Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Aim High!

This is a copy of my church magazine article for January 2012

What a year it has been! In our church, we began as we usually do with our motto for the year:

‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.’ (Psalm 119:105)

From there, we launched out into the Essential 100 readings from the Bible, which led us into 20 Sunday sermons and weekday small group studies. If you shared the journey with us, I hope that you feel both better informed and increasingly inspired by the Word of God! I encourage you to go on reading the Bible regularly, for it is foundational to our faith.

What about our motto for 2012? In this year when the Olympic Games is coming to London, we (that is the deacons and myself) thought it would be good to develop that theme. The Games were familiar to members of the early Church, and the apostle Paul often drew upon the world of the games for inspiration. Here, then, is the verse we have chosen:

‘I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 3:14).

Paul is picturing the athlete in a race, never looking back but always looking forward. The moment that the athlete looks over her shoulder, she is likely to be beaten. The more she looks and strains towards the finish line, the more likely she is to win.

This is a scene we may return to many times in the coming year, as we look towards all that God has for us to be and do. We need to press on in everything to which God calls us, treasuring the past but never wanting to return to it, looking towards the glorious future that God has prepared for his people.

May God bless us all in 2012, as we run the race and keep the faith!

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Politically Correct Santa!

I received this today and thought it worth sharing. Enjoy!

'Twas the night before Christmas and Santa's a wreck...
How to live in a world that's politically correct?
His workers no longer would answer to "Elves",
"Vertically Challenged" they were calling themselves.
And labour conditions at the North Pole
Were alleged by the union to stifle the soul.
Four reindeer had vanished, without much propriety,
Released to the wilds by the Humane Society.
And equal employment had made it quite clear
That Santa had better not use just reindeer.
So Dancer and Donner, Comet and Cupid,
Were replaced with 4 pigs, and you know that looked stupid!
The runners had been removed from his sleigh;
The ruts were termed dangerous by the C.A.A.
And people had started to call for the cops
When they heard sled noises on their rooftops.
Second-hand smoke from his pipe had his workers quite frightened.
His fur trimmed red suit was called "Unenlightened."
And to show you the strangeness of life's ebbs and flows:
Rudolf was suing over unauthorized use of his nose.
So, half of the reindeer were gone; and his wife,
Who suddenly said she'd enough of this life,
Joined a self-help group, packed, and left in a whiz,
Demanding from now on her title was Ms.
And as for the gifts, why, he'd never a notion
That making a choice could cause so much commotion.
Nothing of leather, nothing of fur,
Which meant nothing for him. And nothing for her.
Nothing that might be construed to pollute.
Nothing to aim. Nothing to shoot.
Nothing that clamoured or made lots of noise.
Nothing for just girls. Or just for the boys.
Nothing that claimed to be gender specific.
Nothing that's warlike or non-pacific.
No candy or sweets...they were bad for the tooth.
Nothing that seemed to embellish a truth.
And fairy tales, while not yet forbidden,
Were like Ken and Barbie, better off hidden.
For they raised the hackles of those psychological
Who claimed the only good gift was one ecological.
Dolls were said to be sexist, and should be passé;
And Nintendo would rot your entire brain away.
So Santa just stood there, dishevelled, perplexed;
He just could not figure out what to do next.
He tried to be merry, tried to be gay,
But you've got to be careful with that word today.
His sack was quite empty, limp to the ground;
Nothing fully acceptable was to be found.
Something special was needed, a gift that he might
Give to all without angering the left or the right.
A gift that would satisfy, with no indecision,
Each group of people, every religion;
Every ethnicity, every hue,
Everyone, everywhere...even YOU.
So here is that gift, it's price beyond worth...
"May you and your loved ones enjoy peace on earth."

Friday, 25 November 2011

Just Christmas?

This is a copy of my December article for our church magazine.

By the time you read this missive, the whole country will be in a state of fervour. The shops will be milling with people, decorations and trees will be going up in homes and offices, parties will be taking place, gifts will be bought and many people will be longing for a holiday. I am tempted to say, ‘For goodness sake, it’s just Christmas!’

Interesting word, ‘just’! At one level, it means ‘merely’, ‘only’ or ‘insignificant’. At this level, it’s a word that we overuse. ‘I was just saying ….’ At another level, just means what is fair, equitable, right and proper, and it is highly significant. The courts of our land administer ‘justice’, mediating between what is right and what is wrong. At this level, it may be a word that we underuse or in which we fail to appreciate the whole meaning.

Can we use either meaning of ‘just’ as a description of Christmas?

I think our celebration of the birth of Christ is the most important date on the Christian calendar. Some might argue that it is Easter, but without the birth of Christ there would be no death or resurrection. Christmas is not insignificant. It is not ‘just’ Christmas, it is the time when we celebrate the humble but glorious coming of our God, in human flesh, to be Saviour to the world.

What about a just Christmas? In our nation, the season tends to heighten the divide between the haves and the have-nots, and may pressurise the have-nots into buying gifts that they cannot afford for people who may need them, whilst the haves buy gifts they can afford for those who don’t need or want them! Is this just? Is it the right use of the resources that God graciously allows us to have? Or do we buy into the spirit of the age which is consumerism?

One church, Morningside Baptist Church, Edinburgh, has begun a ‘Just Christmas’ campaign. The idea is to think about Christmas differently, and maybe to spend just half of what you normally do on Christmas gifts and food. Since you would normally have spent the other half, too, you won’t miss it by giving it to BMS World Mission, Christian Aid or a similar mission or aid agency!

Food for thought? Maybe you will want to think differently about Christmas. It is not just Christmas, but it could be a Just Christmas!

Whatever you do, may you know joy in the Saviour Jesus Christ!

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Character and Reputation

I came across this quote recently, from basketball coach John Wooden;

'Be more concerned with your character than your reputation. Your character is what you really are while your reputation is merely what others think you are.'

