When I was a little boy I loved getting dirty. Well to be truthful I loved playing all sorts of outside games that made me filthy (I still do!). I loved racing along our road on my bike and throwing myself off onto the grass at the end, usually playing Kung Fu or Cowboys and Indians with my friends. I loved vanishing off into the woods for hours, or playing in the muddy stream, or digging around in the back garden. One way or another I must have been a nightmare for my Mam.
I would be out playing then the call would go out, ‘Tea’s ready’ and I dash home to eat – I was already ready for food! But there was something that my Mam always did that I never really appreciated at the time – she would always make me wash before eating: Face and hands had to be clean before sitting down. All my friends were the same – we had to wash before eating.
When I read the story of Jesus with the Pharisees from Mark 7 it brought these memories flooding back.
Some Pharisees and several teachers of the Law of Moses from Jerusalem came and gathered around Jesus. They noticed that some of his disciples ate without first washing their hands. The Pharisees and teachers asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples obey what our ancestors taught us to do? Why do they eat without washing their hands?” (Mark 7.1,2 & 5 (CEV))
When I read that again I thought, “they’ve got a point”. You don’t eat with dirty hands. Then when Jesus started to argue with them about it, I started to side with the Pharisees. At least my adult self did, the little boy still wants to eat with muddy hands! It seems perfectly reasonable to expect people to wash their hands before sitting down to eat, it’s healthy it’s good manners.
Then I stopped to really listen to what Jesus was saying (always a good idea). There was more to all this washing than just having clean hands. We don’t know whether or not the disciples had clean hands – that wasn’t what the Pharisees were complaining about. The Pharisees were complaining that the disciples hadn’t undergone the elaborate ritual washing that Jewish tradition said made them ritually clean. Tradition said that they shouldn’t eat without being ritually clean. Not going through this fancy ritual would have been bad enough for any Jew, but for the followers of a big shot rabbi it was unthinkable!
There was more to all this washing and there was far more to Jesus’ anger. All these rules where fine if you were rich enough to have the time and money to follow them. But they left the poor out in the cold. It left them feeling second class in God’s sight because they just couldn’t do all that the Pharisees did. What the Pharisees were really doing was taking Godliness out of the reach of the ordinary people and Jesus takes it right back!
Jesus leaves them in no doubt about what he thinks of them:
Jesus replied: You are nothing but show-offs! The prophet Isaiah was right when he wrote that God had said, “All of you praise me with your words, but you never really think about me. It is useless for you to worship me, when you teach rules made up by humans.” You disobey God’s commands in order to obey what humans have taught… Jesus called the crowd together again and said, “Pay attention and try to understand what I mean. The food that you put into your mouth doesn’t make you unclean and unfit to worship God.” … Out of your heart come evil thoughts, vulgar deeds, stealing, murder, unfaithfulness in marriage, greed, meanness, deceit, indecency, envy, insults, pride, and foolishness. All of these come from your heart, and they are what make you unfit to worship God. (Mark 7.6-8, 14, 15 & 21 – 23 (CEV))
So what about today? Well Jesus’ teaching is just as relevant. Only it is us religious people that are in danger of being the Pharisees. The message is simple, God’s kingdom is here so turn to Jesus, turn your life around, love God and the people around you. There’s nothing about what hymns we have to sing. There’s nothing about what prayers we have to say, or what words to say when we re-enact his Last Supper. Jesus didn’t give any rules about who can do what in church. So much of what we do as Christians is down to human rules. Often good rules but human rules none-the-less.
This message is far harder to live by than it seems. Just think, I may attract new people to Jesus but my precious church rules mean nothing to them. That might change but it might not. I need to act in love and care and share the Good News of Jesus, and leave the rest to Jesus and the power of the Spirit. I need to accept that the Church here could be thriving but the building may stay empty. I hope not but I’m not the boss. I’m not the head of this family, I’m just a son and I want to be a faithful son.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not thinking of ditching all human rules about religion. For one thing, we need structure for our life, it’s a human need so it wouldn’t take long for us to invent a whole load more to take their place. No, I’m not calling for human rules to be ditched, I’m simply trying to listen to Jesus; trying to understand what he would say today. I think Jesus’ message would be the same as it was then: remember they’re human rules not God’s rules, use them to help you be more like God, but never ever let them get in the way of someone coming close to God.
