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!

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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?

History and life- is it a circle or a spiral?

Image result for those who study history

Looking backwards should help with moving forwards… Knowing what happened then should help us with what is happening now… time moves on, not just around in a circle.

A wonderful friend of mine, Jeremy, once tried to teach me about the Maori way of telling stories- they don’t just have a beginning, middle and end, but they return to themes and points of reference again and again, but each time the story has progressed- its not a straight line, nor is it just a circle, but its more like a spiral…

This year seems to have had more than its share of nervy moments in national and international news, and the cartoon pic I’ve used expresses concerns I know are held by many, but we need to make sure that we don’t just focus on the worrying news, that we don’t ignore the things that we can do…

It would be easy to put your hands in the air and stand back, proclaiming your helplessness, but that isn’t going to lead anywhere good. So get stuck in, get passionate, get involved, because this world, this life, this stuff is important. The Bible doesn’t speak of hope in heaven or salvation from this life- it starts here and now, with the things that we do in our lives… and so Paul writes to encourage and help Christians in that…

I was speaking on Romans 15, verses 4-13, which may well be the official reading for next Sunday morning, but hey, I was excited by it, so there you go…

‘Everything that was written in the past’- Paul is writing about the importance of Scripture here, but of course he’s writing about the Jewish Scriptures- our Old Testament. The New Testament as we know it barely existed- Paul and others were writing it and collating the stories of those who’d met Jesus. But what he writes is true of both. The purpose of Scripture, which is God-breathed, is to teach us. There are rules and commandments- the 10, the 2, the 300… but actually Paul says here that the purpose of Scripture is to teach us to endure and to be encouraged- its purpose is to give us hope. This is not the ‘obey the Law’ understanding that we may have, but much wider- what is the story that the whole of Hebrew Scripture tells us?

God’s creative power- yes; God’s love for his creation, including humanity- yes; mankind’s flawed and fallen inconsistency- yes; God’s persistent intention to love and redeem mankind- yes, yes, yes.

God does not give up, and has spoken over the years through the prophets of his intentions. God has called mankind back to him many times, and has sent judges, kings, prophets, prophetesses etc to bring that word of love, so that through his chosen people the whole world may be blessed- the Jews and the gentiles may sing God’s praises together.

But Paul knows from his own people’s history how hard it is to endure, to remain faithful… and so he prays that his readers, the Roman Christians and us, may be given a spirit of unity. This is not simply accept one another as Christ accepted you- though it is that. Paul invites us to model ourselves on Jesus- that is the basis for our unity, our being accepted by Christ and our acceptance of others… The promises are linked to the command. Jesus came and was a servant to bring the promises made in Scripture to fulfilment, and to confirm them for the Gentiles… This is the purpose of his coming.

Over the course of this letter Paul has set out and developed his understanding of God, of Jesus, of the Holy Spirit and of what it means to be a Christian in more depth than anywhere else, but here in this verse he summarises why Jesus came- Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs, so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy.

If we can get these things right, they act as foundations- helping us to flourish, to be ourselves, to stand strong. Its one thing to stand, its another to stand strong- one is simply stubbornness, the other has a purpose. I was reminded of the Prayer meetings in DDR in the 80’s- they’d had prayer meetings at St Nikolas’ church in Leipzig every Monday from 1982, but somehow the meetings in Leipzig were different, by May 1989 the police were barricading the roads to keep the congregation away, but it had the opposite effect… by October the numbers had reached epic levels- the leader of the DDR government described the prayer meetings as ‘the counter-revolution’ and had ordered them stopped by any means- but the riot police were not ready for candles and prayers. On October 9th the police did nothing as 70,000 protestors- Christians and atheists together quietly walked through the city. The numbers doubled and doubled again each week, and a month later the Berlin wall came down- the DDR was over. Sometimes waiting, showing strength by constancy is more powerful than anything else.  Trusting in what you are doing, in the rightness of your beliefs. Being encouraged by what has happened to continue to hope for the future.

So, in the words of the prayer written by Paul- ‘may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit’

Have a good week, hold onto hope, and bring a blessing where you can.

