maggi dawn

walking on water

a joke for theologians

Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich are taking a break together, fishing on Lake Geneva. They are having a lovely time, smoking their pipes, chatting idly.

It’s hot, and soon they get thirsty. So Karl Barth gets up, steps out of the boat, and walks across the water to the shore, gets some beers and returns.

It’s quite hot so the beer doesn’t last long. Barth tells Tillich: “your turn, Paul”. Tillich gets up, steps outside the boat, walks across the water, and fetches some beer.

It is getting really hot now, and the beer is finished once again. Bultmann is beginning to sweat particularly profusely… and finally Barth asks him too: “Come on, Rudolf, your turn now.” With a slight tremor in his knees, Bultmann gets up, steps out of the boat, and sinks like a stone. Fortunately he is a good swimmer; he drags himself back into the boat and sulks at the far end.

Tillich turns to Barth and says: “Do you think we should have told him where the stepping stones are?”

Barth looks at him in astonishment and replies: “What stones?”

I have not yet done that for which I was made

I wrote this a really long time ago, on September 7th, 2005. Today I found it in my diary, and thought that I could equally have written it today. So here it is:

A friend sent me this prayer. I love the line in the middle – “I have not yet done that for which I was made.” The tenor of our society seems to be that the best days of your life are pretty much over once you hit 30, and thereafter everything will be a little duller, a little less exciting, a little less important. I like the idea that even when the bones creak a little, you’re still only in preparation for your task in life. I have been contemplating lately what direction I might go in a few years’ time, in order to focus what I’m doing right now. It feels good to me to think bigger, to be a learner not an expert, to be on an adventure and not settled down in boring comfort for the second half of life.

O Lord my God
teach my heart
where and how to seek you,
where and how to find you.
O Lord you are my God
and you are my Lord

and I have never seen you.
You have made me and remade me,
and you have bestowed on me all the good things I possess
and still I do not know you.

I have not yet done that for which I was made.

Teach me to seek you
for I cannot seek you unless you teach me
or find you unless you show yourself to me.
Let me seek you in my desire,
let me desire you in my seeking.
Let me find you by loving you,
let me love you when I find you.

St Anselm



Theologically speaking I’m one of the awkward squad,
always asking questions
or questioning answers;
it’s uncomfortable for all concerned,
especially me.
I wish it wasn’t so;
wish I could tuck myself up in tradition,
snuggle down in certainty,
learn to trust,
but I don’t know how –
don’t even know what the God-word means to me now.
I do know love when I meet it though.
Oh yes, I recognise Love.

Frances Copsey

Books for Lent

Lent is not far away now: it begins on Wednesday. One of the most common practices is to read a book through Lent, a few pages a day. For regular readers who always read on their commuter train or before they go to sleep, it might give you a chance to read more slowly and contemplatively.  And for those who can get through an entire year and wonder at how they haven’t got round to reading a whole book, it breaks a book in to bite-sized and helps you recover a lost habit.
Of my own books, Giving it Up is written specially for Lent, with a bible passage and two or three pages of reflections set for every day. Accidental Pilgrim (Kindle Edition here) is a memoir in which, weaving together history and literary nuggets with my own 51IzOHruJWL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_experiences, I explore the idea of pilgrimage: what is the difference between a tourist and a pilgrim, can you be a pilgrim in everyday life or a literary pilgrim, and how can you have a pilgrim soul if you aren’t able to make a lengthy journey away from home?

Read the rest of this entry »


Some nights, when I feel lonely or disoriented for whatever reason, I listen to the shipping forecast. It reminds me of months and months of my life when it was the background music to feeding my baby son in the small hours. It reminds me of years and years of nights when it was the last thing I heard before sleep. It’s like the gentle rhythm of waves breaking on the sand, the clickety-clack of the train on the tracks, or the comforting drumming of rain on the roof; a sound that gathers up all the years of one life, and holds them in continuity with the generations that went before. It’s the comfort of the ex-pat far from home, and the prayer of the soul not quite sure of the God to whom they pray.

