Friday, 19 August 2016

Separate seating

I was doing some research into Luke 13:10-17 where Jesus heals the crippled woman in a Synagogue and came across this article which I found interesting on the subject of men and women being seated separately:

Why do men and women sit separately at traditional Jewish services?


All Jewish practices have their simple reasons as well as deeper, more spiritual explanations.

One obvious benefit of separate seating in a synagogue is that it helps ensure that the main focus is on the prayers and not on the opposite gender. There is no question that we don't act the same in a mixed crowd as we do in a same-gender one. There is nothing wrong with that. It is good and healthy that we are attracted to each other, but during prayers we shouldn't be trying to impress anyone other than G‑d.

In addition to that, a synagogue should be a welcoming and inclusive place. No one should feel left out. Many single people feel extremely uncomfortable at a function or event at which everyone seems to be with a partner except them. No one should ever feel this way at a synagogue. When men and women sit separately, there is no discrimination between singles and couples. (There will always be a chance for singles to mingle afterwards at the Kiddush!)

But it goes deeper than that. Women and men are very different beings. Not only are we physically different; our thought processes, emotional states and psychology are all different. This is because our souls are different - they come from complementary but opposite sources. The prayer experience is supposed to be an opportunity to be with your true self, to communicate with your soul. Men and women need space from each other to help them become in-tuned to their higher selves.

Ironically, it is by sitting separately in prayer that we are able to truly come together in the other areas of our lives; because it is only when both male and female spiritual energies are allowed to flourish that we are complete as individuals, families and a community.
Aron Moss

You can find the article and others here.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

One brick at a time

When at home preparing a talk or sermon, I have occasionally been glancing out the window, watching the workmen outside my study as they beaver away extending my drive and replacing the faulty wall that had been trying, unsuccessfully, to hold up my front garden. Of particular interest - given my background as a bricklayer myself - is the way in which the wall is being built. It is one brick, or rather block, at a time. Hardly revolutionary or noteworthy I hear you say. Isn't that the way its supposed to be done? And yet for me it was as if God had opened my eyes to something I hadn't seen before.

Let me explain. For nearly thirty years I have been involved building up the Body of Christ, the Church, in various places throughout South Wales. Starting with St. Thomas in Swansea, we then moved to Penparcau, Aberystwyth, then Hirwaun, before moving back down to Cockett and ending up here at St. James. In all that time I have been concerned with helping to build up each congregation in my care so that the Kingdom of God can grow and the Church can become a force for good in the community it served. God has been good and we have seen things grow a little each time. But never in great numbers. And it has always been in ones and twos at the most. Even when we have done Alpha or Christianity Explored, it was always usually one or two, never threes fours or fives.

I must admit that through the years this has bothered me. I don't know why, but I have always imagined larger groups coming to faith or a small crowd suddenly turn up one Sunday morning and staying. When that hasn't happened I have been disappointed  and resigned myself to thinking that either I was doing something wrong or that my calling was somehow different to other Christian leaders.

However recently I have gone back to the New Testament and back beyond the Book of Acts with its 3000 new converts on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41) or its daily influx of new members (Acts 2:47). Instead I have come alongside Jesus and watched Him at work. And what I have noticed is that although crowds of people came to see or hear or watch him perform miracles, it was his work with the individual that really stood out. And so whether it was the crippled man by the pool in John 5, Zacchaeus the tax-collector up a tree in Luke 19, the woman at the well in John 4 or the shepherd searching for the one lost sheep in Luke 15, each time it was about adding one more to the kingdom. Like the bricklayer outside my study room window, it was slowly and surely, carefully and gently, one at a time as the wall grew before my eyes.

Here then was an object lesson in how to build a church and one which God had actually taught me 40 years ago as an apprentice bricklayer but because I wasn't listening - or watching - I had missed it. So for anyone out there who wonders what is the best way to go about building a Church, its like building a wall, slow and steady, one brick at a time, one person at a time, the Jesus way

Compelled by love

The following short homily was given this morning at our midweek Holy Communion and focused on one of the readings from Trinity 11, Paul's second letter to the Corinthians:

"The love of Christ controls us."  (2 Corinthians 5:14)

The word "control" seems out of place here as it suggests some kind of compulsion that works against our wills. We have all heard of a controlling husband who manipulates or dominates his wife making her life a misery. The same picture arises when we read the word ‘control’ here. It suggests something happening to us against our will.

