Some things take time – like War and Peace

War and Peace

“I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes’ quipped Woody Allen.  “It involves Russia.”

So hats off to screenwriter Andrew Davies who has managed to abridge Leo Tolstoy’s four-volume novel (which runs to 1,440 pages in my Penguin edition) into just six hour-long episodes.

It’s some years since I read Tolstoy’s masterpiece pondering the Russian soul, with a list of the major characters close to hand.  So I was somewhat daunted by this new BBC production, wondering if I would be able to follow the plot.

But I can – and we look forward to watching episode 5 this Sunday.  And so relieved to see that Paul Dano’s Pierre Bezukhov has found some backbone.  Like Woody, I have no idea what happens next.

It seems that Davies has decided to focus on the central plot of this multi-layered novel – and simply ignore the rest.  And in doing so he has managed to maintain a composed and steady pace without any sense of rush.

In total contrast to the redoubtable Professor Hugh Turner, one of my lecturers at Durham. He decided to retire that Christmas and solved the problem of how to condense three terms of lectures into one by delivering them at three times the speed.

It didn’t work.

So we watch as Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, wonderfully played by Jim Broadbent, on hearing of the supposed death of his son slowly moves from stunned silence to dreadful weeping.  The camera lingers – as if the production has all the time in the world.  Brilliant.

It reminds me of the throwaway remark by John at the very end of his Gospel.  “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” (John 21:25)

John is explaining why, in contrast to the other Gospel writers, he recounts just seven of Jesus’ miracles – eight, if you include the great catch of fish following his resurrection.

There must have been hundreds, thousands even, of miracles wrought by Jesus.  Mark gives us a tantalising glimpse into this extraordinary ministry.  “And wherever Jesus went – into villages, towns or countryside – they placed those who were ill in the market-places. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.”  (Mark 6:56)

But John has decided to focus on just seven.  Moreover, his pace is slower, more measured, than the other evangelists, particularly Mark who always seems to be in a hurry.

And more than this, John goes into much greater detail, even taking us into the minds of the central characters.  Sometimes we are not sure whether it is Jesus speaking or John reflecting.

John goes for depth and like screenwriter Davies, he wants us to pause and ponder, to deliberate the moment, unlike the frenetic pace of today’s media. I for one always expect a car chase.

And such is our obsession with portable devices that our attention span is now less than that of a goldfish, one Microsoft study finds.:  now just eight seconds.

But John the evangelist wants us to ponder, to mull, to reflect.  As his colleague Peter writes  “God’s giving everyone space and time to change.” (Peter 3:9).

Clearly there is an urgency to the Gospel message, our equivalent to Napoleon will soon be storming the gates.  We can’t keep putting God on hold.

But some things just take time and cannot be hurried.  As Diana Ross reflects

“I need love, love to ease my mind

I need to find, find someone to call mine

But mama said you can’t hurry love

No you just have to wait.”

So decide now to wait for God this Lent in a way that works for you.  In the attached notices you will read of using LENT for everyone by Bishop Tom Wright as a resource.

As Tolstoy himself declares:  “In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.”

Can God be trusted with a blank cheque?

Man-writing-cheque-008

Do I trust God with a blank cheque on my life?

That is essentially the challenge of the Wesley Covenant Prayer used by many British churches – including our own – at the beginning of this new year.

The prayer was adapted around about 1755 by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, for use in services for the Renewal of the believer’s Covenant with God.

I am no longer my own, but yours.

Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;

put me to doing, put me to suffering;

let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,

exalted for you, or brought low for you;

let me be full,

let me be empty,

let me have all things,

let me have nothing:

I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things

to your pleasure and disposal.

And now, glorious and blessed God,

Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

you are mine and I am yours. So be it.

And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.

Amen.

It’s a daunting challenge, running totally against the commitment-avoiding consumerist mindset of our culture.  There are no opt-out clauses, no conditions.  Commitment is total.

“I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.”

I recall on graduation praying to God:  “Lord, I will go anywhere you want (except for Liverpool).”  And so I found myself working for the Liverpool Social Services Department.  Those three years as an unqualified child care officer were hugely formative.

Then contemplating a career move, a similar prayer:  “Lord, I will serve you however you want (but not as a vicar in the Church of England).”  So I was accepted for ordination, having a seminal three years at Cranmer Hall, Durham.

I was beginning to realise how God responds to conditional prayers and so some years later, in deciding where to minister, I prayed “Lord, I will move wherever you want me to go (except for the south of France).”  And God said “That’s fine with me – you can go to Rochdale!”

But the question still remains for each disciple of Jesus:  do we trust him enough to offer him a blank cheque on our lives?

The apostle Paul draws out the implications of God’s astonishing grace:. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  (Romans 12:2)

So then how do we resist the anxieties and angst of our culture?  How are we to think?  The apostle continues:  “Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

And there’s the key:  God’s will for us, for me even, is good, pleasing and perfect.  Not only is it good – which is good enough for me;  not only is it pleasing – and we all like to be pleased; it is perfect i.e. just right, faultless and flawless.  God’s perfect will is for me.  And all by grace.

As Frodo Baggins declares to the Council of Elrond:  “I will take the Ring though I do not know the way.”

So at this beginning of this new year, may we give God space in our lives so that we can enjoy his good, pleasing and perfect will.

After all he has invested heavily in us – just look at the Cross when Jesus says to us:  “I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.”  For every covenant is two-way.

Notices and family photo attached.

Every blessing for this new year!

(Now off to the first ParkRun of the year)

The wonder of Christmas

Jesus is born

It may be Christmas Day but it is still a Friday, which means my compulsion to blog. (I should seek counselling for OCB).

Serependitiously (now that’s an adverb I rarely use) I now realise that several folk following Sunday’s carol service asked me for quotes from my sermon.  So as a means of saving time and so that I can make it to the 8.00 service of Holy Communion on time, I now paste and edit:
Today we celebrate the astonishing claim, as made by John in the prologue to his Gospel, “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:14)

That the God of all creation should come amongst us as one of us is really remarkable.  As Charles Wesley composed, that he should be “pleased as man to man to dwell.”

That the God of all creation should come to us as the babe of Bethlehem.

Space in the news at the moment with Major Tim Peake  taking his place in the international space station.

At his press conference 250 miles aloft, he reflected:  “But what people don’t mention that much is when you look in the opposite direction (away from earth) and you see how dark space is. It is just the blackest black and that was a real surprise to me.”

What he is seeing, or not seeing, is billions of galaxies in the vastness of space, in a universe much too big for our minds to comprehend.

This year we have been celebrating the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, his insight that creation is too wonderful for our minds can grasp.  We continue to discover just how little we do know about God’s handiwork.

In fact, we cannot account for 95% of matter he made.  We think it is there but we don’t know what it is.

We can only marvel that the one who made all this should come among us as one of us.

But the Bible comes to the incarnation from a different direction, not from the wonder of sheer scale but the awe, fear even, of the otherness of God.  Such is God’s intense holiness and overwhelming beauty, we cannot stand in his presence and survive the encounter.

God, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, is Holy, Holy, Holy.

And yet the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

Bishop Augustine of Hippo, marvels:
Man’s maker was made man
that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast;
that the Bread might hunger,
the Fountain thirst,
the Light sleep,
the Way be tired on its journey;
that Truth might be accused of false witnesses,
the Teacher be beaten with whips,
the Foundation be suspended on wood;
that Strength might grow weak;
that the Healer might be wounded;
that Life might die.”

Amazing that this Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
Our response to all this?

There is one quote which oversees my own life, one that determined how I should live, from CS Lewis

“Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”

Such is the wonder of incarnation, the message of Christmas. If true it cannot be moderately important.  We can’t just say “Well, that’s interesting!”

If it is false, we can just dismiss him but if Jesus is the person he claims to be, he is of infinite importance.  We need to listen, our total imperative;  we must know what he expects of us.  No less.

What does he expect?
To receive him, to believe in his name,

So that through him we might become children of God, that we simple and sinful human beings may enter into a relationship of love with our creator. With the God who came to us as one of us

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Enjoy his day!

How to dance in the rain

“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

I came across this wonderful quote from children’s author, Vivian Greene, on display in a church member’s home.  For in many ways it summarises the Christian’s approach to life, especially when times are tough.

So the apostle James can write “When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives my brothers and sisters, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends.”  (James 1:2 JBP).

In fact this is a general trend in the whole of the New Testament.  So the apostle Paul rejoices “This doesn’t mean, of course, that we have only a hope of future joys—we can be full of joy here and now even in our trials and troubles.” (Romans 5:3).

Life is tough – but that is no reason for not enjoying the presence and promises of God.  In fact, the very opposite because it is in this present life which God has chosen to inhabit.  Above all, this is the message of Christmas.

While I was a vicar in Rochdale I developed a habit of a simple daily journal:  so simple, usually just three lines in the days when I used a pen.  The first two lines were ten items for prayer: five for our church and our mission and five for me and my concerns.

Then on the third line I would write what I thought that God was saying to me that day.  Just pause, think and then write.  No great introspection deep into my soul, just what comes from the top of my head.  Not that I gave it any special status at the time:  just a simple log to be reviewed in the future.

And looking back over the years, I think I often got it right.  And the most frequent message which I recorded?  “Ross, enjoy me.”

In ministry there are so many opportunities to be earnest, to be pressing on through the rain (just like my run yesterday).  “When the road is rough and steep, keep your eyes on Jesus!”  For day by day ministry, we need grit, a complete commitment to the course ahead.

But that is only half the story.  The main component is that as disciples of Jesus we are living our lives with him.  So when Jesus calls his disciples, Mark tells us that “He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.” (Mark 3:14f)

Before their commission to preach and deliver, these first disciples (or learners) are given the privilege of just being with Jesus.  But as I read in my BRF Guidelines yesterday “much of their time is spent simply walking with him, chatting over meals, getting to know Jesus, observing him, watching him praying and picking up his attitudes and values, like children learning from a parent.”

To say the very least, living with Jesus must have been a hugely enjoyable experience for those disciples.  And for us too, as we live our lives with him, our Emmanuel.  This has to make all the difference, even in the most testing of situations.  No wonder joy is to be the distinctive mark of the Christian, even at the height of the storm.

So no wonder that Paul and Silas, unjustly imprisoned, in the dark of the inner cell of the Philippian gaol, their feet padlocked, their prospects pitiful, start to sing.  As Luke records for us: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.”

Clearly they knew the secret of how to dance in the rain.

24th Jan 2014 – by Phil Weston

I’ve been unwell this week, rendered immobile by a nasty leg infection. (As I write this I’m sitting down with my leg propped up at 30 degrees!). So it’s been a rather frustrating week of inactivity interspersed with hospital visits.

Yet, from a Christian perspective, there are some redeeming features of enforced immobility due to minor illness or injury:

1) It forces us to rest. God himself rested after his work of creation, and in the Old Testament he set strict limits on what activities could be done by his people on their weekly Sabbath rest. In our modern interconnected 24/7 society, opportunities to rest are especially valuable, even when they are forced on us by ill health. Not only does rest restore us physically, it also helps us spiritually by forcing us to rely on God’s power and grace, not our own efforts and energies.

2) It gives us time to reflect. Another consequence of our fast-paced society is that we have few opportunities to pause, pray, and review the direction of our lives. In his book “Do nothing and change your life!” Stephen Cottrell (Bishop of Chelmsford) reminds us that we may need to stop what we are doing before we can clearly hear God speak to us and discern his future leading. Convalescence is one such opportunity.

3) It reminds us of our Christian hope. Even the most minor illness is a gentle reminder of our mortality. Bodily ailments remind us that our true and lasting home is on another shore. Our bodies here are fallible and finite, but in the world to come they will have the same splendour as Christ’s resurrection body.

A wonderful hope to treasure when illness or injury lays us low in this life.

Faith in real time is tough

risks

Looking back it all seems so inevitable – but it didn’t feel like that at the time.

The story of the building and commissioning of the Ministry Centre is quite a read.  All human life is there – drama and dangers, setbacks and breakthroughs, dreams and completions.  There were a few times when the whole project appeared to falter, sometimes for months at a time.

But in all this we found God faithful.  It wasn’t easy at the time but there was a sense that he was at work through all this.  Whatever would happen, he would see us through to completion.  And he did.

I’m in this situation again, something in my own life apart from Christ Church and from ministry.  I can’t tell the story yet simply because it hasn’t finished and it will only make sense once it has finished.  But God spoke to me, confirming this guidance through other people and through unexpected events, and once again I so am stepping out in faith.

Once completed it could make a wonderful story honouring God in his faithfulness.  But there again, I may be wrong and heading down the garden path.  As I write this, I simply do not know for sure.

This should be a familiar situation to every Christian as God calls us to step out in faith.  Always an element of risk – but it is how we grow as Christians through the testing of our faith.

Our instinct is to ask God for a sign, often forgetting that we may well be responding to a previous sign.  To quote George Caird is his commentary on Luke,  we long for “a certainty that leaves no room for doubt and, incidentally, no room for faith.”

That observation helped me see the whole Nativity narrative in a new light – how the birth of Jesus happened at the time, what it felt like to be there not knowing how the story would end.

It is so much easier for us.  Living on this side of the resurrection we know that the angel of the Lord got it right – but it wasn’t obvious at the time.  Certainly not to the startled Zechariah.

“How can I be sure of this?”

Not the kind of question you would normally ask of an angel of the Lord standing at the right side of the altar of incense.  But I know where Zechariah is coming from.  “If I step out in faith, I want to be sure.  There’s no fool like an old fool!”

And of course, his request is answered.  He is given a sign;  in fact he becomes a sign.   So he emerges from the evening sacrifice dumb and probably deaf (the Greek word can mean both).  He makes signs to the puzzled people, Luke adds possibly with irony.

In fact, only the shepherds are given a sign from God:  his messengers tell them “You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”  But Mary and then Joseph simply take the message of the angel at face value.  At some considerable personal risk, they decide to believe.

Remarkably Mary praises God in song for his faithfulness at the beginning rather than at the end of the story.  A remarkable faith!

Looking back it all seemed so inevitable – but it didn’t feel like that to Mary and Joseph at the time.  And Joseph himself never knew his vindication – he died before Jesus began his ministry.

But this is how it is, folks, if we are to follow Christ.  Hence John Wimber’s famous quote on how faith is spelt.  But this is how we grow as Christians as our faith in God’s promises is forged.

This means that we decide to place our confidence in what God can do through us, rather than in what we can do for God.  For as the angel Gabriel encouraged Mary:  “Nothing, you see, is impossible with God.”  (Luke 1:37).  This has to be the message of Christmas – the God who does what it takes, even making the impossible happen.  Such is his love for us.

So we look forward to our Christmas services, as shown in the attached notices for the next two weeks.

And a merry Christmas!

Is there any hope in this vase universe?

shapeimage_1

It is a truly terrifying prospect, of drifting away, alone and defenceless, into the vastness of space, with no hope of recovery.   I had to hold firmly onto my seat as wearing 3D glasses, we watched “Gravity” (12A) at the Odeon in Liverpool One on Monday.

Obviously I won’t give the plot, just to say it is how a pair of astronauts, played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, are stranded in space after an accident.

You must watch this remarkable film by Mexican director, Alfonso Cuaron, in a 3D cinema. Truly memorable, in the same class of Stanley Kubrick’s epic “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  There are many parallels, not least in the spiritual dimension, the sense that an allegory is being played out as human beings seek to venture into the silence of darkest space.

There is so much beauty.  Some of views of earth below are truly stunning.  But also a sense of menace.  Through technological expertise human beings can break free from the law of gravity but there is no escaping Murphy’s law.  If things can go wrong, they will go wrong– at the worse possible time.

In which case, why do we hold on to hope so tightly?  Why do we hold on so tenaciously to life when faced with certain doom?  Is there hope in ahopeless situation?

Fundamentally, are we alone in this vast universe?  Dr Ryan Stone, played so brilliantly by Bullock, faces certain death, not in some indeterminate future but within an hour.  She wants to pray but she doesn’t know how.

One verse kept coming to mind, from Psalm 139.
“Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
If I make my bed in the depths, you are there.”

It was Albert Einstein who concluded that the most important question a person can ask is, “Is the Universe a friendly place?”

“If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.”

Yes, life can be frightening and we will often sense our vulnerability and be only too aware of our own mortality.  But the Maker of the heavens and the earth is for us.

So as the nights draw in and the cold seeps in to our homes, the good news is Emmanuel, God is with us.  And in a way we could never ever imagine!

If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,’
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.”

When God bounces your life up and down

“Let me tell you a story.”

This could be an introduction to the scriptures – for that is what the Bible is, a story, with a beginning, middle and end.  Even those parts of the Bible – the law code, proverbs, Paul’s epistles, for example – which do not seem to be story-telling can only be fully understood in their original context, of belonging to a narrative.

Above all, Jesus delighted in telling a story, often without explanation and usually to the puzzlement of his listeners.  We love stories.

For the earlier part of this week I attended a conference/retreat at Sarum College in Salisbury at the request of the Diocese.  It was for those who have been in ministry for a long time.  I brought my bus pass, just in case.

At the heart of this excellent three day time of teaching and reflection, we were encouraged to describe our story of being in ministry, from the first hints of a call to the present day.  First, as part of a timeline, using coloured pens and an A1 page.  Yes, A1 – we were expected to go into some detail.  Then, to share in small groups of five.

What really helped was the amount of time we were given to remember, recall, reflect and staying on the theme of activities beginning with R, to run – when I do these things best.

Others simply sat or wandered around the building next door, which happened to be Salisbury Cathedral.  (Photo attached, when I found myself alone in the building for the early morning service).

What came out of this exercise of looking back is that I discovered that the most important parts of my life seemed to begin with a period of uncertainty and some confusion.  Then something unexpected  would happen, often a chance event, through which God spoke.

This resonated with our Bible studies on the story of the call of Moses.  Moses, now somewhat elderly, even older than me, was looking after his father-in-law’s sheep.  I suppose he expected that was now his life, even though he often thought about the situation he had fled from in Egypt.

He was probably very troubled, carrying a burden of guilt and personal failure.  If he wasn’t, then he should have been.

In Exodus 3:2 something odd happens, he sees a bush blazing away but it didn’t burn up. So he decides to walk towards it to see what was happening.  God now has his attention.

No one like being uncertain and unsure of the future – but it gives God space, an opportunity to change the direction of our life.  As I write these words now, I remember how at the time I described how God called me to ordination.

It was like the physics experiment at school when we poured iron filing onto a sheet of paper over a strong magnet.  As you shook the paper and bounce the filings up and down, they began to reveal the underlying magnetic field.  And God was shaking my life.

This may be you today.  God is unsettling you.  It seems that life is bouncing you up and down.  Then, be alert to anything unexpected, odd, unanticipated.  And like Moses take time out “to turn aside and see this great sight.”  God may be at work.

Like Moses, you may not like what God is saying but that’s not the point.  The point is that you are on track to do his will.

Along with this week’s notices (as usual in pdf so that everyone can read them on any device and in rtf for those of you who need to work with them) there is the Facebook posting from Graeme Scroggie which I mentioned in last week’s blog.  An example of Facebook being used in a creative and powerful way.

Also my snap of being alone in Salisbury Cathedral.  I have already posted this to those of you in the Christ Church Facebook group.

(Please join – search Christ Church, Aughton on Facebook and click to join).

The importance of saying Thank you!

So there I was, being driven in a taxi through the heart of the Finnish countryside in the midnight sun singing “We plough the fields and scatter!”

I won’t go into the story how I came to be totally lost but during the midsummer festival I became detached from my friends.  Thankfully a taxi came to my rescue but I couldn’t recall the name of the agricultural college where my athletics team was based (you try to remember Tarvaalan Moatalousooppilaitos!).

My Finnish was zero as was the driver’s English.  So I drew a picture of a tractor and started the sing the well-known harvest hymn, which I knew had started life as the German “Wir pflügen und wir streuen”

(i.e. it was foreign).

Actually, it didn’t work but whenever I sing that hymn, as will in about 90 minutes time), it all comes back.  So many hymns and Christian worship songs carry all kinds of strange memories for each of us.  We may well associate them with people, places or even emotions.

Harvest festival itself, which in today’s format has a relatively recent history from a Victorian Morwenstow in Cornwall, will carry some rich memories.  I look forward to our school’s harvest festival in church this morning, when two of our granddaughters will be offering their carefully presented harvest parcels, an important childhood moment.

Some years ago the Ministry Team discussed at some length whether we should discourage children from bringing fresh fruit and produce.

Tins and dry produce would be so much more sensible.  But to do would take away an important component of harvest thanksgiving.

Okay, some fresh fruit (bananas especially) may need to be taken to the compost rather than to some home-bound pensioner but to make a fruit basket to offer at church does have a powerful resonance.  By our actions we declare our total dependence on God, the Lord of the harvest, season by season.  Fresh fruit and vegetables are self-evidently not manufactured.

And more, they speak of a whole process, harvest takes time. As Søren Kierkegaard (another foreigner) pointed out “patience is necessary, and one cannot reap immediately where one has sown.”

Jesus often spoke about harvest and reaping, in parable and in his exhortations.  Only God can give growth but he calls us to participate in his harvest as co-workers, colleagues.  “I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.” (John 4:35).

And that’s the wonder of harvest.  It is at the very heart of what it means to be a human being.  So here in Genesis 2, we read that “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”  (verse 15).  Right at the outset we are called work the land and harvest its abundance, our deepest fulfilment.

And it is no coincidence that the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured onto the church, to each believer, at Harvest Festival. (Pentecost is the old Greek and Latin name for the Jewish harvest festival, Shevuot).

God’s purpose?  “That we may be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.”

(Philippians 1:11), something only God can do.

So let’s celebrate harvest!

“All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above,

Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord for all His love.”

We all need encouragement

encouragement

The owner of Norton Grange hotel, opposite our vicarage in Rochdale, was planning to open a health club.  He came over to win our support.

“It wouldn’t make that much difference,” he tried to reassure us.  “Only 8% of members actually use the facilities.”   Clearly the only exercise the 92% get is opening their bank statement each month.

This Sunday is “Back to Church Sunday”, which began just down the road from Rochdale nearly ten years ago with the goal of mobilising membership. I guess the overwhelming majority of the members of Norton Grange Spa keep meaning to turn up for a workout but need a gentle/not-so-gentle push to hit the cross trainer.  They need a friend to go with them.

And that’s the secret – the encouragement of a friend.  For BTCS has taken off and gone global. A recent Tearfund survey showed that there were at least three million people in England who would come back to church if they had an invitation.  It’s a great opportunity for those who, for whatever reason, have lost the habit of church, attendance and BTCS offers an opening, one we should take full advantage of.

For worshipping together on a Sunday continues to be at the heart of what it means to be a Christian; it is how we belong to the body of Christ.  Clearly there are huge pressures now as the place of Sunday has been radically changed over the last 20 years but it was no easier for those first Christians. For them Sunday worship was integral to being a follower of Jesus.

One of the most compelling arguments for the resurrection of Jesus is the fact that Christians, to begin with overwhelmingly Jewish, started worshipping together on the first day of the week. For the record, all four gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection make clear that it took place on the first day of the week, evidently a very important detail.

Remember, it would be equivalent of us worshipping on a Monday, the first day of our working week.  For the keeping of the Sabbath – the seventh day of the week – was at the heart of their Jewish faith, the day set aside as a day of rest and made holy by God (Genesis 2:2–3).

Visiting Israel I was struck how the whole rhythm of the place slows down on the Friday afternoon.  You cannot underestimate the power of the Shabbat.

And yet overnight this defining characteristic was abandoned by those first disciples of the risen Jesus. From now on they were to be defined by his resurrection – as shown by their worship on the first day of the week, before or after work.

All this must have seemed very strange to their Jewish neighbours and no doubt it caused the early Christians all kinds of problems.  But Sunday worship stuck as the Gospel moved out of its Jewish hinterland.

By Acts 20 Christians were coming together on the first day to break bread, in the evening presumably at the end of the working day – even if Eutychus did fall out of the window.

And by Revelation 1 the first day (Jews did not have names for their weekdays, just numbers) started to be known as the Lord’s Day.

Not long after this, about 111 AD, the Roman lawyer, Pliny the Younger, describes Christian practice. “They had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verse alternately among themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god. . . . After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind.”

So there you are, Sunday is special and as Christians we are summoned together on the day of resurrection to worship, to learn, to encourage.  It’s who we are.

For as we read in Hebrews 10:25 (Message translation):   “Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshipping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching.”

So think who you can spur on – either for BTCS or for our Alpha launch this coming Wednesday.

13th September 2013

That God works in our lives is a fundamental.  The question is how?

For the truth is that as we speak, as I type this, God is at work at a much deeper level than we realize.  To use an analogy from computers the Holy Spirit functions within our basic operating system rather than an external input.

It was CS Lewis who observed a generation ago that if God places a thought into our minds, we think that we are thinking it.

I write this as the US and Russian governments are negotiating how to respond to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government.  This time last week it seemed a totally intractable situation. (It may still be.)

But then on Monday in a press conference in London Secretary of State Kerry made what appeared to be a gaffe in answering a question from one of the reporters.  We’ve all done it.  We find ourselves speaking something we didn’t mean to say – it just comes out in an offhand comment.

“Sure. (Assad) could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week. Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.”

And yet this unguarded remark, which was seen as a mistake at the time, could resolve the crisis.  If you are reading this in a few weeks time you will know whether it did.

But it is strange how often this happens.  When I am speaking in church, even preaching, I find myself saying something I didn’t mean to say.  Then I think “Why did I say that?”

Some year ago in a Family Service I was speaking on the life of Moses, when I found myself adding an observation not in my notes.  “Where did

that come from?” I thought at the time.   I soon found out.

Right after the service a member of the congregation accosted me:

“Ross, what are you doing to me?”  It seemed that that particular fact had a special and powerful resonance for that person in their situation.  God had spoken through my unplanned comment, not that in any way did I feel inspired.  It just came out.  And that’s the point – when God plants a thought in your mind, you think you are thinking it.

It happened again on Tuesday.  I was walking to visit a someone using a road I don’t often go down.  As I passed one house, I said hello to the bloke standing at his front door.  Immediately he looked shocked, then started shaking his head before beginning to laugh.  “Absolutely incredible,” he kept on saying. “What are the odds of that happening?”

I knew what was happening – I recognized the signs right away.  Not a church member, he was pondering a serious thought before concluding “I must ask Ross whenever next I see him.” He then looked him when someone greeted him –  to find it was me.

I’ve written about this before.  When we find ourselves in a Godincidence, simply work back in your mind how it happened.

Invariably you will find there were no blinding lights or angels whispering in your ear.  It just happened through the normal processes of life.

So where does all this leave us?

For the Psalmist there is no doubt:

“God, investigate my life;

get all the facts firsthand.

I’m an open book to you;

even from a distance, you know what I’m thinking.

You know when I leave and when I get back;

I’m never out of your sight.

You know everything I’m going to say

before I start the first sentence.

I look behind me and you’re there,

then up ahead and you’re there, too—

your reassuring presence, coming and going.”

(Psalm 139:1-6 Message translation)

And his conclusion:  “This is too much, too wonderful—    I can’t take it all in!”

We simply offer our lives to God, afresh each morning, confident of his presence and assured of his guidance.  It’s all very matter-of-fact.  We don’t need warm feelings or a heightened sense of God’s presence.  For he is there anyway.

We simply decide to operate on the basis that God keeps his promises, which find their YES in Christ.  That is all we need.

And amazingly he can even use our gaffes!

Do Something

As soon as I entered the Cheque Centre shop in Burscough Street yesterday afternoon, I realized this was not the kind of place Archbishop Justin would want me to patronize.

I now find out that in just five years this payday loan company has enjoyed sales of a £615.7million without paying any corporation tax.  No wonder – their APR for short-term loans can be 1410%.  They prey on the weak.

I won’t be going back.

There were two queues – and I took the one on the right, behind the gentleman who seemed to know what he was doing. (I was in a hurry). What he was doing was obtaining what appeared to be a large sum of holiday cash.  Cheque Centre give the best exchange rates in Ormskirk – that’s why I was there, buying some Euros for our family holiday in Brittany.

On my left was an elderly lady (at least, she was older than me) trying to trade in some mobile phones with some awkwardness.  I could see that they were clapped out-Nokias.  She got nothing.

Two queues – in microcosm, two worlds.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that nearly 870 million people, or one in eight people in the world, suffered from chronic undernourishment in 2010-2012.  Say that again, one in eight are starving.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation Worldwide estimates that obesity has nearly doubled since 1980.  In 2008, more than 1.4 billion adults, 20 and older, were overweight. I would imagine things are no better five years later.

This is not simply injustice on a large scale, it is an affront to God himself.

I would be appalled and ashamed if some of my daughters lived in ostentatious prosperity while their sisters with their children were chronically undernourished.

Q  – What do we do?

A –   Do something.

As disciples of Jesus, we are not allowed to opt out, to be daunted by the huge odds, to be intimidated by the size of the task.  For God’s sake, we refuse to accept things as they are.

Christians differ, of course, as to how to approach the problem – either radical change of the system or gradual reform from within.  But what unites us, in the words of Ronald Sider, is the scandal of rich Christians in a age of hunger.

He writes:  “God’s Word teaches a very hard, disturbing truth. Those who neglect the poor and the oppressed are really not God’s people at all—no matter how frequently they practice their religious rituals nor how orthodox are their creeds and confessions.”

So here in Ormskirk, we aim to serve the poor and the disadvantaged.  Debt counselling, the food bank, even street pastors.  And we endeavour, by our support of Christian workers, like the Leake’s (“Welcome back to Salta, Andrew”) and Christian agencies, to combat injustice.  Often it seems that we are just chipping away.

It’s a start but we haven’t finished, by no means.  Very simply, the love of Christ compels us to do no less.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”  (Matthew 25:40)

Notices for the next two weeks attached.

Next blog – 30 August.

Must dash – a ferry to catch.

Christians – a soft touch

object006

“A lie can travel half way around the world.” observed the renown Baptist minister Charles Spurgeon, “while the truth is putting on its shoes.” And that was in 1859, long before the internet, even before electricity!

Yesterday several friends, some members of Christ Church, posted on Facebook the remarkable story of Pastor Jeremiah Steepek along with his photo.  It seems that he attended his first service as the newly appointed pastor of an American mega church posing as a homeless person.  “He greeted people to be greeted back with stares and dirty looks, with people looking down on him and judging him.”

The story reaches its moving climax when, as his appointment is announced, Mr Steepek moves to the altar to reveal his true identify.

“He looked towards the congregation and told them all what he had experienced that morning. Many began to cry and many heads were bowed in shame.”

Deeply moving story – what a pastor!

Except the whole thing is a fraud, even the photograph – which, as it happens, is of a authentically homeless man.  Someone somewhere made the whole thing up and it went viral.

And not just in cyberspace.  Yesterday evening Peter Chalk emailed me with a link from the Evangelical Alliance concerning the ministry of evangelist Tony Anthony.  Some of you may remember this three times kung fu world champion from his appearance at Ormskirk Civic Hall in 2006, sponsored by Ormskirk Churches Together.  The meeting I attended was for ministers held at Cottage Lane Mission, in which he tried to organise our outreach.

A powerful testimony.  Some of you bought his book “Taming the Tiger”

still on sale at Amazon at £5.24 (still delivered free if you can wait for standard delivery!).

Sadly, a fraud.  The EA’s somewhat restrained statement reads:  “The panel produced its report on 26 June 2013 and concluded, based on the evidence submitted to it, that large sections of the book Taming the Tiger, and associated materials, which claim to tell the true story of Tony Anthony’s life, do not do so.”

Such fraud has dogged my ministry.  Even at my ordination as deacon in Liverpool Cathedral, all those years ago in a more innocent age, one of my fellow candidates was a complete fraud. He had totally deceived the Diocese about his background to become a non-stipendiary minister in Formby.  I was totally taken in by him; there was no reason to doubt his word.  He was eventually exposed by his employer, Liverpool University – but never un-ordained, as it happened.

I guess it boils down to human nature, to our need to impress, our longing to be someone else.  It’s down to the big three:  money, sex or power.

