Living Outside the Camp

In the Old Testament, Leviticus 13, we read how the Israelites, along with all other ancient groups, struggled with the terrifying disease of leprosy. They of course had no cure for the disease and were well aware of how contagious it could be. Consequently the only action their community could take was to demand that the poor sufferer leave the community and go away, far enough away to be no further threat to the group. And the passage ends with the awful words: “they must live outside the camp.” And that was a life and death sentence of poor food, shelter and safety, and gnawing loneliness to go along with the dreadful progression of their disease. There was no alternative.

In the gospels of the New Testament, as long as Jesus walked among men he could miraculously cure lepers, and thereby readmit them to the camp. That brief time was truly amazing and life affirming for the unfortunate sufferers. But Jesus left this world and leprosy continued to plague the lives of ancient peoples.

What have these Bible readings got to say to us today? And indeed, thanks to medical science, we can now cure leprosy or at the very least halt the progression of it.

The scriptures readings do, and always do, have a profound meaning for us today in our real world of technology, busyness and strife. The key to this is realising that leprosy is a metaphor for us – a metaphor for our personal leprosy, which we can call ‘sin’.

Nowadays, people are still ostracised, and forced to “live outside the camp” if they fall foul of society’s accepted mores. The person of ill repute or the person who has publicly brought shame on themselves, will swiftly be abjured and in a number of subtle ways, be isolated. This could be by being sacked by an organisation or government, banned from social media, or even put in prison, and – in some countries – put to death.

The good news of Jesus still holds true. The key message of the scriptures concerning leprosy is that – for God – no one is doomed to being “outside the camp.” In fact, it is often the ‘public sinner’, the one who has fallen or failed, the ‘lost sheep’, the ‘repentant sinner’, who is all the more welcomed into the camp of God, both in terms of eternal life in heaven and inspired human acceptance in this life.

Ring it from the housetops! The God we believe in is all merciful, and delights in readmitting the fallen, back into the company of fellow sinners, and back in His company for all time to come. Alleluia!



There is much talk nowadays about assisted dying and people with terminal illnesses taking control of their own death process, with some people choosing to end their lives at their own time and place and volition. For many folk, the thought of dying in protracted pain, with perhaps extensive medical interventions in the form of tablets, drips and needles, is intolerable. Allied to this is the frightening loss of function: the ability to walk and talk, the ability to dress and undress oneself – in other words, the restrictions on one’s personal freedom and quality of life. The argument goes that it is not length of life that really matters but the quality of that life.

I do get these points and I have to say that I speak from a reasonably healthy life stance, and can only honestly wonder what my attitude would be if I became terminally ill. But one aspect of this whole debate that really rankles with me is the repeated use of the word ‘dignity’. We hear of the importance of ‘dying with dignity’, and dignity is almost a watchword or slogan for those who promote assisted dying and euthanasia.

I want to ask: what is dignity? Is this a case of using a word without any real attempt to understand its true meaning?

Let me use a case in point, a case that is sadly all too well known to those of us who live today. During World War II the obscene series of events known as the Holocaust saw millions of innocent people killed for no other reason than their religious heritage and ethnicity. We are told that thousands upon thousands of mainly Jewish people were stripped naked and herded into the gas chambers where they died in extreme terror and despair.

It might be said that their terrible end was the epitome of indignity: crowded, naked, terrified and dying in suffocating agony. Terrible as that surely was, I would contend that – when it comes to dignity – the poor victims had an inner dignity which nothing could take from them. They had no option, no help, no hope of rescue, and in that awful situation they were anything but undignified. The absence of dignity lay with the men and women who forced them into the gas chambers.

What I really mean here is that dignity is an inner quality, which, when one possesses it, cannot be taken away unless the person surrenders it themselves. Corrie ten Boom in her memoir of the Nazi persecution of the Dutch Jews relates how her elderly father kept his dignity in spite of the repeated humiliations done to him, even to the point of death.

To come back to the current issues with terminal illness – and even old age infirmity which for some people is also a case for choosing one’s death process – let me put it in stark terms. If a person needs someone else to take them to the toilet, to help them use the toilet and then to clean and dress them again – is that really taking their dignity away? Really?

While no one would choose to be in such a situation, if and when it becomes a reality, I would suggest that whatever else happens, the individual hasn’t lost any dignity. The likelihood is that they didn’t choose to be in that situation and there is little they can do to change it. They have done nothing wrong and should have no fundamental reason to be embarrassed. It of course greatly helps if the person assisting is respectful and kind, but if not then that is a deficiency in the carer.

A quick check of the dictionary definition of dignity: “the quality or state of being worthy of esteem or respect”. And again: “inherent nobility and worth”. For a Christian, each person’s worth is inherent because we are children of God. No infirmity or disability can ever take that away from us. Cruel folk may try to demean us but, hurtful though that would be, it does not destroy our inner worth – even if we ourselves feel worthless.

We all have dignity as the daughters and sons of God, and we all need to respect that dignity in everyone no matter their life situation. If we don’t, the problem is with us, not them.

