Happy New Year?

1 January 2011

BBC Radio Humberside – New Year’s Day

Well I wish you a very happy New Year . But, having said that  I realise that we start 2011 with many problems before us – the weather, the economy and those myriad of personal issues which can so weigh us down.  So what does it need for us to be happy in this New Year?  Oscar Wildle that great manufacturer of sharp quotations observed that “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go”

But I am much more drawn to the anonymous observation that “Happiness is not the absence of problems but the ability to deal with them.”, because unless that’s true, then we are doomed to unhappiness, because throughout my life I have never known a time when there haven’t been problems to deal with and I suspect that’s true for all of us.  Indeed it is the problems which give life a texture and responding to them can bring out some of our best qualities.

There was a fashion for imagining a world which was problem free, one of the most famous versions was a book  by Sir Thomas More written some 500 years ago which he called Utopia – a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean where there was no poverty or misery and all lived in harmony.  As we grapple with the recession, unemployment and all that comes with them, Utopia sounds a good place to be.  Of course the story of Utopia echoes the story of the Garden of Eden at the beginning of the Bible, where God places Adam and Eve in a paradise where there were no problems. An experience of harmony and peace which they can enjoy as long as they used their freedom of choice responsibly.

The story goes on that once Adam and Eve misused their freedom of choice, then paradise became an impossible place for them, because paradise requires a depth of responsibility which enables harmony to exist.  But as we look over human history and read our headlines today, it is clear that such a depth of responsibility seems beyond our capacity to achieve.  The distinctiveness of Jesus is not really so much about him being ‘good’, but about the depth of responsibility which he lived out – to such an extent, that those who met him had the experienced that something of paradise had come close to them.

In wishing you a happy new year, I am not offering a meaningless phrase, but a hope that we will each find the ability to deal with the problems and concerns which lie ahead, whilst at the same time discovering an inner sense of responsibility in the way in which we make our choices, so that something of paradise is found within us to enrich our lives in 2011.  So I do wish you a very happy new year…….



25 June 2010

Cleethorpes Chronicle June 2010

Next week’s emergency budget is going to be a sharp reminder that we have to work together if we are to get our economy back on track.  For me, however, the essential question will be how far the more vulnerable in our community can be protected from the effects of the recession.  I suspect that such protection will only be possible if we are prepared to accept additional sacrifices to our own standard of living being included in the budget.

Working together and making sacrifices are at odds with the ‘culture of self’ which seems to dominate our society, with its high awareness of our own needs and focusing on the individual rather than the community.   It has been a way of life where we have become observers of other people’s problems, yet have become unwilling to bear the cost of finding solutions.  The immediacy of television takes us to the heart of tragic and challenging situations, but then moves us swiftly on as the next headline clamours for our attention.  The ‘culture of self’ has eroded so many aspects of community and made redundant the language of working together for the common good.

I recently visited the grave of Valentine Joe Strudwick, a rifleman of the First World War. I found him in the Essex Farm Cemetery just outside of Ypres, lying amongst his comrades from the 14th (Light) Division.   He had been killed in action on 14th January  1916, just one month short of his 16th birthday. He was one of 50 from his Division to be killed that January – yet it had been a “quiet month” with little action.  I wonder what this 15 year old farm labourer, “of tall and well built stature”, from Dorking in Surrey would have made of our ‘culture of self’?

In the Christian faith we find love and self-sacrifice held together in the man Jesus. The baby of Christmas ends up dying nailed to a cross and becomes the ultimate expression that love without sacrifice is a very shallow, selfish and hollow emotion.  Next week’s budget may well help to balance the books, but unless we learn how to work together as a community – to make the personal sacrifices needed to balance the community – then I suspect that little will be changed by the Chancellor.  We hear so much about love, but so little about sacrifice – we have much to learn from that 15 year old rifleman lying in Flanders Fields and even more to learn from that young man who died on a cross 2000 years ago.

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.

