remembrance

We interrupt the occasional thoughts about prayer to bring you my sermonette from Sunday morning – Remembrance Sunday…

Poppies Worship Background

It always feels very poignant when I share communion on Remembrance Sunday, as we did last Sunday morning – Remembrance Sunday. The poppies are a moving remembrance of the death of many who have died in war. So there is something really profound about Jesus’ words ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ in the context of a service where we spend time in silence remembering the sacrifice others have made for the freedom of many. Yet, and please bear with me here, the word ‘remembrance’ causes me to ask some questions.

You see I have always thought of ‘remembering’ as something I do for something I might forget – requiring a reminder like a knot in a handkerchief – or events, people and experiences that I have encountered. How I am supposed to remember events and people that were hundreds or thousands of years ago where I was not present?

I know that Jesus is alive today, but I wasn’t at the Last Supper. I haven’t been in armed conflict. I don’t know anyone who has been killed in battle. How can I remember them?

And what did Jesus mean when he used the bread and wine of the Passover to tell his followers to remember him? They were very unlikely to forget him, although the events as the evening unfolded perhaps make us question that. It’s poignant to me that after Peter had denied Jesus three times and the cock crowed, Luke’s gospel tells us that then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: ‘Before the cock crows today, you will disown me three times.’ 62 And he went outside and wept bitterly.”

Remembering what Jesus had said led to a moment of clarity and conviction for Peter that broke his heart. And the remembrance of Jesus in communion can also remind us of our failings – causing us to come to the foot of the cross in repentance.

There’s no doubt that Remembrance Sunday can also evoke strong emotions. When the nation stands together in silence it is a deep and solemn moment: some will be remembering friends and relatives; others will be reflecting on the many who died in conflict to ensure our freedom. We can’t possibly know all of the millions who have died to preserve our liberty, but we can contemplate their bravery, their service and their sacrifice.

The Apostle Paul (especially in 1 Corinthians 11) affirms the idea that sharing bread and wine is something all followers of Jesus are meant to do ‘in remembrance’ of Jesus. We are using bread and wine as reminders of who Jesus is and what he has done for us. Maybe, but if that’s the case, why not say ‘do this to remind you of me’? Why ‘in remembrance’? There is something more here than simply not forgetting.

I think there is something here about about a related word: ‘commemoration’. A dictionary definition seems to open this possibility – a commemoration is something that is done to remember officially and give respect to a great person or event. That sounds a little like what we do on remembrance Sunday, and at Communion.

And there’s another related word: memorial. A grammatical analysis of the Greek word that we translate as ‘remembrance’ from the New Testament narratives around the Last Supper suggests that ‘memorial’ is a fairer translation – something that honours the one being celebrated. “Do this as a memorial to me.”

It’s complex isn’t it? But then perhaps that’s the point.

I have reached the conclusion that all the above and so much more are represented for me in remembrance. All of these ideas and concepts combine so that remembrance becomes an encounter – an encounter with bravery and sacrifice, an encounter with grief and loss, an encounter with love and hope, a moment of forgiveness and reconciliation.

And an encounter with Jesus: the One whose body and blood were given “for you”.

Simple things lead to profound moments: silence, bread, wine. In remembrance.

Be blessed, be a blessing

what Jesus forgot to say

Jesus face-planted as he realised what he forgot to say

I’ve been wondering recently whether Jesus forgot to say a few things. Did he stop too soon when he was saying the amazing things he was saying? I am only asking because, from what I can observe, it looks like we have worked out what he forgot to say…

I wonder, for example, when he was talking about taming the tongue he forgot to include the exception that you can be as offensive and insulting as you like on social media if you disagree with someone.

When he said that to be great you should consider yourself the servant of all, should he have gone on to say that this does not apply if you are in charge?

When he spoke of the Spirit of truth guiding us into all truth did he omit the bit about saying that it was alright to ignore truth if it was politically expedient?

