Saturday, 31 December 2016

Imagining the Distance Away

Another thought - and the final one for the year - drawn from Henri Nouwen's Bread for the Journey. Nouwen emphasises the importance of reconciliation. We are so good at creating space, at seeing the distance. "So much of our energy, time, and money goes into maintaining distance from one another."

We need to get past that. As Nouwen says: "Just imagine all the people on the planet holding hands and forming one large circle of love."

Friday, 30 December 2016

Forgiveness and Acceptance

Forgiveness is all about grace.  Leith Fisher comments: “I believe it is very difficult to overestimate the importance of forgiveness and its twin, acceptance.  It is forgiveness which overcomes estrangements, brings reconciliation, breaks the iron bands of revenge and recrimination, delivers from bitterness and resentment, frees from guilt and fear.  It is something that we do practise in the daily round of our lives; it’s a balm for the bumps and bruises we keep inflicting on one another; it’s an oil which keeps the engine of community running within family life, community life, church life.  It is something we should always be praying for the grace to practise better.”  

Fisher goes on to refer to the philosopher Jacques Derrida who speaks about ‘the insanity of grace’ and then again about ‘the madness of the impossible’.  The point is that the challenge to forgiveness defies human logic.  It is far more natural that we should seek revenge.  But, of course, that is where we go right to the centre of our faith – because there we find forgiveness, there at the cross.  

Fisher comments: “It is there we are enrolled in the school of grace, freely to give as we have freely received.  How do we witness to the Easter faith?  In things big and small, keep remembering, “Seventy times seven.”

Thursday, 29 December 2016

I was an Angel once

It was back in 2002, at the Junior Church Nativity, in The Cotteridge Church in Birmingham, that my younger daughter, Rachel (then 5), and I, both played the same part.  I am sure she didn’t realise it, and probably most of the congregation also missed the coincidence.  But we were both angels.  She was, of course, the more conventional kind of angel, attractive, dressed in white, with wings.  I was Arfur the angel, the tramp angel, trying to make sense of the memo in my pocket, crumpled, and sounding to me more like the story of Noah, with its cobwebs, animals and smelly stable.

But that made an important point.  Christmas isn’t what we expect.  There was a star, and angels, according to what we read in Luke and Matthew – but God didn’t arrive on earth amidst military might, a conquering hero, heralded by a marvellous fanfare.  Rather he slipped into the world in a smelly stable, at first only noticed by a few shepherds.

John sums it up in that tremendous phrase in John 1:14 – and the Word became flesh.  This is the theme of the Gospel.  This is the climax of this tremendous opening statement.

And angels come in all shapes and size – ready to be welcomed by us.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

A Safe Place for Others

One of our key tasks as Christians is to be as Christ for others. I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, and all that stuff. Or, putting it in the words of the song: 'When I needed a neighbour, were you there?'

I have been reading Henri Nouwen's Bread for the Journey which offers a brief reflection for each day of the year, and was especially struck by today's focus on 'being safe places for others.'

As Nouwen puts it: "When we are free from the need to judge or condemn, we can become safe places for people to meet in vulnerability and take down the walls that separate them. Being deeply rooted in the love of God, we cannot help but invite people to love one another."

I suspect that, too easily and too frequently, we judge and condemn. How easily and how often are we the kind of people that could be described as 'safe places'?

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Breaking Grace

I was really struck by a sentence in today’s comments in Fresh from the Word 2016. This week’s commentary is by Katie Miller and today’s passage was the most famous part of the nativity story outside of Luke, Matthew’s account of the ‘wise men’ finding and worshipping Jesus.

The story speaks to us of listening to God’s voice – the key characters responded to God’s call to go and find the child; giving gifts; and being prepared to be surprised – the visitors naturally went to the palace, but discovered that this ‘king’ was located in a very different place.

Katie draws a link with some charitable delivering of food hampers and the lovely response of huge gratitude from one particular recipient. She wonders whether they deserve the thanks – but then comments: “When we see heaven meet earth, God’s grace breaking through, it is fitting that we are overwhelmed with joy, pay homage to him, and offer our gifts.”

Are we ready to be overwhelmed with joy at the wonder of what God can do?

Monday, 26 December 2016

Magnify the Lord

My older daughter decided to get me a Christmas present 'suitable for a minister' - and I was genuinely delighted to receive the framed verse of a psalm in this photograph.

I was pleased to get this both because of the thought behind it AND the fact that it emphasises the importance of worship.

If we are going to serve God as we should, then that service needs to be founded on prayer and worship. Is that how it is?

And, just for another thought, might there be any way in which God can/would/should/might speak through the presents that we have either given or received?

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Nativity 4

The other nativity scene we have at home is another colourful set of characters that take us through Advent. We are supposed to add one each day, completing the scene on Christmas Day. However, this year we just put the whole thing up, except there were three missing. We could not find one of the wise men (that is, if we assume the traditional three), nor Mary, nor Joseph - until, happily, I found them in a box a few days ago, when I was looking for something else. So we were able to complete the scene before Christmas Day.

But that got me thinking about those times when things go wrong, or there is a bit missing and so, though they are not Christmas stories, reflecting on those three 'losts' that get mentioned in Luke 15, the sheep, the coin and the son. It is all a reminder that Christmas is essentially about the fact that God comes looking for those who are lost.

It also got me wondering what difference it would make if one of the characters got 'dropped' from the nativity story. Who would you leave out, and what difference would it make? God helps us deal with the missing 'bits'. That's what we mean when we sing 'Love came down at Christmas'.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Two Christmas Questions

Possibly the two questions I get asked most at this time of year are – ‘What do you want for Christmas?’ and ‘Are you ready for Christmas?’

When I was younger, it was the first that I was asked most often. These days it is more likely to be the second. They are different, but I wonder if they are also the same. Christmas very easily gets ‘lost’ in a flurry of shopping, parties, food, decorating, card-writing etc. Those are all the things that I think I need to get done in order to be ready for Christmas – and there is always something I wish I had done. I forget to buy the bread sauce, or to send a card to Uncle Fred, or to buy the sellotape … whatever. But is that what is needed to be really ready for Christmas? Or is it really about how I worship the one who came as that Bethlehem baby?

The same goes with the ‘what do I want’ question. Even as a veteran of quite a lot of Christmases, I can still give you quite a list. But is what I really want better described as peace, and hope, and love – all those things brought by the one who is the light of the world?

What do you want for Christmas? Are you ready for Christmas?

