Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Ember Day...what's that then?

According to the lectionary (which I'm trying to be a good boy and follow) tomorrow is an Ember Day. Ember Days are days of fasting and prayer which are placed at strategic points throughout the year. (The word 'ember' has nothing to do with fires or ashes - it links back to an Anglo-Saxon word meaing something like 'cycle' - but I won't bore you any further with that!)

Fasting is one of those traditions which we Christians don't do very well. However, I've been doing a bit of study on the subject of Islam (for my degree course) - and you might be interested to know that our Muslim brothers and sisters take fasting much more seriously, especially during the months of Ramadan. (Even those Muslims who don't pray five times a day will tend to observe the Ramadan fast). We of course have a tradition of the Lent fast - but for most of us that has become, if anything, a commitment to give up a luxury for a while. It becomes, for many, part of the weight-watching, healthy-living agenda - and has little to do with spirituality.

Within Islam (from which, I suggest, there are things we can learn even if we think their picture of Jesus is wrong) fasting has a number of supporting reasons...which help to give meaning to the whole business. For example,

i) Conscious discipline
Islamic tradition maintains that we need to live disciplined lives...not giving in to every sensuous whim that passes our way.

ii) Humanity needs more than bread
In much the same way that Jesus said (quoting Deuteronomy in Matthew 4) "man shall not live on bread alone but from every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" - Islamic tradition also maintains that we need to maintain and develop our awareness of God...of the divine spark of life within us. Yes, of course we need food - but we need God more. Fasting helps us to remember our dependence on God.

iii) Our body as servant not master
We must remember, argues Islam, that our bodies are the container and servant of our souls - our essential self. We must not let the body's natural desire for pleasure become so large as to do damage to our souls. Deliberate fasting is partly about asserting our souls' mastery over our body - and about saying that we value the spiritual and eternal over the phsical and temporary

iv) Training in patience and endurance
Islam, with its heavier emphasis on doing right/good, argues that patience and endurance are essential tools of living holy lives. We Christians have a similar tradition, but because we focus first on God's grace and forgiveness, and much less on pleasing God by our actions (for we believe there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation; it is a gift of God through Christ alone), we have perhaps forgotten how to grasp the need for such patient endurance.

Fasting, is of course an important part of the Christian tradition. Jesus did it, and so should we. Perhaps this glimpse into Islam's thinking on the subject might stimulate our own interest in rediscovering our heritage.

I hope it helps!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Back from my Hols!

Hi Folks....I'm back!
Sorry not to have told you that I was going on holiday. It's generally not a good idea to broadcast such information...you never know who is reading! But, fear not, after a week of silence, I have returned - refreshed, if slightly breathless after blowing up my air-bed (guess who forgot to pack the foot-pump!)

We've been off in our caravan on the Dorset coast. We've had a time of refreshment and relaxation - and quite a bit of fun playing with our new camera. Here are a few shots of the holiday for those who enjoy such things. I'll get back to more thoughtful blogging in the next couple of days!

Here's the fantastic Durdle Door.

And here's a shot of a passing seagul, of which I'm particularly proud!

Th..th...th...th...that's all folks!

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Archbishop Does it Again!

Whether or not our Archbishop of Canterbury manages to pull a rabbit out of the hat in Tanzania remains to be seen.

In the meantime, however, he is publishing a new book which is being serialised in the Church Times. The book is to be called 'Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief' - and if the serialisation is anything to go by, promises to be an absolutely fascinating read.

In this week's edited highlight, he sets forth the theory that God's entire agenda for the world can be summed up in two words...just two... "peace" and "praise" (drawing from the letter to the Ephesians).

It's a fantastically clear thought...and seems to me to sum up Christianity just beautifully...

