Saturday, January 28, 2006

Prayer for the Week Beginning 29th January

Gracious and loving God, we praise you for the privilege we have of being able to come to you in prayer, knowing that you are more than ready to hear what we ask.
We praise you for the privilege of being able to explore new ways of praying and share special times of prayer together.
We praise you for the power of prayer and the joy of knowing that we are in your presence.
We praise you that we can bring our concerns to you and that prayer can help to inspire and deepen our faith, our hope and our love.
We are sorry that we have not always been diligent or enthusiastic about prayer.
Renew our vision of what prayer can do. We ask it for Jesus' sake and in the power of his Spirit. Amen.

Pray Without Ceasing

The other day I was reading an account by someone who went with an inter-faith party from Leicester to take part in the big demonstration in London which preceded the declaration of war against Iraq in 2003. The Christians were deeply moved when they saw the Muslims in the party dropping out of the march from time to time in order to pray. They prayed in a mosque on the route, but also in Hyde Park at the end of the speeches, kneeling on discarded placards to protect their clothes from the mud, seemingly oblivious to the cold and to the crowds swirling around them. It dawned on the Christians that they had made no plans to pray at all, despite the importance of the issues at stake, but fortunately they encountered a group of people from Leeds who invited them to share in a liturgy for peace while their Muslim colleagues at prayer.
It was a reminder that – despite all we have in common with Muslims and the followers of other faiths – Christians are often seen as a bunch of lightweights when it comes to prayer and meditation. In fact, that's sometimes the reason why western Buddhists have forsaken Christianity. Having been to services where Christians spent much of the time talking rather than listening, they hanker for a spiritual tradition which gives them more space for contemplation and silence.
Of course, there have been many people in the Christian tradition who have taken prayer extremely seriously. Members of religious orders, who devote much of their lives to the rhythm of prayer, come immediately to mind. Orthodox Christians have a very long tradition of using meditation. And in the last fifty years there has been a rediscovery in the whole of Western Christianity of the importance of prayer in worship.
At one time Methodist ministers liked to boast that they could preach for 25, 30, or even 45 minutes. Anglican and Roman Catholic priests were viewed with some disdain because of their habit of sometimes giving little homilies from the altar steps rather than proper, full-blown sermons from the pulpit. Not any more. At a recent retreat day for Methodist superintendents in the District, several confessed to spending more time preparing prayers for use in worship than sermons.
But what about prayer during the week? We live in hectic times, and I guess many of us find it difficult to devote a proper amount of time to prayer and contemplation. For many Christians, too, prayer is not as important – if we are honest – as serving our neighbours.
'Pray Without Ceasing' could be seen as a challenge to do extreme praying – a bit like the devotees of extreme ironing who try to set up ironing boards, and iron a shirt, while hanging off a cliff face or riding in a white water raft. Extreme praying involves non-stop prayer for long periods of time or praying at unusual times of the day and night. I'm not saying that this isn't a useful spiritual discipline. Some of the young people in our circuit have been doing extreme praying this weekend and there are opportunities for everyone in the circuit to get involved in extreme praying at our Beeston Hill church during the coming week. But I think it's important to remember that it is the discipline of prayer that is the essence of 'Pray Without Ceasing', not extreme prayer for its won sake.
If we want to re-engage with the discipline of prayer, there are plenty of resources for us to use. We have the material in the excellent Methodist prayer manual – this year called 'Pray Without Ceasing'. And there are the prayers in the Methodist Worship Book, too, though some of them are a bit wordy in my opinion. is blog features new prayers for each week. You can use any of these resources as a starting point for your own personal prayer and reflection.
But, like me, you may find traditional prayer difficult at times. Don't despair! There are many resources and techniques that give us a new angle on praying and a new way into it - prayer Labyrinths, for instance, prayer graffiti walls – or message boards – and craftwork can all stimulate prayer and reflection.
Pictures and images are another good way into prayer and contemplation. And never be afraid of lighted candles or other symbols. They are not, as one old Methodist once asserted, wicked examples of Popery creeping into our church life. They are useful tools for focusing our minds on what really matters.
So why does prayer matter? Because in the end it opens us up to what St Paul calls 'the extraordinary power of God'. When we are afflicted, perplexed, persecuted and struck down, prayer helps to ensure that we are not crushed, driven to despair, forsaken or destroyed.[1]
Back to the encounter with the Muslim tradition of prayer with which I began. When the twenty-four-seven prayer room was created at our Building Blocks Centre last Autumn it was indeed a wonder to behold – something like a cross between Father Christmas's grotto and a student den. But people who spent time there testified to how peaceful and spiritual it felt. And Muslim colleagues at Building Blocks were dead impressed. For the first time, in many cases, they saw some Christians taking prayer seriously. If one bi-product of 'Pray Without Ceasing' is that we all take prayer more seriously it will have been a good thing.
[1] 2 Corinthians 4.7—9

