Thursday, 25 July 2013

A rise in optimism

I believe that despite the negative press, talk of Church decline and the rise of secularism and a more aggressive form of atheism, these are exciting times to be a Christian and I am very optimistic about the Church.

First, through decline, we are seeing the death of the sort of nominalism that has beleaguered the Church for too long and has fed folk the view that being a Christian meant little more than being a member of the local bowl club. Christianity - or rather Churchianity - was seen as a religious club which anyone could, and should join, because that is what everyone did.

Second, through the rise of secularism the Church has been challenged to think more deeply about its faith, what it stands for and what difference it should be making in the world. What is a Christian? What makes him/her different from someone who is not a follower of Jesus? Secularism asks those questions and we are slowly becoming clearer about how to answer.

Third, although aggressive atheism can come across as rather violent and unpleasant, underneath the bluster there are honest questions being asked of the Christian Faith which for all too long the Church has ignored or tried to sidestep. We have had to be honest about abuse of power, violence and prejudice and the somewhat chequered history of the Church through the ages. With the rise of a more articulate and popular atheism we have seen a corresponding rise of a number articulate apologists with the subject of apologetics making an appearance on various theological courses. There is also greater a push to teach Christians more about the big questions about life, evolution, creation, the environment etc.

Personally I have all of this very stimulating and it has made me re-think my ministry and my calling and in particular the role of the Church in society. In terms of the Church building it is such an underused and wasted resource for 90% of the week that I am now beginning to wonder if there are better ways of using it as we work out our mission in the local area. With greater flexibility through the removal of the fixed pews it can not just be a better area for different forms of worship but may also be used for exhibitions, charity work, festivals, concerts, classes, mother and toddlers, a food bank, work with schools and all kinds of things.

I was very interested to read an article on the BBC News website about the new Archbishop of Canterbury's thoughts in this direction. Here is an excerpt:

"Earlier this month, Archbishop Welby launched a new credit union aimed at clergy and church staff. Credit unions charge their members low rates of interest to borrow money. BBC religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott said the archbishop's plan was to go to some of the 500 independent loan companies and say to them, "We will help you by letting you have access to our buildings and expertise".

Our correspondent said the Church would not run the companies but would help them and allow them to work on its premises.

"I think the archbishop would see this as a social good countering a social evil," he said.

He also said it was quite possible that in future people could go to church when they needed to borrow money.

"Churches are already being used as libraries and shops and post offices. It's part of a wider trend for churches to try and become more relevant to people's everyday lives."

Charities such as Christians Against Poverty already use church premises to offer debt counselling to those in difficulty."

Jesus said that we are to be the "light of the world" so that people may see us and through the good we do in God's name, give him glory (Matthew 5:14-16). If people are to "see the light" they need to see the light of our actions and so looking at how we use our resources - plant and people, buildings and gifts - is surely all part of trying to do that.

This is NOT to substitute all this for what is our primary function - the worship of God etc - but is rather an outworking of the vertical aspect of our faith horizontally to others.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Power From Above

Gospel Commentary for Feast of Pentecost by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFMCap, Pontifical Household Preacher - May 11, 2008

Acts 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23.

Everyone has on some occasion seen people pushing a stalled car trying to get it going fast enough to start. There are one or two people pushing from behind and another person at the wheel. If it does not get going after the first try, they stop, wipe away the sweat, take a breath and try again. ...

Then suddenly there is a noise, the engine starts to work, the car moves on its own and the people who were pushing it straighten themselves up and breathe a sigh of relief.

This is an image of what happens in Christian life. One goes forward with much effort, without great progress. But we have a very powerful engine ("the power from above!") that only needs to be set working. The feast of Pentecost should help us to find this engine and and see how to get it going.

The account from the Acts of the Apostles begins thus: "When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all together in the same place."

From these words, we see that Pentecost pre-existed Pentecost. In other words, there was already a feast of Pentecost in Judaism and it was during this feast that the Holy Spirit descended. One cannot understand the Christian Pentecost without taking into account the Jewish Pentecost that prepared it.

