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.

unexpectedly political values | resurrection

2 04 2015

The resurrection is massively political; there can be no greater political statement than the Christian belief in the physical and bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. Somehow though this has become de-politicized, neutered, made insipid; somehow the resurrection has become like an afterthought, a happy ending tacked on to make the story better that we can ignore if we prefer.

Some of that is from fear. We can talk confidently and politically about Jesus life and ministry, his words about love and peace and justice and money, even about kingdoms; and we can talk of his death, his sacrifice. But his resurrection provokes accusations of insanity, of one step too far; bringing personal irrationally-held beliefs into the public sphere.

resurrection - a metaphor

So it becomes a metaphor. His death becomes just solidarity with suffering; the resurrection just a symbol of hope – the power of ideas – triumphing over adversity. Which is not wrong. But it’s like saying winning the Champions League was a good chance to make the stadium grass look nice. It may be true, but isn’t the point.

The resurrection, as early Christians understood it, means that God cares deeply about creation, his creation, which includes humans and plants and animals and guilt and death and sweat and zero hours contracts and laughter and banking.

The resurrection was God re-creating, making new; taking the stuff that makes life stink, symbolised in Adam and the creation/fall story, and putting it to death, killing it dead, full stop; then re-birthing, re-newing; Jesus Christ as the first-fruit of the new world in which humans and plants and animals and all that are made whole, holy; death defeated, the stink gone, the new come. We live in that world.

The resurrection of Jesus shows sin cannot win. It also shows the pagan Roman empire it cannot win. Jesus is Lord, not Caesar or Herod or capitalism or the economy or ISIS. They can defeat humans, but they cannot defeat the creator and new-creator. When I place my hope in the risen Jesus of Nazareth, I am not embracing a philosophy of kindness, a nice way of life; I am embracing a politics in which local politics comes second-place to God. There’s a challenge.

Here’s another. The resurrection is political because Jesus first appeared to the society’s little people: women, working men, nobody’s. He wasn’t mistaken for a king, but a labourer. Placed at the centre of God’s plan to shake up the powerful are the very people the powerful would ignore.

So the Christian politic has to place them at the centre. It cannot be a politics of dominance, but a politics that embraces prostitutes and adulterers and tax-evaders and wealthy land-owners and poor zero-hours workers and sees the same darkness in all of us, no matter what our status; and promises the same resurrection to all of us, no matter what our status.

The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is an historical truth, not a metaphor; it is deeply political event, not just a happy ending; it is about God transforming this world, not us escaping from it; if we truly understand it, we cannot help but be changed. 

Provocative Resurrection
I wrote this before I read David Cameron’s article with his (very common) misunderstanding of the heart of the Christian message, and this reaction.  


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.  

things jesus didn’t say #5 | third

16 04 2014

I will die, and on the third day nothing important will happen.

Of course he didn’t say that. I will die, and on the third day I will rise again. That is what he said. And did. That matters.


The same goes for Peter. For Paul. Not the birds. The resurrection is the key.  

The weird thing is, to hear a lot of us speak, and to read our theology (you might know them as songs), it’s like the third day isn’t so important. Especially in the evangelical world, our songs are distinctly lacking in explicit resurrection theology. There are many songs about the blood of jesus, the sacrifice of Jesus, the death of Jesus. But the resurrection?

I recognise that often we use these phrases as a kind of shorthand. When we say we are ‘saved by the death/blood/sacrifice of Jesus’, what we mean is by the death and resurrection of Jesus. The trouble is, shorthand rapidly becomes the norm, and then nobody remembers it’s shorthand. Resurrection needs death before it; death does not need resurrection after it. 

I challenge you to search out contemporary songs for explicit mention of the resurrection. There are a few notable ones that do, but most? They read like loose sacrifice-themed Old Testament-lite: the death of a lamb, the death of Jesus, it’s all the same. No, because Jewish sacrifices a) weren’t God (obviously), but also 2) they did not rise from the dead, bringing future hope into present day.

This Easter my challenge is to re-train our shorthand to talk of the resurrection of Jesus, not his death. Not to take it as a given, because to anyone new to church it certainly isn’t taken as a given. Anyone can claim their hero has died, and in doing so been a motivating influence; but very few claim the bold, the scandalous, the outrageous and the bonkers claim to resurrection.

The third day is not an afterthought, an added extra, after the serious business of Friday and Saturday. Resurrection Sunday is the centre of our faith. It defines who we are. Let’s keep it that way.

Further reading:

From me: The Provocative Resurrection,  The Provocative Resurrection 2: This World Matters, Suffocating the Resurrection

From Ian Paul: Resurrection

Song suggestions:

See What a Morning (Resurrection Hymn)

More Than Conquerers

The Same Power

And finally, a lesson in theology and poetry from the master:


i took jesus aside

31 03 2013

It is hard to get across how the disciples really did not know the resurrection was going to happen. This poem is imagining one of them taking Jesus aside on Sunday evening, with questions, concerns and even some anger. It’s meant to be read out loud.  

