Friday, 28 January 2011

O Sabbath rest...

Today, like a lot of Methodist Ministers it seems, is my day off. But how best to use it?

The difficulty is that most of the day is spent on my own: kid's at school, wife's at work and then Uni, what am I to do? As home is also my office, I'm effectively spending my day off at work - unless I choose to go out somewhere, but that's not much fun on my own. And then there's the old "I'm sorry to ring you in your day off, but...", or worse still "I knew you'd be in, because it's your day off." Staying at home leaves you open to finding work to do, just to give yourself something to do.

The Methodist Church recognises this problem: it does say in its guidelines on Holidays that we should take "A minimum break of 24 hours each week, without structured work and if possible away from the manse." Of course that's not always easy, nor is it always cost-effective.

I notice that some of my colleagues have used today to visit the gym, visit B&Q, lunch wit friends, or simply to 'relax' - however they find to do that.

So, how have I used my 'sabbath' so far today? Breakfast & prayers, Facebook, a drive out to Meadowhall Shopping Centre (bought a couple of CDs, but didn't find the magazine I was looking for) and back, a walk into town (still no sign of the magazine), lunch with my wife, bus home, rip new CDs to iPod, listen to some of my new music and write this blog post. I plan to read for a while, enjoy a home-cooked lasagna with my wife, and maybe watch some TV or a film later. Not all that exciting, but I've managed some physical exercise, some mental stimulation and some space for God, so all in all body, mind and Spirit have had their share of my free time today. Hopefully that will help to sustain me, as a human being, as a child of God and as a Minister of God's church.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Waiting Game

There's been a lot of talk recently about the NHS, after Government proposals to 'save it' from collapse, or whatever rhetoric and hyperbole they were using this time. I was just reminded of this, as I've returned from spending the afternoon in the Endoscopy Suite of the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in Sheffield.

Usually my visits to hospital are brief, and are not normally on my own behalf: but today I was there as a out-patient. I've been suffering with acute abdominal pains for a number of months now, and tests still haven't ascertained the cause, so my GP referred me to the Hallamshire for a Gastroscopy.

It's not the most pleasant of procedures, but then I knew that before I went in today: I'd had a similar examination about 12 years ago, for similar symptoms, so it wasn't quite the mystery that it could have been. Though I must confess to feeling slightly apprehensive when a young man about half my age came out, saying it was 'possibly the worst experience of my life so far.' As it was, everything went OK: I'm now waiting for the result of a small biopsy that was taken during the investigation (and I've always said, I'd rather have a biopsy than an autopsy!). It was uncomfortable, but nothing I couldn't handle - and I've had a lot worse experiences than that in my life (I've had to chair Church Councils for goodness' sake!).

What did bother me, though, was the fact that, although my appointment was for 14:45, I wasn't actually seen until 16:05. I didn't mind too much waiting - I'd brought a book with me - but wouldn't it avoid so much tension and anxiety if the appointment time better fitted the actual time of the procedure? Surely they must know how long the preparation takes, and the paperwork, and can factor that in to the times they give for appointments. Then those who aren't as tolerant as me with waiting around might have a less jaundiced view of that great institution, The National Health Service.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Prayers being answered

I've been thinking quite a lot recently about answers to prayer. I wrote earlier this week about the ways in which we are sometimes the answers to our own prayers (see An Answer to Our Own Prayers), but I was reflecting during and after a meeting last night, about recognising answers to prayers when they come.

I shared the story from Acts 12 where Peter is arrested, the church gathers to pray for his release, he is released and hurries to the house where the church are gathered for prayer. He is greeted with amazement at the door by one of the servants, but she is ridiculed by the faithful for saying that Peter is outside (and their prayers have been answered). Eventually they can't put up with the incessant banging on the door, and finally let him in. And, it says, "They were astonished."

For many months now, if not years, we have been praying for guidance for our future direction at Wesley Hall, one of the churches I have responsibility for in Sheffield. We are blessed with a 103 year-old building that was built to seat 1,000, was re-modelled in the 1990s to house around 200, and now caters for about 60. We are widely used by the local community, and by the Sheffield Korean Church, yet struggle to maintain the premises with the material resources we have. A significant proportion of the congregation are retired, and those who are still in work - the younger families - are feeling the burden of taking on increasing responsibility in the church on top of work and family commitments. The building is feeling her age, and we need to do significant work on the roof to make it water-tight.

Prayers have revolved around what our role is in the 21st century; whether we have a role in the life of the community we are part of (there is a huge Anglican/ Baptist Church - St Thomas Crookes - just next door), and if so, how we can serve them and serve God effectively and uniquely. Or, in a nut-shell: "What is our mission at Wesley Hall?"

The answers have started to come - slowly, but increasingly evident. An estimate for repairing the roof has come in at about half the cost we'd feared it would be; the Circuit have given us the services of a Mission Enabler for the year to provide impetus for mission ventures; we are exploring innovative ways in which we might administer the building, and market its potential as a venue for conferences, exhibitions & meetings; our lettings income has almost doubled in the last 3 years, as more people make use of our facilities; we are launching "Messy Church" later this Spring, to reach out to families and younger children; we are hosting a major art exhibition over Lent...

