Tuesday, 29 December 2009

A Year of Change

For me, this has been a year of immense change.
This is a reflection on the year that is now coming to its end.

The year began badly. In January 2009, my family and I were focussed completely on prayer for my 51-yr-old brother-in-law, who, on February 7, 2009, sadly lost his battle against heart failure. This was devastating for our family, especially my sister and her two children. I never thought that my brother-in-law's funeral would be the first funeral I would conduct. It was a priviledge to spend three weeks with my sister and her family at that time, but it is now even harder living 6000 miles away from her. And another family bereavement in April, the day before Easter, in fact - my dear stepfather passed away unexpectedly while taking a nap. Very peaceful, which is a blessing, but my sweet mother and all of us miss him so much. These two deaths have made an indelible mark on our lives. I thank God that both of these lovely men had developed trusting relationships with the Lord.

At the beginning of this year, I had a totally different job. I worked in a veterinary laboratory for a university, part-time. I have worked in science for 20 years, before my ordination in July of this year. So my job change has been a big change! To be honest, I was so ready to begin full-time ministry that I couldn't wait to leave my old job, even though I had enjoyed the work, and worked with good people. I feel a bit guilty that I haven't yet been back for a visit since I left. But, no regrets about leaving. I am so thankful that this vocational change is proving so fulfilling.

Also at the beginning of the year, I was still in training for ordination. My ordination training course was three years long, and in that time I made some lifelong friends and learned so much. But no theoretical training can prepare anyone for the realities of ordained ministry, I'm now finding out!

In July my mother came over from California for my ordination. What a wonderful day it was! I felt supported by family, friends and parishioners from my sending church and my new parish. Since then, it has felt a bit like a roller-coaster ride: anxiety, suspense, and fear, but also exhilaration, excitement and fun! I've noticed the fear has decreased a lot over the past 6 months, mostly replaced by an adrenaline edge that can be very energising, rather than a hindrance.

We were taught in 'vicar school' that one of the most important things affecting our curacy is our relationship with our training incumbent (the vicar in charge). And in this, I have been blessed, because my training incumbent and I have very similar theologies, and we get along very well. He has a good understanding of different personalities, including his own, and is gracious to people (including me) because of that. He's humble, and that is a big thing. He has allowed me to proceed in this curacy with as little or as much support and direction as I want or need. I know other curates whose training incumbents control virtually their every move, and I wouldn't like that.

In the midst of all the new experiences of meeting so many new people in the parish, taking different kinds of services, regular preaching, conducting funerals, and working together in a ministry team towards an exciting new future for the parish, I have found it challenging to keep up the home front. My husband and children have adapted very well to all the changes, but it isn't easy for any of us. I now work a lot at home, if I'm not out visiting people or at church. I do short bursts of housework in between doing ministry-related things. But even after everyone else gets home from school or from work, I continue to do both housework and ministry work. So it can feel a bit unfair, and like I'm working all the time. And that can be draining. I don't think I've learned yet how to take time out for myself that would refresh me. And I really could do with getting more exercise. I try hard to minimise the effects this new 'job' could have on my husband and children, but there isn't much time left for me. I have, however, managed to find time to re-connect with many of my old friends from high school through Facebook, which has been really satisfying and heart-warming. What great memories, and how wonderful to see people as they are now (they've aged, like I have! lol).

I'm excited about the coming year. Many new things are going to begin at church, offering new training experiences for me. And I'll continue trying to keep everything running smoothly at home. I'm looking forward to the summer when I will be ordained as a priest, and the additional changes that will bring to my ministry. And my lovely mother, sister, and niece and nephew are coming over to England this summer, too. I hope it is a brighter year, but whatever happens, I know that God is with me. I will sign off with one of my favourite Old Testament quotes: Joshua 1:9
Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified or discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us

John 1:1-14

I was really excited to see our gospel reading for this Christmas morning – it contains some of my favourite verses of scripture. The prologue of John’s gospel is so poetically written; it has been described as a Hymn to the Word, and it fires our imagination on a completely different level than the more commonly set Christmas accounts of the birth of Jesus.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Anyone reading this for the first time might find it a bit hard to get their head round it! Aren’t ‘words’ just neutral, inert things we use to communicate? What does a ‘word’ have to do with God???

In our Old Testament reading, the Lord spoke the good news to his people through his prophets: ‘Listen!’ Isaiah shouts. Jerusalem is redeemed! The Lord’s favour has returned to Zion, and a new day dawns for captive Israel. The action of God, communicated by the ‘spoken’ word.

In our New Testament reading, the written word called The Letter to the Hebrews, it is accepted that God speaks to us in various ways, and notably through the prophets, but the writer states, ‘in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son’. Note the writer didn’t write that God has spoken to us through his son, as he had spoken through the prophets, but that he has spoken to us ‘by’ his Son. By the very existence of his Son, God speaks to us.

And here in John’s gospel is the description of a Word that is neither printed nor verbal, but which is the Word… an embodied Word! ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us’ – and a new day has dawned. The action of God, communicated and embodied by the incarnation.

‘Word’ is our English translation of the ancient philosophical concept of Logos. Western culture today isn’t really too hot on philosophical concepts. Alas, for the time being, the love of wisdom and truth seems to have been sidelined by the love of consumerism and celebrities. But back in the 1st century AD, the concept of Logos would have been well known; and in the region of Ephesus, where John’s gospel is thought to have been written, it was fairly common for people to discuss philosophy, much like people today might discuss Coronation Street.

300 years before Christ, Aristotle defined logos as the quality of ‘reason’, and it’s from logos that we get the term ‘logic’. And 200 years before Aristotle, the Ephesian philosopher Heraclitus defined the term Logos as the fundamental source of the cosmos. He said that the Logos is eternal, and 'humans always prove unable to understand it...’ That sounds vaguely familiar: ‘The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it’…

So our gospel writer John makes good use of this well-known concept of his time by creatively developing it to express who Jesus is to his readers: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… [And] the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

Prompted by something I was reading on these verses, I wondered if we could come up with our own poetically imaginative ‘logos’ parallel for our context. The common experience shared by people living in our area has to do with living by the water. Water is essential for the creation of life. And water is fluid, having the properties of ‘continuity’ and the ability to ‘flow’; and even the distinction between solids and fluid is not entirely understood. So if you’ll bear with me in a little light-hearted frivolity this Christmas morning – here’s my attempt at an imaginative, poetic parallel for logos:

The beginning was fluid.
It was fluid with God; fluid was God.
The Fluid became solid flesh and flowed among us.

Ok, maybe not. Anyway, it’s probably not really possible to improve on John’s inspired gospel writing. And his writing was absolutely vital to the early Church in determining an orthodox view of who Christ is. The Church Fathers wanted to distance the Christian logos from that of Heraclitus because his writings were considered to be a source of heresy. The Church didn’t even want to attempt to address ancient philosophy until much later, even though many of the Church Fathers were converted philosophers.

There were other convictions also around at the time, and John’s prologue also answers these: to the rabbis who claimed that the Torah (the Law) existed before creation and was the source of light and life, John replied that these claims apply rather to the Logos. John's answer to the Gnostics who would deny a real incarnation was that "the Word became flesh." And to those who were still following John the Baptist, he made it clear that John was not the Light but only a witness to the Light.

So John our evangelist’s purpose was to clarify the divine identity of Jesus. Our reading from Hebrews also does the same, confirming Jesus as Creator, Revealer, Sustainer, Redeemer, and Exalted one, recognising both who he is and what he has done. Jesus was not merely a messenger; he is the active message, himself.

Here’s something you may or may not know - young people today actually use the term ‘word’ as an affirmation of truth! In other words, ‘Word’ in youth culture is a way of saying ‘yes’! And that fits so well with what the Incarnation means: Jesus is God’s ‘yes’ to us; Jesus is God’s Word to us. The Word made flesh affirms humanity itself and God’s love for humanity. And that’s a word we need to pass on to others!

Today, we celebrate the Word made flesh, who came to dwell among us. Emmanuel – God with us. And we will celebrate his presence with us when we gather round His Table. And though we hold dear the stories of his coming as a baby, lying helpless in a manger, it is good to know that his incarnation means so much more than that. Praise be to God for his Holy Word. Amen.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Christmas Eve Morning

Luke 1:67-79 - Zechariah's Song

In the late 1960’s, the anthem for the peace movement was John Lennon’s song, Give Peace a Chance. In our Gospel reading this morning, the peace anthem is Zechariah’s Song, telling us that peace is a realistic hope with the coming of the Lord, who will ‘guide our feet into the path of peace’.

