WOULD YOU RECOGNISE A SLAVE IF YOU SAW ONE?

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Whilst many of us were enjoying the Summer holidays and watching the World Athletics, a darker side of our society also came to the fore last month. The BBCs Home affairs correspondent Dominic Casiani reported how the NCA (National Crime Agency) had revealed that victims of modern day slavery were being forced to work in every large town and city in the UK in far higher numbers than was previously thought – “from the person who washes your car, to the worker who picks your fruit, to the labourer who helped build your house, more people would be coming into contact with them every day” he said. “These are people who are forced to work against their will, under the threat of punishment or as a form of debt repayment. Some of them may not even realise that they are the victims of crime – in many cases they are victims of criminal gangs”.

These are all incredibly vulnerable people who are usually disadvantaged, poor or from other countries who are being repeatedly ill-treated, abused and exploited. The NCA sadly described how the more they looked at the problem the worst the figures became, so much so that they have now asked the public and the general community to help them by reporting any form of this sort of exploitation that they may come across.

Previously, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby alongside the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople at a conference in Istanbul had observed that slavery is more rampant today than at any other time in human history and called it an “abomination to human dignity”. “There is no religious basis or justification for a practice that commodifies human beings” he said and suggested that the church with a presence in every parish was uniquely placed to help spot, confront and challenge those who seek to exploit others in this way. The Prime Minister, Theresa May welcomed the subsequent declaration that came out of the Istanbul conference saying that “modern slavery is one of the great human rights issues of our time, subjecting people around the world to experiences that are horrifying in their inhumanity. We have a duty, as human beings and as Christians, to bring it to an end. The UK is leading the way…but governments alone will not be able to stop it. It is vital that all parts of society do their part”.

The Christian will recognise that as human beings, we are all made ‘in the image of God’ and all equally of value and worth before him. Indeed, Jesus not only summarised the Jewish faith as ‘loving God’, and ‘your neighbour as yourself’, but capped it in his own unique way by giving his disciples the ultimate command that they should ‘love one another as I have loved you’ (John 13.34). In other words, selflessly, sacrificially, compassionately and with a generous spirit as ultimately displayed in his own death upon the cross.

These are sentiments, I believe, that whether we be religious or not, we can all sign up to as marks of our common decency and shared humanity. The challenge is of course, would we recognise this sort of exploitation if we saw it – and if we had a suspicion would we have the courage to report it? I truly hope so, for this sort of problem will only get worse if people ‘turn a blind eye’, ‘mind their own business’ or try to ‘sweep it under the carpet’. Ultimately, we always need to put ourselves in the place of the victim, and treat others as we would like them to treat us – with common decency, dignity, value and respect. That’s part of what it means to ‘love one’s neighbour as one’s self’.


“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”

Galatians 3.28


 

TENNIS, TIME AND TIMELORDS – A REFLECTION

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The numbers and the superlatives were certainly flying around Wimbledon’s Centre Court on Men’s Finals Day when Switzerland’s Roger Federer beat Marin Cilic from Croatia 6-3 6-1 6-4. Not only was it a gloriously sunny day but it was a glorious occasion, marking the BBCs 90th anniversary since its first radio broadcast from Wimbledon; its 80th since its first television transmission, and its 50th in colour. At 35, Roger Federer was striving to win the tournament for a record 8th time, being his 19th ‘Grand Slam’ which would easily make him the most successful male tennis player in history. Despite injury Marin Cilic fought gamely on, but at the end the plaudits were all Federer’s. “He’s just given a ‘master-class’; ‘he’s poetry in motion’; ‘he’s an artist and a gentleman’ the commentators remarked, comments that were all no doubt amazingly and wonderfully true. At the age of 35 Federer appeared to be the man who ‘defied time’.

Which was ironic, because there was another number flying around on that day, which broke into the tennis commentaries and conversations and it was the number 13, for the BBC had decided that this would be ‘the right time’, the right moment, to introduce Jodie Whittaker to the general public as the 1st female actor to ever play Doctor Who (after 50+ years). The speculation was rife as to whether she would be ‘the right choice’ – would the public take to her? In an age which is very conscience of equal opportunities many thought her appointment was long overdue – while many others viewed it as a terrible break with tradition and simply an exercise in PC (‘political correctness’). “I want to tell the fans not to be scared by my gender” Jodie tweeted from the BBC (which in the light of the Church of England’s various discussions about human sexuality seemed to be the subliminal slogan for our day). No doubt Jodie Whittaker will make a magnificent Doctor, but will she spell the end of ‘crotchety old men’ playing the Doctor as originally cast? Only time will tell!

