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Stebbing, Great Dunmow, Essex, United Kingdom
The occasional blog of an Anglican priest in rural Essex

Sunday, 23 August 2009

I'm happy hope you're happy too

Someone texted the BBC:

"Ricky Ponting, Shane Warne, Donald Bradman, Crocodile Dundee, Merv Hughes, Skippy the bush kangaroo, Kevin Rudd, Jason Donovan, Rolf Harris, Kylie Minogue, your boys took a hell of a beating!"

If you remember Norway beating England (at football) all those years ago then that text is funny. If not, well, just enjoy the moment.

The Snoopy quotation I was after online the other day was
"It's not whether you win or lose, but how cool you are"
Of course, that bit of googling was going on on Friday afternoon when Broad was devastating the Australian middle order, so (being an eternal pessemist when it comes to English sporting achievement) at the time I hadn't seen the score and so I was expecting us to lose, but in a cool way.
For me the highlight of the Ashes is still Strauss' good sportsmanship in allowing the Aussies to substitute their injured 'keeper after the team sheets had been declared, when he could have made them play with 10 men early on in the series. That was cool.

collecting my thoughts about Libya and the US

This is the collect for today, Trinity 11

O God, you declare your almighty power
most chiefly in showing mercy and pity:
mercifully grant to us such a measure of your grace,
that we, running the way of your commandments,
may receive your gracious promises,
and be made partakers of your heavenly treasure;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

And here is the full text of a letter from FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, III, to Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill.

Now, I have many friends and acquaintances on both sides of the Atlantic who were profoundly affected by the Lockerbie bomb. Some lost relatives, some knew their home town would never be the same again.

I also have some friends, acquaintances and family who have worked or are working in the prison system in England and in Scotland. It seems to me therefore in my limited understanding of this thing that the release of Al-Megrahi is being processed and interpreted by at least two different cultural mindsets and two different legal systems, which by implication may reflect two different understandings of God, his compassion and our calling to reflect that compassion in our attitudes.

The Scottish Justice Minister has replied to Mueller's letter stating (among other things) that compassionate release is part of the Scottish justice system, but that it is not part of that of the USA. Scotland can scream as loud and long as they like that this release was done in accordance with the rule of law. The US will never understand that because for them the rule of law means something very different, and given the propensity (not universal I know) for the death penalty, something a lot less compassionate and merciful.

Let's face it, if Mr Al-Megrahi had been tried and convicted in the States it probably wouldn't be cancer that killed him, but a lethal injection or an electric shock.

As for the "hero's welcome" he received, we would do well to remember the media-driven crowd-pulling affairs that occur at any airport when anyone of any repute is arriving. Then we can add into that equation the unpopularity of the States in Libya and the middle east generally.

Then again, the US doesn't tend to give heroes' welcomes to those who return from overseas action - from Gary Powers the downed U2 spyplane pilot (whose family had to wait 40 years to get his medals) to the (perhaps exaggerated by Stallone and co) rejection of Vietnam veterans, to the ungreeted caskets of dead US service personnel flown home during the Bush era from Iraq, so no wonder they disapprove of a few dozen enthusiastic family and friends and some enterprising flag salesmen the other night at Tripoli.

And one more thing, Al-Megrahi did not perpetrate the bombing of PanAm flight 103 (see, I can even write that without looking it up) alone. He is most definitely a scapegoat, and scapegoats are usually prized for their effectiveness in assuaging the guilt of those who are supposed to stop this kind of thing happening. Isn't that one of the reasons the English legal system struggled with the release of Ronnie Biggs?

I (?we) understand power to be properly exercised in showing mercy. Mr Mueller and possibly even Mr Obama seem to understand power to be properly exercised in shows of strength and bullying, and in the throwing out of the pram of toys when things don't go their way. Dare I say that ++KJS and the ECCUSA shares that understanding ...

Friday, 21 August 2009

that's me in the corner [if cricket was a religion!]

I was looking online for a quotation from Snoopy that I once got in a birthday card a long time ago from an ex-girlfriend, which is going to be the basis of my post - Ashes post next week, and I found this. Enjoy

I am 79% loser. What about you? Click here to find out!

