Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Deep Church

C.S.Lewis, talking about his conversion to Christ, quotes Francis Thompson's famous poem "The Hound of Heaven" to explain how he felt relentlessly pursued by God. Francis' own story is an interesting one.  As a young man he studied medicine, hoping to find meaning and purpose. It did not work so he got involved in drugs. He came to such despair that he contemplated suicide. In the poem Thompson describes how he latched on to various philosophies that denied God: "I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways Of my own mind." He tried to distract himself with sensual pleasure, but it all turned sour. In the end he heard God say, "all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!" God sought him like a bloodhound. In the end Francis Thompson allowed God to find him. Weary, he fell into God's arms.

The reason why I mention C.S.Lewis and Francis Thompson is that at the moment I am feeling a bit like they did. That God is relentlessly pursuing me in some way. Which is a bit odd because over 34 years ago I believe he found me and called me into full time ministry in his church. However in recent years I have been questioning my faith a lot, not in the sense of whether God exists, or Jesus died for me, or whether I am a Christian or not, but about whether the sort of Christian I am is really the right or the true sort.

Part of my calling is to teach the faith and ensure that it is passed down to the next generation of believers. This is something the Bible takes very seriously in both Testaments. But as I sit down and prepare what I want to teach I find myself asking all kinds of questions about the topics before me. A prime example is the Nicean Creed. Originally written in 325 AD and then expanded a little in 381 at Chalcedon, it is a beautiful summary of what the Church believes is the essence of the Christian Faith. But as I slowly went through it I found that it powerfully challenged me, in a way that I have not felt challenged for a very long time.

Years ago I would not have given the Creed a second thought. It was part of the liturgy which was repeated every week in a kind of lifeless drone and so I took to dropping it occasionally, then more often as I considered it less and less important to the 'real' work of worship. I remember one morning when I left it out for the fourth or fifth week running when a lady from the congregation, who had clearly taken umbrage, confronted me at the Church door and told me that I shouldn't leave it out because after all, it is what Christianity is all about! In my arrogance I dismissed her criticism and told her something to the effect that Christianity was about more than a list of religious sounding phrases repeated every Sunday morning. The church would not fall down if we left out the Creed.

However returning to the words of the Creed I am beginning to seriously change my mind. Perhaps removing it is like taking out a lintel over the door in a house. The wall looks strong enough without it, and for a while all looks normal. But then cracks begin to appear like little streams down the wall and you begin to hear creaks and groans as the weight of the walls settle more and more on a wooden frame which is not designed for that purpose. You realise that maybe the lintel was more important than you previously thought.

Okay that maybe somewhat of an exaggeration as plenty of churches seem to get by without referring to the Creed in any shape or form. But what if the cracks have been appearing for years, even decades, as the church at large decides it can jettison or live without something it considers too old and antiquated for us 21st Century sophisticates? And what if those cracks are widening as more and more churches chase after the novel, the sensational, and the superficial in order to appeal to a population that has turned its back on Christianity? Desperation leads to compromise. Pastors - like everyone - want to feel loved and so fall for the temptation to embrace worldly techniques in order to appear relevant and 'interesting' to those who walk past every day.  But as they do something is lost, their churches cease to be what Paul once termed "the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15) and so after a while their congregations dribble away or become increasingly less able to follow Christ or practice their faith in any clear and distinctive way.

These questions have been gnawing away at me as I look across the church today. It could be that I am just getting older and more conservative in my faith. It happens to everyone I guess. But what if, in the process of slowing down, God is taking His chance and calling me to a new sort of conversion? Not to Christ, but deeper into Christ? What if God is behind all of this and pursuing me to start thinking about what I am doing, what this is really all about, rather than coming up with ever new ways of trying to be church?

I am convinced it is God rather than my age. Why? When God is on your case all kinds of things happen in your life that seem to act in concert. I am reading a book I heard a review of online called "Deep Church Rising" by Andrew Walker and Robin Parry. The subtitle is "Rediscovering the roots of Christian orthodoxy." In the blurb on the back we are given a summary of what the book is about. It reads:

"The major cultural changes in Western societies since the Reformation have created a serious challenge for the church. Modernity in particular has been inhospitable to Christian orthodoxy, and many have been tempted to reject classical versions of the faith. This has led to a division within churches that Walker and Parry name 'the third schism', a divide between those who embrace what C.S.Lewis called 'mere Christianity' or 'deep church', and those who do not. This book is a call to embrace 'deep church', to remember our future, to make a half-turn back to pre-modernity - not to repeat the past but to find often forgotten resources for the present."
Wow! Talk about God speaking to you? Just now there are too many coincidences popping up in my life. All the questions that I had considered answered are being asked again. My 'version' of Christianity is being called into question and I am forced to avoid just trotting out all my learned responses and try to look at things from a different perspective. Its scary, and I feel very very vulnerable. But it begs the question, who or what is my faith in? Is my faith first or second hand? The things I have been taught over the years, have I closely examined them or just taken them on trust? Where does authority lie?

I need to take a fresh look again at the Bible, especially the New Testament, and try and remove my denominational filters as I do so. I also want to talk to folk from other, older, parts of the Church to see what I can learn from them. I want to read books and letter from the early Church - especially around the time of the Nicean Council. Maybe there is something I missed? Maybe I have got things wrong? Watch this space.



 

Friday, 19 December 2014

Uncovering the Gospel of Luke

The following website is an excellent resource for those wishing to explore faith. It's produced by Tynedale House, Cambridge and is scholarly without being too academic. It focuses on Luke's Gospel and is meant to accompany a copy of a book based on it called "Uncover". But there is enough here to learn something without getting a copy. Enjoy

http://uncover.org.uk/

Thursday, 16 October 2014

What is church?

Psalm 122: "I was glad when they said unto me: 'Let us go to the house of the Lord."

The Psalmist who wrote those words was obviously excited about visiting the Temple. He couldn't wait to get there and when someone says “Let’s go there” it was the highlight of his life.

I was talking to a Muslim friend of mine who told me how he once went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and was able to see the Black Stone which Muslims believe was sent to earth by Allah. For Muslims this therefore is the holiest place on earth and to go to Mecca and better still, to see and touch the black stone, is the greatest privilege possible. There they feel especially close to their god.

Up there with that for the Jew of the psalmist's day, was to make the yearly pilgrimage up to Jerusalem and to offer a sacrifice in "the house of the Lord". There they felt they were as close as could be to God himself. For them the Temple - like the Tabernacle before -  was his dwelling place.

Where is the holiest place for the Christian? Is it Rome where the pope lives or Constantinople - as was - where Hagia Sophia was once the greatest church in Byzantium?

All of us have been to places where the surroundings have awed and inspired us and have had strong associations with God’s presence. But think back to around 3 BC. Where was the holiest place on earth then? It wasn’t Jerusalem where the Temple was. And there were no church buildings or cathedrals in existence. The holiest place was nothing more than a hay-strewn space carved into rock normally inhabited by animals. It was here that Jesus was born and laid in a manger. That was the holiest place on earth. To be there was to be in the presence of God. To be closer to him than anywhere else on earth.

What made that stable so holy was the presence of Jesus. And wherever he is, that is the holiest place for the Christian. So where is Jesus today? In Matthew 18:20 Jesus tells us that wherever 2 or 3 Christians gather “in his name” i.e. with him in mind as the chief focus of our love and worship, there he is in the midst of them. That is what makes any place ‘holy’. Not stained glass windows, church furniture, votive candles or chasubles and albs. (This means that when church buildings close we do not lose the church for the church is where the people are centred around Jesus).

Stephen nearing the end of his life by stoning made this comment to his accusers: “the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands”.   (Acts 7:48). Church buildings are means towards an end. To make them an end in and of themselves is what the Bible calls idolatry. It is who we
worship that is important not where. And if 2 or 3 continue to gather in Jesus’ name then the place where they worship is as holy as anywhere else on earth.

At the moment there is uncertainty about our church buildings, some of which seem to be coming to the end of their lives because they are becoming too costly to maintain or too few attend. For those who have invested so much of their lives there this spells disaster. It is the end of their church. But it isn't the end of the church. The church has never been the building. It has never been about bricks and mortar.

