Minister’s blog

No need to apologise

“We’ve got it so good that we feel guilty”.  I’ve had this conversation repeatedly around Wotton over the last few weeks…  We know that Gloucestershire has not been hit so hard by coronavirus as other places in the UK.  There are plenty of WAMA volunteers to meet the needs of our community & even more good neighbours keeping an eye out for one another.  Less commuting means more time with family at home and less money spent on fuel.  Even at the height of the lockdown we could take our daily exercise in beautiful surroundings.  Some of us are seeing more of our distant friends families than we normally do by using new social media platforms.  We know this crisis is really tough for people living in Tower Hamlets and will be worse still for refugees in Cox’s Bazar, but lots of us are doing better than OK, so we feel guilty.  I don’t believe God wants us to feel guilty.

Because he wants us to be blessed.  The bible says that every good thing comes from God.  It celebrates life on this earth, in these bodies.  Wine, bread, fruit, sex, marriage, family, community, celebrations, health, prosperity: all explicitly stated to be gifts from a good God, all to be enjoyed with thanks to the creator.  Don’t feel guilty; chill out.  Enjoy the sunshine and the extra time you’ve saved by not commuting.  Ride those dry trails.  Finally get the garden in order.  And be thankful.

He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate— bringing forth food from the earth:  wine that gladdens human hearts, oil to make their faces shine, and bread that sustains their hearts. Psalm 104:14-15

He also wants us to be generous.  We are blessed so that we can be a blessing.  This is a repeated biblical theme.  Abram is chosen to be blessed and to be a blessing to all peoples.   Ancient Israel is chosen to be a light to the nations.  Jesus tells us to love as we have been loved, to give mercy as it has been given to us, to forgive as we have been forgiven.  The New Testament letters tell us to give just as generously as we have received.  New Testament generosity is born of the radical self-giving love of Jesus.  Not a grudging scrambling for leftover change for the charity pot, but a planned and systemic personal overflow of God’s blessing in our lives.  John Wesley, the great 18th century preacher preached a sermon entitled ‘on the use of money’.  The key points were: gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.  Wesley famously lived this out.  In 1731 he worked out he could live on £28 per year.  He continued to do this until he died in 1791 – even when his annual income was £1400.  Don’t feel guilty.  Make plans to use your time and money to support others less fortunate than yourselves… and then do it.

Command those who are rich in this present world … them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.  1 Timothy 6:17-18

Embarassment about our prosperity and vigilance for something to say sorry for are British traits. They’re not Christian traits though. We have got so much going for us in Wotton, but that’s nothing we need to apologise for.  Let’s enjoy what we’ve been given and use our time and resources to bless others as we have been blessed. 

Lockdown Yorkshire

Over recent weeks, I have joined massed cycling events in Richmond Virginia, Central London, New York City and Harrogate, Yorkshire.  Participants have not been observing social distancing rules and I have not seen a single law enforcement officer.  Since the UK & US introduced social distancing measures these events have got busier and busier with tens of thousands joining in from all over the world.  In Yorkshire last week, the beautiful countryside was crammed with athletes.

Zwift is a cycling app where cyclists from across the globe compete against themselves and one another on virtual courses using smart trainers linked to computers.   The number of miles covered by users has more than tripled since the Coronavirus pandemic began (now 3.5 million miles per day).  Zwift designers copy elements of real-life locations to create their courses – you ride along the Mall to Buckingham Palace, past Betty’s Tea Rooms in Harrogate and around Central Park in NYC.  Real features are shuffled around to make them more interesting for cyclists (Box Hill is just across the Thames from central London on Zwift!).  They have done a pretty good job.

I have cycled in real central London and Yorkshire.   Zwift Harrogate does have grand Georgian buildings, roads lined by limestone walls, green fields, sheep and the occasional traction engine.   But it does not have the smell of fresh rain on dry fields it does not have the feel of the wind behind you and realistic sounds of sheep and birds.  Zwift London does have Tower Bridge and Big Ben, but it doesn’t have the buzz of city life or the thrill of being quicker than the cars.  Zwift is frankly (and unsurprisingly) less real than cycling in the real world.

