rearranging the flowers

29 07 2017

Of all the possibilities, clearing away the dead flowers wasn’t one I’d thought of. I started furtively, feeling guilty, choosing which floral tributes still had enough life to be considered tributes, and which had withered and shrivelled into a parody of their original purpose. What if someone saw. What if they were offended. After all, this was one of the main Grenfell Tower fire floral tribute areas, adjacent to the Latymer Community Church. Emotions are very heightened. Not least my own. The last thing I wanted was to be accused of desecrating a shrine.

The kingdom of god is a complicated place. Someone still has to throw the rubbish away. Being available for a dramatic and extensive community response and outpouring of grief – as this small and remarkable church near Grenfell Tower had been – is a messy business. Disaster relief coordinated by post-it note and WhatsApp, the pastor said. I was privileged to be there just for one afternoon, insignificant in the grand scheme, able to respond to a request for help to help the volunteers, whether that was making tea for distressed residents, emptying the bins, or as it turned out, rearranging the flowers.

Strangely for me, not someone who often uses this language, it felt a priestly thing to do. Not vestments and communion type of Priestly. But priesthood of believers, standing in the gap between the grief of the people and the grief of god, soaking up the pain, rearranging the mess of peoples broken hearts, sorting and sweeping and refreshing and watering, all the while unnoticed, better unnoticed, for the best incarnational priestly things are hardly seen.

I left that afternoon with a deep sense of horror at what had happened that awful night; the blackened and burned tower can leave you with nothing else except its scarred imprint on your eyelids and its stamping feet all over your heart. Yet I also left with a renewed sense of hope and wonder and pride in humanity; the same humanity that can cause such a crisis can also be so wonderfully, indiscriminately generous, so desperate to fill the cracks in the lives of strangers with flowers and sleeping bags and nappies and anything which will bring a moment of happiness or even, perhaps, be useful.

It’s never been such a privilege to rearrange the flowers. Serving is never and never should be about the glamorous; that’s why it’s called serving. In serving we might only rarely see the results of our labours, instead we do what we do, regardless of what follows us. Like burying treasure in a field for someone else to find.

Let’s go bury some treasure.


With thanks to staff and volunteers of Latymer Community Church and Eden Ladbrooke Grove for doing what they do, day in and day out, and for being the buried treasure that others have stumbled across when they most needed it.

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I am the lost innocence 

5 06 2017

I  am the van driver on the bridge, I am the Manchester bomber, I am the lost innocence of an evening walk on London Bridge

I am the bombed, I am the broken body, I am the shattered mind, I am the lost innocence of the right to the absence of death

I am the terrifying realisation that I am no better with my my insidious creeping anger, plots of intrigue and revenge 

I am those we call them, the evil, the inhuman 

I am a million steps from love

I am but another frail and hopeless and broken human in need of more. I am the scandal on the shoe of all that is beautiful 

I am in mourning for my pride and arrogance and self-centred posturing about being better

Take it so it is gone. Because

I am asking for forgiveness. I am no longer editing out the deaths of the perpetrators. I am standing with Manchester and Kabul and London and Baghdad and all those who suffer at the hands of I, of us, of humanity in all our terrible disposition towards evil because

I am no better. I am only saved from giving in by the strength of the love of Jesus of Nazareth and his Holy Spirit. I don’t always want to be saved from myself or my evil side. I am me because of who he is, as he holds back my anger and dissolves my rage into a unwanted love for all who break and are broken even when I want to embrace its fierce and forceful drive to the destruction of what ends up being

 me. Us. 

We are us. We stand with them. All the thems. We stand for love. Because he is love. #lovewins





plank

24 03 2017

We usually see in others the things we don’t like about ourselves. Once we’ve seen it, we have a choice, whether to cultivate that thought or not. Sometimes it’s just a split second –  all of a sudden we’ve written someone off as a chav or a toff or loon or a bad parent or an immigrant or whatever it is that we have judged them on. We grow that thought, we water it, we tend it, and before we know it we have become so riddled with judgementalism and are so far from reflecting the character of God as to be unrecognisable as followers of Jesus. We are acting against them in the very way we would hate them to do to us.

to judge is to take a beautiful window
and wipe it with a dirty smudge
and each time you add a new mark
and the window gets darker
and no matter how much you scrub it won’t budge
the damage is too much
and all you see is distorted
contorted
seeing clearly is thwarted
by the simplest smudge

