Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

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30/12/2015

Good Tidings of the Human Jesus

Below is the sermon I gave on 27th December 2015, known as 'Quiet Sunday' for some in the church as it tends to attract a low attendance. At Oldham Unitarian Chapel, the numbers were actually slightly up on the Christmas Carol Service the week before.

The sermon below is probably one of the most classically Unitarian I have given to date. For those well-versed in Classical Unitarianism / Unitarian Christianity, you will see William Ellery Channing's influence - indeed, I have borrowed directly from his sermon, 'Jesus Christ, the Brother, Friend, and Saviour'

We included the 'Nativity Story in Cross Line Drawing' at the start - a beautiful video that helped settle us into worship. The service also included a reading from Alfred Delp, reflecting on the character of the shepherds - how they worshipped with a simplicity and honesty that lead to openness.

Adoration of the Shepherds, Pupil of Rembrandt (1646)


~

Christmas Day has been and gone once more. A day devoted by the majority in this country to present giving, feasting and time with family. 

As I discussed last week, the Christmas season is a development of festivals from other traditions. Christmas most likely draws on the Jewish festival of Hanukkah and the story of the Persian deity Mithra – mixed with the natural instincts of peoples living in the northern hemisphere to celebrate the passing of the darkest day and the coming of daylight.

I put it to you last week that this festival does not necessarily have to be a compulsory part of our religion – but it would seem, even in these modern times, we still seem to have an inclination to turn our thought and hearts towards ancient Bethlehem. An inclination that goes beyond conformity, an inclination towards experiencing that divine love we call God.

We read in the Gospel of Luke that famous passage, “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."

For most Christians, the good tidings of great joy reflect their understanding of this event as a unique point in history – the coming of God into world in the deity of Jesus, who is understood as a co-equal member of the trinity, the God who is one and three – father, son and Holy Spirit. Such Christians are in the majority across the world and we call them 'Trinitarians'.

I know many Trinitarian Christians, as I'm sure we all do, and I certainly cannot say their faith is any less in quantity or quality than ours. I have also encountered a number of Unitarians who say they can accept Trinitarian language as mystical poetry, as something to meditate upon - and I would count myself as one of them. 

Yet, having said all this, we Unitarians don’t subscribe to the Trinity as a defining creed. Instead, the traditional Unitarian understanding is to focus on Jesus as a human being who became our master teacher and exemplar. I repeat, became – the implication been that there wasn't necessarily a great act of predestination here.

So can we Unitarians feel the same great joy at this babe lying in the manger? After all, at this point he is simply a newborn – not necessarily a blank slate, but certainly lacking the character and capacity of a fully grown prophet, and from our Unitarian perspective, most probably not a deity.

The question might be answered threefold.

First, the very act of a baby being born is a miracle. The birth of Jesus was the result of a successful pregnancy. The pregnancy depended on his parents, Mary and Joseph, surviving long enough in their own lives to conceive a child. From there, the ancestors of Mary and Joseph might be considered – 100s of generations of strivers and survivors working to bring about a new creation, with all its possibilities. 

The birth of Jesus is a miracle, just as each of our births is a miracle. The emergent star of Bethlehem, set against the backdrop of a seemingly dark, empty universe - a void - is a symbol of human life as a whole. And at Christmas, during a time of darkness and dormancy in our natural surroundings, we can experience simple joy in being reminded of this wonder of life – behold a child is born.

Second, we can rejoice at the fact that because Jesus is born, we have a saviour who is not sent down to Earth from the clouds of Heaven, breaking the laws of nature, in some one-off act of God - but rather that this saviour is ultimately just like us.

It is the doctrine of many Trinitarian Christians that Jesus existed before his human birth as a deity. And therefore it is of great joy to them that he chooses to enter planet earth. But we Unitarians generally do not subscribe to this. Instead we take joy that our deliverance was clothed in humanity, not partially but fully. The flesh of Jesus was the same flesh as ours, he was born of a man and woman, nursed in his mother’s arms, and he experienced the life of a child, a teenager and an adult. At a basic level, he experienced the same experience as us in terms of being a free, self-conscious species growing and acting in a world which we are shaped by but also have freedom to shape.

The power we find in the stories of Jesus Christ is brought nearer to us because he is human, just like us. He experienced the wants, desires, passions and sensations we experience – both positive and negative. This Jesus figure is made all the more precious and compelling because he shares the same condition, because his self-realisation - his life infused with divinity - is within reach of all of us.

If we frame him as a supernatural being – as a heavenly stranger - can we say with the same confidence that he connects with our condition – and we with his? But as our kin, as our brother, as our friend, the life of Jesus – a life of goodwill - becomes something we might dare to strive for ourselves. We probably will not reach his stature, but we can journey on the same path towards it.

It is stressed by Trinitarian Christians that Jesus is Immanuel – which means 'God with Us' – and therefore we should accept him as a unique manifestation of a God out there coming down for a short time to here. But to borrow the words of James Martineau, 

“The incarnation is true, 
not of Christ exclusively, 
but of Man universally, 
and God everlastingly.” 

The way that the human Jesus felt God in him and all around him – to the point he declared God in intimate terms as ‘Abba’ – is something available to us. There is great joy to be found in this.

Third, joy can be found in that Jesus is born into the lowliest of circumstances - cradled in a manger. The manger was likely to be dirty, smelly, cramped place - not the sort of romantic place we see on cards. We can look upon this situation with sympathy – ‘oh dear, poor thing’ we might say. We might even want to turn our heads away and pass on by, as we sometimes avert our eyes to television ads of starving children. But amongst all of this there is joy to be found.

The manger in the story of Jesus is significant. Yes, it is humiliation, it is discomfort. Yet we know that amongst this kind of misery there often grows a seed of peculiar strength. The manger is a precursor to Jesus’s mission to the poor and marginalised, culminating in the event of the cross. We can find great joy in knowing that out of the first trials of the manger grew the man they called Christ, Word made Flesh, Son of God, Light of the World, Prince of Peace... Saviour. Would this coming of age have been as great had Jesus been born in a palace? No, there is something dangerously joyful in the circumstances of his birth - unsettling and inspiring at the same time because it points to the depth and breadth human potential, and what that potential could be directed towards.

Friends, the nativity story is multi-layered, it is rich in symbolism – parts of it were likely added in the aftermath of Jesus’s death as his followers attempted to make sense of him – as they tried to place him in the reality of their world as they saw it, to locate him in the legend of humanity as they knew it. Yet the nativity story is also real - it is real because it encapsulates reality.

There is a time and place for deeper analysis, for critical thinking, for scepticism even, but we can almost become too clever – during this season, let us find the simplicity of the shepherds. Let us draw inspiration from the story of a successful and highly symbolic birth, the beginning of a life lived purely for the common good and the fact it arose out of such circumstances. 

These are indeed tidings of joy - tidings of comfort and joy.

Amen.

21/12/2015

Love to the World

Blog posts have been few and far between recently. I feel I have much to report and reflect upon, having been immersed in local politics these past few months alongside the challenges of the day job. Finer details about these things will have to keep for now - I am inclined to think they will just filter through rather than become standalone pieces of writing. 

