And the Word became flesh and lived among us…


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087Earlier this year a friend of mine saw a picture I had taken and said, ‘That’s it, that’s your Christmas sermon sorted.’ I have to admit I had forgotten about it in the interim. And then a recent conversation reminded me – of a particular crib, in a refugee camp in southern Iraq. And everything about the circumstances of that picture grabbed hold of me. This was a nativity – this was THE nativity, lived over and over and over again in every generation. THIS is how the world is saved, how each and every one of us is saved, when we are able to see our own families, our ourselves, our innermost, frail selves in the child that needs to be loved, and needs the care of others. This is humanity at its most helpless. We are each of us that child, needing to be loved – and needing to love back.

Amid Mary’s outpouring in the Magnificat – her cry at the new from the Angel Gabriel that she was to be the bearer of the saviour of the world; amid humanity’s cry for freedom from tyranny, for justice in the face of oppression and crushing poverty for some while the wealthy play, comes not a vanquishing army – but a child, born into poverty himself, in a place of exile, in the basest of surroundings amongst a nation subject to the whim of rule that forces displacement of whole peoples. This is where hope lies – in the meanest of places. The only means for hope to survive is when others do what they can, with the little at their disposal, to ensure hope has a chance.


When our group of foreign visitors, people of faith from various parts of the world, considered wise by some and foolish by others – for we entered this land of war trusting our fate to God and the hosts who sought our presence – when our group entered the container, holding eight other families, we were told to be silent, to be still, for in this tiny compartment a newborn baby lay sleeping. In hushed voices, we surrounded the tiny, covered frame and heard the story of this place, of families left bereft of home and livelihood, having lost loved ones to a terrible violence – escaping war and seeking a place of safety in the desert. A proud brother and sister, like a tiny Mary and Joseph, stood guard over where the child lay – the mother too shy to enter.

And there we stood in awe, Arab, North African, European, Asian, American, Muslim and Christian, travelling from afar and from near, in wonder at this child that lay before us. There too were the shepherds, the local villagers giving of their own homes and fields, as refuge for this holy family. Will this child survive the harsh conditions? Will this child survive the war that ravages his nation? Will this child know that it is loved, and cared for, and cherished? Or will this child instead feel the bitterness of loss, of frustration, of violence and hate?

This child presents us with a mirror on our own selves. How this child lives and grows will be in a world of our making. We cannot pluck just one child out of these conditions – we must make the conditions for all of these children better where they are, and the places where they seek sanctuary and safety, into places of welcome and healing and love; and we can in our own lives seek to treat one another as we would that tiny child. This is the hope that is set before us, it is a hope that lies within our own hands, within our own lives, and minds and hearts and actions. It is a hope God has created us to share with one another. It is God’s hope that is born in us this day.


Removing my hands from your throat

A sermon on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

‘If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will be able to move mountains.’ A card bearing this passage, also from the Gospel of Matthew, was in my mother’s belongings. Growing up I always remember her wearing this little pendant – with a mustard seed enclosed. And she always used to quote this passage of scripture to me whenever I touched the pendant. My mother died the Saturday after I was ordained deacon, and my brother kindly brought this pendant over from the U.S. for me to have.

So you can imagine today’s passage holds special personal significance. Jesus has been asked what the kingdom of God is like – and he answers with a number of rather obscure parables. He then turns to his companions and asks whether they understood. You get the impression from the context, there is a bit of doubt cast over whether their answer in the affirmative, that, yes, they have understood, was indeed the truth – or was it one of those situations in which no one wanted to admit being the one who didn’t get the joke. So all laugh as if they understand.

These parables are given in order that we stop to think, that we not just believe we have the immediate answer to anything – that we take the time to contemplate what it is Jesus is trying to tell us.

The humble mustard seed provides today’s first example of what the kingdom of God is like – a small, seemingly insignificant bit of a seed has the capacity to grow into a bush capable of providing food, oil, shelter for the birds of the air and shade for the weary traveller. Such plants are used in deserts to bind the soil, enrich it and allow precious water to collect – all from a tiny speck.

Some of the best books I read are the ones that involve an amount of struggle – not because they are a difficult read. But rather the difficulty lies in that each page holds some wisdom that I just have to read over again, and then sit for a while blown away. One such book is ‘Exclusion & Embrace’ by Miroslav Volf, a Croat, now resident in the U.S. and a professor of theology. He introduces the book with a story about forgiveness. You see, when he was exploring writing this book, he wanted to examine whether God’s love, God’s kingdom, is exclusive to a specific group – or whether God’s love embraces all. When he was first presenting his ideas he was questioned by another theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, whether he could truly embrace a Cetnik. He describes how in the winter of 1993, Serbian fighters, the Cetnik, were the cause of untold suffering, violence and horrific deaths in his homeland of Croatia. This introduced a new and difficult dimension into his writing, and a steely determination. He looked around him and saw that violence, evidence of the terrible suffering we put each other through every day, in every land, was all around him. Could we find a way of embracing one another? Could God truly include all in his loving embrace.

One of the more difficult chapters is on forgiveness and forgetting. Forgiveness is held up as the prize, that which we aspire to when we have been hurt, and hold out to another as an act of charity. We sometimes use it to beat one another with, to instil guilt with, we use it manipulate one another – I have forgiven you, so you must be good now, you must be the way I want you to be. William Young writes about forgiveness in his book ‘The Shack’ as the moment we remove our hands from the throats of someone else and stop choking them.

But what of the moment just following that forgiveness? What happens then? What happens when we stop choking one another? How do we go on living alongside those who have hurt us? This is the quandary in places like Croatia – when it is the neighbour with whom you shared your bread, whose child you looked after, who helped you in your garden – who suddenly turns and rapes, and steals and kills. Even if you can come to a point of forgiveness, and this is hard enough, how do you go on living with them? How do you face them each day?

And this is where our parables come in. What is the hidden treasure? What is that pearl of great price – that someone would sell all they had in order to acquire it? There is a movement in the U.S. which some call the new Gnostic movement. Alongside the Bible they study a text called ‘The Course in Miracles’ – a rather complicated and obscure text about which I have many doubts. But the gist of much of what it is trying to say is that everything we do comes from one of two emotions – and only one of those emotions is real. These two emotions are Love and Fear. From where do our actions flow? Are they from Love or are they from Fear? This theory would contend that when people do bad things, they are acting out of fear – when there is really nothing to fear, except of course fear itself. So how fearful would you have to be in order to steal, to rape or to murder? How fearful do you have to be to feel you have to obtain intimacy by force, to steal, to murder in order to survive – that the lust for power is really stemming from a fear of death?  The greater the sin the greater is the fear. That amount of fear would be unbearable.

