Tuesday, 19 August 2014

My sisters the saints - follow up interview

Here is an interview with Coleen about her book "My sisters the saints" where she talks about Mother Teresa.

My sisters the saints

Example is a powerful encouragement to us on our Christian walk which can be full of struggles as well as blessings. The video below comes from the Roman Catholic stable which, I know, does not sit well with some. But it tells of one woman's spiritual journey of discovery and how the lives of the saints - women of faith in this case - inspired and helped her in her walk with God. It does not tell the full story - you will have to buy the book to read that - but it does give a little insight into the woman who wrote it (Coleen Carrol Campbell)and the fact that she drew closer to God as a result surely makes it worth reading. I certainly think so.

God just loves to bless

The following talk was given at the 9.00 Welsh Service in St. James for the 9th Sunday after Trinity (1984 Green Book readings):

God is a God who loves to bless. In our readings this morning we have two examples of Old Testament beatitudes in Jeremiah 17:7-10 and Psalm 1 where God talks about blessing.

But there are clear conditions if we want to be blessed by him.

First, we have to trust him but it’s a trust that does not keep God at arms length. Jeremiah writes:

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust IS the Lord.” 

He makes the point that we don’t just trust God because he is a powerful being but because he is person who is trustworthy. It’s the difference between trusting a car and a person. We can trust a car because it is mechanically sound and able to take us from A to B. But when it comes to a person it’s a different kind of trust. We trust in them as someone we know personally as trustworthy. God is not a thing but sometimes we can, if we are not careful, treat him like he is.

Second, we are to avoid the kind of people and situations that can undermine our relationship with God.

In psalm 1:1—in the KJV—it poetically describes what we must not do in terms of sitting, walking and standing:

“Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.” 

Sitting, walking and standing is another way of saying we spend our whole time—apart from when we lie down and sleep—in the company of those who are ungodly, lead a sinful life and are continually scornful of God and all things sacred. It is not that we are to avoid their company altogether—Jesus said he came to save sinners and so are we—but that we must not immerse ourselves totally in that kind of unbelieving and negative environment because it will lure us away from God.

That is why Church is so important. I can never understand people who say that they are Christians but never go to Church. I suspect that a few hours in their company getting to know them will reveal that their Christianity has worn rather thin and that their faith levels are low to non-existent.

Wesley in his early life tells us in his diaries that “he met a serious man,” who said to him, ” Sir, you wish to serve God and go to heaven. Remember you cannot serve Him alone. You must therefore find companions or make them. The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.”

Being blessed by God depends on keeping company with God, keeping company with fellow Christians and finally keeping company with the Bible, which is God’s word and expression of his will and purpose for us:

“...his delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law doth he ponder day and night (Psalm 1:2)”

When I came to Christ in my early twenties I was advised to read the Bible every day and was given an outline of readings which, if followed, would take me through the Bible once every year. It consisted on reading a 5-6 chapters every day. It wasn't bad advice but the problem was that I read the passages but I didn't ponder or meditate on them. My sole intention was to try and get through the readings before they log-jammed into the next day and I had to read 12 chapters or 18 if it left it three days!

Someone put it like this. If you want to enjoy a boiled sweet you need to suck it not crunch it. To delight in God is to get to know God and that takes time. So read and ponder, don't just read.

These three things then bring us closer to God. Keeping company with him, his people and his word. That is where we will find his blessing.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Sharing Jesus - 3-2-1

The following is a very simple explanation of the Gospel message about Jesus.

Be transformed by the renewal of your mind

Darrell Tunningley started using drugs from the age of eleven.  By the age of sixteen he was selling large quantities.  He became a ‘debt collector’, on one occasion using a petrol grass strimmer on the bottom of someone’s feet who owed £300.

At aged seventeen, Darrell took part in an armed robbery, was arrested, and sentenced to five and a half years in prison.  Whilst inside he went on an Alpha Course.  He prayed, ‘God if you’re real, prove it.  Take away my drug addiction, take away all this anger that’s inside me and if you do that for me, I’ll live the rest of my life for you’.

When he woke up the next morning the thought of touching a cigarette made him feel physically sick.  He threw it out of the cell window and then he got his tobacco and threw that out of the window.  Then he took his drugs and threw them out of the window.  Then he stopped feeling sick.

When he looked in the mirror he didn't recognize the reflection because he was smiling – not just smiling, but beaming.  Since that day he hasn't touched drugs.  He hasn't smoked.  He hasn't drunk.  He hasn't been in a fight.

He started running Alpha Courses in the prison.  Hundreds of people came on the courses.  Prison officers started to come to speak to him for advice and counselling.  When he left prison he became the assistant at a local church run by a pastor who is also a magistrate, Mark Finch.  He married Mark’s daughter, Rebekah, and they now have two children.

