Steve writes . . . Homo religeousus

Neil MacGregor, former Director of the British Museum, and now presenter of the Radio 4 series ‘Living with the gods’, says that we homo sapiens are also ‘homo religiousus’. He also notes that Britain now has an unique and very unusual society… the first ever to function without religious belief at its core. MacGregor contends that religion provides the overarching story that explains our place in the world and it also creates a sense of community, which has rapidly disappeared from the UK.

Nick Spencer of theology think-tank Theos concurs with Macgregor . ‘There’s not been a society known to history – or pre-history – that hasn’t had some form of religious belief and practice at its heart’.

I was also interested to see the comments of agnostic comedian David Mitchell on MacGregor’s views. Mitchell says ‘The vast majority of humans throughout history have grown up in contexts where questions like “Is there a God?” and “What happens when people die?” were answered with the same confidence with which a teacher today would explain gravity, and those answers were reassuring’.

Mitchell suggests that ‘to change so quickly from being a society where most people took comfort from the establishment telling them, loud and clear, that death is not the end, to one where many proclaim that it is, will have had an incalculable impact on our state of mind’. He concludes that this lack of a common understanding that death is not the end ‘is a more persuasive explanation than smartphones or commuting of why we feel so stressed’. Similarly, Nick Spencer notes that our society thinks that a highly individualized and materialist shape for human existence is enough to secure our wellbeing, but it isn’t. (my italics).

We are made in the image of God and we are made to know and worship God. The rescuing God has, in Jesus, come to bring us forgiveness and love. And he also came so we could know that, when we trust in him as saviour and Lord, we do indeed receive the gift of eternal life – life that doesn’t end when it finishes. If we are robbing whole generations of this security and hope, no wonder there’s more stress and less wellbeing around.

How vital then that we live as people of Christian hope who help to reverse the unfortunate and harmful ‘uniqueness’ in British society that MacGregor has pointed out.

Yours in Christ,
Steve

Steve writes . . . It’s not Fair-trade, Sainsbury’s

The Fairtrade Foundation was formed in 1992 and its members include Christian Aid, CAFOD, Tearfund, Global Justice Now and Traidcraft (the latter was an idea of students from my previous church in Durham).

The Foundation has been working tirelessly for years to educate us about the unfairness of trade which rewards multi-national companies but refuses to give farmers and other producers from the developing world a fair deal for the goods they produce for us. It’s been a highly successful campaign which has led to towns like Faringdon embracing Fairtrade status, to shops like our own Mustard Seed championing Fairtrade and to nearly 80% of British consumers being able to recognise the Fairtrade logo. The Fairtrade mark is the gold standard of ethical trading and the world’s most trusted and best-known food certification scheme.

Now, however Sainsbury’s are changing a system which has worked well for 25 years for both poor farmers and large supermarkets. They are no longer labelling their own brand teas as ‘Fairtrade’ but will call them ‘fairly traded’. Sainsbury’s are setting up their own in-house certification scheme and its own ethical standards. They are also changing the ‘social premium’ which is money that Fairtrade provides to farmers on top of the guaranteed minimum price they get for their produce. This money normally goes direct to the farmers who agree to spend it on social schemes such as pensions, sick pay or education which they themselves choose and control. Now Sainsbury’s is to decide how this money is used. Producers feel betrayed and that their rights are being taken away. It feels like colonialism and that Sainsbury’s want to control them. The danger is that Sainsbury’s may remove the Fairtrade mark from other products like their bananas and coffee and this could lead to wholesale withdrawal of goods marked Fairtrade in other supermarkets too.

The consequence of Sainsbury’s action is likely to be lower social and labour standards, more hardship in developing countries and real confusion among consumers. The Bible is very clear that we should deal fairly with others, especially the poor – for example see Amos 8:4-7 and Isaiah 3:14-15.

You might like to sign a petition objecting to Sainsbury’s rejection of the Fairtrade mark at fairtrade.org.uk or change.org or you might ask a local Sainsbury’s manager why they are making changes which will make things harder for poor producers when Fairtrade has worked so well for a quarter of a century.

Yours in Christ,

Steve

Steve writes … Moving forward

As we officially enter meteorological autumn there’s lots going on within the life of All Saints’ and St Mary’s. Not only does our children’s work start again in earnest, we have a special evening in the Barber Rooms on Friday 22nd September for parents who have children linked with All Saints groups. This includes a meal and quiz and the chance to let us know how we can best help both parents and children to grow in their faith. Let Helen Wilson or Kate Crebbin know if you have children at All Saints’ but don’t get an invitation.

