The battle of Dr Spock’s Baby and Child Care.

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The battle of Dr Spock’s Baby and Child Care. As you would expect, I lost.

I did explain to Jacqui:  “But you haven’t even held it, let alone read it, for at least 25 years!”

However, she patiently explained that the book represented too many memories just to be taken to the charity shop. So it stays (for now).

But I persevere as we downsize in preparation for our move next spring.

For downsizing can be a challenge, especially to those of you who hoard.  “You’ll never know when I may need it!”

In reality most of us live our lives following the Pareto 80:20 Principle.  This means, for example, that we wear just 20% of our clothes for 80% of the time.  There’s ample room for getting rid of stuff, even giving it to someone who may actually need it.

Myself, I am in the minimalist category.  I have already got rid of nearly all my books.  Most to family, others to friends;  the balance to Book Aid and charity shops.  And other paraphernalia.  Even my faithful Adidas Tokyo spikes which I last wore in 1975 had to go, sold via eBay to a collector in London for £39.

The strategy is straight-forward.  You begin in the rooms farthest from the heart of your home.  That’s where there are more items that are simply being stored rather than used.

So I have already tackled my daughters on all the memorabilia they have dumped over the years on our top floor.  I quote to them Anne Valley Fox:  “You can’t have enough of what you didn’t want in the first place.”

But people do find getting rid of things extraordinary difficult.  They need professional help.

In fact, only last year I bumped into an old friend to discover his wife has a new job.  She is a professional declutterer.  In fact, you may not even know that there is a professional body, the APDO. That is, the Association of Professional Declutterers and Organisers.  I wonder if there is a HELP line.

Jesus, of course, didn’t have much time for clutter.  He calls us as we follow him to travel light.

So he sends the twelve out on their mission:   “Do not get any gold, silver or copper to take with you in your belts. Do not take a bag for the journey. Do not take extra clothes or sandals or walking sticks.”  (Matthew 10:9)

After all, as his disciples Jesus teaches us to sit light to things to ensure that our possessions do not possess us.  He reserves the right to say to us at any time as he said to the rich young ruler: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)

But there’s more to clutter than jumble in the attic.  As novelist Eleanor Brown observes: “Clutter is not just physical stuff, it’s old ideas, toxic relationships and bad habits.”

And here again we may well need a professional declutterer – the Holy Spirit himself.

First, our time.  We can so easily fill our time with all kinds of junk.  Not necessarily wrong in itself:  it just means we do not have enough time to do what God wants us to do.   What the apostle Paul calls ‘redeeming the time.’ He write:  “Don’t waste your time on useless work, mere busywork, the barren pursuits of darkness.” (Ephesians 5:16)

That does not necessarily mean, of course, that we do not watch MOTD – which would be a blessing the way Everton are playing this season.  But it does mean a certain introspection as we submit our lives afresh to Christ each morning.

Sometimes it may mean a determination to do nothing rather than to fill our time with meaningless activity.  Being still gives the Holy Spirit
the space to direct us.


And then the way we think.

The Victorian designer and social activist William Morris once said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”   He could have been talking about our minds.

Again the apostle Paul challenges us:  “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Very simply if it’s good, it’s beautiful.  And we hold onto it.

But such decluttering is difficult.  And it needs the same level of discipline, ruthlessness even, as when we downsize.  All that junk – old ways of thinking we know to be wrong and yet strangely persist.  All of it, we give to the Lord as we open our minds to his scripture.    Again, each morning.  .

No wonder the New Testament repeatedly emphasises the renewal of our minds, an alternative mindset, as we encourage each other to think Christianly.

Here I dare to quote Dr Spock himself:  “The main source of good discipline is growing up in a loving family, being loved and learning to love in return.”  (Baby and Child Care page 679)  The family of God, of course.

Does the Shack work?

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The strange thing was not just that the Rose Theatre at Edge Hill was full but that  knew almost everyone there by name.  It was Wednesday evening’s showing of The Shack.

Many of you will have read this New York Times bestseller. At church we sold nearly 100 copies of this imaginative novel  from Canadian author William P. Young.

Well, now it has been made into a film, a difficult enterprise to say the least.

Essentially the book deals with the one event in life we all fear – our young daughter being abducted and murdered.   Where is God in all this?  We discover this as the father is invited by a mysterious note in his mailbox to return to the remote shack where his daughter’s bloodied clothing was found.

For there he encounters God.

What makes this novel so unusual is that Young depicts God as three persons.  – Papa, Jesus, and Sarayu.  And to begin with Papa is represented by a warm and welcoming African-American woman called Elouisia.  As the embittered father, Mack, relates to each character so he begins to see the tragedy from a new perspective and his healing begins.  He even glimpses his resurrected daughter fully restored.

