Saturday 26 December 2015

What Does St Paul Say About Christmas?

At first sight, nothing. You won't find 'Christmas' or 'Nativity' anywhere in Paul's writings.

But what Paul does write about is the difference that Jesus' life, death and resurrection make, and the incarnation of God into human form is an important part of that. For example, in his letter to the community of Jesus' followers at Philippi he writes:
You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
Rowan Williams has recently written a super little book, Meeting God In Paul, in which he distils out the three key ideas which flow through Paul's writings; ideas which made Paul so radical and disturbing to the religious authorities of his day, but which inspired those seeking a better way to be God's people.

The first is about a social and cultural world of 'outsiders' and 'insiders' - just look at a few Daily Mail front pages to see how that continues to this day.

Jesus was born in a backwater of the Roman Empire, there was no room for him so he was laid into a manger, his mother's husband was not his biological father, and while he was still tiny his family had to flee to Egypt as refugees. Jesus was an outsider from birth, so maybe it's not surprising that, in his ministry, he welcomed outsiders and got really quite nasty with those who would reject them.

Which brings us to Williams' second big theme in Paul: welcome for all. Whatever your social standing or ethnic/cultural background, whatever your 'moral status' in the eyes of society, however important or unimportant you may be in the world, in Christ Jesus you are a child of God.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
At Jesus birth all sorts of unlikely people were invited and welcomed: from the poorest shepherds to wealthy foreign magi.

In the Church of England at present, working out the implications of this for its own internal practices is causing considerable grief. Nevertheless, a vital part of the Christmas message is that all are welcome to come and join in the celebrations, whatever their background or religious standing.

For Williams all of this is tied together in Paul's third thread: that of a new creation, present now and coming at the culmination of the age. One reason for Jesus' radical inclusion and welcome is that anyone who becomes part of the body of his followers, through baptism and through receiving God's Spirit, becomes a new creation.

There are lots of questions raised by that last sentence, but the basic point, I think, is that all things will be made new when Jesus returns, but this renewal process has already begun in Jesus' followers. It's a reasonably clear parallel to Jesus' references to the Kingdom of God, which also have the 'in the future but breaking through now' element to them.

And that process of new creation all began when the 'Son of God' - the one through whom the entire universe of space and time was made - somehow became localised within that universe, a tiny baby born to a young woman named Mary and laid in a manger.

New hope for a world in trouble, new light in a world where unusual and unexpected beauty can sometimes be found in the most unexpected places.

I hope you are having a joyful Christmas season; and wherever there are times of darkness may the baby Jesus, so tiny in his manger, drive back that darkness, bringing peace, hope and the light of God's love.

Thursday 17 December 2015

Christ-Light At St John's

"God so loved the world that he gave his only son ...", which is why many churches celebrate the run-up to Christmas by holding services where we give Christingles, Christ-lights, to children (and adults, often), and take up a special collection to give to the Children's Society for their work helping children facing poverty, abuse and neglect - taking the light of Jesus into dark places.

I was thoroughly chuffed on Sunday when we got a congregation of 94 at the St John's Christingle service, pretty much all of whom seemed to be joining in with readings, music and prayers as we worshipped Jesus, the light of the world, together. It was really good to have a contingent there from the uniformed groups, not just joining us but helping out in all sorts of ways too. They really added to the occasion.

Obviously I was chuffed about that worship, but I was also pleased because St John's has been through a rough time over the last year or so, and the good turnout - the second highest Christingle congregation of the past ten years - is a sign that we may be coming out of it.

Last night's carol service, a very different style of service, also had a good turnout (although I don't have last year's figures for comparison, I suspect we were up here as well) and benefited from a choir which included a number of guests from groups we have worked with over the past year or two, including St Peter's of course.

Similarly, Sunday morning congregations over the Autumn have held steady in the mid-forties - not enough for the long term survival of St John's as a living church, it's true, but still a sign of recovery and consolidation. It is also well above the congregations back in the 2008/9 interregnum. Although I should add that the current vacancy  - where we have lost our priest in charge, Jeremy, but are still part of the CTM parish led by Mike as Rector - is a very different proposition from the interregnum after Philip left.

As the PMC process continues, and as we look for a new priest to join the parish team with particular responsibility for enabling transformation at St John's, it is, I believe, vital that St John's continues to build and prepare, ready to join in whatever God is up to here in this community of Lower Caversham.

Meanwhile, as the Christmas season continues, may you experience the light of Jesus in your own life, and may you continually find ways to reflect it into the lives of those around you.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Sacred Cows

Sacred cow: Something too highly regarded to be open to criticism or curtailment.

Lots of us find change in our lives to be an uncomfortable process for all sorts of reasons, both practical and abstract. Change is especially difficult when it challenges core assumptions which we may not even have realised were there.

The same discomfort, but magnified, tends to face churches as we recognise our need for change. St John's Church has been wrestling with it for a few years now, and we're coming to recognise that our pace of change needs to increase dramatically into the near future.

Our Rector, who specialises in interesting questions, asked a few weeks ago what the 'sacred cows' were here: what is there which is sacrosanct for us - not open to change at all.

The trouble with initial responses to a question like that, at least for me, is that I tend to think of other people's sacred cows: the pulpit which is never used - long made obsolete by a sound system and a change to the old patriarchal culture - but which we can't get rid of, or even move; or archaic language used in prayer - often taken to mean the exact opposite of what was meant originally. I'm happy to lose their sacred cows, but I wasn't even sure I had any.

Later I did some more thinking. We definitely need to change and grow, but what would be too high a price?

As a parish we say that our core values are being 'inclusive, generous and life-giving'. At St John's we try to focus those values around being welcoming: as a church community we aim to offer a welcome which is open, inclusive, generous and life-giving. Somewhere in that lie my sacred cows.

Over the river is a large Anglican church, one of whose senior members has a reputation for being very unwelcoming toward same-sex couples: they hit the front page of the local paper on the issue some years back. If that church offered us a group led by this senior member to help us grow, I would take a lot of convincing.

Similarly there are a number of religious groups around Reading, many following a charismatic tradition, who are virulently anti-Muslim. I don't see how partnership with such groups could possibly work.

Now, I need to be careful here. Being unwelcoming to those with reservations about same-sex relationships, say, is also neither inclusive nor open. But there is a difference between following one's conscience in one's own life and trying to use your values to exclude or to manipulate the behaviour of others. As the saying goes: "If you don't believe in gay marriage then don't marry a gay person."

There is a question of integrity, of being true to the Christian values we proclaim. There is also, for me, a fundamental question around what it is which is distinctive about the faith proclaimed in the pages of the New Testament, particularly by Jesus himself.

My reading is that Jesus offered openness and genuine welcome to those excluded by the religious groups of his day. I am in the middle of a little book by Rowan Williams on Paul, looking why what he said was so revolutionary, then and now. Again the answer lies around inclusion not exclusion, welcome not rejection, removing barriers not building them.

In my view any attempt to build up St John's numbers by building walls, by scorning and excluding others, and by emphasising our own holiness and distinctiveness, may or may not help with numbers and dedication, but it would be building up something which is non-Christian, or at best sub-Christian.

Herod's Temple was characterised by its high walls and by its levels of exclusion: a building whose purpose was meant to be bringing people close to God in worship became a place dedicated to separating people from God. When Jesus died on the cross, we are told that the curtain in that Temple, the curtain which separated off the 'Holy of Holies', God's dwelling place, was torn in two, from top to bottom, opening the way to God for all.

Following Jesus is about enabling people to meet God for themselves - all sorts of people, irrespective of gender, social class, race, religious upbringing, relationships, scientific literacy, doubts and certainties. All are welcome to 'taste and see' in their own way; our job is to welcome them and to share what we have found to be life-affirming.

