Saturday, 30 April 2011

Martha and Mary

I love the story of Martha and Mary - Luke 10:38-42.  Martha was so busy looking after Jesus - but "only one thing was needed", and Mary knew what that was.  She wasn't going to miss out on hearing what Jesus had to say.

Throughout my ministry I have quite often heard people explain themselves as being like Martha, but I don't ever remember someone making the other claim about being like Mary.

Actually both are needed - but I think we more easily go the Martha-way, which is why we need the message of the Mary-way.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Valuing Suffering

It is natural that we should want to avoid suffering, if we can.  It hurts!  Yes, there are many positive things we can say about it - though that probably is not true of all contexts.  However, even when there is a positive side, the likelihood is that we would rather avoid it.

In Speaking of Faith (Penguin, 2007), Krista Tippett offers some interesting - and challenging - reflections on this theme when she refers to an encounter with the Vietnamese Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh - "When we are attentive to our own suffering .. we will know that of others.  That knowledge can help break cycles of suffering and violence in the world around us."  She further comments: "He could not imagine the kingdom of God to be a place without suffering .... For how, then, would we learn to be compassionate?" (p. 228/9)

I happen to be writing this on the day of the royal wedding.  Amid much joy and ceremony - and massive TV coverage - Prince William and Kate Middleton have married in Westminster Abbey, emerging as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.  It has rightly been a day of great celebration in the UK.

Celebration and suffering do co-exist, rightly so, and we do well to recognise that.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Speaking of Faith

Speaking of our faith is something that we often find difficult.  I guess that is because it is often just beyond what we can easily say.  There are lots of things we can say that describe aspects of faith - but really pinning it down is complicated.

Krista Tippett (in Speaking of Faith, Penguin, 2007) quotes a comment by Lawrence Kushner on speaking of faith (p. 221) - "It pushes the edge of language.  One of the reasons that speaking of faith is such a slippery and a moving target is because we're trying to talk about the stuff of which we are."

Speaking of faith may try to elude us, but it's worth the effort.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Being Human

God wants us to be the best that we can be - and to do the best that we can do - but doesn't expect us to go beyond that.  God created us as human beings and wants us to engage with us as human, and God is able to cope with our flaws. 

I have just started reading Thomas Merton's The Ascent to Truth.  Merton recognises the need for us to remain within the limits that our humanity imposes when he writes: "The Church does not seek to sanctify men (sic) by destroying their humanity, but  by elevating it, with all its faculties and gifts."

Of course, it is also true that we need God's help if we are going to be the best that we can be.

Sunday, 24 April 2011


One of the great gifts we human beings can enjoy is that of imagination.  Our imagination, if we use it well, opens up all sorts of possibilities for us.  We can dream.  We can have vision.  We can be creative.  Our imagination can help us to see how things might be different.

I believe that God wants us to use our imaginations to envisage all sorts of Kingdom possibilities.  We can imagine possibilities of justice.  We can imagine how love might change things.  We can imagine the impact that peace might make - and so on.

Imagination takes us into the realm of possibility - but the real trick is to work out which things we need to move from imagination into reality.  If God helps us to imagine something, ought we to be doing something about making it happen?

Today is Easter Day.  The first disciples were stunned by the resurrection because they hadn't managed to imagine that what Jesus had told them about his rising might possibly be true.  As they gradually experienced the impact of the risen Jesus, they began imagining what might be - and the church was born.

Saturday, 23 April 2011


One of the best known stories about Jesus is that which we normally refer to as the 'feeding of the five thousand'.  In the story a small boy's lunch is multiplied up so that there is enough for the whole crowd to have something to eat - and plenty to spare.  There are various theories as to how this happened.  In the end the 'how' is not the important thing - what matters is that it did happen, and it serves as a reminder of how God multiplies his love towards us.

The principle of God's multiplication is one of the great things of our faith.  God's blessings are abundant - and are always becoming more abundant.

