community · faith · Poetry · Worship

What’s The Opposite Of Spiritual

This is quite a bit longer than I would usually post … a sermon preached a few weeks ago in Easter week, focussing on the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the importance of an embodied faith, lived out by our spiritual practices.

Thursday Communion 13.4.23 St Catharine’s, Gloucester

Jesus Appears to the Disciples

On the day of resurrection, Jesus had appeared to two disciples on their way home to  Emmaus … after Jesus has left them, they hurry back to Jerusalem to share the news … Luke 24:35

35 Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.

44 Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’


Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”   … touch me and see …

The risen Lord is present with us now as we meet to share in this meal of Holy Communion – bread and wine … now able to be here present in our bodies – a privilege that we appreciate so much more in recent years.   Pause

It’s that aspect of our lives that I’ve been thinking about – we might call it the embodied life.  We had some family time over Easter, and spent hours playing board games … physically present with one another, engaged in an activity that was communal and devoid of screens. Contrast that with what we often see and experience ourselves as we spend time relating to our phones , social media etc.

I remember an occasion when I was a theological student and we were visiting the local church for a seminar.  The vicar led a discussion with us, and at one point (I can’t remember how it came up) he asked us “what is the opposite of Spiritual ?”  We kind of knew that he was laying a trap for us, and I can’t remember if anyone did fall into the trap, but he was expecting someone to say ‘physical.’  The point being – the opposite of spiritual is unspiritual.

And the reason he asked the question is because one of the heresies that have always been around for the church (Gnosticism) is one that sees the physical, material world as bad, creation is fundamentally flawed, even evil, and to be truly spiritual we need to rise above the material world, to escape from the body and become pure spirit.

This heresy was around in the early years of the church, and is still around today. although we may not recognise it easily.

I have a Christian friend who to all appearances is an orthodox Christian – but his view of the climate crisis is that we shouldn’t worry too much about it or put our energies into tackling it because Jesus will return and renew the earth anyway.  And yes, that is a part of our faith, but it’s getting dangerously near to saying that the material world doesn’t matter.

But Christian faith is founded on the material world. Everything about our faith is solid … material .. physical.

God is revealed in creation – The heavens declare the glory of God – psalm 19

God is supremely revealed in the  incarnation – Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh.

And in our Gospel reading we see that even the resurrected body of Jesus is solid, substantial, not an apparition, not a free floating spirit somewhere in the ether.

Just note some of the words in the Gospel reading – hands, feet, touch, flesh, bones, hands, feet (again) eat, fish, eat (again).  This is bodily stuff.  Now I know that there’s much that we simply don’t know about what happens when we die, and what resurrection means for us, but there are some clues here – aren’t there ?

I’ve heard people talk about the spirit leaving the body when we die and having some kind of independent existence as if the body is merely a shell, and not really important for our existence.  But the resurrection of Jesus is not like that – the resurrected Jesus is body mind and spirit … new body for sure, but a resurrection of the body, and not some free floating spirit.

Each of us is made up of body mind and spirit, working together, and the gnostic heresy that tries to elevate the spiritual as something disembodied must be resisted.

There’s a real danger at this moment in time that our spiritual life becomes less embodied, with fewer physical expressions of faith in favour of something interior, private, individualistic.

I enjoy thinking, and reading … stuff that goes on in my head, but I’m more interested in living !  I’m more interested in a faith that is embodied, lived out in material ways.  One of my retired clergy colleagues years ago talked about the way that the life of the spirit, spiritual things are experienced through the material stuff of life.

This includes acts of service to others; being present with others to share our lives; taking creation seriously – enjoying the diversity of all that God has given us, and playing our part in caring for the world.

And it includes our practices in worship – that wonderfully work to keep us true to this embodied faith.  Just think of these actions that embody our faith …

The waters of Baptism; The bread and wine of communion. The posture of our bodies … in our Christian tradition we stand when the Gospel is read, or when we say the creed. We greet one another in the peace – and I have noticed the way the peace is shared in this service – with handshakes and hugs.  

In Lent we have the service of ashing on Ash Wednesday, and the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday. Our Good Friday services are focussed on the bodily crucifixion of the Lord, with crown of thorns, and torture and vinegar.

But there are other practices that might not be so familiar to us – making the sign of the cross, bowing down or kneeling as part of our worship, or raising our hands in praise. Having hands laid on us in a service of healing.  All of these are ways to embody worship, and all touch on something profound that cannot be replicated by the inner workings of the mind.