The early church was bedevilled with so-called disciples pretending to be more than they were.  The apostle Paul was continually hassled by rivals making exalted claims for themselves in order to gain status and influence.  He makes so many references to false apostles, even those who deceived for financial gain (2 Corinthians 2:17).

Such was the problem that these early churches had to rely on letters of recommendation.  You can’t be too sure.  So Paul writes: “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you?  You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone.”  (2 Corinthians 3:1f).

So we need to be cautious, even if it comes across as being cynical.

I have to regularly check people out, sometimes with the Diocese.

It’s a sound practice to google key phrases from some remarkable story.  Christians can be a soft touch.

And yet Jesus could not have made it any plainer. “‘Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.  By their fruit you will recognise them.”

(Matthew 7:15).

He warns us: “For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.”

(Mark 13:22).

And for ourselves, as children of light, we simply cannot exaggerate claims or distort the facts, even for the sake of the Gospel.  So easily done.  You can’t be too diligent:  the truth is too important.

For as Jesus promises us:  “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)

Companies Can Sin

rbs

So its seems that not only will I be paid by the Church of England, I could be banking with the CofE as well!

The financial press is reporting that the Church Commissioners are major players in a group bidding for the 316 branches of the Royal Bank of Scotland.  We are talking about £1bn, the kind of money only Premier league footballers are familiar with.

And they have a chance!  Those in the know reckon that the HM Treasury want to be seen to accept the most ethical offer.

I have been banking with William and Glyns/RBS since a student, during which time I have seen a seismic shift in banking culture.

This was demonstrated in the mid 1980’s when Jacqui took a cold phone call.  “Would you like a holiday in the Caribbean?” was the hook.  Yes – but no way could we afford it.  “Don’t worry – we can lend you the money!”

It seems that the caller making such an irresponsible offer was on the staff of our local RBS branch reaching for her target. I know that if I had sought the advice of Mr Martin my old-fashioned bank manager, he would have been totally appalled had we gone for the loan.

No wonder that he and virtually all his colleagues took early retirement.  It seemed that overnight there was no one over the age of 50 in local banking, a whole generation of invaluable experience had been rendered irrelevant.

I remember talking to Nigel who had a senior position in National Westminster.  The pressures on him were such that he wanted to become a postman.  Good people were being put under pressure to do wrong things.

And of course, the outcome was inevitable.  Sadly we all have suffered as a result of the banking crisis.  The banks had become too big to fail as they had lost their ethical bearings.  Or in the words of Archbishop Justin’s college dissertation (incidentally, I went to Cranmer Hall too!) companies can sin.  And they do.

“I don’t believe in good human beings,” Justin explains, “but I believe you can have structures that make it easier to make the right choice or the wrong choice.”

The use of the word “sin” is fascinating:  it implies God and it implies responsibility.  And it can also imply punishment.

One of the recommendations of the parliamentary commission on banking standards, in which Archbishop Justin played a leading role, was that senior bankers who act irresponsibly should go to prison.

Clearly we need banks, and that means bankers, to act ethically, especially if they hold strategic positions.

For what counts is the culture of each bank, in fact of any organisation we may belong to. It is the ethos of the company that determines whether laws will be broken and social responsibilities ignored.

And this means all of us, not just those with leadership positions – although leaders must make quite clear by their actions, as well as by their communications, what standards they hold themselves and everyone else to.

So will RBS at 24 Derby Street be handing out New Testaments to his customers?  What we could hope for is that it will be operating on New Testament principles.  For strangely, as Jesus taught, when you put the Kingdom of God first, everything else then follows!

It is no coincidence that many of our banks –Barclays and Lloyds, to mention two – were founded by Quakers.  It’s how they thrive, from rich ethical soil.

How can a funeral be a celebration?

clive

Clive was a character, a one-off, whose life we celebrate later today in his thanksgiving service.  For many of us a daily visit to the BBC Scottish website ended when the news was broken to his family two weeks ago that his body had been found in a remote Highland stream.

It would seem that Clive lost his balance and banged his head in the fall.

His life touched many people and many will be coming some considerable distance to his service.  Eric Bramhall my predecessor hopes to fight his way up the M6 to be here, along with several of Clive’s contemporaries from Christ Church who will be travelling from London and Yorkshire.

No doubt colleagues from Norfolk, South Wales and certainly from the far north of Scotland will be making the journey.  Meetings will be missed, others rescheduled, appointments cancelled.  People make the investment to be here, at some cost.

Certainly those who attend Clive’s service will want to support his family and also to meet up with each other.  But there is something more fundamental here.

One of my big regrets is not making the funeral service for my old WGS headteacher, Colin Lovett, who died about 15 years ago.  I only heard last minute and his funeral was to be in Pershore, a 250 mile round trip.  A widower he had no family apart from a sister.  All this I rationalised as good reasons for not attending his service.  And no one was expecting me.

But Mr Lovett (I could never call him Colin, as he insisted when I once visited him in Worcestershire) had a huge influence on my life – which wasn’t apparent at the time.  I followed him to his college in Cambridge, the same one, as it happens, as Eric’s.  To this day he comes to mind when I hear the opening verses of John’s Gospel being read at carol services.

By not making the effort I now feel I had let him down.  I did not honour his memory.  For this is a special dynamic at a funeral service, something which involves everyone who attends including those who slip in at the back.  We acknowledge their life.

Of course, they can be painful, sometimes brutally so.  But there is a powerful sense that the world has changed.  We need to mark the occasion, something we do together.

That’s why funeral services are often now called thanksgiving or even celebrations of a life. Above all it is something we do together before God.  For it is Jesus who makes all the difference.  And not just at Nain, when a funeral became an ex-funeral thanks to his raising of the widow’s son.  That was just the foretaste.

I can remember being very moved watching the funeral of cosmonaut Colonel Vladimir Komarov way back in 1967, a great Marxist commemoration in Red Square.  Suddenly his widow stepped forward, out of script, to poignantly kiss his large photograph;  she was utterly bereft and apparently devoid of hope.  Behind all the pomp there was nothing there, a spiritual vacuum and we now know, a terrible rage.

It can’t be easy taking a humanist ceremony, not uncommon nowadays – for what can you say?  Except for a few short years a collection of cells came together to form our loved one, before once again dispersing into a huge universe.  Along with Monty Python, you could try to laugh at the absurdity.

It is the resurrection of Jesus which makes all the difference.  And it is when we take part in a funeral service that we see the Gospel most vividly, for what it is – incredible good news, something which Clive as a journalist would relish.  Paul writes that all God’s promises find their YES in Jesus,  above all his promise to redeem the whole of creation from the tyranny of death and decay.

So as we thank God for the remarkable life of Clive Dennier, we do so in hope.  Something indeed to celebrate with thankful hearts.

Servants serve: it’s what they do.

Cafe Vista was short staffed yesterday afternoon and so Jacqui, her metatarsal mostly mended, and myself headed down to the Ministry Centre.  When you are short staffed, you will have anyone.

At this point you need to realize that I have form as a café helper.

Way back, in the days of my Lower Sixth, I worked one entire holiday in the cafeteria at the now demolished Exchange Station in Liverpool. A hugely important part of my education.  I can still remuster the smell – a powerful mixture of bacon fat, tobacco and soot (from the Scottish locomotives).   I’m sure that anyone who regularly dined there has long since digested their last bacon and egg breakfast.

So an enjoyable afternoon in the Ministry Centre serving the customers, washing dishes and clearing tables.  I still have some of my old techniques, like taking the customer’s plate just before they have finished or removing their personal canderel.  It’s part of the job satisfaction.

Even so Cafe Vista is a great success story, thanks to the enthusiasm and dedication of the whole team.   All kinds of people come to enjoy the atmosphere with the fascinating view and the fine fare – especially those who may feel isolated or lonely. It feels like Christ Church open all hours.  I think we would be surprised if we knew how many customers pass through each week.

I aim to go there most days to work the tables, introducing myself as Ross the vicar.  It’s a great way of getting to know people and an opportunity to share the gospel.

Just last month we had a shared meal one evening for those who are finishing our present Alpha course (#39) and the new PCC.  A strange mixture, like chocolate and mint, which worked brilliantly.  Members of the PCC took it in turns to introduce themselves while some from Alpha shared their story.

Eileen from Waterloo told us that driving along the A59 to work in Burscough she saw the Cafe Vista sign now prominent at the end of the Ministry Centre – and decided to call in for a coffee.  Somehow she got into conversation and signed up for Alpha – even that meant a regular 25 minutes drive.  Through doing Alpha she became a Christian and is now a member of our most recent Beta group.  PTL

But clearly Cafe Vista has its limitations, not least that most of our customers are  either over 50 or young mothers with children.  We get the occasional younger man, like one guy yesterday who came to take advantage of our free Wifi.

So we long to expand, not least to Saturday mornings so that we can make contact with young adults.  We need more people to serve.  And serving, of course, is at the very heart of our Gospel.  It was Jesus who told his stunned disciples “Who would you rather be: the one who eats the dinner or the one who serves the dinner? You’d rather eat and be served, right? But I’ve taken my place among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:27)

For when we serve at tables we are serving in Jesus’ name.  It is what he would do and that is why he longs to serve through us.  To quote the apostle Paul directly: “If your gift is serving, then serve!”

So how about it?

Should you say hello to children?

I can only assume the good Samaritan had CRB clearance.

Driving to Ormskirk along Prescot Road in “wet” rain, I noticed a young student heading towards me on the opposite pavement pulling two heavy cases.  She seemed to be in some distress.

My instinct was to turn around and offer her a lift to wherever she was going.  But of course, no way.  Not only have I schooled my daughters to refuse lifts from strangers whatever the situation but I would run the risk of being reported for propositioning.

I did look out for a car being driven by a young woman driver, someone I knew.  But without success.  Sadly you can’t be too careful, especially with the current spate of elderly celebs being prosecuted for sexual misdemeanours a generation ago.

The problem now is potential breakdown not just between men and young women but between adults and children.

I often see children from our church school around and about.  Often they will say “Hello, Mr Moughtin!” and give me a big smile as if they have caught me out in a life outside school.  So naturally I give them a big smile.  I would like to say it is instinctive, maybe I smile first.

However, if the parent does not know who I am, I sometimes get a look as if I am some predator.  The level of mistrust is now very high. It is now illegal to smile at a child in public.

This is a problem which the Children’s Society, showing some imagination, is seeking to address – with the catchy headline “intergenerational service”.  For this is one area where the church can play a major role, enabling and encouraging the different generations to engage.

I’m not sure it was a problem for the New Testament church but even so the cross of Christ commissions us to break down those barriers which society –and sin – would throw up.

In practice, it will mean talking to children and young people rather than look over them or assume that they come from a different planet.

I think it is for the older people to take the initiative.

I recall some years ago one of our church parents telling me that her daughter had commented that I knew how to talk to young people, as if this were highly unusual.  (I have had enough practice over the years with four daughters).  But it was a telling point.  It was not something she was used to and it does seem to be the case that many adults simply airbrush young people out of existence.  Maybe it is a lack of confidence.  Just ask them how their course is going!

If Jesus could talk to a Samaritan woman ostracised by her own community, so he calls us his disciples to engage in conversation with those we would normally avoid.

It goes without saying that we use common sense and follow child safety procedures (for our own safety).  But something to think about as we bring healing to a disjointed society in Christ’s name.

God's been there himself

Now back into the swing of things following a break in the Algarve, in Jacqui’s left metatarsal to be precise, this time last week.  Which meant me pushing a wheelchair for four days, just like pushing a pram but faster.

However, when you are disabled, you experience life – and particularly other people – in a very different way.

What was most striking was something I was already aware of but nevertheless was an eye opener.  That is when you are in a wheelchair, you cease to exist.  I found this totally amazing.

So when Jacqui tried to engage with someone else, whether they were a waiter or even a medical professional, invariably they would speak to me.  Sometimes it could become ludicrous as if I was an interpreter between two people who spoke totally different languages.

I tried various strategies – looking away, pretending to be hearing-impaired, trying to look vacant (that comes easily).  To no avail.

This is an experience that everyone should have sometime in their life, to know what it feels like to be disabled and demeaned.

In “The Screwtape letters,”  CS Lewis’ 1942 Christian classic, Screwtape the senior Demon writes to his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter, charged with guiding a man toward Our Father Below and away from God who is seen as the Enemy.  However, he is always aware of “one abominable advantage of the Enemy”, that God knows what it is like to be human, to know the limitations of being just flesh and blood.

God knows that it is like. In Jesus he has experienced first hand what it means to be human.  And the New Testament is in no doubt.  Jesus as he walked the dust of Galilee was truly like one of us. His tears were real, in no way just a performance.  They came from an aching heart.

“Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil”

(Hebrews 2:14).

It’s not easy following Jesus.  It can be so difficult to trust in a God we cannot see (although if we could see him, he wouldn’t be God).

Often we are called to make a step of faith when our feelings are dead and we have nothing to go on.  What makes all the difference, as Screwtape readily acknowledges, is that God knows what it like.  In Jesus he’s been there himself.

So John ends his Gospel (that is, until he decided to add chapter 21 – but that’s another story) with Jesus’ final words to his disciples:

“Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:29).

We walk by faith not by sight.  As Jesus did.  And he knows it’s tough.

One Step at a Time

It’s 7.26 on another Friday morning.  Earlier than usual to write my weekly blog, which like so ministries has just happened.  No top down directive, not even as a planned outcome.  Just like Topsy, it just grew.  As we’ll see, the Holy Spirit’s preferred way of working.

I guess it started with the arrival of the internet.  And so rather than walk around with next Sunday’s notices to that week’s typist, I started to email them as an attachment.  It saved getting wet.

Then I gradually started to include other church members, occasionally adding an interesting story or one of Bill Evan’s jokes.  Nothing special.  In those early days Ted Morrell gave me the idea of showing the Everton match result in the subject line – but only when we won.

Not that often, I soon realized.

Gradually my approach changed, from just adding a few words as an after-thought to doing what I am doing now, aiming to give a considered Christian perspective on what God is doing.

So in about 30 minutes time I will be sending this out to 250 of you, in five separate mailings to avoid your spam filter. Thanks to Liz Wainwright this blog is published on the web;  then on our church twitter and Facebook feed.  Often people forward it to friends.

And invariably I get responses from people I don’t know and occasionally from people I do know of but have never met.  They could be anywhere in the world.  It’s a humbling experience.

This blog could be the most important thing I do now – but goodness knows how you could evaluate its effectiveness for an ecclesiastical OFSTED!  Certainly I now see it as essential at a time when church members may be all over the place (in both senses of the phrase), possibly feeling isolated, out of circulation.

I now realize that the most effective ministries develop just like this, without any strategic planning; they just happen.   When we started doing Alpha, for example, we had no plans to start Beta groups, and then Beta plus groups – which then became house groups. Step by step, we simply aimed to meet the immediate problem.

But that is how God works in our lives, he leads us day by day, decision by decision.  We may well not be aware of his strategy, where he is taking us – either as individual disciples or as a church.  “One day at a time, Lord Jesus.”  Probably just as well!

Few people are like Michael Heseltine, who in 1952 explained in some detail to fellow Oxford student Julian Critchley how he would become Prime Minister in the 1990’s.

Certainly Justin Welby didn’t sit down with his vicar and plan his career path to become Archbishop of Canterbury.  You read his account and it was simply one decision at a time.  There was never an overall objective, simply a resolve to serve God wherever he may lead.

That certainly was the apostle Paul’s experience.  He knew what he was doing, why he was doing it and where he was going.  But his strategic direction was always provisional – the Holy Spirit reserved the right to intervene.  And he usually does.

It seemed that Paul had no plans to go to Greece but God did.  And so we read in Acts 16:  “Paul and his companions travelled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.”  God was leading his apostle, moment by moment.

So in an era when strategic direction is given a high priority, often we just never know where God is taking us.  Unsettling but strangely exciting.  Who knows what ministries God will call us to?   Again, it’s one step at a time, at every turn of the road.

It’s a case of simply being obedient today, whether we understand the implications or not.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”  (Proverbs 3:5f)

Those people of no value

Tomorrow is my father’s 100th birthday! Sadly, we will not be having a party, although I know he would have appreciated that. He died in April, 1993 soon after I had arrived in Aughton.

However, I do feel that his centenary should be marked in some way. So having given this some thought over several months, I propose to visit his birthplace at 66 Ruskin Street, in sound of Goodison Park, and present flowers to the bemused current resident along with a photocopy of his birth certificate.

Daft, I know: that’s what my father would have said. But when it comes to remembering loved ones we do strange things.

Like flowers on graves. Jacqui frequently places roses on her mother’s resting place. In contrast, my matter-of-fact mother told me not to place any on hers. Why spend good money on flowers when your loved one is not there to appreciate? But we do, because it meets a deep need in us to commemorate, to do something tangible to honour their memory.

So when Mary Magdalene along with the other women went to the tomb of Jesus at first light, it didn’t make any sense. Jesus was dead, his cause over. But they did so because it met this deep, instinctive need. Little did they realize what was about to happen.

And where were the men? Were they so matter-of-fact not to make the journey? After all, what’s the point, it’s all over?

It’s often pointed out that it was the women who stayed with Jesus as he hung on the cross, and it was the women who visited his grave. That may well have been because they had the courage which the men lacked. There was still the fear of arrest. After all, the tomb was being watched.

But there would have been another factor. The women, as far as the authorities were concerned, simply didn’t count, they were invisible. You can hear the centurions report: “I can assure you than no-one visited the tomb of Jesus, no-one at all – just a few women.” Certainly from the legal perspective, women did not exist – they could never qualify as witnesses in a court of law. Their word carried no value.

Mary of Magdala, along with her female companions, were under the radar. Had they still been there, the soldiers guarding the tomb would have scarcely looked up at their arrival.

And yet it was this Mary who first encountered the risen Jesus. Typical of God to arrange that the very first witness of the risen Jesus simply didn’t count. (That’s why she remains unmentioned in Paul’s argument for the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15: her testimony would not be accepted). Not a first-rate, fully composmentis male witness required by a good lawyer but a woman from upstate Galilee with a questionable pedigree. That is how God works, the very opposite to what you would expect!

To that extent God took a big risk but again that is what he does, how he operates. As Paul writes to the Corinthians: “Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies”? (1 Corinthians 1:27 Message translation).

And it is for us, those who follow the risen Jesus, to disregard this world’s categories and value each person for simply who they are in God’s sight, as of incalculable worth as one for whom Christ has died
(1 Corinthians 8:11). Truly a revolution of love.

So along with the notices and CONSIDER, I attach a report from Andrew Leake in Argentina of the ministry last weekend with indigenous people, the very kind of people which this world regards as nuisance value but as special as any one from Magdala.

A joyful Easter!

Working together to get things done.

Later today I am honoured to be taking part in the funeral service for street pastor, Eddy Weston, who was  tragically killed when walking across a car park in Ormskirk two weeks ago.  I got to know Eddy as a kind and sensitive man through his voluntary work at Martin Mere.  We shall all miss him.

Eddy, a member of St Anne’s Church, was very much committed to the ecumenical project, to the churches of different denominations moving towards a true unity in Christ.  So it is fitting that his wife Pat has asked for an ecumenical service in which the leaders of the different Ormskirk churches will be taking part.  I will be taking the prayers.  Do join with me in spirit.

It struck me that in my 20 years here I have only taken part in the services of the other Ormskirk churches a very few times; it hardly ever happens.  So how is the movement towards Christian unity developing here is Ormskirk? Has it got stuck?  Something to reflect on as Francis 1 awaits his papal enthronement.

While the ecumenical movement can be dated from the 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Conference and then from the foundation of the World Council of Churches in 1948, it really only got going here in England in the 1960’s/1970’s.  This usually took the form of special one-off services, as the Christians from the different churches started to worship together, somewhat hesitantly at first.  Ormskirk was no exception.  Exciting times.

However, by the time I arrived here in Aughton these joint services were finally running out of steam.  Whenever we had such a service, only the members of the host church would turn up.  All the other saints stayed at home.

Nevertheless we stayed with the Good Friday united act of witness in Ormskirk centre, certainly for us the main service on that sacred day.

However, the movement was now morphing into something more radical as the churches and not just individual Christians started serving in partnership.  This was not just for the sake of working together but simply to get something done.

So Ormskirk Churches Together has given birth to the highly successful street pastors, now to the West Lancashire debt advice (official opening on Saturday 27 April) and to the projected food bank (please pray for a suitable storage facility).    Here we have the churches being salt and light for the people of Ormskirk.

Again Park Praise in the heart of Ormskirk showed what the different churches could achieve when working in partnership – and drawing other parts of the community around us.  It wasn’t just the churches but only the churches could make it happen.

In this the resource of the Boiler House in Burscough Street, provided by Ormskirk Christian Fellowship, is invaluable.  In fact, the whole ecumenical project in Ormskirk was enlivened when OCF made the strategic decision to get involved.  The outcome is so much more that the sum of the different churches working apart.

In all this Ormskirk Churches Together has moved from a talk shop to an entrepreneurial centre. And for this we can praise God.

So here at Christ Church we have a growing commitment to Ormskirk Churches Together – Pete Chalk is now secretary, for example.  It is the only way we can minister to our town rather than just our parish, as reflected in our strapline revised after the 2020 consultation.

Rather than aiming to share Jesus with everyone beginning in our parish, we now aim to share Jesus with everyone beginning with our community.

And it is disciples like Eddy Weston, who represented St Anne’s on Ormskirk Churches Together, who make this possible. So it is only fitting that we all take part in his funeral service as a demonstration of what the Holy Spirit is actually doing amongst us.

Don’t forget to sign up for 48 hours of prayer starting this time next week – sign up board is in the Ministry Centre and on Sundays, in church.  Christians working together begins with Christians praying together.

Aim to encourage not exhaust

Jacqui took the phone call (it was my day off):  “Who is responsible for the church poster facing the A59?”  As she passed me the phone, I recognised the usual visual warnings.  So I quickly put on my heavy duty flak jacket, my Kevlar helmet with antiballistic visor, my mind racing.

Is this a complaint against the church parading its sectarian message in a public place?  Or a Christian worked up over the choice of text as too bland?  Maybe someone from the planning department concerned about the size of font?  Who knows?

So I was stunned to hear that this woman from Maghull actually phoned to thank me for the way the poster has spoken her over the years.  Each day she drives to St Bede’s School to be encouraged by this short verse from the Bible (no more than eight words – people are driving, after all).

However, just to get the balance right I received an email that evening complaining about the church bells from a resident of Long Lane.

It does seem that people are quicker to complain rather than compliment.  And the effect can be corrosive.

Some years ago I went to church house to speak to the person responsible for the training of curates to say that there were some parts of the course that were falling below expectations  i.e. I went to complain.   Just a relatively small, well-argued and sensitive complaint, that is.  But I recall how his face dropped.  Subsequently he would avoid me in the car park.  It was a case of straws on a weary camel’s back.

The ratio of  complaints to compliments may be as high as 9:1, at least that was the experience of Jesus when he healed the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19).  Only the one went out of his way to say thank you! Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?”  At that point in his journey Jesus needed the encouragement.  I guess the other nine were too self-absorbed in their sudden change of status.

So as Christians we are called to live with gratitude in our hearts (Colossians 3:16).  That has to be the default demeanour for anyone who has been so richly blessed by God.  So Paul writes “Make the most of every opportunity. Be gracious in your speech. The goal is to bring out the best in others in a conversation, not put them down, not cut them out.” (Colossians 4:5 Message).

I guess if each Christian went out of their way to encourage by simple acts of kindness, which includes expressing appreciation, we may actually get the message that we are loved and valued by God not just for who we are but for our efforts, however weak and faltering, for the Kingdom.  So Paul begins his letter to the testy Corinthian church: I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.”

I assume that when Paul says always, he means always –  which has to be a major achievement for the apostle given all the hassle these contentious Christians gave him.   For the simple reason he loved them.  And so he found it painful to challenge some of their practices, not something he enjoyed doing.  For wherever he could, Paul always praised.  So must we.

And now off to my very first granddaughter school assembly!  Another rite of passage.  Whatever, she will be brilliant.  Of course.

Make time to mull

I had simply forgotten that Gordon is not around to preach this Sunday.  He had given me good notice but I had failed to take note, literally.  Now one task for today is to prepare and produce a sermon in essentially one go, something I normally try to avoid.

So how long does it take to produce a 10.45 sermon?  The answer – it depends on how wet the fields are.

Some years ago I did some work on creativity at Edge Hill when it was simply a teacher training college. There are different ways of understanding the whole creative process.  In fact, one academic suggested that there were over hundred different analyses to be found in the literature.  Clearly a very creative area!

However, essentially there are three phases, at least from my experience of producing sermons, and these are best kept separate.

The first stage is simply gathering the information, which generally means aiming to understand the Bible passage using different aids.

The third stage is actually writing the sermon – I use a detailed script even if it is to be memorised.

However, the second stage is the most important and the one we can easily avoid to our cost, that is when we mull over in our minds the information we have acquired, to see it in a new light, to look for new insights and unexpected associations.   In other words we give the Holy Spirit space to help us think afresh with the mind of Christ.

And it takes time.  You can’t mull in a hurry.  But the danger for me is that I can too quickly hit the keyboard, certainly if there is a time constraint.  So I go for a run, which guarantees 35 minutes of mulling (45 minutes if the fields are wet).  For I think best when I run.

It was Archbishop Justin who as Dean of Liverpool came up with the best mission statement ever, that is for Liverpool Cathedral to be “a safe place to do risky things in Christ’s service”.  It came to him when running, mulling while moving.  Brilliant.

Of course, mulling is very much in the Biblical witness, often enforced by circumstances as for Moses and David as shepherds. Don’t forget Moses worked in Midian for forty years as a shepherd. Elijah 40 days en route to Mount Horeb (aka Mount Sinai).   Time to think, to reflect, to turn ideas over in your mind.

Luke tells us following all the events around the birth of Jesus, “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19).  For the rest of her life, it would seem, she mulled over those eventful few months, to make sense of some remarkable experiences.

What does Saul do once confronted with the risen Jesus on the Damascus Road?   He tells the Galatians:  “My immediate response was not to consult any human being.  I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia.”  (Galatians 1:16).

This trip to Arabia is not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament, and it is quite possible that he too travelled to Mt. Sinai to think through, to digest, to try and gain perspective on his climatic experience.

Mulling is essential if we are understand what God is doing in our lives, where he wants us to go.  It engages our imagination, it allows new ways of thinking.

Above all, Jesus mulled.  Luke tells us how he would spend a whole night in prayer before big decisions. His 40 days in the wilderness following his baptism by John.  Lent is the season for mulling.

But mulling or pondering is very much against the spirit of our age with the need for instant results and quick fixes.  There is much that conspires against us making time to give the Holy Spirit space to help us think creatively.  I think the key is not to suddenly stop mulling when the first insight comes.  We stick at it, we don’t short circuit the process

That means some kind of external discipline like a long walk or as simple as not listening to the car radio on the motorway.  My cousin would follow Winston Churchill’s example and have a long bath.  After all, where did the first eureka moment occur?

For there’s nothing like the experience of everything coming together in our minds, a new way of looking at a familiar landscape. “That’s it!”  Then and only then comes the call to action!

So make time to mull.

Keeping at it month by month

You can always tell when an election is nigh when the news letters from the various political parties land on the front door mat.  The LibDem news for Aughton,  the Tory gazette for Ormskirk.   One, maybe two editions.  Then no more, until the next call to the polls.

Unlike CONSIDER, our church’s monthly newsletter, which is published each month (with a July/August edition for the summer) and delivered to every house in the parish, with a print run of 2670.  Without fail.

I’m not quite sure when CONSIDER actually began.  I know the basic concepts were recommended by a working group chaired by Gordon Phasey, who sadly died last year in Ilkley.  I arrived with edition #252 which makes the first edition (long pause for me to consult my calculator – that can’t be right) some time ago.  But it was very much the vision of my predecessor, Eric Bramhall, in the late 1970’s.

I remember attending a diocesan seminar on evangelism with Eric who explained to us his strategy.  Essentially the first stage in sharing the gospel is to make regular contact with as many people as possible, and with Christ Church being a parish church that means every home in the parish.

This means CONSIDER is written for those who live in the parish rather than church members.  And we aim to maintain a spiritual agenda.  My opening letter, all 365 words, seeks to relate the cross of Jesus to everyday situations for “we preach Christ and him crucified.”(1 Corinthians 1:23).  And we aspire to keep our parishioners in touch with what is happening at Christ Church without being in-house.

Very frequently, often in Cafe Vista, I get feedback from people who live in the parish and do not attend our church.  I am amazed at how many tell me and here I quote “from cover to cover.”   Members of other churches, even, tell me that they know more about what is happening in our church than their own.  And it is so encouraging when people sign up for Alpha through reading CONSIDER.

Over the years the method of producing CONSIDER has been transformed by huge advances in technology, originally an electric typewriter and Gestetner, today QuarkXPress and Risograph.  But what hasn’t changed is the commitment it represents.

For CONSIDER takes a huge number of dedicated disciples to deliver, about 80.   That’s why we can do it while the political parties cannot despite the best of intentions.  There are some things only churches can do.

Yesterday an important milestone in the life of CONSIDER took place.

For 35 years Laurie and Claire Hughes have been at the heart of producing CONSIDER.  Claire with the content and layout, Laurie with the production.  Both were also distributors.  Now they both feel it is right for them to stand down.

So in Jesus’ name a huge thank you for their dedication over such a long period, above all their consistency and reliability.  These are the two qualities in discipleship that count.  Forget brilliance if it is spasmodic and unpredictable.  It’s simply keeping at it, month by month, year by year, at a good standard.  The Bible falls it faithfulness.  And here we may encounter God’s hesed, his steadfast love.

So well done, Laurie and Claire, good and faithful servants!  And thank you to all who make CONSIDER happen.  At the moment we need four more distributors

15th February 2013

006

Well, this has been a week of bishops!

It began with Monday’s shock announcement from the Vatican, that the Pope is standing down.  This created a media furor as commentators reflected on the various and daunting responsibilities of the Bishop of Rome.

Much lower key but of real significance to us was the visit of Bishop Susan on Tuesday.  She is still in her first year as Suffragan (i.e. assistant) Bishop in our link diocese of Virginia.  Her diocesan bishop, Bishop Shannon, you may remember opened our Ministry Centre along with the Bishop of Liverpool just two and half years ago.

It was fascinating talking with her, not least about how Bishop Shannon is handling the recent secession of some evangelical parishes over the whole gay issue.  Clearly painful for everyone, he is working hard for reconciliation while being consistent in his teaching.  It can’t be easy.  From my personal experience from Vancouver, I think these evangelical churches are making a big mistake.  Sadly these breakaway groupings are themselves fracturing.

Then that evening, down to Bishop’s Lodge in Woolton for a meeting of the Bishop’s Council.  I serve as one of the clergy representatives for the Archdeaconery of Warrington. (The other half of the Diocese of Liverpool is the Archdeaconery of Liverpool).

Now that Bishop James has announced his own retirement, this was an important meeting.  We were briefed how Bishop Richard, who as the Bishop of Warrington is our equivalent to Bishop Susan, will be running the Diocese until, at the earliest, September next year.

But what will Bishop Richard be doing?  What do bishops do?  One answer is from US bishop, Richard Cushing: “The bishops will govern the Church, the priests will do all the work and the deacons will have all the fun.”  That puts me in the middle!

For the key role of bishop is that of oversight.  Paul writes to Timothy: “Here is a trustworthy saying: whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task.”  That’s the NIV translation of 1 Timothy 3:1; the RSV uses the word bishop instead of overseer.  The Bishop is the one with the big picture, the strategic vision for his (or her, in the US) diocese.

And you do need to have the big picture, especially for those areas of a Diocese where ministry is difficult and under resourced.  Anglicans don’t cherry pick.  The materially richer parishes subsidize the poorer ones through the parish share, a financial expression of being part of one another.    We aim to cover the ground, including those inhospitable neighbourhoods.

And we as a parish church are accountable to the Bishop of Liverpool who shares his ministry here with me as vicar.  We can’t simply do our own thing; we are part of a much bigger network.  This is more that just economies of scale – it is the understanding that the Bishop is the focus of unity, of churches and Christians consciously working together for the Kingdom of God.

