Sunday 29 December 2013

What a wonderful Christmas!

Thank you Horton and Wraysbury for such an excellent Christmas! The Christmas Tree Festival was a fantastic launch for the season - see previous log. Other events then came very quickly one after another...

The Carol Service on 22 Dec was beautiful and very moving. The choir had clearly worked very hard to produce an excellent sound, but it was more than that - they were passionate about what they sang. It came across as an uplifting time of praise. It was a special blessing to have my colleague Carolyn, who leads Wraysbury Baptist church, and her husband Robin, in the choir for the event. Isn't that how it's supposed to be, with the Christian family coming together in worship? Anyway, their voices really lifted us up.

Then it was the Christingle service at St Michael's. Like the Carol Service, this was absolutely packed with people of all ages. I'd been told I would be amazed, and they weren't wrong! There was a very special atmosphere, sometimes boisterous, sometimes deep and reflective.

Unfortunately Ruth the donkey, star of the event in years past, was too unwell to make it this time, so we gave her our thoughts and a special award of carrots. In Ruth's absence I borrowed a fluffy lamb from Bea and we decided not to call her Baa-naby or Baa-tholomew or Ewe-nice or Lamb-ert but Baa-bara. Isn't she cute? Thank you Bea!

So Baabara helped me tell the story of how the Good Shepherd became a Lamb. You should be able to find her talk on the next post.

Midnight Mass back at St Andrew's was another occasion with a very special atmosphere. Attendance was amazing considering the terrible weather. Even though it was thumping it down and all the puddles in the church path joined together to make one continuous stream, we were packed out again. This time we were a bit more theological and reflected on Christmas changes everything. Our understanding of God, humanity, ourselves and our struggles are all transformed if we take seriously the outworking of God coming to share in our human flesh and blood in Jesus. Again I've put my thoughts in another post.

And God still takes on human form among us today. None of this brilliant Christmas (and there was lots more I haven't got time to write about) would have happened without the enthusiasm, creativity, commitment and sheer hard work of my brothers and sisters, who came into church at all hours, locked up again even later, prayed, sang their hearts out, sorted the hymnbooks, fired our imaginations, brewed coffee, welcomed strangers, turned our church into a wonderland - you name it.

The Bible name for God operating through the unity of his people, with each one playing a very different and vital role, is the body of Christ. We are his hands and feet, his ears and eyes... So Jesus didn't just take flesh and blood long ago at the first Christmas. He takes human form again in Wraysbury and in Horton, today. It's a great thing to be part of. Thank you for letting me be part of it with you this Christmas.

Happy New Year everyone!

Colin x x

Christmas Changes Everything!

Thoughts from the Midnight Mass and Christmas Morning Services 2013

Christmas changes God. Before Christmas, God seems to be a remote figure. Is He an absent father? Is he even an impersonal force? Does he abandon His universe to run on without him?  Does he just harangue us for our many shortcomings? Does he stand by doing nothing while human beings suffer and sin and die?

But after Christmas everything changes! God is no longer distant because he has got stuck in. He has become one of us. In Jesus he takes human form. Christmas tells us that He is not content to love us from afar, to wish us well possibly, but never to that extent of doing something about our plight. Then the story goes on to tell us how deep is God's identification with us, as we watch Jesus grow up, work for his living, laugh and cry, suffer and die for us, so that He might also rise and with his resurrection raise us too.

Christmas changes humanity. Are we just animals, with no purpose in a random universe? Lots of people nowadays seems to think it's a good thing to believe this, that it sets us free from restrictive moral and ethical codes and accountability to a higher power. I wish more people did feel accountability to a higher power though. Maybe it would reduce the greed and reckless contempt for others that have brought about bankers' excesses, politicians' expenses, police lies over Plebgate, phone hacking by our journalists and all the rest. Aren't we weary of the degradation of our public life yet? Where can we recover our integrity from if not from our accountability to God? And what are we doing to our kids when we tell them they are nothing but animals, that there really is no point whatever to their existence? I believe our humanity revolts against this tyrannical teaching.

But after Christmas everything changes! Christmas tells us that we are special, that God became one of us and that therefore our faltering, uncertain, confusing human life with all its ups and downs is a fit vehicle for divinity. God doesn't work in spite of our humanity, as some faiths teach, but because of it! We don't have to become depersonalised to know him and serve Him, in fact we are missing the point of Christmas completely if we do that. After Christmas there is no human being, however wrecked they might be by the storms and trouble of life, who is not of infinite value. Believe me I have met some human wrecks in 25 years of ministry! The humanity taken by Jesus at Christmas proves that we will never meet anyone who is beyond the love of God. That is a call to compassion, because this person too shares the humanity of Jesus. This is something we have to take very, very seriously at Christmas time and always.

Christmas changes our suffering. Everything about the first Christmas - the homelessness, the stable, the poverty, the desperate political situation that led Jesus' family to flee to Egypt to seek asylum, looks ahead to his career as the Man of Sorrows - the story of His rejection, the suffering, the cross...

But after Christmas everything changes! We still don't know the answers. Why was I rejected like that? Why did my brother have to die so young and tragically? Why did my mother have to suffer such a terrible illness? But because of Christmas we now know for certain that God understands the question. He's in there with us. He came at Christmas to share in our sorrow and pain.

