Thursday, 24 December 2009

I'm a Christian?

In a recent interview with Martin Freeman who played Tim Canterbury in The Office, he quoted Maya Angelou. I checked her out on the net and came across this great poem by her which underline her humility in the face of people's questions about her faith:

I'M A CHRISTIAN By Maya Angelou

When I say... "I am a Christian"
I'm not shouting "I'm clean livin."
I'm whispering "I was lost,"
Now I'm found and forgiven.

When I say..."I am a Christian"
I don't speak of this with pride.
I'm confessing that I stumble
and need CHRIST to be my guide.

When I say... "I am a Christian"
I'm not trying to be strong.
I'm professing that I'm weak
and need HIS strength to carry on.

When I say... "I am a Christian"
I'm not bragging of success.
I'm admitting I have failed
and need God to clean my mess.

When I say... "I am a Christian"
I'm not claiming to be perfect,
My flaws are far too visible
but, God believes I am worth it.

When I say... "I am a Christian"
I still feel the sting of pain,
I have my share of heartaches
So I call upon His name.

When I say... "I am a Christian"
I'm not holier than thou,
I'm just a simple sinner
who received God's good grace, somehow.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Progressive or regressive?

"A proudly “progressive” Anglican church in New Zealand turned heads and ruffled feathers this past week when it put up a billboard featuring an illustration of Jesus’ parents, Joseph and Mary, in bed. “Is the Christmas miracle a male God sending forth his divine sperm, or is the miracle that God is and always has been among the poor?” they posed. In the illustration (see picture), a dejected Joseph looks down as a sad Mary, lying next to him, looks upward. The caption, meanwhile, reads: “Poor Joseph. God is a hard act to follow.” “It is intended to challenge stereotypes about the way that Jesus was conceived and get people talking about the Christmas story,” church leaders explained."

The above story was reported on Christianity Today website and is another example of an Anglican Church that is slowly falling to pieces. Personally I think the Parish priest should be defrocked and the Church leadership disciplined. A bit harsh? Aren't they trying to be 'relevant' and up with the times? "Progressive" quotes the article? But how can you progress further or improve on what God has already done? And what is more relevant than God sending His Son into the world to save it?

And I must take issue with the statement: “Is the Christmas miracle a male God sending forth his divine sperm, or is the miracle that God is and always has been among the poor?” as if there were an alternative between the two. Why can't it be both Virgin birth AND God among the poor - which is what it is about anyway? I am sorry but the inuendo of the advert is disrespectful and irreverent, not because sex is bad - it most certainly isn't - but because it demeans the whole miraculous wonder of the Incarnation and insinuates that Jesus was not divine but the product of intercourse between a man and a woman. It suggests that the Church then dressed-up the whole thing as an act of propaganda to make it look like a miracle. How can anyone trust a Church or its message if it manufactured the story of Jesus?

I do not approve of the vandalism that was responsible for the advert being torn down - it made it more notorious than if it had been left alone - but I do believe the Bishop should censure the priest behind it. After all what are bishops for if not for overseeing the flock?



Biting the hand that has fed the West

The following was written by Ben Stein and recited by him on CBS Sunday Morning Commentary.

My confession:

I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees, Christmas trees. I don't feel threatened. I don't feel discriminated against. That's what they are, Christmas trees.

It doesn't bother me a bit when people say, 'Merry Christmas' to me. I don't think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn't bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu . If people want a creche, it's just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.

I don't like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don't think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from, that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can't find it in the Constitution and I don't like it being shoved down my throat.

Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship celebrities and we aren't allowed to worship God as we understand Him? I guess that's a sign that I'm getting old, too. But there are a lot of us who are wondering where these celebrities came from and where the America we knew went to.

In light of the many jokes we send to one another for a laugh, this is a little different: This is not intended to be a joke; it's not funny, it's intended to get you thinking.

Billy Graham's daughter was interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her 'How could God let something like this happen?' (regarding Hurricane Katrina)... Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response. She said, 'I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we've been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?'

In light of recent events... terrorists attack, school shootings, etc. I think it started when Madeleine Murray O'Hare (she was murdered, her body found a few years ago) complained she didn't want prayer in our schools, and we said OK. Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school. The Bible says thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself. And we said OK.

Then Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn't spank our children when they misbehave, because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem (Dr. Spock's son committed suicide).. We said an expert should know what he's talking about. And we said okay.

Now we're asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don't know right from wrong, and why it doesn't bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves.

Probably, if we think about it long and hard enough, we can figure it out. I think it has a great deal to do with 'WE REAP WHAT WE SOW.'

Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world's going to hell. Funny how we believe what the newspapers say, but question what the Bible says. Funny how you can send 'jokes' through e-mail and they spread like wildfire, but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people think twice about sharing. Funny how lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene articles pass freely through cyberspace, but public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace.

Are you laughing yet?

Funny how when you forward this message, you will not send it to many on your address list because you're not sure what they believe, or what they will think of you for sending it.

Funny how we can be more worried about what other people think of us than what God thinks of us.

Pass it on if you think it has merit.

If not, then just discard it... no one will know you did. But, if you discard this thought process, don't sit back and complain about what bad shape the world is in.

My Best Regards, Honestly and respectfully,

Ben Stein

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Common ground

Today I had the wonderful privilege of speaking at the local school nativity play (Gors Community School). To me nobody brings home the message of Christmas like children. I spoke about Jesus bringing light into the darknes of our world and leading us closer to God. I used a small candle to represent Jesus - small, fragile, yet bright - and encouraged those present to follow Him into the light so that as lights together we can push back the darkness.

Afterwards I met two Moslem women, complete with headscarves, one of whom I recognised and who I later found out works in my local Marks & Spencers where I occasionally shop. The younger woman introduced her mother who is over from Iraq. She unfortunately does not speak much english and relies on her daughter to do all the translating. But she recognised the story and she recognised Jesus - whom they call Isa - and hearing the familiar story felt very much at home. She wanted to thank me and reassure that the talking that was going on while I was speaking was not from them but by some rude couple behind them. She, and her daughter, were very grateful for what I said.

They were as lovely and friendly pair of ladies you could ever wish to meet and were a timely reminder that we should never brand any of the major religions as bad or evil for fear of missing the fact that there are good people there. Unfortunately every religion - including Christianity - has adherents who are hungry for power and will try and exploit their religion for their own ends. But at the heart of every religion there are also those with a good heart, people who are genuinely seeking God and demonstrate it through their kindness and humility. It is essential therefore that we avoid the danger of tarring them with the same brush as the more viscious and cruel extremists who maim, kill or persecute in order to achieve their own personal selfish ends.

God was there today and my prayer is always that I will be able to see Him in some way. Well I did, not only in the children but in the two polite and kindly strangers from another religion who came to speak to me and thank me for my message.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

John Harper and the Titanic

Most people would have seen the film The Titanic by now and moved by the stories of heroism of many of those involved. However not all stories are told as the film would have become too long. And not all stories would have sat comfortably with the atheists and secularists. One such story involved a man called John Harper. He was born to a pair of devout Christian parents on May 29th, 1872. When when he was 13 years old he gave his life to Christ and began to preach about four years later at the ripe old age of 17 years old by going down to the streets of his village and pouring out his soul for people to be reconciled to God.

As John Harper's life unfolded, one thing was apparent: he was consumed by the word of God. When asked by various ministers what his doctrine consisted of, all he would reply was , "The Word of God!" Soon, John Harper started his own church in September of 1896. (Now known as the Harper Memorial Church.) This church started with just 25 members, but had grown to over 500 members when he left 13 years later.