Friday, 23 December 2016

Emmanuel

I always regard the Christmas season as a time for reflection. What does it really mean that God came to this earth? How can we communicate that message effectively? Like many, I tend to think back over Christmases past. The picture of a banner actually goes back 32 years to Christmas 1984. I was then ministering in London. It was my second Christmas in London and, at one of the two churches of which I was then minister, Islington-Claremont, (just recently, as it happens, having joined with the other (Harecourt) to form the united Islington United Reformed Church), we had made a banner to mark the season - with that great name, 'Emmanuel' - God is with us!

If we are going to reflect, part of that ought to be looking forward. What is God calling us to do and be today? What should Christmas say to a secular world?

As I was shopping in Cambridge earlier this month, I saw folk from the Methodist Church handing out free mince pies, and I have heard of similar in other places. It may seem just a small gesture, but in such ways we offer the hospitality to which God calls us.

If God is with us, and God is, what does that mean for how we conduct ourselves?

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Narnia

‘Perhaps something hot to drink?’ said the Queen.  ‘Should you like that?’  ‘Yes, please, your majesty,’ said Edward, whose teeth were chattering.  The Queen took from somewhere among her wrappings which looked as if it were made of copper.  Then, holding out her arm, she let one drop fall from it on the snow beside the sledge.  Edmund saw the drop for a second in mid-air, shining like a diamond.  But the moment it touched the snow there was a hissing sound and there stood a jewelled cup full of something that steamed.  The dwarf immediately took this and handed it to Edmund with a bow and smile; not a very nice smile.  Edmund felt much better as he began to sip the hot drink.  It was something he had never tasted before, very sweet and foamy and creamy, and it warmed him right down to his toes.

That comes, as some of you will know, from C. S. Lewis’s “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe”, the book behind “The Chronicles of Narnia – The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe”.  The action of Edmund, cold as he was, was surprising, as anyone who knows the story will say.  The queen is a baddie – and we would not expect Edmund to accept gifts from her.  So why did he?  Was it not obvious to him that she was not trustworthy?  Was he perhaps deluded by the air of ‘magic and sparkle’ that surrounded her?  Was he miffed at not feeling special – and being the left-out one of the four children of the story?  Peter and Susan were older than him.  Lucy was younger, but he had teased her about her adventure in Narnia through the wardrobe – and now he was discovering she had been right all along.  Did he just want to grab whatever piece of the action he could?

I love Christmas.  I love the food, the presents, the decorations, the excitement – and I don’t want to be disillusioned and, on the whole, I’m not.  But Christmas does raise those questions for us all.  It is about getting – after all, it’s the story of a great gift by God.  But it’s also about giving.  And who’s being left out – and we need to see they are not.  We are all special.  That’s an important part of the story.  But another important part is that we all make mistakes.

In the book Narnia is a place where it is always winter, but never Christmas.  How would it feel to be always waiting for Christmas, but it never arrives?

Later on, when the three children, Peter, Susan and Lucy, are with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver this happens:

‘And now,’ said Father Christmas, ‘for your presents.  There is a new and better sewing machine for you, Mrs. Beaver.  I will drop it in your house as I pass. ….  As for you, Mr. Beaver, when you get home you will find your dam finished and mended and all the leaks stopped and a new sluice-gate fitted.’  And the children, too, each receive a present, presents that they are going to need for the tasks that lie ahead of them.  As Father Christmas says to Lucy, giving her a little bottle of cordial, ‘If you or any of your friends is hurt, a few drops of this will restore them.’ 

We live in a world that needs many gifts of love and prayer.  Is not the Christmas message that we should give as many of those gifts as we can?  With God’s help, may we, who are precious to God, give of our precious abilities and resources to others, who are, yes, whoever they are, equally precious to God.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Nativity 3

We have had this Salvadoran nativity for quite a long time now. I like the bright colours which, to me, signify God's coming into this world in a burst of excitement.

The colours also speak of the vibrancy of Latin America and so offer a reminder of the three years (1991-4) that my wife and I spent in Panama.

In the UK, Christmas is a winter event, and so it is very appropriate to sing 'See amid the winter's snow' and, in the secular sphere, 'White Christmas'. In Panama the dry season began just before Christmas. [We only had wet and dry - it was always hot!] It was strange to go round the shops in Panama listening to them playing 'White Christmas'. I never got used to a sunny Christmas, but I did enjoy our Christmas Day picnics!

This, then, is a reminder that our perspective is just one of many - and we do well to remember that God engages with people around the world, and so in a huge variety of context. We need to resist the temptation to try and privatise God, so that God is seen as just for us. God is for everyone!

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Nativity 2

When I was in Jerusalem in Advent 2011, I went to a little shop close to St. George's College, where I was staying, and bought the one that is photographed. It is described as a reproduction of an old Byzantine icon.

I love the detail, in particular the depictions of Simeon and Anna in the two bottom corners, reminders of their waiting and its reward in their seeing the promised Messiah.

It is so interesting to reflect on those who got the first Christmas message, a reminded that God comes in unexpected ways to unexpected people. Shepherds would not have been at the top of any invitation lists - and why bother with the likes of these two elderly people?

What are you expecting to happen to and with your church congregation in 2017? And are you ready for the possibility that God will do something unexpected?  If so, how will you react?

Monday, 19 December 2016

Nativity 1

In this season we find ourselves telling the Christmas story often - and that is great. It is a massive thing that God came to this earth in the person of Jesus. It needs to be told time and time again.

We act it out, we watch it on film and we make, in various mediums, depictions of the nativity. Indeed, one custom which seems to be developing is the mounting of a display of different depictions of the nativity, often drawn from different cultures.

I like that. I think it helps us to reflect on the story. This photograph is of a olive wood carving of a stable scene which I bought when I was in the Holy Land during Advent 2011. I like the palm tree, which serves to remind me that God engages with all sorts of different cultures in all sorts of different places. I also like the star, which I see as a reminder of Jesus as the Light of the World.

What is the Christmas story saying to you today? And can you share that wonderful story?

Sunday, 18 December 2016

The Word Became Flesh

The first fourteen verses of John 1, so often referred to as this Gospel’s prologue, is, a great passage, at one and the same time, both so simple, and yet so profound. Essentially it is simply saying that God came to this earth to be with us – and yet that is such a profound and transforming thing.

It is interesting that the Christmas story, in the way that we know and love it, is only told in two of the Gospels. Of course, it doesn’t matter – because that is all that we need. It is also interesting that those two Gospels tell very different bits. It is just Luke who has the shepherds and the stable, and it is Luke has all the bits about Mary visiting Elizabeth and the angel Gabriel appearing to her. Alongside that, Matthew has just a little bit more about Joseph, and it is Matthew who tells us about the visitors from the East. Mark starts with Jesus being baptised by John the Baptist – and John has this beautiful passage, but it is a passage of ideas, not a passage describing events in any conventional sense.

