Tuesday 30 October 2007

Sounding Off

It's been a while since I last blogged - things got busy for a bit and then I went off for a break. So I hope you haven't given up looking at the blog from time to time.

Actually I'm using the blog to paste up a letter I just wrote to The Times. Their correspondent decided to sound off against Christian magistrates, doctors, foster parents and adoption agencies who opt out of cases where their ethical beliefs would be compromised. Her proposal was that Christians should simply be banned from holding any such posts. I hope you agree with me that the exclusion of christianity from public life in this way would be an extremely worrying development.

Anyway, here's my letter. I doubt The Times will print it but at least someone can read it now. Please let me know what you think.


Should we decide ethical issues by majority, as your correspondent Carol Sarler opines in Monday's Thunderer Article? Hitler famously won a majority while Jesus Christ was rejected by the people of his day. I know whose ethics I prefer!

The tendency of the article was to support the elimination of Christians from public office because of their stance on family issues, sexuality and abortion. This is deplorable. Christian ethical vision underlies many of the most significant social developments in our culture: Wilberforce and the abolition of the slave trade, Shaftesbury and the Factory Acts, Gladstone and the Reform Acts, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Third World Relief, Drop the Debt... Christian passion and conviction has constantly renewed our society and has improved the lives of millions of people, often in the teeth of bitter opposition from the majority. We should not allow this the main stream of our moral heritage to be extirpated from civic life without serious prior reflection.

The Reverend Colin Gibson

Wednesday 10 October 2007

A love letter from Jesus?

Last Sunday was Paula's priesting here at St Matthew's, along with Sue, Liz and Rob. We had a very splendid service with a bishop and archdeacon, processions here and there and more vicars than you can shake a stick at. The bishop asked me to preach, so I chose 2 Corinthians 3:1-6, which is about being a living letter from Jesus.

Afterwards someone was kind enough to ask for a copy of the sermon, so I promised to put it on the blog. Here it is!

A nervous young vicar was wandering around his new parish, feeling slightly self-conscious in his shiny clerical collar. He saw an old gaffer working in his garden and decided he ought to do his part to spread the word.
"Good morning!" he called. "You and the Lord together have made a beautiful job of that garden!"
"You're right, vicar," said the old gaffer, "But you should have seen it when He had it on His own!"

Ever since God gave the task of ruling and nurturing the world to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1 He has chosen to work through us human beings. Supremely He has done this through the Son of Man, who is the ultimate expression of His purposes in human form; and since Jesus ascended into heaven He continues to use us His people to communicate with His world.

But how can we be an effective communication? Communication is a dark art, fraught with difficulties and misunderstandings: like the young man who decided to say it with flowers:

A young man was very much in love with a beautiful girl. One day she told him that the next day was her birthday. He told her he would send her a bouquet of roses, one for each year of her life.
That evening he called the local florist and ordered twenty-one roses with instructions that they be delivered first thing the next morning. As the florist was preparing the order, she decided that since the young man was such a good customer, she would put an extra dozen roses in the bouquet...
He never did find out why the girl never spoke to him again.

Today's reading describes that communication as a living letter, written on human hearts (v.3), known and read by everybody (v.2). How can we be a letter from Jesus more effectively? 3 ways:-

1. be a love letter.
• above all the message of Jesus is a message of love: "God so loved the world..." If people don't see God's love in us then we are not an authentic letter from Jesus because we are not conveying his message.
• My biggest mistakes in ministry have been when I've become too absorbed in tasks and not given enough time to people. If people can't see God's love in us we have lost the plot. But it's so easy when you sit down in front of your to do list.
• in 1907 there were around 50k clergy serving a population of some 40m. in 2007 there are not much over 10k clergy serving 60m. Of course we're hard pressed...
• but let's see people who come to us not as interruptions but as messengers from God, reminding us to re-prioritise. The rotas and timetables and agendas and meetings and reports and returns are not the most important things. People need to know you love them!
• Not only that, but if we are not a love letter, nobody will want to read us. People are fed up of reading of a church that is judgmental, stuffy, that fudges everything, hypocritical and inward-looking. People are crying out for an authentic spirituality: for Christians, that means love.
• Above all, give people time - a precious gift in an over busy age - as Jesus did.

2. be human
• God's ultimate communication was not through the prophets or written laws. It was through a human being - "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." Jesus was not afraid to be vulnerable - hungry, thirsty, tired, angry, sad, happy, suffering, tempted - and nor should we.
• Our humanity is therefore not an obstruction to God's work in our lives, but the very vehicle and living channel of it - because that's how it was for Jesus. Our humanity is God's gift!
• Christian testimony is not "look at me, I'm perfect!" - that's the testimony of the Pharisees. Christian testimony says, "I'm fallen - but I have somebody with me who keeps on picking me up"
• So don't keep up a front! People aren't helped by that. They feel, "I can't live up to that" and they go away discouraged. That's the letter that kills, v.6.

