Monday, February 28, 2011

born again

Last night we had a lovely service here at St Catherine's. We worshipped God in song and word and prayer. The format of our evening service is kind of vaguely based around the CofE's Evening Prayer, but I do mean vaguely, with quite a lot of contemporary worship songs and the odd hymn thrown in, and in keeping with the size of the congregation we are usually led by a single guitar or keyboard.

I preached on Revelations 4, and picked a verse in particular that I used to show how God reveals himself as the God who keeps his promises, who honours the humble, who never forgets, and I took stuff from Genesis, Exodus and Isaiah along the way to help us see how the picture was built up. We worshipped Jesus. It was gentle but rather moving.

There was a visitor present. Someone I did not know. I spoke to him afterwards. He came from another church, and having seen us worship together, having prayed with us and dwelt with us in God's presence, and having heard me preach, he asked me:

"Are you born again?"
I kind of wanted to ask where had had been for the last hour and a half. What he had heard. What he had seen. But I was quietened by a gentle voice in my ear, so I simply smiled and said, "Yes". He pressed me - he wanted a testimony, the story of my conversion. I told him of how I was invited to the school CU by a friend, and how that lunchtime changed my life. This satisfied him. I passed the test - I had the right language, I said the right things.

O God, how terrible we are. We all do it. We see others and point the finger, but we all do it. Right now, the blogosphere and twitter are filled with people passing comment on Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins. Is it going to be the best thing ever, or total heresy? Respectable writers have trashed Rob Bell without having read a word of the book. Rob is here in the UK in April, and I hope to hear him speak on the book. I look forwards to reading it, and to his views on what the Bible says about heaven and hell. I have no idea whether I will agree or not! But I look forwards to listening.

Last year, I was told I was to hear one of the top ten preachers in the US, and rolled my eyes. Then I rolled up to chapel at Asbury Seminary with little expectation, and found myself moved and deeply struck by the words of Tom Long. He has recently published a book on funerals. Accompany Them With Singing is simply brilliant. Phenomenally Christian, well written and with a profound sense of resurrection godliness, this is an essential book for anyone who takes funerals. I wish I had had it fifteen years ago.

Why do we judge others so quickly when God has made us all so wonderfully? Just a little time, and a bit more grace... We might discover that the words we use, the code we demand, the lenses through which we delight to see this world are not the only God-given gifts. And don't get uppity with me; if anyone of you for a moment is thinking "but I see the world through Scriptural lenses" the problem is - that man who came to St Catherine's last night does too. But couldn't see Jesus all around him. The Bible is too big for my eyes to see through all of it at once; kindness allows that my neighbour may also have Scripture vision - though from a different page. And rolling with the kindness, well, it may take us places where we end up shaking our heads; or it may bless us beyond.

Monday, February 21, 2011


It's always a pleasure to renew friendships, even when there has been no time at all lost in the inbetween of life. Matt Truelove is a young guy who was a part of our youth group at St Catherine's, and who has now found more people his own age (and a girlfriend) in another local church so we don't see so much of him here these days. But when I do see him, it's always a pleasure. You may remember that three minute portrait of me - he did that; and he filmed my old Do You Not Know song a couple of months back. Actually, further back, if you are one of the 11,296 (and counting) people who have watched my MGQ boogie-woogie take on Chris Tomilin's Forever, Matt filmed that too.

Which is kind of embarrassing, because frankly, Matt Truelove is one of the best singer songwriters I know. He has a wonderful, yearning voice that has an amazing range, and his songs are simply beautiful.
Click and listen to his song Your Love - it could simply be a love song, or it could be a wonderfully intimate worship piece. I asked him to sing it as the latter at our Carol Service. I'm listening to it again as I type this - just beautiful, and "live" it was even more amazing.

Speaking of beautiful... We had Cafe Church last night, and I talked Matt into coming back to St Catherine's and joining with me for the evening, leading worship alongside me, and singing a few songs solo. I must say it was a real joy to play together - musically & for the spiritual kick of it. there was a genuine sense of understanding in what we were doing, and I took a great deal of pleasure from that. When Matt was a lot younger, I gave him a few pointers in playing for worship; he has learned well, and I know all of us benefitted from his maturity. One of the songs he then chose to sing alone was Phil Wickham's Beautiful. I took out my iPhone and videoed it. Here it is.

