Saturday, 31 December 2016

Turn of the Year

As the sun sets on 2016 there's an excuse to become a little philosophical about what's going on in the world. I can't remember feeling less optimistic and more uncertain about the year ahead. The prospect of the Trump presidency worries me, the muddle over Brexit frustrates me, the situation in the Middle East saddens me, the continuing terrorist threats disquiet me, and here at home the railway disputes depress me. But as a preacher I'm supposed to proclaim Good News. So where is it?

Mrs Alexander, the 19th century vicar's wife, wrote many children's hymns which are often dismissed as sentimental and old-fashioned, but many of them were written to help children understand basic Christian doctrine. One of the most immortal lines is 'He came down to earth from heaven, who is God and Lord of all.' In a simple and direct way that captures the mystery of the incarnation: God becoming man. And that is where I can find Good News.

It's good news that Jesus came and lived among us, sharing all our human emotions and experiences - even death itself. It's good news that Jesus was born in poverty, was threatened with extermination by a cruel king, and ended up as a refugee all before the age of two. It's good news that Jesus suffered, that he was tempted - in fact that he was made perfect through suffering. It's good news that he has taken those experiences back to heaven with him where, one of the biblical writers tells us, he lives to intercede for us. Knowing what it's like to live our life, he can bring our case before our Father God.

So even if the world continues to be dark and troublesome, and many people suffer, and we may suffer too - God is among us, he is with us in trouble and joy, in peace and in pain. Good News for 2017.

Saturday, 20 August 2016


A few months ago I planted six small tomato plants in our greenhouse and now they are touching the roof, full of ripening fruit. With regular watering, occasional feeding and cutting off unwanted shoots they are doing what they are meant to do: bearing fruit.
Jesus said, “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

The Israelites went in search of a fruitful land ‘flowing with milk and honey’. Jesus wants his followers to go in search of fruitful lives: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.” It’s simple, isn’t it, the key to a successful life: stay connected to Jesus, and be fruitful.

So what is the fruit of our lives that the bible talks about? St Paul described the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ – nine characteristics of a Spirit-filled life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Who would not want that fruit in their lives? It takes time to grow – just as my tomatoes have taken several months. But if we are connected to Jesus through his Spirit that spiritual fruit will begin to grow and ripen on our lives.

Paul talks about the ‘fruit of righteousness’: the fruit that comes from a right relationship with God, justified and forgiven through faith in Christ. He talks about ‘bearing fruit in every good work’, that is the fruit of actively doing good to others, and the fruit of sharing the gospel so that the church grows numerically. And the writer to the Hebrews speaks about ‘the fruit of lips that confess God’s name’ – that is the fruit that comes from speaking out words of praise and worship.

On October 2nd we will celebrate our Harvest Festival in church, thanking God for the fruit of the earth, but at any time of year we can be looking for a fruitful harvest in our own lives, and when we see growth – or others see it in us – it’s something we can thank God for. We are made to bear fruit: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Making sense of the Referendum: further reflections

This is the text of the article I've written for our parish magazine; a more concise version of what I posted the other day. 

One of the things I love best about the British is our ability to find humour in the worst situations. After England’s defeat in Euro 2016 a friend posted on Facebook: ‘So leaving Europe once this week just wasn’t enough!?!’ And another: ‘Thank goodness it was only Iceland. Tesco would have really thrashed us.’ A good sense of humour is essential at the moment as we contemplate a very different and uncertain future in relation to Europe. My own feelings following the referendum were of shock, anger, fear and sadness. But what’s done is done, and we can’t reverse the decision. So it’s time to look forward with faith, hope and love.

Faith in the God who is sovereign over all. Much of the European debate has been about ‘who is in control?’ Is it the UK parliament in Westminster, or Brussels? Of course it’s not as simple as that – if only it were. In a modern global world where multi-national business transcends national boundaries sovereignty is much less clearly defined these days. We may be a sovereign power, but, for example, we don’t have any control over oil prices and so we will all feel the consequences of more expensive petrol. While Jesus was on earth he lived in a small outlying province of the Roman Empire. There was no democracy at all, yet he was prepared to accept the earthly power of the Emperor: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” At the same time, he could say to the Emperor’s representative, Pontius Pilate, “You are right to say that I am a king….My kingdom is not of this world.” The kingdom of God, that we become members of through faith in Christ, is one without geographical boundaries, its government rests on the shoulders of Jesus the Messiah, its entry requirements are through a narrow gate, but at the same time it is open to all who will pass through that gate – Jesus Christ. The prophets of the Old Testament looked forward to the coming of this kingdom that would outlast every other kingdom and empire – even the EU. So my faith is not ultimately in the sovereignty of a political institution, necessary though it may be for the ordering of a good society, but in the sovereignty of God.

