorders’ or ‘addictions’; you’d go to another vocabulary cloud altogether. The result is that when you come across someone trying to use ‘sin’ in its old sense, you may know perfectly well in theory that they must mean something which isn’t principally chocolatey, and yet the modern mood music of the word is so inconsistent that it’s hard to hear anything except and invocation of a trivially naughty pleasure.  (Spufford Unapologetic p26)

‘A trivially naughty pleasure’:  that’s more or less what people hear when we use the word ‘sin’.

One particularly sensitive arena of liturgical language is the baptism service.  Because baptism defines a person as a Christian it follows that the words of the service add up to a kind of collective definition of the Christian faith – an expanded creed.  This means that it serves something of a technical purpose for the church as a whole – the baptism service tells us who we are.  And yet the baptism service is that which is placed most clearly not in the heart of the church’s life or self-consciousness – but rather at the threshold, on the edge.  Most fonts are located, both conveniently and symbolically, near the church door.

When I was an incumbent we worked hard to develop the ministry of baptism to be meaningful for both the families who came and the regular members of the congregation.  Once a month the Sunday morning service was ‘baptism’ and we took time to reflect on it at PCC meetings.  One of my churchwardens had some interesting observations.  ‘They can understand what you are on about when you are talking to them’ he said, but when you start reading the service they are completely lost. For instance, where it talks about ‘dying to sin’ they all think it means, ‘longing to go outside for a cigarette’.

I think he was probably right. I now wish that I had kept the PCC conversation on that subject – ‘what do you think it means to ‘die to sin’?’ I expect it would have been quite an interesting discussion, uncomplicated by New Testament scholarship. If we had pursued the subject it is likely that someone would have talked about ‘original sin’ and someone else would have said they did not know what that meant and another should have said that it meant that unbaptized babies went to hell but that they did not believe any such thing and then someone would have said, ‘it’s twenty to nine’ and that would have been an end of it.

I say that not by way of criticism, but as a description about the way people approach such issues on planet parish. Most people have neither the time nor the energy or the capacity for a big philosophical discussion as part of, never mind anterior to, their participation in a life of faith and spirituality.

So as I see it we have a real problem of communication. To understand and participate in the Christian faith you have to be reasonably confident that you know what people mean when they use the word ‘sin’ or when you describe yourself as ‘a sinner’. And yet the words don’t seem to have any kind of serious meaning in ordinary language today.

I am curious about all this.  The word and concept of ‘sin’ are inescapable in Christianity, and yet the word is so far out of fashion as to be positively embarrassing. When talking with a priest about a situation I suggested that this was just the sort of consequence of sin that we should expect. He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t think any other sentence from you would have surprised me more’.

‘No,’ I protested, ‘sin is serious stuff.   We need to get more accustomed to speaking of it in everyday life, because unless we have an eye open for sin and are prepared to get some sort of understanding of what it is, and how it tends to work, and what its consequences are, and how it can be remedied, we are in a very gloomy place indeed. There is nothing sin likes more than to slip under the radar and go undetected.’

I still hold that view, but I am not at all surprised at the priest’s response to my introducing sin into our conversation.  It has become hard for us to imagine that the word will do any useful work.  We expect it to be a conversation stopper rather than to be a stepping stone to a better future. And this is what will not so.  If you take one thing from this series of talks, pick up the idea that the Christian faith means that sin is never the end of the story. What we mean by sin, at one level, is ‘that which can and will be redeemed by the God of love, mercy, grace, truth and peace’.  Holy Week and Easter are about what sin does to God and what God does to sin. It’s a real battle and yet sin does not get the better of God.  We can argue about what the enigmatic words of Jesus from the cross in John’s gospel mean:  the words translated, ‘It is finished’ or ‘It is accomplished’, but you can be sure it does not mean that sin got the upper hand. The cross and resurrection mean that sin does not win.

If you are going to take a second thing from these talks please make it this idea. While Jesus triumphed over sin, he did not destroy the reality of sin. Sin is alive and well and working on all sorts of projects in and around us: mostly, I suspect, undermining of Christ’s ministry and God’s mission, which are the only reasons for the church to exist.