'Nough said!

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Remembrance Sunday

It is days like Remembrance Sunday which remind me that people still have a need for God!

This year, I widened our church service into a remembrance for all who have loved and lost - in other words, all of us. Having taken quite a few funerals in the past couple of years (for a Baptist, anyway!), I invited the relatives to come back to church for the occasion. About a dozen extra folk came along, which was great. A few backed out at the last moment because the grief, for them, was too raw.

We reflected on the nature of loss and the hope of resurrection, making sure that the service was as user-friendly as possible to a group of people who were not used to church. We concluded our service with an opportunity for people to come and light a candle for those they have loved and lost. About half of the congregation came out to do so, including those who were specially invited.

It was a moving way to remember that we all experience loss, and that God grieves with us whilst holding out the hope of life to come.

Friday, 11 November 2011

66 Books in 66 Cities in 66 Days!

As most church pastors would testify, you never know what might happen on a given day. We might have plans, and the day mapped out, but God can change them.

Yesterday was such a day! I've had a busy fortnight and the plans for yesterday were for an early meeting, some sermon preparation, lunch at the church with our seniors, a committal followed by a thanksgiving service for a church member, evensong at the Cathedral where one of my deacons was being installed as an honorary ecumenical canon, followed by supper at the deacon's home. All of those things happened, except the sermon preparation!

Out of the blue, I had a phone call. My church administrator had tried to emphasise my busy-ness and put off the caller, but he described it as being 'fairly urgent'. And so I found myself talking with Pastor Victor Robert Farrell. He was, he said, on the 66 Cities Tour, speaking about one of the 66 books of the Bible at each city in one way or another. Our city was Day 61! Could we meet?

I have to admit it was a 'heart-sink' moment as I saw my preparation time drifting away! However, I agreed to the meeting, and I'm so glad that I did! VR, or Robert, as he is known, turned out to be a real live-wire. God moves in mysterious ways, and since our Seniors' Lunch was happening, I was able to offer lunch and chat with Robert at the same time. He asked pertinent and insightful questions about the challenges facing our city and our church, and then shared from Book 61 of the Bible with our Seniors' group for no more than 5 minutes, in a lively and inspirational way. I also put Robert in touch with our BU President-Elect, Chris Duffett, who happens to be in the city on most Thursdays, and who had followed the tour on Facebook.

I confess that I had neither heard of Robert nor the 66 Cities tour, but you can read about them here and here.

Today has gone more as planned, and the sermons are well on the way - thankfully!

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Clergy Losing Faith

Clergy losing their faith is nothing new. They are people, and some people lose their faith. It may come about through personal or public tragedy, although such circumstances also serve to cement faith and strengthen it in many. It may happen through a general drift away from belief over time. It may occur because faith has become confused with the excitement of ‘significant times’ of ministry, and when those times are over the individual discovers that there is nothing left. Loss of faith is sad, but it happens.

The e-News sweep that came my way yesterday contained a link to news of a support group for clergy who have lost their faith. As always, it seems, there is a link to ‘high priest’ of atheism, Richard Dawkins. It is reported that:

‘The Clergy Project has grown to nearly 100 members since the launch of a private, invitation only, website in March. The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason and the Freedom From Religion Foundation have now made the project public in hopes of drawing more pastors, priests, rabbis and other religious leaders who have chosen to "move beyond faith."

“We know there must be thousands of clergy out there who have secretly abandoned their faith but have nowhere to turn,” Dan Barker, a former evangelical preacher who now serves as co-president of FFRF, said in a statement Friday.

“Now they do have a place to meet, a true sanctuary, a congregation of those of us who have replaced faith and dogma with reason and human well-being.”’

I’m sure it is true that clergy are reluctant to own up to doubt within their church and denomination, for fear that it may lead to loss of their livelihood. It may also be true that denominational hierarchies (and if you are a Baptist, ‘lower-archies’!) don’t know what to do with doubting clergy. How do we support those clergy who are struggling with faith and wrestling with doubt? Is there a space where we can be open and honest and go through our ‘long dark night of the soul’? Answers below, please ….

I am a little amused that the Clergy Project is speaking of itself in pseudo-Christian terms: ‘a place to meet ….true sanctuary ….a congregation.’ Is it that they realize the church has something to offer which they do not? I also reflect on the fact that the church has always provided a place for doubting atheists to come and find faith in Christ.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if one of them were Richard Dawkins?

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Austrian Hits!

Today, I arrived back from a day retreat to discover that my blog has had 42 hits, 41 of which were from Austria at around 3pm! Intriguing.

Anyone like to own up? :-)

Monday, 10 October 2011

Mr Holland's Opus

Recently, I was introduced to the 1995 film, 'Mr Holland's Opus', starring Richard Dreyfuss.

Mr Holland is a musician and composer. He dreams of composing music that will be performed to many. Like many in his field, he takes his teaching certificate as a 'fall-back' in case the composing doesn't pay. In the film, we see him as a young newly-married man, who takes a teaching job in a high school. With his income, and his wife's, in four years he will be able to give up teaching and concentrate on composition. That is what he really wants to do.

It doesn't happen! Mr Holland teaches, grudgingly at first, trying to draw out a little talent from a lack-lustre collection of music students. As time goes by, he becomes loved by the students for bringing out their potential, but still he dreams of being a famous composer.

Mr Holland's teaching career is brought to a close, age 60, by budget cuts at his school. Now, he protests at the lack of options for the pupils at the school, but to no avail. He thinks he has achieved nothing of what he should have, as he wanders through the school a final time. Hearing a noise from the school assembly hall, he opens the door to find out what it is, and is greeted by enthusiastic applause. Pupils, past and present, are there to say thank you and wish him farewell. The Chair of the Governing body gives a speech. She tells the audience that he is not famous, and he has dreamed of being somewhere else. Then, stirringly, she says to Mr Holland:

'Look around you. We are the notes of your symphony!'