It’s a strange, daring book. Young informs us that the title is a metaphor for “the house you build out of your own pain”  And certainly he knew pain as a child.

He writes on his website that “sexual abuse was a frequent part of my childhood. In fact I don’t remember life as a little boy without it being the one constant.”  Tragically his missionary parents were unaware of the torment he was experiencing.”

The film goes further in that the main character, Mack, suffers physical abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father.  He seeks God’s help but as a 13-year-old boy takes matters into his own hands and seeks to poison his father with strychnine.

But otherwise, as far as I can remember, the film stays close to the book – except that in the film the serial killer is not brought to justice.

As a film it was okay.  “Not a dry eye in the house,” someone observed.  It does captures the sheer terror of the discovery that your lovely daughter has been seized by a serial killer.  A little-bit over the top at the conclusion where everyone lives happily-ever-after.

Moreover I appreciated the film version of Elousia, again a warm and welcoming character who makes great breakfasts.  Count me in. However, the later depiction of God the Father by a native American elder didn’t register for me.  In fact, I would hesitate to buy a second-hand car from him.

Jesus the middle-Eastern carpenter seemed friendly enough.  He enjoys going for runs (on water), which I appreciated, though probably too fast for me now.  While Sarayu the Holy Spirit was a little bit too ethereal.

The film works, like the book, in giving us a context for unexplained suffering.  We see through a glass darkly.  However, God welcomes us into a loving, caring relationship with him for he is love.  He delights in us and is pained as we suffer.

Clearly for Young, the writer, the book – which he never intended for publication – was part of his own healing process.

He writes:  “It took fifty years to find that little child hidden in a closet deep in the basement recesses of a broken structure. It is me that God loves, with all my losses and hiding and devastating choices.

And it is you that God loves. You and me, we are the ones that Jesus, along with his Father and the Holy Spirit, left the ninety-nine to go find. This love is relentless, and we are not powerful enough to change it.”

However, the very heart of the Shack, both book and film, is seriously flawed.  There is no need for Jesus to be crucified.  Yes, Jesus shows Mack his wounds – but that’s as far as it goes.  Certainly the cross is not integral to Young’s plot.

As Young’s fellow American, Billy Graham, teaches:  “God proved His love on the Cross. When Christ hung, and bled, and died, it was God saying to the world, ‘I love you.”  And that is where we begin.

Fundamentally the cross of Jesus, how it works, is a mystery. We can use analogies and metaphors but they can only go so far.  At its basic level the cross is beyond our understanding but by no means beyond our experience.

“Because of the sacrifice of the Messiah, his blood poured out on the altar of the Cross, we’re a free people—free of penalties and punishments chalked up by all our misdeeds. And not just barely free, either. Abundantly free!”  (Ephesians 1:7 Message translation).

Such is his compassion God comes to us in our pain to share our pain.  And he calls us to do likewise, to go in his name and share the pain and abandonment of others

A story for Armistice Day tomorrow.

In the trenches army chaplain Studdert Kennedy (aka Woodbine Willie) hears of a small party of solders marooned in no-man’s land trying to save a colleague.  On hearing his cries of pain they had gone out to comfort him but now they too are trapped and under heavy fire.  They too cry out in pain and distress.

So Kennedy crawls out, under fire, just to be with them.

As he makes contact the astonished soldiers ask “Who are you?”

“The Church,” he replies.

“What on earth are you doing here? asks the soldier.

“My job,” replies Kennedy.

Our job too in Jesus’ name.

The Bible is filled with people, like us, who thought that they could get away with it.

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For 11 minutes last night the world was a quieter place.  Not as colourful maybe – but quieter.

The Twitter feed for President Trump was down.

I think I should disclose at this point that I too follow the President along with 41.7 million other users.  I enjoy having real-time access to POTUS, being alerted to policy developments even as they are made.

But all this came to an abrupt stop last night  I was out of the loop.

As the Times reported in this morning’s edition “Anyone looking for President Trump’s account was told: ‘Sorry, that page doesn’t exist!’”.

But why?  If this could happen to President Trump, it could happen to any of us.  Just eliminated from cyberspace, just like that.

However, Twitter has now published a statement which by my reckoning exceeds its customary 140 character limit.

“Through our investigation we have learned that this was done by a Twitter customer support employee who did this on the employee’s last day. We are conducting a full internal review.”

I must say, I like that.  One operator on their last day decides to do something that they have longed to do maybe for months: pull the plug on the President.

Whether this small act of rebellion was aimed at the President himself or at their employer for making them work on Saturdays, we are still to discover.  As they put on their coat and headed out for Market Street for the last time, they thought  “They can’t touch me now!”