So if it changes everything else, Christmas also changes us. God didn't come into the world at Christmas just to give us a pretty story to tell, about long ago, far off things, with a baby, fluffy animals and angels in it. He came to change us. So when that change happens, the Christmas story is still being told today. Whenever anybody turns to Christ and decides to follow him, whenever we act in his compassion towards our fellow human beings, whenever we invite Jesus into our hearts and let him be part of our lives, then that story of Jesus continues to be told through us.

But he won't change us against our will. He didn't come as a tyrant, to force us to follow him through his overwhelming power. He came in weakness, a vulnerable, dependent child, to see if we would choose him.

So what do you choose today? To go with the secularisers and let Tesco's and tinsel take over your Christmas - and perhaps your life? Or to choose the One who changes everything?
How the Shepherd became a lamb...

Baa-bara's thoughts from the Christingle at Horton this Christmas

I'm really sorry we can't have a donkey this year. I've heard all about Ruth and how she comes to the Christingle to see us every year, but sadly this time she isn't well enough to come.

So I've brought along a little Lamb instead. Do you want to see? Here we are! I borrowed this lovely fluffy lamb from Bea. Trouble is, I can't remember the name. Do you want to help me choose a name, just for today's talk? Vote for one of these…
·         Baa-naby? Baa-tholomew? or for a girl lamb, Baa-bara? or Ewe-nice? How about Lamb-bert?

So just think of a little lamb, just like Baa-bara, out there on the hills one winter night, long ago, with those shepherds. Suddenly a bright light blazes from heaven and the angels appear and send the shepherds to go and find baby Jesus in Bethlehem. Did you know last year Elisa and I went to Bethlehem and visited the place where it was supposed to have happened? I even have some stones from that very field…

I think God had very special reasons for choosing shepherds to be the very first people to hear the good news that Jesus has come into the world. 
·         because they were ordinary: those shepherds were not celebrities, not kings or presidents, not fashion icons. They had no degree in theology, they were not particularly holy – they were very, very ordinary, down to earth people. You see, Jesus came for ordinary people. So you don't have to be Frank Lampard or Princess Ewe-genie or drive a Lamb-orghini for God to love you. He loves you already, just as you are.
·       and because God is a shepherd too - The Lord is my shepherd.

Now I like to think that when the shepherds heard the angels' message and went to see baby Jesus, they took a lamb just like Baa-bara with them, to see baby Jesus too. Because as well as being a shepherd, Jesus is also the Lamb of God.
·         It means he was an innocent baby and would continue to be without sin.
·         It means he came to redeem all creation, animals and nature as well as people
·         but much more than that, it means he would be sacrificed to take away our sins.

Now those sacrifices never worked! The people had to keep on doing them, day after day and year after year. But when Jesus the Lamb of God died for us on the cross, there was no need to sacrifice a lamb any more. So Jesus took the place of all those sacrifices, of all those little lambs just like Baa-bara, in the same way that he took our place when he dies for us on the Cross.

So that's the miracle of Christmas. The shepherd… also became a lamb.

Colin x x

Thursday 19 December 2013

Gibson Gazette - Christmas 2013

What a momentous year of change it's been for us poor, feet-haven't-touched-the-ground, don't know whether we're coming or going Gibsons!

The biggest change of all was the birth of little Isla Elisa on 14 February 2013. What great timing by Saara and Tom! So now we are about to celebrate our first Christmas as grandparents. And what a pleasure it is when she is so cuddly, beautiful, intelligent, cute and altogether lovely… I'll just have to leave you to imagine her as I gather it's not always a good idea to put pictures online - sorry.
 Next was moving to a new church, new community and new part of the world. After eleven years in Walsall the feeling was growing that the things God had calling us to do were largely done, that it was time to make way for new and perhaps younger leadership and fresh vision so that His wonderful people at St Matthew's could go on being renewed, growing and moving forward in Him. And we also needed to be closer to Saara, Tom and Isla, to mum in Brighton, and to my brothers.

It's just that it's been such a wrench. The homesickness really bit when we were sent photos of Ben and Izzie's wedding. There were so many of the people we loved, in a place that has come to mean so much to us, where God has blessed us in very many ways.

But alongside the pain of parting there's no doubt that it has been good to come to Horton and Wraysbury. It's been lovely to be welcomed by such a warm and friendly community, to be part of a loving church with great, prayerful people, and also to see more of my family. When Elisa and I sneak into church by ourselves of an evening to pray quietly we feel God has great things in store for His people and we are going to see Him moving here. But for the moment it's about getting to know people, finding out how everything works, setting up systems and general re-orientation.

A huge change for Elisa has been giving up work, which she did in April not long before we moved. She's built a lot of friendships in Walsall Manor Hospital and some are keeping in touch.

Ben's gap year with Youth With A Mission came to an end in August but not before we had been out to Bolivia to visit. We had an amazing but also exhausting time touring Bolivia and Peru with Ben and Kathryn, who had put together an itinerary for us based on the energy levels and resilience of 19 year olds! Ben and Kathryn are now studying at Redcliffe Bible College in Gloucester.

 We're very near Heathrow airport now so drop in and see us – contact details above.

Lots of love and our best wishes for 2014!

Colin and Elisa x x

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Christmas in Finland

Well, as you might have expected with such an amazing programme, we had a great Christmas Tree Festival at St Andrew's (please see previous post). I can't believe it's so long since I last blogged - really getting into the Christmas rush now...

Anyway, one of the outstanding items was Elisa doing her presentation on Christmas in Finland. Some people who really wanted to see it missed it because of a change in the programme times, so here it is below. I ought to say my wife does it much better live than it appears in cold print.

