Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Relaxing Images

Religion and Politics

Gordon Brown described it as "probably the worst-kept secret of recent years", he was talking of course about the announcement that the General Election will take place on Thursday May 6th.

If you were hoping for church to be a politics free zone, then for this Sunday at least, I am sorry to disappoint you.

This general election is one of the most important elections for many years, and it takes place at a very difficult period in our nation’s history. It is hard to think of a time when the standing of politicians has been at a lower ebb, especially after the expenses scandals. For the first time, politicians have dropped below journalists in terms of levels of public trust. 73% of the public think that politicians will not tell the truth, as opposed to 70% of journalists!

In addition Britain is only now slowly emerging from one of the worst recessions in living memory, and the country is facing unprecedented levels of national debt of £848.5 billion (that is 60% of National Gross Domestic Product), or to put it another way £24,508.12 per person in the UK.

Listening to the debates on radio and TV, and talking to people, it is clear that many people are uncertain about who to vote for in this forth coming election – myself included. We face the real possibility that we may end up with a hung parliament, which means our votes are more important than ever. And so today, I want to think about some of the issues we should consider when thinking about who to vote for in these elections which are due to take place in just over two weeks time.

But before I do that, I want to address a question that is often raised, is it right for politics and religion to mix? There may even be some people here today, who might feel that what I am discussing today is an inappropriate subject for church. So should politics and religion mix? Well the simple answer is yes! The Bible is clear that as Christians we have a strong social role to play in the world, and therefore we must be interested in politics. The Gospel and politics are inseparable. Jesus had a clear agenda in his first recorded sermon, in which he defined his mission as: preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and release for the oppressed (Luke 4:18) – it is hard to think of a more political agenda than that. And ultimately Jesus went to the cross on a political charge. Politics is about everyday life and that is exactly the domain that the Gospel moves in. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “I am puzzled about which Bible people are reading when they say religion and politics don’t mix. If we as Christians want to be involved in the mission of Jesus in the world, then we will necessarily stray into the world of politics – it is unavoidable. So much of our everyday life and experience is massively impacted by politics. The fact that it affects us is why we can’t avoid it. But the fact that it affects others means we have a duty not to ignore it. This is why Bishops in Wales issued the following statement: “For Christians, voting at the time of elections is not only a privilege but a duty and we write to urge you to take this responsibility seriously.”

But what about elections, how should we vote and for whom? Well first of all, don’t worry I am not going to tell you who to vote for – that is something you must decide for yourself, but there are some issues that as Christians I believe it is important we consider when it comes to deciding who we want to vote for in the elections. This inevitably means we are going to have to do some homework.

In a general election there is always a question about whether we are voting for the candidate who we feel would make the best constituency MP, or the party that they represent. For those of us who live in the Walsall South Constituency, this is a particularly relevant question, as Bruce George, who has represented Walsall South since 1974, has just retired and in a few weeks time we will be getting a new MP. At a general election I think it is important that we look not just at what a candidate would be like on local issues, but consider the wider issues as well. For example many people there is a temptation to vote for the party that will best serve their own interests, but as Christians we need to focus on gospel values and consider the common good. How will the policies of the different parties meet the needs of the world and bring about a more just society?

This is just one of a number of important questions we need to consider, for example how would the different policies of the parties affect the weak and vulnerable in our society? What sort of society do they want to build, and how do those aims tie in with God’s aims. We need to consider what their views are on key issues such as the economy. How do they plan to deal with our current economic crisis? With public expenditure inevitably set to be reduced painfully in the next few years, how will it impact the most vulnerable people in our society? Other issues include child poverty, family life, marriage, the sanctity of life, freedom of speech and freedom of faith.

The overriding principle is that we place our cross on the voting paper in the same Spirit that Jesus carried and placed his cross deep in the earth, listening to his Father, in prayer, selflessly for those who were poor, and commending himself and those around to God.

This means that certain parties or individuals cannot be voted for. Parties who adopt policies that are racist – for example the BNP, that divide people against each other, and do not take into account the poorest in society cannot and should not be supported by Christians.

