Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Gateway to Hope – an exploration of failure

I have been given the book “Gateway to Hope – an exploration of failure” to read, and early on came across this:-

We fail because we are weak, wounded, confused and inconsistent. We each have particular built-in weaknesses, flaws that seem to be part of the very stuff of our characters. We fail to do and we fail to be. We fail in the good we try to do, and we fail to love. At the deepest level of our life is sin: we fail God.

If you are like me, you may feel a little bit uneasy after reading this as it reveals the truth about us. No matter how hard we try, we fail to reach God’s standard – there is no getting away from this. Many people see themselves as being “good people” and always trying to do the right thing, but even this, according to how I read the Bible, is not enough.

Here above all, is the place of failure where the God of our failures finds us with his grace. Prayer is a relationship with God in which failure is tasted very bitterly, suffered with love, and allowed to become the place of resurrection.

This is the wonder of God’s grace that even though we fail God, he is not only pleased to meet us, just as we are, but He wants us to experience His love that comes through the death and resurrection of Jesus and brings us to a place where we are welcomed into His family.

If we can grasp just part of the vastness of God’s love, then it should spill out of our lives into the people we meet and into the world that we are part of. May each of us continue to help to bring God’s kingdom into His creation, understanding that it isn’t how good we are that will bring us into eternal life, rather humbly recognising that we fail, but are always loved.


Friday, 6 February 2015

‘Beyond the Fringe’

In 2003 a report was published called ‘Beyond the Fringe’, which looked at research done on the beliefs and understandings of people who have no committed or formalised faith.

What the research showed is that there are six big questions that people (who are not 'religious' and do not belong to a faith community) routinely ask:

  1. Destiny: what happens when we die? where, if anywhere, are we going?
  2. Purpose: what is the point of life? what values should I live by? whose life and values might I take as an example?
  3. The universe: how did it start? is it designed? is it planned? is it controlled in any way?
  4. God: does he/she/it exist? if so, what is he/she/it like? what, if any, viable relationship could there be between God and human beings?
  5. Spiritual realm: is there a spiritual realm? what form does it take? does it have any relevance to me and my life?
  6. Suffering: why is there so much suffering in the world? what national and international issues particularly concern me? what can be done about them?1.Destiny: what happens when we die? where, if anywhere, are we going?
  7. Purpose: what is the point of life? what values should I live by? whose life and values might I take as an example?

What this reveals is that people are wrestling with the big questions of life: destiny,
purpose, the universe, God, the spiritual realm and suffering, and that people are on a
spiritual search.  The great news is that these are questions where we as Christians have 
something really important to say, the challenge is how well are we communicating the 

Sunday, 1 February 2015


Do you ever feel that it is difficult to hear God speaking?  I know I do. 

There are so many distractions around us.  TVs, Radios, facebook, twitter, telephone, email, things calling on our time and attention.  As well as the different competing voices telling us what to do, we are constantly bombarded with advertising which tells us how to spend our money, where we should go, what we should do, how we can live longer, be happier, be more successful, achieve our goals.  With so many distractions around us, is it not surprising that sometimes we find it hard to hear God’s voice in all that is going on.

I actually think that sometimes we feel more comfortable with this noise, and that we are not very good when it comes to being still and silent. 

But too much noise can be bad for our health, and can lead to sleeplessness and stress. 

But it is not just audible noise that is a problem.  Our lives can often be filled up with noise, worries, doubts, fears, pressures of work, family life, church life.  All these things can act as noisy distractions.  I imagine all of us at one time or another, had those experiences of lying awake on our beds at night with thoughts rushing through our mind, making it difficult for us to switch off and sleep. 

This noise, which can affect our lives can so often prevent us from hearing God. 

But we can get used to this noise.  When I visit my parents’ house I’m always struck by the noise from the A50 which runs past their house, but they don’t hear it, because over the years they have got used to it, and managed to screen it out.  I think we often do the same with God. 

Here there is a lot of background noise from the traffic, but every now and then there will be a break in the traffic, and during that time you can suddenly become aware of the noise of birds singing.  They’ve been there all along, but it is just their song has been drowned out by the sound of traffic. 

Could it be that the fact we often feel as though God is not speaking to us, is not because he’s not speaking, but that we’re not listening? 

The word ‘Listen’ appears 332 times in the Bible.  Clearly this is something which is important for us to do.  But if there is one thing I know I’m bad at doing, it’s listening, especially when it comes to God.  I suspect I’m not the only one. 

The story is told of Franklin Roosevelt, who often endured long receiving lines at the White House. He complained that no one really paid any attention to what was said. One day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment. To each person who passed down the line and shook his hand, he murmured, "I murdered my grandmother this morning." The guests responded with phrases like, "Marvelous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. God bless you, sir." It was not till the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were actually heard. Nonplussed, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, "I'm sure she had it coming."

