What kind of God don’t you believe in?

15 01 2015

In a recent UK survey by the Huffington Post online news site, more than half of Britons believe that religion does more harm than good.  When you look at the world around us it’s not hard to see why, when aid workers are kidnapped and beheaded in the name of “God” and random acts of terror are planned for the same reason.

I use the word “God” with inverted commas for a reason.  I’ve often found it helpful to ask people who are aggressively atheistic what kind of God they don’t believe in.  Quite often the answer is one who causes wars and persecutes people who don’t conform.  I reply that I don’t believe in that kind of God either.

Which is how this connects to Christmas.  So often in the stories of the birth of Jesus we get so hung up about whether the miraculous bits really happened that we lose sight of the most astounding thing of all.  Unlike any of the other great world religions, Christianity tells the story of God as one who identifies with human beings to the extent of becoming one of them (Muslims find even this  beyond belief) by being born as an utterly dependent baby, in a poor family who shortly became homeless refugees.  The Victorians have done us no favours by sentimentalising Christmas.  Matthew and Luke tell us a story which is only too recognisable in the harsh world of the Middle East today.

The very claim that this is not just the birth of a prophet, but God in person coming into the world tells us immensely important things about God.  A God who identifies with the weak and helpless is not a warmonger or a persecutor, and that means that anyone who claims to be a believer in this God cannot be either.

Religions are not all the same.  Any faith which stirs up violence is not walking in the ways of the God revealed in Jesus.  Any believer who uses their faith to oppress others has ceased to follow Jesus at that point.  That kind of religion is harmful and people have seen too much of it. They need to see something different.

Truth matters, and Christmas reveals the deepest truth about who God is and how we are to be.  So for that reason,

Happy Christmas!


Remembrance Past And Future

22 11 2014

Remembrance Sunday this year will be a very special occasion as we mark the one hundredth year since the beginning of what became the First World War.  It should give us great pause for thought, not least because we are currently involved again in a very different kind of war in the Middle East.  The guns may fall silent at 11am in Europe but they certainly will not in Iraq.  We also find ourselves in a political debate about the future of a European Union which was originally designed precisely to prevent the kind of wholesale carnage we saw twice in the 20th century.  We would do well to remember that.

For Christians this act of remembrance leads us in two very different directions.  On the one hand it causes us to revisit the whole question of when violence is ever justified.  The currency of the term “just war” has been much devalued – a war is not just simply because a politician says so.  On the other hand the Bible seems to recognise that sometimes the only way to restrain a greater evil is by force – and ISIL do not seem willing to speak any other language.  But behind that lies a deeper and harder question.  What, as Jesus once asked, are the things that make for peace, and how can we be the kind of peacemakers whom Jesus said God would bless?

When we look at the Middle East we need to avoid simply taking sides, and instead to ask what are the deep seated hurts and injustices which fuel the brutality that we see.  People are not born as masked killers.  A long and avoidable series of steps lead them to that point.  To paraphrase an older political slogan, we need to be not just tough on terrorism but equally tough in engaging with the causes of terrorism.

The Christian calling is also to model reconciliation.  How can we do that when different streams of Christianity are still so slow to put aside their differences?  How can we do that when individual Christians are sometimes so reluctant to let go of their personal grudges and conflicts?

How do we change the world?  We do it one person at a time, and it starts with ourselves.  It’s important to remember the past.  It’s also vital to remember that we make the future by how we act now.

Best wishes


Connection Quality

26 10 2014

The internet is a wonderful thing – when it works. I’m in the process of changing my service provider because I’m fed up with emails randomly disappearing and servers losing contact for no apparent reason. (Yes, Talktalk, I’m talking about you!)

Quality of connection is everything and that’s why I talk so often about Christian life, mission and ministry being all about helping people to connect more deeply with God and connect God with the whole of life. This autumn offers a number of different ways to do that.

We start with Prayer 24 on 5th-6th of September. Prayer is the most important expression of our connection with God. As we’ve discovered over the past three years, having a specific time and place dedicated to prayer seems to help us all to pray more effectively. You might think that signing up for an hour is huge commitment but I promise you that if you come along it really won’t feel like that. If you haven’t taken part in previous years do give it a try.

A week later (Friday September 12th) we have the launch event for our latest Alpha Course. The Supper Party really is literally a taster, and one of the easiest things you can ever invite a friend to. It’s simply a dinner with friends featuring a ten minute presentation of what Alpha is about. There’s no pressure to go further unless anyone wants to. Please do think and pray about who you might be able to invite. It could be the beginning of a new connection with God – as it has been for many other people already.

