Wednesday, 28 September 2011

'Build my house'

I haven’t had much time for blogging lately due to family circumstances. I call my blog ‘The Restless Rector’, but recently I’ve been more a ‘Rector in need of a rest’, but things are beginning to calm down and I can begin to look outside my immediate concerns.

When I was a curate near High Wycombe my vicar, John Olhausen, liked to talk about the bible as ‘the pasture-lands of God’. He taught me to expect to hear God’s voice speaking through scripture each day, and I have tried to follow that example ever since. So when we read the set readings at Morning Prayer I listen out for something that God wants me to hear for the day or the week ahead.

Recently we read through the prophet Haggai – one of those prophets I still have some difficulty locating in my bible! God’s words through the prophet seemed particularly appropriate in these days when the church appears to be in decline in so many areas, and our church in Old Coulsdon faces the added pressure of needing to spend a lot of money on our buildings, and to restore our finances to a deficit-free state.

Haggai’s message was a simple one about the Temple in Jerusalem: ‘Build the house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honoured.’ He was speaking at a time when the Jews had begun to return from exile in Babylon and were settling back in Jerusalem. They were rebuilding their own houses and spending their money on their own needs, but God’s house – the Temple – was still in ruins. As a consequence they were finding that their money didn’t go very far – it was as if it was kept in a bag full of holes; it just drained away.

“Make my house your priority,” is what God was saying to his people. Much later, St Paul described the church as the temple of God – a sacred temple where God dwelt. Not a building now, but collectively the people of God. If that is the case, it means that we should treat the church – as the body of Christ, and as the dwelling place of God – with the same respect that the Jews treated the temple in Jerusalem. Today, though, the church is often relegated to the level of a ‘leisure activity’, or a ‘therapy session’ to get you through the week ahead.

Perhaps those of us who are in the church ought to heed the words Haggai spoke out and take the church more seriously, and pay it more attention in terms of what we give – our time, effort and money. The point of the Temple in Jerusalem was that it was a physical place where people could meet with God; the point of the church is exactly the same – a community in which people may encounter the risen Christ and through faith in him meet with God. This is what keeps me going when the media are so negative about the church, and the statistics tempt us to give up. In spite of its shortcomings, this is what St Paul said about the church: ‘God’s intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms…’ So not only do we have an earthly mission, but, in a way I don’t fully understand, we have a cosmic mission as well. There’s food for thought.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

'Out of the heart...'

A recurring comment on the recent riots was the surprise that apparently 'respectable' young people were taking part - university students, 'decent' middle-class people.

What it all goes to show is that whether you wear a suit or a hoodie makes no difference because that's only what is on the outside. Jesus said, "Out of the heart come...evil thoughts...theft..." etc. It's the heart that drives a person's actions, not their clothes or level of wealth. Like in 'Lord of the Flies' the riots show what happens when the human heart has no constraints of law or social order. Very soon there is anarchy and violence.

It's very easy to pontificate from the sidelines of relatively quiet Coulsdon, but perhaps we have to ask searching questions of ourselves. What is it in the heart that can lead to such lawlessness? Is it the same thing that leads respectable MPs (and others, I'm sure) to fiddle their expenses? "Everyone does it," is the cry. So what's the difference between stealing from the tax payer and stealing trainers from a shop? The riots resulted in criminal damage to property - and there is no excuse for that - but the MPs expenses scandal resulted in damage to the reputation of parliament. Which is easier to rebuild? I tend to think that buildings are easier than reputations.

The economic liberalism of the 1980s, encouraged by the government of the time, lies, I believe, behind many of the problems we see today. 25 or 30 years ago we were encouraged to get what we could, to abandon restraint, to get rich quick: sell off national assets, remove limitations. And many people did get very rich and could retire at 55. But now their children generation, brought up with those same values, face a much more bleak economic outlook. Naturally, they share their parents' values but their aspirations to material wealth are blocked. Who is to blame? I suppose we all are to some extent, by active involvement or collusion.

