Rowan Williams identified three other models, three metaphors for the ordained.  For him a minister may be a watchman, a weaver or a witness.

A watchman is one who stands on the city wall, looking out for those who are approaching. Those approaching may be friend or foe, ally or enemy, come in need or come to attack. The job of the watchman is to spot them and alert the community. That is a model I can live with. To keep abreast of the issues of our day. To spend time reading and watching, to note where we are being led.

A real concern for me is psychometric profiling. The way in which social media, especially Facebook, is able to identify our interests and concerns, select material to which they expose us and bend us to vote even in a particular way. This method was used extensively by the Trump campaign and it is becoming increasingly likely that it was used in the referendum last year.

It is our duty as ministers today, as it was for our predecessors, to act as a warning to those we seek to serve. It is not always a comfortable place to be, standing on a wall, looking out and passing on news of what we have seen, it can be cold, it can be lonely and it is easy for people to throw stones at us, but it has to be done.

The second model is that of weaver.

The weaver draws together different strands which in themselves are not that interesting. But the one who can take the threads and turn them into a beautiful rug is one that fulfils the call of God to serve a community.

Watchman, weaver.

The third model Rowan Williams offers us is that of witness.

How we appear to those about us sets in their imagination what it is to be a disciple of Jesus, how the Church is in this age of searching and multiple choice.

I regret that I have not always been a good witness for the church. The things I have said and done in public have not always been to the standard I would expect of a disciple. But in my frailty and vulnerability I would hope that others see a weak human being called by God and in that weakness God offers hope to them, those who are equally fragile.

Watchman, weaver, witness.

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At one time or another we will have explored models of ministry.

We will be familiar with the terms prophet, pastor and priest.  Each model has served the church well over millennia.  Some are called to be prophets, others pastors and some priests.

We have all known ministers who were great preachers but lousy visitors;  or those whose insufferable sermons have been tolerated because their visits were an absolute delight.  We rarely, if ever get, someone who is wonderful at all they do; I take some comfort from this fact.

Methodism has traditionally placed great stress on the preaching aspect of its presbyters. This falls into the category of the prophetic model.

It was once said that the only newspaper people would access was through the Sunday sermon. That fell away some years ago as tabloids became available.  Then it was claimed that the sermon became the only Bible some would access.

The responsibility on preachers has always weighed heavy.  Today , as always, but as never before, we are called to discern the truth amidst the fake news, the conspiracy theories, the psychometric targeting of voters through social media.

The significance of the prophetic side of ministry has never diminished, neither has the pastoral. Indeed the pastoral aspect informs the preacher, keeps the preacher alert to need, to where the issues are.

Killinger in his book ‘The Fundamentals of Christian Preaching’ wrote ‘The preacher who is pastor is a preacher indeed.’

In Methodism we have focussed on the prophetic and the pastoral, less so on priesthood.  Yet priesthood is there.

The presidency at the Eucharist is one such visible expression of the one called to be priest.  And it is also present in our relationships.

Like it or not, our ordained ministers are expected to act differently. The ordained are meant to be holy, to be devotional and to discern the will of God in a given situation.  Please never come and observe me watching an England rugby international, especially against Wales – it would shatter what little respect I have left!

We will shy away from priesthood, we will underplay it, but it is there and not always beneath the surface neither.

Prophet, pastor, priest.

We are accustomed to thinking that the Hebrews fled Egypt and arrived in the Promised Land after 40 years in the wilderness. It is more likely that 40 years is simply a metaphor for a lifetime as 40 represents a great number of years. It may even mean a lifetime. Three score years and ten was as long as anyone could expect to live, but the average life expectancy was probably around the two score years mark ie 40. So people were born, grew up, were married and died in the wilderness, they knew nothing else.

It is also possible that settlement in Canaan or the surrounding territories was a hit and miss affair. There may have been some settlement, then expulsion followed by another period of wandering until eventually the land was conquered or settlement was more permanent. Some scholars believe that there was no single period of time from flight from Egypt to arrival in Canaan on a permanent basis.

A number of Psalms and other writings refer to the time in the wilderness. Ps 78.19 speaks of a table being prepared in the wilderness (ie the table is in the future). Ps 23.5 tells us that the table is already spread out before the people.

