Monday, 9 March 2015

December/January 2015

Christmas is coming and the goose is getting…. stressed? Well, it seems that everyone else is these days so why not the goose – or the turkey – or the duck? Then again you might suggest that the goose has a reason to get stressed as Christmas approaches but what possible reason can there be for the rest of us?
Of course, we’ve heard it all before. Christmas has become too commercialised. The pressure is on to find the right gifts, get all the food, then go to the parties and Christmas Dinners. It’s surprising how many of those we end up having. I’ve seen adverts for booking Christmas meals in restaurants at the end of August! Christmas decorations start appearing in shops in October. Towns switch on their Christmas lights earlier – and then there is shock and horror when a council announces that there will be no lights because they don’t have the budget for it.
What is it really all about? Is it about trading figures? As we approach the holiday itself the news will feature reports about which companies have made a profit in the lead up to Christmas and which have made a loss and whether the sales figures are up on the same period last year or whether they are down. Is it about revelry? The police always make a special effort at this time of year to crack down on drink driving.
Some will say that Christmas has simply returned to the pagan festival that it once was before Christians placed their own festival in the dark days of winter. In truth this year’s celebrations will have little in common even with the older traditions.
It puts me more in mind of a story which belongs to a different time of year when Jesus overturned the stalls in the temple courtyard. It’s all about profit for a few at the expense of many – except that instead of being about Jerusalem and the surrounding area we are now talking in global terms. Back in AD 30 Jesus challenged the authorities. Did they come creeping back to their old ways afterwards? Probably, but then the temple only lasted another forty years before it was destroyed.
We are being sucked in to something which we know is getting out of hand. The baby has been kidnapped…. And no-one’s bothered about asking for a ransom because there’s too much profit to be made elsewhere. So here’s the challenge. God wants us to celebrate. He’s not a killjoy. So how can we make Christmas more simple, less extravagant and more about sharing and caring? Isn’t it time we asked the Holy Spirit to come and overturn the tables of the moneychangers again and reclaim the festival for Christ?


October/November 2014

In this magazine the thoughts about the letter Philippians refer at one point to the falling out between Euodia and Syntyche. Squabbling church members is never an edifying spectacle and Paul’s plea was that they settle their differences and move on together. How often have we come across the sad story where people in families, or next-door neighbours – or even in our churches – feel that the only way they can cope with whatever they think has happened is never to speak to one another again?
It seems to be the way of limited human logic that if we have differences between us then we should go our separate ways. Nature should teach us the foolishness of that approach. Watch a pride of lions hunting and we see the strategy of dividing the herd, separating the individual, weaker animal before bringing it down. Separation is the way of weakness. Watch a flock of starlings in the evening sky. The sight may be spectacular to our eyes but to a bird of prey seeking a tasty supper it is mesmerising and confusing. The strength of the individual is in being part of the flock.
We have recently witnessed the human folly of desiring separation in the Scottish referendum. Sorry, but we must learn how disastrous that would have been and learn when we come to another referendum later on wider European unity. Now I’m not saying that the current state of government (in either the UK or in Europe) is satisfactory. In fact I would be wholly in favour of radical reform in both institutions but whether others would agree with me is open to debate. But seeking the common ground first (implied in Philippians) seems a more sensible way forward. Our problem lies in the philosophy that life is only fair when I get what I want.
Churches suffer from this too. Much of the fragmentation of Christ’s body is because individuals want personal control and because we struggle to cope with the idea of difference. One of the Baptist Union presidents used the slogan ‘The more we are together the stronger we shall be’ for his year of office. I’ve forgotten who it was, but his message lives on. Perhaps that in itself is significant!
I have been heartened to hear of Hindu, Muslim and Christian communities praying together in response to the threat of the Islamic State. If that is possible why can’t nations work together collaboratively; why can’t denominations work together; why can’t people set aside their differences? Life is not about individual identity. It is about corporate survival.