All these, I believe, have come about because God's people at Wesley Hall have consciously and purposefully come together to seek God's will for us as His people (see Which Way Now?). Our prayers are beginning to be answered: there is a knocking at the door, and many of us are beginning to believe that what we have sought from God is being provided. And I'm sure there's more to come!

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Immortal Memory

I was in the butchers this morning, searching for a haggis for tea tonight. Sadly there were none to be had in Crookes (though we did manage to hunt one down elsewhere in Sheffield, where they are bred in captivity rather than allowed to roam free as they do in Scotland. I know that's true because a Methodist minister told me, and they never tell lies!): in fact the butcher seemed unaware of the significance of today, as he said "You're the second person this morning to ask for one - I don't know why."

The reason, of course, is that today, 25th January, is the birthday of Robbie Burns, Scotland's national poet, who will be commemorated across the world by expat Scots and others tonight with a traditional Burns Supper. I was first introduced to this fine feast when I was serving as minister in Wetherby, West Yorkshire, a town that seemed to have a relatively large Scots presence. We met for our celebrations one year in the Parish rooms (the Methodist Hall, where most of us belonged, couldn't be used due to their rules on the consumption of alcohol.) and shared Scotch Broth, followed by Haggis, neeps & tatties. All of this was liberally washed down with a selection of Scotland's finest export, single malt whisky (hence we couldn't use the Chapel). Pudding consisted of a delightful concoction know as 'Flummery', which was made of whisky, oats, whisky, cream and whisky.

Scotland may be unique in celebrating their national bard in such a big way. But then Burns was a unique figure, with an equally unique repertoire among his poems. Very few poets wrote about a louse on the head of a fine lady in church, giving us the lines: "O wad some Power the giftie gie us/ to see oursels as ithers see us." Not many evoked that "wee, sleeket, cowran, timrous beastie" the mouse in such warm words. And I don't know of any national poet who eulogised a sausage in quite the way Burns did.
"Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face
Great Chieftain o' the puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm.
Weel are ye wordy o' a grace
As lang's my arm."
I honestly can't see Shakespeare being quite so lyrical about Roast Beef & Yorkshire Pud, or Dylan Thomas speaking so highly of the Leek. Yet these words in praise of the haggis will be recited with full emotion this night, as the sgian-dubh is thrust into the steaming sausage. Oh that we English could be so passionate about our food!

Burns' work will live on, and tonight , as I tuck in to my Haggis, neaps & tatties (and later enjoy a wee dram - I do have a meeting tonight) I will remember him, his words (and his philandering) with a warm smile as I toast 'The Immortal Memory!'

Monday, 24 January 2011

Musical (Re)discoveries

I've just been reviewing my iTunes catalogue, and have discovered that in 2010 I added 127 albums to my collection; 1,227 songs by 56 different artists. Some of these were albums that I already owned on vinyl, and that I either re-bought digitally or (thanks to a wonderful birthday present of a USB turntable) converted from vinyl. That way I was able to listen again to music from Brand X, Peter Gabriel, Genesis, Steve Hackett, Stephen Stills, Yes & Neil Young.

There were also albums that I'd never got round to buying when I was younger, by Be Bop Deluxe, Blind Faith, David Bowie, Kate Bush, John Coltrane, Jethro Tull, Marillion, Radiohead, Rush, Tom Waits & Wally: music that I'd listened to then and re-discovered - after 35 years or more in some cases.

Then there was the music that I discovered for the first time: some of it old, some of it new. Music by Anathema, Astra, Big Big Train, Dee Expus, Deluge Grander, Ephemeral Sun, Gazpacho, IQ, Jaga Jazzist, Kaipa, Karmakanic, Kinetic Element, The Lens, Mostly Autumn, National Health, Martin Orford, Phideaux, The Reasoning, Simon Says, Spock's Beard, Roine Stolt, Thieves' Kitchen, Tinyfish, Unitopia, Vienna Circle & Willowglass. It has been a joy to listen to these new (to me) artists, to discover that Progressive music is alive and well in the new millennium - and seemingly doing very well in Scandinavia!

The turn of a year is a time for taking stock, and at this time of year the music press publish their polls of 'The Best' of the last year. So, if you're interested, what have been my favourite albums of 2010? Well, in no particular order other than alphabetic by group, my Top 10 would have to be:
Aeon Zen: The Face of the Unknown
Anathema: We're Here Because We're Here
Hasse Froberg & Musical Companion: Future Past
Gazpacho: Missa Atropos
Iron Maiden: The Final Frontier
Kaipa: In the Wake of Evolution
Pat Metheney: Orchestrion
Spock's Beard: X
Tinyfish: The Big Red Spark
Unitopia: Artificial
If these are just names to you, why not give them a listen on Spotify or last fm? What I like about music is that it can so often take you wonderfully by surprise, and it has great power to lift you to thoughts and emotions that were hitherto unattainable. It is a wonderful gift, and when stewarded well can reveal beauty and insight that no other medium can.

I hope that 2011 will be another year of discovery, and rediscovery, for us all.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

An answer to our own prayers

I was preaching this morning on Nehemiah 4. In the course of what I had to say I pointed to verse 9, which reads "We prayed to our God and posted a guard..." The context is that Nehemiah has inspired the citizens of Jerusalem to begin repairing and rebuilding the walls of the city, but they are facing strong opposition, and threats from those who want the venture stopped. It's only natural for God's people, when faced with that sort of opposition, to turn to God in prayer, but the second half of the verse is key for me.

