Category Archives: Breaking down the walls

Meeting the real JC

1757430_0The People Powered Mass Meeting I attended a few weeks ago was far more inspiring than I’d anticipated. It wasn’t just seeing Corbyn himself, but also the many younger people motivated by him into politics, and whose vision created an atmosphere of hope, positivity and, above all, COMPASSION. I was unexpectedly exhilarated.

And then…. the other day, I met a man who looked just like Jeremy, only a few years older and a bit tramp-like in his appearance with a long coat over his many layers, pacing around the platform at St Leonards Warrior Square Station, talking animatedly to himself. Or, perhaps, to anyone who would listen.

…which was nobody.

I was intrigued by the eccentric Corbynesque character.

As I entered the train, the Jeremy doppelganger got on board too, continuing to jabber away, now monologuing on the subject of first and second class carriages. I must have caught his eye, because he sat himself down across the aisle and avidly directed an anecdote at me, about a time a guard had followed him off a train, chasing him for the correct fare after catching him sitting in first class. A rather worried and sharply disapproving looking man sitting opposite him clutched tightly on to his travel bag in the presence of the slightly odd, larger-than-life character.

I cheerfully engaged ‘Jeremy 2’ as he told me his tale. To be honest, I was quite glad when he got off at the next station, as I was itching to have some time to read quietly and catch up on emails. But I also enjoyed his friendly, cheerful humour and, perhaps above all, his ‘differentness’.

I seem to be drawn to people who sit outside of society’s ‘norms’, and wouldn’t ordinarily have thought too much of the encounter. What struck me on this occasion, though, was the sharp contrast between myself and the man sitting opposite the Corbyn lookalike (and all the other people determined to ignore him).

This particular day I felt proud to be the one who gave time to a man shunned by others. I was reminded of some words from the other JC (not Jeremy but Jesus), who said that whatever we did for ‘the least of these’, we did for him.

It seemed that by giving time and respect to the Corbyn lookalike, I was actually giving time and respect for Corbyn himself.

Oh no, sorry, not Corbyn. Jesus. The real JC.

When we actively include the ‘other’, whether through casual conversation like this, or through the support of inclusive campaigns and policies, we include and nurture the Divine presence and extend the reality of Christ in this world.

The episode contrasted poignantly with another encounter later in the day, when I was the judgmental one…

My journey from St Leonards to London was to attend a very formal awards ceremony in an ancient church steeped in a fascinating history of humanitarian spirituality. I found myself seated next to a retired judge who, on first impressions, seemed to fit all the stereotypes of a man of his position: portly (I don’t think I’ve ever used the word ‘portly’ before, but it seems like the perfect word for a somewhat rotund judge), a tad pompous, and somewhat narcissistic: he delighted in telling me about his OBE.

Not only that, but like ‘Jeremy 2’, he wouldn’t shut up! Every time I tried to read the order of service or absorb my surroundings while we were waiting for the ceremony to begin, he had another – often inane or boring – comment to make. Like the disapproving man on the train, I was becoming highly irritated. I didn’t feel as ‘Christian’ or charitable towards him as I had to the Corbynesque man earlier.

The formal service began and – sod’s law – the ex-judge suddenly developed a tickly cough. Out of the blue.

Except there was no sound, as he tried desperately to stifle the cough. In its place was an ever-reddening face, quietly spluttering – all the signs of a man making a valiant attempt not to disturb solemn proceedings and becoming more and more uncomfortable in the process.

This went on for some minutes.

The bottle of water in my bag increasingly nagged at my conscience. Should I offer it? It would mean ‘sharing my germs’ with him. And then, him sharing his germs with me, if I continued using the bottle the rest of the day, including on my long journey home.

On that basis, he’d probably decline, anyway. So I kept silent.

The lady the other side of him offered him a sweet. Thank goodness – I was off the hook!

But the sweet didn’t do the trick.

A few more minutes went by, with the man looking and sounding more and more ill, trying to suppress the cough.

Eventually, I gave in to that still small voice, the heart’s whisper to do the right thing.

‘Would you like some water?’

He eagerly and graciously accepted.

Sheer relief for the poor guy. He was so thankful.

He asked if he could hang on to it for the duration of the service.

‘Of course,’ I replied.

The water hit the spot.

At the end of the ceremony, my judicial neighbour thanked me warmly – I think he used the word ‘lifesaver’. And joked that I’d probably want to sterilise the bottle before re-using it.

My judgmentalism of the judge had by now evaporated into the ether. Funny how sharing with someone in need – something as simple as a conversation or a bottle of water, can build a bond, break down prejudice, open our eyes to the humanity of another.

I remembered Jesus’ words about giving ‘even a cup of water’ to someone in need, and felt a little ashamed of my own prejudice. I was really no better than the man with the travel bag on the train. And after all, I can be as narcissistic as the next man.

Prejudice comes in all shapes and sizes.

Some might look down on a refugee, a drug addict, someone of a different sexuality or different faith….or a trampish Corbyn lookalike.

Others among us might be more disdainful towards a lord, a banker, a Tory MP, or an authoritarian figure…like a judge.

But the divine presence meets us as we open our hearts to any of these people, whoever the ‘other’ is, whoever sits outside our own particular kind of ‘normal’ – each one alight with the spark of the Spirit under the artificial masks of appearance and social status that we all inevitably wear.

I was glad the Spirit had allowed me this perfect opportunity, through a sudden-onset cough of all things, to overcome my own prejudice and, in the process, to meet with the real JC yet again.


From Falling Upwards by Richard Rohr:

You can see perhaps what Jesus and Paul both meant by telling us to honor “the least of the brothers and sisters”…and “to clothe them with the greatest care.” It is those creatures and those humans who are on the edge of what we have defined as normal, proper, or good who often have the most to teach us. They tend to reveal the shadow and the mysterious side of things. Such constant exceptions make us revisit the so-called rule and what we call normal – and recalibrate!


You might also like to know about my book! Coming Home for Good is an autobiography about homelessness, spirituality and identity, and is available on Amazon.

Coming Home for Good

Find out more here.

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God’s ‘mini-me’s

Can humans be gods? Of course not. At least not according to Christianity.

Yet, in Psalm 82, one of the Jewish / Christian scriptures, God (Yahweh) addresses Israel’s rulers as ‘gods’! Humans described as gods! This incredible psalm should come as quite a shock to most religious people.

