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Happy Christmas!

Happy Christmas!

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Another rushed Christmas?

As I sit to write, Christmas is almost here. Sunday is a strange mix of the last Sunday of Advent in the morning transforming into Christmas Eve as the day progresses. It all feels too rushed. In the morning I’ll hear again the angel Gabriel telling Mary that she is going to give be pregnant with God’s son (Luke 1.26-38), then that evening 9 months have flashed by and there she is giving birth (Luke 2.5-7). All the messy reality of it all vanishes. The problem telling Joseph, and what is her mother going to say?!

I hear of Mary pondering what sort of greeting this might be (Luke 1.28), but I feel robbed of the time to ponder myself. No sooner are those words spoken in church than I’m off to prepare for our huge Christmas Eve carol service, then midnight mass, then a few snatched hours of sleep before the Christmas morning services.

I feel hustled along. So I’m going to ponder now. I’m going to take a few minutes at least to ponder the enormity of that pregnancy and birth, just like Mary (Luke 2.19).

I ponder the awkward conversation between Mary and her mother that isn’t recorded in the Bible. That can’t have been easy in a devout Jewish family. I don’t expect that her mother believed Mary, any more than Joseph would believe her when he was told. I see the anger and deep disappointment in her mother’s eyes. I imagine thoughts like, “I thought I’d brought you up to be better than that.” Then the deep sadness and disappointment that probably hurt more that the heated words that had preceded them.

That meeting to tell Joseph can’t have been much fun either. Did she go in person or did her mother or father go in her place. Maybe it was her father that spoke to Joseph, creeping over to visit, crushed by the shame to him and his family’s name that Mary had caused. At least if it was her father there was no chance of Mary being dragged out there and then, when the anger was hot, and stoned to death. Had he even sent her into hiding, just in case? Was that why, “A short time later Mary hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea.” (Luke 1.39-40).

I do know that the crisis settled down. Joseph, being a kind man didn’t want to insist on his right to justice. Then a second angel convinces him to believe Mary. Following that there must have been 9 months or so of reconciliation between Mary and Joseph. Did that initial lack of trust by Joseph cast a permanent shadow over their marriage, or did they truly manage to heal their relationship?

Is it blasphemous for me to ask these questions, even worse air them in public? I don’t think so. I believe that Mary is a hero and example of faith. A woman whose great faith seems to have driven her to ponder, to question, and to search of God’s meaning in all that was happening to and around her. I read the accounts of Mary in the Bible and I too am inspired to ponder and question. I am inspired to ponder what it means that God became human; a part of his own creation. What has changed because of that? Who should I be because of that?

I ponder the fact that this God-man Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven has come near (For example see Matthew 3.2, Matthew 4.17 and Mark 1.15). Then forcing his listeners to ponder and question by using confusing stories about what this kingdom close at hand might be like.

So I now look at a nativity scene and ponder the life and potential in that little child. The potential that has already been realised, and the potential that is yet to be, as God lives in me.

First impressions – strange and dangerous!

First impressions are strange things. I know that I need to look deeper than a person’s appearance but, have you noticed just how hard it is to actually do that? I see someone in a smart suit, and think, “respectable”. When all a smart suit means is that they have the money to buy a smart suit, and perhaps a job that demands it. They could be a liar and a fraud, but I’ve stupidly begun to trust them, just because of their choice of clothes. I see a man in a warm jacket and scarf walking a Labrador dog, and I think, “family man”. But that is exactly how some sexual predators have disguised themselves. There again, he probably is a family man. But that again says nothing about the sort of person that he is.

I see a man slurring his speech and walking unsteadily, and my first impression is, “drunk”. But I don’t know that he hasn’t had a stroke. Even if he is drunk, who am I to judge. Being drunk doesn’t make him a bad person; just drunk!

I have found that my desire to make a first impression can lead me astray so easily. I need again and again to force myself to stop and make a real evaluation of the person in front of me. That includes the thought, do I even know enough to evaluate anyway?

I used to rain with someone who was covered with tattoos. He could have been off putting but he was a great person, well worth getting to know. Once you took the time to really look, his tattoos were impressive too. Before I met him he used to make his impression even more extreme. He used to have brightly-coloured ‘mohican’ hair. It was deliberate on his part, to weed out the ‘judgemental idiots’ who he didn’t want to know anyway. He figured that if someone treated him as a human being, however he looked, then they were worth taking the time to speak with and get to know. If they judged him by his appearance, then they were not worth wasting time with anyway.

