Grill a Vicar

Last month I asked for questions that readers might have about life, the universe and everything and below are some answers to the questions I’ve received and others that many of us have. I hope you will find them helpful.. or at least thought provoking! If anything below touches a raw nerve, or provokes you to want to talk in more depth, please feel free to contact me.

Right, wrong and meaning. Before tackling such questions, it is important to think about why we ask questions about right, wrong and meaning. As human beings we don’t just accept the way things are in the world around us, and we don’t just trust everyone we meet, or believe everything we are told. We want to understand. Or at least we should!

So, here’s the key conundrum: why do we feel there is something wrong with the way things are in this world? It has always been like this! There have always been disasters, dangers, sickness, wars and death. So why do we feel there is something wrong with them? And why do we feel it’s wrong that we can’t trust everyone we meet? Why do we feel it’s wrong that we can’t believe everything we are told? Since human life began it has always been the case that people cheat, and steal, and deceive, and abuse other people.

The feeling that something is wrong, although it’s always been like that, is one of the conundrums of human life. How do we know how the world should be, when in reality it has never been like that? How do we know how people should be – when in reality everyone has not lived up to it? The reality is that our world has always been dangerous, and human beings have always acted badly. But we don’t just accept it – we know that things shouldn’t be like this! So we want to build a better world: we want to care for the environment, we want justice and equality; we want peace; we want everyone to have homes that can stand up to earthquakes and storms; we want better hygiene and medicines for all; we want to build loving families and communities; and we want generous support people who are poor and homeless… (but do we want to pay for all that)?

That conundrum is the source of many people’s questions about Life, God and Everything, such as:

Why does God permit so much suffering? Because the only way to get rid of suffering would be to get rid of this world… and us! We couldn’t live in a perfect world, because we ourselves aren’t perfect (if we were in that world it would be imperfect)!

So what is God doing about all the suffering? God’s response wasn’t to try to make this world perfect and take away our free will, but to get personally involved in the mess, difficulties and suffering of this world! As we remember at Christmas, when Jesus came into this world He wasn’t born into a perfect world. He was born to a young working class couple, in a smelly stable, and laid in a manger. The local King tried to have him killed, so His family had to flee and eventually move back to a safer part of the country. His mother was widowed young. During the three years Jesus taught and ministered to the sick and needy, the civil and religious authorities treated Jesus with suspicion and hostility. And, of course, He was eventually persecuted, prosecuted, beaten and nailed to a cross.

Yet a few days later He was alive again. His followers spoke and ate with Him. And after He went back to heaven, His Spirit came to live in His followers’ hearts and lives. Heaven was in their hearts, and they were so inspired that they took His presence, and taught His Way, from country to country – despite being denounced, persecuted and punished. He was alive; death is not the end; we can be forgiven and accepted by God; God is with us! And He still wants to be involved in our lives – with us through the highs and lows of life on planet earth. This world isn’t heaven, and we aren’t angels, but His response is forgiveness, presence and help. He will be with us now, and after this life we will be with Him forever, if we will come to Him and follow Him.

Why do we need to be forgiven? Because to make us fit for that perfect world (aka heaven) we need to be made perfect. Our past has to be forgiven and forgotten, and we have to be changed.

Aren’t all religions the same really? Hardly. That was a rather naïve assertion that became popular in the 1960’s when most people knew very little about other religions. It’s not the same God behind every religion! After all, each religion has it’s own worldview, and different understandings of the human condition, of God (or gods) and of how we can live a good life at peace with God, with each other, with ourselves, and with the world we live in. I used to be involved in interfaith work in Manchester and it quickly became evident that we all wanted to respect each other, and to build up good relationships and mutual understanding, but it was also evident that it meant understanding and working with real differences which had serious implications (eg What can we eat together: anything? not pork? not beef? nothing?! Is converting to another religion a serious betrayal of your family? Should men and women talk together, or not?)

So what does God look like? The universe we are part of was created by God. He isn’t part of it, so we can’t possibly ‘see’ God physically. But we do know what God is like: loving, joyful, peaceable, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle and self-controlled. That is what Jesus was like, and that is what God wants us to become like too.

