A Bit More Theology

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Thanks, but no thanks Karl.

I was watching an old episode of the TV show ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ recently. In it, the main character, Ray, is talking to his young daughter, Ally. ‘Why are there babies?’ asks Ally. Ray uncomfortably tries to explain. ‘No’ Ally says, ‘I know about how, why are we born? Why does God put us here?’ Ray looks terrified, has no answer to the tough question, and makes an excuse to leave as quickly as he can.

I’m sure we’ve all been asked tough questions when it comes to our faith. Maybe they’ve been the innocent yet piercing ones that children and young people are so good at posing. Maybe they’ve been from hostile people wanting to try and tear Christianity apart. Or maybe they’ve been the questions we ourselves have asked: what do I really think about this doctrine? Why do we do this thing in church? God, what exactly did you mean by that? It can feel daunting and unnerving. Theology, and the questions it raises, can sometimes feel like they are designed to catch you out, to trip you up. Sometimes, it feels easier to keep theology at arm’s length.

I studied theology at university and I had a few fearful what ifs lingering in the back of my mind when I began. What if it found holes in my beliefs and caused my faith to collapse? What if it was just too challenging? What if there was some chasm between academic theology and church life that would mean church would never be the same again? My uni friends shared my fears. In fact, I’ve not met a Christian who hasn’t, even if only for a split second, been a little bit scared of theology.

But the fear doesn’t last long. Theology is a bit like an Advent calendar. You open one window at a time and discover something: an answer to a question you’ve had, a new way of seeing God, and yes, maybe a challenge to a presupposition you’ve held, but through that challenge comes an opportunity to grow and an opportunity to draw nearer to God in discovery of him. And you keep opening windows, but you can’t predict what you will next discover or jump ahead to the end. Theology is, in part, about living with questions which do not permit easy answers. As one priest wrote in the Church Times recently, in studying theology her ‘questions were not “answered” [in the typical sense], but they were reframed, refined, and, at times, corrected. I grew back into faith, which was now more mature, more solid, and very differently shaped.’ Theology will never provide all the answers; the day I think I’ve got all my questions satisfactorily answered is the day I’ve made God infinitesimally small.

Studying theology helps us to live with the tough questions but, more importantly, studying theology helps us live with the people who ask those questions which do not permit easy answers. The theologian, Karl Barth, is reported to have said ‘the answer is Jesus, now what is the question?’ It’s technically true, but it’s pastorally unhelpful. There’s a difference between simple and fluffy, and this falls into the latter category. We don’t study theology to alienate ourselves from the people we encounter; we study theology so that when people present their wounds to us we can provide a healing balm rather than an inadequate sticking plaster. It’s about embodying the Word become flesh.

When a grieving person comes to you, they don’t need a technical overview of the doctrine of the resurrection any more than they need an empty platitude, but a bit more theology means you can meet them where death has really stung them, and open to them a way for God’s hope to shine through. When a young person laments being fatherless, a bit more theology means you don’t brush them off with a blanket statement about God being Father, rather you help them be reconciled to a God whose Fatherhood is very different from their preconceptions. A bit more theology in our pastoral situations really goes a long way.

Tough questions, tough answers; a frustratingly and gloriously, simultaneously knowable and unknowable God who communicates both mystery and certainty. Theology may not be easy but a bit more of it in our everyday encounters might just make the world of difference.

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An Expectant Lent: For The Kingdom, The Power, And The Glory Are Yours

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The sixth and final part of my Lent series for Viva.

We might think that the gap between the sacred and the secular in a Western context has increasingly become a chasm. And yet, you don’t have to search too far to discover that the ways the sacred – something of who God is – permeates the world around us.

The writer Leonard Cohen is best known for his song ‘Hallelujah’, a song which has been covered by myriad artists such as Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainright, and popularised through various cultural outlets, from The West Wing to Shrek.

It’s been the soundtrack to coverage of devastating events including the September 11 attacks and the Boston Marathon bombings.

But why has this song become a constant cultural zeitgeist?

In ‘Hallelujah’, Cohen captures a way of expressing an outlook on the world which encompasses and embraces the pain and mess of life, as well as the moments of triumph. He takes the experiences of David and Samson and demonstrates how the stories in the scriptures are not unique for human beings.

Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is both painful and uplifting; the hope that emanates through the hallelujahs is inspiring, while the pain of experiences is affecting.

