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Revd. Giles King-Smith

Glory all around

This post consists of the Gospel Reading and address for the online service on Sunday February 14th:

Mark 9:2-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah." He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

It's easy, when we read such stories as this, to think of our lives as being far removed from these extraordinary events. It's easy to gasp in awe at Jesus' Transfiguration, and say - well, nothing like that has ever happened to me. Easy - but wrong. For, like every Bible story (and every character we meet in the Bible), this one invites us to make the connection with our lives and our world. That's the unique, sustained power of the Bible: we are presented, over and over again, with the intersection, the meeting place, between God and human beings. And then we are asked to move beyond our reactions as spectators - admiration, scorn, fear, joy, wonder, laughter, surprise - to apply what we have viewed to ourselves, and so to discover what God is saying to us, right here, right now.

Of course, it's hardly likely that the extraordinary experience of those three disciples with Jesus on the high mountain will be replicated in your lives or mine - though, of course, nothing is impossible for God! But what we will see, if we have eyes to see, if we are looking, is a succession of what we might call glimpses of glory: moments (and usually just moments) when something of God's glory and beauty and light is revealed to us, and we realise, just as Peter, James and John did - this is real, there is something wonderful, astonishing and lovely, just beyond or behind the everyday facade of our lives. It could be a poem, or a landscape, or a piece of music, or a storm, or a birth - or sometimes a death. Yesterday, walking the dog through the dunes, it was a glance up at the slope, covered with vegetation, between the path I was on and Marine Drive. I saw the incredible range, even in winter, of the colours, textures and shapes, and for a moment I was transfixed, and filled with thankfulness for God's presence, somehow luminous in this tiny patch of nature. And then it was on with the dog walk.

And that's the other thing we learn from the Transfiguration, and specifically from Peter's reaction. He wants to make it permanent, this glory; he wants to make dwellings for Jesus, Moses and Elijah; he wants to find a place where God can stay. But it can't be so: he and the others must come down off the mountain and re-engage with ordinary life in all its mess and muddle. It's the same for us: we can't hang on to these flashes of glory, we have to move on. But the good news is that we move on in some way fortified by what we have experienced. For an instant, we have understood that God is real and present and with us, just as the three disciples did when Jesus' glory was unveiled to them. We have the reassurance that, whatever life's troubles and pains, glory awaits, glory is behind everything, and all shall be well.

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Love for truth and justice

I've just recorded a video message for the year 10 pupils at Ilfracombe Academy. I'm their year Chaplain - we have a system of chaplains for each year group, to take assemblies, visit classes, be a resource for RE lessons, and so on. At the moment, we can't go into school, so all that remains is an online assembly. To be honest, I'm not sure which is more daunting: standing in front of 120 teenagers, wondering how they are going to react, or spouting into a laptop camera, with no idea how they will be reacting when they see the video.

Anyway, aside from my little neuroses ... the theme I was asked to speak on was "Love". In the cycle of assemblies, this topic is always scheduled for the week nearest to Valentine's Day. But, of course, we all know that love is more than hearts pierced by Cupid's arrows - or heart-stopping moments of sending and opening anonymous cards. So I started talking about wider ideas of love: in particular, of what it might mean to love truth, to love the poor, to love justice. And about the opposition this kind of love can provoke, and the cost to those who insist on loving in this way.

For Christians, Jesus shows what this kind of love looks like, and what it stirs up in hearts gripped by fear. Truly inclusive love, that welcomes in the stranger, the outcast, the sinner, is deeply threatening to those whose security depends on setting limits to the scope of love. Jesus' execution is an act of fear. The powers that be, religious and political, cannot tolerate the consequences of the big, the boundless love he represents. 

Plus ca change ... In our day, that bigger love is embodied by many courageous seekers of truth and justice. Not all of them, perhaps not many of them, are Christians; but I believe they are planting the Kingdom of God. Alexei Navalny returns to Russia, as soon as he has recovered from the poisoning that carries the Kremlin's fingerprints; he is arrested within minutes of setting foot on Russian soil, and now faces a lengthy jail sentence. This defiant courage, which I find almost incomprehensible, must have its roots in a passionate love of truth and justice.

Less dramatically but with equal persistence, Marcus Rashford will not give up on his campaign to eradicate child poverty. In him, too, there is the sense of a non-negotiable commitment to truth and justice, a love for what is right. Like Navalny, he can't stop - it matters too much, it is rooted in his experience, so to deny it would be to deny himself.

I am happy that in people like these two, and in many more whose names I will never know, the God of truth and justice, the God of love, is planting seeds of his Kingdom. It doesn't matter whether or not they invoke Jesus Christ; they are following in his steps by showing this bigger love, this hunger for truth and justice. Acknowledging this, I ask myself: how much do I love in this way? Can I move beyond admiration for others to acting, giving, insisting on what is right and good and true? 

