Monday, February 23, 2015

magic words

As Jesus was coming out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open Mk 1.10

What's your picture for those words? The clouds parting? A ripping across the fabric of the sky?

The Bible writers have a way of showing us God's view of how things are. They draw back a veil that normally hides God's perspective; suddenly reality shifts and all seems very different.

John does it from his prison on Patmos in the early chapters of Revelation. Chapter 4 begins with the words, "After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven". Now, the one thing that's not going on is that God has turned the sky into an enormous blue Advent Calendar, with a window marked "4" suddenly pulled open. 

Rather, a window into God's reality has been opened, and John suddenly sees everything more clearly than he did just a few moments earlier. He is in exile, in a world where chaos seems to reign, where bad things happen to good people and good things are reserved for the wicked. It feels like God has taken a vacation. And then - the veil is drawn back, the window is opened, life is very different.

John looks and sees a throne and someone on it. God is there. He is still God. It's OK.

Or think about Elisha in 2 Kings 6. The King of Aram, fed up of losing all his military secrets to the ears of the prophet, sets out with his army by night to attack the man of God. Elisha's servant gets up in the morning, opens the door, picks up the milk - and does an almighty double take. There's an army. Everywhere. They are surrounded. He closes the door, shakes his head, opens it again - still there. He calls his master and tells him.

Elisha responds: "Don't be afraid; those who are with us are more than those who are with them", and he prays - "Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see". Suddenly the veil is drawn back, a window on God's reality is opened, and Elisha's servant sees the army of Aram surrounded by angels and chariots of fire. 

Jesus steps out of the Jordan, having been baptised by John, and sees heaven torn open. There's still a river and a prophet and a crowd all around, but now there's more. Added to the physical scene all around him is a spiritual reality that changes everything.

And Jesus hears magic words.

I sometimes get asked how I got into music. The answer is because my Dad was a sportsman. Some of you have already understood - but let me explain anyway...

In his youth my Dad had a football trial with Leeds United; he really was very good. He tells a tale about being knocked over by John Charles. Even as he grew older he maintained his cricket playing, and was a terrific wicket keeper. Clearly all parents have hopes about their kids fulfilling their dreams, and totally naturally I think my Dad wanted me to do even better than he had. 

The problem here was - I was mediocre at sports. Cricket coaching when I was a kid was my idea of hell. I'm the personality type that likes to be good at something. All the other cricketers' boys were terrific. And then there was me.

My Dad, bless him, couldn't always keep the look of disappointment out of his eyes. And that look fired me to find something else I could do - something I could do better than him. So I worked at my music. 

But I need to tell another story, because that one might mislead you about the nature of my relationship with my Dad. And, after all, I am so grateful that I had that kick towards music!

After I was ordained, when I was working in Wales, there was a time when things were very hard, and I was really, really struggling. Everything was falling apart. Of course I didn't tell family. Except one day I snapped at my Dad on the phone, which I never did, and he got in the car and drove the several hours journey to see me to find out what was going on. Then I told him. 

And he was perfect. He was everything I could have hoped for. Everything I needed.

Heaven is opened and Jesus hears the words: "You are my son, whom I love." When you hear those words from someone who matters, everything is different. When you don't hear those words, everything is different too. 

Having that veil drawn back, that window on reality opened, life is transformed for Jesus. And immediately the Spirit compels him away from the overwhelming spiritual experience of that moment to - 

To what? To the desert, to temptation, to wild animals, to angels too. To the remarkable range of things we face all the time in everyday life. But everyday life altered by the magic words of love that re-draw the shape of reality.

Now. Here's the thing:

When we trust in Jesus, when we believe in him, when we open our hearts and begin the life of faith - we are, as St Paul says, "in Christ". And that means that what the Father says to Jesus, he says to us. 

To you. To me.

"You are my son, my daughter, whom I love."

Let heaven be torn open for a moment and hear these words in your heart. They are for you. They say that God is here and he loves you. They say that he who is for us is greater than anything that might be against us. Though we fear we keep disappointing him, all we find is all we could ever hope for. 

These magic words are not just for Jesus; as we belong to him, they are for us too. Hear them. Believe them. And then, we must go and live life shaped by them - whether in the desert, surrounded by temptations, with wild animals or with angels all about us. 

