Sunday, 29 November 2015

I long for something bigger than Phil

This is a time of year that has distinct music doesn’t it? No other time of year features so widely in popular song. And of course there are the many Christmas carols that we will be singing soon.

On the first Sunday of Advent we hear some different words from Jeremiah

14 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

These are words that of the future not the past. In those days and at that time

In these days before Christmas the future is not where our culture encourages us to go. Instead our culture fosters an experience of Christmas that is nostalgic or immediate and self-centred. Think of how many of the Christmas songs – not carols but songs – that look back or conjure up an image of Christmas that was.

“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know”
“Last Christmas I gave you my heart”

But in Advent we in the church are encouraged to look to the future:

And In those days and at that time we are told that God will establish his Kingdom of justice and righteousness. In those days and at that time we believers are called to look to that promise and we look to Christ coming again.

In Advent, we in the church are called to hear once again the message of the prophets. Their words are like an overture of what is to come. The prophets’ words are not like the background Christmas music we hear time and again playing in shops. Instead the prophets’ words tell loud and clear what is to come – or more precisely who is to come.

And Jeremiah’s words are the opening bars of the overture that leads up to the full Christmas music with the birth of Christ.

In those days and at that time there will be justice and righteousness.

Advent is an unpredictable time. It’s a period of the year when time is mixed up. We in the church look forward to a baby being born, though we know he has already been born and we know he is still being born in us – Emmanuel who came, and is coming and is among us right now.

In to this mix of time periods we hear Jeremiah’s words.

Jeremiah’s words are to the people of Judah, people taken off into captivity in Babylon. The people of Judah, who have seen their city Jerusalem destroyed along with their temple.

Jeremiah speaks to a people who are desolate. A people who may well have given up on God for how could God allow these things to happen? I think we can assume that the people Jeremiah speaks to are what might be termed a tough audience. Jeremiah is called by God to bring words of comfort.

And despite every sign to the contrary Jeremiah says:

The days are coming when God’s promises will be fulfilled.

Jeremiah tells them that God’s promises will be fulfilled but until that time they must make the best of a bad situation.

In due course the words were fulfilled. The people of Judah were allowed to return to their homeland and Jerusalem and the temple were rebuilt. But initially Jeremiah’s words must have felt very hollow indeed.

And in our time, with a world in fear from terrorism, in a world that is full of inequality, in a world of darkness, we may wonder about Jeremiah’s words too.

In those days and at that time there will be justice and righteousness.

Really? Will those days ever come?

Heidi Neumark is a Lutheran pastor in the Bronx area of New York. And in her book Breathing Space she wrote about how hard it is to be a minister in such a rough part of New York. But in the same book she mentions how she loves Advent:

“Probably the reason I love Advent so much is that it is a reflection of how I feel most of the time. I might not feel sorry during Lent, when we are called to repentance. I might not feel victorious, even though it is Easter morning. I might not feel full of the Spirit even though it is Pentecost and the liturgy spins out fiery gusts of ecstasy. But during Advent I am always in sync with the season.

Advent unfailingly embraces and understands my reality. And what is that? It is best expressed by a Spanish word “anhelo” which means longing. Advent is the time when the church can no longer contain its unfulfilled desire and the cry of anhelo bursts forth. Maranatha! Come Lord! O Come Lord Jesus! O come O come Emmanuel!”

Heidi Neumark Breathing Space (Boston: Beacon Press 2004)

Those words express my feeling too.

I long for God’s justice and righteousness to come in to the world. So that there will be no more wars. I long for the day when every person on this planet lives in a world where all people are treated with dignity. I long for a world where people have enough to eat. I long for a world where those who are wealthy use their wealth to help others not to exploit others.

O come O come Emmanuel!”

Maybe you feel the same?

I don’t know how you feel, but at times I feel terribly despondent. I see churches that are empty. I see faithful people trying their best to be faithful when it is so hard. I see people not wanting to know anything about the Gospel. And that’s before all the terrible things happening in the world. And at times I find myself feeling, a bit like Justin Welby on Songs of Praise last week.