All of us are called as Christians to join in the debates taking place now on the nature of our society and what really matters. I hope that you will take the opportunity to attend the hustings that are being arranged, to meet and hear the candidates standing for election. In the Walsall South constituency the hustings are taking place on the Friday 23rd April at 7pm in Palfrey Community Centre and Wednesday 28th April at 8pm at St Mary’s The Mount on Glebe Street.

Finally we need to pray for all those who will be elected to represent us in Parliament. Paul writes “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour.” (1 Tim 2:1-3). Whether the party you vote for wins the election or not, we need to pray for all those in positions of leadership and authority, especially our Government as we face some very tough times ahead. We need to pray that God will give them wisdom and grace in all the decisions they make, and that through the decisions they make, it will help build a better society and better world for all God’s people.

Let us pray:

Lord of all,
rich and poor, young and old, the helpless and the helper,
we pray for those who are standing for election
and for all who will be voting in these challenging times.
Give them wisdom, insight and moral courage to act as you desire.
Guide their decisions, Lord, whether or not they acknowledge your guiding hand upon them.
As we receive news of policies made, actions taken,
may your eyes be ours as we read the press,
may your ears be ours as we hear the news,
may your reactions be ours as we process our thoughts.
Thank you Lord that we do have a role in decision making, when we bring our intercessions to you, whose government is perfect and without end.

Ecological biodiversity and its 21st century challenge


Continuing our series of Questions of Faith which look at wider issues and their relevance to our Christian lives today, id like us to consider Ecology , in particularly the threat to the earth’s bio diversity and its effects, its challenges, and our Christian responsibilities and possible responses in our lives in the 21st century.

This is once again a huge area and topic , upon which I can only illustrate a fraction of the issues and challenges it poses to us as Christians; as sisters and brothers, and as citizens in God’s world in the 21st century.

It is a huge and challenging subject for me to preach on and for you to absorb and pray about, but i feel we must, both individually and as a gathered church, for as we heard in Marks Gospel, the truth needs good hearts to grow in.

First some broader issues…which I hope will highlight some of the issues, and the joined up nature of the ecology and bio diversity we are all part of in God’s world:

The Turkana pastoralists and ecological biodiversity


Since 1999, there’s been virtually no rainfall in north-west Kenya.

The Turkana people who lived there survived as nomads, herding their cattle from place to place, wherever there was grass.

When there was rain, they and their cattle could build up their strength until the next drought. But since climates around the world started to change, the drought in the Turkana region has been continuous.

There was fighting over the few remaining water holes; some families moved away; others were too attached to their nomadic life to change, and their situation is dire.

Aid workers have realized, as never before, how interdependent are the worlds of plants, animals and human beings.

In this country of ours, the ecology balance has changed out of all recognition since my childhood, the idea of seasonal food , like a season for fruit, or some vegetables or old and new potatoes, green beans, etc. summer fruits, and indeed the concept of their being only one time in a year for strawberries or raspberries, is just a fading folk memory.

We have beans flown in from Kenya, tomatoes from Spain, pineapples from south America, fruit from south Africa, and all the rest-in fact anything you could ever want, all year round, winter or summer on demand, we Live eat and shop in global supermarkets, with global products, in a way unthinkable 50 years ago, and it’s all based on burning fossil fuels to transport and supply these western luxuries on demand, that are taken for granted as what we need.

In Genesis Chapter 9 we hear ‘God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them ‘’be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth’’.

And of course we have, on all 5 continents, as descendents of the sons of Noah, Sham, Ham and Japeth.

Modern genetics may explain it differently but, the different races in the world are related to each other.

Even in the Bible it was recognized that we’re all descended from common ancestors. So the races are dependent on each other. You can’t say that drought’s a problem for the Africans, and nothing to do with us. The Africans and the Europeans are cousins; we should think of each other as brothers and sisters. Most people today accept that drought in Africa’s caused by global warming, which is the result of carbon emissions in the industrialized nations.

Many believe that human fueled global warming is also affecting sea levels world wide. So what you may say; if the sea level goes up a few feet, that won’t cause much harm surely?

