Why is it that I, who have never donned a military uniform, am proud on this day to stand alongside those that do?

Why is it that I, who have never been taught to stand to attention, want to raise my right arm and salute?

Why is that I, who have experienced little conflict in my life, should feel a sense of solidarity with those who engaged in combat beyond my worst nightmares?

Is it because of my great interest in history?

Or is it because of my love for people?

Or my desire to preserve our freedom and those justices that have been hard won over generations?

I believe it to be a combination of all three:

History, people and a commitment to do the right thing whatever the cost.

We should never forget the events, we should never forget those who stood up to great evil and we should never forget the price they paid.

 

In his magnum opus Life and Fate, in my opinion one of the finest novels of the 20th century, an epic account of the war on the Eastern Front, Vasily Grossman told the stories of the seemingly insignificant individuals who made up the great swell of resistance to the Nazi threat. He was well qualified to do so.   As the finest journalist with the Soviet forces he was at the siege of Stalingrad, he was at the great tank battle at Kursk and he was a witness to the liberation of the Treblinka death camp.

There are many memorable moments of reflection in the book. Here is just one on the importance of human kindness:

The more I saw of the darkness of Fascism, the more clearly I realized that human qualities persist on the edge of the grave, even at the door of the gas chamber….I have seen that it is not man (sic) who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man (sic). The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it….Human history is not a battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer. (Vintage Press 2006 p394)

 

As a minister I count it a rich privilege to have heard the stories of people in my congregations and the communities I have served over the years.

I have been both moved to tears and wholly inspired by accounts of their contributions to the effort to preserve freedom from tyranny. Sadly their accounts may never be made into documentaries, or fill the pages of books, worthy of being so though they are.

Ordinary people who had lived ordinary lives, called to serve their King and country, who gave their time, even their lives, in the fight for a better world.

Today we honour them.

 

Some have argued that this is a watershed moment – that after a century of remembering in the way that we have we should move on. No, sisters and brothers, no. We must never forget.

I owe it to those who told me their stories to never forget.

We owe our freedom to them so we must never forget.

But our world, in its current climate, is in danger of doing just that.

Of forgetting how close we came to being overwhelmed in the First World War and in the Second falling to fascism.

Partly because there are those forces that seek to win the battle that we thought was beaten back decades ago.

At no time other than this has the socio-political climate been so aligned to that of 1930’s Germany.

Today national populism is sweeping what was once seen as a bastion of democracy – the United States.

Trump’s utter disrespect toward women, his hatred of ethnic minorities and his appeal to some of the vilest sections of society are deeply worrying to say the least. But Trump is merely an acute expression of what is surfacing across the world – not least here in the UK.

 

If the German nation, at the time one of the most highly cultured and educated nations there had been, was swept along by the rhetoric and the simplistic policies of that lunatic Hitler and his more coldly calculating henchmen then it can easily happen again.

Today it is claimed that China is herding hundreds of thousands of Muslims into concentration camps in the desert for ‘re-education’ – I shiver to think what the eventual outcome will be in a nation where control and the economy are seen to be more important than the rights of the individual.

Today, across the UK, the policies of both the far right and the far left are becoming mainstream.

The views which once sent a shiver down the spine now fall on receptive ears.

Our knowledge of history tells us that what at first seems inconsequential can become something of great importance. Like a pebble dropped into a pool the ripples spread.

Millions were slaughtered in trenches across the fields of Europe because of an assassination on a Sarajevo street. The death of a single member of a crumbling dynasty led to unimaginable grief in every hamlet, village, town and city.

Similarly, last Friday was the 80th anniversary of Kistallnacht, the night of broken glass, when synagogues were burnt, Jewish shops destroyed and lives were lost.

The Holocaust didn’t begin with gas chambers but boycotts and broken windows.

So, if we are to avoid the mistakes of the past when seemingly insignificant acts went unchecked and led to conflagration, we have to be alert and discern that which could again lead to catastrophe.

 

However, it is not only acts of great evil that begin in small overlooked ways, so too do those movements that have made our world a more just, a more equitable, a more caring and compassionate world.

Peace in our world really does begin with me – and you.

It may sound trite but it is true.

It is my responsibility for me to not fall for the rhetoric that divides and disfigures our communities.

It is my responsibility for me to look out for the warning signs, to not scoff or discriminate against the one of a different race or religion, ability, gender or sexuality.

As a Christian I follow the teachings of one who sought to break down the barriers that divided communities, the one who welcomed the stranger, the one who taught us how to love whatever the cost to ourselves, the one who laid down his life so that we too may have life and have it in all its fullness.