A good way to grow spiritually is to be part of a small group which learns more about Christian discipleship, and these get going again this month. If you’d like to join a group please let me or one of the wardens know.

If you’d like to play a part in the Town Nativity, we’re invited to come along to the casting session on Tuesday 5th September in the Jubilee Room at the Pump House at 7.30pm.

I especially want to invite you all to come to the Barber Rooms on Wednesday 4th October at 7.30pm as we begin a monthly Church Prayer Meeting on the first Wednesday evening of each month. It would be great if a good number will come to pray for the life and mission of God’s church here. This is a great opportunity to thank God for all his provision for us and to immerse all our activities and events in prayer – you don’t have to pray out loud but your being there will be a great encouragement in our work for Christ!

St Mary’s Little Coxwell will be celebrating Harvest towards the end of the month with a Harvest Supper in the Village Hall on Saturday 23rd September followed by the Harvest Festival Service the next morning at 9.00am.

Hopefully we will know very soon if we have a new administrator. Work is proceeding on making the store room in the Barber Rooms into an office with the addition of a window and wifi for the Church building and Barber Rooms. We’ve been given permission to look for a curate, who would be ordained in June 2018. We are also seeking a Director of Music to encourage us in our music in worship. Please be praying for the right people to help us move forward in these important areas of ministry.

Yours in Christ,

Steve

Steve writes . . . It’s not rocket science, or is it?

I’m delighted to say that All Saints’ bid for a grant from ‘Scientists in Congregations’ has been successful! ‘Scientists in Congregations’ is a project funded by the John Templeton Trust to support local congregations in running schemes which show that Christians have nothing to fear from the results of modern science.

There are so many misunderstandings of the Christian view of science which have led people to dismiss our faith out of hand, assuming that you can’t be a Christian and a top-class scientist. Yet there are faithful, Bible-believing Christians at the highest level of academic and practical science in this country. For example, amongst the professors of astrophysics and theoretical physics at Oxford University are Katherine Blundell and Ard Louis, who both find no difficulty between their scientific work and discoveries and holding a robust Christian faith.

The planning group at All Saints’ working with me is Helen Wilson, Mark Ritchie and Keith Thrower. Having been awarded the grant, the project we now have to make happen involves bringing four high quality speakers on science and faith issues into the heart of our town. The talks, which will be free of charge, will be presented at the Corn Exchange and everyone in Faringdon and the surrounding area will be welcome.

There’ll be time in each evening to ask questions of the speaker and the idea is to make science and faith issues very accessible so that no special knowledge of science is required by anyone who comes.

Some of the subjects we hope to have talks on include: ‘Has science killed God?’; ‘God and the Big Bang’, ‘Creation or Evolution, do we have to choose?’ and ‘Designer Babies – should we play God?’.

I still recall my great annoyance at my daughter’s class being told by their physics teacher in GCSE year that it was a choice- either God or the Big Bang, but not both. This only reflected the physics teacher’s lack of understanding of the greatness of the living God.

If all truth (including scientific truth) is God’s truth, there’s no need to let Richard Dawkins and other scientists who deny God have the final word. So please get thinking and praying about who you might bring with you amongst your family and friends. Watch this space for further details and help us to achieve the goal of filling the Corn Exchange for these talks between September 2017 and February 2018.

Yours in Christ,

Steve

Steve writes . . . Come and meet the Bishop

Our new ‘Diocesan Bishop’– that means the Bishop of Oxford – the lead Bishop in Oxford Diocese, is Steven Croft. He came to Oxford last Autumn from being Bishop of Sheffield for eight years. He’s currently going round all the deaneries in his (rather huge) diocese to meet church members. And he is inviting us all to come and meet him on Wednesday 7th June at Uffington Village Hall at 7.15pm for 7.30pm start.

In one of his books Jesus’ People: What the church should do next, Bishop Steven reminds us what a church is: “A Christian Church is not a gathering of loosely committed consumers or more or less satisfied customers. It is the living community of those who are offering their whole lives to Jesus Christ and will live in this dynamic rhythm of worship, fellowship and mission: coming together to be with Jesus and being sent out in love and service to God’s world. This, and only this, is what it means to be church: Jesus’ people”. Now there’s a challenge about being a missional church and not a consumer church.

