Father, Forgive

When I was Bursar of an Almshouse in Bath, we had a wonderful cross-section of ladies as residents: we had missionaries, nurses, teachers, air hostesses, cooks, secretaries etc. One lady had been a leader of a Julian Community and she, Margaret Howard, was the daughter of a Provost of Coventry Cathedral who, almost 77 years ago, on the night of the14th November 1940, had stood with the cathedral stone-mason, Jock Forbes, and two others, on fire-guard on the roof of the cathedral. That was the night, the city suffered the longest air raid of the second world war.

The four of them were able to cope with the incendiaries dropped during the first three waves of bombers, but the waves after that were too much for them, fires started in inaccessible places within the complex roof structure, the fire brigade couldn’t get there for a long time and when they did, they were only able to operate for a short while before the water supply failed. The four men managed to save some of the cathedral treasures, but then they could only stand and watch as the fire raged throughout the building and their much loved cathedral burned to the ground.

In the cold grey light of the following morning the people of Coventry emerged from their shelters to find 600 people killed, even more injured, hundreds of homes had been destroyed, many roads were blocked and at the centre of it all, their mediaeval cathedral was a burnt-out shell. The people of Coventry were shocked, stunned, scared, and bitter.

How do you think you would have reacted if you had been there that morning?

“You wait, you filthy krauts, we’ll get you for this!”

That would have been a very understandable reaction – wouldn’t it? And no doubt there were plenty of people who reacted just like that – in those circumstances, the instinctive human reaction would be a desire for revenge on an enemy who had done such things.

But in Coventry they overcame that desire. The Provost got Jock Forbes to build an altar on the site where the high altar had been – an altar made of stones dug out from the rubble, and, they set up behind it a great cross made of charred roof timbers found among the ruins. On the altar was another cross made of three large, sharp, 14th century nails bound with wire that had all been picked up from the ashes on that first morning. They chromium plated the cross of nails, and had the words “Father, forgive”, carved on the wall behind the sanctuary. The contrast between the black charred cross and the silvered cross of nails starkly symbolises life out of death, and the words on the wall preach the gospel  of divine forgiveness far more effectively than any human voice could do.

“Father, forgive.” … It must have taken a fair bit of courage to write those words. Mustn’t it? It can’t have been easy when there was an overwhelming feeling of hatred and bitterness towards the Germans that was backed by the government’s propaganda efforts to make the enemy an object of hatred. It isn’t easy, at the best of times, to forgive those who have done us wrong – Is it? Yet it is at the heart of the Gospel. It was about forgiveness that Jesus came into the world on the first Christmas day – about forgiveness that he was raised from the dead on the first Easter Day. And it is forgiveness that lies at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us.” I have always thought that word “AS” in that phrase is too weak, because the meaning is clearly, ‘Forgive us our trespasses only if we forgive them that trespass against us’.

On Christmas Day 1940, just six weeks after the bombing, Coventry Cathedral was selected to start the Empire broadcast. The Provost ended his introduction with these words, “What we want to tell the world is this: that with Christ born again in our hearts today, we are trying, hard as it may be, to banish all thoughts of revenge; we are bracing ourselves to finish the tremendous job of saving the world from tyranny and cruelty; we are going to try to make a kinder, simpler – a more Christ-Child-like sort of world in the days beyond this strife.”

We still have a long way to go, haven’t we?

We have to try to forgive others….No, that’s wrong, we have actually to forgive others. We have to forgive because that takes the danger and tension out of the situation and draws the forgiver and forgiven into closer relationship with each other and with God. That’s the thing that brings peace. Think what would happen if Catholic and Protestant, Jew and Arab, Christian and Muslim, could do that.

Those words carved into the wall at Coventry weren’t, “Father forgive THEM.” They weren’t a quotation from Jesus’s words on the cross. No. Simply, “Father, forgive.” Forgive US, as well as those who destroyed Coventry.  In those words, “Father, forgive,” they were and we are laying before God not only the guilt of others, praying for their release from the slavery of sin, but all our own guilt as well  – Our selfishness, greed, callousness, our indifference, our anger, our lust – all those many contributions which as individuals and as a society we make to the total of human sin. We’re throwing our own sins into the poisonous pot, and we’re asking God to purify and clean it. We’re all in need of God’s forgiveness, we all want a clean slate. In those words we’re praying for ourselves. But we’re also, without being judgemental, praying for others who have done wrong. We’re joining with God, sharing with him in his purifying power, uniting ourselves in his life.

This month 77 years after that terrible air raid in Coventry, we will meet on Remembrance Sunday in this peaceful Church and town. We remember the dead of two world wars and too many smaller wars in which our armed forces have been and are engaged – all fought for “freedom and righteousness.” Today some of us remember relatives, loved ones and friends whose lives were cut short or damaged by war: for those people, this is a day that stirs up many emotions and memories. All of us remember only too well the horrifying pictures brought into our homes by newspaper and TV, of warfare in so many areas of the world including terrorist actions in our own country. Certainly we will not be glorifying war. We know too much of its horrors for that. We’re being asked to remember the fallen and the horrors of war – it is not forgive and forget – we must remember man’s capability for destruction, but when we pray, “Father, forgive,” we confess our sinfulness, and ask God to help us change the way we live, to give us the strength to forgive. If we can mean what we say, we will affect the quality of our lives and the lives of those around us.

