It was about fifteen years ago. My little three-year-old grandson climbed on my knee with one of his favourite storybooks. I read a bit and then, from his memory of the many times we had done this before, he told the next bit . . . and on we went together, telling the story in turns to each other. However, this time was to be different for, when we got to the last page, one of us (I can’t remember which) turned over to the blank page at the end and the blank inside cover of the book and we continued the story together, telling each other what might have happened next. As we went forward together in our imaginings, the pictures in the inward eye were much more vivid than those on the earlier printed pages.
We all enjoy stories. As children we love them but, as adults too, are we not also easily caught up in stories we read, hear or view on screen? Those novels for bedtime or vacation reading, the detective mystery unfolding on TV, the blog of that friend’s travels, the heart-to-heart sharing of a life’s ups and downs by a complete stranger sitting beside us on a long bus journey. They have different settings, different plot-lines, different characters and themes, different lengths. We listen to them, we read them, we view them in plays and films, we hear them in song, we make them up, we tell them. They make us laugh, cry, reflect, imagine, lose ourselves—as my grandson and I did in that tale that we read together.
Stories are central to the way in which we structure our
understanding of ourselves and others, of actions and events. They are part of
our language and thought, of our whole experience of the world and our way of
We don’t just enjoy them as diversions, we think in stories. And
we dream in stories, however chaotic these tales of the night may be at times.
Whether waking or sleeping, we place characters and events in patterns in space
and time. We locate ourselves and one another and the things that happen to us
and around us in narrative contexts.
We are story-makers! Whether listening on the train to half a conversation that somebody is having on his cell phone, or reading the inscriptions on gravestones, or anticipating the next episode of a serial story on the radio, we cannot help filling in the details.
There is a fundamental incompleteness to all the stories that we tell, just as my grandson and I experienced when we came to the blank pages at the end of the book and found that we just had to continue the story.
This is true of our own personal stories, the stories of our lives. They need the context of bigger stories to make sense of them. Otherwise we are left looking out into nothingness.
Part Two next week!
Heavenly Father, help us to live, move and have our being in your Big Story. Amen.
(This blog is adapted from part of a chapter in a book I wrote a few years ago.)
Imagine that we are alien researchers from Mars who have come to the strange world of Planet Earth to study the rituals and religious habits of its inhabitants. Imagine that we are going to visit one of our 21st century culture’s most common religious sites. This is what James K. A. (Jamie) Smith invites readers of his book, Desiring the Kingdom, to do. Let’s accompany him as he approaches the site. It is not a church or temple … and yet it is!
As we approach, we notice that the site is very popular. It is
“throbbing with pilgrims every day of the week”. The entrances to the site are
“framed by banners and flags, familiar texts and symbols” and just inside there
is “a large map – a kind of worship aid” to help the novice to find the
“various spiritual offerings”. The
“regulars” don’t need the maps because they are “the faithful, who enter the
space with a sense of achieved familiarity, who know the rhythms by heart
because of habit-forming repetition”.
We notice the design of the interior of the site. There are
windows on the high ceiling but none on the walls. This “conveys a sense of
vertical and transcendent openness that at the same time shuts off the clamor
and distractions of the horizontal, mundane world …(and) offers a feeling of
sanctuary, retreat, and escape”. We find that it “almost seems as if … we lose
consciousness of time’s passing and so lose ourselves in the rituals for which
Like medieval cathedrals, the mall has “mammoth religious spaces …
alongside of which are innumerable chapels devoted to various saints”. Instead
of stained-glass windows, there is “an array of three-dimensional icons adorned
in garb that—as with all iconography—inspires us to be imitators of these
exemplars”. They embody for us “concrete images of ‘the good life’ …embodied
pictures of the redeemed that invite us to imagine ourselves in their shoes”.
As we enter a side chapel, we are “greeted by a welcoming acolyte
who offers to shepherd us through the experience, but also has the wisdom to
allow us to explore on our own terms”. After a time spent browsing among the
racks, “with our newfound holy object in hand, we proceed to the altar, which
is the consummation of worship” where we find “the priest who presides over the
consummating transaction … of exchange and communion”.
