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Sam Sheppard speaks at the start of Mental Health week.

So I’ve been trying to think of a funny way to lead into this talk. As anyone who’s heard me speak a few times will realise, certainly anyone in my own church will realise I like to lead in with something funny, something interesting, something to kind of ease us in. I just like having a laugh with it really I like it more, I think you like it more I think it makes this bit where you sit and get spoken at. Basically a lecture, if we’re honest. I think it makes this whole religious lecture experience more enjoyable for everyone and I want us to feel relaxed and I want us to enjoy ourselves.

The problem is its kind of hard to find something funny to lead into mental health disorders. Because I suppose you could say illness isn’t funny, and that’s probably a reasonable opinion.

Most of you who know me will know that I suffer from anxiety.

But I thought there was one story that was pretty funny that gives a good sense of what living with anxiety is like for me.

A month or so ago I took a wedding for St Michaels and All Angels in Windmill Hill, tricky place to get a good picture of by the way. I was covering for Andrew their vicar who’s a mate of mine.

And they were a great couple. Couldn’t of bin easier, and they had a gorgeous baby girl who was brilliant through the whole service. Everybody read well, everybody did their jobs really well, even me in spite of myself. And it just couldn’t have gone better, I loved it.

So after they’ve all gone and the church is tidied up and locked up I go get in my car and I sat there for a minute and thought that was brilliant. That was the best wedding i’ve ever done, that couldn’t have gone better.

I sat there taking a moment feeling pretty please with myself.

And then it occurs to me, what if thats the best wedding I ever take? What if every wedding I take sucks compared to that one what if I never do a good wedding again? What if i’ve peaked? Was it really that good? Did I actually mess up the whole thing? Maybe they hate me now. Maybe they’ve always hated me maybe they’re talking about how bad I was what if I did the paperwork wrong. maybe they’re not even married. I’m a terrible priest.

It’s not always that extreme. I wasn’t having a good week.

That was the same week that in a meeting with other clergy in the deanery, friends who I trust, I concluded they all actually hated me on the grounds that the coffee machine was making weird noises. See what I did there, grounds, coffee.

Its not rational.

And some people say you have to laugh or you’d cry I’m not sure that’s true I think I have to laugh because its funny.

It’s not an exact science but in very broad boxes I would say that I have generalised anxiety disorder, which basically means I can become irrationally worried or frightened.

And Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Which basically mean I think I’m fat and ugly. Regardless of whether I am or not.

For the most part I’m able to manage mine. It’s not constant it comes in waves, sometimes its worse than other times, and most people don’t notice there’s anything wrong when i’m bad, unless i’m really bad but thats really pretty rare.

It can be brought on by stress or tiredness or by things in my life upsetting me but sometimes it just happens, nothings wrong nothing seems to provoke it.

And I’ve always been like this, as far as I can remember. I can’t remember a time, even back to when I was five six years old, when I wasn’t like this.

And i’m not telling you this because I want your sympathy or because I want you to treat me differently I really don’t. I’d be quite upset if this caused anyone to treat me differently.

I’m telling you this because I’m trying to break something.

I’m trying to break the silence that I’ve experienced in Church. I’m trying to break the image of good Christians being mentally healthy. I’m trying to show you a church leader with a mental health disorder.

And it surprises people when they find out, because I don’t seem anxious. I seem big and loud and charismatic and thats because I am. My anxiety doesn’t define me its not who I am. Its something I have not who I am. I don’t want you to treat me like someone with anxiety. I want you to treat me like Sam.

Love me or hate me or think I’m an idiot I don’t really care. but whatever you’re opinion of me I want it to be based on who I am not a condition I have.

One in four people suffer from some sort of mental health disorder at some point in their lives. Which means that roughly a quarter of this room have experienced it personally, and probably pretty much

everyone will have experienced it second hand, a friend or family member. Its a statistical inevitability.

So pick four people in the room. At least one.

You might not know about it, they might not talk about it. They may never admit it to anyone. They may be one of your closest and oldest friends and have never told you.

I think that’s particularly true for Christians because Christians often feel like they’re somehow failing in their faith by having a mental health disorder.

I never spoke about it because I was embarrassed, because I was ashamed. Because I was worried about how people would react, that it would call my faith into question.

I certainly never spoke about it in church. Because in Church you feel like if I admit this i’m admitting that i’m not doing christianity properly. Like i’m admitting some sort of sin, like I don’t trust in God or i’m failing somehow.

I felt like my anxiety was sinful.

And it may seem ridiculous to you, I hope it does. You may think that that’s ridiculous that no one would ever say that. And in most church’s you’d be right. They’d never say that, but by not saying anything its implied.

One in four people have a mental health disorder yet the Church doesn’t talk about it.

This leads to Christians not talking about their mental health, feeling embarrassed, ashamed, like they’ve failed God.