And being the Bishop can’t be easy.  I think it has taken a lot out of Bishop James.  I remember talking to the secretary of the then Bishop of Liverpool, the godly Stuart Blanch, on his appointment as Archbishop of York.  She clearly was worried that his health would not stand up to the pressures – and sadly, she was right.

And where do most of the pressures come from?  Well, from Christians, from those very people you would expect to receive most support.

George Verwer, the founder of Operation Mobilisation, advised me that in Christian leadership you get most hassle from “spiritual Christians.”  They’re the ones who will break you!

That was certainly the apostle Paul’s experience as he writes to the Corinthian church whom he had led to faith:  “We are weak in Christ, yet by God’s power we will live with him in our dealing with you.”  (2 Corinthians 13:4).

So we pray for our Bishops and for the whole process, in which I am involved in a small way, in appointing the new Bishop of Liverpool.

And root for those who are called to this lonely task.

Here we have a Catch 22 situation:  anyone who actually wants to be Bishop is clearly the wrong person.  Alternatively, the right person would rather be at the coal face, as shown in this excellent interview of Archbishop Justin at the Trent Vineyard fellowship.  (Don’t be put off by the interviewer!)

http://trentvineyard.org/media

All welcome

Clearly visible from the Chester city walls is the Albion Inn with its wonderfully not-PC sign:  “Family hostile.”   I enjoyed our visit to this First World War themed pub – and yes, not a child in sight!

Sadly most churches have a similar sign just as visible:  “Gay hostile.”  At our staff meeting last week we discussed our attitude to gay people at Christ Church. Our key task is to share Jesus with everyone beginning in our community.  This has to mean that we are to welcome gay people, gay people as they are without expecting them to pretend to be straight.

After all we are committed to the belong/belief/behave sequence – that is, firstly we welcome everyone, no questions asked.  Then we encourage faith in Christ – and that may take time.  Only then is the Holy Spirit given full access for his work of making us like Jesus.

The challenge facing us as disciples of Jesus is to promote Christian values without appearing to be getting at anyone.  For Jesus himself welcomed everyone – especially those at the margins of society.  Only after Jesus had invited himself to his house did Zacchaeus fall out of the tree to offer generous refunds.

We’ve just had a key vote in the House of Commons on the definition of  marriage.  For the record, Simon Jenkins writing in the Guardian observed: “The gay marriage debate, which ended tonight in the Commons, displayed remarkably little intolerance of homosexuality.”

However, the Church’s stance for this key measure can so easily be interpreted as gay hostile.

Marriage is under huge attack but not from gays.  It’s from everyone else.  Today most people, male/female that is, now prefer to live together. Marriage is seen as a lifestyle choice for those who want to formalise their relationship.   For sexual relations are now totally detached from the marriage commitment.

This is the key issue, one which the Church has lost comprehensively – at least that is my view.  There are fellow Christians would differ and consider me traditional and by implication, dated.

Some years ago I gave our Alpha speaker, Jaime Hinde, a lift back to London.  A working actor, he had only fairly recently become a Christian and he shared with me his amazement when he discovered that his Christian friend had reserved sexual relations to his wife, and then only after marriage.  Jaime was utterly gobsmacked – he had never come across such behaviour before.

As Christians we are called to welcome everyone into the Kingdom of God so that all types of people may know and experience God’s love in relationship with each other.

At the same time we are called to promote Christian values in our society. But we do so out of love because we care for people rather than out of a need to preserve a moral system – like Javert in “Les Miserables.” Jaime and many of his friends had been badly damaged by hedonistic lifestyle.

I hugely admire Vaughan Roberts, the rector of St Ebbe’s, a conservative evangelical church in Oxford and regular speaker at the Keswick Convention. He is gay, though he wouldn’t use the term, and celibate.

Coming out through an interview with “Evangelicals Now” was obviously a hugely painful business for him.

http://www.e-n.org.uk/6028-A-battle-I-face.htm

Vaughan opens his heart:  “Close family and friends have known for a considerable time that I experience same-sex attraction.”

He continues:

“We in the church are too often heard to be presenting only a negative message (to gay people), which can leave them feeling deep shame and discourage them from emerging from the isolation of a lonely and private battle, which creates a fertile soil where temptation increases and compromise becomes more likely.”

Similarly for the apostle Paul, the gospel is for everyone and so he writes: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. ” (Romans 15:7).  May we, by God’s grace, be an accepting church!

One shall tell another

Jesus encourages us to eat out.  So in obedience to his teaching we had an enjoyable meal at Left Bank on Wednesday evening, to mark the conclusion of our 38th Alpha course.

Three months ago few of us knew each other and yet one of the powerful dynamics of the whole Alpha experience is to build up fellowship through the shared meal, so important in the ministry of Jesus.

That’s why Alpha morphs into Beta, Beta into Beta-plus, and Beta-plus into a house group.

And I guess we were a fairly mixed group – but all participants had been changed, transformed even, by encountering God through doing the 10 week course. What these new disciples did have in common was a need to understand how to live in this world and they wanted to check Jesus out. And of course, we are all work in progress.

You can read some of their stories on our church website:

http://www.christchurchaughton.org.uk/?page_id=1082

But it is fascinating to discover why people had signed up for this particular course.   Some just through seeing the poster on the A59 day after day, others through picking up the invite leaflet somewhere or other.  What house-to-house visiting last night picked up was how many people know about the course and mean to do it sometime.

However, what is most important is a personal invitation, from a friend or family member already a church member.

This was powerfully demonstrated during our Holy Spirit day in November.  Jacqui had arranged for the afternoon worship to be led by John Forshaw and Mark Charnock, two guys from Scarisbrick who have done Alpha with us.

(Incidentally John now helps lead the Bescar Lane Methodist Church while Mark has a key ministry at St Elizabeth’s RC church.  And both of you read this blog!).

Anyway, they told their stories.  I can’t remember how John came to do our Alpha course way back in September 2001 (well, there’s a month to

remember) but he then invited his friend Bernard Simpson to the next course.  Bernard, as many of you will know, has subsequently invited lots of people– but one of these was Mark.  Then Mark, having done Alpha course invited Barbara.  And in turn, Barbara invited her sister Pat to our present course.  Pat was at Left Bank this Wednesday – and in church this last Sunday to our welcoming Family Service.

We should have sung the Graham Kendrick song “The wine of the Kingdom”

One shall tell another

And he shall tell his friend

Husbands, wives and children

Shall come following on

From house to house in families

Shall more be gathered in

And lights will shine in every street

So warm and welcoming

Come on in and taste the new wine

The wine of the kingdom

The wine of the kingdom of God

Here is healing and forgiveness

The wine of the kingdom

The wine of the kingdom of God.

But we didn’t

So our next Alpha is about to begin, this Tuesday 8.00 pm in the Ministry Centre.  Last February our course was launched by Darrell Tunningley, an ex-con now a pastor in Runcorn.  This month our course is being launched by Anthony Delaney, an ex-cop now a pastor in Manchester.

We have no idea how many will turn up, and so Jacqui and her team are working hard – coffee and cake with school parents this afternoon and the Alpha stall at Ormskirk market tomorrow.  The A59 banner is up and we hope that people will be seeing the invite in CONSIDER this weekend.  Hopefully the men’s sports quiz will encourage some guys to turn up.

However, what really counts is the personal invite from you.  It really is not difficult to encourage a friend or neighbour, a relative or colleague, to come along. It could change their lives and consequently many others with the new wine of the Kingdom of God.

Seeing two worlds are once

What a contrast!  This past week Jacqui and I have been exchanging photos and videos with our daughters – and the difference between the two flows could hardly have been greater.

We would send images of blue skies, bright sunshine and usually a swimming pool;  they would send photos of growing snowpeople (they were of both genders), sleigh rides and snowball fights.

For me the strangest was sitting in Café Charlotte on the waterfront (using their wifi) in 27 degree sunshine, watching the blizzard dumping snow in Gore Drive from Deb’s lounge, some 2000 miles north from where we were in Tenerife!

I continue to be amazed at the wonder of modern communications, especially with the very recent development smartphones and tablet computers.  W can now use email and especially Skype in the remotest of locations with the greatest of ease.

And the result?  You can be in two worlds at once.  At times it felt quite bizarre.  Is that really snow in our front garden?

And yet living in two worlds is at the heart of the Christian faith, and again the contrast between them could not be greater.

Certainly this was John’s experience as he found himself bound in exile in Patmos. “After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven.”  He shares what he sees through this open door in Revelation, the final book of the New Testament. It is as if John takes his iPad and shows us a live video stream of what is taking place in heaven.

And again, the contrast could not be greater.  Here sadness with much suffering, and worse for John, humiliation for being a disciple of Jesus;  there the Lamb, his Jesus, is enthroned in glory.  In heaven God is wonderfully in control: he draws the highest praise of the entire created order.  John sees a place of breathtaking beauty and satisfying Shalom.

For the message of Revelation is that things are not as they seem, great news to suffering Christians.  And the choice is ours is where to focus our gaze.  To focus on heaven is to engender hope and stiffen resolve.

So Paul writes to the Corinthians.  “There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever.”  (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).

And it can be a battle, how we choose to see.

However, our ultimate hope, as expressed in the Lord’s prayer, is that these two worlds become one, when God’s will is done not just in heaven but also here on earth.   And this hope gives us the confidence and resolve to work for that day when God’s kingdom finally and wonderfully comes in glory.

So hold on to this vision!

Stop, Look, Listen by Phil Weston

We’re now over a fortnight into 2013 yet my wife Helen and I are still keeping our New Year’s resolution! Not to cut down on chocolate, lose weight or get fit, but to read the whole Bible in a year.

We are both following the same chronological Bible reading plan (found here). Doing the same plan introduces a spot of healthy competition and mutual accountability which will hopefully keep us both going until December 31st!

As of today we are both ‘neck and neck’ and have just finished reading the Book of Job together. Hard going in parts, the majority of the book describes a conversation between Job and his friends. A conversation in which they endlessly speculate as to the cause of Job’s misfortune in life. It’s a huge relief to reach chapter 38, when God interrupts their speculation to speak with authority, knowledge and wisdom.

So often in life we needlessly speculate and estimate rather than give God room to speak. In church life, and in society at large, we so often indulge in speculation rather than attend to God’s revelation.

Pundits, politicians and the press – not to mention we ourselves – love to offer their own opinion on a whole host of lifestyle questions. Speculation at the moment swirls around issues like marriage, parenting, money, church leadership, sexuality and social justice.

Instead, we should learn the lesson of Job and his friends. Sometimes we need to stop speaking and listen to God’s Word in Scripture instead. Some parts may be uncomfortable, some may be out of fashion, some may be hard to fathom. But with the help of his Spirit, let’s wrestle with God’s Word this year and allow him to speak his wisdom into our lives.

Speculation is no substitute for revelation – so why not join Helen and myself in our Bible reading plan for 2013? We could do with your support!

Seeing through the fog

This Sunday, 13 January I look forward to returning to my childhood church, St Nicholas’ Blundellsands, for the induction as vicar of Janet Roberts who served alongside me here at Christ Church in the 1990’s.

Strangely, it is also the 50th anniversary to the day when I made that key step of faith to follow Christ.

The two events are directly related.

From the age of 7, on moving to Waterloo, my parents would send me each Sunday to St Nick’s, to Sunday school. We would leave Sung Matins following the third collect, about half an hour into the service.

Over the years I came familiar with the words and cadences of the Book of Common Prayers, its confession, canticles and psalms, the creed and many of the collects.  I hated every moment.  Those 30 minutes seemed like a lifetime.

Remember, we are talking 1950’s.

Having said that, much of the foundation of my Christian life was laid at St Nick’s, at the church school.  I still remember being spellbound by Miss Lock as she narrated the story of the Exodus morning by morning.  Some of the asides on the Christian life given by Mr Aspinall, now a lay reader in Oldham, stay with me to this day.

But I loathed church.  My parents themselves never went near the place – I was a kind of child sacrifice to their religious aspirations.  So at the age of 12/13 I decided on a cunning plan.  I would leave for church each Sunday at 10.45 and return 90 minutes later – but go for a walk along the beach, wherever.  “Please don’t take this personally, Lord” I would pray each time. “I just can’t stand your church!”

One Saturday in November 1962  salvation unexpectedly came with a visit out-of-the-blue from Roger.  I didn’t know Roger at all, older then me with moderate learning difficulties.  That’s a story in itself – but he invited me to join the Covenanter group at the nearby Brethren assembly.   My parents gave their permission and with a bound, I was free of St Nick’s.

I enjoyed going to Covenanters – designed for young people rather than expecting young people to fit in to adult church.

Then, Roger suggested we attended the 6.30 Gospel service at the assembly.  But that afternoon, 13th January 1963 there descended a terrible smog.  Even so, I went.  Roger didn’t.  Neither did most members of the congregation.  Just four or five people made it – and they were all ancient.

However, the speaker did turn up – Mr Pope, who had travelled by public transport all the way from New Brighton to take the service, a massive achievement.   Clearly he did his best and spoke well, even though he would have been disappointed with the turn out, just a few old ladies and a young lad.

What he didn’t know was that I surrendered my life to Christ.

Looking back I wonder why I made that key decision there and then. I knew what I was doing.

I think that this was the first time in my life that someone actually explained to me that I needed to make a decision.  To be a Christian you need to become a Christian, and you become a Christian by deciding to follow Christ.  A once-in-a-lifetime decision.  That is how God works – through our free, personal response.

Looking back, it has been of huge significance for my ministry that I took that step of faith through a poorly attended service, one which should have been cancelled.  Again, that is how God works – through weakness and disappointment.  Like the cross.

So every blessing to Janet this Sunday at 3.00 pm.   I just hope that no fog rolls in from the Mersey!

God saves the Queen

Every blessing for 2013!  When God blesses, he blesses richly – and so we continue to look to his Holy Spirit for guidance, inspiration and protection as we seek to honour Christ in this new year.

Not that honouring God is getting any easier in our increasingly secular society.  There are increasing pressures to expel him from our public life, be it the sustained assault on Today’s Thought for the Day” on Radio 4 or the ongoing hostility to church schools for supposed social exclusion.

God is no longer welcome in our public place, at least that is the view of some key players. He should stay where he belongs, in the

private devotions of the individual.   Above all, we believers need to

keep our mouth shut in the workplace.  Otherwise we risk being reported for proselytizing.

Moreover, prayer in the public space is now becoming a key battleground.  I know of one school in Skelmersdale where the headteacher has expressly banned prayer in collective worship!  Work that one out.

One of the stranger outcomes  for me from 2012 is that my name now appears in so many anti-religious websites. Planetatheism.com, freethinker.co.uk, secularism.org.uk, halaptic.com to name a few.  The subject – prayer in the public space.

Way back in April a journalist from the Sunday Telegraph phoned out of the blue to ask for a quote on prayers in the council chamber.  As chaplain to the Mayor of West Lancashire for 2009/10, one of my responsibilities had been to lead prayers at the beginning of Council meetings.

As you would expect this long-established tradition had been challenged by some councillors in Gloucestershire.  It seems that 40 councils have recently decided to replace council prayers with “a moment of reflection.”

The Sunday Telegraph surprisingly gave my quote some prominence.  “The church is very much part of community life here and council prayers are part of that.  The national picture is sad. I would support prayers in council meetings. It helps people to recognise that council meetings are more than simply business meetings – that they have a spiritual dimension.”

That simple paragraph has now been picked up in the most unlikely of websites from Christian Concern to Sri Lanka news.  For the debate on public prayer has wide implications for the way we live together.

But there is one person who makes it very clear where they stand in this increasingly fractious debate. “God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with the power to forgive.”

This is not some Bishop or stray evangelist, this is the Queen in her recent Christmas Message.  It seems that this is one of the few occasions she gets to write the address herself rather than being handed the script by some civil servant.  It is as closest we get to know what she actually thinks.

And her broadcast ended with a direct quote from “O Little Town Of Bethlehem.”

O Holy Child of Bethlehem,

Descend to us we pray.

Cast out our sin

And enter in.

Be born in us today.

Her Majesty concludes:  “It is my prayer that on this Christmas day we might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord.”

After all the message of the angels is for all people.  That means everyone.  We can thank God for this important lead from our monarch.

Clearly God saves the Queen.

Will there be deaf people in Heaven?

Today we have the funeral of a remarkable church member, John Reedy, whose gentle wit and firm faith was truly inspirational.  All those who signed for him during our church services appreciated his attentiveness and encouragement.

Attending his service will be a good number of people from the deaf community and the challenge facing me is that the person who will be doing much of the signing, Hannah Lewis, is deaf herself.

Hannah is another remarkable person, deaf since childhood.  Ordained, she is the team leader for work among deaf people in the diocese.  It was her contribution to Guidelines, the Bible Reading Fellowship notes, in November 2009 which totally transformed my attitude to deaf people,  to anyone with a disability, or indeed to those who are different to the majority population, such as gay people or little people.

Hannah makes the observation that “deaf people do not consider themselves as ‘sick’ and in need of healing, if that means being made to hear.  For some deaf people, the idea that Jesus sees them only as someone to heal is a barrier to following Christ.”

“We are more than a people who can’t hear,” she writes.  “We have a community and a culture of our own.”

Running through her commentary is a Holy Spirit-inspired determination to be seen in her own terms as a “first class deaf person” rather than be patronised or even worse, pitied.  “We are as we are, made by God to be as we are and not to try to be like someone else.”

Clearly being deaf is central to her own self understanding – it is who she is, it is integral to her fundamental identity as a human being.  “It is good when we can learn to accept who God has created us to be, to accept the limits of our unique bodies and characters, and seek to develop what we are rather than striving after what we are not.”

I recall Cynthia, a wheelchair-bound member of my first church in Litherland, who dreaded the annual healing service, the sense of letting her fellow Christians down yet again by being unable to stand.

So in the passage from Mark 7:31-37 it is the people rather than the deaf man who wants Jesus to heal his deafness.

For the big question is “Will there be deaf people in the Kingdom of Heaven?”   I used to think that the answer is obvious but many deaf people would beg to differ.

These fellow saints firmly believe that the important components of their identity – including being deaf – will still be identifiable.

“But we will no longer be subject to the limits imposed by being deaf. In other words, in heaven all people will know sign language as well as every other language.’   Well, that was a conclusion I would never have anticipated.

“If I were a butterfly” is now well passed its sing-by date but the chorus still stands “But I just thank you Father for making me me!”

For the me that I am is precious, unique and thanks to the resurrection victory of Jesus, indestructible.

All this is possible because the Word was made flesh.  But how does a deaf person respond to that phrase?  Again, something which had never crossed my mind.  I will give Hannah the last word:  “This is God’s overwhelming desire to communicate with the people of God, a desire that reached its pinnacle when the Word became flesh and God’s only Son was sent to live as one of us.”

So please pray for ministry over this Christmas period, that the startling and surprising good news of God’s overwhelming love may truly be heard in our hearts.

A surprising act of kindness

When John shares his vision of God’s glorious future in Revelation 21, he recounts no more tears, no more crying, no more pain.  However, he fails to mention that in the new Jerusalem there will be no more ink-jet printers.

For I am certain that ink-jet printers (all brands) have a malevolent intelligence,  a facility still undetected by the scientific community.  These mean machines can happily print page after page until your most important document is presented.  You are working to a tight deadline.  And what happens?  It chews your most precious paper up.  How do they know?  And more to the point, why do they do it?

Last year I was buying yet another printer, this time a Kodak with a scanner, from Comet.  At the check out I filtered out the usual routine from the sales assistant about buying an extended warranty.

Then I heard the phrase “five years” soon followed by a second phrase “£33.”

An eureka moment – for I knew that no ink-jet printer on this planet could ever last for five years.  Paying the £33 would be a one-way bet – and so for the first time in my life, I signed up.

And I wasn’t to be disappointed.  Some 14 months later, about ten weeks ago, this latest printer chewed up a document of massive importance.  I needed a new machine – and so back to Comet in Southport.  I handed over the printer, received the paperwork and thankfully, because the warranty is provided by a company not going into receivership, I received a cheque for a replacement printer.

Then this Monday evening I take a phone call from this same Comet store,  from a young woman asking if I had had my printer returned in full working order.  Not surprisingly for a company going into receivership, the paperwork was awry.   “I’m fine – I now have a new printer.”

But then it struck me, that this branch of Comet was about to close, in just 15 minutes time as it happens.  The person phoning me, concerned for my welfare, is about to lose her job.  The doors soon to close for the last time, the last person out about to turn off the lights.

Tears welling in my eyes, I thanked her for her kindness, in checking that my printer problem had been addressed.  She simply said that she wanted to make sure that all outstanding issues for their customers had been resolved.

Truly this was an act of duty on the same level as the centurion in Edward Poynter’s paining “Faithful unto death” or the men standing erect to attention as the women and children abandon ship in Lance Calkin’s The Wreck of the Birkenhead.

Let down by the paucity of vision of her senior management and facing an uncertain future in a difficult employment market, this young retailer showed a truly remarkable sense of responsibility for their – for her – customers.  If I had been still waiting for my printer to be fixed, what was that to her?  Well, everything, it would seem

It’s often in the small things that our true nature comes out, when we are under pressure and when any act of kindness requires a definite act of the will.

I didn’t ask this saint from Comet whether she was a Christian.  I just thanked her for doing her duty and wished her well for the future.

Jesus prepares his disciples for mission. “It’s best to start small, “ he tells them.  “Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.”  (Matthew 10:41 in the Message translation).

So decide to do something small and insignificant today in order to bless someone – especially in an unexpected context.  They may not even notice but we are assured that whatever we do in Jesus’ name will always be fruitful.  It’s how the Holy Spirit trains us for instinctive holiness.

A Christmas Message

mc nativity

Not much has changed since the baby Jesus was forced to flee Herod, as we are seeing in Syria, just over the hills at Galilee.  Same outrages, different tyrants.

You wouldn’t think so looking at some Christmas cards but Jesus was born into the world as we know it.  Often callous, sometimes cruel.

So he was born not at home in Nazareth but in Bethlehem, three days distant, simply for the administrative convenience of Rome, the then superpower milking Judaea for all it was worth.

And in a stable – because there was no room in the rest of the house.  An experience shared today by countless families in a world of appalling and widespread poverty amidst selective affluence.

This is life as we know it.  And something has to be done.

The good news is that something has been done – and God has done it.  He has come to us here in our squalor and suffering and in Jesus has taken flesh.  Not just as the baby vulnerable in the manger but as the man abandoned on the cross.

He experiences our pain and takes to himself the full consequences of human – of our  rebellion.

That’s why we celebrate the birth of Jesus – strangely because of his death.  For his resurrection victory over our most feared foe has changed everything.  And our lives too if we own him as Lord.

The message of Christmas is just what this fearful and lonely world longs for – despite everything, God is for us!

We look forward to you joining in our Christmas celebrations either in church or online.

Ross Moughtin

Vicar

That we want to pay tax

Late last night I get an email from son-in-law Andrew, “Here’s my Amazon review shouting ‘SHAME ON YOU!’ Please go and like it!! ;-)”
There seems to be a growing indignation against those multinationals – like Amazon – who avoid tax despite their vast wealth.
Starbucks sold nearly £400m worth of goods in the UK last year but paid no corporation tax. The clever plan was to transfer some of their revenue to a sister company in the Netherlands in the form of royalty payments, to buy its coffee beans from Switzerland (of course) and pay high interest rates to borrow money from other parts of the business. Nice accounting.
But the good news is that only yesterday the senior UK management appeared to cave in and agreed to pay more corporation tax. Interesting that HM Revenue and Customs reacted by saying that corporation tax “is not a voluntary tax”. It may, of course, only be window dressing.
It is simply a case of fairness, economic justice. You pay your fair share, both as a company and an individual. After all we all benefit hugely from the resources provided by taxation – security, education, health, transport, the whole complex of civil society. So we contribute, “each according to our means”.
This phrase, used extensively by Karl Marx, originates in the New Testament. We read in Acts 4:32: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.”
This was one of the very first results of the Holy Spirit being poured on all believers. They did this voluntarily to show their love of God. It is the very opposite of any me-first, NIMBY mindset. For we are members one of another – and this is demonstrated by our tax structure.
But never forget human nature. So citizens do their best not to pay tax, using fair ways and foul. However, the boundary between legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion is broad and ill-defined.
“There are too many who illegally evade their taxes or use aggressive tax avoidance schemes,” commented the Chancellor in his autumn statement. We can see the consequences of a wide spread refusal, particularly by the wealthy, to pay taxes in Greece. And the poor suffer grievously.
So where does this leave us?
Very simply, in the words of Paul, we pay our taxes. It’s how Christians behave, it’s what we do – even if no one else does. “If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.” Romans 13:6.
You don’t need a bible concordance or a working knowledge of Greek to know what the apostle is saying. But no doubt there will some Christians prepared to pay an astute theologian to argue that Paul was teaching the very opposite!
As disciples we pay our full taxes. We refuse to use devious ways, however legal, to sidestep our responsibility. If I can quote my father here: “I wish I could pay surtax!” (Surtax is the name given upto 1973 to the higher rate income tax). This is how we honour God and acknowledge our debt to society.
Then we campaign to get the big companies who use clever accounting and economic clout to evade their fiscal responsibilities. And there does seem to be a head of steam building up here and as Christians we can lead the way with boycott and trade campaigns. I think we must.
So if you want to join Andrew in his sole protest against Amazon, just go to
http://www.amazon.co.uk/review/RIMA31F8RCQJD/ref=cm_cr_pr_perm?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0310273080&linkCode=&nodeID=&tag#mce_temp_url#
Finally, Christmas begins this weekend. Christmas Fair in the Ministry Centre tomorrow afternoon from 2.00 pm and our Toy service this Sunday at 10.45.

To serve faithfully behind the scenes

John has been entrusted by God with a peculiar passion, one to which he has devoted his life.

As it happens John and I were at university together all those years ago and members of the Christian Union but in different colleges and doing different subjects, so we never knew each other.  But over the years we have exchanged letters and more recently emails. However, it is was only yesterday that we actually met in person for the first time.

This was at a clergy day course at Liverpool Hope, attended by about 25 assorted characters.  Strangely the event had been trailed not only in the Church Times but also in Saturday’s Times.  (If you still have your copy in recycling please dig it out for me.)

The course was on church administration for clergy – goodness knows what drew the attention of the Times!

And John’s passion?  Church administration.  “I am at heart a passionate behind-the-scenes administrator who loves “sorting things out” and “tidying things up.”

The final session of the day was how to open your mail and how to file documents.  It was altogether fascinating.  Had you told me beforehand that I would be gripped and not griped by a talk on filing I would never have believed you.  It was thrilling stuff, really!  For John communicates his passion with er – passion.

To this he has devoted his entire working life. Not least he has inspired a whole generation of Christians to see administration as their God-given calling.  In 1981 he set up the hugely influential Administry.  Only very recently I entrusted my entire stock of their publications to son-in-law Tim (now vicar of Bunbury) and to our curate Phil.  This was ground-breaking material.

Never forget, administration is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:  “And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration.”

The thing about the particular gift of administration is that, as John pointed out to us, it should be totally invisible.  If a church is working well, if the service flows smoothly, you simply take it for granted.  Administration only becomes visible if it breaks down.

Not least administrators set others free to do their own calling – they allow others to take centre stage. Notice how John describes his own ministry as “behind-the-scenes.”

A good example from the early church is when in Acts 6 the apostles are in danger of being overwhelmed by overseeing the daily distribution of food.  So seven men filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom are given the responsibility of running this ministry.  This enables the apostles to “give their attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

As it happens we know their names of these seven servants.  Stephen and Philip are the ones we remember: the first martyr and for encountering the Ethiopian treasurer.  But what about Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas?  The success of their ministry is shown by that we never hear of them again.  My spell check doesn’t know them.

This is truly a mark of the Holy Spirit, whose key ministry is to point us away from him to Jesus. And for those administrators, like John, who are prepared to work faithfully and unobtrusively to bring the Kingdom of God without expectation of any acknowledgement.  A true role model.

General George Marshal could be speaking of the Kingdom of God when he says:  “There’s no limit to the good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.”  May we our aim simply be to point people to Jesus.

(I have just reread this letter and realized I forgot to give John’s full name.)

“Lord, bless this mess!”

“If all ordained ministry inevitably has this flavour of authority and discipline about it, then indeed I think we would have to conclude that it is for men only.  But if (as I believe) the essence of pastoral care is love, and its style is humility, then no biblical principle is infringed if women are welcomed to share in it.”

The writer continues:  “I still do not think it biblically appropriate for a woman to become a rector/vicar or a bishop.  The fact that, as I write, there are now female bishops in the Anglican communion (in the United States and New Zealand) has not led me to change my mind.”

This is John Stott – who died last year – writing in 1990, in his seminal Issues facing Christians today”  (page 280).

I’m not saying that his teaching is a knock-down argument for opposing women as bishops – although there are not a few Christians who would instinctively follow his lead.  But it is an argument for humility.

‘Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with” writes Paul to Romans (14:1 in the Message translation).

Loyal Anglicans, like John Stott, belong – even if they cannot accept changes which most church members see as essential.

Myself I voted in the Diocesan Synod for welcoming women into the episcopate but I did so on the assumption that we could trust the leaders of the Church of England to make provision for those members who for legimitate reasons disagreed with the majority.

It would simply be unacceptable to force through legislation which would have the effect of pushing such loyal members out.  Compromise is often messy but an essential part of the Anglican character.

However, what went wrong was that many such members felt that that they could not trust the institution..  The damage was done when the General Synod initially received the motion, I think about two/three years ago, and voted for no provision for those who disagreed.  It was those who could not accept women as bishops who wept.

The challenge now is who leads the Church of England?  We may be an Episcopal Church and the overwhelming majority of bishops voted for the measure.   But it is ironic that as women are being considered for the episcopate (another word for bishops), the authority of bishops is steadily being weakened.  Gone are the days when a bishop could move his man into a parish as vicar.  Nowadays lay people (i.e. most of you) have your say and often they say no.

The problem is (and this is the case for all democracies) those who stand for lay positions in the Church of England, above all the General Synod, are a small and self-selecting segment.

As the editorial in this morning’s Church Times point out the women-bishops legislation fell in October 2010 when in the election for General Synod lobbying groups managed to get 77 of their members in place in the house of laity, securing 35.46 of the vote.  That was enough to wreck the legislation.

So where do we go from here?

At one level is for church members to get involved in the machinations of running the Church of England and not leave it to the keenies.  So earlier this month I successfully stood for the Bishop’s Council and the vacancy-in-see committee.

The biggest ever crisis for the Church of England was on 14 June 1928, described by the bishops of the time as an emergency.  This was when the House of Commons rejected the Prayer Book approved by the Church Assembly (the forerunner of the General Synod).  It was the state telling the church how to pray.

However, looking back some 80 years it was the House of Commons who got it right, although it didn’t seem so at the time for most church members. But there lies another story.

Strangely, even as we lurch from crisis to crisis, the Lord of the Church looks after his church, sometimes in ways we cannot always understand.

So once again the prayer of the late David Watson:  “Lord, bless this mess.”

When I pray, coincidences happen

“Clearly you were meant to be here! ” concluded Jennifer’s husband this Sunday, careful in his use of the passive voice to avoid any mention of God.

But sometimes coincidence cannot easily be explained away.  For what we call ‘coincidence’ is at the very heart of our universe.

For this Sunday’s Remembrance Day sermon I focussed on two friends killed in the service of our country, Danny Ashcroft and Benny Stockley. Nearly all of the information and all of the photos came from Danny’s family.  Sadly Benny was an only child and his branch of the family was to perish with him.  The Stockley’s are no more, so I thought.

Jennifer rarely comes to church – I can’t recall ever seeing her at Christ Church.  However, her husband was invited by the parish council to join them for our Remembrance Day Parade service.  He has been a few times to the St Michael’s service but never to ours.

Anyway, this year he decided to come – and Jennifer who previously has never accompanied him decided to come with him on the spur of the moment.  Nothing special;  she just thought she should come.  Might as well.

So imagine her shock when the photo of Benny Stockley appeared on the screens.  Her cousin.  She had no idea that I was to tell his story.   As you can imagine, it was a deeply moving experience for her;  she is the only member of his family left.

