We will remember
One of the amazing things about our memories is how we can remember things from years – even decades – ago. Even if our memory for what we did yesterday is fading, we are still able to call to mind scenes from our youth. We remember who said what, and what places looked like. But more than that, we remember what it felt like, and some small aspect of our grandparent’s home, or our schoolroom remains with us. So that, a particular smell or a particular taste or piece of music, or a photograph can take us back to that special moment.
As November begins, many of us will be wearing an artificial poppy. That little red wild flower now evokes strong feelings for many, as a result of those poppies being seen in the Flanders fields during the First World War, the scene of terrible loss of life. The battlefields saw not only devastation of human life, but also of the natural habitat they were set in. Wide areas that had been fertile fields became grey wastelands of mud. The months of April and May in 1915 in Ypres were particularly warm, and in combination with the disruption to the soil caused by the fighting, the dormant poppy seeds were encouraged to germinate, and so amidst the mud of the battlefield, the red poppies appeared. Life amidst the desolation. In themselves a wonderful reminder for us of resurrection.
That sight of poppies growing at the side of a field where men were being buried where they fell, was the inspiration for the famous poem by Canadian doctor John McRae, which begins with the words ‘In Flanders fields the poppies grow’. That poem then inspired an American woman Moina Michael in 1918 to begin to wear an artificial red poppy in Remembrance of those who died.
Today, that little red symbol now evokes a collective memory, even for those of us who have not seen warfare, as we remember those who have fallen for our country. And sadly, we now remember not only the two World Wars, but also those who have fallen in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as those who are working in Afghanistan on our behalf right now.
As Christians, we are well used to having a simple object to assist us in remembering: for each Eucharist we do in remembrance of Him. The bread and wine do more than help us remember that Jesus died for us (though it does that as well). They bring us to the event (the Last Supper) that none of us attended. As we join in taking communion, we join in a small part into the life and sacrifice of Christ for us.
Jesus said, ‘Greater love has no-one that this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’(John 15.13). As we wear a poppy this Remembrance-tide, let us remember those who have died for us in warfare, especially in the last century, and let us also remember Him who died for us and them on the cross: and who defeated all the power of sin and death through the Resurrection.
The Harvest is Plentiful
On 7th October we will be celebrating our Harvest Festival. An opportunity we have every year to thank God for his great provision for our lives. Traditionally we think particularly of the fruit, vegetables, grain and all that goes to produce food for us, and we thank God for providing it. But in reality, the good things God provides also includes the clothes on our backs, the furniture around us, the roof over our heads, and the money in our pockets. Every single thing in this world has been ultimately provided by God. Even if the raw ingredients have been worked and altered by human beings, when we go back to the original source, it is God who provides it for us. That is what we thank him for at Harvest Thanksgiving.
There is a verse in Matthew’s Gospel (9 v37) where Jesus says to his followers ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few’. In that, he is using the image of harvest to describe about proclaiming the kingdom of God. The harvest is the hearts of people who are converted to believe, when they had not been before. The role of all of the church is to be like farm workers, bringing in that harvest: helping to tell others about God’s love. All of us, who are members of the body of Christ here in Blacon, has a share in that role. Our role in the body of Christ is something he gives us – it is not something we choose for ourselves, or pick out in someone else. He provides all that is needed for us to be able to fulfil the task he gives us. If you are a Christian, you are a member of the body of Christ, and God wants to use you. When you’re tempted to say ‘God can’t use me’, remember you are in good company. Many people in the Bible could have thought the same:
Abraham was too old;
David’s armour didn’t fit and he was too young;
And he was an adulterer and murderer;
The disciples fell asleep while praying;
Elijah was suicidal;
Gideon was afraid;
Hosea’s wife was a prostitute;
Isaac was a daydreamer;
Jacob was a liar;
Jonah ran from God;
Joseph was abused;
Jeremiah was depressed and suicidal;
John Mark was rejected by Paul;
Leah was ugly;
Martha worried about everything;
Mary Magdalene was not someone to take home to mother;
Miriam was a gossip;
Moses stuttered and was a murderer
Naomi was a widow;
Noah got drunk;
Peter denied Christ;
Rahab was a prostitute;
Samson was a womanizer – and had long hair;
The Samaritan woman was a serial wife;
Solomon had too many mothers-in-law;
Timothy had an ulcer and was too young;
And Zacchaeus was too small.