How to vote, but not which way

FB_20160616_12_28_13_Saved_PictureLast Sunday we were thinking about the celebrations of the Queen’s 90th birthday, and also looking at 2 passages from the Bible- one in Luke chapter 7 verse 36- 8:3 and the other in Galatians 2:15-21. As well as this I wanted to respond to some questions I’d been asked about the referendum, but without telling people which box to tick… so this is what I ended up writing. If you prefer to listen, go here.

In the days since last Sunday I’ve been reading and thinking more, and have concluded that I’m going to write a post about which way I’m choosing to vote and how I’ve come to that conclusion… hopefully that will be up tomorrow.

So, last weekend:

Very often when we look at someone else’s position in life, we see their rights and privileges, but when we look to our own lives, we see our responsibilities and burdens- we look at the Queen and we see palaces, the largest personal fortune in the country and more outfits than you can count… we don’t see the 40hr working week of a 90yr old pensioner, the lack of privacy for someone who is not a natural extrovert, the framework of ‘how things must be done’ that hold her in place as much as allow her to influence others. We look at our own lives and see the hard work, the health and financial worries, we feel that no one listens to us and that we deserve more… how rarely do we consider the simple truths that having spare change in your pocket and taps with clean water, access to a car and a roof over our heads puts us in the top 20% of the richest and most privileged people in the world. The fact that we live in a society where men and women have the vote without having to prove their ‘right’ to vote, where sexism and racism are recognised as problems even though they still exist… that we have so much time that most of us can choose between leisure activities rather than simply work then sleep…

The Bible passages that we have heard this morning both speak of privilege, and of what it means to forget what that word means…

The Jews of Paul’s time understood themselves as being God’s chosen people- on a good day that meant to be chosen to bring God’s blessing to the whole world, in a world where everyone had their own gods and it was safest to worship them all, to proclaim through their words and lives that there is one God who is worthy of worship, and all others are nothing compared to him. On a good day. On a bad day that knowledge turned to arrogance and the desire for serving God turned to an abhorrence of the rest of the world- looking down on everyone who wasn’t one of ‘us’… As Simon the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner implied- If Jesus knew what sort of a woman was washing his feet he wouldn’t let her touch him… Jesus’ response highlights the risk that faces all of us who have any kind of privilege- that we can forget what we have been given, and that it has usually come to us undeserved- God chose the people of Israel, not the other way around, and not because of what they already were, but because of what God would help them become… and Jesus could, and so frequently did as we see here, choose to go beyond that- to extend the kingdom of God into the lives of people he met with the words ‘your sins are forgiven’.  If we don’t recognise the need we all have for forgiveness we can easily forget what a wonderful gift that was for her, and what a wonderful gift it is for us. Similarly an ‘accident of birth’ makes one person royalty while another is a refugee. This month many people are taking part in celebrations of the Queen’s 90th birthday, while a great amount of energy is also being spent discussing the forthcoming referendum, and in the background, all the while, the homeless are struggling to carry on in our own nations and refugees are risking their lives to cross borders and the sea.  Life as a refugee is worth the risk- not because our benefits are so great but because what they have left is so bad. A life of faith is worth it, not because every single day is paradise but because life without God is meaningless. [BT only- As her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II once said- ‘I know just how much I rely on my faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning… I draw strength from the message of hope in the Christian gospel.’ There are some here who are great lovers of the Queen and the Royal Family, others are less so- I’m not trying to cause offense or convert you to a different viewpoint on the Queen, but she does seem to stand as someone who has so much, and uses it for good. She could quite easily have been a caricature queen- something ridiculous in a modern age. But because of how she has held herself, how she has been herself her life and her faith have been taken seriously.]

Our passage from Galatians takes up this point- We are justified- made right with God, by our faith, not by our birthright… its not about where you’re born but how you live- Paul is talking about Jews and Gentiles- the one group born with a sense that they are God’s people, the other discovering that they can become God’s children. One group justified by their adherence to the laws that have come down through their culture- the laws of Moses given to him by God and developed over the years into a full legal system that could answer every question of what was right or wrong, the other justified by their adherence to Christ Jesus and him alone.

