Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Secularism and the King James Bible

Three cheers for BBC Radio 4, who next month will be broadcasting a day of readings from the King James Bible, in celebration of the 400th Anniversary of its publication. No cheers to the National Secular Society who are claiming that the 16 hours or so that will be given to the event are disproportionate to the number of practising Christians in the UK.

The latter may or may not be true. Christians would often claim that the place of the Christian faith is not given great enough prominence on our airwaves, particularly when it has shaped so much in our nation. Yet every time a religious broadcast is planned, it seems that one man is given a disproportionate number of inches in our press. That man is Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society. I am not sure I have ever read of him saying anything positive about any religion, ever! Nor do I believe I have heard of him saying positive things about secularism. There lies the big weakness of the secularist agenda. It hangs on the condemnation of every idea with which it does not agree. It does not promote a better way of finding a moral compass in life, but is defined by that in which it does not believe.

Perhaps Christians can learn from secularists how not to share our beliefs. I think we need to be defined not by what we don’t agree with, but by what we do agree with; not by what we don’t believe but by what we do. In other words, let us speak and live positively the good news of Jesus Christ!

Monday, 6 December 2010

What Wesley didn't say about sermons!

Last week, I threw out a load of my old sermons and I thought back to John Wesley’s oft-quoted comment about getting rid of his sermons after seven years as surely he could preach better ones by now. Except that it turns out Wesley did not say it! Here’s the entry in his journal of 1778, which must be one of the most misquoted of all time!

Tuesday, September 1 — I went to Tiverton. I was musing here on what I heard a good man say long since—"Once in seven years I burn all my sermons; for it is a shame if I cannot write better sermons now than I could seven years ago." Whatever others can do, I really cannot. I cannot write a better sermon on the Good Steward than I did seven years ago; I cannot write a better on the Great Assize than I did twenty years ago; I cannot write a better on the Use of Money, than I did nearly thirty years ago; nay, I know not that I can write a better on the Circumcision of the Heart than I did five-and-forty years ago. Perhaps, indeed, I may have read five or six hundred books more than I had then, and may know a little more history, or natural philosophy, than I did; but I am not sensible that this has made any essential addition to my knowledge in divinity. Forty years ago I knew and preached every Christian doctrine which I preach now.’

Not being an avid reader of Wesley’s sermons, I really cannot comment on whether he might have done better with the examples that he mentions. There is, though, a clear implication that he repeated sermons previously preached and was satisfied with the doctrine he presented therein. It gets me wondering who was right – the man who destroyed his sermons every seven years, or Wesley who did not? Can we preachers be content (I recognize that not all of my potential readers are preachers, but many are) with re-using old sermons (or classic sermons, as I like to call them!), or should we do better?

As I looked back through some of the old sermons, I had different reactions. How did I preach that?! That was good, but it was for a particular time. That was great (occasionally!) and is relevant for any time, any place, anywhere! That was OK, but I could do better.

Let me come clean: I have revisited old sermons for use in different places. As a wise church secretary used to say, at a church I visited often as a lay preacher, ‘If it’s God’s Word, it’s worth saying again.’ I have to say, though, that it needs to speak to me again before I can preach it to others. Also, I doubt that it is really the same sermon when preached again. You see, I do have to adapt it to reflect changes in my thinking, and to update it to acknowledge changes in the world. And hopefully, it is better at the second time of preaching than the first.

A few words of warning. It does not do to repeat the same sermon at the same place it was originally preached. Someone always remembers! My father, who was pastor at the same church for 27 years, once tried it after a time lapse of ten or more years and yes, someone remembered!

PS I confess: the paper copies of the old sermons were thrown out, but I have retained the electronic copies. I doubt that I’ll use them again.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Archbishop Oscar Romero: Martyrdom

I've just come across this quotation from Oscar Romero, spoken a couple of weeks before he was assassinated. It speaks for itself, but what an awesome attitude!

‘I have frequently been threatened with death. I ought to say that, as a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me I will rise again in the people of El Salvador. I am not boasting, I say it with the greatest humility. I am bound, as a pastor, by a divine command to give my life for those whom I love, and that is all Salvadoreans, even those who are going to kill me. If they manage to carry out their threats, from this moment I offer my blood for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. Martyrdom is a grace from God which I do not believe I deserve. But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, then may my blood be the seed of liberty, and a sign of hope that will soon become a reality. May my death, if it is accepted by God, be for the liberation of my people, and as a witness of hope in what is to come. Can you tell them, if they succeed in killing me, that I pardon and bless those who do it? But I wish that they could realise that they are wasting their time. A bishop may die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never die.’

