I was recently hearing about the level of debt in our society. 8 million adults in our country have levels of debt beyond their ability to pay them off. Add to that, 21 million have less than £500 of savings, meaning they are unable to pay without going into debt, for any emergency that may arise. Where is God in all of this?
The Bible talks of debt and redemption (paying off debt) at its very heart. Of course, a lot of the debt discussed in the Bible is our own personal debt of sinfulness – what we owe God because we have done him wrong. But Jesus and the prophets point out that our attitude to money has a strong relation to our attitude to God. Any money we have (even if it was ‘hard-earned’) comes in the end from God, as indeed does anything else we have(even life itself). If our society is up to its neck in financial debt, how much more indebted are we to God because of our sinfulness?
At this time of year, we focus our attention on how God became flesh when Jesus was born, the incarnation. God becoming incarnate shows us that this physical world we inhabit can bear the glory of God. Looking to Jesus draws us into communion with him – we celebrate that particularly in the Eucharist. Some churches use visual images, physical things, to help draw us into communion with God. But, if the material becomes too much the focus of attention, then we can end up drawn away from God – and that we call idolatry.
Similar can happen with money. If we regard it as a gift of God, to do with as God wants us to, then we will not be holding on to it for our own desires, but will seek to be generous with it in supporting others as God wants us to. But, if instead we make a god of money, and serve the money instead of God, then we are being idolatrous and we lose connection with God.
The centre of the Eucharist, the centre of our faith is the body and blood of Jesus given for us on the cross. Through that event our debts to God are wiped clean, we are forgiven and restored, and reconciled to God and to one another. Jesus paid off all our debts to God. In that physical way, we are shown what God intends the material world for. We can use the money we are given in the same way, as material gifts to fulfil God’s purposes.
May we each of us seek to draw into closer communion with God this Advent. May we always seek to use ourselves, and also use our money, to fulfil God’s purposes in this place.
The Value of Listening
I am sure all of us have sometimes had the experience of being misunderstood, and we try to explain ourselves but the other person is not wanting to hear. It can be very frustrating. We can feel de-valued, unimportant, swept aside, if our views are not heard. I do hope and pray that never happens in our church. But, I am aware that because we are all flawed human beings, it perhaps may. Because for us humans, it can be hard work to listen – toreally listen – to what someone else is saying, and to hear where they are coming from, and to understand fully the views they hold.
When we carefully listen to someone, we are almost putting ourselves in their shoes, seeing the world from their perspective. That means making a conscious effort to actively do the listening. And not only allowing the words to be vaguely listened to, but also to hear the meaning and intention of what is being said. All this is far from natural for us (we more naturally prefer to just look at things from our own perspective), and so it takes up energy. For God, however, listening to us, valuing us, understanding how we feel and why we do, is completely natural for him. He loves us perfectly, and knows all the reasons why we think and feel the way we do. He has known us since before we were born. He knows our thoughts before they have even reached our consciousness. Part of me is amazed that he wants to patiently listen to me, when I keep on moaning at him out of my ignorance. I wonder that he doesn’t just tell me to be quiet and listen to what he has to say – after all, he knows the answer to all the things I find so baffling.
God can see round corners, and knows all the circumstances of our lives in details we never will. So, he knows better than we do what is needed for our lives. But even so, he is willing always to listen to us. But God never forces himself on us. He waits patiently for us to listen to him. The tragedy is how often I fill my prayers with a long litany of things I want to say to him, and give very little time to hear what he has to say to me. May I – may we all – learn how to listen more. To listen more to each other, and especially to listen more to God. To give space in our prayer time that is not filled with our own issues, but space which is waiting for God to show us what he has in store. For I am convinced that when we do hear from God, we will be filled with joy and excitement at the wonderful things he has in store. There is nothing more joyful than joining in with what God is already doing, and the only way to find out what that is, is to listen to him.
