Saturday, October 04, 2014

A Disquiet Follows My Soul

First off... this is not a Battlestar Galactica related post at all.  I simply used the title of one of the episodes because the phrase has been running through my head a lot of late.

Secondly I have been silent for far too long. This place has gathered dust while I have been distracted... and this seems to be a habitual tendency, one that I should really get out of.

It's a funny thing but I have made a point of waiting upon God for direction as to whether I should embark upon a certain course of action, on the understanding that should I not get a definitive response before a set point in time, I would resolve to move on it myself in an act of blind faith and blind faith alone.  Yet as that time nears I find myself both disturbed and moved on the subject. I see the world moving to spur others on and yet find silly things get it my own way. You want to take the opportunity to talk to the vicar and elderly ladies gravitate in and do the "lovely service vicar" small talk routine and totally block access... that sort of thing.

At the same time it feels like various images and songs that have spoken to me... come to the fore... and my Bible notes are talking about being more focused.

There's a great sense of pressure building within me... but I am coming to understand that it is not negative, it is like the tension in the bowstring before the arrow is launched, or the stirring of champagne working against the resistance of the cork that holds it captive within the bottle.

I have always struggled with human impedance - the sense that people deliberately or unwittingly sometimes work against you because their own interests clash with your own. Yet as I type that sentence I am reminded of Christ's words to St. Peter at the end of John's gospel. Jesus has just given Peter an indication of the kind of life his ministry will end in, and yet Peter finds himself distracted and asking what the fate of John will be.

At the heart of Jesus' response is a question and a statement: "What is that to you? You must follow me.”

So back to this idea of disquiet... what does the Bible have to say about this word? Well in a few translations, the term comes up in a couple of Psalms:
"Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance."
Psalm 42:5
It is easy to look at our frustration as a negative, to assume we aren't going anywhere because resistance is present or because we are held in some kind of suspended animation. However that's making the same mistake as Peter.  Instead we should look towards what God is doing: what God is doing in us; what God is doing to us; what God is doing for us. When the bowstring is drawn, it is no longer in an inert state... potential energy is being built up and will soon result in it being released as kinetic energy, propelling an arrow towards its target.

Likewise when we feel frustration, we don't need to get wound up (an ironic choice of words there), instead we should be prepared to accept that we are being built up with the necessary energy to take us forward to the next phase of our walk with God.

All that potential energy has to go somewhere... and the more it builds up, the more you should take courage that it will one day, strike or move its intended target... perhaps sooner than you think.

Disquieted - is it really such a bad thing?  The NIV translates the word as "disturbed" - the same word that lies at the heart of a prayer attributed to Sir Francis Drake. So wherever life finds you I'd like to leave you with the words of his prayer and ask you to contemplate anew what being disturbed means:

Disturb us, Lord, when We are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we have dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.
We ask You to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push into the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

Amen


Saturday, April 05, 2014

Contact

Happy First Contact Day everybody.

In the Star Trek universe, April 5th (in the year 2063), the Vulcan race makes contact with Earth as a result of the flight of the Phoenix spacecraft flown by Zefram Cochrane:


Also if you are a fan of Babylon 5 (to your credit), you may know that the 7th April marks another first contact day for humanity - that of humans and Centauri.

Babylon 5 also celebrates a First Contact Day Around this time.
First Contact in science fiction normally represents a sea-change in the fortunes of the human race, an even that leads to a renaissance of technological and socio-political advancement... or in some cases to cataclysm.  Often it leads to humanity reaching for the stars and spreading its influence across the galaxy.  In Star Trek, it leads to the end of many of humanity's self imposed troubles and basic survival struggles.

As time goes on, fans of Star Trek commemorate the event and even here in Britain, the National Space Centre plays host to a gathering of fans who meet to celebrate (this year they are attempting to break the world record for redshirts in one place).