Our silence implies sinfulness, our silence on the topic implies that something is wrong. The fact that nobody says anything made me feel like everybody thought it was sinful, weak.

I can’t remember a single time i’ve heard a sermon on mental health. A single time I’ve heard it from the front.

I can only think of one church leader who I’ve ever seen publicly admit to a mental health disorder and he did it nervously and quietly, timidly really. And I don’t mean that as an insult because I’m talking about a man I love but he felt ashamed of his depression, he was frightened of talking about it. Why?

We don’t think its sinful. We don’t think that people with depression, or anxiety, or anorexia or anything have failed God.

We don’t think that do we?

But the fact that nobody spoke about it, the fact that it was a secret something I felt I couldn’t talk about made me feel I was doing something wrong.

We don’t think that.

If you do you’re wrong.

And frankly its bad theology.

If someone breaks their leg we don’t think that they’ve failed God. If someone gets cancer we don’t say that they’ve failed God.

If someone has to take statins to lower their cholesterol we don’t think they’ve failed God.

So why would we think someone has failed God because they have to take serotonin to manage their depression? Why would we think

someone has failed God if they’re brain is lying to them about their body? Its the same. Its illness, and the theology is the same as any other illness.

So I want to say to people here who don’t suffer a mental health condition, treat a mental health disorder in the same way you’d treat any other illness. Be sensitive, be kind, pray for them. Love them.

One of the best things about being a part of a Christian community is that we support each other through the difficult times. That we hold each other up when we can’t hold ourselves up. You get me through when I can’t get myself through and that’s what we’re supposed to do.

1 Peter says above all love one another. The Apostle Peter telling us that above all other priorities and activities, more important than everything else we should love one another. Thats what this community is for and when people are going through mental illness they need your love not your awkward silence.

The Christian community should support people through mental illness not make them feel like they’ve got to hide it.

So talk about it, ask how someone is. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be awkward. Just be kind.

And to those who do or have suffered with mental illness I want to say something to you directly.

You are not broken, you are not worthless, you have never been forgotten. You have not failed God. You are not unreachable.

Sometimes it doesn’t feel very good, sometimes its difficult, but Gods always gunna be there no matter what. In our reading today, even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

Sometimes it’s going to hurt, but thats okay, its okay to hurt. Its okay to not be okay. It’s okay to struggle. Some days its hard to get up and go to church, believe me I know, and on those days, you got here. On days like that you got here and that’s enough. You made it, well done.

And if you don’t make it, that’s okay we’ll try again.

If you’re able to manage without medication well done, you’re brave you’re strong God be with you, I don’t take the pills I have reasons for that ask me later if you’re interested. But if one day you decide you need the pills, well done, you’re brave and you’re strong, God be with you. May he bless your pills, because its by his grace that we have them. It takes a lot of strength and bravery to admit that you need help.

You don’t have to hide. You don’t have to be ashamed. We love you. God loves you.

I don’t know why it hurts, I don’t know why i’m like this. I don’t know why you’re like this. Maybe its because of trauma or experience, maybe its not. I don’t know.

But I know God can make good out of pain. God is a God of resurrection and restoration. God is a God who meets us in our weakness and in our lows.

And God can use your wounds. God can use you, not in spite of your pain but because of it. He can use the scars.

Henry Nuowen said “Nobody escapes being wounded. We are all wounded people. Whether physically, emotionally mentally or spiritually. The main question is not how can we hide our wounds? So we don’t have to be embarrassed, but how can we put our woundedness in the service of others. When our wounds cease to be a source of shame and become a source of healing we have become wounded healers.”

Your wounds don’t make you less valuable. You’re wounds don’t change how God see’s you or make him stop wanting to use you.

God takes weakness and makes it strength. He’s the God of weakness.

And he showed that through his ultimate victory, God’s victory was in his greatest moment of weakness on the cross. His greatest victory the world saw as defeat. And after his resurrection he had to prove to one of his disciples his legitimacy. He had to prove he was really the messiah. Do you know how he did that?

He showed Thomas his scars.

He showed him his scars from his crucifixion.

Jesus wasn’t embarrassed by his weakness. He wasn’t embarrassed by his scars. Because his weakness was used to redeem the world.

Our God’s a God of weakness.

God can use your weakness to help others. He can use your weakness.

I don’t know why it hurts. But I know God still wants us, I know God’s still there when it hurts.

I know God loves us, even the bits that hurt.

I know that the Church is meant to hold us up and love us in the hard times. I know that your illness doesn’t make you a bad Christian. But it has to be okay to talk about these things/

Don’t hide, don’t be embarrassed. And don’t be ashamed of your scars, because Jesus isn’t ashamed of his.

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Sam Sheppard writes on Mark 8 & Identity.

