What if success = trying? Wouldn’t life look different…

How have we reached the second half of November? Last time I looked around it was autumn and the kids were on half term… now we’ve had All Saints/Hallowe’en, All Souls/Remembering a loved one, Remembrance/Armistice plus visits to the church from 300 local school kids- oh, that would be how 3 weeks have passed me by…

Anyway, here we are, and what have we got? Well, if you’re from the US Thanksgiving is coming up next weekend- cool for you guys, have a great celebration. If you’re in the UK we have Black Friday week- yup, that’s what I’ve seen it called, because no one has a clue about Thanksgiving and the only aspect we’ve got is the crazed retail madness. Aaargh! It’s enough to make you avoid shopping (except that the deals are so good, and you need that stuff, whatever it is!).

Just Start | johnbolin.net

In church we’re looking at some of the things Jesus said just before his death- nice and cheery I know; but particularly looking at Matthew’s presentation of some teaching he did during the last few days in and around the Temple. Last weekend we were looking at Matthew 25, verses 14-30, known as the Parable of the Talents… here’s what I said-

When we read or hear this passage, it’s very easy to focus on one of two aspects- we either hear the ‘throw that worthless servant out and there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth’ verse, and remember a similar verse in Matthew 22 (which we heard read with such feeling a month back), or else we hear the beginning where Jesus talks about the main distributing talents and think ‘not me’… either way, we can be left thinking that this passage either isn’t for us, or just isn’t that helpful. St Luke obviously felt something similar, because in the version of this parable that he includes in his Gospel the emphasis is quite different.

So how should we read and understand this passage?

Firstly, right at the start Jesus says ‘Again…’ he’s using a second parable to explain something he’s already spoken about… this passage follows on from the story of the 10 bridesmaids, which in turn follows on from Jesus’ teaching on the return of the son of man… When the Son of God returns in glory, this is what the kingdom of heaven will look like- and the emphasis there is about being ready, even if we don’t know the timing. Not sleeping on the job, having the tools that we need.

So this passage is a warning to those who consider themselves part of God’s people. It’s addressed to us, as Christians, for sure; but at the time it was another warning, challenge, condemnation if you like, of the established religious people- the same ones who’d asked questions of Jesus were now in his spotlight- the story of the vineyard, the wedding banquet, the bridesmaids and the talents and the final section of this which we’ll hear next week, they’re all addressed to those who think they’re on the inside… time and again, Jesus is saying ‘this is what it’ll be like for those who think they’re all sorted- I’d be doing some self-reflection if I was you…’

And Jesus isn’t the first to have said this- John the Baptist called the people to forgiveness, the Old Testament prophets from Isaiah onwards warned the people, the priests and the kings of Israel, speaking to them about their place in God’s kingdom- you are the chosen people of God and look at how you live… So, yes, this is a warning against complacency, directly against the people of his own time, but it speaks to the church today.

But if we don’t like the ending, the beginning can be even worse- it’s very easy for us to hear it and conclude that it doesn’t apply to us. We use the word talent to mean skill or ability- it used to be a sum of money… about £180,000 in today’s money if I’ve got my sums right- 15yrs of a labourers wages. Either way we look at it, most of us say ‘well I’ve not been given 5 amazing skills’… or we say ‘well I don’t have that amount of money’… However if we think like that, we’re missing the point.

A man- a rich man, a really rich man is at the start of the story, and he goes away, and entrusts his servants to continue his work while he is away. He gives them resources- as much as they could need, and expects them to take the opportunities that lie before them. At its simplest, this is what the parable says-

God, who is rich in all things, gives his servants all that they need, and entrusts them with the privilege and opportunity of partnering with him in his kingdom.

That meant doing all that the Law commanded in the time of the old covenant- that’s what Jesus listeners heard, and then later doing what his Son Jesus did- teaching, healing, serving, freeing, standing up for the rights of the underprivileged and rejected… that’s what Jesus’ followers- the early church who became known as Christians heard.

God, who has given his servants all they need, expects them to get on with the task in hand, faithfully and with perseverance.

That meant, and means, holding on to the truths and the hope that the gospel brings, no matter what the weather or the cultural mood or our own situation, or how ‘successful’ it appears to be-

The church is not a business where success is judged by money or productivity- though neither of those things are wrong, but where faithfulness and perseverance, making the most of the time and opportunities we have are the measures that God uses…

In this parable, when the man returns, he meets with his servants… those who are praised are told ‘well done, you have been faithful…’- not materially successful, and the one who is thrown out is condemned by his own words- if only he’d done something rather than nothing- I was afraid and so I hid the money in the ground…

God doesn’t call us to be successful but to be faithful. God doesn’t judge us for our failed attempts but for our unwillingness to try.

The first servant, who started with a million pounds and made a million more, probably didn’t make it all in one go, and may at one point have nearly lost everything… that is the nature of trying- it sometimes goes very wrong and often feels like it will!

There are many stories about brilliant people who were nearly failures- how Edison experimented with hundreds of different filaments before he found one that would last long enough, how the post-it note was developed by a company who accidentally developed a glue that didn’t set.

There is no guarantee that if you set out on something you will succeed in any measurable way. The only guarantee is that if you fail to set out, you set out to fail.

In life it’s easy to get things ‘just so’ and then try to press pause- but this is not possible- the kids come home, the cat jumps on the table, the wind blows the grass cuttings through the door… in church it is the same, in our personal faith too…all the things we have in our church can disappear if we fail to recognise that God calls us to keep on faithfully persevering… We want and we try to do things the best we can, but we don’t beat ourselves or other up.

Persevering in prayer, persevering in serving God in our community and among the people we know, persevering in seeking to bring healing, peace, justice, freedom for those who are in need.

If you’re not sure what that looks like- then come along next Saturday to our Serving and Growing training event- the notes and keynote talks will be available online if you can’t make it.

