A hymn about safeguarding, of all things

I wrote this for someone who was planning a service to pray for all those who work as safeguarding officers.  One sets out to write a hymn about this subject with a certain degree of fear and trembling.  But here it is. As always, it’s free for anyone to use – you don’t have to ask.   Feedback is always welcome, too.

The tune is Corvedale (that’s the triple time tune that’s often used for There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy).

May this place be one of nurture
where we all may come to know
how your endless love sustains us
as we live and move and grow.
May we work to build your kingdom
full of truth and light and grace,
living life in all its fullness
held in one divine embrace.

For our negligence and failures
you have called us to repent,
drawing energy for action
from the voices of lament.
As the secret hurts long hidden
may at last be brought to light,
may the truth unlock the freedom
that is every person’s right.

When the smallest child is valued,
and the strong empower the weak,
and each human life is hallowed
and the unheard voices speak:
then your justice stands like mountains
and your mercy falls like rain,
and you hold the brokenhearted
till they learn to live again.

So in gratitude we praise you,
and we lift to you in prayer,
all the people you are calling
to this ministry of care.
Give us wisdom, grace and courage,
holding fast to all that’s good,
seeing Christ in one another
we will love and serve our Lord.

The truth shall set you free

In ministry and in my personal life I’m confronted again and again by these gospel words, and every time I find them just as challenging.
Perhaps it’s because on some level of wishful thinking I believe that if only I really did have all the facts I would be able to make all the right choices, and pick my way better through the minefield of small and large decisions (and their consequences)  that face me, as they do us all, each day. Maybe it’s because I so often find myself dealing with people’s expectations that I will know what to do, that I’ll have access to some crucial wisdom or insight. Maybe it’s because I’ve almost started believing that this might be the case?
But most of all think it’s because, while I’ve always told myself and others that I value my doubts, and that uncertainty is ok, even healthy, there is some part of me that wants to know the whole truth about myself. I want to know what my motivations really are, whether my memories of things I’ve done and things that have been done to me or for me are as inaccurate and subjective as I fear they are. I want to be able to be wholly honest about who I am, and what I am. I want to be able to see myself as I really am, so that I can smile at the good and repent of the evil, safe in the knowledge that there’s nothing I have missed.
Can any of us ever really become that self aware? Is it possible to dig deep enough to find a truth that is beyond the scope of our self-deception?
When I was at school, I clearly remember an incident when someone had flushed paper towels down the loo and the whole school was kept in detention after assembly until the guilty pupil would own up. It only took about two minutes for me to convince myself that it had been me, even though I also knew in my mind that I was innocent. But equally there are other times in my life where I have been guilty as hell, and I’ve instead told myself lies about mitigating circumstances and how it wasn’t really as bad as it looked, until I’ve ended up believing my own spin. How hard it is to recover truth once we’ve started the process of lying to ourselves!
Reaching truth is like peeling a many-layered onion, we can peel off each painful tearful layer thinking that we’ve finally got to the centre, only to find another layer and another round of tears. Is there ever a point where it’s right to stop, when to go further would be ‘too much truth’? Or if we find that the layer we have reached is not, in fact, setting us free at all, have we rather not gone deep enough?
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C S Lewis writes of an incident in which a rather unpleasant child is turned into a dragon, and while he desperately wants to scratch off the scaly dragon skin to rediscover his human self, each time he does so there is another layer of scales beneath. He simply cannot scratch deeply enough to reach who he really is. He is finally helped by the lion, Aslan, whose claws are sharper and longer, and who scratches so deeply that when the Dragon skin finally cones off the boy feels small and vulnerable, and the sensation of the fresh water on this skin as the lion throws him in a pool nearby is painful for an instant. But he is himself again. Or is he? For the child who emerges from this ordeal is not the same as the one who turned into the Dragon; he has been reborn, and the child he is now is less the spoiled, objectionable brat that he was before and is closer to being the human being that God created him to be. When Aslan strips off the Dragon skin, he also strips off some of the other layers of the boy that were also not part of who he was created to be. In the search for himself, the boy found Aslan – God- and also found a different self from the one he expected to get back.
For St Augustine, the quest for truth about himself was inextricably bound up with what turned out to be a quest for God, as he related in his autobiographical Confessions. For he discovered that ‘You were within me, but I was outside myself’ – that it was impossible to know the truth about himself without learning to see himself in the context of God. It’s a sort of theocentric anthropology.
I want to see myself as God sees me, but even having got as far as that realisation is not enough to enable me actually to do so. I am left with the only viable option being to pray continually to the only one who can really see me, in all my happy successes and dismal failings, and still love me, and ask him to keep on transforming me, whether I notice or not, and even if I might sometimes object to the pain of the process.
Will I ever in this life know the whole truth about myself? I don’t think so. But God does. And he is working on me. And maybe that will have to do.