An alternative word some translators use is the word "constrain". "The love of Christ constrains us" (King James). But again that has an element of being bound in some way. A dangerous prisoner is rendered harmless by a set of constraints he wears as he is led to the courts. These limit his ability to move and restrict him. Can the love of Christ be really seen in those terms as limiting or even restricting us?

There is a third alternative. The word 'compel'. "The love of Christ compels us" (New International version). This is probably the best. We have all been caught up watching a compelling film or reading a compelling book which we have found it hard to put down. Something about it draws us in and keeps us watching or reading. We are fascinated in a positive way by the object of our attention and we give ourselves to it freely.

I think that word is closer to the meaning that Paul is trying to convey here as he talks about being caught up in the love of God for him as he has come to know that love through Jesus. And it gives us an interesting insight into how the Christian life works or should work. There should be no compulsion in religion that works without or against our will. If we do not freely love God, but are made to do so, then that contradicts the very nature of love and God himself, who is says John, love (1 John 4:8).

And yet how many people operate as Christians without an understanding of that God loves them, REALLY love them, and has demonstrated this so wonderfully in Jesus? How many see their religion as something they have to do out of fear, or habit or custom, or because they have been told to follow by parents or under pressure from relatives? The Christian faith must run on love—God’s love for us and ours for God - or it is not Christianity. It is a soulless, empty and potentially soul-destroying thing which the new atheists and others are quite right to condemn and criticise. Without love at the very centre it will not work.

Take for example worship.  How often have I heard some people describe worship as boring? So much so that for them, when they are told that in heaven we will be worshipping God all the time they are quite put off by the idea. What is going on here? What is missing? It is love. Why would you worship a God you don't love or whom you are not convinced loves you?

The same applies to evangelism which is what Paul is talking about here in our passage when he talks about his work of reconciling people to God. Why would anyone talk to another person about the love of God unless they were convinced - as Paul was - that God really loves them and that that love had changed and transformed their lives and their understanding of God?

If this is so then, how can we come to the place where we gain a better understanding of the love of God? How can we know the love of God in or hearts and loves?

St. Isaac the Syrian was a 7th century saint who lived as a hermit for part of his life until he was made bishop of Ninevah. In one of his wonderful homilies he gives this advice. He says:

"Thirst for Jesus, so that he may inebriate you with his love.” (Hom 3, B 34)

If we will seek Jesus—thirst for him, read about him, reflect on his life, pray to him, open our hearts and lives to him - then, says Isaac, he will inebriate us with his love. In other words we will become so full of his love that it will be as if we were tipsy—that time when you feel warm and light-headed but still in control. There will be a liberation in the way we feel about the Christian life and it will have a positive effect on everything we do as Christians—how we worship, pray, speak about God and see the church, his body. When we fully know this love for ourselves, then we will discover the truth of what Paul is saying here in his letter. So let i.e. allow the love of God compel you says Paul. That is true Christianity.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Where love is, God is

"Where Love Is, God Is" is a short story by Leo Tolstoy about a shoemaker named Martin Avdeitch. The story begins with a background on Martin's life. He was a fine cobbler as he did his work well and never promised to do something that he could not do. He stayed busy with his work in his basement that had only one window. Through this window he could see only the feet of people. He was still able to recognize most people by their shoes as he had worked with most of the shoes at least once. He had a wife, but she died, and all their children had died in their infancy except a three-year-old son.

After he thought about sending him off to live with his sister he decided to care for the child himself. Martin however, was not destined to have a child as his son died a few years later with a fever. In grief, he denied God, wondering how He could allow such a thing to happen to him. One day a missionary visited Martin and Martin told him of his hardships. This missionary told Martin that he should live his life for God and not deny Him because God's will is the ultimate deciding factor and as humans we cannot question that. The missionary's words sank deep into Martin. After this encounter Martin went out and bought a large print Testament.

