Saturday, 18 July 2015


I don't know quite why, but I find myself drawn more and more to the Far East these days. Perhaps it's because I'm missing my dad and this is where he saw action in WW2, bravely fighting with the Gurkhas behind enemy lines as part of General Wingate's famous marauders. 

Who knows? All I do know is that my thinking about restoration - about which I have been much preoccupied in recent years - has benefited from a profound thought to do with Japanese ceramics.

That is so seriously left-field it has to be God!

While conducting a very encouraging workshop for writers in Germany last November, an emerging author came up to me and asked if we could have a meal together. I was very glad to accept. The next morning we sat over our delicious German breakfast.

My friend shared his story, knowing that I would empathise. His marriage had fallen apart, there had been a great deal of pain for all concerned, and now he was trying to rebuild his life in a Christian sub-culture where failure is often scorned.

"Do you know about Kintsugi?" he asked.

I shook my head. "Never heard of it."

"It's a form of Japanese art. Very old, dating back to the fifteenth century. It consists of taking broken pieces of pottery, fixing them with resin, and powdering them with gold."


"Yes, the idea is to take things that are broken and worthless and turn them into a work of art of greater beauty and worth."

"What does Kintsugu mean?"

"Golden joinery."

My friend looked at me. "You and I are being subjected to a Kintsugi process of restoration," he said.

From that moment on Kintsugi has formed a living metaphor for the restoration process. You see, the beauty of the Kintsugi philosophy is that it treats both the breakage and repair of an object as a valuable part of its history. It does not frown upon fragmentation nor does it undermine restoration. It honours both.

How different from religious Christianity! The religious look down upon people when they fail, fall or fragment. They have not been there so they cannot and will never comprehend. They snorkel on the surface of the ocean of God's grace. They have never dived deep into the Mariana trench of His mountainous kindness.

But those who, like the many heroes of the Bible, have been through the distress and despair of failure know full well the hard-won revelation that God is a Father and a Potter, and that in His tender hands even the worst isn't wasted, even our messes can end up on the shelves of the Father's house as masterpieces.

If you don't believe me, take another look at David's life. His story is a Kintsugi story - a transformation from abject failure to glorious transformation.

Do you know about the golden joinery of the Holy Spirit? When others are experiencing it, do you applaud God's artistry and pray for His glory to be revealed in the fissures caused by failure? Do you say, "There, but for the grace of God go I?" Or do you gloat over imperfection when it's not yours?

It may seem strange to learn about grace from Japanese ceramics, but God loves art and wants us to love it too. He speaks through it. Kintsugi is a fine example.

Japanese aesthetics honours marks of brokenness and wear. As one expert comments: "there is no attempt to hide the damage but the repair is literally illuminated."

Does this not sound like the aesthetics of the Kingdom of Heaven?

One of my father's favourite poets, the Welsh priest R.S.Thomas, certainly thought so. He wrote a poem called The Kingdom which is, in many ways, a description of Kintsugi.

Read it sometime.

And be amazed!

Only those who have embraced real as opposed to religious Christianity truly understand the redemptive manipulations of God. Those who have experienced the tender shaping of the Potter's hands, powdered as they are with gold, know that His grace is bigger, wider, deeper, longer than the cosmetic and sound bite definitions provided by religion.

During my recovery a very old friend, with whom I trained at theological college and who has reconnected with me in recent days, sent me an email in which he shared an extract about grace written by Paul Tillich. He told me that he had recently read it out to a class of theology students, many of whom were in tears.

"Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the deep valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at such moments a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying, 'You are accepted!'"

That sounds like the kind of thing my father would have said.

It sounds like the kind of thing my Heavenly Father would say.

Let's embrace these greater depths of grace.

Let's celebrate evidences of it in those who fall but get up again.

Let's all allow His hands to shape us.

For as Isaiah the prophet declared:

"You are our Father. We are the clay, you are the Potter. We are all the work of your hand" (Isaiah 64:8)

Friday, 8 May 2015

                  AFTER THE FALL

A few weeks ago there was a story in the news that went viral on social media. It concerned a young Queen's Guardsman on duty outside Buckingham Palace. During the Changing of the Guard the poor lad tripped over a manhole cover and fell, knocking his bearskin on the sentry box and dropping his rifle.