When it all began (October)
When did our Church first start? Some people would point to the start of Christianity. The first people to be called Christians were in a town called Antioch (Act 11.26). But there certainly were followers of Jesus before that. Perhaps the first moment we could really say there were ever Christians, is after Jesus was raised from the dead, when he first gave his followers instructions. This is described at the end of Matthew’s gospel, in chapter 28, verses 16-20. Jesus and his followers are at the top of a mountain. And Jesus said to them, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’.
This is a command that has remained important for Christians down the many centuries since he first uttered it. And the first and most important word in all of it is, ‘Go’. Jesus wants his followers to move, to change, to leave the place where they are, and go somewhere else. We would not be here today if Christians in the generations before us had not ‘gone’. If they had stayed in exactly the same place as before, doing exactly the same as they had always done, then none of us would be here today. The Christian faith would not have spread from a relatively tiny area in the Middle East. The Church in England would not have been founded. And we would not be here at Holy Trinity, Blacon.
The first Holy Trinity Church Chester was very ancient, and there are records of it in the early 13th century. The original Holy Trinity Church was built on Watergate Street. The building there today (now the Guildhall) was rebuilt on the site in the late 1860s. Its parish spread out of the city, to include the farm land in the area called Blacon.
It was the seriousness with which our forebears took the command to ‘Go’ that meant that our current church was built on Norris Road in 1960 and moves were made to eventually close our former building on Watergate Street in early 1961 (the city part of the parish having become part of St Peter’s and also St Oswald’s). Without moving from the less-populated city centre and into Blacon, where the homes for people were being built, Holy Trinity would have become less and less relevant to the population of the parish.
It can be easy to compare how things now with how they used to be (attendance at the Eucharist which has been fallen over decades; different styles of family life; less inclination to come to Church each week, etc), and to perhaps long for how things used to be. But that would not get us anywhere. Our society is the way it is. We need to ‘go’ from the old place, to a new place in order to meet with people where they are. Our duty as ambassadors of Christ is to find ways of connecting with people around us, perhaps in different ways to how we have done it before. The work Sue Mountford and her volunteers do so well in the Community Outreach Project is one attempt we are making to do that.
55 years after the consecration of our new building, we must ensure that we go in God’s strength where we are called. In other words, that all we are and all we do as a Church remains relevant to where people are now, not where things (and people) used to be, and that might involve altering the building we use.
Like a Child (September)
2There is something very enjoyable about watching a young child play. They find an object of interest to them, say a leaf, and they enter into their own small imaginary world with this box. We might hear them talking or humming a tune as they play. The innocence, the sensitivity to small things, the sheer enjoyment of something which is removed from the bigger world around them. They show interest and see possibilities in an object which those of us who are ‘mature’ would pass by and perhaps even ignore.
To a young child, the whole world is new and fresh and full of possibilities. To a young child, each day is full of experiences which they may not have come across before, and is full of things to learn. A young child knows he is young. A young child knows there is a great deal he does not know or understand. A young child also depends on grown-ups to provide the basics in life, food and shelter as well as guidance and protection.
Jesus says, these are the qualities we (all of us) are to have if we want to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18.3-4).
Jesus wants us to approach the world around us, and people we meet, with the same innocent wonder and delight of a young child. It is so easy as adults to use difficult experiences we may have had, or have heard about, to negatively affect the way we look at the world around us. It is too easy to be preoccupied with our own lives, our own problems, that we do not fully listen to those around us, or we do not see and learn from what is happening around us.
God is interested in the small things of everybody’s life, he never ignores something that seems irrelevant. God wants us to see each person we meet as made in his image. God wants us to have wonder and delight in the world he has made.
Jesus also wants us to be as dependent on God as a young child is on those who provide his food and shelter. We forget that God indeed in the end provides all the money we may have in our pockets, or our bank accounts. God in the end provides all the food in our cupboards or on our table. We lose sight of who God is, if we depend on people or human organisations for the resources we need to live day to day.
We have so much to learn about the attitudes God wants for our lives. We have it wrong if we assume we ‘know it all’ and have nothing to learn. Let us change instead into people who recognise we have a great deal to learn about how to live in the way God wants us to.