Ironically, John Harper almost drowned several times during his life. When he was two and a half years of age, he almost drowned when he fell into a well but was resuscitated by his mother. At the age of 26, he was swept out to sea by a reverse current and barely survived, and at thirty-two he faced death on a leaking ship in the Mediterranean. Perhaps God used these experiences to prepare this servant for what he faced next....

It was the night of April 14, 1912. The RMS Titanic sailed swiftly on the bitterly cold ocean waters heading unknowingly into the pages of history. On board this luxurious ocean liner were many rich and famous people. At the time of the ship's launch, it was the world's largest man-made moveable object. At 11:40 p.m. on that fateful night, an iceberg scraped the ship's starboard side, showering the decks with ice and ripping open six watertight compartments. The sea poured in. On board the ship was John Harper and his much-beloved six-year-old daughter, Nana. According to documented reports, as soon as it was apparent that the ship was going to sink, Harper immediately took his daughter to a lifeboat but instead of climbing in with his daughter he bent down, kissed her and told her that she would see him again someday. He then turned and went back to the people on the ship yelling,

"Women, children and unsaved into the lifeboats!"

It was only minutes later that the Titanic began to rumble deep within. Most people thought it was an explosion; actually the ship was literally breaking in half. At this point, many people jumped off the decks and into the icy, dark waters below. John Harper was one of these people.

That night 1528 people went into the freezing waters. John Harper was seen swimming frantically to people in the water leading them to Jesus before the hypothermia became fatal. Mr. Harper swam up to one young man who had climbed up on a piece of debris. Harper asked him between breaths, "Are you saved?" The young man replied that he was not. Harper then tried to lead him to Christ only to have the young man who was near shock, reply no. John Harper then took off his life jacket and threw it to the man and said "Here then, you need this more than I do..." and swam away to other people. A few minutes later Harper swam back to the young man and succeeded in leading him to salvation. Of the 1528 people that went into the water that night, six were rescued by the lifeboats. One of them was this young man on the debris.

Four years later, at a survivors meeting, this young man stood up and in tears recounted how that after John Harper had led him to Christ, Harper had tried to swim back to help other people, yet because of the intense cold, had grown too weak to swim. His last words before going under in the frigid waters were, "Believe on the Name of the Lord Jesus and you will be saved."

Hollywood does not remember this man but it doesn't really matter. What matters is that this servant of God did what he had to do. While other people were trying to buy their way onto the lifeboats and selfishly trying to save their own lives, John Harper gave up his life so that others could be saved.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Minarets and Muslims

According to a recent news report the Swiss people have voted against the erection of two new minarets in two of its cities. For some this is a 'triumph' over Islam and a halt to what they perceive as an erosion of the Christian faith in Switzerland. At present only four minarets actually exist in Switzerland, in the cities of Geneva and Frankfurt, while there are an estimated 200 mosques and prayer rooms throughout the country with Muslims accounting for about 4.5 per cent of Switzerland’s 7.6 million-large population.

What are we to think of this?
1. First, as with nearly all news reports, there is more here than meets the eye. Although the ban was approved by a 57.5 per cent vote from Swiss citizens it was a very small turn out and those who did turn out were heavily influenced by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party and other conservative groups. Propaganda for the campaign included posters depicting minaret towers as missiles on top of a Swiss flag.

As much as I do not as a Christian agree with some Muslim doctrines, it is fundamentally unfair to portray every Muslim as a terrorist on the basis that a small minority are. Just as I take exception with being lumped together with gun-totting Serbian 'Christians' responsible for the atrocities of the Bosnian War or those at the forefront of the Medieval crusades, so I think it is unfair to tar every Muslim with the Bin-Laden brush.

2. Second, free will is a Christian tenet. God created us with the freedom to chose or reject Him. Jesus offers us life in all its fulness but will not force us to accept it. If people wish to become Muslims and to worship Allah then it is their choice. I may not agree with that choice but I am bound to uphold it on the basis that choice is what God gives us.

3. Lastly, I am the first to express outrage and anger at the persecution of Christians in Muslim countries. I agonize over the unfairness and discrimination my brothers and sisters have to face in Iran, Pakistan and the Middle East and I pray regularly for more religious freedom and an end to that aspect of Sharia Law which decrees the death penalty for any Muslim who wants to convert to another religion. But I have no basis to complain if I then try and restrict Muslims who want to practice their faith in my country. I must be consistent and Christian about this.

So the upshot of all this is that I disagree with the decision of the Swiss people and feel that it may become something they will come to regret in some way. For any decisions that are made on the basis of fear, discrimination or an attempt at giving one religion precedence or power over another, be they democratic or not, are not in the end very good ones.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Being and becoming myself

I was reflecting recently about why some of my children have not, as yet, embraced the faith they were baptized into and brought up within. There are several reasons I can think of:
1. I am a parish priest and have uprooted my family so many times within the course of my ministry, tearing them from schools, peer groups and friends, that they are understandably resentful of this God who has called their father away without considering their needs.
2. It may be because it is a natural part of the growing up process that children rebel against their parents at some stage? If I was an atheist they may have insisted on becoming believers of some sort because, subconsciously perhaps, they did not want to conform.
3. It may be a more straight forward reason like they genuinely don't/can't believe or because I have presented a form of Christian faith that is all about rules. In my behaviour and, lets be honest, transparent hypocrisy I may have presented a less than accurate presentation of a God who is pure love and grace or a faith that is old-fashioned and irrelevant?
4. Or it may just be that because Christianity is not 'cool' and it's always far easier - and more understandable - to conform with the beliefs and practices of your group of friends than be like your parents - the ultimate shame.

Perhaps you can think of other reasons that I may have overlooked? But there is one more reason that until now I had not considered. It may be that the impression is given that if you become a Christian you will in some way lose that sense of individuality which is the fear of every young person today. Ask any youngster and many of them want to be famous and different. Although they wear what is fashionable, listen to much the same music and have much the same role models whom they look up to, they will still tell you that they don't want to be like everyone else. They are individuals in their own right who want to stand out from the crowd. To be a Christian therefore is, for them, a threat to their freedom to be themselves. And I have to agree that there is always that danger. I have seen many a 'normal' person become a Christian and all of a sudden change and become in their dress, behaviour and way of speaking, like so many other believers. They do seem to lose the ability to think for themselves and become either clones of their ministers or priests or the person who led them to faith.

It happened to me, for a while, and it took some effort to break free of this conformity and become myself. In fact you could say that I am still in the process of discovering and becoming who I really am. It's only as I am honest with myself and God that this is happening and although I cannot claim to stand out from the crowd, I know that now, finally, I am becoming me. It needs honesty and acceptance. Honesty, about who I am and acceptance, that with all my flaws and failings God really does love me - the real me. In fact His Son died for that 'me' - the real one - not the actor or the false 'me' I have created in order to be loved. And so the Christian walk is a process of allowing God to tear off the layers of the false 'me' so that I can discover the real 'me' underneath. The one God made and died for.

So if my children are afraid of becoming like me, they needn't fear. For if they do discover God - and I pray every day that they will - they will find that God does not want them to be anything other than who they are. It's the only conformity that really counts.

In the words of St. Irenaeus: "The glory of God is man fully alive." Alive in the sense of being wholly him/herself, wholly human.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Starting as you mean to go on

I was listening to a podcast the other day by Fr Meletios Webber, the new abbot of the Holy Monastery of St. John of San Francisco. His podcast is called "Jottings from a Holy Mountain" and can be found via Ancient Faith Radio at http://ancientfaith.com. In this particular broadcast he talks about the need to start each day with God. He points out the findings of psychologists that we do most of our dreaming in the hours before we wake and, depending on the kind of dreams we have, it can have an effect on our thinking as we wake to a new day. To counter this he suggests that before we get up we should try and find five things to be grateful to God. Five things to thank Him for. One of the reasons for this is that gratitude establishes relationship. Another reason is gratitude is good because it "refuses to share the space with anything else". So for example you can't be grateful and angry or grateful and sad all at the same time. Gratitude "pushes out anything that wants to share space with it".