As you may know he was interviewed in the wake of the Paris atrocities and it was widely reported that he said he doubted in God’s existence. Since then he’s clarified what he was trying to get over. It wasn’t so much that he doubted that God existed. Rather he says it was more that he was thinking of Psalm 44 in which the Psalmist says:

Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?

I get that. Very often I feel the same.

Then I hear the words of Jeremiah:

14 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.

I hear those words and they are a wakeup call to me once again. The words remind me of God’s promise. That Emmanuel will come. He has come once before and he will come again. But that doesn’t stop me longing for it to happen.

Some years ago, the American comedians Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks did a series of comedy sketches called the "2000-Year-Old Man." The premise has Reiner interviewing the 2000-year-old Brooks and inquiring concerning life way back when. At one point, Reiner asks the old man,

"Did you always believe in God?"

Brooks replies, "No. We had a guy in our village named Phil, and for a time we worshiped him."

Reiner wonders, "You worshiped a guy named Phil? Why?"

"Because Phil was big, and mean, and he could break you in two with his bare hands!"

The interviewer asks, "Did you have prayers?"

Brooks answers, "Yes, would you like to hear one? O Phil, please don't be mean, and hurt us, or break us in two with your bare hands."

Reiner: "So when did you start worshiping God?"

And then this wonderful answer: "Well, one day a big thunderstorm came up, and a lightning bolt hit Phil. We gathered around and saw that he was dead. Then we said to one another, "There's somthin' bigger than Phil!"

I long for people to realise that not only is there something bigger than Phil but that there is something far more than the here and now.

And I long for people to know that God hasn’t abandoned them. That God hears our cries. I long for people to know that God is that baby in the manger. That God is the man on the cross. I long for people to know that God is love. I long for people to know that God isn’t the God terrorists claim they are acting on behalf of. I long for people to know that the God I worship is the God who will in his time bring more mercy and justice than we can ever grasp.
Maranatha! Come Lord! O come o come Emmanuel! Come into our world today. Amen

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Through all the changing scenes in life

I recently was invited to give a talk at the Annual General Meeting of Willows Counselling on the subject of Transitions. What follows is an abridged version of that talk.

Transitions may seem a slightly different topic for a talk but as Tanya pointed out in her email “Transitions” is an appropriate topic for Willows.

So what do we mean by “Transitions”? A dictionary definition of Transition is “Passage of change from one state or action or subject or set of circumstances to another.”

Transition means change then. And for Willows this is a time of transition.

Some students will be graduating and new students will be starting. Some staff and volunteers starting and leaving. The previous Chair of Trustees has retired and I have taken over as Chair. Transition is a good word to describe Willows and the work we do. For many people we work with are in stages of transition, stages of change, in their lives.

Prior to entering ministry 8 years ago, I’d spent the best part of my working life working in – Financial services.

During that period – I’m talking from the late 1980s to the early 2000s – there was a great deal of change. Not least in technology. When I started in financial services in 1988 we had access to computers sort of. We could look up the details of accounts on screen. However, if we wished to make an amendment we had to fill in a piece of paper which was then sent to a team who made amendments to the system over night.High tech was a fax machine.

By the time I left financial services in 2003 we were dealing with emails and trying to figure out how the internet might change how mortgages – my field – would be processed.

10 years on from there I bank on the internet and think nothing of it.

That is just one example change. We can all think of how the world around us has changed.

One other thing that changed in my time was the rise of a whole industry of change management consultants bringing with them a whole range of ideas on how to bring about change and how to manage change. In my experience the one thing so often overlooked was the care of people. After all when change happens in a business people are affected. Inevitably change seems to lead to redundancies.

And yet all too the impact on people of transition, change, whatever you call it, is overlooked. I’ve used some examples from the work place. But the same applies in other contexts too.

I don’t know about you, but in my experience both in the work place, church and life in general, people have mixed feelings about change. Some people do not seem to mind it and seem to thrive on it. “A change is as good as a rest.”

