Clergy Blogs

Periodic contributions from Revd. Giles King-Smith, Vicar of the three coastal parishes. We also continue to show contributions from the late Associate Minister Revd. Linda Walters

Old guys rule?

Is it true that the over-60s tend to go on a bit about getting old? (Just saying)

Maybe, to avoid the inevitable self-pity, we need to plough on regardless, as if age were nothing but a number, and there are worlds still to be conquered (or better, discovered)...

But then - horror of horrors - I look at the two leading contenders for the Democratic nomination in the United States (not to mention their President) and see white-haired old blokes, still desperate to achieve, still driven, still convinced that their best years are ahead of them. And maybe they're right.

What keeps them from sitting around quietly in their slippers watching daytime TV? It must be some kind of fire within, some burning conviction that they haven't yet got there, haven't yet achieved (that word again) their potential. And that fire is, for sure, a noble thing, if it's about making other people's lives better. But if it's really about an insatiable ego, an all-consuming drive to get to the top, then we're all better off if the old guys just give it a rest. For good.

In the suggestions for prayer during Lent (see "Common Worship" Morning Prayer), there's a good phrase: "for those serving through leadership". Leadership that isn't anchored in and defined by service is deadly.

That starts with me, of course... 

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Ashes to ashes

Ash Wednesday. Time to remember our weakness, our mortality, and the thousand ways in which we fail to embody the love of God. Time for humility, in other words. Not grovelling, not a big show of penitence, but a quiet, sober awareness that we are far from perfect, far from the finished article.

Sound a bit grim? Far from it - I think there is joy to be found, especially through Lent, in clearing out our cluttered hearts and making room for God.

From the Prayer of Manasseh, this beautiful verse:

"And now, I bend the knee of my heart before you, and implore your kindness upon me."

 

 

 

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God's weaklings

When I fell and damaged my knee just before Christmas, I was completely helpless. Ann, our Curate, says she was shocked by how vulnerable I looked, laid there on the grass, with my leg under me, pale and shocked. (Well, there's no harm in trying for a bit more sympathy, is there?)

Sometimes we just are helpless, we have no choice. But, most of the time, most of us like to project an image of strength. Perhaps this is true particularly of men - or has been, until now: over the past few years, it's been heartening to see how many men have been able to be open about their struggles with mental health.

I was interested in Steve Coogan's comments, in this week's "Radio Times". He talks about how easy it is for men "to develop psychological problems, especially if you're in a male-dominated corporate world where you can't show weakness. The whole human experience is about weakness. You look at Shakespeare, it's all about weakness. But people still feel like they have to cover up or explain away anything that makes them look flawed."

In other words, what is really interesting about us is our vulnerability. But, of course, to allow yourself to be vulnerable you have to be able to trust.

So maybe we can (especially if we're male) look afresh at our ultimate role model, Jesus of Nazareth - God becoming intentionally vulnerable, all the way to death on a cross. What is he showing us about embracing our weakness, and finding glory in it?

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Equal before God

Inequality, we know, is a huge problem in our country and across the world. Inequality of opportunity, inequality of income, inequality of human rights... For those of us who call ourselves Christians, there should be something shocking in the many facets of inequality that confront us every day. We believe, after all, that human beings are created in the image of God, and that every human life is of equal value and deeply precious in the sight of God. And we're aware that the climate crisis we all face has its roots in the short-sighted greed of a minority of the human race, and is likely to have its greatest impact on those who are already disadvantaged. Something, surely, has to change...

Although there is no easy solution offered here, I found these words of Olivia Graham, the new Bishop of Reading, who has spent much of her ministry in Africa, helpful:

"I am very passionate about the issue of global inequality. I am very clear that it has its roots in the historic, and sometimes current, systematic economic exploitation by rich nations of the poor nations. I am constantly shocked by the scale of global inequality. If this issue is going to be tackled, then the whole world economic system needs to be reformed. We have to encourage our political leaders to be more long-term in their thinking and in their approach to the challenge of global capitalism."

I believe that awareness of the need for change is increasing, and that power-holders will not be able for ever to ignore the call to put people ahead of profit, and to pursue policies that enrich our earth rather than despoiling it. The battle lines are drawn, and the next 10 years are likely to be critical in the struggle to safeguard our planet and reduce inequality. Which side will you and I be on?

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The importance of being kind

After the horrible news that the TV presenter Caroline Flack had taken her own life, her friend Laura Whitmore said something very important: she asked people to be kinder to each other, especially when using social media. She knew the pressure her friend had been under, from trolling and from intrusive media coverage.

