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.


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.

we will stand

27 02 2016

She came.
With her long fingers reaching.
To snatch.
Scratch out the life
drawn out in the pages of our plan.
Without fear.
Or negotiation.
Just the stark finality
of death.

Why she?
Everything about
sudden death is

Stripped from us
with callousness.
Casual disregard
for the good.
The right.
The fair.

We do not fear you.
Do not get ideas.
Though we fear
And the sheer
Desperate emptiness
Of the hole
In our being.

The defeat of death.
That is for then.
Not now.
We stand.

We will stand.
The valley of the shadow
of death.
Is dark.
But it does end.

Just not yet.


A good friend of mine died suddenly last week. Michael Etheridge, aged 41, a husband, father of 4. A church minister. A friend of 20 years. Sometimes in church leadership because we deal with other people’s grief all the time it can become a bit casual.For me, I mean. My friend’s death shocked me. Knocked me for six. And my grief, as a distant friend, is nothing to that of his family.

There are no simple answers. There is no bible verse or theological truth that will bring comfort to them. Michael and I met studying theology as undergraduates, so I wouldn’t demean his memory with easy cliches. It’s just crap. Utterly, totally, uncomprehendingly crap. One of my responses is to write, and that is what I wrote.


For you and your family little Mikey. May God bless them, in the deepest, least cliche-ey sense.

dodging the telegram

21 01 2015

I was running when I got the phone call telling me my granny had died. A few weeks short of her 100th birthday, this was a blessed relief for her, living as she has been in a fog of dementia and sightlessness; and she would probably have been embarrassed to receive The Telegram anyway. 

this is not my granny

She dodged The Telegram, and instead got the Book of Life, and maybe even my grandad, although having told him on his deathbed 8 years ago that she would see him soon, he may well be a bit cross she took so long. 

As a vicar I take a lot of funerals, so I am used to the talk of hope beyond death. But there are precious few times that I believe it fully and wholly for those I meet; by which I mean I always have hope that God receives all, but that there is no doubt for those who follow Jesus, or ‘have given their lives to him’, or ‘are saved’, however we choose to put it.

My granny committed to following Jesus 90 years ago, and served him faithfully ever since, through the highs and lows of life, being married to a post-war Baptist minister for over 60 years, through the death of her daughter and the treasures of her remaining children and theirs, and theirs, through birth and adoption. 

She was faithful to her husband, to her family, to the church, and most of all to her God, on whom her life was grounded. I know she was far from perfect. But she was a great example to us, from a generation that knew true hardship, and terror, and sorrow – at Remembrance Day I still show the machine-gun bullet that came through her window during the generation-defining WW2. 

As I continued my run after hearing the news, God worked through the shuffle playlist to play Awake My Soul by Mumford & Sons, with some appropriate words that made me chuckle as I ran:

In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die
And where you invest your love, you invest your life
Awake my soul, awake my soul
For you were made to meet your maker

The legacy of my granny lives through me, and the rest of her family, and I would like that not to just be the shape of our noses or the names that we bear, but this: where we invest our love, we invest our life. That won’t always make us popular, and as I also have a life in ministry I know the cost investing your whole life can bring to your family. And I know it can be exhausting. 

But I take comfort – which literally means ‘with strength’ – from the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, which is not a vague and fuzzy optimism, it is not a half-baked hope of being a star in the sky that twinkles, but it is the costly life to which we are all invited. For we are made to meet our maker, and we do not have to be afraid. 

My granny was one of the few people I know who was utterly convinced of that.  

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.

clinging to what we knew

7 06 2013

Our culture is obsessed by feeling. We are encouraged to let our feelings lead the way. So our feelings are used to justify any opinions, actions, and some of the worst cliche-ridden auditions on talent shows. Just because you’re singing in memory of your grandma, doesn’t make you a good singer.

When we let our feelings lead us, we are blown around like the wind, and spend our lives like hormonal teenagers craving feeling good, and despising or avoiding anything that doesn’t feel good. But in the words of Skunk Anansie, just because you feel good doesn’t make it right.

