Minister’s blog

What was it about Billy Graham?

I cannot think of a stronger candidate for the most influential Christian of the 20th century than Billy Graham.  Even in our little Gloucestershire church, stories are emerging of how Billy Graham’s preaching changed lives and families.  How could one farmer’s son from North Carolina possibly impact so many lives?

Part of the answer has to be his harnessing of the technology of the age.  His insistence on quality P.A. systems and the use of public spaces and sports stadia meant that he could address crowds of up to 1 million at a time.   Satellite TV feeds for live-link audiences extended his lifetime audience to 210 million people in 185 countries.

He was also a man of unquestioned integrity in an age of cynicism and scrutiny.  Mike Pence has been squarely mocked for his avoidance of travel, meetings or meals alone with any woman other than his wife.  No one is mocking Billy Graham now (please see my comments on Pence’s boss below before you count me as a fan).    Combined with his insistence on external scrutiny of his financial affairs, this policy led to 58 years of public life and ministry without major scandal.

Billy Graham was an American patriot, but that was not his message.  He met with and prayed for politburo members and Chinese premiers and even gave Kim Il Sung a bible.  Billy Graham was a white middle class man, but white middle class values were not his message.  He preached with MLK Jnr and hung out with death row prisoners.    Billy Graham was a Baptist, but that was not at the heart of his public preaching.  He met with popes and archbishops and encouraged his converts to connect with the local churches his campaigns partnered with.  Billy Graham was a theistic evolutionist –  but that was not the heart of his message, so he retained his popularity across the spectrum of US Christianity.

Billy Graham preached Christ crucified.  Look at the footage in the obituaries, watch a film of one of his rallies.  View the recent (and brilliant) myhopeuk you-tube remixes …. Billy Graham only ever preached one message – that God loves you; that you’re a sinner; that Jesus died on the cross to deal with your sin; that your response to Jesus death and resurrection is what determines your earthly direction and your eternal destiny.  Clear, simple, powerful.  The kind of message the most influential preacher of the first century was talking about when he wrote in a letter to the church in Corinth:

‘but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,  but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.’

Why was Billy Graham so influential?  Technology and integrity played a part, but the real key to Billy Graham’s influence was that he exercised very little influence of his own.  He stuck like glue to his core message, seeking to expose people to the influence of his crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ.

Pruning Kevin

I had to prune Kevin down to about half his height.  Apparently the dead wood would be in the way of new growth.

In late 2007 I got fed up and removed all the conkers our four year old had scattered across the garden, but Kevin’s conker escaped the purge.  We found the seedling that sprouted from it under a sandbag the following spring and Kevin lived and grew and moved with us for eight years.  When he was three feet high and just about too big for his pot, he was adopted by Wotton Community Sports Foundation and planted as a feature tree.  This delightful turn of events turned sour for Kevin when local deer took a liking to his sticky buds and tasty bark and munched his top half to death. WCSF provided Kevin with a big new deer-proof jacket & he’s raring to go with this year’s sticky buds, but 3 years-worth of main stem had to go.

Thus far in my life, nearly all of the (comparatively minor) physical and emotional pain I’ve experienced has been self-inflicted – by having a family and by falling off my bike.  I have seen plenty of other people’s pain and have probably been to more funerals than you, but I can’t speak with any personal experience of major betrayal, injury, illness or loss.  As a church leader, funeral celebrant and ‘community personality’ I do a lot of listening.  Speaking out pain helps people to make sense of the waves of grief and anger and to plot their own course through injustice and pain.  Speaking can be cathartic and listening therapeutic.  But sometimes I’m called on to speak.  What can I say when my own experience of pain is so limited?

Jesus said I’m the vine, my Father is the gardener and you are the branches.  The gardener prunes the branches to make them even more fruitful.  Old wood and dead material is cleared away to make space for new growth and fruit.   In both my own limited experience of suffering and in the lives of those to whom I have listened I’ve seen the pruning hand of God at work.  It’s not always obvious in the years of loss and pain, but the presence of God and the experience of perseverance and learned lessons can lead to flourishing and fruitfulness that may never have happened without the pruning.