It's good to have hopes and dreams. Yet I wonder how many of us spend much of our lives wishing that we were somewhere else, when all along we are in the right place? Perhaps our impact where we are, is greater than our impact would be if we were where we wanted to be? Maybe, when we meet our Maker, God will rewind the film of our lives and say to us, 'These people you served, these situations you battled through, these times when you thought you had achieved nothing - these are the notes of your symphony!'

Friday, 7 October 2011

Tell them that they are loved

At my Baptist Ministers' Refresher Conference last week, Jeannie Kendall, one of the speakers, told of how she asked friends via Facebook, what she should say to us.

One reply in particular stays with me:

'Tell them that they are loved, because ministers need to hear that too.'

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Lessons from Steve Jobs

Following the sad and early death of Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, there are a couple of quotes being shared that are worth repeating here:
  • "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "no" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something."whenever the answer has been “No” for too many row,hange something.”
  • "Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me; Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful, now that’s what matters to me."
Inspiring words! RIP Steve Jobs. And for the rest of us, carpe diem!

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Back to Church Sunday

There are various blogs going around at the moment on the success - or otherwise - of Back to Church Sunday. Some of them are of the 'we tried it and it didn't work' variety - as if B2CS is the panacea that the church needs to get it back on its feet. Others are of the 'we didn't think it would work, so we didn't try it' variety.

I guess it depends on context! In my church, we tried it as 'Back to Church Sunday' and it didn't really work. The suggestion was that if people were once part of a church, they would quite likely be open to an invitation to return (thus, some of the blogs about the gap being too big between church and the unchurched miss the point - B2CS was originally aimed at the 'ex-churched'). One or two responded and came to our church, but most of the invitations met a blank. The second year, we aimed at those who are un-churched but with whom we had friendship. About 12 extras came along, swelling our normal congregation by around 10%. That's more guests than normally come along, so I think that makes it a success. This year, the Baptist Union branded the day as the 'Big Welcome' and aimed, I think, more specifically at the unchurched. We had about 8 extras come in response to specific invitations, and few more visitors who happened to be there. Again, the strategy could be seen as successful and the service and sermon ideas that were provided worked well.

Juliet Kilpin has written an thought-provoking blog which you can read here. I agree with much of what she says, and particularly resonate with her question 'Why aren't we inviting people to church anyway?' The reasons she gives are:
  1. Lack of confidence in the church i.e. our congregations don't feel that their friends will relate to or like what goes on during a Sunday service
  2. Over-churched i.e. Christians don't get out much, spending so much time on church things that we don't have un-churched friends to invite.
  3. Churchless faith - for many the gap between where they are and church is too great to cross. They may encounter God in a different setting e.g. a different expression of church
For me, these aren't reasons not to observe the 'Big Welcome' or B2CS or whatever you want to call it, but we need to be better at what we do. For many churches, particularly those of a more traditional nature, the impetus of a national campaign (which could include Alpha, Christianity Explored etc) is what we need to encourage us to invite others. It encourages us to audit our welcome, our service content, our user-friendliness etc and that can be no bad thing. Of course, our mission strategy shouldn't stop there, but it might just start something!

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Church at its best!

It seems to me that a church is at its best when it learns to have fun together! That's what my church has been doing this weekend.

Yesterday evening was our Harvest Supper, back again this year after its successful comeback last year. Around 100 people crammed into the church hall, for bangers and mash, and entertainment. The latter was mainly musical, including four excellent new worship songs written by one of the newer members of our congregation.

Today, we used the Operation Agri material for our all age Harvest Celebration. The children played their part, I missed my cue to finish off their presentation and we sang songs in English, Portugese and Karen. It was fun, but more importantly we were challenged as to how much we love: God, others and ourselves. And people around the world will benefit through the giving to Operation Agri!

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Reflections on Refresher Conference

Well, that wasn't bad at all! The Ministry Refresher Conference, I mean.

I've now been in Baptist ministry for 15 years, and since the conference was around 10 years ago, this was my second such event. Five years ago, things seemed a bit dry and formal. This time, the Holy Spirit seemed to get more of a look in. Either I've changed, or the conference has, or more likely both!

So, what happened? Here's the brief summary:
  • Jeannie Kendall, one of the ministers at Carshalton Beeches Free Church (where, by coincidence, my Grandad ministered for around 29 years, and my mum grew up), shared movingly from her experience of pastoral ministry.
  • Paul Goodliff gave two masterful bible studies using paintings from Piero della Francesca and Caravaggio. I am a complete Philistine when it comes to art, but was entranced by the explanations and meanings of the pictures.
  • David Coffey gave a fascinating account of 'Listening to the Voices of the World Church'.
  • Jonathan Edwards preached as passionately as ever during our closing communion service.
  • And yes, the class of '93-96 (ie my year at college) managed to find time to share and pray together.
Baptist ministers among my readers will know the names above. To the rest, I point out that it was not the retired triple-jumper preaching at our communion service (now that would have been a turn-up for the books!).

Monday, 26 September 2011

Ministry Refresher Conference

Later today, I will be heading off to the Hayes at Swanwick, for a five-yearly Refresher Conference. This is an event put on by the Baptist Union of Great Britain to - well, yes - refresh and encourage Baptist ministers in their journey.

Will the conference achieve its objective? I'll let you know when I return. As ever with these things, I expect that the most useful bits will be catching up with friends in the bar, and playing golf with one of them during the free time on Tuesday afternoon.

Five years ago, I found the most moving part of the conference to be praying with my contemporaries from college. There were seven of us in my year (after one dropped out at the end of the first year). Unusually, all of us were still ministering in Baptist churches then, and all of us still are. We must have done something right!

