Finis

A sermon to summarise

When I am training first time preachers, one of the issues with which we have to contend is eagerness. In itself, of course  – it is an asset. The church of Jesus Christ needs preachers who are keen to preach. The problem arises when a new preacher wants to put everything they have ever thought about preaching into one sermon. In the end, that poor sermon ends up like a little boat inundated by the waves of their own enthusiasm – and takes preacher and crew to the bottom together.

I am not a new preacher, but I find myself facing a similar problem. After arriving in Teddington Baptist Church in July of 1997, I am now preparing to preach my last ever sermon as the church’s pastor. This morning the people who sit before me will be those whom I have married, whose children I have dedicated, whose loved ones I have buried. Together we have met challenges, and sometimes triumphed over them. We have found ourselves engaged in that glorious act of smelting whereby the resolve of God’s people is turned into the steel of the Kingdom. Once in a while we have caught each other’s faces illuminated in the fiery glow of the furnace -occasionally streaked with tears and often bearing the sweat of our labours. We have been bound together…and today our ways part.

Like the first-time preacher, I find myself with far more to say than any one sermon can possibly bear. It is maybe a time to say less, not more. The legacy I leave behind is not in my hands, and will certainly not be changed by one sermon. Instead, I must do what every preacher does – hold tightly to the Word and wait patiently for the Spirit.

Just before I left my (nearly empty) office on Friday, I rearranged the drawing pins on the empty noticeboard into the message below. It was a phrase often used by Mother Teresa to encourage her fellow workers when the going was tough and the human cost was high. This sermon, like the hundreds which preceded it, must be all for Him.

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Lessons from Thomas

Over the years that I have been a Christian, the disciple Thomas has been subject to an almost total re-imagination. Times without number, I have heard preachers rebuke us for calling him ‘doubting Thomas’. On at least one occasion I have said myself that it is no fairer to call him ‘doubting Thomas’ than it is to call Peter ‘denying Peter’. The fact remains, though, that until his remarkable declaration of faith in John 20, he is not saved.  In John 11 he shows admirable resolve, urging his fellow disciples to quell their fears and head for Jerusalem with Jesus that ‘we might die with him’. In John 14 he voices the kind of honesty for which the other disciple were doubtless grateful – but his honest question will not save him. In the end, neither passion nor curiosity will suffice – only the desire to believe.

Consider it as the story of two logos, below. Apple’s initial logo design was of Isaac Newton – sitting below the apple tree engaged in the pursuit of knowledge. This was a picture of curiosity. The current logo, instantly recognisable around the world, is a picture of desire, like the bitten apple in Eden of old:

There comes a point for every Thomas when enthusiasm and honesty must yield to a wholehearted and unfettered declaration of faith. This is the point where curiosity gives way to desire.

 

Written on the heart

Years ago, I heard a sermon on building the church entitled ‘building with bananas’.  The preacher’s contention was that building the church was like building with bananas – trying to fit their awkward shapes together into a structure that will last.  In fact, it is far more challenging than that. The church is built with people – every single one of them as capable of love , depth, wonder. folly, generosity and selfishness as I am. People are the gloriously flawed raw materials from which God constructs his church, and it is an honour to work with them.

Five years ago, on the day that the Littlest Star was launched, we started a ‘Teatime Special’ event in the church where I work. Each event consists of crafts, songs, a lovely tea together, and an original story. Writing and reading those stories has been a labour of love for me – and I am pleased to see some of them on their way to a wider audience.

storyteller

During yesterday’s teatime special, my last at Teddington Baptist, the bunting below was created by all the families in attendance as a parting gift:

Take a look at some of the letters, and you will see that these too have been a labour of love.  I cannot imagine a gift which would have touched my heart more. The quirky colours, the signatures of up to three generations on one pennant, the spidery handwriting of those still mastering the art of letter formation – this is a treasure:

S

I am humbled and touched by this work of art – and hope that it brings some colour into your day too.

