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Civilly Disobedient Midwives.

Exodus 1: “These are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family: 2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah;3 Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin; 4 Dan and Naphtali; Gad and Asher.5 The descendants of Jacob numbered seventy[a] in all; Joseph was already in Egypt.

6 Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, 7 but the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.

8 Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. 9 “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. 10 Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”

11 So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh.12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites 13 and worked them ruthlessly. 14 They made their lives bitter with harsh labour in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labour the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 16 “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” 17 The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. 18 Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”

19 The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”
20 So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.

22 Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”


John F. Kennedy said that “those who forget the past are deemed to re-live it!” and such is true with the story of Pharaoh the leader of the Egyptians, who had forgotten the story of Joseph saving his nation, instead he saw the people of Israel -honest and law abiding citizens who have made their home in this nation and contributing to the society- as a threat and sought to eradicate them.

In many ways this story chimes with our modern society where many sadly look at people who have made their home here and contribute to our society and fear them, feel threatened and seek to remove them. Tragically Xenophobia, racism and prejudice are not new things. One can imagine the narrative in Pharaoh’s
Palace to sound eerily familiar with some of the Britain First and other groups on the intolerant right in this country. He would probably call his policies “a protectionist agenda for the Egyptian people” -maybe even using slogans like “Making Egypt Great again”.

From here the people of Israel are robbed of their dignity and freedom, exploited and becoming slaves of the Egyptians. When we look at the great atrocities in human history this always begins with the erosion of human dignity, the Nazi’s called the Jews “rats” and the Hutu called the Tutsi’s “Cockroaches” -dehumanised, ‘other’ and ‘less than human’ -splitting people into ‘them’ and ‘us’ rather than realizing our kinship with the whole of humanity.

Sadly, from feeling of fear and paranoia stems bullying, abuse of power, and exploitation lead to persecution which lead to infanticide and genocide under Pharaoh’s orders.

We know from the stories of Able, Noah and Sodom in the unfolding narrative of scripture that God will not sit idly by whilst his people are exploited and murdered.

What is our response when we are living in times and places of darkness and sin? How do we speak truth in a world that is fully of noisy lies, how do we live pure lives in a contaminated world and seek justice in a world of oppression and exploitation?

The excuse that “everyone is doing it” is no justification, instead we are called to be salt and light in the world, light that hurts the eyes and makes us wince when we have become accustomed to the darkness, salt that stings and makes us thirsty for pure-water.

One of my heroes is Dorothy Day who once said that are problems is “our acceptance of the whole stinking system” we have forgotten that the world is fallen and have accepted that which is unacceptable, we have become desensitized to injustice and exploitation by our continued exposure to it. In the Sitcom “Yes Minister” they talked about getting Ministers ‘house-trained’ when they don’t notice the flaws and the failures of their department.

She is someone who challenges me to live differently as a follower of Christ, and alien ambassador, someone who is meant to “shine out like stars in the heavens” and yet I fear at times I am more of a Chameleon that blends in!

In the passage, Pharaoh orders that all the little boys are to be killed. Yet, the midwives refuse to obey him, and let the children live. They lie to pharaoh. As I thought about that I am reminded how often I hear people justifying their own bad behaviour because of the influence, manipulation or pressure of someone else, the Midwives could have said “I’m just following orders, it’s not my fault” -yet the did the right thing and disobeyed Pharaoh.

Are we people who buckle under pressure? Do we compromise when perhaps we should stand firm? Does our integrity waver when the consequences look challenging? Do we look the other way sin and then shirk our personal responsibility and blame the system.

Now the passage doesn’t say much more about this, but I suspect that Pharaoh was someone who was vengeful and not used to being thwarted and perhaps might have punished the midwives -certainly that was a risk they faced when they disobeyed him. Sometimes the fear of painful consequences (which often can include those we love, if you lost your job could you put foot on the table for you family?) makes people do the wrong thing.

I think these remarkable women whose bravery is glossed over, need to be admired and commended because without them God’s nation would have ceased to exist and no Saviour could have come from that line if it was extinct.

Our actions -both good and bad- produce fruit, which in turn produce more fruit, both can snowball and we have seen in human history amazing moments of goodness cascade and sin snowballing out of control, which challenges me to ask “what is our fruit like?”