Let us return to God. Let us return to putting God as the number one in our lives, as the one who provides for all our needs. Let us, as Jesus puts it, change our attitudes, and become more like children, so that we can enter the kingdom of heaven.
Everything that Breathes (August)
The ending of books can be the best part. In a ‘who-dunnit’ the solution to who the culprit was, and how the whole plot fits together comes clear in the final pages. The Book of Psalms in the Bible has a beautiful ending which is like a climax to all that went before. Psalm 150 is a short Psalm, but it is the perfect finale:
Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty firmament!
Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his surpassing greatness!
Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with clanging cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!
Praising God is the most fitting way to end any book. Praising God is the most appropriate response we can bring to anything we go through in life, whether good or ill. Where are we to praise him? In his sanctuary, the psalm says. We are to meet with God in his special, chosen place, to draw close to him in the place he makes holy, and that is in his ‘mighty firmament’ – in heaven. Our praises here on earth combine with the praises of all the saints and angels in heaven. Earth and heaven join together to fill the universe with God’s praise and glory.
And the reason we are to praise him, is because of all his mighty deeds, because of all the wonderful things God has done to save us. And the chief way God has saved us, is of course when he sent his Son Jesus to suffer and to die on the cross for us, and to rise to life three days later, so that we can have forgiveness of our sins. The enormity of what God has done for us is so great that we cannot fully get our heads around it – his greatness is all-surpassing. So we are to rejoice in that, and to give him all our praise.
How are we to praise? Well, the psalm lists a whole range of instruments – trumpet, lute, harp, tambourine, strings, pipe, cymbals, and our voices singing. Praise of God can come in many forms, with all kinds of instruments – whether we use a traditional organ or cymbals and tambourine doesn’t matter. What does matter is that our hearts praise God – that is how we are to praise. And as well as using music, our bodies can also move in praise – the psalmist also says we can even dance in praise of Him.
And it is not just for one or two to do the praising – all of us are to praise God, because his mighty deeds have been done for all of us. And indeed, the psalmist broadens the scope even further than that – everything that breathes is to praise God. The whole world, the whole of creation, is to join in with singing and speaking and playing and dancing in praise of God who created us, who love us, and who saved us. Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!
Needs and Wants (July)
‘I really need this!’ the child cries. He is referring to a game for his computer. This is not food or drink he needs to stay alive. But the pressure is real on the parent, and the child believes this is truly essential for his existence. It may be we look at such a cry without much sympathy, especially if (like me) you are not interested in computer games. But, in other aspects of our life, we all of us have things which we could not imagine doing without, or feeling as though it was essential, when in reality we do not need it.
It is so tempting to say we ‘need’ something, when in reality we mean that it is simply what we want. Our needs are essentially for food, water, shelter. My wardrobe is bulging to overflowing with clothes, and I have to have a ‘purge’ every now and then, especially if I buy something new. When moving to the Rectory in Blacon, I became all too aware of the amount of stuff we have. And I have to confess that if one or two boxes have been lost, my life would not have been too badly affected. Not until moving house did I fully realise what we had. And furniture looked quite different when moved into new rooms. It took a move to see things more clearly.
This is how we are with our own personal possessions, and I wonder if we adopt a similar attitude with our worship? I wonder if we take things for granted in our worship, and lose sight of what we really need?
“The real essentials for worship lie within each of us”
The real essentials for worship lie within each of us. What we need is to love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and our worship is to reflect that love, drawing close to God in spirit and in truth. Worship can form our whole lives, Monday to Saturday as much as on a Sunday. But if we just consider our corporate worship on a Sunday in Church, that has exactly the same principles. Indeed, we need to make sure that there is nothing we do, either as members of the congregation, or as ministers leading the service, which get in the way of our being able to draw close to God in our worship.
We have the habit of worshipping in a building we are all familiar with, on Norris Road. But some of our number can remember when we used to worship in other buildings in Blacon, or even at the old Holy Trinity on Watergate Street. Is the worship any less valid here than it was there? I sincerely hope not – the faith of the believers is I hope just as strong now as it used to be. So if we were to change say the some of the arrangement of furniture in church, would that affect our worship? I sincerely hope not. And I wonder if, a bit like rearranging the furniture in our homes, it could possibly refresh our perspective.