Whatever about the pros and cons of choosing the time and method of one’s death, let’s not pretend that being cared for in the final stages of life, or even throughout a disabled life, it follows that the individual lacks dignity. Or is “dying with dignity” actually a slogan used to try and hide a deeper human truth?

What do you think?


For the Winds and Sea Obey

The story is told in the Gospels (Luke 8: 22 – 25) of how Jesus and his disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee when a storm blew up and, with Jesus asleep, the disciples, some of whom were experienced sailors, were terrified of drowning, and of how they woke him up and he “rebuked the winds and sea”, and the storm immediately subsided – leaving the disciples, who had already witnessed incredible miracles, to ask themselves just who this man really was that even the elements obeyed his command.

This story has always moved me deeply. Thinking about why this is, my thoughts go back to the village church in Ireland where my father was born and brought up. Although from a farming family himself, my father’s village is a fishing village, situated on the wild west coast of County Clare, facing the vast Atlantic ocean. Quite appropriately, the front of the altar cloth in the very centre of the village church proclaims: “For the winds and sea obey”, being a straight quote from the Gospel story.

I can only begin to imagine how important and sustaining this message was to the fishermen of the village who worshipped there – as they daily risked their lives as they set out on the unpredictable water in their small currachs (the traditional boats of that area). Perhaps something in my deep memory and soul resonates from my background although I was born and brought up far away from that beautiful but rugged place?

Incidentally, but I think relevant to this blog, is the amazing story of how the small church came to be built in this isolated and historically poor part of Ireland. In 1907 a French ship, the Leon XIII, was sailing past the bay when a storm caused it to hit dangerous reefs and start sinking and the lives of the crew were in extreme peril. The village fishermen, seeing their plight, bravely set out in their flimsy currachs even as the storm continued to rage – at great risk to themselves – and somehow managed to save most of the crew. Incredibly, after clinging on to the wreckage, the rest of the crew were all saved by another ship the following day.

Afterwards, a national fund raising was started to finance the building of a church as the villagers, poor folk of strong faith, had long wished for a church. And so, a church was built for them, and the ship’s bell of the Leon XIII (later found at auction in London) stands in the sanctuary of Our Lady, Star of the Sea church to this day. And the church’s tall round tower (a traditional structure in Celtic Ireland) is visible for many miles, both inland and out in the ocean – giving perhaps a very concrete and tangible reminder of a spiritual reality.

As a non swimmer myself and someone with a very healthy respect for the sea, I can only wonder at the selfless courage of those men back in 1907 and at such a fitting legacy that they left for us.

You might say, well God certainly didn’t quieten the storm for them, but I think that’s to miss the point: a God who can command the mighty elements is also a God who can deliver on a promise of eternal life and whose Son has demonstrated that not even death can separate us from His love. The Gospel story is ultimately a clear call for us to trust and keep faith in God. It would surely have meant so much to those men.

This Gospel story moves me to tears. Maybe this is due to my own heritage? Maybe we can all allow different Gospel stories to resonate with our deepest feelings and influences, and thereby be brought closer to the God who – in the last analysis – is in control of all our destinies?

As the old song says: “Hear us as we cry to Thee, for those in peril on the sea.”

Go well, with love,


Men’s Rites of Passage

I’m just back from five days in the beautiful Perthshire countryside where I experienced the Men’s Rites of Passage (MRoP – cf. This is part of the wider men’s renewal movement (Illuman) founded by Richard Rohr in America.

Imagine a group of thirty male ‘initiates’ of different ages and a group of male ‘elders’, all sharing a profound journey into what it means to be a real man. It is actually impossible to describe what is a deep experiential process – there are no words to fully describe it, and indeed we were told not to talk afterwards in any detail about what we went through, not because it was some sort of secret or subversive society, but precisely because of the intense personal self disclosure and the necessity of respecting confidentiality, and also because it must keep its impact for any future men wanting to undergo it.

In a very brief summary, what we went through was a truly profound shared journey into our deepest selves, trying to articulate our personal brokenness while supporting each other, and through a number of amazing ways coming more into touch with our core selves and our gifts and power as men. This involved two key processes: ritual and ‘council’. Both of these deserve separate blogs themselves, but suffice it to say that these have been formulated by distilling the best of different cultures’ initiation rites of boys and young men. Richard Rohr himself has spent years researching the transformative power of these rites, both from current traditional cultures and also from the most ancient cultures.

All these societal initiation forms recognise that young males need to be taken away from their communities and from female consolation, taken frequently into nature (wilderness) where they are shorn of their normal biases and vanities, and then, being isolated and surrounded by silence, allowed to realise their relative smallness and vulnerability, and then to be mentored by wise elders into what true manhood requires of them. The boy typically emerges as a man, and is then encouraged to take his positive place in the community, where he can especially use his power for the good of all.