I think these women are a great challenge to us, they did what they could, they chose the right thing in a time when the wrong thing had the upper hand, and challenge us to think about how we live out our faith in the world are we people the subvert evil and have a prophetic imagination for righteousness, justice and the Kingdom of God? Seeking to live out and embody the Kingdom of God with who they were and with what they had.

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J@mes: #Internet.

Recently I have been re-reading the Epistle of James and wondered what James would write to a world that lives and communicates behind a screen and via the web?

James talks of the inner hypocrisy of the human heart when he says: “Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?” -in this case speaking of the human tongue which blesses and builds up and also curses and tears down.

Yet how much more true is this of our generation of Christians, where the same phone that receives a daily Bible reading also has searched for pornography?

The same facebook account that has shared a message of hope and wholeness has also forwarded messages that have mocked and belittled, and what we think of as a private conversation is actually one in the public arena possibly reaching thousands.

The Book of Titus urges us as Christians to ‘avoid foolish controversies’ (Titus 3:9) where the net manages to specialise in these, with comments sections bursting with peoples opinions on every subject, this is not to say there is not a place to make a stand and have your words ‘seasoned with salt’ but is it always wise to ‘bite’ on every subject, and if we do respond is this wise and helpful? As a Christian my faith and my political views blur together in seeking to fight for those who are the most marginalised and disenfranchised (which unsurprisingly has led me to vote left of centre) yet I need to remember to ‘play the ball not the person’, for example it is right and Godly to highlight Trump’s policy of splitting refugee children from their parents as something the world needs to take note of on social media but perhaps forwarding a picture of him as a toilet brush is just descending into personal abuse.

James talks a lot about how we communicate with others and yet our tapping of a few keys on a text, facebook message or email can cause as much damage (if not more) than the spoken word (delivered as they are without eye contact, tone of voice or body language which make misunderstanding easier and at times the wounds deeper). Indeed I fear we have a generation which are emboldened to be more nasty when we get behind a keyboard, where we do not enter into a discussion but rather give someone a monologue of our thoughts/opinions and ideas. Yet, just as we cannot take back our spoken words we cannot ‘unsend’ a message and our words live on forever in cyberspace.

Perhaps we need to come out from behind our screen and talk ‘to’ people rather than ‘at’ them?

I once got moaned at by people from one of the Churches I used to run because whenever I got a stress email I used to say “let’s meet up for a coffee!” rather than engage in the ‘table-tennis’ of recriminations, just because the internet is the “common-language” of our culture does not mean that it has to be our only way of communicating, and in a world that is always talking but rarely listening or hearing perhaps we need to pioneer wisdom when to speak ‘virtually’ and when to speak face to face.

Some Christians will read this as a good reason not to participate on social media, just like many centuries ago some people used the book of James to take on vows of silence, yet this misses the main point of the epistle, which is not telling us to be silent 24-7, but rather to think more carefully and prayerfully about how we speak, when we speak and what we say. Many of you know I do use social media a reasonable amount (and I am not claiming that I always get it right either) but I do believe a greater witness is not in removing ourselves from the place of conversation and social interaction but rather engaging with it in a Christ-like way.

So, as we log on to facebook, twitter, Instagram or email let us remember that we are Christians, Christ’s ambassadors, being called to “live in love” and be “salt and light” in the world.

I wonder if you could tell from my internet usage that I follow Christ, not just because I post up Bible quotes but by my words, attitudes and priorities.

And now I’m off to photograph my dinner!!

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What do you see?

Matthew 11:1. “After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.[a]
2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see:5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy[b] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

I love John the Baptist he always strikes me as someone full of faith with a blunt ‘a spade is a spade’ approach to life: “John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” (Luke 3:11) -. He confidently proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John.1.29). This confident prophet is thrown into jail (for opposing King Herod’s marriage to his brothers’ wife) and here we see a different side to him, as he is languishing in prison, he’s broken, having doubts and asking questions about things he used to be certain of. He’s asking “was Jesus really who John had proclaimed him to be!”

I guess we have all had those moments where we have been full of faith and confidence, and then other times where it has ebbed and we are plagued with doubts?

Especially when we have had to wait a long time for what we have hoped for, or perhaps, things do not look or happen the way we thought they would or should.

Sometimes, especially in dark night of the soul moments, those tough times- we can be scared to hope that that things could be different and frightened to believe that things can change and that there could possibly be a light at the end of the tunnel, and we protect ourselves from disappointment.

