When was the last time you thought about mental health and young people?

There is a major issue.  As many as 1 in 10 children and young people (aged 5-16) have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem.  The problems include depression, anxiety, and conduct disorders.  The problems are often linked to what is happening in their lives.

Last month I attended the annual Civic Breakfast organized by Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield.
bunsThis is an annual event which brings together Church leaders and faith leaders across the city with local councillors, heads of services, MPs and charities.

The subject this year was the connection between mental health and poverty.  Common mental health problems such as depression and anxiety are distributed according to a gradient of economic disadvantage across society.  The less well off you are, the more likely you are to suffer from a range of common mental health problems.

We had a moving presentation at the breakfast from a woman in her twenties who described the mental health problems she experienced as a teenager, the care she received and the real difference it made.  In the discussion which followed, several people contributed stories from their own families.  We had expert opinion from people who work as advocates for those with mental health issues and from General Practitioners.

The most striking statistic was this (from a mental health commissioner):

“Mental illness accounts for 25% of mortality and morbidity in Britain but only 11% of the NHS budget is spent on these issues”.

We are not tackling this part of the problem.  During the last parliament, funding for mental health services were cut by 8.25%.

It’s impossible to read the four gospels and not be aware of Jesus’ compassion for those who are suffering and his care for the whole person.  In the first chapters of Mark, Jesus heals a man with an unclean spirit, a multitude in Galilee, someone declared unclean by his society, a man who is paralysed and full of guilt, another multitude by the lakeshore and a man with a withered hand.  Read on further and you will find that Christ ministers to children and young people and the elderly with both physical and spiritual diseases.  The gospels do not have our vocabulary for mental illness but it is impossible to read them and not find evidence of these conditions and of Jesus’ care for those who have them.

What can we do?

Christians and Christian congregations can help by raising awareness of mental health issues, especially among the young.  We can help by listening to one another: the first line of support and help.  We can help by reducing any stigma around mental health so that people feel able to talk about the problems they may be facing, whether that is anxiety or depression or another serious illness.  When was the last time you heard a sermon or a presentation in church on these issues?

We can help by taking seriously our responsibility to care for the young and invest in children and young people.  It is encouraging to see the number of workers employed in our Centenary Project increasing month by month.  If you are part of a church in this Diocese, has your church explored this project yet?

We can help by working to relieve poverty and suffering, both in acts of kindness and charity and in our campaigning for justice.  Part of that campaigning will be working to ensure that mental health support increases rather than decreases year by year in line with other spending on health.

We can help by offering our time and gifts through the Samaritans, to Mind, in local visiting and support for those in need.

The Civic Breakfast helped open my eyes and ears again to the fragility of many young people and the need for care and support.  As followers of Jesus Christ, let’s take care to be informed and compassionate and involved.


Further help/supportmental-health

I hope you have appointments in your diary on Thursday 5th May and Thursday 23rd June.  There are opportunities to vote on both days and it’s vital to use them.

On 5th May, people across South Yorkshire will vote in local elections and to elect the Police and Crime Commissioner.  These elections really matter.  Last time we voted in local elections less than 6 in 10 people turned out.  Last time South Yorkshire elected Police and Crime Commissioners, only 15% of people bothered to vote.

On 23rd June the whole of Britain will vote in a European Referendum.  Whatever your views, this is a hugely significant question.  It will affect the future direction of our country, our unity, our place in the world and our economy.  We all know that opinion polls sometimes get things wrong. The polls are predicting a low turnout on 23rd June on perhaps the most important national question we are facing in many years.   The polls are also predicting that the outcome will be close.  Your vote and mine will make a difference but only if we use it.

faithleaders2016On Wednesday morning I did what I do every year at this time.  I gathered on the steps of the Town Hall in Sheffield with faith leaders from across the city for a photocall and so that we can make a statement together to encourage everyone we can simply to use their vote: young and old, rich and poor.  No-one has to travel far.  It doesn’t take long.  You can take your family and friends with you and encourage them to vote as well.  Democracy gives to all of us the power to shape our society in the people we elect and in helping us to decide the great questions of our age.