The idea that loss and suffering can lead to gain and flourishing is at the heart of the Christian message.  Jesus death – the ultimate tragedy becomes the source of forgiveness, friendship with God and eternal life for all who believe and his resurrection is the d-day defeat of death and the devil.  So our suffering is swallowed up in the unstoppable victory of God and his good purposes over all opposition.

Often as I’m listening, God gets the blame. But as people talk it out, it becomes apparent that there are a thousand other culprits in this broken world – muntjacs, me, you, them, powers and authorities we can see and understand and powers and authorities we can’t.  All are allowed by God to exist with free will for the time being and all will be called to account on the day of Jesus’ return (okay maybe not the muntjacs – they were just doing their thing).

For me this Christian view of suffering is so much more satisfying that saying ‘**it’ happens..  When you think about it, you can’t even say that much if we’re just Godless phenotypes configured by selection pressure.   ‘It’ happens would be more accurate – there being no positive or negative value to what we consider to be suffering.

Apparently Horse chestnut trees take at least 14 years to flower and produce their own conkers.  Kevin hasn’t got off to the best start and no doubt there are more challenges ahead, but maybe his conkers scattered across the lawn will irk dads in generations to come.  Any maybe, just maybe, my pruning will create space for a 300 ring trunk..


Simple Sex

And today’s celebrity sexual abuser is….allegedly Dustin Hoffman.

I am sick of sexual abuse.  I am sick of sexual abuse in the news.  I am sick of sexual (and physical) child abuse lying behind the presenting issues of every tenth (conservative guesstimate) person I have a pastoral conversation with. I am sick of ‘me too’.  I am sick of a society which hangs it all out for you to see, where no surveys find that less than 50% of us watch porn and where a sense of sexual entitlement leads to a feeling that my wife / sisters / daughters / female friends cannot go out without being leered at.  SICK SICK SICK

Here’s a simple idea from the old school:

What if we got the idea into our national consciousness that the best place for sexual intimacy, sexual contact and sexual arousal is in a lifelong, committed relationship between one man and one woman, recognised by the community and blessed by God as suggested in the second chapter of the bible, or by Jesus in Matthew 19?  (For the sake of a those more liberal than my reading of the bible, let’s also include lifelong same sex sexual relationships here).  Could it be that we could then all talk openly about sex and relationships without tittering innuendo and embarrassment?  Could it be that couples struggling with sex could talk with counsellors with the aim of restoring their lifelong relationship to sound emotional and sexual footing?   Could it be that the sex industry would collapse and sexual slavery would end?   Could sex and relationship education climb out of the too little, too late, too biological, too much peer pressure to perform trap?  Could it be that we’d realise that habitual porno self-love is antithetical to sexual relationships between human beings? Might my daughters be able to walk down the street without the feeling that they’re being objectified?  Might the housing crisis draw to a close? Might I feel less sick?  Might we be less sick?

Occasionally someone thoughtfully shields the innocent ears of a Christian pastor from sexual detail…..   Which is lovely…. But it’s too late.  Because I’ve heard too many confessions and seen too many broken lives and have also watched the news occasionally and let me tell you…. we are sick sick sick and the answer is SIMPLE SIMPLE SIMPLE.






Growing Glory

2nd November 2017

Last night my boys aged 10 and 14 were under the Wembley arch watching a little bit of sporting history-in-the-making with Nana.  They will have heard all the usual pre-match tannoy hype ‘the game is all about glory’. For once, there was something in it.  They’ll probably tell their own kids about last night. I couldn’t hear their individual voices on BBC Five Live, but I could hear the 80000 strong crowd clear enough as Ronaldo and co slunk away.  ‘glory glory Tottenham Hotspur’

I have seen glory too.  Mountain peaks peeping through clouds, sunrise over mountain lakes, storm waves battering the cliffs, occasional moments of mountain biking genius/survival, more frequent viewings of beautiful human warmth and generosity.  Those moments of overwhelming, silencing awe.