Bangladesh has a population of over 162 million souls, predications are that in the next 10 years there will be over 10 million climate refugees from Bangladesh alone, looking for new countries to live in.

If the sea level rises by 3ft, half the present country will be under the sea.

The ecological consequences are joined up globally and have very serious repercussions, in Bangladesh, in the Maldives, in Holland, in the arctic, Antarctic, and others , and with refugee flows in the future.

The Second thing we learn from the story of Noah is that human beings depend on the well-being of the plants and animals for their food supply.

So Whether or not you’re a vegetarian, you have to recognize that the healthiness or otherwise of the world of nature affects our own survival.

The demands of biodiversity and the protection of endangered species are not just the concern of a few cranks; they all affect the food chain somewhere, and the extinction of species may rob us of so far undiscovered medicines.

Genetic engineering may be good if it increases food supplies to poor nations, but if poor people can’t afford to grow the new strains, then once again the rich will become richer at the expense of the poor.

The developed nations produce something like twice as much food as we can eat, but instead of sharing the rest with the poor, we throw it away and further pollute the environment with landfill sites.

But we are so advanced, we humans, we couldn’t do that, or be that short sighted, could we?

Lets look at something’s that have happened in the past, are occurring now, and may happen in the future if our stewardship and care of Gods earth and its complex ecology isn’t up to what’s required from us.

Lets look into the past, the extinction of the dodo, great auk, the near extinction of the great whales and many, many more, were all human driven; but lets look at another example of mankind’s often short sighted approaches…

The passenger pigeon.

Remember earlier that I said the estimated population of the earth for humans is 6.83 billion?

Well in about 1850 there may have been more than 7 billion passenger pigeons in north America alone!

They used to migrate yearly, the flocks often described as up to 10 miles wide and 50 miles long, and could take from 7.30 in the morning till 4 in the afternoon to pass one spot.

The flocks so tightly packed that a single shot could bring down 30 birds, numbers unimaginably huge.

Surely an indestructible species?

Yet within 50 years the species was extinct.


Their woodland habitat was cleared; they were blasted from the skies to cheaply feed people, a brace of passenger pigeons ready to eat cost 1 cent in New York, at a time when there were over 5 dollars to the pound!

Their eggs were taken, their young taken, and even when it was clear the passenger pigeon was clearly in trouble, still the slaughter went on, breeding collapsed as they only laid one egg every other year, in fifty years 7 billion vanished to none in 50 years.

But you say that was then not now, true but many of the worlds fish stocks have been overfished some to the brink of extinction….make you think doesn’t it?

Mono culture where we only plant one of two varieties, leaves us venerable as well….if both strains are susceptible to a disease, as in the only two types of potato planted in Ireland in the 1846,the potato blight devastated both types, which lead to the potato famine in Ireland, the death of 1 million people, and another 1 million moving to the New World to escape.

Even today in the 21st century about 80% of our food comes from just 20 kinds of plants, we are not totally immune in the modern age either!

We don’t know in this modern scientific wonder age just how many species if you include insects and invertebrates, there are in this world.

Estimates range from 10 million to 100 million, and of those, mankind has only named 1.4 million. We just don’t know what health benefits, cures, and other issues for mankind die with each species lost.

Aspirin as it is now called is the active ingredient from willow bark, it use dates date back to at least to 3000 BC, and is still in wide spread use today. There are man more.

Some 50% of pharmaceutical products in use today come or derive from plants, animals and micro-organisms.

One study said with the loss of species, habitats and ecological bio diversity, some 30% of all natural species will become extinct in the next 50 years, through habitat destruction, overkill, and over harvesting.

So you might say, does it really matter after all it won’t affect us surely?

We are so technically advanced that such a wise race couldn’t have any problems in the 21st century, were immune from all that.

That all happens in other parts of the world, it won’t affect us…

Ok let’s hope so…but

Let’s take the humble bee for instance, we wouldn’t miss it surely? Except perhaps for the honey ?

Well They are disappearing , some areas are 70% down in numbers recently.

But bees do much more than just make honey. They fly around pollinating all sorts of fruit and vegetables, which end up on our plates.