There is just a little phrase at the beginning of verse 14, which is John’s way of stating the fact of incarnation, that God came to earth, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. ‘The Word became flesh.’ The Word became a human being. Those few words tell the story. They might not include shepherds and donkeys and stables – and all the other things we could mention.  But they sum up the whole Christmas story.  The Word became flesh.  The Word became a human being.

Lesslie Newbigin, in his commentary on John, says this of this phrase – “In these [few] short words the central mystery which John will unfold is stated with absolute simplicity. It lies wholly beyond the power of flesh and blood  .. to pass from darkness to light, to lay hold of the life of God. But what is impossible has become a fact by a movement in the opposite direction. God himself in his creative and revealing being has become man and “pitched his tent” among us.” This is the core of the healing possibility – that God is not remote from us but, on the contrary, participates fully with us.

In a similar vein Raymond Brown says: “In the new covenant, the humanity of the Word, his flesh, becomes the supreme localization of divine presence and glory.”

That’s it! God’s participation with us, at whatever level, and in whatever way, is possible because the Word became flesh. 

And what more does it say? It says that the Word was full of grace and truth. We, who are called to follow in the way of Christ, are called to live the way that he did. We are called to model grace and truth. In the busyness of Christmas, let’s do what we can to do just that. As we live lives of grace and truth, so we will bear witness to the light that we have seen.

As the carol has it, ‘Love came down at Christmas’. The love that, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 13:7 – bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Indaba

Whilst there is much that we hold in common, we cannot deny the presence of dividing factors within the church, and what to do about that is a frequent and large question.  Categories are always dangerous and difficult, and there are many who try to avoid them.  However, to use such a stance as a means of avoiding the challenge of dealing with the disagreement is ultimately helpful.  It is far better to embrace the difference, but to discover ways of doing so creatively. 

Groves and Jones suggest:

Good and loving disagreement is a potential gift to a world of bitter and divisive conflict. What can be more radical than to disagree well, not by abandoning principle and truth, but by affirming it with respect? Acting on it and yet continuing to love those who have a different view?[1]

adding:

Living Reconciliation does not mean putting aside our beliefs. It means something far more threatening; it means recognising that the person you believe to be completely wrong on some issue of significance is on a journey with Christ and with you. It means trusting God together and not seeking to overwhelm the person with the force of your argument. It does mean being open to change, but to a change of heart and a desire to understand more fully your own walk with Christ.[2]

The work by Groves and Jones on living reconciliation originates in a project within the Anglican Communion initiated by Archbishop Justin Welby.  The ‘Continuing Indaba’ process is a form of consensus, but involving a deep degree of commitment to walk together, even when that is difficult and differing perspectives threaten to overwhelm the process.  Fundamental to it is the building of relationship.  It is fairly easy to demonise an idea or a concept with which we disagree, but far more difficult to totally reject the person who has become my friend, but who I now discover holds that view that I have been considering untenable.  As Welby himself says:

Entering conversation on areas of deep disagreement is not safe, for anyone.  There is risk and vulnerability.  A safe space is one where this cost is recognised and the space is entered and used respectfully.  Diversity and difference cannot be wished away, even when their breadth makes us uncomfortable and at times unsafe.[3]

We need to find ways of walking together that, at times, will allow us to hold diametrically opposed views with integrity.  That is good disagreement.

Continuing Indaba is a Zulu concept.  It begins with the establishment, and building up, of relationship.  It is not something to be hurried, and includes worshipping and studying the Scriptures together.  Often Indaba has simply meant a gathering or meeting, but what is crucial is a willingness to listen. 

John Mark Oduor uses the similar Kenyan concept of Baraza to describe the kind of approach to encounter that is needed when we are faced with dealing with disagreement.  He uses the notion of our dancing to the drumbeat.  Problems emerge when we start dancing to the wrong drumbeat. 



[1] Phil Groves & Angharad Parry Jones, Living Reconciliation, SPCK, 2014.
[2] Groves and Jones.
[3] Justin Welby in Preface to Groves and Jones.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Including Everyone

David Stevens, former leader of the Corrymeela Community, makes a fascinating point about how we see the church in his book “The Land of Unlikeness” when he comments: "Churches bring 'their' community before God.  They are places where the 'specialness' and stories of communities and nations can be celebrated ...... but ..... Churches can be places where we are told - implicitly and explicitly - who does not belong to our community: by who is prayed for and who is not, by the contents of sermons, and by the symbols displayed or not displayed."  I find that interesting, and I think he is absolutely right.  We are so good at talking about the need for being an inclusive church, and we are so good at being an exclusive church.  We put the little barriers up, and so we fail to disagree well.  Let me just gather up three other things that Steven says.  He points out that: "The gospel invites us into the space  created by Christ and to find there those who were previously our enemies."

He further comments: "In conflict situations theologies of enmity, superiority and distorted recognition of others can easily gain prominence ..."  And one last comment from Stevens:  "If we fail to forgive, we will hand on our bitterness to the next generation.  And, if the politics of grievance is not given up, the past keeps everyone in its grip.  Either we find ways to forgive or else we separate from, or seek to destroy, each other.  Thus, forgiveness is a practical necessity for continuing to live together."

And, as Richard Holloway says, in his little book “On Forgiveness”“The real beauty and power of forgiveness is that it can deliver the future to us.”

Thursday, 15 December 2016

What Can I Give Him?

I heard of one of our churches which, as part of the journey through Advent and getting ready for Christmas, provided an opportunity for the local community to really get involved in the story.

As I understand it, though I may have some of the details wrong, there were painted boards of the story with a hole for your own face and/or dressing up clothes. People were invited to use these to help enter the story and consider the part they might have played had they been there. They could then take a 'selfie' as a reminder, hopefully not just of some fun, but also of something far more profound.

A contemporary way perhaps of doing what we have done so often in singing that verse of Christina Rossetti's carol:

What can I give him,
poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man
I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him -
give my heart.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Tell Out My Soul

'Tell out my soul the greatness of the Lord' - so begins the Magnificat in English - that powerful song of Mary's in which she looks forward to the birth of the baby Jesus. Barbara Brown Taylor's "Mixed Blessings" is a book of sermons, one of which focuses on this great passage.

