PHHHT, PHHHT, PHHHT

I once read an article on Jesus’ parable about the great feast in Luke 14 where there was a scramble amongst some of the guests to get seats at or near the top table.

Jesus saw that this shabby scramble for the places of honour showed they weren’t there to honour their host, but to honour themselves. Then he had a word for his host about giving – giving is at the heart of the Gospel – and is at the heart of Christian life. But not all giving is the genuine article, is it? The writer suggested a story that Jesus might have used to cover this aspect.

A chap called Nicholas, who had a great reputation for generosity, died and went to heaven. St Peter met him at the gate. There he showed him two piles of gold, one small and one large, made up of nuggets of varying sizes.

“What are these?” Nicholas asked.

“They are the acts of giving you performed on earth – one nugget for each act.”

Nicholas’s heart filled with pride. But then Peter said, “I’m sorry Nicholas, sad to say not all giving is true giving. A lot of it is tainted with self interest. So we’ll have to run a test on your acts of giving. By the way, the nuggets in the larger pile don’t count.”

“How come?” Nicholas asked.

“They represent all the gifts you gave to your friends, relatives, cronies, and so on. They don’t constitute real gold. Even gangsters are good to their own.” With a PHHHT the nuggets in the larger pile turned to dust. Peter took a sieve which had large meshes in it, and placed the nuggets from the smaller pile in it. After he had shaken it he was left with the biggest nuggets in the sieve.

“What are you doing now?”asked Nicholas.

“I’m removing those gifts you only gave to get something in return. Such giving is a kind of investment. You get it back, sometimes with a handsome profit.” With that he tossed the nuggets aside, and with a PHHHT they turned to dust. Then he made the mesh of the sieve smaller, put the remaining nuggets into it, shook it and once again tossed aside those that remained. PHHHT

“What was that for?” Nicholas asked.

“That removed the good deeds you did so as to win the praise of others. One can make an idol of oneself through giving.” Peter then made the mesh finer still , putting the remaining nuggets into it. As he did so he said, “Now we’ll remove the good deeds you did simply for the good feeling you got from doing them.”

Nicholas watched him toss the nuggets that got caught in the sieve into the air where with the now familiar PHHHT they turned into dust. Again Peter gathered up the remaining ones an put them into the sieve having made the mesh finer still.

“What now?” asked Nicholas.

“Now we’ll extract all those things you gave only out of a sense of duty.” He shook the sieve, The nuggets that remained were then tossed aside and they suffered the same fate as the others. PHHHT!

“Stop!” Nicholas cried, “If you go on like this, there won’t be anything left. Then how will I earn my passport to heaven?”

“We should go on,” said Peter. “We should look at the cost of your giving. Suppose we removed the things you gave but which you never missed, how much would disappear? And what of the gifts you gave merely because the receiver was someone you felt deserved your gift?”

But poor Nicholas wasn’t listening any more. “It’s a terrible feeling to have gold within your reach, and then have it snatched from you.” He cried.

Peter said, “Or if it turns out not to be real gold but fool’s gold. Ah, Nicholas, real giving is very rare, just as real gold is very rare. To give without expecting anything in return, least of all the great prize of heaven, that is what constitutes real giving. . . . But cheer up, I’ve got good news for you.”

“What good news?” asked Nicholas.

“The Lord is the greatest giver of all. His acts of giving are pure gold. But we’ve talked long enough. It’s time to meet the Lord himself.”

“But I’m empty handed!” Nicholas cried.

“That only means you’re poor,” Peter replied, “But never fear. The Lord gives most generously to those who are poor and are not ashamed to admit it. So let’s go.”

I wonder, is that story relevant to us? It is, regrettably, relevant to me.

Max Young

Canon John de Wit

10th May 1947 – 17th June 2018

Pam de Wit writes: Thank you to all who attended John’s funeral and all who offered sympathy and so much kindness during John’s illness and after his sudden death. Your love and prayers are a great comfort.

The Faringdon Singers opened the Funeral Service with Psalm 121 (I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills). This was the passage of scripture that John heard read to him by a friend in the moments before he died.

The service brought together more than 200 people from every part of John’s life, to offer back to God a much loved and gifted priest, musician and artist. The first hymn, Angel voices ever singing, was one he loved.

Later in the service the Bakehouse Trio played a favourite piece by Corelli, and John’s cello teacher Coral Lancaster played a Bach suite for solo cello, before the Prayers led by Barbara Mapley. The final organ music, played by Norman Ashfield from Birmingham, was Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in G major.

