Sunday, 31 December 2017


One of the interesting facets of our recent visit to Zimbabwe was going to Chinhoyi which I have only visited once before, back in 2010. Chinhoyi is about two hours’ drive from Harare and we went there having come from Bulawayo, on to Gweru, and then to Chinhoyi, where we stayed overnight prior to continuing to Harare.

The main purpose was to visit Lomagundi Uniting Presbyterian Church and see something of the excellent work that is undertaken by the clinic that is based there. This is an extremely good initiative that has now been in place for a significant number of years. It is a great example of the church engaged in practical action and popular in the local community because of the low charges.
It was also good to meet a number of folk from the church and hear something of their life and mission. One of their issues is the number of young people that they attract.

Alongside that, we visited the famous Chinhoyi caves – and were impressed by the interesting geological formations.

Saturday, 30 December 2017


Makokoba Church
I really enjoyed spending the first few days of my recent visit to Zimbabwe in Bulawayo. It was a long bus ride from Harare – about six hours – but good to be back in that part of the country.

On the Sunday I preached at Makokoba where my friend, Paul Neshangwe, is minister. It was a great service, with lots of good and lively music, and the well directed choir providing good musical leadership. It is so good to go to a completely different context, and yet still feel the strength of the Gospel.

Clearly their society has many challenges, as does ours, but that congregation is certainly approaching things with a vibrant faith. I was pleased to emphasise the importance of doing what God calls us to, whether it be large or small.

At Vimbridge
The following day we visited the developing agricultural project at Vimbridge. This is a new initiative, making use of a significant area of land owned by the church. A ‘greenhouse’ has been established where cucumbers and tomatoes are grown and they are beginning to cultivate parcels of land in order to grow corn. One area has been set aside for the building of a centre by the women of the denomination, and they have already erected a block of toilets and so were able to bring tents for a recent conference.
Growing tomatoes in the greenhouse

One interesting aspect is that part of the land had been ‘squatted’ by a number of families and so the church have decided that, rather than evict these illegal residents, they will attempt to work with them, inviting them to be partners in the developing agricultural project.

Being in Bulawayo was a good reminder of a faith expressed in vibrant worship, but also in practical action.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Holy Habits

Can you imagine being in the temple with Isaiah? What on earth was going on? I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. And then there are the seraphs calling to one another – Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty: the whole earth is full of his glory. There is what one commentator calls an “overwhelming sense of God’s holiness”. I rather like being overwhelmed by God’s holiness. I am inclined to consider it a very good thing.

In contrast, or so it seems, four fishermen wandering on the beach beside the lake encounter Jesus and he invites them, challenges them, encourages them – come, follow me. It seemed such an ordinary meeting, and yet it changed their lives for ever. I like it that God changes our lives for ever.

We are called to ministry, all of us. We are called to do all sorts of special things. We are called to be disciples. There is a lot talk these days about missional discipleship. That’s fine. It’s what we need to be doing. The only problem that I have with folk talking about missional discipleship is that I am not sure what other kind there is. If we are going to be disciples in any serious sense, how can we be other than missional? It should be in our DNA. We are called to proclaim the good news in action and in word. That’s being a disciple. That’s being a missional disciple. So, as we think about being called to ministry, being called to discipleship, we should think about what it means to be the church here and now, about what exactly it is that we are called to do.

Of course there are many different ways in which we could approach describing how to do that to which God calls us. One of the expressions that is being used in the United Reformed Church at the moment is to talk about developing holy habits. I like that idea. I think that it has got to be good for us to develop holy habits – and I think that if we do we will get it right so far as our calling to be God’s light in our community is concerned. The URC is using a list of ten holy habits. It is a good list, with good habits, but I am going to offer you an alternative list. It is not that it is a better list. It is just that it is a different list – and, in a few places, I really like the way it puts things. And it is a shorter list. There are only five on this list, but five habits that, I think, help us to respond in the same way as Isaiah did – here am I. Send me. Five habits that help us to heed those words with which Jesus challenged those who became the first disciples – follow me. 

The list is drawn from a book entitled “Surprise The World” by Michael Frost. Here are five behaviours, five things we can do, five things everybody can do. Some of them will perhaps push us a bit, but then what’s wrong with that? But none of them are difficult. Here’s stuff we can do, that we can challenge others to do, that will make a difference, at least I think it will. 

The first holy habit that Frost suggests is to BLESS. He writes: “The first habit I want you to consider embracing is that of blessing others.  In fact, I’d like you to bless three people each week – at least one of whom is a member of your church and at least one of whom is not.  The third can be from either category.” It all seems so simple, and yet couldn’t it make such a difference if we could motivate ourselves to adopt this suggestion? We are so good at identifying what is wrong with people. Here’s the challenge to celebrate what’s good, to encourage others, and, in so doing, share the love of Christ. What might it mean? Frost suggests that blessing another normally falls into one of three categories. In the first place you might say something to encourage the person you are blessing – what Frost calls ‘words of affirmation’ – send a card, an email, a note, text them. A second choice could be an act of kindness – cutting an old lady’s lawn, babysitting for an exhausted couple – doing a favour, offering some practical support. The third choice is to give a gift, just a little something to show someone they are appreciated. And we are not talking about birthdays or Christmas here. This is random gift-giving. A bunch of flowers is the most obvious. It might be a bottle of wine. Something to cheer up the recipient. So there is the first holy habit – to bless someone you encounter.

