Thursday, October 10, 2019

Visual storytelling

Today at the lunchtime Eucharist, I employed some visual storytelling to retell the Gospel reading, Luke 11:5-13. With apologies for the poor quality of the images, taken on my phone immediately before the service.

In Fig. 1, the chalice represents Jesus.

In Fig. 2, the silver cruet represents the disciples, who come to Jesus, through the dark night of the world, journeying on the Way (also Jesus, here represented by the lavabo towel).

Fig. 3, the chalice is empty, for Jesus has emptied himself, making himself entirely dependent on the Father, and on the Holy Spirit as testimony to their relationship.

In Fig. 4, the lidded silver cruet represents the Father—the disciples and the Father both being the trusted confidants and dearly-loved friends of Jesus. Jesus goes to the Father to ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit, to be shared between them.

In Fig. 5, the three ‘loaves’ of bread, or wafers on the paten, represent the gift of the Holy Spirit, who gives evidence of the covenant relationship established between the disciples and the Father, in and through Jesus. This evidence remains, after Jesus is no longer physically present with his disciples, or, for all those who will become his disciples through the good news story carried by them.

Bread of testimony

The Gospel set for Holy Communion today is Luke 11:5-13.

On one occasion, Jesus told a story involving three friends. B turns up at A’s door at midnight; but A has nothing to offer B. So, A wakes C and asks for bread; and C is reluctant to help, at first, but eventually A’s perseverance prevails.

It is a strange story to our ears, and C’s reluctance to be a good neighbour feels churlish. How hard is it to fetch a loaf of bread from the cupboard, and go back to bed?

As always, there is more going on than meets the eye.

The Greek word used here for ‘friend’ conveys more than we might mean, especially on Facebook: a trusted confidant, a dearly-loved friend. Both B and C, then, are closest-of-friends to A.

B has arrived, having journeyed to A on the way (or, the Way).

The Greek for ‘to set before’ means to commit to [something] in a very personal way; and carries the sense of to entrust, and to give evidence. But A has nothing to set before B.

Friend C responds by pleading with A not to cause him laborious toil, extreme weariness. The request is greater than we imagine. It would require kneading flour, water, oil, and yeast to make dough; and, while it proved, setting a fire and letting it burn down to charcoal. Effort, and time.

So, here is a man who has two trusted confidants, two dearly-loved friends—but nothing to testify to that being so. And what he wants is three loaves, or, one for each of the three friends. This is not primarily about hospitality towards B, or borrowing from C, but about relationship being established between B and C, with A as the intermediary.

The principle point Jesus is making here concerns the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the bread, the evidence that testifies to the deep friendship between Jesus’ disciples, B, who have come to him, and the heavenly Father, C, as brokered by Jesus, A.

While I do not want to press the analogy too far, A’s lack of resources is suggestive of Jesus’ self-emptying; and the laborious toil asked of C (presumably with A’s active involvement) is suggestive of the cost to the heavenly Father in this endeavour.

Jesus goes on, inviting his disciples to continue to be B, journeying on the Way, through the dark night, until they arrive at his door...but also inviting them to step into the role he occupies (A) and to intercede on behalf of the world (an extended B), asking that others might come to experience the Holy Spirit, who testifies to our friendship with God. Though they are ‘evil’—not in essential character, but in that they act in ways that cause pain; as A causes pain to C—they know how to give good gifts; and the heavenly Father all the more so.

This, then, is a story about the dynamic between Father, Son, Holy Spirit, the Church, and the peoples; a story in which we participate in physical and spiritual nourishment.

It is the simplest of stories imaginable. And yet, it is bigger on the inside.

Wednesday, October 09, 2019


The defining revelation of God in the Old Testament is that given to Moses, recorded in Exodus 34:

“Yahweh, [my name is] Yahweh, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet I do not leave the guilty unpunished; but visit the consequence of the sin of the parents on their children and their children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”

Yet alongside this revelation of mercy and justice (of moral action and moral consequence) we have the testimony of Jonah (Jonah 4) who speaks for God’s people in declaring his anger that God’s mercy; slow, measured, proportional anger at injustice; measureless, unchanging love; and willingness to forgive and relent from punishing, are not partisan. They are directed to the wrong sort of people. To our enemies, as well as us.

