July 2017

TRUE HOPE. What do you hope for? Success? Health, wealth and happiness? To win the lottery? That Burnley will win the premiership? To live long and prosper?

The trouble with hope is that it can let us down. We all know that it wouldn’t be hope if it were a dead certainty. But having our hopes dashed still leaves us feeling gutted.
However it’s fair to say, isn’t it, that in this world we will all have our hopes dashed at some point? No one wins forever. Teams that win the premiership one season can finish way down the table the very next year. Political leader nearly always end up resigning in defeat.

But, unfortunately, we too often believe them when people tell us that “you can be whoever you want to be”, and “you can do whatever they want to do”. Those are lovely sentiments, but in reality, in this world, there are limitations that we can’t overcome: limits to our abilities, limits to our relationships, limits to our careers, and so on. There is a reality that we need to learn to live with. That reality is that we will not do, or get, everything we want. And trying to go beyond our limits can leave us hurt, despondent and angry.

So someone once wrote that: “… godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” And isn’t that true! Having enough and being content with it is a happy way to live. But having lots of stuff, and never feeling it’s enough, can be almost as miserable as having very little!

“Contentment” is indeed great gain.. but what about “godliness”?!

Well, we all know that “we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it”! We all have to go, and the only thing we can do when we are leaving this life is to give ourselves to God and trust Him for the next life. But we can do something to prepare for that. We can put some effort into the things that are of ultimate value; the way we live our lives. Living life well is what really makes us content. So the previous author goes on to say: “… pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.”

It’s not the things that have that are ultimately important, it’s the quality of our lives: what we value and how we live.

In the 1990s I met an English lady in Belgium who had married a Belgian Count just before the war. She had brought up her children on his estate near Liege, unable to leave it during the German occupation. Then she had brought up her grandchildren when her daughter died young. And now, in her 80s, she was about to go to Northern Ireland to join a community praying for peace. Her life had not been easy, or without heartbreak, but through it she had chosen to grow the eternal qualities of her life, she had come close to God, and now she was full of joy and longing that other people should know the fulfillment she had found – “that passes all understanding”.

She had done what that author (above) recommended; to “take hold of the eternal life to which you were called …”. May we all do that too! As Jesus Himself said the kingdom of heaven is near us – in our hearts & in our lives – if we will trust and follow Him.

RC Protestant and CofE Bishops discuss visible union in Martin Luthers pre-Reformation Monastry

This is a photograph of a small, quite revolution…  Sitting in the Monastery in Erfurt, Germany, where Martin Luther lived and studied as a Monk before he started the Reformation, are three Bishops – from left to right: a Protestant, a Roman Catholic, the discussion moderator, and an Anglican.  Behnd them the stained-glass windows that Luther would have looked at many times during the years he was cloistered here.

This year is the 500th anniversary of when the learned monk started the Reformation by nailing his 95 Theses to the castle church door in Wittenberg.  And to mark the occassion, a meeting was held in the Augustinian Monastery where Luther lived and studied the Scriptures.  A meeting between a Protestant and a Roman Catholic Bishop, with an Anglican Bishop from this diocese, to talk not what separates their churches but what unites them.

Both admitted that they didn’t agree on sme things, but they recognised that they were united by the same Lord Jesus Christ, same faith and same baptism;  and both were ready to admit they could be wrong; the Roman Catholic Bishop confessed for instance that they had  learned from Martin Luther’s teaching about salvation through God’s Grace alone.

MORE COMMENTARY LATER…

May 2017

TRUE FAITH. What do you believe in? Keeping healthy? Your wife or husband, or old friends? Good food? A good brisk walk every day with the dog? Two holidays a year? Touching wood for good luck? BREXIT? Burnley FC?

Believing in something, or someone, means a lot more than just “I think they exist”.  And, actually, proving something exists can be fiendishly difficult. If, like me, you are not young you might remember arm-chair philosophers arguing about whether we can be sure that anything really exists: “How can you be sure that what you are seeing or hearing is really there – you might be imagining the whole thing”!? Does anything really exist – how can you be sure?”

It’s actually easier to believe in someone or something than to prove objectively that they exist!  For example, if your spouse or friend keeps turning up at home every day, behaves in loving and caring ways, and acts as if they trust you, you know that you can believe in them. But you might still have difficulty proving to the arm-chair philosopher that they really exist!