But I feel that more people don’t like change. They accept that change happens but they don’t like it. How can someone claim that they thrive on change when the transition they are going through is a redundancy? Or a bereavement? Or a divorce? Or children leaving home? These are all huge transitions in people’s lives and I don’t see how someone can claim to thrive on such changes.

If people don’t thrive on transitions how do people cope with them?

My grandmother was born in 1897. She died in 1982 and she spent all her life in the same village Crosskeys in the South Wales valleys. She lived for 80 years in the same house. But her life was a life of great transitions. She spoke of seeing cars in the village for the first time just before the First World War. And the whole village turning out to see a place that the son of the local lord of the manor had flown home from the First World War.

She lived through two world wars and saw the arrival of electricity in the village together with cinema, radio and television. She went from seeing that First World War plane to seeing men land on the moon. She saw close relatives die of TB. She buried 3 children who died in infancy. She cared for a husband who had been severely wounded in the First World War and suffered what today we’d call PTSD resulting in him having severe depression and spending occasions in mental hospitals.

And away from the family she saw the village change from a thriving mining community with many shops to a virtual ghost town. An impact on a community that meant that the chapel she had worshipped in for over 70 years closed in 1972, meaning she needed to worship in another Methodist chapel.

Of course many of these transitions she experienced before me. So I do not know how she coped with them. But I have a good idea. Her faith.

Her Christian faith was the constant thing in a life of transition. And I am sure that her faith enabled her to cope with the many changes she had in her life and enabled her to cope with the traumas she experienced.

Now let me be clear. I am not saying that having a Christian faith provides a barrier against transitions. Jesus makes it plain that faith in him doesn’t prevent us having to face the transitions life brings. And he makes it clear that being one of his followers is no guarantee of life’s road being smooth.

In Mark 8:34New International Version (NIV)
34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

In fact having a Christian faith seems to mean we sign up for transitions.

In Matthew chapter 4 we hear how Jesus called some of the first disciples:

Jesus Calls His First Disciples
18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.
21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

The disciples were embarking on what we might now call a journey if faith. At the moment of their calling their lives changed forever. There was a transition. They seemingly left their families behind. They changed from being fishermen, and tax collectors to being followers of an itinerant preacher who just happened to be the Son of God! And there would be many more transitions after that including the transitions of seeing Jesus arrested, tried crucified and rise from the dead.

Having faith in Christ doesn’t solve the stresses and strains of life. It doesn’t prevent the transitions we fear. But faith can help us make sense of what we are faced with. Or at least help us cope.

In Matthew 11 Jesus says:

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

It’s not surprising that one of my grandmother’s favourite hymns was “What a friend we have in Jesus”. This summed up how she could cope with all the transitions.

What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.

Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness; take it to the Lord in prayer.

Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Saviour, still our refuge, take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do your friends despise, forsake you? Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In His arms He’ll take and shield you; you will find a solace there.

For my grandmother this meant praying and, it should be said, drawing on one or two close Christian friends for advice and encouragement. This was her way of coping with transitions.

I doubt if my grandmother ever heard of an American theologian called Reinhold Neibuhr. However, I know she would have prayed a prayer he wrote:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did, This sinful world as it is, Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right, If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life, And supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Refugees should be welcome here.

In the weeks leading up to our holiday whenever I told people where we were going – France – inevitably the comment that followed was “I hope you’re not going via Calais”. We didn’t go via Calais as it happened. We went from Poole to Cherbourg. But that comment “I hope you’re not going via Calais” of course said something about people’s thoughts about the refugees there seeking to get in to Britain.

And I have to be honest, I was relieved that we weren’t going via Calais. Though I’ve been asking myself the question was I relieved because I didn’t want to see what was happening there? Or was it simply because I didn’t want my holiday to be disrupted? And do you know, being honest I think it was down to my holiday plans as much as anything. How selfish is that?

Last Monday morning – as I always do – I looked at the Bible readings for this Sunday. One from James Chapter 2 caught my attention.