Pictures of the moment - as well as a video of it taken by a spectator - went all over the world in a matter of minutes, arousing raucous mirth.

A few months before the news was full of another story about falling. This time about Madonna.

Madonna fell over during the performance of a new song live at the Brit Awards (I was watching it when it happened). It was the first time she had sung at the Brit Awards in twenty years. During one of her dance routines, Madonna's cape - which was tied too tight - became snagged and she tumbled to the floor.

Once again, the incident went global.

Within minutes it was a headline on the BBC news programme that followed.

What I observed in the British reaction to these events disturbed me. Thousands, maybe even millions of Brits found these moments deeply satisfying and even wildly entertaining. They took pleasure in these falls, enjoying the transition from gaping shock to gloating glee.

This got me thinking. What is it about the British that loves seeing people in the public eye fall from grace? 

Why do we see such implosions - whether physical, moral, financial, whatever - as fitting targets for cynical mirth?

All this is fiercely relevant to my own life. Nearly a year after my fall I found myself on the Eastern seaboard of the USA. I was there to lead a writer's workshop. During my stay a crisis broke out in the church and I was asked to support the church's leadership in navigating their way through it. 

When I went to the leader's meeting one evening I was understandably nervous. How would they respond to me? They all knew that I had fallen. What would they say?

When I entered the room I received one hug after another. These outstanding African American brothers and sisters weren't in the least bit focused on my past. All they wanted to see was that I had brushed myself down and got up again - that I was walking by faith again and reconnected to my Heavenly Father. 

So there were no sermons, only shoulders.

No gloating, only hugging.

That, beloved readers, was a game changing moment for me.

The next morning I woke up early as the golden New England sun began to rise.

I started to reflect on the difference between this American response and the standard British reaction to situations like mine.

In Britain we love it when heroes become zeroes. We love putting people on pedestals and then knocking them down.

It's almost become a national bloodsport.

In America I see the reverse. Maybe it's because of the American Dream. I don't know. But over the Pond people love seeing zeroes becoming heroes.

What matters to them is, "Are you going to get up again?"

David Beckham was talking about this around the time of the World Cup last summer (2014). He spoke about how the British press built him up to be the golden boy of English football before France 98. Then came that awful moment when he lashed out at the Argentinian defender (Diego Simeone) in a World Cup match - for which he was given a red card.

From that moment he was vilified.

No longer was he the golden boy. He was now a pile of fragments at the foot of a press constructed pedestal.

You see my point? In British culture we take a curious and perverse delight in watching as people who rise above the parapet experience a fall of some sort or another. We love it when they are knocked down, put in their place - returning to their rightful position in the level playing fields of life.

Maybe it's the Tall Poppy Syndrome.

Or maybe it's just that we have become a nation of rubberneckers who slow down to gawp at the tragedies and misfortunes of others on life's highways. 

Whatever it is, it's not a virtue. It's a vice. We dress it up as something positive by waving our fingers at prominent and visible personalities and saying, "Pride cometh before a fall." But no amount of Scripture quoting can disguise the fact that this kind of disdainful behaviour does not come from heaven. It comes from hell.

Heaven is a place of honour.

Hell is a place of shame.

When we turn heroes into zeroes, we are speaking the rhetoric of the underworld. We are using language that has a gravitational pull downwards - down, down, down towards the darkness of oblivion.

Not long ago I was asked by the Passion Bible Translation publishers to write devotional commentaries on the Book of Psalms and Proverbs. I spent about two months writing both, deeply immersed in this wonderful, intimate translation of these ancient books. 

As I came to the end of Proverbs, I stumbled upon some heavenly wisdom about falling. You can find this in verses 16 and 17.

Verse 16 says:

"The lovers of God may ... stumble seven times, but they will continue to rise over and over again."