You are God's child. And he loves you. 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

O I do like to be beside the Ski-side...

I was sitting and chatting with the president of the DHO ski club, and we were talking about places that mean something to us.

"Somehow there are places that happen in our lives where we feel like we belong," I said, "places that are home to us. They are a gift from God, and we should enjoy and cherish them."

I found Wengen quite by accident eighteen years ago. The Intercontinental Church Society asked Stuart Bell, rector of Aberystwyth, to fill a slot in the rota of chaplains at St Bernard's Wengen in the summer of 1997. Stuart didn't fancy it; at the time the chaplain stayed in a room in the Falken Hotel, and the accommodation really was for a single person. But he told ICS he had a couple of curates and would see if either of us were interested. I bit his hand off.

The strange thing is, I've never lived here. I've just done the chaplaincy rota (most years) and got to know a lot of people. I've made friends. I'm not a great skier - I make a decent fist of it these days, no more. But when I get off the cable car at Mannlichen I feel like I am in the most beautiful place on earth and my heart sings.

 Gifts like this, places like this, moments like this, opportunities like this - they are beyond price.

Truthfully, I was feeling grumpy before leaving home. I miss my Springer, Harry, every day. Really, I do. And this trip isn't cheap, even with the generous help ICS gives chaplains. Plus, in the Oxfordshire parishes, there's a lot going on, and organising everything for my absence felt like hard work.

Then I got here.

I know folk look at it as a pretty good gig to get - and it is - but it is a 'gig'. It's not a holiday. In four days I've done some bereavement counselling, some marriage guidance work, some evangelism, some admin and practical stuff, and spent lots of time with lots of people connected with the church and community who simply want to talk with the chaplain. And this chaplain wants to talk to them.

Yes - today I actually went skiing! And it was wonderful. But so has been every part of the trip so far. I chatted to Roger, who has done more of these trips than I and who was here holidaying, and he said that last year he skied three days in his chaplaincy fortnight and had a terrific time. I get that.

It turns out that a change is as good as a rest, when it comes as a gift.

Tomorrow we will worship together. I look forward to seeing who will come to church. Several of the people I have seen so far have left the resort today, but many are here for longer periods or live here. The DHO (DownHill Only Club) are celebrating their 90th Anniversary this week, and I will mark that with an anniversary service tomorrow evening. Several of the club members are regular supporters of St Bernard's.

And then there will be surprises... which is always the joy of any ministry. Not-knowing what comes next, and taking it in your stride come what may.

Though it feels like a chaplaincy at St Bernard's puts a magnifying glass on that experience! No wonder there are two texts written at the front of the church, two reminders for every chaplain who steps into the place: the opening line to Psalm 121, and from Isaiah 40 a stained-glass reminder that those who wait on the Lord will rise on wings like eagles.

O I do like to be beside the ski-side...

Saturday, January 10, 2015


In the light of the atrocities in Paris this week, I entirely want to associate with the French people, and with all who have suffered from terrorism.

We are the same. We stand together. We are human beings.

But forgive me, I want to stand with people and with those who grieve, and with those who are bewildered. I don't know a whole lot about a specific French satirical magazine, and I'm not sure I want to stand with the viewpoint that says (as was expressed on the BBC during the week) "We should be free to criticise who we want to".

I'm just not sure about that.

In my job I come across a lot of grief, and there is often a tendency for grief to be dishonest. Death can change how people felt about those who have died; death can make people better. At least, it can if you believe everything you hear. Personally, I often feel tempted to take a pinch of salt with me just in case I need it when I'm about to listen to stories of the newly departed.

Perhaps it is because in our grief we are predisposed to forgive more those we have lost. Perhaps in our grief we realise we will never again be able to work through the ordinary conversations of life and grant to our lost loved ones the benefit of the doubt we sometimes doubted they deserved when they lived. It's just human.

Still: no-one deserves what happened in that magazine office this week. I don't need to have read a copy of Charlie Hebdo to know that. None of us need to have read it to know that what happened was terribly, terribly wrong.