Good morning everyone. I'd like to tell you all about Christmas where I grew up in Finland. It's very important because Finland is the true home of Christmas. We have reindeer, and snow is guaranteed, but best of all, Finland, as you all should know, is where Father Christmas lives. We call him Joulupukki and he lives with his elves in a secret place called Korvatunturi.

There are many things the same about Christmas in Finland but many things are very different. For one thing, our Christmas seems to be much less commercial than yours in England. Maybe it's because I grew up on a farm but I don't remember the annual shopping frenzy!

Christmas Eve is the busiest day of the season. The whole house must be cleaned from top to bottom to welcome Christmas in. Not only that, but you have to be perfectly clean yourself, so everyone has a hot Christmas sauna.

Just the thing in those freezing Northern winters! If you are a bit mad, like my brother Antti, you can rush outside from the sauna to cool off with a nice refreshing roll in the snow – brrrr! Antti has even persuaded foolish visitors from England, such as my husband, that everyone does it and got them to join in!

Please note everyone in this picture in wearing a swimming costume of some kind!

Nature is never very far away in Finland. One of the loveliest traditions on our farm was to go out into our own forest, choose a tree and bring it fresh into the house on Christmas Eve. The children would get together to decorate it and the lovely smell of the freshly cut tree would fill the house.

Next there would be a very important visitor! In Finland, Father Christmas always comes in person. He is in his own country and he takes his time. He doesn't zoom down chimneys. He comes and knocks on the door and the children have to welcome him in. You can imagine the excitement at my home. There were seven children, me, my five sisters and my brother all desperately waiting for Father Christmas to come!

And when he does arrive, the children have to entertain him. Finnish children sing traditional songs for Father Christmas, and do dances in a ring for him. And then he gives them their presents!

For some reason dad always went out to feed our horse just before Father Christmas came. It happened the same every Christmas! He was always so disappointed when he came back and found he had missed Father Christmas yet again!

Then it's time for Christmas dinner. We don't have turkey for Christmas in Finland, we usually have a great big joint of ham. There are lots of traditional dishes to go with it, like rossoli which is made from beetroot and lantulaatikko which is sort of stewed swede – it's much nicer than it sounds! We also have rice porridge which we think is a great delicacy.

On Christmas Eve we Finns all go to the churchyard to remember people we used to share Christmas with in times past but who are no longer with us. There is a special service where everyone lights candles and puts them by their family graves. The churchyard looks very beautiful and mysterious with the candles flickering in the darkness.

Christmas day itself is much quieter than Christmas Eve – a day to enjoy that pleasant full-up feeling and play with your new gifts. Hopefully also to remember Jesus, God's gift of love to the world.

Do you know, it was at Christmas that I first came to England? God spoke to me very powerfully that I should come here and the only berth I could get was on a ship sailing at Christmas. By that time, I had asked Jesus into my life and I had decided to follow him, wherever He might lead me – and He brought me here! I'll gladly tell you the story later if you ask me. But I think the real meaning of Christmas is when Jesus comes into your heart. That's why He came to earth in the first place, and that's true whether you live in Finland, or England, or anywhere in the world.

I'm going to finish by teaching you to say Happy Christmas in Finnish. After all, if you ever meet Father Christmas, you can greet him in his own language!

Let's try it  - 

Hyvรครค Joulua!

Sunday 24 November 2013

Christmas Tree Festival Programme

Please come along to the amazing Christmas Tree Festival to be held at this week at St Andrew's Wraysbury on Friday 29 and Saturday 30 November. Emily tells me there are now 68 entries so our church will turn into a Narnian land of mystery and beauty.

As well as viewing the trees and voting for your favourites, there's lots more to do, including delicious cakes and preserves to buy, delightful children's activities (thank you Becky and Jenny) and a programme of exciting special events each day. We believe that our deputy Mayor and Mayoress will also be making a visit.

Friday's programme is organised by the school, and the pupils will be doing all kinds of fun performances through the day. The day will run from 12 noon until 6pm. Programmes will be available on the day.

Saturday's programme is organised by the church and we have some really exciting events lined up. There will be a Christmas special (with some surprises!), puppet shows with Tony and Stan, Christmas in Finland and of course our very own St Andrew's choir singing Christmas carols. To help you choose when to turn up, here's the complete schedule of events for Saturday 30th:

10.00               welcome and opening                         
Reverend Colin

10.30               Bells                                                  
St Andrew's bellringers *                   

11.00               puppets                                             
Tony Hermes and Surendra Chahal

11.30               Christmas in Finland                           
Elisa Gibson

12.00               carols                                                
St Andrew's Choir

12.30               Christmas special                                
Reverend Colin

[Lunch break 12.40 – 1.30]

1.30                 puppets                                              
Tony Hermes and Surendra Chahal

2.00                 auctions, awards and prizes

3.00                 close

* if there is a shortage of bellringers then this item will be replaced be a Christmas Special matinee performance with Reverend Colin

All this, and yet admission is free! What a great way to start your Christmas - see you there.

Love Colin x x

A Society that hates people?

Does our society really want people any more? As I listen to the news of changes to the London Underground, which mean fewer people are wanted because there are more machines, I gloomily ponder how many more of our enterprises and institutions have gone the same way...