I advised the kids in our church to read the Chronicles of Narnia whilst in lockdown.  I’ve just finished re-reading The Last Battle again with our kids.  At the end of the story the kings and queens leave the old Narnia behind and come into the new Narnia (you’ve had 74 years to read it, so I’m not apologising for the spoiler!).  What they discover is that things are the same – the same mountains, woods and valleys, but that everything is more real, the fruit is more tasty, the air is fresher, the views are more beautiful.  They also discover that they themselves are strengthened – aches and pains have gone and they can run and run without tiring – they are themselves, but more real.  Lewis covers a similar theme in The Great Divorce where day trippers to heaven realise that they are mere ghosts and that heaven is to solid – too real – for their taste and voluntarily return to the grey town.  Of course, both fictions are drawn from a biblical vision of the future.  The new heaven and the new earth: where the wealth, culture and creativity of all the nations are preserved and unified for the Glory of God – the same stuff, but made real and permanent.  The resurrection body of Jesus: solid to touch, but able to pass unhindered through walls.   The same Jesus, but more real.   The hope of Paul that we too will be raised imperishable – the same but more real.

I’m enjoying zwifting in Harrogate during lockdown, but real cycling in the real Harrogate would be so much better.    There is much that is wonderful about this life – even at a tough time like the present.  But the Christian hope is that resurrection life will have every wonderful blessing of this life made more real…. And no Coronavirus.   

Prayer in a time of disonnection

Lost Connections by Johann Hari is a very good book.  You can tell it’s a good book because it has endorsements from Hilary Clinton and Dr Max Pemberton and Elton John.  You can tell it’s well researched because it has almost 60 pages of footnotes.  You can tell it connects with a current topic because the author’s 2019 TED talk on the subject has been viewed 5 million times.   It’s about depression: “why you’re depressed and how to find hope”.

Hari tells the story of his own depression and medication.  He engages in detailed dialogue with a wide range of scientists and psychiatrists and their work.  He movingly shares stories of hope.  He points us towards ways of reconnecting with ourselves, our world, our work and our fellow human beings which address the root causes rather than the chemical effects of our depression.

Hari leaves no stone unturned in his quest to explore the causes of depression and find solutions….  Well, almost no stone.  Apparently ‘there is evidence that people who pray become less depressed’….  But Hari is ‘an atheist so that’s not on the table’ for him.   Clearly I don’t think Atheists should be forced to pray against their will, but the admission seems particularly odd to me as a praying reader in the middle of such a thorough and well written piece of work.

I’ve seen a few bits of research into the efficacy of prayer over the years.  I really don’t believe that it’s possible to quantify it well.  This is partly because people do other things when they pray – they try to stop their mind racing around, they might be still or quiet or alone – all of which have effects in their own right regardless of any prayer taking place.  It’s also partly because if, like me, you believe that prayer is a two way thing then to whom or what you pray to matters.   A conversation with an abusive partner will not have the same effect on someone’s mood as a conversation with a kind friend or with a chat with a proverbial brick wall.

Jesus described God as a kind Father who know our needs and loves us.  To pray is to reconnect with him.  Jesus advises us to pray with reverence and awareness of our own frailty, but with boldness, clarity, integrity and hope.  The prayers of the bible range from quiet submission to raging confrontation – from the heart and in the language of the time.   Answers to prayer in the bible and today come in many forms – a feeling, a change of circumstances, a picture in the imagination, a verse of scripture on the page or from the memory bank or a new boldness to face the day.  This is impossible to quantify – like any relationship.  It’s also worth saying that prayer may initially be bad for us, where our lives are invested in habits and economies which oppose God’s good plans for the world.   But where prayer is directed to the true God, the relationship established is ultimately good for us.  Because God is good.

Which is why I think Johan Hari would do well to get over his prejudice and pray.     Read the book – it’s full of hope..  But don’t dismiss prayer at this time of disconnection.

 

Books are better than Blogs

A little hypocrisy from me today.  I’ve just read Tim Farron’s ‘A better Ambition’ and I’m reminded that I prefer books to blogs and other online information sources. We all know that online news is hopelessly oversimplified. Apparently, the average blog is around 1000 words.  Newspaper articles are usually around 800 words.  Online news items, designed to fit into your 6 inch smartphone screen are shorter.  Tweets are limited to 280 characters, but the average is apparently 33. 