If you’re not sure how you can join in, then start by praying for the things your church does, and inviting folk you know to come along to them- take your pick at this time of year- a Christmas Fair, a carol service, a Christmas tree festival, carol singing in the community… if someone likes one of those then they may like to find out more… in January we’ll be offering the alpha course as a way of helping folk find out more about the Christian faith in an open and inclusive way…

Sometimes we feel like we’re not being noticed or heard- but is that a reason to keep quiet? Sometimes we feel like nothing changes despite our efforts- but is that a reason to give up?  Sometimes we feel like we’re just tired, or scared, or fed up- and that’s when we need the resources that God has given us in in the Holy Spirit and the people around us here.

Like the servants in the parable, we are given all that we need to be faithful and to partner with God- to play our part. The success of our efforts is not up to us, but up to him… he calls us to be faithful.

So there you have it.

I’m aware that I didn’t start this post by apologising for not posting or for being busy with other stuff- I know I do that a lot and I figured it might get a bit old, but if you’ve got this far then you have probably appreciated this post, or just have nothing else to do. Either way, well done- you get the apology: Sorry I haven’t posted much this month. Next month is going to be just as crazy busy but lots of fun too!

Advertisements

Happy Bible Sunday, Happy 500th birthday to the Reformation!

So in some churches there’s loads going on about how on 31st October this year it’s 500yrs since the start of the Reformation in Europe which, depending on your point of view, marks a point in history when one group of superstitious fools became very upset with another group of superstitious fools; or the date when an individual’s right to assert their understanding of the Bible was fully asserted against the presumption that an ordained person’s view was above contradiction; or even the date when faith and politics began the journey that has led to the US, the EU and Brexit…

8 Reasons We Don’t Read the Bible - Bible Study

In other churches this same date isn’t really being mentioned- in the Church of England the Reformation didn’t really reach a climax until about 50yrs later when Elizabeth established the Church of England- several decades after her father had declared independence from Rome and the violent times that followed on. Instead, we mark this Sunday each year as Bible Sunday- one of the other gifts that the Reformation brought about was the translation, publication and distribution via mass printing of Bibles in languages other than Hebrew, Greek or Latin- not only could Christians talk to God in their own language and hear worship led in their own language, but they could hear God’s word in their own language… For us, we celebrated by having a display of Bibles in our church- some over 100yrs old, some much newer… and here’s what I said based on Matthew chapter 24 verses 30-35 and Colossians 3.12-17 (or at least most of it- there were extra bits of course, which you can listen to here

‘Heaven and Earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away’… Jesus words, originally spoken in a language that is no longer used, first written in a language that is no longer used, then translated into another language that is gone, before finally being translated into English almost 1500yrs after he spoke them and published in the King James Bible, the first English Bible that many of us would recognise.

This autumn Churches around the world remember that it is 500yrs since the Reformation began in Germany, when Martin Luther made his proclamations that led, among other things, to the Bible becoming available in a reader’s native language- up until the reformation, and the establishment of the Lutheran and Baptist churches in Europe and the separation of England from Rome by Henry VIII, a Bible in German, French, Swedish or English was an academic oddity or heretical.  Before then, only the highly educated and privileged had access to the words of Jesus- which is great, because much of what Jesus said needed to be heard by the rich and privileged… if only they’d listen.

Jesus’ words are to teach us, and also to challenge us… to help us orientate our lives to follow him.

Today is Bible Sunday- you’ll have seen a collection of Bibles on your way in, some of you have brought your own Bible with you today…

Pop quiz- who’s ever opened the Bible outside of church or an RE lesson?

Great- so that’s a whole load of us who’re ‘Bible readers’- and are ahead of all those who, 500yrs ago had no access to the Bible in their own language.

Ok- who’s read any of the Bible this year, or if you’d say you have a favourite verse or passage of the Bible?

Now, a bigger question- have you ever read the whole of a Gospel- not listened to it Sunday by Sunday, but read it yourself?  Have you ever read the whole NT/OT or the whole Bible?

Before you think we’re onto major guilt trip time here- I’m reading the Bible this year, you may recall I said as much in January, and I’ve not managed to keep completely up to date- I’ve probably missed 3weeks over the year… mostly when I’ve been on holiday, if I’m honest… I’ve been a Christian for almost 30yrs, and this is only the second time I’ve read the whole Bible. There’re chunks I’ve read many times, and others not so much…

A bit about how to read the Bible at this point…

What does it mean to read the Bible? What does it mean to not read the Bible?

If I’m a Christian, what does it mean to read the Bible? It’s the first point of reference for my understanding of God, of Jesus, of their actions and character- when someone asks me how or why Christians behave in a certain way, it is the Bible that is my starting point… all Christian tradition- our prayers, hymns, ways of being church, much of our legal system (the expectation of justice), our scientific method (the universe is logical) stems from the Bible… it’s completely possible for me to live my whole life as a Christian without reading a verse from the Bible for myself- millions of Christians have done so… but now that it is available to us, why not read it?

It’s rather like a man who hears that a world famous theatre company are coming to perform in his home town, but chooses not to buy tickets. And then on the night of the show stands outside asking the audience what it was like… he’ll gather something of the experience, he may already know the plot and some of the characters, he may have visited the theatre previously… but he will have missed out.

Reading the Bible is how we understand God, and how we experience God- in the Psalms, Job and Lamentations we sit alongside those who’re suffering, in Deuteronomy, Joshua and Judges we march through the desert and struggle for identity alongside the people of Israel in a harsh. In the Prophets we listen to the voices calling God’s people back to him when they have gone astray… throughout the Old Testament we hear God’s repeated call- if my people will but hear my voice and come back to me, then I will bless them… all the way from Abram in Genesis to Malachi in the last pages of the Hebrew Bible.