From J Sobrino, Romero: Martyr for Liberation, Catholic Institute for International Relations 1982, p.76

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Get in the Picture!

This is a copy of my Pastor's Page for our December Church Magazine. I hope you enjoy it.

I wonder what picture springs to mind when you hear the word ‘Christmas’?

For many people, it will be the traditional nativity scene of Mary and Joseph at the stable with the baby Jesus, accompanied by shepherds and wise men. That’s not surprising, as such an image appears on many of the Christmas cards we send and receive. I wonder, though, if you have also imagined yourself as being in the picture?

Around the country, and at our ‘Love Came Down at Christmas’ shop in Peterborough city centre, people are being urged to ‘get in the picture’. You will be able to dress up as one or the biblical characters, or just appear as yourself, and get in the picture as someone takes a photo of you and others. Later that day, you’ll be able to check the website (www.getinthepicture.org.uk) and download the photo as a memento. It’s an innovative way in which people can learn more about the Christmas Story.

Yet there’s more to it than that! You see, with God we really can get in the picture. We can become a part of the never-ending story that begins with God’s love. Out of that love, God made the heavens and the earth, and all that is in them. Out of love, he has allowed freedom to his creation to learn what it is to love and be loved, and often to make mistakes. Out of love, he has made a way for imperfect human beings like you and me to be put back on course. In the infant Jesus, God has put himself into our picture of frail humanity, so that we can get in his picture of perfect love.

That’s the message of the picture we’ll be sharing again this Christmas. I do hope you will join us and ‘get in the picture’.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Without God, culture is lost

A day after Jonathan Sacks in the Times (see blog below), Eleanor Mills has written a piece in the Sunday Times News Review entitled ‘Without God, culture is lost’.

To cut to the chase, Mills points out that Christianity is woven into British life. However, today’s students no longer have the basic knowledge of the faith that is required to appreciate classical literature and art. ‘How can you enjoy the wonderful poems of someone such as George Herbert without knowing the psalms on which they are based? How can you understand Milton if you know absolutely nothing of the Bible?’

Mills concludes, ‘The physical fabric of the church can easily be reinvented to serve modern life; to save and give meaning to the intellectual inheritance of our Christian past in a secular, scientific age is much harder. But if we are to hang on not only to our culture, but also to the morality that underpins it, we have got to try.’

Amen to that!

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Jonathan Sacks and the Bible

Jonathan Sacks is that rare thing: a man who seems to transcend religious divides and who speaks with a wisdom to which all will listen. He writes with a poetry and clarity to which I can only aspire.

This morning’s article in the Times is no exception, and is well worth reading. Unfortunately, the online version is available only to subscribers so I will summarise and quote here. Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, anticipates the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible in 2011. ‘It is a supreme monument of the English language’ which more than any other book shaped the birth of the modern. He writes of the post-Reformation age into which this authorised version was born, also the golden age of English literature with Shakespeare, Marlowe and Ben Johnson having just written their masterpieces. ‘There was no better time or place for the Bible to be reborn as the key text of a new age.’ Sacks goes on to remind that the KJV is ‘only a translation, the word of God at one remove. You need to listen to the original Hebrew (and Greek, the Christian theologian might add) to understand its texture and tonality, nuances and inflections. But the King James remains English literature at its most stately and serene.’

There is a suggestion in the article, that in our post-modern society, people have largely lost touch with the text of the Bible. ‘At the height of one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century, Martin Luther King moved seamlessly into a two-verse quotation from the King James translation of Isaiah 40: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” It was a moment of history-changing power, and it would have been impossible had his audience not known the Bible.’

As Sacks hints, I’m not sure that such a speech would work today. Are people familiar enough with the Bible to appreciate the reference? Do people who hear Luther King’s speech today even realise that he draws from its pages? A few years ago, a new Christian convert said to me of the Bible, ‘This is dynamite!’ Certainly, the Bible contains powerful stuff, which I would say, has the ability to transform lives. Surely, part of our evangelistic effort must be aimed at making the Bible more widely known, and encouraging that it be more widely read?

Sacks concludes, ‘The texts a culture teaches its children shape their landscape of literacy, their horizons of aspiration. People who can quote the Bible walk tall. They carry with them a treasure no one can take away from them. They sing with tongues of poets, walk with the wisdom of Solomon, find solace in the soul music of the Psalms, and hope in the blazing visions of the prophets. In an age of blogs and tweets, the King James translation remains the Beethoven of the soul, the imperishable music of spiritual grandeur.’

