Thursday, 21 September 2017

Speaking of Sin

Tomorrow I’m attending a Ministers’ Book Discussion Group in Luton. We meet up three or four times a year over a packed lunch to discuss a book of theology.  On Friday, it’s Speaking of Sin by the American Episcopalian priest, Barbara Brown Taylor.

I like this book, and not just because it’s short!

As she begins her examination of words like sin and repentance, asking if they actually have any meaning outside of our Church culture, she says, rather playfully ‘I think it is safe to say Christians need never fear the commercialisation of Ash Wednesday’ – probably an understatement!

This book isn’t one that in any sense denies the reality of sin, even though it brought to my attention the fascinating revelation that our Jewish cousins actually have no doctrine of Original Sin – you learn something new every day!

Instead of denying the pain sin causes us and others, Taylor writes, ‘We really are free to make the most disastrous decisions.  Our choices really do have consequences.’

It’s the facing up to this challenge that is addressed by our book tomorrow.

Taylor is not convinced that the old Church vocabulary will do.  So, she has a stab at trying to define the essence of sin using other language. 

One of the most beautiful passages in the book, in my view, is a sort of alternative Confession:

Deep down in human existence, there is an experience of being cut off from life…
Deep down in human existence there is an experience of seeing the light and turning away from it…
Deep down in human existence there is an experience of reaching for forbidden fruit and pushing away loving arms…

For Taylor repentance is fundamentally about us positively and determinedly restoring broken relationships.  In that respect, she finds much overlap with the teaching of the Buddha who taught more about orthopraxis than orthodoxy.

Repentance, in Taylor’s view, is never simply a personal act of piety.  To repent is to DO something that brings about reconciliation.

For me that would be epitomised by the life of The Revd John Newton.  Yes, he wrote in Amazing Grace about the God who ‘saved a wretch like me’ and that’s because he wasn’t at all proud of his time as a Slave Ship Captain.  Yet, for Newton, repentance and salvation are not just words that describe a personal relationship with God.  No, he used all his power as an Anglican priest to support, encourage and mentor William Wilberforce as he put the Abolition Bill before Parliament.  Newton used his repentance to build a better community.

Speaking of Sin struck me initially as such a bleak title for a book, yet it turned out to be a very uplifting and positive read.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Just shut up and be grateful!

This week I attended a Ministers’ Breakfast.  Sixteen Baptist Ministers from all over Buckinghamshire were there, seated around a big table tucking into the granola and croissants!

There was lots of friendly banter and it was a lovely occasion.

After sipping my orange juice I was in full flow describing my holiday to a colleague I much respect when I found myself just being a touch negative about the accommodation.  ‘Oh Ian’, she said, with a smile upon her face, ‘Just shut up and be grateful!’

Now, you can only speak like that to a good friend!

She was right – absolutely right.  We had spent a super two weeks in a lovely part of Britain, in a very nice flat, with very reasonable weather.  It was 98% perfect – so why did I slip into moaning about that 2%!!

I suspect we all do it: ‘Lovely dinner, but what a shame they served instant coffee instead of filter afterwards!’

Call it ‘finding fault’ or simply ‘missing the point’ – the truth is that, by and large, most of us have far more to be thankful for than to grumble about.
Words matter.

Recently the Daily Telegraph published a blank page. It looks really odd – a page without words.  It was a protest really, a statement by the journalists saying they’d prefer to print no words than sentences of ‘fake news’.

Yesterday, at breakfast, I was gently and wisely reprimanded for using my words in complaint rather than gratitude.

Developing and sustaining a thankful, grateful heart is probably one of the keys to good, healthy living.

It’s one of the reasons the prayers after the sermon in our services begin with Thanksgiving before going on to Intercession.  It’s also why the Communion Service in some traditions is called ‘The Eucharist’, literally meaning ‘Thanksgiving’ or ‘Praise’.

This is the month of Harvest Festivals and they give us an opportunity to do many things – and one of the most important is simply to be grateful and express thanks.  Thanks to God, to farmers, to growers, scientists, fishermen and retailers.
Well this thought began its life at a Buckinghamshire Ministers’ Meeting – and way back in 1844 another Buckinghamshire Minister, The Revd Henry Alford, penned the opening line of a hymn we regularly use in our Harvest worship:  Come, ye THANKFUL people come!


Thursday, 7 September 2017

Fake News

I’ve only recently caught up with the idea of ‘fake news’ – even though, I guess, it’s been around forever. 

The idea that an event can be so misreported that it becomes obvious that the journalists or editors involved main intention was to mislead rather than inform their readers and hearers.

It’s about being manipulative and having an agenda rather than simply and straightforwardly reporting facts; and I can see why some think there’s more ‘fake news’ around now than ever before.