It starts off with a short illustration:

2 My friends, if you have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, you won’t treat some people better than others. 2 Suppose a rich person wearing fancy clothes and a gold ring comes to one of your meetings. And suppose a poor person dressed in worn-out clothes also comes. 3 You must not give the best seat to the one in fancy clothes and tell the one who is poor to stand at the side or sit on the floor. 4 That is the same as saying that some people are better than others, and you would be acting like a crooked judge. James 2: 1 – 4 Contemporary English Version

What an image this portrays.

James is writing to the early church in Jerusalem. In fact many Biblical scholars believe that James – who is thought to be one of Jesus’ brothers- was writing to the earliest church. And he is writing 10 or 20 years after Jesus’ death.

Clearly he is writing to address a problem within the church – the preference that is shown to rich people at the expense of the poor. In other words James is addressing those who claim to profess the faith of Jesus but do not live up to it. And he is reminding those in the church in Jerusalem – and reminds us today- that preference for the rich rather than the poor is a betrayal of God’s law, the law of love.

It is not clear whether James’ story of a poor person and a rich person entering the church is real or something he uses to illustrate his point. And it is not clear whether they are meant to be actual members of the church.

But the behaviour described in James’ story isn’t just confined to a first century church. It is typical of human behaviour on so many occasions. All so often the rich and prosperous – especially if they are well dressed and have the outward trappings of wealth – are welcomed in and the poor are excluded.

As I was writing this I remembered a film called “Pretty Woman”. If you’ve not seen it, it is a story of how a very wealthy man falls in love with a prostitute – Vivian Ward. He saves her from the gutter as it were and then they live happily ever after. In one scene, after they have just met, he decides that if Vivian is to be his companion she needs to dress more smartly. So he gives her his credit card and sends her off to some exclusive shops.

However, when Vivian walks in to one shop in her scruffy jeans and t shirt, the swanky shop assistant refuses to serve her kind. Vivian is served in another shop and she returns – beautifully dressed – to the first shop to point out the costly mistake of the shop assistant.

But that is how people often are. Societies all too often treat the rich with worldly honour; meanwhile the poor are addressed with scorn and degradation. We welcome the rich in and exclude the poor.

And James, 2000 years ago was able to identify this going on even then. Even in the early church.

But James pulls no punches in telling those in the early church who favour the rich over the poor that they have done wrong.

5 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? James 2:5

These words echo Jesus’ teachings in the beatitudes;

Matthew 5:3New International Version - UK (NIVUK)

3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven

Or as Luke 6:20New International Version - UK (NIVUK)

20 Looking at his disciples, Jesus said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.

James is reminding the early church and he reminds us that God has chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in respect of faith. God has promised that the poor are the heirs of his kingdom. The view of society – that the rich should be honoured – is completely at odds with the preaching and teaching of Jesus. Jesus says that the poor have a place of honour since the poor have been honoured by God.

And James reminds the people of the church in Jerusalem that there is a royal law. And that royal law is “Love your neighbour as yourself”

8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,’[a] you are doing right.

Christianity has always had a special message for the poor. After all, in Jesus’ first sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth he said “He has sent me to preach Good News to the poor.” The Christian message has consistently been that those who matter to no one else matter immensely to God.

As the great New Testament scholar William Barclay once said

“It is not that Christ and the Church do not want the great and the rich and the wise and the mighty. But it is the simple fact that the Gospel offers so much to the poor and demands so much from the rich (and that where the church has grown it is because) the poor have been swept into church”

So often we in church are concerned about dwindling numbers. There are many reasons for the decline. But I cannot help feeling at times that one reason is that what the church says goes so far against the values of the world.

When we have a society that idolises the rich and encourages wealth – seemingly at any cost – then our message:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.


‘Love your neighbour as yourself,

Falls on deaf ears. But our message is truth. And we must keep proclaiming it. And in our own society when we are all rich when compared to most of the world then people think they don’t need the Gospel.

However we as Christians need to challenge the world. We need to keep proclaiming that:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.


‘Love your neighbour as yourself,’

And that means we as Christians must be the voices for those who have no voice. We have to speak out against the injustice of the refugees at Calais and elsewhere in Europe. We have a duty to mourn for the Syrian toddler Aylan al Khurdi found drowned on a Turkish beach. We have a duty to mourn for all refugees.