I can't be that much of a loser as I have at least managed to get the embedding code to work (kind of)!

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Vicar's letter to the readers of the village magazines, September 09

Dear Friends,
Did you know that Christian discipleship is like Horse Whispering?

If you are now thinking about Robert Redford and Kristin Scott Thomas, whoa there! I’m talking about the real horse whisperer, Monty Roberts, who is world famous and even trains the horses of Her Majesty, the Queen. To get to the point of this illustration I need to give you a bit of background.

Monty Roberts grew up as the son of a horse-breaker in the desert of the Southern USA. His father’s method of training wild horses was to tie them to a post and scare them until they submitted to his control. Monty watched his father, and the wild horses, and he noticed two things; firstly, that his father was using essentially the same method to bring him up, and secondly that there was a better way of communicating with horses.

He observed that a horse wishing to join a herd went through a long process with the dominant mare of the herd, which amounted to a series of invitations and challenges, communicated with movements of the head and body. These invitations and challenges, Monty realised, could equally well be given to a horse by a human. He imitated the gesture and posture of the horses and found he could very quickly get them to trust him and relate closely to him. Apparently the longest it has ever taken him to get a saddle and rider on to a wild horse is 16 minutes.

So what’s that got to do with Christian discipleship? Well, firstly we need to acknowledge that in the past the worldwide church has behaved like Monty Roberts’ father in scaring people into submission and obedience. I want to assure you, if you still had any lingering doubts, that we don’t do it like that any more! God is not a horse breaker; he is a horse whisperer, giving us loving invitations and gentle challenges through life, to draw us into close relationship with him. Just as Monty Roberts effectively became a horse to communicate with horses, God became a human in Christ so that he could show us how much he loves us.

And secondly, the church now functions as a whisperer, not a breaker. I hope you know you are invited – to come and be heard, to come and be part of something. Yet, if all we ever did were invite people, we would just be a cosy huddle, instead of a vibrant community of faith. Invitation then goes hand in hand, in church life as in horse whispering, with challenge. What do I mean by that? Well, people who’ve been church members all their lives are still on a journey of discovery, learning more from day to day, week to week, about God and what it means to be a Christian. That challenge is open for everyone, no mater whether they’ve never been to church or have been going for 90 years!

Invitation and challenge; we are aiming for a careful balance between the two, because if all you ever got at church was challenge, you’d soon be discouraged, but if all you get is invitation, you’d soon be bored. But with the right amount of both, the result is an empowered Christian community, on a journey of discovery together.

I look forward to journeying with you this autumn


Concerto for a rainy day

Finally getting round to reflecting on the teaching and worship at New Wine LSE. I've been whining about the weather for long enough and something has got to distract me from keeping looking at the cricket score today!

I spent the mornings in Venue 2 which is smaller and louder but more relaxed and informal than Venue 1. I liked the fact that normal people, not just New Wine leadership team members, are deemed suitable to pray at the beginning of each session. Mike Breen was the speaker all week. He was reflecting a lot on discipleship, comparing it usefully to Horse whispering (you'll have to download the talks, or read my steal) and giving some really good insights into the significance and typology of the Abrahamic covenant, relating the story of Isaac's "sacrifice" to the sacrifice of Christ and saying some helpful things about the whole PSA debate.

Mike speaks with humour and with speed, but is entertaining enough that when you disagree with him (as I did about bishops) you don't get too cross and keep listening.

In the evenings I joined the herd at Venue 1, which had a variety of speakers. Amy Orr-Ewing was very good, though not exclusively because she was a woman under 50 on the stage at Venue 1 in New Wine (next step an ordained woman - come on you people!)

Michael Duncan blew me away with his testimony and his challenge to men to "step out". I haven't gone forward for prayer at New Wine for about 5 years - that day it was twice - once in the morning at venue 2 for over-burdened ministers , once in the evening at venue 1 for men. Mark Melluish said something very significance during the build up to the prayer ministry following Michael Duncan's talk.

