Utopia and all that (6/2/2017)
THE London Underground in the rush hour is a study in human traffic flow and human behavior. Depending on your cup – the ‘half-empty’ version is a frightening nightmare of robots or lemmings carried along in a mindless, crushing stream, controlled by forces outside themselves. On the other hand, ‘half–full’ shows myriads of individuals pursuing their own particular purposes yet co-operating together to achieve the mass movement of thousands in a short space of time. From it we can paint two very different pictures of the city and society and of human well-being.
We’re going through strange times in which politicians and leaders have also been painting some very divergent pictures of what is and what might be. All sorts of assumptions about the values we hold, democratic freedoms and principles are now up for debate. Concepts such as freedom of religion, equality before the law and free speech, which were previously just wallpaper, are suddenly hot topics alongside the usual celebrity news and grumpy cats.
It is fascinating how some long-held Baptist principles are also being taken down off the back shelf and dusted off for a new generation. In Baptists Together there has been a renewed attention to our Declaration of Principle and how it shapes our life in covenant. At the moment this is caught up with the debate about human sexuality and same-sex marriage but the bigger question is, how will we interpret, in our corporate life as Baptists Together the first part of the basis of our union: That our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, God manifest in the flesh, is the sole and absolute authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and that each Church has liberty, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to interpret and administer His laws. Especially when we may be deeply divided on certain matters. The 1990s' document Something to declare and the recent call The courage to be Baptist are good places to start our discussions.
But is it an accident that both world and Church are currently working on the similar topics? We talk about discerning the mind of Christ together. This is not democracy yet Baptist or congregational government was very influential within the 17th century, an important part of the family tree of ideas about how power is exercised in a body of people. We rightly say our discernment rests on the foundation of Scripture interpreted through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It also owes much and contributed to the belief in the dignity of the individual and the value of their voice. Democracy in its ideal has also been about casting our vote for the common good and not just for what is most beneficial for me. By contrast pork barrel politics shows the worst possibilities of the form.
We’ve also just celebrated 400 years since the death of Thomas Helwys, that Baptist hero for freedom of religious conscience, who wrote an appeal to King James 1 for this liberty. He wrote possibly the first English book defending the principle of religious liberty. For Helwys religious liberty was a right for everyone, even those he disagreed with.
What does this mean? I think we have much of value to say to our 21st century world and its politics. We have important insights to bring back to the forefront in our divided and hostile world. In our Baptist commitment to walking together and watching over one another in love, we have been led to a continual dialogue between the individual and the covenanted community. That’s exactly where our society finds itself right now. In our communities, its not all about me but I have something unique to say and bring. It’s not all about the group but in its co-operation and covenant it models the unity and diversity of God who creates us. Sometimes it goes wrong and in our attempt to be the pure church we become harsh and excluding. But at our best I believe we have something essential of God’s ways to offer to the world around us.
My flag is better than your flag (17/10/2016)
THE prominent flagpoles fly the Union flag and a cross of St George from the end-of-terrace house beyond the cemetery wall. I walk round every day and pass them.
What I have never noticed before is that there are opposite and answering flags lower down at the bottom end of the cemetery, but these fly a changing set of international symbols – right now the EU ring of stars, the Jordanian, Bulgarian and US flags. Is there a competition? Is it a Brexit inspired skirmish where one of the protagonists has not yet heard the news that the war is lost? The rather grim thought that struck me today is that in between this competitive flag flying is a field of the dead.
Yet we can do flag-waving really well. It happens at the Olympics. British Taekwondo silver medalist, Lutallo Muhammad, was on the radio this morning recalling how terrible it felt to let down his nation by losing the gold medal at the last second of the match. Yet he was able to rejoice in the benefits the victor from the Ivory Coast had gained as a result of winning. There can surely be a right love of my nation and my culture that can also delight in and affirm all the ‘others’ with their different history, their unique life and song and colour. Nor need this love prevent us from repenting of the very dark passages in our national story and working towards a redemptive future. But we seem to be in a time when national interest means my nation at the expense of others and national security means isolating ourselves from others. It surely really matters that we work this nationhood thing out in a positive way.
One of my asylum seeker friends has just received his indefinite leave to remain in the UK. After 8 months he will be eligible to take the Citizenship Test. That’s the one most UK born Britons would fail! You can try it on the internet. What would be the knowledge and values I would want us tested on, I wonder? What is the flower associated with England? Or who campaigned for working class suffrage? Both are in the test but one seems considerably more significant than the other.
I suppose that Christians have always wrestled with the citizenship issue – ‘we are aliens and strangers’, ‘our citizenship is in heaven’, ‘Jesus is Lord (and Caesar is not)’. And it is embedded in the history of Baptists to have lived on the borderline between obedience to God and obedience to the state, when the state required a particular expression of faith. With our dual citizenship, what we have to offer is the insight to live with loyalty and integrity in our ‘here and now’ nationality, whilst always holding to the bigger picture, the world and its creator beyond. And praying the bigger picture as well: ‘God’s will, on earth as in Heaven’.
Has the Sunday morning service become a ball and chain? (June 2016)
I WAS sitting next to two grandmas on the train. They were comparing notes on how amazing it was to see their grandchildren’s holiday shots on facebook the very same day they were taken. In times past we would all have to wait for the end of the holiday and for the film to be developed at Boots. Everybody agrees that in so many ways the world we live in and the way we live in it has changed almost beyond recognition over the last 30 years. We talk to each other in different ways, we shop over the internet, our leisure activities and our work often bear no resemblance to those of previous generations. Think smart phones, youtube and RPG (role-playing games), call centres and coffee shops!
But one thing that remains almost unchanged is our Sunday morning (or evening) service. Where we meet, when we meet and what we expect to do? It is the one aspect of our church life that seems to be untouchable. Usually this is supported by the scripture from Hebrews 10 v 25 that ‘we should not give up the habit of meeting together’. Now I am utterly committed to followers of Jesus meeting together – we’ve been called together by God for a purpose and meeting up is essential. But is there anything essential about the format we are so used to?
So the pattern we experience is pretty standardised – we sing hymns , songs or choruses, we read scripture, we pray and we listen to talks or sermons . To be truthful, it’s often not so much ‘we’ as someone at the front who ‘takes’ the service. In so many ways it often becomes a one-man or one-woman show.
