Thursday, 16 October 2014

What is church?

Psalm 122: "I was glad when they said unto me: 'Let us go to the house of the Lord."

The Psalmist who wrote those words was obviously excited about visiting the Temple. He couldn't wait to get there and when someone says “Let’s go there” it was the highlight of his life.

I was talking to a Muslim friend of mine who told me how he once went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and was able to see the Black Stone which Muslims believe was sent to earth by Allah. For Muslims this therefore is the holiest place on earth and to go to Mecca and better still, to see and touch the black stone, is the greatest privilege possible. There they feel especially close to their god.

Up there with that for the Jew of the psalmist's day, was to make the yearly pilgrimage up to Jerusalem and to offer a sacrifice in "the house of the Lord". There they felt they were as close as could be to God himself. For them the Temple - like the Tabernacle before -  was his dwelling place.

Where is the holiest place for the Christian? Is it Rome where the pope lives or Constantinople - as was - where Hagia Sophia was once the greatest church in Byzantium?

All of us have been to places where the surroundings have awed and inspired us and have had strong associations with God’s presence. But think back to around 3 BC. Where was the holiest place on earth then? It wasn’t Jerusalem where the Temple was. And there were no church buildings or cathedrals in existence. The holiest place was nothing more than a hay-strewn space carved into rock normally inhabited by animals. It was here that Jesus was born and laid in a manger. That was the holiest place on earth. To be there was to be in the presence of God. To be closer to him than anywhere else on earth.

What made that stable so holy was the presence of Jesus. And wherever he is, that is the holiest place for the Christian. So where is Jesus today? In Matthew 18:20 Jesus tells us that wherever 2 or 3 Christians gather “in his name” i.e. with him in mind as the chief focus of our love and worship, there he is in the midst of them. That is what makes any place ‘holy’. Not stained glass windows, church furniture, votive candles or chasubles and albs. (This means that when church buildings close we do not lose the church for the church is where the people are centred around Jesus).

Stephen nearing the end of his life by stoning made this comment to his accusers: “the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands”.   (Acts 7:48). Church buildings are means towards an end. To make them an end in and of themselves is what the Bible calls idolatry. It is who we
worship that is important not where. And if 2 or 3 continue to gather in Jesus’ name then the place where they worship is as holy as anywhere else on earth.

At the moment there is uncertainty about our church buildings, some of which seem to be coming to the end of their lives because they are becoming too costly to maintain or too few attend. For those who have invested so much of their lives there this spells disaster. It is the end of their church. But it isn't the end of the church. The church has never been the building. It has never been about bricks and mortar.

In the first three hundred years of Christianity it managed to grow until it covered the Mediterranean and became the official religion of the Roman Empire. All this without any recognisable buildings only people's homes, by the side of rivers or in secret places for fear of persecution. And whenever
Christianity has been persecuted, when it's buildings were closed down or destroyed, still the church met and grew - as we have seen in what was the Soviet Union under Stalin.

So take heart when you hear of churches shutting. The church lives, because Jesus lives. And wherever people still meet with him at the centre of their life, love and worship, God is present and the church continues.

Prayer:
Heavenly Father we thank you that the church is not the building, it is wherever your people meet and worship you. Help us through this time of change and challenge to recover this truth. Forgive us that sometimes our love for our buildings has been greater than our love for you. Help us once again to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. Amen.

Note: Since writing the above talk - in April this year - I have been to a service which marked the last service of a church that had been holding Christian worship for 150 years. Although I stand by what I have written I would not wish in any way to belittle the sense of hurt and sadness that was felt as the above church held its last act of worship before closure. It had to close its doors because it needed to raise in excess of £500,000 just to repair it with a congregation of under 30, the vast majority of whom were retired. Practically too it made no sense to continue as there were other factors against it including lack of disabled access and the absence of parking nearby. But it was still devastating and in terms of being a physical presence in the community the church is a huge loss.



Monday, 13 October 2014

How to have a (near) perfect Church

The following sermon is from last Sunday 10.30 service where I spoke on Philippians 4:1-9. The theme follows on from a previous blog and so I thought it worth including for that reason

Introduction
There is no such thing as a perfect church. If you ever think you have found one please don’t join it because from that moment on it will cease to be one!