I wonder if you’d agree with me that there’s something quite compelling about someones driving license.

Whenever someone gets there license out, there’s always a little crowd of people trying to see it, they get passed around quite a lot for people to see. People seem to be really interested in other peoples driving licenses.

More specifically I think its probably the picture people want to see.

How many people are embarrassed by the picture on their license or passport or whatever.

My driving license does prove on thing about me, it proves that I’ve looked thirty five since I was seventeen.

It also gives you a good idea of what I’d look like in a serial killer line-up.

The information on a driving license tells you about a person but it doesn’t really tell you about them.

My driving license can tell you that my name is Sam Sheppard. It can tell you that I was born on September the thirtieth Nineteen ninety two. It’ll tell you about me but none of those things really tell you anything.

We can take it a little further and give you more facts I could tell you my Fathers name is David Sheppard, my mother is Mary Foxwell. I was born in Chippenham. That I grew up in Kingswood. My heritage is Scottish and Irish.

I’m six feet and two inches tall, I have size eleven and a half feet.

It still doesn’t really tell you about me. Because these are my statistics, these are what I am. They don’t tell you who I am.

Thats because i am not the sum of my statistics. There’s something deeper, something more a divine spark that makes a person more than numbers. I’m pointing I think to something bigger that I’m calling identity.

Who a person is. Not what a person is, you can get that from a driving license. But who a person is their identity. What makes them them.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about identity and talking about it a lot this summer.

More specifically about Jesus’ identity. And I’ve been in Mark 8. In Mark 8 Jesus says to the disciples who do people say i am. They say some say John the baptist some say Elijah one of the prophets. Then Jesus says who do you say i am. And Peter says for the first time what they’d been thinking for a while.

“You are the Messiah”.

This is the first time the disciples articulate who Jesus is, but Jesus’ identity is made clear throughout scripture, he’s called Emmanuel God with us. I’m sure you’ve heard before about Jesus saying I Am, using the socially unspeakable name of God to refer to himself.

Son of Man, Prince of Peace, in Matthew 16 Peter even calls him “Christ, Son of the living God”.

He speaks and fulfils prophecy about the messiah left right and centre.

C.S.Lewis said “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said wouldn’t be a great moral teacher; he’d either be insane or else he’d be the devil of hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was and is the Son of God or else insane or something worse. But don’t let us come up with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He hasn’t left that open to us. He didn’t intend to.”

Jesus is the son of God, God incarnate that is his identity that is who he is.

And i’m telling you this because it has a huge bearing on your identity, but more than that it has a huge bearing on the identity of every human being.

Because when Jesus says I no longer call you servants but friends. That is God saying you are my friend.

When Jesus says he has a special place for you God says I have a special place for you.

When Jesus showed his love for you on that cross, God showed his love for you on that cross.

Your identity and the identity of every single human being is wrapped up in the identity of Jesus and his love for you.

That identity and the identity of every one else in the whole world is summed up for me in one sentence.

Child of God.

That is your identity and the identity of every other human being a child of God.

And you’re identity, and that of every single human being in the world is precious, unique, and utterly irreplaceable.

I listen to a lot of audiobooks i’m not the strongest reader so I listen to books in the gym. One of my favourites is a call to conscience. The landmark speeches of Martin Luther King.

Martin Luther King is one of the greatest people in human history a huge inspiration to me and many before me and I’m sure many after.

One of the things I find fascinating about Martin Luther King is his insistence on his citizenship. At the beginning of his speech at the montgomery bus boycott, he says we are here first and foremost because we are american citizens. His identity as an american citizen was important to him, he talks about America and his love for it passionately, refers to it as this great nation. His identity as an American citizen was a huge part of his campaign for civil rights.

Because I’m not an expert, or even really anything but it seems to me that in his campaign for civil rights he didn’t believe he was asking for something new, but rather he was asking, or demanding his rights as an american citizen, he was demanding what he was already entitled to as an american citizen, freedom and equality.

He believed those views were in-keeping not only with his religious beliefs but with his nations constitution.

He said that “If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong.  If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong.  If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie.  Love has no meaning.”

Because of they’re identity as american citizens they had certain inalienable rights, a certain inherent value.

The civil rights movement in america is to me not just the story of an oppressed minority rising up, though it is that.

But its the story of people, and most of those people were Christians, standing up in Gods name and saying no to oppression and injustice, saying no prejudice and racism, saying human lives matter. Period, full stop. End of discussion human lives matter.

A mantra that has come to live in me, that God has placed somewhere deep in my heart encouraged and influenced by reading about people like Martin Luther King who took a stand for people.

I think stories like the one we heard from New Zealand a few months ago.

A New Zealand man drove to a mosque and fired indiscriminately at men women and children. He then drove to another mosque and opened fire again killing anyone he could see. 48 people were shot dead. And he live streamed it on facebook.

