The Road to Ordination

At my old church, we used to run a summer Holiday Club for local children, where we did usual sort of Sunday group stuff over a whole week! Of course, the highlight was the daily drama, where (in theory) the teaching from the day would be explored and we would travel together on a spiritual journey of learning over the week. But it was also a whole lot of fun, with silly jokes, daft costumes, and a real pantomime feel. One year in particular stands out in my memory, which was when the Club was called Kingdom Quest, and the daily drama was loosely inspired by Spamalot. That year I was able to go along for the whole week, and got cast in the drama as the Black Knight. There is actually video evidence in existence, but I’m not about to make that public! Anyway, one of the songs the Black Knight sings is about being “All Alone”, and how he is travelling a “long and winding road.” While I haven’t travelled “all alone” (far from it), the road to ordained ministry certainly has been long and winding.

I first felt what I now recognise as a call to ordained ministry in the mid 1990’s, when I was worshipping at Holy Trinity Brompton in London. This was around the time of the so-called “Toronto Blessing”, and I was prayed for to be filled with the Holy Spirit. As I was prayed for, I felt a sense of anointing that God was calling me to minister to His people, to equip the saints (from Ephesians 5, a verse that has stayed me along the whole journey, and is one of my “life verses“, a concept I’ve blogged about in the past on my other site). And this was to be within His church, as my occupation. But just as clearly was the sense of “… but not yet”. At the time I understood it by analogy – if I was going to be a football coach, I needed to first of all be a player of the game myself. If I was to disciple people to be Jesus in the 9 to 5 office environment, I needed to have lived that life first. Now please don’t get me wrong – I’m just talking about my own personal sense of calling, and how I understood the “not yet”. I’m not trying to establish a general principle for church based ministry!

I’m also not trying to set myself up as a sort of super-Christian or guru. In fact it’s more or less the opposite – I don’t know if you’ve seen the leadership diagrams where there’s a pyramid, with the very apex representing the overall leader, supported by the all the minions below? I would say that Christian leadership – and ordained ministry in particular – is more like an upside-down pyramid. The vicar is right down there at the bottom of the pile, the least important person in the overall scheme, whose job it is to serve and support the vast majority of the church who are out in the world doing the work of the Kingdom. Others have a different view of the church and of ordained ministry, but I personally find this view helpful.

I suppose ever since that point a;; those years ago I’ve been working towards this, and trying to discern when the time was right to throw my lot in completely (and am still working on that!) But I have always been mindful of the direction of travel, and made choices about where to spend time and energy based on this sense of calling. So while I have only been an ordained minister for a few months, I would say that I’ve been in ministry for 20+ years. And actually much as I dislike the nomenclature of “priest”, I have come to see that (musical) worship leading – which I have done for the majority of those 20 years – is a very close cousin of the “priestly” ministry.

I genuinely do not know where this road leads – the past 4 or 5 years have been very much one step at a time. Approaching the Diocese. Going to a Panel. Studying at St Hild. Being a self-supporting (horrible phrase) curate. We’re at St Mark’s for another 3 years at least, and perhaps by the time I’m signed off God will have revealed the next step to us!

Advertisements

You make me brave

Spring Harvest has always held a very special place in my heart – as a young person I would travel to Skegness, to be spiritually fed and inspired, to see hundreds, if not thousands, of other people my age worshipping God. Just in case you haven’t heard of it, Spring Harvest is a Christian festival – essentially a bible week – with loads of teaching, seminars, workshops, worship, prayer, and so on. It’s for the whole family, with different streams of activities tailored for specific age ranges, and across all the sites and weeks about 20,000 people go in total. I would say that it is a large part of why I am a Christian today. So I was very excited when Spring Harvest came to Harrogate this year, and booked on it as soon as the lines opened. If I’m honest I wasn’t sure how well it would work – the whole Butlin’s thing is somehow a part of Spring Harvest. But I needn’t have worried!

The past few years have been really hard work as I’ve been training for ordination – lots of intellectual effort as we’ve studied theology together, and somewhere along the way I think that I’ve got either scared and/or cynical about emotions (and especially emotionalism). A sort of disconnect between head and heart, if you like. Of course we have to use our God-given brains, and critically assess and reflect on things… but we also need to use our God-given hearts, and love and be loved, and at times be overwhelmed and lost in (His) love.

And overwhelmed I was. My heart is lost to Jesus again, in a way that I’d lost sight of. I’ve rediscovered why I’m a Christian, let alone an ordained minister, and it is simply because of God’s love.

