Monday, 29 June 2009

Good news...if you can understand it

Having spent a little time with the disabled boy that I'm preparing for baptism and wondering how to tell him about Jesus, I realised that it will have to be by revelation from the Lord himself. And this makes sense because, as Christians, we say that our faith is a revealed rather than a deductive faith - that's to say what we know of God is through what he reveals, rather than what we deduce.

There is a place for logical argument and persuasion, but also a place for direct supernatural encounter. I have heard stories of people - though I have not actually met them - who claim that they encountered Jesus supernaturally through a dream. St Paul - the ultimate thinking theologian - knew about dreams and visions, and I see no reason why God shouldn't make himself known in that way if there is no other.

So that's my prayer for this boy - that Jesus would make himself known in a way that goes beyond rational and intellectual explanation, however simple.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Good news...if you can understand it?

To prepare myself to prepare a fifteen year old boy with a mental age of three or four for baptism I looked for a few simple booklets on sharing the faith. Surprisingly I could only find two on the market: 'Journey into Life' by Norman Warren, which has been around ever since I can remember, and 'Why Jesus?' by Nicky Gumbel. I know there is a more recent edition of 'Journey...' but as I re-read the 1988 version I found myself less in sympathy with its approach than I used to be. Basically it uses the traditional evangelical evangelistic argument: God created a perfect world, man sinned, we are all sinful and can't save ourselves so Jesus came to die for our sins and we need to trust him. I agree with each point separately, but I don't think it's the only way of presenting the gospel.

Nicy Gumbel's book is compelling if you are familiar with such names as Cicero and Dostoevsky. I guess it appeals to well-educated middle class people who are sympathetic to Nicy Gumbel's background as a barrister. Again, the arguments he uses are fine, but I keep thinking about people on our local housing estates and, without wanting to be patronising, I wonder how many of them have heard of Cicero and Dostoevsky.

I looked in vain on the internet for a simple evangelistic booklet costing under £1 that puts across the Good News to the sort of person that might read The Sun or Daily Mirror. If there is one, I'd like to find it. If not, perhaps I'll produce my own.

To return to the boy I'm preparing for baptism: he deserves to be taken seriously, but the way I would usually share the gospel with people just isn't appropriate in this case. It challenges me to identify what is really at the heart of the good news; how can I express it in a way that he will understand. Intellectually he will probably grasp very little, but perhaps my just being there talking with him and his mum will communicate something of God's love, because that's what is as the heart: God loves us, Jesus shows us what God is like, and he gives us new life that gets better and better.

It's far harder to make things simple than to make them complicated; that's why I like the challenge of talking with children and preaching to a mixed congregation. I think every preacher should be forced to preach to children. I believe that if you can preach effectively from the epistles to children it shows you truly understand what they are saying.

So, watch this space for futher developments.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Community Cohesion and Schools

I've just spent another hour in a school governors' committee meeting talking about 'Community Cohesion'. This is how the Department for Childrens, Schools and Families defines Community Cohesion:

Working towards a society in which there is a common vision and sense of belonging by all communities, a society in which the diversity of people’s backgrounds and circumstances is appreciated and valued; a society in which similar life opportunities are available to all; a society in which strong and positive relationships exist and continue to be developed in the workplace, in school and in the wider community.’

I am a little cynical about this as it seems to me that schools are being used by the government to promote a particular social policy, albeit one with laudable aims. Schools are having to come up with more and more policies, take part in increasing assessment, demonstrate widening circles of consultation with stakeholders - and, if they have time, teach our children.

Having said that, I am in favour of the aims of community cohesion because they run parallel with those of the kingdom of God, as demonstrated in the life and teaching of Jesus. He valued people from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures; he modelled something good about strong and positive relationships; and he invited everyone to be part of his kingdom, though some refused and made excuses. At the same time, though, he made it clear that membership of that kingdom brings very clear challenges to lifestyle and belief.

I will be helping to draw together our church school's policies on equality - gender equality, disability, racism and community cohesion - into one Equality Policy, not because I think the government is right to require schools to do so, but because as a church school we want to reflect values that are in line with the kingdom of God. This may raise some uncomfortable questions about what we are doing in the church to promote the values of the kingdom of God, but I hope that discomfort may prove to be creative.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Helping people to meet Jesus.

