On The Absence of God

10 08 2018

On the Absence of God :: A Poem in 5 Parts

[Part 1: The Pitch]

When God doesn’t pitch up
what should we do?
sing longer
look more earnestly to the sky
sing songs that are pitched so high
God must be forced to rescue his angels?

When God doesn’t pitch up
what should we do?
especially good ones
repeat them as if they are our own
though we feel God has left us alone but
God must be forced to rescue his angels, right?

[Part 2: The Betrayal]

When God doesn’t pitch up
I feel betrayed
because I am loyal and faithful
and I have been hopeful
and still am
and God chooses to remain absent
chooses not to micromanage our pains
and maybe makes small incremental changes
but who cares about them, right?
God promises much
but delivers little
invites us to trust
yet doesn’t stick to his side of the bargain
this is the
Intentional and Deliberate Absence of God.

[Part 3: The True]

God doesn’t have to pitch up
for all he has said to be true
God never promises to make us feel better
the heart of the Gospel is the incarnation and death and resurrection
and ascension of Jesus Christ
and all we have and are stands on this truth:
that it is not the power of love but
the power of resurrection that defines us
as beloved.

[Part 4: The Theology Riff]

He is cosmically present
yet we make him comically absent
We are ontologically changed
yet pathologically obsessed with not noticing
His world cries out in unbearable pain
yet we cry out for the bearable numbing of ours
We do not deserve to be hurt free
He doesn’t owe it to us to make us better
His first priority
is not our serendipity
Our wounds are our connection with the cosmic reality
of a holy brokenness
His absence the consequence of the blinding naivety
of our broken holiness

[Part 5: The Beginning]

For he is here
We are changed
His world is hurting
And that is that.

I wrote this over several days during New Wine. It is part of my honest wrestling with some of the implicit theological assumptions that the emphasis on prayer ministry gives to the character of God and our response to them. I write as someone who believes in prayer ministry, in the charismatic gifting, and as someone who often feels on the edge looking in. And my brain doesn’t have a pause button.



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
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!

enduring motherhood 

8 03 2016

It’s impossible to talk about motherhood without telling stories. Stories of life and death and bleeding knees, of hopes raised and hopes dashed; stories of deep love and painful rejection, of hard work and self-giving and probably, more hard work.


What are your motherhood stories? Maybe like me, you can never be one; or maybe you are, and don’t want to be; maybe like me, you can tell stories of losing your mother as a child; or maybe of gaining a wonderful new one, through step-family or adoption.

Stories of motherhood are like life condensed: complex, relational, wonderful, painful; stories about the big overarching narrative of human love and nurture and unexplainable emotional connections; and yet also about the intensely mundane of everyday life, like washing up and school runs and plasters and that most soothing of balms: the hug.

In the ancient stories of our faith there are many stories about motherhood that can so easily be glossed over. Yes contained within them are stories of hope and faithfulness and obedience way more powerful than David and Goliath.

Sarah: promised a child at an old age – yes, in the end Isaac was born, but Sarah’s road was not an easy one. After 11 years she was reminded of the promise, and laughed bitterly. After 13, she engineered Ishmael’s birth . It was not until 25 years after God’s promise that Isaac was born. That is a long and painful wait.

Naomi: who was forced to leave her home as an economic migrant, who lost her husband and 2 sons, and was so angry with God she changed her name to “Bitter”. There’s a real story of motherhood. Yet she loved her foreign daughter-in-law Ruth, welcomed her back home, and saw her love and loyalty and hard work transformed into new life.

Mary: the young, unexpectedly expectant mother, chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus. Like all these women, chosen not because she was special, but precisely because she was not. God has a habit of working through the ordinary in women and men.


This is how God can transform the mundane into the profound. In a Biblical narrative dominated by men’s stories, we must delve a little deeper. Through exercising obedience to God, shown through love and loyalty and hard work and faithfulness, these women – and many others –  can be great examples to us of motherhood in all its complexity, joys, pains, tears and laughter.

Once we see that, we see that their enduring obedience goes way beyond their role as mother, and they become to us examples of prayer, faithful obedience, and great strength.