Jesus himself quoted from this psalm to affirm that God did indeed address the people as gods – in order to make his point: “Why is it so hard to accept that I could be God’s son?”

The words of Psalm 82 have mind-blowing implications for our society in various ways:

  • As ‘gods’ or Yahweh’s representatives, our leaders and politicians have a God-given responsibility to exercise mercy and social justice: to care for the marginalised and vulnerable. As numbers of people dependent on food banks due to benefits sanctions rise and rise, and as homelessness grows unstoppably in Hastings where I live and across the UK with no sign of slowing down, I wouldn’t like to be in the shoes of our current government before a holy God – where holiness is not the cold piety of a distant deity, but the fiery, devoted passion for ultimate justice on behalf of the most vulnerable. I suspect there’s a message there for our American friends too, with just a few days to the presidential election.


  • As ‘gods’, every human being has an intrinsic worth far beyond that which any of us can ever imagine – far above anything expressed by most theological and psychological schools of thoughts. And no wonder – the idea of us being ‘gods’ is so radical and far-reaching, it verges on blasphemy to Judeo-Christian thinking. To approach the idea of people being ‘gods’ is to walk on holy ground. And yet it is a Christian idea. God is. I am. The mystery of our being mirrors the mystery of his being. We are, literally, God’s children. We carry his DNA, his genes – so much more than his image. So ingrained in Christian thinking is the idea of sin’s pervasiveness, that the holiness, goodness and beauty that underlies our brokenness is usually missed. I would so love for all the broken, hurting, struggling people I know (that’s pretty much everyone, including me) to begin to grasp this core identity that we have. What incredible healing there would be in that comprehension!


  • Those regarded as ‘least’ and ‘lowest’ according to the echelons of society, or ‘low-life’ as I’ve heard them described, are nevertheless ‘gods’ according to Yahweh – not just his representatives, they are his ‘mini-me’s – and therefore, as Jesus made plain, whatever we do or fail to do for them, we do or fail to do for him. This affords us amazing privileges and opportunities to encounter the holy love and presence of Yahweh as we serve society’s marginalised, pray for them and press for social justice.


Here’s Psalm 82 in full:

God presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the gods:

“How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

The gods know nothing, they understand nothing. They walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

“I said, ‘You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere mortals; you will fall like every other ruler.”

Rise up, O God, judge the earth, for all the nations are your inheritance.


(Wondering what this blog is all about, and who A Child of Grace is?

Please read my About page. Thanks! Roger N)

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A brush with Vincent

If you know me or my blog, you’ll know that I have a little fascination with both van Gogh and Van Morrison. Must be something about vans. I haven’t blogged about white van drivers yet, though – maybe that’s to come…

But both Gogh and Morrison, unlike white van drivers, seem to help unlock a sense of awesome awareness of the Creator’s sweet pervasion of the world around me.

You may even know that one of the reasons for taking my family on a short break to Holland in the recent half-term was to visit the van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Having been so enthralled by his life and mesmerised by his art, I wondered what a visit to the museum, which houses over 1000 of Vincent’s works, would be like. Would I be touched even more deeply by the man of myth and magic? Or would I be unmoved – would a museum’s inevitable sterility detract from the emotions normally evoked by this beautiful man?

The first van Gogh work I saw on entering the main gallery was a familiar, famous painting – The Sower.

Several things struck me all at once.

Firstly, I was blown away by the obvious fact that I was looking at an original! This was a painting actually painted by Vincent van Gogh himself!

Viewing the popular masterpiece, with its dense, swirling, brush strokes, felt like a mind-blowing encounter with greatness,



madness and sanity,

and the brilliant transcendence of the Creator in Vincent’s (and our) world.

Right from the outset, I was overcome with emotion, moved to tears once again, by this brush with Vincent. As it turned out, no cold museum sterility could dampen the reactions sparked by this intriguing character.

As well as being awestruck by the significance of being face to face with an actual van Gogh, I was startled to find it was 3D! It had never occurred to me that the flat, 2-D images we see in a book or on a computer screen could never do justice to the coarse, wild textures or contrasting shades of an oil painting’s brazen, 3-dimensional, brush strokes.


A flat, 2D image of The Sower, a 3D painting

Such a stark realisation sparked an immediate thought about my prayer life. My recent (last couple of years) journey into a more mindful and contemplative approach to prayer, inspired by the likes of Shaun Lambert, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen and Richard Rohr, feels like a transition from 2D to 3D faith.

Diving into the omnipresence of God.

Being in his being.

Not that prayer, for me, has ever been simply a religious “shopping-list” or an approach to God as a dispensing machine, but this practising of stillness, stopping to soak in the reality of who God is and of who I am, has been a welcome learning curve and a growth into the fullness that Jesus promised.

Vincent never seemed to lose his faith in Christ, but recoiled from the strict religion of his pastor father. Did Vincent ever experience the fullness of life that Jesus offered? My strong suspicion is that, despite being tormented by mental ill health, a sense of alienation from society, and even “existential dread”, as described in the blurb for one painting at the museum, Vincent did indeed drink of that spiritual life.

He seemed to be so wonderfully attuned to his surroundings and, through those surroundings and his depiction of them, to be at one with the Creator he believed in. You could say that his painting really was a form of contemplation.

Even Christians, with our genuine claims of the “joy of the Lord” and “fullness of life”, are not immune to mental illness, depression and “dark nights of the soul”. I, too, have had my moments.

Part of my contemplative learning curve has been a growing embrace of “non-dual thinking”: accepting the “both/and” of life and faith in 3D fullness, instead of the “either/or” often associated with 2D religion.

I think Vincent understood this, through his ups and downs of faith and life. As I browsed the museum, I was intrigued by his Still Life with Open Bible, in which a large family Bible, open at Isaiah 53 that speaks prophetically of Jesus as the suffering servant and “a man of sorrows”, is juxtaposed with a copy of Emile Zola’s contemporary novel of the time, La Joie de Vivre.


Still Life with Open Bible (sorrow and joy)

I don’t think Vincent ever really rejected the Bible or Jesus but resented his father’s “blind devotion to religion and faith, forever trapped in an antiquated mindset”, and like a lot of people, found that the religion of his time satisfied neither his mind nor his soul’s need for love.

