Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Christmas Songs

I wonder what is your favourite Christmas song.  White Christmas, perhaps.  Little Drummer Boy.  Mary’s Boy Child.  Maybe Merry Christmas Everybody.  Or I wish it could be Christmas every day.  Or Lonely this Christmas.  Perhaps you also have a favourite Christmas Carol.  One of my Christmas song memories comes from the three years my wife and I lived in the Republic of Panama, when the temperature never dropped below 23 degrees day or night all year round, but we still found that one of the most commonly played songs in the shops was – I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.  Quite a dream in that oppressively hot climate.

I guess my favourite Christmas song has to be the one sung by the angels and written down for us by Luke in his Gospel – Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours

This was surely the X-factor winner of its day, and the shepherds, out in the fields, must have been completely bowled over by this fantastic and unexpected choir.  It certainly had an impact on them.  They abandoned their sheep for the moment and went rushing off to Bethlehem to visit this special new baby. 

Mind you, I do sometimes wonder how welcome they were.  You’re stuck in the stable because it is the only space anybody can find for you to stay.  You’ve just had a baby.  And a bunch of smelly shepherds arrive at the door.  Talk about unwanted Christmas visitors.  But the story brings home to us the message that what really matters about Christmas is that the extraordinary God comes into our messy world in such an ordinary way, born as a baby, an event that is always both ordinary and amazing – and has it announced not to the powerful and influential of the day, but to a bunch of very ordinary shepherds. 

I know that sometimes it seems as though Christmas has got over-commercialised and that there is a real risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  I have even heard it asked whether we really needed to have baby Jesus in a nativity play.  And it is difficult, in these days, to see how peace is being played out.  We live in times where people are too easily labelled in ways that they don’t deserve.  A horrific terrorist act deserves all the condemnation it gets, but that should never include the condemning of a whole faith the vast, vast majority of whose followers would be equally condemnatory of the terrorism.  The events in other parts of the world have led, in recent weeks, to the biggest migration that has been seen for a long time.  That causes its problems and its issues.  But, as has been often said, Jesus himself became a refugee, fleeing to Egypt.  Are we ready and willing to rise to the challenge of welcoming the stranger in our midst when God so calls us?

You see, it’s easy to sing or listen to nice Christmas songs, and I invite you to enjoy doing so – but if we are not doing even the little we can to bring about the peace and goodwill and justice of which most such songs speak, even the secular ones, then we are missing out on the true challenge of Christmas which is that God came to this world to love it – but that love requires some changes.  The Christmas story is of God’s loving coming in to the world.  That’s what we celebrate.  That’s what we are called to reflect.  That’s what can make a difference to the world in which we live.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

In the Night

I have been reading Daniel Munoz's Transformed by the Beloved" which reflects on St. John of the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul. It is important to recognise the transformative potential of the place that we might want to avoid. Munoz points out that "The night, for John, has a transformational power and a redemptive power." The 'night' has all sorts of challenges and difficulties. The question is not how we avoid these - though that is sometimes what we attempt - but what we do with them. Even more important is what God, in his grace, does with us in such times.

Questions and doubts can emerge in the 'night' and that can be difficult, but it can also take us where we need to be. As Munoz puts it: "The night is the place where growth happens, where God stretches our spiritual muscles, where we experience maturity and increasingly reach our full potential as human beings."

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Praying Makes A Difference

"Praying, therefore, is the most critical activity we are capable of, for when we pray, we are never satisfied with the world of here and now and are constantly striving to realise the new world, the first glimmers of which we have already seen." Another quotation from Henri Nouwen's With Open Hands, offering a reminder that prayer does make a difference because it is the expression of our relationship with God. Praying helps us to recognise that God can take us to new places. Too often we are caught up in our own thinking and planning. Nouwen points out that "Christ is the one who in the most revealing way made clear that prayer means sharing in the power of God."

Sunday, 20 December 2015

The Key of David

During Advent I have been reading Malcolm Guite's Waiting on the Word.  He offers a poem - or extract from a poem - for each day and gives a reflective commentary.  Over this particular few days the poems are a series of seven sonnets which he himself wrote reflecting seven great prayers of the early church in which Christ is addressed by a series of mysterious titles found in the Old Testament, mainly in Isaiah.  Today's selection takes the fourth of these and so reflects on Christ as 'the Key of David'.

There is a particular link with Isaiah 22:22 and 42:7.  The first of these refers to receiving the key off David and what it will open and close while the second mentions some of the things that are unlocked.

It is not one of the most commonly used images, but I like this idea of Jesus being the means by which crucial things are unlocked.  The world is complex.  We need a key to unlock its challenges. That key is Jesus.  This especially works as an image in those places where we are struggling.  We might join Guite in referring to Jesus as a Key "that finally fits, unlocks, opens and heals our woundedness."

Guite also reminded me of another useful application of this image when he talks of how "we speak of the need on the one hand for 'closure' and on the other for 'unlocking', 'opening' or 'liberation'."

The key plays a crucial role in getting us in to situations, and so we talk about things that are key and people who have a key role.  I think I want to also make that connection - and look for the key things that God is calling us to do - which, incidentally, might mean that we need (and ought) to give up some of the not-so-key ones in order to make space.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

God is not Santa Claus

Reading further into Henri Nouwen's "With Open Hands", I was struck by what he says about expectation and hope within prayer.  This concerns the whole question of how we approach God. What do we think might happen?  Where might our praying take us? Nouwen recognises that many of us are more focussed on what we can get than on our relationship with God. God does give us a lot. We sometimes call those blessings; but God wants to engage with us and be part of our lives.

Nouwen points out that "People of little faith pray like children who want a present from Santa Claus but who are so frightened of the 'Holy Man' that they run away as soon as they have their hands on their package. They would rather have nothing more to do with the old bearded gentleman than getting his gift. All the attention is on the gift and none on the one who gives it."

Prayer is not about guaranteed results. Putting it another way, it is not about just going to Santa for a gift.  Prayer is rather the expression of our relationship with God, recognising that God is alongside us, come what may, and shares both our pain and our joy. Life is often messy, and God doesn't offer an escape route, but does offer the strengthening relationship of accompaniment.

As Nouwen puts it: "In the prayer of hope, there are no guarantees asked, no conditions posed, and no proofs demanded.  You expect everything from the other without binding the other in any way. Hope is based on the premise that the other gives only what is good."

Friday, 18 December 2015

Opening Clenched Fists

I have  been reading Henri Nouwen's "With Open Hands" - and found it packed with helpful thinking on prayer.  Nouwen accepts that prayer is not easy.  After all, as he puts it: "It demands a relationship in which you allow someone other than yourself to enter into the very centre of your person, to see there what you would rather leave in darkness, and to touch there what you would rather leave untouched."  Of course, it is difficult to do that - and something we naturally resist.

Nouwen suggest that it is rather like a clenched fist.  "The resistance to praying is a bit like the resistance of tightly clenched fists."  What we need to do is to prise open that clenched fist.  We need to let go of all those things that get in the way, and that we are holding on to so tightly, in order that God can engage with us as needed.  We need to listen to the words of the angels telling us - 'Don't be afraid!'