Whatever the historical accuracy, the Psalms notes the experience of the slave and refugee. God has a heart for those held captive to economic oppression and for those who flee from it or are expelled from a place they had called home. In the time between flight and arrival God is the one who guides, comforts and provides for the one in transit.

And the promise is fulfilled for the table in which the people hoped for in Psalm 78 is now set before them in Psalm 23.

We can bear all this in mind over the next month as politicians vie for our votes in the coming Gen Election and how those fleeing economic oppression, religious persecution and warfare are lumped together as ‘swarms of migrants’, to quote the former PM, or, as others might have it, foreigners taking our jobs, filling our A&E waiting rooms and taking up our school places.

Last month I had the privilege of coordinating a Faiths Festival in Lincoln which brought all the faiths across the city together in exhibitions, coach trips and the sharing of food.

One of the exhibitions was from Touchstone Bradford. A Methodist inter faith project that works with Muslim women and produced amazing rugs that tell the story of their weavers. One particular rug caught my eye. It was produced by refugee women. On the one side was a mass of yellow and a barren tree representing the desert from which they had fled. In the middle was a mass of blue representing the sea across which they had travelled with oval shapes for boats complete with tiny buttons; one for each of the women making the rug. To the other side was a tree in a meadow – the Promised Land – Bradford.

We can hear all of this; we can even be moved by it.  But what does this table that was promised now spread before us say to us in the here and now? What was it that we had hoped for and is now right before our eyes? Do we see what it is? Do we know to what it refers?

It will differ of course from one person to the next; what is hopeful for one may be something already enjoyed by others:

  • Maybe a family that is ‘normal’; a parent that takes note of achievements; where the threat of violence is not present.
  • Maybe a sense of purpose where it’s good to wake in a morning and know that the day will be a fulfilling one.
  • Maybe anything taken for granted yet denied someone else.

Yet those who hoped for something that has now come into being, when it is a righteous hope, is a true miracle of God.

For the Hebrews that were slaves – freedom.

For those travelling through the wilderness hungry and thirsty – a banquet spread before them.

For those longing for a homeland – a secure nation where their child can grow up without fear of persecution and pogrom.

For 2000 years Jews, descendants of those Hebrews, longed to return to their ancestral lands, to the city where their Temple stood, to the holiest place on Earth.

Last Monday and Tuesday Jews around the World celebrated Israel Independence Day – in their eyes a true miracle of God.

For us we might look about us and consider where God spreads his table for us to enjoy the feast, where we might find God’s miracle.

Where we have somehow been travelling through a long dark night of sorrow and grief and woken to a new dawn where we can smell the newly-mown grass and hear the birds singing of their utter joy in life.

Where we have struggled to make sense of something only for the penny to drop at last.

Where we have felt unloved, unwanted and uncared for and then to feel the elation of being cherished for who we are and not what we thought we would have to become.

This is the table to which we are invited.

This is the table spread before us – a promise fulfilled – and it is one of welcome; it is one that is open to all; it is one of plenty.

Almost 20 years ago I was blessed with the opportunity of serving serve Kosova Albanian refugees fleeing the Serb onslaught in Kosova. 65 strangers became my neighbours and friends over a three year period before I was moved elsewhere in the country.

One story illustrates the openness and generosity of those one providing the table before us. Mrs L spoke through her son Amir acting as her interpreter. Amir told me that his mom wanted to invite me to a meal in their rooms. I replied that I would be delighted to accept and that when I had my diary we could arrange a mutually convenient date. Amir sheepishly translated for his mom my response. She looked concerned and said something quietly. Amir was reluctant to tell me what she had said. Eventually I got it out of him. Mrs L had said – ‘what sort of country is this that you can’t knock on your neighbour’s door and expect to be fed.’

Mrs L taught me a valuable lesson.  We can knock on God’s door at any time; we never have to arrange a mutually convenient time to call on God. The provision is such that all our righteous hopes are realised and indeed already present for us to partake.

So we nurture our righteous hopes – for here at this table God will meets our every need, quenches every thirst, satiates every hunger and turns our longing for the promise into reality.

Nightmares are always disturbing. Like dreams, they can often tell us something about what is going on in our world, about what is occupying our thoughts or even about our subconscious.