Peace: First of all the peace between humans and our creator, brought about by Jesus on the cross. Secondly the peace which exists - and must exist- between human beings themselves if they will but grasp the nettle of 'peace on earth and goodwill to those on whom God's favour rests'. In Williams' words:

"The world he (God) has made is designed to become a reconciled world, a world in which diverse human communities come to share a life together because they share the conviction that God has acted to set them free from fear and guilt."

Read that again! It's worth letting it soak in!

Then Praise: Williams says: "This reconcilliation [i.e. between God, humans and each other] liberates human voices for praise, for celebrating the glory of God who has made it possible from the beginning. This is what God is after, and there is no hidden agenda - nothing is kept back"

Think on these things. Williams' mind is worth the effort!

"The Reverend Blogs" in Print!

For those who don't live locally (to me), or who don't receive the local newspaper, here's a transcript of an article about this blogsite which appeared in "The News" this evening:

WARBLINGTON: The Reverend Tom Kennar is a thoroughly modern priest who communicates with his parishioners though cyberspace!

Tom, who is curate of the Parish of Warblington with Emsworth and chaplain to Portsmouth College, has set up a blog on his website.

The blog (which is short for 'web-log') contains Tom’s Thoughts for the Day on current topics as well as links to copies of his sermons.

He said: "Links to the sermons gives access to those who may have heard me preach, and want to read or think about what I've said in more depth. People can also respond to what I've said, or argue with me, just by clicking on the link at the foot of each entry."

Tom, who has been passionately interested in the internet ever since it first started, said: "The internet gets used for all sorts of purposes - some of which I dread to think about.

"But it can be used for great good too. As a priest, the internet gives me a fantastic opportunity to talk with people about all sorts of spiritual issues and hopefully give them something to think about."

Tom's blog has only been up running for a few months, but has already had over 1,500 visitors...and the number of daily hits is growing all the time.

He has been contacted through the blog by people from all over the world - seeking advice about a whole range of topics, ranging from suicide, other faiths, and the question of science and religion.

He said: "Some people drop by just to have a good old fashioned debate about current issues. In that sense the blog acts like a sort of cyber-pub".

Tom's blog also has a link to his website, where he has posted some background information for those who want to know more about him. This includes information about his life before being a priest, and some songs he has written, which can be heard online. Tom said, "I've been writing songs for many years, but I don't think I'll ever be a pop-star! But I hope that people enjoy a chance to hear some free music."

To read Tom's blog, go to www.tomkennar.com

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Why Can't You Make up Your Minds?!

This morning's sermon at Warblington covered that famous story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. The story begins with Elijah taunting the crowd and saying, effectively, "Why can't you make up your minds? If Baal is God, follow him; but if Yahweh is God, follow him!"

Elijah's words speak to us across the centuries. If God truly is God...why don't we follow him completely? What makes us think that we can keep a foot in two camps...the camp of Godly living, and the camp of consumerism and mix 'n' match theology?

Want to think more about this? Then please CLICK HERE to open the sermon as a Word document.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Things Jesus Never Said - Part 3

'Charity begins at home'


Tomorrow, I shall be leading a lunchtime seminar at Portsmouth College. It's part of a series called "Things Jesus Never Said", and tomorrow we will be focusing on the well known phrase "Charity begins at home".

It is such a well known phrase, that many people assume it was said by Jesus...or at the very least is in the Bible. Not true. In fact, the first recorded occurrence of the phrase comes around 160 BC, said by Terence (a Roman playwright). It was popularised again by Charles Dickens, who said "Charity begins at home, and justice lives next door".

In a sense, of course, the phrase is right - providing that we hold on to the ancient meaning of the word. 'Charity' comes from the Latin word 'caritas' - which meant loving affection between people (and usually towards God as well). It was different from other forms of love (e.g. sexual or erotic love). Taking the word charity in that original sense, I have no quibble at all with the idea. If there is not loving affection at home, how can there be authentic loving affection elsewhere?

But, unfortunately, in our less than literate society (oops...got on my soap-box there for a moment), the word charity has become only associated with the act of giving away money (which may of course be part of loving affection...but only part).

