Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Eve of St. James

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

St. James—24th July 2016

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

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

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

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

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

And reaching out she does so and Mark tells us:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Orthodoxy in Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As for Vladimir himself, his lifestyle was clearly affected. When he married Anna, he put away his five former wives. Not only did he build churches, he also destroyed idols, abolished the death penalty, protected the poor, established schools, and managed to live in peace with neighbouring nations. On his deathbed he gave all his possessions to the poor.
http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-28/988-vladimir-adopts-christianity.html

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
















What is Eastern Orthodoxy? Part 3 The Life in Christ

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

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

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

What is Eastern Orthodoxy? Part 1 The Teaching of Christ

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

Eastern Orthodoxy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Orthodox Beliefs and Practices:

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

The Uninvited Guest

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

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

But he never goes away.
Thelma Laycock

Prayer before reading the Bible

The following is a prayer by Origen 184-253 AD

Lord, inspire me to read your Scriptures
and to meditate upon them day and night.
I beg you to give me real understanding of what I need,
that I in turn may put its precepts into practice.
Yet, I know that understanding and good intentions are worthless,
unless rooted in your graceful love.
So I ask that the words of Scripture may also be not just signs on a page,
but channels of grace into my heart. Amen.

The call to prayer

I have been recently reading up on one of the great modern British 'mystics' Evelyn Underhill who had such a positive influence on the church in Britain in the early part of the last century. She believed very much in the power of prayer as evidenced from the following letter she wrote to the Archbishop of the day, Archbishop Lang. Here it is. I have highlighted those parts which have struck me as being as relevant today as then, perhaps more so:

A letter from Evelyn Underhill to Archbishop Lang of Canterbury
(Found among her papers. c.1930)

May it please your Grace:

I desire very humbly to suggest with bishops assembled at Lambeth that the greatest and most necessary work they could do at the present time for the spiritual renewal of the Anglican Church would be to call the clergy as a whole, solemnly and insistently to a greater interiority and cultivation of the personal life of prayer. This was the original aim of the founders of the Jerusalem Chamber Fellowship, of whom I am one. We were convinced that the real failures, difficulties and weaknesses of the Church are spiritual and can only be remedied by spiritual effort and sacrifice, and that her deepest need is a renewal, first in the clergy and through them in the laity; of the great Christian tradition of the inner life. The Church wants not more consecrated philanthropists, but a disciplined priesthood of theocentric souls who shall be tools and channels of the Spirit of God: and this she cannot have until Communion with God is recognized as the first duty of the priest. But under modern conditions this is so difficult that unless our fathers in God solemnly require it of us, the necessary efforts and readjustments will not be made. With the development of that which is now called "The Way of Renewal" more and more emphasis has been placed on the nurture and improvement of the intellect, less and less, on that of the soul. I do not underrate the importance of the intellectual side of religion. But all who do personal religious work know that the real hunger among the laity is not for halting attempts to reconcile theology and physical science, but for the deep things of the Spirit.

We look to the Church to give us an experience of God, mystery, holiness and prayer which, though it may not solve the antinomies of the natural world, shall lift us to contact with the supernatural world and minister eternal life. We look to the clergy to help and direct our spiritual growth. We are seldom satisfied because with a few noble exceptions they are so lacking in spiritual realism, so ignorant of the laws and experiences of the life of prayer. Their Christianity as a whole is humanitarian rather than theocentric. So their dealings with souls are often vague and amateurish. Those needing spiritual help may find much kindliness, but seldom that firm touch of firsthand knowledge of interior ways which comes only from a disciplined personal life of prayer. In public worship they often fail to evoke the spirit of adoration because they do not possess it themselves. Hence the dreary character of many church services and the result in the increasing alienation of the laity from institutional forms.

God is the interesting thing about religion, and people are hungry for God. But only a priest whose life is soaked in prayer, sacrifice, and love can, by his own spirit of adoring worship, help us to apprehend Him. We ask the bishops . . . to declare to the Church and especially its ministers, that the future of organized Christianity hinges not on the triumph of this or that type of churchman's theology or doctrine, but on the interior spirit of poverty, chastity and obedience of the ordained. However difficult and apparently unrewarding, care for the interior spirit is the first duty of every priest. Divine renewal can only come through those whose roots are in the world of prayer.