The church in Philippi however is the closest you can get to one. It gave Paul greatest happiness and his letter reflects that. There are more references to joy/rejoicing here than any other book in the Bible. But even here—especially in Chapter four in first few verses—Paul feels the need to address certain issues and offer advice:

First he advises them (v1) is to “stand firm in the Lord.”

Paul's first cause of concern is wrong doctrine or belief. In the last chapter this took the form of individuals who were advocating that as well as faith in Jesus converts needed to be circumcised. Paul was furious describing them as "dogs", "evil" and "mutilators of the flesh" (Phil 3:2). Later he identifies another group (or maybe the same ones) as "enemies of the cross" who worship their appetites (Phil 3:18-19).

The point he is making that WHAT we believe is as important as THAT we believe. I remember one radio presenter - can't remember her name - once saying that it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you are sincere! I am sure Hitler was sincere and I am sure suicide bombers are sincere but it doesn't make what they believe in as right. The Nicene Creed which we repeat most Sundays came about as a result of the Church wanting to ensure that people knew the truth about God so that when it came under attack from various heresies it would discern they were wrong. In other words the Creed was a way of measuring sound doctrine. That is what makes it as relevant today as 1700 years ago.

Jesus once said that "the truth shall set you free" (John 10:10). If that is the case then error or untruth will have the opposite effect and enslave us and lead you away from Him who is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:7).

So Paul urges the Philippians to "stand firm in the Lord" (Phil 4:1) and uses the same word for a soldier standing fast in battle, or gladiator in amphitheatre fighting for his life. Don't budge from your position as a follower of Jesus and his teachings and set aside everything that contradicts who he is and what he teaches. Get to know his teachings so you can stand firm in them (and Him).

Second he advises 2 people to "agree with each other in the Lord. (verse 2)" 
It appears two women are not getting along—we are even given their names Euodia and Syntyche—so Paul pleads with them to set aside their differences and be united.

We don't know what they were disagreeing about - was it personal, about Christian belief or wrong behaviour. Whatever it was Paul's main concern is that it does not spoil the unity of the Church family because that then undermines the work we are called to do. So he pleads with them to come together and work together for God. The word he uses - parakaleo - is the same word that is used of the work of the Holy Spirit who pleads on out behalf with the father. So it's a strong word showing great longing.

He pleads for unity. “agree with one another” This idea of working together/being united is a big theme in the NT and a big concern of Jesus’. E.g. in John 17 he prays a long prayer, called the High Priestly Prayer and in it unity is a predominant theme. Listen to verse 11:

“...protect them (the disciples) by the power of your name—the name you gave me—so that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:11)

It's interesting that Jesus prays for the disciples protection. In other words he knows that they face attacks from an enemy. That seems to be the case here as these two women have, until now, "contended at Paul's (my) side in the cause of the Gospel" (verse 3). In other words in the past they have worked with him to spread the good news about Jesus but now this quarrel is threatening to undermine all of that. 'Someone' has got to them, they have fallen out and the work of God is suffering.

I read recently that there are now 33,000 separate Christian denominations in the world. How is that helping the Christian cause? I was speaking to someone recently who told me that a number of people have left a local thriving church. Where have they gone? A new Church has started somewhere the other side of town and so they have joined that. A friend of mine has a church in a challenging part of the city and is struggling to get things going and reach out to the community. Recently he heard of a minister from another side of town wants to start a new separate church in the same area right under the nose of my friend. They both have a heart to evangelise but where is the unity? Why have two church buildings and two sets of heating and lighting bills? Can't they join forces?

So unity is important but we do need to add one note of caution. Both "standing firm" and "being in agreement" with one another needs to be "in the Lord" i.e. according to his teaching. Darkness cannot fellowship with light. If someone believes something that clearly contradicts the Christian message we cannot have unity "in the Lord." Its not unity at all costs if the cost is truth.