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Prayer for the Week Beginning 22nd January

Lord Jesus, the first people to follow you were fishermen.
They heard Jesus' call and left their work to become fishers of people.
Help us to be willing to listen for the promptings of your spirit.
Help us to make the space we need to hear what you want us to do.
Help us not to drown out your spirit's call
by the background noise of our daily rushing around and busyness.
Help us not to be afraid to follow you, even when the way you are calling us to is hard.
And help us to be ready to tell others that you are calling them to follow you, too. Amen.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Confronting Modern Day Demons

The other day I heard a convicted child sex offender talking about himself on the radio. His plea was that he was not a dangerous beast. He was just an ordinary person who had made a mistake.
In the story of Jesus he many times encounters, and confronts, people with unclean spirits[1]. It's not clear who they were. Were they really possessed by spiritual beings – unclean or evil spirits? Or were they simply possessed by their own inner demons – psychological torment, mental illness or a burden of guilt or bad experiences which somehow cast them adrift from their moorings in ordinary society and left them free to challenge its conventions by shouting out in meetings, or behaving abruptly and disruptively? Whoever these people were, sometimes they were able to recognise the true significance of Jesus – both for themselves and for other people.
The demonised people of our society are the people on the child abuse register. Often they're struggling with their own inner demons and compulsions, for which they need treatment or therapy of some kind, as well as with the hostility of other people towards them. Sometimes they have done terrible things. Sometimes they have simply condoned, or aided and abetted, the terrible things done by others. Sometimes their behaviour falls into a greyer area in between wickedness and recklessness. Sometimes they were simply immature or naïve and seem to have scarcely done anything wrong at all. But invariably they are hounded and treated as unclean. It's not so long since a paediatrician was burned out of her house by a mob who mistook her for a paedophile. Mobs make no subtle distinctions.
People often talk about child abusers as if it's easy to identify them, and easy to know what to do about them when you know who they are. If only life were so simple!
The violent and sex offenders' register is a list of people who are considered to be some kind of risk to the general public. But people come on and off that list. They're not always on it for life, even though a sexual offence against a child can never be 'spent' and must always be declared if someone is applying for a job working with children. And, when talking about child abuse, a distinction is drawn by professionals between violence towards children, inappropriate behaviour like depriving children of toys or creative things to do, and the sexual abuse of children. Also, there's a distinction to be made between people who have been tried and convicted of an offence – such as downloading child pornography in exchange for a credit card payment; people who have accepted a caution from the police in return for having any further investigation against them dropped for the time being; and people who are merely the subject of an investigation, which they may not even know about and which may come to nothing. The teaching profession has its own 'List 99' of people considered unfit to teach in a school – but the list is searched by the Criminal Records' Bureau on behalf of other employers too.
Even when you've decided who it is you want to know about, there's clearly a distinction to be drawn between a young man of nineteen who got into a relationship with a girl of fifteen and was cautioned by the police, and a teacher aged thirty who got into a relationship with the same girl and was sacked form his job and made to pay a fine by a court.
There's also the question as to whether the passage of time makes a difference. In some cases it clearly does not. Some serial offenders continue having highly inappropriate relationships with young people all through their lives. But, in the case of the young man of nineteen, who was in trouble for his relationship with a girl four years younger, it's quite likely that he will never offend again.
As far as tabloid journalists are concerned, all those against whom there's some record of possible inappropriate behaviour towards children – even if it's only unproven allegations – should be treated as unclean for ever and a day. This inevitably brings them into conflict with employers, as Ruth Kelly has discovered. Employers are given the information about someone, and then they are asked to make a judgement. It can be very difficult to know what to do. Employing someone who is a danger to the people they work with is clearly wrong. But it's also wrong – and illegal – to discriminate against someone unfairly.
For Christians the dilemma is that Jesus confronts the demons in people and drives them out. He heals people and gives them a chance to begin life over again. For many years this meant that Church leaders allowed priests and ministers to express deep and apparently sincere regret for abusing children, before putting them back in temptation's way and letting them do it all over again. The Church was slow to recognise that unclean spirits don't give up on people easily.
Fortunately, the Church now begins with the presumption that people who are truly sorry for their sins will want to be helped to avoid temptation by agreeing not to work with children and by sharing their murky past with those who need to know and who can keep a wary eye on them. But even then, of course, it's a matter of judgement as to whether it's necessary for a person to share their past mistakes or indiscretions, or whether they can safely be considered to be no further risk.
What is certain is that Jesus does seek to confront and destroy, or root out, all that is unclean in our lives and our society. He can help us to change – but, like the light bulb that was changed by the psychiatrist, we do have to want to change.
It was instructive to hear the convicted child sex abuser defending himself on the radio. He was no monster, he said. He had only offended because he did not know that what he was doing was against the law. He was a teacher whose marriage had broken down, and he had been lonely and confused. One of his pupils had reached out to him, to offer counselling, friendship, support and comfort. He had realised that their relationship was getting too intense, but it had been a vulnerable time and no real harm had been done. He was sorry, he said, but nonetheless I couldn't help feeling that something was missing from his contrition.
Never once did he say that – as a teacher – he should not have been accepting support from someone who was in his pastoral care. Never did he acknowledge that – for a thirty year-old to get into a relationship with someone half their age – is always and fundamentally wrong. As a teacher he must have known about the likely immaturity and incomplete emotional and psychological development of the child who was befriending him. Yet he wanted to argue that he wasn't really a child sex offender. He was just unlucky in love.
Jesus rebukes and challenges that kind of muddled self-justification. He demands that we renounce and separate ourselves from all evil and compromising behaviour, whatever convulsions and upheavals that may cause in our lives.
Jesus is still fighting demons. I'm not sure the demons he is fighting now are the kind confronted by Buffy the Vampire-Slayer or John Constantine. I think they are more pervasive and more threatening. They include all of the attitudes and behaviours which distort and damage our relationships with other people. And they include our own personal demons, which allow us to pretend that we are victims even when we have actually victimised others.
Jesus calls us to love unconditionally. He isn't calling us to engage in a witch-hunt against anyone else. But he is calling us to sternly confront, oppose and rebuke all that is wrong, or self-serving or abusive in the society around us.
[1] Mark 1.21-28

