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.

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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.





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.

 

 





Christian ministry and disappointment

16 09 2016

“There’s a lot of disappointment in Christian ministry.” It was a passing comment made during a conversation in the pub. But it stuck in my head. It’s one of the great unspokens, because we are not meant to feel disappointed. Not only can disappointment undervalue the achievements or encouragements, but it feels kind of disloyal to God.

At its best, Christian ministry is the most profound and amazing role, a privilege and blessing and yes, there are those times.

But it’s worst, it can feel like trying to flog a dial-up modems to kids with 4G mobiles.

christian-ministry-can-feel-like-trying-to-flog-dial-up-modems-to-kids-with-4g-phones

Selling a product nobody wants, let alone needs. Blank expressions of pity, or just… blankness. In early-church days, everyone believed in (a) god(s), so telling them about your (better) one made sense. Like going to a football match and telling people about the new team you’ve discovered that are way better than this one. And the pies are enormous. People will be interested. You just have to win their loyalty.

These days in this place it can feel like telling people about the new football team. Except you’ve gone to the pet shop to do it. At night. Dressed as a pelican.

We have this amazing message of hope and transformation, yet nobody gets it. We have the best ideas for social cohesion yet struggle to organise a an hour-long Sunday service. We celebrate when a few people come to church, when the other 19,000 in the parish don’t.

In Christian ministry you have to be able to genuinely celebrate small things, all the time hoping for greater things. You have to be able to manage church-envy, because no matter how good yours is, someone else’s will always look better run/resourced/taught/supernatural or just won’t have the same old crockery.

Yes, there is a lot of disappointment in Christian ministry. It is an incredibly labour-intensive project, but that’s how God works. In terms of farmers sowing seeds, God still operates in the old ‘fling it out a see’ method, no matter how much we try to adopt intensive-farming methods to streamline, make efficient, guarantee success.

It comes down to this. God is. And he calls us to exactly the same as Jesus called his friends to. And they called theirs to. Conversations, communities, the slow-burn of incarnation, of relationships, of lifestyle. Of being seeds in the dirt, that may or may not burst into life right now, or  next year, or in a decade.

Feeling disappointment isn’t failure. It doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong job. See Elijah. It’s being honest. To feel disappointment is at least to feel something, to know there’s more, to be a person who believes in hope.

It is when we fail to feel anything that we are in the wrong job.





prayer and the absence of god

13 09 2016

How do we pray when we don’t feel like praying anymore? Why should we pray when we feel like we are hurling our words down an empty well, and all we hear are the echoes of our own sadness?

Stop praying? Give up? Pray something different?

God sometimes answers prayer in a straightforward way. We ask for something, he says yes, and we get what we asked for. Happy days.

God sometimes does not answer prayer in a straightforward way. Like we say to God please can I have £20 and he says yellow, and we walk off looking confused.

prayer-and-the-absence-of-god

Part of the problem is the way we talk about prayer.

Answered?

We talk about prayer being answered. Put this in a different context and see how strange it sounds. When did you last have a chat with your friend? Did they answer? Have you spent time with your family recently? Brilliant, did they answer?

Prayer is much more profound than answers. That type of prayer treats God like a divine Siri and church like a subscription to Amazon Prime – put your order in, wait for it to arrive. Grumble at any delay or delivery charges.

But then life happens, and no matter how much we can deny it, we know God does not operate like this.

But it was never like that.

A truth: God is.

Whether he gives us what we want or not, he is. He is above our mood swings, our doubts – we do not destroy God by not believing in him, or being angry with him.

Another truth: God wants us to talk to him.

Prayer is the word we give to the thing we do with our family and friends – conversation, hanging out, spending time, getting to know. The way that you can get to know how your friends and family will think, that is what we can do with God. he knows us, and we can know him, begin to think as he does.

Which is not something we do so that we can get what we want fro him when things go wrong, like sucking up to your boss so you get a promotion or the best desk or the shift you want.

But what about the times when we are angry and disappointed and he does not save the people around us from illness or despair or death? Yes, they are tough. Those are the times we wish we could build up credits with God, and cash them in for good health.

There is no cashing in. But it is ok to be angry.

I know despair, I know anger. I know the feeling of deep sadness that only the death of a loved one can bring, like constantly falling from a great height and never landing.

Where is God then? In the valley of the shadow of death he is with us. I firmly believe that.

Most of the time.

Giving us strength, hope, raising us from despair. But not always saving us from it.

Does that help you? Does it help you if your son is diagnosed with cancer, or a friend commits suicide? Or if life is just rubbish?

