Tuesday, September 25, 2007

From Generation To Generation

Today Jo and I attended my grandad’s funeral. Dad led the service of remembrance at the crematorium, on behalf of his younger brother and sister and himself. Dad, you did grandad proud.

It was a good day. Don’t get me wrong: tears were shed, and rightly so. But it was a good day. Grandad’s coffin was brought in to Copland’s Fanfare to the Common Man, because his children thought that Jack deserved a fanfare. And the rightness of that music made me smile an honouring smile that stayed with me throughout the service.

After the service, we went back to my aunt’s who – as so often before, on happier occasions – laid on the most wonderful table, a gift to Jack and those who loved him. Thank you for all you have done, seen and unseen.

But for me today wasn’t just about granddad, much as I shall miss him; for me, perhaps alone, it was about learning my own role. As my father is, I am a firstborn son. And it struck me that one day the baton will pass to me, and I will do for my father that one last act he did for his father today; I will do for my brother and sister and our children what dad did for my uncles and aunts and cousins, and us, today. At least – if this can be said in the right way, heard in the right way – that is my hope; though, please God, may that day be many years from now.

However strange it sounds to our culture, there are other cultures that understand this task to be part of the birthright of a firstborn son (a challenging thought in our rights-obsessed society). It struck me that it is the birthright of a firstborn son to stand up to death and take a blow on behalf of the whole family: not that the pain of death is not felt, but that its force is not unmitigated. And it struck me that taking up this birthright is the very thing that Jesus, God’s begotten Son, the firstborn over all creation, has done for all God’s family; and that is why we can say, where, death, is your sting; where is your victory?

It struck me that standing up and taking the blow must be the most alone moment imaginable – though, dad, I hope we were in some small way there for you today. God knows it was alone enough having the curtain of the future drawn back for just a moment for now today. And it struck me that Jesus has been there, before dad, before I will stand there; and he stands with us, because that is (now, because of what followed) a moment – however evil – and not the final word. It strikes me that, in the most alone moment, we are not left alone.

I need role-models if I am to learn my role in life. Dad was a good role-model to me today. Jesus, you are our role-model. Thank you, both of you.

If this post is too private, too personal, to be thrown out into cyberspace; if I have caused any offence to my family; then I apologise. But why should death, which comes to us all, be taboo? If these thoughts help you, you’re welcome to them. And if not, let them fall to the ground.

The peace of the Lord be always with you.


Friday, September 21, 2007

Tomato | Meditation On The Cross | 2

I sliced a tomato, and,
Revealed inside,
The cross.

You say, “The sign of the cross did not exist within the tomato prior to your cutting it; it is an arbitrary sign.”
But there was an inherent structure to the tomato, which meant that, when I sliced it in a particular cross-section, a cross was revealed. The sign of the cross was not yet actualised, true; but it already existed in potential.

In the world there is already testimony to the salvific work of God on the cross.
In the world there is already testimony to God’s kingdom advancing in our midst.
It is present before we speak of it.
It is present before we arrive in order to speak of it.
It is waiting to be revealed.

But it is not manifest until our proclamation, our demonstration, in all its inadequacy, plays its part.

I am a kitchen-knife, in God’s hand.
But God grows the tomatoes, picks the tomatoes.
God chooses which knife he will take up,
And which lay aside, on any given occasion.
The knife’s role is both small and essential.

We do not usher-in the kingdom – Jesus did that, 2000 years ago.
But if that kingdom may be revealed through me,
If what is present becomes visible through me,
Then I am satisfied.


Tomato | Meditation On The Cross | 1

I sliced a tomato, and,
Surrounded by spilt juice,
The cross.

The cross is messy,
Physically –
Smeared in blood, yes,
But in shit, and piss,
And vomit too,
For the crucified body empties itself
In whatever ways it can.

But the cross is messy
In other ways. The cross
Is messy
Philosophically –
For there is no greater proof
Of our need for God
Than deicide.

