Saturday, 23 March 2019

We Need Each Other

Just finished reading Jean Vanier’s “We Need One Another”, full of little bits of insight as to how God cares for us, and just what that might mean in terms of how we relate to each other as human beings. Here are the things that I wrote down as I read it, each saying something that is both challenging and inspiring:

“When a baby is born, the baby is vulnerable, easily wounded, fragile, and without any kind of defence. This child, held lovingly in the arms of the mother, learns through the tone of her voice, the tenderness of her touch, and her unfailing attention that he or she is loved. The child is not frightened of being vulnerable; he or she learns that it is okay to be weak and to have no defences because he or she knows, I am loved.”

“There is a beauty and vulnerability in each person.”

“Do not be afraid to give voice to your fears. The danger lies in letting our fears control us and in not learning to walk with them. Our fears may not be eliminated, but we do not have to be controlled by them.”

“To love someone is to reveal to them that they are precious; it is to listen to them.”

“God is present in the weakest and in the most vulnerable.”

“Community is about building a body, and we all need one another. Weakness is about accepting who we are, accepting our vulnerabilities and our poverty.”

“Jesus has a vision for our world, to bring people together in love.”

“We are human beings with wounded hearts, and we must take care of our hearts.”

“When you live in a society full of competition, where you find yourself seeking only your own success, you may gain power and money, but you will end up losing what is most valuable in becoming human: to be in relationship, open to another person. This is the vision of Jesus and the work of peace: to discover that every person is unique, whatever their disabilities, whatever their tribe, country, culture, or religion.”

“Forgiveness is not just the recognition that I am broken; it is also the recognition that I have broken others and that I have hurt them and helped prevent them from opening to the grace of God. The great mystery of Jesus is that he came to forgive, not just all that is broken in me, but all that I have broken in others. This is forgiveness.”

“Society is not a pyramid but a body, and in that body each part is important.  There are no parts that are the best or better than others.”

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Merciful Humility

I have just read Jane Williams’ The Merciful Humility of God. It is a great reminder, in so many different ways, of how God loves and values us and how God wants us to recognise that. The very title of the book, including mercy and humility, is a powerful reminder that God’s approach is very different from what we find elsewhere. She uses the image of the shepherd to remind us of this, and it is worth our remembering that shepherds would have been regarded as outcasts.

“God has always had a soft spot for shepherds, from David onwards, and the child whom the shepherds came to worship grew up to describe himself, quite often, as one of them, preferring that description to ‘king’ or ‘messiah’. There is something about shepherding that lies close to the heart of how God works; shepherds feed and care for sheep, who can give them little in the way of understanding or affection in return; shepherds protect the weak sheep against the strong predators all around; shepherds risk their own comfort and safety for the sheep. No wonder God invites them to Bethlehem.”

She carefully and rightly reminds us not to go with expectation. Too often we get caught up in thinking how things should be and we use our conventions. The book carries a clear warning against that.

“God’s activity may sometimes look wasteful, inefficient or even lacking in potency. ,,,, God’s timescale may not be ours, but that means that we have something to learn, rather than that God should change. …. God’s action is sometimes spacious, slow and hard to comprehend in its apparent lack of force, but it seems that God is to be trusted. God may work quietly, humbly, apparently at the mercy of greater forces and even accidents of history, but this is still God at work, and love is still God’s meaning.”

“Almost the first thing Jesus does at the start of his ministry is to gather around himself a disparate group of friends, and to start to offend the people who might have been able to promote his agenda. He seemed to have a clear strategy, but one that is baffling by most ordinary standards.”

She reminds us that the world’s standards and expectation will send us in the wrong direction. It may not fit with what anyone is likely to expect but, actually, God’s different way sets things up as they should be.

“To hate is to be shaped by what is hated; paradoxically, it gives power to what is hated to continue to shape life and choices. …. Whereas forgiveness brings freedom and new possibilities.”

“The humble God makes the world bigger, because God’s humility notices and includes those who do not fit the dominant narrative of the world. Those who will never be ‘successful’, as success is commonly measured, ‘succeed’ in being loved by God.”

“In Jesus, we see God’s humility lived out in the world, not claiming power or prestige or approval or safety; and we come to discover that this is a mercy and a blessing for us. We no longer have to be measured by failure or success, and so to face the fact that we all fail.”

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Grasping at Hints ... Going Off at Tangents

Yesterday, 16th March, I marked the 40th anniversary of my ordination. Back in 1979 in the west of
Celebratory Cup Cakes
Scotland, I was ordained, and inducted as the minister of Beith E U Congregational Church. Yesterday was our Synod meeting and Synod generously marked the occasion, not least with cup cakes!

I am not quite sure how I got to this milestone, but doing so has inevitably led me to reflect on some of what got me here, and part of that has been thinking about how it all began and the influences on my early ministry.