This passage within Galatians has parallels in Romans, where Paul similarly argues that the law doesn’t bring salvation or righteousness, but an awareness of sin… a structure isn’t necessarily the solution to a problem but is a first step towards finding a solution. The structure helps, as a means to an end, but its not the end in itself. Realising that we are still sinners while we are seeking to be justified in Christ- that’s another way of saying ‘doing our best but still messing up’, and Paul, in this passage is quite clear that a)that doesn’t mean sin is ok, but equally b)that there is still grace and forgiveness… we are seeking this, we’ve not yet arrived… the church and all of us within it, is not yet perfect… but it is the means that God has chosen to share the message of his grace and love with the world.

I’ve been asked by several people in our church and elsewhere to share some reflections on the approaching referendum. And I’ve been quite hesitant to do so, because I believe quite strongly in the responsibility and the privilege of the democratic process- we each have the right to make our own decision, to come to our own conclusion, and to vote as we choose. But my preparation for today, and the amount of material I read on both sides of the argument has brought me to the point where I feel it is right for me to speak on this. I do not want to tell you how to vote, but maybe to encourage you in how to think about this, as Christians, as people who take our privilege and our responsibility seriously. Some of us are staunchly committed to voting one way or another on 23rd June, I don’t want to cause offense to any of you. The church nationally has no public stance- the Archbishop of York has made his intention clear, while the Archbishop of Canterbury, though commenting strongly on the comments of Nigel Farage has refused to say whether he’ll vote in or out (note: in between my writing and preaching this, he publicly stated his intention to vote remain).  In reality this is no different from how we, as Christians, should approach any significant decision- whether something in our own lives or in the shared life of our community and nation. Because of Christ’s death on the cross, our understanding of the world is changed- compassion for the weak, kindness to strangers, and love for the natural environment are not peripheral interests but guiding principles… they are how we live out the gospel in our daily lives and so they should inform our decisions. So we need to ask ourselves how does my vote show compassion for the week, kindness to strangers and love for the natural environment… and, and this is the big question… how do I know that?

There’s been a lot of talk about the economy and finance… both sides making similar claims… and both missing the point- Money is not everything.

There’s been people weighing in with their views, claiming expert knowledge one way or another… and we need to be wise to the fact that politicians and businesses always have a vested interest.

There’s been pretty pictures and lies, damn lies and statistics… we know that a picture and a graph can be made to say anything.

But, there is one thing on which I am certain- we have this responsibility. We have the privilege of making this decision. And we have to make it. If we don’t, others will, and we will be bound by their decision, for good or ill.

When you leave today you’ll probably remember the last few minutes more than the whole of the rest of this service… if I’ve made you think about how you vote, then I’m happy, but that pales into insignificance next to the decision, the vote, that we each of us make when we respond to Jesus- when we become made right with God by faith in him- when we hear those words ‘your sins are forgiven’ and know that they are said for us.

Christian Mindfullness- contemplative prayer at the end of the week

Last Sunday evening we had a slightly different time in church- there was no organ or worship band, nor even a CD or ipod. On arrival the small group of us sat facing the back rather than the front, and when we started there were no notices… what is going on?

We were gathered for our monthly time of worship and prayer, where we’ve been learning some new songs and praying together, often in ways that allow us to be more vulnerable and be more supported than is often the case in our gathered times. On this occasion, however, I wanted to try using some of the ideas around mindfulness, but from a Christian perspective, which has been described by Shaun Lambert appropriately as ‘mindfullness’- not just being aware of what is going on in your head and life, but also filling yourself with God as you do so and orienting your thoughts and actions in response to what you see of God.

This was fairly new to me, and not something I’d led before, so we were all doing something new together- and to honest I was quite glad that only a few folks had come along! But it seemed to go well, and we’ll do it, or something similar, again in the near future. The reason, BTW, that we were facing the back of the church is that we used the Parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke chapter 10 as something to aid our thinking, and we’ve got a large stained glass window depicting that parable a the back of the church…

so:

Mindfulness- consciously stopping to observe and become aware of our thoughts and feelings, in order to move from a place where they control our actions and lives to a place where we are mindful of our intentions- living and acting proactively rather than reactively.

