Let’s party!

4 July 2010

Article for the July edition of Crosslincs

I often feel that it’s not what you say that matters, but how people hear you.  It is something which I see played out again and again in the media as politicians, religious people, and experts comment on vital matters of our age.  Some have the knack of exciting and interesting us, while others just can’t do it and leave us none the wiser – swamped in a flood of words.  Yet the views, understanding and votes of many are based on such brief encounters.

As a church we put an enormous amount of time and effort into deciding what we want to say, but I wonder how often we stop and consider how we are heard?  I suspect that many hear us as being serious people in a state of anxiety about the world and constantly preoccupied with internal problems which are of no interest or consequence for those who are outside the conversation.  There is of course some truth in what they hear.  We are serious about being the people of God; the world is far from being ‘right’ and we have theological and financial issues which need addressing – yet is that all we have to say? Is that all that people need to hear?

It is no easier when we turn to the words of Scripture – we hear these precious words in so many different ways and respond to what we hear.  A good example of this is Luke 15.  It is a wonderful chapter containing three of Jesus’ parables about being lost – the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son.  We can hear these familiar stories of something precious first being lost and then being found, as stories of God’s response to those who have sinned.  We can also hear these stories as an encouragement to evangelise those who have got life wrong and to assure them that they are precious to God.  Yet is that all that we need to hear from these familiar stories of being lost and being found?

I often use the stories in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis as something of a key to understanding what’s happening in the rest of the Bible.  In Genesis Chapter 3 we have a story of people becoming lost.  Adam and Eve choose to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and become lost to the blessings of paradise. Because of their choice, God has to search for them and calls out “Where are you?”

The story of God then seems to reveal a divine restlessness to recover us from our ‘lostness’.  That becomes God’s passion and purpose – to restore us to the real blessings which come with the gift of life.  So Jesus’ three parables are about so much more than finding something precious that was lost. They are about hearing the reaction of the one who has been searching and has found what they were looking for – “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep” verse 6, and again “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin” verse 9, and then more explicitly in verse 32 “we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found”.

These familiar stories enable us to hear something of the party that is going on in heaven when God recovers what is lost. They let us hear God in party mode, celebrating with us whenever we have grasped the gift of free will and used it to make choices that are infused with the quality of love and thus moving us closer and closer to those blessings of life which God intends.  When we are found, recovered by the God who is restless to find us – then it’s time to party.

I wonder how often we radiate that sense of celebration in what we say and do as God’s people.  When we follow Paul’s calling to the Colossians to”seek the things which are above”, are we looking for a party, and does it sound as if we are having a good time?  If there is a party going on in heaven, then that’s what needs to resonate from the life of our church.  If we are caught up with a God who rejoices, then are we living that out in our worship, witness and ministry?  Are we inviting the community in which we are set to a party? We may think we’ve told them, but what have they heard?

Faith – the casuality of excessive independance

17 January 2010

Cleethorpes Chronicle  article – 14th January 2010

The last couple of weeks have been quite a struggle as we have learned to live with the snow, ice and cold. It has been a particularly challenging time for the sick, the elderly and the housebound, as well as for those who have to travel in the course of their work.  Mercifully, however, the electricity supply hasn’t been too affected and supplies of oil and gas have been sustained.

As ever, when the normality of life is interrupted, there have been many stories of neighbourliness, care and support within communities, with much to celebrate about the way in which we can and do care for each other when the ‘chips are down’.  I have cause to be grateful to two strangers who came to my rescue when my car became stuck on ice trying to get up a slight incline. I had been getting nowhere for about 15 minutes when my helpers came and pushed me onto firmer ground – I really did wish them many blessings for their kindness.

Awareness of those who live around us increases at times such as we have experienced recently. The sad thing is that such awareness of each other seems to run against the way in which our society is going. Independence is seen to be a virtue and much of life is directed towards enabling us to be ‘entire unto ourselves’. Yet such independence is a very modern feature to life and runs contrary to human history where we have worked together in communities. There is actually very little evidence that independence makes us happier – in fact it seems to feed a ‘therapy culture’.

