Monday, 27 March 2017

Follow God's heart

Sermon preached at a service of prayer following the marriage of Sarah and Vanessa Elliott-Hart.

I think that one of the mantras of 21st century western society is ‘follow your heart’. We are encouraged to chase our own dreams, live according to our own desires, define meaning in life according to our own emotions. It’s well intentioned in some ways – following your heart requires self-awareness, and that’s good, and it suggests a loving attitude, which is also good. But it’s also a profoundly selfish and self-centred way of being – it is a way of being that asks you to do what you want to do. It doesn’t reference anyone else. So it isn’t a loving way of being and it isn’t, despite what some people think, a recipe for a good relationship.

So I want to suggest a Christian variant of this mantra, which I hope will serve you better: ‘follow God’s heart’. God’s is a heart of love. A heart that loved the world so much that he sent his only son so that all who believe in him will not perish but will have eternal life. A heart that loves so much that the process of giving us eternal life meant willingly going to the brutality and humiliation of the cross. Jesus told us to love as he loves us – and that is a sacrificial, other centred, self-giving love. The complete opposite of what the world requires, but when you look at our heroes, it is what the world often admires – people like Edith Cavell, Mother Theresa of Calcutta or Truus Weissmuller-Meijer, a Dutch Christian who risked her life on multiple occasions to bring hundreds of Jewish children out of Europe to escape the death camps. These women followed God’s heart and lived sacrificially to show God’s love to others. Of course, most of us do not live in such difficult times or places, and are not called to do such large scale acts of heroism, but it doesn’t change the rule of life for Jesus’s followers: follow God’s heart.
photo by Sebastian Unrau.

How do we do this? How can we possibly know what is in God’s heart, how can we bring the song of our own hearts into tune with God’s heart song? The clue is in the psalm, 139, and especially in verse 23, which we all said as a refrain throughout the psalm: ‘search me out, O God, and know my heart’. Throughout this beautiful psalm we are reminded that God knows us, thoroughly, completely, intimately. The writer invites God to search him, using a verb – haqar – that suggests an in-depth, intimate exploration. We’re not asking God to give us a quick once-over. No, we are asking God to give us the spiritual, emotional and intellectual equivalent of a fingertip search. And he’s never going to stop looking at us, wherever we are; whatever we do; he will know every moment.

In verse 3 the writer says ‘even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely’. That’s an interesting thought for when you are sitting down to write a sermon! From the moment of our conception God knows everything of us and loves everything of us. If we choose to respond to this intimate knowledge of God, then it moves from a one-sided approach by our all knowing, all present, all powerful God and becomes a relationship in which we can be touched and changed by God, and in which we can come to know God too. Verse 17 reads ‘how deep are your counsels to me, O God’. I love another translation of these words: ‘how precious to me are your thoughts, O God’. Actually, I find that awesome. The creator of the universe is yet so intimate with me that, if I’m prepared to listen, I can hear his thoughts. I can hear God’s thoughts – his counsel, wisdom, guidance, for me and for others. That’s astonishing – who am I, who are you, who is anyone, to hear God?

The big risk in this rule of life, following God’s heart, is that God expects to change us. As he searches us he cleanses, purifies, improves, directs and redirects. And God’s thoughts are new every morning. Yes, in essence, in love, God does not change. But as humanity grows and changes, as we individuals grow and change, the rules and conditions around us change. We must listen very carefully to God to make sure we get it right. Some people say that certain things can’t change. If it says something in the bible, it is fixed, an unchanging rule. And yes, changing things from what the bible says is very risky. We have to listen hard, be absolutely certain that we are hearing God’s deep counsel, his precious thoughts- that we are following God’s heart and not our own. When Jesus and St Peter and St Paul were here on earth, the bible consisted of what we now call the Old Testament. It set out clear rules for who could be included in God’s people and how they had to live. The people of those times, who read this psalm, would never have dreamed of adding sour cream to a beef stew, or eating a prawn sandwich, or a bacon one, or getting a tattoo, or changing the rituals that identified you as God’s child. And yet we think nothing of any of those things because the Holy Spirit showed the early followers that things could and should change. Peter and Paul faced years of opposition and hassle from others who didn’t want to risk changing what they found in scripture, who didn’t hear God’s thoughts as he told them to include people who had been excluded, and to change in order to welcome them. Paul and Peter faced a lot of abuse and harassing from fellow Christians as they argued for change. But they did it anyway because they were following God’s heart. It took courage, determination and a lot of prayer, but we benefit from that today.

