A thought for Easter

April 18, 2019

Notre Dame

Rightly there has been an outpouring of grief over the fire at Notre Dame cathedral. We have rightly mourned the damage to the building, the destruction of precious artefacts and the desolation of an iconic symbol of French culture. I have never visited Paris, or lived there, but from what I read the sense of loss of immeasurable.

My one thought, however, is this: while so many people mourn for the loss of a building, where is there a similar outpouring of grief when a church community suffers a spiritual loss? We hear stories on a fairly regular basis of churches torn apart by disputes, or brought low by the sinful behaviour of a few members, or simply becoming cold and apathetic. Yet how often do we mourn over the state of the church on a local or indeed national level?

I was struck this morning at St Aubyn’s by a verse from 1 Corinthians 11:17: Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse (RSV) or as the NIV paraphrases it: your meetings do more harm than good. What a state of affairs that joyful fellowship in the Spirit instead becomes a negative, destructive experience! Yet this is what can happen and we need to be alert to the danger.

That is this Maundy Thursday we need to visit afresh Jesus’ words to His disciples in John 13:34-35: A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. This is our mission statement as a church (and forms the counterpoint to the Great Commission in Matthew 28:16-20). It is the quality of our relationships one with another that tells those around us whether or not Jesus really is at the centre of our fellowship. No matter what words are preached, or songs sung, if that love is not there, no-one will be that much wiser that Jesus is our Lord and Saviour.

Love doesn’t mean, of course, that we always get on with each other – there will at times be conflicts and disagreements (see my last post) – but when we are committed to loving, serving and forgiving one another come what may, Jesus will be honoured and glorified through and, more than not, in spite of us.

This may sound quite negative, but one thing that has so much encouraged me recently has been the growth in love at St Barnacles. I have seen so many people supporting, encouraging, comforting one another, often in hard, tough situations, and I have seen newcomers warmly included in that love. But we can never say that we have loved enough or shown enough of Jesus to the world around us.

So my simple prayer this Easter is for a fresh work of the Holy Spirit so that our love for Jesus and for each other grows and deepens, and others see the power of Jesus at work among us. And if you are reading this post as a visitor, please do join us, either at St Michael’s at 10.30am or at St Aubyn’s at 3pm. We would love to see you there!

Bricks and stones

April 1, 2019

StonesWhen we arrived at the vicarage seventeen years we found a number of bricks in the garden. They have proven useful for all kinds of things and they are easy to pick up and move around as the need arises. But what we also found were many, many different stones of all shapes and sizes, some with bits of cement on them, some hidden in the ground, some with rough edges. It’s been quite a puzzle to know what to do with all of them, and they don’t easily fit together.

Over the past few weeks at St Aubyn’s we have been looking at the story of Nehemiah rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, and this story has got me thinking about these bricks and stones in my garden. The New Testament doesn’t have anything to say about physical building projects but in many places it talks about the way the Lord is using us to build His kingdom. For example, in 1 Peter 2:4-5 we read:

As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

What does it mean to think of ourselves as living stones? When you are a newly minted vicar fresh in post you imagine you are helping to a build a church with nice, neat bricks, that easily fit together and join together to make a strong, stable structure. But the reality is that as human beings we are more like the stones in my garden. We have rough edges, we don’t neatly get along with each other, we may find it hard to find our place in the whole building.

That is why change and conflict are part of the normal church life. It has taken me years to realise this, but it is so important we understand this.

First of all, God wants to change us. He wants to knock off the rough edges, chip away at all the stuff that’s stuck to us over the years, he wants to make us more the people we are created to be. That can be a difficult and painful process. The Bible calls it discipline, and we don’t like it. We would prefer a comfortable faith, a faith that doesn’t cost us too much,  a faith that is more our shape than God’s.

But God wants to change us because He is our loving Heavenly Father. He allows us to pass through tough situations, not because He enjoys us suffer, but because He wants us to learn more and more of His faithfulness, good and mercy. He does speak to us and convict us through His word, not simply that we feel bad, but through repentance we discover more and more of His grace. He does lead us into new challenges, so that we rely more and more on His Holy Spirit not on ourselves.

Because our faith is one that needs to grow and mature. That may sound very simple, but sadly I am aware there are so many believers who do not want to grow in their faith, or reach towards the maturity their Heavenly Father would have them enjoy. The simple message “God loves you so much He wants you to change” is one they simply cannot hear. However unless we allow God to change us, we will be so much less effective in building His kingdom. For the evidence that God really is alive and working in power is found in the lives of those who have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Saviour and are open to the power of the Holy Spirit to transform them.

