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.

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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.

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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.

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.

I believe, help my unbelief

Last Sunday we continued our series of services where we’re exploring different aspects of what it means to worship and be part of a church- we also welcomed a lovely little girl into our church family at a baptism along with many of her family and friends who came to join in. The service contained probably more chaos and screaming than most, and at times felt close to the edge, but there was a lot of realistic honesty going on!

In the midst of it all, I was speaking about what it means to believe, based on the account in Mark’s Gospel of a father who seeks healing for his son, which you can find in Mark 9.17-24.  Here’s my script, but for what I actually said, you’ll need, as always, to listen to the podcast

Wouldn’t we all like to know for sure? About, everything… I’d like to know that my cooking will turn out tasty, I’d like to know that my gardening efforts will come to fruit- literally… I’d like to know that my kids will turn out alright, that my parents will stay well… I’d like to know. But we don’t. And yet, we cook food and eat it, we plant seed and water the soil, we parent, we let our own parents off the leash… (bag with cookery book, potato, photo of Sam, climbing shoes, battery, phone).

This week, we’re continuing our series of summer services exploring the different parts of our worship, and today we’re thinking about what it means to believe. Each week, in one way or another, we say ‘we believe’- some Sundays its in the words of a prayer called the Nicene Creed- written by Christians who met in Nicaea, in Turkey, almost 1700yrs ago; other weeks we use different prayers taken from the Bible, or we use a form of question and answer- the service leader asks a series of questions, and we reply ‘I believe and trust in him’…

In life we want to know what lies ahead, but actually we’re used to not knowing for sure- we’re used to living with a bit of uncertainty and a bit of faith… Every one of us, I guarantee you, has some faith. If you’ve sat down on a chair, driven in a car, switched on a light, cooked to a recipe or sent a text message, then you have faith. If you have ever flown in a plane, been a passenger on a train or a boat, then you’ve had faith in someone you have never met and probably never seen… Some of us take this further than others- jumping out of a perfectly good plane, diving off a bridge, walking off a cliff- trusting in someone else’s ability to pack a parachute, sort a bungee or arrange an abseil. With all of these things we are used to believing and trusting. And in each one of them we don’t just believe with our heads- knowing the facts, that someone else just did it fine, that it worked last time etc, we trust with our hearts, our feet- we do something. We don’t only abseil with our heads; we don’t only put one foot onto the train- we do it completely, or not at all. We’re at liberty to make that decision- the train, boat, plane will go without us, we don’t have to follow a recipe or sit down… but the result will depend on our decision.

In faith we find ourselves in the same situation. Do we believe and trust in the promises of God? Do we believe that God exists, that he sent his Son Jesus to solve the problems of our mess (which we call sin) and the things we do (the little things we do and the big things we see on the news), that Jesus took the blame for all those things, and that he has the power and authority to declare that we are free if we want to be. If you’ve ever been scared of something you’ll know this situation- part of your mind is saying one thing, another is saying the opposite- you want to listen to both. You might know which is right, but it’s hard to do it. Sometimes we have to be broken, at our wits end, before we’ll ask for help or make the decision- like the father in our Bible passage. Many of us know what it’s like to be in this sort of situation, worried sick but not sure what to do…

And Jesus speaks into this paralysis, telling the father to have faith- I believe, help me overcome my unbelief… Just as a coach helps us to achieve what we could not previously do by ourselves, or an instructor guides us through the seemingly impossible until we find ourselves parachuting, climbing or whatever, Jesus helps this father’s unbelief… and his son is healed. In a few weeks time we’re going to look particularly at prayer, both for the world and for each other, and we’ll be thinking then about how and why it may feel that our prayers aren’t always answered, but at this point I want to offer something I recently read- if we pray and have faith, we see prayers answered and some are healed… if we do not pray and have faith, we do not see prayers answered and no one is healed, so what should we do?

