Exploring the Bible

Maybe you’re new or have been coming to church for years but are unsure about some of the things we do? Or you’re wondering about how it all relates to our Christian faith?

In this session we ask why do we have the Bible? Where did it come from? What about reading the Bible at home?

This is the third of six sessions under the title Exploring Our Faith which offer an opportunity for us to learn more together. There will be a mixture of teaching and discussion led by the clergy and ministry team of the Haldon Mission Community in Devon. All are welcome.

Download this leaflet for more details and a booking form.

A purpose under Heaven

One of the benefits of being asked to write book reviews (aside from getting a free copy, of course) is that I get to read ones I wouldn’t naturally pick up off the shelf – or, given the demise of so many Christian bookshops in recent years, off Amazon, Eden or Mccrimmons (other book suppliers are available).

Currently, I have two reviews on the go. One for BRF: an Advent book by the excellent Jo Swinney who I have quoted elsewhere and, in a quite different vein, a new IVP Tyndale Commentary on the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes by the theologian Knut Martin Heim for Preach magazine.

The former comprises daily readings so it’s always a bit tricky for the reviewer having to read each ‘chapter’ straight after the other – but nonetheless rewarding and one I may well return to ‘read properly’ in December.

The latter… well, I have to admit I have never deliberately sat down and read anything from this  piece of ancient writing by someone who uses the pseudonym Qoheleth, a Hebrew word meaning preacher which translated into Greek is ekklēsiastēs. It was written as a speech and Heim argues that the speaker was a kind of 3rd-5th Century BC stand-up comedian and satirist. (So, who says you don’t learn anything from WorkRestPray blog posts… no, I didn’t know any of that either…)

Now there is, of course, a very well-known passage from this ancient writing – Chapter 3. It gave rise to Pete Seeger’s song ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ made famous in mid-1960s by The Byrds and recorded and performed by many since:

To everything turn, turn, turn
There is a season turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose
Under heaven
*

But it was another verse from Ecclesiastes which struck me as being particularly relevant to current times.

As we, arguably, emerge from the pandemic or at least the intensity of it, we find ourselves going back to normal. Early into the pandemic many, myself included, speculated that we might learn some better, more healthier ways of coping with the stresses and strains of modern life. But, even if we didn’t have the current issues around supply problems and staff shortages, one senses that many workplace normalities still possess less than healthy traits (the same is true in churches and other places, of course).

Heim’s own translation of Ecclesiastes 4 verse 6 reads:

‘Better one hand full with rest than two full hands with hard work but chasing after the wind.’

It reminds me of the first verse of Psalm 127:

‘Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labour in vain.’

So, do we find ourselves ‘working‘ (however, we wish to define that: paid, unpaid, formal, informal) and taking no time for rest? Are we, in fact, simply chasing after the wind?

Who is building the house – ourselves for personal aggrandisement or the Lord? Are we building in vain or for a purpose under heaven?

 

 

 

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*Pete Seeger/adapted from Ecclesiastes © Melody Trails Inc 1959

‘I got it wrong’

We’d witnessed chaos and conflict. People lost sleep and found anxiety. There were accusations with no evidence. No one willing to say they got it wrong. No one willing to accept defeat. It was a sad sight.

Then last Saturday, at around 10am Pacific Standard Time (6pm GMT), a rainbow appeared in the skies above Venice, Los Angeles, California.

It was as if the world had breathed a sigh of relief.

As history looks back on the Trump presidency, only time will tell whether it’s President-Elect Biden who makes America great again.

Back in 2003, when I was interviewed for what became my final job, I was asked about what strengths I brought to the role. ‘I will always admit to my mistakes,’ I remember saying. And it’s a tenet I stuck with through the intervening years both at and away from work. And continue to do so.

That said, I can be forthright in presenting evidence if the accusation is incomplete of the facts.

The problem is when accusations are made and the ‘accuser’, for want a better word, neither offers explanation nor substantiates their claim. When one is left in a state of limbo: left feeling ‘I honestly don’t know what I did wrong. Will someone please tell me!’

Those who have wronged us are sometimes, deep down inside, never truly forgiven. Anger, hurt and bitterness can be carried for years. Ruminating about what happened over and over again. Blaming other people. Blaming ourselves. Blaming God.

