Friday, May 28, 2021

Shame and glory

Today was my son Noah’s last day at Sixth Form College. Noah’s cohort have had such a disrupted A-level experience. It has not been what they, or their teachers, would have wished. And it is hard enough to deal with disappointment as an adult, let alone as a seventeen-, eighteen-year-old whose pre-frontal cortex is essentially undergoing something akin to the hidden transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly.

Undoubtedly, Noah and his peers have not always handled these past two years as they might, had they been thirty-five; and so, on top of the disappointment, and often anger, they have experienced a great deal of shame, of being wrong or a failure or a disappointment to others, to their parents and teachers. Shame that, unaddressed, overshadows their hope for a meaningful future.

The antidote to shame is glory. Not the tawdry bling of making a name for yourself, but a personal share in God’s glory. For the glory set before him, Jesus scorned the shame of the cross, of the humiliation of public execution. That glory was you, and me, having a share in God’s glory, as those lovingly fashioned by God from clay (malleable, like a teenage brain) and entrusted with a share of the life-breath of God’s own utterly free Spirit—literally, inspired by God—and invited into reconciled relationship with God, through Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Drawn into mystery, and adventure; into disruption and uncertainty, yes, but a redeemed and creative, life-generating, disruptive grace, and faithful journeying through life.

I see the glory of God in my son, and in his peers, in their teachers who have given their all and done their best for their students in challenging circumstances. Just as love casts out fear, so glory overthrows shame. The academic year is over, though teachers must still deliberate their assessments and students await their grades. But for now, rest in peace, and rise in glory.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Those who live in houses of clay

At Morning Prayer at present, we are reading in the book of Job, a masterful piece of theatre exploring the tragi-comedy of existence. In the play’s prelude we witness the assembly of the council of the gods, before the sovereign Lord of the universe. The Lord engages one of the lesser, created, gods in conversation, the shadowy Satan (or, Accuser), a restless god who walks back and forth on the earth in agitation. They debate the righteous human, Job, and enter into a wager. Satan will test the limits of job’s righteousness; while the Lord will question the far corners of Satan’s agitation, for, we shall see, that the Lord is present and attentive to the pain of all creation.

The drama then shifts to Job and his friends. In his suffering, they are, at first, magnificent in their empathy, sitting with him in silence for seven full days. Then Job speaks (chapter 3), a heart-felt soliloquy giving voice to his pain, and the dam breaks. In turn, his friends offer their insight, conventional but deeply flawed wisdom. First to speak is Eliphaz (chapter 4), who recounts a vision he has had by night, in his fitful sleep as he keeps watch with his hurting friend. Eliphaz mistakes the spirit who appears before him for the Lord, when, in truth, it is the sly, sweet-talking Satan, insinuating seeds of doubt, of both human and divine nature: neither are to be trusted.

He does, however, come out with one of the most incredible descriptions of the human being ever spoken: ‘those who live in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust,’—speaking not of domestic architecture, but of the body, crafted from the clay of the earth, to which it shall return, and animated by the breath of God. For, contrary to Satan’s accusation, the Lord does not only put trust in human beings, but entrusts his very breath.

What impact does it have, what questions does it raise, for us to be those who live in houses of clay?


‘Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered:

‘If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended?
But who can keep from speaking?
See, you have instructed many;
you have strengthened the weak hands.
Your words have supported those who were stumbling,
and you have made firm the feeble knees.
But now it has come to you, and you are impatient;
it touches you, and you are dismayed.
Is not your fear of God your confidence,
and the integrity of your ways your hope?

‘Think now, who that was innocent ever perished?
Or where were the upright cut off?
As I have seen, those who plough iniquity
and sow trouble reap the same.
By the breath of God they perish,
and by the blast of his anger they are consumed.
The roar of the lion, the voice of the fierce lion,
and the teeth of the young lions are broken.
The strong lion perishes for lack of prey,
and the whelps of the lioness are scattered.

‘Now a word came stealing to me,
my ear received the whisper of it.
Amid thoughts from visions of the night,
when deep sleep falls on mortals,
dread came upon me, and trembling,
which made all my bones shake.
A spirit glided past my face;
the hair of my flesh bristled.
It stood still,
but I could not discern its appearance.
A form was before my eyes;
there was silence, then I heard a voice:
“Can mortals be righteous before God?
Can human beings be pure before their Maker?
Even in his servants he puts no trust,
and his angels he charges with error;
how much more those who live in houses of clay,
whose foundation is in the dust,
who are crushed like a moth.
Between morning and evening they are destroyed;
they perish for ever without any regarding it.
Their tent-cord is plucked up within them,
and they die devoid of wisdom.”


Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Deep darkness


At least as powerful as any Shakespeare soliloquy, this speech from the mouth of Job is as raw an articulation of human experience as you will find. It is not the final word. Ultimately, the deep darkness is found to be claimed by God, in love, as is Job, and every troubled soul—even Satan! And there may come a time when you, also, embrace that love, for yourself, and showered on others. These words might, however, find you where you are today. And it might be enough to know that you are not alone.

‘After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. Job said:

‘Let the day perish on which I was born,
and the night that said,
“A man-child is conceived.”
Let that day be darkness!
May God above not seek it,
or light shine on it.
Let gloom and deep darkness claim it.
Let clouds settle upon it;
let the blackness of the day terrify it.
That night—let thick darkness seize it!
let it not rejoice among the days of the year;
let it not come into the number of the months.
Yes, let that night be barren;
let no joyful cry be heard in it.
Let those curse it who curse the Sea,
those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan.
Let the stars of its dawn be dark;
let it hope for light, but have none;
may it not see the eyelids of the morning—
because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb,
and hide trouble from my eyes.

‘Why did I not die at birth,
come forth from the womb and expire?
Why were there knees to receive me,
or breasts for me to suck?
Now I would be lying down and quiet;
I would be asleep; then I would be at rest
with kings and counsellors of the earth
who rebuild ruins for themselves,
or with princes who have gold,
who fill their houses with silver.
Or why was I not buried like a stillborn child,
like an infant that never sees the light?
There the wicked cease from troubling,
and there the weary are at rest.
There the prisoners are at ease together;
they do not hear the voice of the taskmaster.
The small and the great are there,
and the slaves are free from their masters.

‘Why is light given to one in misery,
and life to the bitter in soul,
who long for death, but it does not come,
and dig for it more than for hidden treasures;
who rejoice exceedingly,
and are glad when they find the grave?
Why is light given to one who cannot see the way,
whom God has fenced in?
For my sighing comes like my bread,
and my groanings are poured out like water.
Truly the thing that I fear comes upon me,
and what I dread befalls me.
I am not at ease, nor am I quiet;
I have no rest; but trouble comes.’


When in Rome


This week, the lectionary for Morning Prayer takes us into the Old Testament book of Job and the New Testament book of Romans. Job is an incredible work, that teaches us that we do not know the whole picture, and that God desires for all persons to know wellbeing and works for that by being present to us in our pain. Romans is a brilliant letter, written by Paul to the house churches of Rome, concerned with the scope of salvation in Jesus Christ, encompassing Jew and Gentile and breaking down the divisions between them.

Yesterday, we found ourselves in the second half of the first chapter, which is widely seen as condemning same-sex relationships. I regularly encounter three different responses by Christians to this (there are others, but these are the ones I most frequently meet). Some argue that Paul is simply wrong in this regard, and must be put aside. But I hold to the view that Paul writes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and in order to reveal truths needful to salvation. Others claim that Paul is enlightened for his time, but of his time; and that we are called to continue that trajectory of liberation in the light (and darkness) of our time. Again, I would uphold that Paul is not simply enlightened for his time, but inspired by the Holy Spirit; and, moreover, that he was not a man of and constrained by his time (any more than we are of ours) but sent to his time and rooted in the history of God’s plan of salvation (as we, too, are sent, and rooted). Still others affirm that Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, condemns same-sex relationships as incompatible with God’s plan for humanity, and that is the end of the matter. But here I would respectfully suggest that, in declaring the ‘plain meaning’ of the text, they have not paid careful attention to what Paul actually wrote, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

In setting out a revealed understanding of the nature of God and of humanity, Paul emphasises that God handed humanity over to urges, too strong for us to resist, to treat other people in dishonouring ways, that fail to acknowledge that they are created in the likeness of God, and result in shame. Paul restates this handing over several times. It is the same word used in the Gospels of Jesus being handed over to the authorities, and speaking of his followers being handed over to the authorities; and, in Romans chapter 8, in the context of a list of shameful things done or that might be done to Paul and his companions, Paul uses it of God handing over his Son, for our sakes. Jesus, the antidote to shame. Whatever it is that God is doing here, it is laying the foundation for salvation.

As Paul continues to explore what it is that God is doing here, he turns to same-sex relations, both between women and between men. It is not entirely clear what manner of relationship Paul is describing—some point out that the Greek suggests same-sex prostitution—but the emphasised point is that this activity is ‘contrary to nature’. Again, it is not immediately clear what is meant by this—does it, for example, mean contrary to the self-evident cultural expectations of the Jews among Paul’s audience, as where, elsewhere, he says that it is contrary to nature for men to have long hair and women, short? It is, however, a crucial point that Paul is laying down.