I am trying to get back into the swing of things after a holiday. A holiday that although interrupted was still long enough for me to feel out of touch. But also a holiday not long enough for me to get all those things done that I had planned. In other words -A normal holiday!
I do however feel nicely relaxed and keen to start again. I am looking forward to leading worship again.
One of the many highlights of my time off was part of a local Sculpture Trail. It was being able to experience the ‘SoundHide’. The SoundHide is an installation by electro-acoustic composer Mike Challis. The SoundHide is a circular structure made of straw bales to insulate the inside from outside sounds. I sat and listened to sounds recorded over many months at the River Waveney Trust Centre near Earsham. It was a wonderful feeling to walk in and suddenly feel the silence inside. Then to have that silence filled with a story made up of natural sounds. It felt as though I was immersed in that sound story, lost to experience for the 20 minutes or so that I sat there.
The deep power of my experience in the SoundHide made me reflect about how infrequently I allow myself the time to really appreciate the sounds around me. How often do I allow myself the luxury of letting myself feel the sounds around me? By that I mean how often do I appreciate the background track to my normal life?
Maybe, taking time off has made me too introspective but I have a feeling that there is a deep spiritual truth hidden here. Perhaps this is a tiny fragment of what Jesus meant when he said, “I came to give life—life that is full and good” (John 10.10 ERV). I know that Jesus does not lie but so often my life feels rushed; like my meals every experience is gulped down before dashing onwards. How can I really praise the Creator for the wonder of this world made good if I don’t allow myself to appreciate it properly? Too often I’m a bored teenager again, shrugging my shoulders and saying a metaphorical, “Whatever”.
If I am missing so much of God’s gifts to me in this physical world, what else am I missing. What is the Father trying to help me to be and feel, if only he could get me to stop for long enough? What does the Jesus want to say to me, if only I would take the time to listen? What is the Spirit trying to give me if only he could stop me trampling his gifts in my rush to get on?
Perhaps, I need a GodHide: A place where I can go to stop, listen and truly feel what God is saying and doing? Perhaps I already have my GodHide: A place inside, lit by the Spirit where he can give me back the sensitivity that the harshness of life keeps taking a way? As I write I feel the enfolding of the Spirit, I feel God’s presence within reopening all of my senses to feel, truly feel. I hear Jesus saying, ‘I give life that is full and good’, and ‘the water I give people will be like a spring flowing inside them. It will bring them eternal life”'(John 4.14 ERV): I feel alive.
This again is a post from a few years ago that seems just as relevant today:
I’ve recently been up in the frozen North – well Co. Durham and Scotland.
While there a friend took me to perhaps the oldest church in England. It is the 7th Century Anglo-Saxon church of St. John at Escomb , near Bishop Auckland in Co. Durham.
Standing in that small church I was reminded of the deep roots of Christianity in this country. I was also reminded of how the church has come and gone only to return again. And of how ordinary Christian people have just carried on living a simple Christian life right through it all.
That little church was mostly built from stone taken from the nearby Roman Fort of Binchester. Some of the stone still has its original Roman inscriptions. Those stones will have witnessed the first conversion of Britain to Christianity when the Romans still ruled.
Then came the Saxons and Angles who destroyed the Roman church that they found here. Then the Anglo-Saxons became Christians, converted by monks from Scotland and Ireland. Then came the Danes, destroying the churches once again only to be converted themselves, before being banished from these shores.
Then throughout the history of England the Church has flourished for a while before losing its fervour, only to be revitalised once again. And through it all ordinary Christian people have stayed faithful.
We are now in one of those times where the Church seems to be in decline. Numbers are falling and churches are closing or having to band together to survive in a hostile world.
When I see churches closed or full with nothing but silence, I think about the history of our church. I think about the past and know that now is not the time to give up. A new and vital church is on its way and perhaps is already beginning to grow.
Now is the time to stand firm for what we believe. For values that the rest of society need so much. People who are more likely to believe in Halloween ghosts than in the presence of the Saints whose festival eve they unwittingly commemorate.