The message here couldn't be clearer. Every God-lover will fall during their lives, and not just once either. Most of the time this will not be visible to others. It will be known only to God. But we all fall, some publicly, others privately.

To quote Aerosmith, we all fall down.

That being the case, verse 17 outlines a critical principle:

"Never gloat when your enemy meets disaster, and don't be quick to rejoice if he falls, for the Lord who sees your heart will be displeased with you, and will pity your foe."

Look at God's wisdom here.

To the fallen God says, "get up again."

To those who rejoice when others fall he says, "Don't gloat."

Those are truly keys to reigning in life.

As a Church in Britain we are not good at knowing how to respond to a fall. Some are wise enough to say, "There, but for the grace of God, go I", and kind enough to show compassion. But most people don't know how to react. They don't know how to cover other's shame and they don't know how to cheer people to their feet again.

The fallen are bewildered because there is no theology of restoration, let alone a strategy, or a ministry. 

Those who look on point the finger and find in that person's misfortune what I can only describe as a guilty pleasure.

But this is not how heaven responds.

Heaven first of all seeks to cover a person's shame. Like the sergeant who stood in front of the fallen Guardsman, heaven encourages true sons and daughters of God to find ways of cloaking Noah's nakedness. 

Secondly, heaven cheers when the fallen get up again. The company of heaven is not so preoccupied with our past failings as it is with our future purpose. Madonna got up and continued singing. BRAVO, I say.

Like my African American friends, heaven loves it when zeroes turn into heroes again.

Everyone stands and applauds when that happens.

Because heaven - like the Bible - is full of people who fell but who made a choice to brush the dust off and get up again.

Heaven is not entertained by 'falling down' or 'breaking bad.'

Heaven is enthused by getting up and breaking good again.

If you want to read a great testimony book that illustrates some of these truths about rising up after falling, I highly recommend Deborah Armin's book, "On my Way Home."

Monday, 23 March 2015


There are few things that cause more torment to the soul than the experience of being marginalised by your society or ostracised by your family. While the causes of this alienation can be many – from disease to desertion – the fact is the sense of shame this kind of exile fuels is so agonizing that it’s almost beyond description. The soul craves and longs for homecoming above all things, so when your community or your family denies you that – for whatever reason – the fractures can feel at times as if they are beyond repair and the wounds beyond all healing.

There is really only one hope left when we find ourselves in such a plight.

It is ‘the kindness of heaven.’

But where are we to find such a thing?

On one occasion in his ministry in Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth was being hounded by a group of religious leaders. These men were legalists. In other words, theirs was a religion which was meant to exhibit the law of love but had ended up promoting the love of law. They saw the meal tables of Jesus and it caused their religious hackles to rise. Jesus was eating and drinking with prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners – the litter layer of Jewish society. Far from keeping himself apart from the “untouchables”, he was revealing himself to be the Messiah of the Marginalised.

The legalists were enraged.

“If you were the Messiah,” they sneered, “you would not be having meals with messed up people. You’d be spending your time with us, not in the cesspit of the great unclean.”

I don’t know how you’d have responded in that situation but I know how Jesus did. He told three stories – a trilogy in which each of the three tales ends with a party.

He told about a sheep that was lost but then found, causing the shepherd to go wild with joy and hold a party for all his friends – a party with a wet, wandering sheep at its centre.

He told a tale about a coin that was lost by an impoverished widow, who spring cleaned her house before she found it, and then held a party for her neighbours – no doubt holding the coin above her head and dancing extravagantly around her generously adorned meal table.

Finally he told a story about a boy – a rebellious and insensitive son who rejected his dad, sauntered off into pagan lands and selfishly squandered his father’s money on an addictive lifestyle; but who had an awakening in a odorous pig pen and came home, stinking to high heaven, to the open arms and the open table of his father.

That’s some trilogy!

And it’s quite a reply to the religious leaders who were interrogating and critiquing him.

But what’s the point that Jesus was making?

It’s quite simple.

God is not religious.

He is radical.

He doesn't believe in exclusion.

He believes in embrace.