As John had hoped when he planned the outline of this service, the Word of God’s love was proclaimed in poetry, read by Peter Foot (George Herbert’s ‘Love bade me welcome’) and in a reading from St John’s Gospel (chapter 14, 1 – 6: ‘In my Father’s house are many dwelling places’); and also in the last icon that John painted, which was displayed alongside the coffin and blessed by John’s former Bishop in Birmingham, the Rt Revd Mark Santer.

John’s icon is a copy of the famous Russian icon of the Holy Trinity by André Rublev. There is a place ready at the front of the table for us to come and share God’s hospitality, represented by the circle of love that holds together the three figures in the composition of the painting:

Steve Bellamy in his sermon drew out the common thread in the readings and the painting: ‘John wanted us to look at the last icon he painted and to see the warm invitation of God to each one of us to be a guest in God’s household of love, where we can be held secure through the troubles of this life into all eternity. It is our privilege to hear that message today and by God’s grace to respond to his invitation – and as we remember before God our much loved friend John, a humble and unassuming true gentleman, full of fun, a painter, preacher and musician, a faithful priest and loving husband, it is also our privilege to commend John with confidence to his Lord and to the fulfilment of that vibrant life of God’s household of love, which was always at the heart of John’s life as he followed Jesus here’.

John himself saw the roots of this faith in the Christian life of his Dutch family and the blessing of his married home. His earlier studies in history and art history (including several years working at the Ashmolean Museum when he was in his 20s), together with his interest in theology and prayer, later gave rise to a longing to find visual ways to express the truth of the Gospel. In icons John began to feel he had discovered an ancient way of painting that could also speak to the modern world. As Steve put it in his sermon, ‘ icons can capture us as we look at them, and draw us in to enjoy being with them in the stillness, they are an ancient way of speaking about prayer, about God’s love and about the life of Christ’.

The final hymn, Now thank we all our God, expressed John’s sense of gratitude for his life on this earth, and was a prayer for all of us as we continue on our journey.

Dr Graham Scott-Brown

25th October 1929 – 17th June 2018

An edited version of Graham’s recorded message to the congregation, played at his Thanksgiving Service on 10th July 2018.

“Until 1952, Nepal was a closed country; when it opened up the six missionaries who were waiting in India for many years, two of them for 16 years, immediately went in to do medical work. It was illegal for Nepalis to change their religion and many were put in jail. By 1966 there were less than 100 believers in three small churches. In 1966 God poured out His Spirit on the church in Pokhara – there were conversions, healings, some of leprosy and TB, spiritual transformations and visions of Jesus – an exciting and moving time.

“I came to Faringdon in 1984 so I have had 34 years to pray every day – and often many times a day to see God at work, not in the same in detail, but the same in quality. I’m not always very good at hearing God speak clearly to me, but over the two months recently spent in New Zealand I seemed to learn something about it.

“The following verses are apt, and others, were especially meaningful: John 17:1, Psalm 57:2, John 12:24. Now, I would love people to take up the things I have prayed for for so long: pray that the Father may glorify Jesus; pray that here in Faringdon, many people may turn to Him. That it be a challenge to Faringdon that the fear of the Lord may come upon people.

“That’s it … not very long.”

Margaret Scott Brown

Editor: Graham’s obituary appeared in the August edition of Faringdon Folly.

It says in the Bible . . . Are you listening?

A recent article in my newspaper (18th May) told of a man in Blyth being convicted for keeping four men as slaves and it reminded me of some reading I did on the slave trade some 10 or so years ago.

In 1788 a Jesuit called Fr Raymond Harris published a little book called ‘Scriptural Researches on the Licitness of the Slave Trade, Shewing its conformity with the principles of natural and revealed Religion, delineated in the Sacred Writings of the Word of God.’ Harris, as was not unusual at the time, assembled a list of quotes from the Bible showing that slavery was part of the natural order – and one of the most important proofs came from Philemon, the shortest book in the New Testament. Harris’s reasoned that St Paul had told Philemon to take back Onesimus as a slave; and that meant slavery was sanctioned as an institution. Therefore the slave trade that was such a good profit-making enterprise and financially beneficial to the ports of Liverpool, London and Bristol was also sanctioned by the Bible. Harris used the Book of Philemon to defend a gruesome trade in human cargo.

A book that repudiated Harris’ claim was written in the following year by a former African slave. His book was called ‘The Interesting Narrative of the life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African.’ The book told of his life and how he educated himself mainly via the Bible and eventually bought himself out of slavery for £40.

