courageous reasoning

With all the love, grace and encouragement I can muster I want to ask you to bear with me and read this bloggage to the end. It may be the most important one I have ever written.

One of the things that an imminent operation on your heart does for you is force you to face your own mortality. I have the utmost confidence in the surgeon and his team and have been assured that the risks of the surgery are minimal, but they are there nonetheless. I have had to think about and prepare for that very small possibility.

Christians believe in life after death (and life before death too). We don’t believe in reincarnation or hanging around as a ghost / spirit, but a full-blown life-as-God-intended no-holds-barred all-consuming experience of God for those who want it once we have curled up our tootsies and shuffled off this mortal coil. And when we come face to face with something that reminds us that we are not indestructible and that life is finite we have to consider whether we really believe what Jesus said.

That’s when the rubber hits the road as I have to consider whether I really believe what I proclaim.

rubber hits road

I want to say a wholehearted, unequivocal “YES!” I believe it with all my heart, mind and soul. I have staked my life on it.

One of my favourite definitions of faith is: “Reason in a courageous mood.”* You take what you can deduce, what you can learn, what you can understand and then extrapolate from that to the next logical step, and that extrapolation leads you to take a step of faith – following the trajectory of your thinking and understanding and acting on it.

So, by way of example, if you had to cross a ravine and there was a bridge there you would need to exercise faith in the bridge in order to use it and cross the ravine. Before you did you might examine the bridge to see how strong it is, you might ask other people who have used the bridge and you might even research online how and when it was constructed. But once you had come to the conclusion that it is strong enough for you to use safely you then have to take the step of faith and put that reasoning into practice by crossing the bridge. And you are encouraged when that faith is vindicated and the bridge holds.

All that I have read, considered, discerned and understood about Jesus of Nazareth confirms to me that I believe him and I believe in him. What he said makes incredible sense. What the contemporary records say about him reveal an extraordinary person. And the evidence for his resurrection is (in my view) pretty conclusive. All that points me to the conclusion that he is who he claimed to be: God with us. He is worth following and trusting and through faith in him I am able to have a relationship with God that is life in all its fullness now and beyond death. My reason has become courageous and I have been blessed, inspired and encouraged to find that this faith has been vindicated.

I want to say a hearty “Amen, amen, amen!” to these words written by Paul to the early church in Rome (Romans 8):

31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? [If you read the preceding verses you see that ‘these things’ are pain, suffering and death.] If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:

‘For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’[j]

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[k] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

You have to make your own mind up about this, but please do so on an informed basis. Faith may be reason in a courageous mood but for many people lack of faith is not cowardly reason, it’s simply that they have never considered it. The difficult thing is that although you can investigate, research, discuss, listen and discern about the Christian faith, ultimately you’ll only experience it in its fullness by taking the step of faith. It’s like a stained-glass window. From the outside you can see lots of the shapes and images in a stained-glass window but you will only really experience it in all its glory once you go inside a church and look at the light shining through it – that’s the way they were designed.

stained glass 3

If you would not say that you are a follower of Jesus and if you consider me to be someone you trust then I want to encourage you to consider his claims carefully and investigate them for yourself. Then you can decide whether to get courageous with the reason.

If you are a follower of Jesus, don’t privatise your faith – live it 24/7. If it’s good news for you it’s good news for everyone.

If maybe you are a follower of Jesus but you’ve not been actively following him you will know that he would love to welcome you back into a closer walk with him – you only have to take the first step and you’ll find that he’s already there with you.

If you have never considered these things I hope and pray that we could have a conversation about it once I have recovered from the operation, but don’t feel you have to wait for that moment – talk with another Christian.

The reason I believe all of this is not because I am a Baptist Minister. I am a Baptist Minister because I believe that this is the most important thing in life (and death) and it’s worth dedicating my life to.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*I believe this is attributed to LP Jacks from 1928, but I first heard it from one of my spiritual heroes, friends and Senior Minister in my first church: Revd David Richardson

the man in the seat next to me

Our flights to and from Sweden were fairly uneventful. Apart from one moment. Remember that this was only a matter of days since the Egypt Air plane crashed in the Mediterranean, possibly (probably?) caused by a bomb.

aircraft interiorWe were seated in a row of three, and in the seat next to us was a man who didn’t really make eye contact with me. He was not in a chatty mood. During the flight he looked a bit anxious and then, rather alarmingly, on a couple of occasions he leant forward and laid his head on his knees. If I mention that he looked to be of North African descent and that he looked like he was praying then you might understand how uneasy it made me. The thought did cross my mind that he might have somehow got a bomb on board the plane and was waiting for it to go off.