But ultimately, being able to stand before God is empowering, and it is this chord of rejoicing, despite hurt, which resonates so particularly and why the song has been received so well. Yes, there is an element of redemption, but this redemption is not divorced from the mess of human life.

The final stanza reads: “I did my best, it wasn’t much / I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch / I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you / And even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah”.

It’s a sentiment with which it’s easy to sympathise: “I did my best, it wasn’t much, but blessed be the name of the Lord”. You could read these words as being defeatist in tone, but actually it points to something far greater about who God is and how he desires an intimate relationship with us.

Hallelujah means “God be praised”. The Lord’s Prayer finishes with a doxology, which is a liturgical formula of praise to God. So “for the Kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever” are words in the same vein as “nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.”

These are amazing words with which to finish the Lord’s Prayer: standing in the blood-soaked shadow of the cross, we know that we are redeemed.

As Lent draws to a close, we are confident that our sin is not the final word on who or what we are; the empty cross shouts a cosmos-shattering “I love you”. With God, our death is now just a comma; it’s not a full-stop. We have life, life to the full, because of what Christ did on that cross.

We sometimes reduce God’s love to a cheesy line that can be printed on a pencil. Yet, stationery theology pales in comparison to kingdom theology.

We have a Father in heaven whose holiness is incomparable and whose Kingdom will come; he provides for our needs, he forgives us, he hears our cry in times of despair.

He sees all the children that Viva has ever reached and sees all the children who we will one day encounter and show his love to. The power and glory are his today, tomorrow, for all of eternity.

He knows our past and he holds our future. He sees the wounds we carry and sends his living water coursing through them. He is good. He is faithful. He is God.

And just wait, keep being expectant in these dying days of Lent, because our God will soon be risen.

PRAYER: Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name. Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For the Kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.

WHERE IN THE WORLD: Figures show that one in ten children in the UK aged between 5-16 have been diagnosed with a mental health problem such as depression and anxiety – and that three-quarters of them are not receiving treatment.

Viva’s partner network in Oxford, Doorsteps, is building links with local community groups, churches, and schools to increase the resilience of teenagers facing mental health issues. We want to be there to share something of God’s kingdom, power and glory with children and young people in their hurting situations. Doorsteps and Viva are hosting a conference at the end of May in Oxford to explore the Christian response to child and adolescent mental health. Click here to find out more and to book.

An Expectant Lent: Lead Us Not Into Temptation

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Part Five of my Lent series for Viva.

Augustine of Hippo is widely considered one of the most important theological voices in the Christian tradition. A theologian, a bishop, and eventually a saint, his contributions have not just been ground-breaking and central to the discipline of theology, but also to politics, philosophy, and classics, amongst others.

One of the (many) delights of reading Augustine is his distinctive tone; his combination of profound statements about God, beautiful imagery, and penchant for sass make him a lively and engaging person to read. One his most famous lines, taken from his Confessions, is “grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” It’s a very Augustine think to remark but perpetuates a stereotype around what we mean by temptation.

It’s easy to think of temptation as being a vice we are drawn to, such as drinking, chocolate or social media (you know I said I gave up Facebook for Lent? I caved. Spectacularly.)

In its original context, however, ‘lead us not into temptation’ has a far deeper meaning.

As Rowan Williams comments: “[Jesus’] teaching often turns back to this idea that a great time of trial is coming. A time when we shall find out what we’re really capable of, just as we often say you don’t know what someone’s made of until they’re under pressure.

We’re coming towards a time when you really have to decide how much God matters to you; you really have to put your life on the line… the word [temptation] means so much more in its context; it means this huge trial that’s coming, this huge crisis that’s coming.

“Lead us not into crisis, don’t, please God don’t push us into the time of crisis before you’ve made us ready for it. Don’t push us until you’ve given us what we need to face it.”

When we face trials or temptations, often we can feel the need to try and sort it all out on our own, to charge in and try to fix the problem. More often than not, our intentions are good. Here’s a problem, let me try and help.

The temptation can be to say, “God, I’m doing something good, it’s for you, so please will you bless it.” But what God desires of us is: ‘My children, I’m doing something good, come and be a part of it and bless it.”

At Viva, we are called to all sorts of work with children and young people. We see and hear stories of remarkable hope and joy but we also encounter distress and pain. And we want to help. But we know that we can’t do anything in our own strength. We have to decide how much God really matters to us: does he matter insofar as he’s a good motivation for our work, or does he matter so much that we respond to the call of his work?

