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.

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Prayer- the relationship at the heart of everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

How should we pray? Or, ‘How shouldn’t we pray?’

When you pray, pray like this… Jesus told his followers; and then proceeded to break most of the rules that they’d been brought up with for prayer…

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When you pray, address the God of all creation as you would your own father- with that level of love and intimacy… (in another passage Jesus says to his friends that they can call God ‘daddy’ when they pray…)

When you pray, remember also that God is the Lord of all things, sovereign in heaven, and that you are asking his rule on earth to grow through your prayers.

When you pray, remember to include your own life- the simple things like bread, the things you’ve done wrong and those who’ve wronged you… the Lord God knows and cares about such things.

When you pray, ask for help in the things you’ll face, deliverance from the challenges that will come against you.

When you pray, expect that God will hear, and will answer, and will do so because of his love for you rather than your amazing prayers or righteousness.

When you pray, don’t be all ‘ooh, look at me’, you might head off into the shed, or go for a walk, or pray in church… but don’t hog the spotlight and make it all about you- those prayers won’t be answered.

When you pray, put time into it- quality time, just you and the Father, but if something comes up that you need to do- healing or serving others, don’t turn them away for your prayertime… that’s that whole overholy thing.

Oh, and as for how to pray, which words to use in particular, or whether to pray out loud, the importance of tongues, formal liturgy, whether you can smile while praying… Jesus didn’t say a word about any of them.

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.

Still remembering…

Last week we held various remembrance services and events- in a local care home, in a primary school, in both our churches on the 11th itself and on Sunday. We don’t glorify war, or at least I sincerely hope we don’t, but we focus on the loss and sacrifices made by many in the wars fought in the last 100 years, and those suffering today.

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We used this introductory prayer, which a friend posted on Facebook…

Every week we gather in our church to worship God, and during the week we go out to serve him in our community. Through the year our feasts and festivals provide times when we invite others to draw closer to God as we celebrate the birth of Christ, his death and resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Today, however, is no feast day. It is not a celebration. It is a day when we, in our church, as part of our worship, serve our community simply by remembering all that has been suffered, all that has been lost, all that humanity has done and still does to itself. And we pray. We pray that the memories of war will one day fade into the past and that we will live in peace with our neighbours. But for now, we cannot forget, for that peace is but a dream and a hope that we have yet to bring to life.

Lest We Forget.  War is not just a distant memory. Our world is tragically far from being at peace. In the last week alone 95 civilians have died in Afghanistan. Many of those deaths, including women and children, caused by US air strikes. Lest we forget.
The siege of Aleppo continues. 250,000 civilians are desperately trying to survive bombs, starvation and disease. Food prices have soared, clean drinking water is hard to find, fighting continues and Russian bombs are still falling. Lest we forget that Syria is still at war. And the battle against ISIL continues in Iraq too. Lest we forget.
In the world’s youngest nation, South Sudan, ongoing violence has led to over 1 million refugees fleeing the country. Lest we forget.
Lest we forget Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Palestine and other nations where civil unrest, violence, man-made humanitarian crisis and rape affect countless civilians everyday. So yes, let’s remember those who fell serving our nation. Let’s remember those who gave their lives for us, and let’s remember those who continue to risk their lives in our armed forces. But lest we forget that war is far from a distant memory. Lest we forget that today many ordinary women, children and men, not too dissimilar to you or I, fear for their lives. Sadly, for them, war is very real today. Lest we forget them.

And here’s the talk I gave at one of our churches- which was to a mixed congregation including 40+ young people from our beavers, cubs, scouts & explorers…

If you were at the hut opening last Saturday you might have heard me mention the virtues that the scouting and our national flag stand for- gentleness, joy, peace, goodness, patience, faithfulness, self-control, kindness, and love; and we prayed that the young people and leaders involved with our village scout group would grow in them. In the Bible those parts of our character are called ‘fruit of the Spirit’- when someone is following God those things will be there, just like pears growing on pear trees, or grapes on a vine. The passage that Ellen and Emily just read comes from a place where Jesus makes just that comparison- if you’re following me, you’re like branches that are part of the vine- you will grow and fruit will grow on you- and then he goes on- that fruit will be love. And the ultimate demonstration of love for another person is being willing to give your life for them- as Jesus did for not only his followers and friends then, but through his death on the cross for all who would follow him and be known as his friends. Today we remember those who were willing to give their all for those they love, and we remember also those who’s lives were taken from them- the victims of bomb and gas and shell that target the innocent, the old and the young; those captured who died in concentration camps, those who died, on every side of conflict. We remember them, and we pray that we will learn to love peace.