Laura is right. The only antidote to the sneering, bullying, heartless treatment that drives people to despair is kindness. Kindness to others - and sometimes, kindness to ourselves.

"Love your neighbour as yourself". Straightforward kindness is a big part of that.

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Deaf/not deaf

This morning I found myself humming the "Ode to Joy", the great theme from the last movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. And I remembered something I read recently: a leading musicologist has discovered that - contrary to received wisdom - Beethoven was not completely deaf when the Choral Symphony had its premiere in 1824. So the classic mental picture we all have of the profoundly deaf Beethoven, quite unable to hear his own glorious music, turns out to be (perhaps) not quite true...

For me, as I continue to think about joy, the question is: would we rather hold on to the tragic and romantic image of the deaf genius, receiving rapturous applause he cannot hear - or can we rejoice in the idea that he was still able to hear and delight in the unique sound-world he had created?

 

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Doublethink

Just a thought -

if a Church keeps going on about being inclusive, while at the same time making it clear that certain people are less acceptable than others in God's sight, should we call that delusion or hypocrisy?

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Joy 2020...

...is the strapline for "Bishops in Mission", a 3-day event from March 6th to 8th, in which all 3 bishops - Robert, Jackie and Nick - will be roaming across North Devon, attending various events, and hopefully inspiring and encouraging many people in the process. (Leaflets with full details will be in our churches this coming Sunday). The "Joy" theme comes from the third official priority of our Diocese: "To serve the people of Devon with joy ". (And the other two are...?)

I've found myself thinking quite a lot about joy over the past few months. I suppose the bottom line is that nothing is really worth bothering with unless there's joy in it. Obviously, sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and get on with the hard stuff in life - sometimes there are crosses that have to be carried - but when it comes to things like being obedient to our calling and following Christ, there is no substitute for joy. And no way of manufacturing it, either.

On a couple of the Sundays after Epiphany, the Gospel readings were about Jesus calling his first disciples. How readily and willingly they followed him, leaving behind everything they knew and launching out into the unknown! It may have been just like that for you, but as I heard these readings, I found myself acutely aware of my hesitant, often unwilling discipleship. And then I realised that real obedience has nothing to do with slavishly following orders; it's the discovery, deep within, that what God wants is also what I want. And then there is joy, and a real, unforced willingness to listen to God and to follow his way.

Please don't imagine I've cracked it and am now at all times the perfect, joy-filled disciple. (Do I hear: "we knew that anyway"?) And please don't be hard on yourself when you struggle to be wholehearted in your discipleship. We are all learning, and perhaps the most valuable thing we can learn is to look for joy, insist on joy, enjoy joy...

And a final thought: I've always wondered why coming into Lent gives me a sense of joy rather than foreboding, of something light rather than heavy. Maybe it's just this: if we're honest about our struggles with faith, God will take us to a deeper place where we are given joy.

It's just taken me 401 words to say what St. Augustine says in 9: "Who can embrace wholeheartedly what gives him no delight?"

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Afflictions

Sometimes a verse or two from the Bible jumps out at you. The other day it was this, from Psalm 34:

"The Lord is near to the broken-hearted

and saves the crushed in spirit.

Many are the afflictions of the righteous,

but the Lord rescues them from them all."

In response, I found myself thinking of the Gospel reading for Candlemas (this Sunday coming), which finds Mary and Joseph bringing the infant Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem - and how, after taking the baby in his arms, praising God and blessing the three of them, old Simeon warns Mary of the suffering that will come her way because of the hostility her son will provoke: "...and a sword will pierce your own soul too." 

Even in a moment of high exultation such as this, Mary needs to hear that she will not be exempt from suffering. And so we learn that there is no helpful connection to be made between what we deserve and what we get, no handy explanation for the suffering that will come our way - however righteous we may be.

What matters is not ferreting around for a reason why we suffer, but asking for grace to endure affliction without losing hope. 

And, while those of us who are followers of Jesus Christ have - in his resurrection from the dead - a very clear encouragement to keep the faith, what astounds me is how many people who say they have no faith nonetheless refuse to lose hope. Perhaps there is something in us all - given by God - which knows He will, in the end, rescue us and give us life. 

 

 

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High fidelity

Carrying on from last time ... a sad and tawdry end to the Christine Keeler saga, and a sense of butterflies crushed by the establishment juggernaut.

And a question - how healthy is our British attitude to sex? On the one hand, a prurient interest in the details of people's sex lives; on the other, a willingness to condemn, and if necessary punish, those whose behaviour deviates from "the norm".

So can I just say - when it comes to sex, we're all sinners, we all get it wrong, in thought if not in deed. There is no such thing as perfect, unswerving fidelity. And so there is no basis for judging others. (This, of course, applies to other areas as well as sex!)