 

Today then, we remember a great historical moment when the guns were silenced.

Today we remember the fallen

and all who gave of themselves that we might live in freedom.

May those events, those lives be not in vain.

Let us in response commit ourselves to resisting that which threatens the wellbeing of our world and each and every individual within our world.

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Walk

I am now in my 60th year. It is a truism to state that there is less time ahead for me than is behind me. Of course no one quite knows how much time there is left ahead for them whatever their age. How could my father have known it was his last day on earth when he rose one Friday morning in February 1959? At just 23 he completed what would be his final day at work, enjoyed an evening out with his young, pregnant wife and their friends but by midnight there was no more time ahead for him.

So it is that on a day such as this, when the crispness of autumn is felt on my cheeks and I smell the wet fallen leaves on my woodland walk, I take a big, deep breath. It’s a breath that desires to soak in the moment; it also indicates that I still want so much more time; but I know in my heart that I have no idea how much more there will be for me. I can only hope that my health holds up as long as possible and that no unforeseen accident comes my way so I might yet experience, contribute and achieve more. But under the kind of bright, blue sky, with a few fluffy white clouds only a child could paint, I breathe in deep, soak in the moment and give thanks.

This weekend is one of remembrance. On Sunday, the centenary of the Armistice, we will hold two minutes silence and pay tribute to the fallen in not only the First World War but also all subsequent wars that have kept us free from tyranny. Whilst our focus has rightly this year been on the so-called ‘war to end all wars’ we will not overlook those other faithful and dutiful souls who have paid a great price for our freedom. Every hamlet, village, town and city across our island nations will be linked to communities elsewhere in our world in remembering the cost of human conflict.

 

Having grown up in close proximity to the largest German military cemetery in Britain I try to be mindful of the complexities surrounding the failures of diplomacy and also the manipulations of entire populations that have led, and to this day may still lead, to conflagration.

 

Tonight, Friday 9th November, is also the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night when synagogues were burnt and lives lost. The world should not have been left in any doubt as to the vulnerability of the Jewish communities under the Nazi regime, but many chose to ignore the warning signs. We will remorsefully pray for our nearest faith neighbours as they remember the pogrom that led to the near total destruction of European Jewry. We should also pray for those in fear of the recurring rise of antisemitism in our own time.

 

We must never forget that the First World War began with an assassination on a Sarajevo Street and the Holocaust with boycotts and broken windows. As we stand in silence over this weekend we will remember the past and the sacrifices that were made. But afterwards we should set further time aside to reflect upon the present and consider where our words, our seemingly insignificant actions and blind indifference can lead. To stem the flow of blood and put a stop to the violence that has assaulted our human dignity over the centuries, we must exercise greater caution when choosing to comment about others and seek to cease from taking sides before we know the full facts.

 

In an age when hate speech is on the rise, populism is gripping the world of politics and extremism pits family member against family member and neighbour against neighbour, we should seriously consider courageous resistance to avoid repeating past mistakes before unrestrained evil is again unleashed upon the nations.

A statement on the Pittsburgh Synagogue massacre

When our nearest neighbours-in-faith are gunned down whilst they worship, by someone whose heart was turned to malice, we weep with those who mourn them; we join in with the prayers of those left bewildered and traumatised; we pledge solidarity with those who commit themselves to rooting out the vilification that has gone on for far too long.

Many of us grew up with the proverb ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.’ This is plainly not true. It doesn’t take long for derisory name-calling to develop into something even worse. In this post-Holocaust world there can be no excuses: we have seen where prejudice and slander, broken windows and boycotts lead.

Just as ignorant comments about Islamism have led to islamophobia across our world so the disproportionate focus and imbalanced views on the Israel Palestine conflict have been a factor in bringing antisemitism to the surface again. There have been precedents before, history is littered with examples. If, in the past, those who sought to prevent persecution and pogrom were too few in number and weak in effect then we today must learn from this. We will surely be judged by how far we are willing to go in resisting the forces of contempt.

Our honesty has to be unquestionably resolute: over the course of time, yes we have made mistakes; but now there is no place in our world, anywhere in our world, for religious hatred. Our voices have to be united, loud and clear: enough! After all, our lives and the lives of those who come after us are inextricably linked. This we must never forget: what we say and do here and now impacts upon others elsewhere on another day.

So, let us dwell together in peace as sisters and brothers under the canopy of heaven and may those who beg to differ be cast from any platform of influence.

 

 

There is a fear gripping our nation.

 Whether we are Brexiteers or Remainers no one knows how all this is going to turn out.

