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Earn this?

Recently I was watching the film saving private Ryan and (spoiler alert) his Captain dies saying “earn this!” and the film closes with an elderly Ryan crying at the Captain’s grave asking if he was worthy enough?

It is the opposite of grace, how would you ever know if you’d done enough if you had earned it? If you were truly worthy? Yet I believe that many people try and earn their salvation trying to impress God with their good deeds, their spectacular piety and hardwork. Yet this a false gospel of works, or exchange and bargaining rather than a gospel (good news) of grace generously given by God.

Saving Private Ryan is a beautiful and moving film, but as I watched this I realised how unlike the Captain Jesus is. When Jesus died on the cross for us he said “it is finished” and the temple curtain split in two, he didn’t say “earn this” it was freely given and paid for in full and freely offered to us all who are undeserving.

We as humans know our total dependence on God, every breath in our lungs or beat of our heart is a gift from him. The food we eat, the love we give and the live we receive has its origins in God, in fact every good and perfect gift comes from him.

Rather than saying “earn this” Jesus said “this is my body broken for you, this is my blood shed for you, feed on me by faith with Thanksgiving” -the idea of thankfulness and gratitude is at the heart of the Christian faith, the word Eucharist literally means “thankfulness”. To live “eucharistically” is to live each day with thankfulness to God, as are called to be a grateful people. We owe God everything ‘for he has created us and redeemed us”. When we were separated from God -dead in our sins- when there was no way God made a way for us to be reconciled with him through the wonderful unearned gift of Christ Jesus.

As I thought about my attitude I realise that I have become complacent about the beauty and the blessings all around me. I have fallen for the lie that happiness is consumable, ironic that we have more material possessions than we have ever had before and yet we have never been more depressed and yet we keep on and on spending!

Recently after/during a really tough bout of depression I was walking the dog along the beach and I was struck afresh by the beauty and wonder of creation, and began the mindful discipline of recalling what I wanted to thank God for. Often I take for granted all I have received and I need to reconvert my eyes and hearts to all I have been given, maybe this is true for us all?

When the dark moments come I recall the things I am grateful to God for -both large and small- and as I begin to resurrect gratitude in what I have rather than the pain of what feels wrong or is missing or lost. It is a tough discipline to create and maintain an attitude of gratitude, focusing on what we have rather than what we lack! Choosing to celebrate and savour our blessings to sustain us and making us more resilient in darker moments.

It is an act of faith to choose a different attitude, yet one that I believe causes us to shine, demonstrating something distinctive and beautiful to a watching world.

Gratitude brings warmth into our soul where as a scarcity mindset makes us cold, begrudging and bitter. A life of gratitude makes us healthy and whole where the opposite diminishes us.

Gratitude is transformative as when we realise that happiness and success is not measured by the accumulation of stuff we are liberated not only to find joy in living simply but in that to find contentment, a rare treasure within our culture.

Gratitude effects how we treat others, we have received so much from God that it should overflow into all our relationships and should exhibit generousity shining out from us to others, the more we are generous the more we look like God.

Gratitude will effect our priorities we who have received so much from God will (or at least ought) want to sacrifice themselves extravagantly in sharing what God has done with other people.

As I think of generousity I cannot help but think of the woman who broke a pint of pure nard over Jesus’s feet in an extravagant gesture of worship (costing about a years wages). The woman knew she was sinful and the Pharisee who seems smug and self righteous were told by Jesus that “those who have been forgiven much love much, and those who have been forgiven little love little!”.

So let’s pursue an attitude of gratitude together day as we emulate the God we serve in generosity.

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Creation and Re-Creation.

