Passion final

Launde : Passion, painting copyright Bruce Thompson

 

 

Lent 1 Sunday 18th February

Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long……All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.

Psalm 25.5,10

 

It’s not easy, keeping to what is right: the numerous distractions; the behaviour of others; the possibility of easier options, each promising a quicker reward.

The promises of God cannot be fulfilled without a willing and receptive heart. But such is the love of God that patience is a given. For even those whose hearts have not yet been broken open, the undying love of God remains eager to gently step in.

 

 

God of patience and loyalty,

who looks upon us with loving eyes

and who longs for us to willingly receive the wisdom

to know and do truth,

grant us such open hearts and enquiring minds

that we might discern what is right and proper

for us and our world.

Amen.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Relax

1 February 2018

Relax, we are not expected to save the Church, we are called to love our neighbour (and God helps us do that).

20171028_085441

The year ahead looms large in the imagination. We are on the cusp of change. It may be that the events of 2017 are casting a shadow over us; if so, the uncertainty can be constraining. Just as places unfamiliar to us 12 months ago are now household names, so we wonder where, who, or what, will make the news in 2018.

People of faith are not immune to a sense of anxiety the unknown can inflict. Such a feeling, debilitating though it may become, is a symptom of awareness. Those with closed minds and cold hearts are desensitised to the impact of unknowing. If we are anxious about the world, about our nation, community and lives then this could be a gift; one that can be nurtured to create empathetic and positive responses to the urgent task of healing the rifts that have opened up over recent times.

My own opinion is that division across society has never been deeper in my lifetime than it is today. Consider wealth inequality: where a tiny minority can languish in an extravagant lifestyle while millions have little or no chance of bettering their situation; it seems that the social mobility of the post-war period has been put on hold for the vast majority. Or ponder the regional differences, always present of course, but the contrast has surely not been so stark before. The possibility of certain parts of our islands having special status post-Brexit is very real, endorsing what is already evident to so many. Not for a very long time have the two main political parties been so far apart. Now some may think this to be a good thing, a fact that allows for a clear choice. There is nothing wrong with choice in a democracy, I thoroughly endorse it. However, when opposing political ideologies have become as extreme as they have these past few years, there is a real danger that identity becomes tribal. One feature of this is when members on each side are no longer open to hearing the truths expressed by the other. Certainty of mind creates a menacing arrogance.

Those who seek to follow Jesus should have an eloquent riposte. We read of one who sought, and was able, to reconcile and rejuvenate. He did so not so much by engaging in talk but by action: the overlooked caught his eye, the worried were calmed, the bereaved consoled, not through platitudes but through the installation of hope in their lives.

In the Christian Church we are not devoid of division. Some may have celebrated the Reformation recently but it began five centuries of splintering where the prophets, or even odd ones out, could form their own movement and church rather than stick it out, enter into dialogue and engage in a more effective inter-transference of ideas than has been otherwise the case. Certainty and arrogance on both sides has resulted in a less believable Church.

Today, on the one side we have those who hold tight to their selected verses in order that their prejudices be not confronted. On the other we have those who are so dismissive of accumulated wisdom that they make it up as they go along. Both are literally creating their own religion; though they would strenuously deny it of course. Neither approach is helpful, in fact the first is anachronistic and the latter short-termist.

Regard for the context of our scriptures alongside the need to remain open and alert to the prompting of the Spirit through the arts, science and philosophy renders a more credible religion, one in which others might more readily invest their time. The presumptuous certainties that are so derisory of others’ views born out of experience and tempered by events should have no place in the Christian Church.

An attractive and convincing religion is one that is authentic and credible, not one that is tribal and closed to the possibility that God is doing something new and now.

 

 

 

 

 

20170531_212105

 

 

Advent Four 24 December

Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen. Romans 16.25-27

For some time now much of our world has treated mystery with suspicion. There is no reason why science should clash with religion. Science tells us how, religion tells us why. But those that divide the two are prone to elevate the one they lean towards and reduce the value and contribution of the other. For the Christian, mystery is that which is awaiting disclosure of those truths that had been hidden, or the unravelling of complexity. For us this is an adventure, the setting out from one place toward an unvisited destination. There is much to discover along the way and the further we travel and learn the more we realise there is yet to be revealed to us. Though darkness may at times set in and we feel we have accomplished little we may know that accompanying us is undiminishing Light.

 

God of adventurous journeys,

whose light is undiminishing

and whose love is imperishable,

grant us confidence in what we know

and trust in those promises we have yet to see fulfilled,

so that we may be honest, humble

and reliable companions

in all our travels, physical and spiritual.

