Monday, 24 August 2009

U2: Magnificent

U2 on Saturday night in Cardiff's Millennium Stadium were, as the song says: magnificent. The much publicised 360 degree stage, dubbed 'the claw' for its four arms that encircled the stage and its lighted runways and from which hung hundreds of stretchy TV screens, was undoubtedly impressive ... but it didn't steal the show.
The night belonged to four guys doing what they have been doing for decades: being the best rock and roll band in the world. A healthy mixture of the new album along with some serious revisiting of the back catalogue gave a stunning performance over 2 hours of the most energetic music.

Front man Bono has always worn his politics (and sometimes his Christian faith) boldly on his sleeve and Cardiff was no exception. So the thousands who had gathered in listened not just to the music but to impassioned protests against the government in Burma and expressions of solidarity with Aung San Suu Kyi. We were privileged to hear a short recorded 'sermon' from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, his beaming smile shining brightly from the many TV screens suspended from the Claw as he encouraged us to sign up to a U2 sponsored charity, One. (Have a look at their blog at So throughout the night we joined our voices to prophetic songs against war and poverty, we even sang Psalm 40. Amidst all the driving decibels and fast-paced illumination there were moments that felt quite genuinely sacred, almost as if Sunday (if not Christmas) had come early.
ps Liz, I hope you are feeling better soon.

Kenny MacAskill, Jonah and al Megrahi.

Notwithstanding my last post, lasty night I continued my sermon series with the Minor Prophets ... this week it was Jonah. It was an interesting week on which to reflect how the story of this obstinate prophet and events int he media touched upon one another. Forget all the stuff about the big fish the bottom of line of this biblical narrative seems to be that Jonah wanted only judgment on people he (and God) regarded as evil … but God offered mercy too and that was too hard for him to swallow.

The balance of judgment and mercy is never an easy one and never more so than last week for Kenny MacAskill Scotland's Minister for Justice. His deliberations and decision on the fate of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi has brought these tensions into sharp relief. So have the comments made from both sides of the Atlantic. I'll admit I've found the whole incident deeply problematic … it has left me with many unresolved questions and dubious answers … it has troubled me all week and still does, although on the grounds of compassion I cannot fault Mr MacAskill's decision. But I do know this much: There are many situations in the world today of barbaric behaviour that i would think deserve the judgment of God.

Some of these have undoubtedly come from nations like Libya who whether or not it was al Megrahi in person, as a nation have effectively admitted that they lay behind the deaths of 270 at Locherbie. But a few years before Locherbie the American Navy shot down Iran flight 655 with 290 on board. If it were an accident, even one where the crew got sucked in to what they call ‘scenario fulfilment’, then it seems to me that it due to some pretty reckless military behaviour. Yet the crew were subsequently decorated (along with all those who served in the Gulf at that time) and the captain awarded the Legion of Merit. Although 62 million dollars of compensation was later paid, America offered no apology and admitted no responsibility. In fact the then vice-president George Bush went on air to say: "I'll never apologize for the United States of America, ever. I don't care what the facts are."

We already know that Britain is far from immune in all this. Our actions here and overseas have often been no better. The conviction of corporal Donald Payne for war crimes in Iraq seems to be only the tip of a huge and troublesome iceberg of systemic and racist torture in the military. It would surely be naïve in the extreme to presume that Iraq was the first and only theatre of conflict in which this kind of thing has ever happened.

I am not seeking to condemn men and women who go to places and face dangers that I do not and could not and in the process protect my freedom. I have much respect for them. But war is hell and those responsible for such acts of violence have often faced horrors themselves. War dehumanises everybody. Military personnel may well have gone through more than we can ever imagine before they snapped and did things that they would never have imagined doing. It is not just them and their commanders who are responsible … it is the governments who send them and the people who elected them and then did nothing to protest.
Ask not for whom this bell tolls it tolls for us all.

Just as no child is born a terrorist or with that hatred in their hearts. They become so by the horrors they experience in life. Their bell tolls for us all as well.

And we could pick on any country round the world and ask the same question: Who can come to God and demand judgment or plea for mercy with clean hands? Which nation is good enough to demand judgment from God? Which is sinless enough to expect mercy.

Or if we got personal again: What person thinks they can come to God and think they are on a par with the wisdom of the Almighty and so can demand judgement on another? Who is sinless enough to think they are good enough to expect mercy?

We don't know if Jonah become chaplain to First Church of the Withered Vine in Nineveh? He may have hopped on another boat to Tarshish or thrown himself under a passing chariot and finally get his wish to die?

Seems to me we don’t know … and we’re not supposed to. The story is supposed to hang around in mid air .It invites us to write our own response … our own chapter 5. In
doing so however we will need to ask how do we feel about a God who really loves the world as much as he loves the Church? How do I feel about a God who loves Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi as much as he loves me? How do we feel about a God who loves mercy as much as he loves judgment?

Friday, 21 August 2009

Educated beyond Obedience

Are we in the church being educated beyond our obedience?

The idea of being 'educated beyond obedience' comes from Neil Cole's book Organic Leadership and it struck a chord this week. Last Sunday evening my congregation began a series on the Minor Prophets. Week 1 was Joel, from which I suggested that in response to the world today we might need to gather the church and declare a fast from all that is harmful us and to others and the planet herself.