[It’s really helpful to be thinking about this today, as we welcome a new member into God’s family and welcome all her family and friends to be with us for her baptism- when an adult is baptised we celebrate with them that they have taken that step of faith, and have decided to respond to God’s love and His call on their lives by saying ‘yes, I believe’… For all those young children and babies who’re baptised here and in other churches, we celebrate the beginning of a journey- the first steps taken by a family as they say, ‘yes, this is the direction we’re heading in’… its not the destination but the start. Each of us who’ve been baptised need to keep on making that commitment each day to believe and have faith.]

For all of us ‘help my unbelief’ is still true… I can recall a time when I was climbing in Spain, a good height up a cliff, when I suddenly found myself stuck- for around 20 minutes. I couldn’t move. The fact that I’d already climbed 50ft up a cliff with no problem didn’t make any difference at that moment, that I’d been climbing all day, that I was on a climbing holiday and that I loved climbing… I was stuck. We have those times when we’re stuck. In our faith as well. And what do we do at those times? For me I had to listen to the right voices- the friend on the ground, the voice of my own experience, and not the ones that were telling what might go wrong. Ok, when you’re climbing and it goes wrong it’s painful, but in terms of faith, what is the worst that can happen? If we’re wrong and this is all there is to it, there’s no one going to be laughing at us!

The reality is quite simple- often we know the truth, and yet we find it hard to accept it and act on it. Just like I had to get over my fear and make that next step when climbing, so I came to a point where my faith in God outweighed the questions I had, and I said ‘yes, I believe’. No one can force us, we have to come to that place ourselves. And once we do, we find ourselves looking back and saying ‘was it really as easy as that?’ Coming to faith, making that step doesn’t smooth out the rest of the path- there may still be cliffs to climb, but it gives hope in the destination, companions on the way and the support of God when our strength fails us… I believe, help my unbelief.

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Playing catch up part 1- Following my leader

Posting a few of the talks that have been delivered in our churches this month but somehow haven’t made their way onto the blog, here’s the notes from an all-ages service right at the start of July… podcast still available on the website, but here is the text, based on Acts chapter 22:

Paul was following one set of people, then something happened- he met with Jesus, and Ananias came and prayed for him, and then his life changed direction. He had a new path, he was listening to a different voice. He had a decision to make, and he made it. It changed his life, but he would say it was worth it. If you’re not sure, read some of his writings in the New Testament- his letters to the churches in Ephesus or Galatia for starters.

In his life as Christian Paul was encouraged by various people, chief among them was Barnabas who took him under his wing for some time, but the first, the one who got him started, was Ananias- who if you look to his version of events in Acts 9, you’ll see is distinctly nervous about their meeting- almost suggesting that God might be mistaken when he has his vision- its not ‘I must be mad!’ but ‘are you sure?’

So, who has encouraged you in your Christian journey- wherever you are- was it a Sunday School teacher, a member of your family, someone who showed you unexpected grace, or someone you’ve never met?

And what parts of the Christian faith do you love most? Some of us are worshippers, others love to pray. You may prefer to act- to be God’s hands in the world, or a conversation with a friend about faith may be your thing?

The passage we just heard is Paul’s final speech as a free man- if you’re reading through Acts with us at the moment you’ll know he’s already faced threats and persecution in various places. He’s about to be arrested, and put on trial in different courts for his faith in Jesus. Paul, of course, pleads guilty to that faith, but argues whether he should be imprisoned for believing and proclaiming something so important and true…

Ok- if you were being charged with the crime of believing in Jesus, what would be the key piece of evidence against you? How would the prosecution find you guilty?

Last thing- we’ve thought of the importance of being encouraged by others to grow in our faith, and of those things about the Christian faith that we connect with most, but we need to remember, that the Christian faith is so much more than a support group, or a hobby, but it has at its heart Jesus, the Son of God, who died and rose again…

Following The Leader

Some helpful thoughts from a wise colleague…

This week my colleagues have been putting some really good things online, and I’m happy to share them- this comes from Bishop Sarah-

This week in Manchester we have unfortunately seen the NHS and emergency services at its best and Lucy Easthope in the Guardian online talks about how the emergency response of Monday night has been planned over many years. The planning has included “training people to sit patiently with a mother and ask her gently for permission to […]

via We need to admit how much this hurts — Contemplation in the shadow of a carpark

If I’m in a corner, which way will I jump?