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Long live the Book!

Once again, Jonathan Sacks has given me pause for thought (see Jonathan Sacks and the Bible). This time, it is through quoting Caitlin Moran in today's Times. In a Times Magazine article dated 13 August 2011, she wrote about libraries:
'Libraries are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination.'

I must confess that I missed Moran's original article, but what a beautiful turn of phrase. My thoughts turn to that most mobile of libraries, apart from the Kindle: the Bible. Sixty-six books of history, law, prophecy, poetry, wisdom, biography, story, letter-writing and gospel. Does Moran's quote work if you substitute 'bibles' for 'cathedrals of the mind'? I think it does!

  • The Bible is a cathedral of the mind. As we read it, it expands our horizons. We can be lifted in praise and worship through its pages, 'to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple' (Psalm 27:4). We can be challenged to examine our own preconceptions and to ask whether God is saying something else?
  • The Bible is a hospital of the soul. Many are the times when the reading of it has reassured believers in their doubt, and soothed the hearts of seekers. The Bible reveals the living God who brings forgiveness and healing to those that seek.
  • The Bible is a theme park of the imagination. I love this idea! So often, Christians use the Bible as a book of rules, and drily quote chapter and verse from its pages. That seems to reduce it to the level of mere printed text. Surely, a book such as Revelation was given not so much as predictive prophecy, but more to stimulate the imagination as to how the world (and the new heaven and new earth) might be when lived in the knowledge of the presence of the Risen Christ?
I can see this blog entry becoming a sermon, or even a series, in my own church. For now, I'll close with another quote, this time from Isaac Bashevis Singer, also used today by Sacks:

'God is a writer and we are his co-authors.'

May God write us all into his book, and may we write with him!

Friday, 23 September 2011

Top Ten Tips for Welcome

At my church, we are participating in the 'Big Welcome' next Sunday, 25th September. It's a special opportunity to invite along friends and family who would not normally go to church. It also provides a reason to evaluate how good our welcome is to those who visit us.

The Top Ten Tips for Welcome have been circulated to Baptist churches via a six minute video, which you can watch here. Below is a summary of the tips:

  1. Don't let people struggle to find you
  2. Make sure what you offer is relevant
  3. Know why you go to church
  4. Know that hospitality is your duty
  5. Know how well your church is doing
  6. Don't accept 2nd best - coach and train people to give a welcome
  7. Know what is expected of you
  8. Know the difference between 'greeting' and 'welcoming'
  9. Apply the 3-Minute rule. Talk to someone you don't know for at least three minutes, before you talk to those you already know.
  10. Decide what needs to be done.
It's all practical commonsense, but it's good to be reminded. Hopefully, we will get it right and give a big warm welcome!

Monday, 19 September 2011

An Alternative Harvest?

This is a copy of my church magazine article for October

In Psalm 65, the writer says to God: ‘You care for the land and water it; you enrich it abundantly. The streams of God are filled with water to provide the people with corn, for so you have ordained it ….you crown the year with your bounty…’

This is the time of year in which traditionally, we thank God for the harvest. We bring offerings of produce from the land and display them in our church building. We sing traditional hymns such as ‘We plough the fields and scatter, the good seed on the land’. We make an offering to help bring a harvest in another part of the world.

I love to do all of these things, but I wonder if the time has come to ring the changes? Personally, I have never ploughed the fields nor scattered seed in them. I do not regularly work the land and what I have tried to grow in the garden has rarely come to much. The supermarket where I buy produce (OK, usually where my wife buys it!) seems remote from the fields that are celebrated at harvest time.

Of course, I know that God provides for us, but it is rarely through our own sowing and reaping of crops. We work in churches, schools, hospitals, factories, shops, offices and the like. It seems strange to bring an offering at harvest time of things that we did not produce. Perhaps we should bring an offering of something that symbolizes what we do, through which we gain an income and by which the Lord provides? So the office worker might bring a piece of office equipment, the shop worker might bring a shopping basket, the factory worker might bring a product made (if practical), the doctor might bring a stethoscope, the teacher might bring a lesson plan and, yes, the minister might even bring a sermon! The retired person and the unemployed might bring a symbol of the ways in which they are able to serve. The children might bring an example of something they like to do – a story or a painting, perhaps. We can bring these as a reminder of the gifts and jobs that God has given us, and be reminded that we are called to offer them and ourselves back to Him. We can remember that this is our produce that provides for us the things that we need.

God is so good to us, and provides for us all that we need! Of course, I think we should still bring offerings of fruit and vegetables as signs of his providence. It’s just that I think there is so much more that we could and should bring in thanksgiving to Him.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Sharing Fame with the Vicar of Dibley!

OK. So I’m not at woman! I’m 6”4 rather than 5” nothing. I’m not a vicar but a Baptist minister. But like Geraldine Granger, I am a media star!

Yes, reader, the whole of page 98 of the April edition of Today’s Golfer is devoted to me! Actually, I’ve only just found out it was in there, but the photo is the evidence. Back in January, I responded to an offer which came via my golf club to a golfing clinic at Today’s golfer, which just happens to be in the city where I live and about two minutes from my home. Basically, I got a free half-hour lesson, picked up some useful tips from an ‘elite’ golf coach, and was photographed for the magazine. As if that wasn’t enough, my media career has continued. Singing with Lesley Garrett in July, and recording some jingles for TalkSport with the Male Voice Choir in August.

I remember Geraldine becoming rather too full of herself after her radio career took off. That’s unlikely to happen to me – unless, of course, Songs of Praise comes calling!

Monday, 12 September 2011

Fruit of the Spirit

I've just finished a sermon series in my church on the Fruit of the Spirit. You may well know that, 'the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law' (Galatians 5:22-23).