I’ve been watching The Capture (BBC), a drama series exploring the ethics of ‘correction,’ the use, by the intelligence services, of deep fake cctv evidence to show “re-enacted truth” where they have no physical proof of something they are confident happened.

It has been gripping; but the final episode (which sets us up for a second series) is deeply unsatisfying, because the villains (on ‘our’ side, using the end to justify the means) do not get their comeuppance.

We want to be vindicated, and we want to see others punished. And it has little to do with justice, and more to do with bloodlust and delight at another’s downfall. Get in!

Yet, the game is more complicated than we tell ourselves, and is not over yet.

And if the end does justify the means, the beginning and end of God is steadfast love.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019


Today’s Gospel reading set for Morning Prayer is Mark 12:35-44.

I am struck by the repetition in verses 41-44. In the English (New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised) it reads putting/put in/put in/put in/put in; but this is a poor translation of the Greek, which is to cast or throw. The action described is of money being cast or thrown into a large receptacle.

And, in the Greek, it serves the purpose of recalling to mind other such casting or throwing.

The widow is often held up as a model for discipleship, an example of sacrificial giving. But it seems to me that such a reading requires us to ignore the context. First, this account is set at a point where there is a heightened and sustained campaign against Jesus by the religious establishment; one that unites factions previously antagonistic towards one another. Second, Jesus is criticising the scribes, those who interpreted torah, or instruction for living, to the people. He has just implicitly called the scribes enemies, and explicitly told the people to beware of them, for they devour widows’ houses.

Against this backdrop, Jesus turns his attention to the treasury, money given for the operational costs of God’s house and as the communal response to meeting the needs of the poor. The crowd, including many rich people and a poor widow cast/throw money into the treasury.

In Mark 9:42, Jesus had said to his disciples that if any of them put a stumbling block before one of these little ones [that is, those with least influence or resource] who believe in him, it would be better for those who did so if a great millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.

And in Mark 11:22-24, Jesus tells his disciples that if they say to the mountain, on which the temple was built, be taken up and thrown into the sea, and do not doubt in their heart but believe that it will come to pass, it will be done for them.

Here is a widow, paying her respects to God. But the god in question is a monster, presented to her by scribes; not the King of the Universe who repeatedly insists that the community care for the widow, the orphan, and the alien in their midst. The upkeep of God’s house does not require the devouring of widows’ houses. This woman has thrown her livelihood, her life, into the sea; it would be better if the scribes were thrown in.

Moreover, the experience of encountering God on this mountain, in this house, is one that is meant to be transferable; one we call to mind, bring into the present moment, when the chaos of life rises against us like the restless sea. And yet this very mountain has been overwhelmed by a flood.

Jesus clearly has compassion for this widow, but his primary purpose is not to praise her, but, rather, to declare the greater condemnation on the scribes.

This should give us pause for thought where we, as the Church, ask and ask more and more from our congregations.

It should also give us pause for thought as a society, where the rich give out of their abundance, and with great virtue-signalling; while the most vulnerable lose even the little they have to live on.

Metaphorically, Jesus throws the scribes, and the rich, into the sea, exposing their hypocrisy. And for it, he will lose his life.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019


Whenever you read a story about a tree in the Bible, you’re reading a story about the people of God.

There’s the story about the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—of being a life-giving presence, and teaching how to recognise what is right from wrong—and the bigger story-arc in which humanity are separated from these trees, and how, eventually, they are reunited.

There’s the story of God turning up in a bush that is not consumed by the fire of pure holiness, pure ontological otherness, that points to God living in the midst of the people, in their journey through the wilderness.

There’s the story about how the trees of the field demanded a king, and found a fickle one in the bramble.

There’s the strange account, in time of civil war among God’s people, of a battle in which the trees of the forest killed more warriors than the sword (guns don’t kill people, people; people with guns kill people).

There’s the song that opens the songbook of Israel, about a tree whose roots anchor it deeply in the ground, from where it draws life-giving water even in seasons of drought (the land standing for the promises of God).

And the song of the trees of the field clapping their hands at the coming of the Lord’s anointed one.

There’s the story of the tree that is plucked and carried away by an eagle; of the tree cut down to a stump—a remnant—from which a new shoot will emerge. Of empire, and exile, and a new hope.