In the smallest of churches we spend a lot of time and energy filling our preaching rota. We spend church resources on the preaching fee, on the microphones and projectors, hymn books or photocopies and we expend critical amounts of time and volunteer energy on that hour and a half of Sunday mornings.
Much of this may be good, occasionally it is very good – from a consumer in the pew viewpoint. But still - is it the only way we Christians should meet together? Has the Sunday morning service become our ball and chain? However, is it even possible for us to ask ourselves this question?
What if one Sunday in four we put lots of energy into that well-used format, shared our best musicians around different churches, used our best teachers, storytellers and worship leaders. But on the other Sundays we met together to reflect on that sermon or teaching – to drive it deeper into our lives by talking about how we are applying it in daily circumstances.
What if we used one Sunday simply to bring and share food, gather for a picnic or went together to the local Wetherspoons and shared Sunday lunch with all our families? Or one Sunday we sat with a cup of coffee in a circle around scripture – using a format such as lectio divina to learn together and to let the Holy Spirit loose in our midst? What if in our meetings together testimony and prayer and conversation could become a relaxed mixture in which we weave from one to another and back again? Often our congregations are of the size for this to be a much more natural way of being together yet we continue to do the things which befit a larger gathering.
Notice I haven’t even said what if we didn’t meet every Sunday – but chose another day or another place. What if we met around kitchen tables and in coffee shops and at Burger King after swimming with the children? And we made sure everyone knows where we are because we think about who might turn up and we message or phone them. Perhaps it would be easier to invite others to join us because we’re not saying come to church but we take prayer and scripture and stories and fellowship with us wherever we go to. So church happens naturally as part of our ordinary lives.
Why as Baptist churches do we feel the need to be like cathedrals? Always offering sacramental worship by the professional choir and clergy whether or not anyone else is participating? I’m sure God takes and uses that worship but it’s not our particular heritage – we are congregational, participatory, sharing our diverse gifts as the one body and committing to walk together and watch over one another. As we were told by Roy Searle at our YBA Assembly, ‘church is what happens when people encounter the risen Christ’. And that cannot be limited to Sunday mornings.
This may sound like a rant. Maybe I am indulging in a caricature. But I am seriously afraid that unless we take this untouchable trophy of church life off the shelf and ask these questions, we may fail to be the people of God for our present generation, and for generations to come.
Speak Lord, your servant hears (7/3/2016)
I BELIEVE God speaks, it is my listening that is impaired by distractions and distortions. God is always painting pictures, showing visions, it is my eyesight which is blurred or focused elsewhere. True, there are those who go through the silence and the absence of God to come out strengthened in faith, but with me its mostly just inattention. Walter Rauschenback prayed that his soul would never be so steeped in care or so darkened by passion that he would pass heedless and unseeing when even the thorn bush in the hedgerow is aflame with the glory of God. The signature of God is all around me if only I stop long enough from my daily rush. But I can pass whole days without recognising that burning bush.
I have to travel all over Yorkshire – it gives me endless opportunities to see God’s gifts in the natural world, season by season. If I so choose, I see in the people I meet, the image of God who made each one of them. When I look at form and pattern, complexity in purpose in machines and roads and buildings, God’s hand is there behind it all. It might be tempting to see only mud and flaws and sorrow – there is plenty to complain about or to grieve over. But actually I believe most often God is speaking to me about life and faith and resurrection and hope. ‘See my glory, trust I am God, offer me praise, walk in faith – look up at the heavens, the work of my fingers.’
That’s what Lent is about for me. Giving proper time to God, stopping to listen, pausing to look hard, chewing over the messages God might have for me. Ok sometimes it might be a hard message, like the warning Jeremiah read from the potter and his wheel. After all Lent is also about penitence. But if God wants to speak, I really want to hear those words and see the glory.
This blog was inspired by Mike Smith, while at the Ministers Conference, Cober Hill:
Vision at Scarborough 9th February, 2016
IT was 4.30pm, and I was standing by the sea-wall on the Marine Drive below the castle cliffs. Looking out to sea, everything was shades of grey. The sea was a smooth dark grey, the sky, only slightly lighter grey all over, with an occasional rainsquall just visible.
Suddenly a luminously bright vision appeared. A rainbow appeared against the dark sea and sky. Since the setting sun was low somewhere, the rainbow sprang out almost vertically from the sea. The contrast was utterly amazing; Heavenly brightness against uniform shades of grey.
As I looked, another light appeared just to the left of the rainbow. A beam of sunlight pointed straight down, and it just happened to pick out a small fishing-boat out on the sea. The boat shone a vivid white, against the dark sea and sky. And it seemed to stand in a little pool of gold.
The rainbow probably lasted some five minutes, before gradually fading. The fishing-boat was illuminated for a good ten minutes more. Then darkness came down again. Not evil darkness, but just a slow sinking into a peaceful night.
The rainbow, God’s promise, still shines today. In spite of all the dreary sadness of the news, God shines out to give a hope that contrast utterly with the miserable prognostications of the pundits. We must see that light, and prompt others to see it as well.
Our church is like the little boat on the sea. We are the fishers of people that Christ has called. His light shines on us, whether we are aware of it or not. He is with us even more than this. And each little church is a silver-bright haven shining in the pure gold of God’s love.
My vision may fade. The reality remains.
Seen by Rev. Mike Smith
Living the Good News (11/1/2016)
IT'S a new year. It’s bound to make me think about what I might change in my life. And my job - which is all about encouraging healthy churches. So I’ve been thinking about mission. It’s a very Christian word (Origin: Mid 16th century (denoting the sending of the Holy Spirit into the world): from Latin missio). Or it was until it was hijacked by the armed forces and others for different kinds of sending.
One of Jesus’s promises was that his disciples would receive power to be witnesses to his life and teaching if they waited for a special gift (the sending of the Holy Spirit) The story in Acts is very clear, the sending of the Holy Spirit meant that the way those disciples spoke changed. They spoke out boldly and told people all about Jesus and challenged them to trust him. But they also changed in the way they lived. They shared a radical lifestyle in which everything they owned was shared, nobody was in need and they made a priority of prayer, learning how to follow Jesus and eating together as a new family.
