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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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Why are you fighting each other?

Exodus 2:13 The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?”

14 The man said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” 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.

“We wished you had all been hanged” said a group of black political prisoners (from the PAC, Pan African Congress) to Nelson Mandela and his fellow colleague-prisoners from the ANC in the jail at Robbin Island.

As I read this I couldn’t believe what I was reading these two groups both wanted to end black oppression by white minority rule and yet they hated each other and refused to work together towards liberation.

Yet as I thought about this I realised that sadly when people often should pull together they pull apart, rather than unite against a common enemy they fight amongst themselves.

I remember in the film “The Krays” the two brothers, Reggie and Ronnie, fight each other in the Boxing Ring, and their mum tells them “we are family, we don’t fight each other, we never fight each other, we fight them out there together, but we never fight each other!”

Sadly this is so evident within the Church and the Christian community, on both the macro -denominations and other groups acting like school children squabbling and bickering- and the micro, personal, level where the levels of spitefulness that is launched at one another for trying to do things differently to see Christ made known and lives transformed.

The Americans have a horrible phrase “friendly fire” where an ally kills a fellow ally, we as Christians know that there is no place within Christ’s Church for such behaviour, but sadly I know many wonderful and Godly Church leaders who have left ministry broken because of the behaviour of people within the Church.

Speaking personally some of my most painful wounds I received both as a vicar and now just as just a random guy trying to be a faithful follower have been from people I felt should have “got it” and understood and been on the same side.

Moses question: “why are you fighting one another” remains as valid today as it did many millennia ago!

The tragedy with fighting one another not only means we have lost our perspective and our thinking has become distorted, but we are are actually impairing the body of Christ, reducing our effectiveness, hampering mission and thwarting the advance of the Kingdom of God and grieving the Holy Spirit.

It sometimes is easier to think of when others have lost their perspective but not always as clear when we have ourselves. Bizarrely it is often easier to see the speck in someone else’s eye than notice the log within our own.

The writer of Hebrews urges his readers to “fix their eyes on Christ” avoiding the entanglement of sin and the distraction cul-de-sacs (slight paraphrase) and run the race set before us.

Many years ago I had to write a letter to an emerging leader and give some advice the advice I chose was “keep the main thing the main thing -the main thing is knowing, loving and following Jesus and seeking to see his Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven”. It’s a call to lift our eyes to ultimately who and what we as Christians are living for!

And I’ll close with another image, the opposite of the one I began with, it is from the film Shakespeare in Love where the rival theatre groups collaborate together -whereas earlier in the film they were fighting and trying to kill each other- in order to put on a play (Romeo and Juliet) in defiance of the master of the realm trying to shut the theatres down.

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Holy Saturday.

As many of you know I suffer with depression, so despite the (many, many) blessings God, sometimes I feel like I live in Holy Saturday yet everything within my soul is yearning for Easter morning.

Currently I’m in the weird place of having left the security and stability of a structured and paid role (as a pioneer vicar in Bristol) and am currently seeking to build and birth something as a ordinary ‘lay’ person who loves Jesus and seeks to follow him. This place of transition having left somewhere but not fully arrived at the desired new destination -the airport lounge or the train station cafe- again feels like I’m living in Holy Saturday of liminality.

Currently, the new monastic community and the school of mission seeking I’m involved in building/birthing feels very fragile and although there are green shoots and signs of hope I also feel and fear the size of the mountain, and feel a bit like David looking at the size of Goliath and then the smallness of the few stones. Having had many disappointments and setbacks along the way and doubts, fears and questions plague my mind this is an uncomfortable, confusing and at times lonely time. Holy Saturday is a place where past pain and baggage collide with the part of me daring to hope, believe and clinging on to God (although probably in reality he’s clinging onto me, although it doesn’t always feel this way).

Today too, I went to Southsea, where there was a job I didn’t get although I felt so sure I had heard from God that he was calling us there, actually yesterday wandering from the train station I found myself crying that I felt so called there and yet the door had been shut and just pouring out my confusion and pain to a heaven that doesn’t answer those unanswered questions that my heart was/has/is breaking over? Holy Saturday is a day when the answers don’t fully satisfy.

For me, Holy Saturday has become a day that resonates with me and the last few years. Jesus has died, it has been painful, and the resurrection hasn’t happened yet -if fact the disciples doubted it was going to happen, the only people who appeared to have any faith were the priests who feared it would happen!