And yet, like pips
In the juice of a tomato,
In the very midst of the mess,
The hope
Of new life;
That’s where such hope is

The cross is messy
Theologically –
We have no words,
No doctrines,
That can adequately describe
What defies attempts to be
Described, delineated,

And yet, like
The tomato – a thing
Our intellect tells us is fruit,
Our instinct tells us is vegetable –
My failure to
Summise the cross
Denies neither its substance
Nor the fact
That I have tasted
Of it.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Family Story

Once, on my travels, I was introduced to a successful businessman. This man was well known not only in the business circles of his city, but across the city itself. He had served terms as president of both the Chamber of Commerce and the Country Club, and each year he hosted a fundraiser dinner at which the wealthiest families in town donated literally millions of dollars to the several charities of which he was a patron. Of these, the one closest to his heart was a fund he himself had established, to support kids from disadvantaged neighbourhoods through college. Without ever demanding respect from anyone, he commanded respect from all who met him.

This man told me that he had two sons, both of whom had followed him into the family business he had built up over the years. The extent of the older son’s ambition stretched no further than one day to step into his father’s position within the business, and the wider community. His father loved him, and believed that while his son lacked the drive that had led him to build a successful business from nothing, he had the steady character to oversee the existing business, and hand it on in turn.

His younger son was cut from a very different cloth – the same cloth as his father. He was full of ambition. He loved his father, and respected him as both father and a businessman; but he had enough about him to realise that, in this town, he would never be anything other than his father’s son. And that was not enough for him: he needed the opportunity to make something of himself, or fail trying.

And so the younger son had gone to his father, and asked for the 50% share in the family business that would come to him anyway in the future, to have it now when he could make the most of it. And the father agreed. Indeed, he went further: he gave both his sons the 50% share that was coming to them, although the older son had not made any such request. And then he went further still. Because he knew that his son was not interested in running the business but was looking to liquidate his assets; and so, in order to keep the business within the family, he bought back off his son the shares he had just given him.

For this decision, he was for a time derided by the business community that had held him in such respect. To pay the market value for what was already yours was madness. And it certainly impacted his personal fortune. But he was wise enough to know that, in the long term, it was more important to keep the business. And anyway, he understood grace.

His son had gone up the coast, ending up in a city with a reputation that anyone with a little money and a lot of imagination could make a lot of money – enough to slake their imagination’s thirst. And for a while, things went well. Very well. But he had arrived just as the start-up opportunities had reached capacity. Those who had made their money were already relocating their businesses even further up the coast, and the local bubble was about to burst.

A risk-taker at heart – like his father – he’d made a bad call, then another, and then one thing led to another, and rapidly. He tried calling in favours; but ‘friends’ who’d been all too happy to be seen with him when he was on the up, made their excuses now he was on the way down. He went from sleeping in penthouse suites – if he came home at all – to progressively smaller apartments in progressively seedier neighbourhoods; to sleeping on friends’ floors; and then the floors of strangers; and, finally, in doorsteps and back alleys.

It was at that point that he admitted to himself that things had not worked out as he had hoped. But he was still a risk-taker, and there was still one last roll of the dice. He’d return home, and ask his father to hire him, right back at the bottom of the business he’d once – briefly – co-owned.

And in a way, this risk didn’t pay off either; because his father wasn’t having any of this business proposition. Didn’t even let him lay it out on the table. Not interested, no sir. All he was interested in was that his son was back home. First up, he got him sorted with a bath and a shave and a change of clothes. And while that was going on, he was on the phone, giving orders, organising a party, booking the caterers – the best.

The stage was set for a family reunion of – like everything else about the man – legendary proportions. But his older son poured cold water on the plan. He was seriously upset, to put it mildly. He hadn’t spoken to his brother since their father had divided the business between them. Instead, he’d set out to show his father that he was worth so much more, dutifully putting in long hours at work, stepping up to the increased responsibility of being a major player on the board. And now his father was throwing a party for his waster of a kid brother.

Why, he’d asked? Why him? Why not me? Why have you never set aside anything from the wealth of the business to celebrate me? After all I’ve so diligently done for you. He’s always been your favourite. He spat in your face; he pissed away half of what you’d built up; and you let him walk back in as if nothing had happened.

