Last Mid Week Reflection

All Good Things Must Come to An End. (This is my final regular midweek reflection. It feels like the right time to bring them to an end.)

 Geoffrey Chaucer is credited with the original use of this All Good Things Must Come to An End idiom. It first appears in the English author’s poem, Troilus and Criseyde. It is true of so many things. However it is not a universal truth.

(Jeremiah 31:3)  The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.

The enclosed picture is a song that was a favourite of my children, back in the day. Even in secular songs, love is seen as a never ending quality. As a 16 year old, my first love (Maralyn), and I sang this song by ‘Love Affair’ together.

Where life’s river flows, no one really knows
’til someone’s there to show the way to lasting love
Like the sun that shines, endlessly it shine
You always will be mine. It’s everlasting love
When other loves are gone, ours will still be strong
We have our very own everlasting love
Real love will last forever
You give me, you give me, you give me everlasting love.

Though I look back on those days with fondness (Maralyn and I still exchange Christmas Cards) that love did not stand the test of time. However, the love described by Jerimiah is truly everlasting. It is eternal covenant love. I first expressed my love for God in November 1968 (the same year I fell in love with Maralyn) however 52 years later it is still the core of my life. Speaking of love, I love my work as a vicar. I love being there for people at all the key moments. I love taking weddings and I love helping relatives family and friends through the pain of bereavement. I love going each week to God’s word and mining for truths that will help people deepen their own faith. What I have loved more than all these is helping people to find faith for the first time. In 52 years of Christian life, there have been a good number of times when folk have told me they have decided to follow Jesus and I have always sensed something beautiful and supernatural happening. Sometimes there have been tears. Sometimes there has been a deep love filled silence. In one church I had the joy of leading Alpha courses for groups of university students. On one occasion, the day all the final year students left for the first day of the rest of their lives, I found a note in my letterbox. The note was from a lovely girl called Lydia who finished the Alpha course the previous week. It said ‘Thank you for helping me discover the wonder of Jesus’. After drying my eyes I said to myself ‘this is why I do this.’

I hope, during the five months of these reflections, there have been glimpses of him in the things I have shared. I am ready to talk about Jesus whenever you are.

God Bless Alan

St Peters Services

St Peter’s pattern of Sunday services, alternating Holy Communion and Morning Worship, has now resumed. Although there is no singing at the moment, some lovely music is included. Social distancing is observed for seating and there is a one-way system through the church.  Bibles are not in use so please bring your own Bible and if you have your own service sheet please bring that too. The latest advice from the Church of England is that face masks should be worn by everyone attendingchurch services.

Midweek Reflection – 19th August

Dear Church Family

Greetings from Carol and I. Today’s reading tip toes into the realm of labour relations.

I started work in 1968 in the era of strikes and ‘work to rule’ protests. There was no greater hotbed of unrest than the student body of the Polytechnic where I was struggling (via day release and evening classes) to obtain a vocational qualification in Chemistry.

It was demanding working four days a week in a lab in Central London and, going on from a crowded commuter train, straight to evening laboratory sessions that did not finish until 10 pm. However we were keen to get the qualifications that would help us to promotion.

Imagine our frustration when we arrived to find the college blocked by picketing militant students over some esoteric problem we had never heard of. My fellow students and I felt we had real lives in the real world and could not afford the luxury of this kind of stuff. We cried ‘It’s not fair! We just want to get on with our work.’ Looking back, I would be more compassionate to the fact that young people were taking a real interest in seeking justice for others but the world is black and white when you are 19.

This week our hearts have gone out to confused students seeking to start their further education amongst more COVID generated chaos. Many a weeping student was crying ‘foul’ and ‘not fair’. I am also not without sympathy with the government trying to find its way through a maze with no map because no one has ever done this before (I am a softer as a 68 year old than I was at 19). In todays reading the workers were confused.

(Mat 20:1)  “The Kingdom of heaven is like this. Once there was a man who went out early in the morning to hire some men to work in his vineyard.

(Mat 20:2)  He agreed to pay them the regular wage, a silver coin a day, and sent them to work in his vineyard.

(Mat 20:3)  He went out again to the marketplace at nine o’clock and saw some men standing there doing nothing,

(Mat 20:4)  so he told them, ‘You also go and work in the vineyard, and I will pay you a fair wage.’

(Mat 20:5)  So they went. Then at twelve o’clock and again at three o’clock he did the same thing.

(Mat 20:6)  It was nearly five o’clock when he went to the marketplace and saw some other men still standing there. ‘Why are you wasting the whole day here doing nothing?’ he asked them.

(Mat 20:7)  ‘No one hired us,’ they answered. ‘Well, then, you go and work in the vineyard,’ he told them.

(Mat 20:8)  “When evening came, the owner told his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with those who were hired last and ending with those who were hired first.’

(Mat 20:9)  The men who had begun to work at five o’clock were paid a silver coin each.

(Mat 20:10)  So when the men who were the first to be hired came to be paid, they thought they would get more; but they too were given a silver coin each.

(Mat 20:11)  They took their money and started grumbling against the employer.

(Mat 20:12)  ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘while we put up with a whole day’s work in the hot sun—yet you paid them the same as you paid us!’

(Mat 20:13)  ‘Listen, friend,’ the owner answered one of them, ‘I have not cheated you. After all, you agreed to do a day’s work for one silver coin.

(Mat 20:14)  Now take your pay and go home. I want to give this man who was hired last as much as I gave you.

(Mat 20:15)  Don’t I have the right to do as I wish with my own money? Or are you jealous because I am generous?’ “

(Mat 20:16)  And Jesus concluded, “So those who are last will be first, and those who are first will be last.”

I have read many commentaries on this passage and they all take their own slant. Several have suggested that, in the culture of the day, there was ample work for all at harvest time. If those employed later in the day had been bothered to be there at the start of the day, they would have been hired. If you read the text you can see a frustration in the farmer that comes out in the words used: –

‘standing there doing nothing.’

