The paradox of power


Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Those words from British politician Lord Acton were expressed in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, but resonate loudly with the revelations about the conduct of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.

As allegations of appalling behaviour, including rape, pour in, it certainly appears that Weinstein occupied a place of power within the film industry that he believed made him unassailable and sadly, for many years, that seems to be the case. Dreadful stories of bullying and assault are emerging on a daily basis, the dam of fear having been broken by brave women who found the courage to speak out.

We saw something similar when cracks appeared in the wall of silence that protected Jimmy Savile for so long, and the truth of his appalling predatory abuse poured through. In the case of Weinstein, of course, criminal investigations are still underway, but the sheer volume of complaints are certainly pointing in the same direction.

What seems to be undeniable, even at this stage in the proceedings, is that Weinstein wielded huge power in the film world – able to make or break careers on a whim and knowing how to intimidate and control those around him for his own benefit. This is illustrative of how power corrupts behaviour.

Power, it can be argued, is a neutral force that can be used for good or ill. Governments have power to exercise legislation to look after the welfare of the people but can also become sidetracked by political ideology to the detriment of the weak. Those who are wealthy have the resources to help those in need but can also become obsessed with profit. And any individual with power over another person can use that power positively for the benefit of that person, or can misuse use it for his/her own benefit.

Despite its essential neutrality, power has the potential to tap into the darkest part of our human nature, maybe even to our evolutionary instincts, thereby skewing our moral compass. That’s why power must be treated with respect and not used as a commodity for selfish ends.

In the Christian tradition, the challenge to such misuse of power comes through an example which turns the whole notion of power on its head. When Jesus washes the feet of his disciples (John 13.1-17), power becomes identified with service and humility and distanced from the notion of domination and control.

This is the paradox of power – when used for selfish ends it is destructive and immoral but when used wisely it is transformative and life-giving to both those who exercise power and to those who receive its benefits. As the Harvey Weinstein scandal continues to unfold we would do well not be become so distracted by that singular abuse of power that our indignation blinds us to the potential danger of misusing power in our own life.

Few of us will have the money and influence that enabled Weinstein to wield power so abusively over those around him, but many of us have some degree of power. This may be due to our employment status, our social standing, our political or religious affiliation, our place within the family, or in other areas of life. We must take care to use that power wisely and well, with compassion for those who experience its effects.

Lord Action said: ‘Power tends to corrupt’ . . . but it doesn’t have to. All of us have a choice.


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Ripples in a pond


Today (October 12) in the Church of England we remember Wilfrid of Ripon (633-709AD). Wilfrid was a missionary bishop who served as Abbot of Ripon, Bishop of York and after retirement from York as Bishop of Hexham.

Wilfrid took part in the Synod of Whitby in 664 and was influential in the victory of the Roman party over the Celts and the subsequent administrative shape of the church in these islands. His greatest gift to the English church was to make it more clearly a part of the Church universal and, like all missionaries, Wilfrid helped to spread the good news of Jesus Christ through his life and ministry.

Like ripples caused by a stone dropped into a pond, Wilfrid’s influence has extended far beyond the period of his life and ministry. That is something for all Christian people to bear in mind when considering our own place in the ongoing mission of Christ’s church here on earth. We all have an important part to play.

The impact of our own lives on others can extend far beyond what we see in the present moment, ripples extending out through time from the pebble in the pond that is our life and witness. As is written in the prophecy of Isaiah (52.7):

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’

The message of our lives is the legacy that we leave to those we meet along the way. If you stop and think about your own experience, there will be people who you can call to mind who have been lights on your path. There will have been something that you saw in them that made a difference to you and which has shaped the faith that you now have.

Like ripples in a pond, who they are or were, and what they said or did provided for you an example to follow. Perhaps unknown to them their faith has contributed to making you the person that you are today. Their Christian faith might even be directly responsible for your own.

And that is a good reminder to us all that you don’t have to be a missionary bishop like Wilfrid to cause those ripples that touch the lives of others. It is simply about being faithful followers of Jesus, trusting in God that the lives we live will have a lasting effect for good for all who come after. That is, after all, how the good news passes from one generation to the next.


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Do your best and leave the rest

Sendint out of the 72

Our distance from the events of Jesus’s life and ministry can sometimes mean that we miss both the challenge and impact of his words on those who were close to him. We can see this by taking a moment to reflect on today’s gospel reading from the Church’s calendar (Luke 10.1-12).

