Vicar's Blog

You have to be a character to live here!

May 19th, 2017


“Here in Salta,” I commented to Sheila, “everyone seems to be a character.”

Her immediate response: “You need to be a character to live here!”

And she’s right. For here in the foothills of the Andes, in northern Argentina, the attitude at this altitude is one of resilience. Some remarkable people, like our hosts Andrew and Maria Leake: the kind of people who keep on keeping on.

We met one such character this week, an Argentinian – and like me ordained into the Anglican ministry. Juan Carlos Susa, just a couple of years younger than me and now into a unique and remarkable ministry.

Maybe you can guess the context of his ministry from the first part of his email address: mulliganargentina@.

The Argentina is obvious. After all Juan Carlos is Argentinian, born just up the road from Salta at Jujuy. Married to Heather, the daughter of a Scottish (another clue) Presbyterian missionary, they have six children. Today they live in northern Buenos Aires. We are hoping to visit them next week.

But the Mulligan?

Those of you who play golf should recognise the expression. But for those of us who don’t I will seek enlightenment from Wikipedia.

In golf, a mulligan is a stroke that is replayed from the spot of the previous stroke without penalty, due to an errant shot made on the previous stroke. The result is that the hole is played and scored as if the first errant shot had never been made.

In other words, if you mess things up, a mulligan is an opportunity for a fresh start. A great definition of the Gospel!

As the apostle Paul writes “Everything that we have—right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start—comes from God by way of Jesus Christ. That’s why we have the saying, “If you’re going to blow a horn, blow a trumpet for God.” (1 Corinthians 1:31)

And this is what Juan Carlos is doing, sharing the good news of God’s fresh start with the golfing community.

His ministry is to the professional golfers both here in Argenti, throughout Latin America and into the United States. In fact, anywhere where golf is played from Hong Kong to the home of golf, St Andrew’s itself.

Here is a wonderful opportunity to share the share the good news of Jesus with young professional sportsmen, often away from home for weeks at a time. It can be a very lonely life, prey to all kinds of stresses.

So Juan Carlos shares the same hotels as the players and shares himself, mak,ping himself available at the end of each day. He clearly has the personal skills to get alongside people; I found him to be a very accessible person. In fact – although he reluctant to admit it – he is friends to some of the big names in the game.

Those of you who have been to one of our Alpha launches over the last 15 years will have heard Geoff Fallows’ story, how his spiritual quest began when he heard the winner of the 1996 Open, Tom Lehman, being interviewed on television. When Lehman made direct reference to his faith in God, Geoff said to Helen “Do you think he knows something we don’t know?”

When I told this story to Juan Carlos, he told me that he would pass it on to his good friend, Tom!

And talking about Alpha, guess which gospel resource Juan uses at the end of each day? As you would imagine Jacqui was totally delighted to discover that he uses Alpha and like her he is enthusiastic about the new-style course. I didn’t ask but I think he uses the English language version.

So where did this ministry come from?

In fact, it was Andrew’s father, David, who as the Anglican Bishop of Argentina encouraged Juan Carlos to become “chaplain to golfers.” The initial aim was to work under the umbrella of the Diocese but sadly, this has not worked out.

Maybe this ministry sounds no more than a cover for having a good time with the lads. Certainly it does not fit in with the traditional categories of ministry. Moreover such a ministry, like any fruit tree, takes time to bear fruit.

So today Juan Carlos is supported by a group of Christians from the US PGA circuit who can see the potential of this niche ministry. Even so he continues to consider himself an Anglican minister but one serving Christ outside the traditional framework.

But it’s a tough ministry – in fact, any ministry which is being effective is going to be tough. Often Juan Carlos is away from home for weeks on end. And I’m sure there’s only so much golf that most normal human beings can cope with!

Such resilience produces results. Again, as the apostle Paul writes: “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3f).

I guess that is the reason why there are so many characters in Christian ministry and not just in Salta. For there are so many disciples faithfully serving their Lord without the recognition they deserve. For at the end of the day (and of the age) it is how we please God that counts.

And one final golfing quote, from PG Wodehouse: “Find a man’s true character, play golf with him.

In the Kingdom of God, timing can be everything.

