I bought and wore a bow tie today.
I like to think it made me look like this.
I fear it made me look like this.
The Revd Poobalan has been on my mind a lot lately.
Perhaps you read about him. He’s a minister based in Aberdeen who, one cold snowy morning, saw a group of Muslims queueing to get into their mosque for prayer. His church building was empty at the time and so he invited them in to conduct their worship in the Episcopalian church.
So, for a little while now, I’ve been thinking about what I would do in his position. I’m sure I would want to offer them a warm place to wait but would I, could I invite them to pray to their god?
Well, with a little investigation this story is not quite what it seems. It transpires that this was not a chance incident. There is plenty of ecumenical activity between these two groups and it seems Revd Poobalan is very keen to preach a universalist sort of message encouraging people to believe that all roads lead to heaven, all blind men are washing one elephant and so on and so forth. Change the radio station, turn the page in the newspaper, there’s nothing to see here.
But before we move on perhaps we can learn a couple of things from Revd Poobalan.
First, let’s applaud the man who sees people standing outside in the cold and welcomes them in. In Aberdeen that is probably a common site, but nonetheless he looked, saw a need, and offered help. It would be very uncharitable to criticise him for that.
Second, lets applaud his vision. Revd Poobalan comes from India and has seen religions coexist in the same communities. His vision is to see the coexistence of people in his new home as well. I am not a person who believes all religions are equal. I believe that Jesus Christ is unique in being the Son of God and it is only through relationship with him that we can know the one true living God.
But we should remember that those who do not know Jesus have, by and large not rejected him. They are in darkness having never seen or heard anything about Him. How can we write them off as those who have rejected the saviour? In fact what they may well have done is reject Jesus representatives. In the case of Muslims particularly, Christianity is sometimes synonymous with a history of violence and Western politics. For Christians with a heart for mission, one of the few tools we have at our disposal to repudiate that belief is kindness. Kindness disarms the most cynical and hard hearted person and Revd Poobalan exhibited it in abundance.
Now I may be wrong on this and I imagine this article may generate a bit of heat. Maybe you don’t agree with me and that’s fine, I’m not 100% I agree with myself either.
But, in the end what happened in Aberdeen was that a man saw other men and women and offered them warmth and shelter and a place to practice what was important to them. You might argue that he is not a Christian, given that he is so universal in his view of salvation, but if he is not, it only makes his actions all the more challenging.
Because Jesus command to us is to love the enemy, clothe the naked and feed the hungry. Glasses of water are to be given to the thirsty and coats are to be taken off and passed to those in need. Indeed when an enemy strikes us we are to turn a cheek to them rather than clench a fist.
Finally let’s pray that we might be given tough decisions like this to make. Because if we want to see men and women from every creed and culture coming to know their Creator and his Son we are going to have to get among them, love them and serve them. And that will inevitably lead to mistakes and compromises.
I believe God can cope with that. Can you?
If you follow me on Twitter (@punditsfolly) or Facebook you will know that recently I was part of a Côr Cymraeg that won first prize in a local Eisteddfod.
If you’ve sung in a choir or perhaps a Gymanfa Ganu you will know it is a strange sensation learning to sing in a group. In a congregation there is freedom to do whatever you like as long as you’re not too self conscious but learning to sing a particular part is more difficult especially if you’re doing it with people you know. Our choir was made up of people from Ty Tawe where I’ve been learning Welsh for the past year. The people I was singing with knew me and so I felt the pressure of singing well and not accidentally deviating from the music.
To help me learn the part (it was the tenor line of Calon Lân) I recorded someone else singing it correctly and then sang along when I listened back. I still needed the confidence to sing in front of my peers though. That meant meeting every week for practice. Even then I was not truly confident. The temptation was to mime or sing quietly or maybe mimic the voice I had learnt from. But none of those would have brought a successful outcome. I needed to find my pitch and my range.
I needed to find my voice.
That process of learning the correct part, developing the confidence to sing in front of people and then belting it out reminds me of preaching.