The key moment for me was one evening, when a big appeal was made from the front for people to become Christians. Maybe 5 or 10 people put their hands up, and my reaction (to my shame) was “Oh, that’s nice.” But 2 things happened which changed all that. The first was the speaker challenging our lukewarm reaction, by saying “If someone had just got out of a wheelchair, or if we’d seen a tumour shrink before our eyes, we’d be getting excited – but what’s happening here is a far more precious miracle, far more exciting.” The second was that, a few rows in front of me, a man of about my age put up his hand. The speaker said something about starting a new life in Jesus, and the man’s teenage daughter just leant against him, put her arms around him, and hugged him.

That was when the full weight of what was going on hit me, and I just wept. Her Dad, who had been lost, was now found. Her Dad, who could never “get” the most important thing in her life, was now a part of that. Her Dad, who had been missing out on so much, had come in from the cold and joined the party. Obviously I know nothing about that family situation (and I’m not suggesting that everything suddenly will be a bed of roses), but I’ve come across enough non-Christians husbands/fathers to know how much tension it can cause around money, time, Sundays, prayer, ethical choices, and so on. But much, much, more than this, Jesus is the most important person in my life. He gives my life meaning. Imagine not being able to share that with someone you love – and then at last person responds to God’s gentle love himself, to Jesus invitation freely given. I was seeing God’s grace in action, a life being saved, and it moved me to tears.

I was also deeply touched by some of the worship songs, in particular the Bethel song “You make me brave”. Even typing the words now is sending a shiver up my spine, and making my eyes prickle!

As your love, in wave after wave,
Crashes over me, crashes over me.
For you are for us, you are not against us
Champion of heaven you made a way for all to enter in.

You make me brave.
You make me brave.
You call me out beyond the shore into the waves.

God loves us.

He loves you and he loves me.

He loves us passionately, recklessly, wantonly, extravagantly, overwhelmingly.

Jesus is calling you and me into something exciting, scary, dangerous, exhilarating, life-giving – the ride of our lives. The invitation is free, and it will cost everything. But it’s not down to us. It’s not our load to bear. Jesus has already done everything that needs doing. He makes me brave.

And do you know what else? I love Him back, recklessly and extravagantly. He is my everything.

PS Spring Harvest is coming to back to Harrogate next year, on the 13th – 17th April 2019. The booking lines open in June, and I cannot commend it highly enough to you.

Foolishness

This is (more or less) the text on my sermon from Easter Day (1st April). The passage was 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.

We preach Christ Crucified – foolishness to the Greeks, and a stumbling block for the Jews. And actually it’s no wonder it’s rejected, because “Christ Crucified” doesn’t really make any sense – in itself it is a nonsense. It’s like an oxymoron, where we’ve got two words that don’t make any sense together being put together. So, phrases like “soft rock” – how can rock be soft – by definition rock is hard. Or maybe you’ve been asked to send in an “original copy” of something – how can something be original and a copy? What about “Virtual Reality” – it’s a nonsense term – something can’t be virtual and real. One of my favourites is probably a “sure bet”. How can something be a sure bet? If you’re sure about about it, then it’s not a bet, and if you’re betting on it that you can’t be sure!!!

So why is Christ Crucified foolish? It’s perhaps harder for us to see if we’re familiar with the story of Easter, and the whole idea of atonement, so we need to go back in time a bit to the first century, and think about what “Christ Crucified” meant to folk in the 1st century.

Christ”, or Messiah, means saviour, or anointed, God’s chosen king. It was understood to mean someone who would come and save Israel, free her from the oppressive rule of the Romans, and establish a new golden period, like a second Kingship of David. Whereas Crucified” means someone executed by the Romans, using the most barbaric and humiliating means yet devised by humanity. The cross was the symbol of Roman power – a way of exerting fear and control over Rome’s subjects – you disobey us and this is what happens to you.

So, you put these two together, and you end up with the person who was supposed to free Israel from Roman rule being arrested, tortured, and killed by Rome. It’s what you might call an epic failure. A messiah on the cross is a failed messiah – and Jesus was neither the first nor the last of these.

You can look at it from the Western or Greek perspective, of logic and wisdom – and it makes no sense at all. The person who was supposed to save us couldn’t even save himself. It’s like someone jumping into a swimming pool to save someone, but drowning because you can’t swim yourself.

Or from the Eastern or Jewish perspective, with its emphasis on power, signs, mysticism, what could be weaker or less powerful then someone hanging on the cross?