August/September 2014

It all began in the winter, in Australia. England’s cricket team were soundly beaten and lost the Ashes. Later in the winter England’s rugby team were soundly beaten by Wales. England’s football team failed to qualify from the group stages of the World Cup (in common with Spain and Italy). Andy Murray failed to progress beyond the quarter finals in defending his Wimbledon title. The cricket team’s woes have continued at home and, according to the newspapers and the television reporters it is all an unmitigated disaster. We must have someone to blame: the captain, the manager, the commitment of the team or the individual. But it isn’t just an English phenomenon. Look at the reaction to Brazil’s dramatic failure in the World Cup.
Why is it that people set so much store by the success of their national teams, or representatives in individual sports? What makes the media go into such in-depth analysis of what went wrong when expectations are not met? And, in these days of instant response through Twitter, what drives people to post insulting remarks about the sporting stars whose failure has ‘let our nation down’?
In answer to those questions one word comes to mind – escapism. At its most basic level it is a dissatisfaction with our own lifestyles; an escape from boredom, or, as in the case of countries like Brazil, blotting out for a few brief moments the abject poverty in which significant proportions of the population still live. While there is nothing wrong with identifying with the success of national representatives and enjoying their moment as if it were our own, there are at least two problems which emerge. First, the moment is only fleeting; the euphoria wears off and the reality of our lives re-surfaces. Second, we, who have invested nothing in the venture, have no right to make any claim on another’s success.
At the battle of Trafalgar it is reported that Nelson said ‘England expects that every man will do his duty.’ Today England (in the form of the media and the myriads of swarming gnat-like tweeters) expects that every sportsman or woman will win everything. So it’s also about pride and arrogance, which is also a deflection from the human condition. Is this the legacy of the Games which was so proudly announced in 2012? No, it is simply the legacy of a divided world, which despises the loser.
But there is another legacy – the legacy of the Cross, which calls on all people to look and be healed; to draw together in mutual support; to see value in all endeavour whatever the result. God loves a loser, because without the unstinting efforts of many losers there would never be a worthy winner.


June/July 2014

By the time you read this the European Elections will be over (collective sigh of relief!) and we will no longer be subjected to the bizarre party political broadcasts from fringe and mainstream parties alike. It has become clear to me that far from seeking to help the voter to a clearer decision making process, these programmes have clouded the important issues – for all I know perhaps that’s deliberate. So we have the party of ‘in’ or ‘out’; but equally there will be another party of ‘up’ or ‘down’ and then there will be the party of ‘round and round’. Am I not taking this seriously enough?
Yet in that ‘in’ or ‘out’ argument I can find something a little more serious but not necessarily in the way that the – well, let’s not become too political here… we’ll refer to them as the Okey-Cokey Party; not necessarily in the way that the Okey-Cokey Party intended. The argument appears to centre round the benefits of remaining in the EU over the benefits, as seen by others, of getting out. Now it seems to me that in most cases the force of the argument is driven by the way in which it appears to benefit the individual – and some individuals would undoubtedly benefit from ‘out’. Some would equally be worse off. The majority, however, would receive little benefit either way. They are simply the battleground on which the small group of ‘ins’ and the small group of ‘outs’ wage their bitter campaigns. The winner is the side that can fool the most people in the middle into thinking that their lives will be better if the ‘ins’ or the ‘outs’ are richer.
And the argument is over what? An organisation that exists almost entirely to serve itself? That is what some say. Others say it is open to manipulation by those countries which have the most financial and political muscle – or vulnerable because of the economically weak member countries. And it is all based on human activity – the Way of the World.
I’m still not being serious, am I? Well, okay, here’s where it gets a bit more real. You see, I can identify with the party of ‘in’ (but not necessarily the Okey-Cokey Party!), but I’m not talking about the EU here. We may consider the EU, the UN, NATO or any other organisation ostensibly formed for co-operative existence between nations but, as with all human activity, they are limited by human understanding. But the Kingdom of God has an ‘in-out’ requirement which leaves no-one in the middle ground; it requires a response which involves a cross, but not on a ballot paper. When Jesus died on the Cross he was voting for our salvation. ‘In’ is the acceptance of the healing that the Cross offers. ‘In’ is part of God’s plan to make all things new. ‘In’ is the decision for life.