The uncertainty is adding to a sense of impotence in an already stressed society.

In our conversations we don’t have to scratch very deep to discover that beneath the surface there is much anxiety.

Like the Brits that we are, we try to stay calm and carry one, but there is no way of hiding a lurking fear, and it is very real.

 

When people are disappointed, disenchanted and distressed at what they see happening in their world, they can even begin to lose hope.

Rabbi Sacks – one of the finest teachers of religion today – has recently said that when this happens people also begin to believe in magical thinking which today takes one of four forms:

The far right, the far left, religious extremism and aggressive secularism.

The far rights seeks a return to a golden past that never was.

The far left seeks a utopian future that will never be.

Religious extremists believe that you can bring salvation by terror.

Aggressive secularists believe that if you get rid of religion there’ll be peace.

These are all fantasies.

And pursuing them will endanger the very foundations of freedom. (Morality in the 21st Century)

 

Often in history, when uncertainty and fear have gripped a population people tend to seek easy answers to complex problems.

A belief in quick fix solutions gives rise to populist politics.

Today, populism has returned with a vengeance.

Much of it is fuelled by an unrestrained social media.

Its users can comment freely and forcefully on any issue.

And they can receive as much attention as any expert in the field.

The problem is that not everyone is an expert on the issue they comment on.

Ignorance, and on occasion the carefully devious politicking of others, has led to intolerance, prejudice, division and hatred. These are becoming recurring themes in the discourse.

Abhorrent views which some of us never thought we would hear in our lifetime are becoming accepted as the norm.

The fact that senior politicians are able to ‘get away’ with islamophobia and antisemitism is indicative of the challenges we are facing as a people of faith.

 

As in the days of old many will go with the flow, join in with the tribalism, the rhetoric designed to divide and the scapegoating that leaves the minorities and marginalised vulnerable.

Few will have the confidence and the courage to take a stand and resist.

But resist we must.

 

I call upon you, O Lord; come quickly to me;
give ear to my voice when I call to you.
Let my prayer be counted as incense before you,
and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.

Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord;
keep watch over the door of my lips.
Do not turn my heart to any evil,
to busy myself with wicked deeds
in company with those who work iniquity;
do not let me eat of their delicacies. (Psalm 141)

 

We are facing a stark choice:

Turn to God and his saints for guidance or turn to the populist politicians that promise much but will deliver little other than deeper division and hurt.

You will recall that Moses once put before the people a choice:

Today I put before you, life or death, blessing or curse; choose life so that you and your descendants will live. (Deuteronomy 30.19)

Today we are facing that stark choice again.

We can bless our neighbours or curse them, we can nurture life or destroy any seeds of hope.

 

These are unprecedented times for our nation, but not so for other nations across Europe.

Their past experience has much to teach us.

In their time of trial they too had a choice: to embrace the populism or resist it.

Many made the wrong choice, especially the German church of the 1930s.

Thankfully there were some brave souls, but all too few I hasten to add, who stood against the rising tide of false promises that led to division and hate.

It is to them we should look, listen and learn.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer himself not without blemish):

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.

This is our time to speak out.

To speak out against the evils of our age.

To act in the causes of righteousness, justice and truth.

To counter fake news with Good News.

This is our time – we must not miss it.

CSC_0106

The darkness will never overcome the Light of God

We are in a crisis. Of that there can be no doubt. Both the world and the Church within it are facing their toughest challenges for a very long time. Not since the 1920s and ‘30s has there been the possibility of such a seismic shift across the West as that which is beginning to unfold today. If we are to come through it without catastrophe we had better learn from history and learn fast. Meanwhile the Church appears to be overwhelmed, on occasion paralysed, by the enormity of the problems, not least due to fears of its own demise.

In this article we are going to reflect on the socio-political currents that are sweeping across Europe and North America. We will then consider how the Church, by learning from its past, can be a more effective moral compass in a world that appears to have lost its way.

 

Firstly, we reflect on the fact that we live in an age of rising populism.

The present political climate has come as a surprise to many: how has the outcome of elections and referenda become so difficult to predict? Why are the institutions that held the respect and trust of the majority for so long now failing in the eyes of the people? What will happen if the constraints that allowed tolerance and fostered community are further removed?