When I interviewed him I asked him what difference Jesus has made.  He replied, ‘I don’t say this lightly, I really do mean it, he [Jesus] is more important to me than the air I’m breathing.’  He says, ‘Now he’s my everything.  He’s my lifeline, he’s my strength, he’s everything.  I couldn't live without him and everything I do is through him and for him.  My life wouldn't be the way it is if he wasn't exactly who he said he was’.  Darrell’s life was totally changed because Jesus set him free from all his addictions, all his anger, and all the sin that was destroying his life.

Is it possible for us to change?  One of the most difficult things in the world is to break from a bad habit or to give up sin.  In one of today’s passages Jeremiah asks, ‘Can a leopard change its spots?’ (Jeremiah 13:23).

The meaning of life?

‘Does anybody know what we are living for?’ asks Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of Queen, in the lyrics of the last song on their album, ‘The Miracle’.

Millions are implicitly asking just that question.  Jonathan Gabay, a professional writer, aged thirty-one, facing employment challenges and problems with stress and health hit rock bottom.  He began to ask questions about the meaning of life.  He wrote to people in all walks of life: world leaders, the homeless, Oscar-winning actors, philosophers, comedians, taxi-drivers, teachers, explorers and prisoners on death row.  He even wrote to me!

Gabay compiled a book of our responses, together with others who had attempted, over time, to answer this question.  They include the following:

‘Life is one crisis after another.’  Richard Nixon

‘Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.’  John Lennon

‘Life is what you make it – and I can make it UNBEARABLE!’  Dennis the Menace

‘The man who regards his life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unhappy but hardly fit for life.’  Albert Einstein

Numerous people replied that the meaning and purpose of life was to be found in Jesus Christ.  Not only Mother Theresa and Billy Graham, but actors, scientists, the Lord Chancellor at the time and the Chief Cashier of the Bank of England, Graham Kentfield (whose signature was on every current banknote).  He said, ‘I am clear that the meaning of life can only be properly understood in the context of our relationship with God.’

Looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith

Spurgeon was converted Jan., 1850, at the age of 15, at Colchester; gave his first Gospel address at Faversham when he was 16, and for thirty years declared almost weekly, to audiences numbering five or six thousand, the glorious Gospel of the blessed God; millions of his sermons have been scattered in all parts of the world. He quietly passed from Mentone to Heaven, Sunday, January 31, 1892. Here is his description of what happened in his own words:

"I sometimes think I might have been in darkness and despair now, had it not been for the goodness of God in sending a snowstorm one Sunday morning, when I was going to a place of worship. When I could go no further, I turned down a court and came to a little Primitive Methodist Chapel. In that chapel there might be a dozen or fifteen people. The minister did not come that morning: snowed up, I suppose. A poor man, a shoemaker, a tailor, or something of that sort, went up into the pulpit to preach. He was obliged to stick to his text, for the simple reason that he had nothing else to say. The text was, 'Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.' He did not even pronounce the words rightly, but that did not matter.

"There was, I thought, a glimpse of hope for me in the text. He began thus: 'My dear friends, this is a very simple text indeed. It says, "Look." Now that does not take a deal of effort. It ain't lifting your foot or your finger; it is just "look." Well, a man need not go to college to learn to look. You may be the biggest fool, and yet you can look. A man need not be worth a thousand a year to look. Anyone can look; a child can look. But this is what the text says. Then it says, "Look unto Me." 'Ay,' said he, in broad Essex, 'many of ye are looking to yourselves. No use looking there. You'll never find comfort in yourselves.' Then the good man followed up his text in this way: 'Look unto Me: I am sweating great drops of blood. Look unto Me; I am hanging on the Cross. Look: I am dead and buried. Look unto Me; I rise again. Look unto Me; I ascend; I am sitting at the Father's right hand. O, look to Me! Look to Me!' When he had got about that length, and managed to spin out ten minutes, he was at the length of his tether.

"Then he looked at me under the gallery, and I dare say  with so few present, he knew me to be a stranger. He then said, 'Young man, you look very miserable.' Well, I did; but I had not been accustomed to have remarks made on my personal appearance from the pulpit before. However, it was a good blow struck. He continued: 'And you will always be miserable — miserable in life and miserable in death — if you do not obey my text. But if you obey now, this moment, you will be saved.'

"Then he shouted, as only a Primitive Methodist can, 'Young man, look to Jesus Christ.' There and then the cloud was gone, the darkness had rolled away, and that moment I saw the sun; and I could have risen that moment and sung with the most enthusiastic of them of the Precious Blood of Christ."