In church we are doing a series during Lent called Enduring Obedience, looking at Biblical characters and how they can inspire us. This week, as it was Mothering Sunday, we looked at obedience and motherhood, and this post is based on that theme.


remembering forwards

2 11 2014

Most of us have a dark chapter in our story. A time when we grieved for someone, or something. A time we find hard to look back on. We are not always very good at telling that part of our story.

But those parts of our story are important. We don’t tear those chapters out. Because we believe in a God who is involved in our story, and we continue to tell the story of God, even with the difficult bits. The Bible is full of honest grappling with the dark parts of our story – of family fall-outs, or childlessness, of death. The Psalms in particular do not shy away from yelling at God when we feel life has dealt an unfair hand. But in that, we remember that though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, God is with us.

Holding that in tension is part of remembering forwards. Remembering forwards means looking back to the dark chapters with a confidence that comes from knowing the future. It’s a bit of time-travelling Jesus-style, less Doctor Who and more Doctor no-longer-required. It’s embracing that part of us that hurts, not burying it in the sand. Because though we are sad, we are not abandoned to sadness. Though we are thirsty, we are not left parched. ‘To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.‘ 

When death hits us, we may feel like we are stranded in a desert with no water, with all that is familiar gone. Many of us simply do not know what to do. So we live in denial, employing various tactics from the stiff upper lip, to humour, to making shrines, all of which can have their place, at the right time… but, when we are thirsty, none of these things are drinking from the water of life, they’re just re-arranging the sand.

But in remembering forwards,  we know we have a hope, we who believe and trust in Jesus Christ. A hope that marks us out. For we do not believe death is the end, because we believe Jesus is coming back, and when he does we will be raised with him. Yet this hope is not reserved for the end of time. We do not sit here in our grief, thirsty for hope, left to yearn for some distant future when everything will be ok. That future hope breaks into our present; that is what Jesus talked about when he talked of the Kingdom of God breaking in. He began his ministry talking about bringing freedom for captives, sight for the blind, release for the oppressed, comfort for the mourning.

Grief is hard, and can seem never-ending when you’re in the middle of its waterless desert. But. We can be people who trust in Jesus, in and through our confident remembering, and allow him to lead us confidently forwards to that place where we can drink freely from the spring of the water of life.

what’s the point in praying for Iraq?

11 08 2014

What’s the point in praying for Iraq? This is part 1 of a question I was asked the other day. It is a very good one. It is not a new one, but it is a very pertinent one. Part 2 of the question was even tougher. Referring to the horrific story told by Canon Andrew White (‘Vicar of Baghdad’) of a Christian child (he had baptised) being cut in half, my friend asked, surely the child’s parents had prayed. That didn’t work. What difference will our prayers make? Ouch. Fair point. 

My first response is to do with my bowels. And Jesus’ bowels too actually. Bear with me. When I hear these terrible stories I am moved with compassion – far deeper than that actually, a pain inside – which is described in the New Testament, when Jesus felt compassion, with the word splagchnizomai. It literally means ‘to be moved in one’s bowels’. The bowels were the seat of feeling. It’s that depth of pain in your gut. That, addressed to God, is prayer. 


Does that achieve anything, though? Or does it just salve our consciences, feeling a bit more active than clicktivism of changing our Facebook photo or signing a petition? Well, to feel is to live, so to feel deep compassion – literally meaning ‘with suffering’ – is to know you’re alive. So yes, it matters; and yes, getting together to lament and pray matters. But that’s still about us.

Here’s two thoughts about the difference prayer makes. First, the practical; second, the spiritual.  The practical is like this: if my neighbours house is burning down and they are stuck inside, and I realise I cannot help, what do I do? Go and make a cup of tea, draw the curtains and watch TV? No. I do what I can. I call the Fire Brigade. Fetch blankets. Make tea for others. I might buy my neighbours smoke alarms.  But if I never looked out my window, I would never know there was a fire. Imagine how my neighbours would feel then. Prayer is looking out the window and feeling. 

