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The Divine and the Dirt…

We live in a world more and more disconnected with nature, the ‘sacredness’ of human relationship with God, the land and themselves is broken.

We see vegetables wrapped in plastic and clingfilm from the superstore that has not just put the local independent green grocer (and the butcher, baker and candlestick maker) out of business but has caused our shopping to now have a vast carbon footprint, and some of which was traded where the conditions for the workers were not just unethical but dehumanising.

Our lives our sanitised from the effects of nature, we can get fruit all year around irrespective of season, we can just turn up and get what we want, pre-cut, and looking lovely.

I remember walking through the meat aisle and explaining to my daughter about meat coming from animals, she was upset as she likes animals, I began to feel less and less comfortable eating meat (as I write this I am dipping my toe in the water of being a vegetarian -my first day!) As I looked at the meat it felt detached from its source. (I used to work with a lovely vegetarian called Sam, but my daughter couldn’t say “Sam” and called him “Ham”.

As I write this, I’ve just been told off by my wife, for forgetting to split the recycling up properly and throwing away things that could be recycled. I feel a fraud writing about being a good steward of God’s creation.

In Genesis 1, we have words that make me feel really uncomfortable such as “subdue the earth” and “rule over it” as are used to seeing protests ‘subdued with violence’ and ‘rule’ being almost synonymous with oppression, yet subdue in this context is about ‘bring peace and order to creation’ the rule of God is one that enables flourishing and goodness to prevail, these words have been misused to justify exploitation of our creation, but theologically are bankrupt and flawed. As we continue through the creation narratives we read Genesis 2, our responsibility to care for the earth and steward it well is inescapable, in fact we originate from the earth and will return from it “remember you are but dust and to dust you will return”. We were meant to be at one with nature rather than trying to live separated from it, and in living separately we are not only abdicating our responsibilities but damaging and destroying what we were meant to be caring for. In fact, we are kill God’s creation.

As I see the multiple films and protests around the world I feel very small and very powerless. Then I remembered when we started our work with Street Pastors in Kingswood, at first we rushed around chatting to one another and unsurprisingly we had very few conversations about Jesus, but as we slowed down, talked less, looked around more, caught peoples eyes more and more opportunities were presented to us. I believe the same thing is true for ecology, the environment, Green issues and issues of justice, the slower we go, the more aware we are, the more we think, look and are intentionally seeking moments where can make a difference we will be astounded at the opportunities that are presented to us.

I believe that we live in a world where people want to make a difference, are yearn-ing to make the world a better place, to pass on a creation to our children and grandchildren a clean world, healthy and flourishing. The Church of Jesus Christ should have been leading the way on this critical issue and yet we have been slow and sluggish to step up and speak out on our responsibilities to be obedient to the call of God to look after his creation

Yet too we live in a world where the call of money and business is appealing and we the Church have a message that another way is possible, and there is another Kingdom to serve that is not Mamon -the Roman insatiable Pig God of wealth that was never satisfied-. Jesus says “You cannot serve both God and Mamon”. As the Native Americans remind us: “When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money”.

Instead, lets gather around the truth of the story of the God who threw stars into the heavens above and allowed his creation to piece his hands, feet and side -and yet death could not contain, nor the rules of nature bind or imprison, and calls us to partner with him to build another world, the Kingdom of God, the groans of creations itself echoing our prayers and our heartbeat, living out a life that is good new too all creation.

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In/Out of Ministry?

I was at a friend’s ordination service and someone asked me (as I’ve stepped away from Vicaring about 9 months ago) how it felt being “out of ministry”.

I thought about this curious phrase “in ministry” and then thought of my coming week with three school assemblies talking to hundreds of young people about Jesus.

Out of Ministry?

Or helping out with the Town Pastors blessing the vulnerable, homeless, lonely and in need…

Out of Ministry?

Too often we think of being in ministry as doing Churchy stuff in a churchy building.

Yet since taking a break I do think there is a world of difference between religious activity and Kingdom fruitfulness.

We get confused between Christ’s call and propping up an institution.

I wonder if that which we think is ministry might not be, and that which we don’t think is might actually be God ordained ministry which cause the angels to rejoice in heaven.

Indeed as my wise friend Alan Jenner said when I left Kingswood “Andy’s leaving the Church of England to tell people about Jesus!”

Perhaps we need to rethink what it means to be a Vicar/pastor/Church leader, where making disciples and advancing the Kingdom is prioritised over buildings, fundraising, committees and endless rotas… (and lots of moving chairs!)

Out of Ministry? Was what was called ministry always ministry? If it wasn’t then I’m glad to be out of it.

