A Gripping Yarn

Posted: December 20, 2015 in Faith
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There’s no doubt about it, the Nativity story is a great yarn. In the hands of even a poor story teller it quickly takes on a life of its own as it’s glorious cast assemble. It starts with an angel. Forget girls in tinsel halos prancing about a stage, this is the mighty Gabriel revealed in all his fearsome glory. Before him all are awestruck and afraid. He comes bearing a message from one before whom even he pales into nothing, the Lord Almighty, but this is a message not of judgement or condemnation but hope.

The lead parts and recipients of his message are the couple Mary and Joseph. Mary, a young woman with an open future ahead of her, Joseph, her fiancé, loyal and righteous. To each Gabriel comes with the same story; Mary is to have a child, God’s Son, the promised and long awaited Messiah to whom Scripture pointed. Every Advent I am struck again by their acceptance of what is happening, Mary’s joy at the news and Joseph’s willingness to keep her as his wife despite the obvious bump… Would I have been so accepting? No doubt the majesty of Gabriel helped.

Then we have the donkey (absent in the Bible but we can’t help but including him) and the laborious ride into Bethlehem. I imagine journeys are never that comfortable at nine months gone, but on a such a stubborn stead? Decidedly bumpy…

On arrival the innkeepers in turn announce that they’re full, “No room! No room! No room!” (hints perhaps of what was to come) but one takes pity (or perhaps has an entrepreneur’s eye for squeezing out a bonus profit) and rents out the room round the back where the animals are kept. And so finally we come to the most famous birth of them all; the birth of Jesus the Christ. No much is said of the process, perhaps out of respect to Marry and her son, he simply arrives, God himself born through the anguish and joy of childbirth.

Before we know it an assembly develops around the God-child. Shepherds, Wise men, innkeeper, animals and angels. At the heart of the tableau, Immanuel, God with us, our Saviour born to bring God’s blessing and peace. OK, that might not be exactly how it is described in the Bible, the Wise Men of course come later and no animals are mentioned, but the image is the same – at that moment the whole world revolves around this vulnerable child born in a stable in Bethlehem.

As I said, it’s a cracking story, one that so many of us listen to and are onlookers on as school nativity plays are enacted. The Shepherds were like that once. As the story folds out, they are looking in from outside on the mountain, outsiders living on the edge of society. Gabriel changes all that with his dramatic invitation to come and see, to come on stage and play their part. The same invitation echoes in the skies for us – don’t be onlookers, viewing the story from a distance, come in and make this story your story, play your part, come and see the baby, God’s Son, born to us. This is not some news-story happening to someone else, or some historic event which is done and dusted, but is our story – the same Christ invites us to join him still.

Church Newsletter Article 20.12.15

Talking Christmas…

Posted: November 14, 2015 in Faith
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It’s that time of year again. The hype-machine of the market place has begun churning out the plethora of adverts that will spew all over the place over the next few weeks, calling us to celebrate Christmas by buying this item or that item. The meaning of Christmas we’re told, is found in the purchases we make, the value of the gifts we receive and the look and taste of the food we eat. Christmas is a consumer celebration. The market place has hijacked our festival and ripped the heart out of it. Queue the customary grumpy old man moan. Bah humbug!

Perhaps I’m being a little harsh and moany. If I’m brutally honest, I enjoy giving and receiving gifts as much as anyone. The little boy who woke at 5am if not earlier all exited and demanding to know ‘if he’s been yet’ lives on in me. Although a lot of the season as it is celebrated now is about making money and getting gifts, there is something inherently right about the concept of giving to others. There’s more to the modern celebrations that that as well, there’s also in there a focus on relationships; Christmas we’re told is a time for children, for getting the family together, for visiting friends, for doing things together. Again, there’s a lot that is good about that, even if the pressure to make it perfect and spend lots of money on it is perhaps not in line with what our faith teaches us.

Truth is, of course, as Christians we have another story to tell. Our story begins even earlier that the hype machine of the modern advertising age. Is November too earlier to start thinking about Christmas? October? God started thinking about it before the beginning of time! He always had in sight the plan to send his Son to become one of us, an astonishing gift of grace and love, expensive beyond compare, in order to bring us into relationship with him as his children. We had a great discussion about this at the Bible Study on Wednesday (8pm, Slipe Lane, most weeks – please do join us!) when we found ourselves expectantly pondering this very issue. What is the right way to respond to the story our culture tells about Christmas? Do we accept it wholesale? Do we reject it? Or do we look for overlaps with our own story, opportunities to take what we have in common and build on it to share what has been shared with us? What do you think?

