Tag Archives: christian

Denying Ourselves

 

Photo Credit: Werner Volmari / Unsplash

Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Trinity based on the following readings:
Romans 12:9-21 and Matthew 16:21-end

May I speak and may you hear through the Grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen

I have recently found out the rather wonderful news that one of my daughters, Lizzie, is expecting and I am to be a nana for a second time. Everything is progressing well, although it’s been hard on her husband Lewis as he has not been able to attend any of her scans with her, which could have been a bit scary if the news were not so good.

However, a blood test has revealed that she has gestational diabetes, the news of which came just as she had enjoyed a piece of homemade cake, so no more treats for a while. Hopefully, she will be able to control this by denying herself some of the more sweet things in life and although it will be a minor hardship she will change her lifestyle for the benefit of her unborn child – a necessary form of suffering.

Suffering you may say… suffering…. is that really suffering? Well suffering means to undergo pain, distress or hardship and it can be physical, emotional, or mental. It can be as simple as not getting what you want or as tough as living with a terminal illness. Whatever level of suffering it might be, it was the one thing that Jesus told his disciples both he and them and those that came after would face in one way or another.

Alongside this they were to ensure a change in their lifestyles to that of self-denial, defined as ‘the willingness to deny oneself possessions or status, in order to grow in holiness and commitment to God’. It is an essential part of our Christian life to renounce our egos, where we are the centre of existence (which, lets be honest, goes against our natural inclinations) and recognise instead that Jesus is our true centre.

Carol spoke last week about Peter’s naming of Jesus as the Messiah as a pivotal moment in his story, and we can see that from now on there is a distinct change of mood. Less of the teaching in parables and more about warnings of what lies ahead for him and his followers.

Once again it is Peter who resists the idea of such a thing happening, but even Peter himself was soon to come to understand exactly what was required. The disciples had already showed what it meant to step away from the life that they knew, to go out into a world that is sometimes so diametrically opposite to what Jesus was teaching and to see this through to the bitter end.

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow me. “

The idea of self-denial is, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, that ‘‘When Christ calls a man (and you can substitute woman here), he bids him come and die’. This is the ultimate act of selflessness but through denying ourselves each day, our life in Christ grows, strengthens, and develops more and more. Christ now becomes our life.

So, what does that life look like? Well Paul, in his letter to the Romans outlines what the Christian life might look like with this new way of thinking; a complete contrast to the idea of community put forward by the empire. In the community of Christ, people are called to honour each other, whether they are the wealthiest, highest status members of the group or the lowliest workers and migrants. Love is not to be measured or mechanical, but genuine, joyful and from the heart.

There is to be no more sycophancy and toadying to those more prominent in society in order to get ahead – Uriah Heaps there were to be none! Instead we are to look in completely the opposite direction – to the needs of the poor, offering hospitality, a meal, work if we have it, anything to make people’s lives better. And the streets of Rome could be pretty lawless in those days, so it made sense to align yourself with the Roman ‘mafia’ and give as good as you got. Again, not so says Paul, instead you should offer a blessing to those who persecute you, don’t repay evil for evil, live at peace and leave the wrath to God.

Paul’s way of imagining what self-denial means should be no different nowadays if we are to be part of Christ’s community. It is sometimes a hard path to walk and can lead to personal suffering, and there is no doubt that from time to time, like Christ, we will stumble under the weight of the cross we are being asked to take up. But it is also the only way to life.

The promise is that those who commit themselves totally to Jesus will, one day, see his glory and be welcomed into his kingdom, and if we’re lucky, we may also glimpse his glory in this life as well.

Amen

God’s Attitude Should Be Ours

 

Rainbow Through the Trees

Our attitudes to God and each other should be the same as his attitude to us. A sermon for Evensong based on Jeremiah 7:1-16 and Romans 9:14-26

May I speak and may you hear though the grace of our Lord, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I want us to reflect this evening on our attitude to God and our attitude to each other as Christians. How our differences can be a stumbling block not only to our relationship with God but also to those who see us a stumbling block to any sort of belief in God or the Christian Faith. By ‘us’ I am not necessarily referring to individual Christians here at St James’ church, but a more general broader identity, but it does us no harm to consider what our own attitudes might be in some of these situations.

First though, we have to go back to the pre-Christian ‘church’ where Jeremiah’s radical and hard hitting words proclaim God’s judgement on a nation that believed they were unassailable in their right to God’s protection and salvation. Their interpretation of the scriptures, the laws that protected their faith and their judgement of others was predestined and incontestable. However, they were in for a shock – there was no way that God was going to let them treat the temple in a mindless, shallow way by assuming that forgiveness was automatic simply by walking through the doors.