I believe that at the time his father was too gracious to point out the obvious. I suspect he might have got there for himself, in the end. Since his brother left town, he’d been so focused on proving himself to his father, he’d failed to realise that he was not working for his father but for himself. That half the business was his. That he had all the resources he needed to celebrate whatever and whoever he chose. But he hadn’t registered it. He had failed to receive what his father had given him; and so had been unable to give to anyone else.

But he wasn’t going to take that comment about letting his son walk back in to the family as if none of what had gone before had happened. No, sir. Because the truth of the matter was precisely the opposite. It was precisely because of all that had happened that he wanted to celebrate. Because his son had been lost – as good as dead – and now he was home.

Were the sons reconciled to each other; to their father? I never found out – we had to leave before he finished his tale. Or perhaps he chose not to; I no longer recall. But I suspect that, if they were all reconciled, it was the grace he held out so resolutely that won it.

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Respect | Tolerance | Grace

This post follows on from recent posts on what I have called the graceless society.

The two most prominent words at play in the public debate on social ills in the UK are ‘respect’ and ‘tolerance’:
young people need to be shown respect by the generation who currently hold public office, and need, in turn, to show respect towards their elders;
while tolerance of beliefs – and actions arising from beliefs – other than our own is held out as the key to harmony in a culturally diverse context.
But both ideas are compromised by fatal flaws.

The problem with respect is that it can be given grudgingly. To give grudging respect does not in any way undermine the integrity of the respect given; but it does undermine the usefulness of respect as a virtue for building society. Grudging respect ultimately fosters resentment, not only towards the one respected but also for all that is identified with them, all they are seen to stand for.

In contrast, it is impossible to extend grace grudgingly.

The problem with tolerance is that it does not allow us to make value judgements, whether pragmatic (this option is better than that option) or ultimate (this option is morally wrong). Tolerance insists that every view has equal validity – with the unique exception of being intolerant of any suggestion otherwise. Identifying tolerance as a virtue – indeed, as the primary virtue – acts to deny intolerance of any positive value, such as it rightly ought to have in, for example, intolerance of social injustice. The resulting internal conflict for a society that wants to be tolerant of lifestyle choices but intolerant of the catastrophic impact of free trade (which supports particular lifestyle choices) on the developing world, for example, deconstructs the usefulness of tolerance as a virtue for building society.

Grace is not dependent on tolerance. Millions of Anglicans worldwide, and Christians of many other traditions, part with the words of ‘the grace’: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you…” The original context of these words – perhaps far less familiar – is the very end of the New Testament letter 2 Corinthians, and come at the close of several chapters where the writer, Paul, displays quite spectacular intolerance for certain attitudes prevalent within the community he is addressing, and for those who have propagated those attitudes. Grace allows us to challenge beliefs, even vigorously oppose individuals, without devaluing the individuals in question.

Ultimately deriving from God’s free self-giving to us, grace is an expression of the gift economy. It works on the basis of receiving what I have not earned – what I am not legally entitled to – and giving away to another that which they have not legally earned from me. Rather than attempting to impose my views on others, through intellectual or physical aggression, grace seeks to serve them for their good, regardless of how they will choose to respond. Willingness to serve someone who does not ‘look like’ me or my community – along with willingness to be served by someone who does not ‘look like’ me, not because I have enslaved them, but because they have freely offered – are the acid tests of whether or not I have understood grace. Such a choice, replicated out across individuals and communities, has a potential to transform society that respect and tolerance cannot imagine…

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Farewell, Grandad

My grandad, Jack Dowsett, died today. He was 90.

Grandad was a real gentleman, full of dignity, an understated class act. I’m not sure they make them like him anymore.

Just yesterday, as we waited for the end, I went in search of some record of his having lived and found this, a first-hand account of his experiences during WWII.

We grew up hundreds of miles away from my grandparents, and so my memories are relatively few. But they are happy ones.

Of being allowed to dip my finger in his beer, at family get-togethers when we were small…

Of practicing cricket in a park with grandad, my dad, and my younger brother…

Of being picked up from the railway station in his Jaguar…

Of ‘Dowsett Olympics’ – an annual event, in my grandparents garden when they lived in Whitstable and we were very young; featuring obstacle races between the cousins, the Dowsett boys and the Carter girls; and all recorded by grandad on cinecamera…

Of how, when he was older and his hearing was not what it had been, he would acknowledge things you had said that you knew he hadn’t fully heard, just because he understood how important it was for people to know they had been listened to…

And, much more recently, of him reading to Susannah, sat on his lap, and Noah, and holding Elijah in his arms…

Farewell, grandad. We love you.

