Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Hidden in plain sight

The God of the Bible (there are many gods in the Bible, but I mean Yahweh, the god who is vulnerable enough to approach us in hope of friendship) is not all-powerful.

This god insists, and consistently models, that power is dispersed across all creation. To stars and planets, including our own, whose physics makes life possible. To the moon over the sea, to the sky and the sea and the land. Among all living things, plants and animals, to reproduce and evolve, and hold all in self-giving mutual interdependence.

To angels and mortals; to mighty emperors and lowly disciples; to women and children and men; to widows and orphans and aliens, and to those who honour them. To all. To you. The very breath of life. Power that this god does not retract when it is misused by others; which is by no means to abdicate personal responsibility for justice.

No, this god is not all-powerful. And therein lies this god’s freedom, this god’s majesty, beauty, holiness. This god’s ability to transform the world, for good and not evil.


Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Into thin air


Today is the feast of St Michael and All Angels, with its Old Testament reading from Genesis 28:10-17.

Jacob finds himself at the outset of a long journey. Unable to carry on, for now, he stops for the night, in a certain place. The place matters, but it has no name, nothing there, only a stone for a pillow and the ground for a bed. And as he sleeps, Jacob dreams grandiose dreams. Contrary to the English rendering ‘ladder’ he dreams of a ziggurat, a tower of ramps and terraces, rising to the heavens. The template is that of the mythic Tower of Babel, an early attempt of a people to build a lasting name for themselves. Such is where Jacob would expect to meet with God. Such is how he would seek to be remembered.

And, in grace, God does meet with Jacob in his dream, with angels descending and ascending the tower, just as they had gone down to find out what the tower of babel was all about. And God promises that he will go with Jacob, and bless him, to be a blessing to others. But what will that look like? Being scattered to the four winds (again, like babel, though this time as blessing rather than curse, as redemption after constraints).

Jacob awakes to realise that God was present in this place. This empty place. Not the ziggurat of his vain imagination.

So where is God when your dreams vanish into thin air?


Saturday, September 26, 2020

This is not That (but they are connected)


The murder of police officer Sgt Matt Ratana is an absolute tragedy. My heart goes out to his family, his colleagues, and the families of all police officers who will sleep a little more fearfully for a while.

But today I am seeing a disgusting meme circulating, asking, rhetorically, whether Black individuals in the public eye will take a public stance, and answering that they will not. I should not have to point out why this is wrong, but, apparently, it is needed.

First, this meme implies that the named individuals lack a shred of human decency: of course they do; they are sub-human, after all. Not like us.

Second, this meme accuses them of double-standards: of speaking out at the death of a Black man or woman at the hands of the police, but not at the death of a police officer at the hands of, it is assumed, a Black man. But these are not the same.

Police officers are called to protect the public, a calling that at times brings them face-to-face with criminals, and danger; not to criminalise, or endanger the public. We can argue that what happens to Black Americans has nothing to do with British Blacks, but that is to fail to attempt to understand the complexity of their different and yet connected life experience. We can argue that police officers who kill unarmed men or sleeping women are ‘bad apples’—so why are they not held responsible?—or that their victims were far from innocent—so they don’t deserve a fair trial? Both these moves are excuses, to justify racism. We can argue that this is the UK, not the US, but that is to deny that racism is an issue here. Here, where a Black, female barrister was assumed to be a defendant three times (and a journalist once) on the same visit to a magistrates court. And yes, that’s just one example, so, listen to the experiences of Black people in England, both British and other nationalities.

It has already been pointed out to me that the reason this police officer was shot inside his own station was because the Met’s hands are tied because of the media profile of a ‘semi-famous athlete and her boyfriend’ who were ‘legitimately’ stopped and searched. Why does it matter whether they were semi-famous, world-famous, or unknown? That’s just a put-down. And, in the absence of the results of IOPC review, how can it be claimed to be legitimate to stop and search those guilty of owning a nice car while Black? But, worst of all, such a view puts the blame for the death of Matt Ratana on the Black community and their allies. Because, again, it is the Blacks who are the problem.

Again, the murder of a police officer is a tragedy. If the suspect, who, apparently, turned his weapon on himself, survives, he will be charged and tried and sentenced according to law. There will be an enquiry into what happened, not to point the finger of blame, but to see what lessons can be learned; with recommendations that will, in turn, be considered, and, perhaps, implemented. The family of the officer will not get their loved one back, but they will at least get the justice they need and deserve. No, this is not the same as for other families.