And then we encounter Jesus- the word of God that has been present but unseen throughout the Old Testament, and the promise of the blessing is widened out to encompass all people, and the invitation to become holy children of a holy God is offered to each one of us…

In our passage from Colossians Paul wrote ‘Clothe yourselves…’

For his first century listeners, becoming a Christian- a little Christ, involved taking off and putting aside certain things, and putting on new things- and this is true for us today… choosing to be compassionate, kind, humble, gentle and patient- forgiving one another… today we don’t have quite such obvious temples calling for us to worship the idols they contain, but the pursuit of money, of power, the idolisation of possessions and sex, our love of sport or even family- every one of these things has its place in life, but none of them are God… The Bible helps us to enjoy life, by helping us to enjoy life with God…

In life we need guides and role models, instruction books and how-to manuals…

If we look around the world we see a culture of arrogance, selfishness and greed, of ‘me and mine first’ and no one else matters, that denies the existence of God and the value of peace… we’re not called simply to say ‘after you’ and become doormats, but to challenge in our lives the status quo- and to do this we need to use the gifts, the tools that God has given us- the Bible and the Holy Spirit- the word and the helper.

As Paul wrote to the Colossians- ‘let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts’… as we individually and as churches pick up and use the gifts God has given us, we will flourish as his children, and his grace and love will become more apparent to those around us…

The Bible, in our own language, available for us to read and understand, is what makes it easier for us to know God, enjoy God’s presence, and hear from God…

Or would we prefer just knowing a bit about God, being aware that others are in God’s presence, hearing about others who’ve heard from God?

Preaching without notes, and claims for eco-energy with evidence

For your delectation this week- a sermon with no notes and a reblog of Jeremy Williams great post on Making Wealth History

So, the sermon- we were looking at the parable of the vineyard, also known as the parable of the wicked tenants (or the ‘I’m so glad I wasn’t standing there when he said that’ bit)… it’s a challenge to how we understand authority and the importance of knowing our past- Jesus’ listeners were condemned by themselves as they struggled to see any way of changing their place in the story, and so they ended up acting out its conclusion as they plotted and worked towards his arrest and trial. If you don’t know the passage, from Matthew 21.33-46, go and have a read; or if you want to hear some great reflections upon it, listen to the podcast of my colleague Cathy’s preach here

The challenge in this passage, and in the blog below, is for us to identify ourselves- who am I in this narrative? Am I working to create solutions to climate change, or against them? Am I aware of my responsibility to others (including God) or of my rights?

These big questions require us to adopt a long perspective, even trying to see around corners, but they do start right where we are. It’s easy to condemn someone else’s view as wrong, misguided or downright stupid, but it’s harder to avoid making the same mistakes ourselves… today, am I recognising that I have a responsibility to others?

Here in Britain, solar power is much more effective in the summer. The days are longer, and in mid summer solar PV produces five times as much energy as mid winter. Inconveniently, we also need more energy in winter, to heat our homes or to light them on those longer nights. Wind power picks up some of the slack, but we still need rely on fossil fuels to get us through the colder, darker periods of the year.

From a British perspective, it’s hard to imagine that solar power could run the world. But that’s what commentators like Jeremy Leggett or Chris Goodall suggest. Wild variations in light levels happen the further North or South you go, and the world’s population is concentrated in the middle. Most of the world doesn’t need to worry about solar being ineffective for half the year. It can provide what they need all year round.

With the price of solar panels falling so sharply in recent years, and batteries set to follow, most of the world’s population could rely on solar power, with wind and hydro power picking up the rest.

That claim was reinforced recently by a Stanford-led study that looked at the energy needs for 139 countries, and discovered that every one of them could run on 100% renewable energy by 2050. The exact energy mix varies for each country, but solar provides the majority. That’s for all energy use too, it’s worth noting – not just electricity. Transport would be electrified, and because electric forms of transport are more efficient, the amount of energy we need falls and that makes it easier to hit that 100% target.

A global shift to clean energy like this would keep climate change within 1.5 degrees of warming, save millions of deaths a year from air pollution, and be a net creator of jobs. Spread the word – a full transition to renewable energy is possible, and it has multiple benefits.

You can read more here.

Ok, next week I promise to just post a ‘normal’ blog about my preach… well, unless something else comes up.

Harvest generosity

We had our harvest celebrations this weekend- with much food consumed at a BBQ, at coffee time, at lunch. We also celebrated in our worship- giving thanks for the harvest that has come from the fields and the sea. We’re a ‘sort of’ rural community- on the edge of a small town and a largeish village, you can see fields from pretty much anywhere and there is fresh caught local fish available if you know where to look, but not that many of us rely directly on the land for our livelihood- a few, but not heaps. Harvest is, then, not so much about giving thanks that the wheat crop has come through or that the cows are calving well, though both those are present; but about the simple fact that we have food on the table. And so we reflect on and take action to help those who are struggling with that- the traditional bringing of harvest produce has become a collection of dried food goods that goes to the local Foodbank while fresh produce is given to a local charity that cooks lunches during the week for homeless and vulnerable folk. Add to that a collection taken up for Wateraid, going to fund their work building boreholes in small communities in Southern Africa, and we’re doing ok- almost smug… uh oh.

Why Should I Give My Money? | Brad Hoffmann's Blog

Of course, that’s the dilemma- do nothing about the needs of others and you either feel guilty or learn to ignore them… which is not a direction I’ll be heading in myself, thank you; or else you do something and feel a small glow of pride- I helped someone, we saved a life… and that path leads to smug self-congratulation. Some might say we should just keep quiet about the good we do- which is a valid point, but if there’s a need that I know about, is it right that I just keep quiet about it, or should I invite others to help me make more of a difference?

And in the midst of all this, you get our Bible reading for the day- someone (probably me), just googled ‘harvest’ in their Bible and shoved it in (It’s from Luke 12, this is the Message version):

Jesus told the crowd this story: “The farm of a certain rich man produced a terrific crop. He talked to himself: ‘What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods, and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done well! You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life!’

