“Loving You To The Moon And Back” – And So Much More!

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Although I can’t honestly say that I actually remember Neil Armstrong’s famous moon landing of the 20th July 1969 (I was 7!) I do remember seeing some of the Apollo missions by the time that they finished in 1972 and being aware of the profound effect that they had upon me. When I looked out at the night sky it was incredible to think that men had actually stood on the moon. It was so exciting! What would they do next and where would they go? I still think it’s absolutely incredible and exciting – and I’m in utter awe of the men who undertook such a brave and perilous journey. It took Apollo 11 four days, six hours and 45 minutes to get to the moon (8 days including the return journey) and cost NASA around $25 billion (£20 billion). It may have been ‘one small step’ for Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins but it was a huge accomplishment for the 400,000 people who had worked upon the mission. The Earth, the Moon and space would never be seen in quite the same way again. However, during the recent 50th anniversary celebrations, it’s been the reflections of Alan Bean, who was part of the Apollo 12 mission and the 4th man on the moon that struck me most. Gazing back to the beautiful but profound sight of the Earth hanging in the darkness of space (later referred to as ‘the blue marble’ by the crew of Apollo 17) Alan Bean was powerfully struck by the recognition that all the people I have ever loved are over there! A thought he would frequently share with his family upon his return.

I suppose the truth is that of course the human spirit has an immense desire to explore and discover, to look beyond the horizon and around the corner in search of new things – and incredibly through our brave ingenuity, determination and skilled use of finite resources we often have the capacity to achieve more than is usually thought humanly possible – but at the same time it is love which unites us and binds us together and gives us not only the motivation to succeed, but a sense of place, belonging and home. Used wisely, intellect and love are powerful gifts with which we can pursue not only our goals, dreams and ambitions but also serve our nations and further the common good.

The accomplishments of Apollo 11 and all those missions that followed it combined with the fragility of the Earth have fostered our modern desire to go further and reach for the stars, the Moon, Mars and beyond – and yet however amazing those thoughts might be, the Christian is struck by another amazing theological concept, which is not only did God create the world that we see hanging so beautifully in space, but that he actually stepped into it, and not because it was pristine and perfect but precisely because it wasn’t. For the beautiful world that God had originally created had been spoilt by the often selfish, unkind and greedy actions of its inhabitants which the Bible calls sin. Yet, the mission that God embarks upon is not one of running away, starting again and abandonment, but one of new beginnings, new starts and digging deep as people recognise the grace, peace and restoration that is made possible through Jesus and his death upon the cross. It’s an amazing act of love that reaches out to us across the depths of time and space and calls us – home!


Praise him from the heavens … praise him, you sun and moon and shining stars. Psalm 148.1,3


Posted on the 50th Anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s Moon Landing with Apollo 11 

Fake News, Brexit And ‘The Prophets Of Doom’

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Long before Donald Trump coined the phrase ‘Fake News’ (dismissing whatever is inconvenient), British politicians were juggling with ‘spin’ and ‘spin doctors’, as certain individuals or political parties tried to get their own political message across in the most favourable way possible, whilst portraying competing projects, events and points of view negatively. ‘Project Fear’ is perhaps one of the most recent and prominent examples of this where politicians favouring a ‘no deal’ Brexit consider the arguments presented by Remainers as scaremongering, whereas those in favour of remaining portray Leavers as chasing after unicorns and duping the public (arguing therefore that many of those who voted to leave didn’t really understand the implications of what was put before them). Naturally, this is seen as patronising twaddle by those who voted ‘leave’. All of this has been magnified by television, social media and the internet to fever pitch. However, the stakes have been significantly raised by Conservative politicians each vying to be the next Prime Minister with many leaning towards a harder or no-deal Brexit in the light of the recent European elections. But this has caused many on the opposition benches and those wanting to remain in the EU to highlight all the more fervently the perils of a no deal Brexit and falling off the so-called ‘cliff edge’.