When you’re at Beavers, Cubs, Scouts, or in any group pretty much- at home or in work, at church or playing sport, there are rules- the things that are written down or you’re told about and they tell you what to do- stand now, say this, try to kick the ball there… and there are values- the things that are often not written down- and they lead to ways of behaving too- good sportsmanship, looking out for the younger children, welcoming visitors… When I learned to climb years ago, the first thing we were taught were the rules- what to say to the person holding the rope, how to tie the knots that would keep you safe etc… but no one ever spent time telling me that you also checked out how other people were doing, gave any help needed, warned everyone about falling stones or other dangers… those were the things you just picked up, usually from someone looking out for you… gradually you don’t need anyone to remind you of the ‘obvious rules’- they just happen, and the other ones too- they become part of who you are. But at the start, you, me, we, we all need some instructions… and the easier they are to learn the better-

Jesus keeps it really simple for his disciples here- they’re one and the same- love each other. It’s the command that is at the heart of the Christian faith, and it’s the thing that all Christians are to do- love the people around you… By obeying that command we will be able to live the life that Jesus calls us to, and the fruit of that love will obvious to those around us, and, well, when you boil it down to that, when you really think about it, its not a difficult choice- Love- with kindness, care, consideration of others (which is way better than tolerance of others!), being happy for others etc… or ‘not-Love’- with well, whatever you get when there is no love… For most of us the difficulty comes in working out that it really is that simple (yes, it is), that there aren’t any catches (no, there aren’t) and in actually doing in our lives… that is the hard one. But you never get that one sorted unless you start. When I became a Christian, on an outdoors activity holiday at the age of 13, (in fact, it was because I loved hiking and climbing that I was there at all) it was really easy at first- I could manage praying, reading my Bible, learning and singing songs that praised God, being pretty good- and then I went home at the end of the week and I didn’t have a timetable, a team leader and a worship band living in my house- instead I had my mum and dad, my brother and my sister. And it was a lot harder. The Christian life is simple, but its not easy. A bit like climbing I guess- you just keep going up, and don’t fall off… It’s not just for kids, in fact you could say its not for kids- its too serious, but that would be like saying that you can’t learn to climb stairs or trees until you’re an adult… But life as a Christian has more meaning, more purpose and brings more joy than climbing or surfing or any other sport that I’ve done. It has risks- sure. But what doesn’t?

Anger, fear and #postrefracism well its #notinmyname

I’ve been lost for words at times since Friday morning, and those who know me well will know that is possibly the best thing that has come out of the referendum if you were a remain voter.

I am shocked by the result, deeply saddened that neither the remain or leave campaign seem to have had a plan for what they would do in the event of a narrow leave vote, upset by the finger pointing and accusations made towards individuals who voted as their heads and hearts led them, and utterly appalled by the racist attacks and abuse that have been reported.

I’m white, British, middle-class, middle-aged and I’m not a racist. Anyone who lives in this country is welcome to live near me, to work with me, to build community with me. I don’t care which football team, which religion or which political party you support. But discriminating against someone based on their background, religion, sexuality or skin colour is wrong- so how do I build community with those who disagree with me about that? If I’m supposed to be tolerant and respectful of others, does that mean I have to tolerate and respect the abuse of people simply because they have a different native language?

The first thing to do is recognise that racial abuse is happening, and its happening a lot more since the referendum than before. That is just reality. This is not about refugees being welcome or not, this is people who’ve lived in the UK for years, who’re citizens and residents, holidaymakers and tourists. People living in their home towns are experiencing racial abuse that they weren’t experiencing last week, last month or last year.