What is the answer? In today's psalm at Morning Prayer the psalmist writes: 'Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart'. I also have a verse on my window ledge that says, 'Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.' The good news is that God can change hearts. In Ezekiel it says that he can exchange hearts of flesh for hearts of stone. In Jeremiah God says he will put his Spirit within us so we will know the right thing to do without being told. "Search me, O God, and know my heart..." says the psalmist.

It is claimed by J John, the evangelist, that there are over 32 million laws in existence; but have they improved on the 10 Commandments? Perhaps this is the time to return to the good life that God set out so simply. We've seen recently what happens when there are no boundaries of law and order. It's not a good life. God's good life has simple boundaries that we forget at our peril.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

The end of the world - but not as we know it

So the 'end of the world' came and went on Saturday without even a tremor - except for the volcano in Iceland. Harold Camping, the American pastor, is apologetic for getting his sums wrong and leading many people to spend their life savings in preparing for the Rapture.

This is nothing new. Ever since the time of St Paul people have been expecting the imminent return of the Lord Jesus. Paul had to write to the church in Thessalonica that the 'day of the Lord' would come unexpectedly, so they had better just get on with life as normal in a state of preparation. It seems that some in that church had decided to give up work as they expected the Lord to come there and then.

The Anabaptists in the 17th century had several episodes of 'Rapture panic', and it has continued ever since wherever people get hold of the bible and start interpreting it as a hidden code full of 'ancient mysteries' (to use Dan Brown's phrase in 'The Lost Symbol').

The bible is not a code book that has to be interpreted by careful calculation. Rather it is, inspired by the Holy Spirit, the way we hear the living voice of God day by day. I'm afraid Harold Camping is barking very much up the wrong tree. He - and his followers even more so - needs to heed the words of Deuteronomy 18:22 - If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That propet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

New Wine Leaders' Conference

I've just got back from a two-and-a-half day church leaders conference in Ealing, organised by New Wine. The keynote speaker was Dave Workman, the senior pastor on Cincinnati Vineyard Church. As usual with these conferences you come back, head crammed full of new ideas, good ideas, challenging ideas. But what will stay with me, and what will be good for the church?

The first talk by John Coles, Director of New Wine, was one that has stuck with me. He looked at Ezekiel's vision of the river of God flowing from the temple in Jerusalem. Nothing new there, but it just seemed to speak to me for our church at this time. A picture of a river ankle deep, knee deep, waist deep, then deep enough to swim in. It's a river that brings life to the nations. And I have been asking myself, at what depth are we ready to enter the river, and will we go deeper. It's a river that is not just for the church, but for the world.

I was challenged in the whole area of mission which is one where I think we have been weak. There are some individuals who have a heart for mission, but the theme of this conference was that the whole church needs to be outward looking. Mission among families, and to men: here are 2 areas I believe we should be investing in. Statistics show that if you get men converted, then in 95% of times, their families will follow. If you get women first, then it's 30%, and if you get children then it's 3%. So, in terms of mission, where should we start? It's obvious. But we've hardly begun.

Dave Workman's church in the USA is built on the model of servant evangelism - that is sharing the gospel by serving the community. So I ask the question, what can we do to serve the community of Old Coulsdon? Where are the needs? How can we help to meet them? David Cameron may have coined the term 'Big Society' but Jesus was teaching it 2000 years ago - and not to win votes, either! On the surface we are not a 'needy' area, but actually you don't have to look very far to find a lot of needs.

Here's a challenge in relation to finance: 'not equal giving, but equal sacrifice.' We could wipe out our deficit by everyone giving an extra £2.50 a week for the next 5 years. But the biblical and spiritual approach is to ask God, "What sacrifice can I make in my giving?" That forces us to listen to God, and to be serious in giving.

Going to these big conferences means you can enjoy the 'big worship' experience: a professional band and hundreds of people engaged in heartfelt worship. Then you come home and... But we have musicians here and I think it's going to be a priority to get them together and begin to build a regular worship band. The aim of worship is not to become like another big church with a flashy band, but to help people - inside and not-yet-inside the church - engage with God. Worship should be passionate whatever the style, because God passionately loves us.

