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JUNE 2017 : The Shack

Posted on 15th June, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t know whether you have ever read the book The Shack by Wm Paul Young?  It has been a best selling novel in recent years and is both influential and controversial; which for a book of fiction isn’t bad!  The book has now been made into a film which is on general release.  So, without giving away the plot, let me quote the blurb on the book cover:

 

‘Mackenzie Allen Philip’s youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness.  Four years later, in the midst of his great sadness, Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him to that shack for a weekend.  Against his better judgement he arrives at the shack on a wintry afternoon and walks back into his darkest nightmare.  What he finds there will change Mack’s world forever.’

 

When I read the book I was moved by the story, and found some of the imagery used challenging, as it made me think about how I see God ; the pain of bereavement in tragic circumstances ; and I finished the book feeling inspired.  It is a good read and the film should be really good. 

 

Here is the internet link should you wish to follow it: 

 

http://www.theshack.movie/#trailer

 

 

MAY / JUNE : Where is God?

Posted on 3rd May, 2017

 

Famously the Soviets published a cartoon in the Newspaper Pravda at the time of initial space exploration showing a space ship and commenting, God is not here.  Both atheist and faithful believer discover the challenge of finding God a real issue. 

 

In the resurrection stories of the Gospels we have the delightful story of a disciple, Thomas, who misses out on meeting the Risen Jesus (Jesus being bodily alive after death by Crucifixion) because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Thomas is told the story from the other disciples, he is incredulous and famously replies ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger into the nail-marks, and my hand into his side – I’m not going to believe!’  Then a week later, the disciples are all together and this time Thomas is there.  The doors are shut.  Jesus came and stood in the middle of them.  He greets them with a peace and then says to Thomas, ‘bring your finger here and inspect my hand.  Bring your hand here and put it in my side.  Don’t be faithless! Just believe!’ Thomas replies: ‘My Lord and my God!’  Jesus comments, maybe wryly, ‘God’s blessing on people who don’t see and yet believe’.  It is easy to hear this story and think that God is only really found in the miraculous, and those who ‘locate’ (not a good word, but the best for the moment) God in the miraculous often find difficulty when the miraculous doesn’t happen.  Miracles are by definition rare and the resurrection is by any definition ‘miraculous’.  However, the story of Jesus and Thomas tells us that God is to be found in the midst of genuine doubt.  It is all right, God’s got it covered!

 

Recently at Waltham Chase Methodist Church we held a concert for mental health, for the  Mind and Soul Foundation www.mindandsoul.info , a Christian mental health charity.  Various local artists came and performed and the audience enjoyed tea and cake.  It was a wonderful evening and many of the performers spoke of their journey with mental health and how faith has helped.  A number spoke of the pain, the difficulty, but also of finding Jesus in the midst of their journey.

I can remember when our children were young, we would take them into Nanna’s garden on Easter Sunday, then armed with small baskets they would go on an Easter Egg hunt, discovering as they travelled small eggs that the ‘Easter Bunny’ had left.  Sometimes, a symbol becomes stronger than the reality it is there to explain.  It can be difficult for parents and grandparents, with the story of the bunny and chocolate, to explain that the real reason for Easter Sunday is the resurrection of Jesus.  Someone recently explained to me that many British children think that Easter Sunday is the celebration of the Easter Bunny’s birthday. 

 

I have been trying to work out if this actually counts as ‘fake news’?  President Trump has been popularising the idea in his Tweets, objecting to the work of journalists; then UK politicians have been catching on, using the label to describe something they don’t agree with.  However, on Face Book and other internet sites, it seems so easy to fall for fake news.  There are all sorts of fake news stories out there, covering everything from politicians to the Pope!

 

Fake news can be: false information deliberately circulated ignoring truth, but with the hope of pushing extreme political causes.  Or, it can be information that journalists spread unknowingly.  It may also be, an unintended error which moves into the popular mind.  Do you remember the headline ‘Freddy Star ate my hamster’?  That never happened!  The important thing about any story is whether it can be verified or not.  This can only really be accomplished by our checking the evidence in a number of places and taking time in doing so. 

