Vicar's Blog

No neutral ground in this universe.

August 21st, 2017


My cousin Graham was there.  “What an afternoon,” he writes, “to go into Barcelona!”

By all accounts a place of absolute terror – which is, of course, what the terrorists wanted.  And their target, just ordinary people enjoying themselves in the sunshine.  I note that the byline for Facebook page for La Rambla De Mar, to which Graham checked in, is “Just for fun.”

We do not live in a neutral world.  No, as is only too evident this morning, we live in a spiritual battlefield.  It is C S Lewis who writes “There is no neutral ground in the universe.  Every square inch, every split second is claimed by God, and counter claimed by Satan.”

As it happens I am writing this blog from Caen.  The view facing me now, as I try to write this blog from our hotel,  is a fairly typical suburban scene just out of town, close to the Peripherique.

It all looks very pleasant and well-ordered. I notice over to my left eight Tesla charging units for electric cars.  Over to my right typical modern French white-plastered houses through the trees.

It is hard to imagine today but  just four years before I was born, this was the site of a terrible battle as British and Canadian troops battled to wrest control of Caen from its German occupiers.  Just over there, about two miles in front of me, is the airport at Carpiquet, a key location in a pivotal battle.

And over there, about three miles away is Cheux, where Ritchie Harrison, of Liverpool Road just opposite our church, is buried – in the St Manvieu War Cemetery.

I think I wrote this time last year of how the battle for Caen was crucial for the whole of the Western front. Rommel knew that Caen had to be held at all costs.

The planners for D Day aimed for Caen to be captured on day one, 6 June 1944.  However, such was the determination of the German defenders that it took six weeks.

But then the road to Berlin was wide open.  Victory was assured.

Just like Calvary.

“For this purpose the Son of God was revealed: to destroy the works of the devil,” writes the apostle John (1 John 3:8).

And the victory that Jesus achieved at the cross, by no means obvious at the time, has huge strategic implications for the whole of creation.  This is very much the theme for the book of Revelation which concludes the Bible.  It may not be obvious to us now but final victory for the Kingdom of God is assured. So live on the basis of this certainty.

Sassy we sing the Halleluiah chorus: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15)

Meanwhile terrible things continue to happen.  “The thief comes only to steal, kill and to destroy,” Jesus tells us.

On the other side of the Atlantic the people of Charlottesville are still recovering from the terrible events surrounding the white supremacist rally last week. There another car was driven, deliberately and at speed, into a group of counter-protestors.

As it happens I know the location. In fact, I have a photo of Jacqui drinking her decaf tea in an outdoor cafe just feet from where the car crossed Main Street.

Emancipation Park is just one hundred metres away.  When we were there five years ago it was called Lee Park, dominated by this splendid statue of Robert E Lee, which I photographed from every angle.

I remember thinking at the time, “Why such a monument to a defeated General?”  It seems it was erected in the 1920’s in a move to rewrite history.

But the fact remains that the Confederate armies lost the civil war and that slavery was abolished.  Now it is a case of working out the full implications for this victory for the Unionists, to those who proclaimed loyalty to the US constitution.

The outcome is simple  -  you cannot now be a slave in the United States, whatever some people may wish. Victory has been won for those who would abolish this terrible institution, final and complete.  So enjoy and celebrate your freedom, whoever you are and whatever others may say.

Similarly for us as we decide to live our lives on the basis of the cross of Jesus.

“No, in all these things,” rejoices the apostle Paul, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37)

So whatever the Enemy may throw at us, “another day of victory!”

Au Revoir!

Dunkirk – when defeat becomes a victory.

August 11th, 2017


Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is very simply a masterpiece.  However, it is not your standard war movie.  This is no prequel for Saving Private Ryan.

No back story is given – we have no idea why an entire army is trapped.

No German appears in the film – at the outset they are simply referred to as the enemy.

There is no overt violence.  This is no Hacksaw Ridge. And no heroics, just simple, understated bravery.

Moreover, there is minimal characterisation.  We only encounter each person in the immediacy of the here and now. We don’t even know their names.

