Vicar's Blog

We’ll praise him for all that is passed and trust him for all that is to come

September 22nd, 2017


Sunday, 8th April, 2018. That’s the date I am planning to retire as vicar of Christ Church Aughton.

And it’s going to be difficult, praise God.  Praise God because I enjoy being vicar here and I am not eagerly counting down the days before I hang up whatever vicars hang up when they retire.

But it is going to be a testing time.  I know that from speaking to retired vicars over the years.  “Grim,” shared John with me at the New Wine seminar last year.

The problem is that retiring as vicar involves too many changes at once. Each change is challenging enough by itself –  changing your job, leaving your church, moving house, new routines. But taken together retirement can be overwhelming, even more so if you overidentify with your role.

There is always the danger of blocking off.  That’s what blokes do. I know of two vicars who simply hid their retirement not only from their congregation but from themselves.  Or to seek refuge is overactivity or for me, going on long, meandering train journeys.  (Not that Jacqui would let me).

Moreover following Everton around the country is not a healthy option.  There are limits to what the human frame can take.

But significant life change is something we all have to face; it’s an unavoidable part of being human.  “Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most,” wrote Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in Crime and Punishment.

In fact, some 15 years ago a mother confided in me that she was so enjoying her young children that she wished she could freeze time and live that moment for ever.  As it happens her son started at university only this week.  Bring out the Kleenex.

But how do we handle major change in our lives?

The people of Israel experienced significant changes, not always unwelcome, during the course of the Old Testament.

Take the Exodus, for example.  In my Bible reading this morning the people despair in their predicament as slaves under Pharaoh.  They can see no way out.  Only God can help.

“Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.  God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”  (Exodus 2:23f).  That’s God as subject for a verb four times: you can’t be any clearer than that.   And God acts.

But having been liberated against all the odds, including the miracle of the Red Sea, what happens?.  God’s people are finding the change and the uncertainty too stressful.  Who wants to trek the wilderness and live off manna? They start to moan.

In words reminiscent of the Monty Python “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch God’s own people long for the wonderful life they enjoyed back in Egypt. “Why can’t we have meat? We ate fish in Egypt—and got it free!—to say nothing of the cucumbers and melons, the leeks and onions and garlic. But nothing tastes good out here; all we get is manna, manna, manna.”  (Numbers 11:4).

God has to keep his people moving forward, to the land he had promised them.  It’s worth it – “milk and honey” beats leeks and garlic any time.  Look forwards not back.

Similarly the writer to the Hebrews in the New Testament want to keep his fellow saints pressing on.  “Don’t drag your feet. Be like those who stay the course with committed faith and then get everything promised to them.”  (Hebrews 6:12).

He explains “God is educating you; that’s why you must never drop out. He’s treating you as dear children. This trouble you’re in isn’t punishment; it’s training, the normal experience of children.”  (Hebrews 12:8f)

For the reality is that we grow most as disciples of Jesus during difficult times, when those familiar routines and rhythms of life disappear, even abruptly.   We may be tempted to retreat to the past even one of our own imagination.

But nothing is gained by denying reality.  We are privileged to live with hope – we can look forward to the future with confidence.

So we need the courage to go wherever God may be leading us.  As he promises Jeremiah in the highly stressful situation of the exile, so he promises us. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”  (Jeremiah 29:11)

The challenge for Jacqui and I is to keep looking forward, to the next challenge God has for us.  After all we gave our lives to him.  It is his responsibility to direct us aright.

As we sang on our wedding day:  “We praise him for all that is past; And trust him for all that is come.”

Discipleship – an exercise in unlearning.

September 15th, 2017


In an attempt to maintain my fitness I am taking weekly swimming lessons at Ormskirk Park Pool –  and finding them extremely difficult.  The reason is that I can swim already.

Something I have been meaning to do for some time.  However, now that I have picked up two injuries to my knee and opposite foot, running is out for the time being.  Tragic.

The problem is that my default swimming style, like for everyone of my age group, is the breaststroke.  It’s a problem because it is not good for your back.   As a student I did teach myself a version of the front crawl (or freestyle) but as my daughter pointed out to me this summer I am doing it all wrong.  “Dad, it would help if you breathed.”

So I have decided to learn how to swim the freestyle properly.

For my first attempt earlier this week I could not even make a length of the pool.  As I found myself floundering and gasping for breath every muscle in my body pleaded to revert to my accustomed style.  It may not be pretty but at least I wouldn’t drown.

It’s one thing to learn how to swim; babies can do it.   It something else to unlearn your familiar stroke and try to override your muscle memory.

Incidentally I have just googled ‘muscle memory” to discover that it takes 3,000 to 5,000 repetitions to burn a movement into your body’s muscle memory.  That’s a lot of swimming.

It’s almost 50 years ago when I was first introduced to the concept of unlearning.  It was my first supervision in economics and Mrs. Hahn informed me that I would now have to unlearn everything I had learnt at A level.

Like when for the first time you drive a hire car in Europe.  Each time you need to change gear your left hand repeatedly hits the door.