Amen

 

 

 

IMGP0061

Lake Galilee, Capernaum

 

 

Journeying toward Advent Four

Monday 18 December – Saturday 23 December

 

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.

 

I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more. 2 Samuel 7.10

 

 

Picture a place of shelter, a safe place where you can be yourself. Where you can breathe and dream. Where the stress and strain of life does not touch you. Where your body relaxes and is free from pain.

It is heavenly. It is seemingly brief and temporary. Yet this is where God wants us, and all people, to be….forever. This can be here and now…on earth, where we live, work, play and interact.

This is the revolution, the transformation of our world and the world in which others live that is promised by God.

 

The only place of beauty left on earth is where its persecutors have overlooked it. Milan Kundera.

 

Free us, O God, from all that troubles us.

Free us from pain and torment,

from obscurity and denial,

from anxiety and depression.

Reassure us of limitless Love

and restore justice and equity in our world. Amen.

 

 

 

 

DSC_0545

Three women: a religious Jew and a religious Muslim assisting a woman of unknown faith.

Jerusalem May 2017

 

 

 

Advent Three Sunday 17 December

We appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labour among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.

I Thessalonians 5. vv12,13

 

In the kindly word, the interested look and the act of generosity of spirit, we may discern the actions of God within our neighbour. Those that do not underestimate the gifts they receive are more likely to know the blessing that is God-With-Us. Those that do not undervalue those about them are more likely to know the blessing that is God-in-the-Other. Yet in the haste of life it is all too easy to overlook such truths.

 

God of stillness and focus,

who has given us companions to appreciate

and strangers to know,

enable us to lift our minds from the melee

and view your world of wonder.

In the pause may we notice a moment of mystery

and in that moment recognise You. Amen.

 

DSC_0451

Flowers blooming in the Judean Desert May 2017

 

 

Journeying toward Advent Three

Monday 11 December – Saturday 16 December

 

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.

 

As the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. Isaiah 61.11

 

Put to one side, for a moment, the negative headlines.

Think of the good things that have today happened in your life, of the sight you may have, of the food you may have eaten, of the people you may have met.

Where is God in all of this?

God is in the gift of life. God is in the network that provides for us. God is in the interaction.

God is already with us despite our longing to see and know more, the truth is that in the longing God is also to be found.

In all things and in all places God is.

 

At the coming of the Most High our hearts shall be made clean, and we shall walk worthily in the way of the Lord. The Lord is coming and will not delay.

Cistercian Liturgy.    

 

Dear God, You are bringing truth to where there are lies.

You are nurturing growth,

you are goodness, joy and kindness.

In those times of lightness of being

and overflowing spirit,

You are.

 

 

20170530_160436

Ancient road at Bethsaida, Galilee, <May 2017

 

 

Advent Two Sunday 10 December

 

(The Baptist) proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mark 1.vv 7,8

 

What is your place in this world? Is it to lead or follow? To be at the front or the back? Or somewhere in between? Are you expected to be someone you are not? Or somewhere you’d prefer to not be? Knowing yourself and what God intends for you is key to peace of mind and harmony of soul. Wherever you are to be and with whomever you are to share this life, God has to be within and ahead of you.

 

God of messenger and message,

of preparation and fulfilment,

through others you have alerted us to all that you might achieve in us and in your world.

May we be part of the process

that reveals to those about us Your promise

and the discovery of self-worth and true potential.

Amen.

 

 

Today we live in a world of fantasy.  The truth is that this has been so for some time.

From the early soaps Peyton Place and Crossroads, with the enduring Coronation Street of course, to the myriad of other imaginary communities, our lives have become accustomed to living in a parallel universe where the final scene is nearly always a cliff hanger to keep our anxieties high till the next episode.

Then of course historical fiction has also played its part in establishing a world of fantasy. Such novels may be thoroughly researched and beautifully written, but they often owe more to the author’s imagination than they do historical accuracy.

There is also the medium of cinema. Films ‘based on actual events’ have merely added to the fact that fantasy has become more interesting for many than truth. In some cases such versions of the events they depict have been more strongly believed than the original documentation or even eye witness accounts. Did Private Ryan really exist? No. This I had to state only earlier this week when someone was telling me that he did. However I confess that some years ago I did not have the heart to tell the lady at the church door that Forest Gump wasn’t a real person.

