Monthly Archives: July 2014

Living Faith

I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.
(Luke 6:47-48 NRSV)

My late Grandma, Lizzie, was quite a character! Born at the height of the Victorian era, she sailed to Canada well before the First World War. In Toronto she married and raised a family. There she stayed for over 50 years until, in her mid-eighties, she got on a plane and came to live with us in England, to help my mother who had been recently widowed.

Lizzie lived into her 102nd year and, although crippled with arthritis, was still planting potatoes in the garden well into her nineties. She had lived through two world wars, the great depression and much else; she had experienced great poverty, and the growing prosperity of the post war years.

There wasn’t much that Lizzie hadn’t seen or experienced. She had considerable personal courage, a very sharp mind and a dry wit. She also had strong opinions on many things, which she would happily share.

And Lizzie was a woman of quiet but profound faith. In her time with us getting to a church would have been difficult for her, but she read her huge King James Bible every day, and she prayed quietly by her bed every night.

I didn’t understand such things at the time but I now realise that Lizzie’s faith was part of who she was; it had shaped her life and she had a natural relationship with God through her prayers. I don’t remember any great religious debates taking place in my childhood home, and unless you saw Lizzie with her Bible or at prayer you might know little of her devotion. She did not wear her religion as a badge.

It seems that for many of us, faith is a subject for discussion and debate, or perhaps even a matter of allegiance. For Lizzie her walk of faith was her journey of life; without fuss or ostentation. She had built her life on the solid foundation of Jesus’ teaching.

Jesus,
show me the way
to build my life
on the solid foundation
of your words.
Amen.

Faith and Doubt

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
(John 20:24-25 NRSV)

Poor old Thomas. Though he was one of Jesus’ closest followers he is often castigated as the doubter, perhaps a little unfairly. “Don’t be such a Doubting Thomas” we are told when we are unsure of something which is assented to by others.

Here is Thomas: grief-stricken that his friend and master had been brutally executed just a few days earlier, being asked to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. His doubt is not unreasonable, to say the least!

Sadly, faith is often described as an “in or out” thing, or perhaps as a “yes or no” decision. For some people that will be valid. However, I would wager that you could look around the vast majority of church communities and see a variety of understandings of faith.

As a Christian minister, my role is not to persuade everyone to think like me and believe everything I believe about God. Rather, my role is to encourage people to see that they are deeply loved by God, and to help that discovery to nurture and shape their lives – to help them feel that they belong to the community of faith (in all its diversity), and to believe that they are precious children of God, so that we can all better learn to love God and each other.

That is why I think that the best worshipping fellowship – church community – has boundaries which are so nebulous that members of the wider community will feel “safe” to come and explore what faith might mean to them, without feeling that they are being “signed up”.

Faith and doubt are not incompatible.

Faith can often be there in the presence of doubt. There is no necessary conflict between rational and spiritual thought. We can grow in faith through our questioning.

Growing in faith is like learning to be more fully human; and that can be a lifetime’s project.

Jesus,
Accompany me
on this lifetime journey of exploration;
help me to grow
in my understanding of God’s love
so that it may shape my life
and deepen my faith.
Amen.

Stunted Growth

Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
(John 8:10-11 NRSV)

There are those who would argue that the story of the Bible is the story of human sin, and what God decided to do about it. Hmmm. Well, maybe.

Whatever the truth of that, we certainly seem to have a fascination with the whole notion of sin. If that were not so then many books would never be published, movies and tv soaps would have no audiences, and very few newspapers would be sold.

But the nature of sin varies from one culture to another and within societies, as does the degree of tolerance or otherwise.

In the quotation above, the Gospel writer is recounting the well-known story of the woman “caught in adultery.” No one seems to be concerned about the fact that there must have been another person present. The mob wants to stone her for her sin, or condemn Jesus for his lax attitude to the law. His response is to invite the sinless person amongst them to begin the stoning. They get the message.