Secondly, there will be from time to time tensions amongst us. Have you ever seen a dry stone wall being built? There is a real skill in the builder choosing the right stone to fit against its neighbour. Sometimes a rough edge needs to be knocked off, or a different stone chosen in place.  In the same way, because we are imperfect human beings, we will find we will sometimes be in conflict with our other fellow believers. We don’t seek conflict out, or embrace it willingly. But we recognise that in order for us to grow in grace sometimes we will have misunderstandings, disagreements, arguments. After all, think of how many people in the Bible had their conflicts. Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Paul and Barnabas, to name very, very few examples.

Now many people shy away from conflict and with good reason. Conflict can lead to all kinds of sinful behaviour which can ultimately destroy a church. But if we don’t actually address the cause of our conflict, if we simply try to be nice to another, the problem is, we are storing up issues which will only cause more trouble further on up the line. Simply avoiding the issue, or stopping going to church, is not a solution.

However if we can learn to be open and honest with one another, if we can truly learn to forgive and be forgiven, as Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s prayer, then the way we resolve our conflicts can be a powerful witness to the gospel. Ours is a gospel of reconciliation, as Paul pointed out to the troublesome and deeply divided church in Corinth (2 Cor 5:17-20):

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.

So as we approach the end of Lent, let me ask two questions; how has this season of spiritual discipline allowed the Lord to change us? As we approach Holy Week and the events of Easter, what difference will Jesus’ sacrifice make to our relationships with one another? If we are living stones then we are called to grow. That growth may be painful, it may involve chipping off old habits, and knocking off rough corners, but it is essential if we truly are to build God’s kingdom in this place.




The living stones challenge

February 11, 2016

Living stones.JPG

So there we were at the Ash Wednesday service. I invited each person to take a black cobble and to think about the stone they were holding. Each was broken, each was  imperfect, each was unique. Each stone was also dark, the colour traditionally associated with sin and wrongdoing.

I then invited each person to come and lay their stone at the foot of the cross as a sign of a renewed commitment to Christ, to seek once again His grace. What I hadn’t realised was that in this way we were creating a powerful image of the church.

Here we are as living stones gathered as one in Christ. All of us have rough edges and imperfections. We may not fit together very well, we may find it hard sometimes to get on with each other. But amazingly we are the material through whom Christ has decided to build His church, even in spite of our weakness and imperfections. In Christ we are being joined together and rising to become a holy temple in the Lord (Eph 2:21)

It was in light of this image we shared the peace at the end of the service. We then had to decide what to do with the stones. After some discussion service we agreed to take our stones home, with the plan that at both services on Sunday I will invite the rest of the congregations also to take a stone. Then at our first joint service on 6th March I will ask everyone from both churches to bring their stones back and we will lay them once again at the cross, as a reminder that we are together one body, the temple of the living God.

I would like to say this was all a master plan, but it was just the Holy Spirit at work revealing more of the truth of Christ in a way that was plain for all to see.



Classical and blues

June 12, 2015

There are some musicians I really, really envy. They have never passed an examination in their life. They have never learnt to read a sheet of music. They can simply sit down at their chosen instrument and they can play. It might be a tune they have heard. It might simply be a melody they are improvising on the spur of the moment. Whenever you are in their presence you can just feel the creativity flow through their fingers.

But I am not that kind of musician. I have had to work through the musical grades, and I am still learning. If you ask me to play something, I have to have the music written out in front of me, and I have to learn the notes. My world is a world of practice, of scales and of a growing pile of books.

Thinking about it, however, I realise more and more that both sorts of musicians need each other. We need the creative bluesman (or woman) who plays by ear. They enrich the world of sound with new and innovative tunes. But we need also the solid classical performer who can write the music down and turn it into a score others can learn and play. (Of course there are some frighteningly gifted people who can play both by ear and by eye, but that’s another story).

How does this relate to the life of the church? Well, it seems to me that in the body of Christ we need to have both creativity and a right order. The church in Corinth was a swinging from the rafters kind of affair where the worship was frankly a mess, with people prohesying and speaking in tongues, without any real regard for anyone else. Paul had to remind them that God is not a God of disorder but of peace (1 Corinthians 14:33). At the other extreme the church in Ephesus was commended by the Lord for their deeds, their hard work and their perseverance (Revelation 2:2) but was dying a slow spiritual death. Why? Because they had forsaken their first love (Revelation 2:4). They were doing all the right things but there was no creativity and no soul.