Near the end of his Confessions, Augustine makes some reference to this idea of God's multiplication.  "I know that a truth which the mind understands in one way only can be materially expressed by many different means, and I also know that there are many different ways in which the mind can understand an idea that is outwardly expressed in one way.  Take the single concept of the love of God and our neighbour.  How many different symbols are used to give it outward expression!  How many different languages have words for it and, in each of them, how many different forms of speech there are by which it can be conveyed!"  (Book 13, Section 24)

He goes on to talk about God giving "increase and multiplication" by enabling us to draw a range of different and relevant things from a single source - "I believe .. you granted us the faculty and the power both to give expression in many different ways to things which we understand in one way only and to understand in many different ways what we find written obscurely in one way."

Indeed, God allows us to see things from so many different angles, and enables a huge broadening in the range of our perspectives.  Are there things that we, at the moment, need to see in a different way?

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The Impact of God's Word

The Bible is a powerful expression of God's engagement with us.  It can be extremely challenging, but offers us support in so many ways.

I have been reading on through Augustine's Confessions during Lent.  At one point he writes: "How wonderful are your Scriptures!  How profound!  We see their surface and it attracts us like children.  And yet, O my God, their depth is stupendous.  We shudder to peer deep into them, for they inspire in us both the awe of reverence and the thrill of love" (Book 12, Section 14).

The Bible impacts our lives in so many different ways.  It is a source of encouragement, inspiration, challenge and so much more.  One of the great things is that it will do different things for us in different circumstances, offering that which we need for the particular moment.

Augustine recognises this - "... since I believe in these commandments and confess them to be true with all my heart, how can it harm me that it should be possible to interpret these words in several ways, all of which may yet be true?  How can it harm me if I understand the writer's meaning in a different sense from that in which another understands it?  ....  Provided, therefore, that each of us tries as best he can to understand in the Holy Scriptures what the writer meant by them, what harm is there if a reader believes what you, the Light of all truthful minds, show him to be the true meaning?  It may not even be the meaning which the writer had in mind, and yet he too saw in them a true meaning, different though it may have been from this."  (Book 12, Section 18).

Monday, 18 April 2011

Power and Relationship

Ana Draper reflects on the importance of relationship and the complications of getting the balance right if we are to be church in an effective and correct way (in Jonny Baker's Curating Worship p. 117/8).  Conversion is part of following God, but we need to remember that it is God who does the converting - that is not our task.  So she talks about "a relational theology that looked to walk alongside and be with rather than convert."

She also describes the challenge of dealing with the power thing.  "We tried to address power differential - the 'them and us' stuff that often happens.  I sometimes think that church can seem like it is saying, a la Animal Farm, that 'we are all equal before God, just some are more equal than others.'  So we tried to practise a way of being that was about exploration, discovery and being in the moment."

It is hard to use power in the right way, and so easy to use it wrongly.  It is also very easy to think that we haven't got any, when we have got loads.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Letting God Speak

One of the mistakes that we often make is to offer too much explanation.  We spell things out that don't need to be spelt out.  We try and explain the detail when we would be far better to let things speak for themselves.  We give too much direction, forgetting that God may want to say different things to different people.

We need to remember that God doesn't want us all to be the same - variety is needed.

One of the main ways in which Jesus taught was through the stories he told, those little descriptions of everyday events that we now normally refer to as parables.  We need to take note of the fact that it was rare for Jesus to say anything about what the story meant.  He let it speak for itself - and, no doubt, the same story would sometimes say different things to different people.  As Martin Poole comments (in Curating Worship by Jonny Baker, p. 77): "It's a true form of parable, where we just 'tell the story' and let the participants drawn their conclusions themselves.  I guess I'm saying the epiphany needs to come from God, not us."

Friday, 15 April 2011


It is natural to want to be invincible, but we are not - and it doesn't even help to pretend to be so.  Indeed, on the contrary, we need to allow ourselves to offer our weakness, even our brokenness.

As Cheryl Lawrie says in Jonny Baker's Curating Worship (p. 62): "I've been thinking recently about our temptation to try to become more like God - more holy, more sinless, more perfect.  Perhaps the thing we should be working for is to become more human - more fragile, more vulnerable, more unfinished; to be better at being human.  We try to give people a chance to be more human in a space; then it's up to God to do what God can do."

God doesn't expect us to be super-human.  Our call is to offer our humanity.