It seems a small thing to go to a polling station, take a ballot paper, place a cross in one box or another and put the voting slip into the box.  Yet for many generations before us very few people were able to vote at all.  To vote you had to be male and wealthy: one of a fortunate minority.  Many people the world over do not live in a democracy and have no say or influence over their own government. We do – yet many of us will not use those votes in the next few weeks.

Having a vote means discovering the arguments: digging below the rhetoric, coming to your own point of view.  The Church of England has set up a web page to help you explore the issue.

Christians should set the pace and take the lead in all of our engagement with politics and many do.  Long ago the prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles in Babylon.  You can read the whole letter in Jeremiah 29 but here is the key verse:

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare”.  (Jeremiah 29.7).

In a democracy to seek the welfare of the city means to be involved, to be informed, to discuss and ask questions and above all to use the votes we have been given.  Reserve the dates now.


Dear Friends,

I write with some significant news and with a mix of emotions to the clergy and lay people of the Diocese of Sheffield.

Downing Street has announced this morning that I have been nominated as the next Bishop of Oxford.  I am looking forward to the new challenge and responsibility this move will bring.  At the same time I am very sorry to be leaving a Diocese and friends and a place I love dearly and where Ann and I feel very much at home.

For both Ann and myself, our seven years in the city and Diocese of Sheffield have been among the happiest and most fulfilling of our lives.  I have enjoyed and appreciated almost every part of being Bishop here: the warm welcome across South Yorkshire (and the parts of East Yorkshire around Goole), the joy of working with an outstanding senior team, with dedicated and creative clergy and lay leaders and the privilege of joining in what God is doing in so many different ways and places.  I have appreciated all kinds of engagement with the city and wider region served by the Diocese: with local politicians, with its economic life, with the universities, the third sector and many different local communities.

Ann has greatly enjoyed fellowship and friendship through Partners Together and the Mothers’ Union and, most of all, seeing the Parent and Toddler group grow at the Cathedral over the past five years.  We have both made many friends here.

You may know that the Diocese of Oxford has been vacant since October 2014. At that time, it felt too early to consider leave Sheffield after six years. However, for various reasons the vacancy was not filled and I was invited in January this year to allow my name to be considered.

My call to this new ministry began with a sense of obedience to the wider needs of the Church and has grown from there, through the process, into a strong sense that God is indeed calling Ann and I to Oxford and calling me to a different kind of episcopal ministry.

For the first time in January, I began to realise it was no longer too early to leave Sheffield.  The Diocese has grown in confidence, in unity, and in capacity for mission, particularly over the last year.  We have a common vision, a strategy to carry that vision forward and a strong and united senior team.  The more I pondered the question, the more this seemed a potentially good moment to hand on the ministry God has entrusted to me here to others and in time to a new Bishop.

The Diocese of Oxford is one of the largest and most complex in the Church of England.  It covers the three counties of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire and stretches from Milton Keynes in the north to Newbury in the south; from the Cotswolds in the west to Slough in the east. The Diocese has a population of 2.3 million people.  There are over 800 churches, almost 400 stipendiary clergy and over 200 self-supporting clergy grouped into four archdeaconries and 29 deaneries. The Diocese has an Area system with three Area bishops supporting and working with the Bishop of Oxford.  There are 12 secondary and 270 primary Church schools.  There are six universities. A large number of charities, industries and other agencies have their national or international headquarters in the Diocese.

The invitation to move came at a time when I was beginning to reflect on what shape my own ministry might take over the coming years.  As you know, I had been planning a sabbatical later in 2016 to do some of this thinking.  I have a growing sense of call to a more outward facing ministry over the next ten years or so and a desire to engage more directly in mission and evangelism and with the wider life of the nation.  I could certainly have changed gear in that way and remained in Sheffield, but Oxford, with all its resources also provides an excellent place for such a ministry.

