Grenfell

One of the questions that the Bishop asked me in the pre-ordination interview was “Where was God in Grenfell Tower?” The context was a reporter from Sky News (say) holding a microphone up to my face.

The question stayed with me throughout my pre-ordination retreat – not so much because of theodicy (aka “why does God allow suffering?”), but more because conversations with the other ordinands, the bible readings, and my own reflections have cast it in several different lights.

Let’s be clear – the events at Grenfell Tower were horrific. I had to turn off Radio 4 when I was driving because the stories being told were so upsetting and harrowing that I was in real danger of weeping (not good when driving) and/or crashing the car. This isn’t a sterile theological exercise, or an attempt to justify or apologise for God. I have no answer for why He didn’t intervene, and – idolatrous as it is – if I were God I can’t help thinking I would have done something. Yet He didn’t stop the fire. Scores, maybe yet more than a hundred innocent people – some of the babies and children – were burnt to death, many by following the official (and good, in normal circumstances) advice. It has broken our hearts.

There is no easy answer. There may be no answer at all. And it seems to me that there is a serious danger of being insulting and disrespectful to the victims and survivors. I write this entry with the refrain “fools rush in where angels fear to tread” very much in the front of my mind. I also don’t think that God needs defending or justifying, although it is only natural to try to understand how the God of love, the God who is love, can allow these senseless tragedies to happen.

My response in my interview was that God was and is right there. In the incredible stories of sacrifice, courage, and love. In the firefighters entering that building to try and save people. In the money raised, food and clothes offered, accommodation provided. In the neighbours banging and shouting on one another’s doors. He was comforting those who mourn. So while I can’t answer the question “why did God allow this”, I fully affirm that God was there, fully present and suffering with those who suffered. The Bishop spoke (and I paraphrase) of mess – that the world is messy, and God is in the mess. He embraces it. He stretches wide his arms to welcome us, and we see the ultimate expression of God entering into the mess, and stretching wide his arms on the cross, in the person of Jesus Christ.

To go back to my own thoughts, I have also found myself reminded that God is in the business of redemption – which could be described as bringing good things out of bad. Grenfell was unmitigatedly bad, but I have faith that God can, has, and will bring good out of it, as hard as this is to stomach or fathom.

It is worth reflecting that it is increasingly clear that human sin is at the heart of this tragedy – the age old story of the (relatively) rich and powerful thriving so at the expense of the poor and powerless. This story goes back to the Old Testament, and issues of Righteousness and Justice (mishpat and tsadaq in Hebrew), which are close to God’s heart, especially regarding the poor and oppressed. In this case, cheap(er) but highly flammable cladding was used on the building, with no regard for the occupants safety. Please understand, in no way am I talking about punishment – it is the innocent who have suffered. Yet if we do want to point the finger of blame, does it really point to heaven? And, as uncomfortable as it may be, most of us have played a part in creating a society and culture within which events like Grenfell happen. Maybe this is in part what Jesus was getting at in Luke 13, when he responded to a similar question with the answer “repent” (as was pointed out to me by someone else at the retreat).

The fire on the 14th June was a senseless and avoidable tragedy, beyond our comprehension. Yet I also believe this life isn’t the whole story, and that God through Jesus, can redeem and overcome all darkness, as He did that first Easter. But in the meantime I weep with those who weep, do what I can to help, and firmly believe that God is with us in the mess, embracing us and inviting us to sit and eat with him.

Pre-Ordination Retreat

I understand the appeal of poetry – it provides a way to express something that you can’t necessarily put into words, or pin down. However, it’s never been my strong point, so I’m not going to even attempt it, and try and use prose instead!!

Tomorrow afternoon I am going to be ordained Deacon in the Church of England, and I have no real idea of what that means. I mean, I know in practical and theological terms what it means (what I need to wear, the new authority and responsibilities that I will have in the public sphere, that I will become a representative of the Church, etc), but I don’t know what it will mean for me and my family at home, at church, at work, walking down the street, or even for my relationship with God. There’s a small part of me that thinks these things shouldn’t be affected, but a much bigger part that thinks they should, and all of me knows that they will, whatever I may think about it.