Where is God when it hurts? (June)
‘Where is God?’ is a common question when bad things happen. We wonder why he allows things to go so terribly wrong. If we ever find ourselves questioning God, wondering whether he cares about us, wondering why he allows bad things to happen in the world, I find it can be helpful to look at the Psalms. Especially Psalm 139 can be helpful and can point us in the right direction.
‘O Lord, you have searched me and known me’ the psalmist begins. God knows me… and it’s personal. And every single one of us can say the same. However much we do or do not think about God, He knows us perfectly.
He knows every single thing we do. He knows the things we think – he knows the thoughts at the front of our minds, but he also knows those little niggles at the back of our minds, that we might not even want to pay attention to. He can see, and he knows every single thing we do – and all the things we don’t do, for whatever reason. He knows what we’re going to say, even before we’ve said it.
He knows every single thing about our lives, and as the psalmist wrote – ‘he hems us in’ – his arms are all around us. He protects us. He guards us. His hand is on us. God is with us wherever we go. Even if we try to run away from him, he is still there. Ever since Adam and Eve, people have tried to run away or rebel from God. But God is always with us, wherever we go. We can avoid church and anything to do with church. We can put God out of our minds, and maybe busy ourselves with lots of jobs so that we don’t have to think about things that might remind us of him. We could go to the moon, or diving in the deepest sea – whatever we do, wherever we go – God will be there. So there is no suffering or heartache we go through that God does not know about. But more than that, he doesn’t just know about what we go through, he is there with us in it. God with us is in all our suffering, through Jesus Christ who suffered and died for us, on the cross. And he defeated all the power of sin and death through the cross.
God who made all of us, sent his Son to die for us because of his love for us. And He understands and knows so much more about us than any of us will ever be able to get our heads around. And when we suffer, God feels that pain too. And one day, when Jesus returns, he will bring about a new creation, where the lion will lie down with the lamb, where there will be no more earthquakes, where people will no longer suffer. Where there will be no more sickness or pain or grieving or dying or death. A new creation of perfect peace and perfect health and perfect love.
That time will come, we don’t know when, but in the meantime we can glimpse some of the peace which passes all understanding, in Jesus Christ, if we draw close to God and allow him to search our heart and mind and soul, and fill our being.
God’s Wonderful Provision for us (May)
Below is a part of the report the Rector gave at our Annual Meeting.
There is a verse in the Bible which says that God is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine. He works in ways that we have not even thought of. Looking back over a year it is often remarkable how many things have changed or happened that we could not have predicted, which I believe God has been at work in.
When I gave my report a year ago, the GPs from the Elms Surgery had only recently moved their clinic rooms into our hall a few months earlier. Now, we have grown used to them (and they have grown used to us) and it feels hard to remember what the hall was like beforehand. A year ago, our Community Outreach Project was a new venture that was just getting off the ground. Now, it is a well-established feature of the work of this church, on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. It was in the summer of 2014 that we experimented with having the Monday café sessions in the Lady Chapel at church (because the noise levels caused by the café in the hall had disturbed the GP surgery). The tentative experiment proved to be a very positive move, and this led to a significant growth in those attending on Mondays. Comments by many have shown how they enjoy using our beautiful church building during the week, aside from formal worship services. The growing Outreach project is transforming the reputation of this church in the community.
A year ago also, our Parent and Toddler group had only just started. This is now well established also, and many dozens of parents and children regularly enjoy their time with us for this. On a number of occasions, families who have had their child baptised with us have come to Playtots, and we have also had enquiries about Baptisms from others who attend Playtots. It is wonderful that so many young families feel at home in our church building. These are just some examples of the ways God has provided for us.
I could also add the new people who have been brought to our staff during the year – David our Curate, Linda our Administrator. There are also many other ways he has blessed us. I am so grateful to God for his most generous provision for all our needs in the past year. As we look forward to the coming year, may all the church community at Holy Trinity glorify God in all we do, whether on a Sunday or on any day between Monday and Saturday.