The second of Frost’s holy habits is to EAT. This isn’t, of course, about going and grabbing a bite to eat. What Frost says is: “If you eat with others, you’ll develop a greater capacity for hospitality.” He explains what he is getting at like this: “I want you to foster the habit of eating with three people every week. But I want you to know that this isn’t merely good missional strategy.  It is a way to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.  ….  It’s always interested me that the one thing Jesus actually told us to do every time we meet together was to eat” adding, “It’s not lost on me that his detractors regularly accused him of being a drunkard and a glutton.” I think I want to say a couple of things about this one. The first is that we might see it as saying something about church lunches or other meals together. We know all about lunch clubs for the elderly. Messy church has now introduced a new dimension to church meals. But what about just going out as a group sometimes. They started doing that at one of the churches I served in Birmingham. They just put up a sign-up sheet and a number of people would go out to one of the local pubs once in a while. My only complaint is that they only started it after I left. The second thing to say is that, if we are encouraging people to offer hospitality, and it seems that three a week is too many, and it probably is, then think a little lower. One a month would be good – and realistic. And remember, as Frost says, “The table ought to be the primary symbol of the Christian gathering.  It represents hospitality, inclusivity, generosity, and grace.” So that’s eating.

The third holy habit in Frost’s list is to LISTEN. This is primarily about listening to God, though it is perhaps worth throwing in a comment about the value of listening to other people. Frost says: “The third habit I want you to foster is that of listening for the Spirit’s voice. I suggest you find one chunk of time, preferably at the beginning of each week, to stop and create space to commune with God.” We need to listen for the voice of God. Here, surely, is something about prayer. I do think it is something that most of us too easily neglect. Frost says this: “When it comes to lifting or opening the heart to God the Holy Spirit, most people tend to do all of the talking and do not allow time for a reply. We have to learn how to listen.” I could, of course, go on and say a lot about prayer, but simply want to emphasise the importance of finding a way and a time to listen to God. It is crucial. It is the one holy habit that is going to be included in every list.

The fourth in Frost’s list of holy habits is to LEARN. Frost talks about being ‘immersed’ in the Gospels.  He says this: “The expression “to learn Christ” was a common one among the earliest Christians, but it’s not a phrase we use much these days. In the early centuries of the Christian movement, conversion involved denying the pagan gods and entering a period of catechism, committing oneself to an intensive study of the person and work of Jesus. We would do well to institute a habitual study of the Gospels.” There is no doubt that learning, Bible study, is a key holy habit. Bible study can be really exciting, learning about Jesus, learning ‘with’ Jesus can be really exciting – but too many don’t see it like that. What can, should, we be doing to promote this fourth holy habit of learning? If we are concerned with following Jesus, and that surely is the simplest and best way of defining discipleship, then we must get people to engage with Jesus, the Jesus of the Gospels, as well as the Jesus of today. As Frost puts it: “If I’m calling people to live an incarnational life, I’m asking them to pattern their lives on the Incarnation (with a capital I).  How are we to do that – unless we become avid students of the life, work, and teaching of Jesus?”

Then the fifth of Frost’s holy habits is SENT. I suppose we really need to say ‘being sent’. He comments: “you’ll increasingly see yourself as a sent one, or a missionary in your own neighbourhood.” At one level this appears to be stating the obvious, and yet it so crucial, and actually so difficult. We often think that we can’t do evangelism. Yet we can. It’s just a case of encountering people in Jesus’ Name. That is, in part, why I so like the first two of the holy habits that Michael Frost identifies. In the end it is quite simple. We don’t need elaborate programmes. We don’t need specialist skills. If we could just get folk blessing a few people, and eating with a few people, I think we would, very quickly, find lots of evangelism going on. We need to allow ourselves to be sent, and we need to encourage others in that direction also. That’s discipleship. That’s ministry. That’s mission. That’s a church.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Holy Habits in Lusaka

While in Lusaka as the guest of the United Church of Zambia, I was invited to speak at devotions at the Synod Office on the Thursday (7th Dec). It was good to be part of the office staff’s start to the day in that way. As the United Reformed Church in the UK is in the process of initiating a renewed emphasis on discipleship under the title ‘Walking the Way – living the life of Jesus today’, I took the opportunity to say something about that.

In particular, I spoke of the idea, very much part of the programme, of encouraging folk in the churches to develop a series of holy habits, using these as a means of focussed defining of discipleship – though I did depart from the ‘official’ list of ten, drawn from Acts 2.

Instead, mainly because I prefer a briefer list, I identified five ‘holy habits’ which I commended as a good way in to committed discipleship. The first was to ‘bless’ – to do something small as a means of encouraging someone; to ‘offer hospitality/be generous’; to ‘listen’, both to God, and to those we encounter in all sorts of circumstances; to engage in ‘prayer and Bible study’, ensuring these have sufficient priority in our lives; and to ‘celebrate’, giving the note of joy an appropriate place in our lives.

Having shared these thoughts at the Synod Office, I was then invited to go to the radio station run by the United Church of Zambia to be interviewed on what I had shared in devotions. It was an unexpected and enjoyable opportunity to share some of our emerging thinking on holy habits.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Mwenzo and Nakonde

Mwenzo Girls' Boarding School
Recently I had the opportunity to spend a great week in Zambia, my first visit to that country. Arrival in Lusaka was followed by a very long drive - about 15 hours on the road - to Mwenzo, which is very close to Nakonde which sits on the border with Tanzania. I went to visit a mission partner from the United Reformed Church who serves as headteacher of the United Church of Zambia's boarding school for girls at Mwenzo. It is a good school, doing very well on its results and working, as do all schools in southern Africa, with significantly limited resources.

On the Sunday (December 3) I went to a united service at Nakonde. We were there to honour the
Worshipping at Nakonde
With the Bishop and his wife,
also an ordained minister 
Presbytery Bishop, who is due to retire in a year, as well as celebrate the first Sunday of Advent. Lively singing was accompanied by a bit of dancing and a powerful sermon challenged the congregation who gathered in the grounds, as the building would not have been big enough, though under awnings as protection from the hot sun. Some five choirs all made their contribution and I was able to bring greetings from the United
Reformed Church. The service, which lasted about three hours, offered me a good reminder of the celebratory nature of African worship, something I think we need to capture.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Hilda of Whitby

Hilda of Whitby was clearly a strong character, as is evidenced from reading Ray Simpson’s book, Hilda of Whitby. She made a big impact. As Simpson comments, “More important than Hilda’s great energy and ability, however, was her management style of love.”