Mary must have been so surprised at what was going on. "The whole scene was so strange - the angel, the whiteness, the voice like bells - she is not even sure it really happened." This is scary stuff - except that God is with her - a worthwhile lesson for us also to learn.

Mary's song is a song that she sings in the light of having received God's blessing. "She has been embarrassed and afraid, the most miserable of the miserable, but God has blessed her in her low estate, has made her a promise she believes, and that is the living definition of faith, faith that gives substance to our hopes, faith in things not seen."

This is an amazing picture - of the great "with their crowns flattened in the dust behind them, beggars dressed in brocade, cripples on white stallions." The radical things fall over each other as Mary seeks to put them into words. It's revolution. It's transformation. "She just wanted to be blessed in a small way, but she ended up changing the future of the world." When God gets involved, there is no telling what will happen!

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Creative Ministry

I have just read Henri Nouwen's "Creative Ministry" in which he explores what he identifies as the five primary responsibilities of the priest or minister. He names them as teaching, preaching, pastoral care, organising and celebrating. These are what a minister should bring to the community that is the church and they are closely tied to the minister's own spiritual life, though Nouwen also stresses that there is a sense in which these are the call of every Christian.

I particularly like some of what he says about celebration which, in a sense, can sum up the others - "Celebration can only really come about where fear and love, joy and sorrow, tears and smiles can exist together. Celebration is the acceptance of life in a constantly increasing awareness of its preciousness."

Nouwen emphasises the servant nature of ministry. "It calls for Christians who are willing to develop their sensitivity to God's presence in their own lives, as well as in the lives of others, and to offer their experiences as a way of recognition and liberation ...  It calls for ministers in the true sense, who lay down their own lives for their friends, helping them to distinguish between the constructive and the destructive spirits and making them free for the discovery of God's life-giving Spirit in the midst of this maddening world. It calls for creative weakness."

Monday, 12 December 2016

Mattishall

Yesterday afternoon I was at a carol service in the United Reformed Church at Mattishall, a village in Norfolk. The church was packed and we were led by the Salvation Army band as we enjoyed some traditional Christmas music and carols. It was inspiring. Ian Fosten, Norwich Team Leader for the URC, spoke briefly, reminding us of the need to move on as he pointed to the journeys contained within the Christmas story.

What was particularly significant is that it was the final service for that chapel. After a long history of witness, the remaining three members have decided that it is time for the Methodists and the Church of England to carry forward the Christian witness in that particular village.

Strangely, it is not usually easy to make such brave decisions, and we struggle on past the point of viability. It was great to end this congregation's life on such a high note - as the organ, at the end, was pressed in to service one more time and we listened to Handel's 'Hallelujah Chorus'. The witness will, of course, continue in different ways and different places.

May God guide us all into the right decisions, even when they are difficult to take.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Isaiah 35

What a great passage we discover when we read Isaiah 35.  It is so full of joy.  It often seems that we live in a world that is packed with negativity.  Things so often seem to go wrong.  Of course, we need to take that seriously, and we need to recognise that lots of people are hurting.  We can’t and shouldn’t ignore that fact.  We certainly see more than enough on the news that gives us cause for deep concern and points us in the direction of despair and sorrow.  How can it be that so many bad things happen?  And we sometimes find ourselves asking that question on every level from the global to the personal.  I am not, of course, going to try and answer it.  Too often it is unanswerable.  But there is another side to life - and neither should we forget that Christians are called to be people of joy.  That is a note that we hear sounded in many places in the Bible, and not just in the New Testament.  And here is one of the great Old Testament examples. 

This poetic passage is overflowing with joy.   The desert will rejoice.  Flowers will bloom in the wilderness.  Tell everyone who is discouraged, ‘Be strong and don’t be afraid!’  The lame will leap and dance, and those who cannot speak will shout for joy.  They will reach Jerusalem with gladness, singing and shouting for joy.  Just some of the great statements of joy contained in these ten verses. 

How do we approach life?  How do we approach our faith?  Is that note of joy there as it should be – or are we amongst those who don’t ‘do’ joy?

I have never been in a desert, but it doesn’t strike me as the sort of place that is particularly likely to inspire rejoicing.  It rather, I suspect, gives you a sense of endless similarity as the sand stretches out in front of you.  I have been in the wilderness, quite possibly the wilderness that Isaiah is thinking about, certainly the wilderness that was the scene of Jesus’ experience of the temptations.  It lies between Jericho and Jerusalem.  And I remember stopping there five years ago this month as we drove between those two cities.  We were only there very briefly.  But I remember it as a bleak place, a kind of nowhere place, certainly not a place where I saw, or expected to see, flowers blooming.  As I stood in the wilderness, I saw sands and rocks stretching in front of me, but very few signs of vegetation.  It had that feeling of loneliness, and even being abandoned.  But Isaiah here urges a different view.  He sees the possibilities of God’s transforming presence and so, for him, the wilderness becomes a place of joy.  I reflected on the loneliness and abandonment of Jesus’ experience in the wilderness.  By contrast, Isaiah points to abundant potential.  The power of death and dysfunction will be broken.  Things will be different.

The good news of Advent is that God is coming.  In theological terms the celebration of the incarnation is just round the corner.  We are caught up in all sorts of preparation for Christmas, and so we should be, but we must not forget that the central message of Christmas is that God came to this earth to bring the love and joy and peace that we can find only with him.  As one commentator puts it: “The good news at Advent is that God has not taken off on a retreat but that the God who cares for the dry and barren places cares for each and all of us.” 

Isaiah’s vision is of the restoration of what is broken.  Advent is a time of preparation, a time of waiting.  We are waiting for Christmas.  As we wait, we should be filled with hope.  Of course, as we have said, there are things that dent our hope.  But the promise, made so clear in the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, is that God comes to be with us.  

Saturday, 10 December 2016

A Very British Nativity

This once, this is straight from the newsletter of the Joint Public Issues Team (an initiative of the Baptist Church, the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church and the Church of Scotland) -

"If Mary and Joseph came to the UK seeking refuge this Christmas, what sort of welcome would they receive?

This is the question that lies at the heart of 'A Very British Nativity' - a short film produced by four major Christian denominations in the UK.

While the film is intended to be a humorous reimagining of the Nativity story, life for asylum seekers in the UK is anything but amusing.

It was over 2000 years ago that Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable, but A Very British Nativity asks how far we have really come; are we treating the most vulnerable people in our society with the dignity that they deserve?

During a period when refugees and asylum seekers experience much hostility, the nativity story is a stark reminder of the importance of showing hospitality to those who come seeking refuge.

