hopeless despair and a neutered santamentality

17 12 2014

There is a time and a place for hopeless despair. When 132 children are massacred in a school, that is one of those times. A friend of mine who grew up in Pakistan changed his profile picture to plain black. It was a truly back day.

But it’s Christmas. This is no time for the hard-hitting reality of a life that can be painful, brutal, touched by evil. Is it? Enforced smiles, kittens in Santa hats and children singing Christian rhymes. Hide reality with a Christmas card myth of white Christmas and roasting chestnuts, of nostalgia and made-up stories and the fat guy in the red suit.

132 dead, though. That’s like all the kids singing in my son’s Christmas play yesterday. Dead. What does Christmas santamentality have to say to that? And this is my greatest problem with the neutering of the power of Christmas. Yes, there’s loads of issues about the actual event, Jesus not born in a stable etc… but my Big Problem is not specifically about that. It is this.

Real Christmas has an answer to the utter pain and emptiness of hopeless despair. Real Christmas looks the massacre of 132 children the eye and says I am God, and I take your pain, I take your anger, I know it is real. Because real Christmas is not dressed up in sentimentality or nostalgia. There was nothing sentimental about giving birth among animals, fleeing in fear of your lives, or the massacre of Bethlehem babies. 

Real Christmas doesn’t demand that bad things don’t happen at this time of year; real Christmas takes bad things that happen and places them at the heart of the story. They are the bloody point. When we take the truth of god becoming human and taking on the evil in our world and reduce it to a twee children’s story with no enduring truth we do vandalism to the incarnation. 

Christmas is not a time for hiding from reality because reality is real and shit happens even at Christmas so let’s give ourselves permission to feel hopeless, to be angry and to rage against whatever evil causes people to murder children, or whatever pain and outrage we feel today; and let’s take that into the story with us, feeling the pain of brutal Roman occupation, of dashed hopes, of fearing for your life as children around you are murdered and your tiny child is the answer of God to your cries for justice and revolution and freedom: 

This staggering God
Takes his first steps towards us
On feet that will grow strong enough
To carry a cross

It will change the way we tell the story because Christmas isn’t a story by itself. It will change the way we do Christmas because Christmas really is every day for us who believe in it. And it is an answer to hopeless despair that a neutered Christmas santamentality can never be. 


Other posts about Christmas:
talking angels and elephant dreams
a christmas theology of political power
the biggest, most divine total blunder (’twas the night before Christmas)
the weakness in [christmas] love
the nativity that needs saving

talking angels and elephant dreams

15 12 2014

Talking angels, moving stars, interpreting dreams?! Admit it, they’re incredibly awkward for credible thinkers. When was the last time you heard a sermon on any of those things? Probably last Christmas. And then it  was skipped, like we always do with bits of the Bible that don’t quite fit with our view of the world or the story we are wanting to tell. 

And yet, out there, are so many people who won’t call themselves religious but do believe in angels, stars and dreams. Maybe more than we do. So perhaps we should listen to them more. Yes, their beliefs won’t be theologically developed. But how about this:

Instead of dismissing those who believe in guardian angels, we could tell them about the angels that spoke to Mary and the shepherds about Jesus.

Instead of dismissing those who look to the stars for guidance, we could tell them God used the aligning of planets & stars to point to Jesus.

Instead of dismissing those who interpret dreams, we could remember God spoke to Joseph and the magi in their sleep, about Jesus.

God uses the fantastical, the bizarre and the ordinary; God speaks the language of the mystic as well as the bookish scholar; in cryptic apocalyptic and orthodox doxology; to kings and ravens and priests and donkeys. God spoke to a sleeping man to tell him to trust the story his wife was about to tell him, a talking angel to persuade her to tell it, and a moving star to lead the people to them. Bonkers.

We might be secretly afraid of these elements of the story. They don’t fit our rational sensible evangelical framework. They’re not our usual model for listening to God. But if we are being truly evangelical, we have to include them. Let’s not be scared. Admittedly, I’ve never knowingly seen an angel, and in my last dream an elephant turned into a gun-wielding passenger plane. No, I don’t know either. But don’t let that put us off.