This idea of first impressions really worries me. It worries me because it can so easily make me into a judgemental idiot, and that is putting it kindly. Jesus seems to have been free of this worrying human trait. He saw through the irreligious surface of tax collectors and prostitutes, to love the human being within (see Mark 2.14). He saw through the respectability of so many of the religious leaders, and called them out for their hypocrisy (see Matthew 23.33). Yet, Jesus didn’t say all prostitutes were good people; neither did he say that all of the religious leaders were bad. He praised, where praise was due (see Mark 12.34).

I want desperately to be more like Jesus, but the more I look into first impressions the more worried I get. I looked up first impressions and found that we human beings make up our mind about someone incredibly quickly. I had heard that it was within 1 minute of meeting some that we make up our mind about them. Then I read that it was only 30 seconds, then 2 seconds, then only 1 second. Then I read of recent research that indicates that we make an almost instant impression of someone (see How Many Seconds to a First Impression?). Not so much, “Love at first sight”, but more, “Judge at first sight”.

That is truly scary. It tells me just how hard my task is going to be. It reminds me why it is so hard to overcome prejudice, and judgemental attitudes, in myself, and in the world around me. I now feel almost helpless. Then I stop wallowing in my helplessness and bring it to Jesus, in prayer. I ask for the Spirit to help me. I then resolve to do my best to stop and review every first impression that I make. That way I am taking some responsibility for my failings, while still calling on God to help when my frail humanity fails me.

I pray that I might have the insight of Jesus Christ. I pray that I may steadily stop assessing someone on the basis of their looks, or their religion, their sex, or sexual orientation, their age, beauty, or any other superficial criteria. I pray that I will be able to have the patience to wait and to get to know a person before considering who they are. That is phase one. I then pray that I can learn to love them, whatever my human judgement says.

I pray not for a little. I pray for something that is way beyond my ability. I pray for nothing less than the mind of Christ here and now. I know I’ll fail, again and again, but I know that there is no other goal worth striving for. Maybe, I should pray not that I stop making first impressions, but that my first impressions, will be first impressions of love. Maybe, I’m trying to run before I can walk.

Whatever else, I need to keep reminding myself that first impressions are dangerous, and good or bad, I need to challenge them every time.

My stupidity, it never seems to end!

I’ve been looking back over this blog and one post really spoke to me. It wasn’t a post about deep spiritual truths. It was a post about my stupidity! You see, I can be so stupid at times. Quite a lot of the time in fact. So much so that I’ve had to make friends with my stupidity. It’s with me so much that there is no point in us being enemies.

I’ve found a wonderful quote: “The probability of someone watching you is directly proportional to the stupidity of your actions.” I found it along with an amusing a picture of a cat with its head stuck in a tube of biscuits.

 

The cat certainly looks ridiculous. I don’t know whether the saying is true but it is certainly true that you remember every time someone sees you doing something stupid. Indeed, reflecting on my life, I’ve been so stupid I must be under constant surveillance!

I still shiver when I remember making my school friends laugh at an impression of one of our teachers. He had a hunchback and I was doing a Quasimodo impression that had them all collapsing in laughter. Then they all went quiet, but it took me a while to notice. When I did notice the silence, I realised that someone was behind me. There was that horrible prickly feeling down my back. I knew from the horror in my friends’ eyes that my teacher was standing there at my back. I still feel the horror and the shame. That day it certainly felt like, “The probability of someone watching you is directly proportional to the stupidity of your actions.” I only wish I had being stealing biscuits like that cat.

After finding the cat picture, I looked online at t-shirts and found one with the logo, “Quick, Jesus is coming. Look busy!” That same school boy humour that had got me into so much trouble all those years ago, crept back and made me giggle.

Then I thought about the real Jesus and the phrase that became his catch-phrase, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.” That phrase is repeated in the gospels but I was drawn to the version from Matthew 4.17. But when I looked it up in two translations pretty true to the Greek, I found that more accurately the phrase should be, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Wherever Jesus is, then the kingdom of heaven must be close, in fact it is probably already there. So the call for me to change my ways so that God can transform me, is even more urgent than I thought. It is as though I am still aping about and playing the fool, not noticing that everyone has gone quiet. This time though, it isn’t my crippled teacher standing behind me; no, this time it’s Jesus himself. I can feel the prickles down my neck already. I can feel the shame. Thankfully, Jesus is used to this stupid, little brother of his. He is far more forgiving than I deserve and so loving that I have no words adequate to describe my awe of him.