In the eucharistic prayer there will be pouring of wine, breaking bread and lifting the cup and the bread … bodily actions that reveal something of the heart of our worship.  Do you know ? I think there’s more – you may think of more … but let’s just stop there … 

I’ll finish with a sonnet .. . inspired by this a book of sonnets by poet Malcolm Guite that go through the church year 

Disciples gathered in Jerusalem
When suddenly two friends arrived and said
The Lord had risen and appeared to them
They’d recognised him when he broke the bread
While they were puzzling on the situation
Jesus himself came with his word of Peace
“You look as if you’ve seen an apparition
Do you have anything that I may eat ?
He took the food and ate it while they watched him
“You see a Ghost does not have flesh and bones,
I’ll tell you ev’rything that has been written –
I had to die and rise to take my throne.
Now soon it will be time to say goodbye
Then you’ll be clothed with power from on high”

Later in the service we shared the peace in silence …to focus on the bodily action.
I suggested that for any who are keeping their distance (as we have had to do in the pandemic) that they find a way to make the sharing of the peace a bodily thing, maybe by using the Makaton sign for peace.


N.B. Whilst writing this I came across this article on ‘excarnation,’  Embodied Living in the Age of Excarnation” By Joel Oesch .

The article helped to inform and clarify what I was trying to say and draws on the work of Charles Taylor, who defines excarnation as “the steady disembodying of spiritual life, so that it is less and less carried in deeply meaningful bodily forms, and lies more and more in the head.”

Grace and Peace.

faith · Poetry · Songwriting

It’s Show Not Tell – Again

It’s Show Not Tell – Again

Today is the feast day of Saint John the evangelist.

The Gospel reading set for today is from the end of John’s Gospel:

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 

So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ 

Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 

He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 

Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 

Then the other disciple who reached the tomb first, also went in, and saw and believed.

In the songs that I’ve been writing in the last few years, I have been aware of the power of ‘Show not Tell.’ It seems to me that in poetry and in songwriting, often it’s the less you say, the more you tell. 

John’s Gospel is the most poetic of the four Gospels, and in this sparse retelling of the discovery of the empty tomb, much is left to our imagination.

We understand that the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ is John, but he is not named here. Perhaps we can imagine that by not naming him, it leaves the possibility for us to be a part of the retelling?

Can I, in my imagination, be that unnamed disciple ? What do I see as I look into the tomb ?

All we are told is that he ‘saw and believed.’ This is the ultimate ‘Show not tell’

community · Creativity, · faith · Following Jesus · music · Poetry · Political · Truth · World Affairs

Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors, Teachers,

So – we’ve had a series on church on the different aspects of service that people might be called to. See above.

I was with a group yesterday and we were talking about what an evangelist is. Essentially someone who shares their faith with others. But what struck me as we were talking was the importance of listening to each of these ways of serving.

Apostles are the people who are out in front of a new venture. I was talking to Emma and her husband Andy on Sunday – Emma runs something called the Long Table in Matson (Gloucester), and they were telling me that they spent a long time listening to the community in Matson before setting up the Long Table project.

Prophets are the ones who speak truth to power. Often but not exclusively people involved in the arts – musicians, poets, artists and so on. They are listening carefully to be attuned to what’s going on around them in the world. Movements in the political and cultural sphere; aspects of church that are in danger of, or already have gone off track.

Evangelists sometimes get it wrong by just speaking louder ! To share faith with another human being requires respect and careful listening. Talking with, not talking at.

Pastors are those who have a deep concern for the well being of others. What they offer needs to be connected to the need of the other, not the need of the one offering support. Listening is crucial.

Teachers also sometimes get it wrong – maybe they pitch what they’re trying to communicate at the wrong level, or are just out of sync with those who are learning. Perhaps we should think of this as creating a space for learning. Again, listening to the ones who are learning will help to get this right.

This all might seem glaringly obvious, but it struck me how central listening is to any kind of activity within a community, be that a family, a business, a church, or whatever …

The other thing that I’ve noticed as we’ve been working through this at church is that although some people have a particular ‘gift’ for working in a specific area, all of these ways of serving are open to any of us. So ….

Get your creative juices going and try something new
Try to be informed about what’s going on in the world – but it can be tricky to know who’s truth telling …
Think about your passions and who might be interested in sharing that passion
Think about the people in your networks, and how you can be a caring presence
We all have wisdom, knowledge and experience to share with others … how’s that going ?

But don’t burn out ! Maybe at some point you’ll notice an area where you shine, and you can give the major part of your energy to that.

Grace and peace.

faith · music · Poetry · World Affairs

People Sitting Around For Safety

I read this today in the most recent issue of ‘Mojo’ magazine.

It comes from an interview with musician and producer T Bone Burnett, where he speaks of an aspect of the role of artists. It is something to do with looking at our world through a particular set of lenses and reflecting that back – a role that is often challenging and sometimes not well received.

“Artists have to be careful – and I say this as a Christian who loves all mankind (laughs). We have to be careful of letting the audience determine what we do. Society is a campfire that people sit around for safety and warmth. They gather, and they stay there. Artists are the ones who hear the scary noise in the darkness, go out and find out what it is. If artists just sit around the campfire with everybody else, you just have a bunch of campfire music.”

I would say that the same is true of others, including many of those who take faith seriously. Our poets, pastors, preachers and prophets are called to do the same. To be a channel for words of challenge as well as words of comfort.

Climate Change · Ecology · Poetry

Receive This Cross Of Ash

Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. A few years ago, I took ashes out into the town centre and offered ‘Ashes To Go.” – taking the ashes from last year’s Palm crosses and offering the sign of the cross to anyone who was willing to receive it. Ashes are a reminder that in the end, we all turn to dust. That reminder of our mortality, can be a signpost to turn to God, the ground of all our being.

One of my readings today was from Malcolm Guites book of sonnets, that traces the church year, with a sonnet for different seasons. He has written a sonnet for Ash Wednesday.

Receive this cross of ash upon your brow
Brought from the burning of Palm Sunday’s cross;
The forests of the world are burning now
And you make late repentance for the loss.
But all the trees of God would clap their hands,
The very stones themselves would shout and sing,
If you could covenant to love these lands
And recognise in Christ their lord and king.
He sees the slow destruction of those trees,
He weeps to see the ancient places burn,
And still you make what purchases you please
And still to dust and ashes you return.
But Hope could rise from ashes even now
Beginning with this sign upon your brow.

Below is a short extract of the introduction to the sonnet that he originally wrote for it when wrote it over ten years ago. He has reposted the sonnet with a new sense of urgency here on today’s blog post.

As I set about the traditional task of burning the remnants of last Palm Sunday’s palm crosses in order to make the ash which would bless and sign our repentance on Ash Wednesday, I was suddenly struck by the way both the fire and the ash were signs not only of our personal mortality and our need for repentance and renewal but also signs of the wider destruction our sinfulness inflicts upon God’s world and on our fellow creatures, on the whole web of life into which God has woven us and for which He also cares.

faith · LIterature · Poetry · Songwriting · Storytelling

The Emergence Of A Song

It has been a few weeks since I completed writing the most recent song – The Seige of Gloucester, so I was beginning to wonder when the inspiration was going to come for a new song.

As the song began to take shape, I thought it would be interesting to track the development of the song.

Falling back on a method I have used in the past, I decided to pick up a book that I read many years ago – ‘Ragman and other cries of faith.’ – a collection of stories by author Walter Wangerin.

In one of the stories, so beautifully written, I noticed some particular phrases that drew me in, from which I wrote the following lines:

Living in a shotgun house
Three rooms in a dead straight line
Built on just a half a city lot


They listened to his heart
Never told him what they heard
Just some scribbles on a chart

It seemed that I had the beginnings of a song here. A shotgun house is one where you can see all the way through from the front door to the back. You could fire a gun through both open doors! A bit like a traditional terraced house where I live. Although it’s not ‘my language,’ I like the sound of shotgun house, so I’ll stick with that.

Now I had to consider – did I want to try and write a song that follows this story ? That would feel forced to me. It would feel like I would have to ‘steal’ even more from this story, when all I was looking for was a starting point. I would rather let the song emerge.

Some songwriters (Joe Henry among them) talk about the song existing already, and the art of the songwriter is to bring the song to birth.

So … I’m looking for this song to emerge.

I noticed in another book I’m reading these words: “She’d never really thought about the way the dead would gather at the edge of a town, all their names spelled out so you’d know whose they were for as long as that family lived in that place …. And there she would be, after so many years, waiting in sunlight, all covered in roses.”

