Monday, August 24, 2015

three down

I'm preparing a sermon for the start of the new academic year at my old school. I sort of know what I'm going to say, but thought I'd browse through the school website as I marshal the right words into the right order.

There in the OB section is notice of the passing of one of my History teachers, Alan Petford. He was just thirteen years older than me. My school was his first posting.

Scholarly, enthusiastic, endlessly giving of his time to encourage students who showed any flicker of interest or initiative, Alan was old school when old school was already out of fashion. I remember being driven to a sixth-form History conference in Lancaster in his old (and I mean 1950s) Rover through the Forest of Bowland (no motorways for us) and simply being grateful he hadn't chosen to drive his more familiar Landrover to school that day.

He was a stickler for punctuality and politeness in class. No chewing in Mr Petford's class... And his academic gown (it was that kind of school) brought its own cloud of dust wherever he went, as he never saw the purpose of a board duster when the edge of that scholarly garment, when not wrapped round him for warmth, was perfect for the job.

The photo from the school site shows his craggy features and piercing gaze. It misses the slightly crazed hair of his youth. And of course, the angle of his eyebrows when quizzical or intense or crossed or...just being Mr Petford.

When I started at grammar school, I had David Ramm; and then Lynn Martindale the year after. They returned as my sixth-form history teachers. But Alan Petford taught the years in between (French Revolution; England & Ireland in late 18th & early 19th centuries), though in the sixth-form I had him for an extra Local History AO level. These days I seem endlessly to be renewing, re-ordering and renovating church buildings; it was Alan Petford who first taught me church architecture, albeit of a mostly Lancastrian and mostly seventeenth and eighteenth century bent.

A few of us wanted to form a debating society. There existed one for sixth-formers, but nothing below that. I think I was in 2X, and we asked our form master if he'd help us, and he did - but he quickly passed us on to another teacher whom he thought would do a better job. The "another teacher", of course, was Alan Petford. Alan gave us time, energy, ideas, patience, encouragement and much more. He put up with us when ill-prepared and beamed when we triumphed. He found milk and tea before meetings and helped us wash up afterwards. He even sat and offered wisdom when we bothered to realise that he was always ready to help before the event. I suspect my weekly public speaking now owes more to his early interventions than I am even vaguely aware.

I was of course a History Boy. Seventh Term Oxbridge entry exam, after A levels, followed by a train journey from Preston station and then interview at Merton College.  David, Lynn and Alan all played their part in that term, with Mr Ramm heading it up. I tried to keep contact with them afterwards, when I went to university. But first Lynn passed, and then David, and of course getting an email out of Alan Petford was never going to happen.

Now it's three down.

Funny, at junior school I was top of my class and my year every year. At grammar school I never topped a class again. Well, in the sixth form I once came top of English; I was of course in the History set so that was unfortunate. But I had three History teachers who made me feel top of the class every time I was with them, and who gave me an academic direction I'd never otherwise have known. It's a commonplace to talk of people who touch our lives, but they did. And though it's a long time ago - I left school more than thirty years ago - their touch remains with me and I remain, always, thankful.

Friday, July 31, 2015

plausible?


I’ve just read Ed Shaw’s ‘The Plausibility Problem - the church and same-sex attraction’. I’m reading around a few books from different evangelical standpoints on gay issues at the moment as I do a bit of writing myself. 

The writer is an evangelical Anglican vicar, single, celibate and gay. Well, he’s keen we don’t use that last word - he prefers ‘same-sex attracted’. He speaks of his own journey, of his struggles and desires and sufferings and of his absolute confidence in the traditional evangelical stance on gay issues.

His set-up is that in today’s world, keeping and teaching his moral stance has all sorts of plausibility problems because people inside as well as outside the church make basic errors of understanding. He tackles them personably and engagingly, and takes on all sorts of opinions that would disagree with him in the process.

Now I need to make two confessions. First, if you read this blog, you know that I too am an evangelical Anglican vicar, single, celibate & gay. (I’m happy with that word). And second, I don’t agree with everything in the traditional evangelical stance on gay issues - because I don’t find them biblical or godly or true enough. 