She was born in 614AD and died in 680AD. She became Abbess of Hartlepool Abbey before moving to Whitby to found the new abbey there in 657. This was a double abbey for both monks and nuns and Hilda’s position of leadership is an indicator of her abilities and the respect in which she was held. She also played an important role in the Synod of Whitby in 664, one of the great meetings of the Christian church in the British Isles.

Simpson suggests three key characteristics which demonstrate what Hilda was like and how she provided a helpful example:

-       Having a big enough heart without being anyone’s fool.
-       Enabling much to come to birth, without allowing that which has already come to birth to die out through lack of a secure, affirming framework in which to grow.
-       Maintaining consistency; standing with the marginalised without losing our own identity.

There is clearly a great deal to gain from reflecting on Hilda’s example.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

To Be A Pilgrim

I really enjoyed Charles Foster’s The Sacred Journey. It is part of a series exploring ancient Christian practices and how they can contribute to spirituality today. Foster is dealing with the practice of pilgrimage and, for me, does so in an engaging and innovative way.

He stresses that being on the move is inevitably part of who we are and he is not averse to learning from other pilgrims, including those of other faiths. I was impressed by his open approach which seems to me to be reflective of Jesus. I also agree that pilgrimage needs to be part of what we do, even though it may well not involve a literal and physical long walk.

Foster recognises that there are some who can’t walk, and the pain that produces, but he sees walking as, normally speaking, part of being human and contributory to how we deal with all sorts of things. “Humans have never forgotten that they were designed as walkers. When things go wrong, they go for a walk, and … that seems to make things better. When they want to feel what it is like to be a human being (instead of a lawyer, an academic, or an acronym), they lace up their boots. When they want to feel even more human, they take off their boots and walk barefoot.”

I was reminded, as I read that, of the five weeks I spent on the Valiente peninsula among the Guyami indigenous people, when ministerining in Panama, shortly before returning to the UK in 1994. For the most part, they went barefoot – and so did I, for some of the time. One of the things I failed to learn was the skill of barefoot. They never seemed to end with messy feet, no matter what the surface, but I certainly did, more than once. Somehow it seems wrong to think of pilgrimage as needing a skillset, but maybe that is not so. What are the skills needed by God’s pilgrims?

Foster also talks about the different ways in which we identify ourselves as God’s people and how sometimes it is not easy to find a good term. So, he asks: “how about “Jesus Wanderer”? or “Jesus Follower”? adding that he thinks God would approve of the concept – because “he, being God, is bound to be moving. He can’t keep still. And he has an alarmingly clear preference for people who can’t keep still.”

Life is, indeed, a journey; and Foster is clear, as I am, that it is the journey that is important. Arrival somehow is not part of what we are about on this journey. There is always somewhere else to go, something more to do. “Everything moves. We move too. Either willingly or unwillingly. Go willingly, and the business is redemptive and joyful. Go unwillingly, and the stream will dash and drown you.”

And then, I like this as a call to discipleship – “The Buddha’s last words to his disciples were, “Walk on.” The first words of Jesus to his were rather different: “Follow me.” Jesus said some other things, too, but as a summary of the four gospels, “Let’s go for a walk together” is not bad.”

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Creating A Life With God

I have been reading Daniel Wolpert’s book Creating a Life with God or, to give its full title – ‘Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices.

Wolpert reminds us that God is present in all that we do, but that sometimes we need to take the trouble to listen for what God is saying to us – ‘we must allow space in the busy world we have created.’

He suggests that one way in which this can happen is by allowing God to speak to us as we spend time with his Word, the Bible. He reminds us of the Benedictine practice  by which ‘Benedict wanted the monks to ruminate on – literally to “chew” or “digest” – the Word of God, much as a cow would chew its cud.’ Wolpert recognises our tendency to always be seeking right and wrong answers, but contrasts this with how we need to relate to God – ‘we come to the realisation that we know nothing of God; we must simply surrender and wait for God to know us.’

Wolpert talks of how we change across time and need to recognise that we are on a journey. However, God is always there for us, sustaining us in the way we need for the moment. What we need to remember is to allow God God’s place in things. ‘The hallmark of all our prayer practices is that in some manner they put us at God’s disposal. God is in charge, not us. We are there to listen and to notice God’s presence; we are not there to have God do our bidding.’

Friday, 21 July 2017

The Tough Life of a Prophet (1 Kings 19:1-8)

Elijah discovered that life was tough as a prophet. He ended up with tasks that he would have preferred to avoid, some of which brought him enemies. One of those powerful enemies was Queen Jezebel. He really wanted nothing to do with her, but it was not a question of mutual avoidance. She wanted to do away with him.

Elijah had had enough. He was ready for the easy life. He just did not want to be involved any more. It was time to try and move on to easier things, and he thought that some time out, a retreat in the desert, might be a step in the right direction. (Sometimes we need to explore what needs to come next.)

He left his servant at Beer-sheba because there are some things that you just need to do on your own. He was afraid, trying to escape whatever might happen. (There is nothing wrong with being afraid – just don’t let it overpower you.)

Elijah, in all honesty, is about to give up. He can’t see any future. He just wants to be rid of this prophetic ministry. But God has other ideas. Elijah found a place to rest under a solitary broom tree. He did not want to undertake any further ministry. He is tired – and he falls asleep.

But God is not yet finished with Elijah. (Sometimes we think that we have done all that we can, and it is time to stop. That might be so, but it might be that God has other ideas.) Elijah is ready to give up – only an angel touched him. The angel has provided cake and water, something to eat and drink, and Elijah partakes – but then goes back to sleep. Elijah, despite this very special provision, is still not ready to move on.