So, I am going to do what I can allow the Spirit to make me more loving and forgiving and generous and kind and all the rest. I am going to do it now because the kingdom is near. I’m going to do my best now, because sometime I’m going to have to turn around and face Jesus. It would hurt so much to see disappointment in those eyes of love. But, some day, turn around I must. What will I see? What indeed? If I ever get the guts to find out, you’ll be the first to know!

Ofsted is coming – Look busy!

Ofsted! That is a word to strike fear into the heart of any teacher or school governor.

Ofsted! I can feel a cold shiver of dread go down my spine right now.

I am a governor for two church schools and both are about due for an Ofsted inspection. I know that it is coming, but I don’t know when. Will it be next week? Will it be before Christmas? Will it be next year? I don’t know, no one here knows. Only Ofsted know, and they are not telling.

I’m waiting on tenter-hooks, along with my fellow governors, the head teachers and school staff. We’re waiting for a phone call one morning saying that an inspector will arrive first thing the next day.

What can we do? Panic? Well that’s certainly a real temptation. What we can do, what we are doing is what we always do: We are making absolutely sure that we have the best possible school, at all times. We can work hard to all children in our care get the very best start that we can give them, academically, morally and spiritually. Then we should have nothing to fear!

I don’t like to compare Jesus with Ofsted, but there are real similarities between the coming of Ofsted and Jesus’ return.

I know that Ofsted will come, but I don’t know when. I know for certain that Jesus will return but again I have no idea when. I also know that when that day comes, I won’t get a phone call the day before, or even an hour before. No, Jesus will just appear. Ofsted keep you waiting until they are ready to visit. Jesus is the same. He is waiting for the Father to reveal the time. But Ofsted come every few years and Jesus has been due back for the last two thousand years. Like the thought of an Ofsted inspector, the though of the judgement of Jesus instantly fills me with fear. All that God has done in me instantly vanish from my mind. I only remember my many faults and failings. That fear leads me to a frantic panic to get ready.

Jesus may be taking his time but I know he will return, and it could be in my lifetime; it could be tomorrow, or anytime. So how can I get ready? That again is very similar to getting ready for Ofsted. Firstly, I need to stop my pointless panicking. Like getting ready for Ofsted I must focus on my life; I must make sure that my life is the very best it can be.

Then the Spirit breaks in. In all my fear and panic I’d been blocking him out. I hear the Spirit speak gently, I hear, and my headless chicken act begins to stop. The Spirit speaks and I hear that if I’m living as God wants me to live I should have nothing to fear. I hear that and, amazingly, a little of my fear steps aside. I can still feel it near by, but for now at least, I can think again.

The Spirit speaks and I find that part of me is looking forward to Jesus’ return. I remember that when that day comes I will finally meet Jesus, face to face. As the Spirit gets to work I realise that when that day comes I don’t mind being nervous and excited. I pray that there won’t be fear to spoil that big day,… I look up and some of my fear seems to have slipped away.

My mind is clearing now and I realise that unlike the shrinking budgets of my schools, I will have all the wealth of God to help me to be ready. I have God’s son on my side. I have the Holy Spirit in me, working away with me to help me to be more loving, more generous, more kind and self-controlled: In short helping me to be more like Jesus: A little more fear slips away.

There is though one particular difference between the return of Ofsted and the return of Jesus: the person doing the inspection. As I wait for Ofsted I’m concerned about who they will send. Will it be someone cold, and only interested in their tick-boxes; or will it be someone who will listen and understand our school? But as I wait for Jesus, well, I’m waiting for the one I love. There really is no comparison. I am waiting for the Lord of all things, but who is Love itself, merciful and forgiving. The one who as he was tortured to death, prayed, “Father forgive!”

I now really start to feel my fear retreat. I am his, not because of my effort but because of his love for me. I know Jesus and I know that I can trust him. Now I want to work even harder to get ready for his return. Not because I am afraid. No, his love is driving out my fear of punishment. I am not working out of fear. I am working to be more like the one I love. I feel my fear slink away some more.

