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
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:
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
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
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”
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 www.Huffingtonpost.com
Saturday, 4 April 2015
It is strange but I have more memories of Christmas than of Easter. And yet as a Christian, Easter is the most important festival.
That said, some Easter memories are really special to me. There was the time we were on holiday in Bruges in Belgium and were awakened early on Easter Day by church bells. There was a time staying in North Wales with friends in a holiday cottage (Easter Day was made memorable because we woke to the sight of snow on Snowdon in the distance and, sadly, a truly dire Easter service at an Anglican church in Caernarvon.) And there was a time when I preached at a service at Shrewsbury United Reformed Church on Easter Day. And that leads me to my most memorable Easter memory.
The most memorable Easter wasn’t Easter Day as such – though it was (in the church calendar) still Easter.
It was 1991 and we had a weekend in Yorkshire. On the Sunday after Easter we went to church in Ripon Cathedral. To this day I do not recall what was said by the preacher or what else was in the service that I found so powerful. But I know that on that Sunday, for the first time I truly believed in the Easter story and the power of the resurrection. And my response was to become a Local Preacher (a lay preacher) in the Methodist Church. Starting a journey that has led me to become an ordained minister.
The Easter story – Jesus coming back to life after dying on Good Friday – is the biggest challenge for people to accept about the Christian faith. And yet that is the most important part of our faith for it is only by believing and accepting that fact, that the rest of the faith falls in to place.
And for Christians, the Resurrection is a fact. And to believe that fact is the most important part of our faith.
The sceptical find it hard to accept it as fact but nevertheless, I believe it as fact – even if I might not understand the how and why of the Resurrection.
Charles Coulson, who was one of Nixon’s “Watergate Seven”, said this;
“I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Everyone was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren't true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and they couldn't keep a lie for three weeks. You're telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.”
And I believe it as fact because Jesus’ people, those who believe in him do extraordinary things. Yes, I know, lots of people do wonderful things too. But Jesus’ people are Easter people and we should be empowered by the Resurrection which is the ultimate demonstration of God’s love for us.
During the marking of the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz in January this year, I became aware of the story of Father Maximilian Kolbe. He was a Polish priest who died as prisoner 16770 in Auschwitz.
When a prisoner escaped from the camp, the Nazis selected 10 others to be killed by starvation in reprisal for the escape. One of the 10 selected to die, Franciszek Gajowniczek, began to cry: My wife! My children! I will never see them again! At this Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward and asked to die in his place. His request was granted.
In that Good Friday Hell of Auschwitz, Maximillian, a Beloved Disciple of Christ exhibited the power of Easter. Love conquered the hatred.
That is the power of Easter. Love conquers hate. Love conquers death.
Christ is risen! He has risen indeed! Alleluia!
Wednesday, 1 April 2015
One of the challenges that face a church minister today is trying to connect the teachings of the Christian faith with today’s world. And, more specifically, trying to consider the world through the lens of the Christian faith. In short “What would Jesus do?”
(I am always slightly wary of the WWJD movement. Especially when it branches off in some odd directions such as “What car would Jesus drive?”)
There are some Christians who rely solely on the Bible as a basis for forming their view of the world today. It is a limited approach but can work such as when confronted with a menu in a French restaurant for example.
Picture the scene. A fundamentalist Christian enters a French restaurant and is handed the menu. One choice is "Cuisses de grenouilles." A quick consultation with an English French dictionary identified said "Cuisses de grenouilles" as “Frogs legs”. Now our fundamentalist friend isn’t sure whether he should eat those so he now consults his Bible and there in Leviticus chapter 11 he finds this:
9 ‘“Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams you may eat any that have fins and scales. 10 But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales – whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water – you are to regard as unclean”
This means for our fundamentalist gourmet frogs legs are off the menu (even if served in a delicious tomato and garlic sauce accompanied by a crisp Chablis.)
However, there are many things the Bible is silent on, so what to do? If the Bible is silent does this mean we should ignore the problem? No. We can’t ignore the world around us so we have to find another approach.
One such approach has been termed the “Wesleyan quadrilateral”. This sounds like some odd country dance (or even a move in “Mornington Crescent” – the legendary board game in Radio 4’s “I’m sorry I haven’t a clue.”) in fact it is an explanation of how many Christians (consciously or unconsciously) approach moral and spiritual dilemmas.
