Brexit – If At First You Don’t Succeed ….

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IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED TRY, TRY AGAIN seems to be the Prime Minister’s mantra as she tries to get her Brexit deal through Parliament – which seems to be a herculian task given the fact that Parliament had already voted against it by 432 votes to 202 – the biggest government defeat ever known. This immediately led to the leader of the opposition tabling a ‘Vote of No Confidence’ which was also roundly defeated. So, the Prime Minister has the ‘confidence of the house’ but not the power to proceed with her proposed deal which had taken her and her government two years to negotiate. Confusion reigns as politicians and the public alike ponder ‘where do we go from here?’

Typically, most people in such a situation would seek a compromise, but unfortunately the problem fundamentally doesn’t really lend itself to one. Like the Brexit referendum of two years ago, we are still left really with the binary choice of ‘do we stay or do we leave?’ Perhaps in reality, the slogan used by Boris Johnson of ‘having one’s cake and eating it’ whilst Foreign Secretary highlights the Achilles heel of our negotiations; one immediately spotted by the EU’s negotiator Michel Barnier who was unequivocally opposed to the UK ‘cherry picking’ what it did and didn’t want. Our politicians should have not only recognised the result of the referendum but embraced wholeheartedly the intrinsic nature and logic of it as spelt out by the simple Leave means Leave campaign slogan. Then our negotiators might have made more positive headway in the discussions, but instead the constant desire to keep ‘as close a tie as possible’ with the EU, and find a middle way, has spectacularly backfired and come back to haunt it. Unfortunately, there is now no potential solution (Norway, Canada, rescinding article 50, or a second referendum) which doesn’t severely undercut somebody’s redline or in my personal opinion fundamentally undermine the democratic process.

The King James Version of the Bible rather poignantly states that ‘where there is no vision the people perish’ (Proverbs 29.18) and we are in danger of seeing this in reality. The sharing of thoughts views and opinions is of course fundamentally important, but without a clear sense of direction, leadership and vision, we will always struggle. Instead of constantly grand-standing on an issue of such national significance, our politicians should humbly come and work together. Those who aren’t in positions of power and authority shouldn’t act as if they were, but positively try to encourage those who do have the power to make the best decision possible – and those with the power and authority should humbly listen to all sides and respect the fact that they are required to act on behalf of the nation. And we who are members of the general public should recognise the referendum result and prayerfully encourage them to do so. That’s democracy!


If my people …. humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven … forgive their sin and will heal their land.    2 Chronicles 7.14


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And the baby’s name is ….

Immanuel God with Us

HOW DO YOU CHOOSE A NAME FOR A BABY? Do you name your child after a grandparent, parent or family member? Or do you name it after a famous celebrity, such as a pop star, film star or footballer? You might want to be creative and invent something unusual that will attract attention and make a statement, while others prefer to stick to something more traditional. Some people might want to make a popular choice, and for others it really doesn’t matter! Choosing a name is really difficult isn’t it! Made all the more so if you are the sort of person who’s as interested in the meaning of a name, just as much as the sound of it!

In many ways, Mary and Joseph didn’t have this problem, for when Mary was told by the angel that she was going to have a baby, she was also told what he was to be called – he was to be called Jesus (Luke 2.31). Now Jesus wasn’t an uncommon name at the time, in fact, it was exceedingly popular, because it had a wonderful connotation and a meaning loved by all the people, for ‘Jesus’ was simply the more ‘modern’ Greek form of the much more traditional name, translated in Hebrew as ‘Joshua’ which means ‘God saves’ or possibly ‘the Lord is salvation’. So imagine what it would mean to a poor people who had known hardship all their lives, fearfully living in the shadow and military might of Imperial Rome, to be reminded of the fact that ‘God saves’. It’s a wonderful hope to cling on to and this child would be a reminder and symbol of it, every time his name was spoken. But Christians are aware that there is so much more to this story than this, for Jesus has ‘another name’ – a name which is celebrated in song every Christmas in carols around the world, for his birth is also seen as the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy that was first uttered many centuries before in the time of Isaiah. ‘All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet. “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel – which means, God with us’ (Matthew 1.22-23). So, God is no longer aloof, abstract, or ‘out there’, for one brief moment in time, he is made wonderfully ‘real’ in the person of Jesus. It’s this coming of Jesus, God literally stepping into the world that Christians celebrate at Christmas. Knowing that God can understand us in every way because he has become like us in the person of Jesus, is an incredible thought. Especially when one considers how prone we are to make silly mistakes and get things wrong! It would be so simple for this holy God to simply blot us out of his copy book, but he doesn’t because he loves us and cares for us, and wants us to know and understand him. This is a great joy and when we understand that he has come not only to know us, but save us, by taking upon himself at the cross all the punishment for our misdeeds. We recognise Christmas for what it truly is – the celebration of the greatest piece of news that this world has ever known or will know. It is my hope that over the coming weeks, you will find yourself not only enjoying the festive spirit, but grasping the opportunity to embrace the true meaning of Christmas and possibly celebrating it with us. It would be great to see you!