Values of love and forgiveness. Values of truth and honesty.
The value of forgiveness and the knowledge of the ever present reality of the world of the divine.
We have a rich tradition. A mass of resources available to us to help people find hope and meaning for their lives. Meaning beyond the material things. Meaning that helps us to see the real value of the things that we have.
We, and our church, have so much to offer. So much to give.
The challenge to our Church is to hold onto what is of value from our past and let it grow in new and vibrant ways. Ways that people who have had no contact with the church can understand. We think of mission and outreach and hope that our church buildings will be full. And that may be the result.
But it may not. Mission may lead to people praying and learning online, or in their own homes. It has led to the main service for some people being on a day or evening other than Sunday.
The friend that took me to that little Saxon church, is one of the most influential theologians in the world today. But he is almost unknown in this country. He does most of his communicating online, over the internet, with bishops, theologians and ordinary people like you and me. He is in contact with hundreds of people every day. He inspires lives and challenges iniquity and duplicity. He has more influence for Christ than a hundred parish priests but his approach is different and he has now lost his house and all income from the Church.
Thankfully, his wife works and they have been able to find a little house on her income. But this is an example of how we can miss what God is doing simply because it doesn’t fit with our idea of what God should be doing. Or when God’s acts don’t exactly match what he did in the past.
This world, God’s world, changes constantly and the way God leads us to reveal him in the world changes with it.
I love our Church of England. But it also drives me mad at times. It inspires high and low to live lives of world changing holiness then almost in the same breath it can be petty and inflexible; full of bureaucratic yes-men (and yes-women – I don’t want to be accused of being sexist).
Then I remember that little church in Escomb, and the even smaller Saxon Church in my home town of Thornaby. And I think of the ups and downs in the fortunes of the church that they have seen come and seen go. And I smile. God is in control. All is well.
Jesus faced far worse than we face, the Spirit has transformed more stiff necked countries than ours.
So, until you and I get the chance to do something big; let’s continue living our simple Christian lives. That’s far more radical these days than being covered with tattoos and piercings. Far more outrageous than living a wild life or having an affair; living a decent, honest life; loving rather than hating; being generous rather than grasping; are not what you learn from the tv adverts.
You – by just being here are being controversial. You are reminding anyone who notices you that their latest purchase doesn’t satisfy, that there is a hole in their life.
Let’s continue challenging our country by living our simple Christian lives.
I’m away this Sunday so I’ve decided to to re-publish a post that was first published a few years ago, before I returned to full-time ministry. As I re-read this post Jesus has challenged me again, I hope he challenges you too…
The phrase “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” haunts me. It challenges, me and the respectable Church that I love. And it is not some atheist like Richard Dawkins that is doing the challenging: It is Jesus.
This challenge took my mind back to the week that I’ve had.
Last week was a varied week for me. Definitely, interesting if not a little exhausting.
I didn’t join you or Corton for the main morning service because, being Sunday, it took me forever to get to London for my Eurostar to Brussels. But the meetings went well and I got home safely later in the week.
Then came the frantic scramble to catch up!
People say to me that it must be fun to visit lots of different places, all paid for by someone else. But the truth is that most times you never really get the chance to see the place you are visiting. You arrive either just in time for a meeting or late at night. You have a meeting in a room that could be in Lowestoft or Lahore, and then dash off for the plane or train that will take you home.
But this time it was different. My meetings on the Monday and on the Tuesday finished early, so I had a little time to wander around. Time to explore Brussels.
Brussels has some beautiful architecture, especially around the historic city centre. The Grand Place has buildings with sections of stonework coated in gold. There is ostentation and real money. But Brussels is also quite a small city.
You leave the Grand Place and you get a heady mix of the best and the worst of human existence. I wandered around and found wonderful bookshops next to seedy sex joints.
I found a street with very expensive antique shops – with beautiful antique furniture and gold light fittings.
Then I turned a corner onto a dirty street that opened out into a run down square that had been turned into an unofficial market. As I got closer I noticed lots of very poor people. Men and women had thrown blankets onto the ground and spread out things to sell. But most of it was junk – it was all they had. There were blankets with cheap jewellery, Hoovers, tools, toys, clothes.