But God is still not finished with Elijah. I find it interesting how often God is persistent in calling those who try to evade a particular task that is placed before them. I find that in the Bible, and I rather suspect it remains true today. The angel touches him a second time and provides more sustenance. It is true that we need God’s refreshment and that, without it, the journey will be too much for us as our strength fails. However, it is also true that God’s provision is pretty amazing. In this particular case it sustained Elijah for forty days and forty nights. It must have been some meal!

So, nourished, Elijah goes to Horeb, the mount of God. Elijah’s needs are met. His strength is renewed. Despite his reluctance, he ends up where God wants him to be.

That, perhaps, leaves a couple of questions. How is God sustaining me at the moment (and am I accepting that sustenance)? And where, for now, is Mount Horeb for me?

Thursday, 20 July 2017

A Disciple's Story (Matthew 26:6-13)

He was always being invited out for dinner, never short of an invitation. There was always someone who wanted to talk to him, to ask him questions, to try and get his opinion, and a meal was a good opportunity for conversation. I did wonder why he accepted some of the invitations. Personally, I would have avoided some of his dinner companions, but we always tagged along. We wanted to see what he was up to, and we came as a sort of package, Jesus and his disciples. None of the hosts seemed to mind that.

Simon had a nice house, and it was good food, but I was never quite sure why he would go to the home of a leper. It always seemed risky. But the conversation flowed, and so did the wine. Simon and his friends had lots of questions. They seemed to be really interested in what Jesus was saying.

Then it happened. How embarrassing! How annoying! Simon did not seem to bother who wandered into his courtyard, or who listened in to the conversation. But this woman did not just stay on the fringe, listening in, like other passers-by. She walked straight up to Jesus. He was carrying a jar of perfume which she broke up. I have to admit that it was expensive stuff. You could tell that immediately from the aroma that spread across the air. It smelt lovely – but how inappropriate. How could she gate-crash the party and draw such attention to herself?

What a waste! I was so annoyed. We could have done so much with that money. It would have kept a foodbank going for a month. It was all used in a moment, and it could have done so much.

But Jesus commended the woman. He said that she had done something really special. He said that she would always be remembered for what she had done.

So maybe, just maybe, there are some things that I need to learn from that woman (and even from Simon). What are the questions I need to be asking? How can I be more hospitable? What do I need to see or do differently? What costly thing do I need to do for/give to God? What good service should I be performing for God – and for others? What preparations do I need to be undertaking – and for what? What do I want to be remembered for? What will I be remembered for?

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

After Breakfast (John 21:15-19)

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ (John 21:15).

How do I respond when Jesus asks me a question to which I think the answer ought to be obvious?

The story of the ‘breakfast on the shore’ (John 21:1-14) is one of my favourites. It’s such a lovely scene. There, on the beach beside Lake Galilee, Jesus and this group of disciples share a breakfast of barbecued fish and – somehow I think, freshly baked – bread. It has been a frustrating night – but that has suddenly all been turned round. The fishing expedition was fruitless until, just before they landed, Jesus (though they didn’t know it was him at the time) tells them to have one last cast. Fish galore. They haul them aboard and then Simon, ahead of the rest, realises. It is Jesus, the risen Jesus. He jumps over the side and wades ashore to greet his Lord.

The catch is landed. Excited greetings take place. Breakfast is shared. The disciples hardly dare to believe that this is happening.

Then, this semi-private chat between Jesus and Simon takes place. If it were you or me in Simon’s place, I wonder what Jesus would be saying to us. I wonder what questions Jesus would be asking us. I wonder what challenges Jesus would be placing before us.

And then again, I wonder how we would respond. I wonder what we would be thinking. I wonder what we would feel. I wonder if we would mind if Jesus asked us the same question three times. I wonder if, like Simon, we would feel that Jesus’ questioning was superfluous. Lord, you know everything. I wonder if we would be willing to listen for what Jesus was telling us to do. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.

I wonder if we would notice that the crunch comes in the last two words: follow me

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Cleopas' Story (Luke 24:13-35)

We were almost inconsolable. It had all gone horribly wrong. The dream was over. We had thought he was the one. We had thought things were going to change. We were expecting some kind of revolution, the end of Roman rule, God’s Kingdom ushered in. But it was not to be. The unthinkable had happened.

We were going home, weary, angry, frustrated, devastated. There was only one thing we could think about – what might have been and what, now, was not going to be. It felt a very long seven miles, that walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus. There was only one thing we could talk about. We remembered things that he had done and said. We recalled bits of teaching, great sayings he had uttered. We talked about stories he had told. The shepherd who had risked his ninety nine sheep by going off to look for the one that had wandered away. The Samaritan who had helped a man who had been mugged – Samaritans didn’t usually behave like that. The party-giver who sent his servants out inviting all and sundry because his friends all made excuses. We remembered people he had healed, other special moments, things that happened that we will never forget.

We were so busy talking – in amidst the tears – that we didn’t notice that somebody was catching up with us. ‘What are you talking about?’ There was only one thing on our minds. We couldn’t believe that he didn’t know. So, we started to tell some of the stories again. He joined in the conversation, explaining certain things in ways that we hadn’t seen them. We were so busy talking. It was so interesting.

We told him about the rumours that were beginning. Some of the women had seen a vision of angels and were now saying that he is alive. Crazy – but there you have it. We didn’t want any false hopes like that.

Before we knew it, we were home. The journey had suddenly seemed to speed up. It was late. It was dark. In any case, we wanted to continue the extremely interesting conversation. We invited him to stay with us. It was too late to continue a journey until tomorrow.