Jesus challenges us with a simple illustration
from his father’s occupation
you know what it’s like when the apprentice gets sawdust in his eye
and it starts to water and everyone bursts into laughter
in woodwork class because he can’t see
and his sawing goes wonky
and everyone’s laughing at the speck in his eye
but they can’t see the plank in theirs
the plank!
This is our reality dressed up as comedy
pointing at the speck whilst walking round with planks

Now I know this has nothing to do with us
I know we don’t judge
We say
I’m not judgemental, I’m just saying…
I’m not being racist but…
I’m not being rude but…
I’m not being sexist but…
I’m not judging but…

But that ‘but’ is the where the speck becomes a plank
When the bad parts of our character begin to crank
up the judging
That ‘but’ is when we take our marker pen and add to the smudging
on the window though which we see the world.

I’m not judging but…

Jesus doesn’t say we shouldn’t use our discernment
or say that nothing is wrong
instead, Jesus says we shouldn’t use our place as forgiven sinners
to judge others from
love is never just detached observance
like we’re judging trees or who’s baked the best jam tarts
but love means that everything we say about someone else
reflects the love in our hearts
or lack of
we may not like what they do
and we do not have to approve
but do we love with the love that God shows to us

do we see and judge the faults in others
only so much as they give us an opportunity for forgiveness and love?
or do we secretly like the feeling of looking down on others?

to judge is to take a beautiful window
and wipe it with a dirty smudge
to judge makes us blind
whereas love is illuminating
demonstrating the intoxicating
and liberating love God has for us
to judge is to point out the speck
and not notice the plank

So when the instinct to judge
won’t budge
remember what Jesus taught
don’t cultivate that thought
don’t water it and feed it
but starve it of attention
so that in everything
we do to others what we would have them do to us
we love because God first loved us


This is an abridged version of the talk that you can hear but going here, often they sound better than they read!





things jesus didn’t say #12 | best

21 02 2017

God only takes the best. It’s one those things that we say when someone we love dies. It’s our way of expressing that they were one of the best to us. It’s our way of trying to justify the sadness, devastation even, we feel. Why else would they have died? God must have wanted them, and he wanted them because they were the best.

thingsjesusdidntsay12best

It’s an understandable sentiment. But it is entirely untrue. On a number of levels.

Theologically, God doesn’t ‘take’ anybody, in the sense of reaching down from heaven to take us like tins of peas from a supermarket shelf. He doesn’t ‘take’ anybody in the sense of snatching them to himself, like a selfish toddler who won’t share the best Minion toy. And even if he did, he wouldn’t just take ‘the best’, like a supernatural Darwinian scientist creating perfection.

Firstly, everybody dies. Not just the good ones. Secondly, God came to stay in the person of Jesus, he did not come to take like a thief. Thirdly, he came for the worst, not the best.

The death of those we love can be the worst knockout blow we have. I know, because my mum died of cancer when I was 10. But she didn’t die because God wanted to ‘take the best’, though of course she was my best. If he had, what would that say about his character? To deprive a young family of their mother, their wife, because what – he liked her singing voice?

No, she died because she had cancer. It sucks, it devastates, but it’s life. But I believe in a world with firm foundations, in which death comes in a framework of love, of a God who does not rejoice in ‘taking’ but delights in ‘giving’, who is with us through the darkest nights. My theology of life is grounded in a theology of death, which means I do not need easy clichés, pop theology, and untrue truisms to help me stumble blindly through.

Jesus came to give us life in all its fullness; to defeat death in all its fearfulness; and to abide with us in our hopelessness. May we know God come to us in our sadness, even when our best are no longer with us.





intentional disillusionment

12 02 2017

Leadership. Wow. So many models. CEO, manager, teacher, mentor, shepherd, autocrat. Cultural life these days is like a case study in leadership, or mis-leadership. From leadership in sport to politics, church to the media, the judiciary to education, you name it,  it’s probably been dissected, criticised, humbled or idolised. Coe, Corbyn, May , Trump, Welby, Hodgson, Ecclestone, Murdoch.

I am currently reading about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor-theologian in the 1930s-40s who was martyred in a concentration camp. Stay with me, there is a link. He wrote about leadership. In his context, writing in 1933, he was addressing a Germany in pieces, desperate for strong leadership, of any kind, to pull it out of its post-WW1 mess. A culture was growing around the need for a strong leader, any leader, who would bring change. Any change, just to do something. Ring any bells? And I’m not talking about the England football team.