Christmas is now upon us and I've been called to help my good friend, Bob, with services at Oldham Unitarian Chapel. I am taking services for three consecutive Sundays which is certainly not something I have done before. Below is the sermon from my first service, taken Sunday just gone (20th December). The readings were 1 John 4:7-16 and a shortened version of Eberhard Arnold's 'Where love breaks in'. I should also add that the sermon was inspired greatly by the writings of John Lindell.

~

Here we gather today for our Christmas Carol service but I want to ask you - why are you here? 

We are pretty certain Jesus was not born on the 25th of December - or at least certain enough to say that it could have been the 25th of December just as much as any other day. 

What many people also do not know is that "Advent” and “Christmas" are based on traditions that are centuries older than Christianity. As the Christian movement ventured out into the diverse cultures of the Middle East and Mediterranean, the movement encountered traditions which were both adopted and reinterpreted through a Christian lens.

In ancient Persian culture, the deity called "Mithra" was the "god of light" whose "birthday" was celebrated on December the 25th. Similarly, in Judaism, the holiday called "Hanukkah," or the "Feast of Lights," is observed in December, commemorating the Jews' uprising against their Greek-Syrian overlords in 168 BC and the renewal of their religion - symbolised in the re-dedication of the temple. 

In the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean, there was also a tradition of miracle births being ascribed to their leaders – there were many sons of Gods. It is likely that the miracle birth story was borrowed by Jesus’s followers after his death to give him extra prestige, to raise him up alongside figures such as Horus, Mithras and Perseus

From history we also know that there are two times of the year instinctively celebrated by human beings in lands north of the equator. One is in the winter, in December - the other is in the spring, around March or April. From their observation of nature in the Northern Hemisphere, human beings recognised that the longest night of the year occurs in December. After that night, the hours of daylight increases. This natural cycle came to symbolise the "coming of the light" in various religious traditions. A fatty, energy-rich feast around December also helped preserve our ancestors until the first crops of early Summer.

So, to speak plainly, it seems the time of year we call "Christmas" which celebrates the "birthday" of Jesus who is called the "light of the world” is actually, at surface level, little more than a mish-mash of borrowed mythology - matched with the ancient customs of peoples living in a time where the winter darkness and hunger, without electricity and supermarkets, was keenly felt.

So I ask you, why do we persist with Christmas? Is it just because it is something we have always done? 

I ask this also in light of research which shows the family and financial pressures of this period can actually have a negative impact on people.

A Samaritans worker has been quoted as saying:

“Christmas can be a poignant time, bringing issues people face all year round to the surface, and can leave those normally strong enough to cope, struggling to do so.

"I listen to people telling me that they're alone, or that they've recently lost their partner, or that they're in huge amounts of debt.

"And it's even harder to deal with because it's Christmas, and the expectation that everyone is having a good time. It's so important that we're able to help these people through the festive season.”

So, if Christmas is all based on an inaccuracy and has the potential to inadvertently cause swathes of people to feel low, why do we Unitarians - we proud rationalists and dissenters - uphold it? 

I put it to you today that although habit and conformity probably motivates much of our yearly Christmas, there is a deeper inclination that still exists within us. It is why we are stood here today in this chapel, rather than the Trafford Centre. It is that inclination within us to encounter that strange, stirring, warming force that seems to sit behind material reality, that which we call God – and to somehow know that force and what it means for us in our daily lives.

It is a remarkable fact that we find in the Gospels very little specific detail to the nature of God. The story and teachings of Jesus instead directs us towards considering the relationship of God to humankind, and by extension the relationship of human beings to one another. 

And it all starts with a young woman giving birth to a baby in humble circumstances. The story of mother and baby then grows into the story of a Jewish prophet to the rich and healer of the marginalised before reaching a dramatic conclusion – unique amongst all of the major religions – with Jesus of Nazareth laying down his life for his people and, in turn, becoming a universal symbol - becoming an icon which has inspired billions over two thousand years.

The great statement about God that comes out of the Jesus story is simple yet compelling: God is Love, and to know God you must know love.

The ancient Greeks, whose civilisation developed along the lines of architecture and the arts said, 'God is beauty.' 

The Romans, led by the Caesars on a thousand battlefields to victory, said, 'God is strength.' 

The Jew, inheriting from Moses, the deliverer of the Ten Commandments, said, 'God is law.' 

Yet in the life of Jesus – whether we view him as God incarnate or as a human being who had found enlightenment – the message is, 'God is Love.' 

We might not always sense this love so immediately and readily – it is easy to get caught up in the demands of our ego and that of others, it is easy to let our hearts become hardened. And at Christmas, we might well find ourselves journeying further away from this love rather than nearer to it, as we try to meet the cultural, secular expectations of this time of year. It is easy for this inclination towards something deeper to get drowned out.

This is not to say the present buying and the eating and drinking is all bad – for we see in Jesus’s own life that he was generous and enjoyed a feast. But if Advent is going to have any spiritual value, we also need to balance the merriment with reflection - considering once again the nativity story and what it means for our lives. 

Let us look at it through the eyes of Mary – the young woman who didn’t feel ready, who felt confused at her place in the world - suddenly being handed a gift and responsibility. 

Let us look at it through the eyes of Joseph – the man who wanted a quiet life, who wanted to maintain his status and respect according to the custom of the land, but was compelled to follow a dream. 

Let us consider the stargazing Magi, nobles called from their speculations to set foot on a long, arduous pilgrimage.

Let us consider the shepherds; those with the seemingly lowliest of tasks who became the first witnesses to the King of Kings. 

Let us consider the child, a fragile, seemingly insignificant moment in time that becomes an earthquake – to use a cliche, a little acorn that became an oak. 

All point towards the movement of God in the world, to the ongoing creation being worked through humanity, the potential within each and every one of us. Jesus is ‘light of the world’ because he shows us the way. Right from the story of his birth and all the way to the story of his death, he shows us the way to our truest nature, and in doing so, reconnects us through love to that deep well of life we call God. 

Let us hold onto this in the coming week, in the coming year.

Amen

22/09/2015

Autumn Renewal

Below is the sermon I gave at Oldham Unitarian Chapel this Sunday just gone (20/09/2015). The sermon was shorter than usual and formed part of a service based on a liturgy from The Community of Aidan and Hilda, a Christian group hailing from Lindisfarne (Holy Island). The readings which accompanied the sermon were 'The Parable of the Weeds' and a Rosh Hashanah reflection from Rabbi Jill Hammer.

An ancient cross at Lindisfarne

The liturgy comes under the 'Celtic Church' banner which seems to be increasingly fashionable. For some, 'Celtic Church' represents a move towards a somehow more primitive, purer Christianity - a return to seemingly better times. This is an age old tendency within Christianity that has resulted in positive developments such as the Quakers, the Unitarians, the Methodists and so on.  However, it can also lead to a false purity because the truth is, the Christianity of 2000 years ago is just that. Any renewal effort is not really about rediscovering a lost Christianity of yesterday - as one might find a treasure chest - but, rather, discovering a Christianity for today.