THE TWO things that the laity want from the priesthood are spiritual realism and genuine love of souls. It is by these that all Christian successes have been won in the past and it is to these that men always respond. We instantly recognize those services and sermons that are the outward expression of the priest's interior adherence to God and the selfless love of souls. These always give us a religious experience. On the other hand, every perfunctory service, every cold and slovenly celebration (for these are more frequent than the bishops realize because when they are present, everything is at its best), is a lost opportunity which discredits corporate worship and again reflects back to the poor and shallow quality of the Priest's inner life... It is perhaps worthwhile to recall the humbling fact that recent notable secessions to the Roman Catholic communion have been caused by declaration by a felt need of the supernatural which the Church of England failed to satisfy, while the astonishing success of the Oxford Group Movement among young people of the educated class witnesses to the widespread desire for an experience of God unmet by the ordinary ministrations of the Church. History shows that these quasi-mystical movements among the laity do not flourish where the invisible side of institutional religion is vigorously maintained.

I know that recovering the ordered interior life of prayer and meditation will be very difficult for clergy immersed increasingly in routine work. It will mean for many a complete rearrangement of values and a reduction of social activities. They will not do it unless they are made to feel its crucial importance. This will not be achieved through "schools of prayer" which stimulate the mind rather than the spirit. But the solemn voice of the united episcopate, recalling the Church to that personal, realistic contact with the Supernatural which has been since Pentecost the one source of her power, will give authoritative support to those who already feel the need of a deeper spirituality and will remind the others that the renewal of a spiritual society must depend on giving absolute priority to the spiritual life.

I venture to put before the conference the following practical recommendations:
 (1) Education of Ordinands--- That the bishops shall emphasize the need and importance of a far more thorough, varied, interesting and expert devotional training in our theological colleges which, with a few striking exceptions, seem to me to give insufficient attention to this vital part of their work.
(2) The Clergy--- That they should call upon every ordained clergyman, as an essential part of his pastoral duty and not merely for his own sake:
a) To adopt a rule of life which shall include a fixed daily period of prayer and reading of a type that feeds, pacifies and expands his soul, and deepens his communion with God;
b) To make an annual retreat;
c) To use every endeavour to make his church into a real home of prayer and teach his people, both by exhortation and example so to use it.
Evelyn Underhill

Prayer

Came across the following poem by Anne Lewin about prayer. Sometimes poems can help us focus in prayer. This is a lovely one.


Disclosure

Prayer is like watching for the
Kingfisher. All you can do is
Be where he is likely to appear, and
Wait.
Often, nothing much happens;
There is space, silence and
Expectancy.
No visible sign, only the
Knowledge that he’s been there
And may come again.
Seeing or not seeing cease to matter,
You have been prepared.
But sometimes, when you’ve almost
Stopped expecting it, a flash of brightness
Gives encouragement.

Anne Lewin

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

A time to fail?

I am part way through an excellent book I recently came across called: "The Mystic Way of Evangelism" by Elaine A. Heath which I will refer to in the next few days. But as an introduction, here is an excerpt from her blog (you will find it here). The particular post that caught my attention is actually two years old but still very relevant. Here is the excerpt. The post is titled: "Time to Fail Our Way into the Future":

"Today I was on a panel for a Center for Teaching Excellence presentation at Southern Methodist University. Our panel consisted of 3 of us professors, one from the business school, one a physicist, and yours truly, the theologian. Our task was to share in 10 minutes apiece how we engage in “high impact teaching.” I talked about creating community gardens that then take on a life of their own and go in directions you never imagined. The business professor described a class she teaches that actually produces television commercials that are used by a major sports channel. But the presentation that keeps repeating itself in my mind came from Dr. Sekula, the physics professor who teaches his students how to fail boldly.