God, have mercy on the soul of the departed,
for the sake of the living.
God, have mercy on those left behind,
who grieve this parting.
Lord, grant a clean release
To the dead, and those who survive them.
God, have mercy.


Friday, September 14, 2007

82 Not Out

The other day, Jo bought the kids a first cricket set – yellow plastic bat, purple stumps and bail, and two orange balls. It didn’t take long for one of the balls to end up on the garage roof, where it sat for a couple of days before it was blown off onto the wrong side of the hedge. Such is the way of children’s balls and neighbours gardens…

This morning I mentioned the ball to our neighbour, and he said he’d keep an eye out for it.

We’d had lunch, and I was stood at the sink when there was a knock on the door. Noah – who’s been on half-days at school this week, and goes to full days on Monday – ran to answer it. He opened the door to our 82-year-old neighbour, who held out a small orange ball, shifted it in his hand, and said with a twinkle in his eye, “I feel like an Australian fast bowler.”

I fancifully wish Australian fast bowlers had the physical prowess of an 82-year-old man. But I sincerely hope that when I am 82 I’ll have the presence of imagination of my neighbour…


Thursday, September 13, 2007


The honeysuckle grows right outside our french window, and is a magnet for garden birds. So far, they have proved too camera-shy for me; but I have at least captured a bee...

This is one of the first photos I took after we moved in, and, for the bee, I really like it.

To Affinity And Beyond, 3

Unlike law, grace cannot be taught. It can only be received and passed on.

The other day I was sitting in the doctors’ surgery waiting room, there to register with the local GP Practice. As I waited to have my blood pressure taken, be weighed and measured, and quizzed about my family health history, I noted a display on sexual health information. There were a couple of posters highlighting the pyramid effect of unprotected sex in relation to risk of sexually transmitted disease: you may only have had sex with one person, but if that person has previously had sex with three other people, and between them those three people have had sex with twelve other people, for the purposes of exposure to STDs, you have in effect had sex with sixteen people…

Grace can work in a similar way. If a person is exposed to someone who has been exposed to grace from a few other people, it increases their chance of being infected with grace. If that same person is exposed to several people who have been exposed to grace, the chances are greatly increased. And the presence of a few particularly promiscuous individuals skews the pyramidal possibilities wider. Especially if they don’t use the equivalent of condoms; don’t take precautions to protect themselves from being infected by grace or transmitting it to others. Such ‘condoms’ might include pride, or fear.

Once infected by grace, a person is a carrier. It might not develop into the full-blown version for years, but they can still pass it on. Once identified, it can be controlled – through regular doses of legal rights – but to my knowledge there is no cure, as yet.

As an individual, the little grace I might have to pass on can go a long way…

Dear God,
Make me promiscuous in relation to grace.
Don’t let me take precautions.
May I infect someone else today;
And may they pass grace on in turn.

May the grace that courses through my veins spread, develop, consume me.

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To Affinity And Beyond, 2

For an individual or loose group of individuals to kill another individual may be unlawful, but it is at the same time law-full: a taking the law into one’s own hands and applying it to its full extent – “Your very existence offends me, and so I shall take your life.”

In contrast, grace says, “Your very existence delights me, and so I shall affirm your life.”

When Adam is presented with Eve, who is both the same and yet different, he declares, “You are bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.” Indeed, Adam does not exist as a discreet entity prior to, or without, Eve.

When I am presented with someone who is of a different socio-economic background to me, they are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.

That is, we are made of the same ‘stuff,’ and, indeed, without ‘the other’ I am myself less complete (I do not mean that economic inequality is a positive thing, but am referring to our attitude towards those who have more or less than we do).

When I am presented with someone whose skin is a different colour from my own, they are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.

When I am presented with someone who is of a different generation to me, they are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.

When I am presented with someone who is of a different gender to me, they are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.

When I am presented with someone who is of a different religion to me, they are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.