I took Jesus aside on the night he was resurrected
And lots of things he said to me were almost as unexpected
You see, we were terrified, confused, we’d put ourselves out on a limb
It wasn’t like we’d just decided on a whim
To leave everything
To follow him 

There were bills to pay and jobs to do
And mouths to feed and friends to lose
This mattered, this Jesus, this arrest and this death
This mattered, as all we based our lives upon breathed his final breath 

So come on then Jesus what are we to do?
You came, you went, you’re back again, so now it’s over to you 
We’ve lost our friends, we’re laughing stocks, we can’t really show our faces
Which is why we’re in here with the doors locked hiding in secret places 
Like criminals
How the mighty falls
How the walls have come crashing down 

And Jesus – well, he listened to me as the words came tumbling out 
I found out I was angry as my whisper turned to shout 
But he calmed me with a gentle touch and he looked me in the eye
It was all I could do to stop myself – the touch, it was… it was…

Jesus said 
I know it’s hard, I know its hard to see 
I can’t expect you to get it yet but I can help you to believe 
The first thing that you have to do is lift your head 90 degrees
Because you won’t see anything whilst your staring at your knees 
Lift your head
Lift your head 

When you are staring at the ground below you can’t see very much
And your world shrinks to the size of things that you can touch 
It’s easy when life is tough to find your head is always down
May my resurrection tell you the best place to look is around 

So I took his advice
I mean, I thought twice about that
Because I was enjoying feeling sorry for myself
And being angry was becoming addictive
And his track record of being wrong and ending up dead
Wasn’t something I wanted to follow
But I took his advice and I look around and I looked up
And it was then I saw who he was
I saw what it meant. 

The boy born in bethlehem
I didn’t know him then
But I know his friends and I’ve heard the stories
He was never just normal
There was always something special different 
Not just the first-born of Mary
But the first born of all creation
That he was there before it all began
That when he talks about he and the father being one
He doesn’t just mean he gets a fuzzy feeling
He means they are actually one
The image of the invisible God
The God we are not allowed to draw or see
Or even speak his name
We just say YHWH
It’s actually him. 
Brought low and lifted up
It’s like he was in very nature god
But he did not consider equality with God 
As something to be clutched
But gave himself to be nothing.
Before my eyes he was arrested and mocked and beaten
All the times we’ve said if only we could see God
And touch him and when finally we could
We killed him. 
Shamed, the shame, I flinch to think of the pain, yes
But the shame. 
I look up to see him there
But he is there no more. 
The firstborn, the image of God, the equal with God
Taking us with him when we were so dejected
It was the last thing we expected
After the priest and the Romans wrecked it
He was lifted up. 
He is lifted up.
He is the king we were expecting
His kingdom it really is coming
He is exalted in the highest of heavens
Who preached the good news to Israel
Who is good news to the whole world
Man and woman
Slave and free
Disabled and abled
Young and old
Anointed, but hung from a tree
Resurrected, so that we receive forgiveness of sins
He touched me.

Look up, look, look up and see 
Don’t just mumble and look at your feet
It’s Jesus, he is alive, he is alive, he is risen
Look up and discover that we have been chosen
Look up and you’ll see that we all can know him

 I took him aside on the night he was raised 
And though I was angry he wasn’t at all phased 
Lift your head, he said, lift your head up and see
That I’ve been raised from the dead, I am alive.,
Follow me.

skyfall? done.

4 11 2012

“Everybody needs a hobby.”
“What’s yours?”

Skyfall is probably the best Bond film ever. Franchises usually have ever-decreasing ability to re-invent, as they are essentially telling the same story over and over again. But somehow Bond has managed it. And I knew it as soon as I saw the trailer. 

Trailers are fascinating. How do you give people enough of a glimpse of the story to hook them in, without giving them so much that they don’t need to see the film. After countless trailers I think, well if they are the best bits, there’s no way I’m seeing the rest. But the trailer for Skyfall had me hooked. Why? The drama, the emotion, the old story re-cast for the new generation, recognisably Bond but somehow… new, different, better. And of course, until you’ve seen the end you won’t get it. You can’t get it. 

When Jesus walked the earth as a human he was like a trailer for the Kingdom of God. He began with a low-budget poster campaign – some healing here, a miracle there – and crescendoed with the raising of Lazarus, which was like the full-blown primetime TV trailer. He hooked people in to knowing there is more to expect from life and more to expect from God. He was telling the old story, but re-booted with a twist. A different ending:

The Kingdom is coming. The sky will fall and the kingdom will be here. But more than that. The sky is falling. The kingdom is here. Can you see it?