Employees on their last day must be a nightmare for employers.  You could insist that they have their last day the day before they leave – but on reflection, that wouldn’t really solve the problem.

At this point, some 11 paragraphs into this blog, I am wondering why on earth I have chosen this particular subject.  For the life of me I cannot think of anyone in the Bible deliberately doing something drastic on their last day at work.

Short pause to reflect.

No I can’t,  but one useful avenue to explore is the attempt to avoid consequences.  Something we do all the time when we choose to sin.

Whatever we do has consequences, whether we like it or not.  Invariably, we don’t.

“One of Satan’s most deceptive and powerful ways of defeating us is to get us to believe a lie,” observes pastor Charles Stanley.  “And the biggest lie is that there are no consequences to our own doing. Satan will give you whatever you ask for if it will lead you where he ultimately wants you.”

For the truth is that we do not get away with it, as I imagine this anonymous Twitter ex-employee will soon find out. In fact, he or she is about to enjoy their 15 minutes of fame.  As Jesus himself warns “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.’ (Luke 12:3)

For the Bible is filled with people who thought that they could get away with it.  Beginning with Adam and Eve.

“When the Woman saw that the tree looked like good eating and realized what she would get out of it—she’d know everything!—she took and ate the fruit and then gave
some to her husband, and he ate.”  (Genesis 3:6).


And everything followed from this act of disobedience.

How often do we think “They’ll never find out/No one will even notice.” Sadly the repercussions can reverberate over the generations.  Sin pays its wages.

But such is God’s love and commitment, he has sought to reverse the consequences of our rebellion.  Above all, at the cross of Jesus.

“But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”
(Isaiah 53: 5)

For the Gospel is not just that Jesus takes to himself our consequences.  The amazing truth is that as we surrender to him, we may enjoy the consequences of his obedience, the outcome of his salvation.

“Everyone has to die once, then face the consequences. Christ’s death was also a one-time event, but it was a sacrifice that took care of sins forever. And so, when he next appears, the outcome for those eager to greet him is, precisely, salvation.”  (Hebrews 9:27)

But that doesn’t mean that, in the words of the apostle Paul, ‘Let us do evil so that good may come.’ (Romans 3:8).  That is, if God keeps clearing us our mess, why bother doing the right thing?

For that is to turn the Gospel on its head.  For once we have been grabbed by the love of God, we will want to live lives which honour God.  We will naturally seek his strength to overcome the sin-urge in all of us.

And now, as we serve Christ in this life, the consequences of our actions are eternal, even in “giving just a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple.”

For as Jesus promises: “Truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”  (Matthew 10:42)

Had we known how long we were going stay here, we would have bought better carpets!

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Had we known how long we were going stay here, we would have bought better carpets!

For this Sunday marks my completion of 25 years as vicar of Christ Church, Aughton!  Twenty five years!  Why such a long time?

I guess the essential reason is that God didn’t move me on.  However, from my perspective the reason is the Ministry Centre project. From beginning to end, from acquiring the site to getting the Centre up and running, this venture of faith took some 20 years.

An important project, of course.  However, what is important to hold onto is that the Ministry Centre is merely a means to an end.  But what is the end?

One of my first priorities as the new vicar of Christ Church, Aughton was to articulate what Christ Church was about, what it was seeking to do even as we arrived.

Once I got the feel of the people and place, it seemed to me then, as it still does today, that our key task is to share Jesus with everyone.

However, there’s more to it than that.  For Christ Church is essentially a local church – a parish church with an evangelical ministry.

This was demonstrated as part of the planning application for the Ministry Centre our consultants were able to demonstrate that 73% of the church membership lived within 1.2km of the church site while 84% live within 2.0km of the church site.

So we added that our key task is to share Jesus with everyone beginning with our parish.   Later, as parish awareness faded, we changed this to “beginning with our community.”

So this was the broad goal.  How would be best go about it?

As I arrived I took a detailed look at the church statistics, especially Sunday attendance.  To my surprise there had been an abrupt drop in Sunday attendance two years earlier, in 1990, from about 400 to 300.  And no one knew why.

In fact, this was classic church growth theory.  Christ Church had grown too big, too big for the way we do ministry here. And so the church reverted to its natural size.

As church growth guru Tim Keller observes:  “Size has an enormous impact on how a church functions. There is a ‘size culture’ that profoundly affects how decisions are made, how relationships flow, how effectiveness is evaluated, what its ministers, staff, and lay leaders do.”

So one of my goals for Christ Church was to break through this 400 ceiling by seeking to change our ministries, procedures and expectations.