Of course this doesn’t excuse the sin, it doesn’t excuse harming anyone else. But it does give pause for thought, some insight into how a loving God would be so concerned for his wayward children. A loving Father would perceive the deep, deep-seated fear behind the actions of a tyrant.

There is a scene in the Mahabharatta, a Hindu text, in which the hero Udishterrah visits heaven and finds his enemies there, enemies who had raped his wife, killed his sons, killed his family – he finds they are there already, enjoying all that heaven has to offer. He is told to embrace them, but he cannot. He then asks to see his family and he is taken to the depths of Hell, where he decides to stay in order to be with his family. It is his inability to forgive that places him there, alongside his family who can only see the sins of others.

When all is done, the sin has been committed, there is nothing else left, in that moment in darkness and dust – when the dead cannot be brought back to life, the scars of injury cannot be healed, the pain of memory cannot be taken away. What can you do? You can remove your hands from the throat – but then you are left facing one another. This is the pearl of great price, the treasure worth giving all you have to acquire – the abundant Grace of God to forgive. In that forgiveness a transformation takes place. It doesn’t mean the transgression never happened – it doesn’t remove the scars or the pain. But it does transform them into a mark of beauty, a priceless treasure in the heart. One single moment of forgiveness, and forgetfulness, is the mustard seed that moves mountains, that wipes every tear from the eye and makes all things new. Forgiveness is the yeast that grows in the heart, spreads its leaven and provides bread of the Spirit for a whole community.

Memory is what causes revenge to be taken, revenge for sins real and for sins perceived, for everyday offensive slights, for acts of terror, or killing someone because they are different. Those who have known their death to be suddenly imminent in the midst of violence or tragedy, fly immediately past forgiveness and even forgetfulness. What matters in their last moments has not been laying hands on throats, but rather the love they hold for family and friends. Of the phone calls that take place, the messages are of one thing only. I love you. I want you to know I love you. This is all that matters. This is what God wants for us; to know that we are loved and to love one another in return.  This is the pearl, this is the treasure for which we may be asked to pay a great price, this is the yeast that leavens the heart, this is the mustard seed that moves mountains.


Choosing Love


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Choose love, always, always, choose love. Love is not the easy choice. As Archbishop Tutu has said recently on the subject of forgiveness, those who believe forgiveness is only for the weak – have never tried it. I would say the same is true of Love. To choose love is an act of courage. It takes a belief in the self, in the strength within yourself to give and to sacrifice, and to be vulnerable; and it is a belief in the strength to receive, to love another with all that is beautiful and all that is ugly, and see only Grace.

I spent several years in a parish where many members of the congregation had been asked to leave other churches, or who were made to feel unwelcome in all those subtle ways that polite company has to let you know, your presence is distasteful to them. These members of the congregation had the courage to Love, to love themselves enough to live with the dignity of being fully and openly who they believed God created them to be – loving individuals who were meant to share that love with another. Some of them were couples who were in long-term relationships.

One of the men in a long-term relationship was a WWII veteran, awarded medals of bravery as a pilot. He and his partner had been together for over 40 years. Now this was before civil partnerships were made possible, and I believe this brave veteran died before they were able to legally celebrate their love for one another. The courage of their relationship also deserved a medal for each of them. Their relationship would have begun when it would have been illegal for them to be a couple openly. Such long-term devotion in the face of persecution is rare indeed.

And yet even during the time when I was living in Brighton, I would occasionally walk through Kemptown, an area known for its gay bars, of an early morning – and there would be police tape along the street. Some poor chap woul have been beaten up. You would have thought at the time those days were over – but they clearly were not. I would think about the time my father admitted that when he was younger, along with several others, he would go to where the gay men would hang out and they would beat them up. Gay-bashing. I don’t think he told anyone else in the family. I still choose love. I loved my father, the ugly side as well as the beautiful side that taught me to respect myself as a woman and to speak my mind. Loving him is still an act of courage. Sharing his vulnerabilities is an act of courage, to dare to tarnish the memory of him, out of the love for the shame he felt.

So here we are now, in a week within the history of the world when so much hatred of some people for other people for who they are has been made rife in the world – hating people for where they come from, where they were born, the danger they are so desperately trying to escape, for the colour of their skin, their gender, their sexuality, their religion. In this week we remembered that Holocaust that took place in living memory of so many, in living memory of my lovely veteran, in living memory of so many other genocides, in Vietnam, in Rwanda, in Srebenica, of the countless genocides that happen every day in the violence we do to one another. In the midst of this, I choose to love.

I choose love and I challenge to love. I challenge the House of Bishops to Love. In a world where Love is so very difficult to find, so elusive, courageous love so rare, I challenge the House of Bishops to celebrate Love, celebrate Love wherever and however it happens. Let us shout it from the rooftops, let us acknowledge and respect the love one human being has for another, and let us bless it. Love is sacred, and has God’s blessing already. It is us, as church, that needs to bless, for our own souls we need to bless what God has already made sacred in the gift that is Love.

Planted in the Sea of Sorrows, to seek & bring forgiveness


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A Sermon for Trinity 19 

Readings: Habakkuk 1 & Luke 17

‘Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.’ The Prophet Habakkuk, chapter 1

This morning I checked the news, as I do before taking services every Sunday morning, and picked up the story from a journalist who was sharing the images he cannot show. All he could do was to show the images of the children who have been caught up in the violence in Syria, the wounded and the dying. What he could not show us were the pictures of the children whose bodies were torn apart, the babies decapitated by bombs and shrapnel – the horror is beyond imagining. And yet these have become the experience of a generation of Syrians, so many of them children – playing in pools of water formed in a bomb crater and thirsty for a simple toy, the tenderness of their family and friends who could be lost in any instant. How long, O Lord?! And how long will our cries continue unheard by those responsible? Or maybe they do hear? How long will we feel ourselves disempowered, unable to bring about the change that will end this misery?

