Monday, March 11, 2019

Jodie, The Colour Purple and the Protection of God

They dyed their hair purple and hung purple ribbons around the area using her favourite colour. Her peers instead of a minute’s silence had a minute of applause. Closer to our home, some built a circle of stones - the traditional tracking symbol for a Scout to know that someone being tracked has gone home, but also the traditional Scouting way of remembering one of their own who has died. All of this done to remember Jodie Chesney, who was stabbed to death in Romford - the fifth teenager to die in the capital this year. How can this be?

Calls to build a wall continue to spout from the office of the president in the White House whilst concerns, ramped up by certain sections of the British press continue to ask popular but unpalatable questions about immigration, crime and employment.

Despite all the political wooing of North Korea in recent months, there seems to be renewed construction underway at a rocket launch site, amid mounting fears of an imminent ICBM test.

All of these questions of safety and security, of national identity, of ethnicity and cultural heritage, are all in the mind of the community that the Psalmist was part of. Midrash tradition says that Psalm 91 was written by Moses on the day that the tabernacle for the ark of the covenant was completed and was recited by him as he made his way up Mount Saini to protect him from angels of destruction. The psalm is said today in the Jewish community before sleep and during the burial of the dead.

It is known as the Soldiers Psalm or Prayer and bandanas or badges with it imprinted are often given to US troops and verses of this psalm are quoted by the devil to Jesus in this morning’s Gospel reading as Jesus deals with temptation.

In the face of personal, national and international fear and uncertainty, in a time when we might want to be lifted out of a situation that it out of our control; when we wish we could escape a scenario that is not of our making or that is not going our way; when we fear for our lives or the lives of those we love; the opening verses of the psalm present us with an image not of a mother hen and with us her chicks nestled beneath her, but of  God as the Almighty, as a fortress or refuge. God like a massive bird of prey, powerful and yet intimate images of protection. God’s angelic wings will be a sure protection in the face of all attack. No evil will affect us or even come close to the places where we dwell but not just us, but all those who dwell with us in our tent. God will protect families and communities.

If these words were said by Moses as he climbed the mountain and recited by the people of Israel as they pilgrimaged through the wilderness, these were words said by a people on the move. So when the devil quotes verses 11 and 12, ‘... For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone…’ to Jesus he was meaning that God will surely protect Jesus if He jumped, but the original context was about avoiding the rocks and stones that littered the desert as the people walked. God has such a close eye on us that He won’t let us stumble on a stone, He will not let us trip and if something blocks our way - he will bear us up, lifting us up over it. The psalmist acknowledges that things will block our way, that our path through life will not always be easy, sometimes the road will be hard and dangerous. It doesn’t say that God will make the road of life smooth for the faithful. Bad and difficult things will come, but we encounter them with His protection. In those situations, if we call to God, He will answer, He will protect, He will deliver.

But, notice that the psalm is not a litmus test of faith. Being able to tread on adders, lions and serpents is not a sign of God’s favour. Sometimes we will step on an adder as it were, a lion will leap out at us unprepared - tragedy and danger will come even to those who love God. But, God is there. Talk of long life is, therefore, is not about avoiding tragic death because of our faith,  rather it is a metaphor for God’s blessing, of his favour, of His presence and love.

God says he will do all of this for those who love Him and for their communities. These words, therefore, are very contemporary and ones of all-encompassing hope to the tense streets of our capital, to communities frightened about their identity because of the presence of others, but also to those of us concerned about what a nationalist politics might bring to the international stage or how we might walk forward when confronted by personal tragedy or illness and to all of us who keep this holy season as a time dedicated to deepening our love of the One who watches over us: keep walking; keep loving and trusting God. He is there.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Man Sat On The Wall

I enjoyed a sunny dog walk in the late morning today.  As I neared home, I met a Muslim taxi driver who parks in the road outside the church. We've met before and exchanged pleasantries.

Today our hellos led to something more. We sat next to each other on the wall and talked candidly and openly. The wall didn't divide us. Instead, it was a place that allowed us to meet as equals, as fellow pilgrims.

He talked about his Muslim faith. He spoke about seeing himself more as a cultural Muslim now, but those stories and traditions are part of his own story and therefore have enormous depth and meaning for him still. He talked using the language of a spiritual seeker - he spoke how he valued meditation and I spoke about how contemplation and silence are a strong strand within my own faith and I suspected within some Islamic traditions too. We talked expansively about the similarities and differences between Islam and Jesus' way.