I might even return to the King James in my own reading!

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The Big Welcome

This morning my church excelled themselves, and hopefully I did too, as we extended a ‘Big Welcome’ for Back to Church Sunday.

My faith is too small at times like this! I live in fear that none of the invited guests will come along, despite my constant reminders to my congregation that it is our task to invite and the Holy Spirit’s role to get people there. Yet, as a preacher, you can’t help feeling that your inspiring, humorous and challenging message (that’s the plan, anyway) will fall a bit flat if it is only the usual congregation in attendance.

Well, it went brilliantly! Joel led the service extremely well, the music group sounded great, the welcome team were on top form, the sermon went well, the congregation laughed in the right places and the hall where we had tea, coffee and cake afterwards was packed out. I have totted up at least a dozen guests who came due to our invitation, and I have a feeling that I may have missed some. I have reports of at least seven of the guests saying that they will come again. Add to these the new family that came along for the third week running, the return of several members after illness and the arrival at the end of the service of a Latvian couple who were put in touch with me by Hope Now in Latvia, and it was an extremely good morning.

So my faith is small but God’s faithfulness is huge. I’d like to have more faith, and occasions such as this morning do bring an increase. Yet I’ll always be grateful for Jesus’ response to the disciples who asked why they could not help a man who was afflicted with seizures. "Because you're not yet taking God seriously," said Jesus. "The simple truth is that if you had a mere kernel of faith, a poppy seed, say, you would tell this mountain, 'Move!' and it would move. There is nothing you wouldn't be able to tackle." (Matthew 17:20, The Message).

A mere kernel of faith can be used by God – isn’t that great? There is nothing we will not be able to tackle – even inviting people to Back to Church Sunday, and letting God do the rest!

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Cafe Kindness

Several times a year at my church, we run something that we have called Café Kindness. It’s happening again this week, as we prepare for Back to Church Sunday on 26th September.

What is Café Kindness? It’s a place to which we invite anyone to come and enjoy a free cup of tea or coffee and some cake. We fit out the entrance foyer of our church building as a café, with easy chairs and tables. We open up for about three hours a day. Some of us go out into the nearby streets to invite passers-by to come along. And some do! We welcome them, we listen to them and, if it’s appropriate, having shared our faith through our actions, we also do it with our words. Through it, we have seen a Hindu couple join the church as regular worshippers, we have enlisted a couple of people on an Alpha Course, and we have ministered to many people through simply being there for them.

For me, the beauty of Café Kindness is that it is a non-threatening method of evangelism in which anyone in the church can be involved, whatever their gifts. Some bake cakes for us, some come along and serve tea and coffee, some are happy to converse with our guests, some will go onto the streets and invite and, of course, all can pray. In one or more of these ways, everyone in the church can consider themselves to be an evangelist! Often, too, those who would not think of themselves as gifted in sharing their faith in words, end up doing just that. They might be surprised by that, but not God. I think God knows just how to get the best out of people, and urges us on in ways we could not have imagined.

Thanks, Lord!

Monday, 20 September 2010

Pastries and Prayer

Yesterday morning, we had a visit from Chris Duffett, vice-President of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. Chris brought his own irrepressible personality and sense of humour to the children’s talk and sermon. Even better than that, after the service he took some of us out into Peterborough city centre to offer pastries and prayer.

It’s a simple idea! In two’s and three’s, we went into shops offering a free pastry and also free prayer to shop-workers. In other words, we were taking a gift of grace and of prayer to a group of people who would not normally be able to get to a church service, even if they wanted to. Some of us also offered the same to shoppers in the pedestrian thoroughfare.

The responses varied. Some accepted the pastry, but had no need of prayer. ‘My life is fine at the moment’ seemed a common comment. Others declined the pastry but were glad to pass on a request for prayer. A few were willing to be prayed with there and then. Between the twelve people who went out from my church as ‘saints on the streets’, we must have had some contact with 50 or more people who are not Christians during just an hour! I’m not aware of one of them taking offence at our offer, and many were genuinely pleased at our approach. My partner in the gospel was Chris, and we took prayer requests for a man having problems with the cashpoint, relatives of a woman who had melanoma, women with breast cancer and a good education for a secondary school pupil to name but a few.

It’s said that Christians and non-Christians share the same view of evangelism: neither of them like it! Yet pastries and prayer was non-threatening way of sharing just a little of the love of God. Next week, we will be sharing in the ‘Big Welcome’ of Back to Church Sunday. I doubt that we will have anywhere near 50 non-churchgoers joining us (although I’d love to be proved wrong). We hope the world will come to church, but perhaps we should be cancelling our church sometimes so that the church can go into the world? Now, haven’t I heard someone say that before?

