Friday, 31 December 2010

Why England lose at Football and win at Cricket

2010 has seen very different fortunes for our sports teams. The England cricket team is on the up, having retained (and surely about to win) the Ashes, the best competition in world cricket. The football team on the other hand had a dreadful World Cup, and if the recent home game against France is anything to go by, have not improved since then. There was a moment at the end of the recent test against Aussies that illustrated the difference between the teams and their approach. Having won the test and retained the Ashes, the entire England team performed the 'Sprinkler' dance in front of the barmy army. The question is: can you imagine the England football team doing that in front of England football fans? Basically, no. And I think there are a number of reasons for that, that perhaps go to the heart of why one team is successful and the other isn't - the cricketers realize that at the end of the day, sport is ultimately a matter of fun.

The barmy army are very different from England football fans. The cricket fans (a bit like Irish or Scottish football fans) will have a good time and support the team whether they win or not. There is an anarchic sense of fun about them that the football fans lack. I always find going to England football games rather depressing - there are too many wealthy bankers who are only there because they can afford it, or snarling racists whose only reaction to an England goal is not joy but anger and gloating. A glance at the barmy army song website - - tells you what you need to know - this is a combination of complete commitment and utter fun.

The England football team also has a joyless streak about it as well. I don't know if that's down to Capello, or the strength of the club system that makes it hard for the players to gel as a team, or what. But it's all very corporate, manicured and moneyed. You get little sense of a team working together, because it all feels so serious and intense. Swanny's video diary breathes a whole different world. Deadly serious about winning, yet having a lark at the same time.

Fundamentally, The cricket set-up, both player and fans have realized something very deep and important about sport that the footballers haven't. That sport is a celebration of the fact that we are not to be taken as seriously as we often take ourselves. God created us not because he had to, or because he wanted to use us for some purpose, but, so to speak, for the sheer fun of it. Out of simple delight. To out it more theologically or philosophically, we are contingent and not necessary. Life is ultimately about delight, joy and wonder, and sport at it's best reflects that. Of course there is a serious side to life when all that is denied, goes wrong and needs to be put right, but that mustn't cloud the deepest sense of sheer joy that life is meant to bring, and that sport in it greatest moments brings about. The cricketers have realized that a sense of fun can go alongside an intensity about winning that brings success, a sense of camaraderie that somehow the national football set-up lacks and needs to find. So for the time being well-done to Straussy and the lads. And keep up the Sprinkler.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Foskett Rd,Hammersmith,United Kingdom

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Advent Sermon

Preached a sermon on waiting in Advent, and why the second coming is hard to imagine recently at HTB - audio and video files are here -

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, 1 November 2010

Loving not Thinking

I've been reading James Smith's 'Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation'. Very insightful. He takes what I have long thought the right approach that sees our desires as more fundamental than our thoughts. In other words we are driven more by our loves than our ideas, our hearts rather than our heads, our feelings rather than our principles. It is of course Augustine's anthropology reproduced in Pascal and others. At the end of the day we do what we want to do, because that is the way we are made. We are loving, desiring animals before we are thinking beings, and our ideas are shaped more by our loves and desires than we care to admit. So the key to Christian life and growth is not suppressing our desires but changing them. It is no use trying to get people to change by feeding them information, or just by 'teaching' them truth (even biblical truth!). First they have to learn to love truth. Smith puts it well - we are primarily lovers before we are thinkers or actors. Our desires define us, shape us and are more fundamental than anything else in us. Thinking is in fact our reflection on our desires and ordering them rightly, assessing which ones are healthy and which aren't.

Smith focusses on worship and 'liturgy' understood in the broadest sense as shaping our desires and loves. The practices we perform regularly educate and train us to desire what they point to. For example, going into a shopping mall draws us into a story that makes us desire to be part of it. It tells us that to what we really want is sleek hair, so we need l'Oreal shampoo, or we want carefree driving on empty roads, so we need to buy a Mercedes, or we want sex, so we need we need to buy Lynx deodorant. In other words they sell us a desire, a vision of what it will take for us to flourish, and tell us how to satisfy it. More generally Smith says it is vital to watch habits and practices we do regularly, so that we are educated to love the right things, to long for what is good and healthy, not what is destructive and damaging. He shows how 'secular liturgies' - the assumptions and practices that we engage in in malls, universities and sports events train us to desire a certain way of life or 'vision of human flourishing'. Therefore central to Christian formation is liturgy - regular practices that train us in desiring the Kingdom of God.

I have two minor critiques: one is that he focusses on the need to desire the Kingdom, whereas I would have thought the primary Christian desire to be cultivated is a desire for God - a subtle distinction but an important one. Certainly that's what Augustine would have said, and focussing on the Kingdom rather than God himself seems to me a little little like focussing on God's gifts rather than God himself. Worship has to cultivate a desire for God first and his Kingdom second. The second is that he overestimates the power of 'liturgies', however broadly understood, and underestimates the power of community to shape us. It seems to me we are shaped in our desires as much by the people we choose to spend time with as the practices we engage in. Choosing your friends wisely seems a vital decision is deciding what you will end up loving, and therefore what you will turn out to be.

Anyway a good read and well worth the effort.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:St Albans,United Kingdom

Saturday, 23 October 2010

I have seen the future

Tonight I watched something quite amazing. I am in Hong Kong for a few days, staying on the Kowloon side, and in a rare spare few hours wandered out towards the water. I stumbled on something called the symphony of lights, a light show unlike anything I have ever seen. It involved all the buildings on the Hong Kong island side lighting up in all kinds of synchronised patterns in time with music drifting across the channel. If you know the Hong Kong skyline, you'll know how impressive it is anyway at night. But this was something else. Lasers, whole skyscrapers changing colour, flashing lights ups and down the office blocks, all perfectly choreographed along the shoreline. It was a stunning piece of technology, far beyond anything I've seen anywhere else, all the more impressive because it was just a bit of fun for the tourists.

