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.