& Practice 9
SERMONS THROUGH THE SEASONS
Starting in 1988 and for upwards of ten years, my paid job was to be a fulltime lecturer and tutor in the Department of the Built Environment on the Chelmsford, Essex campus of Anglia Polytechnic University, currently known as APU1. As a Minister of the United Reformed Church, my `Additional Voluntary Contribution '2 to the life of the University was to be a member of the University Chaplaincy Team.
Often on Sundays I was invited to lead worship and preach in United Reformed and sometimes other Churches in the Chelmsford area. In preaching it was my practice when appropriate to relate to the particular season of the Christian year draw on my day job experiences and use the building metaphors that often came readily to mind. I found that gradually I had built up a comprehensive set of sermons and similar material covering the complete Christian year. It is a selection of these that I have brought together here.
I hope that this will be an encouragement to others who `work' from Monday to Friday and `preach' on Sunday both to persist and be creative in the discipline of relating work and preaching to one another in ways that convey relevance and connection and to contribute to coherence and wholeness in life.
1 – 9th SUNDAY BEFORE
AESTHETICS AND USEFULNESS
Although Satan has no victory now, he does still have influence. His influence is to bring about a tension and a contradiction between the beauty of things and the usefulness of things, of trees and of all things. Satan's work destroys the balance and the harmony.
A few years ago I spent some time trying to establish a biblical angle on the question of the quality of buildings. Should buildings just be useful? Should houses just be machines for living in, schools for learning in and so on? Was that the prime emphasis, the satisfying of human social need? Or do buildings have to have another quality, a quality of beauty, of pleasing-ness to the eye? We make some of our buildings completely, and most of our buildings partly, with timber, with the tree. Does it not follow that we, with the breath of the spirit of God in us, must use the timber of his making in ways that have regard to both delight to the eye and practical usefulness?
Of course, there is a debate about what is
pleasing to the eye. Certain things are ugly by any
stretch of the imagination. We may think many of the
housing tower blocks of the 1960's to be ugly. We may or
may not think the Canary Wharf tower and adjacent
development pleasing. You may or may not incline to
traditional views of what is pleasing, such as that of
the Prince of Wales. Such divergence in view is part of
the richness, indeed a gift from God. To me, what makes
something pleasing depends on many aspects, including
the place, the setting, the environment. An
understanding of beauty and pleasingness is something to
be searched for and struggled for in the company of the
These struggles are part of the agenda of education. Education has to equip us for recognizing beauty and pleasing-ness, usefulness and practicality, when we see them. It needs to be a mixed and balanced process.
In one sense, Eden is the story of the
world's beginning. In another sense, it is the vision of
the end, of the destination towards which God is
inexorably drawing us and all creation. Part of the
final ascription of glory and praise to the creator by
all things, will be the completed works of mankind,
architecture and all other things, beautiful and useful,
echoing those trees of Eden, pleasing to the eye and
good for use, created by God and seen by Adam.
For me the last ten days has been a long time. Things have happened which have led me and others involved with me to new ways of thought and feeling.
Last Tuesday I took a party of students to
meet a very interesting building and development company
in Cambridge, to hear about a scheme they are preparing
for a high quality office development to be built 10
miles or so outside Cambridge.
This was fascinating for various reasons.
First the designers are starting by asking people who
might work there what really makes an office building
good to work in. Second the office will be built around
two lakes, former gravel pits, which are specially
protected areas for birds and wild life, and which are
to be retained as key features of the development, to be
enjoyed by those working there and by the public. Most
importantly, this was a young firm, made up of young
people, adopting a fresh and, to my mind, an
extraordinarily good approach.
Over the following few days, several
students said, in effect, We've never seen anything
quite like that before. Our lives and careers could be
like that. We could do that sort of thing. We don't
necessarily have to be cogs in some gigantic
money¬making wheel which is insensitive to people and
the natural word.' Those students were experiencing a
changed mode of thought and feeling.
This same ten-day period has brought to us
the tragic death of a gifted and delightful young
student, just eighteen years old. He fell accidentally
from a moving train. This was a most awful experience
for his fellow students and for us his tutors. As one
colleague said to me, `It makes you look at everything
in an absolutely different light'. We experienced
metanoia, a change of mode of thought and feeling.
At the funeral on Friday morning in his
family church, the Roman Catholic priest looked into the
eyes of Michael's fellow University students and old
school friends and said, `In the faith of the Church,
you must respond to this event by living your own lives
with great joyfulness and with great generosity'. That
for me was the crucial Christian perspective that
changes all other modes of thought and feeling. You look
accident, death and tragedy in the face and say, `I will
live with joy and generosity'.
In ten days, these three events: an example
of a outstanding approach to office design and building,
the discovery of a cathedral as a blaze of colour, a
riot of blue, and tragedy confronted head on by the
faith of the Church. Each shifts the way things are
seen. In such shifts, God comes. Come, Lord Jesus!