 

Now, when Jesus of Nazareth died on a cross and rose from the dead, which is the basis of what Christian believers call ‘Good News’; there were some, who were keen to promote a different story, 1st Century fake news, as it were.  There were soldiers guarding the tomb of Jesus and when the resurrection happened they fainted with fear, but afterwards the soldiers told another story.  ‘Some of the soldiers guarding the tomb went back to the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened.  The chief priests met with the elders and made their plan; they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers and said, ‘you are to say that the disciples came during the night and stole his body while you were asleep.  And if the Governor should hear of this, we will convince him that you are innocent, and that you will have nothing to worry about.’  The guards took the money and did what they were told.  And so that is the report spread round … to this very day.’   Why not read the account and decide for yourself whether this is good news or fake news?  It is found in Matthews Gospel Chapter 28.  Happy Easter!  Christ is risen!

JANUARY 2017 : A new President

Posted on 11th April, 2017

In January 2009 I found myself speaking to a congregation largely made up of African-Americans.  There was an anticipation that a new era was emerging as President Obama was taking office.  The first Black American in the highest office.  I had assumed that all those who in Worship were Democratic supporters, but I was wrong.  Obama was considered as a good choice by many, but not all of them. I must admit that I was then and am today, confused over how American politics actually works.  Republican and Democrat don’t seem to match our options of Conservative and Labour (with various other hues in between).  So, I, like many in Britain are now anticipating the term of President Trump with interest, to say the least! 

 

President Elect Trump (as he is at the time of writing) ran an election programme like none other.  Bold, colourful, objectionable, with personal insults, his speeches were lauded by some as ‘freedom of speech’, but resulted in stirring up anger and fear.  The ‘Reality TV personality’ and businessman uses a rhetorical style promising utopia (an imaginary perfect life) to those disregarded by previous political movements.  However, he is really promising the impossible.  So, we speculate on how, what and which promises will actually be kept.  It is early days, but we are seeing an approach to public office which is post truth.  Many statements just weren’t true, but they sounded ‘right’ for his local audiences.  Already he has been drawing back from some, but not all, of his pronouncements.  If America had no international influence, I would be happier, but it does and the fact that the President of the United States can make decisions which are earth shattering is troubling.  Trump uses Social Media, especially Twitter.  Social Media (Face Book, Twitter etc.) is described by some as an ‘Echo Chamber’, the place where we hear what we want to hear.  Truth, truths, ‘my truth’, ‘your truth’ and ‘untruth’ all get posted to bring comfort and affirmation to personal views.

 

‘A leader is a dealer in hope’ so said Napoleon Bonaparte; my comments on Donald Trump are offered not so much in criticism, although you may spot I am not a supporter, but as an observation about cultural change, on both sides of the Atlantic.  I know a leader who ‘although he had equal status with God, didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.  Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honoured him far beyond anyone or anything, ever.’  This leader, this person, is Jesus, the one whose influence far surpasses any leader and who, exemplifies leadership as servanthood. 

 

 

Who would like to spend 40 days away from friends, family and food?  Now, all extreme introverts may say ‘yes’ and extreme extroverts may respond ‘no way’.  I’m not even commenting on the issue of food and fasting.  Yet, this is what Jesus did, Lent finds it’s genesis in the life of Jesus.  The story in the Gospels tells us that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the devil for 6 weeks and most importantly, that Jesus came out of this desert experience renewed and focused on doing God’s will (Matthew 4 v1-11).  If you want to see the story you can go to YouTube and see The Miracle Maker cartoon ‘Jesus temptation’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NjU4yCFDaG8).

 

Taking time out to reflect on our life and purpose is important.  Most of us can’t manage 6 weeks, although the idea of reflecting on life and purpose is attractive for many in postmodern society.  So, when believers today observe Lent we are mirroring what Jesus did.  People often give up stuff: food, alcohol, chocolate etc.  Yet, the idea is really about spiritual values and discovering God in the difficult and hard areas of life.  I remember working in Bosnia and meeting the local Orthodox Priest.  He wanted to offer me a feast, but told me he couldn’t because we were meeting during Lent.  Orthodox Christians abstain from meat, fish and alcohol during Lent and I remember feeling a slight embarrassment, because I’d not actually given up anything like that, food on established military operations can be very good indeed, and so my observance of Lent was meagre in comparison, despite time away from family, friends and home comforts for 6 months due to God’s calling me to serve in the British Army.