I use the word refugee. Sometimes the press talk about “Migrants”. Sometimes about “Asylum seekers”. And those terms have taken on a negative image in the press. But do you know what first and foremost these are people. They are human beings.

The 70 refugees found dead in the lorry in Austria were people. Poor, desperate people. That poor little boy Aylan al Khurdi found drowned on a Turkish beach.

Maybe if we started to think of those in Calais or those clinging to flimsy boats as people our attitudes would change? Maybe if we knew their names, their faces, their ambitions and their fears, their loves, what they fled then we’d begin to think of them as our neighbours? Maybe we’d challenge our politicians. Maybe we’d try to help them in some way? And maybe we’d be prepared to offer them sanctuary and help instead of rejection?

2 My friends, if you have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, you won’t treat some people better than others. 2 Suppose a rich person wearing fancy clothes and a gold ring comes to one of your meetings. And suppose a poor person dressed in worn-out clothes also comes. 3 You must not give the best seat to the one in fancy clothes and tell the one who is poor to stand at the side or sit on the floor. 4 That is the same as saying that some people are better than others, and you would be acting like a crooked judge.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Taking time out

In July 2007 I resigned from my last paid job to become a Methodist minister. (In case you think I don’t receive any remuneration for being a minister, I do. But it is called a stipend and we are not employees. Therefore, this isn’t a job as such.) My last paid job was with South Gloucestershire Council as Benefit Fraud Investigation manager.

I look back at the 4 years or so I worked there with fondness. I worked with some good people. People who cared for one another and the people they served outside the council. I was also privileged to have two very good people as managers. I am not going to name them here. But I will refer to one as Diane.

Diane, was younger than me – though had worked in local government for far longer than I had. She had a great deal of knowledge. However, she had the good grace to listen to others. She knew that I had past experience that she could tap into and was always willing to listen. That is the sign of a very strong manager willing to listen to others – even if at the end Diane had to make her own decision.

Diane came from South Wales like I did. And because of this shared link we hit it off from the start. I felt I could trust her. Therefore, I was able to share with her (about 2 years before I resigned) that I would be leaving in 2007 to enter ministry.

Diane had been raised in a Christian family – and she shared how her mother still attended church. However, as a younger woman Diane had seen her father and her older brother both die young. Therefore she had given up on the church and God. Nevertheless, we were able to have some wonderful conversations about faith.

On the day of my leaving the staff in the office planned a church fete to be opened by the vicar (me.) In other words the office was decorated with bunting and there was lots of tea and cake. I was really touched. I was given a beautiful fountain pen (which I use every day) and just before I left for the day Diane called me to her office and gave me a litre bottle of brandy.

“From what I know of the things vicars deal with there’ll be days when you’ll need a glass of this” she said.

A few week ago, I had the last glass of brandy from that bottle. In other words, it has taken almost 8 years to finish the bottle.

Now I want to say that I have been very wary of having a drink after a tough day. I didn’t do so in the work place and I’ve not done so in ministry. I am a sociable drinker. And I have witnessed at first hand alcoholism. To have a drink after a stressful day is the very very last resort – though I have done so on one or two occasions (though not on my own.)

My reason for blogging isn’t to do with warning about drink. It is to mention the thoughts behind Diane’s gift to me. For Diane seemed to realise, more than some people in church, the pressures that ministers can face and how they need to develop mechanisms for coping.

Sadly I see (through forums on social media) many stories of ministers who are not coping. Some are suffering from mental illnesses such as depression and stress. There are many reasons for such mental illnesses of course. But for some it seems likely that a trigger has been that they have not learned (or been taught) ways to manage their time. Some, it seems to me have not learned to say “No”. And some feel their calling is to be the 4th emergency service. Always on the go which can easily lead to burn out.

I am thinking mainly about ministers here. But all people need time out.

It's worth remembering that Jesus took time out. He left the disciples to pray by himself. He modelled the need for rest. A wonderful children's book "Jesus' Day Off" is a good reminder of this.