Having reminded his readers of Jesus’ words, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself,’ Paul’s letter to the Galatians highlights the cost of living in the desert of unresolved dispute: ‘If… you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another’. (Galatians 5:13-15)

When, in his victory speech that Saturday evening, Joe Biden quoted the words from the Bible that for America it was ‘A time for healing’ (Ecclesiastes 3) it was to strengthen another tenet that perhaps all of us can benefit from, whether Republican or Democrat, Tory or Socialist, church or, even, another church: “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again…. to make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies,” he said.

The desert of unresolved dispute is a harsh and barren place. Let us always be ones who bring water to such a land.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us.

 

 

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I can see clearly now

Choosing new frames at the opticians is never easy.

Because I’m so short-sighted (-10.75), on a recent visit I had to resort to taking ‘selfies’ so I could see each of the contenders properly. Even then, the photos didn’t really tell me what they looked like. But, after gauging family opinions on the possibilities, and accompanied by my wife and an excellent practitioner, a further appointment settled on the right ones. Well, I hope they will be.

Now you may be thinking – oh, here he goes, trite message about how looking through the right lens to ‘correct our vision’ means we’ll see God more clearly.

And while there is truth in that, even the best specs don’t guarantee perfect vision all the time. Doing ‘all the right things’ doesn’t mean we ‘get it all right’ – and for me, that ‘corrective’, right versus wrong approach to Christian living is not only demoralising but misses the point about God’s astonishing love for us.

It reminds me of the story of the healing of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar in Jericho. Sat by the road, he hears Jesus approaching, calls out and, miraculously, his sight is restored (Mark 10:46-51).

For Bartimaeus, it was his faith in Jesus that enabled him to see clearly. But it wasn’t just about that.

That encounter is also about the question Jesus asked: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’

Imagine for a moment, Jesus asking you that question.

Possibly, like many of us, you may have a very long list of answers… You may be thinking, well I’ve asked you to do lots of things which haven’t happened… Our unanswered answers are tough at times, aren’t they?

It can be difficult to hold that apparent absence of response in tension with things Jesus promised: “Ask, and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7) and “…if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:23-24)

Bartimaeus. There he was. A beggar. An outcast. People always telling him to be quiet. He had no place in the presence of the new kid in town.

And afterwards… yes, he could see again. Yes, some would be amazed by his miraculous healing. But I guess he also remained a beggar and an outcast. And people would still tell him to shut up.

But perhaps, despite all that, his faith remained strong.

It can be like that for us: we receive some of the things we want, while other things remain difficult.

So, looking deeper, what of our faith – what do we want Jesus to do for our belief and trust in him?

 

You may like to find a quiet space.

Imagine for more than a moment, Jesus with you.

And Jesus says: “What do you want me to do for you?”

 

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Decisions, decisions

One hundred years ago today, in a small, two-up, two-down, terraced house in Bury, Lancashire, Maria and John welcomed their new son, Tom.

Their second child, he was the eldest: his parents lost a daughter a year before the war started. Maria had worked at the cotton factory at the end of the road. Not long back from the trenches, John had taken up his trade as a stonemason again.  A bright lad, Tom won a scholarship to the local Grammar School and served in the RAF throughout the second war before becoming a career civil servant.

Peace came and so did Renee. A daughter was born but death also played its part in Tom’s life. His father died the day after this writer came in to being. Seventeen years on, he lost both Maria and Renee in the space of 3 months and was widowed a second time four years before his own passing in 2008.

They say like father, like son. In many respects, we were and are quite different. But there are some similarities. I have the same cough and, albeit not as dramatic as his, the same sneeze. My own career bore some similarities to his. He learnt to drive late in life, as I did, but I lack his ability to dance and to socialise.

We were not close, but neither were we distant. I realise now how little I acknowledged his grief for Renee at the time (I was too obsessed with my own). I think I made him proud but he rarely said that – well, to me at least. I enjoyed the deepening friendship in his latter years, however. Rarely seen, he was always there – and that was an invaluable quality. I guess I probably know him better now than I did when he was alive.

I was born, he once told me, “Because we wanted you.” At the time, that made some sense: my sister is 9 years older than me and they’d lost a baby in-between. But in just these last few weeks, I learnt that such was their desire for another child, they had been considering adoption. But nature took its course and along I came.

My dad always let me make my own decisions – especially with career choices but in other aspects too: even when they were ‘wrong’ or didn’t work out well. That’s one thing I have tried to pass on to my own children.