Friday, January 13, 2006

Fishing for People

The essential thing about being a Christian is not praying to Jesus or worshipping him, nor is it a question of believing the right things about him. The essential thing is following Jesus, even getting alongside him, and sharing in his mission.
Jesus doesn't work alone. His mission involves team work. He's clearly the team leader, boldly going where no one has gone before, even to death on a cross for the sake of God's plan, but he expects his followers to carry their own crosses, too.
Taking his cue from the occupations of his first disciples [1], Jesus describes the task of his new team as 'fishing for people'. It's an interesting image to use because, from the fish's perspective, it's not entirely positive, is it? It suggests being hooked or snared. There's a hint that the people Jesus aims to catch will not realise what's going on until they're well and truly caught. Using their skills, Jesus and his team will entice them into believing.
I guess Jesus may not have thought of it from the fish's point of view. He was probably just thinking of fishing as a good, honest day's work. The disciples' new job will be every bit as important and valuable as their old one. But opponents of Christianity have certainly latched onto those negative aspects of fishing. They've sometimes accused Christian missionaries of using cunning stratagems to win new converts, much as advertisers come up with seductive jingles and images to win new customers.
I've been involved in marketing myself, and it's certainly true that modern Christianity has much to learn. If we approached the job of persuading people to become Christians as diligently as commercial enterprises set out to attract market share, there would be a lot more people in church!
I'm ashamed to say that it wasn't until we wanted to attract more children to our childcare businesses, that we seriously thought of hanging brightly coloured banners outside our churches advertising what was going on inside! Where are the banners advertising our Sunday worship and our other spiritual activities? Perhaps we haven't taken seriously enough the challenge to be fishers of people!
Seeking inspiration, I went to visit an anglers' website and it was just chock full of pictures of people holding up huge fish – including one or two where the fish were so large that the proud angler could scarcely stand upright under the weight! And, of course, commercial fishermen and women, too, are notorious for concentrating on the size of their catch – not so much, of course, on the size of the individual fish, though they have to be careful not to catch fish that are too small, but on the number of tonnes of fish which they are allowed to land.
Does this mean that we are supposed to be in the numbers game? If so, of course, the Twenty-First Century Methodist Church has got a lot to learn about making disciples in the United Kingdom. Elsewhere, the Methodist Church is growing, even in America, but here we're not hooking enough people. More people leave or die than join, and the Church has been shrinking steadily year by year.
It's fashionable to say that numbers don't matter. 'Never mind the quantity of disciples, concentrate on their quality!' people sometimes say, as if a small number of highly committed people is automatically better and somehow more effective than a large number.
When – in the book of Judges [2] – Gideon is told to keep only 300 out of the original 22,000 volunteers in his army, God tells him to keep only the men who are foolhardy and reckless rather than the most alert and capable soldiers. The only merit in this tiny remnant is that, because they're so totally ineffective, the victory they're going to win will clearly be seen as God's achievement, not theirs. And, if Gideon is selective, at least he has a lot of people to choose from in the first place. Small can be beautiful, but there is no merit in smallness for its own sake. God undoubtedly has special work for a carefully selected team of people to do – for a small group like the disciples, for instance – but God's purpose is that the whole world might come to believe and that's a project whose scale is simply huge.
As it happens, while the institutional Church – like many other organisations in modern society – may be weak in numbers at the moment, there is nonetheless a growing interest in religion and spirituality. The Church is being consulted by planners and service providers, eager to know what we believe and how we can help make society stronger and more caring. Hospitals value the work of chaplains more than they have done for many decades, because spirituality and faith have been shown to have real healing potential. The number of people studying religion at school and university is growing fast.
How can we exploit this new interest in faith? How can we become 'fishers of people'? I fear we shall not succeed in tapping into this new interest and energy if we take the attitude of one elderly church member who told me, 'I can't abide clapping in chapel!' I'm not particularly keen on it either, but I believe it's only by exploring new ways of reaching people, 'fresh expressions' [3] of church if you like, that we shall be able to reverse the decline in the Church's fortunes. Clapping may not be the key to growth, but openness to new things and new ways of being and worshipping is certainly crucial.
The new Church which emerges from this process will not be a revitalised version of the old one. It will, I think, be something much more Twenty-First Century, which is where Zebedee comes into the picture. Andrew and Peter, James and John were not impoverished or disadvantaged. They were not eking out a living on the margins of their community . Like Jesus they were traders, small businessmen. Zebedee, the father of James and John, had other hired workers who could continue helping him to mend the nets and catch fish while his sons did something different. That's surely part of the reason why James and John could feel confident enough to leave everything behind.
The new kind of church will need help from the old way of being church if it is to get established. This will mean that the old church establishment will have to give sacrificially to support what is new. In other words, it will have to invest its own resources in new ways of being church without sharing directly in the benefits or growth, and so it will have to reconcile itself to gradually being eclipsed as new forms of discipleship attract more followers. But, of course, the only alternative to supporting the new, is for the old to gradually wither and perish without giving rise to anything in its place.
To encourage the new is the way of Christ. To turn our back on fresh expressions of church is to turn our back on him. To die so that something new may live is to travel the way of the cross and to come, beyond it, to Easter Day.
[1] Mark 1.14-20
[2] Judges 7.2-8a