Too often too many of us have had our hopes raised only to have them dashed, it is scary that place of optimistic vulnerability. Can it really be true, can I really hope?

We don’t fully know what is going on in the head of John the Baptist, but we do know he clearly needs reassurance that Jesus truly is who he prophesied him to be. John sends his disciples to Jesus to ask: “Are you the one, or should we expect someone else?” (v3).

Jesus sends back the message: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see:5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy[b] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor” (v.4).

This is an interesting answer in one sense it is a great answer, Jesus is saying “look at me and weigh up the evidence, make your own mind up!”

Jesus is saying look at the fruit, does this look like the Kingdom of God breaking out (the answer is of course “yes!”). Jesus says “judge a tree by the fruit it produces” (Luke 6:43) as too often we get swept along by empty words and rhetoric.

What of us, are we producing fruit, -good fruit? -Fruit that will last? The Bible says we should be!

Which challenge me, if someone asked if I was a Christian, could I answer by saying “What do you see?” as I am worried that if people looked to closely at me they would see the difference and disconnect between the faith I espouse and the sinful failures of my daily life.

Ghandi once said: “I like your Christ, but I do not like you Christians, you are so unlike your Christ!”

Collectively do our Churches resemble the one we proclaim, the one we profess to follow and seek to emulate?

And personally as individual Christians, would the on looker see the Christ embodied in our own lives?

Would Jesus come to our Church and say “this is what I was dreaming of! These people share my heart, they are doing my stuff with the people on my heart”

Would Jesus say to us “your life looks like mine!” -If Christ lived in my area in my generation would our lives be recognisably the same?

Too often our Churches resemble our culture rather than our Christ, with seats as comfortable as in the cinema and coffee as good as you would get in Starbucks, rather than feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, the homeless given shelter, the lonely embraced and loved, the good news proclaimed, the sick healed, the demons flee, the dead raised and the ‘last being first, upside down Kingdom of God advancing and transforming in a localised reality!” Rather than a clique of similar people gathered in holy huddles talking hypothetically about a life they’re not living.

Too often we resemble our culture rather than our Christ, where sometimes ‘keeping up with the Jones’ matters more than living like Jesus!

Yet, John the Baptist is acting like many within our society, seeking to understand what is truth by looking at how it impact’s our behaviour.

We understand Orthodoxy (right belief) initially through the lens of Orthopraxis (right behaviour)

Our lives speak louder than the theologies we espouse. How we put into practice Jesus’ command to “seek first the Kingdom of God”? Are we doing the things of Christ for the same reason he did them?

Jesus said: “by this all people will know that you are my disciples that you love one another” (John 13:35) -how will you know the people who follow Jesus, by the statements of faith on their websites, or by their loving lives whose faith makes a statement!

So, what of us, will those wondering if Jesus is real and true be able to look at us and how we live out our lives (both corporately and individually) and see the reality of the Kingdom at work within and through us?

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A Tale of Two Mules

Today I went to visit Hopeweavers a new monastic project in Southampton, it was their leaders “Soul Day” -a time of retreat. As I sat drinking my coffee my eye was caught by a tea-towel pinned to the wall. It depicted the fable of two mules, these two mules were tied together, on either side of the mules were two piles of hay, the next picture showed both mules straining to reach the hay unable to reach it because the chord that bound them was too tight when they tried to pull in opposite directions, the next picture showed the two mules together eating together eating from one side and then the other! Underneath was written the words “Co-operation is better than Conflict”.

One of the phrases we often use with bringing up our daughter is “its not a competition” -as too often life is made to feel as though it is a competition!

We don’t want her growing up wanting to be the type of person that point scores over other people and succeeds by putting others down, pointing out their flaws and unable to celebrate other peoples success.

Over the last few years I have been trying to live a life of “downward mobility” I have been left asking what does it mean when Jesus says about “the first being last” (Matt. 19.30)and that even Jesus came “to serve not be served and to give his life as a ransom for many!” (Matt.20.28) Yet the fall means our brokenness and insecurity means that we compete when we ought to collaborate.

Yet collaboration often feels like sacrifice that perhaps we won’t get the recognition of affirmation that we crave? Perhaps someone else might do what I do better than me? Collaboration is inviting someone else into our comfort zone knowing that they will disrupt the status quo (and we are all to some degree) change resistant.