Most men called to ministry want to learn the basics of the faith. They realise that on a soapbox in a public square they can say anything they like, but in a church, having received the trust of a congregation and believing they are called by God, they are restricted to preaching the Truth of God. It is just basic integrity.
To do that effectively a man will enrol on a training scheme or in a theological college and sit under the teaching of men he trusts. While there he will also practice his preaching. He will preach in front of his peers (and endure the often humbling experience of a peer review) and he will preach outside college in local churches to gain the confidence he needs to speak in public.
All of this is good. However there is one more thing to find. It is something we have perhaps failed to encourage in churches and in theological training. The minister needs to find his voice.
Let me give you an example to show what I mean. I was listening recently to a young preacher. I had heard him when he was a young apprentice and now a couple of years on I listened again. The difference was imperceptible at first but then came a moment when he wanted to emphasise something vital. To do it he used the word “Boom!”
Boom is used to describe a profound action done at a critical moment.
Boom is this centuries version of “When the rubber hits the road”
Boom is a young persons word.
And here “Boom” illustrated the the young minister had found his voice.
I don’t suppose he realised. He was taken up with the text and the message and the experience of preaching. And that is exactly the point. Where once he, inevitably and probably unwittingly, mimiced those ministers and teachers he admired, now he was confident not only in himself but more importantly in his message, to speak freely. He had found his voice.
If you’re a minister or a lay preacher there are lots of constraints on you. Time is one. People expect a sermon to fit a particular time and maybe you stretch the material to fill the time. Methods are another. Some people want themes others expect text by text analysis. Then there are those words of advice you received when you started out. Words given to mould you to a certain style which now feel like a strait jacket upon you. Ultimately people want you to have a voice with which they are familiar.
But look in the Bible and you will see that God’s prophets were all different. One was not cloned from another nor did they mimic what had gone before. They all needed to find their own voice if they were going to be authentic and therefore faithful. You need to be the same.
And to you who ‘merely’ attend church on a Sunday. May I respectfully ask you give your preachers space to experiment and try new things. If a sermon is shorter than normal use the extra time to think over what was said rather than comment on what wasn’t. Different language, new approach, fresh theme? Give him room to attempt something different, it may be he’s trying to find his voice.
And you know what you’ll say when he finds it? “Boom!”
Blotchy and uncomfortable to hold for long periods of time this had a brittle plastic body and a cap so sharp it could fill in adequately for an offensive weapon. For some reason, teachers seemed to have unlimited supplies of these.
True, the top of the pen was delightfully nibbly, and you could absent-mindedly mould the cap around the shaft but even these pleasures were ultimately unsatisfactory.
All in all this is one of the worst pens ever produced. Shameful.
Christmas is almost certainly the best opportunity your church has to present the Good News about Jesus to your community each year. Most of us can organise a Carol Service but with a bit of forward planning we can make a good Christmas Celebration great. Below is the Treasury Guide to Celebrating Christmas in style.
REMEMBER THAT ‘TRADITIONAL’ IS NOT A DIRTY WORD AT CHRISTMAS
For eleven months of the year we can feel that our older buildings hamper us because they are costly to run, difficult to use for more than one purpose and intimidating to those outside church circles. Come December however, these building can become a big plus. If Christmas cards and shop fronts tell us anything it’s that lots of people are after a Dickensian Christmas and heading to the local church is still part of that tradition. So why pull out all the stops and hold a full scale 9 Lessons & Carols in your church? Buy some decent candles, a posh coffee and some mince pies and you’ll be giving people what they want while taking the opportunity to share with people what they need most this Christmas.
Top Tip You can download the official order of service of the annual Carols from Kings service from the Kings College website. Pick out some of the more unusual poems and songs to make your service a bit more unique.
USE THE LIGHT OF A PROJECTOR TO PROJECT THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD
As people have become more confident with the internet, they have found creative ways to share the Good News with the global community. Christmas is a particularly good time.
