Redemption song

Redemption Song

Jesus, we enjoy the fruits of your labour

We stand in the embrace of the Father

prodigal-son-

We kneel before a loving King

Who enters and embraces our suffering;

We hand over to you today, tomorrow,

Our fears, our sins, our pride and sorrow

Swallowed up, gone forever, in the Saviour’s light.

We stand free, we stand FREE!

More free than we’ll ever know

As we pray for us, for them, for all

to absorb

To truly comprehend…

To grasp the extent

of this liberation…

More than we’ll ever understand

More than Marley ever sang,

This emancipation

This warm embrace

This welcome home.

(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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Paperback Writer

The story goes (well, one of many) that Paperback Writer was written after Paul McCartney boasted that he could write a song about anything, and as an example, picked up the nearest object, which happened to be a paperback book. There are other, more reliable, stories about the song, but I like that one best!

Concerning a semi-fictitious author struggling to get his book published, Paperback Writer is one of my favourite Beatles songs. Here’s the first verse:

Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book? It took me years to write, will you take a look? It’s based on a novel by a man named Lear, And I need a job, So I want to be a paperback writer, Paperback writer.

Back in my mid-teens I started writing a comedy-fantasy-hippy-random-who-knows-what book of fairly disconnected plots or non-plots, indulging my wild and wanton fantasies. I wrote about 6 pages or so. I showed it to a friend at school, who liked it and asked me if I’d ever read The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as she thought my few pages bore some vague similarities to it. When I said ‘no’, she advised me to avoid reading the Douglas Adams classic, so I wouldn’t get influenced by it and lose the individuality of my book.

But my book was never going to go anywhere. I was far too immature, my life far too messed-up, to see through such a long commitment or to put together anything cohesive.

Even more importantly, it was before the days of laptops. Computers have helped unleash my passion for writing in a way that manuscripts and typewriters could never have achieved. Thank God for computers.

This wasn’t the time for my book to be written.

untitled

 

The next time I thought about writing a book was in my early 20s, after my exploits in America and the surprising explosion of faith towards Christ that had happened in my life. The book would be a melange of anecdotes, adventures, the story of my conversion and hitch-hiking tips (after all, I had a fair bit of experience, having hitched an estimated 25,000 miles by car, truck, train and even boat)! It was to be called The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to Heaven (I think there may be a theme here). However, I had no real focus for the book, I was still not ready for that sort of long-haul project, and laptops still hadn’t been invented.

(I think I’d heard of word processors by then but I didn’t know what they were and wouldn’t have known what one was if it had hit me in the face.)

I did use the title The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to Heaven, for a short personal testimony tract, which I used to give out prolifically in my former evangelical zeal. Not my style now, but they had their place.

This wasn’t the time for my book to be written, either.

Only a few months prior to that, though, in 1987, I had a dream. Not a vision for racial unity and world harmony, I’m afraid – something far more mundane and me-centred. It was during my travels in the USA, not long before falling into faith. I didn’t often sleep out without a tent at that time, but I’d ended up in this serene orchard on a sultry night in the middle of nowhere. I slept a la belle etoile in perfect peace, protected by fruit trees, buffered by mountainous backdrop.

I can’t even remember which State I was in – not even a clue. But I vividly remember waking up in the orchard with Paperback Writer randomly playing in crystal clear stereo in my head, with a feeling that it was in some way relevant. That somewhere in my subconscious, in my soul, I knew I was destined to write a book.

Now, nearly 30 years later, I have a clear idea of the book I need to write. In fact, not only have I started, I’m a few chapters in. It’s a mainly autobiographical collection of reflections on physical and spiritual homelessness and homecomings. The working title is Everyone Needs a Homecoming. It includes many of the themes referred to above – but not the wild and wanton fantasies, which have been left behind in the wreckage of my old life. Sorry to disappoint anyone who was hoping to hear those.

My literary inspirations include Brennan Manning (Ragamuffin Gospel), Donald Miller (Blue Like Jazz – thank you, Nancy A, for introducing me to this book), and Henri Nouwen (The Return of the Prodigal Son).