In the first three hundred years of Christianity it managed to grow until it covered the Mediterranean and became the official religion of the Roman Empire. All this without any recognisable buildings only people's homes, by the side of rivers or in secret places for fear of persecution. And whenever
Christianity has been persecuted, when it's buildings were closed down or destroyed, still the church met and grew - as we have seen in what was the Soviet Union under Stalin.

So take heart when you hear of churches shutting. The church lives, because Jesus lives. And wherever people still meet with him at the centre of their life, love and worship, God is present and the church continues.

Prayer:
Heavenly Father we thank you that the church is not the building, it is wherever your people meet and worship you. Help us through this time of change and challenge to recover this truth. Forgive us that sometimes our love for our buildings has been greater than our love for you. Help us once again to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. Amen.

Note: Since writing the above talk - in April this year - I have been to a service which marked the last service of a church that had been holding Christian worship for 150 years. Although I stand by what I have written I would not wish in any way to belittle the sense of hurt and sadness that was felt as the above church held its last act of worship before closure. It had to close its doors because it needed to raise in excess of £500,000 just to repair it with a congregation of under 30, the vast majority of whom were retired. Practically too it made no sense to continue as there were other factors against it including lack of disabled access and the absence of parking nearby. But it was still devastating and in terms of being a physical presence in the community the church is a huge loss.



Monday, 13 October 2014

How to have a (near) perfect Church

The following sermon is from last Sunday 10.30 service where I spoke on Philippians 4:1-9. The theme follows on from a previous blog and so I thought it worth including for that reason

Introduction
There is no such thing as a perfect church. If you ever think you have found one please don’t join it because from that moment on it will cease to be one!

The church in Philippi however is the closest you can get to one. It gave Paul greatest happiness and his letter reflects that. There are more references to joy/rejoicing here than any other book in the Bible. But even here—especially in Chapter four in first few verses—Paul feels the need to address certain issues and offer advice:

First he advises them (v1) is to “stand firm in the Lord.”

Paul's first cause of concern is wrong doctrine or belief. In the last chapter this took the form of individuals who were advocating that as well as faith in Jesus converts needed to be circumcised. Paul was furious describing them as "dogs", "evil" and "mutilators of the flesh" (Phil 3:2). Later he identifies another group (or maybe the same ones) as "enemies of the cross" who worship their appetites (Phil 3:18-19).

The point he is making that WHAT we believe is as important as THAT we believe. I remember one radio presenter - can't remember her name - once saying that it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you are sincere! I am sure Hitler was sincere and I am sure suicide bombers are sincere but it doesn't make what they believe in as right. The Nicene Creed which we repeat most Sundays came about as a result of the Church wanting to ensure that people knew the truth about God so that when it came under attack from various heresies it would discern they were wrong. In other words the Creed was a way of measuring sound doctrine. That is what makes it as relevant today as 1700 years ago.

Jesus once said that "the truth shall set you free" (John 10:10). If that is the case then error or untruth will have the opposite effect and enslave us and lead you away from Him who is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:7).

So Paul urges the Philippians to "stand firm in the Lord" (Phil 4:1) and uses the same word for a soldier standing fast in battle, or gladiator in amphitheatre fighting for his life. Don't budge from your position as a follower of Jesus and his teachings and set aside everything that contradicts who he is and what he teaches. Get to know his teachings so you can stand firm in them (and Him).

Second he advises 2 people to "agree with each other in the Lord. (verse 2)" 
It appears two women are not getting along—we are even given their names Euodia and Syntyche—so Paul pleads with them to set aside their differences and be united.

We don't know what they were disagreeing about - was it personal, about Christian belief or wrong behaviour. Whatever it was Paul's main concern is that it does not spoil the unity of the Church family because that then undermines the work we are called to do. So he pleads with them to come together and work together for God. The word he uses - parakaleo - is the same word that is used of the work of the Holy Spirit who pleads on out behalf with the father. So it's a strong word showing great longing.

He pleads for unity. “agree with one another” This idea of working together/being united is a big theme in the NT and a big concern of Jesus’. E.g. in John 17 he prays a long prayer, called the High Priestly Prayer and in it unity is a predominant theme. Listen to verse 11:

“...protect them (the disciples) by the power of your name—the name you gave me—so that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:11)

It's interesting that Jesus prays for the disciples protection. In other words he knows that they face attacks from an enemy. That seems to be the case here as these two women have, until now, "contended at Paul's (my) side in the cause of the Gospel" (verse 3). In other words in the past they have worked with him to spread the good news about Jesus but now this quarrel is threatening to undermine all of that. 'Someone' has got to them, they have fallen out and the work of God is suffering.

I read recently that there are now 33,000 separate Christian denominations in the world. How is that helping the Christian cause? I was speaking to someone recently who told me that a number of people have left a local thriving church. Where have they gone? A new Church has started somewhere the other side of town and so they have joined that. A friend of mine has a church in a challenging part of the city and is struggling to get things going and reach out to the community. Recently he heard of a minister from another side of town wants to start a new separate church in the same area right under the nose of my friend. They both have a heart to evangelise but where is the unity? Why have two church buildings and two sets of heating and lighting bills? Can't they join forces?

So unity is important but we do need to add one note of caution. Both "standing firm" and "being in agreement" with one another needs to be "in the Lord" i.e. according to his teaching. Darkness cannot fellowship with light. If someone believes something that clearly contradicts the Christian message we cannot have unity "in the Lord." Its not unity at all costs if the cost is truth.

Third he advises about anxiety (verse 6)
Paul doesn't say where the anxiety he talks about in verse 6 is coming from - probably all the things mentioned - but he is concerned that that anxiety does not take root in the church. Why? Because anxiety and worry is the very opposite of faith. It's a question of focus. If you are anxious about something your focus will be on that and as long as it's on that it's not on God. IT will become god not God. So anxiety or worry is a kind of anti-faith that stops you looking to God and can undermine your trust in him. So Paul says: "Do not be anxious about anything...."

Jesus says the same thing to his disciples "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me." (John 14:1-7). The word trouble refers to the boiling sea of a storm. If our hearts are troubled or anxious we will spend all our time just trying to stay afloat. We won’t get anywhere and we will drift away from God who is the source of our peace. So we are to look to God and trust him, sharing our concerns with Him and leaving them there for Him to deal with.

It was said of D.L.Moody that he came home so tired and worried that he determined he could not handle the both so he let God stay up and deal with his worries while he dealt with his tiredness and slept! Exactly Paul's advice.

Paul’s last piece of advice is an antidote to pessimism and negative thinking (verse 8).

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true...."

There’s a lot of negativity floating around at the moment. Whenever the news is on my son leaves the room because it's all doom and gloom. He is right. Not that we should avoid the news but we should not let it dominate our thinking. The world is bad but there is goodness everywhere.

It is something clerics are particularly prone to. On my blog someone left this comment a while back:

“Reading your earlier posts regarding prayer, your calling, your tendency to pessimism etc...I wonder whether the missing ingredient might be….listening...to God?”

Brother Lawrence was a 16th century Saint known for his ability to practice the presence of God every moment of the day. In a meeting with him one biographer wrote this:

Brother Lawrence wasn't surprised by the amount of sin and unhappiness in the world. Rather, he wondered why there wasn't more, considering the extremes to which the enemy is capable of going. He said he prayed about it (as Paul advocates) but because he knew God could rectify the situation in a moment if He willed it, he didn't allow himself to be come greatly concerned.”
"The Practice of the Presence of God” Chapter 1 (Whitaker)


It is easy to let the darkness creep into our thinking and our lives but it doesn't have to. In fact we must make a determined effort to stop it. Paul has already told us to pray and give our anxieties to God. He also tells us to do it with thanksgiving. If you make an effort to remember the goodness of God every day and thank Him for it you will be surprised how much there is to say.

Finally then he tells us to focus our minds and think about what is good. Paul gives a list: whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy. Think about these things. And the promise? As in verse 7 - you will experience the peace that comes from God and knowing that He is still at work in His world.

The Church at Philippi was not perfect—and neither is St. James—but that doesn't stop us working towards it. “Be perfect” Jesus says in Matthew—in other words make perfection your goal and follow Paul’s advice.