  • The steel industry where I used to live in Sheffield still makes loads of steel - but it doesn't want more than a few people to press buttons. The rest have all gone.
  • Your bank has put in cash machines because it doesn't want to pay people to help you organise your money.
  • Your supermarket has put in automated tills so that they don't have to employ people either.
  • Any firm you ring about anything has endless automated messages - so they don't have to have people to talk to you. Annoying, isn't it?
  • Robots are apparently being brought in in Japan to care for old people - so even the elderly will have machines instead of the hated humans to care for them.
  • huge numbers of lower middle class workers, who used to do all the adding up and copying and filing by hand, have been replaced by computers.
  • Driverless trains... online goods... online sex (whatever that is - I'm a vicar after all)... algorithmic stock trading... virtual friendships...

Somehow in my dull brain I still want to cling to the absurd and dated idea that "society" means what happens when people get together. But we seem to be creating a society which doesn't need people. How can that possibly work? I mean even in economic terms, when nobody's got any work because it's all done by machines, how will anyone earn anything? For I have no doubt that even human machine minders will be replaced by machines that can mind other machines better than we can. What will the economy mean when it's just lots of computers firing strings of digits at each other?

And who will this brave new society actually function for? Presumably only an ultra rich super class who design or make or own and hire out the machines and the stuff they run on will actually have money. But in the end if nobody but them earns anything, there'll be nobody to buy the goods and services their machines provide, will there? Then they too must go bust, surely? Surely even they will then be forced to admit that there is some mutuality in the world? When there is no-one left to buy then there can be no sellers either - can there?

As you can tell, I just don't get it. But at least we can still form a society, through choice even if not through economics much longer. We can privately and personally seek out a human interaction which we can no longer find in the factory or office. One of the great things about coming to Horton and Wraysbury is the enormous extent to which people set enthusiastically about this through all the various clubs and societies that we have here.

Christmas is coming up. It's a reminder that people matter. God values humanity so much that He came and shared in it. The divine life was incarnated in human laughter and tears, human work and play, human friendship and struggle. So let's not have a mechanical world, pitiless and pointless. That world is both godless and inhumane. Let's choose people instead.

Colin x x

Saturday 23 November 2013

A familiar face

It was a pleasure to come across a familiar face in my new Diocese this week. As a newcomer - 25 years in ministry but just started in Oxford Diocese - I attended an orientation day on Thursday and one of the first speakers was the Diocesan Registrar, John Rees.

John is now a very distinguished lawyer indeed, with roles in the Church of England generally including legal adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury and Registrar to the entire Province. He was made The Times' Lawyer of the Week earlier this year. And he's looking great. I can't say he hasn't changed a bit because it's over thirty years now and I know I've aged in that time too. But he's bright, smart and twinkly-eyed. You can see him on the back of the latest Diocesan magazine, Door.

John was leading the Church Youth Group at the time I first started coming and set out on the road to following Jesus. A callow, confused, embarrassed and embarrassing young man I certainly was at the time, lonely, socially inept and silly, but I was welcomed and wanted anyway. And I was so desperate to find God and get some peace. John and that Youth Group showed me where to look for both, in Jesus, The Way.

Some years later John read me an extract from the journal he kept back then - perhaps he still does. I don't remember the exact words, but it said something like this: "a new person, Colin, came to Youth Group today. Told him about Jesus. Felt as though I was giving too much bread to a starving man."

I am so grateful that John and others took the time to share with me and nurture me. I feel I owe it to them as well as to the Lord to look out for those who may be as lonely or confused or spiritually desperate as I was back then, and to share Living Bread with them as best I can, just as I myself received it.

So Thank You John for what you did for me. I'm sorry the programme was so busy we had no time to talk. But perhaps we'll have time to rectify that as time goes on and I put down roots in the Diocese.

And as for you, reader - share a bit of bread with someone soon.

Colin x x

Sunday 10 November 2013

In Remembrance: 10 November 2013

Thank you Wraysbury for inspiring and moving Remembrance Service today. People told me that there is strong attendance every year, and they weren't wrong! It was particularly poignant to see so many children taking part and placing poppies round the Millenium Stone. We all long and hope that our children will never need to face the same terrors of war that our mothers and fathers endured. 

I'm told the service up at Horton went well today too. Sorry I couldn't be with you on such an important day - vicars have many strange powers but they don't include being in two places at once. I know you were not short changed as you were led by my trusty colleague Beryl, who I know is a blessing to everyone in the parish.

Some people were kind enough to say nice things about the sermon today, so I promised to put it on the blog. And here it is...

I wonder who or what you think about during that two minutes' silence on Remembrance Sunday? I often think of my grandfather, Albert Taylor. Granddad was born into a very poor family. They were farm labourers in Norfolk with lots of kids. To survive, my granddad learned to live off the land. He knew which leaves and wild roots you could eat, and if there was a pheasant or rabbit anywhere in the landscape, he knew it was there. Ray Mears had nothing on him!

When he was only 16 Albert signed up to fight in the First World War. At the Battle of Cambrai, after initial British success, a German counter-offensive broke through. A small detachment was thrown forward to slow down the enemy so the rest of the troops could pull back to safety. This was called a sacrifice party – they put their lives on the line so their comrades could be saved. Only my granddad and one or two others from that party of over a hundred survived. Everyone else was killed.

Albert was taken prisoner and endured conditions of great hardship. Because of the British naval blockade, the Germans did not have enough food for their own people, let alone their prisoners. Granddad was assigned to an agricultural party, going into the fields to work the soil, as so many of the German men were at the front. One day he managed to escape, slipping away into the countryside. There he lived off the land, as he knew so well to do - those survival skills stood him in good stead. Moving by night and hiding up by day, he made his way to neutral Holland. There he was interned as a combatant for the rest of the war.