Max Young

I know that smell ….

On the first Sunday of this month, even if we were blindfolded and led into All Saints’, we would be able to say immediately what the name of the Sunday was – because we’d be able to smell the scent of the apples, pears fruit and vegetables perched on the windowsills and ledges around the church. On opening our eyes we’d see beautiful arrangements of flowers and produce from people’s gardens and allotments, and wheat sheaves, both natural and made of bread, with maybe even the heads of some of Lord Berner’s pink mice peeking out of the wheat stalks.

What are we doing when once a year we beautify our Church building with flowers and fruit and vegetables? I’d say that we’re putting into action those words of David found in 1 Chronicles 29:11, the words we sometimes use at the offertory in our Communion service, “Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours.”

On Harvest Festival Sunday we are recognising that everything we have belongs to God. The creation is God’s, but he has gifted it to us to look after, to be the stewards of His creation.

But how are we to exercise that stewardship? In my opinion there are two main ways: first we need to be, as Lynn Treneary told us in September, thankful people – like those Lynn meets in Meridi – to use David’s words again, “Riches and honour come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might; and it is in your hand to make great and to give strength to all. And now, our God, we give thanks to you…”

Giving thanks is of huge importance. It was J N Ward who said, “The Christian is a person whose mind is dominated by thankfulness. The believer who is a great sinner and yet preserves this characteristic element of thankfulness has still the essence of the kingdom of God within him”. Thankfulness is the open, happy and free recognition that we are infinitely indebted to God and that should help motivate our lives as Christians.

The once familiar words of the General Thanksgiving say everything that needs to be said, “We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace , and for the hope of glory. And give us, we pray, such a sense of all your mercies that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful, and that we show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days.”

So, we are to walk before God in holiness and righteousness. This is the second way in which we exercise our stewardship, by giving ourselves in love to the world. King David says, “I know that you test the heart and that integrity pleases you, my God…” It is integrity that forces us to admit that we’ve been bad stewards in that we’ve allowed an imbalanced and unjust situation to come into being where a third of the world has 20% more food than it needs whilst two thirds have 25% less then they need.

Think of the statistics that cover the number of doctors per person, housing, and life expectancy. There are huge disparities. It is a matter of judgement on all of us that whenever we have a general election in this country, little attention is paid to the world’s underprivileged two-thirds. We tend to listen to the politicians telling us how they will improve rather than simplify our own standard of living.

Do you remember those slogans used in world development appeals about twenty or thirty years ago: “Live justly to justify living,” and “Live simply that others may simply live!” In my darker moments, I feel that we are no longer a Christian country – the Church of England is the established church but seems to have little influence on the way our politicians conduct our country’s business. The Church of England has become an ‘accepted’ church, that is tolerated provided it doesn’t interfere with politics.

To sum up, we exercise our stewardship by being thankful people and by giving ourselves in love to the world. If we forget or ignore injustice at this harvest season, then it will appear to many that our Harvest Festival Service is something more akin to a fertility rite than to a Christian act of worship.

God our Father, giver of all good things, make us more thankful for what we have received, more content with what we have, more mindful of people in need and more ready to serve them in whatever way we can; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Max Young

Max Young writes

Barabbas—a Man of Mystery

In last month’s magazine, Peter Foot wrote, “seeing several films on the death and resurrection of Jesus, . . . apart from Jesus, two people, Pontius Pilate and Barabbas, stood out.”. Historians have found plenty of documentary evidence of Pilate and his life, but who was Barabbas?

There is a great deal of mystery about this man. There were some rather strange similarities between Barabbas and Jesus. It starts with their names. Early copies of Matthew’s gospel called the prisoner “Jesus bar Abbas”. The phrase “bar Abbas” can be translated as “son of the Father”, which we’ve heard of applied to Christ because he occasionally used the word “Abba” (father) in talking about or to God. So it’s quite a short step to the name Barabbas by dropping “Jesus” and joining the remaining names into one.

Evidence to support this name-changing involves the scholar, Origen, who felt that he didn’t want Christ’s name associated with a criminal for reverential reasons. He also suggested that the name could have been added in to Barabbas’ name by a heretic.

And another thing, one could say that they were both examples of rebel leaders. Mark has Barabbas imprisoned for taking part in a revolt, and his popularity with the crowd suggests that he had been one of its leaders. But if we look at these men through Roman eyes, Jesus could have looked like a rebel leader too. Plenty of people were calling him the Messiah. Surely this would involve the overthrow of the existing government, wouldn’t it? It wouldn’t take too much to get them to cause trouble, after all didn’t he stage a violent protest with his attack on the Temple merchants?

