Tuesday, October 18, 2022

God in the midst of us


There are many ways God is described in the Bible. Some are anthropomorphic, such as, God is a mighty warrior. This makes sense, if you accept that humans are created in the likeness of God; and all the more so if you consider the story that God saw it was not good for the animated humus to be alone, anaesthetised them and cleaved them in two, that male and female might be warriors alongside one another, given to deliver one another from the powers of evil that set themselves against God. But God is also described in other ways, such as a mother eagle, or the wind.

The prophet Jeremiah offers us two of the most startling descriptions of God: God as a stranger, knowing and known by no one in the land, passing through, one whom even should we offer them bed and breakfast will only set out again on their way; and God as an elder, a once-mighty warrior, now physically spent, their mind also defeated by the advance of dementia, no longer able to construct a meaningful story from a shared history.

‘Oh hope of Israel, its saviour in time of trouble, why should you be like a stranger in the land, like a traveller turning aside for the night? Why should you be like someone confused, like a mighty warrior who cannot give help? Yet you, O Lord, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name; do not forsake us!’ (Jeremiah 14:8, 9)

Jeremiah’s lament is stunning. It is also offered to us as faithful eyewitness testimony. God does not name it as false, nor move to redress the divine reputation, but is ‘in the midst of us’ as such a one as this.

What does it mean, to describe God, and our experience of God, in such ways? And how do these images help us inhabit what it means to be human, bearing the likeness of such a god, in the world?

Surely we encounter God, together, and for Christians through and with and in the spirit of Jesus in us, as we extend the hospitality of listening to one another’s story—of the intent and the goal of our journeying, our wanderings, our pilgrimage in the company of others, as we understand it—and in the holding of one another within a shared story that provides us with meaning as well as with a mutual, interdependent, agency and dependency?


Thursday, October 06, 2022

heart, shaped


Walking home from town, I passed by two horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) trees. Three small boys were searching the grass below for conkers, accompanied by two women. One of the boys ran up to me, squealing with delight, “There’s so many conkers! They’re everywhere!” Watched over by trustworthy grown-ups, he (rightly) had no fear of a total stranger. Acknowledging the women with friendly greeting, I joined in with his delight—“I know! They’re amazing, aren’t they?”—picking up three conkers and offering them to him, before choosing one to hold on to. Its white scar, from where the seed is connected to its protective casing, was heart-shaped.

There is beauty everywhere.




The Greek philosophers held that above the quarrelsome pantheon of popular gods there was an ultimate creator being who possessed all the omni-s. In contrast, the accounts found in the Bible resolutely insist that God is recognisable: walking and eating with his friend, Abraham; bearing his mighty right arm in battle; coming among us as Jesus. This should not be surprising—and nor is it an accommodation for our sake—given that human beings are created in the likeness of God. Christians believe that in every moment, Jesus is fully God—not half-God, nor one third of God, nor half one third of God, but fully God—and fully human. Thus, whatever can be said of Jesus can be said of God. Thus, the wonder that the God who created the first humans has human ancestors: this mystery alone should cause us to worship.

Jesus told a story to describe, from the inside, what it is like for God and humans to be in covenant relationship (Luke 11:5-13). In the story, set at night, one friend is asleep in bed with his household, when his friend knocks on the door: another friend has just now arrived at his own door, perhaps delayed, perhaps unexpected, and he has no bread to set before the weary traveller: friend, would you lend me some bread?

This story tells us something of what God, our covenant partner, is like. And it should be read in both directions.

God sleeps, with his children. God sleeps, for in sleep, even God is renewed. Jesus sleeps in the boat, not simply because he is fully human but because he is also fully God. And yes, Psalm 121 speaks of a context in which the psalmist can trust that Yahweh will not be drowsy; but, just as the disciples are perfectly safe in the boat in the middle of a storm while Jesus sleeps, so God’s children are safe in God’s presence even when God lies down to sleep in safety and peace. Even so, the God who sleeps will rise to respond to the plea of his covenant friend.

God has needs, and turns to us, as covenant partners, to supply them. For just as God is the friend who sleeps, God is also the friend who knocks on the door. God is not self-sufficient. God is the infant suckling at Mary’s breast. God is the hungry man in the wilderness who rejects the temptation to turn stones into bread. God comes to covenant partners to meet needs: would you lend me some bread?

God sleeps, and God rises from sleep. God approaches, and God requests. We can say, God fully enters the experience of creation; that God’s reign is in sustaining the order God has created, without violating the dignity and responsibility of creation and not least the humans God has appointed to govern the earth. And because God is like this, so we can sleep in safety and in readiness to arise and respond; so, also, we can approach and request, at any time of the day or the night.

A community formed in response to such a God should be non-anxious and generous presence in the world.


Wednesday, October 05, 2022

Falling and rising


I love the passage from the New Testament set for Morning Prayer today, Acts 20:1-16.

Paul has been travelling by land from Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) through Macedonia (the north of modern-day Greece) and down into Greece, and from there intends to travel by ship to Syria, when a plot against him is discovered. Presumably this is a plot to have him thrown overboard, lost at sea, for Paul revises his plans to take the longer route back by land.

