Sunday, 17 January 2016

Street Pastors commissioning

This is the text of a sermon I preached at the Chippenham Street Pastors Commissioning service on 16th January 2016

As well as having the honour of being Chair of Trustees for Chippenham Street Pastors, I also am the volunteer chaplain to the police in Chippenham. And prior to moving to Chippenham 2 years ago, I’d been one of the volunteer chaplains for Swindon Police.

One night in Swindon I was sat in a very nice 5 series BMW traffic police car. The officer I was with was called in to the Centre of Swindon to provide some assistance as a disturbance was taking place outside a night club. As we got nearer to the incident the officer got a call telling us that he wasn’t needed and then he said to me “Are you anything to do with those Street Pastors?” I wasn’t – though I said I knew a few including my wife.

“You let your wife go out down the bottom of town as a Street Pastor? You wouldn’t catch me doing what they do! I don’t get why they would want to go out with the idiots down town on a Saturday night!”

I’ve edited this for language!

I explained that the reason for Street Pastors doing what they do is about serving others - just like police officers do. The Police officer I was with that night, like all I’ve encountered, had a strong sense of public service and he sort of understood why Street Pastors serve others. But although I didn’t say this to the officer, I feel Street Pastors do what they do not just out of service but also because Street Pastors are evangelists too.

And this sets Street Pastors apart from other people who just serve their neighbours. There are many good people who serve others – whether they are public servants such as police officers, nurses, doctors, and so on. Or whether they serve other people in some other way. But just because you’re prepared to serve others doesn’t make you an evangelist. To be an evangelist then is more than just serving others – though that is part of it.

Now let me make something clear. The words “Evangelist” and “Evangelism” have got a bad press. More often than not when we hear these words we think of the right wing Christians in the USA. Or we think of those who stand on street corners and not so much preach as rant.

And yes those are forms of evangelism because put simply evangelism means to bring or announce Good News. Good News being the Gospel of Jesus. Evangelism is the preaching of the Gospel. Communicating God’s message of mercy to sinners.

We tend to think of Evangelists as one particular type of Christian because we tend to associate evangelism with preaching. But all Christians are called to be evangelists – sharers of the Good News and sharers of Christ’s love. Some may do so through preaching and others will do so in other ways.

Evangelism is much more than preaching the gospel. I think it is better to think of evangelism as communication of the Gospel by word and deed. You may have heard the saying attributed to St Francis of Assisi “Preach the Gospel at all times. And if necessary use words.”

And if you think of it, Jesus evangelised through words and deed. Yes, he preached but he also put his words into actions.

For example, in the healing of the blind man Bartimaeus Mark 10: 46 - 52

46 Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
48 Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
49 Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”
So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.”50 Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.
51 “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.
The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”
52 “Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.

Jesus tells Bartimaeus the Gospel – “Your faith has healed you” and then demonstrates the Gospel by healing Bartimaeus. In this short story, we see both kinds of evangelism at work. Preaching and doing.

So to answer that police officer’s question why do Street Pastors do what they do? Or perhaps more precisely what makes Street Pastors able to do what they do?

I believe what makes Street Pastors do what you do is the Holy Spirit. And when you are a Street Pastor you show the fruits of the Holy Spirit. And through showing the fruits of the Holy Spirit you are evangelising. Not by preaching but by showing what it means for you to have Christ in your lives and by offering the Night Time Economy of Chippenham the Fruits of the Spirit.

22 God’s Spirit makes us loving, happy, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful,23 gentle, and self-controlled. Galatians 5: 22 - 23

As I said earlier, all followers of Jesus should be evangelists. But the Holy Spirit has given Street Pastors the gift to be evangelists, in a place and a time where most of us would rather be tucked up in bed! The Holy Spirit has called you to show and tell the Good News of Jesus, by being alongside the night clubbers, the door staff, the police officers, the taxi drivers, the people serving in the Kebab shop or Subway, on a Saturday night.

In the words of one of the Promises Street Pastors make

You walk the streets as a public, prayerful presence representing
Jesus and his Church to all you meet.

That is evangelism.

I’m sure at 3.30 am on a cold wet January night it will be a real challenge to be
loving, happy, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful,23 gentle, and self-controlled
But be assured the Holy Spirit is with you always.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

The kindness of strangers

If I asked you to tell someone the Christmas story – briefly! – it would probably go a bit like this.

There was a young woman called Mary. She was engaged to be married to Joseph. One day an Angel appeared to Mary and told her she would be having a baby who was the Son of God. God was the father not Joseph. Mary told Joseph this and he accepted this.

A little while later the Romans said that all the people were to be taxed or entered on to a census. And to do this they had to go their home town. As Joseph was from Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph set out for that town. Mary rode on a donkey.