Beating the champions, clouds, sunrise, storms, survival, kindness… wonderful … glorious….  transitory.

The story of the Old Testament is a story of glimpses of glory. Moments where the reality of God breaks into the lives of his people. Often it’s transitory – leaving a mark for a few short weeks or the tenure of one leader before life fades back into grey and the glory is forgotten.

The New Testament, the story of Jesus and his followers speaks of a different kind of glory. Growing glory. It is seen first in Jesus – ‘the Glory of God in the face of Christ’. And then it gets a hold of those who encounter him. ‘Treasure in clay jars’ Paul calls it. It grows as Jesus’ followers are transformed into his image. I’ve seen it. Lives turned around. Faces lifted up. ‘Dirty glory’ as Pete Grieg calls it (yes, I know Pete Grieg is not a New Testament writer, but it’s a New Testament thought). It’s not aloof and holier than thou: this glory follows Jesus into the mess of the world and spreads the light. Homeless people get housed, sick people get well, lonely people find a family. ‘Glory to be revealed’ Peter calls it. The light sometimes gets obscured, but there’s a not yet to this glory. A coming surpassing glory that’s beyond comparison to what we see now. A glory worth living and hoping for. A glory that has enabled Stephen and countless others to face down death for Jesus. Peter Hicks, my old college lecturer had a way of saying the word “glory” like it was heavier than lead and shinier than diamond. He died in 2013. He’s seen more of the glory than me now, but the New Testament says that neither of us has yet seen the fulness of this growing glory.

Train Preachers: Leave the rucksack at home for the time being

5th October 2017

I have seen the new OCR GCSE R.E. syllabus and it is ENORMOUS.  Apparently compulsory R.E. is part of the bookish-rote-learning-for-exams drive of the new Tory education.  You’ll gather that I’m not a fan of this system generally.  I don’t think the UK needs more accountants, bankers and lawyers with exam skills.  I think we need more plumbers, entrepreneurs and nurses with hands-on training and people skills.  But I’m VERY glad that more kids will be learning more about more religions.

This Monday, something utterly ridiculous happened in Wimbledon:

A man began to read passages from the bible aloud on a train carriage and panicked passengers self-evacuated, leading to delays for thousands of commuters.   Thankfully there was a guard on the train with some common sense to calm things down, but the damage to an already flaky public transport system in the morning rush hour had been done.   I don’t know anything about the preacher in question and I’m not convinced that train preaching is the best way to evangelise, but I think the incident is a window into a spectacular religious illiteracy in British society.

Let me conjecture for a moment what went through the mind of the woman who cried terrorist.   In the post 9.11 UK, we live in a nation where successive governments have rightly tried to crack down on religious extremism.  We are all on the lookout for radicalisation.  Meanwhile noisy atheists shout about all religion as the root of all evil, the sole and culpable cause of crusades, jihads, atrocities and wars across the world.  The centre left media seem to love any opportunity to attribute a religious cause to any wrongdoing (did anyone else notice how many times the illegal BBC reports into the illegal police raids on Cliff Richard’s house used the word ‘evangelical’) or to mock religious sensibilities in public figures.  And so we find ourselves in a situation where religious = insidious in the minds of many people, where lawmakers are unable to distinguish between extremists who are good for society (like Justin Welby) and those who are bad for society (like Abu Hamsa) and where the reading of the bible in a public place can cause a stampede.

So…  I’m sorry kids…  I know that is a lot of rote learning about Islam and Hinduism and Christianity.  But you need to understand this stuff better than the current crop of UK grown-ups.  Honestly, I don’t mind if you flunk the exam, but it’s important to me and for this country that you hear and understand the differences between Jesus and Mohammed, between Wahhabiis and Menonites, and between Hindutva and Anglicanism.

And whilst this current GCSE cohort are becoming the next generation of commuters, reporters and politicians I would encourage train preachers to carry a small bible and leave the rucksack at home.

And they shall beat their bicycles into

WBC church members think I talk about cycling too much. But this will be it’s first – and possibly last – mention on this blog page.

