Vicar's Blog

Here I stand, I can do no other

October 20th, 2017

Martin Luther (Maximilian Brückner) Hartmann (Armin Rohde)  Dom


Arguably the most important year over the last millennium in the history of British Christianity.

Such is the significance of its 500th anniversary that the BBC have broadcast a two-part imported drama on midweek, late night BBC4.  We are talking about  Reformation: The Story of Martin Luther.

For 31 October 1517 is when this Augustinian monk kicked off the Reformation as he nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg.

You cannot overestimate the consequences of this single act.  The entire world changed.

As he reached for his hammer not only was Luther taking on the might of the Papacy and the power of the Holy Roman Empire but he was challenging the entire medieval mindset.

The drama is well worth watching.  I only discovered it by mistake as I scrolled down programme guide on Wednesday.  You can still watch it on BBC iPlayer.

The bonus is that it is in German with English subtitles – which for me gives it a greater authenticity.  For Luther is speaking in his own language, a language incidentally he played a major part in its formation.

There is some upsetting violence in the programme, a measure of the intensity of the opposition Luther faced.  But it is a great story, helped by the fact that it actually happened.  I impressed myself – but not Jacqui – by reciting his address with him at the Diet of Worms.

“I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.”

What I had not appreciated was Luther’s sheer physical bravery.  He could have easily have been burnt at the stake – some of his early followers met such a fate.

However, thanks to the machinations of German state politics he enjoyed the protection of Frederick III, Elector of Saxony.  But it wasn’t easy, staying God’s course never is.

What the programme does bring out is his struggle to keep the Reformation on a straight track even as it unleashed powerful forces in society so long repressed.

For him, it was a painful journey but it was a voyage of discovery.  But gradually, step-by-step it all came together.  The heart of his message?  By God’s grace we are saved by faith alone.

There is simply nothing we can to do to earn God’s forgiveness, to make ourselves acceptable.  Such is the power of the cross of Jesus that God’s salvation is freely available to everyone.  We are called to place our trust in the promises of God, no more.

God does not love sinners because they are attractive; sinners are attractive to God because he loves them.”

So easy to understand, so difficult to grasp.  As he himself confessed: “Every week I preach justification by faith to my people, because every week they forget it.”

This was Jacqui’s experience when I was a theological student at Durham.  She had been a Christian for years but it was only when she read my book on Martin Luther that she finally grasped what grace means.

It’s a whole new way of thinking totally at variance with how we naturally think.

It’s what Philip Yancey is trying to express when he writes: ‘There is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.”

How did Luther come to such an insight?  Through reading scripture, the living active word of God.  “The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.”

So Luther controversially translates the New Testament into his native language and in doing so inspired scholars in other lands to do the same.   His aim no less is for everyone to have direct access to God’s word, now made possible by the latest technology – the printing press.

“A simple layman armed with Scripture is greater than the mightiest pope without it.”

Luther was not without his faults.  He knew that only too well.  Today his reputation is somewhat sullied by his anti-Semitism.  He simply could not understand how the people of Abraham would not respond to God’s new covenant.

But we are who we are today largely through the epoch-making ministry of this one man.

As Martin Luther himself confessed: “God created the world out of nothing, and so long as we are nothing, he can make something out of us.”

Overheard: “I know you’re here but where’s here?”

October 13th, 2017


A woman overheard me on my mobile this week and laughed loudly. So what did I say? “I know you’re here but where’s here?”

It so happened that on Wednesday I came across a similar incident in the Bible, of another woman on overhearing a conversation who could not stop herself from laughter.  Sarah, wife of Abraham – who essentially begin the story of God’s covenant with us.

It’s a strange story as “the Lord appears to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.”  (Genesis 18:1).

Except it’s not God but “three men standing nearby.”  So the text moves between Abraham conversing with the three men and then with God, the two seem interchangeable.  Clearly the writer is trying to convey the otherness of the situation.  This is no ordinary conversation.

So the story reaches its climax  when one of three men says  “I’m coming back about this time next year. When I arrive, your wife Sarah will have a son.” (v10)

“Sarah was listening at the tent opening, just behind the man.  And she begins to laugh.”

We laugh for all kinds of reasons, not just because something is funny or amusing.  We laugh because we are embarrassed or insecure or just frightened.  For Sarah it was all three.

As comedian Jeff Ross reflects:  “Life is short. You have to be able to laugh at our pain or we never move on.”

And Sarah was in pain.  We are told: “Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing.”

It had been a very rough ride for Sarah.  For she was unable to provide her husband with an heir, a key role in her culture, maybe the key role for the wife.  Years of monthly disappointments.

Time isn’t on their side but God is.  For God had promised her husband that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him.  Clearly that meant her as well, their offspring.