Carol Ann Duffy put it best:


Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer
utters itself. So, a woman will lift
her head from the sieve of her hands and stare
at the minims sung by a tree, a sudden gift.

Some nights, although we are faithless, the truth
enters our hearts, that small familiar pain;
then a man will stand stock-still, hearing his youth
in the distant Latin chanting of a train.

Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child’s name as though they named their loss.

Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.

On forgiveness: feeding the doves.

Forgiving is the hardest thing to do.

Forgiving doesn’t trivialize an offence – as if to say, “It doesn’t matter – I forgive you.” It does matter. If it didn’t matter, there would be nothing to forgive.

Forgiving isn’t about deserving. If someone has offended you enough that forgiving them is a challenge or even an impossibility, then they don’t “deserve” forgiveness. They may need it, want it, ask for it, or they may not even care about it, but no-one deserves it.

Forgiving doesn’t come naturally. Natural responses to offense would be to hit back, or to withdraw and hold a grudge, or to find a surreptitious means of hurting in return. Some people are more readily forgiving than others, but find an offence deep enough, and you’ll find that there is a point at which it doesn’t come naturally.

Forgiving isn’t about trading. “I’ll forgive you if you pay” never quite works. There is restitution, of course – and if the offending party is prepared to do whatever is possible to repair an offence, then forgiveness may flow more easily. But for the offended party, there is always a level at which some cost is borne. If it was possible for the offense to be paid for completely, there would be nothing left to forgive.

Forgiving doesn’t turn the clock back – not completely. It doesn’t mean you pretend it never happened. It means that you choose not to take revenge, bear a grudge, demand an eye for an eye or worse.

Why forgive, then, if it costs so much?

Forgiving is about releasing chains that hold us.

The offender is released – to some extent – by being forgiven. Often not scot-free, because forgiving doesn’t mean pretending something never happened. Forgiving a relative triviality might mean a total repair to relationship, but there are circumstances where even though forgiveness is offered, the offender still has to live with conscience or consequence. Not all relationships can be completely repaired, and the injury and memory of the past can’t be wiped clean even if the sting is removed.

But the offended party is released, as well as the offender, by forgiving. Carrying a grudge, a burden of anger, creates lonely souls. Unresolved, it makes some people explosive, and others depressed, and its corrosive effect produces points of isolation.

And further, forgiving draws a line under the offence, so that you don’t spread bitterness to those around you, or to the next generation. If you have unresolved grief, bitterness, resentment, it’s almost impossible not to hand it on to those around you. So it is, in a sense, a duty of care to the world to move towards forgiveness, for it stops the spread of the disease. This is true even if you are the offended party. Not to take the steps you can towards forgiveness (and sometimes it takes time and a lot of repeated baby steps to get there) is to create a further offence to others out of the one that was dealt to you.

Forgiving a deeply felt offence really doesn’t happen in an instant. Especially so if it changed the whole course of your life (although curiously it seems that sometimes people find relatively trivial offences harder to forgive than ones of gargantuan proportions). Sometimes you have to live with a repeating cycle of forgiveness – coming back to that decision every single day, until eventually it wears a deeper groove in your soul than the anger and hurt and grief.  But what’s the alternative? It’s like choosing between which of two creatures you will feed. Feed the doves, and sooner or later their peaceful cooing will float through your window. Feed the wolves, and eventually they will eat you too.

(First published February 2014)

God three angry letters in a book

One of my long -time favourite poems is The Incarnate One by Edwin Muir. Nowhere does Muir suggest that faith should be thoughtless or anti-intellectual. But he identifies the subtle difference between thought that embraces and explores the mystery of the incarnate word, and the kind of logical, syllogistic reduction that domesticates God, pulls His teeth, and keeps the Divine Mystery firmly in its place. Even the most liberal of theologies, if their detail and practice is insisted upon to the extent that those who do not (or do not appear to) conform are excluded from the holy huddle, becomes a kind of “purity code”. It isn’t only fundamentalist theologies that exclude their non-conformers; drawing a line around who is “in” is a limitation that people of all political and religious persuasions are prone to fall into.