These thoughts of Jesus’ return have been a good reminder to me not to let my faith slip. But no, I need to forget about that, focus on Jesus, and let the Spirit get on with the work of getting me ready to meet him!

My fear is now nowhere to be seen. My faith is far from perfect so I know my fear will return. But for now, I enjoy the peace of the Spirit, and look forward to Jesus welcoming me home.

Preaching the Gospel – But does anyone hear the Good News?

A few years ago I wrote about watching a street preacher shouting out to people while everyone gave them a wide berth. I stopped, leaned against a wall and listened. I heard lots about Jesus being my saviour. I heard that I, along with those scurrying by, could be saved if they accepted Jesus, then they could be sure of going to heaven. He was also clear that if I didn’t accept this I would sadly go to hell.

He was speaking and people were ignoring him. He had a few supporters who stood with him, but even they looked bored. I even saw one women realise that she looked bored and force a smile on her face. She tried but it wasn’t very convincing. I admired the man for speaking out, but not for much more. He was speaking to himself and perhaps to his followers but there was nothing to engage those who were scurrying on. He said a lot about ‘sin’ – but no one knew what he meant. He spoke a lot about his concerns and absolutely nothing about the concerns of the people he was trying to reach. He had done his duty and proclaimed the Gospel, but no one heard the Good News.

Now three years on I still think we too often preach the Gospel, but no one hears the Good News. I have developed a hobby. I look at the posters outside of churches and try to guess who they are speaking to. Very often the language is so Christian that it can be only speaking to other Christians. I’ve done it myself. I’ve put up posters with Bible passages that mean so much to me. Then every time I see the poster I feel good, and assume that others will feel the same. But so often no one but a fellow Christian will have a clue what they mean, or even be interested enough to find out. Now, that might be fine. It would be fine if the poster was in church or on my wall. Then it is clearly there to encourage my fellow Christians. But what if the poster is on the main noticeboard outside? Am I still happy to  only speak to Christians, or am I really hoping that my poster will tell passers-by something of the wonder of God? 

Then I wondered if all of this is just too hard. Should I just accept that the Good News boring? How can I invite people into the Kingdom of God? How can I explain the Kingdom in ways that people will understand? As I pondered these questions I read again the story of the sheep and the goats from Matthew 25. I read I realised that the story of the sheep and the goats is not just told to those who are Jesus’ followers. This story, like most of Jesus’ stories was for everyone, whether they were his followers or not. Again like so many of Jesus’ stories this is not so much about being a Christian than it is about the values in God’s kingdom; values linked to the everyday concerns of his listeners.

So what are the cares of people today? I read the news and I read of people working all hours but still not making ends meet. Of wages not increasing for most people for over a decade. With prices rising that means that many are earning less than ten years ago. The following headline from a national UK paper says it so well, “Britain’s divided decade: the rich are 64% richer than before the recession, while the poor are 57% poorer.” That is an issue that calls out for fairness and justice. In Matthew 25, Jesus says, “Whenever, you did the right thing for those around you, you did it for me. Whenever, you didn’t do the right thing for those around you, you didn’t do it for me.” (my paraphrase). So Jesus cares for all people. Jesus calls his followers to care too. Perhaps then our posters should say what we Christians are doing to practically and politically in the cause of justice or housing or poverty or families? At least these are less likely to be ignored.

Jesus message that we can enjoy wealth but are crushed when our love of money when comes to rule us; that is Good News for those with wealth. It opens a door to the rich as well as to the poor.

Three years on I am still pondering how to invite people into the Kingdom of God in ways that they can hear – ways to explain the Kingdom that make sense, whether or not you already have faith. Perhaps I could do worse that talk about Jesus’ love of justice – that is one place that I can offer Good News for the concerns that people actually have. I know that there is so much more to God, there is so much more to the Good News, but perhaps that can come later…

once the conversation has started…

Taizé, war and the longing for peace

When I was a kid I used to love war films; still do. There is excitement, adventure and danger. I used to play at being soldier, or play cowboys and Indians; anything to give me the excuse to pretend to fight. I loved toy guns and knives, and tanks and war planes. Anything to do with war and I loved it. Every day after school I would mow down my friends with a machine gun, or be shot by them. Then we’d get up again, or argue that we weren’t dead, they’d missed – maybe even have a different sort of fight – Then we’d go home for tea and it would all start again the next day.

