Sunday, November 29, 2009

Be an Angel for Advent

It’s just not me!

I guess it’s the wings that wind me up!

They look just a little bit too like fairies … and I don’t believe in fairies!

So I don’t have much time for angels.

And maybe that’s a pity!

After all … they have nothing to do with fairies, and not much to do with wings either for that matter!

And someone’s asked the question … and today seemed a good day to offer a response!

After all, today is Advent Sunday, and in the Christmas story angels figure large. Not least in the newly released film Nativity!

He's quite some Gabriel!

But who was the Gabriel who announced the wonderful Good news of the coming of Jesus to Mary? Nicky, one of our church members reads the story. Click here to listen to Mary at Home!

In the Greek world the word angellos was used simply for the messenger, the ambassador in human affairs, who speaks and acts in the place of the one who has sent him.” Dictionary of NT Theology Vol 1 page 101 Article by H Bietenhard

In the Old Testament there are two contrasting views of angels

  1. there are angels who are heavenly beings, members of the LORD’s court, who serve and praise him (Job 1:6, Isa 6:2) – sometimes they are called holy ones, strong ones, heroes, sons of God, heavenly beings. They were in at creation, they mediate revelation
  2. and then there are the destroying angels, the destroyer, the ministers of death
  3. the cherubim are special kinds of angels who show traits of both men and animals, and the seraphim who are the ones who do have 6 wings! Maybe that’s where the wings come from.

Not so common in the older books, they are spoken of more and more in the later books of the Old Testament, and in Judaism just before the time of Christ they are spoken of a lot.

They create in the mind’s eye a sense of the awesome majesty and wonder of God. They are always less than God. They are always linked to the Revelation and the wonder of God.

All of those ideas are carried over into the New Testament.

Half a dozen times angels are simply ordinary people carrying a message from someone. For the most part they have that heavenly sense and carry a message from God.

Always they are an expression of God, an outflowing of God, where angels are spoken of God is not far away – think this is really something special coming from God.

As Christmas approaches and we read those Christmas stories in Luke’s gospel we are not to be drawn to the angels – the angels in those stories draw us always to God and to Christ. Mary hears the words of the angel – and she knows what is happening is of God. The shepherds see the heavenly host – the whole mass of heavenly beings – and the whole point is that the message is of God and points towards Christ.

Think angels and then immediately be drawn closer and closer to God.

Three things about angels I want to take away with me …

First, Angels bring the message of Christmas from God. We are called to carry that message into our world. What we want to do this year is to take Christmas into the world and see what a difference it will make. Do take a bundle of cards – and take the message into the world around the church! Take to heart the angels’ song, take to heart the angel’s message – and be an angel – take the message out into the world you live in.

Second, on our pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Joanne Moston, our Roman Catholic guide, started each day as soon as everyone was on the bus with a prayer to the Guardian Angels to look after us on our travels. That’s not me! But at Highbury I inherited a custom from Clifford Small – on every church coach trip since the first one I took in Clifford’s company I have always prayed a prayer of blessing at the start of our journey and at its close.

It became comical on our Ecumenical Pilgrimage as Joanne would say her prayer to the Guardian Angels and hand the microphone to me for me to say my good, Protestant prayer in Jesus’ name seeking a blessing on our journeying. And we had a double blessing each day!!

But Matthew 18:10 has that wonderful thought that once I had no time for, but now have more time for … Jesus is talking about taking great care of little children. “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.” What a wonderful thought – each of us has in heaven an angel looking out for us – a guardian angel. A touching thought. But the point of that is actually not to direct us to the guardian angels in heaven. But it makes us think differently about each and every little child, and for that matter each and ever individual we encounter – we should always remember that they each have their angels looking out for them, looking in the face of God. That means we must care for each with an extra special care.

That thought is then finally developed in Hebrews chapter 13 – Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

If you are fascinated by angels – don’t get too engrossed. Look through the angels to the glory of God in Jesus Christ. But this verse suggests that we need to show kindness and give help and offer hospitality to complete strangers – for we may well be entertaining angels unawares. That’s a wonderful thought.

Be an angel and take the message of Christmas into the world.

Remember everyone has angels looking out for them so respect and honour each person, not least those littlest ones.

And finally help strangers and entertain angels unawares.