He began to read the Bible, at first only on holidays, but as he read more and more it became daily. His life became full with peace and joy. After his day of work he would sit down with a lamp and read. One night Martin read a passage about a Pharisee had invited Jesus into his house, and in the house a woman anointed and washed Jesus' feet with her tears. Martin thought of himself as the Pharisee in that story as he was only living for himself. As Martin slept he thought he heard the voice of God telling him that He would visit him the next day.

The next morning Martin skeptically watched out his window for God. While he was searching for God he saw Stepanitch shoveling away snow. Martin invited him in for a warm drink and they talked for a while. Martin told Stepanitch about Jesus' and the Pharisee and Stepanitch was moved to tears. Stepanitch later left and thanked Martin for the food, both for the soul and body.

Martin later saw a young woman outside with a baby not properly dressed for the cold. He invited her in for some food and gave her warmer clothes and money. Martin also told her about Jesus and she thanked him and left. Then he saw a young boy stealing from an older lady. He went outside and settled their argument as he extended love and compassion towards the both of them.

That night while Martin wondered why God had not visited him three figures appeared in his home, the three people he had showed hospitality to that day. They said that when he helped them he was helping God. Martin then realized that God had indeed visited him, and he accepted Him well.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Eve of St. James

The following is a copy of a talk I gave at a Ministry Area united service of Evensong at St. Gabriel's Church, Swansea. I include it not because I think it is good, but because I received a strong impression that it was what God wanted said. I acknowledge the arrogance of that claim, but can only say honestly how it felt writing it. It may well be more Mark than Master, more 'good idea' than God, but whatever the truth of it, here it is.

St. James—24th July 2016

“If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.”  Mark 5:28

I just want to ask one question from our reading from Mark’s Gospel this evening and then draw one conclusion which I think it is important for us to grasp at this time.

The question is this. What was responsible for the healing of the woman with a haemorrhage? Was it Jesus’ clothes or Jesus himself?

The answer is of course, Jesus himself. I say “of course” but in some sense it could be said to be Jesus’ clothes. That was what the woman thought. Mark records her saying to herself:

“If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.”  

And reaching out she does so and Mark tells us:

“Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.” 

So if we put those two things together—the woman’s faith and the touching of Jesus cloak—and a reasonable, logical case could be made for declaring that Jesus’ clothes were responsible for her healing. That all that was needed was a simple touch of the cloth of his garment was sufficient to bring about a release from suffering that 12 years worth of spending on doctor’s fees had been unable to achieve.

But as logical a conclusion that may appear to be, it is not the answer and Jesus’ response lays that misunderstanding to rest. Mark says:

“At once Jesus realised that power had gone out of him.” (verse 30)

So the answer is that although the woman’s desperation and need to keep herself and her ailment secret led her to touch Jesus’ clothes, it was not the clothes themselves that healed her. It was Jesus. He was the source of healing power.

What is the point I am trying to make? It is the danger that lies before us in the Church in Wales of thinking that we can have salvation without a saviour and power without the Presence. That Ministry Areas are themselves the cure, when it is what—or rather who—is at the heart of it all that really counts. In other words it is Jesus and not the clothes he wears.

Now that is not to deny the need or the benefit of Ministry Areas.

They are a way of pooling declining resources and ensuring that those with, can share with those who are without. They are a way of encouraging community and facilitating the release of the laity’s gifts. They can be beneficial in terms of communication and administration,
enabling more people to be brought into the loop about what is
happening across the Diocese.

They are a better way of handing dwindling financial resources and the declining numbers of clergy. And the list goes on. But—and it is for me rather a significant ‘but’. We must beware the danger of seeing Ministry Areas as the clothes rather than the real cure. Only Jesus can bring that to his bleeding and bankrupt church. And unless he is at the heart of it all we are in real danger of mistaking the means for the end.

In his book “Fear and Trembling” Soren Kierkegaard the Danish philosopher said this:

“By faith Abraham went out from the land of his fathers and became a sojourner in the land of promise. He left one thing behind and took one thing with him. He left his earthly understanding behind and took faith with him.”