With my parents on my ordination day 
One of my ‘heroes’, if that’s the right word, of the time was a Roman Catholic priest called Michael Hollings, and not least because he had written a book on ministry, entitled ‘Living Priesthood’. I recently dug out my copy and found myself revisiting a passage from the book that I marked when I originally read it. Hollings wrote: “it is .. only possible to come to the core-meaning of [ministry] by being nebulous and diffuse, grasping at hints, going off at tangents, rather than coming to centre points. There is only one centre point – Christ.  For Christ whom we are following, the one high priest, emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave.”

Beith E U Congregational Church
I was so glad to reread that. I have spent so much time in ministry grasping at hints and going off at tangents – but when I think about it, I find that I agree with Hollings. That is OK.  That is what it’s about.  God doesn’t expect us to save the world.  That’s God’s job, and best left to God. If we try to do it all, we will end up feeling, as Hollings comments: “pretty desolate and frustrated, shallow and unused.” However, he adds that if we are “prepared to be emptied, to become everybody’s slave, fulfilment and joy will creep up … unawares.”

So, bring on the next bunch of hints and tangents – that might just be where God wants me to be.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019


I have just finished reading Paula Gooder's Phoebe. Drawing on Romans 16:1-2, where Phoebe is identified as the individual who carried Paul's letter to the Roman Christians, Gooder, using a creative mix of imagination and scholarship, describes what that might have felt like. She creates a great story which took me into the heart of the early Roman church.

She descibes life as, most likely, it would have been, but also introduces a range of theological themes as the characters in the story wrestle with issues like reconciliation, persecution, status and evangelism.

I found it a helpful approach, and that is reinforced in the second part of the book when, chapter by chapter, she explores the range of things that are mentioned, an approach that I prefer to interrupting the text with copious footnotes, but which provides the scholarship that supports the story.

I felt I had got to know Phoebe by the end of the book, and found myself both inspired and challenged by her.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Crazy Christians

Michael Curry's Crazy Christians is the kind of exuberant expression of the Christian faith that you would expect from Bishop Curry, Presiding Bishop of the US Episcopal Church and the first African American to hold that post. (Curry, of course, hit the UK headlines with his powerful sermon on love at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.) His enthusiasm has much to commend it, as does his clarity of thought - "being a Christian is not essentially about joining a church or being a nice person, but about following in the footsteps of Jesus, taking his teachings seriously, letting his Spirit take the lead in our lives, and in so doing helping to change the world from our nightmare into God's dream."

I have to say that I find Curry refreshingly straightforward. I think we need to put the challenge to be disciples out there and encourage our church folk to really make a difference. The apostle Paul talks about our being 'fools' for Christ's sake. Curry talks about our being crazy.

"What the Church needs, what this world needs, are some Christians who are as crazy as the Lord. Crazy enough to love like Jesus, to give like Jesus, to forgive like Jesus, to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God - like Jesus."

Curry reminds us that, essentially, discipleship is about what we do. It can look difficult, but we need to remember that God promises to accompany us. There is plenty of Biblical evidence for God asking what might seem impossible. Noah, Abraham and Sarah, and Esther could all tell stories about that. Other prime examples are David, as he faced Goliath, and the pregnant Mary. Bishop Curry reminds us - "We can be part of that impossible-sounding mission, especially and only because we are part of something greater than ourselves", adding, "discipleship is really about what you do with your feet."

Tuesday, 29 January 2019


I recently read Terry Waite’s book “Solitude”, which I found to be a fascinating reflection on the subject. In many ways, the book is rooted in his own experience of captivity, much of which was spent in isolation. It is therefore not surprising that the book describes something of a mix of the challenges and the benefits of solitude. Waite engages with an interesting range of people, describing and reflecting on their experiences. He clearly indicates the value of solitude, but that goes alongside some of the difficulties that it can create. The book is effectively a selection of interviews in which he engages with people who have a strong element of solitude in their lives. Mostly, as with those he encounters in the Australian outback, choice has played a strong part in their engagement with solitude. However, for others, like those in government secret services, there is a stronger element of it being imposed. I really enjoyed the book, and was particularly reminded of the need to find space.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

The Struggle with Holiness

About a year ago I read a book with the title “Struggling to be Holy”. The author’s name is Judy Hirst – and reading that book is one of the first significant steps I took on the road of considering how to engage with the United Reformed Church’s move into promoting more intentional missional discipleship under the banner headline of ‘walking the way’ and with the sub-title ‘living the life of Jesus today’.

Christian discipleship is nothing new. It started when Jesus said to four fishermen on the shore of Lake Galilee ‘come and follow me’. Because that is all Christian discipleship is – following Jesus. We have all engaged in discipleship in different ways, and continue to do so. But sometimes it is worth just thinking about what we are doing. Sometimes it is worth challenging ourselves – and I find the notion of holy habits very helpful in that.