When we think of Genesis what do we focus on? (Sadly, too often I think we ignore it altogether!) Augustine focused his eyes on Genesis three and the fall of humanity and ‘original sin’ -we are all born with a predisposition and an inevitability of sin- but more recently the pendulum has swung back with the reminder that the original plan of God was blessing, original blessing and that God’s goodness is indelible in the world and all of his creation, however much sin takes hold God’s likeness and nature will still been able to be glimpsed (even if just ever so briefly) within his creation.
Those of us who are passionate about issues of justice, compassion, ecology and sustainable living see much with Genesis that we want to highlight too.
Yet primarily I believe that Genesis is a creation account in God’s recreation narrative, God who makes everything is making everything new and one day he will bring this to it fullness of completion. Yet too often we don’t see scripture as a recreation narrative which leaves us not quite sure what to do with Genesis!
Often we live lives full of ‘deaths’ -or what feels like deaths- but we are also people who believe in the goodness of God where his creation is also filled with resurrection opportunities.
The idea of making new is a powerful image to partner with God in, building new relationships -possibly even on the foundations of ones that had been broken, new seasons in marriages and friendships that looked like they were dying, new opportunities sometimes even in the shell of the old, new challenges and new and fresh vocations awaiting us to pick up.
None of us is too old or set in our ways for a new idea or possibility, indeed it is often such things that people say “these keep me young”. In the west we do not have the same deference for the older people that exists within the east. Age does not always bring wisdom, sometimes aging can be incredibly destructive as we become jaded, cynical, bitter, controlling where we become a cork rather than a catalyst, sometimes we can age ‘badly’ bringing out the worst that is within us. Yet, too many of us know older folk with a zest for life, although their bodies are old they have something very special about them which is very much alive, energising, they have learned -although their bodies have grown frail- how to keep their hearts and minds young to not allow aging to be corrosive. Yet, age is sometimes just a number, sometimes younger people have aged badly their outlook has diminished and hope has evaporated.
We are ourselves ‘new creations’ when we are in Christ, when we come to Jesus our old lives of sin and shame are dealt with at the cross of Christ and we are cleansed from sin, forgiven, restored -made me. The Apostle Paul says this “if anyone is in Christ they are a new creation, the old has gone and the new has come”. As the Spirit of God -the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead and makes us alive in Christ- works in us I believe we often have to leave the attitude of death and decay that creeps into the human heart and is often so debilitating for the community at the foot of the cross of Christ and ask him to fill us afresh with himself, his life giving Holy Spirit. We need to discover -even though the grey hairs might be appearing- what it means when Jesus instructed us all to become like little children.
Yet, being a new creation is more that developing a new attitude but also the promise of resurrection and eternity, as we are a new creation we death for Christian is a comma rather than a full stop. I remember hearing an anecdote of a great Christian Minister who died and at his funeral he had written these words “you have come here today mourning my death, but I am more alive than I have ever been!” We are people of the resurrection. We live in a world where resurrection is deeply interwoven into the created order, after death comes life, the death of a caterpillar is the birth of a butterfly, a resurrection picture whereby the butterfly is more glorious and beautiful than the caterpillar reminding me of the words of scripture that says “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no heart can comprehend what God has in store for those who love him!”
At the heart of the universe is a creator God who not let sin, death, destruction, disease have the last word but rather will end with the restoration of all things for all eternity.

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Rosa Parks.

I love Rosa Parks, just an ordinary lady who changed America by her defiance not to give up her seat for a white passenger. She got arrested which triggered a mass bus boycott, which snowballed with people talking to the streets in protest marches (with Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech). Eventually racial segregation was outlawed and attitudes changed (so much so that in 2008 Barack Obama became the first ever black President of the United States).

Why that day she refused we don’t know -although we do know she’d worked late and was tired. Yet for some reason she had had enough. Something inside her said “No”.

Rosa Parks was a Christian, she went to Martin Luther King’s Church, perhaps it was the Holy Spirits quickening and emboldening that made her stay seated and remain seated?

The driver shouted at her, the other passengers got angry, the police were called and she was arrested, yet despite all this she remained sat on her chair! I wonder if I had been in her shoes would I have capitulated, back down and given in?

