On the Road!

During my years at university I had a dream of visiting a certain bar in London. You might think visiting the bar is the dream and daily practise of most students, but this was a very particular bar, and I wasn’t planning to go there for the beer. No, this was Bob’s Blues Bar in North London, which boasted the claim of being the only bar in Europe that had live blues every night. Rumour had it that the musicians weren’t just local musos, but if you got the right night you might be entertained by the likes of Eric Clapton. Naturally as a guitarist and lover of this form of music, this was a must visit location! Finally, not long after my course finished, I managed to round up a few friends and off we went, hiking in hunt for this mystical venue. It took some tracking down, which surprised us – until we found out why. It had been closed down a few months before over some licensing issue. I was absolutely gutted…

Today (Sunday) as you read this I will trying to fulfil another life’s ambition and pilgrimage, taking part in the London to Brighton cycle ride. I’ve always wanted to do this, and hearing that a group were doing it from St. Cuthbert’s gave me the excuse to do it – please forgive my absence this morning! Hopefully by the time you read this I won’t be too far from the infamous Ditchling Beacon, the killer climb just before the descent into Brighton. We’re getting up for a 5am departure from Hoddesdon in the hope to make an early start from Clapham, so don’t expect me to be with it Monday morning.

Two pilgrimages. There were or will be obstacles on both, and yet in both, the end of the journey and the companions on the road will provide the motivation to keep going. One of the themes we’ll be touching on over the next couple of months at church, especially in the evening where we’ll be looking at the Exodus story, is this theme of being people of pilgrimage. We’re on a journey with God, a daily adventure of faith. We have times of great delight and laughter, and moments of despair and frustration too, but just as I hope I’ve found today, we’ll have each other’s company to keep us going. More than that, we’ll have the glorious presence of the Holy Spirit to guide us and provide us will the energy and desire to keep going. There’s also a finishing line, God’s Kingdom in all its wonder, where all wrongs are righted and all made new.

If I’m honest, I’m a little worried that I’m not as fit as I’d like to be for today, somehow August flew by in a fit of busyness and the bike was left lonely most days. Let’s not embark on this journey without being fit, but train ourselves through prayer, Scripture and sharing our stories of God at work with each other, encouraging each other with hospitality, a listening ear, and travelling companionship.

Book Review: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

The Illustrated ManThe Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A collection of short stories by one of the masters of his genre. Most only a few pages long, all with intriguing concepts. There is inevitably a range of quality amongst them, and personally I’d have loved to have seen them tied to the opening motif of the tattooed man more, but despite this the book is satisfying. There are some standouts – I shall never view virtual reality in the same way again having read the story of the futuristic children’s playroom, and as a church minister found the story of hunting for Jesus from planet to planet fascinating. My favourite is the story of the mannequins – had heard this previously on the radio and was delighted to find it in these pages so I could read it again.

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Roll up, roll up!

I received a wonderful text during the week in which a church member revealed that their child had described me as the ringleader of the church! I thought this was wonderful. Picture me in a top hat and tails, a whip in hand, as the rest of the church performed in turn as circus acts to the applause of the audience. I wonder, if I am the ringleader, who is the strongman (or woman, let’s not be sexist!) Who is the trapeze artist? The lion tamer? And just who are the clowns…

Having giggled about this for a while I began to think about the picture a little more deeply, and you know what? I came to the conclusion that it’s not such a bad image of the church after all, in fact I really like it! First off, think about the circus. What do you go home talking about? Your favourite act. Maybe an acrobat or animal handler or magician. It certainly wouldn’t be the ringleader – that would be a really poor circus! The ringleader’s job is not the star act, just the one that helps coordinate the whole. So it is with the church. The minister is not the centre if attraction. If any one person is, that should be Jesus. No, the minister is there to help encourage, train and coordinate the church members so that they can do the job that Jesus has called them to. Their act is the main thing!

The acts in a circus are all different too. It would be boring if the performance consisted of one juggler after another. Again, so it is with the church. We’re all called to different roles, some preachers, some tea makers, some gardeners, some school teachers, some civil servants, some musicians and so on. We aren’t the same.we’re all important and valuable. Don’t measure yourself by others, measure yourself by how devoted you are in the roles God has given you in life.