This concerned Bonhoeffer, and he preached this, in 1933:

A true leader must know the limitations of his authority. If he understands his function in any other way than as it is rooted in fact, if he does not continually tell his followers clearly of the limited nature of his task and their own responsibility, if he allows himself to surrender to the wishes of his followers, who would always make him their idol – then the image of the Leader (German: Führer) will pass over into the image of the mis-leader… The true Leader must always be able to disillusion… He must radically refuse to become the appeal, the idol, i.e. the ultimate authority of those who he leads… He must let himself be controlled, ordered, restricted.

Wow. Bonhoeffer here is calling for substance, not personality; for leadership rooted in principles of humility not just for the sake of power.

We have a crisis in leadership at the moment. For many good reasons, the status quo is being challenged, authority is being questioned. However, we must not let that gap be filled with low-grade ideas, cheap populism, or personality cults. For him, all authority ultimately comes from God, so we cannot place ourselves on a pedestal above God. For me too, that is the case; if you don’t believe in God, I think the principle is still the same. Pedestal? Off.

Humble leadership, in which we intentionally disillusion those who would make us idols, is the solution to ultimate-authority leadership. Humility is not weakness, and it encourages collaboration, shared power and a servant-heart. That is true across sport, politics, church and the media.


I end with a poem I wrote about leadership in the church, which can be particularly pedestal-hungry, originally posted here, entitled I am nothing:

I am nothing
I am just me
I have no divine right to speak for you
or to you
I have no pedestal I can call home
Though some would try and barricade me on one
And have me live their faith for them
I am nothing
I am just me
I have no certificate of authenticity
Or qualification
I have nothing from my ordination that sets me apart from anyone
I am nothing
I am just me
I have no power residing in my fingertips
I cannot command holiness to appear at will
I cannot pray in a way that bypasses the queue
I am not owed any favours by God and
I cannot command him with my whispers
I am nothing
I am just me
Anything else I appear to be
Any power
Any wisdom
Any heroic tendencies
And that recurring pedestal of owning holiness
Anything I appear to be
That is beyond anyone else
I repent of
All I am is because of who He is
And I claim nothing as my own.





kindfulness

8 02 2017

Kindness is considerably underrated as a characteristic. Not as elegant as love, as risqué as passion, or as productive as activism, kindness often sits somewhere around beige in the colour-spectrum of attributes. It just sounds a bit… boring.

kindness-inspire-others

Kindness. It’s so everyday, though. Love is special, passion is exciting, activism is life-changing, but kindness…? Those little everyday things. Holding a door open. For the third person that pushes through. Not scowling when the parent pushes the pushchair out from between the parked cars to cross the road – smile and wave them across. Clearing away someone else’s coffee cup in the staff room. Checking the person you fouled in football is ok. A kind word, a hello, noticing people.

Like the socks that prevent your feet from chafing, the sip of water that eases your voice, or a glimpse of sunshine on a dull day. Nothing major. Probably not many people will notice.

But these everyday little things are so very important. That’s why kindness is nestled in the middle of the things called the fruits of the spirit in the bible, between patience and goodness. It’s not a hierarchy. It’s called living, in community, living looking outwards, seeing others, noticing them, and just being kind.

We live in a busy world amidst so many demands and so much impatience and so much unkindness. To live well within this world, and to challenge it, I think it is good to practice inner calm, through mindfulness, but also to spread calm through it’s outward-looking twin, kindfulness. It’s only small. But small is good. Start now.





5 things to thank Trump for

31 01 2017

It might seem early days to mark a debt of gratitude, but in a spirit of generosity and hope there are several things about this Trump presidency, even after a week like this, to be thankful for.