April/May 2014

‘The wise man built his house upon the rock’ is a phrase which keeps to coming into my mind as I reflect on the turmoil of the winter’s floods. By now people are hopefully beginning, at least, the long process of putting their homes, and their lives, back together. Obviously the short term priority is to enable them to return to a close resemblance of what they had before, although it can never be the same. And that involves examining what can be done to limit the possibility of it happening again.
The long term problems are different. There is no doubt that we have sleep-walked into the situations we now have in so many parts of the country. But statistics show that we have had the worst conditions since records began. We may have to accept that eventually, however beautiful some of these places may be to live, the changing weather patterns will be too much for human activity to compete with.
All over the world human beings have, for reasons of heart or simple economics, chosen to live in places vulnerable to flood, tsunami, avalanche or any other natural disaster which is part of the nature of our world. Part of the cost is the element of risk. I guess that the practical wisdom is recognising how firm the rock is. The folly is in failing to accept responsibility for the choices we make.
Places like the Somerset Levels have been made habitable once and, while we cannot assume that they will always be so in time to come, there is still a lot which can be done to preserve the way of life which has been so severely disrupted this winter. There is a large cost but the longer it is left the larger the cost will be. It isn’t enough to blame the Government or the Environment Agency; load all the responsibility elsewhere. Residents need to dig deep, not just to repair the damage to their lives but also to raise the productivity of the area and justify the cost. And they need the support to do this.
The compassionate response of the nation to the plight of those devastated by the floods has been heartwarming. It shows the potential that exists in this country. Yet more is required. Why does it take disaster to bring us together? How quickly will we return to our insular lives and forget the needs of others? God’s Justice requires that we live in a right relationship with one another and with the world. The world is his; it is alive and has a right to erupt, shake and rage in a storm. We need to learn again how to live in harmony with the world rather than seeking to subdue and control. We may harness the forces of nature but we must always acknowledge that Nature is too powerful for human resources to overcome.
Likewise with people, we need to learn again to cooperate; to support and serve – not just spasmodically but at all times, and appreciate the current irony of Amos 5:24 – Let justice roll on like a river; righteousness like a never ending stream.


Monday, 3 February 2014

February/March 2014

I feel a bit of a musical theme emerging and I can’t think why. Well, maybe you can guess! Music has been a huge part of my life for longer than I can remember and is as great a teacher now as it’s ever been. And as I engage with pupils of all ages, playing at a variety of levels, I am reminded once again that music offers success and satisfaction over a wide range of abilities and in many different styles.
                Music itself is a language which can transcend barriers of physical ability, race, age and many more of the divisions which occur artificially in human society – and yet, all too often, human beings do the same thing to music as they do to Christian faith, holding one style of music superior to another, seeking to create elitism.
                The musical world, like the Church, is riven by factions. The motivations may be different at times but the result is equally sad. There is polarisation around individuals; around styles of music. I recall the story of George Gershwin who lived and composed in the early part of the twentieth century. An accomplished classical musician of great promise he disappointed many of his generation because his work blended classical styles in music with more popular idioms, notably jazz. In his time he was not popular with either ‘faction’ (an over-simplification, I know) and it took a long time for his work to be fully appreciated.
                I guess that, for some, the objection to jazz was associated with deep racial prejudice and had nothing to do with music. In the same way Christian divisions are sometimes unspiritual, driven by racial, social and other prejudices. As I write this in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity I’m drawn back to Gershwin and his attempt to blur the edges (again, in simple terms) between classical and popular traditions.
                There are some styles of music I’m not keen on, some that I dislike intensely, as well as those that I love. Does that mean that there can never be unity in the world of music? Must we all agree on everything and enjoy the same things; live in the same way? Unity is about seeing the connections rather than dwelling on the contradictions; seeing that heads and tails, while in opposition, are both sides of the same coin.
                The variety in music gathers many people of widely differing backgrounds, abilities, and desires under one heading. God seeks to do the same through the Church. Let me leave you with this thought. Consider the rainbow. White light is split up (refracted) into an infinite range of colours. Our eyes perceive the main bands – but look carefully at where red becomes orange, or orange becomes yellow … Is it a clear line or is it blurred?
                The Church is a panoply of different traditions; different understandings. Unity is about maintaining the diversity and celebrating the Gershwins who blur the edges….