‘wasting the whole day’

‘still standing there’

Those who turned up at the start of the day were the good guys, the industrious ones. Maybe they were even a bit pompous (like me at 19). ‘We work hard. We are good boys. The world will reward us and punish the scroungers and the ones that butt into other people’s problems. They think ‘if ever a worker earned their silver coin, it was us.’ How furious they were when it came to pay day.

It was a deliberately provocative story.

·         Was it fair that a thief that had misused his whole life found forgiveness on the cross?

·         Was it fair that, when God did bother to turn up, he preferred the company of tax collectors, lepers and prostitutes, whilst good pious Pharisees missed out?

·         Was it fair that Gentiles without the first clue how do law and religion were suddenly the favoured ones?

No it was gloriously, splendidly, stupendously unfair.

The first workers had something the five o clock labourers did not have. They had the joy of devoting the whole day to fruitful work. There was no sense in the text that those who turned up late were having fun. In fact they were doing nothing. Charles Spurgeon the 17th Century evangelist was once asked, after a meeting, how many disciples had been won for Christ that day. He replied ‘four and a half’. The questioner responded ‘four adults and a child?’ Spurgeon corrected him ‘quite the reverse four children with their whole lives to offer the Master and one adult with a mere handful of years to give.’

This passages celebrates the unfair. God is clearly biased. He is biased in our favour.

Blessings Alan

Midweek Reflection – 12th August

Mid-August greetings to you all. Last week was very exciting for Carol and I. She got her hair done and paid a garden visit to her brother and sister. We also both got to meet our new grandson Peter, who is (of course) gorgeous.

Also this week Carol lost a close family friend, who her sister had been supporting through a long fight with cancer, and a former colleague of mine, who was vicar of the neighbouring parish in Mansfield, died over the weekend.

Work wise things are beginning to move again and I am preparing a couple for marriage later this year and working as a registrar’s surrogate to enable marriages in churches where banns cannot be called. All of these things are reminders of the cycle of life. The bible has fantastic ordinary life advice, as well insights into eternity. The reading set for today is real ‘bread and butter’ living well, stuff. How do we handle broken relationships?

(Mat 18:15)  “If your brother sins against you, go to him and show him his fault. But do it privately, just between yourselves. If he listens to you, you have won your brother back.

(Mat 18:16)  But if he will not listen to you, take one or two other persons with you, so that ‘every accusation may be upheld by the testimony of two or more witnesses,’ as the scripture says.

(Mat 18:17)  And if he will not listen to them, then tell the whole thing to the church. Finally, if he will not listen to the church, treat him as though he were a pagan or a tax collector.

(Mat 18:18)  “And so I tell all of you: what you prohibit on earth will be prohibited in heaven, and what you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.

(Mat 18:19)  “And I tell you more: whenever two of you on earth agree about anything you pray for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.

(Mat 18:20)  For where two or three come together in my name, I am there with them.”

As a vicar, I have sometimes been called upon to act as peacemaker, especially when dissention has broken out in the church. I discovered that dealing with paid staff and volunteers were two very different things. Give me volunteers every time. An Archdeacon once gave me some very basic advice. You will have heard it many times, but doing it is more demanding than saying it. Try walking in the other person’s shoes. The new children’s worker comes to the vicar deeply frustrated because the Sunday group leaders won’t embrace new ideas. The Sunday group leaders with decades of experience come to the vicar deeply frustrated because this young upstart, fresh from college, thinks they know it all. Quietly and gently you urge each to see it from the other’s point of view. Often (but not always) the process ends with tears and an embrace and you feel each has ‘won their brother/sister back’.

The passage as a whole is leading us towards the powerful state of ‘agreement’. Nothing is more powerful than unity or more destructive than disunity. The reason for this is that ‘agreement’ opens the door for God to act.

Come together’. We are having to find new ways to do this. We are still at a point were most churches (and all larger churches) cannot meet together physically. In my illustration above I mention the healing embrace. For a season (maybe a long season) we can only embrace in limited and specific situations. The Pandemic results in a state of living at a physical distance. It is therefore all the more important that we find new ways to express our unity. Over the past months Carol and I have thoroughly enjoyed designing our own cards via Moonpig. My creative children have found they don’t need £4.69 to do that. They have used paper, pen, scissors and paint to bless Carol and I. Small gifts also take on a new dimension in showing that we care. We can also be more careful and more generous with our words. Our bishop has given a good lead in this. He never tires of telling clergy, lay workers and volunteers that he thinks we are doing a great job. It has been said that words are cheap. On the contrary, they mean a lot. As people of faith, we are constantly sustained by God’s words. Words like ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love. Jer 31 vesre3.’

As we work hard at these creative ways of coming together, we come into the promise of verse 20 ‘He is in it with us’.

Blessings Alan

Sermon – 9th August

John Ortberg wrote that book with the splendid title: –

If you want to walk on water first you have to get out of the boat. It’s a book about faith and like all his works manages to be challenging and humorous at the same time. This has always been a favourite story. It was great coming to Tollerton to see it so beautifully depicted in our stained glass window.

There is nothing about those waves that would make anyone but an idiot want to step on them.

I say this with appropriate reverence but if there ever was a person in scripture with the capacity to be an over enthusiastic excitable but lovable idiot it was super impetuous Peter.

Again this is a very familiar passage and I have read it often but for the first time I realised that Peter walking on the water was not Jesus’ idea. In my mind I remembered that Jesus had said come. But I had passed over fact that that Peter suggested it. Here it is in the message translation:

28     Peter, suddenly bold, said, “Master, if it’s really you, call me to come to you on the water.”

The word here is interesting. The authorised version has bid me come to you and the literal translation is ‘entice’. Lord: encourage me to want to come to you. Draw out of me the faith that will bridge the gulf between us. If it is really you then I believe that you can do this.

We think this is strange but the whole context is strange. What put this strange idea in peter’s mind? Well Jesus was doing it right in front of him. In some way by some physics that we don’t understand, The human Jesus who mast have weighed at least 150 pounds was just standing there failing to according to the equation that every school child knows to displace his own weight of water and therefore having no right under natural law to float let alone ride surging waves.