I am given to vivid dreams and on occasion, though thankfully an increasing rarity, an all-consuming nightmare. This morning I have woken from sleep with what seemed to be a lengthy episode. As a youngster I played a lot of football and quite fancied myself, as many a player who pulls on their boots do.

In my sleeping hours I arrived for the game and changed into my kit. The only problem being that I was the age that I am now, 57, but all the other players were young men as the team appeared to be an under 18’s side. (I stopped taking football seriously when at 18 I realised that I was never going to get signed by a professional club).

The game got underway but I was left on the touchline as a substitute. Even when one of our players was injured the manager kept me off the pitch. My frustration grew. Neither side looked like scoring. At half-time I expected to be called on and warmed up accordingly, but I wasn’t. The second half descended into a slog with the pitch turning into a mud bath with occasional fights breaking out amongst the two sides. At one point I walked onto the pitch and told four players to cut it out, which amazingly they did; at least being 57 carried some authority even if not sufficient trust to get me onto the pitch and make a difference.

With minutes to spare the opposition scored. I felt despondent. It became clear to me that even then I was not going to be sent out from the touchline to save the day with a late goal. So I left the pitch and sought to collect my bag and clothes from the dressing room, but they had been stolen.  And so I awoke.

All this the night after I felt that I had been discriminated against in a shop because I was wearing a clerical shirt. Over the course of 30 years ministry I have grown accustomed to being treated differently on account of my dog collar. Maybe I have become cushioned a little to the more nuanced reactions; maybe as I have got older it is less of an odd thing to see a minister in their 6th rather than their 3rd decade as was once the case. But there have been three occasions in the past 18 months where someone has sought to verbally attack me because of my faith, evident by the clothing I wear. On one of those occasions the abuser was served a Police Information Notice which meant that they can no longer approach me.

Hurtful and worrying though these incidents were, they are nothing of course to the hostility many of our friends who happen to be Jewish or Muslim are facing. At a recent exhibition in the city where I live a bottle was thrown at a woman in hijab and on numerous occasions she and her friends were told that they ‘are not wanted here’ and ‘should go home’.

With armed guards at synagogues and Jewish schools and increasing hostility toward Muslims my own experiences were minor compared to what my neighbours have to face. Looking beyond these islands I am also aware of the extraordinary level of hatred and violence people are facing because of their faith. I therefore must not exaggerate the discrimination I face and make of it more than it is.

However, I believe the main thrust of my nightmare was that I am losing influence. The Church today is more on the side-lines of society than once was the case. The ‘game out there’ is descending into chaos as the rules that once kept some control become less respected. And all I can do is make a brief and rare intervention that might bring some sense to the occasion.

What can we do in such a time? How can the Church respond? Is it enough to suggest we pray and plod on, a sort of limbering up on the touchline? Will there come a point when we get called onto the pitch to play a fuller part again? Is there still time with what is left before the final whistle to make a difference?

We clearly have to redouble our efforts and better understand how the game has changed, not just the tactics but the rules too. Even the offside rule is different to what it was. Indeed one could argue that the tactics have had to be adapted as a consequence of the game’s philosophy. Maybe it’s time to recognise that how we played 40 years ago is no longer appropriate and effective today.

At the heart of all of this then is a need to understand how the world is thinking today and realise that it thinks differently to the way it did a generation, let alone two or three generations, ago.

The Church has not kept pace with the changes. It’s not that it hasn’t tried, it’s just that game-plan has been tried and found wonting. Others have been promoted while we have been relegated. There are a lot of potential fans out there looking for someone to follow; the issue is whether we can offer them something that fires their enthusiasm and causes them to believe.

The humility of knowing

30 April 2017

When we get to know our enemies we realise they are not as bad as we thought they were, nor we as good as we believe we are. When we get to know those of a faith different to our own we realise they are not as wrong as we thought they were, nor we as right as we believe we are.

Confident faith

30 April 2017

There is merit in having a confident faith for it allows us to live with doubt. The same cannot be said of certainty for certainty denies the reality of doubt and in the denial we cannot truly love.

The experience of the women at the empty tomb and the disciples over subsequent days gave them hope.