Their role in the food chain is so important that in 2007 The National Audit Office collated the value of honeybees to the UK economy.

The value of the bees' services were estimated at £200m a year. The retail value of what they pollinate was valued closer to £1bn- 3 years ago.

Nobody knows exactly what impact the current decline in honey bee populations is having on these figures and on the supplies of these foods, but it is clear there could be consequences.

"If we had a serious loss of honeybees in the UK, then inevitably food prices would have to increase," according to Simon Potts, head of pollination research at Reading University.

"Essentially we would have to import fruits from overseas. The problem is bee numbers are declining world wide.

"Either that or the British diet would have to change considerably. Instead of eating fruits we'd have to switch to more starchy foods like grains and cereals."

Costs would more than double of what was still available then.

It has also been calculated that’s much as 25% of what we eat depends on the humble bee.

A quote attributed to Albert Einstein predicted, if the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then mankind would have only four years of life left.

No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, then no more animals, then no more man.

Whilst that may overstate the issue, but it would make a good if slow moving disaster movie, it is serious concern however.

Why are Bees Disappearing?

The answer to this question remains elusive, but researchers are working to find a cause. .Some of the theories for bees disappearing are mites, use of pesticides, viruses, fungi, poor bee nutrition, radiation from mobile phones interfering with their navigation systems, solar flare activity and the geomagnetic orientation of the earth. No specific theory has identified the cause to date. We simply don’t know. Perhaps some prayer for the bees might be one response in Gods world.

The Bible and ecology

So the Bible teaches that ecology’s the concern of us all.

Ecology however asks us huge questions, and of cause with all these complex issues, there are no simple answers I’m afraid.

Our little gestures like switching to low-energy light bulbs and inflating our car tyres correctly, to save on fuel, and planting a few bee friendly plants in our gardens; or buying Free trade or Organic products if we can afford them; or only put as much water in the kettle as we need, instead of filling it up every time we boil it; or only using the central heating when we need it, or turning the thermostat a few degrees; or recycling and minimizing waste and or thinking when we source our shopping bearing also in mind the peoples livelihoods that produce our food from all over the world; and of course only using our cars when we need them, and not for everything!

Some might say it may not make much difference, but at least they show that we’re concerned, and others can help us put it all into perspective and face up to the major challenges that surely will come in time.

We like to think we are in total control of our world, but a minor volcano and some ash perhaps showed us otherwise recently!

What God expects

So God expects you and me to be concerned about these problems, and to do something about them.

Like loving your neighbour like yourself, can only work properly if you love yourself, perhaps our concern over Gods earth and its ecology can only properly work

Whether or not the story of Noah’s flood’s historical, it conveys a stark message to us:

• greedy and wasteful human behavior creates ecological disaster;

• the races are dependent on each other;

• the poor suffer from the profligacy of the rich;

· And when God told our ancestors to multiply and cultivate the earth, that included a responsibility to care for and protect all species as well as our own, and of course all our brothers and sisters in the world.

So perhaps we must discover how to tolerate people with whom we may seemingly have little in common with.

More than that, we should learn to enjoy the many varying types of people and species that God’s put on this earth.

Perhaps God made us SO different from each other because he appreciates what makes each one of us unique. Maybe we should learn to do the same.

Human biodiversity

Lets end a challenging, disturbing and demanding subject with a poem

which a retired clergyman called Michael Counsell wrote , as a challenge and a prayer in the challenge of the coming weeks.

Just as the ecologists try to preserve biodiversity in animals and plants, he called this poem

Human Biodiversity’:

Since Jesus likes the likes of you

and likes the likes of me,

though you and I, to tell it true,

are unlike as could be,

then why should I not like you too,

and learn to share our dreams,

that we may love alike, we two, unlikely though it seems?

And if you think that you could see — since God loves everyone —

your way to like me, we’d agree to do as God has done.

So let’s be kind to humankind, and undervalue none,

enjoying difference, and find God’s likeness in each one.


Shedding light of the New Age


Have I ever read a horoscope? Yes, many years ago. Do I still read it? No. Why? The Holy Spirit convinced me both of the lie and the danger of leaving even a simple window open to evil.