That's my sacred cow. What about you?

Sunday 13 December 2015

Autumn Moon: Pagan Danger?

'Mystic Halloween Market', 'pagan folk', heavy metal music - is that sort of festival an appropriate place for good Christian people? Or even "children of God: created in His image, fallen, redeemed, struggling, looking forward to renewal" to quote my own sidebar? Were we putting ourselves in dire spiritual danger by going to such a festival?

There are many - maybe you are one - to whom this has an obvious answer: for some it is obvious that paganism and the occult are spiritually dangerous; for others it is equally obvious that this is just empty superstition and intolerance, and that such festivals should be judged on their music alone.

A few thoughts:-

Firstly, for me the baseline is that Jesus is Lord. Whatever spiritual dangers might be associated with such things, Jesus is our rock and our protector.

On one level that is the final word, but as fallen people in a fallen world we have our own responsibility to take spiritual care. More on that a bit further down.

So, secondly, what issues and problems might the occult pose for a follower of Jesus? 

I think the first thing to say is that, in spite of its name (and the boozy skeleton shown above), the Mystic Halloween Market was much more about paganism than about the occult as such. In pagan circles Halloween is more associated with Samhain, marking the end of harvest and the beginning of winter - the 'darker half' of the year - than with any Christian, or ex-Christian, tradition of 'All Hallow's Eve' as a festival of the dead.

Nevertheless, occult links exist, and it is, I think, worth briefly looking at a couple of its issues. Occult practices cover a wide range of areas - overlapping with broader paganism in places - but I just want to focus on a couple of these. 

The first is an occult focus on death and communicating with the dead. For Christians, following Jesus is about life, life at its fullest, so focussing on death is facing the wrong way. Even the cross, apparently a symbol of torture and death, is seen as being transformed by Jesus' sacrifice into a sign of God's love and the life he brings.

Then, when it comes to communicating with the dead, the Christian viewpoint is that this is something to be done through prayer: if we believe that someone's spirit is with God then prayer is the way to tell what needs to be told and to feel their ongoing presence and comfort, along with God's. 

Attempting to short-circuit that through mediums, seances and even ouija boards can be seen as one or more of: futile, because the dead don't talk; or inconsiderate, because the dead are meant to be left to 'rest in peace' until the resurrection; or even dangerous, because you can end up communicating with something much nastier than you intended. 

The Old Testament ban on witches was almost certainly a ban on mediums, those who attempt to raise the dead - see the Witch of Endor - not on harmless, if eccentric, elderly ladies, nor any of the other groups an overly intolerant Medieval Church used it against.

Thirdly, what about paganism? The essential question for a follower of Jesus is: why worship the created instead of the creator? That said, paganism refers basically to a group of religions, many rehashed heavily for the modern age, which - like nearly all religions - have their good sides and their bad. The appropriately Christian approach is to celebrate what is life-affirming and to refrain from involvement in whatever denies life in its fullness for all. But avoid idolatry yourself.

The apostle Paul wrote the go-to passages on this (here and here) in his letter to the troubled church at Corinth, who were worried about taking part in idol worship by buying (suspiciously reasonably priced) meat from butchers close to temples where idolatrous sacrifices were taking place.

Paul strikes a balance: on the one hand food is a gift from God for our good; on the other taking direct part in idol-worship is disloyal to Jesus and his Body, and effectively a denial of the power of God. So the question is, what actions carry the danger of leading us to worship idols? 

If our conscience is clear and we can enjoy the good music of pagan folk, say, then we should give thanks to God for it. If our background is such that we are vulnerable to superstition and focussing on what is dark and unwholesome, then avoid it. If we find a pagan's take on the beauty of nature and the interconnectedness of all life to be life-affirming and reflecting glory on the creator who made it all that is a good thing. But if we find ourselves tempted to start prioritising natural things over people and over following Jesus, then that is a different matter. 

But really any problem is within ourselves, let's not blame someone else's belief for our flaws. It's a bit like a recovering alcoholic who is following Jesus: drinking beer or wine is likely a really bad idea for them, but for others there is no problem, in moderation. Paul even recommends a little wine for his protégé Timothy on one occasion, to settle his stomach. So do not judge others according to your own weaknesses.

So, my unsurprising conclusion (given that we went to the Autumn Moon Festival, sharing its site with the Mystic Halloween Market, in the first place) is that, so long as we put our trust in Jesus, paganism is nothing to fear. As Jesus' friend John once wrote: "God is love ... there is no fear in love; perfect love casts out fear." 

So take the light of Jesus with you, affirm life to its fullest wherever you may go, and may the grace and peace that comes from God the Father and from Jesus Christ be yours in all that you do in the days and weeks to come.

Friday 11 December 2015

Autumn Moon Bands Day 2

Lyriel - Highlight of the festival
Back to Hamelin for the second day of the Autumn Moon music festival, not to mention the Mystic Halloween Market.

After getting up at 8am (groan!) for breakfast, we spent an enjoyable morning wandering around Hameln - a very pleasant little town, slightly touristy, the central area very close within the old town walls, with plenty of interesting things to see. Then, fortified by bread on a stick from the market, off to Sumpfblume  to start another day's music.

First up were Diabulus in Musica, a band who weren't in the original advertised lineup, I think, so we had no idea what they'd be like. As it turned out they were surprisingly good: a Spanish band playing orchestral-style FFM with a very pregnant-looking lead singer. Quite how she could sing like that with what must have been a pretty immobile diaphragm is a mystery. But they were an unexpected treat. The video clip above is very short and has poor sound, but it does nicely illustrate the singer's condition. Like many bands I enjoy, their sound includes light and dark, heavy and soft. If you click on the band name above and scroll to the bottom of the page there are some videos which give a better idea of their music.

After them we stayed in the Sumpfblume for Ravenscry, another FFM band from the Mediterranean, this time from Italy. They'd seemed quite reasonable on the preview video, but live they were painful. Bass and twin guitars all turned up to 11 on both fuzz and volume. No colour, no inventiveness and no sign of originality in the first two songs, so we left them to it.

Across to the Rattenfängerhalle for some supposed cyberpunk-rock, with Dope Stars Inc. Actually fairly generic punk-pop, even emo-pop: heavy on eyeliner and hype, light on originality. Okay, but not exciting.

Staying put, we had a change in style with Clan of Xymox, a kind of gothic OMD: 80's synth-rock, or maybe pomp-rock, brought slightly more up-to-date. Not really my thing but actually done quite well, I thought. In fact, they reminded me that I quite liked OMD back in the day.

I'm starting to get very tired at this point, so it was handly that the next band we wanted to see, Mythemia, were back in the Schiff, where I hoped to get a bit of a sit-down. No chance! Storytelling folk in a mix of German and English, based around myths and legends (hence the name, I guess), so lively and well-played there was no way I could stay sat down at the back. Brilliant, a real treat! If you get a chance to see them yourself, then do.

We had thought about about heading back to the Rattenfängerhalle next to see Leaves Eyes, the one band at the festival that we had seen before: Scandinavian symphonic FFM, with a new album out which had been receiving good reviews. But I was just totally shot, and going nowhere.

So we stayed on the boat and watched Laura Carbone instead; I'm really pleased we did, although I ended up back on my feet again. She's a female indie-rock singer, reminiscent to me of Sheryl Crow in her vocal style. But what really got me going was the band she had with her. They were just fantastic: the drummer and guitarist would start off doing drummy and guitary things but then just veer off in all sorts of strange directions and somehow the bass player would keep the whole thing together in a cohesive and exciting whole. Just wonderful: live music at its best!