So how should we live our lives? Do we do our best to gamefully defy time or should we simply and gracefully embrace the change and go with the flow? Roger Federer is a magnificent example of what can be done if we keep ourselves in the peak of physical fitness, whereas the majority of us look rather wistfully at the Doctor and dream of regeneration. The incredible thing is that Christians worship a God who is not only the Lord of time’ but who, full of loving purpose, has actually stepped out of his own majestic, divine and heavenly space – and stepped into our time, a place of human history in the person of Jesus Christ. His extraordinary efforts to save and rescue our fallen world and its humanity is the most exciting adventure ever, summed up not in regeneration but in resurrection. The prospect of life after death for all who put their faith and trust in him – not simply as a shadow of our former selves or as a passing resemblance to someone we once knew, but as ourselves living life in all its fullness for all eternity.  That’s a glorious prospect! Perhaps it would be best to conclude with a prayer taken from the funeral service: “Give us the wisdom and the grace to use aright the time that is left to us here on earth, to turn to Christ and follow in his steps in the way that leads to everlasting life.” May this be true for all of us as we embrace and enter into the excitement of this adventure.


“He (God) has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men” Ecclesiastes 3.11


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CAN EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANS NO LONGER BE IN POLITICS?

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Naturally, our hearts go out to all the people that were caught up so tragically in the fire that destroyed the Grenfell Tower in North Kensington. We pay tribute to the fire and other emergency services and we applaud the amazing generosity, love and charity demonstrated by the people of the local community. We pray for all affected and hope that lessons will be learned to prevent such tragedies in the future.

However, on the same day another interesting story took place when Tim Farron announced that he would be standing down as leader of the Liberal Democrats citing the pressures that had been placed upon him by the media due to his Christian convictions particularly over the matter of ‘Gay Sex’. “A better, wiser person may have been able to deal with this more successfully, to remain faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment. To be a leader, particularly of a progressive liberal party in 2017 and to live as a committed Christian and to hold faithful to the Bible’s teaching has felt impossible for me,” he said.

The irony of all this was that Tim Farron’s voting record had been exemplary in the support of gay rights and as a politician he had publicly and passionately supported peoples’ rights to live in whatever way they chose, regardless of his own personal thoughts or opinion. Knowing that biblically and theologically speaking, the bible does regard gay sex as a sin (it’s hard to come to any other conclusion if you read the Bible honestly) the media saw this as a stick to beat him with and wouldn’t let it drop, despite the fact that Tim Farron had represented all of his constituents with integrity to the best of his ability (even though the Office for National Statistics itself believes that the gay community only represents 1.5% of the population). It’s interesting to note that the media didn’t bully Muslim MPs in the same way, even though the whole matter of gay sex is just as contentious in the Qur’an and Islam as it is in the Bible, which once again is an example of systematic media bias and spin.

The problem with our society is one of an extremely bad and intolerant ‘political correctness’ which doesn’t only wish to restrict any form of language which might offend, marginalise or disadvantage people on grounds of race, sex or religion (which is good) but actually stifles debate in the process (which is bad) and is intolerant of anyone who doesn’t hold the commonly held party view, regardless of its failings.

Over the years many Christians have faithfully and passionately sought to serve their communities with ‘love and devotion’, seeing it as part of their Christian and political vocation to make the world a better place. We have a proud Christian heritage which has shaped many of our laws and influenced the way we govern ourselves and look after one another, based on mutual understanding and the traditional Christian values of love, justice, equality and the intrinsic worth of the individual made ‘in the image of God’. It would therefore be such a shame and a real detriment to our communities if Christians were discouraged from entering politics or thought that their contributions to society were of little value or worth.


“Love the Lord your God with all your heart … and love your neighbour as yourself.” Luke 10.27

IF MY SYSTEM IS COMPROMISED – HOW DO I PAY THE RANSOM?

