Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 3


In which the exiles begin to dare to trust God for a return home


Genesis 1:9-13

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered in one place so that the dry land will appear,” and so it was. And God called the dry land Earth and the gathering of waters He called Seas, and God saw that it was good. And God said, “Let the earth grow grass, plants yielding seed of each kind and trees bearing fruit of each kind, that has its seed within it upon the earth.” And so it was. And the earth put forth grass, plants yielding seed, and trees bearing fruit of each kind, and God saw that it was good. And it was evening and it was morning, third day.


Amos 9:11-15

On that day I will raise up the fallen shelter of David and I will stop up its breaches and its ruins will I raise and rebuild it as in days of yore, so that they take hold of the remnant of Edom and all the nations on which My name has been called, said the LORD, Who does this. Look, days are coming, said the LORD, when the ploughman shall overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes the sower of seed. And the mountains shall drip fermented juice, and all the hills shall melt. And I will restore the fortunes of My people Israel, and they shall rebuild desolate towns and dwell there and plant vineyards and drink their wine. And they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. And I will plant them on their soil, and they shall no more be uprooted from their soil that I have given them, said the LORD your God.


In biblical imagery, trees stand for people, sometimes a person of interest, sometimes nations. Fruit stands for the culture a society produces, whether characterized by justice and mercy or by injustice and indifference. Seed stands for the ability of a given group to reproduce their values.

In my culture, we put up trees in our homes in December, and decorate them, often with baubles that tell family stories, perhaps made by our children or grandchildren or placed on the tree with their help, making memories. As you put up your tree, and while it takes room in your home, hold those people and memories before God in prayer, not forgetting those whose lives lack security this Christmas.

Biblical texts: Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary


Monday, November 29, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 2


In which the exiles reimagine exile as God’s constraint and shelter for them


Genesis 1:6-8

And God said, “Let there be a vault in the midst of the waters, and let it divide water from water.” And God made the vault and it divided the water beneath the vault from the water above the vault, and so it was. And God called the vault Heavens, and it was evening and it was morning, second day.


Amos 9:1-6

I saw the Master stationed by the altar, and He said: Strike the capitals that the thresholds shake. I will split them on the heads of them all, and who is left of them I will slay with the sword. None of them shall be able to flee, and no survivor from them shall escape. Were they to dig down to Sheol, from there My hand would take them, and were they to ascend to the heavens, from there I would bring them down. And were they to hide on the peak of Carmel, I would search them out there and take them. And were they to take cover from My eyes on the floor of the sea, from there I would summon the Serpent and it would bite them. And should they go in captivity before their enemies, from there I will summon the sword and it would slay them. And I will put My eye on them for evil and not for good.

And the Master, LORD of Armies, Who but touches the earth and it melts and all dwellers upon it mourn, and it goes up like the Nile, and sinks like the Nile of Egypt. Who builds in the heavens His lofts and His vault upon the earth He founds. Who calls forth the waters of the sea and pours them over the earth—the LORD is His name.


In dark times, we long for hope. But when we rush, we are likely to rush to false hopes. The exiles deported to Babylon needed to make sense of their situation, and Advent asks the same of us. God has set limits on our human capacity to determine our lives, has fashioned a vault that—like all great architecture—both shelters us and draws out wonder.

In what ways have you had to accept the limits of your capacity over the past year? In what ways have you discovered this to be grace?

Biblical texts: Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary


Sunday, November 28, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 1


In which the exiles lament the desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem


Genesis 1:1-5

When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And it was evening and it was morning, first day.


Lamentations 2:1, 2, 13

How has the Master beclouded in His wrath the daughter of Zion, has flung from the heavens to the ground the splendor of Israel, nor did He recall His footstool on the day of His wrath. The Master obliterated, had no mercy, all of Jacob’s dwellings, brought to the ground, profaned, a kingdom and its nobles.

How can I bear witness for you, what can I liken to you, O Daughter of Jerusalem? What can I compare to you and console you, O Virgin, Zion’s Daughter? For great as the sea is your breaking. Who can heal you?


Genesis opens not with a primeval planet Earth, but a cosmos centered on a devastated Jerusalem and desecrated Temple, whose God has gone with His people into exile.

