Monday, March 26, 2007

Insights from Islam

Today I have put the finishing touches to an essay, for my degree course, on the subject of insights that Christians might get from a study of Islam. It's a terrifically interesting topic, and one which our Emsworth Men's Group ('e-men') touched on in our discussion last Friday.

In the essay (which, if you are really interested, you can read by CLICKING HERE) I explore the balance between 'orthodoxy' (right belief) and 'orthopraxy' (right action). Both religions have things to say about both - but the emphasis is different.

Let me try to make that a bit more easy to understand!

Christianity is based firmly on the principle that God has reached out to us, through Jesus, to restore the relationship between God and human-beings - a relationship otherwise prevented by human sin. We believe, in other words, that Jesus has done all that is necessary to make our relationship with God right again.

Islam, on the other hand, basically believes (and this is rather over-simplifying things!) that in order for human beings to be put right with God, it is up to human beings to 'submit' to the will of Allah. (The word Islam means 'submission').

For that reason, I argue in my essay, Muslims tend to be far more disciplined than Christians about 'doing the right thing' - and in particular, about observing religious rules, and actively doing 'good deeds'. This is especially true of the way in which Muslims observe the so-called Five Pillars of Islam:
  • Confession (of the oneness of God)
  • Prayer
  • Fasting
  • Giving
  • Pilgrimage
Christianity has a heritage of 'doing good works' too and there is clear teaching in the bible about the importance of living right. (For example, James, Chapter 2: "Faith without deeds is dead"). But because Christians basically hold on to the idea that it is God who takes the initiative in our salvation, I think we tend to get a bit lazy about living as God demands.

My essay suggests that we do have something to learn from Islam in order to re-dress the balance.

I wonder what you think. Have a read of the essay (accepting my apologies for the academic turn of phrase!) - then why not tell me what you think?

Never Give Up!

One day, in the middle of World War II, Oxford University asked Winston Churchill to address its graduation ceremony. Dressed in his finest suit, he arrived at the auditorium with his usual props, a cigar, a cane and a top hat. As Churchill approached the podium, the crowd rose in appreciative applause. Standing there looking very dignified, he settled the crowd down and asked them to be seated.

Standing confidently before this crowd of great admirers, he removed his cigar and placed his top hat on the podium. Then Churchill gazed at his waiting audience that included some of the most noted scholars in the world. With an authoritative tone in his voice he began with three words: “Never give up!” Several seconds passed without him saying another word. Finally he repeated those same three words again, “Never give up!” There was a deafening silence as Churchill reached for his hat and cigar, steadied himself with his cane and left the platform. His graduation-day address was finished.

To read the rest of yesterday's sermon on Philippians chapter 3, CLICK HERE

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Prodigal Son - Mother's Day Sermon

When I was a child, I was into go-karts. Not, you understand, motorised, or even pedal powered go-karts. I mean go-karts made out of bits of wood we found in my father’s shed, knocked together with any old nails we could find, and served by ancient, rusty pram-wheels that we picked up from the local the days when you could scavenge on a Council rubbish dump.

We lived on a hill. A rather steep hill...which I realise might be difficult for you Flatlanders of Warblington to conceive! To give you a idea, let me say that it was a hill of similar length and gradient as the one that goes up Portsdown Hill, past Queen Alexandra’s hospital in Cosham. And like that hill, the one I grew up on had a junction at the bottom, on to a main road...which was itself, another hill. Overall, we had a run of over a mile from the top of the hill to the bottom...

My friends and I liked nothing better than to hair down our hill, on wooden go-karts, steered with string. To slow ourselves down before the junction, we would use our rubber Wellington boots as brakes...forcing them against the tarmac to slow our descent a little, before weaving into the traffic on the main road. That meant, of course, that Wellington boots had to be replaced with great regularity!

When I think back on those wonderful childhood days, I remember them with joy. I remember coming home at night, with holes in my Wellingtons, scrapes and grazes all over my body, exhausted beyond belief...and yet being wonderfully happy.