You know the theory.  You’ve read the book, seen the YouTube training film.  No one needs to convince you that in a left-hand drive car you change gears with your right hand.  But to change the practice of a lifetime is hugely difficult.

It could take 3,000 to 5,000 gear changes before it becomes instinctive!

“The first problem for all of us, men and women,” admits veteran feminist Gloria Steinem, “is not to learn, but to unlearn.” She probably swims with the breaststroke too.

The New Testament is one long exercise in unlearning, such are the ramifications of the cross of Jesus.   Particularly for those Christians with a Jewish background.

Such as for Simon Peter.  He knew that Jesus had set aside the elaborate Jewish food laws so as to enable full and unrestricted fellowship with everyone, even Gentiles.

Peter knew all this but he found it extremely difficult to put aside a lifetime’s practice.  So in Acts 10 he is given a vivid vision where God tells him to eat what he was brought up to consider ritually unclean. “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”

He is then told not once but three times: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” So in obedience Peter takes the Gospel to Gentiles with the startling result that the Holy Spirit falls on centurion Cornelius.

You would have thought that this settled it for Peter – but no.  Some time later in Antioch, to the apostle Paul’s dismay, he withdraws from table fellowship with Gentiles “for fear of the circumcision faction.”  (Galatians 2:11-14).

Clearly avoiding table fellowship with Gentiles is deeply ingrained in this first disciple.  He has a lot of unlearning to do – but God is patient and, as we saw last week, unrelenting.

But that’s true of the Christian life as a whole, particularly if you became a disciple of Jesus as an older person and especially if you have had a ‘difficult’ upbringing.  There’s a lot of unlearning to do.

For as a beloved child of God we are challenged to live in a totally new way. And this means unlearning a whole set of responses which have over the years become part and parcel of our personality.

So someone hits you and your instinctive reaction is to hit them back. You have had a lifetime’s practice.  Your parents may have modelled it. Your peer group may have practiced it.  You may have watched too many episodes of the Sweeney.

But all this has to be undone, your reactions reprogrammed.  And it takes time and certainly many failures as your hand hits the car door yet again. We can become discouraged.

But the one lesson we do need to unlearn is that God’s grace has its limits, that there comes a point when he just gives up on us.  We gave the Christian life a try but it just didn’t work out.

But incredibly and against all common sense, God keeps at it, patiently and unperturbed by our repeated failure. God will never give up on us.

As the apostle Paul proclaims “ There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.” (Philippians 1:6).

Similarly I hope my swimming instructor does not give up on me, so that  when I next fall into the canal I instinctively freestyle to the edge with elegance and élan.

When God’s finished, I’m still the same me.

September 8th, 2017


“Hello, Adrian.  It’s Ross Moughtin!”
Huge laugh.
“Come right up.”

It’s September and once again I am organising the annual reunion of my class at Waterloo Grammar School 1960-1967.

It began when I met up with Doug in 2009.  We realized that it would soon be 50 years since we began our seven formative years together at WGS.  So I thought it a good idea to organise a reunion at the Royal.

However, such was the power of the internet the invitation went viral and no less than 24 classmates turned, most of whom I had not seen for those intervening 50 years.

We now do it every year.  Easy to organise.  Colin comes over each time from Vancouver Island.

However, one person we all had lost contact with was Adrian – which was a pity because he was the one who sat next to me in room B for a whole four years. Also we had both gone to the same primary school, St Nicholas’.  Adrian left WGS after ‘O-levels’ when his parents moved house.

Then last year he surfaced, living in Crosby of all places.  I emailed him – but no other contact.   Until yesterday.

While visiting my convalescing brother-in-law in Crosby I decided to simply do a cold call on Adrian:  I knew where he lived.  And I rang the doorbell.

It is strange meeting someone you know well but haven’t seen for 52 years.  Knowing it was Adrian I could see the familiar face – although I’m not sure I would have recognised him as a random stranger on a train.  His laugh and conversational style are exactly the same.

As are his habits.  His room, though filled with books, periodicals, newspapers and all kinds of stuff was as perfectly ordered as was his desk.  He can still put his finger on anything he is looking for.

The same enthusiasms too.  I recall being impressed when in 1963 he brought into school the freshly-published Buchanan report on Traffic in Towns.   Unsurprisingly he became a town planner.  And even in retirement he is active in the consultation for the future of Crosby village.

The same Adrian over the years.

Tomorrow is our wedding anniversary.  Way back in 1972 Jacqui embarked on a lifelong project to improve me.  Some 45 years later she realises that she has made negligible progress.

Similarly God has a challenge on his hands.  To become a Christian, a disciple of Jesus, is one thing.  That’s just the beginning.  To become more like Jesus, our sanctification, altogether something else.  However, God is undaunted.

The old Saints Together course began with an exercise of imagining a derelict cottage bought by an enthusiast.  They then begin a total renovation, starting, not with the wallpaper or soft furnishing but with the basics – the roof, walls and floor.   There is plan and there is purpose, not always obvious.