Now, if we are going to build a road for God, it had better be worthy of him, it had better be the best we can do, it had better be worship. If it is supposed to be level, it had better be level. When the Egyptians built the pyramids they got the bases level to within a very few millimetres by flooding the site with water and measuring down from the water surface. Today surveyors use highly complex electronic equipment and incredible accuracy is achievable. There can be a level road in the wilderness for our God. If it's for God it had better not crack up; that means good quality concrete. It had better not start to sink where it is built over filling or soft ground; that means good workmanship and good drainage.
Not only is God going to come along this road, there is a further test, `all mankind together will see it'. So it is going to be an extremely public `public work'. The journalists are going to be there and they are going to ask us how we discharged our road-building trust.
How many lives did we lose in the process? Seventeen as in the Channel Tunnel so far, or more, or less? The sanctity of life, the care for the worker, the man who has to go into the dangerous situation where water can suddenly rush in if proper care is not taken...
Or what, we must consider, about the
powerless small firms carrying out specialist parts of a
project and who can have their money willfully withheld
by large contractors who keep it in the bank for a short
time and earn interest on it unjustly? If this is a
highway for our God and we are entrusted with making it,
we must use powers with restraint and with justice.
We shall soon be using the new Dartford
Bridge across the Thames, a `public work' being built
with private money. Is that money being offered as
though to build a highway for our God?
This highway for God about which we are
thinking - is it just a prophet's imaginative vision or
is it real? Is it every road that is now being built,
from the M40 extension from Oxford to Birmingham, to
very minor projects? I remember last year watching men
rebuilding the bridge that carried a tiny lane over a
river in the Lake District. Is that too a highway for
The Advent experience of God in Christ,
suggests that the great road projects and the smallest,
seen as worship, can indeed become highways for God.
I was particularly struck by the references to the walls and the gates. Isaiah writes of foreigners rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and of the gates being open continuously, never shut by day or night. John sees a great high wall, a wall of jasper. In the wall are twelve gates, never shut by day, and there is no night. In both texts the walls are very prominent, but in conjunction with gates open all the time?
I think that if I were the public auditor,
the person responsible for seeing that public money has
been properly spent, I would be asking why gates are
needed when they are going to be left open all the time.
And, further, if the gates are to be left open, why are
walls needed at all? This does not appear to be a proper
use of public money. It ought to be spent on something
else, or left in the pockets of the taxpayers. It seems
economic madness to build a city wall, a very high one
at that, and of jasper, not mere brick or stone rubble,
and then leave the gates open all day, and if there is a
night, all night.
Half-way round the M25 from that building, another oil company is also building an office block. This is being faced with Bath stone, a long-lasting material. The stone, we learnt, had been quarried in Somerset, sent in its rough state to Ireland where it was cut, dressed and prepared for the building, and then shipped back to England. That too was economically rational but it is still something of a funny approach.
It would be absurd to judge the city walls and gates of Jerusalem on the basis of economic rationalism. Isaiah and John are taking us into a different world, a world of symbols and deep meanings. The City of God must have walls for it is a place of gathering. In Revelation the wealth and splendour of the nations are brought into it. It is to be the home of those whose names are on the roll of the living. Isaiah's picture is fuller - of the sons and daughters of the city flocking towards it. Coming too are the wealth of nations and the riches of the sea, gold and frankincense, flocks and rams, all for the honour of the Lord our God. The high jasper walls signify the embracing, gathering arms of God. The gates are open to welcome all who come to God, whether by day or by night.
In our world, rational economics, the
financial calculation, is too often looked upon as the
final arbiter of what is good, right and appropriate. At
Epiphany it is shown to us that there are depths of
truth and meaning, not least in walls and gates, of
which economics cannot speak.
I want to reflect with you on my experience as a Christian Minister working within the community of students and staff of the Anglia Polytechnic University here in Chelmsford - my world.
I do most of my work in the Department of the Built Environment. Some of our students are going to be builders or engineers or planners. Others will do work concerned with housing. Yet others are concerned with how we develop or conserve rural areas. Our perspective is worldwide. Here is young, gifted human creativity at its best. The source of that creativity is God and its object, although it does not always perceive it, is for most of the time something that I would call the glory of God. That amazes and humbles me. It all looks so prosaic and mundane, yet it is becoming revelation of the glory of God.
Our Department is rich in Christian people. I can walk along the staff offices' corridor and know that many of the people there are committed to Christ, some formally through baptism, confirmation and church membership, others less explicitly but no less completely. Alongside these people are other colleagues who share totally the Christian ethic but are more open and sceptical about the doctrine and belief from which it flows.
There is there a love and deep concern for the student body and a great commitment to good and honourable building work and building business. There is commitment to understanding and improving the complexities of the housing market, housing finance and the meeting of housing need. There is commitment to the wise and imaginative stewardship of the countryside, developing in one place, conserving in another. In these commitments, rarely spoken of, but quietly and painstakingly worked out, the inner church of the believers and the outer church of the love-¬filled sceptics, are one. One in commitment to the task. One in integrity. One in the optimism and hope for the future, which faith and sincerity alone make possible. One in recognition that we are for ever missing the mark, and yet being enabled to grow daily a little more towards it. In this daily task of being the Church there is no Anglican or Quaker, no Reformed or Orthodox, no Roman Catholic or Baptist, no ordained and no lay. There is simply the Body of Christ.