Waiting patiently

The following is a transcript of the sermon I gave last Sunday (Trinity 17 for you Anglicans) at the 9.00 Holy Communion service. It is based on the first few verses of Psalm 40:

Psalm 40:1-3

1. I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.
2. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock,
    making my steps secure.
3. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear,
    and put their trust in the Lord.

In one of Jesus' final addresses to his disciples in John 14 he says to them:

"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me." (John 14:1)

The word "troubled" refers to water that is boiling and turbulent. The disciples knew something was up with all of Jesus' talk about being arrested etc and so their minds are in a whirl with a sense of impending disaster. Jesus' antidote to hearts that are restless and troubled is to ask them to trust in him. In the days that follow, he is saying, don't look at the circumstances, look at me and remember my words to you now. Put your faith in my promises and in me as a person.

In Psalm 40 David is speaking from the opposite end of an event that saw him submerged in what he refers to as "a miry pit" full of "slime and clay" (verse 2). Whether this is real or metaphorical we don't know, but in those circumstances he tells us that he "waited patiently for the Lord" who he says "inclined unto me and heard my calling". The effect was that God "brought (him) out of the miry pit" and "set (his) upon a rock". God then ordered "all his goings" (1984 Prayerbook) which is a quaint way of saying that He put him on a firm and safe path (see above "making my steps secure).

In addition, he adds that God also set "a new song in his mouth" - one of gratitude and thanksgiving, (verse 3) transforming him to such an extent that "many shall see it and fear and shall put their trust in the Lord (verse 4).

Trust is catching! I was visiting a member of the congregation the other day and they had had a wretched time with a plumber who had really messed up a job big time causing all kinds of problems and setbacks. They promptly sacked the man and having been recommended another plumber who was, they were told, completely trustworthy and efficient, they employed him and he did the job quickly, professionally and with the minimum fuss and mess. Everyone who meets the couple will tell you how happy and grateful they are, speaking of them in terms of looking like thy have had an enormous burden lifted off their backs. All who know them have seen the change! 

And that is just putting your trust in a plumber! But what about the challenges of life and the burden of guilt, sin and shame? What about a lack of self-worth and self-hatred and a feeling of being unloved and unwanted? What about the load we carry as we stare into the dark abyss of the future and what it will hold? When we hear of the relentless march of religious extremism and the equally relentless march of Ebola or the crumbling of financial institutions how quickly despondency sets in and hope drains out.

It is into all that that the psalmist sheds such wonderful light: "I waited patiently for the Lord and he inclined unto me - he leant closer to me - and heard my calling." "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me."

In the dark days leading up to the start of the Second World War king George VI quoted the following words in his 1939 Christmas broadcast to the British Empire.

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

Every age has its dark days and it's challenges. Every individual and every family too have to face times of trial and trouble. To them and to us God says: "Turn to me and trust me. Let me lead and guide you. Put your hand in mine and let me show you the way."

David did. "I waited patiently for the Lord and he inclined unto me and heard my calling. He brought me also out of the miry pit, out of the slime and clay, and set my feet upon a rock no ordered my goings."

Thursday, 9 October 2014

The perfect church

One thing I love about the Bible is that it hides nothing but just tells the truth even if at times that truth is painful. This is one of the reasons I believe it is an authentic record of the people and situations it writes about. From Adam's ambition, through Noah's shortcomings and Abram's cowardice - passing off his wife as his sister to save his own skin - all the way down to the bunch of squabbling disciples, the divided Church in Corinth and ending up with the self-important church of Laodicea. It is a saga of people's self-centred sin and God's magnificent mercy from beginning to end. Not that the account of God's people is ended, for today the same stories are being told among us and churches up and down the land are "full of hypocrites" as our critics quite rightly claim. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23) writes Paul, and he should know because he was "chief" (1 Timothy 1:15).

Which is why any search for the perfect church is doomed to failure. Not that people ever claim that they are looking for such a rarity. No, if you ask them they will deny that that is their goal. Instead they will tell you that they are looking for a church with more youth, or with better facilities, or somewhere which is "child-friendly" or which preaches the gospel. Or they will be looking for somewhere with a car park, or has services later in the morning or one that that is open to the Spirit. They will tell you they don't like liturgy or they love liturgy. Or that they want a young minister who has a family or a mature one who has "seen a bit of life." They will point out the fact that this one has no atmosphere or that one is too noisy or the one down the street is too high (and smoky) or the other is too low and lacks reverence! Some are too far away and others too close where they know - and dislike - everybody! Others are draughty and dim and others are happy-clappy. So they aren't looking for the perfect church, just one that fits them like a glove and caters for every conceivable need.

One of the criticisms I have received over the years was that not many people went to my church and therefore there must, by implication, be no spiritual life there. After all if God was at work it would be bursting at the seams. What they failed to think through, however, is that event the smallest churches started with one and what they see is the fruit of years of hard work and faithful witness. I have now got an answer for such detractors. I tell them that if they want to go and be at the end rather than the start of a work of God, then go with my blessing. Personally I would rather sow what others reap rather than reap what others have sown.

At the moment St. James - my church - is experiencing the struggles of trying to build something here in the Uplands. It puts me in mind of the days I used to be an apprentice bricklayer. As we were learning the trade we were inevitably put on the footings or the foundation of the building. That way as long as our bricks were laid properly it did not matter what they looked like because, inevitably, they would be buried underground. Once we got up so high, the "professionals" would come and build the rest of the houses on top of what we did. It was not easy work having to contend with mud, cold weather - at times - and the struggle of working in ditches. When we finished all the people would see was the finished product, but we knew that without what we did there would be no house.

Its a bit like that building the church. At the start its hard going, three steps forward and two (or even three) steps back. But slowly the church rises and people begin to see what God is doing. So instead of beating myself up - which I am good at doing - because things are so slow and tough, I get my head down and keep praying. This is God's Church. He knows what He is doing and the sort of people He needs to get the job done. I am here because He called me and as long as He did I am in the right church. Its not perfect - but neither am I! In fact we are a perfect fit. All I need is more imperfect people and we're away. As Jesus said: "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."
(Luke 5:32). Where can I find them?

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Justice

“Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.”  Isaiah 35:3-4

Reading those words of Isaiah is like eating a piece of fish and finding an unexpected bone in it! One minute we are enjoying a tasty meal of encouragement about “strengthening weak hands” and “making firm feeble knees” .

What are feeble knees? It’s a reference to those who stumble in their walk with God. It can also mean those who are caste down or bereaved because of the loss of the sense of God’s presence. And at the time of writing the people of Israel who had turned their backs on God felt what it was like to be abandoned with many people being carried off into forced exile in Babylon—they and the country realised their loss. They had come to their senses and discovered what life was like without God. It’s something I believe we are going to discover as a country at some point.

And the “weak hands” go along with the “feeble knees”. Weak hands are those that can’t hold anything or are strong enough to carry out the work that needs to be done. Put together—weak hands/feeble knees—it’s a people who are helpless without God. Which is all of us. But as St. Paul reminds us “when I am weak” it’s “then I am strong” in the Lord (2 Cor 12:10)

So one minute we are enjoying these words of encouragement along with the promise that God will come and save such people, and next, right in the middle, is the word “vengeance.” What is that doing there? It jars us and it feels so out of place. But before we set it aside, ignore it or pretend it isn't there as sometimes people do, we need to ask if it has a purpose.

First of all we must understand the word in its context. This is key to interpreting what the Bible means. The context is 6th century BC Israel—2600 years ago—in a culture and a language that is very different to our own. When we think of vengeance we see it very much in a negative way, often associated with anger and the need to get even. For example its very easy to look at what is happening in the news with ISIS and the beheadings of two journalists and feel that you want to get back at them in some way. But in the Old Testament 'vengeance' was very much associated with justice.

Second, we must understand it alongside the other word “recompense”. In the previous chapter the two are side by side where Isaiah talks about “the day of the Lord’s vengeance . The year of recompense for the cause of Zion.” (Isaiah 34:8). So vengeance is seen alongside the word recompense. The two go together and speak about the fullness of justice in terms of the punishment fitting the crime or the guilty getting their "just deserts” the "reward" for their wrong-doing.

And third, here as in Isaiah 34:8, vengeance is wholly associated with God. It is He, ultimately, who will judge and dispense justice. He will ensure that the guilty will receive their “just deserts”. In the end only God is able to do this as He, unlike us, possesses all the facts.

