Love is the meaning ...

A blog by Rev'd John Allen


22 May 2022 – Easter 6


Peter was the Curate of the parish church in Solihull.  We had moved there because my father had taken up a new job and we lived in a flat over the shop.  I was soon to leave school to start as a trainee reporter in a Birmingham news agency.  Peter made contact by calling at our home to welcome us.  I was fifteen going on sixteen.  I had been a choirboy in Surrey but going to church seemed a bore and the words washed over me as I daydreamed my way through the Sunday services.

But there was something about this priest in his smart black cassock.  My mother gave him tea and I noticed him taking a cherry off the top of the little cake she had given him and popping it into his mouth.  Although he appeared so austere and distinctive, I warmed to him.  He asked, “Have you been confirmed?”  I stumbled for an answer, “What do you mean?”  He explained.  “Classes start next Friday”.

The classes were held after school in a side chapel of the church.  I arrived early, uncertain, unsure and doubtful that I wanted to do this.  But as I wandered around the church, in a funny way, I felt I had come home.  Much of what Peter taught seemed curiously familiar, yet never before had I paid much attention.  My memory is hazy, but somehow the penny dropped and my subsequent confirmation and first communion connected with my childish daydreams about meaning and purpose.  I had blundered into the path which was to be my true way through life.

So when Peter said he needed a server at the 7am Friday service, I did not bridle or hesitate.  I had to get up at six and cycle through the darkness, rain and cold of winter mornings.  Soon, when I started my first job, I had to race to catch the bus which would just get me to work on time.  In my small teenage life, it was a challenge but it was something I knew I had to do.

Like all the millions of teenagers who had gone before and will follow after me, I emerged out of the fog of childhood and had taken hold of the particular life that had been entrusted to me.  This is the opening of the bud and the cracking of the shell which is essential for any life to press on to its rightful fulfilment.

For me, this was God calling and me struggling to answer.  Many others discern this experience in a different way.  It is the universal experience of finding a goal in life to aim at. The choice is between achievement and aimlessness.

© John Allen 2022

15 May 2022 – Easter 5


There seems to be something in human nature that induces in us a deep need to belong, to be accepted, to be popular and successful.  We have a fear of failure and dropping out of the mainstream.  We are troubled when we see people sleeping and begging on our streets and become aware of so many on the fringes of society who have to struggle to survive.  We feel guilty at our own relative good fortune and we are bothered by the widening gap between those who are too rich and the anger and frustration of those who are too poor.

And yet at the same time we may feel reluctant to become too committed to a cause and an overriding purpose.  We enjoy the freedom of our independence.  Surely most of us, by default, live contradictory lives?  We need to belong, but there can be nothing to belong to unless this is created by the deep commitment of others?

As a parish priest I know the heartbreak of believing that a life of faith in God and in the way of Jesus offers the one true answer to the sorrows of our world and my realisation of people’s reluctance to make the necessary commitment.  A newcomer to my church seemed full of promise until he said to me, “I like to come to church from time to time but I don’t want to get too involved”.  Most people get the impression that although the church makes great claims for the transformation possible through a life of faith, in fact many church people are rather disappointing.  Rather than take the plunge into the deep water of faith, they are more likely to be those who simply paddle in the shallows.  At the present moment, where would you place yourself on a score of one to ten?

Thank God that all through history, and in our own time, there are still those who take the plunge of faith.  Some are saints and martyrs and most just ordinary people, like us.  It seems God makes Himself known, He whispers in their ears and warms their hearts.  And they leap.  And, because of their commitment, we discover they have provided for us a spiritual home and a launch pad into the future.  Without their commitment, spiritually speaking, we would be homeless and hopeless.

But how does it happen?  I myself was very much a ‘toe in the water’ kind of Christian till one day a man called Peter rang the doorbell of my parent’s flat.  He was the curate of the parish church.  I was 15.  He was the one who gave me the shove.

© John Allen 2022

8 May 2022 – Easter 4


When you are inspired enough or foolish enough to take the plunge of faith, it is impossible to change your mind half way down.  You either drown or come up to the surface to a joyous new beginning.  In a world in which you are encouraged to “hedge your bets”, you have made a risky decision.