Dialogue too is minimal but the soundtrack is significant. Hans Zimmer’s music is both tense and haunting, evoking a deep sense of longing.

Dunkirk is simply a study in how ordinary blokes (and a few women) face up to the terror of being trapped. Total disaster appears imminent. Time is running out with very little hope of escape.  We hear the clock ticking.

This is a film well worth seeing, if possible in IMAX.  And I think you can read this blog before seeing the film – unless you don’t know the story of Dunkirk, how some 338,226 allied solders are rescued against all the odds by a flotilla of over 800 small boats mostly crewed by their civilian owners.

Actually I read director Nolan’s commentary on the film before seeing it – and this certainly helped appreciate his craftsmanship.   The word he choose to use to describe the structure of the film is, I think, very significant:  “Dunkirk is a triptych,” he tells us.

That is, the film is told from three points of view:  from land, sea and air.  And each has its own time frame: one week, one day, one hour.

To quote Nolan:  “On land, some stayed one week stuck on the beach. On the water, the events lasted a maximum day; And if you were flying to Dunkirk, the British spitfires would carry an hour of fuel.”

So the story of Dunkirk is told using these three time frames braided together to give a coherent whole.  In fact, you could watch the film and not actually realize this.  Brilliant.

But going back to his choice of word to describe his film:  triptych – a work of art folded into three sections.  The term is derived from early Christian art and was a popular standard format for altar paintings from the Middle Ages onwards.

By using the word Nolan, I think, wants to give his film a spiritual dimension.  Dunkirk was no ordinary event, not just a significant episode in the Second World War.  There is something more, something bigger, as people realized at the time.

So five days after the evacuation was completed services of ‘National Thanksgiving’ were held in churches throughout the land.  And at the centre of this wave of gratitude to God was Psalm 124.
“If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, when our enemies attacked us, then they would have swallowed us up alive.” (v2f).

Like the people Israel with their back to the Red Sea and facing certain annihilation under the wheels of the Egyptian chariots, the people of our nation realized that our only hope lay in God himself.  There was simply no realistic alternative.

So on being ordered home, General Alan Brooke was so overcome with emotion at having to leave his men in such a predicament that he broke down and wept.  “Nothing,” he said,  “but a miracle can save the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) now.”

But then King George took a remarkable lead.  He called his people to a National Day of Prayer for Sunday, 26 May, the day Dunkirk evacuation began.

Then a remarkable set of events took place – the German tanks were held back at a significant time to allow their logistics to catch up while the weather significantly hampered the Luftwaffe while at the same time helping the flotilla of small craft.

It was the Dean of St. Paul’s who was the first to refer to the evacuation as the ‘miracle of Dunkirk,’ a phrase which has stayed with us ever since.

And Nolan’s film seeks to embrace this wider dimension as an existential epic for our time.  The English Tommy is Everyman.

Dunkirk seeks to examine what is means to be human, facing annihilation at the hands of an enemy we can neither see nor understand. All we can do is stand in a line on the beach and wait.

One solder tries to swim to safety but we know, he knows, that this is a futile gesture.  Home may only be just over the horizon but it is out of reach.

To this hopeless situation rescue comes.  Ordinary people from home risk their lives to save their soldiers.  Selfless and sacrificial.  Sheer grace.

And the film ends with one of the main characters, his job done, finally offering his surrender.  He willingly pays the price for the salvation of his comrades-in-arms.

Wonderfully what appeared at the time to be a devastating defeat turned out to become a strategic victory.  The miracle of Dunkirk, no less, changed the flow of history, praise God.

Without us, God will not.

August 8th, 2017


Either it’s ‘Dunkirk’ (which I have been thinking about ever since I saw this remarkable film last Saturday) or alternatively, New Wine (our annual pilgrimage to Zion – well, Shepton Mallet). “What do you think, Lord?”

Short pause as I ponder.

So here we are on Red 9, which thankfully is above the water table of the Royal Bath and West Showground which we are currently sharing with 15000 other disciples (or given the weather, my fellow fanatics).