Be encouraged: God can – and does – use anyone he chooses. This Harvest Festival, let us thank God for all he has given us, and let us ask him how we can best use all our resources to proclaim the Gospel in this place.
Being ready for Christmas
Are you ready for Christmas? This is such a busy time of year – all those cards to write, all those presents to buy and wrap. Let alone the decorations and the food and the people and family we make contact with, who we maybe only connect with once a year. And it all needs preparation. The supermarkets start preparing for Christmas almost as soon as the summer holidays are over: they replace the aisles of Barbecues with tinsel and baubles. The Church also has a particular season set aside for preparing – we call it Advent. Advent in the Church starts four Sundays before Christmas, so this year it begins on 2ndDecember. This is far from a tinsel-filled celebration time. It is a time of penitence, of self-denial.
Because the preparation we need as Christians for Christmas is nothing to do with cards or wrapping paper – it is everything to do with being ready to receive Christ into our world, into our lives. For the Christ-mas, or more properly Christ-mass, that we celebrate on 25thDecember is the coming of God into the world as a human being. It is the birth of Jesus, the only Son of God, as a human baby. The scandal is that this Messiah was not born in a royal palace or somewhere of great splendour, but as we know in a dirty, smelly stable.
The account of the Nativity is a tremendous one, that points us to the real reason for the season – the wonder that God chose to become a human being out of love for us. Jesus is God’s love embodied in flesh. And that love was not only shown to us in the way that Jesus lived among people in Galilee 2000 years ago, the way he walked around, the things he said, the miracles he performed. God’s love was fully demonstrated in the way Jesus died – the way he was totally unfairly executed as if he were some sort of criminal, on a cross – and then when he was raised to life three days later. We only understand the enormity of God’s love embodied in Jesus, born at Christmas, if we look to the events around Easter.
We cannot begin to understand why Jesus was born, without understanding that God gave him to the world, to die on a cross for our sins, so that he would rise from the dead on the third day, to provide us with a way to forgiveness for sins. There has never been a time in all of human history, either before or since, when God had reached out in the same way to save his people. The first Christmas is a once and for all event. This is the moment when salvation for humankind came to be.
And so in Advent we prepare as a Church for that time of great celebration, but also as church members, we prepare our hearts to be ready to experience God’s love and his forgiveness afresh, as he comes to us in the Christ-child. Advent is a time to have some quiet reflection, to clear away all that clutters up our minds, and to make space within ourselves, for God’s love in Christ to come to us in a new and fresh way.
‘Quiet’, ‘space’, ‘uncluttered’, are all words that seem to be almost the opposite of what often happens in the run-up to Christmas. That is where our approach as a Church is in contrast to the rest of our society. In order to help us find this space, I recommend you spend time in silent prayer, I recommend time spent in contemplation. It requires no words, no ‘techniques’ – quite the opposite – and can be a most rewarding and moving form of prayer. Even if you have never tried anything like this before, I urge you to try it: as one part of preparing your heart for the coming of Christ into the world and into our lives this Christmas.
However we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christmas, may we each of us be prepared to know Christ born within our own lives, and to know his forgiveness, and his resurrection power at work within us.
Be the Best You Can Be
Published in our Parish magazine in August 2012
By the time you read this, the London Olympics will be underway. As I write, the schools are approaching their end of term, and all the local schools are focussing on the theme ‘Be the best you can be’ which is being promoted by the charity 21st Century Legacy, whose prime task is to ensure a lasting legacy for this country after the Olympics. (See www.21stcenturylegacy.com for more details). The children are all being encouraged to aim to be the best they are able to be, at whatever interests them. Not every child will be a champion at sports, but every child will certainly have something they are better at, and this is what they are to concentrate on doing the best possible. This will continue as a theme in their curriculum throughout next year.
I think the idea of being ‘the best you can be’ is an encouragement we can all take on board. And for Christians, the notion of ‘Be the best you can be’ is not a new one – Jesus spoke about it two thousand years ago, when he said ‘I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.’ (See John 10:10). Jesus is saying, everybody’s life has potential. And yes, there are things we can all do for ourselves to try to make the most of the potential we have. But Jesus is saying more than that. It is Jesus himself who brings us life to full abundance.
