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Why this blog?

Thank you for visiting this site.

Most of my blogging takes place on the website of our local church: https://stbarnacles3.wordpress.com/

The purpose of this blog is to make connections between the local and the wider church, and to reflect occasionally on wider social issues.

Your comments are welcome!

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A thought provoking trilogy

These three books are thrillers which explore the tensions between Islam and the secular west, from the perspective of someone uniquely qualified to comment. Canon John Hall is a retired interfaith adviser with a doctorate in race and racism. The trilogy starts with a naive student in his gap year deciding to cycle from his home in North London to Iraq, and how he ends up being kidnapped by IS. His aunt is a vicar running a drop-in project for refugees, and the book raises deeply important questions about the limits of hospitality. She inadvertantly offers shelter to an IS operative who gets involved with the life of the a young woman who is the daughter of a local pentecostal preacher. Both the ethical issues and the real human dilemmas are written with pace and precision, and although the ending is perhaps rather implausible, the reader is drawn in to find out more in the second volume.

The second volume, Istanbul, reassembles many of the main characters in that city. This book very much explores West meeting East. By now the naive student, Adam Taylor, is a victim of PTSD and has an Omani girlfriend. The ethical questions of this relationship are never really explored, they are simply a given, and this is book is more about secular liberalism encountering Islam, rather than Christianity. Nonetheless the plot develops with pace, leading a tragic denouement which leaves one seeing the futility of IS, and the importance of developing links with moderate Islam.

The third volume, Harry’s England, to me seemed the least satisfactory of the three. For a start, there is far less personal involvement in the terrorist acts that take place. We read of an explosion and a shooting leading to many deaths, but unlike in the first two books, the central characters aren’t directly affected in any physical sense by the action. Secondly, the shadowy right-wing international organisation masterminding the plot seemed rather hard to believe in, and thirdly, as a member of the Green Army, the description of how the local football club was run jarred badly. Rather the political speeches and the reflections on events seemed to take away from the flow of the action. It may be that the imagined rise of right-wing extremism will turn out to be prophetic, but I found it harder to engage with the narrative of this book.

Nonetheless all three books are well worth reading, and the questions for discussion deserve to be pondered further.

For the want of a vision (updated)

There is famous saying based on the KJV rendition of Proverbs 29:18: Without a vision the people perish and it is one that contains a great deal of truth. We all need a vision to unite us, to give us a common goal towards we can work and to which we can direct our energy. That is why one of the roles of leadership is to provide that vision, to inspire others to follow the cause in which you believe and to persuade them that this cause is better than the alternatives.

It is was through the offering of a clear, simple vision that the nation – albeit by the narrowest of margins – voted for Brexit. As I recall, although the arguments to remain were many and coherent, the Remain campaign struggled to articulate its vision for the United Kingdom within the European Community. The vision that the Leave campaign offered was seductively simple – more money for the NHS, control over migration and new trading relationships with the rest of the world.

The problem with any vision, however, is that it has to have some connection with reality. It soon became apparent that the future being offered ignored the sheer interconnectedness of life today, whether through trade or migration or indeed through the common border between Northern Ireland and Eire. The idea that the United Kingdom could somehow go it alone simply was unrealistic, and there is a lesson here for leaders everywhere of what happens when you sell a vision based on nostalgia or false promises.

In fact the more accurate translation of Proverbs 29:18 from the Hebrew reads something like: Without a vision the people are let loose. As the vision for Brexit has unravelled we are left with competing versions of what the future might look like, a government that is weak and divided, and a country nervous about what is going happen next. The painful lack of vision is eroding faith in democracy and taking valuable time and energy away from other urgent matters that need addressing.

I wonder if there is a lesson for the Anglican church as well. It seems that within the worldwide communion there is a struggle going on to articulate the vision for the denomination. While that struggle is going on, individual churches are generally following their own course, and the overall impression, at least in the country, is of a body weak and divided, unable to devote their full energy to the urgent task of re-evangelising the nation.

So what accounts for a lack of vision? In the case of the political leaders, a slim majority in parliament means that the Prime Minister needs to tread a very careful course between those who wanted to remain and those who would have us leave the European Union at all costs. In the case of the Anglican communion, leaders are finding themselves treading an equally delicate course between those who want to conserve the traditional understanding of sexual morality and those who want to adopt a revisionist anthropology. This quest to keep the balance is almost by definition at odds with the quest to have a clear coherent vision.