Finally, although the move will take us further from some of our family in Halifax, it will bring us much nearer to our four children and to our grandson.  Paul, Andy and Beth and Sarah are all settled in Greater London.  Amy and Simon are in Bristol and Ann’s mother is also there.  Ann and I first met and married in Oxford and we lived there for five years immediately before we came to Sheffield.  From the perspective of our past and our future, the move makes sense.

For the next few months at least it will be business as usual.  I am not quite sure of the timings yet but it looks as though we will move to Oxford over the summer.  A farewell service has been provisionally booked in Sheffield Cathedral for Sunday 17 July at 4.00 pm.  In the meantime I am looking forward to the regular programme of parish visits, the Deanery confirmations and continuing to plan for the launch of St Peter’s College.

After I leave, Bishop Peter will lead the senior team and the diocese during the vacancy as we continue to grow a sustainable network of Christ like, lively and diverse Christian communities in every place.  I will leave the Diocese in excellent hands.  The process of discovering who God may be calling to the immense privilege of being the next Bishop of Sheffield is likely to begin in the autumn.

In the meantime, we continue to value your prayers.  You know me well enough to know that I enjoy change but also find it very daunting.  We will continue to pray for you now and for many years into the future.  I have every confidence that the whole Diocese will continue to grow in faith and hope and love in the years to come.

With thanks for all that we have received through you and in you and for the grace of God in this Diocese.

With kind regards

+ Steven

I spent an hour or so yesterday signing around 200 certificates to be sent to churches across the Diocese of Sheffield to say thank you for the contributions to Common Fund, our shared Diocesan budget.  This is something I do every year.  I find it a very moving exercise. common-fund

The certificates are normally displayed in the Church porch or elsewhere on a noticeboard.  I also write a letter to the Vicar and the PCC.  Each one says thank you on behalf of the Diocese, but also on behalf of other churches across the Diocese for generous sacrificial giving.

The Diocese of Sheffield serves an area which is one of the poorest in the country in economic terms.  However, for many years, the Diocese of Sheffield has been one of the most generous in the country in terms of the proportion of people’s income which is given away to and through the local church.

Last year the churches of the Diocese gave £4.5 million to the Common Fund, our Diocesan budget.  Each certificate I signed yesterday represents a double act of generosity and adventurous giving.

First it represents thousands and thousands of individual decisions by individuals and families to give generously and sacrificially to the life of the local church to sustain ministry in that place.

Second it represents hundreds of decisions by Church Councils to prioritise generous, adventurous giving to the Diocese in their own budgets.  For that reason, I try and sign the certificates slowly, giving thanks for all that they represent.

If you are part of this adventurous, generous giving in any way then thank you.  Common Fund is the cornerstone of our Diocesan budget.  It enables us to support Christian ministry and mission in every part of this Diocese, especially in communities which would find it difficult, if not impossible, to support a priest.  Generous giving to the Common Fund enables us to grow ministry in all kinds of ways and that enables us, by the grace of God, to grow the life of the Church and to make a bigger difference in the communities we serve.

Long ago, St. Paul reflected on the generosity of the churches of Macedonia.  You can read his words in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9.  Paul is moved by their gracious giving:

“For I can testify that they voluntarily gave according to their means and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints – and this not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us” (8.3-5).

According to Paul, this generous act of giving flows directly from our faith and from the example of Jesus Christ:

“For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (8.9).

Paul urges many others, including the Church in Corinth, to follow the example of the Macedonian Christians and of Christ himself and give themselves to the Lord:

“One who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.  Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” (9.6-8)

It is an extraordinary miracle of faith and generosity that God’s people in this place give in this adventurous way.  Together through our giving we have a share in all of the ministry and mission which is taking place across this Diocese.  Together we make that ministry and mission possible.

Thank you for your part in that and please persevere.  The challenge continues from year to year and there is always more that we can do.  If you are not yourself involved in this adventure of grace then there is plenty of room for more people to join in.

Together God has called us to grow a sustainable network of Christ like, lively and diverse Christian communities across this Diocese, effective in making disciples and in transforming our society and God’s world.

Week by week, month by month, year by year, we see that vision becoming more of a reality.  Thanks be to God and to all God’s generous people.