And so putting all this together we can see that any promise of peace and security, any offer of help and encouragement must have an element of justice built into it. To quote one commentator:

“The world cannot be put to rights and the era of peace brought in without both the banishment and punishment of the wicked and the blessing of the people of God.” (David Payne: Pickering Bible Commentary: Isaiah) 

When faced with the invasion of a peaceful neighbour, the systematic destruction of a people, culture or a religion, the shooting down of a neutral passenger plane with the loss of everyone on board or the sexual exploitation of over 1400 children,  it is not enough to strengthen those who have been abused or bereaved, you also at the same time have to work and pray that justice is done. Because justice is the other side of the same coin that is marked love. In fact justice—doing what is right—is part of love.

So “vengeance” - by which we mean the justice of God—is actually not really a bone at all, but all part and parcel of the same thing we would call a fish.

Sin and healing—Matthew 9:12

We are used to thinking of sin as something we DO, like stealing, adultery and murder, but the Bible is very clear that these are symptoms rather than cause. There is something wrong within. Jesus hints at this when he answers the Pharisees' accusation that he is eating with sinners. He says "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick." In other words tax collectors and sinners are people who need to be cured not condemned, and he had come to do it.

This understanding of the underlying condition of sin as illness can be seen for example in the Book of Isaiah chapter 53. Here the writer is talking about the mysterious suffering servant whom the New Testament identifies as Jesus the Messiah. Listen what it says about Him:

"Surely he took up our pain. and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.." (Is 53:4-6)

The transgressions and iniquities referred to here point to the outward expression of sin and the wrongs we do, but what is ultimately needed is the healing of the inner man and woman that causes us to do these things. The healing needed refers to what is wrong within us and not the symptoms of our condition which are the sins we commit. That is not to say the sins themselves are not wrong and need to be forgiven, but in seeking forgiveness you are only dealing with the symptoms not the cause.

Paul talks about this in Romans Chapter 7 where he talks about wanting to do good but is constrained by what he calls his "sinful nature" which makes him do the opposite.

It reminds me of my experience with alcoholics in Hirwaun. I used to visit the son of two parishioners who was in the latter stages of liver failure. He was living on drugs and was warned by the doctors that any more alcohol and he would die. But as much as he knew that, and the hurt it caused his parents and the suffering he was going through himself, there was a powerful force within him that, in the end, was greater and stronger than his own will to resist and overcome. And the language he used about his condition was not far removed from Paul's own self-description of his battle with his sinful nature:

"For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing."  (Rom 7:18b-19).

He desperately wanted to stop drinking but the inner drive to drink was, in the end, irresistible. He succumbed in his 30’s. Now this problem is one every human being suffers from. All of us are, to a certain extent, victims of this condition called sin. Psalm 14:4 puts it this way “No one does good no not one.” And in Psalm 51:5 David acknowledges: “I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”   We are all, from the start, to a greater or lesser extent 'sin-aholics'. That does not make us bad people—nor entirely guiltless either—but people in need of healing, forgiveness and restoration. The Good News is that Jesus is the divine physician and the cross is his scalpel. As we come to him in faith and trust, in humble acknowledgment of our need, we will find his cure. For only the sick need a doctor and only the sinner needs Jesus.

Important note: This does not cover the whole of Jesus' work on the cross as there are other important aspects of our salvation that are covered. But it does seem to me that this is an important, if overlooked aspect of the work of the cross as it deals not just with the initial 'problem' of sin but also the ongoing problems it causes within us and the process of healing or salvation needed to deliver us from its power and influence. Plus it does rescue us from being too judgemental of others and the struggles we all have with this universal condition. Note too that the very word salvation means to make whole and therefore has a healing component to it.

A clean heart and a right spirit

My car is a running joke with one firm of undertakers - the reason being is that I don't clean it. On numerous occasions when I have turned up to take a service they have offered for me to drop it in and they will give it the once over.

In fairness they are experts in cleaning cars because everyday after each funeral they wash, clean and polish theirs until you can see your face in it. Even if there is no apparent dirt or dust on the car - at least not to my obviously untrained eyes - they will take it back to the garage and clean it. Why? Because they want to show their clients that they care and that what they want to offer them is nothing but the very best.

In today's psalm the writer prays not for a clean car but for a clean heart. "Make me a clean heart O God and renew a right spirit within me." (Psalm 51:10)

This psalm - psalm 51 - is read in its entirety every morning in the Eastern Orthodox Morning daily prayers. Thus the one who prays asks that God cleanse his or her heart from all the dirt that it has been picked up during the day. And our hearts do pick up dirt. Whether from what we see or hear from the TV, radio or daily life, or what comes up from what Isaiah so vividly calls the "tossing sea" of our own hearts which "cannot be quiet, (and whose) waters toss up refuse and mud." (Isaiah 57:20) - very vivid description isn't it.

Each day, the psalmist reminds us, our hearts - like the undertakers dusty cars - need to be brought to God for cleansing and renewal.

It's not that God sees us purely in those terms. He does not have a down on us, writing us off as permanently dirty and a pile of useless rubbish. But like a mother constantly has to remind her children that cleanliness is next to godliness - remember that saying - and that dirt harbours germs and other undesirable microbes, so He, like her, councils a daily shower to keep us free from infection and in good health. We too need to clean behind the ears and between our toes so that nothing spoils and soils us, hindering or hurting our walk with Him or our general spiritual health and well being.

So next time you wash or shower, why not use this prayer while you do so, and ask God, as you wash your hands or brush your teeth, to "make me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me."

Note: Incidentally all those who wonder sometimes why the priest washes his hands before blessing the bread and wine at Holy Communion, as well as washing his hands for hygienic and holy purposes he may be preparing his soul using the above prayer, quietly, to God as he does so.

St. Michael and All Angels - 29th September

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the playwright puts the following words into the mouth of his main character as he addresses Horatio, who is having a hard time believing that Hamlet has seen a ghost:

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

In other words although Horatio’s education does not allow for the existence of such things, he does not have the monopoly of all the knowledge of heaven and earth.

And neither do we. That is why the Bible is so counter-cultural and so radical because it challenges our thinking and opens up for us a whole new dimension of things we don’t ordinarily have access to because we are restricted to only what we can see, hear, touch or smell.

Today we remember St. Michael and All Angels. St. Michael in the Bible is identified as the Archangel who has charge of all the angels of God. He is mentioned three times in the Book of Daniel. And in the New Testament he leads God's armies against Satan's forces in the Book of Revelation (Rev 12:7-12), where during the war in heaven he defeats Satan. And in the Epistle of Jude Michael is specifically referred to as "the archangel Michael".

Angels are everywhere in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and some of the most famous stories in the scriptures have angels in them. Abraham entertains three angels on their way to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18). Jacob wrestles with one at Bethel (Genesis 32:22-32) and earlier was given a vision of them ascending and descending into heaven (Genesis 28:10-21). In the New Testament Joseph, Mary and the shepherds have encounters with them (Matthew 1:20-21, Luke 1:26-38, and Luke 2:13-18) in the Book of Acts Peter is rescued from jail by the intervention of an angel (Acts 12:1-19).

There is a reference to what appear to be guardian angels in a passage where Jesus, after rebuking the disciples for turning the children away who had come for a blessing tells them:

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven. “ (Matthew 18:10)

The activity of angels are by no means limited to ancient times either. I have just been reading an account of a Norwegian Missionary in China named Marie Monsen who served there in the early part of the last century ("A Present Help" published by Kingsley Press).

It was a very dangerous time to serve in what was a very unstable country and she and her fellow missionaries had many brushes with death at the hands of corrupt and renegade soldiers and brigands. Several times she had reason to believe that angels intervened to rescue them. On one occasion as their compound was besieged by looting soldiers they barricaded themselves in the chapel. Some of the locals came and joined them because they said that they felt safer with them because they had protection. When asked what they meant they were told that on the roof of the chapel they had seen four soldiers on guard one at each end, one on the middle and one by the main gate. When questioned about what they looked like they said that they were tall and had shining faces. When asked if they were Chinese they said no, they were foreigners.

The only explanation was that these were no ordinary people but were angels sent to guard the praying missionaries.