There’s the fig tree, that speaks of peace. And the vine, that speaks of fruitfulness, and of the wine of judgement and of celebration.

There’s the story of the olive tree, branches raised in worship, whose oil makes for light shining in the darkness. A rebuilt temple in turbulent times.

There’s the story of the mustard tree, in whose branches the birds of the air find shelter. And of the medicinal mulberry tree, uprooted and planted in the sea, bringing healing to chaos. Stories Jesus told his disciples.

There’s the story of a tree whose leaves are for the healing of the nations, in the kingdom of heaven made manifest on earth through the Church.

Whenever you read a story about a tree in the Bible, you’re reading a story about the people of God.

Trees are brilliant. They suck in carbon dioxide, and breath out oxygen. They filter out toxin, and pump out life. They prevent soil erosion. Prevent the loss of knowledge of the promises of God, and the benefits of that knowledge. They provide nutrition and shelter. They have adapted to a huge variety of environments, albeit under intense pressure in many today.

Trees are brilliant. And topical. If we are to stop, and then turn around, the rising temperature of our atmosphere, which is on course to create chaos beyond our ability to engage, we must do two things, we are told. Firstly, we must stop burning fossil fuels. And secondly, we must plant more trees.

We must stop consuming God’s blessings with an unjust and insatiable greed. And we must restore the God-given solution to the challenge we face.

Plant a tree, yes. But, more than that, be a tree.

Better still, be part of a forest.

Story, bearing witness

The Bible is a Story that bears witness to a series of events. And as a story, it has various recurring motifs, elements that stand for something else. So, the land (as in the Promised Land) stands for all of the promises of God. Mountains stand for encounters with God. Trees, and bushes, stand for God’s chosen people, and for how they respond to God and relate to the surrounding nations. The sea stands for the forces of chaos arrayed against God and the people of God.

So, when we hear the story of Moses, at the foot of a mountain, encountering God in the midst of a bush that is not consumed by God’s sheer, burning otherness being present there; and then bearing witness to the parting of the sea to let the people pass through as on dry land; we are meant to respond, “Ooh! I see...”

When Jesus speaks of exercising faith to throw mountains or trees into the sea, he is speaking about exercising faith, faithfully, (not to remove obstacles, but, rather) to claim back land from the sea, to extend the kingdom of God in the epic struggle with the kingdoms of the world ruled over by rebellious powers and principalities. To drive back chaos.

(When Jesus speaks of people being thrown into the sea, he is saying something related but different; that, if you go about contributing to the chaos, you would be better off fully identifying with chaos—from where, at least, you might be rescued by the faith of the faithful community.)

We live in chaotic times. And we get to choose. Do we bemoan the erosion of the coastline, the rising of the sea-levels? (I am speaking metaphorically here; though, what is going on in the natural world bears visible witness to what is going on at a spiritual level.) Or do we move mountains and trees? Do we proclaim God’s promises? Do we relocate ourselves in the most chaotic of communities, speaking truth to power by our witnessing presence there?


They say, if you want to understand someone, you first need to walk a mile in their shoes.

For the second time in a week, my shoes were soaked-through by rain yesterday. So, today, I have put on a spare pair, that were handed-down to me by my father. They had been bought for him as a gift, as I recall, but he didn't get on with them.

They are slightly too big for me (perhaps for him, too; perhaps that is why he passed them on?) and so I am always and slightly awkwardly aware of them. And while I don’t expect to understand my dad any better, for walking into town in them later this morning, I shall be prompted to think of him.

And of my late father-in-law, whose beautiful rug, passed on to us many years ago, is underneath my feet.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

The passive stance, part 2

Passivity has a transcendent power that completes what activity cannot.

Years ago, when I was at theological college, I was assigned to a long placement at a church where the vicar asked me to mentor a member of his staff team. Years later, I met her at a conference, and she told me that the things I had shared had not been fully understood at the time, but had come to be understood and deeply valued later.

This pattern has been repeated several times. Each summer, I get to hang out with friends from the church where I served my curacy. More than one of them, on more than one occasion, has thanked me, saying, we didn’t understand what you brought at the time, but since you left we have come to do so.

