You need to plant a seed to reap a harvest

“You need to plant a seed to reap a harvest”

 

This weekend we are celebrating Harvest Festival at Christ Church. In 2018 gathering in the Harvest is very different compared to 1772 when the traditional Harvest hymn “We plough the fields and scatter” was written by German poet Matthias Claudius. Instead of whole villagers having to work hard for several weeks to harvest all the crops, today we often see lone farmers working their efficient machinery to produce the harvest. However, despite all the advances in modern technology one thing that hasn’t changed about the Harvest is the need to intentionally plant the seeds. In other words to have a harvest there has to be a seed. 

The scripture on our A59 billboard this month is taken from the book of Hosea 10:12

 

“If you plant goodness, you will harvest faithful love. Plow your ground, and you will harvest with the Lord. He will come, and he will make goodness fall on you like rain.”

 

This passage speaks of how God calls us to sow–to sow broadly, generously, diligently. When looking at a tiny seed, it is impossible to see what will bloom from this minute speck of nothing, the colour it will produce, the bloom or fruit, or how large the plant will be. There is vast potential locked within, that under the right circumstances planted in good soil, watered and covered in sunshine, a miracle will happen. The seed transforms into something more than itself, it gives birth to a plant that blooms and brings beauty, life, colour and a fruit and this is a miracle-almost something out of nothing.

 

This Harvest we have the opportunity to be intentional with what we do with our lives, talents and skills. Maybe giving food, time or money to support our local foodbank, intentionally stepping out to do something new or perhaps taking time out to contemplate the potential harvest in our own lives or those around us.

 

A quote from Lea R. Caguinguin sums up this contemplation perfectly.

 

“If you plant honesty, you will reap trust
If you plant goodness, you will reap friends
If you plant humility, you will reap greatness
If you plant perseverance, you will reap contentment
If you plant consideration, you will reap perspective
If you plant hard work, you will reap success
If you plant forgiveness, you will reap reconciliation
If you plant faith in God, you will reap a harvest
So, be careful what you plant now; it will determine what you will reap later.”

Saint Patrick’s “Breastplate” Prayer

Saint Patrick’s “Breastplate” Prayer

Being married to an Irish man and having an interest in Celtic spirituality, the familiar words of St. Patrick’s “Breastplate” prayer have popped into my head on numerous occasions this week.

Legend has it that a local chieftain was out to get a particular Celt named Patrick. The chieftain sent his men to kill Patrick as he travelled along a lonely wooded road. As they closed in on Patrick, his pursuers discovered that he had disappeared into thin air. All they saw was a deer bounding across the road. From that adventure, legend has it that the Prayer of St. Patrick (the “Lorica” or “Breastplate”) emerged. More recent scholarship however, suggests its author was anonymous. In any case, this prayer certainly reflects the spirit with which St. Patrick brought faith to Ireland!

 

Today, we live in a perfect storm of challenges, many of which are beyond our control. We are anxious about the future of our planet as we consider the reality of global climate change and humankind’s feeble responses. We are economically and professionally uncertain. We need courage, inspiration, and perseverance.

One verse of the prayer speaks of Christ being in every situation we encounter. We read:

 

“Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.”

 

As you recite these words you get an insight into the height, depth and breadth of God’s love for each of us. The famous words of John 3:16 speak of a “God who loved the world so much that He sent His one and only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not die but have everlasting life”.

 

This promise of eternal life is for everyone who acknowledges their need for forgiveness and chooses to put their trust in Jesus, the one who “binds up the broken-hearted and sets the captives free” (Isaiah 61:1)

 

Whatever challenges or situations we may be facing personally, in our communities, or in the world we would be wise to remember and have these words ringing in our ears to give us courage to keep going and never to give up!

 

“Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me “

Pat feels he’s a really happy man.

“Pat feels he’s a really happy man.”

 

It was reported yesterday that the author of Postman Pat, John Cunliffe has passed away. I remember as a child in the 1980s watching with fondness the adventures of Pat Clifton, a postman in the fictional village of Greendale (inspired by the real valley of Longsleddale near Kendal)

The theme tune of the series speaks of Pat’s happiness as he drives around in his little red van delivering letters through people’s doors.

 

Now you may think I have gone ‘ snooker, loopy nuts’ ( to quote a line from the famous Chas and Dave duo, sadly Chas also passed away this week) writing a contemplation about Postman Pat, but bear with me!

 

This week has been unusual, as I have spent a lot of time outside the parish. On Monday I had the privilege of going to a workplace and asking for God’s blessing on a new business venture and office space. On Thursday I spent the day with clergy from the Liverpool Diocese on a study day at Liverpool Hope University. On both days I was struck by how happy people were in their jobs or what I like to call vocations. Being happy in our everyday lives, I am sure you will agree, is so important and yet I wonder if we were asked the question “Are you happy, content in your life/job?” How many of us could honestly answer, “I am”.

 

Over the last month the Church of England has launched a new initiative asking the question, Where is God during our daily lives?”

To help explore this question personal stories are being shared on social media and the C of E website .Click below to take a look https://www.churchofengland.org/everydayfaith  

 

The Bible tells us that God is interested in every area of our lives, however big or small. all things were created. … And in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17).  It also means we can bring even the smallest concern to Him in prayer, knowing that He cares about us and watches over us.  We read in Jeremiah 29:11 that God has a plan for our lives, “ plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Choosing to believe in the promises of God can lead to a different kind of happiness, a different state of mind, one of peace and contentment. If today you want to ask God to be part of your everyday life and know His promises for you why not get in touch with us?  As you begin to understand a different perspective maybe you will be able to say this sentence “Insert your name –  feels he/she is a really happy man/woman”.

More justice in the world

More justice in the world.”

 

The TUC Congress met in Manchester this week. For 150 years the TUC has served as a model for other trade unions around the world in their fight for the rights of workers and the defense of their dignity. One of the key note speakers was the Archbishop of Canterbury. I encourage you to read his speech in full by following this link below https://www.tuc.org.uk/speeches/archbishop-canterbury-justin-welby-speech-tuc-congress-2018

 

As part of his speech Archbishop Welby spoke about creating a society where everyone matters – and the most vulnerable are cared for. “I dream to see governments, now and in the future, put church-run food banks out of business and empty night shelters”

Here at Christ Church we say Amen to this as we join with the Bishop of Liverpool and his Diocesan rule of life:

bigger church to make a bigger difference; more people knowing Jesus, more justice in the world.”

 

It’s important that we speak up against injustice and support those who do not have a voice. Throughout the Gospels you hear Jesus speaking of Justice in society. In Luke 4: 18-19 Jesus tells the crowds that he has come to fulfill the vision in the book of Isaiah, releasing the prisoners, giving sight to the blind, and releasing the oppressed.

 

As I write this contemplation today I am only to aware of how many people this week alone will have accessed the food bank in Ormksirk and spoken to one of our debt advice counsellors. As a Christian I feel I have a responsibility to speak out against injustice and to ensure that people are treated fairly. As Edmund Burke once wrote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

 

In 2018 it seems outrageous that we have people who are in systems that fail to support them. As a church and as a community it would be amazing to see how we can enable the Archbishops dream of “no need for food banks or debt advice services” to become a reality. One way to do this is join us for our Harvest Festival on Sunday 14th October 10:45 so we can support our local foodbank and get the message of injustice highlighted in our community.

Sarah

Oh that you would bless me indeed

“Oh that you would bless me indeed”

1 Chronicles 4:10

 

Today is the start of our long awaited ‘Bless Fest’ weekend.  The planning of Bless Fest took place over nine months ago when a team got together to think about how, as a church, we could be more outward looking and ask for God’s blessing on our local community. And so the idea of “Bless Fest’ was born.

A variety of events have been planned so that many people will know God’s blessing. We start this afternoon with a cream tea for the over 60s, this is followed by sports activities, free BBQ and a concert in Coronation Park for young people. On Saturday we aim to bless our community with breakfast in the wonderful Café Vista and then celebrate the blessing of animals with a pet and dog show.  The talent show on Saturday afternoon promises to entertain, as young and old amaze us with their talents. 

On Saturday evening we want to raise money and bless the work of the Samaritans, to help us do this Ashton Lane a popular country band from Glasgow will be joining us. Finally, on Sunday morning in our 10:45am Parade service, we will come together as a community to share stories from the ‘Bless Fest’ weekend.

Words like “bless” and “blessing” occur over 400 times in the Bible. From the moment God created the universe He has wanted everyone to enjoy all his blessings: “life in all its fullness” (John10:10). These blessings are material, emotional and spiritual. But we only begin to enjoy them as God intended when we choose to accept him in our lives, which means asking for forgiveness and putting our trust in Him. Sounds too simple and it is, but it’s a choice each of us has to make for ourselves. Do we want to accept that we have a God shaped hole in our lives or do we chose to turn our backs and go our own way.

There are many people who can testify that following Jesus and experiencing his blessing is the best way to live life in all it’s fullness. This weekend we would love to see lives transformed and for people to come to know God’s unconditional love for them. Make sure you don’t miss out on the blessing that God wants to give to you.

 

‘“The Lord bless you
and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
 the Lord turn his face toward you
and give you peace.”’  Numbers 6:24-26

 

Carpe Diem: Seize the Day

I always remember Keith Wells, who married Cian and I at Maghull Chapel twenty years ago focusing on the Latin phrase ‘Carpe Diem’ in his address.

Carpe Diem: Seize the Day is an exhortation to live life to the fullest, getting the most out of each individual day. If we were honest most of us would agree that we want our lives to be full, no one wants their life to be mediocre. Quite often we get so caught up with the details of day to day living that we just don’t have time to seize the day. As the summer draws to an end and we start to pick up the pace again it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by deadlines, commitments, problems and for those long summer days of relaxation to feel like a distant memory.

The Apostle Paul believed in this philosophy of life–Carpe Diem in Philippians 3:7-9

 But all these things that I once thought very worthwhile—now I’ve thrown them all away so that I can put my trust and hope in Christ alone. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the priceless gain of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have put aside all else, counting it worth less than nothing, in order that I can have Christ, and become one with him, no longer counting on being saved by being good enough or by obeying God’s laws, but by trusting Christ to save me; for God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith—counting on Christ alone.”

 

Here he describes his own philosophy of life in three simple steps to living a more fulfilling life. Firstly, find your purpose, secondly, forget the past and thirdly, face the present.  If you follow his example, you can learn to “seize the day” and live life to the fullest, no matter how hectic your life may be. As a Christian I know that putting my faith in Jesus Christ has been the best decision I have ever made. It has given me a secure identity, knowing that I am loved unconditionally for exactly who I am. It has also enabled me to find out my true purpose in life. Living facing the present means I have chosen not to live in the past, not in the future, but in the here and now.

I firmly believe that God does not want us to waste our lives. He wants us to “seize the day” and live every day of our lives as if it were our last. He’s given us a reason for living: to be like Jesus. It’s not going to happen yesterday, so we must forget the past. We can’t put it off till tomorrow, because tomorrow never comes. It has to happen right now. No matter what the next week throws at you choose an attitude of ‘Carpe Diem’ for none of us know what tomorrow will bring.

 

“To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time – Robert Herrick

 

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,

Old Time is still a-flying;

And this same flower that smiles today

To-morrow will be dying.”

Soul Survivor – Soul Provider!

Soul Survivor – Soul Provider!

 

This week I spent two nights camping in Staffordshire Show ground at an event called ‘Soul Survivor’. Over the summer Soul Survivor run holiday camps across the country and welcome over 5,000 young people to each event.

 

This was the first time our youth had ever been to Soul, five days of camping in glorious sunshine, with the freedom to roam about safely, activities such as: silent disco, bonfire, water fight, fun run, film evenings, worship events, talks in the big top. It really was an experience I don’t think any of them will forget.

 

2019 will be the last ever Soul Survivor so we are encouraging all our teenagers to bring a friend next year 3rd – 7th August 2019.

 

Contemplating the title of the camp ‘Soul Survivor ‘ got me thinking about our souls or inner life. Whilst our soul is invisible to the outside world, it is nonetheless very real and of utmost importance. It is a living thing that needs nurturing, care and attention.

 

I wonder do we pay as much attention to our soul, to ensuring that our inner life is cared for as much as our outward appearance.

 

Christian writer John Ortberg, in his book ‘Soul Keeping: Caring for the most important part of you’ writes “For the soul to be well, it needs to be with God.”  These words are echoed in Psalm 62:1 as the psalmist says “Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from him.” 

 

Whilst I, who by the way is not a fan of camping, may have survived my first Soul Survivor experience, actually the real test of soul survivor is whether I and the young people choose to find rest in God or instead choose to ignore him. Being a follower of Jesus is all about relationships not religion. Jesus ensured that I have all I will ever need when he died on the cross; he took upon himself all my sins, feelings of guilt and shame so that I can be free. Living a life knowing that you are loved unconditionally and loved exactly just the way you are is amazing. Giving your life to Jesus is the best thing you can do to experience rest in your soul.

 

And so I end today’s contemplation referring to the lyrics of one of my favourite 1980s singer Michael Bolton, who had a hit with the song ‘Soul Provider’ (please allow me a little poetic license here). Perhaps mull over these words today and know that your Soul Provider is waiting for you to respond to Him.

 

“You don’t understand, no
The full intent of my plan

I want to be your soul provider
I want to stay that way
For the longest time
I want to be, your soul provider
Just say you’ll let me

And I will”

Remembrance 100

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not hive to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid”

John 14:27

Tomorrow marks the start of ‘Remembrance 100’. Across the country churches from all denominations will start 100 days of prayer for peace and reconciliation ending on Armistice day. This is to remember the events on Sunday 4thAugust 1918, when King George V, four years after the declaration of the First World War, asked for this day to be observed as a National Day of Prayer: 100 days later the war ended.

Some 65 million men were mobilised across Europe during World War 1. Nearly a third of them – some 21 million – were wounded. Another 8.5 million were killed and some 7.7 million were taken prisoners of war. All of them had family and friends whose lives were changed forever by the events of 1914-1918.

The words of Jesus that we read from John’s Gospel were spoken just hours before Jesus was crucified. Even in the final moments Jesus was concerned for the peace and the joy and the faith of his followers. Despite the fact that He was about to be tortured to death with one of the most horrific means of torture ever devised, Jesus concern is that all his followers would know peace.

Sadly, today, there are still many countries experiencing conflicts, Yemen and Syria to name two, many people including Christians facing terrible persecution and fear. However, the peace that Jesus promised in John’s Gospel is not dependent on circumstances and transcends even the horrors of trench warfare and modern day conflicts. This peace is available to each of us today. The peace that God offers is the most amazing peace, the Bible says in Philippians 4:7  and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

Today wherever we are and whatever we may be facing in our lives may we know God’s peace.  Over the next one hundred days we will be praying for reconciliation and peace in the world. If you wish to join us you would be most welcome weekday mornings from 9am – 9:15am in the vestry. If you want to know more about the ‘Remembrance 100’ then go to www.rememberance100.co.uk

Prayer of St Francis
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

Holy Island “a thin place”

I have a great affinity with the name Aidan.  Aidan is the name of my Irish Godson; it was the name of the Theological college in Birkenhead that trained Anglican clergy from 1846-1970. Incidentally, the college is now continuing under the name St Mellitus and is based at Liverpool Cathedral. It is the place I trained for ordination from 2013-2015. The St Aidan cross on my stole is also a reminder of Aidan the Irish monk who travelled from Iona to Lindisfarne. King Oswald of Northumbria requested that Aidan be made bishop of the newly converted Northumbrians. Consecrated in 635, Aidan settled on Lindisfarne, where he established his church, monastery, and see near the royal stronghold of Bamburgh. St Bede wrote of Aidan:

 

Wherever on his way he saw any, either rich or poor, he invited them, if pagans, to embrace the mystery of the faith; or if they were believers, he sought to strengthen them in their faith and stir them up by words and actions to alms and good work”

 

This week I am on retreat on Lindisfarne, Holy Island, as I fondly call it. I have been retreating here for the last three years. I find it a great place to rest and unwind, being cut off from the main land for up to twelve hours every day, getting up early to catch the sunrise and being close to the sea, it brings me closer to God. I often refer to Holy Island as a ‘thin place’, a term used by the Celts to describe a place where heaven and earth meet, a place we’re you are able to catch glimpses of the mystery of God. They can also be places were you discover things about yourself and God’s plan for your life. This is what happened to Cuthbert as he saw a dazzling shaft of light, or as the Celts beautifully describe it “fuinneog sa spear”  “window in the sky”. As Cuthbert, saw the clouds momentarily part like a window in the sky, he caught a glimpse; a shaft of light, God’s plan was revealed to him and he new he had to train as a monk. Cuthbert eventually became the 6th Bishop of Lindisfarne after Aidan’s death.

 

So I encourage you today to discover your ‘Thin place or space’. To look out for  “Funinneog sa spear” which might reveal God’s plans. Perhaps as you discover this place or space you may also take the opportunity to join us and the Bishop of Liverpool in reading Mark’s Gospel. This short but profound Gospel speaks with urgency about our need to discover God’s unconditional love and challenges us to respond.  I end today’s contemplation with the prayer of St Aidan.             Suaimhneas, (peace tranquillity to you) Sarah

 

Leave me alone with God as much as may be.
As the tide draws the waters close in upon the shore,
Make me an island, set apart,
alone with you, God, holy to you.

Then with the turning of the tide
prepare me to carry your presence to the busy world beyond,
the world that rushes in on me
till the waters come again and fold me back to you.

“Life is too short not to celebrate nice moments!” Jurgen Klopp

As a red supporter, I thought I would begin this contemplation with a quote from Liverpool’s manager Jurgen Klopp. Whether you are a true red, blue or not even interested in football it is good for us all to start our Friday with a reminder to celebrate life.

Celebration is an important part of life. The people of God in the Old Testament celebrated with regular festivals. One of Jesus’ greatest stories (Luke 15:11–31) was about a huge celebration, when the prodigal son returned and the father said, ‘Let’s have a feast and celebrate’ (v.23).

When we think of the word celebration we tend to think about a party or specific event, but how about celebrating YOU, yes YOU the one whom God created!

Christian author and writer Max Lucado writes:

“You weren’t an accident. You weren’t mass-produced. You aren’t an assembly-line product. You were deliberately planned, specifically gifted, and lovingly positioned on the earth by the Master Craftsman.”

The Psalmist writes:
“I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.” Psalm 139:14
The Message translation sums it up brilliantly
“ Body and soul, I am marvelously made!”
Whether we choose to celebrate it or not God made each one of us wonderful and marvelous . . . one of a kind. Perfect for His plans and purposes. Out of all the possible DNA combinations, God chose 46 chromosomes specifically for you.

This afternoon I will be celebrating with all the pupils and staff at our school in our end of year service. Our theme is Celebration and there is certainly much to celebrate as we thank God for all the amazing talents and skills of all our children and staff. As you will see below I will also be sharing with our year 6 some important BE attitudes that they can take with them as they journey to High School. May each one of us today CELEBRATE who we are valued and loved by God!

“BE confident enough to see who you are inside is more important than how you look outside.

BE proud enough to take care of your body, mind and spirit

BE absolutely sure that, wherever you go, whatever you do, YOU ARE LOVED AND VALUED BY GOD”

“The NHS a little piece of Christianity” (Nye Bevan)

Yesterday the National Health Service turned seventy. It’s founder Aneurin Bevan, often known as “Nye” was appointed Minister of Health following Labour’s landslide victory in the 1945 General Election after the war. Bevan has been described by many as a revolutionary as he fought hard for funding. Shortly after his appointment, he resigned from the government in protest over the introduction of prescription charges for dental care and glasses, but continued to challenge authority fighting for his beliefs.
The NHS was founded on an idea that anyone should be able to access medical care regardless of his or her financial situation. Over the last seventy years Nye’s legacy has eradicated polio and diphtheria, pioneered liver, heart and lung transplants and made a society that cares for its most vulnerable.

Jesus was a revolutionary and challenged the beliefs of the time; His commandment to ‘love one another’ John 13:34, is at the heart of the Christian faith. Serving others, saving lives, offering a listening ear and walking alongside people in their suffering is the DNA of the NHS and beautifully mirrors the heart of Jesus’ message that everyone should be treated with respect and dignity.
The Church continues to play a vital part in the NHS today through the work of hospital chaplains who have an important role in caring for the whole person.
I am sure we have all benefited from the NHS in some way. I am personally grateful for the NHS for all that they have done for me and my family and thank God for the extraordinary NHS staff – the everyday heroes – who are there to guide, support and care for us, day in, day out.

Venite

Having said goodbye to the Year 6 on their residential in the Lakes and travelling to York Minster (to witness the consecration of Rev’d Dr Jill Duff as Bishop of Lancaster), we stopped at St Mary’s Church in Kirby Lonsdale.
On the entrance to the church was a sign,
“Venite
The age-old word of welcome. There is room here for you.”

It was lovely to be welcomed from the heat of the midday sun into a peaceful and cool church with a message, ‘there is room in this place for you!’

The last 48 hours have been all about entering into spacious places. Our Year 6 pupils have experienced the beauty and spaciousness of ‘Tower Wood’ Bowness on Windermere. Practicing the discipline of being still and taking in the sounds, smells and sights of the Lake District landscape. Each child has been given the time and space to learn more about themselves and each other. No doubt the precious memories they have been given the space to create will stay with them for a very long time.

There is a particular lovely verse in Psalm 31:8. “You have set my feet in a spacious place.” Our lives are full of clutter and busyness and so it is nice to be able to create some space and take time to breathe, to contemplate “What is important in our lives?”

Do we give enough quality time to our family and friends? Do we make room in our lives for God? Do we know that God welcomes us and loves us if only we would make room, space in our hearts and lives for Him.

At Christ Church we like to ensure that everyone is welcome and there is room for everybody. So, today let’s all continue to enjoy the warm weather and find those spacious places knowing we are loved and welcomed by God.

Running late

Every weekday morning church is open from 9am for prayer, everyone is welcome to join us by coming in through the vestry door at the side of church.
On Wednesday morning I was running late for morning prayer, I had overslept as I had stayed up until 3am waiting for news that my daughter Lydia had landed safely in Uganda.

As I drove up the A59 I could see a man lying in the road. Thankfully all the traffic had stopped and two men Barry and Josh from Rawsthorne landscapes had stopped to help the man, who had tripped off the curb.

As I got nearer I realised that the man was one of our luncheon club folk and so I drove into The Acorns to assist Barry and Josh. We called for an ambulance and I sent word to Vicky and Peter in the Ministry Centre, who within a few minutes came to wait with us until the ambulance arrived. It was amazing to see how many people from The Acorns came to check we were ok, an off duty police officer who happened to be walking her baby and dog along the A59 also came to check the man’s injuries before the ambulance arrived. Thankfully what potentially could have been a very nasty accident resulted in the man having a few cuts and bruises and I am pleased to say he has now recovered.

As I have contemplated this incident over the last few days I have been aware of just how often God places people in the right places just at the right time, often without us realising it. My unusual oversleeping was certainly for a reason. It also reminded me of the well-known parable that Jesus told of the Good Samaritan. We read in Luke’s Gospel of a Good Samaritan who tends the wounds of a man that other people have passed by. A Good Samaritan is described as the one who shows unselfish compassion to a stranger in need. Barry and Josh were Good Samaritans on Wednesday and thankfully unlike the parable this priest didn’t pass by.

What was demonstrated on Wednesday was compassion and love in action; it shows there are people who do care.

Café Vista a place of welcome

As curate of Christ Church I have a lot of my meetings in Café Vista. Great views as far reaching as Blackpool, being served by a wonderful team of friendly volunteers, sampling delicious food and drinking good coffee sums it up perfectly!

I am sure eight years ago no one would envisaged just how successful the Café would be, it really is the best place to be in Aughton. This week alone we have shared Sunday breakfast with families from our uniformed organisations, welcomed our new reception parents for a coffee afternoon and the staff team from St Gabriel’s Church Huyton for an away day.

There is something special about spending time chatting over lunch or simply having a cup of coffee. I find conversations seem to flow more easily around a table and even allow people to share difficulties or troubles more freely. Meals are a powerful expression of hospitality and welcome. This week I received a lovely e-mail from a lady who said,“ what a wonderful and welcoming environment you have all created at the Ministry Centre, it is such a welcoming and friendly place. I had never been before and I felt at home straight away”.

In the Gospels we read of many occasions when Jesus had a meal with people. For Jesus the sharing of meals was intended to go beyond family and friends, it was, the beginning of community.

And so this Tuesday as we celebrate eight years of Café Vista we thank God for the wonderful community of volunteers who willingly serve and for our customers who we consider to be part of the extended Christ Church family.

As a church our key value is to share Jesus with everyone beginning in our community and one of the best ways to do this is by making ourselves available to listen to understand and to offer hospitality to everyone. If you have never visited Café Vista why not come along this week and experience the warm hospitality and delightful food. Take time to have a conversation and to know that there are people who care.

All you need is love

Since Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding there has been a lot of discussion on ‘love’. Thousands of comments have been shared on Social Media about Bishop Michael Currie’s powerful wedding address on how the power of love has the potential to make a difference in people’s lives and transform communities, indeed the world.

As a true Scouser, I am all too familiar with the 1976 song by the Beatles “ All you need is love”, but at the end of the day the words “I love you” or “All you need is love” are just words with no meaning. To fully experience the power of love requires us to put the needs of others before our own, for some it may involve a big sacrifice of time, energy, and commitment.

I had the privilege of attending a wedding anniversary party last weekend of Ronny and Kathryn Owe, a wonderful couple whose love for each other is evident for all to see. It was a beautiful to witness the power of love between husband and wife.

At the heart of Christianity is the message of love. We read in John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that He sent his one and only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not die but have everlasting life”.

You see when God says He loves us; He means it in every way. The Bible tells us that God is love and that there is nothing that we can do that would make Him love us anymore. He longs to have a relationship with us and to embrace us.
Saint Augustine speaks of God’s incomprehensible and unchangeable love for us “ God loves each of us as if there were only one of us”. How amazing!

Receive God’s unconditional love today and know a thousand times over GOD LOVES YOU!

Alexa, ‘Who is Jesus?’

I have often considered buying an Alexa device for our home but never quite got around to it. This week I was visiting the home of a lady whose mobility is very restricted and I noticed in the corner she had one of these devices. After we chatted the lady wanted me to hear her favourite piece of music and sitting in the comfort of her armchair she was able to shout over to Alexa to play the song.

Unlike Ross and Bill Evans, I’ve never really been a gadget person, but I have to say I was impressed with this. It’s my birthday next week so you never know!

It was reported in the Telegraph yesterday that the Church of England have launched an Amazon Echo ‘skill’ app which allows people to ask questions about God, Jesus and prayer.

According to the article the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu has designed the app so that agnostics and those who are interested in spiritual matters can ask questions about faith.

Those who have the device will be able to access this particular app by asking Alexa, ‘open the Church of England’. Prayers for different occasions as well as information about local churches and questions of faith will all be available from the app.

Now, I’m not on commission for Amazon, but I am keen for more people to ask those Big questions in life. Sometimes it’s hard to step into a church and join a service especially when nothing feels familiar. And yet, at different points in our lives we may have questions about faith or need to say a prayer.

Jesus came for everyone, there is a wonderful passage in the Bible John 10:10 were Jesus says ‘I have come in order that you might have life—life in all its fullness.”

One of the ways we can know more about this life full of potential and blessings is if we ask questions, if we seek it for ourselves.
And so my hope is that if you do have unanswered questions or if you are in search of the answers to Big questions, like who is God? , that you will be able to find someone from your local church who you can ask. You may even access this new app.

Party Time

This coming Sunday Christians around the world will be celebrating Pentecost, the time when we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit on the disciples. It is regarded as the birthday of the church, as the disciples and many others had the confidence to go to tell others about the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. So like any other birthday party we plan to celebrate with balloons and cake in church and YOU are invited to!

It’s not only an exciting weekend for the church, but for the Royal Family as they celebrate the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Thousands of people will be lining the streets of Windsor and of course those of us watching at home will all be waiting to see the dress!

However, as someone who has the responsibility and great privilege of marrying couples, my thoughts are with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. In an interview with the Telegraph last week, the Archbishop said: “I’m always nervous at weddings because it is such an important day for the couple – whoever they are. I’ve made a couple of cack-handed mistakes over the last couple of weddings I’ve been involved in and I’m thinking this is probably not a good moment to make it a hat-trick.”

As a curate my question is “How do you prepare yourself for the biggest wedding of the year?” Well when asked by presenter Lorna Bailey, the Archbishop said a line from grime artist Stormzy’s song, Blinded By Your Grace, was helping him in the run up to the nuptials.
Welby is quoted as saying: “There’s a line in that – ‘I stay prayed up and get the job done’ – I think that sort of sums it up.”

Of course praying is something we been encouraging everyone in our community to do during May. Having Christ Church open every day has enabled many people to come in and pray. We may never know how many people have already had a go at praying but what we do know is that it makes a difference.
In the New Testament, 1 Thessalonians 5:7 the apostle Paul commands’ Pray without ceasing’. This does not necessarily mean praying all the time, but developing an attitude of having God present in our lives so that whatever we face we can lift that situation, anxiety or problem to Him.

Whatever your worries, fears or concerns might be bring them to God in prayer. In Philippians 4:6, the apostle Paul commands us to stop being anxious and instead, “in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God”

So as the weekend approaches may we have the confidence to bring our requests, big or small to God. Talk to God, tell him what’s on our heart and then Be Still and wait for him to speak!
(Church remains open 9am – 9pm until this Sunday 20th May.)

New Chapter

Today is a new chapter in the life of Christ Church. Normally the notices would be accompanied by Ross’ blog. Incidentally, you can still read Ross’ blog by going to www.moughtin.com.

As part of this new chapter, I am considering what will be attached to the weekly notices. I have decided not to write a blog, instead I will be offering a contemplation on a verse of scripture, issue or news story. It may be once a month or more frequently. It is a work in progress!

New chapters and beginnings have been a big part of my work during this week. Last Saturday, I married Niki and John and prayed for God to be part of their new beginning as husband and wife. This week I spent time with families who are bringing their children to be baptised at Christ Church later this month, again a new beginning. Some people in our congregation have also started a new chapter leading, preaching or reading for the very first time in church.

New beginnings can happen any time in our lives; sometimes they may not be of our choosing. When we lose a loved one we experience a great sense of loss and hopelessness. Yet it’s comforting to remember that the seemingly greatest loss of all, Jesus’ death, resulted in the best new beginning ever —Jesus’ resurrection.

The Christian faith teaches that a new start is always possible. It is provided by a personal encounter with the risen and living Jesus Christ. He offers the opportunity and the resources to make a new start, despite all circumstances or failings.

The Bible records many encouraging examples of people who were able to start again after encountering Jesus. These include a woman caught in adultery who was facing execution by an outraged community, a hated tax collector named Zacchaeus who had been collaborating with the enemy, and Peter, the close friend of Jesus who publicly disowned him.

As Christ Church starts a new chapter, may I encourage us all to take stock of our own lives and ask the question “ What areas in my life would benefit from a new start?”

The Bible describes God’s promises of mercy as ‘new every morning’. We read in Lamentations 3:22-23
“The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
So on this brand new Friday morning what new start can you make? Why not take this opportunity to go and sit quietly in church which is open 9am – 9pm every day until 20th May. Ask God to help you make a new start.

Who could have imagined?

So my last blog as vicar of Christ Church, Aughton – I formally retire this coming Tuesday.  However, to quote Fran Lebowitz, “You’re only as good as your last haircut.”  So this better be a good one!

 

I never planned to do a blog.  Like many innovative ministries, it just happened.  Often this is how the Holy Spirit works, in our peripheral vision. Sometimes, where we least expect.

 

It started slowly as I began to see the potential of the internet.  I recall John Shaw some 20 years ago advising me to sign up for email.  At the time I just couldn’t see the point:  it seemed just a variant of using fax.  But I always trust John’s judgment – and so I signed up to LineOne, having no idea that this would transform my ministry.

 

I remember that magic moment when I realised I could attach documents to my emails.  No more on wet Friday mornings would I have to convey the hard copy of the church’s Sunday notices to the duty typist.  And more, these faithful volunteers would no longer need to retype the entire text for the Gestetner duplicator.

 

It wasn’t long before I further realised that I could copy church members into my Friday email, at least those who in that innocent age were already online.  And more,  it was free. So gradually my distribution list grew as the internet took hold.

 

To begin with I would recirculate Bill Evans’ jokes while occasionally I would add a holy thought. In the headers, inspired by Ted Morrell, I would herald the Everton result – but only when we won.  Which meant most weeks I had to think of an alternative heading.