Faith in God’s faithfulness and promise in a fallen, broken and fallible world is a difficult place to believe.

Holy Saturday is a place of waiting for breakthrough, it’s sitting in the hospital waiting room with a plastic cup of horrible coffee trying to make sense of the mix of emotions, past experiences and the realisation of our lack of ability to control the outcomes of situations.

Sunday does come, the light breaks through, Jesus our living hope rises from the tomb defeating death and darkness but St. John of the Cross said (or was it Christopher Nolan’s batman?): “The night is at its darkest before the dawn”.

I sometimes wonder if my evangelical/charismatic heritage rushes from Good Friday through Holy Saturday to get to the resurrection of Easter Morning failing to take in all that this journey has to teach us.

The picture of ‘the third day’ is a recurring biblical theme -and perhaps I’d suggest the place the missionary and pioneer often is forced to dwell- the third day is the day of break-through which has been preceded by a time of waiting with expectancy, but (as anyone who has been on a long drive with a small child will testify) waiting is a difficult, confusing and painful time. I often wonder if this ‘third day’ metaphor is a picture of life where we live with the pain of the fall a reality and awaiting the coming Kingdom.

So, let’s walk through Holy Saturday and learn the lessons today has to teach us for life of faith following the crucified and risen Christ.

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Moses: Should I stay or should I go?

Exodus.2:11 One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. 12 Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. 13 The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?”

14 The man said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” 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.
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The American civil rights bus boycott began when a black woman, Rosa Parks, remained seated on her chair rather than giving it up for a white person.

She not only didn’t give up her seat but remained seated, staying on her chair when the conductor shouted at her to get off, threatened her with the police, called the police, who came and arrested her.

She didn’t give him but preserved even when the pressure mounted, she did not capitulate and back down.

Her courageous act followed by defiant persistence sparked a movement that changed a nation and altered the course of history.

Moses made a stand, he killed the Egyptian, and I wondered was this making a stand? -Or was it more of a gesture?

A gesture is something we do that does not cost us very much and does not interrupt the normal flow of our lives.

As Christians we sometimes love to make a grand gesture! Yet I have discovered that often the real fruit lies in the unglamorous habitual preservice, the call of Christ is normally deeper and more costly than the tokenism we would often like it to be.

Moses, came across an unjust situation which provoked him into anger, he killed the Egyptian but afterwards he went home and his life carried on as normal, this sounds like a gesture! Where-as a stand changes our future -in fact often it changes everything and may include ‘burning our bridges’.

I wonder if Moses attempted a gesture, but it ended up snowballing into a stand? He did kill an Egyptian but was not expecting the reaction he got, the consequences of this caused him not to stand and fight for the liberation of the Israelite slaves, but to hide and save himself.

Sometimes, like Moses, I’m sure we have had moments full of faith and courage -perhaps our adrenaline is going- and we’ve been bold and brave, only later the dark night of the Soul rises, and we become filled with doubts, fears and anxieties, and we review our choices? Fight or flight?

Moses was a Prince, schooled no doubt in valour and battle, and yet he chose not to fight but rather to flea away, he saw the dangers and battles ahead, he counted the cost and decided it was too much, too costly, and he run away.

I’m sure many of us have run away from big challenges, and if we have not we probably have at least been tempted to too.

I was facing some very difficult choices in my last parish did I ignore some behaviour, or did I bring a challenge? I knew if I brought a challenge it would result in a lot of unpleasantness, but I knew it was the right thing to do. My friend the Elim Pastor said to me “do it scared!” In other words, even when we are afraid still do the right thing.

The Bible says: “in your anger do not sin” -but I would add “in your fear do not neglect righteousness”.

Yet, the picture of Rosa Parks which we started with is one I want to end with, Rosa Parks was a Christian, and I believe that as she must have felt afraid as her stand caused an almighty and costly backlash but I also believe she must have been praying too, and I believe that her amazing courage is both a tribute to her character and a testimony to the amazing God we serve who strengthens us and grants us courage.

So, what of us, are we people of small gestures or genuine stands? Are we prepared to do the right thing even when it is costly and we are afraid?

Are we like Moses who ran for the hills when the times got challenging, or Rosa Parks who prayed and was courageous and changed the world?

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