20 “Just then God showed up and said, ‘You fool! Tonight you die. And your barnful of goods—who gets it?’

21 “That’s what happens when you fill your barn with Self and not with God.”

Jesus continued with his friends, “Don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or if the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your inner life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the ravens, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, carefree in the care of God. And you count far more.

25-28 “Has anyone by fussing before the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? If fussing can’t even do that, why fuss at all? Walk into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They don’t fuss with their appearance—but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the wildflowers, most of them never even seen, don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you?

29-32 “What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out. You’re my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself.

So what does this all mean?

As conditions get harder for many people all around the world- whether that’s rising sea levels, drought, job security, violent conflict or anything else, we need to hang on to what we can do- the rich man in the story Jesus told isn’t berated for being rich, but for trying to hold onto more than he had- for his greed. Elsewhere Jesus talked about the generosity of a widow who gave the smallest coin in the local currency as a gift to the temple in Jerusalem- it wasn’t the size of the gift, but what it meant- she gave out of her scarcity, the rich man tried to keep more even when he had plenty.

Jesus then went on to speak of a different way- instead of trusting yourself, trust God, and then you can be at peace. Not just relax and put your feet up, but relax and not worry. I can’t make the rain come, I can’t make myself taller, I can’t affect certain things, so why am I worrying about them? What can I do, with what I have?

There’s a quote, attributed to John Wesley, which goes like this- “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” Whether Wesley said it or not, it’s a great phrase, not a bad motto at all, and as we celebrate and give thanks for what we have, I can think of worse things to have in my head.

BTW, if you’re wondering what happened to the actual sermon notes from yesterday, the early morning service had a preach based on this passage that went miles from my notes, the main service had a different preacher, and the later service had a family talk about vegetables, droughts and grandmothers… and no, there were no notes that made any sense!

Reblog- what can we learn from the plastic bag campaign?

This is mostly, well almost entirely, an environmental post; so you could be excused for wondering what it’s doing here where I normally blog about the Bible and post sermons.

The astute among you, and those who know me personally, will however know that as far as I’m concerned, care for the environment is one of the most significant ways that people can live in a way that reflects an awareness of and an appreciation for the God that Christians worship- if we believe God made all this stuff, then caring for it, enjoying and loving it is a pretty good response.

Enough of the intro, this came from the blog of Jeremy Williams… who’s blog Make wealth History can be found here. It’s one of the few blogs I always read and is always worthwhile.

here t’is:

In October 2015, Britain ended free single-use plastic bags at the supermarket, bringing in a charge of 5p. The charge succeeded in reducing the number of bags thrown away, and so campaigners are lining up the next target – disposable coffee cups perhaps, or plastic bottles. As the pressure grows around those things, it’s worth casting an eye back over the story to see what we can learn.

It took quite a long time to get that law through. The early calls for a ban came in 2007, when environmental issues were high on the agenda. The Climate Change Act was being prepared, and the Labour government took the opportunity to bundle in a handful of other environmental measures. An addenda to the bill, Schedule 6, lays the legislative groundwork for regional governments to introduce a plastic bag charge. There were no plans to actually do this at the time, and there were hopes that it could be done voluntarily. Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised to bring in a charge if the retailers didn’t do it independently. A couple of them did, such as Marks & Spencer. Most didn’t, but Brown’s threat was muted by rounds of studies and consultations, and then vanished altogether when the government changed.

The Daily Mail, whose influence on this issue has been considerable, kept up its Banish the Bag campaign. Environment and waste groups kept calling for it, led by Surfers Against Sewage, Keep Britain Tidy and Friends of the Earth. A growing number of other countries were introducing charges or bans, so there was mounting evidence that it worked, and ever more case studies to learn from. The supermarkets were broadly in favour – it was better for the government to demand an end to free bags than for them all to move independently and risk customer inconvenience. Surveys showed the majority of people approved of the idea. There was no reason not to move ahead.

On the other side however, the packaging lobby didn’t want it. The Taxpayer’s Alliance disapproved and ran protests and petitions against it. It was the Alliance that popularised the idea that it was a ‘bag tax‘, when in fact the government doesn’t get the 5p charge. (Retailers can do what they like with it, though they are invited to give it to charity.) Under the coalition government, the Lib Dems argued for it. Conservative colleagues with an aversion to red tape pushed back – people like Jacob Rees-Mogg, who mocked the whole idea because “the aim ought always to be to help people to lead their lives as free from state intervention as possible”. Over on the continent, Britain followed its usual stick-in-the-mud strategy and led the opposition to an EU wide ban.

But the legislation was there for those that wanted it. Wales moved first, acting in 2011. Then Northern Ireland, bringing its rules in line with its southern neighbour, which was the first country to ban free bags back in 2002. Scotland banned them in 2014 and finally the measure made it onto the Queen’s speech and then the statute books in 2015. Whitehall’s version was riddled with exceptions and loopholes, but it was finally done.

After all that foot-dragging, it worked exactly as expected. Plastic bag use was projected to fall by 80% and it did. So that’s a victory, although it’s extraordinary that it took eight years to enact a small change that almost everyone seemed to agree was a good idea. Such is British politics.

There’s a growing campaign around plastic bottle deposits at the moment. I won’t detail where it’s got to right now, but it looks like another convoluted and drawn out journey into law. Seasoned campaigners will know this stuff already, but for those of us looking on from the outside and hoping for quicker results, what can we learn from the bag charge?