Over three hundred young people aged 11-18 gathered together on a cold Saturday in January for our third annual Breathe Deep day. They came to St Thomas Philadelphia, with their leaders, from all across the Diocese.  Together we were exploring faith and the rhythm of life with God.  The number of young people involved has more than doubled since our first day in 2014.  People love the day together and are keen to bring their friends.

spinWe worshipped together.  We explored Scripture.  This year I spoke about living our whole lives in the rhythm of the two great commandments Jesus gives: loving God and loving our neighbour as ourselves.  There were workshops on prayer, on going deeper with God, on service, on transforming God’s world.  All through the morning the young people text in questions on anything to do with life and faith and, just before lunch, I try and answer them.  We eat together (Subway – a big highlight).  Each year this part looks a little more like the feeding of the 5,000 as small groups of teenagers gather across the conference room (there are no chairs so everyone sits on the floor).

Over lunch the huge inflatables arrive and the first part of the afternoon is given over to some serious fun and games.  Then it’s worship again, the results of various competitions, some filming for the music video of the day and the chance to be still, to reflect and to collect a holding cross to take away to remind us of the theme of the day.

You can catch a flavour of what happened here in the various videos made on the day and the photographs we took.

When people ask me what’s happening in the parishes of the diocese at the moment, I’m never short of things to say.  There are so many stories of life and growth.  But one of my favourite things, if I’m honest, has to be the new work we are beginning to do with children and young people and families.  Together we are helping the next generation discover faith in Jesus Christ.

When I was 12 years old, I was on the very edge of the life of my small, local parish church and set to drift away from faith.  If I had, my life would have been very different.  One person in that parish was determined to do something.  She had no qualifications but she started a small youth group for me and just two other teenagers.  Over time she went on training courses and involved others.  Through that group (and at a Diocesan event), I found faith and God found me.  Jean still prays for me and for the others involved in that youth group more than forty years later.

There is no greater gift that we can pass on to children and young people in our families, in our churches, in our schools, in our wider society than the gift of faith.  The whole course of a young person’s life will be affected by developing faith in childhood.  It is an immense gift to know that you are loved by God, the maker of the universe; to know that you are called to a lifelong friendship with your creator; to know you can begin again through Jesus Christ and his death on the cross; to know that you are part of a worldwide family; to understand the great gift of prayer; to receive God’s guidance at life’s great crossroads; to develop Christian character; to become all that you are meant to be.  All of these gifts and more are given through the development of faith in children and young people.  Lives are saved, deepened and enriched, families are transformed and the world is changed.

The bible tells us many stories of those who learnt their faith as children and young people.  The prophet Samuel is nurtured in faith as a child through his mother, Hannah, who prays for him and prays with him.  He is nurtured in faith as a child through Eli who instructs him in prayer and in listening to God’s voice.  Samuel will go on to lead Israel and change his nation.  But the foundations of his life and his friendship with God are laid in childhood.

Encouraging faith within and through the family is vital.  Last Saturday I commissioned Pauline Reynolds as President of the Mothers’ Union in this Diocese.  The second of the Mothers’ Union’s five objectives is to encourage parents in their role to develop the faith of their children.  As children grow into young people, the role of the local church is vital in nurturing and encouraging faith into adult life.  You can read the sermon here

Last week the Church of England General Synod strongly encouraged parishes and dioceses to prioritise evangelism and witness with younger people.  What are we doing here?

  • We now have funding and support available for churches to grow families and children’s and youth work again.  You can read about the Centenary Project here.  Our first four workers are now in post and their work is bearing fruit.
  • We have excellent training courses to help people who want to take the first steps.  If you want to do something for the young people in your Church take a look at Aurora.
  • We’ve already booked the date for our fourth Breathe Deep day on 28th January next year.
  • If there is nothing happening in your parish for young people, the place to begin is prayer.  If you can’t help yourself then email a link to this post to someone who might be able to make a new beginning.  Let’s do what we can to help young people in every community to rediscover faith in Jesus Christ.

One of the most interesting conversations I had at Breathe Deep was with an adult who had come on her own to the day precisely because there were no young people in her church.  It was a small beginning.  I’m hoping for great things.