I called round to see her and her husband on Tuesday.  As I expected she had no inner call to attend our service, no whisper from an angel, not even an ill-defined compulsion of having to be there.  Simply: “I might as well – I’m not doing anything else this morning!”

As I have mentioned before, it is always a good exercise when we find ourselves in a God-incidence to work out how God organized the incident.   Invariably it is simply through our ordinary, everyday, matter of fact thinking.  Nothing special.  It’s importance to realize that is how God works – he’s as close as that.

It was the greatest of all Archbishops of Canterbury (so far), William Temple, who observed:  “When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don’t, they don’t.”

For coincidence – or at least, what we think of as coincidence –  is how this creation came into being.  For coincidence – observed Albert Einstein –  is God’s way of remaining anonymous!

That God created this incredible universe (there may be others) is at the heart of our faith, how we understand life, our very existence.  How he did it is for the scientists to work out, a noble calling.

I am fascinated by the book “The Goldilocks Enigma” – it was trailed in the Andrew Marr Radio 4 Monday morning programme a few years back.  So I bought it.  By Paul Davies, a leading physicist and as far as I am aware, not a Christian.

He argues (hence the title of the book) that like baby bear’s porridge in the story of Goldilocks, the universe seems to be just right for life.

He writes:  “Scientists are slowly waking up to an inconvenient truth – the universe looks suspiciously like a fix. The issue concerns the very laws of nature themselves.

“For 40 years, physicists and cosmologists have been quietly collecting examples of all too convenient “coincidences” and special features in the underlying laws of the universe that seem to be necessary in order for life, and hence conscious beings, to exist. Change any one of them and the consequences would be lethal.”

He continues:  “To see the problem, imagine playing God with the cosmos. Before you is a designer machine that lets you tinker with the basics of physics. Twiddle this knob and you make all electrons a bit lighter, twiddle that one and you make gravity a bit stronger, and so on.

“It happens that you need to set thirty-something knobs to fully describe the world about us. The crucial point is that some of those metaphorical knobs must be tuned very precisely, or the universe would be sterile.”

Sadly many scientists, many people – like Jennifer’s husband  – do their best to keep God out of it.   They look at this incredible creation and say “It’s just a coincidence.”

But coincidences are there for a purpose – whether to form life or to encourage Jennifer to take the next step of faith towards knowing God.

And it is no coincidence that everything conspired together to nail Jesus to a cross.  That is how God orders his creation.  For us.

9th November 2011

I wonder how long it is before Justin Welby is ravaged by Daily Mail.

Even before his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury is made official later this morning I note a dismissive, even offensive, editorial in the Guardian.   Stephen Bates writes: “Every move and utterance will be scrutinised for heresy, error or obtuseness by the Pharisees of the church and the soothsayers of the media, not all of them actuated by faith, hope or charity.”

Archbishop Rowan, tellingly and rather sadly I thought, advised that his successor would need the skin of a rhinoceros.

I’m sure Justin thought long and hard before saying YES to this poisoned chalice, not least for the effect it would have on his own family.  Okay – you get the best seats in the house but a heavy price is to be paid in terms of the hostility and unrelenting criticism that as Archbishop he will most certainly endure.

I recall some years ago a BBC Panorama programme being devoted to the failings of Archbishop Ronald Runcie.  It must have been hugely difficult for him – at a clergy conference in Manchester at the time he revealed that he longed to be a vicar, just like us.

One of the contributors to this programme observed that being Archbishop of Canterbury is the second most difficult job in the country (the most difficult being leader of the Labour party!).

And it goes on, even when you retire.  In the Guardian editorial I referred to earlier Archbishop George Carey is described as “that ultimate grey archbishop.”

This really is a case of bending down, taking up your cross and following Jesus.   No surprise for the writers of the New Testament; for them, suffering is part and parcel of being a Christian.

The apostle Paul, who had his fair share of vindictive and unremitting opposition, holds on to this insight:  “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”  (Romans 8:18)

In suffering for Jesus, you see his resurrection in a new light.

Giles Fraser commented in the Church Times that above all the new Archbishop will need courage, a refusal to be shouted down by the media and to be intimidated by the strength of opposition he will have to face.

Remembrance Sunday is a timely reminder of the need for courage, the resolve not to stay hunkered down but to take the fight to the enemy, even at personal cost.

So we pray for Bishop Justin as we steps out to face the world media later this morning.   But I’m sure he’s the man for the job.

I just hope that at his enthronement in Canterbury Cathedral early next year they sing “Be bold, be strong – for the Lord your God is with you!”

“Who wrote Paul’s epistle to Romans?”

This is a true story.

Late Wednesday afternoon and I need to get an important letter in the post, on behalf of Jacqui’s aunt.  I finish it in good time for the 5.30 pm collection – and then realize that I have no printer.  That packed up last week, thankfully under warranty, but I am still waiting for its replacement.

I didn’t want to bother John Shaw opposite yet again and there was no time to use the printer at the Ministry Centre. A Thursday posting would have to do, not the best of options as it happens.  Pity.

Then I had an idea of such clarity and simplicity I was taken aback.

That evening I shared this dilemma with several guys at Alpha; several were technophiles.  How did I do it? All kinds of ideas – variations of email, Skype, Google+, MS Messenger, even fax from my pc or text on a mobile.  None would work because I had to include a particular document.  No one came up with the answer.  They were in awe when I explained what I did.

I wrote the letter by hand – using a pen.

It’s most rare for me to write anything by hand nowadays but this incident reminded me that the Bible was written by hand – and that has all kinds of implications we don’t often think about.

The question “Who wrote Paul’s epistle to the Romans?” you would think is in the same league as “Who wrote Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony?” Well, it isn’t – for the simple reason that Paul’s letter to the Romans was written by Tertius  (see Romans 16:22).

Note how 2 Thessalonians ends: “I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters. This is how I write.”  He signs off his letters to show their authenticity, the body of the letter is written by someone else.

It seems that Paul did not actually put pen to paper (or papyrus) but used a secretary or a transcriber.  Actually, the technical term is an amanuensis –it means “within hand reach” referring to the position of a personal slave.

Why did Paul use an amanuensis?  Sometimes he may have been in the situation I am in at the moment – his printer was not working, that is – he simply was unable to write.  So the very last  verse of Colossians, Paul takes the pen somewhat clumsily and writes as best he can given his shackles: “I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you.”

It may be for convenience given his workload.   Or that he found it easier to think when he wasn’t actually holding the pen.  As far as I am aware no one has done any serious work how such an amanuensis would work.   How much freedom did they have?  That in itself could explain the difference in writing styles between say, Corinthians and 1&2 Timothy, for example.

But it does give us a wonderful image of the apostle pacing up and down with the poor amanuensis saying “Hold on, Paul – I can’t keep up!” Ephesians 1:3-14 form one mega sentence in the original Greek as ideas pile up against each other.  You can sense the excitement of this pioneer for God being so grabbed by his message that even Dragon Dictate V2.5 would struggle.

And when does he pause – like I am doing now?  And the challenge is that it all has to be done in one take.  No easy deletion or changing the order of paragraphs.

Very simply Paul, maybe more than the other writers of the New Testament, was living his letters, they were such a part of him.  I only just read this morning from Philippians 3:  “I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

May we too, in the words of the apostle, become living letters – “You show that you are a letter from Christ, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”

May our message be a natural extension of who we are becoming in Christ.

No entry code here

It struck me one morning this week how many entry codes I carry in my head!

First, morning prayer in church – a code to disarm the alarm.  Then pop into school for a short conversation with Barbara – key in the entry code.  A few minutes later over the road to Hillcroft to say hello to Nora.  Another code, one of the more memorable.

Finally, back to the vicarage.  Jacqui was home and so no need to punch those four digits before the alarm sounds.

My life is now dominated by entry codes, PINs and passwords, and not just online.   There are those (which are innumerable) which I chose for myself – to access an ATM or turn on my iPod, for example. They are the easy ones.

But the challenge is to remember those chosen by other people – how to get into the labour ward late at night (as chaplain, I hasten to add) or to visit a church member in their flat.   I think I carry about ten in my head.

Of course, sometimes you can just ring the doorbell but there is usually a long wait for a staff member to let you in.  In fact, there have been times when in my impatience I have tried random numbers.

For four digits you have just 10,000 attempts, 5040 if each digit can only be used once.  Sometimes it can be quicker.

Daily I thank God for Mrs. Shepperd-Barron who one fateful day in 1967 persuaded her inventor husband that four digits was plenty.   This pioneer had been working on a six-digit numeric code.

We live in an age of passwords and codes.  Just like the early Christians.

You probably may not realize this but in the world of the early church mystery religions were big.  They were everywhere and dominated Greek life

To quote Wikipedia:  “The main characterization of this religion is the secrecy associated with the particulars of the initiation and the cult practice, which may not be revealed to outsiders.”

You needed to know the code to get in.   Outsiders were kept outside. Justin Martyr identified them as “demonic imitations” of the true faith,

So when the apostle Paul uses the word “mystery” (which he does 16 times in the New Testament), he is taking these counterfeit faiths head-on!   The cross of Jesus has turned everything on its head.

So the imprisoned apostle writes: “Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel.”  (Ephesians 6:19)  He uses the word ironically.  His aim is to include and welcome.  In computer-speak the Gospel is open-source.

It is the church of Christ which pioneered inclusion – and we stand in this tradition.  No in-crowd allowed.

I can’t remember if I have told in this letter the story which gave birth to our church’s watchword.  Most of you will already know this but for those of you who don’t, here it is!

The pastor of a local church, who has since retired, was arguing with a recalcitrant member.  Eventually he threw his hands into the air and exclaimed in frustration:  “You might as well join Christ Church, Aughton- they’ll have anyone!”

So we will have anyone.  And our challenge is to make sure that we make our church open and welcoming, not just for members only.  Not as easy as it sounds.  The first thing I did when I became a Christian 50 years ago was to buy a suit.  I wanted to belong.

We need to imitate Christ.  After all, he welcomed us with opened arms!

How God guides us

It was this very Friday morning some 20 years ago I got up early to sit at this very desk to write my farewell sermon for St John’s Thornham.  (Actually I have since replaced the desk but the prose doesn’t flow as well).  We had moved house on the Wednesday but were returning to Rochdale for our final Sunday.

It seemed strange sitting in our new vicarage addressing in my mind the people of the church I was about to leave.  What had happened to make this move happen?  How had God guided us to get us here?

I wrote way back in June how we had set God a deadline but typically God had waited until after deadline before pointing us to Christ Church, Aughton through an advert in all places, the Church Times.

What happened then was an exercise in guidance. We often overemphasise the difficulties in guidance but in my experience it is usually straightforward.  After all God owes it to himself as well as to us to make his ways clear.

Winkie Pratney (what a name!) observes “Many say they can’t get God’s guidance, when they really mean they wish he would show them an easier way.”

So I sent away to Aughton for the briefing document.  In those days these were usually one side of A4.  Christ Church sent 10 pages.

I decided to go for it and spent a whole afternoon writing my application, the last time I handwrote a document of any significance.  My bronze age computer had just packed up – possibly an indication I was on the right track!

In my covering letter to the parish representatives I explained that should I be invited for interview, we were about to head for a campsite chaplaincy in the Dordogne.  Incidentally it was only after I had handed my application in to David Dennison that we found out where the vicarage was – we had failed to locate it on our exploratory visit.  I recall saying to Jacqui – “Never let it be said that we came here for the vicarage!”

Just before the interviews (quite an experience), a whole series of meetings in David’s home in Prescot Road,  we took the liberty of visiting Scarisbrick Hall School.  Wrong way round but we were short of time before setting off for France.  We met with the headteacher on a confidential basis, not of course realizing that David Raynor was to be the grandfather of two of our future granddaughters!  Weird.

So interviews over, we set off for France.   Using all the criteria Christ Church seemed to be the right place to go – it ticked all the boxes.  And if I had to decide there and then I would have said Yes.

But something can seem right on paper but not work out in practice. Such was the importance of this decision I was hoping for some indication from God.    I recall thinking as we drove down the M6 that there was the potential of our holiday being distracted by the need for decision.

We drove the 530 miles from Cherbourg to our campsite in the Dordogne in one day.  On arrival at our emplacement, I fell out of the car but had sufficient energy to say hello to our neighbour, a friendly man from Glasgow.

I mentioned that it was bad enough driving all the way from Rochdale but it was even further for him.

“No problem,” he said.  “He had broken his journey with a visit to a relative.”  “Where about?” I asked, just in conversation.  “A place called Aughton” was his response.  “Prescot Road, Aughton.”

We had only been at Le Moulin du Roch four minutes but the location of my interviews came up in casual conversation!   I didn’t let on and this Glaswegian never knew how those few words carried so much significance.

Of course, you are not going to change the whole direction of your life on the basis of such a coincidence but I took it at the time as a spark of God’s guidance.  It just goes to show that you cannot underestimate his ability to get his message through.

“Listen’ says Jesus – “if you have ears to hear!”  (Matthew 11:15)

You can read how God guided our new reader, Jonathan Lock, from the Diocesan mailing from this link:

http://www.liverpool.anglican.org/?p=2198&utm_source=Diocese+of+Liverpool&utm_campaign=9c4520643a-The_Bulletin_issue_1167_13_2011&utm_medium=email

"I swear by Almighty God…"

“Please take this New Testament in your right hand.”

I was to swear an oath at the Liverpool District Probate Registry Office as a key part of the process of sorting out my mother’s estate.

The court officer, a kindly lady, noticed I was somewhat surprised – “Is that alright?”

I did think of opening her much handled but underused copy of the New Testament at Matthew 5:34-37 where Jesus says “But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all. . . All you need to say is simply ‘Yes,’ or ‘No.’”   But I didn’t.  Not really the right time or place.

Moreover, as I recalled from Tim’s recent induction as vicar of Bunbury, I was required at my induction to take an oath of canonical obedience “in all things lawful and honest” to the Bishop while holding the Bible.

But why holding the Bible?  It is possible, of course,  to make an affirmation without any reference to God but in making an oath in God’s name why actually hold the sacred scriptures?  Why the corporality?   What is so special about the cardboard and paper which carry the text?

As a student and curate I went through Bibles (capital B, notice) quite quickly – carried around in all weathers, underlined, just generally bashed about.  I would simply dispose of the old one and buy a new one without thinking.  And basically that is what I would do now –  if it were not for Kenneth Lee, my rector in Heswall for my second curacy.

Kenneth happened to mention in conversation that he had just buried his old Bible, such was his reverence for the sacred text.  (Quick digression – did you see the first episode of the second series of “Homeland” on Sunday?  If you did, you’ll know what I am talking about!).

That struck me as strange because Kenneth was fairly liberal, with a relaxed view on Biblical authority – he  buried his Bible with dignity.  In contrast I had a high view of scripture and I threw mine in the bin.

And ever since then I have had a dilemma what to do with my old Bibles!  This is especially so at the moment as I break up two homes (Mum’s and Jacqui’s auntie’s) while having a huge clear out in our own house now that all our daughters are permanently settled  As a consequence I have a whole wadge of Bibles I do not know what to do with!

Yes, they are just derived from wood and textile pulp, no more.  But to simply toss these much used Bibles into a skip along with household waste somehow seems unworthy.  But there again as a Christian I believe in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit rather than Father, Son and Holy Scripture.  The Bible may be sacred but it is not divine.

In other words, and I really do not understand this, physicality does matter. We are not made just to appreciate concepts and admire principles.  God made us flesh and blood.  And as a consequence things may be important.

C S Lewis could see this:

“There is no good trying to he more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely’ spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us.

“We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.”

I’ve just started reading Tom Wright’s recent book on “How God became King.”  He is in the forefront of re-establishing the importance of physicality – that God’s purpose is not to save us from this disordered creation but to redeem this creation of which we are a key part.  And that makes all the difference.

Anyone want a second hand Bible?

How to get out of bed

Good morning, Andrew – and everyone else!

Friday, 24 August.  It’s a lovely morning on Swanage beach, watching the granddaughters splashing in the waves.

Suddenly my android phone pings a notification.  It’s an email from northern Argentina of all places.  Andrew Leake wants to know what has happened to this week’s emailing – and he wants to get up.

He writes (and here I quote without permission):  “You have me hooked on your Friday email reflection. I tend to read it before I get up. Looking forward to today’s instalment.”

For the record I did consider writing a blog there and then from my deckchair so that our mission partner could get out of bed – but I simply cannot write fluently using my thumbs onto a tiny screen.

So I sent Andrew a rather tame apology, pointing out that I had send two weeks worth of notices the previous Friday.

But I know what Andrew means.  How do we start the day?  If I can ask a personal question, how do you get out of bed?

I was very much influenced by the American singer, Don Francisco, one of his songs in particular, “The Lord and I together.” (1981).

When I wake up in the morning put my feet on the floor I set my heart in the right direction.

Let the world be driven by its worries and fears, my faith is in the resurrection.

By the power of the Spirit living in me

I know the Devil cannot hold a candle.

There is nothing gonna happen today

that the Lord and I together can’t handle!

It’s not quite the poetry of Edward Caswell – his translation of Lutheran hymn

When morning gilds the skies my heart awaking cries:

May Jesus Christ be praised!

Alike at work and prayer, to Jesus I repair:

May Jesus Christ be praised!

But he makes the same point.

Our first minute of a new day has huge potential – it may be one of praise or of resignation.  It may well set the tone for the whole day.

So it’s good to have a simply prayer or phrase for awaking.  Clearly it has to be simple, short, with some content – and above all positive.

Here’s one Celtic prayer on awaking:  you can simply use the last line.

You refresh our bodies with sleep

and waken us to face

the challenges of a new dawn.

Help us to live this day to your glory.

I have my own very simply prayer as the teasmade hisses– “Lord, may I honour you this day.”

However, my favourite which I picked up from a colleague of Colin Urquhart years ago – and some of you will have heard me use this over the years.  It says everything.

“Another day of victory!”

When there seems no way out

The single most important component in any ministry – as Jesus himself taught – is faithfulness.  First and foremost you need to turn up, to be there. And June Nicholls  – who retires this Sunday after 25 years as our church organist – was totally reliable, always there.  A great support.

So we thank God for her incredible contribution to the life of Christ Church and for her gift to sum up a whole service in the closing music.

All this is in stark contrast to the last time my church organist stood down.  Certainly Diane knew how to go out with a bang, certainly with all the stops pulled out!

I had just arrived as vicar of St John Thornham, way back in 1984, to discover that civil war had broken out during the interregnum.

Casualties were lying about everywhere. Diane, the organist, had found herself on the losing side and now was preparing to move out.

I think it was my first PCC, certainly the second.  At the conclusion her husband handed me a letter and asked me to read it out.  Her resignation, timed to make maximum impact.  I played a straight bat (bowlers hate a straight bat) and simply recorded our appreciation of all she had given to St John’s and closed the meeting with the grace.

But what then?

I prayed, possibly for the first time, a prayer I have repeated many times over the years:  “Well, Lord, this is your church and so this is your problem.  What do you want me to do?  Any ideas?”   I didn’t realize it at the time but this was to be a defining moment in my ministry.

Ideas were scarce on the ground.  I didn’t know anyone, church members were either exhausted or about to leave.  But God is God  and not for the first time I found myself in a totally impossible position.

There was just one hint of an option. Melanie Clegg, about 12 years old, could play the piano.  Her mum, the PCC secretary, offered her services.

It didn’t help that Diane along with her church sub-group, about to leave, had lumbered the church with a new and very expensive hymn book published by some obscure Welsh outfit, packed with obscure hymns in impossible keys.

I had no option but to ask little Melanie to assume the mantle of (temporary) church organist.   It was a huge risk but with her mother’s help she picked out four hymns in the key of C major.  So we sang Amazing Grace and other familiar hymns in the easy play version.

We managed, just.

But Melanie started to develop, first playing in other easier keys, then the more difficult.  Within a few months I took over in choosing suitable hymns.  The next stage was when I could choose any hymn with a growing confidence that Melanie could play them.  We paid for her to do an organist course at Manchester Cathedral.  Soon she was taking organ lessons.

All this meant that Melanie was becoming a proficient organist and on entering the Sixth form she took Music as one of her three A level subjects.  During this time we were able to form a regular music group – and so our music at St John’s was beginning to go places.

And Melanie too went from strength to strength, playing some very complicated works for weddings (wasted, of course, on me).   For her university course, she successfully applied to the Royal College of Music in London, with organ as her main instrument.

She settled well in her small flat just next door to the Royal Albert Hall – I called to see her a few times, thankful for all she had done to heal St John’s and restore confidence.

Then, just seven eventful years after her first tentative chords in Rochdale, on passing the audition for the team, she played the organ at Westminster Abbey.

That’s how God works.

21st September 2012

Being a descendent of St Mochta carries with it certain responsibilities.

My family website is regularly visited by Moughtin’s and Moughton’s from throughout the known world.  And every so often I receive an email from a Moughtin wanting to know where they fit in.  Like last week.

In which case I forwarded their email to Wally and Pat in New Zealand and to Tom (not his real name) in North America, authorities on the Moughtin genealogy.  (St Mochta, from Jurby in the IOM, was a disciple of St Patrick:  he died 20 August 535),

Wally and Pat responded in just a few hours.  But surprisingly, nothing from Tom.  I did know from some recent emails that there had been a bereavement in his family.

His email eventually came on Monday, giving some useful info.   It continued:

“Since I last sent you an e-mail about John’s death we have had more sad news. I have been going rapidly downhill in the recent weeks and have been diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. Combined with other ‘gut’ pains I have been in emergency and hospital for the past

10 days, having got out on Friday – but much drugged with morphine and opioids.

“So how much more help I can offer on genealogy I’m not sure – it’s just day-to-day at present.”

Obviously  I needed to make a response by email.  Not the most suitable form of communication to a dying man.  Also I do not know whether Tom is a Christian.

I didn’t want to sound religious, just giving platitudes.   Nor too wordy.  Also the choice of words is important – they may mean one thing to me and something totally different to him.  Such as the word “heaven.  ” For most people (and for some Christians)  heaven means a disembodied Elysian up there, a concept derived from Greek philosophers.

Instead the Bible speaks of heaven as God’s space while earth is our space.   The good news is that God is going to live with us, his will is done here on earth as it is already in heaven.  Now we may face the future with hope:  “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”  (Revelation 21:3)

So this was my response to Tom.

“An email is hardly the best form of communication for such a sensitive issue – as a rule I only use this form of communication for basic info and no more.  But you being over there in (North America), there is no alternative.

“As a Christian I am only too aware of my own frailty and a vicar having taken so many funerals, only too aware of my own mortality .  I guess your experience of genealogy means you are also conscious that our lives are just two dates separated by a — . What counts is what goes into that —.

“For myself – as for many Moughtin’s – I made the key decision when I was young to place my life totally into the pierced hands of the Son of God.  His death on the cross is now the most important and the most significant event in my life.  And as Jesus shares my mortality and takes to himself my disobedience, in fact all the consequences of my sin, so I share in his victory and receive his Holy Spirit.

“I’m not sure how well I will handle any grim prognosis that comes my way but nevertheless I trust that God will continue to give me the confidence to face the future with hope.  How he will redeem my weak and frail body I have no idea;  that he will, this makes all the difference.

“Jesus will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control. (Philippians 3:21)

“So we will be praying for you.  And I trust that that branch of the Moughtin family may know and experience God’s wonderful grace.”

So please pray for Tom, that he may know the victory of Christ, as our forbear did as he proclaimed the Gospel in Ireland 15 centuries ago.

Keeping the family together

Off to Bunbury this afternoon!

Bunbury in Cheshire, that is – the home of Olympic gymnast Beth Tweddle.  Son-in-law Tim is being inducted as vicar of St Boniface along with the smaller church of St Jude, Tilstone Fearnall.

So with Andrew as vicar of St Peter, Walworth, central London, that makes vicar #3 in our family.  Between the three of us we almost cover the whole Anglican spectrum, both in type of parish

(urban/suburban/rural) and in churchmanship (low/middle/high).   We

are a walking Church of England.

Even so we all managed a wonderful family holiday in Swanage last month.

“It is the hardest thing in the world to hold the adherents of a faith together,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observed. Remarkably the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth was addressing the 670 Anglican bishops of the Lambeth conference in 2008.

“The Anglican Communion has held together quite different strands of Christian theology and practice better than any other religion I know, certainly than any other Western religion I know.”

The Rabbi called on Anglicans to be tolerant of each other, as he had known them to be when he was a student in Anglican schools. “Covenant is predicated on difference,” he said. “Between God and humanity-that is the covenant of ultimate difference.”

Beyond the call to unity in the Anglican Communion, Rabbi Sacks said that Anglicans can help “to hold us together in a world that is drawing us apart.”

One thing Tim will soon learn as a vicar is that it is not easy holding a congregation together – in our individualistic culture there are always centrifugal forces pulling us apart.  And yet just by staying together we may demonstrate the Kingdom of God to a fractured world.

Things could not get any worse than what was happening in the church in Corinth.  You name it, they had it.  Rivalries, drunkenness, disorder, incest, slander – not to mention wrong teaching (no

resurrection, baptism for the dead).   They even got lawyers involved,

as bad as that!  No wonder the apostle Paul writes: “Your meetings do more harm than good.”  Clearly a failing church.

So how does he begin his letter?  “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people!”

And nowhere does he suggest suspending the church or – like the current Spanish banking system – dividing it into good and bad segments.  He is totally committed to keeping this church together.

It was his passion.

Two of my heroes both worked hard as vicars to maintain the unity – and  both had strong evangelical views.  John Stott (who died last

year) and his hero, Charles Simeon (1759–1836), vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge, the church now sandwiched between Marks & Spencer’s Food and Ladies Departments.

The big controversy in Simeon’s day threatening to tear the Church apart was Calvinism versus Arminianism.  Both parties thought fundamentals were at stake.

His response?

“Please, please, please! Enough of all this Calvin-bashing and Arminian-bashing. Let us show respect for each other’s traditions and “church fathers”. Nobody, not even the apostles (with their various faults), . .  nor anybody else is perfect. Only Christ is perfect. Let us look only unto him. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God’”

Certainly my experience of the Anglican church in Vancouver, the most secular city in north America, only confirms the view this secession is not  good.  It just damages mission – so that our young niece Sydney stopped going to St Simon’s as it left the diocese.  The hassle was too much for her.

So no wonder then does Paul sign off his Corinthian correspondence with the watchword of the church:  “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all  (i.e. all of you). 2 Corinthians 13:14

So every blessing to Tim and Beth with daughters Rose and Poppy as their ministry begins this evening.  May they know this grace, love and fellowship as they begin to serve Jesus in this ancient parish.

Wisdom of age

“If I’d known I was going to live this long I’d have taken better care of myself.”  I can remember Eubie Blake, the great US jazz musician, saying this on his 100th birthday.  (He died a few weeks later).

This was one of the quotes given yesterday in a brilliant lecture in church by Tom Kirkwood, Dean for Ageing and Health at Newcastle University.   Congratulations to the U3A for inviting such a prominent speaker – he gave the BBC Reith Lectures in 2008.

And it was fascinating stuff.

The fact is that we are now living much longer than we used to, much longer.  Even the comparison between life expectancy between the years 1900 and 2000 is breath taking – mainly due to improvements in public health and medicine.   My mother died last week at the age of 95;  her mother died in 1937 of hypothyroidism at the age of 39.

What is more life expectancy in the affluent world is continuing to grow to the extent that the United Nations, even in very recent years, keeps assuming that it is tailing off.  It isn’t.  There doesn’t seem to be a ceiling.  90% of our grandchildren will make it to their 65th birthday.

In his lecture Professor Kirkwood aimed to explain the ageing process.  I know all about this having read chapter 9 of the brilliant book of popular science by Michael Brooks – “13 things that don’t make sense.”  So I knew that the theory Kirkwood advanced for ageing caused through an accumulation of very small copying errors in cell division had some drawbacks.  “What about fruit flies?” I could have asked him – but didn’t.

What was important, though, was the context he gave to the growing longevity of our society.  Strangely, this is often seem as a problem.  Certainly that was how the leaders of the three political parties saw it in their televised debates in 2010.  Problems for the NHS, for youth employment, for pension provision.  Old age is a problem.

Wrong.  Old age is good news, especially as our health span, as well as  our life span, is also increasing.   So the apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians:  “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.  ‘Honour your father and mother’– which is the first commandment with a promise –  ‘so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.’  (Ephesians 6:1)  Clearly the apostle saw long life as a blessing, as good news.

Above all it was through Abraham that God chose to bless the nations of the world and – “Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people.” (Genesis 25:8).  Full of years, a lovely phrase.

But God’s purpose is not just to bless us but for us be a blessing for others.

Here the Bible sees the older members of his family an invaluable resource for wisdom –  they have seen it all and have grown in their emotional intelligence:  “Hear this, you elders; listen, all who live in the land. . . . Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation.”  (Joel 1:2).

Certainly there will not be another property bubble in Ireland or Spain while the present generation are still alive.  Assuming, of course, that they are listened to!

For there lies the rub!  Are we willing to accord the respect to older people to the extent that we are prepared to listen to what they say?  Strangely much of the credit for me being such a brilliant grandparent must go to my mother – she had some very good insights.

Notice – what word does the New Testament use to denote those in Christian leadership?

Presbuteros, course.  It can mean simply older man (10x) or woman (once) but for 57 times it is translated “elder”, which stands it in the tradition of the Old Testament.

However, it differs from the equivalent word episkopos (overseer or bishop) in that it also assumes the quality of old age. In other words, elders are leaders, in part, due to the wisdom and spiritual maturity they have obtained through a life-long walk with Christ.

What counts is not just that we may be old enough to have seen it all but that we allow the Holy Spirit to help us to reflect on our experiences so that in the great tradition of the Bible we may pass on to the next generation the wisdom of God.

31st August 2012

A difficult week, as my mother slowly dies. Sadly we received the phone call in the early hours of this morning, asking us to come in.

It was way back in February my sister and I made the reluctant decision that our 94-year-old mother needed residential care and on the very day of her sister’s funeral she moved into Woolston Hey in Waterloo, just 600 yards from the family home.

She very soon settled there, not least because her bedroom has a truly magnificent view over the Mersey estuary, the view I grew up playing on the beach.

And now her various cancers have finally taken her life, not easy for those of us who love her and have taken turns in taking vigil.

For death is no friend, to be embraced or welcomed.  Nor one to be mocked, as in Eric Idle’s sing-along “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

Neither can death be ignored. I guess for many people death is the elephant in the room.  We know it is there but do our very best to walk round it.

No, death is our enemy, our most feared foe.  But an enemy whose days are numbered.

As the apostle Paul writes “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  (1 Corinthians 15:26).  But for the Christian there is no need to make a truce or to accept death as the final word – for the simple reason that it is going to be destroyed by the victorious Christ.

So we need to place our lives in his nail-scarred hands.  “He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control. (Philippians 3:21 New Living Translation)

Mum came back to her teenage faith through doing the Alpha course (twice) at St John’s Waterloo and since then has been hugely encouraged by the NSM vicar, Alan Brooks, who over recent years led a Bible study group in her house.  She is secure in Christ.

It is John Donne, confident in this security, who can look death straight in the face and in his Holy Sonnet X pronounce: “Death, thou shalt die!”

http://www.rjgeib.com/thoughts/proud/index.html

For the Christian, the person united to Christ in his death, is assured of being united with him in his resurrection (Romans 6:5).  How God is going to do this, he alone knows. That he is going to do this makes all the difference.

With this confidence, we can make preparation.

I was struck by the lyrics of Matt Redmond’s “10,000 Reasons (Bless The Lord)” having an almost Victorian feel in preparing for the inevitability of our own death:

And on that day when my strength is failing
The end draws near and my time has come
Still my soul will sing Your praise unending
Ten thousand years and then for evermore

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DXDGE_lRI0E

As I would sit at my mother’s side, watching her fight with her every breath, I could look up and see the familiar horizon at the Liverpool bar, a view which has always held my imagination.  A sense of the unknown, with new worlds beyond our sight to be discovered.

Life is eternal; and love is immortal;
and death is only a horizon;
and a horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.
(Rossiter W. Raymond)

When Mills & Boon meets hard core

It was a situation worthy of Mrs. Doyle.