We need to have hope for the future. The big financial institutions are notoriously afraid of uncertainty, and we will no doubt see a contraction in our economy at least in the short-term. Hope helps us look beyond that, and is the only antidote to fear. Yes, we may be worse off economically as a result of this vote, but ultimately our security is not in the value of our house or pension fund. Compared with the majority of the world we are fantastically rich. True Christian hope runs deeper than optimism, which depends more on your personality. Hope is based on the belief that in Christ all things are made new – and that starts with ourselves. Hope is located in the future – not ‘pie in the sky when you die’, but the life of heaven breaking into earth, the life of the future in the present. So if all around seems to be uncertain we can still have hope.

And then there is a great need for love. The worst result of this referendum has been to see the naked hatred of some people towards immigrants from the EU and further afield. I fear that those who voted to leave the EU because of immigration will be bitterly disappointed as (a) nothing will change for at least 2 years, and (b) Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are both pro-immigration, though in a more regulated way than at present. I don’t think it will be long before those who voted to leave will feel betrayed and will give vent to even more anti-immigrant hatred. So as a church we must stand up for the ultimate Christian value of love: love for our neighbour, and love for our enemy. There is no distinction in love – it covers a multitude of sins. Love means we must welcome those who have every right to be here but may be feeling unwelcoming; it also means we must, in some way, reach out to those who feel they have been ignored and pushed aside in their own country. So love extends as much to the Polish or Latvian worker and the Syrian refugee, as it does to the white working-class Englishman.

The other thing we can do in the church is to pray: pray for our political leaders, many of whom looked as shocked as the rest of us following the result; for the leaders of the EU – that there will be no vindictive spirit motivating them; for the leaders of our financial institutions as they hold the economy together; for those who have disagreed fundamentally over this issue; for those who voted as a protest against the political elite because they have felt ignored or taken for granted.
This is now a time for rebuilding and looking forward. It may not be the future many were looking for, but it is an opportunity to put faith, hope and love into action.

‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayers, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Reflecting on the Referendum

There is an ancient Chinese curse that says “May you live interesting times.” In fact it’s probably not Chinese, and probably not ancient, but it certainly describes what we woke up to on Friday morning: the biggest political shock since 1945 when Labour swept to power after everyone expected Churchill to win the election, and the biggest political miscalculation since Eden’s decision to invade Suez in 1956.  This is such a significant turn of events that we can’t shut our eyes to it in church, so I want to reflect theologically on it this morning . I have to put my cards on the table and say that what I felt on Friday morning was a mixture of shock, anger, sadness and fear. Shock – because, although everyone thought the vote would be close, no-one actually expected it to go this way; anger – because there has been so much disinformation and downright lying which I believe has deceived people; anger because nearly half the nation has been pulled unwillingly into a place we didn’t choose; and fear, because we simply don’t know what will happen now. Sadness, because any break down of relationships is sad. But I’ve had a couple of days to reflect and to put my own feelings to one side and to look at where we find ourselves through biblical lenses.

The three big issues that the referendum was fought over were immigration, sovereignty, and the economy. What has been uncovered is the deep division in the UK: between the metropolitan areas and the rest of the country – London and the rest of England; between England and Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland. It seems that the prospect of the UK splitting apart is again on the table: Scotland away from England and even Northern Ireland uniting with the Irish Republic. Already there have been 100s of applications in NI for Irish EU passports.  Division between young and old, between middle class and working class, between rich and poor, between the ‘elite’ and ‘the man in the street’. And that has left me chastened to some extent. Because I have identified so much with the affluent, politically literate metropolitan population that I have dismissed the very real concerns of those who feel hard done-by, ignored and trodden over.
What will happen now. Probably tomorrow petrol prices will rise by 1 or 2p a litre. (I wonder if we will revert to gallons?) Those with pension and other investments will probably see their value drop by up to 10%, and those 1000s of UK pensioners who live in the EU will be harder hit. Those of us who go abroad for a holiday will find it more expensive. And already EU citizens living here are beginning to wonder if they are welcome. 
A particularly unwelcome reaction is from ISIS who are rejoicing, according to The Times, over what they see as the gradual break up of Europe. And Vladimir Putin is reported to be rubbing his hands in glee at the prospect of a weaker Europe.

But we are where we are; we can’t go back, and as one German politician has said, “Out is out.” So now we must look forward with hope and build a new future.

In an article in The Guardian on Friday the columnist Owen James said that immigration was the prism through which many people had viewed the referendum. And I think he’s right. Many working class people have felt overlooked and pushed aside, and helpless to do anything about what they see as the threat of unlimited immigration, in spite of the arguments that the majority of immigrants from the EU and elsewhere are hard-working, tax-paying, law-abiding people. The UK is often described as a tolerant nation, where people of all races and cultures are welcomed. And maybe we are, but beneath that there seems to be great fear and resentment. In the bible God told his people to remember that they were immigrants. Each year at the harvest festival they were to take their gifts with the words, “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Deut 26:5). And because they were descended from a wandering nomad, and because they were a people delivered from slavery they were to welcome the alien among them. Several times in the psalms it is said that ‘God watches over the alien’ (Ps 146:9).  Now I think that the British, by and large, are compassionate towards those that suffer. I am proud that this government has consistently kept up its level of overseas aid – even if not all of that ends up in the right hands. But it’s a sign that we care. And if those among us who are from the EU or further afield are feeling nervous then as a church we must reassure them and make them know they are welcome. The bible uses the image of pilgrimage to describe our journey of faith – we are all pilgrims and strangers in this world, and as such we should accept those who are among us, especially those who are in the community of faith, but also all people that we live alongside. The church has a role in speaking peace and reassurance to white working-class English people as much as it does to Polish workers and Syrian refugees. And at the very least we need to pray for the unity of our nation, and that division and hatred won’t just be covered over but healed.