Lent begins tomorrow.  It’s the time of year when Christians give something up – usually food – or else take something on for the sake of others. 

Let me tell you a true story for the beginning of Lent about kindness and practical help.

Sohail Mumtaz is a leader of the Muslim Community Association in Sheffield.  Last year, during Ramadan, he challenged one of his friends, Lee Ward, to have a one day fast. 

Lee fasted and the experience of going hungry for a day made him think of the children in his community who are hungry.  These are the people who are regularly helped by the S2 Foodbank.  The Muslim Community Association and the churches both provide food and funding for distribution.

Lee and Sohail are taxi drivers.  They wanted to do something more to help the children of their community.  They approached other taxi drivers across the city.  Together they raised the money and gave the time to take 96 parents and children to Cleethorpes for a day at the seaside in September.  Many had never been to the coast, and most had never had a holiday 

Deni Ennals, the Foodbank co-ordinator, organized the trip.  Friends and neighbours donated car seats for children, buckets and spades, sun hats, lotion, items for the picnic and cash for fish and chips.  Every family was given some spending money for donkey rides and the fairgrounds.  Everything went without a hitch.  The day was a huge success. 

Deni wrote afterwards to say thank you to the foodbank supporters: “This one day away from the drudge and poverty of their normal lives did more for many of our clients than any antidepressant many have been prescribed.  It’s a shame we could not bottle the fun and laughter and bring it home to help them through the winter months, when many will not only experience food poverty but also fuel poverty, where homes will have no heating and cooking facilities will become a luxury”.

As far as we know, there are 50-60 Food Banks across South Yorkshire and the Diocese of Sheffield.  It would be excellent if none of them were needed but all of them are.  Most of them are connected to churches and to other faith communities who supply volunteers and donations of food.  A wide range of community groups support them. 

Most clients don’t use the food banks regularly but a very wide range of people have to use them from time to time.  Recent research on provision in the Diocese can be accessed in the Feeding Britain Sheffield Diocese Report.  The findings link to the All Parliamentary Group on Hunger’s Feeding Britain Report which can be found here

foodbank2Why do people need food banks in modern Britain?  We have food in abundance – enough to waste in most of our homes.  There are many different reasons but top of the list in every survey are delays or errors in paying benefits, problems with disability benefits, or the application of benefit sanctions (where payment of a benefit is delayed or stopped because a claimant has not met certain conditions).  People may be out of work, or they may be in very low paid jobs.  Most commonly, people use food banks when there is some unforeseen crisis in their lives. 

It is important to understand that something can be done about most of these reasons.  Next week the General Synod will debate the impact of benefit sanctions.  The Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales have brought a motion to debate.  Malcolm Chamberlain, Archdeacon of Sheffield and Rotherham, will put a “friendly” amendment to the motion on behalf of this Diocese to strengthen its impact, calling on the government “to initiate a full independent review of the impact and efficacy of the sanctions and conditionality regime”.   The background papers for the Synod debate are GS 2019A Impact of Sanctions on Benefits Claimants and GS 2019B .

But back to Lent and giving something up.  How can we help, today?  All Christians at this time of year are encouraged to fast in some way and offer practical support and help to those around us. 

  • Foodbanks across the Diocese are looking for support and help: volunteers, supplies, practical aid of all kinds.  It may be that your own local church is already supporting a foodbank.  If it’s not, can you connect with one?
  • Foodbanks are even more effective when they build community, treat people with respect and help and support them in other ways.  The Sheffield taxi drivers are an example to us all.  What can you and I do to help?
  • Recent research suggests that foodbanks help more people when they make advice available within the foodbank on benefits, on money management, on debt.  This already happens in some foodbanks in Sheffield (including S2) but needs to spread to more.
  • Food waste is a massive scandal in modern Britain.  What can we do to reduce the amount of edible food we throw away?  If you’ve not seen it yet, I can recommend the excellent documentary by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, “Hugh’s War on Waste”
  • Foodbanks are needed because there are holes in the net of welfare provision.  It’s important for churches and others to lobby government to mend the nets so that no-one, and especially no child, goes hungry.  There is more on that in this report from the Church Action on Poverty http://www.church-poverty.org.uk/safetynet

Lent is a time to pause, to slow down, to reflect on our lives, to connect more deeply with God and with our neighbours.  As you give something up this year, take time to help others who do not have enough. 