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Seasons of the Cross

It's been a while since my last blog. To be honest, life has been a little busy and I haven't quite got into blogging with the regularity of some.

This time, I thought that a photo blog might suffice. These photographs were taken by the side of Durham Cathedral in April of this year. The first one I took was the cross against the beautiful sunset. From there, I hit on the idea of going back at different times during my week in the city, and trying to retake the photograph from the same vantage point. These are the result.

I used these images in a sermon exploring different seasons of life. There are times when life is just beautiful - this is represented by the sunset sky. At these times, it is often easy to believe in God. Then there are the everyday times, represented by the blue sky (OK, that's a stretch with British weather!), stormy times and dark times. On the night time photo, the cross did not show up at all until I applied some enhancement with the aid of iPhoto. The point, in case you are wondering, is that Christ of the cross is always there, whatever your life is like at that time.

These images were helpful to many in my congregation. I hope they are to you, too.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Funerals and Canon Henry Scott-Holland

I’ve recently returned to pastoral duties after three months on sabbatical leave. As is the way with pastoral ministry, I had to leave others to visit three terminally ill members of my congregation, and I wondered if I would see them again. As it happened, all survived my time away but all have since died. So this week is funerals week – all three of them! Having shared the journey of illness, it’s a privilege to take the services and to witness to our faith in Jesus Christ.

In one of the services, this coming Friday, the widow has requested the ubiquitous reading from Canon Henry Scott-Holland, ‘Death is nothing at all.’ For the uninitiated, here it is:

  • ‘Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!’

This reading has brought comfort to many. If it has done for you, I’m glad. Yet I want to take issue with Scott-Holland! His words seem to be death-denying. Death is something – it is not nothing at all!

Having lost both of my parents in the past four years, I feel reasonably well qualified to comment. Both my Mum and Dad were committed Christians, who served God faithfully over many years. Both of them, I believe are enjoying (or will enjoy – you decide!) the fullness of eternity with God. Yet physically, both are dead. They are no longer in this world. The grief has hit me in different ways. With my Dad, I found myself weeping unexpectedly when I wanted to phone him for advice and realized that I couldn’t. This was many months after he died. With my Mum, who had Alzheimer’s and no longer knew me, most of the grieving had already taken place. Apart from a couple of days between her death and the funeral when I was an emotional mess, I have been fine (although it's still only been six months). Yet I have discovered, contrary to Scott-Holland that death is not ‘nothing at all’! It is painful and loss-full (if there is such a word?). It marks a break between earthly life and continuing eternal life.

So what am I going to do about the reading this Friday? It has been requested, so I have little choice but to allow it. I think, though, that I will say it takes time before we can say that ‘death is nothing at all’. We need to grieve for our loss, even if there is joy in knowing that our loved ones have entered into an eternal inheritance.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Three Cheers for General Synod!

They’ve done it! The General Synod of the Church of England has agreed to the future appointment of women bishops and without the compromise solution introduced by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, that traditionalist opponents be permitted to come under the jurisdiction of a male bishop.

A part of me feels some sympathy for those who would have preferred the compromise. If genuine theological convictions lead one to the view that women should not serve as bishops (and, presumably, not as priests either), is this not a belief that should be accommodated in a ‘broad church’? Yet I can’t help thinking that basic prejudice is also too easily justified as a theological conviction. In other words, we read the Bible through the lens of prejudice without allowing it to speak for itself. I may be doing this too, but Paul’s conviction expressed in Galatians 3:28 seems right: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ This seems to speak to the Church Universal (as opposed to local church situations, where Paul may give local applications on the role of women in the church for his time) and gives the universal principle of equality. Although change takes time, I think that the archbishops’ compromise solution would have undermined the position of those women who will become bishops and perpetuate the injustice of inequality in the Church.

In the end, I suspect the outflow of traditionalists who leave the Church of England will be less than expected, and the Church will be stronger as women rise through the ranks. And as a Baptist, I’m almost a little envious that a representative body can take a decision that is binding on the whole Church!

Friday, 9 July 2010

Honest to God - Distance and Belonging

‘The search for Anglican Unity should not prevent the appointment of gay bishops.’ So says the leader in today’s Times, and it succinctly sums up the thrust of the article, expressing support for Jeffrey John, whose potential candidacy to be Bishop of Southwark appears to have been blocked by the Archbishop of Canterbury, due to the threat posed by Dr John’s homosexual orientation to the unity of the Anglican communion. As tends to be the case, there is an undertone of frustration in the article and the implication that it is about time the Church caught up with Society in its attitude and approach to homosexuality.