In contrast, La Joie de Vivreand so many other masterpieces paint life as we feel it ourselves and thus satisfy that need which we have, that people tell us the truth,” as Vincent put it in a letter to his brother Theo.

His simultaneous representation of both sorrow and joy in this painting seems to sum up Vincent’s experience of life and faith. Both/and.

As I admired the lavish, almost randomised, multi-directional strokes in Vincent’s paintings, I was drawn to the paint patterns’ apparent disorder, that paradoxically composed such natural order in the finished works. Isn’t life like that?

I don’t know about you, but I struggle with the apparent disorder of my life – especially as a parent! – and of so many aspects of our world. How do we make sense of this? How do we come to terms with our lack of control over our disordered circumstances? Our flawed characters? Our loved ones? The random nature of death and suffering? And all the other things of this world that we care about?

Is it just me, with my OCD tendencies, that experiences this struggle?

Or do we all to some extent feel the need for neat answers – for order in our world? Current contemplative Richard Rohr, describing Franciscan spirituality in his book Eager to Love, expresses it like this:

“Paul says only ‘the folly of the cross’ can deal with what poet Wallace Stevens called “our blessed rage for order!’ The ‘mystery of the cross’ is Paul’s code-breaking and fundamental resolution for the confusing mystery of life! Without it, it seems most people become cynics, depressed, bitter, or negative by the middle of life, because there is no meaning in the death of all things and the imperfection of everything. For Paul, the deepest level of meaning is ironically the deep, grace-activated acceptance of a certain meaninglessness! We are able to leave room for God to fill in the gaps, and even trust that God will!”

Life is full of paradox and, for me, the cross of Jesus and his resurrection bring meaning to the perceived meaninglessness and disorder of this universe. This faith doesn’t answer all my questions. If it did, the God I believe in would be too small.

But through faith in Jesus, I trust that the almost randomised, multi-directional strokes of this world, that we see in the apparent chaos even at a subatomic level of the universe, make up a magnificent, somehow ordered, painting too big for the eyes of our hearts and minds to comprehend.

Order/disorder. Both/and. My contemplative faith is enabling me to live with the tension between the two.

Thank you once again, Vincent, for helping me accept the breadth and depth of God, and to the van Gogh Museum for its part in expressing the messages of his life and art.

And one day, maybe even the disordered driving of white van drivers will inspire in me a sense of awe at their Creator…


Previous posts I’ve published, relating to van Gogh, include: A Sense of Wonder, Sunflowers, and specifically Take Me To Church.


(Wondering what this blog is all about, and who A Child of Grace is?

Please read my About page. Thanks! Roger N)






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A Response to Ricky Gervais’ Easter Message

OB-NN040_gervai_EV_20110414130159Ricky Gervais’ (atheist) Easter message from 2011 was doing the rounds again recently and I just had to write my own response.

OK, so I’m 5 years late. Better late than never.

Of course, Ricky makes some valid points. He’s an intelligent man pointing out some real inconsistencies in the way Christianity is sometimes expressed, as well as some rather obvious and well-worn observations about religious hypocrisy.

What I love about his article, though, is his accidentally ironic assertion that he is “a good Christian compared to a lot of Christians.”

There’s something wonderfully oxymoronic about this statement, that he probably didn’t intend and which I’ll attempt to make clear.

He bases this belief on the fact that, by his own scoring system, he gets 10 out of 10 on the Ten Commandments. He seems to be under the impression that the Bible is some kind of rule book for Christians and that the Ten Commandments are the acid test of religious morality!

I’ll forgive his competitive approach towards Christians, as it’s clearly tongue-in-cheek.

What he seems to fail to realise, though, is that to be a good Christian is not so much about being good but about admitting we’re bad…

A “good Christian”, if there is such a thing, is perhaps someone who takes the teachings of Jesus seriously…

…teachings like the parable of the Pharisee (very moral person) and the tax-collector (bad person). The morally good person stands up in the temple (church) and thanks God for how good he is; the bad person can barely look up, but begs God for mercy because of his immorality. Jesus says the tax-collector, i.e. the bad (but humble) person, the one who knew he hadn’t got it all together, got it right… while the good (but proud) person got it wrong.

The bad person, in this case, turned out to be the “good Christian”.

…or like Jesus’ inaugural announcement in his universally revered Sermon on the Mount, the wisdom that inspired the likes of Gandhi: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”, not “Blessed are those who tick all the boxes on the Ten Commandments.”

In other words, happy are those who haven’t got it together, who acutely feel their moral and spiritual failure; people who know they need a saviour. If anything, those are the people who are “good Christians”.

If someone says they’re a good Christian, then they’re probably not! Herein lies the oxymoron in Ricky’s statement.

I had a eureka moment recently. I suddenly realised that the reason I feel so much empathy with the homeless and other vulnerable people I work with is not just because I was messed-up and lost and then my life turned around; it’s just as much because I’m so aware of the struggles and weaknesses I still face!

I often feel like that tax-collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

Coming back to the Ten Commandments…Ricky explains the meaning of them very well in his article; he just doesn’t really understand their place. Although he recognises that they were written for the ancient society of Israel over 1000 years before Christ, he also seems to see them as a set of rules for Christians.

That’s not to understate their significance for Christians (and anyone else) today, though. Jesus often elaborated on the Ten Commandments. He poignantly emphasised that it’s not just the letter of the law (do not murder, do not cheat on your partner, etc) that counts, but the spirit of the law (don’t even insult someone, don’t cheat on someone even in your mind, etc) – again, from the Sermon on the Mount.

I wonder how Ricky would score on that basis? Maybe not much better than me.

However, Jesus didn’t expand on the Ten Commandments to make us feel even more rubbish at being moral people. He came to show us a spiritual way of dealing with spiritual challenges such as following the spirit of the law.

He taught that following him was the way of being freed from our addictions to those actions that hurt ourselves and others, and from the guilt and shame of our moral failures, even from the guilt of our hypocrisy.

He taught that following him entails a life of receiving and giving love.

A “good Christian”, therefore, might be someone who has decided to follow Jesus and is hopefully progressing in this journey of freedom from guilt and shame, and towards a lifestyle of love towards God, others and ourselves.