Contemplative prayer, coming into the presence of God, losing ourselves in worship, Lectio Divina and other Christian traditions all use this same idea, and it is based on things we see Jesus doing and the NT church practising.

It is similar to secular and Buddhist mindfulness in the same way that all chairs are things to sit on, but they are not the same chair- each form of mindfulness has its own structure and intention, but they share some commonalities.

Why specific Christian mindfulness? Because as Christians we want our intentions to be informed by and sustained by God’s love and will for our lives rather than anything else.

What can mindfulness do? Help us pray, help reduce anxiety and stress, help us to perceive God in the world, help us to live as Christians… or none of them if we choose not to…

What are the pitfalls? Mindfullness isn’t Christianity, it doesn’t replace being part of a church or following Jesus- it’s a useful tool, not the end goal

Some main points:

Being aware of your Body

Observing your thoughts, body and feelings

Accepting them and being Aware of them more fully

Adopting a Compassionate attitude towards ourself and the world- non-judgmental and forgiving

COAL as mnemonic for Bible reading: Curiosity, Openness, Attentively, Living it out

Others like to talk about Lectio Divina… at its heart is reading the Bible so that its truth enters into you rather than you trying to make it fit your truth…

Luke 10.25-38- Parable of the good Samaritan…

I’ll read the passage, then we’ll have some quiet while we each allow it to speak to us- you’ll want to have a Bible to hand, and be sitting somewhere where you can comfortably read, or look at the window…

During the quiet I’ll give a few invitations to how you might like to progress your thoughts

As our time draws to a close we’ll take the opportunity to put down anything- both in terms of things you need to release and let go of, and also to put down on paper any thoughts that you need to retain and reflect on further.

Remembering the past and hoping for the future

The last few days I’ve spoken at several remembrance services and school assemblies, in varying formats, with over 1000 people in our small bit of the world.  This is what I said yesterday morning in church, or at least what I’d planned to say until someone reminded me that this weekend also marked 25 yrs since the fall of the Berlin Wall. I ended up going off on one about that for a while, but at least part of the following text was used:

When we, or anybody, tries to remember something, its essential that we do two things- we have to find its context (where it comes from) and we have to find its connection (where it touches us)- if not, it won’t make sense. This morning we’re thinking about Remembrance, and we’re using the Bible passage we just heard to help us think about the Christian response- what a faith in God helps us to say in this situation.

Remembrance is, of course, not just about remembering things- its specifically about remembering those who have fought, been wounded, suffered and died in conflicts and wars across the world. In particular this year we’re thinking of those who fought and died in WWI.

6 million British Soldiers fought in WWI which is a huge number and one we can’t really get our heads around- of those soldiers 1% suffered from shell shock, what we’d now call severe PTS, 3% became POW’s, 28% were wounded and 13% died- only half came home in one piece, but their lives were changed forever by what they had experienced.

We remember them not to honour or glorify war- what is often described as ‘the final and most desparate of political means’- when all else fails, but to honour their sacrifice, and to honour the hope that they fought for. Although wars and conflicts have continued around the world since the end of WWI- there has never been a single year of global peace, and its questionable whether there has been a single day, and yet they fought for the hope of peace and freedom. In the face of suffering and violence, hatred and fear, men and women still stand to protect ideals of peace and freedom, to protect the weak.

Why? Because of hope. Hope that one day we will bring those ideas to completion- the kind of hope that keeps you going at the beginning of a long week at work, or at the start of a massive project…