More? More of what? - Part 2

Third, how well equipped are churches to teach the importance of the deeper spiritual life? How many have all but sold out trying to encourage more people into their buildings each Sunday? Understandably they are concerned at the plight of the Church in the West and the growing influence of Islam and atheism. They long to see more children and young people coming to faith and despair at the higher average age of their congregations. They see how successful the world is at winning the battle for souls and have tried to learn lessons from it about how to grab people's attention and provide what is needed to make them sit up and listen to the message of the Gospel. But the danger is that "success" has become redefined in terms of quantity instead of quality and as time goes on churches are becoming more superficial and less counter-cultural. We are doing exactly what St. Paul told us NOT to do: "Do not let the world squeeze you into its mould." (Romans 12:2 J.B.Phillips).

We can see an example of this is the migrationary nature of a growing number of  Christians today who church-hop or church-shop, trying out the newest addition to the growing list of denominations in each of our cities each year only to quickly get fed up and leave to try out another. I love the advice St. Gregory of Sinai once gave about prayer which is appropriate here:

"For, just as plants do not take root if transplanted too frequently, neither do the movements of prayer in the heart if the words are changed frequently."

The old saying of the Evangelicals comes to mind here: "Blossom where you are planted." In other words find a church, stay, put down roots and grow God's work there. You can't serve God if you are always a customer. Part of becoming more spiritually mature is sticking at things. But if all the effort of the individual church is to provide entertainment, or play the world's game, then its no wonder that people move around because entertainment wears off in the pursuit of the next thrill.

Lastly, as I get older and, hopefully more reflective (the plus side of having less energy), I am re-discovering that the 'old' and 'traditional' have more to offer than I had previously thought. I wonder if this was what Jeremiah meant in Chapter 6:16:

"Thus says the Lord, "Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, Where the good way is, and walk in it; And you will find rest for your souls."
And Jesus in Matthew 13:52:

"Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old."
And perhaps more telling still, from Jeremiah (2:13):

"My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water."
Have we neglected the old in order to run exclusively after the new? Have we left the ancient God-worn paths in a vain pursuit of new spiritualities? Have we tried to dig our own cisterns which cannot hold the living water?

Now I am not advocating the rejection of the new because its new, just as I would not want to reject the old because it is old. But I think that the greater danger lies in the latter and we have definitely got to start looking again for the baby that was thrown out with the bathwater in our vain attempts at digging every new cisterns (excuse the mixed metaphors).

I will return to some of these themes over the next few blogs. But for now a personal note. Every Wednesday our Church at St.James holds a midweek Holy Communion service using the 1984 Book of Common Prayer as produced by the Church in Wales. Don't be impressed by the date because actually the language is pseudo-Elizabethan where God is "Thou" and "Thee". It also breaks all "the rules" when it comes to being new and trendy and it is rather bare and straightforward. It is co-led by a retired priest (who does a great job leading it) and a lay-reader (ditto) and I usually give a short address with the occasional 'guest' speaker. For years - 26 - I have struggled and wrestled with the service seeing it as irrelevant and out of touch with modern life but in recent months I have given in to it and concentrated on using the words as a vehicle to encounter the God who is always present. The shock has been that I can now honestly say, hand on heart, that my experience of worship most Wednesdays has been the most vivid and rewarding of my entire priestly ministry!

What is it that makes it so? Is it the up to date language it uses? No its 500 years old! Is it short and snappy? No - in particular the consecration prayer is quite long. Is it the informal and laid-back nature of the worship? Certainly not - its almost the opposite. Is it the free cup of tea/coffee at the end or the carefully staged ambience of the room in which we meet? No it's in the Minor Hall in the Parish Centre. And who ever gets excited by a cup of tea? What is it? It is the presence of God who has been there all along. I have been so busy looking AT the service that I have not seen THROUGH it, using the words to speak to God what is in my heart. DO you think God cares whether the language is Elizabethan or Norwegian. It is not the language of the mouth he is listening to but the language of the heart. "Better your heart without words than your words without heart" wrote John Bunyan. What ever we say and do we must do it from the heart. That is the only thing God really listens for.

More? More of what? - Part 1

I was very struck by the following quote from Simon Ponsonby's book "Something More". It's taken from "The Wind in the Willows" by Kenneth Graeme:

"So this is a River!"
"THE River," corrected the Rat.
"And you really live by the River? What a jolly life."
"By it, and with it, and on it, and in it," said the Rat.
"It's brother and sister to me, and aunts and company and food and drink and [naturally] washing. It's my world, and I don't want any other. What it hasn't got is not worth having and what it doesn't know is not worth knowing! Lord! The times we've had together."

Ponsonby uses the quote to launch his book which addresses the hunger that Christians are feeling for more of God. His book locates that hunger and desire in the person of the Holy Spirit - hence the allusion in the above quote. But I think there is more to it than that. Why?.

First, because there is a danger that wanting more of the Holy Spirit can, if we are not careful, be seen as exclusively having more gifts, or seeing more healings, or more speaking in tongues. In other words 'more' can become, if we are not careful, taken up with the exterior manifestations of God's presence rather than God Himself. I am not criticising Simon here or indeed those who, by God's grace minister healing etc in His Name. In fact I admire such people and the ones I know personally are people with a very close relationship with God. But we must take care to preserve a balanced and Trinitarian view of the Christian life and not emphasize one aspect of the Trinity to the expense of the others.