These days it seems expedient to take out adequate insurance cover.  People are fearful of commitment.  So many people find the marriage vow a step too far and prefer simply to “move in” and see how it works out.  People hesitate about joining anything on a long-term basis. Life is provisional and so it is unsurprising that church membership is declining.  In the past, men and women have answered God’s call to the monastic life.  They have devoted their lives to prayer as monks and nuns. It was an austere and disciplined life in which they gave up the simple luxuries the rest of us take for granted.  Many of us, living worldly lives, have felt upheld by their prayers and, when some of us have gone to stay as their guests, we have found peace, rest, reassurance and encouragement.  Now these communities are literally dying out.  Monks and nuns grow old and die and few younger people feel able to take this sort of plunge.  But many of us feel saddened and diminished that we are left to soldier on without this background of prayer to give us a sense of security in a rapidly changing and demanding world.

In fact, human life is impossible without the interdependence which we share with one another.  We rely on constant supplies of food and on reliable health care and we depend on a mutually acceptable way of behaviour towards one another. When I need assistance, there are those around me who stop and help.  We each have a basic commitment to one another and in a time of crisis we are not a mob but a community of fellow human beings.

Life cannot be provisional; if we are to survive, it must be committed.

Without our planet’s gravitational pull, we would lose our grip and become lost souls in space.  These reflections which I share with you are about my own personal discovery that by making the plunge of commitment to a particular way of living I have, and continue to be, overjoyed as I come out of the water more thoroughly committed and discovering that at last I am set free.  My eyes are no longer fixed on myself but on God and the people and the world around me.

This basic human experience is enacted in a traditional ceremony known as Baptism.

© John Allen 2022

1 May 2022 – Easter 3


I suspect that many of you, if you have continued to follow me as I try to describe and explain what I believe has happened to me, may, at this stage, be feeling uneasy.  Am I deluding myself?  Or, if there is a ring of truth in what I am sharing, does it not confirm what so many fear: that faith and spirituality is personal luxury, even an indulgence, for the few.  Perhaps some have a propensity for this sort of thing, but the majority simply have to get on as best they can and rely on their own resources.  People of faith are drawn into a church or other religious community which often resembles a ‘club’ and those not in the club are made to feel like outsiders.  Passages in the Bible could seem to imply people are either a few chosen sheep or a majority of unbelieving or sceptical or indifferent goats.

My core belief is that God makes it possible and desirable that every human being ever created shall become aware of God’s personal call.  I do not believe God is happy with an exclusive elite or writes off the rest of humanity as a lost cause.  I believe that God’s call is an invitation to a personal and loving relationship with Him – a communion of the divine nature and human nature, which is the bridge between the material dimension and the spiritual dimension.  Individuals who answer this call are drawn both to God and to other fellow believers and so there is a growth in church and faith communities.  But in this there lies a considerable danger.  These communities are human organizations and so have human flaws.  Sometimes they fall into the mistake of making the ‘church’ an end in itself and, in the worst case scenario, the ‘church’ can seem to get in the way between God and people.

The risk that God takes is that the people He calls sometimes tragically lose the plot and replace the centrality of God with the centrality of the human ego.  My working life as a parish priest of the Church of England has too often been blighted by my sense of impatience and sometimes disillusionment with the workings of this church.  But I suspect this is true of nearly everyone in whatever organization they work with.  We all have to live with the tension between God’s perfection and human imperfection.

Jesus seems to ask of us the impossible, “Be perfect as God is perfect”.  We either muddle on as best we can or we give up, and the world – all the goats – blunder on in unbelief or we take the plunge of faith.

© John Allen 2022

24 April 2022 – Low Sunday


To lead a happy and fulfilled life, I think I need to feel comfortable in my own skin.  But so many of us suffer from the criticism and complaint of others and we are monitored, scrutinised and appraised.  We feel that we have to comply with the demands made on us.  Life is competitive.  We fear failure.  We wish for the approval of others.  All this prevents us feeling relaxed and, instead of simply being our true selves, we force ourselves to comply.

It is hardly surprising that so many people are unhappy, discouraged and sometimes downright depressed.  What a relief it is to go home and to be loved and accepted just for what we are.  This can be a person’s experience of friendship with God, if he or she can only lower their defences.  But most of us seem to have a built-in sense of a guilty conscience.  We feel full of regrets.  We feel unworthy of the overflowing unconditional generosity of God’s love and so it is that so many people back away from God.

We cannot deceive God.  God knows more about us than we do.  God loves you and all you can do is to accept His love and not argue.  Of course, we feel unworthy and that is why the subject of this reflection might make you feel uneasy.  But, over and over again in the Bible and in subsequent Christian experience, it is repeated.  We are created with the inborn capacity to become like God as He is known to us in Jesus Christ.  We are called to share in God’s Godliness.  Christ lives on in each person who, instead of backing off, opens the door that leads into his or her essential human being.  We may not know what life will bring, but of one thing we can be sure – one day we shall be like Him and know Him face to face.  This miracle is not of our making.  All we have to do is to say “Yes” and let God ignite his fire of love in the core of our reality.

