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.

looking for a wookiee

I think our family might acquire a new euphemism: “Looking for a wookiee.” It will mean ‘going to the toilet’!

No, we haven’t lost our mind, and if you have ever visited our house you might have a sense of why “Looking for a wookiee” might mean that. Last year, when I was convalescing following surgery, my children (allegedly grown up) gave me a book to keep me occupied: Where’s the Wookiee. It’s a Star Wars version of Where’s Wally (or Where’s Waldo if you’re in the USA) in which there are scenes from the Star Wars franchise of films and in each on Chewbacca the wookiee is hiding along with lots of other characters you also have to find. Are you with me so far? Some of you may be ahead of me.

After enjoying the book I decided that it might be the sort of thing that people might enjoy if they need to pass the time in our downstairs ‘washroom’. Subsequently I was given the sequel that was cleverly titled Where’s the Wookiee 2 and that has replaced the first one.

So if you need to use the smallest room in the house and want to be a bit more delicate about it, you can say that you are going to look for a wookiee.

Of course to most people that will make no sense at all when they hear it, especially if they have not read this bloggage or haven’t visited the house. But it means something to me – not only where I am headed, but also reminding me of my children – and you may hear it if you visit. I wonder what family euphemisms you have…

Of course organisations are very good at having their own language that nobody else can understand. They may start off as euphemisms, or may be terminology used to describe something technical. Perhaps even they are a shorthand for a lengthy description. Most of the time these things seem to become jargon…

Medical jargon is impenetrable to most of us. Computer jargon may as well be Klingon. Magicians have their own language that is actually designed to be difficult for non-magicians to comprehend. And Christian churches have their own jargon that many of us in church don’t understand, never mind outside!

I distinctly remember walking down a street one day and seeing a street preacher haranguing the passers-by with his big black bible tucked under his arm. Next to him were his minions. You could tell they were minions because they were small, yellow and shaped like tic tacs they had smaller black bibles under their arms. Most people were giving him a wide berth as they walked past and as I approached he proclaimed, “Jesus Christ is the propitiation for your sins!”

I should have stopped and asked him to explain what he meant but I was so gobsmacked I kept walking. I have a feeling that I may have been the only one who knew what he meant* (possibly including him!). I still use it more than 25 years later as an example of how not to communicate with your audience.

The problem is that the subject of his message is really important. But the content and delivery method made it so incomprehensible for most passers-by that he completely failed to communicate.

Successful communication requires the successful transmission of information, ideas, emotions, feelings and so much more from a person(s) to another (or others). If you have been heard but not understood you have not communicated you have only expounded. And since ‘ex’ can mean ‘no longer current’ and ‘pound’ can mean ‘to pummel’ an intended recipient is unlikely to be receptive of that approach.

I realise that this bloggage may not have been an example of successful communication, it may have simply been me expounding. If that is the case, I apologise. But if you will excuse me I don’t have time to explain further as I have to go and look for a wookiee.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*It refers to how Jesus made it possible for us to have a good relationship with God by dealing with the wrong stuff in our lives when he died – like when a bodyguard takes a bullet for the person they are protecting.

is Christmas over?

Christmas is an amazing season isn’t it? A whole church calendar month is taken up with retelling the narrative from what amounts to just a handful of verses from the Old Testament and a handful of chapters from the New Testament. Yet there is always something new in the narrative to captivate, challenge and provoke us no matter how long we have been a Christian. If you strip away the tinsel, baubles, presents and fat beardy blokes in red suits we are left with an astonishingly complex series of events.

It’s a narrative that begins with a pregnant nation and a pregnant teenager, leads us to a bewildered fiancé, changes scene due to a politically-motivated relocation, peaks with a birth in squalid conditions, involves rough and ready strangers poking their noses in uninvited (reminding us that Jesus is for the rough sleepers as much as the wealthy)… and it’s the story of God with Us. It’s the story of God breaking all of the theological rules because he loves us all.

But we’re past Christmas now. It has been taken down, packed away and assimilated into our churches in the same way that we assimilate that new pair of socks from Aunt Doris into our wardrobe – comfy and familiar, so why am I going on about it still? Well, I am left uneasy with that shift, especially in a lot of free churches. Because we may well have missed out significant parts of the narrative that are as much ‘Scripture’ as any other.