The Song of Zechariah is a song of praise and prophecy, flowing out of sheer joy. Nine months prior to this, Zechariah had lost his voice for doubting the angel’s news about his wife Elisabeth bearing a child, never mind a son who would be given the task of preparing the way for the Lord. Zechariah’s tongue was released after he wrote down the instruction, in accordance with the angel’s command, that his son’s name would be ‘John’, and then he burst forth with this Spirit-filled song!

But as we approach the year 2010, at a time when the world is faced with intense global issues, and many of us struggle with desperate personal concerns, is it realistic to believe we’re on the path headed towards ‘peace’? For unless you’ve been hiding in a cave in a mountainous region somewhere, you will all know about the war we’re fighting with an enemy called ‘terror’, which is anything but peaceful. And we probably all know people; perhaps even ourselves, who are struggling right now with major personal problems - illness, bereavement or family conflict.

The bible tells us that our God is a God of peace, and that Jesus is the ‘Prince of Peace’. Yet for some reason, ‘peace’ seems to be in short supply. Yes, we can grasp from Zechariah’s Song that God 'made good' on his promises to David and to Abraham, and remembered his covenant with Israel, with the coming of the Lord. But if our daily experience doesn’t quite seem to match up with Zechariah’s claim about the peace that the Lord’s coming will bring, what shall we make of it? Where is this ‘path of peace’? Or is it all just lip service?

We say ‘peace be with you’ during our worship services. We wish each other 'peace' in our Christmas cards. ‘Peace on earth’ was announced by angels to the shepherds watching over their flocks by night. Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’. But the ‘peace which passes all understanding’ certainly does pass all understanding when we’re often confronted with the complications and conflicts of life.

Peace in the Church can also be strained and hard to come by, in spite of St. Paul’s advice to ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’, and to ‘let the peace of Christ rule in [our] hearts, since as members of one body [we] were called to peace’. Ideally, the church is the redeemed, unified community of Christ, literally living and sharing the gospel, which is a gospel of peace. But every church knows that the reality can sometimes be quite different.

How, then, can we find this ‘path of peace’? First, we need to know that peace isn’t just an absence of conflict. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus said that he didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword. The gospel is a radical message! But we know Jesus doesn’t advocate violence - he’s simply being honest about the truth: his teachings will cause opposition and ideological conflicts between families and between nations.

The gospel should challenge us to the core of our very being. And to experience the peace of Christ, most of us will need to let go of some things that we cling to – especially that inner critic, who makes it hard for us to accept God’s forgiveness for things in our past; and also that inner judge, who can make it hard for us to forgive other people’s wrongs against us. On the path of peace, we also need to let go if we cling to a legalistic view of faith, in which there are some who are ‘in’ and some who are most definitely ‘out’; in which we think we all must take the ‘correct’ doctrinal position; and in which we think we have to work hard at being ‘good enough’ to deserve God’s grace and favour.

The path of peace lies way beyond cultural opinions, doctrinal understandings and human judgment. God’s peace is only found in the person and work of Christ, and not in our debates or arguments about him! God’s peace can be found by doing what Paul asks in Romans 15:7 - ‘Accept one another… just as Christ has accepted you.

We won’t experience the peace of Christ if we expect that our faith will give us a life completely free from conflict. It would be easy to fulfil the Great Commission to make disciples if a profession of faith gave an instant and permanent result of peaceful life conditions! But faith isn’t like that. God isn’t pulling puppet strings. But the Spirit will guide our life into the path of peace… into the peace of Christ, when we have faith and trust in him.

We can gain a lovely sense of calm on a crisp winter’s day watching a robin hopping ‘round in the garden. We can have the occasional wonderful moment of tranquillity, and I pray that we will all enjoy at least some of these moments over Christmas. But we only arrive on the true path of peace through our relationship with Christ, and our relationship with the Father through Christ. Embracing this pathway means embracing that relationship.

That relationship brings the peace of knowing that God loves us as we are… and the peace of knowing God as Emmanuel – that God is with us, no matter what the circumstances. He knows about the messy complications of being human, and he’s with us as we walk the bumpy road of life. He even knows the tension between what we experience now
and what we (as Christians) believe is to come.

And His peace has the power to change us, including how we interact with one another. When we come to believe in Jesus, we are a new creation – but another change also happens: we become a community creation. Because the ‘path of peace’ isn’t intended to be a solitary experience; it’s a communal experience – with God and with each other. As we are guided into the path of peace, we are to share the struggles – share the journey. And this Christmas, may we truly know that God is with us, all the way. Amen.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Matthew 1:1-17

Who are you? Well, if your family background has any bearing on who you are, then you might answer this question by pointing to your family tree. It can be fun looking back at our family history – or it can be a source of shame or sorrow. In your ancestry there might be illustrious individuals of intrigue, or there could be infamous intimations of ill-repute! There might be privileged princes and princesses, or perhaps pitiable penniless paupers. You might not even know much about your family history – you may have been adopted, or perhaps the family history has never been researched, or has been lost in the mists of time.

But family histories can be a way of affirming our roots, giving us a sense of identity. My own family history contains a mixture of European ethnicities. Down one branch, there is a rumour of Irish nobility, as some on the family tree are noted as having lived in a castle. On another branch were Bohemians from Czechoslovakia. The tree also has several off-shoots where divorces and re-marriages have occurred, resulting in step-parents, step-siblings and half-siblings. As with many people’s histories, mine’s a bit complicated, but it’s unique to me and my family, and it has formed our identity.

Well, it’s obvious from this morning’s Gospel reading that Jesus’ family tree has not been lost – and there are a good few complications in his family history as well! So why did Matthew bother with recording all those names? Why is the genealogy of Jesus important, and what does it say about his identity?

In the context of Matthew’s writing, ‘the genealogy of Jesus’ was impressive and persuasive in identifying who Jesus is. There is much we could look at in this long list of names, but you’ll be happy to know that here we’re only going to focus on the first line!

Three claims are made in that first verse of Matthew, chapter 1: that Jesus is ‘the Christ’; that Jesus is ‘the son of David’, and that Jesus is ‘the son of Abraham’.

First, Jesus is the Christ: Matthew emphasises the title of Christ in describing Jesus. ‘Christ’ is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew title ‘Messiah’, which means ‘anointed’, in the sense of an anointed king. Jesus is presented first and foremost as the long-awaited Messiah, who was expected to be a descendant of King David – so one of the purposes of Matthew’s genealogy is to demonstrate that line of descent, in order to strengthen the claim that Jesus is the Messiah.

In addition to giving Jesus the title of ‘Christ’, Matthew continues in the same verse to proclaim Jesus as both the ‘son of David’ and ‘the son of Abraham’. The use of the relational term ‘son’ is the key here: this is about inheritance. Matthew is staking the claim for Jesus as the heir to the promises given by God to David and to Abraham. David is mentioned here before Abraham, even though Abraham lived long before David lived. I think this has to do with the ordering of God’s plan, but we'll get back to this idea in a minute.

But first, why is David so important in the genealogy of Jesus? And how is Jesus considered a descendent of David through Joseph’s line, since Joseph wasn’t Jesus’ biological father? But of course, Joseph was the father of Jesus by adoption, and so legally it was accepted that Jesus was Joseph’s son, and the heir to his lineage. This shows Jesus’ true royal bloodline.

David was the great king to whom God made the promise of a kingdom which would continue forever, as we read in 2 Samuel 7:

When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you… and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.

David’s kingdom would last forever through one of his descendants – one born into the royal family line. Hundreds of years after David’s, and hundreds of years before Jesus, the familiar words of the prophet Isaiah were recorded:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end! He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.

Everything God promised to David, and to Abraham before him, was secured by the coming of Jesus Christ. His coming confirms and fulfils all the covenants. Jesus is the ‘Yes’ to God’s promises! In Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians, chapter 1, he says, ‘… no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ’!

So let’s think about Abraham now. How is Jesus the ‘Son of Abraham’? God’s promise to Abraham included all nations, and as Paul states in his letter to the Galatians, Christ ‘redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles… The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed…who is Christ.’

Abraham is ‘the founding father’ of Israel, and the patriarch of Jews, Christians and Muslims; and as we read in Genesis chapter 12, God made an amazing covenant with Abraham, that he would be made into a great nation, and that all nations would be blessed through him.

So the Messiah, the eternal King of kings, comes from David’s bloodline, as promised to David – and he came to bless the whole world, as was promised to Abraham – ‘to the Jews first, then to the Gentiles’, as it says in 2 Corinthians.