So often it is fear that gets in the way of trust.  As Nouwen puts it: "Each time you dare to let go and to surrender one of those many fears, your hand opens a little and your palms spread out in a gesture of receiving."

It is good to give; but why are we so often so afraid of receiving?

Monday, 14 December 2015

Living Water

Meditation of a woman from Samaria -

I remember that day well, a day never to be forgotten.  It was close to noon as I made my way to the well to fetch the day’s supply of water.  I always went around that time of day.  It was usually pretty hot, but that way I got the well to myself and didn’t have to put up with the stares and comments – folk thinking that they could say whatever they want and absolutely no regard for my feelings.

But on this particular day there was somebody sitting beside the well.  I could see him as I approached.  He looked hot, tired and thirsty.  It was clear that he wasn’t one of us.  I could tell that immediately.  He was a Jew – and so I was stunned when he asked me for a drink of water.  Everybody knows that Jews won’t drink from any cup that has been near a Gentile!

I thought that he must not have realised who I was, what was my background – and I thought that I had better mention that little problem.  I couldn’t see how he might expect another Jew to be passing by, but I did not want to be accused of tricking him into using a Gentile cup. 

But then – and this really did not make any sense – he said that, if I knew who he was, I would be asking him for a drink.  I felt bound to point out that the only way to get water out of the well was with a bucket, and he didn’t have one.  How was he going to do the impossible?  Was he greater than Jacob whose well it was?  I asked him how, and what he said was this: “Everyone who drinks will get thirsty again; but those who drink my living water will never be thirsty again.”

That made even less sense, and yet somehow I knew that he was telling the truth.  I couldn’t understand how he could give me water that was so special that I could never be thirsty again, but I knew that I wanted that water!  I wouldn’t be thirsty.  I wouldn’t have to go to the well.  I wouldn’t have to run the gauntlet of all the bad-mouthing.  I wanted that water, that special, living water.

And, after it was all over – because we did talk some more, and then I ran off to tell this exciting news to the rest of the village, who were rather stunned to get such news from me – but, after it was all over, I wished I had given him a drink from the well.  I never got round to doing that.  And he looked so hot and thirsty.  I don’t think he would have minded where the cup came from.

But, if I had, would he still have told me about the special, living water?

See John 4:4-15

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Water for the Thirsty

Isaiah 55 begins with a rousing encouragement - come for water, all who are thirsty; though you have no money, come, buy grain and eat; come, buy wine and milk, not for money, not for a price.  This passage is a resounding reminder as to how different God's ways are from ours.  Later in the chapter the prophet says, passing on God's message - for my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.  As I often say in preaching, God turns things upside down!

The reminder is that God's ways are higher than ours.  We need to look up to God.  The images of the chapter - watering the earth, giving seed for sowing and bread for eating - are reminders of the abundance of God's gifts.  [Am I ready to receive God's gifts?]  We often talk - rightly - about the importance of giving, but receiving is also important!

The image of the mountains and the hills shouting for joy and the trees clapping their hands is crazy - but that craziness equals the love of God!  It is all about transformation.  

Friday, 11 December 2015

As A Deer

Psalm 42 begins with the poignant image of a deer desperate for water and arriving at a stream bed that is now dry and water.  The deer cries out in urgent thirst.  Walter Brueggemann describes this psalm as "a prayer of an individual in crisis."  He continues: "Just as water is necessary for life, and just as the deer's need is urgent, so is God necessary for life and the speaker's need for the divine presence urgent."  Henry Wansborough similarly points out that the psalm expresses "the ardent longing to come close to God."

The idea of longing is a particular focus in this psalm.  The deer's hope of getting thirst quenched by running water is a fantastic model of how God's love sustains and refreshes us.  There are things that look as though they might overwhelm us, but God's presence assures us of a different result.

The deer of the psalm might be struggling, but is an important reminder of the possibility that is there for us to turn to God.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

St. Beuno's

"... You saw there how the Lord carried you all the way to this place .... " (Deuteronomy 1:31).  I am just back from a six day silent Ignatian guided retreat at St. Beuno's in North Wales.  As on my two previous visit, this was a great opportunity to spend time in prayer - as well as doing a little bit of "light" walking in the Welsh countryside.  I found both elements of the experience enriching - how good to focus on prayer, to the exclusion of emails, for a few days!

I started out with this verse from Deuteronomy and reflected both on how God "carries" me and what are the things that I am carrying.  One of the great things about God's carrying is its supportive nature and how that gets me where I need to be, even when that is through the wilderness, as in tis particular instance in Deuteronomy.  The wilderness is a difficult and barren place, but it needs to be crossed.  It is also not insignificant that God's carrying is total - "all the way".  There are no half measures with God.

The context of this verse reminds the people of what God did for them in Egypt and in bringing them out of Egypt and so challenges them to trust God, the one who can be trusted.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Advent Sunday - Psalm 25

Psalm 25, verse 1 - To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.  O my God, in you I trust.  With these words the psalmist reminds us that we can have complete confidence in God.  Today we discover that Advent has crept up on us.  The shops have been ready since September – but today is the one when the Church proclaims that Christmas is coming.  We are getting ready.  It is time to prepare. 

Advent is a time of hope.  That is reflected in Psalm 25, but this psalm, like so many of the psalms, is essentially a psalm of lament.  It is an expression of fear and of concern.  Do not let me be put to shame.  In childish terms there are so many things that place us on the naughty step.  What are we to do?  The psalmist approaches God amid the turmoil of life and asks for help.  And that is done with confidence.  The psalmist clearly expects that all the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.

I wonder if one of the things we can then take from this psalm is about the importance of trust.  I have been reading Matt Ridley’s book “The Rational Optimist”.  At one point he refers to the way in which the internet, despite all the ways in which it can be used for wrong and the whole great issue of cyber crime, it can be, and essentially is, for the most part, a means of establishing trust.  He points out that, as we share things with each other, we establish trust. 

He writes: “the internet is a place where the problem of trust between strangers is solved daily. Viruses can be avoided, spam filters can work, Nigerian emails that con people into divulging their bank account details can be marginalised, and as for the question of trust between buyer and seller, companies like eBay have enabled their customers to police each other’s reputations by the simple practice of feedback. The internet, in other words, may be the best forum for crime, but it is also the best forum for free and fair exchange the world has ever seen. My point is simply this: with frequent setbacks, trust has gradually and progressively grown, spread and deepened during human history, because of exchange. Exchange breeds trust as much as vice versa.”

The psalm depicts  a listening and trustworthy God – and a fragile grace that sustains us through the moments of brokenness.  So we can be Advent people, preparing, waiting – in hope.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Signing Up

I was at Evensong at Brentwood Cathedral today for a special service to mark the renewal of the commitment to partnership between Brentwood Cathedral (in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brentwood) and Chelmsford Cathedral (in the Church of England Diocese of Chelmsford).  It was good to see this marking of shared life in which the gifts and graces that the different emphases of different denominations offer was celebrated.  It is worth taking the trouble to say that we are in this work of God together and to see how we can share things and support each other.