As Churches, we want to highlight the ways in which the UK asylum system degrades those who encounter it, and remind the Government that offering asylum is not an 'optional extra' but a legal commitment under the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights."

To see the film - clink this link:  download from vimeo here.


Friday, 9 December 2016

Pure in Heart

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. But what does it mean to be pure in heart? Purity tends not to be a particularly popular concept these days. Maybe that is why, as Steven Croft puts it in Jesus' People: What the Church should do next, "The Church in our day has rather lost confidence in talking about holiness and purity of heart and life."

However, we do need to stand up for good things, for a life that is not contaminated. Croft again - "The Church is called to be a community where lives are changed and where people learn to live well."

With God's help, may we indeed point to good things, things that connect to God's holiness, and so be channels of God's transformative influencing for good.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Entrepreneurship

I recently read Michael Volland's The Minister as Entrepreneur with its challenge to recognise the value of a style of ministry that emerges from being something of an entrepreneur.  "Entrepreneurs have energy that translates into making things happen ... moving beyond the status quo ... "

Volland realises that some struggle with this style - "this can make them quite annoying to the rest of us."  By no  means does he suggest that all  ministers need to be entrepreneurs.

However, he does consider it to be a skill set that we need and suggests it is a way of ministry that Jesus models - "reflecting on Jesus' entrepreneurial approach to ministry might help us to recognise and celebrate the gift of entrepreneurship in our Christian communities."

Are we discovering and valuing entrepreneurship in ministry where we should and can?

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Community of the Forgiven

Bearing grudges, looking for revenge and harbouring antagonistic feelings are all things that we so easily do, forgetting that we regularly pray ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’. We need to forgive – and we need to be forgiven.

I like the idea of the church as a ‘community of the forgiven’. Steven Croft reminds us to take this seriously in his Jesus’ People: What the Church should do next.  He writes (p. 35) – The Church is, by definition, the community of the forgiven. As long as we are mindful of how much God has forgiven us, it will not be difficult to be merciful to one another and, indeed, to those outside the community. In so far as we forget and choose to ignore God’s grace and forgiveness in our own lives, our hearts begin to harden towards others very rapidly.

Quite! How forgiving are we?

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Navigating Change

One of the challenges facing today's church is the need to change. We recognise the need. We say we are ready to do it. BUT .... Well, it is easier said than done. It is a point well recognised by Steven Croft in his book Jesus' People: What the Church should do next.

He comments on the need to challenge the negativity in which we, too often, get caught. We think and say that we can't. We see what needs to be done, but claim it is beyond us. As Croft puts it: "Eeyore is alive and well in many congregations, synods and pressure groups. In the last of the Narnia stories C. S. Lewis paints a compelling picture of a group of dwarves who are admitted to the great banquet at the end of time but they can neither see nor taste the good things because of their own cynicism and despair. It's not hard to find similar groups in the councils of the Church. But they need to be challenged." (p. 6)

Croft emphasises the need to look to Jesus, commenting on how that will keep us on course - "It is Jesus who gives the Church its DNA, its genetic code. While the Church may need to take a variety of shapes as our culture changes, it will be on course providing we discern that the risen Christ is at the centre." (p. 8)

He suggests that we are inclined to be too like the disciples caught in a storm on the lake, failing to look to Jesus. We get on with stuff, but we don't allow ourselves to be resourced as we can and should be. We try, but not in the right way. Croft suggests that we are like "the disciples, in danger of drowning in Lake Galilee - they don't waste time and energy blaming one another; they do what they can from their own resources, but in the end that isn't enough. At that point and only at that point they turn their attention to Jesus. Isn't it time for us to do the same?" (p. 10/1)

Monday, 5 December 2016

Present to God

I think this is my final comment on Barbara Brown Taylor’s ‘spiritual practices’ in An Altar in the World – at least for now, but I really like some of what she says about prayer which she identifies as the ‘practice of being present to God’.

I have picked out two great comments.

First, she says: "I would rather show someone my cheque book stubs than talk about my prayer life.  I would rather confess that I am a rotten godmother, that I struggle with my weight, that I fear I am overly fond of Bombay Sapphire gin martinis than confess that I am a prayer-weakling.  To say I love God but I do not pray much is like saying I love life but I do not breathe much.  The only way I have found to survive my shame is to come at the problem from both sides, exploring two distinct possibilities: 1) that prayer is more than my idea of prayer and 2) that some of what I actually do in my life may constitute genuine prayer."
And again:  "... prayer is not the same thing as prayers.  ... Saying psalms in the morning is a good way to head into the day more prayerfully.  So is going to church, where I can add my voice to those of a whole congregation aiming to woo God's ears with their ancient, beautiful cadences.  Still, prayer is more than saying set prayers at set times.  Prayer ... is waking up to the presence of God no matter where I am or what I am doing."
There is really no more that I want to say, other than to recognise that she is summing up much of what I also see as the opportunity, the struggle, the excitement and the possibility of prayer.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Sabbath

Another of Barbara Brown Taylor’s ‘spiritual practices’ in An Altar in the World is what she describes as the ‘practice of saying no’, otherwise simply defined as ‘sabbath’.

There is much that points towards saying ‘yes’, and rightly so. We are called to do stuff and it is right to get on with that. However, sometimes we respond by simply piling up more and more tasks, and that is never a good idea. We need to discern what are the things to which we should say ‘no’.

Saying ‘yes’ can be very important. It certainly has its place. As Taylor states: "Saying yes is how you enter into relationship.  It is how you walk through the door into a new room.  It is how you create the future."

However, we also need to identify the ‘no’ times, the occasions to take time out, the opportunities that we need to create for rest. In the end things will be more rounded if we do that. As Taylor says: "Sabbath is not only God's gift to those who have voices to say how tired they are; Sabbath is also God's gift to the tired fields, the tired vines, the tired vineyard, the tired land.  ....   Sabbath is the great equaliser, the great reminder that we do not live on this earth but in it, and that everything we do under the warming tent of this planet's atmosphere affects all who are woven into this web with us.  Just because the land and the livestock cannot hire lawyers does not mean they have not been violated.  Their biblical rights are written down right there in the Bible, but other gods go on getting in the way."

Sabbath allows us to be fair to everyone, including ourselves.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Community

Continuing with Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World ….. another of the spiritual practices that she describes is the ‘practice of encountering others’, described in short as ‘community’.

We often talk about relating to the community – it is something on which we are keen. Too often, though, that relationship is just a matter of offering (usually hiring) a space that can be used by the community. Of course, that can be a valuable resource, and so an important contribution to the building of community in the places where we are located.