Image result for which way to jump

I like to think I have integrity- I know how to spell it, I know what it means (or at least I think so), and someone once said they thought I had it… but I don’t know for sure.

There are times when I fade under pressure, keep quiet to blend in, don’t say things for fear of upsetting folk… and in your heart you tell yourself its wisdom, its building relationship for future opportunities, and all that, but there’s another voice saying ‘but were you true to yourself- do you still have integrity?’

I’m not talking about major things (like, say, telling everyone you won’t call a general election and then changing your mind (sorry, no more politics for the rest of the post), or cheating on taxes, lying to friends or whatever), but the difficulty I face with little things makes me worry- what if I ever faced a biggie… how would I respond?

Acts chapter 4, if you’re not familiar with it, has Peter and John (that’s Peter the guy who denied knowing who Jesus was, remember?), pulled in front of the religious authorities (that’s the guys who got Jesus killed, remember?) and told in no uncertain terms to shut up talking about Jesus… or else. And their reply is pure gold- ‘Judge for yourselves, whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.’  in other words ‘You guys, the religious leaders, help us out here- what would you do? We can’t help ourselves’… Boom! Take that Mr High Priest and your assorted cronies… But the big question it raises for me is, how would I speak in their shoes? Would I be like them, confidently taking on the authorities because I know I have God in my corner? Or would I back away, intending to lay low and spread the message subtly, or at least telling myself that? I know what I’d like to do, and I hope I’d be able to, but…

The truth is, I just don’t know. And part of me is afraid to find out.

(If you’ve reached this point and are still wondering about the image at the top- it has nothing to do with Peter, John, the book of Acts, or integrity in particular, but is the album cover of a band I quite liked in the early 90’s- I saw them supporting the Charlatans when I was at school, and then a few years later on their final tour saw them again with a band called Oasis as their support act…)

Speaking strong words gently

I was about to post my talk from last Sunday today… but the thing about blogging is that you can, and should, respond to immediate things. So this morning the meeting I was at didn’t start on time, because we prayed. Not hugely surprising for Christians to pray at the start of a meeting, you might say, fair point, but we prayed for Manchester, the city where I used to live, and for all those affected by the attack there last night in which 22 people died. We also prayed for the places we haven’t heard about in the news today, for the unnamed and unknown. We prayed for the injured, the mourning, the scared, the security and medical personnel, and yes, we prayed for those who would attack children and young people. I’m not asking you to be impressed, I’m just saying we did something slightly different, because we needed to.

So, if its ok with you, just stop reading here for a few seconds, and pray (if you like) or think of (if you prefer to call it that), those affected by terror attacks at the moment. And if you’d like to, then plan to do something different as a result of your thoughts and prayers- whether its going to Manchester to help practically, or to be friendly to the next random call-centre person who phones you from an 0161 number in case they’ve been affected, or to make sure you don’t act in fear or hatred to someone who’s ethnically different from you…

(here’s the bit where you stop)

Thanks. You can carry on now, if you want to

And the other thing that struck me was that we carry on doing the same things as normal… we don’t give up… so here’s my sermon from last Sunday as normal…based on Acts chapter 17 when Paul visits Athens.

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Paul is at the Areopagus- summoned there by the citizens to present his case… I have wondered whether he was being given the opportunity to speak- a visiting speaker with interesting ideas, or the chance to defend himself- a stranger with some concerning  views- was this a pre-trial hearing or a preview of what he’d teach if given permission? The answer probably lies somewhere in between. Paul has explored the city, having visited Phillipi, Thessalonica and Berea, and has begun to debate with Jews, God-fearing Greeks and anyone in the marketplace who would listen… and so he’s been brought to the Areopagus- the meeting place, not quite such an important place as a few hundred years before when Athens was chief among the Greek cities, but still…

As we look at Paul’s message here, we can learn as much about how to speak of God from it as we can learn about God- and for us, this probably something we need to look at- the chances are, if you’ve been coming along to church for a while, you know some things about God- from our prayers, the creed, our Bible readings, our hymns… you know God is the righteous and holy judge, who forgives although he could condemn; you know God is the creator and sustainer of all things, who loves and takes joy in his creation, you know that God has given humanity a role within creation, and that Jesus has given Christians a role within humanity… though you may well say or think you know very little, if you sat down with a piece of paper and wrote down your thoughts on what is God like, you’d be surprised how much you’d put down. Paul’s message is very simple- there is a God who created the universe. He knows you. He sent Jesus to die for you.