That approach reminds me of one of Jesus’ most well-known parables: the story of the prodigal son. Here was a father who let his youngest child make decisions. A decision to take the money and run. A decision to leave home. A decision to waste it all. A decision to acknowledge the mistake. A decision to return to his father. And all that time, the father wanted his son.

The parable shows us that God lets us make our own decisions.

But it’s easy to blame God for the ‘wrong’ decisions we make, isn’t it: or perhaps, more accurately, for what happens afterwards. ‘Right’ decisions sometimes don’t work out that well. But if things go wrong, is it really God’s fault? By contrast, it can often take far more effort to give credit to God for when things work out for the best.

The parable also shows that God makes decisions.

God makes the decision to be always watching for us. When we come running to God, God makes the decision to run to us. God makes the decision to put loving arms around us.

No matter who we are.

No matter what we’ve done.

 

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Come, Holy Spirit

Pentecost is the time when, a few days after Jesus ascended in to Heaven, we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit to the apostles. But what of us, moving through all the post-Easter weeks & finding ourselves at Pentecost once again? What place does the Holy Spirit have in our own lives?

The Holy Spirit is often referred to as the third person of the Trinity. Indeed, we often speak of God the Father, God the Son (Jesus) and God the Holy Spirit. Many churches will say a creed or a statement of faith using words such as ‘We believe in the Holy Spirit’ and services often end with a blessing in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

In a communion service, the spirit is invited to come down upon the people and the bread and the wine but in many churches there is often very little teaching or discussion about the Holy Spirit. Whereas in others, such as in the Pentecostal movement, Protestant and Roman Catholic charismatic churches, and some evangelical churches, the Holy Spirit takes centre stage and is manifested in many different and often dramatic ways.

Recorded by the Gospel-writer, Luke in Acts Chapter 2, coming 10 days after the Ascension and 50 after Easter (Pentecost is the Greek for ‘fiftieth’), this appearance of the Holy Spirit as promised by Jesus must have been a dramatic event.

This same Holy Spirit comes upon us today, enabling us to be a community of believers, a community of faith, which joins us in belonging to each other and belonging to God – even in these times where are unable to gather together in the building we call church, we remain the church of God.

So what is the purpose of the Holy Spirit in our lives?

  • The Spirit is sometimes called a comforter: we often experience comfort through a person (or perhaps an item or a place) that reassures us or makes us comfortable. The spirit is also with us to give comfort through such people or directly through prayer and presence.
  • The Spirit is an advocate: someone to stand alongside us; someone who might speak for us, or speak up for us – that’s what the Holy Spirit does; the word also suggests a lawyer who defends us. The Spirit is sometimes considered as a liberator – offering us freedom.
  • The Spirit is also thought of a guide: guiding us to pray for someone or contact someone. These might be thought of as ‘holy nudges’ – those little prompts that show us how God is at work through the Holy Spirit.

There is a lot more to the Holy Spirit than that too – so maybe take a look at this film offering a further reflection.

In his book, Behold the Beauty of the Lord, Henri Nouwen writes:

‘Let us go back in time. In the story of the Exodus, God is revealed as God for us, father-like – guiding the people out of slavery with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Later, in the story of Jesus, we have Immanuel – God with us – the Son of God accompanying the people in solidarity and compassion. Now in the story of Pentecost, God is revealed as God within us – we are enabled to breathe the divine life ourselves. Thus, Pentecost completes the mystery of God’s revelation as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. By becoming not only a God for us and a God with us, but also God within us, God offers the full knowledge of the divine life.’

God is for us. God is with us. God is within us.

God is for you. God is with you. God is within you.

Come, Holy Spirit

 

 

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On Earth as it is in Heaven

In comparison to Christmas and Holy Week and Easter, Ascension Day (21 May) often just passes us by.

Even if we were able to meet in our churches, because it’s a Thursday, the congregation may be very small and rather like some of the other events in the church year, such as Ash Wednesday or some saints’ days, we may not fully understand what it is we are actually marking.

We are of course keen to commemorate the first day of Jesus’ life on earth at Christmas and yet we can totally overlook this, the last day of his earthly ministry.