I can't help thinking that there's a better way to celebrate though, one that is all inclusive.  Here, today on Earth... we have yet to encounter sentient alien life and are not therefore as yet challenged or encouraged in a manner in which such a discovery would present us.  As a Christian I do believe we have had a very unique and special first contact - with God himself (something I wrote about two years ago), so I think there are other ways of looking at it.

Let's look at those famous words of dialogue from the franchise (taken from the Next Generation format):

Space, the final frontier.
These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.
It's continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds,
to seek out new life and new civilisations,
to boldly go where no one has gone before.

While none of us have an interstellar spacecraft at our disposal, each of us is on a similar journey in life.  Our hearts, minds and souls contain the culture we carry to the outside world... and our bodies are the vessels with which we carry them to the universe outside.

So here are my suggestions/challenges for how you can celebrate First Contact Day throughout the course of this weekend in the everyday world... and stay true to the maxim of Star Trek:
  1. Go to an unfamiliar place - a new pub,  a new cafe, coffee shop, place of worship, library etc or visit a new town and study the environment around you.
  2. Follow some new people on Twitter or other social media... preferably someone random and not suggested by your feed.
  3. In each of those places try and strike up a conversation with an unfamiliar face - make first contact.  You get bonus points if you connect with someone of a different worldview or background.
From my own Christian perspective, this is what the early church was best at - not just proselytising... but listening and observing the culture and needs of the people around it before sharing the wisdom of the Gospel message. True evangelism requires ears and heart... not just mouth. St Paul listened to the people of Athens and learnt about their shrine to an "unknown god", before proclaiming his belief in who that God was. I also believe that in a couple of verses, the Bible has its own version of the Star Trek intro:
"He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’"
Acts 1:7-8

"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
Matthew 28:19-20
However you choose to spend the next couple of days, may you live long... and prosper.
  • What things do you think we can do to celebrate First Contact Day?
  • Are you doing anything to commemorate it?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Approaching Flame

Due to commitments at the wedding of friends and a holiday in Spain, I've been off radar at Church for a while and not really done anything by way of preaching or leading a service.  This mini sabbatical came to an end this morning as I climbed back into the preaching saddle for what will be the last time before the interregnum at Alcester Minster ends. I very much felt a call to address the topic of transition from interregnum to leadership under the forthcoming new ministry of Adrian Guthrie.

When I saw what passages I had been given from the Lectionary, I jokingly suggested that I was being punished for my absence because all the passages seemed to be related to judgement and carried apocalyptic overtones.  In the end I decided to preach on the old testament passage in Malachi but expanded it to include the whole of the (brief) chapter:
"Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘Not a root or a branch will be left to them.  But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves.  Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel. ‘See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction."
Malachi 4:1-6
After reading that text, you may be forgiven for thinking that my talk this morning was going to be all doom and gloom and the stuff of apocalyptic nightmares.

But I promise my intention was in no way to get all fire and brimstone. There were a couple of reasons why I felt led to preach on the Malachi verse and in order to convey them, we need to take a look at the context in which the book was written.

Malachi was written after the Jews had returned from exile in Babylon & Persia and had rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and the temple. God had brought them back at exactly the time had told them he would through the prophets.

Yet the rebuilt temple that they found themselves worshipping in was a shadow of its predecessor.  Solomon had taken great care to build the first temple with great splendour in accordance with the plans of his father, King David; the second temple was a much more modest affair that also lacked the Ark of the Covenant and the Shekinah - the glory cloud of God's presence.  In fact when older Israelites returned from exile and saw the foundations being laid, they wept openly because they could remember these things in the old temple.  On top of this, the land was still a vassal state and not a free power under their own rule.

Many of the freedoms and blessings they were anticipating following the end of exile and the predictions of Haggai and Zechariah had yet to come to pass and the people began to complain that God was unloving and unjust... allowing the wicked to prosper (and if we are honest, these are complaints that prick our hearts with dark thoughts in the modern world from time to time).