 

The initial challenge was to keep in touch with everyone at Christ Church, particularly those on the outer fringe. So I began to compose a simple commentary on living the Christian life.  I aimed to send it out by 9.00 am as soon as the weekly notices were finalised, writing it that morning.  Sometimes there can be a tight deadline, like this morning – I have a train to catch.

 

Normally I gave myself between 45 minutes to one hour to write two sides of A4 from scratch.  Often, even usually, as I began to type I would have no idea where I was heading. I just wrote the next sentence. Sometimes I surprised even myself with the conclusion.

 

It was in November, 2010 that I had the bright idea of uploading my weekly mailing as a blog onto my personal website while in May, 2014 our hard-working church webmaster, Liz Wainwright, had the equally bright idea of uploading this same blog onto our church website.

 

Nowadays it is promoted throughout the world, to each of the five continents, by postings on our church Facebook page and Twitter feed.

 

One significant development took place on Friday, 24 August, 2012.  I was sitting on the beach at Swanage enjoying the sunshine with my grandchildren when my phone pinged.  Andrew from Argentina had just messaged “Where’s the blog?”

 

As far as our mission partner was concerned, the fact that I was on holiday was no excuse not to send my blog.

 

So since then, wherever I have been and however challenging the location, I write my blog. As it happens this one comes to you from the vicarage kitchen of St Peter, Walworth in central London, as my granddaughters contend over the hairbrush. It’s over there, under the table. 

 

Who could have imagined this just 25 years ago when I arrived at Christ Church?  Just one stroke of the keyboard and these words now before me are sent into all the world.  For as I mentioned in my final sermon at Christ Church, the biggest development over the 40 years of my ordained ministry has been the development of digital technology.

 

If this applies to humble man-made technology, even more so to understanding the mind of God.  That’s why Jesus teaches in parables.  Looking at everyday life – a woman looking for her lost coin, a sower sowing his seed, a son longing for his independence, we can glimpse God at work.

 

Jesus teaches us to notice these signs of God in our lives, above all in our relationships.  That’s why ongoing forgiveness is so very important – it is in the very heart of God himself.

 

But the truth is that our minds simply cannot even begin to grasp how and why God promises to bless those who entrust their lives to him.

 

So the apostle Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” he continues – “these are the things God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

 

Very simply our minds lack the capacity to envision God’s new creation, when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Habakkuk 2:14).

 

So in Revelation, the final book of the Bible, John shares his vision of “what soon must take place.”  Here we are treated to some very strange imagery, as bizarre as any of the exhibits in Tate Modern which we visited yesterday.

 

But what we do know is that this new heaven and new earth is what our hearts long for; it is for this that God made us in the first place.  We are to be totally fulfilled when God fulfils his promises.

 

However, while our minds may lack the capacity to appreciate God’s glorious future, they certainly do have the capacity on how to respond to the call of Christ on our lives.

 

But here is the biggest surprise of all.  We go to the very last place on earth you would expect to see the love and justice of God, the cross of Jesus.  For here our future begins.

 

And our response?  Let Jesus have the last word.

 

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23-2)

 

Notices to be attached by the church office along with a photo of Jacqui and I with daughter Sharon fully engaging in an interactive art installation at Tate Modern.

 

Cheers

Ross

 

This may be my last blog as vicar of Christ Church but my blog continues on www.moughtin.com.  I have checked this with the wardens but if you want to continue receiving this blog, just scroll down to the bottom of the page and register.  Or just let me know.

When prayer is more than a stroll in the park.

“Devote yourselves to prayer,” writes the apostle Paul to the Colossians (4:2)  in my Bible reading for today.

The BRF Guidelines commentary observes that “Paul is hinting that prayer is always something of a battle which requires determination.”  I know the feeling.

In fact, just a few verses later, we read “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you. He is always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf.” (Colossians 4:12)

Here Paul holds up Epaphras as an example, a role model for all disciples, in his commitment to pray for his fellow believers that “they may stand mature and fully assured in everything that God wills.”

Such prayer is both necessary and hard work.  In fact, the apostle – again in the words of my commentary – recognises prayer is more like a wrestling match that a stroll in the park.

Talking about a stroll in the park, the good news is that I am back running – but not yet back to full speed.  My weekly ParkRun is more like a stroll in that particular park than a run – but I’m keeping at it.  Running is what I do.

Even so I am keeping up my swimming.  I only started weekly swimming lessons at Park Pool in September thinking my running days were over.  But there I was yesterday, front crawl up the pool/back crawl down the pool, the usual struggle, thinking “Why am I doing this?

In fact, it reminded me of my interval training when I ran all those years ago on the track; for example, eight repetitions of 200m with two minutes rest.  That was a struggle too but I kept at it so that running eventually became part of me.

And I guess it is the same with prayer.  Like Epaphras we need to persevere and perseverance means self-discipline.  .

One of the greatest athletes of all time, Jesse Owens, realised the importance of keeping at it.  “We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.”  He could be talking about prayer.

For at one level, prayer is the most natural thing we do as beloved children of God. So the apostle Paul observes:  “And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ ” (Galatians 4:6)

But at the same time, prayer can be hard work.  Just think how much praying took out of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, so much so that Luke tells us that when his disciples went to sleep through sheer exhaustion, an angel was sent to strengthen him (Luke 22:43)

Hold on, there’s the doorbell.
You’ll have to wait for a few minutes while I answer the door.
(LONG WAIT)

Well, God just sent the right person at the right paragraph.  Derek Andrews just called straight after morning prayer in church with a wonderful retirement gift of a framed photograph.

Derek is one of my heroes at Christ Church not least for his wonderful support over the years in prayer, each weekday morning.  It was not unusual for just Derek and I to be there in church, to pray together.  He kept me at it.

For Jesus taught us that we need each other, especially when it comes to the discipline of prayer.  Remarkably at Gethsemane he needed his disciples more than they needed him.

I learnt that in athletics.  If you are going to do a decent set of 200m intervals, you don’t run alone.  There is an absolute guarantee that you run faster when you run with others.

One of the retirement cards I received was from Mike in Rochdale.  “Thank you for encouraging us to set up Prayer Triplets when Billy Graham came to Anfield.  My triplet still meets each week although the membership has changed over time.”

Clearly there is a need, a discipline, to pray by ourselves.  I blogged recently how I observe my quiet time immediately after my porridge and during my cappuccino.

However, the key to disciplined prayer is when we resolve to pray together – even if it is raining and there is a strong wind on the back straight. When we learn to pray together, we are better equipped to pray by ourselves.

And more:  Jesus promises to turn up.  He promises “And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there.” (Matthew 18:20).

So think, how can you best commit yourself to pray with a fellow disciple in a disciplined way.

Notices attached by the church office

Cheers
Ross

I am now sorting out my personal blog using Wix software – which you can now read on your mobile phone.  Just visit www.moughtin.com.  Still a work in progress, like all of us. 

When God forgets, the ultimate oxymoron.

 

“Watch yourselves carefully“, warns Jesus. “You can’t whisper one thing in private and preach the opposite in public; the day’s coming when those whispers will be repeated all over town.“(Luke 13:3)

 

And not just all over town in this internet age.

 

I’ve been sorting out all those files I’ve accumulated during the 25 years I’ve been vicar of Christ Church, Aughton.  Most are destined for recycling – which is just as well for some of my correspondents. 

 

In fact, some would be altogether embarrassed, even horrified, to read what they dispatched to the vicarage all those years ago.  At the time I’m sure they meant well but let’s say they made their point forcefully. 

 

Over the years I always took a deep breath and donned my body armour before opening any hand-delivered letter addressed to the vicar.  I learnt for my own personal protection to skim their contents rather than to read line-by-line.

 

But that’s now all in the past and more to the point, now all in the shredder.  Which is just as well for everyone concerned. 

 

However, this is not the case for digital communications such as the blog are you are now reading.  When I press SEND there is no going back, no recall.  It is out there for ever, for everywhere and more to the point, for everyone to read. To say the least, I need to be careful.

 

Again to quote Jesus, using the Message translation.”Let me tell you something: Every one of these careless words is going to come back to haunt you. There will be a time of Reckoning. Words are powerful; take them seriously.   (Matthew 12:36)

 

There was a fascinating article in the Guardian this Monday on the mental health of young people today.  According to the Prince’s Trust its UK Youth Index shows amongst other things how social media is undermining their confidence in facing the future. 

 

“People can’t make mistakes anymore because it will always come back to haunt them,” complains 17-year-old student Theo from Kent.  “Every single stupid decision is forever saved online, which makes growing up harder as you have to learn and grow from these embarrassing things.”    

 

And of course, it’s not just young people. 

 

You may have read of how Google recently lost a landmark case taken against it by an unnamed businessman, forcing our favourite search engine to remove results about his now-spent criminal conviction.  Mr Justice Warby ruled that the claimant in this particular case has the right to be forgotten.

 

It’s worth adding that one important consideration for the judge is that this aggrieved businessman had shown remorse.

 

Of course, when it comes to our relationship with God and our life choices, large and small, we have no right to be forgotten. There is the Reckoning as we stand before the judgement seat of Christ.  “Every one of these careless words,” says Jesus.  

 

However, once we decide to surrender to Christ, there is a new dynamic.  God forgets, the ultimate oxymoron. 

 

I remember as a young Christian being moved by a particular metaphor of the bulk  eraser for magnetic recording tape.  No need for a ponderous reel-to-reel erasure of our sins against God.  Just one press of the button does the job.  Such is the power of the cross of Jesus that our sins are not just forgiven by God but forgotten, wiped out, erased. Just like that. `

 

So the apostle Paul rejoices: “God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins.” (2 Corinthians 5:15)

 

Here Billy Graham answers the obvious question, “How is this possible?

 

On a human level it isn’t, of course; we may remember what someone did to hurt us as long as we live (unless disease robs us of our memories). But with God it is possible; He is able to blot out our sins so completely that it is as if they had never existed. The Psalmist declared, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).

 

The Gospel promises us a fresh start as a direct result of God forgetting our wrongdoings against him and against each other.  An awesome amnesia. 

 

And if this is how God forgives us, it goes without saying – as Jesus repeatedly taught – that is how we are to forgive each other.  Effectively to forget, to all intents and purposes, to erase the memory.

 

“To all intents and purposes” is the key.  Of course, our memory cells may still be functioning and the recollection of some hurts inevitably stays with us.

 

But we aim to act as if we have actually forgotten those hurts and wrongs.  We certainly do not nurse these grievances in the sick bay.

 

And as we behave as if we have forgotten, guess what happens?  We forget.  That’s how the Holy Spirit works: he honours our decisions to live by Kingdom values.

 

C S Lewis famously saw this.  “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbour; act as if you did. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love them.

 

Of course, the reality is that we cannot change the past.  However, when we live lives of forgiveness and forgetfulness, we will certainly change the future.  And this future is where we are all heading,  the glorious future where we have no condemnation in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1)

 

So keep your spiritual shredder working.

 

For our relationships to flourish, we need our routines.

 

It’s Friday morning – which means “Write your blog.”

So here we go.

We had a great weekend as we marked my final Sunday as vicar of Christ Church.  A truly enjoyable family get-together in the Ministry Centre on the Saturday evening, even as embarrassing photos from my distant past appeared on the big screen.

Then a memorable set of services on the Sunday, my final 8.15 and 10.45, along with the hotpot.   So many people went out of their way to support us on this special occasion.

May I say a big thank you to all those who worked so hard to make this all happen.  And another thank you for all your varied cards and gifts.  We were bowled over!

However, following diocesan policy I’m still vicar for a further month, until Tuesday, 8 May.  Hence this blog on Friday morning.

For routine can be very important – especially during times of rapid transition, which Jacqui and I are about to experience.  It is important to maintain those rhythms which remain.

We’re not just talking about the spiritual disciplines here, themselves hugely important, such as early morning prayer and Bible reading (known to previous generations as Quiet Time).  I also include our regular routines such as the Ormskirk ParkRun each Saturday at 9.00 am.  I’ll be there as usual.

For  many people, routine appears as a negative word in that we feel restricted, hemmed by the daily and weekly round.  However, that simply means that we should create healthy routines rather than pretend that we can live without them.

Routines need a rationale, maintains pastor Jon Swanson.  He writes:  ‘That’s because routines are about how to live. They need to have a why.’

Those routines which created and develop relationships are the key.  And sometimes they need working at.

The one routine which had huge significance for me and my family lasted for nearly 40 years, virtually uninterrupted.

 

Each Sunday afternoon, between the morning and evening services,  Jacqui and I complete with children would drive over to Crosby, to have lunch with Auntie Rita, tea with Jacqui’s Mum and then sandwiches with my parents along with my sister’s family.  Each visit was carefully timed – my mother as last in the sequence saw to that.

To begin with, it was easy – just four miles from Litherland to Crosby.  Then on moving to Heswall, 40 minutes’ drive either way.  Still doable.

But on moving to Rochdale it became absolutely imperative, not least because we had moved to a highly stressful situation and into an alien culture.  We found the transition, all of us, very difficult.  Thankfully, great motorway connections meant the journey was no more than an hour each way.

This simple routine kept us going.  Everything else had changed in our lives – except Sunday afternoons.  It was a fixed point for the whole family – and it made all the difference.

 

Sadly this annoyed one of my churchwardens no end. He actually shouted at me for neglecting my ministry.  He simply had no idea that this family routine was necessary for my mental health.  As far as he was concerned vicars cope.

Nevertheless we persevered and on moving to Aughton nine years later, we stayed with this pattern, even as our daughters left home one-by-one.  The final Sunday afternoon was just five years ago as my mother, our last surviving senior relative, died.

Looking back everyone benefited – Jacqui and I, our children, our parents and consequently our congregations.  Our relationships need to be nurtured and routine can make all the difference.

Jesus, of course, as a member of the covenant people of God, practiced routine, daily, weekly and yearly.   Neal Samudre observes:  “We see Jesus himself practice routine. In the mornings, he would typically retreat by himself to go pray. And then when he would arrive in towns, he would teach and heal.”

Of course, at the heart of his routines were his relationship with his Father.   He even went out of his way to maintain these rhythms, such as making himself unobtainable by going to a deserted place while it was still dark.  (Mark 1:29)

 

But his other routines were relational, with his family and neighbours.  Luke tells us that it was his custom to attend synagogue on the Sabbath (4:16) and to travel to Jerusalem each year for the Passover (2:41).

In fact, the Hebrew scriptures are filled with the weekly, monthly and annual rhythms which evolved over the course of God leading his people.

So the writer to the Hebrews challenges his readers to prioritise their fellows Christians in their weekly routine.  “Let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as

 

some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24f)

We are defined by our routines.  It is how God has made us.

 

When we need to party

Well, we’re nearly there.

Tomorrow afternoon at 5.00 pm the farewell Kleenex-themed event at the Ministry Centre.  I’ve no idea what’s planned, which is just as well.  Then this Sunday, my final service as vicar of Christ Church followed by a hotpot meal with (a very short, I hope) presentation in the Ministry Centre.

I’m not sure I’m looking forward to all this.  My instinct, I think, is simply to turn off the lights and quietly leave through the back door.

In fact, one church member recently told me that when she was teaching at a local school, special celebrations were planned to mark the retirement of their head teacher.  These were to take place during his final afternoon.

However, during lunchtime he just disappeared, never to reappear.  So they just left all his leaving presents on his doorstep!

There again, I was talking to a school friend who recounted his final day at work in central London before his retirement.   Every day for years he had commuted from Bedford.   But for his final journey home, no one noticed; no one marked the occasion.

Just a station announcement and a round of applause from his commuting colleagues would have been sufficient.  But he simply arrived at platform 4 and walked home, just like everyone else.

As human beings we do need to mark special occasions, especially at key lifetime moments, both for ourselves and for those who share our lives.

In fact, much of my ministry is concerned with these rite of passage events  – especially at birth, marriage and death.  Traditionally these have been the church’s preserve – but no longer.

Firstly, the church has lost its monopoly in today’s marketplace – which is no bad thing.  Nowadays you can have a lovely wedding in a beautiful location of your choice rather than just go down to the Registry Office at Brougham Terrace.

Similarly the facilities offered by the new privately-run crematorium and cemetery at Burscough are excellent.  And increasingly families are choosing to have an humanist service.  The church is bypassed altogether at this important moment.

But there’s nothing like competition to spur us into action and for us to market what we do well.   And the Diocese is onto this.

However, at the same time society today does not do rites of passage, at least as we used to.

So there is no obvious way of acknowledging the arrival of a baby into the world, a new member of the family. Baptisms used to do the job but only by distorting the meaning of this sacrament.  While naming ceremonies, as far as I am aware, have never taken off.

Maybe a meal out with the family along with a baby shower.   But’s that about it.  Not very meaningful.

While increasingly couples choose to live together without any fuss and without ceremony, literally.  Someone I know very well was deeply hurt when her son moved out to live with his girlfriend.  And that was it.  One day he was living at home; the next day he wasn’t.   They did have a hotel wedding some years later but that didn’t press the same buttons.

Of course, the Bible is full of rites of passage.  You feel sometimes in the Hebrew scriptures, any excuse for a party to which everyone is invited.  And more, a party in which God is honoured at a lifetime moment.

So Jesus turns up at the wedding in Cana, along with his disciples.  And this was not just for a couple of hours one afternoon.  The festivities went on for at least five days, especially with the special boost of an unexpected gift of quality wine.

Moreover I assume the happy couple didn’t send out wedding invitations to their friends and families in two categories, afternoon and evening.

No, this wedding celebration seems to have been an event for everyone in the village and more.  The communal dimension was essential.

But this is what we are good at as a parish church.  Marking key moment together with everyone invited.  And this is why my heart is in the parish ministry.

We live in a society in which loneliness is becoming an increasing problem.  And it some ways the strength of a community is shown by how you relate to those people you hardly know or are in a different category to yours.

And my responsibility as a vicar is primarily to the congregation as a whole as we reach out to share Jesus in our parish and beyond.  Of course, ministry towards individuals is essential but as such incomplete.  The corporate dimension is absolutely essential.

The apostle Paul was passionate in seeking to build up the body of Christ for only in fellowship of the church do we find our true identity.  “You are Christ’s body—that’s who you are! You must never forget this.”  (1 Corinthians 12:27)

That’s where my blog ends but just to say that I have four more blogs left as vicar until I retire on 8 May.  Then I aim to continue to blog on my personal website which predates the blog on the church website by some years.   Just go to www.moughtin.com and follow the link to the Friday blog.

(Here I need to update my software from iWeb and so I have set up a pilot site using Wix – but I would value any advice on the best software for blogs.)

When the crowd bays for blood

“Gutted to see Steve Smith breaking down,” tweeted Pakistan bowler Shoaib Akhtar this morning.  “And also the way people are treating him. It’s sad, leave that poor chap alone now.”

Five days into the ball tampering scandal it was a wretched day for Australian cricket.  Hard to watch.

First, Cameron Bancroft’s press conference in Perth – just about holding it together.  Then deposed captain Steve Smith’s in Sydney:, clearly a man overwhelmed by his suffering, in total despair and needing his father’s close support.

On watching this interview  coach Darren Lehmann, still in South Africa, decided to resign after all.  He changed his mind when he saw Smith in tears.

Upto then Lehmann had played a straight bat, saying that Bancroft’s tampering with the ball was a one-off.  No one believed him.

In fact, no one wanted to believe him for Australians with their boorish behaviour and sledging have become the Millwall of test cricket.  “No one loves us and we don’t care.”

Former English captain, Nasser Hussain, observed: “The Australian camp has been lecturing people over the last few months on how the game should be played, and a line that shouldn’t be crossed. Well, it looks like that Australian hierarchy are on the wrong side of the line here.”

Ball tampering is cheating and the foolish attempt to cover it up inept but clearly, more – far more – was at stake for the Australian public, even their national self-image.   They wanted blood.

But that was yesterday.

I think Smith’s gut wrenching interview may well have changed the ballgame.  Certainly those calling for their pound of flesh are now realising what this actually looks like, on seeing a strong man cry.

As the BBC’s sports page today reports: “Several leading cricket figures have criticised the bans and the players’ union has now queried the “severity and proportionality” of the punishments.”

Baying for blood is never a pretty sight, usually by the mob, invariably visceral and usually ill-informed.

“But they kept shouting, ‘Crucify, crucify him!’”

Jesus was surrounded by a baying mob demanding his blood, determined to browbeat Pilate.

Surprisingly the Roman governor was prepared to listen to Jesus.  In fact, Pilate alternatively moves in and out of his palace some seven times – inside where Jesus is and outside where the leaders are standing to avoid ritual defilement on the eve of the Passover.

He is trying hard to manage the situation but faced with the demands of the crowd, the most powerful man in the land just allows events take their course.

All this, of course, was carefully orchestrated by the religious establishment who had already decided on their course of action.

In fact it was high priest Caiaphas who had unwittingly spoken the truth but at a level he would never have realised:   “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”  (John 11:49).

One of the surprises of Good Friday is that no one had the courage to stand up for Jesus – except for a few women, but clearly they don’t count.    We not just talking about his immediate followers.

It seemed that the good people of Jerusalem had decided to take a low profile and not get involved.  To speak out against a mob is always dangerous.  As Peter had discovered, they may turn on you.

So Jesus is led away to be crucified.

There must have been something about his demeanour, even his poise as his body breaks under the cross.

Simon of Cyrene for one, compelled by the Roman solders to carry Jesus’ cross.  Mark intriguingly tells us that was the father of Alexander and Rufus, suggesting that this experience changed not just Simon’s life but his whole families.

Even the man who oversaw the work party responsible for this triple crucifixion.   “Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’” (Mark 15:38)

Those baying for Jesus’ blood had got want they wanted.  And yet the startling and unsettling message for Good Friday, is that Jesus’ blood is the very thing our guilty hearts need.

Rough sleeper Gavin Bryars was as low as you can get and yet this is his song for each one of us.

Click here for the link.

“Jesus blood never failed me yet.” 

Are you are runner or a rower?

Are you a rower or a runner?

This week has been a succession of lasts – my final Annual Meeting on Sunday, my final Governing Body meeting on Tuesday, my final Luncheon Club on Wednesday, my final church leaders’ breakfast yesterday morning, my final Finance committee last night.  And this morning, in about 45 minutes time, my final morning in our church school.  Phew.

And all this as I approach my final Sunday as vicar of Christ Church, on Sunday 8 April.

One of the glories of the Church of England is the regular rhythms which undergird our varied ministries.  There is the annual round of festivals and big events.  Then at Christ Church we have our monthly along with a weekly pattern for our services and meetings.  Even a daily pattern, beginning with prayer in church.

All of this has become part of my own personal cadence. No longer will I be sitting on a beach in France and realise that I will have to start thinking about the next Remembrance service in just three months’ time!   Or having my breakfast on Tuesdays thinking about that morning’s school assembly.

No doubt I shall miss much of all this.  But if I am totally honest, not all.
At least I don’t think so – for you really know until it happens.  It may well be the case that in a few years’ time I will actually look back with nostalgia to what I thought of at the time as not particularly enjoyable.

All those years ago I certainly did not enjoy circuit training at Fenners. A necessary evil if I was to get my 800m time down, simply a means to an end.  But I now look back somewhat wistfully – even to the challenge of the black circuit, as I recall those students who would be working out with me.

Sometimes I trained alongside the boat race crew.  Running and rowing both need a high level of fitness but we differed in one key respect.  In running you look forward;  in rowing you look back.

And that makes all the difference.  Certainly I would find it strange not to be able to see where I was going, especially as I strain towards the finish.

In another sport you have to admire Claudio Ranieri.  Clearly he has every reason to look back, not least to his 2015/2016 season with Leicester  City.  But no.  He reflects:  “It is with passion that I love my job. But it is with character that I am able to keep looking forward. Not just beyond criticism or bad results, but also beyond the good moments, too. Everything has to be a balance.”

So are you a runner or a rower?  Do you look forwards or backwards?  That can make all the difference on how we live in the present.

Here we have much learn from Jesus especially as we enter Holy Week.  To say the least this was a hugely difficult time for him as he realised that his cross was imminent.  He too faced a succession of ‘lasts’, not least his last Passover.  The stress must have been colossal.

So he meets with his disciples in the upper room.  Literally, his last supper with them.  As he explains “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.”  (Luke 22:15).  To say the least, this would have been a hugely moving moment.  Within 24 hours all this would have gone to be replaced with disgrace and death.

So how did Jesus face his Passion?  As it happens the writer to the Hebrews uses the metaphor of athletics as he calls us “to run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

Here I switch to the colourful language of the Message translation:  “Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever.”  (Hebrews 12:2f)

Jesus never lost sight of where he was headed.  So in the upper room he is able to reassure his disciples:  “I will not eat (this Passover)  until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”

And on drinking the cup, he explains to these fearful friends:  “ I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”  (Luke 22:16, 18).   Jesus is future-focussed.

Today as his disciples we are called to take a similar perspective – to look forward rather than backwards, to run rather than row.  We can look forward in confidence because of what God has done in the past, in raising Jesus “through the power of an indestructible life.”  (Hebrews 7:16).

And in our baptism we incorporate this past event into our own history so that we can share God’s glorious future.

This resolve to look forwards rather than backwards is given a simple name in the New Testament:  hope.  And this hope will not let us down, as the apostle Paul explains, “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5).

So because of the cross and resurrection of Jesus we can look to the future with confidence, a future which not even death can disturb.  “Well, Lord – what’s next?”

So keep on running.

Good listening bears fruit.

 

It must have been particularly difficult having a conversation with Stephen Hawking, especially towards the end of his remarkable life.

His colleague, Leonard Mlodinow says as much, as he wrote in yesterday’s New York Times.

“Stephen could compose his sentences at a rate of only about six words a minute. At first I would sit impatiently, daydreaming on and off as I waited for him to finish his composition.

“But then one day I was looking over his shoulder at his computer screen, where the sentence he was constructing was visible, and I started thinking about his evolving reply. By the time he had completed it, I had had several minutes to ponder the ideas he was expressing.”

So Mlodinow (I’m relieved I’m not reading this blog out aloud), concludes:  “This was a great help. It allowed me to more profoundly consider his remarks, and it enabled my own ideas, and my reactions to his, to percolate as they never could have in an ordinary conversation.”

As a rule we are not good listeners.  To quote Ernest Hemingway:  “Most people never listen.”

I often recall a conversation when on placement all those years ago as a theological student at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle.  For me it was new territory and I was finding it very difficult, so I explained all this to the hospital chaplain.

He was hugely busy but I remember him giving me his total attention.  I could actually see him listening to me, to what I was trying to say.  Just that made all the difference.  Good listening affirms.

But first we need to learn how to listen – and it does not come naturally to self-centred creatures as we are.  Above all, listening to God.

For as Pope Paul VI  points out:  “Of all human activities, man’s listening to God is the supreme act of his reasoning and will.”

Hear, O Israel.”  So begins the Shema, the Hebrew word that begins the most important prayer spoken daily in the Jewish tradition.

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

Priority #1 is to hear what God is saying.  But sadly, we have other priorities, we follow our own agenda.  It’s not that we can’t hear God.  We simply would rather not.

So God sends his prophets to his people, often using dramatic effects to grab their attention, which Ezekiel in particular developed into an art form, beginning with him eating a scroll and progressively becoming increasingly bizarre.

Almost in despair he speaks to God.  “But the house of Israel will not listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me; because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart.”  (Ezekiel 3:7).

Jesus used stories, simple stories from everyday life.  Vivid, memorable and easy to understand.

Well, actually no – certainly for the original listeners.  In fact, as soon as Jesus finishes his first parable, ironically the one about how to listen, no one understood what he was getting at.  “What’s all this about a sower sowing his seed?  What’s he getting at?”

So Luke recounts:  “Then his disciples asked Jesus what this parable meant. He said, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that “looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.”  (Luke 8:9)

Jesus knew that we are not good listeners.  So he makes us work at it.  Like Professor Hawking’s speech-generating device, trying to understand the parables slows us down, make us reflect, causes us to ponder.

Jesus teaches us that listening is hard work demanding our entire attention.  And it takes time and practice.

But Jesus shows us how.  In meeting the outcast woman at the well in Samaria, Jesus gives her his attention.  That itself was remarkable, to the evident surprise of the returning disciples.

And he was in no hurry.  He knew it would take time for her to open herself up to him.  So he listens. And continues to listen despite her curt responses, he hears her heart.

Then – astonishingly – Jesus reveals himself to her.  When she tells him  “I know that Messiah is coming,  he says to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” (John 4:25f)  She is now able to hear what he is saying to her.

The fruit of good listening.

When it comes to immortality, sometimes you can try too hard.

By any reckoning Qin Shi Huang was obsessed with his own mortality.

Even at the age of 13, as soon as he assumed the throne in 246 BC, work began on preparing his mausoleum.  No less than 720,000 people were involved in its construction which took place over some 37 years.  You could say this underground burial site was somewhat over-the-top.

Preparations included the manufacture of 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, all in terracotta.

As Jacqui commented as we walked through the exhibition on this first Chinese Emperor at the Liverpool World Museum: “What made him think that this terracotta army would be any use?”

And such was the Emperor’s belief in the afterlife, it seems real people, living human beings, accompanied him to the grave – his concubines of course but also servants and even some high officials.

As it happens, such was Qin Shi Huang’s desire to achieve immortality that he commissioned alchemists to produce an elixir for immortality.  I’m sure they meant well when they added some mercury but it was this mercury which killed him at the age of 49.  Sometimes you can try just too hard.

In walking round I was reminded of a similar exhibition at the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology in Salta, northern Argentina, which we visited last May.  This featured Los Niños, the three Inca children sacrificed some 500 years ago on the 22,000-foot summit of Mount Ampato.  The intense cold meant that their bodies had been perfectly preserved.

Our mission partner, Andrew Leake, insisted I read in preparation the definitive book written by Johan Reinhard, the archaeologist who discovered their bodies deep in the ice.  Fascinating and somewhat gruesome.

Found with the children, considered privileged in their religion, was a collection of grave goods: bowls, pins, and figurines made of gold, silver, and shell.  Like Qin Shi Huang they had all they needed in their life to come.

According to Inca beliefs, the children did not die but went to live in a paradise with the gods  This meant they could watch over their villages from the mountaintops like angels.

Chinese and Inca, totally different cultures separated by nearly two millennia – and yet both preoccupied with the after-life, even to the extent that people were sacrificed in the process.

There does seem to be  a deep-seated human longing for immortality, an understanding that there is more to life than what we can see and experience in the here and now.  I’m no social anthropologist but it does seem that such a preoccupation seems prevalent and not just in pre-scientific cultures.

In fact, it is the Nobel prize winning scientist, George Wald, who observes “Since we have had a history, men (I assume he means, people) have pursued an ideal of immortality.”

Whether you like it or not, we all have “Intimations of Immortality.” Which is my cue for quoting William Wordsworth:

Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

The writer of the Old Testament book Ecclesiastes says as much:  “God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”  (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

That’s a wonderful phrase:  “God has set eternity in the human heart.”  Of course, today’s culture would suppress this understanding.  In commentating on this verse, biblical scholar Michael Eaton writes: “Our consciousness of God is part of our nature, and the suppression of it is part of our sin.”

The prominent advocate for agnosticism, Clarence Darrow, took the opposite line: “In spite of all the yearnings of men, no one can produce a single fact or reason to support the belief in God and in personal immortality.”

Clarence died in 1938 and it would interesting to ascertain whether he has now changed his mind.

However, the Biblical emphasis is not on the afterlife;  in fact, the scriptures are surprisingly reticent to speculate on what happens after we die.  No magnificent mausoleums here.  What counts is how we live before God in the here and now.

But what the Bible does teach is that as disciples of Jesus we should have no fear of death, not because we are immortal but because God is faithful.  He owes us nothing but in Christ gives us everything.

This gives the Christian a resilience, a refusal to be cowed by our own mortality.  Accordingly the apostle Paul can rejoice: “If the Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from death, lives in you, then he who raised Christ from death will also give life to your mortal bodies by the presence of his Spirit in you.”  (Romans 8:11)

No need for magic potions here, even mercury-free.

Notices for Mothering Sunday attached along with the flyer for sports event and the photo I took of the vicarage this time yesterday.

The wisdom of the in-flight passenger safety briefing.

“When the seat belt sign illuminates, you must fasten your seat belt . .”

I’ve always been fascinated by the inflight passenger safety announcement given before take-off. No doubt years of experience and hours of committee work have gone into preparing this important briefing, what we should do should there be an emergency.

And it’s a succinct summary of how to handle life. More to the point, it is often counter-intuitive.