In our current western societies, there are virtually no vital experiences for boys to discover their manhood, and we often see the results in delinquent and abusive behaviours and adult dysfunctional men, especially in their roles as husbands and fathers. Consequently, many children grow up with ‘father wounds’ where their own fathers are often abusive or absent. The men’s movement founded by Richard Rohr is trying to address these deep-set wounds and society’s failing of its young males.

I can only express how challenging but how incredibly life affirming these past five days have been, and I have no hesitation in recommending to men of all ages to consider partaking in the MRoP wherever they can find them locally (or even further afield, though there are many groups opening up across America and the wider world). The MRoP, as formulated by Rohr and other mature men, are not directly religious or denominational in any way, so men of all religions or none, all traditions and spiritualities, are welcome.

It’s worth noting by the way, in case all this sounds very sexist, that women by and large don’t need these challenging, painful and difficult rites, precisely because they are usually much more in touch with their own female powers through the immediacy and body awareness of menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and child rearing. Cultures of all types and antiquities have held different and usually less invasive rites for young women, recognising women’s intuitive and more immediate contact with the vital aspects of body and nature awareness. In brief, it’s men’s critical tendency to stay immature and failure to conform to communal responsibilities that make such male initiation rites imperative.

I hope to say more about the incredible power of ritual and ‘council’ in later blogs, but suffice it to say just now that I both embraced my giftedness as a man and also recognised that a process has begun in me that may take months and years to properly explore and incorporate into my daily life.

To fellow initiated men I say ‘go well brothers’.

To men struggling or seeking, I sincerely invite you to consider MRoP.

Learn more at:

Illuman – Men transforming men

To our sisters everywhere, I say thank you for putting up with us men, and please continue to challenge us to discover and accept our god-given roles as your partners and lovers.


He Went Away on a Journey

In Mark’s Gospel Jesus says:

“…he… (the owner of the vineyard) went away on a journey.” (Mark 12: 1)

This short statement is part of a parable that Jesus tells his listeners. The parable is particularly aimed at the religious leaders and authorities who are resisting Jesus’ teachings – to the point where they are conspiring to have him killed.

The parable is known as “The Parable of the Tenants” and is about a landowner – God – who rents his vineyard – creation – to tenants – us. But the core theme of the parable concerns those tenants who are hard-hearted and unloving. In the parable, these tenants enjoy the fruits of the vineyard but have no intention of paying any rent to the owner, and even after the landowner sends his men, and ultimately his own son (Jesus), the tenants resort to violence and even murder in a vain attempt to keep the produce for themselves. These cruel and selfish folk really believe that they can take ownership of what is not theirs to own.

Jesus ends the parable by asking his listeners what will the landowner finally do to these ungrateful tenants. The answer is obvious to all, even to the religious authorities who clearly get Jesus’ point and the fact that the story is really about them, and they are then all the more resolved to do away with him. In reacting this way, they of course are actually validating Jesus’ parable!

I began by mentioning the short statement: “he went away on a journey”, and although the parable has a profound and pointed message to all who would choose hate over love, I want to focus in this short blog on those few words because I think they are pregnant with meaning for what is a thorny issue for all seekers of the truth – the seeming absence of God.

The parable (as indeed all Jesus’ parables) is about the reality of human life. And by stating that the landowner – God – “went away”, Jesus is emphatically confirming that, to all intents and purposes, God appears to be absent from our lives and our world. God has “built the vineyard”, which is to say, has created our world, but no sooner has He done this than He departs the scene! And although Jesus goes on to suggest that the departure is only temporary and God will return at some time in the future, it is a departure nonetheless. God isn’t in the vicinity. He’s not around to interfere or react one way or the other. This absence of the vineyard owner seems to give the tenants the impression that they are in charge and accountable to no one. Isn’t this the truth of so many in our world today? They have effectively decided that God is non-existent and that they have the sole right to do what they want with the world and its fruits. This of course is crass stupidity borne of pride.

Jesus also suggests that before God comes back, He will however send emissaries: His servants, those who believe in Him and speak His word. These prophets are all the holy women and men who through the ages heed God’s commands and preach His truth even to the cost of their own lives. We may also say that God’s emissaries are everything that speaks of Him: the universal desires deep in our hearts, the glory of nature, and the undeniable dynamic of love. God is absent but nonetheless His Spirit touches us through all the aspects of our life.

And then of course, God sends His own Son… There seems to be a naivety on the part of God, for He appears to think that these nasty tenants will respect His Son. Jesus is however once more foretelling of His suffering and death at the hands of evil men.

We might ask why did God go away? Why did He not stay nearby and oversee His tenants? Surely that would have forestalled any trouble and kept them in line? The only answer I can give is… love. God is love. He cannot be false to Himself. He cannot force His love on us. He cannot oversee and manipulate our freedom. He had to go away.

The truth is of course that God is… here. “We cannot not be in the presence of God.” (Richard Rohr) But His almighty power is constrained because otherwise our freedom would be constrained. His seeming absence is the very proof and ground of His love for us.

Hard truths maybe, but this truth can set us free,