Either way – Christ crucified is folly – a failed messiah…

Except that the story didn’t end on Good Friday, as we know, and as we celebrate this very morning. Death couldn’t contain Jesus. The tomb and the stone were not strong enough to store his body. The resurrection of Jesus changes everything that went before. You know those optical illusions, where there are two different pictures in one picture, depending on how you look at them? Like Rubin’s vase, which is either two silhouette faces in profile looking at one another, or a picture of vase with a black background. When you first look at it, you see either the faces or the vase, and don’t even realise that there is another picture. But when someone points out the other view, you can never go back to just seeing it as a picture of a vase. There has been a paradigm shift, your view of the world has changed. Or think about fidget spinners – you see a young person fiddling with their spinner, and think that they are not paying attention or engaging. But actually what might be going on is that they have so much energy and need to be active, having something to channel that excess energy into enables them to listen to what is being said. So instead of a fidget spinner being a sign that they are not paying attention, it’s a sign that they are!

And so the resurrection changes our whole perspective on Good Friday. It shows us that actually the death of Jesus is not the point of failure, but of victory. The one on the cross was the one with the power to overcome death itself. It’s not that he couldn’t save himself, but that he didn’t save himself. Jesus freely gave himself, in folly and weakness, in order to demonstrate God’s love and power. Easter morning turns the whole crucifixion on its head. When Pilate put the sign reading “Kings of Jews”, he meant it as a mocking, and as a warning. But in the light of Easter morning, we can see that it’s the truth. When the soldiers crowned Jesus, and put him in royal robes, they were mocking, but it became the truth.

Suddenly we understand that when Jesus said “It is finished” it really was all finished. Love had won. Death and sin had been defeated. I wonder if this is why the gospel writers don’t have very much to say about the resurrection? Take Mark’s gospel – 667 verses in what is thought to be the original, with its short ending. How many verses would you think were about the resurrection – more than a 100? 50? 20 verses? In fact, Mark writes just 9 verses about the resurrection – less than 2% of his Gospel. In the book he wrote for the purpose of telling the Good News, just 9 verses on Jesus coming back to life – almost a postscript! Compare that to 5 chapters written about the passion and death of Jesus. And it’s a similar picture in the other gospels, although not quite so extreme. I think that this is because the resurrection isn’t the point – it’s wonderful, we celebrate it, we worship our risen king, but the Good News is that Jesus died, and won the victory over sin and death.

So to the western minds we say – God’s folly is wiser than all our wisdom. Only by coming to earth as a human, living among us, and dying for us could humanity be saved. Only the one who is the God-man could take all humanity with him through the gates of death into new life.

To the eastern minds we say – God’s weakness is stronger than our strength. What greater power could you want than raising from the death. What greater symbol could you want than the cross, turned from being a tool of oppression, pain, and fear into the ultimate symbol of love and rescue.

Easter morning shows us that the light of God changes everything – it turns the place of deepest darkness, of utter folly, of helplessness into the place of greatest victory.

Thank God for Good Friday, and thank God for Easter morning!!

Further reading
Wright, Tom. The Crown and the Fire. Meditations on the Cross and the Life of the Spirit (London: SPCK, 1992

Oppression

The following is the text from my sermon this evening at Ripon Cathedral. The readings are Exodus 6:2-13 and Romans 5:1-11.

The story is told of the man who was out for a walk on a mountain one day, when a freak gust of wind blew him over the side of the cliff. Fortunately he managed to grab hold of a tree root as he fell, but he was left dangling over almost certain death.

He called up for help, but there was no-one around, so then he looked up to heaven and shouted out “Is there anyone up there? Please help me”.

A voice from heaven answered him “Yes – I will help you, but you have trust me”

The man replied “Oh – thank you God. Yes, I trust you absolutely, with everything I have and all I am”.

God said “Let go of the root”.

The man paused for a moment, then said “Is there anyone else up there?”

 

This story is a bit like our Old Testament reading today, in that the people of Israel are in a pretty bad way, and crying out to God for help, but when he comes to save them they are unable to recognise and respond to him.

We have to rewind a little bit to get the full story. In Genesis 12, God calls Abram to be the founder of a race who will be God’s chosen people, chosen to be blessed and in turn to be a blessing to the entire world, modelling both a true relationship with God and an extraordinary ethical and moral framework for society. Abram (or Abraham) has a miracle son called Isaac in his old age, who in turn has a son called Jacob (later called Israel). Jacob then had twelve sons, each of whom became the founder of one of the twelve tribes of Israel.

Via a very round-about route, one of the 12 sons – Joseph – ends up as Prime Minister of Egypt, and when a severe famine comes, Jacob and the other 11 sons all move to Egypt (where there is still food), and settle there, with the Pharaoh’s blessing.

So far so good. However at the start of Exodus, the old Pharaoh and the 12 brothers have died, and the new king doesn’t look too kindly on the Israelites, who have multiplied and multiplied. The pharaoh makes them his slaves, and makes them build his towns and cities. Their treatment is harsh, and culminates in an order by the king that every baby boy is to be killed at birth. From the midst of this, God calls out Moses to lead them back to Canaan, where they can be God’s chosen people in the promised land, as we first heard in Genesis 12.