In this spiritual climate of deep doubt, the people had begun to waver in their commitments. The priests were being halfhearted in their duties (using sick or lame animals in sacrifice).  The people too were beginning to drift again as well. They were holding back from there own covenant commitments to God (especially with regards to tithing and marriage).

It's actually quite heartbreaking. They'd just spent 70 years in the captivity of foreign powers asking themselves "how can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" and just when it seems they've begun to understand the gravity of the errors they made that led to their exile... they start to turn back to those errors and begin to forget their unique relationship with God again.

It's into this scenario that God motivates Malachi to write to the priests and to the people to answer their complaints and reveal to them his perspective about their situation.
Now it is s true that thee is a lot of heavy language with relation to judgement in chapter 4 and there are eschatological references in the passage... but let's remember where we are in the Bible and what God did next.

Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament and it points us towards the New Testament. Verse 5 talks about God sending the prophet Elijah to turn people's hearts to repentance... This would happen in the form of John the Baptist's ministry.

Verse 2 talks about the sun of righteousness rising with healing in his wings for those who turn to God and remember his ways.  We are familiar with this terminology, especially as we draw near to the festive season; Charles Wesley uses this same poetic language to describe Jesus in his Christmas carol "Hark the Herald Angels Sing":
Hail the Heaven Born Prince of Peace
Hail the Sun of Righteousness
Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
So given that the next things God does in the Bible are acts of love and not judgement, what are we to make of Malachi's words on judgement?

Well Malachi twice strongly uses the metaphor of heat in his book.  The first time he uses the image, he describes a refiners fire, one that burns away all our spiritual frailties and impurities and makes us holy.  It is only towards the end of the book that the temperature increases and the refining fire becomes a furnace that consumes all.

As I was writing my talk, I was praying for a way to express what I thought God was saying about the nature of these fires... and in response to this, I was given a picture of a bonfire.

Now it is not that long ago that we celebrated Bonfire Night and many of us at one time or another will have stood around a large burning fire and felt the warmth radiating out from it. Now obviously, the nearer you stand to a fire, the warmer it gets. I don't know if you've ever tried the silly macho teenage thing (I say teenage but yes I admit I had a go two years ago and was temporarily left with half a red face and half a white face) and tried to stand as close as you can to a bonfire for as long as you can, but it is an incredibly hard thing to do... isn't it?

I want you to hold that that image... thought in you head for a minute.

You see I believe it a picture of God's movement and longing as he works hard to get close to us.
God is constantly drawing near to us and we need to respond to that.  As sinners we can feel the heat of God's presence - his holiness as he draws closer and closer and it makes us uncomfortable.  There are two ways we can respond to this growing warmth.  The first is to try and run into the cold and dark (but in the final analysis that will not avail us). The second response is to turn and face the warmth of God - to seek the Lord while he may be found... and to trust that the refiners fire is there as a prelude to his glory, to make us ready for his presence.

The holiness and awesomeness of the Father are why He sent His Son and His Holy Spirit ahead... to save us and to transform us - that we may be ready for his presence in our lives.

God draws nearer every day and he is holy. That holiness challenges us and it convicts us, and in the final analysis when We stand in God's presence, that holiness will test everything we have done and whether or not it is built on his values and person.

So firstly there is a personal reason as to why we need to respond to God's coming holiness... his approaching fire.

But I also wanted to look briefly at the situation of  the people in Malachi's day and draw some parallels with where Alcester Minster is at.

As the minster is now very near to the end of interregnum, it too has reached the end of a kind of exile. In the days that are to come we might see things change that we don't expect. Or we may not see things change at all and find our hopes frustrated.   Depending on who we are and where we are, this may leave us feeling similar to the Israelites who were complaining and falling short in the time of Malachi.
If we find ourselves in that place then we need trust our faith and not our feelings.