In his memoirs he took Fr Harris to task –saying what was important was that Philemon was asked to take Onesimus back as a brother – and that meant that masters were to exercise brotherly love towards their slaves. And what is more, Equiano thought that since at the time when Paul was writing Christians held all things in common, then there was no way that Philemon would be allowed to keep his slave as his own private property. In the end he thought that Paul was actually not defending the slave trade at all, but attacking the very institution, not just of slavery, but of the holding of property altogether; and that meant of course that if there was no property there would be no slaves.

He concluded with a pretty blunt message to Fr Harris: “of this epistle which you cite strongly in favour of slavery, when the whole tenor of it is in behalf of the slave. Besides who would lose out if slavery was abolished? Perhaps the manufacturers of neck-yokes, chains, collars, handcuffs and leg-boots.”

John Wesley brought Equiano’s book to the attention of William Wilberforce and other anti-slavery campaigners. What Equiano was doing, which was so different from Fr Harris, was opening the Bible and letting it speak to him, instead of distorting it to make it fit his own words. He spoke to the Bible from his own world and it answered him back.

And that was not universally the case for all books, “I have often taken up a book, and talk to it, and then put my ears to it, when alone, in the hope it would answer me; and I have been very much concerned when I found it remained silent.” But the Bible was different – he addressed it from his situation and it spoke back to him.

By taking his question to the Bible, Equiano received an answer quite unlike those who merely found what they were looking for. He didn’t conform to any stereotype and perhaps because of this, his answers were original – in Philemon, St Paul was heard speaking afresh and he began to say something quite different. Slaves were not commodities but human beings; and perhaps even more importantly, certainly for William Wilberforce, they were human beings who would hear the Gospel.

It was through his act of open listening that Equiano’s Bible was allowed to speak to him and eventually it silenced the other voices of inequality and oppression; it shook a world which had grown all too comfortable in slavery. And it seems to me, if there were a bit more listening going on – not least to the Bible, then the churches might not be quite so divided, and there might be a bit more listening to those who have been cast outside the net of believers.

In fact there are many people who fear the Bible because they think it might say something that threatens their presuppositions about the kind of people God might love; but if we were to listen more carefully then things might begin to change – God loved slaves and condemned slavery and the Western world gradually accepted that message. And there may be many others whom he loves but who so often we seek to condemn.

Max Young

Summing Up (Exploring the Nicene Creed)

I want first to give an estimation of the importance of this Creed both for the Church as a whole and for each of us personally; then to mention briefly other Christian Creeds, Confessions of Faith, Articles of Religion, and such like. Then I shall close with a very different style of creed which I think ‘earths’ our glorious Nicean Faith in our present day world with its huge needs, despairs and challenges. It’s called “A Creed of Hope”.

For about 1700 years the Nicene Creed has been the official bedrock or public Confession of Faith of almost all Christians. Its phrases have a depth of beauty, clarity and meaning that has enabled it to stand the test of time, and to weather many turbulent days and eras in the Church’s history. It was, and so still is, a truly ecumenical creed.

As I have explained earlier it was first promulgated by leaders from all local Churches across the whole of the Christian world. So in a true sense it is still the basic essential Creed of all Christian Communions today, whether Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Anglican or whatever. It is therefore a Creed of Unity which holds us together and unites us whatever our relatively small differences on some aspects of our faith and practise might be.

In my very first article I wrote: “… standing and proudly but humbly declaring that Creed with others is immensely important and helpful, both individually, and as a communion and fellowship of believers. It undergirds our personal faith. It reassures us when necessary. It bonds us together in Christ as Church and family, and above all it gives glory to our God”. In other words just as our spine and bone structure supports and undergirds our whole body, so this Creed is like the spine of our faith. Like the Lord’s Prayer it is something we could do well to know by heart.

Through 1700 years of Christian history there have been many other Creeds and Confessions of faith. The shorter “Apostles Creed” as it is called is even older than this one and is still used at Anglican Services, Confirmations etc. You can find it in the Book of Common Prayer or Common Worship.

Another creed compiled some years after the Nicene Creed is called the “Creed of St Athanasius”. It was formulated to express in depth and detail the nature and harmony of the Persons of the Trinity. That can also be found in the Book of Common Prayer after Evening Prayer. At the time of the 16th Century Reformation many splits from the Roman Church sadly took place (arising from the errors, wrongful teachings and practises of the later middle ages).