For some, this situation has been a while coming. For more than a decade the warning signs were there. In 2002 the bookshop assistant appeared to be shocked when I ordered Angus Roxburgh’s latest book: ‘Title?’ she asked. ‘Preachers of Hate’, I replied. Roxburgh, had covered Glasnost as the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent before joining the BBC and reporting on Kosovo, North Korea, Afghanistan and East Timor. In his book [i] he charted the rise of the far right across Europe. Important questions were posed: Is there a neo-Fascist renaissance across Europe? Why are ordinary voters deserting traditional parties? Is it less safe to be a Muslim or a Jew in Europe? What should be done to avoid catastrophe? What Roxburgh could not have foreseen was the rise of the far left alongside the far right as Europe lost its confidence. It was Richard Koch and Chris Smith who would co-author a book in 2006 that looked at the diminishing confidence of Europe. Entitled Suicide of the West[ii] they identified six key pillars of Western civilization: Christianity, optimism, science, economic growth, liberalism and individualism. Each of these, they argued, had suffered a century of sustained attack from within and no longer inspired or united the West. However they concluded that collective suicide was not inevitable. But, like Roxburgh before them, what Koch and Smith could not have foreseen was the economic crash of 2008 that sent confidence in liberal democracy on a downward spiral across Europe and the US. We must not overlook the fact that Obama was elected as US President on the crest of a wave of hope and confidence. Decades of social progress and upward mobility had been the norm. Further change for the better was not only still possible but utterly believable. However, in the days and weeks before he moved into the White House the world’s economic order faced meltdown, confidence disintegrated, hostility toward the institutions grew and the world of politics fell to an all-time low in the eyes of the electorate. Obama’s successor was therefore elected from a vastly altered socio-political landscape. With an altogether different mind-set Trump channels disillusionment into anger, identifies the scapegoat and targets them for abuse. His simplistic and populist promises cannot be fulfilled, and when they fail, for fail they will, even greater dangers face our world. Maybe we should not fear Trump so much as what happens next.

In Europe too nationalism has again reared its head after a brief respite. The re-writing of history, hostility toward the ‘other’ and policies that inflict great harm on any chance of a cohesive society should send alarm bells ringing. In Britain the rise of hate crime in the lead up to the European Referendum and its persistent increase ever since is deeply worrying. What is even more worrying is how views that were once clearly judged to be abhorrent have begun to find their way into the conversations of ‘decent folk’. It may be that these views were there all along but the moral conscience of society constrained them. It seems now as though there is no compulsion to restrict the vilest of beliefs when it comes to ‘the other’.

One of the first casualties in an age of populism is correct and appropriate vocabulary. Words are used to convey a message: they can encourage the already convinced or seek to convert the unconvinced; they can incite or they can heal. In the mind of a tyrant well-chosen words can alter what is perceived to be truth. When they are used to draw a false picture they can be very dangerous indeed. The biggest tyrants in history were always amongst the greatest orators of their day.

What the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century learnt was that if their words were coupled with imagery, especially moving images, then the effect was great indeed. The propaganda films of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany used cutting edge techniques to propagate the hatred and control the minds of the people. It is no coincidence that the fairly new medium acted as a significant factor in hastening the social and political revolutions of central and Eastern Europe.

This was also the case on a previous occasion in history when another communication development occurred. The invention of the printing press led to societal, political and religious changes over ten years that would have previously taken a hundred.

In the first half of the 20th century cinema increased the rapidity of change; television, especially satellite television, increased it further. Today the internet means that the exchange of ideas across the globe is instant and the ‘popular view’ altered in next to no time.

The end result is inconsistency, uncertainty and insecurity. What we thought of as reliable and trustworthy is now brought into question, especially when false claims are so convincingly made.

Earlier this year Harvard Lecturer Yascha Mounk produced a sweeping take on the crisis we face. The People Vs. Democracy [iii] identifies that the two core components of liberal democracy – individual rights and the popular will – are increasingly at war with one another. Stagnating living standards, voters’ discontent, fears of multi-ethnic democracy and the rise of social media are creating an unprecedented crisis for the West. Economic downturns in the past have led to cataclysmic changes in society, from the French Revolution to the rise of the Nazi party. There is no room for complacency in the knowledge of such historical events. Liberal democracy only tends to flourish when the economy is growing for the electorate. Take away that confidence in the belief that things will get better and even the most established democracies are vulnerable.

The dangers to cohesive society in an age of populism are clear: verifiable facts are contested, truth is dismissed and community is pitted against community, to put it bluntly: extremism follows, and after that tyranny.

This is the world in which the Church is called to convey the Good News. So what hope is there? Are we fit for purpose? How can we avoid the mistakes of the past?

The Church of Christ, in every age

Beset by change but spirit led,

Must claim and test its heritage

And keep on rising from the dead. [iv]

To listen to many one would think the Church in the West, especially the Church in Britain, was already dead and buried. Even some within the Church seem to have left the graveside and are now getting on with the wake. What we may be overlooking is the fact that the Christ in the tomb is potentially the Risen Christ.