Prayers for the Week Beginning 15th January

1 A call to worship
Lord Jesus, you met people in everyday places and called them to follow you. As we come to worship you in this everyday place , may we, too, be open to your call. Amen.

2 A prayer of adoration
God of power, we see that power at work all around us, in big things and small, in new life and old, in beginnings and endings, and we want to praise you.
Gentle God, we feel that gentleness in the care and concern, the warm embrace or the gentle caress of those who love us, and we want to praise you.
Loving God, we discover the incredible depth of your love in Jesus and in his death for us upon the cross, and want to praise you.
God with us, we share in your mission to save a broken world when we ask your Spirit to help us serve you in our daily lives, and we want to praise you.
God of power and gentleness and love, working to change our world through us, we give you praise for Jesus' sake, and in the power of his Spirit. Amen.

3 A prayer of confession
Loving and forgiving God, we know that we hurt you by our disobedience.
For the times when we have looked at someone who disagrees with us and have seen a difficult person, rather than a child of yours, please forgive us.
For the times when we have looked at a challenging person and have seen a troublemaker rather than a child of yours, please forgive us.
For the times when we have looked at somewhere in our town or on the news and have seen a dangerous or difficult place from which nothing good can come, rather than seeing the true potential there, please forgive us.
Please give to each one of us the grace to see your world and its people as you see them. Amen.

4 A prayer of dedication
Living God, take us and mould us so that we may live our calling as the followers of Jesus. Help us to carry to be witnesses of your love revealed in him, even when it is hard to go on witnessing. We pray in the power of your Spirit. Amen.

5 A prayer of concern
God of comfort and healing, help us to listen to the pain of your world, to the cries of hungry children when there is not enough to eat, to the hurt of those who cannot afford the medication they need, to the plight of those who have no one to whom they can turn when they are in trouble. Lord, here am I to do your will.
Saving God, help us to see all those who die without ever having the chance to live life to the full and realise their potential, and help us not to turn away from those whose lives are a kind of living death . Lord, here am I to do your will.
Life giving, and transforming God, thank you for the hope you give us and the challenges you send us each day. Help us to listen when you call us and to know that now is the time to answer. Lord, here am I to do your will. Amen.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Prayers for The Week Beginning 8th January 2006

A prayer of Approach
Lord God, we come as we are, preoccupied by thoughts and cares. May you meet us now and help us to open our minds to receive your message. So may each one of us know that you are with us. Amen.

A prayer of Thanksgiving
Let us give thanks to God for the creative power which brings us each new day.
Let us give thanks to God for the way of love revealed to us in the living and dying of Jesus.
Let us give thanks to God for new life through the Spirit of our risen Lord.
Let us give thanks to God for the Church, the body of Christ on earth, and let us give thanks for the love and care, the witness and the challenge which we discover in the Church at its best.
Gracious God we offer you our thanks and praise through Jesus your Son and in the power of his Spirit. Amen.

