Friday, 8 May 2015

Benefit Cuts, The Poor and Christian Hyprocrisy. Post Election Musings On A Sad Morning.

I've been struggling this morning to express my feelings about last night's general
election.  It occurred to me that what I want to say is what I said back in 2010. This piece
originally appeared in The Baptist Times and then shortly after on this blog. I've already reposted it once two years ago when news came out of further benefit cuts.  I can do no better that repost again.

All together now:

I will speak out for those who have no voices

I will stand up for the rights of all the oppressed

I will speak truth and justice

I'll defend the poor and the needy

I will lift up the weak in Jesus' name

Or if you prefer:

I, the Lord of wind and flame,

I will tend the poor and lame.

I will set a feast for them.

My hand will save.

I wonder if you ever sing either of these hymns.  If so I do hope you won’t allow David Cameron and Nick Clegg to turn you into a hypocrite.

You see it looks like we are in for a period when the attention of the media will be, as ever, on the antics of the rich and famous (not least, following last week’s announcement, the royally rich and famous.) [This was originally reference to the announcement of the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton. You may wish to take it now as a reference to the birth last week of Charlotte Windsor.]  Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of the not nearly so rich and the nowhere near as famous will, largely unnoticed, be struggling to cope as their jobs are snatched away and their benefits slashed.

“Oh dear” I hear you say, “this is getting a bit political.”  Well, yes, but my purpose in raising this is not to debate the minutiae of government fiscal policy.  I’m not sure that an economics A level from 1978 is sufficient qualification to pronounce on the relative merits of Keynes and Friedman as gurus for hard times.  Instead I’m going to stick to what I know. 

I reckon I’m on safe ground when I tell you that thirty five years of reading the Bible has lead me to the conclusion that Jesus is not very fond of hypocrisy.  And make no mistake it will be the rankest of rank hypocrisy if in coming years the church in this country continues to sing its hymns of solidarity and preach its sermons on God’s care for poor while keeping stum about the impact of legislation on the lives of the most vulnerable.   It would also be somewhat less than satisfactory for us to follow the all too familiar path of sticking to escapist praise songs and ignoring awkward Bible passages.

For the purposes of this column whether you voted Tory, Labour, Lib Dem or Monster Raving Looney is not really my concern.  My point is that as Christians we all belong to a political party that has as one of the main planks of its platform a policy that is set firmly against passing by on the other side.  Ever since the good Samaritan did his stuff we have declared care-less neglect of the battered and the bruised to be a bad thing.  And those who shoot their mouths off about how the world should be run really ought to try and muster up at least an ounce or two of consistency.

We can agree on that can’t we?  That the church ought to be speaking out on behalf of those whom the majority of society would rather ignore?  That we should be trying to wrestle the spotlight away from princes and prima donnas, nudging it instead towards those upon whom God’s eye rests?

If not, perhaps it’s time to call an end to the party.  At the very least we should take our scissors to our Bibles and attack our hymn projection software with the delete button.  The Magnificat for instance, and all those songs based upon it, should be left on the cutting room floor this Christmas.  True, the bland and anaemic version of Christianity with which we would be left is a rather distasteful thing, but not nearly as nauseating a full blown hypocrisy.

This piece originally appeared in The Baptist Times and is reproduced here with permission of the editor.

Friday, 19 December 2014

A Christmas Sermon Inspired By The Eurythmics, U2, Operation Red Dawn and The Bible.

I came across this in the depths of my computer while looking for some material for a sermon I have to preach.  It's old but, for once, it's an old one I quite like.  Also, somewhat unusually, it's actually a full script.  For both these reasons I thought I'd stick it up here.

 Everybody's Looking For Something

WBC Carols By Candlelight 2003

The story of course is set in what we now call the middle east. 

It's a story of how powerful men travelled many miles to look for a great ruler. 

It's a story of how they eventually find him, not in the capital city, but in an obscure village in a rural part of the country in the most surprising of circumstances. 

And it's the story of how the discovery led to great rejoicing far and wide.

But enough about the capture of Saddam Hussein.

Our concern is today is with a very different kind of ruler – but one who also inspired much searching. 

In fact it's a story where every body seems to be looking for something.

Caesar Augustus was searching out information, facts and figures about the greatness of his empire – how proud he must have been. 