However, I also need to admit, and I suspect you may need to also, that I frequently struggle to be holy – and that is why I identify with the title of Judy Hirst’s book, ‘Struggling to be Holy’ – but, more than that, as I read the book, I found a lot of what she said really helpful. I have come across plenty of books where I have liked the title, and felt it said something to me, but then discovered that the content, in my opinion at least, didn’t live up to the promise I saw in the title. But that was not the case here – and so I would like to explore a little of what she says with you.

First, a comment on holiness itself -  Holiness is about God being present and our being present to God. The more we can be in honest relationship with God, the holier we will become. Some Christians behave as if the task is to persuade God to be with them, but the delightful truth is that he is already present in the relationship. The problem is to be present ourselves. God is there but where are we?”

I think it is really helpful to remember that holiness is not about our trying to do it – because we won’t. We can’t. It’s about our connection with God. It is a bit like the now fairly well-known saying that, I think, came from Rowan Williams – ‘Mission is a matter of finding what God is doing and joining in.’ Now, of course, it is important that we respond to God’s call. That is what discipleship is. But it is important to remember that God was there first, if I can put it that way. I can’t do stuff that will make me holy, no matter how hard I try. I can do all sorts of good things. I can create or enter a context which is helpful to a holy approach. But in the end, my connection with holiness comes because of what God does. It is God who is holy. And God is there for us. And God wants to relate to us. That is why we are called. But it is also important to remember that God takes us just as we are. Of course, there are times when it would be good if we did things in a better way. But there is no exam to pass. There is no grade to reach. And sometimes it is worth remembering that God loves and values us, and that is us as we are. Hirst reminds us of the important that can be played by the things in us that can be difficult. She writes: “if I could jettison the parts of me I found troublesome I would also lose parts of myself which I valued. We are complex realities and we need to learn to love what we are, both delightful and damaged, and put it all into the hands of the master potter to form into something unique and beautiful.” Or, rather more simply, she also puts it like this, talking about the times when she has come to God and simply said, “Here I am, what a mess.”

I don’t know about you, but I find it really reassuring to be reminded that I can come to God with that kind of approach. I like to get things right. We all do. But I certainly don’t always manage it. And I find it helpful to be reminded of the conversation that the risen Jesus had with Peter just after they had shared breakfast beside the lake, the ‘do you love me?’ conversation, significant not least because of the question being asked three times, mirroring the threefold denial that Peter had uttered just before the crucifixion.

Let me read a slightly longer passage from Judy Hirst’s book, which expands on this thinking: “So very often people in a mess (and that’s most of us most of the time) feel they can’t pray because they can’t say the words that they think God wants to hear. We fear that we can only pray by giving God the right answers. In fact, the biggest danger is simply not to pray, to fail to be in conversation with the God who loves us. Far better to say to God, if it is your truth, that for example, …. you really want to forgive this person for what they have done, but you also want to hate them forever! Trust God with the mess and inconsistency! The response God wants is the response we can make even if the stuff of our response is sometimes contradiction, confusion and irrationality. Invite him to be part of the resolution, to help you to begin to grow into the person whom he yearns for you to become. I am always helped in this by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prayed as he felt. He longed that God would take the cup from him. He asked God for what he wanted, inviting him into the mess, but none the less was able to say ‘Yet not my will but yours be done.’ He was able, in these hugely terrifying circumstances, to trust himself absolutely to the God whom he knew loved him. God doesn’t want us to pretend. We don’t need to protect him from the truth.”
As she also says, rather more briefly: “God can live with the reality that we are still sinners even if we find it hard to do so!”

You might not expect me to say this, but sometimes our problem is that we try too hard. It’s not that it’s wrong to try. But it is wrong to not trust God. And sometimes we need to learn to leave things in God’s capable hands.

Let me offer just one more quote from Judy Hirst which reminds us of how challenging it is to be holy, and yet, at the same time, how easy it is, if only we will let God do God’s bit - I am reminded of a Peanuts cartoon ….. Charlie Brown comes to visit Lucy at her 5 cent psychiatrist booth. Lucy says to Charlie Brown that life is like a cruise liner. Some people put their deckchairs up at the back of the liner and like to look back to where they have come from. Others like to pitch their deckchair at the front and look ahead to where they are going. What about you, Charlie Brown? Where do you put your deck chair on the cruise liner of life? There is a long, sad, bemused pause. ‘Heck,’ Charlie Brown says, ‘I don’t even know how to put my deck chair up!’” Hirst adds: “Believe you me, having listened in depth to the lives of many people; it seems to me this is the reality for most of us! The challenge is to learn to pray as we are and this is closely linked to our ability to accept ourselves as we are and not as the idealised people we might imagine ourselves to be.”

[Part of an address given to the Colchester & Tendring Area Partnership within the Eastern Synod of the United Reformed Church at Plume Avenue URC, Colchester on 1st November 2018.]