The supernatural was going on before his eyes and faith welled up within him enough to think I want some of this. After all this is the Jesus who said the works that I do you shall do and greater works even than these. Might this not apply to this as much as to healing the sick and picking up the serpents and drinking the poison and so on.

And added to all that not only did Jesus open this frame of thinking by standing there on and not in the water he also added a comment that was almost guaranteed to provoke this response in Peter. Just seconds before Peter asked Jesus to entice faith out of him Jesus had said this: And this is my translation of verse

27     Seeing their fear he dealt with it quickly saying

Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

I once did one of those questionnaires designed to show you what you spiritual gifts are. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the results suggested I might have the gist of faith. That course described faith in these terms

It describes Faith in these terms

  • The gift of Faith is the divine enablement to act on God’s promises with confidence and unwavering belief in God’s ability to fulfil his purposes.
  • To believe the promises of God and inspire others to do the same
  • To act in complete confidence of God’s ability to overcome obstacles
  • To demonstrate an attitude of trust in God’s will and his promises
  • To advance the cause of Christ by going forward when others will not
  • To ask God for what is needed and to trust him for his provision

Part of me was really encouraged that such a clear answer emerged from the process and quite excited by the nature of the spiritual gift. I don’t know how well I do these things listed but I do know that they are things I want to do and things I feel excited about doing and things that I would like to do for this group of people in this setting of Chilwell were God has placed me. I gulp and say to myself those things can’t be talking about Alan Howe. I’m just me and those things are so scary but also so, so exciting.  What vicar would not want to advance the cause of Christ.

We are all aware in 2020 that there are storms out there.

Back before covid I listened to a A radio 5 ‘phone in’ and email dialogue on the subject of miracles and it provoked this response from one lsitener

Miracles did not happen in the past and they don’t happen today the whole thing is a load of bunkum.

For them a God man who walks on water is a fairy tale. Anyone who is barmy enough to have aspirations about copying is a lunatic who will soon become a deceased lunatic. They would say that any idiot that builds their lives on teaching and understanding these truths is at best deceived and at worst a danger to a right thinking society.

In one Stoppard play I can remember a scene in which a bumbling Vicar comes to offer condolence to a bereaved family who politely brush him off and send him away and one of the family sighs and says who do you tell a nice man without offence that his whole life is based on a lie.

Yet you and I whenever we say a creed take an enormous risk together we say publically I believe. I believe in God the father Almighty. We believe in Jesus. We believe he is the son of God. We believe he died and rose again.

We believe those things and we base our lives on the things that we believe. We are risk takers. St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 if there is no resurrection from the dead and Christ did not win us place in heaven we are above all people most to be pitied.

It probably says something about me but as I thought of an illustration for this my mind went to that history flight clip that is shown often on TV at Christmas were you see all the wonderful potential flying machines all picking up speed zooming along the pier for a launch into the sky an the man who must have spend months designing and building his multi-winged craft only to see it buckle and drop like a stone into the sea. That man was taking a risk based on a dream and the dream turned out not to have substance.

Yet for 2000 years there have been Peter’s who in their different ways have got out of the boat in the name of Christ. We have taken the risk of becoming men and women of faith. The world seems out of control right now. Covid has produced one set of problems but those problem have been added to so many others. Every time we think it can’t get worse something like the Beirut explosion happened to show human folly knows no bounds. Yet even in the midst of all that people are searching for eternal meaning.

Let’s return to Peter and ask what was it that made him ask Jesus if he could get out of the boat and walk to him?

Peter’s risk was the ultimate step of faith but it was not mindless groundless faith. He was glimpsing Jesus through the storm. Through the spray and mist and against the violent rocking motion of the boat He was looking into the eyes of a man who just fed thousands of people with a tiny amount of fish and bread. A man who could make the lame walk and the blind see. It may have been the same boat he was now in that was almost sinking from the storm had been on a much calmer day almost sunk because of the weight of fish provided in a miraculous catch.

Here was a man who rose above rules like gravity and storms like disease and challenges like hunger. Here was a man whose power Peter had seen to be almost limitless. So then had the time come for doing the works of Christ? Had the time come to take the courage that Jesus was drawing out in him and use any means to close the distance between him and his master.

Inside Peter a realisation dawned. If I can’t follow him through the storm against the odds to impossible places then how can I ever hope to lead a church in his name?

How can I ever be a rock for those who believe through our testimony if when Jesus says come I don’t come because the journey from me to him seems impossible?

I asked him to identify himself by calling me to him and he did and with the answer also came the courage.

Peter could not bear to stay in the boat when every fibre of his being wanted to walk with Jesus. Was it to be the risk of getting out of the boat to get to Jesus or was it to be the pain of staying in the boat knowing that Jesus is calling him?

All of us face enormous challenges as we try to make sense of the current situation. We have no idea what ministry will look like in the days and months ahead. Will you join me in asking Jesus what step of faith he wants us to make. Even to keep faithful keep believing the best is yet to come. Believing that God has a plan for good and a future in a step of faith.

Perhaps that is our first step. To say in our hearts. Even if the current reality feels like one sucking us all under, we will make a choice to step toward Him.

Coronavirus Update 24

Dear Clergy, Readers/LLMs and churchwardens,

You may have seen that there has been an announcement from the Prime Minister this morning that face coverings will be mandatory in places of worship from Sunday 8th August. Regrettably we were not aware of this when the previous update was sent, but we felt that some further clarification might be helpful.

The Church of England has produced their own update on this, which is reproduced below. As you can see, they are reviewing this and will issue more information next week. Once we have received this then we will do the same. 

Church of England Update Friday 31 July at 13:30

The Prime Minister has outlined plans to make face coverings mandatory in Places of Worship from 8th August and has withdrawn guidance to permit indoor professional performances with immediate effect. We will study detailed government regulations and guidance once they are available and will update our guidance accordingly.

In the meantime, we continue to strongly advise that face coverings should be worn by all those attending a place of worship, including ministers, worshippers, staff, volunteers, contractors and visitors, where there may be other people present; remembering that they are mainly intended to protect other people, not the wearer, from coronavirus (COVID-19) and that they are not a replacement for physical distancing and regular hand washing.