Moses makes a first attempt – Moses goes to Pharoah, to ask him to set the Israelites free. Not only does Pharoah say “no”, he is so cross that he increases the oppression of the Israelites, saying that they have to continue to make as many bricks, but without being supplied with the straw anymore. Understandably, this isn’t seen as an improvement!

In today’s passage, God is commissioning Moses again to go the Israelites and lead them out of captivity. There is incredible sense of force and promise in what God says. He identifies himself as the one who appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but then goes on to identify himself by name – “my name is Yahweh”. In fact He says this five times in the passage we read. “Yahweh” is the name God used for himself when He first spoke to Moses in the burning bush. In our bibles it’s printed as “the Lord” (in small capital letters), but it is actually His Name – “Yahweh”, like “Bob” or “Sally” or “Angela”. It’s like He is saying “it really is me, and I am going to free you”.

So, Moses comes to give this message to the Israelites – that Yahweh has promised to set them free from the slavery and oppression of the Egyptians. And what is the response? We see it in verse 9: “they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery”. Isn’t that heart-breaking? To be so broken in spirit, that you refuse to even listen to a message of liberation. That hope itself has gone. Of course, as we know God does rescue his people in the end – and what is more this experience of suffering, oppression, and slavery becomes some of founding principles of the constitution of the nation of Israel. In Deuteronomy the Israelites are charged to “remember you were once slaves in Egypt” and “remember you were once foreigners in a strange land”, and to treat slaves and foreigners accordingly. Somehow God took the suffering, and turned it into a force for good. The suffering became formational, if you like. Something similar is happening in the Romans passage, where suffering produces endurance, character, and hope, and even becomes something we can boast about. It’s not that the suffering is good, but that it becomes a means of good.

Today we are not enslaved by an Egyptian pharaoh, and made to build bricks out of straw. But, as today’s collect prays, we can still be enslaved by the “chains of sin” and need deliverance from this as much as the Israelites did from Egypt three and a half thousand years ago. These might be chains of addiction or destructive patterns of behaviour. They may be chains of an historic or an ongoing abusive relationship. They may be chains from lies or betrayals, whether by us or to us. They may be chains of body image, wealth, or poverty. Today’s readings don’t promise an end of suffering (if anything the opposite!), but they promise that God hears our cry, that He will take the initiative in delivering us, that we can find peace with him purely and simply by faith – by believing and trusting that Jesus died for us, and rose again. That our suffering can have a purpose, have a point – so much so that we will be able to boast about it!

I don’t know what our friend hanging on the tree root did in the end, but if you are living in oppression, or have no hope, or cannot even listen because of a broken spirit, then please don’t leave this place this evening without asking God for His help. I or any of the Cathedral staff would love to pray with you after the service.

Let’s pray together now.

Father God, Yahweh. Thank you that always hear the cry of the oppressed and the hurting. Thank you that you can turn our suffering into something beautiful, in a way that is beyond our understanding. Thank you, Jesus, that you died for us while we were still weak and far from you, and that you have opened the way to perfect peace. Thank you Holy Spirit that you fill us with your passion and peace, and our God within us.  Amen.

Quartet

I am away at a curates’ study weekend at the wonderful Hawkhills near York – really good to meet up with some old friends, and meet some new ones. Anyway, this evening at prayers, we had a piece called “You are Lord in this place”, which is a vocal piece for quartet (i.e. four voices), and as I sat and listened I was struck – not perhaps for the first time, by certainly with the most force – that listening is quite a lot like seeing, in that while you can see/hear everything, you can actually only really focus on one thing at a time.

While I could always hear the composite effect, I could only pick out the individual melodies by intentionally listening to that particular voice – the alto, or tenor, or whatever. And, interestingly, it was very hard to listen to the words and the music at the same time, and in concentrating on the bass, say, I realised that I’d stopped listening to the lyrics, and had idea what had just been sung.

Of course it’s entirely possible that this is just me, and that some people can listen to more than one thing at once. I guess trained musicians are probably quite good at picking out notes. But the little I’ve read on attention suggests that we genuinely can only concentrate on one thing at once, and our brains trick us into thinking otherwise (in the same way that we perceive our vision as if we’re a video camera, whereas in reality sight is more like a spotlight, and a lot of what we think we’re seeing is essentially mental construction or interpolation).

However, the thing that really struck is it that the quartet piece is a little bit like the gospels. Four voices singing the same piece, but each with a distinctive melody of it’s own. And we can only focus on the detail of one at a time, and when we do so we are no longer fully attentive to the other three, even if they are somewhere in the background. There was even one voice (possibly the alto) which, like John’s gospel, was a bit ‘dissonant’  with the other three – by which I mean diminished or seventh-y (I’m afraid my music reading and theory runs out at this point, so I’m don’t suppose it’s the correct terminology). It was still harmonic and beautiful, but not in a natural harmony with the other three. In any case, it is only the four combined – music and words – which form the complete piece.

