Archive for June, 2013

ECCE – Helsinki Talk 3


The hen is a domestic bird. She lives happily around people, is cared for by people, and produces goods wanted by people. The other three birds we have considered, however, are wild birds; they look after themselves; they are independent and wild. In the case of the sparrows and swallows they are small but the eagle is chosen as an image because of its great strength; its ferocious character; its wildness.


Our final creature is another wild one; the bear. Specifically the she-bear, the mother and how she is with her cubs. Before reflecting specifically on her, a broader reflection.

God likens himself, and is likened by the writers of Scripture, rather less to domesticated creatures than wild ones. Yes the hen is domestic; so too is the image of ‘take my yoke upon you and learn from me’; the picture is of the domestic ox ploughing the land. The lead ox takes the weight, guides the way and the second ox follows their lead and lets them take the strain. God is like a lead ox with us. But other images like the ones we have considered so far, the she-bear today, and the roaring lion of Amos (Amos 3:8) are wild, unpredictable and in some cases dangerous.

There is always a danger of domesticating God rather than recognising the wildness, the unpredictability, the uncontrollability, the free-spiritedness of God.

We all do it; we try and put boundaries around God. Every theological tradition does it; it domesticates God into its tradition and thus misses all the exciting stuff God might be revealing and doing through other people and in other ways.

Most particularly, do we domesticate God, and the Scriptures, when it comes to children? We make God safe. We reduce what God might be saying to children to rather tame lessons and insights as this wonderful cartoon by Dave Walker illustrates.

We sanitise the Bible. We domesticate God rather than introduce children to the amazing one who is like the soaring eagle; the guiding ox; the mothering hen and the angered she-bear.


You will know that Walter Breugemman writes of God as she-bear in his chapter “Vulnerable Children, Divine Passion, and Human Obligation” in Marcia Bunge’s ‘The Child in the Bible’.

The key text in which God is likened to a she-bear with her cubs is Hosea 13:8. It is a painful passage because God reminds his people of the way he rescued them from Egypt and cared for them in the wilderness. Yet once in the Promised Land and filled with all its good things they had forgotten God.

In response now God is passionate in his judgement of them. The animal images actually pile up; he is like a devouring lion, a hunting leopard and the she-bear robbed of her cubs. The writer of Lamentations in the time of judgement also feels that God is like “a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding” (Lam 3:10).

David knew the reality of bears as fierce creatures; he fought them as a shepherd boy (1 Sam 17:34, 36 & 37) and in the time of Absalom’s rebellion Hushai describes David as “enraged, like a bear robbed of her cubs in the field” (2 Sam 17:8). What is described then is absolute passion for the cubs; the mother bear will do anything she can to protect them. If they are taken away; if she loses them then she becomes enraged, a furious beast which will attack others in response to her loss (cf Prov 17:12). God is passionate over his children and looks to us to reflect and mirror that passion. Where children are being damaged, attacked, taken away from their loving parent then we should be passionately enraged for their well-being.

Where injustice is leading children to be orphans – literally or metaphorically – then we should be like a growling bear in our seeking of justice for them (Isaiah 59:11). Where childhood is being ripped away; where abuse of every kind is damaging children, potentially for life, then we are called to become angry on their behalf. There is a role for the parent, the carer, the adult to protect and care for their young. They are not able to provide for themselves; to defend themselves. They are vulnerable and open to attack – like the lamb with the wolf in John 10. We are to be those who fight fiercely for the well-being of children. We will be, in the best sense of the word, ferocious in their defence.

So we will be hurt by how many children go hungry every day; by the lack of clean water; by the continued scandal of how many needlessly die from preventable diseases. We will cry out for children who have to live on the streets; and once there become caught up in crime, prostitution and drug abuse. We will be concerned and speak out about government policies in the rich Western nations that push more children into relative poverty when we should be lifting them out of it.

We will also weep for the lack of hearing the story of Jesus that is the reality for so many children. We will long that the good news of the one who welcomes children and gives them the Kingdom is told, shared, spoken out to the children of our lands. We will weep when children are not being nurtured in the loving timeless presence of God.

We will mourn when children are not being “dropped from the sky” so that they learn to fly. We will want risky love that lets children adventure, discover, create, mature. We will long for the day when a little child will lead the lion and the fattened calf together. We will be passionate for the day when a nursing child will safely play over a cobra’s hole (Is 11:6-9).