It’s not that I am afraid of dying – I have absolute faith in Jesus about my eternal destiny. But the fleeting thought crossed my mind in the moment of anxiety that I don’t really want to die in a painful way. And I thought that I would rather not die yet as I have lots I would like to do. And I thought of the impact on those whom I love and might miss me and I didn’t want them to be upset.

It may be that if there had not been an apparent terrorist bombing of a plane the week before I might not have been so anxious. I can’t say. But what that moment revealed about me troubles me.

Call me untrusting.

Call me suspicious.

Call me paranoid.

Perhaps even call me racist.

Those things might be true of me in that moment. I hope and pray that they are not. I need to work through with myself and God whether any of them are, and if my thoughts were unfair or unjustified. I have sought forgiveness for them and asked for God’s Spirit’s help to change me so that I am not like that in future.

In that moment I did pray. I prayed for safety. But, thank God, I did at least also pray for the man next to me – that his stress and anxiety would diminish.

As I reflect on the events from the comfort of my study I also pray the following prayer…

“Please God, cleanse me from all of the taints and tarnish of suspicion or even racism that cling to me because of what I hear on the news and events that go on around the world. Forgive me when I act and react because of them rather than because of you. Please God help me always to think the best of people, because you do. Please God help me to be like Jesus on the cross when I am in situations where I am anxious – and think of the welfare of others before myself. “

Be blessed, be a blessing

death is a part of life

teardropApologies for the relative silence last week – it’s been a very busy period and while I have still tried to be reflective I haven’t had much chance to put fingers to keyboard and share those reflections with you.

I also ought to warn you that this bloggage is about death, so if you are feeling like you can’t cope with that at the moment you might like to look at another of my earlier bloggages… I understand.

January 2016 seems to have been a month in which more high profile people have died than is usual. Each announcement has been met with sadness, grief, gratitude for the impact the person made on the national consciousness, and expressions of condolence towards the immediate family and friends who mourn their death. I wonder whether the amount of time and space that is given to commemoration of those who have died is partly due to a failure to appreciate people sufficiently in life. It is right that we do this. It is good that we remember and recognise that death is part of life.

It is much less healthy for us individually and as a society if death is the morbid elephant in the room of life. We know it is there but we don’t want to mention it or talk about it. Perhaps there is even a degree of superstition that if we talk about it then we will awaken death and it will rear its ugly head again so if we keep quiet, all will be well. We know that this is not true, but we seem to act as if it is. I wonder whether if we do not talk about death bereavement hits us harder because we are unprepared for it.

Death is terribly sad for those who mourn the death of someone they love. It releases many emotions such as loss, regret, grief, pain, emptiness and sometimes is so overwhelming that our emotions shut down and we feel numbness and shock. It is horrible. It is awful. In the gospel records of Jesus’ life we read how he loathed death and resented moments when it encroached into his experience of life. He grieved the death of friends, he himself did not want to die. We know how he felt.

But (and I do not diminish the impact, significance and emotional pain of death when it takes someone we love away from us) if death is not seen and talked about as a part of life we perpetuate the fantasy that it will not happen to someone we know and love… until that fantasy is torn apart by death itself. We can almost pretend it doesn’t happen.

We don’t help ourselves by euphemising death, either. We talk of someone ‘passing away’, ‘going home’, ‘leaving us’, ‘going to sleep’, ‘going to the next room’ and many more. But, and I am sorry if this is blunt, the reality is that the person has died. Some euphemisms suggest that they could come back, that they are nearby, that it’s not final. But (forgive me for being blunt again) death is final. It is the one certainty in life* – we will all die.

I am not suggesting that we cultivate a morbid fascination with death. I am not saying that we should talk about it all the time. But I am suggesting that it would be healthier for us as individuals and as a society if we talked about it from time to time. Talk with your relatives about your will. Talk with those who may have to make arrangements for your funeral service about what you would like (they will be grateful when it comes to it). Talk about how you feel when someone has died. Share memories of that person – not to pretend that they are still with us – so that the impact they made on us is not lost and the significance of their life is underlined by their death.

And if you know someone who has experienced bereavement don’t tiptoe around them, don’t wrap them in cotton wool, don’t patronise them. I think that often we say nothing and avoid people who are bereft because we don’t want to say the wrong thing and don’t know what to say. But that can add to the sense of isolation and loss. I think it is unlikely that any of you would say anything insensitive or cruel to someone who is mourning the death of a loved one, so talk with them, listen to them, ask them about the person who has died, if you don’t know what to say sit in silence with them, even pray with them (and for them).