And it is for this reason that it is worth thinking and talking about sin.  Sin is the source of misery of every conceivable kind. In particular, it is an engine of loneliness and a dynamo of destruction.  Sin erodes community and fellowship; it attacks love and friendship and creates fantasies of fulfilment and happiness which are the direct of opposite of wholesome and contented living.

And, just to underline the point, sin is going nowhere.  Christ has triumphed over sin and the church will not be vanquished, but we are all in for a struggle in our lives of faith and we may as well recognise that despite what we often think feel and say, the true struggle is not caused by those very difficult and unreasonable people who have different views and values to mine. Of course intra-church conflict, like inter-church conflict and inter-faith conflict, is painful and animated by sin.  But it is so rare in a conflict that one side is absolutely right and the other 100% wrong that it is a sensible working hypotheses to assume that there are always at least two sides to a conflict; that one person’s story, however convincing of their innocence and someone else’s guilt or stupidity or aggression or sheer bloody-mindedness, is never the whole truth.

The real struggle is not between good and reasonable us and bad and crazy them.  The true struggle is between grace and sin: and they are at war within us as much as around us.

I am not going to refer to many books in these talks but here is one. Simply called ‘Sin’ it is a series of lectures about the meanings that the word ‘sin’ took in the early church. The author, Paula Friedriksen, argues that ‘ancient ideas of sin… are, like all human products, culturally constructed’. (Sin P150).  She certainly manages to show a wide variety of understanding in her study of Jesus, Paul, various Gnostics and then Origen and Augustine. I found her contrast between Jesus and Paul especially illuminating. This is how she characterises them.

Jesus, she says, is interested in Jewish sin – breaking the 10 Commandments – and he teaches people how not to and what to do when they have – repent.  The coming kingdom is the home of repentant sinners, not those who have always kept the commandments.

Paul’s concern, on the other hand, is with what she calls ‘Gentile sin’:  idol worship which leads on to theft, adultery, murder and fornication.  The problem is not that people fail to obey the law of Moses, but that they run after false gods and this messes them up. But he also believes in universal redemption because in the end sin will be utterly defeated and its traces eroded.

We could spend the week examining these thumbnail sketches and exploring the territory they open up.  Let us rather take a brief look at what Fredriksen suggests about sin today. Recognising that the word is not much used reflects on people talk about their wrongdoing – whether criminal or otherwise culpable.

‘I am struck by the ways that ostensible acknowledgements of culpability minimize or even efface personal agency, thus responsibility.’ P147

For Friedriksen, sin has simply become ‘error’. She suggests that people do not say that they are culpable but that they have made a blunder. As she observes, responsible figures who have done wrong and been caught out often adopt the passive voice ‘mistakes were made’, they say. If they are bolder might say ‘I made a mistake’ but what rarely hear anyone way, ‘I did something wrong’.

Friedriksen concludes her volume with the words, ‘at the end of the day, however defined, “sin” suits its times’. P150 If you have an abstract theological head on that might sound offensively relativistic ad you will want to say, ‘no, sin is sin is sin. It is that which separates us from God.’  But think for a moment, what exactly is it separates the ‘real me’ from the ‘real God’?  That is the practical, pastoral urgent question of sin.  And the way I have set it up is not in terms of how to overcome sin or even avoid it.  It is rather the significantly cooler question of how to live with it.

By this I don’t mean that we have to learn how to come to terms with our own badness and wrongdoing as if it were not reprehensible or that we were not responsible. Rather, we have to learn precisely how to live with sin, to understand that while deeply negative and destructive, it is here in us today and it will be in us tomorrow and on the day we die.  We have to acknowledge that it will also be in and among others, and that the dynamics of sin are part and parcel of every group, institution, corporation, church and charity we will ever come across.  ‘Can Companies Sin?’ asked Justin Welby when studying for ordination here in Durham. I suspect that he knew the answer was going to be ‘yes’ before he write one word of his dissertation.

I have chosen for the readings these three evenings, short episodes from Matthew’s gospel where you could say that Peter encounters himself.  This evening’s was at Caesarea Philippi where Peter revealed his independence of mind and the courage of his insight in saying that despite what everyone else was saying that Jesus was the Messiah. It’s a great moment from Peter but it doesn’t take long for him to slip away from the glory of the moment into a very dark, dismal and lonely place. Peter takes Jesus to one side to rebuke him for prophesying suffering that was to come. As we know, this doesn’t go down very well with Jesus who immediately rounds on him: ‘Get behind me Satan… you are a stumbling block’.