It made me ponder how we might listen to all four gospels? The piece at prayers was simple but beautiful, and was well performed and a joy to listen to. How might we ‘perform’ the gospels, to try and convey the beauty of their subject Jesus Christ?

Breaking Glass

A couple of weeks ago, I dropped and broke a glass while I was preaching at church!

Actually, it wasn’t real glass, and I dropped it on purpose to illustrate a point. Took me longer to make it then it did to write the rest of the sermon!! (Plus I spent the rest of the service sweeping up the fragments). But I digress…

I believe the Bible teaches that there is a cost to sin, which Jesus takes on (or “covers”) in our place, as a substitute. Now I greatly dislike the “cosmic child abuse” charicature set up regarding substitionary atonement – that there is an angry God who has to punish someone, and so decides to punish his own innocent son instead of us. I believe that is utter nonsense, and poor theology in almost every regard. But I’ve found Tim Keller’s book “The Reason for God” really helpful in shedding some light onto why sin has a cost, and it is his analogy which I adapted and developed in my sermon.

Suppose I was to drop a glass, and it shatters. There is now a cost to making this right. Firstly, someone has to “pay” the time and energy to sweep up all the bits of glass, to tidy up the mess. Secondly, a new glass has to be purchased (or donated) to replace the one that has broken. Anyone can pay these “costs”, but unless someone does, there will remain a dangerous mess on the floor, and we have one less glass. The cost is inherent and unavoidable. I may have deliberately broken it, I may have accidentally knocked it over, I may not even be aware that I broke it. None of this changes the fact there is a cost to making it right, to putting things back to how there were before.

And so sin is a bit like the dropping of a glass – there is an inherent and unavoidable cost which must be “paid” to put it right. Paul writes in Romans 6, “the wages of sin are death”, or in other words the unavoidable and inherent cost of sin is death. Somehow in Old Testament times, the blood of animals served the purpose of paying this price, of putting things right again. That the sacrifice of the animal is in way spiritually analogous to sweeping up bits of glass. I don’t claim to understand the mechanism for this, and it can seem offensive to modern Western ears. I utterly and absolutely do not believe there is a capricious or angry God demanding a blood-letting. I think rather that there is a deeper spiritual truth in play, and that part of the reason we struggle with this is because we are more put out by the fact we can’t sort ourselves out then we are by sin (to paraphrase John Stott).

So on the Day of Atonement (or “At-one-ment”, as it is more accurately written), the High Priest would offer sacrifices of animals for himself and the whole company of Israel, to “pay the price” of sin. But the Day of Atonement didn’t actually work. Glasses kept being broken. Israel kept on sinning. The cost of putting it right kept coming back. So each year more animals, more ritual, to try and deal with this sickness.

But the glass shattering brought to mind the title of another book, by Stanley Hauerwas, called “Cross-Shattered Christ”. Could it be that what happened (in part) on the cross was that Jesus took the ‘shattering’ once and for all? So that the glass no longer even breaks when it is dropped? That instead of the glass shattering, the one who takes its place shatters. That instead of the glass being broken, the body of the one who has taken its place is broken.

Was this what he foresaw at the Last Supper – his body being broken, his blood poured out? “This is my body, given for you”, and “this is my blood, shed for you”.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed. (Is 53:5)

 

As with any analogy or model, it only tells a small part of the story of course, and has limitations. I offer it only as one way of thinking about the miriacle of the cross, and as an invitation to wonder and worship. I am not for one second suggesting that sin no longer has any consequences, or “doesn’t matter” – just that we no longer have to bear the cost of being made right (or becoming “at one”) with God; the temple curtain has been torn, and the Most Holy Place is open.

Further reading
Keller, T.J. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008)
Stott, J. The Cross of Christ, 2nd edition (Leicester: IVP, 1989)
Hauerwas, S. Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2004)

Person of Peace

Last time I wrote about people of peace – that is people who are already close to the Kingdom of God. The reason I wrote that blog was because the phrase has stayed with me, albeit flipped around, and I’m coming to see this another kairos moment. The question that has stayed with me is to what extent am I a person of peace? Especially at my 9-5 work during the week.

It is easy, in many ways, when I’m at church, in my dog collar. My job/role is to be a person of peace, and a minister to everyone I come across. If people do happen to rant and rage at me, part of my role is to listen, help, pray, and be with the person who is obviously not in a good place. “Success” is measured in terms of bringing people closer to God. I should add that my experience of curacy to date hasn’t been being ranted and raged at! But I have been in situations where people are hurting, and deep emotions are expressed.