The spiritual (this is a false dichotomy, by the way) is this: there is a spiritual war for people’s hearts. I know that sounds a bit hard-core weird. No, I don’t know how it works. But there is such a thing as evil, it does take hold of people. It has in the militia of the IS. Prayer is our weapon against that. Again, I don’t know how. 

BBC News

So prayer is about actively standing in solidarity with those who suffer; it is about actively shaking ourselves out of a comfortable malaise, seeing where the world is burning and how we can help; and it is us actively taking our part in the spiritual battle of good vs evil. All of which can actually change the world as it changes us, as the more we pray, the more the Holy Spirit can work in us. But we don’t do it for that. We do it for those we pray for.

So, does prayer ‘achieve’ anything? Is there a point? It is not a slot machine, a magic formula, or a psychic communication;  but neither is it a waste of time or should ever be dull. And it may just be more significant than we realise.

If you are able to give financially, Andrew White’s Foundation for Reconciliation and Relief in the Middle East are one of few organisations still active in Iraq. For more about religious persecution see my post The Awkward Silence About Religious Persecution and this article in the Independent.       

lite of the world

20 07 2014

I’m not usually one to bang on about duty. The Protestant work ethic ends about 10am after my first hot chocolate. But. Yes, a cheeky but.

I have a worry that there are too many people like me in danger of leading the faithful into a lackadaisical lazy religion-lite. I’m so fearful of placing a burden on people – the burden of religion, of ‘works’, of doing lots of churchy things and being busy – that I fear I under-emphasise the commitment and the cost.

lite of the world.001

 I wrote this at our last parish Day of Prayer:

Lite of the world
means you just come and go
as you feel like it
especially when you need something
or have nothing better
to do.

Light of the world
means we are sent
into darkness
to serve the needs of others
often at great
intentional cost. 

So many people do not realise that the faith, fully and properly lived, is about intentional cost. Duty. Service. But it is so hard to talk about this sort of thing without sounding like a grumpy old vicar who just wants his church full of busy guilt-ridden high-achieving religio-warriors with no time for their family or work or getting out there being the light of the world. Believe me, it’s really not that.

It’s just that it’s tough being the light of the world. Religion-lite is so much easier. So much less demanding. But let’s not settle for that.

claiming holiness

16 03 2014

Holiness. It’s a bold thing to claim. It sounds all wrong. I think we are so used to it being an insult – holier than thou, Holy Joe, you think you’re so holy – that we spend more time denying holiness than claiming it. Yet the more we deny it, the more we disbelieve it ourselves. The more we disbelieve it, the less we live it. Which is why it ends up sounding so wrong.

Holiness isn’t actually an arrogant claim. Far from it. Claiming holiness is to claim defeat. To announce failure. Because holiness is about what God is doing in me, not what I am doing in me. I don’t make me holy by doing things the world calls holy. Of course I am not holy by what I say or do or live, as proven by what I say and do and live. 

So how am I holy? I am holy by the Holy Spirit living in me, which he does when I admit defeat, when I hold out the chains that bind me to selfishness and arrogance and living without God as the first and ultimate thought of every day; when the Spirit lives in me, he changes me, breaks those chains. Like a light that clears out the darkness. God sees me as holy. Clothes me in holiness.

The Emperors New Clothes though, right? I might be theoretically and theologically holy and becoming holy – it’s called sanctification – but in reality I’m butt naked like everyone else. Right? No. Because living as holy makes a difference to real life. When we know we have the Holy Spirit in us, when we feel and choose to feel his leading and guiding and prompting all day and every day; when even at our lowest and least holy as we struggle with anger or sex or money or porn or lying or self-loathing or whatever it is that proves we are not holy as the world sees holiness – then, that is when holiness kicks in. 

The indwelling of the Spirit shakes off from our hearts the things that would bind us; the shield that extinguishes the burning arrows of the evil one. Our temptations and vices need not have a hold over us. The cycle is broken by repentance and forgiveness. Holiness is coming. Holiness that admits defeat, and yet claims victory through the resurrection power of Jesus. 