If Jesus tells us what God is really like, then we can say with absolute confidence that he loves having meals with marginalised people.

He loves having banquets for the broken.

He holds parties for prostitutes and soirees for sinners!

He is exactly like Jesus.

And speaking as one who has known what it feels like to live the exiled and marginalised life, I can honestly say that this is a life-saving and soul-restoring revelation.

In the end, the open table of Jesus is not a meal with a message. 

The meal is the message.

The open table of Jesus shows us the kindness of heaven.

It shows us how the kindness of God leads to our hearts being changed and our lives being transformed (Romans 2:4).

It reveals how the Father turns our shame into honour and our exile into homecoming, through his open arms and his open table.

And while some may never experience reintegration into the mainstream of society, or a welcome home by their own families, the kindness that emanates from the meal table of the Father's house is more than a comfort.

It is a homecoming. 

Perhaps no one has ever put this better than one of my oldest and dearest friends Bob Stamps, in his much loved hymn “God and Man at Table are Sat Down.”

Beggars, lame and harlots also here
Repentant publicans are drawing near
Wayward sons come home without a fear
God and man at table are sat down
God and man at table are sat down.

This is what Christianity is really all about.

It is not religion.

It is heavenly kindness, shown at a meal table where we sit down with the love of all loves and find hope and healing in the kindness of heaven.

Saturday, 21 June 2014


WHEN THE TOWERS FALL: Rebuilding your Life in the Rubble 8

I guess it's partly because I'm writing a series of spy novels - about a fictional spy Vicar during the Napoleonic Wars -that I have a fondness for the story of the prostitute called Rahab. 

According to Joshua chapter 2 Rahab was clearly a resourceful and insightful woman. 

When Joshua sent two spies into her city, she decided to offer them refuge. In return for keeping them safe, she and her family were spared when the Israelite army invaded. 

Rahab is notable for all sorts of reasons, not least the fact that she features in the ancestry of Jesus in Matthew's genealogy at the beginning of his Gospel. 

She also figures as an exemplar of true faith in the list of Biblical heroes in Hebrews 11. 

As I once put it in a sermon when I was Vicar of St Andrew's Chorleywood, she went from 'call girl' to 'called girl', from a 'prostitute to a princess,' and thereby became a beautiful and abiding trophy to the divine mercy.

But there's more.

The no 1 reason why I want to celebrate Rahab is because she provided the first known example of a 'safe house' in history.

According to our friends at Wikipedia, 

'a safe house is, in a generic sense, a secret place for sanctuary and it may also be a metaphor.'

According to Spooks expert James Sangster:

'It's a house or other building owned by the Security Services and known to its officers and agents, where they can go to when they're in trouble and request backup.'

Safe houses are crucial places of refuge for spies in danger.

Anyone who has enjoyed the BBC's eight season series, Spooks, will have seen and appreciated this.

Those in danger need their safe houses.

Why am I writing about 'safe houses'?

It's because they are an indispensable resource for anyone who been felled, who has fallen, or whose life has fallen apart.

Those who are surrounded by rubble need safe houses.

Whatever the reason for their rubble - self-inflicted or thrust upon them - people who are living in vulnerability rather than victory need these places of refuge, these safe houses.

Safe houses are vital for the recovery of every inhabitant of Rubble Town.

Safe houses are places where trusted, kind and generous friends offer unconditional love and warm hospitality in times of loneliness and lack.

They are places where there's a bedroom and a bed that offers the opportunity of uninterrupted sleep and untroubled dreams.

They are places where faces that are worn and wan from crying can begin to burst into life again, often around food and wine.

They are places where a person seeking refuge can find a safe place to bear the soul, to express their true feelings - free from the fear of censure and thoughtless platitudes, away from the prying eyes of rubber-necking passers by.

Such places are invaluable.

They are essential for anyone wanting to rebuild their lives in the rubble.

There are several more women in the Bible whom I want to celebrate before I share more personally.

