Saturday, 30 April 2016

Guidance, Holy Spirit-style

Acts 16:9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’  

The post Easter Acts readings continue through this Easter season, and we're still between resurrection and Pentecost. In Acts 16, Paul and his companions are on their 2nd missionary journey.


It was absolutely axiomatic that the first believers would go out and spread the Good News, because Jesus had said to stay in Jerusalem for the promise of the Father – (we had that in our gospel last Sunday) i.e. the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
After the Spirit was given, the task was simple – go into all nations, make disciples and baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
But, the question was, where to go?
Vv 6-8 of Acts 16 (which the Lectionary compliers omit) suggest that Paul and his companion didn’t really have a plan, or if they did, they made it up as they went along, and sometimes it didn’t entirely work out:

They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas (in modern day Turkey).

Their issue is how to fill in the gaps that God hasn’t quite spelled out.
Jesus has commissioned his believers with a task – but he hasn’t given the precise details all at once.
In addition, Paul’s journeys were not all sweetness and light – in the first journeys, Paul and Barnabas tried to preach in the synagogues, but they were shunned so they eventually recognised that God was calling them to the Gentiles.
Because of the uncompromising message, they were often persecuted – in one city Paul was stoned and left for dead.
Eventually his preaching brought controversy amongst the believers over whether Jewish circumcision should still be required of the new Christian converts.
So they had to have a meeting!
Eventually the Council of Jerusalem decreed that new converts did not have to accept Jewish traditions but that belief in Christ was enough.
On their second missionary journey, Barnabas and Paul had a disagreement and split; Barnabas took John Mark to Cyprus and Paul and Silas went on to Asia Minor.
Further journeys would bring shipwreck, hunger and beatings.
But for now, we take up the story at the start of the second missionary journey.

Trouble in the text

So, they’ve been ‘forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia’.
And when they attempted to go into Bythinia, ‘the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.’
We’re so used to being told we need to share the message of Jesus, it seems odd that in Paul and Silas's case, the Spirit seemed to have other ideas.
And it’s hard to imagine how this not being allowed, manifested itself.
Perhaps Paul and Silas sat up one night discussing mission plans (– all good parishes have a mission plan don’t they?)
Maybe Paul said, ‘I feel a huge burden for Asia; in fact, I feel sure that God has put this region on my heart – it seems that he is definitely leading us there.’
Maybe Silas, bedding down for the night after a long and tiring trek through the city (plumping his pillow - an old musty cloak - under his head for support) said, ‘yes, I’m sure you’re right; it’s amazing how things have worked out to lead us to Asia. God certainly loves Asia and must be preparing her people for the message of Christ.’
And then, we read they were ‘forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia’
How did that manifest itself?
It doesn’t say that the town council stopped them, or the religious leaders, or anyone else: simply that the Holy Spirit forbade it.
Perhaps Paul and Silas thought, well, we may have got it wrong with Asia, perhaps all along it was Bythinia where God was calling us.
Now you mention it, Bythinia is a very needy region; it must be that that’s where God wants us to go....
Maybe that night as they settled into bed in the Roman equivalent of the Premier Inn (without the super comfy King sized bed) they prayed ‘O Lord. We thank you for calling us to Bythinia, and for making your way known. Please guide us to these people who need to hear your message. For the sake of your name, Amen.'
And the next day, ‘when they attempted to go into Bythinia, the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them’.
How did this manifest itself?
Was it that one of them came down with a temperature that night and in the morning could not proceed?
Or their transport let them down?
Or the city was in uproar due to a skirmish breaking out?
Or was it that they woke up and felt a strong presentiment that it was not after all God’s will?
They must have wondered if they’d ever get their guidance right.
Was God with them directing their steps at all?
Did Jesus really send them out on this mission after all?

 Trouble for us/our world

How many times have you felt that the way ahead seems blocked and barred and you simply don’t know which way to turn?
You’ve made plans in good faith, but life takes you by surprise, your path takes a different course, and often you don’t understand why.
Why me?
Why all this hassle when I’m just trying to live a good life?
Why all this grief when I’m simply trying to follow God?
Why am I still ill, still here, still unemployed, still stuck with ……? (fill in the blanks)
When things do take us by surprise, we feel like saying, I didn’t bargain for this timing, this stalling, this incapacity, this illness, unemployment, relocation, bereavement, etc.
I thought life would be more straightforward than this.
And I prayed about it!

 Grace in the text

The great thing is that Paul and Silas do not give up.
They ‘pass by’ Misia and go down to Troas (vv. 6-8)
And then the exciting part of the story begins.
The story of God’s plan, God’s provision, and God’s surprises.