Without Christ, our lives are not fully lived. We may go around breathing and eating and sleeping and doing all the normal things a physical life is about, but it is not lived to the fullness of what we are for if there is no spiritual life. Without access to God the Father through his Son who died on the cross for us, we are in effect spiritually dead. We need to accept his forgiveness and to place him as Lord of our lives, in order to be alive spiritually. That is how we allow Jesus to bring us the life in all its abundance that he is come to do for us. So in God’s terms, the best we can be, the real fulfilment we can find in our lives, is through Christ.
And another aspect of this theme during the Olympics is that we are to aim for gold. Whatever God-given gifts we have, whatever our particular role within Christ’s church, we are to seek for a gold medal in that. Everyone of us who follows Christ has a part in the Body of Christ. Every one of us has a particular activity we are called to do in the church – and we are to persevere in that so we can be the best we can be. If every part of the body is functioning well, then we will be the healthiest possible church, which I believe is what God wants for us.
As we watch the Olympics, let us also use the following official prayer which I find helpful:
Giver of joy and source of all strength,
we pray for those who prepare for the London Olympic and Paralympic games.
For the competitors training for the Games and their loved ones,
For the many thousands who will support them,
And for the Churches and others who are organising special events and who will welcome many people from many nations.
In a world where many are rejected and abused,
we pray for a spirit of tolerance and acceptance, of humility and respect
and for the health and safety of all.
May we at the last be led towards the love of Christ who is more than gold, today and forever. Amen
Rector’s report to the Church’s Annual Meeting on 25th March 2012
Let us focus especially about what lies ahead for us as a church – in the coming year and beyond. I want to address this in three parts – looking upwards, looking inwards, looking outwards.
I am convinced that God is planning great things for his people in Blacon. God loves every single person in this estate, and he wants the very best for us. That’s why I say he has great things in store for us. If we are to grow, we need a vision of how that growth will happen – we need to know what vision God has for us.
Now, as a church, if we want to make the most of what he has in store, the only way is to follow what he wants us to do. We need to listen to Him, we need to hear what he has to say. Nothing we do as a church will ever be worth anything if God is not on our side, if we are not doing what He wants us to. Jesus said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13.34-35)
All we do as a church should be, in some form or other, loving one another in the way that He has loved us. That will show others what God’s love is, and will show others that we are His followers. So we need to be loving God and loving one another – and we need to be listening to God to know how He wants us to put that into practice day-to-day. We all of us need to be regularly – daily – talking to God in prayer, and listening to God. Asking God, what you do want me to do? And also asking, what do you want us – as a church – to do?
This listening is something we will be paying a lot of attention to in the coming months, and in the Autumn I want the whole parish to come together for half a day to talk and listen to God and one another – so we can have a clear idea of the vision that is right for this parish (more about that in due course).
God uses us as His body here in Blacon. Every single one of us is a part of His body. We need to look at how healthy a body we are, because we will not grow if we are not healthy. Just like a plant needs to be fed a watered, and occasionally may also need pruning, so we need to look at what we do as a church.
We need to ask ourselves what God is wanting us to do for him in this church. What gifts have I been given, how does he want me to use them? We need to think about why we do what we do. Is it what God is wanting us to do? Is it helping the body to grow? Also, we need to think about how as a church we help and encourage each other to grow in the faith. We each of us need to be growing in our relationship with God if the whole body is also to grow.
Are there ways in which as a church we can help each other grow more? Are there ways as a church we can encourage one another to serve God here better, to love one another better?
In order to grow as a church, we need to find ways for those (of all ages) who do not currently worship with us to be encouraged to join us. So we need to pay a lot of attention to how those who are on the outside view us on the inside. That means reviewing the welcome we give newcomers to the church. It means looking carefully at the experience people receive when they come to us for baptisms, funerals and weddings. It also means looking at how people find out about us. And it means too considering the impression people get of us as a church, from the various ways they hear about us (or what they see outside the building). We are God’s ambassadors here in Blacon, so it is very important that all that we say and do gives a clear message of God’s love and grace to those who do not yet know it in their lives.
These three dimensions: looking upwards, looking inwards, looking outwards – are essential dimensions for us to listen to God, and to develop a vision for what he is wanting for this parish. This is what I will be exploring further with the PCC – and with all of you – in the months to come.
What is most important in life?
