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?

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.

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?

Fr Edward Core – RIP

11 January 2010

The sermon I preached at the Requiem Mass for Fr Edward Core

9th January 2010 at St Lawrence Frodingham

John 6: 35-40

When Edward asked me to preside and preach at his requiem, I had not really thought about the rich diversity of people who would be gathered to this service. Yet as I thought about this sermon over the past couple of days I realised that this congregation would gather together the rich diversity of Edward’s life and ministry – the family who loved him deeply, the friends who treasured him, colleagues and congregation who shared his ministry, those who had received his ministry and those who had just got to know Edward in the everyday of life.  I also realised that, because of the way Edward related to people, there would be gathered in this church to share in the bitter sweetness of sadness and celebration, both those who hold Edward’s faith, as well as those for whom faith has not been part of their life story. But Edward had said to me “give them the Gospel” and that is what I intend to do.

We are indebted to William Mounsey for the moving tribute to Edward which he has just offered us and for capturing the essence of the friend whom we celebrate today. In his tribute, William left us with a precious thought developed from the words of TS Eliot – “Edward, you have made a new beginning”.

It is a bold claim, yet it is a deeply Christian claim which takes us right to the heart of our faith and to the heart of what Edward was all about as a priest. It takes us to the heart of why Edward was such a good and effective priest in the church of God – for he was about ‘new beginnings’ and ‘new beginnings’ are the stuff of relationships. As the numbers gathered in this church today witnessed so eloquently, Edward was good at relationships and bringing quality to relationships is a very Godly activity.

Fr Edward Core

But the thing about good, healthy relationships is that they shape the future. Building and sustaining relationships asks us to reach out into the unknown and the unknowable with others to bring shape and texture into the way in which we create and craft the future. An essential feature to relationships therefore has to be faith — a belief in the other, a two-way process of engagement which lays claim to the future.

One of the things which we discover through the wisdom of the Bible is that good relationships are more concerned with what we are going to do, than with what we have done. We discover that good relationships are more concerned with who we are becoming, than with who we have been. Through Scripture we understand that good relationships celebrate our potential and cherish our love – they lay claim to the future for, each and every time we form a new relationship, or renew an existing one, it is a new beginning.

I find that we make the Christian faith very complicated by wrapping it in formulas and practice, yet in truth the Christian faith is very simple – it is about a God who wants to make and sustain relationships with us – with you and me. It is about a God who wants his relationship with us to shape the future. We heard about it in the Gospel reading from St John which Edward chose for this service, as we hear Jesus say “anyone who comes to me I will never drive away”.  As a priest Edward lived this out, he was an agent of a God who will never drive us away because he believes in us and in our potential to be fully human. A God who, in the midst of all our frailty and vulnerability, has faith in us – because faith is the stuff of good relationships.

In this sense, faith really isn’t about religion – it is about being human. It is about our ability to reach outside of ourselves to discover value in other people. And when we use this ‘faithful ability’ to reach outside of the limitations of our experience and of our imagination, then we can find value in a relationship with God — the God we know in Jesus Christ. The God who, in Jesus Christ, reaches out to each of us offering new beginnings and a claim on the future, for, as we believe Edward is discovering, our relationship with God lays claim on the future and that’s what we call resurrection. To lay claim to the future, that’s Easter. Again we heard in today’s Gospel passage Jesus saying, “all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life, and I will raise him up upon the last day.”

Today we celebrate a dear friend, a faithful priest, a fellow pilgrim in life who, amidst all the complexity of life and amidst all the complexity of being human, reached out to build a relationship with God in Jesus Christ and so claimed the future.

We celebrate that future as we share in the simple things of bread and wine – a sign of the presence of God in Jesus Christ and foretaste of the banquet of heaven. The Christ who invites us into a relationship and invites us to claim our future – this is the stuff of faith, of Edward’s faith.

Amidst all the sadness which we have in losing our friend Edward, we come together with a confidence that God “will wipe away every tear from our eyes” because our friend Edward had reached out to build a relationship with God and in so doing had claimed the future – resurrection.

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”.

Beware the simplicty of extremists

26 October 2009

Article in the Cleethorpes Chronicle  – 29.10.2009

There was a stark contrast between some of the views being aired on last Thursday’s BBC Question Time and the gathering of the Normandy Veterans Association in Westminster Abbey last weekend.  During Question Time we glimpsed the sort of extremism which feeds on demonising a particular group of people and, in contrast, on Sunday the veterans remembered the enormous human cost of combating extremism once it takes hold of power.  Extremism, whether it is political, economic or social, brings in its wake human suffering and misery – how little we learn from history.

The essential feature of the extremist is simplicity.  Simplistic answers to the problems of the age.  In a democracy it is seductive stuff because the simplicity of the extremist offers quick and easy remedies.  In Germany in the 1930’s it was the Jews who were blamed for all the problems and finding a final solution to the Jews would ensure that all would be well.  Tragically there is a long list in modern history where the simplistic answers of the extremists have led to appalling violence, genocide and ethnic cleansing.  In fact I cannot think of any situation where extremism has led to human happiness and flourishing.

The problem with extremist views is that they are cloaked in sounding plausible. Yet they have to distort the truth because they actually have no ability to answer the deep problems of society.    So for the extremist, all asylum seekers are ‘bogus’, people living on benefits are ‘scroungers’,  unemployment  is cause by immigrants and if only we could get back to the purity of the indigenous English people, then all would be well.

D-day vetsWhat utter nonsense it is, yet it is seductive because at elections we want to give power to those who are going to sort things out.  If only life was like that.  Yet as those D-day veterans know only too well – give power to an extremist and it has to be wrestled from them at great cost.

The Normandy Veterans gathering begins this season of remembrance leading up to 11th November.  Once again I will be thanking God for the sacrifice of so many in wresting power from the extremists, whilst praying that we will never again be seduced by their simplicity – for it masks the dark side of human nature which is crucifyingly costly to defeat.