And, as a follower of Jesus, I also want to say that although physical death is the end of our experience of this life, he promises that the life in all its fullness which begins here and now, through faith, will stretch into an experience beyond time: eternity in God’s presence. Death hurts, it stings, but it is not the last word.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*It used to be death and taxes but as some large corporations have found ways of avoiding tax we can’t rely on the latter.

mortal

death valleyEven though it is the holiday season at present, death has not taken a vacation. Over the past few days there have been many reminders of this as well known people have died, and there have also been some tragic accidents that have resulted in death. We must never forget that behind the headlines are people in pain, walking through the valley of the shadow of death. For the friends and relatives of those who have died this is personal pain and benumbing bereavement.

Somewhat dissonantly Jesus said that those who are grieving and mourning are blessed because they will be comforted. He was not being insensitive, even though at face value what he said doesn’t seem to make sense in the face of bereavement and death. But the blessing comes not because of the grieving but because of the comfort. God is always present and he is especially present to those who are bereft when we allow his Spirit to prompt us to be his hands, his voice, his presence, his comfort. It is an amazing privilege to do that. People of faith (and others) will (rightly) surround those who are experiencing the devastation and desolation with prayer, love and support.

Death is something of a taboo subject. That’s why we have so many synonyms and euphemisms for it. We don’t like to think about it or talk about it until we are forced to confront our mortality by what has happened to others. Death is something that our medical profession is constantly fighting: we heard of new developments in vaccination against Ebola last week and I think one of the reasons why it was celebrated was that it looks like it’s humans 1 death 0. But every day in hospitals, doctor’s surgeries, hospices and homes those in the caring professions (and I use the phrase deliberately) do battle with death. And while they may score some victories they are the victories of people fighting a valiant, noble, under-appreciated rearguard action against an invincible enemy.

In the end death wins. In the end we end.

If you read John’s gospel narrative of Jesus’ life you see Jesus’ compassion when he encounters bereavement. The shortest verse in the Bible is an understatement of biblical proportions when Jesus was confronted with the death of a friend and his friend’s grieving family: “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35).

Two verses earlier we read, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” This is rather a sanitised translation. You could equally translate the last section as “he was inwardly angry and became enraged.” It’s a natural reaction: sometimes we respond to death’s intrusion into our lives with anger (especially if it is unexpected or ‘too soon’).

But it seems that Jesus’ anger was not just at the fact that his friend, Lazarus, had died. It was also that death itself had encroached onto the scene. Perhaps for him it was a reminder that he was to do battle with death himself in the not-to-distant future. He himself wept and sweated blood as he wrestled with his impending execution. And when he was crucified and died, it seemed that death had kept its morbid 100% record.

It was a Friday.

But Sunday was coming.

The reason that the cross (a hideous symbol of cruelty, bullying, humiliation, torture and death) is the emblem for Christians is that we know that it represents the moment when everything changed. The Good News of Jesus is that he really did defeat death. He smashed the Ultimate Statistic (1 out of 1 people die). His resurrection is a beacon of hope in the dark shadow of death. It is a defiant shout that this need not be the end.

This ‘song’ was sung in early churches:

 ‘Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?’

And Paul, quoting it when he wrote to his first letter to the church in Corinth (Chapter 15) expands on that theme:

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Death still hurts. Bereavement is still painful. We should still fight the rearguard action with all that is in us. But death is defeated. Because Jesus is alive there is hope. Many times when I visited believers who knew they were in their last days on earth they spoke (with shining eyes) of their faith that although death was to be feared it was not the end. They looked forward to what lay beyond – an eternity in God’s presence. Many said to me, “I’m ready.”

Be blessed, be a blessing.

the mother of all oxymorons

I’m back. I have been away at our church holiday at Sizewell Hall on the Suffolk coast, just next door to Sizewell Nuclear Power Station. I felt quite at home!

We were all quite tired when we got home so decided to order takeaway pizza for tea. I think everyone else in the church must have had the same thought because the delivery took a long time to arrive. While we were waiting I realised what a multilayered oxymoron ‘takeaway delivery’ is.

We did not take anything away from the place where the food was created. That must surely be the definition of ‘takeaway’ food. And the direction is all wrong. It was movement towards not away from that defined yesterday’s food. So in reality I think what we had was ‘requested delivery towards’ pizza.

That’s not the only oxymoron that is bothering me at the moment. Tomorrow is ‘Good Friday’. I have always struggled with that name for as long as I have been aware of what the day commemorates. I understand that ‘good’ in this sense refers to ‘holy’ but why couldn’t they have called it ‘Holy Friday’ if that’s the case? I can remember being told that it is ‘good’ because it is the day when because of Jesus’ death on the cross.