I could show you a trailer for the kingdom. It might include some friends from our community, and it might include alcohol and substance addiction under control or beaten; it might include a revelation of God’s love after years of living under a feeling of God’s disappointment; it might include new faith, and old faith; it might include a touch of God here, a brushstroke there, a glimmer of hope in unexpected places; it might include supportive friendship for mums at toddler group; it might include resurrection. 

In raising Lazarus Jesus was showing a trailer for the kingdom. Jesus invites us to be a trailer for the kingdom. But as Christopher Lee knows, if you’re in the trailer you need to be in the film.

When Jesus was resurrected he brought the kingdom into the here and now. It is not for later. It is no longer a trailer.

Jesus changed the course of history and made the sky fall away that separates us from God; that was when the kingdom story began and when we were invited to step into it. It is happening now. It is now. Be part of it.  

It’s called resurrection, and it’s more than just a hobby. It’s life.  



8 04 2012

 The building we call church is empty because the church are living the incarnation in the world. The building we call church is empty because the church are living the resurrection in the world. 20120408-224919.jpg

The cross you see is empty because Jesus was the incarnation in the world. The cross you see is empty because Jesus is bringing the resurrection into the world.  Today and every day. 

Thine be the glory, risen conquering Son.
Endless is the victory, thou o’er death has won.

suffocating the resurrection

6 04 2012

Paul says the cross of Christ is a stumbling block. He is right. I’ll tell you why.

Because the cross is so… historical. I have no sympathy for people who see it as metaphorical. Clearly the New Testament writers and the early church took it as fact. To write it off as metaphor would be convenient. There’s something attractive about an esoteric mystery religion surrounding a tragic, self-sacrificing mystical prophet. But those nails put a stop to that. Nails bashed into history. History with a face and a date. And a claim to be alive.

But being historical, it’s embarrassingly anomalous. What, he… came back to life? You’re telling me that sounds normal? Oh, ok. 

So what does it mean? This is where it does get mysterious. Jesus was god and man – both. He died. He was raised. By… God. Who had died. Well, sort of… And through this he forgives sins. Because he’s the Passover lamb. He’s a Jewish sacrifice. And the Jewish high priest. He’s what?

The resurrection is really hard. It’s a stumbling block to intellect, to rationality, to wanting to appear like you’ve still got your head screwed on. The cross and the resurrection together make earthy and real what could otherwise be – and sadly, often is – a floaty-mystery religion.

The resurrection is like a splinter in your palm that keeps you uncomfortable. Like a stone in your shoe as you walk down the catwalk of sanity. The resurrection provokes and irritates.

The gloom of Good Friday and Easter Saturday I can understand. We can all identify with pain, loss and hopelessness. But the celebration of Easter Sunday? The hope of Resurrection Day? Well, hopelessness can be real forever, lived in forever, without much effort. But hope? Hope is intentional. Hope always risks being dashed. Living with hope – just hope – is exhausting, as a deliberate , intentional and daily choice in a world of crescendoing hopelessness.

In the Hunger Games, President Snow, in charge of subjugating and oppressing his people, says he cannot let his people have hope:

President Snow: Hope, it is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective, alot is dangerous. This fact is fine, as long as it’s contained.
Seneca Crane: So…
President Snow: So, contain it.

The reason he doesn’t want the people to have hope is because hope is dangerous. Hope drives out fear. And he wants people to be afraid. God doesn’t want us to be afraid. God’s hope, rooted in God’s love, drives out fear.

And we’re back to the resurrection. Hope was contained for 2 days. Hope was dashed for what seemed like it would be a lifetime. Fear was most definitely in control. And then…   

Still a stumbling block. Sometimes I struggle to believe it. But it has not lost its power. Because if it really is true… it changes everything. 

The resurrection – counter-cultural, anti-rational, rooted in history and bursting with hope. If only we could let him breathe outside the tomb. 

hindsight and the deathly hallows

25 03 2012

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It makes things nobody can foresee seem blindingly obvious. Like watching a repeat of a penalty shoot-out, it’s obvious which way the keeper should dive when you’ve seen the end.

I’ve been trying to get into the minds of Jesus’ disciples as we’ve been reading through the final days, and trying to imagine what they were feeling without the advantage of hindsight. They knew – knew! – the Messiah couldn’t die because God wouldn’t let that happen, and certainly not like a common criminal. So they would have always thought Jesus had a plan, another plan, a better plan. As the hours passed from the final supper to the garden and the arrest and their hopes for this plan b began to fail… what was going through their minds?

And then I was reading a book this afternoon and there was a chapter which brought to mind something of the conversations the disciples would have been having after Jesus resurrection. You know, that really awkward bit after the Mary’s have said they’ve seen Jesus, and then Peter says the same… but they can’t make the pieces fit together. Would you?! I imagine these conversations where they argue – ARGUE!! – using words the NIV certainly wouldn’t translate.

