Thursday, 4 July 2019

Walking the Way

(This is the text of my article for the magazine of Well Street United Church - July/Aug 2019 edition)

Are you walking the Way?

Jesus says, ‘I am the Way ….and the truth and the life’ (John 14:6).  

In Spanish, the first part of that phrase reads, ‘Yo soy el camino.’  That the last word of that sentence is in bold may give you a clue to where I am going next!  In September, I am setting off to walk the Way of St James, better known as the Camino de Santiago.  It’s a walk of approximately 500 miles from St Jean Pied-de-Pont in France to Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain. 

You may remember that last year I took a half-sabbatical with the intention of taking the other half not too long after.  It is this other half that I am using to walk the Way.  Why would I want to walk 500 miles, putting my feet, ankles, knees, hips etc through potential agony for up to 25 miles a day?  Broadly speaking, this is how I see my time on the Camino.

First and foremost, it’s a journey with God.  My life as a disciple of Jesus is not only about the destination, but also about walking the way with Jesus.  Before they were called ‘Christians’, the early New Testament believers were known as those ‘who belonged to the Way’ (Acts 9:2).  Santiago is believed by many to be the final resting place of James, the brother of John.  I have no particular belief in that, but over many centuries it has been the reason for millions of pilgrimages along the Way of St James.  For me, that makes the journey at least as holy as the destination. As I walk thousands of steps each day, I aim to listen to God and have fresh encounters with God, just as those two disciples met with and listened to the Risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus.

Second, it’s a journey with the world.  People from all across the globe come to walk the Camino, people of faith, people of no faith, people seeking God.  There is community along the Way, a community of which I am already a part as I follow the current journeys of others via social media.  I’m looking forward to joining it in person, sharing with others and learning from them.  I may not look forward to the shared dormitories at hostels en route (one with over 100 beds in one room!), but falling into step alongside other pilgrims for a few minutes or hours or even days will be good.  Some talk of friends for life being made on the Way.

Third, it’s a journey with myself.   Physically, it’s a bigger challenge than I have ever taken on before.  I’ve done long-distance walks of 200 miles or so, but that was 30 years ago and more! Will my body cope with between 15 & 25 miles walking, day after day?  Emotionally, will I be lonely, separated from my wife for up to a month? How will I manage without home comforts, and carrying very little for the journey?  I recognise that the years I have left on this earth are less than those I have had!  I want to think about how I will make the most of the rest of my life.  

I want to make the most of this journey on the Camino.  That’s why I’ve decided to raise money for Toybox, whose vision is of a just world with no street children.  I’d love to raise £1000 to help!  If you feel led to support, you can do so through my giving page at  Alternatively, there will be a sponsorship form at each of our four churches, and I can forward your gift to Toybox on my return from the Camino. Please see below for more details.

Whether or not you feel able to give, please can I ask for your prayers?  This will be a major challenge for me, and it will be great to know that I have many others walking the Way with me in prayer!

As those on the way say to each other, ‘Buen Camino!’


Walking the Camino de Santiago
(This is the text from my giving page)

On the 3rdSeptember 2019, I’ll be setting off on the walk of a lifetime: around 500 miles on the Camino de Santiago.  I’ll be walking between 15 & 25 miles a day, aiming to finish the journey within 4 weeks with maybe a rest day or two along the way.

I’ve decided to raise money for Toybox, whose mission is ‘changing the world for street children’. One area of their work that really touches me is that of birth registration.  

In areas of poverty few children are registered at birth. Often families turn to the streets for a source of income. As they cannot legally hold a job the cycle continues as a person who does not officially exist cannot officially have children.

Toybox help break this cycle by taking children (and sometimes their parents) through the registration process and giving them an official identity.  

It costs £32 to complete the registration process for one child.  I aim to raise £1000 and make a difference for 32 children. Your donation could help turn one or more street children from ‘non-persons’ to people with dignity and opportunity.

Together we can change their world!

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

'I still haven't found what I'm looking for'

‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’

Chances are you’ll have heard the above lyric and may even be able to hum the tune.  Thirty-one years ago, the song reached number 6 in the UK singles chart and number 1 in the US.  It’s been ubiquitous in radio playlists ever since.

Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr: collectively known as the band ‘U2’, whose album ‘The Joshua Tree’ included this song.   
Image result for joshua tree u2But wait a minute: what do they mean they still haven’t found what they are looking for?  Aren’t they meant to be a Christian band?  Those were the questions circulating among the festival goers of Greenbelt back in 1987.  After all, Bono had announced in U2’s impromptu performance there in 1981, that they came because they felt the Lord was telling them to.  Subsequent songs seemed to back up that status as a Christian band: ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’ with its intent to ‘claim the victory Jesus won’; ‘40’, Bono’s take on Psalm 40; and ‘Pride (In the name of love)’, though more obscure in its references, alluded to Jesus with its line, ‘One man came he to justify’.  For Bono, the band’s usual lyricist, to declare ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’ seemed like a betrayal of the faith.  Many Christian young people – evangelical Christians at least – felt that the band was backsliding. I recall one incensed letter – I think it was to ‘21stCentury Christian’ magazine – that castigated Bono and urged him, in as many words, to pull himself together!

What are we to make of the band’s faith, both then and now?  The truth is that U2 has never set out to be a Christian band.  Rather, they are a band whose music and lyrics are influenced by the Christian faith of three of them.  Adam Clayton is the one band member who has followed more of a typical ‘Rock’n’Roll’ lifestyle, although there are signs these days of his own sympathy for the Christian faith.  Like anyone (like me, anyway) growing into adult years with religious beliefs, they have embraced certainty and doubt at different times, and maybe at the same time.  They have explored faith through music and like many artists, they have left a deliberate ambiguity.  It is not up to the band to tell their fans what to believe, but they provoke and cajole us into thinking about these things.  

For a while, one of the ‘go-to’ speakers for Greenbelt was Revd John Smith, an Australian minister. He hung out with bikers and drank beer, heaven forfend!  He also knew Bono, so that was cool.  At the festival in, it must have been 1987, he spoke of how Bono had visited the day before, disguised as a steward.  That’s by the by.  Smith spoke about the criticism of the song and asked, ‘How many of you have really found what you are looking for?’  Good question!

In any case, it’s unwise to build a case based upon a song title, and that’s what many at the time appear to have done.  ‘Bono still hasn’t found what he’s looking for.  Does that mean he’s no longer a Christian?’  Take a look at these lyrics from the song:

I believe in the Kingdom Come
Then all the colours will bleed into one
Bleed into one.
But yes, I'm still running.

You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross of my shame
Oh my shame, you know I believe it.

But I still haven't found
What I'm looking for.
But I still haven't found
What I'm looking for.

Bono speaks of what theologians call ‘the now and not yet’ of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus Christ came to usher in God’s Kingdom – the now – and much has changed with his coming, for many people.  There is still, however, much brokenness in the world, and in that sense the Kingdom has not yet come.  ‘I believe in the Kingdom come…’

Bono relates what Jesus has done for him, releasing him from shame into a new freedom through the cross. Yet he wants more of God and of God’s Kingdom.  It’s right for him to sing, ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’.  It’s appropriate for me.  I want more of God’s Kingdom.  I want to see broken lives restored, equality for all, peace for all, freedom for all, opportunity for all.  

The music and performances of U2 in the 90’s had the critics continuing to question the faith of the band (more of that in another blog).  Yet the humanitarian actions of Bono (e.g. Jubilee 2000, DATA, Amnesty International) and music of the band since 2000 leaves me no doubt: they still haven’t found what they are looking for!  But they believe that one day they will.  

The band’s music points me back to the Bible and the ‘now and not yet’ of God’s Kingdom.  How am I seeking to make a difference in God’s world?  How am I are a part of the Kingdom coming?  I still haven’t found what I am looking for, but one day I will!

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

U2: From early beginnings to global success

Image result for u2 logo

U2: From early beginnings to global success

I am one of 10000 or so who can say, ‘I was there!’  I was there when an up and coming Irish band named U2 made an impromptu appearance on the main stage at the Greenbelt Festival in August 1981.  As I recall, they had travelled down from the north-east to perform, using borrowed instruments, before returning there for a concert later that evening.  At the time, they were beginning to break through and to be seen as the latest ‘Christian’ band.  The lead singer did nothing to refute that as he told the crowd, ‘We’ve come because we felt the Lord was telling us to.’  Six years later, U2 would be the biggest rock band in the world.

Bono, Edge, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Junior.  These are names known to many, the band line-up at their first gig in late 1976, and still together 42 years later.  Arguably, U2 is still the biggest and best band in the world, with sales approaching 200 million albums.  Unlike certain bands that endure as a tribute act to themselves (for example, the Rolling Stones), U2 continues to reinvent their music and to have things to say.  