But are we able to share that with others? I’m not asking for all the evangelists to stand up and wave, but rather, are we, all of us, able to share what we know and believe with others?

Many Christians might feel that they don’t know what to say, or that its not their place, or that it’s not appropriate.

Lets start with that last one- there are times when it isn’t appropriate, and there are times when it is. When someone asks you, as Paul was asked, what you believe about God, and how you’ve come to believe that, then they deserve an answer.

Secondly- ‘it’s not my place’- if not yours, then whose? If Paul had said, wait here while I sail back to Jerusalem and fetch Peter, that would have taken many months. He was the man on the spot, the one who was asked… We’re not all Paul- we don’t take off on missionary trips around the Mediterranean (though now I think about it like that…)- we don’t have his gifting etc. But lets remember that Paul was not only clueless about Jesus, he was for his early life totally wrong. When he discovered the truth he immediately began to tell others… Very often in life we are the person in the right place, at the right time, having the conversation, and no one else could be there. Yes, there are times when we can reasonably say ‘I think you should talk to…’ or ‘I think you’d be helped by coming on an Alpha/Start course’…

Lastly, ‘I don’t know what to say’. Here’s the bullseye. Lets have a look at this passage from Acts. First of all, before Paul even speaks, we read ‘I walked around, I saw…’  He observed and got to understand something of where he was- if you know someone, you’ll know how to talk to them, and when to, and also you’ll have listened to them. When Paul finally does speak, he gives an Old Testament type preach- God as creator, humanity as offspring of God- he’s making a connection with Greek ideas but also challenging their practices of worship at the same time…He doesn’t really mention Jesus until the end… its not that Paul doesn’t think Jesus is important- just read his epistles if you doubt that, but that he realises how far his listeners need to journey before they can hear him speak about Jesus. So Paul listens and understands. He has spoken with a few people, but here he has been asked to speak, and so he does. And when he speaks, he starts where his listeners are- with things they understand- the unknown god and their poets, and relates them to his understanding of God as revealed in his people’s writings… You know the people around you better than I do, you’re already in friendships with them- that’s why you’re the best people to share the gospel with them.

Sometimes when we talk with others about God and the Christian faith, they may fire off a cheap shot, or make a joke about something, and we can be fearful… we aren’t good at arguing our point, we don’t remember clever things. But we are, each of us, experts in one thing- ourselves. Our own lives and experiences. Often folks will tell you about the God they don’t believe in… and sometimes you’ll agree with them- I wouldn’t believe in a God like that… but can I tell about the God I do believe in, and how my life has been? When Paul speaks, elsewhere in Acts, to Jews and tells them of his experience on the road to Damascus, there is no logical argument to be made against him- its just a case of believing him or not. When you or I speak of our own story, our testimony about our faith, it is our experience, our response to God, that speaks. Often its not even the words themselves, but the spirit in which we say them, that speaks most strongly into people’s lives.

Most often, we’ll be having a conversation with someone, rather than making the sort of presentation that Paul is, but what Paul finds is that at the end of his speech people have varying responses- you may have read the following verse ‘after he said this some of them sneered, but some of them asked to hear more’… When we share our faith with others, they may not respond as we’d like them to, but they may….

And its that ‘maybe’ that needs to grow in our hearts- we need to be like that boy, desperately fearing rejection, but who plucks up courage to shyly ask a girl if she’d like to go for a walk. Like that artist who eventually puts a painting into an exhibition, or the singer who finally shares a song. It may not work out how we hope, but if we’re always too afraid of what might happen, then we’ll never find out if it will.