And can I believe - holding before me the risen Christ - that love wins?

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What kind of freedom?

One of the key arguments used by those who have opposed the present lockdown - and by those who have accepted it, but who foolishly suppose that the roll-out of a vaccine should mean an immediate release from Covid restrictions - is that curbs on our freedom are intolerable and should be resisted.

But there are many different ways of understanding "freedom", and some of them are no more than a smart-looking disguise for selfishness. If freedom means nothing more than being allowed to do whatever I want, then the sum total of all our individual freedoms will be a state of anarchy in which the weak go to the wall.

If, though, I can value freedom from illness, freedom from hunger, freedom from danger - freedom to live, in other words - then perhaps I'm coming closer to a freedom which can be pursued for the benefit of others rather than simply for my own satisfaction.

In God's society (which we call the Kingdom) every freedom is judged by how it measures up to love. 

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News and Events

Back into lockdown

You may be aware that government guidelines permit communal worship in church during the lockdown. It has been left to each local church community to decide whether, on balance, it is safe to remain open - or not. This decision is affected by various factors, including the age and vulnerability of the regular congregation, the likelihood of many choosing to remain at home, and the resources needed to keep churches open safely. Of our 3 churches, St. Matthew's and St. Mary's will be closed during the period of lockdown (though St. Matthew's will open for private prayer each Sunday from 10.00 to 4.00), while St. Sabinus' will continue to open for regular worship on Sundays and Wednesdays, as below:

Every Sunday, 10.00 am: Parish Communion at St. Sabinus' (2nd Sunday - All-Age Service)

Every Wednesday, 12 noon: Midweek Communion at St. Sabinus'

Please note that St. Sabinus' will also remain open for private prayer on Wednesdays and Sundays between 11.00 am and 5.00 pm.

We are sorry that this is a more limited menu of worship than we normally provide, but we hope you will understand that keeping people safe is the priority at present. As before, we'll be providing a short online service for Sundays and a reflection for Wednesdays, both available on this website.

 

Ilfracombe Food Bank

The Food Bank is still operating, but our church collection points in Mortehoe and Woolacombe churches are only accessible on days when each church is open. If you have donations of food or other items for the Food Bank, please bring them to the Vicarage at Woolacombe, either leaving them in a bag at the end of our drive (2nd on the left as you drive up Springfield Road) or putting them in the marked box in our garage. We will arrange for them to be transported to the Food Bank. Thank you!

 

Resources for prayer and worship

You will find plenty of helpful ideas on both the Church of England website - www.churchofengland.org - and the Diocesan website - www.exeter.anglican.org. Each day at 11.00 am, the Diocesan website will have a "Pause and Pray" reflection.

On the Diocesan website, there are also helpful ideas for worship at home under "Coronavirus Guidance and Resources".

If you'd like help with a pattern of daily prayer, you can download the Church of England's Daily Prayer app.

 

Parish Support Fund

This is a new initiative, set up by St Sabinus' Church, to make small grants available for anyone in Mortehoe and Woolacombe who may be struggling to meet immediate financial needs. The scheme is administered by St Sabinus', on behalf of the churches in both villages, and in collaboration with Mortehoe Parish Council. Please contact Giles (870467 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) if you would like to donate to the Fund, or if you would like to apply for a grant. All enquiries will be treated in confidence.

 

St. Sabinus' Roof Project

A big thank you, on behalf of the Roof Group, to all who have already donated to our Roof Appeal. We are looking to raise an estimated £380,000 to completely re-roof St. Sabinus' Church in Woolacombe. This is a huge sum - but our beautiful building is listed, and so everything must be done correctly, using the right materials. As well as protecting the building and ensuring its integrity for future generations, this project will benefit the local economy, as the architect and contractors will all be local.

We will be applying to a range of grant-giving organisations, in the hope that some of them will be able to support our Appeal. And we would be very grateful for any donations that individuals might be able to offer (regardless of the amount). We have set up a separate bank account for the Roof Appeal - BACs details below:

Account name: PCC of Woolacombe Roof Account

Sort code: 53-61-21    /    Account number:   63107813

Reference:  Roof Appeal, plus your surname (unless you wish to remain anonymous)

- If you'd like to talk to someone about donating, please contact our Finance Officer, Colin Hood, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

- If you'd like to GiftAid your donation, please contact our Planned Giving Officer, Colin MacPherson, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

- For any other enquiries, please contact the Vicar, Giles King-Smith, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

And finally ... the St. Sabinus' Roof Group would like to record their thanks for every contribution to the Roof Appeal - whether already made or in the pipeline!

 

Friends of God

Meetings suspended till further notice

 

Agnostics Anonymous

Meetings suspended till further notice

 

Earthed!