Finally I’m looking to create some new opportunities to connect with God by linking up with each other more often outside of Sunday services. See the article about new midweek groups in the Ascension section of the magazine, or if you’re at St Mary’s try the “Life” group on Thursday mornings, or ask Steve about starting something on an evening.

My hope and prayer is that there is something here for everyone. I hope we’ll all get a better connection with God and each other this autumn.

Best Wishes


Lent Sermon 2 (Audio)

1 04 2014

Pete HarrisRecording of Sermon given by Pete Harris on the third Sunday before Lent (14mins).

Lent Sermon 1 (Audio)

23 03 2014

Simon ReedRecording of Sermon given by Simon Reed on the second Sunday before Lent (25mins).

Live deliberately

10 01 2014

This time last year I looked ahead to what lay before us as a Parish in the year ahead.  It’s good to look back and see what has been achieved.

In April Steve Macbeth, and his wife Lisa, joined us as Community Minister at St Mary’s.  In the eight months since then we’ve seen our new church facilities expand their usage with Age UK setting up there, two new weekly coffee mornings for the local community, and a Payback team improving the site still further.  The two big projects go live this month – a new West Twyford Parent and Toddler Group at St Mary’s, and the long-awaited restart of a parish Christian group for teenagers, headed up by Steve and Lisa.

In October we celebrated at last the ordination of Pete Harris, officially recognising him as Minister at St Mary’s and filling the gap in our clergy team which has existed since 2010.  It’s no coincidence that with Pete taking on leadership at St Mary’s and freeing me up to concentrate again on the Ascension, we have seen growth in numbers at both churches in the past year.  Whatever you may still hear in the media about Christianity in this country being in crisis, or people saying that both our congregations are made up largely of older people, IT SIMPLY ISN’T TRUE!

Our current Alpha course is the liveliest I can remember.  One of the people on it has just taken first steps into Christian faith, having grown up with something very different.  Her personal motto is “Live deliberately,” and I believe that fits perfectly with what Christian faith is all about.

Jesus did not come to give us a spiritual insurance policy for when we die, or crutch to lean on when we feel we need a bit of help (although he does do both of those things).  Instead he came making the controversial claim in both words and actions that God is the true ruler of this world and he calls us to come and live deliberately under that rule.  Jesus knew from the start that this would involve sacrificing his own life in the most horrible way in order to take responsibility for the evils which pervade all creation including us.  Jesus assures those who follow him that their sins are forgiven by God and they are loved and accepted as they are.  He also calls them to live lives of sacrifice, dedicated to following him.  Before us lies the gift of a New Year – let’s choose to live it deliberately as Christians.

Happy New Year!


God in the ordinary

6 12 2013

The most important thing about the birth of Jesus is not precisely how, when or where he was born, but that he was indeed born.  Only two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke, give an account of his birth.  Mark and John may have chosen not to because they did not think it was that important, and the rest of the New Testament supports them because not a single bit of Christian teaching is drawn from the infancy accounts.  Nor did the early Christians start celebrating Christmas until the third or fourth century!

And yet these strange stories have a gritty ring of truth about them.  Some say they are just fiction, written to fit the prophecies of the Old Testament, but they’re not like that.  The fit isn’t good enough.  Instead Matthew and Luke seem to relate these odd events and in them spot echoes of these older books which they then highlight.

The most striking fact though is the way that the birth of Jesus is all of a piece with the rest of his life, and in that way turns upside down our preconceptions of what God is like.  The “wonder” of his birth is not the shared parental feeling of a new life safely delivered, but rather the circumstances in which it happens.  If the idea of God entering the life of the human race is not startling enough (and ask a Muslim if you want to know how disturbing that idea is), then take the fact that he is born in poverty, nearly destitute, and by the age of two is a refugee in a foreign country fleeing from a murderous regime.

This same child grows up to confound expectations by taking the high ideals of the Ten Commandments and lifting them to an even higher level, whilst saying at the same time that the kingdom of heaven is for the crooks and the whores and the irreligious drop-outs – the very people who are least likely to be able to live up to these ideals.  He then confronts the political and religious powers knowing full well that they will kill him, saying that in doing so he will take upon himself all the evils of the world including theirs, and overcome them.  Which he did.  Three days later.

Jesus’ life declares that you find God not in some sanitised heaven but in the grit and the grime and the graft of daily life.  Christmas just marks the beginning of that.  It’s worth a party or two – but come and learn how to find God in the ordinary the rest of the time.

Merry Christmas!