Where have you known devastation in the past year? Or where have you seen it in the lives of others? From the impact of a deadly pandemic to homes destroyed by fires or floods to the cries of asylum seekers falling on the deaf ears of harden hearts, where do you long for God to speak into the chaos? And dare you see His judgement on us, in the devastation we sit in? Perhaps only then can we hope to see light and goodness.

Where have you been enabled, by, and with, God, to see the light?

Biblical texts: Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary


Saturday, November 27, 2021

Advent readings 2021 : Day 0


Advent is the annual season of expectation, of attending to making ourselves ready for the Lord’s return, as we prepare to celebrate his first coming long ago. Each year, it has been my practice to count the days, with an Advent reflection. This year, I am going back to the very start, to contemplate what it means to declare that God is King of the Universe in the face of the upheavals of the world we live in. This was the defining question for God’s ancient people carried off into exile in Babylon—that is to say, how they wrestled with this question, and the answers they came up with, literally defined them as a people. Their answer was to shape a Great Story, a life-giving, hope-sustaining, future-imagining myth, from an oral tradition handed down to them over centuries. In their exile, and its aftermath, they wrote much of the Hebrew Bible, or Christian Old Testament, as we know it. I shall be working with Robert Alter’s translation, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary.


Thursday, November 25, 2021

Reading from the ashes


Reading Genesis 1 in a post-Brexit pandemic.

While drawing on a centuries-long oral tradition, the book of Genesis is an exilic and even post-exilic text, a work of making meaning in a context of enormous upheaval.

If Eden (chapters 2 & 3) is Babylon, Genesis 1 is centred on Jerusalem. This is not the creation of the world, but in a world that has become formless and for whom God acts to bring order out of chaos, Genesis 1 plants us firmly in the ashes of Jerusalem besieged and plundered by Nebuchadnezzar II.

Chronologically, it follows on from Jeremiah’s Lamentations over Jerusalem. In the unfolding vision of a sun and moon and stars, and the reestablishment of a flourishing plant and animal kingdom, the text actively engages with texts such as Ezra, Nehemiah, and Haggai, in which God raises up governors and high priests to give light to the people, and the restoration passages in texts such as Isaiah, Joel and Amos, which paint pictures of a new world centred on a restored Jerusalem.

What bearing might this have on how we read Genesis 1 in a UK ruled by disaster capitalists on the make, or a world where leaders make promises on tackling climate crisis they have no intention of keeping?


Faithful improvisation


In these Last Days at the tail end of the Church calendar, we are sitting with Daniel at Holy Communion. The book of Daniel concerns the experience of the civil service of Jerusalem after they were deported into exile in Babylon. It is full of big, bold, colourful episodes, such as The Writing On The Wall and Daniel in the Lions’ Den.

To help make sense of what had happened to them, and to keep hope alive for what might happen, the exiles engaged in what we might call faithful improvisation. Drawing on ancient resources to sustain their present and imagine their future into being, they wrote down stories.

So the neo-Babylonian empire is depicted as Adam, and the Medes, with whom they had made a marriage alliance and who would eventually betray them, become Eve. Babylon with its fabled gardens and mighty rivers becomes Eden. The presence of Yahweh, the god of the exiles, in their midst becomes the Tree of Life; and the presence of his people, represented by civil servants of unparalleled, godlike, insight becomes the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Their hosts are prohibited from devouring the fruit of that tree, on pain of judgement; nonetheless, they do attempt to consume the fruit, in fiery furnace or lions’ enclosure. The talking dragon sidekick of the god of Babylon even makes a cameo appearance.

In this faithful improvisation, the story of Adam and Eve is reimagined as a pre-history not of humankind but of the return from exile, after the judgement of these superpowers.

How might we engage in faithful improvisation, reimagining this story from within the context of being a church community in the northeast of England who have welcomed into our midst a significant number of Christian asylum seekers from across the Middle East, largely of Persian background?

Adam stands for the regime in Iran, ruling over the ancient Persian empire.

Eve stands for the British government, for in their financing, and selling of arms, and occasional sabre-rattling, the Mother Of All Parliaments is both a support and a liability for the Iranian regime.

