The tree of healing

I said last week that I needed time to reflect before I said anything about the first anniversary of the London Bridge attack. In fact I had to say a great deal without the luxury of much reflective time.  But that is the reality of life – you are asked and you have to answer. But as we approached the Sunday, which was the first anniversary – the media wanted to get answers to their questions.  In the welcome that I gave at the beginning of the service of commemoration I said this

Let me be honest, I’ve been fearful approaching this day.  Memories have risen to the surface, tears have once again flowed, scars have been reopening.  The media have been asking me what I hope for this service – my answer has been simple – I hope it helps our healing.  Whatever your hopes are, whatever your pain is, whatever has kept you awake at night, whatever anger or sorrow or guilt you’re feeling, God is here for us, God is here for you.

Love is stronger than hate.  Light is stronger than darkness. Life is stronger than death.  It was true a year ago, it’s as true today.

Olive tree

The Tree of Healing

I was fearful approaching the day, I was being entirely honest. The whole lead up to that weekend served to open up memories and wounds and, I suppose, I hadn’t, until that moment, thought that I was a ‘victim’ of the event as so many others had been. But my needs to think and reflect were nothing in comparison to the family members who came along that afternoon. Those who had been so brutally murdered, slaughtered, that evening were at the forefront of our thinking.  Whether it was in the candle lighting or the completion of the planting of the Tree of Healing, they were the ones we were focusing on.

We had decided last year that a tree needed to be planted and as we cleared the mountain of flowers that had accumulated by the needle at the south end of London Bridge a commitment was made that that would happen.  But most wonderfully the London Borough of Southwark committed to taking those flowers away, composting them and bringing back the compost so that the tree could be planted in it.

One of the moving songs in Disney’s ‘The Lion King’ is the circle of life. The lyrics say it all

It’s the circle of life
And it moves us all
Through despair and hope
Through faith and love
Till we find our place
On the path unwinding
In the circle
The circle of life.

Those flowers left as signs of love became the food for new life to grow, like that would bring healing, all part of that circle, the divine circle.

The olive tree, of course, carries huge symbolic power; its oil provides, heat and light to very many people, it helps in the cooking of food and is used to anoint particularly in the tradition of the church.  Priests have always taken olive oil and anointed the sick, as a symbol of our prayer for healing.  Babies and adults are anointed with it as they come to baptism. Monarchs are anointed with it before ever a crown is placed upon them.  But even more significantly for Jews, Christians and Muslims when the dove returned to Noah in the ark it carried a branch of the olive, a sign of peace and of God’s blessing.  This will be our tree of remembrance but also our ‘Tree of Healing’.  Around its pot will be inscribed a verse from scripture that was read at the end of the service as with the families we gathered at the tree.

‘The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.’ (Revelation 22.2)

But as moving as all that was, as emotional as it was as we all gathered on London Bridge at the end of the service it was the Grand Iftar held in the Cathedral later that evening which spoke so powerfully to me.

For the two weeks before the commemoration a group of twenty of us had been meeting to rehearse a ‘play for voices’. The script ‘Testimony’, had been put together by local writer, Michelle Lovric, from the memories that we had been sharing with her over the last year.  She had turned our reflections back into an account of that evening and afterwards.  It took thirty minutes for us to ‘perform’ and we had practised it, in her apartment and in the Cathedral, on many occasions over those weeks.  But standing there and speaking my own words and hearing my friends speak their words to a nave full of people was emotional and powerful and staggering.

Part of that was about being reminded of what happened, part of it was hearing about what had happened to others, part of it was about realising how strong our local community has been, and part of it was about recognising how much I had depended over these months on God and on my sisters and brothers.  The Iftar began with the Borough Market Choir singing ‘Lean on me’

‘Lean on me, when you’re not strong, and I’ll be your friends, I’ll help you carry on, for it won’t be long, till I’m going to need somebody to lean on.’

Bill Wither’s words are powerful. It was part of the healing for me. But I’ve got a lot more thinking and praying and talking to do.