Hasn’t Science made Christianity irrelevant? No! They answer different problems. Science is about how life and the universe function, whereas Christianity is about the meaning of life and the universe. Some of the world’s top scientists are followers of Jesus. For instance Professor Sir Colin Humphreys, CBE, FREng, FRS (a Director of Research into semiconductors among other things, at Cambridge University), Professor R J Berry, FRSE (a geneticist), Professor D C Burke, CBE, HonLLD, DL (who worked on interferon, is an adviser to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology), and Professor J C Lennox PhD (Cantab) DPhil (Oxon) who is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, and a specialist in Bioethics.

Is following Jesus relevant in the 21st century? Yes, because His Way is the right way to live! When we live the wrong way we are actually contributing to the problems of this world and the problems of people around us. What’s more, as many of us have discovered, Jesus can actually help us to live life better. Life in this world will never be perfect (though my experience is that He has improved my life a lot)… but even in the horrible times of life on planet earth, God is with us in it.

What’s the point of going to church? Jesus-with-us is the key to Christian living. However, in this imperfect world we need each other for encouragement and support. Meeting other followers helps us to strengthen our trust in Jesus, and to keep up our commitment to living the right way. That is what church should be for; but sadly, like this world, and us, no church is perfect!

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December 2017

CHRISTMAS IS ALMOST HERE and despite the protestations of my more ecclesiologically-inclined colleagues, we will be putting up Christmas trees and starting Christmas celebrations from Sunday 3rd December.

Strictly speaking that is actually the first Sunday of Advent – when we start thinking about God coming to visit His people – both as a human baby 2000 years ago and, in the future, when He comes to judge the world (or, like so many generations before us, when we go to meet Him after this life is over). So there is am interesting mixture of themes in Church Services in the weeks running up to Christmas. On the one hand it is a joyful celebration of life – the new life of a new-born baby child who will bring blessing to everyone who will receive Him. On the other hand there is the reminder that we are responsible for how we live our lives; will we love God, and will we love our neighbour as we love ourselves?

Fortunately, as the life of Jesus shows, God is hoping to “catch us in” rather than “catch us out”. In other words, Jesus came to save us not to condemn us. He came to die, so that we could be forgiven when we do wrong and could have eternal life (in our hearts in this life, and completely in the next). That experience, almost like new life, is something that several people have had this year. It is an amazing thing to realise that God actually loves you, and wants you to be with Him – now and forever. So, although we should never forget the judgement theme of Advent – because our life choices are important, celebration is rightfully the overriding theme in the run up to Christmas.

And there will be a lot of celebrating going on again this year – including two performances of the traditional Village Nativity which as been performed by families from across the village since the 1950s. Full details below:

SUNDAY 3rd, 10.45: Family Advent Service (breakfast available from 10am) and the start of the village “Posada”- in church. Posada is a tour of the village by a lovely nativity set of the Holy Family in search of a place for Jesus to be born, finishing back at church for the Christingle Service at 4pm on Christmas Eve. Sign up in church to host the POSADA for a day and reflect on the eternal truths behind Christmas.
SUNDAY 3rd, 4.30pm: Village Lights switch-on with carol singing near the bridge. Followed by mulled wine and mince pies etc.
SATURDAY 9th, 4.30pm: The matinee performance of the Village Nativity at church.
SUNDAY 10th, 4.30pm: The Village Nativity Service – finale.
SUNDAY 17th, 10.45: A Kings College style “Service of Lessons and Carols” by candelight at St Andrew’s.
SUNDAY 17th, 7pm: Christmas Carol Service with Brass Band, at St Peter’s.
MONDAY 18th,, 2.30pm: Carol singing at the vilage nursing homes.
THURSDAY 21st, 1.30pm: School Christmas Service in church.
CHRISTMAS EVE, 4pm: The annual Christingle Service in aid of the Children’s Society.
CHRISTMAS EVE, 11.30pm: A traditional “Midnight Mass” to see in Christmas Day (bells start at 11pm)
CHRISTMAS DAY, 10am: Christmas Communion at St Peter’s.
CHRISTMAS DAY, 11am: Christmas Communion at St Andrew’s.
CHRISTMAS DAY, 12.30: Christmas Dinner (places limited).