It never hurts to bribe a congregation with food, nor to give them an aid to memory, so each week I gave them a piece or more of fruit! I won't explain them all, but I wonder what you would have chosen for each characteristic of the fruit of the Spirit. Here are my choices:
  • Love - Strawberries
  • Joy - Mango
  • Peace - Olives
  • Patience - Oranges
  • Kindness - Apples (Granny Smith's because Granny's are kind!)
  • Goodness - Banana
  • Faithfulness - Blackberries
  • Gentleness - Peach
  • Self-Control - Fruit Salad (a final CafeStyle worship, with many temptations requiring self-control!)
So that is the fruit of the Spirit! Now, surely there is a reference in the Bible to chocolate that I can use?

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Breakdown Cover

So, should I swallow my pride and renew my breakdown cover with Aviva (see 'Appalling Service from Aviva' )?

In the next year, I am likely to be taking my car to Europe on two occasions, and the fact is that their quote is seriously cheaper than AA/RAC/Green Flag and even than their own cover via my Aviva car insurance policy (curiously, it would cost another £50 that way!). Money is money! And surely, I think, the service cannot be as bad if I am unfortunate enough to break down again?

We Christians talk about God giving people second chances when they mess up, and I'm inclined to the do the same for Aviva Breakdown (which uses RAC). In fact, I believe God gives multiple second chances to those who are penitent. Having said that, I don't think I'll do the same for Aviva if they mess up again....

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Faith and Common Sense

I've been a bit quiet on the blogging front for the past few weeks. However, here's a brief quote I read and reflected upon during an early morning walk. It's from Oswald Chamber's 'My Utmost for His Highest' which happens to be a part of my iPhone Bible. The date was 30th August, and the verse was John 11:40 - 'Then Jesus said, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?"'

I'm not sure the verse totally fits the comment, but I found the latter very challenging.

  • ‘Common sense is not faith and faith is not common sense. In fact, they are as different as the natural life and the spiritual. Can you trust Jesus Christ where your common sense cannot trust Him? Can you venture out with courage on the words of Jesus Christ, while the realities of your commonsense life continue to shout “It’s all a lie”?’

It made me wonder how much we put first the commonsense considerations of career progress, family and security, when God may have a different plan? It still does.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Hit the Ground Kneeling

This week, I have been reading ‘Hit the Ground Kneeling: Seeing Leadership Differently’ by Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford.

As the title suggests, the book proposes that leadership most fruitfully begins from a place of contemplation and, for the Christian, prayer.

I am not good at taking time out to kneel before God, and to contemplate the role of pastor to which he has called me. When I do take a day retreat, I can easily feel guilty about all the other things I should be doing. So on this day, when I am on retreat, it’s been good to have the wisdom of this book. For now, I’ll share just a couple of snippets:

‘Being available must never be the defining characteristic of effective leadership.... The wise leader will make wise choices about how time is managed, giving first priority to that space for refreshment and discernment where decisions about the right use of the rest of the time can be profitably made’ (p17).

‘Many leaders rush around doing lots of things because they are seeking affirmation in the wrong place, trying to keep everyone happy rather than being engaged in the more noble vocation of making them holy, helping them become themselves’ (p22).

It’s good stuff, and there’s more where this came from. It’s well worth reading!

Oh, and Cottrell does recommend a day away every month, where Christian leaders can rekindle their first love. Amen to that! Now, all I need is to do it….

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Revolution and Riots!

It seems like old news now, but we have recently returned from holiday in the peaceful land of Egypt to the restless world of the United Kingdom!

I have to say that there were times when we wondered if booking Egypt was such a good idea. If First Choice had let us transfer our deposits to another holiday without cost, we would have done so. They wouldn’t so we didn’t, and I’m glad. It was a fantastic holiday!

The Egyptian people were so pleased to see us. We were treated like royalty on our Nile Cruise, and almost as well at our other two hotels in Cairo and Luxor. Tahrir Square was peaceful, having been cleared of the few remaining protestors just a few days before. We understood why Thomson moved our Cairo Hotel from the Rameses Hilton, next the burnt out premises of Mubarak’s party. Day 1 of Mubarak’s trial was being watched avidly on TV as we popped into a local shop to buy provisions. We were driven by the courthouse where Mubarak was appearing, where all seemed peaceful, helped by the court being well outside Cairo and by a heavy army presence. All was quiet, not least because, sad to say, the usual tourist presence on which many in Egypt rely, was reduced to 10 or 20% of the usual trade. Meanwhile, we watched our hotel TVs with horror at the unrest and riots back home!

Life as a tourist from the UK is no experience of real life in Egypt. However, it is obvious that many in that country experience major poverty. I can understand why they should rebel against the increasingly dictatorial government of Mubarak and his family, who were feathering their own nest at the expense of the people. It’s a little harder to understand why the comparatively wealthy young people at home (even those who are unemployed) should take it out on whatever they can lay their hands upon.

Perhaps, like the Prince and the Pauper, we all need to change roles and experience how the other half lives? We might all be more grateful for what we have!

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Where was God last Friday?

After my last two posts on the God I don't believe in and the God I do believe in, I want to pose the question, 'Where was God last Friday, when the tragic events in Norway were unfolding?' Where was he when the explosion went off in Oslo, and a gunman opened fire indiscriminately on a youth camp? I would say where is God on Boxing Day, for it is a part of his eternal Present, his everlasting Now.