I have a picture of that river in Ezekiel flowing through the church here at St John's and out into the neighbourhood bringing life to all that the water touches. We can all enter the river at different depths, but it's a flowing river - it doesn't stay still. The Bishop of London said to Prince William and Kate on their wedding day, 'Be the people that God wants you to be and you can set the world alight.' The same can be said of the church. it's time to discover what sort of church God wants us to be, and then to BE it. Who knows what could happen then.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Be happy...because we tell you

I have to confess to being rather cynical about the government's latest campaign to encourage happiness. If they are serious about it perhaps they should appoint Ken Dodd as the 'Happiness Tsar' and issue everyone with a tickle-stick. I wonder if there is some ulterior motive in encouraging happiness, such as taking the strain off the NHS? But the Pensions Department might think the opposite as happy people tend to live longer and that puts more strain on the pension funds. (That's why the Church of England Pension Fund is stretched - retired clergy tend to live longer than anyone else.)

To promote happiness by its measurable benefits is rather like the arguments in favour of promoting music in education: it can be shown that involvement in music is beneficial to social and intellectual skills, as well as to the health. But shouldn't the reason for being involved in music simply be to bring pleasure to the soul, as JS Bach said: The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul. It's a pity that music has to be justified in schools, and to the Arts Council, these days by its measurable benefits.

Jesus had something to say about happiness (or 'blessedness') but it seems quite at odds with a modern agenda for personal happiness:

Happy are those who know they are spiritually poor; the Kingdom of heaven belongs to them!

Happy are those who mourn; God will comfort them!

Happy are those who are humble; they will receive what God has promised!

Happy are those whose greatest desire is to do what God requires; God will satisfy them fully!

Happy are those who are merciful to others; God will be merciful to them!

Happy are the pure in heart;they will see God!

Happy are those who work for peace; God will call them his children!

Happy are those who are persecuted because they do what God requires; the Kingdom of heaven belongs to them!

Happy are you when people insult you and persecute you and tell all kinds of evil lies against you because you are my followers. (Matthew's Gospel - Good News Translation)

It seems to me that true happiness can only be found when there is a fundamentally good meaning to life which, as far as I'm concerned, is only found through the abundant life that Jesus has to offer those who come to him in faith.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Make sure you vote on May 5th

David Cameron is warning voters (perhaps that should be non-voters) of the danger of sleepwalking into an assualt on democracy on May 5th if they don't get out and vote in the referendum on the electoral system. The excitement generated by the AV system is, perhaps, in line with the excitement generated by the Liberal Democrats, but nevertheless if AV goes through as a result of a record-breaking low turnout then democracy will suffer. I am convinced that AV is not a good idea, and these are my reasons:

1) It is incredibly complicated to explain. The booklet that came to our house the other day takes at least 5 times as long to explain the AV system, compared with the 'first past the post' system we currently use. I am moderately interested in politics and consider myself well-educated, but even I struggled to maintain an interest in the finer details. The claim is that the electorate will be more engaged in the process if AV is adopted, but I feel the opposite will happen.

2) It will lead to the least unpopular candidate being elected - a recipe for mediocrity. The Labour Party used AV in its last leadership election, and this is why Ed Milliband became Labour leader rather than his brother.

3) The major parties will pay undue attention to the extremist minorities in order to get their removed votes

4) It is a sop for the Liberal Democrats in return for joining the coalition.

5)The 'Yes' politicians seem to have lost confidence in their ability to persuade people, so they are employing an army of celebrity 'luvvies' to do their work for them. Why should we trust the judgement of the likes of Stephen Fry, Joanna Lumley, Eddie Izzard and Colin Firth any more than that of our elected representatives?

6) The whole process is wasting money that could be better spent elsewhere.

So, make sure you vote on May 5th.