Second, those writing the books about such things have already "put in the hard work" of prayer and self-discipline and are seeing the "more" as the fruit of their relationship with God. So naturally they are excited about this and want to see others benefit from the blessings they have received as a result. But the problem arises that unless the emphasis is placed firmly on the first part - the relationship with God (the roots) then folk will want the 'more' (the tree) but without giving themselves wholly to God.

An example of the true or full Christian life is seen in the lives of the great men and women of God. They pursue God with relentless commitment, passion and desire and give themselves to Him totally for His sake and not for the sake of reward. Their life in God is beautifully summed up in the well-known prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola:

Teach us, good Lord,
to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost;
to fight and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will.

Here they discover the 'more' that Simon and others point to and out of this, if God wills it, will flows the gifts and graces that seem to receive the most attention.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

"No longer I, but Christ...."

There is an old story that tells about the pig and the lamb. The farmer brought the pig into the house. He gave him a bath, polished his hoofs, put some Chanel No. 5 on him, put a ribbon around his neck, and put him in the the living-room. The pig looked fine. He almost seemed to be acceptable to society and to friends that might come in, he was so fresh and clean. He made a very nice and companionable pet for a few minutes. But as soon as the door was opened, the pig left the living-room and jumped into the first mud puddle that he could find. Why? Because he was still a pig at heart. His nature had not been changed. He had been changed outwardly but not inwardly.

Take a lamb, on the other hand. Put a lamb in a living-room and then turn him out into the yard, and he will try his best to avoid all mud puddles. Why? Because his nature is that of a lamb.

You can take a man - dress him up, put him in the front row in church, and he almost looks like a saint. He may fool even his best friends for a while, but then put him in his office the next day, or put him at home, or out him in the club on Saturday night, and you will see his true nature come out again. Why does he act that way? Because his nature has not been changed. He has not been born again.
Billy Graham: Peace with God page 126

Top ten tips for happiness - Pope Francis

These are among the top 10 pieces of advice issued by Pope Francis as part of his recipe for a happy, more fulfilled life.

Speaking in a very frank interview published in the Argentine weekly “Viva”, the Pope drew on his personal experiences to come up with his own lifestyle guide with a humble, anti-consumerist twist.

The highlights include a call to families to “turn off the TV when they sit down to eat because, even though television is useful for keeping up with the news, having it on during mealtime doesn't let you communicate with each other”, according to a Catholic News Service translation of the interview.

And Francis said people will also be much happier when they stop trying too hard to bring others round to their way of thinking – including on religion. He said the church grows “by attraction, not proselytising”, and added that the best way to get through to anyone was with “dialogue, starting with his or her own identity”.

The number one piece of advice actually came in the form of a slightly clich├ęd Italian expression, roughly translated as: “Move forward and let others do the same”. The equivalent in English would be “live and let live”.

Pope Francis’s secrets to happiness

1. “Live and let live.” Everyone should be guided by this principle, he said, which has a similar expression in Rome with the saying, “Move forward and let others do the same.”

2. “Be giving of yourself to others.” People need to be open and generous toward others, he said, because “if you withdraw into yourself, you run the risk of becoming egocentric. And stagnant water becomes putrid.”

3. “Proceed calmly” in life. The pope, who used to teach high school literature, used an image from an Argentine novel by Ricardo Guiraldes, in which the protagonist — gaucho Don Segundo Sombra — looks back on how he lived his life.

4. A healthy sense of leisure. The Pope said “consumerism has brought us anxiety”, and told parents to set aside time to play with their children and turn of the TV when they sit down to eat.

5. Sundays should be holidays. Workers should have Sundays off because “Sunday is for family,” he said.

6. Find innovative ways to create dignified jobs for young people. “We need to be creative with young people. If they have no opportunities they will get into drugs” and be more vulnerable to suicide, he said.

7. Respect and take care of nature. Environmental degradation “is one of the biggest challenges we have,” he said. “I think a question that we're not asking ourselves is: 'Isn't humanity committing suicide with this indiscriminate and tyrannical use of nature?'”

8. Stop being negative. “Needing to talk badly about others indicates low self-esteem. That means, 'I feel so low that instead of picking myself up I have to cut others down,'” the Pope said. “Letting go of negative things quickly is healthy.”

9. Don't proselytise; respect others' beliefs. “We can inspire others through witness so that one grows together in communicating. But the worst thing of all is religious proselytism, which paralyses: 'I am talking with you in order to persuade you,' No. Each person dialogues, starting with his and her own identity. The church grows by attraction, not proselytising,” the Pope said.