Borrowed wisdom

Sharing a post from my friend Ash Leighton Plom… further thoughts on Acts and yesterday’s talk will be posted tomorrow and in days to come, but I thought this was worth a read-

Today’s blog is from Martin Goss, Diocesan Environment Officer for Exeter:

 

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Five years ago the Diocese of Exeter submitted plans to construct six small-scale wind turbines on its land in three different parishes in north Devon.  These were part of an overall strategy for the Church of England in Devon to reduce its Greenhouse Gas carbon emissions.  In the event the planning applications were withdrawn amidst an ambience of acrimony and unpleasantness.

 

In retrospect, it was agreed the process had not been well handled and there were lessons to be learned.  However, the continuing legacy of the whole process was to release dubious forces of animosity and division which last to this day.

 

This pervasive ‘nastiness’ was, on the whole, invoked by people’s fear and uncertainty about the future, and therefore triggered a reaction which was fully self-motivated and self-protective.

 

I sense that the same kind of bitterness is now threatening to engulf us all as we head towards the 2017 General Election.  The country is painfully divided and frightened, and extreme reactions are magnified through the media, unsettling us all. Racism, xenophobia and cultural hostility are on the rise. Cynicism prevails and lies become acceptable. All this, and more, is extremely nasty – especially if you are on the receiving end.

 

This is not to say there should not be political challenge and cut and thrust debate, which are both fundamental parts of our evolving democracy.  But when the entire election seems to split people or communities and we are apparently possessed by a spirit of the ‘uncommon bad’, we need to ask deeper questions. Feeling bitter is not necessarily a healthy motivator for change.

 

SCREEN GRAB POPE FRANCIS TED.COM

Pope Francis, in his recent TED talk, speaks rather of the need for a ‘revolution of tenderness’. Love is the tenderness which starts in the heart and extends to the eyes, ears and hands to shape a different future. “Tenderness is being on the same level as the other” he said compassionately.

 

To politicians and decision makers he adds, “The more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people, and the more responsible you are for acting humbly. If you don’t, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the other”. Prospective Parliamentary Candidates please note!

 

Through public elections people of faith are called to remember that they are also citizens and therefore have responsibilities for both the local community and the wider society in which they live. We are invited to make choices that will have consequences not only for our civilisation now but also for the future. The decisions of politicians  today will determine life in this world for generations to come…

 

The media and others will pressurise us into voting for those who say they will deliver good things for us – actions which will enhance oursecurity or safety, policies which favour our communities and our households.

 

Yet deep at the heart of the Gospel is a message to be concerned and caring for the most vulnerable people in our world – those whose human growth is stunted by disease or poverty or oppression. All Christians have a moral duty to look beyond their own interests and speak up for justice and kindness in a broken world. For us there is a vision of a different kind of society where the gifts of all are included,  and the needs of all are met. Some of us recognise this as the Reign  of God, in which the first shall be last and the last shall be first; in which peaceful means of managing conflict are preferred to violence and war, in which strangers are welcomed; and in which people are enfolded in kind-heartedness at times of real uncertainty.

 

We therefore vote not only for ourselves but more for others, voting out of tenderness not bitterness.

 

‘Everything begins in mystique and ends in politique’ said spiritual writer Charles Péguy. So to speak up for the poor, the planet and the future are central actions that grow out of a prayerful life which may begin in the mystery of God but always ends in political action…

 

May these sentiments influence the choices we make more than the clamour of appealing to our selfishness, greed or fear. In the end we are judged not by how we feather our own nests by how we care for the other.

 

All best wishes – Martyn

 

The future of humankind is in the hands of the people who recognise the other as a ‘you’, and themselves as part of an ‘us’   (Pope Francis)

Life to the full- woop woop!

Last weekend was an odd one… Wonderful wife plus two other stars were taking the main service and my boss was coming to preach at later service… so I had the day off? Not quite, as we still had an early morning service, there was a worship group to play in (yay, got to play bass in church!), and still needed to lead worship… so a light morning’s work that lasted 6hrs, but definitely no complaints- a good day was had by all.