“Do you ever look at someone and wonder what’s going on inside their head?”

Last summer Ann, my wife, took me to the cinema to see Inside Out, the new animated film from Pixar. You might have seen it.  If not it’s just out on DVD.

Inside Out is a brilliant, positive compassionate exploration of what it means to be human. The film takes us on a journey inside the mind of Riley, an eleven year old girl who moves with her family to a new city.  Inside Riley’s  mind are five different emotions each played by a different character: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust (essential for responding to broccoli).

inside-outThese five emotions are in constant dialogue.  Inside Out describes the wonderful complexity of what it means to be human: the vast caverns of memory and the “islands” which shape our personalities and make each of us unique: our family, our hobbies, our friendships, our sense of humour.  The film’s story takes us on a journey (on the “train of thought”) to explore the memory banks, the deep subconscious, the dream factory which puts on nightly productions and the dark pit of oblivion.

We share Riley’s outer journey as she moves to a new city and a new school, copes with the stress on her parents and copes with the first real challenges of her life.  As these things happen we see the interplay between Joy and Sadness, Anger and Fear and, of course, Disgust (broccoli pizza this time).  The same five emotions are at the control panel inside Riley’s mum and dad and inside everyone else in the film.  All of us have a rich, deep, inner world.  Inside Out imagines that world in colour, brings it to life and makes us wonder.

So far so good. Inside Out will help a generation of children (and adults) think about what’s happening inside them, about what forms our character and about the role sadness and joy (and broccoli) play in a normal, healthy life.  But for all of the film’s brilliance, there is something missing.

rilesWell, two things actually.  The first is a sense of who really is there at Riley’s core. A human person is even more than a pile of different emotions taking the helm by turn.  Each of us is a unique individual, made up of body, mind, emotions, will.  The Bible talks about each of us having a soul, that precious inner part of each person, which brings life to every other part and animates them.  When we encounter someone else we are meeting their whole self – all that makes them special.  According to Genesis, when God made man and woman, they were incomplete until God breathed into them and made them live.  This soul or spirit or breath of life is at the heart of all we are.

The second missing piece is this.  God’s breath in us, this soul and spark of life at the centre of who we are, longs again to be connected to the God who created us and all the world.  Our lives have a spiritual dimension.  Something within us yearns to connect with the love and beauty and purpose which is the heartbeat of the universe, something bigger and greater than ourselves.  Until we do, we are incomplete. There is a wonderful Christian prayer which starts like this:

“O God, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you”.

In the words of Psalm 42:

“As the deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God,

My soul thirsts for the living God. When shall I behold the face of God?”

It’s hard to see where God fits into Riley’s world.  Where is the wonder of learning to pray and to worship, to give thanks for the beauty in the world, an awareness of truth, the sense of forgiving others and being forgiven?  All these things are missing.

I enjoyed and appreciated Inside Out.  It’s funny and hopeful and helps us see some of the wonder of what it means to be human.  But the picture isn’t finished.  There is more yet to be discovered than five emotions squabbling for control.  Within each of us is a soul, the breath of God’s life, a unique human person.  That soul is made to know God and to enjoy God for ever.  We need to listen to that yearning deep within and reach out to our creator.

Along with thousands of others around the world I was moved yesterday by the news of death of David Bowie.  My condolences and prayers go to his family and his close friends.

As many others have said, his songs are part of the soundtrack of my life and my generation, especially those from the 1970’s and 1980’s.  I was 15 when Ziggy Stardust was released: the Jean Genie, Rebel Rebel, Suffragette City, Life on Mars, Drive in Saturday and many others run around in my mind without invitation.

The many tributes in the media yesterday helped me to realize the breadth and power of Bowie’s contribution to the world.  He helped us grapple with the mysteries of life and love and joy.