He said (quoting as I remember it) "It's not very politically correct, but I think a lot of women have been waiting for this for a long time, I'd like only women to pray for these men as they come forward". The significance of this, in the light of various debates about New Wine's attitude to gender roles and ministry, is that women were freed to pray over, prophesy over, and speak with authority into the lives of men. OK its not quite the same as the ordination thing but for me it was a significant shift, and it was liberating.

Mark Melluish also spoke very movingly on the last night about the events in his family following his son's serious head injury earlier in the year. This was also a significant evening, touching as it did on issue such as the tension between what happens when God heals and when he doesn't, as well as giving a challenge to our middle class comfort zone when it comes to sharing faith in multicultural environments like ITU family rooms.

The worship this year was also good I enjoy Eoghan Heaslip (aka Shaka Hislop because I can never say his name right) and Kathryn Scott made a nice change. Matt Redman's looking a bit chubby these days but can still cut it, and also in venue 2, Bill Donoghue and Nick Herbert woke me up well in the mornings.

I didn't go to many seminars this year as I spent more time networking and drinking free coffee in the Leaders' Lounge, but I wasn't going to miss "Building an Outward focused church" led by Alan Scott from Causeway coast vineyard. It was ace, and once you've translated "vineyard" to "Anglican" in the cultural references, it was most useful. The most challenging thing he said in the light of the fact that we've just put together our vision statement, was that "If no one is leaving your church, your vision statement is too broad". I guess I'm ambivalent about the Vineyard tendency to say "if you don't like it you know where the door is", but sometimes I wish I could say it!
Other highlights included the good old Groundbreakers family celebrations, and my daughter on stage with the New Wine kids choir. And of course staying up late in the gazebo talking with the gang.
Next year we might try Newark, to see if we can tempt a few more of this lot to come.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Eat what you're given

This was my sermon today, on Ephesians 5, 15-20 and John 6, 51-58.