As Jeremiah stresses quite forcibly – ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord’ – a triple, Trinitarian reminder, that even though Christ was yet to live on earth, that here was Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Here was the simple statement that if you want to be true believers then you have to stop abusing foreigners and the weakest members of society, the easy targets. Neither could you disregard the most basic of commandments nor cherry pick those that have more in common with your way of thinking or lifestyle. If you mistreat your holy places, turning them in to a ‘den of robbers’ – a sentiment echoed by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel – then you should know that God will not protect them, they will be abandoned and eventually destroyed – there was and is no automatic security of God being with you… A self-righteous attitude will not save you.

The people’s disobedience of God’s commandments, brings what would appear be a harsh response and directive to Jeremiah, ‘do not pray for this people, do not raise a cry or prayer on their behalf, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you.’

For the people in Rome, whom Paul was addressing, they were struggling with their identity, attempting to understand what the term ‘Israel’ meant in regard to being chosen people. Paul explains that God hasn’t broken his covenant to original people of Israel, as this was never intended to just apply to the race who shared Abraham’s blood group, but, as he states earlier in his letter as well, those who shared in his faith. Moreover, here was a God who would not be contained by people’s views and attitudes, here was a God who sprung surprises even on the most faithful, choosing Jacob over Esau, demonstrating his sovereign right to do so. Hardening Pharaoh’s heart to highlight his greater power

God does what he wants, as evidenced in the metaphor of the potter’s right to create from the same lump of clay whatever objects he chooses. He has a purpose for of his creations, and the fact that some are chosen and some are not is not the same as pre-destination, this is amazing grace.

God's Amazing Grace

The belief in the omnipotence of the one true God may lead to the conviction that God exerts control over every human action, but God is not only powerful but just.  It is not an injustice to be merciful, to apparently treat some people better than they deserve. To be chosen by God is a gracious gift, not an achievable reward. He can be trusted because he had done what he promised, calling people regardless of their faith; their gender, their sexuality.

We may question why, as Paul says, ‘Will what is moulded say to the one who moulds it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’’. That conversation though is between God and us as individuals, others have no right to ask the same of a person.

There is an arrogant complacency within the Church of England that breaks my heart for it as an institution. An arrogance among Christians today who feed their own theologies into the media, which then labels divisive and exclusive views as representative of all Christians. It is not our job to decide who is unworthy and it certainly isn’t for us to link unworthiness to those who disagree with our theology based on limited fragments of scripture.

John Barton in his commentary, describes God as ‘an untamed deity, a wild thing not reducible to theological formulae.’

As Paul quotes from the prophet Hosea, ‘Those who were not my people I will call “my people”, and her who was not beloved I will call “beloved”. ’ ‘And in the very place where it was said to them, “You are not my people”, there they shall be called children of the living God.’

As Christians, representative of the one, true God we do well to make this our own attitude. Amen

 

Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff?

Don't sweat the small stuff?

Don’t sweat the small stuff?

Readings: James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord: Father, Son and Holy Spirit

There’s an American idiom that you may have heard of, ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’. It’s basically something that might be said to someone in order to tell them not to worry about things that are not important. It’s actually not a bad thing to suggest, because sometimes we worry about getting the small things sorted out and forget to look at the bigger picture. So are the small things unimportant?

The bigger picture as far as Jesus was concerned was teaching people what their attitude needed to be in relation to God, not whether they had dotted the ‘I’s and crossed the ‘T’s on their membership application to the Christian faith.

In this section of Mark’s gospel people are flooding to him – he has just fed the five thousand, had a brief respite in prayer; and then walked out to his disciples in their boat, when they were fighting against an adverse wind, to calm the weather and their fears. On landing he has been immediately recognised and word has spread and people are rushing about the region, bringing to him their sick, begging for and being granted healing.

Now in this passage, the Pharisees and scribes, who had no doubt been sent out from Jerusalem to gather evidence against him are interrupting a well-deserved meal break to tell him that he’s breaking Jewish law by eating with unwashed hands. No wonder he decides to tell them as it really is! ‘Stop sweating the small stuff!’

To the Jews, and in particular the Pharisees, however, the small stuff was important. They believed that, alongside the written Torah, there existed another body of oral laws, interpretations and traditions transmitted by God to Moses orally and then memorised. In fact there are 613 statutes stated in the Halakhah, or Jewish Law, most of which are derived from the Torah’s books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy … never easy reads!… but some are laws that have been enacted by the rabbis, who have interpreted the Torah over time.