And that’s how God goes about transforming us as we surrender our lives to him.  He knows what he is doing and he is unrelenting.  Some of the work takes a long time with little discernible progress.  But he keeps at it, such is his love for us.

So when my friend Ken became a Christian all those years ago, he already was a heavy smoker. As a new Christian the pressure from his fellow saints was to quit smoking.

But he didn’t.  He could see that there were much bigger, far more significant problems in his life which the Holy Spirit needed to sort out.  Had he stopped smoking the ensuing battle would have taken all his energy.

No point laying down new carpets if the floor boards are rotten.

Ken was right  And only later did he stop smoking, successfully.  God begins with our basics and works from there.

And of course it takes a lifetime, such is the task facing the Holy Spirit   We have our responsibilities, of course.  I blogged earlier this summer about the spiritual disciplines, what we need to do to give the Holy Spirit space to work.  Here I paste from 4 August: “Bible reading, Communion, fasting, fellowship, meditation, prayer, retreats, Sabbath, service, solitude, study, worship.”

However, the point is that God’s purpose is to make me more like Jesus, not to be Jesus.  I am still me, the same personality and enthusiasms.  (Whether supporting EFC is a part of who I am as a person or a personality disorder to be healed, I leave to God’s judgement.  Probably the latter).

In other words, no need to fear the Holy Spirit, he honours me as a unique individual.  As Jesus taught, a good father no way will give his child a snake if they ask for a fish, a scorpion for an egg. “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”  (Luke 11:13).

In glory, when God finishes it’s still the same me, but now very different.

We are fearfully and wonderfully made.

September 1st, 2017

“The universe is not only stranger than we imagine,” concluded physicist and long-distance cyclist, Arthur Eddington, “it is stranger than we can imagine.”

That would be theme of the book I read on while on holiday:  “The universe in your hand.  A journey through space, time and beyond” by Christophe Galfard, who was Stephen Hawking’s graduate student 2000 to 2006.

Fascinating – and baffling.  For much of the time I hadn’t the foggiest what Galfard was trying to explain.  I could just about understand the paragraph I was reading but no way could I explain what I had just read.  Even so I was gripped.

Essentially – and this is my take on the whole subject of modern physics, there are three ways of approaching the physical world.

The first is the everyday world of common sense.  Here Sir Isaac Newton is the key player.  Apples fall on heads and we play billiards, relying on predictability.  You can predict even though Everton have just spent £43.15million, the ball will still miss the net.

However, there is a problem:  Mercury.  It seems that this planet’s orbit around the sun doesn’t take as long as it should using Newton’s calculations.  It’s one 500th of a second out per century.

I can’t say that ever worried me.  To be honest, I’d never even noticed.  But for those anoraks who do care, this was a totally unexplained and troubling observation.

It was Albert Einstein who was able to explain this by seeing the universe  in a totally new way, summed up in his famous E = MC2.

And here we have the second way of seeing reality – the Very Big, one describing our universe’s structure.  His two theories of relativity showed, for example, that mass and energy are actually the same thing.

Now, I could follow some of this.  I had a vague understanding that as you travel close to the speed of light, time for you slows down. And that gravity is a bending of the fabric of the universe caused by the objects it contains.

However, it was Einstein who said to his students:  “If you have understood me, than I haven’t been clear.”  He was right.

However, there is a third way of seeing reality and this is summed up with the word Quantum. When you see this word it means that we have left the world of common-sense.

Just one example which blew my mind.  You won’t understand it either – but it will blow your mind.

“The very small quantum world, it seems, is a mixture of possibilities. The quantum fields to which all particles belong are the sum of these possibilities and, somehow, one possibility is chosen out of all the existing ones just by seeing it, just by the very act of detecting it, whenever one tries to probe a particle’s nature. Nobody knows why or how this happens.”

The genius who gave us the world of the quantum is Werner Heisenberg.  As Galfard explained, “Heisenberg knew what he was talking about. But like everyone else every since he did not understand it.  It is beyond our intuition, it is contrary to common sense.”

I was struck by the story of American theoretical physicist, Hugh Everett III, who gave up physics as soon as he had finished his PhD in 1955 because it was too Weird, weird with a capital W.  His work has since held up and he has the status of a founding father.

According to Everett, we are living in a multiverse of countless universes, full of copies of each of us. “Unfathomably many parallel universes exist where all the possibilities, all the alternative outcomes, are facts. All possibilities happen. You just do not know about it.”

And so on, as we enter the world of quarks and gluons, string theory and different dimensions.  And whether there is a Theory of Everything.

However, what amazes me is how mere human beings, made of elements forged in the heat of the stars, have the capacity to understand the marvel of God’s creation using pure thought, the language of mathematics.

Brian Cox is just the latest cosmologist to conclude that the most precious, most wonderful thing in the entire incredible universe is us, human beings with the capacity to understand and with the potential to love, above all – to love the God who created us.

He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell,
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well.

*“The universe in your hand.  A journey through space, time and beyond” by Christophe Galfard is published by Pan Macmillan, 2015