The second half of this article will consider how the Church can be a more effective moral compass in a world that appears to have lost its way. To do so we will consider the relatively recent past and claim that only authenticity can transform a spurious world: in a world of fake news, the Good News has to stand up to scrutiny. If populism arises out of fear then those of us who believe that perfect love drives out all fear have much to offer.

We may be invited to serve the present age, we can serve no other, but ‘moving with the times’ isn’t the solution to all our problems; the past has much to teach us. In my research for a book that is to be published later in the year [v] I had sought to understand more fully the failure of the German Churches to respond positively to their closest faith neighbours during the Nazi years. What I ended up realising was that there was a fundamental flaw in how the Church viewed and responded to the world. In the face of appalling persecution the Church in Germany was therefore more than an impotent observer, it was in fact a willing accomplice. The conditions imposed upon the German state by Versailles may have been a significant factor in the rise of Hitler but what took place after could only have done so with the complicity of many in the Church, including, especially perhaps, its leaders.

Democracy was something new to the German nation post First World War. When it failed to protect the people from economic disaster any hope there might have been in it being the best way forward evaporated. The shame of defeat, the loss of confidence and a rising generation that had not experienced war led to increasing political extremism. Observing that Bolshevism had caused much strife in Russia many Germans began to put their trust in far right parties as a bulwark. Their trust was misplaced, especially when a charismatic leader swept to power by populism promised them a Thousand Year Reich.

Today the Church in Britain faces new challenges, though the circumstances elsewhere in Europe almost a century ago have much to teach us. Again austerity has taken hold. Again millions have lost confidence in the electoral system. Again populist voices make empty promises. Again those with different views are spoken of as traitors. Again fantasies of a glorious past are better than the reality of the present. Again trust is misplaced. Again there is a crisis of confidence.

Meanwhile in the Methodist Church we are fed statistics that distress us. For some they even indicate the end of the Church as we know it, and who can blame them. This leads us to believe that we are impotent in the face of the greatest socio-political challenges we have faced in more than a lifetime. We are not confident that we have the capacity to be active resistors to populism and extremism. Too focussed are we on our own survival that we overlook our potential to change the world.

It is easy to be pessimistic when so much attention is given to the figures as they are presented. They don’t make pleasant reading. However I do not for a minute believe that all should be doom and gloom in the face of declining numbers. And before anyone accuses me of being naïve or in denial, let me say that I am not only aware of the seriousness with which such numerical decline and the reduction of income should be taken, but I am also a front-line minister. I therefore see the reality on the ground, I know the stories behind the graphs and I feel the anxiety of the members who give their all. The situation is challenging to say the least.

What I have come to believe these past few months as I have reflected on the rise of populism in our land, the deepening of division in our communities and the inability of so many to respect the views of others is that the Church has never been more needed than it is today. But what kind of Church is it to be? Is it one that falls for the populism? Is it one that barricades itself against the incomer? Is it so certain of its dogma that there is no room for fresh insight? Yes I have never been more disturbed by what is happening in our world today; but nor have I been as convinced of our calling as I do now. We have a job to do, we have to do it with every fibre of our being and we must never let anyone say that we can’t fulfil our calling.

Authenticity is, I believe, the key. People need reality. For a while people may fall for a false promise, but when it proves to be just that, a fantasy, those that offer authenticity will prevail. The Gospel we tell can change people’s lives. Those about us need to know that what we are presenting is reliable, trustworthy and above all else that we believe it! If it is no longer changing our lives and doesn’t speak to them in their need why should they listen?

Authenticity means there is no room for unfounded certainty. Honesty in all things, including belief, faith and doubt, is integral. But if we are just trying to convince ourselves through convincing others we shall be caught out eventually. When the evidence is such that our certainty is brought into question all else with it may end up discarded. Science, medical ethics, philosophy and all other areas of human thinking and discourse are not immune to God’s activity; to pretend they are and to create a silo mentality is to give up on our world.

Authenticity leaves space for the new arrival, for the different, for the discovery of new ideas without losing that which is essential. Our faith and beliefs have been honed by centuries of thought. Those who succeeded the first Apostles, the Church Fathers, the Reformers and the Holy Club have played their part in making us what we are today. There is no reason to believe that at some point God stopped disclosing new insights on the truth. As the world gets ever smaller it becomes ever clearer that we have much to learn from traditions other than our own. To ignore this fact is to limit not only the believability of what we seek to do but also the God of many names whom we serve.

Authenticity is the key.