  • God is with the victims, those who die and those who remain: at the moment of their deaths, in their tears and grief.
  • God is in the suffering and pain. CS Lewis said, ‘God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.’
  • God is in the response of his people – all people, not just those with a Christian faith (and let’s not forget, the gunman claims that!). There is something remarkable about the human spirit (the Spirit of God?) that caused hundreds of thousands to observe a vigil in the centre of Oslo last evening, as if to say, ‘Evil will not win.’ God does not show himself merely through Christians, but also through those of other religions and even those who do not believe in him!
  • God is in his Church, which needs gently to say, ‘There will not always be another day. You will not always to have time to respond to God’s love for you!’
  • Supremely, God is on the Cross! He is not a God who is immune from suffering, unconcerned with his world. He has chosen a way of identifying with us in our suffering, of liberating us from our sin, of giving us a hope and a future. ‘For God so loved the world …’ (Jn 3:16).
Of course, many questions remain. Some will not be able to identify with God, and will see life as random, accidental existence where joy and suffering have no meaning. I'm sticking with God who is making all things new.

Monday, 25 July 2011

The God I do believe in

After yesterday’s post on the God I don’t believe in, here is something on the God I do believe in:

  • The God who created the universe out of his love
  • The God who made us out of his love
  • The God who cares for us out of his love
  • The God who grieves for us out of his love
  • The God who has died for us upon a cross, and who does everything possible to lead us back to him out of his love
  • The God who is love!

Yet the question always arises in any event like the Norwegian atrocities, ‘How can a loving, caring God allow it?’

Eighteenth Century philosopher and sceptic, David Hume, puts it this way: ‘Is He willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is impotent. Is He able but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Whence then is evil?’

The Bible takes us back to a world that is perfect in every way. God creates the heavens and the earth, the vegetation, animal life and human life. ‘God saw all that he had made and it was very good’ (Gen 1:31). It describes how God set men and women to rule over the earth. Surely, they would obey God perfectly in such a perfect world? Surely, we would do the same in a world without suffering and pain? But no! Adam and Eve in a world without suffering chose against God! The best of all possible worlds ceased to be the best possible world as sin entered in – and all of humankind ever since has been affected.

God created in love, and you may say, ‘How could a loving God allow sin to happen?’ But love involves freedom. What if God forced us to love him? It is a contradiction in terms, because you cannot force someone to love you. You can attract them, woo them, care for them, appeal to them but you cannot force them! If you force them, what they give in return would not be love. God’s love gives us freedom to love him in return and freedom not to; freedom to obey him and to disobey; freedom to choose life and freedom to choose death! A consequence of God’s love is that the freedom he gave has given us includes freedom to sin, and we see the results of that all around us: in Norway, in Afghanistan, in our own lives.

I hope that I would still believe in this God if, God forbid, it were my own children who died in an act of atrocity. A question remains: where was God when 93 or more people were killed last Friday, by the actions of one man?

May be tomorrow ….

Sunday, 24 July 2011

The God I don't believe in

It seems a grim old time at the moment! The East Africa crisis, the acts of atrocity in Norway and the death of Amy Winehouse. In their own way, each highlight the question of suffering, and ask the question, 'Where is God in all of this?'

I looked back this morning to the sermon I preached after the terrible tsunami of Boxing Day 2004. Here is the start of what I shared:

In ‘Catch-22’, a novel by Joseph Heller, one of the characters Yossarian, holds the following conversation with a colleague’s (Lt Scheisskopf’s) wife:

‘Don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways. There’s nothing so mysterious about it. He’s not working at all. He’s playing. Or else He’s forgotten all about us …How much reverence can you have for a Supreme being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation? What in the world was going through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the ability to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain? …Why couldn’t He have used a doorbell instead to notify us, or one of His celestial choirs? Or a system of red-and-blue neon tubes right in the middle of each person’s forehead? …What a colossal, immortal blunderer! When you consider the opportunity and power He had to really do a job, and then look at the stupid, ugly little mess He made of it instead, His sheer incompetence is almost staggering …Why, no self-respecting businessman would hire a bungler like Him as even a shipping clerk!’

‘Stop it! Stop it’! Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife screamed suddenly …’Stop it!’

‘I thought you didn’t believe in God,’ he asked bewilderedly.

‘I don’t,’ she sobbed …’But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make him out to be.’

What about the God you don’t believe in and the God you do?

The God I don’t believe in:

Ø A God who has created the universe then lost control. A God who is powerless to do anything for his created beings, never mind to do anything about the unbelievable forces of the Tsunami that ravaged territories around the Indian Ocean. A God who loves but cannot help.

Ø A God who does not love his created beings! A God who created human beings and then callously condemned many to die by a giant tsunami! A God who could help us but has chosen not to.

Ø A God who is non-existent – the way of the atheist. With this God, no one created the universe, but everything is random. There is no God who created me, no God to love me, no God to call me towards a better life, no God to give me hope for the future whether in this life or the next, and no future life to look forward to! With this non-existent God, evolutionary processes of natural selection will ‘improve’ the human race, at the cost of those who, through no fault of their own, happen to have been born and raised in areas subject to natural disaster. I just don’t buy it!'

That's more than enough words for now! Tomorrow, I may post part 2 of the sermon - the God I do believe in.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Sing for Heroes Concert - More Reflections

I’ve just been looking through the songs that the Sing for Heroes men sang at last Saturday’s concert. I’ve realised that I can’t sing a single one of them!

I’ll rephrase that. I can’t sing a single one of them properly on my own! Although each of them is a complete song, they are divided into four parts: Tenor 1 and 2, Baritone and Bass (my own part). For most of the songs, I don’t know all of the words. I know all of the bass parts, but since the lot of the bass singer is often to sing ‘Ah – Ah – Ah’ in the background, I haven’t needed to learn all of the words. The bass parts sung on their own sound OK, but they are not that good.

There is good reason for that. The songs are arranged to be sung in parts, and no part has the entire melody through any of the songs. We need each other (although Lesley Garrett did say at our rehearsal, and I quote: ‘Lovely basses!’). We can manage without one another, and make a passable attempt, but the song is only complete as others join in.