I’m sure you’re aware of this, it was in the news a lot.

It upset me but its not the thing that upset me most that weekend.

Because the truth is i’ve become quite cold to stories like this.

How many times have we woken up to news of mass shootings in america. How many terrorist attacks do we hear about every week.

No the thing that upset me most was after Church. I went to Broad Plain club like I do most weeks. Its a sort of gritty, dirty working mens club you know the sort of place.

When I first went in there it was as a sort of outreach, I was trying to connect with local people, the sort of local people that would never come to church. But over the last two years i’ve become fond of them, I have mates there, I quite like going in.

That weekend people were talking about it and I man i’d known for a year and a half, someone I get on with someone I would call a mate said about the shooter.

“I admire him for what he done.”

But before you dismiss that man as a monster I want to tell you he’s not a monster. He’s a good guy. I like him. He’s kind, he’s generous, he’s a loving partner and father. A hard worker. In fact I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think he’s an all round top bloke.

Because to label him a monster would be far to easy.

The truth is that sentiment is widespread.

And I want to tell you that that man, my mate, would consider himself Church of England. He considers this to be a Christian country. He never comes to Church, perhaps most of us wouldn’t consider him a Christian but he considers himself one. Christian on my estate is basically code for not a muslim.

Racism and prejudice are widespread in this country, I read an article on BBC news that said experts believe all the components that led to the New Zealand attack are present in this country.

There are Muslim people who are afraid right now, people who haven’t done anything to hurt anyone who are afraid of being attacked in the street.

I want to say today that it is never okay, whatever you think of someones beliefs, whatever you think of someones lifestyle, it is never okay as a Christian to treat anyone with anything short of love dignity and respect.

I believe that our Christian faith compels us to fight against prejudice, to fight for the rights of those who would never agree with us, to fight for the rights and the safety of all human beings because that identity that you have as a child of God, beloved and unique, utterly irreplaceable. That identity is also in every single human being, every single human being. No exceptions.

Every human being is made in the image of God, every human being is loved unconditionally by God and God stands against oppression and prejudice wherever it is found because all people have a claim to that identity as children of God.

Andrew Ollerton author and presenter of the bible course said wherever there is oppression the God of Exodus roars let my people go.

It is because of his identity as God that all people have the identity child of God whether they believe in him or not.

And just like Martin Luther King believed that they’re identity as american citizens entitled them to certain rights so does everybody’s identity as a child of God entitle them to certain rights.

I am so convicted of this fact that I would paraphrase Martin Luther King If i am wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong.  If I am wrong, the Constitution of Great Britain is wrong.  If I am wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If I am wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to earth. If I am wrong, justice is a lie.  Love has no meaning.”

People matter. I was asked here today to talk about mission. And I suppose you could argue that I haven’t done that. And if that’s what you think i’m okay with that.

Because I knew I was asked here to talk about mission but I also knew I was going first.

And I knew there’d be people after me who’d say all I could say about mission, and I’m sure Jackie can do it better.

So today I wanted to say something else. I wanted to set a pace. To set a tone.

As we go on to talk about mission and outreach, I wanted to set a tone by saying why we do mission and outreach.

I believe that mission is important because people matter.

Because people matter.

At St Barnabas we do a lot of stuff, we’re a busy church, we’re a growing community.

And if you were to ask me why we do what we do at St Barnabas that is what I would say.

Because people matter.

And if you were to ask me why mission and outreach matter, thats what I’d say. Because people matter.

People matter.

Glorious messy catastrophic people. Every single one of them. No matter what, no exceptions, whether you agree with them or not. Whether they ever come to church or not. They matter.

They are children of God whether they believe in him or not and they matter.

When you meet a person they’re identity, who they are is wrapped up in who God is. So treat them accordingly. Treat people like children of God wherever they come from, whatever they look like.

Whatever they believe. Because that person is a child of God and they matter.

Because I don’t believe the world is changed in parliament. I don’t believe that the world is changed by politics, I believe that you have the power to change the world. The world changes in our homes and in our streets, the world changes by regular people standing up and saying no to hatred and prejudice and yes to love.

I believe our Christian faith compels us to say yes to love.

To treat people with love and respect, not to be silent when we here people say hateful things.

I believe our Christian faith compels us to defend the rights of all of Gods children, to stand for equality, to stand for justice, to stand for freedom, to stand, above all else, for people.

I believe we can make a better world, I believe that we can end prejudice, that we can end inequality, that we can end terrorism.

But I do not believe that that end will come in parliament, I believe it will come from you. Living out your faith with every human being you meet and by the way you treat people showing the world that whoever you are you have rights, you matter your life is significant, you are a child of God and he loves you.

By showing the world in the way you live your live that whoever you are you matter. Whoever you are you’re important.