In the Old Testament there were two interpretations of the feast of Pentecost. At the beginning there was the feast of the seven weeks, the feast of the harvest, when the first fruits of grain were offered to God, but then, and certainly during Jesus' time, the feast was enriched with a new meaning: It was the feast of the conferral of the law and of the covenant on Mount Sinai.

If the Holy Spirit descends upon the Church precisely on the day in which Israel celebrated the feast of the law and the covenant, this indicates that the Holy Spirit is the new law, the spiritual law that sealed the new and eternal covenant. A law that is no longer written on stone tablets but on tablets of flesh, on the hearts of men.

These considerations immediately provoke a question: Do we live under the old law or the new law? Do we fulfill our religious duties by constraint, by fear and habit, or rather by an intimate conviction and almost by attraction? Do we experience God as a father or a boss?

I conclude with a story. At the beginning of the last century a family from southern Italy emigrated to the United States. Not having enough money to pay for meals at restaurants, they took bread and cheese with them for the trip. As the days and weeks passed the bread became stale and the cheese moldy; at a certain point their child could not take it anymore and could do nothing but cry.

The parents took the last bit of money that they had and gave it to him so that he could have a nice meal at a restaurant. The child went, ate and came back to his parents in tears. The parents asked: "We have spent all the money we had left to buy you a nice meal and you are still crying?"

"I am crying because I found out that one meal a day was included in the price and this whole time we have been eating bread and cheese!"

Many Christians go through life with only "bread and cheese," without joy, without enthusiasm, when they could, spiritually speaking, every day enjoy every good thing of God, it all being included in the price of being Christians.

The secret for experiencing that which John XXIII called "a new Pentecost" is called prayer. That is where we find the "spark" that starts the engine!

Jesus promised that the heavenly Father would give the Holy Spirit to those who asked for him (Luke 11:13). Ask then! The liturgy of Pentecost offers us magnificent words to do this:

"Come, Holy Spirit ...

Come, O Father of the poor,
Ever bounteous of Thy store,
Come, our heart's unfailing light.
Come, Consoler, kindest, best,
Come, our bosom's dearest guest,
Sweet refreshment, sweet repose.
Rest in labor, coolness sweet,
Tempering the burning heat,
Truest comfort of our woes!"
Come Holy Spirit!

[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Is God anti-gay?

It's the hot topic of the moment. Christians, the church and the Bible seem to be out of step with modern attitudes towards homosexuality. And there is growing hostility towards those who hold a different view. So is God homophobic? And what do we say, and how do we relate to to both Christians and non Christians who experience same-sex attraction.

Sam Allberry who serves on the staff of St. Mary's, Maidenhead, has written as excellent book entitled "Is God anti-gay". He wrote it "to help confused Christians understand what God has said about these questions in the scriptures, and offer(s) a positive and liberating way forward through the debate."

What makes this book especially interesting is that Sam speaks as someone who has wrestled with same-sex attraction himself and so writes the book from that perspective.

You can watch him being interviewed by following this link.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

The Great Thanksgiving

Sometimes the old prayers are the best, and when it comes to saying 'thank you' to God the 1662 Great Thanksgiving Prayer manages to say it all:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we your unworthy servants do give you most humble and hearty thanks
for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all people;

We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ,
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.

And we beseech you, give us that due sense of all your mercies,
that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful,
and that we show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives;
by giving up ourselves to your service,
and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit
be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.

J.I.Packer on weakness

Thursday, 11 July 2013

An Astonishing Message from a Gay Sister in Christ

I offer the following letter without comment for you to read and which was sent to the website Forward Together (see here).

An Astonishing Message from a Gay Sister in Christ Posted on 25 April 2013

(You must make it to the third paragraph in order to understand.)

To the churches concerning homosexuals and lesbians:

Many of you believe that we do not exist within your walls, your schools, your neighbourhoods. You believe that we are few and easily recognized. I tell you we are many. We are your teachers, doctors, accountants, high school athletes. We are all colours, shapes, sizes. We are single, married, mothers, fathers. We are your sons, your daughters, your nieces, your nephews, your grandchildren. We are in your Sunday School classes, pews, choirs, and pulpits. You choose not to see us out of ignorance or because it might upset your congregation. We ARE your congregation. We enter your doors weekly seeking guidance and some glimmer of hope that we can change. Like you, we have invited Jesus into our hearts. Like you, we want to be all that Christ wants us to be. Like you, we pray daily for guidance. Like you, we often fail.