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3.20-21)
General Election (April)
I am sure you do not need reminding that we are now in the middle of a General Election campaign. Perhaps you were hoping that this magazine would be a haven from the party political debates. Well, I am not going to mention any particular political party or their policies (I make it a rule never to tell anyone which way I vote) but I do urge all church members to use your vote, whoever you vote for.
There are strong reasons why I believe all citizens of this country who are eligible should vote: you only have to look at the way people in countries elsewhere in the world do not have any say in how they are governed, to appreciate the democracy and freedom of speech we have in this country. But there are also strong reasons why, as Christians, it is important for us to be active politically.
We are called by Jesus to live out our Christian lives through loving our neighbour as ourselves. That is a political command – because it is about how we are to relate to those around us. Any action which has an effect on others within our community (locally, nationally or internationally) is – by definition – political. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, and ask ‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven’, we are involving ourselves in politics, because of our Christian faith.
Church of England Bishops wrote a (fairly long) pastoral letter last month urging all Anglicans to use their vote. They also encouraged us to especially support candidates (of whichever party) who show the following key values in their policies:
- Halting and reversing the accumulation of power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands, whether those of the state, corporations or individuals.
- Involving people at a deeper level in the decisions that affect them most.
- Recognising the distinctive communities, whether defined by geography, religion or culture, which make up the nation and enabling all to thrive and participate together.
- Treating the electorate as people with roots, commitments and traditions and addressing us all in terms of the common good and not just as self-interested consumers.
- Demonstrating that the weak, the dependent, the sick, the aged and the vulnerable are persons of equal value to everybody else.
- Offering the electorate a grown up debate about Britain’s place in the world order and the possibilities and obligations that entails.
Jesus showed a bias throughout his ministry to the poor, the weak, the vulnerable and those ignored by the rest of society. Christian voters can reasonably be expected therefore to support those politicians with such priorities.
Whichever party we support, let us use our vote. And whichever politicians end up running our government after the election, let us pray that they show the key values outlined above.
Let us pray above all that God’s kingdom may be inching closer on earth as in heaven.
GIVING UP AT LENT (March)
Lent is traditionally the time to give something up. Sadly nowadays people have often given up on the whole idea of giving up. The idea of fasting in Lent comes from the very earliest days of the church, when people preparing for their Baptism at Easter were encouraged to fast in the lead-up to it. In the first couple of centuries, the time of fasting was only a couple of days. Then, in the 4th Century it had become 40 days (perhaps to echo the length of fasting of Jesus in the wilderness, of Moses and of Elijah). Originally people restrained from all food when they fasted; then over the centuries it became whole kinds of food (eg all meat, fish and eggs) – it is a modern notion to abstain from just one type of food, like giving up chocolate for Lent.
Why should we fast? There is an assumption all through the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments, that people will fast. When Jesus taught his disciples about the lifestyle he expected of them, he said ‘when you fast…’, he didn’t say ‘if you fast…’. The assumption was that they will be fasting, and he was concerned that when they do, their attention is entirely in God’s direction, not towards other people (Matthew 6vv16-18). Jesus does not want us to make a big fuss in front of others about our fasting, but to keep it between ourselves and God (much the same as his advice about how to give money).
Often, when fasting is described in the Bible, people (such as the great prophets, Jesus or the Apostles) are praying as well. Fasting goes together with prayer. The more we deny ourselves the food our bodies crave, the more our minds focus clearly on God and his will for our lives, and the ways in which we let him down. That is why people who pray when they fast, say that their prayers become so much more focussed and meaningful when they are fasting.
Why is fasting so difficult? We live in a world of plenty – indeed, our society does not only have plenty, in some ways we have too much. We have a mentality in our society that ‘I want, gets’. If we desire something, like a new sofa, very often we will find somebody to give us a loan so we can buy it right away. For many, gone are the days previous generations knew when they did without maybe for years, while they would have saved up for that furniture. Gone are the days, for many too, when food would have been much less varied. Nowadays, if we want it, very often we get it right then. We have lost the notion of waiting for things. In a lot of ways, we have lost self-discipline.