Third he advises about anxiety (verse 6)
Paul doesn't say where the anxiety he talks about in verse 6 is coming from - probably all the things mentioned - but he is concerned that that anxiety does not take root in the church. Why? Because anxiety and worry is the very opposite of faith. It's a question of focus. If you are anxious about something your focus will be on that and as long as it's on that it's not on God. IT will become god not God. So anxiety or worry is a kind of anti-faith that stops you looking to God and can undermine your trust in him. So Paul says: "Do not be anxious about anything...."

Jesus says the same thing to his disciples "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me." (John 14:1-7). The word trouble refers to the boiling sea of a storm. If our hearts are troubled or anxious we will spend all our time just trying to stay afloat. We won’t get anywhere and we will drift away from God who is the source of our peace. So we are to look to God and trust him, sharing our concerns with Him and leaving them there for Him to deal with.

It was said of D.L.Moody that he came home so tired and worried that he determined he could not handle the both so he let God stay up and deal with his worries while he dealt with his tiredness and slept! Exactly Paul's advice.

Paul’s last piece of advice is an antidote to pessimism and negative thinking (verse 8).

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true...."

There’s a lot of negativity floating around at the moment. Whenever the news is on my son leaves the room because it's all doom and gloom. He is right. Not that we should avoid the news but we should not let it dominate our thinking. The world is bad but there is goodness everywhere.

It is something clerics are particularly prone to. On my blog someone left this comment a while back:

“Reading your earlier posts regarding prayer, your calling, your tendency to pessimism etc...I wonder whether the missing ingredient might be….listening...to God?”

Brother Lawrence was a 16th century Saint known for his ability to practice the presence of God every moment of the day. In a meeting with him one biographer wrote this:

Brother Lawrence wasn't surprised by the amount of sin and unhappiness in the world. Rather, he wondered why there wasn't more, considering the extremes to which the enemy is capable of going. He said he prayed about it (as Paul advocates) but because he knew God could rectify the situation in a moment if He willed it, he didn't allow himself to be come greatly concerned.”
"The Practice of the Presence of God” Chapter 1 (Whitaker)


It is easy to let the darkness creep into our thinking and our lives but it doesn't have to. In fact we must make a determined effort to stop it. Paul has already told us to pray and give our anxieties to God. He also tells us to do it with thanksgiving. If you make an effort to remember the goodness of God every day and thank Him for it you will be surprised how much there is to say.

Finally then he tells us to focus our minds and think about what is good. Paul gives a list: whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy. Think about these things. And the promise? As in verse 7 - you will experience the peace that comes from God and knowing that He is still at work in His world.

The Church at Philippi was not perfect—and neither is St. James—but that doesn't stop us working towards it. “Be perfect” Jesus says in Matthew—in other words make perfection your goal and follow Paul’s advice.

Waiting patiently

The following is a transcript of the sermon I gave last Sunday (Trinity 17 for you Anglicans) at the 9.00 Holy Communion service. It is based on the first few verses of Psalm 40:

Psalm 40:1-3

1. I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.
2. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock,
    making my steps secure.
3. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear,
    and put their trust in the Lord.

In one of Jesus' final addresses to his disciples in John 14 he says to them:

"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me." (John 14:1)

The word "troubled" refers to water that is boiling and turbulent. The disciples knew something was up with all of Jesus' talk about being arrested etc and so their minds are in a whirl with a sense of impending disaster. Jesus' antidote to hearts that are restless and troubled is to ask them to trust in him. In the days that follow, he is saying, don't look at the circumstances, look at me and remember my words to you now. Put your faith in my promises and in me as a person.

In Psalm 40 David is speaking from the opposite end of an event that saw him submerged in what he refers to as "a miry pit" full of "slime and clay" (verse 2). Whether this is real or metaphorical we don't know, but in those circumstances he tells us that he "waited patiently for the Lord" who he says "inclined unto me and heard my calling". The effect was that God "brought (him) out of the miry pit" and "set (his) upon a rock". God then ordered "all his goings" (1984 Prayerbook) which is a quaint way of saying that He put him on a firm and safe path (see above "making my steps secure).