We all went into the house and we got some supper ready. Just a simple meal, and we sat down at the table together. Somehow it seemed right to ask him to say grace – so we did. He said the prayer as he broke the bread. Then we realised who had walked with us on our journey and, as we did, he disappeared.

What a moment. We wished we had known as we walked – but we realised that, in a sense, we had known – were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?

Suddenly, it wasn’t too late for a journey after all. We rushed back to Jerusalem to find the disciples. We simply had to share the good news.

When has Jesus accompanied me (you) incognito? How has that changed things for me?

Monday, 17 July 2017

Philippians 1:3-11

As Paul begins his letter to the Philippians he sounds a strongly positive note. Though challenges, exhortations, and even admonishments, are sometimes needed, it is always good to be positive. (Am I/are you sufficiently positive? Do I have a reputation as an encourager?)

Paul’s prayers are both constant and marked with joy. (How would I describe my prayers? What are the various elements contained in my conversation with God – and are they in the right balance?)

Paul is glad because of their sharing in the gospel. (How do I share in the gospel? How do I share the gospel? Are those two different?) Living a gospel life should have an impact on everything I do. One of the way that I find most helpful in trying to describe that is to ask to what extent do I demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit which Paul lists in Galatians 5:22 – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Would others use those words to describe how I live?)

Paul goes on to talk about God at work in them and, in particular, to mention the influences that stem from God’s grace. (Perhaps this is no different from a question I have already posed, but – how is God’s grace at work, and seen to be at work, in me?)

Then, in verses 9 and 10, Paul’s prayer reaches a kind of crescendo – And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best.

God’s generosity is amazing, and the image of ‘overflowing’ is one of the best descriptions of this. I have always liked how the psalmist puts it – You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. I always remember how a colleague illustrated that. She was leading us in a celebration of Communion. She opened a bottle of wine and started pouring it into the chalice. The chalice took so much wine, and then was full, but she kept pouring. Naturally, it overflowed. It was messy (though she had taken precautions to take care of that) – but what an apt illustration of the abundant love of God.

In the end – verse 11 – it is all about the glory and praise of God. How right to come before God with awe and reverence, recognising the multitude of ways in which we experience God’s love. (Is that what drives me? How do I experience God’s abundant grace? How is that seen in how I live?)

Sharing in God’s grace is indeed sustaining. 

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Abundant Grace (Romans 6:1-11)

God’s offer is of abundant grace. However, that does not come as a means of dealing with our continuing and increasing sin – to respond to Paul’s rhetorical question, not that we should need to do that (verse 1), though Paul, of course, does so himself (verse 2). Grace does not appear as a result of a mounting pile of sin. Rather, it emerges from God’s amazing generosity. As God's love surrounds us, we experience something special that is best described as grace.

One of our problems is that we are insufficiently willing to rely on God. We are not confident of God’s promises. Paul here encourages us to move on in faith. We are in a different place. We are experiencing newness of life.

Paul uses the image of dying and rising with Christ, which he links to baptism. Baptism is an indicator of our new life with God. The symbolism is there whatever the method of baptism – but perhaps more obvious in baptism by full immersion when the waters close over the candidate, a symbol of being buried with Christ – and then rising to new life.

As a minister, I have conducted many baptisms. A few I remember; many, to be honest, I don’t. All, bar one, of those baptisms happen to have been by sprinkling. However, one that I certainly don’t (and won’t) forget is the single occasion that I have baptised by immersion. When we lived in Panama, one of the relatively elderly members of my congregation came to me and said that she wanted to be baptised, and she wanted it to be by immersion in the river ‘just like Jesus’. So that is what we did, a memorable and special moment – perhaps especially for a minister who is a non-swimmer! Baptism is baptism. Every baptism is personal and indicative of God’s grace. That was so on that occasion in a Panamanian river, just as it has been at the fonts in various churches where I have had the joy of offering that sacrament.

In each case, whatever the detail and individual circumstances, baptism speaks of resurrection, of hope, of possibility, of life. It is about unity with and in Christ.

Perhaps one of the things many Christians could do a little more often is to recall their baptism, to remember how it indicates the abundance of God’s grace, and so be inspired to greater things with and for God.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Jairus's Story (Mark 5:21-24,35-43)

I just did not know what to do. I was desperate. My little girl! What do you do when you don’t know where to turn? When do you do when you would do anything, but you can’t do anything? I was ready to try anything. She was so ill. Would Jesus just possibly be able to help? I had heard he was a greater helper.

I didn’t want to leave her, and yet I was desperate to go and find some help – both at the same time. What was I to do? It was worth asking Jesus. It had to be. Most folk would not have expected one of the leaders of the synagogue to approach someone like Jesus, but I didn’t care. I was ready to do anything.

So, I found myself approaching Jesus, asking him to come to my house, to see if he could do something for my precious daughter. My spirits rose as he immediately agreed. Maybe there was a chance. Maybe something could be done. It was looking hopeful – but, then, he kept being interrupted. He kept stopping. One after another asked him to do something to help – and he stopped and listened to them all.

It was so frustrating. I just wanted to get him to our house. It was taking so long. But what could I do?

Almost inevitably, the news came that it was too late. Servants came with the news that she was dead. “Don’t bother the Teacher any longer.” I was distraught. You can imagine. But Jesus remained calm, and kept slowly, still ever so slowly, making his way towards my house. What was the point? Yet I couldn’t stop him. I imagined that he wanted to pay his condolences. I didn’t really want them – but I could hardly say that, could I?

Eventually we got to our house. Mourning was already in full swing. She was only a little girl. It was hardly surprising that her death had caused such a commotion. But Jesus remained calm and, in a way, he took charge. He said, ‘she’s not dead.’ Well, she was. Nobody was listening to that one. But he emptied the house. His quiet authority got everybody to move outside, surprised, still in deep grief, but doing what he said.