Now I realise that in the Kingdom of God numbers aren’t everything but to quote Bishop Paul:  “We are asking God for a bigger church so we can make a bigger difference; more people knowing Jesus more justice in the world.  This is how we express our mission.”

So here we are, 25 years later, have we attained this goal?

The answer is that I don’t know.  For the simple reason is that over these last 25 years church has completely changed shape.  While Sunday attendance here has fallen (especially at 6.30 pm), the number of people involved in the life of Christ Church over the week has risen.

Just think 1992: it was a different world with a different mindset.  No Sunday shopping and no Premiership football (until that September).  Air travel was expensive.   I didn’t have my first cappuccino until 1999.

Social attitudes were conservative – at least by today’s standards.  A bygone age.

And since then has been the huge, epoch-making transformation wrought by digital technology.  Even the way our brains are wired has changed.

In 1992 there was no way you could readily communicate with the whole church family.  Now, in a few minutes time, I will press SEND and no less than 282 of you – nearly all Christ Church members at one time or other – will receive this blog.  And that’s not even counting those who will read this through Facebook or Twitter.

It’s not so much that we live in a much more individualised society; it’s simply that we now belong in a very different way. No less than 184 people belong to the Christ Church Facebook Group.  The Christ Church Twitter feed has 259 followers.

Moreover, the Ministry Centre with Café Vista has shifted Christ Church into a seven day a week operation.  I have no idea of the footfall but it is going to be more than 1000 pairs of real, not virtual, feet per week.

So what does it mean to “belong to Christ Church” in 2017? Difficult to say.

However, the more important question is what does it mean to belong to Christ?

Very simply –  whatever our church culture, whatever our social background- the answer is one word: discipleship, that is, godly mature Christians.

For as church growth practitioner Kevin DeYoung concludes:  “The one indispensable requirement for producing godly, mature Christians is godly, mature Christians.”

And that is what we’re about.

Here I stand, I can do no other

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1517.

Arguably the most important year over the last millennium in the history of British Christianity.

Such is the significance of its 500th anniversary that the BBC have broadcast a two-part imported drama on midweek, late night BBC4.  We are talking about  Reformation: The Story of Martin Luther.

For 31 October 1517 is when this Augustinian monk kicked off the Reformation as he nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg.

You cannot overestimate the consequences of this single act.  The entire world changed.

As he reached for his hammer not only was Luther taking on the might of the Papacy and the power of the Holy Roman Empire but he was challenging the entire medieval mindset.

The drama is well worth watching.  I only discovered it by mistake as I scrolled down programme guide on Wednesday.  You can still watch it on BBC iPlayer.

The bonus is that it is in German with English subtitles – which for me gives it a greater authenticity.  For Luther is speaking in his own language, a language incidentally he played a major part in its formation.

There is some upsetting violence in the programme, a measure of the intensity of the opposition Luther faced.  But it is a great story, helped by the fact that it actually happened.  I impressed myself – but not Jacqui – by reciting his address with him at the Diet of Worms.

“I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.”

What I had not appreciated was Luther’s sheer physical bravery.  He could have easily have been burnt at the stake – some of his early followers met such a fate.

However, thanks to the machinations of German state politics he enjoyed the protection of Frederick III, Elector of Saxony.  But it wasn’t easy, staying God’s course never is.

What the programme does bring out is his struggle to keep the Reformation on a straight track even as it unleashed powerful forces in society so long repressed.

For him, it was a painful journey but it was a voyage of discovery.  But gradually, step-by-step it all came together.  The heart of his message?  By God’s grace we are saved by faith alone.

There is simply nothing we can to do to earn God’s forgiveness, to make ourselves acceptable.  Such is the power of the cross of Jesus that God’s salvation is freely available to everyone.  We are called to place our trust in the promises of God, no more.

God does not love sinners because they are attractive; sinners are attractive to God because he loves them.”

So easy to understand, so difficult to grasp.  As he himself confessed: “Every week I preach justification by faith to my people, because every week they forget it.”

This was Jacqui’s experience when I was a theological student at Durham.  She had been a Christian for years but it was only when she read my book on Martin Luther that she finally grasped what grace means.

It’s a whole new way of thinking totally at variance with how we naturally think.

It’s what Philip Yancey is trying to express when he writes: ‘There is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.”

How did Luther come to such an insight?  Through reading scripture, the living active word of God.  “The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold of me.”

So Luther controversially translates the New Testament into his native language and in doing so inspired scholars in other lands to do the same.   His aim no less is for everyone to have direct access to God’s word, now made possible by the latest technology – the printing press.

“A simple layman armed with Scripture is greater than the mightiest pope without it.”

Luther was not without his faults.  He knew that only too well.  Today his reputation is somewhat sullied by his anti-Semitism.  He simply could not understand how the people of Abraham would not respond to God’s new covenant.