This isn’t something special about me—or a particular problem with me, that requires additional time to decipher. It is the principle of passivity at work. That our greatest contribution happens after we are no longer active players, after we are gone.

We see this in those we love who have died. Death strips them of all the frustrations of our interactions, and we are left with a clarity as to what we most valued, and continue to value. Call it a legacy, that keeps having an impact on our lives.

I will feel it of my daughter, after she leaves home. Every time we move on, say from a place of work, we rehearse our death, and release the power of passivity into the lives of those around us.

This is as God has intended. Activity and passivity, wind and dust, together forming us, making us human.

The passive stance, part 1

Yesterday, I wrote in passing [To become Saints, part 1] of the move from activity to passivity in our participation in the mission of God in the world. A friend asked me to expand on this a little.

Passivity is not resignation, giving up, sitting on your backside. Far from it.

For the first half of the Gospels, covering a period of around three years, Jesus is the subject of the narrative: teaching, healing, driving out demons; evading every trap set for him. Doing unto others as he would have them do unto him. But then there is a marked change.

For the second half of the Gospels, covering a period of days, Jesus is the object of the narrative: anointed, betrayed, arrested, abandoned, tried, beaten, crucified, raised (not rising) from the dead. Being done to by others, not necessarily as he would have them do unto him at all.

Jesus’ mission is largely conducted through his activity, but can only be concluded, consummated, through his embracing passivity, through his Passion.

It may help to consider Nelson Mandela. Mandela’s activity, as a younger man, caused him to be seen by some as a freedom fighter, by others as a terrorist. Caused him to be incarcerated, for life. In this moment, Mandela lost all choice, save whether to fight or to embrace passivity. He embraced it, determining to bear himself with dignity, and coming to insist on forgiving his captors.

In passivity, his soul underwent a deep work that simply is not possible through activity. The result was that he so grew in moral authority, before the entire world, that the prison doors could not bear the weight. He emerged from his cell, like a man walking out of the tomb, not as one ready to be a political leader who would liberate his people; but as one ready to be a global elder statesman, uniting his nation, and the world.

The model of Jesus, the example of Mandela, is meant to be a pattern for us all. Agency, our ability and indeed responsibility to act upon the lives of others, and to do so for good, matters. But agency alone cannot fulfil our calling, to be fully human, bearing the likeness of God.

How we bear ourselves when we are placed into the hands of others, as victim (though not hapless, or resentful, victim) of circumstance, is non-negotiable, essential, if our soul is to be fierce and free.

This is what all activists and activism fails to understand, and needs to learn.


British society values us, or, in some cases, is prepared to tolerate us, to the extent that we have utility; that we serve a useful purpose, to society, or, rather, to the economy (and, therefore, more particularly, to the most wealthy). We might not want to pay what it would cost us if those who deliver our pizzas were paid an actual living wage, but we’d take it as a personal inconvenience if they weren’t there.

The elderly, once they are too old to provide free childcare for their grandchildren, possess no utility whatsoever. Nor will they regain any. And so, truth be told, they are a burden on society (albeit one we would like to claim we bear gladly, at least in the case of our own family...if only we were able to do more).

The same is true of the long-tern unemployed, the chronically ill, the most profoundly disabled, among others.

What are the implications of Jesus’ words, found in the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Luke 17:5-10) that those who would follow him should self-identify with those who have no utility? Who, despite being kept in servitude, are surplus to the needs of society—effectively a drain—and who can have no hope, at least in the foreseeable future, of liberation from their dependence on someone more fortunate? (For this is what is implied in the Greek of verse 10, though perhaps buried under English translations.)

How would a society built on such teaching organise itself? Might it, for example, create and commit itself to universal health care provision that was, as largely as possible, free at the point of use? Or see a robust welfare provision that kept human dignity front and central, alongside seeking to address endemic injustices that require some to be kept in servitude? Would it reject the idea that utility is the sole, or even primary, measure of human worth?

Of course, such a vision is impractical. But not impossible, far from impossible. Practicality is itself tied to utility, and is too narrow a means test. Arguably, it is an excuse. We cannot ignore those we identify with, not as patrons handing out gifts from our bounty, but as fully one with us.

My God, British society needs to rediscover Jesus.