When he said that we should not judge other people perhaps he forgot to say that it was okay to be judgmental if you are sufficiently sure that you are right.

When he said that we should take the plank out of our own eye before sorting out the speck of dust in someone else’s eye, did he neglect to mention that it’s okay to ignore the plank if you think other people haven’t noticed it, or to deny the plank’s existence if they do?

When he criticised religious people for neglecting justice, mercy and faithfulness did he forget to say that it’s okay to do it if the people affected were not born in your country?

When he was questioned about whether it was right to pay taxes and he said, “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” did he forget to say that it was okay not to pay tax if you could find a good loophole?

And when Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God wholeheartedly and the second is to love your neighbour as yourself is it correct that he forgot to say, “So long as they agree with you”?

Just wondering.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

reasonable bus journeys

Related image

I recently attended some training for trustees and one statement took me back many years to when I did a Law Degree. The trainer said that trustees of a charity have to act reasonably. And I was reminded of just how much ‘reasonableness’ is embedded in English Law.

In Law there are many occasions when the standard of behaviour is judged by the ‘reasonableness test’. The standard for that was originally defined as “the man on the Clapham omnibus” and this was first used in a 1903 libel case. This person was deemed to be an ordinary, everyday, reasonably intelligent, reasonably educated person – against whose presumed action or behaviour the actions of a defendant would be judged.

There have been a lot of amendments to this: you don’t judge whether a surgeon has acted reasonably by the standard of the man on the Clapham omnibus, but by the actions of his peers. You don’t assess whether a soldier has acted reasonably under fire by the standard of the man sitting safely on the Clapham omnibus but by the actions of soldiers in similar circumstances.

But the reminder about the ‘reasonableness’ test got me thinking (after the training had finished, I did listen to it all – honest!). Do we judge other people by our own standard of reasonableness? Do we think that if we would not have reacted in a certain way then nobody else ought to? Or if we would have done something then it’s reasonable to assume that everyone else should do so too? I think we often do, and that’s not, erm, reasonable.

It’s unfair because our expectations of ourselves are often unrealistic. We imagine how we would have reacted to something when we might, in the event of it happening, react very differently. I imagine that if there was someone getting ready to fire a gun at someone I would heroically jump in front of them, but the reality might well be very different. And it’s also unfair because if we make assumptions about how other people ought to behave without telling them what we’re expecting then we are setting them up for a fall. There have been times when someone has been unwell in the churches I serve and they (reasonably) expect that their Minister (aka me) would check to see how they are and perhaps come and see them. But if nobody has told me that the person is unwell, it’s not fair to expect me to get in contact and get huffy when I don’t.

It’s heresy time again, folks, so get ready with those virtual stones…

God is not reasonable. By that I mean that he doesn’t treat us in the way that we deserve, he responds to us with grace. He doesn’t limit himself to our low expectations he is generous. He doesn’t just want to be friends with the nice people in the world, he wants all of us to know him. He doesn’t conform to our expectations, he exists well outside the box and thinks well beyond the blue sky! He is extraordinarily unreasonable! If you doubt that, read one of the Gospels and look at Jesus. He was SO unreasonable it was brilliant – going out of his way to mix with the wrong people, breaking the religious rules that were like a straightjacket on people and loving in a self-sacrificial way that has never been seen before or since.

And I am so glad he is unreasonable. Because he can cope with my unreasonable behaviour, whether or not I am sitting on a Clapham omnibus!

Be blessed, be a blessing

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

getting rid of the goat

pexels-photo-58914.jpeg

A fragment of papyrus has recently been found in the Sinai Desert. It appears to be part of a Hebrew Priest’s diary…

Day 3874 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Moses has told us that God has given us a new way of dealing with our sin: a Scapegoat. After he’d made himself pure Aaron placed his hands on a goat’s head and confessed all our sin, transferring it to the goat. The goat was then sent off into the wilderness as an atonement sacrifice and we were back in favour with God. Good news.