Actually for me it is the best New Wine ever, such is the quality of the teaching and the weight of the worship. I enjoy about 20% of the songs, which is about as high as it gets for me at NW.

Some very good seminars.  I’ve been going to the ones on Christians in Politics in the TearFund marque, featuring Christian politicians from all the main parties modelling how to disagree well.

Last night I popped into Rock Solid, the ministry for 7&8 year olds, some 650 of them, led by Emily Stanford who was a member of Christ Church when her Dad, Mark, was our curate some 15 years ago.  An amazing ministry which exhausts its 100-strong staff offering no less than 5 1/2 hours of contact time each day.

Emily was speaking on Jesus the true vine, holding the attention of this vast and potentially restless audience!

However, the main morning teaching for the adults has been the core of this New Wine being given by John Mark Comer who leads a church in Portland, Oregon – an entertaining speaker who knows his stuff.  His essential theme is how to live the Christian life so as “to bridge the gap between who you are and what you would be.”

He also – coming from the top lefthand corner of the US between Seattle and Vancouver (where my brother-in-law is a professional coffee roaster) is zealous about coffee – which I may come back to if I have space.

Here his basic approach is summarised by a quote from Augustine: “Without God we cannot; without us, he will not.”  Essentially our transformation into a new creation is in partnership with God, remarkably God choosing to work with us. That’s how he operates.

As Comer explains this is not a 50:50 partnership any more than the baking he did with his young daughter is 50:50. She may claim nearly all of the credit but he does most of the work. No, to change the metaphor “God does all the heavy lifting.”

Here this young American is seeking to correct an imbalance.  We don’t simply say “It’s all God! There is simply nothing I should do for I can do nothing.” Grace is not opposed to effort – it is opposed to earning credit with God.  Otherwise why would the apostle Paul continually refer to athletics training as a metaphor for living the Christian life?

So he writes to the Christians in Corinth, familiar with the Isthmian Games held just down the road every other year. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. (1 Corinthians 9:24f)

These Christians would have seen how athletes train in a regular, probably daily, discipline.  In all weathers, irrespective of how they were feeling, regardless of what other people thought of them, despite all the discomfort.  You just do it because that is what you do. There is simply no alternative if you want to win.

As Comer recounts you can’t just run a marathon.  Most people can hardly run the length of the street but give time and commitment you gradually increase the distance run in training.  It is incremental and it takes time.  That is what “strict training” is all about.

One fascinating aside – Comer is a millennial in ministry with other urban millennials, those people born in the 1980’s and 1990’s and coming into adulthood in the millennium.  (AKA Generation Y).  Apparently this cohort typically lack structure in their lives, unfamiliar with self-discipline.  They were brought up in the “everyone-is-a-winner” age group.

Moreover as reported in yesterday’s New York Times one in three millennials refuse to identify with a religious tradition, a far higher number than among older Americans.  The article suggests that Christians need to prioritise “learning the practices of discipleship and strengthening community.”

And so – especially for Comer and his contemporaries – the spiritual disciplines have an important place in the life of the Holy Spirit alongside sound teaching and supportive community.  We are to practice the way of Jesus through Bible reading, Communion, fasting, fellowship, meditation, prayer, retreats, Sabbath, service, solitude, study, worship, each appropriately structured and all tailored to our own situations.

Here I recall the teaching of Richard Foster in his seminal 1978 book “Celebration of Discipline.”  The farmer cannot make the seed grow – only God can give the fruit.  But that does not mean he does nothing. The very opposite – he works hard to make sure that the environment is right for growth.

And the heart of the spiritual disciplines, both individual and communal, is the understanding that God is with us – this is what Jesus promises.  We are blessed with his presence as we abide in Christ, as we walk in the Spirit, as we practice the presence of God in our everyday lives.  Otherwise we would be talking about self-help, which as we all know is doomed to failure.

Strangely the one place I find it difficult to practice my own spiritual disciplines is here at New Wine for the simple reason that I am out of routine.  My running suffers too.