It is a strange but nice co-incidence that as we are adapting to the imposition of a different way of taking communion, the readings this week give us the opportunity to reflect on drinking wine, and on the theology of communion as a whole!
The beginning of Ephesians chapter 5 reminded readers that they should be imitators of God (Ephesians 5.1) and offered practical advice on living in the body – the church. This passage is in the same vein. It offers two contrasts – between foolish and wise behaviour (vv. 15-17) and between being filled with wine and filled with the Spirit (v. 18).
For the Ephesians as for us Wisdom contrasts with the foolishness of the godless environment that is the world around us. Wisdom here is more about a whole attitude to life in Christ than an abstract concept or intellectual achievement. The core value of wisdom is that Christians should not wander aimlessly through life or behave as if they were in a moral stupor. There was for the Ephesian church a constant danger that Christians might be fooled by the attractions of the present age. The times required people to be cautious.
In one sense, nothing has changed. I wonder how much we differ from our neighbours who are not sitting next to us this morning. Do our lives from Monday to Friday reflect what we do and say on Sunday? I suspect they do, but we might not even be aware of why this is. There was in the early church a belief that evils increased as the end of the world neared –Mark 13 is an example of this. Wisdom was to be gained and accessed through discerning God's will (v. 17). The church is the principal means of carrying out this task of discernment. Yes, the Spirit speaks to individuals, and yes, the Bible or a hymn or poem can inspire the individual, but the Church (with a capital C to show I mean the universal church, not just our church) is the filter and sounding board and thinking space for these things.
Today there is also a feeling that things are going off the rails. Fed by media stories of crime and violence, of assisted suicide and of economic meltdown, it is sometimes hard for us to avoid thinking that there is an increase in evil in our world. Even in the Anglican Church things are looking a bit shaky; yet I am confident that in the Church of England at least, the corporate discernment of God’s will is still underway.
Paul’s second contrast in this passage is about alcohol, and about self-control, but the text continues to address the difference in moral attitude between the Christian and the non-Christian. Being filled by wine and being filled by the Spirit might both lead to singing, but there was and is a difference – in the first instance the alcohol is in control, in the second, it is the Spirit, when the Christian allows him control of their life. We have a glimpse here of the worship of early Christian communities who continued to sing the psalms of their Jewish heritage and added hymns and spiritual songs. There is no reason to suppose that the purpose of these verses was to address problems relating to the common meal of the community. They are making a pointed contrast rather than a targeted point. The note of praise and worship at the end of this passage is an important counter-balance to a view of wisdom that is worthy and dull. The wisdom that threw a party in the passage from Proverbs is the same wisdom that discerns the will of God.
Our second reading however is of course much more directly about communion. In the readings from John 6 set over the last two weeks, we have seen the unfolding of Jesus' understanding of himself as the bread of life, not just in a symbolic way, but in the flesh. We have also seen the desire of the crowd to keep the discourse about real (in their terms) bread so that Jesus would repeat his sign of feeding them. Now they were discussing how anyone could give their flesh to be eaten (v. 52). It was probably a heated discussion. What did Jesus mean exactly? Was this cannibalism – a charge frequently levelled against early Christianity? As people familiar with the Lord's Supper, Communion or Eucharist, we may be so familiar with the idea of eating the body of Christ that we find it difficult to understand how offensive this might sound to others. We can also become acutely aware of how entrenched our attitudes can become, to things like the cup, the nature of the elements and so on, or even about whether or not we should partake. This is one of my favourite Bible passages, and I would not be exaggerating to say that studying it totally transformed the way I understand and experience the grace of God in the Eucharist. However, I will try in what follows to avoid too much self-indulgence.
In John 6, verse 51, Jesus re-emphasises his claim to be the bread from heaven. Everyday bread has life-giving properties and the only way to get that nourishment is to eat the bread. In the same way, the only way to receive the life-giving potential of the bread from heaven was to eat. Does that mean we can’t truly be Christians unless we are communicants? That’s a tough question, and I would like to answer it gently and deliberately so as to challenge, but not exclude.
First a bit of background; John’s gospel dos not have a last supper account, as the others do, from whence we derive a lot of our communion theology, along with 1 Corinthians 11. Chapter 6 then is the main source of Eucharistic theology for this gospel. In it Jesus clearly identifies himself with the saving provision of God in Israel’s history – the manna from heaven. He also prophetically identifies himself with the elements of the Passover meal that tell of Israel’s deliverance. Thus far, we are in the same territory as the other gospels. John 6 is a little bit more mystic, yet we should always read it in the light of the other three.
Read in isolation, and without care, it can appear that this passage indicates that salvation is achieved through the consumption of bread and wine as body and blood at communion. That would be the conclusion of some scholars who understand this text to be a later insertion to justify and explain the origins of the Eucharist in the early church. However, we need to return to that concept of corporate discernment of God’s will; as a whole, the message of Scripture is not that salvation, our identity as Christians, or even our capacity for relationship with God, is a matter of eating and drinking bread and wine. It does say that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus’ sacrificial death and glorious resurrection. Church practice entails that this faith is expressed by, but not entirely defined by, our participation in the Lord’s Supper.
Having said that, there can be no doubt that the eating of Christ’s body and the drinking of his blood are central to Christian faith and practice. In Church history there has always been a graduating tendency whereby the child, the newcomer or the new convert are gradually drawn into the Eucharistic fellowship. That is not to say (even if the impression is sometimes strongly given) that the catechumens – to give them their traditional name – are in any way less of a Christian than someone who’s been taking communion for decades. Let us remember that at the Last Supper, the denier and the betrayer shared the bread and the cup. It is therefore dangerous to presume that we know who should and shouldn’t take communion. Children, occasional attenders or people who for whatever personal reasons have decided not to take communion, are not a lesser part of the church.