I was drawn by Lazarus, the title of the song he released on Friday.  It’s not the first time that death has featured in his songs.  One of the things which makes Space Oddity a great song is what happens to Major Tom.  Ashes to Ashes takes its title from the funeral service.  Ziggy Stardust ends with death as a consequence of fame: “When the kids had killed the man I had to break up the band”.

But Lazarus is different.  Tony Visconti describes the Blackstar album as a parting gift.  The song’s theme is death and dying. I hear it first as a reminder to everyone of mortality.  Death is one of the last great taboos of the modern age.  Hundreds of years ago, people would keep a human skull in the hearth to remind them of the precious gift of life and the reality of death.  Lazarus is David Bowie’s momento mori: a reminder that we will all die.

The song and the film are about wrestling and struggling with death: a raging against the dying of the light.  Bowie seems to be reaching out for something beyond but not quite able to grasp it.  “Look up here I’m in heaven” he begins.  “I’m so high it makes my brain whirl”. In one scene we see him dancing, celebrating still the joy of life on the threshold of eternity.

Lazarus reminds me of the frustration with death in the Old Testament.  This life is so good and textured.  Surely there is something more.  The prophet Isaiah speaks of the shroud of death cast over all peoples.  Ecclesiastes talks about God putting a sense of eternity into human minds – we reach for something but can’t grasp it.

In the video, David Bowie seems to be reaching out for life on the very threshold of death.  Lazarus is the name of a man in the Gospel of John.  He dies in the prime of life. Then he is set free by Jesus when he has been in the tomb for three days.

In John’s gospel the raising of Lazarus is part of a bigger and greater story: the story of the gift of Jesus Christ to the world to bring life.  Jesus died but he was raised from death on the third day.  In Christ, God offers resurrection, a new beginning and new life to everyone.

I hope that this David Bowie’s final song, Lazarus will help many people think afresh about mortality: about the reality of death, the struggle and the joy.

I hope that those who hear it will ponder the story of the original Lazarus, the resurrection of Jesus and all that the life of Jesus Christ means for the life of the world.

Everything changes with the belief that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  I look at my own death in a different way and the death of those close to me.  The whole of my perspective on life is transformed.

Thank you, David, for the music and for this final song.  Rest in peace.

David Bowie’s Lazarus video can be viewed via this link.

Lonely planet. 149 million kilometres from small star, on edge of galaxy, rich and full of potential.  Afraid (sometimes).  GSOH (sometimes).  Looking for long term relationship.  WLTM saviour.

There are three great truths at the heart of the Christmas story.  The first is that humankind needs help.  On our own we mess things up very badly indeed.

At the end of 2015, that’s not hard to understand.  Look around you.  The news has been dominated this year by the migrant and refugee crisis in Syria.  Millions of people are on the move.  There have been acts of terrorism around the world and on our doorstep: all of them man made.  We have polluted the world we live in.  Humanity’s greed and selfishness is now affecting the climate and the weather in ways which will affect our children and grandchildren.  Yorkshire’s industrial base has declined further this year with the end of deep coal mining and the redundancies in steel.  We have terrible examples in our own communities of the way in which people hurt the innocent for their own gratification.  The gap between rich and poor in our own country grows ever wider.  Many families are fractured.  Many are lonely.  Many lives lack direction.  Who can say we do not need help?

It takes real courage to face these issues.  Christmas should be a time when we open our eyes and ears and see the suffering and the pain in the world.  Instead it’s become a time when we distract ourselves with food and drink and gifts and pretend everything is fine.  Consumption becomes a kind of anaesthetic to deaden the pain we see around us.   We cover up our problems for a while and hope they will go away.  But that will not happen.

The second great truth is that God really has come to help us.  The name Jesus has a special meaning.  It means “God saves”.  The angel says to Joseph, “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins”.

The world of Jesus day was expecting a different kind of saviour.  They were looking for a powerful king, a mighty general, a wise politician who would establish a new government.  This is the kind of saviour people still seek today.