I am a little bit nervous, but at the same time at peace. God first called me into ministry some 25 years ago, and I have tried to be faithful to that calling ever since. It has taken various shapes and forms over the years, although with the same thread running throughout – which is helping people draw closer to Jesus, particularly through worship and discipleship. It is only relatively recently that God has started calling me (or perhaps that I’ve accepted that He’s calling me) to exercise this ministry as an ordained person. I have yet to find a satisfying answer to “why” – but I’ve also come to see that it’s not really the right question to ask. His ways are not our ways, and I just wonder if God is more about “who” and “where” and “what” than He is about “why”.

I’m not perfect. I struggle with stuff, I sin, and I’m plain stupid a lot of the time. But I am also redeemed by the redeemer, and He has called be to be a disciple amoung the disciples, and to work on making his beautiful bride into the body He already think she is.

Alleluia.

Commendable

Last weekend I left St Hild College, after completing three years of pre-ordination training, and a theology degree.

I have never formally studied theology before, and it was been a remarkable journey, as I have learnt a whole lot more about the Bible, the Church, and God – although it is probably more accurate to say that I have learnt less about God, however this is a good thing.

It’s also been good to leave well. We left St Andrew’s Church, Starbeck a week or so ago (after ~20 years), and had the chance to say goodbye over tea and cake, and were wonderfully prayed for by the church. Similarly our last weekend at St Hild, which culminated in the great “sending out” of the commendation service, was a very special occasion, and felt like a suitable closure of that particular chapter of life.

Leaving is an strange rite of passage. We have all left things; from going home at the end of party, to moving out of home, or moving on to a new job. My natural inclination is to slip away, and not make a fuss… but that actually denies people the opportunity to say goodbye. It also opens the door to future regrets, “if only I’d have said….”

When saying goodbye, it seems to me that there is a balance to be struck. On the one hand being being fully present; attentive to what is going on, and that this is possibly the last time you will see these people. Living in the moment. Carpe diem, if you will. More than that, it’s about facing up to the reality of it, and looking it in the eye. Yes – I am leaving, this is it, the end. What do I need to do to leave well, without regret. What words do I need to say? What rooms do I need to visit? How am I accepting and marking it?

On the other hand, the danger of being too present and attentive is being overwhelmed by the emotion of it all, which ironically stops you being fully present. You can’t hold  conversations with people if you can’t talk due to sobbing! Don’t get me wrong, grief and tears are important and appropriate; but it is a shame if these get in the way of the good memories, and indeed of the occasion itself. There is time for tears, but this may be the last chance to savour that place and those people, and it’s all too easy to miss out on that, carried on a wave of emotion.

It has also just struck me that Jesus spent some considerable time preparing his disciples for his departure (the so-called Farewell Discourse in John’s Gospel) – and indeed he spent time preparing for his own departure in Gethsemane. Jesus’ message for his discipleship was of encouragement and hope, while acknowledging that the path ahead wasn’t going to be easy. In fact, he promised it would be difficult. But he also promised that he would always be with them in Spirit (which means a lot more than the platitudinous way this phrase is used today).

Life is a journey of endings and beginnings. We have celebrated the good friends and wonderful memories. We have said our goodbyes, with sadness and joy. We have tried to be fully present and leave well.

A New Blog

Welcome to my new blog, which I’m putting together in anticipation of my pending ordination as a Deacon in the Church of England, 1st July 2017 at Bradford Cathedral. I plan to use it for blogging once I’m ordained about matters ecclesial, spiritual, and theological (you have been warned). Pictures of birthday cakes I’ve baked will still go up on my “personal” blog!

Upshot is, at the time of writing, the Rev in the title of this site is a little bit premature, and I shall say no more for now.

In the mean time, if for some reason you are looking for something I’ve written, point your browser at www.eutony.net