But when I look back on those days more objectively, I find myself asking an uncomfortable question...and one that I’m sure has occurred to you already...namely; while I was careering over a mile down a hill on nothing more than a plank of wood, four pram wheels, a piece of string and my trusty Wellingtons at speeds of up to 30 miles an hour….where on earth was my mother?! (My father, of course, was for the most part out at work).

I asked my mother about this the other day...and learned precisely where she was. She was in our house, keeping out of my way...and terrified out of her wits. At any moment she expected a knock at the door, or a telephone call from the hospital, to say that her son had been discovered in a pile of wood, pram wheels and blood at the bottom of the hill.

So why didn’t she stop me?

I think it was because my Mum was part of that generation which understood that young people don’t grow well when they are rooted to the sofa. She knew that for me to become the exceptionally well rounded human being you see before you - (ahem ahem) - it was important that I had the chance, the free will, to explore my find my own make my own mistakes. Her actions, or rather her deliberate inaction, was not the action of an uncaring mother, but actually a piece of biblically inspired wisdom.

Today, of course, is Mothering Sunday. I’m sure many of you will remind me...if I don’t tell you now...that what has now become Mother’s Day was once the time when everyone returned home to the church in which they were brought Mother Church. Of course, for those who had moved away from home, it was a chance to catch up with their own Mother. But now, as we are all aware, Mothering Sunday has become something quite different.

Whatever it is has become, and however much it is driven by the card, flower and present industry today - it nevertheless is an opportunity for us to reflect on the best that motherhood can be. The bible, of course, has some advice to offer in terms of descriptions of the perfect wife and mother. The book of Proverbs, in its final chapter, for example, famously describes the “Wife of Noble Character”, whose “children arise and call her blessed”, and whose husband “blesses her also”. (You might like to read the last 20 verses of the book of proverbs for this week’s homework!)

But the Bible doesn’t set out to be a handbook for the whole of life, in every tiny detail. Dr Spock’s book on childcare is likely to be a far more useful present to a new mother than the Bible! And that is because the Bible’s main function is not to show us how each of us should fulfil the detail of our individual callings. Rather, the Bible’s primary function is to show us what God is like, and having introduced us to Him, calls us to live all of our lives, all of our callings, in Godly ways, and under God’s loving rule.

And in setting out to describe what God is like, the picture that the Bible uses with the most force is that of a parent. Both ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ are terms that are used to describe God’s relationship with us.

Incidentally, as a little diversion, we do well to remember that God is not a bloke. Genesis reminds us that God made human beings both male and female, in the image of God. So, for example, alongside Jesus’ powerful description of God as ‘Daddy’ - Abba, comes his lovely image of himself as a mother hen, longing to gather her chicks under her wings. Unfortunately the English language doesn’t have a non-gender specific pronoun - other than the impersonal ‘it’. So, we tend to still say He, when referring to God...even though He is as much a She!

And that means, that we don’t have to be tied to pictures of motherly love alone, when we want to understand what God is like. In my none too humble opinion, the single most powerful picture of God, in the whole Bible, is that of the Waiting Father, from this morning’s Gospel reading - traditionally known as the Prodigal Son. Here we have a picture of the perfect parent...who, just as my mother allowed me to do on my go-kart... gives their child the space, the opportunity, and the ability to choose their own path. And again, like my own mother, scared-stiff at home, the Waiting Father of Jesus’ story doesn’t for a moment stop caring about his child...

There’s a beautiful image that comes right in the middle of Jesus’ story. As the younger son arrives back in his father’s country, but is still far off, Jesus says that “his father saw him, and was filled with compassion for him, and ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him”. It’s a great image, isn’t it? How could the Father have seen his son when he was still far off, unless he was constantly scanning the horizon for him? The Father of this story never gives up hoping and praying for his son’s return...

And that, Jesus shows us, is what God is like. Because God wants sons and daughters, not puppets and robots, He must give us free will...the ability to choose whether or not we will follow Him, or follow our own lonely path. But as God gives us that choice, there is never a moment when He is not scanning the horizon, searching for us, hoping that we, like the prodigal son, will stop running, and come back home to the Source of our life.

