It’s the freakiest show

No matter  how much we know about human behaviour, there is still a lot to learn. No one can comprehensively explain why we do big group griefs over the deaths of celebrities who take up very little of our thoughts during the average day.  David Bowie was this week’s star attraction followed ( to a lesser extent) by Alan Rickman.

The outpouring of grief has a pretty well defined spectrum now. Some will build shrines, tended day and night, to somehow preserve some of Bowie’s light and rage against the encroaching darkness. Others will recall how Bowie as a catalytic ingredient in the make up of their culture and their own story in that culture (my friend Margot did this in

The majority of us make up a spectrum within the spectrum with reactions ranging from “Man, I thought he was already dead” to people like me who recognise the contribution Bowie made, recognising and mourning the loss of it  and then moving on with our lives. We also might be moved to an emotional “I forgot Rick Wakeman played piano on Hunky Dory; cool!”

Across my social media screen, there have been two strands of comments about Bowie’s death which merit a comment or two.

First, there is the apparent surprise at the shock news that we are all going to die. I hope I haven’t ruined your day by not putting a spoiler alert on that. 69 Year old men do die (though not as regularly as they used to) regardless of their status, talent and bank balance.  I work in a profession where death is a common agenda item. I’ve buried 15 year old suicide victims and men who have lived over a century. I’ve sat beside the dying as they’ve gasped for breath and after they’ve breathed their last, sat with their stunned relatives.  Death brings life into fresh focus, positively and negatively. You can’t stop it or deny its power but you can put it in perspective by living as if there was more to life than death.

We want our heroes and loved ones to never age, to never die; but we know that is just wishful thinking.  Death and life go hand in hand  and those who recognise that also recognise the need to commemorate those who have spent their time well. That admiration is why we have saints. These are people who have gone before us  who demonstrated what life with colour and purpose looks like because they remind us that we can be that way too. Bowie was no saint but I can understand why people might remember him in the way they do.

The second strand is “why can’t we do all that outpouring for Jesus?

Maybe I’m just hallucinating but the Jesus thing is all around us if we bother to look.  There’s the Church of England, Bishops in the house of Lords, chaplains in hospitals, thought for the day on Radio 4. On Sundays over a billion people go to church to worship and venerate him around the world.  Sometimes there is Jesus all around us, but we don’t see it anymore.

Once somebody asked  me why there was a black history month but not one for whites. My response was, “If you were black and living in this country wouldn’t you think it was white history month all the time?”

David Bowie will have his worship and then, like all of us, take his place in the recollections of those who care to recollect. For those who think Jesus’ limelight is being stolen, trust that the same God who created Bowie’s talent probably doesn’t begrudge the attention for a little while.

The challenge for the Jesus followers is to tell our Jesus story the way that Bowie fans tell their story. Our story should be about how by following him we found courage, affirmation, freedom, peace and joy. After all, Jesus’ death ended in life.





















What did you do on your sabbatical?

“What did you do on your sabbatical?”

Sounds like a straightforward question, but it all depends on who is asking and what they want you to tell them. The real question could be, “what did you learn?” or “how did you enjoy your 3 month paid holiday that normal people don’t get?” or “have you got lots of new stuff for us?”.

Taking the question at face value, I’ve had a pleasant and fruitful sabbatical. I went to the USA and France, read many fine books, discovered how much more reading I should be doing, visited with friends, took lots of photos, spent time with my family, rode my bike, started doing Couch to 5K, read the Gospel of Mark, had a mini retreat, watched movies and TV box sets. A few times I sat out on the patio next to a roaring fire and looked at the stars. I thought some deep thoughts about God, relationships, work, being me and how all those things are connected.

Some of the thoughts were challenging, some affirming and others revealed that I am (like everybody) a work in progress with a lot of development still left to do. I garnered some useful (if not blazingly original) insights about the Gospel and the wide gap between the Jesus who roamed around the dusty roads of 1st century Palestine and today’s church.

A lot of vicars will tell you about how fruitful their sabbatical was either by telling you about their new book, their postgraduate dissertation or even declaring they have a new job.

But I’m not going to do that. Instead, I want to show you some of the pictures I took during those three months. Bear with me. I know that “have a look at my slide show” ranks right up there with wanting to tell you about my sabbatical using interpretative dance, but hear me out.