Sermon for Easter 1 (John 20.19-end)

I posted a snippet from this last week. Here’s the whole thing. Now I’ve actually written it....

St John reports that at Jesus’ mockery-of-a-trial, Pilate asked at one point, “What is truth?”  That enigmatic question finds an unexpected echo in today’s gospel, in Thomas’ own need to know what truth really is.  He is not just asking his friends whether what they have told him is literally true, that Jesus is actually live. He’s asking for an experience of the reality of that fact.

Thomas is remembered for his doubt. But should we not rather remember him for his extraordinary desire to experience the fullness of the resurrection for himself?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed, certainly, but blessed also are they who undertake a journey of discovery in doubt, in order that they might experience more fully the truth they seek.  I admit it, I admire Thomas, and I am glad that the gospel records the fact that Jesus granted him his very own resurrection moment.

And in truth, there were many people to whom Jesus granted such a moment.  Yes, the resurrection was a one-off historical event which occurred at some point shortly before dawn on the first day of the week, as we know from the accounts of scripture. That’s a fact that we may either accept or choose not to accept. But the truth of the resurrection is that it was not one moment but many moments. Nobody witnessed the ‘real’ resurrection, but every one of Jesus’ disciples had their own moment where it became real for them.  Mary in the garden, the disciples (minus Thomas) in the room, Thomas himself a week later, the two friends of Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and most poignantly of all, Peter on the beach in John 21, finally being released from the guilt of his betrayal and given his commission.

Yes, in factual terms the resurrection was a one-off event, but in spiritual terms it took time – time for Jesus’ friends to see it, to understand it, to believe it. And in fact, I would go as far as to say that in spiritual terms, the resurrection is still happening. Because it happens every time a modern-day disciple has a resurrection moment – a moment when it becomes real, when the truth that is sought is suddenly found, and found to be more deep and broad and high than the seeker ever dreamed.

So which of these is the ‘real’ resurrection?  The historical moment of Jesus’ own death turning to life, or the spiritual moment of our own death turning to life, each one of us, as it becomes real in our lives?

Which leads us back to Pilate’s question, and  back to Thomas’ doubt.

Attendances in church over Easter were up on last year.  Not just here, but all over the country. And the number of people attending worship in Cathedrals – where mystery and awe and wonder are most clearly in evidence in worship – has increased 30% in the last ten years. Among all the fears that as a society we are becoming ever more materialistic, ever more secular, there is good evidence that there is still – and perhaps more than ever – a desire to engage with God, to engage with things that go far beyond the world of the senses, and yet are revealed in what we see and experience in the world.

We might well feel like the gathered few behind the closed door sometimes, but we gather in expectation:  that there is a truth that is bigger and deeper and broader and higher than we can imagine.  We want some token of our doubtful seeking that, yes, we can see and hear and touch.  But we also want something that shows us that what we see and hear and touch is not the highest reality that there is, but can point us to that greater reality.

We may tend to think of material, physical reality as the most ‘real’ form of reality there is. If we were to see someone walk through a solid wall or a locked door, we, like the disciples, might assume that the person was somehow insubstantial, less ‘real’ than the physical barrier they just passed through.

But what if the reason why the risen Christ can walk through walls is not because he is insubstantial, but because his risen form is so real, so substantial, that the wall is insubstantial in comparison?

This physical reality – the material world around us – cannot be at odds with God. I’m not trying to advocate some kind of ‘spiritual is good, material world is bad’ kind of dualism.  Rather, what we see around us can help to show who and what God really is.  Again, that’s why cathedral worship does it so well – it’s absolutely about saturating the senses with beauty.  And that’s why people often feel close to God in gardens, on mountain tops, and so on. They are places where our senses are assailed by such beauty that we start to be able to see beyond it.

In today’s gospel the disciples see in the person of Jesus just a glimpse of that greater reality.  May we too, be granted such glimpses, and be changed by them, so that as the resurrection becomes real for us, so the light and life and love of God made real in us can spill out and become real for the whole of God’s creation.