So, just the family and a couple of his followers went into the room where her body was lying. ‘Talitha cum.’ It couldn’t be happening, but it was. It was as though she had just been sleeping. She sat up, rubbed her eyes, and got off the bed. It was a miracle – what a miracle. ‘Give her something to eat – o, and don’t tell everyone!’ That was difficult – because the only thing I wanted to do was just that: to tell everyone.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Caught In A Storm (Mark 4:35-41)

It was a day to remember, as most days with Jesus were. It was one of those times when they got into the boat to go across to the other side. It was a particular day – on that day. It was a particular time – when evening came. It was a moment to get away from everything else. They took Jesus because they all wanted some peace, and they took him just as he was. There was no planning, no preparation, no packing – just into the boat and off.

That way they must have escaped a lot of folk, but they weren’t on their own, as other boats were with him. There was no complete escape, such was the impact that Jesus was making. There are clearly a lot less people around now, and they are in accompanying boats, but Jesus and the disciples are not on their own. It is interesting to reflect on who was able to come and who was not. Was it a question of wealth – or of who you knew. It certainly had something to do with having a boat or, at least, managing to gain access to one.

But it may well have turned out that all the participants in this little flotilla wished they had stayed at home – because the next thing is that a storm blew up. Storms were not uncommon on the lake and you would imagine that the fishermen amongst them would be used to that. However, this seems to have been a big storm. We are told of a great gale. Even the experienced fishermen were scared. Indeed, the only person who seems untouched by the storm is Jesus. He was asleep. It is good to be calm in the storm!

However, the disciples woke Jesus up. Whether they needed every pair of hands to bail out the boat, whether they he should not drown without waking up, or whether they thought he could “do” something is not really clear. But they felt that they needed to call on him – as we might feel we need to call on God. When they did, Jesus certainly did something. He calmed the storm. From a great gale things changed to a dead calm. There are no half measures on Jesus’ part here. The storm is gone. In no time at all they experience opposite extremes of weather. Unsurprisingly they are filled with awe – as we should be: for this is our God.

It was January 1992. I was in a small boat in Panama, sailing from Bocas del Toro to San Cristobal in order to lead worship at San Cristobal Methodist Church. It was calm when we left, though the boatman clearly was not sure that it was going to stay that way. It didn’t. The storm blew up. The boat was quite literally tossed out of the water as it rode the huge waves. I don’t remember being scared. I certainly did wonder how long it would be before I came through the experience. But we did and sailing back, after the service, across a now calm sea was very different.

Putting those two things together, I can imagine myself on the fringe of the disciples, getting into the boat with Jesus and Peter and Andrew, and the rest of them. We were all tired. It had been a long day. We just wanted to get away from the crowds, and the rest of us left the boat to Peter, Andrew, James and John. It was a bit annoying that there were a few other boats following us, but at least there was a momentary respite, and we were getting away from most of the crowd.

It was good to go off with Jesus. Would he have something special to say to us? We needed to wait and see, but it felt exciting. That was at the beginning of the trip. We did not expect a storm, certainly not one like the one in which we found ourselves. The excitement was quickly replaced by fear. Were we going to survive? It seemed unlikely.

Then I noticed that Jesus was asleep. How could he sleep through this? Why wasn’t he doing his bit? We were scared. Of course, he was tired – but so was everybody. Somebody woke Jesus up. But, instead of joining in the bailing out operation, he told the storm to stop, to be still. It seems ridiculous. It did at the time, and it still does – but it worked. The storm ceased – no wind, no waves. Amazement – awe – wonder.

I guess the other boats had wished they had never set sail with us, but then were more than glad to have done so. They would not have missed this for anything. Of course, we all now had to row to get to the other side, but that is better than risking your life in a storm.

We were all asking the same question: who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Mark 6:31

He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.

Here is a clear reminder that God takes account of our needs. The disciples were in the middle of all sorts of ‘stuff’ and Jesus recognised that they needed a break. The deserted place is really attractive when lots, and even too much, is going on. There is nothing wrong with that. We all have things that we need to do – but one of those things, sometimes, is to get away from the other stuff. Rest is part of what sustains us. It is the Sabbath principle. The disciples are here invited to rest a while.

It is so difficult to get away. There are always things crowding in on the omni-present ‘to do’ list which constantly demands attention. But we need the times of refreshing rest.

It is important that the disciples are addressed by Jesus. This going to ‘a deserted place’ happens because he speaks to them, suggesting the possibility. If we are not listening, then God is going to have difficulty getting through to us! God does speak to us, and one of the questions is whether we are ready and willing to be guided by God. (Sometimes we think we know better!) Another question is as to how ready we are to ‘come away’ when that is the invitation. Sometimes we think we can’t be spared. We need to find the ‘come away’ spaces, even if they are momentary and don’t include geographical movement.

We need to allow God to identify the ‘deserted place’ of the moment, and to readily go there. What does it mean to ‘rest a while’? What does that do for us? Surely it sustains us for everything else.

We are told that “they had no leisure even to eat”. It is actually not good to have no leisure. We need balance in what we do and how we are – even though that is not easily achieved when we are functioning under pressure.

It is also important to remember that, vital though it is, the ‘deserted place’ and the opportunity to ‘rest a while’ is but a step on the way. In this particular instance, the context is that they will soon find themselves in the midst of that busy incident to which we normally refer as the ‘feeding of the five thousand’.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Finding Silence at St Beuno's

I supposed that you could say that I was raised on a noisy spirituality. Aside from very early childhood, which I don’t readily remember, we were in the Baptist Church in Scotland and worship and prayer needed to be expressed vocally. Of course, as my Christian understanding grew, I came to recognise the value of the moment of personal and private devotion, known descriptively as one’s ‘quiet time’, and that played an important role but in a context of sharing in open prayer and finding ways of expressing one’s relationship with God. I am not placing any judgment on that – it worked for me at the time. I am simply offering a brief description of what was – and recognising that different things speak to different people and at different times.