I recently returned to the sea, for a time of rest and refreshment. I had forgotten how much I missed it, and the fresh air and salt cleansed my troubled soul.

In ancient tradition the sea represents chaos – deep and dark and limitless, with storms and the danger of drowning, but also the nourishment of fish and seaweed and salt, providing sustenance and taste. Healing can only take place within this sea of sorrows, within this place of fear and darkness, within this place of danger and chaos. And yet within this is also nourishment and cleansing salt.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus speaks about the times we stumble being many – and that if we give into them, it would be better if we had a stone tied around our neck and were thrown into the sea! I don’t believe Jesus is telling us to throw ourselves into the sea to drown when we have done something wrong. Rather he is stating what it is like to discover we have caused offense. It is hard to ask for forgiveness, and until it is given, it can be as if we are drowning in a deep sea of sorrow. But he goes on to state that if we offend, we must seek pardon. If we have caused offense we should seek forgiveness. If someone repents – we must forgive!

The Gospel goes on to suggest that a tiny bit of faith, the size of a mustard seed, is able to transplant a mulberry tree from the land to the sea. The eminent theologian, John Crossan, has stated that we believe scripture to have been written literally but that we are now sophisticated enough to read it metaphorically. But the reality is that scripture was written symbolically and we are foolish enough to try to read it literally. So maybe this mulberry tree thing is not about an actual mulberry tree moving into the sea.

Jesus is telling us to take the little amount of faith we have and plant it in the sea – that sea where the sorrowful have cast themselves. The mulberry tree is an interesting tree – it bears fruit that is full of iron and vitamin C, and which can be dried and saved throughout the winter. The wood is good for carving and along with the leaves is also used for making paper – paper upon which books are written. It provides food for the body and nourishment for the mind and the soul. Forgiveness, and a small amount of faith, provide healing to the broken.

And the sea, the sea is almost without limit, the winds and storms themselves provide for the rain that falls on the land and waters our crops, provides for and fills our rivers and lakes. Our sorrows, our suffering, when confronted with a small amount of faith, are themselves transformed into the Grace that makes for a better world. What our world needs most is for faithful servants to plunge themselves into the sea, wash themselves in salt tears.

Jesus tells us of the faithful servants who after toiling in the fields, come home to serve the table of their master. I have to admit the first reading of this feels counter intuitive. I want the master to invite them to share, not to serve. But on reflection, if the faithful servants are the disciples of God, toiling in the fields, the master they serve are the afflicted and suffering of the world. The good and faithful servants knows his or her meal will come, knows that forgiveness is theirs, and because they have received the healing of the sea, because they know the suffering of the guilty, because they know forgiveness having lifted the stone of guilt from around their neck, to serve another is only doing what is humanly decent.

None of us can survive the sea without that we serve one another, forgive one another, feed one another, freely dive into the sea for one another – and there discover God’s given Grace with and in serving one another. We must plunge into the sea, plant ourselves in the swirling waters of our world’s sorrow, plead forgiveness for turning away from the suffering of others and be swift to forgive the transgressions of others.

Seeking the Best in Us


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The day the results of the referendum were announced, I joined in the Big Iftar in Luton town centre. The mood was subdued, but also held a deeply poignant determination that as a community, Luton was going to hold together. Iftar is a meal taken at the end of a long day of fasting. It is begun with dates, a bit of sweetness, and water, essential for life. Hosted by the borough council, with Muslim caterers and community police officers serving, there where Muslims and Christians and Hindus and people of no faith and people of many nationalities and traditions and languages, all joining together, to honour the sweetness of their friendship across cultures and faith, a sweetness that is essential if life is to flourish.  In a town lodged in popular imagination as a birthplace for hate movements, the people at the grassroots level are weary of the reputation. When you have nothing left, rather than acts of desperation, maybe the only thing that matters is the relationship we have with the people around us – is it loving and nurturing, or is it one of fear and suspicion? We can only live in fear for so long. At some point we all need to reach out. Whatever the outcome of the referendum was going to be, there was going to be some upset. And in campaigns where all sides stoked fear, that upset was always going to be raw. But on this night in Luton, there was nothing but a quiet reaching out to one another, reaching out in respect and reaching out in a mutual effort to heal divisions and work towards the common good. This was the best of Luton.

My parish of Kimpton in Hertfordshire has a link with a parish in East Germany, which has sent us a message to reassure that they still hope we are able to keep a strong link of friendship and exchange as two rural, Christian communities. And we will be returning a message of love and support, that despite the outcome of the referendum, we will continue to strengthen the bonds between us.

That hate crimes have increased to such an extent following the referendum is surely a sign that more than ever we need to pull together. This past week a primary school encouraged their students to perform acts of kindness, by giving out flowers to people on the street, and placing handmade bookmarks with supportive messages written on them in library books.  Each of these positive gestures not only make someone else smile, but change our own hearts, our own souls as well.

Taking the words of the Bishop of St Albans, it is vital to offer reassurance to those who are most fearful, listen to those who are frustrated or angry, defend those subjected to attacks of hatred, report abuse, reach out to our neighbours with simple acts of kindness, and work together for the good of all.

This is the full response to the referendum results written at the request of Madeleine Davies from The Church Times. For more responses around the UK, please see this link:

The following is a statement issued by the Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Revd Alan Smith, in response to the referendum result:

“The people of this nation have spoken, although the referendum has also highlighted the deep divisions that exist in our country. We must now move forward together. However, healing the divisions will require an acknowledgement that the vote in part reflects the increasingly polarised circumstances between the poorest and the richest people in our nation.

“It is my hope that all who voted will show grace whether they side with the victorious or the defeated. We must seek to rebuild neighbourly trust and acceptance on our streets, in our workplaces and clubs and schools.  We will start with prayer in our churches and continue with our longstanding service to all the people of our communities. Most of all, it is vital for us to offer friendship and reassurance to those who might fear that this result will be exploited by factions peddling hatred and division.”

God is God

A response to CRIB (Christian Response to Islam in Britain) – Do Muslims and Christians worship the same god?