When they arrived, all the rooms in the inns were taken. But a kindly innkeeper said they could use a stable. And that’s where the baby – Jesus - was born. Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.

Meanwhile, in the fields outside Bethlehem angels appeared to shepherds. The angels told the shepherds to go to Bethlehem and worship the baby. Which they did.

At the same time 3 wisemen from the East followed a star to where the baby was lying. They had to stop and ask for directions from Herod in Jerusalem. Herod wanted to know all about the baby and asked them to tell him where he was on their return journey. But they didn’t tell him.

In just over 200 words that is the Christmas story.

The Christmas story as we think of it is in Luke’s Gospel and Matthew’s Gospel. We get the whole story from them both. But they don’t contain all the same information.

The shepherds are in Luke but not Matthew.

The wisemen are in Matthew but not Luke.

In Luke Mary and Joseph were living in Nazareth and had to travel to Bethlehem. Whereas in Matthew we are told that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. There is no mention of travelling from Nazareth. Maybe they were living in Bethlehem all the time.

If we were so inclined, we could get hung up on these differences. But I don’t think we need worry. The important thing is both versions give us a picture of what was happening at that time. Jesus was born in a country under occupation of a foreign power – Rome. And he was born into a territory over which a despot – Herod – had sway.

And what is clear from both stories is that the turbulent times in which Jesus was born meant that his parents were on the move. They had to move from Nazareth to Bethlehem according to Luke or, if we take Matthew’s Gospel, they had to flee from Bethlehem and their homeland to Egypt.

I stopped my recap of the Christmas story with the departure of the wisemen. And let’s face it, that is usually where we stop the story. But in fact after the wisemen leave, Herod realises they have tricked him and orders that all boys aged 2 and under must be killed in the Bethlehem area. Matthew tells us Joseph was warned of this in a dream and consequently, Joseph, Mary and the baby flee to Egypt.

A wonderful children’s story called “Refuge” has recently been published. It is written by Anne Booth and Sam Usher. It is an imaging of that journey as seen through the eyes of their faithful donkey. Proceeds from the sale of the book go to the charity War Child – a charity that helps children whose lives are disrupted by war. And of course many such children are refugees.

As Christians, we believe that Jesus was the Son of God. We believe that Jesus was in fact fully human as we are but was also fully God. And as Jesus was fully God he was without sin. But as he was fully human he experienced the kind of things humans experience – including the experience some humans have of being refugees.

Matthew doesn’t tell us how long the family lived in Egypt. All he tells us is that after Herod died – and the hunt for the baby was called off or forgotten – an angel appeared to Joseph and told him it was safe to return.

22 But when he heard that Achelous was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth.

Bethlehem is in Judea. And they way Matthew words this suggests that Bethlehem was really home. But it was not safe to return there so instead they went to Nazareth in the north of the country.

In the latter part of the Christmas story then, we get a glimpse of what it means to be a refugee. To have to leave one’s home and go to a foreign land where, presumably you don’t speak the language, where, presumably you are reliant on the kindness of strangers to offer you somewhere to live etc.

Whenever I see the images of the refugees fleeing Syria I cannot help but think of how Jesus would understand what they are going through. According to a report in The Guardian in September 2015, more than 4 million refugees have fled Syria since the war there began in 2011. According to the UN’s refugee agency, almost 1.8 million have gone to Turkey, more than 600,000 to Jordan and 1 million to Lebanon – a country whose population is just 4 million.

And as a follower of Jesus, I wonder what the response of Christians should be. I know of course it is a huge issue and a hugely complex issue. We know that immigration is such a hot topic in this country. And following the Paris shootings where – apparently – some of the terrorists posed as Syrian refugees to get in to Europe, there is an even greater reluctance to welcome in the stranger.

Yet always in the back of my mind – and I hope in some of yours too – are the words of Jesus. Jesus is talking of himself as King

34 ‘Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
37 ‘Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you ill or in prison and go to visit you?”
40 ‘The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Refuge ends with these words:

And I kept walking, carrying my precious load, and the woman held the baby close to her heart, and she and the man talked about journeys, and dreams and warnings, and the love of a baby, and the kindness of strangers.
And when we rested , ad they were frightened, they took hope from each other, and from the baby’s first smile.
And we entered Egypt and found refuge.

Refuge Anne Booth & Sam Usher 2015 Nosy Crow Ltd London

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Turn around when possible

This is an abridged version of a sermon preached at Lyneham Methodist Church on 6th December 2015 - the Second Sunday of Advent.

At this time of the year people often say to me “It must be your busiest time of year?” It is busy, but it is no busier in many ways for me than it is for you. This time of the year seems busy for everyone as we get busy preparing.