My introduction to silence as part of prayer and worship, for anything other than a fairly brief period, came in my final year of studies for the ministry. The Scottish Congregational College then shared premises with the Scottish Episcopal College and, as the lone residential Congregationalist, I tended to share more in the life and worship of my Episcopal colleagues (all of whom were resident) than did my fellow Congregationalists. On Monday evenings we had a devotional address, which was followed by silence until breakfast on Tuesday – though I seemed to remember many Mondays when it was more honoured in the breach than in the practice. We also had occasional quiet days.

The years passed, many of them, and I began preparing for a sabbatical that was due to take place in 2011. As I considered various elements that I wanted to be part of that sabbatical, three very different things emerged as things I wanted to do, which I believed would enrich my ministry in very different ways. One was to spend some time in the Holy Land. A second was to spend some time in Zimbabwe, cultivating our Synod global link. The third was to go on retreat, which I had not properly done for a serious amount of time.

As I considered various possibilities, a retired minister who was then serving on my support group, and whose judgment I greatly valued, suggested that I try a silent retreat, specifically an individually guided Ignatian retreat, and, also specifically, that I might come to St. Beuno’s.

So the idea was born, and the opportunity sought. This is what I wrote in my sabbatical report:

“So I arrived at St. Beuno’s with a degree of trepidation, not sure whether I was going to love or to hate my seven days of silence.  A train to Rhyl in North Wales, followed by a taxi ride took me to St. Beuno’s Ignatian Spirituality Centre, near to St. Asaph, and situated between Rhuallt and Tremeirchion.  A beautiful location in the Welsh hills and extensive grounds provide a superb setting for the centre.  As the St. Beuno’s web-site says:

“A retreat is principally a time for you to be alone with God. That is not to say we expect you to be kneeling all day in a chapel. Many people who come on retreat at St Beuno's take advantage of the beautiful countryside and the safe walking area to breathe fresh air and to exercise.  …  A retreat is a time for leaving behind much of what normally fills our time: television, work, computers, telephones, commuting, preparing meals, chatting etc. and having time to reflect, to ponder, to pray, to be.”[1]

I had not really known what to expect but had thought that, if nothing else, I would get some reading in alongside the opportunity to pray.  However, it was not to be so.  I was quickly to learn that a retreat (of this kind) is definitely an opportunity to give space for God – and so began of rhythm of meals in silence but accompanied to music, times of prayer, walking and meditating, a daily Eucharist and a daily meeting of about 35 minutes with my spiritual director.  Even my Bible reading was restricted to the passages suggested for use in my times of prayer. 

Had it all been explained in advance, I might have wondered how I would cope and whether it would all prove too much – but the reality was a wonderful experience of space and reflection with God.  Here was a real opportunity to focus on what God wanted to say to me through his word.  This was a chance to put aside the technology and pressures of the everyday world and listen for the voice of God.”

Suffice to say, I have, to date, returned to St. Beuno’s for three further such retreats, in 2012, 2015, and 2017. Each has been on the same model, and yet unique, offering different experience, but each an enriching opportunity for prayerful reflection.

[1] – accessed 13/1/12.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

On Retreat

What is it like to be on retreat? Essentially, it as an opportunity to take time out of the regular run of things and use the space for prayer and reflection, exploring what God might be saying.

Retreats, of course, take many forms – and can be of many different lengths. I have developed the practice of making time for occasional Ignatian retreats. These are silent retreats, which seems scary to many, but which I have found to be spiritually enriching.

I go away for six, seven or eight days. The pattern is one of provided meals and a brief meeting with a retreat director at a set time each day. In that meeting we will talk about how things are going and the director will offer some Biblical passages, usually two or three, for prayerful reflection over the ensuing 24 hours.

I may find it helpful to walk the prayer labyrinth. I will certainly go out for (some relatively gentle) walks. I will give myself three or four (or more) times for particular prayer during the day, though one of the great things is that prayer permeates everything in a far more conscious way than tends to be so in ordinary life – though I believe that to be so then also.

For most of the prayer times I sit with one of the passages, often using Ignatian methods of approaching prayer, such as lectio divina or imaginative contemplation (or both) – and I find it helps to offer a slight structure by setting the time I will give on each occasion, somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes, and setting my phone timer to mark the period, not that such has to be used rigidly. The other bit of ‘structure’ is to make a few notes after each prayer time.

Each day also includes a Eucharist and the opportunity (which I take) to join in a half hour period of corporate silent prayer in the chapel.

I could, of course, just do that at home – but I don’t (and I wouldn’t have the daily meeting with a retreat director). I would be the last to suggest that my model of retreat is the right one for everyone – but I do believe that we all need to find our right way of spiritual refreshment.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

All We Have Is THIS Church

I have been reading "Searching for Sunday" by Rachel Held Evans. I have found it to be a great read - and it is my book for June in my series of reading a book a month during - and just beyond - 2017, so see my partner blog - - for a bit more on that. It says a little about the books that I am reading this month.

However, there were a couple of perceptive comments about the church, towards the end of the book, that I felt just belonged here in this blog.

We are called to be part of the church. It is God's church - but it is us who are in the church, and that sometimes means we get to find ourselves in an awkward church, sometimes that we find ourselves in an exciting church. But this is the church we have. As Evans puts it: "All we have is this church - this lousy, screwed-up, glorious church - which, by God's grace, is enough." It might seem that 'lousy' and 'glorious' do not belong in the same sentence, but they absolutely do. It is entirely right that God's grace keeps us on track.

Evans also says: "We expect a trumpet and a triumphant entry, but as always, God surprises us by showing up in ordinary things: in bread, in wine, in water, in words, in sickness, in healing, in death, in a manger of hay, in a mother's womb, in an empty tomb. Church isn't some community you join or some place you arrive. Church is what happens when someone taps you on the shoulder and whispers in your ear, Pay attention, this is holy ground; God is here."