Mary and Joseph are looking for a place for the night – desperately looking.

The angels, no doubt bursting with the kind of eager anticipation you feel when you've got good news to share, come to seek out the shepherds.

(Shepherds)  Who then trip off filled with curiosity to check out the heavenly story – a saviour? The lord Messiah? A baby in Bethlehem?

Then there's those determined magi – over five hundred miles because what they've read in the stars – a mysterious king – one who merits the costliest gifts.

Even Herod was on the look out – fearfully scouring his domain – petrified that he might be overthrown one day and determined to do what ever it takes to save his skin.

Then in the bit of the story that we don't usually get to, someone who's been waiting, looking out for such a long time, old man Simeon who despite his failing eye-sight sees more clearly than any – sees that the baby in the temple, cradled nervously by this teenage mum really is a little bundle of joy – in the way that all babies are supposed to be but also in a special way that will only ever apply to this baby.  He sees that this is the salvation of God the very light of the world and he sees that his waiting and searching and his life itself is now over, complete, brought to a good end.

Everybody is looking for something.

Fearfully looking, hopefully looking, proudly looking, looking with determination, looking because they are confused. 

That sense that so many have, that they still haven't found what they are looking for.

That sense is of course a part of the human condition long since recognised by many.  That sense that there must be more to life.  That this can't be all that there is to it.  That feeling of somehow being destined for something more than the ad men and the careers advisers have to offer.

It's a feeling that inspires many people to set off on many different searches. 
From the driven workaholic to the superficial shopaholic. From those few who embark on religious quests to the many millions who simply drift through life with a nagging question which they mostly manage to ignore and which only occasionally prompts them to consider looking for a serious answer.

The Christian faith of course has long had it's own take on this phenomenon.  Of all those who have tried to express it no one has done a better job than an African bishop who lived 1700 years ago.  Augustine put it in the form of prayer to God:

“You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they rest in you.”

In other words every human being is created and destined to live life in relationship with God.  And whether they realise it or not that is what everyone is looking for.

But there's another part of the Christian take on this phenomenon and it's this that makes Christmas and indeed the whole Christian story such good news.

What none of those seekers in the Christmas story quite grasped is that there was someone else on a search.  While they were all looking for the baby, through the baby God was looking for them.

You see the Christian faith is not so much about us looking for God as it is about the incredible news that God has come looking for us.  When the baby grew up he put it straight:
“I came to seek and to save what is lost”

We may nor realise that we will never truly be at peace till we get to know him – but he does and he comes to offer that which we all need – a real life, here and now relationship with our creator.

So the message of Christmas is “Stop your looking and allow yourself to be found”.  Allow yourself to be found just as you are, whether you are an outsider like the magi, down to earth and plain ordinary like the shepherds or as fearful as Herod.  Allow yourself to be found simply by saying, “Here I am Lord, let’s get to know each other”.

If you want to know more talk, to one of your Christian friends.  Ask them what it's like to be found by God.  My prayer for you this Christmas is that everyone of you will find what you are looking for.

Happy Christmas.

(Here's a link to a downloadable pdf of this sermon on my Scribd page.)

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Mary's Song

Propositioned, she consents and finds herself made pregnant.  Like millions before her and billions since?  She hopes, she fears, she wonders.  Pregnancy, the path down which she stares to life’s deep places.  Deep joy and deep despair.  The intimate connection only mothers know.  The pain of parting with a part of you.  Like millions before and billions since?  The gift of a child.  Her very own?  Not really.  Not for long.  The gift of a child, not to her but through her.  Given for others.  And so she hurts and so she sings.  For evermore rendered blue she sings her blues.  She sings from deep places. She sings in painful exaltation.  She sings the glory of God discovered in what not-her-child will do for others.  It hurts.  She sings.  Magnificent.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Jesus n Jazz

Last week I had the privilege of speaking at Catalyst Live the rather splendid theological lovechild of Ted and BMS World Mission.  A number of people asked for the text of my talk so I've done the usual and stuck it up on Scribd.  If you are interested please help yourself.

Quite a lot of material was left on the cutting room floor this time round so I'm thinking I might sweep up some of the best bits and turn 'em into posts on this 'ere blog.  So dig out your breath bate and watch this space.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Why I Am Glad My Wife and Daughter Are On Strike

My wife and my daughter are both teachers. They are on strike.