In a similar, but more localised, vein, I am going to Little Baddow tomorrow to be part, together with my Anglican church leader colleague, the Bishop of Bradwell, of a renewal of the covenant between the Church of England and the United Reformed Church in that community.  In many places we offer different gifts, but we have in common that we are called to share the love of God.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Dietrich Bonhoeffer


The story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a story that is alarmingly reflective of potential for disaster.  Born in 1906, Bonhoeffer became a strong opponent of the National Socialism that arose in Germany under the leadership of Hitler.  Along with friends and colleagues Martin Niemoller and Karl Barth he was part of the Confessing Church which was to the forefront of resisting National Socialism and supporting the Jews.  

Bonhoeffer held that there is no way to peace along the way of safety.  Peace is the big adventure.  Bonhoeffer once said this: “The church has three possible ways it can act against the state. First, it can ask the state if its actions are legitimate. Second, it can aid the victims of the state action. The church has the unconditional obligation to the victims of any order in society even if they do not belong to the Christian society. The third possibility is not just bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself.”  It’s this last that Bonhoeffer was prepared to do, no matter the price.  He found himself n the middle of pain and suffering, yet never stopped looking for the will of God.  

He was imprisoned in 1943 because of his leadership within the anti-Nazi Confessing Church and, in fact, was executed not long before the end of the War, in April 1945.  But he never lost the fundamental optimism that his faith provoked.  Writing from prison he says this: “There are two ways of dealing with adversity.  One way, the easiest, is to ignore it altogether.  I have got about as far as that.  The other and more difficult way is to face up to it and triumph over it.  I can’t manage that yet, but I must learn to do it, for the first way is really a slight, though I believe permissible, piece of self-deception.”

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Embracing the Other

The risk of religion is always that it becomes exclusive.  We relate to those who are like us, but really want to stay away from everybody else.  As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says in his book 'Not in God's Name': “The great monotheisms believe in humanity as such, but often with one significant qualification: you must share our faith to be fully human.  If not, we must at least subjugate you ….. “

Sacks goes on to say: “A humanitarian as opposed to a group ethic requires the most difficult of all imaginative exercises: role reversal – putting yourself in the place of those you despise, or pity, or simply do not understand.  Not only do most religions not do this.  They make it almost impossible to do so.”  

The challenge is not just to recognise, engage with, or even embrace the other - the person who is different, but to imagine yourself as that person.  What does it feel like?  It is so difficult.  Sacks again: “It is hard to identify with one whom you believe to be fundamentally in error, except with a view to converting him or her.  Empathy across boundaries can sometimes threaten religion at its roots, because one of the sacred tasks of religion is boundary maintenance.”  So how do we get there – because surely we must.  The Genesis account, time and time again, crosses the boundaries, dismisses the taboos.  Is there any chance we can live that out and, if we do, will it help us with the challenge to follow God's way of accepting everybody, even if they are different from us?

Friday, 20 November 2015

Fish and Chips ..... and Salt

Fish and chips for dinner today - a reminder of one of my colleagues wanting to stress the importance of a particular link and saying that, if it was missing, it was like fish and chips without salt.  You just don't do it.  Salt is essential to fish and chips.  Without it, they just don't taste the same.  It got me thinking as to what are the places where we something we should do makes that amazing difference - just like salt on fish and chips?  What are the things we should be saying which are so important and so special that they make that type of impact?  What are the Kingdom bits that we can indicate and, having indicated, can celebrate.  We, God's people, are called to make the same kind of difference that salt does to fish and chips.  It seems so obvious a challenge - but it is worth a moment's reflection.  Are we getting anywhere near what should be?  Jesus didn't talk about fish and chips, though he did cook fish on the beach for breakfast on one occasion.  I wonder if they had any salt to hand - and, of course, Jesus did talk about salt.  "You are the salt of the earth" - Matthew 5:13.  Are we?

Monday, 9 November 2015

21st Century 'Good Samaritan'

When I was in Zimbabwe recently, I met the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa, the Revd. Mukondi Ramulondi.  He and I were both at the same conference organised by the Presbytery of Zimbabwe.  It was a great conference, with lots going on, and full-on worship for much of each day.  I haven’t done so much dancing for a long time, if ever.  But our ‘time out’, if I can describe the conference that way, was very much connected to the hard realities of everyday life in that part of Africa.  

One day, over lunch, Revd. Mukondi told me about his work, not as Moderator, but as a local minister.  He is one of the ministers of St Mungo’s United Church, Presbyterian and Congregational, in the suburbs to the north of Johannesburg.  The church is on two sites and Mukondi has served in the deprived part of the community, in an informal settlement known as Diepsloot, since 2007.  

Diepsloot and the work that takes place there receives support from various places, including the other part of the congregation on the other site.  It is one of those areas that attracts the different mobile communities, and so there are people from lots of different places, with the mix constantly changing.  It is densely populated and with a high crime rate.  As well as the more obvious aspects of church life, he leads a community development programme.  They are trying to develop church without pews and pulpits but also engage in a wide range of community projects, such as distributing school uniform packs to needy children, distributing winter fleeces again to needy children, recycling clothing, homework assistance, a vegetable garden project, a food packing and distribution project etc.  

The ministry is possible because of outside financial support, but it also depends on this committed minister who is willing to live and work in such a situation.  Here is one example of a 21st century Good Samaritan.  Here is an illustration of what it is to be really righteous though, like probably all those who deserve such an accolade, I suspect that is not how he would describe himself.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Temptations in Leadership

In his little book on leadership, ‘In the Name of Jesus’, Henri Nouwen reminds us that we need to be rooted in the love of God.  He describes the three temptations that seek to draw us away from God – relevance, popularity and power.  

When we think it is important to be relevant, we need to remember that that was the first temptation faced by Jesus – to turn stones into bread.  What an impact that would have had!  But, as Nouwen reminds us: “the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.  That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love.  The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God’s word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love. … “   

The temptation to popularity is the temptation to do the spectacular – like jumping off the pinnacle of the temple.  We may think we won't fact that one, but the fact is that it is there.  As Nouwen says, “Not too many of us have a vast repertoire of skills to be proud of, but most of us still feel that, if we have anything at all to show, it is something we have to do solo.”  We need to remember that the leadership to which we are called is servant leadership “in which the leader is a vulnerable servant who needs the people as much as they need him or her.”  

The third temptation is the temptation to be powerful, to possess all the kingdoms of the world.  Nouwen sums it up beautifully – “The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross.”

Monday, 19 October 2015

More Insights from Jude

In verse 1 Jude has focussed his readers on their relationship with God.  In verse 2 he shifts the focus to our relationships with other people, in other words to our leadership.  May mercy, peace and love be yours in abundance.

This can easily be passed over as just a greeting.  Mercy and peace were the common Jewish greeting of the day.  The reference is to the covenant kindness of God – hesed – and the sense of shalom, total well-being that flowed out of this experience of covenant faithfulness.  To this Jude adds the word ‘love’ so bringing Christian overtones into the leadership relationship.  I wonder if we can see such an expression as a description of our relationship with the people to whom we are called to minister.

These three aspects of Jude’s greeting surely represent three critical aspects of servant leadership.  If we are going to be Christian leaders, we need to be demonstrating these elements that describe the kind of people God calls us to be.