I believe Alcester Minster finds itself on the borders of a potentially exciting time where God may be seen vibrantly at work in new and exciting ways. But like the people of Israel, I think we need to heed God's words through Malachi if we are serious, committed and truly desire to take hold of it. We need to examine our hearts and get ourselves right with God id=f we are not to be disappointed.

These words are taken from Malachi 3:
"Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.  I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,’ says the Lord Almighty."
Malachi 3:10-12

So for each of us as individuals and for Alcester Minster as it prepares to leave interregnum, let none of us fear the consequences of the furnace fire and turn away from God. Rather, let us embrace the refiners fire. Let us bring to God all that he requires of us... Whether that is time, tithes, relationships or talents. Let us bring it all into His storehouse and let his Holy Spirit anoint us to proclaim good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to bring his release to the prisoners... That they and we may know a year, a season of God's favour.


One Moment of Eightness

I quite literally gave out an audible squeal of joy earlier this week when the preview "minisode" for the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special first came out on the Internet.

Entitled "The Night of the Doctor" (itself a clever play on the title of the forthcoming special "The Day of the Doctor"), at just over six and a half minutes in length, the episode is a unique treat that nicely adds a bit of onscreen continuity and connectivity from classic Doctor Who into the revived series.

The moment I am referring to of course is the return of the Eighth Doctor to our television screens after a 17 year absence - has it really been *that* long?

He's back... and it's about time! (Do you see what I did with the TV movie tagline there?)
Paul McGann's brief onscreen tenure as the Eighth Doctor is divisive for some people because of the nature of the 1996 TV movie and its subsequent legacy.  I for one was there in 1996 -  a mere 21 year old spring chicken at the time of original broadcast.  Looking back at the movie with hindsight, I can see all its faults and failings and why it received mixed reviews at the time.  It also didn't help that in the US, the movie was broadcast in a graveyard slot that didn't endear it to the audience who were deemed necessary to bring the Doctor into a new revived series.

However there's one thing about the TV movie that was in my opinion absolutely perfect and beyond question; that was Paul McGann's interpretation of the Doctor.

Now when asked who my favourite Doctor is, I have *always* maintained that choosing between the Doctors is a bit like choosing your favourite uncle... you kind of shouldn't do it. I still believe that and I always will.

Yet in spite of this I will say is that of all the Doctors, McGann's is quite possibly the one I most relate to - as much for off screen reasons as onscreen ones. Onscreen because of his character and nature (not so much the well meaning kleptomania), off screen because of the troubled way he has been received and the struggle for him to gain at least some recognition in a pantheon of equals.

The Eighth Doctor as we first saw him (well... once he'd appropriated some clothes)
What I really loved about the way the episode was shot, is that it gives us a couple of insights. The first of these for me personally is the Doctor's wardrobe.  In the classic series, the Doctor was always renowned for carrying an Edwardian vibe about him. However when Christopher Eccleston appeared onscreen in 2005, this had seemingly disappeared. However this seems to have been gradually seeping back in with progressive regenerations. With The Night of the Doctor we can see a reason for this. The interference with the Doctor's character that was caused by the conditions of his regeneration on Karn, provides a suspension of his character... and the change of his wardrobe provides a visual signifier of this.  To my mind it seems very clear that the chalice the Doctor drank on Karn wounded or stained his personality and just as wounds and stains fade over time or  some scars gradually come away as dead cells are replaced, the visual signifiers of who the War Doctor was, gradually fade from The Doctors reclaimed outward appearance. I don't think this is necessarily something that Steven Moffat intended... but it's a nice little touch that I think is there if you want it there as an explanation.

What I do think is interesting though, is the fact that Moffat decided to host the events of the Eight Doctor's regeneration on Karn. Long time Doctor Who fans will know from The Brain of Morbius that the previous story written on this world is one of the hot points for debates as to how many regenerations the Doctor has left.  Off screen this seems to suggest a deliberateness behind Moffat's writing - a statement of intent if you like, that indicates he is absolutely aiming to take on the explanation of how to get round a Time Lord's 13 life limitation during his tenure (probably even in the 50th or Christmas special themselves).  Perhaps we aren't even done with Karn either. Some of the lines of dialogue in the episode seem to imply the Sisterhood of Karn's abilities may yet prove to be a part of the deal with regard to bypassing the dreaded number 13 issue.