If ever there was evidence that China and Asia are the future this was it. I felt like I came from a tired old continent, trying to shore itself up after a financial meltdown that means we are cutting back all over the place, while China marches on. Looks like Asia is the future.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Kowloon Park Dr,,Hong Kong

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Life has to mean something

Watched 'About Schmidt', on a flight to Hong Kong yesterday, the 2002 Jack Nicholson film about a man who retires from his career as an Actuary. Soon his wife from a rather unfulfilling marriage dies, his daughter is getting married to a loser, he has nothing to do. He discovers his wife had an affair with his best friend that he never knew about, he visits his old firm and his old school, but they have moved on seamlessly without him. He tries to stop his daughter's wedding with no success. He travels across America in a Winnebago, visiting tacky places and making drab observations on them.
It is the story of a life lived without depth or significance. It is the story of a dawning realisation of the need for significance and meaning beyond survival and routine. At the end he says: 'We are all pretty small in the big scheme of things and I suppose the most you can hope for is to make some kind of difference. But what difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me? I am weak and a failure. There's just no getting around it. Relatively soon I will die. Once I am dead and those who knew me are dead it will be as though I never really existed. What difference will my life have made? None that I can think of. None at all.' It is the saddest confession, the saddest story I have heard in a long time. Yet there is something strangely heroic about it. It takes courage to realise it, stare it in the face and say it. Not everyone can do that. That is repentance – the clarity of mind that sees our own emptiness and unimportance on our own. We cannot live without significance, without life meaning something. Warren Schmidt is Everyman, Mr Smith. Many are like him. Few get to the realisation he makes of the superficiality, the emptiness of lives lived without a broader purpose, without being part of a bigger story, a story in which they amount to something 'in the big scheme of things', God's scheme of things. To realise that is the beginning of wisdom. To do something about it is even better.

Friday, 24 September 2010

God Owes us Nothing

This is the title of a book I read a while ago by the philosopher Leszek Kolakowski. The book is actually about Blaise Pascal and the way the Catholic church rejected the Jansenist frame of mind in the C17th, but that's by the by. What has got me thinking again is the title: God Owes us Nothing. It's a powerful thought, maybe on first sight depressing, but the more I have thought about it, the key to a whole lot of wisdom.

Kolakowski's point is that this is essentially the insight at the heart of the Augustinian tradition in Christianity, something common to much mediaeval thought, to Luther, to Calvin and to Pascal. The book chronicles how it was firmly shown the door by the RC church in the Jansenist/Jesuit/Molinist controversies of the C17th. Although initially forbidding, I am increasingly convinced this insight is the way to a truly liberating way of life. If God owes me something – happiness, wealth, health or whatever, I will naturally feel short-changed if I don't get it. You regularly hear stories of people who believed in God, until a friend got ill, or died, or they saw some tragedy, or heard about the tsunami, or encountered real suffering and 'lost their faith'. I suspect this happens because deep down we think that God owes us something, and if God doesn't give it, then the problem is with God – either that he is unkind, or simply doesn't exist. If God owes me something and he doesn't provide it, I lose faith in God. To begin however from the perspective that God owes us nothing – that we have no rights over him, no claim on him, means that everything we do get comes as a gift – as a sheer delight, something to be deeply grateful for. Every breath, friendship, act of kindness, chocolate, football, strawberries – they are all gifts not rights. It suddenly turns everything about my life from something I feel I have right to, and moan mercilessly about if I lose it, to something that is a true surprise. Our natural cry 'it's not fair' when something bad happens to us reflects this same basic idea – that we somehow deserve fairness or justice.

To that extent the Dawkins brigade are perhaps right – we should not think the universe is made for us, that we are any more than specks of life on a distant planet, and we should give up our delusions of deserving divine intervention when things go a bit wrong. The essence of Christian faith is the faith that although this is precisely what we should expect, the surprise is that we do receive so much from the hand of God. Despite our insignificance, we have been privileged by God to play a key role on this planet of reflecting his image to the rest of creation. We do sometimes enjoy gifts of health, laughter, sport, music, shelter etc., and these are neither random accidents of a faceless universe, nor things we have a right to expect because of our inherent deserving, but gratuitous, free gifts from the heart that beats behind it all.

It is so much better to view everything as unexpected and gratuitous gift than as right. 'Rights' make us grasping, holding onto things and insisting on them – it centres life around me and what I deserve. 'Gift' makes us grateful, always delighted with the new things that come, and a bit more philosophical about stuff we lose. In the Christian life, if I think God owes me something, then grace and mercy will not seem a miracle to me at all – after all, it's only what I deserve. If God owes us nothing, his grace, the gift of Jesus, the Holy Spirit his provision of my needs are all miracles, things I don't deserve and thus to be given thanks for with a constant sense of wonder and amazement. This insight is perhaps the key to a truly thankful and (relatively) carefree life. It is perhaps the key to happiness.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

The God debate – why does it leave me cold?

There's something about the God debate that troubles me. The atheists demand evidence for God, and trumpet their confident assertions that he doesn't exist. The Christians (why aren't Muslims and Jews involved in this debate more?) argue back, fighting the battle on God's behalf. It basically boils down to the atheist argument that it is possible to explain the emergence of the world in its own terms, whether through physics (Hawking) or biology (Dawkins), with the religious coming back with the argument that even so, how can something emerge out of nothing? However the laws of evolution or gravity might provide a complete mechanism for launching the world and developing life, it is still hard to conceive of something appearing out of nothing at all, the basic problem the atheist argument has yet to answer properly, in my view at least.