Perhaps however we do need to have read it through before we take its name. Otherwise, it runs the risk of becoming a slogan, a sledgehammer, or (worse) just the opposite of what we intended - a statement of division, not solidarity. Satirists don't need bandwagons; nor do they need censorship; most of us make mistakes when we hold their barbed humour too close or too distant. We just stop seeing the truth either way, and that's the biggest mistake of all.

Jesus asks us to love our enemies, not laugh at them. If we are to laugh at anyone, it is ourselves. I don't know about "je suis Charlie" - "je suis un right Charlie" a fair bit of the time. So many of the cartoons following the attack have pens and pencils facing off automatic weapons, but the point of them is that they too are weapons. If you want to throw the first stones, says Jesus, or draw them, go ahead; sinless people first.

Or do we become (again, with the excuse of grief) ruled by a mob mentality? In Britain at the moment, the Ched Evans story is a perfect example of this. The BBC news stories about his attempts to renew his footballing career after being released from prison all begin with the words, "Convicted rapist Ched Evans". The stories could begin, "Former Welsh international footballer Ched Evans". Do you think the stories would sound different that way?

Our culture has made sex its god, and sex crimes its blasphemy. No wonder those Islamist extremists critique us. Poor Ched; whatever did or did not happen that distant night, like so many young people it happened when he (and all the others there) had had far too much to drink. And so he is trapped in an eternal purgatory of being described by a sin he denies, without any other past or any future at all.

Poor Ched?

It'll be a while before the #jesuisChed hashtag gets going. It'll be a while before the stones stop being thrown. There are so many sinless folk around it seems. It's such a fun bandwagon to aim from.

And again I ask your patience, as I close where I started. For I want to stand with all who suffer. All. We are the same. We stand together. We are human beings.

Loved by God, thank God, and (wonderfully) forgiven, if we'll have it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas Everybody!

Christmas no.2 as Rector of Steeple Aston with North Aston and Tackley...

It's wonderful to drive down the lanes of the three villages, or walk Harry through the woods and fields, seeing people I am getting to know, feeling at home, loving the churches and the villages and simply enjoying Christmas.

It has been a great year. There have been some (inevitable) struggles, but it is a pleasure to be the Rector here, and to help people meet with Jesus. I've been with families as they have experienced births and deaths and I've prayed with all sorts of folk and seen God bless them. I've been blessed time and again in the process: I've been stumped in Bible Study, and found just the right words outside the village shop to open someone's heart to faith.

I've been with friends, who have helped me more than I can say, and heard music that has lifted my soul again and again and again.

My lovely, affectionate, crazy dog makes life a constant joy. He is a remarkable gift.

This year has been ordinary, unexceptional and totally wonderful. I am having a very Happy Christmas, and find myself - content. Pretty much. As much as I expect someone of my character could expect to be.

Worship has been central, as always, with songs old and new reminding me where my heart belongs.

Now - excuse me, I have a party to go to, and seven more Christmas services to think about, and my Mum is here & goodness knows what she & the dog will be getting up to next in their particularly volatile love/hate relationship...

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, November 30, 2014

T minus 730

Time like an ever rolling stream...

The thing about birthdays is that they are a mark of success. People who live the longest lives collect the most. In that respect, I don't mind having accumulated another.

Cas Timmis, apologies for the lack of a card, but Happy Birthday. Ryan Giggs, we continue in the same decade together.  CS Lewis, it's good to know you share your day with the United assistant manager, isn't it?

It was a good weekend. A supper with friends, the Merton Advent Carols (at which I had the enormous pleasure of reading a lesson), time with Dad & Lorna, sunshine & mist as Oxfordshire does best at this time of year, and far too much food.

It has been a good year. Some are better than others; this was definitely a good one. I am very, very thankful for home and calling and people around, and family and Harry and chance to see friends near and far. It has been a good year.

I am always grateful for the lack of a crystal ball. Tomorrow may be wonderful or terrible, or just a bit dull, but today is lovely.

And I thank God for that.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

turn, turn, turn

I had one of those moments yesterday that made me stop in my tracks. It was wonderful.