Like God in his deep passion for children, like the she-bear and her cubs, we will be passionate too for the safety, protection, nurture and well-being of all children.

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ECCE – Helsinki Talk 2


Last October Rosemary and I went to Andalucía on holiday. One day we drove high up into the mountains. We saw an amazing sight of eagle after eagle soaring above us on the thermals. Within minutes we had seen 40 or 50 of them. It was awesome. Eagles are magnificent birds to watch, no wonder Agur says that the way of an eagle in the sky is wonderful for him, and beyond his understanding (Prov 30:19).

Under the food laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy the eagle was an unclean bird (Lev 11:13 & Deut 14:12) but other references to the eagle are rather more positive; indeed God likens himself to an eagle. In passing this must make us pause to reflect on how all creatures are good – the unclean/clean foods has something else lying behind it.

When Israel is gathered at Mount Sinai the Lord speaks to Moses and says “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Ex 19:4).

The eagle here is strong and powerful, able to carry others along. God, like the eagle, is strong and carrier of his people. This picture of strength comes elsewhere; Isaiah 40:31 “They who wait for the Lord shall review their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles.” Psalm 103:5 (God) “who satisfies you with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

There is too something dangerous about the eagle; its ability to swoop suddenly and carry away its prey (Dt 28:49; Jer 49:22; Lev 4:19). It is the most powerful of all the birds.

Yet the image of the eagle on which I want us to dwell mainly today is that which we find in the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. Listen to these words from that song:- Deut 32:10-14
10 He sustained him in a desert land,
in a howling wilderness waste;
he shielded him, cared for him,
guarded him as the apple of his eye.
11 As an eagle stirs up its nest,
and hovers over its young;
as it spreads its wings, takes them up,
and bears them aloft on its pinions,
12 the LORD alone guided him;
no foreign god was with him.
13 He set him upon the heights of the land,
and fed him with produce of the field;
he nursed him with honey from the crags,
with oil from flinty rock;
14 curds from the herd, and milk from the flock,
with fat of lambs and rams;
Bashan bulls and goats,
together with the choicest wheat—
you drank fine wine from the blood of grapes.

Here is God deeply caring for his people; loving them keenly.

Eagles would never nest in the confines of the Temple like the swallows and sparrows – not only would there not be enough space but the wary eagle would not see their young as safe so close to the ground.

The eagle nests high up, in the mountain tops; in the tree tops. Here the young are hatched; food is brought to them to nurture them. The eagle will at times sit on the young to keep them warm; to offer them rest but there will come a point where from this lofty place the eagle will pick up their young in their strong talons and fly away from the nest. They will soar high, the young safe and secure. Then suddenly the eagle will loose their talons and let the fledgling bird go free. The young will immediately start flapping its wings; it may have a little success but before long strength will fail and the young bird will lose control and begin to plummet towards the earth. All this time the mother eagle will have her watchful eye on her young. When it begins to plummet then the parent will swoop and catch the young in her talons once again. After resting in the talons the parent will soar again, let her young go and the process will be repeated. After a while it will be time to return to the nest for food and rest. A different young may then be taken from the nest to be put through the same process.

Day after day this will take place until the young eagles are developed and strong enough to sustain their flight. They grow in strength and ability day after day until a level of maturity is reached where the young no longer need their parents’ protection.

Now all images break down; we never develop beyond our need for God’s provision and protection. But we do grow and develop in ways where how he provides for us and protects us does change.

I find this eagle imagery very powerful in reflecting on how parents understand their role with children, and how all of us with responsibility for children understand how we might view our work.

The parent eagle judges the time when the fledgling eagle is to be lifted from the nest and the risk is taken of letting them go. It is a risk-taking love. For growth and maturity it is essential; without it the fledgling would never learn to fly. But the parent has to take the risk; they watch over carefully and step in when it is becoming too much; offering rest and recuperation before taking the risk again.

Our love for children and young people must long for them to grow and mature. This must involve risk-taking. Children do not mature by being kept hidden safely away in a nest, protected from all the dangers of the world. They have to be dropped into danger zones. They have to be allowed to try their wings, discover how they work – and when they don’t. Parents and leaders have to take loving risks to help children grow. The risks that are taken have to be done thoughtfully, at appropriate times, and with an ever watchful eye for dangers; knowing when to leave apparently at risk, and when to step in and rescue or protect.