But I am absolutely committed to engaging with folk who agree with me and folk who disagree. The Christian Church is not defined as “those who believe in Jesus and take X stance on contemporary moral questions”; if we belong to Jesus, we belong to each other. So I have a vested interest in taking the time to listen to and read ideas that I disagree with, and if possible in talking to the people who hold those ideas dear so that we might not be faceless foes hiding behind barriers of print and piety. We are family.

Ed’s book has had a lot of evangelical coverage, and I’ve seen people point to it as a very helpful resource. Ed is one of the people behind the Living Out website, which itself is an interesting phenomenon (I read it and wonder how helpful I would have found it when I was a student; maybe my memory of where we have come from as a church is too good always to rest easy with it.) The book is an engaging read, and I can see why people like it. There were all sorts of things I liked and disliked about it, and I’m going to focus on some general themes in order to (ultimately) make some specific points.

As I read the book I had three main worries that kept coming back to me:

1. A Rose-Tinted View of the Past
I kept feeling that the sub-sub-title might secretly be something like “How to live as
yesterday’s Christians in today’s world”. There is a view of spiritual life here that feels like it came straight out of the 1950s, without any irony. At times this made me smile; occasionally I winced.

Let me give an example.

Right at the start, Ed talks of two fictional characters, Peter & Jane (a smile - only English people of a certain age are probably getting the reference, but the choice of names has a connotation) struggling with their faith and with being gay. Ed writes:
“The single life we are calling Peter and Jane to today was plausible in the past - but it seems so unreasonable today.”

It’s a spit out the coffee moment. Plausible in the past? In the past, if they wanted to exist in a church they just repressed, repressed, repressed. Any other option would have led to a criminal conviction. Many, many people struggle with issues of sexuality, and within my lifetime acting on one’s feelings as a gay person could result in prison in this country. And even when it was no longer a physical sentence, for most people for a good long time being gay remained a social crime. 

Now that “seems unreasonable”. But Ed is unaware of these things, and just presumes there must have been other reasons why good Christian people didn’t make their struggle public.

I am delighted Ed is public about his struggle. It took me a long time to be public about my life, because it was made pretty clear to me right at the start of my journey towards ordination that if there was any hint of anything “suspect” about my life, I wouldn’t make it. I couldn’t serve God or his people if I was gay. 

Now the world and the church have changed. 

The single life I set out on fresh out of college was not “plausible” or reasonable. It was compulsory. Thanks be to God, times have changed. Too rightly, that clock can’t be turned back.
 2. A Perfect Church

I kept worrying that for Ed’s vision of the world to work, you need to belong to a really great church. And by really great, I mean one where even if you are just a bit odd, people will welcome you into their homes (on days other than when the homegroup meets) and let you have care of their children. A church where inclusion is about making sure that everyone goes to the cinema and on holiday together. (Finance is never a problem for gay people, despite living alone.) Where inspirational teaching always shows people the point of life, and it’s Jesus! And our “appropriately intimate” friendships back this up. Where “single-minded service” is more attractive than sharing your life with another human being; and where being single in ministry is seen as an advantage not a hindrance. And most of all, this really great church rejoices in suffering and every member learns how to see thorns as the path to grace.
   
I’m piling this on because Ed does. Ed knows and I know and you know that this kind of church isn’t often plausible - and I’ve belonged to big churches and small churches and know that size or lack of size is no guarantee of any of these qualities. And if we need all these things to line up before a lifestyle becomes “plausible” - we are saying it’s not very plausible very often.

Now don't get me wrong - I agree with a lot of the things Ed values. As Ed works through this list of issues, I often find myself disagreeing with how he gets there theologically or how he enforces his viewpoint across the board, but I live most of this stuff. 