So we can see, through the genealogy of Jesus Christ as presented by Matthew, that Jesus has the right credentials. Does this help us with our own sense of identity as Christians? We know that we are heirs of God in Jesus Christ, from Galatians 3 and 4: ‘You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus… If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise’.Because you are his children, he sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ So you are no longer slaves, but God’s children; and since you are his children, he has made you also heirs.’

We are children of God, we are brothers and sisters to each other in Christ, and we share in Christ’s inheritance. In the letter to the Hebrews, it says: ‘Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.’

After hearing God’s promise, David’s response was one of humility, worship and praise. Abraham’s response was one of faithful obedience to the covenant God made with him. Our response should be the same: humility, worship, praise, and faithful obedience to Jesus, the Christ.

Let us pray: Lord Jesus, You came to claim your inheritance of all creation as your kingdom. Who are we that you would share your inheritance with us? In the light of your love for us, help us to know deep down who we are. Though we know we are not perfect, you have made us holy – you have made us a people for your self. We thank you, and we praise you. Help us to worship you with our whole lives. Help us to be obedient in following you closely and in loving others as you love them. Even so, come Lord Jesus! Amen.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Advent Sunday

1 Thes 3:9-13 and Luke 21:25-36

It’s Advent! For Christians, it’s a season of reflective preparation; it’s a time of anticipation - what we might call ‘expectant waiting’. The question is, what are we waiting for? Some are waiting for a Christmas party invitation. Some wait ever-so-patiently each day to open the next window of the advent calendar to eat another tiny morsel of chocolate. Some are going to wait till the very last moment to buy Christmas gifts for family and friends. What are you waiting for?

Last year there was an ad campaign launched by the Christian Advertising Network that included a nativity scene posted on bus shelter walls all over the country. And I thought, ‘What an appropriate setting for the birth of the Messiah!’ A bus shelter: a place where people wait – people who are making a journey. And as God’s people, we are on a journey. In the Christian calendar, Advent is the season for revisiting how that journey began, and where it will end. Advent reminds us of the waiting, the yearning for something to happen; for something new to change the way things are.

Advent is a double reminder: first, of the yearning that Israel had gone through waiting for the arrival of the Messiah, prophesied clearly in the Old Testament by Isaiah, in chapter 24, and by Daniel, chapter 7; and secondly, Advent is a reminder that we are waiting for the second coming of Christ as judge and King.

In our gospel reading from Luke chapter 21, Jesus is responding to questions asked of him earlier in the chapter after he made the startling declaration that the Temple would be destroyed, in verse 6. He said, ‘…the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.’ - ‘When will these things happen?’ they asked Jesus – ‘and what will be the sign that they are about to take place?’

The answer Jesus gives in verses 10 to 24 includes wars, natural disasters, persecution and distress. And in the verses from today’s reading we hear: ‘There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ Sounds like the end of the world, as we know it.

Yesterday my family and I went to see the film 2012 at the cinema. For those who haven’t heard of the significance of the year 2012 (and I hadn’t until this film came out), 2012 is the year predicted by the calendar of the ancient Mayan civilisation to be the ‘end of the world’. The film depicts widespread earthquakes, volcanoes erupting and tsunamis - Hollywood knows that people get a thrill imagining that they could be one of the few who survive such a cataclysmic event! The trailer for the film poses this question: ‘How would the governments of our planet prepare 6 billion people for the end of the world?’ The answer given is… ‘They wouldn’t’.

But should we prepare for the ‘end of the world’? Many modern Christians see Luke 21 as revealing signs to look out for today, signs which will signal an imminent destructive end to the world, as they wait for the Son of Man to come ‘in a cloud with power and great glory’, to collect them up into the air and whisk them away from this wicked world.

But deeper study of what the bible says as a whole, and what the early Christians believed, reveals that Jesus is not speaking of the signs of his second coming in these passages from Luke. He is speaking of the total seismic and cosmic significance of it all: his birth, his death, his resurrection, his ascension and the time of his judgment. So where does that leave us in terms of the ‘second coming’ of Jesus? We know that most of those events have already happened. Christ was born, Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ has ascended into heaven. There is one event yet to happen for everything to be complete: as we say in the Creed, ‘He will come again to judge the living and the dead.’

This is the expectation that we Christians live with now. The New Testament declares that we are in ‘the last days’ already - that is, the time between Christ’s first and second comings. In Mark’s gospel, chapter 13, verse 32, Jesus teaches that no one knows the hour or the day when he will come again. We shouldn’t get particularly concerned about the year 2012 because we don’t put out trust in the Mayan calendar over and above the bible. Only God knows the date – but Jesus tells us to keep watch. This is why the season of Advent is helpful – it reminds us to be prepared: to keep watch, to keep waiting and keep expecting.

This is a time to reflect on what we should be doing while we wait. One thing we are commanded to do as followers of Christ is to build for His kingdom. Advent reminds us there is a purpose to it all, and there is a destination. And we need to be patient. In his second letter, the apostle Peter says in chapter 3, verses 8 & 9, ‘do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’

When Christ comes again, he won’t take us all back to heaven, because heaven isn’t our ultimate home. Heaven is a ‘waiting room’, a glorious shelter; more restful, joyful and refreshing than any bus shelter, of course, but it isn’t our ultimate destination. ‘Heaven and earth will pass away’ - the trailer for the film 2012 states, ‘The end is just the beginning’, and there’s some truth in that. ‘Heaven and earth will pass away’ – they will be replaced with the ‘new creation’. Heaven and earth will no longer be separate places. 1 Corinthians 7:31 tells us ‘this world in its present form is passing away.’ Heaven and earth will come together, completely integrated. As Tom Wright, the bishop of Durham, says, ‘the final redemption will be that moment when heaven and earth are joined together at last, in a burst of God’s creative energy.’

Until that time, we wait. The Church is the shelter we wait in (and I’m not talking about the building). As the Church we are fed and refreshed by word and sacrament and prayer and fellowship, by the Spirit. As the Church, the absent Jesus is present among us, and he is present to us in those whom we are called to serve for his sake. But one day he will be present with us, face to face.

Jesus will come again, and he will bring with him the saints that are in heaven, and those believers who are still on earth at that time will rise to welcome him – this is what is meant by meeting him ‘in the clouds’ – they will give him a royal escort into his completed kingdom – a fully redeemed and transformed world – God’s new world of justice, wholeness, and peace. So we wait, and we work: and nothing that is transformed for good in this present age will be wasted. Martin Luther once said that if he knew the Lord was returning tomorrow, he would still plant a tree today. The work done in the Lord’s name is not done in vain. Love never dies. But there will be a dramatic, earth-shaking change from this world of suffering and struggle to one where everything has been put right, including us. This is the Christian worldview – this is our story, with its beginning, middle and end.

Many of us love Advent because we are longing for Christ to return. But if you watch the television or look at your junk mail at this time of year, you might be fooled into thinking that unless the run-up to Christmas is full of parties and drinking and shopping, you’ll be missing out! There is a lot of pressure for us to conform to the secular way of celebrating Christmas.

But listen again to verse 34 of our gospel reading, ‘Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap.’ I had to look up in the dictionary what the word ‘dissipation’ meant – it means ‘wasteful expenditure’ or ‘self-indulgence’. That’s what December seems to be full of for many of us these days (me included, if I’m honest).

I like Eugene Peterson’s take on that same bible verse, in The Message translation: ‘Be on your guard. Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise, spring on you suddenly like a trap, for it’s going to come on everyone, everywhere, at once. So, whatever you do, don’t go to sleep at the switch. Pray constantly that you will have the strength and wits to make it through everything that’s coming and end up on your feet before the Son of Man.’

As Christians, we are called to be different. In Advent, let’s endeavour to go against the popular grain. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy the Christmas season. After all, we have the best reason for celebrating the birth of Christ. But let’s take the time of Advent to think about, and to pray about, what it is we are waiting for: the whole of creation reconciled to God.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Thumbs Up

I just found a new website that I wanted to highlight here:


It has short (5 min.) videos on various books of the bible, and aims to eventually cover them all. So far it has videos for Genesis, Psalms, Song of Songs, Amos, Matthew, 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy and Philemon.

It's from the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Nottingham.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Lost and found

A sermon for mid-week communion

Luke 15:1-10

The tax collectors and sinners were gathered around Jesus. The Pharisees and ‘teachers of the law’ were grumbling – it was absurd - Jesus was so welcoming to people who were so obviously not up to scratch.