I was next to be served at W H Smith’s in Ormskirk.  The customer in front of me turned, saw my dog collar and said:  “After you, father.”

“Not at all,” I replied. “After you!”  “No, I insist:  after you!”  It went on.  Eventually I relented and bought my weekend Times to keep the queue moving.

Anyone witnessing this to-ing and fro-ing would have thought that this was a devout church member determined to honour his parish priest, who in turn refused to take advantage of his privileged status.

Not at all.  I knew the truth.

I had already noticed the furtive behaviour of this particular customer.  He was buying soft porn – but couldn’t cope with a priest seeing him present the glossy magazines at the check out.

That was 15 years ago.

I wonder what the equivalent situation would be today at Morrison’s if I was in the queue behind a customer (probably a young woman) having placed in their trolley “Fifty shades of grey.”  Clearly this year’s publishing sensation, down there with “The Da Vinci code.”  A case of Mills & Boon meets hard core to produce Mummy Porn.

For those of you who still think 50SG is a dulux colour card, I quote from Wikipedia: “(50SG) is notable for its explicitly erotic scenes featuring elements of sexual practices involving bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadism/masochism.”

I have no intention of reading this novel but I did read the excellent review in “Christianity”.

http://www.christianitymagazine.co.uk/Browse%20By%20Category/culture/GreyAreas.aspx

In fact, I have no doubt that I would have been caned for possessing such literature, even in the swinging 60’s. But it just goes to show how our society is becoming ever more eroticised.

Just like the world of the early church.  The murals at Pompeii bear witness to how much eroticism was part and parcel of contemporary Roman and Greek culture.

“The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery,” writes Paul to the Christians in Galatia (5:19).  He continues: “Idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.”

Why the list?  Because the apostle wants to spell out the way of life his readers have left behind.  He wants to remind them how they used to live so that they may treasure God’s calling and celebrate their release.  These “works of the flesh” are not life-style choice, simply what happens when evil gains entry.

So what does Paul do?   Rather than dwell on these destructive behaviours he moves his focus to show a more excellent way – the life lived when the Holy Spirit is allowed to flourish.  “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Hardly qualities celebrated in 50SG – but here is our future if we are embedded in Christ.

And we allow the Holy Spirit to flourish by giving him space through continuous acts of will, the way we decide to live our lives, moment by moment.  This takes character-building discipline, the same qualities which each gold medallist will have cultivated over the years.  This invariably begins in the mind and it is the mind where porn and its like can cause so much havoc, weakening our resolve and distorting our goals.

But what about our witness within our society?  “Vicar slams 50SG” would be a predictable headline in the Champion.  And it just drives up sales.

Fundamentally it is showing what true love is – in the way we live as well as by the gospel we proclaim.  This is what those early Christians did.  Now it is our turn.

“Eros and Agape” was an epoch-making theology written by Swede, Anders Nygren, in 1930.  In this massive two-volume work (which I will now summarise in seven words) he compares two Greek words for love.  Eros is essentially me-centred, agape is you-centred.   Guess which one the New Testament writers chose to use to describe God’s great love for us?

This is the love the novel’s character, Anastasia Steele, truly longs for.  The clue, strangely, is in the meaning of her Christian name.

10th August 2012

So what are we going to do on Monday after our daily Olympic fix is abruptly withdrawn?  I am still hyped up by last night’s incredible run by David Rudisha’s – 1:40.91, a remarkable time, believe me.

So life next week is going to seem very ordinary, back to the usual diet of tensions in the government and rising Spanish bond yields. Also the lawn will need mowing.  Then the annual angst of following EFC.

So many people have worked so hard to make London 2012 such a success, most unrecognised.  Then the competitors themselves.  They will have been living over the past few years with a single goal to which they have dedicated the whole of their energies.  Now for all these people it will soon be all over.  What now?

The anti-climax can be very testing. “Achievement brings its own anticlimax” observed my favourite American novelist, Maya Angelou. Many find their success difficult to handle.

“Tomorrow begins the rest of my life.”  The first time I heard this expression was from US athlete Billy Mills on winning the Olympic 10,000 metres in 1964. I’m not sure what happened to Mills, but his entry in Wikipedia is mostly about his unexpected victory in Tokyo. His entire life, it would seem, is defined by just one event.

But for many in his position, the telling phrase “has been” says it all.   Obituaries for some expired champions can be depressing reading.

And not just in sport.  Overwhelming success is usually experienced as a let down.  Alexander – who shares the accolade “the Great” with King Herod – reportedly wept when he realized that there were no more worlds to conquer.  John Lennon, on leaving what turned out to be the Beatles last concert in Candlestick Park, San Francisco, looked around the inside of the armoured van, safe from the press of their fans, the fruits of their success.  “Is this it?”

So how do we handle the anti-climax, living in the mundane when the excitement abates?  C.S. Lewis writing in ‘The Screwtape Letters’ talks about life having ‘a series of troughs and peaks’.

As anti-climaxes go, the biggest ever must have been the experience of the disciples following the ascension of Jesus.  First, they were so excited as they laid their cloaks before their leader entering Jerusalem and yet within days they were broken and abandoned.  As they did their best to readjust to life with a defeated Messiah, this same Jesus appeared amongst them. “My Lord and my God” acclaimed Thomas.

Over 40 days the disciples had the experience of meetings with Jesus. You get the sense that they never quite knew when and where these encounters would happen.  But it must have been totally remarkable by any standards!  Amazing.

Then he goes, leaving them with the most difficult commandment of all; Wait here (i.e. do nothing).

We read Acts 1 this week during Morning Prayer.  You get the sense that the disciples really did not know what to do or how to do it, still living in the past as they used dice and some dodgy theology to choose a successor to Judas.  It must have been hugely difficult for them.

But God had his own purposes in waiting for Pentecost before giving the Holy Spirit.  Enthusiasm and excitement, the very emotions we are now experiencing are very poor motivators – for the simple reason that they will so easily go.  What counts is how we perform in the cold light of morning, when our emotions are dead, when we can raise no enthusiasm for the task ahead.

That’s where the disciples were at 8.55 am on that Pentecost morning.

No doubt they felt flat, missing the presence of their Lord, the buzz of being with him – when suddenly and with warning, his Holy Spirit arrives.  It is to their credit that all of the disciples were there, ready for this wonderful gift of God’s grace.

No way do these empowered men and woman now live in the past.

Empowered and embolden, they move out to change the world in company with their Lord who keeps his promises.

3rd August 2012

So here I am, writing to you from the middle of a field in Nottinghamshire, more precisely from a caravan in the County Showground near the civil war town of Newark.

Yes, it must be New Wine and it’s the final day of a memorable week.

Thankfully the weather this year has been good – no monsoons or massive electric storms, as in previous years.  And above all, no force 8 gales.  (I recall 1993 with some trepidation.)

We are on Green 8 along with about 25 folk from Christ Church in our varied caravans and tents.  Alongside us are some units from St John Burscough while if I look through window on my left I can see St Andrew, Clubmoor (L13) stirring into life on a beautiful morning.  I can see one guy eating his cornflakes wearing his sun glasses.

So why are we all here, some 9000 of us?   Essentially, to give God space for him to work in our lives and just as importantly, to sort us out in order that he may work through us to bring his Kingdom to a disordered and damaged world.

The strapline for New Wine says it all:  “Local churches changing nations.”  A huge vision – not ours but the Jesus who sends us into all the world to live and proclaim his victory.  But note – not as individual Christians doing our thing but together, as local churches. The Christian adventure is above all a team game.   In many ways the basic unit in the New Testament is the local manifestation of the body of Christ.

So how does God work through New Wine?

In all kinds of ways.  Through the morning and evening teaching sessions – this year the morning sessions taken by a Canadian, Gary Best, have been outstanding.  Through the seminars, some very good (including one, you will be pleased to hear, on using blogs, Facebook and Twitter in ministry).  Through the times of worship – not my style of music but I have decided to enter into it.  And of course, through the fellowship with fellow disciples.

For one big bonus of being here on Green 8 as part of a local church is that we operate as a unit – shared meals with other people doing the cooking (except when it’s your turn), common tasks, pooling resources. Especially if caravanning or camping is not you.

However, it strikes me what really counts is simply just being here.

One hassle for me is to keep our two smartphones charged.  If you have one, you will know how quickly the batteries are exhausted – unlike my old Nokia.  The challenge is always to find an available power socket in one of the facilities we use that no one else has already claimed.

But this year I have hit on a cunning plan.  I carry with a four-socket extension lead.  Any power socket will do – just re plug their charger into one of my sockets.   So as we worship, our phones are being charged.  They are plugged into the power supply, just like me.

For I now understand that the Holy Spirit recharges us at a much deeper level than we are often conscious of, often bypassing our emotions or feelings.   God keeps his promises; he fills us with his Spirit when we ask him and make ourselves available.  How he does it is up to him.

So it is well worth the investment of time, energy and finance (we hire our caravan, which is towed here for us) to be here at New Wine. Then in the memorable words of Andy Hawthorne, God’s wonderful gift to the people of Manchester, we are equipped to do something for God so that we are stuffed if he doesn’t turn up!  (But he always does!)

I guess the challenge for each of us is to find that place, that event (and we may well have to be creative in some family contexts) in which we give God that time and space he needs to renew us and in doing so, renew those areas of his world we happen to be through us.

Pray to win?

Well, after seven years of anticipation, we’re nearly there.  In a few hours Danny Boyle’s “Isles of Wonder” opening ceremony for London 2012 will be wowing us, no doubt. “Splendidly British and magnificently bonkers,” reflected one participant of the final dress rehearsal.

Then the action begins (except for some of the soccer players, including those from Senegal, who have already started)!

The important thing, according to Pierre de Coubertin, is simply to be there.  It was Pierre – the founder of the modern Olympic movement – who told us that “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part.”

But try telling that to the competitors,

Jesse Owens, who won his four gold medals at the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics, reflected: “If you don’t try to win you might as well hold the Olympics in somebody’s back yard.”

But the big question for many of the competitors is “Can I pray to win?”  No doubt many will, for if you are passionate on winning, can you enlist God’s help?

I guess our immediate response is to say “Of course not.”   God wants each athlete to do their best, in a fair race – but the final result, he leaves it to the competitors in this open universe which we inhabit.

But I’m not sure it is as easy as that.

First and foremost, our prayer needs to be honest.  There is no point pretending before God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hidden.

God knows us through and through – he knows what we are about, he understands our motivation.  And can we devote a whole chunk of our life to a single goal and strain every sinew on the day, without giving the outcome to God?

And there are wider implications when we are engaged in any zero sum game – when I ask for a bigger slice of the cake, it will mean everyone gets less.  So do we pray waiting for the job interview or applying for a college course?  How do we pray when my success comes at the expense of your disappointment?

It is Jesus in his prayer at Gethsemane who gives us the lead.  He articulates what he wants but accepts that his Father makes the decision.  ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’

It may sound pious but in practice, such prayer is extremely stressful.  Luke tells us that Jesus was in anguish (Luke 22:44).  You will be surprised that the Greek word Luke chooses to use, agonia, is directly derived from the world of athletics, the stress the athlete experiences just before the race.  (I hated it).

Carrying the New Zealand flag this evening will be Nick Willis, who won silver in 1500m at Beijing.

His brother Steve, who coached Nick, recollects:  The prayer Nick and I prayed before his 1500m final in Beijing was that God would take all of Nick’s God-given talents and gifts, all the hard work he had put in during years of training, any anxiety about what tactics to use, his injury concerns, fear of failure, his childhood dreams, the weight of expectation, and all prayers from people at home, and use it all for his purposes.”

Willis crossed the line third, in 3:34.16.  It was Rashid Ramzi who stood on the winner’s podium to receive the gold medal – but he owed his success to blood-boosting drug EPO.  Ramzi was eventually disqualified following a positive drug test.  But it wasn’t’ until last year did Willis actually receive his silver medal – for which, I’m sure he thanked God!

Just goes to show how our prayer can have unexpected effects!

Not just the Olympics to look forward to but New Wine, which also starts tomorrow, one week at the showground at Newark!   Thankfully, the athletics begins once we return home!  (Surely not an answer to my prayer!).

We plough a stony field

Barnes & Noble bookshop

We were driving north to Pittsburgh after a memorable four days with the people at Christ Church, Charlottesville.  Jacqui commented:

“Well, they are very like us – and very different.”

I knew what she meant.   Yes – very similar, especially in our understanding of the Gospel and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.   We hold shared values and a common goal of sharing the Kingdom. But also very different.

I was reflecting on this, when we (i.e. Jacqui) decided we needed to stop for a break.  The obvious place came into view at Harrisonburg Crossing – Barnes and Noble, a large bookstore.  Not for the books but for the Starbucks, toilets, free Wi-Fi, easy parking and above all, air-conditioning.

Approaching the gents I was surprised by one very large display, so much so that I took this photo – which I attach.  This featured books, on both sides of the bookcase, presented unashamedly as “Christian Inspiration”.   Here were more Christian books than in any bookstore in our own country including Church House Westminster.

Yesterday I checked the equivalent stock at Waterstones in Ormskirk – a much smaller shop, of course,  But even so,  religion is given just one puny shelf of 24 books under the heading Reference. Just 13 of those books were Christian along with four Bibles.

Alongside was a whole case entitled Body, Mind, Spirit – I think eight shelves, all devoted to New Age spirituality.

What was even more galling was that there were eight so-called “bibles” – a tarot bible, Wicca bible, chakra bible, crystal bible and so on.

I’m not sure whether Waterstones have a particular agenda or are just responding to market forces but the contrast between our two cultures could not be more graphic.

But why?  Why is the Christian life apparently so marginalised, in a land where we don’t do religion?  (Actually, from Waterstones’ perspective we do religion, every religion that is except for Christianity!)

Why do I feel so uncomfortable reading my Bible on the train?  Why do so many Christians feel that we need to keep our heads down?  I really don’t know but it does affect the way we operate as a church.

Jacqui was explaining to Paul, the Rector at Charlottesville, how we promote our Alpha course representing a substantial investment in time and energy.  We do well to welcome 20 new people and yet, as he agreed, the equivalent in Virginia would pull in over 100!

And yet Alpha, so successful in North America, originates from our own culture.  This Christian introduction course has managed to take root and flourish in our stony ground.   Maybe that is why it has such a fruitful ministry worldwide.

This gives us hope, a measure of encouragement. The apostle Paul, no stranger to powerful and institutionalised opposition, writes to the Corinthian church:  “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.”  (2 Corinthians 12:10)

So we simply get on with it, in living the Gospel “in and out of season.” It may be out of season in our own culture at the moment. But this is how God works best, the fundamental principle of the Christian life.

For Paul continues  “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Then we have no alternative but to rely on the Holy Spirit.  This does seem the way God prepares to work, through our weakness.

Jesus told the disciples “Without me you can do nothing”  (John 15:5).

The good news is that with Jesus working through us, we can do all things!

To see ourselves as others see us

Typical!

Christ Church School had been on OFSTED alert for months.   So when some weeks ago I mentioned to Barbara, the head teacher, that I would be flying to Washington on Wednesday, 20 June, we both knew then when the inspectors would turn up.

So the school phone rang on 18 June to give two days notice, right on schedule

Actually I was able to have a long phone conversation with the lead inspector on the Tuesday. I could not see his reaction as he asked his concluding question – “So as chair of the Governing Body, how would you assess the school?”  I thought I might as well be honest:

“Outstanding in every area!”

And that’s the remarkable conclusion the OFSTED inspection team came to, all the more extraordinary since OFSTED raised the bar in January.

So our congratulations to Barbara Stevens and the entire Christ Church team, staff, parents and members of the Governing Body.  Oh, and the children!  Total dedication with a huge attention to detail.  Our thanks.

(I can email you a copy of the report).

I mentioned all this to the staff team at Christ Church, Charlottesville, the church in Virginia which their Bishop (who opened our Ministry Centre two years ago) recommends we link up with.

A most useful visit, one I will come back to in more detail once I have written my report.  However, one of the unexpected benefits was to see our own church in Aughton in a different light, “to see ourselves as others see us.”

The spirit of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, pervades Charlottesville.  It seems that he served on the committee responsible for Christ Church’s first building in 1826.

However, it was his drafting of the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom which is still hugely influential – firmly separating church and state. He wrote: “Erecting the “wall of separation between church and state is absolutely essential in a free society.”

In my presentation to the staff team at Charlottesville I mentioned how well our church school had done in the OFSTED inspection.  They were intrigued that our church even had a school and asked whether we as a church were allowed to have any influence.  I then explained that we were obliged by law (School Standards and Framework Act 1998) to offer regular collective worship “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character” each day.

Well, they simply could not get their minds around this, not just that we could teach the Christian faith but that we were legally obliged to do so.  And yet we take this privilege so readily for granted.

Reflecting on my childhood, St Nicholas’ Blundellsands and later Waterloo Grammar School were hugely significant in my Christian understanding.  To this day I often recall during our Sunday worship Mr Aspinall’s teaching in Junior 4 on the prayer book collects .

In fact, the Diocese certainly recognises the invaluable part our church schools play in our work and witness for Christ, something to be prized and developed for the sake of our society, not just for the benefit of the church.

So we had a wonderful two weeks in north America, despite walking into a record-making heat wave.  We visited Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Virginia as well as DC.  Four states along with DC declared a state of emergency while we were there.  Guess which four?

Typical!

7th July 2012 by Phil Weston

The Evangelical Ministry Assembly (EMA) is an annual conference in central London. Its aim is to encourage and equip Christian ministers from around the world. I was lucky enough to attend myself three years ago.

The 2012 EMA took place last week at St. Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate. But this year there was no Nigerian delegation. Here is an extract of an email sent by one Nigerian pastor, explaining his absence:

“My Dear Brothers,

It’s a pity that I am not able to make it to the EMA this year as planned. This is because of the following reasons: 1. Last Sunday, two Churches were bombed in Zaria. and one Church was bombed in Kaduna all in the same state. As a result many lives were lost and violence broke out with more people killed. 2. The government therefore imposed a 24hrs curfew immediately. They tried to relax it on Tuesday and more killings happened so they re-imposed the 24hrs curfew. They relaxed the curfew today Sunday just for the Christians to go to the Church. We worshiped today under armed mobile police guard. WE NEED YOUR PRAYERS BECAUSE WE ARE AT RISK DAILY.”

We are so fortunate to be able to worship freely and without fear for our safety. Many of our brothers and sisters around the world are not so fortunate. In the Bible, Hebrews 13:3 tells us “to remember…those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering“.  We are called to empathise, not just sympathise, with those whose faith in Jesus puts them at daily risk from repressive governments, religious militants, or sometimes even their own families.

So let’s always seek to lift our gaze above and beyond our local church concerns, and become better informed, more generous and more prayerful for the wider Church around the world. Organisations like ‘Christian Solidarity Worldwide’ and ‘Open Doors’ can help us do just that. Do take a look at their websites if you can: www.csw.org.uk and www.opendoorsuk.org.

Park Praise by Phil Weston

I hope, like me, that you are looking forward to Ormskirk’s third “Park Praise” event this Saturday. As in previous years, local churches will take over the whole of Coronation Park with stalls and activities for all the family, plus a programme of entertainment and worship at the bandstand.


From 11am to 4pm there will be a climbing wall, bouncy castles, go-karts, a kids train and more.


There will be stalls offering a variety of cakes, foods, crafts and refreshments, along with information stands from local churches and community organisations. At 2pm there will be a special “Praise in the Park” service with a talk by Baptist minister Phil Jump.

Christ Church will be well represented, of course, providing an opportunity for people to find out about our next Alpha and everything else that goes on at our church. Our Re:vive band will also provide entertainment and lead worship when they perform on the bandstand.

‘Thank you’ in advance to everyone involved.


So do come along if you can, and please pray that Park Praise will once again show God’s love for our community and draw people closer to Christ. Let’s pray for good weather too!

22nd June 2012 by Phil Weston

The Diamond Jubilee celebrations are now well behind us, and the Union Jack flags and bunting have come down from our streets and houses. But no sooner did they disappear than many people’s homes, shops and vehicles began flying the red and white flag of St. George. A sign, of course, of their support for the England team playing at the Euro 2012 football tournament. Like many of you, I shall be nervously watching BBC1 on Sunday night, as Roy Hodgson’s men face Italy in the quarter-finals!

As well as being a sign of English national identity, the flag of St. George is also a simple visual summary of the Christian Gospel. A Gospel of good news for every nation, not just our own.

The red cross of St. George is a powerful reminder of the Cross of Christ, where Jesus shed red blood and died to be our sin-bearing saviour. And the flag’s white background should remind every Christian of our new status in God’s sight. Under the Cross we have found God’s forgiveness and favour. Christ has paid our penalty and taken away our guilt, so we are now spotless, clean and whiter-than-white before his Father’s eyes.

So when you next see St. George’s flag flying, whether on an Aughton automobile or on TV this Sunday evening, as well as thinking “Come on England!” why not also thank God for the Gospel too?

Sixth Sense?

Well, if all goes to plan (qualified by James 4:15) this time next week Jacqui and I will be in Washington DC.  Essentially a holiday with the opportunity to meet up with Jacqui’s family in East Liverpool Ohio and possibly in Atlanta during a stopover.  Her father is American and we will be visiting his grave in West Virginia.

Moreover, it gives us an opportunity to meet up with the folk from Christ Church, Charlottesville in Virginia, a university town 120 miles to the south west of Washington.  Just two years ago their bishop helped open our Ministry Centre and Bishop Shannon now suggests we link up with this large evangelical church in his Diocese.

http://www.christchurchcville.org/

At this stage I am not sure what this means but I sense that the Holy

Spirit is somehow involved in all this.   My experience is that he

often works most effectively through our intuition.  We are not quite sure why we have come to a certain conclusion but we sense it to be right nevertheless.

A college friend of mine, now a senior consultant psychiatrist, came up to speak at a service here at Christ Church way back in 1999.  He was telling me, possibly in an unguarded moment, that he normally makes his diagnosis of a new patient within 10 seconds and spends the rest of the consultation trying to justify his intuition.

He’s in good company here.  No less a person that Bill Gates proclaims

“Often you have to rely on intuition.”   For if the truth be known,

much of our mental process goes on without our being conscious of it.

Often we have made our mind up even before our minds have been engaged!

This insight can be critical, for our subconscious often processes information better than our conscious mind does.

Last Thursday you may have heard “In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg” on Radio 4.  The learned panel discussed King Solomon the ruler from the Old Testament renown for his wisdom – although strangely he finished a failure through lack of judgment (“all those foreign women!”).  But nevertheless  “God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore.”

1 Kings 4:29.

The key words here are “God gave.”  But this was a particular gift given in grace by God to a special man at a critical time for a particular purpose.  But now that Jesus is raised from the dead this Holy Spirit inspired gift is available for anyone who has decided to follow Jesus.  Any disciple can access this gift of the Holy Spirit.

All we do is ask.  Just read James 1:5.

Clearly an important component of wisdom is intuition, a sixth sense even.  It may be a gift but one nevertheless to be developed and

practiced.   For we need to learn to think with the mind of Christ.

Regular Bible reading, along with some reflection, has an important part to play here – more goes in than we sometimes realize.  Intuition doesn’t come from nowhere and so we need to train our minds.

I often wonder what was happening in the apostle Paul’s mind as he travelled with his companions across Phrygia and Galatia in Acts 16 when the Holy Spirit kept him from preaching the word in the province of Asia.  Then, one verse later, the Holy Spirit would not allow them to cross the border over into Bithynia.

At the time it seemed the logical thing to do – it was what they were planning and it made perfect sense.  But clearly they sensed that this was not the way God was leading them.  It may have been no more than a holy hunch, a sense that this is not where God is taking us.

I guess what we need here is confidence in our own intuition, to recognise that this is how often God works.  Otherwise we face the ever-present problem, especially in areas of church life, of paralysis by analysis.

So in the words of the prayer book collect for Pentecost we simply pray to God for right judgment in all things, not least when to follow our intuition.

God, who as at this time

taught the hearts of your faithful people by sending to them the light of your Holy Spirit:

grant us by the same Spirit

to have a right judgement in all things

and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort; through the merits of Christ Jesus our Saviour, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

What would Jesus do?

WWJD

It’s early morning in the Moughtin house and I reckon I have just five episodes of Peppa Pig to write this letter. We have three granddaughters from London in residence and it’s just them and me up!
So here goes.

Well, no sooner had the Olympic torch disappeared along Southport Road than we were treated to four days of Jubilee celebrations. For me the Sunday church service (attached photo) and a street party as well as the fete at the village hall. A great time and some memorable television (especially the Jubilee concert.)

Then today Euro 2012 kicks off giving us little time to recover (longer if England don’t get very far) before the Olympics begin on 27 July. This promises to be huge.

When all this ends, life is going to feel very mundane, flat even -with the whole extraordinary summer behind us.

For you can become high on hype. That’s my experience in ministry too, when everything is coming at you full on. Hardly a moment to think, your sole (soul?) focus is on keeping all these balls in the air.

It can be both draining and exhilarating – and it can be difficult slowing down to normal. I remember on family holidays we needed at least two weeks away – for the first week was spent simply slowing down to normal. Only then did we benefit from being away.

Mark begins with a bang. No sooner has his gospel begun than Jesus is busy in ministry. By the end of chapter one “Jesus could no longer enter a town openly.” Clearly there was a huge need pressing on him, literally with the crowds.

And Jesus’ response? To withdraw, to give himself time as well as space to be with his Father. “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.”

I have never been a big fan of WWJD bracelets for the simple reason that Jesus often did the very opposite of what we would expect. And here is no exception. So the disciples eventually track Jesus down and tell him he is needed, desperately, now, right away.

And what does Jesus do? He decides to move on to the next village.
‘Let us go somewhere else so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’

We can become dependent on continuous activity with the need to be needed but Jesus shows us the importance of rhythm and the ability to say NO. He refused to allow his pace to be set by events, even by
the need of others. Instead we are called to keep in step with the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:25).

Peppa calls.

June 1st 1992

Image25

20 years ago to this very day – 1st June, 1992!

A significant date in my life for the surprising reason that nothing happened.

I had been in Rochdale for over eight years as vicar of St John Thornham, longer – given the circumstances – that anyone had expected.

But it was time to move – the church was entering a new phase following the trauma I had walked into.

Moreover, that summer was a remarkable concurrence in our four daughters’ education – starting university/starting sixth form/starting GCSE’s and starting secondary school.

So we began the process of looking for the next appointment.  In those days (and this may still be the case), the whole procedure was compartmentalised, which meant not only writing to different bishops but making contact with a whole series of patronage societies.  I pulled out all the stops.

I even visited the civil servant responsible for those parish churches whose patron is either the Crown or the Lord Chancellor.  His office was on the first floor of 10 Downing Street.  As I walked out before the world’s press behind John Major and Édith Cresson I banked on no one thinking it could possibly be me!  I was right.

We did not expect to stay in the Manchester area:  only my new warden supported Everton (the reason he was appointed).  And given the three months notice, we decided that the cut off date for the decision would have to be 1 June, to be in place for the beginning of the academic year.

Giving God a deadline is never a good idea.  So by 1 June, no obvious place had turned up – a whole story there.  So it seemed we were staying in Rochdale for two more years.

However, it was a visiting youth worker who told Jacqui that God usually works last minute.  This certainly tests our faith for we find it difficult waiting for God to act. “Come on, Lord, hurry up!”

Certainly this was the experience of  the Bible writers – from Genesis

22 (God stops Abraham sacrificing Isaac jit) right through to Revelation 6:10, “How long, Sovereign Lord?”

We need patience because God’s timescale is different to ours.  “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: with the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” (2 Peter 3:8).  Notice the ‘but’.

Returning to Heswall for a funeral on 27 May made all the difference.

I have a huge respect for my former rector and in talking to him, it became clear that God was at work in our conversation.

I became convinced it was right to move.  “Typical of God,” I remember saying to Jacqui as we drove back to Rochdale.  “He is telling us to move but not showing us where to move to!”

Moreover, Robin helped me to value the ordinary, everyday avenues of communication – such as adverts in the Church Times.  I had thought that any church which would advertise in the trade press was by definition not for me!

Instead I had been looking for wonderful coincidences and remarkable happenings, as in previous moves – I was offered a place at theological college by mistake and by mistake I was offered the curacy at Heswall.  I think I was expecting to bump into a bishop in some unlikely setting or unwittingly stumble into a prayer meeting as the saints interceded for a new vicar.

I’m not sure when in June the advert for Christ Church, Aughton appeared –  in all places, the Church Times.  David Dennison as warden only placed it there as an after-thought.  The Diocese recommended just the Church of England newspaper – which I didn’t read.

(The funeral of David’s mother, Eleanor, takes place today at 1.00 pm in church – please pray for the family)

I remember walking from the newsagents down Thornham New Road, seeing the advert and knowing there and then, without a doubt, this was it!

But there lies another story.

Typical of God to disregard our deadlines!  (And to speak to us through our friends).

Off to the Olympic torch now in Ormskirk – 9.04 around the town.

The terror of being offline

Usual start to a Friday – made my porridge, then read today’s BRF passage from the Bible over a cappuccino, then to my computer to write my blog.   This morning I knew what I was going to write about – the closure of Moughtin delicatessen in the IOM.

So just before typing, I googled to check this information.  So as I watched the apple spinning cursor (AKA the spinning beach ball of death) I realized something was wrong.  At first I thought it must be my Mac – images of huge repair bills flashed through my mind.

But the same result on my laptop and smartphone.   No broadband signal! At this point my alarm turned to sheer panic as I realized I was cut adrift in a digital world.  I was offline.

How could I send these notices? (answer:  go to the Ministry Centre!), how could I communicate with my family and friends? (answer:  talk to them)  and above all else, who was left to monitor the eurocrisis? (answer:  get to Berlin right away, Angela’s got it all wrong)

I’m not sure how but having pressed a few buttons on my BT home hub, a help screen appeared.  A few clicks and once again I am back in Digiland.  Huge sense of relief and loud shouts of praise.

Of course, we take the wonder of broadband for granted, the sheer power of the internet which has transformed our lives and possibly our town centres (that is how I expected my original blog to go).  If for any reason we were to go offline, massive ramifications.  Our society would simply grind to a full stop.  Pillage and looting in a matter of days.

This Sunday we celebrate Pentecost, God’s gift of his Holy Spirit.  We rejoice that now the Holy Spirit is accessible to all who decide to follow Jesus.    As we surrender our lives to him, so God pours his Spirit into our lives.  He is God’s guarantee – his gift of grace to keep us going.  His gift of love that we may live as Jesus.

But as Christians, we can take too easily this ongoing presence of God for granted.  My Bible reading this morning was Psalm 86:  “When I am in distress, I call to you, because you answer me.”  The Psalmist shows a quiet sense of confidence in a situation of some distress knowing that God is there with him.

I’m not sure how I can articulate this but even as a young Christian I have always had a profound sense of the ongoing presence of God.  This became more audible following an experience of the Holy Spirit as a university student, deeper than feelings and the usual sensations, a different category altogether.  (I tell the story in our Alpha Holy Spirit day).   I’m lost for an analogy – but something like a dialling tone.  You know you are connected even if nothing is happening.

So we can bless God for this incredible gift of his continuing presence.  But this is only what Jesus himself promised:  “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you for ever – the Spirit of truth.”  John 14:16.

This understanding makes all the difference.

Why this earth matters

The final verse of 1 Corinthians 15, often read at funeral services, has always intrigued me:  “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.”

The question is when Paul wrote “you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain” did he mean that our labour in the Lord is not in vain? That is, whatever we do in Christ’s name, whatever, will have eternal significance. This may well be despite every appearance to the contrary.

Last night’s Ascension Day service was very poorly attended but even so the apostle teaches that the work Phil had done in preparing his excellent sermon would not be in vain. But what about the work Andrew Leake is doing to conserve the northern Argentinean rainforest or even, as I wrote last week, picking up litter for Jesus?

Each Saturday Time magazine arrives on the mat and for the edition over Easter its cover story was “Rethinking heaven.”  This seven page article featured the thinking of my theological hero Tom Wright, formerly Bishop of Durham and now professor at St Andrews.

12 years ago Wright was practically unknown and now here he is as the most influential theologian in the English speaking world.  Phil’s college tutor, an American, described Wright as having superstar status in his native land.