The Baptist family is sharing 40 days of mission in the run up to Pentecost (the sending of the Holy Spirit) It seems to me that to be effective in mission we have to go back to those roots and be willing to radically change as we pray again for the sending of the Holy Spirit. At the moment that root word is most often used in a negative way. Young people are radicalised into Islamic extremism and we wonder with sad incomprehension at the doctrines they accept and the lifestyle they are determined to follow. There is a sense though in which a follower of Jesus, should be equally radicalised by the sending of the Holy Spirit; not brainwashed, not pressurised, not bribed, but increasingly finding a different centre and motivation that turns them upside down. Radical churches are born through the sending of the Holy Spirit to groups of waiting believers, willing to be changed.
So I think that healthy churches are churches where the sending of the Holy Spirit is making a radical difference. Opening our homes, giving generously, sharing with strangers, praying for others, talking about Jesus, inviting others to follow him, forgiving and caring deeply – all these are hallmarks of a healthy church, changed through the sending of the Holy Spirit, and willing to be sent wherever Jesus calls. 2016 – 366 days of mission – may God send the Holy Spirit.
Retreating to advance (9/11/2015)
A RETREAT is not like a holiday – even though the latter was once a holyday. On holiday you think about how you can best relax, enjoy yourself, do things that you find pleasant or restful. Sometimes that can be a task and a toil in itself. And its not difficult for it to become more stressful than work – hence the classic holiday arguments about where to go and what to do.
On a retreat you think about how you can give time to being with God. Maybe you share with others in a rhythm of prayer. Maybe you read or create but you can simply sit in silence and rest. Part of the point is that you don’t have to do anything, all that is required is to be, just yourself, in the presence of God.
I love both but I don’t find them the same at all.
But of course it’s very easy to strain at the just being. Sometimes I long for God to speak directly to specific situations – to guide me. Sometimes I can’t sit still – my mind is too full of questions or complaints. There are jostling memories or looping soundtracks: Why did they…? I wish I’d said… I wish I’d done… If only…? What if?
Being of an anxious disposition I learnt the use of a prayer word or phrase early. Now I know what to call it, like Moliere’s character, who finds that he has been speaking prose all his life. But a long time ago it was a way I found to block out anxiety by repeating a word of scripture. Much better than anxious, worried thoughts – I could say to myself and God, ‘You give me songs of deliverance whenever I am afraid’.
And sitting quietly is also a real discipline for activist Christians. I really believe we have got far too busy in church – far too busy in our lives. We are measuring our worth in how much time we put in, how much we achieve or how full our diary is. Another spiritual discipline is simplicity which pares back to only what is truly needful. What seems to happen when we are so busy doing is that we come to believe God’s work depends upon our strength and we lose the fruit of God’s grace in our lives.
One of the 3DM lifeshapes which has spoken a lot to me is the semi-circle. It imagines a pendulum moving between rest in God and work that bears fruit. The work comes out of the sabbath rest and not the other way round, out of our own strength.
How about our churches radically reassessing timetables and programmes so there is plenty of space for seeking God? How about for you a retreat – even a day or hour of quiet and rest in God? How about more being and less doing to recapture the knowledge that we live by grace alone?
An Englishwoman’s home (22/9/1015)
A REMARKABLE outpouring of generosity? Or foolish and dangerous sentiment? In the current response to the many refugees seeking sanctuary in Europe, offering a second home, a room or a sofa has been one way in which many have expressed their compassion and desire to take action personally. The Archbishop of Canterbury has offered a cottage in the grounds of Lambeth Palace. Towns and cities have also offered space and welcome – Birmingham and Newcastle for 50 families, Liverpool and Glasgow for 100.
There are of course many other ways in which it is possible to give real and concrete aid, to recognise the need for urgent action and prayer, to give money and goods. But opening your home has an almost visceral significance. One person I talked to this week described it to me as a spiritual action, breaking down a stronghold. Which chimed with my own experience that there is breakthrough and blessing (along with the blood, sweat and tears!) when I open my door to a stranger.
‘May we never live in stone houses’ is the prayer of an African villager who sees the impact of moving from the open-doorwayed and thatch-roofed traditional huts, where people come and go freely, to houses with doors and locks and bars and gates. It changes the way we view others, inclines us more to think of ‘them ‘ and ‘us’. We cannot turn back the clock to an idyllic past but we can know the spiritual and cultural dangers that our risk-averse and property-obsessed society poses to our humanity. When we thank God for the gift of a house to live in, shouldn’t we also be asking how we might share that gift with someone else? Of course its not for all of us, of course there are matters of safeguarding to be weighed, but wouldn’t it be a real counter-cultural conversion of the mind and be a concrete witness to what is, after all, a truly radical Gospel?
I wonder if it is as true for us as a nation as it is for the individual household. It shames me to see our parsimonious response to the people already on the move towards Europe. It is good that we are putting money into refugee provision on the edges of Syria and it is imperative that the complex warfare and power struggles being waged in the Middle East are tackled with all the skills we can muster; especially where the waters are muddied by global financial interests. But we could also help the many people who are taking their fate and future into their own hands and setting out in search of sanctuary. We really do have room and resources, being one of the wealthiest nations on our earth. The risks are no greater that this group of people will be more of a security threat than any others moving in and out of our country daily. But will the UK rise to this once in a generation challenge or will we close our hearts and reinforce our doors? I pray for our conversion as a nation.
There are good things being done, in Yorkshire and in the UK. Follow the links for lots of ways to put compassion into practice.
Offer space in your home:
Offer a rental property:
Support for asylum seekers in Yorkshire cities:
Forgive us our debts (3/8/2015)
WHAT is the heart of the Gospel? If you are a follower of Jesus, what would you pass on with your dying breath so that those listening would be in no doubt of the offer and the challenge?
I was really struck by an assertion by Matthew Parris. Writing under the headline, ‘To hell with the foolish idea of forgiveness’ he claimed forgiveness was one of the worst ideas foisted on humanity by religion. Apart from the question of whether revenge and retribution are really such a good basis for human flourishing (a quick look at the newspaper he writes in tell me not), I wonder what it is about forgiveness that inspires such opposition. Actually, on reading further, it was perhaps specifically the Christian idea that God’s forgiveness is forgetting or even more, the teaching that it is ‘just as if I never sinned” which caused Parris to resist so strongly. And I have a lot of sympathy with that.