Time for a sit-down and a bite to eat before I simply fell over where I stood.

Then to the Rattenfängerhalle for a band I'd been looking forward to: Beyond the Black. In the videos I had previewed they played quality melodic FFM, with hints of folkiness: very enjoyable. In the flesh they were a disappointment. Not too bad but a long way short of what I'd hoped for. Apart from the singer the band just seemed to lack musicality. Nearly all the time they had all the instruments playing basic rhythm and no-one  doing anything vaguely interesting with it. The vocalist was undoubtedly good, and when she played piano she made it interesting, but I don't know what happened to the rest of the band. A bad day at the office, perhaps.

Then off to Sumpfblume for Schwarzer Engel. Male-fronted operatic metal, okay in the preview video, if a little generic. Live they were more sledgehammer metal than operatic, but within that context surprisingly decent. Worth seeing, but not worth going out of one's way for, really.

By now it's close to midnight and I'm getting worried about whether Lyriel will be worth all the effort. After all we'd never seen them in the flesh, and Beyond the Black had just illustrated that bands don't always live up to their recorded promise when they're live. It would have been a long way to travel to see a disappointing band.

I needn't have worried. Half-eleven and the band come onstage, dressed in strange white masks - I've no idea why - and burst into Skin & Bones, the title track from their new album. Straight in with energy and presence, it was great! We were right at the front and their sound was beautifully balanced - cello, violin, guitar, bass, drums and, of course, voices, all coming through with clarity and vigour - and they played with great style and energy.

Lyriel are another band who vary their music, quieter songs amongst the metal, melodies weaving around the rhythms, folk and rock together. But live I really noticed the contrast between the sheer joy of the music and the often sad and heartfelt lyrics.

One advantage of a band with a violinist is that they can lead a dance around the venue - not quite a pied piper, more a dancing fiddler, but great fun nonetheless.

All in all, Lyriel were an absolutely wonderful climax to a brilliant festival, and an amazing way to celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary.

Saturday 28 November 2015

Autumn Moon Bands Day 1

Four weeks ago BlackLin and I went to Hamelin in Germany (of Pied Piper fame) to a music festival there: Autumn Moon, which was sharing a site with the Mystic Halloween Market - of which more anon ... if I ever get to part three of this series of posts.

There was one band we really wanted to see, Lyriel, who only seemed to play in Germany, so if we were to see them we would have to travel. As Autumn Moon was the half term weekend shortly after our thirtieth wedding anniversary, we decided to treat ourselves.

Our lack of German language skills was a bit of a challenge, especially as Hameln is quite a small town so there was limited English spoken, but we managed.

The festival ran on three main sites: the Rattenfängerhalle - Ratcatcher Hall - was the main stage, then there was a smaller stage at the Sumpfblume - Swamp flowers - and a tiny stage on a ship - large barge really. The Mystic Halloween Market also had its own open air stage where some of the bands also played.

At 3pm on Friday things kicked off at the Rattenfängerhalle with Austrian band Serenity, a band who had previously supported Dio which seemed a good sign. They played melodic metal fronted by two vocalists - one male and one female - and were absolutely brilliant. Their music had colour, energy and interesting lyrics (in English). If the festival is using a band this good to open at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, what would the rest of it be like?

After buying a Serenity CD from their merch stall ,we wandered over to the Schiff for WaldKauz, a German folk band. The Autumn Moon website had provided links to YouTube previews of most of the bands, including Waldkauz. They looked okay on YouTube but not that exciting. Live they were far better, although folk in a foreign language has its limitations. Later they also played on the outdoor market stage, which actually suited them better, I thought, than the slightly cramped Schiff.

After that we had a choice: stay on the Schiff for Ye Banished Privateers, or pop across to Sumpfblume to see electro-pop-rock band Tüsn. We chose the latter. Tüsn were basically okay but incredibly pretentious. Fortunately we knew Ye Banished Privateers would be on later in the Rattenfängerhalle.

A bite to eat then back to the boat for Tibetrea: pagan folk with medieval instruments and female harmonies. Actually much better live than their YouTube videos had suggested. Good fun but not as exciting as some of the other folk bands we saw.

Then across to the Rattenfängerhalle for Megahertz: rock with a very deep male singer. Slightly weird but a bit too Alice Cooper for my taste.

I'm flagging by then, to say the least, but the boat had seats, if you didn't mind being a bit far back from the action. So back to the Schiff again for Dunkelschön's take on folk rock. As the name implies they mixed dark and light, with some lovely melodic songs interspersed with some much heavier and rockier tracks. Enjoyable.

Back again to the Rattenfängerhalle for Omnia: more pagan folk, this time from Bohemia. Interestingly their style of folk is quite eclectic and there was a good reggae beat going on at times. Enjoyable but, in spite of some interesting touches, in the end they became a bit repetitive.

We stayed put for the Friday night headline act: Deine Lakaien. Male voice over keyboards mostly; the YouTube video had sounded good but live I found them dull. That said, the hall was packed with people who were having a great time, so it has to be a matter of taste.

We popped over instead to the Sumpfblume to listen to Euzen who gave, I felt, the worst performance we saw that day. They play a kind of female-fronted indie pop. They had sound issues at the beginning; but even after they resolved these initial difficulties their sound remained unbalanced, too loud and frankly rather grim.

The Sumpfblume complex includes a cafeteria so we retreated there for a mysterious snack which turned out to be a kind of extra-thick pancake. Good sustenance for midnight after a couple of disappointing bands.

After Deine Lakaien finished Ye Banished Privateers set up in the middle of the audience area to play some really enjoyable pirate rock. I quite fancied seeing Trollfest, whose video shows them as basically playing bonkers rock/metal (click on the link above to see what I mean), but by then it was half-one in the morning and we were shattered, so we decided to quit while we were on a high from the Privateers.

So, day 1. Ten bands: six decent to good, two that we didn't enjoy, and two really excellent, in very different ways. Not bad for day one of a festival where we didn't know any of the bands before we booked. Oh, and some really interesting and very tasty food along the way.

Sunday 22 November 2015

Darkness and Light in Paris and Beirut

 Egypt’s Pyramids Light Up With Flags of France, Lebanon and Russia
The appalling attacks on Paris and Beirut just a few days ago have spawned a lot of comment over the internet, some of it constructive, a lot less so.

Personally I  am struck by the essential similarity between a massacre delivered on the ground and one delivered from the sky.

Maybe a fundamental question raised by such events is the old one about what such actions tell us about God, and about mankind.

It's a fundamental starting point to Christianity that people were created in God's image but that this image has become distorted and spoiled. In other words people are a strange mixture of good and evil, right and wrong, light and darkness.

So the basic question in Christianity is not why God allows things like these brutal massacres to happen, but what is he doing about them?

One answer lies in the bravery and selflessness shown by many in response to the horror around them - I am sure that in both Paris and Beirut there were far more people of courage and compassion than there were killers with their hatred and destruction.

But underlying that is a long term transformation of humanity: a preparation for a final cleansing which will bring healing and new life to a struggling world. The key enabling moment in that transformation was the death and resurrection of Jesus.

But that was nearly two thousand years ago! I trust that there is good reason for the long wait for Jesus' return and the transformation of heaven, earth and humanity that he will bring. Nevertheless, with the prophets of old, at times like this I have to ask:
"How long, O Lord?" 

PS: Clicking on the above image - a pyramid in Giza lit up with the flags of Russia, Lebanon and France - takes you to an extremely depressing list of terrorist attacks so far in 2015. One thing I do notice is that the vast majority are carried out by adherents of one particular extreme sect of Islam against members of more mainstream groupings within Islam - especially against Shia. Blaming Muslims in general for these attacks is about as accurate as blaming Christians for the actions of Westborough Baptist Church; although Wahhabist Salafists do get a lot more funding, thanks to Saudi oil money.