Are these similarities too close for comfort? Are there other explanations for these similarities? There is a theory that Jesus Christ was the imprisoned rebel leader with Barabbas invented so as to be a carbon-copy to cover the violent aspects. This could be to counter any story that Jesus Christ had tried to organise any anti-Roman activities for which he could have been crucified.

In my mind there’s a mite too much speculation in that theory to make it plausible. But Jesus was a common name in those days in Palestine and it could be quite likely to have two people of the same name arrested at the same time.

One of the strange things about the story of the Trial is what has been called the ‘Paschal Pardon; the ‘governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted’. Sadly, details of this pardon are only to be found in the four gospels with no supporting evidence in Jewish or Roman historical documents.

But what do the gospels say about this Barabbas? He is called a prisoner in all the gospels other than John who calls him a ‘bandit’. Was he: a convicted prisoner serving his sentence? Or: a criminal recently captured and bound awaiting trial? Matthew calls him a notorious prisoner. Mark and Luke say he was a prisoner who had committed murder during an insurrection. John’s ‘bandit’ is a term used at the time to cover revolutionaries.

There are a couple of points to note. First, if he had been convicted of being a murderer, insurrectionist or revolutionary he would have been summarily and swiftly executed after trial. Second, under Roman Law, the only person who could grant a pardon – a rare occurrence – was the Emperor. So, if Pilate reversed a court decision by pardoning Barabbas he would be, in effect, undermining the Emperor’s authority. From a Roman viewpoint, the whole story seems unlikely since it shows Roman authority (Pontius Pilate, backed by overwhelming military might) being bullied by a small crowd of unarmed civilians into releasing a prisoner condemned to death for insurrection against the Roman Empire. This would have made Pilate a candidate for execution. If Barabbas had merely been captured and was awaiting trial. Pilate could, technically, have released him without trial, but, in my opinion, the release of any murderous insurrectionist would have been considered by Rome as a fatal lack of good judgement.

Are we any farther forward in getting to know Barabbas? Possibly I’ve just muddied the water, anyway we’ve no idea about what happened to Barabbas after his release – I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he had gone to watch Jesus’ crucifixion and there are apparently some sources to say he was killed later on in another revolt against the Romans.

Max Young

St Bartholomew’s Day

Bartholomew? Isn’t he something to do with hospitals? Look him up and you’ll find he’s mentioned in the New Testament, usually alongside Philip, and in John’s gospel he’s identified as Nathaniel. Legend has it that after the Ascension Bartholomew preached the gospel in India before moving to Greater Armenia (The area between the Caspian and Black Seas). He is said to have been martyred in Albanopolis in Armenia, now known as Kruje some 20 km north of Tirana. In some accounts he was beheaded, but the popular version is that he was flayed alive before being crucified, head downward.

His remains are said to have been given to one of the first churches in the city of Dura-Europos in Syria but later, miraculously, were washed ashore on Lipari a small island to the north of Sicily before being moved to Benevento, 50 km north-east of Naples. Some of the relics were given to Frankfurt, and Canterbury and some to Rome where they were preserved in the basilica of his name. The basilica at some stage inherited an old pagan medical centre, which, over time, made the link between Bartholomew, medicine and hospitals.

But there are other associations. His martyrdom is commemorated on 24th August. On the same day: in 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted killing 15,000; in 410 AD, Rome was overrun by the Visigoths, and in: 1349 AD, the Jews in Mainz were blamed for the Plague and 6,000 were killed.

In 1572, 223 years later, in France came the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre. It started with the murders of the leaders of the Huguenots (French Calvinistic Protestants) ordered by the King Charles IX, but quickly developed into a mob-led bloodbath which left 3,000 dead in Paris and a total of 70,000 killed in all France.

Although the universal Church was later very thankful for the 16th century Reformation, it brought about a horrifying fanaticism and cruelty, all perpetrated in the name of God. The Bartholomew Day Massacre shows some of the tensions that come at times of religious ‘excitement’ and though I can’t imagine any of us killing for our version of the faith, we need to learn from this event because it might affect our own attitudes to some of our more annoying fellow Christians.

We need to be very careful about generalising about people even if we know they are part of what might be a persecuting movement. One of the enemies of the Huguenots, the Duke of Guise, who personally organised the murder of members of their leadership opened his house to the families of local Protestants and gave orders that they were to be treated kindly when under his roof. Some other Catholic leaders enabled other families to escape the butchery, being horrified that what started as a plot to kill only the leaders had turned into wholesale massacre.

To those who planned the event, such lenience shown by leading Catholics was shocking. The Papal Nuncio is said to have reported to the Pope that, “the only one who had acted in the spirit of a Christian and refrained from mercy, was the King; while the other princes, who pretended to be good Catholics and to deserve the favour of the Pope, had striven, one and all, to save as many Huguenots as they could.”

