As I think of Sunday and worship I am in shock. My country has voted to leave the European Union to chart a more independent course in the world. I had hoped that we would stay and work with our partners across Europe for the good of all. I have no illusions the EU is perfect, then I have no illusions that the UK government or any government is perfect. I did however see countries across Europe working together for more than just trade to be a good thing. The UK, I believe could have done more good being part of this.
I can say this more clearly now. Before the referendum I felt that I could offer those that I lead guidance on the sorts of questions to ask. Such as, “What would be best for all, not just me?” I did not feel that I could direct people to make one or other political choice. I know that the people of my benefice were divided on this issue, people of intelligence and good conscience. So I am sad, but I accept the decision and am now trying to see how best to move forward. What advice is the Spirit giving to God’s people? What witness can we have to our nation?
At this time of uncertainty, we need to be together. We need to make clear decisions and we must rebuild the relationships broken by angry and divisive campaigns from both sides. My job, the job of Christ’s people now is to pray and work for a better future. The referendum has left this country deeply divided. I need to work hard to rebuild those bridges. Bridges between young and old are particularly needed. The statistics that I read showed an overwhelming majority of people under 30 wanted to remain but a similar majority of those over 60 wanted to leave. Of those aged 14-16 who could not vote over 75% wanted to remain. This division cannot be healthy for our nation. The alienation of young and old, will not help us be confident looking to the future.
I look online, on social media and in the papers and I hear only discord. I look for political leadership and I see a vacuum.
I look to my Church and I find hope. My country is anxious and divided, so Christ’s people must be united firmly to the rock of Christ. I unite with both of the English Archbishops and my own Bishop of Norwich, in urging all Christians to be Christlike and show the signs of the Kingdom that is greater than any early authority. The signs of the work of the Spirit that Paul summarised as, “ love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control” (Galatians 5.22-23). At this time, if we are to have joy and peace, we most certainly need to give our country an shining example of peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, self-control, and greatest of all – love.
The statements from the Archbishops and the Bishop of Norwich are copied below.
24 June 2016
On Thursday, millions of people from across the United Kingdom voted in the Referendum, and a majority expressed a desire that Britain’s future is to be outside the European Union
The outcome of this referendum has been determined by the people of this country. It is now the responsibility of the Government, with the support of Parliament, to take full account of the outcome of the referendum, and, in the light of this, decide upon the next steps. This morning, the Prime Minister David Cameron has offered a framework for when this process might formally begin.
The vote to withdraw from the European Union means that now we must all reimagine both what it means to be the United Kingdom in an interdependent world and what values and virtues should shape and guide our relationships with others.
As citizens of the United Kingdom, whatever our views during the referendum campaign, we must now unite in a common task to build a generous and forward looking country, contributing to human flourishing around the world. We must remain hospitable and compassionate, builders of bridges and not barriers. Many of those living among us and alongside us as neighbours, friends and work colleagues come from overseas and some will feel a deep sense of insecurity. We must respond by offering reassurance, by cherishing our wonderfully diverse society, and by affirming the unique contribution of each and every one.
The referendum campaign has been vigorous and at times has caused hurt to those on one side or the other. We must therefore act with humility and courage – being true to the principles that make the very best of our nation. Unity, hope and generosity will enable us to overcome the period of transition that will now happen, and to emerge confident and successful. The opportunities and challenges that face us as a nation and as global citizens are too significant for us to settle for less.
As those who hope and trust in the living God, let us pray for all our leaders, especially for Prime Minister David Cameron in his remaining months in office. We also pray for leaders across Europe, and around the world, as they face this dramatic change. Let us pray especially that we may go forward to build a good United Kingdom that, though relating to the rest of Europe in a new way will play its part amongst the nations in the pursuit of the common good throughout the world.
Statement by The Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of Norwich,
to Norwich Diocesan Synod,
Saturday June 25th 2016
following the EU Referendum
The result of Thursday’s Referendum seemed to take even some who supported the Leave campaign by surprise. The announcement of the resignation of the Prime Minister, a year after victory at the General Election, adds to the level of uncertainty. The will of the people expressed in the Referendum must be honoured but no one has yet negotiated an exit from the European Union under the Lisbon Treaty so much is unpredictable.
In this diocese every voting district, except Norwich, voted Leave. Some areas like South Norfolk were very evenly split. Great Yarmouth saw a majority in excess of 70% for Leave. Norwich voted 56% to 44% in favour of Remain. It’s a reminder close to home of the division of opinion.