A sacrifice party… sacrifice is a universal human practice. The Old Testament Hebrews sacrificed, as did the surrounding pagans and classical Greece and Rome. There were the ghastly human sacrifices of the Aztecs and other South American peoples, but lest we think we Europeans are any better there were the mysterious sacrifices of the bog people in Europe. In China ritual sacrifices of burned paper objects are made to ancestors. Animists still offer sacrifices to placate angry gods and demons. Muslims were recently sacrificing sheep or goats at Eid.

Sacrifice is still alive in modern secular life. Athletes sacrifice a normal life to train: they would never have won all those medals in the London 2012 Olympics without huge sacrifices. Volunteers sacrifice their own comforts to help the poor - my own son Ben sacrificed a year of his young life to work with street kids in Bolivia last year. Leaders sacrifice their private lives for their goals… Business men risk their personal wealth and work all hours for their careers...

Closer to home, newlyweds sacrifice their way of life to adapt to their partner's. Parents sacrifice time, effort and money to bring up their kids, and later in life children do the same for their parents. Carers give up future prospects for those they love. Our churches would not continue without the sacrifices of the people who for love of God and His people give of their time, energy and money. Has any worthwhile thing ever been achieved without sacrifice? A world where no-one made sacrifices for others would be a diminished world full of petty people.

Sacrifice is everywhere! Why?

Christians believe it is because that is the way God is. "God is love," says the Bible. Then it tells us that His love is supremely demonstrated in the sacrifice Jesus made for us on the Cross. God is the kind of God who sacrifices Himself for those He loves – and He has made us in His image. No wonder sacrifice appeals to us, inspires us and moves us. It is the great theme of so many of our songs and stories. It fires our imagination and motivates our actions. It is at the heart of life.

In 1917 my granddad Albert laid his life on the line so that his comrades could be saved. And on the night before he died, Jesus shared a last meal together with his disciples. In words that have been used every Remembrance Sunday since it began, he said to them, "Greater love has no-one than this, to lay down his life for his friends." Then he made the Great Sacrifice: he went out to suffer and die on the cross. Jesus laid his own life on the line, so that we his friends could be saved...

Thursday 24 October 2013

Is your God too small?

Last Sunday's reading bowled a bit of a googly for us unfortunate preachers. It was the parable of the Unjust Judge from Luke 18. Here's what Jesus said:

"In a certain town there was a judge who feared neither God nor man. There was also a widow who kept coming to him with her plea, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent!’ For a while he refused. But finally he thought, ‘Although I fear neither God nor man, yet because this widow keeps on bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so she doesn’t wear me out in the end!’” Then the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. So won't God bring justice to his chosen people, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and soon!" 

But Jesus' point in this story is not that God is like the unjust judge. In fact He's as unlike him as can possibly be! Jesus says, "If even the unjust judge will finally crumble under the power of your nagging, how much more will your heavenly Father listen to you?"

So the underlying issue in the story is, what is our image of God?

  • Perhaps we have a judgmental God, angrily waiting for us to go wrong so he can condemn us?
  • Do we see God as an impersonal force, not really bothered with the ups and downs of human life? Like some of the more out of touch members of our judiciary?
  • Maybe we see God as an old grandad who's a bit hard of hearing: we need to keep on and on at him to get our way? Like a judge who falls asleep during the trial?
  • Too many of us think we have to earn God's love - if only I could do enough religious rituals or church going or self-denying or dutiful service I can make him love me...

Well, we had a great time at St Andrew's in the New Life Service, drawing pictures to represent how we see God. There were some deep thoughts there, and some pretty astute theology. The children's contributions were particularly meaningful. There's a great story about a little girl who was drawing a picture in her class at school. The teacher asked who she was drawing and she said, "God." "Don't be silly, dear - nobody knows what God looks like." So the little girl holds up her picture and says, "They do now!"

In fact the Bible has a prohibition about creating images of God, at least for use as objects of worship. This is because any image of God, however brilliant, inevitably falls short of the Infinite. Our tiny minds simply cannot grasp the fullness of His majesty, glory, holiness and endless love... And our negative images of God will seriously damage our relationship with Him. They should have health warnings!

  • If we see God as weak or uncaring we won't bother to pray.
  • If we have a disapproving, judgmental view of God it will destroy our self-confidence.
  • If we have a God who is a kindly old duffer, who will put up with anything, our faith will end up so bland that it is not worth bothering with. I sometimes wonder if this is the kind of God Western Christians spent most of the 20th century proclaiming and whether that is why so few British people bother with him in the 21st Century.

But our positive images of God can have amazing results!

  • If we see God as great and powerful, we will be motivated to pray to him.
  • If we see him as the one who loves us, our self-confidence will blossom.
  • If we see him as a God of justice, it will start to matter what we believe and what we do.
  • If our God is alive and active in the world then we will be full of courage and adventure.

So is your God too small? And if He is, how can you restore your image of Him? The Bible's answer is to look at Jesus. Our children knew this on Sunday and time and again drew Jesus as their image of God. They quite stole the punchline of my talk! Because Jesus said, "If you have seen me, you have seen the Father (John 14:9). He is also called the image of the invisible God in Colossians 1.