As Vicar Steve told us, we are all involved in mission, and we should be aware that we are handling what is potentially a very dangerous weapon. Although political, social and ethnic elements also feature in the conflicts that trouble our world, we can’t ignore the fact that religious differences are also used as levers to keep the pot of discontent on the boil. This can cause some people to adopt a very uncompromising stance because they feel that what God wants of them must be adhered to at all costs. For this very reason many people are turned away from religious conviction of any kind because they feel that it only fosters division and lack of toleration.

We, who believe that God’s demands are supreme, must also see that convictions about the details of what those demands are, differ greatly among good people in all generations, and so there just has to be moderation in all things. Only so, surely, can the distinction between faith and fanaticism, conviction and bigotry be drawn. Don’t let anyone deride the “liberal values” of toleration, respect for other peoples’ views or the belief in the common humanity that binds us all together. These things can’t be portrayed as ‘wishy-washy’ and motivated only by the desire to have no conflict, and to compromise at all costs; No, that is misrepresentation, because to stand for these values often requires as much courage, and sometimes causes as much conflict, as a stand for any value, when confronted by selfishness or zealotry.

Remember how the commonly accepted association of leadership with domination was reversed in Luke (22: 25-27) by linking it with service?

Can we use the anniversary of one of the awful events of religious cruelty to strengthen our prayers that such events, which keep recurring in our world, do not turn us or others into partisans wanting vengeance or retribution on whole groups of people, or even into generalisers who tar every one of our enemies with the same brush?

Give us all, Father God, a sense of proportion and zeal of moderation!

Max Young

Some Thoughts on Mission

The poem “Crossing the Bar” was read and sung at a funeral here in May and it got me thinking of many things, and particularly brought my mind back to when we lived in Branscombe, Devon. There, we used to enjoy sitting out in the garden on a warm summer night when the wind was from the South East because we could hear the sound of the sea on the shingle beach some half a mile away. It was a soothing sound – a kind of audio-massage – de-stressing at times when life was busy.

That sound was mentioned, too, in another poem, Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” where it says, “Listen! you hear the grating roar /Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,/At their return, up the high strand, /Begin, and cease, and then again begin, /With tremulous cadence slow, and bring /The eternal note of sadness in.”But I had forgotten that it goes on to say, “The Sea of Faith /Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore /Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. /But now I only hear /Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, /Retreating, to the breath /Of the night-wind,/ down the vast edges drear /And naked shingles of the world.

Today we live as Christians in a world from which the tide of faith has withdrawn. So what can we do? Arnold’s lament at the passing of the full tide of religious faith was reflected by my grandson. He enjoys surfing, and for him the outgoing tide meant no more fun. He sat on the beach chuntering away. I told him to be patient and wait for the tide to turn. But for his sister, low tide opened up a fascinating new world in the rock pools – crabs, sea anemones, star fish, razor shells and many other wriggling delights. She was happy in this new world revealed to her and was absorbed for hours.

Thinking back, my grandchildren’s reactions to low tide were like a parable of how the church looks at today’s world.

Are we sitting in Faringdon waiting for the tide to turn, chuntering because the church and faith no longer have the status they once had? Are we hoping for a revival of the past, when it seemed from our full churches that everybody believed? Or, can we realise and recognise that the new world revealed by the retreating tide is just as full of God’s glory and presence as was the old world in which faith played a more overtly prominent part? People in today’s world aren’t the naturally religious animals they apparently once were. So should we stop trying to impose our faith upon people and agree that the Christian faith is a private world-view equally valid with all other world views?

Attractive as this idea may be, it is impossible to hold it and be true to the Gospel. God is present everywhere, already – if he was absent from anything it’d cease to exist. And it would be arrogance to think that it was the work of Christian mission that introduced God into a situation. But the witness of the New Testament is that we must grasp two things: the fact that God is king over all his creation and over his people, and; that we can enter into a loving relationship with him. So I see mission has a double task.

First we have to help people realise that they are loved and cared for by the God and Father of Jesus, and that the acknowledgement of the God who is present everywhere sets people free. The light which has dawned on the people who lived in darkness, is the new situation which has come about through the presence of Jesus. The kingdom of heaven is close at hand, Jesus proclaims that God rules over all. This doesn’t, of course, mean that Jesus thought that God had not always been king, but that, with his coming a new age was dawning in which the true nature of God’s Lordship could be understood and acknowledged.

Secondly, our mission task is to encourage people to enter into a saving relationship with God. Jesus challenged his disciples, and through them, challenges us to be ‘fishers of men’. One of our primary tasks as Christians is to share in the missionary work of the church. And that means not only supporting the work of those who are full-time missionaries, but also recognising that each of us is commissioned by Christ to proclaim the God who is present wherever we live.

But we can’t go on using past methods in today’s world. It is inescapable fact that the sea of faith has ebbed to a new low water mark that is probably unique in history. Just as in the past our overseas missionaries’ first priority was to learn the languages of the people to whom they went, so we must give time and effort to the job of learning. We must learn what makes western secular society tick. We must engage with the underlying philosophies by which our lives are unconsciously shaped, and measure them against the Gospel of Jesus.