  • Someone always loses, even on common sense and well proven environmental measures. Those people can be surprisingly powerful. Companies who supply plastic bags to supermarkets stood to lose millions, and understandably mounted a considerable defence.
  • We might think that a solution is obvious, but opposition to environmental measures can be very creative. All kinds of arguments were marshaled against the bag charge, calling on various research reports and think tanks to support them. The IEA fretted that plastic bags would lower sales and harm businesses. Others argued that there would be an increase in shop-lifting, or that incinerators would be able to generate less electricity. There will be always be trade-offs, but when a government is predisposed not to act, any negative aspects can be good excuses to do nothing. Campaigns need to be aware of trade-offs and acknowledge them. They also give us clues about where the holes in the legislation might be when it comes.
  • Framing is important. Many people still refer to the ‘plastic bag tax’, which was a deliberate framing move by the Plastic Bag Consortium and the Taxpayer’s Alliance. People don’t like taxes. Neither do they like things to be ‘banned’. The languages of taxes and bans were readily deployed against the charge, and this needs to be called out and corrected, especially when it the phrases are picked up by journalists.
  • The regions can and will move faster than the national government – Scotland is already implementing a bottle and can deposit scheme. Focusing on regional campaigns is a key part of the strategy. Those of us in England don’t have a regional government of our own (yet), but we can still support campaigns in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each regional initiative builds the case for wider action.
  • Making the issue political is really unhelpful. The plastic bag scheme was a Labour idea and then a Lib Dem policy. As soon as it is associated with one party, many MPs feel duty bound to obstruct it on principle. Working across parties and finding champions in different sectors can help.
  • Finally, patience will be required. And truth be told, rushing something through could backfire. It’s not always as simple as it looks, and a bottle deposit scheme is a bit more complicated than the plastic bag charge.

I’m confident that we’ll get a bottle deposit eventually. If you want to do your bit for it right now, Greenpeace have a petition here. Sign the one from Surfers Against Sewagetoo. Join in with beach clean-ups and local litter-picking initiatives, publicise them in local press, and drop in mentions of the bottle deposit scheme. To all those plastic bottles in hedgerows and gutters – we’re coming for you. Slowly.

Generous Giving- in everything, with everything

Yesterday I preached with only around 50 words written down, and someone thought it was really good… which does beg the question of why I write things down most weeks; but then again, at least you lovely people can access the printed/posted word, whereas the stream of consciousness ideas that aren’t even recorded in one of our churches are lost/released/set free (take your pick, depending on how whimsical you’re feeling). I was speaking about how what we believe has to make a difference in what we do- how we’re called to conduct ourselves, to live our lives, in a manner that is worthy of the Gospel- of the good news of life and hope that Christians have been given. Actually that is true of us all- our lives reflect what we believe. If we project fear and anger onto the world, that is an outworking of ourselves and our perception of the world around us. Or to put it another way, if we want to see world peace, we have to start with ourselves.

Words of Wisdom for the Class of 2012 - Jillian Harris

However, last week I was speaking at the end of our series on worship- the different aspects of our gathered worship that we’ve been looking at over the past few months. And having had a reading from the life of Elijah where he’s kept alive by trust in God’s provision, and from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel about the risk of prioritising material things, we’d reached the subject of giving-

When people talk about money, there’s often a certain shuffling of the feet or a blanking of the mind. When people talk about generosity we tend to underplay our own, while sometimes gushing our thanks towards others’. As I come to speak today I’m conscious that I don’t want to only talk about money, but I want to be clear that I am talking about money in the context of generous giving. I’m talking about it partly because the PCC have asked me to, and partly because it’s a significant part of our lives, and if our faith doesn’t connect with the things that play a big part in society and our own lives, then it is rather missing the point…

What we do with our time and our money, for those who’re Christians or who’re exploring the Christian faith, needs to take account of who we say God is- We proclaim and sing that God is the one who has called the universe into being, and sustains all that is- and our response is to be thankful. We talk of Jesus’ death and resurrection and how forgiveness and eternal life are available to all who ask- and the word we use to describe our understanding of this is grace… As Rowan Williams said ‘Jesus giving his life for us is the ultimate demonstration of God’s generosity and grace’.

In this, as in every part of the Christian life, we each make our own decisions, our own responses. As I’ve talked this summer about prayer, about deepening our knowledge of the Bible, as Rose, John, Cathy and Dave have shared their experiences and wisdom, each one of us is responding at our own level- and that is how it should be. If the Christian faith is about our relationship with God, and how that is outworked in the world, it has to have our own personal response as part of it, rather than a proscribed check list or a flow diagram. However, if we are serious about exploring this faith, about living our lives as believers in and followers of Jesus, then we do well to consider those aspects of our gathered life as church, and reflect on how we’re living them out…

If we sing amazingly and love music, we love to read the Bible and feed the hungry, but count the cost of every minute and every good deed done, then we have hearts of stone and our relationship with God is limited- and similarly with all the others… if we refuse to worship, to confess, to engage with God’s word, to proclaim our faith, to pray or to live generously… any one of them, then we are chained up and held back, we cannot grow or flourish as Christians, as the people God made us and calls us to be.

Jesus says ‘where your treasure is, there your heart is too’, and ‘you cannot serve both God and money’… not disregard it, but be aware of how it affects you.  Money is a tool, that is to be used, not a God to worship or a hobby- what good can I do with the money I have? The Bible, apparently talks more about the evils of money and how to be wary of it than it does about sex- I’ve not checked, but there are a number of passages talking about how believers, in the old and new testaments, should think about money and other material possessions.

The key is generosity- God has been generous in creation, in sending his son, in our own salvation…  and has ultimately given us all we have. So let us be generous in turn.

At this point I do want to emphasise that I’m talking about time, skills, effort and so much more as well as money… but the principle of generosity applies across them all. So when I said ‘what good can I do with the money I have?’ I also mean ‘what good can I do with the time I have and the skills I have?’…

In much of life we live with a tight budget, a scarcity mentality and with the word ‘austerity’ ringing through our ears. However in God’s kingdom we see grace, abundance and generosity.