It’s quite a fall from grace: from rock to block in five verses.

There is so much to learn from this about our own sin and sinning.  Here is a suggestion to reflect on.

You are never so vulnerable to sin as when you have just done well and been praised for it.

We don’t know what was going on in Peter’s mind, but for some reason he has overestimated himself; he seems to have let Jesus affirmation of his solidity, his judgement, his insight, his rock-like-ness go to his head.  ‘That’s cool. I got the Messiah question right against all the odds, what’s next for me… bring it on!’  We might call this the Solomon complex – thinking that we are wiser  than we are, fancying ourselves as  the Solomon of our day.  It’s a dangerous place to find yourself – indeed you never find yourself there until you put your foot in it.  And yet, and this is part of the point of my title ‘living with sin’m the Solomon complex it is an inevitable danger if, for whatever reason, your wisdom and insight is praised.  Someone has to occupy leadership positions and it as well if the people who do so have some confidence in their own judgement.  One positive consequence of keeping the language of sin alive in everyday life is that it might warn those new into public office that they are very likely to have their all-too-Peter-like moments.

The Christian world is in the extraordinary position of having a brand new Pope and a brand new Archbishop of Canterbury.  Who knows what’s going on in the minds and hearts of these two men these days, but you can be sure they are not beyond sin. No one is. Can archbishops sin?  You don’t need to write a dissertation to know the answer to that one. What matters is that archbishops and others know that the answer is not only affirmative but definite – they can sin and they will sin.

And so will you. And the chances are it will happen not when you are feeling malevolent, naughty or chocolatey but when you are feeling so confident that you decide that you know best.

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It’s all over the papers!

Well, that’s an exaggeration, but two articles in one week for NOTBUSY is not too bad.  And for all I know there may have been more.

On Monday, the Guardian ran a piece entitled, Could beditation be the answer to exam nerves? Oenone Crossley-Holland, a teacher in South Hampstead described the way in wich school children ar being taught mindfulness to help them cope with exam nerves.

Happily her enthusiasm for mindfulness seems to be supported by both her headteacher and pupils.  And so she writes

My headteacher [said] “Young people live in a fast-paced and confusing world. The expectations that parents and society place on students are so high. To be able to step back and appreciate yourself for who you are, and be able to stop the plates spinning is a gift. Mental wellbeing is at the route of being able to achieve anything.”

Ally, a student at my school, explains why she attends mindfulness club at lunchtime. “It’s just 15 minutes of quiet under a table,” she says. “I don’t necessarily find solutions to problems or anything, but I do come to terms with what’s happening around me.”

You can read the whole article here:

And then today, the Daily Mail ran an article precisely about the joy of refusing not to be busy.  The author, Candida Crewe, does not reference the I’M NOT BUSY’ campaign or the website and has probably never heard of it. Nonetheless she speaks the same language when she writes,

I never rush my children hither and thither, and they rarely see me busy – though admitting that makes me feel as vulnerable as telling someone how much I weigh.

Not being busy is a contemporary taboo, but one which I am happy to shatter.

She clearly understand the interpersonal power politics too, writing,

There is an increasing divide between the busy and the non-busy, just as there is between fat and thin, rich and poor, and it makes those of us who are not busy feel inferior.

And this is a great NOTBUSY story:

One day, a customer at the bookshop asked me if I planned to work in a shop for the rest of my life. I said I was enjoying it, but writing a book in my spare time. ‘I wish I had time to put my feet up and write a novel!’ he replied.

I realised, then, that it is in people’s self-important interest to make out that their time is more precious than mine.

Now, when people tell me how busy they are, I tell them how busy I am not.

Spot on. Three cheers for Candida Crewe! A wristband is yours whenever you wish to claim it.

You can read the whole article here

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Here is an extract from an email I received the other day. It raises a really good point.

I read about your book and the notbusy idea for Lent and am hugely attracted to it for many of the reasons you list on the website about how busyness eats away at us. I’ve been really conscious for example of how having a smartphone for the last three months has changed how I live, having access to the internet, email, twitter at all times … how much I love it, but also how profoundly distracting it is.