The Lord is the strongest, most powerful of all; hence the allusion to the eagle. He lovingly rescues us, carries us on his wings and watches over us “we are the apple of his eye”. However as the parent eagle he longs that we learn to fly – so alongside nurturing and protecting us he takes risks with us; he drops us into the void and lets us flap our wings, patiently teaching us to fly.

Since he is like that with us all He expects us to be like it with children for whom we have responsibility. He expects us to engage in risk-taking love.

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European Conference on Christian Education, Helsinki 2013:- Talk 1


It is genuinely a huge delight to be sharing with you on this Conference. I greatly valued being part of the Conference in Paris three years ago. To be asked to open up the Scriptures with you again is a deep privilege.

It also set me an interesting challenge. You are all leading experts in your own nations, and in this wonderful calling of children’s ministry and spiritual nurture. You know the core biblical material so well. You study it, and teach it to others regularly. So where might I turn for something fresh? Or do I seek a fresh look at well known material? Plus I am privileged to be working once again with Anita; but this time with knowledge of her gifts in creative worship and response – in Paris we were strangers. Now we are friends.

Well I decided, eventually, to go the first route – look for something fresh, a little different. It also offered an interesting challenge for Anita. In the scriptures on a number of occasions how animals and birds behave with their young is used both to reflect something of how God behaves with us; and by implication how we should consider our response to the young. There are too many to cover in three short reflections but so you have an idea where we will go here is my outline.
1. Swallows, sparrows, hens and nurturing love
2. Eagles and tough love
3. She-bear and fierce love

So to hens, swallows and sparrows and nurturing love. We read two passages:- Psalm 84, notably verses 1-4 and Luke 13:34


Birds flying in and out of church buildings tend to be seen as a problem rather than a welcome addition. Pigeons, along with bats, are particularly unhelpful in the UK. Apparently not for the Psalmist reflecting on his love for the Temple. The way the swallows and sparrows felt at home, even comfortable enough to build nests, lay eggs, hatch and nurture their young was a cause of delight and joy.

Even a cause for some envy that they could be permanently resident in God’s presence whilst the Psalmist had to make pilgrimage to it on a regular basis. For these birds the place where God ‘resided’ on earth was the place of safety and security. It was a good place in which to raise the young.

For ourselves this image acts as a reminder to dwell in the presence of God. This is where we find our home, our rest. Very interestingly in her excellent book ‘How Survivors of Abuse Relate to God’, Susan Shooter notes that one of the key themes for survivors that helped them through it all was a sense and awareness of the timeless presence of God.

In our work of encouraging others to develop excellent work with children we should continually be reflecting on how we help parents help their children live with a sense of living in the presence of God.
The longing must be that home can, in this sense, be God’s temple, a place where every child is at ease being nurtured in their earliest days, and as they grow and develop.

In our work with ministers, children’s leaders etc., we need to be encouraging and helping them to ensure the places where worship, learning, activities take place are places of security and ease; places where the presence of God is welcomed, experienced and known – even if often subconsciously.

Simply being in the presence of the Living God should be a place of safety, security, warmth, welcome and thus a place of nurture and growth.

The swallows and sparrows nurturing their young in the presence of the Almighty remind us of the importance simply of every child being in God’s presence.


The hen illustration of Jesus is less homely once we start reflecting on it. A mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings in the very earliest hours of life to offer them warmth and protection. Slowly the chicks have to be allowed out from under the hen’s wings to go and gather food, to explore their territory. The mother hen will keep a watchful eye on her chicks to ensure they do not wander off too far; to make sure they are feeding. If danger emerges the hen will quickly gather her chicks together back under her wings. Once gathered she will nestle down gently over the chicks who will be completely unseen by any predator.

There are case histories of fires taking place in a barn or house. After the fire has subsided the burnt remains of a hen are seen; out from under the hen have emerged small chicks, kept safe and preserved by their mother, dying to protect them.

It is this Jesus has in mind when he speaks of being like a mother hen. He would bear the fury of a predator; the destruction of the fire when he hung on the cross. He died that we might live. In his death he protected and rescued us. This is nurturing love; it protects and cares in a costly way.

So too we are called to care for the young in a way that costs us. We have a protective role to play in the nurture of the young. There are dangers from which we, along with parents and other leaders, have a responsibility to protect the young.


Nurturing love is found by simply dwelling in the presence of the Living God and allowing children to grow and develop in that presence. It is warm, welcoming, safe. Yet alongside this there is a call to act to protect from dangers when they arise; and gathering back into the safe, warm presence of God is one way that protection is effected.

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