Now I’m ready for the long haul. I’ve been semi-joking that it will take me 20 years. It might do. Half-hour here, half-hour there, squeezed in between work, family, running and all the other stuff of life.

But I’m hoping…

hoping

hoping

that it’ll be like when a computer programme’s downloading and it says ‘6 hours remaining’, and then 5 minutes later it says ‘3 hours remaining’. Maybe it’ll be like that. An exponential diminishment of time remaining to finish my book. Maybe this time next year, instead of saying ’19 years to go’, I’ll be saying ‘only 5 years to go.’

Now we have computers and laptops, without which I could never organise my thoughts and ideas. And I love my new little Lenovo hybrid laptop/tablet, for which I’m very grateful (feel free to pay me for this ad, Lenovo, or to sponsor my book).

This is the time for my book to be written.

It may be a paperback. Or it may have such narrow appeal that it will simply be available for free, online. Either way, I’m loving writing it, even if I’m not going to be the next Manning, Miller or Nouwen, and pray that the book will in fact be some kind of small blessing or inspiration to at least a few others.

I have a great sense of excitement at fulfilling this part of the destiny God’s given me.

Whether published online or as a physical book, whether it’s read by 3 friends or 3 million strangers (it won’t be), the sentiment / the dream / the song remains the same:

So I want to be a paperback writer, Paperback writer.

And the moral of the story, the point of this post, is:

Hold on to your dreams and visions.

And discern the right time for them to be brought into fulfilment, as they surely will, even if it takes thirty years (or, like Moses, as many as forty).

(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.

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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.

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

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(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…

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(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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The Fallout of Fallen Leaders

This is not the kind of subject I normally tackle, but this particular story has moved me more than most of the high-profile cases of sexual offenders that have hit the headlines in recent years, because of my (indirect) personal knowledge of the perpetrator:

“Retired bishop Peter Ball – who has been jailed for 32 months after admitting abusing 18 young men across 20 years – was a sadistic sexual predator who groomed, controlled and abused his victims, one of whom ended up taking his own life.” (BBC News)

I never met Peter Ball but, as a young, new Christian in the late 1980s, I was a little awed by the descriptions I heard of the then Bishop of Lewes. In 1987, after returning to England having found Christian faith while living on the road, I started attending a church in Lewes, where people spoke admiringly of the way Ball would take young men under his wing, to learn and benefit from the monastic community way of life. It was even suggested that it might be something I’d consider.

Also around this time, I heard Adrian Plass speak, I read some of his books, and to this day I remain a fan of his writing and humour. Adrian, who had had been somewhat disillusioned with superficial aspects of Christianity, spent some time working with Peter Ball on the late-night religious programme Company and found Ball to be a breath of fresh air with his joyful, profound and yet down-to-earth spirituality.

“Whatever [Peter] touches seems to sparkle. He even makes me fizz a bit,” wrote Plass (who is not someone to be easily impressed or taken in by Christian showmanship or fakery) in 1986, in the autobiographical The Growing Up Pains of Adrian Plass.

For me, living and church-ing in Lewes in the late ‘80s, the name Peter Ball was held with deep affection and respect among the Anglican church community.

Although I never met the man, I felt like I almost knew him and felt sure I would have liked him and enjoyed learning from him.

So the news emerging this year about the long catalogue of sexual abuse by Ball towards 18 young men over 20 years (including this period in the ‘80s) comes as a massive shock. In fact, I was somewhat in disbelief until Ball admitted the charges.

When asked whether he’d come to terms with his vow of celibacy, Plass recounts in The Growing Up Pains (1986) that Ball looked at him for a moment, his eyes twinkling, and replied, “Adrian, as I’ve already told you, God loves me extravagantly. I’m not just a celibate. I’m an extravagant celibate!”

Questions arise within my mind, like:

Could this apparently deeply spiritual man with such a love for God really have been simply “using religion as a cloak behind which to carry out his grooming activity in order to satisfy his sexual interest and desire for young men,” as claimed by Det Ch Insp Carwyn Hughes, from Sussex Police?

Or was he a genuinely spiritual man blighted by a dark, hidden addiction that plagued his conscience?