I find this advice so helpful. It strikes a chord with me as a parish priest because it ensures that whatever may come after I have climbed out of bed, at least I will have started the day right with God. Before the Adversary can steal a march on my day with the Lord, I will have already established that all important contact with God that will help me approach the things that the world throws at me in a better or best frame of mind. "In all things be thankful" says Paul (Ephesians 5:20).

Monday, 30 November 2009

Making sense of the supernatural

Clergymen (and women) are often involved in some weird and unusual things in the course of their day to day ministries. I recall once in a previous parish being contacted by a concerned mother and asked if I could help. She explained that her 3-4 year old daughter had an 'imaginary' friend who she used to talk to in her bedroom. The parents had thought very little of this, putting it down to part of a child's natural development, until one day the child became frightened and told her mother that this 'friend' had tried to bite her. The little girl was so frightened that she would not go back to her berdroom and so the mother, not knowing what to do, contacted the local priest - me- and asked if I could bless the room or something. Not really knowing a great deal about this sort of thing other than a few books I had read on the subject, I went along and said a few prayers of blessing in the room where the incident took place. A day or so later I contacted the woman and asked how things were going. The little girl had gone back to her bedroom and was happy again. This imaginary friend who used to come to play with her had gone now and all was well again.

I remember thinking how unusual this event was but gave it little more thought and reflection at the time. Now however, thinking back, there are a number of questions the whole incident raises which have no easy answer, other than a religious one.

First, who was this imaginary friend? A figment of a child's very active imagination or something more sinister?
Second, was there some kind of psychological reason for this - some kind of low-level mental illness that had only just started to manifest itself and which, perhaps in later years, would become more full-blown schizophrenia or such like.
Three, was there some other scientific or 'natural' explanation that could account for this that I and the parents were/are unaware of?

These, and others like them, are all legitimate and necessary questions to ask and one should not immediately jump to any supernatural explanations for such phenomena. However if the so called 'friend' was a figment of the child's imagination, why did it go after prayers?

The same could be said of any psychological explanations. I did not interview the child, I only spoke to her mother, and as it was the child who had seen/experienced the phenomena, any attempt to assign a psychological cure does not make any sense unless it was the child I had counselled. But even then a three-four year old? You could possibly explain it on the basis that the mother managed to reassure her daughter that the priest had been and "chased the baddies away" but why would this assurance be more viable than the mother's previous attempts at calming her daughter's fears?

As to scientific or 'natural' explanations and having spoken to others who are more of that particular mindset, I have received nothing that would satisfy me as being adequate to the case in question.

Which leaves us with a religious or Christian explanation. For the Christian the categories of natural versus supernatural are not helpful as the former tends to be equated with the notion of 'real' and substantial, while the latter equates to 'unreal/imaginary' or insubstantial. For the Christian all is 'natural' as God made it and to draw any division between the seen and unseen or the world of the spirits (i.e. angelic beings, God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit etc) and the world of 'man' is to muddy rather than clear the waters. There is more going on in the world than what can be seen with the eyes and for the Christian the world of the angels etc is as 'natural' a part of life as the world of trees and eathquakes. The Bible refers to such beings without a hint of doubt or embarassment and although it does not go into great detail, it tells us enough to awaken us to the presence of both good and fallen angels (demons) and calls us to ensure that we know how to both defend ourselves against them or rid ourselves of them.

In Paul's letter to the church in Ephesus he councils them to "put on all the armour God gives you, so that you will be able to stand up against the Devil's evil tricks." He continues, "For we are not fighting against human beings but against the wicked spiritual forces in the heavenly world, the rulers, authorities and cosmic powers of this dark age." (Ephesians 6:11-12 Good News Bible). This incident then can only point towards something along these lines and therefore only such weapons that the Church possesses, under the authority of Christ, are in the end effective against them.

I can find no other explanation for such occurences (there have been others) than the Christian one. If that is the case - and I believe it is - then there is a war going on where sides have to be chosen. If it's good versus bad and God is on the good side, then I know where my loyalty is. What about you?

The power of prayer

It's funny how you can live with a truth for many years but not fully comprehend it real meaning until a moment of 'insight' opens it up and you finally understand it in its depths. One recent example I want to share is the power of prayer and how it works.

Before moving to my previous parish I was inspired by an address the incumbent gave once at a conference where he told the story of the parish and how it grew under his ministry. He told of being there 5-6 years but with minimal success until one day, having read a book on prayer (I forget which one) he decided to tithe his time and devote a tenth of each day praying. So for two hours and forty minutes each day he gave himself to prayer. Within a space of time things began to happen and his church grew and blossomed and the congregation size trippled.

Since then I have always looked at prayer as being important but without realizing how. I merely saw it as a tool to bring about renewal and growth - just as it did in my predecessor's ministry - but I went no deeper than that. I have often reflected on this but seemed to progress no further than seeing the connection between prayer and the growth of the congregation in his church. Now, finally, I think I understand how it happened. Through giving himself more to prayer my predecessor got closer and closer to God and as he did HE changed. He developed a greater sensitivity to the voice and promptings of the Holy Spirit. God's thoughts became his thoughts, God's ways became his ways and God's will became his will. There was a coming together of the two - my predecessor and God - to such a degree that they became, sort of, one.

Jesus tells us about this in John's gospel, chapter 15, a passage that has always fascinated me. Here Jesus likens the relationship of the disciple to Him/God as a branch to a vine:

"Remain united to me, and I will remain united to you. A branch cannot bear fruit by itself; ift can do so only if it remains in the vine. In the same way you cannot bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine, and you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.... If you remain in me and my words remain in you, then you will ask for anything you wish, and you shall have it."
(John 15:4-5,7 GNB)


Here, especially in the last verse, Jesus explains what in fact happened with my friend and colleague. He 'remained' or (NIV) 'abided' in Jesus. This led to him being able to "ask anything" he wished - although it was not in fact 'he' who asked but this new 'he/God' partnership - which led him to see things happen and change. Prayer was not so much the key to changing the parish as it was, first of all, the key to changing him.

The power of prayer is to bring us closer and deeper into God so that God can finally work His will in us, and through us, for His world, starting where we are. Just as the 'light' in Matthew 5:14-16 can only be light if it is connected to the source of all true light i.e. Jesus, and the salt in Matthew 5:13 can only remain 'salty' if it is made salty by the true salt itself i.e. Jesus, so life can only produce life it it is connected to the source of life, God Himself.

Of course we must not, as we often do, turn this into some sort of 'formula' for parish/church renewal. This is not some kind of mechanical device. No. It must always be personal in terms of being real and genuine. But God has so designed us that we need to maintain and develop in our relationship with Him if we are to achieve anything of spiritual and therefore real and lasting, value. So the lesson I have learnt from all of this? Pray as much and as often as you can. And when you do, pray as if your life depended on it, because it does.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Temptation

Temptation is all the rage nowadays. In fact it has become, with pride, one of the modern 'virtues' of our present society. How would our world exist without a real in-depth understanding of how temptation works? I mean, who would be able to sell anything? Saatchi and Saatchi have made an art of it (and lots of money too) and television advertising would disappear without some sort of notion of how to entice people into parting with their hard-earned cash. They all know that temptation is a powerful tool in making people do something they would not ordinarily do or buy something they may not usually think twice about buying. They know that there is a weakness in our fallen human nature that, in the words of Oscar Wilde, can "resist everything except tempation".