Lord Jesus,
you do not forget us
and hold us in the palm of your wounded hand;
as we continue to remember the events of a year ago,
the dead and the injured,
the traumatised and the sorrowful,
heal our memories,
bind up our wounds,
calm our fears
and remember us in your kingdom.
Amen.

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Broken Beauty

This is the sermon I preached this morning in Southwark Cathedral.  The readings were Deuteronomy 5.12-15; 2 Corinthians 4.5-12; Mark 2.23-3.6

One of the joys of Sunday – for me – apart from being here with you of course – is watching ‘Antiques Roadshow’.  What could be more quintessentially British – a bunch of well dressed, well spoken people in the grounds of a stately home talking in the sunshine about a piece of pottery – and envious, intrigued and delighted faces looking on?

But then, horror of horrors.  The pot that was grandma’s, given to her after the war by an old spinster neighbour who looked after them as children – there’s always a good backstory – the pot has been repaired, it isn’t perfect after all.  The owner looks closely as the expert points it out.  Eagle eyed they’ve spotted where the damage has been concealed.  It would’ve been worth millions but now ….

alisonclark

Broken Beauty by Alison Clark

Alison Clark is with us as our Artist-in-Residence, part of our commemoration of the events one year ago when terrorists attacked our neighbourhood, the events we’re marking all day, but especially this afternoon as the families of those who died in that attack, people who were injured and representatives of so many groups of people caught up in the terrors of that night gather here to remember the past and look forward to the future.  And in the evening, with the local Muslim community, we will be hosting a grand Iftar and local people will be sharing their memories.

Alison is calling her work, ‘Broken Beauty’ and as part of it she’s employing a Japanese technique called Kintsugi.  Instead of concealing damage to a piece of porcelain the Japanese repair it using gold, the scar is not hidden but glorified, the damage not avoided but confronted.

St Paul in our Second Reading likens us to clay jars.  In the world of the Corinthians into which Paul was speaking, these jars were as commonplace as plastic bottles are to us.  They were used for everything, transporting, storing, but they were fragile and the rubbish heaps that archaeologists dig through testify to that.

Paul suggests that we’re as fragile as these clay jars and that that fragility is not a mistake on God’s part.  This is who we are.  We were made from the clay of the earth and God breathed life into us, but ‘remember you are dust and dust you shall return’ says the priest to us on Ash Wednesday.

We are very easily damaged, very easily scarred.

Jesus is in the synagogue.  It’s the Sabbath and there were rules about the Sabbath, handed down from God to Moses, the rules we heard in our First Reading.  And then a man approaches Jesus.  He has a withered hand.  It meant he couldn’t work and people look on him as cursed.  It was the day when no work could be done but it was a day of blessing and Jesus gets to work and tells the man as the others look on

‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.

The hand was repaired but the hard hearts of those ready to condemn Jesus for making good what was bad, for showing compassion, those hearts couldn’t be changed, until they were broken.

‘We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.’

Paul’s powerful words spoken into the fragility of our lives speak to our community today.  Those with such hard hearts that they sought to destroy what was beautiful here have not succeeded.  Yes, eight lives were lost and eight families and eight groups of friends will be grieving today in a way I cannot imagine.  Yes, numerous people were injured, physically and mentally and they bear the scars.  Yes, this church was damaged and this area was scarred.  But what is fundamental about this part of London, what was fundamental about this community was not destroyed but was strengthened – that deep sense of inclusion, that deep joy in diversity, that absolute passion for life.

Broken beauty sums it up.  We carry in our fragile, earthenware body the death of Jesus, as he bears on his hands, on his feet, in his side the marks of the violence we inflicted on him.  And God has glorified it, the Lord of the Sabbath, brings us blessing, so that the life of Jesus is always visible in us.

And to remind us of the truth, of broken beauty, bread will be taken and it will be broken. It’s the only way we can share it.  We hold in our hands the brokenness of God who touches our scars with his own wounded hands and makes them shine with a glory like his own.