I believe we live in such challenging times of change today. God’s precious thoughts, his deep counsel, challenge the church to see and do things differently, more inclusively. In a way I’m an example of that change as an ordained woman. I’ve had to deal with a lot of opposition and unpleasantness and I’m sure I have plenty more ahead of me. I’m hopeful that if I’m ever blessed with grandchildren they will grow up seeing that women and men as equal leaders is completely normal and obviously God’s will for his people. But we aren’t there yet. And there is a long journey ahead in listening to God as he shows us how to follow his heart when it comes to sexuality and gender identity. You are in the early days of change. I believe and hope that a new way is coming for those who allow God to search us and change us, those of us who really mean it when we pray ‘search me out O God and know my heart’. And we need to be as courageous, determined and prayerful as Peter and Paul. We have to be sure of our ground, sure of what God is showing us, and ready to live it out despite the opposition of people who see God’s precious thoughts limited to what we find in scripture.

God asks us to follow his heart because he loves us and wants us to love in the same way. Vanessa and Sarah, in marriage that means being committed to being changed by God and by each other. Being committed to seeking together, listening together, changing together. In marriage what changes and affects one person always changes and affects the other person – and in a marriage in which both people follow God’s heart, both people are changed and affected by God, and both live together to bring that love not just to each other but to everyone they have contact with. God’s design for humanity makes us much stronger, much more able, when we live in community – two are a lot stronger and a lot more able than one person to bear God’s searching, to hear God’s precious thoughts and to follow God’s heart.

So that is my prayer and my request to you: let God know your hearts, and together, follow God’s heart.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Prayer for reconciliation

The Living Brook benefice is marking Lent with a series of talks on aspects of prayer. We began on Ash Wednesday with the theme of reconciliation.

 Good relationships depend on good communication. And good communication means both talking (or whatever variant of sharing information is being used) and listening. The talking should be clear, honest, unambiguous. The listening should be open hearted, focussed, and should be the more important priority. 
In our relationship with God, the relationship that is the most important of all relationships, we call that communication prayer. And prayer, as we all know, takes many forms, just as any kind of communication does. Our Lent course will touch on some of them, and give us the opportunity to look in greater depth at a few. We begin, since it is Ash Wednesday, with prayer for reconciliation.

You might know this phrase well, or be more familiar or comfortable with phrases like ‘confession’ or ‘prayers of penitence’. In one of the variants of the four or five parts of prayer, confession comes first, and generally that is the case in liturgies. That variant, incidentally is STAR – sorry, thank you, adore, request. It’s a sensible order for those conventional kinds of prayer. If communication is at the heart of relationship building, then when a relationship is damaged, two-way work on repairing that relationship is going to be needed before any other kind of communication is truly effective. Admission of fault, exploring what needs to be done to put things right, accepting the apology, actively forgiving, all are needed, often repeatedly.

In the modern church what was called the sacrament of confession is now called the sacrament of reconciliation, and that is a much more helpful way to see it. This kind of prayer is two way, as any prayer should be, and reconciliation as a name reminds us that it is about relationship and that God has a part to play. It isn’t only about being hauled before God to say sorry, but about approaching God with an awareness that our behaviour in so many ways impairs our relationships with him and with each other, and wanting to put that right, and to allow God to be a part of putting it right. 
Perhaps you can remember as a child being taught to say sorry by being stood in front of an adult and told ‘say sorry’. You may have been seething with resentment because the crime in question was actually committed by your little brother, or you’d been goaded into it. You didn’t feel sorry at all. At the other end of the scale, those of you brought up to go to the sacrament of confession may remember desperately trying to think of things you’d done wrong because you had to say something to Fr. John… Some of us find we are stuck with this approach to penitential prayer. It is a thing we do because we must, a hoop that must be jumped at the beginning of the service before we can get on with things. We know in our heads that it is important, but most of the time we’re saying the words without a great deal of thought, hearing the priest pronounce the absolution and moving on. The moment passes in the service so quickly that there is barely time to actually think about the things that
might have affected our relationships.