But that was six chapters ago, in Genesis 12 when Sarah was still in Haran, when her name was Sarai.  By chapter 16 everyone is beginning to panic: no offspring.

So Sarai and her husband decide to go for plan*B,  to use Sarai’s handmaid Hagar as surrogate.  Big mistake for as far as God is concerned there is only plan A.

Incidentally I gave up watching Channel 4’s award-winning Handmaid’s Tale at episode 9.  Too drawn out.  After all the whole series is based just on a short-story by Margaret Atwood, who was inspired by this story from Genesis.

But in the character of Serena Joy, the wife of the commander Fred, you get the idea of Sarai’s humiliation and scheming.

Even so God keeps Abram and Sarai’s spirits up after the debacle of Hagar So in the next chapter God renews his promise to the ageing couple., now long past child-bearing age.  We have it there in black and white: “You will be the father of many nations.” (Genesis 17:4)

And to keep them going, God gives them new names.  Abram and Sarai now become Abraham and Sarah.  It must have taken their friends ages to adapt.

I’m afraid the change of meaning from Sarai to Sarah is lost on me but presumably not lost on her. Just keep believing, Sarah. Stay the course, don’t give up  And as further encouragement (and here, as we will discover we have some clever plotting), God gives her son a name:  Isaac.

But still nothing happens.  It can be tough being blessed by God, even when he gives you a new name.

But in chapter 18 we are nearly there, less than 12 months to go, as the LORD/the three men visit Abraham.

We don’t know whether Sarah just happened to overhear these visitors talking to her husband.  As Terry Pratchett observes: “It’s quite easy to accidentally overhear people talking downstairs if you hold an upturned glass to the floorboards and accidentally put your ear to it.”

But she gives the herself away by laughing.  “I didn’t laugh,” she tells God.  “Oh yes, you did,” replies God (verse 15).  We’re meant to laugh too.

But her laughter gave her away, her profound sadness,  those years of hopes being dashed.  It’s a laughter of pain. “My focus is to forget the pain of life,” confesses Jim Carrey. “Forget the pain, mock the pain, reduce it. And laugh.”

Sarah can’t get to Genesis 21 fast enough.  “God visited Sarah exactly as he said he would; God did to Sarah what he promised: Sarai became pregnant and gave Abraham a son in his old age.”  (Genesis 21:1).

We now know why Isaac is called Isaac.  The name – wait for it – means Laughter.

So Sarah rejoices:  ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’

But now a very different kind of laughter, a laughter of joy.

“How we laughed and sang for joy.
And the other nations said,
“What amazing things the Lord has done for them.”
(Psalm 126:2)

From violence and from golf to Christ

October 6th, 2017

2017-10-05 20.30.05

“People pay attention when they see that God actually changes persons and sets them free,” comments Brooklyn pastor Jim Cymbala.

He continues: “When a new Christian stands up and tells how God has revolutionized his or her life, no one dozes off. When someone is healed or released from a life-controlling bondage, everyone takes notice.”

Well, that was certainly the case last night at our Alpha launch when we set out our stall for our 50th Alpha course here at Christ Church.

It was an evening of two stories.

First Shane Taylor, who had travelled over from Middlesbrough for the occasion, told his remarkable story of how God rescued him from a life of considerable violence.

In fact, he has just messaged me;  “Got home fine. Hoping the testimony went well and it wasn’t too violent to use.”

Well, it wasn’t easy to listen to.  We heard of two violence knifing and then when in prison his attacking two prison officers with a concealed broken bottle.

In fact, Shane wasn’t just sent to a high security prison, not just to its segregation unit but to a special cell within the unit where all human contact was eliminated.

I had a meal with Shane before the meeting as he shared with me his story.  A gentle and sensitive man, nervous before the meeting, it is a credit to the Holy Spirit that I could not imagine how he was once classed as one of the six most dangerous inmates in the prison system.

His life changed dramatically while still in prison when he found himself at an Alpha course.   Even today he’s not sure how he came to be in the prison chaplaincy, walking into a meeting with prisoners watching a video of a “posh man with grey hair.”

But through a strange and unexplained series of events, there he was.  I couldn’t follow all the details but it seems that the prison officer who broke prison rules by letting Shane through into that wing could have lost his job.

I don’t know how long it took him to pray but Shane told us of his first prayer:  ‘Please God, if you are real, come into my life because I hate who I am’.

“I started to feel an energy in my stomach, which raised up until I just burst into uncontrollable tears.”

“From that moment on, my life changed.”

But we had another story of a life being changed – and it couldn’t have been more different, that of our own Geoff Fallows who 17 years or so ago phoned the vicarage to enrol on our 8th Alpha course.

A successful businessman, Geoff had everything he wanted.  As far as I could see his only difficulty in life was a golf-dependency problem.