I was reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I know, I’m a few years late in discovering it’s actually a really good story! In chapter 22, entitled The Deathly Hallows, Harry is beginning to piece together the story; he has discovered new information and that enables him to begin reinterpreting what he already knew. Stories from the past, prophecies they never knew existed because you wouldn’t until you have hindsight. 

Like the disciples, poring through the Scriptures (our Old Testament) and seeing references to the details of Jesus’ life that they couldn’t have known before. Being brave enough to think their thoughts out loud, thoughts they knew sounded ridiculous and like they were trying to force Jesus into a story… what if… what if…

What if Jesus is the Messiah, what if when he talked about being raised in 3 days he actually meant it… what it the temple he talked about was his body… what if he has brought the resurrection forward to now… what if he is the one the prophets talked about… what if he is the suffering servant from Isaiah… maybe this is the new covenant from Jeremiah

Thomas, what do you think?

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.Pictures

When Harry began to piece the story together he was met with scepticism, but he had to stick it out. Trust. It seemed unbelievable. When the disciples began to piece the story together they were met with scepticism, but they had to stick it out. Trust. It seems unbelievable. When we begin to piece the story together… it must seem unbelievable.

To me, it does. If it ever isn’t, we’re missing something. But hindsight shows us that Jesus did have a plan, that there is an ending. Sometimes you have to die to get there.

But thankfully it’s Jesus, not a stone, that brings resurrection. Hallowed be your death. And your life. 

the provocative resurrection /2/ this world matters

27 04 2011

In the first Provocative Resurrection post, I looked at how the resurrection happened, is real; the resurrection cannot just be a metaphor for ‘things working out’, but has to be an actual, real thing. And how Jesus’ first apprentices didn’t get it, and how we really can’t blame them. Who would get it?

So if we believe that Jesus knew he was going to be very much dead and then very much alive, what does that mean? Was it just a super-Lazarus-miracle-resuscitation trick, or something more?

Something more, something much more. Because Jesus wasn’t resuscitated, he was resurrected; he wasn’t just raised to life, but raised to new life. Because this Jesus who was very dead and then very alive wasn’t a normal human, but was God. So in a way, God was alive. Then God was dead. Then God was alive.

During Comic Relief this year there was an amazing telly programme called Comic Relief: Famous, Rich and in the Slums. Basically some people off the telly lived for a few days in the Kibera slum in Kenya, one of the worst places to live that humans have created and made their kind live in. This programme showed us what it is like to intentionally live somewhere you do not need to. For a few days. Jesus’ life shows us that it is in God’s character to do the same. Forever. The incarnation is what we call that, that God came to live among us. The resurrection takes the incarnation one step further.

Like the celebrities, God wanted to change the environment, to change the way people lived. Unlike Lenny Henry, who was able to make a huge difference to one family at little real personal cost, God took that filth and rubbish upon himself, at great personal cost; and yet it did not overcome him, he overcame it.  He made possible real change. The provocative resurrection shows us that God steps into the crap we make ourselves live in and is able to transform it.

But isn’t that just a metaphor, a spiritualisation? Does the resurrection mean anything real for people in suffering? Yes. Because it shows us that this world matters. That we do not seek to avoid this world and its pains in order to escape to the next. The resurrection happened here, the new life happened here. Here matters. Matter matters.

But. People suffer. We suffer. We think of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. And countless other things. Can anything real and meaningful be said of God in the midst of that sort of disaster. Nick Baines wrote this:

Christian hope is not derived from a fantasy of personal happiness or security, but rooted in the person of a God who doesn’t spare himself and drives the people who bear his name (and have been grasped by him) away from their own securities and into places of vulnerability. We are not called into the light, but to shed light in the dark places: the distinction matters.

The question of suffering is a big one. But as Nick later writes, we have no right to be spared cancer or hurricane. In our culture we do all we can to eradicate pain and suffering, desperate to control our lives and all influences on them; if we do not choose it, we think it is bad. If things go wrong, God must be absent.

God is not absent. Christians are not called to retreat from pain. God has not given up on this world. The cross is placed right in the middle of the pain of the world, geographically and spiritually. The resurrection challenges and provokes us not to spiritualise our faith, but to earth it; not to make it all about ‘up there’ and avoid the ‘down here’. God came here, chose here, lived here, died here and rose again here.

We must be a part of bringing that resurrection life to people here, both spiritually as people come to know the resurrected Jesus for themselves, and practically in an Isaiah 58 kind of way, as we serve those in the world who live in places desperate for light, any light.

The resurrection is true. The resurrection speaks hope into a world that often seems hopeless. And whilst there is no easy answer to the question of suffering, the question is a lot different when asked to the God of incarnation and resurrection.

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