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, ‘Come over to 
Macedonia and help us'. 
When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

God isn’t silent; it’s just that his timing is different to theirs.
His geography is different to theirs.
The story continues in the first person: We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.
Convinced that God is now in the plan, they wait to see what will happen next.
There is much wisdom in a wait, and God is never in a hurry.
After a few days they are led to go outside the city – they’re looking for a synagogue, or ‘place of prayer’, but the story suggests they couldn’t find one: On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer…
There was no formal place of prayer but there was a river and, like their Jewish ancestors in a strange land, there they sat down.
But not to weep.
To meet what new thing God was bringing towards them.
Jewish men, on fire with the new life of Christ, sit down by the river and strike up a conversation with the group of women there. 
We recall Jesus did something similar with the woman at the well - and that resulted in conversion and new life too.
This is how we know God is afoot – this would never have happened without the new dispensation of the Spirit.
God’s hand is everywhere in this meeting that he has ordained by the river.
He has brought exactly the right people to exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

And the right person in question is a woman named Lydia.

We are told she was a 'seller of purple' 
(as in the KJV: modern
translations add 'cloth').
Purple was the most expensive dye available, so we can assume she was a businesswoman to the elite, selling perhaps to royalty or at least to the very rich and powerful.
Purple might even symbolise Roman power, against which the Saviour himself had stood, defeating it through his humble
submitting to death on a cross.
In the person of Lydia, as someone has written,the battle between Roman power and the message of the gospel meet in the heart of a woman’ (

Because as Paul speaks, she listens intently.
This is no chance meeting – God has prepared her heart and the Spirit opens her heart to the message of salvation.
She and her whole family are baptized and she urges Paul and Silas to come to her home for hospitality.
She will become the lynchpin of the church in Philippi, the church that Paul will come to hold in deepest affection.

Grace for us/our world

So this story is about God’s plan, God’s provision, and God’s surprises.
Just like Paul and Silas, we can trust God does have all the seemingly untied loose ends of our lives and is weaving something beautiful out of them.
Guidance can be so difficult to pin down; we worry we'll 'get it wrong', but in God's economy,
dead ends turn out to be avenues of grace.
Even as we’re scurrying about, lost in the details of what we cannot yet see or understand, God is calling us via visions, dreams, hunches, circumstances and other people: ‘Come over to Macedonia to help us’…
God is able to fulfil his good purpose in us and will do it, for us as individuals and for us as a church as we seek to live out the call to go to all people with the message of the Good News.

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (John 14:27)


Saturday, 23 April 2016

Me and the Bard

My first taste of Shakespeare came in 1979 when our class was given a purple copy of Richard II and told we'd be studying it for O level English. 

Our teacher was Mrs Lovatt and she sticks in the mind for several reasons. She was eccentric, as were an unreasonably large percentage of our pre-National-Curriculum-girls'-private-school-in-former-country-house-lady-teachers-of-a-certain-age. Eccentricity is harder to come by in these dull days of tick box targets (and, of course, no guarantee of teaching ability) but in the case of Mrs Lovatt, eccentricity was the order of the day, and proved to be an all round GOOD THING. 

Mrs Lovatt was a luvvie. She never stood to teach, but sat askew a table top in casual slacks. Message: you too can be past sixty, effortlessly cool, and clever. I'm guessing she was patriotic since she mostly wore scarlet, white and electric blue, alongside a great deal of make up, chiefly thick face powder and very bright red lipstick that bled slightly upwards into tiny lip wrinkles. Her mouth only went upwards, not outwards, dictated by her upper middle class vowels, and her eyes were exceptionally pale blue, squinting at the light and watering from time to time when she found something funny, which was frequently. Handwriting-wise, each of her biro-red words would be attached to the next with a great upward loop, in a hopelessly illegible five line scrawl, as if life was too exciting to stop for boring details like helping students know what they'd achieved in the latest essay. It was literally hopeless trying to decipher any of it. I'm thinking now, perhaps she was also extremely short sighted.

Richard II is a history play but it wouldn't have mattered what type of Shakespeare we began with: under the tutelage of Mrs Lovatt, we progressed rapidly. Somehow from a library, my mother procured an LP of the script, which I played over and over, so the words sank in, embedded in deep grooves. Even though the first scene is quite mundane ('Old John of Gaunt, time honoured Lancaster/Hast thou according to thine oath and bond/Brought hither Henry Hereford, thy bold son/Here to make good the boisterous late appeal which then our leisure would not let us hear/Against the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Mowbray?' 'I have my liege', etc.) the rhythm and cadences soon had me gripped, and whole chunks will even now present themselves verbatim, when called for, e.g. the quotation above, which, thirty five years on, I barely had to look up.