Through this story, Jesus paints a picture of parental love which is actually quite challenging. Not every parent, by a long shot, would be able to continue loving their child after the total rejection that the prodigal son shows to his father. But Jesus insists that no matter what the son has done, he is still the father’s son. When no-one else would even give the prodigal something to eat, the father runs to him and accepts him back.

We see God’s perfect love in the actions of the Waiting Father. We see an abundant love which longs, with its whole being, for the restoration of the relationship of the Garden of Eden, when men and women walked and talked with God. As a mother longs to clasp her errant child once again to her bosum, so God longs to welcome each of us home.

Perhaps, after all, there is still some value in the old meaning of Mother’s Day still left for us to contemplate...I mean that old sense of returning to Mother Church. The Church is of course God’s chosen and spirit-inspired vehicle for his ’love-in-action’ in the World.

We return, again and again, week by week to our Church, and take up our places as members of the body of Christ, in renewed relationship with God and with one another. As we do so, let me invite you to let your imagination go wild! The next time that you walk through these doors, or the next time you settle down with a bible in your hand and prayers on your lips, feel the pleasure of the Supreme Mother and Father of us all...and hear in your mind’s ear the wonderful words…”Welcome home my child”.


Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Murder of Father Bennett

Father Paul Bennett was tragically murdered yesterday, in the churchyard of his own church in Trecynon, near Aberdare, Wales. A tragedy for his wife, his two children, and his congregation... and I'm sure we all feel deeply, and pray deeply, for them.

His death has got me thinking about how often the clergy put themselves on the line. The simple fact is that in many of the most difficult communities of our country, the clergy are often the only professional class of people who actually live among the people they serve. Teachers, doctors, policemen, even local councillors and politicians will often live more affluent areas.

Although I never met Father Bennett, I have seen his kind of example before. He apparently had an open-door policy to his house, which was right next to his church. He gave of himself selflessly...and on this occasion right unto death. It's an example of service that Jesus set, and which Father Bennett deserves to be honoured for.

On the other hand, other priests I know maintain a more private much for their family's sake as their own. Such priests have lived with the kind of violence that a totally open-door policy can bring...and they recoil from it. (My own father-in-law - a methodist minister - was once beaten to within an inch of his life by young people from the youth club being held in his church next door. And I've had my fair share of confrontations with angry young people after living in the managers flats of two YMCAs for ten years!)

Neither form of availability is necessarily better than the other. The priest who makes themselves totally available may inspire awe in the rest of us, but may also end up so stressed-out that they become of no use to anyone. The priest who preserves their private space may, with more time to reflect and study, be the better preacher and community leader.

Jesus called us to be members of his body, and St Paul developed that theme to show that the body is made up of many parts, each with their own distinctiveness which may be added to the whole. That's as true for priests as it is for the rest of the body.

I wonder which kind I shall be as my ministry progresses?

In the meantime, I shall pray for Father Bennett - that he is now enjoying the peace of Christ in eternity. And for his family, that among devastation of their loss, they may find the ability to celebrate the distinctive selflessness of his example.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Alternative Worship?

Imagine the is the year 800, and you are a simple peasant visiting one of the first of the great cathedrals of Christendom. You leave the cold, dirty, dung encrusted streets, and gasp as you enter a building of great beauty, with diffuse light streaming through the stained glass windows.

Priests and acolytes in fabulous robes process up through the great space. Incense fills the air in great clouds, punctuated by pools of candle-light. Music drifts from the choir. As the act of worship progresses there is a crescendo of noise, and the ringing of bells. You, the humble peasant, are lifted out of the dreariness of your daily existence into a fabulous world of colour, music, smells, and visual stimuli. Your senses are used the highest possible degree that would have been possible in the medieval world. You feel, for a while, that you have glimpsed heaven.

1200 years later, in many churches, the patterns of the Roman Mass have little changed - and as we all know, familiarity breeds contempt. The colours, smells, sounds and drama of the whole event have become commonplace, and as a result, for many...empty. In some churches, partly as a reaction to that feeling of emptiness, the drama has been entirely stripped away. Ministers wear suits, not robes. Incense is banned. Words replace drama in a more literate age which has somehow forgotten the power of drama. Some churches have become as plain as shopping centres, and as dull as cinemas... with harder seats. And people don't come any more.