The writer of Philippians says this: ‘Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me… One thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.’ (Philippians 3: 12-14)

A good test when it comes to doing work in the name of Jesus is this: run as fast as you can towards Christ and then look beside you to see who’s keeping up. At Viva, our eyes are fixed on Christ; we are not superheroes, but are servants of our Lord.

PRAYER: Please, God, don’t push us into the time of crisis before you’ve made us ready for it, until you’ve given us what we need to face it. Thank you that you go before us, are behind us, and are also beside us. Help up to trust you with our whole lives and to respond to where you call us to go. Amen.

WHERE IN THE WORLD: It was the disaster that Nepal was anticipating but dreading. Almost three years ago now, two devastating earthquakes killed 9,000 people and around half-a-million families in the central region lost their homes. In this time of crisis, our partner network CarNet Nepal provided an emergency response in the weeks and months after the earthquakes because of the presence they already had in many local communities. And, the network has continued to meet ongoing needs in the years that have followed, helping children and families with projects such as psychological first aid camps, training in hygiene care and the re-construction of school buildings.

An Expectant Lent: Forgive Us Our Sins

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Part 4 of my Lent series for Viva: An Expectant Lent.

Do you ever read something and think ‘can I really say that?’ That’s how I often feel when I come to the line ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’ It’s a two-fold challenge: to accept that I am forgiven and to forgive others.

When we don’t forgive each other, relationships break down. The television series, Parks and Recreation, was about a group of local government workers who, despite wildly divergent personalities and worldviews, were close and loving friends. A time jump in the final series revealed that two of the characters, Leslie and Ron, were no longer speaking to each other and refusing to even entertain the idea of working together again, and no-one knew just what exactly had happened to break their relationship down. So, the other characters took matters into their own hands and locked the two of them in a room so they could work out differences. And, in the way only slightly surreal sitcoms can, the two reconciled after much shouting and an explosion of confetti.

This is a slightly trivial example to illustrate something bigger and more serious: to not forgive is both easy and a devastating act of self-sabotage which utterly undermines what God did for us on the cross.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor who was part of the resistance to the Nazi regime and was executed at Flossenbürg concentration camp.

In one of his letters from prison, he wrote, “Live together in the forgiveness of your sins, for without it no human fellowship, least of all a marriage, can survive. Don’t insist on your rights, don’t blame each other, don’t judge or condemn each other, don’t find fault with each other, but accept each other as you are, and forgive each other every day from the bottom of your hearts.”

Repentance leads to forgiveness, forgiveness leads to reconciliation, reconciliation leads to freedom, and freedom leads to a life lived in the power and light of the resurrection and ascension of Christ.

From this place, we can respond faithfully to what God has called us to do.

At Viva, we work in contexts where we see the consequences of sin, where we encounter those who have been sinned against. How we live forgiveness and reconciliation in these places around the world is a reflection of how much we ourselves have been forgiven and reconciled with the living God. It’s not easy. It’s not black and white.

But God is not and has never been, afraid of plunging into our mess. But in being forgiven, we can love and in love, we can forgive others.

Forgiveness changes us and forgiveness changes the world. And God shows us how to do it, gently, lovingly, and faithfully.

PRAYER:
Loving God, as you have forgiven us, help us to forgive others. Help us to ask for forgiveness where we have wronged or hurt other people. Thank you that you are merciful and that through the salvific act of Jesus dying and rising, we will one day be completely free from sin and reunited with you forever.

WHERE IN THE WORLD:
Through its girls’ mentoring initiative in India, Viva is freeing girls from the trappings of their lives; the majority face oppression and discrimination simply for not being a boy. Last year, almost 400 Indian girls took part in the Dare to be Different programme, teaching them about how to make the right choices in life and giving them dreams and aspirations for the future. The training often leads to a change their attitude by the family towards the girl. Read more by clicking here.

An Expectant Lent: Give Us Today Our Daily Bread

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Part Three in my Lent series for Viva.

“Rivers of ink have been spilt over the exact meaning of ‘give us this day our daily bread’, because the word that’s used in the Greek is a very, very strange one that you find hardly anywhere else… The simple meaning keep us going, give us what we need is all we really need to go on.” (Rowan Williams)

At this stage in Lent, keeping going might feel a real challenge.

I’ve given up Facebook and I occasionally find my fingers itching to check in and see what’s happening. Although, so many of my friends have also given up Facebook, that I imagine the answer is probably, not a lot!