Eden is the beautiful land of Iran.

The Tree of Life represents God’s faithful presence to bless the Persian people through the centuries. (Did you know that the Magi who visited the infant Jesus were Persian ambassadors?)

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil represents the Persian church, rapidly growing in the face of strong persecution.

Through this faithful improvisation, the story of Adam and Eve is reimagined, within my context, as a pre-history of the future time when my Persian sisters and brothers can return home, to live their lives openly and without fear of imprisonment, torture, or death.

Of course, this is not the only way to reimagine the Genesis pre-history. But it is the only way to read the Genesis pre-history, asking, how does this text live for us and give us life?


Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Open invite

I am very aware of how stretched so many people around me (and including myself) are at present. In every sphere of my life I am seeing competent professionals dropping the ball, sometimes repeatedly, through sheer exhaustion. It is like watching Scotland play rugby in the bad old days. We are still trying to manage life under pandemic conditions, with the pressure of business-as-normal in circumstances that are not as they previously were.

Therefore, I will be opening St Nicholas’ church between 6.00-7.00 p.m. on each Monday in Advent (29th November; 6th, 13th and 20th December) as a space to sit under the stars, to pray or reflect or simply catch breath.

Come along at any point in that hour, stay for as short or as long as you need. There will be quiet music in the background, and I will be available if you need to speak, but essentially this is a gift of space.


Discipleship matters


The letters written or often co-written by the apostle Paul are not abstract theology but contextual discipleship, addressing concrete issues in local congregations. They are correspondence, and they require careful interpretation, because we have lost the letters written to Paul and because the Greek in which they were written lacks the punctuation or structure we would use today to, say, indicate where we are citing part of a letter we were responding to.

Paul ministered alongside the church at Ephesus for two years, and when he moved on, appointed his disciple Timothy as an overseer of the church. This was not a unilateral position; what we might call leadership was exercised collaboratively at both a local and regional level. Timothy is one of the leaders in Ephesus, also in communication with Paul. The apostle John was also based in Ephesus, exercising a travelling ministry across Asia Minor from there, and Mary the mother of Jesus was the surrogate grandmother of his household. Mary was known in the church at Ephesus. Her story was known.

In correspondence we have between Paul and Timothy, the older man helps the younger man wrestle with discipleship questions. Paul addresses men behaving badly, disputing with angry argument; and women behaving inappropriately, competing against one another in dress codes lifted straight from the pagan temple. He then turns to deal with a married couple, where the wife is abusing the equal authority she has within their relationship to withhold sexual intimacy.

Paul reminds them that women, whose voice is given to teach, must also be willing to learn, and insists that a wife must not abuse authority against her husband.

Paul goes on to remind them that in the Genesis account, the woman is made to be the one who delivers her man from adversity, not fights against him; and that it was the asserting of an independence that resulted in Eve’s great loss; yet, Paul insists, this Ephesian woman will be spared the resulting increased pain in childbirth if as a couple they stand together united in faith, love and holiness, with propriety.

Or perhaps the reference to Adam and Eve is the woman’s reasoning for withholding sex—that her husband ought to accept the wife God has given him, and accept her fear of a consequence that men do not suffer—to which Paul counters, if you will work through this impasse together, God will deliver you from the pain you fear.

What is interesting is that Mary is known in the church in Ephesus. At a later date, and to address other theological questions that are abstract rather than pertaining to discipleship, the Church claimed for Mary a perpetual virginity. But had this been her life story, it would have given precedent for permanent sexual abstinence within marriage. The case of the couple in Ephesus would not have been a cause of controversy. Or, if it were, addressing it would have involved demonstrating why Mary was not a role-model in this regard, but an exceptional case. As it is, permanent sexual abstinence in marriage is strongly discouraged in the early church, but rises to a place of prominence later on, hand-in-hand with the growth of the idea of Marian perpetual virginity.

In short, beware addressing abstract theological ideas, and focus on discipleship, on the practical outworking of following Jesus as we live out our daily lives and work out our relationships.