As Paul struggled to interpret the Christian message for the Greek speaking world, so we must struggle to interpret the message for our culture.

Max Young

Never Volunteer

You would have thought that in my seven years in a Royal Naval school and over twenty years in the Army I’d have become inured to withstand requests to volunteer for anything. They say the Army teaches soldiers two things: “If in doubt, put down smoke and go left”; and “Never volunteer for anything”.

“Never volunteer” – when asked for volunteers, soldiers become poker-faced, apparently deaf, and learn to reply, without havering or putting up questionable excuses that they regretted their inability to volunteer for this very worthy task but, unfortunately they already had a commitment. (probably confidential – need to know and all that.)

I’m afraid, I failed not to volunteer on a number of occasions – sorry for the double negative! One of them was back in about June last year when Margaret Starr cornered me and said something to the effect that she needed my expertise (flattery) – she had heard me telling of my time as an Army caterer. Within a very short time I found I had accepted the responsibility of assisting to produce a supper meal for sixty in the Barber Rooms at the end of November. And what a production team it was! Margaret was boss with Jeni Summerfield running the kitchen and a goodly team of cooks and helpers. Then Margaret suggested that it made good sense that the diners were given something to take home after the feast and that I should conceive and organise this ‘gift’. But what gift could I give? A number of possibilities crossed my mind – a bottle of water from South West Uganda? a small pack of Cheese straws? a block of chocolate moulded into the WATSAN Logo?, . . . .  or what? It was, I suppose the word ’gift’ that made me think of our God-given gifts or Talents and a very short hop from there to the parable to be found in both Mark and Luke.

But who would put down the ‘seed money’ for this venture? There were a number of possibilities, and happily, the first person I approached said they thought that their contribution would be rather like handing out starters for sourdough loaves, part of it would be combined with more flour and water and made into a loaf – and so the YEAST PROJECT  was born. YE Are So Talented!

Unlike the recipients of the Talents in Mark and Luke’s version of the parable, the Yeast Project recipients were self- selected and as in Luke’s version given the same amount each. The other difference is that to reduce any pressure on recipients, no names or records were kept – the counting was done in the same way as the counting of the collection of envelopes is carried out each Sunday with complete confidentiality. We know there were some big bags of talents from a number of volunteers, including one of £500! We also know that we/they enjoyed the challenge and met it in a number of different ways – using the money to buy blank CD’s and selling recordings of their work – making marmalade, cakes and  biscuits – using the talent to buy sausages and selling ‘bangers and mash’ lunches – giving talks – making sacrifices by gathering funds from what would have been normal expenditure and putting it in the ‘yeast pot’ instead – Running a stall on a Saturday morning – perhaps the envelope fillers could let me know what they did to achieve what was, in the end, a magnificent result.

Yeast Project envelopes counted thus far raised £2,131 – so WATSAN and the fund for Parish Mission in Faringdon will each receive £1,065.

Many, many thanks to all involved in any way with the Yeast Project, your efforts have been magnificently successful. Here’s what we prayed when the Talents were received and blessed on Easter Sunday:

Heavenly Father, we offer these gifts, raised through the talents you have given us, to help with the work of WATSAN in South West Uganda and here in our Mission in this parish. Half these gifts will go where we cannot go and help those we cannot see or reach ourselves in Uganda and; half will be used here with those we can both see and reach. Through these gifts may the ignorant be taught, the thirsty for water and the knowledge of Jesus be satisfied, and your Kingdom increased. We ask your blessing on these gifts, on all those who accepted the challenge to grow their talents and those who supported them – and on the work of WATSAN and our Mission here.  We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Max Young

Christianity—a Practical Religion

When we look around at the people we meet in Church, I’m sure we see a good number of practical people. And I’m sure that most of us would like to be thought of as practical people. We don’t hold dreamers or idealists in very high esteem, in fact we probably get rather impatient with some of their notions. OK, we may not see many visions, but we do like to get something done. Castles in the air are too wishy-washy for us. We want something solid that’s wind and weatherproof. Great ideas are all very well, but we have to deal with things as they are. There’s so little that gets done, and there’s so much to be done that we really haven’t got time for dreams.

The world needs workers and the best that we can do with what there is of our lives is to pack them as full as we can with practical usefulness. If you come across a lame dog by a stile, you know it wants something more than a stimulating talk on the art of jumping. Our duty is not to waste time in thinking how splendid it would be if there were no lame dogs and no difficult stiles in the world, but just to help the dog get over the stile.

I remember my Granny saying, “A pennyworth of practical help is worth a pound’s worth of sympathy any day of the week.” She wasn’t underrating the value of sympathy, but simply saying that if a pound’s worth of sympathy can’t be converted into at least a pennyworth of real human service, then that sympathy is a pretty poor thing. To feel pity and to do nothing makes an emotional luxury of something meant to stir us into giving practical help. Life is very short for all of us. If we want to leave our corner of the world a little cleaner, healthier, and brighter than when we found it, we need to cut down the talking and arguing about it and get on with the work required.