But we are who we are today largely through the epoch-making ministry of this one man.

As Martin Luther himself confessed: “God created the world out of nothing, and so long as we are nothing, he can make something out of us.”

Overheard: "I know you're here but where's here?"

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A woman overheard me on my mobile this week and laughed loudly. So what did I say? “I know you’re here but where’s here?”

It so happened that on Wednesday I came across a similar incident in the Bible, of another woman on overhearing a conversation who could not stop herself from laughter.  Sarah, wife of Abraham – who essentially begin the story of God’s covenant with us.

It’s a strange story as “the Lord appears to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day.”  (Genesis 18:1).

Except it’s not God but “three men standing nearby.”  So the text moves between Abraham conversing with the three men and then with God, the two seem interchangeable.  Clearly the writer is trying to convey the otherness of the situation.  This is no ordinary conversation.

So the story reaches its climax  when one of three men says  “I’m coming back about this time next year. When I arrive, your wife Sarah will have a son.” (v10)

“Sarah was listening at the tent opening, just behind the man.  And she begins to laugh.”

We laugh for all kinds of reasons, not just because something is funny or amusing.  We laugh because we are embarrassed or insecure or just frightened.  For Sarah it was all three.

As comedian Jeff Ross reflects:  “Life is short. You have to be able to laugh at our pain or we never move on.”

And Sarah was in pain.  We are told: “Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing.”

It had been a very rough ride for Sarah.  For she was unable to provide her husband with an heir, a key role in her culture, maybe the key role for the wife.  Years of monthly disappointments.

Time isn’t on their side but God is.  For God had promised her husband that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him.  Clearly that meant her as well, their offspring.

But that was six chapters ago, in Genesis 12 when Sarah was still in Haran, when her name was Sarai.  By chapter 16 everyone is beginning to panic: no offspring.

So Sarai and her husband decide to go for plan*B,  to use Sarai’s handmaid Hagar as surrogate.  Big mistake for as far as God is concerned there is only plan A.

Incidentally I gave up watching Channel 4’s award-winning Handmaid’s Tale at episode 9.  Too drawn out.  After all the whole series is based just on a short-story by Margaret Atwood, who was inspired by this story from Genesis.

But in the character of Serena Joy, the wife of the commander Fred, you get the idea of Sarai’s humiliation and scheming.

Even so God keeps Abram and Sarai’s spirits up after the debacle of Hagar So in the next chapter God renews his promise to the ageing couple., now long past child-bearing age.  We have it there in black and white: “You will be the father of many nations.” (Genesis 17:4)

And to keep them going, God gives them new names.  Abram and Sarai now become Abraham and Sarah.  It must have taken their friends ages to adapt.

I’m afraid the change of meaning from Sarai to Sarah is lost on me but presumably not lost on her. Just keep believing, Sarah. Stay the course, don’t give up  And as further encouragement (and here, as we will discover we have some clever plotting), God gives her son a name:  Isaac.

But still nothing happens.  It can be tough being blessed by God, even when he gives you a new name.

But in chapter 18 we are nearly there, less than 12 months to go, as the LORD/the three men visit Abraham.

We don’t know whether Sarah just happened to overhear these visitors talking to her husband.  As Terry Pratchett observes: “It’s quite easy to accidentally overhear people talking downstairs if you hold an upturned glass to the floorboards and accidentally put your ear to it.”

But she gives the herself away by laughing.  “I didn’t laugh,” she tells God.  “Oh yes, you did,” replies God (verse 15).  We’re meant to laugh too.

But her laughter gave her away, her profound sadness,  those years of hopes being dashed.  It’s a laughter of pain. “My focus is to forget the pain of life,” confesses Jim Carrey. “Forget the pain, mock the pain, reduce it. And laugh.”

Sarah can’t get to Genesis 21 fast enough.  “God visited Sarah exactly as he said he would; God did to Sarah what he promised: Sarai became pregnant and gave Abraham a son in his old age.”  (Genesis 21:1).

We now know why Isaac is called Isaac.  The name – wait for it – means Laughter.

So Sarah rejoices:  ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’

But now a very different kind of laughter, a laughter of joy.

“How we laughed and sang for joy.
And the other nations said,
“What amazing things the Lord has done for them.”
(Psalm 126:2)

From violence and from golf to Christ

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“People pay attention when they see that God actually changes persons and sets them free,” comments Brooklyn pastor Jim Cymbala.

He continues: “When a new Christian stands up and tells how God has revolutionized his or her life, no one dozes off. When someone is healed or released from a life-controlling bondage, everyone takes notice.”