It is that point where Jesus appoints 70 (or 72 according to some ancient authorities) of his followers to go ahead into the towns where he intended to go as a means of preparing the way for him. They were to travel light, not worrying about the reception they would receive, but wishing peace on the households and individuals they encountered on their way.

If the response they received was positive, all well and good; if not Jesus told them not to waste time unduly but to move on, acknowledging that some people will forever be resistant to the good news.

The challenge to those followers of Jesus was huge. They were being asked to step out in faith on behalf of a movement in its infancy into potentially hostile territory with nothing more than the clothes on their back. It was a big ask from Jesus, and the impact on them and those whom they encountered would be profound.

They were the vanguard of what would one day become a worldwide movement and world’s largest religion – but they could hardly have know that at the time. The striking thing is that they listened to Jesus and responded to the call on their lives despite all the questions that must have troubled them: Where will we stay? How will we feed ourselves? What if people don’t like what we say?

And we are inheritors of that tradition. We may not be called as missionaries in the way that the 70 were, but the call to be faithful to Jesus and ready tell others about him in the context of our daily lives does belong to all of us who claim to be his followers.

Sometimes that will be easy and those who we meet will gladly receive the witness that we give to Jesus through our words and deeds and presence. At other times, there will be those who have no time for the good news – perhaps because it is disturbing and upsetting to their way of life and how they see the world.

The fact of the matter is that it is not for us to worry about how others receive the good news; after all, we cannot control anyone else’s feelings or reactions. All we can do is manage or own, conduct ourselves with honesty, compassion and dignity. We must do our best, and leave the rest to God.


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Enough is enough – but when?

pray for las vegas

We may never really know what drove 64-year-old Stephen Paddock to commit the indiscriminate murder of dozens, and injury to hundreds of innocent concert-goers in Las Vegas on Sunday night. The news that he had no police record will be of little consolation to the families whose lives have been torn apart.

Yes, there must have been a fundamental flaw in the personality of Paddock to carry out the atrocity with such cold and calculating efficiency; a psychopathology that diminished his humanity. Maybe he was also driven by some perverted ideology – something that may or may not be uncovered as the authorities scrutinise every detail about his life.

But then there is the social context in which Paddock grew up and lived. Significant within which is the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Amendment II. A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

In the hotel room of the shooter, police found 23 guns – including assault rifles – and a further 19 in his home along with explosives. Once again a mass shooting in the United States raises real concerns about the hallowed place that the Second Amendment holds in the psyche of the American people.

The nation’s love affair with the gun would appear to take precedence over the devastation and heartache wrought by the perpetrators of such terrible acts and the ease by which military grade weaponry can be obtained by anyone with the desire to kill.

It is hard to imagine that those who drafted the Second Amendment had in mind to make available to all and sundry the type of guns used in the Las Vegas massacre.

And yet the gun lobby, driven by the politically powerful National Rifle Association and now with strong support in the White House, will no doubt continue to argue that ‘people kill people, not guns’, and even contend that people having guns reduces the risk of others using guns against them. The evidence does not point in that direction.

Yesterday’s Guardian (02.10.17) reported that there had been 1,516 mass shootings in the US over a period of 1,735 days – where mass shooting is defined as four or more people shot in one incident, not including the shooter – every nine out of 10 days on average.

It is with profound sadness that those looking on can only wonder how long it will be before the people of the United States say ‘enough is enough’ and push their elected representatives to address the obvious flaw in the Second Amendment, so that the era of mass shootings by civilians can be consigned to the dustbin of history.

In the meantime, may we hold in our thoughts and prayers all those who are affected by the criminal use of guns – remembering particularly those who died and were injured in Las Vegas, their families and friends, and also spare a thought for the devastated family of Stephen Paddock.


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Who is this man?


Those words echo the question asked by King Herod about Jesus. Herod was worried and perplexed about this man who was gaining interest and gathering followers. ‘John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?’ (Luke 9.9).

Rumours abounded as to who Jesus was. Some thought he was John back from the dead, others the prophet Elijah returned or one of the ancient prophets who had come back to life. Jesus was, in fact, none of these. Through his life, ministry, death and resurrection he showed himself to be the divine Son of God.

The question ‘Who is this man?’ is one that faces every human being. What does he mean for each of us? Whatever your view of Jesus what is undeniable is that world is a different place because of him.