New national or regional Churches then formulated not a new basic essential creed but what were called Articles or Confessions of Faith, setting out the theological and ecclesiastical position of each Church with its understanding of the Christian Faith.

At this time the Church of England adopted what was called “The Thirty Nine Articles of Religion”, and they can usually be found as an appendix to the Book of Common Prayer. Such articles are not of the same standing or importance as the catholic or universal creeds like that of Nicea. They dealt in part with controversial issues of the time; and also made clarification of other aspects of our faith. Though they do have value still, many of those 16th century issues have largely been resolved. And thankfully nowadays there is far more common understanding and practice of our holy faith on the part of most Christian Churches.

A useful exercise is to sit down and compile one’s own personal creed setting out how we as individuals see our faith, what it means to us, and how we try to live it. After all the Creeds are not just cold cerebral academic statements but living expressions of living people living out the Christian life. Some time back one of our Alpha Courses here as a group compiled how it saw its creed. They came up with a very worthy document, very Christ centred, heartfelt, and certainly challenging. I will close now with a very modern style of creed. Read it and use it, hopefully I pray as your personal creed too.

A Creed of Hope

  • I believe in God, the God of all truth, the God whose word is life. I believe in God who accompanies me along every step of my path on this earth; many times walking behind me, watching me and suffering with my mistakes; at other times walking beside me, talking to me, and teaching me; and at other times again, walking ahead of me, guiding and marking my pace.
  • I believe in the God of flesh and blood, Jesus Christ; the God who lived in my skin and tried on my shoes; the God who walked in my ways, and knows of lights and shadows. The God who ate and starved, who had a home, and suffered loneliness; who was praised and condemned, kissed and spat on, loved and hated. The God who went to parties and funerals; the God who laughed and cried, and shed his blood for me on a cruel Cross.
  • I believe in the God who is still attentive today; who looks at the world and sees the hatred that segregates, divides, sets people aside, hurts and kills; who sees the bullets piercing the flesh, and the blood of innocent people flowing on the earth; who sees the hand that dips into another’s pocket, stealing what somebody needs to eat.
  • I believe in the God who sees the dirty rivers, and the dead fish; the toxic substances destroying the earth, and piercing the sky; who sees the future mortgaged, and man’s debt growing. I believe in God who sees all this … and keeps on crying.
  • But I also believe in the God who sees a mother giving birth, a life born from pain; who sees two children playing; who sees a seed growing, and a flower blooming out of the debris, a new beginning; who sees three crazy women clamouring for justice, an illusion that doesn’t die; who sees the sun rising every morning, a time of opportunities. I believe in a God who sees all this … and laughs, because in spite of it all, there is hope

George Abell

Just listen to those bells

The deadline for this article is the day before I’m involved in a Songs of Praise Service with the Vale of the White Horse Branch of the Oxford Diocesan Guild of Church Bell Ringers – an annual celebration in which they will make the following resolution:

Almighty God, you have called us to be bell ringers in your Church: make us united and faithful in your service, so that our ringing of the bells may be done to your glory and for the benefit of all your people. As bell-ringers, we dedicate our energy and skill to God’s glory, and determine that our ringing work will be our prayer. That is our resolve.

It was Alfred Lord Tennyson who coined the phrase, “Ring out, wild bells!” Why he said this, as an Englishman, I don’t know, because we don’t want to hear the clang and clash of chaotic continental bells. What we want to hear and relish is modulated, civilised, precise, and glorious English church bells, change ringing. Those beautiful tones that resound around English villages, towns, and cities and those places overseas that love the feel of England, bells calling the faithful to worship.

So let the bells ring out. Let them call us to worship almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who showed us how much he loves us by living amongst us and dying for us, a life and death costing not less than everything. Let the bells that call us to worship call those who ring them too. Let them call us, each one of us, to a life that offers worship to almighty God, to a life that puts the love of God above everything else, to a life that makes proper space for our relationship with God.

Here’s a bell-related story with a moral we need to heed. During WWII, one of the millions the Nazis sent to concentration camps was Corrie Ten Boom. She with her sister endured numerous indignities and humiliations and her parents died in the camps. After the war ended, she was freed, but found she was still ‘imprisoned’ by her hatred of those who had hurt her and her family. After much tears and prayer she finally succeeded in ridding herself of this hatred and began to speak churches throughout Europe trying to help others achieve the same objective.