Church Newsletter 14.11.15

Preaching as Testimony
Preaching as Testimony by Anna Carter Florence
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Picked up this book for my DMin research (Doctorate in Ministry) as I’m looking at doing a project based on encouraging people to share their stories about their experiences of God in their daily lives, ‘testimony’ if you like. The title seemed to support that. At some point I shall be writing a proper review of this, but for now suffice to say I found this a challenging and encouraging book both for myself as a preacher and for my thesis. In some ways it feels like three distinct books, a theological overview, a biographical survey of three female examples of testimony preachers, and then a section on ‘how to’. This is a deliberate move by the writer to echo the journey she went on in her thinking. Is that helpful? Hard to say. There were certainly sections I think I could have done without, and some spoke to more more than others, that said, the journey helped to earth the book and to make me ponder on how it reflects my own journey.
So what’s it about? It’s her presentation on an approach to preaching based not on explaining the text or proving the text, but living in the text and sharing what you encounter there – a confessional approach. This is what I encountered in the text and this is what that means for me in my life. This is a liberating approach, you don’t need to be a theological or Biblical expert to engage in it, and a challenging approach, if your encounter with God is shallow or absent, that will show up in your preaching, and if you avoid saying the hard things in that encounter, taking a risk in what you say, then you will be preaching a lie.
The practical notes at the end are fun, and I shall certainly be trying some of them.
One note that particularly hit me was her insistence on this not being primarily for preachers, but an encouragement for all people to ‘preach’ their experiences of God in the text and in their lives, but a recognition that for many this is a big step, therefore as preachers we have a duty to practise this in our preaching to help our congregations make that step.
More to follow when I’ve had time to deliberate further in the course of my studies, but I think this book has been a great place to start.

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Take a Break

Posted: June 21, 2015 in Faith
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Let me be honest with you, coming up with ideas for the newsletter each week can be a bit of a struggle. Some weeks I have some notes jotted down from something I’ve heard or seen, but often the allotted slot in the timetable comes along and I stop and think and …nothing comes. In fact that’s a lie. It’s not nothing that comes, but a shed load of distractions; the phone goes, I remember an email I must send, browsing the internet for some ideas I get distracted and so the list goes on. It’s like going to bed at the end of one of those days that doesn’t stop until the head hits the pillow and as it does the brain refuses to switch off but continues to whirl over all the things you’ve been dealing with throughout the day.

Earlier this week I read an interesting article about the rise in aimless walking. The title caught my attention. So much of what we do is purposeful these days, done with an objective in mind. The problem is that this can only go so far before it starts to become inefficient. Some of you know the annual saga we have with our car when the filters in it get blocked. The idea is that you’re supposed to drive it normally most of the time, but regularly you need to drop the gear and take it for a spin at full pelt to heat it up and burn clear the filter system. Trouble is our kind of driving doesn’t suit this and most years just as it gets cold our system gets all bunged up. Humans are a bit like that except that rather than upping the revs to clear the filters, we need to slow down and let the mind unwind. The idea behind aimless walking is to go for a wander, with no particular route or objective in mind and no headphones on or mobile in hand and let the mind wander. This is one of the reasons I like to go for a spin on my bike each day, I find it helps me think better afterwards and work in a more focussed and creative fashion. In case you’re thinking this is just mumbo jumbo or wishful/lazy thinking, God says the same thing; that’s why he gave us the pattern of the Sabbath.

Our midweek Bible Study group were thinking about prayer this week and different ways to develop our prayer lives. One of them relates to this and maybe sharing it is a good way to round up this week – perhaps you’d like to try it with us? Here goes: ‘03 Time Out – We are surrounded by constant distraction and noise. Create space for silence this week by turning off the radio or your iPod on your journeys so they become a place to find quietness and listen to God. If you walk the dog – resist the urge to listen to music. Instead observe, look and listen to the sights and sounds of nature. Just find space, even for 10 minutes each day to be alone and quiet with God – even if that means getting up a little earlier each day or staying up later at night.’

Church Newsletter, 21.06.15

Catching up with a few articles from this blog which directly speaks into my life as a scientist which is where my career path started out and my life as a Christian minister which is where it ended up!