Thursday, 14 April 2011


There's a Chinese proverb that says: "God gave us two ears and one mouth.  Why don't we listen twice as much as we talk?"

James, of course, warns us of the risks of our tongues.  So the tongue is only a tiny part of the body, but its boasts are great.  Think how small a flame can set fire to a huge forest.  ....  nobody can tame the tongue - it is a pest that will not keep still, full of deadly poison" (James 3:5,8).

It is worth reflecting on those times when we have spoken and it would have been better if we had not, and those times when we failed to listen, and it would have been better if we had done so.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Church as a Design Problem

In an interview with Steve Collins, Jonny Baker (in "Curating Worship" p. 24/5) explores the idea of treating church as a design problem. Steve Collins talks about the aims of architects and what they are trying to say through the buildings they design. He goes on to comment: "what I've done is treat the church as a design problem - take things apart, look at the pieces, see if they can be assembled in different ways, respond to emerging contexts, imagine alternative futures to aim for. ... Churches often assume that they already have the right forms, having found out what God really wants. But I think God wants to play."

It seems to me that so often we want to fix things when God is calling us to be flexible - and I love the idea of God wanting to play. I think there is a lot to draw out from these images.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Being Awkward

"To those who have the gift of not fitting in.". I have just started reading Jonny Baker's book "Curating Worship" (SPCK, 2010) and was immediately struck by the book's dedication - "to those who have the gift of not fitting in."

We all know folk who don't fit in and, to be blunt, they are a nuisance. They are the awkward squad. They get in the way. They are disruptive.

How refreshing to see them as a gift! And how challenging - but we do need to value everyone for who and what they are, even though it is not always easy.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Place - Hospitality - Pilgrimage

Ian Adams, in Cave, Refectory, Road (Canterbury Press, 2010) explores issues around place, hospitality and pilgrimage, all of which he sees as a focal part of Christian living. 

He suggests that we should think about how we use space and make room for those special spaces - "Imagine, for example, what the idea of cave might produce in your context.  What might the creation of a 'still place' in your school or workplace do to the school or work community - particularly if it is envisioned, planned and created by that community?" (p. 93)

Equally it is well worth considering the difference that our approach to people makes.  How welcoming are we?  "How might the idea of the refectory change how our visitors, customers, clients or patients are received - and how might that in turn enable us to bring good to the local piece of the world that is around us?" (p. 93)

He also encourages us to, as it were, get out and engage with new things and in new places.  "It's easy and natural to be static.  We like what we know.  But perhaps we need to get out more!  ......  What about meeting up with people working in very different arenas and cultures from  our own?  What energy and inspiration might that kind of cross-boundary encounter produce?" (p. 93/4)

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Hard Realities

Krista Tippett, in Speaking of Faith (Penguin, 2007), talks about the need to deal with difficult things - and comments that good things don't just cancel them out.  She comments: ".. the way we deal with the loses of our lives, large and small, may be what most determines our capacity to be present to the whole of our lives; we burn out not because we have stopped caring, but because are hearts are too full of grief."  She adds: ".. the concomitant consequences of endless, needless suffering in the world do not become less troubling with time.  Even as I learn new vocabularies of sense and wonder I continue to find that suffering too has imponderable variation.  I learn not to imagine that beautiful words and lives will somehow snuff out what is dark and difficult.  Again and again I am fatigued by a sense of powerlessness at injustices and atrocities close to home and far away." (p. 212/3)

Wouldn't it be good if we were able to use good things to cancel out bad ones - but it doesn't work like that, though it is true that though the bad things damage us, the good ones sustain us.  It is also true that God is with us in all things.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Tell the Story

Story-telling was one of Jesus' great means of engaging with people.  He told stories that worked for his time.  Our task is to tell stories that work for our time.  That includes telling our story, telling the stories of Jesus and telling stories that speak of God's love in all sorts of ways.