The four sources are:
For most (if not all) Christians, Scripture is considered the primary source and standard for Christian doctrine. Tradition is experience and the witness of development and growth of the faith through the past centuries and in many nations and cultures. Experience is the individual's understanding and appropriating of the faith in the light of his or her own life. Through Reason the individual Christian brings to bear on the Christian faith discerning and cogent thought. These four elements taken together bring the individual Christian to a mature and fulfilling understanding of the Christian faith and the required response of worship and service.
Source: A Dictionary for United Methodists, Alan K. Waltz, Copyright 1991, Abingdon Press.
A practical application of the Wesleyan quadrilateral might be towards whether people should be employed on zero hours contracts. (Please bear in mind what follows is a very simplified summary and application!)
If we start with Scripture, unsurprisingly there is nothing specific. However, in one parable, sometimes called the Parable of the workers in the vineyard, we see a radical approach to the hiring of labour on a daily basis. (Regardless of whether someone works for 1 hour or 11 hours they are paid the same. Jesus told the story to illustrate his point that in God’s kingdom “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”)
What does Tradition of the church say? Church tradition / Church history might point to how the Church has viewed employer / employee relations throughout the centuries. Has the Church employed people? If so on what basis? Has the Church commented on how employers should treat workers?
Experience – it may be that the individual has no direct experience of the exact situation but that wouldn’t stop them applying their own faith / beliefs to help them understand. “Didn’t Jesus say that Christians are to “Share Good News (the message and values of Jesus) with the poor? To stand up for the oppressed? And challenge unfairness?” This is a classic “What would Jesus do?” situation.
Finally Reason. In our example it would be about thinking it through. “Would I want to have a zero hours contract? Could I support my family if that was the only job I could get? On the other hand maybe for some people zero hours contracts work if they want flexible working.” (I find that Experience and Reason tend to overlap.)
Having worked through this then a Christian may be better placed to give an opinion.
Faced as we are in this country with having to decide who to vote for on 7th May, applying the Wesleyan quadrilateral to the key policies of the main parties might help. It is a sort of “Who would Jesus vote for?”
It would be wrong of me to say how my use of the WQ has helped me decide – though those of you who know me may have some idea. All I will say is it won’t be UKIP!
Thursday, 12 March 2015
Last weekend I went for a walk in the beautiful countryside near where we live. I was accompanied by my wife and a good friend of ours.
My wife had discovered the walk a few weeks ago and had said she’d like us to do it together as it was interesting and went through some lovely countryside. She wasn’t wrong.
She had found the walk in a book of walks we have and she had set out on her own one Saturday when I was busy elsewhere. The book comes with some detailed maps and all the paths are clearly marked so it wasn’t an issue but as we did the walk, with Anne leading the way, I realised something about going on walks. As much as I enjoy walks I begin to feel slightly uncomfortable if I don’t know where I am or don’t know where I am going.
Looking back I realise that I often have this feeling on a walk. I don’t why I should feel that way but I do. It’s not anything to do with not having the map or guide book, for Anne is a far better navigator than I am. I am always happy to let her lead the way. But I just have this slight unease if I am not sure of where we are going and where we are.
It is not as if I have ever got lost on a walk and that has left an effect. Maybe it is more about wanting to be in control and having unease when someone else is leading the way?
The irony is that like all Christians I am on a way of faith that does not come with a detailed map. Yes there are pointers, but for the most part I walk the way, only knowing in general terms where I am headed. But I am comfortable with this. It is only when out walking that I need a detailed map, a set of instructions and the assurance of knowing where I am at a given moment. Faith wise, I am happy to go with the flow.
One phrase that has been used since the time of Jesus to describe the journey of faith we are on is “the Way”. So much so, that the earliest Christians (living perhaps 30 or 40 years after Jesus) were known as “people of the Way.” It is not a description used very often now which I think is a shame for it is a good discretion of what it is like to live the Christian life I think.
A Bible passage that I often use when I conduct a funeral is from John chapter 14. 1 - 6
John 14:1-6New International Version - UK (NIVUK)
14 ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God[a]; believe also in me. 2 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4 You know the way to the place where I am going.’
5 Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’
6 Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
Thomas presumably would have been happier on his journey of faith if he had detailed instructions. But Jesus’ words are a reminder that faith doesn’t come with clear road map. All we have is the assurance of the destination.