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Over the last few days we have seen an unprecedented cyber-attack which has hit more than 200,000 victims worldwide across 150 different countries. In the UK, the National Health Service was hit hard with 48 health trusts sufficiently compromised that they had to turn patients away, close down their IT systems and resort to ‘pen and paper’. The culprit was the WannaCry malware virus (or worm) which had the innate ability to encrypt people’s files and lock them out of their computers. People may not have literally felt like crying but it was extremely annoying, disruptive and potentially had the capacity to put lives at risk. Although the majority of PCs were safe, older systems without the appropriate software patches and up-to-date antivirus solutions left their users with the dilemma of either having to rebuild their systems from backups or possibly pay ‘the ransom’ demanded by compromised machines. Despite the scale of the attack, the evidence suggests that very few people actually paid the ransom (usually $300 (£230 per machine) in a virtual currency known as Bitcoin). This was probably because; firstly, purchasing Bitcoin is a very difficult process and secondly, ‘a lucky break’ by a software engineer found a way to stop the ransomware, and ‘kill the virus’ containing the spread of its contagion. Well done that man!

This whole episode demonstrated just how ‘interconnected’ we are in modern society and how dependant we are upon the good services of others. When one person or area is attacked, the implications for the wider community can be vast (rather like an earthquake, or the ripples generated by a stone dropped into a pond). Our ability to function is severely impeded, our relationships are broken, sometimes resulting in a lack of confidence, hope and trust. Sometimes, people prefer to either ignore the problem and hope it will go away or pay any cost to simply get on with their lives again.

It’s not difficult for the Christian to see immediate parallels with the theological concept of ‘sin’ as described in the Bible. Sin is that innate part of the human psyche which seeks to put itself first before anything else and often at the expense of others. It’s the selfish ‘I’ which lurks deep within and doesn’t usually care if something is right or wrong as long as it satisfies the self. Sin is often selfish, greedy and manipulative and is usually the very opposite of genuine, generous giving and sacrificial love. Like a virus, sin has the capacity to spread out and ‘take down systems’ and its consequences can be disastrous; it’s often the root cause of a lot of anger, hurt and mistrust. It spoils our relationships with one another, our communities and even with God himself. The difficulty is that without genuine regret, remorse and repentance it’s usually difficult to find a way to move on, to be positive or find forgiveness. Sin enslaves the individual and makes them less than they were ideally meant to be. They are ‘bound’ by it and effectively held to ransom!

This is why the Christian story is such ‘good news’ and so wonderfully positive, because despite our sin, we are told that God still loves us, and literally steps into this sinful world of ours in the person of Jesus, and through his death upon the cross, Christ absorbs within his own body the terrible pain and consequences of all our sin. He bears the hurt that our sin has caused, freely, lovingly and generously so that we can be spared its consequences and find forgiveness. The Bible says that by his death upon the cross Jesus paid a ‘ransom’ for our sins setting us free when we put our faith and trust in him. This is wonderful news and doesn’t simply change who we are before God, but our hearts and our perspective. We are set free and given a brand new, fresh start! So how do we pay the ransom? We can’t and we don’t have to – because it’s already been paid. All we need to do is embrace it and say thank you.


“The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”

Matthew 20.28

WHY SHOULD I BE BOTHERED ABOUT EASTER?

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Many people will be looking forward to the long bank holiday weekend as a welcome break from work, a time to see family and friends and perhaps treat one another to chocolates and Easter eggs – not really understanding what Easter is all about or why it could be significant to them.

In order to really understand Easter, we need to take a ‘deep breath’, open our Bibles and contemplate the first few chapters of the book of Genesis. Now many people will immediately dismiss the Bible as religious ‘mumbo-jumbo’, saying hasn’t science dismissed all this as rubbish – and don’t we now accept human-beings came into being through a process of evolution? To which I would want to say, well you can ask those sort of questions if you would like, but that’s not really what the Bible is about! Many scientists are quite happy Christians because they accept that the Bible doesn’t really speak in terms of science at all but in terms of theology. It’s more concerned with ‘why’ the world is as it is, rather than ‘how’ it came to be. Theologically speaking, the opening chapters of Genesis explain how God initially created a perfect world, but it was spoilt by the foolish, self-centred decisions of human beings (namely Adam and Eve) who thought that they knew better and wanted ‘to be like God’. This wilful disobedience (which the Bible calls sin) led to the world becoming less than perfect, knocked off balance and ‘out of kilter’ by arrogance, wickedness and greed – qualities which spoil not only our human relationships but our relationship with God himself. In other words, the world is not as God originally intended. It is as Christians describe it – fallen – and if you doubt it, then all one has to do is look at the news on our television screens. Genesis therefore speaks to our humanity, and most people having read it, if they are honest with themselves, can identify with it saying – that’s me!’