The obvious lesson to be drawn was that death had been overcome.

That life was affirmed even in the presence of persistent evil.

It was this message that Peter and James would use to convince their fellow Jews of the significance of Jesus in the unfolding story of God’s ongoing covenant with his people.

Paul would draw on the belief that God had done something mind-shatteringly new to reach beyond the constraints of the Law.

Putting it bluntly – in the resurrection of Jesus God had broken the bonds of sin and death.

For centuries much of the Christian Church has taught that what we do in this life determines what happens in the next; that what happens here and now is a precursor to what awaits us in eternity.

This teaching has been used to encourage and cajole as well as beat and abuse.

Do as the Church says and all will be well – or fail to do as the Church teaches and you will rot in hell.

The power of persuasion rested in the hands of the ecclesiastical elite mirroring the military muscle of the Lord of the manor.

By the late eighteenth century and the Age of the Enlightenment the Church had begun to lose its grip upon society. It is wrong to assume that the decline in the influence of the Church began only in recent decades. Apart from a few revivals as a reaction to loss of confidence the decline has been steady for around 200 years.

Up until then the afterlife was a clear and determining feature within Church life.

Once the age of science and bioscience began to open up new horizons of thought, belief in the here and now being the sole cause for concern grew.

In other words what happens within the term of a human life was all that mattered, not what may come afterwards.

This probably sinks home in popular culture when John Lennon writes ‘imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try no hell below us, above us only skies, imagine all the people living for today.’

Those who wondered whether Yuri Gagarin saw God above the clouds were to be sorely disappointed.

So if death, or to be more exact the afterlife, is not the determining factor in how we conduct our lives what is? And how can Jesus, in particular the disciples’ experience of resurrection, help us?

Do we still have a message as important, as influential as our predecessors in faith?

As a consequence of the development of thought these past two centuries there has been a significant increase in how the mind works. What are the factors that lead to a happier, more successful life?

Psychotherapists tell us that one of the most debilitating features in human life is the inability to forgive or be forgiven.

Over the course of my ministry some of the bitterest people I have met have been those who have harboured a grudge.

And their bitterness isn’t restricted to damaging their own well-being.

Their attitude and actions have heaped hurt upon those about them.

They have also been real obstacles to growth in the community, not least the impact of the church upon the neighbourhood.

Yet those who have exercised the most positive influence over others have been the ones who have addressed and come to terms with some great wrongdoing, either perpetrated by others upon them or indeed by themselves upon others.

These are not the ones who have never had anything major injustice done to them and have been extremely fortunate to travel through life without having to wrestle with costly forgiveness. No, these are the ones who have faced the darkest of days and the evil that takes up residence in the human soul.

I am thinking of those whom I have had the great privilege of meeting that have survived Auschwitz.

Of the teenager who, during the Kosovan conflict of 1999, despite having numerous bullets poured into her body by paramilitaries, managed to hold onto the thin thread of life until rescuers pulled her from the pile of bodies.

And then there have been those who have faced a no lesser evil when they have been gossiped about, when they have been bullied at work, when they have been cheated, when their trust has been broken, when the love they’d believed was theirs has been taken from them.

What does Jesus and the resurrection say to them?

Jesus does not take forgiveness lightly.

He knows that it is a costly exercise.

In fact it is only won after much struggle, after the body is drenched in sweat, when God and God alone can determine whether the cup of suffering is taken from our lips.

‘Father forgive them, for they know not what they do’.

It doesn’t come easily.

But after wrestling with the dilemma, after struggling to understand why and finally arriving at some understanding of how all this came to be, forgiveness is possible.

Singer songwriter Tracy Chapman hits the nail on the head when she recognises that someone is using her for their own ends. But they are unable to acknowledge their own wrongdoing in the relationship:

Sorry Is all that you can’t say

Years gone by and still

Words don’t come easily

Like sorry like sorry

Forgive me

Is all that you can’t say

Years gone by and still

Words don’t come easily

Like forgive me forgive me

If it is difficult for many today to appreciate the overcoming of death in the resurrection experience, then at least one other obstacle to abundant life could be seen to be overcome. That is the inability to forgive and be forgiven.

That is not to take wrongdoing and injustice lightly, far from it.