We leave “this transformative experience … with newly minted
relics, as it were, that are themselves the means to the good life … something
with solidity that is wrapped in the colors and symbols of the saints and the
Like all good teachers, Jamie Smith is concerned to make the
familiar strange and the strange familiar. He wants us to see the experience of
the shopping mall with new eyes “in order for us to recognize the charged, religious
nature of cultural institutions that we all tend to inhabit as if they were
neutral sites”. Our desires are being shaped, our hearts are being formed, by
the mall and “its ‘parachurch’ extensions in television and advertising”.
The point that he is trying to make is that human beings are worshippers. The question is not whether or not we worship but who or what we worship, who or what we love in our hearts. We have to have gods if God is missing from our lives.
Neil Postman says that consumerism is one of these gods. (He lists others, including nationalism, reason, science, and technology.) He says that the basic moral axiom of consumerism is expressed in the slogan “Whoever dies with the most toys wins”. You are what you accumulate.
One of the most famous works of photographic artist Barbara Kruger proclaimed “I shop therefore I am”.
The god of reason says, “I think therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum). The god of consumerism says, “Tesco ergo sum”!
The God and Father of the Lord Jesus says that we are because he is.
Gracious loving Father, God who is love, please help us to always have the desires of our hearts shaped by you so that we may worship, serve and love you above all and we may help others to come to you and love you too above all. Amen.
P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please email me through the contact address on this website or message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.
 Desiring the Kingdom, pp. 19ff. See also here.
‘Missing God’ is a very moving poem by Dennis O’Driscoll. I’m
going to quote it in full and then I’ll link it with a recent very surprising statement by
Richard Dawkins, the well-known evangelist for atheism.
It was in a book by an Englishman who has made his home in Scotland that I first came across this poem. It was by an Irishman of whom I had never heard even though he was from Thurles which is less than twenty five miles from where I was brought up. (The book was David Smith’s Moving Towards Emmaus.) O’Driscoll was a friend of Seamus Heaney and one of his books is a set of interviews with Heaney entitled Stepping Stones. (You can see and hear them in conversation here.) Following O’Driscoll’s sudden death in 2012, Heaney entitled a tribute to him ‘My Hero: Dennis O’Driscoll’.
Here is the poem, Missing God:
grace is no longer called for
before meals: farmed fish multiply
without His intercession.
Bread production rises through
disease-resistant grains devised
scientifically to mitigate His faults.
though we rebelled against Him
like adolescents, uplifted to see
an oppressive father banished –
a bearded hermit – to the desert,
we confess to missing Him at times.
Him during the civil wedding
when, at the blossomy altar
of the registrar’s desk, we wait in vain
to be fed a line containing words
like “everlasting” and “divine”.
Him when the TV scientist
explains the cosmos through equations,
leaving our planet to revolve on its axis
aimlessly, a wheel skidding in snow.
Him when the radio catches a snatch
of plainchant from some echoey priory;
when the gospel choir raises its collective voice
to ask Shall We Gather at the River?
or the forces of the oratorio converge
on I Know That My Redeemer Liveth
and our contracted hearts lose a beat.
Him when a choked voice
at the crematorium recites the poem
about fearing no more the heat of the sun.
Him when we stand in judgment
on a lank Crucifixion in an art museum,
its stripe-like ribs testifying to rank.
Him when the gamma-rays
recorded on the satellite graph
seem arranged into a celestial score,
the music of the spheres,
the Ave Verum Corpus of the observatory lab.
Him when we stumble on the breast lump
for the first time and an involuntary prayer
escapes our lips; when a shadow crosses
our bodies on an x-ray screen; when we receive
a transfusion of foaming blood
sacrificed anonymously to save life.
Him when we call out His name
spontaneously in awe or anger
as a woman in the birth ward bawls
her long-dead mother’s name.
Him when the linen-covered
dining table holds warm bread rolls,
shiny glasses of red wine.
Him when a dove swoops
from the orange grove in a tourist village
just as the monastery bell begins to take its toll.