But God used even this.   Geoff was watching on television American golfer Tom Lehman receive the trophy for winning the 1996 Open Championship at Lytham St Annes.   In his acceptance speech Lehman thanked God, making very clear that his Christian faith was at the heart of his golf.

Geoff tells us that he turned to Helen and said “Do you think he’s has something we haven’t got.”

Over the next three years God gave the occasional prompt, the unusual conversation, the unexpected meeting to prompt Geoff into coming to a meeting where he too watched a video of a “posh man with grey hair.”

Two lives transformed.

Geoff tells of how much he enjoys being a street pastor.  He chairs the Ormskirk Food Bank and leads Table 49 as part of our church’s outreach.  Shane now works for Alpha in prisons, helping prisoners discover true release.  God not only at work in their lives but through their lives.

And two very different stories of how two men became disciples of Jesus – one from a life of violence and failure, the other from a life of comfort and worldly success.   Whoever we are, whatever our history, we need Christ.

You have made us for yourself, O Lord,
and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”


The racism in me.

September 29th, 2017


It’s 1988 and I need to make an urgent phone call.  Fortunately, I was in the centre of Rochdale, near the post office where I knew there were four phone boxes side-by-side.

However, when I got there, all were occupied, each – as it happened – for an interminable time.  My impatience quickly grew and when I noticed that each occupant was Asian, guess what I thought?

The truth is that we are all capable of racism.

This morning’s Times gives a prominent lead to a paper by the National Centre for Social Research showing that 26 per cent of adults admit that they are prejudiced against people of other races.  And that’s probably an under-estimate.

The Times makes the observation that “over three decades, Britain has gradually become more socially liberal on issues such as sex outside marriage, gay relationships and abortion. Racism, however, has been stubbornly immune to this trend.”

The report also found that that the focus of racial prejudice may have shifted, with less aimed at black people but more prejudice against Muslims.

But racism is afoot in our world, witness the emergence of the Alt Right in America, the rise of the National Front in France and the success last weekend of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the Bundestag elections.  Not to mention Brexit.

It’s what happens when people are insecure and fearful of change.

However, racism goes deeper than that.  Witness the recent wall-to-wall coverage of floods in Houston and Florida while the media largely neglected the devastating floods across India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Here more than 1,200 people have died, with 40 million affected by the devastation.

Why the difference in coverage?  I guess the essential reason is that those on the subcontinent unlike those in the US are not us.

As African-American actor Sterling K. Brown points out” “It’s the people who don’t recognize the racism within themselves that can be the most damaging because they don’t see it.”

For the truth is that we are all racist in the same way that we are all adulterers – if we accept Jesus’ definition of adultery as anyone looks at a woman with lust  (Matthew 5:28).  We need to be totally honest with ourselves – it is what we are capable of, each of us.  The problem – and it is a problem – lies deep in the human heart.

And it is a problem which will largely be untouched by editorials in the Guardian.  At a fundamental level, we need the Holy Spirit and his work is often not without pain.

However, the glory of the Gospel is that we are all valued, cherished and favoured by the God who made us,  We see this above all at the cross of Jesus.  Each of us may be defined as by the apostle Paul as “someone for whom Christ has died.” (Romans 14:15)

This love for us is both comforting and frightening because we know we have to change, change a lot.  But to know God’s love deep in our bones is transformative.

As ever we are a work in progress.  There are times when we have to decide to do the right thing, even think the right thing when all four phone boxes are being used.  In all this it is essential to give the Holy Spirit access to every area of our life.

So we begin with me and we begin with us, that is the church.  For the church as the body of Christ is called to be witness to God’s all-conquering love.  More than anywhere on earth we are commissioned to show God’s welcome.

“Words like Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and irreligious, insider and outsider, uncivilized and uncouth, slave and free, mean nothing. From now on everyone is defined by Christ, everyone is included in Christ.” (Colossians 3:10)

Of course, there is a temptation to worship alongside people like me, same culture, same outlook on life, same income group, and so on.   And there lies the challenge for all churches, including ours in Ormskirk.  We seek to cross all boundaries.

I remember being hugely encouraged by what happened in a small Anglican congregation in Liverpool some years back.  A racially mixed congregation some black members were asked to leave and join a newly-formed black church.  They refused because they wanted to demonstrate the church as welcoming all people, all races.

I’m running out of space now, suffice it to say that when we take on racism in the world, either directly or supporting those Christians and churches who are engaged in the fight against this pernicious disease.

Such as our mission partners, Andrew and Maria Leake in northern Argentina who are essentially confronting institutional racism against the indigenous people of the Chaco.

Here Martin Luther King must have the last word: “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality…

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

Yes, the resurrection of Jesus changes everything.