Wednesday, May 04, 2016

To an unknown god

Holy Communion today includes a reading from Acts 17:15, 17:22–18:1.

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’

There are three altars* at Sunderland Minster: the Bede Chapel altar, the Chancel high altar, and the Nave altar; appropriate for small, medium-sized, and large gatherings respectively.

I would suggest that there are also several altars in our own heart, where we encounter and respond to God. Whereas the ancient Greeks attributed different spheres of life to the concerns of different gods, Christians worship one God; but we encounter this one God in as many different aspects of our lives. So we might speak in terms of the altar where we encounter and respond to this one God as our Healer; the altar where we encounter and respond to this one God as our Provider; the altar where we encounter and respond to this one God as our Comforter; the altar where we encounter and respond to this one God as the creator of the world…as Lord over history…as Lord over our lives…This is not to suggest that God is compartmentalised, but rather to recognise that our understanding of God develops as what we worship as unknown is made known to us.

And this brings us to the place in our heart of an altar with the inscription “To an unknown god.” We might need to look carefully to find it, especially if we are confident that we know God better than others do. And yet we would do well to keep such an altar. To acknowledge that God is always more than our knowledge of God, and always will be. Even when we stand before God face-to-face, we will not be able to contain him. We know God, because God has revealed himself to us, and principally in the person of Jesus; but he invites us to step out into the unknown, to walk by faith not sight. To present our sacrifice at the altar to an unknown God, not so as not to offend through ignorance, but in order to participate in mystery.

*I know that some people take exception to the use of the term ‘altar,’ as it can suggest that Jesus’ death was somehow insufficient and needs replenishing. Indeed, refuting such a view (Articles of Religion XXXI), the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and Common Worship only ever use the term ‘the Lord’s Table,’ or ‘table’ for short. Nonetheless, the order for Holy Communion in the Book of Common Prayer includes the prayer: ‘O Lord and heavenly Father, we thy humble servants entirely desire thy fatherly goodness mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving…And here we offer and present unto thee, O lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee…And although we be unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service…’ Therefore, what is primarily the Lord’s table to which we, unworthy though we are, are invited, is simultaneously our altar where we offer our sacrifice, not to appease God’s wrath but in response to God’s love.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Go away

Morning Prayer: Luke 5:1-11

‘Simon Peter...fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” ... When they had brought their boats ashore, they left everything and followed him.’

Peter’s self-awareness as a sinful man is – in this context, at least – not to do with what he has done but what he has failed to do. Fishing all night without a catch, he has failed those who were dependent on him. This is only emphasised by Jesus’ grace, in the miraculous catch of fish.

But it does not end there. Jesus does, indeed, go away from him. Not abandoning him, but enabling him to follow. To move from the place of failure, through the forgiveness that disempowers fear, to a fresh start within restored relationship. (‘Leaving everything’ ought not to be understood as the abandonment of relational responsibility – Jesus strongly opposed such false piety – but as participating in this dynamic.)

Where do you and I need Jesus to go away from us today, that we might follow?

Lord, join me in the place of my failure,
of my frustration, of my disappointment.
Lord, join me in the place where
the Accuser whispers seeds of discouragement
and shouts out taunts against my vocation to
Join me in that place;
and then Go away from me, Lord,
that I might follow you...

A prayer, after the prayer of Simon Peter.

Monday, April 25, 2016


Acts 12:25-13:13 reading from Morning Prayer today, the Feast of St Mark.

I am struck that Paul informs the magus Elymas that ‘the hand of the Lord is against you’ – mirroring Pauls own conversion experience on the road to Damascus. The hand of the Lord being against you is not lifted in anger, but as constraint, giving direction, preventing the one veering off the path from going over the edge by nudging them back towards the centre.

The language of God being against our enemies is common-place, expressing our lust for judgement, not our love for mercy. But where might we need – where might we hope for – God’s hand to be against us?

Sunday, April 24, 2016

To be or not to be

Yesterday the Royal Shakespeare Company marked the day on which William Shakespeare was born, and died – 52 years later, and 400 years ago – with live performances from the Bard’s home-town, Stratford-upon-Avon. One of the highlights was this sketch, in which several actors argue over how to deliver arguably Shakespeare’s most famous words. Do yourself a favour and watch them.

The sketch revolves around the fact that Shakespeare was an incredibly generous playwright, whose work allows, invites, even depends on, genuine partnership with the players. ‘To be, or not to be. That is the question.’ can be delivered in a great many ways, the weight changing depending on which word or words are stressed, each offering providing its own invitation and challenge to the audience.