 

Lent, those 40 days before Easter, is when we can can choose to change the pace of life, the monotony and the sameness of each day and week.  Yes, we can give up things, such as alcohol (something I am doing this year, my intention is that each time I fancy a glass of wine, I’ll chat to God), but the important thing is to cultivate those times in the day when we can just stop, be in silence, read the Gospel stories in the Bible and talk to God.  It may be that you could choose to drop a meal, or a coffee and cake time, and instead pray and read.  My suggestion is that by doing this, we will be enriched, like Jesus was, having developed spiritually and know God, who is closer to us than our very breath.

 

 

FEBRUARY 2017 : Silence

Posted on 11th April, 2017

Recently my wife and I were in a local cinema about to watch a film and I was captured by the trailer for the new film, Silence starring Liam Neeson.   We saw action packed scenes from 17th Century Japan where clearly Roman Catholic missionaries and Japanese Christians are in trouble.   I had two thoughts, ‘this looks worth watching’ and ‘this will make challenging viewing’.

 

‘Based on the classic novel by Shusaku Endo, this epic drama tells the story of two devout and reverent young Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver). In the early 17th century they risk violence and persecution as they journey to Japan in search of their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who travelled to Japan many years before and has now gone missing. Upon arrival in Japan, the two young priests discover a country in which Catholicism has been banned and where the new government is systematically eradicating any followers of the Christian faith; circumstances which test their beliefs to the limit as they search for the mysterious Father Ferreira.’  Damaris Media.

 

We are yet to see the film, but I hope to do so very soon.  However, I know that the very title suggests something some might find searching, ‘Silence’.  It suggests that in the midst of life there may be times when we find God silent.  This reminds me of the graffiti poem written in World War 2 on a concentration camp cell wall in Cologne, by a Jew: ‘I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining. And I believe in love, even when there’s no one there.  And I believe in God, even when he is silent.’  Silence is not necessarily an indication that there is nothing there.  God, love, suffering and life are not necessarily exclusive to each other, as a Christian believer I know from experience that they are linked.  In fact we see this in the person of Jesus in the New Testament.

 

Faith and prayer go together.  Sometimes there are times, when due to difficult circumstances, we cannot do any other than hold on to God in faith.  Yet, my experience tells me that no matter how terrible things turn out, God is there.  It is not even a matter of our holding on to God, God is holding on to us. 

 

I expect that what we will see in the film is Christians persecuted for their faith, but continuing to have faith in the midst of atrocious persecution.  I also, expect to see the faith of the priests changing due to the circumstances and the challenges of their journey into suffering.  Why do I think this?  Because, that is the experience of Christians through the ages, that by trusting in God despite the circumstances we find our understanding of God and life reshaped.   These comments are not meant as glib, easy answers, rather a reflection of life.  As the Apostle Paul says:’Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  … No, neither height or depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’   I commend the website: damarismedia.com where there is more about this film and other new releases. 

 

DECEMBER 2016 : Christmas Angels

Posted on 11th April, 2017

 ‘We were not expecting any callers … With the children in bed, we settled down for a quiet read.  Suddenly, we were surprised by a loud banging on the door.  If it had not been so loud we would have not have heard the knocking above the whining of the gale.  Tom went to the door and I followed him.  There on the porch stood a dishevelled crazy-eyed man.  A dark scar ran down his cheekbones.  A foreigner by the sound of his voice.’    Faith Lees tells the story in her book ‘Love is our home’.  Basically, the unexpected stranger was looking for a bed for the night, but the family decided they shouldn’t give him a place to stay and he left. Then, they relented, went after him and couldn’t find trace of him, either where they lived or in the village.  He just disappeared.  They reflected about whether they were right and whether this had been a test from God. There is a strange verse in the bible, in the book of Hebrews Chapter 13 verse 2, where the writer addresses Christians and says: ‘Remember to welcome strangers in your homes.  There are some who did that and welcomed angels without knowing it.’   