Lord Jesus,
you do not forget us
and hold us in the palm of your wounded hand;
as we remember the events of a year ago,
the dead and the injured,
the traumatised and the sorrowful,
heal our memories,
bind up our wounds
calm our fears
and remember us in your kingdom.
Amen.

Farewell 2017

Like you, perhaps, I’ve been thinking over this last year.  It hasn’t been an easy one and I’m not weeping as we approach the beginning of 2018.  So just a quick review of each month as far as it has been for me.

January – the bells came back to Southwark Cathedral.  That was a fantastic event and a great service when the Bishop baptised two of them and rededicated the rest.  I think it was seeing those twelve bells, dressed and lined up down the nave which is the lasting impression.  Or could it have been meeting the Revd Kate Bottley who then came with the ‘Songs of Praise’ crew to film them being raised to their place in the tower?

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With lovely Kate

February – I went off for a tour of Zimbabwe with Bishop Christopher, the Archdeacon of Southwark and the Bishop’s Press Officer.  I’d been to Southwark Cathedral’s own link Diocese of Masvingo but never to the whole of the country.  Amazing.  But who would have thought that this same year we would see the fall of President Mugabe and the Archbishop of York replacing his dog-collar?  The highlight though, I have to say, in the midst of all that amazing hospitality and wonderful worship, was visiting St Augustine’s Penhalonga, where the Community of the Resurrection had been based, and walking into a church I knew so well from photographs and now seeing it in all is splendour.

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The basilica of the bush

March – the Consecration of Karowei Dorgu as Bishop of Woolwich was a wonderful occasion.  The lack of diversity amongst the bishops was being addressed as far as gender was concerned but not with regard to ethnicity. Bishop Karowei was, and is, a clear sign of hope.  But then that same month the attack on Westminster Bridge and the killing of people there and then of PC Keith Palmer, doing his job, defending our democracy, was a shock to the system.  Hope all of a sudden seemed to be under attack.

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If the hat fits …

April – a month that should have been focused on Holy Week and Easter began with us hosting the funeral of PC Keith Palmer in Southwark Cathedral.  Cressida Dick became the Commissioner that same day so that she was in post to represent the whole of the Metropolitan Police Service at the funeral.  It fell to me to preach.  It is hard to describe what that feels like, knowing the streets and bridges were full of people, listening.  All I could do was remember that this was a funeral and that Keith’s widow and daughter would be there, listening.

May – one of the joys of life over the last eight years has been to serve the Society of Catholic Priests as their Rector General.  So it fell to me to visit SCP in Ireland and to encourage those few priests there who would identify as coming from the ‘catholic’ tradition.  It was a great visit.  What a wonderful country and people!  Later in the year, however, my time as Rector General came to an end.  But what a privilege it has been to visit and speak to members of our Society – women and men, black and white, gay and straight, single and partnered, with differing abilities – serving the church faithfully in the places to which God has called them.

June – the month began as any other and then the evening of 3rd June would see an event which would affect the whole of the remainder of the year.  The terrorist attack that evening on London Bridge and the Borough Market left 8 people dead and 48 people injured.  It also left a community scarred and changed.  Being unable to get into the Cathedral for almost a week meant that we had to learn how to be ‘the Cathedral’ differently; the local community came together with a new strength; we learnt about each other as people.  It has changed me – for the better I hope – and given me a new appreciation of my Muslim brothers and sisters.  Speaking at Friday Prayers at our local mosque in the week after the attack was a privilege I never thought would be mine and then hosting the long planned Grand Iftar in the Cathedral ten days after the attack has created new relationships and a greater understanding.  But at such cost!

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Three of the great Street Pastors who cared for us after the attack

July – General Synod is always a feature of my year but in 2017 the Synod in York became very significant.  Had the tide turned? Was there a different feel? The debates on welcoming transgender people and the banning of conversion therapy with regard to homosexual (in evangelical speak ‘same-sex attracted people) in church were powerful, brave and decisive. The irony was that at the same time a group of 50 people including 15 priests from Southwark Cathedral and the Diocese were marching in the London Pride parade, with pride.  It was a delicious and painful irony, a vignette of where we are as a church.