When the word “homosexual” is mentioned in the church, we hold our breaths and sit in fear. Most often this word is followed with condemnation, laughter, hatred, or jokes. Rarely do we hear any words of hope. At least we recognize our sin. Does the church as a whole see theirs? Do you see the sin of pride, that you are better than or more acceptable to Jesus than we are? Have you been Christ-like in your relationships with us? Would you meet us at the well, or restaurant, for a cup of water, or coffee? Would you touch us even if we showed signs of leprosy, or aids? Would you call us down from our trees, as Christ did Zacchaeus, and invite yourself to be our guest? Would you allow us to sit at your table and break bread? Can you love us unconditionally and support us as Christ works in our lives, as He works in yours, to help us all to overcome?

To those of you who would change the church to accept the gay community and its lifestyle: you give us no hope at all. To those of us who know God’s word and will not dilute it to fit our desires, we ask you to read John’s letter to the church in Pergamum. “I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. Likewise, you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent therefore!” You are willing to compromise the word of God to be politically correct. We are not deceived. If we accept your willingness to compromise, then we must also compromise. We must therefore accept your lying, your adultery, your lust, your idolatry, your addictions, YOUR sins. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”

We do not ask for your acceptance of our sins any more than we accept yours. We simply ask for the same support, love, guidance, and most of all hope that is given to the rest of your congregation. We are your brothers and sisters in Christ. We are not what we shall be, but thank God, we are not what we were. Let us work together to see that we all arrive safely home.

Your Sister in Christ.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Prayer of Mechthild of Magdeburg

I cannot dance, O Lord,
unless you lead me.

If you will
that I leap joyfully
then you must be the first to dance
and to sing!

Then, and only then,
will I leap for love.
Then will I soar
from love to knowledge,
from knowledge to fruition,
from fruition to beyond
all human sense.

And there
I will remain
and circle for evermore.

Mechthild of Magdeburg
(c.1207-c. 1282/94 )

Church rising

"As we look to the east to declare our faith, so I believe that the sun is always rising on the Church, and in particular, on the Church of England. And I believe that there will be joy in the morning for the Church, because I believe that the Church is always rising, too: it is rising in the power of the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, rising to answer the call of Christ together, to make him visible, to prepare his way and proclaim God's kingdom."
John Sentamu - Archbishop of York

Repenting of repenting

I have had a change of heart - excuse the pun - about the word repent. I used to think of it primarily in terms of sorrow, tears, confession and a determination to change the course of one's life - with God's help of course - but now I see another side to it. The actual word means to "change one's mind" and I find that probably the more prevalent meaning of it. I am thinking of Jesus' first 'sermon' as he leaves the wilderness and full of the Spirit calls people to "repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matthew 4:17). He wasn't asking people to repent of their sins - not directly - but rather to open themselves up and be prepared to change their way of thinking about God and how he works among us.

He then follows this through by calling disciples to him (Matthew 4:18-22), healing sick people (Matthew 4:23-24) and casting out demons (Matthew 4:24). He then goes on to deliver Kingdom of God preaching which takes what people have learnt and turned it all on it's head (Matthew 5-7). In other words he calls for a change of mind and then asks them to consider what the change is that he is bringing.

So this call to change one's mind seems to fit in with this understanding of repentance rather than the other understanding which focuses more on sin and sorrow. That is NOT to say that sorrow for sin etc does not figure at some point, but our minds are changed and we begin to see God in His beauty and perfection and then see our own sin in that context then repentance leads to sorrow etc as in Isaiah 6 and Luke 5.

Incidentally the great Austrian theologian Karl Barth taught this. There is a story about him where it is reported that Barth was once asked what he would say to Hitler if he ever had the chance to meet the monstrous man who was destroying Europe and who would ruin the whole world if he were not stopped. Barth’s questioner assumed that he would offer a scorching prophetic judgement against the miscreant’s awful politics of destruction. Barth replied, instead, that he would do nothing other than quote Romans 5:8 to Hitler: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” in the words of Ralph C. Woods: "Only such unparalleled mercy and forgiveness, such unstinted Gladness, could have prompted the F├╝hrer’s genuine repentance. To accuse him, though justly, of his dreadful sins would have prompted Hitler’s self-righteous defence, his angry justification of his “necessary” deeds."

