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Why Little Children are Special

Why are little children special to Jesus? Not because of their innocence. Even quite small babies quickly learn to be very manipulative. They know just when to cry, when to smile, when to throw a tantrum, and how to go limp all over so that it becomes very difficult to lift them up and put them into a pushchair or sit them up to the table,

Nor are little children special because they are humble. Tiny children think they are the centre of the universe – that everything revolves around them and their wants. They expect to eat, sleep, be wakeful and be amused just when it suits them. Sensible and capable parents have to begin, quite early, to teach their children that other people are important, too, otherwise they become spoilt.

Nor are little children special because of their openness and trust. Children go through phases. Immediately after birth they are very trusting indeed and will happily go to anyone who is prepared to look after them and make the right soothing noises. But very …

Pope Benedict's Harvest of Trouble

As so often, this weeks's lectionary chimes uncannily with the news headlines. In the third chapter of his letter, the author of the Epistle of James writes: 'The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.'[1]

Sadly, Pope Benedict has found himself sowing a harvest of trouble for himself, and for other Roman Catholics, because he did not pay enough attention to the need to be seen to avoid partiality and hypocrisy, while showing mercy and gentleness in our assessment of others.

In so far as it correctly represents his remarks, I believe the English translation of his recent controversial speech reveals three ways in which the Pope failed to heed the advice of James.

(1) He critiqued Islam for being, by implication, less influenced by philosophy
and reason than Christianity. In so doing he over-state…

This Teaching is Difficult

When many of his disciples heard [what Jesus had to say], they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” [1]
Anyone who has heard the teaching of Jesus has to sympathise with those first disciples. His words about Holy Communion may no longer have the same power to shock seasoned churchgoers, because it's an established ritual of the Church which many of us share in without any more thought than we would give to a picnic in the park. But, for many people outside the Church, the idea that we can meet Jesus simply by sharing bread and wine is at best ludicrous and at worst a serious stumbling block to faith.
I guess it offends them in the sense that it offends against their notion of common sense. Perhaps they would find it easier to accept if they understood that Jesus is not proposing any magical or supernatural change to the bread and wine we share. He is simply promising to be with us, in spirit, as we come together around the communion table.
The sharing of holy com…

The Two Roads

Over the last few months I have been thinking quite a lot about a poem written by the American poet Robert Frost, which is called 'The Road Less Travelled '. It goes like this:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And, sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
One of the problems with doing two jobs – my day job in the community and the job I'm actually paid t…

A Happy, Healthy Church

The Letter to the Ephesians was probably written a considerable time after the death of St Paul. In the meantime he had fallen out of favour and then regained his popularity. People were clamouring for more of his teaching and Christians of long-standing found themselves hunting through their lofts, packing cases and blanket chests, looking for some of St Paul's missing letters which had been circulated long ago around the young churches in his care and then discarded or forgotten.
If losing a letter from St Paul sounds sacrilegious or careless then, in fairness, we need to remind ourselves that St Paul never crafted his letters as though he intended them to be kept for posterity. He dictated them, often in great haste, in a kind of shorthand that our careful English translations paper over and conceal. He was addressing immediate problems and often he was writing to people who disagreed with him intensely. Little wonder, then, that some of his letters did not survive, and that oth…

You Can't Always Get What You Want

When I was young I was a hit with the girls! So much so that, at age two, I was invited by a little girl to her birthday party. She was about four or five years old at the time, and she made it known to her parents that her idea of a dream party would be to have me come along as her guest of honour, which – because I was cheaper than a magician or a trip to the cinema – I duly did. She was not alone at the party, of course. There was a whole gaggle of her little girls friends in attendance too, and I was the star attraction. For a time they attended to my every whim and found it amusing to follow me around wherever I went, allowing me to do whatever I wanted to do. But then they discovered a snag. I wouldn't settle to anything. If one of them picked up a skipping rope, I wanted to skip. If another one picked up a balloon, I wanted to play with it. If someone had a doll, I must have that doll right now. And after a while – of course – they got tired of me, and I had to be rescued b…

Death Be Not Proud

Over the last two weeks, the anniversary of the 7th of July – and its aftermath in Beeston – brought to my mind John Donne's poem,
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so.
The poem is a declaration of faith and hope in the face of all that might otherwise cause us to despair. I remember the words being read out at the end of the TV adaptation of Olivia Manning's novel 'Friends and Heroes', part of her trilogy of books about life in the Balkans during World War II. The scene is an old tramp steamer full of refugees fleeing from Greece as the German army invades. The engines have been cut and the ship bobs silently on the waves, hoping to evade detection by the encircling U-boats. Even the passengers hold their breath, fearing that – at any moment – a torpedo might be skimming across the waves to blow them all to pieces. And then, in the stillness, as the sunset casts an orange glow over the sea, the hero of the no…