At my work place, it is a different scenario. My job there is to write software, and the people I come across are colleagues and peers, or sometimes customers. “Success”, at least from my employer’s perspective, is measured in terms of happy customers, by delivering quality projects on time, and to budget (while operating in line with the culture of the company, of course).

It is in this second context, I realise, that I am not always a person of peace, especially when the pressure is on, and a project isn’t going too well. I guess that this won’t come as a surprise to the people I work with! Truth is that I do sometimes lose my cool and perspective, and get drawn into arguments which are disguised as a technical discussion. In theory we are trying to determine an optimal approach to the particular problem in hand. In practice, it can become something much more visceral, and an exercise generating heat rather than light, in talking rather than listening, in wanting to be heard more than wanting to hear. I don’t think that theological discussions are immune from this either!

But I believe that God is calling me – and you – to something better, and deeper, than this. I believe He is calling us to be people of peace. Both in terms of our own inner peace, and also peace-bringing (or peace-making); I believe the two are related. I don’t mean the emotion-less “teflon”, almost smug, peace of the “zen master”, who is never rattled by anything. If you’ve seen the film Serenity, the Operative is a good example of this. No, I mean such a deep peace and confidence that emotions are fully felt, but don’t challenge identity, so there is no defensiveness or “defended-ness”. In fact it’s quite the opposite – they are vulnerable and open.

If I think about the people I’ve come across over the years, and especially in my training, the people who I admire the most, and most want to emulate, are the people who I would describe as people of peace. People who respond to situations well, calmly. Who aren’t threatened by difference, and don’t feel the need to be right, or to “win” the argument. People who can identify points of common ground between warring factions, and put aside themselves, and their own opinions.

Now please don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about being a doormat, or that there is no “right” and “wrong”. The people of peace I’m thinking of can challenge in a way that is kind and gentle, keeping the conversation open. They can point out the flaws in an argument in a way that is trying to move the conversation forward, and not to “win”. They don’t feel the need to reach a consensus, or to resolve everything, or feel the need to take responsibility for other people’s “mistakes”. Who, I suppose, don’t even see them as mistakes. People who have the wisdom to recognise what truly matters, I suppose, what is worth fighting for, but still fight for it in a peaceful way. Who know what the Truth is, but don’t force it down peoples’ throats.

So my prayer at the moment is that I will be (more of) a man of peace, at work, at home, and at church. Seems like an appropriate activity for Lent!

People of Peace

A week or two ago in our leadership huddle, we were reflecting on the sending of the seventy two in Luke 10, specifically this idea of them finding a “man of peace” (v. 5). At the time, we particularly thought about what this might mean in terms of recognising how God is already within the people we meet. In no sense whatsoever do Christians hold exclusive rights to working God’s purposes out – whenever anybody makes a stand for the oppressed, helps the vulnerable, challenges corruption, stands for truth, protects the environment, seeks justice, or shows mercy and forgiveness, they are acting as an agent for the Kingdom of God. Whether they mean to or not, or indeed whether they like it or not!

The (Anglican) church globally recognises this with its “Five Marks of Mission“:

  • To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
  • To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
  • To respond to human need by loving service
  • To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
  • To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth

I love how this counters the tendency of the Church to try and limit “mission” to either the first mark (e.g. an evangelistic Beach Mission) or the third (e.g. sending Missionaries overseas). Don’t get me wrong – I’m not knocking these activities, just saying they do not capture the full scope of God’s mission on their own. The theology of this is rooted in part in Genesis 12:2-3, when God calls Abraham (my emphasis):

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessingI will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

And then in Genesis 18:19 the way in which Abraham will do this is shown (again my emphasis):

No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.

Incidentally, Chris Wright’s amazing opus The Mission of God develops and explores it far more ably then I can, and I commend it to you. I think I’m right in saying that he coined the phrase “international agent of blessing”, which I love (although it always makes me think of Austin Powers too, which is perhaps less helpful).

Anyway, “Righteousness and Justice” (Hebrew mishpat and tsadaq) are a foundational part of God’s character, and form a couplet, i.e. two words go together to form a composite phrase which means more than the individual words. (There is a proper/technical word for this, but I can’t remember it!). Another example might be “Health and Safety”. Where you have one, you have the other, and it is only when they are paired that you get the full picture.  There is a great article on misphat and tsadaq on Eden’s Bridge website.