A great picture of collaboration and sacrifice is that of John the Baptist who said to Jesus “I must decrease so he can increase” (John 3:30) a bowing down which advanced the Kingdom plans and purposes of God.

Collaboration requires letting our walls down to people who are not like us and are other.

Resisting the pull to try and tug and manipulate other people, to try and make them do what we want, rather that a surrender which allows mutual thriving and corporate growth, and as we surrender allows other people to thrive.

When we compete we loose sight of our goals and end up putting our effort into the competition often hurting other people, ourselves and everyone who would have benefited from what we are doing also loose out!

Too often we hold tightly to ‘our stuff’ rather than being open handed and generous with that which God has given us, seeing the world through the bigger prism of God and his Kingdom rather than our own little empires, when ‘winning’ becomes more important that the original goal. This is revealed in the story of Solomon and the two prostitutes arguing over who was the real mother of a baby (1 Kings 3:16), Solomon threatened to cut the baby in two, and the real mother surrendered her claim on the baby for the sake of the child she loved, the other mother was more concerned about winning, which revealed who was the babies real mother. Prepared to loose in order for the child to live.

So, what of us, are we tugging against someone or something in unhealthy and ungodly competition, has the desire to win, be recognised and affirmed taken the place of the original cause? Do we need to surrender and allow ourselves to become a catalyst rather than a cork. To care less about our own pride and more about the Kingdom of God.

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Ohana

I’ve just got back from a profound weekend called “Malcolm’s Bucket List Tour” where some of us visited Liverpool and Manchester with our friend who sadly is ill with cancer. A phrase that was used a bit was Ohana, a Hawaiin word featured in ‘Lilo and Stitch’, which means “Family, where no one is forgotten and no one is left behind!”

Yet this was a family which most of us weren’t joined by blood, but love, the beauty of friendship and community, and actually the beauty of this community has been forged by the fire of adversity, in this case Malcolm’s illness.

Yet, I felt a bit of apprehension as I have been gone from Bristol over a year now and these guys meet regularly for a pub quiz most weeks, the group had changed a bit, there were people I didn’t know going would I fit in? Would it feel cliquey?

I also knew a couple were avowed atheists could this be a bit awkward as I’m a Vicar? There are a range of opinions on almost everything we had good chats with honesty, depth, respect and good humour -not a case of Fawlty Towers with their infamous: “don’t mention the war” episode!

Yet, this was not only a group that cares for those on the inside of it, but incredibly inclusive and welcoming, -I remember my favourite doctrine lecturer talking about communion (which is in many ways community gathered around a table with a shared meal) -until the ritualists turned it into a ceremony rather than a way of life- with the ethos that this was a feast on long tables with benches whereby you could always say: “Budge up there is room for another one!”

Today on my facebook I came across a meme that said: “sometimes the greatest gift you can give someone is to include them” -those of us less sporty can remember the indignity and shame of being the last one to be picked to join a team!- Indeed the Quiz team where all this began had welcomed Malcolm and I to join them.

My friend Phil talked about this Quiz Group that had been a bit of a support group for a decade for many of them, a chance to escape the stresses of life and be with mates and have a laugh and escapism, it made me realise we need one another, and we don’t value friendship enough in our society, the power of mates and community is something that is often missing in our society where isolation and loneliness are continually rising.

Anyway “Ohana” became something of the ethos and shared values of the group over the weekend away -indeed it was dubbed a ‘Pilgrimage’ a bad pun based on Malcolm’s surname ‘Pilling’. Yet, also ‘Ohana’ had become a way of life: there was a wonderful video on facebook where they had done up Malcolm’s flat for him “changing rooms style”, and “Ohana” was scrawled on the wall of the Cavern Club in Liverpool as a ‘short hand’ for who we are (although I think everyone else might have referred to us as ‘those nutters from Bristol!’

Something of the concept of “Ohana” resonated deep within me, I believe we are all longing for Ohana -to love and to be loved- indeed the Bible says: “God is love, and those who live in love, live in God and God lives in them” (1 John 1.) -A doctrine I have become convinced of his that God is working all the time in his world, often unacknowledged and anonymously. A belief I became convinced of when working on placement with those in rehab for alcohol and drug addiction and felt that this resembled what I believe Church should be (a healing restorative community of grace and love that crosses the bounds of human division) but yet was unlike any Church I had ever experienced. In some ways the Bristol “Ohana” guys resembled this too, instinctively the best of humanity expressed in human relationships. Ignatius talks of the “glory of God is best expressed in the human being fully alive” -living in the way that pleases God, even if we may not think of what God thinks of our lives the truth of the words of Jesus “what you did for these (people struggling in various circumstances) you did for me”.