Some would say it matters little either way; that his behaviour, abusing the trust of these young men, preying on the vulnerable, is without excuse. And that the former inaction by the Church of England, as with other institutions over previous decades, is intolerable. I can’t argue with either of those sentiments.

What I’m left with, though, is a sense of incredulity; a need to understand.

And I’m left with questions and thoughts about how revelations like these impact on young people and others pursuing faith and spirituality today and in the future. Will they, and should they, treat all church leaders with suspicion and cynicism?

“Don’t follow leaders,” sang Bob Dylan in Subterranean Homesick Blues. Is he right, perhaps?

My own conversion to Christ took place in isolation from church or institution. There were Christian people along the way, like the painter / decorator Ray Galloway in Portland, Oregon, who influenced me and played a part in my move from atheism to faith in God. But it was primarily a revolution that took place between me and God. My experiences out on the road and my inner thought processes left me convinced that there was a God who created the Universe and cared for me. I never attended church during that period, until after my conversion.

In fact, all the significant transformational moments in my life have taken place in solitude, rather than in church or through the means of leaders. I guess that’s the way my personality works. It doesn’t mean I’m any better or worse than someone else who tends to grow in their spiritual life through the influence of others, but it does have its advantages.

It means that my faith in Jesus doesn’t tend to be dampened by the inevitable disillusionment that comes to probably every Christian when it comes to churches, religious systems and leaders.

After all, there will always be fallen idols, disgraced leaders and disagreements.

My hope and prayer for others budding in faith in Christ is that, however we’re made – whether introverts like me who have our big moments alone, or others who gain strength and growth through interactions with others – we would hold our estimation for leaders lightly, and keep the eyes of our hearts fixed on Jesus, who alone is found to be fully trustworthy. In fact, the Bible itself often counsels not to trust ultimately in people but in God alone.

Ironically, Plass describes Ball himself as the initiator of his understanding that “Christianity is not about systems and God but about individual people, and the relationship they build through raw, prolonged contact with a creator who is genuinely and warmly interested in them. Peter is a man who has real discipline, a real prayer life and a real joy. He is one of the small group of people I know who has gained his experience of God from God” (italics mine).

Whatever the truth about Ball, it seems that the impression gained, the lesson learned, by Adrian Plass is perfectly pertinent to these tragic revelations:

That there is absolutely no substitute for our own individual journey with God, for spending time alone with him, and growing directly in our own consciousness of his compassion and wisdom.

Leaders, systems and even theologies rise and fall, and we need that deep, personal, inner walk with Jesus that ultimately nothing can take away.

And as my heart goes out to those who tragically suffered the abuse of this bishop, I’m somewhat relieved that I never took up that suggestion of living with and learning from Peter Ball.

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

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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

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(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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Twist of Fate

By a twist of fate,

Mangled, yet rugged beauty

IMG_3237

Fallen, broken, dying yet living, robustly

Giving life, even in death

IMG_3419

Like resilient people we know

Like the resurrected one who so

loved the fallen, broken, dying ones

like you and me.

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Gnarly and gnawed, IMG_3248

yet not to be ignored

Streaked and lined by sun and storm,

Bombarded and buffeted ’til finally moulded

into bold

buffalo horns.

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The ancient trunk’s life truncated

Its wisdom curtailed

Now lying in state

Twisted but not bitter…in fact

welcoming, inviting

passers-by to stop and

rest on its tender, tortured frame,

Its grandeur undefeated.

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A tortuous arm curled skyward

Alluding to greater things

To untold and half-told mysteries,

To the enigmatic shaper

of its fate,

To questions answered only

by first-hand experience

of living and dying…

and living again.

—–

“He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed…..Yet when his life is made an offering for sin, he will have many descendants. He will enjoy a long life, and Yahweh’s good plan will prosper in his hands.” (Isaiah 53: 5, 10)

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

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MAKING (MYTHS ABOUT) POVERTY HISTORY

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

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

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

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Misnomers (Part 2)

Two years ago I wrote Misnomers about the term self-help, arguably a fallacy. Now for a short reflection on one of the very worst of misnomers, which is thankfully being more accurately re-defined by people of faith….