And round the next corner were more posh shops. There were big commercial bins outside with people rummaging through. As I went past there was sudden excitement as a man and a women found an old pair of boots.
There were beggars everywhere, often women sitting on street corners, with small children in their arms and a paper cup set out in front of them.
So much humanity. So much need. Real need.
So much poverty and misery amid the riches that flow into a city that attracts wealth as one of the capitals of the European Union.
So much spiritual poverty. So much need for meaning.
There were churches and a huge cathedral. But no sign of outreach or mission. No Christian books, or books of faith at all. No outreach coffee shops or homeless centres.
No obvious helping hand to the poor: The physically poor/ the morally poor/ or to the spiritual poor.
So different from what I know of London. We may have problems in this country but we do at least still care.
And it brought me face to face with that challenge from our Gospel reading. That challenge from Jesus that, “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you,” and ahead of me. It also makes me so glad that God is able to work around our weakness and reach the people that really need him.
Reading this booklet, I was struck by how simple and straightforward growth can be. Remembering my experiences in Brussels, it brought home to me just how important this process is.
If coming here each Sunday really means anything then it should affect our priorities and the way in which we live.
We should want to know God better – be better disciples (poster heading Growth – in discipleship).
Knowing God better – we should care as He cares, and act on that care in service to people and the world (poster heading Growth – in service).
And caring should extend to being willing to share what is important to us and to help others to discover a life-changing faith for themselves (poster heading Growth – in numbers).
I like this booklet. It starts where we are, not where someone says we should be. It allows us to decided how to build on our strengths, and at its heart is prayer.
I really don’t like diocesan initiatives, especially diocesan initiatives about mission. But I am impressed by “Committed to Growth”. I intend to think and pray about it. I intend to put it into practice.
I ask you to do the same. Tell me or Roger about your thoughts and dreams and plans for this Church here in Corton. And together we can grow.
Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
Prayer from Bishop Graham: Eternal God, in your Son Jesus Christ you reveal your love for the world, and by the grace of the Holy Spirit you give us the strength to share his mission in this Diocese: help us to grow in proclaiming your good news, drawing others to know you, serving our communities, promoting justice and peace and sustaining the well-being of the life of the earth; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
I think of my cats and I wonder…
I have two cats. Two elderly boys who rule the house – at least they think they do. They are very affectionate but I am convinced that deep down they see those of us with opposable thumbs as their slaves, put here solely to do their will and pander to their every need. They must be so disappointed in me. They make it clear that they want feeding and I try to tell them about some strange thing called ‘dinner time’. Or they try to wake me in the night and can’t understand the concepts of ‘morning’ or ‘breakfast time’. They’re wonderful but annoying and to them I must seem so slow and thick – how could I possibly not understand!
If you’re a cat lover like me try looking up Simonscat.com for amazingly well observed cartoons and short animations (http://simonscat.com/blog/watch-our-full-playlist/).
I think of my cats and I wonder why I put up with them but never for very long. Really I know that I love them and that is not going to change. I’m not going to give up on them because they’ve been sick again or for deciding that 4am is a great time to play, pick a fight or both!
I often think of my cats but today it’s been prompted by reading John 6.24-26. When the people hound Jesus he tells them straight, “‘Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” They sound so like my cats, particularly their obsession with their stomach! My cats are just being cats and in a way those people are just being people. We all like a good show and who turns down a free meal? – I know I don’t. So I suspect that I would have been no different from the people in those crowds. I would probably have grasped that this man Jesus was a bit different – perhaps even that he was very special: He was certainly a local celebrity. But like them I can be slow to get the point. I can well believe that I too would have been swept along with the crowd; looking for a free party just like all the rest.
They wanted a free meal but, as the saying goes, “There is no such thing as a ‘free meal’.” This is so true here. Jesus had cared for these hungry people but like most of his miracles feeding thousands of people was also an important sign of who he was. Sadly, the people were keen to have the food but they just hadn’t taken in the message. They had missed the point so Jesus has to spell it out for them, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.’”
