Meet Norman. He’s an Angel.


We have a weird angel hanging on our Christmas tree, a monobrowed herald of the birth of Christ. He’s smiling, I think; that or grinding his teeth (which may be why he appears to be missing one). He’s also bald, which you don’t often see in angels. And even though he’s an angel, thanks to my wife’s talent for giving things slightly off-beat names, his name is Norman.

My eldest son made Norman at school last year, and while it’s not exactly in the tradition of Christmas iconography, I like that we’ve got a kinda odd looking angel lurking among the fairy lights. We can sanitise Christmas too much, hiding the dirt and the worry and the scandal: Mary is beatific, the kings are regal, the animals are clean and the angels are blonde. And while that makes for a pretty Christmas card, it doesn’t help the idea of Jesus as Immanuel, God with us in reality, not iconography.

Because Mary was an unmarried mother about to give birth in a cave. The wise men were astrologers, the shepherds were despised, and sitting on the throne was a puppet-despot with death squads waiting in the wings. The heavenly host appeared in the sky and sang a song designed to stick two fingers up at the most powerful man in the world. The Nativity is messy and inclusive and radical, and it’s easy to forget that. I do it all the time.

So our ugly angel is a reminder; a reminder that Immanuel is with us – the misfits, the fearful, the depressed and the broken, survivors and addicts, the sinners and those who struggle to be saints. He’s in churches and cathedrals, sure, but also in doorways and shelters, hospitals and prisons, foodbanks, AA meetings, care homes, street corners and with the neglected and the forgotten and the over-looked and the hated. Our Christmases have to reflect that, otherwise we’re missing much of the point.

There’s a part of me that thinks Norman should have a more, well, angelic name. I killed a few minutes Googling, and came up with Adriyel – Of God’s Flock. Because that flock contains multitudes – all races, all tribes, all identities, all abilities, all appearances – and is bigger and stranger and more complicated than we give it credit for. But the name Norman has stuck, and for as long as he’s with us,,he has a place on our tree, a reminder that Christmas should be a time for weird angels.

Black Lives Matter (And They Always Did)

I hesitated to even start writing this post. After all, I’m a white guy in England – what do I have to add to the debate, the conversation, the placards? A large part of me thinks that I should just close my laptop, to shut up and listen to the voices that need to be heard. There’s a huge list of names, people of colour killed by American police, but I don’t know how to speak into that, don’t know how to heal the effects of this trauma on young black men and their families. It feels like another world at times; that’s probably part of the problem.

But in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King spared his greatest criticism not for the ardent segregationists, but for the white ‘allies’ who thought that his protests were foolish and needlessly provocative and who hoped that the whole Civil Rights thing would quietly work itself out. It didn’t then, and it won’t now. Peaceful actions are ignored, riots are condemned, the wheel keeps turning.

We celebrated Pentecost last week, the time when the Church was brought together by the fire and the breath of the Holy Spirit, when people from all around the known world heard God speaking in their own language. And yet we celebrated that when American cities burned in the outrage of communities who have been ignored for too long, burned in the counter-rage of those who wanted to make protesters into demons. A week later, two thousand years later and we’re still confronted with the duty as well as the gift of Pentecost; this feels like a time of repentance and confrontational justice and, I hope, a time of deep and genuine healing. It’ll take time but there have already been too many wasted and unjust years.

Jesus traveled through Samaria, despite local racial tensions, because Samaritan lives mattered; the early church had to confront its prejudices towards parts of their community because the lives of Greek widows mattered; Philip baptised the Ethiopian eunuch, despite him being a social outsider, because Black lives matter, and they always have. But throughout our history, we’ve failed to remember that simple truth, that lesson in basic humanity.