In that moment of wanting to see the familiar sight of red notification against a blue background, I have to remember that Christ died for me and that he would love to spend the time with me that I would otherwise waste on social media.

To pray ‘give us today our daily bread’ is to surrender our future plans to God. And that can be hard and it requires a lot of faith.

The French Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, wrote a short poem called ‘Trust in the Slow Work of God.’

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through some stages of instability
and that it may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually – let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

God knows about time; he knows about all time. In a way, to pray ‘keep going for tomorrow’ is a gift. God holds the future in his hands and gifts us the present each day.

It seems to be that the hardest day in Lent is Holy Saturday. It must have been a bewildering day for the disciples and all those who believed Jesus to be Lord. The darkness descended, he let out his final cry, and he was laid in the tomb. And then… there was nothing. There was just waiting and grieving and wondering. And then there was a stone out of place and grave clothes neatly folded. They got through that Saturday – and Sunday came.

We don’t pray ‘give us today our daily bread’ in desperation but in confidence of God’s faithfulness. But it’s a challenge and discipline to replace fear with faith.

At Viva we rely on the exceedingly generous support of many people to raise the money required to help vulnerable children around the world. For those of us on the global staff team with projects to manage, we can look at spreadsheets or blank pieces of paper with furrowed brows and, in those moments of worry, we whisper ‘give us today our daily bread.’ It is the gift God generously gives us to keep on going.

PRAYER:
Holy God, you are faithful and steadfast. You have provided for your people in many wildernesses in many times. Help us to fix our eyes on you. Ground us in the present so that we may experience your love and grace for us this day. We surrender to you our worries for the future and thank you that you are with us, that you graciously hear us, and that you unfailingly provide for us. Amen.

WHERE IN THE WORLD:
In 2008, Viva’s partner networks in Bolivia kick-started an advocacy initiative called the Good Treatment Campaign. With support from adults, a few hundred children took to the streets that first year to ask adults to pledge to commit to treating children better through their words and actions. The campaign wasn’t only a one-off; the problems of children being neglected and abused didn’t of course just go away overnight. The organising committee for the Good Treatment Campaign kept going, and it continues to run year-on-year, increasing in number and impact. Last September, more than 72,000 ‘Good Treatment Licenses’ were handed out by children in six cities in Bolivia, and the campaign has also spread to six other countries around the world. Click here to read more about the initiative.

An Expectant Lent: Your Kingdom Come, Your Will Be Done

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Part 2 of my Lent series for Viva. You can read Part 1 here.

‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done’ is a radical line in the Lord’s Prayer. To choose God’s will over our own, to ask for that foretaste of heaven – you can’t pray these words without boldness and expectation of the living God!

In the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, the character of Judas doesn’t like the direction Jesus is taking his ministry. As the character of Mary Magdalene pours ointment over Jesus’ feet, Judas interjects saying, “Woman, your fine ointment, brand new and expensive, should have been saved for the poor. Why has it been wasted? We could have raised maybe 300 silver pieces or more. People who are hungry, people who are starving matter more than [Jesus’] feet and hair!”

The musical portrays Judas as a hero of the poor and downtrodden, that it was he who kept the focus while Jesus entertained ideas of being the Messiah, riling the Roman authorities and placing a lot of people in danger in the process. In the climactic final song, ‘Superstar,’ the resurrected Judas says to the tortured Jesus just before he is about to be crucified, “Did you mean to die like that? Was that a mistake or did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?”

Of course, Jesus did mean to die like that.

Without that death, we could never be reconciled to the Father. In Jesus we have “one mediator between God and men” (1 Timothy 2: 5). And that’s part of the good news of the gospel which we anticipate celebrating after Lent. What it requires of us is to trust God, to trust he knows what he’s doing and, he seems to have a pretty good track record! (I’ve given up hyperbole for Lent…)

From the outside, Jesus’ ministry doesn’t always make sense. Why was his first miracle turning water into wine? Why did he tell the man healed of leprosy not to tell anyone what had happened? Why did he talk in parables rather than speak plainly?

But then, why did he die?

We pray ‘your Kingdom come, your will be done’ because God’s eternal perspective is far greater than our finite one.

We pray it because God can and does do far more than we can ever imagine in ways in which would never cross our minds.

God is a God of surprises, of unexpected encounters, of miracles worked in both the spectacular and the everyday.

At Viva, we pray ‘your Kingdom come, your will be done’ because it is God’s children we serve and we want to actualise and realise God’s heart for them. Our heart for them is great, it’s good, it’s well-intentioned and genuine and ardent, but God’s is always better.