Rosa Parks showed great bravery not just in her act of defiance but in her refusal despite the pressure she remained steadfast and resolute.

Yet it was costly for Rosa Parks who lost her job as did her husband. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Many black people were murdered, lynched, by white supremacists. Many more were arrested, beaten up and imprisoned. Even now blacks make up 12% of the American population but 33% of the prison population, and black Americans are twice as likely as white people to be unemployed.nica It was, and is, a costly battle, with a long way to go until we see real and true equality.

Rosa Parks risked the comfort of her today for the dream, the possibility -however slight- of a better tomorrow (at the time there was no certainty that they would succeed) but she did her bit that caused a domino effect that changed America and the world.

The thing I like most about Rosa Parks is her ordinaryness, she did not hold elected office nor was she famous, just an ordinary woman going about her evetyday daily life, when she made a decision and changed the world.

Perhaps there is something that you need to say “no more” too, something that is not right that you have been living with or aware of for too long?

It takes a special form of courage and faith to build and plant seeds for a future you might never see in your life time.

Maybe you feel that the chance of success is small and wonder what your small action can achieve? -If so, let Rosa Parks story embolden you to do your bit, do the right thing even if it is costly, because small things can, and do, alter the course of human history.

You might be in a situation where you are tempted to give in for an easy and more comfortable life, if so, hold firm and don’t move, wobble or budge if you believe it is right.

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Igagai

Ikagia is a Japanese word that is difficult to translate but could be translated as vocation, it is your motivating force, the reason you get up in the morning and the words you would want to read about yourself in your obituary.

St. Paul’s ‘Ikagia’ would be “for me to live is Christ and to die is gain!” John Wimbers’ said his purpose was to run the race Christ had for him and to take as many people with him as he could! What is your Ikagia? Does it look like Jesus or does it resemble the tower of Babel?

Who are we living for? Is it ourselves to be like the rich fool who gains the whole world but yet loses their life? Or is it for Christ building with gold that will last for all eternity? Where are we going in our life? And how are we getting there are we blessing those we travel alongside

Over the course of these few days we have looked at work and purpose being something good given to us before the fall. We have looked at the distortion of sin which has confused our purpose and our destiny. We looked at vocation being bigger than just working for the Church but rather God’s call is for his people to be his salt and light in the world, often called to industries that perhaps Christians have historically shunned such as the arts or politics. Yet also questioning whether some activities and roles were comparable with the call to follow Christ?

So, how can we know where God is calling us? The Japanese word here helps us a little here, asking ourselves “What we are good at?”, “What you love and are passionate about?”, “What does the word need?” and “What can you get paid for?”

Recently I was involved in a piece of youth work where we had a steering group of young people that gathered other young people together for a consultation about what it was like being a young person in our town and talking about ‘aspirations’, and interestingly we discovered that many of the young people’s aspirations were about ‘being a good person’, being spiritual and having hobbies with s healthy work life balance, having healthy and functioning relationships. I remember as a teenager the aspiration we were force fed was about getting a job and earning money.

For a long time whilst I was a Vicar it was all consuming and although I poured my everything into being a good Vicar (but was never enough for some parishioners who would tell you they felt neglected!) but came to realise that there was also the call to be a good husband/dad/uncle/nephew/friend/colleague and neighbor all of which also really mattered to God, the call if God was for a whole life not just the spiritual part of it.

Eugene Peterson talks of the world squeezing us into its mould let the call of Christ us towards liberation to be the person we were created to be. In the Lord’s prayer Jesus prayed that: “your (God’s) Kingdom would come on earth as in heaven”, which I believe is a call for every believer who loves Jesus and has a pulse! It will look different for all of us!

So let us explore where God is calling us to shine out like stars on the universe as we live for Christ in all we say and do and in who we are.

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Making Santa Green Again…

We are all sort of familiar with Santa Clause with his red pyjamas and long with beard. Yet what many of us don’t know is that cocola turned him red in the advertising of their product and he has been painted red in our imagination ever since.