I remember as a teenager being captivated by an article in Mountain Biking UK magazine about swiss mountain biking commandos. For about a century, the swiss army trained troops to use bicycles in “radfahrer” regiments – at first they were a branch of the cavalry, issued with special bayoneted pistols, but later, the units transferred to the infantry. They rode 40lb bicycles over-laden with military gear (mortar rounds, machine guns, camping and cooking stuff etc over rough terrain. Even as a super keen teen cyclist, it struck me that you would have to be superhuman to pedal one of those beasts on a level road, let alone on a mountain track. One of my classmates at theological college had done his Swiss military service with one of these units and he confirmed that it was tough going. In 1995 the Swiss army withdrew the units, presumably realising that on uneven ground, a heavily laden bicycle is pretty much dead weight.

There are a whole load of reasons why I’m a cyclist:
1. My dad and my granddad cycle(d). I guess it’s in my genes.
2. We’re stewards of God’s creation. We should grasp zero carbon transport with both hands.
3. Fresh air, exercise, extended life expectancy, (crashes notwithstanding!), space to think.
4. MOUNTAIN BIKING – lung busting climbs, breathtaking views, flying descents.
5. I believe that car useage and social cohesion are inversely proportional to one another.

I occasionally get asked whether I think there’ll be mountain biking on the new earth. I don’t care very much about this. The key ingredients of the new heaven and new earth are God and God’s people. But I wonder….. Bicycles have been of enormous benefit to humankind – the first form of affordable mechanised transport – helping to alleviate poverty, connecting isolated communities and liberating oppressed women, driving peaceable innovation in metalworking. Furthermore, as the swiss army has finally realised, they are utterly useless as weapons of war. Isaiah says that in the age to come swords will be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. Jeremiah Wright added tanks being beaten into tractors in his prayer at Obama’s inauguration. But what about bicycles. What would they be beaten into? Bicycles perhaps?

Why I can’t Watch Poldark

8th August 2017

I got sent out. I start to fidget and involuntarily crack my knuckles and grind my teeth. In truth I can’t stand it. It’s not that the characters aren’t compelling, or the scenery lovely or the story well told. I don’t mind costume dramas and I’m reasonably confident that I’m not unduly prudish – Hot Fuzz and A life Less Ordinary remain in my top five films – see my comments on Rev. below. But I have tried to watch Poldark and I cannot do it.
I can’t relax….
Poldark reminds me of the slow grind of relational breakdown that it ruining lives all around me in the real world and against which I find myself striving when I’m trying to help people to follow Jesus. When Mrs X is secretly carrying Mr Y’s child and when Mrs A is being repeatedly raped by Mr A and when Mrs Y is being seduced by Mr Z and Mr A is also sleeping with Miss C I cannot stand it. I see the emotional pain and relational carnage that manipulative, carnal, use and abuse of relationships in general and marriage in particular brings. I do see this from time to time in the church – because churches are made up of people. But I see it amplified in communities with their moral anchors in Celebrity Love Island, the London Stock Exchange and Snapchat. I know that emotional tension is what makes a good story. But real life is full of this kind of emotional tension created by riding roughshod over God’s straightforward guidelines for relationships, so it’s not a story I can relax to.
Stereotypical christians..
I’ve seen enough to know that Poldark is yet another example of the portrayal of Christian faith as held by morally repressed simpletons (who don’t understand the real world yet) and by hypocrites who understand it full well and use religion to feather their own nests. Neither of these points of view do any justice at all to the gritty realism and moral purity of Jesus or that of the writings of his first followers in the New Testament (seriously – read them). Poldark christianity does not reflect the life and teaching of the Christian communities I have been privileged to live and work in and it perpetuates negative stereotypes which I’m working hard to overcome.
Is it just me?..
I remember a conversation I had a few years ago about the abundance of parallels between the Christian narrative and the 90s sci-fi classic The Matrix with a friend who had been involved in counselling kids after the Columbine high massacre (following his own involvement as a child in the troubles in Northern Ireland). It was out of the question for him that you could ever use a film that had spawned such awful violence in the cause of the gospel. His experience meant that the wider narrative of a parallel (real) universe behind our own was lost to the violence of the action. Maybe there’s a redeemable narrative to Poldark – something about Ross’ concern for the poor or Morwenna’s self-sacrificial love for Drake.. Maybe someone who has read the book will tell me that there’s a happier ending. Maybe it’s just me. But my experience of ministering to (and sometimes just helplessly observing) broken relationships means that Poldark series 3 is not on my agenda. I’m pretty sure the knuckle cracking would get me barred even if I tried to watch it.