But the verse from Proverbs goes on: the one who keeps the law – blessed is he. It is interesting that a contrast is drawn here between a lack of vision and observance of God’s word, and it should be recognised that it requires a certain amount of moral courage to hold on to the truths revealed therein. For if we are serious about living according to God’s word, this will mean that sometimes we will go against popular opinion and, at other times, that we come down firmly on one particular side of the argument. We can run the risk of being labelled intolerant or extreme or illiberal.

However those who lead need to give the people in their charge a vision that can inspire and encourage them. We need to pray for those Christians in the political sphere that they might be able to articulate a positive and realistic vision of the future inspired by kingdom values. We need to pray for church leaders that they might be willing to offer a clear vision through the present crisis in the Anglican Communion and know when it is right to walk together, and when to walk apart. And all of us need to pray we have the courage to strength to hold on to the truths of God’s word in a climate when that word is increasingly being vilified, for only in this way do we truly experience the pathway to blessing.

A peculiar glory

I found this book rather bizarrely in the bookshop of Buckfast Abbey – amid all the Roman Catholic theology there.  I have tried reading John Piper before without much success, but the theme of this book appealed to me. It is a very personal and yet also very thoughtfully argued apology for the uniqueness of Scripture. It starts with an autobiographical sketch of how the author first encountered the Scriptures, and how he transitioned from academic theology to pastoral ministry. Then it moves into a discussion of the Scriptures that make up the canon,  and how Jesus acts as the centre of that canon.

Piper’s argument is that what makes Scripture unique is its revelation of the glory of God, and that it is the window through which we gain insight into the  divine majesty. Drawing heavily on the work of Jonathan Edwards, he shows how the revelation of God’s glory authenticates the claims of Scripture about itself through the work of the Holy Spirit. He then shows how this glory is made manifest through the creation, the person and the miracles of Jesus Christ and the church.

There is then a final chapter which sits rather ill at ease with the rest of the book engaging with the place of historical reasoning. This is a subject that the rest of the book hasn’t really covered, and could be dealt with in far more depth elsewhere.

Piper’s style can on occasions be rather repetitive and he takes time to develop his points, but it is a useful book to read to inspire a fresh confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture, and a new wonder at the God who chooses to communicate so fully of himself in such a way. It seems less suitable to be used as apologetic material in itself, but would certainly be helpful tool in preparing for a debate on the nature of Scripture. And as churches increasingly fracture and divide over issues of primary importance, the more writings that inspire us to hold on to the scriptures as we have received them, the better. We will all need to prepare ourselves for the challenges that lie ahead.

 

What can we take away from the royal wedding?

Capture

Now the initial excitement has died down, it is good to take stock and reflect on what lessons we as churches can take away from the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

First of all, it is significant in itself that 1.9 billion tuned in to watch a specifically Christian service. Many of the viewers may never have seen an act of worship before, and in an age where disestablishment is once again being discussed, it was good to be reminded what a privileged position the Church of England occupies which allows it to spread the gospel.

Secondly, the service itself was noticeable for its use of modern liturgy, including at long last the use of the Lord’s Prayer in contemporary English. This showed a welcome attitude to make the service accessible, and also served to remind me just how far liturgically the church has come in the last 35 years. The order of service for the marriage of Prince Harry’s father, Prince Charles to  Lady Diana makes for a fascinating contrast. Even the order of service for Prince William and Catherine Middleton was in the language of the old prayer book.

In this regard the choice of the song “Stand by me” was perfectly appropriate. The slightly cynical side of me wondered whether by substituting the word “Jesus” for “darling” you could end up with a perfectly acceptable contemporary worship song.

But thirdly, it was the sermon by Archbishop Michael Curry that attracted much attention, from the warmly positive to the extremely negative. Ian Paul gives an excellent analysis of both the sermon and the reaction here.

For my part the sermon was fine, as far as it went, which wasn’t that far. I think everyone would agree love has the power to change the world, but if it was that easy, why hasn’t that transformation taken place? Several points that to me seem to be missing from his sermon:

To begin with, it is necessary to distinguish between different kinds of love. The love that transforms the world is not necessarily the same as the love of a prince for his bride. It is the self-giving love of Jesus that needs to be our focus, and while Archbishop Curry certainly referenced Him, He didn’t seem to be the centre of His argument.