My friend Mark Rich talks of the Spirit wanting “maximum fruitfulness for minimum weariness but Satan wants maximum weariness for minimum fruitfulness”. –

Perhaps all of us – irrespective of whether we are Vicary or not- need to seek afresh the call of God afresh?

Are we doing what we should be?

Are we doing what we shouldn’t be?

I believe that every Christian who knows, loves and wants to follow Jesus is in full time ministry. Or to put it another way if you love Jesus and have a pulse you are in full time Christian ministry!

Are we too blinkered and selective in the small minority of things we celebrate? When God’s glory is spilling out all over the place, but often unnoticed by us within the Church.

As I stood there at the ordination service in my robes, waiting as bling covered Bishops and Deans processed down the aisle, I thought there was something deeply uncomfortable about the “them and us-ness” of this division of clergy and laity, as though we really think that proper calling involves a ring of plastic around your neck.

Yet the world is full of great Kingdom opportunities, different roles in the body of Christ -indeed Corinthians says if all bits of the body functioned the same then the body would be depleted instead it is our difference that bring its strengths.

Too often we forget that rather than those of us working in an obviously churchy role are (I believe) to equip, empower and enable the cross cultural missionaries we have in workplaces, homes, streets, schools, colleges, universities, hospitals and prisons in every village, town or city in our country and across the world… the people we serve are our key assets, we as clergy are just the team coach an often invisible role of glorifying Jesus through equipping the saints, the boots on the ground, the people at the coalface, living out their faith on their front line. I believe as clergy our role was the largely invisible one of team coach enabling blessing to be released through the people I serve in their contexts.

Mother Teresa talked of “finding you calcutta” – the place God is calling each one of us to serve him-. The missionary God has gone before each one of us preparing for us all opportunity upon opportunity to bless, to be salt and light, to hold out the word that gives life, to be agents and ambassadors of the Kingdom of God.

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We Are Family .

So we see in Genesis the rise of a dysfunctional family, but a family nonetheless. Perhaps a family that’s a bit (or very) dysfunctional is one we can relate too, as all of our families have some baggage within them? Yet despite this, we can see within God’s original plan, before the fall, the glory and beauty of what family life was meant to be -and at times can be-. Indeed although a broken picture, family is the image used to describe the community of Christ – his Church.

Yet although we have to be pragmatic enough to realise family is tainted by sin, but we can be idealistic enough to see the creators intentions gleaming through in glory.

One of the most profound images I had of family was in a queue in a post office in Derby. A grandma was there with her grandson, she was a bit posh, and asked the child what he wanted for lunch. He said “McDonald’s”. Grandma said “don’t you want to go somewhere nice?” To which the grandson replied “that is nice”. – As I pondered this picture, I felt sure that Granny would go to ‘Maccy Ds’ and the grandchild probably would have some posh family meals too. They would both compromise for the other out of love.

Family, a community of committed and self sacrificing love, intergenerational and including diversity but yet still (often), manages to hold together in unity and mutual support. Yet family is not a sealed unit or impenetrable bubble, if it were the family would die out and no longer exist, each generation falls in love and invites someone new into the family – and different families are joined together- and from this new family life can flourish and so the cycle continues.

In many ways this community of love that invites the outsider to join with us reminds me of God, by which I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a perfect community of love but one that welcomes others in, indeed actively seeks us out.

Family should bring out the best in us, a community that enables us all to thrive, a place of belonging, safety and security. Family, where we are known most fully, seen at times at our worst and yet still loved. – isn’t this a picture of a Christian community you want to be a part of.

Family is a team, and team is an acrostic for Together Everyone Achieves More, we a better and more fruitful in loyalty and unity with our skills combined together than divided factions and lone individuals. Our life experiences and journeys compliment each other where youthful energy and aged wisdom bring us the best of human endeavour (not that everyone aged is wise nor youthful is energetic) but the truth is it is in our diversity and difference that our strength is found rather than in mirroring our similarities back to one another.

Families too are defined by their history and stories, shared down through the generations. What of us? What does it mean for us to be individuals and a community shaped and defined by the story of God, of creation, fall, cross, resurrection, ascension and pentecost?

How can be together the family of God, living our lives together open -reaching out and welcoming in-, seeing one another excel as we acts like Iron sharpening iron blessing, encouraging and challenging one another (as we ourselves are blessed, encouraged and challenged)?

Being truly evermore ourselves living the transformed life together as a community whose DNA takes it being from the Godheads perfect community of love?

Yet, how do live this out, putting real flesh and a human face (our face) on this theology becoming every life and normal practice for our life together.