May 12th, 2017




“Sometimes I arrive,” reflects photographer Ansel Adams, “just when God’s ready to have someone click the shutter.”

We had only been in Salta some 18 hours when we were ushered into the personal conference room of the President of the Legislature of the province of Salta. Our mission partner, Andrew Leake, was about to give a key presentation on the effects of deforestation and how this has devastated the lives of the indigenous people.

I found myself sitting at the far end of the table alongside a woman about my age who (and now it gets seriously weird) recognised me from her visit to Christ Church, Aughton some ten years ago.   Sheila explained that even though she had been living in Salta for 40 years, amazingly this was her first visit to the Legislative Assembly.

We could tell this was a key moment for Andrew in his long slog to protect the indigenous peoples of the Chaco.  Sheila gave me a running commentary while Jacqui silently prayed for Andrew using the gift of tongues, just the right spiritual gift when you cannot understand what is being said.

Andrew later explained that because the meeting had been called at relatively short notice, Jacqui and I were the only members of the Church present, apart from one member of Andrew’s church who actually worked at the Legislature.

I was very conscious of being in role, that is I was there as the vicar of Christ Church, Aughton, representing our congregation’s support of the Leake family over the years.  As members of the worldwide family of God, we share with them in their quest for justice for these vulnerable people even though they are on the other side of the world.

When Andrew’s grandfather, Alfred Leake, arrived here 90 years ago as missionary to the Toba people, one of the key roles for these pioneers was to protect these indigenous people from the ravages of the early Argentinian settlers. The forests then covered the area of France and Spain.

This advocacy ministry was continued by Andrew’s father, David, who served as the Anglican bishop here in Salta from 1963.  Deforestation was not a big issue at time, for the simple reason that there was so much forest. The big problem for the indigenous people was that they were not recognised as citizens and so much of David’s ministry was supporting them in their battles with officialdom.

When Andrew began his ministry here in 1999, the forests had been reduced to the size of Italy.  But as third generation he has had to adopt a very different set of skills to protect the indigenous peoples and to advance the policy of his diocese in creation care.  All very hi-tech, for which he was awarded a PhD from University of Hertfordshire here in the UK.

Then in 2007 the country recorded the highest rate of deforestation in the world. This has had a terrible effect on the indigenous people who rely on the forests for their livelihood.  So the need for advocacy is more urgent than ever.

So in his presentation this week, as Andrew explained to the politicians and then to the media his aim was to summarise the contents of his recent book. This he co-authored with his daughter, Cecila, studying law and the fourth generation of Leakes engaged in this drawn-out struggle for land rights for the Toba and Wichi peoples.  They contest some very powerful people.

Here is their book:


My BRF Bible reading for this morning, from 2 Samuel 12, is when God sends the prophet Nathan to challenge King David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah.  He manages to ‘get under the wire of David’s defences’ through the use of a carefully-crafted parable.

“There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought.”

Here Nathan could have been talking about this part of the world where there is a huge disparity between the few who are very rich and those indigenous people, close to the land, who have few resources.

The prophet continues: “Now a traveller came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveller who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

Again, this could be here in northern Argentina – the very rich exploiting the very poor.

As King David demands retribution he does not realise that he is condemning himself.  And his family pays the price through their generations for David’s greed and terrible misuse of power.

In a word God is a God of justice.  He intervenes to help the poor; he sends people to challenge the status quo.

“Stop doing wrong,” pleads Isaiah. “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (1:16)

So Andrew made a powerful case defending the oppressed people before these key people.  I could see he was on top of his brief and clearly had a clear understanding of the issues facing the provincial and national governments of Argentina.

Following his address he was interviewed by the local media – television, radio and print.  Advocacy work is difficult, drawn-out and occasionally dangerous.

So pray for him and his colleagues as they continue to serve the Kingdom of God in this generation.

And finally, just in case you were wondering how Sheila had visited Christ Church some years back.  A Zimbabwean, she with her husband had to flee her home country  to Salta via Paraguay over 40 years ago.  As it happens her brother married a girl from Liverpool and he finished teaching chemistry at, of all places, Maghull High School, along with my son-in-law.

And so her mother spent her final years at a residential home in Bootle.  It was while visiting her mother that she heard that Andrew was speaking at our church – and so she travelled the ten miles or so to hear him.