Maybe it helps to know you are not alone in feeling that God is absent. Maybe it helps to be given permission to be angry.

The Bible is full of lament, that pouring out of grief and anger and questions that happen when life goes wrong. In fact, if you want a metaphor, a picture, for how you might feel sometimes, see Lamentations. The clue is in the name.

He has made my skin and my flesh grow old
and has broken my bones…
He has barred my way with blocks of stone;
he has made my paths crooked…
he dragged me from the path and mangled me
and left me without help…
He has broken my teeth with gravel;
he has trampled me in the dust… (from Lam 3)

God is. And we pray.

Not just for what we want, but to know the heart of God.
Not because we want God to micromanage our lives.
Not because we believe we have a divine right to health, wealth and happiness.
But because God is.

Jesus calls us to persistent prayer. Yet knowing that the purposes of God – and of life – are greater than the well-being of my life or yours. Which can be hard to hear in these times of selfie-sticks, instant gratification, same-day delivery and the importance of my personal happiness.

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness. (from Lam 3)





celebrating a spirituality of the body

5 06 2016

Our bodies are so precious. No matter what we think of them.
Bodies are at the centre of our faith. No matter how our history has erased them.

Somehow the most embodied faith about a God who was (and is) literally embodied has become disembodied. A faith with an enfleshed Jesus (Gk: incarnate) somehow became about escaping bodies into a ‘spiritual’ heaven. Yet when we neglect our bodies for more ‘spiritual things’ – usually words, prayers, thoughts – we do a disservice to God and to ourselves.

2016.06 Celebrating Body title.001

The early church grappled with this unspeakable notion that the Holy God could be fully human, yet they pursued it and Paul, even Paul the Pharisee, could say our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. No longer the Holy of Holies once a year in the Temple – but you, and me, where God dwells, in our broken and wrinkly crinkly lumpy blotchy flesh and blood and bone bodies.

So, our bodies matter. What we do with them matters. How we treat them matters.

I know this is tricky ground for some. Many people I know, male and female, suffer from serious body image problems, from eating disorders, from other related problems, and from bodies that simply do not work properly. I’m in no way trying to solve those problems here. I am trying to help us see the importance of our bodies, that we don’t neglect them, mistreat them, or simply forget that God cherishes them.

Jesus was very body-conscious. Not in the sense he went to a gym and wore lycra. In the sense that he saw people with broken bodies, worn-out bodies – the disabled, the blind, the bleeding, even the dead. And he hung out with them, honoured them, used physical touch to restore them, when no-one else would go near them. He made them whole, physically, socially, mentally. He hung out with people who sold their bodies to people like us for sex, honouring them in a way slipping them a tenner for a fumble under the table never would.

He also had strong words about how we can misuse our bodies. If your eye causes you to sin, he said, gauge it out, for it is better to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than not at all. He was exaggerating for effect of course, but this was before you could watch hard-core porn on your iPhone during the sermon. What we do with our bodies matters. We can do great good or great harm, to ourselves and to others.

body_temple

Developing a spirituality of the body is not about a feel-good self-help programme indistinguishable from a couch-to-5k phone app; it’s not about becoming a vegetarian; it’s not about yoga or running or being happy with how we look, though it could include those.

It’s about being real with God and ourselves that this sack of flesh we live in matters. That Jesus would have us care for ourselves well. That the sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life is all about BODIES; a resurrection gained through the BODY of Jesus, God made BODY, who lives in our BODY by his Holy Spirit.

And if you truly struggle with your body, as many of us do, imagine Jesus sitting down next to you on the bus. Where does he look, how does he judge, and what does he treasure? Evidence from the gospel suggests:

He treasures the whole of us.
Us, as a whole.
Us as we come, broken or whole.
Wholly holy.


 

We are starting a new series with this title at church, and this is a version of the opening talk. Over the series we’ll be looking at eyes, hands, tongues, scars, heads, shoulders and feet as we explore what it means to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, to be temples of the Holy Spirit, and to honour God with our bodies. 





bus stop | the hopes sessions #9

17 05 2016

the bus stop outside church
a place of waiting
hoping
cursing
sitting
meeting
a place to gather to
and then to go from
a place strangers become
fellow passengers
a place on the way to another place
but not the place itself

IMG_0577_Snapseed

a place a lot like church, really.





bench | the hopes sessions #8

1 05 2016

Bench. Outside a hospital.
For paramedics to smoke.
Patients to get fresh air.
Relatives to spot the irony.

IMG_0286_Snapseed

Sometimes hope needs a hospital.
Hope gets ill. Tired.