Nonetheless, all this does slightly leave me cold and misses something essential about the nature of Christian faith and theology. Even if it were established by proper argumentation that God existed, if Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and friends suddenly announced that after all they were convinced and that God did exist after all, what difference would it make? Arriving at the conclusion that God exists is a long way from Christian faith. And of course it could never really happen that way anyway Jesus says: "If anyone chooses to do God's will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own." (John 7.17). In other words, it is only when I begin to act on the words of Jesus, to live as if it might be true that God is there, loves me, you and the world, that I will begin to know for sure whether Jesus and all those who say there is a God are right or not.

Christian belief is the kind of thing that only comes into its own, only becomes real when activated by practice, not just by assent. Until then, the arguments seem rather sterile. It is why when Christina faith becomes inactive and discipleship ceases, before long people often stop even believing in God in any substantial way. As George Bernanos once put it: "Faith is not a thing one loses. We merely cease to shape our lives by it." Jesus also says repeatedly '"Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it." (Lk 11.28). It is only when hearing translates into doing that we begin to understand. Christian theology cannot be separated from Christian practice, and for that reason, arguments over the existence of God that lack that dimension, that fail to emphasise that you only begin to know God when you obey him, will always ultimately miss the point.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Calvin. Luther and Barth

Just started reading Barth's lectures on Calvin from 1922. He comes up with the surprising statement that 'nothing really new came into history with the Reformation'. He has an interesting contract between the enthusiast Caspar Schwenkfeld who thought the Reformation was the dawn of a new age, with Luther's conviction that it was nothing new, but the re-discovery or reintroduction of something old, the Word of God, meeting history as it did in the 1st century, the 5th and every other time when the Word has made itself heard. "The world now faces God's Word exactly as it did two thousand years ago. God's Word always comes down on the same time". It is a broader, grander philosophy of history that sees the connections of history not the disconnections. It warns us against the kind of historical excitement that is always seeing a 'new generation arising' or 'a new day dawning', but a proper humility about history and a sense of the eternity of God and his revelation in contrast to our fleeting whims and self-important delusions of our own historical significance.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Praying in the dark

I am not the kind of person who prays for people and they instantly glow or fall over. In fact most of the time after I have prayed for people, they smile politely, say thank you and nothing much seems to happen. I guess I hope it's been vaguely helpful and leave it at that.

The other day I met someone I prayed for about three years ago. He told me that after that prayer he had been healed of a depression that he had endured for about 40 years. Now this doesn't happen very often. It certainly doesn't happen to my prayers very often. I dimly remember praying for him, and it seemed like most of the other times I've prayed for people – pleasant but a trifle disappointing. It was just an ordinary prayer, prayed because someone asked me to, with just a modicum of faith that he and I could muster - a very small modicum of faith on my part. Sore knees and headaches are one thing, but I'm not sure I really think God can heal clinical depression. But he did. And in some way, my small prayer was part of that. Jesus said you only needed faith as small as a mustard seed for something pretty remarkable to happen. It shouldn't be, but it is surprising when you see that happen in front of your very eyes, because my faith was definitely in mustard seed territory, barely visible. I'm sure my prayer was not the key factor, and was just one of many. But it somehow blended with all kinds of other requests, tears and longings that were heard in the courts of heaven and resulted in this man's life being changed, the dark cloud of gloom lifting and happiness returning. If we can play a part in that, then surely it is worth keeping praying even if nothing much seems to happen. It is always worth praying, even when you can't quite bring yourself to believe it will make much difference.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Rev - a triumph?

I thought this TV review from the Evening Standard tonight was telling and hopeful...

...while young men feed the beast in Edinburgh, a comic miracle is taking place on our television screens. Last night was the final episode of Rev, BBC's against-all-the-odds hit about an inner- London vicar. The comedy flowed from the kindly but flawed Rev, played by Tom Hollander. It was like Richard Curtis but with melancholy shadows.
London's curious coalition of C of E congregations — parents trying to get their children into church schools, black gospel, alpha, and the homeless and oddball — forms a tableau of humanity. I'm sure the Bishop of London recognises it, although I am certain he would not compare himself to the worldly and menacing Archdeacon Robert, played by Simon McBurney.

The struggle to be virtuous is the deepest human conflict and Rev is a painfully funny study of ambition, envy and loneliness as well as fellow feeling.

Great novelists from Trollope onwards have found literary inspiration in the church. I've been reading Adam Sisman's biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper, whose popularity rested on his Hitler studies but whose interest was in the drama and contradictions of religion.
Yet in recent years we have abandoned Christianity as worthy of study. Its richness has been reduced to comic one-liners or obscene satire. Secularists have been able to divorce the C of E from the rest of existence. Rev is a lesson that public taste and sensibility has a different centre of gravity to that of opinion formers. The joy of Rev was not just the unexpected size and breadth of its television audience. It was that, at its peak, it beat Big Brother in audience ratings. Television is Risen!

Saturday, 22 May 2010

The Holy Spirit: Theology for the Twenty-First Century

Well, our conference on the Theology of the Holy Spirit has come and gone. Quite a remarkable time in all kinds of ways. I’ll reflect more on it in time when the dust has settled. Meanwhile here is an article I wrote recently and which was published in the Church Times a few weeks ago.

What kind of theology is needed in the twenty-first century? Perhaps more than most, it is a theology of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit used regularly to be called the ‘forgotten member of the Trinity’. No longer. The last forty years has seen a whole host of theological work on Pneumatology from Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Pentecostal theologians, at the same time as what many would call an outpouring of the Spirit on all kinds of churches around the world. Karl Barth, towards the end of his life, famously dreamed of a theology which would start with Pneumatology rather than Christology, but which he, like Moses, was only allowed to see from afar. Now is a time to imagine what such a theology might be like, not just because of the crises faced by the church, but also the world.