Jesus is God made known in a human form that we can know and understand and relate to. And when we give Him our full attention that lets the image of God in Him start to shape our own lives too. That's God's project for us: He wants us to grow more like Jesus, in love and mercy and peace and joy.

Because we too are supposed to be created in the image of God. Jesus then is like a master picture restorer, peeling back the layers of grubbiness and wear and tear and grime so that the beauty beneath can shine through...

Now there's a challenge! When people look at us, what do they see?  Is there a picture of what God is like in the way we live?

Saturday 19 October 2013

Christmas starts with...

Here are some amazing statistics from the "Christmas starts with Christ" campaign, backed by the Church of England and other august bodies. According to them
  • only 12 per cent of adults in the UK know the nativity story
  • more than one-third of British children don’t know whose birthday it is
  • 51 per cent of people now say that the birth of Jesus is irrelevant to their Christmas. 
It does look as if there has been a deliberate suppression of the nativity story in our education system - how else can we explain more than one third of our children not knowing that Christmas has something to do with Jesus?

Even if you're one of those people who doesn't believe in Him, I think you should be alarmed. All those people are kept in ignorance about their roots, the history, culture and ethics of the society in which they live - if you can call it living when you're just dreaming of mince pies and getting more stuff.

Maybe you think it's time Christians wipe the dust off their feet, abandon the season to Tesco's and the turkey farmers and celebrate Jesus' birthday on some other day? There's a good case for it... But I think it may be worth one last effort before it's too late.

More people should get behind the "Christmas starts with Christ" campaign. Check out their website on

Sunday 13 October 2013

More thoughts on thanks...

I was thinking a but further on my last post (see The Power of Thanks) and thought I'd add a bit more. We were thinking how "thank you" reminds us that life is amazing and how it establishes a relationship. It made me reflect further on Professor Richard Dawkins - you know, the one who is so angry with the God he doesn't believe in.

Prof Dawkins says we don't need God to have feelings of awe and wonder at the universe. But he's wrong! What we feel as believers when we see a sky full of brilliant stars, or the sunlight sparkling on the river, or the miracle of someone being born, is different. It's different because we have someone to say thank you to. Prof Dawkins' personal feelings have no echo in the cold, dead universe he lives in. In fact those feelings only emphasise his loneliness in the universe. They disconnect him from it, because it can't feel anything at all in response. 

By contrast, something very like gratitude rises up in our hearts when we respond to our amazing world. We are acknowledging that there is Person behind the universe who has expressed His love and power and fertility in creating both it and us. We are expressing a deep connectedness with our Creator and His creation. Saying Thank you puts us in a deep way in tune with fundamental reality, because it establishes a personal relationship with the One behind it all. 

As Psalm 111 says, "Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them."
The Power of Thanks

What a wonderful morning we had at St Andrew's today. It was great to welcome Orson and Victoria, who were baptised in the service, and all their family and friends. There was a lovely atmosphere of warmth and celebration, and it was brilliant to see so many kids in church. I just want to say a great big thank you, to everyone who took part and to the Lord we love and serve, who was so gently but palpably present with His people.

Which is very appropriate because our theme today was The Power of Thanks. We were looking at the story of the ten lepers in the Gospel, the ones who come to Jesus asking to be healed. He tells them to go and see the priests (which is what you are supposed to do when you have already been healed of leprosy according to Leviticus chapter 14). But they never get there. While they are still on their way to the priest, doing what Jesus told them to do, healing comes...

But only one of them comes back to say Thank You to Jesus. The Bible doesn't tell us his name, so we decided to call him Wayne, because he was leper number 10, and Wayne Rooney wears a no.10 shirt. What difference did it make though when Wayne came back? We thought there were four things that come out of the story and demonstrate the power of thanks.

1. Saying thank you reminds you that life is amazing! Presumably the other nine just returned to the ordinary things that had made up their lives before leprosy cut them off so cruelly from the rest of the community. By coming back to say thank you, Wayne stayed with the miracle! It was amazing to have his life back and he overflowed with that amazement. We had Orson with us and we decided that Orson was awesome. Because with the birth of every new child we have to decide whether it's all just so much biology cycling mindlessly through, or whether we have just taken part in a miracle. We are all living that miracle - even if your birth like mine was rather a long time ago, we wouldn't be here without it. When we give thanks we realise afresh that life is awesome.

2. Saying thank you establishes a relationship. When we are in a restaurant we can ignore the person who brings our food, prepares the table, takes away the dirty dishes and so on. After all, they're being paid. But if we say "thank you" to them, we are treating them as a person, not as a faceless nonentity. By coming back to see Jesus, Wayne showed he didn't only want to get healed, he also wanted to know the Healer. When he loudly praised God, he wanted to relate his healing to God's love for him. In fact Christians can't separate a personal relationship with God from an encounter with Jesus. When Wayne wanted to give thanks to God, he came back and met with Jesus.

3. Saying thank you changes your attitudes. I find myself a bit too given to moping, sulking and self-pity, sometimes too much of a glass half empty person. Wayne could easily have spent his time bemoaning the terrible experience he had been through as a leper, asking what was it all for, if God wanted to heal him why had He left it so long, and so on. Maybe some of those thoughts went through the minds of the other nine. But all Wayne wanted to do was say thank you for such a wonderful new start! His glass was full and running over. Mine is too really, if I stop to think about it. I need to take a leaf out of Wayne's book and start thanking God. I have far more blessings than things to moan about. Saying thank you makes you more positive, because it changes your attitude.