Meetings suspended till further notice

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Learning to receive - a Christmas sermon

"To all who received him ... he gave power to become children of God" (John 1:12)

Of course, not everyone has received him, not everyone has accepted the gift of God himself, coming to us at Christmas.

And even if we count ourselves as committed Christians, or if we've been faithful members of the church for most of our lives, it may be that we're not very good at receiving. After all, the wisdom is that we're meant to give, and to do so without counting the cost, without thinking about what we might get back. When giving, the left hand shouldn't know what the right hand is doing. St. Paul quotes a supposed saying of Jesus (not found in the Gospels): "It is more blessed to give than to receive." End of story, game over, you might think.

But I think there's a catch here. I think you can't really give unless you've also received. If you're so focused on giving - because it's the right thing to do - that you find it hard to receive, you will run out of gas, sooner or later. And more importantly, you won't be entering into the two-way relationship of generous love which God invites us to have with him and with each other.

A friend who is a priest found herself in Costa in Barnstaple, after a particularly frustrating shopping expedition, having a good old moan about everything to the barista as she gave him her order for coffee. When she had finished, he looked straight at her and said, simply, "This one's on me." What I didn't ask her is whether or not she had her dog collar on - but either way, what was happening for her was that the barista was inviting her to receive a gift, and her priestly self found it surprisingly hard to accept his offer (though she did), because somewhere in her was the insistent habitual thought that she should be the giver.

Receiving, after all, can make you feel vulnerable, whereas giving can reinforce your self-esteem; it feels worthwhile and virtuous. At worst, giving can be a means of control. But to receive, you need empty hands, you need to let someone else do something for you. You have to let someone else give you a little bit - just a sliver, just a taste - of new life. It doesn't have to be a big deal, it can just be a matter of noticing and accepting a tiny act of kindness or generosity. And then - being thankful. Without thankfulness we're dead, we're finished, especially in grim times like these. Winter closes in, and we need to be thankful for the sparks of light that we're given.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was executed for his opposition to Hitler, wrote: "How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from him the little things?" Of course, at Christmas we are given a huge thing - God Himself - but in our everyday lives God's cosmic generosity plays out as an endless series of smaller gifts, too many and too frequent to be counted, easily missed by the heart that doesn't know how to receive. Or the heart that has known too many setbacks and disappointments, too much grief or guilt, so that the idea of simply being given something, with no strings attached, is absurd, and it's always safer to assume you'll get nothing,

So I suppose I'm asking: in the light of Christmas and the great and lasting gift it reminds us of - God's loving solidarity with us in our human frailty; in this light which even the darkness of winter cannot put out, how can we set ourselves to be willing receivers of God's goodness and love? How can we notice the small kindnesses, the glimmers of hope, the moments of beauty and peace, which come our way, and open ourselves to accept them gladly?

By watching, by listening, by refusing to despair, by keeping going, by valuing the small things in life, by believing - and discovering - that our God is not far away, safely ensconced in his heaven, but is with us, with every one of us, waiting for us to notice and respond to his generous, self-giving love. By realising how much every single person matters in the sight of God; and how all our interactions, our care for one another, our enjoyment of one another, are not add-ons or irrelevancies in the bigger picture of life - they are the reality of God's love entrusted to us.

Nothing has been more heart-warming this year than the gratitude of those who have come through the Covid ordeal because of the skill and commitment of the medical staff who have cared for them. They know that in their weakness they have received a great gift. We too, whatever our state of health, are weak and vulnerable; and we too are offered a great gift - Jesus Christ, God himself, to be with us forever. Let us learn how to receive all that we are given by him, with heartfelt thanks and with lasting joy.

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Who are you?

Online Sermon for Sunday December 13th (3rd in Advent):

Gospel Reading: John 1: 6-8, 19-28

Therewas a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?" He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah." And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No." Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?" He said,

"I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, "Make straight the way of the Lord"", as the prophet Isaiah said.

Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?" John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me. I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal." This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

Sermon

"What do you say about yourself?" they ask John the Baptist. We imagine that he has infuriated them, these delegates from Jerusalem - every time they suggest an identity for him, he says, "No, that's not it." So they demand some kind of answer; they need him to define his role so that the bigwigs back in HQ can have some idea what on earth is going on out there at the river Jordan. John gives them an answer, but it comes out of a different frame of reference from the one they are working with. They want to find a title for him, they want to place him in a hierarchy of religious importance. Instead, he just tells them what his job is - to prepare for the One who is to come. John isn't interested in his own status; his focus is firmly on the God-given task he is to fulfil.

I don't know about you, but I've spent a lot of time and energy in my life trying to work out who I am. Trying to get my story straight about myself, if you like; trying to nail down my identity, so that at least something can be clear and certain in the midst of life's confusion. And I wonder sometimes how fruitful all that effort has been. Often the best I can do is, like John, to look at the options and say, with a shake of the head, "No, that's not me." Maybe you are less prone to navel-gazing than me. But most of us care about, or worry about, our position, our status, and that would be part of our answer to the question, "What do you say about yourself?" Most of us would want to give an answer that says something about our self-understanding and our standing in the world.