Contemporary societies desperately need cohesion and a deep sense of common life and purpose. The fragmentation of the former eastern bloc in the 1990s, the religious conflicts that have shaken global confidence since the rise of militant Islam, the continued growth in the gap between rich and poor, all make us painfully aware of division and disharmony. The search is not just for a common set of values (probably impossible to find in an irreversibly pluralist society like ours), but a deeper common spirit, a sense of kindness, peace, patience, gentleness towards one another. These of course are the classic Christian gifts of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is for Christians the source of all community and cohesion. At almost every church service Christians invoke the ‘fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ along with the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God. The New Testament emphases the Spirit’s work in drawing what would otherwise be dissonant chaos into varied unity. The unity of the Spirit is not uniformity but harmony in difference – precisely what a divided world and church needs.

Then there is the ecological crisis. David Attenborough recently said: “I’m no longer sceptical. I don’t have any doubt at all. I think climate change is the major challenge facing the world today.” One of the central themes in biblical Pneumatology is that the Spirit ‘broods over the creation’ (Gen 1.2) and ‘renews the face of the earth.’ (Ps 104.30). The experience of the Spirit is a foretaste, deposit or firstfruits here and now of the new creation, the world that one day will come. The bold Christian claim is that the Holy Spirit is the hope for the future of the earth – that we are not alone in our attempts to save the planet. We are working with the Spirit of God who gives life and power to renew a damaged earth.

At the same time, the church, at least in western Europe, is also is dire need of a new start. Faced by scandals, moral and theological quarrels and numerical decline, if the church in this continent is to stand any chance of revival and renewal, it will need a fresh wave of the Spirit, yet one that breaks out of the narrow confines of the charismatic to infuse all traditions of the church. As Rowan Williams recently said: “It is the work of the Spirit that heals the Body of Christ, not the plans or the statements of any group, or any person, or any instrument of communion.” The church sorely needs a fresh breath of the Spirit who makes all things new.

Theology also needs the Spirit. Everyone knows how theological study can become arid, divisive and dull. Theology in the Spirit, as the Greek Fathers, for example, always envisaged it, is different. Rather than an object of theological enquiry, the Spirit makes engaged, worshipful theological enquiry possible, by bringing us into relationship with the Father and the Son – the God into whom we enquire with our minds. In other words, if we are to take the theology of the Spirit with full seriousness, it engages us immediately in the realm of encounter – the intimate closeness of being brought into the life and love at the heart of the Trinity, not just in theory but in practice and experience - so that our theology gets done within that experience, not outside of it. A theology of the Spirit will be a matter of the heart as well as the mind.

Pneumatology is not a rival to Christology. It merely offers us a new way into it, inviting us to know Christ through the Spirit, rather than just study him by unaided reason. J├╝rgen Moltmann once wrote: “The relation of the church to the Holy Spirit is the relation of epiklesis, continual invocation of the Spirit and unconditional opening for the experiences of the Spirit who confers fellowship and who makes life truly worth living." This sounds exactly what the church and the world needs today. In May of this year, Professor Moltmann, along with Miroslav Volf, David Ford and Rowan Williams all spoke at a conference on ‘the Holy Spirit in the World Today’ hosted by St Mellitus College, St Paul’s Theological Centre and Holy Trinity Brompton. It is a sign of the future. It is an example of the growing convergence of dynamic church life and theological work, a renewed exploration of Pneumatology in the context of worship and experience of the Spirit. This kind of serious reflection both on the rich Christian heritage of theology of the Spirit and on the experience of the Spirit in the church and the world has the potential to re-imagine a more holistic and dynamic Christian approach to the contemporary world. Pneumatology is theology for the twenty-first century.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The new Robin Hood movie is out soon. The story has such power that it gets re-told in every generation - Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner and now Russell Crowe.

Maybe the story has such power because it appeals to something deep within - a desire for things to be different.  The legend is well known – Robin Hood steals from the rich to give to the poor, lives in Sherwood Forest with the merry men and Maid Marian, and regularly manages to annoy the Sheriff of Nottingham. What relationship the story bears to historical reality is hard to tell. However, the context in which the story is usually set is significant. In the twelfth century England’s rightful king, Richard, had left the country to fight in the Crusades. In his absence, his brother Prince John had set himself up as king in his place. Not content with this, John had also inflicted heavy taxation on and curtailed the hunting rights of the peasants, who were already kept firmly in their place by a strict feudal system.

Robin Hood was the leader of a kind of resistance movement that refused to accept the rule of ‘King’ John,
and kept alive the hope of the return of the true king, Richard. When news began to filter through to England that King Richard was on his way home, and had in fact landed, Robin Hood and his followers began to whisper the news around to their fellow countrymen, who had by now given up hope, that the true king had not forgotten them, and that things were one day going to be different. For a while they still had to live under uncertainty and even oppression until ‘King’ John was finally defeated, but the news was out, and nothing could keep them quiet.

Robin Hood’s band of resistance fighters is a surprising, but not a bad image for the Church in the world today. They live under an oppressive regime, but have a sense of joy and lightness because they know that the present system is not the last word. They know that the true king is coming, and that things will one day be different. From time to time, they still remind the false powers that their rule is temporary and bogus, by acts of rebellion that recall the true king. They also whisper around the good news that things don’t have to be like this. The king is coming, in fact he has already landed, and we can happily defy the current powers and live instead under the laws and rule of the true proper king. It sometimes means they are out of step with others who haven't heard and think the current regime is all there is, but it's a much lighter, more positive way to live - looking forward to the day when all will be different and the usurper will be de-throned.