Christianity is a very practical religion with the aims of preaching the Gospel, healing the sick and blind, comforting the broken-hearted, freeing the oppressed. Practical programmes. There’s enough work to keep us busy for as long as we live.

Jesus was always at work. He was always doing good to somebody, sometimes preaching or teaching, healing, comforting, rebuking – always at work. And I don’t think we can really understand the Christian faith, unless we too are doing something for others. I may get into trouble for saying this, but some of the intellectual difficulties we have with our faith will never be solved by thinking. The only way in which we can see our way through them is by doing. It is by putting the precepts and principles of Christianity into practice, as much as we can, that we begin to understand them. Christ comes to meet us where  we are. If we are trying honestly to do our Christian duty, we shall find Jesus one day standing alongside us.

It’s amazing how many of life’s puzzles are solved when we set to and help others. We’ll never understand everything in this world. It isn’t as though we were sent into this world to make a sketch map of the universe. We shan’t be judged by what we understand but by what we do and were. God gives us all enough light to work by. It will be time enough to understand when we have finished the work that he has given us to do.

The life of the Christian is all coming and going – coming to Jesus for the strength that he alone can give us, going back into life to use that strength in doing good to those that need us, as and when and while we may. Do not dream your time away in wishing that the kingdom of God would come. Help it to come by doing your bit in your own corner of the world. Try to translate the dream into business. It’s a hard task, I know. I find it hard. So, I expect, do you. We can only do our best. We can only try our hardest. But if we keep on trying our hardest and patiently aiming at our best, God may work in us, and through us, in ways we just can’t imagine.

My apologies for the blunt bits in this article, reading it through I realise that I’m actually addressing myself as much as anybody. Happy Easter! May you, like Mary, find the Master standing beside you.

Max Young

Do You Feel ‘Up Against It’?

I was feeling pretty low at one point in January due to a variety of things – perhaps I had a slight case of Seasonally Affective Disorder, affected by the fog as it and life seemed to close around me. Anyway, I met a number of people who were also finding life a bit of a struggle for reasons that were far worse than mine, and knowing that seemed to jog me out of a rather introverted spell.

Thinking and praying for these people brought to mind one of those phrases to describe them as being people who were ‘up against it’. Like the foggy weather at the time the phrase lacks clarity. What is the ‘it’ that some people are up against? I don’t think that it’s life, because we have to deal with that every day. It can’t be God, or anything to do with the will of God, because if that was the case what could possibly save us from a final and irretrievable despair?

‘It’ must be a circumstance or a combination of circumstances that are on our minds that seems to haunt us, like an unseen enemy that’s trying to hurt us, physically, mentally or spiritually. We’re probably all aware, to some degree, of what that feels like but it’s not always easy to put into words.

Of course, we’re all individually very different and so we react to the challenge of being ‘up against it’ in very different ways. Some people seem to almost thrive on being ‘up against it’. They think about their situation as a challenge, a test of the stuff they’re made of. They refuse to be beaten, or if they are beaten they’ll jolly well go down fighting. This is the stuff that heroes and heroines are made of, those who throughout history faced pain, peril and hardship and stubbornly refused to give in, and in Harry Lauder’s words kept ‘right on to the end of the road.’

Some of us are not nearly as brave as the ‘bulldog breed’ and when we feel ‘up against it’, we get demoralised almost at once. We become out of sorts with everybody and are bitter and resentful that life isn’t as easy as we want it, so we tend, if we can, to find some way of escaping the challenge. If we know people like this, including ourselves, then we mustn’t be hard on them.

There are people like this who have tried hard and held their own for years. Then there came a breaking point, when, totally worn down, they felt they couldn’t go on. To meet people who are at this point, to see their unhappiness and hopelessness is one of the most tragic things I know.  What they need is not our contempt but our sympathy, not our indifference but our urgent help.

So, how can we help each other in an emergency of this kind? I think that if it’s ourselves we’ve categorized as ‘up against it’, we ought to be really certain that things are as we think they are – I mean, that they’re not something we’re imagining. When life looks dark, the explanation might be that we’ve put on dark glasses. It is quite possible to feel ‘up against it’ when all the time we’re only up against ourselves as I was in January.

But what about our faith? Where and how does that come in? It may well be that life seems too much for us, if we’ve only got our own resources to count on, but we’re devaluing our faith if we forget about our God and his power and his grace. God’s power isn’t a final resource,  that we only call up when everything else has fallen by the wayside. God’s grace represents the normal, everyday need of every one of us. Maybe it’s this that people forget – perhaps because God has been excluded from their daily lives and only when they are ‘in extremis’ do they remember that he is there beside them in the person of Jesus.

Quite possibly it may be the forgetfulness of this fact – with the neglect, for example, of daily prayer – that has brought us to where we are – ‘up against it’. If any of us have kept God out of our lives, can we wonder at our confusion and despair? Prayer is the threshold over which God steps to be in our spiritual home, to stand beside us and share and support all aspects of our lives – to change our attitude from “I’m up against it” to “We’re in this together”. Put out the welcome mat and open the door!