Therein lies a consequential danger of the outcome of this referendum. Ostensibly it has been about separation from the European Union. But it has revealed major divisions in the United Kingdom – between Scotland and Northern Ireland on one side and England and Wales on the other; between London and the rest of England since the capital voted heavily to Remain. But there are other divisions too – between north and south in England; between rural and urban; between young and old.
Such divisions are dangerous, especially after a campaign which was often shrill, bruising and alienating.
Our church communities, including this Diocesan Synod, contain people who voted on both sides in this referendum. There is no single Christian position on the European Union and membership of it. But there is a common Christian conviction that unity is better than division, hope better than despair and that we are always in partnership with Jesus Christ when proclaiming the good news. He offers salvation and redemption for all people in all places at all times.
So in the wake of this referendum we have much to do. First we should pray for our country and for the people of Europe. Then we should pray for our Prime Minister and for all Government ministers, indeed all politicians. The tragic death of Jo Cox is a reminder that the generous service given to their communities by so many Members of Parliament can be dangerous. Our political leaders need our prayer and support, never more so than now.
Further, in our local communities and in our churches we should be the agents of unity, always hospitable and not hostile and committed to the pursuit of the common good. As St Paul tells the Galatians “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6.9) Rarely have we had more gospel work to do.
God bless our country, and God bless you all.
Boy abandoned in bear-infested woods ‘as punishment’
I remember my shock at reading that headline earlier this year. A seven-year-old boy had annoyed his parents by continuing to throw stones, so they drove off leaving him in a dense forest with no food and water. It just happened to be full of bears too.
Now, I can remember how frustrating it can be to have a child that just won’t behave. I can remember car journeys where I have threatened to tie my daughter to the roof-rack for a little peace. But I never would and never did. My wife asked her whether she remembered me making these threats – she said, “Yes, often, but I knew he would never do it”, and laughed. It was an over the top threat that made her laugh as a little child, but somehow often worked. That mock punishment seemed to often bring us both to our senses.
Thankfully, that little boy was resourceful, and fortunate enough to find an empty army hut where he could shelter. There was no one there but he survived by drinking rain water until he was found by a soldier 6 days later. Still this must have been a terrifying time for the boy, and everyone involved. This included his parents. They had only wanted to scare him, but when they drove back a few minutes later their little boy was gone!
I think that I’m not alone feeling a sense of horror and disbelief. How could any parent do this to their child, even if they planned to come back? I was so relieved when I read that the little boy was safe and well, and amazingly reconciled with his very contrite parents.
I also remember my disbelief and horror when I learned that my loving Father God could act in a far more severe way with his children. The two facts didn’t seem to add up. It certainly didn’t match what I knew of God through the work of his Spirit in me. It did not match up to Jesus saying, “God is Love and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them” (1 John 4.16). But it did seem to match the image of God as pure and holy, who could never tolerate any sin or corruption. So what was happening? Why the contradiction?
For quite some time I just had to live with the contradiction. I loved Jesus, but feared the God of judgement. Thankfully, I already had a strong enough relationship with God through his Spirit, that I knew that I could trust him to sort it out somehow. I just had no real idea how this could happen.
Then a simple phrase in the Bible came alive. The Spirit lifted it off the page for me. It was this, “Now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith” (Galatians 3.25-26 CEV). “I am no longer subject to a disciplinarian!” But who is this disciplinarian? It can’t be Jesus because he has freed me from this disciplinarian, and from that passage it clearly isn’t God the Father either. After all this passage is clear that I am his child, through faith.
So who is the disciplinarian? I read more of Galatians and found that Paul accuses the religious law of making his readers slaves. It is religious law that is the cruel slave-master, that would happily punish me severely for even the slightest disobedience, the slightest sin. Thankfully, through faith in Jesus I’m no longer subject to that disciplinarian, to that slave-master. I am not only no longer a slave, I am a loved child.
But then a voice whispers, “But what about all those things that you do and think that are far from holy or perfect? What about all that anger and violence that filled you when you read about that MP being murdered? What’s God going to do about all that?” Then I get worried again, perhaps I’ve missed something.
Then I looked to Jesus, and this time the story of the demon possessed man (Luke 8.26-39 CEV). He is described as not only mad but utterly debased too. He even lives with the dead in the graveyard. Jesus sees through the corruption to the man inside, the man in torment. Then he does something amazing he banishes all the evil and corruption. The man is left sane and healthy again. His life is returned to him. That is what I know God is doing to me, and in me. Through faith, and God’s love in me, the Holy Spirit is getting access to the dingier and darker parts of me. I’m letting him in and he is cleaning out the rubbish. Then there’s room for more love. Sadly, it hasn’t all happened at once. I know I’m more godly, more loving than I was, but I also know that I’m far from perfect still. I suspect that this is because God knows me so well, he knows that I’d just get big headed and proud. So he takes it slow and steady, in small steps that leave as little room as possible for my pride to fit in. But still, Jesus is loving me just as much as he loved that tormented man.