Ricky concedes that “I am of course not a good Christian in the sense that I believe that Jesus was half man, half God, but I do believe I am a good Christian compared to a lot of Christians”.

Although this at first seems a fair comment, (apart from mistakenly thinking that being a good Christian is about being good) it unfortunately misses the point that being a Christian is less about what we believe about Jesus (although that’s important too, not that we believe he “was half man, half God”, by the way!) than about how we believe in him – i.e. entrusting our lives to him and his teachings. Again, it’s a spiritual path rather than a set of mental beliefs.

Having said all that, Ricky is right to point out the hypocrisy and prejudice displayed in the name of Christianity, because these are the kinds of things that steer people like him towards atheism. Surely we should expect better from people who claim to be followers of Jesus? Yes, we should.

But Jesus didn’t say that his followers would be known by how well they perform on the Ten Commandments, but by their love for one another.

Love should be the key feature of Christians.

And if Christians like me have failed at that, as no doubt we have, then the expectation of us that Ricky and other onlookers have every right to hold is a humble, repentant attitude – admission of our failures, like that tax-collector in the parable.

An expression of how poor we are in spirit.

Thankfully, I’m seeing more of these admissions of failure emerging publicly from the church, such as apologies for the way we’ve treated LGBT individuals historically.

What I do see as well is a positive move by the church over at least a decade, away from hypocrisy and negativity towards genuine, loving care for our communities, through the burgeoning growth of street pastors, food banks, homeless projects and much more.

That’s not to say that we can atone for our own sins through good works, but I think it does show a repentant attitude.

However, churches and Christians like me will always have our faults and may never live up to the expectations of others, or even our own.

We will therefore continue to hold on to Jesus, our Saviour, who is able to forgive us and lead us forward in our journey out of shame and into love.

And we will hopefully continue to plead not only with God, but also to observers like Ricky Gervais: “Be merciful to me, a sinner.”


(Wondering what this blog is all about, and who A Child of Grace is? Please read my About page.

Thanks! Roger N)


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Here comes the knight

So, Van the Man is now Van the Knight. Van Morrison was reported as being ‘exhilarated’ and ‘delighted’ at being made a ‘Sir’ at Buckingham Palace this week.


“For 53 years I’ve been in the business – that’s not bad for a blue-eyed soul singer from east Belfast,” said Van to Prince Charles.

I’m delighted for him, too. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a bit of a fan of the Man: his particular mix of poetry, music and spirituality.

So, as a tribute to Sir Van, here again are my top 5 posts from the last couple of years that made reference to his songs:

5. In Mindfulness: more than fringe benefits I reflected on the blessings of mindfulness, especially when practised in relationship with the eternal One. Of course, a reference to the song When will I ever learn to live in God? had to creep into this post.


4. Answering a tricky question looked at the difficulties I’d encountered in explaining to a friend what I believe about the death of Jesus. The song title And the healing has begun formed part of the answer in terms of what the cross means for me personally.
3. I wrote And it stoned me about the exhilaration I sometimes feel in the presence of nature, sensing the pleasure of the creative One who crafted the wonders of nature, much like the experience that led Van Morrison to write the song And it stoned me:
2. A sense of wonder is one of my favourite blog posts, again celebrating not only the wonder of nature, but the sense of divine in the faces of ragged people in our streets. The song A sense of wonder, one of my favourite Van tracks, has been known to reduce me to tears of wonder:
1. Last but not least is this post, ‘Here comes the Knight’. This play on the words of one of his most famous songs, Here comes the night, performed way back in 1965 with the band Them, was irresistible, as I rejoice with Van and all his fans in his new honour.


Rave on, Van Morrison, rave on.


(Wondering what this blog is all about, and who A Child of Grace is? Please read my About page.

Thanks! Roger N)


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Wars not make one great

Come back in time with me to a period a long time ago (well, 1980) in a galaxy far, far away, in Star Wars V (The Empire Strikes Back)…

yoda1_0The other day, like a zillion other people, my son was working his way through watching the original Star Wars trilogy in preparation for seeing The Force Awakens, when I walked into the room and witnessed the following dialogue:

I’m looking for a great warrior,” says Luke to Yoda.

Ohh, great warrior? Wars not make one great,” gently retorts the little green giant of wisdom, in inimitable Yoda style.


A few weeks ago the media and especially social media were awash with anti-war sentiments as Parliament debated, voted and agreed on the decision to unleash air strikes in Syria.

Protests followed, mostly peaceful ones, by those genuinely concerned about the impact strikes would have on innocent people, not to mention the disingenuousness of spending millions on war while austerity measures at home are depriving the most vulnerable and driving more and more people to food banks and homelessness.

One of the anti-war campaigners, Helen Pattinson, asked: “How come they can find money to drop bombs on other countries to create refugees… but they can’t find money for health, for education, and for young people to have a decent future?” This sentiment has been a common thread running through public opinion.

There was and is understandable anger at Government policy over these issues. It is absolutely right to be outraged at injustice, at an adamantine Government that seems hell-bent on hurting the vulnerable and making them pay (even with their lives, in some cases) for the greed of bankers and tax-evaders.

There were apparently some who expressed their anger through abusive phone calls and letters to Stella Creasy and other MPs. But these seemed to be the exception rather than the rule.

Mostly, peaceful expressions advocating peace inundated the streets, the internet and conversation.

What surprised me was my own internal response. As I concurred with popular anti-war statements and ‘liked’ memes opposing airstrikes, I became acutely aware that none of this will do much to change the warmongering minds of western Governments or eastern terrorists, and yet I can effect peace where I am.

I found myself more motivated than usual to proffer grace to people I sometimes find difficult; to overcome potential, minor, everyday conflicts with expressions of compassion; to promote peace through words of kindness in my own networks of friends, family and community, in my own limited way. I can start where I am. And I can hope and pray that others may do the same.

An old saying goes something like: I can’t change others; I can change myself; others might change in response to the change they see in me.

And who knows what difference our own interpersonal efforts at peace might make across the globe, in a butterfly-effect kind of way? Genuinely.

Over recent years I’ve been enthralled by Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. I’ve read their biographies, watched films about their lives, and been deeply inspired by their passionate embrace of nonviolent resistance. All of them were themselves inspired by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, whether or not they all embraced Christianity.

