Thursday, 24 June 2010

No substitute for meeting Jesus

Recently came across this account of Mark Ashton's conversion. Mark was vicar of St. Andrew the Great in Cambridge before he died in April this year. The following is excerpted from Wycliffe Hall's magazine which I receive:

"By the time Mark left school in 1966, he had already attended over 3000 church services, but had deliberately rejected this 'churchianity'. During gis 'gap year' in Pakistan, he read the Koran from cover to cover and worshipped in the school mosque, but then decided he should also read the Bible because of its influence on British culture. In October 1967 he came up to Christ Church, Oxford, where he formed friendships with a number of Christian undergraduates. Mark continued to argue with them about the gospel message.

One day however, he was introduced to a young ordinand, Jonathan Fletcher, who invited him up to Wycliffe. Mark recalled:
"On February 7th 1968 I came round to his room in Wycliffe latish in the evening, ostensibly to discuss my many objections to Christianity. As I remember, Jonathan made me a cup of coffeee, offered me some of his mum's fruit cake, and then said, 'Would it help you, Mark, if I explained to you how to become a Christian?' and, to my astonishment, I said, 'Yes'."

Jonathan then led Mark through some key passages (such as Romans 3:23 and 6:23 and Isaiah 53:6). When we looked at Revelation 3:20, Mark recounts "I had the sensation that there was someone, or something, outside my life, whom I had never let into my life, but who was addressing me through these Bible verses. Jonathan asked me if I wanted to invite Jesus into my life. And, once more to my own astonishment, I heard myslef say, 'Yes'".

The account goes on to say that he and Jonathan went to the college chapel where, late in the night, in the back pew, Mark invited Christ into his life. Later he recalled: "It is a long time ago, although I remember the evening vividly. It was so clearly the start of my Christian life."
(Wycliffe Hall Newsletter Trinity Term 2010)

Reflecting on this a few things struck me:
First, the potentially damaging effect of 'churchianity' where attending church is seen to be sufficient in and of itself. But if the gospel is not preached and practiced, how can merely attending a religious service have any other effect than innoculating you against the real thing?
Second, the value of personal relationships and friendship. I remember years ago some important advice about evangelism, that we have to earn the right to share our faith with someone. In other words it will not do to throw texts, tracts or sermons at someone in the hope that somehow something will stick. We have to be personally available to that person in order for them to ask questions or to argue back.
Third, at the end of it all it is only an encounter with the Risen Christ that will ultimately convince a person of His reality. "Come to me.." Jesus says over and over, and the text from Revelation is a personal challenge from Jesus Himself to open the door of our hearts and lives to let Him in to reign.
Last, it is our calling then as Christians to bring a person to Christ and through our love patience and prayer, bring Christ to that person.

The way it is isn't the way it is meant to be

I was recently speaking to a teacher who brought her children to church for a school fact-finding visit. She was bemoaning the fact that althogh she was a Christian, her children chose to get married in a secular setting which allowed for no religious readings or music whatsoever. She was obviously upset by this but accepted her children's reasoning that it would be hypocritical to get married in church when they did not believe in God.

My initial reaction was a flash of despair as my heart sank. Two things struck me:
First, where have we failed/are we failing, to pass on the Christian faith in any kind of meaningful way to the next generation;
Second, what can we do to put it right.

These are huge questions. So big that they can appear like mountains that dwarf us, sending us into even deeper dispair about the future. What will happen when the present generation dies out? Who will come behind us? What will happen to the Church and the Faith handed down to us, sometimes at the cost of a person's life?

I felt for that woman and identified with her despair and sadness. It is easy to shake your head in sadness, take in a deep breath, shrug your shoulders and say "Ah well what can you do? That's the age in which we live. That's the way it is I'm afraid" and get on with what you are doing.

However the picture is not a uniform one. Yesterday I met two novice nuns from Belarrus who are in their early twenties. One of them was a college student of 17 when she felt the call of God to become a nun! She tells me that the vast majority of Christians in her country are young people who are flocking to the faith. Communist Russia had persecuted the church almost out of existence but since its collapse thousands of young people are becoming Christians.

In this country I come across more and more young people who are asking questions about God and spiritual things. Recently two couples in their twenties came to see me about being baptized. They had been asked to be godparents and need to be baptized in order to 'qualify'. Instead of the usual half hour chat about baptism the conversation centred on Jesus and for an hour they listened and asked questions about Christianity which they clearly had no idea about, only one of them having ever stepped inside a church! But they were interested and gladly accepted a copy of Mark's Gospel to go away and read. Maybe this will lead to something? Maybe not. But they are signs and seeds of hope. As the older generations with their rather narrow and legalistic view of church and Christianity die out, the gap that emerges where fewer people are fed this inadequate and inaccurate version of the Gospel, will have a better chance to encounter the Risen Jesus, not some dead historic version which the church has lived off for too long.