We need both creativity and order. I have been to some churches which are fantastically creative and led by gifted, charismatic leaders. The only trouble is, no-one knows what is going to happen next. The church lurches from one new initiative to the next, the services seem to have no pattern or structure, and anyone visiting leaves not really any wiser as to what has been going on. (I am caricaturing – slightly).

But there are some churches which seem to have lost their creative spark completely. It’s not that they aren’t doing any good. The dedication and faith of their members is remarkable. But every duty is rota’d and seen as a job to be done, every decision is scrutinised to the smallest detail by a committee, every new initiative analysed and reanalysed to the nth degree until all the practical pitfalls have been ironed out.

And the funny thing is, folk from both sorts of churches look at the other and wish they could be like them! What we need is that Spirit-filled sense of creativity and order. We need some folk who have the permission to improvise and to play by ear, and we need others who have the skill to turn chaos into order. We need those who play the blues and those who are classically trained. And we need to create space for both sorts of people to flourish. That requires a lot of love, and a lot of acceptance by both sides. None of us relate easily to people who are very different from ourselves.

But if we can have both sorts of people working together side by side, then I believe we really will be seen to be the body of Christ where the Holy Spirit is at work and many confess Jesus is Lord.

Why safeguarding matters

April 22, 2015

Last night a group of us spent the evening going through the draft safeguarding policy which will be presented for approval to the church councils in May. It was not the most exciting of evenings, and some material seemed difficult to tailor appropriately to a small church, and I guess it was easy to wonder we had to invest so much time and effort into putting the policy together in the first place (a huge thank you to Lynda who did the bulk of the work drafting and re-drafting the document).

But the reality is, safeguarding needs to be at the heart of our mission statement. It has to be, if you like, one of the invisible strands running through every part of our church life. Why? Because sadly, the history of the church when it comes to safeguarding has been lamentable and as an institution the church has actually hindered people coming to Christ.

First of all, and most shamefully, there have been wicked people in the church who have either perpetrated or colluded in abuse. I cannot imagine how those who have been abused in the way must view the body of Christ, but Jesus must weep for them.

Secondly, the church has not always listened to or believed victims of abuse. Often it takes years for survivors’ stories to come forward, because those in authority have not spent time hearing the stories of the weak and the vulnerable. The damage such a delay brings only adds to the scars that the original abuse inflicted, and we need to repent of our failure to respond.

Thirdly, even when the church has listened, it has not always acted effectively or professionally to concerns raised. But in today’s culture the days when the church could simply behave as well-meaning amateurs are well and truly over. Particularly with our past, we need to be seen to be acting in line with best practice. Nothing less than the reputation of the gospel is at stake.

Perhaps one way to remember the importance of safeguarding is to think of the word SAFETY. This involves:

Security. This includes making the physical environment of the church safe for all who use it, but also creating a culture of love and listening, where people feel secure enough to share their lives, and to seek the grace of God.

Acceptance. This is not the same as tolerance. Acceptance means welcoming all who come through our doors, no matter what they have done, or what has been done to them. But it does not mean we will tolerate every kind of behaviour or condone those who refuse to accept the need to change.

Freedom. We believe that Jesus Christ still heals today, and comes to give life abundantly. So we should strive for a church where people can be set free from the past and are able to face the future with the strength that comes from the power of Holy Spirit at work within them.

Everyone. It’s very easy to think that safeguarding is the responsible of other people, or those with the right training. If we are the body of Christ, then we should all bear one another’s burdens, pray for and love one another, so that all are valued for who they are.

Transparency. We need a culture of open, honest communication where there are no secrets, and everyone knows what is happening. It is in this culture, ironically, that confidences are better understood and respected as there is no fuel for rumours or gossip, and people understand better the boundaries between what is public and what is private.

Young people. Young people need to be accepted for who they are, and the potential they can achieve. In today’s world young people grow up in a state of confusion and uncertainty, often not really knowing who they are or who genuinely cares for them. We want the church to be a safe place where they discover they are of infinite worth in God’s eyes and recognise the gifts and abilities He has given them in Christ.

You will be hearing more about safeguarding over the next few months. Do take the time to listen, and let’s all of us work out what it means to make St Barnabas and St Michael safe churches which glorify God and draw others to a saving knowledge of Christ.