Having set the bar high, but where it should be, Jude proceeds to engage in a strong and stark critique of leadership.  In verses 12 and 13 he uses five graphic images of the non-leader and in so doing, Wright suggests, and I agree, offers us five working principles for effective servant leadership. 

So, the first principle is that leadership is about influence and service.  Jude’s first image is of those who feast with you without fear, feeding themselves.  That is what the NRSV says – but I am going to rather use the alternative translation which it puts in a footnote.  They are shepherds who care only for themselves.  A shepherd who cares only for him or herself is a contradiction in terms.  These leaders, condemned by Jude, use their power for their own benefit.  The shepherd is a common image for leadership in the Bible, modelling the care and investment that the leader must make for the growth and nurture of the followers.  These leaders are not using their power to nurture the community, but to draw people to themselves.  They are putting themselves on a pedestal.  They are getting fat off the flock.  Servant leadership, on the other hand, uses its influence and power for the growth of the people who are being led.  Leadership is always a relationship of influence.  The leader seeks to influence the vision, values, attitudes or behaviours of the led.  Otherwise it is not leading.  The question is as to the direction of that influence. 

Jude’s second image is that leadership is about vision and hope.  The condemned non-leaders are waterless clouds carried along by the winds.  A cloud promises rain.  The image perhaps works better in climates other than ours.  Imagine the farmer, desperate for rain, who sees a cloud, but it just passes, blown away by the wind.  Leadership is about vision.  It is about tomorrow.  It is about hope.  Leadership focusses the dreams and commitments of the people.  It takes them forward.  It captures the vision.  If we are just consolidating, look the past, wallowing in our difficulties, that won’t move us on.  We might catch a moment, like the waterless cloud, but it’s a waste of time.  It disappears.  Servant leadership offers hope and vision.  It empowers people.  It makes a difference.

Jude’s third principle is that leadership is about character and trust.  These qualities are missing from the non-leaders.  They are autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, uprooted.  Now, if I am honest, when I am picking up the conkers and the apples, I sometimes wish that my autumn trees would not have fruit.  But, of course, if that were the case, something would be wrong.  The leadership of false teachers doesn’t produce growth.  There is no fruit.  We need to be grounded in our relationship with God.  If we are “uprooted” from that, we are in trouble.  Leadership is a relationship of trust.  We listen to the people we trust.  An American professor of leadership, Warren Bennis, says that “the three things people want from leaders are direction, trust and hope.”  Are we bringing these elements to those among whom we minister?  Leadership points people in the right direction.  Leadership believes in people and foster relationships.  The great words are enabling or facilitating – but that is what we need to be doing.  Leadership offers hope.  It provides a vision that takes folk forward.

Jude’s fourth principle is that leadership is about relationships and power.  The fourth condemning picture in Jude’s descriptions is of wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame.  Jude points to the power of the waves of the sea.  Power without purpose inevitably leaves a trail of debris behind it.  Self-appointed leaders use their influence to make a big splash, to adapt the metaphor, but they are going nowhere.  Leadership is a relationship of power.  Power without purpose is very dangerous.  Leadership must be responsible and accountable.  Servant leadership points people away from the leader to the mission of the community and enables each one to see how they can contribute to the realising of that mission.

Jude’s fifth principle is that leadership is about dependency and accountability.  The fifth image, like the others, challenges the false leader in what he or she is doing.  They are described as wandering stars, for whom the deepest darkness has been reserved for ever.  Putting it another way – “these leaders are like shooting stars, streaking onto the scene with flash and excitement but eventually fading and disappearing.”  One of the things that we need to remember is that our congregations are around a lot longer than we are.  A quick fix is unlikely to be sustainable.  Another way of putting it is that God’s picture is bigger than ours.  Leaders need followers.  Otherwise there is nobody to lead.  We are dependent upon the people.  How do we exercise responsible leadership that recognises are dependence on those we lead and in which we offer accountability of our leading to them.


So, five descriptions from Jude of what we have called non-leaders – and, from those, five challenges to effective servant leadership.  What does it mean for us?  What will we do with our power?  God has given you gifts and abilities.  How are you using them?  How are you going to use them?

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Jude on Leadership

I want to consider the letter of Jude and some of what Jude says about leadership.  In doing so, to acknowledge my debt to Walter Wright’s book ‘Relational Leadership’ (Paternoster, 2000) as what I am going to say is largely drawn from that book’s first chapter. 

Jude is challenging his readers to be effective Christian leaders.  He is worried about their going wrong.  He urges them to resist false teaching.  There is a lot of stuff there about the dangers of going wrong.  However, there is also much that we can draw from this letter that will get us on track with good leadership. 

The foundation is laid in the first verse.  Here Jude addresses three questions that are essential to effective leadership. 

The first question is: who am I?  Or do I have worth?  It deals with the issue of identity.  The second question is: will I be here tomorrow?  It deals with the matter of survival.  Putting it another way, am I going to last the course?  And the third question is: why am I here?  It deals with the issue of meaning.  What’s the point?  What am I about?

So how does Jude answer these questions?  Who am I?  We are those who are beloved in God the Father.  That is what gives us worth.  We are loved by God.  We are valued by God.  We are precious to God.  When we start describing ourselves, we nearly always begin with what we do.  That is how we identify ourselves.  But here is a timely reminder to take a different approach.  Our identity is not in our work.  It is not even in our leadership.  It is in the fact that we are loved by God.  What is essential to our identity is that we are in relationship with God.

The question of survival is dealt with when Jude points out that we are kept safe for Jesus Christ.  God keeps us secure.  The fears and anxieties of today fall into perspective when we remember God’s promise to accompany us.  Our relationship with God enables us to hold firm.  We need to remember that God has the bigger picture.  We need to learn to trust God, even when things aren’t turning out as we might wish.


Next comes the question of meaning.  The point here is that we are called.  To those who are called.  We have been chosen by God to be his people, to be his servants.  What is the meaning – what is the purpose of my life?  It is to be a child of God.  Leadership for Christians is about God, not about us.  

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Defining Reformed

Near the end of his book Reforming Theology, David Peel lists for us what he identifies as the five principle features of the United Reformed Church’s reformed theological heritage. 

“First, our emphasis upon the Bible.  …  We seek God’s mind, Christ call and the Spirit’s leading through the Bible, and thereby we allow our present belief and practice to be reformed anew.”  As the hymn has it – ‘the Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from his Word.’

Second, we recognise the importance of tradition, but “we fully recognise that tradition is not static.  The need for reformation in the church is ongoing.”

Third, our “openness to ideas and insight” from outside ourselves.  This is part of our ecumenical commitment.  “We do not believe that the ‘right’ way necessarily is the URC way; nor do we un-church those in other churches which do things differently.”  Part of this is our engagement with secular society and other faiths.  Recognising the value of diversity, we are ready to listen to others.
Fourth, “URC theology should be thoroughly practical.  It seeks to reform individual lives.”


And, fifth, we look to God, recognising that God has a bigger picture.  As the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann puts it, “God is God, unbounded and all-encompassing.”  We are servants of the Word of God and “we can be totally sure that the interpretation of God’s Word remains a task for each new age.”