Failure, he said, is the key to being a scientist. Without a willingness to fail boldly, over and over again, there would be no scientific breakthroughs. Failure is how we learn, he said, as he showed slides depicting some of his students earning impressive awards for their achievements. For every achievement there are many necessary failures.

So I have been thinking about that, how failure has played out in my personal life and how I see it playing out in the church.

Last week I spent time at a national gathering for United Methodists who start new faith communities and endeavour to revive failing churches. As I talked with many people, listened to stories, and heard the questions that were raised, over and over I heard fear of failure. I wanted to gather up all the frightened and anxious people, the bean counters, the creatives, the apostolic types and the dreamers. I wanted to tell them over a cold beer to relax. Breathe. Fail."

This is a great encouragement to the Church at this moment in time as it is going through its own 'dark night of the soul' (more about that in later posts) and experiencing general and rather alarming decline, here and in America. But as noted above, we can learn from the scientists who, through trial and error - failure followed by failure - slowly learn through a "willingness to fail boldly, over and over again" to make slow progress in the right direction. Does our unwillingness to fail lead in such a positive direction or do we give up too easily? Are we not God's people and God's church? Didn't Jesus promise to build His Church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18)? If so we should not give up but through faithfulness and perseverance - a favourite Biblical term - keep at it.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Making a stand

I came across the following from an article in the Kairos Journal (http://www.kairosjournal.org/)

"On a bright April day in 1743, John Wesley stood preaching to an open-air crowd the great truths of salvation. The rag-tag congregation, who had come out into the countryside to hear this famous preacher, listened enraptured to his message of regeneration and new life. Just then, an old drunk rode his horse into the middle of the crowd, rearing the beast up and shouting all manner of curses and bitter words at the preacher. Wesley, who by this time was used to such displays, tried to ignore the man and continue his sermon. That course, however, quickly proved impossible when the fool drew his horse up and, still spewing venom at Wesley and his gospel, tried to run down some of the crowd. People scattered, no one was trampled, and in a few minutes the situation was brought under control. Speaking later to some local residents, Wesley was shocked to learn who the old wobbly drunk was: a clergyman from a neighbouring parish church!

After months of open air preaching, Wesley had learned to expect such opposition. Anglican rectors early on refused to allow him to preach from their pulpits, so Wesley finally forsook the beautiful established churches altogether and took his message first to the church cemeteries and then to the countryside. Thousands of hearers followed him, but even there in the remote regions, he could not avoid trouble. Hecklers and other troublemakers hounded him wherever he went, running through the crowds screaming, banging pots and pans together, or even throwing rotten eggs and over-ripe fruit at him to silence his preaching.

Wesley’s message evoked such a vehement response because he called on Christians to do more than merely recite their creeds once a week. He expected the gospel of Christ to change their hearts and, from there, to reform their lives and ultimately their entire society. “Christianity is essentially a social religion,” he said, and “to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it.”

Following Christ is hard and can lead you to make a stand not only against the culture in which you live, but sometimes against the very church you belong to. Wesley did this and, by the grace of God, was seen to be right in the end. Today the same call goes out to Christians who want to be true to Christ even if it means that they are at odds with their own denomination or society. And they will be standing not only with Wesley but others before him who would not budge even if they saw that they were, at the time, in a minority of one.

Such a person was Athanasius. In 325, at the age of 27, Athanasius began his leading role against the Arians (a heresy that denied the divinity of Christ) as a deacon and assistant to
Bishop Alexander of Alexandria during the First Council of Nicaea. Roman emperor Constantine the Great had convened the council in May–August 325 to address the Arian position that the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, is of a distinct substance from the Father. Three years after that council, Athanasius succeeded his mentor as archbishop of Alexandria. In addition to the conflict with the Arians (including powerful and influential Arian churchmen led by Eusebius of Nicomedia), he struggled against the Emperors Constantine, Constantius II, Julian the Apostate and Valens. He held out and became known as "Athanasius Contra Mundum" (Latin for Athanasius Against the World). Within a few years after his death, Gregory of Nazianzus called him the "Pillar of the Church". His writings were well regarded by all Church fathers who followed, in both the West and the East, who noted their rich devotion to the Word-become-man, great pastoral concern, and profound interest in monasticism.