And yet fidelity, faithfulness, is absolutely worth striving for, in sex as in all aspects of our lives. That's why marriage matters - not as the last bastion of respectability, against which all other relationships can be measured and judged - but as the expression of a desire to be faithful in loving another person. And in doing so, to reflect and embody, however imperfectly (and yet often gloriously), the faithful love of God for all of us.

Forgive me if you disagree - but in my view, heterosexual marriage is not the only relationship in which we can learn to be faithful in love. In all our relationships, the real value is not the label, not the gender, not the orientation, but the quality of love which we are called to show one another.

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Liar Liar!

Hello everyone, Happy New Year, and apologies for my lengthy absence from this blog (if you've noticed).

My excuse - I fell over on the Sunday before Christmas (you may have heard this story before) and ruptured my quadriceps tendon; then surgery (thank you, Mr. Kenaan and all the brilliant staff at the NDDH) and now I'm in a leg brace and confined to light duties for a while longer.

Perfect conditions, you might think, for a spot of blogging. But instead I've been reading books and watching TV, and enjoying that strange feeling of sitting in a chair, with your leg up, while family members come in at intervals to ask if you want anything...

This afternoon Clare and I were catching up on "The Trial of Christine Keeler" - so evocative of a different era which I'm just about old enough to remember. A friend called in who has also been watching it, and she commented on how things have changed in terms of public truth-telling (or the lack of it). Then, lying in the House of Commons was a sackable offence. And now?...

And I thought: maybe it's only in the last few years that we've become used to public figures who not only lie, but are apparently unfazed when they're caught lying. And we just laugh wearily (no longer even disbelievingly) and carry on with our lives, in which truth and lies are still differentiated.

Of course the truth, the whole truth, is hard to pin down. We might want to say "Jesus is the truth" - but that statement will still beg many questions which we won't be able to answer in ways that settle the matter and satisfy everyone. (And arguably, real truth is to be lived out, not defined.)

But still, there is such a thing as a lie - and there is such a thing, for Christians and for all good people, as a duty to challenge and expose lying and falsehood.

Starting with ourselves, and with the Church... 

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Happy now?

As some of you may know, our parishes hosted a Confirmation Service the other week, with Bishop Robert coming up to confirm 4 adults, from Ilfracombe and Berrynarbor, and our 3 young people - Chloe, Elizabeth and Somer. I don't know why, but I'm always moved by a Confirmation - perhaps because it reminds me of my Confirmation, aged 30, which was such a significant moment in my journey of faith. This time, standing next to the Bishop, I was struck by the silence, each time, after he had laid hands on each person's head and before he spoke the words of confirmation. It was one of those deep moments when you sense something going on that is beyond words and beyond explanation.

And then, after the service, there was a real sense of joy and delight. I was interested in Bishop Robert's sermon, in which he spoke about happiness, and how the expectation in our society, that achieving happiness is the most worthwhile goal possible, actually sets us up for disappointment and failure. Sometimes we're simply not happy. Instead, he suggested we aim for contentment, by which I think he meant an acceptance, by God's grace, of the way things are, of both good and bad fortune - a state of mind which we might also describe as inner peace.

Afterwards, I thought about joy, and in particular, the way that joy is often a kind of act of defiance against everything which oppresses - or depresses - us. I felt it again when the Exmoor Carolers, in concert at St. Sabinus', brought us their special, unpretentious joyfulness as they sang folk carols. It was dark outside, and often the world is dark; yet here was an insistence that joy at the birth of Christ takes precedence over - outshines - all else.

And again, at our 2 Christingle services, as we lit candles and turned the electrics off, I understood a bit more about this joy. Can I call it underdog joy? By which I mean: however much we are told, and tell ourselves, that darkness must prevail, the underdog joy of a small candle declares its final, absolute unwillingness to be put out. And stands for the light and love of Christ, content to shine on in the darkness, for ever and for all of us.

It's the evening of Election Day. Tomorrow, in the cold light of a winter day, you and I may or may not be happy with the result. But joy can never be taken from us.  

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Vicar, how should I vote?

As you've guessed, I can't possibly tell you that. My job isn't to influence your choice of political party - and you probably wouldn't listen to me anyway!

That's not to say that the Church shouldn't be involved in politics. In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, "When people say the Church should have nothing to do with politics, I wonder which Bible they've been reading". Our job, as Christians, is to stand for the values of the Kingdom of God. The fact that we don't all have an identical understanding of these values, and of their political implications, explains why there is no one political party that can lay claim to the allegiance of all Christians (though there are certainly some which promote views that Christians should challenge).