Strange things and surprising coincidences happen in the Kingdom of God.

How we get there is as important as that we get there.

May 5th, 2017


One fun-seeking tourist in Majorca was asked did she know where about in the world she was.  She replied that she simply got on the plane at Manchester – and that’s about all she knew.

I know the feeling, having just got onto a plane at Manchester and then a few hours later onto another plane at Paris.  And here we are flying through the night.  We could be anywhere. I’d like to think we are en route to Buenos Aires.

Of course, there are alternatives.   As I explained a few weeks back, we are retracing the steps of Alfred Leake, the grandfather of our mission partner Andrew Leake whom along with Maria we will be visiting in Salta, in the far north of Argentina.

When Alfred travelled to Argentina 90 years ago it took him 36 days.  I assume he travelled on a cargo ship, slowly making his way down the coast of South America.

A long voyage but at least he would have had the sense of travel, seeing the miles sail past with new ports and a changing climate. He would have enjoyed valuable time of preparation, the opportunity to reflect on how God was calling him to this faraway country.

“Focus on the journey, not the destination,” reflects the author Greg Anderson. “Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.” However, clearly Greg does not travel Air France.

For sitting on a plane is a wholly unnatural activity, especially if it is going to last for 12 hours.  “Are we there yet?” asks Jacqui.

At least seats 35B and 35C at the emergency exit  aren’t that bad – we can stretch our legs and move about.  But the aim – if at all possible – is to fall asleep and wake up just as we about to land. No romance of travel here.

For the one thing I have learnt in ministry is how we get there is invariably as important as that we get there.

I remember years ago reading a formative article on the relation between the apostle Paul and the man who “discovered him”, his travelling companion, Barnabas.

We first meet Barnabas in Acts 4 when he is introduced to us as the Levite from Cyprus, Joseph.  Joseph had the wonderful ministry of encouragement – that why the apostles gave him a new name, Barnabas which means “son of encouragement.”

For Barnabas could see that how the church grows is as important as that it grows.  We all need to be encouraged, to be supported in our discipleship – especially the weak and hesitant.  The Holy Spirit is in the ‘how.’

So Saul of Tarsus to everyone’s surprise and consternation becomes a follower of the Jesus. And it was Barnabas who welcomed him into the Jerusalem leadership.  “He introduced Saul to the apostles and stood up for him.”  (Acts 9:27)

We next meet Barnabas checking out the new church in the Gentile city of Antioch.

“As soon as he arrived, Barnabas saw that God was behind and in it all. He threw himself in with them, got behind them, urging them to stay with it the rest of their lives. He was a good man that way, enthusiastic and confident in the Holy Spirit’s ways.”  (Acts 11:22).

And it was Barnabas who travelled the 150 miles Tarsus, to recruit Saul in the key ministry of teaching these new Christians.

At that point Barnabas and Saul become a formidable double act.  In fact when we get to Acts 13 we find them in Cyprus.  And it is there, on Barnabas’ home patch, their roles are reversed: “Barnabas and Saul” becomes “Paul and Barnabas.”

However, Barnabas seems unperturbed.  You can tell that he is more than prepared to allow Paul to take centre stage.  After all it is Paul who has the drive and the intellect to enable the church to grow.

For Paul is goal-orientated.  In the jargon he “maintains high standards” and “aspires to accomplish difficult tasks. The ‘end’ is everything.

You sense a clash is coming.  And sadly it does as they are about to set off on a new mission journey.

“Barnabas wanted to take John along, the John nicknamed Mark. But Paul wouldn’t have him; he wasn’t about to take along a quitter who, as soon as the going got tough, had jumped ship on them in Pamphylia. Tempers flared, and they ended up going their separate ways: Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus; Paul chose Silas . . and went to Syria and Cilicia.”  (Acts 15:37-40  Message translation)

Paul did not want to risk his goal by taking along someone who had shown themselves to be unreliable.  The stakes are too great.  In total contrast Barnabas could see John Mark’s potential – for this son of encouragement, how we get there is just as important.

And, of course, it was Barnabas who was right!  For it was John Mark who produced a radically new genre of writing to share the Good News of Jesus:  the Gospel of Mark.