The problem is of course that we are not homogeneous human beings – we all come to life with our own particular values and perceptions, but in the game of politics, many of our politicians are deliberately selective, trying to promote their own particular viewpoint or party-line to gain some sort of party or personal advantage. It’s therefore very difficult for members of the general public to ‘see the wood for the trees’ and discern the impartial truth. The BBC may try to give us its own ‘reality check’ but many people are still wary of fake news and ‘media spin’ and therefore find it hard to discern fact from fiction. Surveys repeatedly demonstrate that people want honest politicians but discerning the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is very hard.

With so much at stake it’s becoming increasing important that we should trust the politicians who represent us – and honesty is paramount, because it’s honest and transparent politicians who garner the greatest trust and respect. As someone who the Bible describes as being ‘full of grace and truth’ (John 1.14) it’s not surprising that Jesus encouraged his disciples to be equally open and honest, advising them not to make promises that they can’t keep but urging them to simply, “let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5.37). Biblically speaking it’s not just cleanliness which is close to godliness but truthfulness, whereas lies and deceit generate confusion and are much more likely to be destructive. So let us do our best to discern the fact from the fiction, the fake news from reality and when it comes to determining our future, let us call for less political spin and more honesty and truth from our politicians and then vote for those who do so.


He whose walk is blameless … speaks the truth from his heart. Psalm 15.2


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Faith, Hope And The Flames Of Notre-Dame

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It was with a great deal of sadness that millions watched the iconic Gothic Cathedral of Notre-Dame go up in flames on Monday 15th April 2019 via their televisions, computers and smartphones. It seemed incredible to think that this wonderful cathedral that had taken over 200 years to build was essentially destroyed in a mere 30 minutes. It felt like something out of a movie or a bad dream. Many French citizens were in tears and disbelief as they witnessed this terrible event unfold but huge credit should be paid to the firefighters and others who were trying against the odds to save as many of the priceless art and religious antiquities as they could whilst others were trying to save and preserve the actual building. Yes, France may pride itself on it’s secular education but this tends to hide the fact that over 2/3rds of the population still identify themselves as Christian predominantly Roman Catholic – but equally it has to be said that to the French, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame represents so much more than being simply a place of religious devotion. It represents their nation, their heritage, their architecture, their culture and their wonderful way of life – and so it comes as no surprise that almost immediately President Macron committed himself and the whole of France to rebuilding and restoring the Cathedral.

“So I say this very solemnly to you tonight, we will rebuild this cathedral all together – and it is undoubtedly part of the French destiny …. we will rebuild Notre-Dame.”

Thankfully, in the cold light of day it appeared that despite great damage, the structure was basically sound and donations large and small were coming in from across France and indeed the world for its repair.

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But what is it that drives the human spirit to want to commit itself to such projects? For even in our own country, we have historically seen the rebuilding of Coventry and York Cathedrals damaged by fire, as well as Windsor Castle. It seems for all sorts of reasons we have an innate, inbuilt desire to rebuild, capture and preserve these majestic and ‘glorious’ buildings because they represent the triumph of victory over adversity and they speak to our heart and soul – and so we naturally wish the French every success in their efforts to overcome the disaster that has befallen them. There is of course a parallel to be found in the Christian faith, for just as President Macron said, ‘we will rebuild this cathedral all together, the Christian will be aware that this is precisely the task given to every believer – to help collectively and together to build a Kingdom, a temple, a church, not with actual bricks and stones (because these are transitory and prone to damage and decay) but with ourselves as human ‘living stones’ (1 Peter 2.5), joyfully working together in hope and celebrating the victory that Christ has won over sin by his death upon the cross. For the Christian appreciates that it is what is built in Christ’s name for the common good which is the most successful, eternally praiseworthy and enduring.