Just before the children came today I spent some time in prayer. I looked up at the massive mosaic figure of Christ on the cross which dominates the view at the front of the church. I suddenly realised why I don't like it. It represents all that is wrong with our church today. It is a picture of a dead Saviour nailed forever to a cross, inanimate, lifeless and cold. He is dead and so is much of the faith in all too many of our churches today. He is dead to the people and frozen in time. But I do not worship a dead Saviour but a living one. He died, yes, but He rose again and is loose in the world. The sooner that cross is taken down - a symbol of death and the past - the sooner we can start to believe again in a living, vibrant and powerful Saviour who comes to bring us life in all its fulness.

This Risen Saviour moves mountains, raises the dead and brings people into relationship with Him through the power of the holy Spirit. But the one on the cross? He may inspire gratitude or even a sense of love but what can a dead saviour do for dying people? Not much.

So what can be done for succeeding generations of people who have little or no connection with the Christian Faith? We can do what Jesus told us to do and is with us to accomplish (Matthew 28:19-end). We can tell them about Him and let Himdo the rest. After all He is alive isn't He.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Perfect love castes out fear

I have been thinking a lot recently about fear and how it grips the heart and squeezes out faith. I am of course speaking from personal experience because it has stalked me for most of my ministry and has been responsible for some of the u-turns or back-ups I have made as conflict and confrontations have arisen with various strong-minded and larger than life figures in the various churches I have served. What will happen for example if I don't keep people happy - will they leave? What will happen to the Parish share? How will it look? I will be a failure etc.. As a result when the going gets tough I have compromised and retreated and tried to smooth ruffled feathers in a bid to keep the status quo and make life a little bit easire and free from stress and strife. But where has that left me with God? Having put fear before faith it has seriously hamstrung much of what He has envisioned me to do and ultimately what I have by God's grace managed to build has been largely founded on sand. Jesus warned about this in Matthew 7:24-29 where the house on sand fell as soon as there were the winds and storms of challenge and confrontation. So fear rather than faith has, sadly, been a hallmark of my ministry to date.

We see its influence everywhere in our nation and especially in our church too. Fear of extinction or decline for example is holding us back from doing God's will. He wants us to step out in faith but we are so afraid that we batton down the hatches and stay where we are thinking that it is better to hang on to the little life we have than venture out and maybe losing it altogether. It reminds me a little of my childhood when I was young and my parents would put all the lights of the house out when they went to bed. I would be so scared of the dark that I would huddle under the bedclothes pulling them tightly around me as if they were a body of armour that could protect me from the horrible things that lurked in the darkness.

I see this in the church at the moment which huddles behind its formal, traditional services, doing what it has always done for fear that if it didn't it would lose the few members that it has got. At least this way, it reasons, we can just about manage to pay the parish share or keep the building open for that little bit longer, at least until it sees us out. But this is bound to fail. Waiting for God to do something spectacular when He has already told us what to do and we aren't doing it, is doomed to fail and we will die. In fact we are dying and unless we conquer our fears and step out in faith Anglicanism, at least, will cease to exist in any obvious form in Britain.

Like the suite of armour that was offered David as he strode out to fight Goliath, our church/denomination as it stands is much too restrictive and hampers any movement into mission. The Christian faith is all about freedom of movement. Jesus said "Go" to Abraham and "Go" to Moses and "Go" to the first disciples. In other words move out and I will go with you. Trust me. Even if you only have a sling and a few pebbles that will be enough as I am with you. But we are gripped with fear and as long as we are we will stay huddled behind our bedclothes and die under the warm comforting sheets.

The Church is sleeping the sleep of death and will slowly slip away into oblivion. We need to wake up, face our fears, and boldly step out in faith and obedience. We need to confront our fear of failure, our fear of what others will think, our fear of losing/damaging our reputations, our fear of closing our buildings, our fear of change and follow the Spirit's leading. We need to love God and demonstrate that by our willingness to obey Him. For perfect loves castes our fear.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

All Saints, Peckham

I get my 'feeding' from listening to other people's sermons. This also helps me to develop my own preaching as I pick up various ideas and 'tips' on how they preach so effectively. If you want to hear some good sermons try the following link (just click):

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Cockett podcasts

For those interested here is a link to recent sermons preached at St. Peter's Church by yours truly. Here is the link:

In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity

There is an old religious joke that has been doing the rounds for years which goes like this:`` I was walking across a bridge one day, and ...