Ash Wednesday is one of those days that challenges us to think about confessional prayer – the prayer that seeks to restore our relationships – more deeply. It is a day
when we make a point of acknowledging that in so many ways we do not give God
the attention we should, we put ourselves before God and before others. We do all sin, and the things we do affect others, whether we like to admit it or not.
There is a traditional story called 'the wise thief' (which can be found in Wisdom Stories by Margaret Silf), in which a thief persuades the King and his ministers to let him go by demonstrating that every one of them has done something dishonest at some time in their lives. The story includes admissions of fiddling a national treasury and of adultery. For most of us, our sins are not as dramatic as the ones in the story, but they are there, nevertheless, every time we cherish a selfish thought or harbour a grudge or take out our bad moods on some innocent person who crosses our path at the wrong moment. Richard Coles writes this about prayer:
‘In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches us how to pray. Go to your room, he says, and shut the door, and there pray to your Father who is in secret. In all of us there is such a room, with a tightly closed door, windowless. We want it that way, because in it we keep those things that shame us, the humiliations we endure, our foolishness and cruelty, the very worst of us. That’s exactly where Jesus wants to meet us, and we dread it because his grace falls on us like a judgement; but in his revealing light we find not a misbegotten horror, like the Monster of Glamis, we find ourselves, nothing special, nothing dreadful.’

The prayer of reconciliation then, is prayer that allows Jesus to see us as we really
are, and to address ourselves. To seek to change and to live in his ways more closely. To keep on trying to do better. The wonder is that Jesus helps us to make this
change. His forgiveness is greater than words. His forgiveness teaches us how in turn to forgive. Reconciliation is not only about acknowledging when I have wronged, but dealing generously with this who have wronged. Henri Nouwen puts it this way:
‘God’s forgiveness is unconditional; it comes from a heart that does not demand anything for itself, a heart that is completely empty of self-seeking. It is this divine forgiveness that I have to practice in my daily life. It calls me to keep stepping over all my arguments that say forgiveness is unwise, unhealthy, and impractical. It challenges me to step over all my needs for gratitude and compliments. Finally, it demands of me that I step over that wounded part of my heart that feels hurt and wronged and that wants to stay in control and put a few conditions between me and the one whom I am asked to forgive.’

I think a lot of us learn as small children about those conditions that we expect to be there. So many of us as small children were told – not necessarily in so many words, but by example – that forgiveness involved having to go through an action. I will forgive you for throwing mud around if you clean my car; I will forgive you for breaking that ornament if you sit absolutely still in the chair for the rest of the evening. Even the stories of the confessional seem to have conditions attached – go and say the Lord’s Prayer and six Hail Mary’s. We can’t help imposing a set of standards on
others, standards we often would not like imposed on us – standards that expect
others to behave like us, to conform to our social or cultural norms, to see the world
as we do, and when people don’t conform, the temptation is to withhold forgiveness. Relationships are damaged and become increasingly impaired. We might not even
realise that that is what we are doing, but where there is resentment against others who don’t fit in with our ways of thinking, or who we know or believe to have wronged us, even in minor ways, withholding unconditional forgiveness itself becomes a sin, because that withheld forgiveness damages a relationship. The one not forgiven may not realise that they have committed a wrong – the prayer of reconciliation reveals to us wrongs we did not see as wrongs. When Jesus told us to pray ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’, he was asking us to be mindful of those times when our withheld forgives damages relationships.

The reason we cannot place conditions on forgiveness is because God does not. There was a time when the people of God imagined that there was a condition – a price to be paid – for the freedom of being a forgiven people. Sins were to be atoned for – an eye for an eye, a life for a sin. The inherited sins of the fathers were invested in eldest sons, and the firstborn male, animal or human, paid for these sins dearly. In the case of animals, by being sacrificed. In the case of humans, the life was redeemed – paid for – with the death of an animal. For those who could afford it, that meant a lamb, but the poor could substitute two young pigeons. This was the price paid for the life of Jesus when he was presented at the temple as a child. He was
redeemed – freed form the inherited sins of his fathers, but the death of two birds.

But Jesus taught a different kind of redemption. He asked us to forgive freely, without cost, without expecting a price to be paid, a bargain to be struck or a condition met.
He reminded people that everyone of us sins. The story of the sinful woman in the temple in John 8, who escaped with her life because of Jesus’s challenge to the crowds – ‘let the one who is without sin cast the first stone’ – like the wisdom story we heard earlier, reminds us that all of us need forgiveness.