Crucial, because Paul will return to it. In chapter 11 [What? How are we supposed to track an argument constructed so painstakingly!] Paul describes the Gentiles as having been grafted into the olive tree that symbolises God’s people, grafted in by God, contrary to nature. Paul goes on to note that those Christians of Jewish cultural heritage are natural branches that have been broken off the tree by God, and then grafted back into the tree by God, contrary to nature. Therefore, both Gentiles and Jews find their place in the people of God as a result of God’s contrary-to-nature action. This is as true for Paul, who can list his qualifications in the flesh, as well as recognise that this has never really been the way in which Israel is truly constituted—see chapter 9, immediately following on from the part about the Son being handed over, and the victory, in him, over shame—as it is for anyone else.

Contrary to nature, therefore, is not opposed to God’s salvation plan, but key to it. Contrary to nature is not Paul’s prejudice exposed, but God’s loving activity revealed.

Now clearly, the commodification of bodies through same-sex prostitution is as far a fall from God’s will for humanity as is envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, gossip, slander, hatred towards God, insolence, arrogance, boasting, inventing evil, rebelling against parents, foolishness, faithlessness, heartlessness, ruthlessness—or all the other ways in which any and all human relationships are bound by strong urges that overpower us. Even so, herein lies a key revelation pointing to God’s salvation plan. In the same way that marriage between a man and a woman points beyond itself to the relationship between Jesus and the Church—and, therefore, the use of prostitutes violates this—might not committed same-sex relationships point beyond themselves to God joining Jew and Gentile together as one flesh?


Friday, May 14, 2021


Wednesday evening and Thursday this week saw the Christian celebration of Ascension Day (the start of Ascensiontide, the final ten days of the 50-day long Eastertide) coincide with Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim celebrations marking the end of the month of Ramadan.

While there are profound differences in how Christians and Muslims view Jesus, both faith traditions claim that he ascended bodily to heaven, from where he will return, to take up a judicial reign of justice and peace.

Ascensiontide is the Christian expression recalling Jesus ascending to the throne prepared for him at the right hand of God, to be seated there until God subjugates his enemies under his anointed one, establishing the heavenly reign on earth through this faithful anointed one who will judge the nations. In this, Jesus fulfils the intention begun in David, king of Jerusalem (see Psalm 2 and Psalm 110), of whom it was claimed God bestowed the title ‘my begotten son’.

Ascensiontide is, for Christians, a period set aside for prayer that this future reign of justice and peace might not only come soon but also be anticipated, felt, in the present. That we, who acknowledge Jesus on the throne, might be empowered as peacemakers, in our troubled world. That the nations, and indeed the whole cosmos, might be brought into harmony—not a uniformity, but an interdependent diversity.

Peace be with you, today. Peace be between you and your neighbours, of all faiths and none. Peace be on the holy city of Jerusalem, and on the whole human family. Lord, have mercy on us.


Thursday, May 13, 2021

Ascension Day

I just love the Preface to the prayer of thanksgiving on Ascension Day, today. It cries out for children (and the young at heart) joining-in with big, bold, expressive actions:


It is indeed right and good,

our duty and our joy,

always and everywhere to give you thanks,

holy Father, almighty and eternal God,

through Jesus Christ the King of glory.

Born of a woman,

he came to the rescue of the human race.

Dying for us,

he trampled death and conquered sin.

By the glory of his resurrection

he opened the way to life eternal

and by his ascension,

gave us the sure hope

that where he is we may also be.

Therefore the universe resounds with Easter joy

and with choirs of angels we sing for ever to your praise:


(Proper Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer on Ascension Day, from Common Worship: Times and Seasons, copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2006)


Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Deep waters


I’m baptising some folk at the weekend. They asked me to include the well-known religious poem Footprints, which speaks of Jesus walking alongside us throughout our lives, and carrying us in the hardest times. I’m happy to, but I shall also be retelling an account from the gospels, where Jesus tells his fishermen friends to put out into deep the water, and there, their empty nets—for they had fished all night without a catch—are miraculously filled.

Much of the gospels are centred on Lake Tiberius, the Sea of Galilee. And the lake functions in the stories of Jesus in at least three ways.

It is, firstly, the compass of the everyday lived experience of Jesus’ fishermen friends.

However, throughout the Bible, the sea, contrasted against the gift of the land, often represents the chaos that routinely threatens to overwhelm our lives—the shore, then, being where the gift of life and the possible destruction of life meet.