  1. people suddenly care about refugees
    Following an EU referendum campaign and US election campaign that shamelessly played heavily to fear and xenophobia about refugees, suddenly there are mass protests saying “let them in”. This rebalancing of public opinion – and the reporting of it – is a good thing.
  2. people suddenly care about racism and sexism
    For a long time we have pretended racism and sexism were relics from a bygone era, whilst knowing they really weren’t, especially those of us who are white middle-aged men. After all, we are the least affected. But Trump’s behaviour and policies have forced us to be vocal about challenging both, clearly and confidently, because they are wrong. This is a good thing.
  3. people suddenly care about news bias
    We know the news we read is filtered through a bias all the time, but we conveniently forget. The Trump presidency has highlighted the issue of ‘fake news’, aka lying, propaganda etc…, and made us reassess everything we read. Once we know that whether we read the Daily Mail or the Independent, watch Fox or the BBC, everything is given an angle and we need to switch our brains on. This is a good thing.
  4. people suddenly care what is Christian  
    Huge debates are being sparked in the Christian world, as the ‘evangelical right’ is hijacked by Trump to an extreme even they can’t handle. Old divides are cast aside as Christians stand together to condemn xenophobia and racism, and claim Jesus’ words about love and welcoming the stranger. Can you really claim to be pro-life, yet condemn the living to death? The old ‘moral majority’ are no longer the vocal majority. This is a good thing.
  5. people suddenly agree that some things are just wrong 
    In our increasingly relativist culture people have found it hard to say things other people do are wrong. Live and let live, it’s up to them, everything happens for a reason… Well, thanks to Trump suddenly people are rediscovering a confidence to say some things are just wrong. Claiming to grab female genitals, boasting about sexism, lying, not paying taxes… some things are just wrong, morally, and people are being more confident in saying so. This is a good thing.

I find it hard to agree with much of what Donald Trump says or does. He is not my enemy though, because that language is not helpful; but I have found myself talking about him as if he is, getting enjoyment when things go wrong for him, and feeling self-righteous that I am not like him.

So, I offer these as reminders that whilst we can’t change him, we can change ourselves; that how we behave matters and what we do matters; and if a Trump presidency can raise us from political apathy and despair into a force that challenges oppression in all its forms then let’s celebrate that, even as we check Twitter again.

Because we have all fallen short and need grace, not just him.

93736387_washingtonmarch

The Women’s March. From BBC News, Getty Images 





in.awe.guration

27 01 2017

There was a fine sense of timing last weekend as a very large inauguration speech  was followed hot on its heels by a very small one. Well, the text we looked at in church anyway.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

It is interesting to compare the two. One spoke to a massed crowd of 1.5 million 250,000 750,000 a bigger / smaller* [*delete according to TV channel] crowd than Obama’s lots of people. The immediate discussion was how many. My crowd’s bigger than your crowd. Size matters. Especially for boys.

Jesus spoke to a crowd of virtually nobody. And those that were there were just working fishermen. No power. No influence. No money.

One speech used revolution language to talk up power and influence. To make an impact. Enforce law. A lion marking his territory.

Jesus speech began with one word. Repent. Meaning, turn around. Change your ways. Admit you’re wrong. Admit your frailties. Vulnerabilities. Show your weakness. Come, follow me.

One message was one of national self-interest, of protecting our own, of putting ‘our people’ first above all other considerations.

Jesus’ message is one of outward-looking action; his kingdom is one that reflects the Jewish theology of being a blessing to the nations around, a light that shines in the darkness. We repent and then we are to be a blessing to others.


I say this not as a comment on US politics. This is not about that. Rather, we use it to highlight the kingdom of God’s alternative way.

The way of weakness, not strength.
The way of humility, not boasting.
The way of vulnerability, not power.

We all find this hard. We are all drawn to strength. We need strength and power sometimes.

But maybe we could use these turbulent and troubling times of shouting and protesting and flagrant displays of power to think about how we live our lives. We may not be people of much influence. Maybe we are. That does not matter. Jesus invitation is to all of us, from Presidents to the poorest: repent, turn around, change, admit your weaknesses. Stand up to power and stand up for the weakest. Don’t stand for yourself. Place other people’s needs before your own. Maybe even your enemies…

Yes it’s a foolish way to live. I am in awe of anyone who manages it. Jesus’ plan of gathering 12 nobodies to inaugurate his kingdom with him was surely not wise.  It was worth it though.

And as inauguration speeches go, I know which one I am most in awe of.

7775cb8eb3ca6216b92cdfa15cd49731

 





legal. tender.

25 01 2017

There isn’t much tenderness in public conversation. Human lives are reduced to economic units. Economic units are
traded
bought
bargained.

Given value. Have value taken away.

whatislegaltender

Some people have larger economic value. They tend to be in charge. Society values economic value. It proves something about being successful. In collecting units.