She forgave person after person for what they had done. However there was one man whom she had great difficulty in forgiving. So she went to speak to her preacher. He thought about it for a few moments and then pointed to the bell rope hanging in the foyer.

“Do you see that bell rope?” he asked. “Every Sunday, the sexton pulls on the rope and rings that bell – announcing to the community that it is time for worship. As he pulls the rope, the bell rings ‘ding’, and ‘dong’, ding and dong. Eventually he lets go of the bell rope… but the bell, being heavy, still swings and rings ding, and dong, slower and slower until at last it stops ringing.”

“I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep niggling away. They’re just the ding dongs of the old bell slowing down. But the key thing is this: you’ve got to let go of the bell rope. You’ve got stop tugging at your grievances over and over again… or you’ll never forgive. So, have you let go of the bell rope?

Is there someone you have never forgiven for something they did to you in the past? Is there someone who – if you met them in the street, you’d try to avoid because their very presence makes you angry? Is there someone at ‘The Peace’ in church that you miss out? Is there someone who, when you hear their name mentioned, it sets your teeth on edge?

Then you need to let go of the bell rope. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us”.
Let me end with some words from Longfellow –

The bells are the best of preachers,
their brazen lips are learn-ed teachers,
from their pulpits of stone, in the upper air,
sounding aloft, without crack or flaw,
shriller than trumpets under the Law,
Now a sermon and now a prayer.

Max Young

Designer Babies: should we play God?

A review of the third talk by the Rt Revd Dr Lee Rayfield in a series of four on “Science & Faith: Big Questions in Faringdon Corn Exchange” 

Nearly 90 people came to Faringdon Corn Exchange on 11th January to hear the Rt Revd Dr Lee Rayfield, Bishop of Swindon, talk and answer questions about this topical and challenging issue. With a background in Immunology research, Dr Rayfield has been a member of the UK Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) since 2012.

Dr Rayfield started by asking the audience what we understood by the phrase “Designer Baby”. He then took us through a brief review of pertinent medical techniques, including amniocentesis, fetoscopy and Pre-implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), that are already in use to diagnose genetic abnormalities causing conditions such as Down’s Syndrome, Thalassaemia and Cystic Fibrosis. PGD is used to screen embryos produced in the laboratory to select those that are free of diseases which are likely to be fatal in infancy, or significantly limit lifespan or quality of life. More controversially, parents may select an embryo with tissue matching a sibling born with a genetic disease to facilitate later tissue donation. Dr Rayfield stressed that these techniques have been developed with the good intention of reducing human suffering. We do not seek to “play God” but rather to “be human in God’s way”.

For some people the foetus is viewed as a person from the moment of fertilization, so they cannot accept a procedure which leads to the creation of “unwanted” foetuses. For others, including Dr Rayfield, our response must be more nuanced since 70% of naturally-conceived embryos fail to implant in the womb. We need to look beyond our initial reaction to decide what respectful and regulated use of unimplanted embryos may be permitted for human benefit. Dr Rayfield suggested that all medical interventions modify our natural bodies and therefore we shouldn’t view our DNA as sacrosanct. He stressed that the HFEA does not permit any laboratory work on embryos beyond 14 days after fertilization, the stage at which recognizable organization of neural tissue is beginning.

Dr Rayfield, as a Church of England Bishop, believes that he should engage in the HFEA licensing process to build bridges and bring a Christian perspective that upholds the unique value of every person, created in the image of God. He sees human cloning as wrong because it denies the uniqueness of the individual. The Bishop said that modifying the genetic make-up of an embryo, currently not generally permitted under UK law, is a more controversial question. The HFEA is allowing research and treatment based on the use of donated mitochondria (the cell’s power supply) to replace faulty mitochondria in the maternal egg. This has been misleadingly described as making “3-parent babies”.

Current research on gene-editing, presently only licensed for treatment of non-reproductive cells, will make it possible to replace faulty genes. The Bishop is concerned about the danger that modifying the human genome may in future be promoted to maintain the UK’s world-leading research status and economic competitiveness, rather than continuing to be governed by strong medical and ethical principles.

For this reviewer, the take-home message was that genetic research is fast outpacing our ability to judge ethical issues. As Bishop Rayfield says, we need to have people involved in the licensing process who will engage in ethical, prayerful decision-making. We should pray that they will be enabled to speak truth to those in authority.

Mark Ritchie

We believe the Holiness and Unity of the Church (Exploring the Nicene Creed)

In this article we shall think first about the Holiness of the Church then its Oneness.