However, that is not really an encounter. We need to learn from Jesus the importance (and value) of connecting with those around us. As Taylor points out: "Watch how this rabbi practises what he preaches and you will note that his teaching is not limited to people who look, act, or think like him.  He does the same eye-to-eye thing with Roman centurions, Samaritan lepers, Syro-Phoenecian women, and hostile Judeans that he does with his own Galilean disciples.  He does it with slaves and rulers, twelve-year-old girls and powerful men, people who can be useful to him and people who cannot.  With the possible exception of his own family, no one is dismissed from his circle of concern, for no one made in God's image is negligible in the revelation of that same God."

That is encounter – and that produces community.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Getting Lost

Another one from Barbara Brown Taylor's An Altar in the World is 'the practice of getting lost', otherwise known as 'wilderness'. The wilderness often seems to be a place to be avoided, and yet it seems pretty clear that those who don't cross the wilderness (which means going through it) will miss out on some pretty good stuff. I love this comment - "I have decided to stop fighting the prospect of getting lost and engage it as a spiritual practice instead.  The Bible is a great help to me in this practice, since it reminds me that God does some of God's best work with people who are truly, seriously lost."

God indeed deals in lost people, and we miss out on so much if we run away from the difficult things. Getting lost is a strong and frequent Biblical theme and something that plays a useful and relevant role in life. "Follow the story with an eye for getting lost and see how the theme sustains the plot.  The prophet Elijah gets lost in the desert while fleeing the fury of a queen named Jezebel, which is how he comes to hear the voice of God in the sound of sheer silence.  The people spend decades in exile in Babylon - a cultural wilderness they might never have survived without their practice in the literal wilderness of Sinai.  Much later, Jesus of Nazareth consents to becoming lost, to spending forty days in the Judean desert being tested by everything from wild animals to a scripture-quoting Satan."

We shouldn't worry if we feel lost. We just need to remember that someone is looking for us.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Walking on the Earth

Another of Barbara Brown Taylor's chapters in An Altar in the World is based on 'the practice of walking on the earth' - summarised as groundedness.

It is something that most of us do - and here is the challenge to do it in a more aware, more reflective, more taking account of the presence of God way -

"Not everyone is able to walk, but most people can, which makes walking one of the most easily available spiritual practices of all.  All it takes is the decision to walk with some awareness, both of who you are and what you are doing.  Where you are going is not as important,  however counterintuitive that may seem.  To detach the walking from the destination is in fact one of the best ways to recognise the altars you are passing right by all the time.  Most of us spend so much time thinking about where we have been or where we are supposed to be going that we have a hard time recognising where we actually are.  When someone asks us where we want to be in our lives, the last thing that occurs to us is to look down at our feet and say, "Here, I guess, since this is where I am."

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Waking Up to God

I have just finished reading Barbara Brown Taylor's An Altar in the World which contains lots of useful insights as she seeks to develop an everyday spirituality that is rooted in the ordinary world. She identifies twelve different 'practices', each helping us to see and experience God in the world around us.

The first chapter talks of 'the practice of waking up to God' and takes the theme of vision. Taylor points out that we are likely to find God wherever we find ourselves and that we certainly experience God in unexpected places and unexpected ways.

We don't always find God where we expect. "People encounter God under shady oak trees, on riverbanks, at the tops of mountains, and in long stretches of barren wilderness. God shows up in whirlwinds, starry skies, burning bushes, and perfect strangers. When people want to know more about God, the son of God tells them to pay attention to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, to women kneading bread and workers lining up for their pay.". " People can learn as much about the ways of God from business deals gone bad or sparrows falling to the ground as they can from reciting the books of the Bible in order."

How encouraging to note that God engages with us where we are. May we indeed wake up to that fact!

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Failure or Change??

There can be no doubt that things are changing in the mainline Christian denominations in the UK, though that is nothing new. Talk of declining and ageing memberships has been around for over a century. However, there is a reasonable case to be made that things are getting to a critical place in many congregations.

It is also true that there are many new and exciting things happening. Words like missional, pioneer, fresh expressions and emerging are increasingly common in our conversation. So one of the questions to be confronted is as to how we should see things. As Steven Croft, "Jesus' People - What the Church Should Do Next?", published seven years ago now but still relevant - "As I have travelled the country over the last five years listening to how people read this changing situation, I have found two very different accounts being presented to me again and again of where we are and how we arrived. One focuses on failure and the other on change. I have come to the conclusion that the first is deeply flawed and the second much more hopeful."

I agree; but what that means is that we need to change.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

The Way of St Francis

One of the interesting little books that I have read recently is Murray Bodo's "The Way of St Francis" with its useful reminder that God doesn't expect us to do it all.

I particularly liked this passage: "How different is the thinking of Francis from those of us who fret about what is to be done to build up the Kingdom of God, as if we are the ones to bring about God's Kingdom on earth. For Francis it is sufficient to be poor out of love for the Poor Christ. The Kingdom is made present when God takes up his dwelling among us; and, as Francis reads the Gospel, God takes up his dwelling only when we are poor in spirit.  It is not what we do that brings about the Kingdom, but what we embrace that God might dwell among us."

What a useful reminder of the fact that we need to look to God. Trying to do it all ourselves just won't work anyway!

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Being Prodigals

One of the great messages is that God welcomes us just as we are. We need to remember that we want to welcome people into our church - so long as they conform to our ways and expectations. Nowhere is this better explained than in that wonderful parable which we most often name as that of the Prodigal Son.

Brian Pierce explores this in his book "Jesus and the Prodigal Son: the God of Radical Mercy". He reminds us that "Words like grace, mercy, and unconditional love are not easily understood in a world where revenge is revered almost as a “human right.”"

We need to take seriously that God engages with those whom we would prefer to reject and whom we we would readily dismiss as lost. The great thing, of course, is that we don't have to reach a particular standard. God's loving call is there for us even though we are - and we need to remember this - prodigals. As Pierce says: "The wonderful and utterly unexpected surprise, of course, is that he welcomes us with all of our bumps and bruises. The narrow door, open to all, is nothing less than the beginning of a great and never-ending adventure of love. Jesus upsets the sacred status quo, of course, by choosing table friendship as a way of welcoming and rehabilitating sinners. In his new Way there is no “entrance exam” for joining the community, for taking a seat at the table; one need only be willing to take a step in the direction of grace, that is, enter though the narrow, open door."

How do we play that out in our church engagement with our community? How do we ensure that our welcome is what it should be?

