Love Life Live Advent – 9th December – give a free gift

Today’s action is possibly the most quandary-inducing of the whole four weeks’ worth. We are to give a Christmas gift to someone who will not be expecting it, and who will not be giving one to us. Ah, free grace and generosity are fraught with such dilemmas of social ettiquette! What if our gift induces a flurry of last minute reciprocation? Or guilt at failing to reciprocate? Would an anonymous gift solve the problem or intensify it, as generosity goes unthanked, or is mistakenly thought to be more than it is – a simple act of kindness?

Unless I am the only person in the world who worries about such things, then this action could be hugely important, not so much in the act of giving but in the act of receiving. For it may well be more blessed to give than to receive, but it is often far harder to receive gracefully than to give gracefully: This action could teach us how to receive that which we have not earned. And there it is: a little glimpse of the kingdom of heaven.

Love Life Live Advent – 8th December – Treat yourself

One (wo)man’s trash is another (wo)man’s treasure, and all that – you may have found that when you tidied a shelf or drawer last week.  Or you may have found the one (wo)man’s trash is simply trash.

Well, the same thing applies to treats.  Each one to their own. My idea of a treat may be just normal for you, or it may be incomprehensible; you may look forward to doing something that I would never in a million years want to try.  Skydiving. Caving. Bungee jumping.  I could go on. There are so many things that many people look forward to doing that I have no desire to do. And there will be many things that I get excited about that would leave others feeling ‘meh’ or worse.

So, today is about finding something that you want to do.  Not something that you think you ought to want to do, or something that the world around you tells you is a treat. No, it’s something that you actually want to do.  And if you live most of your life dashing round doing things you have to do, it can be tricky (a) finding time to do things you want to do, and (b) working out what those things would be if you did have time.

So is today just about being selfish? I suppose it is in a way.  But selfishness has got something of a bad name, and in moderation it’s not always that bad.  Think of the great commandments that were Jesus’ summary of the law:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul and mind and strength’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

If you’ve been following Love Life Live Advent, you’ll have done a bit of the first one by making time to reflect on the meaning of Advent, and you’ll have done some of the second one, too, if you donated to a food bank or started a jar of coins to donate to a charity. But the bit of this wonderful summary of the law that tends to get ignored is the last bit: ‘as yourself‘.  If you do not love yourself, then loving your neighbour as yourself starts to sound like it might not mean so much.

The theology of it goes something like this:

The first command is to love God. And if I love God then I love what God loves (what makes God happy makes me happy).  God made everything, including other people, so when I love God I learn to see others as God sees them, and I learn to love them as he does. So far, so good.

Then I realise that I am also loved by God.  I am part of his creation, and I have to learn not only to see others through the loving eyes of God, but I also have to learn to see myself through those loving eyes.  Which is trickier, because I can probably learn to love other people (even if they annoy me) either by avoiding spending too much time with them, or telling myself that they probably have good reasons for being irritating and I should give them the benefit of the doubt. But this doesn’t work so well when I try and apply it to myself: for a start I cannot avoid myself even if I am irritating myself, and then I cannot really give myself excuses. If I am to love myself  as God loves me then it has to be the real thing.

And if I can master that, then I’m ready to go round again and revisit the nature of my love for others, and see whether or not it was for real.

So, where does treating myself come into play in this piece of needlessly over-complicating today’s action?  For me, there are a few things that spring to mind:

1. Treating myself is not intrinsically a bad thing to do, but I want to know that I am doing it not as a displacement activity or distraction because I am depressed, or bored, or anxious about something unrelated, but because, as the advert always said, ‘I am worth it’.  (Actually, my self-worth cannot me measured even in really nice hair shampoo, but that’s another separate blog post).

2. Treating myself to something I actually want to do, rather than to a ‘generic’ treat is a way for me to discern those things that make me happy, that give me life, and make me unique, rather than what people my age and gender are told they ought to want to do.  I am unique in creation, God made me that way, and if I can embrace my own uniqueness, then I will be better at embracing the uniqueness of others. I will be less likely to see ‘other people’ as a homogeneous genre if I am enjoying my own idiosyncrasies.

3. Treating myself to something that is actually life-giving and affirming is a way of inhabiting, even just briefly, a world in which I am blessed, loved, and cherished, for who I am, not who I ought to be.  If this brings me closer to the God who loves me despite everything, then I’ve accidentally also done a bit of the first commandment, too.*

*Actually, as you’ve probably spotted, there is only one commandment. It looks like two (love God, love others) then you spot the third one (love yourself) then you realise that they’re three sides of the same coin.

readingSo, yes, for me, my treat is to abandon (until tomorrow) the book I’ve been slogging through for ages as part of my PhD reading, and instead pick up one that I’ve been wanting to read for ages. And I will make notes on it using my lovely fountain pen. And I will drink decent coffee while I read. I might even have hot chocolate later.

So, what’s your idea of a treat? And how will it help you to remember that you are loved more than you can possibly imagine by the God who loves everything he ever made?