The Bible passage we heard, part of a letter written by St Paul to the church he’d founded in the city of Thessalonica- he’d only been able to stay there for 3weeks before being driven out of the city by people who disagreed with him… so it was written to a group of people in a tough place, somewhere it was really difficult to be a Christian. I’ve never lived in a country where you might lose your job or face violence just for saying that you go to church, but I remember when I was at school some people who just liked to find any excuse used to give me grief when I became a Christian in yr8- that was probably as close as I’ve ever come to the sort of situation these Christians were in… and what encouraged me was knowing as a Christian I could trust Jesus even in some tricky times… I had hope. And so Paul’s talking about how one day, even though things seem really difficult right now, it will be ok- the promise that Jesus will one day return to bring peace and justice, the promise that when we die we will have new life with God- those promises are bigger than the threats that they faced. They are bigger than any fears we might have. Paul was writing to the church in Thessalonica to give them hope. ‘Encourage one another with these words’… today those words can give us encouragement- the world is a mess, and there seems to be violence growing everywhere when you look at the news… there seems to be nothing I can do, and so I might despair… but- ultimately it will be ok- I can have hope even in the darkest of times.  This was the hope that many soldiers found in the trenches of WWI and have found during conflicts and wars since then- Strong men who saw their friends suffer and witnessed terrible things came to realise that the hope, the words of the Bible, were a source of guidance, of comfort and strength.

As we read these words and others like them in the Bible, it can be a real challenge for us- these images of angels and trumpets and the dead rising and meeting Jesus in the clouds… is this accurate? I don’t know for certain, and neither did Paul. I do know that more than one writer in the Bible uses this same sort of language, but I also know that when we try to describe spiritual experiences or pictures that we feel come from God, it can be like tying down fog… the best we can do is give a loose idea.  But I also know, and all of us who’ve experienced anything of the presence, the power, the love of God know this too, that its all beyond our understanding… this is no harder to understand than the idea that prayer can somehow allow me to relate to God. Everything about our faith is beyond our normal understanding- its something that gradually makes sense as we go along… but those concluding words we can hold on to- ‘we will be with the Lord forever’… so let us encourage one another.

I guess at the heart of what I’m saying to folks is that what we remember- the thing that lies behind the poppies and the parades, is more important than them. But more importantly than that, more important than the practice of remembering the sacrifice and determination of others, is to let it affect how we behave now and in the future- if their sacrifice impels me to work for peace, to grow freedom and to encourage others to stand against evil, then it has been worthwhile.

on the job learning- serving your apprenticeship with the Holy Spirit

Barnabas -one of the coolest people in the whole Bible- if you ever want to emulate another Christian, he’s a good choice- for starters he led the church in the first place where believers were called Christians, and he was a legend at spotting potential- he was the guy who called Saul from his home town in Tarsus and took him on his first road trip… And here they are in Antioch, praying and listening. Asking the question ‘how can we best serve you God?’, and taking it seriously- they were fasting and praying and waiting, as part of a group. Its a really good model for how we make big decisions- in the midst of worship when our hearts are focussed on God, in the context of prayer and with that commitment that fasting indicates (its not about depriving ourselves of food or losing weight, or a health kick thing, fasting is about prioritising time… maybe I’ll write a post about that soon).

Anyway, today, looking at Acts 13 & 14, we see how these two are called to go on another trip, and as we read it we get to see the development of their relationship. At the start its ‘Barnabas and Saul’, then there’s the moment when Saul steps forward, his new name Paul is used for the first time (Paul, derived from ‘small’ in Latin would mean ‘little one’, but it could also have come from his encounter with the pro-consul of Cyprus who became a Christian following their meeting). And then through the rest of the trip, from Cyprus to mainland Turkey and then back to Antioch in Syria, Barnabas takes the back seat- he’s the more mature believer, the more experienced apostle and church planter, but he’s willing to stand alongside while Paul speaks to the Jews in the synagogues, the Gentiles in the markets etc. Often its ‘Paul and Barnabas’ did something- maybe it was a more open discussion, but its always Paul that is reported as giving the main address.

And that is how it is when we’re being apprenticed- whether by a genius like Barnabas, or by the Holy Spirit. God can do all things without us, but chooses to invite our involvement. And as we try to follow him, we find that God is waiting for us, drawing us on, giving us chances to do things we never thought we could… and when we do, when we take those chances, we grow in confidence both in God and in our ability to hear God… we realise we were right to trust God, and so we’ll be better able to do so again.

And that’s key to our own relationship with God, to our flourishing as Christians, and to our engagement in God’s mission in the world.