Published in our Parish magazine in July 2012
What is most important of all? What is it about our lives that matters the most? Or about anyone else’s life? Is it the job someone does? Or whether or not they have a job? Is it the amount of money (or amount of debt) a person has? Is it how big or how supportive their family is? Is it how healthy the person is? Is it how happy they feel?
Any of those answers would be very reasonable, but are not, in my view, the most important of all in life. When Jesus was asked this, he said: ‘Love the Lord you God, with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Matthew 22.37, Mark 12.29-31 or Luke 10.27) Jesus is saying that what really matters, more than anything else, is what God looks at.
God doesn’t look at how many exams we passed at school, or what jobs we have done, or the kind of house or flat we live in. God doesn’t look at the outside things that people look at. God looks at us on the inside. He looks inside us, at our attitudes: our attitude to him and our attitude to each other. And God wants us to look at each other in the same way he looks at us. Jesus knows how easy it is for us to be distracted by the attractions of money, of possessions, of social status, of the admiration of people. But he wants us instead to look inside ourselves, to re-focus our attention on God, on loving Him, on placing Him centre-stage in our lives.
The only real way we can do that is by having relating to God as if he was our best friend, but more so. We need to be constantly seeking to connect with him, to learn about what he is wanting, to talk to him, to share our lives with him. We do that (hopefully) when we come together for Communion. We do that (hopefully) when we come to a service for worship. We also do that when we pray on our own, when we read the bible for ourselves, when we spend time apart with God. Just like developing a friendship needs time spent with the person, so if we are to love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, then we need to spend quality time with God.
And God also says that we are to love the people around us – love our neighbours – as ourselves. Not just love the people who have made something of themselves, or who have money. Not, love people because they are nice to us and they have earned it. We are to love our neighbour because… they are our neighbour. Simply for who they are. In the same way that we receive love and care from God, so we are to overflow with that same love in showing it to others.
May each of us increasingly know the power of God’s love and grace within our lives, so that our relationship with Him grows, and at the same time we learn to increasingly love our neighbour as ourselves. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Mind the Gap
Published in our Parish magazine in June 2012
If you travel on trains, there is often an announcement at the station to ‘mind the gap’, because the train and the platform do not quite meet, so there is a hazardous hole waiting for you to fall in. If you travel very regularly on the train, that announcement is so familiar that it becomes almost something you do not notice. We could equally have a notice as we walk in or out of the church for us to ‘mind the gap’, because there is an enormous difference between the way things are in church and what they are like in the world outside. It’s a difference we have maybe become so used to that we barely notice it.
I have been considering the difference in life between us in the church and the world outside. For example, comparing church with other groups or clubs that meet in the community, like a social club. On the face of it you might not think there’s much difference: a social club has certain people who are members, and maybe is keen to have others become members, and asks its members to dig into their pockets to fund its activities. And you’re either in the club or out of it. Of course, it’s great if lots of people want to join the club, but if someone doesn’t then that’s their choice, it’s not a problem and the club can continue with its activities which the members enjoy. A social club just decide among themselves what they want to do, and they do it.
A church is completely different. The church only exists because God has led its people to faith. Holy Trinity Church exists in order to be Christ’s hands and eyes and feet in Blacon. A church is only alive and only growing if it remains in Jesus, and has the Holy Spirit flowing through its veins. Any activity of the church needs to be led by, and empowered by the Holy Spirit if it is to be in line with God’s will.
A former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, famously said that the church is the only organisation that exists for the benefit of its non-members. While a social club puts things on because its members enjoy them, a church should be putting things on with an eye to what its non-members would want to take part in. Whatever we do as a church, we should be in all things think to ourselves what it is that those who are out there – not our members – what they think of it? Do they know what we do? We need to be mindful of the gap they can see between what they’re used to, and what we take for granted.
Why should we be bothered about people in the community who aren’t Christians? Because it is what God has put us here for. We are here because we are to show people the way to eternal life, the enormity of God’s love for them. So it matters enormously whether what we put on attracts people – because how can we tell them of God’s love unless we see them?
We may increasingly seek God’s will in all we do, may we consider those who do not yet have faith, may we be more increasingly mindful of the gap, and may we always consider the needs of those we live among, in all our plans as a church.
What Amazing Grace!
Published in our magazine in April 2012
Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia!
The resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ is something we are so used to mentioning, that the impact it has on our lives, can be lost. Jesus died and rose again so that we may receive forgiveness for our sins. That’s not something we deserve. That’s not something we have earned, by say doing good deeds. If we were to receive what we deserve from God, then we would – all of us – be condemned. It is because Jesus took the penalty that is rightfully ours when he was crucified, that we are counted as righteous in God’s eyes, that we are saved.
Salvation comes to us completely for free. That is what grace is, God’s love freely given to us. God’s grace is so amazing, that if we fully grasp its enormity, it is life-changing. I think sometimes we assume that for us, God’s grace is not quite as great as we say it is. Sometimes we can assume that our sins are not fully forgiven if we confess them: we hold on to our failings, and do not live as people who can live redeemed lives. Sometimes we can feel as though we need to do things for God in order to earn his forgiveness. If we do this or that good works, then we can be more likely to be forgiven. And maybe if we still don’t feel as though that burden of guilt has lifted, maybe we try all the harder to do ‘good’ things. But God’s grace is completely free, it is with conditions, without any expectations of what we may do ‘in return’.
God’s forgiveness is all or nothing. If we are forgiven, we are totally forgiven. Doesn’t matter how ‘big’ our debt of sinfulness is. God forgives us if we ask him. Jesus died on the cross for all of us who are sinners (and that means all of us!). There is no pecking order of sin, according to grace. Of course, people make distinctions between ‘big’ and ‘little’ sins, but any wrongdoing which separates us from each other, or which separates us from God, is a sin. Any sin condemns us, and we need God’s forgiveness for. And the wonderful, amazing outrageous thing is that if we turn to God and ask for it, he does forgive us! That is totally undeserved. It is totally unconditional.
If somebody wrongs us we may well set down conditions: we want to know the person has made amends for their wrong. We want them to be grateful to us for being magnanimous and forgiving them. God doesn’t set down any conditions. His grace is freely given without any demands. God is extraordinarily generous – through His grace, He gives abundantly far more to us than we can ever dream of or imagine. He demands nothing in return, in payment. May we learn to adopt generous spirits which give to others even a small portion of what God has given to us.
‘See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God.’ (1John 3.1)
Our cross-shaped faith
Published in our parish magazine, March 2012
As we continue through Lent this month, our minds turn more and more to the events which lead to Calvary, to the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus. Indeed, whenever we consider Jesus’ ministry in Galilee two thousand years ago, or amongst us in Blacon in 2012, we cannot – and must not – ignore Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, which are key.
But the cross has an impact on our lives as Christians far more than as an historical event. The cross is not only the shape of the way that the Roman authorities adopted to execute our Lord. It is also, I believe fundamentally, the shape of our faith. Let me explain.
Those of us who call ourselves Christian, do so because we call Jesus Christ our Saviour and our Lord. By doing that, we profess that we want to follow Him. When we follow Jesus we may day-to-day bear in mind what Jesus’ attitude to different activities would be, and we seek to do as he would have done. Some people use the acronym WWJD, ‘What would Jesus do?’ This is a good question to ask when faced with all sorts of situations. For example, how do we respond to somebody we might have strong disagreements with? Or, when we are approached in the shopping centre by someone selling a copy of the ‘Big Issue’?
Following Jesus is not just about ‘being nice’. It includes following Him on the Way to the cross. Jesus allowed himself to be mocked, publicly humiliated, physically and verbally abused. He did not open his mouth in defence of himself when being unjustly accused in an unlawful trial. He rebuked Peter for showing violent resistance to those arresting him. He allowed himself to be nailed to a cross to die. Following Jesus in such a path is not easy, and can involve suffering and pain.
And that is also not the only reason our faith is cross-shaped. Our faith involves both a ‘vertical’ relationship with God and a ‘horizontal’ relationship with those around us. Drawing a vertical and a horizontal line makes a cross. You cannot make a cross without both. You cannot be a Christian unless you have both forms of relationship. It has often been said that Christianity is all about relationship: both types of relationship are inevitable. The closer one grows to God, the more inclined one is to draw close to those around us. And vice versa. You cannot disentangle the one from the other. A person who is totally focussed on their personal relationship with God but shows no love to their neighbour, has an unbalanced faith.
A person who is wonderful at showing love to neighbour, but spends no time in prayer is unbalanced in the other way. If we are to grow as a church, we need to ensure our relationships grow in both directions. So, as we journey through Lent, let us all seek to strengthen our relationship with God, and with one another, all the time following the way of the cross.