Political change can make a temporary and minor difference, but ultimately only divine action can bring in an entirely new realm. Christians are those who have heard news that there is another king, another kingdom, under whose rule things are very different. And this is the big story – the kingdom has come, in Jesus Christ. The king has arrived and if you look hard enough, you can see signs around that things are becoming different.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The Holy Spirit in the World Today

On May 20th & 21st this year, we're organising a conference at Holy Trinity Brompton on 'the Holy Spirit in the World Today.' It's hosted by St Paul's Theological Centre and St Mellitus College along with HTB, and we have a pretty stellar line-up of speakers. Jurgen Moltmann is coming over from Tubingen, Miroslav Volf from Yale, David Ford from Cambridge, and Rowan Williams from down the road in Lambeth. Add to that Tom Smail as the grand old man of Pneumatology, Tom Greggs from Chester and a host of others doing seminars, and it promises to be a fantastic time.

I'm convinced Pneumatology is theology for the twenty-first century. The Spirit connects us into God, transforms division into unity, renews the face of the earth and revives the church. Those all sound to me like things we need rather badly in our world, let alone the church, so looking at the theology of the Spirit is just what the doctor ordered right now. To book in, go to - It's filling up fast, so book your place now!

Monday, 12 April 2010

Worship and Sacrifice

In our church we were recently debating the needs of different worshippers. Do we remove the chairs, leaving a more relaxed atmosphere, with space to move around, lie on the floor, or keep them in, respecting the needs of older people (like me) who need a chair to rest their creaking limbs?

It got me thinking about the relationship between worship and sacrifice. Old Testament sacrifices were not only made to atone for sin - they were often acts and offerings of worship. Pagan worship in New Testament times also took the form of sacrifice to the gods. And although Christian worship assumes the prior once-only sacrifice of Christ, it still involves sacrifice, if Romans 12 is anything to go by. Worship does benefit us - it inspires us to devotion, restores perspective etc. but perhaps that is only a secondary function of worship. Perhaps the primary aspect of worship is sacrifice - the giving up of my own energy, time, desires, preferences, to offer something to God that costs me something because it is worth something. So perhaps the main act of worship I offer when I come to gather with my fellow Christians is when I engage with a form of worship that actually I find hard, or when I give up a level of comfort that I would prefer for the sake of my fellow Christian brothers and sisters, or even those on the fringes of the church, who love to worship that way - to enable them to gain some of the benefit that worship can bring.

If I am honest, although often I love it, at other times I struggle with loud contemporary music at every service and long for a little quiet Book of Common Prayer, or classical orchestral music (not the organ, please!). Yet I'm also aware mine is a minority and perhaps antiquated taste in contemporary culture. Perhaps my main act of worship is precisely NOT to insist on my preferred style and instead be willing to enter into a worship style that others find helpful and meaningful. Of course there are limits to this - we need to keep the balance between the elements of benefit (beneficium) and sacrifice (sacrificium) in worship. But if worship is an offering of something valuable, something we do ultimately for God's sake not for our own, then what we give up in worship may be more significant than what we gain.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Christian Freedom

Freedom to choose is one the ‘rights’ we all think we have.Yet global culture today seems poised between visions of freedom that look more like destructive license, and ways of life that restrict the liberty of huge sections of society such as women, ethnic or religious minorities, or the poor who have little access to the wealth that brings opportunity. In the gospel, Christ offers us freedom, but what does that mean? What kind of freedom does he offer?

In 1520 Martin Luther wrote a short work called ‘The Freedom of a Christian’. In it he celebrated the freedom all Christians possess: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.” In faith, a Christian is freed from the demands of law, of external human requirements that override personal conscience or liberties. The Christian enjoys what St Paul called the ‘glorious liberty of the children of God.’ Yet this is only half of the picture of Christian freedom in Luther’s mind. The other half he summarizes in the statement: “The Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” In other words, the Christian, having received her freedom from Christ then freely surrenders that very freedom to become the servant of others.
It seems at first sight an odd argument. What might make a sane person seemingly turn their back on the delicious freedom from obligation, freedom to choose, freedom to act as they wish, only to become a slave again? The most straightforward answer is in the simple insight that for the Christian, freedom is a gift not a right.

In the Enlightenment, freedom was very much a right. It was ‘self-evident’ to Thomas Jefferson that ‘Liberty’ was one of the ‘inalienable rights’ of human beings as defined in the American Declaration of Independence. Yet ‘Freedom’ in the New Testament has a metaphorical power that it does not possess for us today – it is a metaphor of freedom from slavery. For a Christian, freedom is not an ‘inalienable right’. It is something forfeited by sin, and restored by the grace of Christ. It might not have been this way.
Because of this, Christian freedom comes with a sense of obligation and indebtedness. It is still true gift, yet it carries with it a sense that you are in the debt of the giver, not in a binding way, but out of sheer gratitude and wonder. It elicits the desire to do something, anything to honour the giver. St Paul, as usual, puts it succinctly: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love, become slaves to one another.”

There is in Christian theology another answer to the question of why followers of Christ are called to surrender their ‘freedom’ to become a slave all over again. A Christian anthropology does not see humankind as neutral agents, perfectly balanced between good and evil, quite capable of choosing one or the other. That was precisely the Pelagian heresy opposed by St Augustine and many others since. We experience instead a bias in our nature, an instinct to choose our own interests above those of others, to be jealous of those who succeed, to be angry with those who cross us, to ignore those who need our help. Christian redemption on the other hand offers freedom from such destructive habits. It offers freedom from a guilty conscience, and the power of the Holy Spirit in the discipline and fellowship of the church, to learn new patterns of behaviour and new instincts.