The point of all this is really to awaken us to the fact that we do not live in a one (or indeed three) dimensional world. That there exists something more than what we can see, touch, hear or smell. And there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in all our science and philosophies. In fact the dimension in which God and his angels operate is actually what came first and out of that, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). Once we start there—rather than here—life as we know it begins to take on greater meaning, and God and the supernatural comes into sharper focus.

We start to ask important questions about God—who He is, what is His purpose for creating us, how are we to live the life he has given us? Is this life a preparation for the next? Does what we do and how we live now have an impact on where we will spend eternity?  Does it make life better now?

St. Michael and all angels challenge us to ask deeper questions of life other than what iphone we should by or what the latest fashion is. There is more out there and what that more is can have a much greater impact on our lives here and now.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

My sisters the saints - follow up interview

Here is an interview with Coleen about her book "My sisters the saints" where she talks about Mother Teresa.

My sisters the saints

Example is a powerful encouragement to us on our Christian walk which can be full of struggles as well as blessings. The video below comes from the Roman Catholic stable which, I know, does not sit well with some. But it tells of one woman's spiritual journey of discovery and how the lives of the saints - women of faith in this case - inspired and helped her in her walk with God. It does not tell the full story - you will have to buy the book to read that - but it does give a little insight into the woman who wrote it (Coleen Carrol Campbell)and the fact that she drew closer to God as a result surely makes it worth reading. I certainly think so.

God just loves to bless

The following talk was given at the 9.00 Welsh Service in St. James for the 9th Sunday after Trinity (1984 Green Book readings):

God is a God who loves to bless. In our readings this morning we have two examples of Old Testament beatitudes in Jeremiah 17:7-10 and Psalm 1 where God talks about blessing.

But there are clear conditions if we want to be blessed by him.

First, we have to trust him but it’s a trust that does not keep God at arms length. Jeremiah writes:

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust IS the Lord.” 

He makes the point that we don’t just trust God because he is a powerful being but because he is person who is trustworthy. It’s the difference between trusting a car and a person. We can trust a car because it is mechanically sound and able to take us from A to B. But when it comes to a person it’s a different kind of trust. We trust in them as someone we know personally as trustworthy. God is not a thing but sometimes we can, if we are not careful, treat him like he is.

Second, we are to avoid the kind of people and situations that can undermine our relationship with God.

In psalm 1:1—in the KJV—it poetically describes what we must not do in terms of sitting, walking and standing:

“Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.” 

Sitting, walking and standing is another way of saying we spend our whole time—apart from when we lie down and sleep—in the company of those who are ungodly, lead a sinful life and are continually scornful of God and all things sacred. It is not that we are to avoid their company altogether—Jesus said he came to save sinners and so are we—but that we must not immerse ourselves totally in that kind of unbelieving and negative environment because it will lure us away from God.

That is why Church is so important. I can never understand people who say that they are Christians but never go to Church. I suspect that a few hours in their company getting to know them will reveal that their Christianity has worn rather thin and that their faith levels are low to non-existent.

Wesley in his early life tells us in his diaries that “he met a serious man,” who said to him, ” Sir, you wish to serve God and go to heaven. Remember you cannot serve Him alone. You must therefore find companions or make them. The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.”

Being blessed by God depends on keeping company with God, keeping company with fellow Christians and finally keeping company with the Bible, which is God’s word and expression of his will and purpose for us:

“...his delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law doth he ponder day and night (Psalm 1:2)”

When I came to Christ in my early twenties I was advised to read the Bible every day and was given an outline of readings which, if followed, would take me through the Bible once every year. It consisted on reading a 5-6 chapters every day. It wasn't bad advice but the problem was that I read the passages but I didn't ponder or meditate on them. My sole intention was to try and get through the readings before they log-jammed into the next day and I had to read 12 chapters or 18 if it left it three days!

Someone put it like this. If you want to enjoy a boiled sweet you need to suck it not crunch it. To delight in God is to get to know God and that takes time. So read and ponder, don't just read.

These three things then bring us closer to God. Keeping company with him, his people and his word. That is where we will find his blessing.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Sharing Jesus - 3-2-1

The following is a very simple explanation of the Gospel message about Jesus.

Be transformed by the renewal of your mind

Darrell Tunningley started using drugs from the age of eleven.  By the age of sixteen he was selling large quantities.  He became a ‘debt collector’, on one occasion using a petrol grass strimmer on the bottom of someone’s feet who owed £300.

At aged seventeen, Darrell took part in an armed robbery, was arrested, and sentenced to five and a half years in prison.  Whilst inside he went on an Alpha Course.  He prayed, ‘God if you’re real, prove it.  Take away my drug addiction, take away all this anger that’s inside me and if you do that for me, I’ll live the rest of my life for you’.

When he woke up the next morning the thought of touching a cigarette made him feel physically sick.  He threw it out of the cell window and then he got his tobacco and threw that out of the window.  Then he took his drugs and threw them out of the window.  Then he stopped feeling sick.

When he looked in the mirror he didn't recognize the reflection because he was smiling – not just smiling, but beaming.  Since that day he hasn't touched drugs.  He hasn't smoked.  He hasn't drunk.  He hasn't been in a fight.

He started running Alpha Courses in the prison.  Hundreds of people came on the courses.  Prison officers started to come to speak to him for advice and counselling.  When he left prison he became the assistant at a local church run by a pastor who is also a magistrate, Mark Finch.  He married Mark’s daughter, Rebekah, and they now have two children.

When I interviewed him I asked him what difference Jesus has made.  He replied, ‘I don’t say this lightly, I really do mean it, he [Jesus] is more important to me than the air I’m breathing.’  He says, ‘Now he’s my everything.  He’s my lifeline, he’s my strength, he’s everything.  I couldn't live without him and everything I do is through him and for him.  My life wouldn't be the way it is if he wasn't exactly who he said he was’.  Darrell’s life was totally changed because Jesus set him free from all his addictions, all his anger, and all the sin that was destroying his life.

Is it possible for us to change?  One of the most difficult things in the world is to break from a bad habit or to give up sin.  In one of today’s passages Jeremiah asks, ‘Can a leopard change its spots?’ (Jeremiah 13:23).

The meaning of life?

‘Does anybody know what we are living for?’ asks Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen, in the lyrics of the last song on their album, ‘The Miracle’.

Millions are implicitly asking just that question.  Jonathan Gabay, a professional writer, aged thirty-one, facing employment challenges and problems with stress and health hit rock bottom.  He began to ask questions about the meaning of life.  He wrote to people in all walks of life: world leaders, the homeless, Oscar-winning actors, philosophers, comedians, taxi-drivers, teachers, explorers and prisoners on death row.  He even wrote to me!

Gabay compiled a book of our responses, together with others who had attempted, over time, to answer this question.  They include the following:

‘Life is one crisis after another.’  Richard Nixon

‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’  John Lennon

‘Life is what you make it – and I can make it UNBEARABLE!’  Dennis the Menace

‘The man who regards his life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unhappy but hardly fit for life.’  Albert Einstein

Numerous people replied that the meaning and purpose of life was to be found in Jesus Christ.  Not only Mother Theresa and Billy Graham, but actors, scientists, the Lord Chancellor at the time and the Chief Cashier of the Bank of England, Graham Kentfield (whose signature was on every current banknote).  He said, ‘I am clear that the meaning of life can only be properly understood in the context of our relationship with God.’

Looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith

Spurgeon was converted Jan., 1850, at the age of 15, at Colchester; gave his first Gospel address at Faversham when he was 16, and for thirty years declared almost weekly, to audiences numbering five or six thousand, the glorious Gospel of the blessed God; millions of his sermons have been scattered in all parts of the world. He quietly passed from Mentone to Heaven, Sunday, January 31, 1892. Here is his description of what happened in his own words:

"I sometimes think I might have been in darkness and despair now, had it not been for the goodness of God in sending a snowstorm one Sunday morning, when I was going to a place of worship. When I could go no further, I turned down a court and came to a little Primitive Methodist Chapel. In that chapel there might be a dozen or fifteen people. The minister did not come that morning: snowed up, I suppose. A poor man, a shoemaker, a tailor, or something of that sort, went up into the pulpit to preach. He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had nothing else to say. The text was, 'Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.' He did not even pronounce the words rightly, but that did not matter.