A few of them are related to particular groups of people such as the Nazarites, whilst a large proportion of the others relate to sacrifices and offerings which can only be made in the Temple, which no longer exists. There are some that sound rather quaint to our ears, such as ‘not to make a bald spot in mourning’ or ‘not to eat worms found in fruit once they have left the fruit’… presumably it’s okay to eat them whilst they are still in the fruit then! But there are some that are abhorrent… that a rapist must marry his victim if she is unwed and is never allowed to divorce her. Certainly tells us a lot about the status of women if nothing else.

The laws to which Mark was referring to, and which he explained in some detail to his mainly Gentile audience, are part of the Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws concerning kosher foods and its preparation and handling, and were part of a highly complex and developed system of purity regulations. For orthodox Jews even today they throw up problems, such as how you are going to use a dishwasher for both meat and dairy utensils in a kosher home. Still sweating the small stuff!

Kashrut symbols blog

For many modern non-orthodox Jews, however, they believe that the laws of kashrut are simply primitive health regulations that have become obsolete and that the legalistic aspect of traditional Judaism reduces religion to a set of rituals devoid of spirituality, which was not the intention of Halakhah, which can be translated better as ‘the path that one walks’. So they no longer see the need to sweat the small stuff, perhaps having been persuaded by changes in society that these laws are no longer important or relevant to their faith.

However, back in first century Palestine, Jesus points out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, in that by interpreting and applying scripture in this way they are only honouring God with what they say rather than what they do. His kingdom message has nothing to do with how and what you eat, that is not what will stop you becoming pure. Rather the challenge of the gospel is much more a challenge of the heart. He is insisting that good and bad external and physical actions come from internal and spiritual sources, and that it is human motivation that is the real problem.

His list of evil intentions seem full on, and perhaps it is easy for us to glance at the list and feel comfortable with the fact that on the whole we’re fairly sure we haven’t indulged in many of them, especially the biggies like fornication, murder or adultery. Yet can we be quite sure that in some small way we haven’t practiced theft… the pen ‘borrowed’ from work and never taken back; or licentiousness… the extra packets of cakes or food bought which never got eaten and which had to be thrown away; or slander… the sarcastic insult offered veiled with a smile? What about envy, pride or avarice?

Yes, we might say, but that’s only the small stuff… even so, Jesus doesn’t seem to rank them in order of importance; they are all equally said to be possible evil intentions that are present in and come from the human heart.

He also at this stage doesn’t seem to offer a solution as to what we can to do to either avoid or resolve this problem, we are simply left to infer it… of course later on and with our gift of hindsight we do know what the solution will be, through Christ’s ultimate revelation of the kingdom. However, our reading from the letter of James, does give us something concrete to act upon. It tells us that rather than drawing from our hearts those things that make us sordid that we should listen to that part of us that God has already placed within us.

We are to be quick to listen so that we can exercise self-control and know what the right thing to do is; take time to consider what the effect of our words might be on others so that we act with kindness; to be patient so that our actions are those of love rather than hate.

Christians are called to be above reproach and yet we are only too well aware that we so often fall short. But despite this we can’t casually set aside bits of scripture that we don’t like or understand. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to justify our actions because society around us doesn’t seem to worry about the small stuff; that’s how we become tainted by the world.

Yes, we make mistakes and get it wrong… yes we can seek forgiveness… and yes we will be forgiven; but we need to take an honest look at how we behave and change the things that make us follow human traditions rather than being doers of the word.

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets;
I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them’. Matthew 5:17

The important thing is that Jesus came not to set aside the law but to fulfil it. The scriptures were not necessarily irrelevant then or now. They act as signposts to the reality that was Jesus. Everything that they were getting at reached a climax in Jesus Christ, and from then on everything was different. He became the perfect law, the law of liberty. So by keeping his law we can constantly remind ourselves of our relationship with the divine so that it becomes an integral part of our existence.

The Pharisees were more concerned that the rules were followed and that keeping the laws was more important than how people were treated. Jesus was more concerned with how we treat others; that we were love God and our neighbours as ourselves, because on those two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Should we sweat the small stuff?… I’ll let you decide.

Amen

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil' Matthew 5:17

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them’ Matthew 5:17

 

Death, Dying and Bereavement

Death, Dying and Bereavement

Death, Dying and Bereavement

Not the cheeriest subject for this time of year – or any time of the year really, but a weekend’s training, curtailed somewhat into an intensive one-day session due to an outbreak of Norovirus at college, saw us gathering on a very cold and frosty morning in Diocesan Church House, Oxford to contemplate our own and other’s mortality and our responses, as part of our pastoral training.