And yet, the lake is also the place where the disciples are given a deeper insight into who Jesus is—calming the wind and the waves, walking on water, directing miraculous catches of fish. Into the mystery of who God is, in and through this neighbour who is, in some undefinable sense, more than the boy next door. Here, then, the shore is the meeting-place of the fully human and fully divine.

This week is Mental Health Awareness week, and it pertains to all of us, in our everyday lives: the things we do, the places we go, the people we live alongside.

It is possible to live with underlying mental health issues that are well-managed, enabling us to experience life fully, and, broadly speaking, positively—just as it is possible to live well with underlying physical health issues.

It is possible to have no underlying mental health issues, and yet, at times, feel overwhelmed, even to the point of great danger, the threat of losing (or, indeed, the consequence of having lost) what we hold dear.

It is possible to know both gift and danger in our personal makeup—and to encounter God in both the gift side and the danger side. To grow deeper into the blessing of the particular clay—with its unique properties—God has fashioned me, or you, from, breathing life into us. And to put out deeper into the mystery of the God who has created us, and invites us into friendship.

Don’t be afraid of your mental health, and don’t be afraid to speak about mental health. Put out into the deep water. You might be surprised by what happens.


Thursday, May 06, 2021



Across the UK today, 06.05.21, people are voting in a variety of elections. The Church is non-partisan, but encourages people to use their democratic right and responsibility wisely, and church buildings are commonly offered to the wider community as polling stations in order to facilitate that. Once again, both churches I currently serve are hosting polling stations today.

How might we go about voting, and relating to one another well in a society where people hold diverse opinions, on a wide variety of issues? At our service of Holy Communion today, we heard again Acts 15:7-21, an account of a time when the church was wrestling with issues of diversity within the community and determining the level of conformity that is needed for that community to be community at all. Key principles in this process included much debate—no quick or uninformed decisions—and respectful, attentive listening to people’s experience, including their experience of having been with people from very different backgrounds and worldviews. Only then is a way forward offered: that what was needed for a diverse church to flourish was to abstain from the contamination of idolatry, and from the commodification of sex, and from treatment of animals that did not revere their life.

Clearly this list is contextual, and relates to the church rather than wider society. Might it, nonetheless, have anything to say to us in relation to how we vote, and how we relate to those who vote differently? Perhaps.

An idol is something—usually, something good in and of itself—that has been elevated above all else, taking the place of God in our affections. Political parties can become idols. If, for example, we believe that the party of our preference is the only party capable of addressing the issues we face as a society, then it has become an idol to us, a good thing contaminated. Or to give another example, the NHS has become an idol to many. For some, this justifies selling it off. For others, this proposed course of action is an example of the idolatry of Money at play. How we view, and review, the NHS is a complex matter to which we must attend, but in doing so, we might want to reflect on what happens to us when we elevate anything—socioeconomics, even healthcare itself—above all else.

The commodification of sex objectifies both us, ourself, and others—as opposed to a mutual self-giving in which each person is both the object and the subject of desire, desirable and desiring. This extends beyond sexual activity to the recognition—or not—of sexuality. But this misuse of bodies, our bodies, is a principle we might extend to any objectification of others: for being poor, or rich; native, or foreign…In how we chose to vote, and in how we relate to those who vote differently, in addition to asking “What do we care about too much?” (above) we might want to ask, “Who do we care about too little?”

Finally, from Acts 15, our voting might do well to be informed by care for the environment, the wider creation. Again, this is not a simplistic matter—there is more than one approach to environmental sustainability—but it is a simple matter: if a candidate has no informed opinion, or denies that the environment matters, they are not going to be a good steward of something that is of a fundamental importance to the flourishing of community.

These, then, are matters for much debate, and attentive listening to one another, not only as we come to cast our vote but as we then work out what it means to live together with the outcome.


Tuesday, May 04, 2021



As of today, 04.05.2021, the way in which marriages are registered in England and Wales has changed. Some of the changes are long overdue, some feel like an opportunity missed. But one part of today’s transition has been the closing of the elegant hard-bound, olive-green, gold-lettered Church of England Register[s] Of Marriages. Today, I have drawn 344 diagonal lines, in archive quality ink, through 172 record entries (in duplicate registers) that will never be used. It felt like the end of an era that it is, but also an unexpectedly therapeutic activity.

[In recent years, as the number of church weddings has fallen, these registers became slimmer; but there have never been many weddings at St Nicholas’ and so these were the older 250-entry registers, in which 78 weddings are recorded, between 1993-2017. The registers at the Minster are more recent, and therefore contain fewer entries, and will require fewer lines drawn through them—though this will be done by one of my colleagues.]