I want to say one more thing.

Segregation in America didn’t end because of government, it didn’t end because of programs. It didn’t end because of organisations. It didn’t end because of day conferences.

it ended because ordinary Christians were brave enough to love.

And that’s what this comes down to.

Be brave enough to love.

Its scary as hell but I believe in you. I know you can do it.

Be brave enough to love.

End prejudice with love. Stand for equality, stand for justice, stand for freedom, stand for people.

Be brave enough to love.

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Reflection from the School of Mission Launch.

I’ve been touched by the people who’ve sent messages asking about how our launch event for the school of Mission went on Saturday.

Actually I think God was very gracious with a really blessed time but what probably scared me the most about Saturday is that it was a dream in my head and heart now becoming a reality which is both exciting but scary. The dream that “one day I might…” is an exciting but comfortable fantasy the reality wakes me up at night sweating!

The dream seems crazy when I write it to see every Christian in the UK comfortable and Confident to share their faith with wisdom and sensitivity both to the person/context and to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.

Self doubt creeps in and my answers of loving and praying together to seek God for your context seem “not enough” I need a clever message, a PowerPoint (or at least a flip chart) be selling a “how to” book that is thicker than a telephone directory. Yet friendship, love, prayers and my own bumbling journey with bruises and graised knees seem not enough, but it is all I’ve got.

As I embark on this launch -and the subsequent journey from Cornwall to Carlisle- I feel like Naaman as he was told to wash in the filthy river Jordan (rather than do something difficult, complex and dangerous) -he had to loose his pride, ego and humbly surrender to the downward mobility of a God who is strong when we are weak. Facing the unknown with the simple belief that love and seeking a Missional God who speaks (and loves) is all we need feels like David standing before Golliath with 5 small stones.

Anyway, back to the launch Saturday -or rather a few months before this when the idea that had been conceived many years before began the gestation period, the embryo began to take form, flesh and grow.

I remember thinking where to launch this and Bristol felt right as I’ve spent the last 8 years crying out to God for this city it had to be there.

I also knew some great Bristolians that are deeply committed to the city they know and love and are seeking to see “the Kingdom come here on earth -in Bristol/Knowel west/Hartcliffe/Hanham as it is in heaven”.

When thinking about the context of ministry we need those who live it and breath it, what the African Christians refer to as “someone who knows where the shoes pinch” but we also often need a friend from outside “who can see where the roof is leaking” -the fresh eyes see what we on the inside are oblivious too, our blindspots. Yet, who to ask for this role?

Who to have as a keynote speaker? My first choice was a lady called Jackie Leswell who I’d worked with projects such as Town Pastors and the Poole Youth conversation, one of the wisest /Godliest ministers I know. Yet she had just moved to Norfolk, she’s not going to travel 5 hours to help me out, would she? Indeed because of this I nearly didn’t ask her! Yet, so glad I did as she brought such gentle prophetic wisdom to the people that day. I was reminded of a phrase Bishop Lee (Bishop of Swindon) once said: “don’t say someone else’s ‘no’ for them!”.

The day came, and the day opened with some beautiful worship led by my friend Wes, and then Sam, my former intern a 26 year old Anglican ‘Priest’ from Knowel West gave a word. A passionate plea for us to be embedded in our communities, to realise not only how much God loves us but those we are speaking to, to have/be theologically robust enough to keep on loving people even when one of his friends from the working man’s club said: “I admire what he did” when referring to the far right murderer if Muslim worshippers in Christ Church (New Zealand) and not to take the lazy/easy option of simply labelling people as “monsters”.

A challenging word, I smiled as one of our accountability group, Chris Harwood, would have given a similar message if he had been there.

I also felt pride in Sam, as I remembered the 19 year old I first met 7 or so years ago, and the privilege it is seeing him grow into this amazing man of God, I look across at Regan another guy I walked with in a mentoring relationship and again felt proud, I may have left the city but there is something wonderful about playing a part (even in a small way) in helping to rise up this new generation of leaders.

This is idea was something we reflected on afterwards, as felt from conversations afterwards about this need for Missional Mentoring of people, and explored how often our leadership in Churches often is more “cork” than “catalyst” and how the Kingdom is about enabling people to thrive in who they are and what God has called them to do.

Wes played the song which featured the line “Lord, break my heart for what breaks yours”. -Which was part of Sam’s call.

Jackie spoke next about “uncovering wells” I think this is probably a blog on it’s own really but the idea of realising that which God has put within you and maybe we need to discover/rediscover/resurrect this. The image (which appeared later too with my friend Mark) was of an artisan well which is more like a fountain or spring coming from that deep place and bringing life.

She called us to think about mission as a way of life lived out in everything we do, say and how we pray, “where is our field” where has God placed us?