But, along comes a movement determined to rescue us from dull, undramatic, word-driven worship. The Alternative Worship movement (also known as 'alt.worship') is setting out to the use the best sensory experiences that the modern world has given us, and to use them to give glory to God. Video, popular music played loud and with power, drama, the return of incense and other smells - scented candles, joss sticks - the use of touchable materials (stone, wood, water)...all combine to recreate for the modern 'peasant' a sense of occasion, a separation from the humdrum... a glimpse, perhaps, of heaven.

If you are someone for whom church has become boring and empty in its current form, let me tell you about two opportunities which are coming up.

1) Next Sunday: (the 25th of March), in the Parish Hall in Emsworth (directions on request), I shall be leading a 'Wordless Eucharist'. This is a Communion Service which will be conducted entirely without words, but which will be crammed full of symbolism and sensory experience... designed to take us beyond words, and into experiencing something of God in a very different way. All are welcome (from any denomination) and, because it will be wordless, from any language! Tell your friends.

2) The following Sunday (Palm Sunday - 1st April) at St Thomas the Apostle Church, Elson Road /Elson Lane (Gosport) - my colleague Fr. Simon Rundell, will be leading an alt.worship event. More details can be found at

Why not take one of these two opportunities to experience worship in a new and exciting way...and who knows...perhaps to experience God in a new and exciting way too.

Let me know what it does for you...if you are able to come.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

What's wrong with Racism?

Today, in the UK, the Conservative Party's front-bench spokesman for Homeland Security was sacked for comments he made which many have taken to be racist. This comes hard on the heals of the 'Big Brother' controversy over comments by a certain Jade Goody.

Both incidents have highlighted again just how raw this issue remains in the British consciousness. I meet people with great regularity who will start sentences with the immortal line "I'm not racist...but..." and then proceed to spew out all sorts of ignorant racist nonesense!

A few years ago I was in a car with a family in London. The family included a small child. We inevitably got stuck in traffic on our way to the Zoo, and I remember sighing in frustration. I said, "This London traffic is getting worse and worse". To my surprise and horror, the young child piped up, "Yes, its because of all the blacks who are coming to live here!"

That child, still of primary school age, had been taught by some of the adults around them the most awful racist attitudes. The child genuinely believed that the immigration of non-white people into London was to blame for the traffic chaos. Racism is perhaps at its most ugly when people lay the blame for everything that is wrong with society (even the traffic!) at the feet of those who are different to them. That is the beginning of the road to holocausts.

How different are the words of the Bible: "In Christ there is neither Jew, nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female..." The Bible maintains that all human beings are equal in value...equally loved by our One Heavenly Father. Equally important.

ANY other interpretation of scripture simply is not Christian. Full Stop.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Another Earthquake...where is God?

Another devastating earthquake has hit Indonesia - with the numbers of dead and injured still rising. (For more details, click here for the BBC coverage - and from where the image to the left is copied). Once again, we are tempted to ask, 'where is God?'...or at least 'how could God allow such a tragedy to occur?'

Part of the answer is that God is in the cries for economic justice that are issued (and have been issued for centuries) from the churches of the world. God is in the demand that we should build good quality, earthquake-proof housing in all danger spots...not just on the West Coast of the USA. God is in the demand that dis-honest property developers should not be permitted to throw up shoddy housing made with crumbling cement, by making 'back-handers' to local planning officials.

God is also present in the efforts of the relief workers, and the donations from the rest of the world to help rebuild lives.

But there is another sense in which God is present too. There's a famous story of a old Jewish man in a Nazi concentration camp, forced with his compatriots to walk past the recently tortured and then hung bodies of other prisoners. As they filed past, some guards jeered at them, "Where is your God now then?!" The old man, looking upon the bodies of the dead, said "there He is".

The Jewish tradition, and even more so the Christian tradition following Jesus' death on the cross, proclaims that it is in life's darkest hours that God may be found. It is almost as if God
allows suffering to happen because he knows that it is only when we are at our lowest ebb, when we have run out of our own resources and have to depend entirely on is only then that some of us are able to become aware of God.