So what’s the secret for his success?  His main contribution is rethinking the Bible in terms of its original context and so Time quotes Wright:

“When first century Jews spoke about eternal life, they weren’t thinking of going to heaven in the way we normally imagine it. Eternal life meant the age to come, the time when God would bring heaven and earth together, the time when God’s kingdom would come and his will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

I guess most Christians, if they think about it at all, imagine heaven as some disembodied place in beautiful soft focus.  But this is not what the Bible teaches.  We believe in the resurrection of the body, the new Jerusalem.  So there will be both difference  (because now God rules totally – no evil, no sin, no ugliness) and continuity (it’s still Jerusalem and I’m still me).

So “going to heaven” is a very weak and inadequate description of the Christian hope.  For God promises a new heaven and a new earth – and he has already launched this project with Jesus.  “God’s Kingdom is not ‘from’ this world but it is certainly ‘for’ this world.”

So what is our hope as disciples of Jesus?  To share in his resurrection victory so that we may share in the running of God’s new creation no less.

And here lies the rub.  Wright writes:  “And all that we do by way of Christian, Spirit-led work in the present is a genuine foretaste of that.” In other words, 1 Corinthians 15:58.

So this world, this present creation is important – for it is not going to be trashed to be replaced by a totally new world.  I remember being struck by Wright’s insistence that the sheer beauty and technical brilliance of our bodies’ blood circulation, as designed and made by God, is not going to be binned.

So as I grow as a Christian so another of those haunting verses from scripture begins to make sense, more wonderfully than I could have ever envisaged.

For Paul is right!  If indeed whatever we do in Christ’s name – such as catering for Alpha, planting trees in the Gorse Hill Nature Reserve (open day tomorrow) or collecting envelopes for Christian Aid  – has eternal significance, then we have sure grounds for standing firm despite everything the enemy may throw at us.

Hence the title of Wright’s first blockbuster book “Surprised by hope!”

Why God hates litter

It was in Rochdale that I truly learned to hate litter.

Stakehill Lane would have been lovely.  My path there was once was crossed by a mother weasel followed by five little kits (don’t be too impressed – I’ve just googled to find the right name). However, such was the quantity of casual litter I invariably felt a sense of anger and tried to avoid the area.  I realized that such litter was despoiling a beautiful creation, a sin against God himself.

Even here in Ormskirk, I would rather walk down on the road than take the leafy footpath from Ormskirk bus station to the railway station.

For it’s not just the litter itself – it what it represents, the wanton disregard  and selfishness of those who casually dispose of their empty bottles and whatever else.

Myself I would have all those who toss litter shot on sight – but should you think me extreme, only after a shouted warning.

So I was delighted to hear the news on Wednesday of BBC newsreader Alice Arnold.  After watching a “thoughtless lout” throw a plastic bottle out of a car window, she simply picked it up and threw it back at them.  Wonderful.

In both my personal BRF Bible reading and in our church weekly themes I am working my way through Galatians. Today, chapter 3. Here in v13 Paul teaches that the crucified Jesus willingly became a curse for us.

The apostle explains this with reference to Deuteronomy 21:23 which describes an executed criminal whose body is displayed on a gibbet.

“You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.”

A dead body on a cross and litter on the ground – huge difference of scale, of course, but the same category as a sin against the ground/earth, a descration of the land.

As with everything else, the resurrection of Jesus changes everything.

In his Easter sermon in 2009 Bishop Tom Wright begins with Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem “Let Beauty awake!”

Let beauty awake in the morn from beautiful dreams, Beauty awake from rest!

Let Beauty awake

For Beauty’s sake

In the hour when the birds awake in the brake And the stars are bright in the west!

Wright teaches that God’s new creation is one of extraordinary beauty initiated by the victory of Jesus.  But we as the first fruits of God’s new creation are now called to bring this beauty to where it is now absent or concealed.  “Beauty matters,” writes Wright, “dare I say, almost as much as spirituality and justice.” ‘Surprised by Joy’ page 233.

So I religiously (right word) pick up litter when I can, especially between the vicarage and the church.

And I was even more encouraged by the Noise last Saturday, when our young people led by Jonathan spent the day picking up a huge quantity of litter. Guess where?  The path between the bus station and Ormskirk railway station.

An act of public service, of course.  But much more, anticipating the beauty of God’s new creation by doing something here and now in Christ’ name – to contest ugliness so that beauty prevails.  For when we enjoy our environment we appreciate God himself.  It’s how we are made.

The Perfect Recipe by Phil Weston

It’s not only water shortages that the country is facing at the moment. As a nation we are apparently also low on Vitamin D, which is necessary for healthy bones.  Our bodies make Vitamin D in response to sunshine, so perhaps it’s no surprise that we Brits are running low!

In his recent book, simply entitled ‘The Christian Faith’, writer Michael Horton has identified some spiritual “Vitamin Ds”.  Four D’s that make up a balanced Christian diet:

“Drama” – are we familiar with the historical events upon which our faith rests, above all the life, death and resurrection of Jesus? One of the advantages of the Church year is that the celebrations of Christmas, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost give us an annual opportunity to remember and reflect on these pivotal events in human history. The Bible provides a reliable record of what happened and when. Do we read it enough?

“Doctrine” – do we understand the meaning and significance of who Jesus is and what he did? For instance, why was Good Friday ‘good’ and what hope does the resurrection give us today? Could we confidently explain our faith to a friend?

“Discipleship” – does our faith make any difference to our daily lives? Are we seeking to imitate Christ in our words and deeds, and encouraging others to do so? Do our friends or colleagues see the difference Jesus makes?

“Devotion” – are we cultivating a close personal relationship with God by prayer and praise? Have we invited the Holy Spirit to help us in our prayer life and worship?

Without Discipleship and Devotion, our faith can become dry and stale – purely ‘head knowledge’ that makes no difference to our daily lives. But without knowledge of the Christian Drama and Doctrine, our discipleship and devotion can lose their biblical foundations, their inspiration and motivation. Our heartfelt praise risks becoming simply singing, and our confident faith could descend into doubt.

So as well as getting some Vitamin D from the sun this Summer, let’s seek a balanced Christian diet too – containing drama, doctrine, discipleship and devotion. The perfect recipe for a healthy body and soul!

Before the bun fight begins

Lots of attachments this week.  It’s the annual meeting this Sunday 7.45 pm.  It’s that time of year.

I regularly receive invites to annual meetings of various sorts.  This week just three:  the Charity Bank (16 May), Achilles (my running club, 19 May) and Catz alumni (22 September).  I go occasionally but never for the meeting itself, just for the meal – to meet up with friends.

I am sure there are those people who love annual meetings, the minutes approved, the reports, the election of officers – but most of us can’t cope with the drama. We sit there, of course – at least those of us who are diligent, impatiently waiting for the bun fight to begin.

Nevertheless annual meetings are important, if only to give a rhythm to the year and a structure to an organisation, especially in the appointment for the key jobs.  This certainly applies to church life and we owe it to each other and to the Lord to take an active involvement.

My first annual meeting here at Christ Church was some 19 years ago – and without realizing it, I managed to cause havoc.  The practice here, then as now, was for wardens to be elected over three years – but strictly speaking (and strangely, I was being strict)  they are not elected for three years in one go, just one year at a time.  That is the way the Church of England does it – and the way I was used to from my previous three churches.

However, the tradition at Christ Church had been  (at least I think) was for wardens to be elected for the whole three years, sensible but technically wrong.  So in my calling for their election at the beginning of the meeting was unexpected and highly unsettling.  Was I asking for everyone to stand down?

Which just goes to show that each church thinks of itself as normal – the way the Church of England works is how we do it here. Everywhere else is eccentric.

There are not many references to annual meetings in the Bible, at least not in the sense of this letter.  But there is a huge emphasis on our personal responsibility – to each other and above all to God.

So many of Jesus’ parables have this theme:  when the king returns, the master turns up, the bridegroom arrives, are we ready?  Are we doing God’s work as he directs?  Are we using his resources wisely?

Are we encouraging each other to be faithful?

For we will all be held to account, our lives audited and our reports read.  Thankfully we shall stand before the judgment seat of someone who is rooting for us, who longs that we should be fruitful, who has made his life’s work to equip us for glory.  For our aim is simply to please him, not least in the life of Christ’s Church.

So do please read the reports, to have an idea of what God is doing among us.

And the notices too. Our Family Service this Sunday is designed for people new to church, especially from recent Alpha courses.  It begins rather than ends with welcoming cakes.

God wants us to dream

More culture this week  the Globes touring production of Henry V at the Playhouse.  This featured Jamie Parker playing the warrior king.

I tried hard  but I kept seeing Scripps, the character he plays in the Alan Bennett film The History Boys. Does his teacher know he is invading France? I kept thinking.

Henry V is the play which begins with the chorus (i.e. the narrator) telling the audience (and I here I paraphrase Shakespeare):  No special effects tonight, folks youll just have to use your imagination.

Sadly, my imagination wasnt really upto it.  Seeing five archers on stage firing imaginary arrows at us wasnt quite the Agincourt I have grown to expect from Kenneth Branaghs definitive 1989 film.

What didnt help was the directors decision to keep the house lights up, so that not only could we see them but that they could see us.

Which I found slightly unnerving.  I tried hard not to catch the eye of King Henry as he gave his famous band of brothers speech.

Having said that, imagination is truly a wonderful gift from our creator God as we may experience life apart from our five senses.  How else could we be transported back 600 years from Liverpool L1 1EL to northern France?

Imagination, very simply, is at the heart of what it means to be human – how we learn and develop as individuals.  We are able to envisage a whole variety of scenarios  I guess, thats how we worry.  It may never happen but we can still imagine everything going pear-shaped just as painfully as in real life.  It was Colin Urquhart who gave us False Expectations Appearing Real.

However, it is the right use of our imagination which is key to our development as disciples of Jesus. It is where the key battles are fought and where we  apart from God  are the only witness.  The answer is to decide each day to invite God to be at the centre of our imagination.

Is your imagination of God starved? asked the classic Christian writer, J Oswald Sanders.  Commenting on Isaiah 40:26  (Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:?who created all these?)  Sanders writes:

The people of God in Isaiah’s day had starved their imagination by looking on the face of idols, and Isaiah made them look up at the heavens, that is, he made them begin to use their imagination aright.

Looking at the stars seems to be one of Gods favourite means of stimulating our imagination, as Abraham to name just one person challenged to look skywards so that he would wonder.

And of course Jesus aims to use our imagination aright, as with his parables.  Just picture this, he asks.  Furthermore he aims to stretch our imagination in order to increase our faith.   Just imagine that mountain over there moving!   Well, it will  if you have faith in Gods power and goodness.  Everything is possible for one who believes.  Mark 9:23

So we need to give the Holy Spirit full access to our imagination so that we can picture what God can do, to see and to seize the opportunity.  We need to learn to dream.  It is a gift of the Holy Spirit, as prophesised by Joel using his imagination.

But having said all that, our imagination can only go so far.  It is not just that we dare not imagine what God can do, we are simply unable to go beyond our human parameters.   So lets give the final word to the apostle Paul:

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.  Ephesians 3:20

Home away from home

Just yesterday I received an email from my sister marking a significant moment in my life:  “Portland is now officially on the market.”  Now that our 95 year old mother is well settled in her care home on the esplanade at Waterloo, just five doors down from the Ismay family home (they gave us the Titanic) we have decided to sell our family home. My father died in 1993 just after we had moved to Aughton.

My sister is kind and caring person and so obviously more sensitive to the situation than I am.  But even so, by any reckoning the end of an era which began when we moved from West Derby on 29 December, 1955, the year Father Christmas delivered my much-loved Tri-ang train set.

It had two points.

And Portland Avenue has been home ever since, even when I didn’t live there.  In fact, since I have been ordained we have been visiting my parents each Sunday afternoon, including during the nine years we were in Rochdale.  It gave our children a sense of continuity.

The place is filled with memories.  My sister writes: “Without the stair lift the house is more as I remembered as a child, with you swinging on the stairs from the upstairs landing.”  Upto yesterday I had always assumed that nobody ever saw me practicing this death-defying manoeuvre.  Strangely, I tried it again last Monday when Jacqui wasn’t looking –  but sadly I am now far too tall.

This morning I’ve been reading John 21, when the disciples, following the resurrection of Jesus, return to Galilee where they pick up where they left off and start fishing. Whatever, it was worth the 70 miles there – and 70 miles back to Jerusalem.

The BRF commentator writes:   “A group of disciples, led by Peter, have returned to their roots – to the very place, and engaging in the very activity, where our Lord first called them.  What drove them there?  Were they trying to make sense of it all by going back to where the story began, or were they simply escaping to something familiar?”

Clearly Galilee was of huge significance to the disciples.  It was home, it was where they belonged.  And there they meet with Jesus who recommissions them.  But Galilee never reappears in the New Testament account, apart from a short reference in Acts 9:31.  The disciples move on, pushed by a combination of the Holy Spirit and of persecution.  They simply leave Galilee behind.

For the truth is that you can never move back.  It my be the same geographical location but it is not the same place, just a location for memories.  Billy Graham (part of my own past) observes “It’s easy to feel nostalgic about simpler times, but they obviously were not easier times. Nor were they necessarily happier times.”  The word ‘nostalgia’ comes from two Greek words meaning ‘return home’ and pain.

It’s what I am feeling now.

But to be a Christian means to be rooted in Jesus (and nowhere else).

This gives us a security, a sense of belonging, so that God can send us anywhere.  Just like those first disciples who breakfasted with Jesus on the familiar shore of Galilee.  Tradition has it that Peter finished up in  Rome,  John in Ephesus and incredibly Thomas in Thiruvithancode (I pasted that from Wikipedia).

The apostle Paul knew where his bearing were: that was why he was so mobile.   “We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” 2 Corinthians 5:7.

The truth is that when our home is with the Lord, we can be anywhere.

And God keeps moving us on, in all kinds of ways, not necessarily geographically.  Exciting but a little unnerving.

Where is Good Friday going?

Today is still Good Friday, at least according to the BBC Weather Centre. But I wonder for how much longer in our secular culture.  Why should Christians be given a public holiday for our special day?  Will Birmingham’s Winterval soon be joined by Bunny Friday?

Or more to the point, are we on the centre of the road or bunched onto the pavement later this morning?  It could go either way.

Each Good Friday the churches of Ormskirk join together for our procession of witness behind the cross.  We leave the Moorgate car park  (i.e. M&S) at about 11.30 am for the market cross by the circuitous route along Park Road.

A powerful witness in a public place, but also a potential inconvenience to those driving through Ormskirk.

Over the years the police have handled this problem in different ways.

I remember walking on one side of the road with traffic using the other, supervised by the police.

Then we were restricted to the pavement. I felt we had lost something.

A public event became a private excursion, as if Christianity was a hobby for like-minded enthusiasts.

Then last year something happened.  The police blocked the traffic, leaving the road for the procession, moving at the speed of our slowest walker.   The cross of Jesus is a public event; that’s how crucifixions work.

However, I did feel vaguely guilty, blocking off Southport from the rest of the country for 20 minutes – although considerably shorter than the August MotorFest.

I remember wondering why the policy change.  Was it the police saying thank you to the churches for street pastors?

But don’t get too excited.  We have just been informed that there are new rules. We have to have county and borough council permission to close the roads, giving eight weeks notice! “Bureaucracy – observed Einstein –  is the death of all sound work.”  Albert could have added “and potentially of all processions of witness.”

We’ll see, but the underlying question is where is Good Friday going? And underlying that question – What is the place of the Christian faith in our nation?

Strangely the tide is flowing in both directions at once, assuming that metaphor makes sense.  One current is very strong – commercialization.   Liverpool One will be going full belt, as will both teams from Swansea and Newcastle in the Premier League.

But something else is happening at the same time.  For example, Preston will be brought to a standstill at 12 noon for their Passion (BBC1 live 12 noon not BBC4 recorded highlights).   In fact, public Passion enactments are becoming a feature for Good Friday.

There will be 20000 (maybe double that amount this year) packing Trafalgar Square for their annual Passion Play.  I’d be there if I could.

It all began just four years ago when Peter Hutley was walking across the square. “Suddenly, a thought me struck me,” he recalls. “Trafalgar Square would be a marvellous place to stage a passion play.”  A Christian with a good idea, some faith and Holy Spirit determination.

Very simply people realize that shopping is not enough for Good Friday.  This very special day needs marking with some meaningful event in which we may all participate.  Such is the power of the cross of Jesus.  And ours too, if we are prepared to carry it before a wondering world.

Labourers for the harvest

This week has been more difficult than most – finding the right people for particular ministries.

So over three whole mornings we had the splendid Easter Experience in the church building.  Each pupil of Christ Church School took part, in interactive groups of five working their way around five creatively designed displays themed on Holy Week.  I needed to recruit seven suitably qualified church members.  The Lord provided, JIT (as is usually the case).

This coming Sunday I had to find replacements for taking the intercessions and reading the Bible at 10.45.  Again, thank you, Lord. (Rotas only do part of the job).

The Ministry Centre is now absorbing huge numbers of volunteers, not just for Cafe Vista (at least 22 now and growing) and our various ministries (such as Toddlers and Luncheon Club) but maintaining the building and equipment. We aim to appoint a paid co-ordinator (closing date next Thursday –pray for the right person)  but meanwhile we are relying on volunteers to oversee the centre from the church office.

This week we had no one available for Wednesday and Thursday, hard as I tried.  The very first morning since the centre opened we had no one on duty in the office when, of all things, the senior environmental health inspector turns up.  Typical – I should have expected no less!

And that’s only this week!  Next week about 70 church members will be serving at  Splashdown as well as about 12 readers for Good Friday’s 2.00 pm devotional service (any volunteers?)

We are talking here of spinning plates – there are always gaps somewhere in our varied ministries.  Currently we are two distributors down from the 70 strong team which delivers CONSIDER each month.  We need someone to represent Christ Church for Park Praise planning, another to serve on Ormskirk Churches Together.   Each Alpha course is highly labour intensive, with about 65 church members most working behind the scenes in the catering.  Then we are continually short of people to support Xplore (Sunday school), Re:ality (our open youth club).

Looming over the whole of the Easter period is the Annual General meeting – that means a new PCC secretary, deputy warden as well as the usual PCC members and sidespeople.  Ideally a treasurer – although Alan is prepared to do one more year.

I think I must spend more time that David Moyes (Sunderland 0 Everton 2) finding players for the right positions, although it is possible I have a bigger budget.  Maybe the most important part of my job.  And to do so in such a way that no one is asking for a transfer and that each player is fully motivated.

The secret is seeing all this as God’s ministry – it is his church and therefore, his responsibility.   Otherwise the burden would be overwhelming.  And that makes all the difference.  For someone to serve wherever, there has to be a sense of God’s calling, a recognition of his vocation.  Discouragements and setbacks are guaranteed.  To exploit a sense of guilt or self-interest will only ever be a short-term fix and a disaster in the making.

“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few!”  I know the feeling.  But Jesus’ response?  “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

At the end of the day it is the Holy Spirit who does the work, not just in prompting but in giving the passion, the sense that someone has to do something – before realizing that that someone is you!

And in all things in the Christian life, it is a matter of faith, in trusting God to keep his promises to send the right person.  There is simply no viable alternative.  So keep on praying – and serving.

Now off to Rydal for the first half of the church weekend (organized by Jaime and Fiona Craig) before returning for the latter part of the church music day with the 7.30 pm celebrity concert (organized by Eunice Woof). And Holy Week hasn’t even started!

Should Gary say Thank U, God?

“If you’re going to use the term miraculous, I guess it could be used here,” observed Dr. Andrew Deaner, of the remarkable recovery of Fabrice Muamba.  When a consultant cardiologist makes such a comment, I sit up. He was there – on the pitch, in the ambulance and at the London Chest Hospital.

And yet should we be surprised given the input of prayer? Bolton club manager Owen Coyle said: “Everybody is praying for Fabrice, which is very important, and that has been a real source of strength to the family.”

I think we all were surprised by the response of the whole nation to this sudden on-pitch drama of Muamba’s cardiac arrest. “In God’s Hands” headlined the Daily Star, not the newspaper known for its good theological awareness.

And more, this outpouring of prayer characterised that section of the population we least associate with religious faith – young men.  Like Chelsea defender Gary Cahill who pulled off his shirt after scoring to reveal “Pray 4 Muamba”, his former team-mate.

So has all this prayer worked?  Even Fifa president Sepp Blatter has called Muamba’s recovery “a miracle!”  So is Sepp for once right?

Sheila was a member of my congregation in Rochdale. A talented gardener, she won first prize for hanging baskets at the world famous Chelsea Flower Show.  However, she was showing symptoms which caused her consultant to advise cancelling her holiday in Greece, at some personal cost to her friends.

But on the Sunday morning, as she stood for the opening hymn, she decided to give it her best – despite the terrible pain in her back. God was due no less. And as she sang the pain simply disappeared, never to return. She was totally convinced that God had healed her, there and then.

Some weeks later the consultant confirmed she was totally well. And then apologised. He told Sheila that he thought she had had cancer.  He had made a mistake. “Sorry.”

Did God heal Sheila in response to her step of faith? You can never be totally sure, of course –it may be just one of those things. But a reasonable test is whether the relevant medic spontaneously registers surprise, especially if they are experienced.  Like Dr Andrew Deaner – a member of Mill Hill Synagogue incidentally –  who finds Muamba’s recovery amazing.

This Sunday evening 6.30 pm we have our healing service, an important opportunity for us to pray, anoint those who are sick. And over the last few weeks we have encountered some remarkable responses to our prayers for healing.

Only this Wednesday I bumped into the mother of someone we have been praying for at Christ Church. In January he was given a grim prognosis, but now he is making astonishing progress. I asked his mum whether the consultant was surprised. In fact, that was the very question she asked of her son – and yes, his doctor was surprised, amazed even.

Similarly, another person we have been praying for. In fact we even had a special prayer meeting for him. Again a grim prognosis and again remarkable, totally unexpected progress.  So Jesus urges us to pray – and to keep on asking, seeking, knocking.

So do support our healing service.  I expect several testimonies of those who have good reason to think that prayer in Jesus’ name has had a powerful result.  And it is important that credit is given where credit is due.

For the question now is when Gary scores his next goal for Chelsea, will he pull off his shirt to reveal “Thank U, God?”

The anatomy of a God happenstance

Over the years I’ve come to recognise the look, the response to a God happenstance.

This week I experienced the first digital version of this phenomenon when Mark Stanford e-mailed me.  He had just been inducted as vicar of Holy Trinity, Formby. Here I paste: “Just read your card; WOW!”

When it happens it’s always a valuable exercise to work out how God made it happen.  More precisely, how did he work through me?

Such as when I visited Dick. Many of you have heard the story but even so here it is.

Newly arrived as a curate in Heswall I visited Dick in hospital, recovering from a heart attack.  Again I visited him on his return home.  Later that week I was just driving the car and  randomly thought “I’ll call in to see Dick. He lives just down the road.”

As soon as I arrived, I remembered he was due to be out, away somewhere. So why was I visiting?  AlsoI had only just seen Dick. I turned back to my car but then thought “Now that I’m here, I might as well ring his bell!”

To my surprise he answered the door and showed that look which I have since come to recognise.

It was a valuable visit. Dick gave his life (along with his business) to the Lord. A new creation!

Only some months later I discovered that Dick was about to overdose.

As he held those extra tablets, he prayed on the off-chance that someone was listening: “Send someone to stop me!”  The doorbell rang – and it was me.  (Clearly, God had no one else more suitable in the neighbourhood.)

When that happens, work back. How did my mind make that decision? Anything unusual? Answer – nothing special at all.  No special voice, no strange tingling down the spine. Just your ordinary, everyday brain activity.

So this Sunday I sat down to write my “Welcome to your new parish” card for the Stanford’s. WH Smith don’t stock these and so I bought a National Trust blank card.  Jacqui liked the mountain scene.  This meant I had to think of a suitable Bible verse.

One for a new vicar will usually contain the words “armour” or “burdens” or “suffering.”   I think I prayed very simply, saw the picture on the card and tried to think of a verse involving mountains. So I wrote Matthew 19:19.  “I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Again, nothing special, no angelic whisper, no powerful sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Just a simple prayer and the regular thought process. No more.

Showing great creativity/eccentricity (you choose) for a licensing service, Mark prefaced his prayers with his new congregation with a remarkable video clip and then showed a Bible verse on the screens, I assume the one to define his ministry. Guess which one?  Hence his e-mail.

And what does that teach us?  To expect God to work through the ordinary processes of our minds. All we need is to acknowledge him and he will direct our thoughts. He is closer than we realise.

Watch the video!  Think mustard seed/mountain.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y97rBdSYbkg

“IF” is an important word

Does anyone out there want a Brother portable typewriter, just one careful owner?

This Christmas our visiting family so overwhelmed the vicarage that I realised that we need to reclaim much-needed room space. So I am in the process of a ruthless clearing out. Some stuff goes to charity shops but most to recycling, what we used to call the tip. Not a task for the fainthearted or the sentimental!

But my typewriter?

It’s been with me through thick and thin, ever since I was a student. I owe it a lot for I learned to touch type without making a mistake. You had to, for otherwise, it was a laborious procedure to delete. Either careful rubbing out with a special eraser leaving lots of little bits or  the delicate application of liquid paper.

In complete contrast to Dragon Dictate 2.5 for Mac. When I make a mistake now, I simply give a spoken command. (The more alert of you will realise that I can’t actually say what the command is!)

This ruthless discipline imposed by my Brother, although a pain at the time, soon paid dividends.  I recall the reaction of Prof Douglas Jones to my first essay at theological college in Durham. “Rubbish, but beautifully typed!”

Very simply, my ancient portable typewriter taught me the importance of consequence – do this and that happens, make a mistake and lose five minutes.

The Alpha Northern conference last Saturday at Sheffield was inspiring. We were told about the National Parenting Initiative, Here I quote:  “The NPI is a coordinated attempt to enlist as many churches as possible throughout the UK to run a parenting course at some point during 2012 for their local community”.

This is in response to what is widely perceived as a crisis in parenting and I’m hoping that we’ll be involved in this project.

Teaching our children the importance of consequence seems to me at the heart of being a good parent. So when daughter Beth spends her entire week’s holiday money on the first day, that’s it –  however much she may weep!  In contrast, a very good friend has no budgeting sense whatsoever. His mother always bailed him out. He wasn’t taught the importance of consequence.

And consequence, of course, is at the heart of the Bible, in its teaching on covenant.  The key word here is IF, especially on the lips of Jesus. IF you do this, THEN that happens, even if you do not understand the linkage, as in the power of prayer.

“IF you remain in me and my words remain in you,” says Jesus, “ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.”. This is all of God’s grace but Jesus is teaching us that we have a part to play.  We need to ensure that we are in the place of grace through living by God’s word, by abiding in Christ.  Only a spoilt child would think otherwise.

For our heavenly Father is teaching us the importance of consequence so that we lay hold of his blessings.

And also disobedience. The Christian life is more like using my Brother portable typewriter than any speech recognition software.
Mistakes are significant so that we may learn from them, from 1° of glory to another. (I’ll let you work out how Dragon Dictate made a timely mistake. That was unrehearsed!)

It’s all to do with context

jerusalem

Books to read while waiting for surgery?

This time last week I spent most of the day, some 6 hours, in a side ward on G Ward waiting for the rumble of the trolley. (As it happened, I walked to the theatre suite.)

Thankfully, I remembered to bring a book which had arrived only the previous day, “Simply Jesus” by Tom Wright from SPCK, his first book since standing down as the Bishop of Durham to become a full-time academic at St Andrews.

Very simply, a masterpiece. Tom Wright is unique – a leading biblical theologian on top of his subject with the ability to communicate. This is the book to read. In fact I managed to read the first part in one go.

You get the impression that Bishop Wright managed to write the book in one go – there is a flow, a sustained argument which is very readable.

“Jesus—the Jesus we might discover if we really looked,” he explains, “is larger, more disturbing, more urgent than we had ever imagined.
“We have successfully managed to hide behind other questions and to avoid the huge, world-shaking challenge of Jesus’ central claim and achievement.”

What has happened in recent new Testament scholarship is the discovery of how people actually thought in the time of Jesus. To understand this remarkable man, you always needed to have a working knowledge of Jewish society in the first century – what is a Pharisee, for example.

But it was American scholar Ed Sanders, then professor at Oxford, who changed everything in 1977 with his book “ Paul and Palestinian Judaism.” He began to examine how the contemporaries of Jesus and of Paul actually thought, their world view. For it is very different one to ours.

Tom Wright, for example, in chapter 11 examines how Jewish people in the time of Jesus thought about geography. For them Jerusalem, its temple, is at the centre of the world and it is here that heaven and on earth intersect. And more, Jesus was the embodiment of the Temple.

“Jesus seems to be claiming that God is doing, up close and personal through him, something that you’d normally expect to happen at the Temple. And the Temple – the successor to the tabernacle in the desert – was, as we saw, the place where heaven and earth met.” (p.79)

This is a highly readable book, to be read thoughtfully and at a certain pace to get the overall argument. Wright comes to orthodox conclusions but it’s the way he gets there which is so exciting. A book to read for Easter.

Just two more quotes to whet your appetite

“The disciples wanted a kingdom without a cross. Many would-be “orthodox” or “conservative” Christians in our world have wanted a cross without a kingdom, an abstract “atonement” that would have nothing to do with this world except to provide the means of escaping it.” ~ p.173.

“When he wanted fully to explain what his forthcoming death was all about, Jesus didn’t give them a theory. He didn’t even give them a set of scriptural texts. He gave them a meal” ~ p.180

Along with the notices, I am attaching this week’s mailing from Andrew Leake in Argentina (with whom I had a half-hour chat on Skype
yesterday.)

Cheers,
Ross

PS I am still using my speech recognition software. Just see how Dragon Dictate handles this short sentence:
Tom Wright writes the right book!
(Amazing – 2nd attempt. It’s all to do with context)

My wrist – in the hands of God

So today’s the day.  In just half an hour I’m off to Ormskirk Hospital for surgery on my wrist. I can think of better ways of spending my Friday but on Tuesday the doctor considered that I needed my wrist to be pinned.

The original plan was to go to Southport hospital on Wednesday–but there were no beds. Again, Thursday. But now, such is the pressure on beds, that they are opening some of the spare theatres at Ormskirk.

The operation should take place this afternoon and expectation is that I will spend this night in hospital. I can’t wait!

Over the years I have prayed with many people as they are about to face surgery. But this time it’s different, very different – it’s me!

So brethren and sisters, pray for me.

I wonder how Richard Dawkins would handle the prospect of surgery? Would he be tempted, even against all his principles, to pray? For knowing that God is with us, come what may, makes all the difference!

And more, this is a God who really understands–he’s been there himself.

In “Screwtape letters”, CS Lewis imaginary letters of a senior devil to a junior devil, the senior devil bemoans the fact that the opposition (i.e. God himself) has entered the human condition, totally and willingly. This, he considers, gives him an unfair advantage.

This is of course, at the heart of the Christian faith, that Jesus became human, fully man.

The writer to the Hebrews writes to a church about to face difficult times, even terrible suffering. He writes “Because Jesus himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” Hebrews 2:18.

Many Christians haven’t quite got the handle on this. It is not that the man Jesus could toggle between his human and his divine nature, so that when things got difficult he simply took full advantage of his divine status. No, Jesus was fully human, just as you and I are. And the trials and testings he faced, he faced as a human being. The only difference is that they were more intense.

So Jesus knows what it’s like to face an uncertain future, the temptation to become self-reliant, the prospect of pain. And in each situation he did the right thing because he was wholly reliant on his heavenly Father. And so must we, following his example but more, empowered by his Holy Spirit.

So there we go.  Into the car and hopefully into the theatre!

Don’t forget the special prior.

Cheers,

Ross – using speech recognition software completely for this mailing!

Self-control – the importance of willpower

marshmallows

“God did not give us a spirit of timidity,” writes the apostle Paul to Timothy, “ but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” 2 Timothy 1:7.