“In some cases, your nearest exit may be behind you.” In other words, don’t do the obvious thing – even if everyone is be moving forward, you may need to go back.

Or should we land on water, you have a lifejacket underneath your seat. “To inflate the vest, pull firmly on the red cord, only when leaving the aircraft.” Think before you act. Wait before you pull the cord. Stay calm.

But the best one is when the oxygen masks descend in the event of the plane losing cabin pressure.

“If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.”

Again, if you think about it, this is obvious. But if you are with a young child or a loved one with a disability, your deepest instinct would be to look after them first and then put your own mask on. However, in doing so, you are putting both of you at risk.

There’s a fundamental principle here. In fact, this week I found myself quoting this part of the passenger briefing to someone caring for their spouse. In order to care for your loved one properly, you need to care for yourself. A basic principle.

So often people care for their loved one, particularly if they are both advanced in years, to the point of exhaustion. Very simply, the carer needs a break. Even if you do feel guilty, it’s the right thing to do. You put your own mask on first.

This principle applies, as I have discovered, not just for carers but those in the caring professions. I recall going to a conference for hospital chaplains on burnout in nurses on special care baby units. Here burnout was defined as losing creative involvement – you turn up for work but you just go through the motions.

In other words on a special care baby unit, you care for the babies and you care for those caring for them.

Elena Delle Donne, speaking in a different context, explains: “That’s the thing: You don’t understand burnout unless you’ve been burned out. And it’s something you can’t even explain. It’s just doing something you have absolutely no passion for.”

This week I came across the DVD taken from the VHS recording of my induction as vicar of Christ Church way back in October, 1992. I am in the process of editing it and by clicking here you can see me being welcomed by members of the congregation. (I am the one on the left with dark brown hair).

I am hoping to do the same with the sermon preached by the then Bishop of Warrington, Michael Henshall. In effect, he is saying that in ministry, you need to look after yourself. No heroics. Take your days off, take your holidays – something I have taken to heart!

Jesus, of course, cared for himself as he cared for others. He took time out to spend time with his Father in prayer, even if – as Mark tells us – people in real need are demanding his attention.

It’s worth quoting in full: “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. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: ‘Everyone is looking for you!’ (Mark 1:35-37)

Other times Jesus was so tired he just sat down and let his disciples do the work. So John tells us how on entering Samaria, “Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by (Jacob’s) well. . . His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.” (John 4:6-8)

And at the very end of his ministry, Jesus prepared for the trial of his trial not just by praying in Gethsemane but more to the point, making sure his disciples stayed with him to give him their support. As it happens, they let him down.

However, there was one group of people who did not let Jesus down, the women from Galilee. Mark gives us their names: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome.

Mark explains who they are. “In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs.” (Mark 15:40) Controversially, they may have needed Jesus but he needed them. And they did not fail him.

Relying on others is not a sign of weakness but simply the way God has made us. We care for each other – which can mean a sustained effort over time. And so it is essential that we do not exhaust ourselves in the process.

As Rosalyn Carter points out, herself a committed Christian:
“There are only four kinds of people in the world.
Those who have been caregivers.
Those who are currently caregivers.
Those who will be caregivers, and those who will need a caregiver.”

That God is faithful – even on occasion against every appearance .


So over 40 years of ordained ministry, what have I learnt?  Simple – that God is faithful.

It was way back in 1982, an epiphany as I took the short cut from Castle Drive through the back entry to the main shops in Heswall.  Such a vivid experience that I can still see the bins to my left.   FAITH

The Christian life comes down just to one thing:  faith.  That is, we function as Christians by faith, that is by trusting God to keep his promises.

As the apostle Paul reminded his recalcitrant readers in Galatia: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” (Galatians 3:26).  We become Christians by faith.  We grow as Christians by faith.  We serve Christ by faith. We overcome by faith.

The Christian life is a life of faith.  So the apostle sums up his whole life:  “And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  (Galatians 2:20).

It’s as simple as that, too simple for most of us.  So instead we look to ourselves, to our abilities and resources.  It’s the old mantra:  decide what you would do if you had faith in God’s promises – and then do it.  As individuals and as a church.

So for the PCC, for example, the church council which makes the strategic decisions for the church.  The one question we should never ask is “Can we afford it?”  Instead the question that we should always ask is “What does God want us to do?”

It was nearly 20 years ago when we made our first pitch to the congregation about building a parish centre on the site of the old school building.  I recall Rikki quoting the great Victorian missionary, Hudson Taylor:  “There are three stages to every great work of God; impossible, difficult, done.”

And that was our experience in the whole Ministry Centre adventure.   So many setbacks, not least in the planning process, and some direct opposition.  No external finance while our church’s finances were continually under stress during the whole project.

But we kept at it over 12 years because we believed that this was God’s purpose for Christ Church.

The day the Ministry Centre opened, one of our previous curates, Mark Stanford, could see the spiritual reality of the new building.  “You,” he said, speaking not just to me but to the whole congregation, “ you have the gift of faith.”

And he was right.  It was a project of faith, faith as given to us by the Holy Spirit, a gift we were prepared to exercise.

So when the finance committee once again pours over the next monetary challenge facing Christ Church, I simply sit back and look around me.  Even this room, the fact that we are sitting here in this building, is a testimony to God’s faithfulness in financial provision.

We learn to persevere.

When it comes to perseverance, think Alpha.  This coming Thursday we begin our 51st Alpha course.  Which gives me the opportunity for a plug for this event at the Kicking Donkey.

Each Thursday beginning 1st March at 7.30 pm – a meal prepared by this gastro pub at L40 8HY, followed by a short video and then open discussion in which no question is out of bounds and in which there is no pressure to participate.  Payment for the meal, as for all events at Christ Church, is by donation only.  Great for couples on a night out and for those trying to get a handle on life.

Not many churches have managed 50 Alpha courses;  in fact, most stop after three or four.  However, we kept at it because we believed that this was what God wanted of us.  I think course #5 was particularly sparse, just one guest I seem to remember.  And others have been, let’s say, challenging.

Jacqui’s fanaticism helps, of course but the key has been perseverance.  And that seems to be the word most associated with God’s faithfulness, our perseverance.  Because it is not easy.

This morning’s Bible reading from BRF Guidelines was from Psalms 42 and 43 – they’re actually one psalm – in which the Psalmist alternates between trust and fear, between faith in God’s faithfulness and anxiety in his own situation.

Three times he prays:
“Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.”

And that’s life as a believer.  Yes, God is faithful –  even on occasion against every appearance.  The decision to trust him can be difficult, even “while people say to me continually ‘Where is your God?’ (Psalm 42:3).

Memory helps, recalling to mind past experiences of God’s vindication.  “These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.”  (Psalm 42:4f).

But at other times it just flying by instruments.

For the very last place in this universe you would expect to see the faithfulness of God most fully is to see a man, abandoned and alone, betrayed and beaten, nailed to a Roman cross with only minutes to live.

As hopeless situations go, you can’t get any more hopeless than that.  Even so, Jesus held on to God’s faithfulness, relying on his vindication. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  Now that’s what I call FAITH.

How our smartphone can wreck our life.

In these days of Amazon and declining town centres, I try to support our local bookshop.  So when the man from Waterstone’s said “It’s a great book; read it,”  I bought it and read it.  And it has changed my life, a bit.

To be fair I had already read some reviews of this international best-seller along with one extended extract on a subject I had always found intriguing.

And the bonus, as I was later to discover, is that the author who is Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California (and therefore an eminent academic on top of his subject) was born and raised in Liverpool.  I assume he supports EFC.

Here it is on my desk:  Matthew Walker – Why we sleep.

To summarise the book in three words:  we need sleep.  Two more words:  a lot. 

Walker handles his material well and with purpose:  he writes well.  Essentially, he sets out a convincing case that that sleep is vitally important — even more important than diet and exercise.

And don’t kid yourself – we all need sleep, at least seven hours a night.  Especially the last two hours, which can so easily be snatched away by the alarm clock.

Walker writes with a passion.  He argues that the invention of the electric light (which allows us to ignore the daily rhythm of sunrise and sunset) along with the pervasiveness of caffeine has wrecked our sleep pattern.

I skimmed the chapters where he demonstrates how sleep deprivation contributes to chronic illnesses such as dementia, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.  Not to mention road traffic accidents.  Walker had already convinced me that a lack of sleep is now one of our greatest public health challenges.

One fact I found stunning.

“There is a ‘global experiment’ that is performed on 1.6 billion people across 70 countries twice a year, and it’s called daylight saving time. In the spring when we lose one hour of sleep, we see a subsequent 24 percent increase in heart attacks. In the fall, when we gain one hour of sleep, we see a 21 percent decrease in heart attacks. That is how fragile your body is with even the smallest perturbations of sleep, but most of us don’t think anything about losing an hour of sleep.”

So how has it changed my life?  Well, I no longer take my smartphone to bed.  It stays downstairs on my desk.

And more, I am aiming to implement the most important lesson of the book – to go to bed at the same time every night so as to wake up at the same time every day.

Looking back on my ministry I now value even more my News at Ten rule.  That is, I always aim to be home for 10.00 pm, which gives me 30 minutes to relax before going to bed at 10.45.

As a church leader I owe it to church members that they too can be home by 10.00 pm especially if they have a proper job.  (Actually I failed the PCC this last Tuesday – mea culpa).

Here I quote a poem which I am sure could be endorsed by Professor Walker:
Mary had a little lamb
It was for her to keep
It then became a Baptist
And died for lack of sleep. 

But this is how God has made us, in fact every single living organism on this planet. We are, to quote Psalm 130, “fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”

Sleep is an integral part of how we are made.  Forget the Thatcher years when sleep was considered a waste of time.  It’s an invaluable gift of God.

And more:  while Walker totally debunks Freud’s theory on dreams (that’s a relief) he demonstrates, again very convincingly, that sleeping enhances creativity.  Here our brain sorts itself out overnight.   So Paul McCartney awakes with the melody which was to become the most-covered song ever.

For sleep allows us to see things in a new light.  Hence the phrase: “I’ll sleep on it.”  So in the New Testament, Joseph and then the apostle Paul for example, change direction, in Paul’s case literally, following a night’s sleep.

So if at all possible we aim to make decisions, especially important ones, in the cold light of morning, when our minds following sleep are more lucid and less prone to our immediate emotions.

So the King David rejoices:
“I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, for the Lord sustains me.
I am not afraid of tens of thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around.”  (Psalm 3:5f)

He went to sleep troubled, fearful of all those set against him.  And he awakes refreshed, now confident of God’s sustenance.  It’s a new day dawning.

It takes just one person for history to change course.

It’s 7:50 am.  Which means I have a whole hour.  So here we go:

“We shall fight on the beaches . . We shall never surrender!”

So ends Joe Wright’s epic film Darkest Hour as Gary Oldman’s truly impressive Churchill strides out of the House of Commons followed by thunderous acclamation.

But not quite, for there is one very important end credit.   We are informed that Britain received Germany’s surrender in May, 1945.

At this time I thought this somewhat superfluous:  it’s stating the obvious.  Everyone knows we won.  Or to make it more personal, Churchill beat Hitler.

But on reflection it has to be said.  For the simple reason that the whole film only makes sense if Churchill is finally vindicated.

There’s no need for a spoiler alert here.  You know the story.  However, you may not know the details of the first few days of Churchill’s premiership in his resolute stand against any negotiated ‘peace’ settlement (i.e. surrender).

If I have any criticism of the film it is that it is prepared to bend some facts (and make one whole scene up) to make a better story.  In reality, Churchill was utterly determined to stand up to the might of Hitler even against impossible odds.  I’m sure he never wavered, except possibly within his own mind.

Which begs one huge question.  If Churchill had not been prime minister in May, 1940, would I now be writing this blog in German?   Or alternatively, würde ich jetzt diesen Blog auf Deutsch schreiben?  (Don’t be impressed:  Google translation).

Did one single individual make all the difference?

Here we are talking about the Great Man theory of history.  To quote the eminent Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, ” No great man lives in vain. The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”  It just takes the right person in the right place at the right time for the flow of history to change.  And it makes history more interesting.

As it happens one of my favourite novels aims to contest this view of life:  Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  For Leo, the significance of great individuals is illusory; we are only “history’s slaves realizing the decree of Providence.”

In other words it’s all down to long-term trends and shifts – making history less interesting.

As Christians we take a clear view for the simple reason that we are anointed with the name of Jesus, the one man changed everything.

As I read in my BRF Bible reading this morning:  “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he 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).

Jesus destroyed the power of death.  There can be no higher achievement, no more fundamental change.  And just one single life with a cosmic outcome.

Of course, the ministry of Jesus realised God’s preparation over the centuries but even so, his act of obedience was the single event which changed the millennia.

And now that I think about it the Gospels only make sense if – like “Darkest Hour” – we know the ending at the beginning.  Otherwise had Jesus’ body rotted in Joseph’s tomb his whole life would have been pointless.  And ours too.

Which means we stand in this tradition.  One person commissioned by God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, can make significant change which otherwise would not have taken place.

Take John Wesley, who challenged the easy-going theism of the 18th century by his sheer commitment to proclaiming the Gospel.  “Catch on fire,” he declared, “and people will come for miles to see you burn.”

In 1928 Archbishop Davidson considered that “Wesley practically changed the outlook and even the character of the English nation.”  Certainly some historians maintain that the Wesleyan revival so altered the course of English history that he probably saved England from the kind of revolution that took place in France.

We not just talking here about someone articulating a movement – although that in itself is a transformational role.  We are talking about someone who had they stayed at home our world would be very different today.

Which gives us all of us who belong to Christ a high calling, a defining destiny. Maybe not on the world stage but certainly within our immediate environment.  For God chooses to work through individuals, through each of us to make a difference.

So Jesus calls us;  “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.” (John 15:16)

The one event which the Darkest Hour failed to highlight was the day when Churchill became Prime Minister.

I haven’t got time to find the quote (it’s now 8:41) but he had a deep sense of vocation, an understanding that all that he had experienced prior to 10 May 1940 had been preparation for this single responsibility.   However he understood it at the time, a sense of God’s call.

 

 

 

 

We DO because we ARE loved by God

Tomorrow could see a defining event in my life.  Should I finish the Ormskirk ParkRun I will enter the elite group of those who have completed 100 runs.

As a result I will wear my elite black 100 t-shirt with pride. It will go not just over my head –  but more to the point, to my head.

But it hasn’t been easy since a freak wave at La-Tranche-sur-Mer last August knocked me sideways, twisting my knee. And I was already receiving treatment to my left foot.  But now I’m back.

It will take a while to recover my fitness but at my advanced age I need to be patient and not push myself too hard.  There’s a fine balance here between effort and caution – when to push yourself and when to ease off.

I guess that’s the dilemma we all face one way or another, not least in our work-life balance.

Interestingly the phrase work–life balance only appeared in the late 1970’s as a result of greater expectations in the work place along with radical shifts in technology.

But as businessman Jack Welch reminds us: “There’s no such thing as work-life balance. There are work-life choices, and you make them, and they have consequences.”

This spring I retire as vicar of Christ Church – my last Sunday is 8 April while following diocesan policy I formally retire one month later, on 8 May.

It was while I was curate at Heswall in 1979 that our long-serving rector Kenneth retired – a big event which had an effect on me.  And since then in conversation with clergy about to retire, I always ask the same question: “Looking back over your ministry, what would you do differently?”

Nearly every time, the answer is the same: “I wish I had spent more time with my family.”

And I guess, not just clergy.  We are so easily driven to make wrong choices leading to an imbalance, a disparity which can damage not just our health but our relationships.

Of course, there are times when we do have to push ourselves, when our family and close friendships have to take second place.  But we can only maintain this pace for so long; otherwise we pull a muscle or damage our backs.

I’m not sure whether I have blogged about this before, but I was very much influenced by the late Frank Lake, missionary doctor and then psychiatrist who founded the Clinical Theology Association in the 1960’s.

As it happens I now discover through Wikipedia that he was born in Aughton in 1914 and that his father served as the organist and choirmaster in the parish church, which in those days would have been St Michael’s.  Anyone remember him or know about his family?

But that’s a digression.  Anyway, Frank teamed up with the eminent Swiss theologian Emil Brunner to reflect on how Jesus managed the enormous stresses and demands placed on him without losing his poise, his sense of joy and purpose.

In other words, he got the balance right.  What was the secret?

Simple – Jesus lived the cycle of grace.  For Jesus’ identity and acceptance came before achievement and ministry – rather than the other way around.  Right at the very outset of his ministry he was assured of his Father’s pleasure.

“The moment Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters, the skies opened up and he saw God’s Spirit—it looked like a dove—descending and landing on him. And along with the Spirit, a voice: ‘This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.’” (Matthew 3:16)

The danger, the temptation, is that we start at the wrong end.  We work hard to achieve, and it is on the basis of this achievement we derive our significance.  And it is this hard-won significance which allows the acceptance we long for.

And not only do we burn out but those around us pay a price.

The good news, however, is that God wants to break into our cycle of seeking achievement by calling on us to abide in Christ.  Above all to know that we are beloved of God.

It is John who in his first letter uses the word Beloved no less than six times.

For example, “Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God” (1 John 3:21).

It is as if God is saying direct to our hearts: “BE LOVED.”  And once by God’s grace we know this in our bones – albeit ones which can fracture so easily – we can begin to DO things for God.

It is Henri Nouwen who assures us: “Every time you listen with great attentiveness to the voice that calls you the Beloved, you will discover within yourself a desire to hear that voice longer and more deeply. It is like discovering a well in the desert.”

So whether I finish tomorrow or not Jacqui and my family will still love me.  Even so I will be wearing my black 100 t-shirt all of the time.

When someone grabs the last Nutella.

“They are like animals. A woman had her hair pulled, an elderly lady took a box on her head, another had a bloody hand.”

For the next few days I would keep clear of Rive-de-Gier, in fact the whole of France, until the Nutella riots die down.

You may have read in this morning’s media that Intermarché has slashed (should I say gashed?) the price of this chocolate hazelnut spread from €4.50 to €1.40.

The result?  Carnage, as crowds descend on their local store.  Police were called in Ostricourt in northern France, where a fight had broken out.  Some stores risked the wrath of their customers by limiting their purchase to just three pots.

One stunned Intermarché did his best. «On essayait de se mettre entre les clients, mais ils nous poussaient.»

We used to have regular Nutella riots in our family, entre nos filles in the days when they were fillettes for in the early 1980’s we could only buy Nutella on holiday in France.  Not one shop in Heswall and then in Rochdale stocked the product.

So as we handed out the baguettes at breakfast there was an immediate lunge for the Nutella.  I must say that this did not include me – as long as no-one comes between me and my apricot jam, you’re quite safe.

But the Nutella riots give us a cautionary insight into our human nature, in the immortal words of Freddie Mercury.

“I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now,
I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now.”

Of course, for much of the time we appear reasonable, even selfless.  But when you see the last Nutella jar being taken, the real you takes over.   And it’s not an attractive portrait.

“The world is so competitive, aggressive, consumive, selfish and during the time we spend here we must be all but that, concludes Jose Mourinho.  I’m not sure what consumive means, neither does my spell checker – but I know what the Manchester United manager means.  And it’s not nice.

I’ve just been reading in my morning Bible reading how Jesus welcomed the tax collectors and sinners, even to eat with them and to enjoy their company.

This confused, puzzled the watching Pharisees.  From their perspective he was in danger, in danger of being contaminated by their impurity.

My BRF commentator writes:  “It is amazing – and wonderful – to see in the Gospels how sinners felt attracted to Jesus.”

“Normally shame shuts us away from human contact, especially from any who might see us as we really are, and expose our shamefulness.  But in Jesus’ case, sinners knew that he knew them, and that he wanted to be with them nevertheless – indeed that he celebrate his contact with them.  So they were drawn to him.”

It can take a Nutella riot for us to see the truth about ourselves.  For most of the time our selfish nature is contained by social mores and polite behaviour.  But it doesn’t take much for this veneer to be stripped away, especially when you can save €3.10 for each pot.

And Jesus knows this – he sees right into the darkness of our hearts, he knows our deepest motivation, he is not fooled by our pretence.   Even so he extends the love of God towards us with a passion which is awesome.

But it’s one thing to be drawn to Jesus, it’s something else to be transformed by him so that we come a Zacchaeus willing to share, not because we have to but because we want to.

We are talking now about the ministry of the Holy Spirit who begins a lifetime work of transforming us inside-out so that we willingly step aside and let someone else, even someone unsavoury, grab the last Nutella.

It’s his work, not ours:  his fruit appearing in our lives as we abide in Christ. Christians are not Pharisees trying their hardest but disciples of Jesus learning to let go and let God.

And it’s a whole lifestyle as the apostle Paul writes “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:4).  Such a life style is in stark contrast to what we see around us and certainly in every Intermarché store.

So for this day may my resolve be to look out for the interests of others.  No doubt God will put me in testing situations and it will be for me to learn to respond as Jesus would.  And no doubt it will be a challenge as it was for the Good Samaritan.

The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But the good Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” (Martin Luther King.)

 

When we need a second chance.

Hola a todos!

 

To be fair, we were warned: “There are strong side winds at Tenerife-South airport.” But we may not all have been emotionally prepared!

 

So we made our approach and as the landing gear lowered, you could feel our plane being tossed about, up and down, side to side.  At that point I immediately felt guilty about enjoying all those YouTube clips of planes having difficulty landing in strong crosswinds. 

 

Two women behind me were laughing very loudly. It’s wonderful to have a sense of humour, I thought. 

 

Looking out of the window I could see that we were almost there – until suddenly at just under 1000 feet the engine noise changed.  Our pilot had decided to abort the landing.

 

“I wonder what happens next” I thought as we were treated to a low-altitude survey of the east coast of Tenerife.  I knew there was another airport to the north of the island and I wondered if our car hire firm would allow me to change my booking. 

 

But no.  The first officer informed us that we were going to have another go at landing at Tenerife-South.

 

I was intrigued. Either the pilot had decided that this time he would concentrate and try harder OR he was hoping that the wind gusts would be different OR this time he would follow a particular procedure for landing in high winds.  I resolved to ask Steve Hilton when we get home. 

 

As we banked hard to the right, I must say I was impressed by the demeanour of my fellow passengers.  I could hear no quiet sobbing or rendering of “Abide with me.”  However, I decided not to remind Jacqui that the emergency exit was seven rows behind us, something I always do at takeoff.

 

So we made our second attempt – and it seemed much easier this second time around. As the tyres hit the runway, not even a bounce. Everyone applauded the skill of our pilots. 

 

If only life were this simple. 

 

We all carry our collection of regrets, often more than just a few, too few to mention.  Only this week someone opened their heart to me about how they now realise they caused the breakdown of their marriage.  “The damage’s done now, no turning back the clock.”

 

There is a delightful confession on my daughter’s website.  I’m writing this offline and so I can’t insert a hyperlink. 

 

Go to https://www.diddydisciples.org/samples.  Click the clip of the little girl in the red dress, second from the right or if you are using your phone fourth clip down.

 

I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

I wish I could start again.

 

The one person in the Gospels who wished he could start again has to be Simon the Rock.  He enthusiastically promised Jesus his total support.  “Even though all become deserters, I will not!” (Mark 14:29)  And then should anyone be in any doubt of his commitment: “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” (Mark 14:31)

 

Except that he did.

 

And as the cock crowed a second time, “Peter broke down and wept bitterly.” 

 

In “Jesus Christ Superstar” the disciples along with Mary Magdalene sing:

Hurry up and tell me,

This is just a dream,

Oh, could we start again please?

 

Very much the refrain of the human heart, the longing for a fresh start.  “Could I start again please?” That’s why the Gospel is such good news – it’s a new beginning.

 

“Easter is very important to me; it’s a second chance.” C&W singer Reba McEntire.

 

For this is the message of the resurrection, beginning with Peter.  Remarkably and against every expectation, this broken disciple is given a second chance as he walks alongside the Sea of Galilee with the risen Jesus.  “Peter, feed my sheep.”

 

And this is the prospect for every returning prodigal.  Whatever, wherever, however we are welcomed back into the Father’s arms. 

 

I recall years ago someone I knew well receiving God’s free forgiveness following their adultery and self-centred lifestyle. They were given a remarkable promise from the Old Testament which over the subsequent years proved true. 

 

The prophet Joel calls his people to repentance for their disobedience (yet again) and should they respond, God offers them a fresh start, a new beginning.  And more, he will make up for their loss.

 

“O children of Zion, be glad and rejoice in the LORD your God. . . .

I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten.” (Joel 2:25)

Which he did. 

 

Welcome to the Second Chance Saloon!

When words shock.

This is a family blog and so you will be relieved I will not be quoting President Trump verbatim in reference to his opinion of the good people of Haiti, El Salvador and various African countries.

It was the lead story on the BBC Website earlier this morning:  Trump ‘in crude Oval Office outburst about migrants’

Here I quote (almost) “Why are we having all these people from s* countries come here?”  The BBC gives the full quote whereas most American news outlets  used the word “blank” instead.

It reminds me when the Nixon tapes were published in that age of innocence in 1971/72 we were shocked to see how often those in the White House used the phrase “expletive deleted”.   Maybe it was the pressure of running the country or just bad behaviour.

However, Trump is different.  Regardless of any diplomatic furore he articulates a worldview which is profoundly unattractive.

“Times and levels of White House discourse, and what the public will tolerate, have flipped,” Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief, commented.  He added “Right along with the rest of our culture.”

Using words to shock is becoming more difficult in our tolerant culture.

I recall the outrage on 13 November 1965 when Kenneth Tynan, the flamboyant (that’s my euphemism) theatre critic and writer, first use THE WORD on BBC, in the days when we had just two television channels.

No less than four censuring motions in the House of Commons, were signed by a total of 133 Labour and Conservative.  Accordingly the BBC issued a formal apology.  But that was 50 years ago!

We all have a deep instinct to use words to shock, if only to express our inner turmoil.  Certainly President Trump seeks to articulate a deep sense of fear, however unfounded, of our culture and way of life being overwhelmed by a tide of immigration.

Here we are not just talking about bad language. As the apostle Paul urges us “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.”  (Colossians 4:6)

Indeed, as I often hear, when some people become Christians, one of the first effects is seen in their speech.  One friend commented that on becoming a disciple of Jesus, his vocabulary was cut by 50%.

No, we are talking about using particular words to shock.  Often it is just offensive, ill-mannered profanity.   Christian don’t do that.

But there are situations when we shock people into action, to see another viewpoint, even to hear what God is saying.

I’m sure that there are some great examples in the Old Testament.  But sadly my daughter and currently-resident Hebrew scholar is still in bed, sleeping in after last evening’s successful book launch.

However, there are some great examples in the New Testament, especially when the apostle Paul is passionate that his churches continue to live by faith in Christ and not to return to their old life of living under the Jewish law.

So he warns the Philippians;  “Watch out for those dogs. They are people who do evil things. When they circumcise, it is nothing more than a useless cutting of the body.”  (Philippians 3:1).

Certainly in his culture to call anyone a dog is profoundly insulting – as is the case in Arab culture today.  The apostle is seeking to jolt these Christians into recognising the danger.

And then he tells his own story.  Such is his joy of knowing Christ that in comparison “I consider everything to be nothing compared to knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. To know him is worth much more than anything else.” (Philippians 3:8)

The apostle continues:  “Because of him I have lost everything. But I consider all of it to be σκύβαλα so I can know Christ better.”

It is possible that your phone, tablet or desktop may be too shocked to show the original Greek word σκύβαλα.  Suffice it to say that σκύβαλα is a scurrilous word referring to excrement.  It has been found in ancient graffiti and in manuscripts linking it as pure profanity!

Accordingly some scholars consider the best translation would be the same S* word used by POTUS.  However, English translations have toned it down to dung or filth.

Very simply Paul is seeking to shock his readers, including us, to see that life apart of Christ is simply S*.  So why would any Christian want to return to their former existence?

And our goal?

“I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,  and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”  (Philippians 3:10)

“How on earth can God use me in my situation?” you may ask.

“I believe that God has put gifts and talents and ability on the inside of every one of us,” observes evangelist Joel Osteen.

He continues:  “When you develop that and you believe in yourself and you believe that you’re a person of influence and a person of purpose, I believe you can rise up out of any situation.”

God certainly used the situation my daughter Sharon found herself some eight years ago.  The evidence for this is seen in next Thursday’s SPCK book launch in our Ministry Centre.

In fact, I only really heard the full story from her interview on Premier Radio last month – which I imagine is the norm for most parents!

For in the space of just 14 months Sharon had three daughters, even with the active support of husband Andrew a daunting prospect.  Suddenly her ministry as an ordained Old Testament academic came to an abrupt stop.

All parents will recognise this situation.  As soon as your first child arrives everything radically changes.  Even a trip to your local Morrison’s becomes a major undertaking (and an opportunity – if only for a few fleeting moments – to encounter the outside world).

In order to just to survive Sharon started to try to combine her two worlds – academic theology and being mother to three very active toddlers.  The outcome became known as Diddy Disciples.

Diddy Disciples began at St Peter’s, Walworth in central London, where Andrew is vicar and when in her own words, “their wriggly children were aged 3, 3, and 2, and it felt impossible to take them to church on Sunday.”

She recalls: “Worshipping with babies and toddlers began as a survival tactic, but it soon became a passion.

“The more we learned about the first six years of life, the more important they seemed. During those early years our sense of who we are and where we belong is shaped.”

Such was the success of this venture that Sharon was encouraged to produce a book – Diddy Disciples.  The first of two volumes was launched with great fanfare at St Peter’s last June;  the second is being launched next week here in Aughton.

Now an Amazon best-seller it has been endorsed not just by Archbishop Justin, not just by Richard Peers, our Diocesan Director of Education (who incidentally will be speaking at Thursday’s launch) but far more importantly, our very own Charlotte Chappell whose comments grace the preface of volume one.

But this is how God works – he uses whatever situation we may find ourselves even to launch a ministry.

Like going to prison.  If you are old enough you will remember like me the storm that was Watergate with one of the chief protagonists, presidential Special Counsel, Charles Colson.  His experience of being dispatched to federal prison led to his conversion to Christ and then to him founding the Prison Fellowship International.

Alpha in Prison has a similar pedigree with the story of Paul Cowley, expelled from school and living in a squat and then in a prison cell for petty crimes.  Through attending an Alpha course he became a Christian.  God was then able to use his experience for Paul to lead this very successful Alpha ministry. .

But it doesn’t have to be a difficult or desperate experience for God to use.

When serving at the Good Shepherd in Heswall in the 1980’s I became part of a small support group of curates which included Peter Harris from St Mary’s Upton.  I had a huge regard to Peter.  He had a passion for bird watching and I remember how he would stake out some hide near the River Weaver at some unearthly hour.

From his occasional comment I had the sense that his heart was not in parish ministry.  And so with the support of church leader John Stott, Peter and Miranda moved to Portugal to establish and run a Christian field study centre and bird observatory, A Rocha (which is Portuguese for ‘the rock’.

It seemed to me at the time a huge step of faith but today A Rocha has become a leading international network of environmental organizations with a Christian ethos.

God can take our situation, especially if we feel trapped or just unsettled, and make it work for his Kingdom.  And more, he knows our passions  – for the simple reason that is how he made us.  Whether it is understanding some difficult Hebrew texts or lying for hours in a damp hide, he will use for his glory.

However, sometimes he needs to give us a push.

So as this new year begins, be resolved to respond to whatever prod the Holy Spirit may give you.

“How on earth can God use me in my situation?” you may ask.

God loves a challenge.

When your birthday is overwhelmed by Christmas.

When your birthday is overwhelmed by Christmas.

TODAY IS MY BIRTHDAY!

Please click here

There are, of course, some advantages of having your birthday so close to 25 December.

As a child I particularly prized the fact that I would never have to go to school on this my special day. Remember, I went to primary school during the 1950’s when school was not meant to be fun. No Happy Birthday hat at St Nicks’.

And as an adult the big bonus is that my loving family – should they remember – can buy my presents in the sales, giving more bang to their buck.

But sadly it is not a very big bang when compared to the massive boom of Christmas Day. And that’s the burden those of us born close to Christmas have to carry throughout our lives.

People just forget. They may even know that my big day is 29 December but everyone is disorientated during the week between Christmas and New Year. Out of your familiar routine I bet you didn’t even realise that today is a Friday until this blog unexpectedly appeared in your inbox.

And then family and friends tend to be destitute having spent a small fortune on Christmas Day, both presents and parties. Not much money left. Energy deficient.

Which leads me to my biggest bête noire. Even as I type these words I can see my tears landing on my keyboard as I feel the psychological damage which has accrued over the years.