Touching and Being Touched by Jesus

In this week's lectionary story [1] we see some extraordinary scenes of high drama. First a leader of the synagogue falls at Jesus' feet and begs him for help, not once but repeatedly. How undignified! What must the other villagers have thought?
No doubt some sneered to see him brought low, but others must have felt sorry for him. His daughter wasn't really little. She was twelve years old – almost a grown up by the standards of the time. So, unless she was remarkably short, the expression, 'my little girl' has got to be a term of endearment, a sign of the man's great love for his daughter. Later, Jesus borrows the same turn of phrase himself when he goes to heal her.
The story contradicts the idea we sometimes have that women were not valued in the ancient world. Here we see that fathers could love their daughters every bit as much as they loved their sons.
As the scene unfolds, a woman turns out to be so ill, and so desperate, that she is prepared to sneak up on…

Servants of God

What does it mean to be a servant of God? In this week's lectionary passage [1] St Paul give us his CV and asks us to judge whether he has lived up to his calling.
As I listen to it again, I think he would have felt very much at home in the modern job market. He's not at all reticent about his achievements. Instead, he recognises the pressing need to go out and sell himself, or – as he puts it – to commend himself and his team to his readers. He wants them to know exactly what his team has done and the commitment which this has demanded. It could be called 'boasting', but St Paul calls it 'speaking frankly' and 'openly', and he urges his readers to do the same.
I think St Paul is not just describing his own work, and the work of his colleagues. He's also setting out a pattern for all kinds of Christian service. And it's not a pattern which applies only to people who are working as ministers or missionaries, I think it's a pattern for everyone …

Time to Talk of God

Do we spend too much time analysing the mission of the Church and trying to work out how to do it better? Perhaps that's inevitable in a culture where organised religion – and especially organised Christianity – is in decline. Most of us have seen mission initiatives come and go, often without any sustained impact. We are bound to start asking ourselves, 'Where are we going wrong and how can we do it right?'
The Methodist Conference report, 'Time to Talk of God' spends a whole chapter looking at how we can get back into conversation with the dominant culture of our time. It concludes that Christians need to be talking to their neighbours and colleagues about the things which really matter to them.
What then are these pressing issues that we should be prepared to talk about? They are things like: how to help people feel they belong to something or someone in an increasingly fragmented society; work / life balance; spirituality as opposed to religion; the difference be…

At Home or Away

Perhaps because the country is currently in the grip of World Cup fever, one phrase stood out from the passage in St Paul's second letter to Corinth that is included in this week's lectionary.[2] 'Whether we are at home or away,' says St Paul, 'We make it our aim to please the Lord.'
It makes a big difference to football teams whether they are at home or away, and no one seems to know quite why. Occasionally, when non-League sides are competing in the FA Cup, it's because they know about – and can exploit – some of the idiosyncrasies of their pitch, things like slopes, bumps and hidden depressions in the surface. Professional sportsmen shouldn't be affected, of course, by the roar of the crowd. They should be able to blot it out and concentrate on the game. And so should referees. However, a statistician recently analysed Premiership matches and found that referees consistently award more free kicks to the home side than to the away side. He thought that…

Looking at God

Some people look at God and see mystery, and often they look no further. They assume that the mystery is unfathomable, that it will never be possible to know for sure what God is like.
Some people look at God and see the universe and everything in it, and assume that they are one and the same. They see that God is in everything that exists, and in everyone they meet, and they imagine there is no more to God than that. They don't see how God could also be above and beyond the universe.
Some people look at God and see Jesus – a God who is one of us, who laughs with us and cries with us, and shares our pleasure and pain. But all they see when they look at God is Jesus.
And some people look at God and see someone who is a constant source of power and inspiration. Theirs is a God who guides their everyday thoughts and decisions and gives them strength when they feel weak.
And all of these ways of seeing God are more or less right. God is a mystery too deep for us to fathom. But God is also…

The God of Storm, and Peace and Blessing

Psalm 29 is a song which people sang or chanted during worship in the Temple dedicated to God in Jerusalem almost three thousand years ago.
Its subject matter is very daring, for it takes the characteristics of the pagan storm god, Baal, and reassigns them to the one true God.
The psalm is addressed not to other people on earth, but to the beings in heaven. They are asked to praise God using a description which pagan worshippers had probably used when praising Baal.
Baal was supposed to be the god who spoke in thunder and torrential rain. But now his worshippers declare that it is really the one true God who speaks with a voice like thunder.
Baal was supposed to be the god whose powerful storms lashed the trees and sometimes split them in half. But now his worshippers declare that it is really the one true God who sends the violent winds and shakes the earth.
Baal was supposed to be the god who sent bolts of lightning. But now his worshippers declare that it is the one true God who does th…

The Hour Has Come

Jesus said, 'An hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.'
There is nothing prophetic about this saying, of course. There have always been people who believed that by killing someone else they were offering worship to God. Jesus' own enemies were motivated by religious zeal when they had him crucified.
Ironically, the persecutors of the early Christians sometimes attacked them for being atheists and denying the existence of the gods, because they refused to worship idols. And, as soon as they got their own hands on the levers of power, Christians began killing one another for believing the wrong things. They were even more enthusiastic about killing the followers of other faiths – especially Islam – whose expansion for a long time threatened the very existence of Christianity. Those who killed the Church's mortal enemies were easily persuaded that they were offering worship to God.
For most of our lives these dest…