Science and Belief

Woutergroen, 2008; Jens Maus, 2010. Wikimedia Woutergroen, 2008; Jens Maus, 2010. Wikimedia

If all truth is God’s truth, then science must have an impact on our theology. This was the central message of theologian Steve Motyer’s seminar in the God in the Lab evening series at London School of Theology (LST) earlier this year.

Having taught theology and counselling for a number of years as part of his role at LST, Motyer is all too aware of the connection between mind and brain. Neuroscience is showing that everything we call ‘mind’, including feelings, instincts and intuitions and spiritual apprehensions, is rooted in brain function. Various parts of the brain are active when we pray or have spiritual experiences. If those parts are damaged, then we can lose the capacity for certain spiritual activities and feelings. So the spiritual and the physical are not separate, but intersect completely with each other.

Motyer then used evolutionary biology as…

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Christ’s Antidote

Posted: June 7, 2015 in Faith
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From time to time I like to comment on items in the news in this article and think about what Scripture might have to say about these situations. Two items have dominated the news this week, the first is the horrible roller coaster crash at Alton Towers, and the other is the emerging collapse of the leadership of world football’s organising body FIFA.

Alton Towers first. As most of you know our family are thrill-seeking roller coaster junkies and have regularly screamed our way around various tracks. The other summer we stayed near Alton Towers and rode on Smiler a number of times and totally loved it. It is a ridiculous, zany, full-on, bonkers ride. I’ll be honest and say I would hesitate before climbing onto it again though, and my prayers and thoughts go out to those who have received serious injuries in the crash.

FIFA? Who am I to comment on this story? It is so hard to know what is really going on here beyond the reporting from Western media outlets. It would seem that the organisation’s top hierarchy is corrupt to greater or lesser degree, something that the Bible has a lot to say about with its practical messages about justice and fairness in trade and general life. It is interesting, however, that beyond our media, other parts of the world are reporting it quite differently and have a contrasting impression of Sepp Blatter and his colleagues. Hopefully the investigations will be themselves fair and unbiased and the truth be revealed and responded to appropriately.

There is a link between these stories. In both cases much of the reporting has been over-dramatic (The Sun’s headline about the Smiler crash, I’m looking at you) and the commentary over the top. Blatter has become a hate figure and demonised by so many who don’t know him and don’t know the truth about what’s going on and are simply feeding on the general hype around the case. There’s a form of ‘political correctness’ these days that calls us to feel the need to express moral outrage at such events in a way that simply feeds others in escalating the scorn or hatred or ridicule.

In the New Statesman this week Amanda Palmer, herself a recipient of such vitriol reflects on its cure. Courting controversy in her choice of words, deliberately so I’m sure, she writes her thoughts about how to respond to figures who by their deeds or words stir up such hatred in us. ‘I am, perhaps, an extremist in this regard,’ she says. ‘But I am starting to think that the only true antidote to extreme hate may be extreme love, a radical empathy. Jihads of compassion. Crusades of kindness. A movement in which we attempt to love our enemy . . . Oh, hold on. Jesus already said all that. Wait – did it work?

A provocative final sentence which she leaves hanging unanswered. Did it work? Does it work? Will it work? In many ways the answer is no, we still have hatred and violence and retribution. On the Cross Jesus was killed trying to overcome with love and his followers still haven’t brought an end to scorn and slander and worse. But I have faith, faith in Jesus and his Father that as the Bible says and the resurrection supports, eventually love wins. That is why I’m willing to give Palmer’s exhortation a go and try out what Jesus preached and demanded of his followers. One day love wins.

Review: In the Blood

Posted: June 1, 2015 in Books
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In the Blood
In the Blood by Steve Robinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This one has been sitting on my Kindle for a while now, as have the others in the series, having picked it up believing the combination of family history and crime could make for a novel take on the genre, which it certainly did. he basic premise is that Jefferson Tayte, a professional genealogist, is sent from the States to the UK to investigate his client’s past. Whilst here, that past comes to meet him as it quickly becomes clear that someone doesn’t want it unearthed and is prepared to use any means to ensure this. It’s a quick, pacey read. One tip I gleaned elsewhere was to keep a pen and paper handy to write the family tree on as it emerged – I wish I had done that. Would have made it easier to follow and rewarding as clues emerged. The style of writing does perhaps betray occasionally that this is a first novel, but the plot and content means this isn’t a deal breaker at all. I look forward to seeing how the character and books develop over the rest in the line.

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