Our culture struggles to have the courage to have any convictions. Let us not fall into the same trap. Claim holiness. Be bold. Walk tall. Because when we start there, as those admitting defeat, yet being sanctified by the Spirit and knowing we are holy, we are changed. When we change, the world changes. School, workplace, home, train, bus. Church. The kingdom is revealed. Holiness spreads. That is God’s plan. Be a part of it.

Like the thief nailed beside him I have no other plan
I have placed all my hope in a crucified man

confidence in the (vacuous) orb

17 02 2014

There are so many things that vie for our attention and our confidence. Notice me, trust me. I’m shiny! I’m new! I’m interesting for a minute. Oh, didn’t I tell you I was empty. Vacuous.

It’s not a new phenomenon, but there are more and more vacuous things competing in ever more clever ways. Like Victorian follies designed to look good but empty of substance, we get so easily caught up and distracted and mesmerised. 

This beautiful cartoon from Miriam Kendrick is a parable for our time. It’s sad, yes. And it’s about… what? It could be the internet, or fame, or self-help gurus; it could be about politics, sport or religion. Whatever it is that mesmerises us, tricks us, and leaves us empty.

What is your orb?

Please check out Miriam’s website for more great cartoons, and sign up for her free stuff! And if you prefer a different picture, here’s a genuine folly, from the Belton Estate in Grantham:

Belton Folly_Snapseed

the advent sessions // fork handles

10 12 2013


Preparing the ground.
Digging in.
Turning it over.
Turning lives over.
Elizabeth. Zechariah. 
Nobody believing.

Preparing the ground.
Digging in.
Turning himself over.
Turning his very nature over.
Father. Son. Holy Spirit.
Nobody believing.

Imagine the conversation
Even in the omnipotent mind:

We must prepare the ground.
We must dig it over.
We must be safe.
But nothing that grows in nature is safe.
We know that.
We made that. 

So we dig.
We prepare the ground.
We choose faithful people.
Unexpected people.
Unexceptional people?

Take hold of the fork handle.
For the triune God
Preparing the ground is not static.
It is not safe.
It is not clean.
And it is not done alone. 

This is part of a series called the advent sessions, using local images to help reflect on advent. This picture is from my garden. It may be the last with the four candles/fork handles reference, but who knows. Previous posts are:
the advent sessions // for candles
the advent sessions // rebuild

to breathe in the woods

14 05 2013

One of my monthly disciplines is a quiet day. This is a day I try to do life differently. And as the name suggests, it’s meant to be quiet. Life in ministry is rarely quiet, so hearing myself think, let alone God speak, can be tricky. Sometimes on my quiet days I walk the parish, or go to London. You can find God in the urban. It’s from this that the Lent Sessions (1,2,3,4,5,6,7) came, from images of our parish estate.

Often I go to the countryside. I’ve always loved the rural outdoors. Sometimes with a friend, sometimes on my own. Often I see things that spark my thoughts. Today I was thinking and trying to pray about life, how it is so full, of good things and hard things, important things and things I wish weren’t important, like rotas and not being the Messiah myself.

It can be hard to see the wood for the trees, as Jesus would have said if he’d lived in England and been less obsessed with corn. 

wood for the trees 1

A quiet day can be like walking in the woods and approaching a clearing. Everything can feel a bit enclosed, dark. But ahead are glimpses of daylight. 

wood for the trees 2

As you walk towards it, you can see the scenery begins to change. The trees becomes thinner. There is an end to the mud.

wood for the trees 3

For me, I am drawn to clearings. Openings. Places where daylight penetrates. This of course is more than a clearing. It’s a beautiful valley. 

Seek out the places that give you life. If that is walking the pavements, do it. If it is escaping to the country, do it. It gives you the chance to see a different perspective, a different view. Then when you look back to where you’ve come from, and to where you will return, it somehow can seem more manageable. Even beautiful. 

wood for the trees 4

Because you must come back. And you cannot live longing to be in the clearing. It can give you new life to go there, but you must be able to breathe in the woods.

Oh! May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope! (Romans 15.13, The Message)

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