Thursday, December 25, 2008

Be part of the action!

That’s what it takes to tell the Christmas story in 30 seconds!

Or at least that’s what it takes as far as the Churches Advertising Network is concerned!

I guess you like that kind of thing or you loathe it!

One thing I did like was the strap line at the end. It’s what has accompanied the poster that they put into bus shelters too. Be part of the action.

It’s the idea Becky has shared with us in her nativity scene – the invitation is there for us to step into the nativity scene and be there.

Be there with Mary and Joseph as they have nowhere to go for the birth of the Christ child and find refugee temporarily where the animals are kept, before fleeing as refugees to Egypt.

Be there with the wise men as they follow the star and encounter Herod in all his power, determined not to allow a challenge to his reign.

Be there with the shepherds as they heard the song of the angels, Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace.

Be there in Bethlehem.

That’s what has been in my mind hauntingly this Christmas.

I have seen the Christmas story differently. I have been there. To Bethlehem. I saw a shepherd with his sheep … but between them and the town of Bethlehem, a wall. I went through the wall and touched the pain of the people of Bethlehem. I touched the tension.

In my mind’s eye I have been there this Christmas.

‘Be there’ … was not the invitation of the advertising campaign.

Be part of the action … at a church near you.

That’s the point of Christmas. It is not just to be there, it is to be part of the action.

The Wise men had gifts to share. Be part of the action! We have gifts to share as well – not just our Christmas presents with each other! But the gifts we share for very practical help in Bethlehem.

We have linked up with the Alex Awad and the Shepherd Society, run by the Bethlehem Bible College. Through our giving we are part of the action bringing care and help, food parcels, medical aid, support in jobs and education renewal of utilities in a very troubled town of Bethlehem.

The shepherds had a message to share. Be part of the action. Have a message to share. Light in a world of darkness. Hope in a world of fear. Love in a world of hatred. Comfort in a world of pain. We met and worshipped at the church of Alex Awad – he has shared a Christmas message with us this year …

“The blessing of Christmas for Christians today is the same as on the very first Christmas: God sent his son in human flesh to become the Saviour of the world.

“With the challenges of the wall isolating the city into an island enclave cut off from Jerusalem and the rest of Israel, Bethlehem’s Christians look to their brothers and sisters in Christ around the world for spiritual and moral support. If we could have two wishes this Christmas, the first is that the Christians of Bethlehem and the Holy Land will be encouraged and strengthened spiritually to stay in the land of their birth. The second is to see a peaceful solution to the decade’s long Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

“With this short message of Christmas cheer, hope and goodwill, we wish you a very joyful Christmas and pray that your hearts overflow with bountiful blessings from above.”

Be part of the action – so what is the action that you can take, - an action to bring the love of Christ, the light of his presence, his comfort, his strengthening into the world?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Put yourself in the place of the shepherds ...

Put yourself in the place of the shepherds and ask yourself the question … how would you feel?


Why? The angel of the Lord stood before them and the glory of the Lord shone around them.

We sing of that glory so often, we think it’s glorious!

But the glory of the Lord was something tangible, special, felt in the holiest of holy places, felt on the mountain top … it was for the Moseses of this world, for the High Priest … not for the shepherds, not out in the fields.

They were terrified.

And then the voice of the angel speaks.

‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah,* the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13

What could that mean? A messiah – a longed for king. Anointed of God – for all the people.

What would this king be like? The kings of old had let themselves down, they had let their people down, they had let God down … and the prophet Ezekiel had been so outspoken.

Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. 6My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

The prophet had been so certain … the day was coming when God’s rule would break in upon his people, and the rule of God would be rule of a great and good shepherd,

I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. 15I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

Could this be what was happening?

There was more to the message of the angels …

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,* praising God and saying, 14‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace good will among people’
In a state of fear?

Hear the word of the angels … Do not be afraid.

Hear again the good news of the coming of Christ.

Know that he comes as the Good Shepherd …

‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.

What the shepherds did was to go and find out … they went and saw for themselves and then they had a message to share.

So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19

Put yourself in the place of the shepherds … hear the message of the angels, see for yourself … and spread the news.

But what is the message of the angels?

Think for a few moments … and reflect … what is the message the angels have for our world today?

Write that message on your angel …

1 It came upon the midnight clear,
that glorious song of old,
from angels bending near the earth
to touch their harps of gold:
'Glory to God! On earth be peace,
from heaven's all-gracious King!'
The world in solemn stillness lay
to hear the angels sing.

2 Still through the cloven skies they come,
with peaceful wings unfurled;
and still their heavenly music floats
o'er all the weary world:
above its sad and lowly plains
they bend on hovering wing;
and ever o'er its Babel-sounds
the blessed angels sing.

3 Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world has suffered long;
beneath the angel-strain have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
and we, at bitter war, hear not
the love-song which they bring:
O hush the noise and end the strife,
to hear the angels sing.

4 For lo, the days are hastening on,
by prophet-bards foretold,
when, with the ever-circling years,
comes round the age of gold;
when peace shall over all the earth
its ancient splendours fling,
and the whole world give back the song
which now the angels sing.

Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810-1876)

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Remember with Humility - a Sermon for Remembrance Sunday

It was another parade of soldiers returning from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. But it was not just another parade. A number of their colleagues were not returning with them. When asked how they felt, one of the officers commented: it’s just a relief to be coming home.

Someone took me on one side after one Remembrance Sunday Service. He had served with the RAF in the second world war. And he said just the same. It was just a relief to come home.

They say of what’s happening in Afghanistan that our forces have not experienced the like since some of the close combat warfare of the first world war. There are only four surviving servicemen from the first world war and the one who was interviewed this week had not got beyond the training camps of Yorkshire having been recruited in the last year of the war.

It is difficult to think that Anne’s mother at 103 was in her teens before that war ended.

Today is a day to remember those who have lost their lives in war … not just long ago, but more recently too.

But it is important to take care how we honour their memory. Those who returned from the trenches of the first world war were all too aware of the dangers in remembering in a wrong kind of way.

C.E.Montague served in middle age as a volunteer in those trenches. By June 1919 he was frustrated at the way some remembered.

“There is a part of the population, shallow, luxurious and vulgar-hearted, which seems to be trying as hard as it can to give to English life that special quality often found in Empires that are over-blown and ripe for degradation.

“… a kind of grandiose insoslence of self-indulgence. That part of our population no doubt would find a record glare and blare of noise and illumination very much to its mind. So, perhaps would a few dealers in bunting, rockets and refreshments but scarcely anyone else.”

As the war finished C.E.Montague had had the experience of hearing from the front lines the bells ring out to announce peace.

“An extraordinarily large number of soldiers had the idea that they might first learn that peace had come by hearing a joyful peal of bells from the nearest unruined church tower in their rear. Many of them did hear this, with an effect they are not likely to forget, within a few seconds of the commencement of the Armistice.

“Such men do not want to hear nay more guns or to see any more signal rockets. Still less do they want any such “portions and parcels of the dreadful past” as formal musters and reviews.

“For them the general ringing of bells, one of the most ancient, beautiful, and moving expressions of a common joy, pretty well exhausts all the possibilities of congenial demonstration. You cannot go one better than perfection.

“There is a time to rejoice and a time to refrain from rejoicing, and also there is a time not to refrain wholly but to be sober and rather humble in one’s joy.”[1]

Maybe it is good not only to rejoice with humility, but also to remember with humility and be humble in one’s remembering.

Remembrance Sunday marks the end of that first great war of the twentieth century. It is not without significance that our remembrance marks an ending of war and therefore the beginning of the peace.

Maybe, the likes of CE Montague were already uneasy about the way the ‘peace’ was being pursued at the end of that war. Maybe how the peace should be pursued should also be the subject of our reflection to honour those who have lost their lives in war.

That’s why that reading from Revelation 22 is so powerful. John the divine, shares with us a vision of a new creation – not just to give us a dream to dream of some far off reality in a distant future of God’s glory. The vision is a vision that shapes what we do in the here and now.