Well, that was certainly the case last night at our Alpha launch when we set out our stall for our 50th Alpha course here at Christ Church.

It was an evening of two stories.

First Shane Taylor, who had travelled over from Middlesbrough for the occasion, told his remarkable story of how God rescued him from a life of considerable violence.

In fact, he has just messaged me;  “Got home fine. Hoping the testimony went well and it wasn’t too violent to use.”

Well, it wasn’t easy to listen to.  We heard of two violence knifing and then when in prison his attacking two prison officers with a concealed broken bottle.

In fact, Shane wasn’t just sent to a high security prison, not just to its segregation unit but to a special cell within the unit where all human contact was eliminated.

I had a meal with Shane before the meeting as he shared with me his story.  A gentle and sensitive man, nervous before the meeting, it is a credit to the Holy Spirit that I could not imagine how he was once classed as one of the six most dangerous inmates in the prison system.

His life changed dramatically while still in prison when he found himself at an Alpha course.   Even today he’s not sure how he came to be in the prison chaplaincy, walking into a meeting with prisoners watching a video of a “posh man with grey hair.”

But through a strange and unexplained series of events, there he was.  I couldn’t follow all the details but it seems that the prison officer who broke prison rules by letting Shane through into that wing could have lost his job.

I don’t know how long it took him to pray but Shane told us of his first prayer:  ‘Please God, if you are real, come into my life because I hate who I am’.

“I started to feel an energy in my stomach, which raised up until I just burst into uncontrollable tears.”

“From that moment on, my life changed.”

But we had another story of a life being changed – and it couldn’t have been more different, that of our own Geoff Fallows who 17 years or so ago phoned the vicarage to enrol on our 8th Alpha course.

A successful businessman, Geoff had everything he wanted.  As far as I could see his only difficulty in life was a golf-dependency problem.

But God used even this.   Geoff was watching on television American golfer Tom Lehman receive the trophy for winning the 1996 Open Championship at Lytham St Annes.   In his acceptance speech Lehman thanked God, making very clear that his Christian faith was at the heart of his golf.

Geoff tells us that he turned to Helen and said “Do you think he’s has something we haven’t got.”

Over the next three years God gave the occasional prompt, the unusual conversation, the unexpected meeting to prompt Geoff into coming to a meeting where he too watched a video of a “posh man with grey hair.”

Two lives transformed.

Geoff tells of how much he enjoys being a street pastor.  He chairs the Ormskirk Food Bank and leads Table 49 as part of our church’s outreach.  Shane now works for Alpha in prisons, helping prisoners discover true release.  God not only at work in their lives but through their l
ives.


And two very different stories of how two men became disciples of Jesus – one from a life of violence and failure, the other from a life of comfort and worldly success.   Whoever we are, whatever our history, we need Christ.

You have made us for yourself, O Lord,
and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

(Augustine)

The racism in me.

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It’s 1988 and I need to make an urgent phone call.  Fortunately, I was in the centre of Rochdale, near the post office where I knew there were four phone boxes side-by-side.

However, when I got there, all were occupied, each – as it happened – for an interminable time.  My impatience quickly grew and when I noticed that each occupant was Asian, guess what I thought?

The truth is that we are all capable of racism.

This morning’s Times gives a prominent lead to a paper by the National Centre for Social Research showing that 26 per cent of adults admit that they are prejudiced against people of other races.  And that’s probably an under-estimate.

The Times makes the observation that “over three decades, Britain has gradually become more socially liberal on issues such as sex outside marriage, gay relationships and abortion. Racism, however, has been stubbornly immune to this trend.”

The report also found that that the focus of racial prejudice may have shifted, with less aimed at black people but more prejudice against Muslims.

But racism is afoot in our world, witness the emergence of the Alt Right in America, the rise of the National Front in France and the success last weekend of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the Bundestag elections.  Not to mention Brexit.

It’s what happens when people are insecure and fearful of change.

However, racism goes deeper than that.  Witness the recent wall-to-wall coverage of floods in Houston and Florida while the media largely neglected the devastating floods across India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Here more than 1,200 people have died, with 40 million affected by the devastation.

Why the difference in coverage?  I guess the essential reason is that those on the subcontinent unlike those in the US are not us.

As African-American actor Sterling K. Brown points out” “It’s the people who don’t recognize the racism within themselves that can be the most damaging because they don’t see it.”

For the truth is that we are all racist in the same way that we are all adulterers – if we accept Jesus’ definition of adultery as anyone looks at a woman with lust  (Matthew 5:28).  We need to be totally honest with ourselves – it is what we are capable of, each of us.  The problem – and it is a problem – lies deep in the human heart.

And it is a problem which will largely be untouched by editorials in the Guardian.  At a fundamental level, we need the Holy Spirit and his work is often not without pain.