My wife often comments that she has rarely heard a sermon on the significance of the faithful, prayerful expectation of the elderly Simeon and Anna. And I have rarely heard (and even more rarely preached) a sermon on Herod that culminates in the slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem. He makes a cameo appearance as the pantomime villain in the nativity story – a signpost for the wise men (back to them in a moment) but it’s not easy to think about infanticide on the scale that he ordered. And of course it led to Jesus being a refugee, a ‘migrant’ (asylum seeker?). (Would he have ended up in a rubber boat trying to cross the Mediterranean to safety today, perhaps even ending up in Calais?)

And there are those pesky wise men. Pedants (me included) remind us that there was an indeterminate number of them, albeit three gifts. But they were astrologers, they were foreigners, and (heaven forbid) they may even have been magicians (‘magi’ is the root of the word). They were guided by some sort of celestial phenomenon and play a pivotal role in the narrative by reminding us that Jesus was not just for the Jews. Yet their meddling led them to alert Herod to Jesus’ birth and quite possibly led to the toddler-bloodbath. What good did their worship gifts of gold, incense and myrrh do the bereft parents?

All of this reminds me that to try to create a neat, tidy, sanitised gospel is impossible because God in not neat, tidy and sanitised. He is God with us in the midst of mess and carnage. He is God with us in emotional trauma. He is God with us in confusion. He is God with us when we feel on the outside. He refuses to be limited by human expectations or theology. We can attempt to describe him but he’s always going to surprise us by being beyond our imagination.

We often talk about ‘blue sky thinking’ and ‘thinking out of the box’ because we don’t want to be constrained by tradition and expectation. And I warm to that. But paradoxically I want to confine my thinking this year. This year I want to think inside the manger. Who knows where that will take me?

Jesus is missing

I hope that you are well and in good heart as you navigate through the maelstrom of Christmas events. I hope and pray that in the midst of it all you are finding Jesus… which leads me neatly to my theme:

Have you seen this news story on the BBC news website? https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lancashire-46599641?utm_source=Daily+Media+Digest&utm_campaign=4223aabbb0-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_12_03_10_54_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_296e14724b-4223aabbb0-248620461&fbclid=IwAR2rgNGteYRlZ7vzkbhmnrM9m5nmIiM_DpmnUvHr-G9YkvdRYbzk_ooqC_w  

If you don’t have time to read it, the short version is that someone has taken the baby Jesus from a church nativity scene in St Annes, Lancashire. It’s not clear whether it’s malicious, pranksters or even a child who wanted to take care of the baby however in the article there are a couple of fascinating sentences: The first is from the priest, Revd Scargill who ‘said he had tried to order a replacement Jesus but it was out of stock.’ Imagine that, Jesus is out of stock at Christmas! (There’s a line for your Christmas day sermon).

But for many of us he can be out of stock, can’t he? I am not just talking about the people who don’t know him, who walk past churches every day unaware of the good news within. I am also referring to the way that for all of us we can all ‘run out of Jesus’ – even Ministers. It happens particularly when we are busy and we find that we lose touch with him. Our faith dims a bit (it’s so gradual we don’t always notice the process) and slowly but surely we find that we are ministering more in our own strength than in the power of the Spirit. Of course we are good at covering it up so that our people won’t notice, but we do notice after a while. We feel a little empty, or as if the shine has been taken off and spiritual fruit starts to wither and we respond to people with less grace, joy, patience and so on. That leads me to the second sentence.

In the article there are quotes from different people. The priest speaks of forgiveness for those who return Jesus. But on the church Facebook group one lady ‘called the culprit “low life scum”’. I’m not sure which of the fruit of the Spirit is being shown there.

I do hope they find Jesus (a smaller replacement has been offered). And more than that I hope and pray that all of us find him again this year in the familiar carols, readings, services, lunches, Christingles, nativity plays and the time we spend with those we love.

do less, be more (continued)

Carrying on from the last bloggage, I am exploring Mark 1:35-39

A summary of what happened is that Jesus seems to have found himself a good place and time. Jesus went off to a place with few distractions where he was unlikely to be interrupted.

He went very early because he knew the rest of the day would be busy. The fact that the disciples mounted a full-scale manhunt for him suggests that they were not used to him doing this, but if you read the gospels there are lots of times when Jesus took himself off to pray. He set aside time and space to talk with his Father. It’s not that he didn’t talk with him through the day, but he knew the value of giving God his full attention.

Sally will tell you that I am not a morning person so getting up very early to pray is not likely to bless me. But I can find other times in the day when I know I have space and can give God my full attention.

When he gave his Father his full attention prayer flowed. We don’t know what he said,but from other prayers he prayed we know he would remind himself who his heavenly Father is, he prayed for guidance, strength, for the state of his relationship with his Father and other people, he would pray that God’s will be done…

That feels like a good model for our praying doesn’t it? And of course it’s actually the model we call the Lord’s prayer.