Maybe “people of peace” are those people who are already close to God’s heart and character, but don’t yet realise it? People who are being a blessing to those around them. Perhaps we can start to recognise God working in and through them? A lot of damage has been done in name of religions generally, and Christianity specifically. Even today, Christians (and what is passed off as Christianity) often aren’t Good News for the people who are closest to God’s heart in either sense; neither the poor and the oppressed, nor those working for misphat and tsadaq. Perhaps we could, and should, start to recognise and call out in others where they are Good News, and challenge ourselves where we start to think that Christians have the exclusive rights to this,

Edit – I’ve just realised that today’s collect (second Sunday before Lent) has something similar to say:

Almighty God,
you have created the heavens and the earth
and made us in your own image:
teach us to discern your hand in all your works
and your likeness in all your children;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who with you and the Holy Spirit reigns supreme over all things,
now and for ever.

Christmas Eve

The following is the text of my sermon at Midnight mass today.

Well, we’re nearly there, the wait is almost over!

I don’t know if your household is anything like mine, but we’ve all been getting really excited as Christmas has drawn closer – and my younger son even wanted to set up a “santa-cam” in his bedroom so that he could catch Father Christmas filling his stocking!

But I don’t know if it has ever struck you as odd to have this huge celebration now – at this time of year? I mean, here we are – it’s literally the middle of the night, on mid-winter’s evening (give or take a day), the longest and darkest night of the year. And in any case why do we even remember the birth of a baby born over 2,000 years ago, to an otherwise entirely anonymous teenage couple living in Palestine? Not exactly front page stuff, is it?

Except, of course, it is front page stuff – or at least it became headline news. Because this baby wasn’t just another baby. This baby grew up to become Jesus Christ – that strange and mysterious figure that history simply won’t let go of. As his followers today, we believe him to be the Saviour of the world. We believe that this baby was the only person in the whole of history who chose to be born – and that he chose it out of love to rescue us from darkness and sin. This baby, who we believe to somehow be God himself in human form, come to earth, to be born in an occupied backwater of the Roman Empire. Who came to be the light – to show us the way back into relationship with God. As we heard in the reading:

“The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.” (Isaiah 9:2)

And this perhaps is a clue as to why we have gathered here this evening in this long, dark, and cold December night – exactly because it is a long, dark, and cold night. The truth is that the world needs a light because it is dark. We need only look at today’s headlines to see just how dark these times are. War, death, corruption and violence. But into this darkness comes the Good News, the glad tidings of the angels that Isaiah goes on to talk about:

“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 Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness 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.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.” (Isaiah 9:6,7)

This is the Good News of Christmas, that God has come to earth to be our light.  I think the wise men were onto something when they studied the stars – you see, each and every year, a cosmic drama is played out in the heavens, which in some way reflects the whole story of creation. We start in June, when all is new and good. Life abounds, the sun shines. But then our sin and selfishness spoils God’s good creation, and the darkness gains a foothold. In the same way the sun starts to be slowly but surely beaten back by the night. Every day a few more minutes are stolen by the night. The darkness grows, and the light retreats. Until eventually we reach the end of December, where the night lasts almost twice as long as the day, and it feels like the sun barely rises above the horizon.

Will it just continue getting darker and darker, colder and colder? Is there any hope?

But then, in the deepest midwinter, something changes. It takes several weeks before we start to notice, and the coldest time still lies ahead – but the balance of power has shifted, and the sun is now in the ascendency. From here on, it is the night which must give up the minutes, and the light which will return – bringing with it as we know the new life of spring, the warmth and long days of summer.

So it is with this baby, born in Bethlehem. The balance of power has shifted, if you like. This baby, when grown up, will defeat the power of darkness, by giving up his life on the cross. The true light has come into the world, bringing the promise and first fruits of the new, eternal, spring.

We are still living in cold, dark days – as our newspapers and televisions daily remind us. Darkness is not giving up without a fight. But Christmas reminds us that the tide has turned. That there is hope. That one day the darkness will disappear completely, and that we are invited to live in a new heaven and new earth, where there will be no tears, suffering, or sickness, where God himself is our light. The baby in the manager is our own winter solstice. The turning point of history. And unlike the astronomical dance of the planets, this is a permanent solstice, which will never be reversed.

So, this Christmas eve, maybe you are already living in the light of the Son. You are living in the hope of the spring – in which case hallelujah, let’s celebrate the birth again with joy and wonder.

But maybe you are in the middle of a deep dark winter. Maybe you need a winter solstice in your own life, a glimmer of hope, a hint that maybe lighter days are ahead? If so, this Christmas time is an invitation for you to dare to believe the message of the angels, to dare to believe that this helpless baby is God himself, to trust him and accept him as your saviour.

Isaiah promises that a great light will come to those living in a land of darkness. Jesus is that light. For unto us a son is given, the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.

Rest

Sometimes certain words or phrases sometimes leap out, and niggle away at you – and at least some of the time this is God trying to draw our attention to something; what might be called a kairos moment. I have had two such incidences in recent weeks, both around the idea of busyness and rest. Kairos is a shorthand way of saying just the right thing at just the right time. For instance, harvest is a kairos time – when the fruit is ripe and ready to be picked.