However, the glory of the Gospel is that we are all valued, cherished and favoured by the God who made us,  We see this above all at the cross of Jesus.  Each of us may be defined as by the apostle Paul as “someone for whom Christ has died.” (Romans 14:15)

This love for us is both comforting and frightening because we know we have to change, change a lot.  But to know God’s love deep in our bones is transformative.

As ever we are a work in progress.  There are times when we have to decide to do the right thing, even think the right thing when all four phone boxes are being used.  In all this it is essential to give the Holy Spirit access to every area of our life.

So we begin with me and we begin with us, that is the church.  For the church as the body of Christ is called to be witness to God’s all-conquering love.  More than anywhere on earth we are commissioned to show God’s welcome.

“Words like Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and irreligious, insider and outsider, uncivilized and uncouth, slave and free, mean nothing. From now on everyone is defined by Christ, everyone is included in Christ.” (Colossians 3:10)

Of course, there is a temptation to worship alongside people like me, same culture, same outlook on life, same income group, and so on.   And there lies the challenge for all churches, including ours in Ormskirk.  We seek to cross all boundaries.

I remember being hugely encouraged by what happened in a small Anglican congregation in Liverpool some years back.  A racially mixed congregation some black members were asked to leave and join a newly-formed black church.  They refused because they wanted to demonstrate the church as welcoming all people, all races.

I’m running out of space now, suffice it to say that when we take on racism in the world, either directly or supporting those Christians and churches who are engaged in the fight against this pernicious disease.

Such as our mission partners, Andrew and Maria Leake in northern Argentina who are essentially confronting institutional racism against the indigenous people of the Chaco.

Here Martin Luther King must have the last word: “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality…

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

Yes, the resurrection of Jesus changes everything.

We'll praise him for all that is passed and trust him for all that is to come

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Sunday, 8th April, 2018. That’s the date I am planning to retire as vicar of Christ Church Aughton.

And it’s going to be difficult, praise God.  Praise God because I enjoy being vicar here and I am not eagerly counting down the days before I hang up whatever vicars hang up when they retire.

But it is going to be a testing time.  I know that from speaking to retired vicars over the years.  “Grim,” shared John with me at the New Wine seminar last year.

The problem is that retiring as vicar involves too many changes at once. Each change is challenging enough by itself –  changing your job, leaving your church, moving house, new routines. But taken together retirement can be overwhelming, even more so if you overidentify with your role.

There is always the danger of blocking off.  That’s what blokes do. I know of two vicars who simply hid their retirement not only from their congregation but from themselves.  Or to seek refuge is overactivity or for me, going on long, meandering train journeys.  (Not that Jacqui would let me).

Moreover following Everton around the country is not a healthy option.  There are limits to what the human frame can take.

But significant life change is something we all have to face; it’s an unavoidable part of being human.  “Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most,” wrote Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in Crime and Punishment.

In fact, some 15 years ago a mother confided in me that she was so enjoying her young children that she wished she could freeze time and live that moment for ever.  As it happens her son started at university only this week.  Bring out the Kleenex.

But how do we handle major change in our lives?

The people of Israel experienced significant changes, not always unwelcome, during the course of the Old Testament.

Take the Exodus, for example.  In my Bible reading this morning the people despair in their predicament as slaves under Pharaoh.  They can see no way out.  Only God can help.

“Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.  God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”  (Exodus 2:23f).  That’s God as subject for a verb four times: you can’t be any clearer than that.   And God acts.

But having been liberated against all the odds, including the miracle of the Red Sea, what happens?.  God’s people are finding the change and the uncertainty too stressful.  Who wants to trek the wilderness and live off manna? They start to moan.

In words reminiscent of the Monty Python “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch God’s own people long for the wonderful life they enjoyed back in Egypt. “Why can’t we have meat? We ate fish in Egypt—and got it free!—to say nothing of the cucumbers and melons, the leeks and onions and garlic. But nothing tastes good out here; all we get is manna, manna, manna.”  (Numbers 11:4).

God has to keep his people moving forward, to the land he had promised them.  It’s worth it – “milk and honey” beats leeks and garlic any time.  Look forwards not back.

Similarly the writer to the Hebrews in the New Testament want to keep his fellow saints pressing on.  “Don’t drag your feet. Be like those who stay the course with committed faith and then get everything promised to them.”  (Hebrews 6:12).

He explains “God is educating you; that’s why you must never drop out. He’s treating you as dear children. This trouble you’re in isn’t punishment; it’s training, the normal experience of children.”  (Hebrews 12:8f)

For the reality is that we grow most as disciples of Jesus during difficult times, when those familiar routines and rhythms of life disappear, even abruptly.   We may be tempted to retreat to the past even one of our own imagination.