When John and the other New Testament writers talk about the 'world' being under the power of the Evil One, it is tempting (there is that word again) to tone down the language or understanding they bring to the whole issue of power struggles, but I think they are wiser and more sophisticated than we give them credit. They know all too well how human nature works and how the enemy of our soul works. Without wishing in any way to sound complimentary, the Enemy is very clever. Just take an excerpt from today's morning television. One guest is brought on to help people to be more careful this coming Christmas and to avoid getting into more debt. His advice was to stay spend within your means and to budget so that you will not spend the rest of next year paying back what you have borrowed. His concern, which I believe to be genuine, was that parents keep a sense of persepective and think long term not just of the mad moment. It was a good item and left you feeling that here was television being helpful and responsible. So far so good until the main presenter turns to the very next item of the show which was to exhibit to, and excite the audience with, the newest fashion accessories for party dressware! On the one hand they give but with the next they take away. Spend less. Be responsible. Resist temptation one minute. And the next? Spend more. Indulge yourself. Give in to it!

Temptation is endemic in our society and cleverly disguised within the advertising which is a normal part of everyday life. The world is indeed infiltrated by the enemy who exploits large parts of it at will. It's subtle and very clever. The bait dangles on the rod. Will we bite?

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Healing - a few thoughts

I recently bumped in a friend of mine who worships in another parish in the Deanery. He called me aside and told me that his wife of many years had been diagnosed with cancer and the hospital had told them both that there was nothing they could do other than ease the pain and help prepare them for the inevitable. I was lost for words. What do you say in such a situation? Sorry? How are you coping? Is there anything I can do? I will pray? None of these seems a very useful response to such devastating news and yet I felt I had to say something. I felt I had to offer hope. So I mumbled something about coming to a healing service we would be having next Sunday and told him not to lose hope. After several more minutes we hugged and parted company.

Since then I have had cause to reflect on our conversation. Could I have said more? Or less? Was it right of me to raise hopes and talk of praying for healing? Or should I have been 'realistic' and just acknowledged that the doctors knew best and both he and his wife should make the best of what little time they had left. And yet what about all those passages in the Bible that talk of healing? What about Jesus' commission to the disciples to teach future disciples to "obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:20). Everyone knows that what Jesus commanded was not always in verbal form but by way of demonstration. As He had healed and showed his disciples how, so implicit in these actions was a command to go and do the same. And just as nurses are under the authority of doctors, so doctors - whether they acknowledge it or not - are under the authority of God. It is God who has the final word not the hospital. And God clearly says "obey everything I have commanded you."

However, as usual for all unbelieving believers, I have to ask questions like: "What happens if they are not healed?" or "What about the pastoral implications of raising and dashing hope?" or "How do I couch my message of come and recieve the laying on of hands/oil for healing but try and bear in mind that God may not will your healing right now!" And it is such questions, surely, that have hamstrung many attempts at obeying Jesus when it comes to the tricky subject of healing in the Church, particularly in these days of (apparently) super-confident science and medicine. The response therefore, in all too many cases, is to leave well alone and go for the easy option of saying you will pray. That way you keep the whole situation at a safe arms-length distance, avoiding awkwardness and embarassment and failure.

But that is not good enough. If faith is anything in the Bible it is trusting even if, and more often because, we don't have the answers and can't see our way forward. It is learning to live in the dark, grasping an outstretched but unseen hand or trying to follow a faint and often inidstinct light.

One of my favourite psalms (131) sums it up for me. Here it is:
My heart is not proud, O Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore. (Psalm 131 NIV)

Here the psalmist underlines the need for humility in our relationship with God and the world. He also underlines the need not to get too caught up with "great matters or things too wonderful." In other words we can't answer all questions and we can't understand everything. We must 'know our place' in the cosmos and learn to trust God like a weaned child trusts its mother. In healing we don't, can't and won't know all the answers to all the questions but that should not stop us from trusting God from start to finish. We are not called to understanding but obedience and the former is not essential in order for us to do the latter. In fact the need to understand is often a hindrance to obedience and accompanying faith.

So even if it leads to disappointment with regards to physical healing. Even it is perceived to be a failure in that specific prayers etc for healing are not heard in the way WE wish, we must still always pray for healing. We must always ask God to intervene and help, because if we don't then there will be less and less reason to talk to Him and therefore less and less reason to obey Him. Part of a relationship is surely learning to accept the answer whatever it is and to trust Him that even if it seems, at least to us, to be 'no', yet that too is an answer to prayer.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Something about Mary

In one of my other blogs (see 'One Pearle') I published a sermon I gave recently which sought to take another look at Mary who, in some quarters, is not just ignored but treated with something bordering on vilification. Some protestants eager (and quite rightly) to safeguard the uniqueness of Jesus, have downplayed the role of Mary to something along the lines of a human incubator, used for the purpose of bringing the Saviour into the world and then subsequently disgarded. I understand this attitude because for many years it was my own. It is only through my study of Church history and by taking another look at the Holy Scriptures that I have come to change my mind.

In my sermon I argued that Mary can, without compromising the deity of Christ, be justifiably and biblically called the 'Mother of God' (Gk 'Theotokos'). In fact to call her such is to actually protect the deity of Christ, something it was calculated to do so by the early Church at Ephesus in AD 431 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theotokos). I also argued that as a result of this we should honour Mary and call her 'blessed' as she prophesied future generations would in Luke 1:48 (Elizabeth also referred to her as such earlier in the chapter at verse 45). In the words of a fifth century hymn she is, justifiably, "more honourable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim".

This understandably brought a response from some members of the congregation - something it is always good to see - and one person quoted the passage from Matthew 12:46-50 in which Jesus appears to 'put Mary in her place' after she had called with Jesus' 'brothers' (relatives) to see Him. When told they were outside waiting to speak with Him Jesus replied: "Who is My mother and who are my brothers?" And He stretched out His hand towards His disciples and said, "Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother." (verse 48-50)

Looking at the text it does appear as if Jesus is placing Mary alongside everybody else in importance, but that may be to read into the text a predisposed bias against her. No one comes to the text of the Bible completely objectively. We are all taught and influenced by someone and something. If we have been brought up to read the Scriptures a certain way by preachers and teachers who themselves have been taught to regard Mary as of no importance then understandably it will influence how we read the text in front of us.

Looking at it again isn't it also possible to understand that Jesus is just using - as He often did - an incident involving His mother and relatives' presence to make a different point i.e. that everyone can belong to His spiritual family if they obey the will of His Father? Surely that is His point in saying what He said rather than a kind of put-me-down to keep Mary in her place and ensure that all future generations would do the same? And as with interpreting every passage of Scripture, particularly where it is possible to read it in several conflicting ways, we need to ask the question: Whose interpretation is the correct one and on what authority can they claim they are right?

Friday, 14 August 2009

I am a Christian

I accidentally came across a blogspot called (I think) 'Live life as if..' (the link is below). When I read the 'About me' link I came across this passage which I thought was really well written. It's a good description about what a Christian is and its free from the kind of triumphalism which is, sadly, the mark of some Christianity today:

"I am a Christian!!! When I say ... I am a Christian, I'm not shouting "I am saved." I'm whispering "I get lost" That is why I chose this way. When I say ... I am a Christian, I don't speak of this with pride. I'm confessing that I stumble and need someone to be my guide. When I say ... I am a Christian, I'm not trying to be strong. I'm professing that I am weak and pray for strength to carry on. When I say ... I am a Christian, I'm not bragging of success. I'm admitting I have failed and cannot ever pay the debt When I say ... I am a Christian, I'm not claiming to be perfect. My flaws are too visible but God believes I'm worth it. When I say ... I am a Christian, I still feel the sting of pain. I have my share of heartaches which is why I seek HIS name. When I say ... I am a Christian, I do not wish to judge. I have no authority I only know I'm loved." http://reflectionjourney.blogspot.com/

Sunday, 2 August 2009

The Sign of the Cross

What is it about the sign of the cross that seems to evoke such animosity sometimes? I know people who will run a mile if they saw anyone make the sign of the cross. And if that person were from an evangelical background, the sign of the cross would be tantamount to back-sliding or worse. It may be something to do with some deep seated prejudice that still lingers (in Wales) against Roman Catholics - the result of Protestant propaganda perhaps. Which is a shame because the 'sign' belongs to no one tradition but to Christianity. Take this quote from the 3rd century:

"In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross."
Tertullian

And later in the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom wrote, "never leave home without making the sign of the cross."