Holy family


Despite all the textual and historical evidence that Jesus was born in the heart of a first-century Judaean family home, and not a stable at the back of an inn (which is a western cultural misunderstanding) a lot of people seem to want to argue that Mary and Joseph would be forced to seek marginal lodging because both sides of the family would ostracise an unmarried couple expecting a child.

There are cultures where shame trumps familial ties, and cultures where familial ties trump potential shame. There are cultures where both possibilities entwine. The argument that Mary and Joseph would be ostracised makes choices that may not be right.

It also assumes that God was able to prepare both Mary and Joseph, but did not prepare—by whatever means, including the relationship between Mary and her family and Joseph and his family—their wider families. This in turn is shaped by a very western, individualistic understanding of our actions and agency.

Along the same lines, it also assumes that Mary was godly, and Joseph a righteous man, but that in neither case did the families they were raised in have any significant part in the formation of their lives and character.

It is, in short, a conclusion that is shaped by our cultural values and not theirs.

This is a story in which, again and again, as we anticipate first the birth of John and then the birth of Jesus, these children are welcomed into the heart of an expectant, if bewildered, family.


Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Christmas story


Long, but seasonal.

It may be too early for some, but Christmas is coming, and I have already seen cartoons circulating poking fun at poor Joseph getting a frosty reception from Mary for having forgotten to book a room in the inn.

It is a tired old image, used to justify the widely-held (by men and women alike) cultural idea of men as incompetent fathers or last-minute Christmas shoppers, unable to plan, yet somehow always managing to get away with it, at least in their own eyes.

But British cultural Joseph couldn’t be further from the truth. Here is a man hand-chosen by God, just as much as Mary was, in a careful plan, generations in the making.

Joseph is a descendent of king David. David’s line has long since had the throne stripped from them as a consequence of their unfaithfulness towards God, but the hope of restoration remains, no more so than in David’s hometown of Bethlehem. David is the one who wanted to build a house for the Lord, but was not permitted to do so, on account of having blood on his hands, the blood of Uriah husband of Bathsheba. Instead, the Lord permits David’s son by Bathsheba, Solomon, to build a temple David plans and prepares for.

That in itself is a redemption story. But David’s faithful descendant Joseph is—listen to this—a builder of houses—and the one entrusted with guiding Jesus through the transformation from God-with-us in a tent (which is how the Prologue to John’s Gospel describes the coming of Jesus) to the one who will build God’s house, the Church.

Joseph is from Bethlehem, but he has travelled to Nazareth to be betrothed to Mary. In that culture, bridegrooms would then return to their parental home, and build a new extension in which they would begin a new life before returning to fetch their bride. Extended family generations sometimes created a compound of (essentially) one-roomed dwellings, around one or more courtyards. Things go somewhat differently for Joseph.

First, he discovers that the girl he is betrothed to is pregnant, and he is not the father. This is clearly a cause of distress to him, but his response is that of a righteous man. After prayer and reflection, he resolves to break off the betrothal quietly, in such a way as to protect Mary from scandal and, potentially, from death threats. But then an angel, a messenger from God, comes to him in a dream and convinces him to take Mary as his wife and to raise the child, for this is God’s plan.

In the meantime, Mary has travelled to her relative Elizabeth, nearer to Bethlehem. Elizabeth is also unexpectedly pregnant. They may each help shield the other from unwanted attention.

Further complicating matters, a periodic Roman census is called (the most famous of these, though almost certainly not this one, occurred under Quirinius, Governor of Syria) and Joseph heads to his home in Bethlehem—to register where he lived—taking Mary with him. (No census called for a return to your place-of-origin; empires want to know who lives where, not where they originate from.)

In all these circumstances, there may not have been time for Joseph to build a new home for his bride. And so they lodge with family, most likely Joseph’s immediate family although any family in Bethlehem would have welcomed a son of David. Families lived all together in a single room, with animals such as a small cow and goats kept at a lower level at one end (providing warmth at night, as well as protection for the animals) and a guest room either at the other end from the animals or on the flat roof. This is the room were Mary and Joseph were staying. Not an inn where travellers paid to sleep on a shared floor, but the guest room of a family home.