Monday, 12 October 2015

Together - The Church



We are each part of the church – but we are not the church of ourselves. The church only works as a community. One person does not make a church. Where two or three are gathered. It does not need to be big to be a church, but Jesus set the minimum at two. As a recent United Reformed Church document "What is the Spirit saying to the Churches?" says, “The future of the Church depends on participation in the life of the Trinity.” God, as three in one, one in three, shows us how to be church. The Church is diverse, and yet the Church is one. That is true within the denomination, as well as beyond the denomination.

The apostle Paul explained it in terms of being a body. And so we think, in terms of Paul’s image, as to whether we are to be a nose, an eye, a hand, a foot, whatever.

One of the questions for us must be: how is God shaping the particular piece of the Body of Christ that is the us? What is that we are called to be and to do? As the United Reformed Church, we know that we are united and that we are reformed – as they are both in our name. But what do they mean?

I suspect that most of us talk a lot more about being united than we do about being reformed. We know that Jesus prayed that we should be one – that’s in John 17. Our commitment to unity is expressed in our commitment to ecumenism. I want to say three quick things about that. First, that shows itself in our working together with churches from other denominations in all sorts of ways from the activities of Churches Together groups to united congregations. Second, much of the ecumenical emphasis these days is on shared mission in things like street pastors, foodbanks and credit unions. I welcome these important initiatives. Third, Local Ecumenical Partnerships (LEPs) are a bigger part of our life than they are within other denominations. Approximately a third of the churches in the Eastern Synod are LEPs. There are those, including many church leaders, who are saying that LEPs are no longer the way to do things. I want to say that I profoundly disagree with that view. LEPs are not the only way to do ecumenism, and they are not for everybody, but they are a viable, valid and vital part of the church scene.

If we move to thinking about what it means to be reformed, we might consider what that same document says, that: “Being Reformed means re—formed, being renewed, not by our own endeavours, but in dependence on the Word, and shaped by the Spirit.” As the Statement of Nature, Faith and Order of the United Reformed Church says: “we affirm our right and readiness …. to make new statements of faith in ever new obedience to the Living Christ.” The Latin phrase is ‘semper reformanda’ – always reforming. But the single word that we can use to define ourselves is, of course, the word ‘love’.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Churches Listening Together

Currently at the Churches Together in England Forum at Swanwick, where we have had a fascinating day.  We started with Orthodox morning prayers.  Then, after breakfast, we had a session to introduce us to the Orthodox Church.  There is clearly a richness of liturgy, of recognising the contribution of saints, and of using icons which can be very enriching.

This was followed by a session on Pentecostalism.  It was interesting to see the similarities between two forms of Christianity that might be regarded as being at opposite ends, but which have much in common, not least the recognition of the role of the Holy Spirit.  I had been asked to contribute to this session as a non-Pentecostal saying something about how Pentecostalism has enriched me.  It was interesting to reflect on that, focusing on links in Islington and then on the Pentecostal aspects of the worship when I was recently in Zimbabwe.  I said that we need to capture something of the joy, celebration and spirituality.

This evening we had a great session listening to young people.  They challenged us to recognise the contribution that young people can make and to listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church.  They were rooted in a variety of denominations, but encouraged us to recognise the importance of our unity - and so to be walking together.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Holy Ground


In yesterday's post I mentioned the 'Holy Ground Project' organised by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) about ten years ago.  They went to different places around the world to photograph the shoes of particular individuals, each of whom then wrote a brief 'thought' about what it meant to them to walk the way of Jesus.  The results were published in a booklet in 2005.

We did our own version at a Cafe Church event at the Cotteridge Church in Birmingham in 2008.  I was looking for our pictures - and found them.  Here are a few!











Saturday, 26 September 2015

Moses and Holiness

 Does it mean getting your feet burnt?  Last Saturday I asked, as I do at most ordinations and inductions – occasionally we do it on the other format and the newly arriving minister says it – but mostly I ask the question, as one of a series of nine: do you promise to live a holy life, and to maintain the truth of the gospel, whatever trouble or persecution may arise?  I sometimes wonder how often any of us ministers reflect on those promises we make at ordination and repeat at subsequent inductions.  There is quite a lot in there that is worth pondering, and maybe we ought to do that on a regular basis.  After all this is what we have committed ourselves to?  The fifth question asks – are zeal for the glory of God, love for the Lord Jesus Christ, obedience to the Holy Spirit and a desire for the salvation of the world, so far as you know your own heart, the chief motives which lead you to enter this ministry?  And what about proclaiming the reconciliation of the world to God?  What about dealing with trouble and persecution?  What about being committed to take your part in the councils of the church?  What about giving leadership to the Church in its mission to the world?
There is also the Statement of Nature, Faith and Order which comes up in the last of the nine questions and which gives us a whole bunch of other good stuff to look at and consider.  One of the attendees on Saturday, a retired Methodist minister who I happen to know, came up to me afterwards and said – and this is something that has happened to me a number of times from different denominational partners – I do your like that Statement you’ve got.  I wish we had something like that.
But back to holiness and burnt feet – and the connection is the Exodus 3 story of Moses being called by God.  As Moses approaches the burning bush, he is told: Do not come near!  Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground
What does it mean to take your shoes off?  What does it mean to be on holy ground?  A few years ago the Church Missionary Society ran what they called their holy ground project.  They got people from around the world to take off their shoes.  They photographed those shoes and got the owner of each pair of shoes to write a brief testimony on the piece of paper on which the photograph was printed.  We decided to do our own version of that in a small way as part of a café church event at one of the churches at which I was then minister, Cotteridge in Birmingham.  Folk took off their shoes, which we then photographed and printed the photograph.  Each person then wrote just a little bit about what it meant to them to be a follower of Jesus, to walk in the way of Jesus.  It was a fascinating and moving experience.
When I was in India in February.  We took off our shoes quite a lot.  It made sense to wear sandals.  It is a mark of respect and care, to leave your dusty sandals outside. 
Moses was probably used to taking off his sandals in all sorts of situations.  But he hadn’t recognised this as being a holy place.  He was just curious about this burning bush.  Does God ever surprise us by pointing out that we are, unexpectedly, in a holy place?  I suspect God does.  The holy place is the place where we encounter God.  Are we ready for that, wherever it is, whenever it comes?  Are we ready to hear the voice of God?
There is no indication in the text that Moses had ever encountered God before.  Now, suddenly, he finds himself being told to take on a massive job for God.  Unsurprisingly, he has got a bunch of questions, and a bunch of excuses.  What are we going to do with those difficult things that God calls us to do? 
As William Willimon points out in his book “Calling and Character” – “Ministry is difficult.  Therefore the great challenge of ministry is to be the sort of characters who can sustain the practices and virtues of ministry for a lifetime.  What we require is some means of keeping at ministry – preparing and delivering sermons, visiting the sick, counselling the troubled, rebuking the proud – even when we don’t feel like it, even when it does not personally please us to do so.  Fortunately for the church, Easter will not let us give up, though we have ample reason, in the present age, to do so.  We are not permitted to give up on ministry because God, if the story of Easter is as true as we believe it to be, doesn’t give up on ministry in the world.”