Please join me in praying that the Indonesian quake will not only spur the world's leaders to greater efforts for justice, but that those who have been worst affected will, somehow, by His grace, be able to find God amid the chaos.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Bread and Circuses

(Yesterday's sermon - adapted for this Blog)

You know, asking questions is a very important thing to do. Its part of our nature to ask questions, and to wonder about things.

But sometimes, as the story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness shows us (Matthew Chapter 4) questions are asked which are designed to trap us.

Before Jesus began his public ministry, he went into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. This is an event that we remember especially at this time of Lent.

We might wonder why he did that - and we might ask some questions about it. Perhaps he wanted to prepare himself for the hard years of ministry that were to come? Perhaps he wasn’t sure exactly how he would exercise his ministry, and needed to get it straight in his head? In many ways, Jesus was certainly preparing himself for his ministry...and that’s why we remember this story during the time of Lent. Lent is a time when we prepare ourselves to receive the wonderful news of Easter again...the news that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.

The writer of Matthew’s Gospel gives us another reason why Jesus went into the desert. Matthew says that “Jesus was led into the desert by the Spirit….to be tempted by the devil." After not eating for 40 days and 40 nights, Jesus was very weak when the devil was finally allowed to test him - with three questions or challenges.

The FIRST challenge: "Why don’t you turn those stones into bread?"

You see, the devil was tempting Jesus to use his power to provide food for himself.

It might be interesting if I just paint a little bit of a word picture for you. Remember that Jesus lived during the time of the Roman Empire - one of the most politically and militarily powerful empires there has ever been.

Last year, Clare, Emily and I went to Italy for a few days, and we visited the Coliseum in Rome. We were amazed at what we saw - a HUGE arena in which the citizens of Rome would watch gladiators fighting each other, and Christians being fed to the lions. Something else that used to happen at the Coliseum - and at the local horse racing arena known as the Circus Maximus - is that the Emperors of Rome would distribute free food to the crowd.

The Emperors were clever politicians. You see, they understood that simple people needed just two basic things to keep them happy - and to stop them complaining about the way the Emperor spent their taxes...entertainment, and food. Or, as the Roman expression went, “Bread and Circuses”. The Kingdom of Rome was based on Bread, Circuses and Political Power. But Jesus had come to proclaim another Kingdom….the Kingdom of God, which he also called the Kingdom of Heaven…

When he challenged Jesus to turn stones into bread, we could say that the devil was tempting Jesus to follow the Roman way…"provide food for people, and they will follow you”.

But Jesus said no. "It is written: Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God."

Jesus knew that food alone is not enough. If you feed someone, you only put off the time when they will ultimately die. Death is the one disease that we will all die of one day! But if you can change their heart, help them to tune themselves to the word of God, then you open up the opportunity of eternity with God in heaven. Jesus wanted his ministry to count FOR EVER, not just until the next meal.

So, the devil tried a new tack. Effectively: "Why don’t you throw yourself off the temple and let the angels catch you?"

Bread...and Circuses. The old Roman trick. The devil was tempting Jesus to use his power to do amazing miracles that would wow the crowd. I mean - I’m pretty sure that if I threw myself off the top of St James after this service, and had some angels rescue’d all think I was pretty fantastic. (Clare would be trying to shoot the angels mind you!).

But again, Jesus knew that amazing miracles would not turn people towards God. He knew that the changes we need to make take place on the inside, not on the outside. Faith is not about asking God to do amazing feats of supernatural wonder...its about trusting that God is in control, and is with us through every circumstance of life...the high circus-type experiences, the joy of baptism parties, for example...but also when the chips are down, and the going gets tough.

So Jesus rebuked the Devil. "Do not put the Lord your God to the test."

So the devil tried for the last time. He took Jesus to the top of a very high mountain and showed him the kingdoms of the world laid out before him.
"Why don’t you worship me...then I will give you all this!"

Bread, circuses...and political power. The old Roman trick again. The devil was tempting Jesus to establish a kingdom of political power. To use his power from heaven to defeat the Romans by the sword, and to raise up an army which would conquer the world. Many people expected that this was exactly what the Messiah would do.