After Jackie’s talk we had the awesome privilege of anointing everyone who came and praying for them, which was amazing and there were many prophetic words -including one gentleman who was reminded of a word that had been given to him 25 years ago.

In the afternoon, my friend Tom did an advert for CVM (blokes ministry) and this was fantastic. Tom had not spoken much before in Church and it was great to give him an opportunity as he is stepping into this new role as regional co-ordinator for Bristol, and in many ways was a living embodiment of what he was praying for.

We asked Jackie to pray for him, and this was a profound moment as we were celebrating the vital role women play in leadership of our Churches and also our need to think afresh of how we meaningfully engage with guys with the message of Jesus.

After this my friend Regan gave his testimony, which was incredibly moving, and is a great reminder that it is God who is the primary agent in mission, but we get to participate within it -and there were great examples of where God worked through his people to see Regan become the man of God he is now.

After this I shared a little of the vision of the School of Mission and our desire to travel from Cornwall to Carlisle over the summer, offering people the opportunity to join me in this journey and adventure, and join us as we seek to be a blessing to encourage mission and discipleship.

I shared the picture from my previous parish about the need to “encourage missional DNA” and to help build “good incubators”, and challenged us to think about our “words, works and the wonders God can do through us” -living for God’s glory every day in what we say, do and how we pray.

Mark and Jackie closed with some powerful declarations of truth, praying blessing over us all and upon our city and ending with worship.

It was a wonderful day and really grateful to God for his faithfulness, but the challenge moves from having done a successful event to being part of a Kingdom movement, to catch the wind/wave of God’s spirit and to ride it to the shore.
I’ll end with an idea Jackie shared about us living in the 29th chapter of Acts (it finishes in chapter 28) this is our time, story and call responding to the greater story, call, plans and purposes of God who seeks to work in partnership with us.

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The Decimated Cathedral.

As I blog about Notre Dame I feel a bit like I’m jumping on the bandwagon with people saying “how much?” -noting that the money could feed, clothe, educate and provide clean drinking water for millions of people.

I often find it ironic that the followers of a nomadic rabbi who had “no where to lay his head” have erected immoveable, grand mausoleums in stone.

Jesus whose only item of worth is was the cloak that was mockingly placed on his shoulders by jeering guards for which the soldiers rolled dice for.

Jesus cares more about the hungry, thirsty, homeless, lonely, cold, frightened, disposed, marginalised, disenfranchised and ostracised. The man who lived on the margins glorified by religious castles of imperialism.

Also doing the rounds on Facebook are the ‘green memes’ with pictures of our destructions of wonderful habitats asking: “What about these ‘Cathedrals?’” -these places of natural-beauty that declare the glory of God?

Which begs the question why we care about our history rather than the future of our planet?

The ancient vast cathedrals were built as an act of worship to celebrate the wonder and the vastness of God, yet God has already done this with the wonder of his world “that mankind is without excuse”, and we know that “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands” (Acts 7:48) but inhabits all of creation and is uncontainable in his splendour and glory.

I have worked in several Churches over the last 20 years, a couple of which were genuinely architecturally beautiful -and also places that have some of my precious memories for held there too, but aesthetics and nostalgia should not stand in the way with the plans and purposes of God.

I wonder if at times our buildings have become idols? Even with the newer churches that have been birthed creatively in wonderful indigenous locations seem to have an abnormal hankering for their own building -Interestingly Hillsongs one of the largest Churches in the UK has chosen not to own any buildings because they believe it would hamper what they feel called to do! Churches are often undertaking expensive building projects, and so much of our thinking is building centric. Ironically many Churches remove pews only to replace them with chairs which are barely ever moved!

Churchill said: “we shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us!”

For some the building and God become synonymous in people’s minds; even the disciples were praising the temple in the presence of Jesus and he reminds them that was ultimately matters is not the temporary bricks and mortar of a building (as if God lives in buildings built by men?) but rather the death and resurrection of Jesus which is soon about to occur (Mark 13).

We have forgotten why we exist! I preached a Christmas day sermon using the example of how my baby daughter was more interested in the wrapping paper than the present, which has become the mindset of many in our nation. We glorify something that is simply a tool of the gospel and the Kingdom.

I worry that for some the allegiance to a building and perhaps a small group of insiders has surpassed their allegiance to the crucified and risen Christ?

Whilst I worked in my last parish people spoke of my role to “bring people into Church” -meaning the building (and the type of service that they themselves liked!). Yet, if the point was to ‘fill the Church’ then if we dish out free beer and burgers then we could pack the place out, but instead of being ‘in Church’ we called to be ‘in Christ’; engaging in the bigger call of seeing ordinary people encountering the extraordinary living God and being supported by the Christian community.