When I am presented with someone who is of a different sexuality to me, they are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.

When I am presented with someone who is less able to enjoy the educational or relational opportunities I enjoy, as a result of disability, they are bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.

We live in a legal society that legislates against discrimination in all of these cases and more. But a legal society can never change the attitude of the fractured human heart towards ‘the other.’ Neither legislation, nor consciousness-raising, can adequately address the issue. They can only highlight the need for the issue to be addressed, and our inadequacy to address it.

What is it that causes me to fear the other, to strive to exalt myself above the other? It is the fear that the image of God reflected in them exposes the ways in which that image is marred in me. If I can get in there first, pointing out the ways in which God’s image is marred in another – or calling that which is not marred ‘marred’ – perhaps others won’t notice…

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To Affinity And Beyond, 1

It is ironic that the very point where being online would be especially helpful – for accessing all kinds of information; for keeping in touch with family and friends – is the very time when we have lived in the Sheol of existence without the substance of the virtual world…

It has also been interesting, to me at least, to observe how helpful blogging is to the process of theological reflection, and indeed of simply keeping the brain ticking over. Over the summer, I’ve been trying to reflect on one of the major news stories, the apparently dramatic rise in murders – both premeditated and opportunistic; by knife and gun and savage kicks to the head; by individuals and groups – by teenagers. I say apparently dramatic because the rapidity with which trends move is inversely proportional to the numbers involved, so that when we are dealing with a very small number of incidents (e.g. murders) as a percentage of the possible agents (e.g. British teenagers), the trend inevitably appears to grow or be reversed rapidly (if such killings were commonplace, a small increase or decrease would not be felt). On the other hand, it is a growing concern – and concern about the situation may well reach a tipping-point that provides the opportunity to address the problem, before the problem itself reaches its own tipping-point and explodes exponentially.

We have seen an outpouring of column inches in the press, as columnists and politicians alike react to the events of the summer, attempting to identify the causes and the best responses. The difficulty is that, while we don’t have the luxury of ignoring the problem, the wrong responses will only further add to the problem we face. We need to be careful and thorough in our diagnoses; and careful and thorough in the choice and ongoing monitoring of our prescribed course of action.

The apparent problem – the one most readily identified by columnists and politicians, and on the grounds of which many of the suggested responses have been made – is one of lawlessness. That is, within a law-abiding majority living in a society built on legal principles, there are rogue elements, law-breaking individuals. And it is a matter of concern that an increasing number of children are being raised without reference to, or respect for, the legal code; a trend that left unaddressed would ultimately undermine the legal society.

As I have reflected on these unlawful killings, I believe this to be a fundamental misdiagnosis. The problem, as I see it, is not that we live in an increasingly lawless society, but that we live in a graceless one.

And therefore, far from being rogue elements, teenage murderers – and those who sell them weapons – are entirely consistent graceless members of a graceless majority, living within a law-based society. I shall explore this further in the following post.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007


We moved to Nottingham on 22 August, and are settling in. Susannah started school last Wednesday. Noah started school – for the first time – on Monday; he’s on half days this week, and goes to full days from Monday. I’m not sure what Elijah will make of it!

We are renting a lovely house. Until now, we’ve always lived in terraces, so a three-bedroom semi, with front and back gardens, driveway, carport and garage seems very grown-up! The garden is full of birds: robins, blackbirds, thrushes, various sparrows, blue tits, great tits, a flock of green(?) finches, wood pigeons, white doves…The house is light and airy, and while we lose space upstairs we gain space downstairs.

College doesn’t get going until the last week of September, so life is all about finding our feet, getting to know people and the area. There are several other newly arrived families who had to move in time for their children to start school, and there are several college kids in both Susannah and Noah’s classes. The school is just around the corner, as is the church (our garden backs onto the churchyard) and the pub, but not much by way of local shops.

Three days after we moved in, we spent the August bank holiday weekend celebrating Jo’s sister Laura’s wedding, to Steve. Jo’s parents laid on the most wonderful reception in a marquee in the field next to their home. It seems a long time ago – so much has been going on this summer – but now we’re back online I’ll hopefully get some photos up on flickr over the next few days…