But there is also, sadly, a 'not-yet-oneness'. We cannot fully gather our practical discipleship into worship. We cannot yet, as one body, offer and break the one bread, offer and share the one cup. We cannot yet take one loaf and see it as the embodiment of all that we build with our hands and our materials, which through the great Prayer of Thanksgiving becomes Christ's body, and through our communion, our body, our work, our building. That oneness is not yet.
So, to me, being a Minister within a
University community and within a particular Department,
is one of the greatest privileges and joys of my life
but it is, at the same time, a source of great sorrow,
one that is hard to bear. I pray that we may come soon
to oneness, so that the world, and all our particular
worlds, may know the fullness of the glory that has
already been given to them.
It seems to me that faith and education are two of the most human aspects of life. To be able to reach out to God in faith and be educated both to understand and reason about what happens in the world and to respond artistically and creatively, that is to be human.
Making connections is not an easy task. It is easy to say `Let's get on with being faithful without worrying ourselves about all the scenarios presented by education' or `Let's get on with education... anyway, what has faith got to do with maths, science, technology, literature and all else that makes up a curriculum?'
In a way, struggling to make connections is like eating the bread of adversity or drinking the water of affliction. Isaiah says that it is just at those points we discover that God does not keep himself out of sight. The way may be rough but God will be seen and will be heard.
University students of Building often ask
‘What is reality?' Just now, answers include:
If you can accept that in faith, you can come to see that reality is not all bad and black. There are pockets of good and currents of goodness. I can point to some right here in this town of Chelmsford. (My examples must have been given off the cuff - no notes kept!)
Faith says, `Go into education. Go where people are learning to build. Face up to the blackness of reality. But look beyond it to the activity of God and to all the goodness which, through his grace, is and is coming to be.'
Churches sometimes send their own special
people into schools, colleges and universities to
deliver their special message. I thank God with all my
heart for people like that. But the real responsibility
for bringing faith to bear, at rock bottom lies with the
people involved - school governors, university
governors, school and college staff, active and involved
parents and above all students themselves.
The affirmation of this day, Education
Sunday, is that the link between faith and education is
indissoluble. Education deals in realities that can be
exceedingly grim. But God is more real than any reality.
God is good.
The central question is, `Why are employment and jobs matters of crucial importance?'
Often in the morning I pass a car carrying
the sticker `I owe, I owe so off to work I go'. We go to
work for money to pay the bills. They keep coming, even
though they may change their name from poll tax to
council tax! To be able to pay one's bills is adult,
mature, responsible and dignified. Employment and money
are necessary for well-being.
A few years ago, researchers at Loughborough University carried out a study on the motivations of bricklayers. As you would expect, one of the most important motivators was money. This was run a very close second by the opportunity to do good work, to be constructive, creative and useful. That is the second bind with unemployment, it takes away the opportunity to do something constructive.
On Channel 4 on Monday evening, there was a
programme about a man of 40 with motor neurones disease.
His muscles had wasted and his speech had become
unintelligible. Life had lost all point. Then he was
given a computer. Using a pointer strapped to his
forehead he became able to write. All his life he had
wanted to be a writer. Now he could! His wife said: `Now
his writing is as if it were his work. It's his work,
his creativity, his contribution. His work is published.
He has become a Writer!'
Last Saturday's newspaper included a fascinating article about a monastery of the Coptic Church in Egypt. The monks' prayer regime is rigorous, including a 4-5 hour morning liturgy starting at 3.30 am. But what of the monks' work? Many of them are graduates, highly qualified in agriculture and engineering. They have a major research programme into how the deserts of Upper Egypt, the Sudan and other parts of northern Africa can be effectively farmed. This work is crucial, bearing in mind the projected growth of desert areas as climates change.
I believe this monastery's purpose and credibility lie in the interweaving of its prayer regime and its urgent and practical research programme. I believe it is the destiny of every man and woman to know in their own experience the indivisibility of work and prayer.
Statistically, unemployment may go down. Please God it will. The message has constantly to be reiterated:
Every person should have employment so as
I want to reflect with you on Psalm 15. It holds before us a picture of great personal integrity - doing what is right, speaking the truth, not wronging a fellow, holding to an oath even to one's own hurt, integrity in lending money, not engaging in bribery.
It is my judgement that in the world of building there is a small minority who would say that they had no interest in living their business or professional lives in the spirit of that psalm. They consciously do bad work and engage in sharp practice when it suits them to do so.
There is another minority who, although they would never say so, are on the right track towards living out that ideal. They are the people who get invited back to do another job because their work is sound and their prices fair. They are reliable. Others enjoy working with them.
But who are the majority? They are those who look at the portrait in this Psalm and say, `yes.. but..'. There are, I think, two main `buts'. First there is the `but' of the person - builder, carpenter, bricklayer, architect, sales person - who says wistfully and longingly, `I do want my life from Monday to Friday to be like that but the gap is so wide.' Second there is the `but' of the jocular person, far from dishonest or exploitive in any way but who maintains that the psalmist does not understand the real world.