What I think I’m trying to say then, in answer to my own question of a few minutes ago, is that not taking communion does not exclude you from being a Christian. However, being a Christian is about a journey together, towards God in Christ, and we as a church express that journey in our worship by partaking of the body and blood of Christ in the communion. We understand communion in the Anglican tradition as being among other things a means of meeting with God and receiving his grace, a means of reviving and encouraging our faith, and ultimately as an act of worship we were commanded by our Lord to do, in anticipation of his return. The Eucharist does define us, but I hope never in an exclusive way. So I hope to have fulfilled my promise not to exclude anyone; here comes the challenge.
John Wesley, when he was an Anglican minister, called the Eucharist “a converting ordinance”. His heart was strangely warmed by the exposition of Scripture, as I expect ours are too. Yet my heart is warmed by communion. I am so blessed to be your priest because I get to preside here – we all celebrate communion, let’s remember, I am just the president. My heart is warmed because it is where I meet with God, it is a big part of how my faith grows and is sustained, and mostly because I therefore know how much God loves me even though I do not deserve or understand why he should. Let’s be clear that you do not have to fully understand how communion works to be part of it; if that were true, none of us would be able to take the bread and the wine. Neither do you have to be perfect or even nearly so to take the bread and the wine.

I am blessed by those of us who come but do not partake; I just want to say that if ever anyone wishes to change their status from non-communicant to communicant, I would be equally blessed;
“Live not as unwise, but as wise, making the most of every opportunity …”

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Wild boys never chose this way

We're back from France again. Went to the same place as last year, so I won't bore you with the details. This year was enhanced by hotter weather ( a definite improvement on the mudbath of New Wine, the theological content of which I will get round to posting about eventually) and children old enough to entertain themselves for longer thus leaving me and the missus with more time to read, relax and eat the local fayre, although I definitely do not recommend the tripe!

You know that thing where you say to your kids "Go on, eat up", well I wish I'd never said it after ordering "tripes a l'ancienne" only to discover it tasted like old socks and (possibly because it was a little too "ancienne") had a disastrous effect on my digestive system.

We also took in a local leisure facility called Cap Decouverte which I would thoroughly recommend if you're ever in the area.

Things I did on holiday I'd never done before (or not for a very long time anyway)

1. Eat Tripe (see above)

2. Ride a penny farthing (see photo)

3. Read an entire non-fiction book that wasn't about Theology or sport.
It was "Savage Girls and Wild Boys" by Michael Newton and I found it both moving and fascinating. It is about feral children through the ages and goes from the legend of Romulus and Remus through the medieval wild children of Europe to Kaspar Hauser, to awful stories of modern abuse of children locked away from human contact ( It was written before Josef Fritzl's abuse came to light).
I was interested in it initially because one of the cases was relatively local to where we were staying; then my background in linguistics kicked in (Newton quotes the first books on linguistics I ever read "Transformational Syntax" and "The Articulate Mammal").
Finally my passions were aroused because I just wanted to shout at the author "They have autism!" I know that's a bit of a generalisation, and it doesn't apply to the children who were abused, (except Kaspar Hauser) but the cases Newton examines mostly concern children who have little or no understanding of human language or social interaction, and are discovered living wild with animals. The experts attribute their lack of understanding of human social communication to the fact that they have lived in isolation or with animals whose social communication they do understand. Newton then reflects philosophically on what it means to be human (as opposed to simian/animal) concluding that it has to do with spoken language and "souls" - a useful term he uses to describe the treatment some of these kids went through is "soul murder".
However, having become something of an Autistic Spectrum nerd over the last 18 months (I have a son recently diagnosed as being on the Autistic spectrum and there are at least 2 other kids in our churches on the spectrum - don't get me started on undiagnosed adults), the descriptions of the children just kept pointing towards autism; thus an alternative view might be that far from developing these strange habits while living with animals, these kids had them when they were abandoned and/or rejected by their families and communities - indeed they are the reason they were rejected in the first place.
Any parent of a kid with ASD will know the frustrations that come with that; hundreds of years ago it was acceptable to ride into the woods and leave an unmanageable child there. Being human is a much more inclusive activity these days.
If anyone else out there has any helpful things to say about this I'd value them

Sunday, 2 August 2009

O Lord, the clouds are gathering

This shot was taken the night before we arrived at Shepton Mallet for New Wine 09. We always camp at Wincanton Racecourse, in order to make an earlier start on the Saturday, without havign to get up too early.
New Wine was great in terms of content, but muddy and wet in terms of weather. I will post on the things that impacted me most when I return from France in a few days, but for now just let me say it was good to connect with a few bloggers, including Jody and (briefly) Fibrefairy.
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