But back to Muir. Theology, when it becomes reductionist and exclusive, takes the blood out of the faith we are offered in an incarnate God, removes love and humanity from the equation, and takes us back to a law that we must obey or suffer the consequences. “How could our race betray/ the Image, and the Incarnate One unmake…?” Sadly, all too easily.

The windless northern surge, the sea-gull’s scream,
And Calvin’s kirk crowning the barren brae.
I think of Giotto the Tuscan shepherd’s dream,
Christ, man and creature in their inner day.
How could our race betray
The Image, and the Incarnate One unmake
Who chose this form and fashion for our sake?

The Word made flesh here is made word again
A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.
See there King Calvin with his iron pen,
And God three angry letters in a book,
And there the logical hook
On which the Mystery is impaled and bent
Into an ideological argument.

There’s better gospel in man’s natural tongue,
And truer sight was theirs outside the Law
Who saw the far side of the Cross among
The archaic peoples in their ancient awe,
In ignorant wonder saw
The wooden cross-tree on the bare hillside,
Not knowing that there a God suffered and died.

The fleshless word, growing, will bring us down,
Pagan and Christian man alike will fall,
The auguries say, the white and black and brown,
The merry and the sad, theorist, lover, all
Invisibly will fall:
Abstract calamity, save for those who can
Build their cold empire on the abstract man.

A soft breeze stirs and all my thoughts are blown
Far out to sea and lost. Yet I know well
The bloodless word will battle for its own
Invisibly in brain and nerve and cell.
The generations tell
Their personal tale: the One has far to go
Past the mirages and the murdering snow.


A Theology of Waiting

excerpted from Like the Wideness of the Sea: Women Bishops and the Church of England, chapter 2. 

Although it is sometimes right to wait, there is no monopoly of virtue in patient waiting. To agree to wait beyond the point of acceptability requires a passivity that is profoundly bad for the soul. And in this situation the call to wait, and wait, and wait again carries an undercurrent of immense, disempowering betrayal.

A dream deferred

To wait through disappointments and broken deadlines while a resolution is repeatedly deferred is damaging to individuals, relationships and institutions. Extreme cases of a deferral of hope are seen when people spend large portions of their lives waiting for inquests or judicial reviews. Even when justice is eventually done, the tragedy is not lost on us as we watch people released from lengthy prison sentences following a discovery of a miscarriage of justice, or families who have waited many years for inquests to be revisited after murder or abduction cases. The already heavy burden of a tragedy or huge error is greatly compounded by those lost years; we feel the sickening thud of injustice as we realize that ten, twenty, thirty years of someone’s life have been put on hold, and it comes home to us, as St Augustine put it, that “the drops of time are precious to me[1]”.  A recent example was the reopening of the investigation into the Hillsborough disaster. The panel, led by the [then] Bishop of Liverpool, uncovered the fact that what was already a great tragedy had been turned into a “double injustice” through the failure of the original inquest to bring the matter to its proper conclusion. Countless other stories have appeared in the press in recent years of people who having initially suffered terrible abuses, then lose years of their life through a failure of process before they find the freedom that comes from proper attention being given to their situation, and a clear, just statement is made. What these cases have in common is that a single injustice is compounded by the time that goes by, while those whose cries are unheard are simply left with no recourse to justice. The original injustice may be irreversible, but further, unnecessary harm is done by the deferral of justice in such situations…


Like the Wideness of the Sea was written prior to the acceptance of women as Bishops in the Church of England.It logs a history of the process up to that time, and the second Chapter, A Theology of Waiting, has application to any situation where decisions are deferred unreasonably.

Available from these sources and more:

Kindle UK

Paperback UK

Kindle USA

Paperback USA

Paperback NZ

[1]  Augustine, Confessions 11:2

Ordinary Time


What’s so ordinary about Ordinary Time?

After the anticipation of Advent, the spectacle of Christmas, the revelation of Epiphany and the blessing of all those lights at Candlemas, isn’t ‘ordinary’ a bit of a let-down? Who wants to be ordinary?