And it’s the same with the existence of God. We can argue forever about Jesus’ body disappearing, despite an armed guard on the tomb. And about the religious and civil authorities inability to find the body (which would have stopped Christianity ever getting started). But the best evidence is that that people who say they saw Jesus alive again believed in Him – and trusted Him with their lives.  Those people made personal sacrifices, choosing to live differently because they wanted to be His followers. Many of them were prepared to leave home and travel round the world telling people about Jesus. Some were even persecuted and chose to die rather than give up.

And it’s the same for us, today, 2000 years later. There is plenty of evidence to support believing that Jesus existed but, in the end, we believe in Him because we have found that He still exists.. We have met Him spiritually: in answered prayer, or in worship, or through the ways He has helped us in life. That’s how we know we can believe in Him. He is with us, as we follow His Ways through the ups and downs of life.

So the way to come to believe in Jesus isn’t to forever go through the facts and arguments (though the facts are important!). The way to come to believe in Him is to find out what He was like, what He did, and what He taught… and to respond.  Why not re-read the Gospels in the Bible? They were written “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name”. Then ask Him to come into your life more and more… and ask for His help to live life His way – the way of love, peace and joy.

April 2017

FAKE LOVE: When Revd Mrs NCP and I were first living in Brussels we used to often eat out at lovely Brasserie called “Le Jardin de Nicolas”.   It’s still there, near Place Montgomery (named after Field Marshall Montgomery) on the Avenue de Tervueren – the route into Brussels that the Anglo-Belgian Forces took to liberate the city on 4th September 1944.

One day we found ourselves sitting on an outside table in the summer warmth. On the next table were two obviously wealthy, well-dressed, young men who, it seems, were studying in Brussels.  They were talking rather loudly and excitedly about some of the female students they had recently met in Brussels.  One said he found one of them really, really attractive.  Theother agreed she was a real looker, but he knew her and knew that “she is looking for commitment” not just sex. “Oh” said the first, “I can given her commitment… for about a week… that should be enough…”

“Love” is a much abused word in English.  It’s been hijacked to cover a multitude of sins.  Not least to justify emotionally manipulating other people for one’s own gratification!  The trouble is, of course, that English has only one word, “love”, for a whole range of emotions and actions.  And that makes it too easy to justify, in our minds, misusing other people.

But what is True Love?   If it isn’t the emotional high we find in romantic books and films, what is it?  Why does that love turn sour so often?  And sometimes turn out to have just been “fake love”?  It’s quite a surprise, I think, to many people nowadays when they finally discover that True Love is a commitment toaction, not just an emotion. That sort of love is of a very different kind to romantic feelings.  But it is the sort of love that is absolutely necessary to make our relationships work, and to protect them in this less than ideal world.

So St Paul famously describes True Love like this: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.” (1 Cor 13:4-8a)*  That is the True Love that God has for us.  As we will remember on Good Friday, it drove Jesus to die on the Cross to redeem us for Himself: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:3)  And it is that True Love that we need for our spouse, our family, our friends and neighbours, and for ourselves, if we want to make this world a little bit more like heaven… and a lot less like hell!

* Both Bible quotations are from the New International Version, UK Edition.

March 2017

THE REVEREND MRS NCP AND I have lived in cities and towns in various parts of the UK and abroad, and we always tried to get to know the people living around us.  But that is increasingly hard in the modern world!  What if they always use the car and drive in and out of their driveway?  What if everyone living on the street already has friends elsewhere in the city?  What if crime is high so everyone goes straight home and locks the door?

What’s more, many people are wealthy enough to be able to live independently. We don’t need to ask each other for help and favours anymore.  So you might be excused for wondering whether Jesus’s teaching – to love your neighbour as you love yourself is as relevant today as it was when people were mostly poor and needed each other much more?

But, surprisingly perhaps, our situation is not so different to the situation when Jesus gave that command.  There were different people groups living in the same country, there were rich and poor, there was crime and violence, and people living near you might speak Aramaic, or Greek, or Latin! So even back then, people asked Jesus Who is my Neighbour?  And His reply then applies today too: Everyone we come across is our Neighbour – people like us, and people who are not like us: right or wrong, good or bad!