Him when our journey leads us under
leaves of Gothic tracery, an arch
of overlapping branches that meet
like hands in Michelangelo’s creation.
Him when, trudging past a church,
we catch a residual blast of incense,
a perfume on par with the fresh-baked loaf
which Milosz compared to happiness.
Him when our newly-decorated kitchen
comes in Shaker-style and we order
a matching set of Mother Ann Lee chairs.
Him when we listen to the prophecy
of astronomers that the visible galaxies
will recede as the universe expands.
Him the way an uncoupled glider
riding the evening thermals misses its tug.
Him, as the lovers shrugging
shoulders outside the cheap hotel
ponder what their next move should be.
feel nostalgic, odd days,
for His Second Coming,
like standing in the brick
dome of a dovecote
after the birds have flown.
In his book, after quoting this poem, David Smith writes, “Here,
surely, is the authentic language of the Emmaus road experience, of those who
tread a path from which God has gone missing, and yet confess that as
the sky darkens and the air grows cold, they are missing God” (p. 29).
Richard Dawkins was recently reported as saying he feared that if
religion were abolished it would “give people a licence to do really bad
things”. He said that security camera surveillance of customers in shops did
appear to deter shoplifting, adding that people might feel free to do wrong
without a “divine spy camera in the sky reading their every thought”. He went
on, “People may feel free to do bad things because they feel God is no longer
By the entrance to our local Morrisons store there is a life-sized picture of a policeman looking at you and smiling, albeit with handcuffs visible hanging by his side. It certainly makes one feel that one is being watched!
The policeman has a friendly and welcoming smile. I think the God
of Dennis O’Driscoll’s poem has a welcoming smile but the god of Richard
Dawkin’s writings doesn’t. In a book of over 400 pages, The God Delusion,
Dawkins devotes just three to the subject of love (pp. 184-186). Yes, there is
a lot of evil and suffering in our world (and, as Dawkins frequently points
out, people who profess to believe in God have contributed and do contribute
their share to it!) but isn’t it amazing that we can also find love everywhere
and often in the most surprising places? Is there any other possible source of
it all but the God and Father of Jesus Christ?
Jesus cried from the cross with what Dennis O’Driscoll calls
“stripe-like ribs” saying, “Father, forgive them”. Risen from the grave, he
stands with open arms and a welcoming smile saying, ““Are you tired? Worn out?
Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your
life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest.” (Matthew 11:28, The Message)
Gracious loving Father, God who is love, please forgive us when so
often we go off on our own and you go missing from our lives. May those who are
missing you find you and your love in us. Amen.
P.S. If you would like to be
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‘Ending religion is a bad idea, says Richard Dawkins’, The Times, 5 October
Paddy and Bartley were two horses behind whom my father would
plough the fields on the home farm in Ireland. Paddy was an old and disciplined
animal but Bartley was young and headstrong. When my father was ploughing,
Bartley sometimes wanted to pull the plough in a different direction from
Paddy. When this happened, my father had to work very hard to get them to pull
together in the same direction. At other times, Paddy and Bartley worked
happily together and progress with the ploughing was so much easier then.
Synergy is a combined effect which is greater than the sum of
individual effects. Two horses working together can pull rather more than twice
what one horse can pull alone. My father sometimes enjoyed the effect of
synergy between his horses but all too often it was lacking and he would come
home exhausted by his efforts to promote it.
The Greek word ‘sunergeo’ is used several times in the New
Testament in verses that talk about ‘fellow-workers’, “co-workers” and ‘working
together’. For example, 1 Corinthians 3:9 reads “We are co-workers in God’s
service”. Some of these verses even suggest that we can be co-workers with God
himself, we can work synergistically with him and he with us!
An oft-quoted verse in Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me” (Matthew 11:29, NIV). The image here is probably not of horses but of oxen yoked together to work together.
Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrases the verse this
way: “Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced
rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep
company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
This has implications for us in our daily lives in our
work-places. We need to walk with him and learn from him. We also need to walk
and work with others. Those of us who teach easily come to see ourselves as
queens and kings in our own classrooms and I expect the same kind of thing is
true in other workplaces. We do not like to have others observing our work
closely. We may be having problems but we tend to pretend to others that
everything is all right at our desk or in our classroom.
A partner relationship with another colleague can be very helpful
to both. We can commit ourselves to share the highs and the lows, to observe
one another’s ways of working and expose our own practice to the scrutiny of
the other, to work together to find new and better ways of doing things. We are
not really self-sufficient, we need one another. Why pretend to be perfect?!
Why not be vulnerable? What have we to lose except our pride?!
O God of all might and energy, as workers together with you and
you with us, we ask that you will help us to admit our need of others and to
work better together with them and that we will help those with whom we work to
discover more synergy in working together too. Amen.
P.S. If you would like to be
notified when new blogs are posted, please email me through the contact address
on this website or message me if you have come here via a link that I posted on
“Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” (Hebrews
One of my favourite tracks to play and sing along to in the car is
an adaptation by Carey Langtry of the hymn ‘Peace is Flowing like a River’. (In
fact, it was thinking about it that led me to ‘Rivers in the Badlands’ as a
title for this website.) After singing a couple of verses, he pauses to say a
prayer that begins “Dear Father, Brother Jesus”. We often pray “Lord Jesus” but to address him
as brother somehow feels daring and yet the verse above from Hebrews and other
Bible verses encourage us to regard Jesus as our brother! Wow!
I’ll come back to this but, first, I want to say a little about
the popular hobby of family history research. It has been one of my hobbies for
many years and so I enjoy watching TV programmes like the BBC’s ‘Who Do You
Think You Are?’ or ‘Heir Hunters’.
What motivates people like me to give time to such research? I
have to admit that it may be pride because we want to be able to tell people
how far back our family records go or how many people of high status feature in
our tree. (A second cousin of mine is an eighth cousin of Barack Obama. The
relationship is through his mother rather than his Shortt father so, sadly, I
can’t claim blood relationship!) Perhaps, on the other hand, pride in our
ancestry takes the form of showing that we have come from ‘humble origins’ and
have ‘made something of ourselves’.
Perhaps we are motivated by an interest in the people themselves who have, to some extent, shaped us to become the people we are. What were they like, our grandparents and our more distant ancestors? What were their lives like? We want to understand them better and, in doing so, to come to a better understanding of ourselves.
Perhaps we are motivated by a concern to create and preserve
historical records for future generations. In former times, we used to record
family births, marriages and deaths in what we referred to as the ‘family
Bible’. We wanted these to be there for the future.
This concern is linked with a logical desire for completeness and
accuracy of detail. We are constructing a jigsaw that has no edges and is
multi-dimensional. We hunt for pieces to fit. We try to put together assorted
pieces of evidence. We are detectives looking for clues that will solve the
puzzle. Finding one missing piece can change the whole picture.
This concern is linked with a desire for a bigger perspective that
puts our lives into context. Generations come and generations go. The children
are born, the parents have great hopes, sometimes fulfilled but sometimes
things turn out so differently. Family history study reminds us that we too
must die one day.
However, I’m talking as if the pleasures of constructing a family
tree are open to everybody and I am deeply aware that is not the case. I have
friends who were adopted as infants and who do not know the names of one or
even both their biological parents. Indeed, I have tried to help them in their
A recent blog on the
website of the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity entitled
‘Inherited Identities’ puts all this into context as it concludes with these
“Although we are shaped by our ancestors, we are not destined to follow in their footsteps; nor can we inherit the glory or guilt that comes from their actions. For ultimately the important question is not where you are descended from. It is not how you will be remembered. It is not even: who do you think you are? Rather, it is: who does he say you are?”
Our human families are important, very important. But if we have come to a personal faith in Christ, we are adopted into a new family! We are all brothers and sisters to one another in the family of God. We come from all generations and all nations into his family.