The reason I wanted to contact you thought was I don’t feel I can with integrity put ‘I’m not busy’ on my twitter profile, or wear the wristband – I feel I am busy and to say otherwise simply wouldn’t be true! So this is why I wanted to contact you, because I think you have a very important message and guidance to give, but I’m not sure if I can ‘sign up’ and say ‘I’m not busy’.

They also added: I don’t feel called to give anything up, but just to find a way to live well, in a more grounded way, with the busyness, or fullness of life.

My answer?  Essentially I see ‘busyness’ not as a state of productive effectiveness conducive to a personal or spiritual flourishing, but as continuous state of semi-panic. It is for this reason that I am comfortable with people who have a lot to do putting on the wristband. Indeed I am wearing one myself and sporting a ‘twibbon’ and I have plenty on my plate. But I am not thinking that really and truly there is just TOO MUCH TO DO.

The wristband, as I see it, is only secondarily a statement to others. It is primarily a statement to me. Whenever I catch a glimpse of it I think, ‘take care,’ ‘moderate your pace,’ ‘keep things calm,’ ‘make sure you don’t rush past someone you should speak to,’ and most importantly, ‘give people time’.

These are messages to the busy-busy me. In the language of my little eBook they are my effort to keep busy only in the old style and to avoid the ‘busyness syndrome’ which involves a craving for activity and distraction and the fear of waiting, silence and the sound of a ticking clock.

Finally, are ‘busyness’ and ‘fullness of life’ the same thing?  They can be. But for many the word ‘busy’ does not code ‘fullness of life’ but ‘out of control life’. So while the word can be okay, it can also be toxic. And it is for that reason that I hope that more and more people, including my correspondent, are able to become #NOTBUSY while remaining fully alive. Wearing the wristband is not really important, but I have found that it does help me.

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I received an email the other day from a hospital chaplain who was given an ‘I’M NOT BUSY’ wristband by a ‘thoughtful volunteer’. It would seem that the gift did not arrive at quite the most opportune moment…

Dear Stephen,

I have enjoyed your book on time wisdom and understand what it and the website ( ) are getting at, and heartily agree with the ideas. However having talked with colleagues we are left wondering how this can apply to a working environment that has to be so much more, in fact largely, reactive. There is very little room for saying for example “Come and talk to me next Wednesday when I have free time” because the person is only here now. Patients can be made to wait an hour or two or even a day for a non-urgent visit but if they are critically ill….

To give a little taste of life in the modern NHS:

Last Friday was day 7 of a very long week for me. (My colleague and I have a pattern of working that means 7days one week 3 the next.) Last week was made harder by 2 people from the Team being on annual leave, so for more than half that time everything in the diary or on the end of the bleep or knocking on the door was mine to deal with.

It happens, that’s life here.

And of course 4 of the nights I was on-call. On Friday I had to try to help and minister to two families with baby losses and then, amongst all the ordinary stuff, a visitor approached me for a chat. Two hours later I was finally able to leave her in the Chapel for reflection. Returning to the office I found a thoughtful volunteer had left me a wrist band….

I am sorry to say that this was not received by me in the spirit in which the gift was intended! Or indeed with the intended message! Most evenings I had gone home and done nothing for a large chunk of time, as per website suggestion, but largely because I was so drained I was not capable of doing anything!

Yours sincerely,

Name supplied but withheld by me

There is no easy answer to this one. But it is important to recognise that it is real.

While most of what I’M NOT BUSY is about is empowering people to understand that busyness is often self-inflicted. That’s an important and worthwhile aim. But it is unhelpful if it suggests that all chronic busyness is self-imposed – or even avoidable.

I address this issue in my eBook Beyond Busyness: Time Wisdom in an Hour where I pick up a concept from an article in the Harvard Business Review called ‘The Acceleration Trap’.[i] This is how the authors, Heike Bruch and Jochen I. Menges introduce the article and summarise the idea:

Faced with intense market pressures, corporations often take on more than they can handle: They increase the number and speed of their activities, raise performance goals, shorten innovation cycles, and introduce new management technologies or organizational systems. For a while, they succeed brilliantly, but too often the CEO tries to make this furious pace the new normal. What began as an exceptional burst of achievement becomes chronic overloading, with dire consequences. Not only does the frenetic pace sap employee motivation, but the company’s focus is scattered in various directions, which can confuse customers and threaten the brand.