Independent living sounds attractive and is a good slogan until the snow comes, or the normality of life is interrupted for whatever reason – then family, friends and neighbours become essential features to our survival. What price independence in the face of an earthquake such has been experienced in Haiti?

Of course true community is really built upon ‘faith’ – believing in and trusting in others.  One of the great challenges of our age is to recover that sense of faith within our communities, so that we can work together not just in the exceptional times of need, but in the normality of the everyday.  Faith is a casualty of excessive independence, for faith is rooted in the humility of accepting that we cannot make it through life on our own.  Without faith in others, how will we cope when the cold realities of life break through the illusion that we can ever be independent?

Christmas thoughts

24 December 2009

The past week has seen much of the country held in the grip of freezing weather which has brought in its wake not just inconvenience and travel disruption, but the tragic loss of life on the roads. It has also deepened the plight of those who live on the streets and for those who cannot afford to heat their homes.

“When the snow lay round about Deep and crisp and even” really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, yet in the spirit of Good King Wenceslas there have been countless acts of generosity and hospitality in the face of such extreme weather – not lease the reaction of the John Lewis store in High Wycombe, which gave overnight shelter to around 100 staff and customers trapped in the store by a blizzard – a wonderful example of responding to what really matters.  Perhaps inevitably it is only when the ‘chips are really down’ that we ask the question “What really matters?”

Yet as we prepare to celebrate the gift of a new birth in that stable of Bethlehem we need to remind ourselves that the story of Bethlehem – the story of shepherds, wise men, of angels and of the baby Jesus – isn’t a story which gives answers, rather it’s a story which asks a question and down the ages the Christmas story repeats that question afresh in each generation – what really matters?  The story of the birth of Jesus invites us to discover God in that child; to discover God in all the vulnerability of love; to discover God in all the risks and danger which that child encountered.

‘What really matters?’  is a demanding question, yet in answering it, our inner self, our values and our spirit is revealed.   As we look back on the story of this past year, that same question has woven its way through the events of 2009 – what really matters?  In the devastating floods in the Lake District; during the funerals of the soldiers killed in Afghanistan; as our economy has continued to flounder; as we have been disappointed by what has been revealed about some of our politicians; as we respond to the issues of climate change – we have to ask ourselves ‘what really matters?.  It is a question which challenges us to make sense of life and our response to that question gives shape, purpose and value to us and to our communities.

In the coming year there will be a general election.  The question from Bethlehem, the question to be found in the Christmas story – ‘What really matters?’ – needs to be addressed by those who will be seeking power.  For politicians who fail to address this fundamental  question will have little to offer the complexities of our world and of our society.

In that child Jesus we glimpse something of God’s answer to this question as we find value in the love and vulnerability of a baby.  It is in the story of Christmas that we being to discover what really matters as we glimpse God’s commitment to life and it is in the message of the angels that we glimpse the cost and value of peace in bringing joy to this world.

As we celebrate Christmas this year may the baby of Bethlehem ask you the question “What really matters to you?” and I pray that you will find your answer in the love and vulnerability of that child whom we celebrate at this time and through whom we can come to know God.

Easter – features of the future

12 April 2009

Recently whilst visiting a school I was in a class which had been given the task of imagining and designing an island. In pairs they had been given a blank sheet of paper and asked to put in the features needed to shape the future of the people living on their imaginary island.   I was fascinated by the way in which all the islands ended up with similar features – mountains, rivers, fields, villages and towns.  All had roads and most had railways, some had an airport and most had docks, some had reservoirs and one had a rubbish dump – but none had wind farms, none had hydroelectric power stations and none had solar panels.  What was common to them all was that they imagined the future in terms of what they had already experienced – their future was a reflection of the past and I suspect that many of us, given the same exercise, would have done the same – imagining the future as a reflection of the past.