Prayer, as I understand it, is not so much about telling God what we want but about finding out what God wants. Look at Abraham's 'Dutch Auction' with God over Sodom & Gomorrah: that wasn't about Abraham trying to change God's mind, but about God helping Abraham to understand something about the holiness of God, and what God expects from his people. Prayer changes things, but more often than not those things that are changed are the minds and motives and priorities of those praying.

They needed priests: they prayed... and answered a call to ministry.
They were concerned about the conditions of the poor: they prayed... and campaigned for fair trade.
They were worried about the shut-ins: they prayed... and called in to see them.
They needed protection: they prayed... and posted a guard.

Sometimes the answers to our prayers are in our own hands.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

No impedement to a good film

I've just got back in from watching 'The King's Speech', a film which has already garnered a 'Golden Globe' for Colin Firth, and which is widely tipped for BAFTA and Oscar success. It's not often that I get to see such widely-acclaimed films before they achieve success, but I have to say I was roundly impressed by both the story and the performances.

I was reflecting on the way home how much Britain as a society has changed over the intervening 75 years or so since the events of the film took place. The deference, the class consciousness and the clipped tones of the BBC all seem to have faded into the background - I won't say they've disappeared completely, because that wouldn't be true. We are a very different country now from then, and, if I'm honest, that's probably not a bad thing.

What brought this about, though? I'm sure many historians have their theories - probably as many theories as there are historians - but perhaps the two 'Great' wars of the last century (and if ever there was a misnomer for war, it's 'great') did much to erode the class distinctions, as 'Toffs' and 'Tommies' fought side-by-side in the trenches and the battlefields of Europe and beyond. They also helped to bring about the closer equality we have between the genders now, as women proved, through necessity, that they could do the jobs traditionally done by men just as well (if not better) as the men could. The underlying thread of the story, as Lionel the Speech Therapist (and a 'colonial' to boot) insists on speaking to the Duke of York as 'Bertie', illustrates the gradual levelling-out of the social playing field, and maybe paved the way for George & Elizabeth's 'common touch' approach to the horrors of the Blitz that were to come.

Perhaps hinted at, too, was the bullying that went on in the Royal home as a consequence of Bertie's stammer (the cause of which was never fully divulged). Would that we have conquered that particular issue: sadly children still suffer horribly for being 'different', however much we wrap that difference up in PC language.

I found the film to be a challenging and moving piece of cinema, wonderfully well acted, and hope that it will reap its just rewards as the Awards season looms.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Papa, don't preach

I've had an interesting morning. Friday is my day off, so I've been spending some time listening to my favourite Internet radio station, 'Aural Moon', a Prog rock station. In the course of the morning I've been in conversation with other listeners about a variety of things, and when a particular album was being played the conversation turned to 'preachy' lyrics.

There are, within the progressive music scene, a few musicians who have an open faith. Neal Morse, formerly a member of Spock's Beard and now working with Transatlantic along with other solo and collaborative projects, has produced works such as '?', 'Testimony' and 'Sola Scriptura' in which he overtly proclaims his Christian faith. Others are not as 'in your face' about things, but their influences are clearly present.

Progressive music has always had a particular 'spiritual' edge to it, in the broad sense of the word. Eastern mysticism featured prominently in some of the early works of bands like Yes, there are clear biblical images and metaphors in the early releases of bands like Genesis, and Jethro Tull had a particular downer on organised religion on their album 'Aqualung'.

Yet the message from my correspondent this morning was clear: I don't want to be preached at through my radio. It's OK if you want to preach in your churches, to those who want to hear you, just don't push it on to me. In places like the USA (or such is my understanding - I am willing to be corrected if I'm wrong) there are a number of 'niche' radio channels: if you want country, you choose a country channel; if you want Gospel, you tune in to a Gospel channel; the same with mainstream music or AOR - most tastes are catered for. What seems to be the issue is when that element of choice is taken away, and 'religious' view are 'forced' on someone.

I've never been a big fan of Christians having their own particular 'niche' broadcasting. I'd much rather Christians were involved in the mainstream, rather than catering solely for their own particular ghetto. But I'd also wish for Christians, and those of other faith communities, to be able to speak openly and freely and honestly about their beliefs in the mainstream, rather than having to water things down to suit the delicate palates of the viewing and listening public. As long as they do so with grace and  tolerance.

There has to be a place for religion/ spirituality/ Gospel in the public arena - that's why 'The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.'

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Ee Ma, why can't I go to college?

So, the Government is in debt - we know that. Because successive administrations have been frightened of the 'T' word (Tax) as a means of increasing their income in order to pay for the things that the tax-payers say they would like government to provide for them, because tax is a politically-sensitive subject, massive borrowing has happened so that things could be done. Even when governments have sought to raise income through taxation they have been accused of 'stealth taxes' by the opposition, perpetuating the myth that taxes are a bad thing.

Our present government, keen to get to grips with the massive deficit that it inherited, have decided that, rather than tax those who are payed far too much for what they do a little more (I won't say 'earn huge amounts', because I'm not convinced that 'earn' is the right word here), they prefer to cut spending in certain areas. One of the chief areas for those cuts has been in education: not in the provision of education per se, but in the financial support that is given to students in higher & further education. Tuition fees for universities tripled, and now the EMA - Educational Maintenance Allowance - scrapped (despite saying before the election that they had no plans to do so - who is going to believe anything a politician says any more?).