By feeding thousands of people with a few fish and a little bread Jesus was trying to show them that a new kingdom was here. A kingdom with eternal values; values that should be lived out and not just talked about. Jesus describes his message and these eternal values as ‘eternal food’; food that always nourishes and never goes bad. So what is this eternal food? Again Jesus makes this clear, it is his teaching and all that he gives through the Spirit.
At this point I need to stop. I need to stop free-loading and listen to what Jesus is trying to tell me. I need to stop and let Jesus feed me with whatever food is right for me, right here and now. Do I need courage? Perhaps an injection of pure faith to overcome the doubts around me? The list of eternal foods that I need seems to be endless. But then there is so much spiritual junk food around: So much greed dressed up as enlightened self interest: So much pressure to value myself by the things that I have, and by the things that I can buy. The junk food of consumerism and pettiness draw me to them like the mouthwatering smell of frying onions on a burger stall. I can’t blame anyone but myself – I really want all this junk food. I also know that a little won’t do any real harm. A burger every now and again won’t kill me! No, but a diet of nothing but burger and pizza, washed down with beer probably will.
I fall so often. I gorge on mental junk food, and become small minded, mean and petty. I start blaming others for my failings, I start to bitch and moan. See a little white collar doesn’t make me any better than anyone else. I’m no better but thankfully I know someone who is: One who understands and strangely he doesn’t just feed me the healthy food that I need. Jesus does more than that, far more: Jesus seems be able to redeem everything. He turns my failings into places where he can shine more. He never ceases to amaze me. Once Jesus turned water into wine, now its junk food into health food with a flavour to die for.
Going back to where I started I think again about my two cats. I smile at their antics, I give thanks that I’m loved as least as much as they are and I pray that I’m not quite such a pain to God.
I love visiting museums and especially the British Museum. I don’t like the thought of missing a great exhibition so I now get emails from the British Museum telling me what is coming up. Even when there’s nothing new that catches my eye I still love going. I try to drop in whenever I’m in London. There’s always something that I’ve missed and old favourites to revisit. There are pieces of real beauty like gold ornaments thousands of years old that could have been made yesterday but many of the archaeological finds that are the greatest treasures are from ordinary people. They say nothing about kings and rulers, they tell us about the lives of the ordinary people.
I particularly love it when I can touch a piece of history at one of the museum’s ‘Hands on Desks‘. One such highlight was a piece of ancient British pottery. It was plain and heavy by today’s standards. It was just a fragment of a jug. But holding it sent shivers down my spine. This little pot was a direct link to an ordinary farming family, getting on with their lives in this country over 1,000 years ago. It spoke of a way of life not entirely different from mine. I felt connected with those long gone people by a common bond of humanity. God had given the same breath of life to them and their potter as he gives to me. That pot was at least as precious as all the gold and jewellery in that museum – I just needed to get past the human obsession with wealth to see its true worth.
That pot was a link to the lives of ordinary people – but no less precious for that. Like that pot, I’m not rich or famous. I’m not a celebrity (thank God!), I won’t be recorded in history books. But I know that I’m loved and valued by my creator God. Despite all appearances to the contrary, I know that I am precious to God: Not because I work hard and shine like gold; no I’m precious simply because God wants it that way. It’s like Paul says, “We are like clay jars in which this treasure is stored. The real power comes from God and not from us.” (2 Corinthians 4.7).
If you are anything like me it’s a real comfort to know that I’m loved and precious simply because of who God is:. I can’t earn it, it just is. I can though let God’s generosity inspire me. It’s like good old James whom we remember today. He and his brother John were just fishermen – very plain pots! They weren’t wealthy or powerful but Jesus saw their worth and called them to be among his first followers.
James came from very humble beginnings to be one of Jesus’ special 12. Famously, James and John were pushed forward by their mother to be the most important of Jesus’ followers when she said asked Jesus to, “‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom’” (Matthew 20.21). Their mother had completely misunderstood the sort of king Jesus was. Her sons were already special and precious. There was nothing more that Jesus could give them that they were not going to inherit anyway. I can’t be too hard on her though, because no one seems to have grasped the sort of treasure Jesus was offering; not until he showed the world through his death.