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Marching with Pride

August – I turned 60 at the end of July.  That was a fantastic occasion – great to see so many friends and family as we celebrated.  And then it was off to Spain for my usual ten days in the sun, catching up on reading and simply relaxing.  The highlight? I suppose visiting the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona now that it is almost complete.  Bonkers it is, but impressive bonkers.

September – it’s always one of those getting back to work months and this September was like that.  The terrorist attack in June meant that I was unable to lead the Cathedral Pilgrimage in the steps of Martin Luther, to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  But in September we held a reunion for all the pilgrims – so I got to see the photos and hear the stories!

October – as part of my first sabbatical in 2006 I visited Tamil Nadu in India – I’d always wanted to go back to that country and see another area.  A group of us had planned for a long time to do this and so in October eight of us, plus our organiser and guide, headed off for 15 days in Rajasthan.  It was everything we had hoped for – lovely people, wonderful sights, new experiences, delicious food, warmth and sunshine and something memorable.  For me it was the Taj Mahal, the scaffolding removed and there, resplendent, perfect, a monument to love and unsurpassed by the skill of humanity.

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Stunning

November – we use the nave of the Cathedral in many ways and occasionally for grand dinners.  One such dinner happened in November.  The chairs were cleared and round tables installed, the flowers were arranged and the lighting perfected, the candles lit and people gathered.  The event was the retirement of one of the Partners at EY (Ernst and Young) who have offices not far from the Cathedral.  Why mention this?  Well, the person retiring lives with a bad stammer but had not let this prevent him living his life and progressing in his profession and had set up a stammering network in the firm which is the largest such network in the UK. He spoke and sang at the dinner and with such confidence – it was very moving, and humbling.  And why at Southwark? Because at a memorial service for a colleague that we hosted he was asked to read and doing so was the beginning of a journey which has brought him to where he is, and praying in that holy place is one thing that has sustained him throughout.  Tremendous.

December – it is my favourite month and I make no secret of that.  We welcomed thousands of people to the Cathedral for carol services and concerts, as we do every year.  But this year people wanted to remember the events I have mentioned, but also Finsbury Park Mosque, the Manchester Arena, Grenfell Tower and the atrocities and the disasters that have happened in so many communities around the world during the year and that have given this year its particular feel and flavour.  All of it was brought to that vulnerable baby in the crib, all our own vulnerability that we have learnt so much of together, in the hard times and the good times of 2017 and that knowledge that God has been with us and God is with us.

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Ending the year in the Borough Market

 

So where do we go from here? There is only one direction and that is forwards.  It has been hard but it has not been all bad.  But all I can do is remember the words of perhaps the most famous poem for the turn of the year, the one that caught the public attention and the popular imagination when King George VI quoted it in his 1939 Christmas broadcast to the British Empire. It was written a number of years earlier by Minnie Louise Haskins.

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.
And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

And that is my prayer and that is my intention – to put my hand in God’s hand as we walk into 2018.

Hand of God, hold us.
Hope of God, sustain us.
Vision of God, direct us.
Love of God, enfold us.
Peace of God, fill us.
Amen.

Suffering, endurance, hope

Thank God for Oscar Wilde who bequeathed us so many epigrams in his plays and writings.  In that wonderful play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ he writes

‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple.’