Friday, 1 April 2011

I only know little little

Like our erstwhile Bishop of Croydon I was interested to read about Fabio Capello's limited English vocabulary which allows him to give basic football commands, but not to engage in debates about the economy. According to the Oxford English Corpus the 100 most commonly used English words are:

a about after all also an and any as at back be because but by can come could day do even first for from get give good go have he her him his how I if in into it its just know like look make me most my new no now not of on one only or other our out over people say see she so some take the their there they time than that them then these think this to two up us use with you want way we well what who which when will work would year your

Bishop Nick wonders how you can express the gospel using 100 words or fewer. That's easy (read John 3:16). But to express the gospel using the 100 most common words, which don't include 'God', 'Jesus', 'love' or 'world'...that's a challenge. Anway, here is my attempt:

People can not do good. There is a good good one who can make people good because he like all people well.

Now, that sounds more like Fabio!

Monday, 14 March 2011

Be holy. Why?

I have very much enjoyed the series 'All About the Bible' that has been running here in Coulsdon since January as part of the Churches Together in Coulsdon's way of marking the Year of the Bible. Last week was particularly helpful as Bishop David Atkinson gave us a 'quick coach tour' (as my History of Religious Thought lecturer used to say) of Christian ethics. What stuck in my mind was the way Bishop David gave a biblical rationale for ethics: not a legalistic Kantian approach of obeying laws, or a Millsian relativism of doing what is best for the greatest number, but an ethic based on the reflection of God's character: "Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy."

This means that ethical choices, if they are 'biblical', will be made in the light of what reflects God's character. That doesn't necessarily make those choices choices easy as most situations are quite complicated, but it does give a way to start. From what we know of the character of God, as revealed in the bible, we can begin to shape an ethic that includes ourselves individually and as a society.

Today's postmodern society allows for so much indivual choice when it comes to ethics that we, as Christians, should be allowed as much 'air-time' to put a biblical approach to ethics as anyone else. Today, it seems to me, we will win respect not by simply arguing or seeing ourselves in a battle, though sometimes it seems like a battle, but perhaps by presenting an ethic that is as attractive as the character of God. That means we need to know enough about God's character to BE attractive, and not just pick and choose the bits of God's character that our own prejudices feel comfortable with. So justice AND mercy, grace AND truth, power AND self-giving, creativity AND purity, and so on.

As it happens, one of the lectionary readings for today is from Leviticus 19, which has the verse, "Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy." I am taking that verse with me today and will see what happens.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Have a joyful Lent

I have been reading the Bible consistently for at least 35 years, yet yesterday there was a verse in our readings at Morning Prayer that for some reason had passed me by up until now. It sums up entirely what I want to achieve during Lent, or indeed any time.

The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him ,
and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice.

Those words were spoken by John the Baptist about Jesus, and later Jesus described himself as the bridegroom (Mark 2:19), and his disciples as friends (John 15:15). So during this Lent I want to be one of those who is waiting and listening for the bridegroom's voice in the anticipation of the joy of hearing him.

With this is in mind I have been preparing a talk on Lectio Divina for the 'All About the Bible' series being held in Coulsdon during the past 9 weeks. In doing so, it has helped me rediscover the Bible as a means through which we can meet with a friend and hear his voice.

And just in case you think that all this might be rather cosy then here is the word I've taken for today:

If you spend youselves on behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
(Isaiah 58:10)

Friday, 25 February 2011

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Mahler

On Wednesday Nicy and I went to hear the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra playing at the South Bank Centre. It's 30 years since I heard them play in London, and that was under their legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan. Then, I had to queue for hours the day the tickets went on sale; now we simply went on line, but we had to be quick. Within the first few hours all the tickets went - we got almost the last 2.

On my Facebook page I've described the BPO as the 'BMW 7 Series' of orchestras. Completely faultless playing whatever the music (road conditions). Classy in an understated way so that you are left wondering at the music and not just the orchestra's playing.