But what is sin? Well, it could be argued that sin is exemplified in the Ten Commandments and in all the laws given out in the first few books of the Bible. There are very many who would agree with that notion and a host of laws which have grown from it. So perhaps the nature of sin can be codified.

Except I don’t think it can; not in that way, at least.

There is a simpler way. If we are, indeed, children of God from birth to eternity, then surely God want’s the best for each of us. My sin, then, is anything in my life, over which I have control, which prevents me from growing into the kind of person I have the potential to be. The same is true for you. Growth may be thought of as physical, intellectual, moral, spiritual and in terms of social, economic and physical/mental well-being. Additionally, and potentially far more seriously, our sin is anything that we do that hinders the growth of another.

That is why Jesus summarised all the Commandments by saying “Love God, and love your neighbour as you love yourself.” If we can get that right, we might be less obsessed with sin.

Jesus,
your love conquers my sinfulness.
Teach me to live that love
in my daily life
and amongst those I meet.
Amen.

A Change of Heart

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
(Mark 1:14-15 NRSV)

Christians occasionally find themselves teased with the image of the street-corner preacher, clutching a huge brass-clasped Bible, whilst wearing a maniacal expression and proclaiming “repent for the end of the world is nigh!” I once saw a cartoon variation of this satire in the form of a man, wearing a huge sandwich board which proclaimed “The end of the world is nigh” on the front and “half-price meals at Joe’s Café” on the back.

The problem is with the word “repent.” It hangs like a mill-stone around the necks of so many as an exhortation to beat our breasts in sorrow for our past life, to seek God’s forgiveness and to turn to Christ.

Whilst there is a great deal of truth in that, especially where our consciences trouble us for genuine (as opposed to imagined) misdeeds, the definition is much too narrow. There is more, and better, to it.

The word “repent” is based on an ancient Greek word which means “to have a change of mind,” or to “think in a different way.” We might think of it as a change of heart, perhaps as a consequence of thinking more deeply or seeing the “bigger picture.”

When Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God, he is more concerned with saying that something new and wonderful is being inaugurated than he is in raking up the ashes of people’s earlier lives.

Jesus is challenging his hearers, including ourselves, to break out of conventional and long-assumed modes of living to see the world from the perspective of eternity: from God’s perspective.

The Kingdom is not a place for world-weary cynicism, or for exploitation of the status quo. Membership of The Kingdom is not limited to those who think they have attained a degree of holiness.

The Kingdom is the place for those with big and growing hearts, who open their minds to what God is doing in his world, and who want to join in.

That’s the Kingdom of God which Jesus came to proclaim.

Jesus,
show me the big picture
as far as I am able to see it.
Change my heart,
grow my mind
to understand the works of your Kingdom.
Amen

Treasure

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
(Luke 12:34 NRSV)

I am often wary when someone pipes up with the old adage, “Charity begins at home.” The phrase is often used as a conversation stopper, or as an excuse to stand back from our responsibility to our fellow human beings.

In fact, it often displays a thinly-veiled hard heartedness; a meanness of spirit.

Yes, charity should begin at home. Our nearest and dearest are God’s gifts to us and we have a primary responsibility to love them in practical and sacrificial ways. The original meaning of the word we know as “charity” is, quite simply, self-emptying sacrificial love. So charity should begin at home, but it shouldn’t end there.

In his teaching, Jesus never says that money in itself is a bad thing; it is, after all, simply a means of exchange. But money and power often go hand in hand. The more money we have, the greater our freedom to decide, and the greater our power. Those with little money often have little power and can find themselves at the mercy of those who have plenty of both.

So it is not money which Jesus criticises, but our attitudes towards money.

In fact, it’s not just money: wherever we focus our attention (whether it be money, status, celebrity, our jobs, our cars, our hobbies and interests, even the social circles we move in) there is always the danger that the “thing” will become our god.

If we sit lightly on our possessions; enjoying what we have, not worrying about that which we don’t have, and doing our best to share our good fortune, whilst seeking to empower others, then we begin to move towards Jesus’ command to love God and our neighbour.