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The passage we were thinking about was from John’s Gospel, chapter 10, which contains one of my favourite verses- ‘I have come that you may have life to the full’- verse 10. I love it, its both challenging and inspirational… Hope you don’t mind sentimental cheesy pic of wonderful wife out on a walk later in the week- living life to the full.

Here’s what I said at our 8am service…

 Jesus has just healed a blind man, the religious authorities have been called to investigate and have ended up throwing the man out of the synagogue for being cheeky, Jesus then finds the man who recognises him not only as a prophet of God but accepts him as the saviour… a blind, ill-educated man gets in a flash what the ‘proper’ folk have been waiting for and can’t see right under their noses. Who is really blind here? He goes on, in the passage we heard, to talk about the importance of the answer we give to ‘who is Jesus?’ or ‘what authority does Jesus have?’… The idea of sheep knowing their master’s voice sounds at once alien and attractive to us- it’s a nice image but not one we know from our own experience. We might remember the record shop HMV with its iconic picture of the dog listening attentively to ‘his master’s voice’… we might recall how a child can be calmed by a word from a parent when no one else will do… but we need to know the cultural resonance that the image of a shepherd had for Jesus’ listeners- they’d been shepherds since, well, forever- Abraham was a shepherd, Jacob and his sons were shepherds when they went to Egypt, Moses was a shepherd, David was a shepherd, and throughout the Psalms we read of God as a shepherd…and on the night of Jesus’ birth shepherds were on the hills- the role of a shepherd, while maybe no longer such a respectable job, was still significant.

When Jesus says, there are those who enter by the gate and those who climb in another way it’s clear he is saying that there are some who should not be followed, and some who should be- the sheep know the difference. There’s a relationship here- the sheep know their shepherd by voice and the shepherd knows their sheep… the shepherd is thinking of them- again, a different context for us where sheep are primarily farmed for meat, historically their milk (and cheese) and wool would have been more important- you grew the flock to fill the land… a context, a way of life that is less centred around short term profit and more about longer term care… The image is of a leader who cares, who puts themselves out- what we might call a servant leader… this is who Jesus is… his authority doesn’t come from the volume of his voice, but from how he speaks… a shepherd who’s flock know him and trust him- as Jesus disciples followed him they came to trust him more and more- as we live our lives as Christians today we find there are times when it’s easy to trust, and times when it’s hard, times when we forget someone is guiding us, and times when we cling to him…

In life there are many things that we might say we follow- a football team, a hobby, a band, an artist, a political party… at various points in our life we’ve probably each done so- but there is one similarity that carries across all of those- although you can see them, and although following them has its rewards- I remember going to obscure gigs and seeing my heroes close up, those things that we enjoy to not love us the way we love them- the way that Jesus loves us. They do not know us- despite the clever algorithms and cookies on websites they don’t know us, they do not have that self-giving love that Christ spoke of and demonstrated throughout his life and in his death. He is in this, both the shepherd and the gate- the one calling us to follow, and the means by which we are able to cross over- he is our personal saviour and Lord AND the saviour of all creation who stands at the right hand of the Father.

For us, we’re called to be sheep- to follow our Lord where he leads us, and we’re called to be sheep that somehow look like the shepherd- you know the way that dogs and their owners have a likeness? Just as Jesus came and lived among us so we’re to be like him to those we meet… not trying to replace him, but pointing others towards him by our words and our actions- by our prayers and our work amongst those in need.

And the outcome of all of this? Not a life lived in a holy tower or a ghetto, but life lived to the full- including the things we love- those hobbies, that desire to see the world changed, that love of the outdoors and those people we care for… but a life that isn’t limited or constrained by them- a life with a perspective that reaches to eternity and includes the whole world as our neighbourhood.

So, wherever you find yourself, live life to the max- not in splendid isolation from the rigours of the world, not blindly denying the truth of what is around you or missing out on the beauty of the world for fear of getting bruised along the way, and do what you can to help others live more fully.

Cheers.