Wednesday, September 03, 2014

New Season

It is a new season of life in our household. On Monday, Jo returned to full-time employment after thirteen years. She is now senior secretary to the Bishop of Durham (4 days/week). Today the schools went back. Elijah has added Breakfast- and After-School Club to the school day, en route to Jo’s commute to/from Bishop Auckland. Noah has joined Susannah at high school. (And just to make a big day that little bit crazier I had a meeting in Lancaster, on the other side of the country.)

Tuesday, September 02, 2014


I’ve been digging dandelions out of the narrow strip between our front wall and the pavement. At some point in the past, someone has laid down a membrane and covered it with stone chipping in an attempt to suppress weeds. Given the ability of these plants to push through concrete, it seems a wasted effort to me. As a malfunctioning Dalek – that race of soulless destroyers of worlds – realises in the latest episode of Dr Who [Series 8:2 Into the Dalek], ‘Resistance [To Life] Is Futile.’

Weeds, of course, are simply plants that are growing somewhere where we don’t want them to grow.

Jesus told a parable of a man who had a field planted for a crop, only for someone else to maliciously sow weeds. The man’s servants ask whether he wants them to weed-out these plants, but are instructed not to, due to the likelihood of accidentally uprooting the intended plants along with them. Jesus’ point is that there are some judgements that we aren’t equipped, or called, to make. (Those who think that the harvest and the weeds represent righteous and unrighteous people should note that both are destined for the furnace, the latter to be consumed by fire and the former to be consumed as bread.)

Weeds, of course, are simply plants that are growing somewhere where we don’t want them to grow. They can be beautiful and brilliant, and remarkably resourceful. They might even possess the cure to some malaise, healing properties known to mediaeval monks but since forgotten.

When it comes to shaping communities, whether congregations or neighbourhoods, decisions need to be taken and resources focused on agreed objectives. Increasing investment in one area will mean reducing investment in another. Certain things will be nurtured and others neglected. That is not only inevitable but in fact right and proper: to keep with the gardening analogy, gardeners shape the garden in order to create something beautiful and productive and appropriate to their setting, and no two gardens will be the same. But though we are called to shape environments for life to flourish, more life will grow than we intend, because resistance to life is futile.

In any community, there is more going on than is planned, organised, given structure by some official decree. There are flowers flourishing that we did not plant. They might even grow more vigorously than those we are trying to develop or train. And we might want to uproot them. But we might want to think twice before we do, and let them be.

To see people – whether individuals or groups – as weeds is to pass a judgement on them that is not ours to make. To declare that they are not wanted in this place. That they are of less worth than others. That we are better than them. Which, over time, will result in the atrophy of our soul.

At the very least, when shaping environments for life to flourish, we ought to let the life that grows there without our active encouragement grow. We might even come to value people enough to see them in a new light, to drop the derogatory label, to make room, even to be changed ourselves by the gift they bring.

But I’m not yet happy about having dandelions in my front yard.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Adventures In Time And Space

‘If we are to plan sustainable communities, then, we have to have a good nose for what depletes human capital. And I want to suggest that one major threat to human capital is the sense of living without landmarks in time or space…Human beings from their earliest days work out their identity by learning to cope with a specific set of triggers and stimuli, the geography of a room, the rhythms of feeding and sleeping, a face that becomes familiar. As their awareness expands, they still work out and define who they are in relation to patterns of activity in time and to a differentiated space; their mental world is in pat a set of routes between familiar points. We inhabit a map. It is most dramatically expressed in the Australian aboriginal idea of the ‘song lines’ that give structure to the world: the aborigine knows the landscape as a series of songs to be sung as you move from this point to that. Geography is a set of instructions for responding with this or that song to the visual triggers you encounter.

‘Now of course any landscape, any physical environment, has such triggers. But it seems fairly clear that a physical environment that is repetitive, undifferentiated, can fail to give adequate material for a person to develop. A varied environment with marked features, that perhaps have narratives and memories attached to them, offers multiple stimuli to respond to. There is a local geography that is more than just an abstract plan of the ground: it invests places with shared significance. A landscape which proclaims its sameness with countless others, in its layout, building materials, retail outlets and so on, is a seedbed for problems. If it’s true that I can’t answer the question ‘Who am I?’ without at some level being able to answer the question ‘Where am I?’, the character of built space becomes hugely important. There will always be small scale domestic answers to ‘Where am I?’ because we all imprint distinctiveness on our homes and are ‘imprinted’ by them; but when this is restricted to the domestic, we should not be surprised if there is little sense of investment in the local environment outside the home.’

‘And last, planning should, then, look seriously at how the reality of faith becomes part of the landscape – how religious buildings figure among the landmarks of a community. But this is not only a question of attending to the pragmatic needs of religious groups. Like it or not, there are unsought experiences that communities share, trauma and celebration which call out for the kind of space that carries no political or sectional agenda, that is not for anything but the expression of certain serious and complex emotions…And whether we are thinking about personal trauma or collective…it is emphatically true that a very large number of people, far larger than the statistics of regular worshippers, urgently need a place for certain things to be voiced. What is offered by a space dedicated to worship is essential – somewhere where events may occur that belong to a whole locality, where solidarities of a mysterious but very important kind can be reinforced.’

Rowan Williams, essay on ‘Sustainable communities’ in Faith in the Public Square.

Last weekend saw the second ‘Sanctuary’ event – a three-day festival showcasing local bands, ale, and street food, organised by local business-men and -women and held at Sunderland Minster - and I am struck afresh by the thoughts offered by Rowan Williams above. I’m struck by the response, over and over again, of people coming into this space for the first time, and finding somewhere to which they are drawn back. I’m struck by the requests to host conversations between different groups – the recognition that this is a safe space in which difficult but greatly-needed communication can take place. I’m struck by the gift that we have been given, by those who have gone before us and by God, for the people of Sunderland; and by the great honour it is to be here.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


There has been a lot of blood shed this summer. It is hard to know how to respond to the information – unconfirmed, confirmed, falsified, justified, ignored, flaunted, demanding action or reaction – that has bombarded us.