Realizing something is amiss, leaders frequently try to fight the symptoms instead of the cause. Interpreting employees’ lack of motivation as laziness or unjustified protest, for example, they increase the pressure, only making matters worse. Exhaustion and resignation begin to blanket the company, and the best employees defect.

And this is what I write about it in the eBook.

Their research was based on more than 600 companies. Some they diagnosed as ‘fully trapped’. In them, 60% of employees agreed or strongly agreed that they lacked sufficient resources to get their work done (whereas this was true for only 2% in companies that weren’t trapped) and 80% said that they worked under ‘constant elevated time pressure’.

The ‘Acceleration Trap’ is the corporate version of the ‘busyness syndrome’ as it afflicts individuals – the ‘new busy’. The problem is not that there is sometimes the need for exceptional levels of activity and effort. It is that this becomes the new normal.

The article analyses the problem in terms of three patterns of destructive activity. While described in organisational language they will be familiar to anyone who has become busy in the new sense. First there is overloading – that is being faced with more work than can be done. One company for instance doubled the value of its contracts without addressing capacity issues. Second there is multiloading, which means that people are asked to do too many different things. The consequence is that employees lack focus and activities are unaligned. You could think of this in terms of a lack of joined-up-ness or internal coherence. Third there is the pattern which they call perpetual loading which is the habit of constantly imposed change. This, the authors suggest, leads to relentless and debilitating frenzy.

The Acceleration Trap is where companies get stuck if they try too hard for too long.

The reality is that some people opt into the busyness syndrome whereas others have it thrust upon them.

The eBOOK Beyond Busyness: Time Wisdom in an Hour costs £1.99 to download and is available in various ways.

[i] Bruch, H. and Menges, J. I. The Acceleration Trap Harvard Business Review April 2010

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Living the Unbusy Life #5.

This Lent, Tim Hardy has been trying to avoid busyness – after being given a I’M NOT BUSY wristband (see ) by his boss.  I am grateful to him for sending me these reflections.

Tim is the writer of an occasional blog (very) short stories and ‘poetry’; believer in God, people and (more often than not) the church; and pioneer of the rambling, trailing-off introduct…

Tim writes:

Positively Doing Nothing

One week into Lent and a quick recap seems in order – every day, I’ve been attempting to sit and do nothing for at least ten minutes (in a Lenten discipline kind of way, not an unsurprising slobbing around kind of way) and then sitting down to write something, whether inspired by the inactivity or otherwise.

Day Seven: Making a List

Today, I was back at work after what seemed like a very long weekend. It still feels like there’s way too much to do, and two hour calls from technical support do little to ease the workload. This feeling of too much to do and not enough time continued right up until I sat down and forced myself to stop.

Cue my internal monologue coach suggesting that it might be a good idea to make a list of the things that were important to me and his being rudely heckled by the question as to why I wasn’t doing them and instead was filling my life with other stuff.

This seemed to call for four lists (and I swear this was as far as I got before I calmed myself down and tried to stop busily thinking):

  • Things I can’t avoid but need doing anyway: taxing the car, paying the bills, et c.
  • Things I don’t particularly want to do but find myself doing anyway: watching rubbish on the telly, mindless Twitter consumption, doing killer sudoku, extra jobs
  • Things I do that I want to continue doing: spending time with my wife, hanging out with my friends, doing my job, eating good food
  • Things I do want to do but never get round to or I don’t have the time for: read more novels, read more proper books, fill in the Giant Form of Doom, write some more stories, do some research

As I tried not to make plans regarding the various bits of lists that were forming, an overwhelming desire seized me. However, I knew that if I acted on it all my nothingness for the evening would be wasted. I really, really wanted to know what was in that box-I-didn’t-quite-recognise-on-top-of-that-cupboard-there! I lasted until the alarm went and then I checked.

Reflecting on this evening’s nothing – it seems to have been the most productive so far. Now it’s just a case of doing something with what’s been thrown up from my brain.


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