Max Young

A ‘Possible’ Invitation

On 15th January this year Steve preached about Jesus’ invitation to the first disciples and suggested that we might issue an unconditional invitation to people we meet in our everyday lives to come to All Saints or St Mary’s and see what we do. If they do come we have to convince them that the Christian message is still a relevant one.

Two thousand years ago Christianity started when people were attracted to the personality of Jesus. The crowds gathered not to be given a creed but to meet and listen to him. Our movement was started when Jesus invited people to be his disciples with the simple words, “Follow me”. He asked them for their unreserved loyalty, to give up everything, at once, without a word of excuse or protest, and go after him. “Follow me” was the sum of all that he had to say to them.

That invitation still stands. But how can people follow Jesus today? Many people recognise Christian teaching and generally approve of it and say that they’d like to be able to conform to it and to see others, nations as well as individuals, do the same. But there are difficulties.

One of them is in relating Jesus to the concrete situations in which they find themselves today. How does the twenty-first century Briton emulate a first century life? We live in a highly complex, mechanised, industrialised and competitive society, whereas Jesus lived in one that was largely rural and pastoral. And the character of life was different. He wasn’t married, didn’t have to set up a home. He left the carpenter’s shop to become an itinerant preacher. The simplicity of his life and the excellence of his character make an unfailing appeal. But today, with family claims, business interests, and property concerns, people want to know whether it’s possible to transfer any pattern of behaviour from his life to their own.

Is the teaching of Jesus relevant nowadays? Can people get the direction they need to grapple with the moral dilemmas of our complex modern world? There are people who appear disappointed by what seem to them the limitations and inadequacies of Jesus’s teaching in this respect. So many of their problems, they say, aren’t mentioned in the Gospels, especially the problems of public life – the possession of property, the nature of government, and the policies of nations in their dealings with one another.

But they don’t understand what Jesus came to do. They look at Jesus’ teaching and expecting to find a set of rules, a code, an ethical guide-book covering every contingency in life and providing rule-of-thumb directions for all ethical dilemmas, personal and social. There is no such code in the Gospels.

Jesus wasn’t a lawmaker. He didn’t try to provide a complete compendium of moral duties. He described a way of life and by his words and actions showed that it was do-able. The value of his teaching is not in telling us how we ought to behave in every circumstance and in every relationship, but in describing a way of life to be worked out in personal character and social relationships.

So long as this is remembered no one is likely to label Jesus’ teaching as antiquated or irrelevant. Too much can be made of the difference between his world and ours. In many ways it was a world strikingly like our own. Then as now there were people organising their grievances in self-righteous pressure groups – insisting on their rights, aggressive, grasping. Then as now the Haves were ranged against the Have-Nots and there was suspicion, animosity and friction. Then as now there wars and rumours of wars, and a background of exploitation, oppression, and unrest. Christ lived in a world which in the basic essentials was extraordinarily like our own.

The truths he taught and the issues he dealt with are timeless. The human heart has not changed with the years – its loves and hates, its hopes and fears, its joys and sorrows, its temptations, passions and failures. He spoke about sin, and how deliverance from it can be found; about the cares and anxieties of daily existence and pointed a way to a simple, un-harassed life. He spoke of the human soul, of its worth, its rights, its possibilities, its responsibilities. He spoke confidently and convincingly of God as the Father of men, answering and satisfying the deepest craving of their spirits.

What is there in this that is irrelevant today, that would justify us chaining Jesus to the first century and denying his validity now? You cannot date Jesus. “Heaven and earth,” he said, “shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” His words are as alive with spiritual appeal today as when they were first spoken. Has there been any age when the Beatitudes, or the parable of the good Samaritan, or the Golden Rule weren’t deeply relevant?

There is, however, another and greater difficulty. Some people, although they know Jesus offers a solution to the problems of our lives, doubt the practicability of the solution. The way of life is beautiful and noble but isn’t it too idealistic, high and hard for ordinary people? They persuade themselves that there must be an easier way, something less demanding or perfectionist, and that the honest thing is to own up to not being a Christian. They may say that there would soon be an end to all our troubles if only people would act in accordance with the teaching of Jesus. It is a big “if”. It would be a wonderful world if everybody lived by the principles of the Sermon on the Mount, but with those principles so demanding, with the world and human nature what it is, what prospect is there for such a world?

Yes, Jesus does set us high standards. Let me name some of them. We are: to put God and not self first; not to be anxious about food or clothes or money; to be absolutely honest; to love our enemies; to forgive always ‘those who sin against us’; to be perfect as God is perfect. What claims Jesus makes on human nature! What an optimist he is! Men didn’t always show him their best side but he believed in them and their ability to meet his challenge. He never gives up on humanity. He is always calling on people to be bigger, braver, wiser and more God-like in the living of their lives. He never speaks as though evil is permanently rooted in the order of things. It is because he sees us as children of God that he makes such exacting demands and pitches things so high.