To Christians, the Easter story is an invitation – an invitation to become involved in shaping the future – our own and for our society.   An invitation to glimpse what is possible when we allow our imagination to be fed by the possibilities of God and his transforming love; an invitation to re-imagine our future, not as a reflection of the past, but as a new landscape of life and love.

We celebrate Easter this year when the world is experiencing remarkable changes and uncertainties.  The global economy is undergoing a fundamental readjustment, the recession is teasing out the viability of businesses leaving in its wake the unemployment which makes the future so uncertain for millions of people.

We celebrate Easter with the growing spectre of climate change and the continued threat of terrorism contributing to a general texture of uncertainty and, as ever, we celebrate Easter against the backdrop of all the ongoing joys and sorrows of life, from the joys of new birth to the heart rending plight of the Italian earthquake victims.

It is a troubling picture and it is far too simplistic just to say that Easter and its message of hope is ‘the’ answer to all the problems of our times.  The key to understanding Easter is the image of Jesus dying on the cross. The pain and suffering of Jesus tortured to death on the cross is transformed not avoided.  The hope which Christians celebrate today is not about making everything all right again, but how we can re-imagine the future.

As we wrestle with the future, it is understandably tempting and attractive for politicians to offer a future which is a recovery of the past good times, but what’s the sense in that?  More of the same will bring us to exactly where we are now – I think that it is called boom and bust.

It is too easy to jump on a bandwagon of blaming the bankers for all the economic problems we are facing.  We need to remember that they were operating in a system of values which we endorsed as we enjoyed the benefits of a buoyant economy, but those values had no substance, for they were not about shaping the future but exploiting the present.  A target driven world can be a world that sacrifices wisdom for the short term gains and approval of meeting the targets.

So do we really want to go back to that?  Or, if given a blank sheet of paper and asked to re-imagine the world, what features, what values would we draw in to shape the future for our world. The message of Easter invites us to draw in life and love, peace and justice, hope and goodness as foundational features for shaping the future.  These features are not exclusive to Christians – life and love, peace and justice, hope and goodness are universal and a commitment to them would be future shaping.  The Easter story enables us to glimpse that when these things are lived out to the full, then there is a flourishing of life which even death cannot destroy.

Free to protest

8 April 2009

Over-to-you.  BBC Radio Humberside 8th April 2009

There just seems to be so much news around at present that there is ever the danger that you miss the really interesting, but less sensational, stories.  This was particularly true yesterday, all the international attention was on President Obama’s visit to Iraq and a story from the Iraqi Appeal Court received little attention.  But the court ruled that the sentence given to c the journalist who hurled his shoes at President Bush, had been too severe and it was cut from 3 years in prison to one – which is still a long time for him to ponder the wisdom of his acts.  Zadai claimed that had thrown his shoes, a grave insult in Arab culture, as a protest on behalf of  the Iraqis who had been killed, orphaned or widowed since the US-led invasion of their country and in President Bush’s own words “it is one way to gain attention”.

It  raises the question – how do we gain attention when we feel that everything is going wrong? It comes as we absorb the concerning video footage associated with the death of Ian Tomlinson at last week’s G20 protest, scenes which ask serious questions about police behaviour.  When the powerful stop listening, how do we gain their attention and make them aware of our disquiet?

One of the stories about Jesus, which we read during these days leading up to Good Friday, is about him wreaking havoc in  the Temple, turning over the tables of the money changers.   It is a story of protest, a violent protest and Jesus’ actions were every bit as insulting in Jewish culture as an Arab throwing his shoe. Yet Jesus had found that the powerful had stopped listening and as the story unfolds it has a very modern feel, for the powerful used all the apparatus of their power to resist the truth Jesus was expounding.  The nature of Jesus’ protest against the abuse and corruption of truth becomes increasingly silent and the authority of his protest becomes greater as he offers a contrast to the anger, threats and violence of those who seek his death.