It’s that quote that Rowan Williams has made famous, whether or not he first said it: Ministry is finding out what God is doing and joining in.
A slightly amended version of my address at the Communion Service at the end of this week's Eastern Synod United Reformed Church Ministers' Get-Together. Thanks to Tim Yau for the photographs.

Friday, 25 September 2015

The Church that Jesus Prayed for

I spent the last week of August in Zimbabwe with my friends from our Synod global partner in the Presbytery of Zimbabwe.  The main purpose of the visit was to be at their first all-church conference, held at Mhondoro.  What an exciting time, even if somewhat exhausting.  We must have spent over 24 hours worshipping in a period that ran from late afternoon Thursday to mid morning Sunday. Much of the worship was exuberant - I can't remember the last time, if ever, that I danced so much!

The theme of the conference - 'the Church that Jesus Prayed for' was taken from John 17, and the emphasis was on unity.  It was a timely reminder that Jesus prayed for us and, in so doing, called us to be one.

I learned much about unity, much about enthusiasm in worship, and much about commitment to walking the way of Jesus.  It is really difficult to capture the sheer engagement with worship and with all that we were doing in words.  We were so well looked after.  We felt so much part of it.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Art and Theology

I have just spent 48 hours at Belsey Bridge Conference Centre (Ditchingham) for the annual get-together for ministers in the United Reformed Church's Eastern Synod.  Our keynote speaker was Neil Thorogood, Principal of Westminster College, Cambridge.  Neil helped us to see the contribution that art can make to life, and specifically to theology.  Pictures, of all sorts, can enhance our view of life.  Of course it is true that images can get in the way sometimes - but there are many examples of their enriching our experience.  It is worth thinking how we can connect to art as part of our mission in the church.  Can we, for example, offer space for exhibitions?  Some have.  Are there ways in which we can engage in little art projects that enable us to encourage folk to think about God?

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Communities of Rest

So often it seems as though what is important is to be busy.  Most of us seem to have lots to do most of the time.  Of course, there are tasks there for each one of us, things that God is calling us on do.  There is a need for activity - and there are times when we should be getting on with things.  

However we need also to hold on to the sabbath principle.  One of the other problems of our day is burnout.  The church that is trying to achieve too much won't even achieve what it ought.  I like my friend Michael Jagessar's idea of ' communities of rest' (suggested in 'Fresh from the Word 2015').  

Churches need to be places of action. when that is relevant, but they need also to be communities of rest.  As Michael asks: "As communities of rest, what are spaces for rest that churches create/offer?"

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

The Present Moment

In "Travelling Light" Daniel O'Leary reminds us how "Three hundred years ago, Jean Pierre de Caussade SJ reminded his students that no moment is trivial since every moment contains 'a divine kingdom and heavenly sustenance' within it."  It is all too easy to get unduly caught up in the past.  Of course the past matters.  We should honour it.  We should learn from it.  It is also tempting to worry too much about the future.  We wonder what might happen, and that is not surprising.  It is sensible to make appropriate plans for the future.

However, it is always the case that we are in the present.  We ought to make the most of that.  I fear that too often the past and/or the future get in your way and we just don't do as we should. 

Sometimes, in particular, we are too impatient and we really need to learn that God's picture is bigger than ours - and that we are called to live in God's present for us.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Psalm 139

Psalm 139 is a great psalm that expressively describes God's knowledge of and commitment to us.  Verse 14a - "I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made (NRSV).  It reminds us that we are part of God's big picture.  Carla Grosch-Miller puts it like this in her version of Psalm 139 (in "Psalms Redux") - "We are a wonder, a miracle in flesh and blood: bodies that bruise and heal, minds that grasp and grow, hands that care, craft and create."

It is an amazing expression of God's concern with us - and we ought to take it seriously.  As Michael Jagessar says, when commenting on this psalm (in "Fresh from the Word 2015"), "The psalm proclaims a relationship with God that is profoundly personal (not private).  God knows me, cares about me, seeks me out."

How do we respond when God finds us and calls us to a particular task?  As Michael Jagessar asks of us: "How does the knowledge of the all-attentive God who loves each of us intensely, shape your relationship and response to what you may be currently wrestling with?"

Monday, 10 August 2015

Suffering, Fractious & Unboundaried

I recently read Sara Miles "Take This Bread", the fascinating and moving account of how Christian commitment crept up on her from nowhere.  She was brought up as an atheist, her parents having rebelled against the missionary upbringing that they had both received.  They passed on their atheism to their daughter, which she happily pursued, until one day she wandered into a church near where she lived and found herself taking Communion.  She had wandered into the church out of interest - and found herself becoming part of the community there.  As she herself puts it:   "... and then something outrageous and terrifying happened.  Jesus happened to me. "

I particularly like the comment she makes in the book's preface about what I would want to refer to as 'real church'.  She writes - and I find this both helpful and challenging - "Faith for me didn't provide a set of easy answers or certainties.  It raised more questions than I was ever comfortable with.  The bits of my past - family, work, war, love - came apart as I stumbled into church, then reassembled, through the works communion inspired me to do, into a new life centred on feeding strangers: food and bodies, transformed.  I wound up not in what church people like to call "a community of believers" - which tends to be code for "a like-minded club" - but in something huger and wilder than I had ever expected: the suffering, fractious, and unboundaried body of Christ."


I worry that too often we let our churches become those clubs for the like-minded - and I am absolutely convinced that God has a much bigger vision that includes some pretty challenging stuff.  We really need to discover those 'huger and wilder' things that God has in store for the church.  That will include suffering, just as Jesus went the way of the Cross.  It involves unity, but also diversity.  The Church can, and ought to, be fractured (fractious) in more ways than one.  And in the Church we really must cross all sorts of boundaries.  We are the 'unboundaried body of Christ.'  

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Being Found

I really like the little story that Daniel O'Leary tells in his book "Travelling Light".  He writes: "It was a dull, flat, February morning.  Susan, the teacher, had gathered the reception-class around me.  We had just watched the acting-out of the Parable of the Lost Sheep in the school hall.  Now, back in the classroom, they were telling me, in turn, why they had chosen the various parts they played - the ninety-nine who stayed secure in the sheep-fold, the brave shepherds who went out searching, the readers of the Parable, and so on.  Finally it was Laura's turn, the little girl who had volunteered to play the part of the lost sheep.  'I wanted to be lost,' she said with a small smile, 'so that somebody would come and find me.'"
For all of us there are days when we feel a bit lost.  If you do, just remember that there is a Good Shepherd out there, looking for lost sheep.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

We Are The Gospel

Martin Wroe, in "The Gospel According To Everyone", comments on how, on Iona a few years ago, someone suggested that the Church is the fifth Gospel.  There have, of course, been other contenders for that accolade.  Some suggest it should be given to Thomas, perhaps the best-known of the gospels that didn't make it into the New Testament.  Others suggest it belongs to the people of Palestine, the community in which Jesus lived and taught.  There have been other suggestions, such as Isaiah, suggested by Karl Barth, but, like Wroe, I like the thought of it being the Church in every age.  So, today, we are the Gospel.  The Gospel is lived out through what we do.  Wroe goes on to write about the people of his church, with all their gifts and failings, all their different backgrounds and identities.  It's a fascinating account and a useful reminder that God uses us as we are.  In his church they started, every couple of months or so, including in the Sunday service, telling the story of a member of the congregation, viewed as an extra Gospel reading.   As you look at your congregation, what are the Gospel stories you could tell because you see them being lived out?