E100- Sometimes its not what you say but how you say it…

 

So, looking this week at some of the miracles that we can see in the Gospels, the things that Jesus apparently did, which seem to run contrary to our normal expectation of what can happen- supernatural events which if taken literally defy explanation. Today I was reading a passage in Matthew 14 where Jesus walks on the water (well, actually first of all I was reading a passage in Matthew 15 about someone’s daughter being healed, but that’s because I’m a numpty and can’t find the right page… but anyway).

The thing is, I’ve read this passage a dozen times over the years, and it fascinates me- did he do it? how did Jesus walk on water? Was it a mass hallucination? The answer I have for all those questions is what I’m looking at on Sunday morning, so you’ll have to wait for that.

However, there’s a phrase that sticks with me, something that Jesus says to Peter: ‘you of little faith’.  And the reason it strikes me is that we can read it so many different ways… Bear in mind, Peter has seen Jesus walking on the water in the middle of the night, and has said ‘if its you, tell me to get out of the boat and come to you’… and he has actually walked on water as if it were solid, until his doubts get the better of him and he becomes afraid. At that point, as he starts to sink, he calls out ‘Lord save me!’ And Jesus response? catching hold of him, he says ‘You of little faith’

You of little faith, shouted over the noise of the wind, to a fool who should have known better than to get out of the boat if he was going to be afraid?

You of little faith, called to a follower who keeps putting his foot in it and never seems to learn the lessons his teacher puts in front of him so often?

You of little faith, spoken to a friend who has so much to learn, so far to journey?

You of little faith, almost whispered to a man who is like a child in his arms, who thought he was about to drown but has been saved?

You of little faith, an admonishment that is a term of endearment at the same time?

You of little faith, but from little faith we will build a church?

You of little faith, but at least you had enough to climb out of the boat?

There are times when I read this passage, and I hear the voice as one telling me off for my own over confidence, and at other times I hear it as one lifting me out of my fears… 

Its not always the words we use, its how we say them that expresses their meaning…

How are you hearing that voice, those words, today?

(with thanks to Mike Pilavachi and John Ortberg for their wonderful teaching on this passage). For more by either of them, go look at stuff for Soul Survivor or here

Jesus, that man’s got attitude!

Sorry, couldn’t resist that… so this morning we were looking at the Beatitudes, which crop up in Matthew chapter 5, at the beginning of the sermon on the mount. I had the interesting challenge of doing a talk that was for all ages at the beginning, with children hiving off after a few minutes, and if that wasn’t hard enough I was speaking on a passage which, the last time I did some teaching on, took 5 evening sessions and even then seemed crammed. I’m going to have words with the guy who sets the preaching rota in our church…

Anyway, here’s the gist of what I said:

Attitude- good attitude, bad attitude, someone with ‘attitude’… it’s a word that describes how what is inside you can be seen…  (dictionary- a settled way of thinking, a physical position of the body showing a mental state, uncooperative behaviour, individuality and self-confidence.  a good attitude isn’t necessarily being good at something, but its how you carry yourself- whether you’re a champion or a steady mid grade… Sometimes people refer to the beatitudes in that way- as Jesus’ description of how we should be- the ‘be attitudes’. If that’s so, what do you think are some important attitudes for us to have as Christians? How should we be? And what attitudes would we be wise to try and avoid?

 

Here’s a few- Proud   Humble       Kind    confident        uncertain        grumpy

 

Or if we want a list from the Bible-in Galatians 5 these are called the fruit of the Spirit, but they’re also the attitudes of a Christian:

 

Loving     joyfilled       peaceful         patient        kind     good     faithful        gentle     self-controlled

 

In this passage Jesus talks about how his followers should live- not so much the way to be, but the way to blessings… some translations actually use the phrase ‘happy are you when…’ but its not really a kind of ‘don’t worry be happy’ or a Pharrell Williams song, its about something much deeper… if you want… the chances are that for most of us, something this past week made us happy- made us smile and lifted our spirits… it might have been a joke or a flower or child or whatever… but what makes us feel deeply blessed- content- joyful… that’s the kind of happiness Jesus means (and actually I think its what Pharrell Williams is trying to talk about)…

 

Its actually quite a radical manifesto both in terms of what it talks about and what it asks…

 

This is a manifesto for the kingdom of heaven- which is not a place on a map but a place in our hearts- its our attitude… when we take these phrases, those virtues listed as the fruits of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians, and we live them out- as we begin to try and live by those values ‘the kingdom is near’.