It has occurred to me (and I may well be wrong) that the Christianity that will survive in Britain is the more charismatic, muscular Christianity found in evangelical Anglican churches and Pentecostal churches - a Christianity that enables to people to have a robust, compelling vision and opportunity, through worship, of an energetic outpouring. But this doesn't suit all needs and personalities - and so I wonder if there is perhaps an opportunity, albeit smaller, for growth amongst those seeking a more contemplative, doctrinally-looser Christianity? I base this primarily on my own experiences of meeting Christians and the observation that Buddhist meditation has grown hugely in popularity these past few decades.

Ultimately though, it is all an experiment - and an experiment with Oldham Unitarian Chapel in particular. I am thankful that there is a congregation at Oldham willing to try out new ways of Christian worship and one that will give honest feedback - which not only helps the wider evolution of the chapel, but also helps me as a newbie lay preacher.

~

'Autumn Renewal'

This week saw our Jewish neighbours mark Rosh Hashanah, the start of their new agricultural and civil year. The celebration – known in the Bible as the Feast of Trumpets - is significant also because it marks the creation of Adam and Eve. And even more significantly, the realisation of the role they would play in God’s world. That their lives matter.

A central observance of Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn. The cry of the shofar is a call to repentance - for Rosh Hashanah is also the anniversary of humankind’s first sin. Rosh Hashanah serves as the first of the “Ten Days of Repentance” which culminates in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Despite the Jewish roots of our faith, we have little connection with such festivals. And as we enter autumn perhaps our minds are more focused on either eking out the last moments of summer – or for the more forward thinking – starting to buy bits and pieces for Christmas.

For me, I have found myself watching carefully the garden as it begins to turn. I’ve been watching with a quiet excitement the Virginia creeper I planted over a year ago as a seedling, now fully established on our fence, slowly turn red - whilst at the same time I’ve been mourning the loss of my tomato plants – still dotted with green fruits that have run out of time. Indeed, I often find it is in the simple quiet of the garden that I can almost see the presence of the God at work.

This might seem at odds with our Christian tradition with its teaching focusing primarily on our inner state and our relationship with others rather than the natural world. Yet, I put it to you that although the early Christians and their Jewish forebears did not make false idols of nature – they nonetheless lived in deep connection with nature.

We see this in the Old Testament with God’s presence represented as fire, as wind and as breath - and most obviously, as light. Similarly, in the largely symbolic stories of humankind being cleansed and renewed – such as the story of Noah – we see God’s power in water.

The Old Testament also provides practical wisdom in which the human condition is intertwined with the condition of the land. We see this in Leviticus where the ancient Jews are instructed to let the land – and perhaps more importantly, let themselves – enter a period of rest every seventh year. This of course mirrors the story of Genesis with God resting on the seventh day. And from there, there is the further instruction to forgive longstanding debts and contracts of service every 49 years – an action clearly designed to foster peace and justice within such communities. Here we see human history being ordered into forward-moving cycles, just as nature operates in cycles.

Similarly, the Psalms are rich in their reference to the natural world. We see this as soon as we open the Book of Psalms and read the first verse. Here we are told the disciple who diligently follows the path of God is like a tree planted by a stream, yielding great fruit.

In the New Testament, we see Jesus also use the pattern of nature to awaken his disciples and help them arrive at deeper truths.

In the Parable of the Weeds, the reading we heard today, we hear Jesus speak of the need to carefully separate the wheat from the chaff.

However, this is not just a psychological process – not just a case of Ancient Jewish therapy. In Mark we see starkly the power Jesus intends to work through his disciples firstly in the Parable of the Sower:

“A farmer went out to plant some seeds. As he scattered them across his field, some seeds fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate them. Other seeds fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The seeds sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow. But the plants soon wilted under the hot sun, and since they didn’t have deep roots, they died. Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants. Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted! Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.”

Before following this with the Parable of the Mustard Seed:

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed planted in a field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of garden plants; it grows into a tree, and birds come and make nests in its branches.”

Here we read that the intention is much bigger than self-help – there is a greater scheme of things, the building of God’s Kingdom.

So friends, I ask you – as we enter autumn – a season of dying to that which has gone before, what is it in each of us – as individuals, as family members, as members of this nation – that needs to be cut away in order to achieve new growth? To truly become stakeholders in God’s Kingdom?

We all have our bad habits, our addictions, our prejudices, our long-held grievances, our nagging regrets – that tendency to hold onto moments where we think “If only I had done X instead of Y, my life would be different…”

We naturally prefer the word forgiveness to the words sin and repentance, but actually these two great Christian ideas – these two practices for spiritual development - go hand in hand. I put it to you that we must embrace both. And we must accept perhaps, that they represent – as a whole - an ongoing process in our lives. A process which – like the seasons – is essentially cyclical rather than a finishable A to B route.

To continually grow, to experience the springs and summers of our lives, we must enter our very own autumn and winter periods. With reference to the long-held wisdom of our scripture – and by drawing upon the support of our little fellowship here at Oldham - we must sift our lives, we must let parts of our lives wither and die, we must work to cut out that stubborn dead wood.

We may not have the sound of the shofar calling us to repentance, as our Jewish neighbours do. But maybe - as we quietly observe the ways of autumn – the trees shedding their leaves, the once blooming shrubs retreating back to the soil, the earth being dug up ready for next year’s bulbs – maybe we too can recommit once again to our own paths of renewal.

Amen

30/08/2015

End of Sabbath

'The Siesta (After Millet' by Vincent Van Gogh

For many of us who work in education - be that school, college or university - we are blessed with long summer breaks. The same it seems also goes for many church ministers, our teachers in the temples.

I try to view my summer breaks as not simply an opportunity for sunny holidays but also as a time of sabbatical. The idea of a sabbatical quite obviously derives from the word 'sabbath', with roots in the Jewish and Christian traditions.

We read in Genesis how God rested on the seventh day:

"By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work..."

Then we read in Exodus clear instructions for Jews in their treatment of the land, themselves and others every seventh year:

"For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove. Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed."

Furthermore, we read in Leviticus that every seventh cycle of this pattern should become a 'jubilee year' in which bonds of slavery are broken and longstanding debts are forgiven. From this we can suppose the practice of sabbath is as much about 'letting go' psychologically of past grievances and regrets as it is about physical relinquishment of activity (or legalities).

And from there, although the instruction is less direct, we find in the New Testament countless examples of the practice of sabbath - both formally in the keeping of the seventh day, as the Jewish disciples of Jesus were accustomed to, and more spontaneously such as when Jesus retreats from the crowds after a busy period of ministry (i.e. Luke 5:16).  We also read in the Gospels that on the seventh day both Jesus and Paul routinely took to the synagogue to read scripture and reason with others. (i.e. Mark 1:21, Acts 18:4) From this, we can suppose the practice of sabbath is a designated time for religious / spiritual learning - a space to garner inspiration for the journey ahead.