The Pharisees and teachers of the law considered themselves to be ‘righteous’, but Jesus knew that wasn’t the truth, and he tried many times to point out to them what it really means to conform to God’s will. They just didn’t get it. I wonder what the Pharisees thought Jesus meant when he said there would be ‘more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent’.

There are three ways of locating our selves within the parable of the lost sheep in today’s gospel reading from Luke 15. We can think of our self as one of the 99 sheep who are not lost: that’s those of us who are safe and sound with perfectly worked-out non-heretical beliefs and behaviours. Or we can think of our self as the shepherd, whose responsibility it is to seek and to save the lost. Or we could think of our self as the lost sheep, that which is not forsaken, but is searched for until it is found and made safe.

Earlier this year, our beloved cat Mary went missing. We contacted the RSPCA. We contacted the vet who had tagged her with a microchip ID. We made notices to put in shops and on signposts. My daughter made a huge poster for her bedroom window, which said ‘COME BACK MARY!’ It was visible to everyone passing on our busy road. My husband produced over 500 leaflets with Mary’s photograph, and together we posted them through people’s doors all over the village. Every evening the family went out searching, and calling out Mary’s name.

Strangers were so willing to help – some even held stray cats in their homes and phoned us to come see if it was her. But none of them was Mary. Each night we went to bed wondering where she was, and if she was ok.
Ten days after Mary had gone missing, she suddenly turned up at the door, frantic to be let inside. She was very thin and much the worse for wear and tear, but she was home, and we were overjoyed! We told all our neighbours and friends that Mary had come home! My daughter took down the ‘Come back, Mary’ poster from her bedroom window and put up another one that said ‘MARY IS BACK'!!! Everyone was so happy, and all seemed right with the world.

Most of us can relate to stories of lost pets, or a lost sheep or coin, and even more powerful is that parable which follows in Luke’s gospel – that of the prodigal son. These three parables are all about how much God loves us. The lost sheep and the lost coin are immensely valuable to the shepherd and to the woman. Both the shepherd and the woman in these parables represent God, who goes to great lengths in pursuit of us.

Ezekiel chapter 34 describes well the shepherd-like qualities of God:
For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them… I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak…

And in chapter 10 of John’s gospel our Lord Jesus says: ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’. Christ’s mission, as he says in Luke 19, verse 10, is ‘to seek and to save what was lost’.

The word ‘lost’, of course, isn’t just about losing track of your global location. For Christians, it’s when we aren’t able to ‘locate’ our identity as God’s children; when we don’t feel secure, and have no sense of God’s direction.

I would guess that many of us have felt lost at some stage in our Christian journey, probably more than once, and in different ways. Sometimes we can go down the wrong path in life, away from God’s will for us, and be guided back so gently that we didn’t even fully realise we were getting lost. Other times it can be more dramatic – in several of the Psalms, the psalmist speaks with painful honesty of crying out from ‘the Pit’ of despair.

I want to tell you now about a time when I felt most aware of being lost, and most aware of being ‘found’ in the end.

Nearly 11 years ago, I gave birth to our second child. Everything should have been perfect – we already had a healthy daughter and now a healthy son. But something went wrong. I didn’t realise at the time, but it was post-natal depression.

I wanted to keep it hidden. I wanted things to appear to be all right. I pretended I was in control, but that even made things worse. Anyone who has experienced depression will recognise the feeling, it’s like living in a vortex that spirals down and down, with no way of controlling the descent. Feeling disconnected from other people and from the world; alone, even when not alone. And I had tremendous guilt over dark thoughts and resentments that I would not normally have entertained. I thought I was going mad – I thought I was a terrible mother and a failure. I let my pride get in the way of seeking medical help. Eventually, while on holiday with family in the States, things were so bad that I couldn’t hide it any longer and I told my mother what was going on.

She recognised my sense of being lost, and she told me her own ‘lost and found’ stories, especially one of how she coped after her mother died. She told me how important Jesus was to her during these times. I had been acquainted with Jesus on and off since I was baptised as a baby, but at this point I hadn’t yet come to follow him.

A few weeks later I was at the point of being crushed by the weight of my depression. In desperation, I cried out to Jesus for help from what felt like the bottom of a pit, but was actually the kitchen floor. And from that moment, my life changed. I’d like to be able to say that my condition went away in an instant. It didn’t. But the vortex slowed down, and I gradually crawled out of that pit, holding tightly to the outstretched hand of Jesus. I didn’t know at the time, but God had been pursuing me for years through certain people and circumstances, seeking and calling out, until the time came when conditions were such that I would turn to him. What characterised that moment was that it was a moment of surrender, of turning to Jesus, of yielding to him, and that is what repentance means. And I was lifted up, I felt carried, like the sheep in the parable that was found and lifted onto the shepherd’s shoulders and brought home.

In the parable Jesus tells us of the joy in heaven when even one sinner repents, or turns to the Lord. Surrendering to God’s way is not easy, and perhaps it comes easier when we are desperately lying at the bottom of a Pit. But what about other times, when life is running smoothly? What about at times when we’re feeling really ‘righteous’? Jesus doesn’t rate self-righteousness very highly, does he? It’s something we have to guard against. God’s children have a curious habit of getting lost - returning to God is a continual necessity.

So where do you locate yourself in the parable of the lost sheep? Probably at times we are amongst the 99, and at times we are the lost sheep. But also at times God needs us to work with him as the shepherd, helping him to seek out and save the lost.

Those of us who have been lost, and found by Christ are called to share our stories, and so to point people towards Christ, who is the way, who is our safety and our salvation – he will search for us no matter how often we get lost, and lead us home each time we give in to him. And God wants to use our stories to make a difference in someone else’s life. This is a challenge for us all, but this is part of our mission as a church. It’s our personal witness to our faith. As St. Paul says in the letter to the Romans, chapter 10:

…how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?

So, whether your 'lost and found' story is gentle or dramatic, share it! Share it with your family and friends, with neighbours and strangers, with tax collectors and sinners! There will be someone, somewhere, who needs to hear it. You may not see the return – you may not know when that person has been ‘found’, when they turn to Christ and all heaven rejoices! But you just might be the instrument God needs to use in that circumstance, as he seeks to find that person and turn them towards home – our true home, where we are secure in the knowledge of God’s love for us and of our identity as his children.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Friday Five

KATHERYNZJ at RevGalBlogPals posted this week's 'Friday Five' challenge, on the theme of 'lifesavers':

'...dramatic or fairly common - what have been/are your lifesavers?':

1) Your lifesaving food/beverage:
I would have to say water, though that sounds a bit boring. Coffee comes a very close second.

2) Your lifesaving article of clothing: my bra!

3) Your lifesaving movie/book/tv show/music: lifesaving book - the Bible; lifesaving music - rock! If I had both of those with me on a desert island, I would be fine.

4) Your lifesaving friend: at the risk of shocking him and even surprising myself, I would have to say my husband.

5) Your lifesaving moment: the moment my mom told me who Jesus is. I had been told many times before by many people, but that particular time, something different happened.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Four months in

Two weeks in a row without preaching, so I can’t post a sermon, but thought it would be a good idea to ponder a bit on the past four months. Has it really been that long? Actually, I can hardly remember life before ordination, now. I feel like a different person… in a good way!

I’m really happy with the way things are going. There are plenty of challenges and opportunities, and now I have a greater confidence that God is with me, equipping me to tackle more than I could have imagined when I started training three years ago.

Getting to know people in the parish has been amazing. I’m so grateful for the warm welcome people have shown to me since I started my curacy. And many have been so open, often sharing very deep issues. It is interesting to note the differences and similarities between my new parish and my sponsoring parish. I can appreciate different things about both parishes now.

One of my greatest challenges so far has been visiting people in their homes. Initially the summer holidays seemed to conspire against me; many people weren’t at home when I called and my timing seemed to be off. But now the parish schedule is picking up apace, so time is the main issue. There seems to be so much that sidetracks me from making pastoral visits to parishioners, and I often feel guilty about that. Sermons and service prep are two things I spend a lot of time on, along with continuing education sessions for curates, lots of various meetings, and study days. But I know that visiting people is very important, so that’s one area I hope to improve over the next four months!

