Thursday, August 24, 2017

Navigation skills

Some thoughts on GCSE results day:

[1] Despite pressure on schools to the contrary, this is not a competition. Despite the turmoil government has created for teachers to work in, GCSEs ought to be a way of guaranteeing a certain breadth of education, and part of a discernment process enabling our children to discover what they want to pursue further. So firstly, a heart-felt thank you to all teachers who do their best to achieve this despite everything.

[2] Children excel at different things. For some of our children, today will not be a day of celebration: they will have other days, to be celebrated, which we must not fail to mark. But for some of our children, academic study is their opportunity to shine. If that is your child, celebrate them, and with them, today. If it is your friend’s child, rejoice with those who rejoice.

[3] As already stated, GCSEs are part of a discernment process, of vocational discovery. Rather than downplay this day, or over-emphasise all the other aspects of our children that GCSEs do not help determine—such as character traits which matter regardless of what you do in life—we need to see this as an opportunity to engage in that process.

Holy fear

The epistle set for Holy Communion today is Acts 5:12-16, which reads:

‘Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high esteem. Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by. A great number of people would also gather from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured.’

The early church was meeting every day in the temple, in the part of the temple where Jesus—along with other preachers—had been in the habit of teaching. Among the crowds of pilgrims, many found themselves drawn to them, but afraid to come too close. This is not surprising: God’s presence is deeply attractive to humans created to be in relationship with God; but also—rightly—a cause of fear: God is, after all, the Creator and Lord of the universe. This tension appears to have been overcome by the recognition that in God’s presence, healing and freedom is to be found: they came, bringing the sick and tormented.

As I read this familiar account, I find myself thinking of the Minster. Here is a place to which people come, every day throughout the week, to approach God, while choosing to remain at a distance from the gathered congregation. They slip in and out, not brave enough to join us in public worship (and while there may be many reasons why people don’t come then, in conversation holy fear is a recurring theme—one which might challenge us in our over-familiarity). And they come carrying their sick and tormented to God in hope of a miracle: carrying them, not physically and literally, but symbolically in the lighting of a candle, the writing and pinning-up of a prayer. Physical healing, emotional freedom, the restoration of broken relationships, and concern for the deceased account for the overwhelming majority of prayers and prayer-requests written and left.

People in Sunderland recognise that God is, somehow, present in our midst, and their response is to ask God to heal their sick and bring freedom to their tormented through our prayers.

Yet they still stand off, at a safe distance.

And I rejoice at the ways in which our experience reflects that of the earliest church. But I long for more, long to see people bringing their sick, long to see healing—not just the hope of healing—happen, long to see more men and women added to our number, joining with us.

If we are to see such a step-change, it will happen when we start to take daily gathered corporate prayer and worship more seriously.

Thursday, August 10, 2017


My daughter has been out and bought sliced white bread for lunch, and as I eat it I am transported back in time to bread-and-butter teas at my Granny’s table. And from there to the vegetables she cooked for lunch, starting as soon as breakfast had been cleared away; and to my Grandpa’s vegetable patch, from where they had come; it was a substantial patch, though there came a time when each summer when we visited we would find it smaller, the lawn larger, than the year before...

And walking into the village with a wicker basket to shop. The butcher, who was also a volunteer fireman, called away at any moment by a light that flashed on the wall behind the counter.

And the ancient blacksmith (the village, in the South Downs, served race-horse stables) with his gnarled hands, like claws.

And I am undone.

All by a slice of bread.

The world is a wonderful gift.


This week the POTUS (Petulant Over-sized Toddler of the United States) threatened to visit the earth with greater fire and fury than Little Boy.

The Old Testament reading this Sunday (1 Kings 19:9-18) tells of Elijah, feeling sulky and put-upon, discovering that God is not to be found in mountain-splitting wind, earthquake, and fire, but in the sheer silence that follows.

In the aftermath.

Relevant, much?

Praying for those who find themselves in the aftermaths. May they find themselves standing before the God of the new beginning.

Trust and obey

The Gospel reading this Sunday is Matthew 14:22-33. The well-known account (actually, I’d say more famous than known well) of Peter walking on the water.

Notice that Jesus does not instruct Peter to get out of the boat.

In fact, Jesus explicitly instructs Peter and the other disciples to get into the boat and [in the boat] go ahead of him to the other side of the lake.

When Jesus says, ‘Come’ [to me on the water] it is a concession to Peter’s doubt that Jesus knew what he was talking about when he told the disciples to get into the boat.

And when Jesus calls the disciples ‘You of little faith’ he isn't saying ‘You don’t have enough faith.’ In Jesus’ picture-language ‘little’ is consistently a positive thing (the one exception I can think of is love; but then, love is also exceptional in being the one debt we are to remain in). If anything, he is surprised that they, possessing ‘little faith’ should doubt, because it is the ‘little’ who see God and who depend on God and not on their own strength.