When I was a child, God was in the angels that sang in carols of the birth of a child at Christmas; God was in the arms of Mary surrounding all life with love; God was in the candles my mother would fill the house with light with on Christmas Eve; God was in the spirit of giving of a Santa Claus that ensured all children everywhere were cared for and loved. God was in the magic of waking up to a midnight snowfall, in the tiny crystalline flakes and the lacey patterns on frosted panes of glass.

God was in the daffodils and crocus that erupted from the dark earth in Spring, in the loving eyes of a Jesus ready to die on the cross at the hands of ordinary people who didn’t understand the love he offered. God was in the gentle rabbit that hid eggs under tufts of grass and flowers in our garden at Easter. God was in the sunshine and clouds that floated gently across the sky in summer, in the thunder rolling across the plains and lightening that crackled around the house in August, bringing welcome rain to dry fields and mountain forests.

God was in my mother’s touch, when she warmed flannels with Vick’s vaporub to clear a chesty cough, in the love of books and music and art that she instilled me, in her love for my father. And God was in my father’s pride in my doing well in school, in my song, in my painting.

When I was a child God was in my Christian fifth grade teacher, Mrs Conyers, telling us about her Buddhist friend who believe that God sent prophets to every nation on earth, to tell of God’s love for us all in the best way the people of those nations are able to understand.

When I was a child, God was love, God was beauty, God was compassion for the poor and wounded, God was gentle and kind.

And God was God.

When I got older, God was in the child running away from napalm attack in Vietnam, God was in the freedom marches of Martin Luther King and the words of Malcom X and with Native Americans taking their stand at Wounded Knee; God was in the brave hearts of all who gave their lives for the sake of peace, for the sake of justice, for the sake of Love of one another. God was in the flight of the eagle, in the majesty of mountains, and in the eyes and touch of the one I loved.

And God was God.

At one point in my life God found new names. God became Allah, and Khoda, and Rahman and Raheem. I discovered God had many names, one hundred names in Arabic and myriad names in other languages.

And still, God was God.

I worshipped God in study. I worshipped God in service to others. I worshipped God in a voice that called for justice for the vulnerable. I worshipped God when standing. I worshipped God when bowing. I worshipped God when prostrating with my forehead on the ground. I worshipped God when fasting. I still worship God when standing, when bowing, when prostrating with my forehead on the ground, when fasting.

God remained God. God was God.

And when my children were born – God was all over the faces of my children, in their eyes, in their voices, in their running and playing and laughing and in their crying – crying that demanded the care of their mother and of their father and of humanity and of God.

And when the man who should have protected and cherished me turned, and when I witnessed war, and homelessness, and hunger, and when I watched the suffering of my children – God was in my anger. God was in my anger at God. God was in the bleakness of abandonment, holding steady until I could stop screaming and listen for the still and small and loving voice of God at the heart of my anger. And God lent strength and courage and forbearance through the faces and eyes and hearts and song of my children,

and my family,

and my friends.

And God kept me alive through them and with them and in them.

And God was God. God was always God.

And when I remembered the Jesus of the cross, put there because we didn’t understand his love – God was still God. And God understood my pain and my anger and my insides desiccated by life because God died on the cross that I might know he knows me.

And God was God. And I knew God better. But God was still God, the always God, the only God. There was no other God. There was never any other God.

And I shared my life with people of God, with lovers of God, with those who had different names for God, with those who understood God differently – but God was still the always God. There was no other God. There was never any other God.

Until one day someone asked me whether they worshipped another God, those who knew God by another name. And I didn’t understand what they were talking about. Why do they ask this question? Why do they say there is another God, when God is only God, no other God.

The God of molten gold


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cracked bowl mended with gold

cracked bowl

Daydreams no longer bring any comfort, those delicious, warm, golden moments spent imagining, hoping, when the living present was too painful, even unbearable. Daydreams lent strength of some day, some where, some body, some how.

And my visions of God were of a knight in shining armour, or a wizened Gandalf rescuing the suffering from torment, of rescuing me from my own self, from my dark imaginings of my own ugliness and lack of worth. To say this has been pointless would be to discount all the times I know God has been that angel in shining armour that has held a shield of protection against all the dread that might have been, of the myriad times I have timidly stood to voice some wrong, been shamed for my audacity, and brought to a better place in the end for having done so. God has been a knight in shining armour and rescued this poor maid from the worst of fates.

But now in the maturity of life – or maybe a maturity of faith – and unsure I can even call it that, I am wanting more.  Amid all the disdain of certain worship songs that portray ‘Jesus as my boyfriend’ – I begin to recognise these songs belie a human longing for connection. Maybe in youthful, Disney innocence, we have depicted some kind of ‘boyfriend’ rescuer that has condemned men to be the expected solver of all that is ill and bringer of joy, and all women as simpering waifs capable of little more than kissing the frog to bring out the prince. We are so much more to one another. God is so much more for us, and we are so much more for God.

Love has entered late in life and wounded me to the core. Longing for connection, for intimacy – something deep that goes beyond rescue, beyond transforming a prince through a kiss. I long now not to be rescued, but to be my own self, with much to offer, however flawed. I am now that cracked bowl mended with molten gold. I have suffered the blows of life and am held together by the people I have loved – many of whom I have lost, through time, or distance, or death.

And yet here I stand, empty. I wait to be filled, filled with the deep draught of rich red wine, dipped with bread. I await the lips that drink from my bowl, that drink the fullness and take all I offer into his body, his soul, his heart. For all we are, all we ever have, is one another, is our connection, our Love.

And should I be blessed to place my lips on that of another cracked bowl, rich with the molten gold of wounds, with the deep red wine of Love freely offered and the bread of a body shared, I would count this a Grace of God, an at-one-ment with the Divine Beloved, an absolution of my fear of the intimacy I so deeply long for.

If this quaff should never be my providence, then the longing must be enough – a proof that Love we all seek is welling from within my heart. It is mine, ready to share, to give, to quench, to sooth, to heal, to increase.

I see God no longer as knight in shining armour, or wizened Gandalf, and was never really that longed-for ‘boyfriend’. God seeks each of us as partner, partner in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, healing the sick, befriending the lonely, partner in Love and in loving. God is with us as we walk through the shadows, and stands with us in the light. God is in each and every person who acts out of love rather than fear, tenderness rather than cruelty, generosity rather than selfishness. God is more and more present when we are together, yet never abandons or disappears when we are at our loneliest. God is in the best of us, and can be found, if looked for, in the worst of us – even when we feel that worst is within our own selves. God is there, patching us up with molten gold, for we are precious in God’s sight.

the Call to Love, it takes deep courage


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I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. – the words of Paul in the Letter to the Ephesians.