What does holy and holiness really mean? In Old Testament Hebrew the word for ‘holy’ is kadosh; and in New Testament Greek hagios. It simply means ‘separated or set apart’, the same in both Testaments, and is used for God and for his people. In Leviticus 19:2 Moses speaks to the whole Israelite people: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy”. In 1 Peter 1:15 the writer speaks to the Christian assembly: “As he who has called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct”; and again in Chapter 2:9: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light”.

This shows how holy is invariably used in a faith-religious context with strong moral emphasis, and with real everyday relevance and application for the whole of life. It means being set apart and dedicated for a higher wider purpose or ‘consecration’. And the Christian Church is certainly not an exclusive club with a ghetto mentality! Indeed our Lord spoke of his readiness to give himself utterly for his disciples and for all of us and his whole world, when he said: “And for their sake I consecrate myself that they also may be consecrated in truth” (John 17:19). Some translations have ‘sanctify’ which means the same.

Thinking about the holiness of God as taught in holy Scripture, and supremely as seen in Jesus, we could sum it up like this: God is faultless and unfailing in perfect Love, Goodness, Beauty, Truth and Purity; in Understanding and Wisdom; in glorious Eternal Purpose for all Creation; and above all in Compassion, Justice and Mercy. And there is no malice or evil intent or sin in God.

Such is our Holy God, and we who bear his image and likeness are called and challenged to be holy too. . . nothing less. To put it mildly it’s a very tall order; a tremendous challenge! But the Church of Christ has never hesitated to accept that vocation enshrining it in its Creeds as its sure belief, knowing that the God who calls us never fails to equip us with his grace. It means to become and to be what we truly are, by the grace of justification (put right with God), and sanctification (made holy by God).

This is why the Church speaks of Holy Baptism, Holy Confirmation, Holy Eucharist and Communion, Holy Marriage and Holy Orders (Ordained Ministry); Holy Scripture and Holy forgiveness, freely available for everyone forever. And a Holy Fellowship too, both universal and local, of those who seek to help, support and care for each other, in the loving holiness journey.

There are times of course when ‘Holy Church’ has seemed anything but holy. There are not a few dreadful pages in its history. But there are far more better pages; and such there will always be, for however much you and I let the side down (as we sadly do), our holy God and Saviour never lets us go, leading us on to better holier ways.

When we looked at the meaning of ‘Catholic’ it was necessary to see something also of the Church’s Oneness and Unity. ‘Catholic’ we learnt means holding the true universally received Faith of the Church, the one common biblical Faith of the New Testament – a Faith which by its very nature unites us. ‘Catholic or world-wide’ also means embracing all nations, races, colours; all social groups, ages, abilities; gender and sexuality. No one is excluded from the Gospel of Christ and the Christian Family.

So an essential component of the Church’s unity and harmony is its adherence to the Gospel truth, that ‘there is only one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all’ (Ephesians 4:3). And “of us all” means exactly that – all peoples across all continents, all human families, all shapes and sizes; all made one-in-Christ by Baptism forever. (We shall look at this again later).

The Church is fundamentally One because there is only one God. And so there can only be one sure organization with the mission and task of bringing God’s Creative-Saving Love to all humanity. This, the Christian Church faithfully fulfils by God’s clear guiding Light and divine grace. And though other world faiths may teach much that is good, only faith in Christ Jesus provides the fullness of truth.

The Church’s Unity however, though truly real in its undergirding essence of Baptismal Life is still sadly impaired in various other levels. At Communion, before sharing ‘The Peace’, the president often says: “We are the Body of Christ and in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:12,13). Indeed we are the Body of Christ whether Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist or whatever. Our prayer and hope should be that this becomes a full complete reality, embracing all the Churches; with sharing of all Ministries and the Sacramental Bread and Cup of the Eucharist; and in worship and prayer, in learning together, and witness and service to others. May this vital ecumenical task grow until we are all truly and wholly visibly One, just as Jesus longed and prayed: according to his will and in his good time across our whole world (John 17:19-23).

The causes of division are many and complex, often purely political or nationalistic. But sadly deficiency in holiness and love, and lack of humility before the whole truth, is also its cause. Too often also, assertions are made by some Churches or groups that only they have got it right; and that too can bring about division! Real holiness, genuine love with patient truth-seeking dialogue, and above all earnest prayer, are the surest ways to bring about the unity we yearn for. And this must apply to all the Churches who look to Christ as head and Lord, and seek to do God’s will for all his peoples.