Are you feeling guilty yet?

It’s really easy for us to look at Jesus, or at other people and their amazing prayer lives and feel like a failure. My prayer life is nothing like what I have just described.

But God wants us to be us, not to be someone else.When it comes to praying we can be really good at beating ourselves up because we don’t think we’re very good at it. Or we wallow in guilt because we don’t pray as much as the preacher says we ought to. Or we resolve on a Sunday that this week we’re going to do better, and have forgotten that resolve by the time we tuck into our Sunday roast at home.

If you come away from today thinking, “I must try harder,” or “I must do better” then I will have failed. Because that’s not the message I am bringing you. You see Jesus didn’t pray out of a sense of duty or obligation. He prayed because it was natural for him to talk with his Father,and because he was full of the Holy Spirit whose role is to enhance our relationship with God. Jesus must have found immense benefit and blessing in praying. If he didn’t he wouldn’t have got up so early to do it. He made time and space to give his Father his full attention.

Recently I have joined a gym. It’s part of my desire to continue my rehabilitation following surgery earlier in the year. When I started at the gym I found most of the exercises were hard and left me feeling exhausted. The next day my muscles ached terribly. But I have been going to the gym twice a week for most weeks since and I have found that the exercises are becoming a bit easier. I can lift a little more weight, walk and row and cycle a bit faster and further. And I find I am even enjoying it.

To compare our prayer life with going to the gym is rather inadequate but the similarity is that while we may struggle at first,the more we pray the easier it gets.

Let me change the image. When I first started going out with Sally we didn’t really know each other very well. We had to get to know how each other thought, we had to understand each other better and in order to do that we had to talk with each other. We have been married for over 29 years now and conversation between us is much easier because we know each other so well. Sometimes we know what the other one is going to say even before they say it.

So it is with God in prayer. The more you talk with him the better you get to know him and the easier the conversation (prayer)flows. And to help you get started I would suggest that you may find it helpful to find a space where you won’t be disturbed or distracted. You may find it helpful to find a time when you have not got lots of other things to do. And when you are in that space, tell God what’s on your mind.

Be honest with him because he already knows it anyway,but by being honest with him you’re being honest with yourself. If you don’t know what to pray, remember the things Jesus prayed about – use the Lord’s Prayer if that helps you. But instead of rattling through it pause and think about each phrase and tell God what images and thoughts it conjures up in your mind. What does it mean that you pray to your Father in heaven? What does it mean to say that his name is holy?

If you struggle to pray on your own, find someone or a couple of people you know and trust and join together on a regular basis to share and pray together. Or you could join a home group. Find support in your local church.

Relationships are deepened and enhanced by spending special time with the other person and giving them your full attention, and that includes our relationship with God.

Be blessed, be a blessing

making up for lost time

Gosh, was it nearly a month ago that I last posted a bloggage? That’s not good. I am surprised any of you are still interested! By way of apology I will put some posts up over the next week or so that are based on my reflections on a passage from the Bible on which I have preached recently:

Mark 1:35-38

a relaxing place

Gosh, was it nearly a month ago that I last posted a bloggage?! I am amazed anyone is still interested in what I write, and you must feel really ignored by me. By way of apology / revenge I am planning to post a series over the next week or so based on a recent sermon. It’s all based on Mark 1:35-39:

35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: ‘Everyone is looking for you!’

38 Jesus replied, ‘Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so that I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’ 39 So he travelled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

When I was asked to preach on this passage it was with a theme of beating burnout and prioritising prayer. But as I have looked at the passage this week I think I have found the secret to winning at church and life. I think it will shock some of you.

I wonder what you think it might be:
Getting up early, while it’s still dark?
Praying more?
Preaching?
Going outside the walls of the church on evangelistic road trips?
Casting out demons?

Actually I think it’s this: do less, be more.

When we look at Jesus in this passage I think we see that he does less than the disciples thought he should, but was more in touch with his heavenly Father. Do less, be more.

If anyone didn’t need to it was him – he was the Son of God! Yet the gospel writers record many occasions when Jesus was praying, not just this one.

It did him good – recharging spiritual batteries – the day before he had been healing and driving out demons, which was spiritually draining – after praying he was ready to go elsewhere and preach. It maintained his relationship with his Father and Spirit – praying to his Father, empowered by the Spirit.

It made a difference – Jesus had more than enough to do without getting up early, so he must have considered that it made a difference to him and his mission. You might think this is a case where he is doing more, but it’s actually about him being closer to his Father.

So what about it? Am I prepared to do less and be more?