EMA was paid incrementally to students whose parental income is less than £30,810 p.a. The Prime Minister's old school, Eton College, charged fees of £28,851 in the academic year 2009/10, so those of Mr Cameron's acquaintance won't need to worry about its scrapping, will they? But for those a lot further down the social scale, this will put a further barrier in their way of ever having the life chances that Cameron's cronies have enjoyed.

This in iniquitous and plainly inequitable. But can anyone do anything about it? Or are the 'lower classes' fated to stay 'in their place'? Clearly John Major's dream of a 'classless society' has gone for good, under the present regime, and they seem deaf to the petitions of those whose futures are being mortgaged to this blinkered political stance.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

May they be one...?

So, this is the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity: that annual occasion when we gather Christians together, forget our differences, and pray for the unity which Christ prayed for for His Church. Or at least that's the theory.

I belong to a tradition which is in a 'covenant relationship' with the Church of England, supposedly moving towards 'full, visible unity' at some point in the future. But since that covenant was agreed by our Councils and signed, the Church of England has changed significantly. Indeed it seems at times that there is more than one Church of England: one which believes in the full ministry of women within the church and one that does not; one that believes in eligibility for ordination irrespective of ones sexual orientation, and one that does not; one that believes in the validity of orders outside its own tradition and one that does not.

Of course there are, within the Methodist tradition, those who 'toe the party line' on women's ministry and issues of sexuality, and those who hold (shall we say) lightly to the decisions of Conference on such matters. There are still, I would imagine, churches and even circuits where women Presbyters are implicitly unwelcome, and much needs to be done to deal with gender imbalances within our structures. We are by no means a perfect church.

The re-ordination of three former Anglican bishops as Roman Catholic priests recently has put further strains on a delicate ecumenical situation, though their departure from the Church of England has been welcomed by some.

My experience of practical ecumenism has been mixed, to say the least: from enthusiastic groups planning, worshipping and reaching out together, to apathy, to outright hostility. In my last appointment I was the first Free Church minister ever to preside in the local Parish Church: in my present appointment I have shared worship and study groups with local Anglicans in some places, and practically been ignored by one of the largest ecumenical congregations in the north of England, who is our next-door neighbour.

Much still needs to be done to see an answer to Jesus's prayer that 'they might be one, so that the world might believe'. But ecumenism is not about losing ones identity as a Christian, whatever tradition your belong to, and being subsumed into one great amorphous 'blob' of a church. There must be room in the Great Church for the traditions and practices of Romans, Orthodox, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, Pentecostals, Salvationists, whoever. That's what gives us our strength, drawing on what God has given us over 2,000 years of Christian history. We are not all the same, but we are all one in Christ. Recognising that will be the greatest step towards Unity, and it's for that that I will pray this week.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

You've made your bed, now can we lie in it?

The case of Martyn Hall & Steven Preddy has raise some interesting thoughts, as well as some interesting points of law. The case (in case you're not aware) concerns a homosexual couple in a civil partnership who booked to stay in a Cornwall B&B and who were refused a room with a double bed by the owners of the B&B because the couple were not married. This policy was based on the religious beliefs of the owners, who are both Christians.

The judgement passed down today makes it clear that, in law, there is no difference between marriage and civil partnership, and to treat people who are in a civil partnership as if they were not married is discriminatory.

There will, I have no doubt, be some Christians who see this as another nail in the coffin of Britain as a 'Christian Country'. Their understanding of Christian ethics would not want to equate civil partnership - particularly between a couple of the same gender - as the same as marriage: marriage is the God-ordained union of one man and one woman, and anything else, however much it may look like marriage, ain't marriage.

There will, though, be other Christians who see nothing wrong in two people who love each other, and who have decided to commit themselves to each other in that mutual love, sharing the practical benefits enjoyed by married couples - and that includes being able to share a bed on holiday as they would at home.

Some who know me may be surprised that I have no problem with the judge's ruling in this case. As one correspondent has written: "Everyone in British society enjoys equal protection of their right to live the way they choose.But if your particular beliefs or actions unreasonably impinge on someone else's right to live the life that they do, then the law will find you in the wrong."

No-one, Christian or otherwise, has the right to impose their beliefs - theological or ethical - on others. In our relativistic society, where truth is a personal choice rather than a universal given, that will always be the case. What we can do is live according to our beliefs and values in such a way that, instead of judging others or seeking to impose our will on them, we convince them of the veracity of our choices and their relevance for others in their lives. This may be a more Christian response.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Reasons to be cheerful on Blue Monday

Two of my favourite songs in one title - not bad!

Apparently, today has been named the most miserable day of the year, triggered by bad weather, money worries and failed resolutions. I can't really say that I feel any worse, or any better, than I normally do - am I doing something wrong?

Bad weather isn't really something we can do much about, other than by fleeing the country. Having said that, the weather in Sheffield today is quite bright and sunny, and even if it was dark and miserable it's probably a sight better than in Queensland or Brazil at the moment, so we can be grateful for that (without of course down-playing the tragedy that those people are facing at the moment.) I am certainly rejoicing that the weather is dry enough for my son to offer to clean my car!