All lives matter, and police lives matter. But to use Police Lives Matter, like All Lives Matter, as a response to Black Lives Matter is not to support the police—it certainly does not honour a Maori officer—but to take a stand against those who experience systemic racism every day. To stand with racists, in a sick, manufactured competition. You wouldn’t want to do that, unthinkingly.

The murder of a police officer is a tragedy. People using it to stoke racial hatred is a disgrace.


Saturday, September 12, 2020


Everybody has a dream, whether it is to be an astronaut when you grow up, or a bucket list to complete before you die.

Some people will tell you that People Like You have No Business having Dreams Like That. They might know you—sadly, they could be a teacher, or even a family member—but they don't care about you. The best thing you can do is ignore them; don’t even waste your precious energy proving them wrong (and yes, I know that is easier said than done).

Some people will tell you to Pursue Your Dream, may even be your cheerleader. But if that is all they have to say, then either they don't care about you any more than the haters do; or, they do care but no-one ever taught them what to do with dreams (and, sadly, this is commonplace).

Your dreams don’t want to be pre-emptively buried, or relentlessly chased; they want to be interpreted. And here, I’m not talking about while-you’re-asleep dreams and psychoanalysts (helpful though they can be). I’m talking about the way our waking dreams speak, and the way that we are made to speak into one another’s lives.

The ancient poetry of the Bible imagines us as being a fusion of clay and the breath of God. Of the mundane, and the magical. The poet Lucille Clifton described her life thus, “this bridge between starshine and clay”. Your dreams are the conversations between those two poles, about what they—you—want to experience in this world, which contains more than any one life can bear. Yet, because we are created for connection—for communion—with others, our component states don’t speak the same mother tongue. Hence, though we might learn to ‘get the gist’ of the conversation, we need others to help interpret the nuances, to follow the conversation fully. That is why, even though on the surface it may look a solo endeavour, Clifton’s words quoted above are from a poem titled Won’t you celebrate with me: though having no model to follow, this is a celebration shared with, and in part of, those who helped her shape a kind of life.

So, start asking clarifying questions of your dreams; and pray for the gift of people in your life who can help you understand what you hear. And though the kind of life you shape will not correspond with the dream, within it, we will celebrate.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Talk more

Stand in front of any urinal in any gents toilets in any motorway services in the country, and you will come face-to-face with an advert for either van insurance or erectile dysfunction.

The common denominator is a sense of loss, in forms targeting men. To be a man is to drive (and used to be—another loss—to fix your own engine). As for our penis, that is explicitly referred to as our ‘manhood’—though my internal jury is still out debating whether this is a false construction of manhood, or whether manhood itself is a false construct. In any case, the encouragement is for a quick fix: if your motor is stolen, we can get you going again. It is the same impulse behind (the success of) populism, the promise of making Britain Great again.

I don’t think men talk about van insurance much. We sure as hell don’t talk about erectile dysfunction. But the underlying taboo is admitting and navigating loss. Yet loss is a recurring part of life for all of us, and something that we can work through but could really do with not having to do it on our own. Help, not to find a fix, or a distraction, but to express appreciation and gratitude for what was good; to acknowledge the legitimacy of our grief; to articulate relief at the unhelpful baggage that has been lost with/in the loss; and to embrace the possibilities of a new season.

It seems to me that the mare that is 2020, and the occasion of Suicide Awareness Month, are good reasons to encourage men to talk more about loss, in all its forms. We’ve got this.

Thursday, September 10, 2020


You’ll hear people tell you to “follow your heart.” It is bad advice. The Bible tells us that the heart is the seat of our decision making, our capacity for free will; but also that it is unreliable. Don’t follow your heart, lead it; train it, according to wisdom.

With my heart of hearts, I want to go running. Because I love being with the people I run with; because it indirectly improves so many other areas of my life; and just because it is a joyful response to any glorious autumn day. With my heart of hearts, I want to go running.

But with a heavy heart, I need to say no to running for a season. To say no to the wanting to say yes, when my friends say, “we’re going running—who’s in?”

I have damaged something in my knee. There is a lateral weakness there. Last night, I was a looong way behind a pack I should, ordinarily, be right up there with; pushing through pain I ought to be listening to.

Today, a friend who has just torn his meniscus got in touch. Another friend, who ran with me last night, got in touch, to say I’d been on their mind all day. Everyone needs people like that in their lives.

With a heart so sad it is in my boots, I need to put my running shoes in the closet and walk away. For now, and for as long as it takes. If I’m lucky, my body will regenerate itself (they're brilliant like that). If not, I might need to seek professional help (they’re brilliant like that).

But, if you catch me flirting with going for a run, please help me to not follow my heart.