Telling the truth about our wounds; not hiding our sins or the sins of others under a general carpet of grace; not pretending that the harm we have caused or the harm caused by others is less than it truly is; and accepting that there is truth in the Jewish saying that the broken egg cannot be put together again. The trouble is that in our rush to forgive and be forgiven, we sometimes fail to fully recognise the destructive and evil nature of our sin, of cruelty, or anger. Forgiveness is a beautiful gift, first from God to us and then from ourselves to others but it is a costly gift, not a spray on restoration like a new coat of paint. Indeed, forgiveness cannot change the past although it can wonderfully reconfigure the future.
Maybe forgiveness, like its partner, repentance, are properly seen as life-long journeys. It's not that I don’t believe that God doesn’t totally and freely offers us freedom from our sin and release from our guilt through Jesus’ death on the cross. Or that the response called out from me is that I set others free from their debts to me. But while our first grasp of God’s forgiveness can overwhelmingly come to us like being born again, I have found that I have to go on digging deeper into what it means to forgive and be forgiven.
Desmond and Mpho Tutu have beautifully described this journey in ‘The Book of Forgiving”. It starts with two truths; one, there is nothing that cannot be forgiven, and two, there is no one undeserving of forgiveness. Then it invites anyone, however sinned against, to follow the fourfold path of telling the story, naming the hurt, granting forgiveness, then renewing or releasing the relationship. I like it because it shows a way that is simple but not shallow or simplistic.
We talk a lot about forgiveness in church, sing about it and pray about it but perhaps our meetings should focus on being schools of forgiveness, where we discover how to daily and truthfully follow this pathway at the heart of the Gospel. Often the worst offences, like the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, call out the most beautiful and sacrificial acts of forgiveness. But on an everyday level we can carry a lot of grudges around with us. Jesus talked about the best way to respond when somebody slaps you round the face or dumps their workload on you, or pinches your wardrobe. We could learn together how to live the practicalities of forgiveness. How would it be if when we met we always asked each other the question, ‘is there anyone you need to forgive this week?’ Shall we face up to this and work on it together?
Safe to sail the Med? (6/5/2015)
IT must have been a commonplace in Paul’s day – that it's not safe to sail the Mediterranean in winter (after the Fast of Yom Kippur, Acts 27:9). The Jews considered it unsafe to sail between Yom Kippur and Pentecost. Suddenly, in our news, this little detail takes on a new significance as the approach of summer brings out flotillas of unsafe boats loaded with would-be migrants leaving the North African coast and heading for Europe. Too often the boats have proved unseaworthy, vulnerable to capsizing when overloaded, deathtraps for the desperate, preyed on by the unscrupulous.
European nations meanwhile play a game of last one down is "it". Italy sticks out the furthest south so humanitarian aid was their responsibility. Italy’s Operation Mare Nostrum rescued more than 140,000 people from October 2013. But it has been replaced by the EU wide operation Triton, focused on border control rather than rescue and with a budget one third the size of Mare Nostrum. Now that the sailing season has begun 1,500 people are already thought to have drowned. Last year, an estimated 3,400 would-be migrants lost their lives.
Our government argues that search and rescue operations encourage the people traffickers and increases the risk. Groups such as Medicins sans Frontier say that it is the terror of life in places such as Syria and Libya, and the poverty in many parts of west and central Africa, which will continue to drive people to risk their lives seeking asylum in Europe, not the uncertain chance of rescue if a coastguard vessel is in the right place at the right time. A summit this week was challenged by a joint letter to EU leaders signed by more than 50 former European prime ministers, foreign ministers and business leaders, condemning the death toll of migrants in the Mediterranean as a “stain on the conscience of our continent”.
Whatever the political consequences shouldn’t European nations determine to work together to rescue lives? Isn’t that what human beings do in an emergency? Yet there is half –heartedness about this, as if a few hundred people drowned is the necessary collateral damage for us to keep our borders secure. Do we seriously believe we can cut ourselves off from the rest of the world in which we have such a large economic and political stake? As a Christian I do not want politicians to keep promising me that they will control immigration if that means turning a blind eye to desperate human beings as they perish at sea. We need to hear their cry. After all, we are all aliens and strangers on this earth.
‘Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; do not hold your peace at my tears. For I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my forebears. Psalm 39:12
Priceless in Gaza – Good Friday 2015
A MAN in Gaza has sold his door for food for his family. The steel door was all that was left standing of his home after it was bombed last summer in Israel’s campaign against Hamas activity in the Gaza Strip and he sold it for 700 shekels - £117. Now he realizes that his door had been painted by Banksy. The image of a distraught Niobe (the mother weeping for her 14 children from ancient Greek mythology), if not priceless, was worth several hundred thousand pounds. He says the buyer said nothing about its true value.
So the sermon illustrations spring into my mind, as they do if you preach regularly. Isaac, who sold his birthright for a casserole, and then wept when he realised he had passed up on a much greater blessing because his hunger got the better of him. The stone that the builders rejected has become the most important part of the building. Judas, who sold Jesus for only 30 Tyrian shekels.
But it leaves me feeling uncomfortable. The artificially inflated values of the art world collide with a man’s simple need to feed his loved ones and survive. What use does a man have for a steel door when there are no walls that require an entrance? Who needs a door to enter a pile of rubble? The door was painted to highlight a tragic situation, but now its monetary value has becomes the prime talking point. It may end up in a gallery, or even in a vault where private owners protect their investments. But to do justice to the owner and the artist’s message it is the desperation of human conflict and loss and hunger that should remain our focus.
So my picture from this picture will be this. On Good Friday 2000 years ago in Palestine, a priceless image was to be found on a rubbish tip, a stony hill. Maybe that day nobody truly recognised how the immense love and compassion of God was being illustrated as Jesus was crucified. I doubt if anyone could properly comprehend the true value of this painting of love. And he wasn’t hanging in a place of culture, wealth or prestige but in a place of shame, blood, pain and fear, sharing the worst of our human experiences and challenging our distorted human valuations. Good Friday – what’s a door worth? What’s a human life worth? What am I worth to God?
PS: How much do we to put Jesus into lovely galleries and safe vaults, instead of staying with him in the places where a man needs to sell his door for food?