Those people – usually aunties – even with a kind smile as if they are giving me a special treat, saying “Ross, I’m giving you an extra big present this year. I’m combining your Christmas and birthday presents.” So as my birthday arrives just four days later I am gift bereft.

Even as a child I could see through this deception. It would have been kinder simply to say: “Ross, we’re broke. But don’t worry, we will make it up to you and we will buy you an even bigger present – should we remember.”

But life, as my family often hear me say, is tough. And having a Christmas birthday has toughened me up over the years.

However, birthdays are important for all kinds of reasons, not least affirming each other on our special day. And more, to celebrate the sheer gift of life.

For we are more than a mere carbon-based lifeform composed mainly of water.
Oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus may make up 99% of me but of course I am much, much more.

We all know that – whatever reductionists like Richard Dawkins may say. He’s okay – he was born in March.

So we read in Genesis 2:7 “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.”

This breath of life, this Spirit of God, makes me infinitely more than just a collection of chemicals, of atoms formed from the elementary particles derived from the pure energy released from the Big Bang 13.8 billion birthdays ago.

Some how or other – God knows how – these atoms eventually had the privilege of becoming me, made in the image of God himself.

Even as a child I have marvelled at this sense self-consciousness, of being aware of being me.

As physician Charles Krauthammer reflects: “Life and consciousness are the two great mysteries. Actually, their substrates are the inanimate. And how do you get from neurons shooting around in the brain to the thought that pops up in your head and mine?”

He continues: “There’s something deeply mysterious about that. And if you’re not struck by the mystery, I think you haven’t thought about it.”

Certainly King David thought about it.

“For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Psalm 139:13f)

Fearfully, because there is something awesome of being alive, above all about being able to respond in love and trust to the God who made us.

And more, to the God – such is his love – who deigned to come among us as one of us so that through the cross of Jesus as the apostle Peter writes, “we may become participants in the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:4).

As a human being I am not sure what becoming a participant in the divine nature means except that it means something wonderful, something worth celebrating.

For you gave me a heart
And you gave me a smile,
You gave me Jesus
And you made me your child,
And I just thank you, Father,
For making me ‘me’.

The battle of Dr Spock’s Baby and Child Care.

Image2

The battle of Dr Spock’s Baby and Child Care. As you would expect, I lost.

I did explain to Jacqui:  “But you haven’t even held it, let alone read it, for at least 25 years!”

However, she patiently explained that the book represented too many memories just to be taken to the charity shop. So it stays (for now).

But I persevere as we downsize in preparation for our move next spring.

For downsizing can be a challenge, especially to those of you who hoard.  “You’ll never know when I may need it!”

In reality most of us live our lives following the Pareto 80:20 Principle.  This means, for example, that we wear just 20% of our clothes for 80% of the time.  There’s ample room for getting rid of stuff, even giving it to someone who may actually need it.

Myself, I am in the minimalist category.  I have already got rid of nearly all my books.  Most to family, others to friends;  the balance to Book Aid and charity shops.  And other paraphernalia.  Even my faithful Adidas Tokyo spikes which I last wore in 1975 had to go, sold via eBay to a collector in London for £39.

The strategy is straight-forward.  You begin in the rooms farthest from the heart of your home.  That’s where there are more items that are simply being stored rather than used.

So I have already tackled my daughters on all the memorabilia they have dumped over the years on our top floor.  I quote to them Anne Valley Fox:  “You can’t have enough of what you didn’t want in the first place.”

But people do find getting rid of things extraordinary difficult.  They need professional help.

In fact, only last year I bumped into an old friend to discover his wife has a new job.  She is a professional declutterer.  In fact, you may not even know that there is a professional body, the APDO. That is, the Association of Professional Declutterers and Organisers.  I wonder if there is a HELP line.

Jesus, of course, didn’t have much time for clutter.  He calls us as we follow him to travel light.

So he sends the twelve out on their mission:   “Do not get any gold, silver or copper to take with you in your belts. Do not take a bag for the journey. Do not take extra clothes or sandals or walking sticks.”  (Matthew 10:9)

After all, as his disciples Jesus teaches us to sit light to things to ensure that our possessions do not possess us.  He reserves the right to say to us at any time as he said to the rich young ruler: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)

But there’s more to clutter than jumble in the attic.  As novelist Eleanor Brown observes: “Clutter is not just physical stuff, it’s old ideas, toxic relationships and bad habits.”

And here again we may well need a professional declutterer – the Holy Spirit himself.

First, our time.  We can so easily fill our time with all kinds of junk.  Not necessarily wrong in itself:  it just means we do not have enough time to do what God wants us to do.   What the apostle Paul calls ‘redeeming the time.’ He write:  “Don’t waste your time on useless work, mere busywork, the barren pursuits of darkness.” (Ephesians 5:16)

That does not necessarily mean, of course, that we do not watch MOTD – which would be a blessing the way Everton are playing this season.  But it does mean a certain introspection as we submit our lives afresh to Christ each morning.

Sometimes it may mean a determination to do nothing rather than to fill our time with meaningless activity.  Being still gives the Holy Spirit
the space to direct us.


And then the way we think.

The Victorian designer and social activist William Morris once said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”   He could have been talking about our minds.

Again the apostle Paul challenges us:  “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Very simply if it’s good, it’s beautiful.  And we hold onto it.

But such decluttering is difficult.  And it needs the same level of discipline, ruthlessness even, as when we downsize.  All that junk – old ways of thinking we know to be wrong and yet strangely persist.  All of it, we give to the Lord as we open our minds to his scripture.    Again, each morning.  .

No wonder the New Testament repeatedly emphasises the renewal of our minds, an alternative mindset, as we encourage each other to think Christianly.

Here I dare to quote Dr Spock himself:  “The main source of good discipline is growing up in a loving family, being loved and learning to love in return.”  (Baby and Child Care page 679)  The family of God, of course.

Does the Shack work?

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The strange thing was not just that the Rose Theatre at Edge Hill was full but that  knew almost everyone there by name.  It was Wednesday evening’s showing of The Shack.

Many of you will have read this New York Times bestseller. At church we sold nearly 100 copies of this imaginative novel  from Canadian author William P. Young.

Well, now it has been made into a film, a difficult enterprise to say the least.

Essentially the book deals with the one event in life we all fear – our young daughter being abducted and murdered.   Where is God in all this?  We discover this as the father is invited by a mysterious note in his mailbox to return to the remote shack where his daughter’s bloodied clothing was found.

For there he encounters God.

What makes this novel so unusual is that Young depicts God as three persons.  – Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu.  And to begin with Papa is represented by a warm and welcoming African-American woman called Elouisia.  As the embittered father, Mack, relates to each character so he begins to see the tragedy from a new perspective and his healing begins.  He even glimpses his resurrected daughter fully restored.

It’s a strange, daring book. Young informs us that the title is a metaphor for “the house you build out of your own pain”  And certainly he knew pain as a child.

He writes on his website that “sexual abuse was a frequent part of my childhood. In fact I don’t remember life as a little boy without it being the one constant.”  Tragically his missionary parents were unaware of the torment he was experiencing.”

The film goes further in that the main character, Mack, suffers physical abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father.  He seeks God’s help but as a 13-year-old boy takes matters into his own hands and seeks to poison his father with strychnine.

But otherwise, as far as I can remember, the film stays close to the book – except that in the film the serial killer is not brought to justice.

As a film it was okay.  “Not a dry eye in the house,” someone observed.  It does captures the sheer terror of the discovery that your lovely daughter has been seized by a serial killer.  A little-bit over the top at the conclusion where everyone lives happily-ever-after.

Moreover I appreciated the film version of Elousia, again a warm and welcoming character who makes great breakfasts.  Count me in. However, the later depiction of God the Father by a native American elder didn’t register for me.  In fact, I would hesitate to buy a second-hand car from him.

Jesus the middle-Eastern carpenter seemed friendly enough.  He enjoys going for runs (on water), which I appreciated, though probably too fast for me now.  While Sarayu the Holy Spirit was a little bit too ethereal.

The film works, like the book, in giving us a context for unexplained suffering.  We see through a glass darkly.  However, God welcomes us into a loving, caring relationship with him for he is love.  He delights in us and is pained as we suffer.

Clearly for Young, the writer, the book – which he never intended for publication – was part of his own healing process.

He writes:  “It took fifty years to find that little child hidden in a closet deep in the basement recesses of a broken structure. It is me that God loves, with all my losses and hiding and devastating choices.

And it is you that God loves. You and me, we are the ones that Jesus, along with his Father and the Holy Spirit, left the ninety-nine to go find. This love is relentless, and we are not powerful enough to change it.”

However, the very heart of the Shack, both book and film, is seriously flawed.  There is no need for Jesus to be crucified.  Yes, Jesus shows Mack his wounds – but that’s as far as it goes.  Certainly the cross is not integral to Young’s plot.

As Young’s fellow American, Billy Graham, teaches:  “God proved His love on the Cross. When Christ hung, and bled, and died, it was God saying to the world, ‘I love you.”  And that is where we begin.

Fundamentally the cross of Jesus, how it works, is a mystery. We can use analogies and metaphors but they can only go so far.  At its basic level the cross is beyond our understanding but by no means beyond our experience.

“Because of the sacrifice of the Messiah, his blood poured out on the altar of the Cross, we’re a free people—free of penalties and punishments chalked up by all our misdeeds. And not just barely free, either. Abundantly free!”  (Ephesians 1:7 Message translation).

Such is his compassion God comes to us in our pain to share our pain.  And he calls us to do likewise, to go in his name and share the pain and abandonment of others

A story for Armistice Day tomorrow.

In the trenches army chaplain Studdert Kennedy (aka Woodbine Willie) hears of a small party of solders marooned in no-man’s land trying to save a colleague.  On hearing his cries of pain they had gone out to comfort him but now they too are trapped and under heavy fire.  They too cry out in pain and distress.

So Kennedy crawls out, under fire, just to be with them.

As he makes contact the astonished soldiers ask “Who are you?”

“The Church,” he replies.

“What on earth are you doing here? asks the soldier.

“My job,” replies Kennedy.

Our job too in Jesus’ name.

The Bible is filled with people, like us, who thought that they could get away with it.

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For 11 minutes last night the world was a quieter place.  Not as colourful maybe – but quieter.

The Twitter feed for President Trump was down.

I think I should disclose at this point that I too follow the President along with 41.7 million other users.  I enjoy having real-time access to POTUS, being alerted to policy developments even as they are made.

But all this came to an abrupt stop last night  I was out of the loop.

As the Times reported in this morning’s edition “Anyone looking for President Trump’s account was told: ‘Sorry, that page doesn’t exist!’”.

But why?  If this could happen to President Trump, it could happen to any of us.  Just eliminated from cyberspace, just like that.

However, Twitter has now published a statement which by my reckoning exceeds its customary 140 character limit.

“Through our investigation we have learned that this was done by a Twitter customer support employee who did this on the employee’s last day. We are conducting a full internal review.”

I must say, I like that.  One operator on their last day decides to do something that they have longed to do maybe for months: pull the plug on the President.

Whether this small act of rebellion was aimed at the President himself or at their employer for making them work on Saturdays, we are still to discover.  As they put on their coat and headed out for Market Street for the last time, they thought  “They can’t touch me now!”

Employees on their last day must be a nightmare for employers.  You could insist that they have their last day the day before they leave – but on reflection, that wouldn’t really solve the problem.

At this point, some 11 paragraphs into this blog, I am wondering why on earth I have chosen this particular subject.  For the life of me I cannot think of anyone in the Bible deliberately doing something drastic on their last day at work.

Short pause to reflect.

No I can’t,  but one useful avenue to explore is the attempt to avoid consequences.  Something we do all the time when we choose to sin.

Whatever we do has consequences, whether we like it or not.  Invariably, we don’t.

“One of Satan’s most deceptive and powerful ways of defeating us is to get us to believe a lie,” observes pastor Charles Stanley.  “And the biggest lie is that there are no consequences to our own doing. Satan will give you whatever you ask for if it will lead you where he ultimately wants you.”

For the truth is that we do not get away with it, as I imagine this anonymous Twitter ex-employee will soon find out. In fact, he or she is about to enjoy their 15 minutes of fame.  As Jesus himself warns “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.’ (Luke 12:3)

For the Bible is filled with people who thought that they could get away with it.  Beginning with Adam and Eve.

“When the Woman saw that the tree looked like good eating and realized what she would get out of it—she’d know everything!—she took and ate the fruit and then gave
some to her husband, and he ate.”  (Genesis 3:6).


And everything followed from this act of disobedience.

How often do we think “They’ll never find out/No one will even notice.” Sadly the repercussions can reverberate over the generations.  Sin pays its wages.

But such is God’s love and commitment, he has sought to reverse the consequences of our rebellion.  Above all, at the cross of Jesus.

“But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”
(Isaiah 53: 5)

For the Gospel is not just that Jesus takes to himself our consequences.  The amazing truth is that as we surrender to him, we may enjoy the consequences of his obedience, the outcome of his salvation.

“Everyone has to die once, then face the consequences. Christ’s death was also a one-time event, but it was a sacrifice that took care of sins forever. And so, when he next appears, the outcome for those eager to greet him is, precisely, salvation.”  (Hebrews 9:27)

But that doesn’t mean that, in the words of the apostle Paul, ‘Let us do evil so that good may come.’ (Romans 3:8).  That is, if God keeps clearing us our mess, why bother doing the right thing?

For that is to turn the Gospel on its head.  For once we have been grabbed by the love of God, we will want to live lives which honour God.  We will naturally seek his strength to overcome the sin-urge in all of us.

And now, as we serve Christ in this life, the consequences of our actions are eternal, even in “giving just a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple.”

For as Jesus promises: “Truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”  (Matthew 10:42)

Had we known how long we were going stay here, we would have bought better carpets!

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Had we known how long we were going stay here, we would have bought better carpets!

For this Sunday marks my completion of 25 years as vicar of Christ Church, Aughton!  Twenty five years!  Why such a long time?

I guess the essential reason is that God didn’t move me on.  However, from my perspective the reason is the Ministry Centre project. From beginning to end, from acquiring the site to getting the Centre up and running, this venture of faith took some 20 years.

An important project, of course.  However, what is important to hold onto is that the Ministry Centre is merely a means to an end.  But what is the end?

One of my first priorities as the new vicar of Christ Church, Aughton was to articulate what Christ Church was about, what it was seeking to do even as we arrived.

Once I got the feel of the people and place, it seemed to me then, as it still does today, that our key task is to share Jesus with everyone.

However, there’s more to it than that.  For Christ Church is essentially a local church – a parish church with an evangelical ministry.

This was demonstrated as part of the planning application for the Ministry Centre our consultants were able to demonstrate that 73% of the church membership lived within 1.2km of the church site while 84% live within 2.0km of the church site.

So we added that our key task is to share Jesus with everyone beginning with our parish.   Later, as parish awareness faded, we changed this to “beginning with our community.”

So this was the broad goal.  How would be best go about it?

As I arrived I took a detailed look at the church statistics, especially Sunday attendance.  To my surprise there had been an abrupt drop in Sunday attendance two years earlier, in 1990, from about 400 to 300.  And no one knew why.

In fact, this was classic church growth theory.  Christ Church had grown too big, too big for the way we do ministry here. And so the church reverted to its natural size.

As church growth guru Tim Keller observes:  “Size has an enormous impact on how a church functions. There is a ‘size culture’ that profoundly affects how decisions are made, how relationships flow, how effectiveness is evaluated, what its ministers, staff, and lay leaders do.”

So one of my goals for Christ Church was to break through this 400 ceiling by seeking to change our ministries, procedures and expectations.

Now I realise that in the Kingdom of God numbers aren’t everything but to quote Bishop Paul:  “We are asking God for a bigger church so we can make a bigger difference; more people knowing Jesus more justice in the world.  This is how we express our mission.”

So here we are, 25 years later, have we attained this goal?

The answer is that I don’t know.  For the simple reason is that over these last 25 years church has completely changed shape.  While Sunday attendance here has fallen (especially at 6.30 pm), the number of people involved in the life of Christ Church over the week has risen.

Just think 1992: it was a different world with a different mindset.  No Sunday shopping and no Premiership football (until that September).  Air travel was expensive.   I didn’t have my first cappuccino until 1999.

Social attitudes were conservative – at least by today’s standards.  A bygone age.

And since then has been the huge, epoch-making transformation wrought by digital technology.  Even the way our brains are wired has changed.

In 1992 there was no way you could readily communicate with the whole church family.  Now, in a few minutes time, I will press SEND and no less than 282 of you – nearly all Christ Church members at one time or other – will receive this blog.  And that’s not even counting those who will read this through Facebook or Twitter.

It’s not so much that we live in a much more individualised society; it’s simply that we now belong in a very different way. No less than 184 people belong to the Christ Church Facebook Group.  The Christ Church Twitter feed has 259 followers.

Moreover, the Ministry Centre with Café Vista has shifted Christ Church into a seven day a week operation.  I have no idea of the footfall but it is going to be more than 1000 pairs of real, not virtual, feet per week.

So what does it mean to “belong to Christ Church” in 2017? Difficult to say.

However, the more important question is what does it mean to belong to Christ?

Very simply –  whatever our church culture, whatever our social background- the answer is one word: discipleship, that is, godly mature Christians.

For as church growth practitioner Kevin DeYoung concludes:  “The one indispensable requirement for producing godly, mature Christians is godly, mature Christians.”

And that is what we’re about.

Here I stand, I can do no other

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

1517.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overheard: "I know you're here but where's here?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From violence and from golf to Christ

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

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

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

It was an evening of two stories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“From that moment on, my life changed.”

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

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

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

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

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

Two lives transformed.

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


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

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

(Augustine)

The racism in me.

racism

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

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

The truth is that we are all capable of racism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, the resurrection of Jesus changes everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But how do we handle major change in our lives?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discipleship – an exercise in unlearning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The same Adrian over the years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

We are fearfully and wonderfully made.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to find true happiness

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Salut!

“Whoever said money can’t buy happiness,” mused Golden Raspberry award-winning actress, Bo Derek “simply didn’t know where to go shopping.”

But which shops and what brands?  That’s the problem if you want to be happy.

“Happiness” has been the theme of my daily Bible readings from the BRF (Bible Reading Fellowship) these last few days – fascinating.  They have been based on a course on how to be happy, produced by medical doctor and church leader Andy Parnham, essentially for people who have been very damaged by life.

Essentially, God wants us to be happy.  Very happy.  Which if you think about it is Good News, especially if we are tempted to think of God as a spoilsport, making sure we don’t stay out too late.  I wonder what time the father eventually went to bed after throwing the party for the return of his prodigal son.

In fact, I am writing this blog in the pleasant little French seaside town of La Tranche in the Vendée, a commune – as far as I can see – whose only purpose is to give people pleasure.  That’s okay – that’s why we are here.  Otherwise it would have been easier and considerably cheaper to take the family to Maghull for a week.

As I type this I can hear the first stirrings of our grandchildren – and so I had better

Hello Iris! What a great book for you to read – Maisy Makes Gingerbread.

type quickly.

So going back to my BRF notes I read “Jesus himself portrayed a sense of the vitality of God everywhere he went. . . He wanted to bring out for us the inbuilt happiness potential that he knew God had put within us.”

For that is where creation is heading, as shown in the book of Revelation, as I mentioned last week rounds off the Bible for us.  Here we find a whole set of celebratory metaphors, especially the ‘new Jerusalem’ prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  The descriptions of God’s intended dwelling for us are lavish and over-the-top.

And more, all that would demean or damage us is banished.  We will be completely safe.  God’s original purpose for us is now wonderfully fulfilled with the climax that we will see his face (Revelation 22:4).  Abundant life in all its fullness is relational, above all when we experience our full relationship with the God who made us for himself.

“God offers us the forgiveness for our sins and complete release from the baggage we would otherwise have to carry that could spoil our sense of enjoyment.”

It is the Psalms which depict God’s world as its most fruitful, colourful, productive and lively, reflecting his glory.  “You make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy!” (Psalm 65:8).  He blesses the earth with fruitfulness. All the provisions he has are made available to us.  Wonderfully, there is nothing we could desire that will be withheld from us.

We have a part in this – to live our lives with an awareness that God has a purpose for each of us.  An important part of the Hebrew Bible is the wisdom tradition. “Happy is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors.” (Proverbs 8:34).

So it is unsurprising then that those who live out the inherent qualities of the universe are successful and happy.  Here is God’s happiness principle, the very opposite of a mere set of rules which are unrealistic and oppressive.  “My fruit is better than fine gold; what I yield surpasses choice silver,” declares Wisdom (Proverbs 8:19)

I’m joined now  by lots of grandchildren at the table – John takes a photo.  I try and think.

In all this pleasure is important, not sufficient but important.  “Pleasurable sensations are an important contributory factor in our sense of well-being.”

Psalm 104 could appear excessive.  Not only does God care for his creation – “He waters the mountains from his upper chambers, the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work.” (v13).  But he actively cares for us, those whom he has made in his own image.

So we read in the following verse: (He provides)

“wine that gladdens human hearts,

oil to make their faces shine,

and bread that sustains their hearts.”

Talking about wine, what about Cana?  No one can accuse Jesus of being miserly when he turns 150 gallons of water into wine, wine which would cost more than 40 euros a bottle at our local superU supermarché.

However, the problem with pleasure, as Parnham notes, is that is fades and it habituates.  That’s why the master of the banquet tells us that the best wine is served first, not last.  Drinking too much diminishes the pleasure – and harms us.

Above all we find happiness in relationships, in the family (as for me now, despite the noise and distractions – there are going to be a lot of typos today) and friendships.  The apostle Paul writes to the Philippian church, for example, to thank them for their friendship, a friendship expressed in their being aware of his needs and the generosity of their response.  He writes of his deep happiness as he celebrates their friendship (eg Philippians 4:10)

Potty time for Jack. Where is it? “Anyone seen Jack’s potty?”

But it is our friendship with God which brings us most happiness – here we find fulfilment, meaning and purpose, all essential for our happiness.  It is through the cross of Jesus, his cross alone, is our relationship with him restored.

“All this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18).

In fact, the word used by the Bible for happiness is important:  blessed.  Not so much a state of mind but a situation. We are blessed as we receive God’s rich blessing.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ!”  (Ephesians 1:3).

Happiness is one of my favourite verses:  “You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound.” (Psalm 4:7).

Now true happiness – fresh croissants and baguettes just brought in by Debs on her bike!

A votre santé,

No neutral ground in this universe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just like Calvary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Au Revoir!

Dunkirk – when defeat becomes a victory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Without us, God will not.

IMG-0090

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

Short pause as I ponder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AP Bannister 60 Years Athletics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My hero.

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

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

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

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

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

This was certainly the experience of fashion designer Stella McCartney.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the glass ceiling is made of reinforced concrete

Building-concrete-ceiling2999

Today, 21st July, is my mother’s 100th birthday!  At least it would have been had she not died in good heart and in Christ just five years ago.

Like her mother before her, a strong and principled woman.  It is to me a source of huge pride that in the 1950’s she was thrown out of the Mothers’ Union of St Nicholas’ Blundellsands by the vicar himself no less.  She refused to have me christened!

Nevertheless the people of St John’s Waterloo made her very welcome and offered wonderful support in her closing years.  She even hosted one of their weekly house groups.

Her own mother – my grandmother, Edith Vaughan – was an active Methodist.  I would have loved to have known her but sadly she died of hyperthyroidism ten years before I was born, just 41.

Edith was born in Bootle in 1897.  In those days there was no glass ceiling keeping women in place.  No, the ceiling then was made of reinforced concrete, blocking any progress for this gifted and confident woman.

It was the Methodist Church which alone gave her the space to flourish. For she was an active member of Marsh Lane Methodist Church where my parents were married and then three years later bombed out of existence in the May blitz.

However being born in 1897 was to mean a terrible burden, the First World War.  For the girls of my grandmother’s generation were to suffer the trauma of seeing the boys of their age group being steadily wiped out on the fields of Flanders.  They became, some two million of them, the spinsters of the Great War.

So my mother’s birth certificate tells a sad story but only indirectly.  Her place of birth is shown as 42 High Street, Chorlton-on-Medlock. What it does not say is that this is the Manchester and Salford Mission Mothers’ and Babies’ Home, a Methodist institution.

My grandmother’s occupation is shown as a munitions’ worker.  After all, this is wartime. The father’s name and occupation, however, is left blank. There lies a story but one I was able to discuss this freely with my own mother only in recent years.

She herself has no idea who her father was.  It seems he turned up at her grandparents’ house offering financial support only to be thrown out by my great-grandfather.   And that’s all we know of him.

But wonderfully,  Marsh Lane Methodist offered huge support to my grandmother and her family so that my mother was not offered for adoption as was normally the case for that era.

As it happens Edith was to marry and have two further children.  But I myself have a huge debt to the Methodist movement who operated as a church should, even going against the flow of its culture and refusing to take a judgemental stance.

Jesus himself would have known some of social stigma of being born out of wedlock.  This is something we focus on at Christmas when Mary is told by the angel Gabriel that “the Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Luke 1:35).

Nazareth was a small place where everyone would have known everybody else.  People would have known that Jesus would have been born before Mary and Joseph were married.   A social disgrace, as Matthew in his gospel informs us, normally ending in divorce  (1:19).

And that’s about all we know.

Except John – who often uses allusion – in his account of Pharisees challenging Jesus.  They are proud to have Abraham as their father – this gives them status before God.

“If you were Abraham’s children,” counters Jesus, “ then you would do what Abraham did.”  (John 8:39).

At this point they reach, so they think, for their trump card. ‘We are not illegitimate children,’ they protested. ‘The only Father we have is God himself.’

The glory of the Gospel is that God in his extraordinary love comes to us as one of us, as Jesus of Nazareth.  “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathanael asked. (John 1:46).

He comes to a poor family – Mary and Joseph could only afford a pair of two young pigeons for Jesus’ presentation at the Temple, the option provided for poor people.  (Luke 2:24).

Just a carpenter, no more.  His authority to teach and minister is repeatedly challenged by the chief priests and the elders of the people.  (Matthew 21:23).

And of questionable heritage.

“Yet,” as John tells us, “to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1:13).  Such is God’s love for all of us.

Saying YES to Christ Church, the very phone box.

Carcassonne (155)

Some 25 years ago at this very hour, I would have been in bed in Rochdale.

However, had I been awake I would have been thinking, even praying, about my interview later that morning for the position of  vicar of Christ Church Aughton to be held in the home of one of the wardens in Prescot Road.  (You need to remember that insignificant detail).

This was the culmination of a process which had already taken several months out of my life.  We had looked at quite a few churches and I had been interviewed for some of them.

It had been a draining process.  I was determined to move only where God wanted me to move.  That’s saying the obvious, of course.  But at the time there’s always the temptation of fitting God’s will into yours.   “No way am I going to that dump” or “What a beautiful lakeside vicarage!”

I had to resist the flattery of archdeacons and the pleas of churchwardens.  More than once in saying ‘No” I knew the church representatives would be devastated – yes, they were that desperate.

It seemed at the time a huge waste time of time and energy.  However, the reality was that God was preparing us for Christ Church.

So I wrote down the varied reasons for turning down each church and then turned these round to define the right church for us.

The first list was the church itself.  So for example, we didn’t go to one church in Blackpool because there was no sense of parish in that urban sprawl.  For me that mattered.  So I typed out:  “Clearly defined parish – a market town.”

At another church the wardens showed little vision.  This translated to  “Wardens with vision.”

The second list was what was right for our family.  The church in Rugby was too far away from our ageing parents.  Therefore, “no more than two hours from Crosby.”

And even “Near a teacher training college” because Jacqui had been thinking about going to De La Salle college close to our vicarage in Rochdale.

So when we saw the advert for Christ Church in the Church Times (that’s another story, incidentally) we both said “That’s it!  For amazingly Christ Church Aughton filled every single requirement, about 20 in all.

What seemed a draining process turned out to be hugely important, as we discovered when building the Ministry Centre less than ten years later.

You may remember that our first building, the Parish Centre, took nearly seven years before it was finally rejected by the planning inspector in December 2006.  A huge waste of effort – valuable time and money had been spent to no effect.

And yet what we were doing was learning how to build a Ministry Centre.   It wasn’t just that we learned from our mistakes.  God was teaching us new skills.

So I wrote at the time.  “I am not sure whether the parish centre project was a mistake from which we benefited or actually part and parcel of God’s purposes of teaching us to building a Ministry Centre.  I am tempted to think the latter!”

Looking back those seven lean years were not wasted.  The very opposite.  Amazingly it took just three years between appointing new architects and the Ministry Centre being opened.

“My troubles turned out all for the best. They forced me to learn from your textbook. Truth from your mouth means more to me than striking it rich in a gold mine.” ( Psalm 119:71f Message translation).

This was very much the experience of the apostle Paul.  No experience in serving God, however frustrating, would be wasted.  The very opposite – that’s how God works.

He may be once again stuck in some prison, restrained in his quest to share the Gospel in every place where Christ has not been named.  So he writes  “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel.”  (Philippians 1:12)

So we enjoyed the interviews and two days later we set off for our holiday in the Dordogne.

Christ Church seemed the right church.  Every reason for saying YES but I was looking for that extra spark from God.

It was the longest drive in my life:  480 miles from Channel port to our campsite in one go.  On arrival I fell out of the car to be greeted by the bloke in the neighbouring emplacement, a Glaswegian.

You had a long drive too.

“Yes, but we broke our journey at relative’s.”

So just in conversation, I asked where?

“In a place called Ormskirk.”

Oh, I know Ormskirk.  Where abouts?

“Prescot Road, Aughton.”

Guilt – the gift that keeps on giving.

Broken

“I am a Catholic,” confessed Billy Connolly. “I have an A level in guilt.”

Catholic guilt was very much the theme of the BBC1 drama series, “Broken,” which concluded its six part run this Tuesday.

I  didn’t expect much of this production, written by Jimmy McGovern, assuming it was going to be your usual Catholic-bashing exercise.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Now at this point, you may want to stop reading this blog.  You have another 27 days to watch the series on BBC I-player.

Hard-guy Sean Bean plays the main character, Father Michael Kerrigan, a deeply sensitive, careworn soul who does his best to serve his deprived working-class community single-handedly.

It seems that Bean initially turned the role down because Fr Kerrigan is a character who is passive and listens. McGovern counted this:  “I said that’s not passive – he doesn’t listen to people’s sins, he takes them on. After Confession a priest goes out heavier, while the other person goes out lighter.”

Amazingly in just six episodes all the big issues are covered, always head on and in stark daylight:  addiction and debt, sexual abuse and homophobia, poverty and full-on materialism, racism and establishment cover-up.  All human life is here except strangely, this being filmed in Kirkdale, Everton Football Club.

In fact, the church requisitioned by the BBC for the series is one I know reasonably well, St Francis Xavier’s Church in Salisbury Street, Everton, where we have our annual Diocesan church-schools Eucharist.

It is here where McGovern went to school.  He reflects  “We have the best priests in Liverpool, the best in the world. It’s not bells and smells, it’s getting down and dirty with the people, caring for alcoholics, the poor, the destitute, the homeless, fighting against bureaucracy and hypocrisy.”

However, the heart of the drama is guilt – and Fr Kerrigan is as guilty as hell.  He feels it deeply, especially as he consecrates the elements at the climax of the Mass.  He knows he is totally unworthy, no way fit to serve God.  His hand shakes. “I’m not a priest, I’m an imposter.”

We are given flashbacks to how this guilt has been nurtured over the years – an abusive mother and an abusing priest wreak their damage over the years.

Kerrigan has a sensitive conscience and he confesses to a parishioner (shouldn’t it be the other way around?) that his whole life is making penance for the wrongs he did in his youth– we are spared the details – to two young women.

Wonderfully – and somewhat unrealistically, all is resolved in the final episode, even during the final scene.

Fr Kerrigan’s mother, even on her deathbed, confesses to him her maternal mistreatment.  And Fr Kerrigan’s parishioners (virtually the entre cast except for the betting shop owner, obviously) confess their admiration for him as a priest.

As McGovern himself observes “People sometimes forget that they love each other.”

But his guilt is not addressed in McGovern’s script.  How does Fr Kerrigan enjoy God’s free forgiveness?

“While the resurrection promises us a new and perfect life in the future, God loves us too much to leave us alone to contend with the pain, guilt and loneliness of our present life.” (Josh McDowell)

It is one thing to be forgiven by God through Jesus’ death on the cross – the price paid, our debt paid, our stain removed.  But we need, like Fr Kerrigan, to know this deep-down in our hearts.: “I’m forgiven!”