This week is Jonah ... and I'm thinking to myself .... why are we moving on to another prophet when we haven't really wrestled with what the last one said. So it struck me that maybe I and others should be fasting from preaching ... (at least on Sunday evenings) ... and instead of moving on to something new, acutally stay with Joel for a while, at least until we have not simply heard what he has said but put it into some kind of practice. Otherwise people will have been educated into knowing what the Word says, but not led into the obedience of it.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Either you go or I do.

'Either you go or I do' is not so much a threatening ultimatum in this case as it is a fact of life and particularly one of ordained ministry. Today I and some others had lunch with a pastor friend who is off to pastures new. I have known him for about seven years during which time it has been a privilege to share some journeys together, both physical, spiritual and theological.

Of course I am sad to see him leave my immediate circle of friends in South Wales, but I am excited about where he is going and the new opportunities he will have there. I guess it is just a fact of ministry that almost inevitably and eventually one or more of us will go somewhere other than where we are now ... its either going to be him, or her, or me.

Saying goodbye today reminded me again of why I gave this blog the title that I did:
It comes from the liturgy of the Iona Community:

In work and worship
God is with us
Gathered and Scattered
God is with us
Now and always
God is with us.

May you go well my good friend Ashley
and may God be with us all.

If you build it they will come

On Tuesday I had one of those days that lifts a pastor's heart (or not)... all the things of God they taught me in College found their place in life ... (or not). I spent the morning talking with some very nice solicitors about whether or not our neighbours can have exit rights over our church property and the rest of the pre lunch period opening up the church for architects and engineers to measure and plan the renovation we are working towards at the front of our building. It was all very worthy stuff I am sure, but it wasn't one of the core competencies tested before my ordination nor was it really part of my vocational vision. Of course it is reality and it must be dealt with and yes, God is to found in the midst of it ... but into Tuesday came a heavenly twist.

No sooner had I opened the front door to let the measuring begin, than an elderly gentleman with no prior connection to the church but looking quite distraught came in through the open doors looking to talk to someone. So instead of listening to design specifications I listened as a heartbreaking story unfolded. There was nothing much I could do to put things right, but we prayed and agreed to talk again.

I missed most of the architectural conversation I was there to have ... I got the gist of the summary. What i did have was a conversation that probably did me more good that it did the gentleman who arrived so upset and unannounced ... but it was one where we shared something of life and of God together.

I know I cannot just sit on the steps of church all day waiting for the people just to come my way ... but I did start to wonder how many other conversations go unspoken by the closed doors of the church,
and if somehow we built it differently would they come?

Monday, 17 August 2009

And the word became flesh ...

It is a well rehearsed comment that in Jesus, the Word became flesh and then in preachers, the flesh became words again. One of my favourite paintings in Iona Abbey reminds me of this every time I stop to visit. But now one of my friends and colleagues in Cardiff has gone and reversed the whole process over again.

I caught up with James last week, he blogs at and he was sporting a new tattoo which looks very accurate to me and my increasingly rusty Greek. Feel free to let him know what you think!

Saturday, 8 August 2009


While my Anglican friends are busy issuing health and safety guidelines for the Eucharist (no more common cups until the swine have officially flu) I found myself at a most impromptu celebration of the Lord's Supper this week.

Occasionally I visit a Roman Catholic man who is seriously ill. This was the first time I had seen him since he had moved from home into care.

He was having breakfast when I arrived around 11am. We sat talking about deep things, he sharing his fears and toast with me, I listened and took the occasional nibble at both the buttered slices and the theological concerns being raised.

Then he looked at me and winked:

In the kitchen, the staff have half a bottle of asti spumante for me ... would you like a glass?

I was about to mutter excuses about it only being 11:30 and needing to drive home, until it struck me that this invitation was teetering on the edge of the holy ... this was sacramental.
And so we shared some bread and wine
toast and asti
whatever it was we did it in remembrance of so much and so many

And as I left to go,
I could have sworn I had heard the rustling of angels wings.

Monday, 3 August 2009


I remember once as a young Christian going to a service where the bible passage was from Ezra. The preacher told the congregation that if they didn't know where Ezra was it was right beside Nehemiah. Like that helped!
I always remember that incident when seemingly learned people say things like: As everybody knows ... xyz ,
or it is commonly accepted that ...
and then they look at you as if you were a numptie for admitting you had never known that until then.

So I was thinking the same thing again this morning while reading Micheal Gorman's book Cruciformity: Paul's Narrative Spirituality of the Cross. The paragraph (on p7) reads:

... what a biblical text says about faith, lover and hope, (in that order) corresponds to an ancient Christian way of reading the Scriptures that flourished in the Middle Ages (from Augustine to Luther) and is enjoying something of a renaissance in the present.

I hadn't even heard of the renaissance never mind the original methodology ... or at least I had, but those who told me always made it sound more complicated that it might have been. The gist of this ancient way of reading the bible (for those of you who didn't know it) is simple, Mr Gorman again:

It asks not merely what a text says but also what it enjoins us to believe (faith), to do , (Love) and to anticipate (Hope).

What a wonderfully simple paradigm for engaged bible study. What does this tells us we are to beleive, to do and to expect.

(incidentally I did already know the footnoted parallel technical terms of what was going on, allegorical, tropological and anagogical, but no one had ever put it as simply as being centred on Faith Love and Hope.) This isn't what Mr Gorman's book is about and its already stimulating the little grey cells on other matters, but I liked this and will no doubt use it soon.