Time management has come with me from the work place. Also I am grateful that college encouraged me to get a spiritual director who I meet every 6 – 8 weeks to talk through what is going on. It also helps having a supportive wife and good friends. I’ve also made sure I take time out, to have some “me” time.

I currently have a student minister with me on a short placement prior to his going into Circuit in September. Like me he is late in to ministry. And he seems to bring with him (from the work place) ways of coping and managing with stress and pressure. However, I’ve really emphasised to him the importance of taking time out, of managing time, to allow space for himself and his family.

During my training, one tutor said to me “You’ve been called by God to be a husband, a father and a minister in that order”. He was right. It is worth remembering.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

It's a ....... Baby!

Now it may have escaped your attention, but on Saturday 2nd May a woman gave birth to a baby. Actually, a number of women gave birth to children on Saturday 2nd May. UNICEF estimates that an average of 353,000 babies are born each day around the world. The crude birth rate is 18.9 births per 1,000 population or 255 births globally per minute or 4.3 births every second (as of Dec. 2013 estimate)


But most of the world wasn’t looking at the 352,999 other babies. The world looked at one baby born in London to a wealthy young couple called William and Kate Windsor. As yet the baby hasn’t been named, though it is unlikely she’ll be called Chardonnay or Shania.

In case you missed the news, the baby girl is now 4th in line to the British throne.

I’m no monarchist, so I didn’t get all the hoopla surrounding the birth. That said, I am pleased for her parents, as I would be for any new parents. And I ask for God’s blessing on them and their little girl. But I can’t say it means much more to me than that.

Someone said to me yesterday that I should be more excited because history was made. Well wasn’t history made with the birth of the other 352,999 babies? I would hope that for most of their parents, the birth was an historic moment too. And who knows, maybe one of the 352,999 wil become as famous as the Royal baby?

One of the 352,999 was born in a field hospital run by the Israeli army in Nepal. According to a report from the Associated Press (filed in the Washington Post on line) the baby girl was born late on Friday evening in Nepal (Saturday UK). The report says how:

“Lata Chand, 19, was heavily pregnant when the 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck last Saturday. She and her husband ran out of their house in panic. Their home was undamaged, but the hospital where she was to give birth was forced to close.
On Friday they went instead to a field hospital where the baby was born.
The midwife, Dganit Gery, said she hoped the birth would show all Nepalese women that there is hope for the future.”

Isn’t this historic too?

(I pray for the well-being of this child and her parents as well.)

What caught me out yesterday was the amount of coverage given to the birth of the Royal baby in all newspapers and media. Even the normally restrained (when it comes to things Royal) Independent kept Tweeting the story all day. That said, The Independent brought some balance to play in a story contrasting the life expectancy of the Royal baby with that of other females in this country. The princess could well live 11 years longer than her peers the story says. (She could live until she’s 94 the story estimates.) The royal baby’s life expectancy is higher for a number of reasons including access to superior healthcare, wealth and security.

Meanwhile, what of the baby girl born in Nepal? According to the latest WHO data published in April 2011 life expectancy in Nepal is: Male 67.3, female 69.1 and total life expectancy is 68.2 which gives Nepal a World Life Expectancy ranking of 122.

(At the time of the birth of the Royal baby, I was shaking a tin in Chippenham High Street with colleagues from Rotary, to raise funds to help the victims of the earthquake in Nepal.)

Some of you will be familiar with the story of a baby born over 2,000 years ago to peasant parents in as country today we call Israel. At birth the boy would have had a life expectancy of 20 – 30 years on average. Though if a child lived to 10, then life expectancy would increase to 45 – 47 years.

We’re not sure what age he was when he died (he was executed if you don’t know the story) though he was probably in his early 30s.

He would have prayed for and blessed both of the girls I’ve mentioned I’m sure. (He always had a fondness for children and treated them well – which was different to the values of his society at the time.) But he would have had something to say I feel about the differences between their lifestyles and prospects when in his eyes all children are loved equally. In fact he wold have said something about the differences between all babies born in affluent countries and the poorest countries.