I was thinking about this because today I took the funeral of a man who had committed suicide. What do you say to a family, many of whom are Christians, who have lost a husband, father, brother, grandad and friend so suddenly, so inexplicably. Suddenly we are ambushed and surrounded by feelings and emotions, crowding round and jostling us and clawing at us; or to use another image, our ship is suddenly tossed in a storm far from port and God who is our rock appears to turn to sand and disappear. 



What we do is turn to what we know, not what we feel. Feelings can be great, but if we follow them all the time, they will lead us a merry dance. In grief it can feel like the end of the world; it can feel like God is very distant; and it may be that we feel alone and abandoned by God. 

That is why we must trust what we know. We know that God does not abandon us. We know that God always loves us, even when we are in a dark place. We also know that God does not always intervene to stop terrible things happening, and that can make us angry. We know God is big enough to receive our anger and our grief, big enough to catch all our tears in a bottle [Psalm 58.6]. 

So whilst we may feel alone – and in the moment it truly feels that we are – we cling to the knowledge we are not. We cling to what we knew about God – he never abandons us, but walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. When we have lost someone we love we grieve deeply, and rightly so. But we do not stop there, not forever, because we have a hope that transforms even the darkest black into resurrection life. 

We may not feel that now, but we know it because we knew it. This is why we need to strengthen and deepen our faith in-between crises so when the crises come we know God, not just know about him. This is why, for all its faults and imperfections, church is important, home groups are important, prayer is important. Because faith needs depth. So then when life goes belly up we can cling to what we know, not just how we feel.

None of which makes it feel any easier, of course.  

burning questions

24 01 2012

A little girl came to church the other day specifically to ask me some questions. Because her grandad had just died. She was about 7. I loved her questions. She had written them down in this order:

  • Is heaven made out of clouds? 
  • Can we sing ‘shine’ at the funeral [a bouncy kids song she likes!]
  • What do you say at the funeral?
Ok so far? Carry on…
  • Do you like being a vicar?
  • Do you like working for God and Jesus?
  • Can you pray for my grandad?

And then comes the crunch…

  • Do you burn my grandad? 

How would you answer that? Watching a vicar try and explain cremation to a little girl should be a spectator sport. The wonderful thing is, children accept what you say so readily. So, when I said yes, we do burn grandad’s body but grandad isn’t there any more so it’s not really burning grandad, she was fine.

We keep kids away from death too much. They often deal with it more better (as they say) than us grown-ups who worry to much and try and protect them. Let‘s not do that so much. 

And by the way, heaven isn’t made of clouds.

It’s made of cheese.

a greater violence to remember

8 11 2009

he won a fight

Life sometimes throws up some unexpected ironies. On the eve of Remembrance Sunday, a Briton beat a Russian in a fight in Germany. David Haye became the WBA heavyweight champion. People cheered. Hooray for violence! But this is not the time to reflect on boxing; there is greater violence to remember.

Last week in Sutton (near where I live) a man was violently killed as a group of angry people stamped on his head. A fight that began over a stolen Halloween hat. There is great violence to remember in this world, and it is not just in faraway lands.

Such violence, and the violence of the wars we remember today, reveals the nastiest, most undignified side of humanity. We keep it under wraps, peeping at it from the safety of our newspapers or TV screen. But our capacity for greed, for murder, our lust for power and wealth is all too real. The great Christian writer CS Lewis wrote this: ‘I looked inside myself, and found that I am a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds.’

Jesus recognised the capacity within his disciples for violence. He recognised the capacity of his disciples to struggle, to fall out with each other. Love each other as I have loved you, he said. Love each other even when you disagree. Love each other even though you are so different. Love each other because being humans you will discover the urge for power, for status, the need to be right, to be better than others…

In recognising that part of ourselves, and giving over that part of our characters to God, that its power is taken away. The power of Jesus’ love, the love he commands us to remain in, is stronger than the power of evil that wants to drag us down. And we are forgiven; our zoo of lusts, bedlam of ambitions, nursery of fears, harem of fondled hatreds will not be held against us.