Address at Matthew Telford’s Funeral

26 November 2009

Today I had the privilege of speaking at the funeral of Sergent Matthew Telford:

Once again this historic church embraces a family and a community drawn together by the loss of a treasured loved one.  Drawn together in sadness and sorrow in a place that even on days like this dares to speak of hope. Drawn together to mingle words of remembrance with words of faith and of the possibility that there is more to life than we can possibly imagine.

The crowds gathered around the church today, as they gathered on Saturday when Matthew’s and Jimmy’s coffins arrived in Grimsby, speak powerfully of the deep respect that this community has for those who have lost their lives in the service of our country.

Yet there was far more to Matthew than his military service – he was a husband, a father, a son, a brother, and part of a family and of friends who treasured the life he shared with them.  Family and friends who loved and cherished Matthew, and the pain and emptiness they are living with now is a symptom of the deep love they have for Matthew – a love that will not let them go and which Matthew’s death does not in any way diminish.

As we share this moment with Matthew’s family – with Kerry, Harry, Callum, Ron, Cheryl and Eleanor  – giving thanks with them for Matthew’s life, love and service – we need to be wary of the armchair strategists who, informed only through the press,  pontificate on the rights and wrongs of the conflict in Afghanistan.  Matthew and his brave comrades died as they were sharing their skills with the Afghani people so as to bring stability, law and order to a troubled land, and such stability, law and order are fundamental elements for peace.  In the three weeks since we heard the tragic news of their deaths, Jesus’ words have been much in my prayers for Matthew and his comrades “How blessed are the peacemakers, they will be called Sons of God”.

Bringing peace, working for peace is a costly thing and the cross of Jesus is a symbol of that cost.  Today as we give thanks for Matthew’s life and love, as we stand alongside his family in their grief, as we pay our respects to a brave man – we commit and commend Matthew to all the rich possibilities of the God we have discovered in Jesus Christ – a God who yearns for peace in all the complexity of this world.

This church, like all churches, is full of the symbol of the cross on which Jesus died, because it is the cross of Jesus which points us to hope – a hope that there is more to each of us than our biology, a hope that amidst all the darkness of the conflicts in this world, a hope that amidst  all the evil that drives people to murderous deeds and callous indifference –  amidst all this, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God, a love which is eternal and which will not let us go.  It is into this love which we commend and commit Matthew today – a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a friend and a comrade – a peacemaker among those whom Jesus calls “sons of God”.

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

Everything must change

13 June 2008

I have just been reading a really challenging book by Brian McLaren called ‘Everything must Change’. In the book McLaren looks at the values which are around in contemporary life and sets them against the life of Jesus. He argues that the core message of the gospel actually addresses the economic, political, environmental and social problems of our age, but for it to speak into our age, the church has to move away from talking about the externals of faith and concentrate on what Jesus was actually trying to say.

In many ways he is stating the obvious, but I have sat through so many sermons (and preached a few of them myself I fear!) which are brilliant about the finer points of doctrine, or biblical criticism, or church life, but which don’t actually address the gospel themes of justice, peace, forgiveness or hope. Too often we assume these things are known and understood, forgetting that we are in a culture which doesn’t really understand that this is the stuff we are about. What McLaren reminded me was that this lack of understanding is to be found amongst those who are part of the church, as well as amongst those yet to include themselves in our number.

If you really want to be challenged about the Christian faith – what it means and how we have allowed the practice of faith to divert us from the core message of Jesus, then this is the book for you.

28 or 42 days – living within the tension

11 June 2008

As the House of Commons prepares for its vote on the extension of how long terrorist suspects can be held without charge it is encouraging to see some MPs in moral anguish about which way to vote. Liberty and freedom are ill served by MPs who blithely support the government regardless of concience or regard to the bigger picture of freedom and rights.