Richard II, perhaps less well known than the Henry plays, nevertheless rejoices in the famous 'sceptered isle' speech ('This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle/This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars/This other Eden, demi-paradise; /This fortress built by Nature for herself, /Against infection, and the hand of war; /This happy breed of men, this little world, /This precious stone, set in the silver sea......./This blessed plot, this earth, this England') and has some heart-stoppingly beautiful poetry in it as well as philosophical meanderings, for example when King Richard is eventually imprisoned: 'I have been studying how I may compare/This prison where I live unto the world...'

I lay the blame for my total lack of interest in O Level History squarely at Shakespeare's feet. Why study boring facts when you can learn about the Plantagenets though exquisite poetry? In one subject, you learn Richard was taken prisoner and put in a castle by Bolingbroke. End of. In the other, you get a profound insight into one man's tortured state of mind in which he imagines his thoughts populating the lonely world of his solitary confinement, whilst you reflect on what it is to be human. No contest.

In a parallel universe, I might have taken chemistry, biology and geography for A level and never given Mr Shakespeare another thought. But something tripped in my brain around age 16 and I took three languages instead. English being one. Thank you, the lovely Mrs Lovatt.

For A Level it was Othello and The Winters Tale. The editions had improved - the beautiful Arden covers illustrated by the brotherhood of rural artists became collectors items for me, especially after starting an BA in Eng. Lit. They brought the Bard to life even more, by imagining ordinary 20th century-looking people in the main roles.

Jealousy, fantasy, resurrection, war, love, birth, death, misunderstanding; gender: it was all there. I never anticipated having to read several plays per week, but that was expected if you were to keep up with the Bard's vast output, as an undergraduate. You could almost feel your mind expanding, a bit like what's meant to happen when you play Mozart to your unborn baby. I couldn't keep up with collecting Arden copies and soon had to buy the collected works, featuring the man himself on the cover, sporting a jaunty gold earring.

Getting an overview of genres helped to see what kind of development might have happened inside the genius head of someone who wrote 39 plays (and a multitude of sonnets) between the age of 25 and his death at age 52. 

History=obvious (see above). Tragedy=a fatal flaw in character/and/or circumstance is discovered too late to avoid bloodshed and death: desperate but you can't stop watching. Lear, Hamlet, MacbethOthello, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, etc.

Comedy=after a complication, everything ends happily: you are transported into realms of delight, particularly if it's a Kenneth Branagh production. A Comedy of Errors; Midsummer Night's Dream; Twelfth Night; Love's Labours Lost; As you Like it. Personally I love the concept of 'Problem Plays' where comedy and tragedy exist side by side, e.g. Measure for Measure, All's well that ends well, The Merchant of Venice (depending on which critics you read).

Inevitably, post-graduation my Shakespeare fervour died down, only to be rekindled again in the period of time between dating an English teacher and having children (the latter development made tagging along with English Department trips to Stratford more complicated. Before that curtailment we did the whole Plantagenet season directed by Adrian Noble in 1988 - unforgettable).

English students fly the nest by covering their first Shakespeare
 text with well wishes and other details that preoccupy 16 yr old girls
Despite the whole vista of Shakespearean possibilities opening up as one gets older, that first exposure to the funny purple copy of Richard II was the most powerful. Inside the cover of the text are a hilarious collection of bizarre and frankly unprintable ditties/ wishes for my 16 year old self written by my class mates as, O Level English completed, we flew the nest and left behind Mrs Lovatt and the confines of polished wooden floors and blue-grey uniforms. 

I believe you can take GCSE English now without ever having been exposed to Shakespeare. I'm probably hopelessly romantic, or perhaps becoming a grumpy old woman, but that this is even possible as we mark his 400th Anniversary, slightly breaks my literary heart.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Why church?

Enjoying the sunshine after morning worship

Spending a part of Sunday in church is not the first choice of many in Great Britain today. According to statistics, weekly Church of England Sunday attendance fell below 1 million for the first time this year.

You can suggest anything with statistics, of course. Some have been quick to point out that this still represents more people gathering for a united purpose than at all sporting events combined across a typical weekend, for instance. And it is still the case that each week, additional thousands attend church for school related services, funerals or baptisms.