However, this room was too small for Mary to give birth, attended to by the women and girls of the home and the women who served the community as midwives, and so Jesus was born in the main room at the heart of his extended family at the heart of a community eagerly anticipating a descendant of David to whom God would restore the throne.

That night, the whole town rejoiced. And there, the young family lived, for a couple of years, Joseph building a home, to which in time a caravan of astrologers from royal courts to the east came to honour the birth of a new king of the Jews. This greatly disturbed the king on the throne, a paranoid vassal of Rome, who (we are told) ordered that every infant in and around Bethlehem be massacred. That is when the hopes and dreams of David’s community bled out.

(This is why the Prologue of John’s Gospel speaks of all those who recognised Jesus’ coming to his people, as well as those who did not recognise, or acknowledge, him.)

But once again, Joseph is visited by night by an angel, and, so warned, gathers up his little family and flees as a refugee to the Jewish diaspora community in Egypt. Here is a man who knows when it is wisest to run away. And there they live until after Herod the Great dies, when they—perhaps by now already joined by the next of Jesus’ brothers and sisters—set out for Bethlehem; though on discovering that Herod’s most unstable heir is ruling there, they continue north and build a life in Nazareth, close to Mary’s side of the family.

Joseph is a remarkable man; a remarkable husband and father; a remarkable friend and trusted covenant partner to God. He has been on my mind today.


Monday, November 22, 2021

Corresponding warriors


On Saturday, Jo, Elijah and I watched Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021). Afterward, Elijah and I had a conversation about the rebooting (or journey of redemption?) of a character whose history is mired in racial stereotyping, to a place where a new cinema storyline creates space for no less than four female characters—brought to life by the brilliant Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, and Michelle Yeoh—as absolute equals to any male characters.

These four Chinese-heritage women, along with others in supporting roles, entirely align with another ancient cultural understanding of the place and role of women, the biblical term ezer enkendu, or woman as ‘corresponding warrior’ who comes to fight alongside, and rescue, the male counterpart. Again and again, across two generations and both sides of a family line, women in this film enable their men—husband, son, nephew, friend—to discover and draw out his truest nature, and to set aside false projections of what it means to be a man, or indeed a failure as a man, including a protracted child-man state.

The film includes the lasting trauma inflicted when a gang of men kill the wife and mother played by Fala Chen, and the choices her husband and children, a son and a daughter, make in response to their trauma.

After Saturday comes Sunday, and at our service of Choral Evensong we read out another, longer list of women’s names: 108 women (plus the two very young daughters of one of them) who have been the victims of domestic femicide in our country in the past year. Women killed by their male partners or ex-partners, or family members.

Women are corresponding warriors. And sometimes they need to stand shoulder to shoulder with one another, and alongside male allies, to fight, in a way that is deeply, viscerally physical while at the same time non-violent, for justice, for transformation, for a redemptive story. Because not every woman has a peaceful end, not every woman gets to liberate a man—whether sexual partner, or father, brother, son—who is willing to make himself vulnerable to love’s transforming work.

We name them, in public and before God, looking to the day when we can fall silent because there are no names to offer up from the previous twelve months. We name them, in hope of the possibility of a new story.


Saturday, November 20, 2021

Speaking of dying


In my culture, we seek reassurance that the death of someone known to us was peaceful. But dying is hardly ever peaceful, and for good reason. What we actually need is a new vocabulary.

Dying is rarely peaceful, because dying is a labour-work.

Almost all of us have participated in labour once before, for birth is a collaborative (if not equal) effort between a mother and baby; whenever either one is unable to play their part, that is when we speak of complications. And though we have no conscious memory of our birth, the body knows what the body knows. Many, though by no means all, women experience subsequent labours, but giving birth to someone else is a different, albeit related, work. Dying is our second labour to be birthed: once, before, from our mother’s womb into this world; now, from the womb of this world into the world beyond. This is true—our bodies know it to be so—whether we believe that the world beyond shares a high degree of continuity with this one, or believe that, from the perspective of this world, what lies beyond is oblivion. This is true, even if we did not labour our own birth, and do not have that memory to draw on. It is also the case that some are ‘ripped untimely’ from either womb, whether a C-section birth or a sudden and violent death.