Over 90 days I’ve taken over 500 photos, deleting nearly 300 of them for various reasons ranging from blandness to under exposure. I then spent a long time with the remaining 200 reshaping them to draw out a deeper image of what I saw originally in the viewfinder.

The  200 good photos get reduced down to 90; one image for every day of sabbatical (though not necessarily  a photo from each day). 90 days of photography.

I don’t claim to be the world’s greatest photographer. What I love is taking a view of something ordinary or even overlooked and seeing if there is something extraordinary within them. It’s a process of discernment where I make it hard to give up on a picture and instead approach it differently by doing something as simple as making it black and white.

“Life’s a lot like that, isn’t it?”

That old preaching punchline is corny, but it is true. As I reflected on the process of how I do photography I discovered that the process is a good analogy for how to do life: looking at the ordinary more deeply and seeing both how to enrich it and, myself, in the process.

I’ve been reflecting on learning what needs to be deleted, what can I live with  and, more importantly, what can be transformed in me. Our lives, like photos, are meant to be shared. There is no point in looking deep into our own lives just for the sake of ourselves. It should also be for the sake of all those around us and, of course, for the glory of God.

So here are 90 photos. They are a hard won record of looking at the world more closely and they are the fruit of  looking at my life more closely. I hope you enjoy them and I hope they inspire you to look more deeply into yourself and the world too.

The life and soul of the party…

File:Ballot Box Silhouette.svg

If it didn’t point to a decade of Tory rule in this country, the Labour leadership elections would make you laugh.

Incapable of winning a national election, they now seem unable to win their own. Not only is the organisation of the election  a shambles, but the majority of “realistic candidates” lack a convincing vision which is credible, durable or different in substance to the government. For my money, if the government is going to have Tory policies they might as well be Tories. Ineffectual Labour politicians doing “Tory with a smile and a heart of gold” doesn’t cut it for me.

I want them to be Labour politicians who offer a different view of what human thriving looks like and offer that to the nation. After all, that is what the party was founded on. And that is why I find Jeremy Corbyn to be intriguing. Much of what he says makes some sense: there are certain things a state does better if the aim isn’t to make money but rather to supply the needs of the people; it is a myth that if it is private it is better; politics should be about people’s lives and thriving rather than the health of the nation (whatever that really means). Of course,  he also has views which would probably make him a disaster as a prime minister.

It doesn’t really matter who wins if the criteria is about being next prime minister in waiting. The winner of this election will be what Private Eye fondly calls, “the future ex-leader” of the Labour Party. Unless the Tories absolutely screw up in the next five years (and I mean like cause a famine or nuclear power plant meltdown or start a war) no one on that slate is going to lead anyone to victory. After all, they didn’t manage it in May.

But maybe winning the next election really isn’t the point. Maybe the point is becoming a party which genuinely offers a credible alternative vision of what the country could look like and thrive like. Maybe they could offer a different set of values and show how the values they oppose are inferior to the ones they propose.

What Labour lacks now is something genuinely different to say.

I was reading the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark yesterday and what struck me was how Mark focusses not on doctrine or policies that are Christian, but rather on the eruption of the Kingdom of God into the world in the person of Jesus. Mark is interested in how this Jesus person will call people to repent and start afresh. Repentance means to turn from, to U turn, to start down a new course. It is a radical rethink about life and relationships and God. The author of Mark labels it “The Good News”.

In this beginning, the unlikely character of John the Baptist wanders on to the scene and basically says, “We’re not going to tweak the status quo. We are going to overturn it and start from a new foundation. Someone is coming who will change all this.” We find this expressed in the other gospels in other ways but the message is the same: this old status quo the powerful want you to cling to will no longer do.

I have to admit that I saw Jeremy Corbyn, in his own context, as a sort of John the Baptist of the Labour Party. And I think that he would be good for Labour’s soul. In his own way he is calling the party to “repent” of chasing dubious growth strategies and assumptions that in order for us all to thrive the rich have to thrive first, that the poor and sick should be penalised for being poor and sick, that the point of our lives is to be productive economically. I like his scruffiness and his knowing look. He isn’t a naïve cloistered doctrinaire brain box like Michael Foot was. He is asking the question: “Do you want to live in a one party state where the only choice between parties is really no choice or do you want a party who believes that a nation’s first priority should be human thriving?” It’s a question whose answer reveals the real soul of the party.

Maybe if the party gets its soul right, then it will one day get the right leader to carry that soul into the fight.