If I am tuned in to Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom, then my heart is less likely to be fixed on my needs and more likely to discover its treasure amongst God’s other children.

Jesus,
when I am worn down
by the cares of money,
or any one of a thousand distractions,
give me a heart for your Kingdom
and show me where my treasure really lies.
Amen.

Using the Same Measure

He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
(Luke 11:2-4 NRSV)

The Lord’s Prayer, in its different versions and many languages is surely amongst the most commonly used of all Christian prayers. If you can’t think what to pray then the Lord’s Prayer will certainly do.

It is not, in fact, a “religious” prayer in a sectarian or denominational sense. Anyone and everyone can pray it.

But the words do indicate the radical and subversive nature of Jesus’ teaching. It is a prayer of praise and adoration, an acknowledgement of God’s providence, a prayer for protection, a prayer of healing and reconciliation: and a prayer for justice.

“Forgive us our debts (or sins or trespasses)” is a part of the prayer which many of us might offer at times when our consciences trouble us; but the prayer also offers a caveat of pragmatism – “for we ourselves forgive . . .”

Do we? Do we forgive others to the same extent that we expect God (and people) to forgive us?

Do we ask God to use the same measure with us, as we do with our neighbours? Because that is what the prayer means: “Judge me with same level of justice that I judge others.”

For justice is not only about restitution; and it is certainly not about revenge. Justice will ultimately involve painful reconciliation and healing; and that will also involve a degree of forgiveness.

Some will find this shocking; but without forgiveness there can be little chance of reconciliation. Those who forgive bear the cost, the pain, the insult of the offence. It can be the most difficult thing; but it is the way of the Kingdom of God.

Our Father in Heaven,
may you be praised and honoured above all.
may your Kingdom of justice, mercy and love come;
may your will be done on Earth as in Heaven.
Give us today the food we need.
Forgive us the harm we have caused
to the same extent that we forgive those who have caused us harm.
Do not lead us to the time of hard testing, but protect us from evil.
Amen

Mixing it Up a Bit!

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
(Matthew 13:31-33 NRSV)

“Better to be an honest sinner than a phoney saint;” so goes the adage, and there is a great deal of truth in it.

Jesus mixed with all kinds of people who were far from perfect, and who continued to be far from perfect even after their encounter with him. They were a bit like you and me, in fact.

But that encounter with him did change lives, perhaps especially the lives of those who became his followers. And herein lies the “secret.” Jesus did not turn up on a “battle bus” with political manifesto; nor did he raise an army to change the world by force. In fact, it’s pretty clear that he didn’t want to found a new religion (boy, did we ever get that one wrong!).

What he did do was establish that which we pray about every time we use the Lord’s Prayer: the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven).

The citizens of this kingdom are not primarily those who are holier than the rest of us; who say all the right things and who know all the correct theology. They may be such people but that is not the qualification for citizenship of God’s Kingdom.

The citizens of the kingdom will be ordinary frail human beings who will, despite their many imperfections and their daily struggles, live out the kingdom values in the “little” things of everyday life, as described in the many teachings of Jesus.

Those small acts will be the mustard seeds of the Kingdom, the unseen yeast in the dough which, over time can combine together to transform our world much more than the rhetoric and exhortations of a thousand preachers.

Jesus,
show me the ways in which
my attitudes and actions
may serve your transforming Kingdom.
Amen.

Let’s Have a Party

So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
(Luke 15:20 NRSV)

I think that those people who look down their noses when others are celebrating may be in for a bit of a shock in terms of eternity. Amidst the trials and tribulations of his Earthly ministry, Jesus took part in joyful feasts and celebrations, and spoke of them to others.

To love is, yes, to bear the pain of love and the possibility that love will be rejected or abused; but it is to do so with a deep and almost visceral joy which will burst out into celebration when the opportunity arises.

God loves.

The parable of the wayward (prodigal) son who abuses his father’s love is a shocking story of the triumph of love over all that would destroy it. It is, of course, a parable of God’s love for his creation, showing a deep insight into human nature: and it begins with a statement about joy in heaven when we turn and acknowledge our relationship with God.