The one discipline I miss most is – as it happens – one which John Mark Comer also values, and it has to do with coffee.

The first thing we both do each morning is have a coffee with Jesus.  For me it is a cappuccino in the kitchen, never in the study. Just five minutes being open with God.

Mother Theresa was asked by interviewer Dan Rather what she said in her prayers.  She answered  “I just listen.”  And what does God say?  “He listens.”  As Emily said last night, just chilling out with God.  Each morning.

The freedom which Jesus gives to those with the famous parent syndrome.

July 28th, 2017

AP Bannister 60 Years Athletics

“Church asks tourists to keep unholy racket under control.”

This headline in today’s Times caught my attention – another grumpy vicar story, I thought.  A colleague in arms.

So the story unfolds: “Priests at one of England’s most visited parish churches have expressed concern over the unholy racket made by tourists who feel obliged to photograph everything they see.”

And it’s a church I know.  In fact, I married one of my daughters in this eminent edifice: “The University Church of St Mary the Virgin, in the heart of Oxford.”

It seems that the hordes of tourists visiting this church were not behaving themselves, talking and taking photographs.  And the vicar isn’t happy.

Hardly a news story – except it wasn’t the vicar moaning.  Rev William Lamb is given a quote but only at the end of the article by which time most readers would have moved on.

No, this is the associate priest writing in the church newsletter bemoaning the conduct of these trigger-happy tourists:  the Rev Charlotte Bannister-Parker.

For this is the real story which caught the attention of the Times sub-editor. Mrs. Bannister-Parker is daughter of Sir Roger Bannister.  And should anyone in this land not know who her father is, we are informed that he is “the first person to run a mile in less than four minutes.”

My hero.

In fact, only yesterday I quoted Sir Roger in a conversation, such is his prominence in my life.  His was the first ‘grown-up book’ which I read and inspired me to great things.  In fact, whenever I ran on the old 440 yard track at Iffley Road (where he ran the first sub 4 minute mile on 6 May, 1954)  I always felt I was running on holy ground.

Now at this stage I have no idea where this blog is heading but hey, this is stream of consciousness writing.  So let’s see where this subject takes us, if anywhere!

Clearly Rev Charlotte is proud to bear the family name, to be know as the daughter of the greatest British athlete of all time, a remarkable person who went onto to become a distinguished neurologist and then Master of Pembroke College, Oxford.

So she writes a few throwaway lines in her church weekly newssheet – and hey, next moment she finds herself being quoted in our most distinguished national newspaper along with her photo.

However, more often than not it is a burden being the offspring of a famous person.

This was certainly the experience of fashion designer Stella McCartney.

Here I paste from Wikipedia:  “Despite their fame, the McCartneys wanted their children to lead as normal a life as possible, so Stella and her siblings attended local state schools. . . McCartney has said that while attending state school, she was a victim of bullying, as well as being a bully herself.”

Famous parent syndrome was very much the theme of the 1998 novel by Nick Hornby, “About a Boy.” We are introduced to Will Freeman who is not a free man at all but trapped in a meaningless but comfortable existence through the success of his father.  He is forever in his father’s shadow.

For we all long to be known for who we are in ourselves and not simply in  reference to someone else, our parent or even our partner.

This is very much the heritage of the New Testament, something so obvious to us and yet totally revolutionary at the time, that is my decision as an individual to follow Christ which ultimately defines me as me.

So the apostle Paul can reject everything that would have otherwise defined him – belonging to the people of Israel, being a member of the tribe of Benjamin, even his status as a leading Pharisee.

“Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ,” he argues. “More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Philippians 3:7f)

This has become so much part of our Western culture that we simply take it for granted – that I have value as an individual in my own right.  Above all I can choose my own destiny.

For now, following the resurrection of Jesus, I have freedom to choose, an opportunity for anyone and therefore for everyone, regardless. As Jesus promises “Anyone who comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37)

Jesus invites:  “Follow me.” My free choice, which I cannot delegate to anyone else, such is the power of the cross.