A prayer of Confession
Gracious God, forgive our failure to take good care of your creation and our selfishness in using it for our own needs.
Forgive our reluctance to let go of the past when it hinders us from confronting and dealing with what has changed.
Forgive us when we turn our backs on those we have hurt and those in need, instead of sharing your love and care with them.
Gracious God, may we know your forgiveness as we seek the forgiveness of others and offer to forgive them, and may your new life flow through us into every corner of our lives. Amen.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Making something extraordinary out of the ordinary in Beeston, the story of Trinity and Faith Together in Leeds 11

Next week I'm going to Harrogate to talk about the story of Trinity Church and its involvement with Building Blocks. Here's part of what I am going to say.
As a small church in a rapidly changing area, the members of Trinity in Beeston Hill have wrestled long and hard over the last ten years with the question of what God wanted them to do.
Some people wanted to close down and leave organised religious expression entirely in the hands of the growing Muslim community. With the benefit of hindsight, we're certainly glad we didn't do that!
Some wanted to retreat into a nostalgic little grotto where they could safely recreate Methodism in Beeston as it used to be years ago when the parade of shops opposite the church included a high class confectioner's, and bank managers jostled with headteachers for car parking spaces outside the big houses on the main road. Of course, it would never be quite the same as it was in the days when 150 voices were raised in song, but it would at least be a pale reflection of past glories.
In the end, however, the majority of people agreed that we needed to engage with the community as it is now: multicultural, multi-faith, vibrant but decidedly different from the way things used to be. It wasn't an easy decision. It was a struggle, and the struggle to be the church for today in Beeston Hill goes on, especially as we are so few in numbers.
After lengthy debate about what God was calling them to do, the members of Trinity agreed that they needed to open their premises up to the local community, including a number of Muslim organisations. It soon became clear, however, that a building designed as an Edwardian Sunday School wasn't really going to work as a Twenty-First Century community centre, and so a still more radical plan was developed – to work in partnership with the Muslim community to redevelop not just the Methodist Church but the Anglican parish hall next-door. From that plan, after years of hard work, there emerged the Hamara Centre, a day centre for elderly people with a gymnasium for young people, a doctor's surgery and lots of other facilities thrown in for good measure, built on the site of the Methodist Church. And then, next to it, the Building Blocks Centre, a centre for parents and pre-school children, built on the site of the parish hall. Trinity Church moved into the Building Blocks Centre alongside the Anglican congregation, and a new charity – called Faith Together in Leeds 11 - was set up to oversee the work with parents and children and to fundraise for the project.
In moving into the Building Blocks Centre, and giving up a church building where many of them had been baptised or married, and had grown up, the congregation of Trinity took a leap of faith. For many people it meant laying aside the plans and mission focus of their parents' generation in order to embark on something new. It was a painful and challenging process which absorbed a lot of energy and called for great determination and commitment – at least from the leadership of the church. In facing up to the challenge, the congregation recognised that, unless we changed, there was no future for the Methodist Church in Beeston Hill. But it was also an acknowledgement that, to be authentic disciples of Jesus, we need to open ourselves up to change – especially if we are to help him disciple a changing world.
Trinity Church has less than thirty members. It's not a big, dynamic congregation. You wouldn't expect it to be a force for change. Yet, from the ordinary God has brought forth something extraordinary. We realised quite early in the evolution of the project that it was pretty unique. There are very few places where Muslims and Christians are working in equal partnership to regenerate their community. More often, Christians make part of their own space available to their Muslim neighbours. But we didn't think that was the right approach in Beeston Hill. We felt that we were being called to embrace full partnership working as a sign that faith in God can make a difference, whether that faith is expressed through Islam or through Christianity. People have come from all around the world to see what we are doing.
Little did we think, though, when we began the project, that Faith Together in Leeds 11 – and the community it serves – would one day become the focus of world attention. That didn't come about because of anything we had done, of course. It came about because a group of young men – with a very different vision of what God wants – attacked commuters in London with home-made bombs packed into rucksacks.
We were appalled that some people in our community could have such a radically different vision of what God wants. But the 7th of July didn't weaken our partnership, it strengthened our resolve to go on working together. In the midst of a huge media circus, which descended on Beeston Hill looking for signs of hatred and antipathy between Muslims and Christians, between people from South Asia and their White neighbours, Faith Together in Leeds 11 stood as a visible sign – for those who wanted to see – not of integration, not of compromising our different cultures and beliefs, but of sharing and collaborating, of friendship and harmony.
That's why, if you type the name of the project – or indeed, my name – into a search engine, you'll find references to it from all around the world. It's why my father was able to turn on the BBC World Service – early one morning when he couldn't sleep – and hear the project being discussed in a phone-in by people from Palestine and Bangladesh. Its why – on Christmas Day afternoon – I found myself being asked by Radio 5 live to comment on the Queen's Christmas Message. Something extraordinary has come out of the ordinary struggle against disadvantage in an inner city community and helped to make it possible for people of different faiths in Beeston to stand together in adversity.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Turning the World Upside Down (John 1:43-51)