Finally, the circus would be meaningless without the audience. The entertainers would have fun for a while but what would be the point? Surely its the same for us? Are we church for our own benefit or for the sake of others? A former Archbishop of Canterbury said that the church is the only institution that exists for the benefit of its non-members… There’s certainly something in that I think.

On that note, roll up, roll up, and let the show begin!

(Church Newsletter Article 17.07.16)

Review: High-Rise

High-Rise by J.G. Ballard

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I kind of enjoyed this read, but not as much as I hoped. Its an interesting idea and Ballard successfully makes the High-Rise an ominous character looming over the story as a whole, much as the One Ring does in Tolkien (although as the introduction suggests, the darkness is not from the High-Rise, but is in humanity, only revealed and emancipated but the architecture). I think what spoilt it for me is having just read The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This also deals with the ‘fallen’ nature of humanity, our inherent potential for violence and cruelty etc. but in doing so adds a lot more nuance that Ballard’s characters who I felt quickly became two dimensional. In The Narrow Road there is resistance to this descent, glimmers of hope as well as wretchedness. Both books are born out of the war and concentration camps, hence no doubt the authors desire to explore the topic, but to my mine, The Narrow Road does it far more effectively and movingly than High-Rise.

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Review: Sharing the Word

Sharing the Word
Sharing the Word by Lucy Atkinson Rose

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Currently in the process of writing a review of this for my DMin course, and so won’t write a full review just now, but I found this a thought-provoking read that got me thinking about the nature of my relationship with the wider community as a preacher and what preaching is actually there for – why do we preach? I think I have great sympathy for what Rose is trying to achieve here, and will certainly try out some of the ideas in practise.

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Decision Day

It’s almost time to vote in what is being described as one of the most important political decisions that we face as a country in a lifetime. Do we stay in the European Union or do we leave? Have you made up your mind yet? I have, although I’m going to refrain from commenting on my choice here – you’ll have to ask me if you’re interested, I’ll happily talk about it as long as you’re willing to share your views with me too.

I’m hoping you’re still reading. I fear you may not be as you’ve seen that this is a political piece and turned off. There are those who believe that politics and religion shouldn’t mix, indeed I got harangued by a member of the crowd after one Good Friday talk I did in Hoddesdon which touched on this very issue. To me, I can’t see how they can’t mix, after all our faith is not just about where we go when we die, it’s very much about how we live with and relate to each other both as Christians and with the world at large now. That to me is the very definition of politics. Love one another – that’s a political statement in my book! But this is not the reason I fear you’ll have switched off. The reason I fear you’ve switched off is because you’re sick of the debate, or rather the manner of the debate. I know I am. I’ve had enough of innuendo, name calling and besmirching. I’ve had enough of the bad or disingenuous use of statistics. I’ve had enough of scare tactics and political broadcasts that treat us as if we are three year olds. I get that no one knows for sure what lies ahead, and that all we have are opinions based on experience etc. that’s fine. All I want is to hear some non-sensationalised constructive reasons for why we should either remain or leave, so that I can think through for myself what my opinion is. That’s not too much to ask for is it? Short of one or two notable exceptions, I’ve heard very few examples of this.

But why am I putting this in the church newsletter? It’s not just to get that rant of my chest, although it does feel better to have done so. No, it’s because I believe God calls us to engage with politics and to do what we can to make this a fairer, more loving and less oppressive world. It’s also because I think we can learn from this referendum; after all we have our own campaigning to take care of too: do you want to be in or out of God’s Kingdom. This ultimately is what mission is all about. But it’s not just the question that is important, it’s how we ask it, and how we make our case. I hope we can do it better than both sides have done in the Referendum campaign so far.

Church newsletter 19.06.16

Anyone Fancy a Game?