The Church as described in scripture is not the building but rather the people. The phrase “going to Church” is an oxymoron because we ARE the Church, we are called to BE the Church, the body and bride of Christ -his hands and his feet- living under his Lordship as the head of the body.

This confusion caught St. Francis of Assisi who had a vision of Christ at San Damiano telling him to “rebuild his Church” and started to repair the walls before realising that the call was to make disciples. Perhaps, the burning cathedral is a call not to restore a building but to realise that the body and bride of Christ is sick and suffering in Europe, which has become the darkest continent, and France was of the most secular and religiously intolerant of nations. The call is not to repair building but transform lives, speaking the truth in love, bringing hope and living out ‘salt and light’ existences under-pinned by prayer.

So, as we mourn the tragedy of a grand building in need of renovation perhaps we need to allow our hearts to be broken over those who do not know Jesus, those who go to bed hungry, those who do not believe they are loved or valuable and are desperately lonely or those with material wealth but spiritual poverty.
Yet, this is not just a call to re-see things, but a call to action, grasping the priority of partnering with Christ who promises that he will build his Church and even the gates of hell will not prevail against us.

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A meal of solidarity with the oppressed.

I had a coffee with a Jewish lady who does a similar work to me going into schools to talk about her faith. We were talking about Passover wondering if we could do a combined lesson around the Jewish Passover and Christian Eucharist. She spoke of the part of Passover where they retell the story of God’s rescue from Egypt and then shared about a Passover meal with a holocaust survivor who continued the Exodus account with their experience in Nazi Germany.

Lynda -the lady I was chatting too, spoke of how Passover is a time when the Jews stand with solidarity with all oppressed people, and their story reminds them to remember others. Yet, this is rarely how we think of our Communion meal as standing in solidarity with the oppressed and partnering with the God of liberation (as Moses did) and seeing Jesus as the ultimate liberator and rescuer. The crucifixion shows the barbaric torture and murder of a prisoner of conscience. We remember our oneness as the body of Christ across the world and throughout time and history and many of our brothers and sisters suffer horrifically for their faith.

I wonder do we spiritualize memories to make them purely about ‘life beyond the grave’ rather than allow ourselves to be caught up in a story that is deeply and challenging and uncomfortable?

Do we rush to the resurrection to make it a happy ending and try to ignore the wounds in the hands, head, feet and side of Christ preserved forever in all eternity?

As someone who has been hugely influenced by the work of liberation theology within the Christian tradition, this was a reminder that this was not an invention of a new theology but rather a rediscovery of truths that are dominant in scripture -just often overlooked- right from the beginning of the scriptural narrative. A reminder that scripture speaks into this life as well as into the age to come.

On her worktop were coconut pyramids which is another popular tradition in Jewish homes for Passover season, and I thought for a moment about all those in forced and exploitative labour, modern day slavery, which is happening unseen (or perhaps unacknowledged) all around us; statistically something you are wearing at the moment statistically could have been made by slaves, or at least by someone who is not receiving a ‘fair days pay for a fair days work’.

As I thought of the story of Moses speaking truth repeatedly to power with clear demands to end this barbaric and exploitative practice of slavery and to free God’s people which fell on the deaf ears of Pharaoh; I thought of the Clapham Sect with William Wilberforce (a Christian) placing motion upon before Parliament (which were repeatedly and shamefully rejected) for the whole of his parliamentary career before finally seeing slavery abolished.
As I thought about nineteenth century abolitionist Wilberforce I was reminded of the call for a new 21st Century generation of abolitionists rests with our generation -true slavery looks different now in a globalised world- but we are not without power, influence or opportunity to change and transform this world. The call to be salt and light has not diminished over the past 2000 years.

The problem is not that people think slavery is a good thing, but rather we feel powerless to stop it, we don’t know what is produced fairly or not and buying ethically is often more expensive (we often buy second hand which although the garment may have originally been produced unfairly it is given a second life and the money goes into the hands of charities rather than exploiters). Yet, I believe we fall for the myth of all established sin (such as apartheid in South Africa) is it looks so entrenched that people cannot imagine a world that looks differently nor a path to walk on to get there. True, the path will be steep and costly, but ultimately when we side ourselves on the marginalised we discover we have sided ourselves with almighty God, and with God no one is in the minority -despite how it feels.

So, as we think of our story lets not gloss over the uncomfortable, painful and difficult bits but rather to spur us into action of solidarity and liberation. I’ll close with a quote from Bonhoeffer:

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

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Enslaved?

A couple of years ago we watched the BBC adaptation of Little Dorritt, a story which starts and centres in the early part around the debtors prison, but as we watched the story unravel it became apparent that everyone within the narrative were in some senses prisoners. Some maybe in gilded gages, but none the less still very much prisons that hold captive and enslave.

What of us, what of me, am I enslaved by anything? Or, if we’re more honest, what are we enslaved by? Are we even aware of it?

