Minister’s blog

Deep Truths and Childs Play

I decided it was best not to leave it there with such a gloomy blog before the holidays…

On Christmas morning we will have an all-age worship service at WBC where the kids and teenagers stay in the service instead of going out to separate groups.  We do this on every first Sunday of the month.  I know that putting together an all age worship service is a nightmare for some people.  The idea is to communicate something to the adults in a way which is fun for the kids.  You have to try and occupy that kind of space that the Simpsons occupies on TV – funny and poignant in different ways for different people.  I actually quite enjoy all age worship services – partly because I get on well with kids and partly because I remember a key truth that I read when I was in preaching class at theological college:

You can only ever say one thing in a sermon / service, so say it in a way that is memorable.

And so we have the generosity game – where the two halves of the church try to out-give one another using ball pool balls over a badminton net and then we talk about how generosity is the Christian response to the self-grabbing greed of our society…. And we have Doug, the character with the country accent who long ago discovered some hidden treasure in a field, sold everything he had, bought the field and now lives to dig and then we talk about how God’s kingdom is the treasure worth giving up everything for….  And we have the no toe race where kids hobble towards the finish line and we talk about the importance of every part of the body of Christ…… and so on.  From time to time someone tells me that the teaching in these services is not very deep.  Sometimes they are right.  It is easy for me to miss the point or for an illustration to overwhelm a truth.  They are right that there is no blow by blow exegesis, no greek or no hebrew.  But they are sometimes fundamentally wrong. Because greek, hebrew and blow by blow exegesis do not necessarily make deep effective teaching.  Jesus said  “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

It is not philosophy or theology that saves us.  It is simple childlike faith in Jesus (please see the below blogs if you are concerned that this means jettisoning your brain).  The question is not ‘can you fathom great mysteries?’  The question is ‘can you believe in simple truths?’ Like a child.  All age worship services serve two purposes: they welcome kids and they remind adults of the deepest life-transforming truths of Christian faith.  They also give volunteer kids group leaders a deserved break.

Enough blogging already – I need to pray and think about what to say on Tuesday morning. May the peace of the mighty-God-child and the light of the word-become-flesh and the salvation of the saviour-baby be yours this Christmas time.

Child Abuse and the Church

You’ll know if you watch the news that some horrendous child abuse took place in the UK church in the eighties.  Also in the seventies and nineties… and noughties and teens.  There can be no excuse, there should be no more cover-ups.  This abuse is an abominable betrayal of trust.

You may also have heard that similar abuse has been taking place in schools, in sports teams, scouting and guiding groups, hospitals and summer camps….  Just about everywhere in the UK where kids are entrusted to the care of adults.

Part of my role as a church leader is to make sure that does not happen in kids and youth work at WBC.   No one is ever left alone with a minor here without having been DBS checked and having attended one of the Baptist Union’s brilliant child protection training sessions.  More than that, no-one who is not a church member can be involved in leading a kids group.  This means that we know more about them and their family life than any employer would.  We also have a trained Designated Person for Safeguarding and a trustee who is responsible for overseeing training and DBS checking.

I’m also responsible for leading a community of people who demonstrate the self-giving love of Jesus to the world through generous, kind and honest personal lives and relationships.  This is the place in the church where I see the effects of child abuse on an almost daily basis.  According to the NSPCC, one fifth of the UK adult population suffered severe mistreatment of one kind or another as a child.  Children who are abused are far more likely to grow up to be adults whose habits, relationships and lives are dysfunctional than children who are not abused.   By virtue of being generous, honest and loving communities, churches attract a disproportionate number of people whose habits, relationships and lives are broken and dysfunctional – selfish, unkind and dishonest.  Which means that many of the deeply painful relational breakdowns, depressions, employability issues and family dysfunctions I walk through with people can be linked to child abuse as a root cause.  Most of the effects of abuse I encounter stem from abuse by a family member, some from issues in churches and some from other groups in society.   I concur with the news.  Child abuse has been and still is an endemic evil in our society.