There is first of all the Shunamite woman who provided a safe house for the bald prophet Elisha. According to the Message version of 2 Kings 4, a leading lady of the town of Shunem decided to host Elisha every time he visited the area. At first she would simply cook him meals. But before long this developed into something even more lavish. She spoke to her husband and said, 'why don't we add on a small room upstairs and furnish it with a bed and desk, chair and lamp, so that when he comes by, he can stay with us?'

And that is what they did!

They built an extension in their house reserved for the prophet.

They created a safe place.

Now let's turn to the New Testament. In John chapter 11 we see the sisters of Lazarus weeping at the death of their brother. Jesus arrives and raises Lazarus from the dead. He then stays with the two sisters and their restored brother, sharing a celebratory meal in honour of the miracle.

Now all this is familiar territory but perhaps what's not so widely appreciated is the fact that Jesus often stayed at this home in Bethany.

He often slept there, in a spare room.

He often ate there.

Lazarus was a beloved friend.

His home was a safe house for Jesus.

While we're on this, let's not also forget that in the Old Testament there were six 'cities of refuge where those who were guilty of manslaughter could find sanctuary from the blood lust of those seeking an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

These six cities were Golan, Ramoth, Bosor, Kedesh, Shechem and Hebron.

In these places, those who were on the run were protected. They found a safe place where to hide from those who were hunting them.

These were therefore asylum cities for fugitives.

They were an expression of God's mercy for those who were in danger.

Cities of refuge in Joshua 20 are macrocosmic versions of the 'safe house.'

Even the literal meaning of their names points to the kindness of God.

To those whose lives are in danger - for whatever reason and of whatever kind - safe houses can be the difference between life and death.

You cannot recover from the chaos of implosion without a little help from your friends - and specifically, without a little hospitality from your friends.

In the chaos of my own rubble, I have been blessed and amazed by a small group of people here and abroad who have opened their homes and their hearts to me - who have made a safe house for me and who have extended themselves to create a space for me in their world.

I cannot thank them enough.

In a time of self-inflicted chaos, their hospitality has offered moments of serene and blessed order.

In a time of intense stress, their homes have offers me moments of shalom - of divine harmony, integration, and peace.

Today I can safely say that these people are my most highly treasured friends.

They have brought heaven's kindness to earth.

Safe houses are without doubt a prerequisite for recovery whenever anyone is passing through Rubble Town.

But I can't end there.

Ultimately it is not earthly spaces that form our surest safe house.

That can only be found in the arms of the Father.

The Father's heart is our safest safe house.

It is our heart's true home.

It is the harbour where our ship comes in and our vessel gets repaired.

It is the place where the penitent prodigal finds his forgiveness.

It is the place where the broken-hearted finds their healing.

So even in praising the physical structure that is 'the safe house', I want to agree for once with Wikipedia. 

This is also a metaphor.

It is a metaphor of that place where we find our truest refuge and our surest safety.

As King David - who knew a thing or two about rubble - once put it:

God's a safe-house for the battered
A sanctuary during bad times.
The moment you arrive, you relax;
You're never sorry you knocked.

Psalm 9:9-12 (The Message).

Monday, 12 May 2014

WHEN THE TOWERS FALL: Rebuilding your Life in the Rubble Part 7

Greetings from Rubble Town, especially to those who are rebuilding their lives at ground zero. 

This month I'm going to write again about what I've been learning in the heart of darkness and in the middle of mess.

This month I'm writing about a lesson that's very fresh in my heart and very real in my experience.

I'm writing about the importance of rebuilding your nest near God's altar. 

I'm talking about rebuilding and re-creating in God's presence, with his people, not on your own.

Let me tell you a bit of my story.

I came into this new year with a hunger that I'd not known in a long time - a hunger for the people and the presence of God.

I had been in a God-ordained season of hiddenness. Tucked away in the heart of my Father, I had embraced the solitude that he'd advocated and enjoyed a fresh revelation of the fact that he is jealous for me - profoundly jealous. Even if I sometimes couldn't feel his presence, I knew he was there, tenderly appealing to me, whispering words of hope and healing. I knew he was all around me. Like King David, I knew that there was and is nowhere that I can go from his presence.