I remembered Tim Farron being called a “God-bothering little shit” before the Lib Dem Leadership Election.  This immediately endeared him to me & meant that I followed his Lib Dem leadership and media appearances over the following years with interest. 

Of course, the book is an unashamed apologia for his politics and his actions from his point of view.  It has his photo on the front, it tells his story in his words and it sets out to clear the record.  But that’s OK, because this is not a hidden agenda, nor is the book written as disembodied and unquestionable internet truth.  It’s an autobiography written by an autobiographer.

The book reveals a man with some passionately held values who’s pretty good at communicating them & is able to do so with grace and self-control in most (but not all) combative environments.  It opens up the nuances behind his labels: treacherous, sanctimonious, homophobic etc and reveals a Christian guy who is comfortable in his own skin, liberal towards people with different philosophical and ethical persuasions and kind to the people around him regardless of their backgrounds.    You get to hear about the social, religious, relational and musical forces that have shaped his life.  His role models, his hopes, his anxieties.  Tim Farron begins to make sense as a person.  A person (substantially smarter and more energetic than but) not dissimilar to me.  I’d like to meet him. 

It takes a considerable word count to achieve this.  So here’s to books and to people who write books.  Maybe one day when I have enough that’s original and useful to say, I’ll write one & you’ll get to know me better.

  357 Words

 

 

Banksy VS Jesus

I see that Banksy’s been at it again.  This time it’s a mural of reindeer whisking away the bench on which the homeless man sleeps.  As usual it’s a piece of imaginative, timely deconstruction and a headache for the landowner who now has to protect a priceless work of art from vandals.  Banksy is a prophet.  Time and again he calls out the corruption of economies, dividing walls, industry and power structures.  Each new artwork an anonymous plaintive rage against the machine.  We all forgive him the vandalism because the brilliant murals harnesses our own frustrations with the system.  His 2004 work “Barcode” is my favourite.

But there is a problem with the prophet Banksy.   He warns us about the failures of our systems; he points out the corruption of our leaders; he highlights the shortcomings of cultures, but I have yet to see a Banksy that suggests an alternative.  Banksy likes to deconstruct.  Even when he builds a theme park or a shop, it’s made to tear down. 

Jesus was also a prophet.  No spray can stencils, just wild prophetic acts and publicity stunts.  Turning the tables in the temple.  Hanging out with tax collectors and sinners.  Healing on the Sabbath.  He called out the corruption of the politico-religious system of the day.  He would have been all over everyone else’s social media. 

But Jesus is a constructor.  I will build my church he says.  The Kingdom of God has come near you he says.  Go and make disciples of all nations..  teaching them to obey what I have commanded you.  He starts with a small cell of followers and leads them in a new way of life.  Forgiveness, discipline, hope against hope, humility, worship, self giving, generosity.  A new community of men and women dedicated to living life God’s way.  And so twelve become hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands and millions until Constantine capitulates and compromises and contaminates because he can’t contain Christians.

But despite the contamination, construction continues.  New lives, new hope, new schools and hospitals and rehab centres and churches (people not buildings) in places you wouldn’t expect all atound the world.  Jesus does tear down.  But he also builds.  Maybe I’m doing Banksy a disservice.  Perhaps his anonymous alter-ego is building something beautiful.  The Beaste boys said ‘it takes a second to wreck, it takes time to build.’   Jesus said ‘I will build my church and the gates of death will not prevail against it’.  I’m with Jesus.  On with the building.     

  

The occasional drenching

I have got properly soaked on the way to or from work twice in the last 10 days. Neither drenching was pleasant, but neither was a big problem because I was prepared and I am waterproof.  A cycling friend of mine at university reckoned that if you cycle to work regularly you’ll get properly drenched 11 times a year.  I’ve never counted, but I don’t think he was too far wrong.   

As a teenage Christian, I was nearly as annoyed as Greta.  The Christian narrative – God made the world good, we stuffed it up, Jesus redeemed us and calls us to redeem the world – seemed to point clearly to our responsibility to care for our planet and the people on it.  Any yet everyone still drove to church…. Because everyone drove everywhere.   

