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.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Rejoicing : Weeping

Today the General Synod of the Church of England voted Yes to having bishops who are women, as well as bishops who are men. This is an historic moment. It is an event that is located in a process, a process that has brought us to this day and a process that will continue onwards from this day – a process that has had both positive and negative consequences, and will continue to have both positive and negative consequences.

Personally, I am delighted by today’s vote. I believe that men and women have a biblical mandate to share in oversight of the local and trans-local church, and that there is biblical guidance as to how men and women ought to exercise such oversight. For me, today is not so much a departure as a returning to something God-given that we had surrendered: for me, today is a prophetic act of repentance.

And yet it is also a departure. And I recognise that while there are many women within the Church who this night feel that they are no longer second-class citizens within the Church they love, that there are also many other women and men who this night feel that they have become second-class citizens within the Church they love.

These people are my brothers and sisters in Christ.

I might disagree with their position, at times in the strongest of terms. They might on occasion deeply anger and sadden me in equal measure. But together we are part of the Body of Christ, and when one part of the body hurts, the whole body feels pain.

Tonight, I am struck by Romans chapter 12, the whole chapter, and in particular verse 15: ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.’

Tonight, there are those in my Church who are rejoicing, and those who are weeping. We are called to rejoice with those who rejoice: that is, those who disagree with today’s vote are exhorted to rejoice with those for whom it is a cause of celebration. And we are called to weep with those who weep: that is, those who agree with today’s vote are exhorted to weep with those for whom it is a cause of deep sadness.

We don’t always manage to live out the life to which we are called. We don’t always get that right. But when we do, it is a powerful witness to the reconciliation God is at work to bring about in and through Jesus Christ. When we do, our choosing to rejoice and to weep opens us to a transformative encounter with the life-giving Holy Spirit. When we do, we are at our most counter-cultural in a society that constantly demands that there is a Winner and a Loser, and that we must be(come) the Winner.

So, whatever our view regarding today’s vote, are we willing to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep?

Friday, July 04, 2014

Can You Tell What It Is Yet?

Are we capable of recognising that human beings have the capacity to create and to destroy, to add beauty and ugliness to the world, to enhance and to impoverish the lives of others?

Are we capable of saying that in abusing his position in order to abuse young women, Rolf Harris has destroyed, has made the world more ugly, has impoverished the lives of others – and that for this he must be held to account and face consequences of his actions – but that as a gifted artist this same Rolf Harris has created, has added beauty to the world, has enhanced the lives of others – and that this, too, must be recognised?

Or must we remove, even destroy, certainly devalue (by 90%), his paintings? His life?

If we cannot name both sides of the paradox that is Rolf Harris, then we cannot speak the paradox that is ourselves. That which is destructive, ugly, impoverishing remains in the dark, where it can flourish, so long as it doesn’t step into the light, exposing itself. And that which is creative, beautiful, enhancing is redefined as fake, a front to mask something, simply waiting to be exposed.

If we cannot own both sides of the paradox, affirming the one and confronting the other, then the fallen are damned, their family is damned – condemned to erase a life from their lives, erasing much of themselves in so doing, or to refuse and to be erased by others. All those wronged – both the particular abused and the general betrayed – are damned, their own defaced beauty erased because beauty cannot be trusted, and (the irony!) must be sacrificed in order to starve destruction. Ultimately, we are all damned, because we are all that same paradox.

Beauty in all forms – painting, sculpture, music, fashion, architecture, in every form – is only created by an artist who also destroys. This is as true of the natural world as it is of human artefacts. The darkness does not extinguish the light. We do not need to create a towering bonfire of ‘Works to be expunged from the record.’

We rile against a paradox, hoping to resolve it, when in fact we need it. This particular paradox ought to keep us from idolising heroes. But it ought to keep us from tearing them, and ourselves, apart too.

Fourth Of July

I’m told that nearby Washington – the seat of George Washington’s ancestors, whose crest provides the origin of the Stars and Stripes flag – is the only place in England that celebrates Independence Day.

As any indigenous people group knows, Independence is merely the other side of the same coin as Colonialism.

But to recognise this is to have to acknowledge that Colonialism is not entirely without merit, and Independence is not self-evidently better. Each presents us with a paradox: utterly corrupted, self-serving; and yet – by the grace of God – still capable of being utilised for good, for beauty. Sin – in the sense of falling short of or away from our best intended trajectory, let alone those good goals of which we are unaware – is inevitable and unavoidable; and indeed, is the very thing that is transformed by grace – God’s giving of himself to us, and along with that self-giving, every good gift.