4. Saying thank you lifts your faith level. The other lepers showed amazing faith by just going off to see the priests when as yet they were still not healed. But only Wayne came back to say thank you. So only Wayne was there to receive the affirming words of Jesus: "Your faith has healed you. Go in peace." Wayne had his faith built up when he gave thanks. And our faith gets built up too, because when we give thanks we are also reminding ourselves of what God has done for us, and therefore of how much He loves us and how He is able to work in our lives. Saying thank you lifts your faith level.

So what have you got to say thank you for today?

Sunday 6 October 2013

St Michael's Day 29 September

I'm a bit late posting this, it's been a really busy week. But last Sunday was St Michael's Day and I found myself preaching on St Michael in St Michael's Church in Horton. Megan was kind enough to ask for some notes of my talk, so I promised to put them here on my blog - thank you Megan!

And no, it has nothing to do with buying your underwear from Marks & Spencers. We are talking Michael the mighty archangel here!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 

I come across a lot of interest in angels as I wander about the parish these days. Could it be the same lonely impulse that makes us search the universe for life on alien planets? But Christians already know we are not alone in the universe. There is life out there – but not as we know it.

I think belief in angels is increasing because it's a no commitment religion. There's no cross, no challenge, no accountability to someone greater than yourself. Perhaps people like to cherry pick the plusses of having a presence to watch over them. But this low cost spirituality is not at all what the angels themselves are into, as we shall see. 

By and large angels in the Bible are pretty mysterious. They take strange shapes – wheels full of eyes, mythological looking beasts with four heads, people with six wings or bodies like lightning. As spiritual beings this is probably not what they look like, just how they choose to make themselves known to people for whom they are otherwise invisible.

They are scary! The commonest reaction to angels in the Bible is the one in the Christmas carol, where it says "Fear not, said he, for mighty dread seized their troubled mind." Ezekiel and Daniel talk about their strength deserting them and trembling with fear when they encounter angels. These are not the fairies on top of your Christmas tree folks! They are mighty spiritual beings. 

There's probably two good reasons why you haven't seen them very often (apart from their being invisible of course):
·         Perhaps it's not good for us to get too deeply involved with beings who are in so different a league to us – would it be a distraction from doing what God has called us to do as human beings? Or might we feel abashed and unworthy in the presence of such holy creatures?
·         it is possible even to fall into worshipping angels because of their awesome power and splendour. This is an absolute prohibition in the Bible – we should worship none but God.

Well, there are many kinds of angels – cherubim, seraphim (burning ones), thrones, dominions, powers. In spite of the complex angelologies some people have drawn up we really know very little about what these terms actually mean. But we are going to focus on the archangel Michael today, because we're in St Michael's church and it is St Michael's day. Michael is an archangel – that is a "prime" angel in both senses of the English word, first in time and first in rank. There are three other archangels in our traditions – Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael. However only Gabriel and Michael are named in the Bible itself. 

Michael has five mentions in Scripture:
·         Daniel 10 x2 – Michael combats the mysterious "Prince of Persia" who seems to be some sort of cosmic evil being who inspires the Persians in their then conquest of the known world
·         Daniel 12 – Michael arises in the last days as the great prince who protects the people of Israel
·         Jude – Michael contests with Satan over the body of Moses after his death
·         Revelation – Michael leads the armies of heaven in war on Satan and his fallen angels

The common thread here is combat! That's why Michael is nearly always portrayed in armour – see our lady chapel reredos, picture below: or Epstein's Coventry cathedral statue. Michael leads heaven's charge against the powers of evil.

So given that angels are so different from us, what can we learn from St Michael, in St Michael's Church, on St Michael's Day?
  • We too need to stand firm, not to be cowed by misfortune, or by the pressures of our times, or the seductions of materialism, or the attacks of the evil one! Let's stand firm as St Michael does. Whether we are angels or men, good and evil, justice and injustice, light and darkness remain the same. We need to take a side and stand firm on it.
  • Michael is the Prince who protects Israel – so we too can pray for the people of Israel, all the more because, like us, they don't always get it right.
  • Worship. The angels don't want us to spend too much time focussing on them because they are focussed on God. Again and again we read about the angels worshipping Him – think of the amazing vision of God in Isaiah 6 where He is high and lifted up, his train fills the temple, and He is surrounded by mighty angels calling "Holy, holy, holy..."

Michael's very name means, "Who is like God?" It's an exclamation of praise.So if you want St Michael's church, or St Andrew's, or any church, or any place, to be infested with angels, worship God with all your heart. Because they love an atmosphere of praise. It's what they live and breathe. If there's one thing above all we should learn from the angels, it's to join with them in worshipping our amazing God.

Friday 20 September 2013

Momentous times...

As I write on Thursday 19th September, millions of Jewish people all over the world have completed their first day of celebrating Sukkot. They build shelters in their gardens (or move into the garden shed, or decorate a room up with branches) and are obliged under Jewish law to have a really good party with lots of eating and drinking. 

Some rabbis even take the line that it is their religious duty to get a bit tipsy at Sukkot. Elisa and I saw an amazing display when we were on sabbatical in Israel which included footage of incredibly severely dressed ultra-orthodox Jews getting plastered at Sukkot! It's a mistake to think of Hebrew religion as sombre. The Jewish year has three weeks of holidays and feasting to just a single day of fasting.