Both the wistful person and the jocular
feel themselves to be the victims of the systems in
which they have to work.
Perhaps our prayer for the first minority
is that God will forgive them. But even more our prayer
has to be that he will forgive us for not holding the
light high enough to enable them to see.
With the majority, our prayer needs to
recognize that Satan, as it were, can get inside our
systems and corrupt them, and ask for strength to
Let me tell you a story.
Once there was an authority who needed three blocks of flats refurbishing, two of 21 storeys and one of 22 storeys. For whatever reason, the contractor's prices turned out to be too low, bringing him the risk of substantial losses. Fortunately for him, the whole contract had to be re-measured. He hoodwinked the authority into paying him for two blocks of 22 storeys and one of 21 storeys, thereby making his contract profitable.
Allegedly true, but whether true or not,
that story has hyperbolic power. What, I ask this URC
District Council, must be our prayer of penitence in
relation to it - the individuals involved, the
contracting company, the public authority,' the system',
and most of all us, the Church?
Ezekial likens such behaviour to the
negligence and incompetence of people who build a wall
in loose stones and fail to daub, render or plaster it
on the outside against the weather. They deceptively
just whitewash it. When the bad weather comes, it drives
straight into the stonework and before long the wall
collapses to become a heap of stones once more.
Last summer, I was in the University Management Library in the Old Bishop's Palace at Danbury browsing through back copies of the Harvard Business Review. I lingered long over an article called The Shaping Hand by one John Safer, a banker by profession, a sculptor for his hobby. He commented, as many do, on Michelangelo's sculpture of King David. Michelangelo observed that the image of David had always been inside the marble and it was the sculptor's job to let it out, to give it its freedom. It is, I believe, our ministry to one another to see in one another, the person, the design, that God put there and help it to come out. We serve God when we help the people in our office or in our class or down our street to come out of the marble and we sin when we don't.
In her text The David Solution coincidently
reviewed in that particular edition of the Harvard
Business Review, the management lecturer and consultant
Valerie Stewart gives another quotation from the great
artist, `You take the block of marble, and with your
chisels and other tools, you chip away everything that
is unlike David, so that at the end of your chipping,
you are left with David, a perfect likeness' 6.
Valerie Stewart says that in the course of her work she
sees many people encrusted by a whole mass of material
that prevents them from being their true selves. She is
particularly concerned for people who become encrusted
with bureaucracy, procedures, rules and fears and a
million reasons why this, that and the other thing
cannot possibly be done. Her longing is to chip away all
that prevents people from being and creating, and to
enable them to discover themselves. Such encrustation
and imprisonment is one of the states of sin from which
God longs to set us free.
This Lent, let us let one another come out of enclosing, encrusting marble of every kind and let us repent of our over-rigidities and bring the ebbs and flows of water to bear in all aspects of our lives. In doing so, we shall experience something of the divine forgiveness for all sinful ways of thought and behaviour which make us out of tune with God.
In our prayers we will use the 13th
century hymn containing the line, Flecte quod est
rigidum, What is rigid, gently bend. And we remember
that the rainbow, God's mercy sign, is not a rigid line
but an all-encompassing arc.
At the top of our road was a large house with a large garden, a doctor's house when I was a child and more recently a family house. 12-18 months ago it was sold to a developer and later this summer some 13 flats will be ready for sale, according to the estate agents board that has gone up this week. Let's just unpack that story a bit to note all the people involved:
• The people who sold to
Like most human stories, this one will have had its good side: work well done, consideration for fellow workers, relationships that have shown quiet integrity and fairness about money. And doubtless it will have had its bad side too. The point we are making today is that it is within the scope of the forgiveness and renewal offered by God in Christ.
Turning from re-development, let us look at the use of fields. This term some students concerned with rural land use and I have been considering some scenarios. One concerned the projected use of two fields for microlite flying. This is a hobby for a few and relatively affluent people but the noise and intrusion of it will affect everyone in the nearby village. Would this possible change of land use from agriculture to leisure be a good change? Would it be good before God?
Another scenario was from a developing country where fields were being purchased from local people for the building of holiday hotels, in which people from rich countries could come to spend their holidays. Again the question is `Is this good and, from a Christian perspective, good before God?'
The imagery of vineyards is very significant at passion-tide: vineyards, grapes, wine, the blood of Christ. Dare we buy and sell, or is that too terrifying even to contemplate? In some ways, yes. Yet if we have reached out and taken the forgiveness that is offered, the buying and selling will slowly become filled with the grace, courtesy, consideration, justice, trust, respect love .... and that will be the Kingdom of God.
This passion-tide, look around you. Observe
and see into all that goes on in relation to the buying
and selling and using of houses, fields and vineyards.
Think how the blood of Christ forgives, cleanses and
renews even these particular parts of our lives. Your
looking, seeing and praying becomes part of the removal
of what Hebrews calls `the deadness of former ways.