We need to use the language those around us understand and show them that Jesus speaks it too. They won’t expect it in their wildest dreams. 

And you never know, the stars might align just over Jesus. 

a christmas theology of political power

9 12 2014

The Christmas story is a sledgehammer to the politics of domination and self-protection. The Chancellor’s Christmas Budget Autumn Statement, along with A Theology of the Autumn Statement, got me thinking about this.

There is a theology that lies behind everything we do. Everything we do stands on the foundation of what we believe about God, and what we believe God believes about us. So in politics, where different beliefs about God or not-God or many gods permeates through each MP, the policies that they choose to support cannot help but be affected by their theology. And by implication, they represent us, so their theology represents ours. 

I believe there is a dangerous narrative running through our politics and media that deeply challenges a Christian theology. A narrative of power, of blame, of self-protection and short-term thinking. Christian theology – and more importantly, Christians – are flawed and broken and get it wrong, so forgive me some optimism in what follows:

  1. Christian theology shows that God does not prioritise those with money and power. God chose foreigners of a different religion and the lowest earners to be the first to see the incarnate Son of God. This is a familiar story but matters. Christian theology must not prioritise those on ‘our side’ with money and power. King Herod was so cross and felt so threatened by this that he killed babies. Christian theology should be threatening to those with money and power.  
  2. Christian theology shows God does not just blame everyone else. Not the previous government, or poor people who receive benefits, or immigrants, or anything other than our own people. Rarely do we hear ‘we’ have messed up, people like me, the wealthy, white, middle/upper classes, those who needed a bank bail-out. Christian theology begins and ends with repentance, with humility. God did not simply blame humans for mucking up his world, but became incarnate to be part of the solution, not the bully-king but the servant-king. Christian theology confidently says we mucked up and we spend our lives being the solution. 
  3. Christian theology shows us that God’s priority is not self-protection. A tiny newborn baby human is one of the weakest living things. The Christmas story practically screams self-giving and sacrificial generosity at us. We have assumed, in our society, a culture of entitlement, and so we expend masses of time/energy/money defending that entitlement, protecting our wealth. God gave away his power, gave away his story to the weakest of humans and the most insignificant of human families. Christian theology holds lightly and gives generously. 
  4. Christian theology shows long-term thinking. I guess if God could make a baby he could make a grown-up. He chose not to. He chose the long game. A long set-up, a community growing, a lifestyle change, not a quick-fix. Our politics demands short-term solutions to a long-term problem. 

When I hear of more cuts to the welfare budget, I wonder what theology lies behind that? When I hear positive employment figures trotted out, but businesses do not pay a wage you can live on, what theology lies behind that? When the only profitable rail network is nationally-owned, but sold to the private sector again, what theology lies behind that? When years of struggle for employment rights is extinguished with zero-hours contracts, what theology lies behind that?

The Christmas story is a sledgehammer to the politics of domination and self-protection. Let’s not lose that.

things jesus didn’t say # 11 | help

2 12 2014

God helps those who help themselves. This is another of those things that sound a bit like Jesus might have said it. It sounds kind of… motivational. But the only time I think we ever use it is an excuse to not help somebody we don’t think deserves it.


Jesus didn’t say it. Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God; the second is to love your neighbour. We do not just actively love ‘hard working families who do what is right’, we actively love those who struggle, those who cannot help themselves at the moment, those who don’t work, those who have fallen no matter who’s fault the fall was. We don’t fill out a ‘deserving’ questionnaire. It might just be our help that gives them the leg-up they need to help themselves. It might not. We still help.

Ultimately, we are not about self-help. We are not about watching others struggle from our positions of power. We are about active love within shared community. Within that, we might be taken advantage of. And we might find we ourselves are helped. I am not afraid of either. Are you?  