St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who died around A.D. 386, said, "Let us not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the cross our seal, made with boldness by our fingers and on our brow and in everything: over the bread we eat, and the cups we drink; in our goings out and our comings in; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are travelling, and when we are at rest. Make it on your forehead so that the devils, at sight of the standard of the King, may flee away trembling."

Interestingly
Martin Luther prescribed the sign of the cross in his Small Catechism, although most protestants avoid its use. Which is a shame because this small, simple gesture is full of theological meaning. Holding three fingers together — thumb, forefinger, and middle finger — as you make the sign symbolizes the Trinity. Holding the other two fingers against your palm represents the two natures of Christ, human and divine. Dropping the hand from forehead to waist to begin the gesture represents Christ's descent to earth. The upward movement that follows represents his resurrection. And so on.

In two fairly recent publications: The Sign of the Cross: The Gesture, the Mystery, the History, by Andreas Andreopoulos (Paraclete Press, 2006) and The Sign of the Cross: Recovering the Power of the Ancient Prayer, by Bert Ghezzi (Loyola Press, 2006), both authors - one an Orthodox Christian and the other a Roman Catholic - urge their readers to learn from the early church. "The spiritual weight of the sign has always been the same," Andreopoulos writes. "In texts from Tertullian and Origen to Kosmas and Aitolos, it is a blessing, a prayer, a proclamation of the Christian identity, a living mystery, and an acceptance of the role that God has given us."

"Whether I sign myself silently or with the invocation [of 'in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit']," writes Ghezzi, "it helps me to look beyond the mundane things I have to do every day … and focus on God and on the greater part of reality, the part that is spiritual and invisible."

As Nathan Bierma (a Protestant) writes in Christianity Today Magazine: "Whether we practice it or not, the sign of the cross is one manifestation of how physical—how embodied—worship really is. It can be as simple as raising our hands during a praise song, sitting up straight when the first few chords of a hymn are struck, or closing our eyes and folding our hands to pray. All of these motions have become ingrained in our body language of worship. Like the sign of the cross, they contain great potential for physical demonstration and remembrance of a deeper meaning—and also great potential for becoming so routine that eventually we do them out of mere habit—or worse, for show."

Hypocrisy is always wrong and there is nothing worse than empty gestures made just for show. But as Jesus teaches us it is not the thing itself that is wrong it is the motivation behind it. "When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites.." (Matthew 6:16) Notice he condemns the motivation not the practice (as with prayer and almsgiving). To condemn the making of the sign of the cross because of its potential for showing off one's sanctity makes about as much sense as condemning any Christian practice. I like the advice of St. John Chrysostom (always one for common sense). He admonishes us to mean what we do. "You should not just trace the cross with your finger," he wrote, "but you should do it in faith."


Tuesday, 21 July 2009

What if He meant it?

During my prayer time these words of Jesus popped into my head:

"For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it." (Matthew 16:25 NKJ)

As I thought of these words of Jesus a question came to mind. "What if He meant it?" A strange question when my whole ministry as a priest has been built on the premise that Jesus meant everything He said and did, otherwise why bother to follow Him let alone encourage others to do the same. If He did not mean it - or indeed any other thing He said or did - then why worship Him, or read what He said or indeed bother with Him at all?

And yet it is not such a silly question because there are times when we don't act as if He really meant what He said. Sure we understand His teachings and they challenge us deeply (if we understand them right), but then when we come to applying what He teaches to our own lives something curious happens. We try and find ways of interpreting or even altering what He has said so that it fits the way we want to live. We try and read His words so that what He says conforms to our chosen lifestyle and not the other way round. It's a way of watering down what we see as too demanding so that we are not too adversely affected but still feel warmly religious or reassuringly devout.

Take the above passage from Matthew. Taken at face value - and in our 'interpretation' of what Jesus says we would argue that we should not be too literal about this as it is "going to extremes" - Jesus is making a demand on His would-be followers that if taken seriously, as He intended, would radically affect the way we lived. What He is saying, in effect, is that trying to preserve our life unaltered - i.e. saving it - will mean that ultimately we will lose life. We will not be able to enjoy the 'salvation' or wholeness He has come to give us. Alternatively if we put less store on preserving our life unaltered, allowing His teaching to change us - i.e. losing it - then we will indeed find 'life'. We will enjoy the 'salvation' and wholeness He has come to bring us.

Now I can already guess some of the objections to this:
1. Jesus does not want us to become monks or nuns.
2. Jesus was speaking to disciples i.e. Peter, John, or those who, like them, were to become leaders of the church in the future. Those who have a 'special calling' as opposed to 'ordinary Christians' like churchgoers.
3. Jesus meant this for the Apostles, those who had to be super-committed in order to get the Church up and running. Who had to be willing to actually die for Him, unlike us.
4. Jesus meant a once for all commitment to "give our lives to Him" - a metaphorical/symbolic handing over 'control' or 'ownership' of our lives/existence to Him. As a once off act/self-sacrifice we can then live our lives for Him but without being too over the top or fanatical.
5. Jesus was not being literal. It was another way of saying "follow me" but without the extreme response that He appears to suggest if we take His word at face value.

I am sure there are many different ways of trying to duck what Jesus actually meant, or reading them in ways that lessen their, dumbing them down so that they mean next to nothing. Nice words, even powerful words, but with no real message for the vast majority of Christians, including us.

But what if He really meant what He said, that this handing over of our lives was meant to be every day and in every way? What if the 'life' He offers/promises is tied up with our daily response to His Lordship? What if we did lose our life by trying to save/preserve it? What happens if we have got it wrong?

I like these words of Dallas Willard, worth quoting in full:

"In 1937 Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave the world his book "The Cost of Discipleship". It was a masterful attack on "easy Christianity" or "cheap grace," but it did not set aside - perhaps it even enforced - the view of discipleship as a costly excess, and only for those especially driven or called to it. It was right to point out that one cannot be a disciple of Christ without forfeiting things normally sought in human life, and that one who pays little in the world's coinage to bear His name has reason to wonder where he or she stands with God. But the cost of nondiscipleship is far greater - even when this life alone is considered - than the price paid to walk with Jesus.

Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God's overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said He came to bring (John 10:10). The cross-shaped yoke of Christ is, after all an instrument of liberation and power to those who live in it with Him and learn the meekness and lowliness of heart that brings rest to the soul...The correct perspective is to see following Christ not only as the necessity it is, but as the fulfilment of the highest human possibilities and as life on the highest plane."
From "Devotional Classics" edited by Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith pp16-17

A lot of people just don't 'get' Christianity, including those from among its ranks. The reason for this is an unwillingness to take Jesus' teaching seriously and at face value. We read what He says but through worldy spectacles which distort things in such a way that His words lose their value and their power to change. We need to start with the assumption - correct as it happens - that He really meant what He said and that all the promises He makes are predicated on taking Him completely at His word. Anything less will otherwise mean that we will miss out on the life He has promised those who trust and obey Him.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Prayer, silence and salvation

“Prayer is food for the soul. Do not starve the soul, it is better to let the body go hungry. Do not judge anyone, forgive everyone. Consider yourself worse than everyone in the world and you will be saved. As much as possible, be more quiet”.
St. Joseph of Optina

Reading the Bible

I came across this prayer the other day by 5th century Saint Chrysostom "the golden-mouthed". It is a reminder that without God's help the Bible - His Word - remains a closed book.