The first thing he does is gather to himself a company who will attend to him on the journey: Sopater son of Pyrrhus from Beroea; Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica; Gaius from Derbe, and Timothy, as well as Tychicus and Trophimus from Asia—while more again travelled in a second (possibly decoy) group, with Luke. These are not merely individuals from different places of origin, but representatives of churches Paul has planted. We know that as Paul planted churches, he sometimes took someone from the newly established church with him, to learn from him as, together, they planted other churches. We know that sometimes churches planted by Paul sent representatives to him, after he had moved on, carrying letters back and forth, continuing to engage in the dialogue by which the new believers in Jesus as Lord and Saviour got to know Jesus, and the nature of his reign and salvation, better. We know that Paul sometimes wrote to churches, asking them to send named persons to him, for a given purpose, as an expression of their partnership in the gospel that was both symbolic/representational and deeply practical. In these ways, Paul faces the challenges of his circumstances drawing on a broad and tightly connected network of fellow believers.

This company meet up with other believers to break bread, shorthand for to gather together to tell the story of Jesus, to spend time in adoration, back-and-forth story telling where Paul speaks and another takes the story up, through great looping detours and backtracks that connect Jesus with all the history of the people of Israel before him and now also the gentiles, these companions from among the surrounding peoples, a joyous conversation over food, that arrives, at some holy moment, not predetermined, of remembering the Passion, his giving himself for us all.

This is such a precious thing, in response to overwhelming circumstances over which we have so little control, that the people gathered in that room remain all night. No one wants to leave. There is nowhere else, nowhere, they would rather be. The room is warm on account of their bodies in close proximity, the air is thick with the smoke of oil lamps. A young slave boy sits at the open window, reaching for any breeze. He has worked all day, but the night is his, and he does not want to miss a moment. Sleep can wait until he is dead. No one notices him slump sideways until it is too late, and Eutychus—his name means ‘good fortune’ and he was clearly a valued slave, one his master believed himself fortunate to possess—falls from the third story of this urban apartment block, and lands on the street below, dead. Paul, however, will not let him lie, but restores him to life, in keeping with the story of Jesus, the miracles that point to something greater to come. And then, they keep going, telling, celebrating, that story. Food is served, including that moment when bread is broken as Jesus had broken bread with his disciples on the night he was arrested, looking backward to the time God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt and forward to the time, days from now, when God would deliver his Son from the realm of the dead. Before Eutychus is raised, the conversation is described (twice; though the second time is somewhat lost in translation, the English suggesting more of a monologue) as dialegomai, getting to know one another. After Eutychus is raised from the dead, the conversation is described as homileĆ³, the communing of companions. This moment, then, this falling and rising, this dying and being raised to life, marks a deepening in relationship.

So yes, I love this passage. While I am not, personally, the target of any plot, I serve two congregations that are facing challenges far greater than the resources we possess. The temptation is to be caught up in constant firefighting or give in to despair. Under such circumstances, Paul would encourage us to network with other churches and to focus our eyes on Jesus.


Jesus and the sinner


I do not need Jesus because I am a sinner. That would be to reduce the glorious Prince of heaven to the solution to an inconvenient problem.

Rather, I need Jesus as the sun needs the sky, because he is my ground of being. And because I recognise that I am a sinner, I am able to welcome his mercy and grace.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.


Tuesday, October 04, 2022

On death and ecology


Death is the precursor to life. I exist, because my father’s DNA and my mother’s DNA tore themselves apart, disembowelled from top to bottom, and instead cleaved to the other. John’s account of Jesus coming into the world notes, ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’ (John 1:5) Darkness first, then, ‘Let there be light.’ Darkness, not overcoming light, but from whence light shines. Death does not bring Life to an end, but ushers life in.

There was a time when the whole earth was barren, save for a garden, planted by God. There, the rain fell, dying and being laid to rest in the ground; to be drawn up by the roots and trunks of trees. There, the leaves fell, decaying into the soil, making it ever more fertile. Death is the precursor to life. (I have proposed, elsewhere, that the Garden is a metaphor for the Babylonian exile, and the barren earth for the abandoned territory of Judah. This theme carries through exile, through invasion, through siege and destruction, through the re-emergence of remnant communities over again.)

When Adam and Eve are driven out from the garden, this is not an ontological change in human nature—we have always had the capacity for good or evil; and always had the gift of death and life, neither of which can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus—but an ecological change for the wider creation. Our experience of death—our experience of death; death already existed, as fossil records and coal seams testify—and therefore also our experience of life—is no longer cradled in the garden, but spreads through the whole world: first, death; then life, as promised. Our creaturely labour enables all creation to die, and die well—including dying to self, and to sin, which is to put ourselves first and against our neighbour—in order that it may be taken up into the grace of perpetually renewing life, ‘For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 6:23)

He is the light that shines in the darkness. He is the branch, because he is the root, the one who, having been lifted-up in death, lifts us up with him in life. He is the tree of life, and the tree from which his own cross is hewn (hence Nordic mythology, written down in the thirteenth century, and which paganises Christianity, depicts Odin hanging himself from the sacred tree Yggdrasil to gain wisdom and power). He is the seed buried in the soil, dying to produce fruit a hundred-fold. We die, not because we have fallen from grace, but because we are created to represent the One who from eternity has laid their life down, that life might flow to others. We rise again, only in and with and by him. The whole earth is filled with his suffering and his glory. The made-new earth will not banish the death that births life, only Death as a foreboding cipher for estrangement from God and neighbour.