Ash Wednesday and onwards…
ONCE upon a time I was a good non-liturgical Baptist with some house church thrown in for good measure. No need for church calendars – every Sunday is the day of resurrection. Even nothing unique about Sunday – every day is the Lord’s Day. And I still believe that we must take care not to divide what God has brought together, be that sacred and secular, physical and spiritual, earth and heaven, because they are all present and correct in the mysterious Incarnation (the presence of God on Earth in the person of Jesus).
However, I have learned to love the seasons. The earth has its seasons, my human life has its seasons and the church has its traditional seasons. I don’t know whether I didn’t understand before, or maybe its my age, or the fact that 21st century life doesn’t leave any space to stop; but now I really ‘get’ the point, especially of those seasons of preparation, Advent and Lent, when we make intentional space for God. Sometimes that kind of spiritual discipline is described as going into the desert but to be honest it feels to me more like satisfying my thirst from a clear, fresh stream, dipping myself into the coolness of eternity.
So what am I doing this year? Actually it’s a bit more what are we doing? We, from the West Yorkshire churches, brought a flag of all nations down Briggate and into the Trinity Centre in Leeds on Ash Wednesday. If I’m honest it was a bit of a weird procession – I wondered what people thought was going on – but when we sang ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’ and celebrated the reconciling work of Jesus by laying out our flag in the middle of all the shops, somehow I knew more clearly that God was there too.
(This was featured on youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JEOEifCqYjY )
In my family we are following two very different Lent reflections. Janet Morley’s ‘The heart’s time’, published by SPCK, gives us a poem each day to enjoy and ponder through Lent and Easter. So far we’ve read RS Thomas, George Herbert and to come are Carol Ann Duffy, Christina Rossetti, William Blake and more. I have found that poetry is a way to ask the awkward questions and to hold together the paradoxes that won’t reconcile in my brain but need to in my heart. If that sounds what you need, it’s not too late to buy and start a different sort of Lent journey.
As well as this there is Start. This is Graeme Dodds’ Lent resource that starts not from a poem but a song. I’mloving the Rock Resource that looks through to the heart message of some really well-known songs and connects to Christian faith. Of course some in my household turn up their nose because it's not their sort of music but its got me thinking each day. Sometimes God speaks more clearly through the unfamiliar, the secular and what some might call the profane. It's that Incarnation thing again. So I’m asking God to open my ears, eyes and heart in fresh new ways this season. Start Lent - http://start-lent15.blogspot.co.uk/
Truce words (20/1/15)
FAINITES! Or Barley or Pags or Scruces. Fainites was the truce word we used in the part of South London I grew up in when you wanted to stop the game. You might be getting a stitch or need the toilet or have a nosebleed – or possibly just want a quick get out from imminent capture. According to Google fainites has now faded from use so I’m showing my age.
We were having one of those discussions about regional differences. But I got to thinking about how there is the possibility of truce or time-out built into children’s games and how readily the opponent is given a break, their needs recognised and the unwritten rules somehow protect the participants and the game as well.
Of course some of the words tell us children are reflecting the grown up world of war in their game-playing. Fainites? Not a clue! But Pags or Pax is for Peace. And Barley asks for Parley – ‘let's talk’.
If only it were that simple! If only when an opponent cried out the brutal games we play would stop, we’d take a breather and decide that football was better. Is that an impossible chocolate box dream like the Christmas Truce in the Sainsbury’s ad? I truly don’t know. But I know that our investment (of money and media time and education and imagination) into talking and peace building and international human rights is pitiable compared to that which goes into the whole game of war.
There are many direct and indirect links between military expenditure, the arms trade, violent conflict, and the reduction of available resources for social and economic development. The world spends 5 times as much each year on arming itself (1.74 trillion US$) than on promoting gender equality - the foundational Millennium Goal which is the lever for so much developmental change. Military investments are underpinned by a belief that our national security can be guaranteed by the implicit threat of violence. So out of fear we make a choice to invest in war and conflict. How can we cry truce on this mad calculation?
What should I do about this? If my faith says I’m following the Prince of Peace does that mean anything more than the fact that I shop at Sainsbury's where apparently I ‘live well for less’? Is Grace and Peace just a slogan without any content or is it a genuinely alternative way of how to live in this world? Maybe I’m going to start paying more attention to the militaristic myths that slide into my mind unchallenged. And I’m going to put it up there to the people who want my vote in the spring election. Three smaller parties will make cancelling proposed spending on a replacement for Trident the price of their engagement in a coalition. There are so many significant issues to be considered but this might be the one that captures my support. A manifesto for peace and parley, not for war.
Advent 2014 (8/12/14)
EVERY season of the year seems to have its spiritual message. Moving towards the shortest day of the year, into the bareness and sharpness of winter, is like living the times in our Christian lives when we enter into struggle or questioning or loss. Our Advent readings bring us John the Baptist crying in the wilderness, repeating the message of the prophets to ‘Prepare the Way of the Lord’. Matthew’s Nativity is one dangerous journey after another, the final one being the flight from threat and persecution of the vulnerable little family, Mary, Joseph and their newborn, Jesus. And Luke’s shepherds are working on the long, cold night shift on the barren hills above Bethlehem.
Despite this seasonal sense of jeopardy, or perhaps because of it, a thread of pure gold also flashes through the Christmas story. John the Baptist looks forward to the ‘mightier one’, who will baptise with the Holy Spirit. The journeying wise men arrive with ridiculously precious gifts and the jobbing shepherds are overwhelmed by glory as the angels bring the Good News of the Saviour’s birth. The waiting and the longing are finally realised in the most amazing pure-gold event of all time – Almighty God offered to us all as a vulnerable newborn sleeping on hay.
Our lives are no different. In the year that’s passed among Yorkshire Baptists there have been those for whom it has been like winter, either in personal circumstances, in bereavements or sickness, or in our churches, or in our communities. Maybe all we can see are leafless trees and dark days. Others will have had great stories to tell of God at work but somehow it’s not like that down our way. Yet I know for me that the dark days are the ones when the gold stands out all the more clearly and I receive it with a hungrier gratitude. I’m also privileged that I often get to hear such stories from others. A conversation with a battered Christian who has, despite everything, seen God’s loving hand in the pain, lights up my faith too.