Then along comes social media of course. Thanks to social media everyone’s opinion is often judged to be as valid as anyone else’s.  In truth, of course, this is clearly not so.  My opinions on climate change are nowhere near as well informed as those of environmental scientists. I wouldn’t expect an environmental scientist to be as well informed on biblical criticism as I am. Nor would I expect my views on global warming to be treated as of equal significance to those of someone who has spent their adult lives studying the issue.

Social media has also enabled conspiracy theorists to promote their ill-founded claims in ways that appear to be well-researched and irrefutable.  In an interview at the Labour Conference a few weeks ago film Director Ken Loach was asked about the presence of Holocaust deniers, to which he responded that history is always open to interpretation. Such views lead to claims that what is happening in Gaza is akin to Auschwitz – recently re-tweeted by a Church leader I hasten to add. Not only is such a claim historically inept it is morally abhorrent.

All of this is an acute danger to the world we have forged over decades, a world based on verifiable facts; a world that holds truth as the core element to an open and honest society, where respect for the experts and admiration for those who wrestle with the issues exist.

When Michael Gove dismissed truth during the Referendum last year, yes it was only 18 months ago, by saying that we’d had enough of experts he was adding yet another slash to the fabric of a well-ordered society.  When challenged by the claim that Trump’s inauguration crowd was bigger than Obama’s the new President’s senior advisor, Kellyanne Conway, suggested that there is such a thing as ‘alternative fact.’

We have stepped into a world of fantasy and it’s a very slippery slope.  It means that lies can displace truth.  It means that all sorts of wrong can be committed without recourse.  It means that few, if any, can ever be trusted again.

And it is in this world that we are called to not only serve but lead.  A minister’s responsibilities have always been great, but none more so than today.  After hands are laid upon our heads at ordination the President prays ‘may they boldly proclaim your truth.’  There is little more challenging today than to boldly proclaim God’s truth.

I have let it be known that I have never been more despondent of the world and the world of politics than I am today. But nor have I been as convinced of my vocation and the calling of the Church. We have a job to do. And it is as clear as it has ever been.  But, and this is a big but, it will demand our lives, our souls our all.  It will demand something that is so often lacking in almost all areas of life today; and that is authenticity. This call to ministry demands us to be authentic in an age of lies.

There is, you see, too much pretence in our world.  Too many people, and too many organisations, trying to be something they are not, or even trying to not be something they are.  There are just too many games being played.  Much of them with good intention for sure. People play games because they are anxious. They are afraid to be themselves. They try to be someone they are not so that they might fit in with their peers. Or they cover up who they really are lest they lose their friends.  Concerned that others might spot their weaknesses or frailties, their misunderstandings or lack of knowledge, they cover up.  And we minsters are not immune.  We often prefer to hide as an icon to being an honest travelling companion.  So many of us are not just anxious about our reputation we are also anxious about the state of the Church.

Every three years, of course, Conference receives its latest report called statistics for mission.  You might wish to consider it as the report on how far our numbers have dropped since the last report.  It is no secret – I no longer get despondent over decline.  I have stopped beating myself up about it. Why?  Because the truth is that the Methodist Church has been declining in numbers throughout my life.  In fact for about a century and a half.  The last time we grew in numbers the older people in the congregations might well have been blessed as toddlers by Mr Wesley himself.  This fact has not got through to many of us. Or where it has there often exists a state of denial.

Now, this is not to say that we should ignore the decline nor accept it as a given, and we should ask ourselves why this is so.  But it is a massive problem. And we must not pretend otherwise. I believe that we would be healthier and so much more effective if we were to embrace our decline.

You see, some will argue that the Church began to lose its authority at the Reformation; others with the scriptural studies of Spinoza; or because of the Enlightenment; or indeed the rise of evolutionary theories in the late 19th century. Of course, the trenches of the First World War and the inadequacy of the Church to counter fascism or even when they acted with complicity in Nazi Germany quickened the demise.  Whenever the decline began we cannot ignore the fact that the Church is continuing to lose its impact upon society.

In his 2007 book Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor wrote that in 1500 it was impossible not to believe in God while today many find this not only easy, but even inescapable.

In attempts to reverse this trend all sorts of innovations are considered by the Church and even put into practice.  Important though these innovations are in attempting to stem the decline, they are not the whole answer, for they can only attract some for a while. They cannot win over the majority of people and fully alter the trajectory of overall decline. And if we think they can then we are kidding ourselves and conning those whom we inspire to partake of the scheme. The gulf between the believers and the non-believers, you see, is simply far too great.  No, a conversion of theists, including us Christians, to more relevant and sophisticated theologies and philosophies could help bridge the gap; so too would be ridding ourselves of the nonsense that we have built up over the course of millennia. But such a transformation of thinking is clearly not going to happen any time soon.