But what I also see on a daily basis is Christians walking with one another through the effects of abuse and the generosity, kindness and honesty of the church family bringing restoration to broken lives.   I see wonderful families supporting one another as they care for adopted kids and kids with special needs and other little monkeys with love and creativity and patience.  I see a community where it is OK to be open about a broken past and where the presence and love of Jesus overrides broken pasts as the defining label of life.  I see kids from regular churchgoing families and the wider community being valued, cared for and taught about and led in the generous kind and honest way of life God wants for human beings. I see space provided for other like minded charity and statutory groups seeking to provide healing and care to broken lives. I see all of this done by volunteers who work hard both to make sure that this is a safe environment for kids and that this is seen to be a safe environment for kids.

There can be no question that the church has historically gone with the flow of endemic child abuse in UK society.   But the church I see from day to day is swimming hard against the tide; alert to the current issue and working hard to restore the historical damage.  This won’t make headlines, but it is healing broken lives.

Fake news and pinches of salt

Earlier this year Facebook removed 00s of accounts used by the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Association which was involved in trying to influence the 2016 US election.  It was just another example of fake news and propaganda spreading unchecked through social media.  I’m pleased to say I did not encounter much pro-Putin / anti-Clinton propaganda through Facebook at the time, but I often encounter views which I find upsetting or annoying or which I know to be based on half-truths or untruth.  Which sometimes makes me think why bother exposing myself to this madness through social media?

This world is a messed-up place.  Not because of the internet but because of human beings and their innate ability to put their need for money, sex or power above the needs of their fellow humans or their accountability to God.  Sin, the bible calls it.  The reason social media sites carry so much fake news is because they are driven by human beings.  Jesus said that it’s not what goes into a person that defiles them, but what comes out of the heart (and through the smartphone onto the internet).

God’s approach to this broken world is unambiguous in the teachings of Jesus and his followers.  Sin defiles us to the extent that none of us can stand before a Holy God.  But God does not pull the plug because he loves us.  Through Jesus he comes into the world to tell us of God’s love and God’s standards.  Jesus suffers with us – not just life in this broken world, but unjust punishment and unnecessary execution.  God suffers loss as his son suffers to bring us the message of his love.  (This story has a terrific happy ending which you can read for yourself).

So I’m keeping my Facebook account – at least for the time being, because I think God gets involved and he wants his people to be involved.  ‘Being salt and light,’ Jesus called it.    I’ve given up responding to mile long arguments from friends whose views differ from mine on matters theological or local – Facebook isn’t a good medium for discussion anyway, especially when more than two parties are involved.      But I’m going to keep posting stuff about God and the way he gets his hands dirty dealing with us and about my Christian life and things that bring me and other people joy, wholeness and peace….   And I’m going to continue using Snopes and Hoax Slayer and liberally applied pinches of salt.

 

Creationism vs Evolutionism: why the debate is unhelpful.

So I heard a panel commenting on creationism in the UK on Radio 4 this morning.  As you’d expect from Auntie these days, creationism was being denounced as a conspiracy of ignorance against the overwhelming evidence for evolutionary intelligence.  It’s the third time in as many weeks that the creation vs evolution debate has passed through my headspace.

I have undergraduate degrees in theology and geology and THIS MEANS THAT I KNOW ENOUGH TO KNOW THAT I AM NOT AN EXPERT on science and/or faith.  I’ve been around this debate for around 25 years however, and would like to use the space afforded by my blog to offer a few thoughts:

Creationists are not idiots.

Some of them are my friends.  Many of them hold down responsible professional jobs (holding the relevant higher education qualifications) with they do with excellence for the benefit of society.  They are mostly Christians who believe (as do I) in the reality of God as creator and that the bible has authority and should be taken seriously.  They recognise that evolution is often provided as evidence against God and as justification for the kind of behaviours the bible prohibits.  So they don’t like the theory of evolution.  Modern creationism originated in the US in the  1920s as a reaction to the lines which were being drawn between the ‘survival of the fittest’ in Darwinian theory and the rise of ‘might Is right’ nationalism in Germany.   I don’t like Naziism, creationists don’t like Naziism and I hope you don’t like Naziism.

Mainstream Science is not a Godless conspiracy theory

Whist there are emerging pockets of alt-liberal bigotry in the scientific community, my observation is that mainstream science is dedicated to a wholesome pursuit of peer-reviewed truth-seeking.  The reason creation science often does not get a hearing is that it is often popularist and  widely published before rigorous peer review.    Evolutionary theory has held sway as the mainstream of Biological & Palaeontoligcal sciences for the last 150ish years because it is the most compelling theory with the most evidence in its favour.