Some will say that he was a great moral teacher and champion of non-violence who showed how we should conduct ourselves in the face of violence and injustice; others that he was a revolutionary who took on the powers of his day and gave voice to the marginalised.

Then there are those who regard Jesus as a spiritual leader. Muslims, for example, see Jesus as one of the prophets and hold him in high esteem. Probably all people would look at the life of Jesus and see a profound example of what it means to be truly human.

For Christians, he is all of those things and more because, for us, he is both fully human and fully divine. Jesus is more than an historic figure who lived and died; he is the one who died and rose again and who is alive today. Jesus is the lens through which we see into the very nature of God and that nature is love. He is for Christians, a snapshot in time and in a human life of what God is like.

Through Jesus, and because of his humanity, we are able to glimpse something of the mystery of God that would otherwise be beyond our imaginings; in him we touch the mystery of God and experience something of the life of God which would otherwise be unknowable.

In the lives of those who experience Jesus in that way it makes a real difference because through him we know what God is like. God is not a distant, remote, immovable force but one who is intimately bound up with and who loves humankind. The love and compassion that we see in Jesus Christ is the love and compassion of God – and for those who see him in that way it can make all the difference in what is sometimes a dark and frightening world.

The late David Jenkins, former Bishop of Durham captures that notion beautifully in words that are worth reflecting on because they answer profoundly the question asked by Herod of Jesus: ‘Who is this man?’ Bishop Jenkins said this:

God is; he is as he is in Jesus; therefore there is hope.


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Looking beyond the surface


Tax collectors in the time of Jesus were held by many in the same sort of low of esteem as bankers are today. Just the very mention of their name was enough to evoke a negative response in people. In neither case is every person working in those professions dishonest or bad and, in fact, many are conscientious and sincere in their work.

It is, however, very easy to fall into the trap of categorising a whole group of people in accordance with the failings of the few. Not every tax collector in first-century Palestine was on the fiddle and not every banker in 21st century London is crooked. Those respective professions have been tarnished severely by the bad apples in the barrel.

So there is something important about not jumping to conclusions too quickly about a person whose occupation, status, political allegiance, religious affiliation and so on, rings negative bells for us. That word ‘person’ is what we need to hold on to because it helps us to see beyond the stereotypes that affect us in how we regard and respond to other people.

Jesus’ treatment of Matthew the tax-collector, who is remembered today (September 21) in the Church’s calendar, demonstrates this approach (see Matthew 9.9-13). It is almost certainly the case that Matthew was despised in his community. Not only were the tax collectors gathering payments on behalf of the Roman occupation force, some of them were skimming off extra profit for themselves.

Not surprisingly, the religious elite of the day saw Jesus’ socialising with ‘tax collectors and sinners’ as an affront to their understanding of what it meant to live a good and holy life. ‘Keep your distance from the likes of them’ could have been their mantra – ‘them’ being any category of person that did not fit their standards of what they regarded as upright and clean.

Thus, any tax collector (or banker in today’s society) was dismissed in their view simply by virtue of their profession – judged not by the best but by the worst behaviour of some individuals. In contrast, what Jesus saw was a human being, pure and simple. That was his starting point and maybe for the first time Matthew felt seen and heard for more than his despised role, instrumental in the change that he made to his life.

One thing that the story of Jesus and Matthew the tax-collector does is encourage us to see the person first; to look beyond the surface of any prejudice or stereotype that we or the society we live in might hold towards particular professions or groups.

That does not mean condoning wrongs such as extorting inappropriate taxes or insider dealing and asset stripping; rather it is about separating the action of a person – which may be wrong – from their intrinsic humanity. Sometimes treating people decently can help to make decent people. It certainly made a difference to Matthew who walked away from being a tax collector to follow Jesus.

Looking beyond the surface can help us see things we would otherwise miss and, who knows, it might just make a difference to someone.


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Holy Cross Day


Today, September 14, is Holy Cross Day, a time on which to reflect on the meaning of the cross in our lives. It has become the universal symbol for Christianity, replacing the fish symbol of the early church. The notion of exalting or venerating the cross goes back many centuries, to the end of the persecution era in the fourth century.

By that time pilgrims began to travel to Jerusalem to visit and pray at the sites associate with the life of Jesus. Helena, the Christian mother of the Emperor Constantine, is said to have uncovered a cross, which many believed to be the Cross of Christ. As a result, a basilica was built on the site of the Holy Sepulchre and dedicated on this day in 335.