Earlier in our service Graham Ledger had introduced us to Street Pastors, to be launched in Cheltenham on Saturdya, 5th December. He had shown us a video of the work of Street Pastors. To see that video click here: Street Pastors take to the streets. To learn more about the launch of Street Pastors in Cheltenham click on the picture below.

Graham and co had the vision for Street Pastors in Cheltenham.

It was a vision needing to be owned by the churches.

And so the church leaders group that meets regularly was given a presentation by a friend who recently moved to Stonehouse from Watford. In Watford the vision had been to help people on the streets in the night time … and in the day time as well.

They had an initiative. Just the same.

But with a different name.

They called their initiative. Angels.

That’s the heart of our Street Pastor Scheme.

Not so much in taking the message of Christ and of God – that’s not what it’s about.

Rather – each of those people on the streets has their angels looking into the face of God and need our honour and respect.

And as Christians our task is to help the stranger – for in doing that we may well be entertaining angels unawares.

It is not so much that the Street Pastors are the Angels – rather that the person in need may well be the angel the Street Pastor meets, and everyone of those people whose needs they seek to help has their angels looking out for them and so is infinitely precious in the sight of God.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Remembrance Sunday

On Wednesday it was announced that the papers of Siegfried Sassoon had been saved for the nation and would be housed in Cambridge University. It was a reminder of that great tradition of war poetry that came from the First World War … the likes of Siegried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, struggling with the scale of the horror of war.

I found myself that afternoon speaking to HyWay. My mind went naturally to the weekend we had spent re-visiting old haunts in Shrophire where for eight years we had ministered to the Congregational churches of Pontesbury and Minsterley. We had enjoyed a weekend visiting our old churches, many old friends and exploring the beautiful, if little known, countryside of the Shropshire Hills and in particular the Stiperstones.

I told something of the story of Mary Webb, novelist and poet who lived in and loved the countryside all around those two villages. It was not only the men who had fought on the front in the first world war who wrote moving poems of the awfulness of what was unfolding. Mary Webb’s poetry of the war didn’t make it into the collections published immediately after the war, they make moving reading. As does one of her finest novels. Ostensibly Gone to Earth is a novel by a lover of the countryside and of all nature of the horrors of fox hunting. Written in 1916, however, it is also about the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man as it was witnessed in the awfulness of war. Indeed on one day alone, as she was writing, 1st July 20,000 British soldiers were killed, 40,000 wounded.

On Wednesday we reeled from the news that five soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan. And since Wednesday we are horror struck at the rising death toll. A different scale, but for those families, for those who were wounded, the same sheer awfulness of war.

Today we have observed the two minutes silence and remembered all those who lost their lives in war and honoured their memory by re-committing ourselves to the search for peace.

And closer to home this week we have touched sadness and troubled lives.

It is at the end of a week like this I find myself asking what is the point? How do we cope in such a troubled world? How do we get through?

I find helpful pointers to a response to those questions in Romans chapter 8.

As a wonderful find of letters at Vindolanda on Hadrian’s wall shows – people supported each other by letter during the days of the Roman Empire.

Romans 8 is part of a real letter written by Paul to a Christian community in Rome that at times is up against it, living as it does in the sometimes hostile atmosphere of the Emperor Nero’s Rome. What Paul is doing as he writes is offering support to people who feel very much on their own and who need encouragement and support from outside their own situation.

That’s my first observation. There are occasions when we need to support each other, we need to acknowledge our own need of help from one another. That is the strength of an occasion such as Remembrance Sunday.

In the first part of our service we read out names of young people associated with our church who died in the wars of the 20th Century and in Iraq in the 21st Century. We also honoured two of our older members. Gwen had worked in Bletchley Park as part of the code-breaking team. She was one of those surviving members of that remarkable group of people who only a couple of months ago were awarded a medal in honour of their service to their country.

We also heard from Vic who shared his memories of his own service during the war years.

You can listen to Vic's recollections on YouTube by clicking on this link. Vic Remembers for Remembrance Sunday

It was moving to hear Vic’s memories, to be reminded in my generation of what an earlier generation experienced not all that long before I was born. It was moving to be reminded how real the sadnesses within those memories are, and how important this Remembrance Sunday is – a moment not for solitary remembering, but for shared remembrance and support.