Jesus was referred to by his cousin John as ‘the lamb of God’. This title is a reminder of the redemptive lamb killed to save the firstborn and of the other redemptive lamb killed to save the Hebrew people from the angel of death, and then killed again annually in a ritual reminder of that saving moment. So many lambs – uncountable, since the ritual demanded repeating again and again. One was not enough. Until Jesus, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus taught us to forgive – repeatedly, unconditionally, and he showed us that forgiveness no longer required a price. In forgiving, he paid the price himself, once and for all. Jesus poured himself out for us, gave all he had for love of us. As innocent of sin as the lambs killed in place of the sins of others, Jesus died rather than give up on us. He was condemned by the same people who slaughtered those ritual lambs, and even from the cross prayed ‘Father, forgive them, because they don’t understand what they are doing’.

As we approach prayer of reconciliation, our challenge is to be as generous in our
forgiveness of others as Jesus is towards us. It is also to come to understand what we are doing, so that we can learn not to do it. John V. Taylor, in ‘The Go-Between God’ writes: ‘it is of the essence that the healing which we call reconciliation that it
always includes both the recognition and the containing of the wrong, and by a strange alchemy this happens both in the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven.’

So what can we actually do?
Confession.  Whether we choose to share our confession with another human being or not, confession to God is all important. Anything that affects our ability to pray, to live as God wants us to, to love as God wants us to, should be named before God, faced up to – and as psalm 139 tells us, not only that, but we ask God to look at us intently and see what needs to be changed. God leads us in the way that is everlasting – in God’s own ways.
Psalm 139. 23-24
Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
 See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Thankfully for most of us, our sins are not made public. But we daily read about the sins of others, spread across the television, newspapers and increasingly social media makes publicising of the slightest failing part of a general shaming process
that society seems to delight in. The recording of sins for public consumption is not new. It served across time to shame those who were not popular, or to serve as object lessons for others. David, celebrated as a great king chosen by God, founder of the royal dynasty and ancestor of Jesus himself, knew that public humiliation well, and chose to publicise his repentance. Psalm 51, the great psalm of penitence, was written as he made his own prayers of penitence following the death of his child after his adulterous affair with Bathsheba.

Psalm 51
For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
    and justified when you judge.
5 Surely I was sinful at birth,
    sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
6 Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
    you taught me wisdom in that secret place.
7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
    wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins
    and blot out all my iniquity.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
    and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    so that sinners will turn back to you.
14 Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
    you who are God my Saviour,
    and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
15 Open my lips, Lord,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise.
18 May it please you to prosper Zion,
    to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
19 Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
    in burnt offerings offered whole;
    then bulls will be offered on your altar.

The images of washing and the contrast of dirt with the whiteness that represents purity is often used in penitential prayer, just as David does in this psalm. We see this
in the origin of baptism as a rite for adults who had fallen away from the Jewish faith, and who repented of their lack of faithfulness. They would wash, or be washed by a leader such as John, as a sign that they were being made clean. The rite of baptism has moved away from that penitential aspect now, especially in the baptism of infants, but water remains a strong symbol of penitence and absolution. Modern prayers often include writing words representing sin onto stones using chalk, and then washing the words away, or dropping stones into water and retrieving white stones as signs of the cleanliness that comes with being forgiven.

St Luke emphasised the task of those who preach the gospel as preach a gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus. The ultimate image of our forgiveness by Jesus is the instrument of his condemnation: the cross. Jesus had been symbolically redeemed or saved as a baby when he was presented at the temple and two pigeons were sacrificed in his place as a firstborn son. Jesus ended the requirement in religion for such sacrifices when he took the place of not only every firstborn son but every human being and every animal that ever died on a human being’s behalf. As David wrote in psalm 51, God does not require sacrifices, but he does look for a broken and contrite heart. Jesus, so determined to tell us the good news of God’s love and forgiveness for those who accept it and repent, risked his life rather than keep the news of salvation from us. So it is fitting that we often choose to bring our symbols of penitence to a cross.