And sometimes it is creation itself that shares the Gospel with me. Just today I was given iridescent, shining grass lit up by the low winter morning sun as I walked the dog; a double full-arc-ed rainbow across the December sky promising God’s faithfulness and favour, and crying out to be photographed and ‘facebooked’. (Thank you Andy Pritchard). Some gifts can only come from a wintry sky and the year’s end.
I guess I find it as hard as anyone to see what God is up to when life seems cruel and senseless, or the travelling is endless. But Advent is about me learning to wait in hope; it is about trusting that the promise will be kept, the pregnancy and labour pains will end in joy, and that along the way there will be flashes of angelic beauty to light up the sky; there will be beautiful souls whose story of faith is pure gold.
That’s a good question (26/10/14)
THIS week I enjoyed getting know our guests from Jamaica, Karl Johnson, Karl Henlin and Jonathan Hemmings, accompanied on their lightning tour of Yorkshire by Wale Hudson-Roberts our BUGB Racial Justice Advisor.
One highlight was enjoying lunch at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park where we discussed the pros and cons of a walk in the wind and rain – for pleasure! This was when I was asked the question: Who was the minister with the most influence on your early Christian life?
I told them Frank Cooke, a minister from an unknown county called Lancashire, a real foreigner in southern parts of England. Particularly when instead of the standard privet and magnolia, he grew dahlias in his suburban front garden. He pastored throughout my older childhood and teenage years, bringing a determination to share the Gospel in ways relevant to the newly emerging pop culture of the '60s.
One of Frank Cooke’s sermons has stayed freshly with me through all the years since. He preached on Luke 4, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me,’ and called it Jesus’s Manifesto, Jesus’s declaration of his mission from God. Something about this thrilled me; it was about action in the real world as well as having spiritual meaning, it declared God’s concern for the poor and distressed, it was Jesus declaring Jubilee. All of which has become the heartbeat of my own faith. I trust in Jesus and receive his new life, but its not just for my personal gain, it is salvation for the whole world, life from the dead in all sorts of ways, and shalom for heart, soul, mind and strength. It is justice and it is peace.
That’s why the Bicentenary Celebrations are not just for Jamaicans. Its important for every one of us to recognise the value of the not yet finished story of the relationship between Jamaican and British Baptists; a friendship between slaves who discovered their humanity and value to God through the Christian story of freedom, and believers from a slave-owning and slave-trading nation who have had to come to repentance and let go of our power and pride.
It is wonderful to celebrate together that in this friendship God has been at work building justice and peace. I’m so grateful to have been awakened early in my life to this imperative at the centre of the Gospel. So it was a good question. What would be your answer? Which minister has had most influence on you? What lesson do you still remember? How has it changed your life?
The tongue is mightier than the sword (29/9/14)
WHERE to start to write meaningfully about the place the world finds itself in right now?
Thank God that our Bible gives us the resources of prayer so that we can lament and rage with an honesty that says ‘Oh, God, why?’ Thank God too for the hope in prophetic imagination which sees that one day in God’s appointed future the lion and the lamb will live in peace.
But for now how are we to speak of the conflict we are being drawn into with Islamic State and other militant groups? I am of course a bystander, not immediately and personally hurt by the cruel actions being perversely advertised on social media. This means I must listen carefully as the story is told by the victims, by their families and by persecuted communities driven from their homes and land. That truth needs to be told.
But I am also listening carefully to the way we speak of our enemies and how it is linked to gaining acceptance for political and military decisions; how the way the world is described becomes increasingly dualistic; how we are warned of threats that can be dealt with by military action alone even when our own economics and industrial militarism has played a significant part in the current affairs of the Middle East.
These are also truths that need to be told. I want us to find a way to truthfully condemn barbaric acts while not calling the perpetrators ‘barbarians’. To seek for justice and punishment but not vengeance or retribution because the latter only ever leads to a spiral of everlasting violence which keeps all parties captive.
I can’t get away from the uncomfortable words of Jesus about how we deal with our enemies. Jesus begins with the example of not speaking contemptuously of others (you fool!) and ends with the command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. I don’t think our world ever wants to hear those words, and indeed, much of the time, nor do I. But if Jesus is truly the Wisdom of God, he must have known what he was talking about, and I as his follower have to face up to what that means as I pray and respond and act and vote. Check out the comment from our Joint Public Issues Team.
Why I am a feminist! (11/8/2014)
DOING the rounds recently on social media have been a series of selfies – women posing with a notice saying ‘I don’t need feminism’. Of course in the usual way of such things there were arguments for and against which could be shared at the click of a button. This one I shared: a-response-to-women-against-feminism
One of the objections to feminism comes from a sense of equality. We should be for all humans and not setting different sub-sets against each other. And indeed so we should, especially as Christians called to the ministry of reconciliation. But this is one of those issues in which the playing field is not level. And by ‘not level’ I don’t mean a gentle slope in one direction but steeply inclined inequality over many centuries and many cultures. To paraphrase Isaac Newton, modern western women are standing on the shoulders of giants in the equality they enjoy, but for still so many, feminism is an urgent cry for justice that needs to be heard.
Two recent news items left me shell-shocked for days. The first was a genuine news report from India. A drunken young man had blundered into a village home and attempted to assault the woman who lived there. Her husband forcibly prevented him from this, beating him up in the process. The husband was deemed in the wrong by the local court. The sentence? The 10-year-old daughter of the couple was taken into the bush and raped by the original attacker!
The second apparently belongs with misinformation circulated in Syria and Iraq about the different factions. ISIS were reputed to have issued a fatwa that all women in the Mosul area undergo compulsory female genital mutilation (FGM) as a ‘gift to the people’. Just close enough to be plausible, it appeared on the front page of the Times.
Women as disposable vehicles of ‘justice’. Women as the stumbling block to chastity. And there are too many more instances and statistics which could be given to illustrate the deep suffering and inequality under which so many of the women and girls in the world spend their lives. This is a deep stronghold of evil that Jesus came to destroy. I cannot ignore such things when I have been called to be the bearer of Good News that sets the oppressed free.
And it is to Jesus that I turn for his refusal to count women as unclean, his acceptance of women as disciples, learners and teachers, his trust in women as the bearers of the resurrection story and his gift of the Spirit to all flesh, men and women alike. I am a feminist because I reckon Jesus would have been, until there is no need to be because the ‘Kingdom’ has come.