It doesn’t stop there though. The Christian life is not passive. It is a verb not a noun. We have a responsibility, a new responsibility as followers of Jesus. The responsibility is not this: to characterise or dismiss people of a particular race or ethnic background as terrorists or war-mongers as many of us have done in the past and the present to the Irish, Germans, Russians, Bosnians, Arabs…; our responsibility is not to join in or encourage conversations that do those things. Our responsibility is not to glorify war, or to force war on others. Our responsibility is not to judge other people as inhuman and therefore beyond the power of Jesus Christ to transform them, the same Christ who by his grace transforms us.

Our responsibility is to remain in Jesus’ love; a responsibility to love each other as Jesus loved his disciples; a responsibility be prepared to lay down our lives for our friends; a responsibility to be like shining stars as we work out together what it means for us to be followers of Jesus in this messed up world. A responsibility to show the same self-sacrifice as Jesus did. To put you before me; them before us.

poppy sxc

violence and remembrance

We remember that suffering and violence do not have the last word, but that Jesus resurrection has the last word, his resurrection that breaks the power of sin and death, that redeems and transforms all who come to know him. So we remember those who have died, and we commend them to God; but also and maybe moreso, we pray for those in places where war is all too real, death all too near, and we pray for transformation of hearts, for transformation of communities – not just them and their communities, them over their far away; but as much us and our communities, for Jesus loving and saving power to do what the gun and bullet will never do. From St Helier to Sutton and the ends of the earth.

We pray that  the hope we have and glimpse will be reality; that there will be no more death and tears and mourning; that anger will not turn to violence; but through grace, to peace.

We will remember them.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. Let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.

anyone for a coffee (and tax) break?

3 11 2009

Death and taxes. Fewer things are more inevitable, frankly spoke Benjamin Franklin. Except maybe the twins reaching the semi-finals. Yet fewer things have such a bad press (except the twins, but so they should). Now I know I’m a bit of an oddball, but I’m not much frightened of either (I am frightened of the twins. Enough of the X-Factor).

I worry about the consequences of my death; but I am not hugely frightened of death itself, most of the time. I certainly don’t avoid talking about death like many people. And perhaps more oddly, I secretly quite like paying tax. It makes me feel grown-up. It also gives me roads to drive on, infrastructure to rely on, governments to complain on, schools to compare and many other good things.

Pret VAT sign

VAT nightmare?

This photo was taken at Pret a Manger, when I paid for my coffees and via VAT contributed to the infrastructure that enabled me to buy it, pay for it, drink it, and not have to wash up afterwards. I like Pret. They are fair-trade and tasty and fresh. But their attitude to VAT is somewhat negative. They encourage the view that it feels inconvenient, annoying, even an abuse of my rights to a cheap coffee. “VAT nightmare!” they scream. If you can’t read it because it’s a bit blurry (my phone was drunk) it says “We’re legally required to add on VAT when you eat in. Nightmare.”

eat my taxes

But is paying tax a “nightmare”? Really?

Why should we have everything for free? We demand, we consume, we don’t want to suffer the consequences. But surely we should be willing to pay our way, to contribute to the communal fund. To be generous.

It is unpopular to many, but our taxes allow all of us to live as we do; and allow many people to simply live, as they have no other income, no other way to pay for food or housing or a present for the kids. The vast majority of people who receive benefits are not wasters and scroungers. I want to support them. I know that is not all that taxes pay for. I know that much tax-payers money is wasted, much like my own (on a smaller scale!). I know the banking system has swallowed an awful lot of it this year and is laughing loudly whilst we squirm is disbelief. But still.

Are taxes inevitable? Yes. Are they a bit of a pain? Ok, yes. Are they necessary? Yes. Are they a nightmare? No. Do they give us a higher standard of living than so many across the world? Yes. Do they give some people life for whom everything else is only death? Actually, I think they do. Maybe we should be grateful we live in a country that can tax, unlike many where it is just a pipe-dream, so infrastructure cannot be built without bribery and corruption. Maybe we should be grateful we live in a country with a lower minimum tax threshold of 33%, like Sweden. Though they do have Volvos.

So,  hooray for taxes. And as Jesus demonstrated in the transformed life of one, hooray for the tax man.

Now I can drink my coffee without having nightmares.

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