Love, Peace, Humility, Gentleness – lovely sounding words, and because they are words of that to which each of us, each and every human being seeks to attain, thirsts for as the deer pants for the water, we want them to be easy. But we know they are not easily won – they are won through tremendous courage, the kind of courage that only Love can bear, the kind of courage that takes a man to a cross for the sake of the ones he loves. Love bears all things.

This past week I went to a conference at the University of Lancaster on Faith, Communities and Radicalisation. Astounded to be introduced as one of the Church of England’s experts on confronting the far right, I eventually realised that what I consider to be humble experiences, on the ground, at grassroots level, were actually valuable first-hand knowledge the those I shared the platform with viewed as indispensable. The common theme of the day was one of preventing our younger generation in particular from seeking to fulfil their hopes in the arms of the likes of extremism – whether it is with ISIS, or groups such as the EDL, Britain First or neo-Nazi groups such as New Dawn. We have a global context in which employment and housing opportunities are almost non-existent for a generation of young people. In the 14 years since 9/11, a generation of young Muslims have received a daily onslaught from media telling them they are terrorists. And other young people, struggling to find jobs – have also been on the receiving end of that onslaught. It is easy to now find a scapegoat in Muslims or immigrants or Eastern Europeans. What each of us concurred upon, academics, religious leaders, sociologists, criminologists, community workers, was that young people need to be given hope, hope for a future in which they might have employment, feel valued, and have a place in this world. If we don’t, as a nation, give it to them – someone else will. ISIS is the extreme manifestation of those seeking to benefit from a disaffected  generation. It is said that from their fruits you shall know them – and their fruits are that of organised crime. They are involved in trafficking of human beings, in arms and antiquities sales, sale of oil, in drugs. They terrorise just as organised crime uses terror to control swathes of communities.

One of the things that was said is a feeling that this is a new phenomenon – how do we stop it? But we have been here before. Much of the patterns we know of from groups in Northern Ireland are followed in the patterns of behaviour here in the UK with regard to the EDL and Britain First – mapping almost exactly in the Orange parades and organised drug crime. Tommy Robinson, founder of the EDL, has been convicted of a number of crimes which include drug charges and assault. What we have with both groups such as the EDL and with ISIS are a pattern of terror, illicit financial gain, and grooming of the vulnerable for the purposes of forming a voluntary army – whether it is on a small scale here in Britain, or the horrific events in Syria and Iraq. The pattern is the same.

This sounds a bleak picture – but I want to assure that it is not. The solution is not more bombing campaigns, the solution is not a 1950’s McCarthy-era style of thought police. Truly, the first solution, the solution that will make a real difference in the world, is Love. Rick Love (yes, that is his name!) of the World Evangelical Alliance, has challenged the Christian world to wage Love. He is challenging to follow the words of Jesus Christ that we love our enemies, that we love ISIS. Not their ideology – of course not, not their actions. But individual by individual, person by person, cup of tea by cup of tea – that we sit down and listen to people, value them as human beings, that we give hope through love. I have worked enough on the street to see how things ratchet up, and keep on ratcheting up. The more attention you give to the violence, to the anger, things ratchet up. Before we can even listen to one another – we have to stop, love, provide hope.

I was on the train to London at rush hour when the last budget was announced, and I listened to what I discerned were two social workers heatedly discussing the results. Young people between the ages of 18-25 will not be entitled to minimum wage. It is considered appropriate that they should seek help from their families. But these social workers were asking what about the young people in care who are expected to be independent when they are 18, no longer entitled to housing or benefits. Their only choice at this point is to return to a household where they were abused or neglected. It is a choice forced upon them. It will be that or the streets. This nation which in its compassion saw the establishment of the NHS and a benefit system that feeds and houses the vulnerable, and that our Prime Minister is asking to return to British values, is at risk of losing the best of those values. We who pay in to a system of taxes that is supposed to protect us when we need it most, are seeing that slowly eroding away.

This past week, a dentist in America received global disapproval of something he considered a sport. He shot a lion in Africa – and the world went crazy with accusations. And then there were the counter accusations – that people, and the media, care more about a lion being shoe than….well, you name it; a Palestinian child burned to death, a black woman beaten to death by police in the US, or nameless migrants killed in the Channel Tunnel from Calais. Jesus is calling us, calling us to love, to peace, to gentleness, to humility. It is a radical calling. It is a loud calling – and it is getting louder and louder!

When my children were small and had nightmares, I used a Native American technique with them. I told them the next time something chased them in their dream, they were to turn around and ask what gift it was the monster was trying to give them. You see, the thinking behind this is that our nightmares are really something in our psyche that is trying to get our attention – and that if we turn around and listen to what it is, we will find that it is a valuable gift we need to receive.

We are at a crossroads of humanity as a nation. We are being called to love, to compassion, to hope. Several people have died in the middle of a dark tunnel, crushed by lorries and God knows what. We are not provided with their names – they remain dehumanised, nameless, faceless, termed part of a swarm and like cockroaches. What is happening in Calais has been happening for years, but is currently part of a sharp increase of refugees worldwide. What some media term to be a huge swathe is in reality on a minute portion of those seeking sanctuary worldwide. Other European countries take in hundreds of thousands rather than the thousands Britain receive. That a small portion of refugees seek to make it to the UK is no surprise.

There is a global pressure of people seeking to escape unthinkable violence in their home countries, and by far the greater majority are finding refuge in countries closer to where they are coming from. They are not coming to the UK because they are under the impression we have a great system they can exploit. Those who are trying to come here either have some kind of connection through relatives, or have some knowledge of English which they believe will help them find a job.

I worked with refugees when I was living in Brighton. Many of them were highly skilled but prevented from working, from earning their way and paying taxes because while awaiting the lengthy process of seeking asylum, they have little or no recourse to public funds or to employment. But as hard as things are for them here and in Europe – there is at least hope, at least no one is going to shoot them just for being who they are. I was a trustee for Brighton Voices in Exile, a Christian charity which provided for those seeking asylum who were falling through the cracks – left with no food, shelter or recourse to clothing – even for families with children, the charity provided what little they could. What love, commitment, courage, humility and gentleness it takes to provide hope for the hopeless. It is not a case that if we opened our borders there would be hordes of refugees coming in. We are at the edge of Europe, and an island. Those who come this far are the most desperate. Rather than put up walls in fear, we need to work closely with the whole of Europe to find a means of providing for the needy – those in need of saving their own lives.