Instead God came as a human child, born into an ordinary family.  God came in humility and love in a way that everyone could understand.  God did not come to the rich and powerful but to the poorest shepherds, to the refugees, to the children.  God did not come to establish a new government in a single place and a single time but to offer change and new life to every person in every place in every generation to come.

God became a person to demonstrate his love for the world.  God became a person to show us the immense worth and potential of every human life.  God became a person to show everyone on earth how to live well: to live with kindness and purpose and grace, to live for others.

Jesus was a real figure in history.  He is not made up.  He is not a myth.  Jesus was born in Bethlehem, an actual place.  We set our calendars, still, by his birth.  Christians believe Jesus lived a perfect life.  But the world cannot tolerate this much goodness and light.  He was crucified in his early thirties.  Christians believe his death has an immense meaning: through his death on the cross, humankind is set free from all that we do wrong, through his death we can be forgiven.  Christians believe that God raised Jesus from death on the third day.  In his new life there is new life for everyone.

This brings us to the third great truth of Christmas.  This story we tell has the potential to affect every human life, every family, every village, town and city and every nation on earth.  This is history which changes us and history which can change the world.

Earlier this year my first grandchild was born.  His name is Josiah.  When I held him for the first time, something inside me changed.  My heart softened.  My perspective on time changed.  I became determined to be there for him if I could and to be the best grandfather I could be.

That’s a small example compared to what happens when a person becomes a Christian.  Christians believe that the living Christ enters into their heart and life.  Change begins to happen from the inside out.  There is new purpose and a new beginning.  Christians don’t become perfect overnight (or ever, this side of heaven).  But there is real change and the change inside begins to make a difference outside.  We start to join in God’s great change agenda for the world: to work for peace, for justice, to break down isolation, to care for God’s world.

At the end of one year and the beginning of another, remember these three great truths:  humankind needs help.  God really has come to help us.  The story of Jesus has the potential to change every human life and to change this world.

A very happy Christmas to you and to your family

+ Steven Sheffield

This is a key week for the future of the earth.  The Climate Change talks in Paris are seeking a global agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions and prevent global warming above 2 degrees.  Many experts believe our target should be more ambitious still: to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees only.

The weather, rather than the climate, was making the news last weekend with the dreadful floods in North West England and South West Scotland.  Extreme weather events are just one symptom of global climate change.

Most years in this season I try and write a new hymn or song as the verse for my Christmas card.  Writing the verse helps me to begin thinking about the great themes of the Christmas season.  This year I have tried to focus on the gift of creation and the earth, our fragile common home.

The first chapter of John’s gospel is always read in Church at Christmas.  John 1 speaks of the creation of the world through God’s Word (or reason) and of God’s Word taking flesh to live among us in Jesus Christ.  John 1 echoes the beautiful words of Genesis 1 where God creates the heavens and the earth, separating sky from land and sea (“In the beginning….”).

The new carol in turn echoes both of these Bible passages.  I’ve also used a couple of phrases taken from the recent letter of Pope Francis on climate change, Laudato Si, which is subtitled: “On care for our common home”.  The letter speaks powerfully about discipleship and care for the created world.

Finally, I’ve set the hymn to the well known tune: “The King of Love my shepherd is” – music many people link with God’s love and care for all the world.

You’re very welcome to use the words as a prayer, as a song you sing by yourself or one you use in Church.   As you pray, remember those caught up in the dreadful floods this past weekend and those working hard in Paris to prevent the warming of our world.

Creator of our common home
And maker of such wonder
You crafted fire and sky and stone
Dividing seas asunder
In love you set the earth in space
In joy ordained its pathway
Filled earth and sea and sky with grace
That we might praise you always
We turned away your gift of life
Polluted all you gave us
The land was spoiled, we favoured strife
Lives turned away from goodness
In Bethlehem you gave your Son
Creator in creation
To win us back and call us home
Revealing your salvation
The Word of God took human form
Eternity in person
Reason and love came to transform
God’s gift for our conversion
Creator of our common home
Redeemer of such mercy
Sustainer of all life on earth
To you always be glory.