When this ceases to be a religious play on words and gradually, sometimes ever so gradually, begins to dawn into a new reality in the heart of our inmost being, we know that we have ceased to be formal and distant from God.  Then a fire is ignited and radiates from us to become an inspiration and blessing for all with whom we engage.

We read of Moses who went up into a mountain to be with God and when he came down his face shone.  True friends of God radiate God’s love and people begin to understand that all this talk about God is not only theory, but a living and glorious reality and, through this fire of God’s love, we become light and blessing to all around us.

© John Allen 2022

17 April 2022 – Easter Sunday


It is a sad fact that we live in a world of lonely people.  There are frail and elderly people confined to their houses with no family and few friends.  There are young people, possibly because of abuse or neglect, who feel alienated and those whose self esteem is low; some worry about how they look.  Those with anorexia become obsessed with a fear of food.  So many have poor mental health and know how hard it is to find anyone who has time for them.  Everybody seems to be so busy.  Some feel driven into themselves, becoming reclusive and antisocial.  Many cannot find or keep a job, a relationship or a home and too many end up vulnerable and sleeping on our streets.

An essential part of being human is our need to engage with and relate to other people.  Not one of us is complete.  The simple fact is that every human being is born to be loved and to love.  For a time, I was a prison chaplain and shall never forget how taken aback I was when, in conversation with a young prisoner, he told me, “I can’t think of anyone who has ever loved me”.

But to trust yourself to love you allow yourself to be vulnerable.  You cannot engage with the one who knocks on your door until you open the door.  God is the one standing outside and waiting for you to ask Him into your life.  Incredibly, does this mean that God allows Himself to become vulnerable?  Tradition has taught us that God is inviolate, all powerful and changeless.  He is our rock.  But a rock is a hard place and God has a loving heart.  To love is to change.  Does God change?  We believe God is both constant and changeless and also responsive and merciful.  His love is dynamic.

Through Jesus, God enters our frail and needy humanity and empties Himself to be one with us in our fearsome loneliness.  I knew a lonely old lady, without a family.  She lived in a bungalow at the end of a cul de sac.  She told me that she listened eagerly to the sound of approaching footsteps.  Was somebody coming to see her?  She told me of the pain of her disappointment when the sound ceased at her next-door neighbour’s home.

We may not hear His footsteps, but God comes to each of us in our loneliness and makes His home with us.  The essential thing is that we simply open the door and welcome Him.

© John Allen 2022

10 April 2022 – Palm Sunday


A blight on our happiness is our fear of bullies.  We have to learn how to respond and to deal with them.  They attempt to overpower us and to take control of our lives so we are no longer free to be ourselves.  Of course, there are bound to be people who are weaker than others and there has to be a directing power to guide and shape our lives.  Without it there would be anarchy.  We need leaders who will protect us and enable us all to live fulfilled lives.  A good leader is strong and benevolent, whereas a bully is weak and selfish.

How do we picture God?  Is God a bully?  Does He intimidate the human race with threats of punishment and hell?  One of my interests is in reading history but this can be an unhappy occupation.  History is one long story of domination by bullies and of those who set out to be good leaders but are corrupted by power and become wicked dictators.  And to my mind it is a dire mistake that so many believers have sought to use the idea of God as a means of wielding power over others.  One of the most telling sentences in the Bible is this: “Jesus wept”.

Some Christian prayer seems to imply we are to creep to God like a cringing dog crying for mercy.  Jesus said to the paralysed man who had been healed, “Get up and walk”.  God does not rebuke us but celebrates our newfound faith.  God does not need us to placate Him but simply longs for us to love Him.  He is not over and against us.  Through Jesus Christ, He is one of us.  We are not to be condemned but saved.

When I pray, it seems more natural to stand or sit up straight, rather than to kneel down and cover my face.  Of course, regret for my past failures brings me to my knees and I sit comfortably and relaxed as I reflect on God’s love, but the torrent of God’s liberating and self-effacing power brings me to my feet to stand up and stretch my arms out to embrace the future as now I travel on with God within me.

But reading the Bible and recalling so much traditional teaching seems to convey an uneasy tension between the power of God and the “weakness” of God.  Perhaps, in the 21st century, God is opening up our awareness to broader horizons.  Perhaps we are not so deferential to God but more open and honest, even, dare I say, more familiar, like uninhibited children gatecrashing a party?  Because, according to the Bible, we are called to be “like God”.

© John Allen 2022