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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Review: How God Became King: Getting to the Heart of the Gospels

How God Became King: Getting to the Heart of the Gospels
How God Became King: Getting to the Heart of the Gospels by Tom Wright
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a fantastic book! I’m at risk of becoming an NT Wright fanboy here but every time I read one of his works I find he changes the way I see the message of the Bible. In the case of this work he argues convincingly that in the West we have forgotten one of the central themes of the Bible, that of God’s promised King and kingdom, rooted in the Old Testament and fulfilled in Jesus the Christ/Messiah. Reading this at the same time as reading through Mark’s Gospel I am finding in Mark passage after passage that takes on a new light in relation to what he has written here. A weakness of the book for me is his constant reference to the creeds, but this is simply due to the non-liturgical nature of my church tradition in comparison to his, not really a weakness at all. As always, recommended.

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To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before…

I’ve just put my name down to be involved in a space project run by NASA!

No I’m not going to become an astronaut; although weightlessness sounds fun I suspect I’m not up to the rigours of spaceflight – my family might be roller-coaster speed freaks, but I am a little more hesitant than them. No, I’m participating in a much safer and less hands-on fashion, in a micro-chip.

NASA are sending a spacecraft, the OSIRIS-Rex, into space which will call in on asteroid Bennu in 2016, sending a 60g sample from its surface back down to earth before continuing out into space where it will spend its last days orbiting the Sun. On it will be a micro-chip containing the names of all who want to participate (to do so head over to: http://planetary.org/bennu). A similar chip will be in the Sample Return Capsule which will bring the 60g sample back to earth. How cool is that! My name will be listed as will my participation number: #00205275. The purpose of the mission is both research in general, but also an investigation into the composition of asteroids with the possibility of mining them in the future for minerals as we deplete resources such as zinc and gold here on earth. Of course having my name on a micro-chip is really only a gimmick, but the boy inside me still finds it exciting that something representing me is going out into space and landing on an asteroid! Just imagine that if there are any little green men out there, they could one day find the spacecraft, interpret our language and read my name.

Graham Kendrick has written many songs for the Church over the years. One line in particular stands out for me from The Servant King (From heaven You Came) and that is the line ‘hands that flung stars into space to cruel nails surrendered’. This vivid word picture has always captured my imagination. That the one who created the universe, the wonders of space, stars, planets, asteroids, super nova and the magnificent aurora borealis should become one of us and submit himself to us even to the Cross, such a crude construction compared to the magnificent creation he wrought, is a staggering thought and yet this is the way that God has sent his name from heaven to us, not in a microchip but in person, his Son, born as one of us.

Church Newsletter 26.01.14

Telling Tales

A few weeks ago we went as a family to the Globe to watch Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. It was a magical night, my first time there, and I am determined not my last. Before hand, though, I put a lot of work in to make sure I’d read the script and understood the story so that I could navigate my way through the beautiful but sometimes undecipherable language of ‘The Bard’.

In last Sunday’s sermon I alluded to a conversation I had with David L… about the language we use to talk about God. The underlying question was, how can we talk about God in language that is accessible and meaningful to today’s culture? The question was not simply how can we translate old versions of the Bible removing the ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s etc. so that the words themselves are modern equivalents of the original word, but how can we talk about God and faith using contemporary concepts and understanding. Often when we talk about God we use Biblical imagery or Biblical stories, and this certainly has its place, but dare I say it, this runs the risk of two related dangers. To begin with, you can take a 50’s love song from the charts of the day and get a modern chart topper to sing it, but the song is still the same song, using the same words and pictures from past era and may seem twee or outdated to modern teens. Similarly, you can dress a story from the Bible up in modern words, but the content it talks about is still the same content, and the danger is that you’re telling a story that doesn’t relate to contemporary hearers.

The other danger is that by doing this we run the risk of being unfaithful to Scripture and Jesus’ method of communicating. How did Jesus communicate his faith and understanding of God? One of the main ways was through stories. Stories are fantastic tools for not only capturing people’s attention, but also helping them grasp concepts that can’t be described in conceptual language – and let’s face it, it’s notoriously difficult to describe God, he’s beyond straight description. But what stories did he tell? He didn’t retell the old stories that often, the stories of the Bible of his time, the Old Testament as we might retell his stories today. I’m trying to think of an example of him telling the story of David or Moses or Elijah, and I can’t. No, he told stories that related to the people of his day, using the language of his time and the concepts that folk of his day thought in. He told stories of farmers and masters and plants. Underneath, it was the same truth he was telling, but in the language and framework of his time. Surely to be faithful to Scripture we should do the same?