I don’t intend to debate here the perceived rights and wrongs of homosexual behaviour! I do see a danger, though, of the Church of England (and other denominations) giving in to popular demand and blending in with the prevailing culture. ‘Society accepts same-sex partnerships,’ the argument might run, ‘and, therefore, so should we.’

I’m currently reading ‘Exclusion and Embrace’ by Miroslav Volf. I was struck by his critique of churches that have sought the easy life of supporting the status quo in their environment. Thus, for example, the Apartheid regime of South Africa was supported and affirmed by church groups, and the Lutheran Church has been roundly criticised for failing to speak out against Fascism under Hitler. Volf suggests that churches need to cultivate a proper relation between distance from the prevailing culture, and belonging to it. He reminds us that ‘at the very core of Christian identity lies an all-encompassing change of loyalty, from a given culture with its gods to the God of all cultures’ (p40).

The Church Universal has a proud history of being counter-cultural and bringing much-needed change. It also has a sad history of acquiescing to injustice in its own ranks and in society. If nothing else, perhaps each Christian denomination, and each local church, needs to take a step back and ask, ‘In which areas is God calling us to show solidarity with public opinion, and in which areas is God wanting us to be different?’ Of course, decisions will be influenced by the balance of appeal to Scripture, tradition and reason in each denomination. But at least we will not be blindly following public opinion and public culture, but instead seeking to follow our Lord.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Preparing for Re-Entry

Only five days of sabbatical leave to go! Where has the rest of it gone? And, more importantly, how do I prepare to return to duties as a pastor of a local Baptist church?

I have a picture in my mind from childhood years. It’s one of watching and waiting ….for the return, as covered in black and white, and very grainy pictures by the BBC, of an Apollo spacecraft. In fact, there was always very little left of what went up. Sections of the original rocket were jettisoned only minutes after take-off, whilst the lunar landing module was left in space. Only a small capsule survived re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere to fall fairly gently, with the aid of parachutes, to ‘splashdown’ into the ocean. After that, the astronauts were recovered and whisked away to face the world’s media before, presumably, being re-united with their families and taken away again for a debrief. There must have some sense of regret and relief: regret at the ending of a unique experience in space, which might never be know again; relief at a safe return to ‘normality’.

I think it is regret and relief that sum up my feelings at this time. Jesus says, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls’ (Matthew 11:28-29). I have enjoyed receiving the rest that Jesus gives: through time with family and good friends, visiting many churches and new places, reading new authors, increasing physical fitness through golf, cycling and a diet. It won’t be quite so easy to do any of those things now, but I hope they all continue. Yet I have missed the day-to-day business and busy-ness that comes with pastoring a church, and I am looking forward to finding out what the church has been up to!

There are obvious things I can do to prepare for re-entry (prayer, preparation, planning), but perhaps it is the rest that has been the preparation? Rested, renewed and refreshed, I’m hoping that a new period of fruitful ministry lies ahead.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Holy Kissing?

That caught your attention, didn’t it? And I thought it was a suitably enigmatic title for my first blog.

Let me explain. I am recently returned from a trip to the Holy Land, and in the 7 days I spent there I have visited more churches and holy sites than I care to mention. For me, this was a pilgrimage and a profound spiritual experience but I stopped short of the response of many pilgrims. Not for me the bowing before and kissing of places which may (or may not) have been the place of Jesus’ conception, birth, manger, healing miracles, death and resurrection. Perhaps it offends my Protestant sensibilities, but such veneration of place and object seems to lie somewhere on a scale between simple superstition and outright idolatry!

I cannot deny, however, the sense of the sacred that seemed present in so many places. Perhaps it is the association with events in the life of Jesus, or the worship of pilgrims down the centuries? It was deeply moving to observe the varieties of liturgy at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, early on a Sunday morning: Franciscan, Orthodox and others co-existing and worshipping in the same building at the same time. It was awe-inspiring (in the divine sense of the phrase) to share in the Lord’s Supper on the Mount of Olives and overlooking the Sea of Galilee. It was truly faith-building to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

In the end, that may be what it’s all about. To be a pilgrim is to follow Jesus and to journey with him. If visiting biblical sites and touching, even kissing, awakens and strengthens us for the pilgrimage, it can after all be holy!