By associating the word with the famous phrase (which they incorrectly believe to be biblical), many people have come to believe that they must look after themselves and their immediate family first...and only if there is surplus, should others be helped.

That is not what Jesus taught.

Jesus told us to love our enemies, and our neighbours. Jesus said that when we care for the sick, or prisoners, we are caring for him. Jesus said that his family are those who do his father's will. He even predicted that his message would drive a wedge between father and son, mother and daughter. In other words, Jesus placed our responsibility to the wider world, to society and to God on a higher footing than mere family relationships (as important as they are).

Jesus therefore invited us to look beyond family...and to place the needs of others before those of our families. Wow! What a thought! And how counter-intuitive!

We live in a society where people are sometimes stupidly loyal to our families. Vendettas, between family members, are common in many of our cities and towns. "My family, right or wrong" seems to be the cry. So that whatever a family member does, how ever much they hurt someone else, or how ever stupid and selfish they may behave...people back their family members to the hilt. "You insulted my sister!" becomes the cry of the thug who sets out to kill someone who simply looked in the direction of his sibling.

The other, perhaps even more worrying effect of the misuse of this famous phrase, is what it does to international relations. We British, for example, fiercely guard our borders against refugees who want nothing more than to earn a living wage. We do it on the basis that 'charity begins at home'. "Let's look after ourselves first - and then we'll throw a few crumbs to the rest of the world".

How different from the message of the Bible: "Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God" (That's the prophet Micah).

"Love your neighbour as you love yourself" (that's Jesus).

Far from saying the charity begins at home, Jesus encouraged us to look beyond our families, to all our neighbours throughout the world.

What a different place the world would be if we heeded him.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Whatever happened to Sin?

The subject of sin has been around in my field of vision for the last few days. Our young people's group discussed it on Sunday evening, and it came up in a discussion I've been having with an anonymous blog-responder about suicide. (See the posting called Blessed are the Cheese makers - below).

Sin has got itself a bad name recently. It has come to be associated with only the very worst things that human beings do to one another (or themselves). I well remember a funeral preparation, a couple of years ago, when the family I was trying to support strenuously denied that their deceased relative could in any way be described as a 'sinner'. That was because they, like many people, associate sin with murder, child-abuse and the like.

The trouble is - that's not what the Bible says...and as it is the Bible which gave us the word 'sin' in the first place, it might be a good idea to remind ourselves what it actually means.

Over the years I have come to a personal definition of sin which has stood me in good stead (based on the Bible's definition of course!). Essentially it is this: Sin may be described as any behaviour or action which is less perfect than the way God would behave or act.

To arrive at that definition, I take the Bible's view that God is perfect. He is the ultimate measuring stick, against which everything in heaven and earth has to be measured. The Bible also says, in so many words, that sin creates a blockage between us and God. God simply cannot be in the presence of sin; it offends God. It is, if you like, too painful for him to bear.

Another problem is that there is nothing we can do to earn our own way to God (contrary to what Islam, Judaism, and many other faiths believe). You see, all efforts at being good, and trying to 'earn' our place in eternity through good deeds are ultimately floored by the fact that no matter how good we are, there is always some part of us that is less than the perfection of God. And that imperfection - that 'sin' - prevents us from being in God's presence.

So, there is a problem. God is perfect, but cannot be where imperfection is. That means that we who are not perfect (and, let's face it, none of us are) cannot be where God is. Unless God does something about the problem!

All mainstream Christians believe that Jesus' death had the effect of bridging the gap - the sin gap - between us and God. There are a whole range of metaphors which the Bible (and theologians) employs to try to get us close to what Jesus was doing. You will have heard some of them: atonement, redemption, ransom, penal substitution. I don't want to get hung up on those here (but email me if you want to know more about them!).