Memorable experiences from the past four months:

*A weekend away with the youth group – a chance to play table tennis!
*Leading the informal service on the theme of ‘Community’
*Leading the Harvest parade service – the church was so beautifully decorated
*Taking my first funeral – most new curates have an understandable anxiety about the great privilege and responsibility that goes with this ministerial occasion
*Involvement in the music group – playing praise songs on my guitar with a group is something I love
*Seeing my ex-fellow-ordinands at IME sessions and sharing our experiences
*The amazingly harmonious PCC meetings! (I'm assured they've not always been that way)
*Speaking to the Ladies Fellowship about my life so far – that was a bit daunting
*Attending a conference for evangelical women clergy (Awesome)

and looking forward to:

*The parish ‘away day’ for Growth Action Planning, and all that comes out of that day
*Advent and Christmas for the first time with this new parish
*Getting involved with the local primary school, the sea cadets and the RNLI
*The Alpha course and the new toddler group, both starting in January

I suppose there is a lot more I could say on reflection, but many things are confidential in this line of work and so I have to keep it fairly general here. I'm just really thankful for this job, which isn't really a job. I pray for strength and endurance to go for the long run. And I pray for the people of my parish. May God bless us and keep us all.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

St. Luke's Day

When I was in high school, I was entirely put off the subject of history because I had the most boring teacher. But over the past few years I have just become fascinated by history. Whether it’s read from a book, or dramatised in a film, or watched on a TV programme with the latest in computer graphics, history can really help us to understand why we are who we are. And these days when the focus seems to be about how we’re ‘feeling’ in our ‘individual present moment’, we need to remind ourselves of the past – not to wallow in nostalgia, or pine for how things used to be, but in order to remember our identity within the big picture; in other words, as Christians we need to be reminded of our past so that we can remember our future. It’s a trite but true expression that history is ‘his story’ – its God’s story and we are in it. We, as God’s people, have a past, a present and a future.

Today is St. Luke’s Day. Luke, the gospel writer, was amongst other things an historian. He was most concerned about recording accurately the historical events that took place which led to the birth of Christianity. Luke’s gospel is the first volume of a two-volume book which Luke continues in the Acts of the Apostles – over these two volumes the first 60 years of Christianity are covered, and together they make up the largest contribution by a single writer in the New Testament. Luke makes clear the continuity of Christianity with the Old Testament - between the story of Jesus and the history of Judaism - of Jesus as the fulfilment of all God’s promises; and Luke makes clear the inclusive nature of the gospel for Jews and Gentiles and especially for outcasts. So Luke is hugely important to us as Christians.

I can remember about 11 years ago, being driven into re-reading the gospels, after an extraordinary experience of God’s love and his grace. And with what really felt like ‘new eyes’, I re-read Matthew and Mark’s gospels; but then as I got into Luke’s gospel, for some reason I became increasingly uncomfortable the more I read, and I didn’t understand why. I told the Rector about my discomfort and he nodded slowly with an air of great wisdom and suggested that I persevere with it, so I did.

Gradually I began to recognise that Luke’s gospel was revealing to me a lack of discipline in my life. Was I going to be able to cope with the ‘cost of discipleship’, something Luke consistently emphasises throughout his gospel? The grace of God is free, but that doesn’t mean it is cheapdiscipleship is costly, and Luke wants us to be aware of that. He urges us to carefully estimate the cost to be sure we can finish what we begin that very moment we say ‘yes’ to the call of Jesus to follow him.

Luke addresses both his Gospel and the Acts to someone called ‘Theophilus’, which means ‘Lover of God’. If we really love God, this is what we need to do, Luke says. It’s in Luke’s gospel that Jesus says ‘No-one who takes hold of the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’ He also says, ‘…those who do not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciples’ - ‘those who try to keep their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives will preserve them’. Whoa! Wait a minute! Am I gonna be able to follow through? Am I even willing to follow through with what I’m opening myself up to through faith?

It’s costly discipleship: it’s not about legalism or about formalism. It’s about following him. It’s about trusting him so fully that we are willing to give up all those things that we use as security props; to go out to where he leads us and bring his peace into the lives of others - not OUR peace, HIS peace. Our peace usually means not having our lives disrupted by the interruptions and problems of other people. His peace comes from awareness of who he is, and who we are, secure within him. His peace comes from our relationship with him and our trust in him that if we dwell in him he will dwell in us and he will be with us through all the burdens of life and he will help us to bear each others burdens, and he will bring us through to a new place of peace which will last for all eternity. He leads the way; keep close to him.

It’s the call of Christ followed by a response of obedience to Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the 20th century German theologian and martyr, who has given so much to us through his writings, says that "Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth which has a place for the Fatherhood of God, but omits Christ as the living Son. … There is trust in God, but no following of Christ." And this is related to what Bonhoeffer calls ‘cheap grace’: "Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance; baptism without church discipline; Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ."

I think Bonhoeffer and Luke are on the same wavelength, and so is Paul, who writes with a sense of great urgency in the reading we had today from his 2nd letter to Timothy. This letter was written towards the end of Paul’s life, and the clock is ticking. Ever since Jesus sent out the 72 disciples, through the time when Paul wrote to Timothy, and right up to today, this very day – we never know how close to judgment day we have come. Paul doesn’t mince his words with Timothy or gloss over the cost of following Christ to proclaim the kingdom of God. And Luke was with Paul at this time; Paul writes that many have deserted him, but Luke was still with him. Luke and Paul are on the same wavelength. They wanted to reach as many people as possible with the good news of Jesus Christ.

Wherever we go, we need to reach as many people as possible with the good news of Jesus Christ. We have a hope, and we have a future! It may be difficult and uncomfortable; it may be painful at times, but if we have been called to be part of God’s church, we have been called to proclaim ‘Jesus is Lord’, and to do it without being distracted by trivial things.

The Lord sends out 72 disciples ‘like lambs into the midst of wolves’, and they are told not to bring anything with them! Most of us set off on journeys worrying about the things we may have left behind! The lesson from the reading is that we just need to focus on the mission that Jesus has given us and not be distracted by petty things - to depend on him for our security. And if we look a bit further in chapter 10, we find that the 72 disciples returned from their mission full of joy because of what Jesus was able to accomplish through them.

As today is St. Luke’s day, we remember his emphasis on the cost of discipleship, but let’s remember that Luke also highlights the great joy it is to be a Christian. From the beginnings of Luke’s gospel, in chapter 2, v. 10, Luke describes the story we remember each year at Christmas, with the angels bringing ‘good news of great joy’. The parables of Jesus in Luke’s gospel end on a note of great happiness and rejoicing: the lost sheep and the lost coin are found; the lost son returns to his father; and ‘there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents’.

In chapter 12, Luke reminds us of how much God cares about us: ‘Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows’. In other words, we won’t be sold on the cheap! On the contrary, we have been bought with the precious blood of Christ!

And at the end of Luke’s gospel in chapter 24 v. 52 after Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples returned to Jerusalem ‘with great joy’, because they knew the risen Christ. And after the Holy Spirit came, Luke reports to us in Acts that they had glad and sincere hearts and they were filled with wonder, amazement, courage and boldness. That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? As we become part of the church, wouldn’t we like to have ‘glad and sincere hearts’ and to be ‘filled with wonder, amazement, courage and boldness’?

How can we have more of this? By hearing the call to obedience and trusting in God. Listen to Luke in Acts ch 5 v.29-32: ‘We must obey God rather than human beings! The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead… God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.’

So on St. Luke’s day, I urge you over the coming week to read (or re-read) Luke’s gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, and to prayerfully explore the cost of discipleship and the joy of living the Christian life. As a church, let’s talk and pray about our struggles, hopes and fears as we work out how to follow Jesus more closely. And let’s ask the Holy Spirit to increase in us a greater trust and reliance on Jesus, because I believe that the Spirit today is moving in the Church to bring a deeper awareness of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, so that our participation in HIS story as Christ’s body will be renewed for the sake of his kingdom, which is very near. Amen.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Jesus wants to save Christians

I picked up a new book the other day at a conference:
Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile by Rob Bell and Don Golden. I wanted to summarise the book here in the blog, but since I found such a good concise review of it on Amazon I thought I would just post that here instead, because this person has said all that I would have said:

Using the story of the Israelites and their journey from Egypt (in slavery) to Sinai (how to live in freedom) to Jerusalem (how they failed) to Babylon (the consequences), Bell begins to outline how we as Christians, and the church, should live in this world and seek to change the world for the better.

This is not about empire building, such as some Christians (particularly in the US think) but being people of change within the empire, like Jesus, and seeking to bring change from within.

It's challenging and written in Bell's refreshing style (often one sentence paragraphs!) and I found it is exactly the sort of 'manifesto' for describing what type of Christian we are to be, and what the church should be like, and should be doing (caring for the poor, fighting injustice, introducing people to Jesus).