 

Citizens of another kingdom

As pastor I need to preach to and care for remainers and leavers; the delighted and the disappointed. After much soul-searching, I made the decision to read the statement below as we began our worship today.
___
 Dear friends

As Christians we serve a Kingdom without borders whose King reigns over it without prejudice. It is a Kingdom of love, peace and hope.

This week has been an unforgettable one in the life of our ‘United’ Kingdom:

• We have seen a vote divide the country almost exactly in half
• We have heard a political figure say that “no bullets were fired” seven days after an MP was shot in the street
• We have seen a British Prime Minister walk away from the podium in Downing Street with tears in his eyes
• We have seen cards in Polish and English distributed outside primary schools in Cambridgeshire saying ‘no more Polish vermin’.

This is a time for us to remember our loyalty to that other Kingdom. Now, more than ever, we are to be ambassadors for hope, emissaries of peace and champions of God’s love. In all our inevitable conversations, both online and off, let us make the King proud of the way we speak and act. One day, when borders and referenda are a thing of the past – we shall be glad that we did.

 

____

Cafec des arts, Beaumont

 

Soles for souls

I have just been preparing my latest session for the preaching module in the Equipped to Minister course at Spurgeon’s College. It is always a privilege to teach the course – since I find myself faced with a group of individuals so motivated to learn that they will devote two whole Saturdays to lectures and many hours to writing assignments in order to do so. We cover both theory and technique; both preparation and delivery. At some point the question of what to wear usually comes up. My rule of thumb has always been ‘don’t let it be the thing which people remember’. The rule applies to both overdressing and under-dressing. What about footwear, though?

  • Should I wear trainers, designed for speed so that I can race through the sermon and hardly feel the impact?
  • Should I wear hiking boots – stout and supportive enough to keep me going for the long haul?
  • Should I wear wellies, sure to protect me from anything messy through which I have to wade?
  • Should I wear something which makes me just a little taller – a centimetre or two above contradiction?
  • Should I wear combat boots, tightly laced and ready for battle?
  • Should I wear sandals, since they were (probably) good enough for Jesus?
  • Should I go barefoot – and rely on confidence to get me through, like a firewalker on hot coals?

Centuries ago tribespeople in the Amazonian forests discovered that latex tapped from a tree could make a good covering for the foot. Once dry, it could form a shoe like a second skin. Oddly, though, it is only if held over fire long enough to vulcanize that it would be hard-wearing. I wonder who, if anyone, first stretched their feet to the fire and left them there long enough to find that out?

Preachers need to grip the ground beneath them well enough to make sure that they do not slip – especially as they may have many people roped to them when they do so. They need to wear something with thin enough soles that they can feel the rocky ground on which everyone treads. Maybe they need something shiny enough to see their own (slightly distorted) reflection when they look down? Whatever they wear – it must be proved in the fire, like those early Amazonian boots.

If you preach today, may you be sure-footed and shod with soles for souls.

feet

A look at Jacob Frey’s ‘The Present’

When I was researching my little book on Jonah, one of the most memorable descriptions of it was by Professor Yvonne Sherwood, who described it as ‘a tiny text virtually capsizing under the weight of interpretation’. I’m not sure the same could be said of animator Jacob Frey’s little gem below. That said, the number of times in which he subverts expectations and stimulates emotions in the space of four minutes is more than that of a film ten times its length. When you watch the film, do it more than once – looking for different things.

  • Note the points at which your perception of dog and boy change in turn
  • Track the film’s progress only through the facial expressions of boy and dog
  • Note the narrative as told by the gait of dog and boy respectively
  • Watch the film without any sound and see if it holds you differently

Jacob Frey is near the beginning of his career as an animator. I’ve a feeling that the thing which will make him truly great is his skill as a storyteller though, don’t you agree?

 

RIP

Grateful for the brave

We often talk about the brave as those who bear arms on others’ behalf,  who enter a burning building to save others, or who fight some private battle with tragedy. Bravery wears many faces, though – and today we have seen one of them.

I am grateful to live in a place where the brave can pit their skills against the grinding face of poverty to push it back.