One of the big disputes Jesus had with the Jewish authorities was whether it was right to work towards healing during a time of sabbath - with Jesus challenging the cold and legalistic view held by the Pharisees that all work was proscribed. The story goes as follows:

"One Sabbath day as Jesus was teaching in a synagogue, he saw a woman who had been crippled by an evil spirit. She had been bent double for eighteen years and was unable to stand up straight.  When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Dear woman, you are healed of your sickness!” Then he touched her, and instantly she could stand straight. How she praised God!

But the leader in charge of the synagogue was indignant that Jesus had healed her on the Sabbath day. “There are six days of the week for working,” he said to the crowd. “Come on those days to be healed, not on the Sabbath.” 

But the Lord replied, “You hypocrites! Each of you works on the Sabbath day! Don’t you untie your ox or your donkey from its stall on the Sabbath and lead it out for water? This dear woman, a daughter of Abraham, has been held in subjugation by Satan for eighteen years. Isn't it right that she be released, even on the Sabbath?” 

This shamed his enemies, but all the people rejoiced at the wonderful things he did." (Luke 13:10 - 17)

This story is found within all four gospels giving it great significance. It is clear, to Jesus and his disciples at least, that the sabbath is a time for active healing of the self and of others - this healing may well be represented in Biblical stories as physical, but as with so much of the Christian narrative, there is this deeper personal and communal dimension to be found beneath the screenplay. For example, the daughter of Abraham, although described as being bent-double and unable to stand up straight, appears to be trapped in some kind of spiritual crisis to the reader who approaches the story from a non-literal perspective - hence the phrase, 'held in subjugation by Satan'.

Finally, it is worth noting the 'pentecost event' is said to have occurred during a time of sabbath, namely the Jewish Feast of Weeks (also known as 'Shavuot') which marked the first harvest in the land of ancient Israel / Palestine. Clearly, this tying in of the story of Pentecost with Shavuot is rich in symbolism, with multiple layers of meaning - however, one simple thing we can draw from it is the idea of new fruit appearing during times of sabbath, in terms of new understanding, purpose and vision.

Although the summer holidays are said to originate in an old custom of allowing children time to help with the harvest, I think a summer sabbatical remains an important time for all of the reasons described above - whether we are Jews, Christians or otherwise. The job of trying to guide and mentor other human beings is often an exhausting one in terms of what we might call our 'social-emotional batteries' - particularly so if those other human beings are not readily enthusiastic about being taught! So it follows, practically speaking, that a time of rest - a kind of retreat and solitude from the intense, institutionalised environments of education - is naturally needed for all parties.

But we must also understand the job of an educator is not simply a job - it is a profession in the truest sense, a call to dedicate your talents primarily for the betterment of others rather than personal profit. And to truly do this, you have to constantly challenge yourself, you have to engage in a struggle to gain (and regain) greater clarity over your direction and critically evaluate your methodology in getting there.

The summer holidays allow for this reflective process to take place - whether we like it or not. And for many of us, the truth is it is not necessarily an easygoing experience. It is certainly not always a case of laying on a beach enjoying a bit of 'blue sky thinking' - it involves allowing hard questions to surface. Hard questions about what we are doing, why and to what end - hard questions that are usually crowded out amongst the hustle and bustle of the working day.

As the sabbatical season now comes towards a close for many of us and we return with fresh hopes for the academic year ahead, I hope this summer has been constructive and proves over the next academic year to be enduringly fruitful for all educators and those in their keeping.

[I should add, as a side note, that I believe designated times for sabbath are needed by all people - and it concerns me that British society is increasingly becoming a '24 hour, 7 days-a-week society' in the relentless pursuit of profit, particularly the implications this has for those on lower wages and casual contracts.]

13/08/2015

A Church Less Ordinary

Here's a write-up of a day I spent at Oldham Unitarian Chapel late July - not the usual Sunday morning, but a Monday, where the place takes on a very different guise. Yet all in keeping with the broader Christian vision. 

At a time when the contribution of the Muslim faith to British society has been questioned, this offers a different perspective to the likes of the Daily Mail.

~

'Oldham Unitarian Chapel - A Church Less Ordinary'

Say the word ‘chapel’ to yourself – what images spring to mind? I guess many of us would find our mind’s eye wandering to a countryside scene with a quaint little church sat amongst rolling fields…

Yet as you walk across the car park and into Oldham Unitarian Chapel, the scene couldn't be more different. One of the many former engine rooms of the British Empire, Oldham is a classically northern English town - a moderately hilly terrain covered in swathes of Victorian red-brick with a smattering of mainly seventies concrete. Oldham Unitarian Chapel, in its 202nd year of existence, fits into the latter category. A flat-roofed, box shaped building, Oldham Unitarian Chapel is a much humbler affair than its previous incarnation, sitting on the edge of a town centre which still finds itself bogged down in recession.


On a Sunday, the congregation usually numbers between 10 to 20 with the Reverend Bob Pounder serving as minister. A few travel in from outside of Oldham – they’ve found something special, the extra travel is worth it. The services are traditionally structured but make good use of a large video screen, interspersing prayers, hymns and readings with clips from a wide variety of sources. The message is rooted in a freer yet nonetheless challenging Christianity. There is reference to the wider world of faith and discovery, yes, but in support rather than expense of Christ. The services are understatedly radical, both in content and style – Christianity is on offer here, but not as most people think they know it.

In the week the chapel takes on life as a café, a venue for counselling and other community services and more recently – in partnership with the Islamic charity UKEFF – as a food bank.

Now say the word ‘food bank’ to yourself – what images spring to mind? Maybe a sombre queue of hungry ‘dropouts’, maybe silent tables stacked with food? Arrive on a ‘food bank day’ at Oldham Unitarian Chapel and what you find is, again, something very different. The place is filled with faces – African faces, Asian faces, Arab faces. There are white British faces too but they make up the minority, a few are in need like their refugee neighbours but most are there to serve. There is also a warm, tantalising smell in the air of freshly cooked curry - simmering in large pans, given tender loving care by the congregation’s Muslim friends. Andy, one of the chapel stalwarts, does the rounds - cheerfully welcoming and clearing up, as if on a loop. This is not just a food bank; this is the One World Café.

In the main room there are neatly organised tables of food lined up to one side, with volunteers manning tables at the other side to provide advice to those in need.

Bob – out of his Sunday dog-collar, sleeves rolled up - hurries between all of this, meeting and greeting newcomers, catching up with those who have now become old friends, policing an over-exuberant visitor in a Manchester United shirt (who has just launched into a rendition of ‘Tomorrow’ from the musical Annie). Bob gives a quick, satisfied nod to his brother-in-arms Nasrim Ashraf, chair of UKEFF, as he busily guides even more people through the doors.



In the Bible we read about the early church in Acts, “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” The early church clearly did not begin and end with structured services at the temple on a Saturday or Sunday, the church continued throughout the week as ‘oikos’ - the ancient Greek word for ‘home’, ‘household’ and ‘family’.

At Oldham Unitarian Chapel, ‘temple-oikos-temple-oikos’ is the rhythm of Reverend Bob Pounder’s ministry. Having just spoken to a couple with four hungry boys (Christian asylum seekers from Pakistan, having fled religious persecution) who were inquiring about coming to worship on a Sunday, Bob comments that worship is what all of ‘this’, his hand sweeping across the busy room, depends upon - “None of this would happen without the impetus that worship gives us.”