I pray that wonderful prayer, the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”. I am no longer praying to a fearful god standing over me with a big stick. No, I’m praying to my loving Brother, praying please help me with my weakness and all that separates me from you. Knowing that through my Brother Jesus, I have discovered that I have a loving Father God who loves me as he loves Jesus.
I have no fear of punishment, at least not from God. I do however fear through lack of Love. I know for certain that my Father would never leave me behind and drive off, he would never neglect or harm me. Like any child within a loving family I am free to grow and flourish.
Are you a sinner? Well are you!?
Don’t worry, I haven’t turned into a fire and brimstone preacher. But still I ask; I ask you, I ask myself, are you a sinner? The answer of course is, “Yes”. Not that you are a particularly bad person. In fact I look around at good people. Looking at me; it is not that I have a great sin that I need to confess to you all – No, I’m not about to run off with and set up a love nest with the bishop!
I am not however perfect. In fact I know I’m far from perfect; so are you. Anything that is not of God is sin. Sin is something that separates me from God. It is like this string. Imagine this is the cord between me and God. Each time I sin I cut the cord, and each time I’m forgiven the Spirit ties a knot in the string again. Each time I fail, I separate myself from God, and each time I’m forgiven again and the bond is restored.
This happens all of the time. This is the Christian way of life. The way by which I come closer to God and become ever more Christ-like.
Do you notice something?
What has happened to this string? What has happened to the distance between me and God? – They are both shorter.
Each time I come back from doing something wrong, I’m forgiven, the relationship between me and my God is restored and I’m closer to God as a result. That is not to say that I should deliberately sin just to give God the opportunity to forgive. There is plenty in me that needs sorting without deliberately adding to it.
As Jesus points out the more I’m forgiven the more I learn about the forgiving love of the Father. The more I learn of that divine love, in turn the more I learn to love. That is our Christian way of life.
This turns upside down the view I often have of sin and God.
I started out with a view of sin as some terrible filth in me. God could see all this filth in me and was standing there with a big stick to punish me for it all. I was the naughty child of a stern and unforgiving father. My only chance was to hide behind Jesus and perhaps Jesus could stop God the Father giving me a good thrashing. That was so wrong. Thankfully, I moved from that view of God very early on in my time as a Christian.
I came to understand that God created me and knows who I am. Indeed, my creator knows me better than I know myself, far better. Through the Spirit God helps me to see the things that are wrong in me, one at a time. Not because he wants a chance to punish me; No, the Spirit points out my failings so that he can show me even more of the Father’s love for me. He can forgive, and forgive and forgive; each time pouring more and more and more love into me.
My discovery of each thing in me that keeps me from God is one more opportunity for the Spirit to pour into me the Father’s love. That is what Jesus offers to me. That is what he is saying in story about the women who wept over Jesus’ feet (Luke 7.36-8.3). I am forgiven much and so is able to love much. If I think that I am already right with God, (like the Pharisee in the story) I am not only mistaken, I am also denying myself the opportunity of receiving God’s love.
This passage is an encouragement to be honest with God about who I really am. When I am honest in this way, then it is so much easier for the Spirit to work in me and make me more like Jesus.
It is also a warning for me not to go about judging others. No matter how bad someone might appear, that is their business and God’s, not mine, not anyone’s. The temptation to judge others is just a distraction from my calling to take Jesus’ hand and let him show me who I am. I mustn’t let others distract me, but only look to what God is doing in me.
I am to accept who I am – God knows already. I can then bring that before the throne of God, be forgiven and receive another drop of the Father’s love. That’s my task and the task of any who would like it.
I love life. I love the exuberance of the garden that I can see out of my window. Just looking at the roses I can smell them in my mind. There are plants lining my window sill. I have been blessed with being able to feel the life around me. I can sense the life breathed into the birds and animals and plants around me. At times it feels as though, for a brief moment at least, I’m back with God at the dawn of creation, where God is breathing life, breath, spirit into all creatures (see Genesis 2 and Psalm 104). Then the moment passes, I long for it to come back but I know I need to wait a little longer. I need to wait until Christ’s return when I’m promised a perfect creation once again.