I think that to protest is to exercise our God given freedom to use our minds, to have an opinion and to speak about how we understand truth in this world.  Yet like all freedoms, there has to be responsibility and those who protest have to keep a fine balance between on the one hand making the powerful listen to their views and on the other becoming so forceful that the powerful have an excuse not to listen.  Over the years there have been many protests at the G8 meetings about the way the world economy was being run – they became very violent and the violence ensured that the protesters were not listened to by those with the power to change the economy.  As we now live in the grip of a terrible recession which is wreaking havoc in the lives of so many people, we may well feel that wisdom was actually found to be with the protesters, for it is painfully clear that the powerful who ran our economy  got it very wrong.

There, but for the grace of God

10 March 2009

Whilst I really struggle with the morality of awarding anyone a pension of over £700,000, I also struggle with the morality of how Sir Fred Goodwin, that failed chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland, is being treated as a ‘scapegoat’ for all the wrongs of our society’s approach to money. Sir Fred is just an example of how we have become obsessed with money and I wonder how many of those who have joined in the criticism of Sir Fred would themselves have passed up the opportunity to have legally obtained such a huge sum of money.

When a chap called John Bradford was imprisoned in the Tower of London some 450 years ago, he watched a prisoner being led out for execution and commented “There, but for the grace of God goes John Bradford”. In just one phrase, Bradford offered us a humble recognition that there is a capacity in each of us to get life wrong, a recognition which we retain in the proverb “there, but for the grace of God go I”.

It is a less attractive side of human nature to enjoy the failures and wrong doings of others and to take pleasure in their disgrace. John Bradford’s own execution had to be delayed because of the size of the crowd which had gathered to watch him burn to death for what was then the scandalous crime of being a protestant! Whilst today we don’t indulge in such barbarism, the desire to punish through public humiliation is still there in the government’s policy of ‘naming and shaming’ – a policy which is described in the Bible as “gloating over other men’s sins” and quite the opposite to any sense of love or justice.

In the face of so much that is wrong in our world and so much wickedness perpetrated by individuals, I do wonder whether we need to start our response by recovering that sense of ‘There, but for the grace of God go I”, for such humility is a sure foundation for goodness. Mercifully few of us are capable of committing any of the crimes which so dominate our headlines, nor do we have the opportunity to grab outrageous pensions, but which of us can claim to have got life absolutely right and to have never got it wrong? I rather suspect that there is a little something of Sir Fred in many of us and we will only really begin to solve the deep problems in our society when we recognise this inconvenient truth.

Christmas is coming

20 December 2008

One of the things I love about Christmas day is that for just a few hours there is a different pace to life.  The shops shut, commerce is suspended, lorries are off the road and there is a pause in the rush and bustle of life.   Christmas continues to hold the attention not just of our own country, but of many, many countries across the world.

During a school visit, I was recently asked what does Christmas mean to me.  I found that the answer came quite easily as, for me, Christmas is about possibility – it is about the possibility of God.   There is no proof about God because of the Christmas story.  Angels, shepherds, wise men, gifts and a manger are much enjoyed details about a far bigger question. A question which is there each and every time we hold a newborn baby – what are the possibilities for this child?  Few of us who are parents or grandparents cannot but have been thrilled at encountering all the possibilities contained within the fragility and vulnerability of a new member to our family.

The birth of Jesus offers the same experience, but he is also wrapped in a belief that through this child we encounter the possibilities of God – possibilities which embraced love, peace, gentleness, kindness, forgiveness and hope.  I think that this is why so many people continue to be attracted to this baby of Bethlehem, for these possibilities are the very ones we hope to find in our own lives.  During this Christmas time, congregations in churches will swell and I suspect that many of those unfamiliar with church will come to sing carols and mouth unfamiliar prayers because they are drawn to the services by the reality that we all want these sorts of possibilities to be part of our lives as well.

Christmas is an invitation for us to renew ourselves in the possibilities of love, of peace, of gentleness, of kindness, or forgiveness and of hope that they may become the stuff of our lives as well.  I hope and pray that the qualities of life celebrated in this baby of Bethlehem will become ours, not just for a few hours each year, but for each and every day.

Originally published in the Cleethorpes Chronicle