You are not on your own…

It always comes as a punch to the gut to hear about someone taking their own life. That punch sometimes feels harder and deeper when it is a member of the clergy, and I don’t think that shock is just for those in “the business”.  When someone with a vocation takes their life because they don’t feel they can cope any longer it unsettles everybody.

Part of that unsettling flows from the myth that if anyone knows how to cope with the darkness of stress it would be a priest.  There is the cozy stereotype of the blissed out person who just can’t believe they get to do what they love and get paid for it and after all they only work for an hour one day a week and they’re so helpful and nice and gracious and they are free from the petty squabbles and troubles of “real life”.

Of course, clergy exist in real life and are not immune from all the foibles that seem to define human life. They are not superhuman, super capable or super strong.  They have money troubles, relationship troubles, family troubles, they do the work of several people, have long hours, self doubt, conflict in the workplace and sometimes a nagging feeling they might be happier if they had pursued another career.

Clergy stress is not greater or more special than anyone else’s. But it is not always recognised as a reality.  As it is for others, this stress gets kept under wraps and those who suffer it refrain from telling spouses, bosses, friends or parishioners. “I’m the one everyone is relying on to keep it all together” says the inner dialogue.

The real fear is that if you are unable to cope then others will doubt you. Doubt leads to lack of confidence. Lack of confidence leads to replacement.

Remember Gazza’s tears in the 1990 World Cup?  Paul Gascoigne received a booking in the semi final between England and Germany which meant if England won, he would not be able to play in the final. His reaction? He cried. It has now become a national “Awwww” moment as he was overwhelmed with a feeling for having failed himself and his team mates.

However, the other iconic image is the England captain, Gary Lineker, signalling to the sidelines to get a sub ready because he didn’t think Gazza could carry on.

We are all afraid of that pragmatic message being sent to the sidelines about us.

Why? Because while we  want to be supportive of those who suffer mental illness, there is a still a powerful cultural myth that mental illness is really just a bad choice when faced by hard times or it means you are dangerously wired up. Social media has been a powerful way to keep this myth alive as you can see in these two photos:


Our culture fears perceived weakness and failure. Our current government makes policy on the basis that someone in need is more likely to be a scrounger than a worthy recipient of our care. The Wayne Dyer quote on the left encourages us to believe that we live in a vacuum untouched by the choices of others, of systems and situations of limited choices. Katie Hopkins….well don’t get me started.

In the face of this, scripture tells us a different story. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us that God is most powerful when we are weak and devoid of our superhero complex. He writes in other places that it is assumed that we will crumble and stumble which is why it is better to be brothers and sisters together rather than to be alone and isolated.

As Christians we need to remember to put aside our labels (lay and ordained) and our acceptance of the false myth about our power to change the world and ourselves by just trying really hard. We need to stamp out our own tendency to judge others who struggle.

Instead, we are called to journey together and bear each other’s burdens.

And maybe it looks like this. On that eventful World Cup evening, the game went to penalties. Gazza was still distraught but look at the response of the England manager Bobby Robson. He could have berated Gazza for his error. He could have kept him from taking a penalty because his mind wasn’t in the game. Instead he put his arm around Gazza and offered himself. The language may not be recommended therapeutic words, but the attitude is spot on.

In my darkest times, it has not been the wise words of others that saw me through. It was the love, inclusion and the care they had for me even when I felt unloveable, incapable and bewildered.

We are here for each other. You are not alone.

What did you mean by that?

When the US Supreme Court handed down its ruling that no state in the union can bar people of the same sex marrying, there were two reactions. One involved celebrating with rainbows and flags. The other involved wailing and the gnashing of teeth like a crowd of spectators whose team lost on a questionable last minute penalty kick.

Regardless of which side you are on, it is the court’s job to make the call. The US Supreme Court exists as one of three branches of US government. Its job is to ensure that the other two branches (and by extension the States) don’t pass laws or take actions that are either outside of their constitutional powers or which infringe the rights of citizens.

The US Constitution is a written document which is precise in some places and imprecise in others. It was written and amended at set points in history but intended to be a dynamic document which would be the foundation for the nation for all time.

This “for now and always” status required the constitution’s authors to entrust its interpretation to a court who could maintain it as a living document over time in greatly changed circumstances which the authors could never imagine.