I really recommend this relevant book. It has given me a clearer view of the big picture. It suggests that the Church as a whole is currently in a kind of 'exile' because we have failed to be faithful and obedient to God, and we are suffering the consequences. Examples given by Bell and Golden of the wrong way the Church has taken include backing the machinations of war and systems of greed way out of proportion to our levels of care for the poor and needy of the world. Harsh accusations, but if we are really honest with ourselves, there is truth to it. It could be excused by our ignorance, perhaps, but is that really a good excuse? And are we really that ignorant? Or do we just want to be comfortable and safe? I'm guilty, too.

According to Israel's repeated cycle, the next stage for the Church is to cry out to God in repentance. I don't know if we're ready for that. I don't know if we're ready for the sacrifices that would entail.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Fall (otherwise known as Autumn)

My answers to questions from Friday Five at RevGalBlogPals:

1. Share a Fall memory

It has to be the leaves. I grew up in a household with five children in Northern California where we did have the season of Fall. All five of us would muck in and do the raking of the leaves each week. We had several large trees on our ¼ acre – I can remember maple, walnut, and plum – there were a lot of leaves. First we would rake them into a maze shape over the front lawn. Sometimes we would shape them into a floor plan with several rooms. We’d play in that for a while, then rake them into a huge central pile and jump into it. Sometimes I would get pretty severe allergies raking the leaves, and have to go inside while the others had all the fun.

Second memory was carving pumpkins in the kitchen - the smell, the texture, the seeds, the competitive nature of my stepsister to carve the best one (and hers always was the best one).

2. Your favourite Fall clothes, past or present?

I love sweaters (or as they say here in the UK, ‘jumpers’). I prefer autumn over summer for clothes as they hide a multitude of… chocolate. When I was younger, I liked to mix contrasting colours, so I might wear bright orange on top and purple on the bottom. I see my daughter doing the same thing, nowadays.

3. Share a campfire story, song, experience, etc…

We camped a lot when I was growing up, usually in the Sierra Nevada mountains or foothills. It was mainly in summer, though, not in Fall. But definitely, s’mores were a regular feature (my English friends won’t know what s’mores are – they consist of a toasted marshmallow stuck between two ‘graham crackers’, which are like digestives, sort of, and also with a piece of thin chocolate in there, which melts due to the marshmallow – yum - I want some more...). That, and catching crawdads from Lake Tahoe using raw bacon on a string. And singing around the campfire. My stepfather played guitar and had a lovely voice. Folk songs: Blowin' in the Wind, Tom Dooley, Camptown Races, If I had a Hammer, Scarborough Fair, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Alice's Restaurant - you get the picture.

4. What is your favourite thing this time of year?

The colours of the leaves. And it is a pretty good show here in England, so long as we don't get too much wind.

5. What changes are you anticipating in your life, your church, family… whatever…as the season changes and winter approaches?

Every day is bringing changes at the moment. Over the next month or two I anticipate doing things I’ve not done before in church ministry terms, and becoming more experienced in the things I have already been doing. In family life, we’re gearing up for my son to take the 11+ in November and deciding which schools to put in which order on the preference form. My husband and I celebrate our 18th wedding anniversary in October. And I really must get out into that neglected garden…

Bonus: what food says ‘Autumn’ at your house?

For me, it is squash and pumpkin. But I’m the only one in the house that likes squash and pumpkin.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Sermon for Morning Prayer with Baptism

Mark 9:30-37

With sincere apologies to fans of Strictly Come Dancing,
it’s X-Factor season!!!

Everyone knows what the term ‘X-factor’ means: that hard-to-describe quality that makes the difference between someone who’s ordinary and someone who’s great. I love watching the X-Factor programme, especially when one of the contestants belts out an amazing voice. I have to admit, it sometimes even brings tears to my eyes! You can feel their joy of singing and practically taste the hope they have to make it big one day doing something they just love to do.

I like watching the contestants as the weeks unfold and their talent improves. Confidence builds and so does their hunger to win the coveted £1 million recording contract. To win, they have to be better than the competition. They have to be the best.

We human beings, we enjoy competition, don’t we? Sports, business, academic success – even just keeping up with the Jones’; we love to succeed, and we admire greatness in others.

In the bible reading from Mark’s gospel, which we heard this morning just before Eve was baptised, the disciples of Jesus (who were very human beings) were enjoying a fair bit of competition with each other along the road to Capernaum with Jesus.

“What were you arguing about on the road?” Jesus asked them. And of course they had to hang their heads in shame on that one. They had been arguing about which one of them was the greatest disciple of them all. I can just picture these guys, the disciples, behaving a bit like overgrown schoolboys, puffing their chests out! They’ve been taught by none other than the Son of God for months and they still didn’t ‘get’ what he was on about! It seems at every turn their journey with Jesus held surprises for the disciples.

Jesus turned upside down their idea of what it means to be the greatest at following him. Instead of needing to be the biggest to be the best, Jesus tells the disciples they need to be less full of themselves. He asked them (as he asks us) to look out for other people who might need a helping hand - - a hand to shake in welcome; a hand to hold in times when the road of life gets tough.

In baptism we begin a journey that lasts a lifetime and beyond. It is a welcome into Jesus’ family, and we’re a family who are called to serve our neighbours. It isn’t a competition of who is the greatest at serving others, but we do have our own version of the ‘X’-factor –ours is called the cross-factor - and we’ve all been given the prize! It’s the priceless gift of a relationship with the creator of all things. It is an incredible journey with an incomparable travelling companion who really does have the X-factor: Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for you and for me.

The disciples didn’t understand what Jesus meant when he said the cross had to happen, and they were afraid at the time to ask him about it. But we can ask him about it. We can come to the living God in prayer and ask him what his dying on the cross meant for all of mankind (yes, even for Simon Cowell!). And we can ask him in prayer what his rising to life again means for us.

The X-Factor contestants improve over the weeks by disciplined practice. It isn’t rocket science, but it isn’t easy, either. If we want to grow in our Christian faith, we have to put into practice the disciplines of prayer and reading our bible. And through prayer and the bible, we come to learn more and more about the love of God, which is the meaning of the cross and the resurrection.

Today marks the beginning of a journey for Eve. Baptism and the Christian journey are about new life and new beginnings – we walk in newness of life, by the grace and mercy of God, because of the ‘cross-factor’. So welcome to the journey, Eve. And welcome to the Family of God.

Loving God, thank you - for the gift of new life, and for the joy of knowing that you promise to be with us throughout the journey. Bless Eve today on her baptism day. And throughout her life, bring Eve, and all of us, to a deeper understanding of the cross and the resurrection, and of our relationship with you, as we travel through this life. Amen.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Facing the GAP

Last night I went to my first Deanery Synod meeting. We had a speaker from the diocese talking about GAP. For those who don’t know, GAP is the Growth Action Plan process that the diocese is asking all parishes to undertake. I have to say, I left the synod meeting feeling discouraged. It wasn’t the speaker – as one of the diocesan Mission Development Officers, he was enthusiastic, informative, and encouraging. Can’t fault him at all. It wasn’t his presentation – a good speaking style and the right mix of speaking, visuals, books passed round, and time spent in group discussion.

No, it wasn’t the speaker or the presentation - it was us. I don’t exactly mean the ‘us’ who were present at the meeting, I mean all of us. Christians. The Church. OK, this is a rant. I might as well be up front about that. I feel frustrated (to put it mildly) that we need this GAP process in the first place. It all just seems like common sense to me: ‘SWOT’ analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in relationship to growth and mission); ‘Vision’ (this is obvious, isn’t it?); and SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, resourced and time-related steps to take).

The speaker pressed home the need for churches to be clear about what a healthy church actually is, because so many people have never really been in a healthy church. That made me feel sad. I mean, what is wrong with us?! There is no health in us! It is sad, but it is really a symptom of the churches’ failure to follow Christ, to be Christ to others and to see Christ in others. Please don't get me wrong - I include myself as part of the problem.

Here are the marks of a healthy church, taken from The Healthy Churches’ Handbook by Robert Warren, which I heartily recommend:

- Energized by faith
- Outward-looking focus
- Seeks to find out what God wants
- Faces the cost of change and growth
- Operates as a community
- Makes room for all
- Does a few things and does them well

The ‘faith’ mark is essential because without faith, the other six marks won’t be based on the right foundation. To get from here to there begins with individual faith and motivation, but it is essential that the whole body (of a parish) is brought to the place where it can begin to function and move forward as a whole body. I guess I’m not very patient with all this, and probably I’m rather naïve, being relatively new to church leadership. But what is our problem?! I think the problem is that we aren’t really willing to put God and his mission first in our lives. The result is that we are failing to carry out his mission. And all around us are the results – people have turned to false gods and false prophets. Once again, like the rebellious Israel, we have got to repent – to turn back to God. And pray.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Sermon for Choral Evensong

Exodus 18:13-26 & Matthew 7:1-14
Critics of the bible might enjoy pointing out that our two bible readings this evening appear to present a contradiction: in the Exodus passage Moses is serving as ‘judge’ for the people who come seeking God’s will in their disputes. But in the gospel reading from Matthew 7 we hear Jesus saying ‘Do not judge’. So what’s going on here?