There’s no doubt that some of his stories still work – the parables are still dramatic stories and this says a lot about what a master-storyteller he was – but often they require a lot of work for us to really get it, just as we have to work hard to understand Shakespeare. The question I wonder is – and I’d love you to help me answer it – how would he talk about faith and God today? What language and concepts would he use? What images, occupations and news-stories would he reach for – I can’t see him talking about agriculture so much can you?

Church Newsletter 16th June 2013

You’re Not Invited!

There’s nothing worse than being excluded.

There’s nothing worse than everyone else in your class going to a party and discovering that you’re not invited. I remember clearly lining up for games and not being picked. How is it that at a disco everyone else knows the latest moves to the current favourite tracks but you don’t?

Okay, these examples are fairly frivolous, although painful at the time. There are of course more serious examples. Children being excluded from school. Prisoners being excluded from society. Women being excluded from the vote until not so long ago. Blacks being excluded from white’s only areas under apartheid. Immigrants excluded from entering because of the country they come from. This list could go on and on. The human race excels at stating who is in and who is out, who is welcome and who is not. Perhaps there are times when living in a fallen world that this is required in order for society to function, but often our exclusions derive from our fear and selfishness.

Exclusion is another of those themes that runs through the Bible. After the Fall Adam and Eve are excluded from the Garden. With the collapse of the Tower of Babel, and the establishment of different languages and cultures, inevitably different groupings would be excluded from each other through the inability to communicate with each other, which would in turn lead to suspicion and rivalry. Foreigners are excluded from marrying into the People of God. Although the Israelites were to welcome aliens in their midst and offer them hospitality, Gentiles were excluded from the Temple, as were children, eunuchs and the disabled. As for the lepers…

But then comes Jesus and everything changes.

He welcomes children and calls them the greatest.

He talks to women and treats them with dignity and equality.

He heals the lepers, sending them to the Priest so that they can be re-integrated into society.

He offers forgiveness to any who seek it and eats with tax collectors and prostitutes.

After the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday, he rides to the Temple, overturning the tables. We are told that the blind and lame came to him and he healed them and the children came and were shouting in the courts (Mt.21:12-16). Up until this point they were barred from entry!

This growing circle of inclusion spreads even further in Acts. The Ethiopian Eunuch is baptized in Acts 8 and then the disciples discover that the Spirit is given to the Gentiles too – and how can they reject those who God has accepted!

This is the glorious message of Easter, Jesus has smashed the barriers and all are allowed in. To borrow the words of the wedding service, what God has joined together let no man put asunder!

I Don’t Know Much About Art, But I Know What I Like

I don’t know who first said this, but it fits where I am. I don’t know much about art be it Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, Leonardo Da Vinci or Jackson Pollock, but I recognize that art has an amazing power to communicate ideas and emotions to us in a way that the written word doesn’t; to use another catchphrase, a picture paints a thousand words. It’s not that it’s better, words have explosive power when used well, but it’s different, engaging us in a different way. It’s no wonder then that over the years Christians have used art to celebrate our faith, to worship God and to communicate our beliefs to others. Sadly, I fear the Protestant church lost sight of this at the Reformation, with the removal of images and statues spearheaded under Oliver Cromwell they threw out the baby with the bathwater and now many of our churches are devoid of any decoration at all other than the Cross.

The way in which God can speak through the arts is something we’ve explored a lot in our Wednesday evening Bible Study group. In a recent course we watched a creative Bible story retelling each week, communicating the Scriptures in new and engaging ways, ranging through cartoons, dance, and drama. Our current course is using a variety of paintings based on Bible characters and episodes as a springboard to see them from a fresh angle as we discuss what the painter is trying to say through their work. I think we’d all agree that it has been a stimulating and challenging course.

 

This week we looked at the life of John the Baptist through two paintings by Caravaggio. One presented us with an image of a young and pure John reflecting on a lamb that stood at his feet, representing Jesus, the Lamb of the World (the one who was to be sacrificed for us). The second showed the killing of Jesus by Herod; a much bleaker affair all together. The challenge of his life struck us all – here was a young man who having weighed up who Jesus was, was willing to give up everything to prepare everyone for his coming, even if it meant angering the authorities and even risking martyrdom. Have we, like him, grasped who Jesus is and what he demands from us? Are we willing to make him the focus of our lives?

The thought I was left with was that we, like John, are called to prepare people for the coming of Jesus, not just to looking back at his life, death and resurrection, but looking forward to the day when he returns to complete his work of putting all things right and bringing everything under God’s authority. I was also left with a question, how can we communicate this to our culture today? Through words? Art? Music? Ideas on a postcard, in a doodle or a song please!

Church Newsletter, 03.03.13

A Guilty Secret

As a Christian leader I have a guilty secret, one that lurks at the back of my mind and occasionally leaps out and challenges me. It’s all to do with a very simple question, but a troublesome one, ‘Are you really a Christian?’ You see, when I became a Christian, my conversion bore little resemblance to the experience many Christians describe as being the one we should go through. As a minister, there is often a progression in my worry from there to the question ‘Are you good enough or qualified to be a Christian Minister?’ If the answer to the first question is shaky, then saying in yes to the second I am on dodgy ground indeed.