The Bible nowhere says that we should not care for and care about those to whom we are naturally related, our human kinsfolk. I say again, our human families are very important but this is even more important. We are in the family of God. Our identity and our standing before God is not ultimately in our human lineage, it is in our relationship to God our Father through Jesus his Son.
He is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters. We can therefore pray with Carey Landry, “Dear Father, brother Jesus”! Wow!
P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please email me through the contact address on this website or message me if you have come here via a link that I posted on Facebook.
At the start of a new year, the
writings of three friends of mine have come together to make me think about
green spaces in towns and cities and our need for metaphorical green spaces in
the busy ebbs and flows of our lives.
David Smith posted a blog on New Year’s Eve in
which he quoted Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, from his book The
Sabbath, pointing out that “in the Bible time is not just a succession of
intervals. Rather it is shaped into significant ebbs and flows that shape
experience of the world”. Heschel put it this way:
“Judaism is a religion of time
aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time
is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, quality-less,
empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no
two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment,
exclusive and endlessly precious…Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art
of significant forms in time, as architecture of time.”
The phrase ‘architecture of time’
intrigued David and it leaped out from the page to me too. I had been reading Curriculum
Planning with Design Language, a great new book by Ken Badley. It is
written for teachers but I think it has implications for all the projects that
we plan in the workplace or home. Ken takes the design philosophy of architect Christopher
Alexander as his starting-point and he proposes ten design principles for our
projects. They include ‘centres’, ‘boundaries’, ‘entrances and exits’, ‘coherence
and connections’, … but the one that Heschel’s talk of ‘architecture of time’
made me think about was Ken’s seventh principle – ‘green spaces’.
Ken talks about the quiet backs
of Oxford colleges as paradigm examples of the breathing spaces that cities and
towns need and goes on to define green spaces in our working lives as “activities
people engage in that are very likely different from work”. Heschel encourages
us to think of time not as something that simply and remorselessly flows by but
as something that we shape just as architects shape buildings and their
environments … and he does it in a book entitled The Sabbath! The green
spaces that we should design into our work projects (or our plans for 2020) are
the sabbaths, the jubilees, the resting-places, the coffee-breaks that give us
opportunity to breathe in the stillness, the greenery, the sounds of the metaphorical
park or garden!
The third friend is actually a
student of mine from Dublin who is presently writing an essay for a module on
the theology of work. He it was who a few weeks ago introduced me to Heschel’s
ideas and he has effectively convinced me that any such module should have at
its heart a theology of rest. My curriculum for the module needs not only the
breaks that I provide for in classroom sessions but also a focus on the
importance of green spaces in our architecture of our time.
My thanks to my three friends for
forcing me to face up to the fact that my tendency to workaholic-ism is not a
good thing! I need to shape my time
Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York:
Farrar, Strauss & Company, 1951), p. 8.
Last year at a conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, I sat with about a hundred other Christian educators from across Europe and beyond. The speaker was Ken Badley, a good friend of mine from Canada, and, as he brought his presentation to a close, he talked briefly about two hallelujahs, juxtaposing two video extracts in a way that moved me deeply.
The first video featured a flash mob performance of the Hallelujah
Chorus from Handel’s Messiah by an Ontario choral society. The video was
recorded in a shopping centre food court by hidden cameras and planned
by a small company called Alphabet Photography as a thank you to their
customers. Unsuspecting shoppers were startled as, one after another,
singers rose to their feet and joined the hallelujahs. Surprise turned
to delight on the faces of many as the performance moved through “And he
shall reign forever and ever” to “King of kings and Lord of lords” and
ended with the climax of the closing hallelujah. I wish I could have
been there! If you haven’t seen the video (and even if, like me, you’ve
watched and listened to it many times), you can do so by clicking here.
Ken then played an extract from a second video, a very different
hallelujah. This featured the late Canadian singer and poet, Leonard
Cohen, and the Hallelujah song that had taken him five years to write
when he was going through dark times.
