Thinking Allowed 01/07/22

Imagine you meet someone called Jack in a bank and, because of their chosen clothes and style, you’re not sure of their gender identity. Imagine then having speak to another person about them, in that instance knowing their personal pronouns will enable you to refer to them correctly, not make an idiot of yourself, and save embarrassment all round.

Indicating your personal pronouns is an act of courtesy. Respecting someone’s personal pronouns is an act of thoughtfulness. No one is forcing it on you or anyone. It’s nothing to get annoyed about. It’s about being better human beings.

Sunday Night Confessional

The Sunday headline act closing Glastonbury 2022 was the rapper Kenrick Lamar, and it was a hard-hitting, confessional, and introspective performance. My preference for the evening was the Pet Shop Boys on The Other Stage, but I’ll catch up with Lamar later (even though I do struggle to appreciate rap).

He wore a crown of thorns throughout his Glastonbury headline set with blood pouring down his face during the final song, two very powerful Christians symbols of servanthood, sacrifice, and salvation. This was an immensely powerful theatrical performance unlike anything the festival has ever witnessed.

Throughout the show, he addressed themes of guilt, greed, loyalty, power, ambition and prejudice, shouldering the audience’s problems by examining his own, with dancers reflecting his internal and external struggles. He also addressed issues within society along with his own flaws, juxtaposed with his faith in Christ.

Lamar believes that “imperfection is beautiful”, and that in our rush to judgment, we often lose sight of others’ humanity.

In some ways, Lamar’s thorny and introspective songs made him a brave choice to headline Glastonbury’s main stage. But in the event he rose to the challenge, delivering a visceral and compelling set that will be talked about for weeks. Source

Seeing snippets of his performance and reading about it, the following Bible verses came to mind: This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. 1 John 1:5-10

There is so much to think about in both his performance and this Bible reading. We are all beautiful in our imperfection, we can all reflect on our lives, and we can all be better human beings. For me, my Christian faith plays a huge part in being the best I can be.

Note: For the first time since my retirement in July 2020 I failed to publish a Sunday devotional on the day itself. So, this is a Sunday devotional on a Monday, but it gave me the opportunity to share something topical. I’m OK with that.

Thinking Allowed 22/06/22

As someone who gave up the possibility of a high salary to serve others (for the majority of my working life) I’m grateful for the increase in the UK state pension, and I understand younger people feeling aggrieved. Life is very tough for most people right now, especially our young people. In that respect, I have a foot in both camps. My young children and grandchildren won’t have the opportunities I or my grown-up children had, and Brexit has only compounded the problems.

From ‘An Essay on Criticism’ (Part 2)

Of all the causes which conspire to blind
Man’s erring judgment, and misguide the mind,
What the weak head with strongest bias rules,
Is pride, the never-failing vice of fools.
Whatever Nature has in worth denied,
She gives in large recruits of needful pride;
For as in bodies, thus in souls, we find
What wants in blood and spirits, swell’d with wind;
Pride, where wit fails, steps in to our defence,
And fills up all the mighty void of sense!
If once right reason drives that cloud away,
Truth breaks upon us with resistless day;
Trust not yourself; but your defects to know,
Make use of ev’ry friend—and ev’ry foe.

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

In Our Father’s Presence

Bible Reading: Philippians 4:4-9

Isaiah 30:15 reminds us that, in quietness and confidence shall be your strength. That’s been my experience of faith during both good and bad times, and is my continuing experience now. The quiet times before God are so important for our spiritual health as Christians, and for our confidence and strength in ministry and service. Something we are all called to exercise.

Over the years I’ve a found a variety of resources that have helpfully enriched my prayer life, but the pure simplicity of coming before God in prayer after reading his word has so much to commend it. It’s helpful at the beginning of the day, but it can be flexible. I’ve also found that a written list is invaluable, so I remember all the people and situations I need to pray for.

Sometimes music has helped me, sometimes it’s been the beauty of God’s creation (especially at the top of mountains in South Wales), and at other times it’s been a quiet space during the rush and bustle of life (an example of this being the chapel of a hospital). So next time you’re in a hospital, visiting someone or there for an appointment, find the chapel and spend a few moments of quietness and say some appropriate prayers.

Sometimes, when life has been hard, prayer has been difficult for me (I’m only human after all). At these times I’ve found a holding cross especially useful. These can be bought from good Christian bookshops, along with a booklet of advice and prayers. When you can’t pray, you can hold the cross and simply allow your feelings and emotions to become a prayer to God, our heavenly Father.

We also come to God in prayer to listen, to open our hearts to his Holy Spirit and to allow him to make us the people he wants us to be. I find prayers in the Celtic tradition helpful in this respect, and I finish these thoughts with one of them:

Awaken me to your presence,
Alert me to your love,
Affirm me in your peace.
Open to me your way,
Reveal to me your joy,
Enfold me in your light,
For my heart is ready,
Lord, my heart is ready.

David Adam (from The Open Gate)

Love’s Choice (Corpus Christi)

For the Christian festival of Corpus Christi I share a poem by Malcolm Guite. You can visit his original post from 2013 by clicking here.

This bread is light, dissolving, almost air,
A little visitation on my tongue,
A wafer-thin sensation, hardly there.
This taste of wine is brief in flavour, flung
A moment to the palate’s roof and fled,
Even its aftertaste a memory.
Yet this is how He comes. Through wine and bread
Love chooses to be emptied into me.
He does not come in unimagined light
Too bright to be denied, too absolute
For consciousness, too strong for sight,
Leaving the seer blind, the poet mute;
Chooses instead to seep into each sense,
To dye himself into experience.