In fact, Jesus’ challenge was never to work out who our neighbour is.  His challenge was and is to love Everyone we come across!  Not the feeling of love, but the attitude: being patient, kind and caring.  Respecting people – even when they are wrong.  Wanting the best for them, whether or not they deserve it!  Never giving up on people.  And caring about their successes, and tragedies.

Committing to loving all our “neighbours” as we love ourselves, at an appropriate level of intimacy, is our contribution to making everyone’s lives and relationships work better in 21st century Britain.

“Lord Jesus, help me, help us all, to love and care more – like we see You did here on earth!”

February 2017

THE STORY GOES that a preacher was on a car ferry. As it set off he was changing channels on the car radio so he didn’t feel or notice the ferry leaving port. When he did look outside the waves made him feel queasy and he couldn’t see the shore so he couldn’t tell where they were or which way they were going. Looking at the boat didn’t tell him anything and the waves and swirling of the sea gave him no fixed point of reference. He would only know if they were moving, and which way, if he could see the land. He needed a fixed point. Something beyond him, his feelings and his circumstances.

But what if he couldn’t be sure he was seeing land? Then he would be lost; knowing only his circumstances, and how they made him feel, but with no idea where he really was or where he was going!

Unfortunately that is the position that many people find themselves in nowadays. Seeing what is going on around them, and knowing how they feel about it, but not being certain of any fixed points beyond that. In fact our culture positively encourages us to not trust fixed points. It’s almost seen as bad to search for absolute truth. We are told we can only know how we perceive things and that it is arrogant, maybe even harmful, to say that anything is true – it is just true for you.

This has left us like that ferry passenger floating in a “post-truth” sea. Post-truth is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “… circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Our perceptions are paramount. Facts can be discounted if they get in the way of a what we want to be true; truth that offends our personal preferences is wrong; we protect ourselves and each other from the truth; anything against our self-perceptions is unloving.
It sounds so appealing. But it is a trap. If we were perfect people in a perfect world it might work. Bu,t as less-than-perfect people we perceive things wrongly, we self-justify, and we blame-shift. And, in this less-than-perfect world, things that make us feel good can actually be harming us.

But how are we to know, until it’s too late, if we won’t look for truth beyond ourselves?

We need to know the truth about ourselves, and we need to know the truth about our world, if we are to have a chance to live good lives. Even if the truth makes us feel bad! So Jesus himself told his first followers that “… you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

We cannot be truly free until we know the Truth.  The truth about ourselves and about our world. The Truth about real people who aren’t angels, in a real world that isn’t heaven. Real people who sometimes want, say, or do bad things – in a real world where we can’t always have, do or be whatever we want. Real people that Jesus loves and had to die for, in a real world that rejects the Truth and killed Him.

The Truth is not always nice. But we are always loved. Loved by a Love stronger than that ultimate Truth that none of us can escape. His Love that is waiting set us Truly free.

January 2017

CHRISTMAS IS OVER FOR ANOTHER YEAR, but God hasn’t finished with us!

Each year we remember the Son of God – born in a stable, to a poor family, in a country occupied by an oppressive Empire. And we wonder at the circumstances that God chose to come in to this world, and the miraculous things that happened: wise men following a star; shepherds seeing angels; and a virgin giving birth to a son who is God in human form. But do we remember what John the Baptist says about what Jesus came to do: “I baptise you with water for repentance. But … He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

I know a bit about fire.  I used to work in the process industries. If you’ve ever seen a blast furnace making steel, you’ll know just how incredibly hot it is, over 2000*C. At that temperature impurities can’t survive – those that can gasify burst out of the molten iron as superheated gas, those that are solid float (at slower rates) to the surface to be skimmed off as slag, and those undesirable elements that are dissolved in the iron are removed by processes that make them separate out.  And so the steel is purified and additives mixed into the steel to make it useful for different purposes.

“He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” In the Bible fire often stand for God’s Holy presence that judges sin and evil.  So when Jesus baptises people with the Holy Spirit, there is fire – the presence of God drives impurities out from our hearts.  And, like purified steel, He also adds “additives”: He gives us gifts and callings to make us a blessing to each other and to this world.

So, at the start of the New Year, having just celebrated Jesus coming to earth at Christmas, we now need Jesus to send the Holy Spirit and fire.  We need Him to cleanse and transform us; and we need the gifts and callings He gives each one of us.  Then we will be “built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”  And we will be an even greater blessing to each other and to everyone in our villages.