Having to face death is part and parcel of being a priest; the initial contact to the bereaved, the nuts and bolts of organising a funeral service and the continuing pastoral support to all those affected are skills that can be taught but that can only be developed, unfortunately, through practice, which is always at the expense of someone’s grief.

We may therefore have expertise, but we will never truly be experts. So, hard as we might wish to, we can never honestly say that we know exactly what someone is going through or what they are feeling, as each person’s experience of the death of a loved one is unique. What we can do is to come alongside the bereaved, not shying away because we fear we’ll get it wrong and make things worse, but offering to listen or just to sit in the silence,

Gravestones blogAnd I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away’
Revelation 21:3-4

Accepting the reality of death for many people can be particularly hard and there are many euphemisms that are used to try to alleviate the finality of human life. Phrases such as the deceased having ‘passed away’ or ‘gone into the darkness’. Believing that they’ve ‘become a star’ or ‘gone to a better place, to be with Jesus or Granny’ etc. are all quite commonplace. Humour also features in sayings such as the cockney rhyming slang ‘brown bread’ for dead or ‘sleeping with the fishes’ with it’s undertones of Mafia involvement. It’s also interesting to discover the origin of some of these phrases; for example ‘kicked the bucket’ actually refers to the grotesque history of lynch mobs standing their victims on upturned buckets, which were then kicked away, or the more practical ‘popped their clogs,’ where the Lancastrian meaning of ‘popped’ equates to ‘pawned,’ so that in order to afford the funeral, the deceased’s family would place their clogs in hock until they could afford to redeem them!

However, death is a reality and needs to be faced, and as Christians we have something that offers a unique reassurance – a hope for the future. When we ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’ – a euphemism courtesy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet – we look to Christ’s promise of eternal life. Just how that will look can differ enormously depending on your theology; but one beautifully imaginative description of what this might be comes at the end of C. S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, a book that is often considered an allegory of the Book of Revelation.

And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before

Out of death comes life - tiny cyclamens planted in the graveyard

Out of death comes life – tiny cyclamens in the graveyard

It was also important that we contemplated our own mortality so that we could become aware of our own thoughts and understanding about death because no-one is immune to the physical and emotional aspects of grief. Time spent in reflection enabled us to work through these attitudes in order that we can be better placed in the future to support those who will rely on us doing our ‘job’  both professionally and pastorally.

What is clear in all of this is that when death is not the end of life then death takes on a whole new meaning however it occurs

Death Comes

Death comes out of the shadows,
padding with stealthy footsteps;
like a thief in the night
to steal away life’s breath.

Death comes tumbling on the wind,
choking with gritty determination;
like a sudden desert sandstorm,
to obliterate hope and dreams.

Death comes with iron jaws,
lurking among the undergrowth;
like a hidden gin,
to bind and snare.

Death comes after sentence quashed,
counting the endless days;
like a prisoner of conscience ,
to bring welcome release.

Death comes in the shape of a cross,
sacrificing innocence;
like a lamb led to the slaughter
to redeem and bless humanity.

Grave Flowers blog


Roman Reflections – Supersize Faith

The Altar Canopy or Baldacchino, St Peter's Basilica, Rome

The Altar Canopy or Baldacchino, St Peter’s Basilica, Rome

The first of a series of reflections following a visit to Rome to discover its links with the early Christian church and the church as it is today

As an ecumenical advocate it would be hypocritical of me to censure the joy and devotion inspired in fellow Christians and others when visiting holy landmarks. A visit to the Vatican and in particular St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, however, has led me to reflect on how I would wish to express my own idea of reverence and faith.

As humans we are drawn to those places where the people who are part of our history actually walked and talked and left their mark on the landscape. As part of our veneration of their lives we erect memorials so that future generations will know the exact spot where they too might draw closer to these colossi of faith

Yet the hustle and bustle of thousands of pilgrims rushing from one grandiose monument to another without pause to look at what they are actually snapping through their camera lenses; the papal catacombs in which the human remains of the former bishops of Rome repose amidst the splendour of carved marble reliquaries; and being continuously funneled around those holy objects that offer the best ‘selfie’ opportunities, somehow left me cold and wanting to shout ‘Let’s clear the temple!’

From sky to grave - St Peter's Basilca, Rome

From sky to grave – St Peter’s Basilica, Rome

The Lord is high above all nations and his glory above the heavensPsalm 113:4

Yet, the visit hadn’t started like that. It had actually begun deep underground in the Roman Necropolis directly under the Basilica. Here in the ancient cemetery, originally without the city walls, the brick-built mausoleums, designed to hold the remains of Roman households spoke of reverence. Places where families might occasionally climb up onto the rooves to have a picnic whilst they remembered their departed relatives and loved ones.