Yours

Phil

The Venerable Phil Williams

Archdeacon of Nottingham

Sermon – 2nd August

Well who would have thought when I led you in a celebration of Holy Communion on March the first that none of us would take communion again for 22 weeks.

I will tell you later about the first time I took communion in 1968 but in the 52 years since there has never been a month in which I have not meet with the Lord at His table.

I had not expected today to be as emotional as it is. Nor have I realised how much I have missed doing this in remembrance of Him. True its not quite like normal and we share only the bread for the time being.

However, it is, it will be a bit like the feast itself; in that we do it spiritually now to think forward to the time we feast with Him in the great banquet. There we will all drink the finest wine. The New Wine of the Holy Spirit.

I have never been quite sure who the ubiquitous they are in the many ‘they say’ phrases but in any case one of the many things that ‘they say’ is that a gold fish has a memory span of only 8 seconds.

I have never really believed that. Tim, my son once had a Goldfish called Michael or to give him his full name Michael Fish. If you entered the room Michael automatically swam to the surface and I can only assume that is because he remembered that it is possible that when someone comes into the room that he might get fed.

Memory is a wonderful thing isn’t. It’s a curious paradox that the older you get the more memories you have in the database and the worse and less accurate the memory becomes.

However, it’s also true that memory is a precious thing. In the course of my work as a Vicar I visit many people who might well say that their memories are the most precious and valuable things they have.

They can make an empty day full and a heavy day lighter. We keep mementos, we store photo albums, and we keep scrapbooks to fuel the power of memory.

Last week was both the 7th anniversary of the death of my first wife Hilary and the 11th anniversary of the death of my beloved brother John. As a result, I spent a happy afternoon with the photo albums. In the process I stumbled across the album of pictures of my trip to Israel in 1993. I spent a very happy few minutes looking through it. It brought so many things flooding back. The taste of fresh falafels, the heat of the Jericho Sun, the experience of floating on the Dead Sea and the thrill of peering into the cave were the Dead Sea scrolls were first discovered.

I am also amazed at the power of memory to associate two things together. I once did a journey and the previous time I did the journey was many years earlier. When I first did the journey, I was listening to a talking book on the tape player and as I came to a particular junction all those years later I found I was remembering the exact point in the tape the story was at those years before.

It was a Cadfael murder mystery and the monks had just acquired a new Holy relic.  Where am I going with this?

When we were at college, we learned a posh word in relation to the institution of Holy Communion. That word was the Greek word anamnesis.

The anamnesis of the Eucharist the lecture was called.

The same root word that we get the word amnesia from. Jesus wanted to plant a memory in the minds of his followers. He did this by founding a basic wonderful ritual that would remind his followers of him. He knew that festivals hold a key place in all our memories. He knew that he addressed a group of followers for whom Passover held a very central place and he sought to implant this new image in the midst of that treasured core of memory.

The bread and the wine help us to remember Jesus. He knew it would and it still does.

I once talked to a teacher who was not a professing Christian. When she asked for thoughts about how to do ‘do Easter’ with the children she freely admitting that she could not make head or tale of the story and frankly found it all rather gory. If you watch Mel Gibson’s passion of Christ you experience the graphic gore. Yet in fact the gospels are remarkable in their understating of the gore.

The bible does not stress it. There is horror in the story, but it is in no way hyped. There is a sense of course in which none of us can fully understand Easter. But we know that at the core of it is a body broken and blood shed and Jesus says don’t dwell on the blood. Don’t dwell of the spear wounds or the whip lashes. What you need to do is remember me not as a hero who died in the past but as a presence with you in the present.

For just as we have bread and wine with us today, so we have Jesus with us with us today.

Don’t get me wrong I am a good reformed evangelical Anglican.

Jesus is not materially present in the bread there is no real presence in the wine. But Jesus is really here. He is present in his body the church and he is present in me as a member of the church. And as we eat this bread and as I on our behalf drink this cup we remember that afresh.

Can you remember the time you first did this, because I can?

I was 16 and Jesus had turned my life around and given it direction and the cup was passed to me by Colin Buckland the schoolboy who led me to Christ.

It was an informal end of term service celebrated with a bap so floury that it left our hands white when we broke it, and a half bottle of Beaujolais purchased with our combined dinner money.

Yet it was the loveliest feast I had ever attended.

It was a feast of victory a feast of agape love.

It was then and it still is today.

Jesus was real then in a 1960’s Port-a-cabin in a school playground and he is alive today in this our lovely country church. COVID 19 doesn’t make him any less real. He will be known to us this morning in the breaking of the bread as he was known to the Emmaus disciples 2000 years ago.

It will be one more time in which Jesus will stretch forth His arms to bridge the time until we drink wine with him in paradise. We will remember the Lord’s death until he comes.

Let us Pray.

Sermon – 26th July

Growing up as a working-class lad in the 50’s and 60’s, I was like my peers in soaking up all the pop music of the era. The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, I listening to them all. As I began to build my record collection, I felt I needed a bit of culture.

This was the time when complications of popular classics became available and I bought myself Classics 100 which brought together the ‘best bits’ in inverted commas of 100 classical music pieces.

I lapped it up. And, of course, nothing stirred my heart more than the 1812 overture. I thought it was brilliant. I would crank up the volume of my Dansette record player until my bedroom shook with the explosive power. There were two things though that I had failed to understand.

  1. Was how the narrative of classical music works
  2. Anything about the historical context of 1812.

My clip of the 1812 overture was a little under four minutes. The full overture is over 15 minutes. It was written in 1880 to tell the story of events 68 years earlier. The self-proclaimed Emperor, Napoleon, was gobbling up Europe and had set his eyes on Russia. He set off with an army of 400,000 French soldiers, accompanied by 1000 heavy artillery canons, and marched on Moscow.

Russia was not on a war footing and her army was less than a quarter the size of the French army. Two things happened

  1. The Russian Orthodox church called for a period of prayer
  2. The Tzar called on all good-hearted Russian civilians to set up barricades and defend them with their lives. The resilience of the people and the harsh Russian winter held Napoleon back until he was forced to retreat.