The very act of writing letters to Christian communities, especially such a one as this in Rome that were struggling with their own circumstances, is an act of solidarity, a recognition of the need to support each other.

Paul offers an insight into what’s going on that for him helps to make sense of a suffering world. It isn’t something that answers all those unanswerable questions. But it is an insight that he holds on to and that gives him hope.

Paul takes seriously the awfulness of the suffering there is in the world. He sees around him a world that is, ‘subjected to futility’, in ‘bondage to decay’. But he is convinced that no matter how great the awfulness of the world and its agony the goodness of the love of God is greater and will ultimately prevail. He uses the analogy of the labour pains of child birth – to suggest that out of all the agony and pain and suffering of the world, something better will come.

Paul’s reaction to a world of sometimes horrific suffering was not to give up on his faith on God, but to renew that sense of faith in God in the conviction that ‘all things work together for good for those who love God’.

‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ?’ he asks. Will hardship, or distress or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

That is the hope Paul holds on to. And he is the first to acknowledge that it is hope. In the middle of the awfulness of the Rome that Christian community were living in it was hard to see. In the middle of the awfulness of the 20th Century wars, or for that matter the wars of the 21st Century it is almost impossible to see. But Paul is quite blunt: ‘in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.’

By writing his letter in these terms Paul captures why being part of church is so fundamentally important to being a Christian. There are some circumstances when it is impossible to go it alone. We need the support of one another. That’s what we are doing precisely at this moment, and in the whole life we share together here at Highbury. We support each other here in the context of this church … as we hold on to our conviction that the ultimate victory of God’s good is assured and that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

There are two things that we can then do. First, is to pray. All of us are supported by prayer … but the reality is in the middle of the awfulness of no end of circumstances prayer doesn’t come easily.

The words of prayer ring hollow, as Shakespeare explores only too powerfully as the tragedy of Hamlet unfolds …

My words go up, my thoughts remain below,

Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

The genius of Paul’s writing in this, so supportive letter to that underground group of Christians in Rome, is that he recognises precisely this weakness, and how vulnerable it makes you feel.

It is precisely at the point at which our human frailty gets the better of us, hope eludes us and we feel at our most vulnerable, that we have a strength from beyond ourselves that we can draw on. It is in this chapter as Paul touches on the awfulness of suffering in an agonising world that he refers to the Spirit of God more frequently than in any other chapter.

It is at this precise moment of weakness and vulnerability, that ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness.’

Paul knows exactly how it feels when the words of prayer fail us.

At that moment, ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray a we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit.’


It is so vitally important.

But prayer is at its most powerful, when it feels as if we have lost the ability to pray and words fail us. It is at that moment that in our groaning, in our sighing, God’s Spirit takes over the praying for us … and God knows our innermost thoughts … and God is there to sustain us and to see is through.

We support each other.

We all of us are supported by prayer.

And then we need to take a leaf out of Paul’s book, or rather out of his letter. As we receive such help, we need, in turn, to offer help to others as well. Is there a letter of encouragement we could do with writing? Maybe it needs writing. Or a word of encouragement we can share with someone else … we need to share it.

We support each other.

We all of us are supported by prayer.

And we are all called to share in the service of other people.

We’ll give the last word to Vic …

To hear Vic's memories of what followed on after the war and his life-time of service click on this link: Vic Remembers a Life-time of Service

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Why do good people die?

It seemed a good idea a couple of weeks ago when I put my plans for today’s service together. I did it a week in advance because we were going away.

I looked at the calendar and today has an appropriateness for addressing this particular question.

Yesterday was all hallows eve – Halloween – and great to have a Light Party for the children, not to mention our wonderful Come and Sing Messiah!

That makes today, 1st November, All Hallows day, or as it is better known nowadays, All Saints Day. I have to confess it is not a day I mark in the Christian Calendar. But this year it seemed a good idea.

At least, it seemed a good idea then, a fortnight ago … I am not so sure now. After all, it really is one of those big questions that people struggle with, and if I am honest it is a big question I have struggled with too.

Why do good people die?

It’s funny, isn’t it. One thing that we all have in common, one thing we all know will happen, is death. And yet death is one thing that remains something of a taboo subject. It’s not good to talk about it too much, and so we avoid it, talk around it, evade the issue.