Have I ever been to a Psychic Fair or had my Tarot cards read? No. Why? Because I believe that my answers to life’s problems can come only from God and discerning between good and evil.

Many young people flock to New Age events to fill the gap of missing family. Women alone, frightened and eager for guidance, are greeted head-on by the deceivingly friendly face of the New Age…. and while we see that it’s difficult to define New Age, it seems that its most basic appeal is that anything goes.

New Age Religion is not a religion at all, but a vast mixing of numerous religious and philosophical ideas. This has been going on since the time of Alexander the Great, but was snuffed out under Christianity and its enforced dogma starting around 325AD. Alexander’s vast empire opened the door for Eastern religion and mysticism to move West, while Greek philosophy and reason move East. Today, the same process continues, but on a global scale in particular with the internet.

It has some similarities to ancient Gnosticism adopting both its methods and individual nature. Most often rejecting reason and science, New Age Religion more than anything is emotional, filling in a void left by a secular culture and discontent with traditional religious beliefs.

The New Age Movement is in a class by itself. Unlike most formal religions, it has no holy text, central organisation, membership, formal clergy, geographic centre, creed, dogma etc. It is a free-flowing spiritual movement, a network of believers and practitioners who share somewhat similar beliefs and practices.

The New Age is a movement of individuals; most graft some new age beliefs onto their regular religious affiliation.

Recent surveys in America have shown that many Americans hold at least some new age beliefs:

8% believe in astrology as a method of foretelling the future

7% believe that crystals are a source of healing or energising power

9% believe that Tarot cards are a reliable base for life decisions

About 1 in 4 believe in a non-traditional concept of the nature of God which are often associated with New Age thinking:

11% believe that God is “a state of higher consciousness that a person may reach”

8% define God as “the total realisation of personal human potential”

3% believe that each person is God

This may seem a lot of statistics, but the conclusion of a study carried out shows that New Agers represent a steady 20% of the population of the USA, and are constantly the largest religious group.

New Age teachings became popular during the 1970’s as a reaction against what some perceived as the failure of Christianity and the failure of secular humanism to provide spiritual and ethical guidance for the future.

Its roots are traceable to many sources – Astrology, Channelling, Hinduism, Spiritualism, Wicca etc., and it continues to expand into the 21st century, promoted by the social backlash against logic and science.

A number of fundamental beliefs are held by many New Age followers; individuals are encouraged to shop around for the beliefs and practices that they feel most comfortable with:

Many practices are common amongst New Agers, but a typical practitioner is active in only a few areas:

Channelling – similar to mediums trying to make contact with the spirits of the dead.

Crystals – thought by New Agers to possess healing energy.

Meditating – a process of blanking out the mind and releasing oneself from conscious thinking, often aided by repetitive chanting of a mantra or focussing on an object.

New Age Music – a gentle, melodic, inspirational music form involving the human voice, harp, lute, flute, panpipes etc. Used as an aid in healing, massage therapy and general relaxation.

Divination – the use of various techniques to foretell the future, including I Ching, Runes, Tarot cards, Astrology. The belief is that the orientation of the planets at the time of one’s birth and the location of that birth predicts the individual’s personality and their future.

Holisitic Health – this is a collection of healing techniques which have diverged from the traditional medical model. It attempts to cure disorders in body, mind and spirit and to promote wholeness and balance in the individual. Examples are acupuncture, crystal healing, homeopathy, iridology, massage, various meditation methods, psychic healing, reflexology etc. Some of these practices are somewhat suspect in their nature, and what should always be weighed by the Christian is whether the actual practitioner is a Christian and where they acknowledge the healing power to come from – him/her self or God.

I will attempt to enlarge on one area that concerns me. As I’ve just explained, there are many aspects of New Age practice, and some may be seen as okay, some maybe a little iffy, but some should be avoided at all costs by true followers of Christ.

Recently, I was quite disturbed to hear that there was to be a Psychic Fair held at the Long Horn pub over the road. These fairs occur in every town and have a strong following by people looking for guidance for the future whether it be through the reading of Tarot cards, trying to connect with the dead through a medium or psychic or even receiving ‘faith healing’ Many of these folks are searching for something but don’t know what it is, but they do know that if somebody can predict where life is taking them or contact can be made with dead relatives then all will be well.

The thing is, - do they realise in tapping into these sources they are in fact dabbling in the occult? My guess is that many don’t and they are simply misguided.

The Bible specifically teaches that dealing with mediums, astrologers etc is wrong – astrology can become a form of idolatry. A person who looks to the stars for direction and keys to the future idolises them as superior beings in control of their destiny.

In our OT reading from 1 Samuel, Saul had consulted a medium, having originally banished them from the land. Mediums and spiritists, according to the law, were to be put to death and anyone who consulted them cut off from his people. As Saul was frightened by the size of the Philistine army who were gathering to fight against Israel, he urgently needed military advice. He asked the Lord but when no answer came he disguised himself and took two men with him under the cover of night to Endor, where he asked the medium to bring up the spirit of Samuel, who had already died. At first, the woman was afraid to bring up the spirit of Samuel, but she reluctantly did so, - when she saw Samuel she cried out. It would seem that what she saw was beyond her normal experience, something beyond her control.. However, Saul didn’t see what the woman saw and kept asking her “What do you see . . . what does he look like? When she said that she saw an old man wearing a robe, then Saul KNEW that it was Samuel, and bowed to the ground. Saul and the two men were fearful and weak with hunger, so after the woman had fed them, they left that same night.

We aren’t told how Saul knew that it was Samuel, but something very real was happening to Saul and to this medium. Throughout history people have had many kinds of spiritual experiences and encounters and are still having them today. Some of these experiences come directly from God, while others come from evil spirits. Some can even be in people’s minds. What was happening here was under God’s control.

We must consider where New Age interest in or worship of astrology can lead if we follow it to its logical conclusion.

In a book titled Horoscopes and the Christian, Robert E. Morey says, ”Astrology would

ultimately make us the slaves of the astrologers. They would control our marriages, careers, even war. Modern medicine and psychology would be destroyed. Astrologers would tell us when and where to operate, and would blame all mental illness on the stars, particularly the moon. Business would collapse because workers would stay at home whenever the astrologers predicted a bad day. Astrologers would even tell us when to make love with our mate. Famine and starvation would spread as farmers waited for the astrologers to tell them if and when to plant.”

Morey goes on to say “Astrology is an all-consuming world view which can potentially dictate every aspect of our daily lives. Astrology would ultimately bring about the destruction of reason, hope, meaning, significance and love”

In today’s gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus explains the parable of the weeds. The young weeds and the young blades of wheat look the same and can’t be distinguished until they are grown and ready for harvest. The weeds (unbelievers) and wheat, (believers) must live side by side in the world. God allows unbelievers to remain for a while, just as a farmer allows weeds to remain in his field so that the surrounding wheat won’t be uprooted with them. And as we know, at the harvest, the weeds will be thrown away.

Jesus emphasises to his disciples that the good seed represents the people of the kingdom, sown by the Son of Man in the field of the world. But, - in this world also exist people who belong to the evil one, sown by him into this world. At the end of the world, the angels would come and the harvest would begin. At this harvest God will separate his people from Satan’s people, and as the harvesters collect the weeds into bundles to be destroyed, so Satan’s works and his people will face God at the final judgement.

Those who say that they don’t care what happens to them when they die don’t realise what they are saying. God will punish them for living in selfishness and indifference to him, and Jesus, who has already identified himself as the Son of Man revealed that he will inaugurate the end of the age and the final judgement. Reflecting words from Daniel 12:3, Jesus described the final glory of the godly. Those who receive God’s favour stand in bright contrast to those who receive his judgement.

Heaven will be a glorious place for those that are true to him.I have attempted to unpack a little about the New Age, but really, this is

just the tip of the iceberg. I’d like next time to look at New Age beliefs, therapies, medicine and those caught up in New Age practices. It’s a minefield and we could have a whole sermon series just on the New Age, but for now my prayer is that we will all stay close to Jesus and not be led astray by the cunning tactics of the evil one.