"O Lord Jesus Christ, open Thou the eyes of my heart, that I may hear Thy word and understand and do Thy will, for I am a sojourner upon the earth. Hide not Thy commandments from me, but open my eyes, that I may perceive the wonders of Thy law. Speak unto me the hidden and secret things of Thy wisdom. On Thee do I set my hope, O my God, that Thou shalt enlighten my mind and understanding with the light of Thy knowledge, not only to cherish those things which are written, but to do them; that in reading the lives and sayings of the saints I may not sin, but that such may serve for my restoration, enlightenment and sanctification, for the salvation of my soul, and the inheritance of life everlasting. For Thou art the enlightenment of those who lie in darkness, and from Thee cometh every good deed and every gift. Amen."

Monday, 8 June 2009

Infant baptism and the New Testament 1

People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16)

I have lots of questions about this passage. Why did the people want Jesus to 'touch' their children? What benefit would a simple 'touch' bring? Certainly the children - the word means either a new born infant, a little baby or a young child - would have no clue what was going on. If the benefit of a touch from Jesus needed some level of understanding or faith from those at the receiving end then these children were too small to be affected in that way. And who were these "people"? Were they mothers or fathers or grandparents? Possibly mothers as fathers would be working. Why were the disciples bothered about Jesus being bothered? Was it because they did not see the children as worth the trouble in the sense that there 'better fish to fry'? Jesus' mission after all was to convince real people - grown ups - of his identity and his message. How could such little children possibly benefit when they could not grasp what was being explained?

And when Jesus said that the "kingdom of heaven belonged to such as these" was he merely using them as a prop, a visual aid to explain that for someone to enter the kingdom they needed 'childlike' faith? Seems a bit disingenous to say the least. Or was he pointing to the fact that no matter how old a person was, a touch from Jesus would suffice to enable anyone, no matter how small and insignificant, to gain access to God's all embracing kingdom? That it did not depend on intellectual understanding or even grown-up faith? Is the passage intended to reassure us that God's kingdom was not age-dependant but grace-dependent? Is it an echo of what was to come when the early church embraced infant baptism as a sign of grace extended not only to the converted parents but to their children too?

And the parents who brought their children to Jesus? Were they responding to some God-given instinct that helped them see Jesus as the means of giving their children something special from God, something more beneficial than food and drink and more important than clothing i.e. 'life' (Matthew 6:25)?

I recently interviewed a mother and father who wanted their little daughter baptized. I asked them why? The mother admitted that she had been thinking about the whole thing knowing that I would probably ask that particular question. The honest answer, she said, was that she did not know except it would be somehow and in some way 'good' for her daughter. I responded that that was correct and that our baptism preparation would be looking to explain why that instinct was correct and in what way baptism in particular and Christianity in general is 'good' for her daughter. Sometimes instinct or some inner voice or feeling comes first and understanding, if the opportunity arises, later.

The baptism of infants is completely consistent with the above passage where the parents, probably the mothers, did the same thing as the mother who came to see me about baptism. They, and she, wanted some 'thing' that was good for their child and they saw in Jesus, the source of all goodness, the means to provide it.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Infant baptism - and the Old Testament

Infant baptism is seen as problematical for certain parts of the worldwide church on the basis that it seems to introduce a mechanical view of salvation that precludes the need for faith. The argument - probably massively oversimplified - is that when a child is baptized the inference seems to be that that child is then 'saved'. The power given to the church through the sacrament conveys all that is needed for that person's Christian life and from then on in all he or she has to do is attend church, receive the sacrament of Holy Communion on a regular basis, pray and try to lead a good life, accepting on trust the teachings of the Church about doctrine etc.. And even if those things are not done, because that child has the 'mark of Christ' on its life then that is sufficient to ensure that they will not be lost at the end. As I say that is a massive over-simplification of how infant baptism is viewed in certain quarters and although it is a bit of a parody of how sacramentalists view baptism, there is enough of an element of truth to make us stop and think a little about the case against infant baptism if that is implied by what is done.

In looking at this issue I want to step back as it were and try and look at the subject from a different angle. Although it is by no means universally recognised, infant baptism appears to have its roots in the Old Testament practice of circumcision which from the beginning included children, albeit male children. In Genesis 17 we find this:

"When Abram was ninety nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, "I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and you will greatly increase your numbers." (verses 1-2) then later, "This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you must be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner - those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any circumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant." (verses 10-14)

There are a number of things in that passage that are worth thinking about:
1. Despite the fact that only male children were to be circumcised on the eighth day, from the very beginning children were included in the covenant. Although Abram was commended for his faith (Romans 4:9) yet, it seems, children who were too young to demonstrate faith in any way, were still included in the covenant. On what basis? On the basis of God's grace.
2. This grace was all encompassing and included those who were brought into Abram's household whether they were of his race or not, anticipating things to come - see Galatians 3:28 "There is neitherr Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female..."
3. One of the arguments - albeit from silence - for the baptism of infants is found in the New Testament references to 'household' baptisms (see 1 Corinthians 1:16; Acts 16:33; etc). Isn't there a precedence for this here in Genesis. In fact the text actually makes a point of explaining what precisely can be found in a typical household of those days (and New Testament days) i.e. those born as well as bought (slaves).
4. Circumcision was about inclusion first (see Genesis 17:14 - last verse) and faith later.

As we move on through the Old Testament we find that circumcision is not enough in and of itself as God still calls his people to put their faith in him and demonstrate that faith through obedience. (See Deuteronomy 10:16 and the whole of Chapter 11) But even with the danger of that being ignored God still insists on including people first before they are old enough to have any say in whether they believe or not.

The question next is why. Why does He do that? One of the reasons we would want to ask that, I suspetc, is because we want things to be much more neat and tidy than that. Why does He not make it much more straightforward? For example why not just accept those those who believe and show in some obvious way that they are devout and worthy Jews and then have them circumcised when they have proved it. Why start with something that at the very least may possibly mislead folk into thinking that circumcision is enough in and of itself?

And that thinking, I believe, spills over into the thinking of those who insist on adult baptism only. It is much more neat and tidy and straightforward. A person comes along, shows signs that they are converted - they believe, read their bibles, come to church and demonstate that God has given them the gift of life - THEN baptize them as a sign of what God has done in bringing them through death and into life. They have died with Christ and been raised with Christ and baptism is a symbol of that change of status. Wouldn't that be much neater and tidier?

But God does not do neat and tidy or predictable. He refuses to be put into any kind of box no matter how pretty the package or the ribbons that bind it. God acts in and through and sometimes beyond the things He has shown us. Baptism, like circumcision is not tidy, its messy, but it's God being messy and seeking to include rather than exclude. It's as if He is saying "I want to include you in what I am doing in my saving work. If you want to abandon Me then that's your decision. But until you do I want you onboard, here, next to Me. How about it." As someone once put it: "With Anglicans (and other paedobaptists i.e. those who baptise infants) you are 'in' until you are 'out'. With baptists (and other anabaptists i.e. those who only baptise adults) you are 'out' until you are 'in'." Messy I know but still, I believe, God's way of doing things.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Infant baptism - from convention to conviction

Infant baptism continues to persist in our culture despite the slow dismantling of that mighty and centuries long edifice called Christendom. Christendom was created when a country or state or empire adopted Christianity as its official religion and when the Church moved from the margins of society to its centre. That may be an over-simplified understanding of something that is/was much more complex and involved than that, but it provides a kind of basis for what I will say next.