Elijah, in the middle of a drought, has finally left the stream where he’s been fed by ravens bringing him food each day, and finds a woman and her son, preparing to die. He asks her for a drink and a bite to eat, she explains her situation. Elijah’s comment is somewhere between lunacy and genius- carry on with your plan, but if you could just make me some food before you die that’d be lovely. But the following verse is crucial- ‘This is what the Lord says…’ Elijah had a deep faith, a strong relationship with God in every aspect, and spoke with authority. And God provided. The oil and flour didn’t run out until the day it rained. God didn’t turn her flour into a larder overflowing with sweetmeats and pastries… God blessed what she had, and it was enough.

When we gather together we take up an offering- maybe we should make more of that moment in the service, but we’re English- I’ve come to the conclusion that our Englishness is at the root of many problems- something we inherited from the Victorians maybe, an inability to talk about death, money, emotions or faith… anyway, when we gather together, we take up an offering- a gift of money that is representative of our response to what God has given us, and is our giving to help sustain and grow the ministry of our church both here in Newport and beyond- contributing towards churches in Devon that are in the poorest parishes and supporting our mission giving to Shelterbox, Amigos amongst others…

Now, our prayer and our faith is that God blesses and uses what we offer, and that when we give and act in faith, it will be enough.

Our understanding is that God blesses what we have, not what we don’t have, so we give out of our means rather than re-mortgaging the house for our Sunday offering. But we also give generously and sacrificially… what this all means is that there is no membership fee for a church, but we ought to notice the difference in our wallet at the end of the month…

Practically there’re ways to do this- we’ve mentioned the Parish Giving Scheme, some folk use one-off gift aid envelopes or standing order, but ultimately this is about what difference it makes to our lives- we become more generous people as we become more generous in giving of our money, time and skills- we grow as we give. Our giving isn’t just about making the finances add up, though that reduces the headache of any church treasurer, but its about us growing as people of God.

Prayer- an expression of vulnerability and trust.

There are times when you discover that you’re on the same page as God- when you’ve been meaning to speak about things for a while and everything seems to nudge you in that direction… when everything is trying to tell you something. That was yesterday- with the way that 2 sermons by different people fitted in synch with each other, and everything else, down to the unplanned comment about ‘if you want me to pray with you at the communion rail and it takes 10minutes’, which was followed by someone turning up late for the service who, guess what, needed to spend time with God. Huh. Sure, it could all be coincidence, it’s just a lot of coincidences, all happening one after another, in a week when I’m talking about God hearing our prayer. Yup.

So, as usual, what I said doesn’t match with what I wrote, but here is the plan I had at the start of yesterday morning, based on James’ letter to the Christian church and a passage from Matthew’s Gospel (Bible references are James 5.13-18 and Matthew 13.54-58). The audio version is as always available on-line here

Having just come back from the clergy conference I want to share with you over the next few weeks some of what we were talking and learning about. Not so much the details of staying at the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester where prohibited items in rooms specifically mention shotgun ammo and birdscarers, but rather the nature of the diocesan priorities that we were reflecting on. If you’ve had a letter from any of the staff or been on the website this last year you’ll probably have noticed- Pray, Grow Disciples, Serve with Joy… these 3 things are the priorities that are shaping the plans and activity of the diocese. They are the means by which we hope to see churches grow in confidence, faith, and numbers. We’ll come back, over the weeks ahead to the ideas of growing disciples and serving our communities with Joy, but this week we’re continuing in our own teaching on prayer.

No automatic alt text available.

Last week we were thinking about prayer for the world (which we often call intercession) and our own relationship with God that is reflected in our prayer life. As I said, how close we feel to God, how aware we are of what God is doing, how broken our hearts are for the troubles of the world, all stem out of how much we take on Jesus’s teaching on prayer- calling God Father, praying for his kingdom to come in all things and seeking his guidance in our lives.

This morning we’re thinking about another aspect of the life of prayer- prayer for each other. We sometimes call this prayer ministry, we might also think of it as a type of intercessory prayer if we’re more comfortable with that language, or just simply ‘praying for you’.

Our two readings highlight the tension that exists around praying for people we know, or having people we know pray for us- If we look at James, it’s very simple- if you’re happy, sing songs of praise, if you’re sick, get folk to come and pray with you. Mark’s Gospel is described as the blunt, Ronseal account of Jesus’ life- the short tabloid read to the lengthy broadsheet account of Matthew… in which case James’ letter to the Christian church is the equivalent among the epistles of the New Testament. Not a different letter for each church, no need to write several letters… just this- control your tongue, care for widows and orphans, be like Jesus, and here: praise God in the good times, seek help in the bad, confess your sins and you will be forgiven.

Our passage from Matthew’s gospel offers us what might be our response to this- it’s all very well to say that but- our family and friends know us too well. Just as Jesus was not able to heal many in his home town, so we know that among those closest to us it can be hard. They know our flaws, they may be wary of revealing their inner struggles or needs to us- I know there’ve been times when I’ve deliberately sought out a stranger to pray for me about something, because it’s painful or complicated to ask someone who knows the situation to pray into it… and there are times when that is ok. However, it may be that I’m simply avoiding the situation- if it’s Sandra I’ve offended or who’s upset me, it isn’t that helpful, in the long term, to ask Pete to pray with me about it… the broken relationship can’t be healed by him.