Buckstone Rock (23/6/2014)
THERE are certain place names that resonate with our Christian story. Aldersgate Street – because it was there that John Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed.
Azusa Street, Los Angeles where the Holy Spirit came afresh in power at the start of the modern Pentecostal Movement. Even doors become famous, such as the one at Castle Church, Wittenberg, where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses.
So how about Buckstone Rock, Rawdon, full of meaning and history for Baptists in Yorkshire?
I went there this week to look at the overhanging rock that juts out of the hillside which was where early Baptist believers met in secret during times of persecution from the Stuart monarchy. To be a dissenter then meant meeting on the edge of town, or in safe houses, watching out for the King’s Men whose task was to keep conformity in religion. It wasn’t much of a hiding place, to be honest, so anyone who took the step of joining a Baptist church in those days was greatly at risk.
It made me grateful to my Baptist mothers and fathers. They are mostly nameless, but they played a significant part in shaping our present freedoms. It has become a bit fashionable to take down Human Rights legislation but it is in such laws and principles that freedom of religion and freedom of conscience are enshrined for all.
And when I read the papers and think about the questions of our own time, around faith in schools, Trojan Horses and the need for secular space, I know that their early stand in seeking to peacefully follow Christ in their own way is still a relevant and powerful part of the debate.
And of course, a place like Buckstone Rock chides me into prayer and action for the many who are being persecuted or disadvantaged right now for their faith or political beliefs. Many years ago, Jesus' words about visiting those in prison got me joining Amnesty International. There are other organisations, such as Christian Solidarity, to be supported. Campaigns for believers like Meriam Ibrahim in Sudan, now in prison for converting to Christianity, are important. Even though it is one high profile case out of many that are unreported, our letters and signatures continue to add to the message first penned by Thomas Helwys in1612: If the Kings people be obedient and true subjects... men's religion to God is betwixt God and themselves.
It's easy for me to be lazy about this. But it's too important. I must remember Buckstone Rock with gratitude and with prayer and with vigilance. The Buckstone Rock Service is on Sunday 13th July at 6pm.
From Siena to West Bromwich (19/5/2014)
I’ve just enjoyed one of those unforgettable holidays where experiences crowd into your eyes and ears and mind and you seek for a way to pin down and capture them so they can be savoured for more than the moment.
Our holiday was in Tuscany, walking each day from one beautiful town or city to the next, through forests, and vineyards, up mountains and through farmyards. There were so many places where I wanted to stand and somehow take the view of green hills, of cypresses and vines, into some place inside where they would stay forever.
We were delighted to be surrounded by such striking beauty and so full of history. It was also a place full of faith, at times so different from the faith I am familiar with that it was tempting to dismiss it as other, as religion or even superstition. Often we were walking the Via Francigena, the pilgrim path from Northern Europe to Rome. There were numerous wayside shrines like this one (pictured) that brought all the tools of daily trade to the cross.
Each place we walked to had its churches with wonderful medieval frescoes and carvings – telling Biblical stories with witty detail, colourfully modelled on contemporary life. Some had relics, a head, some hair and even an ancient mummified corpse, along with stories of stigmata and signs, holiness and miracles. Sometimes the sheer volume and weight of ornamentation was too much for my more minimalist tendencies but I found it powerful to stand immersed in bright images on every wall that told the story to all regardless of class or education. Those walls spoke.
But holidays have to end. And so to West Bromwich for the Assembly where we made our pilgrimage to join our fellow Baptists. Not having been a regular attender before I didn’t need to engage in the comparisons about how it was different from before. I was struck by the strong sense that we were genuinely a family gathering to share and celebrate our life together. What I loved most in so many of the sessions was the same as what I loved about those frescoed walls. I was being told living stories about God and people. Real people whose context and faith made sense of the theory of believing that ‘Jesus makes a difference’. From the stage and from the floor the detail and colour of life as the Baptist people of God was shared. West Bromwich may not be Tuscany but it was an equally rich experience and I came away refreshed and encouraged.
Easter reflections 2014 (15/4/14)
We had our first picnic of the year on Saturday, sitting amongst the wild garlic in the woods at Hardwick Hall. And the bluebells are now taking over from daffodils on the river bank where I walk the dog. Is it possible to beat how uplifting the English countryside is in springtime? And how good a parable of Easter life and resurrection as everything green comes back to life?
So we go for rabbits and eggs and flowery Easter gardens. But other places have different ways of referencing of the Easter story. How about Poland where pouring water on one another after church is an Easter tradition called Smingus-Dyngus? Perhaps this is to do with Easter baptism, but then maybe more likely it originates with ancient courtship rituals. Or there are the Philippines where penitents are flogged or sometimes nailed to crosses in Good Friday processions. I particularly like the newish Norwegian tradition of remembering Easter by reading special “Easter Thrillers” known as Paaskekrimmen. Maybe whilst wearing itchy woollen jumpers.
A great many Easter traditions are outdoor, public experiences. Apparently the number of Passion Plays being put on in the UK rises every year as the most powerful story ever is brought out of church as it once was and put on as street theatre for our visual age. On Good Friday in Wakefield we walk with three crosses to the top of Sandal Castle, acting out the scene at Golgotha, the hill of crucifixion. But I wonder how such services and plays and parades can avoid being just another tradition and truly reach right into people’s hearts?
What I pray this Easter is that the story of Jesus and his love will get out on our streets, on to the television and be shared on the internet, but most of all that it will be lovingly told, one person to another, by those of us who have experienced it for ourselves. Someone in one of our Baptist churches came away from an Easter service last year saying, ‘I’ve heard that story so many times but I never realised that Jesus died for me.’ May there be many more people who say that this year.
Prayer and place (17/3/14)
THE folk of the Yorkshire Baptist Association have been on pilgrimage these last few weeks; touring around different areas of Yorkshire in prayer, using our imagination to see each place through the eyes of Jesus. What would Jesus see? What would gladden His heart? What would catch His attention? And what would cause His eyes to fill with tears? http://www.yba.org.uk/prayer/
Sometimes I hear people say there is no point in praying for our small needs, for the specific things that trouble our family or the place we live. God isn’t going to intervene and change the world just for me. But the whole of our story in the Bible seems to me full of God’s very intentional involvement with particular people – people with a name and address. What is more, regarding the biggest Bible story of all, the Gospel story, theologians talk about the ‘scandal of particularity’. God gets thoroughly involved in human life, not just in a general spiritual sort of way, but in a particular human life, at a particular time in history and in a particular place. Jesus had a gender, a genetic makeup, a nationality, language and religion – a unique fingerprint and retinal ID. You can’t get any more specific than that.
