Doing Good Works

March 23, 2009

I’m not sure how well my sermon went down yesterday .. actually, I’m never sure how my sermons go down, but this one seemed even less sure than usual! I suppose, given the opening sentence, that’s not much of a surprise. After all, it was Mothering Sunday and the news that Jade Goody had died in the early hours was on all the television and radio broadcasts. So, maybe, opening with “I have always despised Jade Goody” may have seemed a tad insensitive. But let me expand …

Yesterday’s first reading (John 3:16) is always a bit of a gobsmacker. To realise that God sent his only son to be sacrificed on our behalf has got to make you feel a little guilty. Well, as a Catholic, I have no problem with feeling a bit of guilt – the more; the merrier I say. But recognising the sacrifice that someone has made for me makes me want to please them, to assuage my guilt. So I try and live ‘a good life’ and do good things, be nice to people, treat them with respect, help people less fortunate than I, buy fairly traded goods, give money to charity – pretty much the full panoply of Christian service. And, let’s face it, doing good things isn’t going to do me any harm in the ‘being liked by God’ stakes, is it?

But then you have the second reading: Ephesians 2 vv 1-10. Particularly verses 8 and 9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

All those good works I did, all the choices I have made denying myself fun or exciting opportunities because I was trying to be ‘good’ .. where they all a waste of time.

So what has this got to do with the cult of celebrity who is/was Jade Goody?

Well, I reckon she’d never heard, or accepted, John 3:16. Her life (at least after Big Brother) was all about herself. She embraced publicity, be it good or bad, so long as she got it and it helped her to make money. She was callous in her manipulation of the media and in her treatment of other people. Her views on life and others seemed to be diametrically opposed to mine.

And then she got cancer. And the mood of the country seemed to change almost overnight. She went from Public Enemy #1 to Public Sweetheart. Suddenly, far from anyone caring what she thought, everyone seemed to care about her. I was stunned. Just because she had cancer? Of course, I felt sorry for another human being who was going to die and I felt sorry for her kids but that didn’t make me think any more highly of her.

And then, as I thought it, the ultimate manipulation: getting her children christened. How low can you go to manipulate the press and public opinion? It’s just another photo-opportunity to sell to the press, I thought. I despised her even more.

And, in despising her, I was denying any possibility for the Grace of God to be at work as mentioned in Ephesians. Who am I do sit in judgement on someone else’s life and motives? Are there not plenty of examples in the Bible of God’s Grace working on people? You only have to think of Paul’s Damascus Road experience to start seeing possible parallels.

And what was the affect of Jade’s christening announcement? It started conversations in pubs, homes, schools, colleges, offices and factories about God and the value of faith. What a legacy! With that one statement she made more people think about the place of God in their lives that I will ever manage in a lifetime of leading worship and working for the church.

Did God’s Grace touch Jade Goody? Or did she remain the ultimate manipulator right until the end? I have no idea – but I would be a fool to deny the possibility. But maybe that’s just one more thing I can feel guilty about …


The Ten Suggestions

March 18, 2009

Well, I know that in Exodus they’re called the 10 Commandments but work with me on this!

I wonder how many of them are still relevant? Did they only apply in context? I mean, some would seem to be obvious “Don’t Lie”, for example. even “Don’t Kill” should probably be a given – but what of soldiers and other service personnel? It doesn’t say “don’t kill unjustly” it’s an outright negative!

Keeping the Sabbath holy .. when is the Sabbath? Muslims have Fridays as their holy day, Jews have Saturday and we (Christians)  have Sundays so who is right? And, let’s face it, 3000 years ago, lost and wandering in the desert, the Israelites didn’t have too many other temptations, did they? No shops, cinemas, sporting events … Does keeping the Sabbath holy mean not doing anything else? Speaking with a friend yesterday he mentioned how many church folk went to his church on Sunday then, straight after the service, went to the Morrisons which is just next door. Are they keeping the Sabbath holy?