In addition, he adds that God also set "a new song in his mouth" - one of gratitude and thanksgiving, (verse 3) transforming him to such an extent that "many shall see it and fear and shall put their trust in the Lord (verse 4).

Trust is catching! I was visiting a member of the congregation the other day and they had had a wretched time with a plumber who had really messed up a job big time causing all kinds of problems and setbacks. They promptly sacked the man and having been recommended another plumber who was, they were told, completely trustworthy and efficient, they employed him and he did the job quickly, professionally and with the minimum fuss and mess. Everyone who meets the couple will tell you how happy and grateful they are, speaking of them in terms of looking like thy have had an enormous burden lifted off their backs. All who know them have seen the change! 

And that is just putting your trust in a plumber! But what about the challenges of life and the burden of guilt, sin and shame? What about a lack of self-worth and self-hatred and a feeling of being unloved and unwanted? What about the load we carry as we stare into the dark abyss of the future and what it will hold? When we hear of the relentless march of religious extremism and the equally relentless march of Ebola or the crumbling of financial institutions how quickly despondency sets in and hope drains out.

It is into all that that the psalmist sheds such wonderful light: "I waited patiently for the Lord and he inclined unto me - he leant closer to me - and heard my calling." "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me."

In the dark days leading up to the start of the Second World War king George VI quoted the following words in his 1939 Christmas broadcast to the British Empire.

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.” So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

Every age has its dark days and it's challenges. Every individual and every family too have to face times of trial and trouble. To them and to us God says: "Turn to me and trust me. Let me lead and guide you. Put your hand in mine and let me show you the way."

David did. "I waited patiently for the Lord and he inclined unto me and heard my calling. He brought me also out of the miry pit, out of the slime and clay, and set my feet upon a rock no ordered my goings."

Thursday, 9 October 2014

The perfect church

One thing I love about the Bible is that it hides nothing but just tells the truth even if at times that truth is painful. This is one of the reasons I believe it is an authentic record of the people and situations it writes about. From Adam's ambition, through Noah's shortcomings and Abram's cowardice - passing off his wife as his sister to save his own skin - all the way down to the bunch of squabbling disciples, the divided Church in Corinth and ending up with the self-important church of Laodicea. It is a saga of people's self-centred sin and God's magnificent mercy from beginning to end. Not that the account of God's people is ended, for today the same stories are being told among us and churches up and down the land are "full of hypocrites" as our critics quite rightly claim. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23) writes Paul, and he should know because he was "chief" (1 Timothy 1:15).

Which is why any search for the perfect church is doomed to failure. Not that people ever claim that they are looking for such a rarity. No, if you ask them they will deny that that is their goal. Instead they will tell you that they are looking for a church with more youth, or with better facilities, or somewhere which is "child-friendly" or which preaches the gospel. Or they will be looking for somewhere with a car park, or has services later in the morning or one that that is open to the Spirit. They will tell you they don't like liturgy or they love liturgy. Or that they want a young minister who has a family or a mature one who has "seen a bit of life." They will point out the fact that this one has no atmosphere or that one is too noisy or the one down the street is too high (and smoky) or the other is too low and lacks reverence! Some are too far away and others too close where they know - and dislike - everybody! Others are draughty and dim and others are happy-clappy. So they aren't looking for the perfect church, just one that fits them like a glove and caters for every conceivable need.

One of the criticisms I have received over the years was that not many people went to my church and therefore there must, by implication, be no spiritual life there. After all if God was at work it would be bursting at the seams. What they failed to think through, however, is that event the smallest churches started with one and what they see is the fruit of years of hard work and faithful witness. I have now got an answer for such detractors. I tell them that if they want to go and be at the end rather than the start of a work of God, then go with my blessing. Personally I would rather sow what others reap rather than reap what others have sown.

At the moment St. James - my church - is experiencing the struggles of trying to build something here in the Uplands. It puts me in mind of the days I used to be an apprentice bricklayer. As we were learning the trade we were inevitably put on the footings or the foundation of the building. That way as long as our bricks were laid properly it did not matter what they looked like because, inevitably, they would be buried underground. Once we got up so high, the "professionals" would come and build the rest of the houses on top of what we did. It was not easy work having to contend with mud, cold weather - at times - and the struggle of working in ditches. When we finished all the people would see was the finished product, but we knew that without what we did there would be no house.