On Ash Wednesday the cross as a sign of penitence is made in ash, a reminder of our humble beginnings, made by God from the dust of the ground. Humans often behave as though we are grander than other parts of creation, and in some ways we are – but only because God chose us, called us in a particular way to be stewards of the rest of creation and loves us so much that he became human in Christ. That privilege of being is a gift of God, not a right, and it is good for us to remind ourselves that we are lowly, and dependent on God’s grace for our salvation. We cannot earn our way into heaven, or talk our way in, or rely on the reputation of our relatives. We are but dust, sinners, needing to repent and turn to Christ, who is the only source of grace and salvation. On Ash Wednesday we practice an act of penitence at its most deliberate, taking the symbol of our humility – dust or ash – and the symbol of the way humans humiliated Jesus – the cross – and wearing it as a reminder that we need to turn to Christ at all times, to continually seek to repair our relationship with Jesus and with each other; and as a reminder that we are a forgiven people, granted life out of dust and salvation out of death on a cross.

Often in the Eucharist we use the Greek phrases: Kyrie eleison, christe eleison, kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy, Lord have mercy. We cry out to our Lord to have mercy on us, sinful people, using words that echo the two blind men we find in Matthew 20:
As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him. 30 Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”
31 The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”
32 Jesus stopped and called them. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
33 “Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.”
34 Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.
The men asked the Lord to have mercy. In their case his mercy gave them sight, and restored them to the possibility of full and beneficial lives. They chose to use that merciful gift wisely, by following Jesus. Our response to the Lord’s mercy should be the same, to respond to his grace and forgiveness with thankful hearts and to follow him wherever he leads.

So reconciliation is a hopeful, happy and marvellous part of prayer. It heals and restores. It gives us hope just as David was given hope. It leads us through the way of the cross into the light of Easter life. The prayer of reconciliation is always completed by the prayer of absolution, the words that assure and remind us that we are forgiven, over and over again, if we repent and turn again to Jesus with all our hearts. The words that remind us of sin are burned away, or washed off, or rendered silent by the absolute sanctity of the confessional. The white stone, the wet forehead, the lightened heart lifts us as we move on, having sought to reconcile and restore our relationship with God, to pray for our needs and those of others.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Things to rejoice about

In my last blog post I suggested that Paul’s command to the Thessalonians – and to the Philippians, and basically part of his expectations of any church – rejoice always, was an essential approach to Christina living today as much as it was in the first century. So I’m asking the people in the benefice I have the privilege of leading to take a rejoicing attitude. I want us to resist the regular temptation to see the worst in things and to look for what is good. God is doing marvellous things amongst us, and so often we miss them. I’m just as likely to do that as anyone. When I feel stressed or tired, or got at, I can describe things as though they aren’t great at all. And when I do that, I’m wearing grey tinted specs and putting everyone else off while I’m at it. Not good. So I repent of that attitude and hope to do better in future, remembering the example of a great priest who lives very close to me and counts his blessings every day. So what have I got to rejoice about?

I’m not going to put personal things into tis blog, though I have a huge amount to rejoice in personally. Instead I want to celebrate the third anniversary of my licensing as priest in charge of what is now the Living Brook benefice by looking back at what God has done in this little place in this short time. Yes, alright hair-splitters, we’re still waiting for the final union document, but we’ve been living out this reality for some time now. And perhaps that is a starting point for the rejoicing. When I was licensed it was to four parishes, one of which had been part of a different benefice. One church was closed and that became official very rapidly, leading to the merger of two parishes to become one larger and much more lively parish than the two had been separately before. I came to parishes in a wilderness place, desperately needing change, affirmation and love. There was a small choir, PCC’s that needed direction, churchwardens who had laboured, in some cases for many years, and were tired and yet still working doggedly to turn things round.

As I went into retreat in November 2012, I remember well God’s command to me which was a variant on the theme of this blog. He told me to celebrate, to tell the wonderful people here what was obvious to me but not to them – that they are truly special, brilliant people, loved and worth loving. The theme verse for 2013 was to be John 10.10b:

I have come that they may have life, life in all its fullness.

And as the year went on celebrating wasn’t difficult because there is much to rejoice in. The people of this benefice are great and as they worked together they started to see change. The consecration of the Magdalene chapel in Piddington church was a symbol of a new family of God’s people coming together in his love.

In November 2013 the command as I prayed on retreat was about vision. Where 2013 had been a year of celebrating and rejoicing in that abundant life God gives us, 2014 was to be about vision – a vision that would help us to share our joy with others. The theme verse for the year was another set of Jesus’ words from John’s gospel, from John 7:38:

Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.

I came back to the licensing of our Lay Reader, and during 2014 saw a vision day bring people together with loads of fantastic ideas and a new energy for acting on them. I started calling people into leadership in new ways and challenged some people to take up new areas of service in the church – sacrificially in some cases.