So my eyes become clouded again by the falleness of creation as well as the beauty. I see the dead chick, only a day or so old, lying on the drive. I hear the news coming in of wars and rumours of wars; I see the hedgehog killed senselessly on the road. I feel again the pain of loss from losing the family and friends that have died over the years. I feel the darkness and sadness descend just as powerfully as the joy only moments before. I see Stephen Fry on the tv showing the grubs of parasitic wasps slowly eating their prey alive, and hear the scornful words, “How can there be a loving god, if he creates such things and allows such suffering?”
Strangely it is those mocking words that bring me out of the depths. I like Stephen Fry but this just irritates. It feels cheap and unworthy of someone of such intelligence and education.
I remember that Jesus has never promised that my life or this world will be all beautiful. I am reminded that this world is fallen. It is corrupted but not abandoned by its Creator. Indeed, the Creator sent Jesus for the very purpose of redeeming, not only me, not only humanity, but all of creation; a creation which Paul describes as ‘groaning’ as it waits for this work to be completed at Christ’s return (Romans 8.22-25).
I do not know all the reasons why this has happened, but I do know that we humans are doing more than our fair share of the spoiling and corrupting. I also know that the world is as described in the Bible, created, beautiful, and now fallen.
I remember once again that I am to be like Jesus. I am to feel the pain of creation and weep. Equally, I am to feel the life, vitality and beauty of creation and laugh with joy. I am also to do all that I can to allow the Spirit to show me and those around me the reality of the new creation; the new kingdom that is so close. So I work to make this world a better place for all. I pray with confidence for healing and other signs that the kingdom is close – after all, my faith is not always as strong as I’d like and signs like the healings that I’ve witnessed recently are a welcome boost.
Encouraged, I look to my Bible again. I read the story of Jesus taking pity on a widow whose only son had just died (Luke 7.11-17). I read of his compassion and of him restoring the son to life. I pray for more such signs of the kingdom here and now, but I pray most for the time when all humanity, with all creation, will hear Jesus’ call to rise up – the final healing. I pray Maranatha – Come Lord Jesus!
I’m not preaching this Sunday but there are many changes coming up. There could be huge changes heading my way and this country’s way if we vote to leave the EU. There are changes, good and bad on the horizon for the church in this little part of Norfolk. My motorbike is on it’s last legs so there is change on the horizon there too. This thought of change has sent me scurrying back through my archive for an article from a couple of years ago called, “Things Change”.
Things change. In fact change is one of the few things in life that we can be certain of. Time will pass; like it or not! Not very long ago Prayer Book Evensong would have been the mainstay of parish worship. Today the majority of parishes never use it and there must be many younger Christians who have never been to a Prayer Book service at all, never mind an Evensong. I knew next to nothing of the Prayer Book or Evensong until after I was ordained. Indeed, when I left college I believed that all Prayer Books should be thrown away or burned; it had no place in the modern world. I’ve changed, I now have a soft spot and an appreciation of the flow of the words.
Change happens, and when it does it can be unsettling and even frightening. So much so that our natural inclination can be to fight against it. Some changes are rightly opposed, but not all. I need to be careful before dismissing something new. It may be the result of the Holy Spirit trying to blow me where I should go or it could just be the fickle wind of fashion. I need discernment, the sort of discernment that can only come from a close relationship with my God.
Things change and I must adapt or fade into irrelevance. The world is changing and the Church is changing in response. I need to speak out where I see injustice, or vice, or evil of any sort. But there is no point in me moaning if I have nothing better to offer. I strongly believe that I need to show by my actions that there is hope of a better way. Everyone with the Spirit living in them has that hope. I have the hope planted in my heart by the Holy Spirit. I have the hope of a life lived as one with the God who created me and all things. I have hope that is stronger than death. I have a hope that brings meaning and even contentment, in good times or bad. I have the message of Love, the one commandment given to me by Jesus; to love God, and to let that love flow out to all, transforming me utterly in the process.
Things change, but the wonder at the heart of the Gospel remains constant. It is the expressions of that Gospel that change.
Change happens, but I mustn’t be afraid. Who knows what the Spirit will do. Sometime in the future empty church buildings may be vibrant centres of faith once again. Our Church is growing once again, so who knows it may not be long before I see the life of Christ back at the heart of our nation’s life.
Things change, thank God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Tomorrow is Trinity Sunday so I’ll be celebrating the nature nature of my wonderful God; one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But I have a problem. I find that the statements about the Trinity are easy to say, I say them every time I say the creeds, but they are not so easy to understand. The creeds seem dry but the more I let them into me the more I realise that they are condensed wisdom. So for a way into the Trinity I turn to the Nicene Creed to help me:
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.
The Nicene Creed was first agreed in 325 AD, then amended in 381 AD and only settled in the form we have in the late 6th Century. It took the best minds in Christendom over 300 years to get to grips with it and arguments still continue.