Worship on Automatic

October 7, 2014

Have you ever had this kind of experience? As you chat over coffee, your friend says, “That confession really spoke to me this morning”. You smile sweetly and agree, while on the inside you think to yourself, “Did we even say the confession this morning?” Or in the middle of a hymn when everyone else seems caught up in praise and wonder, you realise you are still thinking about what happened on Strictly last night.

We all worship on automatic from time to time. We say or sing the right words, but our heart and our mind are elsewhere. Even and especially worship leaders do this. Now some would say this is the fault of having a set liturgy. Doesn’t having the same words to say each week simply encourage mindless repetition? I admit there is some truth in the argument, which is why I believe our orders of service should flexible and change with the seasons. There’s nothing worse than saying exactly the same thing week in, week out without encouragement to think about what you are doing.

But I also know from experience that it’s quite possible for your mind to wander even when the service is the most lively and the most spontaneous imaginable. The question of focus is our responsibility, not just that of the person up front. I also know that sometimes without any set words it can be quite impossible to follow exactly where the service leader is going, and that too can be a major incentive to switch off.

So how do we focus? I think the answer lies in expectation and engagement. First of all, expectation. Put it simply, do we really want the Lord to show up this morning?  I am constantly amazed at the number of people who seem to come along to church, just because it is their turn on the rotas, or they found they weren’t busy that day. If that really is their attitude, it’s hardly surprising that the worship of the whole church becomes flat and dull, although sometimes the Lord does decide to show up whether we like it or not! It may sound incredibly obvious – but the reason we go to church is that we have a divine appointment with our Creator and our Redeemer, and surely we should do whatever lies within our powers to be ready.

And then there’s engagement. I was struck on Sunday by a line from our first hymn  – Take away the love of sinning. That’s quite a major request, if you mean what you are singing. Perhaps one drawback of having all the songs on the projector is that we do not have the time to stop and read the words in front of us. Or again, may I urge you to take some time to go through the words on the service card – maybe even take a copy home (if you promise to bring it back!). Send us out in the power of the Holy Spirit – wow, what would happen if the church really left the building filled with and renewed by the Holy Spirit?

There’s something here about loving the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind. I’d love to hear from other people what helps them focus on worship – and maybe, just maybe, we’ll all be able to hear a little better what the Lord is saying to us as a church. Over to you!

Lent Blog Day 18 – A relaxed welcome

March 26, 2014

A couple of days ago I discovered Park Runs. Park Runs are a very simple concept. Each Saturday at 9am across the country 5km runs are offered in set locations. All you need to do to take part is bring a bar code and two hours after the event you are given a time. So today I turned up at Plymbridge Woods. I didn’t know what to expect. In fact I found a crowd of about 120, all very friendly and with no pressure to have any pretensions about running.

It made me wonder about how people feel about joining a church. We offer something at a set time each week but are we clear what we are offering? Do we make it easy for people to join? And are we relaxed about people joining? I heard a joke recently that joining a church can be rather like standing too close to a helicopter – you are all too easily sucked into the rotas. Sometimes we can be so anxious about newcomers arriving, we can treat them immediately as potential converts or labourers in the harvest field. And then we wonder why they don’t come back.

We need to learn to enjoy newcomers, to accept the reasons why they have come and simply let them take part. After all, if God has called them to us, we can be sure He has His hand upon their life, and leave the Holy Spirit to do His work.

Lent Blog Day 16 – Priorities and Possibilities

March 24, 2014

I seem to be getting behind with this blog, but will try to make this up over the next couple of days!

Oddly enough one reason for tardiness comes from the fact last week was not a preaching week. Now you might think a non-preaching week would be quieter, but it’s during those weeks I find myself eventually catching up with all the pastoral work I’ve been meaning to do for ages.

One of the tensions any minister faces is between preaching and pastoring, but because you have to preach on a certain date, it’s normally the preaching that wins out. Of course, I will visit when there is an emergency, but it’s the general, day-to-day pastoring I am talking about, that usually doesn’t have a deadline, but reaps long-term benefits in terms of relationships built up and communication strengthened.

So a non-preaching week is a time to rebalance priorities and to spend time with people. But which people and when? One of the things about ministry is that there always many good things you could be doing, and it’s up to you decide. You don’t have a manager setting you targets (at least, not yet) or scheduling you a list of clients to visit. You have to choose where to spend the time and the energy yourself, and that freedom is both a great joy and a responsibility.