Secondly, there is a cost and commitment involved in that kind of love, as again Jesus demonstrates. Sometimes we will fail to love as we ought. Sometimes we will find it hard to bear the cost. That may seem a downbeat kind of message to give at a wedding, but it is important to be realistic. And it would also seem appropriate, bearing in mind one party to the marriage was divorced.

Thirdly, that kind of love does not come about by human effort alone. When Jesus sets us an example of love (John 13:13-15) He doesn’t then expect us to try harder and harder to achieve that example, because such love is actually foreign to our fallen human nature. We need the gift of the Holy Spirit, and as the Royal Wedding was the day before Pentecost, it would have seemed very appropriate to make this link.

But then again, anything which makes us think about the theme of love, and opens up a discussion with those who do not yet believe cannot be a wholly bad thing. We can only hope and pray that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex indeed know the love of Christ as they begin their married life together until, as they promised, “death do them part”.

A tale of the ordinary

Avenue (2 Book Series) by  R. F. Delderfield

It’s very rare that I read fiction more than once, but I have always loved these books since reading them twenty years ago. The Avenue tells the story of a number of families growing up in suburban Surrey from the aftermath of World War One until the demolition of part of the avenue in 1947. It is full of small details, using the lens of apparently ordinary people to cast light on world events.

Delderfield’s thesis is that history is not made in the lives of the famous, but through the attitudes and decisions of those far away from the news headlines. In a sense, his attitude to history is quite resonant to modern approaches today. The success of the series Who do you think are and Going back in time for dinner shows the appeal of the micro-narrative to understand the signs of the times.

These books were written nearly fifty years ago, and while some of the dialogue may appear a little dated, they are beautifully written, and show a great understanding of how people mature and develop. There is a warmth and empathy with the characters that draws us in. My only quibble is – what happened to the Avenue, after the houses and the surrounding woodland were demolished? Maybe that’s a narrative that falls to someone else to write.

Click on this!

If you are reading this, the chances you are already browsing through the Internet or flicking through Facebook looking for stories. I have less than 20 seconds to grab your attention, so here’s a cute picture of my cat, taken a few years ago:DSCF9076

But seriously, how we engage with social media is not something we tend to think about that much. Yet the more I work and live online, the more I see that actually we all need to stop and think about how this brave new world of communication impacts upon the way we practise our faith. So take a few minutes to scroll down this article, and let me know if you agree with what I’m saying.

‘Cos it seems to me there are three important issues we all need to think and pray about:

Mastery Psychological studies have shown that social media can be as addictive as gambling or alcohol. We have to keep checking on Facebook to see if anyone has liked our post. We want to see if our friends have responded to our latest Tweet. We find ourselves compelled to click onto the latest cute cat or dog video.

All this seem very harmless, but actually it can become a habit that we find harder and harder to break. Yes, we need our down time, but our compulsion to be online can so easy interfere with our working lives, or our time with our family, or indeed resting properly. And anything that becomes a strong habit will inevitably interfere with our devotion to the Lord.

Now I’m not saying that social media is necessarily evil. At the best it is a great communication tool to share prayer requests, to learn what the Lord is doing around the world, to support friends in need. But we need to have the spirit of self-discipline so that social media is our servant not our master. What we find online is virtual reality, not the ultimate reality who is God Himself. It is in our relationship with God that we find our meaning and our fulfilment, and we must not let anything get in the way of that, not even the apparently harmless habit of spending hours, say, on Facebook or Snapchat.

Manipulation More and more we are learning that what we read online is not neutral or unbiased. We talk about the great “information revolution” that happened at the end of the 20th century but now in 2018 we are more aware than ever that not all news is real news. We can be tricked and deceived in all kinds of ways, and we need Spirit-filled wisdom to discern what is good and right and true.

As we are bombarded with more and more news, we also need to be aware of the overwhelming pressure that is put upon us as believers to conform to the world’s point of view. If you’re not clear what I am saying, try posting on a public platform that you believe in the traditional, Biblical understanding of marriage. The downside of such free flow of “information” is that anyone can comment in an instant, and if you are out of step with the times, you can expect all kinds of abuse and vitriol to rain down on you. Paul says in Romans 12:2: Do not conform to the pattern of this world but it is hard when your views put you at odds with what the majority believe. Just look at the example of Tim Farronand how his view on marriage caused his downfall as Liberal Democrat leader.