So, I wonder, if it’s so hard to understand why have it? Why not have either 3 gods, separate but sort of equal? Or why not have one God, and only have Jesus as a very special person and the Holy Spirit as just the power of God? I know the Church certainly tried those alternatives and some Christian groups still stick with them today. For example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t accept Jesus one with God the Father.
What inspires me about the understanding of God as the Trinity is that it all seems to have come out of the experience of Christians. People experienced God and stumbled upon the reality of the Trinity. Experience came first and then the attempts to understand that experience. Any Church historian would say this is a huge oversimplification that ignores all the politics and wrangling that went on. Still I feel that it was the awkward reality of the experience of God that led to centuries of debate that led to the doctrine of the Trinity. Without that experience why go through all that? So I still maintain that experience came first.
This may sound strange but it is normal enough. When I get on my motorbike I don’t theorise about it, I experience it. When I meet someone, I don’t theorise about them I listen to them. I experience who they are. I get to know them.
The first Christians started with their experience of One God who created all things. The one who spoke to Moses and the Prophets, the one who sent Jesus. I, like the early Christians, can look at the created world and see the hand of the creator in it all. I know when I look, I see the complexity and order of creation. I see a beauty, and darkness that all speak of a creator, at least when seen through the eyes of faith.
Secondly, the first Christians had, as the name implies, come to know God through the person and teaching of Jesus Christ. They probably started by understanding Jesus to be a special man, the Messiah whom God the Father had chosen to bring people back to him. But it seems that very quickly they found themselves being led by God to pray to Jesus and not just to the Father. They prayed to Jesus and the prayers were answered. Then they studied words, like “I and the Father are one”. Slowly, and steadily they learned that Jesus was God too. But coming from the Jewish faith they also knew that there was only one God. So, Jesus and the Father must somehow be the same God.
Thirdly, the first Christians experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit. In fact, it was the experience of the Holy Spirit that was seen the mark of being a Christian. The Holy Spirit was found to the be the power of God, and the wisdom of God. The Holy Spirit was also found to be more than just attributes of God. The Holy Spirit was experienced to act separately but in tune with God the Father, and with Jesus, the Son. So, there must be one God, made up of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The experience came first and only afterwards came the theology.
Another problem is that each time I try to focus on one of the persons of the Trinity you are directed to the others. I come to God through getting to know Jesus. But Jesus only says what he hears from the Father, and then points us to the Holy Spirit as the one who will work in and through me. So I look to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit fills me with the power of God, and opens my eyes to see the Father in his works, and makes me one with Jesus and the Father. Then I look to God the Father, and find that his nature is revealed to me through the witness of Jesus and through the work of the Holy Spirit in me and in creation. Indeed, I have found that it is the work of the Spirit in me that allows me to see the Creator in his works and Jesus in the people that I meet.
You see what I mean? Every time I try to get to the bottom of who the Trinity is, I end up going around in circles.
What I do know is Jesus showed me who God is, the Holy Spirit lives to make me more godlike, and through Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit, I am one with the Father. I know that God is a community, with each loving the other and looking out for the other. I know that if I am truly a Christian then I am to live as the Trinity lives, in love. I am to share and care. I know that the Trinity is bound together by mutual love, because I know that God is love and those who live in love, live in God, and God lives in them.
I know that the Trinity is difficult to understand but easy to experience and rewarding to live.
So my advice is to myself is, “Stop worrying about defining the undefinable and experience the living God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. It is the experience that came first. I know that it is this experience that is transforming me and the world around me. By experiencing the Trinity, hopefully I will become humbler too, pointing away from myself, to the good in others. It is experience of living as part of the Trinity that is a taste of the life of eternity.
I love the sound of the wind. It is haunting. The wind whispers softly, the wind speaks through the leaves and branches of trees and shrubs, the wind speaks through the grass and the crashing waves. The wind also uses the rocks and the buildings to speak for itself as moans and howls.
I love lying in bed listening to the wind outside of my window. I find it comforting most of the time but when the wind roars it can be scary too. One house that we have lived in was overshadowed by large oak and ash trees. I remember one branch, not a particularly big branch, coming off one of those oak trees during a high wind. It landed as if aimed on the roof of a nice shiny Range Rover parked in the car park behind the Rectory. It wrecked the car and reminded me of just how much damage one of those trees could do to our house if one fell our way.
The wind is certainly many things, gentle and calming as well as wild and frightening.