That's the point. Denouncing someone and calling them to repent of their sins is pretty pointless. It is only when they 'see' God's grace, mercy and love that they then will be able to become conscious of their own. Then the change can take place.

A biblical example may help us here. In the story of the prodigal son the young man leaves home and in a distant land squanders his share of his inheritance having insulted his father by asking for it before his father has died, which was the usual way of doing things. But he falls on hard times and realises when all his money has gone and he is starving that even the life of a hired servant in his father's house would be better than starving to death where he was. So he composes a speech expressing his sorrow and regret for his actions and starts for home. The first aspect of repentance here then is the decision to turn around and set out for home.

But the question everyone asks at this point is whether this speech is genuine or self-serving? Usually the answer is yes it is because then we see his father accept him and welcome him home. But I believe the answer is actually 'no'. It's too composed and rehearsed and, in some ways too calculating. It is only as his father runs out to meet him and throws his arms around him and kisses him that, overwhelmed by grace, love and mercy he then does repent in genuine sorrow and says the speech FROM HIS HEART.

So we must preach love and grace and wait to see God at work in those who, maybe for the first time, see what a wonderful God he is. That - rather than condemnation - is what leads a person to faith.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Blogs and the nature of things

Several blogs ago I expressed my frustrations at what I perceived as the failure of the Church to express the love for one another that the New Testament teaches should be one of its primary 'marks' and instead had come to rely on the 'professional' to do it for them aka 'the Vicar'. Looking back at it in the light of some comments by a dear and faithful Christian I realise that writing it was perhaps not the wisest course of action for several reasons:
First, because it was written after a frustrating week when I had been the object of criticism about my lack of visiting. It is rarely a good idea to write in such circumstances because what comes out is not always reasoned or reasonable, but, by the nature of things rather aggressively defensive instead.
Secondly, flailing arms catch the innocent with the guilty and instead of pin-pointing the few tends to hurt the many. Sensitive and conscientious souls feel the heat when it is not them under the glare.
Third, looking at it again I realise that it was not a gracious piece of writing and tended to exaggerate the problems much in the same way that critics have exaggerated the number of complainants against me. A certain paranoia seems to set in sometimes in situations like this.

The question was asked me by the same lady mentioned earlier - and it's such a good question - what is the point of a blog? What is it for? Before being asked that question I would have said it was to inform, to ask and seek to answer questions I am wrestling with that may be of interest to others, or generally to touch on Christian topics and consider them. However the question stopped me dead in my tracks and in the light of the aforementioned blog I realised that maybe it had become a vehicle to express personal anguish, frustrations or disappointment with the Church or to vent anger at what I perceived as wrong or unjust.

But do I really want to write that sort of blog? A few reflections.
First, the answer is 'no' because that can reflect badly on the church I am pastoring even though many of my remarks are aimed at no one in particular but the church in general. So that kind of blog can lead to a case of mistaken identity and cause unnecessary hurt and anguish. It also reflects negatively on the church to those outsiders who may be considering joining it. It's hardly a good advert in that case. And besides I am happy with the way things are progressing and overall am encouraged seeing God at work.

On the other hand, and second, the answer can be a sort of tentative 'yes' but only in the sense that I find writing about the things that frustrate me etc cathartic and therapeutic. I do talk things over with my wife and confidante and her wisdom is often challenging and usually right (I can confess that here because she doesn't read my blog. Why would she when she can read me!) And I can - and do - offload these things onto God's broad 'shoulders' from time to time but sometimes writing things down gives me a chance to think about things more deeply and besides can act like a kind of journal of my spiritual life and the lessons I have hopefully learnt along the way.

However there is another side to this and therefore, third, the answer can be a more definite 'yes' because it's an honest - albeit not very flattering - expression of what I feel and what I think. I am not the finished article and my Christian journey is much like every other Christian in the sense that I fall and get up, fall and get up. My spiritual development is therefore three steps forward and sometimes two and a half steps back. Also perhaps by being honest I can encourage others to be the same and although my writing is not always gracious it can, by its nature, encourage grace in others as I found in the lady who came to see me.