The overture tells this whole story. Tchaikovsky built into the middle of the overture lilting refrains of Russian patriotic folk melodies to represent calling the people to arms. The music of several stirring hymns is also mirrored in the build up to the crescendo. In the crescendo, bells tolled out the victory and a volley of 11 Howitzer field cannons were used to show the euphoria of a great and unexpected victory.

My Classics 100 did away with all the build up and went straight for the big finish.

Why do I tell this extended historical and musical story? It is because we can often take the same approach to scripture. Don’t get me wrong, it is far better to have favourite verses than no verses.

When Donald Trump, who relies heavily on the support of the Christian right in America, was put on the spot by a journalist and asked what are your favourite bible passages, he looked acutely embarrassed and thinking quickly he said ‘It’s all helpful I wouldn’t want to single out and particular verses’. I may be uncharitable, but I think what he meant is ‘I don’t know any’.

I think I have told you before that as young Christian in the charismatic renewal era, I was given a slim booklet with the catchy title ‘The Jesus Person Pocket Promise Book’. It contained 1000 promises from the word of God. It declared them to be there to be named and claimed. When the heat of renewal faded the little the booklet was rebranded ‘Promises to live By’. A much thicker book would have the less catchy title ‘Biblical promises to understand in context.’

Finally, to the point I am stressing this morning. Promises however wonderful need a context to have and real meaning.’

In the days I have just described many of us had Romans 8 as a poster on our walls. Usually with the last three verses.

(Rom 8:37)  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

(Rom 8:38)  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,

(Rom 8:39)  neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

These verses are the crescendo. They are the 11 Howitzers and the peel of victory bells. Paul lights up with the wonder of them. The canvas is huge and the victory complete.

They are preceded by 8 chapters of context. The 3 verses are the climax of a 220 verse stiry describing our struggle with sin, suffering and persecution. These are chapters that describe Paul’s personal struggle with his own past. They are chapters that highlight the human condition under the burdens of original sin and how that has marred and spoiled the whole created order.

These are Chapters in which Paul still struggles to find what is core truth and what is prejudice. Chapters in which the new life of the Spirit within him is still at war with his old Pharisaic legalism and pomposity. He knows that the work of Christ in him is both complete and yet still an ongoing project.

More than any other biblical writer he struggles with the now and not yet tension of the Christian life. These verses ring with those tensions. Yet they also look past them to the final outcome.

The Christians in the Roman church faced horrible persecution under the most tyrannical regime. They really needed this message. They would go on needing it for generations. Every generation faces it own overwhelming problems. Every generation needs to work out faith in its own context.

We have the Pandemic problems that the world is seeking to address in 2020 and beyond.

That is just one of the latest problems a fallen world is facing.

In his crescendo passage, Paul searched for a crescendo word that was his equivalent of the 11 canons and the city wide bells. He choses a word in verse 27 that is only used once in scripture. It is a word borrowed from the Roman military historians and narrators.

The word is hupernikaow and the Romans used it of their greatest victories. Victories in which the enemy had been totally overwhelmed by the mightiest of armies.

English needs three words to convey it.

More than Conquerors

Paul understands the victory because he understands how hard the battle is being. It is almost certain that he gave his life to it and for it.

Christians down the ages have had our part to play in this cosmic victory. It is a battle that love wins. It is a battle, elements of which, we still fight.

It is a marathon not a sprint and it will go on for each of us until we join the victory feast.

But we shall overcome because Jesus overcame.

And in all these things

(Rom 8:37)  we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

Let’s Pray

A Litany for Healing

Together we lift our prayers to you, O God of love and healing.

God the Father, you breathe life into your whole Creation.
Help us breathe deeply of your peace and presence.

God the Son, you give us yourself to make our joy complete.
Help us give our fear, pain, and grief to you.

God the Holy Spirit, you move through our lives in unexpected ways.
Help us move in step with your life-giving power and love.

Holy Trinity, One God, accept our thanks and praise for all the blessings of this life, especially for those blessings that our present circumstances make difficult to see.

O Lord, hear our prayer.

Shed the light of your healing love on all who are sick in body, mind, or spirit, that they may find new wholeness illumined by your grace. Knit together in your love all whose relationships have frayed, that they may find reconciliation and new beginnings.

O Lord, hear our prayer.

Bless all who work to improve the health of others, that they may bring hope, care, wisdom, and skill to all they serve.
Hold in the palm of your hand all who are near death and all who care for them, that they may know the peace that passes all understanding.
O Lord, hear our prayer.

Grant all who turn to you the courage to participate with you in restoring this broken world to wholeness, that everyone and everything may share in the hope of your kingdom.
O Lord, hear our prayer.

At this time, I invite your prayers of thanksgiving or intercession in the quiet of your hearts. (Silence is kept.)

For these and for all other petitions that are too deep for words, we pray to you:
O Lord, hear our prayer.

You are the Lord whose promises never cease.
You are the Lord whose presence never fails.

Gracious God, you are close to us no matter how far we feel from you: draw us into the very heart of your grace and help us to live into the truth that nothing in all creation can separate us from your love in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sermon – 19th July

I guess most of you know how the Common Worship lectionary works. It takes us through most of the bible in a three-year cycle. That means that in July 2017 we were working through Romans 8 as we are in 2020.

The bible teaches us that all scripture is God breathed. For a preacher like me, coming for the 12th time to the same passage, that means I have dwelt for many hours in Romans 8 14-25. Yet the deep miracle of scripture is that it lives.

The bible says of itself that it is alive and active and sharper than any two-edged sword. It cut straight into the life of the reader. The second miracle is that God breathes more than once.

More than 12 times, in fact he breathes again every we time we come to a passage. Even a familiar one. Some things in the world stay much the same. When I looked at my 2017 sermon, I was celebrating the imminent arrival of our fourth grandchild Sophia. Three years later we are awaiting the arrival of our fifth grandchild, a grandson Peter, that’s next month, and our sixth, probably a granddaughter, in November.