Rooted in his Jewish faith, Cohen moves from the failures of David
and Samson to sing of the necessity of a song of praise in the face of
pain or joy. “There’s a blaze of light in every word; / it doesn’t
matter which you heard, / the holy, or the broken Hallelujah!” Holy or
broken, there is still hallelujah! “And even though it all went wrong /
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but
I wish I could have been there to hear him sing the song. The scene
is dark, the singer wears black but hallelujah swells up out of agony.
Again, if you haven’t seen the video (and even if, like me, you’ve also
watched and listened to it many times), you can do so by clicking here.
I remember as a teenager learning a chorus that had the lines, “I’m
living on the mountain, underneath a cloudless sky, / I’m drinking at
the fountain that never shall run dry”. There are indeed times when the
skies are blue and joy fills the heart, when “God’s glory is on tour in
the skies, / God-craft on exhibit across the horizon” (Psalm 19:1, The Message), when everything within us swells with hallelujahs to the Lord of Song. “King of kings and Lord of lords. … Hallelujah!”
There are also times, many times, in the valleys of life when all
around seems dark, when the wicked prosper in the world and the poor
suffer, when family concerns weigh heavily, when personal failures seem
ever present. These are times when we are “on a diet of tears—tears for
breakfast, tears for supper” (Psalm 42:3, The Message) and we
ask over and over again, “Why, O Lord?”. We are not alone in this for
the agonised cry of the young Prince of Glory from the tree of Calvary
also shouted “Why?” into the darkness. We read, “From noon to three, the
whole earth was dark. Around mid-afternoon Jesus groaned out of the
depths, crying loudly, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’” (Matthew 27:46, The Message)
The many psalms of lament and the example of Jesus himself permit us
to question the Father, to cry out to him with frankness and tell him
that we do not understand why things are as they are. This is not the
same as grumbling about God for these things are said to him and not
behind his back (as if anything could be behind his back!).
However, the psalms of lament characteristically go on to utter what
Leonard Cohen calls a “broken hallelujah”. Hear that hallelujah as the
psalmist continues to lament :
“Sometimes I ask God, my rock-solid God,
‘Why did you let me down?
Why am I walking around in tears, …’
Why are you down in the dumps, dear soul?
Why are you crying the blues?
Fix my eyes on God—
soon I’ll be praising again.
He puts a smile on my face.
He’s my God.” (Psalm 42:9,11, The Message)
Thank you to Canada for the Ontario choral society and for Leonard
Cohen and their two hallelujahs and thank you to Ken Badley for putting
them side by side, the holy and the broken hallelujah.
“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” (I John 4:16)
endless meetings, although sometimes
it can seem like that! Teaching is endless meeting.
This a statement made by Parker Palmer in his book, The Courage to Teach, as an addition to a quotation from the Jewish
philosopher, Martin Buber. The complete sentence reads as follows:
“’All real living is meeting,’ said
Martin Buber, and teaching is endless meeting.”
heart, teaching and learning are relational. We are not merely communicating or
acquiring knowledge or skills, we are relating with those among whom we teach
and learn. Few other callings are as intensely relational as teaching. What
Michael Schluter of the Jubilee Centre called ‘The R Factor’
is everywhere present in the classroom.
relational for he is Father, Son and Holy Spirit in relation with each other in
the Trinity through all eternity. He made us in his image to be relational
beings and he said at the beginning that it was not good that we should be
2:18). He made us for relationships of love with him and with one another.
In a very
helpful article (available on the internet), Marshall Gregory tells of a
discussion with an English class at a secular American university in which he
found himself saying “blithely, not seeing my own words in advance, ‘I think my
job is to love you. … Unless I love you properly, I cannot teach you well.
Grounding my teaching in love is the only way I can make sure that I do this
job right’.” He goes on to say that he
did not know that he had a view about teacherly love until he found himself
saying this. He went on to write this article and to argue that the only proper
love between teacher and student is the agape
love that God has for human beings.
is endless meeting and the only adequate resource for all such meeting is agape.
Loving God, as we meet and relate to those whom
we teach, may we live in your love and may they come to do so too. Amen.
Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach:
Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, (San Francisco:
Jossey-Bass, 1998), p. 16.
Michael Schluter & David Lee, The R
Factor, (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1993).