Sometimes hope is a hospital.
Hope gives life. Strength.

Sometimes hope just sits outside.
On a dirty bench.
Beckoning.
Come sit with me.
I’m not much to look at.
But hope can sit anywhere.
Even here.

 





no, hope | the hopes sessions 7

27 04 2016

No hope. Scrawled across the floor at the skate park. Not your average graffiti. I don’t know what it means to the person who wrote it. Or those who ride over it. Maybe it’s a deep statement of existential angst. Maybe someone just kept falling over. Maybe it’s the name of a band.

IMG_0522_Snapseed

It spoke to me. Because it is just, there. Slipping it’s message into the minds of those who see it. Pulling down. Sucking out the colour in life.

We are hope people. We might be hope people by hanging out with kids at the skate park. We might be hope people by playing football and trying to model a different way. We might be hope people by standing on no hope and praying. We might be hope people by trying to bring hope with our words and our actions and not just our thoughts.

We must be hope people. The message of no hope is insidious, taking root like bindweed, tearing apart identity and character and repeating itself across generations.

The message of hope puts the colour into the monochrome, breathes life, brings a smile each time you skate over the old graffiti. No hope? No, hope.





the crowd

23 03 2016

This is a spoken word piece that I used on Palm Sunday, when we had over 100 guests for a baptism. It begins with the first 45 seconds or so of Chariots of Fire…


There’s something about this music that makes you want
to do everything in slow motion
you picture yourself running along the beach in a white t-shirt
the wind is blowing, there’s the wet sand and the ocean
and if you remember the London Olympics opening ceremony
Mr Bean is about to trip you up

It’s music that speaks to us of triumph and success
beyond the white shorts and white vests
I can’t even remember what the film was about
but the music still makes me want to cheer out loud
even just to be in the crowd…

To be in the crowd.

Today’s Bible reading was a lot about crowds
crowd’s being loud
but the thing about crowds is if you don’t want to be loud
well, that’s allowed, after all, you’re in a crowd
keep your head down
keep yourself moving around
Just a face in the crowd.
Like the boy over there selling lemons,
just watching

Where are you in the crowd?

Jesus went into Jerusalem with a crowd like this
Some of whom were his friends and followers
Other’s were more cautious, just hangers-on
Some just had nothing better to do
So as the crowd grew they stayed because
who knew, there might end up being a riot
or just something more interesting
than watching the lemon seller
juggle lemons

Where are you in the crowd?

Some of those in the crowd with Jesus were pretty sure
that Jesus was special
more than just a street magician
or clever politician
not just your average preacher
or rabbi-style teacher
but the Messiah, a King
that sort of thing

so they served him and helped him
and gave up their lives for him
even when their families said they were crazy
and told them not to join the crowd

Where are you in the crowd?

Some of those in the crowd were sceptical
Frightened of being heretical
and so were being tactical
in keeping their distance
don’t get involved
or the roman soldiers
might get too close

Some in the crowd were intrigued enough
to be near the front where the jostling was rough
and near enough to get the occasional shove
but they were not convinced that God was love
and so were frightened
their eyes widened with the thought
of actually pinning their hopes on this man Jesus

they said to themselves I’m not religious
whilst staring at the man called God With Us
but could not bring themselves to hear the invitation
of the disciples to join with us
because they thought they were not good enough
or convinced enough
or just hadn’t really reckoned it could possibly be
true

Where are you in the crowd?

Jesus didn’t charge around
with Chariots of Fire playing in the background
but he took his time
he let the people think and make up their minds
as well as turning water into wine
and healing the eyes of the blind
and being actually, really God.

Where are we in the crowd?

Maybe we have got questions…
which is fine because there’s no suggestion
that the disciples didn’t have questions
Maybe we’ve never thought about Jesus
actually being real
Maybe we’ve never even been a face in the crowd
until today
right now

and maybe today at this baptism is the time
when you see the light of Jesus in your eyes
and an ancient faith is awakened
a dormant sense of God is shaken
and you realise you’ve been looking for the meaning of life
and the meaning of life has been standing there all along

Jesus, who sees all of us in the crowd
as his friends
whether we come with knees bowed
or are so far away he needs a long lens to see us
Jesus waits patiently.
What he offers us is new life
being washed whiter than white
when we pledge to follow him
to trust him

And this is a big deal
the whole Jesus being real thing
it changes everything
So I invite you
join the crowd, have a look
don’t just be like the boy selling lemons.
So when Jesus says come,
you are ready
because he gives us a future and a hope
to me that seems worth a go.








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