But again, Jesus wasn’t interested. He knew that all the political power in the world would not create the circumstances that he wanted. God sent Jesus into the world because God loves people. God loves us. God has great passion for the poor. God hates war and poverty and slavery and injustice and global warming...and its right that we fight to improve the world in which we live.

But God’s overriding desire, the dearest wish of his heart is that you and me will be together forever with him, living in love and harmony...eternally in heaven. Political power - which Jesus could have just taken if he had wanted, would not bring about that essential change that God is after.

There’s another question for us here too. What system of political power does each of us willingly submit to, day by day? Is it liberalism or socialism, marxism or materialism, conservatism or consumerism? All of us, in different ways, submit to a political viewpoint, or a way of helping to make the world a better place. But the message of Jesus is this...submit to God. Submit, first, to the Lord of the Universe, and to his simple life of trusting faith. That is the way to happiness. That is the way to peace.

So what was Jesus’ response? "Away from me Satan! For it is written 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only!'”

In other words...what we need to do is put God first. Not bread, not circuses, not earthly power systems...God. God who made us. God who sustains us. God who has saved us through Jesus Christ our Lord.

So in this period of Lent, let me invite you to take some time to ask yourself what you are putting first in your life. What is it that you trust, and base your life on? What is the most important thing in your life?

Material possessions? Just Bread.

New exciting experiences? Just Circuses

A political system? Just Earthly Power.

To each of us, the invitation of Jesus rings loud and clear: come to me. "Seek first the Kingdom of God, and trust in me. I am the faithful one, unchanging, the rock of peace who will be your anchor through all the storms of life."

Friday, March 02, 2007

Religion - the great Evil?

Thanks to the likes of Richard Dawkins, and before him Bertram Russell, there is a great deal of tub-thumping which goes on about religion being a great evil.

I've been reading a fascinating little book called "Devout Sceptics" by Bel Mooney, in which the novelist Phillip Pullman says this: "A large proportion of what the Christian Church has done has been intolerant, cruel, fanatical...wherever you look you see intolerance, cruelty, fanaticism, narrow-mindedness. It's an ugly ugly spectacle"

Pullman is largely referring to the past - to the Catholic Inquisition, or to the Puritans of New England. But, when pressed by Bel Mooney, he says, effectively, that he believes these traits are still alive and well in the churches: "not the nice gentle ones who have half empty churches. But the ones who that are full - the evangelicals, the fundamentalists - are full of hell-fire and damnation and fury and vengeance on anyone who disagrees with them"

Well - I want to say to Mr Pullman - I'm sorry if that has been your experience. But its not mine. Ours is a full church (at our last family service, it was standing room only). And we don't do hell-fire and damnation. We do love, and mutual service. As for vengeance on anyone who disagrees with us...I haven't meted out vengeance on anyone who has disagreed with me on this blog (in fact I absolutely welcome disagreement as a way of refining and challenging my own opinions).

No doubt there are corners of all religions which are populated with raving egomaniacs who can't cope with challenge. But the vast majority of churches I know and work with, across many denominations, are primarily concerned with getting on with the task of loving and being loved.

And let's face it...religion doesn't have the monopoly on acts of evil. The French and Russian Revolutions were great experiments in secularization - and look at the atrocities which were committed there. To say nothing of the Nazis.

The real reality is that, according to Gallup, religious people are twice as likely as to be involved in voluntary work and community service than non-religious people. Religion - in many forms - has been entirely behind the great social revolutions of the last 1000, medicine and science.

Religion - although sadly perverted by some - remains the best hope for a planet in need of love. And I'd want to argue that Christianity is the highest and best expression of it.

But that's for another day.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

St David's Day

Today, as those of you with Welsh ancestry will know, is St David’s Day. I’ve been doing a little digging to find out what I can about St David. As one of our British Saints, and the Patron Saint of Wales, we ought, I suppose to understand something about him.

Actually I've discovered that like many saints, much of what we think we know is conjecture and legend. But if you are interested to read some more about him, and what he stood for, CLICK HERE to open a sermon I preached this morning on this topic. (You will also get a short lesson in the heresy known as Pelegianism...enjoy!)