In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.
Ephesians 2.21


 

The Nations Morals Are Like Its Teeth …

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THE NATIONS MORALS ARE LIKE ITS TEETH, THE MORE DECAYED THEY ARE THE MORE IT HURTS TO TOUCH THEM” – George Bernard Shaw

At the start of the year many of us made New Year’s resolutions and will do our best to keep them as the year progresses (lose weight; give up smoking; pass a driving test or embark on a new career etc, etc). Sometimes our thoughts are more reflective as we consider our place in the world and the lives of those around us, often culminating is a silent prayer for the world to be more peaceful, kinder and charitable than it was the year before. Sadly it doesn’t seem long before the very next calamity or personal tragedy pops up on our television screens or appears in our newspapers to dampen our New Year optimism. ‘What has the world come to?’ we say; ‘Doesn’t the world have any standards?’; ‘Things weren’t like this when we were young!’

What we are doing is lamenting the passing of standards or a moral code by which people commonly live; a moral backdrop, climate or culture which protects us from the negative excesses of society. And yet to speak about morals makes us feel uneasy. We don’t like it! We don’t like people interfering with the way that we live our lives or questioning our standards, or the way we behave – we just simply don’t like being preached at!

The problem is made all the worse because we don’t know or perhaps can’t agree on what standards are acceptable. This is because we have made relativity a virtue in its own right! There is no such thing as absolute right or wrong, just what is right or wrong for me. We are all like Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass” who said “When I use a word …. it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”. The problem with each person choosing their own set of values as if ‘no one else matters’ is, that ultimately they don’t – each person does their own thing and can’t be held responsible for going their ‘own way’ even if the effect is to hurt or grieve another.

You don’t have to be necessarily rigid or religious to appreciate the need for a common set of values, and yet as a Christian minister I can’t think of any better guide to live by than those found in Scripture, based upon the message of a loving creator who nurtured the understanding that each person ‘made in his image’ was therefore special. So special that through the life, death and ministry of Jesus, God demonstrated his love for the world and encouraged his followers to do the same. Perhaps the answer to the world’s moral malaise (at least in our own small corner) lies not just in what we do but in what we believe. It always, always starts with us.


“ Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Mark 12.30-31

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


 

Who Says Politics And Religion Don’t Mix?

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The Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent speech to the TUC (Trade Unions Congress) to mark their 150th anniversary was well received by many who saw it as a wonderful example of the Church ‘speaking truth to power’ and standing up for the marginalised and the oppressed – and particularly workers’ rights. It was also heavily criticised by the Tories as being party political and not the sort of behaviour expected from an Archbishop. Indeed, Phillip Davies MP said “Mr Welby should quit his position as the head of the church and join the Labour Party properly if he wishes to comment on issues of government”, suggesting that the Archbishop “ought to consider removing his dog collar and replacing it with a Labour Party rosette”.

It always amazes me the number of times that we hear people (usually politicians) trot out the old adage that ‘Politics and Religion shouldn’t mix’ as if they have absolutely nothing to do with each other, and of course in reality this statement couldn’t be further from the truth. People of all descriptions have every right to challenge the authorities on political matters whenever necessary and Christians are no different. It’s just that their particular understanding of the world is inevitably coloured by their religious faith and perspective – a perspective which sees all people as equally important ‘made in the image of God’ and loved by him. Although nobody would suggest that Christians have a monopoly on moral goodness or social fairness, matters of mutual love and respect, service and justice are biblical themes repeatedly seen in the lives of the prophets, Jesus and the apostles as they sought to transform a broken and sinful world into ‘the Kingdom of God’. It was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who once exclaimed that “I don’t know what Bible people are referring to when they say that politics and religion shouldn’t mix”, because the Bible is full of politics.

The simple fact is that Christians are not motivated to be a thorn in the side of any one political party, but all political parties if their programmes and policies undermine and speak in the face of Christian values and principles, and in truth this is what being a prophet is all about. It’s about bravely speaking God’s truth into the world wherever necessary without fear or favour, appropriately challenging and encouraging it in due portion. Indeed, the Apostle Paul always felt that his task was to preach on ‘the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20.27) and he wouldn’t allow any ‘political’ party or those in authority to prevent him from doing so, for usually the people who make the loudest protest about the mixing of religion and politics are those who fundamentally misunderstand the nature of Christian witness and would rather avoid the glare of its inspection.


And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6.8


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