On Sunday night Paul thrust a newspaper cutting into my hand saying he thought it might interest me. In the centre was a photo of a set of bookshelves filled with boardgames, staked from floor to ceiling. Yes, this did interest me! The article was about Draughts Café, one of a number of new cafés recently opened in the country that offer alongside coffee and cake, the opportunity to try out a huge range of games (they for example have over 600). There has been, according to the industry, an increase in the sales of boardgames over the last year, with the suggestion that 20 somethings are turning to them alongside computer games. Apparently, according to the article, these boardgame cafés are not only a great place to try out a new game, but also a great place to go on a date – if you enjoy the same games and can get on even if you lose, then chances are you’re well matched…

As a child I was brought up playing boardgames, it was a regular weekend family activity. At Christmas most years, we got a new game, The London Game, Articulate, Trivial Pursuit and so on. Over University years I didn’t play so often, other than the occasional game of RISK which usually ended for me very quickly in a blaze of glory that was rapidly quelled by those around me. In recent years, however, I have rediscovered the bug, finding that in the meantime a great range of games have been developed on the Continent, offering much more fun and tactical challenge than Ludo and Monopoly. My shelves might not look quite as full as Draughts Café, but they’re getting there!

So what’s behind their recent resurge in popularity? Simple. It’s not just that they fun to play and it’s satisfying to win (not that I do so very often), but boardgaming is a very sociable hobby. In an age when so much of our time is spent in front of screens, or in our cars, or in our homes, boardgames bring us together around a table for an hour or so of face to face time. Priceless. In a fractured world, these are deliberate ways of building community and friendship.

Now, don’t get me wrong, my plan is not to convert the church to boardgaming, as much as I’d love that, but to get us thinking about what we can do to proactively build up our relationships and sense of community. This doesn’t happen on its own, we have to work at it. Only as we grow in our friendships will we learn to trust each other, open our lives to each other, be open to learn from each other and to challenge each other.

Anyone fancy a game?…

Church Newsletter article 22.06.16

Remembering and Celebrating

The last few weeks seem to have been a mixture of loss and celebration. We’ve said goodbye to Victoria Wood, Ronnie Corbett and Prince, three entertainers who brought great joy to many with their writing and performances and were for me part of the backdrop of growing up. Incidentally, do you know where the word ‘goodbye’ comes from? I heard it explained at a funeral last week when we said goodbye to a family friend. Apparently it’s a contraction of the phrase ‘God be with you (ye)’. Did you know that every time you’ve said goodbye to someone that you’ve been praying for them? Perhaps it might take on new meaning next time you say it.

As a Liverpool fan, the news from the Hillsborough Inquest has of course been significant, with the verdict of the jury being that the fans were not at fault for the tragic events of that dreadful day when 96 of them went to watch a football match and did not come home. Perhaps at last those families who have sought justice and truth about those events can say goodbye and begin to look forward.

There have been more positive celebrations though. We’ve been celebrating the 400th birthday of Shakespeare, someone who maybe has played as great a part as anyone in shaping our culture and language with his plays and poems that have stood the test of time. I enjoyed his work as a schoolboy, although his work became our work! It’s only recently, however, that I’ve come to love it. Maybe the main reason for this is going to The Globe and watching his plays live (at £5 for standing tickets go and watch for yourself, at that price there’s nothing to lose!). The Globe’s a magical place and every time I’ve been I’ve found the plays have come alive and transported me to another world for those brief hours. I am a passionate believer in the Arts as well as other areas of human endeavour, I believe in them we reflect the image of our creative God. In a sense they are acts of worship.

Another celebration has been the Queen’s 90th birthday. As Jeremy Corbyn, a republican said, whatever you think of the monarchy as an institution, the vast majority of people have admired the way she has conducted herself. It’s not a job that I’d want – there might be luxury and privilege that comes with it, fame and international recognition, but to receive this you have to give up your personal freedom, the freedom to come and go as you wish, to express your opinions and to be yourself. Over so many years the Queen has done this and done it well, a real servant of the nation.

Of course, as a Christian, I see these things as reflecting God in his Son, one who to be ‘God with us’, one who came to stand up for the oppressed and downtrodden, the one who came telling stories and captivating the crowds with his messages, and who came as the Servant King. May he be with you this week!

Easter: Where Do You Stand

ChurchAds.Net have produced another catchy campaign for Easter this year, continuing their tradition of provocative adverts such as the Che Guevara-esque revolutionary poster of Jesus (Meek, Mild, As if), and ‘Surprise! Sais Jesus to his friends 3 days after they buried him…’ This year’s effort can be seen at www.wheredoyoustand.co.uk. It has a film noir vibe to it with a couple exploring a room lit only by their torches with all sorts of hints about who Jesus may be in the images that they see. The closing line ‘we should look into this’ leads the viewers to consider where they stand on Jesus – is he Man, Myth or Messiah? – before casting their vote.