A Daily Mail headline from 1938 draws comparisons with those we are now seeing with regard to Calais: ‘The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port in this country is becoming an outrage. In intend to enforce the law to its fullest.’ – quoting a London magistrate. It goes on to makes claims about problems surrounding unemployment issues – there not being enough jobs, etc. At this end of history, I would rather be perceived as the one who provided sanctuary for those escaping oppression, than the one turning them away.

The bread of life Jesus speaks of is the love for God and for one another each and every one of us is called to. That love would never see another go hungry or thirsty, in fear for their life or without shelter. The bread of Life is Love – courageous, humble, gentle, patient Love. It is not easy, it is not hearts and flowers and romance – but it is full of light and grace and blessing. From this Sunday’s sermon, using the following readings: Ephesians  4.1-16 John 6.24-35

‘Trafficking’ – politically correct term for modern slavery?


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A talk at Turvey Abbey, 29 April 2015

I came to this subject of Trafficking by a rather circuitous route – through a frustration at the lack of women’s voices in our church, in the running of our countries, and in the world. I am certainly no expert, but it is something about which I am increasingly passionate – because all of us, as human beings, have not only a responsibility, but also have a capacity which we must recognise and act on, to end slavery.

The film 12 Years a Slave is truly powerful, but along with several colleagues, some of whom work in the area of equalities, I also found it very uncomfortable – not only for the brutality of the story, that is rather a given, but for the message it sends out to us today. There are many layers to the ‘white’ story in the film, stories of those who take advantage and kidnap a free man, those who were brutal, those who extended an amount of kindness while holding onto what they considered a right to own another human being, those who were cowards and those who courageously, at the risk of their own lives and livelihood, offered freedom. But these layers were ‘white’. Now racism is another hot topic I do not intend to try to tackle here, and recent events in the US indicate so very dramatically that race relations within the US are in great need of work. Perhaps a truth and reconciliation commission is as much needed there as it was in South Africa. Such films as 12 Years a Slave tend to provide a sense of self-satisfaction, that however bad things were then they are nowhere near as bad now. Even if we have a global problem of trafficking, it’s not as bad as then. Slavery is outlawed, and to make ourselves feel better we even give it a more politically-acceptable label – trafficking; not ‘slavery’. We cannot name it for what it is.

As the British public became aware of the horrors of slavery in the Antebellum South, demand grew – not without strong opposition – to take action to end the slave trade. As early as 1792 there was a popular boycott of slave-produced sugar, hitting the slave trade and those dependent upon slave labour where it hurt. The collective efforts of ordinary people made a huge contribution to ending the slave trade, at least in Britain.

We culturally point to that time period, the ending of slavery in the US Antebellum South, as the end of the worst of human enslavement. But let’s look at the statistics. At the height of the US slave trade, 80,000 people were trafficked across international borders every year. That is people kidnapped, sold and shipped across borders, across oceans, sometimes legally, sometimes illegally – all of it in illegal and illicit beginnings, even if later on that journey the legalities were laundered. 80,000 people every year.

That figure has now multiplied many-fold. There are currently 800,000 people trafficked across international borders every year. According to the BBC, 36 million people are currently living in slavery, up by a considerable amount when in 2013 that figure was 20.9 million. These range in anything from child soldiers and workers in the cocoa industry, to those working in factories and on farms, captives on Thai fishing boats, to those sold into work as sexual slaves.

Of the three top sources of illicit income worldwide, slavery is second only to that of drugs. The sale of human beings brings more income even than that of the illicit arms trade. We hear of the war on drugs, and on terrorism – but rarely do we hear politicians seeking to end slavery – the subjection of one human being to the will of another and owned in person industry and labour, unable to acquire anything.

At this point it is key to ask why there is so little political engagement with this issue? As with every other ‘cause’ – every now and then there is some media campaign that shows an emotive clip during the adverts on television. Now I don’t want to discredit these efforts– but I still ask, why is the enslavement of 36 million people almost wilfully ignored by media and politicians?

Unlike during the Antebellum South, when slavery was predominantly about forced hard labour – and that labour supported commerce in agriculture and industry, slave labour today is of another type. Half of those trafficked are minors, under 18 years of age. 80% of those trafficked are women. They are being trafficked for the purposes of sex. Trafficking, slavery, is perceived as a ‘women’s problem’.

My journey began as that of a woman working in interfaith dialogue. There were, and continue to be, very few women involved in this work – and those that are tend to be pioneers. I started noticing that many of the women involved were encountering certain difficulties – not necessarily from their religious counterparts, but predominantly from colleagues within our own traditions. I suggested to a friend that we all have lunch. She suggested I write a set of guidelines – which I promptly did. They were intended for the Church of England, but ended up being presented to the World Council of Churches Assembly in Korea in 2013.

In my research, I discovered there have been numerous studies in the area of development which have proven that if women are included at all levels of development work, the education, health and financial well-being of both men and women are improved. If you don’t include women – development just doesn’t happen. The same is true of peace negotiations. If you include women at all levels of a peace process, the likelihood of a longer-lasting peace is much improved. Don’t include women, the process is less successful. It is not that women have all the answers, but that perhaps women and men working together, alongside one another, are better able to come up with longer-lasting and more wide-ranging solutions, sharing different perspectives.

And yet despite this, the gender balance in the majority of decision-making bodies, from corporations to governments to media remains heavily male. And unfortunately, there is a pressure on women of position to continue to conform to stereotype. In a recent fund-raising campaign in the Conservative Party, Theresa May auctioned off a shoe-shopping excursion with her for which £17,500 was raised – not the best example of a woman breaking stereotypes.  When women have been chosen for positions in the cabinet, there is a media obsession with their clothing, with what they wear, rather than what are their political views.