Two years ago for example, a choir in America was commissioned to gather in a shopping mall incognito and then give an impromptu performance of the Hallelujah chorus. A great place to browse for all kinds of Christmas media including videos, keynote slides and other paraphernalia is Worship Media. Pay particular attention to anything by Igniter Media who make incredibly well produced, often humorous material. The technology is available in presbyteries now to project all kinds of media in your service so with some forward planning you can use an extra tool to present the Good News of Christmas to your community. One problem you might find is finding material that is British and more specifically, Welsh. However, this year Dai Woolrdige of Going Public Theatre Company, has produced The Christmas Cord. Filmed in a business park somewhere in South Wales it’s a monologue about the reason for Jesus coming into the world. It’s well worth a look.
Top Tip Downloading resources, setting up projectors takes time so give yourself time to get everything ready. You can get help from Mari Ffleur in Cardiff office of course, but asking a grandchild or young person in church will encourage them to feel useful and guarantee that they’ll be in your Christmas service too! Remember Matthew 10:16? Be as crafty as snakes, folks!
DELIVER CHRISTMAS PRESENCE THROUGH CHRISTMAS PRESENTS
One of the complaints we make at Christmas is that the season has become too expensive and that the giving of gifts has become too extravagant. That may well be true but here again we can turn this desire to make Christmas all about the presents to our advantage. 10 of Those, a book company in Northern Ireland, specialises in selling Christian books as cheaply as possible. You can buy single volumes but, as it’s name suggests, if you buy in bulk you’ll receive a further discount (and as an extra incentive, a little freebie often turns up in the delivery too!). Right now the website has a special Christmas section with tracts from 9p a copy, easily cheap enough to give away to everyone who attends over Christmas. However, with unchurched friends and family almost certainly present why not push the boat out and get something attractive for your guests as a present for attending?
Top Tip Things God Wants Us To Know is a short, well presented account ideal to give away to visitors. 10 of those currently offer 1 copy for £3.50 or 10 copies for £2.50.
TOP CHRISTMAS RESOURCES
Worship House Media worshiphousemedia.com
Igniter Media ignitermedia.com
The Christmas Cord http://vimeo.com/53285598
Kings College, Cambridge www.kings.cam.ac.uk/events/chapel-services/nine-lessons.html#booklets
10 of Those 10ofthose.com/category/1009/Christmas-Resources
Remember in school when you’d run your finger underneath a desk and suddenly recoil as you touched someone else’s gum?
Doesn’t seem to happen now. Thankfully.
[SPOILER ALERT: If you have any intention of watching Argo you might want to do so before reading any further]
One of the traditions of Christmas has to be the re-watching of classic Christmas movies. We all have our favourite. Maybe it’s a particular version of A Christmas Carol or Miracle on 34th Street or perhaps a more modern film like Nativity or that one where a digital Tom Hanks drives a train to the North Pole.
I heard recently of someone including in his classic Christmas movie list, the action thriller Die Hard, a film about terrorists taking over a skyscraper. OK it’s set on Christmas Eve, but aside from that it’s not what I would call classic Christmas fare.
So what about the new film Argo? Aside from the fact that it’s on general release in the run up to Christmas there doesn’t seem much reason to class this a Christmas movie. There’s no snow or carols and although the star does have a beard it’s not the bushy white Santa style we expect to see at this time of year.
But if Argo is not a Christmas movie it certainly has a Christmas message.
Set in the opening days of the Iranian Revolution it tells the story of the Siege at the American Embassy, an escape by six diplomats, and the attempt by exfiltration expert, Tony Mendez (on behalf of the the American Government) to rescue them before the Iranian Government could find and execute them.
The group required cover stories for why half a dozen people with North American accents might need to fly out of Tehran at the same time as six North Americans have disappeared in the city. None of the usual suggestions was viable so Mendez suggested a fantastical cover story that (in the tradition of Hollywood blockbusters) “is so crazy it might just work”
The film goes on to describe the incredibly elaborate plot required to hoodwink Iranian immigration officials. Hollywood parties and newspaper reports were staged and published, a film script had to be optioned and film stills had to be created in order to make everything seem plausible. All before Tony Mendez could think of leaving America and fly into a city where his life would be in danger. The tension in the second half of the film is ramped up as Ben Affleck’s character tries to ensure everything goes to plan.