It was in our afternoon Bible Study Group. We are slowly working our way through Romans. At times it is inspiring, at times hard work. We are learning lots together, and (on the whole I think) enjoying the experience. I always love taking a Romans class; it's one of my favourite study options. We have just got to the end of chapter six, having started the course at the beginning of September.

But yesterday I was asked a question and I didn't know the answer.

I mean, of course, right? It happens all the time. Well - actually, I've been teaching this stuff in parishes to parish groups for twenty years, and actually, no, it's pretty unusual. In fact, I can't remember the last time I was asked a question like this.

That is, there are technical questions (who was King after Hezekiah) that I might stumble on for a moment, or text questions (where is the verse that says...) that need a quick check before I can give the definitive.

But this was a theological question. A substantive theological question. A simple theological question. An obvious theological question.

And I had no answer.

I loved it!

I mean, to have church members that can ask the question because they see the issue and then can put it into simple terms - brilliant. One member of the group saw a hole in what was being said and pointed it out.

Now - I think it's more a hole in a theological approach to the text than in the text itself, but it's still a great question, and it's amazing that this came, because I'd have to say that it took me by surprise. I've simply never identified it as a gap in Romans before. But the more I look at it - the more of a gap it is. And I've done some reading since yesterday, and the more reading I do, the more of a gap it seems to me to be.

Oh - you want to know the question. Right. Really simple. It was:

"Where's repentance in all of this?"

Every good evangelical knows that repentance comes before faith, but St Paul seems to have forgotten. Righteousness, being justified, the grace we now have - it's all gift, gift, gift. All I could do was acknowledge that we place a high import on repentance but in Romans all I could think of was a repentance reference in chapter 2, but it's in a section where Paul is still dealing with the problem of sin and how it affects everyone, Jew & Gentile. It's not part of the solution. It's not about how we access that solution, how we become 'in Christ', how we start to have faith, how we turn from being slaves to sin in order to be slaves to righteousness. It's not anywhere near the story of when we were in Adam but now we are in Christ, or how we were led by our sinful nature but now we are led by the Spirit. And for all those changes, Paul never talks of the change - just of the difference, and of the gift that moves us from one place to the other, and then of the imperative to live lives that reflect we have moved.

There's a lot of implied change of heart in Romans 11, when the Old Testament people of God are re-gratfed into the New Testament people of God. But the theological process of repentance isn't really what is being described, for the onus is not on what the people do but on God grafting them in again. His action. His gift. Not their choice or response.

So I had to give the best answer I could:

"I don't know."

It's been a while since a parish study group has stopped me in my tracks and asked me a really basic question that I have failed to see and for which I have no answer. It was a terrific experience. How wonderful to have people that hear what is being said and apply the lessons and ask the questions.

I may just be slow here - that's a given - but I am grateful to have this group in my home on a Monday afternoon making me work harder in my thinking, and not letting me do this the easy way!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

thank you for the music

Once upon a time...

This is a terrific photo. Taken a very long time ago, on a wonderful day when our band was at its best. We had a great time together and forged friendships that have lasted through the years. We made some great music. And some pretty ropey stuff too... And we worshipped with heart and soul.

Happy days!

This last weekend some of us got to do it all over again.

Ruth stood in for Carolyn, Richard B for Martin - M&C live in the US now, which is a bit far for a one-off gig. Both Ruth & Richard have played with us before: Ruth sang with us at M&C's wedding, and in the backing vocals on our last recording; Richard played bass on the last recording.

And Chas got to play rhythm guitar in Neil's place, so Richard KH stepped in and completed the line-up.

The Groove Heroes, back again. The Up from the Grave Heroes, disconcertingly sounding better than ever.

I guess we have all been playing and singing for the last twenty years, so we ought to know what we are doing by now... And it's nice to know that Andy still churns out those creative ideas. (The ratio holds: one in a hundred is pure gold.) So (thanks to Andy) we ended up doing We are Marching in the Light of God (Siya Hamba) in the style of Pharrell's Happy. And it was terrific.

Throw in some Rend Collective, and all sorts of other bits and pieces - we had a blast.

The event was the Oxford Diocese 'Grand Day Out', a huge farewell to Bishop John with a crowd of 2,500 and as well as the band we had a choir, an organist (Mr Paul Herrington, continuing the re-union theme) and a brass band. Occasionally all together.