We touched on who Jesus includes and excludes - especially how Jesus sought to reach out to those on the edge socially, culturally and religiously; on Jesus' response in scripture to other faith traditions; on shared stories in our scripture; and the three words for love in Greek and how as a Christian I'm called to consciously choose to enact agapé to all. I spoke about Jesus showing that by washing his disciples' feet - something which seemed to move and impress my new friend deeply. I spoke about how Christian faith, for me at least is not about assenting to propositional theology, but about following the Way, living a lifestyle. How do I do what Jesus did or say what He said?

He spoke about how peaceful he found the Garden of Remembrance in our churchyard and how he liked to sit on the bench there. I spoke about that place being somewhere that gained meaning by being a place of memory and story, but it also being a place where people have ultimately encountered God as we have entrusted those who are beloved to His care and keeping.

I invited him to sit there any time, but also to feel free to sit in church. This invitation seemed to move him again. I talked about that peacefulness he feels being the presence of God.

One of those amazing chance encounters that remind me of Jesus encounter with the woman at the well. Here was someone thirstily seeking the water of life.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Addressing the District Council.

Tonight I had the privilege (& I mean it) of addressing Three Rivers District Council before their meeting and leading them in prayer. Here's what I tried to say.


One of the privileges of ministering in the Church of England is the parish system. This means I have a responsibility to look out for the welfare and wellbeing of all who live in Mill End, Heronsgate, West Hyde and Maple Cross. Sometimes that will involve speaking up for the people in the communities I serve, especially when they are faced with injustice. Sometimes that will involve working with you (as councillors). Sometimes when those in most need are affected through the loss of community facilitates (whether that be bus routes or community sports facilities) that will involve me speaking out.

I was reminded of all of that when I was at a meeting in Maple Cross last night where we discussed extending the reach of the Rickmansworth foodbank and establishing a new Community Cafe to seek to provide a hot meal to local families who otherwise wouldn't easily have access to that during school holidays.

You might say that as a representative of the church I should stay away from decision making like that as it sounds overtly political. But I cannot but seek to when the one I follow, namely Jesus, calls me to love my neighbour as myself.

The way that Jesus teaches its all about relationships with neighbours whoever they are, whether they are refugees, asylum seekers or EU nationals.

One of my heroes of faith, Desmond Tutu once said 'the Gospel for a hungry person is bread.' Bread could be housing, education or access to health care - it's about practically meeting the need of those most in need in our communities.

I look forward to continuing to working with you to ensure that those in greatest need get support because Jesus tells us to and because it's the humane thing to do.

Let us pray.
Almighty God, you have created the heavens and the earth and made us in your own image: teach us to discern your hand in all your works and your likeness in all your children; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Living God, deliver us from a world, counties and communities without justice and a future without mercy; in your mercy, establish justice, and in your justice, remember the mercy revealed to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Stranger In A Strange Land - Reflections on Psalm 137

Psalm 137
1By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, ♦
when we remembered Zion.
2As for our lyres, we hung them up ♦
on the willows that grow in that land.
3For there our captors asked for a song,
our tormentors called for mirth: ♦
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
4How shall we sing the Lord’s song ♦
in a strange land?
5If I forget you, O Jerusalem, ♦
let my right hand forget its skill.
6Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you, ♦
if I set not Jerusalem above my highest joy.
7Remember, O Lord, against the people of Edom
the day of Jerusalem, ♦
how they said, ‘Down with it, down with it,
even to the ground.’
8O daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, ♦
happy the one who repays you
for all you have done to us;
9Who takes your little ones, ♦
and dashes them against the rock.

Aside from the challenging images in the latter verses of the psalm, verses which the ASB (Alternative Service Book - an earlier version of the Church of England’s liturgy) bracketed off, I was reminded today as I was at a Quiet Day led by our Bishop on the Psalms, that the verses of Psalm 137 speak to the contemporary church.

It also made me think of a certain Iron Maiden song...

The writer picks up on the idea of being far from home; somewhere which is unknown. There is a lack of identity; a dislocation from the community’s story; where language and customs are meaningless and all this is held by a small group. It feels vulnerable and precarious.

The danger, in those occasions, is to give up. To hang up our lyre as it were; to no longer sing the songs or retell the stories; to allow meaninglessness to prevail.

The writer looks back to a former time in Jerusalem where this all made sense and the exiles were home. The issue with living like that is that we end up longing for former things. '... God is not the God of the dead but of the living...' '... Behold I make all things new...'

How do we live as exiles - as people of monotheistic faith in a pluralist and sometimes hostile landscape - live without looking backwards? How do we live in the now shaped by the God who was, who is and who is to come? How do sing the songs and tell the story now, without wishing to give up?