An act of praise to acknowledge the holiness of God, his Church, and each one of us:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord;
Holy is the Lord God almighty,
who was, and is, and is to come.
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord.
Amen. Alleluia.

George Abell

Wassail! or Cheers! Happy Christmas! or Merry Winterval!

I have been trying to reinstate the word ‘WASSAIL’ (Old English meaning “be healthy”) to replace the meaningless ‘Cheers’, as a greeting, farewell and a toast. Some people also use ‘cheers’ to mean, ‘thankyou’, a word that needs emphasising rather than changing.

I seem to remember that about 20 years ago Birmingham Council officials decided that, in their multi-cultural city, ‘Christmas’ was a word not to be used. Instead they invented “Winterval”.

What an uproar that caused! Can you just imagine Christmas being, as it were, cancelled? Some, including millions of turkeys and acres of Christmas trees, might welcome the thought, and some people too, of no Christmas Cards, stocking fillers, expensive presents, tinsel and Gift-wrap. But the flip side is that shops would go bankrupt; children would be disappointed that there wouldn’t be a pile of e-gadgets, computer games, robots and drones, piled under the Christmas tree; and tubby white bearded chaps in red coats would face early redundancy.

“Winterval”- how insulting that must have felt to the good Christians of Birmingham! It must also have upset the many Muslims and Hindus who celebrated the holiday as well as their own festivals of Eid and Diwali. In that year Advent in the city of Winterval was a time of controversy.

This year amidst all the hustle and bustle of the preparations I hope that there will be time for us to prepare to meet the child Jesus and to celebrate God’s life-changing, hope-giving intervention in our world.

We can learn from the past – remember the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth – old people with no children – the angel’s message to Zechariah? Zehariah was a good and committed Jew who knew the prophets’ words about a Messiah. But he didn’t know just how important a part he and Elizabeth would play in the arrival of this Messiah.

And here we are in the present. We will all have looked with awe and wonder at the almost miraculous sight of a new-born child – no matter who’s it is. The marvel of such perfection. At that stage it is difficult not to feel God’s presence in the child whom we see as a symbol of hope – a new, pure, unspoilt life with unknown and vast potential. Zechariah knew his child was a unique messenger who would be the one who announced the Messiah at the start of his mission.

Today, Jesus’ Advent is into a world with huge distractions; into a world of massive indifference where people will take a full part in “Winterval”  but, sadly, not in Christmas. We must rejoice in the present and enjoy the sense of anticipation of his arrival and, importantly, communicate to all about us that Jesus was born to save sinners and their souls, not to cause us to flex our credit cards.

As we prepare for the future we need to ensure our birthday celebrations focus on the Christ-child and the wonderfully different future he offers to all. Zechariah used the words of Malachi to describe the gift the Messiah was bringing, he talked about the night – the haunt of darkness, bad dreams, fear and evil – being driven away by the sunrise. Isn’t that a wonderful picture? A picture of what he has done, does still, and will do. The present from Jesus under our tree is one of tender mercy that brings to an end our separation from God.

Although we can enjoy the fun, bright lights, TV repeats, pantos and everything else that “Winterval” brings, we know they won’t last. By New Year’s Eve they will definitely have lost some of their sparkle.

However, Christmas represents the unexpected joy brought about by our unorthodox God reaching down and offering to touch our lives. Try hard to accept his gift, because it will last; we will be forgiven so that we can start again; any darkness will disappear, because the light has come.

There may be some of you who remember the words of King George VI in the first Christmas broadcast of the World War II He was quoting Minnie Louise Haskins:

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year,
“Give me light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied, “Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of Christ.
That shall be to you better than a light and safer than a known way.”

Don’t celebrate Winterval,
Celebrate Christmas! Wassail!

Max Young

JESUS . . . “Will come again in glory . . .” (2) (Exploring the Nicene Creed)

In this article we shall look again at the theme of Christ’s Return, thinking especially about the Glory, the Judgment, and briefly the final unending Kingdom. It is important to link glory and judgment together to see the latter in full meaning.

All through this series I have stressed the sheer magnitude and wonder of Divine Love, in Creation, in Redemption, and in the path of Christian living and holiness; all the collective amazingly generous work of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. I haven’t once mentioned the word repentance because I believe the sheer impact of the message of this Divine Love-in-action must prompt change in us and growth in holiness. The repentance, which must be individual free response, will I believe follow almost instinctively. It can’t do any other, or we have simply failed to grasp the message. I think of those priests and others who at the Crucifixion event went away beating their breasts (Luke 23:48)!