Like the 12, and the very lowly early Christians, we too have an immense treasure in very earthly vessels. Every time I walk around, this very ordinary human body is a vessel for something very precious: Not my life, but the life of the Spirit in me. Every time you or any one of Jesus’ followers walks around it’s true for you too. Whether pretty or plain, healthy or sick, these earthen jars contain just as much divine treasure. Also like most jars our purpose isn’t to hold on to our precious contents. No, my purpose is clear, to pour out all the good things that I’m given so that others may share the blessing. Paul put it like this, “All of this has been done for you, so that more and more people will know how kind God is and will praise and honour him” (2 Corinthians 4.15).
Going back to my experience with that plain bit of pot in the British Museum – I mustn’t forget the importance and preciousness of ordinary things: Ordinary things like me and the people of God I see around me. The early Christians like James, John and Paul were no different. They were special not because they were wealthy or powerful: They were special because they allowed themselves to be like Jesus and for ‘their’ treasure to be poured out for the people they met. I am all too aware that I’m nothing special but even so it’s now my turn to recognise the wonderful treasure poured into me. Now it is my turn to be poured out so that the Spirit’s treasure may shine and glitter, and God’s love be shown.
I have been thinking about three people that I met this week.
The first is an elderly man who served in our air force during the Suez Crisis. We had a great chat and at the end he said something like, “I used to be Church of England but now I’m not so sure about God”. He went on to explain that the things he had seen had shaken his belief in a loving God. In particular sleeping next to a nuclear bomb, ready at a moments notice to kill tens maybe hundreds of thousands of people. Living with the knowledge of that horrible reality day after day, and knowing that he would be responsible for delivering all that death and destruction: well I can understand why that would lead to some serious questions of God. Hopefully, he can find his way back to the Church and have people with him to help him find God in the realities of this world.
The second was a much younger woman. She had gone to church as a child but had just drifted away as she grew up. She had some nice memories of Sunday School. She had a gentle affection towards the church that she remembered but it played no real part in her day-to-day life. There was a sense that the God that she met in Sunday School was probably still out there but that was largely forgotten. It was as though the Kingdom of God was a lovely childhood holiday destination, a great memory but somewhere that you can’t really go back to when you grow up.
The third was a young man who knew absolutely nothing about God or his son Jesus. He was a generally caring and decent man but God was just not a concept that he had ever considered seriously. God was the invention of crazy people who either cornered you in the bar or tried to blow you up! The most positive image of a Christian that he had was of an ineffectual man in a dress trying to tell him that having a good time was wrong.
I think of each of those three people – Each of them loved by the God they have either forgotten or never knew – I think of them and realise that me and my church have been failing to truly live up to our calling to be a light to the people around us. I get too caught up with church affairs; with administration, and dealing with in fighting between brothers and sisters in Christ. I look at myself and it is a real kick to remember that I’m called to be a shining light and example of Godly love to the people around me, and so are all Christians. I’m thick at times – so thick that God often needs to give me a good kick upn the backside to get me to listen to him. Thanks God, for caring enough to kick me out of my complacency. I am called to find way to let Christ shine through me for each of those three people and everyone that I meet. That’s my calling and there’s so much more to do!
I look at myself and my brothers and sisters and see Christ’s light shining, but the light is no where near bright enough. Together we need to find ways to be light to each of those people. I need to find ways for the good news to be heard and understood by each of those people and the huge numbers of people that they represent.
This is a challenge that thankfully I see lots of people grappling with. We are reaching out, we are searching for ways to speak and live the good news so that it can be heard and understood. There is so much more to do but I believe that here where I live we have made a good start. I now pray and pray for the Spirit to give more and more: More guidance and more wisdom and more patience and above all a huge helping of love.
I see more and more people joining hands with me to pray and to act in the Spirit. We’ve made a great start now let’s finish the race!
A prayer I picked up from the Iona Community:
Reshape us, good Lord,
until in generosity, in faith, and in
expectation that the best is yet to come,
we are truly Christ-like.
Make us passionate followers of Jesus,
rather than passive supporters.
Make our churches places of radical discipleship
and signposts to heaven,
then, in us, through us, and – if need be –
despite us, let your kingdom come.