The ancient story behind this word has no doubt been made into a Hollywood movie. It’s a classic, graphic tale of sex, violence, subversion, heroism and the supernatural – and of course the perennial battle between good and evil.

The two main characters each give vivid demonstrations of the kind of hospitality to strangers considered a mark of common decency in their culture (then and now), and in the process discover they’ve taken in supernatural beings who have the power to destroy a city.

The majority of the city’s population, however, had become self-seeking, self-interested, self-satisfied. In their arrogance and wealth, they’d become inward-looking, had forgotten how to extend kindness to strangers or look after the poor, and were interested only in satisfying their own cravings for wealth and sex, even going so far as trying to abuse rather than welcome visitors to their city.

In contrast, because of their noble character and faith, the two heroes of the story (Abraham and Lot) are spared from the city’s destruction brought on by God as judgment against its greed and selfishness, while the rest of the city’s population get wiped out (1).

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Many centuries after this episode was written, as Jesus sends out his first disciples to various towns and cities as messengers of good news, he gives a stern warning to those with closed hearts and closed homes who might reject these strangers, declaring that justice for those people will be even more severe than it was for that other city of old (2).

The ancient city, if you haven’t already guessed, was Sodom, from which the English language has acquired the terrible misnomer sodomy.

Quite rightly, some progressive Christians have given the word sodomy a new definition – to mean a lack of hospitality or disregard for the poor (3), in line with the word’s origins.

Time and again, Jesus and the New Testament writers commend those who have open hearts, open minds and open homes.

Although it may not always be safe or appropriate to invite strangers into our homes. we can at least

…be generous-hearted, kind towards strangers, whether homeless,1353326442 poor, addicted, middle-class or rich, with our hearts, words and time as well as with our stuff…

…be willing to listen to people who think and behave differently from us and learn from them – people who have had vastly different life experiences from our own…..

…to engage in dialogue with people with different theological, spiritual or moral viewpoints from ours and learn from them…..

…to make time for visitors and new arrivals in our hearts and towns…..

…to make room for migrants on our jam-packed island……

…and to care in some way for those who are marginalised or dispossessed.

When we do such things, we may experience something of the blessing of God in our souls.

We may find ourselves engaging with Jesus in his goal of breaking down barriers between people of different cultures, class, race, gender and sexuality – reversing inequality.

We may unwittingly stumble upon angels in our interactions.

We will certainly, I believe, encounter something of God in the faces of those we meet, whether we realise it or not.

And we create our own untold tales of heroism, hospitality and triumph of good over evil, as we battle against true sodomy.

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

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  1. Genesis (chapters 18 & 19); Ezekiel 16:49-50
  2. Matthew 10:14-15
  3. Mardi Gras, Sodomy, & Us: the sodomites among us – tend to be us.
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This blog too shall pass

This too shall pass……

This time in your life when it’s all gone pear-shaped, when nothing’s coming together…

Some problems resolve, some don’t. But even if your situation doesn’t actually resolve

It shall pass.

That demanding situation, with its stress. The confusion and torment.

This too shall pass.

Those endless hours of overtime you put in just to try and get by.

This too shall pass.

That chronic illness that hounds your waking hours and haunts your sleep, like a rabid dog.

This too shall pass.

That drawn-out wait in the queue at Barclays….and what’s happened to their air conditioning….?

This too shall pass.

The imbecility of people you have to put up with – day after……flipping daaaaay…….

Those fools whom you don’t suffer gladly. Their lack of compassion and understanding. “Humans! Why are they so brainless?”

This too shall pass.

Even worse, your own stupidity. Those times you kick yourself, because of the things you do that you know you shouldn’t. The people you’ve hurt. In the words of the Black Eyed Peas, “Where is the love [in me]?”

The things you put off doing, or saying, that you know you should really get round to. That card. That phone call. That compliment. “When will I ever learn to do the right thing?”

This too shall pass.

This Government. A society tangled up in chains of injustice. Slavery to addiction all around you – and even in you. Global poverty – and your own inadvertent part in perpetuating it by hoarding more than sharing your relative wealth.