We often talk about the spirit of power, particularly since the charismatic renewal. Love, of course, continues to have a high profile
– in our teaching although not always in our lifestyle. But self discipline? Certainly since the 1960s, the Victorian virtue of self-discipline has been out of favour . “If it feels right, then just do it” sings Aimee Allen.

At the moment I am reading a superb book by Baumeister (Florida State University social psychologist) and Tierney (a journalist with the New York Times). It’s on – wait for it – self-discipline. I came across it reviewed in the Guardian and my response was to head straight to Amazon to buy “Willpower, rediscovering our greatest strength.”

For self discipline, otherwise known as willpower, is back. Just in time, folks, for Lent. So concentrate.

It seems that self discipline/willpower makes all the difference.
You’ve always known that, but it’s even more important than we thought. 40 years ago, for example, toddlers in New Zealand were given the option of having one marshmallow now and two marshmallows five minutes later.

Those who held out for two marshmallows later grew into healthier, happier and wealthier adults. And the converse. Those with low willpower fared less well in every area of life.

“Willpower,” concludes Baumeister, “is one of the most important predictors of success in life.”

Of course, the Bible has always taught the importance of self control:
after all it is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. So the apostle
writes: “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 for ever.” 1 Corinthians 9:25

But what makes this book especially fascinating is to show how we can develop our self-discipline. Like any muscle being exercised in training, it become stronger. And exercising self-control in one area seems to improve all areas of life. Learning to say “NO” to chocolate for example, for a specific length of time will improve your ability to say no to temptations across the board.

It helps if there is a clear goal over a specific length of time, like 40 days!

But to see self-control as a muscle has another important benefit, one which I knew intuitively but never really worked out.

When my good friend Ken became a Christian, he was a heavy smoker. All the pressure was for him to give up smoking but it realised that such a struggle would take over his life when there were more important priorities for the Holy Spirit. He decided to keep on smoking and allow the Holy Spirit to work deep within his personality – and then later he would have the opportunity to resist smoking.

This is what actually happened. Today Ken is the chairman for Youth for Christ (and I am copying him in to this email).

For the point is we only have so much energy for our self-discipline.
We need to decide priorities. Don’t try to do too much at once.
Establish good habits and routines that will take the strain off your willpower. Only have a few items, for example, on your to-do list!

I’m still reading the book and there are some fascinating insights into self-discipline. One which rings bells for me personally is that our self-discipline is improved by having a tidy environment. For myself I cannot work on an untidy desk. “Tidy desk, tidy mind,” taught Mr Aspinall, my teacher in J4. He was right.

So there you are – an encouragement to keep the Lenten disciplines.
Like the discipline of joining one of our Lent groups or reading a Lent book or even to give up chocolate, just for 40 days (Sundays excluded, of course.)

Next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday: we have a special informal service of holy Communion at 7:30 PM in the ministry centre to launch our Lent course.

Finally, have you noticed any difference in this week’s blog?

Last Thursday I managed to do a nosedive down the ice-covered church steps to the A59. And in doing so managed a Colles fracture on my left wrist. So in the spirit of seizing an opportunity from a crisis, I decided to invest in speech recognition software. I am using Dragon dictate 2.5 for Mac. It cost an arm and a leg but when you have only one arm, it’s worth it.

It is utterly unbelievable! I just speak and there are my words on the screen. You may not believe this but when I said Baumeister it typed the word Baumeister!

I’m still learning though. And so is the software. So when I say Christchurch Aughton it says Christchurch autumn!

Speak truth unto power – by Phil Weston

martyrs

Before entering ordained ministry I worked for nearly a decade as a Civil Servant at Her Majesty’s Treasury on Whitehall, serving under Chancellor Gordon Brown.  Like our Wives Group, Men’s Breakfasts and Alpha Launches here at Christ Church, the Treasury often invited guest speakers to come and address staff on a range of interesting topics. During my time there, some big names stopped by, including Princess Anne, Bob Geldof and numerous leading politicians, as well as our own Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones.

The most memorable visiting speaker I heard was Peter Hennessy. Professor Hennessy is a well-respected British historian, who gave us a fascinating talk about the relationships between Prime Ministers and Chancellors down the years: Thatcher and Lawson, Major and Lamont, Blair and Brown. Professor Hennessy gave lots of amusing and interesting anecdotes which unfortunately I can’t remember. But what I can remember are his final words to his audience. He said; “As civil servants, your primary responsibility is to ‘speak truth unto power’”.

As politically neutral public servants, our unique role under the British constitution was to speak the truth to powerful politicians. To tell them objective facts and offer impartial advice without fear or favour. To tell them not what they wanted to hear, but what they needed to hear. (At the Treasury that usually meant telling an ambitious politician that his latest big idea was just “too expensive” to implement!).

If speaking the truth in all circumstances is the duty of a Civil Servant, then how much more so for a Christian. We are to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15), and in our services this Sunday we shall be thinking about our responsibility to speak up for Biblical truth and Christian values in all circumstances, however costly that might be.

Just over the road from the Treasury, on the front wall of Westminster Abbey, there is a line of statues dedicated to ten modern Christian martyrs. Individuals such as Dietrich Bonheoffer, Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero, who all paid the ultimate sacrifice for speaking out in Christ’s name. May God grant us similar courage to speak his truth – even when it hurts.

A choice of creations

started early took my dog

Two crime paperbacks in two weeks.  Unlike Jacqui, who for some unaccountable reason enjoys reading novels featuring murder and domestic violence, I tend to stay clear of this literary genre.  But when you are stuck on a Ryanair plane for four hours you will read anything.

So I picked up  “Started early, took my dog” written by Kate Atkinson. Recommended not just by Sheila Stewart but by Richard and Judy.   So it had to be good.

And it was a good read.  A well-conceived plot set in two parallel time frames, with a neat denouement as everything finally comes together at the end.  Thankfully I read it over a short time, unusual for me, so that I could remember who everyone was, important for the plot.

However, it was grim.  Life in the world created by Ms Atkinson is utterly meaningless.  All the characters are deeply unhappy, especially as they are ravaged by life.  Any breaks come from the random fall of the dice – coincidence plays an important part in her plot.  Nevertheless, her world is devoid of hope for God is totally absent.

The apostle Paul could have been speaking:  “Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.” Ephesians 2:12.

My second book (which I am still reading) is just as violent and troubled.  A young man brought up in a sink council estate who fails to seize any of the few opportunities open to him.  Instead is swallowed up by drugs and crime.  You watch the tragedy unfold as he is arrested for armed robbery, condemned to a life of imprisonment and despair.

But unexpectedly in prison he is given a break– and remarkably, against all the odds, he begins to change, his life starts to flourish.  Not only that but he becomes a powerful help to his peers.

He soon finds his stride and becomes an inspiration to a world in terrible need.  For God, no less, is at work.

The good news is that this second book,  “Unreachable” by Darrell Tunningley, is not a novel – it is real life.  It is set in the same creation that you and I inhabit.  And Darrell will be telling his story at our Alpha launch this coming Thursday in the Ministry Centre at 8.00 pm.

I would like to invite Kate, to share with her the good news that this creation is not lost but is being redeemed by our Creator.  Love triumphs in the most dire of places, as demonstrated by the

resurrection of Jesus.   The Holy Spirit of God is not just active in

this world:  he longs to fill our lives with joy and hope.  And that, folks, is Good News!  A gospel to share with all those who believe they live in the world of Ms Atkinson.

You can buy copies of Darrell’s book on the church bookstall, an inspiring read.

The importance of yoghurt

oikos

Tomorrow morning I will be battling my way across London to Victoria Station for the 9.02 for Portsmouth Harbour – and so it seemed safer to send out the notices this evening before catching the 19.48 London train from Lime Street.

Not that I can afford the time away – having only just returned home from a sunny week in Tenerife.  But family funerals always come first, even if it is at the other end of the country.

My Auntie Barbara – my mother’s sister.  A long standing Christian and a member of the Mothers’ Union, I am honoured to be taking part in her funeral service on Friday.  Her husband – my uncle Ken – was a decorated member of the SBS, specialising in being inserted in hostile territory, skilled in close quarter combat.  This makes him particularly suited to being church warden at St Albans.

Family funerals are very special events.  Sad, of course – but also an opportunity to meet up with everyone in that part of the family, cousins I may only see every 25 years.  A lot of catching up, a celebration not just of the victory of Christ – which Barbara is now experiencing  – but the importance of the extended family.   It is how God has made us.

The Bible, of course, is very strong on family life, nurtured in successive generations through ritual and mutual obligation.  And not just in the Old Testament.  As glimpsed in one of the strangest passages in the New Testament when Paul is writing, at some speed it would seem, to the church in Corinth.

As he begins this difficult letter (difficult for him, that is) he makes it clear that the gospel is centred on Christ, not on him.  After all his readers are baptised in Christ’s name, not his.

Thankfully, he had baptised only Crispus and Gaius.   Then he adds in parenthesis, almost as a throw away line:  “(Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.)” 1 Corinthians 1:16

Baptism in the New Testament was often not of the individual but of the household.  The Greek word is oikos – from which, for example, we get the word economics.

The only time, it seems, we talk about oikos baptism is in discussing the scriptural status of baptising infants and young children –  but that is to miss the main point.  For whatever the word oikos may mean, it must mean something. And its usual meaning in everyday Greek is the extended family, to include some slaves even and the occasional hanger-on.

And Paul baptised in terms of the oikos, as in the case of the Philippian gaoler.   It is quite possible, of course, for each individual member of an entire household to repent and follow Christ  But even so you would expect them each to be baptised as individuals rather than in a group as members of their oikos.

This means that the oikos continues even into the Kingdom of God, the cross does not make the role of the family redundant.  The very opposite, for as disciples of Jesus, we are called to be particularly responsible for members of our oikos. So Paul writes to Timothy:

“Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own oikos, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” 1 Timothy 5:8

Underline this in your Bible, especially if some members of your own oikos have gone prodigal or would be only too happy to sell you as a slave to some passing Midianite traders.  A point worth making in our individualistic age.  Families, even the large unwieldy, dysfunctional extended family, are important:  they deserve our priority, even at 272 miles.

In praise of rotas

helicopter

Today’s the day I clear my desk for a couple of hours to work out the service rota for the next four months – those leading services, preaching, taking the intercessions and reading the Bible.  An important task.

It’s like playing three-dimensional chess – I even have a bishop! (Bishop Cyril on Sunday, 27 May at 6.30 pm).  And it is just as intellectually draining.   I will need a holiday to recover!

Christ Church runs on rotas.  For example, I note from the photocopying and typing rota prepared by Lesley Smith that these notices are being desktop published later today by Karen Coppelov and photocopied tomorrow by Alan Arthur.  Thank you, folks.

I am sure that there are rotas I am unaware of while totally new rotas are being produced, especially as the Ministry Centre develops.  I note that this month John Raynor has begun to produce a formal rota for the music group, such are the number of musicians.  Rotas are a sign of growth!  A one man show doesn’t need a rota.

You will recall that the Gospel of Luke begins with a rota. Remember how Zechariah’s division of Abijah was on duty in the temple for a whole week twice a year.  It is when he is on duty in the sanctuary that the nativity countdown begins.  The angel Gabriel clearly had a copy of the incense rota.

And one of the first works of the Holy Spirit following Pentecost was to produce a rota!   The daily distribution of food for widows was becoming chaotic.  The answer – produce a rota!  So seven men filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom are selected;  I presume one for each day, to take overall responsibility for fair shares for all.

All of which gives me the perfect introduction to a perceptive quote from Milton Jones.  “Sometimes people think of a church as being like a giant helicopter.  They don’t want to get too close in case they get sucked into the rotas.”

I recall my five years at the Church of the Good Shepherd at Heswall.

When we arrived there wasn’t much happening even though there was a fair size congregation, mostly through people moving into the area with their job.  It took me a few months to discover that there were no less than eight men who in their previous church had been church wardens.  In their new church they had clearly decided to keep their heads down and duck the rotas.

Actually the problem in their previous churches was invariably the very opposite – the failure to use rotas and so prevent burnout. Rotas spread the load, sharing out the tasks and responsibilities over a wider group.

For rotas are also a measure of commitment for the whole church family, not just a few committed souls.  Clearly for rotas to work people need to be committed.  It also helps if they can remember!  For the one quality which God values in his servants is not ability or achievement or anything else beginning with an A, it is reliability!

“Well done, good and faithful servant!”  Faithfulness makes all the difference.  For Woody Allen observed that 80% of success is showing up.  Rotas make sure that you do.

Why our local should have a new name

eureka

As far I as I concerned Christmas ends when the schools go back – and so we sadly took down our decorations and dumped the tree on Wednesday.  But for the purists among you, Christmas ends today – Epiphany, when we mark the visit of the Magi to the recently-born Jesus.

Apparently Epiphany is big in the Eastern Church but not so with us.

It may be because like Ascension it does not usually fall on a Sunday or maybe after Christmas and New Year we are suffering from festival overload.    Whatever, I guess few of you realize that it’s today.

Not so our eldest granddaughter.  Today is her 4th birthday. Hence her name Rose Joy Epiphany.  I wonder had she been born 12 nights earlier her name would have been Rose Joy Christmas!

Interesting word, Epiphany, for it has now entered everyday speech with a different context than simply the appearance or manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles.

For what we used to call a eureka we now have an epiphany, a moment when it all falls into place, the penny drops, last piece of the jigsaw gives the whole picture, when you finally get it!

Bob Geldof for one: “Well, a sort of epiphany: I was in a great band. And it’s very cool to be at 53 and realise that when you were a kid you were in a great band.”

The whole point of having an epiphany is that you can’t make it happen. It comes up behind you unawares and takes you by surprise, usually when you are having a bath. You may well have been thinking long and hard about something but the change of context gives the vital break.  It’s as if it comes to you from outside, even from God.

My evangelist friend Peter Partington believes in order to become a Christian, to make that key decision, you need to have heard the gospel at least six times.  You need not just time but repetition, such is the radical shift required in our thinking.

One of the strange experiences of being a vicar (and there are many) is to have a member of your congregation come home from a Christian event to inform you that they have discovered a vital Christian truth – like Jesus died for me. You have to resist the temptation to say “What do you think I have been trying to communicate to you for the last so many years!”

The point is that they have had the information but it hasn’t been rearranged in their brain until they enter a different context.  Then the penny drops – and an epiphany takes place, a Damascus moment changes their lives.  A good reason to go to the “Iron Sharpens Iron” men’s conference on Saturday 21 January or New Wine 28 July-3 August – or whatever works for you.   For it’s how God himself often works!

And also the day-by-day.  For me one of the joys of regular Bible reading is when the Holy Spirit suddenly lights up a well-known passage.  You see something you haven’t seen before and you wonder why – with it now becoming now glaringly obvious.

So it is good to pray before your Bible reading the Scripture Union prayer:  “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.” (Psalm 119:18)

When an epiphany takes place, there is invariably a need to celebrate. The Eureka pub in Halsall Lane was extensively refurbished last year – it should have reopened as the Epiphany!

Routines and rhythms

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It’s Friday and Fridays begin with my weekly notices letter!

“But”, said Jacqui, “there are no weekly notices to distribute – you sent out two weeks worth last Friday.”

However, I am a person who needs routine – and today is Friday.  So I get typing!

We need routines and rhythms to our lives, daily and weekly, termly and annually.  They give structure and nurture discipline.  US evangelist Mike Murdock observes that “The secret of your future is hidden in your daily routine.” He’s right.

When previous curate Mark Stanford left us for Toxteth in 2002 (thanks for the Facebook birthday greeting, Mark!), he was surprised to discover how much he missed morning prayer in church each weekday at 9.00 am.  By our standards quite liturgical and I don’t think we hit the spiritual heights very often.  But there is something about beginning the day together in act of worship. It makes a statement.

Jesus showed a rhythm to his life.  It was how he was brought up.

Luke shows this in his nativity narratives once the angels and the shepherds have left.  He is circumcised at day 8, he is presented at the temple once Mary’s purification period was over. Then, during his childhood, regular visits to the Jerusalem festivals.  We read:  “It was every year Jesus’ parents traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover – they went up as they always did for the Feast.”

Jesus carried this rhythm into his ministry. So right at the outset, in  Nazareth, Luke informs us:  “As Jesus always did on the Sabbath, he went to the synagogue”.  All the gospel writers make much of his regular visits to Jerusalem as part of the Jewish cadence.

But you have to keep routine in its place.  It is so easy – at least this is my experience – that when routine is interrupted or even shattered, we feel uneasy, unsure.  “You need to learn to minister in situations of uncertainty” advised the chaplain of the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle where I did some of my ordination training.

And I have written before about the remarkable way Jesus allowed his routine to be taken over by people uninvited.  Taking much-needed time out with his disciples, Jesus found the crowd had beaten him to it – and were waiting for him en masse.  He fed them – in every sense of the word.

Jairus asked for  immediate attention for his dying daughter and even this interruption was interrupted by the woman with a flow of blood.

It wasn’t just that Jesus healed her, he stopped to give her time. Even in situations of fluidity and loss of control, Jesus flourished. It didn’t seem to unsettle him.

So as a new year begins we need to look at our routines and rhythms, individual and corporate, so to allow the Holy Spirit to nurture a discipline so that we grow together as disciples of the Lord of the years.  But above all to keep in step not with our routines but with the Holy Spirit of God himself (Galatians 5:25)!

Can't wait, on tiptoe

tiptoe

Well, we are almost there – the eve of Christmas Eve!

I still relive the excitement, even without the grandchildren, which Christmas Day brings – invariably a piercing sense of anticipation, always to be realised on the day itself.   It was this mounting expectation which John Lewis so powerfully evoked in their tear-jerking advert.

As individuals and as a community we need to be able to look forward with joyful anticipation, what the Bible calls hope.  The alternative we call dread and it is a sense of dread which is settling on much of southern Europe and beyond.

When the Rev John Bertram Phillips, vicar of the Church of the Good Shepherd in East London, started his own translation of the New Testament he was in a bomb shelter.  The London blitz was in full swing, not the most auspicious of times.   Hardly a time of hope.

His  “New Testament in Modern English” had an explosive effect on the church in the 1950’s and later.  Those were the days when everyone used the King James Version: the JB Phillips translation became the first alternative.  I still have my worn-out copy. And I can still remember the excitement of reading it for the first time.

JBP gave us some wonderful turns of phrase but none the more so of Romans 8:19.   The Authorised Version gave us  “For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.”  I’m not sure that even the apostle himself would have understood this high-density sentence.

But the full power of the apostle’s thought came through thanks to JBP: “The whole creation is on tiptoe to see the wonderful sight of the sons of God coming into their own.”

In the same way that my granddaughters are on the tips of their toes longing for Christmas Day, so is the whole created order waiting for God’s renewal and fulfilment.

So the passage continues, again in  JPB:  “And the hope is that in the end the whole of created life will be rescued from the tyranny of change and decay, and have its share in that magnificent liberty which can only belong to the children of God!”

Christmas is but the first step of a huge project, one which we can barely hope for and scarcely imagine.  A world no longer tyrannised by change and decay, in which sorrow and sighing will flee away.  A creation in which the wolf and the lamb shall feed together.  The time when the  earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

Keeping in touch

keepingintouch

All done for another year!  I have now finished our Christmas cards, with the final batch being posted this morning.

I may still be in a bygone age but I persevere in sending lots of Christmas cards.  Thankfully it’s much easier nowadays – with mail merged labels and a family Christmas website, instead of thumbing through address books and writing innumerable letters.

With the price of postage as it is I am tempted to cut down.  Do I really need to send one to Robert in Heswall?  Even as a curate I hardly knew him – and I have hardly spoken to him since I left in 1984!  But on Tuesday Robert’s (expensive) card arrived and so he’s back on the list.

As it happens most of the cards I send are sent to those people from my past I haven’t spoken to for years.  The only point of contact I have with them is our annual exchange of Christmas cards.  And that is the whole point!  They keep these relationships active, albeit at a very low level.

Some years ago an old friend assumed a very prominent position in public life, frequently in the news across the world.  Sad to say I had lost contact with him, even though we had spent an eventful four months together travelling north America.  I did try and make contact with him at his official address – but without avail.

Christmas cards would have done the trick – just keeping our friendship ticking over.  For relationships need cultivating, especially with those you have walked with for a limited part of your journey and are now on another road.

Clearly the apostle Paul had a similar viewpoint.  So many of his letters end with simple greetings to a host of people.  We know their names but no more.  How about Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas,  Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas? To name but a few from the church in Rome.  Whoever they were, these people meant something to Paul – even if it meant writing 15 more verses.  They were worth it.

Relationships are important – that is the whole meaning of Christmas.

That means all relationships, not just the people closest to us.  And sending Christmas cards, especially to those who may feel alone and vulnerable (Robert from Heswall, now retired, lives by himself – not his real name), is an important ministry.  And 36 pence (plus the price of the card!) is a healthy investment.  Think about it – there’s still time, even with second class!

So all set for our carol weekend?  Our 10.45 nativity service and 6.30 carol service are a great way to introduce friends, colleagues, family, neighbours to the Father of Christmas!

Whose Christmas is it anyway?

Ross with Santa

So here we are in historic village of Buckden, where my son-in-law, Tim, is curate at St Mary’s, “the church for the A1.”  A quick visit to do our grandparent duty and take Rose (#1) and Poppy (#7) to see Santa.

Thankfully Ana (#3), Joy (#4) and Zoe (#5) travelled from London to see us last week and so we were able to take them to the high-priced grotto at Liverpool One.  That’s what grandparents do.

And then a quick dash back in good time for Santa’s visit to the Ministry Centre tomorrow afternoon, to accompany Kate (#2) and Tess (#6) on their annual visit.  I’m not sure if Neve ( #8) is old enough at 12 weeks to savour the experience.

Santa clearly represents a huge theological dilemma to the thinking Christian, in fact to any thinking parent, even grandparent.  And as I write these words I can feel the egg shells under my feet.  One slip and I am on News at Ten.

Those of you who went on the parish weekend in 2007, “Preparing for Christmas”, may remember the short visual presentation given by David Gavin, the vicar of Cleos, our link church in Toxteth.  In this all the Christmas paraphernalia gently nudge the baby Jesus to the margins and then out of the picture altogether.  Santa clearly has something to answer for here!

The turning on of the Ormskirk lights each November is a festive occasion in which the clergy take a prominent part.  Over the years I have shared the stage with some notable people – Jon Culshaw and this year Black Lace.  This, of course, gives me celebrity status.  But the one person we will not share the stage with is FC.   Chris Jones, the vicar of Ormskirk, made this clear to WLBC some years ago –  Christmas first and foremost is about Jesus.  It is his day and only the star of Bethlehem is to be the star of the show.

This afternoon Mount Carmel have their carol service in church – and thanks to Gordon Greenwood for taking this service.  Last year their presentation broke convention and included FC in their nativity line up.  At the time I was not sure about this, mixing the Nativity with Santa – what we call in the trade “a category confusion.”  However, what was powerful – at least to the eyes of a young child – was that Santa knelt before the baby Jesus and offered him his gift.

Once we acknowledge that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, then we can truly celebrate Christmas along with whoever happens to turns up, with or without his reindeers.

Apples for our teacher

apple

John Lennon and Steve Jobs had a massive influence on popular culture, not least in breaking totally new ground in their astonishing creativity.  They have two main things in common:

1)    They both founded multi-million pound corporations called Apple

2)    I have now read biographies of both men.

Each a substantive work, weighing some 1.1kg:  Jobs by Walter Isaacson and Lennon by Philip Norman.  Nevertheless, both highly readable.  In fact, I’ve managed to read Isaacson’s lengthy tome in just two weeks.

Not bad going.

It was fascinating to see the close parallels between the two men.

Both were rejected by their parents and as such had damaged and damaging personalities.  They hurt many people, especially those close to them.  However, both authors make the case that the remarkable creativity of both Lennon and Jobs was not in spite of their flawed backgrounds but as a direct consequence.

I enjoy listening to Don Macleod’s weekly podcast of Radio 3’s Composer of the Week.  I never listen to Radio 3 – the music is generally beyond Classic fm types like myself.  But the life stories are always fascinating.

This week it is the Australian composer Percy Grainger introduced by Macleod as “totally bonkers.”  An appalling background of childhood abuse from both parents produced, as Macleod points out, highly creative and innovative music, not despite but because of . Like most composers, it would seem.

All this I find totally depressing.  Of course I realize that God can use us despite our weaknesses and often because of our weaknesses.

But the question haunts me – does growing up in a supportive network with two loving and responsible parents, affirmed and valued by friends and wider family, result in limited creativity?

There is one exception to this.  Jesus does come across in the Gospels as a together person, at ease with himself and yet a true pioneer.  Of course, he had his detractors.  “A glutton and a drunkard. ”

“Demon-possessed and raving mad. ” “Trying to make himself God.”

These quotes from the Gospels simply reveal the jealousy and suspicion he caused.  But a man who loved life and loved people, all types and including those close to him.

Jesus continues to fascinate me.  I am not sure we have even begun to understand this remarkable man, not least in the loving way he allowed his enemies to cause him terrible suffering.

His secret was his total dependence on God as his heavenly Father and a secure background in the home of Mary and Joseph – the two are closely related.

So as we approach Christmas may God give us the focus, with the intensity of Steve Jobs, to pierce through the glitter and the fairy stories to see the birth of Jesus as it really happened.  These were real people aiming to nurture a little baby in appalling circumstances hunted down by powerful forces and without realising it produced an outcome which the Hebrew prophets could scarcely glimpse, a new creation.  How about that for creativity?

The End is Nigh

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Economic history has to be the most boring subject imaginable, at least as I encountered it.  To complete my essays I would lock myself in to the college library and even then, such was the level of boredom I would leaf through back copies of the college magazine to reveal the tedium.

It was the edition for 1939 which caught my attention.  There staring out at me in black and white were the fun-loving participants of that June’s May Ball – without, it seemed, a care in the world.  Did they realize – I pondered – that their world, the whole world, was about to be convulsed through events taking place in central Europe?

I wonder if we are in a similar situation today.

Since our holiday in Greece all those months ago in May I have been closely following (Jacqui would say obsessed) the unfolding debacle of the Eurozone crisis.  And now, it seems, the End is Nigh.  The unimaginable is about to happen.

This is, in fact, the view of this morning’s Economist magazine, which has had a good track record to date.  “Is this really the end?” asks the front cover. “Even as the euro zone hurtles towards a crash, most people are assuming that, in the end, European leaders will do whatever it takes to save the single currency. That is because the consequence of the euro’s destruction are so catastrophic that no sensible policymaker could stand by and let it happen.”  The leader writer continues (he or she certainly knows their Bible):  “Yet the threat of a disaster does not always stop it from happening.”

The prophet Jeremiah was in a similar situation in pre-war Jerusalem in 588 BC.   Even though disaster in the shape of Babylonian ambition loomed, the people of Judah seemed strangely unaware.  Singing Psalm 46  (to name but one passage from the Hebrew scriptures) they blithely assumed that God would save Jerusalem come-what-may.

It took the lone voice of a few prophets, such as Jeremiah and Habakkuk, to say that the covenant with God was two way, they had responsibilities to God as well has he had to them.  The people of God couldn’t live lives ignoring God while counting on his protection. Jerusalem was not too big to fail.  Even so God would stay with his people, even into catastrophic exile.

So where does this leave us today?  Well,  no one really knows – except there is going to be a lot of suffering.  Whatever, the German taxpayer will take a huge hit and very many people, especially the poor but not just the poor, will face destitution.   How it will impact us here, who knows?

Jeremiah was preparing not just his people for testing times, he was preparing himself.  “But blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose confidence is in him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7)

So hold on, folks;  above all, hold on to God’s promises.   And pray for those politicians who are doing their best to face down this crisis.  It will need acts of extraordinary courage:  they need our support.

When God ruins your plans

neve

Up early this morning.  Not out of choice but to look after granddaughter Neve, now 10 weeks old, to give Jennie a few hours of uninterrupted sleep before returning to Bedford later this morning.

So here I am rocking granddaughter #8 asleep in her car seat with my foot as I type on my laptop – who said men couldn’t multitask (well, two things at once)?

I have often wondered in what kind of the conditions the Bible, especially the New Testament, was written.

We easily assume that the apostle Paul, to mention the main contributor, is sitting in his study overlooking the Mediterranean composing elegant and beautifully-crafted epistles with no grandchildren in sight.  It’s just the occasional reference to chains, soldiers and imminent death which disturbs this notion.

In fact, one of the exercises of New Testament scholarship is to try and work out from which particular prison did Paul dictate certain of his letters, each to a church in crisis. (I typed that sentence with just one hand, the other holding Neve’s dummy)

In fact, one of the great Christian classics originates from a prison, from Bedford as it happens.    John Bunyan had been indicted for preaching without a licence.  Finding himself under intense pressure to conform, he wrote Pilgrims Progress (pause to find the dummy) to encourage his fellow non-conformists to keep going despite every assault and temptation.

The problem with being in prison (to name just one) is that it put pay to all your plans and – like babies – ruin your routine.   You can sometimes hear Paul’s frustration on being bottled up in yet another Roman gaol when he wants to be where the action is.

But the very fact that he had no alternative but to send a letter means these remarkable documents are now available to us in the pages of scripture.  No one set out to write the New Testament – it just happened under the directing of the Holy Spirit.  Just note how He did it.

I personally find it very difficult when my routines are disrupted – we all like to be in control.  I need my days to be neatly segmented, I think more than most people.  However, the good news is that it is God who is in control – but not the way I would prefer.  Once you can grasp that, then living our lives assumes a totally new meaning.

For once John Lennon is right (I actually just wrote “John Lennon is write” – that’s granddaughters for you): “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”  And if you have surrendered you life to God, then bring it on!

The message of numbers

numbers

So here we are 11.11.11!

Like most people I have been fascinated by the pattern of numbers made by the calendar, ever since I used to date each page of painstaking work, top left hand corner, at Waterloo Grammar School, thousands of them.

And over the years we have had some beautiful patterns, peaking on 20.02.2002 – and especially if you included the digital clock using 100th of a second – 20.02 20.02 20.02.2002.  I seem to recall I marked the occasion in a forerunner of this letter.

But 11.11.11 has the purity of only using one number – provided you are prepared to overlook that we are in the 21st century, that it is 2011.  And because there are only 12 months, not 22, the next single number date is in 100 years time.

And what a more fitting way to mark this special day with our community’s act of remembrance at 11 am.  We mark the armistice, the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front which took effect at eleven o’clock in the morning—the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918.

It was imperative – a matter of life and needless death – that the exact time of the armistice was easy to communicate and remember.

We enjoy numbers and the patterns they make.  I am half-way through the excellent biography of Apple genius, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.  To make a splash Jobs priced the first Apple computer at

$666.66 – without realising the Biblical connotation from the book of Revelation, the Mark of the Beast (which I recall was Bill Evans’ number for the Coniston 14 in – wait for it – 2002!)

You will know that the writers of the Bible enjoyed playing with

numbers:  the Jews loved it, not least because they wrote their numbers using letters and so a word could also represent a number.

Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus is structured by the number 14 (which is

2 x 7, the perfect number).  The letters in Hebrew which make the name David add up to 14 and King David is number 14 in the list.  Which all goes to show that Jesus is the Messiah, the new King David.

Numbers were important to Jesus, two in particular.  12 and 70.  And here he is making a hugely important point.  The 12 disciples tie up directly with the 12 tribes of Israel, God’s covenant, his commitment, to his people come what may. The 70 disciples sent out to prepare the way of Jesus links up with the 70 nations of the world.

(For those of you who are sticklers for detail:  Yes- I realize it may be 72 as from the Greek Septuagint tradition. But the message is the same).

So 12 speaks of God’s faithfulness – he keeps his promises whatever the cost and 70, that this faithfulness is available to everyone, everywhere.  Good news indeed to a world torn and ravaged by sin.

Battles with BT

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My perseverance, my dogged persistence, finally paid off.   My broadband download speed has been transformed from a pathetic 1.25 to 6.28 Mbps. Sadly too late for me to access Match of the Day on BBC iPlayer from 23 October (when I was in France) as Manchester United was beaten 1-6 by Manchester City.  (Actually, I may be wrong there – I need to check!).

For some years I have been frustrated by a pathetically slow internet.

I had hoped that changing from Tiscail to BT in their August promotion would do the trick, but sadly no change.