What might this mean for the mission of God on which we are sent out among our neighbours?

What does the reign of God in this suffering, glorious Christ Jesus look like in our neighbourhood?

What are the implications for creation care—one of the marks of mission—that does not empty the earth of her natural resources with insatiable hunger, but does enable that quality of dying that will usher in new life?


Good and evil


We have started watching Inside Man (BBC One). In a cast full of individual performances given to perfection, the chemistry between Stanley Tucci and Atkins Estimond as two inmates on death row is to die for.

The premise is that we are all murderers; you just need to meet the right person. And this is a true revelation of the human heart. There are no good people, and no evil people; just people, who are capable of doing inspirational good or unimaginable evil.

To train ourselves, then, we do not do good for reward, which is so often not forthcoming, but for its own beauty. This is, at least in part, why the apostle Paul writes, ‘Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.’ (Philippians 4:8)

And we turn away from evil, not for its punishments, for, indeed, evil is often unpunished, and many times rewarded, but on account of its emptiness.

The liturgy forms us, if we allow it.

In Baptism, we are asked to respond to four questions, not simply in the service but every day of our lives. We are reminded of this at every baptism we, the ekklesia or chosen company, participate in as supporters of the baptismal candidate. In their simplest form, these are:

Do you turn away from sin?

Do you reject evil?

Do you turn to Christ as Saviour?

Do you submit to him as Lord?

Then, whenever we come to Communion, we begin with the Prayer of Preparation, in which we acknowledge that the desires of our heart, including those we hide even from ourselves, can become disordered—that, among other things, we can do evil in pursuit of good, or, the wrong thing for the right reasons—and affirm our dependence on God’s holy and lifegiving Spirit to cleanse the thoughts of our hearts, that is, our capacity for choosing between good and evil.

Only then do we move to Confession, the confession that we have thought and said and done that which we ought not to have done, and neglected to do that which we ought to have done—we are speaking of moral responsibility, not To Do lists—and of our trust in God’s forgiveness. Indeed, it is only possible to be so radically honest about and to ourselves kneeling on the ground of divine absolution, not of commensurate consequence but of ultimate emptiness, of being cut off from beauty, from Life.

And we must return to these truths again and again; for, even priests forget them.


Monday, October 03, 2022



For her Platinum Jubilee celebrations, Queen Elizabeth II made a short film of her inviting Paddington Bear to afternoon tea. When she died, social media was flooded with pictures of Paddington taking her hand and leading her from this world to the next. Of course, she had also jumped out of a helicopter with 007, and, given the ending to the latest film in the franchise, it could be argued that James Bond would have been a better escort.

Today my wife showed me a picture circulating online of Paddington escorting Coolio from this world to the next, with the comment—my wife’s, not a caption on the image—'Why? Who has decided that Paddington should be the Grim Reaper?’

Perhaps it is because Paddington is a refugee, a bear who sought and found welcome in a new land. Perhaps this makes him a suitable guide to whatever lies beyond death.

Coolio came to public attention in the UK for his rap hit Gangsta’s Paradise, which riffs off (Stevie Wonder’s Pastime Paradise, but also) Psalm 23. The lyrics open, ‘As I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death,’ introducing the story of a gang member who is feared by his rivals and looked up to by the other members of his gang but who is secretly afraid, noting, ‘I’m 23 now but will I live to see 24?’

Death is the great unknown, and, in my experience at least, a majority of people do not believe it to be an end to personal existence. But, in my experience, many people are fearful for what lies beyond. Not that they fear hell, or assume heaven, but that they envisage a journey that continues through further tribulations and for which they must plead God to keep their loved ones safe. In many ways, the northeast is the most Mediaeval context I have ministered in, and it is fascinating for that. Our cultural expectations are thickly woven.

The valley of the shadow of death runs through the heart of Psalm 23, a dry wadi the sheep journey up and down again many times over the course of their lives, just as we navigate the contours of bereavement many times over, rendered different each time by the flash flood of another loss. And the singer sings of the Good Shepherd, who carries, and knows how to use, a rod and a staff. One is long and thin, and used to steer the sheep along the path or lift them up when they fall. The other is a stout cudgel, used to drive back predators that hide among the rocks. This is a show of confidence, of leadership and of selfless strength.

As divine revelation of the mortal heart, the Bible speaks of death and what lies beyond in so many different ways that the only reasonable response of faith is an agnosticism about details and an unshakeable trust that within the reign of God in and through Christ Jesus, all shall be well. The Good Shepherd of Psalm 23 is a pool of hope that runs deep and does not fail.

Paddington is a heart-warming story. But there is no need to ask him to take on more than a small bear can, well, bear. If you would like to talk about your hopes and fears to do with death, I’m happy to have that conversation.