His vision is of a river of the water of life streaming out from God’s presence into the whole of the world. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

What a vision to share.

The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations … healing, that’s what the nations of the world are constantly in need of. And that is the task that those who share John the divine’s allegiance to Jesus Christ share in the world.

How can healing be brought to the nations … maybe another clue can be found in the words of Micah, echoing many another prophet too.

Out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

We need to heed the teaching s of the God who will judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away.

What form does that judgment take? It is one of the tragedies of the 21st century that religion has once again been drawn on to fuel the rage of war. But Micah has such a very different vision. The teachings of God must be drawn on to shape the peace …

They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nations shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more …

What a vision.

Can it be real?

As news comes from the Congo once more of the horrors of a world gone mad on the ravages of war, the commitment to work for peace is so desperately important and why we shall be having a retiring collection for Christian Aid’s appeal for the people caught up in that humanitarian disaster.

A year ago Felicity visited Mozambique, another African country that has been torn apart by war. That’s what prompted her to share with the children a picture of the tree of life sculpture that was commissioned by the British Museum and by Christian Aid and now stands in the African galleries of the British museum.

“A half tonne sculpture made out of chopped up guns and other decommissioned weapons from Mozambique was created in three months by Mozambican artists and made entirely out of weapons such as AK-47’s, pistols and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. They see it as a way of using their art to promote peace.

“The Transforming Arms into Tools (TAE) project is run by the Christian Council of Mozambique a partner organisation of Christian Aid.

“There are still millions of arms hidden throughout Mozambique – a legacy of the 16 year long civil war that ended in 1992. Bishop Dom Dinis Sengulane, who was involved in the peace negotiations between the Frelimo government and the Renamo rebels in 1992, came up with the idea for a weapons amnesty project that would help people give up
their guns.

“In the last nine years the project, which employs some former child soldiers, has collected and dismantled more than 600,000 weapons.
In exchange for their guns, former combatants are offered building materials, tools and equipment such as sewing machines, bicycles, and ploughs.

“One village received a tractor for handing in 500 weapons.

“After being chopped up and dismantled by TAE staff, these tools of war begin their new life in the hands of Mozambican artists who create sculptures out of them. Their unique pieces of art are exhibited all over the world and include birds of peace, saxophones, chairs, monkeys and even jazz bands.

“Hilario Nhatugueja, one of the four sculptors, says: ‘We artists want to turn the situation around, change the story. Changing these instruments of death into hope, life and prosperity.

“’This tree symbolises life, symbolises a future, symbolises hope’[2]

Catch that vision …

Then, in the words of John Greenleaf Whittier,

Then shall all shackles fall: the stormy clangour
Of wild war music o’er the earth shall cease;
Love shall tread out the baleful fire of anger,
And in its ashes plant the tree of peace.[3]

O brother man, fold to thy heart thy brother!
Where pity dwells, the peace of God is there;
To worship rightly is to love each other,
Each smile a hymn, each kindly deed a prayer.

For he whom Jesus loved hath truly spoken:
The holier worship which he deigns to bless
Restores the lost, and binds the spirit broken,
And feeds the widow and the fatherless.

Follow with reverent steps the great example
Of him whose holy work was doing good;
So shall the wide earth seem our Father's temple,
Each loving life a psalm of gratitude.

Then shall all shackles fall; the stormy clangour
Of wild war-music o'er the earth shall cease;
Love shall tread out the baleful fire of anger,
And in its ashes plant the tree of peace.

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)
11 10 11 10 Iambic
Copied from HymnQuest 2008: CLUE Version
HymnQuest ID: 58524

[1] This leader is attributed to CE Montague, who heard the bells at Moons as a middle-aged volunteer. The Manchester Guardian, June 27th 1919.
[3] John Greenleaf Whittier, ‘O brother man, fold to thy heart thy brother’

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Lord's Prayer

Maybe it’s because I have grown up with these particular words and they are deep in my psyche. Maybe it is because I learned them from my mother and father when I was tiny. Maybe it’s because in a world of change there’s part of me that holds on to the things that don’t change.

I like what I suppose you would call the ‘traditional’ words of the Lord’s Prayer.

It is the version based on Matthew chapter 6 as translated into English by William Tyndale, polished by the translators of the Authorised Version, adapted into the Book of Common Prayer and tweaked a little since!

It is part of the genius of William Tyndale, Thomas Cranmer, the translators of the Authorised Version and the compilers of the Book of Common Prayer that they had an ear for the rhythms of the English language, and an eye for the vocabulary of English too. For those who are native English speakers there’s something about these words that is special.

Spoken English has a rhythm that matches the rhythm of the heart beat – the iambic de dum, de dum. These traditional words capture that rhythm …

Our Father,
Who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day
Our daily bread
And forgive us
Our trespasses
As we forgive
Those who
Trespass against us
And lead us not
Into temptation
But deliver us
From evil
For thine is the kingdom,
The power and the glory
Forever and ever

The very words themselves invite us, almost compel us to feel this prayer as very much part of us: it’s not just deep down inside our psyche, it’s deep in the very heart-beat and rhythm of our lives.

And that is as it should be. Let this prayer be the heart-beat not just of our prayer life, not just of our spiritual lives, but of the whole living of our lives.

There is a point, however, towards the middle of the prayer when the rhythm is more difficult. The difficulty arrives as you reach trespasses, temptation and evil. It is as if those very things disrupt the rhythm and are immensely unsettling.

The rhythm and the beat returns however and comes to its climax as it returns us to the source of the very life we lead – the modern translation keeps the words, but they lose their power – the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours

Yours is a very weak word to finish on.

Thine has so much power to it, and by putting it first it enables you to know from the very start who the kingdom, the power and the glory belong to … and it enables you to rise to a wonderful climax in such powerful words – thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever and ever Amen.

Those translators and writers of English had an eye to the vocabulary of English, and in particular the weight of words.

One characteristic of English is its love of single syllable words, and its respect for words of more than one syllable. There was a wonderful illustration of that when a couple of weeks ago the Bodleian Library in Oxford exhibited for one day only one of its great treasures – the original manuscript for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Never mind the film … read the book! What was fascinating was that out of about 80,000 words in the novel, 5000 of them had been changed by Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy the poet. Mary Shelley had written words of single syllable that had a directness of speech that was simple and straightforward. Her husband, the poet, had replaced all those words with longer words, usually drawn from Latin or from French in what some would regard as a mistaken attempt to make her writing more literary!

The traditional wording of the Lord’s Prayer is a wonderful illustration of the weighting of words.


There are 50 words of one syllable
There are 16 words of two syllables
There are 4 words of three syllables.

Think of the two syllable words as words of greater weight

Our Father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us
And lead us not in to temptation
But deliver us from evil
For thine is the kingdom the power and the glory
Forever and ever amen.

These are the great powers, that we draw into the very rhythm of our life:
Father, heaven, kingdom, power, glory

That rhythm of life sees to it that daily needs are met …
And fundamental to that rhythm is our willingness to forgive.

Creeping into that rhythm is trespass, evil. And that too carries weight.

The brutal reality of life is that the evil, the nastiness often seems to carry more weight.

That’s what happens when you weigh words by their syllable count.

There are only 4 3-syllable words. What’s the first?


Replacing that word with the English word ‘sin’ may be theologically accurate, it’s arguable whether it’s necessarily easier to understand. But it is a throwaway, lightweight word.

Whereas trespasses carries weight. Our trespasses, the things we have done that we shouldn’t have done, the words we have said we shouldn’t have said, the thoughts we have had in our minds that should never have been there, not to mention all those things we have left undone, unspoken, that have slipped our minds.

Forgiveness is so important!

The next three syllable word also carries immense weight and can often be such a burden that it weighs us down.

Lead us not into temptation.

How often the world of temptation gets the better of us and we sink under its weight.

These things that are so weighty they matter. And they need something equally weighty to counter them. As we draw on Our Father, in heaven, whose name is hallowed, as we draw on the kingdom, the power, and the glory … the God we believe is up to the task.

The next three letter word is the key …

But deliver us from evil.

Over against the weighty things that weigh us down is the deliverance that frees us.

But we must not get too hung up on the words.

You might have expected the words of the Lord’s Prayer to be standardised from the very beginning. Intriguingly they are not. The wording is very different in Matthew and in Luke – and yet it is recognisably the same prayer.

The most obvious explanation is that Jesus used different words on different occasions.

What is beyond all doubt is that different church communities from the very earliest times used different words – if you examine the different manuscripts you will find different words – most obviously in the finish.

If you go to a Roman Catholic church you will find they finish as it seems in mid air, without getting as far as ‘thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory …’ They are in good company, lots of the oldest manuscripts of Matthew 6 do not include those words either!

What do we make of that?

It is a reminder to us that however much we love these words, maybe they are not to become ‘idle repetition’, recited for their own sake.

More important is the pattern they offer us for our praying.

But as ever it is good to return to the text of the Gospels. For there is another difference you will notice when you go North of the Border to Scotland, or West of Offa’s Dyke to Wales.

Never mind ‘trespasses’ or ‘sins’ … in Scottish churches and in Welsh-speaking churches and in many reformed churches – forgiveness has to do with debts.

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

That’s interesting!

Where does that come from?

Well, in fact, that’s the word in Matthew 6.

That’s intriguing – is it a metaphor for sin and trespasses?

Or does it have to do with debt and obligation to others. It puts a different cast on the prayer … and one that is very timely today.

Only yesterday on Radio 4 someone being interviewed about the impact of the global financial crisis on them as an individual spoke of the ‘slavery’ of debt.

The jubilee 2000 campaign to write off the debts of the poorest countries spoke of the slavery of debt and used the broken chains of slavery as the badge of its campaign.

Forgiveness of debts? Forgive us for getting into debt … as we forgive those who have got into debt to us. Maybe it is the mutuality of forgiveness that is to the fore. It was something that Jesus used in one of his wonderful parables – when he spoke of the man who owed a massive amount whose debt was written off who went out free of his own debt only to make a massive demand on someone who owed him only a very little amount.

Jesus was urging a mutuality of commitment that would make all the difference and bring freedom. This is very much in line with the thinking of the Hebrew Scriptures. Society has to be ordered – or in the words that are in vogue at the moment – some kind of ‘regulation’ is needed. A lot of the Books of the Law is to do with ordering society … and intriguingly it is about how to order society in such a way as to support the poorest, not least as they are in danger of sinking under the weight of debt. Hence the notion of ‘the jubilee’ year when the slate is wiped clean and people can begin again.

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors – maybe food for thought and reflection – and reminder daily, within the rhythms of our praying of our commitment to those facing financial difficulty

Maybe the Lord’s Prayer goes right to the heart not only of the rhythms of our prayer life, our spiritual life, our personal lives … but also to the heart of the rhythms of society and the way it is structured.

Last week, in the course of a service celebrating Baptism with little Harry, the invitation was for us to pray the Lord’s prayer with an individual in mind – Harry himself, or maybe someone else we are thinking of.

Today comes the invitation to pray the Lord’s prayer with society and its needs in mind.

Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name,

Thy kingdom come, your rule of justice, peace and integrity of creation

Thy will be done, for good not ill

On earth as it is in heaven – in war torn parts of your world, in people’s lives devastated by financial collapse, in the lives of those facing tragedy, illness, poverty and want

Give us this day our daily bread – give to each part of your world what it needs that there may be an equitable sharing of the world’s resources

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors

May that mutuality of respect and forgiveness mark the relations between communities, between societies, between nations as well

And lead us not into temptation

May we build the kind of society where temptations are not put in people’s way all the time – the temptation to consume more than we ought, the temptation to spend more than we can, the temptation to hurt and damage others and ourselves,

But deliver us from evil – where evil has a hold over people’s lives in a world of so much evil – deliver people we prayer.

How easy it is to despair in a world of wrong, a world of temptation a world of evil – help us to hold on to that forgiveness, to be released from that temptation, and delivered from that evil – for the faith we share enables us to be sure in the face of all the world hurls at us that you will prevail:

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever and ever

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Baptism - a Celebration of God's Greatest Gifts!

At the heart of our Baptism service is the celebration of the most wonderful of all gifts, the gift of God’s love. It’s an unconditional gift, with no strings attached of his wonderful love – and that love reaches out to each of us by name, before ever we know anything about it, before ever we have learned anything about it – it’s there, simply given to us. The most wonderful gift of God’s free, forgiving love, of God’s grace.

That’s not the only gift we celebrate today. There’s the gift of life – the miracle of new life coming into being. And that new life comes into being as a wonderful gift of God – nowhere is that sense of life as a gift of God, the God who knows us, loves us and gives us life better expressed than in the poetry of Psalm 139 …

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. 2You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works;that I know very well. 15 My frame was not hidden from you,when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 16Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. 17How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end*—I am still with you.

It is one of the privileges of my position as Minister that when I hear a baby has been born I can go to visit in the maternity hospital – it was a joy to do that when Eleanor was born. We were excited in the church family when Harry was expected because he was not alone!

News came that Rob and Andrea Lacey’s little baby had arrived – a sister for Bethany. The day after it was lovely to visit just as Andrea and Rob were getting ready to take little Abigail home. Earlier that day Felicity had spotted Tom driving Nicky down Hewlett Rd – and there was only one place they could be going to.

Having had short time with little Abigail I went to the desk to enquire after Tom and Nicky to be told they were still on the delivery suite, but it would be all right to pop in and see them as. It was with some fear and trepidation that I made my way upstairs to the delivery suite for the first time in about 22 years!

Seeing a new born baby always takes the breath away – it is a miracle – the hair all in place, the fingers so carefully manicured – the Psalmist has it right …

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. 14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works;
But I always feel my visit has a very specific purpose. It’s not always the right moment, but for the most part I endeavour to fulfil that purpose. It says close family visits only. But when you belong to a church you have another close family – and I am there from that family – more than that I am there to say a prayer of blessing.

Among the first visits – a visit from the church family. Among the first words heard, words of prayer and of blessing.

The wonderful gift of prayer … is something then that we can give to our children as they grow older.

And there is one prayer in particular that is wonderful to pass on to them. I can remember now the little picture book I had as a tiny child to help me to learn the Lord’s prayer – it was from my parents that I learned it. How precious to pass on the gift of that prayer. It is a prayer that says it all.

Go through those words – of yourself, but go through those words and hold in mind little Harry, the little one you are concerned for, go through those words and hold in mind the elderly person you are concerned for – don’t just say the words for yourself – say those words and hold in mind the one your are so concerned for.

Our Father who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done on earth – in little Harry’s life –
As it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread – hold Harry in your prayer at this point that God will meet his every need
And Forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us
- sometimes, God forbid, we feel we let people down, none of us is a perfect parent – to surround little Harry in that forgiving kind of love

And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil

It is a scary world Harry is born into – how great that prayer we pray for him today …

And in that scary world we can have confidence that God is with us – that he will prevail.

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory
Forever and ever amen.

The gift of God’s love, God’s amazing grace
The gift of new life and the wonder of its miracle
The gift of prayer and God’s blessing
The gift of the greatest prayer of all

There’s only one way to respond to the gifts that we receive – it makes you want to give in return. And when children come into play giving can make a world of difference not only to the child but also to the giver.

Helen Roberts is one of our junior church leaders who as often as not is out with the children leading the Splash Group we have. Back in the summer she asked if she could share with us all what it has meant to her to give to a child in one very particular kind of way.

Helen shared with us her experience of sponsoring a child through Compassion, a Christian charity committed to releasing children from poverty, that works in partnership with local churches in some of the poorest parts of the world.

Thank you Richard, for giving me the opportunity to share the work of Compassion projects for children in poverty across the world.

According to their statistics, in the time it takes you to take a single breath, a child dies somewhere in the world as a result of poverty.

I find statistics like that quite overwhelming and find myself questioning what I can do about it, as I feel so helpless and inadequate.

1999, I knew I wanted to do something, sponsor something, as I had two beautiful children, a lovely home and food on the table – I wanted to share my blessings. I heard of Tearfund, whose sponsorship programme is now operated by Compassion, through whom I could sponsor an individual child. That sort of level of support really appealed to me.

I might not be able to change the world by myself – but maybe I could change the world for one child at a time!

I chose a child the same age as my youngest, who was 6 at the time. Her name is Galuh and she lives in Java in Indonesia with her parents and 4 siblings. The charity sent me a picture of this solemn-looking little girl and she wrote solemnly to me thanking me for paying her school fees and helping her family financially.

She called me ‘Mama’ Roberts then – and she still does now. She has just celebrated her 16th Birthday. My latest photograph of her shows a beautiful, smiling girl and I thank God that I have had some small part in her life over the years.

We write to each other a few times a year – everything has to be translated through Compassion’s translators – and she tells me of her life, her school results, her hopes for her future. She always mentions her church, praising God for her blessings. She has trained as a leader in her church and is still at school, which she says is entirely due to my continued sponsorship.

She goes to the Compassion project several times a week and wrote to me when she made a ‘commitment to obey and be faithful to God’ as she put it, in 2006. Her aim now is to go onto Theological College. The relationship we share has enriched my life in so many ways, much more than the financial gifts have cost me.

I write to her about my family and the church here at Highbury, giving her encouragement and telling her she is always in my prayers. I sent her photos of my daughter’s wedding and she thought everyone looked beautiful!

Two years ago, I decided to sponsor a second child and chose Aple, a little boy living in Bangladesh, who was born the same year I started to sponsor Galuh. Another photo of a solemn-looking child – do they tell the children to look sad so someone will sponsor them? Our relationship is still fledgling, but he chats on about the project and his family and community and I look forward to getting to know him more over the years to come.

Compassion ensures that at least 80% of their expenditure goes to benefit the children. The church-based projects that the children attend means that they get medical check-ups, food to eat, clothes to wear and an education, which all helps to lift them out of poverty. Every child gets to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and in the same way that He is concerned with our individual needs, Compassion tries to meet the individual needs of the children and encourages them to develop their own skills and talents.

This short film is about Christuraj, a boy from Chennai in India. Christuraj is just one of the 1.1 billion children in the world today who live in a desperately poor community. At the moment more than a million children attend Compassion projects across the world, but there are many more children who are waiting for someone to sponsor them. If you could spare 60p a day to transform the world of a child, come and see me after the service and I can give you more details.

Thank you.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Prayer and Praying

"I am learning the difference between saying prayers, which is an activity, and praying, which is a soul attitude, a ‘lifting up of the mind to God’. Praying in that sense can transform every task, from washing up to defragmenting a computer’s hard disk.

"'Pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances.'

"I used to read such passages in a fog of guilt ... I read them differently now, not as a perpetual guilt-trip but as a call to a Godward orientation. Prayer means keeping company with God who is already present.From Philip Yancey, Prayer: Does it Make any Difference (page 306)"

That rang a bell for me – what a helpful thought!

Prayer as an attitude … but ‘prayers’ can nonetheless be very useful.

Thank you to Becky for leading us through our course on prayer and through our 24 hours of prayer as well. Prayer goes on … as we ‘keep company with God who is already present’ but it is helpful to say prayers, and sometimes to ask someone else to say a prayer for you. There’s going to be the opportunity to do just that after the morning service – if you would like someone to say a prayer with you then simply come and sit at the front of the church and someone will join you to share in prayer. Just as we use the Morton Brown room before the service as our Prayer Parlour, so after the service it will be open as a quiet place to go to as well.

Sometimes it can be helpful to use prayers other people have used down through the centuries.There is a collection of prayers in the Bible that can be most useful.Becky invited us at the end of the course to choose 4 psalms and use them as prayers.I want to share with you the four psalms I have chosen.

My first psalm came to mind in the unlikeliest of places. Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum.70 years ago, as the depression of the thirties was unfolding, fascism was taking its grip on Europe and war was approaching, Gloucestershire was introduced to the weird and wonderful and disturbing world of Surrealism in modern art.

To mark the seventieth anniversary of that exhibition the art gallery are mounting a special exhibition that brings together work by the artists who exhibited in that exhibition a long time ago. Surrealism returns.

I had thought surrealism was something wacky and detached from the real world. Visiting that exhibition it comes as something of a shock to see that these artists were responding to the horrors of their world in ways designed to provoke a response in the one looking at the art that would make a difference in that world.

Most iconic of all the paintings in that exhibition was one by Picasso.I had seen another version of it before – in the Tate gallery in Liverpool, and in the town of Guernica in the Basque country of Northern Spain.

It is a remarkable and disturbing picture called Weeping Woman. It was a response Picasso made to the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War – it was the first time a whole town had been blanket bombed, resulting in a firestorms and devastation for the town’s population on their market day.

As his much bigger picture ‘Guernica’ toured the world, so versions of the Weeping Woman were exhibited all over the world, not least here in Gloucester in that remarkable exhibition 70 years ago.A year earlier another version of the same image had already been exhibited in Cheltenham. It is that pen and ink version that is on display in the Art Gallery now.

To stand in front of it is profoundly moving … not least because Women and for that matter Men are still weeping at a world that goes dreadfully wrong. Iraq. Afghanistan. Darfur. Jerusalem, Palestine, Israel, Gaza. The impact of the economic situation, tragedy closer to home.

The weeping woman is as symbolic of our time and of our lives as it was symbolic of Picasso’s time..

Jesus shares in that weeping.

At the death of his friend Lazarus Jesus wept.

And as he saw Jerusalem he wept, would that you had known the things that make for peace.

And still he weeps.

That anguish, that pain, those tears have to find expression in our praying as we in utter honesty rail at God.

The first Psalm that comes to my mind is Psalm 22. It begins with words of anguish, with words of weeping.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

At his moment of dereliction, of deepest agony, on the cross, it was to this prayer, to this psalm that Jesus turned.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

At moments of deepest agony, it is good too know that it is not only to art that we can turn, we can turn also to prayer.My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

The great thing about an art exhibition is that alongside the pictures of agony and despair, are pictures of hope and promise.

So too as we pray, using the prayers of the Psalms.It’s no coincidence that the psalm that follows Psalm 22 is Psalm 23. The 23rd Psalm.It is not in Cheltenham’s art exhibition. But I would bring to mind another piece of art … it is one of the very first sculptures of Christ – one of the very first images of Christ. It is The Good Shepherd, a 3rd or 4th Century Roman sculpture from the catacombs in Rome: the shepherd carrying the sheep. That’s an image. That’s a prayer to bring to mind next.

From the weeping woman to the Good shepherd …

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures
He leadeth me beside the still waters,
He restoreth my soul
He leadeth me in the path of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil for thou art with me.
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

That’s it. Not that we can escape the valley of deep darkness. Rather, Christ in all his gentleness, in all his love is there walking with us through the valley to restore, and to comfort, to strengthen and renew.

Say the prayer and hold on to the truth …

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

That brings us to Psalm 24.

A wonderful prayer of confidence.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; 2I love that kind of picture. The earth held in the hands of God. The loving hands. That sense in this prayer that we are held in God’s safe keeping.

How can we hold on to that? Where can we find such hope and such strengthening?

That brings me to my fourth psalm. Psalm 121

Going up to Cleeve Hill – I’ll never forget going up to the top of Cleeve Hill at dawn on the day the Millennium arrived – and on cue the reds of dawn spread across the sky and the sun rose.

I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come?
2My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
3He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
4He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
5The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
7The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
8The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in
from this time on and for evermore.

That’s the conviction to hold on to.

Say your prayers … and use the psalms.

When that question haunts us. My God, why? We must be honest in our praying and echo the words of Psalm 22.

But then we must go on to Psalm 23 and use those wonderful words, Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

In our praying of Psalm 24 we can then rejoice: The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it!

And then in our mind’s eye as we say the words of Psalm 121 we can go up into the hills and find an answer for our question:I life my eyes up to the mountains, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.

How good it is to say our prayers. How much more important to recognise the difference between prayers and prayer and recognise that prayer means keeping company with God who is already present.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Prayer: What should we ask?

It is so simple. It comes so naturally. Most people turn to it when everything goes wrong!

God, help me … God help so and so …

I guess that’s the simplest form of prayer.

And most people have found themselves saying that prayer.

What should we ask for in prayer?

At the Holiday Club with the children a month ago we had a simple way of thinking of prayer. A recipe book invites you to put a teaspoon full of something into the cooking pot. And the teaspoon is abbreviated to TSP.

So thank you … sorry … please.

But when we say please what is it we are asking?

Philip Yancey was one of the speakers at Greenbelt this year – he spoke about prayer. Becky and I have been reading his book on prayer. In it he captures the wonderful mystery there is in prayer.

The act of prayer brings together Creator and creature, eternity and time, in all the fathomless mystery implied by that convergence., I can view prayer as a way of asking a timeless God to intervene more directly in our time-bound life on earth.

We hear of people who are sick … our response is to want to pray for them. There’s something so valuable about that. If you want to share a concern for prayer then a phone call to Ruth or an email will set off our prayer chain – people praying.

The value of lists – in Highbury News – we pray for people in need – we pray for all who belong to the church family. It is good to uphold people in prayer.

It becomes part of a network of support … and it in some strange way releases an energy from beyond ourselves, from God.

That’s one way of viewing prayer.

But Philip Yancey has another way of viewing prayer … and that too is helpful.

We touched on it in our discussions on prayer at our evening on Prayer last Tuesday and it was a fascinating moment in our discussion.

This is what Philip Yancey suggests as another view of prayer …

I can also view prayer from the other side, as a way of entering into the rhythms of eternity and aligning myself with God’s ‘view from above’, a way to harmonise my own desires with God’s and then to help effect while on earth what God has willed for all eternity.

This is another way round of viewing prayer.

Prayer involves spending time with and entering into communication with God, the one who is eternal, outside of time. It’s about lining myself up in a certain kind of way – aligning myself with God and the rhythms of eternity.

When I read that a silly picture came into my mind. Did you see that report not so long ago about cattle grazing in fields. Someone has made a study of satellite photographs of cattle grazing in fields in a number of different European countries. Something seemed to emerge. That cattle tend all to face in the same direction – and the researcher noticed that there was a general alignment with the magnetic lines of the earth’s energy.

It’s a bit like that in prayer. We align ourselves with God’s energy – and we do that along with other people too.

That means we have an alignment in our priorities, the things that are important to us.

We seek to live our lives in the way God wants them to be energised – with love for God, love for one another and love for God’s creation – a love that finds expression in care for each other and for God’s world.

To be part of a praying community on the one hand is to seek to bring God’s energy from beyond time into our world and its needs.

But on the other hand it is to align ourselves with the way God’s energy goes in his world – for love and for justice.

Jesus’ disciples wanted to be part of a praying community and they wanted to learn how to pray.

Jesus teaches them the Lord’s Prayer – you could think of it as an alignment prayer. To pray that prayer and to learn it to teach it to our children involves lining ourselves up with the family of Christian people in the family prayer, it also involves lining ourselves up with God and what God wants of us his people

Together we are people who look to God as Father, who honour his name, who seek the carrying out of his will for love and for justice and for people on earth as it is in heaven, we are a people of forgiveness ready to forgive as we are forgiven, a people living in a world that’s far from perfect and yet protected from all that is evil, we are people of power, people of the kingdom, people of glory – what a wonderful way of aligning ourselves.

And as people of prayer we are to ask – but ask for the good – not for any old thing. And again this is all about where we align ourselves.

Ask and it will be given you, search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. Though be prepared: what you are given may not be what you want it may be what you need; what you find may not be the exact thing you are searching for, and you may be surprised what’s behind the door when it’s opened up for you!

What do we ask? The passage builds up to a climax – about a father giving what is good for his children … and so too with God – what he gives is of the Holy Spirit – that unseen energy and power from God that we line ourselves up with as we share in our prayers.

It was Richard’s mother who gave us two prayers – one is from the Psalms – a prayer of thanksgiving. And the other is a simple prayer – maybe that’s the kind of prayer we can make our own as we share together in prayer, and echo that prayer – especially today as we share in this baptism of Maycie.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

What is Prayer? Why Pray?

What is prayer?

Why pray?

Reflecting on those two questions I stumbled across something this week that helped me towards finding an answer to something that for me has about it a sense of mystery and wonder.

On Monday evening I watched Sir Colin Davis conducting the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in the Beethoven Violin Concerto and Sibelius’s second symphony. at the Proms. During the interval, Sir Colin Davis spoke of the inspiration of playing with young players brought together specially for a summer season from all over Europe.

He reflected on that ‘something special’ that happens when conductor and orchestra come together and produce wonderful music.

Orchestral playing at its best involves ‘letting loose the energy contained in the dots on the page’.

As conductor and orchestra came together that evening an energy was released that all who were there and all who were listening or watching on TV could not help but notice.

Isn’t that the kind of thing that could be said of a community of people praying?

Thinking not so much of a score, as of the Bible, prayer involves letting loose the energy contained in the words on the page.

It was fascinating to hear Sir Colin Davis speak of the experience of conducting an orchestra.

Each knows their part, he suggested. And the professionalism of this young orchestra was plain to see, made up as it is of some of the finest young musicians in Europe.

But at the same time, no individual must stand out from the others. All must listen to each other and be aware of everyone else and there must be constant communication between players and the conductor.

As that happens something is going on between the players and between the players and the conductor that lets loose the energy that is contained in the dots on the page.

Let’s use that as a picture of a church community sharing in prayer.

Something very similar is going on.

It is important that each of that community ‘knows their part’. It is for each of us invidually to take seriously the call to Christian commitment and to live out our Christian life.

But no individual must stand out from all the rest as if they are more important than any of the others. Every single person in a church family is important and each one has their part to play. That’s a theme Paul constantly returns to, thinking of the parts of the body.

It is important that we all listen to each other and that we all are in constant communication with God. That’s what’s going on as we share together in prayer.

Prayer is not simply something that each of us does in isolation. Prayer is something we do as part of the church family, part of the community of the church. Not only is it something we do as part of the church family we belong to, but there is a very real sense that we do it as part of the whole church family.

Terry Waite is returning to the Cheltenham Literature Festival – he often speaks of that very real sense of being part of a praying community he had when he was held hostage, in isolation, and yet not isolated from the community of people praying for him and with him.

Prayer is that process of being in communication constantly with God … but not in isolation from others. It is something we share with all who share the task of praying.

And that is the mystery of prayer.

Something is going on between the pray-ers and between the pray-ers and God that lets loose the energy that is contained in the words on the page.

That something is prayer.

Its purpose is to let loose the energy that is contained in the words on the page.

How does that work out in practice?
Take the prayer of St Paul in Ephesians 3:14-19.

That’s simply a set of words on the page.

We can each of us read those words – we can make a study of them. But these words are something more than mere words of interest. They are words that contain within them an energy. They are words of prayer. We can pray these words ourselves. We can sense those from Paul onwards who have gone before us in the faith praying these words with us. We can come together in prayer with others in a church family and pray these words together. As we do that we find they nudge us towards the kind of God we believe in. The words contain within them promises that can make a difference in our lives. It is as if we are in communication with God himself through these ancient words.

Something is happening.

It is a mystery.

To be part of a community of people praying and praying with God is to let loose the energy contained in these words.

There is within these words an energy for our families. Verses 14-15

For this reason I fall on my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth receives its true name.

As a family to be part of a praying community is to discover a very real strength and energy from beyond ourselves that can make a difference in our family life. That’s what’s important to us as a church family to offer support to families mainly by being the kind of place where families can find support for each other. And also to find that for family life there is a power from beyond ourselves that we can draw on to enrich and strengthen that family life.

There is an energy for each one of us. Verses 16-17a.

The prayer goes on, I ask God from the wealth of his glory to give you power through his Spirit to be strong in your inner selves, and I pray that Christ will make his home in your hearts through faith.

Each of us needs a strength from beyond ourselves to enable and to empower and to energise us. How much we need deep within our inner selves a core strength – that’s released within us as we are part of a praying community.

Sometimes it seems elusive. This is where the other part of the communication process comes in. It’s not simply down to us., The prayer is that Christ makes his hjome in our hearts through faith. What a wonderful thought.

What is released in this praying community of Christian people is the energy of love. I pray that you may have your roots and foundation in love

The love that provides support to one another, the love that enables you to realize individually you are not alone, the love that enables you to realize as a family you don’t face this on your own, the love that binds people together is the love that is released in this praying community.

It is a love that goes deep down to the roots, a love that goes right to the foundations. I pray that you may have your roots and foundation in love, so that you, together with all God's people, may have the power to understand how broad and long, how high and deep, is Christ's love. Yes, may you come to know his love — although it can never be fully known — and so be completely filled with the very nature of God.

Pray that prayer … and something happens!

Prayer is that something that lets loose the energy contained in the words on the page.

– An energy for our families – verses 14-15
– An energy for each of us – verses 16-17a
– An energy of love – verses 17b – 19

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Prodigal Son

At first I couldn’t see what it had to do with our Journey of Reconciliation to the Holy Land. But as I read it I came to see that it has everything to do with a Journey of Reconciliation.

Henri Nouwen was a great writer and thinker with a very deep spirituality who came to be identified with a remarkable community for people with learning difficulties called L’Arche Community. He died in 1995.

The book we were invited to read was an autobiographical account of a spiritual journey made over many years in the company of the Prodigal Son, the Elder Brother and the Compassionate Father of Jesus’ remarkable parable. Henri Nouwen was prompted to make his journey of faith first by a poster and then by the original painting by Rembrandt called The Return of the Prodigal Son.

The painting shows the returning prodigal kneeling with feet scarred and battered by his journeying, the Father’s compassionate embrace, all captured in a circle of light. Standing outside the circle is the elder brother and two other shadowy figures in the background, one seated beside the elder brother.

Prompted by Henri Nouwen I want to ask three questions of this parable.

Where do you see yourself in this parable?
Who do you see in this parable?
What difference does it make on your own journey of faith and reconciliation?

Do you see yourself in the prodigal himself?

Is there an element of autobiography in the story for you. Was there a moment of rebellion? I want everything for myself, thank you very much. A departure from the faith you had been introduced to … and then maybe an about turn in your own life and a return to a love of God that has made all the difference. Once you were lost, and now you are found again?

Is it the kind of story that invites you to plot where you are at the moment. Are you in the far off country. Are you partying for yourself? Are you on the road back to the waiting father? Are you a little apprehensive of the response God will give? Do you feel the hands of the Father embracing you, surrounding you … the warmth of that welcome back? Are you partying with God?

Or is it not a straightforward time sequence that you can locate yourself on. There are moments when you seem in the far off land, moments when you seem on the road back, moments in the embrace of the compassionate father, moments of celebration … it’s a story to come back to repeatedly.

If you do see yourself in the Prodigal Son himself, then maybe you need to ask the second of our questions.

Who do you see in the Prodigal Son?

Just yourself? Or do you see Another?

Think for a moment of the story of Jesus as it is summarised by Paul in Philippians 2 … Jesus is one with God, humbles himself to the point of being a slave, to death on the cross, and then is exalted through resurrection to be seated at the right hand of God.

Isn’t this exactly the path trodden by the Son in this Parable? Jesus leaves his Father, to become one of us, and he experiences life at its worst, he goes through that lowest point, through death and on to resurrection and the glory of God once more.

What difference does that make?

No matter where we are in the journeying of the Prodigal Son, Jesus is there with us at that point. Present with us, he comes alongside us in our journeying, he comes within us to strengthen us, and he accompanies us into the presence of the love of God.

If ever you feel like the Prodigal the good news of our Christian faith is that you are not alone – Jesus is with you to accompany you on the journey.

Henri Nouwen tells us that he had always seen himself in the Prodigal Son. Until that is a friend asked him a question that released all sorts of feelings within him that he needed to confront and come face to face with. And he hadn’t realised it before.

Aren’t you more like the elder brother? Nouwen’s friend had asked.

It really made Henri Nouwen think.

Why not try it?

Maybe you can see yourself in the Elder Brother?

The elder brother is the one who has been safe, upright done everything he should have done. He has been exemplary. He has not rebelled, not runaway from home, not squandered his inheritance … he has worked hard and is still working hard now as the story unfolds.

In a Christian context it makes you think. Maybe you grew up in a Christian home, maybe you did not rebel. Maybe you have stuck with it. And there is a touch of envy? Why didn’t I take my opportunity when I had it? Why didn’t I have a wild time too? Hasn’t this prodigal son had his cake and eaten it – and now he has a welcome back from his father, my father too.

Here again what the Father says to the elder brother. We can so easily gloss over them … but they are so precious. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

That is a remarkable promise – gentle words for us to hear as well. To be a child of the Father to share all that he has. Look again at the picture and the light is reflected on the face of the elder brother too. The parable finishes in mid-air. It doesn’t tell us how the elder brother responds. That’s for us to supply the answer.

To accept the love of the Father and the width of his mercy encompassing the prodigal too, to join in the party – that’s the journey of faith that the Father invites you to follow.

But how can you make that step of acceptance? Is the second question important too? Who do you see in this parable?

Who do you see in the elder brother?

Is it possible to see Christ in the elder son too? Think again of the words the Father says to the son … Son, you are always with me and all that is mine is yours.

Isn’t that the relationship Christ has with the Father? Do we touch the mystery of the very nature of God here? One God in trinity? Father and Son always together – all that is the Father’s is the Son’s.

Maybe the two Sons touch the two dimensions of Christ as Son of the Father – at one and the same time he empties himself and becomes as we are, but at the same time he remains one with the Father.

The power of the parable lies not with the uncertainty of its ending, but in the realisation that the elder brother too bears the light of Christ’s presence – and is part of the celebration.

That can be a liberating realisation.

For Henri Nouwen it was immensely liberating.

But for Henri Nouwen there was an unexpected climax to the story.

The ultimate call, and it is an invitation to each one of us, is to become the Father and to love like that.

Can you see yourself in the Father?

That’s a lonely step. There is the loneliness of the Father who is waiting at the gate. The loneliness of the Father, whose one son goes into the distant country, and whose other son fails to understand. It is the loneliness of love, deep and compassionate love.

It is the Fatherhood of compassion to which we are called. “Becoming like the heavenly Father, suggests Nouwen, is not just one important aspect of Jesus’ teaching, it is the very heart of his message.”

But who do we see in the Father?

Look at the hands. One hand of the Father is rough and strong, the other is smooth and gentle. Think of God here in this story as Father and Mother together … He holds, and she caresses. He confirms and she consoles. He is God in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood are fully present.

Isaiah, Can a woman forget her nursing child, see I have inscribed you on the palms of my hand.

As a mother hen looks after her chicks so is the compassion of God.

But there is a cost. It is the cost of grief, forgiveness and generosity.

The grief at the loss of the younger son and the potential loss of the elder son.

The forgiveness that is in the embrace of the welcome of the prodigal.

The generosity as the Father is prepared to say, All that I have is yours.

Whether you see yourself in the younger son or in the elder son, receive the unconditional love of the Father and rejoice in the compassion … and as you rejoice in that love, be transformed into the compassionate father whose love knows no end.

Henri Nouwen went on to live out that compassion in community with people with learning difficulties. At the end of his book he shares a remarkable statement that amounts to a prayer and an invitation …

As I look at my own ageing hands,
I know that they have been given to me
To stretch out toward all who suffer,
To rest upon the shoulders of all who come,
And to offer the blessing that emerges
From the immensity of God’s love.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Choice - Change - Challenge - the Parables of Jesus

Everyone loves a good story … and Jesus could tell a good story. So much of his teaching was in parables.

Which parable has made the biggest impact on you … and why?

Something to share with your neighbour.

Parables present each one of us with a choice

It is the choice of the kingdom.

It’s like two roads … one is broad and leads to destruction, the other narrow and leads to life – choose the narrow way.

It’s like two trees … one bears bad fruit, the other good fruit – choose to be the tree that bears good fruit

It’s like two house builders … one builds on rock and the other builds on sand … the choice is there for all to hear … hear these words of Christ about blessings about love for God, for neighbour, for enemy too, hear these words of Christ about prayer … and act on them and be like the wise man who builds his house on rock.

The choice is one we each have to make.

Parables change the way we see things.

Not least, they change the way we see religion and what it does. So often people feel that religion, Christianity should be a cure-all for all the world’s ills. ‘If God is real,’ they maintain, ‘then he will change the world and it will be a better place. The world is not a better place, therefore you can’t believe in God.’

Jesus sees things quite differently.

His parables help us to change the way we see the world and especially the way we see God in the world.

Make the choice for the narrow way, the good fruit tree, the wise house builder and it’s difficult to see why everyone doesn’t make the same choice. What a better world it would be if everyone did. All the world’s problems would go away.

But the real world isn’t like that. Not everyone is convinced.

Jesus recognises that too …and his parables have the power to reassure, though the reassurance raises questions that are perplexing, troubling even.

The centre point of Matthew’s gospel sees Jesus leaving the house he has made his base in Capernaum and sitting beside the sea. Such is the crowd that he has to get into a boat while the crowd stand on the shore. I’ve always felt you couldn’t have been sure where that happened – did it really happen. But there it was – it must have been somewhere very near there – on the shore line that was so similar, with just that kind of shore! And I was there!

And the world of today has just the same kind of perplexing problems. Why doesn’t everyone just see the light. Why do some hear and not act on what they hear?

So it is that Jesus tells a sequence of stories – Matthew 13 is a remarkable chapter of Parables of the Kingdom.

The Parable of the Sower … or better still, the parable of the sower, the seed and the soils. That word of God sown by Christ and his teaching is received in different ways – three quarters of those in the parable don’t take it to hear. Only one quarter of those who hear are changed by it … and bear the good fruit.

Takes some getting does that point. And the disciples are puzzled. Jesus lines himself up with the prophets – those who hold the authorities to account. And the tragedy of the story of the prophets is that they were as often as not not heeded. The same happens with the prophetic teaching of Jesus.

The parable of the sower explained, Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the Weeds among the Wheat. The two grow together – again perplexing, again pointing to the realities of the world – good and ill together – what a mixed world we live in.

Take heart, the parable of the Mustard Seed and of the Leaven – tiny beginnings have large end results – so too with the Kingdom. It may be tiny now … but ultimately, God will have the last word. Hold on to that.

Reassurance about the reality of a world that doesn’t leap to follow Christ’s way. IT builds up with excitement.

This kingdom is a treasure – it’s a pearl of great price. It’s worth the world. You can almost feel, in the way that Matthew builds towards a great climax in this sequence of parables, the crowd and the disciples being carried along with Jesus.

But then comes something that disturbs and unsettles. There’s a story about fishing when good fish and bad fish are caught – and then at the end they are separated out.

Fascinating that the separation is between the evil and the righteous. There is a contrast here.

God’s kingdom is about righteousness, justice. Ultimately, in having the last word, justice prevails. And evil does not.

Wow … have you understood all that, says Jesus. And he finishes with a comment that must leave them all wondering … follow the teaching in these stories and you will be trained for the kingdom. – just like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.

Enigmatic if ever there was something to be enigmatic about.

Matthew’s gospel starts with the sermon on the mount, has at its heart this chapter of parables of the kingdom. The teaching of Jesus reaches its climax in another address Jesus gives towards the end of his ministry which just like the sermon on the mount ends with three parables that are full of challenge – these are parables that unsettle.
Parables challenge us to live the Kingdom

They spell out the challenge we must all face.

Of ten bridesmaids, five were prepared with oil in their lamps for the unexpected arrival of the bridegroom … but five were not. Beware – don’t be unprepared!

There’s the parable of the talents. Wonderful the one with five talents, gains five talents more. The one with two talents gains two talents more … and both are commended. But the one with one talent sits on it. Beware don’t be like that. Make the most of what you have received from Christ.

And then I reach the parable that along with the Parable of the Good Samaritan I think I would identify as the one that has made the biggest impact on me.

The parable of the sheep and the goats.

You can have all the right words and say, Lord, lord with as much reverence, dedication and as worshipfully as you like.

But …

The key thing to take to heart if we are to accept the challenge and choose for the kingdom, the key thing to take to heart as we are reassured about the realities of the world, the key thing is the ultimate challenge to us all to live out that faith we profess.

34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me

That’s what we must take to heart not only in the way we each lead our lives. We must also take that to heart in our concern for the wider world and the call of the Kingdom to justice in that world.

We began our service today, the 60th anniversary of the arrival of the Windrush from Jamaica, thinking of connections we have with Jamaica. How vital it is that we welcome all in the name of Christ and seek to build a truly multi-cultural society in these islands.

We lead into our prayers of concern as we recall Felicity’s visit to Zimbabwe with the United Congregational Churches of Southern Africa and the visit we received from one of the ministers from Zimbabwe who presented us with a banner we have in our church.

We stand with our brothers and sisters in the UCCSA churches we are linked with through the Council for World Mission in prayer for the people of Zimbabwe as we do that we are with churches the world over in a day of prayer for Zimbabwe.

The parables of Jesus present us with the choice to follow him and stand by the kingdom and its values.

The parables of Jesus change the way we see the world and enable us to know that even when the evils of the world are not instantly changed we must still hold fast to the kingdom recognising that God is at work.

The parables of Jesus challenge us to recognise Jesus in the stranger, the hungry, the thirsty and prisoner and to stand alongside those in need wherever they may be.

As our reflections came to an end the following letter was read from the United Congregational Churches of Southern Africa

UCCSA sends solidarity team to Zimbabwe

The United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA) is sending a team to Zimbabwe to express its solidarity during the current crisis. The team comprises members from different synods of Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa. The Executive Committee Leaders from these synods of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA) are to pay a visit to Zimbabwe to stand in solidarity with church members in the run-up to the country’s presidential election on 27th June.

The UCCSA, which has members in five southern African countries, is very much aware of the pressure that is being placed on its members ahead of the run-off election between incumbent president Robert Mugabe of the Zanu-PF party, and Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

The UCCSA condemns the repeated detention of MDC leaders and the violence that is generally taking place in all areas of the country. This continued violence will only serve to throw the country into further turmoil, uncertainty and hopelessness.

We encourage Churches to join in with the World Council of Churches set aside 22nd June 2008 as a day of prayer for Zimbabwe. We urge you all to build into your services a moment to remember and lift in prayer our sisters and brothers in Zimbabwe.


Dr. Prince Dibeela
General Secretary

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Seeing things differently: the parable of the Mustard Seed or the parable of the Bird's Nests?

I have a confession to make.

Last Sunday was not the first time I had preached the same sermon three times. I think it may have been the first time when someone other than my wife was in the Congregation on each occasion. So sorry to Richard for putting you through that – and thank you for your company through the day!

At the end of the day over coffee and leek and potato soup on the terrace of a new restaurant overlooking one of the wonderful lakes around South Cerney we reflected on the experience.

What was fascinating was the way the same sermon actually came out quite differently in each church. The message depended not just on what was written in the sermon, but also on the setting it was delivered in.
Three Churches ... One Sermon ... Three Meanings

The day started very much as part of our Scouting Centenary Celebration. It was great to have Rosemary and Alec here who had married in the church 63 years ago, Rosemary having been a member of the Good Companions, Highbury’s then Youth Group, under the leadership of Alfonso Tosio from Switzerland. He had shortly afterwards returned to Switzerland where he had set up a scout troop and one of this first members, Andrea together with Giovanni were with us last week. What a wonderful greeting Andrea gave, as he reflected on what it meant to be church in that setting in Porschavo that had played a little known yet signifanct part in the Reformation in the Italian part of Switzerland.

Religion is like a ladder that goes up to God. Faith is like a ladder that comes down from God into the heart. But as our heart is changed, Andrea said, we cannot sit back, arms folded. We must then put our heart changing faith into action as we share the task of being peacemakers and engage in mission.

All came together in our service and the sermon seemed to have a focus in mission.

That afternoon Richard and I found ourselves in the tiny Draycott mission chapel with only two others. Our thoughts turned to Kim and especially to her daughter and many like her who are in the throes of doing A Levels, important examinations. It’s a stressful time. Being church is about sharing vision, and also being supportive of one another. The message of the sermon took on a different kind of shape.

And in the evening another emphasis too. It was Congregational Sunday and we found ourselves in the United Church in South Cerney, an ecumenical partnership between Congregationalists and Methodists. Two years before on Congregational Sunday I had enjoyed some banter with Rita Mae and Paul who pastor the church and have built it up as very much a centre for the village community.

On the wall there was a picture of John Wesley celebrating the church’s Methodist roots … but no picture to identify the church’s Congregational roots. When we had been in Plymouth I had spotted just the picture. Not the picture of an individual but of a ship, the Mayflower. For me it suggests the freedom to worship as the spirit leads, the separation of church and state, that faith is a pilgrimage, a journey, that we will get nowhere in the boat unless the wind fills the sails – and nowhere in the church unless empowered by the Spirit of God. Lots of thoughts. The sermon sought to make sense of our Congregational roots in the context of an ecumenical partnership.

Same sermon. Three settings. And it came across in three quite different ways.

That’s nothing new!

One gets the feeling that the stories Jesus told, he told more than once. In different settings on different occasions. They were often passed on as stories, wonderful to tell. But in different settings those stories took on different meanings.

You can see that happening in the way the Gospel writers include those stories and record them in subtly different ways. Same story, but a different setting brings out quite a different meaning.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed
Take the parable of the mustard seed.

We all know its meaning. It’s a wonderful tale of small beginnings and massive end products. A tale of hope, especially if you are only too aware of how tiny your input seems.

Mark collects most of the stories of Jesus, the parables, into one chapter and the run from one to the next to the next. They are for the most part stories about seeds and sowing, or ordinary household life. And they are parables of the Kingdom.

Jesus’ teaching ministry is just getting under way. He has come with a powerful message: “The Time is fulfilled; and the Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news.”

Based in Capernaum he has travelled the communities of Galilee with that powerful message, teaching with a remarkable authority, bringing healing into hurting people’s lives. And now he has gathered together a group of 12 to be his disciples.

And so it is we are introduced to this set of parables of the kingdom. They are parables of growth, often in a hazardous world, growth from tiny beginnings to something great in store.

You can just sense how much of an encouragement and a challenge it would be for those 12, conscious how small their movement is up against the powers that be of Rome which is really beginning to assert its powerbase in and around the Sea of Galilee and over against the Jewish powers that be that are in collaboration with Rome.

What difference will this Jesus make? What will this kingdom be like? How can it make its mark when you think how powerful the world’s powers that be really are?

‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’

The key words in the telling of that story leap out at you.

The smallest of all the seeds on earth.

The greatest of all shrubs.

What encouragement for that small band of followers of Jesus.

And it has to be an encouragement for us too. What difference are we going to make in a world where it is so difficult to make a difference?

That’s the whole point … small things do make a difference.

After the service last Sunday morning Andrea and Giovanni caught the 12-45 coach to Heathrow and on to Luton where they stayed overnight. Early Monday they caught their flight back to Italy and across the border home to Porschavio. Both were leading members of the Protestant church in their village. They had a truck already loaded with furniture. The two of them later that day, I think, were going to drive the truck over the border into Croatia and deliver furniture to an orphanage they had been supporting as a church ever since the ending of the Bosnian war.

Small things that make a difference.

What a powerful story this parable is!

But that’s not the only way this story plays.
The Parable of the Bird's Nest

In Luke’s gospel it is not just part of a collection of parables of the kingdom … it seems to come at quite a specific moment, as Jesus’s actions and his teaching address the question … who is this kingdom for?

He’s teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath when he is confronted with a woman who has had a sprit that has crippled her for eighteen yeas. Jesus doesn’t hesitate. God’s rule is precisely for the likes of this woman. He reaches out and touches her, frees her from that spirit of infirmity, and empowers her to stand tall once again.

The powers that be in the synagogue, the synagogue ruler is perturbed. It’s not the kind of thing you should do on the Sabbath.

Yes, says Jesus it is precisely what you do on the Sabbath – the kingdom is for those weighed down with afflictions impossible to bear.

When he said this all his opponents were put to shame, and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

Then comes the story.

And it is quite explicitly linked with what has gone before …

Let’s here it again in Luke 13.19-20

He said, therefore, ‘

What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? 19It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’

Same story? Yes, but it works differently. We need a different picture.

The mustard seed is no longer the tiniest of seeds. The tree is no longer the greatest of shrubs.

The story seems to drive on to its conclusion as if that’s the punchline of the story.

it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’

It is as if the point of the story is now in the space there is in the kingdom for people to make a home there. The kingdom of God is not for the ones you might expect.

As he moves non through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem someone asks a question that seems to follow on in the way Luke tells the story from that parable about the birds nesting in the branches.

Lord, will only a few be saved?

What Jesus goes on to say is uncomfortable.

Strive to enter through the narrow door, he says, for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.

The point he goes on to make is a pointed one. And it is directed at those who think they are safe and sound, those who say, Lord … .those who feel they are well k known and part of the in-crowd, those who are used to eating and drinking at table together.

Jesus’ words are directed at those for whom religion is a ladder to God. As they find themselves at the top of the ladder – they feel secure and they have power. And they wield power.

And they are in for a surprise, they will weep and gnash their teeth for with Abraham and Jacob they will see the prophets, the ones who speak for justice and for righteousness.

And those who are in power – who have got to the ladder will be brought low.

And then what will happen.
Seeing things differently

Remember the story of the mustard seed- think of it as the story of the birds nesting in the branches. The kingdom of God is for those who have been considered outsider. It is for those who are vulnerable. It is for those the powers that be reject …

Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. 30Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.’

This is powerful stuff – it’s a striking, disturbing message – and it’s the message of the parable here in Luke.

Andrea was quite remarkable – a saddler by trade. For a number of years he has opened his home to someone for two years, first from Kenya, then from Uganda, most recently from Burkina Faso. He has taught them the trade of leather making, and then equipped them with tools, set them up in a workshop back home.

We mustn’t sit back, arms folded. We must be peace makers. We must work with and for those most vulnerable – for that’s who this wonderful kingdom of God is for!
With such a familiar story, how important it is that we take time to see the same thing differently!
We need then to ask ourselves two questions:
What one little thing will I do this week that will make all the difference in the fullness of God's Kingdom?
Who will I make space for this week?

So much to pass on at Highbury

If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light