Athanasius is counted as one of the four great Eastern Doctors of the Church in the Roman Catholic Church.

So remember: "Right is right, even if everyone is against it, and wrong is wrong, even if everyone is for it."
William Penn

Monday, 11 July 2016

Seriously?

I came across this article in the Christian Post about a man wanting to marry his laptop computer. This is the age of nonsense and as the fences that protect and define civilisation are slowly being torn down, so we see the beginning of the End:

"Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis, who recently claimed victory in a long-standing religious freedom, gay-marriage case, is facing a new lawsuit from a man whom she denied a license to marry his laptop computer.

Liberty Counsel explained in a press release that the plaintiff, Mark "Chris" Sevier, is looking to argue that marriages between same-sex couples have the same legitimacy as a human marrying an inanimate object.

Sevier has also named Governor Matt Bevin and Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear in the lawsuit.

"This lawsuit is frivolous," said Mat Staver, Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel. "There is obviously no right for a man to marry a machine. When you make gender irrelevant to a gender-based relationship you open Pandora's box and make a mockery out of marriage."

Davis made nationwide news back in 2015 when she spent six days in jail for her refusal to allow her name to be placed on marriage certificates authorizing same-sex marriages due to her religious beliefs that marriage is solely between a man and a woman.

Davis continued refusing to have her own name or title on such licenses, though later agreed to not interfere with deputies who choose to issue gay marriage certificates."

Friday, 8 July 2016

Easter - George Herbert

I know it's not Easter - although every Sunday we celebrate it as the first day of the week i.e. resurrections day - but I could not resist George Herbert's poem "Easter"

George Herbert - who was Welsh and an Anglican clergyman from the 17th century - was a skilled pastor and teacher, as well as an accomplished musician, and this poem is a beautiful illustration of both. Easter was originally two separate poems. But the call in the first verse, 'Rise heart; thy Lord is risen', and the musical images of verses two and three, find their fullest expression in the song of praise of the final three verses.

'Easter'

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise
Without delays,
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him mayst rise:
That, as his death calcined1 thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more just.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art.
The cross taught all wood to resound his name,
Who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song
Pleasant and long:
Or since all music is but three parts vied2
And multiplied;
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.

I got me flowers to straw thy way:
I got me boughs off many a tree:
But thou wast up by break of day,
And brought’st thy sweets along with thee.

The Sun arising in the East,
Though he give light, and th’East perfume;
If they should offer to contest
With thy arising, they presume.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many suns to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred3, but we miss:
There is but one, and that one ever.

Commentary

The poet draws on Scripture to illustrate the poem:  the words of praise from Psalm 57:8-10 and the theme of Paul’s letter to the Romans, with its exploration of how people are made right with God - justified - through Jesus’ death on the cross.

Christ, stretched out in death on the wood of the cross, becomes God’s instrument, playing a melody of love to the world.   The heart responds to the melody by joining with it, as instrumentalists join together in consort to make music.  But since none can sing this tune perfectly, a further strand needs to be woven:  that of the Spirit who makes up 'our defects with his sweet art'.

In the following song of joyful celebration, the poet sees the day of Christ’s resurrection as unsurpassed in glory. 'Can there be any day but this' - the sun that rises each day of the year cannot shine as brightly as the Son of God as he brings light to the world.

Vaughan Williams set these words to music in his Five Mystical Songs, and the first three verses form one of the hymns composed by Barry Ferguson in the hymnbook 'Another Music'.

1 calcined - reduced to ashes by burning
2 vied - added to
3 three hundred - a rounded figure for 365 days of the year

Life saved by a Bible

The life of 21-year-old British soldier, Pte Frank Viner, was saved at the Somme by his Bible.

His father had given to him less than three months previously for his birthday. Neither of them could have known that the book would save Frank’s life.