This is yet one more reason why we need as Christians to support and encourage one another to stand firm on the gospel of Jesus Christ, not just by meeting on Sundays but also by supporting and encouraging each other online. Yet sad to say I find many church members are reluctant to engage with this vitally important area of online ministry. I get far more response to these kinds of articles from those who are not part of St Barnacles. Yet if our voice is to be heard and sustained, and if we are to help our young people avoid being manipulated by the world of social media, this online ministry is not an optional extra, but a vital part of our discipleship.

Meditation To me the biggest challenge of social media to the Christian faith is that it crowds out our space to reflect, to think, to meditate. The church has always grown and flourished when men and women, young and old, have created space and time to pray, to be with the Lord, and to listen to what He is saying. Paul urged the church in Colosse: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly and I believe that is an urgent command also for our day.

Yet social media is causing our attention span to shorten. Once we have read something, we might pause for a moment to share it. But then we go onto another story. We search for the next thing that grabs our attention. If what we find doesn’t grab our attention within about 20 seconds, we discard it, and move on. And I am concerned, really concerned, that we are not creating the space to allow the word of the Lord to get into our lives, indeed that we are losing the discipline entirely of simply reading our Bibles, being still and allowing the Holy Spirit to minister to us.

So here’s a challenge. Before you click off this post, take time to read Psalm 119:97-104 

If you no longer possess an actual Bible, click on the link and ask yourself:

What does it mean in today’s digital age to meditate on God’s law all day long? How far is Scripture my source of wisdom when I browse the net?
Do I let social media or the word of God be the ultimate authority over my life?

For the sake of the gospel, let’s get this conversation going.

Living as Advent people

Advent-Candles

It’s that time of year again. No, I’m not talking about Christmas. I am, as every year, trying to make the point that as a church we are still in the season of Advent. The only trouble is, by this stage of the season, we are already singing Christmas carols and watching nativity plays and I can understand why. We are looking forward with eager anticipation to the day when we celebrate our Saviour’s birth and we want to rehearse the story through song and word and worship.

But it is also really important we still remember the significance of Advent. To the wider world, Advent has simply become the yearly countdown, an excuse (depending on your age) to eat chocolate and/or drink gin each day, as you tear open the flap of a calendar. And as a church, we can all too easily follow the world’s lead. Advent and its themes of waiting and preparation sit uneasily with the festivities all around us, and it is tempting sometimes to ditch Advent altogether.

Yet we need to bear in mind that throughout the year we are called to live as Advent people. What do I mean by this? Well, the carol is surely right to declare that “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Him tonight.” Through the first coming of Jesus we are born into a living hope. We find relief for our fears through a new relationship with God our Heavenly Father. And through the work of the Holy Spirit we are adopted as His children into the body of Christ, the church.

However even as we tell this Christmas story, we have to remind ourselves that the birth of Jesus Christ is not the end of the story. We can’t simply walk away from the nativity scene as if the visit of the wise men somehow finishes off the tale. Rather the birth of Jesus Christ should point us forward to the time when Jesus will come again, not as a weak and tiny baby, but as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, when every eye will see Him and every tongue confess.

And our role as believers is to watch and wait for that time. Time after time Jesus warns His followers to be ready. He tells parables about kings returning to servants unprepared, about virgins running out of oil, about banquets and those excluded about the feast. These aren’t seasonal stories. They are descriptions of how we are meant to live at any time of the year, always being ready to give an account to the one who is judge of the living and the dead.

How we actually live is a different matter, unfortunately. We can so easily get distracted by the things of this world, or become tired of waiting for the Lord. The Israelites of old who received the promises about the first coming of Christ all too often turned away to other gods, instead of persevering in faithful expectation. Their example is surely a warning and a lesson to us, not to get diverted, but to anchor our daily lives in a routine of prayer, of Bible reading and daily worship.

So even as we sing along to the old familiar carols and watch all those lovely nativity plays, let’s not get seduced into thinking Christmas is the end of the story. Rather, in the words of the apostle Peter, let’s live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed His coming. (2 Pet 3:11-12). Let’s remain Advent people throughout the year, and let’s keep watch and pray, no matter what the season.