It takes faith, it takes sacrifice, it takes obedience – but so did dying on a cross.

PRAYER:
Come, Holy Spirit. Come into our lives, come into our world, guide us in the direction you want us. Give us the grace to see your Kingdom come; give us the grace to be obedient to where you call us to be and what you call us to do. Thank you that we join in the celebration of Heaven when we experience foretastes of your Kingdom. Amen.

WHERE IN THE WORLD?
A refocus of the vision and purpose for work with children can re-inspire people who have been doing it for a while, to improve motivation to keep working, and to work better. Viva’s three-day training course, ‘Understanding God’s Heart for Children’ helps pastors and children’s workers to reflect on the experience and exploration of Scripture, and to enable them to hear and understand God’s desire and purpose for children. The course is currently equipping dozens of churches in India and Zimbabwe to meet the needs of children in their care with excellence.

10 Reasons To Apply For St Anselm

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Abbot selfie.

Applications are now open for the 2018/19 Community of St Anselm. In case you needed some encouragement to apply, here are my top ten* reasons why you should prayerfully consider it and give it a go…

A rule of life will set you free. It sounds paradoxical, but it’s true. We follow a rule of life which isn’t always easy. And yet, the rule of life is not there for us to measure ourselves up against, but to release us into joyful obedience so that we might flourish under discipline through which we encounter God.

You learn new ways of praying. Coming from the evangelical tradition, I’ve always felt inadequate at prayer. There had to be so many words that sound so impressive; everyone knows the longer your intercessions last, the holier you are… But so far I’ve learnt about simplicity, about new ways of entering in to God’s presence. I’ve learnt that prayer is not a skill to strive for, but a gift we are graciously given.

You will hear God. Even in silence. In fact, especially in silence! If the idea of prolonged silence intimidates you, it’s okay, you’re not alone! All of us were intimidated by it, from the most die-hard introverts to the most gregarious extroverts. God speaks, being part of St Anselm equips you to listen and discern his voice.

Your life will be transformed by the words ‘I choose you.’ As Christians, we’re called to love one another. Of course, we don’t always do a great job of that. As part of St Anselm, we are called to do something vastly more profound. We choose each other. We don’t say ‘I love you because I have to, but I don’t actually like you.’ We say ‘I choose you. I choose you not because we’re similar, not because we click, I choose you because you are the image of Christ, and I choose you afresh each day.’ To be chosen, to be desired in this way, unlocks the image of God within you so that you recognise your innate value for yourself.

It will break your heart. You fall in deep love with these people, your brothers and sisters. And then you come to the communion table, that cosmic equaliser. And equality is nowhere to be found. The words ‘we all share in one bread’ do not come true. The pain is indescribable.

Reconciliation and unity become priorities. It is from this pain, that your priorities change. Christian unity is no longer a nice idea, it’s an imperative.

There will be lots of fun. Indoor fireworks, quirky dancing, and Spice Girls parodies (‘if you wanna be my brother, you gotta have chastity.’ Some of the best fun will happen when washing up!

++Justin might tell you off for coming in late to evening prayer (and other fun quirks). It is pretty cool getting to say things like ‘I’m just going to Lambeth Palace.’ It is pretty cool to just walk into Lambeth Palace and no-one stops you! It’s a great behind-the-scenes look at one of the epicentres of Anglicanism.

God’s love is gratuitous and infinite. God desires to lavish his love upon each one of us. Yes, he is the king on his throne, but he is also the Father with arms flung wide for us to run into. St Anselm is not some kind of spiritual boot camp, it’s about realising just how profoundly and overwhelmingly you are loved by God and enjoying receiving that love.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting that!’ It’s impossible to describe what life at St Anselm is like. All I can say for certain is that I am humbled and thrilled and so so grateful that called me here this year. It’s changing my life. It’s replaced my expectations with God’s awesome plans, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

*I’ve way more than ten reasons, but I’m taking up brevity for Lent.

An Expectant Lent: Our Father In Heaven

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The first in my Lenten reflection series for Viva.

We begin Lent with Ash Wednesday, the day we remember that from dust we came ‘and to dust we shall return.’ It’s a time to remember that the world is in a broken state; that its citizens are daily subjected to appalling horrors and terrors.