The wind is so many things and that is definitely true in the Bible. The Bible words for wind, ‘Rȗah’ (Hebrew) and ‘Pneuma’ (Greek) are also the words that the Bible uses for Spirit. Rȗah is many things in the Bible, Rȗah is wind in Genesis 8.1, it is breath or spirit (and thus life) in Genesis 2.7 and divine power in Judges 3.10. In fact every time that Rȗah is used it always has a hint of all of these meanings at the same time: wind, breath, spirit, life, and divine power. This is very similar for the Greek word pneuma used in the New Testament. So whenever I read “Spirit” in the New Testament I need to remember that the author almost certainly had all of this richness of meaning in mind.
So now, with that foundation, I can start to think about the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2.1-21). On that first Pentecost day the Holy Spirit rushed into those first disciples and blew them out of the door. All of that wild Wind, Spirit, Life and Divine Power couldn’t be contained. The Spirit didn’t only blow them out of the room where they were hiding, the Spirit also blew out of them in words of praise and joy. It was so powerful that they couldn’t hold it in. If they had tried they would have burst.
Then everyone could understand their praises in their own language. This makes no logical sense, how can it be? It is only when I remember who and what the Spirit is that the penny begins to drop. The Spirit is ‘Breath’ the one Breath from which all breath and life come. It is this heaven sent voice that is heard through those disciples, this Breath that is beyond normal human speech, this Breath that is ‘Speech’ itself. This eternal divine Speech has no human limits so everyone understands what is said, they receive, they hear God’s words direct to them, not the language limited sounds that are coming out of the disciples mouths.
Then I think of the story of that first Pentecost: It does not say that one disciple was speaking Hebrew, another Greek, another Latin, another Parthian and so on. The impression is of all the disciples speaking, shouting and singing God’s praises all together. It is this sound, probably in Aramaic or Hebrew or a ‘heavenly’ language, that all heard in their own language. God’s Spirit was not only speaking through the disciples. God’s Spirit was also acting in all of those in the crowd making them understand what was being said.
But how could this be. The Spirit had only just been given to the disciples of Jesus? Then I thought, the divine Holy Spirit had just been given to those disciples in power, but that isn’t the only way that the Spirit works. The Spirit is in everyone. The breath/spirit of God is breathed into every living creature by their Creator (Genesis 2.7). Those people in the crowd did then have the ‘Spirit’ but perhaps better written with a lower case ‘s’.
That idea of the spirit with a small ‘s’ being in all people really speaks to me. I was 18 when I became a Christian and received the Holy Spirit. From then on my world changed forever. With the Holy Spirit filling me everything that I did and said felt different, fresh, new and vibrant. But one important point is permanently fixed in my mind: It was this – God had always been there. I had not realised it, I had not recognised the presence of the Spirit but when I was baptised in the Spirit my eyes were opened to the presence of God throughout my life. He had been there with me all along and I had never known it.
So when I read that account of the disciples rushing out, full of the Spirit, to tell everyone about Jesus I know what I have to do:
- I too have to be confident and speak out for Jesus, in words and actions.
- I need to let the Spirit show me what he is already doing in every person, Christian or not.
- Then I work to support what the Spirit is doing.
Like the wind in the grass and trees, the Spirit can be gentle and terrifyingly powerful both at the same time. I pray for more of that Pentecost outpouring of the Spirit to all people. I pray for eyes to be opened and lives restored. I pray this for myself, my church, my town, for all people.
As I write I’m listening to the wind again, the Spirit blows through me and I cry out: Come Holy Spirit, fill me with your life, your love, your power; fill me now, fill me every moment of every day!
This coming Sunday is particularly unusual for me – I am not preaching! I have therefore looked back for topical post from the past:
Ascension – Six Impossible Things before Breakfast
“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again, draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said. “One can’t believe impossible things.”
“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Biblical stories like that of the ascension of Jesus into heaven seem impossible; So incredibly impossible that they are loved by militant atheists like Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins and co. They sound so ridiculous that they feel absolutely safe in laughing at them, and at the credulous stupidity of anyone who takes them seriously. And sadly, for too long, we have let them get away with it.
But the logic of science that they turn to in place of these silly stories is equally strange, bizarre even. For example, modern physics believes in single tiny photons of light, too small to be seen with the eye, popping in and out of existence continually to make the universe work. Why anything has mass can’t be properly explained without another massive particle and force that weakly interact with matter to give it some weight (the Higgs Boson). Then to explain the way the stars are moving we have to invent the idea of lots of dark matter and dark energy, so much that the ordinary matter and energy of the universe makes up only a small percentage of all there is.
Why, good physicists sometimes believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast.
Atheism like that takes at least as much blind faith, if not more, than that of most religious people.