Sukkot is a Harvest Festival. Just like Christians celebrating God's goodness in bringing forth bread from the earth. We celebrated at St Andrew's Wraysbury last Sunday, and a great time we had too, with the New Life service, and a slap up harvest lunch afterwards! St Michael's Horton are going for it on 6 October and Wraysbury School are doing one too soon. What a great coincidence that we and they celebrate the harvest at about the same time. It's just that the Jews take it a bit further: eating, drinking, and going back to nature.

We might feel sorry for British Jews camping out in the damp and cold of September. But it's a very sensible time to go camping in Israel, where the stifling heat of July and August has finally eased up and going outside is bearable again. This reminds us that Sukkot will always have an extra dimension for Jews actually living in the land of Israel. For them, it is not just enjoying the goodness of God's bounty. That food and drink is the fruit of the Promised Land. The Sukkot feasting is a tangible, edible participation in God's love for them: the love that took them out of slavery and brought them to a place where they could be free. They are in shelters because they have to remember that once they wanderers in the desert - until God gave them a land.

But Sukkot is just one part of a very busy few weeks in the Jewish Calendar. The seventh month starts with New Year - that's the Feast of Trumpets for Leviticus scholars. Then it goes on to Yom Kippur on the tenth day, which this year fell last Saturday. This is the Day of Atonement in English versions of the Bible, when every Jew is obliged to confess and seek forgiveness. On the fifteenth day starts the whole week of rejoicing which is Sukkot - in English the Feast of Tabernacles, i.e. of shelters or tents or sheds. Think of it as a gigantic Spring Harvest, where an entire nation goes camping together to rejoice and seek God.

What we have here really is the symbolic rebirth of the nation:
  • Rosh Hashana - the New Year begins
  • Yom Kippur - cleansing from wrongdoing so as to renew relationships and start again
  • Succoth - participating in God's goodness by eating the fruit of the Promised Land

For Christians these will always be deep portents of what God was going to do in sending Jesus:
  • Atonement through the cross. By happy coincidence this year Yom Kippur fell on Saturday 14th, which in some Christian Calendars is Holy Cross Day.
  • a joyful New Life where we participate in the love of God: this comes through Jesus' resurrection and the gift of the Spirit.
  • the communion service brings these wonderfully together - we remember a body broken and blood poured out for our sins, but we also feast on a living Presence that brings God's love to live inside us.

We reflected on these things together up at Horton last Tuesday at the midweek service. Here are some of our thoughts...
  • Just like the Jews at Yom Kippur, we all stand in need of mercy and forgiveness. Why do we find it so hard to say "I'm sorry, I was wrong?" It's bad for our ego, but good for our souls! 
  • Do we laugh at ourselves enough? Do we see the great joke – that God should choose the likes of us to build his kingdom, knowing how fallible we are and how often we mess up? Is camping at Sukkot about letting go of the material and egotistical things that so dominate our lives and often bring so much stress with them?
  • Do we see God as a generous giver who gives the land and the fruit and everything in love for us?
  • Is our practice of Christianity joyful enough? Remember the ratio - 3 weeks of feasting to a single day of fasting!
  • Let's see Jewish people as our older brothers and sisters in faith. I'm not trying to say we should be uncritical of everything the state of Israel does. A quick flip through the Scriptures will show you that such position is not biblical, because they so often got things wrong - just like us. But I am saying that we owe them everything - our God, our Scriptures and our beloved Messiah all came via the Jews. We should thank them and bless them for such a wonderful inheritance.
And finally, an ancient Hebrew prayer that their younger brothers and sisters in faith can also share in at Harvest Time: 

Baruch attah, Adonai Elohenu, Melech ha'olam: hamotzi lehem min ha'aret
Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the Universe: you bring forth bread from the earth.

Friday 13 September 2013

With a little help from my friends…

I am delighted to report that Elisa has been discharged from the fracture clinic and has got rid of her plaster cast! She was getting so frustrated with it, as she loves to be up and doing. We were quite a picture, the pair of us, lying on our respective sofas, Elisa with her injured foot up and me moaning about my sciatica (it's lots better now.)

If there's an up side to being poorly and in pain, it surely comes through the kindness of others. While Elisa has been in plaster we have had so much help from people: putting on cold compresses, taking us to hospital, bringing meals, cakes, cards, flowers, tomatoes and runner beans, offers to help with housework, cheering us up with a visit... Not to mention all those who have prayed for us. You realise how caring and thoughtful people are.

What we've been through has been unpleasant and inconvenient. But it hasn't been real suffering of the sort millions of people go through all over the world, trying to deal with war, persecution, famine, disease and disaster. What we have seen on a very small scale however is surely also true for bigger, badder events. Isn't all suffering a call for compassion? We don't understand it, we call out, "Why?" And yet it has at least this meaning for us, which is the call it sends to us to respond to our suffering brothers and sisters. A world with no suffering would also be one where the beautiful, tear-watered flower of compassion could never bloom.

This is the heart of the Gospel story. God responds with compassion for the sufferings of lost and broken humanity. When he gives his Son Jesus for us, it is because his heart has gone out to us. God is moved by us. That's why he expects us to be moved by one another's sufferings too.

And one last reflection on it all. In the course of my pastoral ministry I have often met people who are too independent. They may be going through a hard time – but they think they have to demonstrate that they can make it on their own: "I don't need anyone else!" The truth is we do need each other. Our sufferings should draw us together, not push us apart. We shouldn't stifle other people's desire to help, to reach out with love. It enables them to be that little bit more like God.

Perhaps it would be a good rule never to turn down a kind or generous act?