However so much else has changed about the way the world is working and will work that we need the breath of God once again for the new reality. We do know there will be new life. It is just the form of the new things we need to discover. So, to the passage. As I often do, I use The Message for another angle.

(Rom 8:14)  God’s Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go!

(Rom 8:15)  This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Father?”

(Rom 8:16)  God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children.

(Rom 8:17)  And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him!

(Rom 8:18)  That’s why I don’t think there’s any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times.

(Rom 8:19)  The created world itself can hardly wait for what’s coming next.

(Rom 8:20)  Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in

(Rom 8:21)  until both creation and all the creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead. Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens.

(Rom 8:22)  All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs.

(Rom 8:23)  These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance.

(Rom 8:24)  That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us.

(Rom 8:25)  But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.

Again, in the sermon three years ago I was lamenting the struggle placed on the church by decades of decline. As I wrote then it was hard to see how and what might bring about change. It needed something big that challenged the church and the world and the whole way that we think.

Little did I know!

Yet we still know and see only a tiny part of the picture. My one and only published work from 15 years ago has the inspiring title Leading Ordinary Churches into Growth.

As it happens, I have a copy with me!

It opens with a quote from G.K.Chesterton from a book called the Everlasting man. He says this ‘On Five occasions in history the church has gone to the dogs but on each occasion, it has been the dogs that have died. He cites the examples from the church nearly being wiped out by barbarians in the 4th Century then by a surge of militant Islam in the 10th Century (there is nothing new under the Sun) through the Reformation in the 15th century to the evangelical revival and missionary revival of the 17th and 19th centuries. Each time when the future looked bleak there was a fresh move of God through his people. The same will happen. How can I be sure?

  1. Because history repeats itself (the adage goes, it has to because no one listens the first five times)
  2. Because of that biblical truth of the final victory of God when the Earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.

In nature one of the surest signs that a Tsunami is coming is when the tide goes out further than it has ever gone before. Romans is a book written on a huge theological canvas. In Romans, Paul addresses the biggest truths in the biggest way. God gave him a brilliant mind and made him a brilliant scholar. One that astounded his teachers. Good Christian Jews like Gamaliel. Romans so often is mind blowing and Romans 8 contains some of the very biggest truths on a the very biggest canvas.

I just love that biblical picture that accords with the human pictures Carol and I have been seeing about our two new grandchildren in the womb. And indeed the way in which Jenny and Hannah are visably expanding with the new life within them.

‘We are enlarged in the waiting.’ The Message is expanding on the way that verses 24 and 25 use hope. The root word appears 6 times in the two verses and the change of tense from the first four to the final two is important. Let me attempt the Alan Howe translation

We hope for salvation

We hope to see it

But

The hope is not based on what we currently see

The hope is based on what we expect to see

Because when we truly expect it with all our heart mind and strength

When we expect it and we patiently for it

Then we wait in full assurance that it is on its way, that is because the hope grows in the waiting.

That hope, that positive hope, changes everything. What it does in effect is to take the pain out of waiting.

Since the picture three years ago of our Granddaughter Sophia in the womb, Jonty has posted hundreds of her as she has grown

As every parent, and particularly every mother, knows between that picture and those pictures there was some difficult stuff. The pains of childbirth itself.

In the case of Sophia, the hours in special care as they tackled the very common problem of Jaundice. Then all the challenges of preparing an adult friendly bungalow to become a child equipped house. They are now working on making space for number 2

But the challenges were also the joys.

So, today, this is a very simple sermon based on a very profound passage.

The lesson is this.

God’s will, will be done, in God’s time and in God’s way.

Our job is to trust him and to wait faithfully and joyfully.

Three years ago, I did not see many shoots of growth around the Christian world. Three years later, I am hearing a different story as adversity makes people take stock and reassess

I sometimes get stressed and frustrated.

Sorry Lord. I should know better.

As the hymn says

I cannot tell how He will win the nations,
How He will claim His earthly heritage,
How satisfy the needs and aspirations
Of East and West, of sinner and of sage.
But this I know, all flesh shall see His glory,
And He shall reap the harvest He has sown,
And some glad day His sun shall shine in splendour
When He the Saviour, Saviour of the world is known.

I think God’s message to me as we draw breath and emerge from lockdown is to allow it to be a time when I let Him enlarge my faith in the waiting. A time when I allow him to remind me that He is in charge that He has a plan and it is a plan for good and for the growth of His Kingdom.

My job, our job, is to be faithful and to trust Him. Knowing that in His time what I, what we,  hope for and dream of, will happen in His way.

May God bless us and keep us.

Alan

Sermon – 12th July

Dear Church Family

I trust you are all well. Thirteen worshippers gathered tis morning for our first service in four months. All went well and the warm weather offered the opportunity to fellowship outside after the service. Here is the sermon text as promised.

Best wishes Alan

Who would have guessed back on March 4th that it would be 16 weeks before I had the privilege of leading you in public worship again? Weird does not even come close to describing it.

Ironically had plans gone differently I would not have been with you today, but be chugging somewhere along the Danube having experienced a passion play in Oberammergau and on our way to Salzburg for ‘A Sound of Music Experience’. We have swapped it for what has now been called a staycation, on The Isle of Wight, in September.

I will say this, God could not have laid on a better bible passage for me to open up today than the early verses of Romans chapter 8.

First, I want to dwell on verse 1 from the ever-helpful Message translation.

(Rom 8:1)  With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud.

I have a couple of pictures of under the black cloud to share with you.

The first is from dear old Eeyore A.A. Milnes famous depressive donkey. I had a fun half hour looking up Eeyore quotes. I chose just one of them for this morning.

Oh well Pooh it’s still snowing.

It’s still freezing cold BUT at least there hasn’t been an earthquake.

The second picture is of a cartoon man under a cloud of depression. Churchill famously called his depressive illness ‘the black dog’.

For many people, the past four months have been like being under a low-lying black cloud. So many things seem to have been snatched away from us. Among those things have been the simple things that make life worth living ,like embracing our children and grandchildren. So, what is the path away from the darkness that has enveloped all of us?