When the young woman was raped and killed so horrifically on a bus in India, the canon chancellor of Leicester cathedral  organised a prayer vigil within 24 hours. The cathedral was full, and full of women – predominantly of South Asian origin, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Christian & Jewish. These were women who came out from anonymity – unknown by local authorities and faith leaders alike, these women were working on the ground, picking up the pieces, literally washing the dirty laundry, of our society. They work with women who have been victim of domestic violence, forced marriage, honour abuse, sexual grooming and trafficking.

Not long after there was a high profile case of sexual grooming of a minor in Leicester, which sparked violent community tensions resulting in several stabbings.  This was followed by the murder of one young man, plus a mother and her teenage children. I went into overdrive, finding out everything I could about grooming. What I found was that it was still predominantly white, working class men who were involved, but that there was an increasing number of men from other cultural backgrounds who were getting involved. At that point, after speaking to many academics in the field, there was a reticence on the part of those doing the research to investigate grooming in minority groups. The vulnerability among minority adolescents varies from culture to culture, but there are two things in common which make grooming difficult to confront. One, is that whatever cultural background perpetrators may come from – they are all criminal. Whether it is an individual acting on their own, whether part of a gang or acting on behalf of organised crime; their actions are aimed at exploiting vulnerable young people, the greater majority of whom are young girls, for the purpose of sexual slavery. These are not people of faith and should not be identified as such. These are criminals. The other commonality is a disdain for women, and the attitude that women are a commodity to be owned, used, abused and sold. Like it or not these attitudes about women are endemic in our culture.

During an incident of community tension on one council estate, one particularly nasty young man was trying to stir up trouble among the white community with this statement: ‘Those Muslims, they are driving around, stopping our girls, and calling them whores.’ My reaction was to turn to the men standing around and point out to them that is something they all did, didn’t they? Didn’t they call out to girls and call them whores? They all looked at the ground rather shamed-face and admitted they did. But what made my blood run cold was not this admission, as discomforting as it was, but rather the possessive words ‘our girls’. It was at that point there was a dark realisation that whatever culture we are talking about, women and girls are considered commodities, something to be owned and held responsible for male honour and behaviour, running deep through our language. Women hold the ‘honour’ of their families and communities. They are not ‘human’ in themselves, but rather something lesser.

Last summer I made a point of attending events at the Global Summit for Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict. I was privileged to sit at lunch next to a woman from Leeds who works with those seeking asylum, particularly with women who have suffered sexual violence. Her biggest challenge in our asylum system is the constant need for these women to have to prove their story. The system assumes deceit; there is an accompanying questioning of the veracity of each woman’s story. For a woman, for any human being, to have to tell and re-tell the story of her humiliation and violation before a judge who questions every little detail in minutiae, is an extremely painful ordeal which puts her through excruciating events over and over again. This woman’s struggle was difficult enough trying to support the victims of such violence, let alone having to convince immigration authorities of the injustice and cruelty of their process.

Trafficking does cut across gender lines. Children, boys and girls, are exploited in manufacturing for their small hands and ability to do intricate work, they are put to manual labour and made into soldiers. A recent news story told of fishing boats from Thailand where men are taken out onto the sea, forced to work and never returned to shore again – more than likely being thrown overboard if they cause trouble or become sick. Trafficking and slavery is not limited to women and there are more horror stories than anyone can count. But we cannot ignore the fact the majority of victims are women, and that it is highly likely part of the reason so little is being done to end this trade is because of attitudes to women. Ending trafficking as such will not be so simple as boycotting sugar, or certain products – it will entail changing cultural attitudes to women and to the vulnerable, it will entail greater responsibility on the part of those involved in manufacturing to ensure their products are made in a manner in which it can be proven a fair wage has been paid, every step along the way. It will entail insisting our politicians act responsibly, even in fund-raising for campaigns – that they do not re-inforce gender stereotypes, that they promote fairer treatment of immigrants, particularly within the justice system. It will entail ensuring gender parity in running of countries, in business, in trade, in media, in development work, and in reconciliation and peace negotiations.

I have mentioned grooming, misogyny and attitudes to gender, immigration. They are all intertwined in the trafficking issue. You cannot solve trafficking or end slavery without also touching on so many other connected issues. They are a matter of human dignity and social justice.

There is recently a more sinister aspect to recent trafficking – a phenomenon I am calling ‘voluntary hostages’.

We are in a global crisis for our young people in general, with high unemployment and lack of jobs and opportunities. The younger generation have lost hope for the future, are not sure where they belong and whether they are able to make a positive contribution to the world. Compound that with a generation of Muslims who have grown up in the shadow of 9/11, in a world where the media tells them they are terrorists – and if they are young they are especially dangerous. If you are visibly Muslim, wearing the hijab, young or old, you are shouted at and abused on the street and singled out in school. When you are young, you just want to know you have a future, that you have hope for a good life and that you can make a contribution to the world. Young people want to be heroes and to belong. But our society makes it increasingly difficult for that to happen, especially if you are Muslim.

If you look at the likes of ISIS or Boko Haram or Christian extremist groups in CAR, or Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army; look at their actions – by their fruit you shall know them! They are involved in the same activities as those of organised crime in their generation of illicit income. They are involved in illegal arms, in human trafficking in the kidnap of young girls and women, in drugs, in illicit oil sales and selling stolen antiquities. They are organised crime, not people of faith. And just as those involved in grooming – they are very good at enticing their victims into doing what they want until they are trapped.

We need to find a way of bringing back our young people, because they are ours, they are the best of us. They are the ones seeking a better life, seeking to belong, seeking to be heroes. And when they are enticed abroad with promises of a better life, of belonging, of being able to make a difference in the world – however misguided and violent – we need to find a way of bringing them home. Because they will wake up, they will realise they are trapped – and we will only add to their bitterness and resentment if we do not provide them an escape route. They are as much victim of human trafficking and enslavement as any other. And when they want to come home, they have become hostage to their captors, seeking either monetary gain or even worse, to use their entrapment as emotional blackmail and terror.

A recent ‘Thought for the Day’ by a Jewish woman rabbi quoted Nelson Mandela. She had heard his statement while part of a group seeking peace and reconciliation in Israel/Palestine when they had visited Northern Ireland. The group in Northern Ireland had visited South Africa (I love how these words of wisdom travel the globe!). They were told: ‘Don’t think anything is impossible. The only way change is going to happen is when each of us takes responsibility and makes the changes we can, where and when we are able.’

