Sunday, May 25, 2008

Ask and you shall receive

I read a blog (following a link on a friend's blog) this weekend asking what questions you'd like to ask in church but daren't.

It made me want to cry.

Some comments in answer to the blog were bitter, some were bitchy, some were crude; most were simply honestly wanting to be real, seeking the reality of life and faith and fearing they weren't allowed to do so in their church. O, as a pastor and a teacher that hurt more than anything.

Whilst I was in the States, one of the churches I visited had a programme where they had forms you could fill in and hand over so that the preacher would address any questions the congregation raised. He gave five minutes at the end of his sermons to answering a couple of issues this way every week. Not every problem can be answered this way, but some can, and this process well handled (and he dealed with it excellently) seemed to me to encourage a culture of asking questions - treating them as the friend of faith.

So I have put a box at the back of church, and forms for people to fill in. They can put their name on the forms, or fill them in anonomously (though I ask them always to indicate which service they usually attend so I can try to answer at the service they are most likely to attend). I may use the question within a sermon, or I may take a couple of minutes after a sermon if it's appropriate. I promise to answer as well as I can. If someone isn't then happy, they should simply put the same question back in the box - I'll get the message. And I will never disclose who asked, even if they do put their name on the paper.

I don't want anyone from my church having to write on such a blog. And that may be blindly idealistic of me, cos some people will always have things they would never say openly, but in the family of our church, my prayer is we can really be open and really learn, and I can really find out what people want to know and teach into that - especially if it means I have to do some learning along the way.

And yes, even by the end of today, the first day the box has been out, there is the first paper in there, and it's a fantastic question: "Jesus is the 'son of God' so why say 'Jesus is God'?"

You want my answer? You'll have to be at one of my 11am services soon!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Here's that sympathy I promised...

Which is why I am in pastoral ministry.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


As I wrote here, "one more game to make it a great" season.

Make that a champion season, as they say where I grew up.

Here are Derek, Matthew, Aled, Matty & I waiting for the Champions League final to start tonight. All United fans. The invitation to the Vicarage only went out to United fans - no Chelsea followers welcome here this evening, though clearly they were in our prayers: for defeat and consolation following defeat. You see, it's both judgement and compassion we see in action.

I felt confident United would do it. 2-1 in ordinary time. Wrong.

And as we hit the end of extra time, with penalties looming, I felt very bad. We all did. Chelsea have an inevitable machine-like quality to them - and a far better goalkeeper.

Cut to our celebrations on winning 6-5 after the shoot-out was done. Ronaldo, our 42 goal superhero (yes, another wonder goal in the first half) missed his penalty, but Edwin Van Der Saar, our weak link, saved the final Chelsea spot kick and won the Cup for us.

How glorious that it was one of our least likely heroes that won the day. How salutary. How perfect.

How perfect. Being a football fan is for moments like these - whether it is the MK Dons you follow, and promotion up to League One provides it, or Fulham and escape from relegation does it, the emotional release that comes from the victory of your tribe is a primal human joy. Probably fundamentally a male joy, to stereotype.

Losing is unbearable. Tomorrow I will give my Chelsea friends a thought. But tonight the joy is too much: the TV in the background is proclaiming it loud and clear.

And I feel champion.

On the hoof

Wednesday morning, again.

I preach unprepared not because I haven't bothered, but because it is a discipline. Three readings, set by the lectionary, and then the congregation gets to choose which one I explain for them.

Bible exposition in its rawest form. I have to know my stuff. I have to be able to explain anything that they want to know. I have to enjoy preaching the word, to love teaching the Bible. They love setting me the text.

This morning, they asked for Isaiah 40.12-17, 27-31. I know, I know, but that's what the lectionary does - bleeding chunks. So I started with a reference to Gill's Sunday morning sermon: Trinity Sunday asks us to look at the whole of God, which is a big ask. But if all we see is the bigness of God (vv12-17) we haven't seen the whole of God, for in vv 27-31 we find the Creator who touches the weak and gives them strength.

The transcendent God who becomes immanent.

Which are big theological words for the Mothers Union: so I found myself retranslating and, on the hoof, describing the pleasure, the wonder and the paradox of these verses as "the God who is really huge is also the God who is really here".

And then he was. In the silence, in the awe, in the midst of those dear, dear people with all they face, we waited upon him and felt ourselves soar awhile.

Monday, May 19, 2008


For Trinity Sunday, I decided to choose the wisdom option: get other preachers in. That way, the inevitable heresies that fly out of pulpits across the land on this day of all days would, at least, not come from my mouth, and I would just get to look intelligent and thoughtfully concerned should any of my flock notice a stray extra-biblical doctrine float its way towards them. I'll include photos of all three preachers who were at St Catherine's yesterday.