A Christian vision of freedom, is paradoxically, freedom NOT to do what I want. It means freedom from the compulsion to follow the slavish and often destructive desires of sinful human will – the very desires which as we saw earlier so often destroy relationships, lives and communities. It means the ability to say ‘no’ to actions and impulses which fail to express God’s will for humankind as revealed to us in Christ, the Scriptures and the Christian tradition. Christian freedom does not give me carte blanche to act as I choose, to indulge whatever desires may rise out of my heart, but there is a higher order of freedom, freedom to be who we were created to be, creatures capable of and naturally inclined to self-sacrificial love, freedom to say no to myself and yes to the good of my neighbour, wife, children, friend or even enemy.

We are experiencing what some commentators have called ‘the crisis of freedom’. The challenge faced by many contemporary societies is whether they can retain the important liberties gained through technology and political emancipation, yet at the same time, not allow such freedom to become destructive of the very things which bind people and communities together. This vision of freedom as the sheer gracious gift of God, which carries a deep sense of indebtedness and which evokes the desire to please the giver, offers a radical alternative to heteronomous repressive demand. At the same time, the notion of freedom as liberation from destructive and selfish desire, becoming capable of the very self-sacrificial love which God in Christ displays at Calvary, builds community and relationship.

The result is a vision of a community not (as in many ancient societies) where some are masters and some are slaves, nor (as in many modern ones) where everyone is a master, and none are slaves, but one in which all are free, yet are called to choose the path of being slaves of one another - only this time it is freely chosen service, not unwilling conformity. Such a vision of common life whether applied to a nation, a business, a university or a neighbourhood holds the promise of harmony which comes only through the willing, freely-chosen surrender of freedom. Yet it is the church, which first and foremost is called to live such a common life. Today, in our current crisis of freedom, that is perhaps its greatest task.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

One the best days ever...

Yesterday I took and preached at the wedding of Sam, our wonderful and only son, to the lovely Jenni. It was just a fantastic day all round. Jenni came in to Coldplay, they both walked out to U2, and in between, a really excellent band led some very fine worship with a great brass section. I preached on 1 John 4, with some help from Martin Luther. Sam and Jenni were on top of the world, loads of family and good friends were there.

As it was a Salvation Army church, the wedding was dry - not a drop of alcohol in sight. But you know it didn't make any difference. The evening ended with with everyone dancing to Aretha Franklin numbers with as much energy as any other dance I've ever been at. No-one got drunk, no-one fell out, no-one had to worry about gettting breathalysed on the way home - you wonder what the fuss is all about.

God is good. A great day - one of the best.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Three Cups of Tea

I don't often use the word 'inspiring' for a book but I've just finished a pretty inspiring one. It's called 'Three Cups of Tea' by a chap called Greg Mortenson (and David Relin - a co-writer). Apparently it, and he, are quite well known in the USA, but I had never heard of him before my wife bought me the book for Christmas as it was about climbing and Pakistan, and she knows I have an interest in both.

Greg Mortenson was a child of missionary parents, and a climber who made an unsuccessful attempt on K2 in the Karakoram in 1993 After a fairly harrowing time, he survived and stumbled into a small Balti village where he experienced real kindness and grace. In response he offered to help, and it turned out they were most in need of a school - so he promised to help them build one. To cut a long story short, starting with no resources or contacts, he gradually finds the funds and the network to build this school, however this turns out to be the start of something big. The Central Asia Institute he founded (it sounds more grand than it is) has built 55 schools in villages across Pakistan and Afghanistan in the past 15 years or so. The book gets really interesting however in 2001 after 9/11. Suddenly the eyes of the world and America are focussed on exactly this region of the world as the source of the sudden homeland security crisis and the focus of the 'war on terror' The book gets fascinating at this point because it offers an alternative strategy to undermining violent Islamic militancy than trying to bomb it out of existence - Education. The source of much of the extreme Islamic tendency was the madrassas of northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. If the people of these regions could be given a basic non-extremist education that steered them away from such centres and towards a more socially constructive way of looking at the world, that might do a lot more to build these societies, and promote a sense that the west is on their side than raining heat-seeking missiles on them, or failing to keep promises of aid and post-war re-building. He has a particular focus on training girls as they are so often the key to how childen are brought up and therefore often shape the future more than men.

Education as the alternative to war is a fascinating idea. So is the power of kindness and mercy to generate more acts of kindness and mercy. It is a parable of how both evil (9/11) and goodness (this story) are self-replicating and multiply. They tend to give birth to more of their own. The small choices we make each day for one or the other might have big consequences longer term.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

United: The Religion

Went to the Carling Cup Final at Wembley today. United were the deserved winners, even though Vidic was a tad lucky not to be sent off early on. Rooney is sheer class - even with a bad knee and a stomach bug he was still the best player on the pitch. He is the complete player - scores goals, a great passer of the ball, reads the game so well. Carrick and Fletcher were in control in midfield and Valencia was always a threat. 

This came after leading a good Communion Service at college this morning (not good because I led it, but it had a great sermon from Simon Downham and some good prayer ministry too). It's not often these two big bits of my life - God and football - come together quite so adjacent to each other. I feel like I ought to come up with some deep thought to connect the two, but I'm not sure I can. Both make me feel more alive. Faith does so in deeper ways, with less danger of aggression and resentment. but football does still stir deep things. I'm just grateful the world contains such a thing (though I'm not sure you'd quite feel that way if you're a Villa fan tonight...)