Well as any Sunday School child knows. The answer is always Jesus. Jesus is also St. Paul’s answer here. The darkness he speaks of is not the one that has floored us.

Not a darkness of four months duration, but a darkness that entered the world at The Fall. The darkness of sin. It became very clear in the early days of seeking a vaccine for COVID that it was not going to be easy. Some illnesses can be attacked and eradicated with a powerful vaccine, some are more complex and need fighting in a number of ways and on a number of fronts. In the same way, sin takes many forms and shows its symptoms in many ways. One thing we don’t need however is a track and trace.

Everyone of us is infected.

Earlier in Romans Paul declares ‘All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. None of us is untainted by it. No not one.

However, Paul has good news in verse 2 and I quote: –

(Rom 8:2)  A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.

As we look to the future, the world’s politicians have sought to encourage us with big positive words.

Our Prime minister has urged us to build build build. Our chancellor has invited us i.e. the whole nation out for a meal and told us that he would go Dutch and pay half. These things are good messages, we need encouragement.

President Trump has encouraged the American people by expressing his faith in them to make a better future; calling them the finest nation there has ever been.

Again, encouragement is good. We need to build one another up. The bible tells that if we do that, we are fulfilling the law of love.

We have a good bishop in this diocese, He has done a fantastic job of encouraging the workers in his part of the vineyard. He sent Carol and I a personal message of encouragement in which he said how much he values our ministry. He has asked his staff to phone around all those who have been shielding and they have done so on a regular basis.

As we look around at what has been happening spiritually in our nation during lockdown, there is much to be encouraged about. There has been a fourfold increase in the number of online Alpha Courses for example.

The Apostle Paul had been through great hardship but in Romans 8 he brings an enormous outpouring of encouragement. For much of his early life he was zealous for, but crushed by, the demands of the law. He had such a strong awareness of his own sin that he called himself the chief of all sinners. When the strong wind of the Spirit of Christ first came to him it was with such power that it literally knocked him to the ground. When he arose, he was a different person with a very different outlook.

His new voice was the voice of a renewed sinner whose sin has been taken to the cross and dealt with by the power of the risen Christ. That voice resonates so strongly through Romans 8.

It is his spiritual state of the Union Address.

His 4th of July speech.

He had been liberated from a tyrant but for him it was not an Independence Day it was a totally dependent day.

Dependent on the overwhelming victory of Christ.

Verse 5 gives his rational for this: –

(Rom 8:5)  Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God!

As I have said in my online reflection, Carol and I have been worshipping at Holy Trinity Brompton and we will do so again later today. During one service there were several testimonies from people who had done Alpha online. One person spoke of how he, as a seeker, had been filled with the power of the Spirit as he sat at the breakfast bar in his own kitchen, attending Alpha via his laptop. He testified that he had been such a sceptic that if he had gone to a church among a group of people, he would have suspected emotional manipulation and mass hysteria.

He said this.

‘In my own kitchen with my own off button available, surrounded by my own dirty washing up, I knew it had to be real. If it works here it works everywhere. Not only did I feel the touch of the Spirit, every not yet Christian in my group did. I know that this is a whole new beginning and that God is real and relevant to my life.’

The only thing that stands between the experience of Paul, around 45AD the experience of all the Christ followers there have ever been, my experience between 1968 and now, the only thing is time.

Jesus is the same Lord

God is the same Father and

the Blessed ‘go between God’, Holy Spirit is common to all those experiences.

The words of Paul in Romans 8 are words for today. Let me close with his state of the union address and as I read apply these truths to yourself.

(Rom 8:10)  But for you who welcome him, in whom he dwells—even though you still experience all the limitations of sin—you yourself experience life on God’s terms.

(Rom 8:11)  It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!

Amen to that.

Let’s Pray

Midweek Reflection (15/7)

Dear Church Family

Greetings from Carol and I. A particular greeting to those still shielding. The 13 of us that gathered for worship on Sunday remembered you in our prayers. When you are able to join us again, you will appreciate the hard work that a couple of grounds working parties have put into making the church yard look great.

There is no doubt that times remain uncertain.

My youngest son is a great ‘eBay’ bargain hunter and he and his wife have been equipping themselves for the arrival of their second child. Having bid for particularly vital and urgent item, and won the auction, he then discovered that it needed to be collected from Leicester (only 10 miles away) and they will have to wait for it until our sister city unlocks again. The book of James is a wonderfully practical book. I was reminded of a passage that fits so well with our current phase of life.

(James 4:13)  And now I have a word for you who brashly announce, “Today—at the latest, tomorrow—we’re off to such and such a city for the year. We’re going to start a business and make a lot of money.”

(14)  You don’t know the first thing about tomorrow. You’re nothing but a wisp of fog, catching a brief bit of sun before disappearing.

(15)  Instead, make it a habit to say, “If the Master wills it and we’re still alive, we’ll do this or that.”

(16)  As it is, you are full of your grandiose selves. All such vaunting self-importance is evil.

All around us in Tollerton are people who planned to go on holiday, to move, to get married, to have a baby baptised or simply to visit a friend in hospital. All those plans have been thrown in the air. We firmly hope that we are on the road to stability but there are a million things that may trip us up. However uncertain things are for us, we know of other parts of the world in far more dire need. How can we help? Who should we help? Does charity begin at home? Should we give most support to the greatest need?

This brings us to another of my favourite passages in James.

(Jas 1:5)  But if any of you lack wisdom, you should pray to God, who will give it to you; because God gives generously and graciously to all.

One thing a period of crisis does is to help us focus the mind. It helps us to know what is and what is not of most importance. The New Testament is full of practical advice about priorities. It warns us not to store too much in our barns. It warns us not to start a project unless we have the resources to finish it. It warns us to be prepared for the master’s call on our lives lest we miss the moments of opportunity without batteries for our torches. Most of its teachings encourage us to make Kingdom things our highest priority. What that actually means in practice will be different for each one of us.