Hug a Jehovah’s Witness

12th April 2017

Sooo, Richard and I decided to go to the Memorial service at the local Kingdom Hall last night. We’ve been invited for the last 3 years and I’ve never managed to get there, but it happened to be doable this evening.  The Jehovah’s witnesses are nice folks. Always polite. Smartly dressed when they’re on duty. They are also human beings with a sense of humour. I’m reasonably convinced that the guy thought it was a joke when Richard (one of our church members) told him that we were going to a strip club afterwards.

Before I had met any JWs, I thought that their understanding of Jesus was their biggest problem. It is true that they wilfully misconstrue the New Testament’s teaching on this issue – to the extent that they are happy to inconsistently mistranslate their own version of the bible and fantasise about the possible future discovery of hitherto unknown divergent ancient biblical manuscripts to back up their point of view. But I’ve come to the conclusion that this is not their biggest problem.

Almost all of the service this evening could have be repeated at WBC on Sunday without any major hoo ha (although me wearing a tie would raise some eyebrows), there were two things which stuck out like extra sore heads.

1. Half way through the explanation of the memorial, the speaker made a brief reference to the 144000 of Revelation 14:1. It was suggested that those who could partake of this memorial meal were these 144000. No explanation. No attempt to connect this to any other scripture. Just the bald assertion that these were the people Jesus was speaking to when he suggested that they eat bread and drink wine in memory of him. And then on with the explanation of the meaning of the memorial. I’ve read about this ‘knight jump exegesis’ but hearing it live was breathtaking.

2. And so to the memorial (eucharist, communion, mass, breaking of bread to anyone familiar with mainstream Christianity). The bread and wine are passed round and we are all invited to think about what Jesus had done for us. Those 144K anointed ones would be alerted by the inner prompting of the Holy Spirit to the possibility of partaking. No one in Dursley did. Again, I was aware of this practice, but to see it first hand was pretty shocking.

Revelation 14:1 along with John 10:16 is often misquoted by the JWs to suggest that there will be two groups of God’s faithful people. The 144000 ‘anointed’ and the ‘other sheep’. The anointed have a heavenly destiny to reign with Jesus and the other sheep an earthly destiny.   The straightforward (and mainstream, historic Christian) interpretation of these passages based on their literary context is to see them as references to Jesus-followers of Jewish (the 144000) and non-Jewish (other sheep) origin. One of the central ideas of the New Testament is that the barrier between these two groups is broken down, with Jesus’ self-sacrificial death on the cross supplanting ethnic origin as the gateway to God’s favour. Even in the book of Revelation heaven and earth seem to come together with the descent of the holy city, the Lord and the Lamb in chapter 21, so the argument for two separate destinies is hard to maintain. The JW’s audacious use of contextless verses to undermine the flow of the texts to which they belong almost seemed deconstructionist when heard first hand. But they’re not just subverting the literary and ethical flow of the whole New Testament for the sake of deconstruction. They are building an exclusivist pyramidal organisational hierarchy on the shaky foundation of this exegesis. And celebrating this hierarchy with an exclusive ‘communion’ which reinforces the unquestionable hermeneutical authority of the anointed (AKA the Watchtower Tract Society).

In plain English Tom? JWs say almost the same things Christians do and throw in the occasional outrageously loaded misinterpretation of a random and disconnected bible passage on which they will try to build a case for their bizarre and controlling Church structure.
How do we deal with this? If you are a Christian, ask them to explain what’s different about their church using the bible.  Don’t allow them to use any one text out of its context and they won’t get far.  If you are not a Christian, give them a hug: they are part of a bizarre and controlling cult and they need to know that there is life and goodness outside of it.