As we venture into the unknown future of Ministry Areas let us be careful that unlike Abraham we swap those two things around, and take our earthly understanding of what works with us while leaving our faith in Jesus behind. Don’t lets confuse the clothes for the Cure.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Orthodoxy in Russia

In the 950s, Olga, the grandmother of Vladimir, was baptized. She asked German king Otto I to send missionaries to her country, but apparently they met little success.

Olga’s grandson Vladimir practiced the old religion. He built a number of pagan temples and was renowned for his cruelty and treachery. Vladimir had eight hundred concubines and several wives, and he spent his non-warring time in hunting and feasting. He hardly seemed the person to spread Christianity among the Ukrainians.

Shopping for a Church
Vladimir apparently wanted to unite the people under one religion, so around 988 he sent envoys to examine the major religions. The options? Islam, Judaism, the Catholic Christianity of Western Europe, and the Orthodox Christianity of Eastern Europe (though as yet, there was no official break between the Orthodox and Catholic Christians).

The story of Vladimir’s choosing Orthodox Christianity is part legend, part fact. According to the tradition, Vladimir didn’t like the dietary restrictions of Islam and Judaism. Catholic Christianity was all right, but what impressed the grand prince was the dazzling worship his ambassadors described seeing in the great Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you. Only we know that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. We cannot forget that beauty.”

So Vladimir opted for Orthodoxy because of its beautiful worship. The name of Vladimir’s chosen religion was, in fact, Pravoslavie, a word which meant “true worship” or “right glory.” Orthodoxy was also the religion of the most powerful, wealthy, and civilized of Russia’s border nations, the Byzantine Empire. And if Vladimir was impressed by Orthodoxy’s beauty, he also was impressed by another beauty: Anna, sister of Byzantine emperors Basil II and Constantine, who offered her to Vladimir as a bride with the condition that he be baptized.

In 988 Vladimir was baptized. In 989 he married Anna. Neither act was a sign that he was submitting to the authority—religious or political—of the Byzantine Empire. Though it adopted the Byzantine religion, the “Russian” church has always been independent.

Forging a National Church
Significant for church history, Vladimir then ordered all the inhabitants of Kiev to appear at the Dnieper River for baptism or be considered enemies of the kingdom. This doesn’t mean that the Slavic nation became a Christian society overnight. But with the help of monks, always a prime force in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the new religion began to make its influence felt.

As for Vladimir himself, his lifestyle was clearly affected. When he married Anna, he put away his five former wives. Not only did he build churches, he also destroyed idols, abolished the death penalty, protected the poor, established schools, and managed to live in peace with neighbouring nations. On his deathbed he gave all his possessions to the poor.

"We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you. Only we know that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. We cannot forget that beauty.”
The following pictures perhaps give us an idea of some of the beauty of Orthodox Worship with its colour and ornate vestments:

What is Eastern Orthodoxy? Part 3 The Life in Christ

What is Orthodox Christianity? An Answer in Three Parts, Part Three: The Life in Christ from St. John the Wonderworker on Vimeo.

What is Eastern Orthodoxy? Part 2 "Falling away from Christ."

What is Orthodox Christianity? An Answer in Three Parts, Part Two: Falling Away from Christ from St. John the Wonderworker on Vimeo.

What is Eastern Orthodoxy? Part 1 The Teaching of Christ

What is Orthodox Christianity? An Answer in Three Parts, Part One: The Teachings of Christ from St. John the Wonderworker on Vimeo.

Eastern Orthodoxy

St. James in the Uplands, Swansea is currently hosting the Coptic Orthodox Church on the occasional Saturday with plans possibly to make this, at least in the shorter term, more permanent. So I thought I would include on this blog a brief description and summary of Orthodox beliefs courtesy of 'About Religion':

The word orthodox means "right believing" and was adopted to signify the true religion that faithfully followed the beliefs and practices defined by the first seven ecumenical councils (dating back to the first 10 centuries). Orthodox Christianity claims to have fully preserved, without any deviation, the traditions and doctrines of the early Christian church established by the apostles. This is why they believe themselves to be the only true and "right believing" Christian faith.