It has to be said, in the current climate, ordinary seems appealing and far from us. We seem to be living through the ‘interesting times’ of the apocryphal curse, and it seems a long time since the pleasantly dull days when one could show up at work and find everyone sipping their coffee with nothing but village gossip to talk about. Oh, for a return to ordinary.

In the context of church seasons, however, it’s a misconception that ‘ordinary’ means ‘not unusual’ or ‘not special’. Ordinary time isn’t plain, or unexceptional. The word comes from the Latin ordinalis, which has to do with putting things in the right order. Ticking the weeks off one by one. Numbering them, or naming them, so that you know where you are. When you put things in a numbered series – first, second, third, etc. – those are called ordinal numbers (in the linguistic use of the term, not the same thing as the set theory usage). Ordinal, ordo, and the Ordinary (bishop or office holder) all come from ordinalis, and they are all about either putting things in order, or arranging them in sequence.

The really big slab of ordinary time comes after the Easter season – more than twenty weeks leading back to Advent when the church year starts all over again. But this little slip of ordinary time between Candlemas and Lent, which can be as short as a week, doesn’t have to be insignificant.* You might be quite glad for something low key, to catch your breath before the next big thing – after all, endless feasts lose their sparkle if there is nothing to contrast them with. But even if they are quiet and unremarkable, that doesn’t mean the days don’t count for anything. It just means we count them as they happen.

*There is debate in some quarters as to whether Ordinary Time starts right after Epiphany, or after Candlemas. In the UK, it was always my habit to take the decorations down at Epiphany. But now I live in a part of the world that is regularly under snow for a good while after Christmas, I am much in favor of remaining in celebratory mode for as long as possible.

Candlemas. Presentation. Nunc Dimittis.

Today if you go to a church that celebrates seasonally you are likely to come across some mention of the infant Jesus being presented in the Temple. It was, I suppose, the first century equivalent of a baby dedication. The configuration was different, but the same themes were there: something – animals, poultry or other food  – got prepared and taken to the celebrations, gifts were brought and presented, and at the center of it all is the baby, focusing the attention on thanksgiving for the wonder of new life, relief that life has prevailed through the trauma of birth, and good wishes for the future life of the child.

In a suprisingly egalitarian clip in the gospels, two elderly prophets were present. One woman and one man: Anna, and Simeon. We don’t really know much about these two, except that they spent their lives contemplatively watching and waiting, paying attention to the signs of the times, seeing people come and go. People watchers often become astute readers of faces. All those times observing the wrinkling of a nose, the furrowing of a brow, the cracking of a smile, the shedding of tears. Like learning to read words on a page, you have to pay attention to faces to learn to read them.

Anna and Simeon read the three faces of mother, father, child. They looked into the hazy gaze of those infant eyes that as yet could hardly focus, and his unlined, unknowing baby face. They saw the meagre gifts the couple brought, and read the narrative of poverty; they looked at the gnarled and scarred hands of the man who carried the gifts, and read the story of hard physical work. And they looked at the young, spirited mother, so recently  over the threshold of womanhood, and in her face they read a half-written poem of joy and wonder, a good measure of defiance, and a little apprehension. She knew, yet she didn’t quite know, the significance of the child in her arms.

And they knew too. They saw something. Was it the baby’s face, the untold story in his mother’s eyes, or the unpronounceable secrets that his father had seen in his dreams?  Or was it all three of their faces that spoke of potential, promise, prophecy?

Thank God, said Anna. Thank God. This is what we’ve waited to see.
Now, Lord, said Simeon. Now I can die a happy man, for mine eyes have seen.

First published February 2nd 2014

Added note: The story ends with Anna immediately turning around and speaking publicly to those gathered in the Temple. On this day, the prophet and preacher in the Temple was a woman. People often say that Mary Magdalene was the first evangelist, and if you are counting from the resurrection, I guess that’s true. But don’t forget that Jesus’ mother had already pronounced the Magnificat, a poetic praise-prophecy any preacher would be glad to deliver. And here, although we don’t know what she said, it was Anna, not Simeon, who took the platform. Worth thinking about.