"There was, I thought, a glimpse of hope for me in the text. He began thus: 'My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It says, "Look." Now that does not take a deal of effort. It ain't lifting your foot or your finger; it is just "look." Well, a man need not go to college to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man need not be worth a thousand a year to look. Anyone can look; a child can look. But this is what the text says. Then it says, "Look unto Me." 'Ay,' said he, in broad Essex, 'many of ye are looking to yourselves. No use looking there. You'll never find comfort in yourselves.' Then the good man followed up his text in this way: 'Look unto Me: I am sweating great drops of blood. Look unto Me; I am hanging on the Cross. Look: I am dead and buried. Look unto Me; I rise again. Look unto Me; I ascend; I am sitting at the Father's right hand. O, look to Me! Look to Me!' When he had got about that length, and managed to spin out ten minutes, he was at the length of his tether.

"Then he looked at me under the gallery, and I dare say  with so few present, he knew me to be a stranger. He then said, 'Young man, you look very miserable.' Well, I did; but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made on my personal appearance from the pulpit before. However, it was a good blow struck. He continued: 'And you will always be miserable — miserable in life and miserable in death — if you do not obey my text. But if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.'

"Then he shouted, as only a Primitive Methodist can, 'Young man, look to Jesus Christ.' There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that moment and sung with the most enthusiastic of them of the Precious Blood of Christ."

More? More of what? - Part 2

Third, how well equipped are churches to teach the importance of the deeper spiritual life? How many have all but sold out trying to encourage more people into their buildings each Sunday? Understandably they are concerned at the plight of the Church in the West and the growing influence of Islam and atheism. They long to see more children and young people coming to faith and despair at the higher average age of their congregations. They see how successful the world is at winning the battle for souls and have tried to learn lessons from it about how to grab people's attention and provide what is needed to make them sit up and listen to the message of the Gospel. But the danger is that "success" has become redefined in terms of quantity instead of quality and as time goes on churches are becoming more superficial and less counter-cultural. We are doing exactly what St. Paul told us NOT to do: "Do not let the world squeeze you into its mould." (Romans 12:2 J.B.Phillips).

We can see an example of this is the migrationary nature of a growing number of  Christians today who church-hop or church-shop, trying out the newest addition to the growing list of denominations in each of our cities each year only to quickly get fed up and leave to try out another. I love the advice St. Gregory of Sinai once gave about prayer which is appropriate here:

"For, just as plants do not take root if transplanted too frequently, neither do the movements of prayer in the heart if the words are changed frequently."

The old saying of the Evangelicals comes to mind here: "Blossom where you are planted." In other words find a church, stay, put down roots and grow God's work there. You can't serve God if you are always a customer. Part of becoming more spiritually mature is sticking at things. But if all the effort of the individual church is to provide entertainment, or play the world's game, then its no wonder that people move around because entertainment wears off in the pursuit of the next thrill.

Lastly, as I get older and, hopefully more reflective (the plus side of having less energy), I am re-discovering that the 'old' and 'traditional' have more to offer than I had previously thought. I wonder if this was what Jeremiah meant in Chapter 6:16:

"Thus says the Lord, "Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, Where the good way is, and walk in it; And you will find rest for your souls."
And Jesus in Matthew 13:52:

"Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old."
And perhaps more telling still, from Jeremiah (2:13):

"My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water."
Have we neglected the old in order to run exclusively after the new? Have we left the ancient God-worn paths in a vain pursuit of new spiritualities? Have we tried to dig our own cisterns which cannot hold the living water?

Now I am not advocating the rejection of the new because its new, just as I would not want to reject the old because it is old. But I think that the greater danger lies in the latter and we have definitely got to start looking again for the baby that was thrown out with the bathwater in our vain attempts at digging every new cisterns (excuse the mixed metaphors).

I will return to some of these themes over the next few blogs. But for now a personal note. Every Wednesday our Church at St.James holds a midweek Holy Communion service using the 1984 Book of Common Prayer as produced by the Church in Wales. Don't be impressed by the date because actually the language is pseudo-Elizabethan where God is "Thou" and "Thee". It also breaks all "the rules" when it comes to being new and trendy and it is rather bare and straightforward. It is co-led by a retired priest (who does a great job leading it) and a lay-reader (ditto) and I usually give a short address with the occasional 'guest' speaker. For years - 26 - I have struggled and wrestled with the service seeing it as irrelevant and out of touch with modern life but in recent months I have given in to it and concentrated on using the words as a vehicle to encounter the God who is always present. The shock has been that I can now honestly say, hand on heart, that my experience of worship most Wednesdays has been the most vivid and rewarding of my entire priestly ministry!

What is it that makes it so? Is it the up to date language it uses? No its 500 years old! Is it short and snappy? No - in particular the consecration prayer is quite long. Is it the informal and laid-back nature of the worship? Certainly not - its almost the opposite. Is it the free cup of tea/coffee at the end or the carefully staged ambience of the room in which we meet? No it's in the Minor Hall in the Parish Centre. And who ever gets excited by a cup of tea? What is it? It is the presence of God who has been there all along. I have been so busy looking AT the service that I have not seen THROUGH it, using the words to speak to God what is in my heart. DO you think God cares whether the language is Elizabethan or Norwegian. It is not the language of the mouth he is listening to but the language of the heart. "Better your heart without words than your words without heart" wrote John Bunyan. What ever we say and do we must do it from the heart. That is the only thing God really listens for.

More? More of what? - Part 1

I was very struck by the following quote from Simon Ponsonby's book "Something More". It's taken from "The Wind in the Willows" by Kenneth Graeme:

"So this is a River!"
"THE River," corrected the Rat.
"And you really live by the River? What a jolly life."
"By it, and with it, and on it, and in it," said the Rat.
"It's brother and sister to me, and aunts and company and food and drink and [naturally] washing. It's my world, and I don't want any other. What it hasn't got is not worth having and what it doesn't know is not worth knowing! Lord! The times we've had together."

Ponsonby uses the quote to launch his book which addresses the hunger that Christians are feeling for more of God. His book locates that hunger and desire in the person of the Holy Spirit - hence the allusion in the above quote. But I think there is more to it than that. Why?.

First, because there is a danger that wanting more of the Holy Spirit can, if we are not careful, be seen as exclusively having more gifts, or seeing more healings, or more speaking in tongues. In other words 'more' can become, if we are not careful, taken up with the exterior manifestations of God's presence rather than God Himself. I am not criticising Simon here or indeed those who, by God's grace minister healing etc in His Name. In fact I admire such people and the ones I know personally are people with a very close relationship with God. But we must take care to preserve a balanced and Trinitarian view of the Christian life and not emphasize one aspect of the Trinity to the expense of the others.

Second, those writing the books about such things have already "put in the hard work" of prayer and self-discipline and are seeing the "more" as the fruit of their relationship with God. So naturally they are excited about this and want to see others benefit from the blessings they have received as a result. But the problem arises that unless the emphasis is placed firmly on the first part - the relationship with God (the roots) then folk will want the 'more' (the tree) but without giving themselves wholly to God.

An example of the true or full Christian life is seen in the lives of the great men and women of God. They pursue God with relentless commitment, passion and desire and give themselves to Him totally for His sake and not for the sake of reward. Their life in God is beautifully summed up in the well-known prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola:

Teach us, good Lord,
to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost;
to fight and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will.

Here they discover the 'more' that Simon and others point to and out of this, if God wills it, will flows the gifts and graces that seem to receive the most attention.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

"No longer I, but Christ...."

There is an old story that tells about the pig and the lamb. The farmer brought the pig into the house. He gave him a bath, polished his hoofs, put some Chanel No. 5 on him, put a ribbon around his neck, and put him in the the living-room. The pig looked fine. He almost seemed to be acceptable to society and to friends that might come in, he was so fresh and clean. He made a very nice and companionable pet for a few minutes. But as soon as the door was opened, the pig left the living-room and jumped into the first mud puddle that he could find. Why? Because he was still a pig at heart. His nature had not been changed. He had been changed outwardly but not inwardly.

Take a lamb, on the other hand. Put a lamb in a living-room and then turn him out into the yard, and he will try his best to avoid all mud puddles. Why? Because his nature is that of a lamb.