Both, or either, maybe true. There may be another explanation that one of you can offer. But regardless of the history I cannot easily reconcile ‘good’ with what happened. Here are some alternative names that occur to me:

travesty of justice Friday

cruel Friday

the darkest day in history Friday

how could they Friday

how could I Friday

how could he Friday

There are various hymns, poems and reflections that speak of it being love that held Jesus on the cross, not nails. That may be so but it was an unspeakably cruel way to kill somebody, particularly for political expediency and power, and especially someone who was completely innocent.

It reminds me of just how seriously God takes human sin. I think he takes it a lot more seriously than we do most of the time. Until we look at the cross on Good Friday we don’t understand the depths to which we have sunk. Nor do we fully understand the depths of God’s love for us.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

ouch

Compassion“God won’t let you suffer beyond what you can endure.” Has anyone ever said that to you? I have said it in sermons occasionally, but I am wondering about it. It’s not the most sensitive thing for someone to hear who is experiencing extremely difficult circumstances. To the person who feels that they are at the end of their tether and they don’t feel that anyone is holding the other end it can seem trite or even insulting. To the person in constant pain it is almost an accusation – do you think it’s too bad? Rubbish: you should be able to cope with this if you trust God enough!

The problem I have is that I want to believe it. I think I do believe it, based on my own experience. But while it may be true that we can look back and say, “Yes, it was true,” when we are up to our necks in ‘it’ then we cannot easily see things from that perspective. When you are screaming in pain the last thing you want to do is think about well-intended platitudes.

I am sure that God empathises with our pain, distress, anxiety or whatever we are going through. After all, we are reminded, God the Father experienced bereavement at Easter and the Son endured extreme pain and ultimately separation from the Father in death. Before Easter Sunday comes Good Friday.

I am sure too that God is with us. His Spirit knows the deep within us and interprets what we are unable to articulate as prayers in the throne room of heaven – prayers that are heard and cherished. Some of the most profound theology is incarnational: God with us, Jesus who will never leave us…

Please don’t think I am having a crisis of faith here. I am having a crisis of Christians. We too often emulate Job’s friends alongside those who are suffering – trying to offer rational explanations, looking for someone to blame, praying harder, claiming things in Jesus’ name – when I think that what we really need to be are believing friends who will sit, wait, endure alongside, travel with. Rather than looking for the answers or try to make sense of what is happening we need people who will hug us, cry with us, laugh with us, talk with us.

When we have come through we have the right to say that God was with us, that he kept us, that his grace was sufficient for us, that we did endure. Nobody else has the right to proclaim that on our behalf.

And we need to bear one more thing in mind, dear Christians. Death may have been defeated as an eternal consequence, but it is still a physical reality for each one of us eventually, even well-meaning Christians and those who pray for healing. Death can be a freedom from pain and suffering, an end to misery: in that sense you could even describe as one way in which we are ‘healed’, made whole, become fully human. Nobody wants a painful death, but if the message of Easter tells us anything it is that our faith assures us that the moment when we are translated from this life to the next need not be feared.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

being there

One of the immense privileges of being a pastor is that you are able to be a part of people’s lives at difficult moments. When I was training in the vicar factory I thought that this would be an aspect of the role that I would find really awkward and challenging. I wondered how I would cope. The idea of being present as people’s lives ebbed away or involved in conversations with people whose relationships are struggling felt so far out of my comfort zone that I even doubted if I was called to this role.

But, as I hope you can tell from my description of this as an “immense privilege”, this is an aspect of my ministry that blesses me far more than its blesses those with whom I am ministering. I have been trying to work out why this should be and, while I don’t think I have come to any firm conclusions, I do have one theory.

It seems to me that when the boundaries of our lives are challenged we are most open to an encounter with the divine. So when we are faced with death we realise not only our own mortality but also that there is Someone who is beyond death. When the security of our relationships is shaken we reach out for an unshakeable Relationship. And the role of the Minister in these moments is to help people make those connections. That experience enriches and deepens my faith in the all-compassionate God who is there with us in the dark and tragic times of our lives as well as the bright and joyous ones. Graciously and miraculously he takes the faltering words and awkward silences we offer to him and speaks through them to those most in need of his presence and reassurance.

It is in these moments too that I feel an almost tangible presence of God’s Spirit with me. He provides peace in the face of anguish. He exudes calm in calamitous circumstances. He not only gives the words to say, and the wisdom sometimes to be silent, he also provides me with confidence and strength that I can offer to those for whom they are lacking.

I’m sure that this is not the exclusive experience of Ministers. Any of us and all of us can experience that sense of unexpected peace as we come alongside others. We don’t need to worry about saying the wrong thing (usually saying nothing is worse than saying something) if first and foremost we offer ourselves – our time, our presence, our prayers, our thoughts – and simply say, “I’m here for you.” We find that in those circumstances God is saying exactly the same thing through us.

Be blessed, be a blessing.