Christmas is a time to celebrate, to join together, and to reconnect with family and community and God. The Revd Mrs NCP and I are very thankful that we are able to enjoy this Christmas with everyone in our villages and, as we move to our next posts in the New Year, we will look back with thankful hearts for our time in such lovely church and village communities.

May your all your Christmases be meaningful celebrations, and blessed by God.

November 2017

500 YEARS AGO a Monk called Martin Luther kindled a fire – a reformation that shook the church to its core. When he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittemberg, on 31st October 1517, he wasn’t the first to think some things needed to change – he was giving voice to ideas that had been brewing in people’s minds for years. Did the church have the right to decide what God wanted, or was it the teachings of Jesus and His Apostles that we should look to?

Many abuses had stemmed from the close relationship between religious and political leaders, and it was time to look at what Jesus said He wanted! But the entanglement of religion and politics meant that the radical changes Martin championed spilled out of the church. Political leaders started wars over who was right, and Europe descended in to another of its regular bouts of bloodshed – this time about who controls the religion, rather than who controls the country, or who should be the next king!

From that process emerged protestant churches, including the Church of England with the King Henry VIII as its Defender of the Faith (we still have “fid def” on our coins!). But that doesn’t mean that the King always gets what he wants. So in 1533 Henry VIII persuaded the Bishops that he could marry Ann Boleyn in church after divorcing his first wife, but by 1936 Edward VIII had to abdicate to marry a divorcee and, in 2005 too, Prince Charles had to marry Camilla Parker-Bowles in a civil ceremony – not in church.

It’s surprising to many people that the church has strong beliefs. Its vicars are usually portrayed in films and TV as rather bumbling do-gooders who are just trying to be nice. And there is a whole range of views held by members of the church on all sorts of issues.

So what does the church officially believe, and how do we know?

Well, unsurprisingly perhaps, the church, like Martin Luther 500 years ago, actually looks back to the teaching of Jesus Christ and His Apostles. We can read those in the Bible, of course. In addition, there are also some “creeds” which the early Christian churches developed to explain the basic truths of Christianity.

It’s Jesus who is the cornerstone of the church, the ultimate revelation of who God is, and at the centre of what we believe. [Did you know that ministers can be sacked if they don’t believe what the historical creeds say about Jesus being “God incarnate” – that God became one of us?!] Because Jesus is God who came down to earth as a human being, the church has to follow His teachings, and not ideas and beliefs that go against what He said (you can read much of what He said in the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). Then, of course, Jesus appointed some of His followers as Apostles, and we have their most authoritative writings in their letters in the New Testament. Those letters help us see how they applied Jesus’ teaching in new situations; situations very different to the Jewish setting of the Gospels (Jesus stayed mostly in Isreal). Finally, Jesus also relied on the Jewish Old Testament a lot – seeing it as God inspired. So even though our religion, culture and legal system are very different to Old Testament Jewish culture, we can learn much about God, what He wants, and what He says is right or wrong, from the Old Testament.

But where has the church written down what it believes? In its church services! Issues such as: God and Jesus; spirituality; sin and forgiveness; sex, marriage and divorce; life and death; identity and equality and so on, are all touched on in the church’s services. As we attend services for Remembrance, Christmas, Holy Communion, Baptism, Marriage and Funerals, we hear and say what the church believes. It’s worth sitting down, reading them and thinking about what it means – and it might surprise you!

October 2017

ALL LIFE INVOLVES CHANGE so moving on is something we all have to do. The Rev Mrs NCP and I have had plenty of practice over the years, having moved ten times since we married – four times internationally.

We are very much looking forward to moving to Ireland but leaving these villages is not going to be easy! We have been so welcomed here, we consider many people to be friends, and the villages and church communities have been so warm, welcoming and supportive – and we have all been on a bit of a journey together over the last few years!