What can be said of truth can be said of life, it is neither pure nor simple. If it were simply grim then we couldn’t bear it, but it isn’t. But these have been some grim weeks for those of us in London and these have been a grim few months for us as a nation as a whole. For some what is grim for others has been life-changing and life-destroying.  For the injured and the bereaved, Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge mean that life will never be the same again. For the residents of Grenfell Tower the horror that they have gone through is unimaginable, the real stuff of nightmares. The loss of life, the injuries, the stress, the implications for ongoing life when your home, your things, your papers and documents, the stuff that holds your memories are all taken from you in an instant must be beyond description.  I was with someone the other day who had been through a devastating fire herself.  The pictures from Kensington brought it all back.  ‘I can still smell the smoke’ she said and she always will.  The smell lingers in the memory as much as physical scars which are always reminders of horrendous experiences.

prince-harry-makes-surprise-visit-to-borough-market-after-terror-attack

Prince Harry with Paul in the Borough Market

 

This past week has been one of trying to begin to get back to some kind of normality, a new normality, in the community around Southwark Cathedral. The church was the first of the major places to reopen. The Borough Market opened on Wednesday and in between the bars and restaurants gradually opened.  Just before the Market bell was rung by one of the traders at 10.00am on Wednesday morning to announce the commencement of trading, the Bishop of Southwark with some of the Cathedral clergy and servers went out with holy water and incense to cleanse and re-hallow the area after the horror of what had happened.  The procession then arrived in the Market as it reopened.

I was talking to Paul, the trader who rang the bell, who was visited, amongst other by Prince Harry on Thursday.  He runs a fruit and veg stall in the market, a proper east-end market trader. And he told me that not only was he reopening and supporting the market in that, but he was organising his fellow traders to send food over to Kensington for the people now made homeless.  It’s acts like that which relieve the grim reality and reveal that deep-seated goodness that is a true part of human nature.

On Friday we hosted at Southwark Cathedral a ‘Service of Hope’ at which were survivors of the attack, families of the injured and those who lost loved ones gathered with first responders in an act of solidarity and hope.  The stories of bravery and the acts of goodness that I’ve hard in the past two weeks, the tremendous images of community acting together around the base of that burnt out tower are humbling.  Good people are everywhere.

I was reminded of a passage from the Letter of St Paul to the Romans.

‘Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.’ (Romans 5.3-5)

Hope

Suffering, endurance, hope, an experience of community – and every part of that needs to be recognised for what it is, along with the acts of goodness, generosity and love that are woven through it.  The grim reality remains in broken lives, destroyed homes, shattered dreams but into that is shot the transcendent love of God that is revealed in broken humanity and transformed in divine and everlasting life.

God, take our suffering,
build our endurance,
crown it with hope
and may all be suffused
with your love.
Amen.

‘I am with you always’

This is the text of the sermon I preached at Southwark Cathedral on Trinity Sunday 2017 the day on which we were able to reopen the Cathedral following the terrorist attack on our community a week before.

Saturday night last week was like a living nightmare. It’s the kind of experience that only happens to other people, not to you, not on your own doorstep. But it happened to us, it happened on our own doorstep, literally; it happened in our own community that we love and that we’ve served in Christ’s name for over 1400 years. Those years have seen their share of war and pestilence and fire but I doubt that ever before has the church been inaccessible to worshippers for a week, inaccessible as the place of peace and contemplation that people expect and need, inaccessible as the place of welcome and embracing, radical hospitality and love that we seek to be. But it happened.

Flowers

When I first heard that something was happening in the London Bridge area I put on my dog collar and headed down Bankside to try and open up the Cathedral so that we could be a place of refuge. But initially I didn’t get far.

So I went through the back alleys and got as far as Park Street and Neal’s Yard Dairy and the Market Porter. But heavily armed police barred my way and forced me back. ‘Run, run’ was all they shouted. I was directed on to Southwark Street and there saw people lying on the pavement being cared for by the emergency services. ‘Run, run’ was all I could hear through the sound of sirens and helicopters and I was forced on and on until I got back to the Deanery and shut the door behind me on the living nightmare.

Around midnight I received a text from Amir Eden, a young man who lives on Park Street, a lawyer who was a pupil at Cathedral School, a practising Muslim who’s the chair of the Bankside Residents Forum. ‘Could I come to yours? I can’t really go anywhere.’ was his text. I texted back ‘Of course’ and so he arrived and with 8 other people spent the night in our house.