You can take a man - dress him up, put him in the front row in church, and he almost looks like a saint. He may fool even his best friends for a while, but then put him in his office the next day, or put him at home, or out him in the club on Saturday night, and you will see his true nature come out again. Why does he act that way? Because his nature has not been changed. He has not been born again.
Billy Graham: Peace with God page 126

Top ten tips for happiness - Pope Francis

These are among the top 10 pieces of advice issued by Pope Francis as part of his recipe for a happy, more fulfilled life.

Speaking in a very frank interview published in the Argentine weekly “Viva”, the Pope drew on his personal experiences to come up with his own lifestyle guide with a humble, anti-consumerist twist.

The highlights include a call to families to “turn off the TV when they sit down to eat because, even though television is useful for keeping up with the news, having it on during mealtime doesn't let you communicate with each other”, according to a Catholic News Service translation of the interview.

And Francis said people will also be much happier when they stop trying too hard to bring others round to their way of thinking – including on religion. He said the church grows “by attraction, not proselytising”, and added that the best way to get through to anyone was with “dialogue, starting with his or her own identity”.

The number one piece of advice actually came in the form of a slightly clich├ęd Italian expression, roughly translated as: “Move forward and let others do the same”. The equivalent in English would be “live and let live”.

Pope Francis’s secrets to happiness

1. “Live and let live.” Everyone should be guided by this principle, he said, which has a similar expression in Rome with the saying, “Move forward and let others do the same.”

2. “Be giving of yourself to others.” People need to be open and generous toward others, he said, because “if you withdraw into yourself, you run the risk of becoming egocentric. And stagnant water becomes putrid.”

3. “Proceed calmly” in life. The pope, who used to teach high school literature, used an image from an Argentine novel by Ricardo Guiraldes, in which the protagonist — gaucho Don Segundo Sombra — looks back on how he lived his life.

4. A healthy sense of leisure. The Pope said “consumerism has brought us anxiety”, and told parents to set aside time to play with their children and turn of the TV when they sit down to eat.

5. Sundays should be holidays. Workers should have Sundays off because “Sunday is for family,” he said.

6. Find innovative ways to create dignified jobs for young people. “We need to be creative with young people. If they have no opportunities they will get into drugs” and be more vulnerable to suicide, he said.

7. Respect and take care of nature. Environmental degradation “is one of the biggest challenges we have,” he said. “I think a question that we're not asking ourselves is: 'Isn't humanity committing suicide with this indiscriminate and tyrannical use of nature?'”

8. Stop being negative. “Needing to talk badly about others indicates low self-esteem. That means, 'I feel so low that instead of picking myself up I have to cut others down,'” the Pope said. “Letting go of negative things quickly is healthy.”

9. Don't proselytise; respect others' beliefs. “We can inspire others through witness so that one grows together in communicating. But the worst thing of all is religious proselytism, which paralyses: 'I am talking with you in order to persuade you,' No. Each person dialogues, starting with his and her own identity. The church grows by attraction, not proselytising,” the Pope said.

10. Work for peace. “We are living in a time of many wars,” he said, and “the call for peace must be shouted. Peace sometimes gives the impression of being quiet, but it is never quiet, peace is always proactive” and dynamic.
Translated by Catholic News Service

Go and make disciples. But first.....

I have been trying to broaden my reading in recent months to try and learn from other Christian traditions older than my own. After all it is a huge assumption to suppose that my own, which only goes back about 500 years, has all the answers when others had been busy going about the business of being Christian for much longer. Here for example is an extract from a book from the Eastern Orthodox Church founded AD 33:

"Do you remember what Christ said to the apostles just after His Resurrection? Go and sit in Jerusalem quietly doing nothing and wait until the Holy Spirit comes to you. It came on the Pentecost. It was only after their enlightenment through the descent of the Holy Spirit that they were instructed to go into the world as shakers and teachers. Christ showed them the way. He shows us that we are not to get on the road and become self-appointed missionaries. His example indicates that we must wait in silence and obscurity and focus our hearts and minds exclusively on our personal relationship with God. It is in this way that if and when we are called by God to go out into the world for a particular task, then we will be ready for it."
Father Maximos in "The Mountain of Silence."

I was very struck about the priority of waiting upon God and the need to deepen the relationship we have with Him before assuming the task of evangelism and outreach. Every car has to be filled with fuel before it sets out on a journey. Every student has to learn before attempting to apply for a job. Every apprentice has to become familiar with the tools of his/her trade before being given an assignment. If we are to share God, it is important, first, that we know Him and know Him well, otherwise we will be sharing ignorance and asking others to share it too!

Bible study has overtaken prayer and self-discipline in the preparation for evangelism. But it is not enough to throw texts at people or even be familiar with their meaning so as to answer every awkward question. The emphasis on knowledge is mis-directed. It is the personal knowledge of God which is important as we are sharing Good News about a person not a movement. We are to share Christ not Christianity. "Did we not prophesy in your name, or caste out demons in your names etc.. To which Jesus replied "Depart from me you evildoers - I never knew you (nor you me!). Matthew 7:21-23

To know Christ is to know the Gospel not the other way round. I did not get to know and love my wife by what others said of her or by studying her life and personality from afar. It got to know and love her by meeting and getting to know her. As our relationship developed then I got to know her fully and so could speak about her with authority.

Makes sense and maybe answers the questions some of us have about the superficiality of much that passes for Church nowadays?

Holy Communion and symbolism

The Holy Communion service is shot through with very powerful symbolism, much of which I suspect, goes unnoticed by the average worshiper. This is not a criticism because until I stepped the other side of the Lord's Table, I was oblivious to the why's and what's of what went on. So here are a few examples of what I am talking about:

When the priest takes the chalice to the server and he/she passes the water and the wine, the reason why both are included is not to ensure that the wine is watered down and not too strong, but for a much deeper and more profound reason. The water represents the human nature of Christ and the wine the divine nature. In Christ there is no division between the two but he was fully human and divine at the same time. So just as you cannot separate water and wine once they have mingled together in the cup, so you cannot separate the humanity and divinity of Christ.

So the water and the wine mixed together represent a powerful biblical and doctrinal statement about the nature of Christ.

Another important symbol is the water poured over the fingers of the priest after he has received the bread and prepared the cup. It's purpose is, of course, practical in ensuring that the fingers that handle the bread are clean. But more than that they represent his prayer that his heart is also washed so that he is ready to stand in the place of Christ at the Lord's Table.

All of this points, of course, to something very real and powerful occurring whenever people gather for Holy Communion. This is underlined by St. Paul who writes to the Corinthians warning them of the consequences of unworthily receiving the body and blood of Christ. Take the following passage from 1 Corinthians 11:27-30

"27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep."

Later in the 16th and 17th century the children of the Reformers tried to reinterpret this passage to remove any understanding of the Holy Communion as anything other than being merely symbolic. To them the bread and wine "represents" the body and blood of Christ, rendering the whole thing rather empty and, frankly, meaningless and powerless. But clearly Paul - and Jesus - see it in opposite terms. Jesus said, clearly, "this is my body/this is my blood" and St. Paul, as we have seen above, says that treating it in any other way, except with due reverence for what it is, is foolish and, frankly, dangerous.

But having said all that we also must, I believe, avoid any attempts at over-definition here about how exactly the bread is or becomes the body of Christ and how the wine is or becomes the blood of Christ. Such attempts never do justice to what, after all, is a deep and profound mystery. Suffice to say that it is what it says on the tin and not try and quench our spiritual appetites for more of Christ by reducing it all to the lowest level of definition. 

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Holding onto integrity

It's becoming more and more of a challenge nowadays to take funeral services where the person who has passed away has at best a nominal Christian faith but whose children have no faith. Recently I took a funeral where this was the case. In fact the next of kin I visited introduced herself as a humanist - a 'spiritual' one - but nevertheless a humanist. She explained that the reason I was involved was that it was thought that this best fulfilled her mother's wishes and reflected the generation she was from. When being given these two contradictory pieces of information I am never entirely sure how folk expect me to respond? Are they hoping that I will tone down the religious bit or avoid anything they would consider 'preachy'? Or are they trying to make the point that they have their own integrity and this is not for them but - albeit reluctantly - for mum? Or are they trying to provoke some kind of discussion about the existence or non-existence of God? I am never sure. But I was at least asked if I could read something from the Bible -which they acknowledged was a "wonderful piece of literature" (something I always find a little condescending) - but could I choose something that would reflect mum's love of creation (is this another example of a customer approach to funerals where I am 'hired' and therefore under contract?).