Suffice to say, the Bible holds out the promise that the problem of sin, and the separation it causes between us and God, has been dealt with by Jesus on the Cross. That above all, is the heart of the Gospel (a word which means ' good news').

Pretty good news I'd say.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

We're failing our children!

According to Unicef the UK has been accused of failing its children, as it comes bottom of a league table for child well-being across 21 industrial countries.

Some of the indicators produced by the report included:
  • UK child poverty has doubled since 1979
  • Children living in homes earning less than half national average wage - 16%
  • Children rating their peers as "kind and helpful" - 43%
  • Families eating a meal together "several times" a week - 65%
  • Children who admit being drunk on two or more occasions - 30%

Of course we all know that there are lies, damn lies, and statistics - but we would be foolish to dismiss findings like these. I think we all know that life in the UK is hard for our youngsters.

So what's to be done? And the question for me is, crucially, what part does Christianity have to play. My guts tell me that it is more than a co-incidence that we have seen a rise in problems for young people at the exact same time when we have seen a decline in church membership.

Churches can't provide all the answers of course...but there are some essential tenents of Christian life that - if society as a whole could only embrace them - would undoubtedly have a positive effect on this disturbing trend. These include:

a) A fundamental commitment to community. Christians are called to be the body of Christ - bearing with each other, forgiving one another, working together for the common good. How very different that is from the contemporary drive for personal success, personal goals, and personal wealth.

b) A society in which the rich help the poor. When Jesus called on Zaccheaus to come down from his tree, Zaccheaus' response was to call Jesus Lord...and then set about selling half his stuff to give to the poor. Jesus response? "Today, salvation has come to this house". Divesting ourselves of excess wealth, and giving it to those who have nothing is a radical alternative to today's natural assumption that we should make, and keep, all we can for ourselves.

c) A fundamental commitment to family - as the bedrock of society. Fractured families lead, more often than not, to fractured children. And those who, by not belonging to a church, cut themselves off from the support for family life that the church (at its best) can offer take a great risk.

d) A commitment to moderation - especially in the area of alcohol. I enjoy a pint as much as the next man...and will continue to do so. I'm no signer of 'the pledge' - although sometimes, when I have sat through the night in YMCA hostels with yet another drunken teenager, I can sympathise with those who do want to ban the stuff. Banning it is not the answer though (look what happened during 'Prohibition' in the USA). Instead, we need to do more to tell our young people that there is a better way, a way to fullness of life with our kidney and liver damage...and his name is Jesus.

The church can't solve society's problems. But it does have some of the answers. I want to suggest that a society that has stopped listening to the accumulated wisdom of a 2000 year old institution, founded by an exceptionally wise man, (who, we believe, was also the Son of God by the way!) is going to struggle to find answers to what ails it.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Blessed are the Cheese-makers!

Have you ever wondered why Luke starts his list of "Sermon on the Mount" blessings by saying "Blessed are the poor..." whereas Matthew (describing a similar time of teaching by Jesus) reports "Blessed are the poor in spirit"?

Tomorrow morning's sermon, at 8am in the morning (yes...8AM! Arghh!) tackles the differences between these accounts.

To read the sermon, PLEASE CLICK HERE

And do let me know what you think!

Friday, February 09, 2007

You Are What You Eat

I heard a little throw-away item on the News this morning, which intrigued me greatly. It was a survey of the most popular books to be borrowed from our public libraries. 10 years ago, the most popular non-fiction book was Stephen Hawkins' "A Brief History of Time". Now, it is "You are What You Eat".

As a snapshot of modern society (and little more than that, I agree) I find this a worrying report. No doubt we should all pay more attention to our diet (and perhaps our appearance). But I think there may be some deeper forces at work here.

At first glance, this rather dramatic change in our reading preferences indicates that we are replacing our human instinct for discovery (and for looking beyond ourselves) with a much more individual-centred way of thinking and being. We are, I suggest, in danger of becoming totally inward-looking. We place, it seems, increasing emphasis on our personal health and appearance - and have stopped looking outward. We are taking responsibility for our health and well being (which is a good thing no doubt) but at the same time ceasing to rely on God.