Wednesday 4 November 2015

TED Talks & Preacher Training

I wonder if Bible Colleges and other theological training centres use TED talks as part of their training in preaching?

A talk with a serious message given by one person with minimal staging and taking less than 20 minutes - for churchgoers among you, does that sound familiar? If I add that the vast majority of TED talks closely engage both the immediate audience and, in many cases, millions of people worldwide then maybe the familiarity decreases.

I've been known to say that the traditional lecture-style sermon is way out-of-date and an appalling way of attempting to engage with modern people in the modern world. There is an elderly and declining population of churchgoers who often like them like that, of course, but I have long argued that a new approach is needed.

In many ways I still believe that: sitting passively consuming the words of a supposed expert is a lousy way to learn. Yet the global success of TED talks does suggest that there is life in the format yet, so I think it's worth looking at some of the typical characteristics of a TED talk.

Pretty much all TED talks are given by people with genuine and obvious enthusiasm and expertise who are speaking about something which they believe matters.

The vast majority have a speaker who moves around the stage, rather than being trapped behind a lectern.

Many TED talks involve some sort of projection/PowerPoint accompaniment, used as a visual backup and complement to the talk itself; whilst the talk remains the main focus.

Many of the talks involve humour - but rarely in the form of isolated jokes, more as ways of making or supporting a particular point.

Some of the talks involve some degree of interaction with the audience, but this is nearly always limited. People want to listen to the speaker and there is a tight timescale.

So I would say it is time for preachers to rethink their methods, congregations to rethink what they ask of their preachers, and occasional visitors to church to give more feedback on how they experience the preaching in that church.

If a preacher doesn't have expertise and enthusiasm then why on earth are they there? If the preacher doesn't make the effort to engage with the congregation through movement, interaction, relevant visuals and/or humour then why should they expect the congregation to engage with them? And if a preacher isn't talking about something which has meaning and importance to listeners and to their neighbours then why is s/he wasting everyone's time?

What do you think?

Tuesday 27 October 2015


Jesus famously said that he came to call sinners, not the righteous, but who did he mean by that?

To 20th-Century churchgoers the answer would have been obvious: sinners are the bad and the wicked, especially those whose wrong-doing has something to do with sex or the ten commandments. To early 21st-Century non-churchgoers sin is more of a marketing term, implying luxury and indulgence, with a hint of defiance against overweening authority.

In Biblical times the meaning was quite different. In contrast to the righteous, the δικαίους, who followed the rules and fitted into the framework of their society, sinners, the ἁμαρτωλούς, were those who had missed the mark, not kept to their society's rules. In the case of the Jews this was all about the covenant on Mount Sinai, and being God's people.

The book of Exodus tells of that covenant: God told the Israelites that if they followed his commands he would be their God and they would be his people. It was a contract, with definite terms and conditions.

A large part of the rest of the Old Testament tells of how the Israelites failed, again and again, to keep their side of the bargain. Eventually God withdrew his protection and the nation of Israel was driven out by the Assyrians; later Judea was taken into exile by the Babylonians. The Jews (aka Judeans) eventually returned to their lands, the inhabitants of the northern kingdom, Israel, never really did (there is some confusion about the status of the Samaritans, who claimed to be descendants of these Israelites although the Jews denied this).

Although the Jews (many of them) returned to their lands, they never really had control over them: Persians, Greeks and then Romans claimed authority instead. So, we can tell from documents from Jesus' time and earlier found over the past few decades, they decided that the exile was, in a sense, still ongoing. That God and his chosen king would eventually come and truly establish God's Kingdom of justice and freedom and peace ... at least for the Jews.

Part of this development was the idea that it wasn't enough to be a Jew to be one of God's people - you had to be a righteous Jew: one who truly follows all the conditions of that Sinai covenant. If you kept all the rules of the Law you were included in that promised Kingdom; if you missed the mark, failed to keep the terms of the contract, then you were a sinner, outside the Kingdom.

Of course, those of us who are Gentiles, non-Jews, are automatically outside the Kingdom, automatically sinners.

The trouble was that the religious authorities, who determined how those terms and conditions should be applied, interpreted them on their own terms. So, oddly enough, those who behaved religiously would be declared righteous, those who had to get on with normal life would find themselves being declared sinners, missing the mark and falling outside the covenant.

For example, their interpretation of the food laws effectively meant that Jews were not allowed to eat at the homes of Gentiles. At a time when Gentiles are in charge, that means that anyone working with the Romans or Greeks would soon be either out of a job - as eating together was an important part of the way that these relationships worked - or would be declared a sinner.

Similarly, anyone caring for the sick on a regular basis would soon find themselves doing or touching something they shouldn't, just as part of living. And anyone who actually was chronically sick - for instance the woman in the story who suffered from a long term haemorrhage - was excluded almost by definition.

People were excluded from God's Kingdom effectively because they were not rich and privileged enough to follow the lifestyle set as the target by the privileged religious leaders.

You begin to see why Jesus got so angry, perhaps?

There is an enormous amount of good in the Old Testament, including much that was amazingly progressive for its day. But the people in leadership, the ones who were supposed to make it work, instead abused and exploited their people in the name of God and of His covenant. A new approach was needed.

Jesus died on a cross, and rose again, in order that all those who could not qualify for membership of God's Kingdom under the old contract could take out a new one instead. A new contract which doesn't depend on following rules, but on following Jesus, and which focuses on including all who are willing to turn to God in order to be made new, and on welcoming the previously excluded into the family of God's people.

I just wish that today's religious leaders would properly come to terms with this.

Sunday 25 October 2015

On Wings Like Eagles

The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
Something of a follow-on to my earlier post, The Years The Locusts Have Eaten, although rather different in style.

Every year when I do my tax return I have to deal with 'dead weeks' - weeks when the chronic fatigue has been bad enough that admin just doesn't happen, there's nothing left. I have learnt to deal with this by ensuring that there is always enough other information available to recreate what I need, but it is a reminder that energy is a scarce resource and sometimes I run out.

The above quote, from Isaiah, has always seemed to me to be tailor-made for CFS sufferers. The promise is that one day, whether in this world or in the renewed world of the resurrection, we will once again "run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint". Roll on that day!

But it's not just CFS which wears people out. Depression is well-known - I hope - to be not just about sadness, but about debilitating weariness, hopelessness, loss of motivation and interest, amongst many other symptoms.

Other chronic diseases also often include overwhelming tiredness, weariness, stumbling and falling amongst their symptoms ... including that most chronic of all: old age.

One of my symptoms is a fuzzy memory, and as I look back over the past 19 years I sometimes wonder whether the CFS is improving or not (actually, only over the past 17 or so years, the first couple were grim and I've definitely improved on that), and how far current symptoms are exacerbated by the fact that I'm getting older.

The reality is that all of us, at some point over our lives, go through times when just the next step is difficult, and imagining a better future feels like fantasy. At those times we all need a little hope to cling to. Maybe a picture of ourselves flying on powerful, secure wings, and imaging how that will feel, seems a strange promise and an odd thing to cling to, But I find it helps.

As a kind of a postscript, if you click on the picture above you will see that it is not just the weary who find hope in this image. God's promises are for all, whatever their need, just as his love is for all of us.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Dead End Justice (Seek Ye First)

Justice, justice
Don't want your law and order
Justice, justice
Or world wide disorder
The Runaways
I don't imagine it's what The Runaways intended, but that isn't a bad summary of what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God. If the Kingdom isn't about restoring lost souls, at least as much as saving the respectable, then it doesn't have much meaning at all.