But nothing is gained by denying reality.  We are privileged to live with hope – we can look forward to the future with confidence.

So we need the courage to go wherever God may be leading us.  As he promises Jeremiah in the highly stressful situation of the exile, so he promises us. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”  (Jeremiah 29:11)

The challenge for Jacqui and I is to keep looking forward, to the next challenge God has for us.  After all we gave our lives to him.  It is his responsibility to direct us aright.

As we sang on our wedding day:  “We praise him for all that is past; And trust him for all that is come.”

Discipleship – an exercise in unlearning.

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In an attempt to maintain my fitness I am taking weekly swimming lessons at Ormskirk Park Pool –  and finding them extremely difficult.  The reason is that I can swim already.

Something I have been meaning to do for some time.  However, now that I have picked up two injuries to my knee and opposite foot, running is out for the time being.  Tragic.

The problem is that my default swimming style, like for everyone of my age group, is the breaststroke.  It’s a problem because it is not good for your back.   As a student I did teach myself a version of the front crawl (or freestyle) but as my daughter pointed out to me this summer I am doing it all wrong.  “Dad, it would help if you breathed.”

So I have decided to learn how to swim the freestyle properly.

For my first attempt earlier this week I could not even make a length of the pool.  As I found myself floundering and gasping for breath every muscle in my body pleaded to revert to my accustomed style.  It may not be pretty but at least I wouldn’t drown.

It’s one thing to learn how to swim; babies can do it.   It something else to unlearn your familiar stroke and try to override your muscle memory.

Incidentally I have just googled ‘muscle memory” to discover that it takes 3,000 to 5,000 repetitions to burn a movement into your body’s muscle memory.  That’s a lot of swimming.

It’s almost 50 years ago when I was first introduced to the concept of unlearning.  It was my first supervision in economics and Mrs. Hahn informed me that I would now have to unlearn everything I had learnt at A level.

Like when for the first time you drive a hire car in Europe.  Each time you need to change gear your left hand repeatedly hits the door.

You know the theory.  You’ve read the book, seen the YouTube training film.  No one needs to convince you that in a left-hand drive car you change gears with your right hand.  But to change the practice of a lifetime is hugely difficult.

It could take 3,000 to 5,000 gear changes before it becomes instinctive!

“The first problem for all of us, men and women,” admits veteran feminist Gloria Steinem, “is not to learn, but to unlearn.” She probably swims with the breaststroke too.

The New Testament is one long exercise in unlearning, such are the ramifications of the cross of Jesus.   Particularly for those Christians with a Jewish background.

Such as for Simon Peter.  He knew that Jesus had set aside the elaborate Jewish food laws so as to enable full and unrestricted fellowship with everyone, even Gentiles.

Peter knew all this but he found it extremely difficult to put aside a lifetime’s practice.  So in Acts 10 he is given a vivid vision where God tells him to eat what he was brought up to consider ritually unclean. “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”

He is then told not once but three times: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” So in obedience Peter takes the Gospel to Gentiles with the startling result that the Holy Spirit falls on centurion Cornelius.

You would have thought that this settled it for Peter – but no.  Some time later in Antioch, to the apostle Paul’s dismay, he withdraws from table fellowship with Gentiles “for fear of the circumcision faction.”  (Galatians 2:11-14).

Clearly avoiding table fellowship with Gentiles is deeply ingrained in this first disciple.  He has a lot of unlearning to do – but God is patient and, as we saw last week, unrelenting.

But that’s true of the Christian life as a whole, particularly if you became a disciple of Jesus as an older person and especially if you have had a ‘difficult’ upbringing.  There’s a lot of unlearning to do.

For as a beloved child of God we are challenged to live in a totally new way. And this means unlearning a whole set of responses which have over the years become part and parcel of our personality.

So someone hits you and your instinctive reaction is to hit them back. You have had a lifetime’s practice.  Your parents may have modelled it. Your peer group may have practiced it.  You may have watched too many episodes of the Sweeney.

But all this has to be undone, your reactions reprogrammed.  And it takes time and certainly many failures as your hand hits the car door yet again. We can become discouraged.

But the one lesson we do need to unlearn is that God’s grace has its limits, that there comes a point when he just gives up on us.  We gave the Christian life a try but it just didn’t work out.

But incredibly and against all common sense, God keeps at it, patiently and unperturbed by our repeated failure. God will never give up on us.

As the apostle Paul proclaims “ There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.” (Philippians 1:6).

Similarly I hope my swimming instructor does not give up on me, so that  when I next fall into the canal I instinctively freestyle to the edge with elegance and élan.