 

Angels are commonplace at Christmas time; the name means simply ‘messenger’.   The Christmas story is replete with them.  Angels, pop up in Luke’s Gospel to announce the birth of John the Baptist; to inform Mary that she will become pregnant with God’s Son; and then at the birth of Jesus, well we see angels telling the Shepherds the Good News.  ‘Don’t be afraid! I am here with good news for you, which will bring great joy to all the people.  This very day in David’s town your Saviour was born-Christ the Lord! And this will prove it to you: you will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger’.  Angels in the bible are created beings, they work for God and they bless people with God’s message.  In the case of the Shepherds on the hillside, the Shepherds will know they’ve got the right baby, because, despite all the fan-fare, he will be swaddled like any baby born to peasants (no fancy Babygro) and for his cot, well he’s got the animal’s feeding trough. 

 

The important point is that God is acting within history and has shown his love for everyone, by becoming human.  Being one with us, one of us and one for us.  Charles Wesley, the 18th Century hymn writer explains poetically: ‘Our God contracted to a span incomprehensibly made man’.   Angels are God’s chosen way of sharing the blessing and the love of the birth of Jesus.  God invites us by the message of the angels and he wants us to know that he loves us.  We have a number of Carol Services in all our churches over Christmas, and you are invited to come along for a really good sing.  Please check out our Noticeboards and website: www.mvmc.org.uk have a wonderful and blessed Christmas!

 

 

 

Have you seen the new film ‘Swallows and Amazons’? To the uninitiated, this is a film based on the book, of the same name, by Arthur Ransome.  Many of us were brought up on the books of Arthur Ransome and learnt about the Summer holiday escapades of the Walkers (Swallows) and Blacketts (Amazons) in the Lake District.  The story combines dingy sailing and camping, without parental supervision.  There is very little ‘helicopter parenting’.  The Walker father, a Naval Officer away on operations, is asked permission for the children to sail a dingy on the lake, and so he writes a telegram: ‘Better drowned than duffers if not duffers won’t drown’.  A message of confidence in his children’s ability.

 

The new film has been given a 21st Century twist using Arthur Ransome’s background as a correspondent in post-revolution Russia and the belief that he worked for MI6.  This isn’t the place for a review on the film, but the producers have made an exciting film, and hopefully children will be encouraged to read the book for themselves.  As you might be able to tell, I am a Ransome fan and just as I read the books, so did my children and I hope my grandson will when he is old enough.  It is about passing on the faith.

 

As parents, we pass on the faith with lots of things, either intentionally or unintentionally.  The things which are most important to us, often become the things that our families inherit from us.  For Christians we, quite literally, want to pass on the faith to the next generation.  However, a relationship with Jesus as Lord is not something you can force on others.  God is just not like that!  The faith is really more caught than taught.  For this to happen, I would simply encourage that Christian parents live their faith openly and effectively with their children.  Sharing prayers, bible reading (in an age appropriate way) and regular Christian Worship as a family; encouraging each child to develop a faith and a relationship for themselves.  It is this last bit which is most tricky, because it has to be personal.  However, as parents we are not alone in this.  There is a wonderful network of Christian groups out there to help (our Waltham Chase, Shirrell Heath and Swanmore Churches all have youth groups, see our websites).  Parents can only do so much.   Sometimes our children need to hear the wonderful message of God’s love for them, from someone else, if they are to really hear, believe and commit.

 

Going back to ‘Swallows and Amazons’, I know of one really good organisation which teaches children how to sail and helps them live the faith, both our boys have been involved there over the years.  Christian Youth Enterprises Sailing Centre (CYESC) is based in Chichester Harbour and they have a passion and expertise in watersports.  They are a Christian charity open to all and they offer ‘safe, challenging and professionally-run activity programmes … with a passion for creating memorable and exciting experiences for each and every guest’. The web address is:  www.cye.org.uk   I commend them to you as a great place to recreate ‘Swallows and Amazons’ for the next generation.