Friday, 18 November 2016

A Global Perspective

We live in interesting times. It used to be that there were relatively few major political surprises. The pollsters did their work and we knew what was going to happen before it happened. Things are different now. The pollsters have become unreliable - and the predictions of Britain voting to stay in the EU and Hilary Clinton being elected as the next US President have not come to pass - and we live in a rather unexpected world of Brexit and soon-to-be President Trump.

Miroslav Volf, in his book Flourishing, reminds us of our inter-dependence and the impact of globalisation on how we relate to each other. Volf reminds us of the importance of reconciliation and how that needs to be part of our encounters. He warns of the ease of saying the right things as compared to the difficulty of practice - "Reconciliation has five basic elements. We can simplify them to five injunctions - remember, forgive, apologise, repair, and embrace - each easy to formulate but complicated to understand fully and difficult to practise.

How do we model this in our churches?

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Extreme Do-Gooding

I have been reading Larissa MacFarquhar’s Strangers Drowning, sub-titled Voyages to the Brink of Moral Extremity. It is a fascinating exploration of what might be called ‘extreme do-going’. It offers the stories a number of people who go to extraordinary lengths to help others. There are a couple who can’t stop adopting unwanted children, a Buddhist monk who spends all his time helping those, often suicidal, at the extremes of life, those who just try to make as much money as possible so that they can maximise what they give away.  And so on.

I suppose it is like the parable that Jesus told about a Samaritan. We tend to refer to that story as that of the ‘good’ Samaritan – though Jesus himself did not use that adjective. Here are some stories of some ‘very good’ Samaritans.

Is this the way to go? Is this a book telling us that most of us are not doing nearly enough? Though I was left gasping with admiration at what a few folk manage to do, I was not convinced that we either can, or should, try and roll out such a programme. It is difficult to criticise those who do these things, and it is true that we often don’t do as much as we should. I am sure that God often wants to challenge us to do more – but I am not sure that we need to go to the extremes. The problem is that we are often walking by on the other side – and that is not the role of the church.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Theology of Journey

The concept of a journey is one of the most frequently used metaphors for life within Christian commentary. It is a helpful idea. We are on the move, and remaining static is not an option. However, neither is it the case that all our journeying is a case of making consistently good progress. Sometimes it is a bit like being “parked” on the M25, or turning round, having made the mistake of coming up a cul-de-sac.

I have been reading Alan Jamieson’s “A Churchless Faith” in which he explores the surprisingly common phenomenon of those who leave the (institutional) church, but retain a strong faith. At one level, it would seem to make sense to claim that being a follower of Jesus ought to include participating in his visible church on earth. For very many – the majority – of course, it does. But what of those for whom church no longer remains relevant and contributing to their spiritual growth?

As a minister of the church, I clearly want people to be part of it, and I think there is a lot to be gained. However, there is plenty of evidence that leaving the church need not equal leaving faith, and we need to allow for that and recognise that engagement with God can come in different ways.  As Jamieson says: “People seriously thinking about leaving the church need to know that for many Christians part of the faith journey is travelled in small yachts rather than big cruise ships. This means that getting off to go sailing is OK. That in leaving and setting out to sail in a smaller craft they are not mad or bad but simply following a well-worn path to maturity of faith. After all, even Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness (Luke 4.1).” (p. 130).

Jamieson suggests, and I agree, that we would do well to develop a better theology of the (Christian) journey, recognising and engaging with its variety. If we consider some of the literal journeys recorded in the Bible, we discover good examples of how greatly a journey can be a struggle. Abraham and Paul both provide us with an indication of how difficult the travelling can be at times. As Jamieson says: “Encouraging people to talk about the difficulties and struggles of their Christian journey, even when there is no happy ending, lets people see the wall experience in other’s lives and what they gain from it.” (p. 147).


Of course, we want people to be part of the church, but if we help them to leave well, when they need to do that, I wonder if it is more likely that one day they will find their way back?

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Year of Books

As 2017 is a big year for the reformed tradition, I wondered what I could do to mark it and came up with the thought of inviting any who wish to join me in a virtual book club that would span 2017.

Some of you will be in real time book clubs and reading groups and I don’t want to get in the way of that.  But I was inspired by the fact that in 2015 Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, wanted to stress the value of books alongside social media and so set up a virtual 'reading group'. The challenge was to read a book every two weeks, and a new title was announced approximately fortnightly. In the end the list included 23 books. I decided to join in with this and found myself reading some fascinating books that I would otherwise never have discovered. The vast majority were non-fiction. Inevitably I was more interested in some than in others. At least one I abandoned, others are still pending, but I read at least three quarters of the suggested books. 

So I thought I would share some of the books I will be reading over the next twelve months or so, in the same way that Mark Zuckerberg did, and perhaps challenge myself to read a few that I might not have without this methodology. None will be too long or too expensive - and, if you are looking for academic reading, this is probably the wrong place for suggestions.  If you want to join in, you will find me blogging about this at http://easternsynodyob.blogspot.com/

Feel free to add comments.  I am starting early, so this month, and will run through to January 2018, so will suggest 16 in all.  At the moment, I only know the first for sure, though I do know the likely second and third.  The first is Rowan Williams’ recent book “Being Disciples”.  I have only read the first chapter so far – but it is shaping up to be a great read about discipleship – and whether you read one of the books, all 16, or none, let us encourage in the discipleship to which Jesus calls us as he says to us, as to the twelve of old, and others, follow me!

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Waiting

Isaiah 40 verse 31 – but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. Waiting. What does that idea conjure up for you? Is it just hanging about and waiting? It is bored waiting? Is it waiting with eager anticipation? These days waiting is not very popular. We live in a time of instant everything. We don’t want to wait. Our mantra is rather – let’s go; let’s get on with it!

People don’t want to wait. They are fearful of waiting. But perhaps the problem is that much of our waiting is filled with wishes. I wish things would get better. I wish this were different. I wish that could be resolved. The spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, (in "The Path of Waiting") reminds us of the importance of letting go of our wishes – and so to just, in the words of Isaiah, wait for the Lord.  

Nouwen suggests that we often make our waiting “a way of controlling the future.” He says: “We want the future to go in a very specific direction, and if this does not happen we are disappointed and can even slip into despair. That is why we have such a hard time waiting; we want to do the things that will make the desired events take place.” He adds (and challenges): “To wait open-endedly is an enormously radical attitude towards life. It is trusting that something will happen to us that is far beyond our imaginings. It is giving up control over our future and letting God define our life. It is living with the conviction that God moulds us according to God’s love and not according to our fear.”