The programme for Bishop Steven’s day in our Vale of White Horse Deanery is packed. It includes meetings with deanery clergy and lay ministers, school visits to Buckland School and Faringdon Community College (I’ll be going along on the latter). He’s having a visit to Pennyhooks Farm to meet the team working with young people on the autistic spectrum. He’ll also meet lay leaders across the deanery. But the event to which we are all warmly invited is the evening meeting at Uffington Village Hall. After an opening time of worship, Bishop Steven will tell us something about himself and his vision for the diocese and then invite any questions we want to ask, so please think about bringing your question along. Avril Coleman will be chairing this Q and A session.

So please make a point of coming along if you possibly can that evening. If transport is likely to be a problem, I’m sure we can find space in a car for you. And please pray regularly for Bishop Steven and our own area Bishop Colin Fletcher as they bear the responsibility of encouraging many churches forward in sharing the life-changing news of Jesus.

Yours in Christ,

Steve

Steve Writes . . . Why is it easier to jump off a cliff backwards than to talk to my friends about God?

So begins an article on a brilliant website www.thykingdomcome.global which helps us to take part in ‘Thy Kingdom Come’. Thy Kingdom Come is a special time of prayer between Ascension Day, 25th May, and Pentecost, 4th June. It’s the initiative of our Archbishop Justin Welby. He’s inviting us and all Christians across churches and countries to pray specifically for people we know to become Christians.

At All Saints’ we’ll be offering special opportunities to pray for friends and family to discover a living faith in Jesus (see the weekly notice sheet in May). There are great resources for individuals, churches and families at the website mentioned above.

We’re not alone in struggling to talk about our faith to our friends – indeed Archbishop Justin recently spoke about his difficulty speaking about his faith when at university. He relates how a mission was being planned at his university and how there was someone he was wanting to ask to come along. He explained, “I was terrified, absolutely terrified, and I prayed for him every day but I couldn’t quite get up the nerve to ask him to one of the talks.” The mission started and he still hadn’t asked him. He described feeling like a complete failure because he hadn’t had the courage to invite his friend to one of the events. But God had been at work and his prayers were answered in the strangest way.

During the week of the mission he was in the library when the friend he had planned to invite came up to him. Welby recalls, “He said, “Oh Hi, Justin… I hear there’s some kind of Christian thing going on this week in the university.” and I said, “Yep, yes there is.” He said, ‘Is there any chance I could be allowed to go to it?’ And I said, ‘Yes… you can come with me if you like!’ He said, ‘Oh, can you spare the time?’ I said, ‘Yes.’

The friend went along and through that mission he found Christ and is still walking with Him today. According to the Archbishop, “The Holy Spirit is the one who opens ears and warms hearts, not us.”

No need to wait until 25th May to start praying for friends or family to come to know Jesus, but watch out for what All Saints’ is doing for ‘Thy Kingdom Come’.

Yours in Christ,

Steve

Steve writes . . . We desperately need the truth of Easter

As I write, Faringdon is reeling at the awful news of the murder of a young boy. Nothing can make sense of this dreadful and tragic loss. Yet if Easter wasn’t true, then the bad would be far worse than we can imagine and there really would be no hope or justice or mercy or grace or redemption or future for anyone, ever. Absolutely all would be absolutely lost for ever.

In the face of death we are stunned, frightened, fearful – that’s exactly what Jesus’ disciples were feeling after the horror of Good Friday. On the evening of the first Easter Day, they were meeting together with ‘the doors locked for fear of the Jews’, fearing some heavy handed pounding on the door, dreading that they too would be arrested. Into this tense and anxious atmosphere, the Risen Jesus comes and says ‘Peace be with you’ – not surprisingly the disciples were overjoyed to see the Lord. And Jesus again says ‘Peace be with you’. A week later when Thomas is this time present with the others, though the doors are still locked, Jesus comes and stands among his disciples and says, ‘Peace be with you’.

Into the most distressing and painful situations, Jesus comes. For those first disciples, his peace and presence also brought relief from their grief, though many were to die standing up for the reality of Easter. When the living Jesus comes to speak his word of peace to us today, it may not mean the agony is over and all is instantly put right. But having the Risen Lord’s peace and presence in our less than perfect (and sometimes downright awful) everyday does bring a hope, a strength and a rescue that will finally end our fear.

A prayer we often use in a funeral service expresses something of this when it says ‘Heavenly Father, you have not made us for darkness and death, but for life with you for ever. Without you we have nothing to hope for, with you we have nothing to fear…’

Please use the Easter Cards, available in Church, to invite friends and family– especially to our Easter morning service as we celebrate the heart of our faith. Please also pray that those seeking peace and hope will find it in abundance in the Risen Lord

Yours in Christ,

Steve

Steve writes . . . The hope of the world?