Gandhi famously (or infamously) declared: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Jesus (not Christianity) was their teacher and example.

In a similar vein, the first step in my walk towards Christ was a reading of the Sermon on the Mount[1]. There I was quietly minding my own business, taking a look at the Bible for the first time, just out of curiosity, when I was blown away by Jesus’ audacious ideas about forgiving people who hurt us, about loving enemies and praying blessings on them. Looking back, I know something began to shift spiritually deep inside this (then) atheist. I would never be the same.

But how hard it can be to live this out, right? Who can forgive those who commit atrocities against us, our neighbours, or even our loved ones? How can we love enemies?

Well, my answer is: Christ in me.

Christ in you, too?

All I know is that when Christ started to live by his Spirit in me, my whole attitude started to change on the inside.

That same passion that lived in King, Mandela and Gandhi, lives in me. That passion to overturn war with peace; to overcome hatred with love.

It’s one of the reasons I will never insult our politicians, however horrified I am by their policies, however strongly I might speak out about the impact their decisions make on our society.

Christ in me energises me, motivates me, continues to shape my heart. And I find that it’s through wars, rumours of wars, injustices, or more often just my own everyday relational challenges, that he spurs me on to strive in his strength for peace.

War and conflict only serve to make me more determined to pursue the way of peace.

Some of the more ‘religious’ Christmas cards remind us that one of the names given to Jesus by his followers over the years is ‘Prince of Peace’, and he calls his followers to be like him:

Blessed are the peacemakers (yes, that’s right, peacemakers, not cheese-makers, you Python fans) – for they shall be called children of God”, explains Jesus in his ‘Sermon on the Mount’. Wars do not make one great; rather, making and promoting peace reflects the great heart of God.

This Christmas, next year and every year, maybe together, in our own little ways, you and I can help restore peace and justice to the galaxy.


[1] Gospel of Matthew: chapters 5-7: worth a read!


(Wondering what this blog is all about, and who A Child of Grace is?

Please read my About page. Thanks! Roger N)

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And it stoned me

You know those smugly healthy, outdoor types? Well, he was one of those – a seasoned hiker with all the outdoor gear, that I’d got chatting with.

I was staying for a night in a travellers’ hostel in Flagstaff, Arizona, before hitch-hiking over to the Grand Canyon – one of the last things I did before leaving the USA in 1987 (see My Life’s Soundtrack for the whole story).

“Fresh air’s the only high I need,” retorted the hiker in the hostel, smugly, after I revealed that I liked getting stoned in picturesque, away-from-it-all places.

I’d become a Christian (just), but it would be another two years of on-off cannabis use and at least one seriously bad mushroom trip before I finally discovered that I no longer needed any illegal substances. That there was a higher high. A purer high.

Grand Canyon 1

I sent this postcard to my Dad on Halloween 1987, after a night in the Canyon – probably my first ever written acknowledgement of God

I sent this postcard to my Dad on Halloween 1987, after a night in the Canyon – probably my first ever written acknowledgement of God

An experience of the Holy Spirit in 1989 replaced my need for THC with a fulfilment and joy in the love and forgiveness of my Father. For a time I was elated. The elation didn’t last forever, but the contentment and completeness in God did.

Now, stresses and disappointments creep in, and I struggle with the same day-to-day trials as everyone else. Prayer, reflection and expressions of creativity are some of the things that help to bring me back in touch with the Father’s love – which doesn’t change, but sometimes slips into the periphery of my vision.

‘Expressions of creativity’ include the art and poetry and music of others, the appreciation of which seems to link me back into the aesthetic heart of the Creator God, who makes all things beautiful in their time. They renew in me a sense of timeless wonder at the world, myself and God. And I’m centred back into Love’s envelopment.

Likewise, my own attempts at creativity, whether photography or writing, help to unlock those hidden expressions of my unique identity – who I essentially am – embraced within the tender acceptance of the one who is – Yahweh (‘I Am’) – and who made me in his image. They bring me back to me, to the joy of being my Father’s beloved child.

God speaks to us in many different kinds of ways,” writes Shaun Lambert, the “Benedictine Baptist”, in A Book of Sparks: A Study in Christian MindFullness (in a chapter titled A real relationship with our creativity). “He is the creative Creator and utilises our creativity in His dialogue with us.”

That’s certainly been my experience.

And nature, nature….that supreme expression of creativity…

This time of year….the aesthetic hand of the ageless Ancient of Days, still sloshing annual explosions of colour across our streets and woodlands; wondrous shades of autumn warming the cooler days, virtually ignited by the deep, low sun of our evenings and mornings.

Autumn leaves, 2015, Yorkshire, where I visited recently

Autumn leaves, 2015, Yorkshire, where I visited recently


No Spring, nor Summer Beauty hath such grace,

As I have seen in one Autumnall face

(John Donne)

And I…sometimes, when I stop…and stop….and stop, and absorb the golden sights and sounds (and silence) and smells of autumn…

…or of some other amazing time and place of nature, bathing in the Creator’s brushstrokes, my soul gets re-awakened to his presence, and a smirk sometimes spreads across my face… a smile even, and occasionally a laugh springs up from those wells of the Spirit deep within, and I feel a little high in the Love that created these wonders around me, and my spirit is refreshed once again.

And now perhaps I understand a bit of what Van Morrison meant when he wrote:

And it stoned me

And it stoned me to my soul

Oh, the water

Let it run all over me

Please have a listen…

I know, I’m always banging on about Van Morrison – in fact, this is my second blog post using one of his song titles. I’m sure you don’t mind.

The song And it stoned me describes a time in Van’s childhood when an everyday experience of drinking fresh water from a mountain stream near Ballystockart in Ireland took on an extraordinary, even mystical, quality, a bit like….being stoned.

How wonderful to experience that as a 12-year-old child! No wonder Van Morrison expresses in his songs a nostalgic yearning for the enchanting simplicity of the rural Irish life he remembers so fondly.

For many of us adults, that kind of experience develops when we willingly allow ourselves to be embraced by the Father’s love. Not striving to be religious or even spiritual, but being still, trusting, resting in Yahweh (I Am), who is Love.

Perhaps in childhood innocence, we experienced that without even realising it. Jesus certainly suggested (in fact, definitively asserted!) that we must become like little children to perceive the spiritual dimension of God.