Which leads me to money worries. It's about now when the credit card bills from Christmas begin to drop onto doormats, and the financial extent of our demonstrations of love and affection, and our seasonal over-indulgence begins to hit home. Why it is that so many feel it necessary to spend so much over the festive season I have yet to discover, but in these times of austerity, as the cuts begin to pinch, as people face the prospects of redundancy or loss of hours, let's remember those whose financial problems are not self-inflicted - and those who seem oblivious to these problems as huge bonuses are paid out within the banking sector and elsewhere.

All of us hope to do better in a new year, and the resolutions we make - promises to ourselves to be a better person, to eat less, exercise more, whatever it is - seek to provide a spur to us to improve ourselves. But we are but human, and our best-laid plans so often come to nothing. Every year I resolve to lose some of my excess weight, and every year end there's more of me to love than there was at the start of the year. One way to deal with this, of course, is to become a politician, then we can always claim that we didn't really mean it when we made a promise, or that circumstances have changed, or...

There are things in life that we can change, and there are things in life we can't change. One of the things we can change is the effect that life's circumstances have on us. We can choose to be blue - and sometimes, from my experience, that's often the easier option - or we can deliberately decide to make the best of what we have and say 'Hang it! This is the day that the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it!'

Even if it's Blue Monday.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Any given Sunday

Well, that's me done for the day - barring accident or emergency. A couple of services today, the first of which was easier than usual, as someone else was leading most of it (I just said the magic words at the end - or 'presided at the Eucharist' if you prefer); the second another Communion service in a small country chapel, where I talked about the importance of the Scriptures at the start of this 'Year of the Bible'.

One of the quirks of Methodist ministry is that one finds oneself preaching in different chapels regularly. I have responsibility for two congregations, and do most of my preaching in those contexts, but often find myself out in the wider circuit. Part of me finds this a great source of frustration, as do some of the congregations, as I and they would like a little more consistency from the pulpit. But if I were solely in my two congregations, I would miss out on quite a lot.

Wherever I go in the circuit, I am overwhelmed by the love that God's people have for me. I am experiencing health problems at the moment, and never a week goes by without people enquiring after my health, with a genuine interest and an equally prayerful concern. It is a great blessing to know that so many are bearing me up in their prayers, especially as hospital appointments loom on the horizon.

There is also a great joy in sharing God's word with his people. It never ceases to amaze me how the same sermon preached in two or three places can be so different each time: the word of God is indeed 'alive and active'.

Our world is one that seems increasingly hostile to God's message, or at least apathetic to it. Although they are often older people, it is heartening to be a part of groups of people who evidently love God and who want to meet with him. And it is my privilege, on any given Sunday, to lead them into God's presence and to facilitate their communion with him. We may use words penned centuries ago; we may use contemporary phrases; we may simply see where God will lead us, in words or in silence. But we do so in the hope and in faith that God, who is faithful, will meet us as we seek Him

Now that's not a bad way to spend a Sunday...

Saturday, 15 January 2011

'Inception' - what's all that about?

On a whim, whilst out shopping yesterday, I bought a copy of the film 'Inception'. I'd seen trailers for it, and had read comments on Facebook from people who'd seen it, so I figured - give it a go. And it's a weird film - weird, but good.

It seems to me that the central themes of the film are around reality, identity and belief - and here I should put out a warning for those who've not got round to watching it and are planning to, that there may be one or two spoilers coming up. The premise of the film is subconscious espionage - stealing secrets from people's dreams, which then develops into planting ideas into people's subconscious to force them to change their actions. Coupled with that is the hero's struggle with the death of his wife and her continued existence in his subconscious mind.

As I mused about the film this morning, I was left with a number of questions: Where do our ideas come from? What about those core beliefs that define who we are and how we behave? Why do we like certain types of music, sport, art or literature and not others? What is it that governs our political preferences and our prejudices? Are these 'implanted' in us from birth (or even before then), are they inherited from our parents or from our environment, or are they learnt, developed and nurtured as we mature?

I am a Christian. I was brought up in a Christian home, with Christian, church-attending parents. I was baptised at 10 weeks old. I was educated at a church-run school. I made a personal profession of faith at 14. I was almost an alcoholic at 21, and came back to faith at 22. I was 'called' to Christian ministry at 23; attended Bible College and Theological College and was ordained at 33 (I should be grateful - Jesus was crucified at that age). I have served God and God's church for the last 18 years or so.

But where did that germ of faith come from? Was it nurture, nature or super-nature? Why have I, who have had those experiences, become who I am, when others have had almost identical nurture and are totally different?

St Paul says that 'Since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities... have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that [we] are without excuse.' [Romans 1:20] The idea of God is out there (or in there), so why do only some see it? St Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, said 'Give me the boy until he is seven, and I will give you the man', implying that nurture and education are the key, yet how many non-believers are alumni of Sunday Schools?

There are two answers that come to mind, and I hope that they are not a cop-out. One is Mystery - we simply do not know why these things are as they are. The other is Grace: the truth that God is constantly on the look-out for us; constantly reaching out to us; constantly longing for us to know God, Father, Son & Holy Spirit; constantly giving of himself in the hope of restoring our relationship with God.

But then where did that idea come from?