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Don’t Look Back

Don’t look back! That’s the command God gives Lot and his family. Yet not looking back is really difficult. Lot’s wife can’t resist the temptation and becomes a pillar of salt. The problem with obeying God’s rescue plan is we often want to look out (or look back) for a safety net or a plan B. Jesus issued equally stark warnings when he said “no one who puts his hand to the plough and keeps looking back is worthy to be my disciple. If a farmer was trying to plough a field and not looking where they are going the furrows would not be in a straight line and the harvest would suffer. Looking back at Sodom was not a good thing for Lot and his family to do, because for them God was moving them on from there, they had been rescued and they don’t belong there any more, it was a door God had shut. Are our minds living where our body is dwelling or are we somewhere else in our head and heart? A bit like trying to drive a car forward and whilst in reverse, it can’t be done! It is very difficult to move forward in the right direction when our eyes are set behind us. I remember seeing some friends on a bus who I was trying to attract their attention as I walked into lamp post because I wasn’t looking where I was going! Are we looking where we are going properly in our walk with Jesus? How can we follow Jesus if we are not attentive to wear he is leading us? If our eyes aren’t on him can we see where he leading us, might we miss the turning or even our destination? Yet the past behind us can he ‘sticky’ we get imprisoned by it, whether its captured in the nostalgic and ‘rose tinted’ view of an I blissful era in your life that can never be bettered. Yet God does not call us to freeze framed moments but rather an ongoing relationship in step with him through every season of life. Churches get stuck in glorious past hay days that paralyses them from believing that with God their best days are ahead of them. Nostalgia can rob us of the gift God has for us in the present. Following Jesus means going with him where he is going rather than worshipping where he has been. Loving what the spirit has done rather than what he is doing. A spirituality with a museum mentality, religion of relics, yesterday’s mouldy manna, rather than the flesh fruit of today. Yet pain can trap us too, and cause us to live looking backwards at our regrets and disappointments. These things behind us captivate our eyes -like the burning Sodam and Gomorrah- pain pulls us from the present to look back at the past. To be like Lot and not look back takes a lot of faith and self discipline. To fight that battle of mind and will is a challenging struggle. Many of us need to ask God to free us from our pasts and help us move forward into the present. Later the author of the letter to the Hebrews urges us as Christians to “run the race ahead of us” and to “fix our eyes on Jesus the author and perfector of our faith”. So, let’s keep moving forward, in step with the spirit, following Jesus and not turning back or having our head turned over our shoulder.

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What does success look like?

One of the on-going questions we have been looking at is “what does success look like?” As we have journeyed through Genesis we have seen many examples of people trying to get their own way. Sometimes they get what they want like Lot’s daughters were “successful” in getting pregnant by getting their dad drunk and having incest with him. Yet long term the descendants of Lot’s Daughters were the Moabites and the Amanites, warring tribes with Israel, a history of conflict and bloodshed (Joshua 3:29 and 2 Samuel 8.2). Jacob conned his dad into receiving his brothers blessing, but ended up all alone and on the run with his brother trying to kill him. He may have won in his ongoing rivalry with his brother, Esau, but it cost him everything. It was a hollow and empty victory. Laban ended up successful in getting both of his daughters married off, but ends up all alone, separated from his children and his grandchildren and without his livilhood -his flocks. His daughter Rachel steals his idols, a picture of without family, without money and without God/faith. We will all change the world, we will all make history, but the question is are we changing things for the better or worse? Do our actions coincide with the plan and call of God? Too often we fall foul of the belief that we know better than God of how things work out. We believe we know better than God of how success looks. Yet obedience to God’s purposes is ultimately best for us and for everyone else too, in some circumstances it takes trust to believe that when the Kingdom of God advances everyone benefits. The consequences of our sin is that although some people may benefit short term, often other people end up suffering from the result of our sinful choices, sometimes these are tragically far-reaching, with perpetual negative cycles going on for generations upon generations. We need to ask ourselves what are the consequences on other people of us getting our own way? Who pays the cost for our success? Our choices have consequences -whether we see them or not. For example: In our world we can be successful by getting lots of cheap stuff, but the real price is paid by the workers exploited in sweatshops. Are we walking in step with God whose plans and purposes are loving, good and gracious… or going our own way sowing seeds of wilfulness, rebellion and disobedience to his plan of love? We all have legacies -but are they marked by making the world a better or worse place? Will we hear the words “well done good and faithful servant” or “why do you call me Lord, Lord, and yet do not do what I say?” We might get our own way and seem successful, we may appear to have everything and yet in fact have nothing. Let’s choose a different type of success that has nothing to do with getting our own way but instead is the fruitfulness of obedience with the consequences of the fruit of the Kingdom.

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Speckled sheep and changing the future.