The baby born 2,000 years ago was a King but a King of a very different Kingdom to any we know.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Love is known in action

18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 1 John 3:18

Love is known in action.

How do we know God’s love for the world? It is through God’s action in sending Jesus Christ into the world to save the world from sin, as demonstrated by Christ’s action of laying down his life for us. The actions of God show what God is like – LOVE!

And the same applies to us and our love. How do others know what is in our hearts? It is by our actions. Just as God’s love is known to us through the visible action of Jesus Christ, so our love is known to others through our concrete actions that seek to mirror Christ’s actions. And that is what non-Christians look for from us.

Mahatma Gandhi once said:

“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

In other words, Ghandi saw that those who claimed to be Christians did not behave in a Christ - like manner. Love is known in action.

In 1 John 3:16 we read

16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.

“Lay down our lives for one another”

Words we know so well. Often on war memorials. And we speak them with a sense of hushed awe. And well we should, for the words suggest sacrifice. Yes in the context of members of the armed forces too. But also in terms of members of the emergency services or someone who carries out a courageous act to save others. And in a wider context too. Just the other day we heard the story of the parents of a baby called Teddy, who knowing that Teddy would die just after his birth, gave permission for Teddy’s kidneys to go to someone else.

Laying down their lives for others is the ultimate demonstration of love. It is the ultimate demonstration of Love in Action.
As Christians, we know that Christ calls us to a sacrificial ministry. And in challenging words, John tells us that (verse 16) we ought to lay down our lives for one another.

16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 1 John 3:16

John’s words suggest that this should not be some grand heroic Christian gesture. Rather it should be an everyday thing. We should live our lives everyday as if we are prepared to lay down our lives. The Christian life is a life laid down for others, a life built on self-sacrifice.

Sometimes self-sacrifice will mean physical death. American nurse Kayla Mueller was murdered by Islamic terrorists in Syria earlier this year. Kayla Mueller was a Christian and in one of her letters to her parents she wrote:

"It should not be a question of 'my people' and 'your people': wherever there is injustice, that is my problem."

And we know, that if we are prepared to go and stand beside victims of injustice, hate or racism, we might become the next victim. If we go in love to those who are under daily threat of violence or war and share with them as a witness for healing and peace, we have to expect that the next bomb or bullet might find us. In every age Christians have acted with Christ - like love, going where they do not have to go and suffering what they could easily avoid.

More often the stakes are lower. But the principle is the same. Laying down our lives can mean any number of ways in which we must lay aside our claim to our own lives. We lay down our lives when we put others first.

We lay down our lives when we put the good of others before our own. We lay down our lives when we make time for others. To love others is to lay down our lives for them. When we lay aside the normal human desire to live for ourselves and when instead we allow the love of God to make others our focus, then we are laying down our lives for others.

Laying down one’s life for sisters and brothers seems by definition to be a once in a lifetime act of heroism at best. And the vast majority of Christians are unlikely to ever be put in that position – thank God! So perhaps for this reason John offers the matter of fact example of what he has in mind: practical attention to those lacking life’s basic necessities, paid by those “who have the world’s goods” (v17)

John is hard on those Christians who say they have the love of Jesus in their hearts, but who do not share their material goods with those in need. We can only imagine what he would say today when, in the sixth wealthiest country in the world, many people are reliant on Foodbanks while according to the Sunday Times rich list published today, the richest in this country have doubled their wealth in the last 10 years.

We can only imagine what John would say today when with all the wealth in the world according to UN figures:

• 925 million people do not have enough to eat - more than the combined populations of USA, Canada and the European Union;
• Nearly half the world’s population, 2.8 billion people, survive on less than $2 a day.
• About 20 percent of the world’s population, 1.2 billion people, live on less than $1 a day.
• Nearly 1 billion people are illiterate and 1 billion do not have safe water.

16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister[f] in need and yet refuses help?