Before I continue, a word about integrity. The people I visit who talk about their integrity as unbelievers have already compromised that by calling me in to take the service. But they still in some way want me to respect their integrity at the expense of my own. Don't be "too religious" is another way of saying don't be religious at all because I don't believe in it. But just as they cannot compromise on theirs neither can I compromise mine. So far better all round, surely, would be to hire a humanist celebrant and be consistent with your own beliefs. (The fact that they charge over twice as much as a Minister of Religion should not come into it!). And don't worry about what mum or dad think because, according to your own set of beliefs, they are dead and gone along with any kind of continued consciousness or awareness.

Back to the funeral. Bearing in mind the above conversation I nevertheless took great pains to find a suitable reading and build my short address around it. The result is below and followed the much longer tribute that the family had written for the lady:

The following reading is from Genesis chapter 2 and is a summary of the account of creation we find in Chapter 1:

4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens. 5 Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, 6 but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. 7 Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. 8 Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. 9 The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 

Like N. my mother loved her garden. When I asked her why, her reply was to quote an old saying which I had already heard somewhere before: “You are closest to God in the garden.”

Why is that?
In the garden we see the beauty of the creation which reflects the beauty of God who the Bible says is light and love.
In the garden we see creativity, the creativity that reflects a person not blind chance.
Finally in the garden we see design, the work of the Divine Architect who is God.

My mother saw all those things in the plants she grew and in the beauty of the flowers, herbs and tress. Maybe N. sensed the same things. Maybe she too sensed the presence of God in the 
garden?

But the actual quote is slightly wrong and so in tribute to N. let me end by reading the poem by Dorothy Frances Gurney from which it is taken.
The Lord God planted a garden
In the first white days of the world,
And He set there an angel warden
In a garment of light enfurled.

So near to the peace of Heaven,
That the hawk might nest with the wren,
For there in the cool of the even
God walked with the first of men.

And I dream that these garden-closes
With their shade and their sun-flecked sod
And their lilies and bowers of roses,
Were laid by the hand of God.

The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,--
One is nearer God's heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.

For He broke it for us in a garden
Under the olive-trees
Where the angel of strength was the warden
And the soul of the world found ease.

Now I have to concede that I had made an obvious point about there being a Creator and had given three simple proofs about His existence - the presence of beauty, creativity and design - but I deliberately tried not to be too preachy (although it is my calling to "preach the Gospel" and convince people about the truth of God's existence. This is following my own integrity!). After the service the family were grateful for the service, someone asked for a copy of the poem and generally it seemed to have gone okay. But one member of the family shook my hand and thanked me for the service and felt constrained to add "apart from the religion".  And this illustrates my point. How can I, a clergyman, whose whole calling and raison d'etre is to preach the Gospel, pray prayers, read the Bible in public and commit a deceased person into the hands of Almighty God, have done anything except mention God? Isn't the salvation of lost souls important to me? How loving would it have been therefore to have not taken whatever opportunity I had to persuade people of the folly and danger of their rejection of God? How does that reflect a loving God whose own Son took the step of dying on a cross to save them? Okay he may have seen my reference to God making the world as a slight dig at his humanist views - and if I am honest it was, kind of, in a gentle way - but to expect me to be less than I am when I have been brought in to take a religious service is surely asking too much.

But this is the way things are going right now in the funeral world. Goodness knows I am glad the days have gone where the only mention of the deceased person was their name inserted wherever the prayer book put an N. in the passages or the prayers. It is only right and fitting that something be said about what the person meant to family and friends etc. But the pendulum is swinging the other way and I can see a growing call for more services which are humanistic and religion-less as people want it to be more and more about them and the deceased than about the Creator who gave them life in the first place.

Personally I think this is a good thing as everyone's integrity will then be upheld and we can make a more clear distinction between a Christian funeral and a humanist one. I can turn up to arrange a funeral knowing that we are all "singing from the same hymn-book" (excuse the pun) and not feel under pressure to conform to something I don't believe in.

But that is still a long way off. People being who they are, and despite the growth of atheism in Britain, still seem to want to hang on to hope of an afterlife of some sort or a plan that promises them a happy ending to their lives. Very very few people want to acknowledge that mum and dad have gone forever and they won't be seen again. Even among those who say they are "not religious" there is still a belief that mum is an angel in (a God-less) heaven, or even more weirdly, a star in the sky. Dad will still, somehow, be always there with them or watching over or looking after them. The tide may be going out for now leaving debris for the likes of me to trip over but I believe it will turn again. But then I would believe that wouldn't I!

Monday, 11 August 2014

Keeping things simple

"Let all multiplicity be absent from your prayer. A single word was enough for the publican and the prodigal son to receive God's pardon. … Do not try to find exactly the right words for your prayer: how many times does the simple and monotonous stuttering of children draw the attention of their father!

Do not launch into long discourses, for if you do, your mind will be dissipated trying to find just the right words. The publican's short sentence moved God to mercy. A single word full of faith saved the thief."
John Climacus (d. 649)

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Transfiguration

This talk was given yesterday - August 6th - at the midweek service:

The Transfiguration is one of those feasts that usually gets tucked away in midweek and so tends, like the Ascension, to get overlooked by churches. And yet it is one of the major feast days of the Church as it reveals the fullness of Jesus to us as Messiah and Lord. How does it do that?

First 1 John 1:5 tells us that God is light. So the bright cloud (mentioned in Matthew’s account), the shining of Jesus’ face like the sun (again Matthew) and the whiteness of Jesus clothes which Luke describes as “dazzling white” and Mark as “exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them” (Mark 9:3) all demonstrate that Jesus is God.

Second, God the Father bears witness from heaven: “This is my Son (beloved in Matthew)” showing that Jesus was God from the beginning. He doesn't say “he has become” but “IS my Son.”

Third, Moses represents the Law and all those who have died. Elijah represents the prophets and since he did not experience death but was taken up into heaven, he represents all those who are alive in Christ. Their presence—Moses and Elijah—shows that the Law and the Prophets, the living and the dead, all bear witness to Jesus as the Messiah, the fulfilment of the Old Testament.

Incidentally the presence of Elijah and Moses reinforces the biblical teaching about the communion of saints mentioned in the Creed “the communion of saints and the forgiveness of sins” and in Hebrews 12:1 where the writer talks about the “great cloud of witnesses” with the cloud representing the presence of God with whom they all live. Moses and Elijah appear talking with Jesus before being enveloped in the cloud of God’s presence again!

Added note: This part raises the question about the nearness of those saints who have gone before us and makes you wonder if the church of the first 1500 years was that far off when it prayed to the saints?

Finally, the Holy Trinity is manifested here as Christ is transfigured, the Father speaks from heaven testifying to Jesus’ divine sonship and the Spirit is present in form of a dazzling light surrounding Jesus and overshadowing the whole mountain.

And then everything recedes. Once God has spoken we are told by Luke that “Jesus was found alone.”  In Matthew he says “when they, the disciples, had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”
Its as if to say that we can have all the ecstatic experiences, all the signs and wonders, all the fireworks and external aids, but in the end it is Jesus only we should and need to look to. “Fix your eyes on Jesus” says the author to the Hebrews. And so we should.

Our salvation, our life, our meaning and wholeness as people, all centre of our relationship with him. He is the way, the truth and the life by which we come to God the Father. He is the resurrection and the life who raises us up when we die. He is the light of the world that shines in the darkness of our world showing us the way. He is the bread of life that feeds our hungry souls. He is the true vine in which we must abide. He is the great I am, the revelation of the fullness of God. He is the door through which we enter into eternal life, He is the Good Shepherd who tends and leads his sheep. He is the water of life to whom all who are thirsty come to drink.

The transfiguration highlights Jesus and presents him to us, foreshadowing his resurrection and acting as a spotlight that shines on him to remind us who he is and why we worship and serve him.

Thanks, but no thanks!

We had a wonderful day yesterday starting with the awards ceremony where Ruth, our youngest child, received her degree - a 2:1- after thre...