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Tom Wright was at our School of Theology this morning. He did his usual 'New Creation' thing, but then spoke about his new book, 'Virtue Reborn'. Its interesting that a focus on eschatology leads to thinking about virtue. Once you start thinking about our future and the future of the planet, you have to think about the kind of people we are and will be. Its a link that was very much in my mind when writing my Spiritual Fitness, which also looked at virtue. The language of virtue is a fairly universal one and connects to both religious and secular contexts today. You don't have to be a Christian to realise you need to learn patience, courage and generosity. It's also language the NT uses quite a bit too, with the lists of virtues that comes towards the end of virtually ever NT letter. Virtue is the language that speaks most powerfully about discipleship today, adn Tom's book will do a great job at highlighting it.

Friday, 19 February 2010

American Beauty

Just spent a very good week in the USA. I love being in America and Americans, but they do perplex me sometimes. Browsing through the bookshop in Charleston airport this week, I found all the Christian books (Rick Warren, Joel Osteen etc.) under the ‘Self-Help’ section. No trace of irony of course. It’s telling though: American Christianity has a fair amount of the ‘self-help’ variety: ‘Seven keys to improving your life every day”, ‘Six steps to build a healthy marriage’ and so on.
I guess a lot of it can be explained by American origins – a land where everyone came to seek fortune and prosperity. The ancestors were the ones with the initiative to get up and leave their home countries to look for a better life (unless, that is, they were slaves and didn’t have much choice). Built into the American psyche therefore is a self-made, you-can-do-it attitude, which explains why it has been such a phenomenally successful nation. It also explains the quick-fix make-it-simple approach: if you don’t help yourself, no one else will, so you need to take responsibility, get there as soon as you can.
That sense of needing to do it yourself is maybe why they are so reluctant to accept universal healthcare, which we Brits just take for granted. Even the more politically conservative British think the NHS is a good thing, and we just can’t understand why the Americans don’t want it.
Funnily enough, however, Americans also value character (witness Tiger Woods’ words this afternoon), and yet character takes time to build. It takes a sense of surrender – it starts with the recognition that we lack goodness, with the humility that recognises true Christian character as the work of the Holy Spirit not human effort. Its only when we know we need God’s help not self-help. It can only come through the work of God is us as we submit to the disciplines of the Christian life. Character doesn’t come in six easy steps. That is the dilemma: D-I-Y religion or the slow steady growth of faith-based virtue and Christian character – which one will win the day?

Tuesday, 16 February 2010


I'm writing this in Washington Dulles Airport, waiting for a delayed
plane to Charleston (already 2 and 1/2 hours late), surrounded by lots
of frustrated passengers. It's snowing outside, which, added to the 3
feet of snow they've already had, is the problem. In airports life
seems suspended for a while. Everyone is waiting, in transit, nothing
is permanent. No-one wants to stay. It's a preparation for something
else to come. Relationships and conversations are temporary. It has a
superficial attraction to begin with - the delights of independence,
but after a while it just gets very boring. We need to know we are
rooted, we belong, that this world is not just a waiting room for
something else.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

The End of the Pew?

What is the biggest obstacle to the growth of the church in Britain today? Creeping secularisation? Richard Dawkins? Infighting over women bishops or gay clergy? Let me make another suggestion: how about the continued existence of pews?

For the first 1500 years of the church’s life, pews were extremely rare. In most medieval churches people stood or sat on the floor, with only a narrow bench around the edge of the building for seating. Eastern Orthodox churches never got around to having pews – still today in Russia and Greece, worshippers stand.

When they did gradually get introduced, pews were a mixed blessing. They were intimately connected with social division and hierarchy, with pews ranked according to social standing. The rich would have large grand stalls at the front and woe betide anyone who sat in the wrong one. They were exclusive then, and they are exclusive now. Pews today effectively exclude the 90% of people who are not regular attenders of services.

The problem is that pews render the space in churches virtually unusable for anything other than around two hour-long events a week. The building becomes a curiosity, hardly visited midweek except for a few ecclesiastical tourists who want to drop by, and the cleaners. A recent survey sent unchurched visitors to slip into churches up and down the country. 90% of them found the experience uplifting, finding a real sense of community. Three quarters said they would go back. Over 50% felt comfortable and welcomed. It suggests that half of the battle is actually getting people into a church in the first place. There is also evidence to suggest that one of the main helps in getting people to feel more inclined to visit their local church is if they are familiar with the building. Imagine for a moment we could wave a magic wand and all fixed pews could be removed from churches up and down the country. Churches could then develop into open, attractive space that could become a resource for their local community. This has a number of key benefits.

At the most basic level, it could become a source of income for the church that would help it fund extra staff, such as a youth worker, administrator or community pastor. Football clubs faced this same issue in the 1970s. Clubs began to realise they were sitting on stadia that were only used on Saturday afternoons and occasionally for night matches. So they began to excavate space under the stands and build on the car parks to provide conference facilities, cinemas, bars, anything that would increase revenue for the club, realising that it was a criminal waste of resources to sit on a building that was used so seldom.

Removing pews would also make churches more welcoming. With the best will in the world, whoever designed pews did not have comfort uppermost in their minds. Many clergy during a dull sermon have at least had the reassurance of knowing that pews are very hard to fall asleep in. When people are used to visiting pubs, cinemas and theatres the least they get is a padded comfortable seat. If they are expected to sit for over an hour in church, pews can come as a bit of a shock.

More importantly for the church itself, opening the building for local community use makes it friendly, rather than foreign, territory. Local groups - further education sessions, fitness classes, after-school clubs and the like - could begin using the building regularly. Increasing numbers of churches are taking out the pews and not looking back. They are now imaginatively reordered, well decorated and lit and provide flexible, attractive meeting space for all kinds of local uses. If local people are used to visiting the church for all kinds of other activities, as they did in the Middle Ages and before, the idea of entering the building for Christian worship rather than just the gardening club becomes a little less scary.