And then something untimely happens, something out of the blue, and it happens to the person it should not happen to. Out of time, and in a way that’s just wrong … someone dies. And you feel they shouldn’t have died.

It was lovely returning to Shropshire and visiting the churches we belonged to before moving down here to Cheltenham. It was the first time we had been back just for fun. We had been back to take services a couple of times; we had been back for funerals on two occasions. It was great going back as a family and going to both churches last Sunday morning as a family. It was great going up into the Shropshire hills. Wild and rugged in the wind on the Saturday and Sunday, at their most beautiful in the sun on the Monday. It was great to bump into a family on the Monday afternoon on the top of the hill everyone who lives in Pontesbury thinks of as our hill. Earl’s hill. It felt as if we were at home.

On our first morning we went into Shrewsbury on the Park and Ride, and got talking to a fellow-passenger waiting for the bus, as you do. I felt catapulted right back into the world we were in for those eight years. In the space of five minutes the lady we spoke to spoke of her sadness at the loss of her daughter in a car crash, the loss of her husband at a young age … and the culling of all the livestock on their farm.

It was only a chance conversation at the bus stop.

Her daughter was a good girl, her husband a good farmer, her livestock good cattle

Why, why, why do good people die.

In those eight years it was a question I found myself asking time and again. The countryside is not the idyllic place townspeople imagine: it has its darker side too, not least in loneliness and depression. In those eight years I became involved with more families who had lost a loved one through suicide than in all the rest of my life put together. And they were all ‘good people’. Why do good people die?

I became involved with more families who had lost a loved one in a road accident that in all the rest of my life put together. And they were all ‘good people’. Why do good people die?

People lost it tragically … and losing it went for the gun in the corner of the room – the deaths that followed were deaths that prompted the awful question again, Why do good people die?

We were given a wonderful book that had been published for the millennium – a big, glossy publication. The churches and chapels of Pontesbury Parish. And there was the story of our chapel. And there was a potted biography of me as minister! It was during our time there that we developed a healing ministry.

No sooner was that under way in a wonderful partnership with our GP who was also our Church Secretary, but the awful happened. Ian’s wife, Beryl, was diagnosed with an inoperable cancer and within six months had died.

Unquestionably, a good person.

Why do good people die?

Just before we moved to Shropshire my father died while still in hospital after receiving surgery that we thought would make him better and enable him to enjoy the retirement that had only just begun.

Just after we left Shropshire my mother died when as a pedestrian she was knocked over by someone doing 40 mph within a 30 mph speed limit.

An untimely death and an unnecessary death of two good people … why do good people die?

Let me say straightaway.

I do not have an answer.

Let me offer three reflections and one response..

First, there is no escaping the question: better to let it out in rage than to bottle it up. I find great comfort in the knowledge that even people of the deepest faith find this a troubling question.

Psalm 13 has long been a favourite of mine. It is the cry of despair of one who has asked this question so many times and still hasn’t had a response from God …

How long, O Lord, Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

Psalm 22 begins with that sense of being forsaken of God that Jesus experiences on the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’

Within prayer there is space for rage at God. The question must not be bottled up.

When our church secretary and GP’s wife died, Ian Bradley told the story of the experiences he and Beryl had shared from the time they first knew something was wrong to the time of her death and shared it in some very moving Bible studies and in a moving booklet.

Ian did not find it helpful to try to work out an understanding of God that would explain the question. In fact he warns against trying to mould an understanding of God that answers such questions.

Ian speaks movingly of the way both he and Beryl found it helpful to focus beyond themselves on God as he is, as they had discovered him in the Bible, through the church, in hymns that had been their favourites in the faith that had been passed on to him.

Ian draws a distinction between a prayer of thanksgiving in which you give thanks for things that have happened, for gifts of God and blessings, and a prayer of praise in which you focus on God in his reality, in his mystery and above all in his love. He and Beryl valued the power of praise to take you out of yourself and to focus you on the reality of God, in all his mystery and in all his love.

The Psalmist does not move in either of those psalms to an understanding of God, but rather to praise of God in spite of the circumstances he finds himself in.

After four bleak verses of Psalm 13 the Psalmist finds no answer to his questions, but puts his trust in God …

But I trusted in your steadfast love;

My heart shall rejoice in your salvation.