I remember the fun of diving behind hedges, and crawling on my belly through gardens. I remember watching war films or westerns with my Granddad on wet Saturday’s. There’s a glamour to war games and war films. No one is really killed. You can see your favourite action hero again in the next film. Indeed, most modern action heroes go through impossible things and survive with barely a scratch.

If only war were like that. But in real war people are shot and killed … and they don’t get up again. Soldiers are maimed and scarred, mentally as well as physically. Civilians, including little children are killed too, just for being in the wrong place. War is messy and brutal, but we don’t really like to hear that.

On Friday I was with two young people who were visiting our high school from Taizé, a community in the South of France. The community was set up by someone returning home after the Second World War. He had seen the horror that came when people were divided. He had seen the power of hate. He particularly wanted to help young people avoid the mistakes that led to that war. So Taizé was started and now well over 100,000 young people between 15 and 29 come to that remote part of France every year. They join in with the community, live together, learn from one another, and find peace. The hope is that the peace that they find can then spread as they return home. I’m hoping that a group of young people from this town will join me and many others, and go to Taizé next summer. This is one practical thing that I can do to work for peace.

I want to work for peace because war is a brutal thing, and it does brutal things to the minds of those who take part. In real war, real people die, and that could be you or the mate next to you, and that must do something to you, it would me, especially over time.

So war may be necessary or just, but it is still bloody and brutal; it is something so different from my young boy’s dream of excitement and adventure. In the face of the horror of war I need to find some hope, and I have found it in shovel loads in a Bible reading from Revelation 21. In verses 3 and 4 I read, “I heard a loud voice shout from the throne:

God’s home is now with his people. He will live with them, and they will be his own. Yes, God will make his home among his people. He will wipe all tears from their eyes, and there will be no more death, suffering, crying, or pain. These things of the past are gone forever.”

So, I know that God is here with me right now. He is also out there on the battlefield. He is in the front line base, and out with the patrol.

God is here with us in this world. A world that we keep messing up. A world made beautiful that we seem determined to litter with corpses. We may do so much that is a million miles from the love of God, but still God sticks with us. That gives me hope.

 

I want to work to see more of that hope becoming a reality here and now, and to see it complete in heaven. I thank God for places like Taizé and I pray to God “Please, wipe away every tear from our eyes, heal the pain and mourning. Lord Jesus, show us a better way!”

A Lazy Wind and a Simple Walk

The weather’s been changing; getting colder. The ‘lazy wind’ has started blowing up; the wind that blows right through you, because it’s too lazy to go around. Then I think, “I’d like some snow for Christmas”. Then I wonder about all those that don’t have a warm cosy house like mine. I wonder what the winter will bring. I wonder what is to come, but I can’t do much about it.

I think of the cold of winter and I think of all that will be in need. I think of the homeless, and remember to support Shelter and Emmaus at Ditchingham. I remember the birds, and check the bird seed stores and fat ball bucket. I think of those going without and remember to put a little more aside for Foodbank. I do these simple things, knowing that there is so much more that could be done. There are so many other good causes. Indeed, if you went through a similar checklist you would have a different list, you might include the air ambulance, a hospice or a cancer charity. You might include an overseas charity like Christian Aid or Oxfam. There are so many good causes that the ones that pull your heart strings are probably absent from my very short list here.

I suppose the point is to care, and to act on that care.

As I sit in the warmth with frost on the window, I know I’ll feel a sense of well-being. I don’t feel guilty about those who have less. I feel a need to share at least something of the good that I have been given, not out of guilt, but out of a desire for more and more people to be able to share that sense of well-being. For me this is an expression of my faith. It also comes out of a sense of justice. The sense of justice for all, that comes from the Bible, where Jesus says that rejecting the poor, hungry, the thirsty, and those in need is rejecting him (see Matthew 25:31-46). A sense of justice, with the mercy to want do something about this justice: The mercy to care.

For me it is all summed up in some words from before Jesus:

What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God’ (Micah 6:8, NIV).

Those simple words are words that I can understand, and live by. They aren’t too religious. They aren’t too complicated. I know the call for justice. I know the need for mercy. I know also that the only way I can do both is by humbly walking with my God.

The Elephant in the Room

Looking to the week to come, I’m drawn to two great Christian events. I’m drawn to the Feast of All Saints. The day when we celebrate the great heroes of the faith. This year I’ve moved the celebration of All Saints to a Sunday and a joint service for all of my 7 churches. That way it shouldn’t just be lost in a quiet mid-week service, attended by half a dozen people.