At various times I have used journaling as a tool to get my thinking straight and to seek to align myself to God’s will for my life. Journaling is a posh word for ‘keep a note book and pour your heart out to God.’ I write out what I want to say to God and what I understand to be the needs and priorities of the moment. Often I will do so alongside a bible passage. James is great for this if your need practical material advice. The Psalms are great if it is your feelings that are in a mess. You will often find that the very act of writing things down brings a measure of clarity. Some people journal all the time. I admire their stamina. For me journaling has always been ‘for a season’. Keep a separate journal for each season. Don’t feel you have to fill the book. I have several dozen journals; some are full, some only have a few pages. I don’t throw them away because sometimes it helps to go back and remind myself of that particular journey. I hope this helps you.

May God guide you and bless you. Alan

Midweek Reflection (17/6)

Dear Church Family

Over the past few reflections, I have shared a portion of a song and linked it to our current situation. Today I continue that trend with a portion of a Beatles song.

It won’t be long, yeh,

It won’t be long, yeh, yeh, yeh.

As I shared at the weekend, the church will be open for private prayer from the beginning of July. Now, we heard yesterday, that we can begin limited public worship from July 5th, subject to all that needs to be done, being in place. I have met with the wardens, this morning, and we are attending a diocesan virtual ZOOM meeting, tomorrow evening, that will give the guidelines. The first services will be ‘Services of the Word’ (i.e. no communion) and will not include singing. However, we will be allowed to meet together, which is the vital first step.

The Bishop of London is heading up the nationwide ‘return to worship’ and she has made it clear that many churches will wish to continue to provide online resources. The maximum attendance will be 30 (which will work for us but not for many churches).

As the nation slowly rises from the ashes of COVID19, many people will need financial, material, emotional, mental and spiritual support. All of us need to play our part as God moves our hearts (and indeed our wallets).

As I read my bible in preparation for today, I came to a time in the history of God’s people when they were called to enter the promised land (indeed, to reclaim it, for it had been the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob)

(Joshua 1:1)  After the death of Moses the servant of GOD, GOD spoke to Joshua, Moses’ assistant:

(2)  “Moses my servant is dead. Get going. Cross this Jordan River, you and all the people. Cross to the country I’m giving to the People of Israel.

(3)  I’m giving you every square inch of the land you set your foot on—just as I promised Moses.

(4)  From the wilderness and this Lebanon east to the Great River, the Euphrates River—all the Hittite country—and then west to the Great Sea. It’s all yours.

(5)  All your life, no one will be able to hold out against you. In the same way I was with Moses, I’ll be with you. I won’t give up on you; I won’t leave you.

(Jos 1:6)  Strength! Courage! You are going to lead this people to inherit the land that I promised to give their ancestors.

and

(Jos 1:11)  “Go through the camp and give this order to the people: ‘Pack your bags. In three days you will cross this Jordan River to enter and take the land GOD, your God, is giving you to possess.'”

(Jos 1:12)  Then Joshua addressed the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh. He said,

(Jos 1:13)  “Remember what Moses the servant of GOD commanded you: GOD, your God, gives you rest and he gives you this land.

(Jos 1:14)  Your wives, your children, and your livestock can stay here east of the Jordan, the country Moses gave you; but you, tough soldiers all, must cross the River in battle formation, leading your brothers, helping them

(Jos 1:15)  until GOD, your God, gives your brothers a place of rest just as he has done for you. They also will take possession of the land that GOD, your God, is giving them. Then you will be free to return to your possession, given to you by Moses the servant of GOD, across the Jordan to the east.”

(Jos 1:16)  They answered Joshua: “Everything you commanded us, we’ll do. Wherever you send us, we’ll go.

(Jos 1:17)  We obeyed Moses to the letter; we’ll also obey you—we just pray that GOD, your God, will be with you as he was with Moses.

As I reread the passage, a few things struck me.

  1. What had been given, needed to be claimed. Nothing in life is ever given to us on a plate. I was 68 during the past week, yet I still have a recurring nightmare every now and then and had it again a few weeks ago. It goes like this. My university final exams are coming up. I suddenly realise that there is a whole area of the curriculum I have not covered. The exam is coming so fast that I do not have time to prepare and in any case have not handed in the course work required. Then I am in the exam hall, filled with stark terror, knowing I am going to fail. Then I wake up. With relief, I realise that those exams were years ago. I did do the work. I did obtain a good pass and have the documents to prove it (see pic). I was awarded the degree/s on the basis of the work. The pictures I have of my graduation show the moment when the students could enjoy the fruits of their labours. God wanted His people to have the land. Yet, the road to possessing it would be a hard one.
  2. It needed to be a thorough job (rather than a quick job). The promise was that every square inch of the land needed to be claimed. That process took generations. Joshua’s victories were great but they were only partial. The Canaanites held their cities for another 200 years. The Philistines took the Gaza strip and David fought to reclaim it. The struggle has flowed back and forth ever since. As we reclaim our everyday lives, after COVID, we do not return to an unchanged world and the new normal will prevail for a long time. In fact, it may never be like it was. However, the new normal could be better than the old in some ways, if lessons have been well learned. It may be that the new normal has more space for spiritual searches than the old?
  3. We need to move forward in battle formation. The threefold system of rules, we have been under for the past phase, begin with the instruction to ‘Stay Alert’. Whenever we go out we do so on a high degree of alertness. We have gloves and masks in our cars. We weave around people in the local shops. We step off the pavement when others approach. We think about things we would not have thought about four months ago. Every trip is organised and planned. We perform our own little risk assessment several times a day. We follow the man who comes to repair the leaky window frame with antibacterial wipes. Many of these things are ‘for a season’ but maybe there will be a lasting effect? Will we think more about all we do, how and when we do it? As a result of living ‘alert’ will we live more limited lives or richer fuller more thoughtful lives?
  4. Whatever our answers to the above, will the Lord our God be with us? The answer is clearly yes. It would have been yes if there had been no COVID crisis. However, will our heightened awareness bring a greater awareness of the presence of God in our everyday lives? It is my prayer that it will.

God Bless : Alan