And note. John doesn’t refer to “the poor”. He uses the term “brothers and sisters”. In other words, as Christians, we are called to see all people as our brothers and sisters. Whether the drunk clubber helped by Street Pastors on a Saturday night or the drowning child rescued off the coast of Italy. They are all our brothers and sisters and we are called to lay down our lives for them.

Nigel Farage in commenting on the refugees being rescued in the Mediterranean said Britain should rescue the Christian ones and offer them asylum and take the others back to Libya.

That’s not how it works John reminds us. All people are our brothers and sisters.

If we close our hearts to our brothers and sisters then we are closing our hearts to God.

This blog is an abridged version of a sermon preached at Lyneham Methodist Church on Sunday 26th April 2015

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Happy Easter - Cheers!

A theme in the appearances of Jesus after his resurrection on Easter Day is that at first he isn’t recognised.

In the Gospel of Luke we have my favourite post Resurrection story. It is of two disciples walking along the road from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus. They are joined by a stranger. The stranger is in fact Jesus. They tell him about what has happened but they do not recognise him. It is only later when he joins them for a meal and as he breaks bread and says a prayer that they recognise Jesus. (The Emmaus story linking with the Last Supper.)

In John’s Gospel John 20: 1 – 18 we have the story of Mary Magdalene going to the garden containing Jesus’ tomb. She finds the tomb empty. Then she encounters someone she takes to be the gardener.

14 At this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realise that it was Jesus.
15 He asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’
16 Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’
She turned towards him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means ‘Teacher’).

Notice it’s only when Jesus calls Mary by name that she recognises him. They’d spoken before. But it is only when he uses her name that the penny drops.

This reminds us of something Jesus says earlier in John’s Gospel, chapter 10 where Jesus talks of himself as the Good Shepherd. In that chapter Jesus says that his sheep know his voice.

14 ‘I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me

It is not surprising that when Mary hears Jesus’ voice calling her name she recognises him.

To be called by name, to be known by your name is a very important human experience. There is a big difference in how we feel when, for example someone might say “Good morning David. Please help me with this task” and “Oi you. Help me with this task”

There was a very surreal 1960s TV programme called “The Prisoner”. It is not a programme I ever got into. The series follows a British former secret agent who is abducted and held prisoner in a mysterious coastal village resort where his captors try to find out why he abruptly resigned from his job. Everyone is known by a number. And the catch phrase of the central character was “I am not a number I am a free man”. This suggests to me the importance of us being known by name. Even though he was referred to as a number, in his mind he still had his name and hence was a free man.

Jesus knows our names. Just as he knew Mary’s name and called her by name. He calls us by name too.

When people are called by their name they no longer feel excluded, they feel included. They feel known. They feel cared for. They feel loved. On the other hand when nobody knows our name or calls our name we feel excluded from the community.

The Easter community that is the Church is a community whose members have heard the Good Shepherd’s voice calling them by name. We join with Mary in being enfolded in Jesus’ love, of being enveloped by his presence. And because we know how it feels to be called by name by Jesus, we seek to call others into community by name as well. From the newest person in our congregation to those who have been part of the family for many years, we who are the Easter community know the importance of calling people by their names so that they feel part of the community of Christ as well.

An American sitcom of the 1980s was called “Cheers”. It was set almost exclusively in a bar in Boston called “Cheers”. And each week the various characters – misfits and loners for the most part – would share their news and stories and feel part of something.

The theme song of that programme could have been written about the idea of being included in the Easter people community. Of being called by name and being part of that community:

Sometimes you want to go to a place
Where everybody knows your name,
and they're always glad you came.
You want to be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You want to be where everybody knows your name.

That theme song should be a template for how churches should be.

Churches should be where people are known by name, where there is a sense that we are all the same, we all have troubles, we all fall short but we are welcomed – by Christ, by name.

Being called by name into the Easter people community gives many a sense of identity, a sense of being cared for, a sense of belonging. Something that so many in our world today lack elsewhere. But most of all it gives a sense of hope.

This blog is adapted from a sermon preached on Easter Day 2015 at Studley Methodist Church.

The Cheers theme song was written by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo and performed by Gary Portnoy.

The Cheers image came from