So what can I say? Well, I thought the most telling, and surprising, feature of the recent ITV debate between the leaders of the main parties was the derisive laughter which greeted some of their pronouncements. We're in danger not only of not believing our politicians, but also of finding them ridiculous. So I suppose one good outcome of this election, and of the whole sorry political process of the last few months, would be a recovery of respect for those elected to represent us - and in them, a recovery of the kind of integrity which would enable them to really work at the big, serious issues that threaten our country and our planet.

Specifically, as Christians (though none of this is our exclusive territory), we need to look for a real commitment to tackle inequality, and a real priority for action on the climate emergency. These are Gospel imperatives: Jesus came to show that God sees all people as of infinite, and equal, worth; and our human (and holy) calling is to care with reverence for the whole of creation.

But, sorry, the decision is yours, not mine. And, whatever the result, locally or nationally, I hope we can go on trying to embody and live out, in all kinds of different ways, the generous, open-hearted love of God.

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Truth or lies?

We'll be meeting at the Grampus in Lee for "Agnostics Anonymous" this Monday coming (8.00 pm, all welcome) to discuss, over a glass or two, the vexed question of truth and lies. When Jesus, on trial, said he had come to "bear witness to the truth", Pilate famously replied "What is truth?" (thus becoming the first post-modernist, by questioning the very possibility of arriving at "the truth").

It's easy, of course, to call someone a liar. But I heard Chris Mason, the BBC's political correspondent, make a helpful distinction between, on the one hand, lying, and on the other, innocently giving false information. If I tell you the shop round the corner is open till 8.00, while knowing full well it closes at 6.00, that's a lie. But if I tell you it's open till 8.00, because I'm convinced it is, or because someone once told me it is, or because it used to be ... I'm not lying, just giving you information that turns out to be false. You might be annoyed with me, either way, but only if you somehow discover I was deliberately misinforming you (perhaps by my malicious laughter when you come back empty-handed) can you consider me a liar (and never again accept any information from me again, ever!).

There's a lot of misinformation about, but not all of it is lies... 

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Danger - words being used

On Wednesday morning - which, for anyone watching Parliament on Tuesday evening, felt very much like the morning after the night before - we had these words from Psalm 15 at Morning Prayer:

O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,

and speak the truth from their heart;

who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends,

nor take up a reproach against their neighbours...

And then I thought of these words from the Letter of James (1:19):

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger...

Whatever else is going on, whatever rights and wrongs we think we can identify in our present near-calamitous political situation, one thing stands out from what we've seen and heard recently: words matter. And, going further, words can be hurtful, even dangerous. 

I think of something I used to say to my children (and no doubt, failed to live up to): "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all". Perhaps everyone who speaks in public - whose words are likely to be endlessly shared, and will have who knows what influence on those who hear them - should be given a little copy of this advice, along with James' wise words.

We need words spoken calmly, gently, with the humility that comes from knowing we don't have the whole truth and our adversaries aren't always wrong.

 

 

 

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S.O.S.

We called it "Save our Seas", last Sunday's Harvest service at St. Matthew's. As well as the traditional array of Harvest produce, we'd asked people to do a bit of beach-combing, and then bring whatever they'd found up to the front at the start of the service, to be stuck on to a seascape collage which our Churchwarden Margaret had prepared. So we ended up with a few bits of seaweed, some rather nice shells, and a couple of pieces of coal (courtesy of Natalie Sharpe) from the days when ships plying the Bristol Channel were coal-powered. And the rest was plastic. We knew it would be - but it is still, rightly, shocking to be faced with a small selection of the millions of pieces of evidence that we are in danger of destroying the life of our oceans. This was the wrong kind of harvest.

Two thoughts came into my mind. First, that we are reaping the devastating consequences of the view that the natural world is there for our convenience, to be exploited in whatever ways we see fit. I found myself apologising, because the Church bears some responsibility for this dysfunctional relationship between humanity and creation, which goes right back to Genesis, and the command to "have dominion over" the world and its creatures. Only quite recently have we realised how destructive our domination is, and how vital it is to recover, in all humility, a sense of inter-dependence with the creation of which we are part. Replace "have dominion over" with "have responsibility for", and we might be starting to face up to what we need to do to save our seas - and our world.

And, being reminded by the title "Save our Seas" of the original S.O.S. - Save our Souls - I found myself thinking that, in a way, saving our seas and saving our souls are one and the same thing. The Church is good at talking about individual salvation, but what if our eternal welfare can't be divorced from the way we care for our planet and all its creatures? 