For the last 20 years we have paid slightly over the odds for Green electricity at home.  I was delighted to discover today that since 1990 UK greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation have fallen by 57%. It was so good to be able to tell the kids that they have been part real progress towards good stewardship of our planets’ finite resources.  At the same time however, greenhouse gas emissions from transport have stayed more or less static.  

This is partly because the UK is still absolutely addicted to cars.  I went to a parents evening at a local school recently.  I think most of us live within 2 miles of the school.  Nearly all of us drove.  We have a chronic parking problem in our small, thriving town and yet lots of us still drive our kids to primary school or to the shops and then get eggy with one another about our driving / parking.  Some days it’s hard to park at our local sports centre because we’ve all driven 1.5 miles to get there..  Obviously there are people who need to drive due to infirmity or advancing age.  But if we’re fit enough to play sports, surely we’re fit enough to get there without a car.

There is a cheap, simple, two wheeled solution to this problem.  It will mean a soaking 11 times a year, but that’s OK if you’re ready for it.  There is also a slightly more expensive solution for the hills (Wotton’s favourite excuse): earlier this summer my son and I were overtaken just before the top of a 1000m climb up a Swiss mountain pass by two chatting ladies on e-bikes.    

Extinction rebellion are right to challenge the status quo (I think Tyndale would be more embarrassed that was remembered with a monument than he would be annoyed about it’s use for causes other than his own).  Corporations and governments need to change policies, expand public transport routes and subsidise e-bikes.  But we need to change too, even if it means getting the occasional drenching. 

If Strava fails, there’s always the blog.

I absolutely nailed it.  The trail conditions were perfect and the bike was running sweetly.   I was so lost in my ponderings over what to name the ride that the climbs disappeared.  I flew down the hills occasionally literally, confident of some personal records and maybe even a shuffle in the rankings.  I also had a good think through Sundays sermon and was enjoying beautiful Gloucestershire and the benefits of vigorous exercise…  And then I got home and realised that Strava had not recorded.  And for a brief moment, my perfect ride was tarnished.  Because part of me felt like it’s not real if it’s not online.

I remember reading a 2002 essay by Conrad Gempf (one of my LST lecturers) about the potential in the internet age for de-materialism – an increasing valuing of online information, interaction and image over physical relationships and transactions.  At the time so little of my life was online that it seemed far-fetched.  But now I’m on Strava, and Facebook, and Ebay and Gumtree and You Tube and WordPress and online school-canteen-thumb-print-activated payments. 

Conrad’s essay noted that early Christians had to wrestle with popular varieties of Platonism which over-valued the spiritual in comparison with the the physical (leading to the detriment of physical existence either through over-indulgence or uber self-denial).  Gnostics, they called themselves because they had the special spiritual inside track (gnosis or knowledge).     True Christianity was much more earthy.  Jesus “LIVED in Capernaum,” “The word became FLESH and dwelt among us”.  So how you live and what you do with your flesh matter.  Jesus believed the Old Testament with all it’s eating, drinking, sex, holidays and politics and instructions on how to do them well because God seems to think that the physical counts just as much as the spiritual.

Obviously my online life can be massively beneficial to my real life.  Our Facebook-arranged 20 year University re-union being a case in point.  My online life does serve to measure my real life in scientific terms (the reality is that I am slower than my son on the road and woefully short of any off-road KOMs).  It can advertise my thoughts and causes and help me to access thinking to stretch mine and causes in which to invest.   But if I am true to my Christian faith, online life must never take precedence over real life (physical and spiritual).  My kids will need to hear this even more than me in years to come.  I questioned Conrad’s quirky thoughts in 2002.  I think my kids would read them as blatantly obvious fact and would probably suggest that I blogged this to make up for the Strava failure.

I looked away

I looked away while the lads leered. 

I looked away because she is someone else’s daughter. 

I looked away because my sons can see her. 

I looked away because there are too many lying pictures in my memory already. 

 

I should have said something. I tell girls that they are valued for who they are. 

I should have said something. I oppose slavery.  

I should have said something.  Abuse is so tough and time consuming to unravel. 

I should have said something.  These vines strangle real relationships. 

 

But I just looked away and then it was too late. 

Looking away is not the whole point. 

Next time I will speak out. 

Secrets of a happy marriage

It’s our china wedding anniversary today and we have been happy for most of our first 20 years.  We have had the privilege of preparing a few couples for marriage as well as the deep sadness of seeing marriages around us faltering.  I thought I might take the liberty of offering you my tentative thoughts on what makes for happy marriage.

