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.


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.  

hit and run

29 11 2012

There are lots of cheesy cliches [surely, ‘beautiful metaphors’?] for the growing of faith in people. A cliche is sometimes true. Sometimes it’s made up to make us feel better. A favourite is to talk about ‘planting seeds’, sowing our seed [erm, really?] on rocky or weedy or shallow ground without knowing if the seeds make it through. Very Jesusy. This especially applies to the many occasions when we do services to [surely, ‘for’?] people who don’t have a clue or interest in  what we’re talking about. Funerals. Weddings. Baptisms. Assemblies.

Those times that are meant to be a privilege, where we talk about planting seeds, when it actually feels more like a hit and run. Like I gather up all I am, all I am called to be, and all I believe about God, bound up with all my nervousness and stress and self-consciousness and vulnerability of ‘performing’ in front of strangers, and I condense it into 3 minutes, hit people with it and then run away, all of us none-the-wiser about why.

What a waste of time. Hit and run gospel. 

ASBO Jesus

Or. Or is it? More and more I realise there is no such thing as a hit and run ministry. Because although each occasion may feel like an isolated incident, each moment is connected to another before. People have many experiences of church, and as a badged representative I am connected to all of them. Whether I see the people again or not, I am part of a story in them. And despite the evangelical in me wanting it to be all about what I say, the words I impart, the importance of people understanding what I am talking about, little of what I say will actually make an impact at the time. What does?


There is no such thing as hit and run ministry because our characters are remembered more than our words. So it is important that I represent Jesus well. So I make an effort in what I say, even though it may not be remembered. I make an effort in the way I say it, even if I’m feeling crap about being there because there’s a million things that need doing instead of talking to a load of people who don’t care, will never care, and are waiting for the after-party once the vicar has finished.

Won’t they?

cliche alert

Well, actually I am constantly surprised at how much people take in. When people come back wanting me to take another family funeral or baptism, or the school wants to book me for another term, I recognise that something is going in. That there is (hopefully) a positive impact being made. The lowest bar for me is that I don’t bore or offend people. The highest bar is that through my words and actions – and actually maybe just my presence – Jesus changes lives radically and surprisingly. Because where we are, he is. And he is full of surprises.

I could say something about seeds. But that might sound like a cliche. What I will say is: make an effort, people. We don’t do lazy, hit-and-run ministry. We do whole-life, interconnected, incarnational and life-changing ministry. Just because it doesn’t always feel like it, doesn’t mean it isn’t.  

Pop that in your seed tray and smoke it. 


22 11 2011

Designing Christmas flyers. Planning Sunday’s service. Taking the funeral of a still-born child. Helping at the youth club. Just an ordinary day in vicar-land.

One of the privileges and responsibilities of being Anglican is the funeral ministry, which goes largely unseen by the majority of people. A funeral can contain a variety of emotions, most of which we British attempt to stifle in an attempt to show some decorum and not upset Aunty Rita.

Generally speaking we the public don’t know what to do with funerals. We have a picture in our mind that they should be ‘proper’, sort of ‘churchy’, i.e. straight-laced and a bit dull, and preferably cold. But if mentions of God could be kept to minimum because we’re not really religious, please.

Last week I took the funeral of a still-born child, and there isn’t much that sums up sadness like a mum & dad grieving for the loss of a child they were never able to parent. There isn’t much that sums up hopes being dashed than the death of a child before it is born. Usually in a funeral you can at least call it a celebration of life, you can remember some good things even in the bleakest of lives; but not here. Only hopes, never to be realised.

I told someone I was taking the service, and they said “I wouldn’t know where to start. What on earth do you say?” That is an excellent place to start, I said, because the Bible is not a textbook of trite answers to life’s problems and we are not inadequate if we have nothing to say. That is when we lament.

So I thought I would offer what I did say in my address to this young couple grieving the loss of their first child and so much more. Maybe it’s not what you would have said. It’s not a treatise on death and maybe it’s too simple. But it’s a start. I began by reading Psalm 139.1-18

I wonder what you might want to say to God at a time like this. And I wonder what God might say back to us. Much of the Bible is a record of people’s conversations with God, and you may be surprised to know that there is an awful lot of ranting at God, and an awful lot of lamenting. Lamenting when things have gone wrong, grieving for things that have been lost. The Psalms are full of people opening their hearts boldly before God. This shows us that this is a good thing. God is not fragile, and God knows that you are hurting. And he encourages us to get those feelings out into the open.

The bible also tells us God’s response to our lament, which isn’t to tell us to ‘pull ourselves together’, ‘deal with it’ or ‘move on’. No, God’s response is one of love. God’s response is what we remember at Christmas – that God is not a distant God who remains distant, but God became a human, yes even a fragile human baby – so that he could dwell with us in amongst our pain and our sorrow.

When Jesus grew up, we read about him at the grave of his friend Lazarus, where Jesus wept. Jesus knew sorrow. Jesus saw pain and sorrow all around him and Jesus knows that not every story has a happy ending. This is how realistic our faith is. There is no escapism in trusting Jesus. As Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus, so he weeps with you.  

But as Jesus stands with us in our pain Jesus also leads us through the pain of death to the hope beyond. As Jesus died and was raised to life, so we believe that we die and we are also raised to new life. Baby x has gone from this life, which is what we are here to mark and that hurts; baby x is with God. But may it be some comfort for you, and give you some hope, that God is with you right now. There is a hope for you two, for your lives together and for your love for each other which baby x will always be part of; hope that comes from Jesus who is the way the truth and the life, and who offers us life in this world and the next.

So there we are. I’m big on lament. One of church’s lost disciplines.

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