Tear Down the Wall!

Church newsletter article 10.12.17

This will be one of the last newsletters of the year, a year in which the news has been dominated by borders and boundaries: Trump’s promised wall between the US and Mexico and the banning of visitors from Muslim countries, missiles fired across the border from North Korea, the Brexit debate and questions of the nature and location of the border between the UK and the EU, especially the thorny question of the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. This week the nature of borders and capitals reared its problematic head in the Holy Land too, with the proposed move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the recognition of that as being Israel’s capital city. What does this mean for the Palestinians who find their boundaries being squeezed? It has been a year of us vs. them and who’s in and who’s out. So often the divisions have seemed stark and irreconcilable and the debates and discussions impossible.

Advent seems a good time to reflect on these stories and situations in light of the Christmas Story. This story is all about such questions and debates. Today the Palestinians might feel they are living in an occupied land, then it was the Jews under the Romans. Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem because of the census, a count of the people to see who was in, and by implication who was out. Wisemen come following a star, crossing borders of geography, ethnicity and religion to visit a new king. Can you imagine the response from Herod (picture Trump receiving them…)? The next scene makes it clear, Mary, Joseph and Jesus are fleeing across the border to Egypt to escape the threat of murder.

Who is in and who is out? Who belongs? And who does not? Place the past and the present on top of each other, do they sound that different?

There is another story of boundaries, the boundary between God and us, the wall erected between us and Eden comprised not of brick but our anger, selfishness and suspicion that says we’re doing life our way not yours. This story doesn’t end in firm positions, hard ball negotiation or red lines draw in the ground, but through God sending his son to cross the boundary, to see through our eyes, to walk in our shoes, becoming one of us, entering our world and speaking our lingo, so that in turn we could see and hear and understand his. This is not ultimately a story of us and them or in and out, but a story of reconciliation. My hope and prayer is that next year our story might begin to reflect this story instead…

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Back to the Books

Having got my research application sent off for ethical approval, it was good today to be able to turn once more from form filling to reading and thinking. Started to read through The Mission of Preaching: Equipping the Community for Faithful Witness by Patrick Johnson. Very promising start, looking forward to working through the rest of it.

Whole Life Preaching

The DMin thesis I’m working on, arose out of the impact London Institute for Contemporary Christianity’s (LICC) Life on the Frontline had on me and our church. At the course’s heart is a very simple thesis, how can we resource the church to fulfill its every day mission serving God where each person spends most of their time, which for many who be at work. What does it mean to be a teacher for God, a rubbish collector for God, a parent, accountant, volunteer or friend? As they neatly put it, don’t ask what new members of the congregation can do for the church, but what the church can do to resource them.

On the back of that, I started looking around for homiletical approaches that specifically seek to support that view of frontline mission. I quickly discovered Anna Carter Florence’s Testimony Preaching, which claims to equip congregations to share their experiences of God in their daily lives by the preacher modelling this through sharing their experiences of God in the text and life. My research question is simple, does it work?

In light of this, I was delighted to be at the launch of LICC’s new resource, a suite of videos and handouts entitled Whole Life Preaching. I’ve not had time to work through all of them yet, but the taste I have had suggests they will be really useful for me as a preacher, and hopefully for my research too! Based on previous experience with their materials, I recommend then to you.

Going Analogue

I was brought up on vinyl. As a teenager there was nothing better than flicking through shelves of new or second hand records. Cassettes were of no interest to me, they sounded dull and had a habit of getting chewed up, besides, the artwork was so small it was almost pointless.

Then came the CD. I was a late adopter. In fact it was not until I got married that I made the switch, my wife had a CD-player and it seemed daft not to. Besides, soon after I did much of my work on the computer, and soon these were able to play CDs as well; strangely they never did make the leap to playing LPs!

Before long, vinyl was declared dead.

This was premature. Checking out HMV in Oxford Street the other day it had shelves of good old fashioned vinyl LPs. It was wonderful! They might crackle and get scratched, but they have soul. I might have to start buying them again, not just using my old collection. Perhaps a new stylus is in order too.