I am grateful to live in a place where Members of Parliament are freely elected to represent the people.

I am grateful to live in a place where those with a dream to serve can pursue it all the way to the Houses of Parliament.

I am grateful to live in a place where those who inhabit the corridors of power also make the effort to meet their constituents.

In short I am grateful to live in place occupied until a few hours ago by Jo Cox MP.

Peace be with all who loved her tonight.

Image by Brendan Cox

Image by Brendan Cox

Moses’ commencement speech Deuteronomy 4 v.25 – 31

I have been preaching through a series on the promises of God, and have now reached Moses’ promise in Deuteronomy 4 v.29 – uttered from the crest of Mount Nebo.

If Moses had known the hymn “Abide with me”  he would have been humming it to himself a little sadly just now.Truth to tell he would have been humming very quietly as he would be out of breath by the time he walked up to the top of Mount Nebo. What a view when he got there though. To one side lay all the land where the drama of his life had been played out. There was the Nile, where he almost perished as a baby. Not for from that was the Pharaoh’s palace where he had grown from boy to man. Then there was the scrubland where the angry young man had fled after his temper boiled over. A little closer was the Red Sea where the waters had stood up like soldiers on parade to this side and that and all had passed by safely. Beyond them the shifting sands of the desert where they had wandered these many years – a cloud before them by day and column of fire by night. And there below him, the glittering ribbon of the Jordan, and beyond that the hazy expanse of the Promised Land.  Many a night he had fallen asleep dreaming of its valleys and hills – he’d woken to the taste of milk and honey in his mouth, but never seen them. And now, there it lay – beyond him forever as God had told him he would not cross over.

With a meaty, calloused hand he claps his arm around Joshua’s shoulders, thrusts him to the fore, and tells people to trust him as if he were Moses himself. Then come his words of wisdom. This is Moses’ ‘commencement speech’.  I have always found it odd as name – since such a speech spoken when people graduate, and therefore is more about ending than commencing. It is, though, the beginning of the rest of their lives.  Consider some samples:

J K Rowling

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift.

Matt Damon

I hope you’ll turn toward the problem of your choosing … Because you must. I hope you’ll drop everything … Because you must And I hope you’ll solve it. Because you must. This is your life, Class of 2016. This is your moment, and it’s all down to you.

Barack Obama

You won’t always succeed. But know that you have it within your power to try. That generations who have come before you faced these same fears and uncertainties in their own time. And that through our collective labour, and through God’s providence, and our willingness to shoulder each other’s burdens, America will continue on its precious journey towards that distant horizon, and a better day.

What does Moses have to say? There are two home truths. (Or more precisely one home truth and one heavenly truth)

  1. You will fail

We often make a joke about “I can resist everything except temptation”…see it as bumper sticker.  It’s not really so funny though. To yield to temptation is to let God down.

To yield to temptation is to forfeit lasting blessing for passing pleasure. Moses can see clearly that they are likely to get settled/ easy/ sloppy once they cross over into the promised land. Without the daily battle of desert survival to occupy them; without the unifying force of fighting a war to occupy them – other things will surely crowd in.

v.23 “be careful”

v.26 – 27  They will lose this precious land for which they have travelled & longed and fought and of which they have dreamed.They will be scattered to the four winds (which has happened)

v.28 They will end up with simple gods fashioned by their own hands, whiich can do NOTHING for them

Not so much of a positive home truth, you might think. Consider the more heavenly one though:

 

2.You will find Him

This promise is made all the sweeter by two words in v.29: from there

From there – flat on your faces as you realise your idols are useless.

From there – scattered to the four winds because you have forfeited the promised land.

From there – far from the land of promise and driving your car on the petrol vapour of bygone good times

After the “home truth” of saying they will fail …comes a glorious promise: “you will find him when you seek him with all your heart and all your soul”. This is similar to other promises of finding Him, – but this is set deliberately in the context of failure & faithlessness

Margaret Thatcher famously turned the u turn into an insult.  However, God’s people are a people of grace who know all about the 2nd chance. the whole of Bible from flood onward is a second chance. People like Moses (who had messed up). People like Paul (a violent, destructive, opponent of Kingdom) were outstanding proof of just that.