But John, I think, challenges us to answer in a different way. This charismatic, uncompromising figure turns out to be defiantly uninterested in his own identity and status as ends in themselves. He says, in effect - don't mind about me, I'm just a signpost pointing to the one who really matters. If you want to work out exactly who I am and how important I am, you're barking up the wrong tree. The only significant thing about me is what I am meant to do - my function, my calling.

So perhaps you and I need to spend less time worrying about who we are and where we stand in relation to others, and more time focusing on what God is calling us to do - saying, in effect: never mind about me, what matters is my willingness to point to Jesus, to help others find the goodness and joy of God in the midst of life's troubles. Just as John steps back to let Jesus take centre stage, so my little noisy ego needs to make way for the wonder of God. It's another lesson in humility, in other words (will they ever stop?). And another chance to reflect on the example we are given by God's prophets: full-throttle boldness and strength of purpose, allied with a deep-down refusal to play the me-first game. Like John the Baptist, we are called to refuse the lure of preoccupation with ourselves, and instead make more room for God.

 

 

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Everybody's tired now

Even if we're not all physically tired (unlike those who work in hospitals and care homes), there's no doubt that the last few months have taken a heavy toll of people's mental and emotional resources. Navigating our way through the various ever-changing restrictions, being separated from family and friends, adapting to new ways of doing our work, worrying about the future ... it all adds up. People are tired. Certainly, if I ask my clergy colleagues what their overriding feeling is at present, the most common answer is that they are tired.

And so self-care, far from being the preserve of pampered narcissists, turns out to be a necessity, a lifeline. Jesus, after all, reminded us of the commandment to "love your neighbour as yourself", suggesting that if we can't look after ourselves we're not likely to be much use to anyone else. But how can we do this?

A couple of suggestions. First, slow down and take time out from life's busyness. For some of us, this will mean walking amidst the spare beauty of winter. For some, ten minutes gazing out of the window at a tree, a bird, the sky. For some, the silence and stillness of sitting, expecting nothing of ourselves, and discovering that God is with us.

And second, could it be that quite a bit of the stress we feel is because we try to do too much? Could we learn to be content with just a few small accomplishments, rather than constantly worrying that we're not doing enough? I found these words of Richard Rohr helpful - they're a prayer, really: "Help us to know what is ours to do." That will be enough - and then, rest.

 

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The art of not interrupting

We're all pretty good at interrupting. Some have it down to a fine art - though maybe "fine" isn't quite the word for the kind of display of full force interrupting we saw from President Trump in the first debate with Joe Biden last month. "Steamrollering" is more like it. 

And when Biden finally lost patience and shouted "Will you shut up, man?", apart from a millions-strong collective roar of approval ("He just said what I've been longing to say for so long..."), perhaps there was a moment of recognition, for some of us, that we have wanted to say this not only to loud-mouthed politicians, but to so many other, lower-level interrupters whom we have resentfully tolerated in our lives. And further, that there might just be a few people who have longed to tell us to shut up...

Sometimes, in meetings, it's a good thing - especially when the subject for discussion is an emotive one - to insist that, at least first time around, everyone present has a chance to speak uninterrupted. Apart from anything else, doing this reminds us how unusual it is for this to happen, how normal it is for us to interrupt. And then, we realise the power, the freedom, of not being interrupted - and how different it feels to listen when we are not waiting impatiently to say our bit.

To interrupt is to say, in effect: I'm not as interested in your words as I am in mine, I'm not as interested in you as I am in me. While there might be good reason for me to take this attitude (at least in my own mind), and while it might simply be true (and to be admitted in rueful honesty) that I find myself more interesting than others, when I interrupt I'm missing out, big time. I'm missing the full delight of the unexpected person opposite me, and the unexpected things they say. I'm missing the chance to connect more fully with our common humanity, and to relish more fully our differences. I'm missing the possibility that God, the living God, might be presenting himself to me in the words of that other, ordinary, easily interruptable person. And, in the rush to assert myself, I'm missing the soul-deepening invitation to wait - to wait and see what happens, to let life and conversation open themselves out, to let God create.

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Joy for ever - a sermon for All Saints and All Souls

For his fifth birthday, my grandson Otto was given a small keyboard. No doubt in time he will learn to play some tunes on it, but for the moment he simply presses a button, and the keyboard strikes up with a well-known tune. I'm not sure how much joy these endlessly repeated melodies will bring his parents (mind you, they gave it to him!), but I was interested to hear that his favourite number is a version of the main theme from the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony - the Ode to Joy, as it's known. And I found myself remembering a Prom performance of the Ninth which I saw and heard a couple of years ago at the Albert Hall - a wonderful experience. Beethoven's last Symphony, supposedly composed when he was completely deaf (though recent research has cast doubt on the extent of his impairment), expresses an astonishingly powerful, defiant joy - a great shout of "Yes!" in the face of life's hardships and sorrows. Less overtly religious than, say, Handel's "Messiah", the last movement stands alongside the Hallelujah Chorus as an affirmation, an assertion, of that life which cannot be quenched, even by death itself. The resurrection, in other words.