So there I was, thinking about All Saints, when my mind wandered to the day after, to All Souls. That day we’ve invited the bereaved to come to church to remember their loved ones. To light a candle and thank God for them. I hope and pray they will also leave with some comfort and a strengthened hope in the power of Jesus over death.

So there I was, thinking about All Saints and All Souls. I was reflecting and smiling and, if I’m honest, I was feeling very pleased with myself and my churches. Then it struck me. Then I realised that there was an elephant in the room and the elephant had a name: It was an elephant named “Halloween”.

“Halloween”: A word that seems to bring fear and loathing into the hearts of so many Christians. I can remember the reaction to Halloween at my theological college. The world would be having parties and children would be collecting sweets. The college would be huddled away in our chapel, praying fervently against evil and jumping at every creak and squeak.

Those days in college were very earnest. They did build a sense of us few against the world. I wonder though whether or not my college got it right. I wonder whether in all the scurrying fear Satan alone was being glorified. I’ve probably alarmed some people now, so let me explain.

Firstly, I have no doubt that evil is real. Spiritual evil as well as the evil acts that people do. I also know without a doubt that evil can be personal and intelligent; not just a vague force in the world. Evil is real, the Devil is real, Jesus tells us so, and most Christians come to know this first hand at some point or other.

Evil is real, but evil has also been defeated by Jesus on the cross. When faced with Jesus, evil flees. The Bible says, “Surrender to God! Resist the devil, and he will run from you.” (James 4:7)

Also, “Children, you belong to God, and you have defeated these enemies. God’s Spirit is in you and is more powerful than the one that is in the world.” (1 John 4.4).

With such strong teaching in the Bible, why should I, or any of Jesus followers, run around in fear at Halloween? After all, the word “Halloween” just means “All Hallows’ Eve”, or “All Saints’ Eve”. What most people seem to have forgotten is that All Saints’ Eve is the start of the celebration of All Saints. It is not the shadowy evil time before the celebration. The Church knew what it was doing when it put the feast of All Saints on 1st November. It was deliberately claiming a pagan time when the spirits were thought to appear. It was not running away in fear. It was not huddling in a corner. The Church was claiming those verses of the Bible with complete confidence, and having a party.

I put it to the children in one of my churches, that they could dress up, but not to copy evil, and not to be afraid of evil. No, they could dress up to taunt and laugh at all that is evil. They could do that because they know that Jesus is stronger that any evil. They know that his Spirit is in them. They know that God’s angels protect them. We together did what James said, we, “Surrendered to God” so that we could resist all evil, and watch it run!

We Christians have been too timid in our faith. Looking to myself, either I believe that Jesus has conquered all evil or I don’t. So I’m not cowering and I’m not encouraging my fellow Christians to cower either!

This Halloween, I will be in church, celebrating the calling of one of God’s people, one of his saints. I will be celebrating the licensing and commissioning of the Lead Evangelist for our new Centre for Mission. There will be no hint of cowering or fear, only joy at the power and love of God.

I won’t let Halloween be the elephant in the room. In Christ there is nowhere for evil to hide!

Something Old, Something New

A few years ago a priest friend of mine 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. Roots as deep and old as some of the yew trees in our churchyards. It made me think too of the deep roots of my medieval churches and more recent off-shoots.

I was 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 have been falling and churches have been closing or have to banded 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. Indeed, I see signs over the past few years that Christianity is strengthening again, that the church 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 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. Already, I have congregations that meet on a Saturday afternoon, in homes, or in pubs. These may lead to more people on Sundays, they may not. I only see the growth and the way that the Spirit seems to be leading at this point. I do not see what is around the next corner. Perhaps, that is the lesson I and my church need to learn: To hold lightly to what is and let the Spirit guide us to his future. This world, God’s world, changes constantly and so should it be any surprise if 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. I think of my old churches here in Norfolk. 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.

Just turning up to worship is now a radical statement. Just by continuing to live my faith, and finding a life of contentment in God; that is a statement of rebellion against materialism. A simple life of peace and contentment is a powerful statement that the latest purchase can never truly satisfy; that there is a hole in so many lives.

So I look at the deep roots of Christianity in this land. With such a foundation and the blessing of the Lord of all things, I can only smile at the futility of the storm all around.