He goes further to remark, “I can’t believe God has given all of this - what have I done to deserve all of this?” He means it in a positive way, although he could be forgiven if now and then it took on a different tone, given the commitment this never-ending project surely must require.

We are often told the church is declining but maybe, amongst the very real and present decline, God is still speaking? Maybe God is still nudging - and at times shoving - his people in the direction of the Kingdom? Certainly at Oldham, there is clearly a compelling, charismatic spirituality at work. It is a mega-church but not in the usual terms - not in terms of bums on seats, not in terms of a bunch of people energetically waving their hands in the air - but in terms of practical, dogged witness.

The word ‘chapel’ is said to originate in the legend of Saint Martin of Tours who gave his cloak to a beggar and, in turn, had a vision of Christ wearing the other half – chapel is said to originally mean ‘little cape’ and, from there, ‘little sanctuary’. What a fitting and beautiful title for this unassuming dot amongst the Oldham landscape.

09/08/2015

Touring the nations...

I've just arrived back from the far south west of this sceptred isle, having spent a week in Devon and Cornwall. It's been an enjoyable week and an insightful one in terms of seeing part of the country previously unknown to me. Both places are distinct in their identities and quite different from northern England.

The Cornish, as many will already know, have their own sense of nationhood. However, I don't think this is as distinct as (cultural) Welsh nationalism, nor as antagonistic as (political) Scottish nationalism. It was pleasant to see the Cornish flag - known as St Piran's Flag - flying alongside the English flag, Celtic Nations flag and the Union Jack.



Our first stop was to see family and friends in Salcombe, on the Devon coast. It turns out they now have their own flag as well - though not without (somewhat parochial) controversy.


Moving beyond squabbles over scones, it strikes me this kind of regionalism is the beauty of English identity - the diversity of local communities, the sense of place, the fairly gentle and jovial nature of rivalry between areas...

Anyway, here are a few shots - first of Salcombe, then of Cornwall.



~






20/07/2015

Casual Immanence

Having just arrived back from a weekend with an old friend in Southend, the summer holidays have officially started for me now. 


I have 6 weeks, or roughly 42 days, to do as I please. It is a strange feeling to have this length of time ahead - slightly daunting even given that my days are usually jam packed.

We have a trip with family to Cornwall planned and maybe a trip later on to see family who live in Zurich. My love affair with the garden continues and will no doubt continue over these coming weeks...


I recently packed away my theology books, deciding my habit of collecting theology books and not reading them needed to end definitively - I cannot say I have missed them. I continue to enjoy poetry, however, and the most recent verse to speak to me comes from Evelyn Underhill's 'Immanence':

I come in the little things, 
Saith the Lord: 
Not borne on morning wings Of majesty, 
but I have set My Feet 
Amidst the delicate and bladed wheat 
That springs triumphant in the furrowed sod. 
There do I dwell in weakness and in power; 
Not broken or divided, saith our God! 
In your strait garden plot I come to flower: 
About your porch my vine 
Meek, fruitful, doth entwine; 
Waits, at the threshold, 
Love’s appointed hour.

I come in the little things, 
Saith the Lord: 
Yes! on the glancing wings 
Of eager birds, the softly pattering feet 
Of furred and gentle beasts, 
I come to meet 
Your hard and wayward heart.

 ‘Immanence’ by Evelyn Underhill

30/06/2015

Songs for Living

Recently I was asked to write a short piece for The Fellowship - a magazine published by the Fellowship of Non-Subscribing Christians and distributed freely amongst its membership (and online). I was asked to give three of my favourite hymns / spiritual songs and explain my choices. Here's what I wrote...

~

The hymn that I would always start with is the ‘Servant Song’. The hymn describes the Christian life as one like any other, involving joys and sorrows. Yet the hymn adds the Christian life is also distinct for the way life is approached. The Christian life involves seeking to become Christ-like, primarily through life with one another – “I will hold the Christ-light for you in the night-time of your fear… when you laugh I’ll laugh with you.” This practical vision is, for me at least, where I find faith most moving. 

A contemporary hymn I often play when alone is Matt Redman’s ‘Blessed Be Your Name’. This hymn begins with, “Blessed be your name, in the land that is plentiful…” It is a line I frequently roll around in my head, almost as a mantra. It is easy to become blinkered by daily concerns yet most readers will share with me the good fortune of a reliable income, a home, a family life and so on. Just recently I was at the barbers - there was a new hairdresser on duty, newly arrived from Iran. I didn't pry too much but did learn he had left his family behind and was currently looking to rent a room - somewhere, anywhere. As we talked, he asked me where I lived, whether I owned my own house etc. and commented knowingly, “Ah, you are rich…” The hymn continues that we should also praise God during times of wilderness and here we find the Christian mindset at work, a call to spend our lives counting our blessings and passing them onwards, whatever the circumstances but especially so during times of plenty. 

 The final hymn is not really a hymn but an old pop song which struck me during this Easter just gone – Johnny Cash’s rendition of ‘I won’t back down’. Cash sings, “I'll keep this world from dragging me down, gonna stand my ground. And I won't back down.” There is of course a greater narrative to the Easter story but the basic detail – a man who wouldn’t let go of his heartfelt principles in the face of a storm – is deeply inspiring. There is this resoluteness to Jesus, what some might call reckless abandon, but when set in the context of his ministry, becomes something amazing. Some religious liberals seemingly wish to make Jesus somehow more radical, be it repainting him as Che Guevara or recasting him as transgender, and so on. I don’t necessarily have a problem with re-exploring Jesus, so long as we remain rooted in scripture, but what really can be more radical than giving over your entire life for other people? The power found in each of these is they celebrate on the one hand and throw down a challenge on the other, and in doing so, uplift and inspire me.

~

I must add my usual playlist is not all that serious - I also like the Arctic Monkeys, amongst others...

28/06/2015

Recognising Grace

Below is a sermon I gave at Oldham Unitarian Chapel on 28th June 2015. It looks at the idea - or more accurately, the experience - of God's grace. 

The readings I used were both from the Bible, referring to Luke 15:11 - 32 - 'The Story of the Prodigal Son' - and 1 Timothy 1:12 - 17  - 'The Lord's Grace to Paul'. I also used the 'Hearing Hands' TV advert from Samsung and Matt Redman's 'Your Grace Finds Me'.

Do I always feel grace as an immanent force in my life? Am I always thankful for God's gifts? The plain and brutally honest answer is no. At times I feel quite depressed at the state of the world around me, and at my own place within the world - be that a feeling of not giving enough back to the world, or a discontented feeling of not getting enough from it. This 'turbulence', I believe, is part and parcel of the human condition and why we need 'wisdom communities' - such as the church, mosque, temple - to re-anchor ourselves.

During moments of clarity, I can recognise grace is ever-present in our lives and sometimes I really am struck by the beauty, the gift, of being alive - of being self-consciously alive. This often occurs during a quiet moment in the garden, at times when I'm with family and friends and suddenly step out of the situation to realise my blessings and it has occurred recently during meditation at Quaker meetings.