They are striking because:
  1. The current secretary of state for education utterly disregards the professional opinion of frontline teachers.
  2. The current secretary of state is introducing ill-informed ideologically motivated changes that have succeeded in alienating the vast majority of the profession to an unprecedented extent.
  3. They have not had a pay rise in three years.
  4. They are due just 1% pay rise this year.
  5. The government says they will not receive a real terms increase until 2016 at the earliest.
  6. Their pensions are being severely cut back.
  7. The prime minister whose party failed to get a majority vote four years ago is threatening to introduce minimum turnout ballots for strike action.
Both my wife and my daughter are dedicated, caring and skilful professionals doing arguably one the most important jobs there is. They typically work 10 to 11 hour days. They also work at weekends and during their holidays. Every week they buy resources for classroom teaching out of their own pockets without being able to claim expenses. It is a regular occurrence for my wife (who specialises in teaching children with autism) to be physically attacked.

If we value our country and our future as a society we must value our children. If we value our children we must value their education. If we value their education we must value the most important contributors to that education. This government patently does not.

I know that some in the private sector have also seen a deterioration in their remuneration and working conditions. This is no reason to criticise teachers for their action unless of course we want to encourage a race to the bottom for everyone other than the powerful and further widen the shameful and damaging gap between rich and poor. Yes I know teachers are not poor but many who will be striking today alongside them are.

The Labour Party is pathetically sitting on the fence. Teachers and others are left with little option but to strike. If they don’t no one will notice, nothing will be done, our education system and public service in general will continue to suffer and our country will have to face serious consequences.

Not only do I support the action that my wife and my daughter are taking. I am proud of them.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Two Sermons on The Wedding at Cana

As is my custom, if someone asks for copies of my sermon notes I stick em up on my Scribd page, just in case anyone else might want to go get 'em.  This weekend I preached two different sermons from the same passage.  Yesterday was the ordination service of one of our students, John Thompson, at Princes Drive Baptist Church in Colwyn Bay.  We read John 2:1-11, the wedding at Cana, and I used the the story to highlight lessons about the nature of ministry.  This morning I was preaching at my own church, Chorlton Central in Manchester and read a scripted imaginative retelling of the same story, from the perspective of watching angels.  Anyhow, as I said, if you want the notes pop across to Scribd and help yourself.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Kitsch Jesus in the Smelly City

Back in the day I posted a blog about meeting God on Market Street in Manchester. That encounter prompted me to develop some material on Urban Spirituality for our MA course on Spirituality in Contemporary Culture.  This in turn spawned a framework for a half-day city centre retreat which has been taken up by friends and students for use in Prague, Stockholm and Birmingham.

This week here at Luther King House we've been teaching the Spirituality module on our MA Summer School.  We ran the city centre retreat again.  It got lots of positive feedback from the students.  It also gifted me with another unexpected encounter with Jesus.

I wasn't actually doing the retreat myself this time but I was in the city, buying bread and wine for the communion on the street that would round off the day.  I was making my way through the Northern Quarter on my way to Methodist Central Hall for our retreat debrief when God's Spirit beckoned me into a seedy night club back entrance.  I like to use back streets whenever I can.  It makes walking more of an adventure.  I'm not sure what The Spirit used to grab my attention, in fact I haven't a clue, but I found myself walking over to take a peek.

And there, in a stinking, piss-soaked door-well was Jesus.  (Apologies if the word piss upsets you, I don't mean to offend, it's just that neither wee nor urine are quite up to the job.)

I realise this is a rather kitsch Jesus, but I was in the Northern Quarter where they do kitsch rather well.  So it sort of fit.  It also fit because it seems to me it's just the kind of place you'd expect to see Jesus.  Or at least the kind of place where you ought to expect him.   How fitting too that he'd been defaced.  They'd scrubbed out the word love.  Or at least they'd tried to.  True the letters had been erased but the word's still there don't you think?  Again, it's the only word that really fits.

... he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.
Lord, we pray for all who use that door-way.  And we pray for ourselves. Please beckon us into uninviting places.  Meet us there and open our eyes.  And if need be our nostrils.  Amen