It’s sometimes been said of immigrants to the UK, “They don’t belong here.” The question this referendum has uncovered is ‘Where do we belong?’ Where does our loyalty lie? Who is in control? Where is sovereignty located – in parliament, in the monarchy, in Brussels? What exactly does sovereignty mean? The word ‘sovereign’ comes, ironically from an Italian word sovrano, which is derived from the Latin super meaning ‘above’. So a sovereign is a supreme ruler or head. Since the 17th century the power of the British monarch has been limited by parliament, so sovereignty has been shared between the 2 institutions. Every international body that the UK has been part of has involved trading a bit of sovereignty in order to belong to it: The UN, NATO – both of which can take authority to direct our armed forces in localised conflict areas – and the EU. Along with sovereignty has been the issue of democracy.

Ironically the result of the referendum has put the majority of the country at odds with the majority in parliament. About 500 out 650 MPs supported the UK remaining. It’s going to be interesting to see how our sovereign parliament acts to carry out a policy that it disagrees with. More ironic, to me at least, is the fact that holding a referendum is not a very British thing to do in the first place. In most important decisions, such as the vote on same-sex marriage, it was parliament that decided whereas in Ireland and in France that issue was decided by a referendum.

So where do we belong? To whom or to what do we give our loyalty? Who is, or should be, in control?The prophets in the OT looked forward increasingly clearly to a kingdom that would be established where God was king. Unlike the empires that came and went – the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman Empires (later the British Empire) – this kingdom would never end. In the dream that K Nebuchadnezzar had, retold and interpreted by Daniel, this kingdom would be like a rock that filled the whole earth.  And it’s this kingdom that Jesus started to proclaim as soon as he began his public ministry. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.” His whole ministry was given over to proclaiming the kingdom through words and actions: parables, miracles, exorcisms. And this was a kingdom that was focussed on him – the king of the kingdom, yet a king who would be rejected, betrayed and crucified. St Paul writing to the Corinthians says that such a king is a stumbling block to Jews – who were looking for a heroic messiah to deliver them from the Romans – and foolishness to the Greeks – who looked for a great philosopher. The writer to the Hebrews, reflecting on the temporary nature of life on earth, says that ‘here we do not have an enduring city’, and Peter, writing in his first letter to believers scattered round Asia Minor (modern Turkey) because of persecution, addresses them as ‘strangers in the world’. When Jesus faced Pontius Pilate, the representative of the greatest earthly power – the Roman emperor – he said, “My kingdom is not of this world…You are right in saying I am a king…”

So when it comes to questions of sovereignty and belonging, to whom do we give our loyalty and allegiance, and where do we belong. As Christians we must echo Paul’s words when he says, “Our citizenship (using a Roman term) is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ…” (Phil 3:20). For me, that means that I don’t get too hung up about earthly sovereignty. Jesus was prepared to accept the earthly sovereignty of Caesar when he famously said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” The example our Queen gives is the best one as she recognises that we are all ultimately under the authority of God. She has been scrupulous in maintaining her constitutional neutrality in the EU debate, even when The Sun tried to imply her support for the Leave campaign. We may never know what her personal thoughts have been on the matter. The question of belonging is important, though. As Christians we belong to a kingdom that has no geographical borders, whose government is on the shoulders of King Jesus, whose entry requirements are through a narrow gate, but at the same time open to all who will pass through that gate – Jesus himself.

One of the complaints about the EU has always been that it’s full of ‘faceless bureaucrats’, and that it’s impossible to relate to an MEP because the European constituencies are so big – the whole of London, for example. The parish system of the C of E locates the church in a small area that allows us to know who lives here, and them to know us. When I walk around in my dog collar people, round here at least, know I’m the Rector (even if they call me Vicar!). Through the local church we can help people to have a sense of belonging to a kingdom that has no borders, because it’s the local church that is the ‘shop window’ of that kingdom. I think that should give us a real mission opportunity – particularly to those who feel that they are ignored or overlooked by the big structures and institutions.