It was Harvest Service at St John's last Sunday, for which this year's lectionary readings were ... interesting. Joel's prophecy of hope, where God promises to "repay you for the years the locusts have eaten". and Jesus' sermon on the mount, where he tells us to "seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you," where 'all these things' are food and clothes and all the practical stuff. 

The word translated 'righteousness' here also means 'justice'. And 'justice', for Jesus, was very definitely not the same thing as the Law. Following the law means being respectable: obeying the rules, where the rules have been carefully tweaked and tailored to favour the rich and powerful. Justice involves turning things upside-down: shaking things up so that those who have fallen to the bottom of the pile, in this fallen world, get their chance to find the top.

What sort of people can be expected to do best in a world of wrong? And who is likely to hit the bottom in such a world? 

Jesus taught of an upside-down Kingdom where all that we thought we knew from living in this one is turned backwards. A world where the contributions of the poor are valued more than the crumbs of the rich, where importance depends on service and humility, and where peace can trigger division. In particular this is a Kingdom where justice, peace and reconciliation matter vastly more than wealth and status - the latter just get in the way.

One oddity of all Jesus' talking about 'The Kingdom' in the Gospels is that he never defines what he means by it. It looks as though everybody knew what the Kingdom of God/Heaven was, so Jesus was simply building on that common knowledge foundation. For many centuries that 'common knowledge' was lost so theology on the Kingdom has always been a bit like an upside-down pyramid - lots of ideas based on a very slim foundation. Thankfully over the past half-century or so a lot of documents have been recovered from the Eastern Mediterranean, dating to a little before Jesus' time, which gives us a better idea.

In essence those waiting for 'The Kingdom' were waiting for a true end to exile, for God to found a nation of true justice and peace. By and large the Jews expected this to be a Jewish kingdom, although some noted that parts of the Law and the Prophets referred to Gentiles being included as well. This Kingdom would be ruled either by God Himself, or by a king from David's line chosen by God, reigning as a good and faithful shepherd. By Jesus' time these expectations of a just kingdom were linked with expectations that the remaining unjust kingdoms, ie the rest of the world, would either come to an end or they would become subservient to God's Kingdom.

A lot of Jesus' teaching was about who would qualify to be citizens of this Kingdom - including many people who respectable Jews would not expect to see there - and about the Kingdom breaking through ahead of time, so to speak. Thus Jesus' healings and teaching are signs of the Kingdom, as are those who are lost but become found, and those who seem dead being restored to life.

At the end, the New Testament gathers these Kingdom ideas together in a vision of a new world, where God Himself comes down to live amongst his people, and where citizens of the Kingdom, even the seemingly unworthy, are raised back to life, if they have died, or been transformed to new life, if they are still living at Jesus' return.
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Monday 12 October 2015

Thirty Years

Long ago but not so far away
It's our thirtieth wedding anniversary today - a fact which is simultaneously rather wonderful and decidedly scary.

A comment on my recent post about divorce reminded me that the key part of the Bible's teaching on marriage is that it is a commitment for life, that it needs to be worked at, and it must not given up on too easily. Sometimes it's easy to get bogged down in the more difficult area of divorce and so fail to see the wood for the trees.

My take on the 'one flesh' picture used for marriage in the Bible is that a marriage is a living thing. It has its own life and growth; it is greater than the individuals involved; and it helps their lives to be more than they would otherwise be. To kill a marriage is a terrible thing.

Divorce, as Jesus tells it, does not kill a marriage. The marriage may be killed by something else beforehand, so the divorce is more like a death certificate recognising what has already happened. Or the divorce route may be taken too quickly, whilst the marriage is still alive; then a second marriage is what kills the first, which is deeply saddening and not a propitious way to make a fresh start.

We live in a fallen world: marriages do die.

A couple of real life (and therefore necessarily vague) examples: I once knew a woman whose husband had run off with his secretary (yes, clichés do happen), moved several hundred miles away, and started a new family, leaving her on her own to cope with their young children. That's about as dead as a marriage can get, yet fellow churchgoers (some of them) were openly critical when she divorced him.

I also knew a slender, petite woman who married in her teens. Her husband turned out to be a violent and abusive drunk. She had the strength of mind to divorce him, but surely he was the one who killed the marriage not her.

On a more positive note, I know many people whose first marriages failed, but whose second marriages are still going strong decades later (or whose long second marriages really were 'till death do us part'). Second chances work out well sometimes.

If there's one thing thirty years of marriage has taught me it's to be thankful, not judgemental. Marriage is a long and difficult journey, and I am a very fallible person: "There but for the grace of God ...".

PS: One thing I should note is that the New Testament is very positive about singleness - not being married. This is because the way the local church is supposed to work is that it too has its own life and growth, is greater than the individuals involved, and helps their lives to be more than they would otherwise be. Not my path, but an extremely honourable one.

Sunday 11 October 2015

The Years The Locusts Have Eaten

‘I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten –
    the great locust and the young locust,
    the other locusts and the locust swarm –
my great army that I sent among you.
You will have plenty to eat, until you are full,
    and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,
    who has worked wonders for you;
never again will my people be shamed.'
Bad choices: drink, drugs, men, women, crime and punishment, drop out from school, it seemed so cool. Family, relationships, children, where are they now, nobody told me the price was so high; so now I lie on the bed I made; hope is long gone - I'm not so strong.

No choices: hurt and pain, abuse and shame, no use, no trust, betrayal and loss. You left, I'm left all alone, home alone or no home at all. Injury, perjury, bullies and liars, thugs for hire, retreat inside, it's safer to hide away from it all, to stay so small, let the world pass on - all trust is gone.

You say God will restore the years the locust has eaten? Yeah, sure!

"How long, O Lord?"

Sunday 4 October 2015

Divorce: Jesus And Religion

The Roman Catholic Church starts its three week synod on the family today, which is expected to look at, among other things, the way their church treats remarried divorcees.

Possibly coincidentally, today's Gospel reading in CofE churches was the divorce passage from Mark's Gospel:
Then some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?”  They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”  But Jesus said to them, “He wrote this commandment for you because of your hard hearts.  But from the beginning of creation he made them male and female.  For this reason a man will leave his father and mother, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
In the house once again, the disciples asked him about this. So he told them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
It looks such a simple passage, yet beneath the surface so much is going on.

The story represents three different viewpoints; the three key concepts have very different meanings today from 2,000 years ago; few people today are familiar enough with the Old Testament to get the underlying issue; and religious institutions persistently reverse the approach taken by Jesus.

I had a stab at this passage a few months ago, Are Wives Like Cars, so I'll try to avoid repeating too much from that, and start with the underlying issue. Jesus tried to point the Pharisees back to this when he asked what Moses had commanded, but they miss the point ... as do we, probably. I'll quote the full passage from Deuteronomy, rather than the Pharisees' gloss on it:
If a man marries a woman and she does not please him because he has found something offensive in her, then he may draw up a divorce document, give it to her, and evict her from his house. When she has left him she may go and become someone else’s wife. If the second husband rejects her and then divorces her, gives her the papers, and evicts her from his house, or if the second husband who married her dies, her first husband who divorced her is not permitted to remarry her after she has become ritually impure, for that is offensive to the Lord.
Turn the first sentence around and the point becomes more obvious: before a man can throw his wife out of his house he must give her a certificate saying she is free to remarry. At that time a lone woman, by and large, had no access to any means of making a living other than begging or prostitution. So a wife thrown out by her husband would be destitute. This law is about compassion in the face of hard-heartedness: the woman needed to have a husband in those days, so if her first husband throws her out she must be allowed to become someone else's wife; even if she ends up a low-status second or third wife that is still better than destitution.