Thursday, 23 July 2015

A Radical Approach

The Pharisees set high standards.  Because of what we know about their relationship with Jesus, we are inclined to be fairly dismissive of their piety.  We see them as mere legalists.  It is entirely true that they had become over-concerned with minute details.  As Jesus himself once said – it’s recorded in Matthew 23:23 – You hypocrites!  You give to God a tenth even of the seasoning herbs, such as mint, dill, and cumin, but you neglect to obey the really important teachings of the Law, such as justice, mercy and honesty.  Indeed, he went further in verse 24 – Blind guides!  You strain a fly out of your drink, but swallow a camel.  In saying that, Jesus was over-stating the case.  I don’t imagine there was ever a Pharisee who drank a liquidised camel.  But the point remains.  They thought that getting all the details right would ensure living in the way that God wanted.  Jesus recognised that it is not so simple.  He wants us to have the bigger picture as our guide.

Still today there are many, and many within the church, who would prefer things to be the way that the Pharisees set them out.  Many of these people don’t realise that to be what they are seeking; but they, explicitly, or sometimes more subtly, ask for a line to be drawn and it to be made clear where everything fits, on the forbidden side or on the permitted side.  Jesus recognises that life is far too complex for us to be able to list every possible and decision to be made and make it clear on which side of the line it sits.  Indeed, there are, I am sure, particular actions that can be right in one situation, but wrong in another.  Jesus is pursuing what we might describe as an enlargement agenda.  As one commentator puts it, referring as an example to the comments on murder and anger – “The verses on anger offer us an interpretation that enlarges the frame for understanding the prohibition against murder …. Clearly Jesus is not rescinding the prohibition against murder, but he does place murder on a continuum of outcomes related to anger.”[1]

If we approach this using a different concept, we can think about radicalisation.  Because of some of the things that have opened the past few years and the use of that term, not inappropriately, as a description of those, we have tended to see radicalisation in a negative light.  However, radicalisation can be positive, as it is here.  Sticking with the murder/anger case study, we may see that “Jesus radicalises the matter by insisting on going to the heart and addressing at that level the anger that can lead to a whole scale of insult and injury to others, of which murder would simply be an extreme outcome.”[2]



[1] Marcia Y Riggs – Feasting on the Word
[2] Brendan Byrne – “Lifting the Burden”

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

On a Journey

I have on my office wall a picture that I bought in the market in Harare on one of my trips to Zimbabwe.  It depicts a couple of people with a couple of animals, probably donkeys.  One of the donkeys has got a heaven burden, as has one of the people.  They are clearly on the move.  They are striding out.  The image of life as a journey is one that is common, and it is being played out in this scene.  We don't know where these people are going, what they are taking, or why they have so much to take.  But the picture conveys a clear sense of purposefulness.  Surely they know where they are going.  We are called to be People of the Way.  We are called to bear one another's burdens.  All that may seem like stating the obvious, but sometimes the obvious needs to be stated.  What is God saying to us about where we are going?  And what does God want us to take with us?

Monday, 20 July 2015

What God Has Done

In 2 Samuel 7 Nathan is reminded of how much God has done and he, in turn, is to remind David of that.  First, there is a reminder of the deliverance from slavery.  

Verse 6 – I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day.  Secondly, there is the reminder of how God called David himself away from his shepherding duties.  Verse 8 – I took you from the pasture and from following the flock.  Thirdly, there is that great promise, repeated by Jesus alongside what we often refer to as the Great Commission.  Here it is in verse 9 – I have been with you wherever you have gone.  And, fourthly, there is the promise of God’s continuing guidance.  Verse 10 – I will provide a place for my people Israel and will plant them.  And then, lastly, as we have noted, it is God, not David, who will be the builder and David the recipient – The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you.  God’s love, God’s grace, God’s blessings are tremendous.  

Many of the scholars suggest that this is a pivotal passage in the story of David – and they say that because it starts with David saying what he is going to do for God, but it moves to focus on what God will do for David.  I would always want to encourage you to do what you can for God – but I would want to tell you that what matters most is what God will do for you.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Not All Who Wander

I have on my office wall a postcard-sized picture of some travelling caravans and, as a caption, a quotation from J R R Tolkien – ‘Not all those who wander are lost’.  I really like the idea of wandering, and I don’t get enough opportunities to do it.  We live in a culture and a society where we always seem to be in a rush.  We constantly seem to be in a hurry, and to need to get there - wherever 'there' is - quickly.  Interestingly, one or two people and groups are beginning to rediscover the value of what is sometimes called a ministry of loitering – and I see that as another word for wandering.  When we lived in Panama for three years, I actually stopped wearing a watch.  One reason was that, because of the climate, it reacted with my wrist.  But the other reason was a very different attitude to time.  Things happened when they happened.  Now it may be that we were too relaxed towards time in Panama.  But it is certainly true that we are too bound to time in the UK.  Let’s make space for the times of wandering.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Man who Hoovers your House

I have been continuing reading Ray Simpson's "The Cowshed Revolution".  I love the story he retells about the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, dating from when he was Archbishop.

"The story run the rounds that the wife of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, admits that housework has 'never been high' on her list of priorities.  It seems the Archbishop sometimes steps into the breach.  Once, the Williams' son Pip was watching TV with a friend when Archbishop Rowan appeared on the screen.  'Look,' said the friend, 'there's the man that does the hoovering in your house'!"

Simpson goes on to cite a whole bunch of examples of Christians who have very deliberately chosen the path of service.  We know that we are called to do that but, a lot of the time, that is not how we see life lived out in the church.  Questions of respectability, status and role are too often prioritised over our engaging with the messy things that make a difference.

It is right that we value and use those resources that are available to us in the service of the Kingdom - but it is not always easy to achieve the balance between proper stewardship that appropriately protects the facility and proper stewardship that appropriately offers the facility for use as it is needed.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Celebrating Me

Here's the text of my opening worship address at today's 'Eastern Synod Big Day Out' -

Psalm 98 verse 7 – Let the sea and its fish give a round of applause, with everything living on earth joining in (The Message).  

I don’t know about you, but I always have found faith exciting.  That doesn’t mean it is never a struggle.  It doesn’t mean that I don’t feel the full range of emotions.  Sometimes my faith makes me incredibly happy, joyful, overwhelmed by a sense of awe.  But things happen too that challenge my faith, that make me sorrowful, frustrated or angry, or sometimes all three.  But, even when that is going on, I know that God is with me. 