~

Good morning friends, I wonder, does anyone recognise this picture? It was all over the news recently…


The photo was taken in Auckland, New Zealand. It is the aftermath of a road accident – in which a young boy was hit by a car on his way to school. The good news is he survived and has made a recovery. He could be described as one of the fortunate ones – for in the UK alone, we have around 1800 deaths on our roads per year.

In this photo we are confronted with an age-old question shared by theologians, philosophers and ordinary people alike – why do bad things happen to good people?

But we can also flip this question around – why do good things happen to bad people?

In the second reading today, we heard what happened to Saul of Tarsus, a powerful Jewish leader who persecuted the early Christian movement. Saul of Tarsus is likely to have killed Christians himself - or at the very least, ordered the killing of Christians. Saul of Tarsus epitomises the worst of people – the kind of demon-like person we see running amok in Syria and Iraq today.

Then something life changing happens on the road to Damascus. Something physical and catastrophic, throwing him to the floor and taking away his sight. And according to scripture, something mystical and constructive also - an encounter with the Christ figure. From there, Saul takes on a new life, becomes the Apostle Paul, and embarks on a mission to build the Christian faith.

Over the years I have heard some Unitarians express misgivings about the Apostle Paul - mainly because he is viewed as seeding the doctrine of the Trinity. However, for me, I recognise he is one of the central figures of the Christian faith because he represents, in the most startling manner, the unique experience of Christianity – the experience of good things, the good things of God, happening often in the darkest of places, amongst the most undeserving.

The story of Paul is almost like a sequel to the first reading we heard - the Parable of the Prodigal Son - a story looked upon by many Christians as a defining story of Jesus’s ministry.

In this story we see the son demand his inheritance from the father so that he might go out into the world and make his own way. This, in ancient Jewish culture, was a grave insult – akin to wishing his father dead. The Jewish listeners would have expected the father to refuse. But quite significantly he grants his wish. In turn, the son wastes his inheritance and finds himself ruined. He returns home, confessing his sin and asking for forgiveness.

When the son returns home, the father runs to him from a great distance. There is no demanding of apology, no negotiation around debt, no seeking a ‘last word’ – instead the father embraces him.

Although we title this the Story of the Prodigal Son, maybe it could more accurately be titled ‘The Story of the Giving Father’.

The reaction of the father is also in contrast to the reaction of the brother. The brother reasons he has rightfully earned his father’s adoration whereas the lost son has not. Here we are given further insight into the human condition. When our position is one of comfort and strength, we can become blind to that which we have been gifted.

I wonder, friends, whether we can identify with these ancient figures and stories in our everyday lives?

Recently, I went to get my hair cut. The barber on duty was an Iranian man, in his late thirties. We made small talk, him in broken English – I learned he had sought refuge in Britain not too long ago, gained permission to work, and was now looking for a bedsit. He asked me whether I had a home and what it was like, I explained it was a three bedroom house just down the road, to which he replied matter-of-factly, “Ah you are rich…”

This short conversation has stayed with me for some time now – if you have read the recent issue of The Fellowship magazine, you will see I mentioned it in there too.

As much as we might feel overburdened at times with our day to day concerns, as much as we might not feel we have as much as that person over there, as much as at times we do encounter poor health, disappointment and loss - particularly when a loved one passes away – we have been gifted. We are nonetheless rich through the very gift of life - and for so many of us here in Britain today, richer than most through the apparent accident of our birth.

In the Bible, one of the words used for this kind of richness is ‘grace’. Grace is the opposite of what we call ‘karma’ or ‘just desserts’, which is all about getting the rewards you deserve through your actions. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve. It seems to me we live in a culture which is more in tune with karma than grace. There are sayings that affirm this,

“Life is what you make it.” “Work hard, play hard.” “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” “What goes around, comes around.”

I don’t dispute there is some truth in these - yet they also mislead us from the deeper truth of grace, that we have each been given an inheritance not of our making.

I have, as you know, spent much time with the Quakers. One of their defining beliefs is the concept of the ‘Inner Light’ which goes all the way back to their founder, George Fox. George Fox lived during 1600s England, a land blighted by civil war, persecution and poverty. His spiritual awakening started as a young man experiencing severe bouts of depression, a young man who felt estranged from his family, his community, his whole world - because of the very real darkness he saw within it. Yet at some point he reached a Damascus moment, which he came to term as ‘the light within’.

Quakers today interpret this as a moment of enlightenment. And I have to say, in the quite intellectual community that Quakers have become, this is often taken to be a sense of profound knowledge. Yet it occurs to me that what Fox was experiencing was the simple experience of grace, the simple experience of God’s love in the world.

We read in Fox’s journal:

“I saw that there was an ocean of darkness and death; but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that also I saw the infinite love of God, and I had great openings….”

We should also keep in mind that this was not a one-off moment for Fox – he had many periods of doubt and despair in his life, only to then rediscover this radiance was still shining through.

Other churches, particularly so the Calvinist churches, have long sought to wrestle theologically with the question of grace. This has lead to complicated theories around who is and who isn’t in receipt of grace, the different levels of grace, and so on. Fox warned against this theological approach – dismissing it as ‘empty high notions’, instead emphasising faith as an experience, as a way of living.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodists, also rallied against such notions arguing, grace is simply “free for all, as well as in all." The challenge for the Christian, as he saw it, is that we first must awaken to the fundamental state in which we live, under the grace of God. And from there, we must seek ‘Christian perfection’ by pouring outwards that grace for others. As with the Apostle Paul and George Fox, the discovery of grace does not lead to a state of contented sitting under the Bodhi tree but a restlessness to share in it with others.

But again, we must ask - what does that look like in our own seemingly ordinary lives?

Let us return to the photo we started with…


As some of you will know - the reason this photo was shared the world over, was not the tragedy of the situation - of which there are sadly many each and every day. Nor was it the recovery of the boy – which thankfully is also an everyday event. It was the actions of the man in the hooded top, Harman Singh, who has given over his turban.

The turban for the Sikh man covers his hair, which he does not cut because hair is viewed as a symbol of the gifts of God. The turban is therefore a treasured possession. Yet he removed it to cushion the boy’s injured head. This simple act of wholehearted, unconditional giving - of grace in action - struck a chord with the general public and was shared the world over. It strikes the same chord as the Samsung advert does - something deep within us.

Friends, we have no conclusive answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people – but we must hold on to the simple assurance we live in a world in which grace, the loving gift of God is at work. It is mysterious yes, but it is also something tangible, something we can come to taste, something we are called to lay out on the table for others.

We are receivers of grace - unearned, unmerited grace – and we are agents of grace. This is, I put it to you, is the essence of life for the disciple of Jesus.

Amen.

31/05/2015

Cherishing the Desert

Below is a sermon I gave at Oldham Unitarian Chapel on 31st May 2015. The word 'sermon' originally meant 'discourse' or 'conversation'. I try to approach sermons in this way, rather than a speech to reflect my apparent enlightenment - which I can assure you, I do not believe I have above any other human being. I struggle to find meaning just as much as the next person.