Here we need the communion of the Holy Spirit, whom Fr Kerrigan regularly invokes at the beginning of each service.

So the apostle Paul rejoices:  “Already we have some experience of the love of God flooding through our hearts by the Holy Spirit given to us.”  (Romans 5:5 JBP)

All this is through grace and it is through God’s grace that Fr Kerrigan invites his fallen congregation, especially his own dysfunctional family, to receive Communion at his mother’s funeral.

For when it comes down to it there is simply nothing we can do to earn God’s forgiveness.  We simply come as we are, realising that we are broken and have nothing to give except our damaged lives, such is the wonder of God’s grace.

Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

As disembodied voices go, it was impressive!

road_to_damascus_by_lilybill-d5bhzha

As disembodied voices go, it was impressive!

Last night I took the M6 south to Werrigton and Wetley Rocks, which as you know is six miles east of Stoke-on-Trent. Former curate, Michael Follin, was being instituted as team vicar. A great service.

As usual for a newly installed vicar, Michael’s main contribution was giving the notices at the end of the service, a peculiarly Anglican tradition. There he told us about the disembodied voice.

On the previous evening he was strumming his electric guitar in the vicarage alongside the church – its what we vicars do when we have the house to ourselves.

He is then startled to hear a voice very clearly saying “ Michael, we are pleased you have come to St Philips and St John’s!”

Understandably Michael was startled “hearing the voice but seeing no one.” (Acts 9:7). Could this be a theophany? If so, very uplifting.

However, unlike me Michael is technically accomplished and he was soon able to work out what was happening. It seems his guitar amplifier was picking up the radio signal of the church pa system as the warden was rehearsing for the service!

Nevertheless, I am sure that this was God speaking to encourage Michael at the very beginning of a new ministry. That is what God does.

There are very few instances in the Bible of God speaking, so to speak, out of thin air, a disembodied voice as an objective event.

Just three times, I think, in the New Testament:
“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” at the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:17),
“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” at his transfiguration (Matthew 17:5)
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” at the conversion of Saul on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:4)

And that’s it. Normally it is not God’s way of doing things. Instead he relies on human beings to speak for him.

At the moment my daily BRF Guidelines is taking me through the Old Testament book of Amos, the earliest of ‘the writing prophets.’ We know a lot about his message; hardly anything at all about the man. Amos explains his ministry in a key verse: “Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” (Amos 3:7).

The Message paraphrases this verse: “The fact is, God, the Master, does nothing without first telling his prophets the whole story.”

God is intent on communicating his purposes to his people so that they may respond. Put God first, keep your side of the covenant by caring for the poor and vulnerable.

“Seek good, not evil, that you may live.
Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is.
Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts”. (Amos 5:14f).

Here is God speaking to his people. A clear message which if disregarded has consequences. Part of the deal, so to speak, is that God speaks to his people so that they can never say “Well, nobody told me!”

The Hebrew prophets, like Amos, have a degree of self-a
wareness.
They know that they have been entrusted with God’s message, whatever the cost.

So Jeremiah, a sensitive man, tries to keep his mouth shut but he cannot, such is the compulsion from the Holy Spirit. ‘I will not mention his word or speak any more in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones.” (Jeremiah 20:9)

And God continues to speak to us. It is an integral to his personality, so to speak.

So he regularly uses each of us to speak to others, just like Michael’s new warden welcoming him to Werrigton and Wetley Rocks. He thought he was speaking into thin air with no realisation that Michael was actually listening. Typical of God.

Every so often, when I am preaching in church, I find myself saying something I had not planned to say. “Where did that come from?” It has happened enough time now for me to expect someone to come up to me, not always right away, and share that that phrase or sentence spoke directly into their situation.

The test is always is this consonant with God’s word in scripture?

It’s all so matter of fact for the simple reason that we are God’s creatures living in God’s world. And he is far, far more active in our lives than we could ever imagine, using even us to speak for him.

So we make it easier for God by walking in his Spirit (Galatians 5:16)

So keep at it, even if no one notices

keep at it

So today it’s SIAMS!

Even as I type these words the Registered Inspector is getting into
his car to arrive at our church school for their first meeting at 8.15
am.

SIAMS?  The world of education more than any other I know is replete
with acronyms.  Here we have the “Statutory Inspection of Anglican and
Methodist Schools.”  Basically, how are we doing as a church school?

Our head teacher, David, and his staff –especially the SMT, have been
working hard to prepare for this inspection ever since they were given
due notice last Friday.

As chair of the Governing Body I know that Christ Church is a great
church school – and we can demonstrate this, certainly helped by our
extensive preparation for the diocesan Church and School Partnership
Award 2.

For me the main value of this exercise is to for the school,
especially our hard-working staff and volunteers, is be given
recognition for putting the “C of E” into the “Aughton Christ Church C
of E Voluntary Controlled Primary School.”

For we all need recognition for what we do.

It was John Harvey-Jones, when chairman of the now-defunct ICI, who
made it his aim “to catch employees out” doing something outstanding.
He once sent a bottle of champagne to the driver of a tanker he had
overtaken on the M6 for his particularly clean vehicle.

In fact, one of the reasons we went to Argentina was to offer support
and encouragement to Andrew Leake in his long, drawn-out ministry
supporting the indigenous people of the Chaco, a ministry does not
grab the headlines, even the endorsement of big names.  Few people
outside of Argentina know anything about the Chaco.

However, while we may value recognition when it comes, the important
thing is to keep at it, whatever.  And here I quote Abraham Lincoln no
less: “Don’t worry when you are not recognized, but strive to be
worthy of recognition.”

The Church of England has a unique ability to produce excellence in
the most unlikely and unnoticed places.  And as such, to go
unrecognised.

I remember some years ago reading Andrew Brown (I think), the then
religious affairs correspondent for the Guardian.  On reflecting on
the sermons he had heard (and endured) over the years, he reflected
that one of the best sermons he had heard was in a small country
church in the Yorkshire Dales.

Here in the wilds of the Pennines some vicar was doing their bit for
the Kingdom, no doubt appreciated by their sm
all congregations. They

deserved the best that this minister of the Gospel could offer.  Even
if no one else noticed.  Certainly no Times “Preacher of the Year” for
them!

But this is how the Kingdom of God works.

Jesus gave two parables about working for the Kingdom when your boss
is away in a far-away country.  In fact, there is every likelihood
that his eventual return is in the far-off future.  And what do you
do?

You keep at it.

In the parable of the talents in Matthew’s Gospel the master entrusts
his wealth to his servants. “To one he gave five bags of gold, to
another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his
ability.”  And then he leaves them to it.

Now the punch line is when the servant with just the one bag is caught
out for doing nothing with it. “You wicked, lazy servant!”

But is worth noticing that the other two servants, the one with five
bags who generates a further five along with the second servant who
was entrusted with just two bags of gold and who gained two more, are
both given the same commendation.

“Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a
few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share
your master’s happiness!”  (Matthew 20:21/23) Both were equally
fruitful, even with different results.

It seems that Jesus expects us to serve him in the long grind of
ministry without ongoing recognition.  Just be faithful – especially
if we have but one talent and appear to be outshone by others.

We may not be nominated for “worker of the week” award but we are to
stay true to our calling.   What Eugene Peterson memorably called  “a
long obedience in the same direction.”

But that is not to say that we do not get the recognition we need.  It
does come, from the person who gave us the responsibility to begin
with – and not just at the end.  For God does send signs of
encouragement – but often in the most unlikely of ways.

Teach us, good Lord,
to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will.
Amen.

So keep at it, even if they don’t say “Thank you.”

Strange how God uses mistakes.

Heswall GS

As soon as I walked in after all those years, I knew for certain that it was God who had engineered my move to Heswall.

At the time in 1979 it seemed a huge risk.  I even wrote to a friend: “I suppose the move could be the best move I’ve ever made or the most disastrous.”

So returning to the Church of the Good Shepherd last Sunday, after a gap of some 23 years, was a huge encouragement.

For we never wanted to go to Heswall.  Even the invitation to go there was as a result of a massive misunderstanding.  Strange how God uses mistakes.

But now looking back our move there could be the most significant decision in my ministry.  When I arrived the church was facing one way; when I left some five years later it was heading in a totally new direction.  A dramatic change of course.

It took another three ministries, back-to-back over 18 years to complete the transition but now the Good Shepherd feels like a very different church.

Even as we walked through the doors we could see that the church had been transformed – and not just the building.

Gone were the old pews packed tightly into this 1950’s building;  instead a carpeted worship space with a coffee serving area at the entrance.  And engaging all-age worship instead of BCP (1662 Book of Common Prayer) matins.

So many signs of spiritual growth!  A well attended young people’s congregation each Sunday evening, modern worship songs alongside the more traditional –and – the reason I was there – a decision to build a totally new church centre facing onto Telegraph Road.

When we first walked through those same doors in June 1978 you could never have envisioned such a future, no way.  Everything about the building said  “No change here!”  And so naturally I said No.

Canon Kenneth Lee had offered me the post of a second curacy as a result of a misunderstanding.  I was all set to become a school chaplain but somehow this information had reached him as “There is this curate in Liverpool looking for a job.”

So he wrote to me out of the blue.  I decided to go for an exploratory interview just to check out our decision to leave parish ministry.

Everything was wrong.  Ministry was liberal catholic, churchmanship was right up the candle and significantly Kenneth was about to retire.  He needed someone to cover the looming interregnum (the gap between one rector going and the new one arriving). And that was that.

But then God got involved – and we were to experience the most dramatic guidance to change course in order to change the course of this particular church.  Clearly there were some people who were praying.

It began with Kenneth sending us a Christmas card.  At first I could not work out who it was so firmly had Heswall disappeared from view.  But God was beginning to show his hand.

And time and time again over the following months Jacqui and I were shown the example of Abraham taking a significant step of faith. It seemed whenever we opened a book or turned on the television remarkably Abraham stepped out.

Unsettling to say the least – but that is exactly what God was doing, unsettling us, not allowing us to set our sights elsewhere.

One sermon in particular moved me – at St Andrew’s Litherland.  God seemed to be speaking directly to me, unnerving.  Strangely I was the preacher.

So to Kenneth’s delight and to the Bishop of Warrington’s disappointment we said Yes to Heswall.  It seemed at the time that I was the first evangelical in Heswall for eight centuries!

Even after moving I wasn’t sure.  And this hesitancy was confirmed when in preparing me, a retired priest showed me how to put on vestments.  Looking in the mirror I was horrified.  (< em style="font-family: Tahoma, Geneva, sans-serif; font-size: 12.09px;">This was 1979, a bygone age when everything you wore as a priest was significant).

But the Holy Spirit reassured me.  The Bible reading for that day was from Acts 21, the apostle Paul’s surprising decision to be purified in the Jerusalem temple along with some fellow believers. The Scripture Union commentary read:  “For the sake of the Gospel Paul gave up his principles.”

And that was me. Over the next five years I held on to two basics:  I would preach at every service and I would aim to explain the Bible passage as best I could.

And the Bible passage God gave to me as we “moved over the Water”:  “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last – and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.”
(John 1516).

Not surprisingly God keeps his promises.

In a word, we find ourselves in a muddle.

stay-confused-and-muddle-through

“So where does that all leave us?”

The Thomas Cook flight from Holguin to Manchester slams on its airbrakes just 7000 feet over our vicarage at 5.35 this morning (as usual). But rather than go back to sleep, I reach for my Galaxy to see how the General Election is doing.

And as you know, it’s a hung parliament.

Mrs. May’s decision to ask the country for a mandate in the Brexit negotiations now seems a big mistake.

As Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld wryly tweeted:  “Cameron gambled, lost. May gambled, lost. Tory party beginning to look like a casino.”

But the big problem is what does this election result mean?

Clearly the Tories failed to win the support the early polls promised them – but they are still easily the biggest party in parliament with a projected 318 seats.  And Labour may be euphoric but they are still way behind with 262.

More to the point, regarding Brexit, the most urgent question facing our nation the voters, as far as I can see, sent no clear message. Both main parties in principle supported this radical break with our European neighbours, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

As I write this Theresa May is still our prime minister but it is not just that she has lost the confidence of the country and certainly of our party.  More to the point, she must have lost confidence in herself.

If she does stay – and she may well have a sense of duty to stay (even though it must be an ordeal for her), she is hardly equipped to lead tough negotiations with our former EU partners.

I guess the most sensible thing to do at this stage is to phone Brussels and ask them to pause the negotiations while we sort ourselves out.

The fact of the matter is that we are living during a time of massive change as those tectonic plates which undergird our nation are shifting all over the place.  Too many long-term changes are taking place at once – and relatively quickly. It’s an unsettling time.

In a word, we find ourselves in a muddle.

“The British are proud of their ability to create a muddle and then muddle through all difficulties.”  So observes social commentator and Hungarian immigrant, George Mikes.  And we haven’t failed to disappoint.

The children of Israel found themselves in a muddle for nearly 40 years.  Their loss of nerve meant they failed to enter the land promised to them by God:  they simply could not bring themselves to trust in the Lord to honour his word.

And so they wandered in the desert for an entire generation.

There were times when they longed to be back in Egypt.  They complained vigorously to Moses:  “There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” (Exodus 16:3).

At least life was predictable there, harsh but predictable.

But God did not abandon his wayward people.  He remained with them, feeding them where there was no food, giving water in barren lands.   Above all, he stayed with them.

At the time it felt like an ordeal.  Just wandering around, no clear sense of direction, no known way.

But later, looking back they began to appreciate what God was doing – although it was not obvious at the time.  For it is only in insecure times we discover where true security may be found.  For some of the prophets, even, it was a golden age.

We see this most vividly in Hosea’s message to God’s adulterous people, as their Lord promises “Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her.”  (Hosea 2:14).

So it’s going to be a difficult time, not sure where we are going as a nation, unsure of the way forward.

Just like 1939 when King George made his now legendary Christmas broadcast:

I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’
And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be better than light, and safer than a known way.’

So we pray for our nation and especially for parliament, for those who would lead us as we tread into the unknown.

The Most Unforgettable Character I Have Ever Met.

jc4u

“You have a lovely tan!”
“Yes, I’ve just come back from a week in Majorca.”

It’s 1975 and while on a month placement at St Mary’s Edge Hill I accompany vicar, Alan Godson, as he pays his gas bill at Radiant House in Bold Street.

So far, so good.

But then Alan, never one to miss an opportunity to present the Gospel,  responds to the startled cashier:  “And do you know the sunshine of God’s love in your life?”

Stories about Alan Godson abound;  most are true.   He even changed his house number in Towerlands Street from 4 to JC4U.

Altogether a one-off, he had a passion for sharing the Gospel in every situation and with anyone who happened to be around.  I always assumed that that part of his brain which registers embarrassment wasn’t in full working order.

The point about Alan is that you either loved him or the opposite.  He once told me that people would try to hide as he approached.

That includes me, incidentally, when Alan is preaching.  There is always that risk of being hauled to the front to be asked penetrating questions.

I recall one service at St Michael’s Blundellsands when he summoned a newly married couple to the front of church.  “Do you know the Great Lover in your life?”

A remarkable evangelist, the Bishop of Liverpool took a huge risk when he appointed Alan as Diocesan evangelist to “flare the Christians and surprise the rest.”  For Alan regularly caused havoc.

He caused havoc here at Christ Church on Harvest Sunday in 1998 when he came to speak at the 6.30 pm service and delayed the organisation of harvest parcels which in those days took place following the evening service.

I assume the Bishop had a large file of letters of complaint about Alan.  But more to the point, an even larger number of people became Christians through his idiosyncratic ministry.

And that included two people in my life.

Somehow, way back in 1970 he invaded my world, that of 800m athletics.

There were five of us in the rankings:  John Davies, Phil Lewis, Martin Winbolt-Lewis, Alan Carter (I think) and myself.  Phil and I were the only Christians.  He went on to be a missionary in Pakistan.

However, John and Martin – both excellent runners – were totally focussed.  You would say ruthless.  They simply had to win, even on those occasions when we ran together as a team.  I have stories to tell.

The kind of people you would think would never become followers of Jesus.  That is until Alan Godson got involved.

Himself a rugby blue (and one of the founders of Christians in Sport) he made a point of getting to know leading sportspeople, especially in the world of tennis.  Alan had the knack of simply breezing into a social event and presenting people with the claims of Jesus, usually in the  first 45 seconds.  He had a strong first serve.

So I remember being taken aback at the Ceylon Tea meeting in 1971 when Martin told me that he had become a Christian.  Somehow he had met up  with Alan who promptly challenged him whether his life was simply running around in circles.  (There are two laps in the 800m)

Martin’s was the only occasion I can recall of anyone announcing their acceptance for ordination through the pages of the Athletics Weekly.  He recently retired as a hospital chaplain in Leeds.

And John Davies, the best and hardest runner of all of us?   We were all a little frightened of John and yet through Alan’s ministry he too became a disciple.  I have no idea how but the last I heard John was a church warden.  I just hope his church members can cope.

(I have lost touch with John and so if you are reading this, John, please do get in touch).

The secret of Alan’s ministry?  He once confided in me – it was being grabbed by the love of God.

For Alan, like all evangelists, has a passion for Jesus, a passion which overruled social conventions.  For as the apostle Paul reflects:  “The love of Christ compels us!”  (2 Corinthians 5:14). Whether you finish up liking the messenger or not is simply besides the point.

Sadly Triumphantly his funeral service takes place this afternoon at St Mary’s Church, Grassendale.   Alan was 86.  Our condolences to Lesley and his three sons, Stephen, Jonathan and Andrew.

There used to be a regular feature in the Reader’s Digest – “the Most Unforgettable Character I Have Ever Met.” For me it was Alan Godson.

Jesus calls us to cross over the road with him.

Guarani_Family

Homeward bound, here at Ministrio Pistarini international airport, as we prepare to travel to a city still in profound shock.


The atrocity at the Manchester Arena abruptly hit the media here in Argentina mid evening – we are four hours behind you.


Jacqui and I then had the surreal experience of following events on the other side of the world in real time – as if Tarleton, where one of the young victims lived, was just down the road from our hotel.


All this in total contrast to the isolation experienced by those pioneering missionaries to Argentina, even just a generation ago. Rachel Leake, wife to Bishop David and Andrew’s mother, did not hear that her own mother had died until well after the funeral.


So yesterday morning we were still, like you, in deep shock. One of our own granddaughters could easily have been at the concert. Moreover, daughter Jennie asked us to pray for a college friend who is head of a sixth form where seven students are either in intensive care after losing limbs or were then still missing.


As we walked along the waterfront of Puerto Madero we found ourselves in conversation with a local woman about our age. On discovering we were English she promptly offered her condolences. “It must be very difficult for you,” she said.


Indeed it was, but I thought at the time how this showed that we are not merely isolated individuals alone in a big world. Instead each of us belong, we are part of a community.


As far as this woman was concerned the tragedy in Manchester, some 7000 miles away, had touched us in a way different than it had affected her. Those young people were our young people.


And so this sense of belonging inspired the people of Manchester to respond as they did. Opening their homes and their hearts, a whole community coming together in compassion. It is how God has made us.


For as pastor Paul Tripp observes: “We weren’t created to be independent, autonomous, or self-sufficient. We were made to live in a humble, worshipful, and loving dependency upon God and in a loving and humble interdependency with others. Our lives were designed to be community projects.


And yet.


And yet this powerful sense of belonging can be so easily be corrupted into demeaning or even demonising those people who are not us, not of our kind. We need to be vigilant to those who would debar all Muslims as terrorists.


Greek culture in the time of Jesus was particularly dismissive of other peoples and cultures. In fact, those who were not privileged to speak Greek were mocked for their primitive-sounding language. “Bar-bar-bar-bar” is how they spoke! And so they were ridiculed as ‘barbarians’.


So when Paul writes to the Christians living in the ‘civilised city’ of Colossae, he makes the astonishing claim, that so-called barbarians are welcome into the family of God, just like us. The same status even.


“There is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, or free person. Instead, Christ is all and in all.” (Colossians 3:11).


This has radical implications, not least for how we are to value not just all people but also all peoples.


On Saturday I was in Iguazu, on the Brazillian border and there being no ParkRun in the vicinity I decided to do my own 5k, running along a splendid road cut through the subtropical rainforest.


On one side of the road were the up-market conference hotels, each beautifully landscaped and offering every facility to their discerning customers. For me it was breakfast heaven.


In total contrast, on the other side you could see hidden in the trees ramshackle huts with an untidy collection of all kinds of stuff. Here lived the indigenous people, the Guarani, seeking to make some living by selling their native wares to the tourists.


Now I have no idea how typical these Guarani people were of their community but this was their land, their forest. Even so I knew which side of the road I belonged to.


And so I am in complete awe of those Christians who respond to the summons of Jesus to cross the road and live with the indigenous people, sharing their lives and anxieties.


I wrote the other week of how the young Alfred Leake from a fishing village in Norfolk responded to God’s call to live on another planet, in the Chaco region of northern Argentina. And his ministry with the Wichi, the indigenous people of the region, has been continued over four generations of Leake’s.


And today the Wichi continue to be disparaged by those living on the right side of the road.


One of Sheila’s students in Salta, a privileged teenager from a wealthy family, wrote: “Wichis are so ignorant that they do not understand that if they want to improve the way they live, they will never progress and what is worse they will continue being a problem for producers.”


I have met so many heroes for Christ over the last few weeks who have sought to serve the Wichi. One I met at a CMS conference one month ago in Oxford: the Bishop of Northern Argentina, Nick Drayson along with his wife, Catherine Le Tissier.


Some 90% of his church are Wichi and so he decided to live where they live, not in the elegance of Salta but six hours away in the mud of Inginieiro Juarez, a town suffering the consequences of social breakdown.


For this is what Jesus would do. More, this is what Jesus did. When the time came, (Jesus) set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges.” (Philippians 2:6f)


May we each have the courage to cross the road in Jesus’ name.

You have to be a character to live here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the Mulligan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where did this ministry come from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Kingdom of God, timing can be everything.

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Hola,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is their book:

https://www.researchgate./publication/311667056_Deforestacion_del_Chaco_salteno_2004-2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God has made us inquisitive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Authentic Christianity means living the cross

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Not a good night last night as I enter day four of my battle with Yellow Fever.

It started on Tuesday and such was the discomfort that I took the extreme step of not going for my run.  Similarly yesterday.

My family think I am simply attention-seeking.  “Do you need to tell everyone you have Yellow Fever?”

They may have a point there but you have to admit that here in Aughton you don’t often hear the phrase: “I’m sorry but I have Yellow Fever.”

It’s just a variant, they tell me, of ‘man flu’.  They can say that, but clearly they have never had ‘man flu’ themselves.  You suffer without complaining (much).

At first I thought I had escaped the side effects of my Yellow Fever inoculation last Wednesday.  Good ParkRun on Saturday.  But then on day five, Wham.  Terrible muscle cramps.  Not exactly full-on Yellow Fever but bad enough.

All part and parcel of our preparations of going to Argentina to visit Andrew and Maria Leake next month.

You will know the theory of inoculation.  You give the body a much-weakened variant of the virus to practice on and so when it meets the real thing it knows what to do.

Except in my case my body even had problems even taking on the puny virus.

I once remember my doctor friend Alan (“Good morning, Alan”) telling me that so many of our contemporaries, especially those who went to public school, have been inoculated against Christianity.

Basically, so many people think they’ve heard the gospel and rejected it, when in reality what they rejected was not the gospel at all but a much-weakened variant of the real thing. They have experienced religious ritual without the reality of Christ, encountered consumerist Christianity without the cross.

The theologian John Piper writes: “In a society like ours, most people only know of either a very mild, nominal Christianity or a separatist, legalistic Christianity. Neither of these is, may we say, “the real thing.”
“But exposure to them creates spiritual antibodies, as it were, making the listener extremely resistant to the gospel. These antibodies are now everywhere in our society.”

Again Guardian columnist and London vicar Giles Fraser (his Area Dean is my son-in-law) sees these antibodies in the very heart of Anglicanism.  He writes:

“Safe though he was, the nice country vicar in effect inoculated vast swaths of the English against Christianity. A religion of hospital visiting and flower arranging, with a side offering of heritage conservation, replaced the risk-all faith of a man who asked his adherents to take up their cross and follow him.”

As ever it is the cross which cuts through our religious rigmaroles.  Our crucified Saviour challenges us to radical discipleship. “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”  (Matthew 10:37f)

This is not something we do, so to speak on the side:  it has to be at the very centre of our lives.

Over the last few days Jacqui and I have been watching Selma on BBC iPlayer.  If you can, make time to watch it during the next 23 days.

This remarkable film chronicles how Martin Luther King sought to secure voting rights for African-Americans by the aggressive use of non-violence against the white establishment in Alabama.   And all this in recent memory, just 1965.

What struck me was the clash between two forms of Christianity – the mutated form as adopted by the white supremacists and the real thing as demonstrated by those truly brave Christians, white as well as black, who were prepared to risk being beaten, even shot, by the racist cops and state troopers.


Here authentic Christianity took on the power of evil, risking injury and insult, even death, for the sake of justice.  And it triumphed.

King himself, was later murdered, such was the hatred he aroused.  Authentic Christianity isn’t always nice.

For as John Stott teaches:  “If we claim to be Christian, we must be like Christ.”  And that, of course, means the cross.

What are we going to do with Good Friday?

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“Is Easter the new Christmas?” asks the BBC news website.

It now seems that  Easter is now the second-biggest retail event in the UK after Christmas, worth some £550 million to our hard-pressed retailers.

You can now buy – wait for it – Easter crackers for the family.  Just head for your nearest Sainsbury’s, Tesco or Waitrose

I note that Poundland (where I invariably buy my gifts for the family) offer bunny banners, egg hunting merchandise and even carrot-shaped fairy lights.  In total contrast one of my daughters, moving upmarket, has bought us an egg-speckled wreath from John Lewis.

Easter is now much more than a Chocófest for children. It has become spring’s answer to Christmas, with bunnies, decorated eggs and lots of fun.  Yellow is now the colour.

We are returning to our pagan roots in this celebration of Ēostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess who – Wikipedia tells us – is herself derived from the Proto-Indo-European goddess of the dawn.

And the bonus for Easter, in contrast to Christmas, is that it is always a long weekend, Friday to Monday.  Days are getting longer and the weather is getting warmer.  We will soon be playing cricket.

However, there is just one problem.  Good Friday.

I note in this morning’s news that Tesco has had to apologise for its advert which proclaimed ” “Great offers on beer and cider. Good Friday just got better.”

Crass and insensitive, of course, but I can understand what the Tesco copywriter was trying to do.  Here we have a whole day which kicks off the holiday season – and how do we mark it?  Such a strange name too, Good Friday?  It simply invites elaboration.

I guess the nearest equivalent day in our culture is Bonfire Night, 5 November.  There throughout the land families gather to watch fireworks while holding hot chocolate and munching marshmallows.

We gaze at huge fires as we ritually burn Guy Fawkes to death.  Naturally we all gloss over the terrible details of his torture and dismemberment.  Actually you don’t want to know.

Jesus’ death was just as terrible.  Even more so, in that crucifixion is designed to prolong the agony for as long as the human frame can take such pain.

And that’s Good Friday, the cross of Jesus.

And there’s nothing you can do with the cross.  It just stands there as an affront. Not to be named in polite society.  Just an empty space, a day to be blanked out.

The miracle of Good Friday,” observes Mark Hart, “is that there was no miracle. Legions of angels stood – with swords sheathed – watching as the Son took our place.”

The danger, of course, is that we skip Good Friday and head straight for the golden uplands of Ēostre, to enjoy our chocolate and (for me, now that Lent is over) indulge in over-size cappuccinos.

But that is to miss the whole point of Easter.

As Bishop Fulton Sheen points out:  “Unless there is a Good Friday in your life, there can be no Easter Sunday.”

For it is the cross of Jesus which changes everything and as such it brooks no rival.

For as the apostle Paul proclaims “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)

And of course, Paul is quite right.  It i
s nonsense.  Literally – it makes no sense.  Just testimony to futility and pathos of life.   You can sing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” as much as you want but death still stand there in the wings.


But incredibly (literally) it is at the cross of Jesus we see God’s astonishing love and his passion for justice intersect.  As we see Jesus of Nazareth in his death throes, we are seeing God’s power in its most potent. Such is his love, such is his commitment to us.

And today we resist the temptation to jump straight to Easter and see the cross, so to speak, in retrospect.  Today we simply stand at the cross of Jesus and wonder.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
O sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

When we risk all – for Jesus.

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One cold and wet evening in autumn 1925 a young Church Army captain caught the ferry to the Pier Head to attend a meeting in Liverpool about missionary work in Paraguay.

Which was strange as Alfred had no links with anywhere in South America. No idea why he went to this particular meeting. His background was from a small fishing village in Norfolk. Two years with TB had truncated his schooling and so he worked in the local garage before being commissioned in the Church Army.

Shy and reserved Alfred eschewed up-front ministry. He felt more at home in social action, working with young offenders in Birkenhead.

Not many turned up to the meeting which was just as well as the speaker was boring and long-winded. And yet this was to be a pivotal moment: Alfred responded to God’s call to go to South America.

And as a direct result of Alfred’s obedience Jacqui and I will be flying to Argentina next month to meet up with Alfred’s grandson, Andrew Leake who along with his wife Maria continues to serve God in the far north of that vast country.

But the Argentina Alfred travelled to was in a very different world than today. Travel for one. Today you can do the whole journey in less than 36 hours, no problem.

For Alfred it began with a 30 day voyage from Tilbury to the Argentinean capital. Then four days by train to the railhead at Embarcación. The final 40 kms to Misión Chaqueña, where the mission to the Mataco Indians was based was by mule-drawn cart.

There you were effectively out of contact with the rest of the world. Mail was intermittent. And more, if anything broke you had to fix it with the resources at hand – something which Alfred was good at.

Health was always an issue in such a very hot climate. Swarms of mosquitoes and particularly menacing blood-sucking bugs called the vinchuca. No doctors, no modern medicines. Oh – and it becomes a war zone as Paraguay and Bolivia slug it out over oil rights.

Then remarkably some eight years later Alfred’s sweetheart from East Runton, Dorothy, joins him and they are married at the mission with most of the congregation being the indigenous Toba.

Fittingly the main part of their service was in the native language, fittingly because within a few years Alfred was to able a key role in translating the New Testament into Toba and Mataco, two of the local languages.

For Dorothy it must have seemed that she had landed on a different planet, for the love of Alfred and for the love of Jesus.

I write all this because I have only just finished reading the book entitled
“Under an Algarrobo tree” written by Alfred’s son, David – who has visited Christ Church and until he ‘retired’ was the (Anglican) Bishop in Buenos Aires.

These courageous men and women who left all and risked everything for the sake of the Gospel simply puts our nesh Christianity in the shade. Here I am, somewhat apprehensive before our three weeks in Argentina – will my Mastercard work? Where can I jog safely? And above all, what will be the quality of their Wifi?

The temptation is to value our comfort before our commitment, to play safe rather than risk all for the sake of Jesus, “who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

Certainly Jesus made it very clear – no small print here – that discipleship means total commitment to him. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23).

And there are key moments when our true motives are tested. Those times when we hear God speak – and know we need to respond one way or the other. Like Alfred at his meeting in Liverpool. “Do I trust God that much?”

“The defining moments of my life have not been my sins or successes,” ponders marine-turned-monk Brennan Manning. “They’ve been a depressingly small number of decisions that involved real risk.”

During Holy Week we focus on Jesus, on the events leading to his cruel cross, above all his willingness to drink the cup his Father had given him.

Such obedience did not come lightly. For as he prayed alone in Gethsemane Luke tells us “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” (22:44)

From that key decision everything else followed, no less than the healing of the whole of creation and more to the point, for me to become a beloved child of God, renewed and restored in Christ.” I owe him no less than my complete trust and willing obedience.

To respond as Jesus would, instinctively.

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First aid training this morning.  Ministry Centre: 9.30 am.  Mmmm.

I’m taking singer-turned-paramedic Bobby Sherman at his word: “Take some time to learn first aid and CPR. It saves lives, and it works.”

Just to say, I wish I had had some hands-on training 30 years ago.

One of the bearers at a funeral at my previous church in Rochdale collapsed in the rain.  An older man, he had helped carry a heavy coffin to the very edge of our graveyard.

Two of us worked on him in the church porch, even though I think he died before he hit the ground.

I did the chest compression, wishing I knew what I was doing.  My GP friend Alan later reassured me that breaking some ribs is virtually inevitable.

His widow and family made a special journey from Blackpool to thank us.  ‘Thank us for what?’ I thought at the time.  And since then I have filed this memory at the very back of my mind.