May I on behalf of my family and all the parishes I represent wish you all a very happy Christmas and a very peaceful new year.


‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel’ Isaiah 7.14


 

Are You A ‘Fully Educated, Free Thinker Who Doesn’t Believe In Fairy Stories’?

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Many of you will be aware that Twitter is a wonderful way of sharing news and views across social media, listening to and engaging with debate – but it can also be a means by which people can easily fire off salvoes designed to ridicule, shut down and squash others with whom they disagree. One such example came in a discussion about religion and atheism generated by the popular and well know atheist Richard Dawkins. As the discussion unfolded, one atheistic contributor simply tried to lambast his religious ‘opponent’ with the phrase ‘I’m highly educated thanks. Far too free thinking to believe in your fairy stories’. The problem is of course that the implications behind this statement are simply wrong on so many levels, and yet tap into so many common misconceptions about people of faith (particularly Christians) by those who aren’t remotely religious.

Firstly, it implies that religious people can’t possibly be ‘bright young things’ with an education. They must be stupid to hold a religious perspective in the light of modern day science and ethics. How can you believe in a creator God who made the word in 7 days in the light of Darwin, ‘the big bang’ and evolution? Or in a loving God in the light of so much evil and innocent suffering? At first glance these questions may appear to be problematic, but in reality, they aren’t so difficult when one appreciates the difference between science and theology. Very simply put, one tends to look at ‘how’ the world is as it is, the other looks at ‘why’. This is why the dilemma between faith and science is often a false one, as evidenced by the large number of Christians with science degrees!

Secondly, the statement suggest that religious people are often brain-washed or blinkered in their thinking because of their religious faith and perspective. Of course this can happen in some extreme circumstances, but equally Christians believe that intellect is a gift of God. God has given us freedom of thought and mind and therefore he expects us to use it. Train and ‘prepare your minds for action’ says the Apostle Peter in his first epistle (1 Peter 1.13) and there is much encouragement in the scriptures about being wise and discerning. Ironically, a lot of so called ‘free-thinkers’ – simply don’t! They merely go with the flow and follow the fads and fashions of society without ever really thinking through the implications of their non-religious world view. They simply accept it as being bright, right, sophisticated and clever – but what if it isn’t?

Finally, the statement sarcastically implies that believing in God is rather like believing in fairy stories with the assumption being that it’s all made up, ‘pie-in-the-sky’, myth and legend. Surprisingly, the vast majority of Christians don’t believe in fairy stories either, so how can they be so sure that their belief in God isn’t unreasonable? Well, that’s because Christianity invites the individual to study the evidence – once one understands that the Bible is written in a wide range of literary genres (narrative, history, poetry etc) springing from a wide range of historical contexts backed up with historical data and eye-witness testimonies, then the evidence starts to speak for itself. Famous authors such as C.S Lewis (Mere Christianity) and Frank Morrison (Who Moved the Stone?) started out as committed atheists but found that upon close inspection the evidence for Christianity was overwhelming. From a Muslim perspective Nabeel Qureshi’s Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus is another good example.

So I suppose the question is, are you as a fully educated, free thinking person willing to study the evidence?