This too shall pass.

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These four little words came to me the other day when I was stewing about something, in prayer. I had no idea where the phrase came from, where I’d heard it, what its origins are, but I guess it’s one of those sayings that are so deeply ingrained in our culture like Shakespeare, the Bible and the Beatles, that they spring out of nowhere.

It popped into my head, out of the blue,

from my inner self,

my subconscious,

and/or God.

A personal situation was weighing on me so heavily, my anxiety exacerbated by workload tiredness and the non-stop demands and broken nights of family life. When time to relax, reflect and re-create is difficult to find, every difficulty feels worse.

“This too shall pass,” that inner voice assured me.

I’ve since discovered through extensive research into ancient traditions and literature across a range of classical cultures (i.e. a quick glance at Wikipedia) that the origins of the phrase lie in Middle Eastern folklore.

Persian poet Attar records the fable of a powerful king who asks his assembled wise men to create a ring that will make him happy when he is sad. After deliberation the sages hand him a simple ring with the words “This too shall pass” etched on it, which has the desired effect to make him happy when he is sad, but thus also becomes a curse whenever he is happy.

Jewish tradition sees Solomon as either the king humbled by the adage, or as the one who delivers it to another.

Not surprising, really, that Judaism, with its belief in an after-life, adopted this legend.

Not surprising, either, that although the phrase doesn’t come from the Bible, similar ideas emanate throughout the New Testament, following Jesus’ teachings on the life to come and the Christian hope for a better future. A silver thread of hope weaves majestically through the Judeo-Christian scriptures – a constant reminder that this world is not the final word, always pointing us magnetically like a northbound needle to eternity.

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And therein lies one of the great strengths of the Christian faith – hope. For people like me, faith in the resurrection of Jesus and his life within us produce a sense that things will always get better, that all injustice will finally be put right – that even we will be put right!

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One day I was talking with a friend about some mission work going on in a third world country and the hope being given to the people there through the missionaries’ message. And my friend said to me, “What good is it giving people hope if that hope is never fulfilled, if nothing ever changes?”

It was a reasonable question.

But hope inspires us to change things, to work towards that better future we believe in. For many Christians, when we pray “Your kingdom come”, we don’t just sit around passively hoping with some vague optimism that one day God’s kingdom will come, righting every wrong.

On the contrary, we feel caught up in our own prayer, sensing the call to play our part in bringing that future realm of wholeness and justice into the present.

People of faith and hope that “this too will pass” are inspired to help this (whatever “this” may be) to pass. To make poverty history. To relieve suffering. To run soup kitchens, food banks, 24-7 prayer networks, counselling services, HIV clinics, disaster relief agencies….

Hope gives people the courage even to change themselves.

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il_fullxfull_779872040_nq8tThroughout the ages, people of faith and hope (including, but not exclusively, Christians) see themselves as temporary visitors to this planet.

“Just passing through….”

…expressed perfectly in the amazing ‘Supernatural’ by my musical heroes, DC Talk:

“This world’s a tortured place to be So many things to torment me And as I stumble down this road it takes a toll…

Beyond this physical terrain There’s an invisible domain Where angels battle over souls in vast array But down on earth is where I am No wings to fly, no place to stand Here on my knees I am a stranger in this land”

We see ourselves as strangers in this land. Our physical life in this world is seen as short-term.

This world, too, shall pass.

We have a perspective that makes suffering in this life more tolerable.

—–

But thankfully, not all our problems last a lifetime. The situation I was facing – am still facing – will most likely resolve itself within just a few years, perhaps even sooner.

And those four words spoken from the spirit or Spirit within me significantly relieved my anxiety. The right words at the right time. Hope has been re-kindled. I continue to pray about that situation, but with a more peaceful trust that my Father, who sits outside of time and even eternity, who just is (Yahweh), will see it through, and see me through.

—–

And even that queue at Barclays shall pass….

—–

For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long.  Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever.  So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen.  For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.

2 Corinthians 4: 17-18, The Bible (New Living Translation)

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