Saturday, January 31, 2015

O I do like to be beside the Ski-side...

I was sitting and chatting with the president of the DHO ski club, and we were talking about places that mean something to us.

"Somehow there are places that happen in our lives where we feel like we belong," I said, "places that are home to us. They are a gift from God, and we should enjoy and cherish them."

I found Wengen quite by accident eighteen years ago. The Intercontinental Church Society asked Stuart Bell, rector of Aberystwyth, to fill a slot in the rota of chaplains at St Bernard's Wengen in the summer of 1997. Stuart didn't fancy it; at the time the chaplain stayed in a room in the Falken Hotel, and the accommodation really was for a single person. But he told ICS he had a couple of curates and would see if either of us were interested. I bit his hand off.

The strange thing is, I've never lived here. I've just done the chaplaincy rota (most years) and got to know a lot of people. I've made friends. I'm not a great skier - I make a decent fist of it these days, no more. But when I get off the cable car at Mannlichen I feel like I am in the most beautiful place on earth and my heart sings.

 Gifts like this, places like this, moments like this, opportunities like this - they are beyond price.

Truthfully, I was feeling grumpy before leaving home. I miss my Springer, Harry, every day. Really, I do. And this trip isn't cheap, even with the generous help ICS gives chaplains. Plus, in the Oxfordshire parishes, there's a lot going on, and organising everything for my absence felt like hard work.

Then I got here.

I know folk look at it as a pretty good gig to get - and it is - but it is a 'gig'. It's not a holiday. In four days I've done some bereavement counselling, some marriage guidance work, some evangelism, some admin and practical stuff, and spent lots of time with lots of people connected with the church and community who simply want to talk with the chaplain. And this chaplain wants to talk to them.

Yes - today I actually went skiing! And it was wonderful. But so has been every part of the trip so far. I chatted to Roger, who has done more of these trips than I and who was here holidaying, and he said that last year he skied three days in his chaplaincy fortnight and had a terrific time. I get that.

It turns out that a change is as good as a rest, when it comes as a gift.

Tomorrow we will worship together. I look forward to seeing who will come to church. Several of the people I have seen so far have left the resort today, but many are here for longer periods or live here. The DHO (DownHill Only Club) are celebrating their 90th Anniversary this week, and I will mark that with an anniversary service tomorrow evening. Several of the club members are regular supporters of St Bernard's.

And then there will be surprises... which is always the joy of any ministry. Not-knowing what comes next, and taking it in your stride come what may.

Though it feels like a chaplaincy at St Bernard's puts a magnifying glass on that experience! No wonder there are two texts written at the front of the church, two reminders for every chaplain who steps into the place: the opening line to Psalm 121, and from Isaiah 40 a stained-glass reminder that those who wait on the Lord will rise on wings like eagles.

O I do like to be beside the ski-side...

Saturday, January 10, 2015


In the light of the atrocities in Paris this week, I entirely want to associate with the French people, and with all who have suffered from terrorism.

We are the same. We stand together. We are human beings.

But forgive me, I want to stand with people and with those who grieve, and with those who are bewildered. I don't know a whole lot about a specific French satirical magazine, and I'm not sure I want to stand with the viewpoint that says (as was expressed on the BBC during the week) "We should be free to criticise who we want to".

I'm just not sure about that.

In my job I come across a lot of grief, and there is often a tendency for grief to be dishonest. Death can change how people felt about those who have died; death can make people better. At least, it can if you believe everything you hear. Personally, I often feel tempted to take a pinch of salt with me just in case I need it when I'm about to listen to stories of the newly departed.

Perhaps it is because in our grief we are predisposed to forgive more those we have lost. Perhaps in our grief we realise we will never again be able to work through the ordinary conversations of life and grant to our lost loved ones the benefit of the doubt we sometimes doubted they deserved when they lived. It's just human.

Still: no-one deserves what happened in that magazine office this week. I don't need to have read a copy of Charlie Hebdo to know that. None of us need to have read it to know that what happened was terribly, terribly wrong.

Perhaps however we do need to have read it through before we take its name. Otherwise, it runs the risk of becoming a slogan, a sledgehammer, or (worse) just the opposite of what we intended - a statement of division, not solidarity. Satirists don't need bandwagons; nor do they need censorship; most of us make mistakes when we hold their barbed humour too close or too distant. We just stop seeing the truth either way, and that's the biggest mistake of all.

Jesus asks us to love our enemies, not laugh at them. If we are to laugh at anyone, it is ourselves. I don't know about "je suis Charlie" - "je suis un right Charlie" a fair bit of the time. So many of the cartoons following the attack have pens and pencils facing off automatic weapons, but the point of them is that they too are weapons. If you want to throw the first stones, says Jesus, or draw them, go ahead; sinless people first.

Or do we become (again, with the excuse of grief) ruled by a mob mentality? In Britain at the moment, the Ched Evans story is a perfect example of this. The BBC news stories about his attempts to renew his footballing career after being released from prison all begin with the words, "Convicted rapist Ched Evans". The stories could begin, "Former Welsh international footballer Ched Evans". Do you think the stories would sound different that way?

Our culture has made sex its god, and sex crimes its blasphemy. No wonder those Islamist extremists critique us. Poor Ched; whatever did or did not happen that distant night, like so many young people it happened when he (and all the others there) had had far too much to drink. And so he is trapped in an eternal purgatory of being described by a sin he denies, without any other past or any future at all.

Poor Ched?

It'll be a while before the #jesuisChed hashtag gets going. It'll be a while before the stones stop being thrown. There are so many sinless folk around it seems. It's such a fun bandwagon to aim from.

And again I ask your patience, as I close where I started. For I want to stand with all who suffer. All. We are the same. We stand together. We are human beings.

Loved by God, thank God, and (wonderfully) forgiven, if we'll have it.