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, says of Ash Wednesday and Lent:

“This time of year is a moment in which we are called afresh to look at the reality… of human sinfulness and evil – and to reflect that that lies deeply within ourselves, all of us without exception…

“A good Lent takes hold of that and, in an extraordinary way, makes space for the hope of Christ… not only in our individual lives but also in the life of the household and family, in the life of the Church and of local communities and, I would suggest in the life of society generally.”

Lent gives us reason to be expectant of the living God. One of the ways we encounter God and demonstrate our expectance is through prayer. Psalm 5:3 says, ‘In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.’

In the Lord’s Prayer, the reality of life, the hope of Christ, and the expectation of the living God which Lent encompasses, are beautifully realised and offer to us both challenge and encouragement.

During this six-part blog series, we’ll be reflecting on each line of the Lord’s Prayer, its impact on us personally, and how it relates to Viva’s global work in changing children’s lives.

Today: ‘Our Father in Heaven.’

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It can be challenging to call God ‘Father’, and yet, it is one of the most profound names we have for God. That we begin the Lord’s Prayer this way demonstrates that we are God’s children and he wants us to enter into his presence.

God loves his children and the Bible is full of examples of how we should treat children as a result. The most famous is in the gospels where Jesus says, Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of God belong to such as these.”

At Viva, the importance and value of children to God is the catalyst for our work. We work to release children from poverty and abuse worldwide and we’re not content with the status quo but rather we’re expectant for God’s working in the world and to follow where he leads us to work.

There’s a stunning picture of the prodigal son and his father by artist Charlie Mackesy. In it, the father embraces his son and holds him tight. Sometimes, Lent might feel like it’s you against the world: as you give up something, you reflect on your life. 

But it’s our Father we pray to; not only do we have God in all this, but we have each other as the body of Christ. We are dependent on each other. And children around the world are dependent on us.

We cannot pray the Lord’s Prayer in a vacuum, we have to pray it and bring before God all the children around the world whose lives we want to see transformed.

PRAYER
God, thank you that you are our Father and that we can enter into your presence.

Help us to live this Lent expectant that when we call on you, you hear us and that you are a living God who is active in this world.

Thank you that you love all of your children and help us to show this love to all we meet, especially the youngest and most vulnerable in our world.

Amen.

WHERE IN THE WORLD?
In Uganda, our partner network CRANE has helped over 1,700 children out of institutional care and back into the care of a safe, loving family – sometimes extended family of that child or otherwise foster families.

With support from local churches, CRANE listens to and mentors these families, and trains them in income generation. It also works with 35 orphanages to help them make a shift to places of short-term care, rather than being permanent homes for abandoned children. Read more about this work by clicking here.

 

Folding Laundry On Holy Ground

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Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

As the coach crossed the Tamar, I have to confess to being excited for what lay in store. A week of silence, a week of calm following what had been a frantic few weeks filled with lots of doing things and worrying about things and wrestling with a deluge of demands on my time and energy and self. Seeing Sclerder Abbey suddenly appear in the dark was a welcome sight; I had the childlike urge to run up to the building and hug its stone but thought better of it.

One final chance to talk, to share, to be the noisy and vibrant Community we are and in a moment, my tongue was tied. Fear gripped me. It was like being plunged into icy water, a bony hand holding me under. My last moments of free-talking were spent gagged. All the nerves and anxieties of what the week may hold came flooding back. If this was supposed to be about encountering the stream of living water then I was about to sink.

And at the name of Jesus, as those words of worship rose forth in the now familiar chapel, the hand lost its grip and into the silence, the proper silence, the holy silence of divine encounter, the final words ‘speak, Lord, for your servant is listening…’

In silence, the darkness is no longer so dark; the fire glows, the navy sky is warmer than black.

In silence, there is simplicity and joy to be found within it. Tasks like washing walls and peeling apples are not mundane but profound, consequential. Silence does not dismantle hierarchies, but it does demand equality.

In silence, you are rooted in the present. The bell rings through the old building, calling you to what is next, not what is in the days, months, years to come. So you notice things, the everyday things; you become aware that each day, this day, is a gift.

In silence, the chains of self-dependence are broken. You can’t journey this alone, you need others.

In silence, you can’t use other people. Yes, you need people, but you can’t use them; you can’t use them to find your validation, you can’t use them to derive your self-worth.

In silence, you reach a new depth of intimacy with those around you and it’s unity, and it tastes do deliciously sweet!

(In silence, you can’t do much when someone puts salt in the chocolate sauce rather than sugar… Decidedly not sweet!)

In silence, God is loud. He’s hard to ignore. He’s confrontational, but never aggressive. He’s persistent, but never degrading.

