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.