So we need to put aside the laughing and the taunts. Forget about all that and let yourself listen to what the Bible writers were trying to say. The accounts of the Ascension go something like this, Jesus was encouraging his followers shortly after his resurrection, he then left them in a way that they found hard to explain, then the physical Jesus was gone. They did not really understand what had happened and so the writers of these accounts, while doing their best, do not give a clear account of what they saw. Those who witnessed the event remember something like Jesus being lifted up, and slowly hidden by mist or cloud, or something like that.
The one thing they are sure about is that Jesus was with them before and that he wasn’t with them after. But more importantly, they were not to dwell too much on the event itself because the strangeness of Jesus’ departure isn’t the important point. Jesus has left them for their own good; he has left for our good. Then there are the two messengers from God (two angels) who tell them to stop looking to where Jesus had gone, and get on with the work he had given them.
It’s like they were in a dream, or a trance, and they need the snapping of fingers to bring them around.
That could be said for us too. We are so often in a daze. The world tells me that my faith is silly, and part of me believes it. I listen to Stephen Fry on QI, and a little bit of me is embarrassed by my belief. A spell is cast, it’s like part of me has been hypnotised by the great entertainer, and I need fingers to snap, I need to come back to my senses.
With my senses intact once again, I realise that it is easy to find fault with things but it is far harder to have a real alternative. I read through the claims of the materialist atheists and the science does not add up. There are so many unknowns and blind assumptions hidden beneath all the bluster.
I realise that its logical, essential even to allow myself the possibility of believing in six impossible things before breakfast; and of all of them to be true.
Impossible things like:
- the creator of all things loves me and you.
- you and I will receive power because the Holy Spirit has come; and
- you and I are Jesus’ witnesses here in Norfolk, and to the ends of the earth.
So lets listen to those angels, always a sensible thing to do, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then to paraphrase, “People, why do you stand looking and worrying about impossible things?”
Jesus, “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven”: Perhaps it might be a good idea to be ready for when he gets here!
Logic is a wonderful thing. It is the Swiss Army Knife of thought. It has allowed human beings to think their way through incredibly complex problems to produce marvels of science and engineering. Logic has even enabled us to design and build machines that ‘think’ in ever more complex ways – our computers.
I have been educated in science and logic, and they have allowed me to learn so much. I am so thankful for the gift of logic. Logic is, as I have said, a wonderful thing but it is not all. Any multi-tool, no matter how sophisticated and well designed, has its limitations. This is also true of logic. If I want to enjoy the colour and perfume of a spring flower, I wouldn’t even think of trying to use my army knife, it would be nonsense to even try (except perhaps to cut and kill the flower to bring it inside). But sadly, we human beings have elevated reason and logic as the tool of reason, to such an extent that there is a danger of beginning to believe that logical reason is the only tool there is.
Logic is a poor tool for understanding the more abstract parts of life, like emotions and relationships. Logic is particularly limited when it comes to the ultimate questions of existence and faith: These are worlds best explored with emotion and ‘the heart’, not logic alone. Logic can be applied but it never seems to get to answers that make deep emotional sense. For example, logic has led some to see human beings as simply programmed machines, where emotions like ‘love’ have no meaning. These people either despair or ignore this logic when it comes to loving their family and friends.
This is a logic exposed so powerfully by Steve Turner’s poem, “The Conclusion”:
her to my
for future use
and she cried.
This worship of logic seems to lock people out of life and faith. Thankfully, logic is only one tool among many for understanding this gift of life.
When I come to my faith I have found that logic is of only limited use. It gets me so far but then I need something more refined. It is like any relationship. I could set out all your requirements for a friend or a life partner, but in the end it is not this logic that results in the love and friendship that develops (or not!). Falling in love, and building a friendship make only a brief wave to logic.
I can set out my understanding of God. I can set down all the arguments in favour and against there being a God. I can do the same for and against the message of Jesus, but in the end I have to allow myself to get to know Jesus, and the Father that he reveals to me. It is only in that relationship, in that relationship between me and Jesus and the Father and the Spirit, it is only there that faith for me becomes real. This I believe is at the heart of Jesus’ message of Good News. He was and is calling people into discovering a relationship with God, our creator, the source of meaning and of hope.
This understanding then makes sense of so much of what Jesus said. That is one reason why I believe Jesus often doesn’t give simple logical answers to simple logical questions. For instance, when Jesus is asked why he doesn’t explain everything to the crowds he answers (John 14.23-24):
“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.”
‘Loving’ and ‘making a home’, are written in the languages of relationship and emotion; they become lifeless in the language of logic. If I apply too much logic I can end up with a law which says, “If I obey Jesus then, and only then, will I be loved.”