Even so, we were still among the glory of the Roman empire, whose prosperity could afford to erect these monuments, whilst the poor and persecuted were buried in pauper’s graves.

Simon Peter was one such as these. After he had met his gruesome death in the Circus of Nero c64AD, his body was laid in the ground and discretely memorialised by the early Christians, many of whom chose to be buried close by. A small ‘trophy’ or physical shrine was erected to mark the grave by the theologian Gaius around the end of the 2nd century and at the beginning of the 4th century the newly converted Emperor Constantine marked the spot with a white marble sarcophagus over which the altar of the basilica was to be built. Now, as then, the open dome of the basilica provides a direct connection from the skies or heavens above, through the baroque grandeur to the simple grave of Christ’s rock and foundation of his church

The dead do not praise the Lord, nor those gone down into silence
Psalm 115:17

I have to admit, that without Pope Pius XI’s desire to be buried as close as was possible to the tomb of St Peter, then these things may have remained undiscovered and maybe they should have. For Simon Peter, the simple fisherman, would surely be turning in his grave, that is if he wasn’t already in heaven, at the way that people have put all their energies into immortalising the saints in stone and precious materials whilst failing to grasp the irony of their riches.

A papal audience with Pope Francis

A papal audience with Pope Francis

Perhaps the latest Bishop of Rome, will continue to lead by example as he sets aside some of this pomp and ceremony and tries to live out his life and ministry close to the people he serves. I do hope and pray so, for all our sakes.

 

Of Being Challenged

We are challenged to look beyond what we know

We are challenged to look beyond what we think we already know

The last few days have been particularly challenging, both in terms of my personal response to events that have happened and reflections on the responses of others to these situations. On the whole the outcome has been positive and hopeful, but this has been at the expense of other’s sorrow and suffering.

Harrowing pictures of the brutal treatment of Christians and Yazidis as they are persecuted for their faith, left me sobbing for the sheer inhumanity of the perpetrators of these violences. The incomprehension that once again genocide rears its ugly head in the name of religious intolerance and I feel powerless…

Yet, the response of many has been to speak out and simply say ‘It’s not right” and that we will do something about it. Whilst I am not in a position to honestly know whether military intervention is part of a solution; I do know that humanitarian airdrops of food and water were the correct immediate response to alleviate some of the suffering. I also know that the emergency appeals by charities such as Christian Aid for donations enable us all to ‘do’ something towards long-term solutions; and of course there is always prayer.

The outpouring of sorrow for all of the unknown and nameless victims of these atrocities has been matched this week by the sorrow and sadness of the passing of one whom we felt we really did know, the actor Robin Williams. His death has brought to our attention the devastating and often silent suffering of those for whom depression is the ‘black dog’ that they have to live with on a daily basis.

Social media sites and newspapers have been full of messages of condolences and self-identification and some, in their genuine sadness and sense of mourning have inadvertently used phrases and ideologies in their expressions of sympathy, that although well-meaning have highlighted a lack of understanding of suicide and depression. I have personally been humbled to reflect on things that are helpful to say and things that are not, and have learned immensely from those who have challenged these unintentional faux pas.

The fact is that sometimes we all need to challenge what isn’t right, and this Sunday I will be preaching on the story of the Syrophoenician woman who dared to speak out and challenge Jesus because she knew in her heart of hearts that he was the one who could heal her child whether she was Jew or a Gentile, simply because of her faith in him

Then Jesus said to her,“O woman, your faith is great – Matthew 15:28

So I will continue to hold all of these situations in my prayers and whenever possible look for ways to challenge both mine and other people’s assumptions, but hopefully to do so in love.

Have faith that all will be well

Have faith that all will be well

If you are living with depression or care for someone who does you may find this helpful – I Had A Black Dog

Coming Out… Into The Light

Does God weep over his creation?

Does God weep over his creation?

Recently, after much prayerful thought I have reached what I believe is a clarity in thinking with regard to something that I have often struggled to express. That is what my stance is, as a Christian and future Minister, towards those, including fellow Christians, who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender men and women

I have often not expressed what my inner heart was telling me, but instead have prevaricated, choosing to be cautious with my public expressions and feeling deeply hypocritical for not speaking out

However, events, both recently within the Church of England and in our world as a whole, have left me with a sense of both shame and despair.