So what are we to do?

What can we do with the little resources we have at our disposal and so little time to accomplish something, if anything at all?

Well, if the Church claims to hold truth in its heart by following the One who claimed to be the Truth, and ordains those who are charged to boldly proclaim that truth then pretence will not work.  Any claim to truth that is shown to be false, any boast that is empty, and any model where promises are not met will only compound the problem for us.  In an age that is not only secular, one without recourse to God, but an age of lies, fantasy and historical denial, we need authenticity.

We will glance very briefly at two components of authenticity.

Firstly, I believe that, at the very least, authenticity includes honesty: honesty about ourselves, honesty about our faith and doubts, honesty about our limitations and errors.  Such an undertaking would be the beginning of an authentic model of leadership.  To act with such honesty is to also be clear that truth is sometimes difficult to grasp and therefore hard to define. Indeed, that the presence of mystery is also at the core of our beliefs and there is nothing unusual about those clouds that often limit our vision and knowledge.  This approach will be seen as a weakness of course by those who want the confidence of certainty. But certainty also has its pitfalls.  It was certainty that led to the Great Famine in Ukraine and the gulags in the East.  It was certainty that led to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.  It was certainty that led to many a failed project on lesser a scale than those aforementioned.

And here is a warning for those that want to be seen as victors over others: we are not called to win an argument; we are called instead to lay down our lives for a cause that only God need judge.

We will not necessarily see the outcome of such a ministry, but we can be assured that it will contribute to something far greater than we could have ever achieved alone or in our time.

So firstly, honesty is a vital component for authentic leadership.

So too is context, our second component.

Lifting what works elsewhere into a wholly different place is not necessarily going to work. In fact, I believe that it is highly likely to fail.  Every scheme, every model, if it is to reach its full potential has to be adapted to context.  Better still, however, for each place to develop its own model of working, its own form of mission and ministry.  How often now have I seen people’s morale sag because having become excited by what is happening elsewhere they suddenly realise that it is something that they do not have the capacity to achieve? They might not have the numbers, or the energies or the skill set.  Boasting of what is happening in another place, without thought of the limitations placed on those who wish to replicate it elsewhere, is unhelpful to say the least.

Context, you see, determines capacity and context, therefore, determines the model.

I have long stopped thinking about finding people to realise a vision, and prefer, instead, to value those people whom God has placed me alongside and what, therefore, we can together achieve.  Surely God has placed us in a time such as this and in a place such as this, and indeed amongst such people, for a purpose.

We should not lament what we have not got.  Instead we should rejoice in those with whom we share this time and place.  For we are here but briefly.

In conclusion: honesty and context are vital components for authentic ministry.

We began by setting the scene.  We cannot deny the fact that we live in an age where people often prefer fantasy to fact, where truths lose out to lies, where certainty to reality is the prime mover.  None of this will lead to salvation, it will end in destruction; it has done so in the past, it will do so again.

Our calling, as Methodist ministers, is to boldly proclaim the truth.  This we must do at all costs – even to our own – so that we might do so with the integrity of authenticity and leave the rest to God.

My Advent Hope

3 December 2017

My Advent Hope

I have found myself saying lately that I have never been as despondent of the world as I am today….and yet neither have I ever been so convinced of my calling and so clear in my purpose.

This is a tricky time for us as a human race.  There is an extraordinarily obvious need to act, to resist the encroaching evil in our midst and to make a claim for truth.

 

In describing an Advent Hope it would be very easy to trot out a wish list.

To firstly identify all that is wrong with the world and then put the contrary possibility.

  • So… there is hunger – it would be wonderful if everyone had access to sufficient food to live well and healthily. And we could shut down foodbanks tomorrow. That could be our hope.
  • There is homelessness – it would be wonderful if everyone had a watertight roof over their heads with secure accommodation all round. That could be our hope.
  • There is conflict and war in so many parts of our world – it would be wonderful if peace would come. That could be our hope.

Now, we could easily go on, probably not running out of examples of how bad our world is and then seek to imagine a very different one.

The world certainly doesn’t match up to the ideal; that is for sure.  The utopia dreamt up by generations of prophets, idealists, political activists and hippies seems as far off now as it has ever done.  Those of us within the Christian Church who long to see God’s rule across the social and political world may end up disappointed; we are, after all, far from seeing in our lifetime God’s kingdom established on earth as it is in heaven.