So it was with mixed feelings that we realised last year that the time was probably approaching when we would be moving on. We were wondering for some time what God wanted us to do next, but in the end it became clear rather more suddenly than you might expect. We had literally just reversed into the vicarage drive, and hadn’t even got out of the car, after returning from Rev Mrs NCP’s leaving party at St Barnabas church when my phone rang – it was an Irish Bishop to inform me that I had been nominated as Rector!

Heather had an interest in Ireland before starting ordination training, and she had a wonderful time working with the Church of Ireland in Donegal when she was studying for the ministry. I also visited then, but first visited Ireland 40 years ago when I “youth hostelled” round Wicklow and Kerry with two Irish friends from Dublin: It was Easter, it was cold, and there was only one one-bar electric heater in the hostel (in the kitchen – to stop it freezing up!), so I was the hero of the day when I managed to get the peat fire lit!

And it won’t just be Mrs NCP and I that are returning to Ireland either – Sandy the greyhound’s ear tattoos indicate that he was bred in Ireland!

Rev Mrs NCP did enquired about a curacy in Ireland when she finished her studies but there were no suitable openings, so she found a curacy here, and I was lucky enough to be appointed vicar of these lovely villages. Now, I have been appointed Rector of two parishes in Ireland. Not only are the parish names similar to here, but one parish, like here, is the birthplace of a saint – though St Columba is the rather more illustrious! He was born in one of the parishes in 521AD, baptised in the other, trained as a monk, and eventually brought Christianity to the pagan Scots, and Britain, via the famous island of Iona.

The people of Donegal are open friendly folk like people here, church congregations are larger, and we are going to be setting off on another adventure – as we work together to bring the love and teaching of Jesus to new generations.

But in the meantime we have Harvest Festival, Remembrance Day, Advent Carol Singing, Christmas and New Year to celebrate God’s goodness together, before we wish each other “Slán Agus Beannacht Leat” (Goodbye and blessings be with you).

August 2017

We all love our pets: We put ourselves out for them – often taking our dogs out for walks several times a day – and spoiling our cats rotten – judging by the exotic cat food adverts on the TV nowadays!

Sandy the vicarage greyhound loves going out for walks. How he behaves on walks has really changed over the last three years: now he sniffs round, plays with the other dogs, and chases about like a normal pet. He also pays much more attention to what’s going on around him – before he hardly look round and seemed petrified to do anything other than what you told him to! He’s also got used to the rhythm of life in the vicarage – alert when we finish eating ‘cos it’s his turn next, and eyes flashing and tongue hanging out when Heather and I are on our day off. But whining when we haven’t given him his lunch yet, and curled up on his bed when Sunday comes and we’re both going to be out all morning. Even when we’re both going out he knows he can trust; that we care; that he is part of the family.

We love animals, so Heather and I are Stewarding the Dog Section at the Village Agricultural & Horticultural Show again at 1pm on Saturday 19th August – do come – lots of rosettes to be won! And we’re having a Family Pet Services in the villages’ churches too – fun and blessings for the whole family…  Every pet and their family welcome (provided it can fit through the church door safely)!

Pets are part of the family, aren’t they?  And they help us understand how God thinks about us too.. God wants us to feel part of His family and part of the wider human family. He wants us to know in our hearts that He feels about us a bit like we feel for our pets: that He cares for us; that He will be with us whatever happens; that we can trust Him. And, of course, He wants us to know that is how we feel about each other too: that we are part of a community that cares about us; that will be with us through everything; that we can trust.

Bucking the trend of isolation, many people in the 21st century Britain have discovered the healthy, happy life that flows from living in a community that knows and loves them, and getting close to God who really is there. Those extra dimensions of life enrich us personally. So we “Love in three dimensions”: God, neighbour, and ourselves.
As Jesus said, the greatest commandments are to: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and to “Love your neighbour as yourself.” May we, like our pets, know that we are loved and cherished – by God, by our neighbours, and by ourselves. And have a healthy, happy, wholesome summer!

July 2017

TRUE HOPE. What do you hope for? Success? Health, wealth and happiness? To win the lottery? That ManUtd 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, slow, quiet 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.  Behind 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 the diocese of Leeds, to talk not what separates their churches but what unites them.

Both admitted that they didn’t agree on some 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.

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