Its a bit like that building the church. At the start its hard going, three steps forward and two (or even three) steps back. But slowly the church rises and people begin to see what God is doing. So instead of beating myself up - which I am good at doing - because things are so slow and tough, I get my head down and keep praying. This is God's Church. He knows what He is doing and the sort of people He needs to get the job done. I am here because He called me and as long as He did I am in the right church. Its not perfect - but neither am I! In fact we are a perfect fit. All I need is more imperfect people and we're away. As Jesus said: "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."
(Luke 5:32). Where can I find them?

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Justice

“Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.”  Isaiah 35:3-4

Reading those words of Isaiah is like eating a piece of fish and finding an unexpected bone in it! One minute we are enjoying a tasty meal of encouragement about “strengthening weak hands” and “making firm feeble knees” .

What are feeble knees? It’s a reference to those who stumble in their walk with God. It can also mean those who are caste down or bereaved because of the loss of the sense of God’s presence. And at the time of writing the people of Israel who had turned their backs on God felt what it was like to be abandoned with many people being carried off into forced exile in Babylon—they and the country realised their loss. They had come to their senses and discovered what life was like without God. It’s something I believe we are going to discover as a country at some point.

And the “weak hands” go along with the “feeble knees”. Weak hands are those that can’t hold anything or are strong enough to carry out the work that needs to be done. Put together—weak hands/feeble knees—it’s a people who are helpless without God. Which is all of us. But as St. Paul reminds us “when I am weak” it’s “then I am strong” in the Lord (2 Cor 12:10)

So one minute we are enjoying these words of encouragement along with the promise that God will come and save such people, and next, right in the middle, is the word “vengeance.” What is that doing there? It jars us and it feels so out of place. But before we set it aside, ignore it or pretend it isn't there as sometimes people do, we need to ask if it has a purpose.

First of all we must understand the word in its context. This is key to interpreting what the Bible means. The context is 6th century BC Israel—2600 years ago—in a culture and a language that is very different to our own. When we think of vengeance we see it very much in a negative way, often associated with anger and the need to get even. For example its very easy to look at what is happening in the news with ISIS and the beheadings of two journalists and feel that you want to get back at them in some way. But in the Old Testament 'vengeance' was very much associated with justice.

Second, we must understand it alongside the other word “recompense”. In the previous chapter the two are side by side where Isaiah talks about “the day of the Lord’s vengeance . The year of recompense for the cause of Zion.” (Isaiah 34:8). So vengeance is seen alongside the word recompense. The two go together and speak about the fullness of justice in terms of the punishment fitting the crime or the guilty getting their "just deserts” the "reward" for their wrong-doing.

And third, here as in Isaiah 34:8, vengeance is wholly associated with God. It is He, ultimately, who will judge and dispense justice. He will ensure that the guilty will receive their “just deserts”. In the end only God is able to do this as He, unlike us, possesses all the facts.

And so putting all this together we can see that any promise of peace and security, any offer of help and encouragement must have an element of justice built into it. To quote one commentator:

“The world cannot be put to rights and the era of peace brought in without both the banishment and punishment of the wicked and the blessing of the people of God.” (David Payne: Pickering Bible Commentary: Isaiah) 

When faced with the invasion of a peaceful neighbour, the systematic destruction of a people, culture or a religion, the shooting down of a neutral passenger plane with the loss of everyone on board or the sexual exploitation of over 1400 children,  it is not enough to strengthen those who have been abused or bereaved, you also at the same time have to work and pray that justice is done. Because justice is the other side of the same coin that is marked love. In fact justice—doing what is right—is part of love.

So “vengeance” - by which we mean the justice of God—is actually not really a bone at all, but all part and parcel of the same thing we would call a fish.