We hold land not as owners, and by right, but as stewards, and by gift; and then, not merely as stewards holding land in trust for our own descendants, but in trust for the whole world. And so National Days – whether Independence Days, or taking some other form – ought not to be a day to celebrate our freedom from others so much as to reflect on what we have done for others with our freedom.

Any sober judgement would recognise that we (whatever our nationality) have done good – intended, and by happy accident – and evil – again, by wilful intention, and unintentionally. And that the good we have done has most often been possible only with the help of other nations, while the evil we have perpetrated has also been in complicity with other nations. At the end of the day, we are more interdependent than we like to admit. And rightly so.

Empires rise and fall, and political borders ebb and flow like the tides. We stand in our time, a time allocated us not by our own decision, with a past not of our choosing, and a future beyond our control. All we have is the present, the inevitability of our sin, and the promise of God’s grace. That is enough, to use our freedom to serve others, with humility and confidence. Which might truly be worth celebrating.

Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

The Church is no less conflicted, no less corrupt, than any other group of people - and that ought to keep us in a place of honesty and humility. The Church is no more conflicted, no more corrupt, than any other group of people - and that ought to give us cause to remain. The Church is faithless, and faithful. Ugly, and beautiful. And loved. Loved with a transforming love. We rail against paradox, and yet we need to embrace it, for only then can we be embraced.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Doubting With Thomas

Today is the Feast Day of St Thomas.

Thomas, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, is commonly known as ‘Doubting Thomas,’ after the account on John’s Gospel (John 20:24-29) where Thomas refuses to believe the resurrection on second-hand experience, and Jesus tells him ‘Do not doubt but believe.’

The Story of Doubting Thomas is a Tale that contains a Moral: doubt is inappropriate for those who follow Jesus; is incompatible with faith.

Except that Jesus didn’t deal in morality tales. If that is how we understand ‘Do not doubt but believe’ then – as so often – we have misunderstood Jesus’ words.

Doubt is not incompatible with faith, but has an essential role to play in faith. Doubt moves us beyond the known and creates the space within which we have a transforming encounter with Jesus.

Following Jesus’ death, the other disciples are hiding together in one place. Thomas is not with them: he doubts the wisdom of their decision, a decision that makes it possible for all of the key leaders of the Jesus-followers to be arrested in one raid. While they lock themselves away, Thomas trusts himself into God’s hands and steps out…

Unless we can doubt that we know all, or know for certain, or know better than others; unless we can doubt that the world ends at the horizon (which may be as near as four walls); unless we can doubt that we have done all that God has in mind for us … we cannot unlearn and learn anew; cannot go beyond the familiar and comforting; cannot present ourselves as available to Jesus, to be sent by him.

When Jesus says ‘Do not doubt but believe’ he is not saying Doubt is Wrong, but, this particular doubt has served its purpose, has found its goal, has become the place of encounter: you can let it go now, because I have responded to that doubt and opened up for you a new way of believing.

You can let it go now, and that will free you up to take on a new doubt.

If the demands of Thomas’ doubt were inappropriate, Jesus would not have met them – indeed, he not only meets them, he meets them exactly and fully. And the resurrection accounts make it clear that Thomas was not the only disciple who doubted, nor this the only encounter that doubt opened up.

Thomas will go all the way to the south of India, planting churches as he goes. I would suggest that he goes not because he has overcome his doubts, or in spite of his doubts, but led by his doubts. While the others – who will all receive the commission to go out from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth – remain in Jerusalem, Thomas doubts that this is all that Jesus has in mind for him, doubts that this is the only or best place within which he might serve.

I would suggest that Thomas’ progression from Jerusalem to the south of India is a series of doubts which open up a new space and are then fulfilled, to be succeeded by a new doubt fulfilled in its turn.

Without doubt there is no possibility of repentance – a change of mind – and without repentance it is not possible to believe in a new way. There is only the self-imposed locked room.

The Epistle reading for today speaks of God building us – collectively - into a holy temple, a dwelling-place for God. Is it possible that doubt, transformed, is key in expanding those walls?

Today is the Feast Day of St Thomas. The patron saint of those who embrace the gift of doubt, the role of the Doubter.

What will you doubt today?