 

As we hear the beatitudes, the intention isn’t that we should pat ourselves on the back… yup, got that one, nor that we should beat ourselves over the head for our failure- I’m not hungry enough for righteousness, but that we should recognise our intentions and that they fall short of our own hopes. By recognising that we fall short, we come without pretence or false confidence to God… and because of God’s grace we are provided with all we need… to take the first phrase ‘poor in spirit’… is one of those phrases that we ‘get’ without often understanding- what does it mean to be poor in spirit? Poor… lacking in what you need- not just a bit short when it comes to the holiday fund, but struggling, unable to pay the bills or for necessities… but we live in a world of credit and short term loans… the poor are fooled or forced into behaving as if they haven’t a worry… Spiritually poor, means without the spiritual resources to get by- and those who understand that they are spiritually poor are those who’re most eager to receive all that God has for them- if I know I’m poor, then I want all that God has for me… and I’ll grow in faith etc… the kingdom of heaven becomes clearer in my life and my actions… Those spiritual resources being the basic disciplines of the Christian life- intimacy with God, worship of God, sharing the love of God in the world…

 

Intimacy through personal prayer, fasting, Bible study

 

Worship through corporate acts, glorifying God through our lives, putting God first

 

Sharing God’s love through practical action, through being with people, through standing against injustice, through sharing our personal stories of God…

 

Blessed are the poor in spirit- does that mean I should avoid those things so that God will bless me? No- when we realise we are poor, we’re open to receive… God blesses us when we realise we have held back from a real, close relationship with him. God blesses us when we worship fully in all our lives. God blesses us when we give all we have… we receive things we never hoped for.

 

By raising the bar, Jesus isn’t making a relationship with God even more exclusive than the Pharisees or the religious authorities he so often clashed with. No- he’s making it clear how impossible it is for us on our own, and promising that God will help us to reach those heights- so let us mourn instead of feeling a bit sorry, lets humbly recognise our own spiritual poverty, lets desire a right relationship with God as if it was water in the desert, lets offer mercy when it sticks in our throat, lets be willing to step into a conflict and create peace, lets be persecuted for our faith… because Jesus promises that we will not be let down by God when we do.

 

Oh, and I was very well behaved- the idea of including the sermon on the mount scene from Monty Python’s the life of Brian was very tempting… but I didn’t. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, or just want to see it again, here it is:

E100- over halfway, and tempted to give up…

In long-distance running there is a phrase ‘hitting the wall’. Its when you get to a certain point where you just don’t see how you can continue. Your legs are lead (not jelly- that was a few miles back), your tank is empty and you just want to curl up on the floor, close your eyes and for it all to be over.

Well-trained runners know its going to happen and have techniques for getting through that stage. They might be able to go further before it happens, and it might not be so terrifying… but its still out there.

This week, in the long distance Bible Challenge of the E100, we’ve passed the halfway mark- we’ve gone from Old to New Testament… for some it might feel that its an easier ride now (at least in terms of getting your heads round it), but for others who’ve struggled through Proverbs, the prophets, Kings and Exodus there may be a sense of ‘what? we’re only halfway?’

Interestingly, today’s passage from Matthew 3 talks about the baptism of Jesus, and then his time in the desert… from the highs of a close encounter with God to the time of temptation and difficulty… When you’ve made a commitment to do something, or just started out, there may be a first flush of enthusiasm but what keeps you going when that fades? How do we keep committed for the longer term? Talking about discipline and routine is helpful in once sense, but it can also allow us to forget that reading the Bible is part of our relationship- if we’re following Jesus we’re not just in a training regime.

For me its always about remembering the big ‘why’… why do i pray? why do I read the Bible? why do i live as a Christian? because of God’s love for me, my love for God- because of the relationship rather than the specifics… just as in my relationships with people I may meet them in different places and share life differently with them over time, so my relationship with God is growing and dynamic because I am a living creature.