What are the factors that have contributed to the success and influence of U2?  I am currently part way through some sabbatical reading on the band, but these are some brief thoughts thus far:

1.     Time and place.  The band members met at Mount Temple School in Dublin.  Neil McCormick, a journalist and contemporary at the school, suggests that 1970’s Dublin was a city that lacked exposure to the wider world. This meant that U2 did not have many examples to follow, good or bad.  They could create in their own way.
2.    The school itself.  Mount Temple was unique in Ireland as a non-denominational school.  It encouraged freedom of thought and expression.  Bono (Paul Hewson) formed a childhood gang called Lypton Village, that gave him his nickname and allowed him space to develop an identity in what was very much a creative community.  Not only did it contribute to the formation of U2, but also the less-heralded and experimental band, the Virgin Prunes.  Dik Evans, brother of the Edge, was a founder member, along with Gavin Friday and Guggi (their Lypton Village names).
3.    Loss. Tragically, Bono’s mother died when he was only 14.  She collapsed at the funeral of her father, having suffered a brain haemorrhage, and never recovered.  This loss is often referenced in Bono’s lyrics (he is the primary lyricist for U2), from  the early hit ‘I will follow’ (‘The boy tries hard to be a man, his mother takes him by the hand’) to ‘Iris’ (on ‘Songs of Innocence’).  It fuels the rage that he sometimes feels at the world.  Larry Mullen, the band’s drummer, also lost his mother in a road traffic accident, when he was almost 17, having also lost his oldest sister in 1973.
4.    Christian faith. Bono, Edge and Larry have all embraced a Christian faith from teenage years.  Adam has tended to follow a more ‘rock and roll’ path!  Mount Temple underwent something of a religious revival for a time with many pupils making commitments to Christ.  The three Christian members of U2 became part of a Charismatic church called the Shalom Fellowship, which was a huge influence in their faith development.
5.    Leaving the Shalom Fellowship.  As the band gained some success, they came under pressure to give it up for the Lord. Apparently, there was a prophetic word from a member of the fellowship that they do so, and for about two weeks, Edge left the band.  He returned having decided that their music and their faith was compatible.  The band members gradually loosened ties to the fellowship and pursued their faith in other ways.
6.    Success in America.  Even before their career began to flourish in the British Isles, U2 sought to ‘break’ America.  That the strategy was spectacularly successful can be seen the sale of over 10 million copies of the 1987 album, the Joshua Tree, in the US alone.  That success continues to this day.
7.    A commitment to social activism.  In 1988, Bono said: ‘To me, faith in Jesus Christ that is not aligned to social justice – that is not aligned with the poor – it’s nothing’ (quoted by Steve Stockman p 53, in his book ‘Walk On’).  That commitment is exemplified in his work for Amnesty International, persuasion of world leaders to ‘Drop the Debt’ in developing world countries, and the fight against AIDS.

You may already have stopped reading.  I’ll stop here for now!

Watch this space for thoughts on the continuing influences on U2’s lyrics and particularly that of the Christian faith.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Good Friday Reflection

Good Friday Reflection

I didn’t know what I was doing, really.  I just got caught up in the excitement of the occasion!  I heard them coming, and I went out to see what the commotion was.  A melee of people, moving down the Mount of Olives, a buzz of constant shouting in the distance, not in anger but in…joy.  Others joined me to see what the fuss was, and before we knew it we were a crowd, waiting for this other crowd.  As they drew near, moving through the valley and up the slope towards Jerusalem, I saw him – a man, riding on a donkey.  Nothing unusual about that.  What was unusual is what the crowd were doing.  They were pulling down tree branches and spreading them before him.  They were taking off their cloaks and throwing them in front of him and his donkey.

We lined the roadside, as if a King were passing by!  Maybe one was, because the crowd that came with him kept shouting: ‘Hosanna to the son of David!  Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in highest heaven!’

As I said, I didn’t know what I was doing, but before I knew it I was shouting aloud too: ‘Hosanna, hosanna to the Son of David.  Hosanna to the King!’  That’s what you do, isn’t it?  You go along with a crowd.  You join in.  So I did.  Even before we knew who it was, we were shouting.  Before the crowd that went with him told us it was Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth, a man whose reputation for doing remarkable things goes before him, we were yelling out.  And we wondered, some of us, whether he really could be the one promised by the prophets of old?  Could he be Messiah?  Then, I more or less forgot about it – until this morning.

Again, I didn’t really know what I was doing.  We were gathered outside the palace of the governor, Pilate.  He was giving us the choice between two prisoners – one would be released and one would be executed.  To my amazement, one of them was Jesus, and he already looked in a bad way.  And Pilate asked us which one he should release.  The crowd roared back, ‘Free Barrabas, free Barrabas.’  That went on for some time.  When the noise died down, he asked, ‘What do I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?’  The crowd shouted louder than ever: ‘Crucify him, crucify him!’  I was aghast – even more so when I heard myself going along with the crowd, shouting: ‘Crucify him, crucify him!’