This is a vital question to ask. I’m writing this on Wednesday with the precise nature of the events in Brussels this week still emerging and being clarified. These horrific acts of terrorism provide a stark backdrop to this question, and how we answer the question may affect how we respond to such events and tragedies.

Man? Was Jesus just a human revolutionary who set out to kick the Romans out of Israel so that his people could reclaim their homeland? Perhaps this is how Judas saw him, and why he betrayed him when he failed to live up to that promise, possibly in an attempt to provoke him into action. The suggestion that might or military action can bring peace like this is called the ‘myth of redemptive violence’. History suggests it doesn’t work; you could look at Western efforts in the Gulf and Afghanistan to demonstrate this. It could also be argued that Jesus was a different, not taking up arms but celebrating love in some sort of 60s hippy kind of way. Again, history suggests that love on its own doesn’t last; 60s love was trampled on by 70s punk and 80s materialism.

Myth? Is Jesus just a story – either an inspirational example at best or a cynical deception at worst? You know me, I love a great story. I believe that stories can change us and can change the world for the better. A story, however, cannot fix the brokenness of humanity, the part of us that is self-centred and has a tendency to damage relationships. Could a story bring an end to the violence of the so-called Islamic State, the greed and materialism of the West or our own brokenness?

Messiah? Could it be that Jesus is more than just a good story, more than just a human? This is the claim of Christianity and the heart of the Easter story. The Easter story is that of a human revolutionary being put to death for unsettling the powers that be with his call to servant leadership and humble selfless love. But this is where the story departs from other stories, for Jesus we are told was not merely human, but also without sin. And here’s where things get really relevant, on Easter Sunday morning, God the Father validated everything he said and did by intervening and raising him from the grave to new life. Where Man and Myth both start with hope but die out, Messiah ends with hope, hope that Jesus’ way will finally one day bring an end to our strife and suffering.

The Riddler

It’s been a while since I last posted a newsletter article, perhaps it’s time to do so again!…

There’s a character in Batman called The Riddler, a villain who delights in incorporating riddles and puzzles into his criminal plots for Batman and the authorities to solve, his outfits often incorporating a question mark motif, the same punctuation adorning the top of his walking cane. There’s something about puzzles that lures us in, teasing us with a sense of mystery and appealing to our desire to prove ourselves and come out on top. As a scientist, puzzles were what motivated me – how does something work? What lies behind it? Why does this happen? A similar intrigue was one of the paths of enquiry that led me to faith – why are we the way we are? Why do we exist? What’s the purpose of life?

I’m writing this having just got back from the Christian Union at St. Mary’s High School where rather than trying to solve puzzles we’ve been setting them. Our plan is to create a guerrilla advertising campaign for the group – a set of Easter Teasers around the Passion story with a prize of a chocolate variety for any who get all the questions right. Seven riddles leading to seven letters which make an anagram for them to solve. The answer is a significant word for the season, but I can’t let on what it is, just in case there are spies in the camp…

Creating the questions has reminded me yet again of the mystery of Jesus. In many ways we’re spoilt looking on from this side of Easter Sunday. We know how the story pans out. I wonder however what the disciples really made of Jesus? I wonder if he is the real Riddler! Who did they really think he was? Why did he seem so bent on heading to Jerusalem and provoking the authorities? What did they think he was trying to achieve? What happened on Good Friday? And what on earth did they make of Easter Sunday! Reading the Gospels without knowing the ending and they make puzzling reading. There is definitely a mystery here, a mystery which the rest of the New Testament spends trying to work out. I do wonder sometimes whether we spoil it a little too when we share the good news with others. Sometimes we reduce the mystery and this earth shattering story to a few neat and tidy phrases about Jesus dying in our place, bringing us forgiveness and eternal life. Sometimes I wonder if telling the story is much more powerful and profound. Such a story lures us in with its questions and enigmatic hints, teasing us promises just out of sight, and bringing us to the place where we find not a tidy and convincing argument but the outstretched arms of the one who died for us and longs for relationship rather than intellectual assent.

Church Newsletter 28th February 2016