Consider this! If someone could provide reasonable answers to your most significant questions and objections you have —reasonable to the point that Christianity seems true beyond a reasonable doubt—would you then become a Christian? If your honest answer is no, then your resistance to Christianity is emotional or volitional, not merely intellectual. No amount of evidence will convince you because evidence is not what’s in your way — you are!


The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. Psalm 111.10


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The NHS, Brexit And The ‘Magic Money Tree’

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Sometimes I find myself feeling a bit incredulous! The Prime Minister has just announced a £20 billion pounds funding increase for the National Health Service (NHS) after Brexit, partly funded by tax increases and partly from money that will no longer be going to the European Union (the so called ‘Brexit Dividend’). On the face of it, this would seem to be good news, but immediately, the politics has kicked in by those who would wish to either undermine the Prime Minister, the Conservative Party or derail Brexit. Yes, I completely understand and accept that more should have been paid to doctors and nurses years ago; I also understand that merely referring to the controversial ‘£350 million per week’ quote painted on the side of the now infamous red Brexit bus is like ‘waving a red rag to a bull’ to some – but the point remains that this is still good news! Especially, when one accepts that according to recent opinion polls 66% (2/3rds) of the British public are in favour of paying higher tax to fund the NHS regardless of whatever may or may not come back from Brussels. Admittedly, during the election campaign Amber Rudd had accused Jeremy Corbyn of believing in a ‘magic money tree’ – a phrase which the Prime Minister herself had also used, but now (ignoring the inconvenient truth that the government has produced loads of new money via loans to business through its process of ‘Quantative Easing’) critics have accused the Prime Minister of ‘pulling a rabbit out of a hat’, of finding a ‘magic money tree’ after all, albeit through increased taxes and money that would have gone to the EU. However, putting Politics aside – why can’t we simply celebrate the fact that new money is going to the NHS in time for its 70th anniversary which is precisely what so many people have wanted, waited and called for, for such a long time? This is still good news! Or must it always be part of our human nature to criticise and complain?

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Ironically, it would seem so, for as the Christian can testify, the greatest example of good news being stifled by the politics of the day is perhaps the coming of Jesus himself! Which is strange, because for centuries having been conquered by a series of foreign regimes, the people of Israel were only too aware of the fact that they lived in a broken world, where ‘might seemed to be right’ and where their lives were not their own. Society was often cruel and unjust, and the lives of weak and the poor were often treated shamefully or neglected. What they needed, and what they longed for, was a hero, a Saviour, a Messiah who could lift them out of their suffering and save them from their plight. And of course, the biblical notion of salvation is a lot broader than we might imagine, for it refers not just to rescue and restoration – but to healing! Just like modern day clinicians, Jesus was not just concerned about the presenting problems but the underlying causes. In other words, he was concerned about the whole person! And for Jesus, the main underlying problem of the human condition spiritually speaking was – sin!

It was sin that spoiled people’s lives, their relationships with one another and their relationship with God, and it was because of sin that Jesus had come into the world, so that through his loving death upon the cross our lives could be profoundly changed, restored and healed when we put our faith in him. We would be saved! This is good news! Sadly, the politics of the day prevented many from appreciating what was happening before their eyes. May our minds and our vision be open to all that is good and praiseworthy.


“On each side of the river stood the tree of life …. and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Revelation 22.2


 

‘In God We Trust’ – Or Is It The American President?

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In the light of Brexit, one of Prime Minister Theresa May’s most notable remarks was that ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’, but now that President Trump has pulled the United States out of the Iranian nuclear deal, we are all left wondering whether a bad deal is actually better than a broken one? Naturally, the complexities of the issue are immense and the implications of pulling out of the deal with the Iranians very serious indeed, especially as it was generally believed that the Iranians were in fact ‘keeping their end of the bargain’. This was underscored by the vain attempt of several national leaders to keep Donald Trump ‘onside’ prior to his announcement.