Friday, 14 January 2011

'An ambitious young man...'

I've been a subscriber to 'Leadership' journal for a number of years now - more or less since I came into ministry back in the 90s. I find it a very useful and thought-provoking read, and it helps me to think through a number of aspects of leadership and ministry.

I'm currently reading the latest issue, which tackles the subject of 'Ambition'. Is this ever a good thing for Christian ministers? How do we cope with it? I have to confess that it is a matter that I've been aware of in myself, and that others have noticed at times in me. I was once accused (I think that's the right word) of being 'an ambitious young man' by a former District Chair (you can tell it was a while ago - he called me a 'young man'!), and at the time it really bothered me: after all, what was wrong with ambition, if you were ambitious for the Kingdom of God?

Within the sphere of work that I move in there's very little room for ambition. There's no real hierarchy within British Methodism (though there are those who think that there is): presbyters are presbyters, irrespective of whether they exercise that ministry as a Chair, a Superintendent, a Connexional officer or as a humble (or sometimes not so humble) circuit minister. There is no ladder, or greasy pole, to climb, so ambition would seem to be a fruitless exercise.

What matters to me, and I hope to all my ministerial colleagues (Lay, Presbyteral or Diaconal) is that I am in the right place, doing the right thing - which is looking for what God's doing and getting alongside: sharing in the Missio Dei. Anything else is ultimately fruitless and pointless. I used to hanker after Superintendency, but those opportunities never arose, or when they did were not right. At times I still do, though less so as time goes by. If it's right, when I finally move on from here, then it'll be right.

I am ambitious to be where God wants me to be, doing what God wants me to do, with the people God wants me to work alongside. I think that will suffice - I certainly hope it will.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

A shared meal

It's always a problem, the post-Christmas/ New Year period - certainly for me. I've probably over-done it a bit over the festive season, and I've made that resolution to get the weight down, and then I notice the piles of biscuits & chocolates that I still haven't got through that were sent as well-meaning presents. It's a shame - almost a sin - to waste them, so I usually end up 'waist-ing' them instead.

Then, when I've managed to polish off most of the Yuletide goodies, I'm back into the routine of life. That, for me as a Methodist Minister, means that Lunch Clubs come round again, with their good, honest, home-cooked fayre, produced by people who are, quite frankly, the salt of the earth. It's difficult to refuse, and so run the risk of offending these wonderful people: what is a man to do?

There are three responses that I can think of: 1) I can dive right in, with the excuse that 'I don't want to upset them'; 2) I can ask for a smaller portion; or 3) I can make an excuse and find something else to do (Ministers can always find something else to do). To do the first would only add to my already bad weight problem, so that's out; to do the third would be disingenuous; so I'm left with the second option - eat less, but be there and share with them. So that's what I've ended up doing these last two lunchtimes.

Sharing a meal together is a basic human desire. We have, throughout our history, sat around a fire, or a table, or (increasingly these days) a TV set, and shared a common meal. One of the main focuses of our Christmas celebrations - whether or not we place any religious or spiritual connotations to the event - is to share a meal with family and friends, eating a turkey that's usually two sizes too big. For the Christian community this has taken on a greater significance in the shared meal of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, but within our tradition we find Jesus frequently sharing meals with people: usually (though not always) with the less reputable members of society - tax collectors & 'sinners'.

There is something about the meal table that brings out a fellowship among us. I've noticed this at the Lunch Clubs that run in the churches, and a shared meal is at the heart of the Alpha course. But God desires (requires?) us to be generous in this way: "Share your food with the hungry" he says in Isaiah 58:7.

Who might you share a meal with today? It may be someone familiar, or it may be a stranger. Whoever it is, may it be a means of cementing our common humanity, and maybe a means of releasing the grace of God, whose image we all bear.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

A matter of perspective

Yesterday afternoon I took my life in my hands and climbed onto the roof of Wesley Hall, one of the churches I look after in Sheffield. No big deal, some of you may think, but for me it was. I have suffered from an irrational fear of heights for many years. I say irrational, because if I'm in an aeroplane 30,000 feet above the ground with nothing to support me but fresh air, I'm fine: but put me on a bridge a few hundred feet up, with nothing to support me but hundreds of tons of concrete, I'm worried. So climbing up a ladder on the side of the church, firmly supported with long bolts, for all of about 20 feet was a real issue for me. But I did it.

I have to say that it was worth it. The view from the top of the church - even on a grotty day like it was here yesterday - was stunning. Some of you may know that Sheffield is like Rome, in that it is built on seven hills (it's about the only way that it is like Rome, as far as I can see), and Crookes is near the top of one of those hills. Being up there gave me a whole new perspective on the community that we as a church seek to serve: you see things from above that you often miss at street level.

The reason for being up there wasn't simply to admire the view. Over the last few years we've been having problems with water leaking into the building, and that trip onto the roof began to put the problem into perspective too. Over the 103 years that the building has stood, there has been weather damage to pointing and to roof coverings up there that have led to water getting in. At least we have some idea of the problem, and can begin to, at least, have some idea of how much it will cost to put right.