But it is to recognise that wrongdoing and injustice do not necessarily win.

The image of the Birmingham girl, who happens to be of Asian Muslim descent smiling into the face of an aggressive EDL protestor a week ago reminds us of the power of inherent goodness.

She was the same age as one of those whom I mentioned earlier.

Saranda was the teenager who had survived the massacre Kosova that had claimed the lives of almost all of her family.

When she came to tell her story to a packed room of sixth formers seven years later the first question put to her from the floor was ‘Have you forgiven the men who did this to you?’

Without hesitation Saranda replied ‘On a good day I’d like to think I have, on a bad day I know I haven’t. I’d like to live long enough to say that I have for sure.’

The empty tomb tells us many things, yes that death has been overcome.

It also tells us that evil cannot win.

Alongside that is the good news that forgiveness, being forgiven and being able to forgive, is probably the most life-affirming act known to us.

And this is the victory of the one who forgave as he died.

May we forgive, not as we die but as we live.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From The Chair of the Lincolnshire Methodist District

 

For the bereaved, injured and traumatised the world is now a very different place; our prayers go out to them.

Images from the tragic events on Westminster Bridge and in the grounds of the Palace of Westminster have seared themselves into all our memories.

As Christians, in our little corner of God’s world, we have a duty to respond as Christ would expect. Only love can defeat hate, only truth can overcome lies and only dialogue can inform the ignorance. We have to ensure that our hopes and dreams are not retained in the secrets of our prayers but fulfilled in our words and actions. It is for a time such as this that we are placed on this good Earth, to build bridges and make friends with people who express their faith in ways different to those that we were taught.

It is not true that Islam is satanic nor is it true that there is a Jewish conspiracy in our world; it is not true that God’s children are condemned to live and die in fear of each other, but are born to explore the complexity of diversity so that each might discover afresh the richness and mystery of our creator.

Having spoken and preached a number of times recently on an encounter Jesus had in Sychar, I am reminded that Jesus placed himself at a well where others found refreshment, notably a woman of a faith different to his own. The message is clear, we too, following his example, are to journey physically and spiritually to encounter those who might not necessarily journey toward us.

We must not let the extremists, whether they be religiously or politically motivated, undermine the values that make for a holistic society. All who seek the common good need to join hands and face this universal threat; in doing so we will never be defeated, Love will always win.

Surprises are the spice of life.

As with spice some surprises are too sharp to swallow but others can add flavour and excitement.

A birthday present or a gift at Christmas that takes us by surprise is usually very welcome.

When the gift is predictable it can be more than a little disappointing.

A good novel, or a creative piece of music, or an imaginative painting, contains a surprise or two.

A twist in the final chapter, the introduction of a key change, a little detail that only the observant can spot, these things can turn something half decent into something that is special.

Those that compiled the Gospel accounts knew what they were doing when they added surprises to their text; they knew that those twists would keep the reader alert.

Matthew’s account, the one that we are focussing on this year, is filled with surprises.

The surprises begin right at the beginning of the account with the genealogy of Jesus which includes some extraordinary characters whom you wouldn’t suspect of being ancestors of the Son of God.

Tamar, the Gentile, surprising for a book that claims Jesus to be the new Moses.

Rahab the Canaanite prostitute who spied against her people.

And so on.

To the reader that knew their Hebrew scriptures, which Matthew’s community clearly did, this was a very surprising list.

From the genealogy to Golgotha and the confession of the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross, the first to publicly declare Jesus to be the Son of God, Matthew implies the tool of surprise to hook into the imagination of his readers.

Then there are the temptations in the wilderness.

One would expect the new Moses to spend time, as did the original Moses, in the wilderness.

What is surprising is the level of temptation that Jesus faces.

To the righteous reader how can this be so?

To the unrighteous reader, why doesn’t Jesus go with the quick fix, or the power, or the display that would prove once and for all his uniqueness?

It’s a twist alright.

Of course for many it is ok to recite the creed that includes ‘tempted in all points as we are’ but when that is graphically illustrated by a novelist and later a film producer to include the temptation of turning back from the course God would have him take and instead to marry Mary Magdalene, settle down and have kids, that is one twist too many.