We are meant to be in the ‘truth business’ so if we fail to convey the truth through our authenticity as disciples and as the body of the Church why should anyone believe us?

  • In a time of decline we may be tempted to exaggerate our presentation in order that we may appease or appeal. An authentic Church is able to communicate the Gospel by maintaining its integrity.
  • When we have lost our confidence we may be tempted to copy what works elsewhere without properly considering the contextual factors. An authentic Church is true to its place.
  • Amongst the confused we may be tempted to believe the last thing we hear and fail to recognise the need for consistency. An authentic Church does not sway with the wind.
  • As so many again prefer to classify and categorise we may be tempted to include and exclude according to some carefully constructed criteria. An authentic Church never forgets that every single human being is made in the image of God.
  • In a world where the slickness of delivery is a high priority we may be tempted to think that the small and under-resourced community has no place. An authentic Church is nothing less than a much-needed presence.

One example of how the need to attract numbers has watered down our effectiveness as a Church is when Arminianism is preached from Methodist pulpits yet Calvinism is sung in the pews. Our theology has become fractured and inconsistent by thoughtless use of worship resources. Care should be taken at all times to ensure that the provision for congregations is consistent and not confusing. Each year presbyters are asked at their Synod if they continue to believe and preach our doctrines. Perhaps we should rephrase it: believe, preach and sing our doctrines!

There have been times in my ministry when I have been driven to make the Church ‘grow’. I have driven myself. I have driven others. I now wonder whether this was for the best. I recall Henri Nouwen writing that the Church is not meant to be ‘successful’ but ‘effective’. I think I now know what he meant. Success is built on effort which can lead to stress. To be effective is altogether different and tends to come about not as a consequence of human action but the presence of the Spirit. All too many ministers, be they lay or ordained, have burnt out as a result of being driven; I count myself amongst them. It’s a salutary lesson to realise that the world will go on without us. In any case scriptural holiness isn’t about ‘putting bums on seats’, it is about Christian character and virtue, both theological and practical.

So, we cannot sit back and let the world slip into further chaos. Vaclav Havel, the playwright who led the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and became its first post-Soviet President identified how an individual seeking an easy life can lead to problems for the world. He wrote a parable about a greengrocer. Wanting an easy life the grocer placed a sign in his window: Workers of the World Unite. It wasn’t that he was an activist in the Party, nor that he was a fan of Marx, far from it, he just wanted to fall in with the crowd and avoid unnecessary attention. But other shopkeepers followed suit. Soon the whole street had similar posters in the windows. Havel concluded: resistance to the regime became almost impossible as a consequence.[vi]

Our actions and inaction have an impact upon those about us. Wrapped up in saving the Church might mean we fail to notice what is going on in the wider world. We have long been familiar with the proverb ‘all it takes for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing’. I have come to believe that evil can also succeed when good people make the wrong choices. Plenty of wrong choices were made by good people in the German Church during the 1930s and ‘40s. They did so because they believed them to be right at the time. Their misplaced trust had been formed out of insecurity during a period of prolonged austerity. Out of fear of the other, out of a desire to fit in with the rest, they fell for the propaganda. Put like that we can see the similarities with our own time. We would do well to learn from history, and learn fast before it is too late to stop the snowball becoming an avalanche.

In conclusion I want to revisit something that Jesus said, consider what he may be saying to us today and rephrase it in the following way: ‘Whoever would save the Church will lose it; and whoever would lose it might just end up saving it’. The Church we need to lose is the one that pretends to be something it is not. The Church we need to lose is the one that is focussed on itself and its own survival. The Church we need to lose is the one that turns its back on its neighbours. I have come to believe that when I face my Maker in judgment I won’t be asked what did I do to save the Church; but what did I do to love my neighbour.

 

[i] Roxburgh, Angus. Preachers of Hate – the rise of the Far Right, Gibson Square Books, 2002.

[ii] Koch, Richard & Smith, Chris. Suicide of the West, Continuum, 2006.

[iii] Mounk, Yascha. The People Vs. Democracy – why our freedom is in danger & how to save it, Harvard, 2018.

[iv] Fred Pratt Green. Singing the Faith, 414.

[v] Thompson, Bruce. Echoes of Contempt – a history of Judeophobia and the Church, Wipf & Stock, 2018.

[vi] Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny – Twenty lessons from the Twentieth Century, The Bodley Head, 2017.

”I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.” John 17.6-8

 

I know it’s hard to believe now, but when I was 14 I was the fastest boy in our year at school over 100m.

In fact I was the fastest across all the schools of Cannock Chase all 8 or 9 of them.