In silence, you get permission to plunder the riches to be found in the mystery of God.

In silence, you discover you are created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means, to save my soul.

In silence, you learn you are created; created, a creation, God’s creation and His works are wondrous – I know that full well – and I am one! I am a work of His hand, His design, His gifts, woven into my history which I surrender back to Him so they become His story.

In silence, you realise you are created to praise and it’s liberating. In the Lord, I’ll be ever thankful, in the Lord I will rejoice; bless the Lord my soul; alleluia, alleluia, amen amen, alleluia!

In silence, you understand you are created to reverence and your soul cannot hold back on proclaiming sanctus sanctus sanctus deus sabaoth because God is holy and He is King and Lord.

In silence, you recognise you are created to serve and there you are, folding laundry in a drafty outhouse, silent, in the presence of God, and standing on holy ground.

In silence, God is faithful and good and kind.

In silence, God’s love is infinite and gratuitous and overwhelming and never-ending and reckless – and for me.

In silence, God peels away scar tissue toxic to the body and fills wounds with living water and makes them His dwelling place.

In silence, God is everything He has said He is.

In silence, I am, with God’s help, everything He has declared I am.

In silence, I received gifts so generous, so numerous, to treasure.

In silence, I tasted, I savoured, I saw, and I heard. Because God is good. He is who He says He is. And He loves me.

And He loves you.

Be Filled. Be Free. Be Forgiven.

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A sermon on Luke 2:21-40.

 

I’ve been reading lots of stories on social media this week about how gyms across the country will this week put away all the extra equipment they’ve had out for the past two weeks as people’s New Year’s resolutions to get fit pretty abruptly fall by the wayside. The rhetoric surrounding New Year’s resolutions is the idea of ‘new year, new me,’ it’s a desire for transformation. But what we often find is that changing is hard.

I don’t know if any of you made New Year’s resolutions and if so, how well they’re going thus far, but as we begin a new series in our morning services, exploring the glimpses of the living God in the early life of Jesus, this offers us the opportunity to reflect on what habits and spiritual disciplines we might want or need to cultivate that can help us to encounter God every day.

If you want to know what a lifetime of spiritual discipline looks like, Simeon and Anna are a good place to start. They are remarkable for being unremarkable; two ordinary people through whom God revealed the extraordinary; they both get their first glimpse of the living God in the flesh and both speak out about how this child before them will bring about the salvation of the world. They are two people just like us who dedicated their lives to God and who exercised spiritual discipline in response to divine encounter, which led to continued divine encounter.  That’s not to say their example isn’t intimidating! We read in verse 37 how Anna never left the temple, but prayed and fasted day and night. That’s a pretty serious commitment.

You may remember that a few months ago I made a pretty big commitment of my own. I joined the Community of St Anselm, which is a modern monastic-style community based at Lambeth Palace, led by Archbishop Justin Welby. One of the main elements to the community is having to follow a Rule of Life which contains no fewer than fifteen parts to it, in fact there are so many parts to it that I cannot remember what they all are off the top of my head. But one of the aspects to the Rule of Life is about welcoming the work of the Holy Spirit within us. It states:

We acknowledge that God calls us holy though our experience says we are not. In humility we say our ‘yes’ and ‘amen’ and choose to act in obedience to Him whose Word changes our reality.

Transformation without the help of the Holy Spirit and his sanctifying work in us is futile. It’s God who brings about lasting change within us. The impressive spiritual discipline shown by Simeon and Anna is not of their own making but is the work of the Holy Spirit in them, drawing them into deeper intimacy with God so that they are more familiar with his voice and his presence and so can respond faithfully to him. If we want to go deeper in our relationship with God, the first thing is to be filled; to give our ‘yes’ to God and allow him to fill us with his Holy Spirit so that he might begin that sanctifying and transformative work in us. Your past isn’t going to count against you. God offers each and every one of us the opportunity to be filled.

It is from that place of being filled by the Holy Spirit, that Simeon and Anna live lives of worship. For Anna, we see it in the discipline of her unceasing worship in the temple; for Simeon, we see it in his trusting in the promise that he will see the Messiah thus keeping close to God so that he is ready and willing to respond to the Spirit’s prompting.