I’m happy to be called ‘gay’, but he’s right - it’s not my root identity: that’s in my life with God. I will never have my own family, and that’s OK - I pastor churches; Ed’s right, I have so many members in my family, so many folk I’ve been privileged to draw to faith and nurture, and so many wonderful folk I’ve been nurtured by. When I left the last church I was vicar at, I knew it was important to really leave and let go of everyone so that I didn’t hang around and (without meaning to) cast a shadow over the wonderful chap who followed me. But letting go of that congregation was leaving home for me; I had to leave my family and couldn’t look back and it hurt. And I also get what Ed is aiming at when he points out that things that the world says make us happy matter not one bit next to trusting God. That’s how I try to live. 

I could keep going through Ed’s list - 

But the whole thing is a big ask. It presupposes a pretty amazing Christian environment for the ordinary person in the pew. And as a church leader, I’d say I’ve not always had that. So I’m just cautious about its realism as a life-programme for every gay Christian.

3. More Sex, Vicar?
In this book, Ed presents marriage as being about sex. Honestly, I find myself surprised at quite how focussed his emphasis is. 

Now, as I’ve said, I’m an Anglican vicar, so is Ed, so I’m presuming that he reads the introduction to the Anglican marriage service as much as I do. And sex gets mentioned there - openly in one version, and in the words “bodily union” in the alternative. But it’s a mention, and then there’s lots of other things marriage is for. 

Time and again, Ed’s emphasis on sex as (what often seems to be) the only point of marriage gets the better of him and of his theology.

“We can’t make marriage anything but the permanent sexual union of a man and a woman without undermining its central purpose of pointing us to the passionate consummation of God’s love for his people.”

Marriage is about sex because heterosexual sex (within marriage as the focus and point of marriage) points to the ultimate union of Christ and his Church. 

It’s not that this is wrong; it’s just not enough. It misses so much - for example, how deep human relationships demonstrate our made-in-the-image-of-God-ness, and how marriage is an exploration of the divine gift that is our humanity. 

Of course, Ed talks of acting on his same-sex impulses by discovering more of God’s love for him (a wonderful and completely unworldly comment, when most would think one might just hold another’s hand). It's a throwaway comment that shouldn't get lost. But he also writes: “I once Googled the word ‘intimacy’ and found the images to be 99% sexual”.

Of course I did the same after reading that. I’d be interested to discover what you find - there are sexual images there, so be warned. But most were images I wouldn’t put in that category. Holding hands. A couple standing watching a sunset. Various kisses, many of which I would label 'gentle', ‘loving’ or ‘affectionate’ but not ‘sexual’; those also are there - as I say, be warned. I guess what counts as "Sexual" is in the eyes and mind of the beholder. 

For a book about sexuality, I feel at times its terms of reference are hazy, but its general trajectory is clear. An image of holding hands is "sexual". We hear Ed's freely confessed occasional self-loathing for sexual desire. And the definition of the opposite of celibacy we are given is "self-indulgence". I might gently want to question this journey. 

Complicated

My point in raising these three issues at length rather than doing a chapter-by-chapter review of Ed’s book is this: 

When we discuss the issue of how Christians think and talk about being gay, it’s complicated. On paper Ed & I have a lot in common. But everyone has a background, and we reveal it more than we know in how we write as well as what we write. 

Ed’s book reveals to me a theology that yearns for the past, without facing up to that past. I agree with him in many of his observations on contemporary culture, but I’d add this: thus it ever was. Neither the world nor the church have ever been perfect, and if it used to be easier to encourage young Christians struggling to live with their sexuality to “stay true”, it wasn’t always because they’d been convinced by a Bible Study. There is a value in openness even if it’s an openness we then have to deal with. The truth shall set you free.

It reveals to me, as someone who has spent most of his ordained life away from the vigour of large-church life that understanding the context most people face is complicated. Even where I disagree with Ed’s theology I’ve lived the life he commends, and often it’s been the things he points to that have helped. Often. Not always. And being a leader with a compulsion to serve and good people ready to be there for you makes a heck of a difference - as Ed has experienced, though if he acknowledges that his status might just have helped his journey, I missed it. My apology. 