When we give power to governments through the ballot box, the first duty of the elected government is to protect the people from abuse of the power which they have been given. It is often portrayed that the government’s first duty is to protect the people from external threat, but history suggests that the biggest threat to the individual comes not from a foreign power but from their own government and its agents abusing their power. We are too quick to forget the Matrix Churchill affair where it was clear that the Government was more concerned about its public face than the freedom and rights of the individual. The Scott report revealed that the government of the day was prepared to sacrifice the freedom of the company directors by putting them on trial, rather than lose face (see The Scott Report).

We have already seen the anti-terror laws used in ways they were not intended, e.g. to prosecute individuals such as Milan and Maya for expressing their freedom of speech. More and more laws, give more and more opportunities for agents of the government to abuse the power they have been given.

If freedom is a God-given aspect of being human and a symptom in each of us having a God-given dignity, then we need to resist every attempt to interfere with that freedom, unless we are convinced that the gift of freedom has been abused. We need to set a high standard for removing or restricting the freedom of others, for we are each the focus of God’s loving attention. There has to be a balance between this belief and the safety of the community – the real question for MPs tonight asks how far we are prepared to live within that tension.

Come off it Bishop!

3 June 2008

I feel quite proud of the headline “Come off it Bishop!” which I received in a local paper following an open meeting in a parish about possibilities for re-ordering the interior of the parish church- possibilities which might (or might not) have resulted in the removal of some of the pews. Passions ran high and have continued so to do, with much correspondence (copied to the local press) relating various fallings out between parishioners and anger at the church leadership for not being decisive in the face of the challenge of change.

It has always surprised me how otherwise calm, dignified Christian people can become quite hostile and antagonistic in the face of change. Letters are quickly sent to the press (and to anyone who will listen), calling for action and lamenting the fecklessness of those in leadership who allow such things to happen. It really doesn’t make for a very attractive church, for it suggests that our priorities are heritage and preservation – for when do we capture the headlines by being passionate for peace, justice or forgiveness? But more to the point, it shows how far we have allowed the priorities of the Gospel to slip from our agenda and how much we have allowed the ephemera of being church to become the object for our passion.

As UN representatives meet today in Rome for talks about the world food crisis, we have to reflect that in Gospel terms the plight of the world’s poor should be the focus for our anger and passion. It sometimes appears that we have allowed the institutions of the church to have become the message itself, rather than the structures which deliver the message.

The Micah Challenge, reminds Christians of what the Lord requires “to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God”. (Micah 6:8) It is a call to the church to grab the headlines for Kingdom values, to speak with one voice for the impoverished and the marginalised, calling on the world leaders to fulfil the Millennium Goals which we committed ourselves to achieving by 2015. If you haven’t heard of the Millennium Goals, then you might find watching this video helpful.

There is nothing wrong with being passionate or, at times, being angry at injustice – but it will be in the cause of the Gospel that such human emotions are going to be used to best effect.

Where’s the thirst for peace?

2 June 2008

One can hardly believe amidst all the natural disasters which bring so much grief and heartache in the world and especially at present to the people of China and Burma, that the weight of pain and grief is constantly added to by human folly. This weekend’s announcement by the Israeli government that they plan to build 900 homes in East Jerusalem is hardly the action of those who are thirsting for peace.

I am constantly drawn back to the young Palestinian scouts and guides whom we encountered in Manger Square in Bethlehem on our pilgrimage last year. They were demonstrating in their thirst for peace – “we deserve peace” they kept telling us as we mingled amongst them and their passionate thirst for it came through. Peace in the Holy Land will always be elusive until their is a thirst for peace and justice on both sides.

The future for peace is very bleak whist there is a government in Israel which is prepared to build houses in one of the most contentious parts Jerusalem. On the pilgrimage I am planning for next February (2009) we will have an opportunity to offer our prayers and support to the peoples of this troubled land.

The work of Sabeel – The Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem makes a vital contribution to mediating for peace. The Friends of Sabeel in the UK provides a good way for us to support and encourage a thirst for peace in the land which cradled the Gospel of Peace.