Funnily enough, I’ve found my sermon preparation method has changed too. Having been digital for so long, writing them on the PC and then preaching from a tablet, I’ve found myself going back to pen and paper, scrawling notes and ideas everywhere. I’m finding that this is a much more creative and organic process that is both liberating and perhaps also has more soul too. There’s something about the freedom to express ideas all over the page as they come to you, and something about the physical link between the heart/brain – hand – pen and paper that is more intimate than fingers on a keyboard.

There are of course drawbacks. My writing can boarder on the illegible, and storing old notes is not so viable (especially those literally written on the back of an envelope)! But at this moment in time, this going analogue seems to be suiting me, scratches and all. Hopefully, like with vinyl, my sermons now have a little more soul!

Review: Judas: The Biography of an Idea

Judas: The Biography of an Idea
Judas: The Biography of an Idea by Peter Stanford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A fascinating read, sifting through the Biblical references to try and gain a picture of Judas and then tracing through popular thought through the ages to see how this enigmatic figure had been seen in the public imagination. Whilst I have a more evangelical view of scripture than Stanford and so differ a little in my treatment of the Biblical texts, I was drawn into this work; for me too, Judas has long been a figure of intrigue. Stanford’s biography bright to my attention the sorry history of anti-Semitism that although I was aware of it, I hadn’t quite grasped it’s extent and the connection to portrayals of the disciple, Judas. Evil betrayer, innocent part in God’s plan, Satan’s agent or revolutionary whose plans backfire? Stanford’s picture is more nuanced than these simple clichés, and tinged in the epilogue with a surprising touch of grace.

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Dressing Up (Church Newsletter)

Here’s an article I wrote for our church newsletter, reblogged from the church website

Wormley Free Church

Once a week I open up the laptop, turn on Word and sit and stare at a blank document waiting for an idea to pop into my head to write the newsletter about. After a minute or two of nothing happening I will open up my web browser and check out a variety of sites for inspiration, the BBC News site being one of them. This is how I discovered the story of the Peruvian artist and photographer, Christian Fuchs.

Christian Fuchs lives in an apartment overlooking the Pacific. According to Jane Chamber, the write of the article, his walls are covered with portraits of his ancestors. Or so it seems at first sight. Look again and you’ll realise after a bit that they’re not, not quite. They are in fact images of him meticulously recreating old photos and portraits. Fuchs says it started as a child. He was…

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Have You Been Read Like a Book?

According to Oxford University’s online dictionaries, the phrase to ‘read someone like a book’ means to be able to ‘understand someone’s thoughts and motives clearly or easily’. This saying took on an interesting twist for me today when I stumbled across the Human Library™ on the internet today. In this unusual library, you withdraw not the latest novels or timeless classics, but a person who will share their life story with you.

So where did this unusual twist on a library come from? It started in Denmark after the stabbing of a youth in 1993. Friends of this teenager, who fortunately survived, started a group called ‘Stop the Violence’. Asked to provide an activity for the Roskilde Festival, they brought together 75 human books, who could be taken out so that ‘readers’ could find out about the person behind the stereotypes and ask awkward questions – and hear possibly honest and challenging responses. Apparently before the first book was withdrawn, the hall was full of conversation between the books themselves as they listened to each other’s stories, the policeman sitting down with the graffiti writer, the politician with the youth activist and the football fan with the feminist. Since this first event, the Human Library has taken off with similar presentations taking place in more than 70 countries around the world. You can even go to their website and get a taste of some of the books you might get to read, the soldier with post-traumatic-stress-disorder, the convert to Islam, the brain-damaged, young single mother, the unemployed, the body mod extreme and the refugee amongst others.

Personally, I think this is a wonderful idea. We’re all too quick to judge others simply by the tags we put on them, failing to think beyond these simple labels to the complex human being beneath them with their mix of emotions, pressures and insights. Perhaps it’s important to remember that to others we are tags as well. Don’t forget, to some we are ‘Christians’. Colossians 1:19-20 describes God’s mission as reconciling the world to himself through Christ. I can’t help but feel that this Library could be part of that process, enabling people to come together and begin to appreciate other’s stories and the people behind them. Got me wondering how we can help others hear our story, but perhaps more importantly, how can we begin to hear the stories of those around us.

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.