Again, there is a parallel with the church. We can do things on our own in the church, we can try and survive without other Christians, but it is only as others join in that our acts of worship in service can be experienced in their full tune. I’m reminded of the Message paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 12v27, which is applied to use of gifts in the church: ‘You are Christ’s body – that’s who you are! You must never forget this. Only as you accept your part of that body does your “part” mean anything.’

We need the other parts – and others need us!

For those who are interested, you can find a report on the concert here.

For those even more interested, these are the songs that were performed by the combined Male Voice and Sing for Heroes Choir:

· When the saints go marching in

· Bring him home

· Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves

· Old Time Religion

· All about you

· Twenty-four hours from Tulsa

· Portrait of my love

· Anvil Chorus

· You’ll never walk along (with Lesley Garrett)

Monday, 18 July 2011

Singing with Lesley Garrett

Did I mention that I sang with Lesley Garrett last Saturday evening? Oh, I did …

Here’s how it happened.

Last February, I responded to an advert for 40 men to supplement the Peterborough Male Voice Choir in a ‘Sing for Heroes’ concert on 16th July. I am at least a passable bass/baritone, so I decided to give it a go. For five months, we rehearsed every Thursday evening (not quite every Thursday for this pastor, with meetings interrupting), with a couple of smaller performances en route to the main event. In June, the pressure increased with rehearsals on Mondays and Thursdays (even more of a challenge, but at least I could usually make one of them). We also had a promotional performance in the city centre, giving out leaflets, although by this stage most of the 1200 tickets were sold. By this stage, the countdown to the big day was well and truly on.

The day arrived. We did our stuff. Lesley did her stuff, very polished and professional, as you would expect. We concluded by backing Lesley in ‘You’ll never walk alone’, a performance which was spine-tingling (even though it has been stolen by Liverpool FC as an anthem!) and was rewarded with a standing ovation. It was a great night!

I reflected a little on the ‘Sing for Heroes’ choir in my sermon yesterday. What if we had gone on practising and perfecting our songs? There were certainly some that we could have done better. What if we had gone on meeting week by week, enjoying one another’s company and the singing that goes with it? What if we had done all that, but never actually reached what we were preparing for i.e. a concert?

Church can be like that. We meet every Sunday, and in between. We pray and make plans for the future. What if we never reached the main event that Jesus gives us; that is ‘to go into all the world and make disciples…’?

I don’t think my church is like that, and I hope yours (if you have one) isn’t either. Yet we might all ask: what is the goal of what we do?

Monday, 4 July 2011

Handprints in the Sand

During the past week, I’ve been reminded of a response I made last year at Leading Edge.

(For those who are not in the know, Leading Edge is a Baptist Holiday week with a spiritual edge. Sadly, it has just been announced that it will not be happening this August, due to low numbers booking.)

At one of our meetings, we arrived to find a sort of shallow sand-pit down the centre of the hall. I forget who was speaking, but reference was made to the account in John 8, where some Pharisees and teachers of the law brought before Jesus a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. What should happen to her, they wanted to know? To begin with, Jesus said nothing. He just wrote on the ground.

At the end of the meeting, we were asked what we would like to write in the sand: a response, if you like, to the questions and demands of ministry that confront us. This is a photograph of my response: an imprint of my hands, one of them dragged down through the sand, getting all the dirt under my fingernails. It was to express a willingness to get my hands dirty in serving God.

In the past few weeks, God has certainly taken me up on that promise! I can’t go into the details but suffice to say that I have had to deal with a number of people in desperate need. I’m not complaining about that; it’s been a privilege to serve, but I have done very little of the routine pastoral work that I ought to have done and would expected to have done.

I am reminded, as I have been so many times, of the words of Juliet Kilpin at a Baptist Ministers’ conference several years ago. She talked of the times when we experience all sorts of interruptions to the ministry we are meant to be doing. Then she said, ‘The interruptions are the ministry.’

And they are! The interruptions are the ministry – although I am hoping for a few less of them this week!

Sunday, 3 July 2011

To boldly go ...

At a recent service in our church, our preacher played us the mission statement that was quoted at the start of every episode of the TV series ‘Star Trek.’ He then asked whether we should include something similar at the start of each service or sermon.

It got me thinking! Should we do that? And if we did, what would it include? Here, with apologies to Star Trek, is the result of my musings:

‘The world, our final frontier. We are called to journey as God’s people, the church. Our continuing mission, until Christ returns: to step outside our comfort zone, to seek all who do not know Jesus Christ and share his love, to go boldly wherever God calls us.’

OK, that is a little bit flippant, although it does give me a chance to correct that split infinitive! Anyway, Jesus has already given us a very good mission statement at the end of Matthew’s gospel:

‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ (Matthew 28:18-20).

I wonder if we need this reminder every week? It’s easy to become complacent as followers of Jesus, and forget that we are only that because someone else made a disciple of us. It’s easy to say that our gift is not evangelism (i.e. sharing the good news of Jesus), and assume that the job of reaching the world is someone else’s.

Everyone has gifts that can be used in reaching people with the love of Christ. On 19th June, some of us joined with Chris Duffett (President-elect of the Baptist Union of Great Britain) for ‘Saints on the Streets’. It was Father’s Day, and Chris had arranged a special free treat for fathers – a rodeo ride! Believe it or not, over 60 people took advantage of the free ride and the risk to their dignity, including this father! Everyone had a job to do. A couple of people made up goodie bags for dads. A few more people gave them out and told people who we were and why we doing it. One person sat at a table, helping children make a card for their dads. Someone else shouted out the challenge: Free Rodeo for Father’s Day. People were amazed that this was a free gift from the church, and it opened the door to say a little to some about the love of our Heavenly Father. Not everyone there would have called himself or herself an evangelist, but everyone took part in sharing the good news and going boldly into our city.

Isn’t it good to be part of the church in which Jesus does not expect one person to have all of the gifts need to reach the world? He does, though, expect us to play our part in reaching the world for him.