One of the slogans used by Boris Johnson and others has been ‘Take back control’. It’s a powerful slogan, but like most slogans fairly meaningless. As a nation we British don’t like being told what to do – by our own politicians, let alone by foreigners – even our close ally the USA. Some years ago Nicy and I took a group from our previous church to Israel, and I noticed that as soon as British tourists got off the coach they would scatter and find their own way round, whereas American and Japanese tourists would stick together, all wearing the same hats and moving round like a flock of sheep. Who is in control? Is it the UK parliament or the EU institutions. I wonder how many people have actually bothered to find out how the EU works, through its elected Parliament, its Council of Ministers – each from their own member country, through its Commission – a kind of civil service, or its Court. Some have talked about our independence from foreign control as we can completely cut ourselves off from the outside world. Well, the only country that has done that successfully is North Korea. From a theological viewpoint, the question of control becomes THIS: ‘How much control of our lives do we allow the Lord to have? There is a danger in valuing independence as a concept so highly that we put ourselves as individuals at the centre: not Brussel, not Westminster – it’s up to me what I do. Jesus looks for people who will allow him to be in control.

We’ve been thinking about wealth and how we handle money recently. Jesus had a lot to say about it. The EU was founded as a Common Market to allow trade without tariffs. It would be very sad and a great shame if we found ourselves locked out of the single market. Ironically, if we do join the single market again, like Norway, we will still have to pay a wacking fee and allow free movement of goods, services and labour as Norway does. The
bible has little to say about modern international trade and the sophisticated economies of today’s world. What it does talk about is honesty in selling, not lending at extortionate rates of interest, not hoarding wealth, and being generous. Where is our ultimate security? I said earlier that there is much fear around today because people don’t know what will happen to our economy – on which so much else depends. All the signs are that in the short-term we will experience a significant contraction in the economy. And that forces us to consider ‘Where is my security?’ If my pension fund contracts, if the value of my house goes down or my mortgage increases where is my faith and trust? And of course that applies to us as a whole church: since we urge people to give in proportion to their income, if that income goes down we have to accept that the church’s income also goes down. This is where we need to trust God, and to encourage one another.

Finally, where do we go from here? No-one is quite sure. Never has it been more important to pray for our political leaders in the UK and EU as they chart a course through new waters. Using that metaphor let’s pray for our David Cameron in these next few weeks that he is ‘Captain of the ship’. We need to pray for the civil servants and others who will spend years now unpicking the 1000s of laws and regulations that have bound us to the EU – it will be as delicate an operation as separating Siamese twins. Let’s pray for financial leaders and institutions, and for foreign citizens who live here and UK citizens who live the EU.  And for those who voted to leave because they feel overlooked, ignored and pushed aside.

We are where we are, and we can only look forward now – not to a rosy nostalgic past, whether that was the last 40 years in the EU or further back. 
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayers, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’

Monday, 28 March 2016

'The Lord is risen'

Being on sabbatical this is the first time in nearly 30 years that I haven't preached on Easter Day. Instead I've had the unexpected luxury of simply being able to reflect on the Passion and Resurrection for myself. I crept into St John's for the 8 o'clock communion, trying to remain incognito, and the account of the resurrection from John's gospel was read. I've never really connected with Mary's tears at finding the tomb empty. Rather I've felt like Peter and John who look inside, see what has happened, believe and then go home. Perhaps it's a 'man thing' - it's like my idea of a good shopping trip: know what you want, find it straight away, buy it and go home.

But there have been tears this Pakistan where scores of people were brutally murdered by Taliban terrorists targeting Christians. Just as Mary went to the tomb expecting to find Jesus but didn't, so many families in Lahore, Christian and others, went out to that park expecting to have a good time, but instead met with tragedy.

We should pray for Pakistan: first, that the government will take the security of ALL its people seriously and ensure the safety of the Christian community which has been the target of so many attacks from Islamic extremists; and secondly that through their tears our Christian brothers and sisters will again encounter the risen Lord Jesus as Mary Magdalene did.

Tom Wright comments on Mary's mistaking Jesus for the gardener; in a way this was not a mistake because Jesus appears as one who is the Lord of new life, the Lord of a new garden and new growth.

Wright is so eloquent, I can't resist quoting him at length:
Ask people around the world what they think is the biggest day of the year for Christians. Most will say 'Christmas'. That's what our society has achieved: a romantic mid-winter festival...from which most of the things that really matter (the danger, the politics) are carefully excluded. The true answer - and I wish the churches would find ways of making this clear - is Easter. This is the moment of new creation. If it hadn't been for Easter, nobody would ever have dreamed of celebrating Christmas. This is the first day of God's new week. The darkness has gone, and the sun is shining.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

'Whom shall I fear?'