But you never know.  And you need to be prepared.  For how often I have heard the phrase:  “Then the training kicks in.”

In situations of extreme stress, we don’t have the time, the opportunity even, to deliberate.  You rely on your reflexes.  Those somewhat-awkward encounters with a plastic head/torso suddenly become very useful.

One of the aims of following Jesus is to allow his Holy Spirit to embed Christian reflexes so that in situations of stress we do the right thing naturally.

So as the temple guards appear out of the night to arrest Jesus, the instinctive response of Peter was to draw his sword and in a futile gesture of force attack the high priest’s servant, cutting off Malchus’ ear.  That’s what you do, hit out.

Jesus’ prompt response was to heal, as Luke tells us  “But Jesus answered, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.” (22:51),  That’s what Christians do at times of extreme stress, bless those who would harm us.

However, how does this Christian instinct embed itself in our brains?  Like our first aid class this morning, we train, we go through the routines until they become part of us.

Of course, it is going to be difficult, hard going.  Knowing what the right response is is one thing.  Actually doing it in situations of intense stress is something else.

It’s all in the preparation.

As soon as Jesus was commissioned by his Father through at his baptism by John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit sends him into the wilderness for hard testing.  There Jesus rehearses in his mind how he is going to accomplish the task ahead.

There he imagines the tests he is bound to face – the temptations to take the short cut, the appeal of the spectacular and the lure of worldly acclaim.

These were real temptations, they were always options open to him.  But when it came down to it, he was ready he had already gone over them in his head.  And because it took forty days he presumably went over them again and again.  In his mind he was rehearsing Messiahship.

Similarly just before his arrest by Malchus and his colleagues, Jesus takes time to pray in Gethsemane, “the place where olive oil is pressed.”  There he fights the battle beforehand in his mind so that when the guards appear he is ready.

That’s why the day by day discipline of spending time with God is so important.  What we used to call the Quiet Time.  It’s not just reading the Bible and leaving it at that.  It is giving Holy Spirit the opportunity to engage our imaginations.  Here we put into practice what are learning.

Part of this process is the deliberate decision to disown those actions where we have failed, even disobeyed.  We repent of our sins and as we own a new way of living, we seek to open up new neural pathways.

And that’s why small groups, even just two or three us of meeting in Jesus’ name gives him the opening to develop Christian reflexes.   Mutual encouragement, even mutual accountability.

Above all as a community of faith, as a church, we seek to encourage each other to respond to new, even unsettling, situations as Jesus himself would.

So the writer to the Hebrews urges his readers to keep at it, not to stop meeting together. “Keep each other on your toes so sin doesn’t slow down your reflexes.”  (3:12).

So when you see someone collapse in front of us, we instinctively know what to do.  In Jesus’ name.

When we pray we think bigger, much bigger.

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That’s the first hour covered. Now just 39 hours to go.

Good idea to walk to St Michael’s, I thought yesterday.  Our chapter – the local Anglican clergy – invariably begin our bimonthly meeting with Holy Communion and this month we were meeting down the road in Aughton.

However, this meant that the service in the chancel had already started when I arrived.  Nothing new there.  So I slipped in discreetly and found myself sitting in the Rector’s pew, the very same place where Rev William Henry Boulton led worship for over 50 years.

You will remember that this was the very rector who inspired the building of Christ Church some 150 years ago  We commemorate the laying of the foundation stone this Sunday, the very same day as in 1867, March 26th.

For me this was an unreal experience, sitting in his place

And what struck me most as vicar of Christ Church was how much smaller St Michael’s church is, certainly as you face the congregation.

So when Rev. W H Boulton started thinking about building a second church at the other end of his parish to accommodate the growing population of Aughton, he was thinking big.  That’s BIG with capital letters.

No modest mission hall for him.  No way.  His vision was for a huge building, at least four times the size of the parish church.  120 foot tower, a massive and highly ornamental structure. And no expense spared.

Even a balcony, which would lift the seating capacity to nearly 500 parishioners. Some building, some vision.

And here I quote, somewhat incongruously, Elvis Presley.  “Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine.”

So where did this spiritual oomph come from?  At the very least WHB was committing himself and his congregation to a spectacular step of faith, which – as we saw two weeks ago – was to cost him dear.  Any sense of status seeking would be burnt out through hard testing.

The answer was where I was sitting, where he prayed.   This was where God enlarged his vision.

A contemporary of the rector, Phillips Brooks (who gave us “O little town of Bethlehem”) urged “Pray the largest prayers. You cannot think a prayer so large that God, in answering it, will not wish you had made it larger. Pray not for crutches but for wings.”

For in prayer God enlarges our vision and enables us to see situations through his eyes.  It’s not that we need great faith in God but instead a faith in a great God.  And that makes all the difference.

This was the story of building our Ministry Centre.  It was in 2002, as we were preparing for this project, God spoke to us through the prayer of Jabez, from the Old Testament book of 1 Chronicles 4:10:

“Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request.”

So we began to pray that God would enlarge our territory and inspire us to think boldly and imaginatively.  To pray with the wings of faith.

And then in 2009, once planning permission for the proposed Ministry Centre was given, we as a church committed ourselves to seven days of continuous prayer in the church building.  This culminated in a gift day with an outcome which surpassed our already-strained expectations.

So as we prepare to celebrate 150 years of God’s faithfulness, we do with this  same commitment to pray, to seek God’s over-the-top grace.

Today this takes the form of 40 hours of continuous prayer which began at 7.00 am this morning.  If you are in reach of Christ Church, please make every effort to attend before it finishes at 11.00 pm tomorrow.

As of this morning we need cover for today at 7.00 pm and then Saturday afternoon from 12 noon, 1.00 pm, 4.00 pm, 5.00 pm and 6.00 pm.  A special thank you to those who have volunteered for the night shift.

For if there is any secret to the Christian life it is this commitment to pray, together and as individuals.  As simple as that.  It is how God works even through us, especially when we are at our weakest and most vulnerable.

And with Rev W H Boulton we allow the Holy Spirit to enlarge our vision and prepare us for the task he calls us to own.

“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 3:20f)

Why I speak such bad French

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¡Hola amigos!
You will be pleased to know that I am now learning Spanish.  This is in preparation for visiting our mission partners in northern Argentina, Andrew and Maria Leake, this spring.

My experience in visiting the hospital Universitario Nuestra Señora de Candelaria this January showed me that not everyone speaks even basic English and there are times when you just need to communicate.

So I sought the advice of CLM leader, Neil Rees, who ministered in Spain for nearly 30 years.  He pointed me to Memrise, both as an app on my mobile and a program on my Mac.   This means I can do it anywhere, sometimes just for a few minutes.  Frequent short bursts.

Amazingly I am picking it up very quickly.  In fact, it is so good I have actually paid to upgrade to Memrise Pro. (My family will explain how stingy I am.)

This is in complete contrast to my abysmal ability to communicate in French.

Listen to me speak this beautiful Romance language and you would never believe that we have visited France every year since 1972.  And even worse, I spent 40 minutes each school day over five years being taught French at Waterloo Grammar School.  That’s 675 hours of my life.

But that’s the problem.  I was taught at a Grammar School the structures and grammar of French: conjugations, active and passive, indicative and subjective, present, past tense and past perfect. Et ainsi de suite.

Moreover, we were taught to avoid mistakes at all cost. WGS used the carrot and stick approach in language learning but without the carrot.

In total contrast Memrise begins with simple words and phrases, without any explanation.  Moreover, modern technology allows me to listen to real people speaking naturally.

You will be impressed to hear that I have now learnt 274 Spanish words, with 233 in my long term memory.  However, I have no idea of its grammatical structure.

In other words I am learning Spanish the same way I learnt English.  By listening and speaking in every day life..  Above all, understanding that mistakes are not only inevitable but necessary.

Jesus invites us to learn.  As we discovered earlier this year we are called “to learn on the hoof.”  In every day life and it takes time.

One of my heroes, Oswald Chambers, reflected “It is instilled in us to think that we have to do exceptional things for God; we have not. We have to be exceptional in ordinary things, to be holy in mean streets, among mean people, surrounded by sordid sinners. That is not learned in five minutes.”

Surprisingly it was Jesus who chose his disciples and not as his contemporaries would have expected, the other way around.  And they were chosen for their ability to learn, their commitment to their calling of fishing for people.

As they live and travel with Jesus they see him at work, close up. They learn to pray just in the same way,  simple and to the point, no need to repeat yourself.  Just like talking to your Dad.

Above all, they learnt to take risks as Jesus would send them ahead in pairs, just the two of them, with the message of the Kingdom of God.  “Heal those who are ill, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.”  (Matthew 10:8).

It wasn’t all easy sailing, sometimes literally.  And they learnt slowly with many setbacks.

“How many times do I have to go over these things?” exclaims Jesus when his disciples could not heal a young boy with seizures.  “How much longer do I have to put up with this? Bring the boy here.”

It is all very practical, not three years of theory and then out into the world.

And it is how we are called to read the Bible – not as an end in itself but as a resource for discipleship.  There’s little point knowing the intricacies of the synoptic problem if you haven’t learned to forgive as Christ has forgiven us.

And we learn to forgive by realising from reading scripture.  We discover that God forgives us, freely and at awesome cost.   Then we decide to forgive, claiming the resource of the Holy Spirit.

We will probably find that the Holy Spirit lights up parts of scripture for us.  They jump out at us from the page.  That’s why the regular and disciplined reading of scripture is so important:  it gives God opportunity.  We are not collecting facts.   Instead we are given feedback.

It can be difficult but above all, we learn in community, a key value incidentally in Memrise.  They encourage you to learn in a group, just like the early church.

“Let the word of the Christ dwell in you in abundance in all wisdom, teaching you and exhorting you one to another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with grace singing in your hearts unto the Lord.”

(Colossians 3:16)

We are learners together.

The building of Christ Church – opportunity, risk and perseverance.

CCA

This very day 150 years ago Rev W H Boulton,  Rector of Aughton, was getting very excited.

For in just 16 days time Rt Rev Reverend William Jacobson, the Lord Bishop of Chester, is to lay the foundation stone for a brand new church at the far end of his parish.

I know because one of the tasks facing me today is to finalise our plans for the 150th commemoration of this event.  The bonus for me is that I have the internet.

But as we will see it was a huge technological revolution which necessitated the building of Christ Church Aughton.

For this story is very much a template of how God works, mirroring our experience of building the Ministry Centre

And it starts slowly.

On becoming Rector in 1834  Rev W H Boulton (I have yet to discover his Christian names) found the ancient parish of Aughton a small but prosperous rural parish.

However, what changed everything was the building of the Liverpool, Ormskirk and Preston Railway in 1849 with a station at Town Green. Now Preston and Liverpool – even Chester – were in easy access.

Vision usually takes awhile to form as God by his Spirit works in our minds.  We begin to notice things are changing. We start to think “What if.”

Certainly Mr Boulton became aware that the population of Aughton was beginning to grow and grow quickly.  The parish church was now not only too small but in the wrong place.   Quite possibly – my experience – someone said something to him and this set him thinking.

But vision takes time. The temptation is to get things going without clarity, to start too soon.  We try to hurry God up.

Suddenly and maybe unexpectedly an opportunity occurs in 1865.   One acre of land at Aughton Moss becomes available and wonderfully Edward Houghton, of Lytham, offers to buy this for the new church and later, a school.

Here is an opportunity to be grasped.  At this point WHB has to move very quickly.

And he does. He sends out a circular arguing the case for a new church.  The parish church is too small;  the parish population is growing rapidly

“It has accordingly been determined that immediate exertions should be used to build a new church for about 400 persons.”

This is one of those moments that God has to hurry us up to seize the day. As management guru Tom Peters wryly observes:  “If a window of opportunity appears, don’t pull down the shade.”

The Rector is now a roll.  For within just two years the foundation stone is laid.  But he takes a risk. The estimated cost of this new church is £6000 but only £4000 has been collected.

If God says go, you go.  “Faith means taking risks,” writes Rick Warren. “You don’t know exactly what God’s going to do in the end, but you know he’s asking you to step out in faith.”

But building for the Kingdom of God also means opposition and heartache.  There will be testing times.

And Mr Boulton was tested.  The project ran out of cash.

By 1871 the church had been completed outside but inside was just a empty shell.  And now the rector was taking flak.  He had to handle a deputation of parishioners demanding plan B.  The Ormskirk Advertiser suggests Lord Derby arbitrates.

And most painful of all.  A poem is widely circulated,  “St Long Lane.”  The brain child of
the Rev W H Boulton is gently mocked.  The seventh of the eight stanzas reads:


Unused, unopened, and unblest,
weird-like influence to her walls pertain :
Where feathery songsters pipe themselves to rest,
The only choristers of St. Long Lane.

However as the apostle Peter knew, such testing times are part and parcel of following Christ.  “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12).

Mr Boulton kept at it despite stiff opposition.  I don’t know how but the money was raised.  His perseverance was honoured.

Wonderfully on 4 May, 1877 the Bishop of Chester is back, this time for the consecration of Christ Church as a chapel-of-ease.  That means all debts have been paid.

Vision, opportunity, action, testing, perseverance and celebration:  God’s modus operandi. So do join us for our celebration on Mothering Sunday, 26 May.

Our biggest fear? Being embarrassed.

oscars

“Oscar blunder duo given bodyguards after ‘death threats.’” So reads this morning’s BBC news page.

I have every sympathy for PwC accountants, Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz, who continue to endure the full glare of global scrutiny just for handing the wrong envelope to Warren Beatty.  And now their very lives are in danger!

Hardly accountancy as we know it.

You remember the Monty Python sketch on accountancy:
“Exciting? No it’s not. It’s dull. Dull. Dull. My God it’s dull, it’s so desperately dull and tedious and stuffy and boring and des-per-ate-ly DULL.”

Clearly accountancy in Hollywood is very, very different.  Very exciting. And dangerous too.

But why the hype?  Here we are five days later and this story is not going away.

After all, no crime was committed.  No one was killed, not even a sprained ankle in falling off the stage.

It wasn’t as if the wrong envelope had been handed to some insignificant and bewildered production team who just happened to be passing by.  (That sounds like a good idea for a screenplay).

No it was the team responsible for La La Land who found themselves in the unfortunate position of having to step aside.  And they had already garnered a host of awards.  They could take  it.

No what made this particular mishap so arresting is that it was so incredibly toe-crunchingly embarrassing.

And of course, the pain of any embarrassment is directly proportional to the number of people watching.  In this case upto one billion people in more than 225 countries.  (At least that’s what the Oscars claim.)

In other words if you are going to make a fool of yourself don’t do it in front of 10% of the world’s population.

For the one thing we all fear is making a fool of ourselves, which in my job is an occupational hazard.

Without exception we will all go to great lengths to avoid embarrassment.   We would rather have our teeth extracted without anaesthetic rather than being made to look foolish in public.

At this point I will have to leave you.  Morning prayer in church and I don’t want to walk in half way.  So embarrassing.

I’m back.

As it happens our Bible passage for today was Jesus meeting with the Samaritan women at Jacob’s well, from John 4.

John tells us that it is noon – and yet this woman turns up to draw water.  Clearly she wants to avoid contact with other women.  Her fear of  embarrassment means she is prepared to endure even the full heat of the day.

But she meets Jesus, who is too tired to keep up with his disciples.  To say the least this was going to be a very socially awkward encounter.

However, Jesus seems totally unaware of the usual social protocols.  He asks her for a drink.  He – a male Jew and rabbi – defers to her.  A woman, a Samaritan, an adulteress.

“You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?”

Jesus seems unembarrassed.   Even his disciples, when they return, are surprised that he should break social convention by giving this woman his full attention.

She is transformed and so John tells us in a very matter-of -act way  “Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done.’” (John 4:28).

Such is her encounter with Jesus that she actually seeks people out to tell them about him.  Embarrassment?  What embarrassment?

For the one thing which stops us from sharing Jesus is our embarrassment.  Strange really, given that as the Samaritan women discovered, he is the one person who can break down the barriers and welcome us into relationship with God.

The breakthrough happens, as my evangelist friend Peter observed, is when we decide that what people think about Jesus is more important than what they think about us.

As the apostle Paul writes to Timothy, he writes to us: “So don’t be embarrassed to speak up for our Master or for me, his prisoner.” (2 Timothy 1:8)

In the Kingdom of God things are different.

Ranieri

“Your career is before you,” observes Screwtape as he proposes a toast at the Tempters’ Training College for young demons. “Hell expects and demands that it should be — as mine was — one of unbroken success.

Then he adds, somewhat menacingly: “If it is not, you know what awaits you.”

He could have been speaking at the annual dinner for Premiership managers.

To my own surprise I have some sympathy for the owners of Leicester FC in their abrupt decision to sack FIFA’s coach of the year, Claudio Ranieri. For Claudio knows that in football success is everything.

His team may have enjoyed stunning success last season but you are only as good as your current form.  Which in Leicester’s case is dismal.

Just think former Premiership champions, Blackburn Rovers – now in the relegation zone of the Championship League.   Or Leeds United.  Or Blackpool FC, now languishing in League 2.

For at its very heart football is a zero-sum game:  I can only win at your expense. None of this “every one a winner” stuff.  As supporters of Arsène Wenger know only too well, you don’t get points for playing pretty football.

And in many ways football is a metaphor for our society today. Results are everything. And that’s what’s killing us, as C S Lewis wryly observes in his Screwtape letters.  Hell does not countenance failure.

Things are different in the Kingdom of God and in a way we can scarcely imagine.

So the Hebrew prophets foresee a time when God’s rule embraces the whole of creation.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
(Isaiah 11:6)

The very fundamentals of this present creation no longer hold.  And there is no way our imagination can grasp this.

So the apostle Paul refers to Isaiah’s prophecy.

No one’s ever seen or heard anything like this,
Never so much as imagined anything quite like it—
What God has arranged for those who love him.
(1 Corinthians 2:9 Message translation).

And the message of Jesus?  Start to live your life on the basis that this wonderful future is not only certain but in part has actually arrived. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’

His message has huge ramifications. “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it..”  (Mark 8:35).

Of course, Jesus himself lived this.  And his life – despite early promise – turned out to be a complete failure.  “He was despised, and we held him of no account.”  (Isaiah 53:30)

As ever his resurrection, his conquest of evil, changes everything.  And it subverts our understanding of success.

When Winston Churchill said “Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm,” he could have been talking about the ministry of the apostle Paul.

For we read in the Acts of the Apostles how Paul goes from town to town sharing the good news of Jesus.

Usually he is only there for a few days before being thrown out – and then moving on to the next town.   Often he is thrown into prison; sometimes flogged.

And his results were not impressive.  In fact, he failed in his original goal of winning over his fellow Jews. Reflecting on this he writes: “How great is my sorrow, how endless the pain in my heart  for my people, my own flesh and blood!.” (Romans 9:1).

Invariably he had to settle for Gentile converts, most of whom were women.  Few had any social status.

Paul should have been sacked.  At least this was the view of the so-called ‘super-apostles’ of 2 Corinthians.

However, as the apostle argued, disciples of Jesus march to the beat of a different tune.  For the radical message of his Gospel is what counts before God is not what we have done but simply who we are in Christ.

And who are we in Christ?

“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”  (1 John 3:1).

Now that’s worth raising a toast to!

When he hit the wrong button

two button

“Typical!” I thought.  Typically Anglican – not even the Bishops can agree on what they have agreed to vote.

So the motion was placed before General Synod on Wednesday evening whether to take note of the Bishops’ report on marriage and same sex relationships.   The world held its breath.

You probably know that the motion was lost in a vote by Houses, in which the House of Clergy voted 100 to 93 (with two recorded abstentions) against.

However, what caught my eye was the vote in the House of Bishops.  Some 43 bishops voted to ‘take note’ of their scheme but one actually voted against.  Against their own report, that is.

And I was right: it was typically Anglican.  But not for the reason I thought.  Not one maverick Bishop choosing to break ranks.  Not a charismatic Bishop suddenly seized by the Holy Spirit.

No – as we found out yesterday – it was the Bishop of Coventry pressing the wrong button.

And to be fair he owned up. “Due to a moment of distraction and some confusion over the voting process,” confessed the Rt Rev Christopher Cocksworth,  “I pressed the wrong button on my handset.”

Now I have no idea what the buttons look like.  Is there one big green one with YES alongside a big red button saying NO?  At this point I recall Fr Dougal McGuire facing the big red emergency button in the airline cockpit in “Flight into Terror” (Father Ted 2:10 1996)

Thankfully Bishop Christopher’s dyspraxia did not affect the outcome of this important vote.  And it does now seem that he was not alone.  Several lay members also managed to press the wrong button.

However, just imagine how American politician, Becky Carney, felt when she pressed the wrong button in a key vote in her state legislature to allow fracking, something she had strenuously opposed.   The motion to be passed needed just one more vote – and guess what?

Just after the vote, Carney’s voice could be heard on her microphone, saying “Oh my gosh. I pushed green.”

To be fair to Bishop Christopher and Ms Carney we’ve all been there.  I usually press the wrong button when visiting Hampton Court.  (I refer to the new flats off Black Moss Lane rather than the palace itself).

I cannot recall a single case of someone pressing the wrong button in the Bible.  Which means that this is going to be a very short blog.

However, pushing the wrong button is at the heart of the human condition.  Given a two way choice, we make the wrong decision.  And usually for the wrong reasons.  We take the forbidden fruit, we take the wrong road.

“Enter through the narrow gate,” says Jesus. “For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”  (Matthew 7:13)

It’s so easy to press the wrong button.  We follow the crowd, we are taken in by false promises, we refuse wise counsel.  And more, we avoid hardship and tough testing.  We take the easy option.

The big problem, however, of pressing the wrong button – as Bishop Christopher discovered – is that it cannot be unpressed.  That’s it.  The die is cast. “Turn around when possible” is not an option.

But what we can do is what the Bishop of Coventry did do – admit our mistake.  Even if it takes the attention of the world media.  And okay, for the next 25 years he will not be allowed to press any lift button in case he takes everyone to the wrong floor.  But you own up.

One of the loveliest phrases in the Bible comes from the Old Testament book of Joel.

As ever the people of Israel have gone their own way, made their own choice to live independently of the LORD their God.  The prophet urges that they rend their heart and not their garments.  “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate.” (Joel 2:13)

And what happens next?  Amazingly and wonderfully, God undoes the consequences of their wrong decision.   “‘I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten.”  (2:25)

Okay you have pressed the wrong button, you have done your own thing.  But no sooner as you articulate your bad decision and return to me, then watch me put things right.

Such is God’s grace to those who manage to press the wrong button.

Why all this fuss over birthdays?

birthday celeb

A significant birthday in our household today, even of Biblical proportions.  And it’s not mine.

However, as Shirley Bassey – now 80, would you believe – contends: “You don’t get older, you get better.”

But why are birthdays so important?   Why all the fuss?  I’m reasonably sure that Jesus never sang “Happy birthday” or its cultural equivalent.

In fact, there are only two birthday parties singled out in the Bible – and we would readily turn down invites for each.

The first was for Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt, the very one who needed Joseph to interpret his dreams. So we read in Genesis 40:20:  “Now the third day was Pharaoh’s birthday, and he gave a feast for all his officials.”

In fact, the Jews had a thing about birthdays.  So we read in the prologue to Job that “his sons used to hold feasts in their homes on their birthdays, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them.”  (Job 1:4)

These sound like happy family bunfights.  However,  Job himself wasn’t too keen, for we read that “when a period of feasting had run its course, Job would make arrangements for them to be purified.”  A kind of spiritual detox.

Then later in their history birthdays reminded the Jews about their oppressors, the Babylonians.  For in this alien culture birthdays had an intimate link with astrology and horoscopes.

Even in their dreadful captivity the Jews refused to disown loyalty to the God of Israel.   He alone – and not these pretentious rivals – orders our future, decides our days.  “Which of their gods foretold this and proclaimed to us the former things?’  (Isaiah 43:9).

The next culture to come along and threaten was from Greece.  And here again the Jews were also very wary, even as they spoke Greek and had their scriptures translated into this pagan language.

For the Greeks believed that each person had a protective spirit that attended the person’s birth and thereafter watched over him.  But who needs a protective spirit when the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth, promises to keeps watch over his people?

Which brings us to the second birthday party.  This lavish event was thrown by Herod the tetrarch, of all people.

“On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee.” (Mark 6:21)  So Mark recounts in some detail how John the Baptist was killed for his prophetic witness at this birthday party.

No wonder then that the early Christians gave birthdays a miss.

For what it’s worth the third century theologian and spoilsport, Origen, thought that Christians should not only refrain from celebrating their birthdays, but should look on them with disgust.

But that’s typical of Origen – a total ascetic who was disowned by the Catholic church for his false teaching.  And for good reason, for the Gospel is good news of great joy, a cause for much celebration.

And of course, Jesus loved parties – even if it gave his critics ammunition.  As Jesus himself tells us “Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”  (Luke 7:34)

Not only did Jesus often go to parties (and make sure that they didn’t run out of wine), he taught that the Kingdom of God is true celebration, the best of all banquets, to which everyone is invited.

It is the Biblical theologian William Barclay who suggests:  “There are two great days in a person’s life – the day we are born and the day we discover why.”

It is Jesus who calls everyone to celebrate – even when it is just one lost sinner who repents, when we realise why we were born.  And the reason? “To love God and to enjoy him for ever.”

As the woman on finding her lost coin invites her neighbours to celebrate, so Jesus teaches:  “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  (Luke 15:10).

Just one sinner.  To know we are loved and valued simply for being ourselves is worth celebrating, such is the grace of God.

And such is this grace that Miss Bassey may in fact be right.  Through the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit in each disciple, “we all .. are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18). So let’s party!

Happy birthday, Jacqui!  Your special day.

When a spoiler alert is not needed

la-la-land-poster

Mia: Maybe I’m not good enough!
Sebastian: Yes, you are.
Mia: Maybe I’m not! It’s like a pipe dream.
Sebastian: This is the dream! It’s conflict and it’s compromise, and it’s very, very exciting!

I really enjoyed La La Land, which was a surprise as feel-good Hollywood musicals are not my genre.  But the big surprise was the surprise.

And the surprise had huge theological implications.  I can already feel a wonderful quote from Thomas Hardy forming in my brain.

But alas, I will have to stop there.  Until the film is broadcast on ITV2 it would be wrong to spoil it for you.

It’s like when we went to watch James Cameron’s Titantic some twenty years ago.  The boat hadn’t even left Southampton when Jacqui leant across and said:  “It sinks, you know!.”

That was it.  Even has Leonardo and Kate fought against the elements, I knew the ship was doomed.  Nothing worse is knowing the ending of an oceanic thriller.

Mind you Mark is no better when he penned his gospel, presumably at the behest of the apostle Peter.

Right there at verse one he tells us who Jesus is:  “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” No spoiler alert here.

Right through the gospel, the disciples are working overtime to try to make sense of Jesus.  “Who is this man? they asked. “Even the wind and the waves obey him!’ (Mark 4:41).

And the members of the synagogue in Nazareth thought they knew Jesus better than anyone else but no longer:
“Where did this man get these things?’
‘”What’s this wisdom that has been given him?
“What are these remarkable miracles he is performing?”
(Mark 6:2).

Right through to the end, to chapter 16, everyone is trying to work out who Jesus is.  But we know – Mark has told us at the very outset.  He is no less than the Christ, the Messiah; he – and not Caesar – is the Son of God.

So as we read the Gospels we know what’s happening, something which was not obvious the time.

John says as much in his account of cleansing the temple, especially when Jesus declares “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

No one at the time had any idea what he meant.  It was only looking back, from beyond the resurrection, did these strange words make sense.

So John writes: “Later, after he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered he had said this. They then put two and two together and believed both what was written in Scripture and what Jesus had said.” (John 2:22 the Message translation)

However, it is one thing to say – especially during tough times  – that one day we will understand. But what about now, when we can barely hold  on?

This was the dilemma facing the seven churches of Asia, which feature in the last book of the Bible, Revelation.  They knew they were about to face the full wrath of Rome;  indeed persecution had already started.  And they were anxious.

So God gives a vision to John (who was not necessarily the same John who wrote the Gospel) exiled on a Greek island for his witness.  He shows him “what must soon take place.”

And so we are taken behind the scenes towards God’s glorious future.  Then the wonderful climax 20 chapters later.  “Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed.”

John continues: “God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:1, 4)

So that’s how it finishes.  John tells his readers, he tells us:  We win.

Therefore, he urges, live your life today knowing how it is all going to end.  God is going to heal his entire creation.

Refuse to be intimidated by the power and the glory of Rome.  See through their empty threats and stand firm.  The reality is that they can’t touch you.

“I am coming soon,” says the risen Christ.  “Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown.”  (Revelation 3:11).

So Mia, this is the dream! And it’s very, very exciting!
Sometimes it helps to know the end.

Standing up for those being put down.

jewishchildren

Wonderful! Back to my regular Friday morning routine. Responsive keyboard, fast internet and no-one trying to steal a look at my screen. So here goes.

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day.

Speaking at a special commemoration yesterday evening Archbishop Justin said: “The culture of alternative facts, of post-truth, of collusion needs to be challenged at every level and in every conversation and debate in this country if indeed we are to be a place of safety and healing for those fleeing tyranny and cruelty.”

This Tuesday a long-standing friend over from New York for business took Jacqui and I out for a meal in a very smart restaurant in Manchester. (That’s my kind of friend).

We love meeting with Jeff: a much-travelled raconteur, a good listener with a genuine concern for me and my family. Moreover Jeff is my only friend who is Jewish – and so often we talk shop. He tells it as it is.

So I was quite shocked when he told me that the only time he himself has experienced antisemitism was here in Manchester some months ago, in a queue at the airport.

It seems that just ahead of him was a passenger wearing a yarmulke, clearly what Jeff would call a religious Jew. As Jeff approached the counter, the man behind him said “I love holidays. Even the Jews are polite.” He did not realise that Jeff himself was Jewish.

Maybe it was meant as light humour, a simple quip. But that is where it starts – and such language, as Justin said yesterday, needs to be challenged. We cannot let it pass.

When in London do your best to visit the Imperial War Museum by Waterloo station and head for the Holocaust Exhibition which occupies two floors. I always find it profoundly moving.

The most harrowing photos for me are those at the very beginning, around 1934. These show how Jewish children are singled out in their schools for regular humiliation. Nothing particularly dramatic but even the more frightening as seeds of hatred are being carefully sown to bear a horrifying harvest.

Of course, Holocaust Memorial Day is not limited to the suffering of the Jewish people but includes all victims of genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.

And that means we need to be vigilant to any expression of racial hatred, of xenophobia, for we are living in a time of growing insecurities as we see the world around us changing fast.

Figures due to be released next week are expected to show 2016 was the worst year in decades for antisemitism, with an average of 100 incidents a month across the UK reported to the charity Community Security Trust, which monitors such hate crime.

It seems that the numbers for the first six months of 2016 were double that of three or four years ago and the effect on the Jewish community, in the words of the trust’s spokesman was “very upsetting.’

But its not just Jews. Last week Ann Linde, the Swedish minister for EU affairs and trade, said she was shocked by the uncertainty and xenophobia experienced by Swedes in the UK since the referendum.

So one Swedish woman working in the City was told by a colleague that the country had voted to get people like her to “get out.” It may have been a simple banter but dangerous nevertheless.

Here Christians have a particular role and an important responsibility for our society. For scripture time and time again directs us to welcome the alien and the foreigner, particularly in the book of Deuteronomy which I am reading at the moment.

“And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19)

For as Christians we have no need to fear: our security is in Christ. We need not feel threatened: the Good Shepherd is with us. Our value comes from being loved by God, not through demeaning others.

For this is where God is taking us, to a renewed world, to a glorious future, where our distinctive identities are both cherished and brought together through the cross of Jesus.

So John sees God’s glorious future. “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9)

So as Christians, as disciples of a Jewish carpenter, we do not let pass any comments, any quip which seek to demean or diminish other peoples or groups. It could be an interesting time today in the Oval Office.

Back up for blog on Transition takes time

Well, folks, it’s homeward bound!


Back to my responsive desktop and to a reasonably fast internet speed, same challenge but this time a plane to catch – in three hours time. No pressure there

I continue to be amazed at the speed of international travel nowadays.

As a boy my father took us on holiday to Costa Brava – overland, by train.
Our return journey would take an unbroken 36 hours. For a child it took forever as I peered at the passing French countryside in early dawn. Field after field, town after town, on and on.

Now it’s a case of lunch in Los Cristianos as we soak up the sun and then, before we know it, beans on toast in the chill of a dark Aughton evening as the rain lashes the windows.
Just like that! (I exaggerate for effect; at least I hope so).