On November 1st we remember all the saints who didn't make the headlines, and who don't have their own special day of remembrance. And All Saints slides quite easily into All Souls on November 2nd, when we call to mind those countless souls, including many we have known and loved, who live in the glorious light of God's love, now and for ever. So how should we remember them? In some cases, inevitably, with a lingering sadness at the loss we have suffered and the apparent finality of our parting from them; but also - as we think of all the saints, and of all those souls who have shown us something of God's love and beauty - with gratitude. And with joy. These lives have expressed something of the joy of the Creator, and the joy of Jesus Christ risen from death. Unless we sugarcoat our memories, it's not perfection we see in them, but some sense, not always obvious but always there within, of a person who is loved and who is able to love. Someone who carries the unmistakeable imprint of the love of God. And this inspires joy, because, like Beethoven, we see that, truly, nothing can separate us from the love of God - this unstoppable, death-defying, timeless power in which we live and move and have our being, now and always.

I used to feel sorry for the dead. I thought they had lost something which I, living, still had. But little by little, as I've pondered the mystery of life after death, it has dawned on me that the risen life, the life of heaven, is anything but a pitiable state. If, as I believe, the beauties of this life, from crashing waves to silent communion, from wide-eyed childhood to lives of humble service, are all hints of the glory to come, then that glory in its fullness must bring a delight and joy beyond measure. No need to pity the dead - better, perhaps, to imagine them pitying us in our struggles. Rather, this is a time to rejoice in the wonder that awaits us, which they now know in full.

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Still small voice

I was sitting there quietly, waiting to start our midweek Eucharist at St. Sabinus'. Doing my best to be still, both outwardly and inwardly, but still a bit fidgety. And then: that little voice of dissatisfaction, which says things like "You're not doing this right", "You're too easily distracted", and sometimes, "You're really not much good at praying, are you?"

And then ... from absolutely nowhere, with no warning, no fanfare, just a murmur really: I'm here anyway.

This was an intervention, in the gentlest, most understated way possible. A reminder that when I'm flailing about, wondering what exactly I have to do to make the big connection with God ... I'm here anyway.

In other words: never mind what you're doing or not doing, what you're feeling or not feeling ... I'm here anyway.

A bit like when you wave someone away, saying - I'll be fine, you can go now - and they say - I'll stay anyway.

I'm here, I'm just here, you don't need to call me, you just need to know that I'm here. Anyway.

And I thought: everything about my ability, or inability, to proclaim and represent and embody the love of God depends entirely on my knowing this about him: I'm here anyway.

 

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Meeting as equals

Here's the Gospel reading from last Sunday, and my address:

Matthew 15: 21-28

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish."

This intriguing reading always provokes questions. You may have noticed that I like asking questions, especially when there are multiple possible answers. And (not just to cover myself but because I believe it's true) one of the exciting and liberating things about the Bible is that, time and time again, it asks questions of us which don't necessarily have a single correct answer. As we read the Bible, God opens up possibilities rather than closing them down. Often, we would prefer him to give us the definitive answer, to tell us exactly what to do and how to think. But he has made us free and creative and enquiring beings, and he calls us into a relationship with him in which - as in any genuinely free, genuinely reciprocal relationship - there will be questions which open up possibilities, rather than merely answers which shut down the conversation.

So - what is going on here, in this story? How does Jesus' rude and dismissive response to this woman in her time of need fit with our cherished view of him as the embodiment of God's compassionate love? How does he come to change his mind, and what does it mean that he does? Or does he know all along what he's going to do? Is it all a game, a stance he adopts to bring out the unstoppable force of the woman's desire for what she needs from him? And where does this story fit into the perplexing to and fro of Jesus' attitude towards non-Jews? (I told you - I like questions.)

Sorry, but I'm not even going to try to give clear and definitive answers to all these questions. I like them just being there as questions - they make us think, they make us wrestle with the strange, confounding reality of the man who is God. This is Jesus, who comes to prod, to provoke, to awaken, to turn things upside down - not to provide neat, textbook answers to all life's questions. He comes to do the opposite of what we expect, and nowhere more so than in this encounter. "What? Did he really do that? How can he say that?" These are the reactions Jesus provoked in those who came across him, and he still discombobulates us, if we really listen to him. The bad son gets a party, and the good boy gets nothing. What? He's going to visit the very worst person in town. What? The idlers who turn up at the last minute get paid the same as the guys who've been slaving all day in the hot sun. What? The prostitute is praised for her loving nature. What?