I was shocked to read the news this morning of bombs at the airport and metro station in Brussels. The real threat of terrorist attacks is very near home and it could easily make us fearful. I'm sure the people of Brussels must by anxious at this time, especially following the events in that city before Christmas. Today's psalm for Morning Prayer opens with the words 
The Lord is my light and my salvation - whom shall I fear?
I need to be constantly reminded of this. That whatever is happening that in some way affects me, I can find an inner peace and security that helps me carry on. It may not change the circumstances, but it helps me face them - and perhaps then to make a difference to those circumstances, rather than simply giving in to them.
We must continue to pray that what appears to be a 'Messianic' brand of extreme Islam followed by those who apparently have no fear of death is defeated. I believe the only way ultimately is through prayer. St Paul wrote: 
Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities,against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Paul was very clear that the way to counter evil spiritual forces was not with the weapons of the world:
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.  The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
This is something that governments have little or no idea about as they see only the power struggles being played out on the ground. As Christians we need to be aware that there is a power struggle going on in the spiritual realm. This isn't fantasy or paranoia, but a sober recognition of why things are as they are.So what can we pray? Very simply, the line from the Lord's Prayer: Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Pray for God's kingdom of peace, justice and joy to come in Syria, in Europe, wherever people are suffering unjustly. And to encourage us we only need to remember that next Sunday we celebrate the resurrection of Christ. When it seemed that people had done their worst to Jesus, God knew better and raised him from the dead. 

Don't neglect to meet together
Being on sabbatical since the end of January has made me feel rather detached from the church. It's been strange on a Sunday to have to decide what to do - where to worship, or indeed whether to worship with God's people. I've visited several churches in the area during these last weeks and it's been instructive to be in the place of a first-time visitor. I can appreciate the awkwardness that is felt when visiting a church for the first time, and so the type of welcome you receive really makes a difference. There is an art to welcoming people - getting the balance between warm friendliness and overpowering smothering. The best form of welcome I reckon is to be introduced to someone else in the congregation, and then you can find out why they are there and what they like about the church. I would say that welcome and friendship far outweigh the style of worship when deciding whether or not to visit a church for a second time. 

It's hard work maintaining your faith on your own. Like the single coal being taken out of the fire, you can quickly cool off. So if you are reading this and wondering whether or not to join with God's people in worship next Sunday, decide that you will. Let the warmth of their faith help to keep your own faith alive.

Friday, 4 March 2016

'The winter is over'

Entering the hall
Every two years the Harrogate Conference Centre is the meeting place for church leaders connected through the New Wine movement. This week I was up there with colleagues from St John's, others from our local New Wine leaders' network and about 1700 others. There is the same sense of anticipation that we are going to meet with God in a significant way as I imagine the pilgrims that went up to the Temple in Jerusalem must have had. The design of the Centre is both imaginative and functional as staircases have been replaced with a helix-like walkway - imagine a carpeted helter-skelter. As you circle round getting higher and higher there is a sense of progressing to some greater degree of glory.

The speakers brought us encouragement and challenge. Encouragement by hearing what God can do and is doing round the world; challenge particularly in the area of the inner and hidden life of the leader. 'Consecration' was a word used several times in relation to the leader's life: make sure, as leaders, that our personal lives are in the right place with God so that our public lives are lived with integrity. It was a message of particular poignancy following the news that the Chair of the New Wine Trustees, Mark Bailey, has had to stand down due to a clergy disciplinary matter being considered by the Bishop of Gloucester. John Coles spoke eloquently and with grace about what happens when a 'bomb' like that drops on the church.

We were encouraged by Nicky Gumbel with the story of Abraham who is described in the bible being 'as good as dead', yet trusted God for the promise of a son - Isaac. Many say today that the church is 'as good as dead' but Nicky encouraged us to believe like Abraham that it's never too late to dream dreams, and that the church will not die.

Justin Welby: 'The winter is over'.
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, encouraged us with the words: "The winter is over; spring is coming." From his extensive travels in the UK and round the world he is optimistic about the troubled and uncertain times in which we live. It's a time of 'rough seas with windy weather', but, as a keen sailor, Archbishop Justin felt that this is the ideal context for the church to proclaim the only real certainty of Jesus Christ. As God's people we are forgiven and loved, we are called to be faithful, we are called to be holy (consecrated).

Brother Edward, his church in Damascus
We were profoundly moved by Brother Edward who leads a church in Damascus. The ambassadors are leaving Syria, he told us, but 'God's ambassadors' (i.e. the church) are remaining. We were moved by Br Edward's steadfastness in the face of so much evil, hatred and darkness that has swept through Syria. He spoke about the number of his church members who had been killed by bombs or abducted by terrorists almost as we might complain about something as routine as getting stuck in a traffic jam. It's impossible to comprehend the terrible situation that he and others minister in, but with the help of Open Doors he continues to minister to hurting and traumatised people who have lost members of their family to terrorist violence, children who have lost limbs because of bombs, families whose house have been ransacked or blown up by ISIS. Most poignant of all were pictures drawn by children expressing how they felt about the situation, but also expressing the hope that those who are now enemies might one day play football together. In a moment that just felt right - no pressure or manipulation - we had an opportunity not just to pray but to give financially, and from 1700 people the amazingly generous amount of £107,000 was collected to go to Open Doors. For £70 one family can be fed and housed for month. That is what I spent on petrol travelling to and from Harrogate.