The rest of the Bible is really a ‘love story’, describing how God goes to great pains to rescue us from this world of sin and put things right, and its hero is Jesus. For in the Old Testament, we see how God is constantly trying (initially through the people of Israel) to call people back to himself and to a ‘righteous’ way of living, but time and time again the people fail because the strangle hold of sin is simply too strong. Although we often learn from our mistakes, we can’t put things right by ourselves. The Bible may tell us that ‘if our hand causes us to sin, we should cut it off, or if our eye causes us to sin we should pluck it out’ (Mark 9.42f) but as Jesus makes clear, the heart of the problem is the problem of the human heart – and we can’t cut out our heart! So, Jesus steps in, showing us not only how to live a better life, but how we can positively change our hearts when we put our faith and trust in him, demonstrating just how extraordinary God’s love for each and every one of us is by his own death upon the cross. He takes upon himself the punishment that our sin deserves – sparing us from it, for as the old hymn makes clear ‘there was no other good enough to pay the price of sin; only he could unlock the gate of heaven, and let us in’.  All we need to do, to be forgiven, is to trust that Jesus died for my personal sin – and say thank you.

But that’s not the end of the story, because three days later Jesus rose from the grave – a tremendous and astounding event witnessed by so many of his friends and disciples, demonstrating once and for all that he was indeed the ‘Son of God’ who died to save the world – and that’s the message of Easter. Now, of course it doesn’t take a moment for us to appreciate that the world is still sinful and still needs to change, which is precisely why the Gospel message is still so needed and so relevant for our modern world today, still speaking of a future hope when all will be ultimately put right when Christ returns – but in the meantime, the world as we know it changes ‘one heart at a time’. Please let one of them be yours!


“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection” Philippians 3.10

THE CHURCH, GAY MARRIAGE & NOT ‘TAKING NOTE’

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The Rt. Revd Graham James (Bishop of Norwich) addressing General Synod

Last week (15th February 2017), the media gave the impression that the Church of England had taken another step towards accepting gay marriage after its ‘controversial report’ (as described by the BBC) proposing that only men and women could be married in church was rejected by the ‘house of clergy’ who voted 100 to 93 against. This was seen as a victory for the liberal establishment and a snub towards the Bishops who had not only drafted the report, but overwhelmingly voted in favour of it, 43-1 (although it later transpired that this single vote against had been made in error). The Laity also voted in favour 106-83, but as ever, nothing is quite as straight forward as the news headlines would suggest. Yes, of course campaigners for gay marriage were delighted, seeing it as a ‘victory for love and equality’, but equally it appears that following an ambiguous comment made by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the motion was rejected by some conservatives who feared that ‘pastoral practice’ following the motion wouldn’t be ‘conservative enough’. This is because the paper didn’t actually contain any objective proposals. It was simply designed for ‘taking note’ and once passed would simply form the backdrop to church practice without any further discussion required at General Synod. As it stands, the status quo will prevail as the motion cannot be reconsidered within the life of this synod.

The difficulty is, I suggest, one of public perception. The campaigners for same sex marriage would have us believe that the public cannot understand why the church is so behind the times, and so anti-gay marriage which they see as nothing but antiquated, homophobic and prejudiced. As campaigner Peter Tatchell remarked, ‘the church denies the right of same-sex couples to be blessed in church when they will bless cats and dogs’ – but of course it doesn’t take a moment to appreciate that the cats and dogs in question aren’t seeking a blessing upon their relationship. And it’s this sort of rhetoric which makes life so difficult for all concerned.  The church doesn’t deny that people of the same sex can have very warm and affirming relationships, but it doesn’t believe that sexual relations between two people of the same sex, however loving, can be equated with marriage as traditionally understood and expressed between a man and a woman. However affirming they may be, the two scenarios are not the same or equivalent. The problem is compounded by the weight of theology that is attached to the Christian concept of marriage (so much more than the simple notion of ‘two people loving each other’) which becomes unravelled if marriage isn’t between the two different sexes.