More things jesus didn’t say:
1. whatever doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger
2. follow your dreams and believe in yourself
3. everything happens for a reason
4. pray harder and I’ll give in
5. on the third day nothing important will happen
6. I won’t give you more than you can handle
7. other your neighbour as you other yourself
8. faith hope and tolerance, and the greatest of these is tolerance
9. touch wood

stealth ninja or village idiot

26 11 2014

Stealth ninja or village idiot. They often seem like the only options. When you find yourself as the only Christian this side of the horizon or office wall, you’re either an undercover spy secreting prayer bombs and occasionally bravely speaking in code to persuadable colleagues, or you’re the religious nutcase people look at sympathetically and avoid talking to especially when you’ve got you’re Bible out on the desk.

I know the feeling. People often think vicars live in holy bubbles (it’s actually called a vicarage) and only talk to Christians all day so have no idea about the ‘real world’, which is situated the other side of the church doors and the reason why it’s cold out there. For me at least it’s not true. The vast amount of time I spend with other people is spent with non-Christians. In schools (I’ve been in 6 recently, am regularly in 3), taking funerals or baptisms, at Local Committees, all these places I am the stealth ninja, or the village idiot. 

Maybe you work in a warehouse or office every day with the same people, or go to playgroups with other mums; maybe nobody knows you are a believer, and it’s been so long and you still haven’t told them it’s become an embarrassing secret. I am the same when I am not ‘in role’. I’m a terrible evangelist, carrying the same guilt many Christians do for being basically ordinary and indistinguishable from everyone else.  

What to do about it? I think it comes down to confidence and kindness. Confidence in our faith, and kindness to those who a) don’t share it, b) question it, c) wreck it for us by being the village idiot. If our faith defines us, defines the way we are and think and do, it can’t be a secret; yet it doesn’t need to be peppered throughout our conversation as if nothing is true or right unless it’s been crow-barred into a dubious bible verse.

I am who I am because of who God is.

At times that means we will be a undercover stealth ninjas, bringing truth and justice and sometimes just a whispered prayer into a difficult situation. At other times we will be the village idiots, poked and prodded like a dissection specimen for holding strange views like loving your neighbour or that Jesus married Mary Magdelene and had twins.

Sometimes simply our presence is enough though. So be confident in your work and at your work, not just in your place on the music group rota or whatever you do there. We can do without music groups at church if we need to (gasp), but not without you being salt and light every day. Tell us how we can resource you better.

allowing yourself to be dislodged

23 11 2014

When I went to university to study theology, lots of people made that sucking noise, pulled a worried frown, and asked if I thought my faith would survive it. My response was to look slightly quizzical, because I thought that if our faith doesn’t stand up to rigorous questioning, it’s probably not a very good one. 

My faith did survive university, just. Whether it was the theological study or just part of growing up, I did my best to ignore it, despise it, forget it, but God always came back to me, faith small as a kernel clinging to my soul. But now, as then, it doesn’t take much to dislodge me from the rock face of faith. God didn’t call me to be a vicar because I am titan of immovable faith. But I still can’t – and don’t want to – shy away from the difficult questions. They can’t be glossed over. They just can’t. 

This is why personal faith is so important to me, rather than religion. I don’t follow Jesus because the Bible is “inerrant” and the rules make for a great life; I follow him because deep down I know he is who he says he is, even when I don’t want him to be, when it sounds ridiculous to me, and when one simple question from a teenager can cut the safety rope.


This week I was asked to be on an interfaith ‘question time’ panel for 100 year 10s from 4 Sutton schools, as part of Interfaith Week. This is a tough proposition, as I’m sure you can imagine. Mainly because I have the tendency to say something silly when under pressure. It’s a strange dynamic, being on a panel with a Muslim, Hindu and a Jew, you either feel you’re the beginning of a dangerous joke or specimens in some kind of zoo. 

We had no idea what the questions would be, apart from some educated guesswork, which was partly right, however the first question nearly threw me, as it was more real than the theoretical and issues-based questions I was expecting. Here are the questions:

1. Have you ever had a religious experience? 
2. Should children be forced to follow the religion of their parents?
3. Does homosexuality go against the Bible?
4. Does religion fill the gaps left by science?
5. Is killing a person ever justifiable, thinking specifically of euthanasia and assisted dying?
6. Do you ever question aspects of your religion?

What I found so encouraging was that the questions were top and tailed by the personal, as so often in apologetics we are talking about our faith as if it is ‘over there’, behind a wall, when actually my faith is in me, it is me, I can’t talk about it without it also being about who I am.