It is interesting that the symbol for philanthropy and the real meaning of Christmas being by a multinational corporation to become their motif for their consumeristic endeavours.

Father Christmas rather than living on the north pole and surrounded by elves in a toy factory (thanks Hollywood for that) he is really based on a real life Saint, St. Nicholas, an early bishop, of a place in Greece called Myra. He was a fiery redheaded man who was passionate about orthodox theology an on one occasion punched some of the followers of the Arius heresy (think Jehovah’s Witnesses).

He was also a wealthy man having been left a fortune by his parents. He was extraordinarily generous but was also very humble and used to give gifts and blessings by stealth.

On one occasion when an old man thought he might have to sell his daughters into prostitution due to their abject poverty, on hearing of the families poverty Nicholas threw a bag of gold down his chimney which saved the family and enabled them to survive and turn their lives around.

Often the poor would do their washing outside and would hang their stockings out to dry and Nicholas would put money in their drying stockings as a way of blessing people anonymously.

Nicholas was so extraordinarily generous that his “stealth generously” became that of legend. Following Nicholas’s death many of his clergy follows his generosity to the poor and marginalised, over the years the entire fortune was spent on alleviating poverty in Myra.

As I thought about St. Nicholas and his kindness by stealth, I was challenged by the idea of how often we do the right thing for the wrong reasons, how we like affirmation for our good deeds and how we like other people thinking we are good and kind people. The recipients of the original St. Nicholas never knew the human hands that God used to bless them. I want to have a humility like this, although I know on some days I have a long way to go!

The legend has lived on even until today, but rather than being a Saint whose life can challenge and inspire us, we mystify and romanticise so we aren’t challenged to be more like Christ by the example of St. Nicholas.

Also Nicholas was someone who sought to give practical help wherever he saw human need or suffering, rather than simply being generous and self congratulatory once a year.

Interestingly, the change from green to red has significance in the Catholic colour of seasons red is infrequent celebrations of Saints Days (rare events) rather than the green which is ‘ordinary time’ which is most of the time.

We often ask children “if they’ve been good?” In order that “Santa” might come, which actual makes generosity a reward for good behaviour rather than an unearned gift. Indeed take this flawed thinking we end up catagagorizing people into ‘the deserving and undeserving poor’ which places ourselves in a very judgemental position, all of us have made mistakes and squandered opportunities and needed the help of others.

So rather than dismiss Santa as a myth let’s recapture this green hero, his humility and philanthropy by stealth, but please don’t punch and Jehovah’s Witnesses!

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The Tree of Life…

At the heart of the first few chapters of Genesis is the tree of life, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A tree that produces fruit, a tree whose fruit looks delicious and tempting, and a tree that God forbade us touch, a tree that represents the choice between going our own way and going God’s way.

The fruit that looked so enticing ended in death,

The tree at the heart of Genesis changed absolutely everything!

In some ways this tree is a symbol of one of the key tenets of Christian philosophy God’s blessing humanity with free will.

God could have made humanity some robot race that did as they were told without choice, yet we forget that love isn’t love unless the recipient is free to accept or reject it. A friendship is only pure and holy when a no means no, incredible that God respects our choice to follow him and be his friend or to turn from him and live without him.

Choice is a gift, but sadly we all know we are capable of not only making bad choices but also being too stubborn to admit we made a bad choice as our situation deteriorates.

Interestingly half way through the Bible at the start of the book of Psalms we see a healthy tree bearing fruit with their roots going down into God, rather like Jesus picture of the man who built his house on the rock or the sand, a picture of choosing to go God’s way being the best choice we can make if we want to flourish.

At the end of the new testament there is also a picture of the tree of life “whose leaves are for the healing of the nations” at the centre of the new Jerusalem city, a picture of God having restored his creation, and making everything new.