A change of perspective can often give you a better idea of what's going on, and that goes for understanding the Bible too. To fully appreciate a verse of scripture, or even a passage of scripture, one has to see it in its full context. I was always taught that 'a text without a context is a pretext', and I have known that to be true. Otherwise you can make the Bible say anything you want. Psalm 14 says 'There is no God' - out of context: what it actually says is "The fool says in his heart 'There is no God.'" Revelation 3:20 states "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me." How often has that text been used in an evangelistic context? Yet it is recorded as words spoken by Jesus not to those outside the church, but to those within it.

This year, the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, will I hope be a time when many will turn to the Bible again. The hope is that many will read the whole story, over the course of the year, which will, if done seriously, help them to put the bits they know of the story into perspective, and also to put their lives into perspective. Archbishop Rowan Williams, in his New Year message, spoke about the Bible presenting 'a big picture, a story in which [our] lives make sense.'

That's the perspective we need.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

RIP Rock'n'Roll?

I had a great night last night. My wife and I went to the City Hall in Sheffield for a night of Classic Rock presented by a group of 10 wonderfully talented musicians, who played almost flawless copies of some of my favourite songs, by bands such as Supertramp, Genesis, Dire Straits (yes, I don't mind admitting I like them), Lynyrd Skynyrd & Pink Floyd. It was a great evening, not just for me but for the others who had come along too.

It came as a bit of a surprise to me, this morning, to find a link to this story in the Guardian, which proclaims the last rites over Rock'Roll. Was I witnessing the final death-throws last night? Or is this simply a case of journalistic hyperbole?

I'm old enough to remember the late 70s, when Punk was at its height and Progressive Rock was written off as 'Dinosaur music', ready for extinction. Yet Prog has survived, and Punk has evolved into something a little more palatable. New festivals celebrating the diversity of the Rock genres have sprung up in recent years, most recently the 'High Voltage' Festival in London, which catered for Classic & Progressive tastes. Rock'n'Roll, it seems, is not as dead as some might proclaim/desire.

Yet the article says that this apparent life is not being reflected in the official charts, particularly the singles charts. This may be due to a number of factors, chiefly broadcasting policy (what gets on the playlists of the major radio stations) and the dumbing-down and short-term commerciality that shows like 'X Factor' bring to popular music. But the singles charts have never represented the depth of music in the world: in fact it might be fair to say that the singles charts have very little to do with depth.

However, rock continues to thrive in the shadows (maybe that's where it truly belongs, rather than in the full glare of popularity). There are bands queueing up to play in my local pub; new Progressive Music continues to be made, in this country and across the world (I've written earlier about Uzbekistani Prog, but there's also good stuff from Sweden, Holland, Mexico as well as the USA and UK); and people continue to flock to concerts, though there may be a few more grey hairs both in the audience and on the stage. I'm looking forward this year to seeing Rush & Yes in concert, both of whom have been in the business for over 40 years. But I'm also looking forward to seeing new talent take to the stage, strap on a guitar, and shout what's on their heart.

Neil Young was, to my mind, probably right when he said "My, my, hey, hey; rock'n'roll is here to stay!" "Hey, hey, my, my; rock'n'roll will never die!"

Monday, 10 January 2011

What do you think of it so far?

I've not been at this blogging lark for long, and I'm the kind of person who has, as one of his many character faults, an insatiable urge to know whether he's doing things right or not (and who usually thinks that he's completely messing things up).

I have to confess to being really grateful that people are taking time out of their busy days to read this, but would it be too much of an imposition to ask those of you who do read what I write a simple question: how am I doing? I realise that the crazy world that I live in can be somewhat confusing for me sometimes, so I've no idea what it's doing to you, but if you could let me know, I'm sure it would help.

In the meantime I'd like to indulge myself and share with you a hymn that I wrote for a service during Advent, which in my humbler moments I feel deserves a wider audience. What do you think?

How can we show the love of God,
his passion and his power,
and offer him undying praise
within this sacred hour?
How can we show the love of God?
With lips and hearts that raise
unending songs of glory to
our God, Ancient of Days.

How can we show the love of God
to those who only see
their hopelessness, and long for him
to set his people free?
How can we show the love of God?
By standing in the breach
and speaking in his name for those
his mercy longs to reach.

How can we show the love of God
who died for you and me;
Atoning Lamb, our sacrifice,
once nailed upon a tree?
How can we show the love of God?
We take this bread and wine
and bring to mind his dying love
and praise the Life Divine.

Copyright © John L Simms 2010

Suggested Tune: Vox Dilecti

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Which way now?

Today, instead of our usual service, we shared in an extended prayer time at church. The aim was to try and discern what God was saying to us, as individual Christians and as a Church, about our future direction.

Within the Methodist tradition of which I am a part, the New Year regularly gives us an opportunity to examine our standing with God through the annual Covenant Service, as " we freely and whole-heartedly yield all things to [God's] pleasure and disposal." This year, though, we had renewed our covenant with God in September, as a new church - one which combines two congregations while retaining their independence as worshipping communities - was launched

The Church in Crookes has been seeking for a vision from God for a number of years, and that vision has focused for the last 4 or 5 years around training disaffected young people in catering and hospitality skills, while at the same time providing a service to the local community through a cafe run by the kids and their chef/teachers. Sadly, towards the end of last year, that project folded, and now we are back at God's feet, eager to know where we go next.