So a simple decision – contact BT.  Sounds easy?  Read on.

First of all, to find the contact phone number from the BT website proved near impossible.  At every click, every possible item of information you need, everything – except their contact number.  Even “contact us” did not yield a contact number – just further exhortations to use their help pages.

Actually the first time I somehow found the contact number but on subsequent visits I had to use my browsing history to recover it.

Eventually I took the extreme step of writing it down in my diary.

And for those of you who are with BT internet, here it is. 0800 111 4567.

That was just the first battle.

The automated response suggested I use the internet help pages. Even as I worked my way through all the options (here they are: 1-1-1-2-2), there was a final plea: “Try using our help pages from our website – otherwise, hold on.”

I did hold on, the first time for 20 minutes before giving up.  Next time, I settled down in front of the TV with Jacqui with the phone on loudspeaker mode.  50 minute later I was through to Bangalore.

However, it took two further lengthy phone calls over a period of several weeks before I finally broke their nerve.  “We will send around an engineer to your house, sometime between 1.00 and 6.00 pm.”

Actually Ken with Dave on light duties (bad back), from BT Open Source turned up at 10.30 am.  Real human beings who drank coffee, supported LFC and determined to sort out the problem.  It took them two hours.

To relate the whole story, as you see, has taken seven paragraphs.

But typical of today’s’ hi-tech world.  BT may be in the communications business but it was as intent on stopping me getting through as any GP’s receptionist.

This week I’ve been reading Habakkuk, the Old Testament prophet with a silly name (in Hebrew as well as in English).   How open this for an opener?  “How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, Violence! but you do not save?”

Habakkuk was fed up.  Why is it so hard to get through to God?  Why is he always on hold?  Why all the hassle?

This is the gift of the Old Testament (and of Jewish humour): such is God’s love, his commitment to us that we don’t have to pretend and be on our best behaviour.  We can tell him as it is.  We can share our feelings, articulate our deepest disappointment, even our anger. He can take it.  “Come on, Lord, give us a break!”

Not once throughout scripture does God respond “How dare you speak to me like that!”

Grace Emmerson in her BRF commentary writes:  “The prophet’s bewilderment at unanswered prayer is intense and so is ours, though we have the joy of knowing, through the cross, that when God seems most hidden he is most active and triumphant!”

So Habakkuk concludes:  “Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.”

Habakkuk is prepared to hold on, however long it takes, to get through. And the final verse?   “The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on to the heights.” (I should have used that verse in last week’s letter!).

How to Fall

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Adventure playgrounds, even ones designed for toddlers, are not the place for the faint-hearted grandparents.

Nevertheless Jacqui and I took Ana, Joy and Zoe, all on their scooters to the nearby Burgess Park in South London.  And they had a great time, climbing, swinging, jumping and sliding.

Thankfully this brand-new facility is well designed – and they were wearing their scooter safety helmets. So it wasn’t too stressful watching two year old Zoe trying to balance her way along a log felled across a foaming river packed with hungry crocodiles.

She was learning an important lesson, how not to fall.  And an even more vital skill, how to fall.

I have poor natural balance.  Each January I do my best to avoid running in the Parbold Hill Race.  It’s not the hill nor the mud which is the problem – it’s the ever-present danger of falling headlong.

Very simply I do not know how to fall – I lack the technique.  So as all the other runners leap over a fence at the bottom of a steep slope at six miles, I carefully pick my way over it – and lose another 15 places.  It’s embarrassing.

In the Christian life we need to learn how not to fall – and how to fall.  The two go together.  But there is a pastoral problem here, to teach the highest standards for holy living and yet to anticipate failure without settling for second best.

“So I say, live by the Spirit,” writes the apostle Paul, “and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.”  (Galatians 5:16),

We are called to live our lives at the highest setting.

That’s where we begin. As disciples of Jesus we need to learn how to maintain our balance, our spiritual poise.  Essentially this means learning how to deal with temptation so that in the power of the Holy Spirit we learn to walk like Jesus.

The danger is that when we fall (and it is a “when”, not an “if” – see

1 John 1:8) we stay down, discouraged by failure.  I tried it and it didn’t work.  So we give up.

So we need to learn how to fall.

George Verver, who launched Operation Mobilisation, is a Christian leader of awesome self-discipline.  He aspires for the very best, to live a life which truly honours God – “my utmost for his highest”  to coin a phrase from Oswald Chambers.  Yet one of George’s most remarkable sermons was on how to fall.  You don’t just lie there in

the mud, face down,   You claim the blood of Jesus and claim God’s

free forgiveness, and then get up and get going in God’s power.  Each time.

Just like me in the Parbold Hill Race – although next January I will probably have another cold.

Just like my father

st_pancras

An exciting day ahead!

First, to Aughton Park for the 8.48 train to Liverpool Central, crossing over to Lime Street to take the 9:48 for London Euston, a journey I have taken innumerable times.  Then a short walk along Euston Road to heaven on earth, St Pancras International.

I have fallen in love with this wonderful Victorian railway shed, designed on pure engineering principles by William Barlow.  He believed that the aesthetics would follow – and he was right.  Jacqui commissioned a special portrait of the station for my Christmas present.

In fact, just before Christmas some friends (!) planned an elaborate hoax (including professionally designed stationary, a dedicated phone line and Royal Mail special delivery) to offer me the appointment of station chaplain for St Pancras, working five days every three months. (I could use my holiday entitlement – they worked that out).   Sadly, I fell for it.

Then the thrill of taking the 14.02 Eurostar train to Gare du Nord. My first visit to this ancien régime Parisian terminal was way back in 1959 – you could still see the bullet holes, at least that is what I thought as a ten year old.

Another short walk to the Gare de L’Est for the 20:57 TGV for Rheims. Then, a few days impatient wait before doing the same thing again in reverse.

Just like my father.

Walter used to take us every year overland to Spain by train. I occasionally view the 8mm movies he took – all of trains and SNCF stations, with the very occasional glimpse of a family member should they stray into the frame.  In fact, he so enjoyed the journeys, rather than the intervening holiday on the beach, that one year he actually travelled alone by train to Irun, on the Spanish frontier.

There he spent 45 minutes in the station buffet, for a coffee and croissant – before getting straight back on the train for the journey back home.

The question is why am I so like my father?  Had not God intervened (a strange story if ever there was one – I was offered a place at a theological college without even applying) I would have followed Walter into a career with British Rail, as an economist based at Euston.

It could, of course, be genetic.  My sister recently uncovered our paternal grandmother’s family to discover that they too were of railway stock, just like our father’s father.  Should my DNA ever be decoded it would show that strange Stephenson sequence which results in a bizarre love of train journeys.

The only other alternative is that, like my support of Everton, I have simply assumed my father’s enthusiasms.  Not that he ever sat down and instructed me in the joys of the parallel lines.  I simply allowed his love of trains to embrace me; his enthusiasm was contagious.

We were talking at our Ministry Team meeting on Tuesday how parents communicate their Christian commitment, their love of Jesus, to their children – a very powerful theme in the culture of the Hebrew scriptures.  It is saying the obvious but it is not what you say but what you do.  Our enthusiasms, our passions,  the wild and various ways we put ourselves out for God in response to his amazing nail-pierced compassion for us.

If our children see us do our best to put Jesus at the centre of our lives,  whatever that may mean, they will want to imitate– especially in the home environment where are true selves are most evident.   It simply becomes part of them.

Of course, we are talking about human beings here.  Nothing is ever straight-forward.  We can only prepare the ground:  we cannot make the seed grow.  My sister has no obvious affection for trains or for EFC, although strangely, her son has picked up his grandfather’s enthusiasm for both.  There again, it may simply be that the genes have skipped a generation!

Great to meet up yesterday with Keith and Gill Croxton, now active at Christ Church Buckingham.  They led our ministry with the older young people upto 1997 while Keith had a key role in the early development of our Ministry Team.   I attach their photo

Must dash, catching a train.

Finished!

No statutory retirement age for disciples

Alpha first meeting

I always get a buzz when a new Alpha course begins.  Who will turn up?  Will anyone turn up for this ten week course on Christian basics?   Even after 34 courses it does not get any easier.

So this time we used the colour wraparound for CONSIDER as well as the usual leaflets, posters, house visiting, market stall and school parent promotion.  The sports quiz and curry evening was another new venture to encourage men to think about doing the course.

Looking at the initial responses, I expected 15 and hoped for 20 people.  In the event some 30 people came along for “Christianity boring, untrue, irrelevant.”  Of those 15 or so were new to Christ Church.  I attach the photo.

Talking to some of these people it was encouraging to hear how they had decided to give Alpha a shot.   Certainly the different methods of advertising had worked.  But what really counts is personal recommendation, of Christians encouraging their friends, family, neighbours, colleagues – and carers.

For the star of the show, as far as I was concerned, was Ken Park, now in his mid 90’s and a resident of Aughton Park Nursing Home.  For Ken has a love for Jesus he longs to share, especially with those who care for him.

So at least two people came to Alpha from Aughton Park as a result of his testimony.  I know they enjoyed the Alpha launch and Ken tells me more may appear next week!

I have to be careful not to draw too close a parallel here but it reminds me of Paul sharing the gospel with those soldiers guarding him. The chained apostle writes to the Philippians “As a result (of my being in prison), it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.”  (Philippians 1:13)

It must have been acutely frustrating for the apostle with a passion for sharing Christ over the horizon to be stuck in yet another gaol.  No earthquake this time. But he kept at it where he was – whoever, anyone was prepared to give him half an ear.  You don’t’ wait for your situation to improve, you just do it, share Christ.

So we thank God for Ken and for all those who worked hard, in so many different ways, to make Christ known.

For the story of Alpha is one of Christians taking a personal initiative.  As it happens I know most of the main players – I was at theological college with Charles Marnham who first devised the course when a curate at HTB in the 1970’s.  His wife, Trish, coined the name.  And also Sandy Millar, who was to become vicar there and oversaw the rapid growth of the course under his curate, Nicky Gumbel, in the 1990’s.  It was never the intention to produce a course for the worldwide church, it just kind of happened.

I once asked Sandy – looking back, what was the key decision which changed Alpha from being an in-house discipleship course in a central London church to the course it is today, being used all over the world in a huge variety of contexts.  I assumed it was the result of some staff time away or during a 24 hour prayer meeting – i.e. something very spiritual.

But no, it was about buying rather the hiring the chairs.  Buying the chairs?  It seemed that as Alpha grew within HTB there came the day when the number signed up for the next course outstripped the chairs available.  The cost-effective answer, according to the church administrator, was to hire chairs for two months.   I assume that there was some kind of discussion (here I am being diplomatic) – those who wanted to buy chairs over against those who wanted to hire.  The risk, of course, was to be lumbered with loads of chairs which would have been difficult to store and an embarrassment to behold.

Looking to the future and believing in the trajectory of the course, the epoch-making decision was to buy.  And the rest, according to Sandy, is history.

I wrote last week of the 20 key pointers for Christ Church as we approach 2020, with 5 key values to affirm.  One of those key values is the resolve to keep taking risks.  It may be the risk of buying more chairs than we need or the risk of rejection in inviting your carers to Alpha.

This Sunday we welcome back my predecessor, Eric Bramhall, who will be preaching at 10.45.  Eric tells me how when he arrived at Christ Church way back in 1975 he was given the key advice “Never consolidate.”  That is, keep on pushing out, going for it.  And he never did.  For risk is at the heart of our mission as we share Jesus with everyone beginning right where we are.

Finally, a big thank you to Dave and Jonathan for answering my plea for help last week and serving the Diocese with tea and coffee last Saturday, for others volunteering to fill the gaps in our CONSIDER distribution network and Chris, one of our young people, who designed the Sunday notice sheet for the first time.

Just doing our duty

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Help!

A group from the Diocese are using our Ministry Centre tomorrow morning, Saturday 8 October. They have requested tea/coffee to be served at 8.30 am and then during their morning break, about 10.30 am.

Can you serve them?

Peter Bootle, from the Ministry Centre, could do it but I have told him not to  – along with other church members he will be on the wild streets of Ormskirk until the early hours as street pastor.   A remarkable ministry;  only the church could do this.

But we have problems.  Nearly 30 church members will be travelling to Manchester for the Northern Women’s Christian Convention while members of our music group are attending a residential course in Marple.

They’re all away.

I could ask members of our fellowship committee but they are busy preparing for our delayed harvest lunch in the Ministry Centre on Sunday – good to know the Mayor and Mayoress of Ormskirk along with other civic guests will be dining with us.    Other church members are busy looking after the members of the Pearl of Africa choir.  Their concert takes place in the Ministry Centre tomorrow at 7.30 pm.

Moreover I am reluctant to ask the usual suspects.  Most have been heavily involved this week in Cafe Vista – this amazing ministry is steadily growing but needs lots of hard working and dedicated volunteers. I was surprised how many were at the team meeting on Monday.  Others  worked hard for the successful launch on Wednesday for our 35th Alpha course.  A great evening, an hilarious and relevant talk by Phil Watson (not to be confused with our curate Phil Weston).

Nearly 50 turned up.

At our Vision Day in Southport last Saturday I shared 20 key pointers for 2020:  5 key values to affirm, 5 key opportunities to grasp, 5 key challenges to meet along with 5 glimpses into the future.

One of our five key values is for everyone at Christ Church to be involved in some way as a volunteer.  Every member should be doing something in some way for the Lord.  It is our calling;  the Lord requires no less.   “Do you want to be involved?” is not an extra box to be ticked:  it is part of the job description of following Jesus.

Service is in our DNA.

This may mean overseeing a key ministry or opening a new frontier; there again it may mean turning up at the Ministry Centre to make teas and coffees tomorrow.  (Everything will be left out for you).

Whatever, we show our love for the Lord by serving him.  In fact, the first appointment in the early church was Stephen and others being chosen to wait on tables  (Acts 6:3).

But inspiring and resourcing volunteers in every area of ministry, especially for new initiatives, is also one of our five challenges.  We are always short of people, especially for long term commitments (a phrase anathema in today’s culture).  Growing churches always are.  Certainly the growing use of the Ministry Centre is labour intensive.

So we need two more people to deliver CONSIDER along with someone to take responsibility for supplying 10 of these distributors with their deliveries  (CONSIDER uses over 70 people).  We need people to help with our children’s and young people’s ministry (setting up for fortnightly Re:ality is a huge task),  someone to be Christian Aid treasurer,  others to lead intercessions at church,  people to serve as reception in the Ministry Centre for mornings or afternoons, .  . .

The list goes on.

“We need” is actually the wrong phrase.  It should be “the Lord expects.”

I have always been intrigued by Jesus’ parable of the servant’s duty. Not one that ever makes the top ten.  Only found in Luke.

“Suppose one of you had a servant ploughing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’?

“Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’?

Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?

“So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”

That’s it.  ‘When you’ve done everything expected of you, be matter-of-fact and say, ‘The work is done. What we were told to do, we did.'”

So any offers for tomorrow?

Evangelism causes big problems

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There would be something very awry with a church where every member was a Spirit-filled, totally committed disciple of Jesus walking in holiness.  At first sight that doesn’t seem right – until you start to think about it.   Such a church would by its very nature grow vigorously, reaching out to friends and family, neighbours and colleagues with the Gospel of hope and life.  And these people would come with all their problems, a whole casebook of them!

This is what happened to St Michael-le-Belfry York in the 1970’s when David Watson was vicar.   Soon they were swamped with people with significant needs.  As you can imagine, all kinds of problems faced the church.   David referred to the paperweight on his desk which said “Bless this Mess!” – it applied just as readily to his congregation.  Evangelism causes problems.  Part of David’s team in that era was a very young Phil Potter, who is speaking at our Vision Day in Southport tomorrow.   Phil in those days was a musician, part of the outreach team from York which toured the country.   I can recall going to one of their spectaculars at the Empire Theatre in Liverpool.   For sharing the Gospel was at the heart of St Michael’s ministry, it’s what they did.

We had a great sports quiz and curry night on Wednesday – the whole event went very well, attracting more men than we dared to expect.  A big thank you for those of you who made this happen. Sitting on my table were two members of the Sefton Christian Fellowship which as its name suggests meets in the Old Roan.   Talking to them I discovered that they were a church plant from the Devonshire Road church in Toxteth.

Devvie Road has a history and a reputation – for going for holiness in a big way.   In the era of David Watson, the church taught Christian perfectionism – such may be the work of God’s grace in the heart of the believer that it is actually impossible to sin.   Years ago I actually met one young man from this fellowship who informed me that he had not sinned for seven weeks.   I was tempted to do what the great evangelist DL Moody did when faced with such a claim – to pour a jug of water over the saint to test their saintliness.

However, in so concentrating on holiness Devvie Road became introverted and insular.  In those days they would never have used the equivalent of Alpha.   So I was delighted to hear that they have now moved on – and Sefton Christian Fellowship regularly use Alpha.

For sharing the Gospel of Christ is our key task.  We are simply not allowed to make it secondary – even though it causes problems.   Here was the key difference between Jesus and the Pharisees (who in many ways shared a similar theology with the early church).   The Pharisees aspired to holiness, working towards a level of sanctity over the whole community that would trigger the coming of the Messiah.  They had high standards. Jesus, in contrast, welcomed tax collectors and prostitutes, lepers and zealots, even women.

I’m told of a story some years ago when the pastor of a local church was in argument with a member of his flock. In exasperation he exclaimed – “Why don’t you go to Christ Church, Aughton. They’ll have anyone!”

I cannot think of a better strapline. “Come to Christ Church – we’ll have anyone!”

Looking forward to the Vision Day in Southport tomorrow, Harvest on Sunday and our Alpha launch on Wednesday. Phew!

Good news for failures

failure

“Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement,” observed CS Lewis.  But how are we to view failure as we serve God, how does God use my failures?  Does he simply help us to recover from failure or can be failure part and parcel of his plan?

Important questions –we fail so often and we need to learn.  How does God work in his world?  Answer – you would be surprised!

Last Saturday at our PCC and Ministry Team away day at Sandymount, we reflected on the story of how the Ministry Centre came to be built.

It took a long time – basically the 16 years from 1994 to 2010.  The first five years were acquiring the site of the old school building from the County Council.

However, as most of you will recall all too readily, we worked for seven years, 1999 to 2006, on the proposed parish centre until it was finally rejected on appeal by the planning authorities.  The big question is “Was this effectively a mistake, our mistake, which God was able to use?” or “Were we essentially in God’s will throughout this painful process?”

We need to understand in order to appreciate how God works in his world and in our lives.

I realise that you may well disagree with our conclusion but on consideration we ventured the conclusion that the whole parish centre saga was an integral part of God’s purpose for Christ Church.

From my own perspective, the parish centre process gave us invaluable experience so that we were able to produce an excellent Ministry Centre.  None of us had built a church hall before.  Looking back we had so much to learn and not much could have been learned by reading the manuals or attending seminars.  There was simply no alternative but to learn by doing – and the doing was the parish centre project.

This enabled us to build the remarkable Ministry Centre, from start to finish, in just over three years.   We were seasoned hands by 2006.

Moreover, looking back to this experience we cannot recollect a moment when we made a significant mistake so as to be able to say today, with the benefit of hindsight, that is where we went wrong.  None of us can recall such a juncture.

You could argue that the any first building would have failed planning, even the present Ministry Centre.   Even somewhat cynically to say (and this is totally wrong) that in order to get the Ministry Centre through planning we presented an even bigger building before scaling it back!

So where does all this leave us?  That God works through failure and setback as an integral part of his plan.  It is how he works.

In fact, visiting us tomorrow is a team from All Saints Childwall are coming to pick our brains as they prepare for an extensive building project.  I wonder what they will make of all this.

One of the most formative Christian books for my understanding of the Christian life is the 1963 epic “The cross and the switchblade” written by NYC pastor David Wilkerson, who died this May.   This remarkable ministry with the gangs of New York begins with Wilkerson making a complete fool of himself in a city courtroom.  He was devastated, totally humiliated.  How could have he been so foolish?

And yet this abject failure gave him the way straight into the whole gang culture.  God used his failure an integral part of the process; it wasn’t simply a setback on the way which God was able to redeem.

But there again, this should come as no surprise to any Christian.  My Bible reading this morning from BRF Guidelines was the crucifixion of Jesus and Matthew pulls no punches in his account – a total, unmitigated disaster. “He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”  And yet, without realising it they were totally right!

For God does not work the way you would expect.  And that takes some getting used to!  The next problem is deciding which failures are God ordained and which failures are the result of my own disobedience and wilfulness.  Yet again, once more, we need the Holy Spirit gift of wisdom.

This Solid Ground

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“From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny.”

Later this morning we thank God for the life and ministry of Eric Grimshaw as his funeral takes place in church. So many people have good reason to bless God for the ministry of Eric and Cath, for their faithfulness to God’s call and their commitment to the Gospel of the risen Jesus.

There is something poignant about the funeral of a clergyperson. Eric in his ministry would have taken over 1500 funerals but this one will be very special to him, his own. A pro to the end, Eric organized the personnel, the Bible reading and the hymns. He knew what makes a good funeral, one that unambiguously proclaims Christ

I recall at a recent college reunion explaining to my former fellow students, all employed in the world of economics (and all no doubt, very, very worried at the moment), that on average I had taken a funeral a week for the previous 30 years. Aghast, they wondered how I could cope. You do – if you trust in God to keep his promises, if you make Christ your cornerstone.

But it does have an effect on you, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Most importantly, being regularly in the presence of those recently bereaved, you see the concerns and worries of life in their true perspective. What counts is our relationships, nothing else. When the Twin Towers fell, no one phoned their bank manager: everyone phoned their loved ones to say how much they loved them. In that perspective, what if the FTSE drops towards 5300 or our washing machine floods?

So we need to invest heavily in our relationships. They alone give a return. Remember that.

Above all, the most important relationship is our relationship with Jesus. He alone is our hope, our cornerstone. It was John Wesley who defined a Christian as someone who puts Christ at the centre of their relationships.

So we need to live each day on the basis of that truth. There is simply no alternative. Taking funerals reinforces that conviction.

And it does make you wary in making plans. How often I have heard the words “and we had hoped . .” You may be working hard for a special holiday, to complete an important project, even saving for retirement. And then . . . Full stop.

We are always in God’s hands. In the words of James “Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

In all you have a sense of the frailty of life. As shown in the ancient words of the prayer of commendation “In the midst of life we are in death; to whom can we turn for help, but to you, Lord, who are justly angered by our sins?”

We need to live our lives in the present tense, that is in the presence of Christ. So Eric has chosen his service to begin with the hymn “In Christ alone” – hence the quote at the beginning of this letter.

So we delight in the safe arrival of baby Neve Olive who made her life’s first cry in the early hours of Tuesday, weighing in at 6lbs 12ozs. Our congratulations to Jen and Ewan who are now experiencing the joys of parenthood.

I am finding that pregnancies don’t get any easier, even after 11 (#7 was twins). I’m not sure modern communications help. It was surreal driving down the M1 with Jacqui chatting away to Jen. Nothing unusual in that at all, except Jen was in labour at Bedford Hospital.

So we pray for Neve, as we pray each night for each of her seven cousins, that she may find Christ her light, her strength, her song in this uncertain world. For in Christ alone her hope is found

Adapting to the age of the cappuccino

costa

Did you know that there are more members of the Caravan Club, or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, than of all Britain’s political parties put together?

I had lunch with a local Ormskirk borough councillor who told me that the number of members belonging to each of the Conservative and Labour parties in West Lancashire is just 200 or so, less than the number of you receiving (reading, even) this letter. In fact, the membership of the main UK political parties halved between 1960 and 1980, and has halved again since to represent just over 1% of the population today.

But not just political parties. Whatever organisation you may belong to, you will have seen membership fall drastically and age markedly in recent years, be it trade union, Women’s Institute, choir, Rotary club, the Masons, parent associations, sports groups, even the Rose and Crown.

The Mothers’ Union (from which my mother was thrown out in 1957 for refusing to have me christened) is typical: it had 538,000 members in the 1930s, but now just 98,000.

The situation today is that 70% of us have no ties with any local group or association. In the words of American sociologist Robert Putman, we live in a society in which I bowl alone. He observed that although the number of people in the US who bowl has increased in the last 20 years, the number of people who bowl in leagues has actually fallen dramatically.

This gives us an important context in understanding why church membership has been falling. In 1990, just before I arrived in Aughton, 9.0% of people in England attended church, last year 5.7%. Our church Vision Day is focussing on 2020 – when attendance is expected to be just 4.3%

But it is not so much that fewer people believe in the Christian faith, increasingly we are experiencing a phenomenon labelled by former Liverpool academic Grace Davie, “believing without belonging.” I have good friends who see themselves as committed Christians who for one reason or another no longer belong to their local church.

Or at least they now belong in a different way – and this is what we need to understand for the sake of the Gospel. For we live in an fast-changing culture in which people are beginning to relate to each other in totally new ways. Like Facebook and (here I go again) Twitter. New networks are being formed all over the place.

In this context we need to think creatively on how to do church and follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit rather than tread the familiar. The Gospel demands no less.

Whitbread is a company to emulate; you probably read their annual report published on Wednesday. Most of you will still associate Whitbread with brewing and especially pubs. But they found themselves in a business which was contracting through rapid social change. They could have invested heavily in making pubs work even though the social tide was going the opposite way.

What they did in 2001 was a moment of strategic brilliance – they moved out of brewing and brewing interests and into coffee and budget hotels.

Whitbread understood that people still go out to drink but now lattes instead of lager, in comfortable lounges with newspapers and wifi rather than the traditional pub . They saw was happening and dared to leave behind 250 years of tradition. Today their Costa coffee has 1600 stores in 25 countries. I understand that Ormskirk Costa (where we have had three Alpha launches) is about to be extensively refurbished and acquire the first floor. Not just booming but recession proof.

For the Alpha course, both in and out of Costa, comes as a great example of how to respond to this seismic shift in culture. Interactive, limited initial commitment and especially, a meal together. For above all it is friendship forming. Hard questions are encouraged rather than stifled. Alpha gives people space and time to think rather than to make an immediate commitment on the spot. Moreover, it grows through using the networks of new Christians – we have some remarkable examples.

As a church we are committed to serve our parish and beyond as it is rather than as we would like it to be. So we are having our church Vision Day on 1 October to simply listen to what the Holy Spirit is leading us to do as we aim to share Jesus beginning with everyone in our parish.

I do not read the Bingo Times

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Sunday evening in York, we make our way to the Mecca bingo complex just off Fishergate.  Not that Jacqui and I had planned to go but as we walked back to our car, one of us needed to go to the loo.  Mecca  seemed the best bet.  

We were tired from a busy day – a  morning visit to St Michael-le-Belfry (the HTB of the 1980’s), yet another visit to the National Railway Museum (I managed just three visits this time) and a walk around the walls.  We would have visited the Minster but we could not afford the £18 entrance fee.  I noted that there was no clergy discount.  

So just a short detour across the road to take advantage of the facilities offered by this modern bingo complex.

The first problem was getting in.  A receptionist presided over the entrance – you would have to walk right passed her direct to the escalator.  Was she simply welcoming people or was she a gatekeeper?  I suppose we simply should have asked but given the nature of our predicament, we could not have taken NO for an answer.  

I watched for a few moments and then decided to walk with purpose and head straight for the escalator, as if I did this every Sunday.  Jacqui followed.  No one called us back.

Upstairs, we found ourselves in a large empty lobby adjoining the main bingo hall, brightly lit and pleasantly decorated.  Several uniformed assistants stood behind a long counter, thankfully preoccupied. There were no greeters on duty (we would call them welcomers).

The evening meeting was just beginning.  Lots of people sitting around small tables in groups of four.  Maybe 180 players, nearly all women.  A good atmosphere – everyone was relaxed but focused.  The young  callers were welcoming everyone to their evening gathering.  They even singled out someone on her birthday, rather insensitively I thought.  

The problem was that had I wanted to join them, what would I do? I have never played bingo and there seemed no way of finding out.  No clear instructions on the wall, no helpful guide book. I guess you would go to the desk behind me and ask.    

But which questions?  For someone new like me, there would be the risk of looking stupid, something I manage effortlessly.  Do tickets come in books?  Is there minimum purchase?  What do I shout should I win?  What is a win?

I am quite sure what would have been totally obvious, altogether self evident to them would have been completely novel to me.  I do not come from a bingo family.   I do not read the Bingo Times.

Should I have had the confidence to buy the books, that would have been the easy bit. There was then the dilemma of where to sit.  

Sadly you could only walk in to the bingo auditorium from the side, in full public gaze.  And where would I sit?    Clearly everyone knew everyone else and the risk of sitting in someone’s special place was high.  “Would you please move to another table, sir” is everyone’s dread.  

On balance it would have been even more difficult walking in alone.  Do you sit on an empty table (I didn’t see any) and so look bereft of friends? Or do you join an already existing group and risk rejection.  “That’s Pat’s place – she is always late on Sunday’s.”  And do you play as a team?

I was simply an outsider looking in. I did not belong and I did not understand.  Thankfully no one headed over to help us – I’m not sure anyone even noticed us – and so we were able to beat a safe retreat.  As we retired into the cold evening air I smiled at the receptionist in the entrance foyer.  “Not this evening, thank you.  Maybe next time.”  

Maybe never again.

God blows up our tiny vision

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I always get a buzz when I enter the Ministry Centre.  And each day – I do not exaggerate – at least one person will tell me, usually one of the many visitors to Cafe Vista – what an incredible building God has blessed us with.   So we honour him for his faithfulness and provision, a real endorsement to our step of faith, or more accurately, to our many steps of faith.  In fact, it often seemed at the time more like a 25 mile hike through East Anglian wetlands with the occasional thunderstorm thrown in.  But that’s ministry!

In fact, a new ministry may be opening us for us as I am regularly contacted by leaders of churches about to embark on a building project.  They know it is going to be tough.  What lessons can we share with them?

To that end I am putting together a history of the whole Ministry Centre project, from the very first days in 1989 when Pete Chalk and David Dennison opened the Building Fund to the present time as Peter Bootle begins his work as Ministry Centre coordinator. 

So over the last few days I have been trawling through all the extensive files and press cutting –  and in doing reliving the project.  Not always an easy ride, as you will remember.  We learned so much over those 22 years, both as individual Christians and as a church. Here we have an invaluable curriculum of faith.

What was really instructive was to revisit 1994. That July our newly appointed head teacher, Barbara Stevens, moved the infant department of Christ Church School out of the old school building and into the main school site. And so during that September we had a series of meeting in the building to discover God’s purposes for the place, to take hold of his vision for future ministry.   In addition, some 17 church members sent written submissions.

What strikes me now reading all the documents (remember LocoScript, Alan Sugar’s gift to the world?) is how our views were incredibly restricted and lacking any ambition for the building itself.  Our idea then of being radical was to contemplate removing one of the walls dividing the classrooms.  That’s it.  One church member, who 15 years later was to do sterling work in the building of the Ministry Centre, wrote:  “Unless absolutely necessary, I wouldn’t want to knock down the current building.”   When I told him this yesterday, he simply could not believe he had written this!

In contrast, our vision for the use of the old school building was ambitious – an extensive ministry with all the age groups,  lots of different activities serving the local community, even a welcoming area “with refreshments and snacks.”  One person simply wrote in their submission:  “Drop in centre.”

You have the sense that we were feeling our way forward with a sense of adventure and opportunism. 

The result – a mismatch between what the old school building could offer, even with a wall removed, and the potential flowering of different ministries.   So we had to choose – between making the ministries fit the building or making a building to fit the ministries.   That was our first crucial decision of faith.  We could have scarcely imagined then the implications of going for that second option.  But we decided to take God at his word and set off on a long and difficult adventure of faith. 

Looking back, what made all the difference?  Answer – to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus on whom our faith depends from beginning to end. (Hebrews 12:2)

From last week, thank you for your comments to my letter on Tesco taking on the Church.  Take a look at this – thanks to Joyce Leach:  

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Incidentally, you can read this letter (and previous mailings) on my blog on the church website www.ChristChurchAughton.org and also on our family website.

And finally, I have now started a Christ Church twitter feed. 

Open a Twitter account, search for @ChristChurchAug and sign up to follow.  It will change your life – it certainly will change mine!