The second thing I’m doing is reassuring everyone I know that I welcome them- that they are safe with me. I’m not pretending to be Superman, but I’m not claiming to be from a race of Supermen (or Ubermensch, if we’re still allowed to use foreign words after last week). Racism, when it happens, is not something I support, approve of or agree with- it is not done in my name.

I’m still trying to work out what step 3 is, and would be grateful of advice. In trying to work it out I’m mulling over whether reconciliation is actually the way forwards, or whether we need to go into this- do we need a bandage or surgery at this point?

A friend of mine blogged this today on shinyheadedprophet here– its really worth reading. In the meantime I hope and pray that you don’t experience any abuse, and that you’re able to reduce the levels of fear and anger in those around you.

I have not blogged for a while … and not really said much publicly about Thursdays elections.

It seems argument after argument is still coming on social media. I, along with many others, was indirectly told to stop posting stuff in a generic ‘stop whinging’ type post and grow up … only to then receive in my news feed from the same ‘stop whinging’ people post after post of silly stuff like ‘if England lose the match on Monday night can we play again if we don’t like the result’.

So remainers are not allowed to whinge, but outers can post ridiculing posts. Why draw attention to this … ?
Someone recently, well on the actual morning of the vote result, reminded me that I am a priest and that I needed to be about reconciliation. I also had scripture quoted at me but no response when I gave counter scripture showing ‘anger’ was ok, particularly righteous anger.

I do believe the country needs reconciliation … and I do believe as a priest I should help that in my community … but at the moment I can not.
At the moment I am still angry …. not at those who voted out because we are in a  democracy and we all have a  right to opinion and are free to vote as we choose.
I am angry over how people are being treated.

On Friday I spoke to three dear friends who were crying over the vote. Crying because  this vote has dramatically changed their lives.
I am angry because I know of teachers who have had to comfort children in their classes who have heard that they are no longer welcome here in the UK.
I am angry over how the vote has been an excuse to gang up on individuals who are trying to cause change for the better.
I am angry over the countless stories of violence towards people in this country since the vote outlined here.
I am angry because decent humans who felt this was their home last week now feel homeless, unwanted and scared.
I am angry … and that is ok for the time being!
Please stop telling me to be involved in reconciliation … that will come … but first …something more needs to happen.

Before reconciliation these things, the divisions we have tried to ignore, our opinions …. everything we value about our lives and how we live together as decent human beings needs to be talked about. Things need to be expressed and heard.

I could ramble but my now retired Suffragen Bishop (when I was in Rochester Diocese) , Bishop Brian, writes so much better here …. a great article from an amazing man and one that we should read and take to heart of we really want to move forward.

The team just got bigger- if they want in, they’re in…

In chapter 9 of Mark’s Gospel, we get some of the most misquoted words of Jesus that we’ll find anywhere… the whole ‘if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out’ bit has been used and abused by all sorts of people, particularly grisly monsters in the horror genre (of these, Judge Dredd’s encounter with the Sisters of Death in the 2000AD saga Dead Man/Necropolis has to rank highest for me, but then I’m British and was growing up in the 1980’s, and that has nothing to do with today, so I’m not going to post a link here to the wikipedia article on them).

Alongside this passage, we had the final part of James’ letter to consider in our morning worship… James is a blunt, challenging piece of writing, so what would he have to say about prayer?

Anyway, if you read these two passages, Mark 9.38-50 and James 5.13-20 you’ll probably have many questions that aren’t addressed in the text below, but here goes:

In this passage from Mark’s Gospel Jesus is giving some clear commands to his disciples, in response to John’s genuine question about someone outside their group who seems to be using Jesus’ authority… He’s not one of us, should that be allowed?

Do not stop him- be united with those outside your immediate group

Do not tell him what to do- be supportive of those who do things differently

Jesus then goes on to warn the disciples about the risks they face- this is spiritual warfare and there will be casualties… in your teaching of little ones- whether young in age or faith… be careful to teach them all they need and not shirk from the task… in your personal holiness- don’t lie to yourself, don’t let your left hand undo all the good that your right hand does… most of us would agree that Jesus is, in this point, speaking figuratively rather than literally… but we actually find it hard enough to even listen at that level- what behaviour do we willingly change because we know it damages our relationship with God? Answer- not much

And then this section closes with a reminder of where this started- Be at peace with one another- harking back both to the question that started this off, and also the preceding passage where the disciples argue about who is the greatest…

But why? What is the point of all these things?