In November 2014 the theme and direction for the coming year emerged out of the clergy conference. It was clear to me that in 2015 I had to draw together a new core leadership team as well as encouraging the benefices leaders in the wider, task oriented grouping that had come together the year before. That meant a change to a new way of leading for me. As 2015, a year focussed on building teams, began, the theme verse that has underpinned it all was drawn from Matthew 16: 18, again Jesus words, summarised on our benefice posters as:

Jesus says ‘I will build my church’.

Now, on retreat in November 2015, and preparing to introduce some words of Paul rather than Jesus as our theme verse in the coming year, I can look back and see just was Jesus has done in these three years as he has built his church. Because now I’m able to look and see around me a Living Brook Ministry team with not just me and my lay reader, but also three lay ministers who have studied for diocesan certificates, and also a stipendiary curate of very high calibre. And close around that team I see more teams and groups of people doing amazing things for God. There is a pastoral care team doing such loving work; a children’s and families team transforming our approach to the much larger number of service and events for children; a schools team going into our two primary schools and doing assemblies, lessons and big events in churches too; the choir is growing all the time, and attracting children; the bellringers may not be doing so well on the surface – but that’s because people can’t yet see the novice learners in action. Then there is the youth fellowship, a place where inspiriting leaders are emerging and making a difference to the life of the church, as well as transforming our fifth Sunday services. There is the new elevenses services at St Edmunds, and the growing sense that our open churches are a place not just for prayer but for really gathering community in harmony. There is the knit and natter group, the new handbell ringing group, the stunning regular transformation of St Edmunds by the Toddler Praise children and by the local school. There are church members making an impact as school governors and one of the loveliest church schools out there, and alongside that the beautiful relationship with the academy school in Hardingstone, and another very hardworking school governor who still somehow finds time to make an impact on the church. There are churchwardens, two of them now very new to the job, who deal with lead taken from roofs and the subsequent leaks and still come up smiling, and still understand that our priority is not a building, but the gospel.

In all of those things, and so, so many more, Jesus is building his church and through his people that living water is flowing. Congregations have people in them who wouldn’t have thought of going to church three years ago.  All of the time I am seeing fantastic things to rejoice about, and hearing great things from the amazing team that lead this benefice.

So, now in 2016, after this whirlwind of transforming activity that has brought this benefice from an arid place into the place where the living water flows, things will slow down a bit. I want to take time for all of us to drink the water, enjoy the green pasture, and deepen our roots in the church that Jesus is building us into. The new leaders and the established ones need time to get used to their roles and every one of us needs time to rest in God. There will be new things this year, and changes to existing things, but much less of it. The big focus of the year will be on prayer, on reminding ourselves that unless we are individually and together people of prayer we can’t do anything. So 2016 will include a wide selection of prayer opportunities of all sorts and styles. Over the last three years a fast pace was necessary, to move from the desert to the waterside, but now that we have arrived, we can enjoy it. As we do, we will focus on Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, and putting them into action. I hope that we can start by looking at the wonderful things God has done so far – marvelling at what he might yet do – and rejoicing.

Rejoice always,

pray without ceasing

give thanks to God at every moment.

This is the will of God, your vocation as Christians.

Rejoice always

Each year I choose a theme verse for Living Brook Benefice, and these verses emerge from my own prayer and time with God, and now from the sharing in prayer and listening that the Living Brook Ministry Team does with me. In 2016, the theme verse is 1 Thessalonians 5. 16-18, and posters around the benefice will show the translation from the Christian Community Bible:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing and give thanks to God at every moment. This is the will of God, your vocation as Christians.

Some may suggest that Paul’s command to rejoice always is not in keeping with the times. The news is full of fear, sorrow, tragedy, political vitriol, so what is there to rejoice about? It isn’t true that somehow the 21st century is less safe, more scary, more violent or more difficult than any of the history of the world before now. Ok, so terrorists have weapons that can do more damage in a short time, but so do the defence forces that stop the terrorists. There has always been warfare and brutality. In Paul’s day Roman soldiers or rebel zealots could come sweeping through a village using their swords indiscriminately and raping and looting on the way. False imprisonment and unjustified executions happened frequently. Paul himself was a victim. So when he tells us to rejoice always, he isn’t speaking from some golden age when everything was lovely and rejoicing was easy. He was speaking from days not so different from our own, because there are humans now who are as some humans always were – desperate for power and control, on their own terms only, and willing to take it by force.