Yet there is another ‘tree’ in the Bible, a tree that says that a person is cursed who dies upon a tree. A tree that didn’t look attractive or tempting at all. This tree is a cross of wood, a symbol of death and suffering, the worst form of execution and torture that the Roman Empire could think of.

Jesus took the curse of the fall upon himself, dying in our place. This tree, the cross, changes everything and is at the heart of scripture and the Christian Story.

The cross offers us a choice, a new choice, a choice of forgiveness and reconciliation with God, with the fruit of transformation and life all eternity with God.

So let’s see the first tree that unleashed the virus of sin when people walked from God, and the second tree -the cross of Christ- that is the cure for the curse, the cross brings life from death and hope from despair.

The cross of Christ speaks a better word to the world.

Today both trees are offering us their fruit, which shall we choose today, life or death?

Which tempts you?

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The Saviour with a Bruised Heel.

When you stamp on the head of a snake you might kill it, but you probably will kill yourself in the process, as it the act of destroying a snake by crushing it with your foot, the snake will sink its teeth into you and infect you with its venom.

A friend of mine, Phil, was on a mission trip and saw some horrible and very poisonous spider -unfortunately for the story it wasn’t a snake- scuttling towards his family, knowing that these are deadly my friend stood between the spider and his family, prepared to be bitten by the spider and die in order to protect them, he killed the spider with his heavy boots. He wondered what if I didn’t have boots to handy? What if the only option to save my family was to crush it beneath my bare-feet, true he would have saved his family at the cost of his life sacrificed.

The picture is very similar to this verse, the Jesus who stamped on the snakes’ head, dying so we might live and be free. Clearly there was no other way to save us other than paying that great but dreadful cost.

On the cross Jesus is fulfilling the prophecy of Genesis when God said that Satan/the snake “would bite the heel” heel of Adam’s descendants (and we see the toxic snake bites throughout the brokenness of the world and human relations) but also that from Adam’s descendants would come one who would “crush the serpents head”.

The picture looked like a defeat for the son of Adam bitten on the heel and filled with venom as well as Satan’s head crushed, an idea so shocking -God would allow himself to die at the hands of his creation- that to many people (especially Muslims) find this hard to believe that God would (or even could) do this out of love for us.

Christ who flung stars into space, the God through whom all things were made, the one who spoke into the darkness left the glory of heaven to come and rescue his beloved creation as one of us, and yet this rescue was not that of a glorious superhero saving the world without breaking a sweat or messing up their perfectly quaffed hair, no this victory was costly -cost everything, Jesus died for us, in our place, in the most horrific manner we can comprehend.

Jesus took the part of the second Adam, one who lived his life God’s way in holy obedience to God, and both took the fall and took on the fall, living amongst us -tempted in every way- and yet without sin. When we see Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane we feel his pain as he prays “Lord if this is possible let this cup pass from me” before adding that great prayer of faith “yet not my will but yours be done!” Jesus surrenders his will to the Fathers, he takes up his cross as the whole Godhead’s heartbreaks as they reconcile and redeem their beloved creation in a costly sacrifice for the whole of this divine trinitarian community of love.

Hebrews says “it was for the joy set before him that he endured the cross” -the joy set before him was ordinary people, me and you, coming back into relationship with God through the forgiveness of sins.

Isaiah says: “He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
4 Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all”.

Jesus fulfilled the Genesis prophecy of having his heel bruised by Satan.

Sin, death and the devil threw everything at Christ, they tore him down by seeing nailed to a cross.

Yet Jesus took it all for us “the punish that brought us peace was on him”, his heel was bruised, but even though he died in agony, death could not hold him back nor sin destroy him, he rose and was victorious. Jesus the bruised heeled Saviour left by his death and resurrection, sin, shame, death, Satan and hell beneath his feet. As the scriptures remind us “death where is your sting? It has been swallowed up in Victory!”

The bruised heel and the crushed head, was not both destroying each other, because God refuses to let sin, death or hell have the last word, and Jesus rose again.

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