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Mosquitoes and wolves

Safely back from Italy - and with apologies for such a long gap between blogs - let me explain the title of this entry:

We were staying in an old farmhouse in northern Tuscany, with a lovely view of steeply wooded hills and bare mountains behind. The pool was warm, the food was delicious, the company (my family) tolerable (don't worry, they won't read this) - the only problem was the constant attack of tiny but highly voracious mosquitoes. The locals were bemused, as they don't normally have this problem. And, while scratching away, we wondered, "What exactly is the point of mosquitoes?" Or, to put it a bit more theologically, "What place can we possibly find for mosquitoes within God's good Creation?"

Well ... if you google "benefits of mosquitoes", you'll discover that they - and particularly their larvae - perform a number of extremely useful functions within the ecosystem. In other words, they do have a purpose and a point. It's just that their impact on us is decidedly unpleasant - and, where malaria is still rife, dangerous.

To look at it another way: the ecosystem and all that is in it do not exist purely for our benefit. Or rather, they exist for our ultimate benefit, but not necessarily for our immediate pleasure or safety.

Also - while we were there we heard wolves, re-introduced into Tuscany fairly recently; and we spoke to a local woman who keeps sheep, and has mysteriously lost some of her flock. Shepherds are alarmed at the spread of these predators, and arguments rage about the pros and cons of re-wilding. The unseen presence of these remarkable creatures is, for me, another reminder that we are not "in charge" of creation, not in control of it, but part of an extraordinarily complex web of life.

When we will stop deluding ourselves that we have dominion over nature, and learn the wisdom of living in harmony with all creatures? 

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Paying Attention

As you may know, I often walk my dog Elsie (border collie, slightly bonkers) down the Tarka trail from Lee Bridge. It's the old railway line along which, as some of you will remember, trains used to run between Mortehoe Station and Ilfracombe.

The verges of the track, and the banks as you go through the cutting, are covered in wild flowers - a bit less now they've been mown. And this year, for the first time, I've been paying attention to these little beauties. I'm not an expert by any means, but I am pleased to say that I now know the difference between red campion and herb robert, and between purple loosestrife and rosebay willowherb. (Impressed?)

Although I quite like knowing what they are, the real pleasure for me is simply in noticing that they're there. Sometimes, like all of us, I'm in my head as I walk along, replaying the past or fantasising about the future. But now there are times when I'm in the moment, and doing nothing more than look and notice. And that takes me into a place of delight, where nothing is needed from me except to pay attention to the beauty that surrounds me.

 

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An uncertain future

Who knows what the future holds? 

In terms of our politics and our society, we seem to be living through a time of uncertainty. Our new government proclaims loudly that we will leave the EU on October 31st, "do or die" - but nobody really knows what that might mean. Nor do those who want to resist "no deal", many of whom would prefer a further referendum, have any clear vision of what would happen if they had their way. I seem to have spent several lifetimes listening to well-qualified political commentators outlining what might or might not happen - but in the end it always seems to come down to "We don't know".

We want to know, of course, and not knowing makes us anxious. And if we believe in God, we may expect some kind of divine clarification, so that we know what's coming.

But - perhaps - faith is actually about not knowing the future, while trusting that God will be with us, however it pans out. This is true as much for the big events which haunt the headlines, as for the unknown futures of our personal and family lives. 

"It will be all right, won't it?" is the anxious question that lies behind our wish to know what lies ahead. Part of our job as Christians is to meet this anxiety - in ourselves and others - not with bland assurances that nothing will ever go wrong, but with a deep-rooted faith that the only sure thing about the future is God's loving presence with us.

 

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Being gracious

I missed the absurdly exciting end of the cricket World Cup Final - because I had to lead an evening Communion service at St. Mary's! This may well constitute the finest example of dedication to duty in the recent history of the Church of England. But I'm being very gracious about it all, I think - partly because England won, and partly because (as I keep telling everyone) in a couple of weeks I'm off to watch the first day of the Ashes series at Edgbaston.

So, in a way, I can afford to be gracious. It's not too hard to be gracious from a position of strength; but real graciousness is the ability to respond positively, without rancour, to defeat or failure. Real graciousness is what New Zealand's captain, Kane Williamson, showed in his response to his team's undeserved defeat - the second time, in recent months, that a Kiwi has shown the world something important about leadership. 

"Ungracious" is a word none of us would like to be tagged with. The sense that our political leaders are graceless, as they insist they are right and refuse to acknowledge the good in their opponents, has contributed to the erosion of trust in them. Can we, as a church, contribute to a revival of graciousness - especially when things aren't going our way? 

 

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