We need a faith like that today. There are too many among us who view the mean and debasing elements in humanity as impossible to correct, who view any talk about the Golden Rule and a warless world as being a waste of breath.

Of all the obstacles standing in the way of a better world this is the most powerful, this cynicism about the possibility of changing human nature. There was no such cynicism in Jesus. He wasn’t blind to the evil in people, but there was something else he never lost sight of – the wonderful latent goodness in ordinary men and women.

He saw hidden possibilities in everybody he met and believed they could be called into life. His standards are high, but he doesn’t expect us to attain them without help. We aren’t left by ourselves. God is always at hand enabling the person who turns to him to do things which are impossible to mere human nature. Jesus repeatedly emphasised that – that if we’d get in touch with God we’d receive the power to rise to finer and better things.

If that way of life is to become a reality for us, we have to learn to live by the help and grace of God. That was Jesus’ secret. He lived by the help and grace of God, and taught that all of us, day by day, hour by hour, may do the same.

To follow Jesus isn’t easy. But if we want to follow him, and will turn to God for strength, a power will take possession of us that will enable us to dare and do the impossible. This is not romancing. It has happened in previous generations and is happening to men and women today.

I know there are some of us who are drawn to the Christian life but are afraid of failing to reach Christ’s standards. We must remember that we are not alone. God is with us and we can draw on his Spiritual resources. Remember what Jesus said when his disciples thought his demands were so hard and high that nobody could rise to them, “With men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Get those invitations out!

Faringdon’s Got Talent

Those of you who went to the WATSAN event on 25th November will know that I have been thinking about talent, and you would have been on the receiving end of culinary, sung and spoken examples from Faringdon’s talent pool.

We also saw other aspects of this pool at the Royal British Legion’s Festival of Remembrance that was organised (no pun intended) by Joy Blake with Faringdon Brass, the Ferndale Community Choir, Army Cadets, Yvonne Belcher, our town Mayor Councillor Dr Mike Wise and some stunning audio-visual compositions by Gordon Belcher.

But, of course, talk of talent makes me immediately think of Jesus’ parable of the Talents written in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In them Jesus told of the master commending his servants who had made good use of their gifts, saying that , because they’d been faithful, “in a few things” they’d be rewarded by being “put in charge of many things”.

Matthew and Luke’s stories, though basically parallel, do differ in some details but have essentially the same meaning. The phrase ‘faithful in a few things’ reminded me of the one used in Jesus’ parable about the wily steward that was our Gospel in mid September, when Jesus said , Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much. (Lk 16:10).

The British Biblical scholar Dr James Moffatt translated this as: “He who is faithful with a trifle is also faithful with a large trust”,

But as I see it, I think he missed the point. Jesus is not saying, “because he is faithful with a little, therefore, in the future, he will be faithful with much”. What Jesus says is that this is a statement of present fact, that to be faithful with a little is to be truly, greatly, wholly faithful; it is to be faithful in much.

If we are faithful in little matters, that is what counts with God – it is the faithfulness that’s important, not the size of the task. Faithfulness is faithfulness, nothing more, nothing less.

“Well, Max”, I can hear someone saying, “this is just semantics, what difference does it make?” To my mind, it makes a very real difference that is relevant to many people today.

The parable of the Talents is used to teach that honest efforts, and hard work, will have their reward. That’s all very right and proper, and I’ve nothing to say against it. But this neat little bit of moral philosophy doesn’t always apply, and I’m sure it wasn’t what Jesus meant.

For example, I don’t think it applies to a large section of the community; what of the wives and mothers amongst us? What reward after years of faithful service? Surely we’re not suggesting they should have two homes to manage instead of one; or five, instead of two children to care for, saying, “You, who have been faithful in a few things shall now be rewarded by being put in charge of many things”, are we? There’s something to be said for a wife and a mother being made Prime Minister, if she’s got the appropriate skills, but what about the millions who will still be faithfully carrying out their daily tasks to the end of their days? Surely their reward is in their faithfulness, and it is of such as these that Jesus said, “Who is faithful in little things is faithful in much”.

It is faithfulness in small things that is so desperately needed today, not in order to get greater opportunities that may come as a reward, but for the love of true and honest work, and for the joy of serving others.

Most people think there’s not much they can do to shape and influence the great world issues of today. But don’t the great issues depend on individuals, and don’t individuals come from homes, schools, Churches, communities, where faithfulness in small things shows character even as it creates it?

Jesus didn’t say, “He who is faithful in matters that are the smallest will be faithful in greater ones” – anyone could have said that – he put the emphasis where it is so often forgotten, that to be faithful with a little is to be truly, greatly, wholly faithful; it is to be faithful in much. I hope this explanation of Jesus’ message will help and encourage those who are filling small places, and doing little things, with great faithfulness, and always will be. So, go to it, faithful talented Faringdonians! Have an expectant Advent, a joyous and happy Christmas and New Year, and an eye-opening Epiphany!

Max Young