The service featured 1 Kings 19 - 'The Lord Speaks to Elijah' - alongside an extract from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran - 'On Time'. I also used a video clip from Youtube, 'A Day in the Desert' to challenge the perceptions we often have on deserts, both literal and metaphorical.

~

Friends, we are a week since Pentecost, eight weeks since Easter and five months since Advent. As Protestants, we now have a relatively long wait until the next major events on calendar – with All Souls, Harvest and the chapel’s anniversary all five months away. And for those football fans amongst us, may I add we have another seventy days until the new football season.

We also have arguably good reasons to become distracted, as each day’s sunset arrives later, the weather hopefully grows warmer and we look out of our windows at the plants and birds busying themselves with life. In some ways, this time of year, for many, sees our very sense of being becoming lighter.

As a result, we are now potentially a ‘quiet spell’ in terms of our spiritual lives – a quiet spell that might be took for ‘emptiness’ or ‘dryness’.

Maybe, just maybe, we should close our churches until the autumn? As the famous 2008 atheist bus campaign advised, ‘There's probably no God... now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’

Of course life isn't like that and the big flaw in this message, as writer Francis Spufford points out in his book “Unapologetic”, is not the proposition around God but the proposition that atheism equates with undisrupted enjoyment. As Francis Spufford notes, human life is essentially cocktail of emotions, whether we feel God is actively present in our lives or not. Enjoyment is really just one emotional experience in a kaleidoscope of experiences. Life is a series of peaks, troughs and flat, humdrum, seemingly uneventful moments.

It is important to remind ourselves at this point that it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to be in a spiritually quiet place. Such times can act as a way of testing and of preparation, as a way of refining and consolidating our faith.

~

It is worth considering that every major figurehead in the Bible went through a desert time. This includes Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and Paul. Similarly, the story of Lao Tzu (Loud Zoo), author of the Tao Te Ching, involves him journeying away from Chinese civilization and into the wilderness. We could also look to the story of Gautama Buddha for another example. Scripture tells us that being in a place where we are waiting, wanting, praying, examining, reflecting etc., is often the ploughing of the ground for future strength. Then, after this time is completed, the thing that we have been prepared for comes upon us.

I am particularly struck by the story of Elijah from the Old Testament. Elijah was a fire and brimstone prophet, quite literally so, having taken on the oppressive priesthood who worshipped the idol Baal, declaring them evil and burning down their shrines. With a price on his head, the legend goes that Elijah fled into the wilderness, sleeping under the trees and in caves. Elijah became isolated and defeated in his own spirit. During this time we are told,

“Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

This in many ways runs in contrast to the story of Pentecost with God appearing as not as a rushing wind but as a small, searching voice after a period of great activity. It was only in the quiet that God’s whisper could be heard.

~



It is also perhaps worth considering that during the summer period of 2003, the United Church of Christ, a liberal American denomination, was using these quieter months to formulate an initiative which came to be known as the, ‘God is still speaking…’ campaign. The initiative started off as a challenge given to church leader Ray Burford to go away and reflect on a new marketing campaign.

This proclamation - ‘God is still speaking…’ - was credited by its creator, Ron Burford, to the unlikely inspiration of Gracie Allen, the late Californian radio and television star, who rose to fame working alongside her husband George Burns as a comedy duo. The couple married in 1926 and spent their lives together raising two adopted children along the way. Gracie passed away in 1964 at the age of 69. After Gracie’s passing, her George is said to have found among her papers a letter left for him. The letter concluded with the line, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” She wanted him to keep living through his emptiness; she wanted him to know much more was to come. Ron Burford happened upon this detail during his period of reflection, and in turn he felt it sparked him to bring forth what became eventually known within the United Church of Christ as the ‘Stillspeaking’ movement.

Not just a tagline, Burford used this moment of inspiration to use ‘God is still speaking…’ within the United Church of Christ as a mantra for why they were here in the first place, and in turn, a drive to increase the capacity of churches at grassroots level, not just the minister but entire congregations, to increase their capacity as liberal Christians to be to be messengers, welcomers and activists - to be evangelicals.

So in this sense the times of spiritual quietude might not just be limited to personal introspection for the individual Christian, but as time for collective reflection on the future for entire churches.

~

As a further observation, around eighteen months ago I moved house and last spring I busily set about our garden. The garden was tired and overgrown - the old gentleman we bought the property off openly admitting it was his late wife’s passion and since her death, he had done the bare minimum.

Anyway, what started as a chore has become something of a hobby and a learning curve – with one of the big lessons I have learnt along the way being the benefits of planting late Autumn. This seemed, to me at least as a novice gardener, to go against common sense – after all, plants need warm sun right? But by planting them ahead of a dormant, cold season, the experts advise this will allow the plant time to quietly put down roots.

And they were right, as we have marched on into spring and summer this year; the shrubs planted just ahead of winter are now showing great vigour, greater vigour even than those planted last spring.

So there are parallels with the natural world - parallels with the universe - to be found in understanding and reconciling ourselves with the peaks and troughs, the loud and quiet times.

~

Finally, if we are to accept the quiet, is there anything we can practically do during these times? I suppose if we were literalists, we would all be either finding a desert or maybe even placing ourselves knee deep in the nearest soil based on what I’ve said so far!

However, we can look to the Christian tradition – as well as Biblical stories – to find examples. A book I have long cherished is Richard Foster’s ‘Celebration of Discipline’ which acts as a summary and guide to disciplines found across the church universal.

Foster speaks of four inward disciplines – prayer, fasting, meditation and study. He also speaks of four outward disciplines – simplicity, solitude, submission and service. And finally, he speaks of a further four corporate disciplines – confession, worship, guidance and celebration.

Ultimately, these all offer different courses for different horses and I would say, as a side note, it is this diversity of Christian approaches to the uncovering spiritual truths that gives our faith its strength. Yet the key word in all of this is ‘discipline’ – discipline as in staying the course, placing trust in a method, holding firm to our foundations.

Friends, the months ahead may well become quiet but don’t mistake the desert’s quietness for emptiness or dryness - the coming months offer the opportunity for your faith to be renewed, your character improved, your walk strengthened, in preparation for the tasks ahead that God is calling you to encounter.

God is still speaking; never place a full stop where God has placed a comma.

Amen

03/03/2015

Christian Expressions of Love

I recently visited Northern Ireland, on the invitation of Reverend Chris Wilson and Reverend Sam Peden, to see more of the churches and people within the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland - and, with a mix of nervousness and excitement, to preach at Dromore Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church. This is part of the 'two way traffic' envisaged when the Fellowship of Non-Subscribing Christians was founded around 18 months ago and I feel honoured to be one of the 'pioneers' of this new initiative, recognising there is a long history of Christians from the Unitarian tradition 'going over the water' to Northern Ireland to serve with the Non-Subscribers.

Whilst in Belfast, my wife and I had the pleasure of seeing much of the rural areas around Belfast before visiting the city itself. I plan to write more in the near future about this side of things, particularly our walk around the Shankill Road and Falls Road areas - one of the faultlines of The Troubles - which has stayed with me since our return home.