Like childbirth, the labour of dying can take days; comes with laboured (not a pun) breathing; is, if we are fortunate, attended, by midwives who watch over us, for labour-work is not only work but work at our most vulnerable. We would not usually ask, of a new mother, “Was the birth peaceful?” though I note the wishful thinking of Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright. But we might say, “Mother and baby did really well, and both are resting now” or, “It was a difficult birth, but she is resting now.” What we, who anxiously wait for news, are really asking is, is the news good?

It is not so much a peaceful death we need as rest once our labour is done. And to make peace with the knowledge that this second birth awaits us all. And, perhaps most of all, to see dying as the culmination of living, not its diminishing. Then we can rightly say, let us release the breath we have been holding in, and give thanks. This is not to deny grief, and the importance of grief-work. On the contrary, it may lift the anxiety that can complicate this labour of love of those who remain.


Thursday, November 18, 2021

The wind and the leaves


I set out to go and kneel
at a bedside where death advances
and the kingdom of God draws near,
and the pavements I walked on
were thick with fallen leaves,
red, yellow, tan,
the resplendent glory of the dying.
All along the street the wind
was making leaves to circle-dance
before me, so that I wanted to clap like a child,
and say, “Again! Again!”
It had no meaning except joy.

When leaves are green
and bursting out in silent song,
the wind gives them an audible voice
with which to sing.
When leaves die,
the same wind lifts them up
to dance.
Living and dying, alike,
the breath of God draws out
our song, our circle-dance,
makes every passing moment holy.
We rest, and rise, in peace and glory.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Growing old


As a teacher of an ancient and, to many, a sacred library, I am very aware of the relationship between us and those texts we privilege. And—dare I say it—I find myself troubled by a text you will come across repeatedly around the Eleventh of November:

“They shall grow not old,

as we that are left grow old;

age shall not weary them,

nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun

and in the morning,

we will remember them.”

This is a text that starts out as a lament over the utterly tragic loss of a generation of young men, and rightly so. Even so, it flirts with the age-old glorification of youth, and is readily co-opted by our obsessive revulsion with aging. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. The lament over needless dying young becomes a lament over necessary growing old.

The youngest Titan, Cronos, castrated his father Uranus (the Sky; this is why the sky bleeds red every at every dusk). In early tellings of the story, he did so with his teeth; later, the tale was gentrified, providing him with a scythe—which is why Old Father Time (Cronos = chronological time) carries a scythe. Later, Cronos devoured his own children in order to prevent them from doing the same to him, though he was deceived into swallowing a rock rather than his sixth child Zeus, who grew up to rescue his siblings from their father’s stomach. So you can see that we have had a fear of aging and a love of youth for a long time.

I am not yet old, but I am a middle-aged man, and a man who as a younger man had a vasectomy (I do not fear the scythe). And I do not see aging as a curse, but a blessing, a privilege denied to many. It is also true that middle-age comes with a great deal of sadness and not a little confusion, and can be tiring—I sometimes feel weary, but not condemned—along with moments of breath-taking grace and beauty. But I am not convinced that our—rightful—remembering those whose lives were cut short should be conflated with the awesome burden of growing old.


Blessed are the peacemakers


It is said that at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918, the sound of shelling fell silent at the End of the War to End All Wars. I think we can safely say by now that recalling that moment is not, in itself, adequate. We must commit ourselves to the ongoing—every hour of every day of every month—work of re-membering our common but divided humanity. Our future—our children’s and grandchildren’s future—depends on it. Our world—their world—depends on it.

I spent yesterday with friends from the Nordkirche, the Church of the North, Germany. Every two years, we meet together, from Durham Diocese and the Nordkirche. In 2017, I was part of the Durham delegation at the consultation in Hamburg; in 2019, I venue-hosted the consultation at Sunderland Minster; and in 2021, we met online. It is always humbling, because the German participants conduct the entire proceedings in English. Not because “we won the War!” but as sheer grace, a gift, freely given, born of love.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons and daughters of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

How will you actively strengthen peace, today?


Welcoming the light


Tuesday, November 09, 2021

First dance


Today is my birthday. It has been a good day, so far. I took a funeral.