The lectionary readings for Pentecost give us two contrasting stories of the Holy Spirit being given to the disciples.  The Acts reading is the familiar Pentecost story: dramatic, and public.  The John reading is the resurrection appearance to the disciples as they huddle in the upper room: it’s personal, intimate.

Each reading has something important to say to us. The reading from Acts celebrates the courage and passion and enthusiasm with which the Holy Spirit filled the disciples, how they became more than they had been, fulfilling their potential, becoming fully alive – it’s also about communication, the miracle of being able to find all the right words and have them understood.  The John reading is more like simply taking a deep breath and finding that you have breathed in that peace that passes all understanding, right into your innermost being, and that it has brought you to life.

I don’t normally talk much about the specifics of Greek words in the bible, but today’s an exception. The Greek word used for the Holy Spirit is ‘Paracletos’ – Paraclete, and it literally means, ‘one who comes alongside’.  The word shows how apt are the descriptions of the Holy Spirit as advocate, comforter, and counsellor. Coming alongside is both about the ability to find the right words, to speak in a way that communicates and is understood, and to listen in a way that enables you to understand, and it is about being a comforting presence to those who are most in need.

In the Holy Spirit we experience God alongside us. Remember what the early church would go on to face after the first pentecost: not only do we read of a church that was growing, thriving and inspiring, but also a church whose members were persecuted and killed for their faith. The Holy Spirit wasn’t just God’s way of empowering his people to do his work – continuing the work of Christ.  The Holy Spirit was and is God’s way of being with us and for us and in us, in our deepest griefs as well as in our joys, in our toughest challenges as well as in our triumphs.

Through the Holy Spirit, what we experience most of all is the overwhelming love of God  – the sort of love that infused creation, that was revealed in the incarnation, that shone through Jesus’ life and ministry, tested on the cross and proved to be the ultimately powerful force in the universe.  When Paul wrote in the letter to the Galatians about the fruits of the Spirit, love was the first that he named: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  These are the gifts of a comforter and a counsellor, of one who comes alongside and stays there. May we each – and all we know to be in special need at this time – know the comforting and strengthening love of God, and may we surround one another with that love, now and every day.

John 14.1-14 – ‘…so that where I am, there you may be also…’

What makes you feel that heaven isn’t so far away? A beautiful piece of music or art?  Looking out at the ocean, or a spectacular sunset?  Spending time in prayer?  Holy Places, such as churches or pilgrimage sites, are often described as ‘thin places’ – where earth and heaven seem to be closer, and whatever it is that separates this world from heaven is worn thin, perhaps by centuries of prayer.  Some people seem to find glimpses of heaven everywhere.  Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford, wrote of his sense of overwhelming awe when he went out of his front drive two days after the pavement had been re-surfaced and saw that already a tiny plant had started to germinate and grow in the tarmac – this testimony to the miracle of life had him wanting to get down on his knees, right there and then.

Perhaps you have had such moments yourself – moments of profound awareness of the sacred in ordinary things, or of the miracles that we walk past every day without blinking, or of the way that the extraordinary things of this earth point beyond themselves to a heaven which is beyond our imagining, yet suddenly feels near enough to reach out and touch.

In John’s gospel heaven is never far away.  Jesus’ divinity shines through in all his words and actions, and here, in this central part of the gospel, we find John putting into words the mystery of how Jesus not only demonstrates the proximity of heaven, but also how in his own person he enables complete continuity between earth and heaven.  As Jesus goes on painstakingly and loving to explain (again!) that God is his Father and our Father, this becomes clear to us, if not to his disciples at that point. ‘The Father and I are one,’ he says, and this means that heaven is not only near (in place or time), it is right there, right then, in their very midst.

No wonder these words are so often chosen as the bible reading for funerals. They are full of the hope in the promise that ‘where I am there you may also be.’  If we have enjoyed the companionship of Jesus in our earthly life, then we will continue to do so after our death.

Jesus speaks all these words as one who is cherishing this last bit of quality time,  before his death, with the friends who have shared his earthly ministry. They have witnessed his miracles, heard his teaching, been challenged in their understanding of who he is and who God is, seen things they would never have dared to dream of.  They have been closer to him than family, sharing his joys and sorrows, challenges and times of reflection, humour and anger.

The Jesus in these chapters of John’s gospel speaks of one who knows that this is the last night that he’ll be with them in quite this way.  He knows that he’s going to die, and soon.  He knows that his friend Judas has already set in motion the chain of events that will lead to the cross. He speaks as one who has only a limited time left to try to give his friends everything they will need to make sense of what’s about to happen. Thus, this whole section of John’s gospel is a heady combination of theological depth and pastoral concern: almost everything in these chapters is both profound and absolutely practical.  It is exactly what the disciples need to hear, and yet by definition they could only realise that with the hindsight of the cross and the resurrection.

So he comforts them with hope, and in the promise of the ‘many dwelling places’ set aside for them he once again shows the abundant generosity of God that had already been revealed at the wedding of Cana and at the feeding of the five thousand (both earlier in St John’s gospel, and both foretastes of the life of heaven).