Interpretation is the key word here and it sheds much light on use of the Bible as a similar living document.  In the UK the debate about whether someone can be “actively gay” (which makes them sound like a yoghurt rather than a person) and also be a full participating member of a church comes down to two interpretation laden questions:

        a) How authoritative and prescriptive is scripture (in order for me to “submit” to it)

       b) Who gets to decide that and control the dialogue?

Many would want to say the bible is clear on certain behaviours; you only have to read it for yourself. The problem with this “clear as day” argument is that it is possible to read scripture in a faithful way and yet come to a conclusion that it is clear as mud.

In constitutional law, this is the bread and butter for professors, lawyers and commentators. In most cases where there is an argument about whether rights have been denied or not, it is rare to read the constitution and say “Ah, here is the answer”. Take for instance the second amendment, the one about owning a gun:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Okay, clear as day. So can a law be passed regulating gun ownership? What does infringed mean? If you aren’t in a militia can you own a gun? Can ownership and militia membership be separated? Can you stop certain people from owning guns? Who are they? Why them and not other citizens?

To answer these questions Justices listen to debates, apply their own biases, apply their own understanding of constitutional law, read scholarship, debate with each other, look at precedence…it’s a pretty subjective process. The court then votes. It doesn’t have to be unanimous, just majority.

What limits this court is that they can’t go back and ask the authors what they meant and what exceptions they assumed. They have to use the tools at hand and interpret the document. In this way they submit to its authority but they still have to come to a conclusion about how elastic this fixed document is within the dynamics of human development and history. The process is the same no matter which side you are on.

And once they rule they haven’t added to the constitution. There is no amendment which says “same sex marriage is here to stay”. This issue may come up again one day and they may choose to rule on that too.

Appealing to the bible for answers is the same. We might ask a precise question and get a precise answer: “Was Paul a Roman citizen?” Yes he was. “Did Paul believe women couldn’t be church leaders?” “Well, you see it is a bit more complex than appealing to a couple pieces of scripture that might suggest that is the case”.

We can’t go back and ask the author of Leviticus or Paul or even Jesus what exactly they meant on a given subject. Instead we take the tools at hand and try to work it out the best we can. What one generation says is the final word often isn’t and the church’s history bears that out. Add to that the plethora of protestant denominations it is hard to work out exactly who gets to draw the line in the sand and say, “no further”. It doesn’t mean that scripture is wrong or flawed, but rather that we can be limited by what we know, expect and are willing to recognise. We are a people gaining understanding rather than just memorising the facts.

Scripture is not a list of FAQs. It is hard to pick up a bible and honestly say “God said it and I believe it” without using an extra-biblical filter. It is easy to forget that the earliest church spread across the near east didn’t have access to a canon of Paul’s letters or the gospels or their own personal copy of the Old Testament. It is easy to forget that personal ownership of a good translation and interpretative tools is a development of the mid to late 20th century.  Everyday christians have been working with scripture for a short amount of time and discovering a lot of stuff that makes sense to them.

We do ourselves, and the world, a disservice in any conversation about scripture where the outcome is the intentional exclusion of others when we forget what a human infused task interpreting scripture is.  Jesus is the supreme sign from God that broken fragile human beings are loved and worthy to be called into his midst.  When I ask someone else to be excluded or to make massive sacrifices because they are not deemed holy enough, I forget that God included me. I can never be holy enough to make the cut.  I rely on Jesus being the author and completer of my faith. I rely on his grace to cover my shortfall as I try to follow him. So I have to tread carefully about seeking others to label as “unholy”.

We do need to guard against a faith based on “I want it so give it to me”.  And we need to guard against a faith that doesn’t talk about what makes for a good relationship in keeping with the purposes of creation (like the importance of fidelity, mutuality and love). However, God has given us brains and wisdom and the Holy Spirit. We can spot an abomination a mile off. It just takes courage to see that two people mutually pledging themselves in love to each other isn’t one of them.

Just a few hours more…

The Chancellor of the Exchequer believes one thing about your life. All Tory policy is built around this belief. I’d even go so far as to say that every government in power since Margaret Thatcher has believed this.

You are an economic unit serving UKPLC. 

You are a bad citizen if you aren’t productive enough, if you don’t spend enough and worst of all, if you are perceived as a drain on the economy. With this ideology in mind, George Osborne is about to further reform the Sunday trading laws. You can read more about it here.