10. Work for peace. “We are living in a time of many wars,” he said, and “the call for peace must be shouted. Peace sometimes gives the impression of being quiet, but it is never quiet, peace is always proactive” and dynamic.
Translated by Catholic News Service

Go and make disciples. But first.....

I have been trying to broaden my reading in recent months to try and learn from other Christian traditions older than my own. After all it is a huge assumption to suppose that my own, which only goes back about 500 years, has all the answers when others had been busy going about the business of being Christian for much longer. Here for example is an extract from a book from the Eastern Orthodox Church founded AD 33:

"Do you remember what Christ said to the apostles just after His Resurrection? Go and sit in Jerusalem quietly doing nothing and wait until the Holy Spirit comes to you. It came on the Pentecost. It was only after their enlightenment through the descent of the Holy Spirit that they were instructed to go into the world as shakers and teachers. Christ showed them the way. He shows us that we are not to get on the road and become self-appointed missionaries. His example indicates that we must wait in silence and obscurity and focus our hearts and minds exclusively on our personal relationship with God. It is in this way that if and when we are called by God to go out into the world for a particular task, then we will be ready for it."
Father Maximos in "The Mountain of Silence."

I was very struck about the priority of waiting upon God and the need to deepen the relationship we have with Him before assuming the task of evangelism and outreach. Every car has to be filled with fuel before it sets out on a journey. Every student has to learn before attempting to apply for a job. Every apprentice has to become familiar with the tools of his/her trade before being given an assignment. If we are to share God, it is important, first, that we know Him and know Him well, otherwise we will be sharing ignorance and asking others to share it too!

Bible study has overtaken prayer and self-discipline in the preparation for evangelism. But it is not enough to throw texts at people or even be familiar with their meaning so as to answer every awkward question. The emphasis on knowledge is mis-directed. It is the personal knowledge of God which is important as we are sharing Good News about a person not a movement. We are to share Christ not Christianity. "Did we not prophesy in your name, or caste out demons in your names etc.. To which Jesus replied "Depart from me you evildoers - I never knew you (nor you me!). Matthew 7:21-23

To know Christ is to know the Gospel not the other way round. I did not get to know and love my wife by what others said of her or by studying her life and personality from afar. It got to know and love her by meeting and getting to know her. As our relationship developed then I got to know her fully and so could speak about her with authority.

Makes sense and maybe answers the questions some of us have about the superficiality of much that passes for Church nowadays?

Holy Communion and symbolism

The Holy Communion service is shot through with very powerful symbolism, much of which I suspect, goes unnoticed by the average worshiper. This is not a criticism because until I stepped the other side of the Lord's Table, I was oblivious to the why's and what's of what went on. So here are a few examples of what I am talking about:

When the priest takes the chalice to the server and he/she passes the water and the wine, the reason why both are included is not to ensure that the wine is watered down and not too strong, but for a much deeper and more profound reason. The water represents the human nature of Christ and the wine the divine nature. In Christ there is no division between the two but he was fully human and divine at the same time. So just as you cannot separate water and wine once they have mingled together in the cup, so you cannot separate the humanity and divinity of Christ.

So the water and the wine mixed together represent a powerful biblical and doctrinal statement about the nature of Christ.

Another important symbol is the water poured over the fingers of the priest after he has received the bread and prepared the cup. It's purpose is, of course, practical in ensuring that the fingers that handle the bread are clean. But more than that they represent his prayer that his heart is also washed so that he is ready to stand in the place of Christ at the Lord's Table.

All of this points, of course, to something very real and powerful occurring whenever people gather for Holy Communion. This is underlined by St. Paul who writes to the Corinthians warning them of the consequences of unworthily receiving the body and blood of Christ. Take the following passage from 1 Corinthians 11:27-30

"27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep."

Later in the 16th and 17th century the children of the Reformers tried to reinterpret this passage to remove any understanding of the Holy Communion as anything other than being merely symbolic. To them the bread and wine "represents" the body and blood of Christ, rendering the whole thing rather empty and, frankly, meaningless and powerless. But clearly Paul - and Jesus - see it in opposite terms. Jesus said, clearly, "this is my body/this is my blood" and St. Paul, as we have seen above, says that treating it in any other way, except with due reverence for what it is, is foolish and, frankly, dangerous.

But having said all that we also must, I believe, avoid any attempts at over-definition here about how exactly the bread is or becomes the body of Christ and how the wine is or becomes the blood of Christ. Such attempts never do justice to what, after all, is a deep and profound mystery. Suffice to say that it is what it says on the tin and not try and quench our spiritual appetites for more of Christ by reducing it all to the lowest level of definition. 