3. hand written
• No word processors for Paul! everything was written by hand. In the same way, we, God's letter to the world, need to have His fingerprints all over us.
• The Holy Spirit's role is absolutely essential - v.3: vital to keep the channel of communication with God wide open! Even the apostle Paul couldn't do it on his own, v.5: how much less can we. We simply must have the Spirit for thi ministry, v.6.
• The Spirit should be writing the story of our lives, shaping our attitudes, outlook, values, vision, relationships... Footballers have ghost writers to help them tell their story and we need a Holy Ghost writer to work with uson the story of our lives.
• That's why we pray for the Spirit's anointing at a priesting - and at confirmations...

• ... you see this isn't just about Paula, Liz, Sue and Rob, with me as the grizzled old veteran addressing the rookies and telling them how to do it. For one thing, Paula, Liz, Sue and Rob already have loads of experience!
• This is about everyone here! Letter addressed to everyone in the church at Corinth.
• Some have special roles, like our new priests - to help prepare the letter (v.3). But we all together are that letter.

So what kind of letter are you?
- A love letter?
- is your humanity showing?
- are you handwritten by the Spirit?
What do people read when they look into your life?

Thursday 13 September 2007

Young people of today...

What a fantastic weekend! A bunch of young people from Church Hill Praise / Queen Mary's Joint Christian Union spent last weekend washing cars (including mine), picking up litter, doing up people's gardens - and they appeared to enjoy every minute of it! They also offered a free barbecue to all comers and rounded off with a brilliant evening of praise and testimony in the St Matthew's Community Centre.

Why? Because that's how they feel they should serve Jesus, who loved us and washed his disciples feet. That's how they wanted to reach out to other people, not by hitting them first with the message, but by warming them first with practical love. It worked for one lady in her 80s, who responded to the praise night by telling us that it was the best night of her life!

It was hard to disagree with her. You could feel the warmth and joy coming off these young people, and see it in the way they treated each other. It is such a privilege to have so many passionate, enthusiastic and caring young people coming to our church - thank you so much! And it wasn't as if they made some great duty out of it. They were all having fun.

Jesus said, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." I think our young people demonstrated that last weekend. And I think some of our older people, myself included, may need to learn it all over again from them.

Tuesday 11 September 2007


I've always felt like rather a rootless person. My dad was a Scot who left his roots and came to England: my mother was born in India in the days of the Raj and had to leave in 1947. Before I was born they had moved several times and they carried on doing so as I grew up, together with my brothers, Ian, Andrew and Douglas. At first it was because Dad was in the army. I remember a lovely spell in Cyprus when he was posted there. After he left the Army our moves continued, because of work and the housing market.

I think the crunch came when I was 13 and we had what turned out to be the last move for some years, to Kent. I had reached the age where the childish innocence that does not look too far ahead was no longer available to me. I knew that I would never see the friends I had made in our last place again. I gave up trying to make new friends. What was the point? I would only lose them again. I became miserable and withdrawn. I failed to appreciate the good points of my travels - that I had met lots of people and lived in lots of places that I would never have seen if I had stayed in the same town all my life.

This sense of loneliness and emptiness had a lot to do with my conversion - but I'll do another entry about that. Finding that God loved me was a great healer for my personality and helped me to open up to other people in new ways. I'll never be a Graham Norton or a Muhammad Ali (thank goodness!) but at least I'm not permanently stuck in wallflower mode. However when God called me to be a vicar I knew I would be facing more moves, more farewells and more heartache. I sometimes look with envy at communities like Walsall, where many people have known one another all their lives and have deep friendships going back to childhood.

So it was one of the highlights of my year to meet up with some old university friends recently. I suppose my sense of the inevitability of the loss of friends had influenced me not to keep in touch with them as I could easily have done. Sometimes we collude with our own negative attitudes and turn them into self-fulfilling prophecies. So thank God for Chris, who put the energy in and brought us all together: Chris, Simon, Max, Jon and myself. I was the most centrally located, so we all had lunch at my place and a wonderful time of catching up.

For we were The Five - a bunch of Christians who were all poets! We'd even managed to publish a small anthology. We soon discovered that our main inspiration came from unrequited love, so we took a vow that if any of us got engaged we would be ceremonially dumped in the River Cam by the others. I'm pleased to say I've escaped so far - Weil's and who knows what other diseases lurk that way. I did however receive, soon after meeting Elisa, an envelope marked "Warning! Contains 10,000 gallons of dehydrated Cam water". Anyway, we're all married now, so the only thing to do would be to all jump in together.

Although we have all been marked and changed in various ways by life's experiences, it was such a golden time to be together. We worked out that we were within a few days of our 30th anniversary of leaving university and splitting up. I can't tell you how our reunion has lifted me. "I have got friendships going back 30 years! I'm not so different from the people around me who have roots - I have a rootlet or five myself!" And of course we're going to meet again very soon, and make it a regular event, and re-explore those roots.