 

 

 

 

 

When I was working in Iraq in 2003 I was privileged to visit the ancient city of Ur.  An archaeological gem and birth place of Abraham, the man who three of the world’s religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) all look back to, as their ‘Spiritual Father’.  I can remember now being shown around the city ruins and with our Iraqi guide coming to a very smart ruin.  It had full walls, in fact I think it had a ground floor and an upper floor, interior walls, door ways and all it seemed to be missing was a roof!  It could have been sited in the Meon Valley and not looked out of place.  Our Iraqi guide explained that this well kept ruin was Abraham’s father’s house and it had been in poor condition until Saddam Hussein had heard in the 1990s that Pope John Paul II might come to visit Iraq.  Saddam decided to take the Pope to Ur and wanted to show him something special, so a house was renovated and named as Abraham’s house.  The Pope never visited.

 

In archaeological architecture and life, things are not always as they seem.  I like many were both intrigued and impressed with how the Archbishop of Canterbury dealt with the news he received on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week, that the person he thought of as his father was not actually his natural father.  A truth discovered due to a DNA test.   Justin Welby writes: ‘My own experience is typical of many people.  To find one’s father is other than imagined is not unusual.  To be a child of families with great difficulties in relationships, with substance abuse or other matters, is far too normal.  … I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.’  Whether one is an Archbishop or not, this kind of news is unravelling at best and Archbishop Welby dealt with the news with openness, gentleness and with integrity.  He is a Christian who finds that his spiritual relationship with God gives him security and a purpose for life. 

 

To be a person of faith does not mean that we have no troubles, neither does it mean that we find bad news easy to cope this.  Having faith in God, through Jesus Christ, means we can enter into a relationship with humanity’s true parent and be secure in God’s love, no matter what happens!

 

APRIL 2016 : The Soundtrack to life

Posted on 11th April, 2017

When the rock star David Bowie died in January there was a shocked reaction.  The media quoted people, of a certain age, who said things like this: ‘he created the soundtrack of our lives’.  Now, whether you are or have been a Bowie fan or whether you are a little sketchy over who actually he was; we may be in agreement that there are times in our lives when certain pieces of music chime with what is taking place in our lives and certain musicians are able to provide a soundtrack.  What we hear and surround our lives with, influences how we live.

 

We don’t know whether Jesus sang songs to his followers!  However, we do know that he spent three years mentoring around 120 people.  The teaching of Jesus became the soundtrack to their lives.  Jesus told stories, many of them were open ended, not clear in the point that was being made and so, his listeners had to work out the meaning.  Take this story: ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is like this; a man happens to find treasurer hidden in a field.  He covers it up again, and is so happy that he goes and sells everything he has, and then goes and buys that field.’

This story begs to be chewed over.  This raises lots of questions, especially as it suggests sharp practice.

 

So, when Jesus the story teller and mentor is killed on a Cross by the Romans, his followers feel as if the soundtrack is stopped, or at least paused.  Of course, Jesus didn’t record anything on paper, it was left to his followers to recall the teachings and stories.  For years these were told and retold before they were written down.  The Gospels, those records of the life and teachings of Jesus came to be written from AD 60, around 27 years after his death.  Hearing this we could respond that rather like a game of ‘Chinese Whispers’ the message got changed as time went on.  However, in a world where 90% couldn’t read and write, people’s memories were very good indeed!  We know when a particular rabbi died around the same time, people said ‘a walking library has died’. The stories of Jesus were important to his followers because these stories actually amounted to more than them being the soundtrack to their lives.  This was because, they weren’t looking back with nostalgia, they were living in the present with Jesus who they claimed was alive.  Christians continue to believe that Jesus is alive and that we know him spiritually today and so, in a sense, he continues to tell us his stories.

 

By, the way, in case anyone has any doubts, I am still immensely fond of Bowie’s ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’. Great soundtrack!