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Holding onto integrity

It's becoming more and more of a challenge nowadays to take funeral services where the person who has passed away has at best a nominal Christian faith but whose children have no faith. Recently I took a funeral where this was the case. In fact the next of kin I visited introduced herself as a humanist - a 'spiritual' one - but nevertheless a humanist. She explained that the reason I was involved was that it was thought that this best fulfilled her mother's wishes and reflected the generation she was from. When being given these two contradictory pieces of information I am never entirely sure how folk expect me to respond? Are they hoping that I will tone down the religious bit or avoid anything they would consider 'preachy'? Or are they trying to make the point that they have their own integrity and this is not for them but - albeit reluctantly - for mum? Or are they trying to provoke some kind of discussion about the existence or non-existence of God? I am never sure. But I was at least asked if I could read something from the Bible -which they acknowledged was a "wonderful piece of literature" (something I always find a little condescending) - but could I choose something that would reflect mum's love of creation (is this another example of a customer approach to funerals where I am 'hired' and therefore under contract?).

Before I continue, a word about integrity. The people I visit who talk about their integrity as unbelievers have already compromised that by calling me in to take the service. But they still in some way want me to respect their integrity at the expense of my own. Don't be "too religious" is another way of saying don't be religious at all because I don't believe in it. But just as they cannot compromise on theirs neither can I compromise mine. So far better all round, surely, would be to hire a humanist celebrant and be consistent with your own beliefs. (The fact that they charge over twice as much as a Minister of Religion should not come into it!). And don't worry about what mum or dad think because, according to your own set of beliefs, they are dead and gone along with any kind of continued consciousness or awareness.

Back to the funeral. Bearing in mind the above conversation I nevertheless took great pains to find a suitable reading and build my short address around it. The result is below and followed the much longer tribute that the family had written for the lady:

The following reading is from Genesis chapter 2 and is a summary of the account of creation we find in Chapter 1:

4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens. 5 Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the Lord God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, 6 but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. 7 Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. 8 Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. 9 The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 

Like N. my mother loved her garden. When I asked her why, her reply was to quote an old saying which I had already heard somewhere before: “You are closest to God in the garden.”

Why is that?
In the garden we see the beauty of the creation which reflects the beauty of God who the Bible says is light and love.
In the garden we see creativity, the creativity that reflects a person not blind chance.
Finally in the garden we see design, the work of the Divine Architect who is God.

My mother saw all those things in the plants she grew and in the beauty of the flowers, herbs and tress. Maybe N. sensed the same things. Maybe she too sensed the presence of God in the 
garden?

But the actual quote is slightly wrong and so in tribute to N. let me end by reading the poem by Dorothy Frances Gurney from which it is taken.
The Lord God planted a garden
In the first white days of the world,
And He set there an angel warden
In a garment of light enfurled.

So near to the peace of Heaven,
That the hawk might nest with the wren,
For there in the cool of the even
God walked with the first of men.

And I dream that these garden-closes
With their shade and their sun-flecked sod
And their lilies and bowers of roses,
Were laid by the hand of God.

The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,--
One is nearer God's heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.

For He broke it for us in a garden
Under the olive-trees
Where the angel of strength was the warden
And the soul of the world found ease.

Now I have to concede that I had made an obvious point about there being a Creator and had given three simple proofs about His existence - the presence of beauty, creativity and design - but I deliberately tried not to be too preachy (although it is my calling to "preach the Gospel" and convince people about the truth of God's existence. This is following my own integrity!). After the service the family were grateful for the service, someone asked for a copy of the poem and generally it seemed to have gone okay. But one member of the family shook my hand and thanked me for the service and felt constrained to add "apart from the religion".  And this illustrates my point. How can I, a clergyman, whose whole calling and raison d'etre is to preach the Gospel, pray prayers, read the Bible in public and commit a deceased person into the hands of Almighty God, have done anything except mention God? Isn't the salvation of lost souls important to me? How loving would it have been therefore to have not taken whatever opportunity I had to persuade people of the folly and danger of their rejection of God? How does that reflect a loving God whose own Son took the step of dying on a cross to save them? Okay he may have seen my reference to God making the world as a slight dig at his humanist views - and if I am honest it was, kind of, in a gentle way - but to expect me to be less than I am when I have been brought in to take a religious service is surely asking too much.

But this is the way things are going right now in the funeral world. Goodness knows I am glad the days have gone where the only mention of the deceased person was their name inserted wherever the prayer book put an N. in the passages or the prayers. It is only right and fitting that something be said about what the person meant to family and friends etc. But the pendulum is swinging the other way and I can see a growing call for more services which are humanistic and religion-less as people want it to be more and more about them and the deceased than about the Creator who gave them life in the first place.

Personally I think this is a good thing as everyone's integrity will then be upheld and we can make a more clear distinction between a Christian funeral and a humanist one. I can turn up to arrange a funeral knowing that we are all "singing from the same hymn-book" (excuse the pun) and not feel under pressure to conform to something I don't believe in.