Perhaps here we gain an insight into another reason why Jesus spent forty days in the desert. Yes, He was tempted by Satan so as to test whether He remained faithful to His Father’s will. But I am sure part of His time there was also spent thinking and praying about His future direction. There were so many places to visit, so many people to meet, so much need to address. Jesus needed to be clear which of the many possibilities were His Father’s priorities.

And how did He find out? Well, I for one don’t feel I can speculate about the exact nature of Jesus’ relationship with His Father. But it’s striking that after the temptations the prophet Isaiah provided both the content for His teaching (Luke 4:18-19) and the context for His teaching (Matt 4:15-16). And if Jesus relied so heavily upon Scripture to plan and to prioritise, then I can see there’s a lesson here not just for a vicar juggling roles, but for anyone who’s seeking to find out how to decide what is best. Relating this to the nitty-gritty of parish life is not always easy, but at least it gives me a framework when planning out my week.

Fake or fortune

January 25, 2014

How many have seen the BBC series Fake or Fortune? The basic idea behind the programme is very simple. Each week it spends an hour concentrating on one single painting to establish whether it is a genuine work by a major artist or not. It takes us into the rarified world of international art dealing and the arcane world of auction houses and galleries. But for all that, the actual analysis of the painting is genuinely fascinating. There is the opinion of the experts who take a good look at the picture and can tell just from their expert examination whether it is likely to the real deal or not. There is the scientific analysis of the paint and the canvas, as the tiniest details are subject to the most up-to-date methods of testing. And there is the historical analysis as the presenters try and recreate the trail from the time the painting leaves the studio to when it is acquired by the present owner.

In the my last post I argued that holiness is integral to our mission as a church. People are more likely to listen to our message when our words are backed up by an authentic lifestyle that speaks of the love of Christ. To put it another way, whether we like or not, they will be examining us to see whether we are fake or the real thing. A fake gospel is worthless; a genuine gospel message is priceless, and it is up to us to make the difference. And people will know firstly by taking a good look at our lives. When they decide to go deeper with us, they will secondly want to dig through the layers to know what are the motives and reasons of our hearts. And, thirdly, they will also want to know our story to see how the grace of Jesus Christ has made a real a difference.

After all, our calling is to bear the image of God (Col 3:10, 1 Cor 15:49). So what do people see when they look at us? That’s a question I believe we all need to think about.

What do you do all day?

November 9, 2013

I guess for many people there is a bit of a mystery as to what a vicar actually does. As in many other professions, people tend to see only the stuff that is done up front. The old joke about vicars working only on Sundays comes from this popular misconception. But of course there’s a lot more to a vicar’s week than simply taking services and preparing for them, just as there is far more to a teacher’s life than delivering lessons or a doctor’s than seeing patients.

Of course what makes the life of a vicar different is that he (or she!) is not directly employed by a company or an organisation, although there are responsibilities to the wider diocese and there are now requirements for in-service training. So to a lesser or greater extent your week is what you choose to make it.

For me, I aim as far as possible to spend the morning in the study. This is the time of day when I think most creatively, and nearly every week I have to write a sermon and prepare for a small group. Also I am the primary point of contact for most enquirers so there are phone calls and e-mails to deal with, meetings to arrange and diaries to be co-ordinated. In larger churches a vicar would have a secretary or a PA, but here  I have to deal with most of the administration. I am fortunate, however, to have Lynda to produce the publicity and communications, and we find that increasingly people make contact with the church through the website and Facebook.

In the afternoon I aim to visit, or meet with other ministers, or bring Home Communions. On a Tuesday afternoon Contact down at St Barnabas is a fairly fixed point, and as far as possible Evening Prayer at St Michael’s provides an anchor to the week on other days. Then after tea it’s either time for visiting and meetings, or taking the Bible Explored groups. Although our Bible Explored groups are small, they are becoming an ever more important part of our church life as people learn to share their faith and their lives.

The challenge in all of this is to keep a fresh vision of what the Lord is doing, and to remain rooted in prayer and Scripture. As was said at the diocesan training course this week, “The greatest competitor of devotion to Jesus is service for Him” (Oswald Chambers). And of course this is something that is true for all of us, no matter what role we play. While I like to be busy, it’s good to be reminded the Lord is more interested in how much I love Him, rather than how full is my diary!