Thankfully, the reality is far more beautiful and rich. Jesus was inviting people to be intrigued by him. He seems to want them to spend time with him; to get to know him and through him the Father. Here I ‘feel’ Jesus inviting me to get to know him, to learn to love him and his Father.
Today, with Jesus no longer physically here to talk to and be with, I need extra help to learn this love. So, to make this loving relationship possible I receive the Holy Spirit (John 14.25-26). Then my task as a Christian is simple, at least at its heart. My task is to allow the Spirit to make me more loving, more Christ-like and so more like the God I want to worship. This worship then comes out of that love, not out of pure duty. I Jesus’ words, this worship “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4.24).
I have just read something that has saddened me. It’s upset me because it is from a very sincere Christian, is polite and earnest but is so fearful too. It took me right back to the dark times of the charismatic movement where I was warned away from just about everything outside of the church for fear of contamination by the world or from fear of traps set by demons. Don’t get me wrong there is real evil in this world, impersonal and very personal. But that does not mean that I should be constantly afraid!
But first let’s go back to that article. The article that started all this was a warning against adult colouring books because most of them contain ‘mandalas’. Mandalas are beautiful circular patterns that are used by Buddhists and Hindus as tools for meditation and worship. The concern was that by colouring these mantras Christians would be worshipping the demons behind these other religions. This was well meaning but wrong on so many levels.
Christians have been using these patterns for many centuries to aid Christians to meditate on Christ or the creating work of the Father. Just look at one of the beautiful rose windows in so many medieval cathedrals and churches (view a few English examples here), for example York Minster and Westminster Abbey. So by using many of these mandala designs Christians doing the colouring prayerfully are reclaiming part of their spiritual heritage.
Now I hear the wails, “but what if some of these mandalas contain specific non-Christian religious imagery?” Well, assuming that it isn’t anti-Christian (unlikely in this context) then my advice would be to either to miss that one out if you don’t like it. If you choose to colour that image, ask the Spirit to calm your mind and draw you into the beauty of the Father, offered through Jesus. In that way you are claiming that image for Christ. This is what Christians have done from the very beginning. Wherever Christianity has spread we have re-focussed what was deeply rooted in the non-Christian world and re-tasked it for our worship. That is why we celebrate Christmas when we do, to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the birth of hope, in place of a pagan festival.
This is nothing new. The very first Christians were worried that their relationship with God would be corrupted if they had anything to do with non-Jews and their pagan ways. This was quickly blown out of the water when the Spirit directed Peter to visit a pagan house (Acts 11.1-18), Peter obeyed even though it went against all of his religious teaching. Peter not only went into a pagan house he even ate their food, something utterly forbidden by the Bible (Leviticus 11:3–8 and Deuteronomy 14:3–21) and Jewish religious teaching. The result was that the Spirit came to those pagans when they accepted Jesus just as he had come to the disciples on the day of Pentecost. Peter was in hot water with the rest of the church until he explained how the Spirit had sent him and how God had blessed those pagans by making them Christians too. This was a huge step for those first Christians. This set a precedent. From that moment on Christians weren’t to be fearful of contamination by the world outside, they were to claim it for Christ and let the Spirit transform it.
This led to the freedom to eat meat sacrificed to pagan gods, even if that meant sitting in a pagan temple to do so (see 1 Corinthians 8). The lesson is simple if my faith is strong, I know that a mandala colouring book is just a book and all other gods are no gods at all. They cannot hurt me. This nothing wrong with colouring a mandala, unless (and this is important) unless by using my freedom I undermine the more fragile faith of another. It was this last point that led me not to argue with this person online. Until she can come to the point of freedom in the Spirit, I would just be challenging her faith. If I knew her personally I would hope to lead her gently to that deeper faith in Jesus that would give her the strength to look at the things of this world without fear. But I don’t know her, so a challenge would only be a confrontation designed to make me look good and her weak!
So why bother with this article at all? To show how superior I am? I hope not. No, I have written this because the principle here has far more importance than colouring books. By living in constant fear I would be denying the love of God that drives out fear (1 John 4.18). I would be giving the devil the glory for something of God (a beautiful picture) and worse still I would be giving the devil something that belongs to God – far too close to worship for my liking!
Worse still by focusing all my attention on colouring books, organising placards outside of book stores and shouting for these books to be banned I would be allowing myself to be distracted (by whom?) from real evil. Perhaps walking past the Oxfam shop, dodging the Big Issue seller and stepping over the homeless man on the way (Galatians 2.10)?