People today like to declare the well-known saying, ‘judge not, lest ye be judged.’ Our postmodern culture is anti-judgmental and tolerant of everything but intolerance. Relativism is another typical postmodern view - that there is no absolute truth by which things can be judged. So is Jesus promoting relativism here? Absolutely not!

There are many places in the Old Testament where God entrusts people to pronounce judgment. The book of Judges, for example, presents twelve leaders raised up by the Lord, who judge the tribes of Israel (my personal favourite is Deborah, and you can read about her in Judges ch. 4 & 5).

In the New Testament, it’s remarkable what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6: ‘If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!’

If this is the case, why then does Jesus say, ‘Do not judge’ in the beginning of Matthew 7? Well, there’s a difference between types of judgment. The judgment that Moses and Deborah carried out, and the judgment which Paul refers to, is judgment between right and wrong; between truth and falsehood. That kind of judgment is our duty, and it should be done with wisdom, honesty, common sense, and discernment. But the kind of judgment that Jesus speaks against, in Matthew 7, is about condemning people. It’s judgmentalism; it’s superficial, self-righteous, dishonest, and hypocritical.

Throughout the gospels Jesus condemns hypocrisy - pretending to be something that you’re not, or pretending to be better than you are. Matthew 7 verses 3-5: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? …You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from the other person’s eye.”

Christianity itself is often judged by those outside the Church. Their verdict is that the Church is full of hypocrites. Some people outside the Church believe that Christians think they are ‘perfect’ people, or ‘superior’ in some way. It’s not really true that the Church is full of hypocrites. The truth is that the Church is full of sinners. The hypocrites in the Church are those who would deny that fact, or who don’t include themselves in that fact, but they do love to condemn other people. And for some reason, we are quick to identify hypocrisy in other people, but not so quick to recognise it in ourselves.

American telly-evangelists seem to be particularly prone to hypocrisy - of not practicing what they preach - which has led to the public downfall of many. But at least as far back as 2 Samuel 12, there’s a good example of King David being called on self-righteous hypocrisy, when Nathan the prophet tells David a story of a rich man who steals a poor man’s precious lamb and kills it for his own use. David pronounces sound condemnation on the rich man in the story, while Nathan’s intention all along was to point out David’s blindness to his own sinful behaviour with Bathsheba.

In Matthew 15, Jesus says to the Pharisees, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, [saying] ‘these people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.’’ In the gospels, Jesus reveals many ways in which the Pharisees practiced a hypocritical religion - ways which are sometimes practiced by people today who deceive themselves and others into thinking they are Christian.

Here are a few examples from Matthew’s gospel, ch. 23: ‘everything they do is done for others to see; they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; ‘Woe to you… you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices… but you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness… You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel… You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and self-indulgence… on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.’

This is especially challenging for those who are called to lead by example: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practise what they preach.” But aren’t ALL of us Christians called to practice what we proclaim? By our fruit we shall be known.

Christianity’s claim that there is an absolute truth and an ultimate judge is not popular today. But God’s judgment is righteous, just and merciful. And that is how he wants us to judge. In the letter of James ch 2 v.13, we read that ‘judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; [and] mercy triumphs over judgment.’ And similarly in Matthew 7 v. 2, ‘For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.’

There is no contradiction here. Yes, we must judge between right and wrong and between truth and falsehood. In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul advises to ‘weigh carefully what is said’. And in 1 Thessalonians 5 he says to ‘Test everything. Hold on to the good. [And] avoid every kind of evil’. But we should not be judging the status of other people, and especially their status before God. Romans 14:4 – ‘Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls’. And verse 13: ‘Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way’.

Jesus tells us the gate is small and the road is narrow that leads to life. Many obstacles can block that gate and divert people from the road. God forbid that we should be that obstacle for another person.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Easier said than done

James 1:17-27

If you were in church last week you might remember Frank explaining in his sermon what the disciples meant when they complained that Jesus’ teaching was a ‘hard’ teaching. Frank said that the Greek word translated to the English word ‘hard’ meant not so much that it’s hard ‘to do’, but that it’s ‘hard to take in’, regarding the difficult concept of eating the flesh and blood of Jesus.

The teaching from today’s New Testament reading, from the letter of James, is also a ‘hard’ teaching, but in this instance it’s not that it’s difficult to understand, but it is difficult to DO: taming the tongue, looking after orphans and widows, and keeping ourselves from being ‘polluted’ by the world. These three things are very hard to do. But according to James, these three things represent ‘true religion’. In fact much of James’ epistle is about the ‘doing’ of our faith: ‘Do not merely listen to the word… DO what it says.’

Words are important. Most of us do try to control what we say to others and about others, but we slip-up, don’t we? There’s a common phrase for it: ‘a slip of the tongue’; which just goes to show how easily and possibly how often harmful words can slip right out of our mouths and into the world, adding to the world’s ‘pollution’, which is something we’ll come back to in a moment. But ‘taming the tongue’, which James further defines later in ch. 3, being able to tame the tongue is a good indication of self-control.

Self-control: We all struggle with it at times. By definition, the responsibility for self-control lies directly with us, and we should have the self-control to submit ourselves to God, as James states further on, in ch. 4 v. 7. It’s easier said than done, isn’t it? Allowing God’s will to be the driving force of our life isn’t easy, because we don’t want to give up our own will and our own desires. It’s certainly a challenge for us as Christians, and one we encounter daily, because it seems that each time we look into the mirror, we see the image of our former self - and we keep forgetting what we now look like in God’s eyes, because of Christ.

Because of Christ, in God’s eyes we now look like God’s holy children, loving him in perfect obedience as Jesus did when he walked on this earth. On our own, we cannot be perfect. But out of our thankfulness for the grace of God, we want to work at becoming more like Jesus. And by practicing James’ three disciplines of true religion (taming our tongue, caring for orphans and widows, and fending off the pollution of the world), these work together in us, with the Holy Spirit, building up the strength we need to follow Christ. So let’s now look at the second element: looking after orphans and widows.

James points out to his listeners that they (and we) must do the work of Christ by caring for people in need. Earlier this year, both my mother and my sister became widows and I flew back to California to be with them. Thankfully, neither of them needed financial help, but they both needed a listening ear, and the simple act of being there, providing emotional support and a sense of calm strength when everything in their world felt like it had collapsed. It's not too difficult caring for those we know well, but what about those who we don't know well? And of course, it is not only orphans and widows that are needy, but it’s also the homeless, the mentally ill, drug addicts, and anyone who has lost some aspect of their life that had provided security and wholeness.

We know this is how Jesus wants us to love – his parables and his example teach us this. We still find it so hard to do to the point that he wants us to do it – to the point where it becomes uncomfortable. He showed us that he was willing to give his life for us. That's what he wants us to do for others; and that is a hard teaching. We would rather be comfortable. We would rather love those who are easily loved – those we are related to; those who are clean; those who are touchable. But Christ calls us to love those who are difficult to love – the stranger; the shabby; the outsider. It's easier said than done! This isn’t what the media tells us we should desire to do with our lives. This is a hard teaching. And this brings us to the third aspect of what James tells us ‘true religion’ is about: keeping ourselves from being ‘polluted’ by ‘the world’.

I mentioned before about those harmful, hurtful remarks that can ‘slip’ from our mouths either carelessly or intentionally, which add to the pollution of the world. We all know what pollution is. We have it in the air, in the water, on the ground. We also know the world is not only polluted in the environmental sense, but also in the ethical sense, and this pollution is caused by sin. Sin is not a popular concept in today’s world, where the ethos by which many live is ‘whatever turns you on’, and ‘as long as it’s not harming anyone else’.
How can we keep ourselves from being ‘polluted’ by the world? It’s no good saying it’s ok to allow just a little bit of evil into our lives – here’s a story to illustrate this:

One day some children asked their father if they could go to the cinema to watch the latest film. But the father knew that this film contained some dodgy things that would be harmful for his children to watch. The kids tried to justify seeing the film, claiming there were only a few bad aspects which they could easily ignore, but they couldn’t convince their father.