And, in what will be my biggest departure from Ed, it’s not all about sex. Being gay and wanting to share your life with someone is exactly the same as being straight. It’s about sharing a deep, committed, exclusive relationship with another that is a means of grace, a holy mystery, giving yourself to another throughout your life and being united in that love as Christ is with his Church. It’s about comforting and helping each other, living faithfully together in need and in plenty, in sorrow and in joy. It is about love in all its forms, and that includes sex. But sex isn’t just sex. For the Christian even that joy in the here and now is about strengthening the union of hearts and lives. Sharing life with another brings the possibility of nurturing others; children; for love isn’t selfish. It’s not about hiding but about a life in the community, a life that all should honour, an undertaking that is breathed into being reverently, responsibly, thoughtfully and prayerfully. And that's not self-indulgent, it's self-giving and holy and a Biblical calling.

Ed sees celibacy as “a gift you automatically have unless it has been replaced by the gift of marriage”. I’m with Jesus, St Paul and most of the church’s history in disagreeing with that line. A spiritual gift is a spiritual gift, not simply a label. I’m not sure I have that gift, still less sure I’d want it. And it’s not because I fixate on sex; well, not always. It’s because one day I’d like to know all of the above paragraph with someone. 

A Grace-Shaped Space

And yet, I read Ed and know his struggles and understand where he comes from. Ironically though my theology allows for the possibility of sharing my life with someone, I’m absolutely content as I am. I don’t have Ed’s “kitchen floor” moments where he very frankly describes “the acute pain (he) sometimes feels as a result of not having a partner, sex, children and the rest.” Not any more. I used to make myself ill repressing who I am, and God in his kindness has led me through those dark days. 

But I hear his words and they resonate with me. Someone who knows so much of life from my side of the fence deserves me to listen to them, whether I end up agreeing all the way or not.

In the end, as I read the book, I found myself marking my copy for all sorts of things where I felt Ed missed an issue or targeted an Aunt Sally or overstated something or just got it wrong; and I marked my copy for phrases that really said something well, and for questions that need more thought, and for honesty. Not that personal stories make everything right - Ed himself points that out. 

Ed Shaw has a ministry and a life in Christ that is blessed by God and which blesses others. What unites us is more than what divides us, and as we continue to talk about issues where we disagree in the church, it’s fair to ask all these questions - in the context of acknowledging one another as belonging to Jesus. If you want to read a contemporary conservative evangelical theology on the issue, this isn’t a bad place to start. He asks questions, gives answers, has a world-view and lives out what he preaches. 

For this is a grace-shaped space, and the disagreements we have will never be solved by name calling. Kindness and time to worship together and a little more conversation will remind us all we love because God first loved us. And our Heavenly Father loves us still, even if we’re struggling to get on right now.

Now how's that for pushing plausibility? Yet I believe it.

Monday, June 29, 2015

the difference between having a dream and living one

I've been fascinated by the phenomenon this weekend of all sorts of people registering their support for the Pride movement by changing their facebook profile pictures to have a rainbow filter.

I guess it's felt like a momentous week. The US Supreme Court finally ruled in favour of Equal Marriage, and it's always good to celebrate when US citizens catch up with people in Wales.

I've watched the facebook thing, liked various people's pictures, and not joined in.

In fact, I've found it hard to get excited at all about an issue I'm often quite passionate about.

Why?

Because this week I finally caught up with the movie Selma, a film about Martin Luther King and the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The montage at the end takes us from the horrors of what King and his associates and fellow protesters endured and shows what many of them achieved. But I watched it this week.

The week when a callow white youth sat in a Bible study group in a black church in South Carolina and shot nine people dead just because he was white and they were not. Where President Obama spoke - and sang - at the funeral of the pastor and commented on the pain of seeing the State Flag & the US Flag lowered to half mast over the South Carolina capitol in Columbia, but yet the Confederate Flag stayed high.  

Gay rights and the American Civil Rights movement are different beasts; but they have several things in common. They look to change the rules of society so as to make equal those regarded as 'less' by people in power. They look to change the institutional understanding of the way life is - that some are naturally more privileged than others - and fight to show that all are equally human.

And they are not enough. Neither movement. Neither group. Neither can achieve the fulness of their aims by passing laws and taking away physical barriers and officially enabling the servants to eat with the masters.