St John's Gospel begins with an account of three special days – the day on which Jesus was baptised, the day on which he first met Andrew and his brother Peter, and the day he decided to go to Galilee to begin his mission. These days come one after the other, without a break, and each new day is introduced with the formula 'The next day this happened.'
There is no period of doubt and temptation in St John's Gospel, no suggestion that Jesus wrestled with what he was called to do or tried to figure out what it all meant. He gets straight down to the business of making disciples. Maybe that's the kind of resolution which St John was looking for in the members of his church – muscular action rather than endless contemplation, certainty rather than doubt. Or maybe he just wants to make clear that Jesus always knew where he had come from and where he was going, even if we don't.
What kind of Christian do we think it's better to be – someone who's sure of what they believe, who acts quickly, resolutely and decisively, like the soldiers in the Desert Storm campaign who were told to go and kick ass? Or do we prefer to reflect, to chew things over, to consider other points of view, before we decide what's best? Is there a right and a wrong way to be a follower of Jesus, or does the difference between resolute action and careful consideration come down to a question of personality types? Some Christians will be Stormin' Normans like the Jesus of St John chapter 1. Others will want to think things through, like the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke. But, of course, Jesus' forty days of reflection in the desert was not an excuse for doing nothing. It was only a pause, a chance to take stock. Christians who never do anything, even after reflection, cannot be on the right track.
Jesus is given a number of titles in this passage. He is called 'Rabbi' or 'Teacher', 'Son of God' and 'King of Israel' – big claims for someone who has barely got started on his mission. Again, right from the beginning, St John wants to emphasise that Jesus had got it altogether. He's a charismatic figure whose appeal is immediate and self-evident, even to strangers like Philip and Nathaniel. He's the kind of person who makes people change their plans and follow him. Just as, in the Synoptic Gospels, the fishermen – Andrew. Peter, James and John – laid aside their nets to becomes fishers of people, and the tax collector – Levi – left his collecting booth to become one of Jesus' followers, so Philip and Nathanael respond to his call. What about us? Do we expect Jesus to fit in with our plans and ambitions, or do we expect to be changed by Jesus – to fit our plans and ambitions into his plan, his mission?
Yet, although St John clearly defines Jesus here as someone very special, someone in day-to-day contact with God, whose wisdom and discernment mark him out as a true teacher, whose intimacy with God and deep spirituality identify him as God's Son, who is clearly the prophet and leader whose coming is predicted by Moses and the prophets, and the Son of Man whose coming is predicted in the Book of Daniel, at the same time he is also 'Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth'.
Nowhere else is Jesus ever called 'The son of Joseph'. St Luke says, 'He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph', and later on in St John's Gospel people ask the question, 'Is not this Jesus, the Son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?' But St John chapter 1 is the only place in the Bible where Jesus is clearly and unambiguously described as Joseph's son.
What are we to make of this? Is it a denial of the story of the Virgin Birth? Is St John saying, as St Paul says in his letter to the Romans, that Jesus 'was descended from David according to the flesh'? Or is that phrase that we find in St Luke's account – 'as was thought' - implied even though it is omitted? The question, asked later about Jesus, 'Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?' is not answered directly, but Jesus goes on to speak about 'the Father who sent me' and he clearly doesn't mean Joseph of Nazareth!
Maybe St John is saying that Jesus can be the Son of God, the Messiah, the King of the Universe, without having to be born of a Virgin. Maybe he's not. He is certainly saying, however, that the extraordinary can come from the ordinary – that a person from a humble place like Nazareth can turn the world upside down.
Are we ready to play our part in this extraordinary story – to go out and make disciples, to change the way people think about themselves and their lives by introducing them to Jesus? Are we ready to turn the world upside down?

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Wafah Dafour (Mark 1.4-11)