Jesus also claimed to be the only way to this kind of relationship with God. Not religion or Christianity, but him – Jesus. That leaves all kinds of questions and quandaries because it means it’s no longer about following the right religion but about following all that Jesus embodies.

I digress a little, because I know (or hope) that not everyone reading this would call themselves a Christian, and yet may have enjoyed similar revelations of God through their encounters with nature or stillness – of course, it’s not up to me to either dismiss or explain these; I would simply affirm that God (Yahweh) is bigger than any religion or faith, infusing nature and our own souls with his life and breath.

For me, though, my faith in Jesus opened the way to elating encounters with nature. And then again, it was partly encounters with awe-inspiring nature that opened my heart to God in the first place.

In my present journey through faith and life, I’m beginning to find that a more contemplative, reflective approach opens my spirit to be more receptive to His Spirit in the context of creativity and creation.

So it’s now been 26 years since I last tried cannabis or any other illicit substance, and I’m enjoying getting a little high on the incredible gifts of nature and the outdoors that we’ve been given – or, rather, on the Holy Spirit, via nature.

Hope that may be true for you, too, and that I haven’t become one of those smugly healthy, outdoors types…


(Wondering what this blog is all about, and who A Child of Grace is? Please read my About page.

Thanks! Roger N)


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Life, The Universe and Roses

“The Universe provided for me” said a friend to me the other day. “Hmm”, I thought, “how do I respond to this?” Because of course, being a budding writer and left-brain dominant (not that there is such a thing, really), I think in coherent phrases rather than just abstract concepts, but that’s not important….

What may or may not be important is that ‘The Universe’ has become a popular substitute for ‘God’ amongst those who have a spiritual sense of a greater power but have been turned off by religion’s portrayal of ‘God’. From the glimpses I’ve had of my kids’ TV viewing, the term is used a lot in US sitcoms, to the point where it may become as irritating as that most hated of expressions, ‘lol’ – and may one day be used with the same level of irony!

Does it matter what we call this higher power? When my friend refers to ‘The Universe’, does she mean the same thing as me when I talk about ‘God’?

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, as is oft quoted from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, to illustrate that a name doesn’t change the nature of a thing.

But is the nature of ‘The Universe’ the same thing as the nature of the ‘God’ that I believe in?

The answer is, of course, yes…and no.

But while I leave that vague, ambiguous response hanging in the air for you to ponder, here’s a thing….

How ‘God’ is viewed varies even amongst my fellow Christians (let alone wider monotheists such as Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses etc). My understanding of him will inevitably vary from that of another Christian, because of differences in personality, life experiences and spiritual encounters.

No wonder many Christians find it important to keep coming back to, and meditate on, the key ways and names by which we believe God has revealed himself. After all, ‘God’ is not really a name but a generic word for a higher power, and for some people it might conjure up images of a distant, dictatorial deity or something worse.

You may know I hate the triteness of 3-point sermons, so sue me or forgive me as I offer 3 popular revelations of God, because I think they just stand out above all others….

Here’s the first. I’ve blogged before (in Mindfulness: More Than Fringe Benefits) about the sheer wonder of the name YHWH (or ‘Yahweh’, meaning ‘I Am’) – the mind-blowing name by which God identifies himself to Moses in that uber-iconic moment at the burning bush. From the start of Judeo-Christian history, I believe God reveals himself to be outside of time, not dependent on anything or anyone, the source of all things, unchanging, transcendent, mysterious, beyond human labels and religions.

‘I Am’, he whispers to the world.

And I guess that many have a similar view of ‘The Universe’.

I find it curious, disheartening even, that most English Bibles translate YHWH as ‘The LORD’ (in capitals like that), rather than as the profound ‘Yahweh’ or ‘I Am’. Perhaps Bible translators are trying to emphasise his authority, despite the fact that YHWH implies source and giver of life, rather than boss.

As life-giver rather than despot, the Jewish prophets unswervingly unveil YHWH as the true God who is ever keen to distinguish himself from the surrounding pagan gods known as ‘Baals’, meaning ‘masters’, instead expressing his passion to be something far better than boss – not to lord it over us, but to be husband, father, mother, friend, provider, source of life, longing to sweep us into his arms, into a relationship too unique and sublime to be adequately defined by human analogy.…’more intimate than lovers’, as the song What A Friend I’ve Found by Delirious? poignantly puts it.

Fast forwarding to one of the last letters of the New Testament, we come across Jesus’ closest friend, John, mentioning, almost in passing:

God is love…

Three simple words.

One of the Bible’s most amazing sweeping statements. It was almost a throwaway comment. As if we were meant to know. As if it’s been obvious all the time.

According to Jesus’ best friend, the source of all things, Yahweh, is Love.

Love brought this universe and you and me into being.

There was a brief time in my life when I believed the universe was a dream of itself. It was an idea I’d picked up somewhere. Now I believe that God (Yahweh) fills every subatomic particle of – but cannot be confined to – the universe.

But what might really distinguish me from those who see The Universe as their deity is the third and final astounding assertion about God that I believe: the claim that ultimately we understand the nature of God by looking at the person of Jesus.

The Jesus who sat with sex workers, stood with the street people, moved with the marginalised, and who hated hypocrisy or religious play-acting. The Jesus who was willing to give up everything in love for those in spiritual poverty like you and me.

Jesus – the name which means ‘rescuer’, because he rescues us (who are both victims and perpetrators) from both our sins and our hurts.

‘I Am’, ‘Love’, ‘Jesus’: three names that, for me at least, go a long way to understanding the nature of the God who is beyond human definition.

Despite these confident claims held in common by all Christians, we still have somewhat different perceptions of God at times, so it’s little wonder that there are also times when I find my understanding of the love and compassion and inclusiveness of God bears more similarity to the beliefs of those who speak not of God but of ‘The Universe’ or some other spirituality.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

But there’s another famous saying about roses: “A rose is a rose is a rose”.

It’s based on the line: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”

– from Gertrude Stein’s poem Sacred Emily, written in 1913.

Despite this often being taken to mean the same thing as the Bard’s “A rose by any other name…”, when asked what she meant by the line, Stein said that in the time of Homer, or of Chaucer, “the poet could use the name of the thing and the thing was really there.” As memory took it over, the thing lost its identity, and she was trying to recover that – “I think in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years.”