I’ve had a strange week. In the schools it has been a week of saying goodbye and of moving on. Some are moving to high school, some to new classes, to college or leaving school all together. A time of change. Some are excited at the new opportunities, some are frightened by the uncertainties ahead. Some I will see again in September, but some I may never meet again. At one event I listened to all the things that the primary school leavers had done and I wanted to start school all over again! So, I think that the overall the sense I have from this week is of hope and optimism.
The same is true for these churches clustered along the Waveney valley. All is not perfect but things are good. The Spirit is flowing along our valley. A Spirit of life and hope. A Spirit that is leading us out of our buildings to share the love we’ve been given with those around us. The number of community events that now happen in or around our churches is growing and growing. I see the school children and the elderly smiling and happy in church. I see new faces coming to worship and new people coming to explore. To taste and see whether what we have is good and for them. The Spirit is flowing.
The Spirit is flowing and so all is not calm and serene. After all Jesus never promised an easy life. But when hatred comes then we seem to be standing by one another more than ever. We are praying and encouraging each other more. We are recognising God as our loving Father who has stood by us and will stand by us wherever the future may take us.
So again, I am feeling positive and hopeful. So much so that there is the real danger of becoming complacent: of taking God’s presence for granted. I read the story of John the Baptist’s murder in Mark 6 and I know that following God’s call doesn’t always lead to a happy life. A contented and fulfilled life perhaps but not always ‘happy’ in the way that many people around us would understand ‘happy’.
As with John the Baptist I know I’m not called to be popular but to be faithful; faithful to God’s calling. To faithfully show signs of God’s kingdom here on earth through my words and actions. To support all that is good but also to speak out against all that is not. To show no partiality to the strong or to the under-dog. This is a high calling and is beyond my strength. I try and fail so easily. I can’t do it, at least not on my own. I have though found that I do a lot better when I take the time to listen to God and receive his strength.
Through Jesus you and I have been given the task of making his kingdom seen here on earth: To receive a taste of God’s perfect world and to share that here and now. I know that I am to follow Jesus and lead people to be more loving. To show that God’s way of living is the best for everyone. To show the way of forgiveness and healing. The way for individuals, for our churches, for our families, for our schools, for our nation, for our world.
Along with all Christians I am called to show by my life that God’s people love and work for peace. It sounds hard but it really isn’t. All I have to do is let God start to work in me. Then he can change me into a more loving and peaceful person. Forgiving is hard but the Spirit can make it possible. With forgiveness I’ve found that I am healed of so much that holds me back and by sharing that forgiveness I share that healing with those around me. This is not my work or your work: this is God’s work in us. I am God’s child and he is making me more like him, if I let him.
Brown as a nut, I’ve just come back from 2 days at the Norfolk Show. I’m still buzzing from all the excitement and fun. There was a serious side too. Talking to people, introducing them to a Christianity that many will never have encountered before. A confident, vibrant church that was giving out rather than asking for money. All of this made me think of the vibrancy of Jesus’ ministry and that of the early church described in Acts and the letters. Like today the early church had its problems but it was not short on enthusiasm.
Now that I’m away from the show I know that the infectious enthusiasm offered there needs to come back with me to my parishes. To be fair there is already a healthy slice of confidence in the work of the Spirit here in these Norfolk congregations. But you can never have too much encouragement! That said, I realise that it is easier for me to bounce with my faith. I’m a minister, so it is sort of expected. Also, I’ve come from outside. No one remembers me as a boy getting into trouble or being a swat at school. Quite a few of the people here don’t have that luxury. Many are living not far from where they grew up, among school friends and family. That gives them a way in to this community that I can only envy but it also makes it so much harder for people to accept the Gospel from them.
As Jesus said, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house’ (Mark 6.4). I know that only too well. Shortly after I was ordained, when I was finishing my training and looking for my first parish, my bishop offered me a town centre parish. A bit of a shock for several reasons:
1. I had said that I was being called to rural ministry;
2. It was a large and quite important parish, particularly for a newly trained minister; but most of all
3. It was in the old part of the town in which I grew up.
I had aunts and uncles, cousins, second cousins and all the rest everywhere. Right through the old part of town I was “Our Jeans lad.” I learned First Aid at the St. John’s Ambulance group in that church -taught by the local undertaker, who was still there. I could almost hear the conversation: “You’ll never guess. Our new parish priest is our Jean’s son Nigel. You know… Jimmy’s grandson… You remember, he went to school with our Charlie – The one that went to university, like his uncles. Well, he’s back.”