As I pondered this afresh, I explored the doctrine of the Trinity, the idea that the source of life itself (before humans messed up and made bad choices that we all have no doubt experienced that have both screwed us up and the world!) is that God -Father, Son and Holy Spirit- are a perfect unbroken community of reciprocal love inviting humanity to join them in (what Richard Rohr calls) the divine dance, perhaps the Trinity is the perfect example of Ohana?

I don’t believe Christianity was ever meant to get into bed with the political state, become an institution and build gothic cathedrals, but rather Jesus said “by this will all people know you are my disciples that you love one another!” -13 guys living out a bit of Ohana could be how we describe much of Jesus’ ministry.

One of my big struggles in my head and heart -which has been the subject of many a blog!- is the disconnect I see in the Christian world between ‘Orthodoxy’ -the right doctrine we profess to believe- and ‘Orthopraxis’ -how we are meant to live (how our belief effects our behaviour!)

Which has left me to come to the point that there are many people and groups where we as the Church/Christians have a lot to learn from them about living the life we are called to.

So, humbly, I want to thank the guys from last weekend for helping me think more deeply about life and what really matters, and hopefully spur me on to live a life that resembles Jesus that bit more fully. Thank you!

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Discipleship: Fighting against Muscle Memory.

It has been so long that I have blogged that it feels rather weird sitting down with the intention of writing a new one!

Recently we have been trying to launch our New Monastic Community with looking at various things under the title of “Doing December/Life/Lent/whatever Differently”. Which has been an interesting challenge, to think about our Christian faith not just as a ‘tick box list of doctrines’ or Church as ‘a bit of a club that does some of the God stuff in a way we like’ but rather: “What does it really mean to be different?”

One of the words I hear being used more and more is that of transformation, the call of God is “to be transformed by the renewing of your mind” a total surrender to God’s plans and purposes for every part of our lives. The Baptism imagery is about being “dead” to Christ and “alive to a new life with/and in Christ”. Are we willing to be transformed, which is costly and painful but demands that we each think critically about our behaviours and practices, our instinctive choices, our priorities and preference? Or does life just happen to us?

As I have been exploring faith afresh since leaving my former parish and wonder what does it mean when Jesus said things like: “by this all people will know you are my disciples by the way you love one another!” -having seen some of the emails that ‘Christians’ have sent each other I think we need to not just be able to recite the verse -or highlight it in our Bibles, but actually to think/speak and write differently. If we are ambassadors of an “upside down” Kingdom where the first is last and the last is first, then surely people ought to be able to “see the difference in us” by our behaviour rather than our Christianised rhetoric and jargon.

As we embark on the New Monastic dream exploring being different, my friend Mark shared about he used to play shot-put for the county. He was signed up as having potential, but had to undergo training to compete at that new higher level, yet in this training he discovered that he had to unlearn how he threw the shot-put in order to re-learn how to throw differently. It was a long slow process fighting against the internal muscle memory of how things had always been done up until now. It was costly to re-learn something he thought he thought he already understood and had mastered. For a while Mark’s throwing of the shot-put was much worse than it used to be, it didn’t go as far, but gradually his body learned new muscle memory that enabled him to throw further and better.

Which I thought was a great picture of Christian discipleship, not only are we called to be different, this means ‘unlearning’ our former ways of how and where we once walked and re-learning what it means to walk differently as Christians.

Indeed, this both true for us as individuals when we need to learn to walk differently as people who have been transformed by Christ and corporately, what does it mean to be a community that is transformed by Christ?

Are we willing to de-learn our old ways of being, and re-learn how to walk Christ’s ways?

Perhaps our new life might not initially ‘work’ as well as our old one as our ‘old muscle memory’ of habits, practices and pressures kick in? I think too often we ‘give up, giving up’ and revert to how we were rather than the call of Christ to live as a new creation, the call to be as we could be, to embrace life as we were intended to live, life following the ways of God, being more fully us.

A challenge to be differently as we allow Jesus to work in us and through us as his refiners fire transforming us to become more like him.

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