Sin and healing—Matthew 9:12

We are used to thinking of sin as something we DO, like stealing, adultery and murder, but the Bible is very clear that these are symptoms rather than cause. There is something wrong within. Jesus hints at this when he answers the Pharisees' accusation that he is eating with sinners. He says "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick." In other words tax collectors and sinners are people who need to be cured not condemned, and he had come to do it.

This understanding of the underlying condition of sin as illness can be seen for example in the Book of Isaiah chapter 53. Here the writer is talking about the mysterious suffering servant whom the New Testament identifies as Jesus the Messiah. Listen what it says about Him:

"Surely he took up our pain. and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.." (Is 53:4-6)

The transgressions and iniquities referred to here point to the outward expression of sin and the wrongs we do, but what is ultimately needed is the healing of the inner man and woman that causes us to do these things. The healing needed refers to what is wrong within us and not the symptoms of our condition which are the sins we commit. That is not to say the sins themselves are not wrong and need to be forgiven, but in seeking forgiveness you are only dealing with the symptoms not the cause.

Paul talks about this in Romans Chapter 7 where he talks about wanting to do good but is constrained by what he calls his "sinful nature" which makes him do the opposite.

It reminds me of my experience with alcoholics in Hirwaun. I used to visit the son of two parishioners who was in the latter stages of liver failure. He was living on drugs and was warned by the doctors that any more alcohol and he would die. But as much as he knew that, and the hurt it caused his parents and the suffering he was going through himself, there was a powerful force within him that, in the end, was greater and stronger than his own will to resist and overcome. And the language he used about his condition was not far removed from Paul's own self-description of his battle with his sinful nature:

"For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing."  (Rom 7:18b-19).

He desperately wanted to stop drinking but the inner drive to drink was, in the end, irresistible. He succumbed in his 30’s. Now this problem is one every human being suffers from. All of us are, to a certain extent, victims of this condition called sin. Psalm 14:4 puts it this way “No one does good no not one.” And in Psalm 51:5 David acknowledges: “I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”   We are all, from the start, to a greater or lesser extent 'sin-aholics'. That does not make us bad people—nor entirely guiltless either—but people in need of healing, forgiveness and restoration. The Good News is that Jesus is the divine physician and the cross is his scalpel. As we come to him in faith and trust, in humble acknowledgment of our need, we will find his cure. For only the sick need a doctor and only the sinner needs Jesus.

Important note: This does not cover the whole of Jesus' work on the cross as there are other important aspects of our salvation that are covered. But it does seem to me that this is an important, if overlooked aspect of the work of the cross as it deals not just with the initial 'problem' of sin but also the ongoing problems it causes within us and the process of healing or salvation needed to deliver us from its power and influence. Plus it does rescue us from being too judgemental of others and the struggles we all have with this universal condition. Note too that the very word salvation means to make whole and therefore has a healing component to it.

A clean heart and a right spirit

My car is a running joke with one firm of undertakers - the reason being is that I don't clean it. On numerous occasions when I have turned up to take a service they have offered for me to drop it in and they will give it the once over.

In fairness they are experts in cleaning cars because everyday after each funeral they wash, clean and polish theirs until you can see your face in it. Even if there is no apparent dirt or dust on the car - at least not to my obviously untrained eyes - they will take it back to the garage and clean it. Why? Because they want to show their clients that they care and that what they want to offer them is nothing but the very best.

In today's psalm the writer prays not for a clean car but for a clean heart. "Make me a clean heart O God and renew a right spirit within me." (Psalm 51:10)

This psalm - psalm 51 - is read in its entirety every morning in the Eastern Orthodox Morning daily prayers. Thus the one who prays asks that God cleanse his or her heart from all the dirt that it has been picked up during the day. And our hearts do pick up dirt. Whether from what we see or hear from the TV, radio or daily life, or what comes up from what Isaiah so vividly calls the "tossing sea" of our own hearts which "cannot be quiet, (and whose) waters toss up refuse and mud." (Isaiah 57:20) - very vivid description isn't it.

Each day, the psalmist reminds us, our hearts - like the undertakers dusty cars - need to be brought to God for cleansing and renewal.