Day 3875 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Rather alarmingly the goat came back to the camp during the night. Clearly it was hungry and thirsty and as we’d looked after it all its life it decided that being with us was better than the wilderness. Aaron was not sure what to do as God didn’t give him any instructions for what to do if the scapegoat came back. He commissioned me to drive the goat away again so I shooed it far away.

Day 3876 Still not made it to the Promised Land. That pesky goat came back during the night again. I was rather relieved that Aaron didn’t notice so this time I took it a long way away from the camp and tied it to a bush. Glad to have got away with that one.

Day 3877 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Guess what. The goat came back again last night, dragging a half-eaten bush behind it. It must be part homing-pigeon as it keeps coming back home. This time I took it off to the middle of the wilderness and tied it to a rock. I made the mistake of looking it in the eyes as I left – I feel really sorry for it.

Day 3878 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Unbelievably the goat came back again last night. It chewed its way through the rope. I think we have bonded so I have decided to keep it. I will hide it in my tent and try to disguise it so that Aaron doesn’t find out. If anyone asks me about the bleating sounds and I will tell them that I have allergy issues that are making me sneeze.

[The next part of the parchment is missing and looks like it has been chewed by a goat]

Day 3891 Still not made it to the Promised Land. Scapey (the goat) has been chewing everything in my tent. It’s becoming really difficult to keep him hidden and he won’t stop bleating, even when I’m not in the tent. I find it difficult to do my priestly duties while hiding my guilty secret. Every time I see Aaron I can feel my face reddening and I am sure he suspects something. Got to stop writing now as someone is coming.

[The fragment of parchment ends here].

I wrote this parable following my morning bible study on the subject of ‘scapegoat’ from Leviticus. I wondered why the goats didn’t come back to the place where they were fed and given water, and what would happen if they did… the rest is in my imagination! It’s a parable we have shared with our churches to help them think missionally, but it also made me reflect personally…

  • The idea of a scapegoat is one with which many people (especially Christians are familiar). The Bible says that the scapegoat atonement has now been fulfilled in Jesus. Why do you think God wanted the scapegoat to take the sin away into the wilderness?
  • What could the priest have done differently? Why do you think he decided to try to deal with the goat on his own?When we confess to God what we need to be forgiven do we do so with the hope that we will be set free from them or are we just glad that we can be continually forgiven as we continue to do the same things?
  • How often do we seek forgiveness for our sins and then find that they have made their way back into our life? Is there an alternative to trying to deal with them on our own? Do we sometimes try to keep them secret instead of dealing with them?How does our attitude to forgiveness, failure and finding freedom affect our participation in God’s mission?
  • New Christians often make the most enthusiastic evangelists. Is it time for us to seek to rediscover the joy of our salvation?

Be blessed, be a blessing

resurrection rollercoaster

Once again we are about to strap ourselves into the spiritual and emotional rollercoaster that is Easter. For me Easter starts with the long, slow Lent ascent towards Palm Sunday. The shouts of “Hosanna!” at the top begin to turn into shrieks when we swoop downwards as the authorities tell Jesus to quieten the crowd and we are thrown into a series of unexpected corkscrews as Jesus clears the Temple of the traders. 

From there we have a series of small undulations and curves as the authorities question and challenge Jesus and he tries one last time to prepare his followers for what is about to happen. 

Suddenly there’s another steep drop as Judas agrees to betray Jesus and then another slow ascent to a profound peak as we experience the Last Supper. From there we experience a stomach-churning maelstrom of emotion as Jesus is betrayed, arrested, abandoned, betrayed, tried, flogged, sentenced and condemned. 

And just when we think things can’t get any worse the rollercoaster plunges into a tunnel of pitch-black darkness with Jesus on the cross, his death and burial. At this point, in the darkness, we are disorientated and unaware that the rollercoaster is actually climbing again. 