The writers of the works collected in the Bible were just as generous. That is why the Bible must be read aloud, not silently. Why it must be read aloud, in public, by as wide a selection of voices as possible; and why it ought to be read aloud even when reading it alone, turning the words over and over in search for the rendition that is best-fitting to the ‘player’ – the one who proclaims – and the production – or, context in which they are performing (by which I mean to refer to the work of the people and not a falsehood) for which they are rehearsing.

Notable among these performers of biblical works is God himself. Christianity does not teach Scripture as written by God (though in practice a great many Christians believe to the contrary, that it was). Rather, God is both inspiration – as Shakespeare was inspiration for the performances last night – and a player who breathes life into the work, making it come alive.

You don’t have to be a famous actor to deliver these lines. But it does help to be part of a company of players. And to rehearse together.

Saturday, April 23, 2016


God has given us bodies, with which to touch time (including our own aging) and space (which has its own physicality).

So many of the stories Jesus told have to do with bodies. A woman kneading dough, her arms muscular from the repeated action, an action that would have caused those arms to ache quicker when she first began kneading dough than they did now. A merchant travelling widely in search of pearls, feet sore, back sore, weary from his journey and yet driven onwards. A farmer hefting a bag of seed over his shoulder, throwing his arm out wide, again and again. Hired workers labouring under the midday sun in a vineyard, sweat running down the groove between their shoulder-blades, tickling where they can’t quite reach to scratch…

The point of the stories is not to extract some abstract dis-embodied truth from the messiness of life, but, rather, to demonstrate that God is to be found in the very ways in which the body touches time and space.

Again, there are so many accounts of Jesus’ body touching the bodies of other people – a woman with a fever, a dead boy, a leper. Touches that made him ritually unclean – understood by some to contaminate and therefore temporarily exclude from community; but perhaps better understood as gift, time out to reflect on the deep holiness of such connection, to return with refreshed appreciation of our bodies, and those of our neighbours.

This also is why we are given actions: water poured on the head (every time I step under the waterfall of my shower-head, I am reminded of my baptism, an event I cannot remember but am nonetheless shaped by); bread broken and shared; wine drank in company with others. Do this in remembrance of me. Do, not think, not believe – not divorced from our body, at any rate. We participate our way into relationship. We are shaped bodily to God, and neighbour. We can know our creator, and our fellow creatures, no other way.

Last June, I started running the weekly Parkrun – 5 kilometres, run in community at 9.00am on Saturday mornings – as often as I can make it. The run, followed by breakfast in a cafĂ©, is an activity I have especially done with my son, Noah. Today I ran my 21st Parkrun (I make it, on average, fortnightly rather than weekly). My time has come down from 00.32.47 to 00.23.41.

At the moment, my right thigh aches. Not when I run, but between runs. I can feel my body, in a very particular way. In a way that brings to mind Jacob, wrestling with God all night long, an encounter that left him with a permanent limp. That reminds me that the God who gave me a body took on a body of his own, and gives my body an unfolding story of its own, through which I might know and be known.

My thigh aches. And I am deeply grateful for it.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

mid-week eucharist

mid-week eucharist (thanks-giving)

or, taking time in the midst of the ordinary and every-day to be thankful for all God has done for us…

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Bruised reeds

‘The A Word’ (BBC) continues to prove compelling viewing, hard viewing, as brutal as the Cumbrian fells against which the drama is set. You really do have to watch very attentively to find anything likeable about Morven Christie’s character, Alison. But all the characters are bruised and hurting.

Mid-way through the Gospel According to Matthew, the narrator draws on the words of the prophet Isaiah to describe Jesus’ manner of relating to those he encounters:

“He will not break a bruised reed…” (Matthew 12:20)

A bruised reed is a crushed and fragile thing. But it is also precious; bruised reeds were used as writing implements. And so this is a play on words:

those who are bruised and hurting are those whose stories need to be told.

There are so many bruised and hurting people, in need of a compassionate narrator. Some of whom are unreasonable, ungrateful, deeply unlikeable, or downright hostile.


‘In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the it is written in the book of the prophet Isaiah, “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low...”’ (Luke 3:1-5)

Jesus’ relative John demonstrates the true human calling to be king and priest over and for creation within the world by enabling the wilderness to rise up in praise and bow down in worship of its God.

This is what happens when we take grain and grape and transform them into bread and wine; or iron and transform it into a gate; or wool and transform it into a garment; or wilderness and transform it into a garden; or...

How will you fashion the world and offer it back to God as its own act of worship today?

For me, one way will be to take ingredients and prepare them into a meal.