But we need to recognise transition and not to move too quickly between places and experiences. Very simply it takes time to adjust. That’s why I prefer to walk rather than drive around the parish.

This is particularly so for those moving abruptly out of conflict zones.

You may remember this summer how surgeon Dr David Nott, who served with Medecins Sans Frontieres, was unable to reply when asked by the Queen about his experience in Aleppo. Sensing he was “seriously traumatised”, the Queen asked if she could help before calling for her corgis.

Dr Nott told Desert Island Discs the dogs had a therapeutic effect. Clearly he needed to adjust to ordinary, everyday life. And this takes time. It cannot be hurried.

Only yesterday Jacqui shared with me a quote from the Ian Rankin novel she is reading.
Here Inspector Rebus observes “More Falkland veterans have taken their own lives that were killed in the conflict.”

I’ve heard this before – and just a few years ago I checked it out with one of the officers, a Royal Marine, who had been involved in the campaign.
It seems, he told me, there was a big difference in the mental health between those who had flown straight home to the UK and those who had returned by ship in the Task Force.

Those extra ten days or so made all the difference in making the very difficult transition from the battlefield to the school playing field. And more, this was made collectively. Mutual encouragement is everything.

The most significant transition in the Bible was the time it took the people of Israel to move from slavery in Egypt to freedom in God’s promised land. We know from Deuteronomy 1:2 that it should have taken only eleven days to go from Horeb to the border town of Kadesh Barnea. In fact, it took no less than 40 years of wandering around the wilderness.

At the time it seemed a huge failure – failing to take God at his word and seize the moment. So God had to teach his people to trust him the hard way.

But in retrospect the Hebrew prophets saw these wilderness years as a time of real blessing, as God step by step taught his people to trust. After all it was at Mount Sinai when the covenant between God and this wayward people was forged as Moses received the Ten Commandments.

One interesting fact for you is that the root of the Hebrew word for wilderness, midbar, has the meaning of “speak” or “word.”
The wilderness is the place where God speaks and more to the point, where we learn to listen.

This was clearly important for Jesus, literally. The Holy Spirit, Mark tells us, drove him into the wilderness for 40 days following his baptism at the very beginning of his ministry. A key transition moment.

Here he quotes directly from the Hebrew Scriptures: ”God humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”(Deuteronomy 8.3).

Here the people of God were making the painful transition from being slaves in Egypt, subject to the whims of their taskmasters to the responsibilities of living in the promised land of milk and honey. Their calling? To be a light to the nations.

So for us as disciples of Jesus. We are all in transition, as God prepares us for the next significant event or task required of us. It may well mean a whole new way of working, of serving him.

Such transitions are never easy and like my slow-running iPad cannot be hurried. And so we need to understand that there are seasons of preparation. Often they take longer than we would want. But at the same time we need to seize the moment when it comes.

As ever God is teaching us to trust his timing and be prepared for that Holy Spirit moment. Being able to recognise this when it happens is part of God’s preparation.

When a perfect storm hits A&E

Stafford-Hospital

A hospital overwhelmed, patients on trollies even along the entrance corridor.

So this lunchtime we pick Cliff up to visit Mary following surgery on her fractured elbow, relieved to hear that her condition is much better than we first feared following her fall on Monday.
We take with us the prayers and best wishes of our church family along with get well cards and messages of support. She is in good heart.


It’s about 40 miles to Santa Cruz, to the Hospital de Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria along the only motorway in Tenerife.

It’s not just the NHS overwhelmed.
I understand that the problem here has been an outbreak of pneumonia. “It was like being in a war zone,” Mary reflected.

It seems any health care system is in danger of being overwhelmed by ‘a perfect storm.” And it is too easy to criticise our NHS when everyone turns up at A&E at once. However, just imagine being turned away by a private hospital because you are covered by the wrong insurance company – as happened to Mary.

We need to remember that the NHS is founded on profound Christian values – care for everyone, whoever they are, whatever their situation, wherever they may be. No one is ever turned away, such is the value that God places on each person. Lepers are touched, beggars are welcomed, tax collectors invited in.

Farewell to John and Joan, Matt and Jackie and little Reuben – safe journey. Hope that Manchester airport is open. I have just told Matt that I feel like a war correspondent with his battered Remington typewriter sitting at the back of the bar trying to get his report through – such is the quality of this internet connection, the slow running of my iPad and the bustle of people about me in this bar.

So often I hear parishioners tell me, as they recover from a life-threatening condition, how wonderful their care has been.

For hard-working staff, committed to the care of their patients often in trying situations are upheld in the ethos of Christian service. Of course, we are all sinners prey to status seeking and personal ambition. Like the Church of England. But those values are just as valuable, so to speak. And so we need to affirm those medical and support staff battling on through this year’s winter crisis.

“Joy can only be real,” mused Leo Tolstoy, “if people look upon their life as a service and have a definite object in life outside themselves and their personal happiness.”

And that just not just apply to those in public service, whatever their department. It applies to us all – to see Christ in each customer, each passenger, each colleague.

For as Jesus himself taught “’Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:41)

This was the verse Mother Theresa reflected on while she was in hospital in 1983:

Jesus is the Hungry – to be fed.
Jesus is the Thirsty – to be satiated.
Jesus is the Naked – to be clothed.
Jesus is the Homeless – to be taken in.
Jesus is the Sick – to be healed.
Jesus is the Lonely – to be loved.
Jesus is the Unwanted – to be wanted.
Jesus is the Leper – to wash his wounds.
Jesus is the Beggar – to give him a smile.
Jesus is the Drunkard – to listen to him.
Jesus is the Mental – to protect him.
Jesus is the Little One – to embrace him.
Jesus is the Blind – to lead him.
Jesus is the Dumb – to speak for him.
Jesus is the Crippled – to walk with him.
Jesus is the Drug Addict – to befriend him.
Jesus is the Prostitute – to remove from danger and befriend her.
Jesus is the Prisoner – to be visited.
Jesus is the Old – to be served.

May the Holy Spirit give us all this vision, this way of seeing each other.

How liturgy helps me

Praying-Together

Today is Friday.  Normally that means Psalm 95 but today being Epiphany it is Psalm 100:

O be joyful in the Lord, all the earth;
Serve the Lord with gladness
and come before his presence with a song.


Each morning in church we say together Morning Prayer using a booklet curate Michael Follin put together in 2003 from the recently introduced Common Worship.  Since then it has become part of my life.

Of course, liturgy in many ways is out of favour.  Certainly it doesn’t fit easily in our modern culture. It inhibits spontaneity, just saying out words from a book while your mind is elsewhere.

However, an apt quote in defence of liturgy from my hero, Tom Wright:
“The author chuckles at the resistance to using a prepared, written liturgy in prayer. He compares it to being unwilling to dress in any clothing we did not make ourselves, or being unwilling to drive a car we did not construct entirely by ourselves.”

However, for me regular liturgy is a major resource.  For one of the effects of saying morning prayer over the years is that huge chunks of scripture are now embedded in my brain.

Of course, there are times when I speak the words along with my fellow disciples while I am thinking something else.  Other times I just jog through the text.

But all the time these words of scripture are doing their work in my life. They are now there in my memory without any conscious effort to remember them.

We need to have a memory bank of scriptures.  Sometimes you may not even realise that they are there but you will certainly need this God-given resource.  Sometimes that is all that we have left.

As vicar I am regularly called out to pray with someone who is dying.  Already twice this year.  It is a sacred moment.

Usually they are barely conscious and so I bend down to speak gently into their ear.  Here Psalm 23 comes into its own
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes my lie down in green pastures,
He leads me besides the still waters.


Here by using a familiar and much loved passage of scripture,  we claim God’s’ blessing, his protection though the valley of the shadow of death.  This is so much more powerful when the passage is owned and known.

When loved ones are present, together we say the Lord’s Prayer.  This is an example, so obvious we may not realise it, of liturgy being accessed in time of need.

We see this above all Jesus.  In excruciating pain and with his strength ebbing away, “Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46).

Here Jesus speaks out scripture: Psalm 31:5.  And more, like saying Psalm 23, the wider context gives the full meaning.
Into your hands I commit my spirit;
deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.


As a Jew this was part of his heritage.  It comes naturally to him to access God’s word. He would have learnt this through synagogue from his earliest years.

For liturgy is for all of us, as this lovely story from Doug Chaplin of the Diocese of Worcester shows:

“I know a family whose youngest child has some learning difficulties that seemed particularly to affect her language skills. She struggled to join in with the simplest conversation verbally, even as she also gave other signs of intelligence and understanding what others were saying.

“In worship, she appeared to like to be there, (for the parts of the service other children were present) but simply couldn’t cope with some of the simpler action songs other children enjoyed, even if she tried to join in.

“After a few months had passed, she suddenly started joining in verbally. What she joined in singing was the Gloria in Excelsis (in English!): the same words to the same tune every week had become the means of participation. They are not particularly readable words, and not the first remedy one might have suggested for a child with learning difficulties.

“But they reveal something about the power of respecting the basics of liturgy.”

Christians do not fall out.

IMG_7662

Commotion and laughter, tears and much merriment, disorder and distraction:  they are all there in our annual family photo.

We use a camera timed-shot:  the ten second delay doesn’t help.  So the exhortation to stay still and look at the lens invariably produces the opposite result, and not just with our grandchildren.   Iris  insists on crying, Bella the dog disappears, someone pulls a face, I blink.

Andrew is working on a video to be entitled the making of the Moughtin Christmas photo.  It won’t be pretty.

But that’s family life and it is how God has made us.   As Desmond Tutu  observes “You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them.”

Of course, family life was central for Mary and Joseph. They were Jewish.  Reading the Old Testament we often come across whole lists of genealogies, sometimes page after page.

People in the Hebrew scriptures are defined by their family:  that’s who you are, it’s where you fit in.

And so it is no surprise that the New Testament begins with Jesus’ family tree:  “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham.”   Then 15 verses of names to give Jesus his context in God’s salvation plan.

Yet something is afoot as Matthew breaks from convention. He includes four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba.  It was contrary to Jewish practice to name women in a genealogy.

The Talmud states, “A mother’s family is not to be called a family.” But this is exactly what Matthew does – and more, he includes four women each with a past.  The careful reader is unsettled.

Jesus, of course, grew up within a strong family unit.  Luke is careful to point out:  “Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. . . And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.”  (Luke 2:51).

But then, as we say in last week’s blog about Mary, Jesus seemed to redefine family life and in a radical way.

His ministry is now firmly established;  he has chosen his twelve disciples.  The route to the cross is now marked out.  And then Mark tells us  “When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’ (Mark 3:21).

“When Jesus is then told that “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you,” he responds with a surprising question.  (Jesus always responds with a surprising question).

“‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ he asked.

“Then he looked at those seated in a circle round him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.’”  (Mark 3:32f)

Jesus is redefining family life.  Anyone and everyone may belong.  And that is good news to those who place their trust in him.

So the apostle Paul exhorts  “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Galatians 6:10).   This is radical stuff,  now anyone may come to know God as our loving, attentive Father.

“Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” (Hebrews 2:11)

Of course, this new status brings responsibilities, not least to love with the love we are loved,

So in the earliest part of the New Testament we read:  “And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more. (1 Thessalonians 4:10).

This love means that Christians are different:  we do not fall out.

I recall a family Christmas party when I was very young, say nine.  Two of my uncles, whom we rarely saw, both turned up.  Which was a surprise as they hadn’t spoken, it seemed, for years.  They were both Christians.

The memory is very hazy.  However, what I recall very vividly is how one uncle entered the room and seeing his brother offered his hand  “Good to see you, Tom.”  And uncle Tom responded.

This is how the Christian family is to function for the simple reason we are loved, valued and forgiven by our heavenly Father.  “For God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 5:5).   Christians do not fall out.

So there is commotion all around, the children keep pulling faces, the dog barks and the flash fails to work, that’s family life.

Every blessing for the new year with this verse from Ephesians.
“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”  (4:32)

The gift of being able to receive a gift..

suJnsh6

“God never gives someone a gift they are not capable of receiving,” observed Pope Francis. “If he gives us the gift of Christmas, it is because we all have the ability to understand and receive it.”


Strangely we can find it so difficult to receive. Children don’t. Certainly in two days time my grandchildren will give me a masterclass in how to receive. Sadly it’s something we grow out of all too quickly.

But Mary knew how to receive.  Maybe the main reason why God chose her.

This week, in my preparations for Christmas I have been using BRF Guidelines, which follow the theme of the spirituality of motherhood, written by Sarah’s former Director of St Mellitus NW, Jill Duff.  Excellent.

So the angel Gabriel visits Mary, as the countdown to the first Christmas begins. “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you. (Luke 1:28)

“Mary was an unlikely choice for the ‘mother of my Lord.’ It seems that God does not bestow his favour as we might advise him to; and indeed, accepting God’s’ favour is not as straightforward as we might think.” (page 121)

We can so easily find being at the receiving end of incredible generosity incredibly difficult.

It’s what happens when we give a friend a League 2 Christmas present only to discover that they have given us a gift straight from the Champions League.  It’s embarrassing and we feel awkward.

But Mary knew how to be loved and valued.  No need to win God’s favour or pull herself together to make herself acceptable.  She received with a simple Yes:  “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”

“Mary was asked to have faith in a way that was without precedent, surpassing any expectations.”  (Page 122)

The Hebrew scriptures are filled with people chosen by God for what seemed an impossible mission: confronting Pharaoh, facing up to Goliath, rebuilding a broken city.  In each they are promised the resource of the Holy Spirit .

But with Mary God is working in an altogether new way, a totally different order.  Never before or since has anything like this happened in the history of the universe:  the incarnation.  ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

Such is his love, his remarkable love, that we see God at work in this astonishing way, the God “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us. “ (Ephesians 3:20)

So Mary just says Yes.  She says to God that she trusts him. Thoughts may be rushing through her head;  she can see the problems ahead. But even so: Yes.

And then?

“It’s very striking that Mary’s instinctive response to the angel’s epoch-shattering news is to spend three months hidden away in an unnamed town in the hill country of Judea.” (page 123)

Sometimes is just takes time to process what is happening, to make sense of what God is doing.  And here God uses her relative Elizabeth to affirm and support Mary as she gestates her awesome responsibility.

Moses, David, Paul, even Jesus.  All needed time and space, away from the action in order to prepare for God’s call. For myself I can’t wait to get going.

But often God calls us to stop doing and for once just be.  Such waiting doesn’t come naturally but time spent in preparation is never wasted.

And more: saying Yes to God does not mean it is going to be straight-forward. The very opposite, in fact.  It just takes one ambitious Caesar to disrupt our plans;  just one insecure tyrant and we become asylum seekers.  No one said obeying God was going to be easy.

So as Simeon takes the baby Jesus into his arms, Mary was
left in no doubt.  “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:35).


There were going to be some deep cuts in Mary’s life – losing her 12-year-old son for three days and then later losing confidence in his ministry (Mark 3:21 is the most surprising verse in the Bible).  Jesus at one point even seems to disown his mother (Mark 3:33).

And most agonising of all, Mary sees her son nailed to a cross: betrayed, disowned, exposed, disgraced.   A sharp sword indeed.

But as we celebrate each Sunday, the cross is never the last word. For the last we see of Mary is her waiting with her fellow disciples for the Pentecostal gift of the Holy Spirit.  (Acts 1:14). She knew of Jesus’ resurrection. Her faith, her simple trusting faith, had been vindicated.  Her Mission had been accomplished.

“Love will cost you dearly.
And it will break your heart.
But in the end, it will save the world.”
(Sarah Thebarge)

My bruised heal – what a pain.

heel-pain-plantar-fasciitis

Me this morning:  ouch, right, ouch right, ouch right.

And my question – how does this injury I picked up at last Saturday’s Ormskirk ParkRun relate to the first reading at this Sunday’s service of Nine Lessons and Carols ?

(You have sufficient information)

For the record, I was doing okay – although just 1k out I began to feel my left heel.   A familiar pain to most runners – it’s come and gone over the years.  No big deal.

But then just 300m out it became very painful.  For a moment I considered dropping out but it’s something I’ve never done in 53 (!) years of races.
So I hobbled to the finish – and am now paying the price.

Plantar fasciitis.  And it’s a pain – although thankfully it’s now getting steadily better.

You’re now thinking how does heel pain fit in with the lessons at the Carol service.

Well, you will remember that the traditional service of Nine lessons and Carols tells the whole salvation story of Emmanuel, God coming to us as one of us as foretold by the Hebrew prophets.

And the first lesson, from Genesis 3, articulates the problem,  As we saw in last week’s blog, the problem is our human nature.  So Adam takes the forbidden fruit – and as a result hides from God.  We’ve been hiding from God ever since.

But when God expels Adam and Eve, he gives ground for hope.  All is not lost, as God condemns the serpent the deceiver:

“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, And you shall bruise his heel.”  (Genesis 3:15),

Strangely the New Testament does not make any direct references to this prophecy, which makes writing this blog even harder.  And it’s too early to phone my Hebraist daughter Sharon for an informed comment on the possible word play on shuph, the Hebrew word for bruise.

But I do know what a bruised heel feels like.  It slows you down but it doesn’t actually stop you doing anything – apart taking part in tomorrow’s ParkRun.  It’s limiting but hardly life-threatening.

However, it does make you sensitive to those who have limited mobility – what it must feel like to have to face a walk or a flight of steps.  For a short time you enter into their experience.

I know when daughter Sharon found herself for a short time in a wheelchair, she found the experience deeply hurtful as people spoke down to her.

Moreover, so many people are in constant pain. Plantar fasciitis is painful – but only when you are on your feet.  But to be in pain all the time without respite is both draining and dispiriting. And we so often fail to make allowances for curt responses or poor concentration.

Jesus knows what it feels like – for he and he alone is the Seed. So Paul writes to the Galatians: “Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds’, meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed’, meaning one person, who is Christ.” (3:16).

This prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus.  His heel is bruised;  he feels our pain.

So the Message translation introduces Hebrews 4:15f with the heading: “The High Priest Who Cried Out in Pain.”

“Now that we know what we have—Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God—let’s not let it slip through our fingers. We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So let’s w
alk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help.”


So when writing to Wormwood, C S Lewis’ Screwtape bemoans “that abominable advantage of the Enemy” – that God know what it feels like to be human.  And that makes all the difference.

But Satan only bruises his heel.  In contrast, he bruises Satan’s head  – a mortal injury.   At the time, of course, it seemed the other way around as Jesus hung on the cross, alone and defeated.

You may remember the opening scene in Mel Gibson’s the Passion of the Christ.  Jesus is being tested in the darkness of Garden of Gethsemane and it concludes with Jesus stamping abruptly on a snake.  A powerful image.

And I now realise that there is a reference to the Genesis 3 prophecy in the New Testament, right at the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (16:20)

Jesus shares in our weakness so that we may share in his victory. The power working in you will be from God, but the feet will be yours.

And in a world where the supposed authority of Satan is all too clear, we have this promise, even this imperative, to take on the power of evil.  It’s not an impossible fight: the very opposite, in fact.

Through the cross of Jesus the outcome is already settled. Amazingly, in him we are more than conquerors.  And that makes all the difference.

Welcome to the age of anger?

Welcome to age of anger

Is this the end of Western civilisation as we know it?  Well, from the way Everton are currently playing, it probably is.

Actually, this is the contention of Indian essayist and novelist, Pankaj Mishra, who submitted a long article in yesterday’s Guardian entitled “Welcome to the age of anger.”

The byline summarises his argument:  “Seismic events of 2016 have revealed a world in chaos – and one that old ideas of liberal rationalism can no longer explain.”

The problem, as he outlines in considerable detail, is that we are not behaving as our culture says we should; we are not living as “the freely choosing individual in the marketplace. “  There is an irrationality, even an urge to self-destruct.

Things don’t look good and what is truly depressing is that Mishra, for all his learning, poses no answer to our current angst.

So just keep your head down.  To quote my good friend Jeff, who lives in Brookville, New York.  “The politicians will play their games and as long as it stays within the wide bounds of doing no harm, I will not count on them helping me, and pray they do not hurt me.  UGH!”

However, I suspect that every generation has moments when the times seem out of joint, when the old certainties no longer seem to function.  Which will come as no surprise to anyone who reads the Bible.

The story I was going to refer to here I now sadly discover does not work – for the simple reason it didn’t happen.  An urban myth – but hey in this post-truth age, why allow the facts to get in the way of a good story!

So the Times asked its readers “What is wrong with the world?”  The year given is usually 1908 – but no-one has ever been able to locate the particular edition.

G. K. Chesterton, the Roman Catholic author, gave a succinct response
“Dear Sirs,
I am.
Sincerely yours.”

And of course, he is right.  The problem lies within us.

For never underestimate the ability of human nature to mess things up. Even to throw away a commanding lead.  If you need convincing, just visit Goodison Park.

In fact, as I write this, I now realise that for many football supporters – though as far as we know today, not those who follow Everton – this is only too true.  Thanks to the courage of a few individuals, we now realise that even the beautiful game has its dark secrets.

As Algerian goalkeeper and French philosopher Albert Camus concludes: “How hard, how bitter it is to become a man.”

For that is where we start.  To make the truth known, even (especially) when it hurts.  As a society we need to look straight and unblinkingly into the mirror.

Otherwise as James writes  “Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like.” (James 1:22).

As the apostle Paul is unflinching in his self-knowledge: “My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.

“It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.”  (Romans 7:20-23. The Message).

Modern culture gets this.  But what is fails to see that we are flawed creatures made no less in the image of God himself.

As the Psalmist reflects:
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honour.”  (Psalm 8:3-5)

The surprising truth is that although we are messed up, God loves us to the extent of the cross of Jesus.  We may be sinners but sinners of incalculable worth.

As ever God’s love changes everything.  Above all we see this at the cross of Jesus.  You and I are worth it.

Hence, the gospel as Good News as Jesus himself declares. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’

Or as the Message paraphrases Mark 1:15: “Time’s up! God’s kingdom is here. Change your life and believe the Message.”

A wonderful announcement for all Guardian readers.

When gesture politics go wrong.

Olney victory

It hasn’t been a good year for Zac Goldsmith.  First he fails in his bid to become the Mayor of London.  Well, that’s politics – these things happen.

But then he chooses to resign his safe Richmond Park seat in protest at the government’s decision to back a third Heathrow runway.   A dramatic move: it was meant to be.  And altogether unnecessary.

However, as we found out this morning the voters of Richmond Park were unimpressed and have elected a political unknown, Liberal Democrat Sarah Olney, to represent them at Westminster.

“This by-election was not a political calculation” Goldsmith insists. “It was a promise that I made and it was a promise that I kept.”

Clearly you have to be very sure when you make a promise, particularly in politics.  One of the reasons why Ms Olney’s party crashed so badly in this summer’s General Election was their reneging on their pledge on student tuition fees.

Why Goldsmith made his promise in the first place is uncertain.  However, he has paid the ultimate price for this act of gesture politics, defined by sociologist Frances Heidensohn as actions that are done or made chiefly as symbolic gestures and have little or no practical effect.

It is a temptation facing all of us – to make a gesture simply for the effect, usually devoid of content.  Simply to look good rather than to be good.

John Sergeant, the former political correspondent for the BBC and the Ed Balls of his day in Strictly Come Dancing, writes in his autobiography of his father who was a vicar in some delightful rural parish in Oxfordshire.

Apparently his father would get up early each morning, head for the church, toll the bell a few times – and then go back to bed in the sure knowledge that his parishioners thought he was hard at work.

I’ve tried it here – but once you’re up, you might as well stay up.  And anyway, no one heard the bell.  But there are always other ways of making out than we are busier than we actually are.

In other words the danger is that we value what people may think of us rather than the reality of who we are.  Maybe the biggest temptation each of us faces.

The apostle Paul had a hard time here.  Apparently, he did not have a strong personal presence.  Moreover, he was not a good speaker.  He says as much to the Corinthians when he refers to what his opponents were saying about him. “For some say, ‘His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.’” (2 Corinthians 10:10).

Paul was under every pressure to project himself as someone he wasn’t’ – to make some bold gesture to face-down those he called “these super-apostles.”

In fact, what he did was the very opposite – he highlighted his weaknesses, he displayed his inadequacies.  He could do so for the simple reason that he had every confidence in the Christ who had called and equipped him as an apostle.

Such was his security in this vocation that he could write “But God said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Once we realize this truth about ourselves – that we are loved, valued and forgiven by God himself, then there is no need to be anyone else other than the person we are.  We do not rely on the opinions of others to validate ourselves.  No need for empty gestures or status symbols.

Above all it is Jesus who shows us what it means. As John recounts “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God.”  (John 13:3)

Here is his security: all he needs.  And how he expresses this tells us everything.

And so John continues “So Jesus got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel . . and began to wash his disciples’ feet.”  This is no gesture;  this is the real thing.  His cross shows the extent of his service.

In complete contrast, it was the person he was about to stand before who engaged in the ultimate in gesture politics.  “So Pilate took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood.’’ (Matthew 27:24)

No doubt it looked good at the time.  In the film Jesus Christ Superstar, Pilate literally washes Jesus’ blood from his hands.  A powerful gesture but a complete travesty.

And yet it tells us everything about Jesus himself, who shows us what true integrity looks like, what it means to walk in the truth.  He calls us to follow him.

When we are weighed down by expectations.

the crown

“Think like a human being and sister and not the head of state,” Philip  urges his troubled wife.

But we who have watched all ten episodes of The Crown know it is not as simple as that.  Elizabeth Windsor is now Elizabeth Regina; her role as Queen has altogether subsumed her life.

Sadly this magnificent series, beautifully acted, superbly written, splendidly produced (I’m running out of superlatives) is only available on Netflix.   It should be on the BBC but the BBC could never afford the £100 million production cost.

The upside is that you can view it whenever you want but Jacqui and I resisted the temptation – unlike one-time BBC Royal Correspondent Jennie Bond – to binge watch it.  We disciplined ourselves to one episode an evening.

But as Ms Bond reports “For all their privilege, luxury and cosseting, few of us would change places with the royals and swim in their goldfish bowl. In The Crown, we see how the palace machine takes over Elizabeth’s life from the moment her uncle, Edward VIII, abdicated.”

However, you could argue that this lavish production undermines the Monarchy even as it praises it.   As an institution it is unrivalled in how our country is governed.  Very few of us would want a republic.  The problem is what the Crown does to the people who find themselves having to wear it.

This Monday we watched a film with a surprisingly similar theme but at the very other end of the social spectrum.   Ken Loach’s “I Daniel Blake,” being shown at FACT in Liverpool.

Here we follow the unfolding tragedy of a middle-aged widower who following a near-fatal heart attack becomes destitute by an impersonal DWP. So well acted, like The Crown, you think you are watching a documentary.

Moreover, the people involved are all very reasonable, even kind.   You can see the genuine concern of the DWP benefits advisor while the police handle a difficult situation very well.  The problem – as Loach would have it – is the System which forces decent folk to follow procedures and which blunts their humanity.

I wasn’t convinced.  I kept thinking “Just fill in the form, Daniel!”  As a production I found it too propagandist while the ending allows Loach a cheap vindication.

But like we see good people caught up in an system which is bigger than they are.  The danger is that they are held captive by the expectations of others, dehumanized by a whole set of administrative procedures.

“You either go along with the system – conform to what is expected to be a hit – or you have very tough going,” observes screenwriter Budd Schulberg.

In many ways Jesus was crucified by the System, by a whole group of men acting in role: Caiaphas as high priest, Pontius Pilate as prefect of the Roman province of Judaea and the unnamed centurion who oversaw the crucifixion detail.

So Caiaphas justifies his actions to his  council: “You do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” (John 11:50)

But at the same time it was more than just the system.  Each player has personal responsibility.

Just carrying out orders is not an adequate defence, witness the Nuremberg trials.  Pilate, no doubt wanting an easy life, failed to stand up to the Jerusalem establishment.   Moreover, “he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over.” (Mark 15:10).

For we are answerable to God for what we do:  we cannot simply blame our upbringing or our environment.   As I read this morning:  “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due to us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (1 Corinthians 5:10).

And yet there is a sense that we face forces bigger and more powerful than ourselves, powers embedded in human affairs.  So the apostle Paul can write that “our struggle is . .  against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”  (Ephesians 6:10).

Tom Wright writes (as I read yesterday in Paul and the Faithfulness of God): “Behind that (Adam’s trespass), though again never explained, there are powers at work that apparently seek to thwart the creator’s plan and that need to be overcome.”

“That much is clear from the promises about what will be put right, which also include the assurance that the forces which at present threaten to destroy the cosmos and thereby to undo the creator’s work, will themselves be defeated, indeed in a measure have already been defeated though the achievement of the Messiah”. (page 476)

In other words “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  (Romans 8:37).  We can thrive in any environment when we claim Christ’s victory, we may be empowered by the Holy Spirit even in our helplessness.  Nothing, not even the Roman Empire, can impede the Kingdom of God.

I’m not sure about Daniel Blake but this is certainly the case for our Queen.  As she shared in her Christmas broadcast of 2000: “For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life.”

And that makes all the difference.

Truth exists; only lies are invented. (Georges Braque)

Truth-Lies

To mark the victory of Donald Trump in the US Presidential Elections Oxford Dictionaries has declared “post-truth” to be its international word of the year.

Actually, that’s not quite true.  15 November was the date for both events – the elections and the press release by OD.  The likelihood is (and I haven’t the time to check) that this is simply a coincidence, no more.

You may have read that yesterday President Obama speaking in Germany sharply criticized the spread of fake news online.  Certainly it is something which is exercising the top minds at Facebook.

So one fake-news writer, Paul Horne, claims: ‘I think Donald Trump is in the White House because of me.”

Often outlandish but occasionally his faux-articles are reported by mainstream news as fact.   So the Associated Press published his post that “the Amish in America commit their vote to Donald Trump, guaranteeing him a presidential victory.”  Simply not true.

Talking of Trump, you may know that Southport too is set for to construct a massive wall to keep out Scousers.

“Let me be totally clear about this. I’ve got absolutely nothing against Liverpool – or Scousers,” mayoral candidate Rimmer contends. “They are great people. Great, great people. But we can’t keep having them coming over here taking Southport people’s jobs.”

You can read the full story in the Southport Times. http://southporttimes.co.uk/?p=1868.

However, it only takes one incredulous person to give credibility to an incredible story – and it’s off into the blogosphere.  (What a sentence!).

However, I get so many posts from friends giving me wrong or misleading information as fact.  This is usually because they trust the person who passed the info to them.

Like an urgent request for prayer for some Christian evangelist in Syria about to be attacked by ISIS or a warning about a virus called “Dance of the Hillary” which will reformat my mobile.   Both hoaxes.

In fact, when you are not sure, all you need do is to paste the main message into Google.  If it is a hoax, you will probably be taken to a truth-checking website, such as thatsnonsence.com and hoax-slayer.net.   I notice that the BBC often picks up widespread hoaxes as news.

But the danger of false information, of post-truth, is not just a feature of the internet age.  It is very part of the human condition. “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes,” observed the Victorian preacher Charles Spurgeon.

Jesus himself was the subject of rumour.  Such was his remarkable ministry that people tried to make sense of him and came up with some strange theories.  The rumour-mill was soon at full speed.  “He is one of the prophets come back; no even more, he is Elijah!” Such news travels fast.

Even Herod the tetrarch (the Romans wouldn’t let him call himself king) took one particular rumour as fact, such was his feelings of guilt. “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

And the apostle Paul had more than his fair share of false innuendo.

In fact, right at the end of one of his earliest letters he writes:  “I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in
all my letters. This is how I write. “(2 Thessalonians 3:17)


It looks as if Paul had to contend with letters purporting to be from him.  So it seems that his practice was to end his letters usually scribed by someone else (like Tertius in Romans 16:22) by adding a short greetings in his own hand.

“See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!” is how he signs off his urgent letter to the Galatians  (6:11).

You can’t be too careful then as well as now.  As our old friend Vladimir Lenin concluded:  “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.”

As Christians we believe truth to be a person. Jesus makes this very clear: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6).  And so our faith rests on truth, on the fact of his cross and resurrection no less.

As events in history, they are non-negotiable.  Anything less than this truth then the whole Gospel falls apart.  As Paul asserts “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”  (1 Corinthians 15:14).

Truth matters and we as Christians refuse to live in post-truth world as we contend for the Gospel.

So Jesus tells us “If you stick with this, living out what I tell you, you are my disciples for sure. Then you will experience for yourselves the truth, and the truth will free you.”  (John 8:32 Message translation)

Here is Leonard's secret chord.

Cohen

“The older I get, the surer I am that I’m not running the show,” mused the Canadian singer, songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen who died last night aged 82.