Today's reading in Celtic Daily Light (by Ray Simpson, Hodder & Stoughton, 1997) is based on the story of the raising of Jairus' daughter and gives a travelling person's version -

Here is the latter part - Jesus has just arrived at the house: "'T'was a house with stairs.  Stairs all the way up, and didn't Jesus go up them stairs, an' he was nearly deaf 'cos there was loads of women an' they were bawlin' and shoutin' and he's never heard anything like them."  Then he goes in to the little girl - "An' says he to the corpse: 'Get ye up out of that!'  An' she, she opened her eyes an' looks at him, an' she's able to get straight up there an' look at him again.  An' she wasn't sick any more.  An' Jesus Christ, he looks at her too.  An' he sees she's well, an' says he to the mammy, 'Give her a cut o' bread.'"

Let's get story-telling!

Monday, 4 April 2011

Terry Currey

I went to Terry's funeral today. Terry was Church Secretary of one of the two congregations in Islington of which I was minister through much of the 1980s. He became Church Secretary while I was minister, one of many roles he undertook.

Terry was an ordinary bloke, only he wasn't. He was one of God's saints. He was a postman, a job that suited him - because the early start meant an early finish which left him free to do all the other things he wanted - most of them what we might call Kingdom things.

Terry's commitment was phenomenal - Boy's Brigade captain, church organist, day centre bingo caller etc etc

Terry is one of those people to whom I will always look for an example of one of God's saints.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

The Urgent v The Important

The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, in his book To Heal a Fractured World talks about how we think of ourselves and of others, and he explains it like this. He says that one of the most daunting things he faced when he first became a rabbi was the conduct of funerals. Often he would not have known the person that he was faced with having to say something about. And so, he would talk to family and friends to begin to build up, at least, a small picture. And he describes how he quickly began to discern a pattern in the replies he received. “Usually they would say that the deceased had been a supportive husband or wife, a loving parent, a loyal friend. They spoke about the good they had done to others, often quietly, discreetly, without ostentation. When you needed them, they were there. They shouldered their responsibilities to the community. They gave to charitable causes and, if they could not give money, they gave time.” He further comments: “Those most mourned and missed were not the most successful, rich or famous. They were the people who enhanced the lives of others. These were the people who were loved.” Sacks then goes on to make a very interesting and, I think, significant comment about how this distinguished for him “the crucial difference between the urgent and the important. He goes on to comment, and I think this says a lot, “No one ever spoke, in praise of someone who had died, about the car they drove, the house they owned, the clothes they wore, the exotic holidays they took. No one's last thought was ever, 'I wish I had spent more time in the office.' And he goes on to say, and these are two very important sentences for me - “The things we spend most of our time pursuing turn out to be curiously irrelevant when it comes to seeing the value of our life as a whole. They are urgent but not important, and in crush and press of daily life, the urgent tends to win out over the important.”

I have to say that I think Sacks is spot on here and I find this distinction between the urgent and the important very helpful. We do spend our lives running round doing things that we certainly treat as though they are urgent. We live in a society and a culture that is always hurrying. We define each other by what we do. What's the question we most often ask first of someone whom we have just met: what do you do? Our occupation is what defines us. And there are all sorts of other ways in which we rush around after things that are nice and, yes, certainly, can be enjoyed. But these are the urgent things, and that's how we treat them. And that, actually, is fine, so far as it goes, except for the risk that it may well contribute to our neglect of the important.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Spirituality v Religion

Krista Tippett comments ("Speaking of Faith" p. 174) "A rabbi, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso,gave me the best illustration I know of the difference between spirituality and religion. On Mount Sinai, she says, something extraordinary happened to Moses. He had a direct encounter with God. This was a spiritual experience. The Ten Commandments were the container for that experience. They are religion."

Friday, 1 April 2011

The Ugly Duckling

Hans Christian Anderson has a fairy story about an ugly duckling. Do you remember it? One day there was trouble in the farmyard. One of the ducklings was a different colour from the others and his brothers and sisters didn't like the look of him. So the ugly duckling was thrown out. He found a place to hide and tried to settle down amongst some wild ducks. But they, too, didn't like the ugly duckling. He was pretty miserable. .... until a flight of swans passed overhead. One of them glanced down at the ugly duckling and shouted, 'Hey, you're a good looking swan.' 'I'm not a swan. I'm an ugly duckling,' our hero shouted back. But in time he was persuaded and began to enjoy life and fulfil his potential as the swan that he really was.

Who knows what possibilities lie ahead?