Their exercise of spiritual discipline is quite different from how we might perceive spiritual discipline. The word discipline doesn’t necessarily conjure up the most positive of images. One of the reasons why I wanted to join St Anselm was because I thought it would be spiritual boot camp. I thought the best thing for my spiritual life would be to have a restrictive experience where my incessantly chatty inner monologue and easily distracted mind could be squashed under the weight of a Rule of Life which made anything other than prayer impossible. Then, and only then, would I learn to pray properly and graduate from being a Christian Level One and finally progress onto Level Two.

The problem is, I found the exact opposite. When you try to cultivate spiritual discipline without being filled with the Holy Spirit, your discipline is dependent on yourself. But this isn’t the motivation of Simeon and Anna’s disciplined lives. When you are filled with the Holy Spirit, spiritual discipline is not about restriction but about freedom. The Rule of Life we community members try to follow is not there for us to measure ourselves against and to see our shortcomings. Rather, the Rule of Life opens up ways for us to encounter the living God and in drawing near to him, we find mercy not punishment, we find the God who wants us to be free to worship him without fear. We need to be filled so that in our spiritual discipline we can be free to worship the living God rather than punish ourselves with our self-imposed restrictions.

Without this freedom, the Christian life is more of a slog– and it is a bit of a slog sometimes. Simeon is given a promise for which he has to wait an awfully long time. In a time and place where wannabe messiahs roamed the land promising everything and delivering nothing, Simeon waits on the Lord. And then, finally, it happens, something stirs his insides and this is it! The Messiah he’s been promised he will see has arrived. He races to the temple and – oh, it’s a baby. If I was Simeon and I had been promised that I would see the Messiah, I’d probably be expecting I’d get to see the Messiah being, y’know, Messiah-y. And yet God honours his promise to Simeon in a much more amazing way as he gets a glimpse of the salvation of all nations. When we are able to be free in our discipline it allows us to set aside our expectations of what we think God should do and, instead, we become open to God’s unexpected glimpses, which are always far more incredible than anything we could ever have expected.

It’s not easy. Sometimes life is hard. Sometimes life is bitterly disappointing. Imagine Anna, in a culture where women were raised to be wives and mothers, she gets married, her life trajectory seems set, and then it’s gone. But she keeps going, she keeps pursuing intimacy with God because she is free to worship, and that’s how you keep going with spiritual discipline when times are hard or mundane or busy. It’s a response to the God who is unchanging rather than being dependent on how you’re feeling that day. When we make spiritual discipline dependent on restricting ourselves to a standard we’ve imposed rather than a response to God, we lose the constancy spiritual discipline gives us to get through whatever life throws at us.

As part of St Anselm, I have to wear this cross. It was very strange putting it on for the first few weeks but now it’s a habit. If I forget it, I notice it; but what I don’t notice is how often I grab hold of it throughout the day and how the feel of it in my hand reminds me that God is with me. Spiritual discipline enables us to encounter the unchanging God and we don’t experience that through restriction, but through freedom. We need to be filled and we need to be free.

And finally, we need to remember that we are forgiven. Let’s hear those great words of Simeon’s song again:

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.

I love this passage in Luke’s Gospel which, for me, is one of the best passages throughout scripture. The glimpse of the living God we see is the God who has saved us. And there is no salvation for us without the forgiveness of our sins. And this revelation of God affirms that in the most wonderful way. Because here is God as a tiny baby, fragile and vulnerable, which resonates perfectly with our own fragility as human beings. When it comes to spiritual discipline, we will mess up, we will make mistakes. But we are forgiven. When we fall short, God doesn’t flounce off in disgust, instead he offers us his forgiveness. What we need to do is accept it for the gift of grace that it is and allow ourselves to be forgiven.

It’s counter-intuitive but sometimes we like to hold onto our guilt and our shame because maybe we don’t feel like God has ever truly forgiven us. Or maybe we’ve been holding onto those things for so long that we don’t know who we are without them. Maybe we hold onto them because we feel we deserve punishment rather than mercy.

But look at this glimpse of God seen here as a baby presented in the temple. This is a God who knows, a God who understands, this is a God who gets what it’s like to feel pain, and this is a God who loves you without condition, who wants you to draw near to him and encounter him day after day after day. This is a God who has revealed himself to you because he longs for a relationship with you. He has forgiven you, so allow yourself to be forgiven, show yourself the same mercy he has shown you.

Let’s be filled by the Holy Spirit so that we may be transformed; let’s be free in our spiritual discipline so that it comes from a place of worship rather than restriction; and let’s every day choose to be forgiven and so live each day with the living God who loves us and shows us his mercy. Be filled. Be free. Be forgiven.