At the very least, we see that this Jesus wants to wake us up, so that we notice something quite new is happening. Something to do with a generosity that is reckless and offensive. Who deserves this love? No one. Who gets it? Everyone. And so we learn to let God be who God is, and we no longer insist that we know best when it comes to the appropriate limits for love.

And here, with this story, can I suggest that the real provocation, the thing which makes us roll our eyes - what's he up to now? - is that Jesus in his humanity engages so fully with the Canaanite woman in hers that she is able to make him think again. In other words, he gives her what is essential for any true, and truly fruitful, relationship - the possibility that we are able to change one another, for good. He does the exact opposite of pulling rank: he lets go of his status, his wisdom, his power, so that this can be a real encounter of equals, for a moment, rather than the imposition of the divine will.

This has astonishing implications for our relationship with God. Could it be that Jesus says to us: stop deferring to me, stop keeping me at arm's length, and instead - come, wrestle with me, argue with me, shout your need at me, like this woman, and I will make you whole? Could it be that what he asks of us is to be bold and true, and fiercely insistent that he meets us on level ground, right where we are? If so, then, beyond all the questions, there is a simple and wonderful invitation from him: be yourself with me.

 

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Revd. Giles King-Smith

Sink or swim?

First of all, dear friends, may I - like any high-class political operator - perform a swift u-turn while pretending I've done no such thing (see previous blog entry):

Now that the Government (under pressure from faith groups) has exempted those who lead, read and preach in church from the legal requirement to wear face coverings in places of worship, I am ... removing mine when speaking, provided there is a good distance between me and you. I'm sure my medically qualified colleague will not be happy, but in truth it is extremely difficult to lead worship when you're muffled (and impossible for those who rely on lip-reading to get any benefit whatsoever from all my noise).  

Moving on ... here's the text of my video address from last Sunday, with the Gospel reading from which it springs:

Matthew 14, verses 22 to 33: Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."

Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."

I remember my Mum teaching me to swim. Although (like me) she wasn't the most patient person, she persevered for weeks on end in the swimming baths at (where else?) Bath, and eventually I became a swimmer. And what I remember from her method of teaching me was the way she would step back, a little bit further each time, until I realised that I could bridge the gap between us - by swimming! In other words, the me that assumed I would sink like a stone unless she was holding me was gradually replaced by a me that could sense, and trust in, my own buoyancy. Fear was overtaken by confidence - and, most important, I was able to stop thinking about the whole unlikely business of swimming, and just do it. And now, while I'm not the greatest swimmer in the world, I can enjoy bobbing about like a cork at high tide on Barricane, or pushing out beyond the breakers on the main beach in Woolacombe. While I have, I hope, a healthy respect for the power of the ocean, I know I can stay afloat.

Of course, Peter wasn't trying to swim. He was trying to walk on the surface of the Sea of Galilee, he was trying to do what Jesus was doing. As a fisherman, Peter may have needed to learn how to swim, and in John 21 he jumps out of the boat while it's still a way off shore, in his eagerness to greet the risen Jesus. But his panic here suggests that he knew he was out of his depth - in more than one way!

What interests me, and perhaps connects Peter with me and my Mum, is the difference between the moment when you just do something, without over-thinking it, and the moment when you become aware of all the consequences and risks and potential problems - and you start to sink. "But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out..." Jesus, of course, grabs him, saves him, as he so often does with us all. But his reproach - "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" - cuts to the heart of the difficulty we over-thinking humans often find ourselves in. When we lose faith, we sink. And I don't just mean faith in Jesus Christ; I mean faith in life, faith in goodness, faith in truth (all of which, for us, have their source in God, but we know others will see it differently). When we lose that deep-down faith, life can become an impossible puzzle or a crushing burden; we can feel that we're sinking - and who will grab our hand and pull us to safety? We've all had times like that - and the answer? God is teaching us - not to walk on water, that would make us unbearably pleased with ourselves - but how to swim, how to stay afloat; and more, how to enjoy, how to delight in, our strange and wonderful buoyancy, that comes with faith. We simply need to trust our swimming teacher...

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Protecting others

So, here is the brave (strange) new world of face-covered worship. Last Sunday, every person attending church in our 3 parishes wore a mask of some description (in my case, slightly piratical, I like to think).

I think most of us put up with it, and I hope most understood the reasoning behind the advice from the Church of England: that, although we are not legally obliged to wear face coverings in church, if we take seriously our Christian calling to love our neighbour, we will wear them in order to protect those around us. Face coverings don't protect the wearer, they protect others from the wearer; and though the risk is slight, it is real. 

