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!

Simon





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!

Simon





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!

Simon





November Letter

9 11 2013

November begins with All Saints Day when we remember our ancestors in Christ who have gone before us.  Without them, the exceptional and the ordinary, we would not have a Christian church today.  Celtic saints like Patrick, Columba and Aidan left their homes to travel and bring the love of God to others.  16th century saints risked death to change oppressive religious structures.  18th century saints like John Wesley took on the establishment to bring faith, hope and a better life to ordinary people.  The church of the past encourages and urges us to face the challenges of being the church now and in the future.

Last month I saw a bit of what that future might look like.  My book Creating Community has created interest in the wider Christian world and I was invited to speak at an event in Swansea, South Wales.  The missing generation in many of our churches is the 18-35 age group and the younger members of several Swansea churches have got together to do something about that.  “3” is an experimental event which happens three times a year.  There are three speakers, three discussion slots, three performing artists and it ends with a three course meal.  The big idea is “to engender a creative environment in which to challenge, stimulate and explore what the church of the future might look like.”  It seemed to be working as there were about 75 people there.  Here are a few things I noticed about a church event which is successfully reaching younger people.

* Technology.  There was a professional quality sound system and three screens.  One in three people in the UK now uses an e-reader.  High quality sound and vision in our churches is not a luxury but an essential.  One of the “speakers” was actually a video blog by a teenage girl sharing her experience of experimenting with different forms of prayer.

* Participation.  People didn’t just come to be talked to (though they soaked up what I had to say).  Each talk had space for discussion and response.  One of the screens was to allow people to post instant comments and responses via Twitter.

* Creativity. The main music was from a professional DJ.  He used pre-recorded sound loops of rich atmospheric ambient music, over which he played live.  This provided a setting for spoken meditations on passages of Scripture with words and images on the screens.  At the end you could hear a pin drop.

* Hospitality.  The “church” was set up with tables, chairs and sofas.  There was a café offering tea, coffee and cake all afternoon – very good cake, produced by a local social enterprise project.  There was quality without extravagance in everything as befits a Costa Coffee shop culture.

And although this didn’t call itself church, that’s exactly what it was – there was worship, prayer, Scripture, teaching, togetherness, and in the middle of dinner we broke bread and drank wine to remember Jesus.

Our churches have great riches from the past but to be faithful to the Gospel we also have to discover the riches of the present time and culture.  “3” is doing that.  What can we do?

Best Wishes

Simon





Prayer – mysteriously essential

9 09 2013

There is something ultimately mysterious about prayer.  The Bible makes huge promises about the benefits and the effectiveness of prayer.  “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 4:6–7).  “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”  (John 14:14).  On the other hand we all struggle with the contradictions and sometimes sheer pain of unanswered prayer (brilliantly explored in Pete Greig’s semi-autobiographical book God On Mute).

Prayer maybe mysterious but it is also essential.  Somehow it really does make a difference.  As Archbishop William Temple famously put it, “when I pray, coincidences happen, when I don’t pray, they don’t happen.”  He did not say this lightly.  Before becoming Archbishop he was an Oxford academic, and as Archbishop he had to deal with the ethical issues of the war against Nazi Germany and spoke into the social and political debate about how to build the post-war society.

At the heart of prayer is the Lord’s Prayer which asks for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth as in heaven.  Whenever we see poverty, violence, injustice, greed, selfishness and ignorance of God, it is obvious that he is not reigning in Christians is not only to do what we can to change things but also, and even more importantly, to ask God to intervene.  I have never forgotten meeting some Burmese Christians when the military regime there was at its worst.  We asked  what we could do to help.  They asked us to provide for the needs of their refugees in any way we could, to join in any kind of protest on their behalf, but above all – and they stressed that they thought that this was far and away the most important thing – we should pray.

For the third year running we are going to recommence our church programmes after the summer break with 24 hours of unbroken prayer.  By committing ourselves to this chain of prayer we are demonstrating to God that we take seriously the words of Jesus that “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).  We are also doing our part in the coming of God’s kingdom by praying for his will to be done in our churches and in our neighbourhood.

At the heart of the mission Jesus gave us is helping and inviting others to connect with God.  Three years ago our Alpha course had almost ground to a standstill.  People outside the church simply weren’t coming.  After the first Prayer 24 weekend in 2011 we saw an increase in newcomers to the course.  The 2012 course which followed the second Prayer 24 brought one new member into the church and since then we have seen many of her family come too.  Coincidence?  Seems to me it has something to do with prayer.

Best wishes

Simon