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.

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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)