The creed is concerned with essential doctrines based on the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” as the New Testament puts it (Jude:v3): not with personal response. Discipleship and Christian living, with trustful prayer, etc, is of course the next vital stage of the Christian Journey. The New Testament beliefs about Jesus, based on the experiences of his first followers, means victory in and through Christ; his, and his eternal Gospel’s triumph, over all sin, evil and death; and the fulfilment of all God’s good purposes for us all. This is the glory.

To give glory to God in prayer and liturgy is to acknowledge all that God is and all that he has done for us with the highest and best gratitude, love and worship that we are capable of. And to live out the glory in Christian loving discipleship. The Hebrew word for glory ‘kavod’ means the radiance of the divine being and nature; God’s kingship, grandeur, beauty and wonder; his very presence and actions; but most of all his saving rescue work for his people.

The Greek word ‘doxa’ lifts these Old Testament divine characteristics to a higher plane. In the New Testament it speaks of the glory of the Eternal Trinity, with supreme emphasis on the work of Christ, the far wider salvation victory he has won for us. So James 2:1 writes “Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory”. “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1; Old Testament). “ The Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth and we have beheld his glory”. (John 1:14; New Testament). The final return of Jesus in glory will mean that all this will be seen and experienced with sheer delight, ecstatic happiness and joy, beyond words yet true in the heart of our glorious faith, and so in our hearts too.

The Judgment, essentially means I believe, the putting right by God of everything once wrong. It must involve recognition of human frailty and failure with full honest accountability; and with justice and full human restoration. However, at our level of understanding and our limited human concepts, we cannot fully comprehend the mind and decisions, and the merciful grace of God. In a previous article I wrote this about Christ’s life, teaching, and sacrifice for us: “It was both a rescue operation and a programme of teaching and re-education.

Above all it was to demonstrate, in the clearest possible way, that our Creator God is a God of unconditional, unlimited, generous forgiving Love, not that of a vengeful punishing Father. God’s true, full and best justice would be shown indeed, but in a way that turns upside down the way we see judgment and justice. God would take upon himself the consequences of what sin, evil and wrong can bring about. He would bear our sins and the due punishment himself! The incarnation was a risk of the highest order! It meant that God, out of his sheer infinite love for his world, and for each and every single one of us without exception, would take the risk that his Love might well be misunderstood, derided, rejected, or even worse, just disregarded by apathy or indifference.

All this was the exceedingly costly and high price of sin. And he was prepared to pay it, and did so to the uttermost. This was the price that blinded hearts and minds demanded! It was no purpose or pleasure of the Father to see his only beloved Son humiliated, tortured and crucified as a criminal; he the utterly innocent one, whose only desire and aim ever, was to bring healing and forgiveness, generous care wherever needed, and the highest good for all people”.

To say all this means we dare not treat lightly the sins and terrible wrong doings that we humans are sadly capable of. On the contrary, the more we grasp the fullness of the divine endlessly outpoured Love, the more we see the gravity and appalling consequences of sin, wrong doing and evil. And, that we must change. That we take seriously here and now our choices, responsibilities and actions; how in this present world we live and relate to each other; how we use our personal gifts, and the good world shared with us. For all this is truly to live out the first phase of the great final unending Kingdom; the very kingdom of God ushered in by Christ, and for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. We also know that when we do see Jesus at the end of our life’s journey we shall be finally and fully changed into the very likeness of Christ. Note the key passages 1 John 3:1-2, and 1 Corinthians 15:51-54.

So we must try to live as we know we should with Christ as our perfect example and sure aid, never losing sight of the infinite mercy of God, the availability of forgiveness at all times; and the glorious truth that in the end LOVE will triumph and that no one will be lost to the all embracing divine Love (John 6: 39). The story of the prodigal son shows us that the Father is forever looking out for us, receives us back graciously and tenderly, forgives and heals us; and re-clothes us with his own holiness (Luke 15:11-32). Apply this parable to the Judgment, for surely this is what it is all about.

To conclude: the new and final Kingdom will be inexpressibly perfect and wonderful; all beautiful and lovely, unfading and unending; and above all, close to and somehow within the very heavenly life of the Holy Trinity. It will indeed be fantastic, beyond our wildest dreams of happiness, joy and loving. We shall look at it again in the Creed’s closing words when we shall think about our own resurrection and “the life of the world to come”.

To the God of glory be all the glory! Alleluia. Amen.

George Abell