And now they have.  Now we have.  Now I have.  As I said, I didn’t really know what I was doing.  Now I find myself looking at the cross, the dead body of Jesus upon it, wondering, ‘What have I done?’

The thing is, he gasped out a few words as he hung there, dying.  ‘Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.’  Did I know?  I just went along with the crowd.  I didn’t mean for a man to die, not this man!  Could God really forgive me?

As the end drew near, and his agony increased, he cried out, ‘Eloi, eloi, lama, sabachthani.’  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’  It was agony watching, hearing, never mind the agony of being on the cross.  And I wondered how could God let him die like this?

Finally, he spoke his last: ‘It is finished.’  Then he breathed his last.

Now I stand here wondering.  Is it finished?  Is it finished for Jesus?  Is it finished for me?

Or is it only just beginning?

Buckingham Parish Church
30th March 2018

Saturday, 3 October 2015

25 Dreams for Well Street United Church

This is a copy of my article for our church's October magazine.

Whilst studying for ministry, and for a number of years after, I had a quote from George Bernard Shaw on my office wall:

‘You see things and you say “Why?”  But I dream things that never were and I say “Why not?”’

I believe that both of these positions are valid.  We need people in life and in our church who ask “Why?”  Why are things the way they are?  We also need people who dream of things being different and who ask, “Why not?”  Why can’t this dream become a reality? 

I doubt that anything has ever changed for the better without someone having a dream that things could be different.  History is full of examples.  One such person is, of course, Martin Luther King with his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech.  King looked out on the injustice of racial segregation and he dreamt of a better future where all human beings are equal.  Today, it is much better although there is a long way to go.

I would not put myself in the company of Martin Luther King, but in the past week I have been moved to dream some dreams for our church.  After just over a year as your minister, I have had a good look at our church with all of its strengths and weaknesses.  There are many great things about our church, and there are areas in which we could do better!  Maybe you will have more dreams to add, but here are my ’25 Dreams for Well Street United Church’. 

·      I dream of a church that is putting the King at the heart of Buckingham
·      I dream of a church in which Christ is at the centre of all we do and are
·      I dream of a church ‘without walls’ in which the world is welcome in the church, and our church goes out into the world with the Good News
·      I dream of a church that opens itself to the challenge of God’s Word in the Bible
·      I dream of a church in which we are all FTCWs (Full-time Christian workers) taking our faith seriously in the workplace
·      I dream of a church in which we live up to the ‘United’ part of our name
·      I dream of a church that realises we are better together
·      I dream of a church in which we respect the rights of others in the church to hold different views to our own
·      I dream of a church in which we are always seeking to encourage one another
·      I dream of a church in which we know how to have fun together
·      I dream of a church that treasures all people from the very young to the very old and encourages them on the journey of faith and discipleship
·      I dream of a church in which our children and young people are not just the church of tomorrow, but the church of today
·      I dream of a church in which our older people are not just the church of yesterday, but the church of today
·      I dream of our children and young people growing into people of faith who want to change the world
·      I dream of a new church building that is a hub of community life in its locality and for our town: a place that is ‘owned’ by people as their church, even if Sunday worship is not what they do
·      I dream of our church being in the marketplace in Buckingham on a Saturday morning, sharing our faith in creative ways
·      I dream of our church being present on the Town Council, on school governing bodies and the like, bringing a Christian influence
·      I dream of God’s Spirit being so powerfully present in our worship that questions of style are not an issue
·      I dream of a church in which worship is both a Sunday and a Monday to Saturday activity
·      I dream of a church that treasures its non-conformist tradition in which we are agents for transformation in the world
·      I dream of a church in which we put what others need before what we want
·      I dream of a church known throughout the area as one that cares for all, but especially for the last, the least and the lost
·      I dream of a church that is both local and global in its impact
·      I dream of a church that is passionate about growing the Kingdom of God rather than its own empire
·      I dream of a church that is truly putting the King at the heart of Buc­kingham!

On the Day of Pentecost as related in Acts 2, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel:

‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.  Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.’ (Acts 2:17)

I guess the above makes me an old man!  Yet the important thing here is that prophecy, visions and dreams are all signs of the Spirit.  I believe that some of my dreams are already a reality at Well Street and in our Methodist chapels.  For all of these dreams, I want to say ‘Why not?’

My question for you is ‘Will you dream these dreams with me, and help them become a reality?’