Note also the point that once she has remarried, the first marriage is over: she may not go back to her first husband. So religious people who suggest that even after a second marriage is completed the first marriage is still the 'real' one are simply wrong, at least in God's eyes.

Marriage in those days was pretty much a contract of ownership: a wife belonged to her husband (see the tenth commandment). That's why a man could have multiple wives but a woman belonged to just one husband.

So the Pharisees see this passage as allowing a man to get rid of his wife, at least under certain circumstances. Their 'test' question is really about what those circumstances are, and what we now call 'churchmanship': where does Jesus lie on the liberal/conservative spectrum - the sort of thing that seems to matter so much to religious people. 'Liberals' reckoned that a husband could get rid of his wife for any reason he liked, such as overcooking his dinner, whereas 'conservatives' were more inclined to focus on the production of legitimate children, so the wife could only be put away for adultery or, probably, infertility. Either way treats women as 'things', as possessions, and Jesus is having none of it.

When the Pharisees don't get his point about certificates of divorce and compassion, he takes them back to first principles. Marriage was not designed to be about ownership, with the wife as a disposable possession, but about lifelong partnership: two people working together in the world God made. Divorce was allowed not to encourage hardness of heart, but to give a compassionate response to the fallenness of this world.

Mark appears to gloss what Jesus said later to his disciples - to make it more relevant in Rome - by talking about women divorcing men, which couldn't happen in Judaism (it still can't in Orthodox Judaism). But his basic point is clear: marriage is meant to be lifelong, and both parties have their part to play in making that work. Marriage is a lifelong contract and remarriage therefore breaks that contract: the essential meaning of 'adultery' in this context is 'contract-breaking'. Once the remarriage is complete, though, that first contract is over and a second lifelong contract takes its place. The remarriage is real and must be honoured.

So we come to religious institutions. Jesus is teaching about compassion and justice, religious people respond with judgement and exclusion. Church of England treatment of divorcees who want to remarry is pretty shabby, to be blunt; but the current Roman Catholic approach to remarried divorcees is simply unChristian. I hope over the next few weeks the Church of Rome's approach will become more humane; the CofE is already changing ... although ever so slowly.

Bottom line: to break up a marriage is wrong (but note that this may happen long before the actual divorce) but we live in a fallen world. When someone remarries after a divorce that new relationship is now a valid marriage and should be respected and supported by all ... especially by the couple's local church.

Sunday 27 September 2015

Be Proud To Be Humble

Humility and humiliation are pretty much opposites, even though they sound so similar.

As are self-respect and arrogance. Pride, confusingly, can cover both of the latter, so one needs to be careful when talking about it.

One of the traumas of the Thatcherite eighties came about because her government destroyed much of the, traditionally male, industrial sector of the British economy, replacing it with service jobs, many of them taken by women. So whole swathes of British society, where the men had taken pride in their role as breadwinners, were turned upside-down, and many of the men felt deeply humiliated.

I used to know (slightly) a female rower. She was physically stronger than any of the men around, yet some of them still spoke about men and women having different roles in life, because "women are the weaker sex".

Back in the day I was, I reckoned, a pretty good team leader at work. I was lucky enough to have some good people in my teams, who went on to become team leaders themselves. My aim and hope was that they would be at least as good as me, in their own ways, preferably better. That's part of how I saw the team leader's role, and I took pride in it - pride in seeing my pupils become greater than their teacher, if you want a slightly up-ended Biblical reference.

These days I take a certain amount of pride in having a decent working knowledge of the Bible, especially in terms of its contexts and how it fits together. A while back I went to a quiet day led by David Winter and was struck by how much greater his knowledge was. I was humbled, even slightly envious perhaps, but not humiliated. Why would I be? One encouragement was that maybe there is some purpose in the otherwise unpleasant process of getting older after all (David Winter must be well into his eighties, I reckon).

One final example: long ago, when my wife and I were young, we both used to play our guitar for young people's groups and for a monthly evening service. I worked very hard indeed on developing some basic competence on the guitar - I am not by any means a natural musician - whilst my wife was held back by a certain lack of confidence, in spite of being naturally far more musical . Over the years her guitar playing inevitably far outstripped mine, and she regularly uses it to lead worship. I take pride in feeling that I was part of the process of her developing her talent.

Marriage has enough challenges and pitfalls, it seems to me, without getting hung up over who is best at what, and which are men's and women's 'natural' roles.

Marriage is about partnership: if one is better at child-rearing and the other at paid work that is a blessing, whichever way around these skills fall (which has relevance, incidentally, to the arguments about gay marriage). If the skills are more ambiguous then it is necessary to work together to find the best way forward. But no-one should be humiliated by the role they find themselves in - challenged and stretched maybe, but never demeaned.

I'm not sure this ramble has quite gone the way I intended when I started ... that sometimes happens when I take physical rambles too, especially if I try a 'short cut'. But I think the picture at the top highlights something of what I wanted to say.

It is not really the tasks and roles we carry out which are humiliating; it is our attitude to them. If we take pride in our work and in our lives; if we recognise in ourselves that we are God's dearly beloved children, for all our perceived flaws; if we look at others and see past the stereotypes to the individuals, each with their own unique combination of giftings; if we live as followers of Jesus, who humbled himself to save us ... then we can learn to be truly humble without being humilated.

It is our arrogance, really, which ends up humiliating us. If we avoid hubris and prejudice, and truly value our neighbours as ourselves, then it is good to be proud to be humble.

Sunday 20 September 2015

Partnership For Missional Church: Initial Impression

PMC kicked off this weekend, with representatives from churches across Reading and Berkshire meeting together for the first big session. Coming at the end of a long hard week, it took me much too far beyond overtired. So, was it worth it?

It'll be a while before I get my brain into gear well enough to really get to grips with it, but my early impressions are generally good.

Some of the publicity earlier in the year was concerning: they quoted statistics for "churches who completed the programme", which is a big no-no statistically, and some of the language was reminiscent of the many 'big-church' programmes which have come out of the US over the years.

One of the main speakers at this weekends launch was from the USA, where the programme was developed, but he was careful to point out that PCM was based, at least in part, on the work of Lesslie Newbigin, the British theologian who emphasised the need for mission within our own communities long before that became fashionable.

Over the past twenty or thirty years I have been involved in a lot of mission initiatives amidst the general decline in church congregations in Caversham and beyond. In all that the only serious church growth I have experienced came, not as a result of a mission programme but, it seems to me, as a direct result of one good minister following another in a church, who focused on serving God in our community as best we could. Even then it didn't really stick: after he left the church returned to slow decline.

Common features of such mission programmes have included them being centrally driven, process-led, with a general attitude of helping 'them' to see the truths that 'we' hold, and often focused on a big early push, typically without much follow-through.

One thing about PMC which impressed me early on is the idea that God is already at work outside the church congregations, in the surrounding communities. Part of the 'partnership' idea in PMC is that we can find 'partners for peace' amongst people who may have no direct contact with church at all. The hope is that we can find ways to work with them so that both parties gain.

The other big positive is the timescale. PMC basically runs over three years, but with the intention of creating permanent changes over those years, so that mission becomes an ongoing part of church life beyond that.

The first year is labelled as a 'listening', or 'discovery', phase, although the activities seem very much aimed at improving communications both within church congregations and between congregations and their neighbours.

Because PMC is a long-term thing, it obviously needs to run in parallel with our other mission work, although maybe encouraging us to a greater awareness of what we are trying to achieve and why.