It’s possible to be a Christian and believe in evolution

The 19th century church in the UK did not protest widely regards the idea of evolution.  Simon Conway Morris, one of the most senior Palaeobiologists in the UK is a Christian.  Billy Graham believed in evolution.  So it seems that it is possible to believe in God, follow Jesus, hold the bible in highest regard AND think evolution is plausible or likely.

Evolution cannot be a governing philosophy for life

If you are just evolutionary flotsam and jetsam, then the atoms in your body have no more intrinsic value than the atoms in the screen you’re reading from.  If evolution is all there is as a guiding principle then you exist to pass on your genes and prevent competitors from passing theirs on…  If this is alarming to you, it is because you have adopted a philosophy of life which was either revealed to you or you made up and cannot be a consequence of evolution and I am very glad about that.   I think the worldview which stems from the life, death, resurrection and Spirit of Jesus is the one that makes the most sense, but I’m happy to hear about yours.

 

I rarely bother to join this discussion as it produces a great deal of relational heat and not much ethical or spiritual light.  The shouty shouting of extrapolating evolutionists and young earth creationists tends to drown out the voices in the middle ground.  I think the Genesis creation stories can legitimately bear a range of modern ‘how it happened’ interpretations whist still asserting with clarity that there’s only one God who made everything out of nothing and made people in his image.  Consequently I believe that people are not just animals and the atoms in my body are worth more to God than those in my keyboard or in the sparrows in our garden (as are the atoms making up your body).  These truths were taught by Jesus and I believe they matter.  I don’t think this debate does.

The Cross on the Monument

I recently re-watched this drone footage of the Tyndale monument at North Nibley, starting with the cross on the top.  The film is a reminder to me of the privilege it is to live in a peaceful community among these beautiful hills.  But that’s not why local Victorians built the monument.  This is a monument to a man who was not only denied the privilege of Cotswold life but was compelled to leave his homeland and give up his life because of his conviction that God’s word should be available to all.  It’s monument to a Christian martyr.

William Tyndale was a smart guy – Oxbridge trained,  learned in ancient Latin, Greek and Hebrew and posessing a way with words in his native tongue.  His conviction led to action and he began to translate the bible into English.  This made him some powerful enemies including Henry VIII, Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey, so he left Little Sodbury and continued his work in hiding on the continent.  Accounts of his life at that time describe a frugal existence, giving much of his earnings to the poor and encouraging the community of exiles in Antwerp.    After the secession of the English church, his work put him in more danger from the Holy Roman Empire and it was was one of their agents, Henry Phillips who eventually betrayed him.  Tyndale was strangled and burnt at the stake at Vilevoorde, Belgium in October 1536.  Whether his disputed last words ‘may God open the king of England’s eyes’ are historical or not is irrelevant.  His life had already said as much.

Tyndale’s New Testament had to be smuggled into England during his lifetime, but it was a commercial success due to massive demand.  It wasn’t the first vernacular translation of the New Testament, but it was the most readable and the most available.  When the monarchy changed tack and demanded an English version for the national church 80 years later, 80% of the King James New Testament was lifted from Tyndale’s work.  He never finished his Old Testament translation, but King James’ committee used a similar proportion of the books he had translated.  If we attribute equal honours to Shakespeare and the King James in the beginnings of modern English, there’s no question that  Tyndale had a substantial hand in the formation of our language.

Tyndale was not afraid of a fight – you can see this in his hard-nosed and earthy correspondence with More and others.  He was not risk-averse.  He gave up everything for the aim of making the Bible available to all England.   But Tyndale never took up arms for his cause – preferring giving his own life to taking that of others.  Christian martyrs use words, prayer and charity to oppose tyranny, they don’t use weapons to impose it.   They follow Jesus in self-giving, sword-staying, cross-bearing lives.   Crosses can be thinly decorated power or fashion statements.  This one is a reminder of a genuine Christian martyr.  Battered, gilded and glorious.

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 http://myhopewithbillygraham.org.uk/programs/the-cross/ …. 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.