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.