I will sing to the Lord,

Because he has dealt bountifully with me.

This whole issue is taken up in the book of Job. Job is a good man who encounters untold suffering. And this begs the question Why?

Friends come with explanations that try to mould an understanding of God that will account for the untold suffering and loss that Job experiences. None satisfies Job. No answer can encapsulate God.

Job then finds himself in the open confronted by the grandeur and majesty of God, and senses that God is greater and far beyond all that is happening to him. The book comes to an end with Job finding no answer, but coming to live with unanswered questions.

My first reflection then is to focus on the reality of God. This is exactly where Jesus begins in that passage from John 14 that we read earlier. Let not your hearts be troubled, he says to his close friends at the Last Supper on the night in which he was betrayed, the night before he was to be crucified. It was as if he was preparing his friends for the following day when they would find themselves asking precisely this question of Jesus, Why do good people die? Why has this good person died?

Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God.

This is the first thing to hold on to. Faith in God. It’s not helpful to try to work out some kind of ‘theology of God’ that answers all those raging questions. Instead hold on to believing in the God that has been revealed in Bible in favourite hymns, through the church down through the ages. Keep on believing in God.

But that is easier said than done.

And so I want to move on to the second of my reflections.

Ian called the little booklet he wrote ‘A Journey with Jesus’. He speaks movingly of the way he and Beryl felt they were not alone in the often frightening journey they had to make.

In John 14 Jesus goes on to say,

Do not let your hearts be troubled.

Believe in God, believe also in me.

In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.

If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

And if I go and prepare a place for you,

I will come again and will take you to myself.

On the way to the car-park to climb Earl’s Hill we passed a cottage where one of our older members had lived. I well remember visiting her in hospital, when we thought she was dying. Indeed it seemed that she had died. But she pulled through … and subsequently spoke of that sense of walking down a long passageway, a tunnel with a sense of not being alone, but with light drawing her on.

That stuck with me. It meant a lot to Ian and Beryl. The journey to death and what is beyond is a journey we do not make on our own. Friends and family can accompany us so far on the way. But there comes a point when we have to go further. At that point Jesus is with us alongside us accompanying us, leading us home.

I will come again and take you to myself,

so that where I am there you may be also.

The second reflection, then, is that we must hold on not just to believing in God, but to believing in Jesus as the One who comes alongside us and journeys with us through the darkest of times.

And the third reflection again echoes thoughts Ian shared in that booklet.

Ian went on to speak of the importance of that unseen, yet very real presence and strength of God in Christ that is given us in the unseen power of God that is the Holy Spirit. Jesus says in this chapter,

I will not leave you orphaned. I will not leave you all on your own.

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Comforter, a strength alongside you, an Advocate, A counsellor, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth who abides with you and will be in you.

Living with unanswered questions …

  1. let’s hold on to our believing in God,
  2. let’s recognise we are not alone, we have the presence of Christ with us on the journey
  3. and we have the unseen yet very real strength of the Spirit of God around us and within.

Why do good people die?

The church does not have an answer.

The church does have a response.

We can point people to the reality of God, the God who comes alongside us and walks the journey of life at its worst with us in Jesus Christ, who offers us a strength from beyond ourselves in the unseen, yet very real power of the Holy Spirit.

The response we make is even more important.

For Ian and Beryl it was important that they were not alone. They were part of a Church fellowship.

He writes, “So much of what we received from God could only have been received because we were part of a Christian fellowship – the body of Christ on earth.

“God’s love came to us through the labours of those who baked cakes, dug our garden, tidied the house, and did so many other things. We were not relying on some abstract concept of God’s love, but were experiencing it in a very real and practical way. It was in that atmosphere we were able to know the full joy and peace of God.”

The question remains.

The answer is elusive.

But the response we make makes a world of difference.

Fundamental to our response to this question is not just the faith we share and celebrate this All Saints Day, but also the love we embody through all the pastoral care we share as a church that seeks to be the body of Christ on earth in this place.

How good that this All Saints Day we celebrate our visiting scheme by saying thank you to Joan and Olga for all they have done in co-ordinating our visiting network, and to Phil and Joyce, David and Betty for all the work they are doing, together with all our church visitors and all the church family.

We can become the response to a question that has no answer.

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