My first tack when the questions come is to recognize the nature of the questions; they are not unique to me. Adam and Eve were asked something similar by the serpent in the Garden of Eden, ‘Did God really say…?’ and Jesus was challenged by the Satan during his forty fast in the wilderness, ‘If you are the Son of God…’ in an attempt to provoke Jesus into questioning his status before his heavenly Father.

That aside, what is it about my conversion that troubles me? Often when I hear descriptions of what it means to become a Christian, there is an emphasis on repentance, on being sorry for the wrong that you have done, of feeling remorse and guilt. The thing is, when I became a Christian, I felt no such thing. There were no tears of shame. I did not beat my chest and despair of how sinful I was. All I remember was being intrigued and attracted to the life and teaching of Jesus.

I was reading this week about the Jewish aristocrat and historian Josephus this week, a near contemporary of Jesus. He was sent to quell the riotous behaviour of a bunch of hot headed Jews in Galilee which was threatening to attract retribution from Rome. When he met with the rebel leader he said some very familiar words, `repent and believe in me’, the exact words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. What did he mean? He was demanding that the rebel gave up his agenda of rebellion and followed Josephus’ agenda instead; this is what the phrase meant at that time. And this is the crux of the Gospel. In it we encounter God’s Son who comes with the agenda of building God’s Kingdom and invites us to be part of that by setting aside our own agendas, our agendas of wealth and power and popularity and self-satisfaction, and take up his. Take up your cross, give up ownership of your life, and follow me. Sometimes I wish it was all about expressing remorse and sorrow, that sounds so much easier…

Church Newsletter Article 24.02.13

That Niggling Feeling

Church newsletter article for 17.07.11

I’ve spent a lot of time this year reading about Jesus – no surprises there I guess you’d say in my line of work! But actually, it’s not as obvious as you may think. Church life is a busy life. There is so much to do (the illustration of plate juggling comes immediately to mind) with services to run, housegroup to prepare, assemblies to create, strategy to be decided, building maintenance to follow up on, pastoral visits to be made, toddlers to play with (I like that part of my work!) and that just scratches the surface. These are all good, but it is stunningly easy as a minister, as it is for any of us (swap my list for your daily list of activity), to lose sight of him it is that we’ve said we want to put first in our life.

Looking back over my reading over the last year, many of the books I’ve read have been about who Jesus really was and what he really said. This wasn’t a deliberate ploy, but I’ve had this increasing suspicion that I’ve lost sight of him. Maybe that’s too strong, maybe he’s moved from being at the centre of my vision to somewhere in the periphery.

Mark Twain is supposed to have said, ‘It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.’ All year there’s been a nagging feeling growing in me that what he’s said here is absolutely right. Not just that, but because what he said and did unsettles us, that we contextualise it away – reinterpret it for our time and culture (this is a good thing) but take the opportunity in doing so to smooth out the jagged edges in it and make them more palatable (this is not so good).

Want to know what bits I’m talking about, try reading Matthew 5-7 (waiting for church to start? why not do it now, it doesn’t take long) and ask yourself if you actually seek to live that way, to take Jesus on his word (take The Word on his word, I like that…) If you’re tempted to lessen the impact of that trusting, freely giving, open, serving community that he’s calling for and to say that he’s just exaggerating to make a point and didn’t really want his followers to literally do that, follow up your reading with Acts 4:32-37. It would seem that his first followers did just that. There’s something so exhilaratingly reckless about the way they abandoned living like everyone else, a joyful rebellion that I can’t help but look at and say that’s how I’d love to live …and yet I don’t.

I’m convinced that Jesus doesn’t want us as Christians to simply stamp the word Christian on everything we were doing before we became Christians. He calls us to transform our lives and embrace a new way of living not a rebranded one. I think its time to stop reading, and time to start living.

Review: The Jesus I Never Knew

The Jesus I Never KnewThe Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Jesus I Never Knew is a good read, easy to read, and yet difficult as in doing so a picture of Jesus far from the icon of stained glass windows or the meek and mild child of Christmas carols is revealed. There was little in here that I hadn’t come across before, but it was good to see it all written in one place. Anyone interested in discovering more about this radical, driven, loving, gracious, inclusive, challenging figure would do well to give Philip Yancey’s book a read. In my view he successfully moves away from the tamed picture of Jesus sentimentalised by our 21st Century folk religion, and resits him in First Century Palestine and asks how would he have been seen then and understood by his contemporaries. The resulting picture is one that is compelling and very much relevant to our world today.

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