Afterwards, a few of us went for a drink, and then Matt & I chatted some more. Friendship renewed and deepened. It was a delight & a privilege having him here, and I look forwards to more of the same down the road. My Sunday was made quite special by the chance to worship alongside someone I have known for ages & whom I have grown to trust and respect.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

a thing of wonder

So I went to Die Fledermaus at Welsh National Opera tonight. Great. Great orchestra, good singing, fun evening. Soprano didn't have all the high notes. Enjoyed it. Excellent seat. Fig ice cream in the interval.

And I got an email that I think ends a long running saga and will sort out an issue that needs sorting out.

And OF (the training I do in the park) was fantastic all week, with this morning feeling like Spring is on its way. Good bunch of people - I so enjoy being with them.

But that's not the photo. In the Manchester Derby, Wayne Rooney scored a wonder goal. A wonder goal because of its skill. A wonder goal because of its intuitive audacity. A wonder goal because people have been moaning about how he's not the Rooney of old - and that's the way to silence critics. A wonder goal because context is all, and big matches deserve big goals. A wonder goal because it won a good game decisively and defeated a team that had been on the up.

Fast passing movement, a flick out wide, a good pass into the centre, and Rooney launched himself up & over into the kind of bicycle kick that almost never works. But this did.

A night out at the Opera. A problem solved. Sunshine & warmth after the cold & the wet. A wonder goal at Old Trafford. I have a smile on my face & gratitude in my heart. God is good.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

give my regards to Mr & Mrs Broadway

There are few occasions in life quite so celebratory as the wedding of friends. One of the joys of the job is that I get to stand before them and guide them through these life-changing moments. It's not only the rather inspiring though often sad gate-keeper stuff I do as people prepare to walk from this world to the next, it's the glorious and wonderful joining of two persons into one. A moment beyond comprehension. A change that flies in the face of reason and which stops the world with its beauty.

Yesterday I stood before Mark & Bianca Broadway and took them through these moments. I saw their faces and their hearts, and heard their promises and their desires. I watched their hands and their futures take hold of each other and for a moment was awestruck again at how wonderful a God we have that grants us lives like these.

My 74th wedding at St Catherine's, for the record. It's moments of note were:

1. The fastest ever walk down the aisle by a bride in the history of the world. She was ready. The bridesmaids, well, they caught up eventually.
2. A seriously weepy father of the bride. Seriously.
3. We had Ephesians 5.21-30 as one of the readings! No, seriously! Mark chose it. I pointed this out, and then took the chance to preach on it. I've never preached on this passage before in any context.
4. Lovely jugs of water on the tables at the reception to go with the wine - which turned out not to be water but gin & tonic. Caught many people out. Rather pleasant.
5. They are from the West Country. This meant that at the evening do, the dancing was, well, far more men than women. Not common in these parts, I can tell you. Or perhaps these blokes just enjoyed dancing.
6. Facebook update from someone on my table: "I'm on a table with the vicar. How strange." Then later: "It's OK, we're talking movies."
7. Had a lovely conversation with one of Mark's friends late in the evening. His version, apparently: "Tried to pick an argument with Marcus: he seriously whooped my ****."
8. Actually, I must say, I had a great time with everyone - Karl, Robin, everyone at my table during the afternoon, the very many folk I chatted to during the evening, it was about the friendliest wedding I've been to in ages. Which reflects M&B perfectly.

And it has been my total delight to help out Mark & Bianca as they have worked so hard to prepare for this day. We did everything we could as a church to make it work for them, including putting on the afternoon reception in the church hall. Today, I found them in there clearing it all up, and I drove them around as they had all kinds of things to do & helped move chairs around & sort stuff with them. Mark starts a new job tomorrow, so no honeymoon for them. We will hit the pub quiz later in the week. If we win, he & Bee will take the prize.

Though frankly, on a day that was low on razzamatazz but high on value, they both already clearly have the prize, and prize it highly.

Friday, February 04, 2011

muscular liberalism

So David Cameron has come out of the closet. He is a muscular liberal. In a speech this weekend he espouses "muscular liberalism" as the acceptable way forwards for a complex 21st Century British Society. Multiculturalism, with its "you do your thing & I'll do mine" is dead. There are certain things we all have to hold dear.

What are they?