And as for “honour your mother and father” well, I’m sorry but there are plenty of children, young people and adults around whose parents deserve anything BUT honour.
The list goes on: commtting adultery, coveting your neighbours goods (and there’s a good one for context – so long as I don’t covet my neighbour’s house, servant, wife, ox or donkey, can I covet them if they live a couple of doors away? Who is your neighbour, exactly?)

but there is one which, whatever the context, remains a rule for us all and that’s the ‘you shall have no other gods before me’ commandment. Life, society has so many things and people that would like to be gods. Sports stars, musicians, politicians, fashion trends, money .. and there is nothing wrong in wanting to dress in the latest fashion, look like a superstar or elevate a hero to a pedestal – but the key phrase is “before me” – God wants us to remember that all that we have is because of him. God doesn’t object to us following fashion, or music, or sport or making a decent living for ourselves, he just wants us to remember where it all comes from.

And the Commandments weren’t just a rule for life, they were particularly about how a community, lost and wandering, should respond to each other in order to stay a community.

So, last night, rather than look at the ten commandments, the group of young people I was with made a list of promises. They were not things that they would NOT do (no ‘thou shalt not’s allowed); they were things that they promised they WOULD do – positive promises.

I’m telling you, it’s the way forward …

The Old and The New

March 13, 2009

My mum has been a cyclist since she was young. She and her brothers and sisters would regularly cycle to Anglesey from their home in Liverpool (a distance of 100 miles door-to-door) in a day. Even now she still cycles to the shops and to church.

So it was a bitter blow when the local bike shop told her that her bike was ‘gone the way of all flesh’ and should be consigned to a museum as a non-working exhibit.

It may have been a blow to her but it was a Godsend to her children as we had been scratching our heads trying to think what we might buy her for an 80th birthday present – a new bike was obviously the answer!

Now, I don’t know if you’ve been to a bike shop recently. They are full of gleaming machines with 20 or 30 gears and drop handlebars or sturdy mountain bikes with front suspension forks and no mudguards. Neither of these appealed to a soon to be octogenarian! She wanted something simple, that was well built and would cope with short trips.

I took her around a number of bike shops to have a look and see what might interest her. She was quite taken by a Raleigh in Thatto Heath but it didn’t have a full mudguard and had 6 gears. There was a Dawes which caught her eye but it had a steel frame so might get a bit rusty as she parks it under a carport rather than in a garage. As is so often the way, we ended up at the bike shop nearest her house where, after explaining her needs to the lass in charge she was shown a Raleigh Elegance. It was, almost, everything she needed. 3 Sturmey-Archer gears, full mudguards, a fully enclosed chain mechanism and ‘Mary Poppins style’ handlebars. It even had skirtguards, a wicker basket, rear pannier rack and, get this, a suspension mounted saddle.

So why was it only ‘almost’ everything she wanted? Well, because it didn’t have her trusty, well worn, well broken in Brookes leather saddle; a trusty friend of many years standing (or sitting!).

No problem, the shop will swap the saddle that comes with the bike (allegedly very comfortable) with her old saddle – she is as happy as can be. She has a brand new bike with a lightweight aluminium frame ready to be delivered in a few days. But, most important of all, it will have her own old battered saddle, something with which she knows she will be comfortable.

What, if anything, does this have to do with church? Maybe nothing at all … but we all know of churches where new ministers/priests want to try new things to attract and cater for a younger generation. There is always an assumption that ‘the old ones won’t like it’. My mum and her bike give the lie to that way of thinking. She loves the new technology, the lightweight frame, the more effective brakes and the ‘throttle’ gears – but she needed something from the past with which she felt comfortable – a link to a bygone era which has served her well in changing times. As Christians we have ALL done this. Despite the new Gospel preached by Jesus and his followers in the early church, we still make links back to the Old Testament, the history of a bygone era that seems to have little use or relevance for us today given the new good news.

If we truly want to move forward in faith, and in worship, we must not leave behind those things which have served us well up until now. New doesn’t necessarily mean better – it just means different. People are usually willing to accept new experiences, new ways of doing things, new technology – but we all want a little remnant of what we are used to.

Happy riding, Mum!

The value of friendship .. or the cost

March 12, 2009

At the recent weekend with Longsight Youth Fellowship one of the passages we looked at was “Jesus Heals the Paralised man”. You know the one; Jesus is preaching in a house and the only way for the man to get to see Jesus is to be lowered through the roof by his 4 friends.

It led to a discussion on what it is that we value in our friends and I’ve been giving that some thought ever since.

There is little doubt that the paralised man got tremendous value from his friendship with his mates. He did, after all, not only get to see and hear Jesus, but also he was healed and regained his mobility (along with having his sins forgiven – a part of the story which we usually overlook!)