But that is still a long way off. People being who they are, and despite the growth of atheism in Britain, still seem to want to hang on to hope of an afterlife of some sort or a plan that promises them a happy ending to their lives. Very very few people want to acknowledge that mum and dad have gone forever and they won't be seen again. Even among those who say they are "not religious" there is still a belief that mum is an angel in (a God-less) heaven, or even more weirdly, a star in the sky. Dad will still, somehow, be always there with them or watching over or looking after them. The tide may be going out for now leaving debris for the likes of me to trip over but I believe it will turn again. But then I would believe that wouldn't I!

Monday, 11 August 2014

Keeping things simple

"Let all multiplicity be absent from your prayer. A single word was enough for the publican and the prodigal son to receive God's pardon. … Do not try to find exactly the right words for your prayer: how many times does the simple and monotonous stuttering of children draw the attention of their father!

Do not launch into long discourses, for if you do, your mind will be dissipated trying to find just the right words. The publican's short sentence moved God to mercy. A single word full of faith saved the thief."
John Climacus (d. 649)

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Transfiguration

This talk was given yesterday - August 6th - at the midweek service:

The Transfiguration is one of those feasts that usually gets tucked away in midweek and so tends, like the Ascension, to get overlooked by churches. And yet it is one of the major feast days of the Church as it reveals the fullness of Jesus to us as Messiah and Lord. How does it do that?

First 1 John 1:5 tells us that God is light. So the bright cloud (mentioned in Matthew’s account), the shining of Jesus’ face like the sun (again Matthew) and the whiteness of Jesus clothes which Luke describes as “dazzling white” and Mark as “exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them” (Mark 9:3) all demonstrate that Jesus is God.

Second, God the Father bears witness from heaven: “This is my Son (beloved in Matthew)” showing that Jesus was God from the beginning. He doesn't say “he has become” but “IS my Son.”

Third, Moses represents the Law and all those who have died. Elijah represents the prophets and since he did not experience death but was taken up into heaven, he represents all those who are alive in Christ. Their presence—Moses and Elijah—shows that the Law and the Prophets, the living and the dead, all bear witness to Jesus as the Messiah, the fulfilment of the Old Testament.

Incidentally the presence of Elijah and Moses reinforces the biblical teaching about the communion of saints mentioned in the Creed “the communion of saints and the forgiveness of sins” and in Hebrews 12:1 where the writer talks about the “great cloud of witnesses” with the cloud representing the presence of God with whom they all live. Moses and Elijah appear talking with Jesus before being enveloped in the cloud of God’s presence again!

Added note: This part raises the question about the nearness of those saints who have gone before us and makes you wonder if the church of the first 1500 years was that far off when it prayed to the saints?

Finally, the Holy Trinity is manifested here as Christ is transfigured, the Father speaks from heaven testifying to Jesus’ divine sonship and the Spirit is present in form of a dazzling light surrounding Jesus and overshadowing the whole mountain.

And then everything recedes. Once God has spoken we are told by Luke that “Jesus was found alone.”  In Matthew he says “when they, the disciples, had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”
Its as if to say that we can have all the ecstatic experiences, all the signs and wonders, all the fireworks and external aids, but in the end it is Jesus only we should and need to look to. “Fix your eyes on Jesus” says the author to the Hebrews. And so we should.

Our salvation, our life, our meaning and wholeness as people, all centre of our relationship with him. He is the way, the truth and the life by which we come to God the Father. He is the resurrection and the life who raises us up when we die. He is the light of the world that shines in the darkness of our world showing us the way. He is the bread of life that feeds our hungry souls. He is the true vine in which we must abide. He is the great I am, the revelation of the fullness of God. He is the door through which we enter into eternal life, He is the Good Shepherd who tends and leads his sheep. He is the water of life to whom all who are thirsty come to drink.

The transfiguration highlights Jesus and presents him to us, foreshadowing his resurrection and acting as a spotlight that shines on him to remind us who he is and why we worship and serve him.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The Didache

In the last post I referred to the Didache subtitled "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles" not because they wrote it, but probably because it's contents are consistent with their teaching (a bit like the so called Apostles' Creed).  It has been dated as written anywhere between AD 50 - 120. Parts of it are said to constitute the oldest surviving written catechism. It has three main sections dealing with Christian ethics, rituals such as baptism and Eucharist, and Church organization. It is considered the first example of the genre of the Church Orders (bishops etc). The work was considered by some of the Church Fathers as part of the New Testament.

Here are some excerpts:
Chapter 15: Bishops and Deacons
1 Appoint therefore for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, meek men, and not lovers of money, and truthful and approved, for they also minister to you the ministry of the prophets and teachers. 2 Therefore do not despise them, for they are your honourable men together with the prophets and teachers.

Chapter 14: The Sunday worship
1 On the Lord's Day of the Lord come together, break bread and hold Eucharist, after confessing your transgressions that your offering may be pure; 2 but let none who has a quarrel with his fellow join in your meeting until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice be not defiled. 3 For this is that which was spoken by the Lord, "In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice, for I am a great king," saith the Lord, "and my name is wonderful among the heathen."