Jeremiah's time, the time of the Kingdom, will be
If the wall is to be fairly thick, in the middle will be put all the small, fragmented bits of stone bedded in mortar. On the two faces of the wall will be reasonably sized pieces of stone cut to regular shapes, dressed on the surface and built to the profile of the wall. Around windows and doorways, the bigger stones may be used to give the wall both stability and a good and interesting appearance.
Most important of all are the comers. The biggest, best and strongest stones are used here. Strong, well-built comers give resistance against the wind and ensure stability. Whatever may blow down, the comers must not. The base stone at the bottom of the comer is in a most crucial position. The mason will search long and thoroughly until he finds the best possible stone for that position.
In the stone family there is an ascending
hierarchy from the rubble infill, through the wall
facings and window dressings, to the comers of the
building and the cornerstones themselves. One can
imagine the supper table conversation in the stone
household, `If you don't get on with your homework, all
you'll be fit for is to be the rubble in the middle.
Look at your sister, she's sorted herself out and has
become an attractive facing stone.' Every stone parent
will want its stone child to be a cornerstone. And some
will grow up with such an ambition.
Work commences and gradually other stones are built up around you and above you. You become what you are destined to be, the cornerstone. Your strength is recognized. Your true value is no longer in question. People come and see the building in all the beauty of its architecture. They look at you, the cornerstone, and see that it is you, in the crucial position, who make the structure possible. Once you were rejected and despised but now... now you have become not only a cornerstone, a dead thing, but a living stone.. You become the source and basis of the life of the building.
This is the strange pattern of Holy Week,
rejection, the rubbish tip outside the city wall but
then rescue and transformation. That was the way for
Jesus. It is, I believe, the true way for the world.
All this is created and re-created in Christ, the one first to return from the dead, who brings it all back to life, back to its pristine newness. This is not reconstruction or restoration as a builder might think of it but transformation. The resurrection body of Jesus, the body to which Mary was told not to cling, wasn't simply the old body brought back into use. Perhaps it was the same material and it was clearly recognizable but it was transformed, different. It was the same but different in quality, capable of going on from resurrection to ascension.
I believe that is the same for the whole creation - all the natural things, for human beings, for human civilizations and even for gold - what will be raised in the new creation will be them, themselves, recognizable, but them transformed by the agency of re-creating love.
Let's think about gardens. A couple of
weeks ago we had a farewell party for two colleagues of
mine. One of our secretaries invited us to her home and
garden. You go up a lane or track, past the home of the
local MP (a Cabinet Minister) and come to this beautiful
house and garden. This garden is its owner's pride and
joy, to which she gives much time and care. Somehow, in
the economy of God, this Essex garden will become part
of the resurrection. It will go through a transformation
process from which it will emerge itself yet wholly new.
What of gold? Genesis speaks of the land of Havilah where good gold is to be found. Someone I know comes from an Arab family. They love their inherited gold jewellery. It is made from gold as it is found, not as processed by laws and industries. The worth of gold is in both its natural qualities and in what is done with it, whether for good purposes or bad. In the resurrection, gold for what it is in itself and for what is done with it, will be recognizable but transformed into a new kind of beauty and goodness.
So our Easter vision is of gardens and their people, houses and their people, gold and its people, river valleys and their civilizations, all held together, all transformed. No longer drifting off on their own, no longer fragmented, shattered and splintered but held together. That is the supreme quality of the resurrection transformation, it brings together, it holds together.
The Lord is risen and together with him the
whole creation will be transformed but still clearly
Just after Easter our task is one of seeing and looking, not just now of doing. The doing has been God's. Later, we can come to doing what we have seen.
Water flowing through the wilderness. There
was a programme last Sunday evening about water in the
Yemen, not that far from Galilee. The rain comes in a
monsoon-like season and has to be husbanded and shared.
A great deal falls on the high levels. Over the years
the people have learned to control, to manage, the flow
to the lower levels. Channels are constructed and
maintained, with gates and small dams. First, the
mountain water is for the use of the farmers on the high
ground; then it is released to the lower hills; and
finally to the flat lands. This all takes place under
the direction of a Water Master.
Tragedy. But what is now happening is the renewal of gentleness, a renewal of the sense of inter-dependence, a renewal of the wise authority of the Water Master. Technical and economic aid from the ourselves and the Dutch is simple and appropriate.
This is not just an illustration of the new life of the resurrection, it is part of it. You watch your TV and you see God's new life happening.
What of the wild beasts? A few days ago I was in an office here in Great Baddow, only a few minutes walk away from this church. The people there were talking to me about some of our major construction projects and how sometimes they can become like a jungle. Every firm involved behaves like a wild beast, out for itself and its own advantage, preying on others. I was reminded of the 1930's US Christain teacher, Reinhold Niebuhr, who commented on the brutality, as he sees it, of all human organizations.
But now, in all Schools of Business and
Management, including our own at Danbury Park and
Chelmsford, there is a groundswell in the study of
business ethics. A new generation of people and firms is
fast growing, determined not to behave like wild animals
in the jungle but to look for a new integrity and new
ways towards mutual trust. You can, if you like, say
this is just cosmetic or you can say `I see God, God
doing a new thing, God already here'.
Praise God for it - and point it out to
other people. It's a way of saying `Christ is risen!'