Someone once told me that if you want to push a destroyer away from a dock wall, there is no point giving it a short hard shove, you'll just put your back out. The secret is to give a long steady push, which will slowly give the movement you want ... unless the wind is blowing the other way.

My first impression of PMC is that it is trying to be a long steady push, whilst helping us discern which way the wind is blowing so we can work with it not against it.

Time will tell if I'm correct.

Saturday 12 September 2015

All-Age Worship For All Ages? Ramble

Let's Dance Together
Who else would all-age worship be for? Ah, if only things were that simple!

These posts are all rambles, of course, but this one is even more than usual a setting down of initial thoughts on a subject. My views are very much subject to change. You could always use the comments section below to help with that ;)

The trouble with 'all-age worship' in the Church of England is that it's often used as a euphemism for 'family worship', which itself is often a euphemism for 'children's church'. Which is often ... childish.

On top of that, St Johns has had the problem of the CTM Parish losing clergy just as the all-age service started development, resulting in a loss of vision and coherence, along with a balance of ages at the service which has been highly variable. Some months we have been heaving with children, and the challenge is to involve them all, other months there were very few, and they didn't want to be involved anyway.

We now have a clear idea where we are for clergy over the next six months or so, after Jeremy has moved up north: decidedly lacking. Therefore there is a lay team who will be responsible for the monthly all-age service, from next month. I am part of that team, hence my desire to explore a vision for a reboot.

I think we should start by going back to the basics of gathered worship: praising God together and listening to God together - praise and prayer.

So I think we start by finding out the favourite hymns and songs of the congregation and using them: we are a small congregation so we need everyone to really put some oomph into their singing. People have got used to action songs at all-age worship and all ages seem to enjoy them - if not overdone - so that is an addition to help create  a sense of movement and involvement. Given a foundation of good singing, we can gradually introduce some good newer songs, in order to stop things getting stale and to find new favourites.

The intercessory prayer slot in the basic Anglican service outline is a suitable place to build something a bit different from the usual fare. Because all-age services don't include a Eucharist there is time and space for being a bit more adventurous here. Although prayertime is probably something we will need to prepare variations for, depending on who comes that morning. If there are lots of young children then prolonged silence is going to be tricky to achieve, if there are almost none then lots of running around will find few takers.

Initial thoughts include Taizé chants, Celtic prayers - even healing prayers - and using icons. We have quite a few icons scattered around St John's and moving the congregation around a few of them (vaguely after the manner of stations of the cross) may be engaging.

One piece of feedback that has come through clearly is that people like movement and they like involvement, whatever their age.

One basic I haven't mentioned yet is the Bible: sharing together in the word of God. This isn't because I don't think it is important - far from it - but because I am currently short of ideas. In general lay people don't have permission to preach in Anglican services, unless they are LLMs. As I'm the only LLM in the parish that is limiting in one sense, although liberating in another.

Traditional preaching, even with visuals and a bit of question-and-answer interaction, is not the only way to engage with God's word. It's probably not even the best way. The challenge is to somehow combine giving the context of a passage with helping people draw out for themselves, maybe in small groups, the meaning in their lives. But it's not just about words: talking about the Bible is one thing, responding to it, creatively and actively, is another.

So, developing all-age worship, for all ages, around the basics of praise, prayer and the word seems to me to be the way to go.

The next step, I think, is clear: hymns and songs 'by request'. The step after that is slightly hazier, but is to do with a more interactive, engaged approach to praying together. The third step is downright fuzzy: engaging together with God's word. That's okay, fuzziness is where faith comes in. So long as the first step is clear we trust that the steps after will be ready once we have actually stepped out in faith.

I am working to a mental timescale of 6 months to get these three steps, or something a bit like them, up and running. That is roughly how long we expect it to take to recruit a new priest into the parish, bringing us up to our clergy complement. Having all-age worship which works by then opens up opportunities and challenges for the future.

Postscript: When looking on Google for a suitable picture for this post, I found the above which I thought looked good. When I followed up on its link I was surprised to find it led me to a church in West Warrington, the place Jeremy Tear, our previous community priest, has just moved to. The wonder of coincidence!

Wednesday 9 September 2015

People Like Us

About a month ago I did a post - A Quiet Life - looking at a couple of comments I had received about church services, and commenting on the second of them. It's well nigh time to look at the other one:
"Our Sunday service should be for everyone in the local community; but really it's for people like us."
To some extent 'people like us' could be seen in terms of standard things like age, race or class - and at St John's age in particular is a big factor. But I think there is another another sense of the term which has relevance to churches well beyond St John's, or even Caversham.

John Pritchard, in his book Beginning Again, makes the point that people have very different personal styles, which include different natural approaches to prayer and worship. Some have a very verbal, unemotional style: for them relating to God through words given in a controlled, formalised setting brings most satisfaction. Others need to be more emotional to fully engage, to express their hearts and to relate to God through feelings and desires. Then there are those who express themselves naturally in action and movement, those whose natural worship involves creativity and wonder, and so on.

I suggest that the vast majority of churches in the Reading area, and probably across the country, focus very tightly on the verbal and unemotional. Even those churches who sing modern "I love Jesus and he loves me" style choruses are, I would say, really only providing ersatz, prepackaged imitations of true emotion. Those who are used to such can use them, of course, to express something real, as can those who are used to formal prayers and liturgies. But that is really for the 'people like us' who are attracted enough to stick around in the first place.

Where is the space in our regular patterns of church worship for artists? Or for lively dancers? For prophets and healers to give God's blessing in the Spirit's time not ours?

It seems to me that the vast majority of church services in the UK are based around the idea that most worshippers sit passively to be talked to (at?) by one or more leaders, sit or stand to say words chosen by those same leaders or by some overarching organisation, and stand to sing songs chosen by one or more other leaders. Little corporate church worship is truly participative, or active, or truly engaging. Much, probably most, collective worship in UK churches is for consumers not for active members.

Inevitably most people who go to such services do so because they like it that way, more or less. Arguments and pressures are about details, about small variations in delivery ('happy-clappy' songs or 'dirgelike' hymns), and about ways of rearranging the deck-chairs ... well, furniture anyway. So most services remain for 'people like us'.

I write blog posts, so it is fairly obvious that I like working with words (along with the odd picture). I enjoy sitting and listening to a good sermon, although there are few preachers skilled enough to work without some form of visual input, I think. I generally prefer a style which is cool and thoughtful to one which is emotive and loud.

So, when it comes to 'people like us', I count as one of 'us'. But I value immensely different viewpoints and different styles, and I don't understand how anyone can function without a sense of wonder and an appreciation of creativity - even if it is other people's creativity.

Diversity is a vital part of human communities (indeed in non-human ones too), and part of the richness of the fullness of life Jesus offers lies in its range and inclusion of difference.

Having a restrictive church style is all very well and good for those who like it, but if we want to engage properly with the majority whose styles are different we need a rethink.

Maybe it's one church with several different congregations, maybe it is one congregation with a range of different experiences; maybe it is something else entirely.

God cares deeply for all those around who are 'not like us' - we are called to do the same.

Thursday 3 September 2015

Jeremy Goes North

Jeremy Tear and family have now left Caversham to head up north to West Warrington, sadly for us but, I anticipate, a blessing for Warrington.

Jeremy and his family were with us in Caversham for five years; looking back it is remarkable what has been achieved in that time.

The photo above shows the opening of the Caversham Community Cafe - based in St John's but run by the Lower Caversham Community Partnership - which typifies Jeremy's focus on outward looking projects and on working in partnership with other organisations.

If you click on the photo it will take you to a very brief summary of other things that the Tear family (not just Jeremy) have achieved in their time here.

I arrived at St John's about 2-3 years ago, so I have only seen part of this change. A couple of things do strike me though, in terms of Jeremy's legacy.