If you go to an Internet search engine and enter the name 'Wafah Dafour' you will find plenty of pictures of her, not least because she's the niece of Ossama Bin Laden. Actually, she isn't his one and only niece. He comes from a big family. He has fifty-four brothers and sisters, and countless nephews and nieces. But Wafah Dafour is the only one of Bin Laden's nieces who is a US citizen, and she's the only one who wants to be a singer. Recently, in an effort to kick-start her career, she has been posing for the kind of photographs that you normally find in luxury bathroom catalogues – with her legs and shoulders sticking out of lots and lots of bubbles in a beautiful white enamel bath. She says that Americans have been victimising her because of her association with Ossama Bin Laden, but she can't be too anxious about it because she hopes to cash in on his notoriety by describing herself as 'the sexy Bin Laden'.
Wafah's unqualified enthusiasm for American culture is, of course, the very antithesis of everything Bin Laden stands for. 'I want to be accepted here,' she told the American TV presenter Barbara Walters. 'I want to be embraced by America, because my values are the same as yours.'
I was horrified to discover recently that I feature on a number of websites and blogs that are critical of Islam. There I am portrayed as someone who wants to be nice to Muslims even when they pose a threat to Christians by persecuting them or plotting terrorist attacks. I am also described as a doormat and a deluded fool. One retired vicar – who had worked in the Middle-East in the 1940s and 50s – said that 'I had taken a viper to my bosom.'
Well, of course, that's not true. I'm perfectly well aware of, and deplore, the intolerant treatment of Christians in many Muslim societies and I'm well aware of the threat posed by people like Ossama Bin Laden. But on the other hand I understand why many Muslims cannot bring themselves wholeheartedly to embrace Western values like Wafah Darfour. And that's because – like many other Christians – I too would have difficulty embracing Western values. I guess there are many men who have been immersed in Western cultural values from birth, but who would still feel pretty ambivalent if their daughter, sister or niece posed naked in a bathtub for GQ magazine. Just because we oppose Al Qaida, or other forms of extremism, that doesn't mean we necessarily want to accept Western values at any price. So that leaves plenty of middle ground where moderate Muslims and Christians can meet on equal terms and work together to change society for the better.
In the final analysis there is a radical difference or disjuncture between Islam and Christianity. As Christians, we want to baptise people with the Holy Spirit that was in Jesus. However, we can stand alongside our Muslim sisters and brothers in calling people to 'repentance for the forgiveness of sins'. [1]
[1] Mark 1.4

My Interview for 'The Message' on Radio 4, Friday 30th December

[If the following reads a little disjointedly, it's because it was an 'interview' from which the interviewer's questions have been cut.]
Jenni Murray: Good afternoon, and today we review some of the year's biggest stories. What was it like to be under the spotlight of the press and how do those involved regard the message the media put forward? Paul Vallely, Associate Editor of The Independent, Simon Jenkins of The Guardian and the Labour MP for Dewsbury, Shahid Malik, join me to look back on: the ejection of Walter Wolfgang from the Labour Party Conference, he'll be telling us what he thought of the coverage of his story; David Okuro, the cousin of Anthony Walker who was murdered in Liverpool, describes how his family handled national media attention and the columnists' response to the concept of forgiveness; but first we go to Beeston in Leeds where two of the July London Bombers had lived as part of the community. An international media circus descended on the inner-city suburb. The Revd Neil Bishop is a Methodist minister in the area and described what it was like.
NB: It was quite an upsetting and disturbing experience. Nothing really quite prepares you for it. I mean you do see other people obviously being door-stepped by journalists and so on, and you think you can imagine what that would be like, but it was quite surreal. There was a helicopter circling overhead all of the time on the first day, which we thought was the police, actually, doing surveillance. It turned out to be the BBC. There were journalists getting into buildings on false pretences, pretending to be local people and then all of a sudden – you know - whipping out a notebook and starting asking questions, and then there were perfectly sort of polite and reasonable journalists who were just sort of knocking on the door saying, 'I'm from a newspaper in France and please can you give me an interview,' that kind of thing.
What happens, obviously, is that journalists come up and they want to do vox pop interviews and so they went into the local park and they just sort of gathered as many young people as they could. There were rumours that people had been given ten pound notes to say things, and so on, (I've no idea whether that's true), but certainly they just sort of grabbed any sort of young person they could find and started asking them all kinds of questions. At first the questions are perfectly reasonable ones like, 'Did you know the people who exploded the bombs?' But then they move on to, 'Can you explore their psychological motivation?' and so on, and any sensible person at that point would say, 'Well, actually, no, I can't.' But you know, I mean, you could see people thinking, 'Well, I'm on television. I'd better try and answer these questions.'
At first people wanted to engage with the media and they tried to answer the questions, they tried to put across what they thought was the truth about Beeston as they saw it, and then they opened the newspapers the next day and sometimes saw – you know - what they'd said totally distorted, so then the following day they'd batten down the hatches and refuse to talk to any journalists at all...
So on the one hand you had people who came in with a script they'd already written. Then on the other hand there were people who obviously came looking for someone who would back up their story, and then there were other people who I felt were genuinely puzzled about how terrorists might have come from such an ordinary community and were really interested in getting to the bottom of what was going on. One Spanish journalist, who'd interviewed a number of us, in his report began, 'There is a hell and it's a place called Beeston,' which was – you know - totally ludicrous... It's just an ordinary inner-city suburb in a Northern city.
I mean, the excesses were quite bad but on the other hand there were lots of journalists who did try to do a fair report on what Beeston was like and on what might have motivated the bombers and I'd be the first to say that in a democracy everybody needs to know.
The other complaint was that people were very anxious to say that Muslims were in a kind of ghetto in Beeston and that they didn't get on with their White neighbours, that there were very poor community relations, and nothing could be further than [sic] the truth.
I felt some of the international reporters were more willing to ask some of the hard questions than some of the reporters from within the UK. I think some of the local reporters found the story too close to home, to be honest. I suppose readers didn't really want to open their newspapers or turn on their radios and hear that, actually, terrorists can come from a street like yours. So they were very anxious to paint Beeston as sort of somewhere that had problems that could be solved and then - you know - terrorism would go away.
JM: Paul Vallely, you went there. How do you respond to the Revd Neil Bishop's description of the whole thing as surreal? [etc.]