Back in Old Testament times, the prophet Nehemiah persuaded the Persian Emperor to let him go back to Jerusalem to supervise the rebuilding of the city walls which had got broken down when the people had been carted off into exile.  That was a pretty tough job.  But they got on with it.  And they did it.  It was pretty emotional when they had a sort of grand opening of the walls.  Actually it was all tied in with their celebrating a thing called the feast of shelters – a special opportunity to remember how God had brought them out of slavery in Egypt.  They were all getting a bit sad.  And so Nehemiah said to them: Don’t feel bad.  The joy of God is your strength.  The joy of God is your strength.

Sometimes people ask me how things are in Eastern Synod, sometimes even how they are in the United Reformed Church.  And sometimes I get a sneaky feeling that they want me to say that they are bad, or, at least, not too good – but I never do.  Because I don’t believe that’s the case.  We have a good God.  Of course things are good!  It doesn’t mean that there aren’t the struggles, the difficulties, but there are so many exciting things going on – churches relating to their communities as they offer a range of facilities, holiday clubs, all sorts of exhibitions, cafés and café churches, new and different ways of telling the message of Jesus, messy churches – though I believe that all true church is messy – and so on.  And so we say with the psalmist: Shout your praises to God everybody!  Let loose and sing!  Strike up the band! 

God doesn’t want us to do what we can’t.  God wants us to do what we can.  One of my favourite story-book characters is Elmer the multi-coloured elephant – and when my daughters got past the Elmer stage, I rescued our Elmer and he now lives in my study.

One day Elmer decided he didn’t want to be himself,  He knew that elephants were supposed to be grey.  And so he got some paint and a bit of help.  And he turned himself grey – which was fine until it rained!  His elephant friends felt sorry for him.  And so they got paint as well – all different colours of paint.  Bright swirls and squiggles, colourful lines and circles, incredible patterns in all sorts of shades appeared on the elephants.  It was great – only they had the same problem when it rained again.

Elmer and all his friends needed to learn, as we do, that what matters is to be yourself.  God loves you just as you are.  Now, isn’t that something to celebrate.  It’s there in verse 3 of our psalm – He remembered to love us, a bonus to his dear family Israel – indefatigable love.  Now there’s something to celebrate.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

It Began in a Cowshed

I have just begun reading Ray Simpson's "The Cowshed Revolution" in which he expounds the desirability of being downwardly mobile.  He looks to point out what can be achieved by bucking the trend and challenging the conventions that are around.  Right at the beginning he quotes the Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi.  She has become a symbol of the search for liberation as she has been denied freedom.  Simpson quotes her as pointing out that influence does not need to come from the expected places.  As she once said, referring to Jesus' birth at Bethlehem: "After all, didn't one of the most influential movements in the world begin in a cowshed?"

How are we using the influence that we have?  Do we recognise the realities and possibilities of being counter-cultural?

Monday, 1 June 2015

Trinity

The festival of Trinity offers us the opportunity to contemplate the nature of God and marvel at it – though, of course, we will never fully grasp it, because God is not made in our likeness, but we in His.  We cannot quantify and contain God’s reality.  It’s a bit like looking at a rainbow.  Our eyes can only perceive certain colours, while others are beyond our power of vision.  The trinity suggests numbers, but as soon as we try to nail down God mathematically, we are bound to run into trouble, and the whole trinity concept reminds us that all our models and shapes are only rough guides to help us.  The reality is always more, and different.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Remembering

In late April I was in northern France, near to the Belgian border, for our annual ministers' Spring School.  As part of the centenary marking of the 1914-18 Great War, we were visiting some of the sites and also spending some time reflecting on relevant issues.  Amongst many other things, we considered peace-making, pacifism and the just war theory.  Visits included both a Commonwealth (Tyne Cot) and a German (Langemarck) Cemetery, the Flanders Fields Museum in Ieper, the place where the 'Christmas football truce' is marked and the Pool of Peace, beside which we celebrated Communion.  It was fascinating, moving and challenging.

Remembrance has gained an increasing relevance in the lives of our communities.  How can we, in the church, better serve the community by helping that engagement?

PhotoPoster at Talbot House

Tyne Cot Cemetery

Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Gazing and Staring

One of the great descriptions of Jesus is as the 'Light of the World'.  It is often used, and in many contexts, not least in the New Testament itself.  It's a reminder that God helps us to see things as they are.  Without light we are in the darkness.  Without light we cannot see.  Of course, how we see and what we choose to look at may say a great deal about us.  I have been reading on in John O'Donohue's "Anam Cara" and he makes that very point - "Yet, in a wonderful way, the eye as mother of distance makes us wonder at the mystery and otherness of everything outside us.  In this sense, the eye is also the mother of intimacy, bringing everything close to us.  When you really gaze at something, you bring it inside you.  One could write a beautiful spirituality on the holiness of the gaze.  The opposite of the gaze is the intrusive stare.  When you are stared at, the eye of the Other becomes tyrannical.  You have become the object of the Other's stare in a humiliating, invasive and threatening way."

I find this contrast between the gaze and the stare really helpful.  A gaze carries such a positive connotation.  We imagine ourselves looking at something beautiful, something that moves us.  We might describe this as marvelling at the wonders of God.  On the other hand, a stare carries the notion of being offensive.  What are you staring at?!  It is probably not going to happen, but I like the idea of being gazed at.  It may involve the same amount of looking, but it comes in a different way, and so I am clear that I do not want to be stared at.  If we look to God, we will get our gazing and our staring sorted out.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Value The Difference

It is true that things would not work if we were all the same.  The apostle Paul's image of the body, where we need the different parts, makes the point well.  I have been reading John O'Donohue's "Anam Cara".  The first chapter says some fascinating things about friendship and love and the depths it can reach.  We need people to whom we can get close, but it only works well if we also value our differences and allow sufficient space.  I know that I tend to emphasise unity, and I think I want to keep on doing so, but not to the extent that I can't recognise the value of difference and diversity.  We all have our part to play - and it will be different.  As O'Donohue says: "One of the most precious things you should always preserve in a friendship and in love is your own difference." He goes on to really encourage us to value space, citing Kahlil Gibran - "That which grows needs space.  Kahlil Gibran says: 'But let there be spaces in your togetherness, let the winds of the heavens dance between you.'  Space allows your Otherness to find its own rhythm and contour."

Monday, 11 May 2015

Called To Serve

We rightly and importantly emphasise that the Gospel brings freedom - but what does that mean?  We also say that we are called to service.  How do we balance service and freedom?  Perhaps the important word in the question is the word 'balance'.  It seems to me that so much of life is about appropriate balancing.  I am currently reading Walter Brueggemann's The Covenanted Self (Fortress Press, 1999).

Brueggemann makes reference to the Israelites being freed from Egyptian slavery - only freedom brought a whole new set of difficulties.  He points out how - p. 24 - "Yahweh had consistently said, "Let them go, that they may serve me.  Consistently the governing verb is "serve" (abad), "enter into my service".  (Occasionally the alternative verb hag is used, "make a festival.")  Yahweh never said, "Let my people go that they may be autonomous," or "Let my people go that they may enjoy unmitigated freedom."  "That they may serve me" means to come under a sovereign command.  Thus the "freed slaves" have a freedom that is a new servitude, under new commands and new demands."

So what is the service to which God is calling us?  It is in such serving that we will discover freedom.  That is how we get the balance right.