Those units are described as money. Legal tender. But there’s not much tender about it  in public conversation.

Being every job lost or gained, there are people with a story.
Behind every business growing or struggling, there are people with a story.
Behind every Foodbank client, there are people with a story.
Behind every Brexit promise of prosperity or poverty, there are people with a story.
Behind every cleaner struggling on a ‘living wage’ cleaning the offices of the wealthiest bankers, there are people with a story.
Behind every ‘workplace assessment’ there are people with a story.
Behind every commuter’s season ticket, there are people with a story.

When talking about what is legal tender we need to talk more tenderly. Because it is never just numbers, economics, figures. It’s part of someone’s story.
The economy is not an ‘it’, it is ‘us’.
It is not over there, it is in here.
It exists only as a collection of human relationships and decisions.

We are not subservient to it, we are inherent within it.
We are relational humans, not neutral units.

We do well to remember this, in a world that separates people from the economy we serve, and prizes the collecting of units above all else. It is legal tender, so let’s tender it, legally, with tenderness.

Because people are not units to be
traded
bought
bargained.

We should give each other value, not take it away.

 

 





the pregnant pause | a Christmas poem

25 12 2016

The Christmas story always appears to me to have two distinct sides
that we emphasise differently depending on what we are looking for
On the one side there’s the wondrously mystical-sounding story
of wonder and excitement and angels singing about glory in the highest
on a hillside to fluffy white sheep
waking up the good-natured shepherds from their sleep
while a magical star lights the sky for exotic camel-riding astrologers
who’ve been crossing borders
for months or maybe years to see this stable tableau
bathed in subtle angel glow

the word became flesh
the divine enmeshed
he who created light in the beginning
is spinning a new kind of story
of darkness overcome
and they have come
to be among
the birth of the divine son

this almost magical tale suits best this candlelight
of Christmas night
a beautiful ethereal sight
in softer sight

but there is a flip-side

like a kite string that prevents this simple story from drifting off
becoming disconnected
alienated
separated
from what it is really all about
these simple words that put the mythological-story brakes on
There was a man sent from God.
He was called John.

Suddenly our story is about a person, not an idea
It’s about a real family being terrified and escaping to Egypt in fear
It’s not about the eternal cosmic battle between darkness and light
Well – it is, but rooted in history
with dates, places
real times and real faces
And you know as well as I do the centre of the story isn’t John
but that’s where the story starts from
in the gospel of John
anchoring the ethereal mystical word
preventing it from drifting off into the absurd
because the word was God
but the word became flesh
the divine intertwined
into the mess of us
in the body of a baby called Jesus

two sides to a story
light versus darkness
taxation and a census
angels and dreams
newborn baby screams
stars leading astronomers
God becoming one of us
Herod’s indignation
a refugee migration
innkeepers, animals, strangers with gifts
you can’t pin down this story it constantly resists
being claimed, held down, owned
controlled

this is a truly beautiful night
an amazing night
beautiful with candles and songs
but not because of candles and songs
they are just handles to open the door
to a humbling, life-changing
transforming birth of a King
not born on cushions of velvet and set on a gold-plated throne
not in a self-named luxury hotel with a lift made of gold
but born among the poor
born for the forlorn
the care-worn
set only on straw

So join with me in celebrating with awe
this story
of glory and wonder
and rooting it firmly in the fact
that god slipped under the radar
in so much more than a fairytale fable
but got itchy in a stable
to enable
the untenable
the indefensible
us
to be holy with him
to be holy as this holy night
that we might have eternal life.

And that is the third of the two sides sides of this transforming
heartwarming this-night-dawning
don’t let me catch you yawning
absolutely never boring tale of Jesus born in
a stable with donkey’s ee-or-ing
because the character
you may have never before seen
in that nativity scene is you
this is a story that you’re in

Come, kneel in this story with me
Come, join the wealthy travellers and shepherds fighting off poverty
Come and see Joseph so weary and Mary,
Come sit with Mary
Come, gaze upon this child
come and sit in this pregnant pause
for all that Jesus came to be and to do
all his inheritance as creator, King and son
can be yours

so much more than a fairytale fable
he was born to enable
the untenable
the indefensible
us
to be holy with him
so be holy as this holy night
for he was born that we might have life.

Happy Christmas


This was my spoken word for the Midnight Communion 2016. It works better when real aloud!








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