I thought I was the bee’s knees, or, to be more precise at 13.1 seconds over 100m, a formula 1 grand prix car.

So I went on to the Staffordshire County Schools Athletics Championships.

I took time to warm up and looked around for those who I would leave in my tracks.

I kept looking at the older lads looking cool, relaxed and confident. They were from Wolverhampton & Bilston, Kidderminster and Stourbridge, towns with great athletics clubs. Their more mature stature intimidating. But those in my age group didn’t seem to turn up.

Where were they?

The minutes were ticking away.

The scheduled start time nearing.

Other age groups below me running their races.

Then it was our turn and I looked at the competition.

The apparently older lads were 14 too!

Oh my goodness – I wanted someone to check their birth certificates.

Some had moustaches for goodness sake.

Needless to say I was trounced and county champion remained a forlorn hope.

But then we came to the 4×100 relay.

Our squad practised and practised.

Working out the distance the previous runner would be before the next set off.

Placing a coin on the track so that when that runner reached it the next could spring away. The one with the baton would shout ‘now’ the moment they were in reach and the recipient would extend an arm and open hand behind them so that it would pass from left to right, right to left to optimise the timing. Passing the baton at full speed was the trick.

We breezed it.

It was clear that the other squads had not been taught the technicalities nor had they practised.

Knowledge and practise had overcome power.

But only when the baton was passed on effectively.

 

Today is the Sunday between Ascension and Pentecost.

Last Thursday the Church across the world remembered and celebrated the Ascension of Jesus.

Ascension is the occasion to recognise that earthly ministry of Jesus was at a close.

He had run the course, completed what he had to do and was raised to heaven.

But he made a promise to his bereft disciples.

Another would come to be of assistance and guidance.

Even though they felt alone, they would not be alone for long.

The Spirit would come upon them and they would do even greater things than he.

The baton would be passed on.

 

This Sunday is an in-between time.

We are between Ascension and Pentecost.

It can be a day we recognise our lone-ness in the world.

When we reflect on the distance that sometimes comes between us and God.

Jesus has risen but his Spirit has yet to lift us.

 

How many times now have we wondered about God’s love for us or questioned his presence in the world?

Natural disaster, war, persecution and personal issues in our lives can all bring us to appoint where we cry out to God:

God show yourself.

Reveal your purposes.

Fill me with reassurance and peace.

 

In the lonely night hours, at a hospital bedside or with the mourners our anxieties and aloneness may increase.

Our doubts assail us. Our fears multiply.

It is as if the baton is still being passed on – it has left the hand of God but has not quite rested firmly in our own.

 

I recall the moment David, our elder boy, was born.

I looked at him lying there, exhausted but determined after his somewhat lengthy arrival. Karen was pretty done in too.

I was overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility.

Here was a new generation before my very eyes.

Having never known my own Father, who never lived to see me born, this was a moment that deeply affected me.

Now I would have the opportunity and the responsibility for knowing my own son.

I actually felt that something of me was being passed on to him, as young and vulnerable he was.

The baton would indeed be passed on.

Not at that moment, for it would have been dropped, but the process leading to its final handover has got underway.

 

As the years progressed the baton is slowly moving ever closer to the hands of David and Robert, their grip of it strengthens as time goes by, one day they will take it from me forever.

When I see their achievements as young men I take pride in all they do.

There is a coming to terms with that moment when the job will have been done well, or not as the case may be.

 

One thing Jesus reinforced amongst his followers was the intimacy between God and his children.

While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them.’ John 17.12

The bringing to birth, the nurturing, the forgiving, the protecting and the letting go that is all so natural in life.

 

I once read that true love is being close enough to touch and far enough away to allow for growth.

God is near but at times seems far from us.

 

In Jesus he has held the baton firmly and is now passing it on to us.

We are between Ascension and Pentecost, we have set off and not yet arrived.

 

This is so for the Church today.

Indeed one could say it was ever thus.

But this is our time.

This is the Church we know:

  • One that sometimes struggles to make an impact on the world.
  • It is misunderstood, pushed to one side in the great debates of our age.
  • We are concerned, and we are right to be concerned.

We have the baton in our hand – to whom will we pass it?

Well I have realised something in recent months.

Having spent much of my ministry trying to ‘grow the church’ God expects a different approach to living out our discipleship.

It’s not about saving the Church it’s all about loving our neighbour.

 

Standing here now and thinking back to the Staffordshire Schools Athletics Championship in Aldersley Stadium in the summer of ’74 I know much has changed.

The formula 1 grand prix car has, as you can see, given way to a family saloon.