Belief in God, or even a non-theistic but still philosophical outlook, helps us to move beyond self, and into community.

Surely that is better than an inward focused, self-centred existence?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A New Car - what a decision!

We ordered a new car today. It's been one of the more difficult decisions we've had to make in a long time. On one hand, how does one justify owning a new car when two thirds of the world is starving? On the other hand, I have need of a reliable car in order to fulfil my ministry. (It would be all but impossible, for example, to travel to meetings around the diocese, and to my regular commitment at Portsmouth College, without such transport.)

There is a large part of me that wishes I lived in a part of the world where I could travel by foot, bike, or unreliable public transport to just one meeting per day...a part of the world, in other words, where such slow progress was the norm (and where one would have many more hours for thought and prayer). But that is not the world I live in.

Tomorrow, for example, I will take a school assembly, in Emsworth. Then I will hack over to Clanfield, just in time for a tutorial for my degree course. I will dash back home for a quick bite of lunch, before going on down to our Church for our monthly 'meesy church'. After nipping home for tea, the evening already includes one funeral visit...and a return home to check the emails, open the post, and get to work on Sunday evening's sermon....which is already running late.

I'm not complaining...a enjoy life that is lived to the max. However, I am, I suppose, justifying to myself that to live this kind of lifestyle I need a vehicle that I can rely on - and which won't eat up my time in getting quotes and arranging repairs - and throwing me unexpected repair bills. My current car, which has been a faithful servant for the last 2 and a half years, is starting to need such attention (tyres, brakes and exhaust are all nearing the end of their useful lives). The new (smaller) car, on the other hand, has all new parts, a full warranty, and a set monthly cost.

So, I've made a decision - I've gone for reliability and financial dependability over the lottery of owning an increasing aging car.

But I suppose the fact I am blogging about this shows that I don't feel entirely easy about the decision. There's no doubt that there is an element of luxury about my new toy.

Those of us who have enough money to be able to afford choices have to make tough ones all the time. How much to give? How much to use? The balance between need and pleasure. Decisions, decisions, decisions....

...and none of them is easy.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Why didn't Jesus write it down?!

Recently, during a seminar at Portsmouth College (where I am Chaplain) a student asked a most intelligent question. "Why" he asked, "didn't Jesus write any of his teaching down? It would have made it so much easier to know what the truth is".

I don't know what the religious background of that particular student is, but many of our students are Muslims - who regard the Qur'an as the very words of God - transmitted directly, and without human interpretation, directly through Muhammed. This is somewhat in contrast to the belief of most Christians who (rightly I think) regard the Bible as a collection of books which were inspired by God, but most definitely written by human hands. (There are of course some Christians who have a more 'dictated' view of the Bible...but that's a topic for another day.)

So why didn't Jesus write his teachings down? The stories we do have of him, in the Gospels, certainly indicate that he could read...and even if he could not write, he could have quite easily dictated his message. Why didn't he?

Perhaps Jesus realised that if he were to write his teaching down, it would quickly become the source of arguments between people of passionate view-points. Human language is such a limited medium...it is so often unable to carry the shades of meaning that a speaker wishes to convey. (I know of what I speak after many sermons!)

Perhaps Jesus wanted to leave enough space between his spoken words for the Holy Spirit to be able to do the job of interpretation...at a much deeper level than words alone can penetrate. Perhaps that is why he spoke so often in parables too: parables are fictional stories which contain truth...truth which can speak to our hearts not our heads.

Well...it's a theory. Have you got a better one? Click on the 'comments' link below to share it!