The rest I suppose you know about. 8 brutally killed, 48 horribly injured. The Cathedral was forcibly entered by the police searching for more attackers, doors broken down, glass smashed in a desperate effort to stop more bloodshed. It happened on our doorstep, on the threshold of God’s house.

And now we’re here on this Trinity Sunday, back in this sacred place, which is still sacred. The risen body of Jesus bears the marks of the nails and the spear and Jesus shows his hands and his side to his disciples. The Sacristy door shows the marks of the baton rounds fired at it to break open the door and allow the police access. We bear on our body the marks of suffering that so many bear in their flesh and in their soul and spirit.

St Matthew places the final encounter of the disciples with the risen Jesus not on the Mount of Olives, just outside the city of Jerusalem, but back in Galilee, the place where they started, the place of call and from that place of call he sends them out to the nations, to take the Good News, to baptise and teach. But then, before he leaves them he makes a promise, a promise to them and a promise to us.

Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’. (Matthew 28.20)

In the horror of the moment it’s all too easy to imagine that you’re on your own, that you’re abandoned to the nightmare, lost in the terror, but Jesus says ‘No; remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’.

God was not absent on that Saturday night; God is never absent. The Psalmist knows it to be true when they say

Where can I go then from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there;
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. (Psalm 139.7-8)

We are not abandoned by the Sprit, we are not abandoned by the Father, we are not abandoned by the Son for we have this promise ‘I am with you always.’

On Friday I was invited to go to our local mosque by the Imam. I went with other clergy from here and we were welcomed with open arms. I’d been invited to speak to a packed congregation. The Imam preached about our shared humanity and our shared heritage through Adam and I was able to respond to that, taking your greetings to our brothers and sisters, telling them that we do not hold the Muslim community to blame, telling them that we recognise that we share so much, praying, peace upon you, greeting them as Paul greets the Christians in the multi-cultural, multi-faith, complex and exciting city of Corinth

‘Live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you’. ( 2 Corinthians 13.11)

That is what we have to do. What we share is what God has given, a shared heritage, a shared humanity, not just with the Muslim community but with all people, all men and women, regardless of anything that others might identify as difference. Difference does not mean division unless we chose to make it so, and we chose to make difference a blessing and an enrichment to our community which is why we celebrate who you are, who we are, male and female, young and old, black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight – and I will say that again and again and again from this pulpit until it is deep in all our hearts, to the very core of our being.

The great metaphysical poet and Dean of St Paul’s, John Donne, famously wrote a poem, so well known.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

‘Any man’s death diminishes me’ which is what the Quran teaches, that killing one life is killing all life. We have all been scarred by what happened last Saturday on our doorstep and we will bear those scars. But they will not make us bitter but make us stronger.

‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’ said Edmund Burke. We will not do nothing. We will rebuild with the community what good things we have, we will rebuild the joy and diversity, the confidence, the acceptance, the inclusive, radically beautiful nature of this community that has been built over centuries and millennia. The roots go deep and cannot be destroyed by evil men and we will not allow it but will confront that evil with love.

wounds of crucifixion

We bear on our body the marks of Jesus

The Feast of the Holy Trinity is the feast of relationship, that beautiful relationship of diversity in the very Godhead, the Perichoresis, the divine dance into which we’re drawn. And we’re drawn and invited to this altar, through the Spirit, by the Father, to share in what the Son gives to us. With scarred hands he gives his broken body to us, gives his shed blood to us, and he asks us to eat and drink so that through his death we may have life. He is always with us, always, at the altar, in the world, walking through the dangerous places and showing his scarred self to a scarred world and making it, ultimately, beautiful.

Loving God,
when terror came to our doorstep
and stalked our streets
you were there with us in the fear and agony.
Remain with us
and with all those caught up
in the horror of these events
the injured and distressed
those who died
and all who seek your peace
which passes understanding.
Amen.

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A Southwark Cathedral Pilgrimage 2017

sabbaticalthoughtsblog.wordpress.com/

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