Ezekial condemns the negligent: feeding themselves, not the flock; failing to care for sick and weak sheep; failing to bring back the strays and look for the lost; letting the sheep scatter and become preyed upon by wild animals. In a word, not bothering.
John sees a bad shepherd too: a thief and a
brigand. He is not taken notice of by the sheep; sheep
do not feel they belong to him; he abandons them; they
are attacked and scattered. He is not concerned; he is
like a hired man.
I am thinking just now of the 37 mainly
young people who have been my tutorial responsibility
from October through to March, the academic part of
their `sandwich' programme. Many of them have been away
from home for the first time, testing themselves in a
higher education environment, being responsible in their
own lives and work, coping with family problems which
have included divorcing parents and the death of a
parent. And their own problems, including one case of
having to go to court for being drunk and disorderly!
As they go off to their first six-month
industrial period, I wonder whether I and my colleagues
have prepared them enough for the choices that will face
them. Only on Friday a Sussex and London builder said to
You have to choose
where you are going to be in the values hierarchy. You
can choose to run your business at or beyond the
boundaries set by the law. Or you can elect to be a
pleasant rogue. Or you can elect to be a firm of high
integrity, high standards and high trust You have to
know what your standards are.
Young professionals are themselves destined
to become shepherds. Have I, have we, helped them to
begin to develop the kinds of voice and ways that will
make them, in their turn, good shepherds?
Last Sunday I was in Coventry and was able to go to a service in the Cathedral. The building has always moved me, the new, modem cathedral standing at right angles to the retained shell of the gothic building heavily bombed in the 1940's, the two forming one whole.
After the service and the welcome coffee, I walked quietly round the old building. What struck me was the little chapels around the sides. Each of the medieval craft and trade guilds had its chapel where, as I understand it, it could remember its former members before God and have meetings about ordinary, workaday matters.
Next I walked across the road to the Guildhall of St Mary, a hall for the Mercers, Drapers, Fullers and Tanners. It is the place where for 600 years Mayors and Lord Mayors of Coventry have been elected. One of the main features of the building is a tapestry which includes the figures of St Mary the mother of Jesus and the twelve apostles.
What to me is important about both the old cathedral and the Guildhall is that they unify the worship of God, the business of the guilds and local government, exemplified in the election of each Lord Mayor.
I went on my way to the car park, noting
the extreme emptiness of the city centre. Not a shop,
not an office was open. Everyone was at home in the
suburbs, mowing the lawn and roasting the beef. Just a
few police officers were around.
Then suddenly the bells of the Cathedral began to ring out, presumably in greeting to the new Council. To me the bells were doing more than that. They were calling the City to discover again the unity of worship, industry and local government. They were not calling nostalgically to the Mercers, Fullers, Tanners and Drapers but to the Barclays, the Debenhams, the Abbey National and the multitude of small shops and offices there in today's business precinct, calling them into the relationship with God which challenges, transforms and gives a new kind of value to their commercial lives.
Jesus says, `You will know suffering in the world'. Part of that suffering today is that we have largely separated commerce, industry, local government and worship from one another.
We cannot go back to medieval England and to its kind of unity. We must search for ways forward. We must discover in our time the unity of commerce and industry, civic life and worship which give form and expression to the unity God gives in Christ.
He has already overcome the dividedness!
God is prepared .... to visit, to enter into the darkest and deepest ravages of human accountability, into those places where the earth bums with the devastating power of pollution and waste, into the shadows of human existence where violence discovers its power8
We have to relate this general truth to our
own experience and anchor it in the particular reality
that we know.
One of the greatest safety hazards is the
ground itself and the work processes carried in the
ground and under the ground. This matter has been
focused for the public recently in relation to the
Channel Tunnel where there have been six deaths in the
last eighteen months and, over a somewhat longer period,
some 300 reportable (that is relatively serious)
accidents. All, of course, are related to the ground
because that is where the tunnel is.
What we must say is that it is to this particular depth that Christ is for ever descending. He shares, absorbs and bears all the pain and the agony, the fear, the violence, the waste and the pollution. As Robin Green vividly puts it:
Jesus is the
imagination of God: through the incarnation, passion
and resurrection, we catch yet another glimpse of God
imagining a different future for humanity and
creation..... God is present in the hidden and secret
places of the world, empowering and encouraging people
to imagine a different kind of future9
As tutors and students, as managers and
engineers, we have to imagine the kind of future that
God imagines. No future can be without risk and danger
but a responsibly undertaken future raises our reality
with Christ to glory.
This term I am exploring with a group of students the issue of Resource Management in relation to building. What are these resources? First, land; if there is no land there can be no development or building. We have to ask where the land is to come from, what should be paid for it and to whom it really belongs.
Second, materials. What is the story of the brick from the clay pit to the finished wall? By whom has it been made - by slaves as with the children of Israel in Egypt, and if so have we the right to use it? Timber, from the forest to the roof truss or expensive wall panelling - what is its story? Is it good that it should be used for this purpose or are their other, better purposes?