I have struggled to reconcile what I understand to be the most basic tenet of my faith, namely love, and the many interpretations of what that should look like in respect of people whose sexuality differs from my own.

The love that we are called to is quite simple – we are to love God and we are to love each other. For this love to be genuine is indubitable, but in both cases, we have to be wary of discriminating and categorising exactly what this love should look like; how it might be expressed and who may partake of it, whether in long-term relationships, through marriage or through celibacy

I am aware that there are many who look to Scripture and yet only use isolated and often disjointed biblical passages to justify their position and I would affirm that Scripture as a whole contains all truths; but I would have to wonder whether we only worship a God who remains firmly in Old Testament attitudes and early Judaeo-Christian life-styles or a God that lives and is part of the 21st century, with all its challenges, changes and nuances. Has God not accompanied humanity in the last two millennia? Has he not wept and rejoiced, listened and guided? Does he not know what is happening?

Others speak of alternative sexuality as sinful and unforgivable; and again I would be loath to apply this label to what could be considered part of the human condition. Particularly as this is not helpful, especially in light of the message of open-ended grace and forgiveness for all, regardless of any measure of rebellious sinfulness. Who is to say what God does and does not see in us as a whole person – did David (murderer and adulterer) or Jacob (lier and cheat) not receive God’s grace for their devotion to God rather than for what other people judged them by? It is surely our faith that makes the difference

As a professed heterosexual, I cannot begin to say I know what it feels like to have your faith questioned or to be regarded as less worthy because of your sexuality – to know that despite being created in God’s image, that others consider it a tarnished reflection – to have to settle for something less because someone has decided you don’t meet all the ‘criteria’. Yet, I do recognise that the pain and hurt must sometimes be unbearable and for that I willingly offer my support in prayer and in love

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome
but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher,
patient, correcting opponents with gentleness.
God may perhaps grant that they will repent
and come to know the truth
2 Timothy 2:24-25

I know that on reading this, despite my heartfelt attempt to show sensitivity for all concerned, that some Christians will regard what I say as wrong, that they may even regard me in a different light. There will be those who have already made their mind up, who will reject these and other valid arguments completely; and whilst I must respect that decision, whether made on a personal level or as a church directive, at the same time I will be hoping that they too, like many others will be open to a similar journey as mine. When they find that they can no longer sit on the fence or through prayer and soul-searching be ready to admit that when we are called to love as God loves us then we should do so completely and honestly and be ready to treat all equally

Until then may God bless all who love the Lord our God with all their heart, and with all their soul, and with all their strength, and with all their mind; and also their neighbour as themselves. Amen

Brothers and Sisters in Christ

The Public Face of Christian Conflict

Heart blog

‘Love at the heart of faith is visible’

On Monday (20th January 2014) I came up to Ripon College, Cuddesdon to hear Christopher Landau speak on “Who cares what the church is saying? Christian disagreement and the credibility of public theology.”  Christopher is a former student of the college and is presently a curate at St Luke’s, West Kilburn. This interesting lecture was part of the OxCEPT series and gave me pause to reflect further. The following is based on some of the points and ideas that Christopher put forward

Sometimes it’s hard being a Christian. Not because of my beliefs or the way we are called to live our lives (although I so often fall short in many ways). Not because it can feel that what I understand as basic common standards of respect for self and others appear to be being been gradually eroded in our society. Not because I expect anyone to listen to me and instantly recognise that I have all the answers – I don’t!

What is really hard is the ‘face’ of Christianity that the general public gets to see nowadays

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another
John 13:35

If, as a voice in the public domain, we are to be more and more portrayed as nonsensical, irrelevant fools, then maybe we need to consider not only what is being said, but how it is being said. How many times do we cringe when the press pick up the views of individuals with ‘extreme’ theologies and opinions; when they misquote or home in on the more sensational expressions of people’s religion, ignoring the mundane yet essential work carried out by millions of Christians each day in the name of their faith? Yet our own worst enemies may just be ourselves.

I think I should make it clear from the start that we should always be prepared to speak out loudly and clearly against injustices; that we have a duty to expose falsehoods and to stand firm on undeniable principles, but the tone and the way in which we do so needs to come from a deep-rooted love and regard for all those involved – to exercise ‘gracious restraint’ as advocated by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Where better then, to start showing that respect and restraint, but among fellow Christians. I am sure we have all come across situations in our churches where the love of God seems to have been divorced from hearts and minds; being swept aside by petty arguments and disagreements; where it appears acceptable to snipe and carp against our brothers and sisters in Christ; to turn a deaf ear to anything that doesn’t resonate with our personal views. If this is what the outside world sees is happening, then why should they think we have anything relevant to say?