A little later that evening the father asked his children if they would like some brownies he had baked. He told them he had used the
family’s favourite recipe, but that he had added a little something new. When the children asked what it was, the father calmly replied that he had added dog droppings. However, he quickly assured them, it was only ‘a little bit’. All the other ingredients were gourmet quality and he had taken great care to bake the brownies at the precise temperature for the exact time. He was sure the brownies would be superb.

Even with their father's promise that the brownies were of ‘almost perfect’ quality, his children would not take any. The father acted surprised. After all, it was only one small part that was offensive. He was certain they would hardly notice it. Still the kids held firm and would not try the brownies. The father then told his children how the film they wanted to see was just like the brownies. Our minds fool us into believing that just a little bit of evil won't matter. But, the truth is even a little bit of droppings makes the difference between a great treat and something disgusting and totally unacceptable.

Becoming damaged by pollution can happen even with the small amounts of muck allowed into our lives. It’s hard to avoid the pollution of the world’s ethical sense, because it pushes in on us from all sides. The world’s polluted ethical sense says that ‘whoever dies with the most toys, wins’. It values things over people. The world’s polluted ethical sense says that it’s ok to see people as objects to be used and even abused. The world’s polluted ethical sense says, ‘I’m alright, Jack’. The world’s polluted ethical sense says that life’s goal is to be comfortable and content. These priorities pollute our relationship with God and with people.

We can’t completely escape the pollution of the world, because it has infiltrated the entire planet. But we can keep ourselves from being ‘polluted’ by the world by continually submitting our will to God's will. And we can keep ourselves from adding to the world’s pollution by taming our tongues, and by doing the uncomfortable work of looking after those who’ve slipped through the net. It is a hard teaching. Let us pray for the strength and the ability to accept and to do the word which has been planted in us, which can save us: keep a tight rein on our tongue; help orphans, widows, and anyone else in need; and keep ourselves from being polluted by the world. And always be thankful for the grace of God which overcomes our weakness. Amen.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

heaven on earth

I'm sure there must be something like this in heaven, anyway...

There is a bakery in my new parish which is owned and run by a couple from church. Walking into this bakery is a delight - a feast for my eyes while I'm deciding what to purchase, and a feast for my stomach when I return home (I do share, really). Honestly, the cakes, flapjacks, creamcakes, scones, and pastries are so beautiful to look at, nevermind to eat (and they are gorgeous to eat, too). Today we also tried the cornish pasty... lovely. Deli sandwiches, bread loaves and rolls - I think I'm going to be spending lots of time there. OK, I know gluttony is a sin; you don't have to remind me.

We're away for three days from tomorrow, on a short family break. I'm so excited - we're going to 'Go Ape'! It looks so exhilarating and a bit scary. My adrenaline will be on overdrive. We're also going to Legoland (we've been twice before - love it!), and the Midland Air Museum (gotta fit in an air museum to keep the 'other half' happy).

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Honest Scrap

Rachel at Re vis.e Re form has nominated me for an award! Now before everyone gets too excited, this award is called the 'Honest Scrap' award, and will be awarded if I simply share 10 honest things about myself and nominate 7 other bloggers for the award. Not too difficult... right?

First, 10 honest things about me:

1. I drive a red Peugeot 406 diesel that is 12 years old. My husband also drives a Peugeot, as do my in-laws. Our previous two cars were also Peugeots. To be honest, I am tired of Peugeots, and I can't wait until this car falls apart so that I can buy something else! My son wants a Lambourghini, and my daughter wants any kind of 4 x 4. I want something with automatic transmission.

2. I don't watch much TV apart from the news and religious documentaries (of course), but I am known in my household (and now in cyberland) to be addicted to the 'X-Factor' when it comes on. The others in my household are addicted to 'Top Gear', though, so I'm not the only sad person.

3. I play the guitar (though not very well). I began my university studies majoring in music, but changed to biology after only 1 year because I really wasn't good enough. I actually wanted to be a rock star! Now, I love getting the chance to play guitar in worship for the Lord in a music group.

4. hmm... only at number 4 and already I'm honestly finding it difficult to think of honest things that I can write about myself, knowing that these things will be made public... and that is the fourth honest thing I can say.

5. I put on 20 pounds during my three years of theological college. This was due to three things: Chocolate during essay writing; sitting for long periods whilst writing essays; and not taking exercise (because of writing essays).

6. On the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator scale, I am an INTJ, but only just. Basically I'm in the middle between the I/E, the T/F, and the J/P, but more definitely 'N' rather than 'S'. If you don't know what all this means, you can google it.

7. I have parachuted from an airplane. Once. It was absolutely fantastic, but I don't think I'll ever have the bottle to do it again.

8. I have been scuba diving in the presence of sharks. More than once. It isn't as scary as jumping from an airplane.

9. I've had a bumper crop of vegetables this summer so far: at least 5 small heads of lettuce, 3 cucumbers, about 20 tomatoes, 10 green peppers, 3 pea pods, hundreds of chili peppers, and 2 cauliflower plants (which have been sacrified to the butterflies for their caterpillars).

10. I prefer coffee to tea. But you probably already knew that.

Now, the 7 bloggers that I am nominating for the 'Honest Scrap' award (I don't think I know 7 bloggers, but I'll try - if you've been nominated here, it means I do read your blog from time to time):

June Gillam's blog
Cognitive Blindspot
Ben Edson
Ad Dominum
Sarcastic Lutheran

What an eclectic bunch! (I love diversity...)

Monday, 17 August 2009

On being assessed

Yesterday I led Morning Prayer at one of my churches. Before the service began, I was waiting in the wings with the choir and the Reader - waiting for the vicar to join us. I asked the others whether the vicar had arrived yet, and they said, 'Yes, but he is sitting in the congregation today. He's assessing you'.

Assessing me? That was surprising news to me - the vicar hadn't told me he was going to sit in the congregation and 'assess' me. I felt shocked and a bit betrayed! My knees began to shake and I became hot under the collar! I stammered my way through a vestry prayer, and we processed out. I tried to look like I knew what I was doing (and I was thankful for encouragement from the Reader)! This was the first time I had led Morning Prayer here, and the first service I was to lead on my own. I spotted the vicar in the congregation and he appeared to be making notes! I managed the service ok (it isn't a difficult one, really, is it?!), though I didn't feel relaxed at all. After the service I expressed my feelings to the vicar, and much to my relief he was as shocked as I was that he had been 'assessing' me! In reality, it had just been a joking comment made by the choir. He wasn't actually assessing me at all! He did bring me a cup of coffee 'to make amends', though, which works every time for me.

Later I reflected on how the prospect of 'being assessed' made me feel. It wasn't a comfortable feeling, but it was probably a beneficial experience after all, and one in which I have learned something. There will be things that will happen immediately prior to leading services that will catch us off guard and perhaps throw us off a bit. Someone will do or say something that causes us to wobble. But we must carry on. And really, the whole three years of curacy are an assessment of sorts. It's about learning how to worship and lead at the same time, and sometimes we just have to fly by the seat of our pants.

(Oh, and take the choir's comments with a pinch of salt...!)

Friday, 14 August 2009

informal worship

So the upcoming challenge is to create an informal worship service that will help people in some way to connect with God, while at the same time (I hope) enable some insight into what God is asking of us in terms of a response. I've been given this remit with the added encouragement that anything goes! They are open to different and creative ways of worshipping - so that is great.

The theme I've decided upon is 'Celebrating Community', with a focus on embracing the gifts we all have to offer to each other and to the community at large. I'm excited about this. I just hope enough people come so that it will actually feel like the community is represented. I think I'm having 'attendance anxiety'... :/

It's a leap of faith, hoping that people will relate to what you put forth; hoping that you have heard the Spirit's leading and considered the congregation rightly.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Wonderful words

I love singing at Church. Some people say that singing together is not something people like to do these days. I suppose that might be true for some people. Personally, I think the act of singing does something for us in a physical, biochemical way, which then opens up our ability to praise God more deeply within our souls. I like both traditional hymns and modern praise songs. We sang the following hymn last Sunday at one of the two churches where I am placed. I love these words:

There's a wideness in God's mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there's a kindness in his justice,
which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner,
and more graces for the good;
there is mercy with the Savior;
there is healing in his blood.

There is no place where earth's sorrows
are more felt than in heaven;
there is no place where earth's failings
have such kind judgment given.
There is plentiful redemption
in the blood that has been shed;
there is joy for all the members
in the sorrows of the Head.

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of man's mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more faithful,
we should take him at his word;
and our life would be thanksgiving
for the goodness of the Lord.

Frederick William Faber, 1862