So Pope Nicholas V baptised the Doctrine of Discovery so that European Christian empires could take control of any lands they found, no matter who was already living there. That led to the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the American Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan. It led to overflowing coffers for cities like Liverpool and Bristol; it led to ‘Negro collars’ and chains and cuffs being forged in the area in which I grew up, it led to newspaper readers in the city I now live cancelling their subscriptions because the editor called attention to the horrors of slavery. It led to the theologian James Cone drawing comparisons between the Crucifixion and the lynchings that scarred the American south. And, in many ways, it led to more modern words that speak to toxic ideologies and theologies that move virus-like through our society’s DNA: Grenfell, Windrush, Hostile Environment.

Words, of course, have layers of meaning. It’s easy to say, like so many do, that “All lives matter”. It’s a phrase that, on its surface, sounds true. But we live in a world where some lives seem to matter more than others. Some lives are more likely to end up in prison. Some lives are more likely to be animalised by Google’s algorithms. Some lives are less likely to have clean water to drink. Some lives are more likely to be ended by COVID-19. There’s a pattern here that suggests that, actually, all lives don’t matter. And that’s a sin.

Ad so I come back to Pentecost, the birth of the Church, a Church that is made up of people of all races, all nationalities, all ethnicities, a Church that was born in an explosion of different languages. We are one Body, this Church, and if we look at that demographically, that Body is one of colour; if we look like our Saviour, then that Body is that of a brown Middle-Easterner.

Yes, I’m being deliberately provocative here, but it feels like this is a time not only for repentance but a greater appreciation of the Church’s diversity. Because we are brothers and sisters, and some of those brothers and sisters are scared right now, they’re angry and frustrated and traumatised and because we’re bound together by bread and wine, by Blood and Spirit, we can’t remain on the sidelines. We can’t fix this, not as individuals, but we can learn, we can support, we can stand in the gap, we can check our hearts. We can sing. We can amplify. We can pray.

Because Black Lives Matter. And it’s a sin to live as though they don’t.

Holy Week: Singing on Calvary’s Tree

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus gasps these words from the cross at the height of his suffering. We read them and hear abandonment, despair, a fracture in the order of things. This is, after all, ‘Good’ Friday, the day we took the artist behind the universe and smashed nails through his hands, sanitising our violence through theology and an act of nominative irony.

But to this blood-soaked hill, to this skull-shaped memento mori, to this violent, enraged species, to this lynch mob, Jesus sings. He sings to Calvary, he sings to all the persecuted, assassinated, disappeared down the ages. You can hear different rhymes in the song, different remixes, you can bring to it samples of an advocate in a courtroom, an unlikely champion, a doctor in the hospital. You can do all that but first you’ve got to hear a man in pain.


It’s easy to miss the singing, even when you know that Jesus is quoting Psalm 22. We’re a literate culture, we’re used to individualistically reading the psalms in our bibles. But Jesus would have recognised it for what it was, a song.

So when we picture Christ bloody and battered and bruised, maybe we need to hear him gasping out a song, finding expression and comfort in ancient lyrics. Music is powerful, after all, a source of empathy and visions. In the midst of pain and crushing despair we often turn on the radio and find hope in singing along; maybe Jesus was doing the same with the ancient songs of his people.

Or maybe the message was for us, for those who come to the cross and try to find glimpses of a future, any good future, in the asphyxiated, shattered saviour held in place by both love and nails scientifically deployed to prolong the agony. Maybe the message was for us, because while Psalm 22 begins in violence and defeat, it’s a musical journey towards hope, towards grace, towards a future. It begins with godforesakeness, but turns and heads towards conviction:

For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one;

he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.

There are times when we don’t have the words and we need to borrow them, especially in times of great pain; why shouldn’t the fully-human Jesus do the same?

But let’s not race to the end of the song, let’s not ignore the suffering because we’ve caught a glimpse of a better world. For now it’s still Friday, and Jesus still hangs on a tree, surrounded by terrorists and lynchings and weeping and pain. This is the day Jesus dies; a day for sad songs and mourning.

But as we do, remember that even sad songs can crack open a door through which life gets in, even sad songs help us press through the pain, even sad songs help us see Sunday from the broken depths of Good Friday.