The really striking thing about this part of John’s gospel is that Jesus is both promising heaven, and at the same time, coaching his friends on how to survive and flourish in the mean time, and how to grow a church after his death that will one day fill the world. He shows them the nearness of heaven, and then prepares them for another 2000 years of this world – and counting! He prepares them for his departure, while reassuring them that he will, in every way that matters, always be with them.  And somehow we must hold these things together.

I am reminded of the axiom that states: care for the world as if you’re going to be judged for it today, and as if you have to make it last another billion years.   We hold together the ‘now and not yet’ all the time. We live with the temporary nature of earthly life – the blessings of this life and the promise of eternal life is a tension that we live with constantly.  And it’s a good job that we do.

Christian Aid Week has just ended, and its strapline used to be, ‘we believe in life before death’ – in other words, it is not good enough to lament at the suffering of our fellow human beings, but console ourselves that they are beloved of God and will get their reward in heaven. To rely on the hope that God will sort it all out at the end of time or when we each die is to miss the point (and I always have this same argument when my persistent Mormon visitors come to the door) – our hope for the renewal of the earth and the coming of the kingdom are not unrelated to our calling to be stewards of the earth here and now.

When we pray, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ this is not just some future hope about what God may do, it is our own pledge about what we ourselves are going to do. Readying ourselves for the life of the kingdom of heaven means working for the establishment that kingdom on earth.  We cannot wait for God to do those things for which he has given us the means ourselves – God is already at work, in the ordinary stuff of this world, and longs for us to join him, here and now.

And this is what makes sense of that tension in John’s gospel. Jesus has to show his friends that he is going ahead of them to prepare their place in heaven, while at the same time giving them the tools they will need to start building the kingdom on earth.  He begins, of course, in the next chapter, by the commission to share the love with one another that they have already known in their  relationship with him. ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’

This is the defining characteristic of the kingdom of heaven, but it is also the defining characteristic of an earthly life that is working towards the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. In continuing the work of Christ we continue his ministry of creating continuity between earth and heaven, and we will find that those moments when heaven and earth feel very close are not limited to ‘holy’ places but happen everywhere where we practice the Love that is God’s greatest command and greatest gift.




A homily for 3 before Advent on Luke 20.27-38

The notion of heaven as a place where we are reunited with our loved ones is a powerfully hopeful one. And this may well be an aspect of the life of heaven. I hope so. But it’s not all that heaven is.

The religious experts of Jesus’s day had a habit of making everything too small, too exact, too limiting.  Here, they want to undermine the abundant love of heaven and limit it merely to what human beings are able to give and receive in this life.  Now, earthly love is a wonderful thing: it can change the world, it can transform individuals, it can make the impossible feel possible.  In fact, the human experience of love is one of the most persuasive arguments for the reality of heaven: our hearts tell us that real love transcends death so logically there must be somewhere for that love to go.

And that’s only earthly love.  But the love that exists in heaven, free from the polluting effects of jealousy, self-centredness, laziness, and more?  That love is beyond my imagining. It certainly can’t be reduced to an argument about the extent to which marriage is still valid after we die.  The very fact that the life of heaven will be free of conflict and division, hurt and regret, means that it must be a very different kind of life from that we experience now.

It’s always going to be tempting to define heaven in terms of earth because earth is pretty much all we have to go on – it is our only real frame of reference. But heaven is so much more.  As my young son put it when he was five: “Heaven isn’t up in space, it’s all around us but differently real… God is outside time and space, so he could even look at everything backwards if he wanted to.”

So while my heart tells me that I can look forward to a heaven in which I am reunited with those of my loved ones who have died, my head tells me that this cannot be all it’s about. If it were only about me and my loved ones, then heaven would have been reduced to a sort of private preservation and perpetuation of my earthly existence, but without all the bad bits, and my looking forward to it would in fact be looking backwards.  Can this really be all it is?

The fact that this reading falls on Remembrance Sunday brings the biggest challenge to this ‘reduced’ and ‘private’ heaven.  For today our hearts tell us that heaven must be about reconciliation, genuine peace, the healing of old conflicts.  It cannot be a merely private matter.  And because heaven is communal and not private, it follows that we will be reunited not only with our loved ones but also with those we found it extraordinarily hard to love in this life.  Those against whom we fought in battles real or metaphorical.  Those against whom we competed, those who characterised some of the hardest times in our lives.  Because we don’t get to choose which of our enemies makes it into heaven, we have to have a vision of heaven that allows for a much deeper unity than the reuniting of those who managed to love each other even on earth.

But that again is good evidence for the inextricable link between heaven and love.  Heaven must be that place where love is perfected, or else the unlikely unity of past enemies could never be part of it.

This time of year in the church, what we call the ‘Kingdom season’, we reflect on the relationship between heaven and earth.  And on this very day we remember those whose entry into the life hereafter came through a complex mix of duty and conflict, cruelty and desperation, peacemaking and destruction.  We remember the circumstances in which their lives ended. And we try and hold together the hope for a heaven in which there simply is no place for conflict, with the reality of an earth that has been at war, somewhere or other, pretty much continuously for centuries.

So by all means let us look forward to being reunited with our loved ones.  But let us even more look forward to being united with those for whom earthly unity proved elusive or downright impossible. For with the Love of God, all things are possible.