Our situation isn't helped by being situated in a 103 year-old listed building, which is showing increasing signs of its age. Numerous thoughts have gone through our minds: should we cut our losses and close; should we shut off part of the premises and use only what we need; should we seek to let out as much as we can to increase our income as well as our effectiveness in the community; or should we look for new ventures that can breathe new life into our community and our church?

That's why we needed to pray this morning. We need to know what God is calling us to do and be in 2011, because only when we are in God's will for us will we begin to see the growth in discipleship and in numbers that we desire. So we took time to listen to God: we worshipped together and thanked God for God's goodness to us in so many ways; we reflected on 2 Chronicles 7:14-15; we prayed together and individually, asking God to show us the way forward.

I'd like to say that there was a blinding revelation that left us all stunned and certain of God's path, but we're British and we're Methodists, and that kind of thing doesn't often happen with us (maybe that's a failing in us, I don't know). What I will say is that there was a deep sense of calm and peace as we prayed, despite some being a little uncomfortable with that kind of activity. God was definitely there with us, and I'm certain was fulfilling his word to us: "Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place." [2Chr 7:15]. We continue, I hope, to pray, and to listen for God's voice speaking to us, for I'm sure God has much more to say to us, and much more to give us.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Bought and sold

Just back from a Men's Breakfast at Church: good healthy food (bacon, eggs, mushrooms, black pudding) and good company. Talk inevitably strayed from problems with the church building to football - can't avoid it in Sheffield - and to the huge salaries that players are given (I won't say they earn them) for their services.

I get home to find the IPL auction taking place: franchises trying to out-bid each other to secure the best players for their T20 cricket teams. Interesting to note that some of the 'best' players in world cricket have gone unsold so far (Brain Lara, Herchelle Gibbs, Matt Prior, Mark Boucher to name a few), and that some huge sums of money have been shelled out for the services of players like Jacques Kallis ($1.1m), Yuvraj Singh ($1.8m) and a record $2.4m for Gautam Ghambir.

Much as I love cricket (though not so much the T20 format which lacks much of the subtlety of the longer game), I struggle to justify the sums of money that are being forked out here. Is it ever right to buy and sell human beings for any reason, least of all simply for the pleasure of Indian cricket crowds. Whilst recognising that there is a huge fan-base, and therefore a huge commercial market, for the game on the sub-continent, there does seem to be something awry in this almost slave-market approach to team selection.

At the end of the day, the rich franchises will benefit financially from this - that is after all why they do it. And they will do so at the expense of ordinary cricket fans in India, many of whom are living on subsistence wages and in relative poverty. Can that ever be right?

Friday, 7 January 2011

Ashes to Ashes

Like a number of others, I spent the early hours of this morning sat in bed listening to the inevitable unfold in Sydney, as England wrapped up another victory against Australia to secure a 3-1 series win. What was remarkable about that, though, was that all 3 England victories were by an Innings margin.

England, of course, have been used to being on the receiving-end of such drubbings: only 4 years ago, as defending Ashes-holders, they came to Australia and suffered the ignominy of a 5-0 defeat. And although all Ashes series are played in a very competitive spirit, it seems to me that most of the time it is a friendly rivalry between the teams.

How you deal with such occasions - either giving or receiving such a sound thrashing - is a mark of the maturity of the team or of the individual. Cricket has always tried to epitomise the spirit of fair-play and gentlemanliness (is that a word? It is now!), and that for me was demonstrated clearly in images from the end of the 2005 Edgbaston Test, after England had defeated Australia by the slenderest of margins - 2 runs - as Andrew Flintoff consoled Brett Lee and shook his hand. Kipling famously wrote: "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same", and all England supporters, while enjoying this moment of victory, need to remember that 4 years ago that was them, and, although we will probably tease the Aussies for a while, I hope that the friendship, honed on the field of play for many years, will not be spoiled.

At the heart of my faith is the belief that, in the midst of ignominious defeat and humiliation, comes the greatest victory. Whilst not wanting to draw too strong an analogy between a cricket match and the Resurrection of Jesus (which some might see as flippant and others as blasphemous), I would simply want to say: England have risen from the ashes: for the sake of the game I hope that Australia do too.

Thursday, 6 January 2011


One of the interesting (for me) things about being on Twitter is that complete strangers chose to follow me. A few days ago I was followed by a band from Uzbekistan, who go by the name 'FromUz' - good name I thought, does exactly what it says on the tin. Since then I've started following them, and have started listening to their music, which I must admit I quite enjoy.

I could say that 'I've found this great band', but the truth is that they found me, and as a result I started following them and discovering more about them. Which of course got me thinking - that's how it is with God. We don't find God, God is always following us, and wanting us to follow him and discover more about what God can offer us to make our lives more purposeful, more complete.

So, if you're interested in some Uzbekistani Prog, check out But more importantly, find out why God's been following you...

First things first...

Well, this is my maiden blog. I've wondered for a while whether I should explore this avenue of expression, and figured 'What the heck, give it a go!' Whether anyone will be the slightest bit interested in my ramblings we will wait and see.

What's important to me? God; God's world; God's people, particularly the People of God called Methodists; my wife and family; cricket, in all its forms, though I'm not a great fan of One Day stuff; music, particularly progressive rock in its classic and contemporary forms; and reading, particularly, though not exclusively, crime fiction.

So there's a chance that some of these topics may well be considered here, but let's see what happens.