And for the record, the apostle Paul came to value Mark, such is the power of the Holy Spirit in bringing both growth and wholeness.

So there you are and here I am:  Buenos días, Buenos Aires!

And the first question which every traveller asks on their arrival:  “Where is the WiFi?

(Found it but only at our hotel – hence the long delay.  But a big thank you to another Mark for giving us a warm welcome and a friendly lift from the airport to our hotel)

Please do not put your airbrakes on over the vicarage in Aughton. Our vicar likes to sleep in.

April 28th, 2017


Well, this time next week – if all goes to plan – I will be some 35975 feet over the Amazonian rainforest.

And even stranger, this time in three weeks – as we return from Buenos Aires – we will be flying over the Saharan desert.

I know this because I have just consulted flightradar24 on my Mac.

It all started when I wanted to know which plane woke me up each morning as it applied its airbrakes right over our house.   Couldn’t they wait just two minutes when they were over Bickerstaffe?  They’re all farmers there and will driving their tractors with their ear-plugs in.

So I bought the app.  This shows the flight movements along with info about each plane in real time.  At least for those planes using an ADS-B transponder.

And I discovered my early-morning culprit.  It was invariably a Thomas Cook flight from the Caribbean, sometimes Orlando, making its final approach to Manchester International.   Like many of the planes flying over our house it is guided by the beacon in Wigan near the end of the M58.

As it happens many of us at church know two pilots who fly Thomas Cook.  This gave me an unexpected opportunity.  So I suggested that they pin a notice on their staff notice board. “Please do not put your airbrakes on over the vicarage in Aughton.  Our vicar likes to sleep in.”

Actually, as I write this, I now realize I didn’t hear the plane this morning – and so maybe, just maybe, my plan is working.

But we like to know what is happening around us, and in this case, above us.  To discover where that road leads, to know what is happening over there.

God has made us inquisitive.

It was Victorian educationalist Frank Moore Colby who wrote:  “Every man ought to be inquisitive through every hour of his great adventure down to the day when he shall no longer cast a shadow in the sun. For if he dies without a question in his heart, what excuse is there for his continuance?”

For when we stop asking questions, something important has died within us.  We need to discover, to understand what is happening. Just like young children.

This was certainly the case for Moses as he was tending the flock of his father-in-law.   As a shepherd he needs to keep his wits about him.  And then he sees something which he doesn’t understand – a bush is on fire and it does not burn up.

Clearly he must have been looking at those flames for some time before realising something strange was taking place.  It didn’t make sense.

Now Moses could have simply shrugged his shoulders and thought “Well, that’s strange!” and carried on moving.  But he didn’t.

“So Moses thought, ‘I will go over and see this strange sight – why the bush does not burn up.’” (Exodus 3:3).  As he does so he encounters God.  And history changes direction.

So this story of the Exodus begins, very much the template of how God works in our world to bring deliverance and lead us to the Promised Land.  And it begins with Moses’ curiosity, his questioning.  Maybe God was checking him out.

So we need to be alert to God, to the ways he works in his world and in our lives.  Often things happen, out-of-the-ordinary, to attract our attention, for us to stop and think “What’s happening here?”

This is certainly the case for many people in how they become Christians.  They see something happening in the life of their friend or family member – and it seems odd, even out-of-character.

It doesn’t have to be that they are becoming better people – more patient, less demanding.  Just that they are different in some unexpected way.  For what they are seeing is God at work.

Now I think about it a key priority of my ministry as vicar is to discover those places where God at work.  It’s not always obvious;  sometimes in the most unexpected locations with the most unlikely people.

You look for the tell-tale signs, sometimes barely perceptible.  Always the more visible, however, when seen in human weakness.

You look for God at work and then work with him. For this seems to be how Jesus operated.  So he explains to his opponents.  “I’m telling you this straight. The Son can’t independently do a thing, only what he sees the Father doing. What the Father does, the Son does.”  (John 5:19)

And in this we need the spiritual equivalent of flightradar24 – what the apostle Paul calls the gift of discernment.  For we need to see God at work, and we do so by being inquisitive, by looking beyond appearances and like Moses, be prepared to meet up with God himself.

So next time you see a vapour trail, don’t forget to wonder.