Simply put, 40 days have passed between Easter Day, the day of resurrection, and the day of ascension, when Jesus went up from a mountain on the outskirts of Bethany, watched by his followers, in to heaven to be with God (see Acts 1:6-11). The Bible tells us about many unusual, perhaps unbelievable events which took place and the Ascension is one of them. To our 21st century rational minds, to speak of someone going up in a cloud is beyond our comprehension. It simply couldn’t happen. It’s impossible.

Well, do take a look at this short film to explore the importance and meaning of the Ascension in more detail but in essence, the Ascension of Jesus represents a significant truth… the physical presence of Christ departs from earth to be replaced by the spiritual presence in the form of the Holy Spirit whose coming we will celebrate in a few days’ time at Pentecost.

The Ascension and other similar events stretch our minds and our imaginations because we live in an earthly sense and not yet in a heavenly one. As Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 13:12, ‘Now, we see through a glass, darkly.’ We do not yet see face to face.

We do not yet see the heavenly aspects – we get glimpses of heaven but we are human beings and not yet divine beings.

As Ronald Cole-Turner put it: ‘Just as the incarnation – God becoming human in the form of Jesus – reveals to us the outreach of the love of God, so the ascension reveals to us the transfiguration and the gathering up that is to come at the end. What happens to Jesus Christ – death, resurrection, and being raised in exultation to glory – will happen to us all. The Ascension… is a reminder that our lives are caught up in something far more grand than we can imagine.’

So if we see the Ascension of Jesus as an assurance for the present here on earth and a promise of what is to come in heaven, in other words, on Earth as it is in Heaven

  • What does the Ascension mean for you in your life here on earth?
  • And what glimpses of heaven do you see?

 

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Holy Week & Easter

While it will feel strange not being able to mark the most important week in the Christian Year in our churches, we can also know that God can bless us in new ways at this time.

Using art, words, music and silence, these two films reflects on some of the events of Holy Week and Easter.

The films are divided in to parts so can be watched one day at a time if you wish. Click on the links to watch:

Palm Sunday to Thursday

Good Friday to Easter Day

A full list of the films in the Out of the Wilderness series can be found here.

Wednesday in Holy Week is traditionally called a Silent Day because the Bible doesn’t indicate what happened on that day. So why not have your own personal Quiet Day using these 3 films?

Finding Stability in Times of Change

At this time of major change in the way we live our lives and with many people feeling isolated, anxious or unsettled, I’ve put together some short films to help provide some stability.

Click on this link to find out more and to watch them.

In my own words

Have you heard the one about the rock star, the actor and the bishop?

To be honest, I’m not really a fan of autobiographies but in recent weeks I’ve ended up reading three of them. Now, lest you think poorly of the all-male choice (yes, I do need to read Michelle Obama’s…) that was just the way the books were given to me.

Where’s my Guitar? by Bernie Marsden. Now, have to admit I hadn’t heard of him but for 4 years in the 1980s, he was lead guitarist with British rock group, Whitesnake and co-writer of their superb mega-anthem, ‘Here I go again’. His is a story of rock ‘n’ roll excesses and successes. Of ego and energy. Of achievements and arguments. And yet amidst proclamations of greatness (although one senses the hands of editors) stand humble qualities of thankfulness to others and acknowledgement of many mistakes and misjudgements.

Behind the Lens by the wonderful British actor, David Suchet takes his lifelong hobby of photography as a basis. Using many of his own photos, he tells his story of becoming and being an actor and of those who had influenced his life and Christian faith. Like Bernie Marsden, he too writes about achievements, mistakes and gratitude to others.

Finally, a Lent book, You are Mine by my fellow BRF author, David Walker, Bishop of Manchester. With the writer apologising for the degree of self-disclosure within this book of daily reflections, it too contains a strong sense of autobiography and similar features exposing the inner man in the public eye. A third book unlocking the box marked ‘not to be opened’.

Even parts of the Bible, Paul’s letters for example, contain elements of what we would now call autobiography and many of the other books (not least, the Gospels) are distinctly biographical. We can read about the lives and times of many people from Abraham and Moses through to Jesus and the figures of the early church such as Peter. There are stories of success and excess, achievement and mistakes, ego and energy. They each have their own story to tell.

So, what would your autobiography include? What have been the achievements? The mistakes? Who are you grateful to? What’s in the unopened box?

But maybe the more interesting question to be asked is what would we like to read in our biography? What would we like other people to write about us?

And… what would God write about you?

Why not try writing it?