Biblical types for the POTUS elect

12th January 2017

So, I’ve been trying to think of a biblical response to the nomination and then election of Donald Trump as POTUS.  It has been interesting to me that parallels with various biblical characters & types have been drawn.  Cyrus – the pagan emperor who restores the worship and homeland of Gods people.  Samson -the wrecking ball whom God uses for his purposes.  The second beast of revelation – an antichristian empire / tyrant …   a quick internet search will reveal a wealth of options.

If Trump were a Samson-type, it would be comparatively simple for us to respond – we don’t like his character, but we do like what God achieves through him.  If he were an antichrist-type, we should, could, must resist.  If he were a Cyrus – type, it would simply be a case of emploring his mercy and enjoying his benevolence.  Sadly whilst all of these types fit to some degree and none of them fit particularly closely.

Watching Trump’s shenanigans over the past few days & reflecting on his rise to power, it struck me that there is a crystal clear type-picture of the president elect in the bible.  A person who lashes out with pride, blurts out rage and folly, prefers his own brand of made-up-on-the-spot wisdom to the counsel of experienced advisors etc etc.  It’s not an antichrist character and it’s not a saviour character, not even a historical character.  It’s the fool-type of the wisdom literature.  Look for the word fool in the Old Testament book of Proverbs and you’ll see what I mean. The outlook for people who honour fools is not good.

The big problem is that there is no simple response to the handling of the fool-type, especially the empowered fool-type.  Fools have to be handled with wisdom – patient, prudent, peacable, discreet wisdom.  I’m hoping that the GOP will find some wise people to surround the president elect, to speak wisdom to his folly, but that’s a massively tough task.  The fool-type revisits his folly regularly, he also appoints his own advisors.
The advice of the book of Proverbs for fools themselves is comparatively straightforward though:

Hopefully I’ve misread DT.  Hopefully there’s something I’ve misunderstood.  Maybe  there’s a genuinely coherent plan  behind the knee jerk tweets and blustering populism.  But if not, maybe the president elect needs to revisit the biblical wisdom literature for some sound advice.

The origins of secular liberalism

5th November 2015

I have always maintained that secular democracy was the best expression of Christian values in the political sphere. Jesus called people to repent and believe, to be born again, to make a choice of the will to deny themselves and follow him. Some of his hearers did so, others didn’t. Jesus early followers challenged people to confess Jesus as Lord (rather than Caesar as Lord) – to make an individual (and often costly) choice to follow Jesus. Some of their hearers did, others didn’t. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, education and choice without coercion was the way the Christian gospel spread for the first 2 centuries. It follows, so I’ve been saying, that a Christian polity must champion the freedom of an individual to make wilful choices in areas of conscience. I’ve quoted the early Baptist Thomas Helwys here before. He died in Newgate prison for telling King James II that it wasn’t his place to punish Jews, Turks or Heretics.

But something I had not clocked is that the liberal-ish secular-ish democracy we enjoy is the product of Christianity. Inventing the Individual, one of the books I read during my recent sabbatical makes this point very persuasively. It’s author, Larry Siedentop a former lecturer in political thought at Oxford University traces the routes of modern secular liberalism to Paul’s understanding of the re-invention of the individual in Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. Siedentop’s take on this was that Paul’s teaching emancipated the individual will from the ties of the family cult, religious identity and the imperial economy. Inventing the individual traces this freedom through the early church and canon law in the middle ages to the emergence of western secular democracy. I don’t know enough about history to spot the flaws in the argument, but it makes perfect sense to me. “Secularism is Christianity’s gift to the world”

The fascinating thing for me as a Christian reader of Inventing the Individual was the number of times Siedentop feels compelled to say liberals may not like this but… The freedom and tolerance we enjoy today really are products of our Christian roots. Perhaps it’s time we got a little less embarrassed about Christianity and understood a bit more about how much of a positive influence Christian thought has had on our society.