A child's expression of the evil in Syria: his father abducted, houses bombed, yet hope that enemies will one day play football together
Mark Batterson from National Community Church in Washington DC also spoke about the need to consecrate ourselves as leaders, as did Kate Coleman who gave Moses as as an example of the inner life of the leader. Charlotte Gambill used the example of Elijah - tired and worn out, asleep under a tree ready to give up. God told him simply to eat something. "Where are we feeding?" was the question; how are we feeding our inner life as leaders so we can lead others, and how are we looking to 'cast our mantle' over the next generation of leaders? I am now asking the Lord to give me the names of the those in the church who might be potential new leaders in his church.

The times of worship at New Wine events are intense - even physically tiring! Personally I find the songs are pitched awkwardly to sing, but through music and song the intention is to build a meeting place - a temple - where God can meet with his people through his Spirit.

I enjoy these New Wine events as an opportunity to catch up with people who I've trained with, worked with and grown up with over the years. John Hughes, who as the curate of St Stephen's East Twickenham, is one of those 'saints' to whom I owe such a debt of gratitude in my journey of faith. Now he's retired, but still active. It was lovely to remind each other of what God has done over the last 40 years.

As if to illustrate the Archbishop's words the ground was covered in snow on Wednesday morning, but by the time we left on Thursday there was a warmer wind blowing. I came away with a renewed love for God and for his church.

The motto of New Wine is 'Local Churches Changing Nations'. I pray that we will make a difference in Old Coulsdon - that we will help God's kingdom to come in the lives of the people who live and work here, and in the time that I've got left I will be part of that work.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Seminars, Conferences and Visiting Friends

I'm glad I don't have to commute regularly to London, though when I do I enjoy walking down Borough High Street. During the day the get the delightfully exotic aromas of the coffee bars - in particular the Moroccan one halfway down. At night, it's like a seen from Dickens' London.

I was on a 2 day seminar on Transforming Conversations - about to shape conversations to be more purposeful and intentional. This is not to be used at the breakfast table, but when helping people to make decisions and move forward. It surprisingly hard work and tiring to listen carefully in order to reflect back and help people formulate their own decisions. Both days I was falling asleep by 9 pm. And we have 2 more days in May to finish the course. I hope it will help me help others process their own thoughts about the future when they need to.

Tomorrow I'm off to Harrogate for a 2 day New Wine leaders' conference. I believe two of the speakers will be Nicky Gumbel and Justin Welby, plus others from the Vineyard Church. I usually find something to challenge and encourage me at the conferences, though my capacity for long uninterrupted sung worship sessions seems to be diminishing.

In between I've visited two old friends in Leeds. John and I were in the church youth group together in the 1970s in Twickenham, and having this sabbatical has been a great time to catch with friends. It's good to see people who were on fire for God as teenagers still on fire today, and we were able to encourage one another. As an added bonus I was treated to the most fantastic sunset on the train from Leeds to London.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

'Wait for the Lord'

Theseus and the Minotaur
We' were in Cyprus last week - our first visit - and I was amazed at the rich variety of landscape, culture and history of the country. The local people are friendly and welcoming, and I can quite see why so many British people choose to live there.

One of the sites we enjoyed was the archaeological parks of Paphos and Kourion. So many complete and almost complete mosaics have been discovered from the Hellenist and Roman periods. Some depict very human scenes of hunting or drinking, and many others scenes of heroes and gods with great ingenuity and beauty.

I'm afraid my knowledge of Greek mythology is rather limited, but the little I do know tells me that the gods were not at all interested in the affairs of ordinary mortals, and neither were the great writers such as Homer - preferring to compose epic poems about heroes such as Odysseus and Achilles.

In contrast stands the witness of the bible to the God who loves and cares for his people, even to the extent of living among them. Today's psalm set for the 2nd Sunday of Lent says, 'The Lord is my light and salvation; whom shall I fear?' Here is a promise of protection and guidance, not as a reward for heroic deeds or in response to oblations or libations, but simply out of covenant love. I don't think there is any idea in Greek mythology of a god making a covenant with humans, that would bind both parties equally. But the Lord, Yahweh, did just that with his people Israel, and renewed and extended that covenant to all people through Jesus.

The 'Earthquake House'
In the archaeological site at Kourion there is a house that was destroyed by an earthquake in the 4th century. It collapsed so quickly that many of the inhabitants were killed instantly, as at Pompei. Zeus or Apollo would have nothing to offer them.  As we wandered round the ancient buildings I tried to imagine the ordinary people who lived there 2000 or more years ago. They must have had concerns just like us - about family relationships, health and old age, work, and so on, and I wonder where they found consolation and help? In the bible the psalmist could write: 'The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit' (Psalm 34). That's where I find help in time of need.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Jesus, be the centre

Welsh sunset

Last week I was in North Wales at St Beuno's Spirituality Centre, with days spent in the weak Welsh sun. This week I'm in Cyprus where I'm typing this in the intense Mediterranean sun. Last week I experienced some magnificent sunsets, but here the sunrise is worth getting up early for. I don't think I've seen the sun actually rise above the sea's horizon, getting hidden for a moment by the clouds, and then come blazing out in all its glory. But it's the same sun that makes us screw up our eyes at its intensity in Cyprus as it is that brings a pale yellow glow glow to the green Welsh countryside.