Within Christendom the baptism of infants became an accepted practice and anyone who wanted to be considered a part of 'Christian' society - whether they believed or not - would have their child 'christened' when they reached a certain age. Again this may be an over-simplification of something that has its roots deep in the New Testament, but with the establishment of the Christendom model infant baptism degenerated into mere convention, something that needed to be done, or should be done, because everybody did it or it was 'expected' of you. That is not to say that there weren't many who genuinely believed or indeed did it for the best of reasons. But as time went on and the tide of Christian Faith began to leave the shores of state and empire, convention continued and conviction died.

We, in the twenty-first century are witnessing the death-throes of Christendom. We may baulk at the demise of Sunday as the day of rest or the down-grading of Christianity as THE religion of Britain, but the fact is Christianity no longer occupies the corridors of power and therefore no longer has much of a say in these matters.

But some conventions continue to live on and whether people invoke 'tradition' - meaning, in the negative sense of the word something that has always been done for no apparent reason - or familial habit - my parents or grandparents did it - some things persist. And one of those is the baptism or christening of infants.

When I interview parents or parent (usually the mother) and ask them why they want their child baptized there are a number of different answers given ranging from the bizarre - "it will drive the devil out" to the ridiculous - "it will protect him from illness" although it must be said they are in the minority. In between these two extremes there is the vague "I don't know, it seems right" which I can work with ; the conventional "I was 'done' as a baby; and the reluctant "my mother or grandmother said I should".

Sadly in most cases - I would even say the vast majority - there seems to be very little openness or will to explore the real meaning of infant baptism beyond a few hasty, and usually repeatedly rearranged, meetings. First contact is usually in terms of "I'd like to book a date to have my child christened" followed closely by "I'd like July the 3rd on a Sunday afternoon at three." When asked why that time and date the usual answer is because it coincides with an anniversary or some sort and three O'clock will allow them time for pictures before a reception in a local restaurant or pub. When told that I could not possibly make that date and I don't normally arrange baptisms before meetng and preparing the parents I am either contacted by an irate grandparent citing the practice of a previous or now retired clergyman or they try another more responsive Vicar.

I don't mean to be cynical. The above is merely my experience of the past twenty years. But it represents my struggle to address the whole issue and try and make sense of why people still persist in having their child 'done' when they don't understand, and don't seem to want to understand, what 'done' means.

In the next few posts I will attempt to probe this further. But for now let me underline one thing. I believe in the baptism of infants. I have not always done, in fact there was time when I was convinced that the only legitimate way of baptising a person was as an adult and by full immersion. But I have changed my mind and in the next few posts I will try and explain why.

Friday, 15 May 2009

The borderlands of belief

Talking to people is part of my calling. Whether it is a bereaved family, someone wanting to get married, have their child baptized, or casual chats at special events. What I find fascinating about all of this is just how interested people are, still, about life, death and the supernatural. The sad thing however is that it appears that either people (meaning in some cases clergy) aren't listening to them or are not prepared to give them any sort of an answer to the questions these things raise.

Now this may be down to ignorance or a lack of resources or even a fear that they don't know enough to say anything. I understand that. When I came out of theological college I thought I had all the answers to all sorts of questions. The problem however, I soon discovered, was that folk weren't asking the questions I had learnt the answers for! They were not particularly bothered with who wrote Mark's gospel or whether the filioque should be included or excluded from the Nicene Creed. They were, and are, more concerned in the first place about what happened to dad when he died or what did I think about near death experiences or is there a heaven and what is it like, or did I believe in ghosts? That's not to say that questions about science and faith, or whether the Bible is true, or were there really such people as Adam and Eve, did not matter to them. They do. But people generally are not in that place yet. Instead they are concerned with the immediate - the things that affect their lives. The other questions are there, but that comes later. For now what do I think about angels, coincidences or strange happenings in the dead of night?

In years past I would have muttered something or tried to yank the conversation around to a topic I was more familiar or comfortable with. Now however, with the growing number of such conversations about the weird and wonderful, I find myself beginning to ask the same sort of questions.

For example over the last six months or so there have been a flurry of calls from people who would not normally be seen dead inside a church (or maybe that's the ONLY way they would be seen in one) calling me or my fellow clergy up asking us to come and investigate odd occurences. For example the appearance of apparitions, cold-spots in centrally heated houses, or strange noises or moving objects. I have - with another clergyman - visited such places, prayed, thrown holy water and blessed rooms in a bid to stop these things. Amazingly each time it has worked. But what I have experienced is only the tip of a very large iceberg and if someone feels sufficiently relaxed in my company to speak about it, it is surprising how many people have experienced similar things. So time and involvement has made me more open to listening to those who wish to share their stories and I am beginning to slowly understand where God fits in with all of this.

A few years ago Philip Yancey a Christian author and journalist wrote a book called "Rumours of another world". It is subtitled "for those on the borders of belief". This is what he writes in his 'note' at the beginning of the book:

"I wrote this book for people who live in the borderlands of belief... In matters of faith, many people occupy the borderlands. Some give church and Christians a wide berth yet still linger in the borderlands because they cannot set aside the feeling that there must be a spiritual reality out there. Maybe an epiphany of beauty or a sense of longing gives a nudge towards something that must exist beyond the everyday routine of life - but what? Big issues - career change, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one - raise questions with no easy answers. Is there a God? A life after death? Is religious faith only a crutch, or a path to something authentic?"

Those I talk to occupy these "borderlands of belief". As the tide of Christianity has gone out in the West they have lost their faith and the ability to speak its language. But they use other words and other pictures to try and capture what it is they long for but cannot tie down. They repeat these stories of supernatural encounters as a way of articulating their desire for what is behind it all. They have glimpsed it - or Him - but they are unsure as to how to progress. They are left with the story but they cannot grasp its meaning. We must listen to them, hear them out, and help them listen to the God who is speaking their language. It may not be ours, but we must learn it if we are to help.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Woe to him who is alone

You don’t have to be a Christian long before you realise that Christians fall and fail as much as anyone. Having God on (and by) our side is no guarantee that we will float through life on a cloud of perfection, protected from the big bad world and the “sin that so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12.1) Which is why I was much heartened by a conversation between a man and a monk. The man asked the monk: “Tell me what is it that you do in the monastery?” The monk replied: “I fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up again.”

What a wonderful answer particularly to those who think that becoming a monk is about running away from the world and hiding away in a monastery. Monks fail as do all Christians. But what makes their (and our) lives different to everyone else is that we are not alone. There are others who will help us up:

9 Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work:
10 If one falls down, his friend can help him up.
But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!
11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
12 Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. “ Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

For the monk (and the Christian) there are others who will help and support him as he falls and gets up. They are his brothers in Christ. And binding them all together is the third strand – God.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Henry Vaughan

Wales is known as the Land of Song. It is also a land of poetry and the land of Henry Vaughan (1621-1695). Vaughan was born in 1621 to Thomas Vaughan and Denise Morgan in Newton-upon-Usk in Breconshire, Wales. In 1638, it is assumed, he entered Oxford University with his twin brother Thomas who gained fame as a hermetic philosopher and alchemist. In 1640 Vaughan left Oxford to study law in London for two years. His studies were interrupted by the Civil War in which Vaughan briefly took the King’s side. He is thought to have served on the Royalist side in South Wales sometime around 1645. Vaughan returned to Breconshire in 1642 as secretary to Judge Lloyd, and later began to practice medicine. By 1646 he had probably married Catherine Wise with whom he was to have a son and three daughters. He is considered one of the major Metaphysical Poets whose works ponder one’s personal relationship to God. After the death of his first wife, Vaughan married her sister Elizabeth possibly in 1655. Vaughan had another son, and three more daughters by his second wife. He died on April 23, 1695, and was buried in Llansantffraed churchyard. One of my favourite poems is Peace and I find it hard to read aloud without tears coming to my eyes. Here it is.