Now of course, it’s very difficult for the common man to get any sense of what’s really going on behind the scenes or the ‘inside track’, but boldened by his recent success in North Korea, it appears that President Trump is playing a tremendous game of brinkmanship in an attempt to force the Iranians once again to the negotiating table in order to generate a new, better, more wonderful deal than the one previously negotiated under President Obama. Of course, if he succeeds then he will deserve the world’s plaudits, but if he doesn’t, then we will all have to girder our resolve as we come to terms with the consequences.

However, on a simple level one is left wondering ‘what do these events say about trust?’ How can we expect Iran (or any other nation state for that matter) to trust America if it can tear up its agreements at a moment’s notice? It’s slightly ironic that one of Donald Trump’s campaign slogans was Trust me! I’m going to make America great again!’. No doubt the President believes that this is precisely what he’s doing in keeping with his ‘America first’ approach but surely it will become much harder for other signatories or nation states to be so confident about US policy or the trustworthiness of its President!

Perhaps the US, which takes such pride in it’s Christian heritage, should pause and reflect upon its national motto which is stamped on the back of every two-cent coin, the simple slogan which reads ‘In God we trust’! The Spiderman movies may have brought to the public consciousness the thought that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’, but the Bible also has a lot to say about the folly of those who look purely to their own strength, wealth and resources to get things done (see Psalm 52.6-7), whereas the godly man humbly appreciates that he can’t do everything in his own strength, but only with the wise and prayerful backing and support of others, trusting God as he does so. For trust needs to be cultivated and encouraged – it can’t be demanded. If you want people to trust you, you need to give them reason to do so. Christians will recall how Jesus encouraged his disciples to ‘Trust God and to trust also in me’ (John 14.1), but this wasn’t a blind sort of trust, ‘a stab in the dark’, it was a reasoned trust based on what they knew God had done for them in the past and what they could see Jesus doing for them now. His deeds gave his words authenticity. His whole life was one of integrity. People may break their word, but God never does and now, through the person of Jesus, God was keeping his Word, and fulfilling every promise, agreement and covenant that had ever been made. Let’s hope that in the fulness of time the American President will win a fulsome victory, but will it also earn him praise, respect – and fulsome trust?


“He who was seated on throne said, ‘behold I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true” Revelation 21.5


 

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The Incredible Art Of Forgiveness

The Trial Begins Of Two Men Accused Of Murdering Stephen Lawrence

In the light of the recent chemical weapons attack upon the Syrian citizens of Douma, alongside March’s assault upon Sergei and Yulia Skripal when a Novichok nerve agent was used in Salisbury, one could be forgiven for thinking that the world has sunk to a new low and that the world had become a much darker and dangerous place. What has become of our moral values, common decency and respect for human life?

In recent weeks, we have seen the American, French and British authorities take military action against those who use chemical weapons, but there have also been two incredibly moving stories which perhaps given the circumstance have not been given the prominence that they rightly deserve. The first was the comedian Patrick Kielty’s BBC documentary entitled “My Dad, the Peace Deal and Me”, exploring the legacy of the Good Friday Agreement as it reached its 20th anniversary. Patrick’s story is poignant as his own father was murdered by paramilitary gunmen during ‘The Troubles’ – men who were subsequent released from prison as part of the agreement. Patrick’s view was nuanced, because although he admitted that he couldn’t forgive the gunmen, he accepted that their release was necessary if there was ever to be reconciliation. He was stunned by an interview with Richard Moore, who as a child had been totally blinded by a rubber bullet fired at him by a British soldier – and yet Richard had forgiven his assailant and had made great strides to find him in order to say so, resulting in a lasting friendship. How could Richard forgive the soldier so?

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[Patrick Keilty carrying his father’s coffin in 1988]

This was followed by an amazing interview given by Neville Lawrence, the father of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, whose story has regularly been in the headlines for 25 years. Two men had been convicted of Stephen’s death and yet it’s understood that five were involved. Neville revealed how he had forgiven them all for the murder of his son. Like Patrick, Neville’s story was incredibly hard and painful, and described as a ‘life sentence’ that would never go away, and yet he had forgiven his son’s murderers. How could this be possible?