“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” Matthew 19.5-6

In a sense, the general public may not appreciate that shouting loudly about ‘inclusiveness and equality’ (which the church has traditionally championed) rather misses the point and doesn’t resolve the dichotomy presented here – for the church can’t really accept gay-marriage without doing fundamental harm or damage to itself or its message. So, however painful it may be to those who wish it was otherwise, it doesn’t seem to me that a loving church can possibly bless that with which it fundamentally, theologically and scripturally disagrees , nor is it reasonable nor loving of others to expect it to do so.

The upshot of all these discussions is that we are still in a difficult place with many people from all sides feeling somewhat unhappy and dissatisfied, and so much prayer, thought and discussion will still be needed. Perhaps it’s best to leave the final words with the Revd Sam Allberry, who is himself gay and went on to remind Synod that Jesus Christ was ‘the most fully human and complete person who had ever lived’ and yet ‘he never married, was never in a romantic relationship and never had sex’. Therefore ‘Sexuality is not a matter of identity for me, and that has become good news”.


“I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men…” Revelation 21.2-3


GOOD MORNING, MR PRESIDENT!

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By the time, you get to read this letter, Donald J Trump will have been sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America, and life, it seems will never be the same again. Adopting Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan, Donald Trump will set about ‘making America great again’, but not without some controversy. Will Donald J Trump build a wall between the United States and Mexico? Will he impose import taxes on US companies that create product intended for the US market whilst using foreign workers in foreign plants? Will he continue to stir up controversy with China whilst seeking to improve relations with Russia? Will he continue to denounce the workings of the American Intelligence agencies, and with regard to Russia – is he politically compromised? The list of controversial questions seems to be added to each day with a flurry of response being sent on Twitter.

But can President Trump ‘make America great again’ and is he really that powerful? Well, in a sense the answer is both yes and no! As President, he certainly commands a lot of power, but in theory even he is subject to the higher authority of the American Constitution. It is this document which is so sacred to Americans which is considered to be the ultimate resort. Congress may make laws, but it is the American courts which interpret them according to the Constitution and determine how they should ultimately be applied – a system designed, it is said, to prevent any one person having too much power or being subject to corruption. However, this means that ultimate power can be said to reside with the unelected members of the Supreme Court. To counter their influence American Presidents are able to appoint a number of ‘Justices’ to the Supreme Court according to their political persuasion; Republicans tend to appoint conservatives or ‘originalist’ judges and justices who will always try to interpret the law according to the Constitution as it was originally understood by the ‘founding fathers’. Democrats will say that the Constitution is a ‘living document’ which needs to be interpreted according to the issues of the day and so will appoint Liberal or ‘activist’ judges and justices, and try to promote their own particular agenda on modern day issues of concern (e.g. abortion). This is one of the main reasons why Presidential campaigns become so messy as everyone wants to get their candidate elected so that they might be able to shape and influence society and politics not just within Congress but through the courts. The problem with Donald Trump it seems, is that because of his outlandish statements and apparent policy making ‘on the hoof’ he’s been quite capable of upsetting both Republicans and Democrats and so his candidacy as President hasn’t always been easy for either side to settle with or predict.

So where does this leave us? Well, the Christian response has always been to pray for those in authority that they will govern wisely and well for the benefit of all people, and do all that they can to support and encourage them in that task. Equally, in a period of so much change and uncertainty, we are encouraged to think about what do we consider to be our ultimate guide and authority? For many Christians that guide would be the Bible, which has been the foundation and backbone of so many of our laws and legal frameworks within British Society for countless generations, but the constant task is of course, not only to understand the context in which the Bible was originally written, but how we can also best apply it to today’s modern society. We may call ourselves Great Britain, but in my own humble opinion, our national status would be greatly enhanced if we were to spend a little more time quietly, prayerfully, and intelligently reflecting upon some of the biblical and Christian principles which have served us so well in the past.


 “Pray for all people … kings and all those in authority, that we may live a tranquil and peaceful life in all godliness and dignity” 1 Timothy 2.2