I have paraphrased here, not remembering the exact words, but you get the gist. The issues surrounding modern slavery are complicated and vast – but each of us can make a difference in our own lives, through the products we buy and the manner in which we buy them, the conversations we have (even on a bus or in a queue), the way in which we choose to vote, and in how we treat one another. Things are bad – really bad for 36 million people living in slavery. But that doesn’t mean we throw our hands in the air and see a problem too big to handle. The solution comes about one person at a time, one moment at a time, in demanding better of our governments, businesses and media – and in living lives of passionate kindness.

Is our current politicking a festering wound that spreads infection?


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A sermon for the Third Sunday in Easter, based on Bible readings: Acts 3:12-19; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36-48

I don’t usually like telling stories that generalise nations or peoples, so I am going to try to tell this sensitively. When I was living in Iran, we had several friends from West Africa, also studying there. My friend from Sierra Leone didn’t like going out much. Whenever we would go out, in a group, with other women from Iran, we would always be on the receiving end of stares. Now I had grown accustomed to this a little myself – but nothing to the extent in which she suffered. The city we were living in was a place of pilgrimage – and so many people from villages around would travel there in order to say special prayers or even ask for cures of the woman saint whose shrine was at the centre of the central mosque. These villagers had not seen much of the world outside. They would stand and stare, almost in a state of shock, at my friend whose skin was very dark indeed. And then she would be standing next to me, who was a few shades paler than most Iranians. The husband of another friend of ours, also from West Africa, would tell us that whenever he would go into a restaurant a crowd would gather around – curious to see a black man eating. They had no intention of being rude – but that is the thing with unconscious racism, no one means to be rude; but simply by treating someone different from how we would treat anyone else, we are setting them apart. We are making them special in some way – and that ‘special’ is not always easy to live with. There is something in that behaviour that de-humanises, either by demonising or by setting on a pedestal.

One of the things deeply discomforting about this impending election has been the manner in which so many are being set apart – as if they are somehow ‘special’, whether it is in holding up being white and British, native, if you like, as somehow being more entitled, or setting apart the immigrant – the darker the skin the more alien they become. As if being from somewhere else means they are less entitled to employment, human rights, equal treatment before the law, health care, or just the right to live a decent life. There is a loss of human decency in this political campaign that is extremely unsettling for the soul.

As counter, there have been a number of posters in the media and in advertising. These are pictures of health workers, doctors, firefighters, solicitors, judges, all kinds of professional people in the care industry who have served others, even saved lives – and yet each one is an immigrant. It is said much of the NHS would fall apart if it were not for carers from abroad.

What has made me think of this has been several phrases in our readings this morning. In the reading from Acts, there is the reminder from Peter to the people of his time, that it was they who were responsible for the persecution of Jesus, they who chose to have him killed. And yet Peter offers a way out. This man who had himself denied Jesus and been offered forgiveness, offers the same to others. He is a reminder that each of us, is culpable in some way for the suffering of others. He recognises that it is all too easy to get stuck in the guilt of that realisation – and that the only way out is to seek redemption, to seek forgiveness.

The First Letter of John celebrates in the forgiveness freely given, celebrates that we are all children of God. It reminds that Jesus was sent to remove sin – and that can only happen when there is forgiveness. Holding onto grudges, and holding on to guilt, both keep sin alive – a festering wound that spreads infection, pain and suffering. The only relief comes through forgiveness, to forgive hurt and failure and cowardice.

When Jesus stands among his disciples, I can’t help but think of my friend, who everyone stood around and stared at. There was a kind of disbelief at what they were seeing – in their eyes they were seeing someone like them and yet not like them, someone set apart. What must it have been like for the disciples to see the man they had loved – and yet run away from at the hour of his greatest need of them – how must it have felt for them to see him face to face? To look into his eyes? And most of all, to be greeted with a grin and a word of ‘Peace’? Along with the joy of seeing him, there must also been a huge twinge of guilt and grief, of shame. And it is this guilt that made them pause, that made them hold back.

And yet here he is telling them he is here, he is facing them, he doesn’t even mention forgiveness, for his forgiveness is already there – it is everything about his person. He tells them to come on, touch me, see that I am here, I am human – so human in fact that I’m really hungry. What have you got that I can eat?

I remember an interview with the author Maya Angelou years ago. She was asked what it was like knowing people such as President Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. She replied that they were ordinary people, the same as everyone else. That it does them no favours to put them high on a pedestal where no one can reach them. She said they had doubts and worries and faults just like anyone else. They just happened to make courageous decisions at extraordinary times. If we put them high on a pedestal then we make their courage inaccessible too. It means no one else can be like them. But everyone has the potential to be like them.

Jesus is telling his disciples – look, you have the capacity to do what I have done. You have the capacity to bring forgiveness to the world, to bring forgiveness to Jerusalem, to bring forgiveness to the whole of humanity. This had to happen to me, to suffer pain, to be betrayed and to die – so that you might see that all can be forgiven, the worst that humanity can throw at us, can still be forgiven, must be forgiven.

One of the most extraordinary books I have recently read is ‘The Book of Forgiveness’ by Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho. They write about the Truth and Reconciliation commissions in South Africa, but they also write about the more mundane occasions in life too – when each of us are hurt, and each of us hurt others, about the times we learn to forgive, and about the times we must seek forgiveness – even if it is from within our own selves.

They write: ‘I would like to share with you two simple truths: there is nothing that cannot be forgiven, and there is no one undeserving of forgiveness. When you can see and understand that we are all bound to one another – whether by birth, by circumstance, or simply by our shared humanity – then you will know this to be true, I have often said that in South Africa there would have been no future without forgiveness. Our rage and our quest for revenge would have been our destruction. This is as true for us individually as it is for us globally.’

I would propose the same is true for us in our current climate of fear, of a media and politicians who seek to sow fear of one another rather than learning to work together towards a better world. We divide to our own cost, to the cost of our children and to the cost of the future of the nation they all claim to seek to serve. It is a brave politician in this climate of fear that seeks to support the outcast and the marginalised, who recognises we are all children of God, regardless of country of origin, colour of skin, or faith in ones’ heart. Our survival as a nation relies not on fear, but on hope, on forgiveness, and on coming together.