The nature of our information age is to over-saturate our attention with the now, promoting the idea that this moment is of all-consuming importance.

I live in England, one of three countries – at this point in history; in past times there have been several more, smaller, kingdoms – on Great Britain, the largest of the British Isles, a group of islands off the coast of mainland Europe. This island has been invaded many times: by Britons, by the varied peoples of the Roman Empire, by Angles, by Saxons, by Vikings, by Normans. People-groups have swept across the land, bringing different ideas, different values, different gods, different languages. At times, different communities have co-existed in unstable peace; at times, one has put another to the sword, destroying everything in their path; and at times, they have inter-mixed.

There has been a lot of bloodshed on this island. The second-half of the fifteenth-century saw the Wars of the Roses, dynastic wars for the throne of England. The mid-seventeenth-century saw the Civil Wars. As Scotland considers independence after some 300 years of union, we are reminded of bloody battles, some won by Scottish armies and those of their allies, some by English armies and those of their allies.

Then there are the wars this country has taken part in beyond our shores, whether building an Empire or opposing empire-building on the part of others. Our history is soaked in blood. Had we lived in any of those moments, our own personal experience would have been much closer to that of men, women and children in Iraq or Gaza or many other parts of the world this summer.

And this history has made us who we are as a nation. This history has shaped us, for good and for ill. There have been a great many atrocities, and a greater still number of tragedies. And there has also been a great deal of good in the unfolding of our history, our culture, our discoveries, our inventions…

I would suggest that the great deal of good that has come out of our folly and mis-directed passion is evidence of a God who loves human beings; who gives us great freedom but also sets limits on our triumphs (so we do not utterly destroy others) and on our tragedies (so we are not utterly destroyed by others); and who is at work in all things to bring good out of even the most evil of situations. Good that is testified-to in former enemies becoming friends.

This does not mean that it does not matter that, all over the world, one tribe is putting another to the sword – literally and metaphorically. It does not mean that we should not speak out, or act.

It does mean that we should be very careful in our choice of words, and actions. There is no people on earth who occupies the moral high-ground; nor any low-point that cannot be transformed by love. The longer we hold on to our commitment to violence towards one another, the longer it will take to see enemies become friends. And yet this, and not our present troubles, is the ultimate reality, because in and through Christ, God is reconciling all things.

Monday, August 18, 2014


In honour of Elijah’s eighth birthday today, some photos of him from our recent holiday, in the last days of being seven.

Disclaimer: no owls were eaten…

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

On Holiday

From tomorrow, I will be on holiday. I’m looking forward to getting away with my family.

Knowing various people who are on holiday at the moment, or just returned from holiday, or going on holiday within the next month, has given opportunity to reflect on what holidays are for.

There is a school of thought that suggests that, given the amount of extra work that needs to take place before going on holiday, and the amount of extra work that needs to be dealt with on returning, not to mention the decompression time it takes to actually enter-into being off work, and the time spent preparing to re-enter ‘everyday life,’ there is no benefit to taking holiday at all.

Given the demands of work many of us live with, and the effort of juggling time-off-work across a team, many other people simply default into not taking all of the annual leave they are entitled to.

The purpose of holiday is not to recover from work. That necessary space needs to be built-into our daily and weekly routines (and yes, I know that is easier said than done).

Neither is the purpose of holiday to build-up some reservoir of energy to take back into the workplace. We are not batteries. Rest, and its benefits, cannot be stored for a later time (another reason why we need to build-in rest as part of our daily and weekly experience of life).

The purpose of holiday is the recognition that there is more to life than work – even if we are blessed to find work a fulfilling experience – and the ongoing practicalities of life that are part of our regular routine.

God has given us a world to be enjoyed, as well as – and, indeed, even before – cared for. A big world to be discovered, as well as a small patch to tend.

Holidays are for exploring: landscapes and cityscapes and spaces of the imagination; beaches and mountains and bookshops and art galleries…and building a treasure-house of shared memories.

Holidays are holy days, days to recognise that all of life is gift, not reward; and to be reminded that the world will not end if God rests, let alone if I do…

I am about to go on holiday. It will be very good.

Thursday, July 31, 2014


Today at the mid-week lunchtime Holy Communion, we read these verses from Jeremiah:

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord:

‘Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’ So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as the potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

Jeremiah 18:1-6

I love these verses. I love the idea that we might hear God speak to us as we observe people going about their daily work. Recently I have been visiting members of the Sunderland Minster family in the places where they go about their work (in the broadest sense, including paid employment, voluntary, and recreational activity), and my sense is that God still speaks in such ways.

But to return to Jeremiah: there is a flaw in the clay, and as the potter shapes it, the vessel crumples in his hands. But the clay is far too precious to discard, to throw away. Instead, the potter starts over, trying a different shape, making another vessel. And not a second-best vessel, either: a quality piece of craftsmanship, a thing of beauty and usefulness.

And God says, what the potter has done with this clay, I can do with my people. My flawed people. I don’t discard people – whom I have made from the clay of the earth, and breathed life into. They are far too precious to me. As I shape them, flaws might cause the vessel to collapse; but when that happens, I pause, and consider, and try again. Even if you can’t see the potential, can I not do this, says the Lord (rhetorical question)?

We human beings are quick to judge one another as flawed-beyond-beauty-or-purpose, quick to consider one another as disposable, to be discarded. Quick to judge ourselves as such, too, at times.

God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, nor his ways our ways. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.