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.”