The film the Matrix portrays all of humanity caught as a slave to a system that gives them an illusion of freedom. The Bible talks of us all being slaves to sin, Paul speaks into humanities addiction which controls us “the good I want to do, I don’t do, and wrong I don’t want to do I do do!” (Rom.7).

As enslaved people we are controlled and our ability to make good, free, healthy choices is impaired.

As I read the story of Pharaoh enslaving the Israelites it is clear that he is also a slave to his fears and paranoia.

Fear (like guilt) is a very bad motivator, yet something we all feel from time to time. What is scaring us and making us afraid at the moment? How is fear affecting our choices and how we treat those around us?

Much of the writings of liberation theology and writings of politicians such as Nelson Mandela talk about true freedom sets free both the oppressed and the oppressor.

Fear holds us captive and often causes us to lash out and hurt those around us. Oppression is contagious just as much as fear is divisive.

Fear makes reasonable people behave in unreasonable ways.

Fear creates knee jerk reactions often which are foolish, blinkered and prejudiced. This Pharaoh’s fear driven choices caused the death of his son and grandson.

Fear makes us think it is all down to us where faith reminds us that even when it doesn’t look or feel like it God is in charge and he us good, all good.

Scripture talks of “perfect love casts out fear” knowing God’s presence with us brings peace -a peace that passes (trscends in some translations) all understanding.

The story of Moses is a story of liberation, but one could argue that although they were liberated after the first passover their true liberation of hearts and minds took much longer.

To imagine a new life, with a new identity, and seek to live it out in everyday reality is our inheritance bought by the blood of the cross and the power of the resurrection.

Jesus is our great liberator, Paul says “those whom the Son (Jesus) sets free shall be free Indeed!” but how do we live in the freedom that Christ brings?

We remain prisoners in our hearts and minds when we cannot imagine a different future from what we have always known. We need hope of a different future and path, we need what the Bible calls ‘the renewing of our minds’, whereby we make every thought captive to the blood of Christ.

Freedom often is not a one off badge we can sew on our jerseys but rather a way of life with God, won for us by Christ but lived out each day, step by step.

Have we discovered that freedom in Christ, and living differently.

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Growing Courage and Bravery

Exodus 2.14: Then Moses was afraid and thought, “What I did must have become known.”

15 When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well.

water and fill the troughs to water their father’s flock. 17 Some shepherds came along and drove them away, but Moses got up and came to their rescue and watered their flock.

18 When the girls returned to Reuel their father, he asked them, “Why have you returned so early today?”

19 They answered, “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds. He even drew water for us and watered the flock.”

20 “And where is he?” Reuel asked his daughters. “Why did you leave him? Invite him to have something to eat.”

21 Moses agreed to stay with the man, who gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses in marriage. 22 Zipporah gave birth to a son, and Moses named him Gershom,[c] saying, “I have become a foreigner in a foreign land.”

When I worked in Bristol we ran the mission shaped ministry course from Fresh Expressions with a weekend away in the middle of it, the session on Saturday evening was “overcoming hurt and disappointment” as so many people with incredible potential have been crushed by various things such as opposition, bad experiences, negative reactions and dismissive comments. Within the Christian life we all get knocked down at times -and sometimes kicked when you are down there!- but our challenge was to rise up from the floor, move in from the pain of discouragement and try again (and maybe again, and again!). My friend Jackie was leading the session (and also speaking from experience) and she prayed for us all to have the gift of courage and bravery. She then said something I will never forget. “Bravery is like a muscle, perhaps God is like a personal trainer building up muscle tone within you”.

That morning I had (in vain) tried to loose some of my flabby stomach with a few sit ups and I was in pain. Growing muscles is painful. Yet everything doesn’t change with the occasional stretch, but rather through ongoing persistent discipline.

Moses here probably doesn’t feel very brave as he’s on the run from pharaoh but it feels like he’s growing braver here when he fights if a gang of bullies stopping some young women water their animals. Clearly Moses intervenes even though the odds are against him and the thugs run away.

Later we read of Moses becoming a shepherd which is a role requiring courage taking on all sorts of dangerous wild animals in order to protect the sheep. God stretching Moses who is becoming more and more brave until he is ready (with God’s help and empowering) to face down Pharaoh -the leader of a superpower nation and possibly someone he had personal history with?

Interestingly the story starts with Moses killing an Egyptian and Pharaoh being angry and wanting to kill Moses, rather than confronting Pharaoh and saying: “let the Lords people go!” yet Moses wasn’t ready and had fled and spent a long time letting God work in him so that he could work through him?

Perhaps God had been trying to work in him but Moses blew the opportunity and God had work in Moses afresh so he had the courage to return to face Pharaoh.

What of us?

Do we need to rise up afresh and not give up on the call of God on our lives?

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