In the story the youngest son commits a whole list of offences which would have rendered him a complete outcast in may people’s eyes. Yet his father waits patiently in the hope that, one-day, he will return, and is overwhelmed with joy when he does. A great celebration is called for.

The older son, meanwhile, has been bearing a grudge for years and his “righteous anger” bursts out at the news that his brother has returned and that his father has forgiven him.

Many of the parable’s hearers would share the older brother’s indignation, and even consider the father’s actions to be weak or unfair.

But the father’s love for both his sons is undimmed, and both are invited to the party.

The truth is that God’s love for us does not depend on our “worthiness,” but upon the fact that we are his children.

How do you respond to that? Why not come and join the party?

Jesus,
so often you teach of God’s love;
so often I feel unworthy of that love.
Yet I know that I am loved
despite my many failings,
and you have shown that to be true.
Amen.

Come, Share My Life

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
(Matthew 26:26-28 NRSV)

Sharing a meal together can be a very special experience. Even in this busy world where so many of us grab something to eat in passing, I love the opportunity to sit down and eat with family and friends, especially if I have been able to help with the preparation of the meal. At its best, sharing a meal is one of the holiest of experiences because in the offering and receiving, the sharing and sometimes the discussion, the laughter and banter around the table, we can catch a glimpse of the people we are meant to be.

Jesus shared this very special meal with his friends on the night before his own body was broken on the cross.

Even without entering into the theological disputes about the nature of this “Last Supper,” of the words and the meaning of the elements of bread and wine, we can see something significant.

In sharing this meal, in this way, Jesus is creating a bond between himself and his disciples. Those who share this meal, and those who come after them, have a share in the life of Jesus, the incarnate God.

We don’t worship a distant God who is unconcerned about our daily struggles, but who demands our utter devotion. Rather, we have a share in the life of the God who took our flesh and blood, who lived among us, and who knows our humanity.

We don’t have to go looking for God; God has come to us.

Jesus,
in the supper of your betrayal
uou declared your unity with your friends.
May I be your friend,
at one with you.
Amen

Risen?

He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.
(Matthew 28:6 NRSV)

The story of the resurrection of Jesus – his rising from the dead following his execution on the cross – was, is and will always remain the most controversial aspect of the Christian faith. That is inevitably true because so much hinges on it. All four gospel writers, writing to diverse communities at different times, agree that it is the climax of their message.

Think about it for a moment. If Jesus’ death was the end of his story, then history might possibly record him as a great teacher, perhaps a gifted healer, a man of wisdom or a radical philosopher. Equally however, he might have become known merely as a failed revolutionary. More likely we would never have even heard of him.

On the other hand, if Jesus did rise then all that he said and did during the time he walked the dusty roads of Galilee and Judaea is validated: shown to be true. Jesus is the human face of God, including all that goes along with that statement.

If Jesus did rise, then the Kingdom of God is real, and not just optimistic thinking in the hearts of those who yearn for a better world.

If Jesus did rise then the costly, forgiving, empathising, self-emptying love he proclaimed really is the key to this world’s healing.

If Jesus did rise, then God really does love the world – all of creation.

Let’s be clear. The people of Jesus’ time knew death when they saw it. They lived with it much more closely than most of us ever do. Life was short and brutal, burdened by the whims of despotic rulers and ravaged by disease and abject poverty. Death was ever near.

His friends knew that he had died that Friday afternoon, and they were (to say the least) utterly shocked when they witnessed him risen.

In addition, many of his followers went to their deaths proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection. No sane person lays their life down for a myth. Yes, we must acknowledge that his close followers and friends were frail human beings like you and me, but it is unreasonable to believe that so many of his close friends could have been deluded in what they experienced.

Jesus rose, the Kingdom is founded, love reigns supreme.

Stop now, and think about that.

Jesus,
show me the truth
and the meaning
of your resurrection
for me,
for those I love,
for those I struggle with,
for those I don’t know,
for your world,
for eternity.
Amen.