It's not that God sees us purely in those terms. He does not have a down on us, writing us off as permanently dirty and a pile of useless rubbish. But like a mother constantly has to remind her children that cleanliness is next to godliness - remember that saying - and that dirt harbours germs and other undesirable microbes, so He, like her, councils a daily shower to keep us free from infection and in good health. We too need to clean behind the ears and between our toes so that nothing spoils and soils us, hindering or hurting our walk with Him or our general spiritual health and well being.

So next time you wash or shower, why not use this prayer while you do so, and ask God, as you wash your hands or brush your teeth, to "make me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me."

Note: Incidentally all those who wonder sometimes why the priest washes his hands before blessing the bread and wine at Holy Communion, as well as washing his hands for hygienic and holy purposes he may be preparing his soul using the above prayer, quietly, to God as he does so.

St. Michael and All Angels - 29th September

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the playwright puts the following words into the mouth of his main character as he addresses Horatio, who is having a hard time believing that Hamlet has seen a ghost:

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

In other words although Horatio’s education does not allow for the existence of such things, he does not have the monopoly of all the knowledge of heaven and earth.

And neither do we. That is why the Bible is so counter-cultural and so radical because it challenges our thinking and opens up for us a whole new dimension of things we don’t ordinarily have access to because we are restricted to only what we can see, hear, touch or smell.

Today we remember St. Michael and All Angels. St. Michael in the Bible is identified as the Archangel who has charge of all the angels of God. He is mentioned three times in the Book of Daniel. And in the New Testament he leads God's armies against Satan's forces in the Book of Revelation (Rev 12:7-12), where during the war in heaven he defeats Satan. And in the Epistle of Jude Michael is specifically referred to as "the archangel Michael".

Angels are everywhere in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation and some of the most famous stories in the scriptures have angels in them. Abraham entertains three angels on their way to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18). Jacob wrestles with one at Bethel (Genesis 32:22-32) and earlier was given a vision of them ascending and descending into heaven (Genesis 28:10-21). In the New Testament Joseph, Mary and the shepherds have encounters with them (Matthew 1:20-21, Luke 1:26-38, and Luke 2:13-18) in the Book of Acts Peter is rescued from jail by the intervention of an angel (Acts 12:1-19).

There is a reference to what appear to be guardian angels in a passage where Jesus, after rebuking the disciples for turning the children away who had come for a blessing tells them:

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven. “ (Matthew 18:10)

The activity of angels are by no means limited to ancient times either. I have just been reading an account of a Norwegian Missionary in China named Marie Monsen who served there in the early part of the last century ("A Present Help" published by Kingsley Press).

It was a very dangerous time to serve in what was a very unstable country and she and her fellow missionaries had many brushes with death at the hands of corrupt and renegade soldiers and brigands. Several times she had reason to believe that angels intervened to rescue them. On one occasion as their compound was besieged by looting soldiers they barricaded themselves in the chapel. Some of the locals came and joined them because they said that they felt safer with them because they had protection. When asked what they meant they were told that on the roof of the chapel they had seen four soldiers on guard one at each end, one on the middle and one by the main gate. When questioned about what they looked like they said that they were tall and had shining faces. When asked if they were Chinese they said no, they were foreigners.

The only explanation was that these were no ordinary people but were angels sent to guard the praying missionaries.

The point of all this is really to awaken us to the fact that we do not live in a one (or indeed three) dimensional world. That there exists something more than what we can see, touch, hear or smell. And there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in all our science and philosophies. In fact the dimension in which God and his angels operate is actually what came first and out of that, God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). Once we start there—rather than here—life as we know it begins to take on greater meaning, and God and the supernatural comes into sharper focus.

We start to ask important questions about God—who He is, what is His purpose for creating us, how are we to live the life he has given us? Is this life a preparation for the next? Does what we do and how we live now have an impact on where we will spend eternity?  Does it make life better now?

St. Michael and all angels challenge us to ask deeper questions of life other than what iphone we should by or what the latest fashion is. There is more out there and what that more is can have a much greater impact on our lives here and now.

Thy Kingdom Come 2017