But the rest of the humans are also as humans always were, in Paul’s day as now. We are loving, and supportive and generous. Most humans want the best for each other as well as for ourselves. That’s why in Paris, or Beirut, or Mali, or wherever terrorists show their masked faces, there are far more humans trying to help, to defend, to comfort and to heal. That’s why we react in communal prayer or with collections, or at the very least telling each other how sad that event was. We are good people, made in God’s own image.

Paul asks us to rejoice always. To look for the good around us, not to focus always on what is bad. He asks us to name and number the things that we can be glad in. Our partners, our children, our friends. A beautifully performed concert, a moving piece of writing, the tastiest meal we’ve had in a long time. A splendid view, a glorious sunset, the warmth of the sun on our faces. An event that we’ve arranged that lots of people attended and enjoyed, that warm feeling when a community comes together to help with a project, the comfort of a conversation with someone who really understands you. I could go on, and so could you – there is a great deal to be glad about, and once we start looking, a great deal more to be glad about than there is to fear or regret. And when we start to see what is good, the bad stuff is put into perspective. It’s still bad alright – it’s bad because it goes against the human instinct to be ad do all these good things. But there’s a lot more good than bad in this world, because God made it and God modelled us. So if we remember to rejoice we will not only feel better about it, but almost certainly we’ll be better equipped to cope with the bad and perhaps to create an atmosphere that will stop at least some of it happening in the first place.

Sunday, 8 November 2015


James Macefield was a quarryman, and his sons followed him to the quarry, all leaving school at the earliest opportunity to join their Dad. Three of his sons left the quarry to join the army. Arthur served and returned, but didn't speak of what he saw. James also said little of his experience, limiting his sharing to a teasing of the children of the family, inviting them to bang a stick against his leg and enjoying their surprise when they discovered it was wooden. He never told them how he lost his own leg, though. 'I lost it in the war', was as much as he said. Frank, the youngest, was only eleven when war broke out. He didn't serve then, and when another terrible war followed he was in a reserved occupation, and added to his support for his community by becoming a firewatcher, staying up night after night to watch over his city. Frank had three children. The eldest two didn't get on too well, and lost touch. Their children, who had played as little ones, didn't have a choice in this family division, and resigned themselves to having lost contact with their more distant family members for good. They moved on, had children of their own, and got on with life - sad that there were family members who seemed not to want contact, but that's families for you.

James had one other son. Benjamin, the third son, also worked in the quarry and served in the same regiment as his eldest brother. James had ensured his sons could read and write, but they were a working class family, so not people to write letters or diaries. And that means that there is very little record of Benjamin's life. No one now knows what his favourite dinner was, or whether he enjoyed sport. No one knows whether he was kind, or a bully; whether he was quiet or the life and soul of the party; whether he was a friend to many or to few. What we do know is that Benjamin died in March 1917, at the age of 21.

21. So very young. He may have had a sweetheart to miss him, but he was too young to have left a wife or children, and perhaps that is a good thing. War hurts too many of the people who are left behind. At least there was no one dependent on Benjamin. His father, brothers and sisters will have missed him, and perhaps his friends did. The local community grandees who sponsored war memorials did not consider his death of note. Ben did not die 'gloriously' on a  battlefield, but in a hospital in England. So he was placed in an unmarked grave and no memorial to him was left anywhere.

Almost a century later, today's leaders see the lost of war in a different way. They recognise that people like Ben would have survived the war if they had not been called up. That their death is just as important and worth valuing as any death on the battlefield. Ben died in the service of his country just as much as anyone. And so the Commonwealth War Graves Commission set out to right an old wrong and commissioned historians to seek out the stories of those not remembered. A list was made and can still be added to, and a new large memorial opened this week at Brookwood Military Cemetery, to finally ensure that the forgotten deaths become remembered ones. Although all too little of Benjamin Macefield's story is known, a historian found what there is, and ensured that his name was added to the list.

And so one sunny morning this week, as the new memorial was dedicated and Macefield B's name admired amongst the 267 formerly forgotten, James Macefield's grandson and his great grandson were amongst those present. The grandson is uncle to the great grandson, but didn't recognise his nephew because those family separations had meant it was thirty years since the two had last met. The nephew did not recognise the uncle either, but when the connection was discovered he was delighted. After so many years, a family came back together. Contact details could be shared, stories told, lives re-connected.