Fasting requires self-discipline. It needs us to say, ‘my body craves this, but I will choose not to have it – for God’s sake’. If we are to put our love for God into practice in our lives, then it is not only a matter of how we behave towards one another that matters, we need to learn to relate to our own bodies in a way that honours God.
So, this Lent, what are you giving up?If you have not yet this Lent started fasting, it is not too late. You do not have to fast every day of the 40 – do what you can, maybe on certain days of the week – but I urge you to try something. I hope you have not given up on giving up. I hope you will persevere with giving something up, in order to allow yourself draw closer to God, to know yourself and your body better, and through that to know God’s love for you and His will for your life much better.
Teaching us how to commune with God (February)
31st January 2015 is the 100th anniversary of the birth in France of a boy who was to grow up to become a highly influential spiritual writer and speaker, Thomas Merton. He was a fascinating and complicated person, who wrote widely and accessibly on many spiritual topics. His background was tragic, but his experiences enabled him to write in a way that brought spiritual truths to a Western readers in ways that the spiritual classics perhaps could not.
His parents were artists from America and New Zealand, and though born in France, his very early years were spent in New York, until his mother died when he was just 6. He then moved to France where his father lived, and then on to England where he received much of his education at boarding school. When he was 16, his father died of a brain tumour, but Tom continued at school and gained a place at Cambridge. But he dropped out of university within a year. He spent some time travelling round Europe, and in Rome visited various churches including a Trappist monastery. He moved in the 1930s to Manhattan, and went to Columbia University. Around this time both his grandparents, who had virtually brought him up, also died.
Merton became increasingly interested in Christianity, and he converted to Catholicism in 1938 and was confirmed the following year. In October 1939, just 5 months after his confirmation, he felt called to become a priest, and he also explored joining a Franciscan order, but for various reasons this did not happen. Then, a few months later, he started worshipping at a Cistercian abbey, run by Trappist monks in Kentucky, where he went for a retreat. A short time later he returned there, and joined them. He was ordained priest in 1949, and ever since his first Communion he received Catholic Mass daily for the rest of his life. He died very tragically and suddenly, accidentally electrocuted while visiting Bangkok, in 1968, but his legacy has lasted.
Thomas Merton wrote widely, publishing about 70 books. I recommend his autobiography (the English edition first published in 1949, is called ‘Elected Silence’) and also his writings on the life of prayer, and especially contemplative prayer. He was also active politically, becoming prominent in anti-war marches (against the Vietnam War), and also renowned for taking a non-violent stand during race riots in America in the 1960s. He worked hard to build up dialogue between the different faiths, and on several occasions met the Dalai Lama. For him, talking to people was the way to be in communion with others, through Christ, and thus to bring the possibility of healing.
Merton never conformed to what the Church would want. For him, discovering ways of drawing close to God would go outside the bounds of religion. For me, his greatest writing is on Christian contemplative prayer, which he calls “the prayer of the heart”. He writes from personal experience, and although a monk he is very aware of the realities of a Western lifestyle. He also has a deep understanding of the psychological and philosophical theories of the mid-twentieth century. He describes how when we stop in stillness, to listen to God (and that means stopping everything within our minds, all the preoccupations and worries) we ultimately reach a point of contemplation. This involves peeling away layers or barriers (which we discover are self-imposed) that stand in the way of us having a true communion with God. Coming into the unimpeded presence of God who is Love, who is an all-consuming fire, is the purpose of contemplation.
To quote Merton (from his book ‘Contemplative Prayer’):
“We should let ourselves be brought naked and defenceless into the centre of that dread where we stand before God in our nothingness without explanation, without theories, completely dependent upon his providential care, in dire need of the gift of his grace, his mercy, and the light of faith…True contemplation is not a psychological trick but a theological grace.”
If Contemplative Prayer interests you, please join us for a session in Church on Sunday 15th February at 6.30pm.