Ultimately we all share a longing for roots. This longing reflects our needs for identity and security. We sometimes look for roots in places - that's why we slap preservation orders on them - and sometimes on churches - that's why society wants them to be museums instead of living, worshipping communities. We're on stronger ground when we look for them in relationships with others. But even those relationships cannot last forever.
My dear and rediscovered friends have all been marked by the experiences that have altered us, and we are all reaching an age where we cannot help being aware of our mortality. The sad thing is that we have no lasting roots while we are on this planet.

I think our desire for roots ultimately points us towards our need to be rooted in the love of God, the only place where they can really last. A beautiful verse from the Bible says, "God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men - yet they cannot fathom what He has done." Here are both the reality of the roots and the longing to find them, the temporaneity and the eternity. As another passage says, we are aliens and strangers on the earth, nomads longing for a better country, our heavenly home in God's love.

Meanwhile, what of The Five? We're all still writing so we are starting to work up another little anthology. It probably won't be the publishing sensation of 2008, but that's not the point. Here's one of my contributions - interestingly enough it's about being rooted, pictured in a forest, but gradually withdrawing from outward roots to focus more and more on inward roots in the love of God. I hope you enjoy it. If you have any thoughts about it, please post them on the blog.

Ashburnham Woods

Nothing hurts the eye's peace
But a leaf's small trembling:
Only the tree-dew dropping
Plops in the ear's stillness:
Here in this small pause
Life's million wars upon the heart
Let lapse away, release
The grip kept tight about the soul,
That she too may enter on peace.

Now is the pure moment
Of my unquiet residence
In this two yards of clay,
You and I as all:
I in my swamp of hope,
Memory and desire, You
In the pure circle of eternity
And Your circle touches me
And the word of Your touch is love.

Thursday 30 August 2007

The Lost Pawn

This is a story about answered prayer. It's a bit of a roundabout story because it starts with my brother-in-law, Antti. I suppose my kids must be among a very tiny elite of English children who have an uncle called Antti, but my wife and therefore my in-laws are all Finnish. Antti is the Finnish equivalent of Andy, and Antti is handy: he is very good at woodwork and carpentry of all descriptions and frequently takes commissions from friends and neighbours.

This summer we drove into Antti's place to discover that he had built a tower in his yard - a great big wooden thing with a ladder up the side and a platform on top. But what on earth was it for? It turned out that a neighbour had asked him to build a hunting tower for him. You put it in the forest near a trail and you are up out of sight among the leaves when an unsuspecting elk comes wandering by.... It was awaiting dismantling to be moved to the neighbour's house. Crucially, it had been waiting quite a while, and long grass and thick weeds had grown up around its base.

The next factor in the story is our youngest, Ben. There had been one or two dull spots on holiday, when it had been raining and all the TV channels were in Finnish. So Ben had borrowed his cousin Vilma's chess set and become very keen on chess. He brought the set with him on our visit to Antti's. When the grown-up conversation became a bit too boring, he went to look for a nice place to play a quiet game of chess with himself. You may have already guessed where. Who would think that the top of a hunting tower could be so perfect?

And the inevitable happened. One of the pawns fell off the board, slipped between the planks of the platform and disappeared into the weeds below. Of course we had to find it. It wasn't our chess set, and it would be useless to Vilma with one piece missing. So we searched and searched. Antti even got the scythe out and hacked at the weeds. Someone suggested dropping another pawn and seeing where that went - we didn't take up the suggestion.

After half an hour we could tell we weren't getting anywhere. As a last, desperate measure (why do we always try God last?) I decided we needed to pray. We stopped for a moment of quiet. "Lord," I said, "we don't know where that pawn is. But you know everything, and you know exactly where it is. Please show us where to look. Amen." Within about 30 seconds, there was the pawn, sitting in a spot we'd combed through several times before!

Well, what to make of that? I've prayed quite a few big prayers in my time that seemed to me to be quite important. Why had God answered that little prayer about a much more trivial matter and apparently ignored the big stuff? Here are my thoughts so far:

- It provided a timely witness to Antti that God answers prayer.
- It boosted my faith. Even though there are other prayers God hasn't answered (or at least hasn't answered yet), He still has the power to answer prayer, He knows our situation as exactly as He knew where that pawn was, and cares about us enough to help. In other words, we can trust Him even when the answers aren't so apparent.
- Are any prayers "big" prayers for God? After all, if you are the infinite Creator of everything, then actually everything on the planet is small beer by comparison.
- A God who knows where all the lost pawns and other bits and pieces in the world are is not a trivial God. He must be an amazingly huge God to keep track of everything.

I wonder what you think? Post a message below and let me know! And remember, don't play chess on top of an elk-tower...