Asked in a recent live radio interview about the church’s attitude to marriages in general and second marriages in particular, I replied that : I’m a Christian and its all about second chances.  There is nothing like being put on the spot in a live broadcast to reveal what was under the surface anyway!

Our fundamental beliefs about grace are built on promises like this long before Christ came on the scene.  Moses could see the future for these people far more clearly than anyone giving a commencement speech can see the future for the students sitting in front of them.

He could see a landscape of promise stretching way beyond the land.  He could see a place where the catastrophic failure of God’s people would not even put a dent in God’s grace.

It is a place which I am pleased to call home.

sands

 

 

Made of different cloth

Flags will be flying high in London and across the United Kingdom this weekend. Many will fly them to mark the birthday of a monarch who has made frequent and honest references to her personal faith. Had I been around at the coronation I think I would have struggled with some of the ‘sacred’ aspects of what is a constitutional act. That anyone should vow to ‘maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel’ from on high is a point worth debating, though possibly not this weekend. As familiar red, white and blue flags flutter on a summer’s day, a flash of secondhand gold foil has caught my eye.

Today, my eye has been drawn away to another flag hoisted high in the capital city. It is called ‘The New EU flag‘, an art installation by Slade School student Mariana Bisti. The flag is made from four foil blankets formerly wrapped around the shoulders of refugees on the island of Lesvos. Arriving cold, bedraggled, frightened and in danger of hypothermia – these blankets are symbolic of their first welcome on a new continent. Stateless as they are, Bisti’s flag flies over them wherever they may be.

What are your reflections as you look at the flag, I wonder?

Image: ucl.ac.uk

A review of Foxes unearthed by Lucy Jones

If you are looking for the answer to Ylvis’ question, then this book is definitely not the place to look – since it is a book entirely devoid of anthropomorphism. Instead you will find a potent combination of journalistic investigation, historical and literary research, and heartfelt nature writing. Don’t be fooled by the gorgeous cover which would not look out of place in the kind of ‘contemporary living’ shop where you buy a book for the way it looks on your coffee table. Lucy Jones’ book packs a serious and intelligent punch. Her meticulous research takes her back into Indo-European literature and contemporary linguistic analysis, and her journalist’s nose takes her out into the countryside with hunters and saboteurs alike.  You have to respect any researcher prepared to get covered in mud head to foot for her craft!

For me, one of the most fascinating chapters of the book is the one dealing with portrayals of the fox in print media. As I read the chapter, I was reminded of Dwight Bolinger’s book Language: the loaded weapon. Like Bolinger, Lucy Jones made me think about both the language I consume and the language I create.  Below I cheekily steal some of those ‘loaded’ fox words to describe Lucy’s book:

  • Cunning – like the legendary cunning of the fox, Lucy draws her readers in. Don’t be fooled into thinking you know what this book is before you finish it.
  • Courageous – fox hunters (apparently) like to talk about the courage of their foe. Lucy Jones is a writer prepared to show considerable courage in pursuing her investigation.
  • Sleek – like a well fed fox with a gorgeous red coat, there are passages in this book polished to an almost poetic sheen.
  • Shy – in the best way possible, this book tells you more about its subject than its author.

Last week, I took this book away on holiday with me. I started reading it early one morning, and then slipped out of the cottage where I was staying on a farm in Wiltshire.  As I made my way up the farm track, mist rolling away from the fields, my head was still full of the ancient fox legends about which I had been reading. Just then, an elegant fox made its unhurried way across the path in front of me. Its coat was a deep mahogany colour, with a pristine white tip to its brush.  I felt, as I always do, a sense of wonder at proximity with such a beautiful wild creature. This time, though, I also felt I knew something more about it. The two of us went our separate ways that early morning – one to hunt and the other to ponder on what a Finnish fox has to say about the Northern Lights. That’s another story though…

foxes

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