'Helping people to meet Jesus' is our church motto, and this morning I had the opportunity to do just that. I was called over to the church where there was a lady in some distress, saying that the devil had her in his power. We went into the church to pray and I asked her about her life. I suggested that I prayed for her and anointed her with the oil of chrism. This is oil that is traditionally used at confirmation and is a sign God sealing the believer with his Holy Spirit. As I prayed I could see what was troubling this lady visibly lifting off her, and her cries of distress changed to prayers of joy.

What a privilege to have this ministry of reconciliation (as St Paul puts it) - that is, helping people to be reconciled with God through his Son Jesus. And what a joy to see God's grace at work through his Holy Spirit restoring this 'prodigal daughter'.

Monday, 8 June 2009


Someone at the The Daily Express made a blooper today:

JESUS Christ is the dead person most Britons would love to meet, a study revealed yesterday.

Oh dear! They haven't got many theologians at the Daily Express.

You can read the whole article here:

The dead person who came second was Princess Dianna. I'm not sure whether the picture on the Daily Express page is Jesus or Dianna. Maybe its a syncretist morphing of the two.

Well, it's good news for the church I think. Our church motto is 'Helping people to meet Jesus' - that is in THIS world, not the next. If the Express survey is true, then I think we're on the right track.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Barack Obama - the new messiah?

President Obama's speech in Egypt sounded positively messianic. Obviously designed to flatter his Muslim audience, he quoted liberally from the Qur'an, but also (with an eye to his religious audience at home perhaps) from the Talmud and the Bible. Nevertheless, let's not be too cynical because what he said sounded a completely new start in American - Muslim relations. I have read elsewhere that the President is perhaps naive in thinking that Islam is some homogeneous movement (rather like the Roman Catholic church). Islam is as divided as 'Christendom', with its fundamental faultline of Sunni and Shia (comparable to the Western and the Eastern church after the Great Schism of the 11th century).

But I think Obama should be applauded for such a strong speech, delivered with a winsome blend of authority and humility.

It would be great to think that he will succeed where other presidents and leaders have failed. Probably one speech won't do it alone, but at least it's a start.

I said that I thought the speech sounded messianic in tone. Well, this is what the true Messiah said, quoting from the prophet Isaiah:

"The Spirit of the Sovreign Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour."

Let's hope and pray that the president's words bring good news to Israelis and Palestinians who feel both threatened and oppressed by each other; to women in oppressive Muslim states; and to all those who are imprisoned by the hatred of those they don't trust.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

God is good - all the time

On Sunday we celebrated the Feast of Pentecost with our Christian brothers and sisters from all the churches in Coulsdon. About 300 people - young and old, male and female (Acts 2:17 & 18) - gathered at Coulsdon Memorial Ground at 12 noon. We were blessed with fine weather. The band from St John's led the music; children's activities were organised by St Andrew's, members of other churches did prayers and readings, Simon Stocks from St John's gave the address, and all the church leaders gave the final blessing together. Our aim was to celebrate God's goodness, and be a visible sign of unity. It was good to worship together and to enjoy one another's company with a picnic afterwards.

God is good - all the time.
All the time - God is good.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Clergy and Trains

Why do so many clergy like trains - real and model? I have a model railway in our garage, and my father (not a clergyman) has a railway in his garden. I made a short film of it recently - combining my love of trains with with my favourite British light music:

My own theory is that railways are all about order and communication. For some clergy the stress of parish life, and the number of awkward people that one sometimes has to deal with, can be forgotten about in the ordered environment of a model railway. Here you are in complete control, with no-one to answer back or contradict. Yes, trains sometimes get derailed, but no-one gets hurt. Some model railway enthusiasts run their trains to a strict timetable - another layer of order and control. But running a railway can be a very social activity. In real life trains are passed from the control of one signalbox to another with great care. Nowadays this is all computerised, but it used to be by a series of bell codes and telephones.

Here is a link to a lovely BBC archive film that shows a rather eccentric elderly couple and a decidedly eccentric young curate expressing their love of trains - real and imaginary.

Is there anything theological or biblical in all of this? I'm not sure, but maybe building and running a model railway reflects something of the creativeness of God, and his fatherly care.

Railways are also about communication: taking people to their destination. They used to carry the news and the post. I haven't done a survey, but I think train-loving clergy tend to be found more in the evangelical wing of the church in which a high priority is put on taking the good news to new places.

I'm sure psychologists would have a lot to say about the fascination with railways, and I'd be interested to hear what they say. But for me, it's just something I've grown up with and embraced for myself - rather like my faith I suppose.