Little faith is defined by trust and obedience. Which, it turns out, is also ‘great faith,’ in one encounter with a Gentile woman (by the way, the opposite of little faith is not great faith, but absence of faith).

Peter needs to be reminded that he is called to exercise little faith, in the boat with the other disciples. And to leave being Lord to Jesus.

My own take-away from this is this: to re-focus on my calling (which is always found and expressed within the context of community) and to seek not to be distracted by (or into) the (complementary) calling of others.

To be fair on Peter, that is harder than you might think.

Monday, August 07, 2017


I was reminded this week of a wonderful quote from GK Chesterton. He wrote:

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

(GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy)

We spent the past week at New Wine. As a family, we have been going to the New Wine summer conferences for the past ten years [1]. We love this often rain-soaked week of camping on a showground with thousands of other people, there to worship Jesus, to hear from him, and to pray for one another.

I have loved being in an arena with 5,000 other people, singing. People in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, singing worship songs led by musicians with guitars, keys, drums, bass. The kind of sound that anyone in their seventies and younger in this country has grown up with. The kind of sound you might hear at any summer festival, or on the radio, directed towards the glory of God. Singing for half-an-hour and more at a time, hearts poured out.

I love it for its monotony.

Singing a two- or four-line chorus at the heart of a song


and over

and over again.

Why? Because it resists the demand to rush on. It allows us to meditate on a particular aspect of Jesus’ nature. To drill down deeper into some truth. Until it in turn drills down deeper into us.

Making daisies.

The Anglo-Catholic bishop Philip North, there for an afternoon seminar, pointed out that New Wine was not as far as you might think from Walsingham, perhaps the premier place of Anglo-Catholic pilgrimage in England today.

Anglo-Catholic practice including Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, where partaking in communion takes place after an extended period of adoration before the consecrated Host, or indeed praying the Rosary, tap into the same glorious monotony, slowing us to God’s pace. Charismatic Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics both in on a secret.

In a digital world of driving distraction, it refreshes and restores—it strengthens—the soul.

[1] We couldn’t go in 2014, so we’ve been 9 times in the past 10 years, first to Newark and more recently to Shepton Mallet. And Jo and I went to Shepton Mallet twice before we had children—and twice to Clan Gathering in Scotland—so we have history here.


A confession: rain makes me feel really sad, and spikes anxiety in me.

Yes, I know that is completely irrational. And yes, I have spent the past week in a rain-drenched field with 15,000 other people (another thing that overwhelms me is crowds; despite the rain and the crowds, New Wine is the highlight of my year, which I hope you understand is really saying something).

And as I am walking to work for the first time in just over a fortnight, it starts to rain. And then the rain becomes a downpour. Bouncing off the street. Turning the uneven pavements into lakes. My jeans are soaked through.

I’m sheltering in the University under-pass.

And I have a choice. To embrace my sadness, rather than resent it (for the past couple of generations we’ve made a big mistake in trying to avoid or at least displace certain emotions, rather than dialogue with God about them). And to worship God. To sing songs in the rain, songs that turn my heart to him.

It isn’t easy. It takes discipline. Which is a good thing.

Sunday, August 06, 2017


Today is Transfiguration Sunday, the day we remember the time when Jesus went up a mountain and met with Father God (and Moses and Elijah).

In the Bible, mountains are signs and symbols of having an encounter with God. The place of revelation of God’s glory, and of instruction, or teaching. (Moses and Elijah both met God on mountains long before Jesus.) In fact, David called God our rock, our solid ground, our cave to shelter in, our firm foundation.

There’s another geographic feature in the Bible, the sea. In the Bible, the sea is a sign and a symbol of chaos. Not only the epic destructive chaos of, say, war, but also the background noise and distraction that appears to separate us from God. So in the Bible we see God setting limits on the sea, parting the sea, treading the sea under foot, and in John’s vision of the future world-made-new ‘there was no sea’ (symbolically, not literally—if you love the sea, don’t worry!).

Jesus said, if you have faith you can say to a mountain be thrown into the sea, and it will be. This is often taken to mean, if you have struggles, difficulties, obstacles, you can move them out of the way. But that isn’t what Jesus was saying. Remember, the mountain was the place of encounter, not trouble.

Jesus was saying, if you have faith, you can take the experience of encountering God in one space and one time, and transfer it into another space and time.

We have just spent a week at New Wine, encountering God in pilgrimage. And today we travel home, to a place that seems a thousand miles apart. By faith we can tell the mountain to be thrown into the sea, providing solid ground.

Peter wants to stay longer on the mountain. Jesus says no, we take the mountain with us, into the sea. To the boy seized by convulsions, and his heart-broken father…