There are moments in life when you just get your breath taken away by the gift. I have felt that many things have been taken away, many dreams, many expectations over the years. And suddenly in the shadow of Merton College I was leading worship with this group of friends, including the choir and Paul H and brass band producing music that was rich and varied and with a host of bishops beside me, for a diocesan gathering at an important moment on a day when I would properly expect to be on the back row somewhere out of sight, out of mind - and I got to play and sing to Jesus and to invite everyone to hold my hand as I held his and join in the joy.

You think you've let go of these things. Then comes the gift. Gift-wrapped on Merton field.

At the end of the day, someone tapped me on the shoulder, and a serious, bespectacled, older chap looked at me and said: "As a bishop from Sweden, I want to say to you - Thank You For The Music".

It really doesn't get much better.

Monday, August 18, 2014

heroes and villains

Theologian, broadcaster, songwriter, worship leader - not to mention Wycliffe Hall alumna - Vicky Beeching came out as gay this week.

It's been a bit of a thing.

She has quite a high media profile. Here's a picture of her on Sky News. The article that announced her sexuality was in the Independent. There are rumours she'll be a Songs of Praise presenter. She was on Channel 4 News.  She was on Stephen Nolan's show on BBC5 Live.

Most Christians who come out don't get that kind of coverage.

It's been an interesting experience, watching & listening. She talks of the fracture between who she was inside, and who she needed to be outside in order to have the life & ministry - and indeed simply the faith she wanted to have in the part of the church where she belongs. And yet that fracture made her very ill, and the time came where she had to do something to put it right. She chose health.

I think that this is something which huge parts of the church still don't quite get. When you are a (vast) majority, you don't get the pressure you put on a minority. You don't get how it feels to be in that minority and to want with all your heart to conform - but for it to be impossible. And when the majority tells you it's a matter of choice, or prayer, or maturity in Christ - and you find it's simply not possible, you do all that's within your gift to live a life that looks like the one you are supposed to be having.

This is the road to disaster.

Well done, Vicky for the honesty to stop the lie.

I posted on my facebook wall about this. And I was astounded by the response. It came in two ways. There were those who opposed my support of Vicky; and one in particular was strong in their condemnation of Vicky's stance and in their propounding of what, for them, are traditional Christian values. They unfortunately chose to be a little ungenerous in their tone, and I removed a couple of their posts as a result. I didn't remove them because I disagreed with their viewpoint but because of the aggressive way it was delivered. I welcome debate; spoken kindly.

There were others who spoke of their own journeys, where the unkindness of Christians had been so hurtful that church had become hard.

Let me say this, and say it clearly:

I know what you mean. I've been there. I've felt it. I've felt every cut of every thoughtless word. In a church where I was serving & giving myself beyond myself, I stood with two people one day in conversation, and one of them said: "At least we'll never have a gay vicar, eh?"

This was not a bad person who spoke these words. This was a good person. A person I cared for very much. A person I depended upon. A person I regard as a godly, caring, prayerful person.

What do you do in the light of that?

Well, I went through my own illness eventually. But I came through the other side because Jesus is wonderful, and he loves us all very much. Me included. And there came a point when I realised that having a life where I didn't need all the fingers on one hand to count the people who knew about me was never going to work; so I started to tell friends and family, and that was scary, but good. I came through the other side because people in the church were terrifically caring and believed in me more than I did. It's important to say that. Sometimes the story sounds a bit lop-sided - I think Vicky will look back on some of these interviews and agree she didn't say everything she should have.

The thing is - and despite her media blitz, Vicky Beeching has yet to discover this - I'm afraid there is no end to coming out. It goes on and on and on. You get 'coming out fatigue'. I'm not terribly demonstrative as a person; so it's not easy for me to stop someone in mid-flow and say - "Oh you have quite the wrong impression, I'm as bent as a three pound coin." My usual phrase, if I get there at all, is "Sorry. Not exactly the straightest arrow in the quiver".

And it is upsetting beyond words when you do that and find that someone who ten minutes ago would have said you had a wonderful and Spirit-filled ministry is now calling you names and accusing you of selling people down the river to hell; but I have learned that when grace and kindness have left the room the only thing to do is to bring them back in. And it is wonderful when you start to speak with trepidation and find more affirmation in those minutes than you'd ever imagined possible.