The picture in the centre is of the labyrinth at St Beuno's. I didn't discover it until my last day, but, I'm glad it waited until the end, because my experience of it provided just the insight I needed to make the transition from a calm spiritual oasis to the distractions of Croydon. I was recommended by my spiritual director to walk the labyrinth from the centre outwards. The thing about a prayer labyrinth is that there is only one path, unlike a maze in which there are many false paths which you may or may not choose. The other difference is that the route of the labyrinth is plain to see whereas the maze is hidden by tall hedges. 
'Jesus, be the centre'
As I walked away from the centre I was aware of leaving something precious behind - my eight days spent listening to and talking with the Lord, knowing the love of God, the companionship of Jesus and the quiet prompting presence of the Spirit. It was with some regret that I began the journey, but after the first few metres the path took a sharp turn and, much to my surprise, I was back almost to where I had begun, looking straight at the centre again. Walking further on there were times when I turned away from the centre, and times when I turned towards it. Times when I thought I was getting nearer but ended up further away, and times when I thought I was about to leave the labyrinth but found myself walking towards the centre again. It may sound like a pious cliché but this describes my experience of life?

Cyprus sunrise
There is only one path - I only have one life - and sometimes I think I'm doing all the right things to make me feel closer to God, but I find myself feeling further away. But at other times there can be the unexpected moment of consolation when God is vividly present. It may be an inner warming of the heart, a sense of Jesus' companionship, or a moment of natural or artistic beauty that makes me catch my breath and say, "Thank you Lord for your grace." During the day I may find myself naturally turning towards the Lord and consciously seeing the 'centre', and others times I am preoccupied with daily chores and can't look at the centre.

But one more thing struck me - as I walked round the labyrinth I could see the centre nearly all the time out of the corner of my eye. I knew it was there and that I was never far from it. As I finally left the labyrinth I felt the Lord say to me that I would not be bringing a memory of my eight days' retreat back home, but the reality of the Lord's presence.

So it's the same SUN in Wales and in Cyprus though experienced quite differently. Jesus is the same SON whether experienced in the spiritual oasis of St Beuno's or the less obvious spirituality of Croydon. And for that I thank God!

Sunday, 31 January 2016

I find the hardest thing about writing is making a start. For me it's to do with finding the form or pattern. How am I going to shape the idea that I've had? It's like the composer who may have many melodies in his or her head, but has to work out a form to contain them.

I've been reading through Paul's Letter to the Romans, alongside Tom Wright's commentaries. I keep connecting it with Jesus' parable of the prodigal son in which we see a father concerned for the salvation of his renegade son. Paul writes about the God who is concerned not only for his 'son' - Israel, but for the one who will become his adopted son - the Gentiles. I've often wondered, as many have, what happened to the father and his sons after the return of the prodigal? I imagine that the father had work for them both to do - working on his estate to make it prosper. Paul writes about God's plan not just for the salvation of individual people, but the redemption of the whole of creation - the cosmos. Israel's mission was to be a light to the Gentiles and bring the message of salvation to them, but Israel preferred to keep it to themselves.

So I toyed with the idea of using the parable of the prodigal son as a theme to which I would write variations based on Paul's letter. In musical terms this is not uncommon: Theme and Variations are a frequent form used by composers through the ages. The theme is stated, and then ideas are developed from it, but at the same time the integrity of its melodic or harmonic structure is maintained in each new variation. I went on to wonder if this had ever been tried in literature, and after a short search discovered a paper written on this very subject where the author discusses four novels all taking their inspiration from Bach's 'Goldberg Variations'. A series of some 30 highly structured by also highly imaginative variations based on a simple theme.

Now I have a structural idea with which to work. In fact it will be a Prelude, Theme and Variations and Finale. The Prelude describes the world created by God but polluted by sin - this corresponds to Romans 1 and 2. The Finale will concern God's ultimate plan for the salvation of Israel, all humanity and the cosmos. And the Theme and Variations will begin with Jesus' parable. Each variation will take as its starting point the phrase 'There was a man who had two sons...'

Paul himself writes in a variation form to some extent, often coming back to the same theme but from a different viewpoint, so I hope that in my own way I can do justice to his ideas, but also create something that will help people engage with these great motifs of creation spoiled and redeemed, Israel provoked by jealousy of God's grace to the Gentiles, the importance of family relationships and and calling God 'Abba' - Father.