It seems that both Neville and Richard had discovered an ancient Christian truth which is that forgiveness is not dependent upon the perpetrator saying sorry or even being met with. It’s an act of the heart and mind which allows the victim to find peace, ‘to let go’, and won’t allow any anger, hurt or pain they feel to fester and become a well of bitter malice within them, which probably does nothing to bring about reconciliation, and may not even be known by the perpetrator, but simply mars and cripples their own life henceforth. It comes from a deep-seated understanding that you are not going to hold a grudge or allow hurt to define you. Naturally, this isn’t easy – and shouldn’t be remotely confused with ‘letting other people get away with it’ or not wanting justice. Neville Lawrence wants justice as keenly as ever he did – it’s just that he won’t allow his anger and hurt to corrupt and corrode his heart and soul.

True forgiveness isn’t ‘a trick of the mind’; it isn’t secretly hoping for revenge or holding on to resentment. It has to be genuine and is therefore both a true art and an act of grace. Whether forgiveness is or isn’t asked for, it certainly isn’t deserved – it can only be given. It’s therefore a beautiful thing – a gift, which allows the victim to find peace, and can wonderfully, occasionally lead to repentance and reconciliation by all parties.

The Christian will see clear parallels between this and the Gospel story – how our sin naturally makes us all perpetrators, leading to the death of Jesus upon the cross where he graciously and lovingly takes upon himself the punishment for our sins (justice demands it) so that we might be reconciled and freely forgiven by God when we turn to him in sincerity, faith and repentance.

The stories of Richard, Neville (and perhaps even Patrick, who began to wonder if he had actually forgiven his father’s murderers after all) demonstrate that by God’s good grace and mercy there is still a lot of love and light in the world – and the world isn’t quite as dark as it might be.


“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” Luke 11.4


 

Who Are You Missing This Christmas?

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There’s a quiet and wonderful hush as Mary and Joseph, holding hands, slowly walk to the front of the school hall, he with a large staff in his right hand and she clutching a small bag to her chest. The music to ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ gently fades into the background as Joseph knocks upon the door standing in front of him – and as the innkeeper appears Joseph calls out in a loud voice ‘please sir, do you have any room where we can stay? For we have travelled a long way and my wife is about to have a baby!’ The innkeeper lets out a loud sigh and sadly shakes his head, but then after a momentary pause his face brightens up with a big grin as he politely and kindly directs them to a stable.

This wonderful and captivating scene has been played out by many generations of school children over the years watched by their proud parents, but it is also a scene that leaves a lot to the imagination and makes a lot of assumptions, for the Bible account never actually mentions the innkeeper, but simply says that after the birth of the baby Jesus ‘she wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn’ (Luke 2.7). The kindly innkeeper never actually features, but is strangely absent – missing!

Christmas is often said to be a time for children having fun and families getting together, but perhaps for some this biblical story actually reflects a present reality in their lives – perhaps because someone special, someone significant is missing and Christmas just isn’t the same without them. This could be because circumstances dictate that they can’t be present (such as serving in the armed forces or emigrated or away on business); or it could be because they have started a new chapter in their lives (such as young people leaving home or getting married leaving parents feeling isolated and alone); or it could be because of some sad circumstance (such as a divorce, a broken relationship or the death of a loved one). It’s at times like these when the love and support of family, friends and the community is so crucial, mutually encouraging people to appreciate that they are not alone, but cared for by the people around them – kind words and deeds which can mean so much and mirror the love that God has for us.

But perhaps for some the most significant missing person this Christmas, is Christ himself – which is such a shame because in the person of Jesus we meet with a God who loves and cares for us so deeply that he actually steps into this world of ours, and takes upon himself our humanity when he was born as a baby at Bethlehem. So no-one can say therefore that ‘God does not understand me’ because in Christ he has been there, done it and ‘got the T-shirt’. Our lives aren’t perfect and neither is the world in which we live, but in Christ we meet with someone who not only wants us to feel better but actually makes it possible for us to be better; loved, forgiven and at peace when we put our faith and trust in him. So, don’t miss out this Christmas because in Christ we have a friend who has promised to be with us, not just for today, or for tomorrow, but for always. Christmas just isn’t the same without him!


“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.” Matthew 1.23