Praying for one another involves a degree of trust and faith- in God, of course, but also in each other. It involves being somewhat vulnerable, and so we must practice being trustworthy just as we must practice trusting. When I bring something to an individual who’s offering to pray for me I have to know a few things-

  • That they’re connected to God- there’re some people who I just feel more comfortable praying for me because they’re obviously on God’s wavelength; but God is on everyone’s wavelength, often it’s just me that hasn’t noticed. You may or may not have come across the results of surveys earlier in the year which show that over half our nation now say they have no religion- as far as those folks are concerned everyone here is more connected to God than them, not just those who lead prayers at the front. Also, while we’re here- the NRSV translation of James 5.16 says ‘prayer of the righteous’, so gender isn’t the issue here, its our personal relationship with God… just to be clear on that.
  • I have to know they care- being prayed for isn’t a check box, or a production line! Something is bothering me, whether big or small, and I find myself asking for prayer… I don’t want the person I ask to reply ‘It’s fine, God knows your need, sit there while I pray’… and after 10 seconds of silence, or a short catch-all prayer that God would ‘help me in all I face’ to ask me to move along as someone else want the chair… And I want them to remember they’ve prayed for me- not to shout about it the following week while we queue for coffee, but to ask how I am…

There’re other things too, when and how to pray with young people and those of the opposite sex, when to pray out-loud and when to be silent, but ultimately this is the most important thing- most of us can pray for someone, and to most of us have something going on that could be prayed for… There is no barrier of age or experience that can’t be worked through, there are no clever words…

It feels timely to me that this summer I’ve been reading several books on prayer, while at the same time both Carolyn and Cathy have been talking about having the church open for prayer and producing prayer resources to allow mid-week visitors to pray, someone’s just given me a pile of books on prayer after I’d written in my to-do list ‘create library of prayer books for the church’, I’ve been reminded of my licencing here when I said that my highest priority was to lead us in prayer.

There are some terrible things going on in the world, there are some concerning things going on in the life of the wider church, and yet, here at this time, it feels as though our response is this- we need to pray. To come closer to God so that we can carry God with us into the world. To pray for the needs of the world and for each other. To allow others to pray for us, whether in celebration or sorrow.

Later on, as we have communion, there’ll be a chance for us to be prayed for and pray for each other in several ways- first of all, as we sit and wait, I hope we’re able to take the chance to pray for those around us- I used to pray for people going up while I was waiting, and not just that they’d hurry up. Secondly, there’ll be the opportunity to be prayed for at the back of the church or at the communion rail- whichever you prefer. Stay at the rail after you’ve had wine and someone will pray with you; or go to the font at the back, and someone will pray with you there. Lastly, when the children come back in from Sunday School, they are going to lead us in praying for each other after we’ve finished receiving Communion- they might stand near to you, or walk past you- you might find a small person puts their hand on your shoulder. And after we’ve finished the service, there’s no rules that say you can’t continue to do this- turning to those near you or finding someone else and asking for prayer. There’s no time like the present.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire… yes, it’s a poem, and it’s my next step in changing the world.

If you’ve read this blog before, you may have noticed the general lack of poetry quoted here. Or written by me. Or referred to. You may have, instead, noticed references to Star Wars, Marvel and DC superheroes, climate change, politics and, occasionally, God. Today, however I want to post a pome. Not one I’ve written or just recently discovered, but one I’ve known for a long time and was reminded of earlier this week.

Urban kingfishers making a home on London's waterways ...

Gerard Manley Hopkins, aside from having an amazing name, wrote poetry that drew together and expressed his love of the natural world, developed through his training as an artist and a naturalist, and his love of God. If you want a full biography of him, you could do worse than look here. However I don’t know much about him, nor know many of his poems except this one, which has been quoted in two books by Eugene Peterson (the genius theologian behind the Message- a contemporary reading of the Bible). This poem was also shared with me by my good friend and tutor, Chris Southgate, who’s had a bit of a funny old summer, and so with all these things in mind, as well as the nightmare weather events occurring and the turn of the seasons that is taking place around us, I thought I’d share a poem…

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
When things around us make us at a loss for words- whether things in our personal circumstances, the news of earthquake and hurricanes tearing through a region, the reminder of man’s unthinking and deliberate cruelty to man that is occurring in the Yemen and elsewhere, there is a tendency towards paralysis. Those of us who overcome this may find our action is spasmodic, reflex- cathartic at best, but often simply unthinking. It may be that in these circumstances poetry, the considered words of others, can give us a moment of consideration that may lead to action that is ultimately more powerful and effective.
Or maybe I’m just becoming a bit lah-di-dah and would rather read poetry than change the world…

Prayer- the relationship at the heart of everything.

We’ve reached the subject of prayer, you know, that thing that Jesus did a bit of, and our Bible passage this morning was where Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them how to pray. In our all age service this was acted out as 4 of the disciples shuffled their feet and looked at the sky until one of them plucked up the courage to ask Jesus. As you’ll read below, it may have been less embarrassing than that, but maybe not…

As I was preparing for today I received 2 specific prayer requests- not that unusual, you might say, but often prayer requests are either vague, or global- prayer for someone who’s depressed, or prayer for those affected by the war in the Yemen, for instance. These however were for people I know, and were very specific- one for a friend’s recovery from surgery and healing from suspected infection of his blood, and the other for safety and good waves at a local surf comp being organised by my mates in Christian Surfers. They really made me think, this is what it means to be able to pray- I can talk to God about my friend who’s ill in bed, and I can talk to God about the wind, weather systems and tides at the beach down the road; and God cares about both, and is able to respond in both situations.

I was also reminded of a story my mum used to tell me (and she’ll tell me how inaccurately I remember it, I’m sure), about how Christians in Romania would put a handkerchief on the floor before they prayed in church- they had no chairs, let alone kneelers, but the handkerchief would prevent them wearing through what might be their only trousers as the prayed on stone or concrete floored churches for half an hour… I spoke about this and the importance of our bodies in our prayer life, but I’d not written any of that down, so you’ll have to make do with what notes I did have…

Every week when we gather together we spend time in prayer- our formal liturgy is almost entirely prayers, our intercessions, our use of the Lord’s Prayer, our times of silence, our informal prayers in response to today… and yet many of us might feel that we’d echo the request of Jesus’ disciples- teach us to pray. One of the aspects of discipleship was, and still is, to learn how to do things the way your master does, and so this was a natural request. Jesus’ disciples had attended the synagogue and been to the temple, even if they were uneducated in many aspects of the Jewish faith, they knew the prayers of their people, just as many today can join in with the words of the Lord’s Prayer. But ask them to pray out loud, with power and confidence?