Advent is a time of preparation. It should be a time in which we are preparing solely for Jesus Christ and his coming in to the world. But at home people are cleaning, getting out their Christmas decorations, writing Christmas cards, baking, purchasing a tree, hosting parties, attending parties. Then there is shopping. And in the church context there are often extra services to attend and take part in. At times our preparation may seem distracted from the real event.

I’m reminded of the T shirt I saw once “Look busy Jesus is coming”.

We seem to think that if we are busy that is sufficient preparation for Christ coming into the world.

We are so busy doing so much at this time of the year that we don’t want to be interrupted. But every year we are interrupted – by John the Baptist. He features largely in the preparation of Advent. And his appearance means that our plans are interrupted and in fact we have to make preparations of a different kind. For John comes as a reminder of what we really should be preparing for – the coming of Jesus.

John’s arrival on the second Sunday of Advent is a reminder to us that before we can wallow in the joy of Christmas, and bask in the birth of a special baby, we have to examine ourselves and our world.

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.

Luke 3:4

This message from John is a reminder of the work we are called to do as Christians in the wider world. The message reminds us of the preparation we have to do for Christ’s coming. But we mustn’t forget that we need to prepare ourselves too.

When I was a boy, I’d look forward to the times when we’d travel from my home in South Wales to the exotic place that was – Swindon! My mum’s sister and her family moved to Swindon from South Wales in the late 1960s and once every couple of months we’d visit them.

My Uncle Len was great company. He had a great sense of humour. And a standing joke when we’d visit was something like this. “Ooh you can tell we’ve got visitors we don’t normally have corned beef pie.” Or “These are new plates. You’ve bought them because the Grays are here.” Every time there’d be a comment on these lines and every time my Aunty Jenny would fall for it. “Leonard! We had corned beef pie 3 weeks ago!” “Leonard! You know we’ve had these plates for ages!”

But of course whilst this was a family joke, like all good jokes there was an element of truth behind it. For Aunty Jenny would have prepared for the arrival of guests just like most of us would do.

And depending on the guests, and how long they may stay, the preparation may be more than a quick tidy up and a run round with the hoover. When we had some friends from America come to stay with us earlier in the year, I was surprised at the number of odd jobs I was given to do. The wobbly shelf in the bathroom which had been like that for some time now needed to be fixed. The bags of garden rubbish that had been perfectly happy lurking behind the shed now had to go to the dump. And “Please go through the cupboard in the spare bedroom to make some room. There’s things there you’ve not worn for years.”

Preparing for company often causes hosts to look at their home, to examine their surroundings with a whole new perspective. Preparing for guests involves self-examination and a long “to do” list. Preparing for guests involves putting things right, cleaning and decluttering.

Somehow I don’t imagine John the Baptist would have been too concerned about a wonky shelf in the bathroom. Someone who, we are told, lived in the wilderness clothed in the skins of wild animals, would not be too fussed about the finer things in life I suspect. John the Baptist would not have bothered to run the hoover round.

John was much better at understanding another kind of preparation. His message was all about how people should prepare to welcome God into their lives. His preaching called people to examine their lives, to see their lives with fresh eyes. His message called people to clean their lives. To repent. He gave people a “to do” list of the things they needed to do in order to receive the one coming after him.

We all know the kind of preparations we go through at home to celebrate Christmas. But John reminds us that, in the words of the hymn “Joy to the world” we are to receive the king and therefore “let every heart prepare him room.”

John’s challenge is for us all to repent and prepare. I gather that in the Greek, in which the New Testament was originally written, the word we translate as “Repentance” was “metanoia”. This can also be translated as changing your mind, or turning around or to reorientate ourselves. If we think of it in this way, what we are being asked to do is to face towards God and turn away from sin. To ask for God’s forgiveness. And then having done this John calls us to prepare the way for the Lord.

Repentance is not just changing our minds, or feeling sorry for something that we have done, or even making bold resolves that we will never participate in certain conduct again. Instead, repentance means to turn around and go in another direction. To walk away from sin and walk to Christ. What John the Baptist wanted his audience to hear was: Turn your life toward this one called Messiah.

My Sat Nav says "Turn around when possible" when I have take the wrong direction. That is what John is calling us to do.

Several years ago I had someone tell me after a sermon during Advent: The problem with John the Baptist is that he takes all of the fun out of Christmas. He couldn't have been further from the truth. It is this weird eccentric called John the Baptist who puts the joy back into Christmas. For John is the one who calls us not to Christmas the way it is, but to Christmas the way it is meant to be.

“Joy to the world the Lord is come!”

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.