Douglas had served as Area Secretary of the National Federation of Building Trades Employers and as Director of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association NE.

At his funeral, we reflected on how much he had in common with Jesus, who was, from his teenage years and for most of his adult life, a builder. We read a passage from John’s Gospel where Jesus speaks of his heavenly Father’s home having many dwelling places, and of Jesus preparing a dwelling place for us and promising to return for us. In Jesus’ culture, a prospective groom and his parents would go to the home of a prospective bride. The groom’s parents would present the matter, that their son wished to marry this other couple’s daughter and they would understandably want to know the young man’s prospects. They would set out the family credentials: we imagined the conversation when Douglas spoke to his future father-in-law, a shy young man entering a large and gregarious family; of how he loved Ray’s daughter Maureen, and was a hard worker, a good worker, and would do right be her. As he did.

If the match was accepted, a betrothal party was thrown, a celebration of a life that had now come to an end. Then the groom went home with his parents. Most people lived in one-room dwellings, but often a multi-generation extended family might live in such rooms around a shared central courtyard. The groom would build a new dwelling on the courtyard, in which to begin a new life with his bride, and then return to take her to her new home. Their marriage was celebrated with a second party, the wedding banquet.

This is the imagery Jesus employs, to speak of his relationship with us, his bride, the Church.

We noted that today, this celebration of Douglas’ life up till now, and of the life we had shared with him, was the first party, the betrothal party. We celebrated that life with thankful hearts, as already begun in the cards sent to Maureen that cover the dining table, and to be continued in earnest at the wake.

We look forward to the second party, the wedding banquet, when we shall be together again—though I did say that I hoped that it would be many years before Maureen was reunited with Douglas, because there is nothing spoiling in heaven. But when we are reunited with all our loved ones, past and present, it will be glorious.

And we noted that after today’s party, from tomorrow, we wait. And prepare ourselves for that day. And there will be good days ahead, I promise; but also days when, like Thomas in our Gospel reading, we have a wobble. And so we party today, and we remind ourselves and one another that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. We remind ourselves of his promises.

And then we went on to the crematorium. We entered to Louis Armstrong singing We Have All The Time In TheWorld, which is 3 minutes and 20 seconds of perfection; and I stood at the podium and danced and sang along, as if it were the first dance at the engagement party. Which is exactly what it was.

Rest in peace, Douglas, and rise in glory.

And thank you, Louis, for singing so beautifully for my birthday.

John 14:1-6

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’



Today I took a funeral on my birthday.

I spoke about the person whose life we were giving thanks to God for. And I spoke about Jesus, to whom we might entrust our lives, now and always. I spoke about how their two lives connected, and about how our stories connect to theirs.

After the funeral, it was reported back to me that, on the strength of what they had heard, someone (I don’t know who, and that is probably for the best) who had stopped attending church several years ago was thinking they might give church another go.

If you were to ask me what I would like as a birthday present, it would have been hard to top that.


Sunday, November 07, 2021

Price tag


If you want to do something very well, there are two prices you must be willing to pay.

The first is being prepared to do that thing over and over and over again, eventually making at best marginal gains. There is simply no substitute for thousands of hours of practise, and practice.

The second is being prepared to accept that you will not do exceptional things. For the very things that enable the very good—finding your groove and sticking with it—mitigate against the exceptional, which is both stumbled upon and irreproducible.

If, on the other hand, you desire to do exceptional things—and why should you not?—there are also two prices you must be willing to pay.

The first is being prepared to settle for producing work that is ‘good enough,’ far more of the time; to stop far short of very good.

The second is being prepared to let a novice do what you are a master in—to begin to find their own way of doing it—and to be humble enough to learn from them, new ways to approach what you already know. (This is also the key to securing a future for what you do, a future that includes good enough, very good, and exceptional work.)

Of course, it is by definition not possible to produce exceptional work all of the time. Moreover, there is nothing wrong with aspiring to produce very good work. The secret is learning when to stick, and when to twist.


Thursday, November 04, 2021

Guest who?


On one occasion, Jesus attended a dinner party at the home of a prominent Pharisee.