Monday, February 05, 2007

Avian Flu Madness

I wonder if you, like me, are getting rather tired of the coverage being given to the outbreak of avian flu. Last night's BBC news devoted over 10 mins of its coverage, including having reporters on the scene, and long interviews with locals. One interview I saw was critical of Defra for (I quote more or less) "not providing enough information on what was going for people who don't have cable TV". In other words, this local was complaining to the nation about the vitally important fact that Defra had not, apparently, put leaflets through everyone's door. However, they pointed out, Defra was otherwise doing a very good job. (Well that's alright then).

Another reporter, was stationed outside a rendering plant to give us the up-to-date, vital information that a lorry full of carcasses had arrived about 15 minutes before, gone through some paper-work, and then entered the plant. Riveting stuff...I was on the edge of my seat!

In the meantime, in the real world, dozens of people have drowned, and 200,000 have lost their homes in Indonesian floods. 150 people were killed with a lorry-bomb in Iraq. The forests of Chile are on fire. And President Bush has submitted a $1.5 trillion dollar budget which includes $700bn of new military spending.

I am immensely frustrated at the 'Little Islander' mentality of the BBC over this bird flu outbreak. A bug was found, the birds have been culled. No-one is at risk. Good job, Defra. Now please can we move on?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Things Jesus Never Said

"Accept Me As Your Personal Lord and Saviour"

Some years ago, an American missionary came to England and started to do some street evangelism in one of our shopping centres. People tried to walk around him, embarrassed - and pretended they couldn’t hear what he was saying. Eventually he managed to stop an elderly woman, and then he politely asked her, “Excuse me Madam - but have you accepted Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Saviour”

The elderly woman looked up at him with deep loathing in her eyes, and said, “I should certainly hope not...I’m Church of England!”

I wonder if you’ve ever been accosted by someone who has asked you that question? It’s a very personal question...and almost seems designed to make one feel uncomfortable. We don’t really know what it means do we? And for those of you who are not Christians, I expect it makes you feel a bit excluded...as though there were Christians who have a little mini-Jesus inside them...something that the rest of the world doesn’t have.

It sounds a bit like - “Is Jesus your personal shopper?” Or, “is Jesus your best mate?”.

Well, what I want to do today is give you some theological weapons to use the next time some happy smiling "Jesus-freak" asks you whether Jesus is your personal Lord and Saviour - or whether you have accepted him into your heart.


That's been the opening lines of a seminar I'm delivering tomorrow at Portsmouth College. Want to read more...then please CLICK HERE


Philosopher's Book Club Part One

We held our first 'Philosopher's Book Club' last night. Five egg-heads and one confused curate (me!) did our best to tackle Plato.

I quite enjoyed it actually. If you've read my sermon of last Sunday (posted on Saturday) you'll know already that I rather like Plato's analogy of a Cave. (You'll have to read the sermon to know what I'm talking about). But more generally, I've enjoyed dipping my toe into the shallows of the great ocean of philosophy.

The word philosophy essentially means "love of wisdom"...and one of its prime functions is to make me think...to question everything that we usually take for granted, hold it up to the light of reason, and see whether it makes sense.

Of course, understanding God isn't always achieved simply through reason. In his first letter to the Corinthian church, (chapter 1), Paul described the Gospel as 'foolishness'...and rhetorically demands, "Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age?" He goes on to say that "the world in its foolishness did not know Him" (referring to God). In a very telling phrase, Paul then goes on to state flatly that "the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom".

The Gospel can, in fact, look foolish when you consider it from afar.

We have a heavenly king who was born in a stable.

We have a king who rides on a donkey.

We have a Lord who was nailed to a cross.

By his death, we have life.

In Paul's words, "God has made foolish the wisdom of the world".

Here is another delicious Christian irony, which should have an impact on the way we live our lives: "in his service, is perfect freedom". Jesus is the only master who promises his servants that by serving him they will find freedom.

There is, of course, much in philosophy that can aid us in living better lives as well. Plato believed that justice, knowledge and happiness were bound up in a virtuous circle.

Not a bad target to strive for!