Thinking Allowed 14/06/22

Firstly, why have the government only just realised there’s a fundamental problem with the NI Protocol when everyone was telling them at the time?

Secondly, why are the government now blaming the EU when their Brexit deal was oven-ready, and they signed it of their own free will?

Thirdly, what will it do to Britain’s reputation abroad if we renege on an international agreement?

The Madonna of the Cross (1996)

During the recent school half-term holiday, we visited Mount Grace Priory (owned by the National Trust and run by English Heritage). It’s the most complete surviving Carthusian monastery in Britain.

Founded in the late 14th century, you can visit the ruins of all the priory buildings, along with a small church and its surviving tower, explore the great cloister and enter a reconstructed monk’s cell. The strict Carthusian lifestyle made the layout of Mount Grace Priory unique, as the layout was created so that each monk could live in solitude. You can see all my photos here.

The church contains a sculpture by Malcolm Brocklesby (pictured above). I offer the on-site description of the work as a reflection for this week’s Sunday devotional:

This Madonna is not the meek and subservient figure portrayed in so many paintings, but a determined and intelligent young woman who understands the wonder and the importance of her calling as she dedicates her Child to the purpose of the Creator.

She is also aware of the suffering that this will entail. The figure of the Madonna is integral with that of the Cross, the stark and terrible symbol at the heart of Christianity, which is an inescapable part of her existence.

Her expression, however, is more of serenity than anguish. She is looking beyond Calvary to the Resurrection, and the way in which she holds the Christ Child high suggests the subsequent Ascension rather than the immediate prospect of a sacrificial death.

The statue combines the three facets of Christianity which establish the Atonement of Mankind, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, and the Ascension.

The Miracle of Pentecost

My chosen Bible readings for Pentecost Sunday are Genesis 11:1-9 and Acts 2:1-21.

When Chichester Cathedral was being renovated in 1962, they found that the medieval builders had built a magnificent cathedral on poor land and hadn’t extended the foundations far enough. As a result of this oversight, the 20th Century renovators had far more work than anticipated.

We don’t need reminding of the parable of the house built on the sand and the one built on the rock. It’s so important that we build our lives upon Christ, getting the foundations right and then building in the power of the Holy Spirit.

But let’s go right back to the beginning to the Book of Genesis and the story of the Tower of Babel. Genesis means ‘beginnings’, it’s a book that deals with the beginning of everything, not in a scientific way, but in a far more profound way.

Genesis focuses our attention on certain aspects of life, the first eleven chapters paint a picture of the world as God meant it to be, but they also show the appalling mess we’ve made of it; the message is timeless, because we continue to make a mess of it.

In these opening chapters of the Bible, we have parables of immense significance. From there on, the rest of the Bible show us what God has done to get us out of the mess, culminating in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

We have the story of Noah and the Flood, the message being that the world merits nothing less than total destruction. The Flood symbolises God’s timeless judgement on humankind, as appropriate now as when it was written.

Noah wasn’t perfect, but he represents those in every age who walk with God. God always offers a way back to himself, if only we live our lives with reference to him.

Then we have the story of the Tower of Babel, a story that echoes the Fall: human defiance of God. But instead of the story being set in a garden with two people, the setting is bricks and mortar with a developing civilisation.

The age-old problem is that individuals and humankind as a whole build for their own glory rather than for the glory of God.

William Neil writes:
Man wants to run the world in his own way. He wants to put himself at the centre of his civilisation on a pedestal inscribed with the name: “Glory to MAN in the highest”.
Note how verse 4 says: “Come let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for OURSELVES”.

This is the mistake we make repeatedly. There is only one God and Creator, we are created in his likeness, and our destiny is to know him, to live in fellowship with him, humbly seeking and obeying his will for our lives.

The builders’ desire for autonomy recalls the rebellion in the Garden of Eden, and establishes the need for Abraham’s redemptive faith in the midst of international disorder. Far from the original garden, the first cities in Genesis represent arrogance, tyranny, and wickedness. The city on the Babylonian plain was a magnet for human pride and idolatry, a tower that reaches into the sky. NLT Study Bible

When we put ourselves first, God comes and confounds our plans, and there is chaos and disorder. The confusion of tongues in the Tower of Babel story is but a symptom of a much deeper disharmony that prevents unity and mutual understanding.

We talk about people ‘not speaking the same language’, meaning that their positions are so far apart that they might as well be speaking a different language.

We see this between individuals, groups, and nations. Pride, injustice, and selfishness: all preventing meaningful communication and reconciliation.

But had you ever considered that the story of Pentecost balances the story of the Tower of Babel?

The divided language of Babel becomes the common language of Pentecost, the story is turned upside down, or more correctly the right way up.

The miracle of Pentecost was that a new language came with power, the language of love, the language of the Spirit, the language of unity, a language that all could understand; the love that God showed in sending his Son as Saviour and Lord, a suffering servant for all humankind.

God’s love in sending Jesus is something that speaks to the human heart far more eloquently than words could ever do. As we open our hearts and lives to God’s Holy Spirit he fills and empowers us to live this language of love in the world.

God can work in and through us when we’re open to God’s Holy Spirit, who takes our weaknesses and makes us strong, who takes our brokenness and makes us whole. Then the Holy Spirit can do the work of building the kingdom.

We can always move forward in his power and strength, building on the past, building in the present, and building for the future – especially in these new circumstances of coronavirus. Building, not for our own glory, but for God’s glory.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what thou dost love
And do what thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with thee I will one will
To do and to endure.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
Till I am wholly thine,
Until this earthly part of me
Glows with thy fire divine.

Breathe on me, breath of God,
So shall I never die,
But live with thee the perfect life
Of thine eternity.