But this season of solitude was not meant to last forever. I had been wooed into the desert for a restoration of intimacy with the Father. But at the turn of the new year I awoke with a new longing - a desire for his presence and his people. 

When that came I realised that it was time to come out of the wilderness.

It was time to come out of isolation.

It was time to find an altar and build my nest there.

Immediately I was confronted by a choice. There is after all a vast difference between hiddenness and hiding.

Hiddenness is something that the Father allows at certain moments in our journey. When we find ourselves in the rubble - whatever that rubble looks like - he sometimes grants us time in which we go to him on our own so that we can hear his voice without the distractions of Job's well-meaning comforters.

But then there comes a time where divinely-permitted hiddenness can morph into a humanly motivated hiding.

That is not healthy.

His hiddenness and our hiding are galaxies apart.

Hiddenness is what sons and daughters embrace.

Hiding is what orphans crave.

When God hides us, it heals us.

When we hide, it often harms us.

So my biggest choice was not to collude with the orphan tendencies in my heart, tendencies that lead to self-imposed exile and isolation.

My choice was not to join the swelling ranks of those who have left local churches, protesting that churches aren't necessary or that they don't offer what they need.

I knew that I could never have the revelation of the Father while at the same time avoiding and even undermining his family.

I had to choose to respond in the Spirit as a son not react in my flesh as an orphan.

The flesh isolates.

The Spirit integrates.

It was time to reconnect with the people and the presence of God.

That was the choice.

King David knew a thing or two about rubble. His was very public and self-created. Yet after his heartfelt repentance (so poignantly recorded in Psalm 51), he clearly began to experience an ache for the people and the presence of God. He sensed the call to reconnect with the Father and with the Father's family.

This call came in the form of a yearning - one so powerfully and lyrically expressed in Psalm 84.

I find it hard to look at and read these words with dry eyes.

How lovely is your dwelling-place,
Lord Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints,
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and flesh cry out
for the living God.
Even the sparrow has found a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may have her young -
a place near your altar,
Lord Almighty, my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
they are ever praising you.

There's so much that I could say about this, but I'll confine myself to one thought.

David looked at the birds.

'They build their nests near the heart of God's presence, in the house where his people gather to worship.'

That's what he saw.

That's what he sang.

And that's what was awakened in me.

Okay, I'm just a tiny swallow - like those that used to dive and soar around my father's house in Norfolk when I was a boy.

But even swallows and sparrows long to build their home near God's altar.

If it's good enough for the birds, then it's good enough for me.

And here's the incentive.

The swallows and the sparrows build their nests near God's altar because this is where they can give birth. This is where they may 'have their young.'

What does that mean?

It means creativity.

The reason why it's so important to transition from exile to return and from isolation to community is simply this: the nearer you get to the presence and the people of God, the greater your productivity and creativity will be.

If we want to enter a season of new and indeed unparalleled creativity, then we cannot do that far away from the altar. It can only be done near the altar.

Furthermore, if we want to enter a season of new and indeed unparalleled creativity, then we cannot do that far away from God's people. It can only be done among his people.

God opens new doors for us in community, not in isolation.

As David said in Psalm 34 (the Message),

Blessed are you who run to him...
Worship opens doors...

So, to cut a long story short, my desire for the presence and the people of God has led to a major transition involving relocation.

The longing that was awakened in me has caused me to build a nest.

That nest was not primarily motivated by the landscape and the view (though both are breath-taking).

It was not primarily motivated by the need to be near great friends (though that was without doubt a factor).

It was motivated by a desire to become a part of a people where the presence of God is truly welcomed, where divine kindness is unmistakably evident, and where creativity is unleashed in connection, not isolation.

So if you're in Rubble Town right now, you may be in a time of God-ordained hiddenness.

But if that's somehow morphed into orphan-hearted hiding, then pray for a Davidic longing to rebuild your life near God's altar - the place where his people gather and where his presence is felt.

It is the place where doors open.

It is the place where tiny birds engage in great creativity.

It is the place where healing happens and where hope is born.