As our story continues we see the ever wiley Jacob making a deal with his uncle Laban, Jacob would keep all the animals that were sent speckled and Laban could keep the rest.

Yet, Jacob, ensures that it is only the speckled animals that mate causing in a short time for the whole flock to be speckled.

As I thought about Jacob playing with the flocks gene pool I began to think of what we do now in the present changes the future. In the words of the great Christian pioneer Catherine Booth: “to change the future you must interrupt the present”.

Yet changing the present is not always easy and takes bravery to intervene -and without intervention history repeats itself, the status quo is maintained, a damaging cycles repeat themselves like a broken record.

There is an adage that says “if you always do what you always have, you will always get what you have already got”.

What of us? Are we history makers? Are we people of transformation? Bringers of positive change for Christ?

Are we partnering with the Holy Spirit to make the world a better place, which means change.

Yet for many change -and being a bringer of change- is a scary and uncomfortable place, nor is unfamiliarity an easy place to be, it takes bravery and courage to intervene and bring in lasting change, to hold our nerve and to see a new and different life emerge.

Whilst struggling in parish life I came across this meme: “concentrate on building the new rather than fighting the old” -in our case led to planting three expressions of Church, one on an estate, one in a back room of a pub and one in a local youth centre. Changing the DNA through new birth and life.

Perhaps a challenge for us all to look if we are fighting unwinnable fights rather than seeing the hand of God birthing new opportunities?

One of my heroes is Robert Riekes who started the Sunday School Movement, who was working in prison reform and felt his work was futile in changing lives and transforming society, he prayed and looked out of the window and saw a child, and realised that to change a society you need to start with its young people.

Perhaps there was a young person you could mentor and bless?

Another story came into my mind as I was writing this was some pictures a fellow pastor saw when he went to do a mission in a church in a former communist country,they were still allowed to meet but to do mission or youth work and every year the congregation dwindled and aged, and their photos showed this, but now they are prioritising the right things and their church is growing numerically and becoming younger.

I believing that God is seeking to bring to birth a new thing in our time, are we going to partner with him to be agents of change to see the spiritual DNA of our world changed as we see the Kingdom of God break in here in our place and time as I. Heaven.

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Working for Rachel.

We thought yesterday of Leah, the sister of Rachel, who was swapped or substituted for her beneath the veil and married off to Jacob.

We thought of Leah’s pain of feeling unwanted and second best, and reminded us that in God’s eyes we are always his first choice: “loved with an everlasting love” and “precious and honoured in his sight” -”see how the Father has lavished his love upon us that we maybe called children of God, because that beloved is who we are!”

Yet today I want to think of Jacob, he thinks he is marrying the love of his life, only to discover he’s been tricked (a case of reaping what you sow?!) he has married the other sister and must work for his uncle for a further seven years in order to win her hand.

Have you ever felt like you were making good progress towards goal only to feel back at square one? Like in life’s game of snakes and ladders you’ve got almost to the end and now you’ve slid down a snake and are back at square one? What do you do? How do you feel?

Disappointment can kill something inside of us, or wound us very deeply. For some disappointment can stop us trying again and settling for what we have rather than what we want, downsizing our dreams, limiting our expectations, crushing our hopes. Jacob could have stormed off and made a life with Leah, spending the rest of his days in a pub moaning about the ‘one that got away’.

Yet, even though he was devastated and disappointed he did not give up. He endured and persevered and worked for a further seven years for Rachel (in those days people had more than one wife but is never something condoned by scripture!).

Jacob refused to give in and be a victim of his uncle/father in law’s schemes, nor let victimhood define him and his identity.

Yet imagine just how tough it must have been to get up and go back to work for another seven years, and the courage it took to keep going.

Also, although things have not turned out as Jacob had wanted he still did the right thing in his culture and was a good husband to Leah and saved her from shame treating her as his wife, even after he married Rachel (what an ethical dilemma). I think we see our true character in how we treat those around us when things go wrong. It’s easy to be nice when things are going well, and everyone agrees with us, but who we are under pressure, adversity and disappointment says a lot about us.

We often want a life of mountain-top joys but often our greatest and most significant growth can happen in the valleys. The rosebud gains its fragrance from it’s time squeezed and compressed in the dark and pressure of bud before it blossoms.

Yet just as Jacob discovered with disappointment there is a choice in our response, do we allow challenges to make us better or just bitter. Is the discouragement a spur to try again or is does it floor us and take us out the game!

So what challenges, disappointments and discouragements are you facing? Are you allowing your loving God to work to heal and use this internal rubble to build afresh within you? Allow God to stand you afresh in your feet, lift your head, and cause you to run again the race set before you following him.

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