So all in all a televisual treat to see McGann again... and now it has spawned calls from various quarters for him to have a mini series that will give him a bit more meat to flesh out the bare bones of his TV appearances. This is something I would approve of, especially as McGann seems so comfortable in the shoes of the Doctor.

One final random thought I've had. We now know all 13 faces of the Time Lord we know and love as the Doctor. Shouldn't someone be commissioned to do a spoof of Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper... featuring the First Doctor in the central position and John Hurt's War Doctor in the place of Judas?

Would love to hear your thoughts on the mini episode and any hopes and fears you have for the forthcoming big Doctor Who stories.

Here is the episode in case you have not managed to catch it on Red Button or online as yet:



Friday, October 11, 2013

God, Latency... and Yoghurt

I really love it when God speaks to you in a latent manner - so subliminally that you don't perceive it or even realise that it is him doing it; then just a couple of days down the line, some kind of catalyst unlocks it all and you can see it so vividly.

Take this week for example.  I am not a man who is renowned for being into cookery programs on TV, in fact you are far more likely to catch me bemoaning the amount of cookery shows on television... especially BBC Saturday Kitchen - it needs to take lengthy breaks and seemingly never does.

However on Sunday afternoon, I found myself engrossed in watching Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall explaining how he makes home made yoghurt on Channel 4's River Cottage Every Day.  The recipe is fairly simple, you heat dairy milk and powdered milk in a pan and when the temperature is correct, you infuse it with a small amount of existing live yoghurt.  Once this is done, you cover your concoction and leave it in a warm place... during the next 6-8 hours the science behind the unseen magical forces of nature works its wonders and the bacteria begin to spread... eventually overwhelming the dead, Pasteurised milk and transforming it into living yoghurt. It literally crosses over from death to life. It is a new creation, the old has gone... the new has come.

Now the metaphor here is pretty obvious... I've pretty much quoted St. Paul's words about those who having been "crucified" with Christ, enter into a living relationship with God.  Or again, it is like the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel - how God takes something inert, nullified, devoid of life... and transforms it into a living army.

However that in itself was not what made it special for me this time.  Fast forwarding a couple of days into the week, I found my self praying in Church about my community and my hopes for revival.  These prayers have taken on a greater meaning and sense of urgency for me as the Minster prepares to move out of interregnum (and yes, I still loathe that Anglican term). This is especially so because of the manner in which I feel God has moved to set things up for the future... truly I have seen his hand at work... and although I cannot tell specifically to what end his hand is working, I just take joy and motivation in seeing it occur.

As I prayed, my thoughts were very much turned toward the Parable of the Yeast/Leaven. It is the second of two parables (the other being the parable of the Mustard Seed), told by Jesus that are linked by their theme of exponential growth. What is important about this parable is the manner in which the growth takes place - how the base ingredients that are already there are completely dominated and  become part of something greater when a catalyst is introduced.

It was while I was reading this parable during prayer, that my mind was immediately taken back to the River Cottage yoghurt creation.

You'll note that to create yoghurt, you actually need... yoghurt. Milk cannot create yoghurt... the dead cannot make life. So it is with the Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is both the catalyst and sustaining force that brings revival and if we hope to revolutionise our environment... the world we find ourselves in, then we need to involve the Holy Spirit both in our lives and the life of our churches and community.

I truly hope this is what is going to happen in the place I call home, that the Holy Spirit will come... come and transform the dead milk into a vibrant living yoghurt that bears God's name and lives and breathes and spreads his gospel in new and amazing ways.

And so Read and pray:
"Forget the former things, do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland."
Isaiah 43:18-19
 Amen. Come Lord Jesus.
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