Much of the push-back against this new norm has focused on the need for those who lead services to be properly seen and heard. "Surely if you stand well back, there's no real danger, is there?" Well, the science is not definitive (yet), but I stand with a colleague who has a background in epidemiology, and who was quite clear that the risk from aerosols (as opposed to droplets) is present whether you are 2 or 20 metres from the speaker. So I will be masking up for the foreseeable...

Having said that, we need to be honest about our feelings of deprivation as we accept all the constraints on our worship. We can't sing, we can't touch, we can't chat over coffee - and now we can't see each other's faces. Some of the joy and freedom has been squeezed out of worship - what are we left with?

Well ... we still have the comfort of being together; and, more important, we can still seek and find God. Whether we are at home, or out on the beach or on the coast path, or even in the supermarket with all the other masked shoppers, we can know God's presence with us. Perhaps, rather than bemoaning the ways in which we are hobbled by all these restrictions, we need to learn from those stalwart souls we have all known - the housebound, the disabled, the chronically ill - who have both shamed and encouraged us by their refusal to give up and their thankfulness for the life they have. Accept these limitations, be honest about what we're missing, and carry on praising, caring and laughing.

 

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Revd. Giles King-Smith

No more barriers

 

I found these words of Gloria Steinem, the pioneering campaigner for women's rights, speaking about the challenge we all face and its possible benefits:

The virus knows that race, gender, class and national boundaries are all fictions. This could help us realise we are all passengers on Spaceship Earth. I'm hoping that this crisis not only exposes inequalities, but helps us learn what movements have been trying to teach us: we are linked, not ranked.

All boundaries, all differences are meaningless in a time of Coronavirus. We are one humanity, all of us vulnerable, none ultimately more important or powerful than any other, in the context of our mortality. Can we learn to make more of our linked-ness than the things which divide us? If we can, be sure that we will be doing the work of the Kingdom.

On a different note, I was cheered by another thought of Gloria Steinem:

Laughter is the only free emotion. Obviously, fear can be compelled. So can love, if we're dependent for long enough. But you can't compel laughter. Never go anywhere you're not allowed to laugh, including church.

Amen to that!

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Revd. Giles King-Smith

More heroes

I know, I'm easily hero-struck, but are two for your consideration:

- First, Marcus Rashford, whose open letter to MPs led to a policy u-turn which will mean more than a million children will get free school meal vouchers this summer. His eloquent and passionate letter is worth reading in full; when it comes to childhood deprivation, he knows what he's talking about. His incredulity at the grim reality of children going hungry in our country, now, is powerful and unanswerable - except by change...

- And second, the black anti-racism protester who carried an injured white opponent to safety during the demonstrations in London at the weekend. I'm sure he wouldn't claim to be a hero, but I found the picture of his rescue mission very moving. It reassured me that there are people who will step across barriers of distrust and hatred to save life; it underlined the truth that is deeper than our disagreements - we are not so different after all; and it provided an unforgettable image of the strength that stoops down to our weakness, to save us. I'm even more sure this guy wouldn't like to be compared to Jesus - think of it more as an acted parable. 

In the Kingdom, the poor and the weak will be given pride of place. Can we start doing this now? 

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Un-understanding

 

Samuel Johnson wrote: "We cease to wonder at what we understand". To put it another way, all understanding, in the sense of knowledge, definition, measurement, stops short of what is truly wonderful. When we wonder, when we're struck by astonishment and delight at some new marvel, we realise that we're out of our depth, and yet that we are being kept afloat. There is nothing for us to do except wonder. And this wonder has its origin in God, who is beyond our understanding.

For me, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and all the possibilities it discloses, are an endless source of wonder - as real as unexpected kindness or the flight of a swallow, and just as impossible to understand.

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Covid thoughts

Some random reflections on the changes and challenges of the time we're living through:

- Many have rightly pointed to the mental suffering endured by so many during the pandemic. Those who are anxious, lonely or depressed may find their distress heightened, with no obvious sign of relief - though some have suggested that, if you normally struggle with anxiety, you may be better adapted than most to cope with a situation that makes us all anxious. Another issue is the psychological toll on those who have taken the most demanding roles - doctors, nurses, carers. When the crisis has passed, how much support will they need to rebuild their mental strength and confidence? And will our mental health services, notoriously under-resourced before this crisis, be geared up to repair the health of the healthcare workers to whom we owe so much?

- Coming at mental (and spiritual) health from another angle: our time in lockdown has forced many of us to adapt to a different pace of life, in ways that may prove to be beneficial in the long term. Grief counsellor and author Julia Samuel says, "One thing I sense is that many people are questioning how they lived before. The badge of busyness, for instance, has to a degree lost its lustre. Being busy was somehow being important, but maybe people have realised that busyness is essentially an anaesthetic to feeling." To translate that last sentence into the language of faith: if your self-worth depends on being  busy, you will be avoiding the possibility of a deeper relationship with God. Can we recognise the benefits of being slower, and keep them?