But for me, the film Last Temptation, drove home the sacrifice Jesus made on my behalf.

I personally couldn’t think of how it’s even remotely possible to resist such a temptation, but resist he did.

In a church that is no longer surprised by the birth of the Son of God in a backwater,

or that the message didn’t get through to everyone (and still doesn’t),

or that the whole episode should end with him nailed to a cross,

such a creative addition to the story was sufficient to help convince me of the extraordinariness of Jesus.

So if Jesus and his actions took his contemporaries by surprise, how does Jesus take us further by surprise today?

The story has to be developed.

It cannot stay the same.

Just as the missionaries to Eskimos  found their claim that Jesus was the bread of life meant nothing to them, so we today have to realise that some of the story no longer surprises nor attracts our colleagues at work, our neighbours in the street, or our friends at the bowls club.

If someone had have said to me thirty years ago as I took up my first appointment in circuit that I would preach in a mosque at Friday prayers during Ramadan I would have thought them crazy.

If someone had have said to me then that a rabbi would open up the meaning of scripture like none of my Christian teachers I would not have believed them.

If someone had have said to me then that I would end up doing any one of the hundred and one things I have done these past three decades I would have said they were deluded.

But the path of discipleship is one of great excitement and joy when the journey has surprises along the route.

We cannot settle for anything less than surprise.

Because if we do our faith is dormant and in mortal danger.

So today we look to how the mission of Jesus can be further expanded.

Reaching out to our own, in a comfortable unchallenging manner is not going to get us anywhere.

To be engaged with those outside our own is to be alive to surprise.

To be open and receptive to those who offer us a very different perspective on life and faith is to be a faithful and willing listener to the God that is trying to get through to us.

We may miss what God is saying if we do not give God the chance to communicate through all of his children.

Yesterday my friend David and I attended a conference in the morning and an art gallery in the afternoon.

The conference was for chaplains and professional practitioners in health care. It was an opportunity for the delegates to explore the links between spirituality and medical provision.

In the afternoon we visited the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull.

For me God was as present in the gallery as he was in the conference.

That is not to disparage the conference in any way, far from it, I thought it was a wonderful conference touching on some very important issues and much will have been achieved by it.

But God could not be excluded from the gallery.

God was there in the labour undertaken by the artists as they conveyed meaning.

God was there in those attending from the 19-month old toddler rushing in between the legs of adults to the frail gentleman placing his walking stick against the wall before balancing himself on his weak legs to take a photo of a painting with his smart phone.

God was there in the joy of the residents of Hull as their city is visited and appreciated by those of us who haven’t been for many a year.

God will be in the week that you are about to experience.

Whatever it is that you will face,

highs or lows,

laughter or sorrow,

conversations or isolation

God will be with you and God will be within all you encounter and experience.

This is the message of Jesus in the wilderness,

the one who would go on to enthral crowds on hillsides,

be feted as he entered the city

and who would weep tears in the garden.

He was never forsaken.

And nor will you be.

[B1]

This unalterable fact

19 February 2017

This unalterable fact,

a knowledge that cannot be unknown,

that one day we shall die.

 

And all that we do no longer

will no longer be done.

 

And all whom we love,

whom we cannot love beyond

will be cast out,

to wander on unknown,

through, as yet, an unknown world,

and wonder at its imperfections

and wither in time’s frightful passage.

Then alone they face and fight,

and fight the challenges they alone can fight.

 

Such a knowledge once known,

A dread-full, fact now known,

that cannot be shaken off

but haunts and holds

and close us off,

until our time,

our time,

has come and is

and is no more.

 

Such knowledge impacts all we may yet come to know,

all whom we may yet come to love,

an undercurrent to coming waves of time

Ever rolling and immersing the sands of life.

 

From suckling child to force-fed patient,

from first words to a sigh at the last

and in between lies all that –

while consciousness is real,

that inflicts its terrible paragraph

on chapters that charted growth,

interaction,

fulfilled ambitions

and thwarted dreams.

 

This unalterable fact that one day

the dawn will not come,

the sun will not rise,

for night, that unconscious void,

will cast its impenetrable veil

across the light

that once gave us wonder

and as we wandered

in hope and love

a hoped for life

in all eternity.