‘Gracious restraint’ should mean that we must not only be prepared to share our own views with each other, but that we should also be prepared to listen; though certainly not to remain silent so that we give the impression that we unquestionably concur, yet all the while dismissing the other as misguided. We need to find arenas where these conversations can take place; to provide room for mutual disagreement; for them to be undertaken using gentleness in speech and manner and to leave space for the Holy Spirit to guide us.

As Christopher pointed out, if we can achieve this at personal and parish levels then we can create a ‘trickle up’ effect and honestly speak as the body of Christ. Perhaps then our words and actions will become more relevant and our public theology more engaging and news-worthy. In this way we will also ensure that ‘love at the heart of faith is visible’

Christian Conflict

Christian Conflict

We Need To Get Out More!

Break Out!

Do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go – Joshua 1:9

Talking to a bright, shiny new ordinand the other day*, I listened as he told me all the wonderful things he’d been up to over the summer break. He’d spent a couple of weeks overseas working with Youth for Christ…. He’d visited his prospective parish and been welcomed during the Sunday services…He’d spent a long weekend at Greenbelt taking part in many worship events and engaging with interesting discussion sessions …. he’d met regularly with his ‘cell’ group and his only regret was that he hadn’t been able to organise a trip to Taizé. Blimey I thought, you’ve managed to pack a lot into your ‘leisure’ time, but I wonder how much time he’d spent just being ‘ordinary’

“If you spend too long in prison you can become institutionalised, and it can be difficult to make that leap of faith over the wall to freedom. This applies to being caught up in church culture too”  Milton Jones ’10 Second Sermons’

Now this wasn’t meant to be a criticism, because dedicating your life to your faith is a noble and sacred thing, but our ministerial and social skills also need to be honed in the ‘real world’ as well. As Christians we can spend a lot of our time being reluctant and occasionally downright scared to talk about our faith with our ‘non-Christian’ friends and acquaintances for fear of being thought obsessive, fanatical and maybe even a little bit weird. We worry that we’ll suddenly become a pariah in the workplace or family.

Greenbelt 2013

Greenbelt 2013

So when opportunities come up to join together with like-minded people, we often jump at the chance to spend more and more time in their company. These are the type of people who will understand us, to whom we feel we can speak openly, whom we are sure will make us feel good.

Of course it’s vital that we do get together to learn and equip ourselves.  It’s great to build each other up by sharing knowledge and wisdom, as it helps us become more able to share that with others; people who may be unaware of what makes us tick or who may be beginning to search for meaning in their lives… or asking what is it all about. In addition we also need to engage more with those who appear to have no intention of listening to our ‘news’ however good we present it. We even need to be prepared to engage with outright hostility

The great thing is that all these engagements can often be achieved without the need for words or at least very few words. One of the turning points in my faith journey was the conscious decision to speak openly about my faith to whoever asked. Note the ‘asked’ not ‘I’ll slip the Jesus word in whether it’s appropriate or not’. Not simply to pontificate on the state of their souls,  but  to say that actually  last Sunday I was in church; to talk about the perceived  ‘absurd’  politics of church organisations; to let people know the underlying reasons why I think what I do

‘Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words’ St Francis of Assisi

I’m pretty certain that I’ve never ‘converted’ anybody in my whole life…in fact I wouldn’t want to claim that at all. What I do hope I’ve done along the way is spoken honestly, acted compassionately and served humbly to enable others to catch a glimpse of why I believe what I believe and maybe then explore it for themselves – if not immediately then at some point in their lives.

Spending a lot of time practicing can make us an ‘expert’ in our subject, but it can also make us very one-dimensional. Of course I can choose to participate in lots of extra-curricular activities like roaring from the terraces of Twickenham, rocking at a Coldplay concert or simply going out for meals with ex-work colleagues. However, the simplest thing is to engage in ordinary conversation with whomever I happen to meet – about the weather; what they’re up to at the moment; what’s important to them right now. This exchange of information gives me an insight into other people’s lives and them an insight into mine

As part of bringing about God’s kingdom our task is to come alongside people – that is ALL people – not just that lovely group of fellow Christians who make us feel warm and fuzzy – but the ones who makes us feel prickly and uncomfortable too. Sometimes we just need to get out more!

*To my fellow trainees at Cuddesdon – he is not one of you!

Where is God on the Streets?

God on the Streets

God on the Streets

As part of your preparations for Ordination training, you are advised to lay some things aside – at least for the duration of your training – and it’s one of the things that I am finding it difficult to decide about. Having spent the last couple of years actively increasing my ministry – I now have to review everything and push to one side the feeling of guilt that some things will have to be relinquished. There is one thing however, that I hope very much to continue with.