-  We all know that life will never be the same as it was before. And we sense the possibilities offered by this time of global trauma to re-set, to do things differently, to make changes that enable justice and health for the poor and for the earth itself. Novelist Arundhati Roy describes the pandemic as "a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it." You might find "fight for it" too strong, but when we stand for goodness and truth against evil and falsehood, that's what we're doing. The spiritual fight against evil, in which we enrol those who are baptised, takes place in the decisions we make about how the world will be. We know this, but so often we feel disempowered. Could this be the time when ordinary people everywhere refuse to let the future be dictated by those whose only purpose is to cling to their own wealth and power? I hope so, and I pray for change.

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I can't breathe

 

These three terrible words will not be forgotten.

There is a disturbing symmetry between George Floyd's cry for life as a police officer knelt on his neck, and the desperate struggle for breath endured by those whose life is being choked by Covid-19.

And you can't mistake the ugly congruence between the injustices suffered by black people at the hands of the police and of civilian racists, and the disproportionately high death toll among the BAME community from Coronavirus. There are, of course, many possible causes of this disparity, but the simple fact is that minority communities are more likely to be poor, and poor people are more likely to be vulnerable, in a range of ways: low pay, poor housing, health problems, and employment in high-risk occupations such as transport, cleaning, security - and healthcare. When you're at the bottom of the pile, your life is precarious, and you're less likely to be treated with respect by those who have power.

In other words, to insist that "Black Lives Matter" is not simply a protest, a howl of grief and rage at a single atrocity. It is a sign that all kinds of people, of all ethnic backgrounds, have woken up to the reality that some lives have been allowed to matter less than others, in all kinds of ways, not just in the US, but here and in every place where wealth and power have overshadowed our common humanity.

If we are Christians, we believe in a saving love, an unimaginably deep compassion, which our God feels for every creature, without discrimination. In his Kingdom, which we are called to proclaim and embody, there is no difference in status - no male or female, no Jew or Gentile, no black or white. All are equally honoured, equally precious. Will we stand up for this great vision, this dream of Martin Luther King, and will we stand against everything that distorts or defiles it? This question will not go away, it will haunt us until we take our stand for justice.

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Prayers for Pentecost

 

Here are the prayers used at our 24/7 prayer room meeting last Saturday, and again for the service on Sunday - hoping they may be helpful for a little longer...

At Pentecost, as we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the birth of the Church, we come to you, our God, in prayer - to thank you, to ask your forgiveness, and to pray for your Kingdom.

Spirit of the living God - fall afresh on us

Eternal God, as we call to mind our fellowship in the Body of Christ, we give you thanks for all the generosity, truthfulness and mercy which your Church has offered to the world, down the ages. And we thank you for the goodness and beauty you have shown us in our lives of worship and prayer. We remember now those who helped us come to faith and encouraged us on our way - by singing us songs or telling us stories, by inviting us in when we felt distant or unsure, by praying for us without being asked...

Spirit of the living God - fall afresh on us

Eternal God, as we remember the story of your Church, we cannot avoid the shameful reality of the many times that your people have, in the name of Jesus Christ, practised prejudice, coercion and violence towards those they identified as "other"; and we know also that we have struggled, and often failed, to accept those who are different from us. Forgive us, remake us, and help us to see that to live as your people means to be rooted and grounded in the loving-kindness you have shown us in Christ your Son.

Spirit of the living God - fall afresh on us

Eternal God, hear us as we pray for your Kingdom to come  - for the renewal of the whole created order in harmony with you, for an end to our sad divisions, for the establishment of your justice and peace. Give us eyes to see that your Kingdom is already among us, in countless acts of loving service, of tender-hearted forgiveness, of courageous witness to the truth, and of passionate care for the earth. Change our hearts from fearful selfishness and greed to generous, unstinting love for others, so that the poor and the vulnerable may be honoured and protected, and all may know themselves to be your beloved children.

Slirit of the living God - fall afresh on us

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Words of wisdom

 

Talk about setting yourself up for a fall! With a title like that, you can pretty much guarantee that what follows will not be wise - since the starting point for any kind of wisdom is humility. As Proverbs says:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart

and be not wise in your own sight.

I come from a family of know-alls. We like quizzes and hate losing them, we expect our grammar and spelling to be perfect (and tell others off when theirs isn't), and we find it hard to accept someone else knowing something we don't. Unfortunately, this kind of striving to know it all is not only an unwinnable game - it has nothing to do with real wisdom.

The wise person knows that they don't know everything, and is genuinely delighted to find out new things. More than that, the wise person doesn't equate true knowledge with having all the answers; they aim for understanding by considering life's questions slowly and patiently. In God-terms, they know that the divine is to be experienced rather than defined. They are mature enough to forgo the satisfaction of having things sewn up. They are good at waiting and listening. They don't care about coming first.

I would like to be wise like this.

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