The parable of the yeast helps us to get it reminding us that, like the yeast: “God is at work, even though human eyes may fail to perceive what is happening.” (Douglas Hare)

Friday, 7 October 2016

A Minister's Minutes

I have just been reading Bernard Thorogood's "A Minister's Minutes", a wonderful and personal account of a long and effective ministry. I was fascinated to journey across the world as Bernard shared some of his adventures in ministry and offered some very interesting reflections on the challenges and opportunities that the church has faced.

Like Bernard I studied at Glasgow University and then at the Scottish Congregational College when it was in Edinburgh, though in both cases the actual locations will have been different, as will our experiences in many other ways. However, a first ministry in Polynesia (him) certainly beats Ayrshire (me), (though I did have a spell in Panama a little later.) However, perhaps because of those small points of comparison, I found myself thinking of the challenges of ministry and the way in which God calls the right people at the right time - a point that comes through strongly in Bernard's account of his call back to the UK to be the General Secretary of the London Missionary Society (LMS) which, under his leadership re-structured into the Council for World Mission (CWM), and his subsequent call to be General Secretary of the United Reformed Church.

To me these "Minutes" show that life is not always easy, that ministry is fulfilling, though sometimes challenging, and that God is always with us.

As he says in his "God-Botherer's Prayer", with which the book ends: "Did you tick any of my pages, Lord? I know I won't get first class honours but could you say that I have just scraped through?"

And God says: "My child, you are always with me, come in and join the feast."

Thursday, 6 October 2016

From Top Mountain

I have recently finished reading Joe Aldred's From Top Mountain in which he offers a fascinating account of his life date. Born in rural Jamaica (at Top Mountain) Joe came to England as a teenager. His life to and through the church has made major links between black and white within the British churches and includes many points of encouragement as to what is possible. At a fairly young age he became a Bishop in the Church of God of Prophesy and has followed an interesting route since then including the Centre for Black and White Partnership in Selly Oak, Birmingham, ministry at Cannon Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, and a long and continuing role at Churches Together in England.

I first met Joe in the nineties when he tutored me for the first part of my Masters studies through Sheffield's Urban Theology Unit.  Since then we have met infrequently but regularly and I have always been inspired by my encounters with Joe - even though he persuaded me to talk about my perspectives on Pentecostals at a recent forum of Churches Together in England.

His stories encourages anyone who reads it to see something of the possibilities of life with God.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Encouragement from Nehemiah

Nehemiah 8, verse 10 – Now go home and have a feast.  Share your food and wine with those who haven’t enough.  Today is holy to our Lord, so don’t be sad.  The joy that the Lord gives you will make you strong

Nehemiah had been through a difficult time.  Prior to this chapter there is an account of the trials and tribulations that he faced as he took on the task of getting the broken down city walls rebuilt.  His vision was to restore Jerusalem to its proper place and he put a great deal of energy into making that happen.  He did so despite the fact that, as he advanced this project, he met a fair amount of opposition.  Externally there was opposition from the Samaritans and from within Jerusalem Tobiah and Sanballat had plotted to kill him.  But now, the walls have been completed, the gates have been hung, officials have been appointed, life is settling down.  The law has been read to the people by Ezra – and now Nehemiah calls them to a time of celebration.  The joy that the Lord gives you will make you strong. 

I want to draw four things from this particular verse, verse 10 of Nehemiah 8.  I think there are things to learn as we think of Nehemiah and his contemporaries.

First of all, we and the people are told to have a feast.  They are told to go home and have a feast – but I don’t think the location is the important thing.  What is important is the feasting.  A feast is a celebration.  I really think that we are not as good as we should be at celebrating.  Too often church seems dull and boring.  We ought to be asking ourselves why that is.  Anything with God at the centre ought to be exuding joy and celebration.  Of course, I know, as you do, that things can be a struggle, that we face all sorts of challenges.  But when that’s how it feels, when things are getting you down, when everything seems a struggle, remember this: God is with you.  That’s not going to get rid of all the difficulties, but it should make you see things differently.  Let’s do a bit more celebrating, feasting – even if the feasting is just a cup of coffee with someone else.

That brings me nicely to the second point – share your food and wine with those who haven’t enough.  Sometimes we are really good at sharing, and sometimes we are so selfish, and just want to keep things to ourselves.  Let’s give sharing the priority that it should have.  That is surely a critical part of our mission.  We need to share with the desperately poor in other parts of the world – and we can do that through our support of the likes of Christian Aid.  We need to share with those whom we encounter.  Who is it that we would cross the street to avoid?  Now, it might be right, sometimes, to do just that – but, I suspect, not very often.  How, too, do we share with each other as we should.  What is it that the song says: ‘and they will know we are Christians by our love.’  Is that how we live?  Putting it another way – somebody once said, ‘If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?’  Now, there’s a thought!

Third, this verse also says: today is holy to our Lord, so don’t be sad.  I would certainly encourage you not to be sad.  But let’s concentrate on the holy bit.  What are the things that you see as holy?  And what difference do they make to your life?  A holy thing, whatever it is, is a thing linked to God.  In what ways does God touch your life?  And what difference does it make?  That’s another big thought, another big question.


So the fourth thing from this verse takes us back to the point that we have already mentioned – the joy that the Lord gives you will make you strong.  I sometimes say that, out of that wonderful list of the fruits of the Spirit that Paul gives us in Galatians 5:22, the one that I most need, the one that I most tend to be lacking is patience.  I think that’s true but, if there is close-run second, it is probably joy.  Am I bubbling over with the joy of God – because if not, why not?  This joy is so excessive that it just spills over.  It is infectious, overwhelming – and it is part of the presence of God.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Speaking Out


“In her first speech as Prime Minister, Theresa May acknowledged that our nation is currently experiencing a “time of great national change”, but that in the midst of that we are called to be a country that works for every one of us, whoever we are and wherever we are from. It is natural to be anxious about the change that lies before us, but as church leaders in Cambridgeshire we commit ourselves and call on our churches not to look inwards or to our own needs, but to draw on the Spirit of our generous self-giving God to reach ever outwards to our whole community for our common good. This will bring different challenges in our different places, but the way to the better future we all long for is to be found in the heart of each one of us, as we seek to live out the Gospel call to love our neighbours as ourselves.”

Statement issued yesterday, Thursday 21st July, by Bishops Stephen Conway and David Thomson (Church of England) and the Revds Simon Goddard (Baptist), Julian Pursehouse (Methodist) and Paul Whittle (United Reformed Church) on behalf of the Church Leaders Group of Churches Together in Cambridgeshire.