I was able to talk about the religious experience of prayer, hearing God speak and seeing him give me pictures and words, and guidance; the ‘buzz’ of a great worship session or the presence of God in silence, on my own; of God leading me to the depths of sobbing or the heights of joy, and a whole lot in-between. If by religious experience that is what you mean, then yes, absolutely, and it is available to all of us.

As far as questioning my religion goes, I was able to show the vulnerability of our faith, that we are not asked just to follow rules or other external signs, but are called to follow from the heart, as who we are; so we don’t have to be happy with everything our faith represents, and we are free to question and debate; we are not robots of God, but friends of God, and sometimes critical friends are the best ones.

Even though it can be frightening, it is good to be dislodged from the rock face of faith sometimes.

Band Aid 2014 and the selfie-generation

18 11 2014

Some truths: 1. BandAid is generally A Good Thing. 2. Bob Geldof is a genius at marketing it. 3. To quote Sir Bob, even if you think it’s crap, that’s not the point.

“Ebola is just a plane-ride away from you.”

That being said. What struck me this time round though was how Sir Bob sold it to the X-Factor generation. Previously, he knew what people needed to see was evidence of the need, hence the famous shots of Ethiopian children in the 1980’s. Then, that was new. Now, that is not enough. His script was heavily laced with the knowledge that whilst the world is so large and accessible to young people, their own world’s are increasingly small. Unless it affects us, it doesn’t matter. 

Ebola is just a plane-ride from you. That was his take. In a way, it’s genius, because it taps into our natural human fears. Our selfishness. But I thought – isn’t that the opposite of charity? Charity, linguistically related to love, is about self-giving, not self-interest. We should give to others because of their need, not because of our own need. This isn’t a neutral philosophical debate like the entire episode of Friends devoted to trying to find a ‘selfless act’. No.

This is about looking at the world outside of ourselves. Outside of our own needs. Life is bigger than what I can fit in a selfie. It is about putting ourselves in the shoes of people in desperate situations and being moved to help them just because. You could call it incarnation. We do it because it is the right thing to do. Because we are humans, precious and loved by God. Not because it might soon affect me. 

We give because even though they are poor, far away from us, they matter just as much. I wish Bob Geldof hadn’t used this emotional blackmail on the X-Factor. But maybe he needed to. And if he did, then we as the generation who are their parents have got a lot of work to do to communicate selfless love.

Young people learn by having it modelled to them. It’s time to get modelling.

Many organisation have been working with Ebola victims for a long time, for example Medicin San Frontiers, and you can also give directly via the Disasters Emergency Committee.

Watch this on iPlayer to find out more.

church ≠ damage limitation

16 11 2014

The Holy Invigilator stares at the class, pacing, watching, eager to make the eternal boredom of heaven worth it by catching someone cheating, or not letting them go to the loo, quietly chuckling at their terrified expressions as the clock slowly… ticks… tocks… ticks… then the bell goes, out comes the red pen, and the fun of marking their pitiful lives truly begins.

This is basically how many see God. Life is an exam and being a Christian is the art of avoiding getting in trouble with God, appeasing him with good behaviour, keeping our heads down. Which is weird, as Jesus was the exact opposite. He even said I didn’t come for the goody-goodies, but for the dubious

But. The parable of the talents. At first glance it seems to corroborate the exam paradigm. But it doesn’t. Jesus is talking about people who have been entrusted with something of great value. A ‘talent’ was a huge amount of money, maybe 15 years salary for a labourer, so roughly £187,000 on the minimum wage. Two servants take a risk, one doesn’t. He was scared of falling foul of the master, so instead of doing something productive with the money, he went for damage limitation. He buried it.

Jesus is saying that the Pharisees have been entrusted with the treasure of God, but have been so scared of losing it they’ve buried it in the ground. It is not lost, it is preserved, but nobody benefits from it. At least you don’t get into trouble for losing it, right? Wrong. 