So there’s a poetic, philosophical and even prophetic significance to names. I guess that’s why we Christians love to speak the name of Jesus when we talk about God. “There is power in the name of Jesus”, as the song goes.

And, by Stein’s reasoning, I think we Christians seriously need to re-discover the breath-taking significance of the name YHWH.

But to return to the question, does that mean that when my friend refers to ‘The Universe’, she means something different from me when I speak about ‘God’? Only further conversation with her, which I haven’t yet had the opportunity to have, might elucidate that answer. Even then, I suspect (in fact, I know) that God, the Universe or YHWH, is far too big and transcendent to be defined by her or me.

I’m hoping that I’ve left you with more questions than answers. Because questions have a way of leading us into an awareness and awe of the mystery and love that is truth, which I understand as God.

What I’m sure of is that my friend and I will both continue to stop and smell the roses that have been given life by YHWH (or The Universe), and will agree on their sweetness.

My daughter, stopping to smell the roses (well, poppies), unfettered by theological debate

My daughter, stopping to smell the roses (well, poppies), unfettered by theological debate


(Wondering what this blog is all about, and who A Child of Grace is? Please read my About page. Thanks! Roger)


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Poverty is big TV these days. Benefits by the Sea, On Benefits & Proud, for example. And it’s not just these so-called ‘poverty porn’ documentaries. It’s also the constant stream of news and other media debating the exponential rise of food banks and the effects of Government policy, driving too many people to the breadline and beyond.

MythCo-written by Martin Charlesworth and our very own Hastings local Natalie Williams (both working for an organisation called Jubilee+), The Myth of the Undeserving Poor is a short, insightful book that highlights the media’s pervasive use of lazy, toxic stereotyping of poverty and its influence on the British public’s attitudes to poverty.

The Myth of the Undeserving Poor, in my view, deserves to become a modern classic.

Despite having worked with homeless people for the last 11 years and thinking I’m pretty understanding and empathic when it comes to poverty, there were some real lightbulb moments as I read this book.

So, I decided to write this little blog piece as a book review and recommendation, for all my friends, colleagues, and anyone else willing to receive a wise education – with no guilt trips attached – in attitudes towards British (or even western) poverty.

In The Myth of the Undeserving Poor, Natalie Williams reports on a survey she conducted in 2014, in which she analysed nearly 400 media items (including reports, features, comment pieces, letters and cartoons) related to poverty in Britain, appearing in 10 major (and varied) news sources over a 4-week period.

Her analysis of the findings revealed two particular concerns: a generally negative media bias against those in poverty – unsurprisingly more extreme in certain news sources (such as the Daily Mail and The Sun) than others; and a widespread lack of views and comments directly from those in poverty themselves; both concerns creating an ‘us and them’ mentality amongst the public, or as one journalist described it, a “gradual erosion of empathy” where poor people are regarded as “an entirely different species” and “instead of being disgusted by poverty , we are disgusted by poor people themselves”.*

The authors also report on another survey they undertook in 2014 involving 419 people, comparing attitudes of Christians with those of the general public towards poverty. Although there was evidence of greater sympathy and awareness amongst Christians surveyed, the authors were more interested to discover the principal influences on Christians’ attitudes towards poverty.

Political preferences were, perhaps unsurprisingly, found to be intrinsically linked to attitudes. Broadly speaking, those who identify with the Conservatives were found to demonstrate less sympathy than those with other or no political affiliation.

Also not too surprisingly – but pertinently – was the correlation found between attitudes and proximity to poverty. In other words, those who worked with or lived amongst people in poverty demonstrated greater empathy, while those who were physically detached showed less understanding.

Of greater concern, perhaps, was the link found between attitudes towards poverty and choice of newspaper read by Christian respondents.

For example, fewer regular readers of the Daily Mail (36%) and The Telegraph (39%) agreed that large income gaps between the rich and poor are ‘morally wrong’, than those who regularly read the Daily Mirror (73%) or The Guardian (65%).

Similarly, 36% of Daily Mail readers believe the level of help available from the State is not enough, causing hardship, compared with 80% of Daily Mirror readers.

Charlesworth and Williams point out that, for Christians, there are (inevitably) factors other than our faith that will influence our attitudes and beliefs about poverty, and effectively apply some guiding principles from the teachings and examples of Jesus and other Biblical sources to current media coverage of British poverty.

Very helpfully, the authors describe and define 4 distinct elements to poverty:

  • Economic
  • Aspirational
  • Relational
  • Spiritual

An example from one of the TV programmes (Breadline Kids, 2014) which would instinctively elicit empathy and compassion from most viewers is juxtaposed with the example of someone who says they’d rather live on benefits because they’re better off that way and that they can get a bigger house by having more kids.

The authors make the case that our lack of compassion for the latter example misses the point that this person is also in a type of poverty – aspirational and spiritual – and that generally adults in this kind of poverty have been raised in poverty and may be unable to see any other way. Not that this means that handouts are necessarily the answer, but it does mean that as a society we need to recognise and understand patterns of poverty and be willing to extend the appropriate kind of help, rather than label some as ‘deserving’ and others as ‘undeserving’ of help.

On the subject of aspirational and spiritual poverty, let me illustrate this with a snapshot from my own life…

In my forthcoming book (I say forthcoming – I mean in about 20 years, when I have time to write it), I’ll be describing spiritual and relational homelessness. I didn’t grow up in any kind of material poverty – far from it – but I did grow up in a very unhappy house that never felt like home and so for this and other reasons I chose homelessness as a way of life.

Although I wasn’t forced on to the streets as many of my homeless clients have been, my physical homelessness was a direct consequence of a relational poverty (dysfunctional family) and spiritual homelessness (my total insecurity and atheism).

I experienced aspirational poverty, in that the ‘rat race’ or pursuing a career was, to me, completely futile, so I flunked exams. My only aim was to live as an itinerant, pursuing self-seeking experiences.

When I found a spiritual home (through coming to faith in Jesus), all of that was changed in an instant. My hedonistic pursuit of sex, drugs and travel, and the sense of futility I felt in ‘normal’ life, was replaced by an inner drive to use what I had usefully to help others in some way, which led me into a career in nursing and eventually to working as a nurse with homeless people, as I do now.