It would appear that the one day of shorter working and shopping hours is holding back the economy.  And for George that needs to change because if it is good for the economy, then George is for it. Whether it is good for people is a secondary issue.  People come and go, but the economy soldiers on.  People are disposable but economies are forever. If you don’t believe me, read this.

The bible is pretty consistent on describing its abhorrence of Idolatry.  Not just a few verses here or there. Scripture is infused with an anger about how idolatry destroys humans and creation. Idolatry take two forms: something which usurps God’s place at the head of creation and therefore retells the master story in its own image or it is something which sits in God’s place and asks people to serve it regardless of the cost. Things like flags, nations, ideologies, doctrines, family, economics, holy books.

George is inviting us to serve the idol and gospel of the thriving economy. Economic growth shall set you free.  Work more hours for less pay. Spend more. Cooperate understandingly when the elimination of your job makes the company appear more profitable. If you don’t go along with it, there is something suspect about you because UKPLC needs this to happen and therefore you do too.

In the case of the Sunday trading laws, he wants retail workers, who traditionally have been low paid and who have little job security to exchange a few precious hours of leisure for more hours of toil. He discourages us to think that maybe in the big scheme of things, it would be better to spend a couple of extra hours around a table with friends, in a park or forest or on a game of Scrabble  or a good movie or (gasp!) doing nothing but being. Do we all really need more hours to go buy more stuff?

I’ve just read Walter Brueggemann’s “Sabbath as Resistance”. In this book he suggests that when Israel were slaves, Pharoah’s  way was more work, more growth. Israel were slaves serving a 24/7  imperial economy which had no place for people and their petty needs.  Every moment is about production.

The Sabbath, on the other hand, is about being. To be human is to participate in relationship and neighbourliness. Relationship is with people, creation, with nature, with God, with ourselves and maybe even a relationship with all the stuff we already own. Neighbourliness is about mutual care for each other which no market and no amount of productivity can provide. It is the antithesis to productivity and its demands.

The Sabbath was created as a counter-point to Pharoah.

Increasingly, governments of all stripes see the population as a collective of economic units. Our intrinsic worth is what we can contribute to the economy. That’s why so much of our national debate is focussed on who is creating wealth and who is draining it . It is a debate that encourages us to think about who are the heroes and who are the villains. The villains are the ones who don’t deserve, the ones who have pressing human needs that require precious resources to be diverted from our thriving economy, the ones who seem to want a free hand out. Such myths are built on other myths of  self reliance, fear and the concept that wealth is a sign of deserved blessing on those who have it.

Sabbath says no to the idolatrous myth George serves. Sabbath says that here is a different income and expenditure sheet that our national health is judged on.  Sabbath says the economy should serve us. There are no “shirkers and workers” but rather stewards who are offered a great gift and are called to share it wisely and generously with each other. Sabbath invites us to rediscover our neighbour, not as a competitor or an asset, but as a fellow person made in the image of God.

All that glitters…


Glitter.  The enemy of church cleanliness.  Let’s do Messy Church in the church! Let’s make cards with loads of glitter! It will hoover up easily!  Pigs will fly and  the church will have no divisions!

Of course, I think all these thoughts in my head.  Motivated talented children’s workers are far more important than my pet peeves.

But now, glitter has broken out of the world of crafts. It has been weaponised.  A couple of weeks ago, the Guardian reported this.  And then, this followed pretty much straight away. It would seem that revenge may be sweet for the revenger but not for the supplier.

I think this story filled that tiny gap during all the coverage of revenge violence in France which is meant to make us believe there is still something to laugh about in the darkness. It was meant to make us light hearted. Instead, it revealed some truths we’d rather avoid.

The glitter bomb website crashed because of a tidal wave of revenge. People may not feel they can pull a trigger but they can bomb someone with glitter. The same emotions that led to hostage taking and cold blooded murder are the ones that make you go to a web site and ask someone to prepare what is effectively a mail bomb full of glitter.

Jesus once pointed out that the same emotion that makes you call your brother a fool is the one that makes you pull a trigger with murderous intent.  Jesus didn’t use words lightly and he didn’t underestimate the power of emotions. Later he would talk about the best way to deal with your enemies:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.   Matthew 5

When I make my enemy my concern and his/her wellbeing my concern then I keep them human and recognise that they share many of my hopes, dreams, mistaken perspectives and motives and narrowness of vision. At worst by keeping my enemy human I shame them when they treat me as least than human; at best, by keeping my enemy human, I offer them the chance to be human and take their anger seriously.