Benjamin, and millions like him in the Great War, and in wars before and since, died not for the sake of war, but for the sake of peace. Men like Arthur and James served and lived in the hope of the same peace. It was to defend their loved ones and keep them safe. For those of us who remember them, our remembering is not just about who the people were. That matters, of course it matters, but if who the people were was all it is about then we would stop remembering when living memory ended. We remember too - remember the men like Ben of whom we know so little -  because they stand for something more. They are a prompt, a symbol for us, of the vital importance of working for peace.

Peace isn't easy. It requires listening and it needs effort. It involves sacrificial giving and a choice to put up with people even when they don't agree or do things the way you want them to. The uncle and nephew who restored a family relationship were brought together by their desire to remember, and perhaps in remembering to apply the sort of values that are worth fighting for. Forgiveness, for example, and love. Even better, they're worth not fighting for, but living out. As Benjamin's last legacy, that restored - re-membered - family is a great gift.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

No sermons here!

According to the church noticesheet, this is the place to look to see the text of my sermons. Sometimes that works, but mostly it doesn't. Mainly because I rarely type up sermons and generally prefer to work from notes on card or nothing at all. The sermons are properly prepared, I promise - just not written in full text form. This is partly because the sermons that my congregations best remember are the more relaxed, interactive ones, the ones that address multiple learning styles and include objects or opportunities for the children to take part. That sort of sermon doesn't transfer well to a blog! This Sunday's sermon will be just such a one. It's still a work in progress, but I already
know that its going to involve a bit of instant drama, a money bag and a large cross. Maybe, if I'm really disciplined, I'll get the key points onto the blog but there'll be no full text. Sorry!

Monday, 18 May 2015

That was the week

Monday morning, my time for looking ahead at the week to come, doing some planning, some preparation; a routine that will change soon when my new colleague arrives and Monday mornings will become a time to review the preceding week before planning. Looking back now at the week I've just had, God's work is astonishing. In a full week, here are some highlights:
Monday, a PCC meeting at which a growing church with an active PCC restructured its working style in order to work more efficiently, effectively, and most important, missionally.
Tuesday, the sustaining communion service moved to the nave and tested out bringing back a nave altar, long since out of use. It was good. So was a challenging and restorative session with a mentor whose sharp questions and insight I am really coming to value. Oh, and at the school governors meeting I gave notice of resigning as a school governor. Vacancy: chair of governors at a fantastic C of E primary - apply here.
Wednesday: a funeral with burial, and the sun shone, bringing warmth into a day that in other ways at other times and places (not to be described here) was cold. The warmth of a good friend who was there at just the moment I needed her brought the same quality of warmth. God's love flows through and touches the hurting places.
Thursday: Surviving chairing my first (and I hope last) school finance meeting and getting things done that were needed, I went on to a CMD day of outstanding quality with inspiring people- trainers and fellow learners. There is always more to learn, always scope to change. And then in the evening the deanery ascension service. Not nearly enough people came. Shame, because the telly watchers who stayed home missed an excellent sermon. It was pleasant to listen to a sermon instead of delivering it, especially a sermon of such quality.
Friday, in the midst of a busy day, lunch in a café I'd never been to before with a dear friend. I think we'll be back. And in the evening, a family meal with a much loved uncle and aunt. Talking too long and late, but with family who are dear friends too, you just can't keep track of time!
Saturday, a wedding long awaited between two very special people which brought joy to a whole community. 'Now thank we all our God' really was an appropriate choice as the last hymn.
Sunday, and the nave altar was back in use for a poignant early service saying farewell to a church member leaving the area after over fifty years. Goodness, we'll miss him. And then a lively main service with the new children's activity for small children appreciated and the presence of primary age children involved in helping with the interactive address, which made the service more accessible - a need we didn't have when I first arrived. Praise God! Then in the afternoon a baptism for a just-two year old whose happy babble as she imitated me at the front of the church was joyous. And finally the wonderfully creative youth fellowship doing brilliant theology yet again as they planned the main service for Trinity Sunday. It's going to be such a great service.
What a week of blessings. There was a lot of other stuff too, a great deal more, and it didn't all feel like a blessing by any means, but without question God was blessing, in the challenges, the stresses, the celebrations and the acheivements. May our God be blessed, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Still, I won't be ungrateful if this week is a bit quieter...