We all know the saying: ‘No news is good news’ and I wonder if we aren’t misreading that and then adding the follow up statement, ‘All news is bad news’.  That’s because so much of what we hear can leave us with the predominant impression that just about everything going on around us is negative, bad and inevitably getting worse.

Twenty years ago two women died.  One a princess, whose anniversary has had a great deal of coverage over the last few days, the other a nun: Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  They knew each other and both had very public funerals.

We may debate the merits of both women and inevitably we would discover their feet of clay, yet surely both were so admired because of their compassion and the way they used their position and influence for the benefit of others.  Strip away all the debates about the princess’ private life or the nun’s traditional Roman Catholic position on birth control, and you are still left with two individuals who inspired thousands of people with their concern for others; it motivated them and prompted others to show similar kindness.

I was struck listening to Women’s Hour last week on the car radio as a younger person said during a discussion about Diana that she felt no one had replaced her in the last two decades as a compassionate role model.
It’s interesting that – our desire for role models, and perhaps they are no longer on the national stage.  The age of celebrity seems vacuous and our politicians are so often hijacked by short term issues rather than big ideas.
However, I’m not sure that the public stage is always the best place to look for role models anyway. And that brings me back to the News.  There is, I think, a huge gulf between the world presented to us by the media and the one we really inhabit.  The real world, I suggest, can be a much kinder and more inspirational place than the one presented to us on News at Ten.  It’s in our families, schools, hospitals, churches and local communities that we will come across the sort of people who can become role models of compassion and dedication.
Joseph Hertz was born into a Hungarian Jewish family and eventually became Chief Rabbi here in Britain some seventy years ago and he put it like this: We are never nearer the divine than in our compassionate moments.
Or how about this conclusion reached by the Lakeland Poet William Wordsworth: the best portion of a life is not our fame and success, but those little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love. Fake news may be here to stay, but so too will be the kindnesses we come across, sometimes at the most unexpected times and in the most unusual places – such moments won’t make it into that evening’s new bulletins or the next day’s papers but they are part of the real world in which we live.


Sunday, 3 September 2017

Joining the Divine Dance

One of my favourite pieces of church choral music is David Ogden’s setting of a prayer attributed to Teresa of Avila: Christ has no body now but yours.  The choir were kind enough to sing it at my Induction at AFC.

The full text of that prayer goes like this:
Christ has no body now but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on the world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are the body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

As September begins and many of our church organisations resume their activities after the summer break these are good words to pray.  They remind us of our ‘call’ to serve Christ.

Yet, maybe Teresa of Avila’s prayer also worries us in that it so emphasises our responsibility that it might just feel that God’s mission is now completely down to us; which is never the case.

In his book The Divine Dance (which the AFC Book Group have just read) Richard Rohr, describes the work of God in our world as a ‘dance’.  That dance, that activity of God is going on all the time, both inside and outside the Church.  We don’t have to start the dance, instead all we have to do is join in!

I love that idea.  The concept that God is already at work in a thousand and one ways in our world and my responsibility is to figure out what that looks and feels like and join in! 

That way of thinking makes the ‘restart’ of so much of our activity here at church in September feels not so much a burden that worries us but a joy that can delight us – as we seek to share in the work that God is already doing among us.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

No Internet!!

We came back from holiday to the news that the Internet has been disconnected from The Manse!

Now this is not because the church hasn’t paid the bill – but rather because our provider says a person, unknown to us, asked for the line to be cut!

So we have been without internet or telephone for just under a week.  We were all relieved when the new router arrived a few days ago – with second son deployed to connect it!!

Twenty years ago and none of this would have mattered because I wouldn’t have needed my wifi printer to crunch out my sermon or the order of service and we probably didn’t have a church website back then anyway.

But all of us at the Manse were going round starting things but then unable to finish them because we needed the internet.  We’ve even started talking to each other – it got that bad!!

It’s made me realise once again how easy it is to take things for-granted until they are gone.

I regularly speak to folk who tell me what they now think is really special in life isn’t the cruise they’d always wanted to go on but the ability to walk unaided by a stick or listen to a favourite piece of music and hear every note.

Others say that owning all the money you could ever think of wouldn’t be as special as having a loved one back.


Now the internet is back, hopefully the phone will be fixed this afternoon and all will be ‘back to normal’! – but all of this has taught me once again to be thankful for my family and friends, and for my health and strength – because it seems to me that it’s actually the ordinary things in life that turn out to be the most special.

Speaking of Sin

Tomorrow I’m attending a Ministers’ Book Discussion Group in Luton. We meet up three or four times a year over a packed lunch to discuss a...