But what of his friends? Did they get value from their friendship? Or was the cost too high? They obviously got to see their friend healed which, I’m sure, delighted them but they probably skinned their knees, maybe ripped clothes and possibly had to pay out for a new roof! And THEIR sins weren’t forgiven and, excuse me, but THEY had done all the work!

So what is a friend? What makes a good one? We expect our friends to be faithful, kind, honest and supportive but recently I have been thinking much more about the cost of friendship rather than the value. Sometimes we have to risk our friendship for the sake of our friendship or, at least, for the sake of our friends. We sometimes need to tell them things which they don’t want to hear, to give them the brutal, honest truth and very often people don’t want to hear the truth! But a true friend, a good friend, a valuable friend, won’t shy away from saying the hard things. And a true friend won’t hold that against you.

Studying the Bible

March 9, 2009

How do we engage young people with the Bible? Is it important that we do? What is the point?

This weekend I was away with a group of young people from Bolton (and their excellent leadership team) looking in more depth at the Bible (a follow on from last year’s event). It was a great weekend – we had hailstones, horizontal rain, gale force winds and snow – and we were miles from anywhere (well, actually we were about 5 miles from Sedbergh but it FELT miles from anywhere!). Self catered, and in a converted barn with dormitory accommodation (and 4 leader’s rooms) the Tarn Centre is a terrific venue and lends itself well to this sort of programme with this sort of group. But it was interesting to see how the various age groups responded to the various methodologies. The group ran in ages from 11 through to 20 and planning the programme was a little like organising the world’s longest all-age service – with the same concerns about compromises and content! Do I aim for the lowest common denominator,; knowing that this would mean that the older ones got really bored? How about only using material (Bible stories) that I was fairly sure they would all know (and the massive assumptions that THAT makes)? In the end, I offered a pick and mix approach that , hopefully, allowed everyone to engage at some level with the activities. I can’t pretend that it worked perfectly, but no-one rebelled (they’re far too well mannered for that) and they all engaged in everything. So, was it a successful weekend? Well, in some ways yes (for the reasons above) but it left me feeling as though I hadn’t quite got it right. In the evaluations at the end it was clear that the younger ones had enjoyed the ‘getting crafty’ bits whilst the older ones had found the ‘research and review’ aspects more satisfying.

What was most gratifying about the weekend was that the group had chosen the Bible as the theme for their weekend in the first place! There is sometimes a feeling that young people aren’t interested in the Bible, that they consider it meaningless, irrelevant and a waste of space. In my experience, this is just untrue. They know that it is an important book for them and they want to know more. When they are provided with the opportunity to engage with the material in a way that is relevant to them and is sensitive to their abilities they not only get a lot from that involvement, but so does the person leading them. In fact, it would be truer to say that I was not leading them in Bible study – I was a fellow explorer.

The Bible and Young People

March 5, 2009

This weekend I’m working with a group of young people from Longsight in Bolton. It’s a residential weekend up in the Lake District at the Tarn Centre ( The venue is really good – earthy and well appointed – if a bit basic but we’ve been there for the last 2 years and didn’t see a reason to change. This year is a follow-on from the 2008 residential which looked at the Bible. I’m lucky that the URC has produced the Vision4Life materials ( many of which I’ll be using. I was quite pleased that, after last year, the group wanted to look more deeply at some of the Bible stuff – last year was a bit of a rampage through the whole book, just helping them to find their way around it, really. This year we’re going to be looking more in depth at some specific issues and trying to link them back to their own lives/churches today.

I have seen a real interest in the Bible by young people – they are always amazed at how much there is in it – and how relevant it can be if they just look behind the historical headlines. Obviously, there needs to be sensitivity in the way we deal with the subject – we have people who think (some even believe) that the Bible is a literal account of everything – and some who think it was all just made up to subdue people to the will of The Church. I guess the truth is somewhere in between that …

Leading School Assemblies

March 2, 2009

I’m leading the second session of this course tonight in Bolton. I wonder how effective school assemblies are? So many last for just a few minutes (one of the participants tells me that they get “12 minutes and not a second more!” Are school assemblies really about passing on a message or are they just one paving stone in the road to creating a community which includes school, faith centres, secular organisations and the like?