James (who may have been one of the 12 and if so was the one who had serious issues with jockeying for position) reminds us in the closing verse of his letter- whoever turns a sinner back to God saves him from death… We need to be getting our priorities straight…

We’re not in disagreement for the sake of arguing- church isn’t a debating society

We’re not in unity for the sake of a quiet life- church isn’t about uniformity or ticking the boxes

We’re in the business of making a difference- miracles, healings, transformed lives all those happen, not every day but prayers in faith have power… relationships amongst us and with others… prayer for others, with others…

The purpose of the church is to make known in the world the glory and power of God, that the world might hear, understand and be saved…

We can be in unity doing that; we can be in disagreement about how to do that; but we are to do that… if we, in this village, want to make God’s love known to the members of the community, we need to accept that we will disagree, but to know that whoever is not against us is for us- the Methodist church is for us, the Gospel Hall is for us, residents in the village who worship in Umberleigh, Barnstaple, Torrington or wherever else… if they are part of God’s church, then they are for us. And our disagreements come secondary to our unity.

So how to be in unity- Prayer is the first and greatest way. If I ask you to pray for me, then I trust you. If you ask me to pray for you, likewise. If we pray together for our neighbours and the village, then we trust each other… and so on. The first and greatest thing we can do, is to pray together for our community. The second Saturday of each month we gather to pray here at 9.30. If that’s no use to you, the church is open every day, all day- gather at a time that suits you. If you’d rather pray elsewhere, do so, if you like to pray during the week in the context of worship, come to the joint prayer and communion service each Thursday morning… there is no right time of the day, no special location… just pray. When we pray for things that we’re excited about, when we pray for things we’re not so sure about, that intentional bringing a situation and the people before God… it brings us closer together.

Secondly- to remember our calling. We exist for the sake of the world. Not for the sake of the church. This building was not built for us to rest in, but for the world to be rescued by- over the years many churches have become more like clubs, museums and ? but we should rather think of ourselves as lifeboat stations, fuelling stops and hospitals…

Hospitals- to care for the vulnerable, those who need healing…

Fuelling stations- to prepare for the journey, a top up or a refill…

Lifeboat stations- if we had to pick just one… the purpose of the church is to rescue those who are in peril… everything else flows from that, everything serves that purpose… our discussions about worship styles, preferred seating options- the disciples talking about who was the greatest or whether anyone else could heal in Jesus’ name… we have to keep our priorities as our priorities.

The whole lifeboats thing has been significant for me over the last few years- since spending some time with the folks at St Andrew’s church in Chorleywood I’ve found it a recurring and powerful image. If your situation is far from the sea, then it may not resonate with you, but I wonder what would?

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.

Jesus on tour… #stillconfusedaudience

Last Sunday I preached a slightly rambling version of this text, having conducted a wedding the day before (weirdly the most tiring thing I do in my job…) and generally feeling slightly odd… apparently the last 5 minutes of the talk were really good, so you may want to fast forward the audio from our website or skip a few paragraphs… anyway, from chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel…

Jesus’ preaching tour continues, and at this point he ask his disciples for some feedback- who do people say I am? And the answers they give are quite revealing-

John the Baptist, who we all know is dead, but somehow people aren’t paying attention to what they know is true…

Elijah (or another one of the prophets)…

Interestingly, all of those were people who came to draw people towards God and also to speak God’s words to people… so the crowds have got something right- they know Jesus isn’t just a teacher and a wise man (which if you were to conduct the same survey in Barnstaple today would be the most widely offered responses by folks in town).

But, its as if they’re so close, but just missing out- there was an expectation that Elijah might return as a forerunner to the messiah, and John had claimed to be doing just that… and yet they think Jesus is also fitting into that mould-  why is that? Maybe its because its easier that way- its ok to get excited about something that is on its way- you can look forward to it and get ready for it, but until it gets happens you can pretty much carry on as you were… the messiah is going to come YES!, the messiah is on the way YES!, the messiah is coming YES! But in between whiles nothing has to change. The messiah has arrived and is in the next village- that requires a shift in thinking, a shift that many people weren’t ready for. And many still aren’t.