The first is that St John's, in particular, is now a lot more ready for, and accepting of, change than it was five years ago. You could say that Jeremy's has been a ground-breaking role, preparing St John's, and to some extent the parish as a whole, for further necessary change under his successor.

The second is that I am not sure five years was long enough to 'bed in' a lot of the work done. A great deal has been achieved, but it seems to me that lasting change is a long-term thing, rather than something which can be done quickly. Especially as Jeremy's time here was very disrupted, particularly by an interregnum after our Rector was poached to Bristol.

Looking to the future, in many ways the vacancy here is an opportunity to try new things out and to keep moving on in God's Kingdom. St John's and the CTM Parish as a whole need to come together to face issues and engage with opportunities; early signs are that the will to progress this is present.

Meanwhile every blessing to the Tears in their new home and ministry.

Monday 31 August 2015

Respect For Life

Once we used to think that microbes were just 'germs', harmful and to be wiped out wherever possible. Now we are beginning to realise just how important they are.

In our guts we have an immense and complex microbial ecosystem, which affects our health in many ways. Whenever we take oral antibiotics that is really badly messed up. It would be a lot better if we kept antibiotics as a last resort and instead focussed on helping our gut microflora develop in ways which are healthy for them and for us. Respecting the life which is inside us and working with it rather than against it.

Researchers are also just beginning to home in onto a similar complexity of microbial life on our skins and in our mouths. It would be good if some serious studies were done on the consequences of wiping out parts of these communities with antiseptic soaps and mouthwashes - they may be doing more harm than good. Our microbiome is a lot more complex than we had previously realised; it should be treated with respect.

It is fairly well known now that insecticides are problematic. They kill insect predators as well as the main insect 'pests' - and the latter are much quicker to develop resistance. They also tend to accumulate up the food chain. Adjusting conditions to favour a more balanced and stable ecosystem is, in the long run, far more effective.

When it comes to effective use of the earth's land surface to grow food for the human population, studies have shown that some areas are best suited to growing plants for food and other are best suited to rearing animals. To feed our growing population fairly and effectively requires both plant foodstuffs and meat.

The proportion of the ideal diet which is meat should be significantly lower than the current average in the developed world, and significantly higher than parts of the developing world. Intensive rearing and general 'factory farming' are not efficient users of resources, so more sustainable patterns are required, for both plants and animals. Again we should be aiming to work with complex ecosystems rather than against them, recognising that monocultures and mass poisoning are both ineffective and inefficient.

One of the features of a successful ecosystem is that life and death are both a part of the web. I don't want to go all Disney 'circle of life' - reality is far more complex with its webs and time dependencies - but respecting life includes respecting the place of death. Every living thing dies (more or less), it is a part of life. Killing unnecessarily is disrespectful of life, but so is pretending death won't happen.

If humanity is to survive on this planet in the longer term we need to find ways to integrate ourselves into the wider ecosystem. In part that means stabilising our population; in part it means using sustainable food production methods, utilising both plants and animals; but mostly it means respecting life in all its diversity and complexity and working with it rather than against it. We are a part of something far larger than ourselves.

To apply this to the questions raised in my 'Cecil' post: as a generalisation a diverse ecosystem is healthier and more resilient than a narrow one. New species form and old ones die out, but we should do what we can to maintain a balance, and should certainly avoid putting unnecessary pressure on species and their environments.

As a slight aside, respect for the diversity of life in ecosystems across the world should be accompanied by respect for diversity within humanity, in my view. Both are essential for wholeness of life in the present, and stability of life into the future.

A final 'Cecil' question was about 'speciesism' - how far should we treat homo sapiens' life as being uniquely valuable?

From a Chrstian point of view, we believe that men and women are all made in God's image, and should be respected as such. But we also believe that we are called by God to be responsible stewards looking after this world, not just exploiting it for our own ends. All life came from God and should be treated with care and respect.

There is a bit of a question mark over what particular aspect of people is 'in God's image'. It is unlikely to be physical - as God is spirit - so it is more likely something to do with creativity and free will and 'sentience' - the ability to feel and experience subjectively. Some animals show signs of doing these things too, to a greater or lesser extent.

Does that mean that some are closer to God's image than others, with mankind at the peak? Could that be a basis for valuing a dolphin's life, say, over a tuna's?

I'm not really sure how well that works, but I do believe that a respect for life in all its aspects is a fundamental of living in the best way we can.

Thursday 27 August 2015

Mark Series In Order

Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not, indeed, in order, of the things said and done by the Lord.
Papias of Hierapolis (60-130AD)
One problem with blogs is that their archives tend to be in reverse order: most recent first. For many purposes that is helpful, but for posts supporting a sermon series on Mark's Gospel it seems less so.

Actually Mark himself is said to have written his Gospel thematically, rather than in chronological order (which is why it is so daft when people try to create a timeline of Jesus' three-year ministry from the four Gospels). So this list aims simply to reflect the order sections are in that Gospel, trying to highlight themes in the same sequence as Mark.

I've included a post or three written before the sermon series started, where they covered relevant ground.
  1. Mark After Trinity
  2. The introduction to the sermon series.

  3. Gospel Beginning
  4. The opening: a title and a one-line summary.

  5. Son Of God
  6. Who says religion and politics don't mix? Certainly not Mark.

  7. Good News Afresh
  8. What does Jesus say the good news ('Gospel') is? More to the point what do his actions show about that good news?

  9. Provoking A Reaction
  10. Mark tells a story which is pacey, emotive, and where Jesus deliberately says and does things which demand a response. Some people were amazed, others horrified, but Jesus couldn't be ignored.

  11. Awe & Wonder
  12. Jesus the rabbi, the teacher, the good man ... but "Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"

  13. Faith Power Action
  14. The lack of punctuation in the title is deliberate. A healing sandwich, but who is actually doing the healing?

  15. Reactions To Jesus
  16. A follow-on to post 5 really. This series challenges us to read and hear Mark's Gospel with fresh eyes and ears, and to respond anew to the Jesus we meet.

  17. Turning Toward Golgotha
  18. The half-way point. The penny drops for Peter then is lost again. A change of direction and a mountain-top experience.

  19. Turn & Step
  20. What does it look like to turn to God through Jesus and step out in faith?

  21. Are Wives Like Cars?
  22. Divorce: Jesus tries to change the mindset; sadly the church hasn't listened.

  23. Poverty, Service, Struggle
  24. An upside-down Kingdom and a Church called to be Jesus' hands and feet and heart and voice in its local communities.

  25. Bread, Wine & All-Age Worship
  26. Friendship, enmity and reconciliation.

  27. The Trap Closes
  28. The trap closes and the 'victim' is caught. Jesus is close to defeat and death ... in God's upside-down kingdom he knows that is the road that leads to life.

  29. Triumph Over Death
  30. That's the way Jesus' death and resurrection is told today. Mark, though, seems more ambiguous. Maybe in mid-to-late 60's Rome it didn't really feel that way.

  31. Not The End
  32. Mark's Gospel doesn't really finish ... more precisely, the finish in our Bibles was clearly added much later. Mark leaves us a cliff-hanger: will they or won't they? It's an ongoing story and the final open-ended question still hangs there today.

  33. Why?
  34. Why did Mark write this Gospel account; why had Mark's companions in Rome (and beyond) suffered so much; and why do Jesus' followers still suffer today?
PS: I know that I have left the previous two posts half completed, waiting for a part two (actually there should be a part three to the 'Trinity' posts also - about mission and the Trinity - although I need to do more thinking about that). Hopefully I will do those soon, but I wanted to get this Mark resequence done quickly, while it might still be relevant.