What scripture speaks into that? The Emmaus road account - walking away from Jerusalem into a new reality where Jesus is not dead but alive? The burning bush - from there Moses is sent by God on with God’s people.

The Psalmist talks with passion about not forgetting Jerusalem and the associated stories and centre of faith to give confidence to their present.

What of the church in 21st century England? Are we in exile? In many ways we are in a strange land. A place and time where the stories and songs of our faith make little sense except to a smaller community. Do we entrench? Do we give up? The psalmist would encourage us not to. We are to remember the heart of our faith with its customs and songs but to live in the present - the eternal moment that Elliot hints at in Little Gidding - knowing that the One who was and is and is to come is there too.

It leaves me with thoughts about faithfulness and about discipline. There is no hint in this psalm (or in Judaism per se) of the need for evangelism. There isn’t a sense from the psalmist that they better seek new recruits in this strange place of exile because unless they do they will die. Rather the psalm, for the Christian, hints at a return not to a place but into a relationship - with God - through Jesus Christ. What does this psalm say in a church driven by a growth agenda and Renewal and Reform?

God of our pilgrimage,
you sent your Son to our strange land
to bring us home to you;
give us your songs to sing,
that even in our exile
we may be filled with the breath of the Spirit
of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

A Growing Faith. A Growing Church.

I'm thinking a lot these days about church growth. I am convinced that the church grows when God wills it. In some senses that's the stop and start of it.

There are things that we can be engaged in that open us up to being formed by God and therefore open to growth ourselves. As St Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:6: '...Paul planted, Apollos watered, but it is God who gives the growth...'

We should be disciplined and diligent in prayer. Prayer places us intentionally in the presence of God and as we share our hopes and dreams with God, so He shares His with us. Prayer can happen anywhere - on our own as we walk the dog; with others in a small group; dwelling in silence together listening for the voice of God. If you're unsure how to pray why not join me/us across the week (Monday 7.30am12noon/4pm; Tuesday 8.45am/12noon/4pm; Wednesday 8.45am/12noon; Thursday 7.30am/12noon/7pm & Saturday 9.30am.) You can find the liturgy we use available here or here.

Immersing ourselves in Scripture enables us to become more familiar with the story of our faith and thus building resilience and confidence. Engaging with Scripture also opens us up - along with prayer - to the ways and purposes of God. Reading scripture for scripture's sake is a good thing, but then to spend time with others' wisdom (through Bible notes or a course or conversation) forms us in faith.

The Sacraments.
The Sacraments are about revealing outwardly the grace of God at work within us. Thus seeking Baptism and Confirmation; partaking regularly in Holy Communion; offering and receiving prayer for healing by anointed with Holy Oil; looking to be reconciled with those whom we have let down and with God are all about building and reshaping relationships. Traditionally, the church talks of Sacraments of Service, which will usually refer Ordination and Marriage. Those two sacraments are not for everyone and they are a specific and particular call - but service more generally, seeking to put our faith into action, to serve and love one another is fundamental in following the way of Christ, and shaping community.

Faithfully living this way forms us in faith, calls us to be disciples, keeps us attentive to our Teacher, and opens us up to being signs of the Kingdom where God sets us.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

What Hope Looks LIke

I asked some of my friends recently what hope looked like and to give me some examples.  Whichever way one voted in the Brexit referendum in 2016, it is hard not to get dragged down by the bleak prospects predicted for our nation post March 29th. As a result, perhaps, we need a sense of hope more than ever.  There were a number of insightful suggestions. One wrote,

‘... Hope is not for the selfish. It is not a thing we should cling to or hang onto, it is the thing we should give to others. If someone around you is looking for hope, give it to them. This is not done in positive soundbites or long speeches, it is done with love. "Faith, hope and love. These three remain". No coincidence that all three are gifts. Gifts are not for keeping but for giving…’

Another sent me a photo taken from inside a cupboard.

Another wrote movingly,

‘... hope isn't is wishful thinking. It's a brutal fact that each of my children have a 50% chance of having inherited my husband’s condition/genetic mutation. 50% chance that they all have it, or none of them. Wishful thinking might make me ignore this statistic. Hope means that I believe that they can all live rich and fulfilling lives, and at their futures are in God's hands…’

In my experience, the word hope is one that is used with some regularly within faith communities. Hope for Christians is not feeble and frail, but sure and certain. It is simultaneously something on the horizon towards which we travel, but also something tangible which we hold in our hands and travels with us.

Hope is God’s business. It is second chances, restored relationships, forgiveness given and received, and outsiders welcomed, and the wayward returned home.