I like that. God is awesome - but God engages with us, as we are, where we are. The ordinary and the spectacular are all mixed up. God's presence makes a difference. How can we help but be excited to be part of God's church?!

Friday, 23 June 2017

Love and Peace

John, in his Gospel, is clear that love and peace are the hallmarks of those who follow Jesus. Are they seen in us when others look to see what we are like, who it is whom we represent? Jesus clearly promises his presence and the presence of the Spirit to those who keep his commandments to love and serve one another. This love isn’t a feeling. It’s a ‘doing’. It is love in action. It’s love that you can look and see. But let’s take Jesus at his word – if we love and serve each other, then he promises to be right here with us. As one commentator puts it: “the peace of God is the confidence that God is God and neither our gains nor our losses are ultimate.” The way in which we describe what it feels like to have this continuing presence of God is in the word ‘peace’.

God gives us peace, not any old peace, but God’s peace. It is the Hebrew word shalom. Shalom is about wholeness. It is about that all-embracing peace that sustains us. And that’s there for us, whenever we need it.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Hey Baldy!

My reflection that was part of the closing worship at Eastern Synod's Big Day Out in Trinity Park, Ipswich today.

A reading from 2 Kings 2, verses, 23 to 24  (NIV)
“23 From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” 24 He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.”

It’s been an interesting week, an interesting few weeks.  Terror at a pop concert in Manchester, repeated on a bridge and in restaurants in London.  An election that has left us in a very interesting place.  The idea of feasts and festivals is about celebrating.  And, despite all the struggles, I think we have got an awful lot to celebrate in the church.  And I want to celebrate it.  That’s why I think a day like today is great.  And that’s why I recognise that we have a God who is great.  Our God is awesome.

But somehow it seems that, at this particular point, we also need to say something about the context in which we currently find ourselves.  And that is why I have chosen to read a brief passage, just a couple of verses, that I think I can guarantee that none of you were expecting.  

Elisha is annoyed.  Elisha is the prophet and he has been doing a bit of good.  We didn’t read about it, but if we had read the few verses just before the ones we did read, we would have about the problems with the water supply and how Elisha became God’s instrument for sorting that one out.  And what’s his reward?  He is called names, and not just by anybody, by small boys.  Hey baldy!  Well, Elisha is not only good at blessings.  He can do cursings as well.  And so a couple of bears are invoked and 42 of these lads meet a horrible end.  As Brueggemann says: “The incident put Israel on notice.  This Elisha is dangerous and is not to be trifled with, not by small boys, not by kings, not by anybody.”

Now, to be honest, I am not really sure what you do with this kind of passage.  The name-calling shouldn’t have happened, but the response seems extreme beyond words. 

I chose the passage because I want to say, in a similar way, that I am not really sure what you do with some of the stuff that has been going on of late.  And I am talking more about terrorism than elections.  But there is a lot of stuff there in the mix.  I learned this last week that one of the victims of the Manchester attack, Chloe Rutherford, was part of our United Reformed Church at South Shields.  What can we say to such a situation?  Nothing really.  But we find ourselves in a time of lament, not feasts and festivals.  Except that the two are mixed up together, as is demonstrated by the second Manchester concert, the one in memory, poignantly the day after the London stuff.

I don’t know why, any more than you do.  It is certainly nothing to do with Islam as it is properly followed.  And I don’t know what to say.  But I do know that we remain people of hope.  We remain those who follow a risen Lord.  And we must play our full part in sharing God’s love with those whom we encounter, with discovering how to live out that abundant life that God offers, with recognising the pain, and the hurt, and the struggle, but also seeing the possibilities and the opportunities and responding to the challenges.  And so, as we go into a world that has more armed police on our streets than normal, that is trying to sort out a changed and uncertain political landscape, that is going to bring Brexit, whatever that may mean, let us go with the joy of our feasting and our "festivalling".  

Nehemiah is another who had quite a tough time, but he reminds us, Nehemiah 8:10 – for the joy of the Lord is your strength.  Now there’s a good mission statement: the joy of the Lord is your strength.

Saturday, 27 May 2017


Treasuring Rather Than Needing -

I recently read Menna van Praag’s novel The Lost Art of Letter Writing in which she tells the story of Clara who, counter-culturally for today, runs a shop in Cambridge where you can go to write a letter. The shop is stocked with lovely paper and amazing pens and it provides the opportunity to express those things that really matter, and to take the time to do so.

In a world of texts and emails, the novel offers a challenge to where we have reached. For me it is a book about people finding themselves, and we all need the opportunity to do that.

I was struck by a passage in which Clara’s house is contrast with that of her mother. It is an interesting passage because it talks about treasuring as against needing. That is fascinating, because we often talk about needing as against wanting, making the point that what you need, not what you want, is the important thing. That thinking is here moved into a different place as what you need is displaced by what you treasure.

“It’s not about needing, Clara wants to say, it’s about treasuring. But she knows there’s no point. Her mother is so unlike her in this respect (and most others) that they simply aren’t able to understand each other. Sophia’s house is all cream and chrome, plain carpets, unadorned walls, sleek modern appliances, without a sign of past or personality, and everything looking – at least on Clara’s rare visits – as if airbrushed for an imminent magazine shoot. By contrast, Clara’s house (inherited from her grandfather) is a homage to chaos, clutter, colour and old-fashioned living. No two rooms are alike, though they share common themes – vintage clocks, weathered Persian rugs, velvet cushions, potted purple orchids, stacks of books, framed letters written by famous people – and all are unified by the fact that everything appears to be dated c.1900 and it seems that nothing once arrived in the house had ever left again.”

What are the things that you treasure?