It also makes the space much easier to use for the church itself. Any church wanting to run its own prayer groups, meditative worship, after school club, Alpha course, fund-raising dinners, marriage preparation sessions, suddenly has flexible, pleasant space in which to do. Our church in London – St Paul’s Onslow Square - removed the pews so that at various times it operates as a drop-in homeless centre, a venue for marriage preparation courses, conferences, theology classes, and on Sunday of course for worship that attracts many in their 20s and 30s attracted at least partly by warm, open, attractive space.

Is this yet another example of the church forsaking its rich heritage for something trendy and fleeting? Nothing of the sort. How many cathedrals have pews? Precisely. Pews were a modern invention that served the mission of the church at one time, but arguably no longer do so today. As Sir Roy Strong, former Director of the V&A says: “until the twentieth century, the country church could be altered and adapted in response to the religious changes that affected the Church of England. Now the church is all too often frozen in time.” This is an argument for the return to proper old traditions of the church, with churches as genuine community spaces, for the service of the whole community and the mission of the church.

Such a change need not sacrifice a sense of the sacred. Sanctuaries and side chapels can be kept apart, almost as a reminder of the origins and true nature of the building for those who use it – a gentle nudge that this is not just another functional building, but a place where prayer has been offered for centuries, a reminder that even in the middle of an exercise class, we are in the presence of God. Art exhibitions, sensitive use of decoration, even noticeboards can all serve as semi-permanent witnesses to the faith for those who use the building. If we are serious about the survival and future of the church, we need to thank the pews for their sterling service, but tell them politely that their day is over.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

A thing of beauty

There was a moment of sheer football beauty last week. It was in the 70th minute of the Man Utd v Man City game. The ball came out to Wayne Rooney on the half way line, just to the left of the centre circle. Within about a second, he turned with perfect balance, looked up, and swung a delicate right foot, a sublime pass, lifted just high enough to drift over the head of the frantically back-pedalling defender, low enough to keep the right speed on the ball to keep the momentum of the attack, direction spot on, to land right at the feet of the advancing Ryan Giggs about 40 yards ahead. Giggs didn't score -Carrick did a few moments later. But it was the pass itself that was the thing of delight. It's rare to see something so difficult performed at speed with such ease and perfection. You'd hardly call Rooney himself a thing of beauty, but when you see something like that, it fills you with wonder and sheer admiration, just for the pure delicate joy of it.

God and the Haiti Earthquake - 3

Three weeks on, the Haiti earthquake has begun to drop out of the news. the UN is beginning to get its act together and aid is starting to get through. A litle distance also gives the opportunity to think further with a bit of perspective.

The first thing is to put the event into some kind of context. Despite the tragedy, this is no unique event unheard of before, but just one of many natural disasters which occur with some regularity.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

God and the Haiti Earthquake 2

Events like the Haiti earthquake raise another question - if God can intervene to perform miracles sometimes, why doesn't he do it more often? If he can answer specific prayers, why can't he intervene to stop disasters like this? This is more than an academic question - it can be heartbreaking to pray for something for ages and it doesn't happen, or to to watch someone suffer while you pray desperately for healing that doesn't come, while God seems to happily find parking spaces for other people or answer seemingly trivial prayers. As always on here, only time for a brief answer, but here goes...

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Luther on Prayer

Some of those who came to the HTB / SPTC 'School of Prayer' today (or anyone else who wants to learn how to pray, for that matter), might want to read the work of Luther on Prayer that I spoke about. It's called 'A Simple Way to Pray', was written in 1535 and contains some simple yet brilliant insights into prayer and how Luther himself prayed. You can find it here - A Simple Way to Pray.

If you want to be part of HTB's growing prayer movement, you might try looking at the Prayerforce site.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

God and the Haiti Earthquake

The Haiti earthquke is a tragedy on any account. Natural disaster meets human disorganisation. As always on these occasions, the question soon appears on the horizon of where God is in it all. Various things have been given by good church leaders, but a couple of people have said to me over the last weeek that they've all been a bit unsatisfactory. So I thought I'd have a go.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Why we should get rid of 'Faith Groups'

In our multi-cultural and multi-ethnic society, a new phrase has entered our vocabulary: Faith Groups. Its way of describing religious groupings, those who apparently have a ‘faith’ that influences the way they view the world and motivates what they do – it includes Christians (like me), Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists (kind of), Sikhs etc. Sometimes they are called ‘faith communities’ but the idea is the same, and it is common government-speak including the report on “Faith Groups in the Community - Working Together: Co-operation between Government and Faith Communities” in February 2004.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

A new blog site

I've moved to this new site - gives a few more options. I have still resisted facebook, twitter and everything else (OK I do have a facebook page but hardly ever use it). I don't think the world really needs to know when I'm hungry or bored. Don't thinkI want to know when I'm hungry or bored. So this will try to remain reasonably untrivial (apart from the occasional reference to Bristol City - not that thst is at all trivial, you understand...)

Sunday, 10 January 2010

A Pagan Christmas?

There were a few stories going around before Christmas about the revival of paganism, the winter solstice, with druids dancing around Stonehenge and uttering long-lost pagan oaths. It brought up the old stories of Christmas being a pale Christian version of good old pagan revelry in the depths and darkness of winter. Yet there was a good reason why Europeans gave up on paganism.

Christmas Message 2018 - God's Glory in human life

During Advent we have been reminded of the tension between waiting patiently for the coming of Christ, and the urgency of knowing that ‘the...