On Easter Sunday it emerges triumphant into the glorious brightness of the new day of resurrection, restoration and recommissioning.

(I did wonder whether on Easter Sunday we should find that we have emerged from the darkness and find ourselves on a completely different rollercoaster, but that would be stretching the analogy too far!)

One of the miracles for me as a Minister at this time of year is that I have yet to run out of new things to learn and discover about Jesus. I was ordained 23 years ago and each Easter there is more for me to learn, understand, appreciate and experience and there are more reasons for me to worship the Risen Saviour. I find that it is easy to fall into the trap, however, of looking for that ‘new thing’ rather than simply stopping and reflecting on what I have already experienced and know to be true. Let me give you an example:

“Jesus is alive!” This phrase trips off our tongues so easily. Familiarity with that does not so much breed contempt as complacency. But stop for a moment. Think about it. Allow the words to sink into your heart and mind. Jesus was dead and now is alive! Don’t go off into the theological implications of that just yet – Jesus is alive!!!! The dead, executed, extinguished, disposed-of, rejected one is now the surprising, greeting, living, breathing, walking, locked-door ignoring, breakfast-eating, risen and very much resurrected ONE. Doesn’t that send a shiver down your spine?

My hope and prayer for each one of us is that Jesus will meet each one of us afresh this Easter in significant ways that will revive our faith, and through us and our churches so that the Good News is proclaimed loud and clear in our communities.

Be blessed, be a blessing 

the neverending story

candleI love the Christmas season. Beyond being the season of sparkle, tinsel, presents and ho, ho, ho it’s the season that is full of joy, hope, intimacy with God and the miraculous wonder of Immanuel. There’s so much in the few verses and chapters that we read at this time of year each year. Given that there are a finite number of verses in the traditional Christmas passages in the Bible you would have thought that by now we would have run out of new things to say but in 22 years of ordained Ministry I have delivered loads of Christmas talks and sermons. I may have recycled one or two but there are probably 50-60 different reflections I have given on Christmas, plus bloggages I have written here. And I have not exhausted the narrative by any stretch of God’s imagination.

Sometimes the thoughts and ideas come easily and sometimes it is a struggle to find something new. But there is always more: I have explored the idea of God in a nappy; written an all-age story based on Nora the Noisy Angel; reflected on the names given in Isaiah 9; stuck a rubber glove on my head in a Christingle (probably best not to ask); compared Caesar Augustus with Jesus and many more. I imagine that if Ministers shared the themes we have explored this year there would be hundreds of different messages. Yet all of them ultimately point towards a baby born in an outhouse and laid in a feeding trough who was born to save the world – God’s creativity is limitless in his desire to communicate with those whom he loves – it’s a neverending story!

One year we took a risk and explored the theme of ‘Disappointment’ on Christmas Day in the first church in which I ministered. We started with disappointing presents and how we say, “Thank you, it’s just what I wanted” through gritted teeth. We then explored how the virgin conception would have led to a lot of disappointment for Mary’s family and for Joseph (initially); that the manner of Jesus’ birth was a disappointment to those who were expecting a royal birth; and that for some people Christmas itself is a disappointment because of their circumstances and who may not be with them. We finished with reflecting on how, even though Jesus’ birth narrative was full of disappointment it actually was just what we wanted and that it was a moment of hope in despair and light in darkness. Many people felt disappointed with that service because it was not the usual upbeat, bouncy, happy Christmas Day service. But I will never forget the lady who came up to me afterwards with tears in her eyes as she held my hand so firmly that it almost hurt. She couldn’t find the words to say, but she didn’t need to.

I hope that you will have a joy-filled Christmas. I pray that you will find space for yourself to be refreshed and reflect on something new that God’s Spirit has revealed to you from the Christmas narratives. And I hope and pray that even if there is disappointment you will know encouragement and blessing from people whose lives God has touched through you this year.

Be blessed, be a blessing, and Happy Christmas to you all