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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Not poles apart

This morning I was playing with magnets on the kitchen table with my 4-year-old daughter, Hannah. I loved magnets when I was a kid. Turns out, I still do. What is there not to love about magnets?

…unless, of course, you’re a car about to be picked up by one of those huge scrap yard magnets, only to be ripped apart or crushed to bits.

I was showing Hannah how, if you slowly slide a magnet along the table towards a stationary magnet, there comes a point when the stationary magnet suddenly jumps across the gap and latches on to the moving one. Hannah loved it. And each time she did it, it made her jump when the magnet lurched across the table top, making both of us laugh.

It reminded me of how I, and many people I know, are drawn towards the magnetic heart of God. How we can never stray too far from the loving heart of the Father and the (almost) irresistible person of Jesus.

And of how, in that magnetic heart of God, we find answers to our own, broken, human hearts.

As the years go by, I’m less convinced that Christianity or the Bible can necessarily give us all the intellectual answers we need to life and suffering. I was talking to a friend recently who as yet can’t find faith in God, although he would love to, because he can’t understand how an all-powerful God could allow the untold suffering, especially the most extreme forms, that goes on around the world.

I do sympathise with him and, even though I think Christianity can to a certain extent offer some explanation of that question (in fact, I recommended the Alpha course to him, which includes an evening just looking at the question of why God allows suffering), at the same time I’ve become increasingly content with not having all the answers; of living with divine mystery.

I realise that may sound like a cop-out. However, I think it’s borne out of a level of trust in God that’s developed, despite the questions, as a result of a time-tested, experiential faith over so many years now.

While I don’t believe Christianity or theology can necessarily entirely satisfy people’s intellectual questions about life and suffering, I do believe that…

…the person of Jesus – the heart of God ultimately uttered at the cross in self-debasing, sacrificial love – can and does answer the problems of the human heart – the problems of falsehood, hypocrisy, selfishness, brokenness, disconnectedness and fear, for example.

And that maybe the problems are more important than the questions.

That when we’re drawn like that magnet to the heart of God and we experience his compassion, mercy, love, forgiveness, companionship… our intellectual questions become less important and we’re better able to face the uncertainties and trials of this life. And better able to face not only the evil in the world around us, but even the sometimes unbearable darkness of our own hearts.

Maybe we were never intended to face suffering alone; maybe the answer to suffering lies, in part at least, in having the magnetic, empathic companionship of God with us in all our life experiences, transcending our trials.

The magnets also reminded me of that reassuring statement from the New Testament: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” Like the magnet, it only takes a small movement from us, to compel the Father’s heart closer to ours.

When we take time to pray, we tend to find that surprising blessings emerge. Sometimes a change of circumstances, sometimes the strength to go on, or a change in our own heart or in someone else’s. And an entwining of our heart with God’s.

Prayer is like any relationship. When we invest time in prayer – even 5 minutes here and there (what matters most is genuineness, rather than how much time we give) – we find the relationship with God enriched, our lives enriched.

Thank God for magnets

and for his magnetic heart,

so that God and we don’t need

to be poles apart.


(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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Redemption song

Redemption Song

Jesus, we enjoy the fruits of your labour

We stand in the embrace of the Father


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.



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…



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.


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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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.


(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


(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


Fallen, broken, dying yet living, robustly

Giving life, even in death


Like resilient people we know

Like the resurrected one who so

loved the fallen, broken, dying ones

like you and me.


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.


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.



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)


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


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