Putting Jesus' Disciples Back Into The World

In this week's Gospel passage, Jesus says in his prayer: 'I am not asking you to take [my disciples] out of the world.'[1]
Far too often, the Church has not heeded that prayer. It has been more than happy to take Jesus' disciples out of the world. However, Jesus' disciples share the responsibility for this sorry state of affairs. We have not had to be browbeaten or persuaded into leaving the world behind. Many of us have been only too willing to join the headlong retreat.
Let's face it. The world can be a tough place and the Church can seem like a welcome escape. Not only that, but people who don't amount to much in the world's estimation can become very important in the Church. And that's basically a good thing, because it's a sign that the Church can turn the values of the world upside down.
The Church's openness to different ways of calculating people's worth means that it sometimes manages to recognise the talents and abilities of peopl…

Sharing the Good News With People of Other Faiths

Together with other local Christians, clergy and lay people, I find myself – from time to time – giving thought to how we share our Christian faith with people from other religious backgrounds. It is a ticklish issue, because converting from one faith to another is a huge decision to make and it may not be appropriate for everyone. Becoming a Christian is always a life changing event, but for someone from another faith background it can sometimes cause immense dislocation and hardship, including estrangement from family members and friends who cannot accept their decision. It may even cut a person off from their entire cultural heritage, so it is not something that we can expect people to enter into lightly or thoughtlessly. Nor is it likely to be easy for them to make a gradual progression or pilgrimage to Christian faith. At some point they may have to choose whether or not to make a radical break with their past, unless they decide to be secret or closet believers. And they may dec…

The Four Abiding Truths of Methodism

The heart of the Christian message is contained in just three sentences from the first letter of John. John says, 'We should believe in the name of [God's] Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.'[1]
John Wesley's message became distinctive, in his lifetime, because of his repeated emphasis on four things: everyone needs to abide in Jesus; everyone can abide in Jesus; everyone can know that they abide in Jesus; and everyone can abide in him completely. This is not quite how Wesley put it, but it's what he might have said if he had published a sermon on this particular passage. They are the four 'abiding truths' of Methodism.
In his 'Notes on the New Testament', Wesley says, 'This [passage contains] the greatest and most important command that ever issued from the throne of glor…

Be Known To Us In Breaking Bread

There's nothing so irritating as someone who doesn't know what's going on, especially when everyone else is glued to the news because of some headline grabbing event that has stirred things up. The two disciples, Cleopas and his unnamed companion – probably his wife, cannot believe it when the stranger asks them, 'What things?' [1]
We've all been in the same situation, haven't we? 'You mean to tell me that you don't know! Where have you been?' we ask, incredulously. 'Haven't you seen ”The News”?'
Of course, there's more than a smidgen of irony here. If the stranger has lost touch it's not because he forgot to turn on the TV news bulletins. He's been dead and buried! And all the time – whether he was alive or dead – he was at the very centre of the events they describe. When the two disciples explain how Jesus of Nazareth was handed over to be condemned to death and crucified, and how – since then – his body has disappeared …

There Are More Things in Heaven and Earth

(More reflections on John 20.19-31)
The Bishop of Oxford wrote an article for one of the Sunday papers [1] in which he criticised non-believers for not taking religion seriously. He didn't mind them being doubtful, he said, but he did mind if people simply dismiss faith out of hand without thinking through the arguments in its favour.
For instance, he noted that when people want to attack religion they always focus on the worst examples – the Crusaders sacking the city of Jerusalem and murdering its inhabitants, the Spanish Inquisition torturing heretics, Muslim terrorists blowing themselves to pieces, or people who insist that the world was made in seven days because they think that's what the Bible tells them they must believe.
The Bishop cited the example of the scientist in Korea who falsified his results in order to claim that he had made amazing advances in the field of cloning. Just because there are a few rogue scientists, we are not expected to stop believing that scienc…

Why Selfishness Doesn't Pay

I listened to a deeply depressing radio programme the other day. It was about selfishness.
One man said he had persuaded himself that it was right to buy a Porsche with a legacy which had been left to his wife. His wife was a gifted pianist and she had been given explicit instructions to spend the money on a better piano, but she had agreed that there was nothing much wrong with her existing one, leaving the way open for her husband to buy himself the Porsche, instead. 'Is that selfish?' he asked, 'I don't know.' The depressing thing was that he needed to ask!
Worse still was a woman who described how she had been challenged by her new husband to rethink her own attitude to self. 'Soon after we were married,' she said, 'We found ourselves running along a platform to catch a train. A man with a limp was running to catch it too, and I found I just couldn't overtake him – I had to slow down. My husband got really cross with me and afterwards he told me I…