This week I begin an 8 day retreat at St Beuno's near St Asaph in North Wales. I won't be blogging, posting on FB, tweeting, or communicating in any way. I think my very first blog in 2007 followed a similar retreat. It will be interesting to see if I have a similar experience of meeting with God through his word as I did then. I'll let you know.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Today is the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul, and as my namesake I feel a particular affinity. I was reading his letter to the Romans all last week, accompanied by Tom Wright's majesterial book 'Paul and the Faithfulness of God'. Last year I wrote to Tom Wright to ask for some suggestions about my sabbatical project, and he replied, like most of his writing, with a densely worded email suggesting I read Chapter 7 of his book. It's taken my 2 weeks to read that chapter, so I don't think I'll have time to read the whole TWO volumes during my sabbatical - let alone digest it. But this chapter has been helpful in showing how Paul has a background narrative - a 'back story' - against which he does his theology. The back story is in several layers: God and creation, God and humanity, God and Israel, God and Messiah. In Romans Paul shows that God's plan was to work through Israel to redeem mankind and ultimately the whole of creation. But Israel's rebelliousness made it part of the problem, so God raised up one who would fulfil all that Israel should have done - the Messiah. And through the Messiah Israel's mission is fulfilled to bring salvation to humanity and ultimately creation.

My sabbatical project is to turn some of this teaching into stories that children and adults can connect with, bearing in mind that Paul already has a back story - a 'meta-narrative'. There's a limit to how much I can read and study at one go, so I've found that walking has become an essential means of breaking study time into manageable chunks. I was pleased, therefore, to read this article on the BBC website: The Slow Death of Purposeless Walking That is walking whose purpose is simply to think and reflect rather than to travel from A to B. We are so fortunate round here to have easy access to the edge of the North Downs. I can walk up to Farthing Down in about 20 minutes and see cattle grazing, and in the distance The Shard, The Gherkin, and Canary Wharf. So I can be in London and the country at the same time.

And it was to London that Nicy and I travelled yesterday, to worship at Southwark Cathedral at the morning sung eucharist. What a lovely mix of people: families bringing children to be baptised, gay men in their slim jackets, old ladies, the actor Timothy West and his wife Prunella Scales - regular members of the cathedral congregation, black and white. Surely a realisation of Jesus' own picture of the kingdom of God as told in his story of the great banquet. "Go and invite everyone you can find, both good and bad, and bring them in," the master said to his servants. After a tasty lunch in the Cathedral Refectory we made our way through the lanes and alleys of the south bank to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for a concert of Viennese Salon Music. Not just küchen or bons-bons but 'meat sandwiches' of Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, Berg and Bach. But we were treated to some delightful bons-bons of Lehar and Oscar Strauss brought to us by the ever-charming Felicity Lott. Lehar's 'Komm zu mir zum Tee'  was about anything but tea! London is simply the best city to wander through on a warm afternoon by the river - and it was warm...I even saw some shorts.

And back to St Paul. If I was asked my favourite verses of his letters I would think of 'God has poured his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom he has given us' (Romans 5), 'I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection' (Philippians 3), and those words set so powerfully to msuic by Handel in 'Messiah': 'Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep but shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye. The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible.' That is the hope to which all whose faith is in Christ are heading.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

The difference between Karma and Grace

Bono_on_Bono_CoverWell worth reading what Bono has to say about Karma and Grace. I guess that the majority of people live according to unspoken Karma philosophy. Bono shows, in his own edgy style, how liberating is Grace.

The difference between Karma and Grace

Monday, 18 January 2016

A Walk in the Parish
The first week of my sabbatical has been a 'tidying up' week - literally tidying up my study and throwing away great quantities of paper, books that I've never read and never will, reorganizing my desk and generally decluttering. Sorting out the remaining matters of my late father's estate, and attending to our flat in Purley. In between I've had time to read a fascinating book by Patrick Leigh Fermor about his travels by foot from Calais to Constantinople in 1934 - it made me wonder if I should have planned to travel like that during these 3 months. But I have enjoyed walking up to Farthing Downs and imagining myself a country parson as I pass the cows grazing up there. Later today I'll be joining my Italian class in Croydon.

Yesterday I visited the first of the other churches in the deanery of Croydon South - The Hayes Church. As part of the mission of St Barnabas and All Saints' Kenley, the congregation there has been meeting since November in The Hayes School. I received a warm and friendly welcome and was struck by the sense of the presence of God among the people there. A congregation of about 30 adults  of all ages, and a dozen or 15 children. Simple but direct worship, engaging preaching, a real sense of fellowship, care and prayer. I wish them all the very best, and hope to see more signs of the church growing like this round the deanery.

From tomorrow I will be working on my main creative project: writing fables based on the teaching of St Paul. The idea for this sprang up some years ago when I became aware of the lack of any material from the epistles in most children's bibles. It's easy enough to tell stories that are already stories, that is in narrative form. But to unfold adult didactic teaching for children is quite a challenge. My experience of taking assemblies at our church school has taught me the value of story telling, and that a well-crafted story can really draw people in, both young and old. So my aim is to write stories that draw on St Paul's teaching. I use the word 'fable' because a fable doesn't have to be rooted in a historically accurate setting. Part of my project will involve reading children's fairy tales, and fables such as those collected by the Grimm Brothers. These are stories that have stood the test of time because they have a timeless quality about them, and have powerful themes. i don't know if my efforts will stand comparison with them, but I'm going to have a go anyway!