My soul, there is a country,
Far beyond the stars,
Where stands a wing├Ęd sentry,
All skillful in the wars.
There, above noise and danger,
Sweet Peace sits crowned with smiles,
And One born in a manger
Commands the beauteous files.
He is thy gracious Friend
And (O my soul, awake!)
Did in pure love descend,
To die here for thy sake.
If thou canst get but thither,
There grows the flower of peace,
The rose that cannot wither,
Thy fortress, and thy ease.
Leave, then, thy foolish ranges;
For none can thee secure
But One, who never changes,
Thy God, thy Life, thy Cure.

Practising the presence

Re-reading Brother Lawrence again (see last blog) excites me because it is all so do-able. He brings spirituality down to ground level when for many it is is so often perceived as something so beyond us that only the Saints seem able to attain it. There is something very symbolic in the way St. Simeon Stylites (A.D. 390-459) attains sainthood by spending 37 years on top of a 15 metre high pillar because wonderful as it is, and saintly as Simeon is, he sets sainthood out of the reach of the ordinary man and woman. Yet surely this is what the incarnation is meant to set within our reach – sainthood – and people like Brother Lawrence bring us, and it, back to earth. Here is what Joyce Huggett writes about practicing the presence of God, no doubt inspired by Brother Lawrence: “…practising the presence of God simply means to be attentive, however momentarily, or the truth of Acts 17:27-28, that God is never far away from any of us. ….it is an awareness and an in-tune-ness with his loving presence. God..transmits message at all times – messages of unending love. To connect ourselves to this love, we need only fine-tune our hearts and minds to be aware of it.”
Joyce Hugget: Finding God in the Fast Lane

Brother Lawrence

Brother Lawrence was a lay brother in a Carmelite monastery who is today most commonly remembered for the closeness of his relationship to God as recorded in the classic Christian text “The Practice of the Presence of God.” It’s a wonderful and deceptively simple approach to Christian discipleship and below is an outline of his Way of following Jesus

1. Always be aware of God’s presence by talking with him throughout the day.
2. Give yourself totally to God in both temporal and spiritual affairs. Our only happiness should come from doing God’s will.
3. Be faithful, even in dry periods. It is in those dry spells that God tests our love for him.
4. Always be guided by love. Be content doing even the smallest chore if you can do it for the love of God.
5. Form the habit of continually conversing with God, telling Him everything that is happening.
6. Whenever considering doing some good deed, always consult God e.g. “Lord, I will never be able to do this/that if you don’t help me.
7. Whenever you confess it to God tell him: “I can do nothing better without you. Please keep me from falling and correct the mistakes I make.”

Ancient wisdom

Amongst my current reading material – I have several books on the boil – is a little book called “The Wisdom of Saint Isaac the Syrian” translated by Sebastian Brock. Its a distillation of the wise sayings of a seventh century hermit of the Assyrian Church (he is also known as St.Isaac of Ninevah) who is undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment. This book is just a kind of taster for those wanting to dip their toes in the clear water of his teachings (excuse the mixed metaphors) and a recommended read. Here are a few of his sayings to whet your appetite:

“If God is slow in answering your request, or if you ask but do not promptly receive anything, do not be upset, for you are not wiser than God.”

“The ladder to the Kingdom is hidden within you, and within your soul. Dive down into your self, away from sin, and there you will find the steps by which you can ascend.”

“Make sure you see to small things, lest otherwise you may push aside important ones.”

And one of my favourites – because it challenges me:

“The knowledge of God does not reside in a body that loves comfort.”

Ouch!

The book is a mere 20 pages long but it is subject indexed and if you go through Amazon you can get it second hand next to nothing.

Counsels on the spiritual life

St. Ignatius of Loyola loved it so much that he read a chapter a day and Christians from a wide variety of backgrounds considered it one of the great spiritual classics of all time. We are talking about “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas a Kempis. In the introduction of the edition I have the writer to the introduction makes this claim: “After the Bible itself, no other work can compare with its profound wisdom, clarity of thought, and converting power.” That’s quite a claim but one which I can certainly vouch for having read it off and on – though sadly more off than on – for the past 26 years. Here is Chapter 1 from Book one called “Counsels on the spiritual life.”

‘He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness,’ says Our Lord. (John 8:12). In these words Christ counsels us to follow His life and way if we desire true enlightenment and freedom from all blindness of heart. (Mark 3:5) Let the life of Jesus Christ, then, be our first consideration..

The teaching of Jesus far transcends al the teachings of the Saints, and whosoever has His spirit will discover concealed in it heavenly manna. (Rev 2:17) But many people, although they often hear the Gospel, feel little desire to follow it, because they lack the spirit of Christ. (Romans 8:9) Whoever desires to understand and take delight in the words of Christ must strive to conform his whole life to Him.

Of what use is it to discourse learnedly on the Trinity, if you lack humility and therefore displease the Trinity? Lofty words do not make a man just or holy; but a good life makes him dear to God. I would far rather feel contrition than be able to define it. If you knew the whole Bible by heart, and all the teachings of the philosophers, how would this help you without the grace and love of God? ‘Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity,’ (Ecclesiastes 1verse two) except to love God and serve Him alone. (Deuteronomy 6:13) And this is supreme wisdom – to despise the world, and draw daily nearer the kingdom of heaven.

It is vanity to solicit honours, or to raise oneself to high station. It is vanity to be a slave to bodily desires, (Galatians 5:16) and to crave for things which bring certain retribution. It is vanity to wish for long life, if you care little for a good life. It is vanity to give thought only to this present life, and to care nothing for the life to come. It is vanity to love things that so swiftly pass away, and not to hasten onwards to that place where everlasting joy abides.

Keep constantly in mind the saying, ‘The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.’ (Ecclesiastes 1:8) Strive to withdraw your heart from the love of visible things, and direct your affections to things invisible. For those who follow only their natural inclinations defile their conscience, and lose the grace of God.”

God needs us to pray

How important is prayer? Is it something we need to do for our own salvation or for the benefit of our relationship with God? Does God in any way need our prayers? Here is something written by Dr E. Stanley-Jones (1884-1973) a Methodist missionary and theologian which I find very thought-provoking and encouraging:

“In prayer you align yourselves to the purpose and power of God, and He is able to do things through you that He couldn’t do otherwise. For this is an open universe, where some things are left open, contingent upon our doing them. If we do not do them, they will never be done. For God has left certain things open to prayer – things which will never be done except as we pray.”

Stanley-Jones’ words are worth pondering, especially if prayer – intercessory prayer – is low down on your list of priorities. If what he says is true then why isn’t prayer at the top rather than the bottom of our church agendas? Why isn’t prayer something WE do more as Christ-followers?

Measuring your spiritual health

One way of measuring the spiritual health of any church is not to count the number of people in the pews, but the number of people on their knees. How many pray and pray daily for the needs of the kingdom? That is the question. I came across this very challenging quote by Bishop R.C.Ryle a nineteenth century anglican Bishop from England:

“Tell me what a man’s prayers are, and i will soon tell you the state of his soul. Prayer is the spiritual pulse. By this the spiritual health may be tested. Oh let us keep an eye continually upon our private devotions.”

Thy Kingdom Come 2017