I read recently this phrase of Rowan Williams’s about living a life turned towards God. We are those who ‘live immortally in the local space of a fragile body’. Gathered and scattered we function as the temple of God’s Holy Spirit – a moving tent of meeting. And we are fragile – the poles get broken, the guy lines fray, sometimes the whole thing falls down but we are still called to be a place where God dwells. We all occupy local space and we can all pray for our local space in confidence.
It's been great to join with local people and pray for the peace and prosperity of Bradford, Bingley, Skipton and the Dales, Pickering, Scarborough and Whitby. We’ve been praying for God to meet physical, emotional and spirititual needs, to change lives and to change communities. In other words to show up in our time and place too. And as Lent continues I will be praying that God shows up in Hull and Hebden Bridge, in Sheffield and Keighley, in Leeds and in Dewsbury. Pray for the place you live in – pray for its peace and prosperity – pray for Jesus to walk down those streets too.
On being called a Bible chewer! (9/2/14)
I can’t remember how the conversation came about. We were sitting around the table sharing brunch with family and friends. Someone mentioned the woman who regularly preaches (shouts) in Wakefield city centre; and then the general strangeness of Christians. I know the word ‘nutters’ came into it somewhere!
But during the course of this exchange I was referred to as a Bible chewer. I reckon I will take that as a compliment. Over the years I have been presented with a number of different views of the Bible and especially how I should relate to it. It’s been a rule book to obey, a Haynes manual for life, an infallible account of everything, poetry, stories and indeed a load of old rubbish. However the one that has been most powerful for me comes from the Bible itself: When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart's delight, for I bear your name, LORD God Almighty. Jeremiah 15:16
Taking in the words, taking them right into myself, chewing on them, rolling the flavours and textures – sweet or sharp, smooth or downright indigestible – around in my mind and heart, I find that I am fed, indeed well-fed and deeply nourished in my life. In that way the written word becomes a part of me as the living word of God. As they say ‘you are what you eat’.
I’ve just come back from the Yorkshire Baptist Ministers' Conference at Cober Hill, near Scarborough. And we’ve enjoyed a feast together by looking at John’s Gospel in all sorts of ways. These were the courses on the menu – Sally Nelson with a stunning look at disability in John, Graham Brownlee illuminating the themes in the Gospel that we can miss like the dancing bear in the advert, John Billingham on a spirituality of presence and holiness, Wale Hudson-Roberts and Graham Ensor opening our hearts to the call of the Gospel for justice and mercy, presenting us with Jesus whose love covers our shame. We’ve been chewing on the Bible together and interpreting it in community; which is a thoroughly Baptist activity and, for my money, something very special.
So I am a Bible chewer and proud of it. And you?
Just imagine! (5/1/14)
WE started with the idea of having a Jesse Tree in 2013. The tradition is that each day through Advent you hang a symbol on to the branches of a tree. Each one represents a different aspect of Jesus’s Old Testament ancestry or the prophetic vision he fulfilled. It is a way to pay attention to the meaning and significance of Jesus coming into our world as understood by the first Jewish believers.
Somewhere we read the suggestion that a household include members of their own family tree, especially those whose presence would be missed. So in the end that is what hangs on our family tree. There are four lockets with photographs of our dear ones: two grandmas, a sister and an aunt. Two of them died in 2013, and like so many families we felt their absence at our Christmas celebrations. With the Jesse Tree and also taking a moment before family meals we have honoured the place Dave’s Mum and Auntie Christine hold in all our lives. The tree is a good picture of our connection with family members or with dear friends, with the people who shape and mould our lives and with whom we share affection and memories. Painful though it is to lose someone you love, we have also felt incredibly blessed at the gift of these people in our lives.
The idea that we are made to be part of something beautiful and connected and life-giving isn’t just for individual families though. Our Jesse Tree reminds me of the tree of Life whose leaves are given to heal the nations, growing either side of the river of water of Life and flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. It reminds me that God shall wipe away all tears from our eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
We can’t imagine human life like that. We can’t imagine a world without tears. We certainly find it hard to imagine a world without fear or poverty or hostility or revenge, where instead all our best efforts are at the service of peace and wholeness. But God can. Henri Nouwen hears God saying: "That’s what I imagine, a world not only created but also living in my image." That’s the coming Kingdom and I get excited to think Jesus is calling us all the time to seek it. He is calling families and communities and churches to live imaginatively in it now. What would that look like? Just imagine!
Welcome in the name of Jesus (16/12/13)
Is it possible to buy an external hard drive for Regional Minister’s heads? So they can retain the mass of faces, names and places that they have visited. Its been brilliant to meet so many of you and get to know your churches but my poor brain is finding it hard to keep up.
What is the unifying thread in my first six weeks as regional minister with the YBA? I have visited churches north, south, east and west. I’ve been to churches in the inner city, suburbs and out in the country. And churches of all sizes. But what I am delighted to find is that offering a warm welcome is the intention of every church. Of course that is often said in the notices at our Sunday services. And I love seeing the welcome being given in our fellowships to people from all over the world. What is interesting is that it’s not just Sundays. Many Baptist churches in Yorkshire are running some kind of Community Café or lunch club or Drop In – hospitality is a big thing for us.
I like this. I’ve always thought welcome is at the heart of the Good News. God throws a big party and invites us all to join in – no exceptions and no qualifications. Just come! Just receive! Our deepest needs as human beings are for acceptance and significance. Offering a cup of tea or a welcoming smile might seem the smallest of gifts but for some people living with loneliness or rejection it can make all the difference.
Christmas is a good time to remind ourselves that we believe in a God who has come in a flesh and blood sort of way. Often before we can tell people the Good News we have to be it. There is a subtle but significant difference between telling people ‘Jesus loves you’ and saying to them “I love you, in the name of Jesus” And because I love you, I will also lay down my life you, just as Jesus did for all of us.
So keep welcoming – especially the last the least and the lost – and the regional minister - in the name of Jesus. And I hope to meet some more of you soon in the New Year.