Chapter 9: The Eucharist -- The Cup -- The Bread
1 And concerning the Eucharist, hold Eucharist thus: 2 First concerning the Cup, "We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the Holy Vine of David thy child, which, thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy child; to thee be glory for ever."  3 And concerning the broken Bread: "We give thee thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Child. To thee be glory for ever. 4 As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, but was brought together and became one, so let thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into thy Kingdom, for thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever." 5 But let none eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who have been baptised in the Lord's Name. For concerning this also did the Lord say, "Give not that which is holy to the dogs."

Chapter 10: The final prayer in the Eucharist
1 But after you are satisfied with food, thus give thanks: 2 "We give thanks to thee, O Holy Father, for thy Holy Name which thou didst make to tabernacle in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Child. To thee be glory for ever. 3 Thou, Lord Almighty, didst create all things for thy Name's sake, and didst give food and drink to men for their enjoyment, that they might give thanks to thee, but us hast thou blessed with spiritual food and drink and eternal light through thy Child. 4 Above all we give thanks to thee for that thou art mighty. To thee be glory for ever. 5 Remember, Lord, thy Church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in thy love, and gather it together in its holiness from the four winds to thy kingdom which thou hast prepared for it. For thine is the power and the glory for ever. 6 Let grace come and let this world pass away. Hosannah to the God of David. If any man be holy, let him come! if any man be not, let him repent: Maranatha,  Amen." 7 But suffer the prophets to hold Eucharist as they will.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, from the very start the Eucharist was THE worship service of the Church.

Who orders the worship?

The following is a copy of an announcement I made recently via a weekly notice-sheet about changes in the Sunday services and why I was making them. I include it here because it touches on something that has been troubling me for some time about the whole question of authority. I will write about this in another blog, but for now here is what I wrote:

"As you know I’ve tried to make some changes in the service pattern in order to encourage growth, a more broad approach to worship and a flexibility that would make it easier to make the transition from being a one church parish to a Ministry Area. However a number of different factors have made me reverse my decision. These are not in order of priority. In fact the real (and underlying) reason for the change comes at points 4-end. 

First, we are the only parish in the Deanery to have made the decision to change. I had hoped that others would follow suite or see this as a good idea but this has not transpired. I don’t mind being the “odd man out” but not if it doesn't achieve anything or contributes to wider changes.

Second, although I have enjoyed the experience of re-writing the services on a weekly basis, the downside is that the services tend rather to revolve around me. They are my own personal creation which makes them rather individualistic. What happens when I am not here? 

Third, the new services I have produced have made no significant difference to attendances except to lower them on the Sundays when there is no Holy Communion. What is more—and this cannot be ignored—collections are down on those days, something we can ill afford. 

Fourth, in terms of ancient practice it must be acknowledged that the service of Holy Communion has, since earliest days, been THE service of the Church. In one the earliest documents written outside of the New Testament, the Didache subtitled “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” written at the end of the first century or beginning of the second (some even dating it to 50 AD!) it says in Chapter 14:1:

“And on the Lord's own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.”  

In one of my magazine articles I wrote that weekly communion was not the traditional practice of the Anglican Church but a more recent innovation. This is true. When Cranmer wrote the Book of Common Prayer, Holy Communion was only seen as something occasional, whereas Mattins was the ‘norm’. But that was in the 16th century! What about the previous 1500 years and the early church? Along with many modern day reformers’ I had overlooked that! Plus Cranmer was (over) reacting against the abuses of the Roman Catholic church of the day, not a good basis for re-writing Christian practices!

Fifth, the services are not meant to be for unbelievers but believers. In other words they are not meant, in the first place, to be for evangelism and outreach but for the worship of the people of God. If we are always thinking of visitors and what they think/want, we will take our eyes off God who is the main object of our worship and adoration, and try and make the services popular, or easy to digest and this can lead to a dumbing-down of what should be our “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving”.

Lastly, after much prayer and thought about this—and not a little soul searching—I realise that I have been rather arrogant in thinking I can change  centuries old tradition, biblical practice (and I have always been one for talking about biblical authority for doing anything) and a service which sets at its very heart the birth, life, death and resurrection of the Lord I purport to serve!  Besides if you look at the majority of the world’s Christians—Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, most Anglicans as well as a large number of Methodists etc.— they all share the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ on a weekly basis, “in remembrance” of Him. Not to do so is the ultimate act of rebellion. 

So from next Sunday—10th—we will be returning to the pattern of having a Eucharist/Holy Communion every Sunday at 10.30. With the exception of major festivals—Easter, Christmas etc.—we will be using the same rite printed on card.  Oh and we will not remain seated for the Gospel—another ancient practice I have discovered—so we all know where we stand (deliberate pun). 

Vicar