As it happens only this May I bought “The Essential Leonard Cohen” a career-spanning collection of his songs arranged in chronological order.  I must say I enjoyed his unique brand of self-depreciating humour, particularly the “Tower of Song.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oiAuXRK3Ogk

Moreover, the school choir sang his “Halleluiah” in their carol service last December.

“Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord.”

Here Cohen taps into his Jewish heritage, evoking the stories of Samson and Delilah (“she cut your hair”) as well as King David and Bathsheba (“you saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you”).

Apparently he wrote around 80 drafts for “Hallelujah”, with one single writing session in a New York hotel where he was reduced to sitting on the floor in his underwear, banging his head on the floor.  I know the feeling.

It is no surprise to know that Cohen was a flawed character (who isn’t?). “My life was filled with great disorder, with chaos, and I achieved a little discipline there.”  But he was honest and valued integrity.  He had something.

In fact, my Bible reading this morning – a difficult reading – featured the description of liturgical garments for Cohen’s forebears.  (Kohen is a member of the priestly family).

‘Let Aaron your brother be brought to you from among the Israelites, with his sons Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, so that they may serve me as priests.” (Exodus 28:1)

God always takes a risk when he appoints someone to represent him, especially if they are going to be wearing sumptuous, over-the-top clothing.

So the ephod (whatever that is) has “four rows of precious stones on it. The first row shall be carnelian, chrysolite and beryl; the second row shall be turquoise, lapis lazuli and emerald; the third row shall be jacinth, agate and amethyst; the fourth row shall be topaz, onyx and jasper. Mount them in gold filigree settings.”  (28:17f)  Impressive.

The problem is that this no-expense clothing is to be worn by frail human beings.  As the BRF commentary reflects “dress that is intended to honour the office nearly always ends up honouring the wearer.”  Such splendour so easily goes to our heads.   Pride is our constant danger.

However, as Cohen realises only too well. “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

For our flaws give God his opportunity, to show the extent of his love and forgiveness, his healing and his hope.  Jesus, so to speak, is at his best when he encounters those fallen and broken human beings who know they are fallen and broken. He has problems with the self-righteous.

So he touches the leper, welcomes the prostitute, lifts up the fallen.  His life demonstrates that there is hope for each of us., such is his love.

And for that we need total honesty, a refusal to present ourselves as people who have somehow made it.   The truth is the very opposite – we are simply sinners saved by grace, never anything else.

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” (Luke 18:13).

We see such honesty in Cohen: “I don’t consider myself a pessimist.  I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel soaked to the skin.”

Sadly, as far as we can see, Cohen remained in his wilderness wanderings.  But he did have that sense that there was someone running the show, that life was much more than an arbitrary set of experiences.  He sensed purpose.

It was the apostle Paul, on being confronted by the truth about himself, realized that “all the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life.”

And he continues:  “Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him.”  (Philippians 3:8)

For here is Leonard’s secret chord.

When the court goes against you.

Newspapers

Enemies of the people!

So Sir Terence Etherington  Baron Thomas of Cwmgiedd and Sir Terence Etherton and Lord Justice Sales get the full Daily Mail treatment this morning.

“Fury over ‘out of touch’ judges who have ‘declared war on democracy’ by defying 17.4m Brexit voters and who could trigger constitutional crisis.”

Clearly when decisions go against you, there is every instinct to demonstrate our disapproval, even tabloid-like – but then you have to remember what it is like when the King takes your vineyard.

It’s King Ahab and we are in the year 856 BC.  It’s a good year for the King:  he has just made peace with the Arameans.  So how about making your palace even bigger and better?

The problem is Naboth’s vineyard.  It’s in the way and Naboth refuses to sell. He actually stands up to the King.  Just a nobody, as Jezebel points out to her husband. “Is this any way for a king of Israel to act? Aren’t you the boss? On your feet! Eat! Cheer up! I’ll take care of this.”  (1 Kings 21:7).

And Jezebel does take care of it.  She plots to have Naboth stoned to death on a false charge. “The minute Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, he set out for the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite and claimed it for his own.” (v16)

And normally, in those days, that would be it.  Naboth has a bigger palace with a lovely vegetable garden.  After all the king is king.

However, we now have verse 17 which reads in the Message translation:  “Then God stepped in.”  That’s what he does.  He’s King with a capital K.

So the King sends Elijah the prophet to speak for him.  “On your feet; go down and confront Ahab of Samaria, king of Israel.”  And it’s not good news for Ahab.

Right through the story of the Old Testament, God keeps on stepping in and interfering in the affairs of state.  For God is a God of justice – and he cares.  And no-one stands outside the law, least of all the king.

And here is the basis for what we today call the rule of law, defined by Wikipedia (I’m running late) as “the legal principle that law should govern a nation, as opposed to being governed by arbitrary decisions of individual government officials.”

And it is a previous gift from our Christian heritage.  For the Bible teaches clearly and repetitively:  we are all equal before God.  Each human being is made is his image;  Jesus gave his life for each person.

“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”  (Colossians 3:11)

In complete contrast to contemporary thinking, the apostle Paul argued that each individual is of incalculable worth – including slaves. At the time his was just a lone voice, a small mustard seed.

But the church grew to the extent that in 390, Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, writes to Emperor Theodosius telling him to repent of his arbitrary massacre of 7000 people in Thessalonica.

“Should I then speak about what I heard? But I was obliged to avoid precisely what I feared could be brought about by your orders, that is, a bloodshed. Should I remain silent?”

Now, not even the Roman emperor himself, is above the law. A totally new situation has evolved as the church grows.

Today the rule of law we take as given.  Like gravity, it’s just there.  However, as President Eisenhower pointed out:  “The clearest way to show what the rule of law means to us in everyday life is to recall what has happened when there is no rule of law.”  He knew, he had seen the consequences.

And as we approach the US election I quote one of his successors, Ronald Reagan: “Freedom prospers when religion is vibrant and the rule of law under God is acknowledged.”

And that is especially the case when a legal judgement goes against us.  And it can be hugely irritating, of course.  We may choose to contest the decision but always within the legal process.  It may take along time – as the Hillsborough campaigners discovered.

However, it is a dangerous response to attack the judges and even call for their dismissal.  Even the Daily Telegraph’s headline I find somewhat menacing “The judges against the people.”

The danger is that begin to erode the foundations our society is built upon – respect for the law and the worth of every citizen.  As Christians we need to prize these as what they are – gifts of God’s grace.

The good news for King Ahab was that he recognised Elijah’s message of judgement for what it was – a word from God himself.  And he repented.  And amazingly God changed his mind.

We serve not a system but a Saviour, a Person not a principle.

Our upgrade – and the Holy Spirit asks our permission.

upgrade-nowAs I sit down at my desk, a message appears on desktop: “Upgrade to macOS Sierra”  Should I hesitate, I am then informed:   “Get Siri and a whole lot more on your Mac.”  Enticing.

It’s upgrade time.  So I have the opportunity to download some files from afar, then my Mac will then ask for my permission by asking for (yet another) password – and we’re off.  My computer will take time out for about five minutes and then restart.

What happens is that the inner essentials of my computer, the holy of holies – even the operating system – are about to be renewed.

There’s a risk, of course.  The upgrade, particularly if it has just been published, may cause problems.   One of my sons-in-law refuses upgrades on principle on the basis that if it is working, then it doesn’t need fixing.  Or at least wait for a few months.

I think it’s different with Windows, at least it used to be.  If I remember correctly (and it’s probably changed since I made the switch to Apple on September, 2010 at about 10.28 am), when faced with an upgrade you are given three options:  trust Microsoft this time, always trust Microsoft and not trust Microsoft.

Michael Follin, one of my previous curates and a computer enthusiast, will not trust Microsoft, sensible man.  However, he is faced with a dilemma.    Microsoft will only upgrade Michael’s computer if he trusts them.  So reluctantly he checks the box for this time only.

We live in an age of upgrades.  “We live in a cult of the upgrade right now,” observes film director Colin Trevorrow.  “There’s always something around the corner that will make whatever you think is cool right now feel obsolete.”

However, as Christians our operating system is being continuously renewed.  So the apostle Paul counsels those Christians who are in danger of losing heart. “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”  (2 Corinthians 4:16).

I recall  this verse used to be the favourite verse of one of the saints at Christ Church, Cynthia Rix, who went to glory in 1999.  As her physical health deteriorated she was conscious of the Holy Spirit renewing her as a person, from deep within.  She could face the future with confidence.

The Message translations gives that extra zip:  “Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace.”

So how does God do this?  Answer – with our permission. And we are given the option, like MS, of giving this permission each time or always.  I guess this depends on where we are in our Christian life.  He allows us to grow in our trust.

For what God wants is no less than our complete surrender – “always trust the Holy Spirit”

What does complete surrender look like?  Rick Warren, who gave us “The Purpose-Driven Life,” suggests four components:

Following God’s lead without knowing where he’s sending you;
Waiting for God’s timing without knowing when it will come;
Expecting a miracle without knowing how God will provide;
Trusting God’s purpose without understanding the circumstances.

It may sound tough, not least when we are called to surrender our relationships or even our money, but God does not ask us what he is not prepared to do himself.

So in Jesus we see the supreme example of self-surrender.  Even as he faces the cross, he prays “‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” (Mark 14:36).

As Warren concludes: “ This level of maturity doesn’t come easy. In Jesus’ case, he agonized so much over God’s plan that he sweated drops of blood. Surrender is hard work. In our case, it requires intense warfare against our self-centred nature.”

So as we pray for God’s Holy Spirit to fill us afresh, we are inviting him into the very heart of our operating system.

So as we pray or sing his praises or read scripture it may feel that this is just one-way communication.  In reality the Holy Spirit, unseen and unobtrusively, is continuously upgrading us from inside.  His work of grace.

It may be day by day but over the time the result may be remarkable.  It was Spurgeon who declared;  “If you are renewed by grace, and were to meet your old self, I am sure you would be very anxious to get out of his company.”

So upgrade to macOS Sierra, here we go!

The most powerful dynamic is when my dream becomes our dream

imagine

“You have to have a dream,” confessed Billy Wilder, “so you can get up in the morning.”   However, is your dream just a fantasy with you being centre-stage or is it a longing to see God at work in a particular way?

This Monday I was standing in church with one of our organists, Graeme, along with two organ experts, Stephen from the Diocese and organ builder David.  It seems that our present organ is no longer viable and we were revisiting the options.

I already knew what Graeme’s preferred option was – a beautiful new organ at the west end of the church, built on and suspended over the balcony.  It would probably cost, he told me, over £1million.

No doubt a magnificent instrument.  But he knew, of course, that we could not justify the expense.  Just a dream.   Now, back to reality.

But it got me thinking.  When does such a dream, however ambitious, become a vision given to us by God?

After all when God is involved, money can never be a problem.  The key question is not whether we can afford it;  the key question is always whether the Lord of heaven and earth is at work?  After all, he is the one “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.” (Ephesians 3:20)

Sometimes such a vision can come to us in a particular moment and then takes hold of our lives.

At the outset of Susan Howatch’s novel, Glamorous Powers, Abbot Jon Darrow has a powerful vision of a chapel in a dell.  And this vision upholds and steers him through a succession of personal crises.
(Worth reading, incidentally).

More often though such vision comes gradually as we learn to dream, to allow our imaginations to be untethered from our mundane expectations.

This is how God works, through the grace of his Holy Spirit.  He speaks through our imagination, whether awake or asleep.  A powerful gift.

As Peter proclaims at Pentecost:
“In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.  (Acts 2:17)

But how do I know if my dream, this vision comes from God?  After all my imagination is as flawed and self-centred as the rest of me.

Here we need each other. The question is “Can we share our dreams with each?”  This is the check given by Jesus against wish fulfilment, against self aggrandizement.

So he counsels “When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action.” (Matthew 18:19).   Just two, better three –  “for where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (v20)

“I think that the greatest gift God ever gave man is not the gift of sight but the gift of vision.” remarks Bahamian pastor Myles Munroe.   “Sight is a function of the eyes, but vision is a function of the heart.”

So we need to encourage each other to imagine, to explore what God can do in our world.   Decide to give him space in our day-dreams while rejecting foolish fantasies.  And we need to help each other to interpret what God may be showing us.

Organist Graeme has since told me that he has a recurring dream of this beautiful organ at the west end.  He shared with me (and I have asked his permission to include this) “I even saw and heard myself playing it.”  He speaks of overwhelming emotions flooded him.

He realises that it not to be taken literally. He tells me:  “I’ve prayed about it, asked for interpretation and have talked to several people.”  He’s not there yet – but he is open to God’s direction.

So what is your dream?

But the answer is only the beginning of the story.  I often return to Oswald Chalmers’ seminal book My utmost for his highest.

“God gives us a vision, and then He takes us down to the valley to batter us into the shape of that vision. It is in the valley that so many of us give up and faint. Every God-given vision will become real if we will only have patience.”  (Entry for July 6)

As ever the Christian life is tough going – but hold on to that dream God has given you, decide to realise that vision he has given you.  But above all, check it out with your fellow disciples.

“Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world.”  (Joel A. Barker)
The most powerful dynamic, however, is when my dream becomes our dream

Christian maturity – like genius – takes time.

TwoGents

“The bit with the dog,” ventured Queen Elizabeth (as played by Judi Dench) in Shakespeare in Love. As ever she was Spot on.  Yes, the dog scene is indeed the most entertaining part of the Two Gentlemen of Verona!


Which doesn’t say very much for Shakespeare’s first play.   He writes about love, friendship betrayal, gender identity  – and dogs.

“I think Crab, my dog, be the sourest-natured dog that lives,” his owner Launce announces.

During a family episode of high emotion, it seemed that the mutt “sheds not a tear nor speaks a word.” Even the cat, Launce says, was “wringing her hands.”

This Monday Jacqui and I made our way to the Everyman theatre to see Crab and Launce (brilliantly played by Charlotte Mills) in the Shakespeare’s Globe production of the Two Gents.


Right at the outset, as soon as a Dansette record player was placed centre stage, I knew it was going to be different.  Shakespeare was about to be given the Everyman treatment. No deference here.

Set in Swinging Sixties,  the production was more of a rock show than a classical performance. The cast each play a whole range of instruments with some expertise and often sing their lines. Even the love letters are written and played out on 33⅓ singles.

A great romp and we loved it.  But the skill of the production couldn’t disguise the fact that Shakespeare still has much to learn.

So Proteus pursues and sexually assaults his best friend’s true love, Sylvia (within 3 feet of row BB, incidentally, where I sitting – nearly put me off my Ovaltine), and is then instantly forgiven.  Just like that.

And the conclusion of the play is confusing and forced.  So many issues are left hanging in the air, so few of our questions are fully addressed.  The play just stops as if the Bard has reached his word count and it’s bedtime.

Only when the cast lined up for the curtain call did we the audience realise the show was over.  (It didn’t help there being no curtain).  No wonder the play is rarely performed.

I remembered my college friend David once telling me that he and his fellow students on the English course invariably groaned when they were given as an assignment the early works of some great writer.  They’re rarely that good; they’re still learning to write great novels.  (Harper Lee is an obvious exception).

Which makes the New Testament even the more remarkable.  You would never know that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were writing their first, even their only Gospel.  No one had ever written a Gospel before.

Totally new genre, such is the impact of Jesus and the creativity of the Holy Spirit.  Modern scholarship recognises their sophistication.

And you would never know which epistle the apostle Paul wrote first, such is the maturity of his theology.  It could be 1 Thessalonians but there again, depending on whether Paul is writing to a tribe or a Roman province, it could be Galatians.

“We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.(  (1 Thess 1:3)   Right at the outset Paul presents God as Trinity.

However, years ago I heard a sermon showing how Paul’s letters apostle had developed in his understanding.  His understanding of himself.

Writing to the Corinthians in 53/54 AD Paul describes himself as “the least of the apostles” (15:9). Ten years later in writing to the Ephesians he confesses “I am the least of all the saints”  (3:8).  Then towards the end of his life, in his letter to his apprentice Timothy, Paul speaks of himself as “the chief of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15).

I’m sure you can make too much of this.  After all Paul is always writing in context.  However, the essential point is certainly true, that the more we grow in Christ, the more we grow in self-knowledge.

This can be unsettling for some Christians who think that they are going backwards when in fact they are growing in Christ.  It the truth, not least the truth about ourselves, which sets us free.

So through the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit we become more aware of our own motives.  That if the truth be known, we seek to advance our own glory rather than God’s. We help old ladies across the road to further our own reputation. We aim to live holy lives to impress.  Me-first sin is in our bones.

As Touchstone muses in As you Like it:
Why, thou sayest well. I do now remember a saying,
‘The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man
knows himself to be a fool.’

But we also learn that God in his grace and compassion still continues to love and nurture us.   As ever we are a work in progress.  And the good news is that God will never give up on us. He’s started and so he will finish.

So what are we to make of fracking?

rsz_fraking

It’s strange how sometimes a verse or a phrase jumps out at you from a familiar Bible passage.

So I was reading Deuteronomy.  Here Moses is seeking to motivate his people in their quest to enter the land promised by God as part of his covenant with them.

And in a passage relevant to our Harvest weekend, he tells them:  There is plenty of food in that land. You will have everything you need. Its rocks have iron in them. And you can dig copper out of its hills.” (Deuteronomy 8:9)

I don’t think I had noticed that before – the land producing not just its harvest but also its minerals, both as a blessing promised by God.

In a few moments our school celebrate God’s gift of harvest. Always a delight to see the children’s faces as they offer their harvest gifts.  Some deep vein in our consciousness is tapped, simply saying “Thank you” to God for his provision.

But if we take Moses’ words at face value, we may also thank God for the iron, copper and other minerals mined from the earth.  It is his gift – although Moses makes it very clear that you have to dig for them.  Hard work.

So what are we to make of fracking?

You may have seen that yesterday Communities Secretary Sajid Javid overruled the objections of the Lancashire planning committee and has given his approval for fracking just 25 miles north of us, on the other side of the Ribble estuary.

Clearly a contentious issue.  As it happens the Environment Agency along with the HSE, the Oil and Gas authority and Public Health England are holding an informal drop in session in the Ministry Centre this Wednesday afternoon.   They are working hard to convince us that fracking can be safe.

At one level whether to allow fracking is a technical matter. Clearly there are environmental implications whenever we drill deep holes in the ground  – and we need to understand these, not least what happens when huge amounts of water are required to ‘develop’ the well.

But such research can only take us so far.   And we are all wary nowadays of expert opinion.

But stepping back, we do need to see the big picture.  And that is the lonely responsibility of politicians – because we can’t have it every way.

So we cannot expect our computers to run, our cars to work, our homes to be heated and yet discourage every form of energy generation for different reasons.  A huge windmill in my backyard?  A solar farm just down the road?

So P.D. James writes in The Children of Men:  You desire the end but close your eyes to the means. You want the garden to be beautiful, provided that the smell of manure is kept well away from your fastidious nose.”

The danger here is that we become nimbies. And yet such rampant individualism is the very opposite of the Bible’s teaching on community.

But this also means that we have a responsibility to those communities who may have to pay the price of environmental degradation.  We’re in it together.

And incidentally that includes the peoples of the Third World.  We are not to export our smokestacks out of sight to the Indian subcontinent, dump our toxic waste on unsupervised African shores.

So is there a Christian standpoint on fracking?

Think of mining and most of us think of polluted streams, scarred landscapes and black lung disease.   As human beings we don’t do mining very well.  Greed so easily trumps social conscience.

Here the Bible is clear.   These minerals do not belong to us; they never have.  “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” (Psalm 24:1).

We are simply his stewards, answerable to him.  We are to mine them in such a way to honour his creation.  We do not despoil his earth for our own gratification, to wreck God’s world for our short-term gain..

And yet God promises the people of Israel iron and copper. “You can dig copper out of its hills.”  Mining is meant to bless.  Our whole way of life depends on such industry.

But it has to bless everyone, especially the weak, the vulnerable and those who live on the margins.  And not just now but those generations who follow us.  They are not to clean up our mess.  We owe it to them.

So Pope John Paul II teaches us:  “The earth will not continue to offer its harvest, except with faithful stewardship. We cannot say we love the land and then take steps to destroy it for use by future generations.”

As ever we pray for wisdom for those who make difficult policy decisions often under huge pressure and with limited information.  Like Moses himself.

What is the most important thing I will be doing today?

MostImportantThing

What is the most important thing I will be doing today?

A key question for each of us.  How we answer determines where we will be investing our energy, making our preparations and simply doing our best.

Writing this blog has to be a candidate.  I never cease to be surprised who reads it or where it finishes up.  At the very least, it has potential.

Another contender could be going to Goodison Park this evening to cheer on EFC.  Those of you who support Crystal Palace will be delighted – for whenever I go to support Everton, they invariably lose.  (Ken Park once offered to ask the Board to make me a cash settlement to stay away).

Otherwise just a usual day of parish ministry, no special services,  the standard routines. With the ParkRun tomorrow, not a running day.

Of course, there is always the possibility that I will not even notice the most important thing I will be doing today.  Arthur Conan Doyle suggested “It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”

He has a point there.  For as Christians we answer the question from God’s perspective and in his Kingdom the values of this world are reversed.

So what happens when Jesus stands before Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea?  By any standards an important conversation with a most prestigious person.  Most of us would have been in awe.

Jesus was hardly fazed.  “Herod peppered him with questions. Jesus didn’t answer—not one word.”  (Luke 23:9)  In total contrast we have many instances of Jesus investing his time and energy with unimportant people at the bottom of the pile.

As ever he subverts our scale of values: he shows what is important and what is not.  And it is more important to give than to receive.

So in the culmination of Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats the righteous answer “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” (Matthew 25:44)

Clearly how we relate to other people is key, especially those who the world considers of little worth. So Pope John Paul II gives his view:  “I hope to have communion with the people, that is the most important thing.”

But is there one thing which can claim to be the most important thing I will be doing today?  One event?

As it happens, it is about to happen.  And so now I will have to pause my blog in order to do it.  I’ll be back in 20 minutes.  So just stay there.

I’m back.

Way back in 1975 I did a three week placement at St Stephen’s East Twickenham.  It was hugely formative.  In fact, if there is one person I model my ministry on is has to be their vicar, Martin Peppiatt.  (Older readers may recognise the name – his father used to sign our banknotes.)

A busy parish with lots happening;  it still is.  I found it all bewildering until Martin explained what the most important thing he did every day:  to say the Lord’s prayer at the beginning of the day.  Nothing would eclipse this.  This is the very heart of his ministry.

And so it is for me.  To kneel each morning in the vicar’s stall and pray the Lord’s prayer defines not just the day ahead, not just the ministry I offer, it defines me.

As it happens (again), my reading from the BRF Guidelines this morning was Luke 11:1-13, which includes Jesus teaching the Lord’s prayer.   The commentator suggests that praying this prayer is the heart of discipleship.

And the core of the prayer itself?  “The answer is, I suggest, the relationship of Jesus with his God, into which he invites all his followers.”
Nothing in the whole of creation can be more important than that.

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.

(Luke 11:2-4).

God's work will always draw flak.

flakToday we say farewell to Nick Walkden, who has overseen the ministry of he Ministry Centre over the last four-and-a-half years.

We will miss Nick – he has been a key player in the development of this valuable resource as we share Jesus with everyone beginning in our community.  He has been brilliant, both with people and with systems.  A Mancunian he laughs at my jokes (when he understands them).

So as we appoint his successor, once again we look to the Lord.  As ever we rely on God’s provision, to send the right person at the right time. After all it’s his building and it is his ministry.

For here is the basic in all Christian ministry – to know that God takes full responsibility for his project.

I recall Rikki Abernethy in a presentation to the congregation on the proposed new building nearly 20 years ago quoting Hudson Taylor. “There are three stages in the work of God: impossible, difficult, done.”

This understanding makes all the difference when we step out in faith in obedience to God’s guidance.

Six years ago, the day the Ministry Centre was opened, one-time curate Mark Stanford, now vicar of Holy Trinity Formby, came up to me and said:  “Ross, you have the gift of faith!” And he was right.

Not just me of course but a whole group of us had been given this invaluable gift of faith.  This is one of the gifts given by the Holy Spirit listed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:9.

The apostle isn’t talking here about the faith through which we become Christians, not saving faith.  In this context it is simply the conviction that God himself is at work in a  particular context.  So whatever the setbacks or opposition, no problem.  God is on to it.

Never forget such faith in God is a gift, given by grace – not something we have worked up or strived for.  And certainly nothing we can take credit for.

And this faith will be tested – that goes without saying.  And the greater potential, the heavier will be the flak.

So in a strange kind of way the level of opposition we experienced was a direct encouragement.  Such was the hassle, we realized God must be at work.

But as often the case God took longer than we expected.  The reason was that we were in the slow learners group.

The story goes back many years but the key development was in 1994 when the new head teacher, Barbara Stevens, decided to consolidate the school on the one site.  And the old school building became available.

However, the County Council was obliged to sell the site to the highest bidder – and land in Aughton is prized.

It took five years  for the Church Council to buy the site – after innumerable setbacks and long hours spent in our Diocesan solicitor’s waiting room.

However, during this time we invited church members and local residents for their views. Pete Chalk – who was to do sterling work as project manager for the building of the Ministry Centre – wrote:  “Unless absolutely necessary, I wouldn’t want to knock down the current building.”

The irony was that it was Pete some ten years later who commissioned the demolition of the old school building.  I think that is a measure of how far God had to move us and to expand our vision.

The next stage everyone remembers, from March 1999 to December 2006.  How we tried and failed to get our first building through planning.  To quote those campaigning against “it was just too big.”

However, those six years were not wasted.  We effectively learned from scratch how to build a Ministry Centre, an invaluable lesson.

As it happens some 150 years ago the Rev William Henry Boulton, the Rector of Aughton, faced huge opposition when he built Christ Church.  The Ormskirk Advertiser even intervened, suggesting that Lord Derby arbitrate.

That’s another story for another time but the message is the same:  when we step out in faith, such faith is going to be tested.   As Rick Warren observes: “When you understand that life is a test, you realise that nothing is insignificant in your life.”

The challenge, as ever, is to stay true to the original vision, for the Ministry Centre to deliver ministry in Jesus’ name rather than just be another community centre.   As ever, he makes all the difference.

Think before you send.

Send-button-concept-11656550x

In a few minutes I will be pressing SEND – and that’s it, no going back.

It’s a tragedy that Tiziana Cantone, from Naples, didn’t realise this when last spring she emailed an video showing her having sex.  It seemed that she wanted to make an ex jealous.

In no time it went viral.  According to the BBC “more than a million people watched it, and she became the subject of jokes and abuse.”

Humiliated and deeply ashamed she sought to hide herself, without success.  So on Tuesday she killed herself.

Once you press SEND you surrender control, totally.

Colin Powell, former US Secretary of State, is also realising this sad truth.  A thoughtful and restrained man, he shared unguarded opinions of former colleagues in various emails.  He’s been hacked.

So we now know that he views Hillary Clinton as having “a long track record, unbridled ambition, greedy, not transformational.”  Any endorsement he makes of Mrs. Clinton will now have limited credibility.

There is a clear warning here.  Be prepared for any words you send into cyberspace to be shown on the video displays at Piccadilly Circus, for all the world to see, forever.

For me one blog in particular comes to mind.

Following a conference in November 2012 I wrote about being inspired by – of all things – a church administrator.  I only gave his first name.

In my blog I was altogether affirming about John who had freely offered his ministry – and here I quote – of “sorting things out” and “tidying things up.”

Over there in Argentina Andrew Leake read my blog within minutes of my sending it. (“Good morning, Andrew – this will wake you up!”).

He enjoyed reading it and so forwarded to his friend Felicity, in St Albans.  She realized that the John I was writing about was, in fact, her friend John Truscott.  And so she forwarded my blog to him. All within the hour of my pressing SEND.

Later John emailed me.  “Thank you for your more than generous words on your blog. . . Felicity was amused that a message like that went, in no time at all, from Ormskirk to South America and then back to her, when she sees me most weeks in person!”

It just goes to show that when you press SEND your words take on a life their own.  They live on forever:  they can never be recalled or deleted.

As Jesus himself says:  “What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.”  (Luke 12:3)

This insight is derived from the Hebrew scriptures.  The writers of the Old Testament understood that once a word is spoken that word takes a life of its own.  The spoken word becomes detached from the speaker and yet still expresses him or her.

So when God speaks his word is always creative.  After all he spoke creation into being.

So Isaiah declares 55:
As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
it will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
(Isaiah 55:10f)

From this insight comes the understanding of Jesus as the Word of God.

So John begins his Gospel.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  Jesus is both one with God and yet distinct, separate from him.

And it is this Jesus who warns us that not only do our words have a life of their own but we have a direct responsibility before God no less for what we say.

“I tell you, on the day of judgement you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36f)

For as we all know once you speak a word it cannot be unspoken.  So it’s as well to follow the apostle Paul’s advice:
“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:6).

For once we open our mouth it’s even more significant than pressing SEND.

On going back to the start.

crosby parkrun

(Short delay.  On saving this document with today’s date, I realise it is our wedding anniversary.  This recognition prompts me to take my card (brand new one this year) and flowers upstairs to a sleeping Jacqui.

TIP for husbands with small wives.  Don’t seal the card;  after one week place the card with its envelope on top of the wardrobe;  after five years you have the full set so you can start reusing them).

Anyway, the blog.

Part of the ageing process is that you become increasingly aware of your roots.  For as actress Melissa McCarthy observes:  “It’s funny; as I get older I’m reverting to my roots – I want to plant stuff. “

So tomorrow when there is no ParkRun in Ormskirk (Edge Hill are using the trail) most of us will be going to the ParkRun in Crosby, to the Leisure centre at the shore end of Mariners Road.

This is going to be a poignant moment for me – for the final part of the course, on the shore itself and around one of Antony’s iron men is the exact site of my first race from St Nicholas’ school, way back in July 1958 (Not often I write that date).

And a thousand or so races later, here I am again, at the very beginning.  Except in those days it was open shore and we ran around the landmark.

I can still remember this race in some detail.  I would have won if I had not taken it so casually.  Lesson: TRY.

Then next weekend I find myself at my college ten-yearly reunion for the class of 1967.  It so happens that this is the 40th anniversary of my ordination and in a strange way it is fitting that on the Sunday I shall be worshipping in the very same chapel where God led me into the Church of England.  And here several thousand services later, here I am again.

I can still remember my first service at Catz.  The visiting preacher was Maurice Wood, who was to become a much-loved Bishop of Norwich and father-in-law to one of my clerical colleagues.

He spoke on his experiences on being an army chaplain on Sword beach on D-day, in those days a recent memory.  Lesson:  serving Jesus is both exhilarating and not a little dangerous.

Our roots are important.  They define who we are today.

I always thought it strange that when Jesus was raised from the dead, he expected his disciples to go to Galilee.  So the angel’s message:  “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” (Mark 16:7).

So while the disciples did encounter the risen Jesus in the upper room in Jerusalem, nevertheless they had to make the long trek north.  That’s 120 miles for the scenic rootroute, even direct through Samaria is 90 miles.  Why the investment?

So that they could return to their roots, where they first encountered Jesus and received his original call to follow him.

Notice how the angel singles out Peter, now a broken man.  It is on the very shore where Jesus first called him that Jesus now recommissions this failed disciple to a renewed ministry.  “Peter, feed my sheep.”

Our teaching theme for this autumn is discipleship.  We are using as a resource the book by Alison Morgan “Following Jesus: the plural of disciple is Church.”

In her chapter on what is a disciple, Morgan comments on this G
alilee experience.

“So Jesus is taking them back, back to the beginning. It’s recorded for us most vividly by John, the youngest disciple, the only one of the gospel writers who was actually there – John who many years later would begin his gospel with precisely those words: In the beginning.

“‘Go back, back,’ Jesus says; ‘it’s your whole journey I want you to think about, not just the end; and, even more than that, I want you to see how it fits into the wider context of the history of the world; for the seeds of the future always lie in the past. And now that we’ve done that,’ he continues, ‘it’s time to go forwards.”

So there are times for going back, to ponder our roots, to relive our original calling.   The Hebrew prophets continually urged the people of God to relive their escape from Egypt, their wandering in the wilderness, their crossing of the Jordan into the land promised to them by God.

So Isaiah speaks God’s word to his people “Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.” (Isaiah 51:1).

Not as an exercise in nostalgia but as a means of preparing for service today.  For we can so easily lose our way and forget how far we may have drifted.

As we return to our roots, we lay hold of our original calling, we name our basic values, we know our fundamentals.  Only then do we go about “planting stuff.”