Pharisees were men of standing and influence in their society, and while they were a religious reform group they might correlate more closely with local politicians—in the broadest sense—in my own culture, those seeking to shape society according to particular values.

Their engagement with Jesus was mixed: some seem to have enjoyed the kudos of having him as a dinner guest; some seem to have relished the opportunity to defeat him in debate; some seem to be genuinely interested in hearing what he had to say. But Jesus was often invited to eat in the homes of Pharisees, and accepted their invitations, and one gets the impression that those present were as much weighing one another up as assessing Jesus.

Anyway, on one occasion Jesus attended a dinner party at the home of a prominent Pharisee. And over the meal, Jesus, observing the power-play between the other guests, told his host that if he wanted his table to be like God’s table, he should invite not those who could repay the favour, but those who could not: the poor, the disabled, the marginalised.

And on hearing this, one of the dinner party set replied, anyone is blessed to be invited to God’s table. You say Disabled Lives Matter, Jesus, but actually All Lives Matter. You say Poor Lives Matter, but I respond, All Lives Matter. Your slogan sounds sound, but it is divisive. Why can’t we just all get along? After all, there was a disabled man at this very dinner party, before you had to go and heal him—on the Sabbath. So that undermines your case, and proves my point!

In response, Jesus told a story. Of a man who threw a party and invited influential guests. But one after another, each guest weighed up the benefit to themselves of being seen at that social event, and then sent their apologies. I have a prior engagement. And so the man, who believed himself to be an A-list celebrity, found himself deeply embarrassed. In his anger, he sends out invitations to the common people, those who might appreciate one day of the celebrity life.

In what way does this tell us what the kingdom of heaven is like? Is God a vain celeb? Or a contrast to that game? God does not invite us to his table to maintain influence, or to impress us with something we can never dream of having for ourselves. Rather, God disrupts everything—our hierarchies, our power plays, our celebrations, our sense of self, our ordering of society. And in that place of disruption, something wholly other breaks in.

God is revealed, fully, in the person of Jesus. And the person of Jesus, in this story event, reveals God to be the guest, not the host.

Perhaps Jesus’ host had already began to appreciate the limits of his influence, in the influence game. Perhaps the fellow guest who sought to put Jesus in his place was yet to get there.

How will we treat this guest in our midst?


Tuesday, November 02, 2021

The apprentice


Today is All Souls’ Day, or the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, the day on which we are encouraged to remember before God those women and men we have known personally, who, by their lives, their example, and their investment in us, trained us in the faith for holy living.

And on this All Souls’ Day, I have been thinking about how we speak to God.

When Jesus’ first disciples asked him to teach them to pray, he taught them to come before God as Father. I note how many Charismatic Christians will call God Father over and over in prayer. But when Jesus calls God Father, I think he has something particular in mind, and that is the role of the father, in his cultural context, as the one to whom you were apprenticed.

Jesus had been apprenticed to his father, Joseph, as a builder of homes. (Before you offer me any pious nonsense about Joseph not being Jesus’ father, please don’t; instead, reflect on any brilliant adoptive or stepfathers you might know. And then, repent.) After Joseph’s death (as well as that of his cousin John) Jesus experiences God calling him into something new and apprenticing him: I only do what I see the Father doing. Jesus even explicitly refers to this Father God as the builder...

Likewise, Jesus calls Simon and Andrew, James and John, who have been apprenticed by their fathers Jonah and Zebedee to be fishermen, to become ‘fishers of people.’

It is in this sense, I think, primarily, that God is both the father of Jesus and of those who follow him. Not only the one who gives life—in that sense, God is parent of all—but the one to whom we are apprenticed (and this also applies, to some degree, to all humanity).

As I think of all the images Jesus takes up to describe what God is like, I wonder why we so rarely think to pray to God the widow, to pester us out of our hard-hearted indifference to injustice; or to housewife God, to search out and find what we have lost, of our dignity, or discarded of our resources...

But I also wonder what it would look like if we saw God less as daddy to a helpless infant, and more as master builder, from whom we are called to learn?

Which brings me back to All Souls’ Day, and the hope that one day, after am I gone, future generations might remember me before God, with thanksgiving.