The main work on Wednesday was Mahler's massive Third Symphony. The conductor Bruno Walter, a student of Mahler, when visiting the composer in his Austrian retreat remarked on the wonderful mountain scenery. "Don't look at that," Mahler is reported to have said, "I've described it all in my music." And you can believe it in this sprawlingly massive symphony where you can easily imagine brooding mountains with rocky crags, spring flowers bursting through, the dances of Pan and other woodland spirits, the yodels of Austrian shepherds, and the sublimity of human, perhaps divine, love.

The music lurches from brooding seriousness, to vulgar Jewish klezmar band, to alpine scenes with yodelling, a sentimental minuet, a setting of a deep poem by Nietzche followed by a sugary children's religious song, and then finally, a 25 minute long unfolding (in rondo form - if you want the technical description) of a sublime melody celebrating love.

The whole symphony is a celebration of life from the sublime to the ridiculous. Some of Mahler's fans get rather precious about his music: "O God, wouldn't you DIE without Mahler," says one of the characters in the play and film 'Educating Rita'. It's rather ironic that she tries to commit suicide while Mahler's 6th symphony is playing on her record player.

His later music has a poignancy to it that is almost unbearable as he contemplates the sadness of having to leave this life behind, in, for example 'Das Lied von der Erde'. But it's because he loved life so much and couldn't bear the thought of leaving it. Tragically, Mahler died at the comparatively young age of 51. I believe his death was due to a streptococcal infection which these days would easily be treatable with penicillin.

If music can celebrate life in all its fulness, then Mahler's music does it. Jesus said, in the Gospel of John, that he came to bring life in all it fulness. Mahler's music celebrates life, but I believe Jesus actually GIVES fulness of life.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The Promise

Like buses, you wait for ages then 3 come at once. That's what it feels like with TV dramas on Sunday nights. If you want a nice golden glow of Victorian nostalgia then 'Lark Rise to Candleford' leaves you with a warm feeling of 'niceness'. If you want an edgy realistic drama set in contemporary Israel, then The Promise is outstanding (more on that in a moment). Or there's 'Being Human', the rather gory but intriguing story of a vampire, some werewolves and a ghost sharing a house in Barry, South Wales. (The basic premise of the drama is: what does it really mean to be human? Answer: to have a physical body, to love, to grow old and to die.)

'The Promise', though, has been my drama of choice these last 3 weeks. It concerns the current relationship between Jews and Arabs in Israel, playing out a contemporary story in parallel to that of the post-Second World War British mandate in Palestine. It has captured the very nuanced and complicated situation that existed then and now in a way that is rare in TV dramas these days.

The story is of a girl, Erin, who visits an Israeli friend who is just doing her national service. Erin has taken her grandfather's diary from the 1940s and has discovered that he was serving with the British forces in Palestine. As she reads the diary she discovers more about her grandfather, and more about the people around her in modern Israel.

When I first visited Israel in 1981 I quickly sensed the very real legacy of the treatment of Jews in 1930 and 40s Europe. 'Never again' was, and still is, the popular cry. Armed soldiers are everywhere, and I was initially shocked to find myself standing next to a soldier with a machine gun on a bus in Jerusalem. I remember seeing a group of soldiers relaxing at a swimming pool, with their guns neatly lined up against the wall, never far away in case they were needed quickly. The other thing that commuicated a sense of nervous unease was the amount people smoked. 'Like chimneys' would be quite an accurate description.

The Jewish freedom-fighters, the Irgun, were terrorists in their day and they were much more fiercely anti-British than they were anti-Arab. The British were stuck in the middle - as they have often been in overseas conflicts, trying to protect the Arab majority (and their own oil interests) while at the same time granting limited asylum to Jewish refugees fleeing Europe.

The Promise has very carefully brought out the differences in status between Israeli Arabs, such as those living in Nazareth, and the West Bank Arabs, who are denied Israeli citizenship and who suffer the daily indiginity of having to pass through the so-called Peace Wall to travel from their homes to their work. Not only that, but they suffer the illegal occupation and development of their land.