Third, people, the human resource. There is now some use of robots in building but it is essentially a people industry. What does it mean to be a manager of people, bearing in mind that every person is an individual with a past and a future.
Such questions can be fairly easily answered in terms of what is reasonable practice and what are common sense ways of thinking. But in my view, that is not enough for graduate and professional education. The questions have to be more probing.
As far as land is concerned, we've lived
for a long time with the notion that it is a commodity
that can be owned by individuals and bought and sold.
The Old Testament takes a different view. Land is a gift
from God. A North American Indian, faced with an offer
for his land, `Sell a country? Why not sell the air, the
clouds, the great sea. Did not the Great Spirit make
them for the use of all his children?' The spirit's
power within us says, `You are free to ask such
questions, indeed you must ask such questions'. Perhaps
the greatest power the spirit gives is the courage to
ask the questions.
Common sense says you can't run a major construction site and get yourself involved in thinking about the personhood of everyone doing the mucky jobs. But the power of God, the power that is within us, is about how impossible it is for God to take the slightest bit of notice of what we see as impossible.
To go back to my opening questions: Dare we
be Christian? Dare we be the church? Dare we let this
power within us work itself out in the questions we ask
and the attitudes we take in the life of the world?
Obviously the scenarios amongst which you
live are different from the ones amongst which I live
but the question is the same to all of us .... `Dare
How, we need to ask, do unities come about? First, they are the outcome of relationships. This person and that, this organization and that, have relationships which, if they are constructive and wholesome, enable a unity of outlook to be reached.
Relationships in their turn are formed by communications. We talk and listen to each other. We are silent together. We look together. We draw things for one another. We use body language in relation to one another. Through these and other modes of communication, relationships are built up.
The subjects of relationships and communications figure prominently in Management education. My first year students do an exercise in groups of three, in which one speaks for three minutes on a prepared topic of his/her choice. The second student then engages the first in questions and discussion about the topic. The third observes this process of communication and relationship-making and talks about it to the other two. Each student has a turn in each role. In a plenary discussion, we draw out what has been experienced and learnt.
Second year Housing Management students
this year have been doing a negotiation exercise on
whether a residential home for elderly people can be
registered. They play the roles of the proprietors, the
social services inspectorate, the local authority and so
on. They have to come to a collective, negotiated
decision on whether a home can be registered.
Then we are coming near to the heart of
The Communion in which we are about to
share is a sign and celebration of the communion, the
communication, the relationships and the unity which is
God's will and purpose for all things - my things,
making houses, towns, buildings - and your things,
whatever they are.
A few weeks ago I watched on television in
the late evening the middle part of the film The
Towering Inferno. There was this real estate guy who, in
a US city, built a block 145 storeys high, the tallest
Apartments and flats and, on the upper
floors, restaurants and places for dances and parties
where you can look out all over town.
The people at the party could not get out
because the lifts did not work and the stairwells were
acting as chimneys. Because of the wind, helicopters
could not land on the roof and get the people out that
way. There was great drama as the party-goers were taken
out one-at-a-time in a kind of bosun's chair to the roof
of a lower adjoining block.
In addition to the natural forces of fire and wind, there are also at work the all-consuming forces of evil.
The good news is this:
To the man or woman who cuts comers rather
than storeys, and who repents, God gives his assurance
To the system, to the city of Cain itself,
to the whole mechanism of temptation, to the pressure
that says `you must go higher with your tower than
anyone else', if you as a system repent, you will be
This is good news for the city.
Let the city rejoice!
Transforming an organization and reclaiming
your powerfulness, is not an overnight transformation,
not n Lazarus job. It starts with doing one or two
things differently - the things that are easiest to
influence, the things within reach ... doing the doable.
Don't wait for other people to make huge changes in
order that you can throw in your two-pennyworth; don't
sit there dreaming about new legislation, or a change in
the board, or a charge in the world economic conditions.
Big changes are more likely to happen as n result of
small I changes than they are to be their cause. Do what
is sensible, what is within reach; and then the other
knots will come free10.
'What do you do when you have to make n
decision in a hurry - a war, an accident, some other
form of crisis?' What she said set me rocking on my
heels. 'From time to time we all spend a night together
on the ground in total silence. When you have spent the
night in silence with other people, using all your other
senses for perception and communication, you know what
you can ask of them.11
This is a complete breakthrough -
leadership through sharing a night of silence sitting on
the ground! What more `earthed glory' could there be
Fortunately we are able to live in houses. But do we think of them as `fine houses'? They're not historic country mansions or luxury flats in Mayfair, W1. They're just ordinary. I want to suggest to you that they are `fine' and that we should remember their fineness before God. So what constitutes a 'fine house'?
The first essential part of any house is the roof, something that simply keeps rain, snow, wind and excessive heat at bay. Second in importance perhaps are walls, devices for making more enclosed space under the roof. Third come floors. The ground floor is simply a device for keeping the dampness of the earth away from us.
At the simplest level, if we have a good
roof, good walls and a good floor, we have a fine house.
And we have it by the blessing and grace of God. From
God's creation come the materials of tiles and rafters,
bricks and doors. The skill of brick-maker and
bricklayer, carpenter and tiler come from God, who is
always present when men and women take materials and
fashion them into something that is useful and good.
Perhaps our response should be more than thanksgiving. Wonder comes into it as well. Wonder that houses can be made which, through their stability and durability, serve us well. Wonder that there is order and consistency in the world, a reliability. If, in your roof, you have rafters of the right size and strength, and they are properly framed and jointed, they will not collapse, provided they are protected from damp and decay. As we build our houses we discover the laws of physics and for them we give adoration to God.
For us, there is more to a house than the
simple fabric. There is all the apparatus that gives us
ready water and necessary warmth. Have you ever looked
at your boiler, your hot water cylinder, your
thermostat, the insulation in your roof and walls and
said, `Praise God, these things together with the skills
of plumbers and engineers are his gift to me'? And the
micro-processors that can now control everything in the
house, they too are part of the fineness of our houses
which we must remember before God.
Furthermore there is design. A fine house
is one that is well-designed in terms of room layout,
elevation proportions and in harmony with the
surroundings. The feeling that a well-designed house,
street, or whole neighbourhood stirs up in us, in its
way brings us to remembrance, thanksgiving, wonder and
As we develop the kind of spiritual sight
which sees in the occupying of a house, the blessing of
God, we shall indeed be able to remember him. Such
remembering brings us to an awareness of the holiness of
A few weeks ago I was talking with the director of a company located near here in the window and cladding industry. I had asked him to talk to me about trust. He said, among other things: The level of trust is going down between firms like his and builders, architects and surveyors.
There are people who lie repeatedly and
others who don't keep their word Contracts are
manipulated and some young surveyors incline to some
very unpleasant business practices.
These views were borne out recently by a
builder who said to me that maybe 10 years ago, if you
had 12 projects running on 10 of them relationships
would be good, with a sense of common purpose and
On the remaining 2 projects there would be
difficulties of various kinds. Over the last 10 years,
these proportions have changed for the worse.
It is generally thought that relationship
and ethical problems get worse when the industry is in
recession. It is now one year into such a period and the
situation is likely to get much worse.
Faced with such situations, those two men
and we ourselves might echo the psalmist:
This morning ... I'm not drawn to pray in a
cosy chapel or in the quietness of my room. I need to
breathe, to be buffeted by the elements. It's Inshing
rain.... I sense that walking in the storm will help me
look a bit more objectively at what's happening in my
Dorr further suggests that prayer is
listening to Jesus: What does it mean to listen to Jesus
in prayer in a time of struggle? It would be a serious
mistake to expect Jesus to give me advice or
instructions on a particular issue To ask 'advice' from
Jesus about how I should act is to seek to get in touch
with a barely accessible part of myself - the part that
is 'conformed' to Jesus, that is committed to listen to
him, willing to be challenged by him ..... God and Jesus
trust me to come to my own conclusions; but those ...
are likely to be radically different from the ones I
would have come to if I had not given the time to prayer15.
Babylon is code, too, for modem Rome,
London, New York, Tokyo and all the rest. They too must
go down, for their situation is very much that of
But in the Christian perspective history
does not stop in the hall of judgement. Indeed it is
there for only a moment, for it takes up the song of the
psalmist, `Dance O earth at the presence of the Lord'.
The timbers and the ivory, the silks and fine linens,
the bronze and the marble, they and all creation shall
dance at the presence of the Lord, the Lord who turned
the granite cliff into a fountain, the rocks into a pool
In its reflection on Psalm 114, the
compiler of the URC Prayer Handbook for this week lets
himself go on this theme of dancing:
Yes, all our cities are, like Babylon,
fallen. The judgement of their fallen-ness is momentary.
Their calling and their opportunity is to join in the
singing and dancing of the earth. The themes of the
music are the themes of justice.
Let them dance for their Lord and their
What value, I wonder, does Christianity add
to what our everyday secular world would do or achieve
Take the matter of building safety. In Old
Testament Israel it was, as I understand it, quite
normal to use one's flat roof to entertain your
visitors, to talk, to eat and perhaps to worship. Having
a safety parapet or balustrade is common sense. We use
flat roofs much less frequently and do much less
sunbathing on them. But we often have staircases and
balconies and for all these situations we have rules and
regulations governing safety. It's all common sense and
a matter of responsible care for one another.
The minority argued that this freedom of choice was a freedom that could not be taken. On a site, everyone is involved and there has to be mutual responsibility. It is impossible to stop things being dropped accidentally - bricks, hammers etc. You cannot lay on the person who drops the brick or hammer the burden of the guilt of shedding the victim's blood, even though he himself may have elected not to wear the hard hat provided.
As I listened, I felt the minority view was on balance the more biblical one. It may or may not have been a coincidence that the student leading this side of the argument is the son of Baptist missionaries. Was, I wonder, his Christian upbringing enabling him to add value to the majority view based on individual liberty?
These two issues tend to suggest that
an awareness of the suffering of God and an awareness of
mutual responsibility lead to some curtailment of
individual freedom. Our brother, like us, is a child of
God. His life has purpose and value and we cannot
therefore take irresponsible chances with it.