But not Peter- You are the Christ, which is the greek translation of messiah. You are the anointed one of God who comes to save. And you’re also challenging people and changing things, and while some may not have been happy with that, Peter was.

As Christians we have to acknowledge that we have changed- that is what it means to be baptised and live in the light of our faith- we’ve been forgiven for our sins and brought to new life- it doesn’t matter when it happened or how slowly it happened, but we have been changed by God. If we have always been a Christian for as long as we can remember, then it can be really hard to understand this, but it is the basis of our faith.

Peter accepted that, he’d seen enough of Jesus, and was able to say ‘you are the messiah’.

But, and this is really important for us to hear- Peter still messed up. And Jesus didn’t just say ‘its ok, you had one moment where you got it, that’ll do fine’. No- he rebuked him, and then called him to come further along the road- further into the life of following Jesus, of discipleship.  If we’re going to be Christians, it involves change- not just once but again and again- because it involves growth- growing in the knowledge of God’s love for us, growing in love for the world, growing in compassion and in the gifts that God has given us- both the natural talents that we have and the spiritual gifts that the Spirit brings…

The difficulty of change- its painful but essential to accept that if, like the disciples, we’re going to change, we have to have come to the realisation that we are spiritually hard of hearing and short sighted… if God’s desire is to change us and ours is to remain the same, its probably not that God has a mistaken view of us or an overblown idea of our potential… This is for all of us- there’s no super holiness exam… everyone who is a Christian is called to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Jesus.

To deny ourself is to put God first- to say that his will, his word has the final say in the decisions we make, rather than the things we see on adverts or read in papers.

To take up our cross is to recognise that those decisions will have an impact and they may cause us to suffer, to be rejected by others.

But we follow Jesus- to remember that when we do this we are following the one who has saved us and changed us and has promised to be with us and offers us life eternal.

This life of following Jesus starts with us, just us, and him. Just the same as it was in the beginning. A few people working out what it means to follow Jesus and committing to that path, encouraging and helping one another- that’s all we mean when we talk of mentoring…

And the single most important thing we need, the greatest thing we have, the thing we see Jesus and the early church doing throughout the New Testament, is prayer. That’s why we pray so much when we’re gathered together in worship- because it is important. But we don’t just pray using the words of our learned prayers. Sometimes we pray in silence, and our thoughts and the prayers of our hearts are guided by and inspired by the world around us- that’s what we’ll be doing this evening, if you can join us. Sometimes we pray out loud in our own words- not because they’re any better, but because they are from our own heart. Sometimes we pray with others to be encouraged and held accountable (that’s Thursday morning each week here in the church) and sometimes we pray our prayers in solitude- whether it’s the Lord’s Prayer at noon or the daily office of Morning or Evening Prayer. Sometimes it’s a putting aside a chunk of time- going to the House of Prayer this week or during our prayer days, sometimes it’s a fleeting prayer, fired like an arrow… We don’t always get the answer we want to those prayers- God hears and responds, but doesn’t obedient to us… we’re obedient to him in our prayers and our lives.

But its prayer, however we do it, that will help us to stand, like Peter and say ‘you are the Christ’, to give up what we have for the what we will receive…

People may wonder how we Christians know that prayer works… and one answer I’ve heard is that if prayer doesn’t work, then there is nothing to lose by trying it… try praying consistently about something that is of importance to you, every day, for a month, and honestly ask yourself at the end whether anything has happened. And whether it is in you, in others, or in the world, I believe that you will find that your prayer will be answered. You may want to pray about the question that Jesus asked- Who are you Jesus? I want to know who you are… you may want to pray about what happened next ‘Help me to have in mind the things of God’… you may be struggling with following Jesus instead of the values of the world- help me to follow you… you may have forgotten your faith and what it once meant to you, and need that reassurance and forgiveness… help me to know I’m forgiven…

God’s desire is for you to come deeper into relationship with him, for us to grow as a church both in depth and in strength, and the way that he calls us to do that is through prayer.

So let’s pray now.