His daughter, Grace Cross (80) from Leatherhead in Surrey, describes Frank as ‘jovial, thoughtful and happy, always keen to help others’. She takes up the story.

‘He always kept the Bible in his right-hand breast pocket,’ she says. ‘They were in the trenches at the Somme and for some reason, he moved the Bible into his left-hand pocket.
‘Then he heard the words from Psalm 91 go through his mind. They say, “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but you will not be harmed.”

‘Then there was an enormous blast as a shell hit the trench. His comrades were killed all around him.’
Frank was thrown to the ground by the shell’s impact, his uniform torn, his helmet blown off. And he too would have been dead had it not been for his Bible.

A ‘huge piece of shrapnel’ was embedded in it ‘ripping it open from cover-to-cover,’ says Grace.
‘If he hadn’t moved it to his left-hand pocket, he would have been killed,’ she adds.
‘My father always said that his Bible had saved his life,’ says Grace. ‘He felt that God was protecting him. It was an extraordinary experience.’

It was to have a lasting impact. Shell shock from the incident took Frank first to hospital and then away from the front line for the rest of the war.

Grace believes the incident also led to her father having two nervous breakdowns in later life.
But it also confirmed him in his faith. ‘There wasn’t a Sunday that he didn’t go to church twice,’ she says.

‘He would have gone into the ministry, and spent a year training at Bible college after the war, but in the end he went into the family’s bakery business. But he always preached as a lay minister about his experiences in the war.’
Hazel Southam: Bible Society

Thursday, 7 July 2016

He's coming

I love the way that people just simply take God at His Word when they read their Bibles. The following is a true story of a lovely lady called Eunice, a 93 year old faithful member of St. Teilo's in Caereithin, Swansea. When she was in hospital and approaching her end - she died the next day - the Area Dean popped in to visit her while a member of the family was visiting her. Suddenly she said:

"He's taking his time coming."
"What do you mean Eunice? The Area Dean's here!"
"No, HE is taking his time coming."
"Who do you mean?"
To which the faithful Eunice replied: "Jesus, he's taking his time coming."

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 2 In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also."  (John 14:1-3)

Pews and other essentials

Last week a member of the congregation came up to me, and with a look that I can only describe as sincere pity, said: "I wouldn't have your job for all the money in the world"! What had elicited such a comment? Was it the sermon? It certainly wasn't my best and I had this sinking feeling all the way through that I wasn't connecting either vertically or horizontally, with God or the person in the pew. In fact the last few Sundays have been like wading through mud or talking in a sound-proofed room. But is pity the right response?

It may be that the person in question has been reading some report or other about clergy life expectancy rates having fallen, or the increasing poor health or rising stress levels of the average priest? Or perhaps that our pension fund is as safe as the Titanic?

Or perhaps it is a reference to various comments circulating about what people feel about the removal of pews at the back of the church? I suspect that that is (am I sounding too hopeful here?) probably nearer the mark, especially given that the limited removal of a few rows was a compromise after a faculty to remove them all was opposed. This was after a few unpleasant comments, behind the scenes canvassing of support (including someone ringing through the electoral roll to try and win people to the "remain" side) and letters sent to the Diocese from people who are not, let us say, regulars!

I was clearing out one of the drawers in my desk when I came across part of a correspondence about this from the newspaper "The Week". It is from the Sunday Telegraph and it is written in response to someone complaining about how integral pews are to real worship:

"Trevor Reid doesn't want his church to have "flexible" space. Leaving aside the death-knell such views sound for Christian communities interested in a viable future, it reveals a very poor sense of history. Pews became commonplace only with the longer sermons and static liturgies of the post-Reformation era; they are a somewhat modern development. before then, naves were flexible spaces where all manner of community activity took place.

In filling them with immovable furniture, the Victorians and their immediate forebears were securing income from pew rents, but showed scant regard for history. I pray that Mr Reid and his supporters will be cured of their attachment to these horrid, newfangled constructions."
Rev Canon Wealands Bell, Staffs (The Week 8th February 2014)

People's arguments usually boil down to the following with regards to pews:
1. Numbers. You can get more people into a pew than the chairs that replace them. the fact that pews are really uncomfortable is obviously a secondary issue.