My Interview on Radio 5 Live's "Weekend News" programme on Christmas Day

Richard Evans: Seven minutes past four now on BBC Radio 5 Live. Now the Queen in her speech today was talking about how in 2005 there were lots of man-made disasters like war and terrorism as well as natural disasters like the tsunami and hurricanes. One place which became infamous after the July the 7th Bombings was Beeston in Leeds, when it was revealed that two of the London bombers were from there. The Revd Neil Bishop is a Methodist minister in Beeston, and he joins us now. Good afternoon to you. Merry Christmas.
Neil Bishop: Good afternoon, Richard. Happy Christmas to you.
RE: Did you watch the Queen's Speech?
NB: Yes I did.
RE: What did you make of it?
NB: Well I thought actually it was very inspiring and I thought that the way she ended her speech chimed in with the very strong feeling of people in Beeston, actually, in July - which was that we weren't going to let the bombers, some of whom as you know, unfortunately, came from our neck of the woods - we weren't going to let them have the last word. We were going to show that actually people of different faiths can work together in friendship and peace, and that's what we were doing actually before July and that's what we've carried on doing.
RE: Because you're involved in this group, aren't you, called Faith Together?
NB: Faith Together in Leeds 11. Yes. Leeds 11 is the postcode that covers Beeston and Holbeck, which was where some of the bombers did come from. It's an area where there's quite a large number of Muslim people living alongside people of other faiths. It's not an area where people live in segregated communities. We all live together and actually we get on very well and we actually think that we have a much more exciting and interesting life, because of our proximity to one another, than people who live in communities that are more sort of monochrome.
RE: Now I know you're a Methodist, so he's not one of yours, but did you hear the Archbishop of Canterbury's address today?
NB: Well I know that he was speaking about forgiveness.
RE: Forgiveness, yes.
NB: I haven't heard it.
RE: Yes, that was something that struck a lot of people this year, wasn't it - the dignity of Anthony Walker's family and that of the Witchells as well?
NB: Yes, I mean obviously I was very impressed by them. I mean I couldn't comment on that because I think really it's up to the victims of crime and the victims of the bombings, for instance, whether or not they feel able to forgive. Certainly what we feel, though, is that we have got to work together and we've got to show that Christianity and Islam actually are about peace. They're not about causing harm and destruction.
One of the things that we did this year at the Hamara Centre, actually, that was at the centre of the storm in July, we organised an Iftari meal, that's the meal at the end of the fast each day in Ramadan, where people of all faiths were invited to come along and then there was an auction to raise money for the the earthquake in Kashmir, because I mean that's another of the things that the Queen mentioned which has brought us together, working together to raise money for the victims.
RE: It's a time for reflection, Christmas, for many people. What difference do you think the bombings that happened this year have made to life in Beeston?
NB: Well we were determined that they weren't going to make a difference and so far they haven't.
RE: But they have, haven't they? It's changed people's perception in a lot of ways.
NB: It was a wake up call, in a sense. It was a reminder that actually there are some people in the community who do feel disconnected from everybody else and it gives us an extra sense of urgency, in for instance reaching out to try and work with young people and with children as well. One of our projects works with very young children actually. So starting young, starting by getting people of different faiths together and helping them to understand one another and to see that we don't have to be separate, we can work together. So yes, it was a wake up call in that sense but people were good friends in Beeston before the bombing and some Muslim people were anxious because they thought that after the bombing maybe attitudes would change, but they haven't because if they had changed the bombers would have begun to succeed.
RE: What did you make of the Queen's comment that it's a year in which humanity seemed to turn against itself?
NB: Well I mean, sadly, every year some parts of humanity do turn against one another. The Christian message, as you know, is that it's possible for people - with the help of the Holy Spirit - to rise above that and actually to begin to work together to build the kind of world that God wants.
RE: Well thanks for talking to us and merry Christmas again.
NB: No, it's a pleasure. Happy Christmas to you both. [Richard Evans and his co-presenter.]