One of the most frequently heard responses from people who talk to ministers about their church going habits (or lack of them) is "I do believe but I don't go to church". There's nothing designed to create more soul searching than that response, very typical of a large group of disaffiliated people who sometimes used to go, but for whatever reason do not go anymore. It always makes me think hard - because if literally everyone felt that way, the only person there on a Sunday morning would

Can you be a Christian without going to church? On one level, yes. Not going on a Sunday probably won't shift your underlying conviction that God exists and even that Jesus is important (always a good starting point). Or possibly it will. 

But on another level, I don't think you can, easily. The bible doesn't know anything of private spirituality - the early believers held everything in common and met daily for fellowship, prayer, teaching and breaking of bread. They organised practical support for the poor in a society without a welfare state and took it as axiomatic that the proclamation of Jesus Christ was a public affair, affecting all aspects of life (e.g. Acts 2:42-7). So, though I rarely say it, my response might be: 'one sign that you love God, is that you want to be with the people of God...'

Obviously I have a vested interest in people going to church. The odd thing is that most people who say they believe but don't belong, would probably feel sad if the church disappeared. Even people who never go sometimes express a vague pleasure in the building being there, for funerals, weddings, carol concerts, school leavers services and any other number of things that need a large building with a holy feel to it. And property programmes invariably show the church spire on the horizon of that pretty place where today's couple want to settle down, if they can afford the right property (have you noticed that?)

So here are 7 reasons to go to church.

1) We're better together. Although the singer Jack Johnson got there first, it's a good slogan for church. Singing, praying, talking with others gives a sense of belonging to something greater and promotes wellbeing. Various studies have shown that religious people have higher life satisfaction and lower levels of anxiety than those with no religion.

2) You don't have to believe everything first. 
Contrary to popular opinion, not everyone in church has all their beliefs sorted. Encountering something living and powerful
comes first - you can work out the details later. This is generally how it went with the people who came across Jesus in the gospels.

3) Church is an antidote to individualism. 
Scientists have found a direct correlation between excessive individualism and levels of depression and anxiety in Western societies. And Britain tops the world leader board of individualism. 
Church literally means 'assembly' and carries the positive power of 'being in it together', with people across social and age divides, something very much against the flow culturally today.

4) To lay a foundation.
If you have kids, the window is quite small to lay down a foundation of Christian faith for them. Children will follow what their parents believe, up to a point, and after that will make up their own mind. Which is healthy. But if they haven't been exposed to a form of lived Christianity in the beginning, they won't really be free to make up their own mind - because they will have only experienced one lived option: non church going. All the evidence points to the fact that they will not find adopting faith half as easy in later life if a positive experience of church is largely absent from childhood.

5) The Church has longevity.
Most churches have been there for literally hundreds of years, outliving other public utilities such as local shops, pubs, halls and sometimes schools. If you're part of a school community, that's lovely for meeting people, making friends, getting involved and inevitably doing fundraising. But that phase will pass. Children get older and leave school. Secondary schools are not always places where similar strong personal connections can be made (they can be, but one hangs about in them less, inevitably). Once the University or leaving home stage comes, your community connections can weaken. There are now more people living alone than ever before and a lot of them are lonely. Belonging to a church can transcend all these stages, and what's more you can go to practically any country in the world and you will find a group of people meeting together as Church. And your spiritual connections go back through time as well. All in all, it's very connecting.

6) We have the stories.
In stained glass, in narrative, in enacting a meal and in
Stories in glass - St Oswald, Ravenstonedale
personal testimony, the Church invests in stories. To consider the notion of beginnings without Genesis; of freedom and law without the Ten Commandments; of dreams without Joseph and his amazing technicolour dream coat; to think about suffering without the man of sorrows, or new life without the idea of resurrection, is to be impoverished. And people who don't go to church do think about these things. In church we hand down and re-tell week by week the stories that give us identity and show us where we might be going. The good news is, we don't just tell stories: we live the story. And everyone's part of it.

7) It's about more than 'going'.
It's understandable that people who don't normally attend church do, however, appear on Sundays mornings occasionally, and for many different reasons. This is perhaps where going to church and being the church can seem in tension. Culturally, Christmas, Easter, Harvest (in rural churches at least), Remembrance, even baptism, can attract occasional worshippers. There's a feeling that they need an excuse to go. But most of the people that go every week are longing that the occasional worshippers get a glimpse somehow that church going is only the preliminary to church-being

People always say, if we didn't have buildings we'd still have the church. And essentially it's true. The first churches were in people's homes and only later did designated buildings start to go up. Personally I think God is non partisan about these things. We have buildings, we have people - let's rejoice in them both. 

So, church-going: we're better together; you don't have to have all the details sorted; it's an antidote to individualism; it lays a foundation; it has longevity and stories, and is about more than just going. Seven reasons to go to church. See you there.