But - and it's a big 'but' - I have decided to withdraw what I said because looking back at it again I have decided that it wasn't fair or entirely accurate and actually gave a rather distorted picture of a church which, like me, is not the finished article and which, like me, deserves grace and love not condemnation and criticism if it is to grow more like Jesus. In other words - and rather oddly - the article was not a reflection of the church but actually a reflection of me. Looking at it again I saw a picture of me, and the imperfections I was so keen to pick out were actually my own. In fact even as I write these words I hear Jesus whispering: ‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  (Matthew 7:3-4)

So to all those who read it and who felt I was having a go, I was, but not at you but rather at myself. As Jesus said: "Do not judge, or you too will be judged" (Matthew 7:1). I did, I have been, and I repent.

So please don't just read the blog but pray for me. I may be a Vicar but as you can see I am still far from perfect.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Is the tide turning?

Yesterday at St. James we witnessed the baptism of a young woman who came to faith in one of our Basic Christianity groups in the Parish. It was in many ways a low key occasion with Linsey bringing with her just her fiance, her sister and a close friend to the morning Holy Communion service where the guest preacher was the Diocesan Director of Mission, Janet Russell. But for Linsey it clearly meant a whole lot more and to say that she glowed with faith would be an understatement. When asked about what had been happening in her life she spoke clearly and confidently about her journey to faith and what it meant to her and how Jesus was now a significant person in her life. Her fiance Gary too spoke about the change he had seen in her life and we are looking forward very much to seeing them both confirmed next week, and later on this year, married in St. James' church.  It was a lovely time and one, I pray, we will see a lot more of.

Reflecting on what has happened I feel a little bit like the Crunchy Nut Cereal advert where a group of researchers are waiting on the edge of a corn field for the arrival of some very timid and shy extra-terrestials only for the idiot with the bowl of crunchy-nut cereal to decide to start eating and frighten them away. On the one hand I want to shout it from the rooftops that God is at work among us and another person has entered the Kingdom of heaven, while on the other I am afraid in case it is somehow all spoiled by the noise of my excitement. I have to admit too, to not wanting to get carried away as I have seen all too many false dawns in my 25 year ministry when mountaintop experiences and a few wonderful conversions have all too quickly led to a devastating desert experience that has brought me to the verge of quitting ministry altogether. A few highs and too many lows have left me a bit battered and bruised and I still, evidently, carry the scars today. But - and it is a significant 'but' - I can't stop myself from several things:

1. Praising God for his love and mercy and grace in doing what he has done. One thing I have learned over the years is that my part in all this really is a' bit part' and all the glory is down to him from start to finish. I always remember the words of Paul in this respect and want to continue in:

"being confident of this, that he who began a good work......will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." Phil 1:6

Notice "he who began...will carry it on to completion". No mention of his - Paul's - part in this. It is all God from start to finish. And so it has been with Linsey and, please God others.

2. Praying fervently for more. More God, more. Please don't stop. Apparently the UK is going through a bit of a baby boom at the moment and there are loads of families out there celebrating the birth of children. Remembering the joy of welcoming little Theo our grandson into the world I long to see that joy in the Church again. It's been a long time since the Church had it's own 'baby boom'. Wouldn't it be wonderful if this was a sign of another.

3. Asking God for wisdom and help to know how to take this forward. After Basic Christianity what next? I guess that this was why James speaks so confidently about how God answers any prayer for more wisdom.

"If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you."  James 1:5

If there was any need for wisdom it is now. So God, please give it.

4. I don't want to assume of course that this is the beginning of a 'boom' in new conversions, but neither do I want to demonstrate a lack of faith in not believing that it is not! Is there a middle path? I guess there is. Relaxing in God and letting him "blow where he wills" and do what he wants. Isn't that faith? Faith in God  rather than in the events themselves? That way he has the freedom to do something different and new next time and not be constrained into cloning people via a sausage-factory kind of procedure which ignores individuality.

So it's all good and exciting. I pray this is not the last blog on the subject.

Church for beginners?

In her book "The Word on the Wind" Alison Morgan makes reference to a young woman Sharon who was a respondent to a survey about ...