What to pray, how to pray, why to pray… if we can take some steps towards answering these, then we’ll be doing ok…

What to pray- In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus prays for God’s kingdom to come- in the version we have from Matthew it includes ‘your will be done’… we pray for God to act in line with his character and will- If we’re wondering what that is, look at the life of Jesus- he only did what his Father told him to do, so if we’re wondering about praying for healing, or for the hungry, for those who’re spiritually oppressed, look at what Jesus did… We can pray prayers asking God to act, asking for his protection- interceding on behalf of others, we can pray prayers of thanksgiving and praise for what God has done and is doing. We will each have our own concerns, and so when we lead others in prayer we bring those with us, but we’re conscious that others come with theirs too- allowing silence and leading gently in prayers that encourage us all.

How to pray- The Lord’s Prayer and other prayers that we find in the Bible give us starting structures- as we thought about earlier in the year though, they can become words that we’re so comfortable with that we lose our sense of their power… Jesus teaches his disciples here not just to pray one prayer, but that they can a- come to God almighty as Father, b- come to God for forgiveness themselves without needing any intermediary, and c- come to God for guidance.

We can pray with words- clearly. We can pray in silence and stillness. We can pray in the Holy Spirit. We can pray through the gifts that we each have- how do we express ourselves best? Then use those abilities in prayer.

We pray persistently and with expectation- not like a whinging child but a hopeful petitioner. We are reliant on God’s power and mercy, but also confident in his promises and love. And so we do not give up.

Jesus went to a certain place- in other passages we read he went to hillsides, got up early in the morning, stayed up late at night… interestingly Jesus seems to have been alone with God for these times. He was with the disciples when he prayed for them, he was with people when he prayed and spoke words of healing over them, but mostly he went by himself for times of prayer… Many of us today have lost this practice, and our attempts to cultivate a life of prayer involve coming together for prayer meetings and breakfasts etc- these serve a good purpose as they get us to pray, but they don’t replace personal time with God- just as going to a party with a friend isn’t the same as spending time over a cuppa.

But Jesus was also always with God- he was in the presence of his Father at all times, and he still sought out times of intimacy. As I wrote this I was in the same house as my family, and could hear them in the background, but I was not paying close attention to them. Brother Lawrence described this as practicing being in the presence of God in all things, the cooking of soup, the digging in the garden- in all of these practicing being aware of God in those places.

Why to pray? Our faith is essentially an expression of our relationship with God. And prayer is the chief means by which we develop that relationship. Reading the Bible? Worship? Outreach? Gifts of the Spirit? All wonderful, all important, but prayer is the most foundational aspect of our relationship with God. If I want the Bible to mean more to me, I pray before and after reading it, I praise God because of answered prayers or a sense of his presence in my life, I share faith with others because God has revealed himself in my life, If I have any gifts from God, they have come through prayer…

Prayer is also the way in which God’s power is connected to the world- The Holy Spirit of God connects to the world that we see around us through the prayers of God’s people; or not. If we see God at work, it’s because we pray. If we don’t see God at work… the answer is simple.

So, enough talk. We’re going to spend a few minutes in prayer now- in silence, using that pattern which Jesus taught his friends- asking for God’s kingdom to come, asking for forgiveness, asking for guidance in our lives.

home prayer prayer

God is with me, even in the midst of it all.

These last few weeks have been pretty crazy in the world- most days I’ve avoided reading the news too much as it’s just been beyond my imaginings, and alongside that we’ve had a fairly full on month- From a week at New Wine (14,000 Christians at a conference that is part music festival, part worship, part learning seminars, part camping holiday- amazing but tiring), baptisms of 2 friends children, 3 funerals (all of which were close to me), and fortunately in the midst a few days off…

Somehow, in the midst of all this, God has to make sense still. Somehow,  God has to help me make sense of all this even while I’m in the midst of it. If faith doesn’t make a difference in the crazy and the rubbish, then this God isn’t worth anything.

I’ve found that God hasn’t let me down- I’ve had energy and time for all that’s been essential, have managed to get enough sleep (just) and even been sane with my family (mostly). I have, also, in the midst of all this, found time for my own prayer life and to spend some time in quiet with God- and I genuinely think that might be what has helped me get through this month- I’ve actually put into practice the idea that in order to do things well I need to prioritise being spiritually prepared- my own prayer life is like the warming up of an athlete…

Oh, and in the midst of it all I managed to attend an evening at the World Athletics Championships- here’s Wayde van Niekierk doing his final warm up prayer before winning the gold medal in the 400m…WP_20170808_21_50_43_Pro

The thing that has really struck me is that our faith in God, our understanding of God, has got to be relevant- to make sense and make contact with our everyday life, and there’s so much in the life of the church and the Christian world that just doesn’t quite connect- it almost does, but doesn’t- so people are looking for mindfulness, meditation and self-help, while Churches and Christians are offering prayer in all sorts of ways- but somehow there’s this gap… this is the thing you’re looking for, but you can’t understand the packaging, or something like that.

Anyway, with that in my mind, as I took the funeral of my friend who loved sports in general, and netball in particular, I looked for a version of Psalm 23 that would speak more relevantly into her life and those of her friends. I couldn’t find anything anywhere, so here’s my stab at it- Psalm 23, for those of us who know more about sports than sheep:

The Lord is my coach, he makes sure I have my kit.

He makes me warm down and rest after good training, he points me towards hot showers and calms me when my nerves are frayed.

He keeps me playing by the rules, for I am on his team, and I wear his strip.

Even when I compete in the toughest events, and I feel like I’ll never make it through, I will not be afraid, because you are with me; you have trained me for this and are with me in every struggle.

My God, you prepare a plan for me and encourage me even when I only see the problems. You tell me that I can make it and help me to do what I never thought I could.

Surely I will compete well, and fairly, for as long as I live- for I am on the Lord’s side and there is a place for me in his team forever.

written in memory of Jo Elliott, died 23rd July 2017.