Church in the Time of Coronavirus

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This is a strange time to be Church.

I think it’s because, for most of us, this is so unprecedented. We’re so used to be gathering on a Sunday, to meet and sing and pray and learner, that when we can’t do that it leaves a gap, a hole, Sunday morning in limbo. Maybe that’s why COVID-19 feels so apocalyptic, in its technical meaning of ‘an unveiling’ – we appreciate our communities, we want to see those we care about, our friends and family, and this whole situation challenges this, shows where we need to become more resilient, exposes the weaknesses in our structures.

That last bit is important. In the middle of a global pandemic, we’re now scurrying to figure out what it means to be church in the time of Coronavirus. Sometimes that’s a positive – we pull together, we figure stuff out, we re-discover our ability to innovate and adapt and do things we never thought we’d do because they always felt too complicated, too expensive, too radical. At other times, though, there’s a darker flipside to all this – we retreat, become entrenched, get into debates and arguments about theology and sacraments and whose sin is to blame for all this. For good or ill, we’re all just trying to get through this, figuring it out as we go.

But here’s the thing – we need to remember that this is a privileged way of looking at things. Because if we look beyond the centre, if we turn our eyes to the horizon, if we seek out the spaces that have, shamefully, been pushed to the margins, we’ll find that many of the answers we’re looking for are already here.

The Church of God already includes those who are living in isolation, because of illness or rejection or imprisonment.

The Church of God already includes those who have practiced church in online spaces, because sometimes buildings and communities have been made inaccessible for them.

The Church of God already includes those who have been rejected, scapegoated, othered, because we’re too damn good at doing all of these.

All these are part of the Church’s collective memory, experience and knowledge, it’s just that most of the us have been painfully slow in accessing it all because it’s out there in the margins, in the corners, in the places we’re ignored or avoided, belittled or patronised. In the past I’ve used the phrase “Be a voice for the voiceless”, but that was naive – plenty of voices are already speaking words that can help us through this current crisis, but it means we have to cultivate the precious spiritual discipline of shutting up and listening.

I don’t want this to sound mercenary either. I want the Church to be stronger, yes, but we do this by practicing love, respect and humility, and by giving all our voices space to be heard and acted upon. Because quite often the Holy Spirit will be speaking through those voices; sometimes an apocalyptic unveiling is a good thing.

In I Corinthians 12, Paul describes the Church as a body made up of many parts, before pointing out that the parts of the body that have been dishonoured are actually those we need the most. That’s a message we need to hear over and over again, but particularly now.

So it’s a time to listen and to learn. Listen to disabled Christians who’ve created online church because our buildings are so often inaccessible. To our brothers and sisters who can’t meet together because of persecution or rejection. To those who who know how to make resources stretch because they don’t have any choice. To those who sound the alarm because they’ve already witnessed the darkness that can come in the aftermath of tragedy, and who know that we need to be speaking out for justice. It’s a time to listen to the teachers and the nurses and the cleaners and the binmen among us, because in a time of crisis, our theology needs to be embodied out there on the front lines. It’s a time to remember that a global pandemic is impacting a global Church, not just the corners of Christendom with the pointiest hats. It’s a time to repent of all the things we could have done to make church bigger and wider and more present but didn’t, not until it affected us personally. And, more than anything, it’s a time to stop shaming the Body of Christ and finally start listening and honouring all its parts, all its people.

Mary anoints Jesus (John 12:1-11)

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John 12 – 29th March 2020

I was due to preach at church tomorrow as part of our Lent series, a journey towards Easter through John’s gospel. Obviously COVID-19 has put paid to that, but I thought I’d post the sermon and recording I put together in case anyone can get something out of it.

The text is John 12:1-11, in which Mary anoints Jesus at Bethany, which is full of implications for how we worship and how we relate to the world, especially at a weird time like this.

Stay home, stay safe everyone. We’ll get through this.