I am now in a different world, physically for sure.

What drives me now is not what drove me 44 years ago.

We should never give up on changing with the times, adapting our approach to the world, refreshing our beliefs in ways that are real to those about us.

I have said recently that in a world of fake news the Good News has to stand up to scrutiny. It has to be authentic for its hearers.

There is as a saying that when we are born those around us are full of smiles, we should live our lives in such a way that when we die those around us cry.

I thought that was how it should be for many years.

But now I am not so sure.

You see having lost my father 7 months before I was born I don’t think I was born into a smiling home – I was probably born into a family of grief.

When I was born I think those around me must have been crying – I would like to live my life in such a way that when I die, those about me won’t be crying but smiling for what they have received. That would be the noble path.

It is a tall order – I have no idea if it can be achieved, probably not in my case, such is the complexity of life.

One thing is for sure, when I stand before my maker in judgment he won’t ask me what I did to save the Church.

He will ask what I did to love my neighbour.

 

In this in between time we call life may we dwell on the words of Jesus to love one another as he has loved us.

Journeying toward Palm Sunday

Monday 19th March– Saturday 24th March

 

If you can light a candle then do so to remind you that God is present.

Be still.

Be quiet.

Listen.

Receive.

 

God of time and space,

at this point I focus on your presence here and now.

May this pause be a moment

to ponder your nearness

and your guidance.

Amen.

Let those who fear the Lord say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” Out of my distress I called on the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me in a broad place. With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me? The Lord is on my side to help me; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me. It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in mortals.

Psalm 118.4-8

 

Walking with God is easier said than done.

The walk is tougher than the talk: the sun beats down upon us, or the wind lashes at our face. At times the very thought of pressing on may seem too much for us.

We are tempted to abandon the journey; after all, pulling in for a break can surely do no harm. Surely we can pick up where we left off? On occasions we are lucky, we can catch up.  But sometimes we are left feeling that we have missed our chance.

Such is God’s enduring love for us that no one be left behind. God not only journeys with the pilgrim but restfully waits with the faithful.

 

I heard the voice of Jesus say:

Come unto me and rest;

Lay down O weary one, lay down

Your head upon my breast.

Horatius N. Bonar (1808-1889)

 

 

God of reassuring presence, God of exacting love,

God of knowing, God of patience,

You hear us and pull up alongside us,

waiting until we are ready to press on.

Help us to hold on,

to draw breath

and, if need be, to let others do the praying. Amen

Grains

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

John 12.24,25

To let go of something precious goes against common wisdom: it doesn’t seem natural. Our experience of life has led us to hold on to the things we value and love. After all, we may never know when we would get them back, if at all. So we cling tight.

The Gospel often contradicts the way things have become. To us it is shocking in its teaching and presents the possibility of radically changing our practices.

‘If you love something: set it free. If it comes back: it is yours. If it doesn’t: it never was.’ This modern proverb was sent to someone who had just experienced a relationship breakdown. To receive it was tough at the time. But as the months passed how true it became. The reality finally sank in.

 

In loss and gain, gain and loss,

Your love is unwavering.

In giving and receiving, receiving and giving,

Your provision is more than ample.

In living and dying, dying and living,

Your life endures. Amen.

 

 

 

If you can light a candle then do so to remind you that God is present.

Be still.

Be quiet.

Listen.

Receive.

 

God of time and space,

at this point I focus on your presence here and now.

May this pause be a moment

to ponder your nearness

and your guidance.

Amen.

 

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. Jeremiah 31.33,34

If you were to seek advice, to whom would you go? Someone who readily agrees with you? Or someone who would tell you straight? Consider taking advice from someone to whom you would not normally approach: what would you have to lose? Would your views be better informed? Might they gain something from your approach? Would the relationship change?

What is Church? A group of people in whom all have a very similar outlook on life? And agree on their faith? On their style of worship? Some of the most ‘successful’ churches are ‘club-like’. But the Church is not called to be ‘successful’; success is based on effort, stress even. However, the goal of the Church is to be effective, born in weakness, grounded in humility and ever open to the prophetic stranger.

Knowing God leads us to see God in others. Recognising God in our neighbour, especially the one with whom we are not familiar, broadens our vision and deepens our love.

 

Desmond Tutu spoke to a class of children. He told them that God had rescued us from slavery and as a consequence we should worship God and behave responsibly towards others. Asking the children what this meant one put his hand up and replied that God had said “I saved your bum, so now you go and behave.”

 

 

To those we overlook, may our eyes turn.

To those for whom we are deaf, may our ears open.

In those about us may we find God. Amen.