They are not enough because a kid with a gun - or a website or a shed load of money or a political will or whatever - still has the power to destroy. All people are created equal under God but not all get to live that way.

I'm not celebrating this weekend because as I look at it, the fight for equality amongst people is a long, hard, slow, relentless battle that keeps on keeping on. Equal marriage has been legal in my country for a little while now, but there will remain for years people who protest its invalidity. The folk who feel uncomfortable with it are pretty numerous, and not restricted to the Daily Mail or Reform. In my church, ordained ministers have received episcopal 'guidance' which forbids us from marrying under its provisions. I have personally heard senior diocesan bishops apologise about this, but any bishops who stand up publicly and say what they think about the 'guidance' apparently receive calls for their resignation. That's a conversation for you.

A conversation - in the church, where people should be more raised up, more equal, more whole, more loved than anywhere. And if it's like that here - it's no better anywhere else. Don't kid yourself. Our arguments may be heated, but they tend to be formal and superficially polite. That's not always the way of the football pitch, the playground, the office, the street corner.  

Having a dream is one thing; but living it (as Dr King knew all too well) is a costly thing and it means that we don't get to wake up from it. We don't get to turn the rainbow off our profile picture after Pride weekend passes, and we do get to take the flack for it. We live with it because it matters, and because it matters we keep on keeping on.

And we spot the moments in others' journeys where we stand shoulder to shoulder and pray together and understand. And keep on.

Oh yes, we rejoice on the good days. But for the rest, we pray, we weep, we work, we believe. People are people, by the grace of God. And one day it won't be a temporary victory to say so.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

irrevocable

I'm at the High Leigh conference centre in Hertfordshire for a four day gathering of church leaders from Oxford Diocese. The conference is entitled 'Leading Your Church into Growth', LYCiG for short. I'm here with Richard, lay reader in my Benefice, and we are leading worship through the week.

One of the main speakers is the very wonderful Robin Gamble, whom I got to know when I was in Leeds. He is vicar of Idle, neighbouring parish to Calverley where I lived for two years. We met up occasionally during that time, and his kind and wise words were important to me.

But High Leigh has a different memory for me.

I knew I'd been here before, but I couldn't place when - until I stepped outside at the back onto the garden area and suddenly I remembered.

When I was at Wycliffe, Simon Downham used to organise ordinands conferences with the staff of Holy Trinity Brompton. Sandy Millar, Nicky Gumbel & others would teach, encourage and pray with a whole host of us as we prepared for ministry. I first met Ric Thorpe at one of these times, and first learned how to lead worship from him.

The memory that came back to me as I stood outside here at the start of this week comes I think from the Easter break of 1993.

I was almost at the end of my time at Wycliffe Hall, and had no curacy to go to. All my friends (pretty much) were sorted, but I had nothing. I was doubting myself, doubting what I should be doing, trying to remain calm as the end of my Oxford time came rushing towards me, brakes off, and I had nowhere safe to jump.

Nicky Gumbel took me to one side and briefly prayed with me. He told me I'd be OK. And he said I needed to remember some words of St Paul from Romans 11.29 - "The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable".

Well, I was a humble sort of guy, obviously, so I stood quietly receiving this wisdom, thinking to myself: "Typical charismatic. He's making up Bible quotes. That verse doesn't exist in Romans or I'd know it."

Then I went back to my room, picked up my Bible and turned to Romans 11.29 where I read: "The gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable".

I felt God smile at me. I apologised to God and confessed my arrogance, and sat there rather stunned. And grateful. After all, sometimes we get given gifts that feel particularly personal. Some of you will understand that my birthday is 11.29 - the end of November - so this verse spoken over me by Nicky that day has always stuck with me.

I did not walk into a curacy the next week. It took time. And those words kept me trusting. Through the years there have been times when I have doubted myself, but those words have always come back to me. Twenty two years on from the first time I heard them in this place, I am as grateful now for the simple truth of the promise they contain as I was back then.

And as a country parson who just occasionally feels that life has knocked him around a bit, it's good to be reminded.

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

Bandwagons

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!