When we meet Jesus and follow him, we are entrusted with a great treasure. What are we going to do with it. Bury it, for fear of losing it or getting it wrong, or take a risk with it? It’s like any sort of training – running, cooking, discipleship. Practice, and you get better. But if you just sit around, you will not. We may have been given faith, but if we don’t practice it by actively living it out, it will not grow. To those who have, more will be given. Bury it, and you’ll lose it.

The point of this parable is not that we must work hard to avoid being told off by the Great Invigilator in the sky. The point is there is far more to our faith and this life than we can ask or imagine, but if we bury the treasure in the ground we will not discover it. Church is not meant to be the place we celebrate damage limitation by showing off the dusty treasure we buried that hasn’t changed in years. God help us, but that’s what it can seem like sometimes. 

Church is where we gather to say ‘look at the risk I took and the mistake I made and the blessings I discovered’. Church is an encouragement not to be lazy, but to grow in our confidence, and to see the treasure grow and grow and grow.

Don’t bury yourself in the ground. Take a risk. Dare you. 

banishment, statelessness and the cost of love

14 11 2014

Love may cover a multitude of sins, but wouldn’t prison be better? Or if not prison, the good old days of banishment, when sinners were cast out of the city walls to fend for themselves. Guilty or not guilty, being suspected was enough to pacify the mob. Send them out! Scapegoats, if you like, carrying the sins and fears of the community on their backs. Out of sight, out of mind.

The struggle against fundamentalist jihadists is a real problem for our liberal democracy. Many are genuinely reaching the end of their liberal tether of benevolence and free speech. Deeply and firmly held beliefs about a god other than Economy terrify the policy-makers and the tabloids and therefore everyone else. So if someone sets out to destroy – or even challenge – the way that we live, increasingly the reaction is as fundamentalist and those we are ‘against’.

Just look at the reaction to the Occupy movement in Parliament Square over the last few weeks. Ordinary people challenging the priests of Economy, faced with detention and arrest. For what? Standing? And if we cannot cope with dissension from within, how on earth will we manage dissension that is far, far more serious. Like returning jihadists.

The option the Government want is more powers. Powers to barr them from entry, to take passports, effectively to render them ‘stateless’, someone else’s problem. Banishment. Suspects, that is. Whilst I understand the thinking behind this – how can we welcome home people who have engaged in a war on the other side to ourselves? – love steps in.

Love? What’s love got to do with it?

Love – love as action, love as intentional choice, love as principle – love says that the rights of those we disagree with are just as valid as those we agree with. Love says that a citizen of this country is exactly that – a citizen, therefore afforded the rights of a citizen, which include innocent until proven guilty (remember that?). We are not a totalitarian dictatorship intolerant of dissent or free-thinking; we are a liberal democracy with all the freedoms that brings. And a consequence of that freedom is people are allowed to exist who disagree with us. Who even want to destroy us. 

We cannot allow ourselves to arrive at a place where people can be arrested or de-citizened for being suspected of something, without going through the proper criminal justice system. It can be hard to understand how frightening this policy is unless you put yourself in the place of someone it might apply to, which is unlikely to be the standard middle-aged white males in an office who write this stuff (stereotype alert, apologies). 

Whilst it may pain us to stand up for the rights of people who are different from us or who we vehemently disagree with, love commands us to do so, because love is not sentimental mush but a hard-core challenge to our desire for self-protection and to look after those who are ‘like us’.

Instead of increasingly oppressive edicts from above, the Government needs to work hard at local community level to get alongside and understand what makes young men go to fight in Syria. One way this could have been done is through statutory youth work provision, but the priests of Economy think that is too costly. Sutton’s local council youth budget was cut by over 50% in 2011.

But love is costly, love takes the long view. And love does not banish. 

jeffrey jelly baby learns about peace

13 11 2014

You’ve never been caught taking close-up photos of jelly babies? Now’s the time. One of the challenges of church leadership is telling the same stories well, or finding new ways to tell the same stories that engage a varied audience. This is something I created for our all-age Remembrance Day service, and have used in assemblies alongside telling it with actual jelly babies on a table. I put it here in case it prompts or inspires you to have a new idea, however strange you feel when you first have it. And remember, the best visual illustrations are edible ones. 

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