2. History. Certainly the Victorians favoured them for the reasons set out above. But although that sets them in their historical context (along with holes in the ground for loos back in the Dark Ages) in terms of authenticity we have to go back further and see that the church in the early was much more utilitarian and much more community minded than the Victorians. Therefore churches were meeting places, sacred spaces, and even markets and hospitals, all in the one place!

3. Nostalgia. This is a big one and some see the removal of pews as a trampling on their childhood memories. To take away pews is to desecrate these and make church seem somehow less in the process. But is that what church is really for?

4. Personal taste. Usually arguments boil down to this. "Well I like pews" or "I don't like chairs." To which the response is: "But what about those who don't like pews and love chairs?" This sometimes leads to the toys out of the pram response "If you take them out I am not coming here again."

So maybe the pity was for someone who is trying to move the church forward while a significant minority want to do the opposite. In which case roll on retirement.

Death and resurrection

In a conversation with a fellow Christian the other day we were talking about what constitutes devotion to Christ. Part of that of course is Church attendance. 20-30 years ago a regular attender was someone who went to Church morning and evening on a Sunday. 10-20 years ago a regular attender was seen as someone who went every Sunday morning. Recently the Church (England or Wales?) has redefined regular attendance as going to church once a month. No wonder the church is in decline.

Or is it? Reading the Old Testament is very sobering and informative at this time as we see there the rise and fall of belief in God over centuries rather than decades. You just have to read 2 Kings for example and you will see this over the reigns of the various kings of the two kingdoms. Good kings lead the people closer to God and bad kings lead them further away. Good kings cleanse the temple, remove the Asherah poles and renew the faith of the people. Bad kings bring in false worship and raise up more idols . It is up and down, back and forth. One minute the tide of faith is in and the next it's out. Is that what is happening in the West?

In one key text in the Old testament - Isaiah 11 - the prophet talks about the "stump" of Jesse. The inference here (see earlier chapters) is that God has pruned back his people through judgement, invasion and the withdrawal of His Presence, until all is left is the bare stump of faith. What has gone?  Dead and fruitless branches (see John 15). By cutting right back to the stump God is bringing new and fresh growth, and from that will emerge the Messiah - Jesus.

Today Christianity as we know it is - on the whole - lifeless, nominal, inward and backward looking and bound to the past. For too many it is either an insurance policy, an inheritance from their parents or a leisure activity. Or, in Dallas Willard's words what he calls 'Consumer Christianity'. This is what he says:

"Consumer Christianity is now normative. The consumer Christian is one who utilizes the grace of God for forgiveness and the services of the church for special occasions, but does not give his or her life and innermost thoughts, feelings, and intentions over to the kingdom of the heavens. Such Christians are not inwardly transformed and not committed to it"

Ouch! That certainly hits the nail on the head and is a painful reminder of what the above stats tell us about devotion to Christ. That is, that it is largely absent! People use the Church - and God - to suit their busy lifestyles. There is no cost for them, and Sunday is just like any other day of the week. What happened to "remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy" (Exodus 20:8-11)?

It is tempting to go on a rant here and reference the erratic attendance at my own church but I won't. Suffice to say that all that has been said above is true of the vast majority of churches in general - and in my experience - the Church in Wales in particular. However despite my despair at times and my depression at others, I still believe in the sovereignty of God. That He is in control and knows exactly what He is doing. And as if to underline this a text that comes with unusual regularity into my daily Bible readings, online surfing and in the books I am reading, speaks powerfully into this:

"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:8-9)

So despite my concerns and despair, I cling to "the rock which is higher than I" (Psalm 61:2). The storm will break, the floodwaters recede and the sun will come from behind the clouds. "Hold on" is God's message, along with:  "I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it." (Matthew 16:18). All that is left is for me to reply: "Amen."

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 ...