Once my spiritual poverty was resolved, my aspirational poverty was also overturned. This in turn brought an end to my (previously chosen) economic poverty. So, in my case at least, spiritual and relational poverty was the root of other kinds of poverty.

More on that in my ‘imminent’ book….! But back to a book that has been written

One final comment, and this is an observation, not a criticism. The Myth of the Undeserving Poor is written by Christians, from a Biblical viewpoint, to challenge and inform the attitudes of other Christians.

I’ve already recommended this book to colleagues who have a different worldview, yet I don’t know how accessible The Myth of the Undeserving Poor with its distinctly ‘religious’ angle, laced with Bible references, would be for them.

I would love to see a later edition of the book aimed at a wider readership, more designed to challenge prejudices and myths in the wider British public rather than specifically UK Christians, while still maintaining its Christian basis.

That said, there would still be much for people without a Christian persuasion to relate to in this first edition, and I hope they’ll give this a shot. Furthermore, this informative book could serve to break down some prejudices and misunderstandings about Christianity as well as poverty.

The research findings and myth-busting covered by The Myth of the Undeserving Poor are relevant and important reading for people of any or no faith living in 21st Century Britain.

The Myth of the Undeserving Poor is available from Amazon UK for £7.00


(Wondering what this blog is all about, and who A Child of Grace is? Please read my About page. Thanks!)


* Moore, S. (2012) ‘Instead of being disgusted by poverty, we are disgusted by poor people themselves’, The Guardian.

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Holy sex, Batman!

salt n pepa

Let’s talk about sex, baby….. (remember that song?)

I’m one of thousands of people who have contributed over the last few years to the online dialogue on faith, same-sex marriage and sexuality, but most of us, me included, have actually said very little about sex. But I’m going to be brave and take the plunge….

By the way, if you haven’t already read enough on Christianity’s efforts to grapple with sexuality, you might like to take a look at one or two of my thoughts: Redefining Marriage, Vicky Beeching, Romans 1 and 21st Century Life, and Homophobia, Jesus and Me.

More generally, I’m passionate about the inclusive heart of God and diversity in church, which you can read about in: The 11th Commandment, Inclusion Zone and, most recently, Take Me To Church.

I’ve read mountains of articles and comments on same-sex marriage from all sides of the debate; been appalled by some arguments, enthralled by others; and been concerned by how this all looks to people outside the church. I.e. does what we say build bridges between people, and between God and people, or do we construct unnecessary barriers – which is less about our viewpoint, and more about how we express it: whether with humility, respect and empathy – or with rigid, fist-thumping dogmatism.

This has all led me to one vital question:

Why do Christians care so much about issues of sexuality and marriage? What makes us so vociferous, whether for or against same-sex marriage, whether we support or oppose LGBTQ equality? One vital reason – not the only reason but one often lost in the fracas – is this:

Sex is seen by Christianity and the Bible as inherently good – but even more than that, the physical and emotional union of sex is seen as a reflection or metaphor for the relationship between God and his people1. Sex is…. holy!

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Christianity views sex as inherently bad. Clearly, the church has often given that impression, sometimes creating unhealthy shame for those who fall outside of our ideals.

nosex This is simply because in our view, sex is such a precious, holy thing, that we feel it should be protected  – preserved for relationships of love, fidelity and emotional intimacy, reflecting the heart of our loving, faithful God.

And let’s be honest, for most people, sex is more complete and pleasurable when it’s more than just a physical act – when there’s emotional bonding and the two people concerned know and love and respect each other intimately as whole human beings rather than just bodies.

Sexual desire is a powerful impulse, driven by an evolutionary urge (and, according to Genesis, a God-given mandate) to multiply our species, with the potential for huge pleasure in the act itself as well as the natural joy of having children. The church, in its passion to direct people morally and, unfortunately, at times in history, to control the masses, has been afraid of this power. Perhaps understandably. After all, sex is a formidable force.

Some years ago I heard the renowned Christian missionary Jackie Pullinger speaking about how the intimacy and ecstasy of sexual union echo the intimacy and ecstasy of our relationship with God – aspects that we can enjoy partially now (our encounters with the Holy Spirit can be literally ecstatic) – and will experience fully in the future.

The following quote is from a group with differing conclusions from mine on same-sex marriage, but which shares my understanding of the significance – transcendence, even of sex: “Sex, unlike anything else we might do with another person, transcends the self while radically reorienting it within a new, shared context with our sexual partner”. (From Liberalism can’t understand sex)

Sex is holy!

So when you hear Christians object to same-sex marriage (even though I personally don’t), please bear in mind this noble backdrop to our views.

Please remember also that marriage, in the Christian worldview, reflects God’s heart – our belief in his complete dedication, devotion and affection for his people, expressed supremely and sacrificially when Jesus gave up his life on the cross2, so all of us have a hope in heaven!

So, sex and marriage for Christians reflect the amazing potential blessings of a relationship with God. I hope this goes some way towards promoting understanding of Christians’ views on sexuality. So far, so good…

Just before leaving it there, though, there’s one further element central to Christian understanding of sex that’s worth considering. Jesus spoke of a future world where we will be like angels and there will be no marriage, no sexual relationships3.

But before you start complaining at how dull that sounds (as in Ian Gillan’s 1981 hit No Laughing in Heaven – remember that?), actually what Jesus means is that heaven is better than sex! If sex is an intimate, ecstatic, pleasurable union between two people, Jesus promises something even better between all people and him, where he is the life and unity and intimacy and ecstasy between all of us and him.

Sex and marriage, like many things in this world, are for Christians a pale reflection of something better to come. Sexuality, whether straight, gay, bisexual or other, is not the final word. Sexuality is temporal. What we will be in heaven is something more complete. ALL our human relationships and marriages now are incomplete and to some extent broken because of our brokenness.

For that reason alone, I believe we should let people be who they are in this world. Our sexuality does not reflect the bigger picture, whereas relationships of sacrificial love, affection and fidelity do. Sex is temporary and incomplete, but in a context of sacrificial love it hints at a greater power, a greater love.

Sexuality is temporary and incomplete. Love is eternal.


  1. Song of Solomon; Ephesians 5:31-32
  2. Ephesians 5:25
  3. Matt 22:30; 1 Corinthians 15
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