We felt truly blessed to receive such a warm welcome from members of the NSPCI - we left around a stone heavier but with smiles on our faces!

Below is the sermon I gave at Dromore...

~

Good morning friends, thank you for inviting me here all the way from Stockport to lead you in worship today. It is a pleasure and an honour. I also bring greetings from other members of the Fellowship of Non-Subscribing Christians over the water in England.

Most here today will know that yesterday was Saint Valentine’s Day – a day with roots in varying myths and legends, one of which tells the story of the Saint secretly marrying Christians following a decree by the Roman Emperor Claudius II that outlawed such practices. 

This Feast Day has gradually become the largely commercial event we know today, with the exchange of cards, flowers, chocolates and other treats as an expression of love – or at least affection and interest. It’s also worth pointing out that Valentine’s Day has spread around the world to largely non-Christian countries including India and China, maybe a result of good marketing – or simply, an example of our increasingly shared humanity as the world gets smaller.

This morning I would like us to consider expressions of Christian love.

Love is one of those words in the English language that has a multitude of everyday uses and meanings. In one breath we might utter the words, “I love you…” to our partner expressing our commitment to them as husband or wife or fiancé. In another we might say the same to a parent, child or grandparent to express our commitment to them as family. And yet in another, we might say we love chocolate or pizza. Had I not been flying over the Irish sea yesterday, I might have well been singing – if you can call it singing - “We love you Wednesday, we do…” at eleven men on a football pitch in Sheffield with 20-odd thousand other football fans. And if we are talking commitment, then following a club like Sheffield Wednesday is just that!

But I wonder, how all this fits with common phrases in the Christian vernacular? Phrases like “God is love…”, “Love thy neighbour…” and “God so loved the world, he gave his only son…” How might we understand this love as Christians? How might we express this love as Christians? We might begin by reminding ourselves that Christian scripture is a translation from the ancient Greek and Hebrew languages of yesteryear. ‘Love’, as discussed in the original New Testament scriptures, is in fact not one word but four words - eros and storge followed by phileo and agape.

~

The first two words - ‘storge’ and ‘eros’ – are the most simply defined and tend to be discussed only briefly and implicitly in scripture. ‘Storge’ means the naturally occurring bonds that exist within family, between parent and offspring. It is alluded to in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and the Colossians, with calls for children to be obedient and parents to bring their children up patiently and faithfully.

‘Eros’, a word again only alluded to in the New Testament in scripture such as Matthew 19 and Matthew 7 means the naturally occurring intimacy shared by lovers. In many ways, this kind of love is the easiest to experience and express, part and parcel of our animal instinct. These are recognised as important to the Christian life in the Gospels with a call for them to be treasured as much as they are enjoyed – which is why the protective institution of marriage is viewed as so important.

But Christian love is more than this, exceeding and sometimes supplanting such love. This is where we find ‘agape’ and ‘phileo’ of which the Bible speaks more directly and with more urgency about.

~

Phileo, in the context of the Gospels, is a deep friendship. Something that is established, maintained and grown through a life together in covenant. We see this most obviously in the time Jesus and his disciples spent together, travelling together, worshipping together and eating together. Phileo is the church at work within - as a fellowship bonded together with a shared vision and experience of the divine, a covenant written on their hearts.

A commonly used example of phileo in the New Testament is found in Jesus and Peter. Peter, as we know, is eventually called ‘my rock’ by Jesus but their relationship takes in peaks and troughs. Although phileo tends to be more literally translated as ‘brotherhood’, it is also in the story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, I propose, that we see another great example of phileo. Mary Magdalene is often confused with another Mary – Mary, sister of Martha, the sinner who washes Jesus’s feet – and therefore tends to have been viewed over the ages, and might I add wrongly viewed, as the reformed prostitute. And, then, there is another more recent theory that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s wife – why else, the proponents of this argue, would some Biblical scholars suggest she is the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved?

Yet, the relationship we see between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the New Testament is not focused on a physical or legally-sanctified relationship – it is more than this. Mary Magdalene is, we learn from recently discovered Gnostic scripture, the one Jesus shares his innermost thoughts with, she is a trusted listener. Mary Magdalene, if we look back to the New Testament, is also one of the few - when all appears lost with Jesus arrested, publicly humiliated and crucified as a charlatan at the hands of a ruthless dictatorship and baying mob – who remains present. Mary Magdalene is one of the few remaining followers who holds a faithful vigil at Jesus’s tomb, and in turn, becomes one of the first witnesses to the resurrection. 

We ourselves are not caught up in as strangely mystical, as dangerously political story as this – at least as far as we know we are not. Yet, I put it to you today, that we can draw comfort, hope and guidance from such stories about how we might to live in phileo with one another. Maybe we need to reflect on whether we are truly present for one another – what with all our modern-day distractions like mobile phones and the internet. Maybe we need to reflect on whether we are open with one another, whether we can allow the masks of ‘look how well we are doing’ to slip, share our doubts and fear, accept the help when we need it. And finally, and most importantly, I wonder whether we too can be like Jesus’s portrayal of the father and the prodigal son - forgiving unconditionally and welcome back those who have betrayed our trust.

If we are to love as the early Christians loved, then we surely we must try.

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Finally, we have the third love – agape. In the New Testament, agape is unrequited love, selfless love, sacrificial love. The most creative love of all.

Jesus gave the parable of the Good Samaritan as an example of love purely for the sake of others, even for those who may care nothing at all for us, or even hate us, as the Jews did the Samaritans. This love is not based on a two-way relationship, a transaction, a feeling even. It is a love that is that does not say “I will love you in order to…” or “I will love you if…” It is a state of being, an act of will rooted in a profound experience of God. It is the love that says confidently, yet quite dispassionately, “I will love you because this is who I am and who you are.”

But Jesus does not simply muse or pontificate about love, he becomes love in action – touching those viewed as untouchable, spending time with those declared impure and demonic, all in pursuit of healing them, bringing them into a more joyful existence, bringing them back into relationship with God.

This bursting forth of agape reaches a crescendo in the cross, where Jesus gives over his life. There are different interpretations across Christianity at what ‘dying for us’ means exactly, but we can say simply Jesus gives over his life for the cause of agape. And we know full well, that this love in action is representative of God in action – for we are told repeatedly in the Gospels that God is agape.

So, let us remind ourselves; Jesus doesn't just direct debt, giving from a distance – not that this is to be scorned at. But Jesus does go a step further, he goes out there and meets people where they are at, he holds his own hand out to the beggar, to the diseased, to the sinner and touches their hand. I wonder, are we willing to do the same? For this is the challenge of loving as a Christian, this is the challenge for the church operating out there in the world.

Friends, in the Quaker text we heard earlier, it is said “Christianity is not a notion, but a way.” We could sit and speculate from now until next Valentine’s Day, and to the next and the next and the next, about the nature of God, about the relationship between Father and Son, about the historical accuracy of the Gospels – but if we are to grasp the heart of Christianity, to become truly human, then surely it is to practice love - disciplined love, nurturing love, selfless love. Amen.

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