Mary’s Magnificat, an early Church hymn that sought to place Jesus and his birth in the traditions of the past, spoke of the powerful being brought down and the lowly lifted high, about the hungry being fed and the rich being sent away empty.  After 2000 years our critics may have a case against Mary and indeed against us, the Christian Church. For example, and a relatively minor one compared to some others in the course of human history, how well will the church in Zimbabwe fair after so many within it supported Mugabe for so long?

You see, the problem with the sort of hope that views the world in all its torment, injustice and conflict and simply wants to rectify it, is that it is little more than a wish list, an unrealistic vision, a fantasy of what might be if we all sang from the same hymn sheet.   Here lies possibly the main stumbling block in turning a wish list into something more realistic.

Let me explain.

  • If we could all agree on how we get from global poverty and inequality to a fair distribution of the world’s wealth then we would be singing from the same hymn sheet.
  • If we could all agree on how we stop persecuting one another because of difference we would be singing from the same hymn sheet.
  • If we could all agree on the way the future should go we would be singing from the same hymn sheet.

You and I know that ‘aint gonna happen.’  Because even if we were to have access to the same hymn sheet we can’t always agree on the particular song to sing and even when we do some choose to sing in a different key.  We prefer our voice, our version, our choir, our orchestra to any that doesn’t suit our comfort zone.

Here is the dilemma:

  • There is much wrong with our world. We know that.
  • There always has been. We know that too.
  • Therefore we also know that we cannot overcome all that is wrong.
  • We can dream of a better world.
  • We can work for a better world.
  • But we know that we cannot attain it in all its fullness in our lifetime.

This can lead to despondency amongst those that near the end of their lives fearing that little or nothing has been achieved. This is probably more so today than for many a generation, because those that went before us were accustomed to improving our world and to seeing that improvement. But, today we are wondering if we are going to leave the world in a worse position than when we came into it:

  • Our seas are polluted.
  • Our land becoming less fertile.
  • Our weather is uncertain.
  • Species are becoming extinct faster than ever before.

And people today are only doing what they tend to do in a crisis:

  1. they develop a suspicion and fear of anyone who is different
  2. they gather round their own,
  3. and they batten down the hatches against the coming storm.

Populism and nationalism are growing – as they do at such times.  They did so when Germany faced a crisis in the ‘30s, they are doing so again today across Europe and across Britain.  But it is not fear of another catastrophe that will save us from following the same path. Nor a wish list.  What will save us and save our world is for a real hope to take hold; one that is realistic, authentic and achievable.

The Church in Germany during the 1930s spectacularly failed in the face of its greatest challenge. Over the centuries it had absolved its social and political responsibilities to the State. When that State chose to attack the weak and vulnerable, the minorities and the marginalised, all hell broke loose and European civilisation came close to collapse.

We cannot afford to let this happen again. We have to get it right.

Now this is my Advent Hope.

That we look not just at the world’s problems but the way in which those problems are affecting our mood:

  • They are increasing our fears
  • They are tempting us to disengage from others
  • They are encouraging us to become less hospitable

Having recognised this we must respond accordingly.

We have to:

  1. allow our fears to be overcome – after all perfect love drives out all fear
  2. be ever more open to others and to what they have to teach us
  3. and we have to become generous-hearted so that what we have is not ours to keep but ours to give.

When I get to know Jesus I discover that his concerns were focussed on the individual,

  • the woman that touched the fringe of his prayer shawl
  • the bereaved sister lamenting the death of her brother
  • the children that were being prevented from getting near to him
  • the tax collector who was so ashamed he chose to hide in a tree to catch sight of him lest he be spotted by others
  • the father concerned about the health of his child
  • the man whose mind was so disturbed by life that he came close to attacking Jesus

And us? What of us?

What of:

  • The woman whose past still weighs heavy on her?
  • The man who feels his purpose has been taken from him?
  • The student who fears not finding work?
  • The child pressured into growing up all too quickly?
  • And so on, and so on, and so on.

If it is that I have to regain my childlike trust and dispense of my built up self-importance to become a more effective disciple of Jesus, then so be it.

If it is that I must make myself ever more vulnerable to new truths that change my deeply set beliefs in order that I become more grounded in reality, then so be it.

If it is that by loving the individual, through hearing their story, embracing their pain and walking a lonely path with them, we are at our most politically active, then so be it.

Putting it simply and briefly, my Advent Hope is that day by day I become better able to relate to those about me and as a consequence that they become better able to relate to others.

This, then, must surely be the way in which our world’s problems are properly addressed; this is how we ourselves contribute to building a better world.