In many ways this is an accurate description of build up to the Nativity. In telling the Christmas story we often emphasise the silence of the event and talk about the unexpectedness of it. We would be mistaken however, to suggest that the incarnation was a spur of the moment event. Jesus rescue mission took centuries of planning and preparation in order that God’s plan work perfectly.
Likewise, when we emphasise in our carols the peacefulness and stillness of the event we run the risk of forgetting that every moment Jesus spent in enemy territory was (from a human point of view) a moment of danger for Jesus. It was not only in the last week of his life that Satan was working to bring about his execution; from the moment Herod heard of his birth, Jesus was vulnerable.
In fact, it’s worth musing on the mystery of God’s plan of salvation that meant Satan was so clueless.
In Argo, the Iranain authorities could be forgiven for having the wool drawn over their eyes. They looked at the evidence and responded to what they saw. How could they know a secret plan was afoot? By contrast, Satan heard all the prophecies and saw the plan of God under construction in the people of Israel. Surely he knew Gods plans as they were worked out by Jesus? And yet, just as the White Witch in Narnia did not know of the ‘deeper magic’, so Satan was confounded by Jesus even as he celebrated his ‘victory’ at Calvary.
So although Argo won’t sit next to It’s a Wonderful Life on top of the Christmas movie list perhaps this film, set in a hot Middle Eastern state about a group of helpless hostages rescued by a bearded man with a plan, may just feature in next years list of great Christmas stories.
When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone, is a book by political pollster, Philip Gould who was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus in 2008 and died two years later aged 61. It was completed by his family and published posthumously.
From a merely human point of view it is very moving but it is also of great interest to those of us who are Christians, who look to help and comfort people in suffering and distress.
There is plenty that could be said about this book but I draw your attention two points.
First concerns the issue of pain. Gould describes his experience of cancer treatment in a very straightforward way. Having money and a degree of influence he has opportunity to choose the approach and place of his treatment; options that perhaps others wouldn’t have, yet this does not make things more straightforward. There are myriad choices to be made meaning, ultimately, he has to make a decision in the dark. (Time and second opinions will come to prove he probably made the wrong choice, both medically and politically).
As he approaches various treatments he describes the fear that accompanies him. Fear of the unknown is in a way more debilitating than the experience itself. Exhaustion does not begin with treatment but often in the period beforehand when sleep, if it comes at all, is interrupted by hours of restlessness and anxiety.
To say that the fear before treatment is worse is not to say that the treatment itself is painless. Cancer treatment is dreadful and the toll it takes is clear from the photograph on the cover as well as the writing within.
From a pastoral point of view all of this is very humbling. For those of us who have not suffered with ill health it’s difficult to truly empathise with somebody who has gone through a prolonged experience like this. Travelling with Gould and his family through two years of treatment is a reminder of the need to be more patient with and more prayerful for those attempting to overcome serious illness. Pastoral care towards sick and dying people must include a genuine concern for physical suffering.
Having said that, the tragedy of Philip Gould’s death is ultimately the tragedy of Death.
Eventually Gould is told his cancer is terminal. Apparently Philip Larkin, who suffered the same condition drank himself to death at this point. Not so Gould. He resolves to make something profound of his final days. He talks about the peace that comes with knowing the date and time of a persons end and determines to make the most of his situation.
Tragically neither of those things are achieved by Gould. Peace is impossible because as a longtime workaholic and political obsessive he cannot stop working. He sees his final weeks as an opportunity to enjoy those things around him which are of genuine importance, namely his wife and children. Yet as we read we realise that in this final stage of his life he is racing to finish the very book we hold in our hands. For perhaps laudable reasons he wants to use the book to help others in his situation but that work comes at the cost of time with his family and ultimately hastens his death. We read of him taking a final holiday with his wife. He wants to rest, she wants to enjoy him, and yet, though he feels guilty for it, he is compelled to write. It is a grim irony; even as he talks nobly of surrendering in The Death Zone he is frantically trying to live.
Finally, his daughter recounts how one day from his hospital bed, he told her of all he had planned for the last three days of his life. She has to explain to him that he has only two days left and the look in his eye and change in his expression show that this is a man not yet ready to die.