Whether or not that is true is anyone’s guess but, as in the case of any religious artefacts or relics it is what they represent rather than what they are which is the most important thing. Thus, in the case of Holy Cross Day we look beyond the wood to what the cross says about God’s love for us and how that is mediated to us through what happened on the cross. That’s what the readings set for today help us to do.

The OT reading from the book Numbers (21.4-9) tells the story of how the whingeing Israelites were punished by God in the wilderness by the sending of poisonous snakes. They repented and were saved by looking upon the bronze serpent which Moses set on pole at God’s command.

The Epistle from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a great early hymn of praise about what Christ accomplished through the cross, and because of which God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name so that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of the Father.

And then, in the gospel of John (3.3-17) the writer shows Jesus, in his conversation with Nicodemus, alluding to that episode in Numbers where Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, linking it with what was to come on the cross: ‘And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’

Remember, John was reflecting theologically decades after the crucifixion and interpreting events through the lens of the resurrection. So he continues: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’

Now that text has sometimes been used as a means of excluding people who do not outwardly confess their faith in that way – as though it were a formula for salvation. But that is not what is being conveyed especially when we see those words of Jesus in the light of the story of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness.

The point of the cross of Christ is that it draws people towards it because it is the place where the depths of God’s love for human kind is revealed. What was once a symbol of horror, death and destruction has become the supreme symbol of God’s self-giving, unconditional love for the whole human race, offered freely to all forever.

The worst that human beings can do to each other has been transformed and turned into something wonderful and beyond our imagining. The cross – whether an empty cross which reminds us of Christ’s victory over death and his resurrection; or a crucifix on which the body of Christ hangs and which reminds us of the costly nature of God’s love for us – no longer evokes the fear and terror which was the case in Jesus’ lifetime. Instead, it invites a response of love and wonder at what Christ accomplished for us.

The depths of God’s love is revealed through the cross – a love that transforms and transcends the worst of human nature – which evokes a response and brings about a change of heart.

St Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373 AD) speaks about the cross in the following way:

‘He, the Life of all, our Lord and Saviour, did not arrange the manner of his own death lest He should seem to be afraid of some other kind. No. He accepted and bore upon the cross a death inflicted by others, and those other His special enemies, a death which to them was supremely terrible and by no means to be faced; and He did this in order that, by destroying even this death, He might Himself be believed to be the Life, and the power of death be recognised as fully annulled. A marvellous and mighty paradox has thus occurred, for the death which they thought to inflict on Him as dishonour and disgrace has become the glorious monument to death’s defeat.’

So I invite us all, on this Holy Cross day, to pause and reflect once again on what the cross means for each of us. Focus your attention on what took place there, its significance for the life of the world, and how it informs your understanding of the God whom we love and serve.


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Taken on trust


Trust is a funny thing and quite hard to define but perhaps it is to do with the willingness to believe that the person in whom you are putting your trust has your best interests at heart.

Sometimes we know intuitively who we can trust and who not to trust and, when a trust is broken, it often has to be rebuilt over time due to the hurt and pain that is experienced. Trust is a precious and fragile gift, something to be valued and appreciated. We see it clearly in the trusting nature of children in the years before they come to realise that not everyone in this world can be trusted.

I remember when my daughter was about three years of age and learning to swim. We would go the pool and, with a little encouragement, she would leap from the side into my arms. She was not able to swim at the time but trusted me completely to keep her safe.

She did something similar a short while later, but this time she jumped off a wall with the words ‘daddy, catch me’. My heart was in my mouth but, thankfully, I managed to react in time and catch her, saving her from a nasty fall onto concrete. But such was the trust that she had in me.

In today’s gospel reading (Luke 5.1-11) we see an example of the trust evoked by Jesus in the lives of Simon Peter, James and John as they fished for their livelihoods on Lake Gennesaret. These were experienced fishermen who had worked all night with no reward. Then Jesus, having used Simon’s boat as a platform from which to speak to the crowds says ‘Put out into the deep and let your nets down for a catch.’

Wearily, Simon Peter agrees, perhaps in hope more than anything else or maybe because Jesus’ request was compelling. He had seen something in Jesus that led him to this act of trust. Simon Peter and his colleagues ended up with a great catch of fish and it became the pivotal moment from which Simon Peter, James and John became disciples of Jesus, leaving their nets to fish for people. They believed that Jesus had their best interests and heart and were prepared to trust their futures into his hands.