I hear dear friends say they would leave the church over "this issue", and I tell them that I am bemused as to why they would leave the church over me. Over my ministry. Over my commitment to the Scriptures and to worshipping Jesus and to bringing people to faith in him. We belong together. I am, politically, a Unionist. I believe in bringing all sorts of unlikely folk into a shared space and asking for grace to find the best in our shared lives. Isn't that New Testament church? I want to belong to the same church as the person who thanks God they'll never have a gay vicar, because (thoughtlessness put aside) I like this person enormously and I am less without them. And they are less without the gay vicar, it turns out. (As, subsequently, they have themselves pointed out.)

We are not heroes and villains, we are children of God, brothers and sisters in his family. We will disagree, it's what happens in families. And yet we are family. So we should find a way to love, and to speak, and to speak when speaking is hard, and to avoid name-calling and to think about each other and of finding ways of expressing value and -

of being kindly Christian. It has to be possible. It has to make a better, more Biblical way of life. For us all.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

three things

What to do in the face of the unbearable?

Every day, Canon Andrew White's facebook page brings fresh horrors. At last, the newspapers are catching up to the shock of what is happening in Iraq, and the US are there in military force. Britain is offering humanitarian aid.

What can we do?

Three things:

1. Pray.
It's always the first. When we sink beneath the waves of life, we find Jesus' arm lifting us up. We look to Jesus. We call to him. He is our first, our last, our middle, our beginning, our end, our journey. If we don't pray, we are practising atheists.

What do we pray for?
For those who have nothing. For those who are dying on mountainsides. For those who have been turfed out of house and home. For hope in despair. For material relief. For those who have to help those who have not.
For change.
For mercy.
For those with military power, that it gets used wisely and not ultimately to everyone's detriment.
For those who are right now making the world a terrible place: they are people too. We pray for them.
We pray for ourselves - that we might not be impotent, and that we might somehow help.
And we pray that we might forgive & be forgiven, and that in our lives, where there are poor and forgotten people, we would reach out and remember and do something - or our tears over those far away are unconvincing.

2. Speak.
In these last weeks, many folk have been speaking on the internet and in private to people who are more powerful than you and I, and though it has taken time - now things are happening.
We carry on.
In whatever pulpit you have, speak.
Speak so that people hear the voice of those who are being silenced.
Write to your MP (or equivalent).
Participate in online conversations.
Talk about these issues - and be informed. Read newspapers, follow Andrew White's page & blog, as unbearable as it it. Tell others.

3. Be Generous.
This is practical love.
The UK government has pledged £8M of aid - that sounds a lot, but when you see the numbers of displaced people already, and the money it takes to get the aid there, this will go quickly.
Support our fellow Christians who have had their lives destroyed.
Read the Barnabas Fund page & give; they are constantly helping persecuted Christians all over the world. Iraq is their front page right now. Or if you prefer, give through the Christian Aid appeal, or the Red Cross.

We get faced with unbearable news stories. But we aren't living in the middle of these stories. So we aren't actually feeling the waves crashing over us: others are. Let's pray in every way we can, speak of their plight to those with the power to do something, and give to those who are going out there and making their lives that but better.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

no pun in ten did

  1. She was only a whiskey maker, but he loved her still
  2. Sign on the lawn at drug rehab centre: Keep off the grass
  3. A midget fortune-teller escaped from prison. Police are looking for a small medium at large.
  4. A soldier who survived mustard gas & pepper spray is a seasoned veteran
  5. In democracy, it’s your vote that counts; in feudalism, it’s your count that votes
  6. When cannibals eat a missionary, do they get a taste of religion?
  7. A vulture boards a 747 holding 2 dead racoons. “Sorry sir,” says the stewardess, “Only one carrion per passenger”
  8. A dog that gave birth to puppies at the roadside was cited for littering
  9. A hole has been found in a nudist camp wall. Police are looking into it.
  10. A man sent a list of amusing wordplays to all his friends in the hope that at least one would make them smile. No pun in ten did.