It is hard to pass comment on all of this without sounding cruel but Gould’s rationalising of death (“helped” one should add by various famous friends) is rebuked by his own testimony. Death is unnatural and utterly tragic. It matters not whether you accept the inevitable or rage against the dying of the light, time runs out and death takes a person away leaving friends and family to grieve.
In our culture coping with death has become very confused. We live in a violent culture that sees images of fictional death so often, the real thing is hard to accept. We also have access to healthcare and welfare that protects us from experiences of death that our ancestors would have been familiar with.
Couple this with increasing secularism and decreasing Bible knowledge and all of this means that when people have experience of bereavement or face terminal illness they do not know how to cope.
This book is a reminder to Christians of the need to speak frankly with people about death and Jesus triumph over it, the reality of eternity and the eternal hope we can have in it. It may seem morbid but it is only with this comfort that we can truly live in the Death Zone.
If you didn’t know his name before you do now. Andrew Mitchell is the man who brought the word pleb back from 1970’s sitcoms.
He’s the government’s Chief Whip and he also owns a bicycle. On their own these two elements are harmless but last month they were brought together outside the gates of Westminster and caused sparks to fly in an incident which the Press inevitably named Gategate.
The story put him in an embarrassing position, one from which he may yet not recover. But it also put his party supporters in a bit of a fix too.
Conservative’s have generally been sympathetic with Andrew Mitchell. They talk of an officious policeman demanding Mr Mitchell reroute through a side gate because “it was more than his job was worth” to let him cycle among the cars.
It’s a pretty reasonable position to take except that last year those same Conservatives condemned Justice Bean when he ruled in the Court of Appeal that swearing at a policeman could not be considered grounds for arrest. Then, a stand needed to be taken, now it’s a storm in a teacup.
Given the nature of politics, Labour activists enjoyed this political pickle but a bit of investigation demonstrates a degree of hypocrisy here too. After all Gategate only came to light after The Sun newspaper found out what Andrew Mitchell had said. Presuming that Andrew Mitchell didn’t inform The Sun, the assumption is that the police passed on the information to the newspaper which, if true, is exactly the sort of cosy relationship Labour has criticised in the past and which is currently being investigated by the Leveson Inquiry.
The Sun newspaper of course currently gives its support to the Conservative’s having previously supported New Labour in government. In a different Summer story, they condemned publication of embarrassing holiday photos of a royal in September, having previously defended the right to print embarrassing photos of a royal in August.
Of course it’s no great revelation to point out that politics is hypocritical and that the media suffers from daily bouts of amnesia. The result is an electorate weary of politicians and wary of reporters. Large numbers of the electorate refuse to vote in anything but a General Election and then only out of a sense of duty.
Christian’s have sometimes taken this situation as a signal to withdraw from political engagement but, as has been said here before, ignorance of politics is not really a biblical position. We learn from Jeremiah 29 that while we are alive, we will dwell in what he calls, the City. And, if we are to work, marry and raise our children in the City then we must contribute to the work and well being of the City.
The New Testament only confirms this. Jesus demands engagement in national life, Paul encourages us to pray for our leaders and Peter compels we live in quiet obedience to the rules and rulers of the City.
Having said that, it seems battle lines are being drawn in the City. Politicians and the Media have long drawn traditional lines demarcating Left and Right and now we must also be aware of the cultural and ethical lines being drawn in the sand by a vocal and easily angered social media. It is more important than ever that we choose our battles carefully.
If we are committed Christians we will hear certain sounds coming from the different camps that chime with out faith. Commitment to a particular morality or social improvement will find us nodding in agreement and some individuals, parties or papers will appear to be closer to our thinking than others. In those moments we are free to ally with particular popular movements on specific issues.
But there must be an exit strategy. Because we are not Labour or Conservative, Guardian or Mail, we are Christians living in the City. More than that we are representatives of another Kingdom and ambassadors for Christ. We offer support on issues and play our part in society but we must never ally so closely to another party that we find ourselves sullying Christ’s reputation defending the indefensible.
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