I’m sure we do need to be reminded – often – that Jesus does not call us to stay in our pews, but to go boldly into the world and share his love!

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

DIY Psalms!

At my Church, we are presently using the E100 Challenge, with daily bible readings and weekly sermons and small groups following the same theme.

I lead a daytime small group and when studying the Psalms, we were encouraged to compose our own Psalm, using the following instructions:

‘Get the group to write their own Psalm using the following model. Provide each person with a piece of paper, large enough to be folded 7 times. Tell them to write an address of praise to God. Eg ‘God I worship you’, across the top of their piece of paper.

Get everyone to fold back that line of writing, and pass the paper to the person on their left.

Next line everyone writes an aspect of God’s character starting: ‘because you are...’ Fold and pass on.

Next line: Two things about how wonderful creation is. Fold and pass on.

Next line: Something God does for you. Eg ‘You guide me’. Fold and pass on.

Next line: a message to Jesus with because in the middle. Eg ‘I love you because...’ Fold and pass on.

Final line: A resolution. Eg ‘therefore I will’. Pass on and open.’

It’s kind of like the party game of ‘Consequences’ and I confess I didn’t think this approach would work in composing a psalm! However, here is the result of one of them:

‘Loving and marvellous God, I praise you

Because you are so loving and caring.

Lord God, the beauty of your world is breathtaking.

You guide me day by day

Thank you Jesus for being my Saviour and Friend.

Therefore, I will continue to follow you and let my light shine for you.’

It’s not as good as those in the Bible (they are God’s Word, after all), but it kind of works!

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Surviving the Tough Bits of Pastoral Ministry

It’s a pretty hectic time for me at the moment with all sorts of pastoral situations arising: some good, some sad, though none particularly bad. This Saturday, I am taking a wedding. Next Wednesday, I am taking the funeral of a church member just a few weeks after taking that of her husband. I was to be taking the funeral on Monday, of a woman who was married at our church about 62 years ago. That’s been postponed because, would you believe it, her husband has just died. So now we have a double funeral, the following week.

Those of us who are clergy never quite know what’s going to come our way. In a sense, funerals are quite routine but we can be affected by the sadness of the situation, especially for the families concerned. Weddings are less frequent for Baptist ministers like myself, who are not blessed with ‘pretty’ buildings! Other situations, though, can be immensely draining. I did not believe (although I was told – my college was good like that) that in 15 years as a Baptist minister I would have dealt with pastoral situations involving adultery, murder, psychiatric illness, suicide, exorcism, inter-family strife, child abuse, witchcraft and personal criticism galore. Some of it, yes, but all of it? And although these are the headline grabbers, they are really just the tip of the iceberg.

Of course, there are many good things in pastoral ministry, too! Yet how do we deal with all the baggage that comes our way, those of us in pastoral ministry, or a similar profession?

For me, it starts with remembering my identity. I am not defined by what I do in pastoral ministry. I am defined by who I am in Christ. If it were the former, every difficult pastoral issue has the potential to derail the pastor from his/her task. When it is the latter, we know that even if everything we try to sort out goes wrong, we still belong to God.

Secondly, it revolves around ‘calling’. I believe that God has called me to be a pastor. Despite what we sometimes think, God does not call pastors to be the problem-solvers. We are called to accompany people on the journey, and perhaps to give them choices, but it is up to them with God to sort things out. We, of course, can share the joy when they are, but need not wallow in sorrow when they are not.

Thirdly, I have tried to learn from the truth of Scripture. The words of 1 Peter 5:7 have been very helpful to me: ‘Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.’ I try to be a non-anxious presence (or at least, a less anxious one) when I am with those in need. When I leave them, and am wondering how on earth I can help, I will often say to God, ‘I can’t do the worrying about this! Will you take over?’

It works – mostly! And, I think, my ministry is better for it.

How do you cope?

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Pentecost - Setting the World on Fire!

This is a copy of my Church Magazine article for June

As I and my family were travelling back across the M62 at the beginning of May, we saw a vast flume of smoke billowing out over the Pennines. It was only when we arrived home, and turned on the news that we realized it was the consequence of one of the many forest fires that had broken out across the country. As the saying goes, there is no smoke without fire!

There may, on the other hand, be fire without smoke! On the Day of Pentecost, which we celebrate this year on 12th June, the early church was waiting in Jerusalem for the gift of the Holy Spirit just as Jesus had told them to do. ‘They were altogether in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit…’ (Acts 2:1-4). On this remarkable day, a previously downcast failure of a disciple called Peter preached powerfully to a large crowd, and about three thousand came to know Christ and were baptised. A fire had truly been lit which spread around the ancient world, and is still spreading today as more than two billion people attest to a Christian faith.

Of course, the fire in the forests has led to destruction. ‘Our God is a consuming fire’ say the Scriptures, but the fire of the Holy Spirit is more often a creative and spreading fire – or it should be! When we talk of someone setting the world on fire, we don’t mean that they destroy it but that they make people sit up and take notice. Christian witness in the book of Acts certainly does that: on one occasion the Christians are reported to be have ‘turned the world upside down’ (Acts 17:6, NKJV). It is Acts, the book of the Holy Spirit, that tells how this comes about: disciples tell others who tell others about Jesus Christ; they do amazing things in the power of the Spirit and the name of Jesus; the Church grows daily.

How are we setting the world on fire? How are we getting the world to sit up and take notice? Well, initiatives in our city like Inspirations Studio, Café Kindness, Refresh and City Centre Chaplaincy are a part of it. Each individual within our church is a part of it: in our community, workplace and family. Perhaps, as we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit, forty days after Jesus ascended into heaven, we should sing with William Booth (founder of the Salvation Army), ‘We need another Pentecost, Send the fire today!’ Then we too can be fire-starters!

Let’s be on fire for the Lord!