The primary disputes that led to the split between the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church centered around Rome's deviation from the original conclusions of the seven ecumenical councils, such as the claim to a universal papal supremacy. Another particular conflict is known as the Filioque Controversy. The Latin word filioque means "and from the Son." It had been inserted into the Nicene Creed during the 6th century, thus changing the phrase pertaining to the origin of the Holy Spirit from "who proceeds from the Father" to "who proceeds from the Father and the Son." It had been added to emphasize Christ's divinity, but Eastern Christians not only objected to the altering of anything produced by the first ecumenical councils, they disagreed with its new meaning.

Eastern Christians believe both the Spirit and the Son have their origin in the Father.

One clear distinction between Orthodoxy and Protestantism is the concept of "Sola Scriptura." This "Scripture alone" doctrine held by Protestant faiths asserts that the Word of God alone can be clearly understood and interpreted by the individual believer and is sufficient on its own to be the final authority in Christian doctrine. Orthodoxy argues that the Holy Scriptures (as interpreted and defined by church teaching in the first seven ecumenical councils) along with Holy Tradition are of equal value and importance.

Another less apparent distinction between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christianity is their differing theological approaches, which perhaps is simply the result of cultural influences. The Eastern mindset is more inclined toward philosophy, mysticism, and ideology, whereas the Western outlook is guided more by a practical and legal mentality. This can be seen in the subtly different ways that Eastern and Western Christians approach spiritual truth. Orthodox Christians believe that truth must be personally experienced and, as a result, they place less emphasis on its precise definition.

Worship is considered the very center of church life in Eastern Orthodoxy. It is highly liturgical, embracing seven sacraments. It is characterized by a priestly and mystical nature. Veneration of icons and a mystical form of meditative prayer is commonly incorporated into their religious rituals.

More Orthodox Beliefs and Practices:

Authority of Scripture
Orthodox Christians believe the Holy Scriptures (as interpreted and defined by church teaching in the first seven ecumenical councils) along with Holy Tradition are of equal value and importance.
Orthodox Christians believe baptism is the initiator of the salvation experience. The Orthodox Church practices baptism by full immersion.
The Eucharist is the center of worship in the Orthodox Church. Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that during the Eucharist believers partake mystically of Christ's body and blood and through it receive his life and strength.
Holy Spirit
Orthodox Christians believe that the Holy Spirit is one of the persons of the Trinity, who proceeds from the Father and is one in essence with the Father. The Holy Spirit is given by Christ as a gift to the church, to empower for service, to place God's love in our hearts, and to impart spiritual gifts for the Christian life and witness.
Jesus Christ
Orthodox Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity, God's Son, fully divine and fully human. He became flesh through Mary, but was without sin. He died on the cross as man's Saviour. He resurrected and ascended to heaven. He will return to judge all men.
Orthodox Christians believe Mary has supreme grace and is to be highly honored but they reject the doctrine of Immaculate Conception.
Orthodox Christians believe God has foreknowlege of man's destiny, but he does not predestine him.
Saints and Icons - Orthodox Christians practice veneration of icons; reverence is directed toward the person they represent and not the relics themselves.
Orthodox Christians believe salvation is a gradual, life-long process by which Christians become more and more like Christ. This requires faith in Jesus Christ, working through love.
The Trinity
Orthodox Christians believe there are three persons in the Godhead, each divine, distinct and equal. The Father God is the eternal head; the Son is begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father.
To learn more about Eastern Orthodoxy visit the Orthodox Christian Information Center.
(Sources:, Orthodox Christian Information Center, The Orthodox Page in America, and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.)

The Uninvited Guest

He seems to come in like the leaves –
Blown in at the open window,
And always on a light and airy day.
Never in stormy weather.
And always, I’ve noticed,
At an inconvenient time –
Right in the middle of the washing.
He looks at me and shows me these holes in his hands.
And, well, I can see them in his feet.
‘Not again,’ I say.
‘Please don’t stand there bleeding
All over the kitchen floor.’

Sometimes he comes softly, sadly,
At night – close, by the side of my bed –
Sometimes I latch the door –

But he never goes away.
Thelma Laycock