In these days before Lent, we are reminded that God’s business of hope is found both on the horizon: at the cross towards which we journey; and in the nail imprinted hands of  Jesus. As his family, that is true for us too: at the cross, we are invited to crucify with Christ that which divides and dehumanises, but also to remember that as we bear the mark of Christ on and in us by virtue of our baptism - we hold the hope for which so many look and long for in our hands.

The Benedictines have a motto - laborare est orare - to work is to pray - the idea being that their life together in the monastery would have plentiful helpings of both, but both were of equal importance in a life with God. In that sense, praying is seeking to align our lives with God and to seek His will for us.  It is not just something we say, but rather something we do; something we are.

It is all too easy when one is feeling hopeless, to look to hope arriving from on high. In these days, let our hands, our lips, our hearts and our lives be the hope that we and our communities need. Hope is a work of God in and for us; like our prayers, let it be something we do; something we are.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Stop Preaching - Start Singing (A Sermon for Advent 4)

Middletown Dreams by Rush - one of my favourite songs.
There is something evocative and beautiful about a song.

Songs have the capacity to transport us to far off shores or to the innermost parts of our being; to lift or to lower our mood. Music also can carry or even tell a community’s story - think about the music you enjoy and the way that it hangs as a backdrop to your own life or the way that you have enjoyed in sharing it with others. Music can also tenderly hold our hopes and dreams - the psalms in the heart of the Old Testament do just that - they bring every gamut of human emotion and experience into the presence of God.

Ariana Grande at teh One Love Manchester concert.

But that is true in the secular sphere - cast your minds back to the One Love Manchester concert organised by the singer Ariana Grande following the terrorist attack at her concert held at the Manchester Arena where 23 people died and 139 people were injured; or further back to the Live Aid concerts. The music performed on those occasions carried themes of love and justice which transcended politics, race and creed and carried a universal hope.

There is also something about a song which touches our hearts in such a way that enables us to enter into the reality and experience of that which is being voiced. When we listen to love songs we find a new language to express our deepest feelings for another. When we hear a song crying for justice it gives us new solidarity with those who long to be set free. In other words, in the same ways that the food that we consume becomes part of us to enable us to live - we are what we eat - what we sing shapes our inner world in such a way that it can cause us to reshape our outer world individually and corporately - we are what we sing or what is sung over us. We are both homo sapien and homo musicus.

Humanity’s experience of God can be described as the greatest love song ever sung. In the words of Scripture and in people’s experience of the Divine we hear a simple three-line song - I love you, I want to be with people like you, will you be with me? It is an invitation to hear the song of love and to join in.

In our Gospel reading, we encounter Elizabeth and Mary pregnant with children, but pregnant with so much more.  They are also the many in our world who long to see different opportunities, possibilities and outcomes brought to birth: the hospitalised woman longing to be well; the accused man longing for justice; the hungry family longing for food; the refugee longing to be accepted in their new homeland; the workless on unemployed longing for meaningful employment; the middle-aged housebound man longing to be pain free; the gay woman longing to be accepted by her parents and her church; the elderly grandfather longing to be lucid and heard.  They all sing their own songs with countless others, all of which echo God’s song of love and community for all.

Mary supremely sings of this pregnant longing. We hear this song read as scripture, we sing it in our hymnody, we pray it at Evening Prayer but all too often, the song doesn’t sound like good news to us because we are by in large well fed, or rich, or in positions of power and might compared to others locally and globally — or if we benefit from systems that oppress.  Mary articulates an end to economic structures that are exploitative and unjust. She speaks of a time when all will enjoy the good things given by God.

If we only hear the Magnificat as scripture or an evening prayer we fail to hear the call of God through it to the transformation of our lives and of our world, and we all too easily hear the words but do not listen to what they say of the love that God has for us all but especially for those that we all too often push to the margins or silence or disempower.

We have closed our ears to Mary’s radical song of resistance, even though there is so much oppression and evil in the world. We have turned Christmas into a cattle-lowing, no-crying-he-makes Jesus, Silent Night. With only hours before we celebrate his birth, we are in danger of soft focusing the manger scene failing to realise that the birth of her son in animal feeding stall are the actions to accompany the song Mary sang in Elizabeth's company. With only hours before we celebrate his birth, we are in danger of airbrushing out impoverished social outsiders like shepherds who are not just called to the manger by angels, but because they join in in a version of Mary’s song.

Today we really need to hear Mary’s song; we need to listen to what Mary’s song says to us; we need to listen what Mary’s song says about us; we need to hear what her song says about those we don’t/won’t/can’t/shan’t see or hear.  But we can only do any of that if we are singing too.