The first moment was a phrase I read somewhere (and I can’t now find the source, so apologies for no attribution) that as Christians we can offer the gift of not being busy. In the frantic pace of modern life, we have the chance to model an alternative – that you don’t need to be busy. It’s oh so easy to see busyness both as a virtue and as a source of identity: I’ve got lots of things to do, so I must be important! Christianity offers a different narrative – that our identity and worth comes from being, rather than doing. We are loved by God just because we are loved by God, not because of anything we do. This gives an extraordinary freedom – it doesn’t matter what we do with our time, or for work, or indeed whether we are of high station or low, male, female, slave, free, black, white (see Gal 3:28). Therefore in terms of our core identity, we have nothing to earn and nothing to prove. We don’t have to achieve anything, either on a daily basis, or indeed with our whole lives. This flies in the face of our Facebook/Instagram culture, with its pressure to “do” and present photoshopped versions of ourselves and our lives.

I think this particularly struck me because of my role as a leader in the church. My temptation is to be busy and important. When people ask me what I’ve got on, I want to be able to reel off a long list of vital jobs! Ultimately though, this approach is for my own benefit and security. I want to feel needed and useful, indispensable even. But, just maybe, what people actually need is a leader who is rested? Who models and “gives permission” not to have a full diary, or to live a 100mph lifestyle? Who withdraws to take time out, rest, and spend time with God. A leader who can say “no”, and encourages us to say “no” (at least some of the time!) Doesn’t that sound like a breath of fresh air? Come to that, it sounds quite a lot like Jesus….

The second kairos moment came up in our leadership huddle at church, and much of what follows is drawn from the discussions we had there – I don’t claim these idea are all mine! Anyway, the phrase was “missional rest”, based on Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 11:

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

and also John 15:

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

The sense here is that we need to learn to rest, we need to learn to abide in the freedom that comes from being loved from God. It doesn’t come naturally! Who of us doesn’t read “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” and internally say “Oh, God – yes please”. Maybe it’s just me (but I don’t think so). It’s as if we recognise that being driven and stressed isn’t the way we want to live, or is ultimately satisfying, but we don’t know any other way. Retirement becomes this great nirvana we spend the vast majority of our life working towards. As much as I enjoy Bon Jovi’s claim “I’ll live while I’m alive, and sleep when I’m dead”, the truth of the matter is we can only live when we’re alive if that includes both sleep and rest (and if don’t sleep at all, phrases like “severe psychosis” and “death” are not far away). Of course, Bon Jovi is really talking about living fully in the present in that particular song, but the point still stands that we need to rest.

This rest, then, is missional because it really is good news. To live in God’s rest is to have a deep security and joy, and freedom from trying to live up to other people’s or society’s expectations. That if we can’t or don’t “contribute” to society (whatever that means anyway), that in no way impacts our worth or value. And once we have learned how to rest (and it is something we need to learn in today’s culture), we then have an alternative to offer, something to teach (or at least offer) our society, perhaps?

Just a couple of provisos are needed. Firstly freedom is not licence. What we do still matters, and I believe ultimately we must account for the choices we have made in life. Christians or not, we all have responsibilities to God, one another and our environment, and living in freedom doesn’t mean freedom from those responsibilities. But the crucial factor is that my identity and beloved-ness is not contingent. I work out of a sense of freedom, security, and joy, and not out of fear and coercion. Secondly, it is easy to view this rest as another burden, yet another thing on the “to-do” list. While it is true to say that it requires effort, it is Jesus who teaches us, and carries the load alongside us. So while in one sense it is yet another pressure on our time, to consider this the whole picture is short-sighted. Thirdly, and finally, I recognise that busyness is not everybody’s experience, and many face the opposite problem, that of an empty and/or lonely life.  Or indeed a “worthless” life (in society’s eyes). I write this from the perspective of having a job, paying taxes, juggling a busy household, being part of a large and quite complex church, and living in a very driven and consumerist corner of England. I don’t take these things for granted. But I also believe Jesus can offer peace, identity, and security and – yes – rest whatever our circumstances. And, for all her flaws, church is one of the best antidotes to loneliness or boredom that I know! (If you can overlook the odd duff sermon – but then I do only preach a few times a year, so you should be safe enough).

It seems particularly apt to have our attention drawn to rest on the cusp of Advent. Maybe this year in the run up to Christmas, we can seek out God’s rest – whether in the everyday (walking in the snow, cup of coffee with friends), or the transcendent (Carol Services, Midnight Mass). Take his yoke upon you, for it is easy, and the burden is light.

Advent Wonder