Good listening is like tuning into a radio station. For good results, you can listen to only one station at a time. If I try to watch TV whilst holding a conversation with someone, it won’t work, it will just lead to frustration and irritation. 

Proper listening requires us to make a choice about where I am going to play my attention.  So if I’m talking to Beata, I need to put away the things that will divide my attention, that might mean turning away from the screen that I’m looking at, turning off the TV or radio.

The same is true when it comes to God.  We need to set aside time to be with him. 

The trouble is that I find I’m not very good at doing this.  It takes time, and effort. 

One of the essential elements of Taize Worship is the 10 minutes of silence in the middle of the prayer.  At first it takes a lot of getting used to, because there can be so many distractions, not least the noise of thoughts whirling around in your head. But after a while you begin to appreciate the space and stillness, and it helps you to listen for the still small voice.  It is about creating space for God in our lives. 

Why is it though, that we find being still so difficult?  I think part of the problem is that we live in a world where everything is expected to happen quickly.  The world has been transformed by global communications, in the past where it would have taken days, weeks or even months for news to travel from one side of the world to the next, now it happens in seconds. 

It is not just communication.  We have similar expectations in our own lives.  Personal debt in Britain stands at over £1.432 trillion.   In the past people used to purchase goods and products when they had the money, but now we buy now and hope to pay later, putting money on credit card.  We’ve also seen an explosion in the use of  payday lenders such as Wonga, which has seen more and more people getting into debt.  Since 2007 the National Debtline has seen the number of calls they receive increase by 140%.  

This is all symptomatic of a culture where we expect everything to be done instantly, the buy now pay later culture. 

It can be a problem in our Christian life as well.  When we pray we expect to get instant answers.  But God doesn’t act like this. 

In our Gospel reading we encounter Simeon, who had been promised by God that he would live to see the Messiah.  How long did Simeon have to wait for this promise to be fulfilled?  The Bible doesn’t say, but it may have been an extremely long time. 

Simeon was someone who clearly had learnt to wait, to trust, to be still, and to listen. 
He knew that he would see the Christ one day, he didn’t know when, but he trusted God. 

In being open to God and listening to him, we also need to be prepared to be challenged.  The message God may want to convey to us, may be uncomfortable, and difficult.  This was true for Mary in our reading when Simeon said “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”  Being open to God, means being prepared to hear all that he wants to say to us.   

This Sunday marks the official end of the Christmas season (Candlemas), and our focus moves to Lent, which begins in 18 days time.  One of the things that I am going to strive to try and do this Lent, and maybe something you’d also like to think about doing, is to switch off some of the noise and distraction that exists in my life.  To take time to be still, and to more consciously try to tune into God, to heed the words of the Psalmist who wrote. 

Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.

It is all to easy to fill up our lives with things which do not matter, and neglect those things that really do matter.

It has been estimated that in a lifetime the average person will spend:
  • Six months sitting at traffic lights, 
  • Eight months opening junk mail
  • One year looking for misplaced objects
  • 2 years unsuccessfully returning phone calls
  • 4 years eating
  • 4 years doing housework
  • 5 years waiting in line
  • 11 years watching TV
  • 25 to 30 years working
  • 26 years sleeping

I wonder how much time God gets from us? 

The Psalmist writes, Be Still and Know that I am God.  The well known Quaker George Fox used to say ‘Carry some quiet around inside yourself, be still in your own mind & spirit, from you own thoughts, and then you will be able to hear God.’ 

It is important to find time, during the day just to be still, to take a sabbatical moment, even if that is for only a few minutes every few hours, because it helps focus our minds on God, and on what He may want to say to us.

Today marks the end of the season of Epiphany, and the official end of Christmas.  Epiphany is a Greek word meaning "appearance" or "coming into light."  And the last Sunday in Epiphany is known as the Presentation of Christ, or Candlemas.   


Candlemass gets its name from our Gospel reading, where Simeon meets the infant Jesus in the temple and declares Jesus to be the Lord’s salvation and “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”
It is this theme of light which is at the heart of this celebration.  An ancient tradition, still observed by many churches, is to light candles on this day (hence the name Candlemas), as a reminder that Jesus came as a light for the whole world. 
In the Christmas story there are 3 groups of people who encounter the infant Jesus. 
  • Shepherds
  • Wise Men
  • Simeon & Anna

Our reading today is takes place 40 days after the birth of Jesus.

Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, to follow the purification rites required by the law of Moses (Leviticus 12:6-8).  For 40 days after the birth of a son & 60 days after the birth of a daughter, the mother was considered ceremonially unclean & could not enter the Temple.  At the end of her time of separation the parents were to bring a lamb for a burnt offering and a dove for a sin offering, or if they couldn’t afford the lamb, as in the case of Mary and Joseph two doves.  The priest would sacrifice these animals and would declare the mother clean, and they would be allowed to take part in religious services again.
The other purpose from coming to the Temple was to fulfil another law, which said that every firstborn male should be consecrated to the Lord.  (Exodus 13:2)    So Mary and Joseph came to follow the purification rites & also dedicate Jesus to God.

If you visit a cathedral you often are used to people walking around speaking in hushed tones.  But the Temple wouldn’t have been like that.  It would have been a hive of activity, with pilgrims and worshippers, priests, thronging the Temple.  The voices of people praying, would mingle with the voices of people conducting business, people exchanging their Roman coins for Temple coinage, stall holders selling their wares, and where people could buy the animals for sacrifice. 

And into this throng, come Mary and Joseph with Jesus.  They would have been one young, poor couple, amongst a sea of faces.  There was nothing special to distinguish them. 
But there was in the Temple, an elderly man, Simeon, who had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.  And so moved by the Holy Spirit Simeon went into the Temple Courts, and there saw Mary and Joseph.  And he realises THIS is the moment.  HERE is the promised Messiah, the one he has been waiting for so long, and taking Jesus into his arms he praises him, saying 

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel (Luke 2:29-32)

The message of Hope

Simeon we’re told is someone who has been waiting.  Waiting for the consolation of Israel. 
Waiting for the coming of God’s Messiah – the anointed one.
And here he is, maybe not as Simeon imagined he would see him, but as a tiny infant, held in his mother’s arms.
But this is why it is such an important message of hope.  Moved by the Holy Spirit, Simeon recognises that Jesus has come, not only for the Jews, but for all nations.  He is “A light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.” 
Jesus came for us all. 
Who are the first people to hear of Jesus’ birth and come to worship him?
  • Shepherds – outsiders
  • Wise men – foreigners

John 3:16 Jesus said 

“For God so loved the WORLD that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” 
Jesus came for us all.  Because God loves us.  God loves YOU. 

Our Response

But then Simeon goes onto say: 

“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against,  so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
This Sunday is the end of the Christmas season.  The focus is turning towards the season of Lent, Holy Week and the cross. 
The point of what Simeon is saying here is that there will be no neutral ground with Jesus, people would either joyfully accept him, or totally reject him. 
There can be no neutral ground with Jesus.

STEPHEN FRY – interview on ‘The Meaning of Life’ TV show in Ireland, responded with a furious rant about God, said ‘He is utterly monstrous, selfish & deserves no respect.”

But his views on God, are simply an honest & stark reflection of what society really thinks about Christianity.  Christ is hated, the Scriptures are openly mocked, and the message of the Gospel openly attacked.  All under a cover of humour, civility and open mindedness. 
A recent ITV poll suggested that only 39% of British adults think Christianity is a force for good in the world. 

In a poll on in the Daily Mirror, 70% of people agreed with Stephen Fry’s views. 

Simeon’s words about peoples rejection of Jesus, of the are AS RELEVANT TODAY AS THEY HAVE EVER BEEN.

There can be no neutral ground with Jesus.  So how do we respond to him?

We live in a society increasingly hostile to Christian believe and practice, a society that wants to see Christianity removed from public life.  But this is nothing compared to what other Christians are facing around the world today in places like Syria & Iraq.

There can be no neutral ground when it comes to Jesus.

That is why Jesus said “Whoever is not with me is against me.” 

That is why he called those who want to follow him to take up their cross and follow him. 
Jesus calls us to radical discipleship.

Archbishop of Canterbury speaking in NY last week said there was too much “moral claptrap” in sermons about being “a bit nicer” to everyone, as if being a Christian means simply being a nicer person. 

Justin Welby said He said the life of Jesus “challenges every assumption about society. “He does not permit us to accept a society in which the weak are excluded – whether because of race, wealth, gender, ability, or sexuality. Nor did he permit us and does he permit us to turn religion into morality. We are to get involved, we are to get our hands dirty.  Were it not for the fact that he is in title Prince of Peace, and lived out his mission in service and foot-washing, ending it in crucifixion and resurrection, this would be a call to violent revolution.”
Simeon’s words are both words of great encouragement & joy.  JESUS IS THE SAVIOUR OF THE WORLD.

But his words also pose a challenge.

How do we personally respond to Jesus? 

The church in the UK stands at a crossroads.  If there is to be a church, in the future, if we are to make a difference in the world – then we will have to recheck the morally claptrap that to be a Christian means to be a nice person, and take seriously what it means to follow Christ.