I’m not saying that it would have been impossible to minister there but it would have been far from ideal. It would have been hard anyway but I was just coming out of a difficult time. I had been trained by someone who had given up on his ministry, so much of my confidence had gone too (perhaps a story for another day).
In the end I had to say, “No”. People were furious but it was definitely the right decision for me to make. That said, if I had been called to that parish and to minister near to where I grew up; Well then I’m sure the Spirit would have found a way. Maybe not straight away but over the years He would have found a way.
I wasn’t called there, I’m sure that the Spirit wasn’t with that move and so I’ve never regretted my decision. It was wrong for me because I wouldn’t have been able to be an effective minister. It would have been wrong for the people there, because it would have gotten in the way of their growing in faith. I could never have been the prophet that they needed. They would never have been able to hear the special words of the Spirit for them, only the words of the kid who had done well and come back.
I’ve tried to follow the Spirit’s prompting ever since: Wherever that might lead. It’s meant that I’ve upset some important people but it has kept the Spirit’s voice fresh and vibrant. I feel alive with my God and excited by the ministry he gives: and the rest, well, I’ve never wanted to be a bishop!
Last week I was watching a royal wedding. I was spell bound by it all. The spectacle, the drama and the excitement were infectious. It was so amazing that it didn’t really matter that it wasn’t my queen getting married. The whole occasion was very different from a British royal wedding but none the less for that.
This whole occasion was for me made even more wonderful by the fact that, apart from my wife, I was the only human being watching it all! I wasn’t watching a human wedding, I was watching the mating flight of a queen bee. The male bees (drones) were piling out of my hives to chase the new queen. Some of the worker bees carried on working but many buzzed around in circles, excitedly waiting to see the bride. It made me think of the people who gather to watch the bride arrive at a normal church wedding: Waiting for a glimpse of the bride and catch a little of the excitement. And the queen? Well, although she was the star of the show; well you have to be quick to see her at all. Perhaps, if you’re very lucky you’ll make her out at the head of a cloud of drones as they shoot off into the sky.
I think about that amazing natural wonder. A wonder happening right through late spring and early summer right across this country. I wonder how many people even know that it is happening, never mind have ever seen it? Not many but it all goes on anyway unconcerned by the lack of any human audience.
I think about that amazing natural wonder and praise God the creator of it all. I then remember all that is far from perfect in the natural world and the human world. Then I thank Jesus for coming to start the process that will free all of this good creation from all that fouls it. I thank Jesus for coming so that I can be an active part of God’s work of saving all that’s good in creation, including all that’s good in humanity, from all that is corrupting it.
I long for a world where all the beauty and wonder that I saw in that royal wedding is what this creation is all about. I long for a world where pain, and hatred and cruelty, and corruption and even death are gone for ever. I long for a world free suffering and evil. That is why I follow Jesus because he has started that clean up, a clean-up that is unstoppable now. I follow Jesus because he gives me the love and the patience to work with him to make this world a better place. He brings hope and joy and opens my eyes to the wonder of all that God has made. He opens my eyes to see as God sees, at least a little bit. I’m now more sensitive than ever to the joys of this world. I also feel something of God’s hurt when people and the natural world are hurt.
I now have hope for the future. Hope for myself and hope for all things. It’s that good news that gets me up on a morning knowing. This hope wasn’t always there but I can’t really say how it came to me. I spent many years arguing against faith and the existence of God. I won lots of arguments but in the end God won me. How it all happened remains a mystery but it’s a bit like the words of Jesus to Simon/Peter:
Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. (Matthew 16.17)
Faith, like the ways of bees, is a wonderful mystery to me. But faith brings hope and energy to work with my maker for a better me and a better world. Faith like this is good news, and that same good news is free for everyone!