As a firm believer that God is not just found in Sunday worship but is found wherever Christians reach out into their communities, my work with the Street Pastors has proved this time and time again. There are also sound theological reasons for doing it as well.

As part of my BAP (Bishops’ Advisory Panel) I was asked to prepare a short reflection and I share it with you now

Where is God on the Streets?

In 2012, Paul Rowlinson, a Street Pastor in Bangor, spoke about the work he and his colleagues were doing. He commented that “Street Pastor’s doesn’t have any particular theological or social standpoint. We are there to offer pastoral care and practical help and to listen to people. We are not out there to preach or anything like that.” As a Southampton Street Pastor, I would generally agree with this overview. However, I would argue that many facets of theological thinking are demonstrated in abundance within the work of Street Pastors.

At its heart, the work is both pastoral and practical.  The people that a Street Pastor meets on patrol are usually at their most vulnerable. The homeless man sitting in a shop doorway, who for one reason or another didn’t get an overnight hostel place, needs a drink of hot chocolate (and maybe a biscuit for his dog) before making his way to the multi-storey car park to find a hidden corner in which he can feel safer than sleeping in the open. The nightclub reveller who, having been thrown out of the establishment which earlier sold her bargain 50p vodka shots, wending her unsteady way barefooted on the glass littered and vomit splattered pavements, needs a pair of flip-flops. The young man slumped down on the frozen floor, and who proceeds to empty the contents of his stomach, not quite over my shoes, needs a space blanket and his face wiped.

Practical theology in practice? Street Pastors see what is going on, know why this is, what ought to be happening and respond to it. As they become better known in the community they gain credibility. People know that the Church is there for them in a practical yet unconditional way. As MP David Burrowes put it Street Pastors is about Christians rolling up their sleeves and getting involved in practically responding to the problems of crime and safety.” God becomes known in our actions; a modern day application of the Good Samaritan parable.

But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. (Luke 10:25-37)

Practical theology answers the how, but what about the why? We should remember that people who become Street Pastors are not there as government employed social workers. They are Christians willing to give their time as part of their mission,  or Missio Dei – ‘sending of God’  and instituted by Jesus, first to his disciples (Matthew 10:1) then to a larger group (Luke 10:1-4, 9) This type of work puts into practice many strands of Mission theology including sociology, communication  and ecumenics.

Coats, caps and rucksacks declaring in ‘Hi Vis’ letters the fact that we are ‘pastors’ – not police – not medics –  prompts the inevitable questions. What is a pastor? Why would you do this? This is our chance to ‘evangelise’ in the gentlest of terms. “We’re from local churches and we’re here to help people; to keep you safe. We do it because we believe we’re called to do it”. Sometimes the discussions go deeper and give people opportunities to explore their own theological wonderings and experiences.  It’s then that the Holy Spirit seems to appear, in these five minute ‘chats’.

Ecumenically, Street Pastors have to be willing to work with fellow Christians in collaborative ways, helping to develop trust, to acknowledge and value difference and to bring about the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church’

Perhaps the most poignant statement I’ve heard was from a slightly tipsy young woman, who declared, “You must hate us!” Her own self-appraisal of society’s apparent need to indulge in these sorts of behaviours and assumption that we would judge people because of that,  simply confirmed the need for our pastoral role and for a wider engagement by the Church in clarifying and spreading its message in this way

Phoning back as each encounter arises, develops and concludes enables the Prayer Pastors to pray ‘into’ the situation, underlining the fact that we are not dependent on our own strengths and skills but need the intercession of Christ and the Grace of God.

What we do as Street Pastors is not dependent on whether it earns us ‘brownie points’ towards eternal rewards; the theology of Grace is that it cannot be earned but is given because God desires us to have it. We often, therefore, have to almost make an unconscious decision to put aside the reason why we are doing what we do so that we can honestly answer,

Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’  (Matthew 25:37-39)

Where is God on the streets? He’s wherever he sends Street Pastors!

References:

http://www.dailypost.co.uk/news/north-wales-news/2012/08/18/street-pastors-helping-bring-peace-to-streets-of-bangor-every-friday-night-55578-31646776/

http://www.streetpastors.co.uk/

Charles Van Engen sums this up in his definition of Mission ‘Mission is the people of God intentionally crossing barriers from church to non-church, faith to non-faith, to proclaim by word and deed the coming of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ’ (1996). Mission on the Way; Issues in Mission Theology