I think it’s a good idea to find the right person.  Someone who you admire, find sexually attractive and agree with on issues that really matter to you.  Yes this does mean it’s a good idea for atheists to marry atheists and muslims to marry muslims.  I know that sounds horribly sectarian to the secular humanist ear, but marriage is about doing life together and differing motivating worldviews easily lead to unmanageable tension in finance, time and prioritising.    It also means it’s likely a bad idea to marry someone you met last week who is fun, good looking and great in bed, but you might just find to be intellectually, morally, emotionally or professionally daft.  Discerning the right person is not necessarily easy.  For us it involved a great deal of anxiety, prayer and listening to the opinions of trustworthy friends and family (including the mutual friend who originally set us up). 

I also think marriage is key to a happy marriage.  A freely entered into partnership of two people for life, incorporating exclusive sexual intimacy (sometimes with the attendant possibility of children), recognised by the community and ordained by God.  Being single was often brilliant.  Lots of late nights with lots of friends, lots of mountain biking and drumming and church stuff, drop everything and scarper weekends (mostly more mountain biking) and unlimited shed-time.  St Paul talked about his freedom to be single-mindedly focussed on God.   Singleness is tough to surrender – the merging of two bank accounts, diaries, careers and lifetyles.  The first year of marriage for all its tenderness and joy was one of the toughest.  Which is why singleness should not be surrendered for anything less than life-long marriage.  There will be times when cutting and running will be genuinely easier, but the understanding that this is permanent and that we will be committed to selflessly loving one another makes the possibility of better times ahead significantly more likely.     

I recognise that these ideas are not rocket-scientific secret revelations and my observation is that human life in a fallen world is enough to place even marriage to the right person under massive strain. That said, these ideas have worked well for us and I have observed them working well for enough other people that I plan to stick by them as well as sticking with Jo.  I’ll put up a confirmatory post on our Ruby wedding anniversary if Jesus does not return first.

 

 

 

 

                     

Cucumbers

After the people of Israel had been delivered from slavery in Egypt, some of them wanted to go back, because in Egypt they had cucumbers.  I remember as a child reading this with disbelief.  Unlike our kids I did not like cucumbers so the thought that anyone would give up freedom for salad veg was utterly incomprehensible.  I think I get it now.

I’ve been employed by a couple of local churches for the last 15 years to preach about freedom.  It’s not just a professional thing.  I believe it.  I have experienced the freedom, forgiveness, belonging and purpose that come from being a follower of Jesus.  Our church is unusual in UK terms in that it is growing, but it is not growing fast.  We’re involved in lots of different aspects of the life of our community and have positive relationships with schools, families and community organisations.  People know us and they know we are not the right wing, all-phobic killjoys Christians are widely painted as, but the message of freedom in following Jesus is still a hard sell.

Why is this?

Christians look the same as other people but they are going in a radically different direction.  We’re swimming against the tide of materialism.  Christians believe in generosity and are opposed to greed.  It looks to us like the U.K. is borrowing money we can’t afford to buy stuff we don’t need to fuel an economy we know is unsustainable.  We’re going against the flow of hedonism.  Christians recognise the God given-ness of sex, drink and drugs but we observe the God-given boundaries to their use.  It looks to us like Britain is busy enjoying the high that comes from the weed that wrecks supply-chain lives and leaves users spaced out from economic and relational reality.  Perhaps most radically of all, Christians are setting aside their autonomy to make Jesus the ultimate authority in their lives.  It looks to us like the West is so committed to educating kids in every trend of individual self-determination that the kids will be too busy wondering who they are and where they belong to work together to build a better world.

Looking from the outside Christianity may appear like slavery: the surrender of individual sovereignty to a higher authority; eschewal of much of the spectrum of available pleasures; rejection of reliance on over-accumulated wealth.    Indeed St Paul described us as slaves to Christ.  But looking from the inside of Christianity outwards, it looks like the average Westerner is the slave – to money, pleasure and power.  

I-phones, sex lives and self-determination you say.   I say cucumbers.   I think this difference of perspective goes a long way towards explaining why Christianity is hard to propagate in the UK.