The Telegraph report says the following:

Entering the debate on national identity and religious tolerance, the Prime Minister will declare an end to “passive tolerance” of divided communities, and say that members of all faiths must integrate into wider society and accept core values.
To be British is to believe in freedom of speech and religion, democracy and equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality, he will say. Proclaiming a doctrine of “muscular liberalism”, he will say that everyone, from ministers to ordinary voters, should actively confront those who hold extremist views.
He will also warn that groups that fail to promote British values will no longer receive public money or be able to engage with the state.
 Three things:

 1. This is printed in the Telegraph as a swipe at extreme Islam. But it is aimed at "all faiths". Just this week there has been an attempt in Parliament to make the Church of England accept women bishops on equality grounds. Fair enough, but Parliament and secular thinking shouldn't ever have the power to set the faith or practice of any church (even if they are right). "Core Values" are tricky things, after all. Mr Cameron's and Mr Miliband's aren't quite the same. Ask Mrs Miliband. Oops, you can't just yet. But they will be married soon.

2. "To be British is..." complete this sentence and post in to BBC Broadcasting House etc etc. In the US it would have Mom's Apple Pie in there somewhere. And guns (depending where you live). Here it's the NHS or Foxhunting. These "rights" of course don't actually exist, so nice trendy additions are easy to put in there. I like his additions, and I'd put them in myself - and of course they are there because he is arguing against intolerance. Liberalism versus Extremism. But then he might as well say it's more British to be Middle Class than poor or posh.

3. Agreed. If people refuse to accept British standards, they should not have access to State funds. Absolutely. Unfortunately this is so open to abuse I regret it enormously. Secular Fundamentalists (who will embrace the "muscular liberal" tag) will seize upon this as an opportunity to refuse all State money to any religious group. They'll seize upon anything to achieve that end...

And yet... He's right, even if he's walking a dangerous road. Any faith that is about building up communities of love has to be about building together, not seperating. We have our distinctives, but in a common society we are not ringfenced ghettos and should not try to either portray ourselves as such or make ourselves such. There are core values in a society, and when we in the faith communities can work with them (even when they are "the Spirit of the Age" and not exactly to our own taste) we should. We are community builders par excellence. Cameron's call is for faith communities not to sit to the side but to play a full part - we are to embrace this.  Freedom of speech for all is surely vital (and unquestionable), and it is not just those of an extremist Islamic background that suffer clipped wings here. Evangelicals who disagree with the standard harsh line vocal members of their religious party preach on sexuality simply stay quiet - it's safer. Respect is about being able to discuss all things without fear, and Cameron is talking about that freedom as a core value. Tick, as far as I can see, and as far as I can see, most religious communities struggle with this somewhere. Freedom of speech isn't the same as licence to be disrespectful - to say stupid and angry things, but it is to allow openness and thoughtful debate. Questions grow faith.

So I am ambivalent. I agree with his call for people of faith to work together and to play a full part in society; but fear any society that would limit my faith (and therefore any faith) from setting its own path by saying it is "unpatriotic", and by having power to change that definition at will.

That indeed is muscular, but not very liberal.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

ploughing through

Do you know that feeling when you have run seven times up and down a hill in training and there are still two more repetitions to go? The fast guys have lapped you and the pain is unbearable and the trainer stands at the bottom and you cannot - CANNOT - carry on, but you have to?

Or when you are skiing, and the rest of the group want to do a run that just terrifies you and you can't back out now? It's too late. You're on the chair lift. There's no going back. It's 3pm and this would have been hard at 11.30am but right now with a whole day's leg work on the mountain, this is too TOO much. No turning back.

Or when your mate asked you to help out with a performance he was organising, and like a fool you said yes - only to discover that the music he put in front of you was way - WAY - beyond you, but now you can't let him down. Muscle memory. Come on fingers. Muscle memory. You can do it. Keep on, keep on, keep on.

Completing a grants application is a bit like that. It's both far too much, soul destroying and mentally defeating, and at the same time - there is this element of actually enjoying reaching the summit, knowing you're not there, but you are going to get there if it kills you. It may. It really may. And yet the buzz of the deadline, the thrill of the sums of money you are dealing with, the passion of the cause that lies behind it all, something kicks in and you plough through.

And then there are certain life goals. Things you set yourself. You won't settle for less. You always settle for less. Not this time. Not going to allow the old reset button to kick in and go back to the old familiar. This time I am making a brand new start... Oh, the temptation to stop, to rest, to let seven reps be enough, to skid not ski, to fudge not play, to let life be OK and not (for once) live it to the full.

Ploughing through or making do? Eyes on the goal. For the hope of the joy set before us.