I wrote down these words:
Gathered at the edge of town,
Remembered after many years
waiting in the spring sunlight

While the Walter Wangerin story was about the experience of a young church minister visiting an elderly man, today I began to try and discern the story that was beginning to take shape here. It seemed that this was going to be a story about a life. Some of that life would have been lived in a ‘shotgun house;’ there would be a verse about being in hospital for some heart investigations, and a verse set in the cemetery at ‘the edge of town.’

Later on today, we were out walking along the North Wales coastal path, and I was mulling over where I had got to with this song. I was thinking about the roses growing around the headstone in the cemetery in the quote above, and thought perhaps the song should have a chorus, and that roses could appear in a slightly different way in each chorus ?

Then another thought came to mind. I suddenly had the image of the shotgun house, with the three rooms, one behind the other, all in a ‘dead straight line.’ Other images came into my imagination … maybe three headstones in the cemetery ‘in a dead straight line,’ and maybe an image of three children. ‘Standing in a line’ in a photograph. I have a photograph of my mum, Nancy, and her siblings, all eight of them, standing in a line, one behind the other – from the eldest at the back – Mary, Wilfred, Bessie, Bertha, Bernard, Margaret, Ruth, Nancy, Hugh.

That’s as far as I’ve got … but I thought I’d try and make a record of the process …
Hopefully I’ll come back soon with a completed song, or at least more of the process.

faith · Grace · Poetry · Storytelling · suffering · Truth

Full Of Wonder And Mystery

I’ve just started reading Marilynne Robinson’s book – ‘Lila.’ Set in the town of Gilead in Iowa, it has the feel of other novels I’ve read recently. (The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, and Devisadero by Michael Ondaatje). All of the books are written with the skill of a story teller and the language of a poet.

As someone who believes in the grace of God that surrounds and covers us, I was struck by these words, spoken by her pastor husband.

…. No. No, it isn’t. I think you are asking me these questions because of some hard things that have happened, the things you won’t talk about. If you did tell me about them, I could probably not say more than that life is a very deep mystery, and that finally the grace of God is all that can resolve it. And the grace of God is also a very deep mystery.” He said, “You can probably tell I’ve said these same words too many times. But they’re true, I believe.” He shrugged, and watched his finger trace the scar on the table.

Grace and peace.

Creativity, · Poetry · Prayer

Prayer Before A Locked Door

We met with some friends on Zoom yesterday to share some thoughts about writing our own psalms.
This is more of a poem than a prayer, but poems and prayers are often very similar

A lock – a lock of hair
a reminder of the first time that we cut her hair
kept in a small box
If I ever open the box,
the feeling is one of precious memory

A lock – on the canal, just down the road
I remember standing, watching an older couple
suddenly burst into action
she on the rudder
he on the bank, shoulder to the whatever you call it
opening the lock gate
to allow the journey to continue

A lock – a lock in actually
not that I’ve experienced one for a very long time
– a surreptitious gathering after closing time
when we were invited to stay
and have another drink, or two, or three, or more
feeling a sense of belonging on a Saturday night

A lock – something that stops you
you stand before it without the key
wanting to open that door
to see what’s on the other side
but you either can’t find the key
or maybe it’s genuinely lost for ever
or maybe it doesn’t even exist

A lock – a locket
contains something that’s close to your heart
it’s always there around my neck
even when that door is closed

Art and Design · community · Creativity, · Poetry · Prayers

Are You A Creative Person ?

If you saw my previous post – a photo of a padlock on a rotting wooden door … I wonder what it made you think of ?

On Thursday last week, I started on a four week exploration of creativity with Jonny Baker. It’s just an hour a week on Zoom to help get the creative brain working.

The first thing we were asked was – “Do you think of yourself as creative ?”
Then he asked – “Do you think that everyone is creative ?”

I wonder how you would answer ?

We then spent some time listening to three people, telling us a bit about their creative endeavours.

We were then asked to come up with some ideas about how to combat loneliness in our neighbourhood whilst this lockdown is going on. Within a minute the chat in Zoom was full of ideas.

I’m guessing that most of the 270 participants were churning out ideas … but how good to have other people thinking about it with you. We were encouraged to have a conversation with someone in the week – either carrying on the ideas about cobatting loneliness … or whatever …

On a similar track, together with a few friends, we’re sharing some ideas about psalm writing. The psalms is a book of prayers in the Bible, and one of our friends suggested we worked on writing some of our own. The psalms usually come out of some intense experience of life … I’m working on that today in preparation for the chat with our friends tomorrow when we share our thoughts.

Grace and peace.

By the way – Tomorrow I’ll post my morning prayer for Monday, and then post each day through this week.