The typical Israeli Jewish argument about settling in Israel is that when the Arabs had it to themselves they did nothing to develop the land in 2000 years. But since 1948 the Jews have worked tirelessly to bring about an Isaiah-like transformation of the desert into a place of fruitful abundance. That may be so, but it ignores the fact that the Arabs were living there first. Just because you can do a better job with the land doesn't give you the right to take it from someone who you might describe as lazy.

The Promise isn't just pro-Arab propaganda, though. It describes the real fear that many Israeli Jews feel, and the belief that they have a right to live in their own land in safety and in peace - shalom as the bible would express it. The only thing lacking, so far, in this drama is any reference to the religious aspect of the situation. But perhaps that is refreshing, as the Israel/Palestine conflict is often portrayed too simplistically as a Jewish/Muslim problem.

This has been a TV drama that has been almost unique in its careful portrayal of a complicated political and historical problem. My only irritation has been with the central character, Erin, who has absolutely no idea of the consequences of her action, and thinks the world revolves around her; in other words, the typical surly teenager. With one more episode to go I hope her experience makes her grow up.

'Lark Rise to Candleford' may be a nice way to end a Sunday, in the same way as eating toast and marmite sitting by a log fire, but 'The Promise' brings us back to reality in a way that both entertains and informs.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Being a Good Samaritan to a Good Samaritan

I spent yesterday evening at one of the Croydon Floating Shelters for homeless people, being run in Purley. One of the guests told me a story about an experience he had had recently which gave me a new insight into Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan.

This man is not from the UK and has had some trouble with the police, and he is homeless. So he is probably on the receving end of many people's prejudices about 'people like him'. He told me that recently he was in Purley when he saw an old lady trip on the pavement and fall into the gutter. He was at a distance, and was surprised at the number of people nearby who did nothing to help, so he and a black gentleman ran over to help this lady up in the middle of the crowded area outside Tesco. He made sure the lady was OK, but didn't stay because of his earlier run-ins with 'The Bill'. The people of Purley passed by and the lady who fell had to receive help from a homeless immigrant. Now he, in turn, has been receiving help from the church in Purley (along with helpers from churches in Coulsdon).

When Jesus told the parable, he wasn't just saying "Help people in need," but "Be prepared to consider your neighbour those you might despise and have nothing to do with." In Jesus' days on earth the Samaritans were despised and looked down on by the Jews because hundreds of years earlier the Assyrians conquered the northern part of Israel and had intermarried with the northern Israelites based round Samaria. So 'Samaritan' to a Jew meant unclean and mixed race. For a Jew to receive help from an unclean mixed race man was almost unthinkable. But, in the words of the song that we sang in school assembly thins morning; 'That's what's turning the world upside-down.'

I might have had some prejudices against homeless people, but when I heard this man's story and connected it with Jesus' parable those prejudices were dealt a severe blow.

Here in Coulsdon we are planning to run our own floating shelter next winter as part of the Croydon scheme. We are really excited about this as it gives the churches a practical way of demonstrating the love of God, and doing mission together.

Friday, 28 January 2011

25 years since the Challenger shuttle disaster

25 years ago the space shuttle Challenger exploded just after takeoff. Not only were 7 lives lost, but the confidence of America was shaken in a way that was second only, perhaps, to the events of 9/11.

I was training at theological college at the time, and remember watching the TV with some American friends who were also training. We used to delight in poking fun at President Reagan and his folkesy and sometimes confused style, but on the night of the disaster he made one of the best speeches.

He knew how to communicate in a warm and heartfelt way, which combined gravity with hope. He helped make sense of what had happened, not trying to apportion blame as so quickly happens today, but simply saying that these things happen when people take the risks of exploration.

If ever there was a need for a head of state to sum up the mood of a nation, then this was it. Speaking equally sincerely to the nation as a whole, the families of the crew who died, their NASA colleagues and children who had witnessed the disaster live on TV. I still find the speech very moving, particularly in the way it ends with those famous words about touching the face of God.

Watch the speech here: