Saturday, January 26, 2008

No Variableness - No Shadow of Turning James 1:17

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.

Words of wonder, words of mystery, words of remarkable truth. Words that simply have to be read from the Authorised Version!

This has, after all, been a month of variableness. And variableness can be very unsettling. Bitterly cold one day, remarkably mild the next. Brilliant sunshine one day, a deluge of rain the next. The weather has been what the Met Office would describe as ‘variable’. But we all know this kind of variableness has to do with larger forces at work, the forces of global warming, forces that are unsettling.

And then there’s been ‘variableness’ on the economic front. Credit Crunch was a phrase we hadn’t heard until a few months ago … problems in the economy of the States and the impact is felt the world over. One day up, the next day down … variableness is unsettling, not least in its effect on the pound in your pocket.

Variableness in mood, in health, in family fortune: one day up, the next day down. Variableness is unsettling.

Every single one of us in this building today holds two things in common. We live in a world unsettled by ‘variableness’.

We come together here into the presence once more of the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness.

The trappings of what we do in this building have changed in the last 76 years, they have changed in the last 181 years: but the substance of what we do has not changed in 2000 years. We do as Jesus did on the night when he was betrayed. We take bread, We take a cup. And we remember.

And we are drawn once more into the presence of the God Jesus enables us to know as Our Father.

God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.

I love that phrase the Father of lights. It is full of mystery. It takes me out on a cold and clear night to the stars, and the God of the Universe. It takes me back to the beginning when God said, “let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night … and God saw that it was good.”

The Father God we look to is greater far than the light of his creation. The lights of his creation cast shadows that lengthen as the day draws towards its close. But we look to the Father of lights with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.

God is our refuge and strength
A very present help in trouble
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
Though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
Though its waters roar and foam,
Though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

The remarkable thing is that this God we turn to once more this day, is a God who offers us gifts, wonderful gifts, gifts beyond all imagining.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.

Does that mean that every act of giving every generous deed has something of God in it? Maybe. What a wonderful thought.

But more than that, James has in mind a very specific gift that in his gracious and boundless generosity God shares with us, as we seek it from him.

James, it is said by many, was the brother of Jesus. Leader in the church of Jerusalem, he was steeped in the Jewishness of the Hebrew Scriptures, and his letter is shot through with the teaching of Jesus, not least in The Sermon on the Mount.

Ask and it will be given you, seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened for you.

In that Sermon on the Mount Jesus invites us to pray with confidence. Those words are echoed by James here. Ask and it will be given you, such is the way of God that he gives generously and ungrudgingly.

But what is it that we lack? What is it that we should ask for?

“If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.”


Read through Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes … and you get a feel for the wisdom that James is talking of here. It is the wisdom that maps out what you should do with your life, it is the wisdom that helps you understand the purpose of life, it is the wisdom that amounts to nothing less than ‘the ability to cope’.

That’s the kind of good gift and perfect gift that is from above, that cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.

It is a very practical kind of wisdom that really does make a difference to the way you look at life, and to the way you live life. This is what God gives.

It is a wisdom that enables you to face off times of testing and times of trial: it is the kind of wisdom that enables you to know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. It is not that God sends that testing, but rather that testing does come … and God’s gift so generously given of wisdom enables us to stand our ground.

It is a wisdom that turns upside down the values of our world. Riches are not all important, the humble are lifted up – verses 9-11 echo the Magnificat in a remarkable commitment to the poor.

It is a wisdom that involves listening to the words of Jesus’ teaching. And then acting on them. “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger… Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.”

That’s the key to it.

It is good in a world of variableness to come aside for an hour and be reminded of the Father of lights with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.

It is only good to do just that, however, if this hour prompts us to back into that world of variableness where the shadows are turning and do something about it.

The kind of religion James envisages is the kind of religion Jesus embodied. It is a pure and undefiled kind of religion. Religion, that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning, is this: to care for orphans and widows, in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Did I say that each and every one of us in this building has two things in common:

We live in a world unsettled by variableness

We look to the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.

There is one more thing we must each one of us have in common.

We seek the wisdom to be ‘doers of the word’ and not hearers only.

Our prayer is for the wisdom that will send us into a world of variableness as doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.

For the pure religion that draws us to the Father of lights with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning is this: to care for those whose needs are great wherever they may be.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

A Prayer for Hope

On the Sunday of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity Highbury joined friends from St Luke's for a United Service. During the service we shared in a baptism. Robert Pestell, Vicar of St Luke's and St Michael's led the service and Richard from Highbury preached.

This week has seen two remarkable centenaries that go a long way towards explaining why our two churches are getting together today and why we believe we have so much on offer not least to Mark and Louise and Samuel as we all share in this very special baptism service today.

One hundred years ago last week on the 13th January the Town Hall was packed as people came together to listen to a lavishly illustrated talk by one of the great celebrities of the day. It was as still happens to this day in the Town Hall a talk that was linked to the launch of a book. The first installment of the book came out two days later on 16th January 2008.

The book’s title was “Scouting for Boys”. The speaker at the Town Hall was Robert Baden Powell. The title of his lavishly illustrated talk was “The Art and Craft of Scouting”.

It was, as Felicity my wife, commented in an unpublished letter to the Echo this week ‘the spark that set the camp fires of scouting burning in Cheltenham.

Within six weeks the First Cheltenham Scout Troop was meeting at the then Highbury Congregational Church Hall in what is now a youth resource centre in Grosvenor Street. It wasn’t long before the Echo reported that Mr Arthur Joseland of the Highbury Troop became “the first man in Cheltenham to obtain a regular warrant as first-class Scoutmaster.”

One hundred years on The 1st Cheltenham (Highbury) Scout Group will be celebrating its centenary on Saturday 7th June at the Scouting Centre at Cranham.

And St Luke’s will be involved because of course for many years Scouts met at St Luke’s and then joined in with the Highbury Group.

That involvement of our two churches together in support of a young people’s movement brings us to the next of our two centenaries for this week.

One hundred years ago this week Spencer Jones, Vicar of Moreton-in-Marsh here in Gloucestershire joined with an American Paul Wattson and came up with the idea of setting aside a week of prayer for Christian Unity from 18th to 25th January.

Here we are one hundred years on. The Anglican parishes of St Luke’s and St Michael’s in Whaddon linking up with Highbury Congregational Church to work together. We share a big commitment to working for children. It’s great to share with Wes through our St Luke’s connection and through Cheltenham Youth for Christ as this year we extend our Holiday Club Activity beyond the summer and into Christmas and next Easter as well. As the Open the Book initiative takes Bible stories into St John’s school so we hope to put another team together with friends from Highbury and St Michael’s to take Bible stories into assemblies in Whaddon Primary School and Lynworth Primary School as well. It’s great that St Luke’s oversees the St John’s school – and we think of them particularly as they have an Ofsted Inspection this week. I am so sorry, Robert, that I had to ask you to stand in for me in assembly next Wednesday and leave you to face the Ofsted Inspectors!

We have been challenged this year by an initiative called Hope 2008 to develop the work we do for the community around us. In fact, each of our three churches actively encourages and supports all sorts of community groups. From today we would like to get a small working group together from the three churches to look at all the groups that use our church premises and all the ways our three churches support the local community, from St Luke’s hall, the Highbury church premises, to the Cornerstone Project in Whaddon. Maybe we can identify needs among some of those groups that we could meet more effectively, and maybe we could publicise their work together for the community. One highlight in the middle of the year will be a Health and Well being event that we would like to work on together at Highbury exploring the way in which people in the community can be better supported.

It would be great to try to identify people who could work on this Hope 2008 project together from today.

We work together. Today we worship together. We also pray together.

It is in the prayer that we share that you can find what it is we have on offer that is so very special to all our churches, to the community around those churches, to families and children like Samuel here.

It is what drives us to work with children and young people. It is what drives us to work for the community.

The prayer we have is summed up in those words from Paul we read a moment or two ago.

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you,

The hope to which he has called you. That’s what we have on offer. Hope.

Hope can be hard to come by. It’s been a strangely disturbing week as the rains have come again and flooding has been all too apparent. There’s no escaping the issue of global warming any longer. A fortnight ago Mark Evans, one time youth leader and deacon at Highbury now Minister of Belvedere and Erith Congregational churches was telling us in the evening service about Andrew White’s work of ministry in Baghdad. That very day seven of the ancient Christian churches of Iraq were bombed. Somehow the uncertainties of our world with its terror and its fear come home to you. Personal things that happen in family and among friends call in question our hope.

It’s a funny old world that little Samuel is going to grow up in.

We need to look at that world with eyes that see beyond the surface of things. We need to see with the eyes of our heart. It’s very easy for our hearts to be weighed down, especially when we are conscious of all the troubles in our world. We need to see with the eyes of our heart enlightened. We need to look with a wisdom that goes beyond just what we can see with our eyes. It needs to be an inner wisdom that begins to see things as they really are deep down.

In a sense that was what was going on 100 years ago with that book launch in the Town Hall by Baden Powell that led to the Scouting movement.

One hundred years ago it was easy to despair at what was happening, not least to young people as they were growing up in a society that could be very cruel. And where young people themselves could be cruel.

Baden-Powell was concerned at the numbers of young men who had nothing to occupy them. The press of the day was swift to condemn those young people.

There’s nothing new is there!

But Baden-Powell did not condemn them. He did not deplore them for their idleness. Instead, he looked deeper, heart enlightened if you like, and he recognised that with the right opportunities and leadership they could become useful citizens, healthy in body and mind.

It was that ability to look at a world of hopelessness and despair and see it with the eyes of the heart that caught the imagination of that generation here in Cheltenham and all over the world in the hundred years since.

Where does that new kind of wisdom come from, how can we see with the heart enlightened?

The conviction we share in our churches and today share in this baptism service with Samuel, is that it comes from the God who is the creator of this world of ours, who through Jesus Christ not only maps out for us a way of life to follow, but through his death and resurrection opens up for us a way of living that’s rooted in love and in hope, and that nothing can get the better of.

It is as the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory gives us a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know him, that the eyes of our heart are enlightened, we see in a new kind of way, and we may know what is the hope to which we are called.

My prayer for myself, for us all, for little Samuel …

Is simply the prayer of St Paul …

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.

That hope will never let us down.

I invite you therefore to join with me in making a commitment to share that hope through our churches into our community and into the world.

With God’s help:
I affirm that in 2008, I intend to bring:-

Harmony in place of discord
Opportunities out of challenges
Praise instead of criticism
Encouragement to replace despair.

We affirm that in our Church, 2008 will be a year of:-

Holiness and wholeness
One purpose for many people
Prayer that leads to action
Everyone finding a place to belong.

We pray that for our community, 2008 will be a year of:-

Healing for those who are broken
Order where there is chaos
Protection for the vulnerable
Enterprise for all.

We pray for our nation, that 2008 will be a year of:-

Health of body mind and spirit
Open-hearted attitudes
Passion for justice and mercy
Expectations and visions fulfilled.

We pray that The God of all Hope will give us the faith and courage to live lives that will release HOPE this year.

I make this declaration and pray this prayer in the name of Jesus Christ our Saviour and Lord. Amen.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you

This Sunday we shared in the sacrament of baptism with Tabi. It was a wonderful celebration of the free gift of God's love given by grace to each and everyone of us. It was at the same time a challenge to us all to ask ourselves whether we have made that grace our own by responding to it in faith. What difference does this Christian faith make to us? was the kind of question at the back of our minds as we reflected on 1 Peter 5:7, a verse that one of the senior members of the church shared with 6 year old Tabi.

It’s a bit ironic.

It’s Tabi’s baptism service … but now she’s not with us any more.

That’s actually to miss the point! Tabi and all the children are doing exactly what we are doing – exploring what it means to be followers of Jesus. They are doing it at their level as the Bubbles and Splash groups meet in the second part of our service.

And this baptism service is actually for all of us … it’s not about Tabi. It’s about the difference Jesus can make as he comes into our lives and as we belong to him and we belong to each other.

What difference does our Christian faith make?

First of all, our Christian faith breaks barriers down. We meet together across the age divide and in our church family there are all sorts of different people. It matters to me that the generations mix together – and here at church they do that in quite a unique way. After our Remembrance Sunday service our 102 year old Margaret was at the door with another of our six year olds, Megan. I got them talking to each other. What a remarkable moment. And today, a greeting from Ivy, someone Tabi hasn’t actually met … but who is as much part of our church family as anyone else.

To belong to a church family is to belong to an extended family that breaks down all sorts of barriers. Next week we won’t be here. At 10-00 (note the earlier time!) we shall join with friends from St Luke’s over at St Luke’s. Mixing with another family. That extended family reaches right round the world and brings together people of all races and of all nationalities.

It took time to sink in for Peter. He was steeped in a way of looking at the world that saw it in terms of us and them. His was a world of stark divisions. He didn’t really want to have much to do with the occupying Romans. And then he had a vision. And when the very next day he was invited to the home of Cornelius, a Roman commander, he saw the light.

I could now realise that God treats everyone on the same basis. That’s the remarkable thing about belonging to Jesus and belonging to each other. We are called to be a worshipping people who seek to do what is right and good and make a difference in the world. As we worship and do what is right we are acceptable to him no matter what race we belong to, what background we come from, who we are.

All of this is possible because belonging to Church is all about belonging to Jesus Christ, the Jesus Christ who went everywhere doing good and healing people. God was with Jesus Christ … and our task is to witnesses for him … to share the wonderful good news that through this Jesus we have access to a power beyond ourselves to help us live our lives, and in this Jesus we have a wonderful forgiving love that has the power to renew and strengthen us.

Acts 10:34-43

34 Peter began to speak: “I now realize that it is true that God treats everyone on the same basis.
35 Those who worship him and do what is right are acceptable to him, no matter what race they belong to. 36 You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, proclaiming the Good News of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. 37 You know of the great event that took place throughout the land of Israel, beginning in Galilee after John preached his message of baptism. 38 You know about Jesus of Nazareth and how God poured out on him the Holy Spirit and power. He went everywhere, doing good and healing all who were under the power of the Devil, for God was with him. 39 We are witnesses of everything that he did in the land of Israel and in Jerusalem. Then they put him to death by nailing him to a cross. 40 But God raised him from death three days later and caused him to appear, 41 not to everyone, but only to the witnesses that God had already chosen, that is, to us who ate and drank with him after he rose from death. 42 And he commanded us to preach the gospel to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God has appointed judge of the living and the dead. 43 All the prophets spoke about him, saying that all who believe in him will have their sins forgiven through the power of his name.”

I don’t know how you feel. I sometimes feel that the youngsters out there are growing up into a scary world. It’s more than a little un-nerving being a parent today.

I have a sneeking suspicion it has always been the case. When that 102 year old was six the storm clouds were gathering over Europe and the First World War was beginning to loom over the horizon. That was a scary world.

In church we hear each other’s stories. When you listen to all that generation has been through … it’s a scary place, this world of ours. And it always has been so.

It’s special to have that greeting from Ivy today. She’s one of those special people, and there are many of them in our church family and in every church family to go to visit. You might think you do pastoral visiting in order to make other people feel better. The funny thing is that often the opposite happens – you feel all the better yourself!

Ivy is one of those who has drawn on a remarkable strength from her faith in the face of what has been and is a scary world. She has verses she draws on.

One of those verses is in a letter written by Peter when he was a great deal older and in many ways, perhaps wiser. He wrote to Christians everywhere … and his letter very much speaks down through the ages to us in church today.

Make no mistake about it his was a scary world. By the time he wrote this letter a good number of his close friends had been executed in the cruellest of ways simply for following Jesus Christ. He himself, so tradition has it, was to die at the hands of the Romans not long after writing this letter.

And yet, in his older years. He had a very deep and very strong hope. It was a hope that was rooted in Jesus Christ. Peter knew that Jesus had come alongside him in all his suffering and had suffered himself even to the extent on the cross of feeling abandoned by God. That’s pretty severe!

But Peter also knew that Jesus rose again from the dead … and that resurrection released for Peter a very real and very powerful sense of hope. His letter touches on moments of deep suffering. But it is shot through with an indefatigable hope

1 Peter 1:1-5

To God's chosen people who live as refugees scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. 2 You were chosen according to the purpose of God the Father and were made a holy people by his Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be purified by his blood.
May grace and peace be yours in full measure.
A Living Hope
3 Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! Because of his great mercy he gave us new life by raising Jesus Christ from death. This fills us with a living hope, 4 and so we look forward to possessing the rich blessings that God keeps for his people. He keeps them for you in heaven, where they cannot decay or spoil or fade away. 5 They are for you, who through faith are kept safe by God's power for the salvation which is ready to be revealed at the end of time.

It’s towards the end of that letter that we arrive at the verse that’s so special to Ivy. On Wednesday, as I was preparing for this service, it was the single verse we were invited to read by Josephine Muchelemba who belongs to the church we are partnered with through the Council for World Mission in Zambia.

She was writing in our new CWM book of daily devotion.

I came back to it repeatedly through the day … at our Hy-Way meeting in my visits, not least to Ivy herself in hospital, and as we met together to sift the applications.

It’s a verse that I’ve linked with the greeting from Ivy for Tabi.

It may not be of such importance to her at the moment … but maybe in years to come.

It’s certainly a verse for all of us as parents.

It’s a verse for all of us too.

1 Peter 5:7

Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.

What a wonderful thought! Anxiety – a state of mind that at times I guess gets the better of most of us.

Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.

Josephine Muchelemba quotes the verse slightly differently. The difference is not insignificant.

“Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”

I guess we each have specific anxieties. As they begin to pile up so that’s what leads to anxiety as a state of mind.

Maybe the way to cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you, is to take each of the anxieties that trouble you, in your minds eye one at a time and cast them on him, because he cares for you.

What a wonderful thought.

The prayer Josephine Muchelemba finished her reflection with is not a bad one for us to share as well …

Dear God, help us to put you in control of our lives. Amen.

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