Speaking of which, I had two wonderful friends to hand. Last year Gill Tuck, our pastoral visitor, who I have heard too many times proclaim that preaching isn't really her thing, gave the best Trinity sermon I have ever heard - but it was at our evening service, so most of our folk didn't hear it. This year, both morning congregations got the full benefit. Using all sorts of images and pictures which by themselves are insufficient, she piled layer upon layer of trinitarian illustrations on top of each other, till she found all of them helpful and none enough - the Trinity is best known, best experienced, best found in love. And her conclusion was lovely.

In the evening we had the wonderful Aled Edwards, OBE, Man Utd fan, chairman of Cytun, North Walian and evidently shark hunter.

He took us on a journey through John 16, perhaps the two most poignant moments of which for me were his story of going on his son's stag weekend (and that's where the shark comes from) - and yes, that was poignant: I'm not sure how many Dads go on their son's stag weekends. The love between father and son that would make this work is quite something. And then he gave us a comment from an African friend - "you have watches, we have time." Just as I had been thinking about the length of the service.

I fear that people want to go home and do something else, and I often am guilty of not letting us spend enough time with the Spirit at the end of a service because I am somehow programmed into not overrunning a time limit I have invented.

And the Lord gently reminded me that he will take time with us - and that when it is him taking time (as opposed, I suppose, to me just wasting time) no-one minds. Certainly, last week we overran at everything and there were no complaints, as everyone waited to be filled with the Spirit.

So after Aled had spoked, we took time to wait on God, to worship, to pray, to bask in his presence, to allow him to work in us. It seemed to pass in an instant. The service started at six, so I was totally shocked when I looked at my watch and saw it was twenty to eight!

By the way, Aled has a great blog; have a read through it - it's lots of fun!

* * *

Oh, sorry - you were expecting a third picture? The third preacher was me (substitute, unused). Look again at the photos above and you can see me! No, not in a shark costume - that's my hands holding Gill's birthday cake a couple of weeks ago. It's chocolate: do you think I'm letting go?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Gentle Spirit

I thought we should mark Pentecost this year at St Catherine's by making sure I offered everyone the opportunity to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

It seemed seasonal.

So I did it in a good Anglican way. "If you want to be filled with the Spirit, bring your communion booklet with you up to the rail as you come to communion & we will pray a special blessing over you" (- for those of you who realise what I'm up to, you'll see that I'm planning to call down the Holy Spirit and lay hands on anything that moves at this point -) "before giving you the bread and wine."

The only flaw in my plan was this: when you ask if people are hungry, and they are, they all want to be fed. And feeding takes a while.

I mean, they all want to be fed.

Well, at 8am perhaps only two thirds. And at 11am only three quarters. And at 6pm we did it differently, cos there was no communion, so I gave them no option, and called down the Spirit on the whole gathering.

But a small part of my tiny brain was blown when we had 100% take up at the Mothers Union service on Wednesday morning. One of them took hold of my arm afterwards and said: "It worked! I felt the tingle!" Not the deepest theology of the Spirit you'll ever hear, but THIS IS THE MOTHERS UNION being filled with the Holy Spirit.


Another, rather middle-of-the-road member of the 11am crowd came up to me mid week and said, "That was a wonderful service on Sunday morning." And I am thinking to myself of how we have changed the service since I first came: she is one of the very few still standing from those days (others have migrated to midweek cos of buses, or have moved away, or have passed on; a very few have stopped coming). In the old days there was old-style language, plainsong chanting, chanted psalms, organ only, full robed choir, the vicar robed too. Last Sunday we had a relaxed communion, with bits of modern language liturgy, me in a suit & my fellow clergy (Gill) rather less formally dressed than me, music from our music group, a mixture of worship songs and hymns (from 'Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord' to 'Come Down O Love Divine') and prayer for the Holy Spirit - yet the comment came back from this person, "That was a wonderful service."

It was! But she meant - God touched her.

So it really was wonderful.

The photo is of our Easter Congregational Meeting: time to look back at all God has done over the year behind, and to look forward to all he is about to do. My prayer is - More Lord. Please! More of you in this place.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


I like the way the dog has finally got the hang of the Premiership.

At first, when United would score and I would jump up, pumping the air with my fist and shouting "Yes!" he would run away, looking extremely distressed. After a season or two he stopped fleeing, but remained perplexed.

Now he joins in, jumping with me and barking vociferously.

So as we celebrated Ronaldo's 41st goal of the season (41st? And this from a team which was criticised back in August as lacking an out-and-out goal scorer. Just think what we would have done if we'd have had one of those) in the first half, and a career-celebrating and championship-deciding goal from Giggs on his record-equalling 758th appearance for his only club in the second half, again I briefly reflected upon the Lord's goodness in granting me a house fifty yards away from my nearest neighbours.

We're a team, Matty and I. And we both enjoy the triumphs of our beloved Manchester United. It has been a good season. One more game now to make it a great one.