That is something that we, too, are called to do. To place our trust in Jesus Christ, secure in the knowledge that he is with us through all the trials and challenges of life; with us through all the highs and lows; and with us in the mundane everyday things.

The fact that our faith in Jesus Christ will never be betrayed and that we will never be let down by him is something that can, indeed, be taken on trust.


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Don’t lose hope


To say that we live in difficult times is an understatement. The relationship between the US and North Korea is in dangerous territory, bringing with it the risk of a terrible conflict. Floods have wrought havoc in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, as well as in the United States. Rohingya refugees are pouring across the border into Bangladesh to escape persecution in Myanmar.

Global warming continues apace, not helped by Donald Trump’s myopic decision to pull the US out of the Paris climate change accords; and the now under-reported conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan continue.

That sad catalogue of troubles represents just some of problems that beset our world. Indeed, as we watch and read the news the sheer quantity – as well as the scale – of suffering and hardship can feel overwhelming. The danger is that we end up despondent and believing that we can do nothing to change things.

Perhaps that is true in terms of the global stage. It is not you or I who will determine whether there is peace or war in Korea, or tip the balance with regard to climate change. But it would be a mistake to think that we cannot  do something to make the world a better place.

The great explorer Ranulph Fiennes was once asked how he could take on such great challenges as climbing Mt Everest or walking to the South Pole. His reply: ‘You put one foot in front of the other, and keep taking the next step.’ That is sound advice.

The question then, for all of us this: ‘What can I do to help make a difference for good in the world?’ We each have to determine that answer for ourselves, but here are a few suggestions.

  • If you are a praying person, then keep praying for our world and its needs – both as an individual and as part of your faith community. Prayer changes things, not least the heart of the person praying.
  • Look for ways of being involved in your local community through the various groups and organisations that exist to tackle problems and help improve the locality.
  • Do what you can and what is realistic when you come across someone in need – above all, show kindness.
  • Join a campaign around the big issues that are affecting our country and world.
  • Lobby your councillors and MPs about the things that concern you.
  • And, important as any of the above, don’t despair. Be a person of hope in a world so often beset by doom and gloom. The world is still a beautiful place and there is more that is good than bad about it.

From my own Christian tradition I draw great strength from these words of St Paul:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8.38-39).

So don’t lose hope.


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Time and tide

StAidanToday (August 31) in the Anglican Church we commemorate the life of St Aidan. He was one of St Columba’s monks, sent as a missionary to Northumbria at the request of King Oswald. Aidan became Bishop of Lindisfarne in 635 where he became involved, with Oswald, in the training of priests.

From Lindisfarne he combined a monastic lifestyle with missionary journeys to the mainland. Aidan’s concern for the poor, his gentleness, and his eloquent preaching gained much support, enabling him to strengthen the Church beyond Northumbria. He died on this day in the year 651.

Aidan, like all of us was influenced by the surroundings in which he lived and worked. On Lindisfarne (Holy Island), an island separated from the mainland by a causeway that disappears when the tide comes in – as many unprepared visitors have discovered to their cost – the ebb and flow of the tide became deeply rooted into Aidan’s life, something evident in a prayer attributed to him:

Leave me alone with God as much as may be.
As the tide draws the waters close in upon the shore,
Make me an island, set apart,
alone with you, God, holy to you.

Then with the turning of the tide
prepare me to carry your presence to the busy world beyond,
the world that rushes in on me
till the waters come again and fold me back to you.

‘Time and tide waits for no one’ is a saying that can be frightening for some; giving the impression that we are swept along by forces outside of our control. For Aidan that was not the case. Instead, time and tide was a pattern into which his life settled.

The passage of time and the inexorable going out and coming in of the tide became for Aidan an image of the eternal love and mercy of God in which his life flowed. Strengthened and sustained through his daily life of prayer and time with God, through Aidan that same love and mercy of God was able to flow out to others.

In today’s gospel reading Jesus says to his disciples:

Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. (John 13.16-17).

This was a truth embedded deep within the soul of Aidan that enabled him to rest content and be carried in the flow of the time and tide of his master and then, through his kindness and gentle spirit draw others into the compass of God’s love. May it also be true for us.


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