Are You Sitting Uncomfortably?…

I remember as a child entering into a competition held by Radio Four in which people were invited to enter mini-sagas, 50 word stories. Fifty words doesn’t sound like many does it, anyone can come up with fifty words (to give you a sense of scale, the newsletter front page article is usually 4-500 words). It might be easy enough to come up with fifty words, but coming up with a gripping yarn in only fifty words is a totally different matter – I see that Radio Two has taken pity on current children and asks for five hundred word stories instead!

Here’s a challenge for you – can you encapsulate in some way your experiences of God in fifty words? Answers in an email, a couple of texts or a scrap of paper please! You could write about your story of coming to faith, your ongoing questions about him, or a particular experience. It could be a straight account, or a story or even a poem. I’d love to turn next week’s front page into a collection of them.

Of course, the master of the really-short-story was Jesus with his parables. Can you name anyone else who has come up with such enduring, captivating and surprising tales as his? Many of these are fifty words as well, or even less. It’s amazing that even now, some two thousand years after they were first told, that they still have the power to shock and transform, or to make us face up to who we really are. I’ve spent much of the last few years thinking about them and reading about them partly because of various bits of course work and sermons I’ve had the joy of preaching, but mainly because I find that I can’t get away from them, there’s something about them that teases and keeps calling me back to them. What did Jesus mean by that? If he told them today, how would he change them? What is Jesus saying to me through them now? And how about to us, his church?

There is a downside to their popularity. Sometimes we can become deaf to them, we’ve heard it all before. Or we come up with ways to make them comfortable to listen to or to explain away the awkward bits and make them suitable for church consumption. Symon Hill has come up with a great way to listen to them afresh and cut through the traditions we’ve built up around them in his book The Upside-Down Bible. Rather than turn to scholars and commentaries to get answers to these questions, he took a novel approach. If the parable was about crops or sheep or soil, he’d go and tell the story to a group of farmers and see what their reactions were. A story about workers and their treatment? He asked a group of trade unionists for their views. The Good Samaritan? He asked some Jews for their thoughts. He also made a point of asking non-Christians, those who hadn’t really thought about or heard the stories before. Sometimes their answers were what he expected. Often they were not, and jolted him into seeing them in new ways. Got me wondering who to talk to next time I get stuck in sermon prep, or for that matter, who might be interested in hearing these stories if we got them outside the church and into our communities…

The Times They Are A Changin’

So famously sung Bob Dylan back in 1964, those words seem very relevant to today. For starters the mornings are starting to get darker and the evenings are drawing in. An autumnal chill is beginning to bite and soon, if not already, the heating will be back on. Talking about this on Sunday morning after the service, I admitted that I love summer, but I also enjoy the moment when the winter jumpers come out for the first time, and the pleasure of drawing the curtains on a winters evening and shutting out the darkness and enjoying the cosiness of home.

This is not the only change, however, there is another deeper, more significant change, that of culture all around us. The ways in which we relate to each other are shifting with the rise of social media and portable technology. The internet is replacing the TV for younger generations, playground discussion is no longer about the programme everyone saw the night before, but the Youtube clip that was shared. Facetime is replacing face to face time. No doubt there will be disagreement over whether these changes are good or not (I’m happy to confess that I’m a lover of technology), but it is clear that things have shifted.

The way we relate to each other is also changing in our politics. It would seem that there is a move away from the middle ground to the left and to the right. Whatever our views on the Brexit vote, we are now faced with the very real question of how we want to be seen by the rest of Europe and the world, and how we are going to relate to those of other nationalities as we redefine our country in light of this decision.

Why should the church be bothered with these things? There was a time when perhaps we wouldn’t be. The Biblical picture of a new heaven and earth was taken to mean that this world was doomed and all that mattered was getting into heaven and saving as many as possible on the way. Recently, however, there has been a waking up to the importance of the life of Jesus as well as his death, and Paul’s teaching on lifestyle as well as the Cross. We’ve rediscovered Jesus’ message that he wants us as members of the future Kingdom to start living that life now, to begin to relate to each other in the present as we will in the future. In other words, his salvation is not just about life after death but life before death too. Key to this are our relationships with each other. Jesus calls us to model what it means to be people of love, of forgiveness, of encouragement and of grace, because this is the basis of our citizenship of God’s Kingdom both in the future and today – it is how we’re made to be and is the best thing for us, so why wait until another age to enjoy this, why not enjoy and share this life today!

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!