The American church leader Bill Hybels has a memorable saying – that ‘the local church is the hope of the world’. The remarkable thing is that it’s true. At least it is when the local church is sharing the good news of Jesus and living it out in practical ways.

It’s always possible for us to lose our focus on Jesus and get bogged down on other issues, especially when we face large bills to just keep the building in good order (‘gutters’ is not my favourite word right now!). Add to that the fact that, over the last fifty years in the eyes of the general population, the church has moved from normative, to outdated, to marginalised, to irrelevant, and now among a small but significant sector – somewhat alien.

So it’s good to report that starting this month, I’ll be taking a small group from All Saints’ to the first two of a series of eight days (over the next year and a half) which are aimed reversing the negative sequence described above and leading us into fresh fruitfulness and growth. Our Area Bishop, Colin Fletcher, suggested we might like to do this course, which is aimed specifically at Market Town Churches. The diocese is so keen that we take part that it is paying some of the cost. We’re hopeful that Faringdon Baptists may also do the course.

A number of Market Town Churches, several from this diocese, will send a group of members to share in a ‘Learning Community’. This will enable us both to learn from others in similar situations as well as receiving input and coaching from leaders of the course, which is run by a group called ‘Lead Academy’. The sessions will look at Purpose and Vision, Culture, Discipleship and Mission. The aim is to help us develop a clear vision and strategy for God’s mission here and to enable barriers to growth to be removed.

Please pray for the first sessions on 22nd and 23rd March that our group may be inspired and enthused to share with the church the insights and possibilities we’ve been discovering. Perhaps the most direct answer to our prayers for the course would be that we see more evidence that our local church is proving to be the hope of this corner of the world in the new and life-changing ways that Jesus wants.

Yours in Christ,

Steve

Steve writes – “Justin Welby and the Duracell Bunny”

I’ve been to (and sometimes managed to avoid) some pretty dire Lent courses in my time. You probably know the kind of thing- when your commitment to ecumenism is tested to the limit by content and questions which are theologically obscure and spiritually dry.

But this year I want to encourage as many of us as possible to come along to the Churches Together in Faringdon Lent Course. Entitled ‘Faith Pictures – a fresh way to talk about things that matter’; it’s a course I was planning to ask us all to do anyway, but it will work equally well for us to do it with friends from the other churches, as long as we all do come along.

Most of us find it hard to know what to say to friends or family about our faith -or at least how to say something in a way that doesn’t seem forced, awkward or preachy. That leads to a constant danger that we can begin to resemble Canadian rivers in winter when it comes to faith-talk (frozen at the mouth). We can also convince ourselves that no-one amongst our friendship circle or family is interested in hearing about Jesus anyway.

But a recent survey entitled ‘Talking Jesus’ tells us otherwise – at least one in five of our friends are very ready to have a conversation with us about Jesus, and it’s often the case that if we pray for opportunities, God provides us with encounters in which friends raise questions about faith. The Lent course has been designed to appeal particularly to people who would normally run a mile from courses on faith-sharing. It has a special focus on helping a wide variety of folk to talk naturally about their faith.

The course starts in the week beginning 27th February and is available in groups meeting on various evenings in the week (as well as an afternoon group). Just ring one of the hosts’ numbers shown on the list in this magazine or available at Church and book your place at their home. If the groups fill up, we’ll make sure extra venues are available.

I was impressed when I attended Church Army’s launch of this course during General Synod, when Justin Welby spoke of his support for it. And his connection with the Duracell bunny? – all will be revealed on the course, so please do come along and enjoy it.

Yours in Christ,

Steve

Steve writes …. Ready for Christmas

I came across some helpful advice for Christians which beats the ‘101 Things to Do Before Christmas’ check-list that’s doing the rounds on social media. It began by asking if God really does care about every area of our lives, how does that shape what we think and do and feel over Christmas? How can we show those around us, who don’t know Jesus, that our preparations and celebrations are transformed by him?

First, we can remember what matters: many events of the past year have reminded us that we live in a broken, confused and hurting world. The coming of Jesus really is a bright beam of hope for a messy and lost planet. God loves us too much to give us anything less than himself. So perhaps during Advent this year we could make time for a book of daily readings and reflections – amongst many available examples are Tom Chester’s One True Light and Mark Greene’s Adventure.

Second, we can enjoy God’s gifts: as well as the greatest gift of Jesus, God has also poured out many other blessings on us which it’s good to recall at Christmas: family, both the church and biological varieties, the chance to rest and take a slower pace and be refreshed, the music of this season and the crisp star-filled winter nights, the chance to express appreciation to others or meet a need.

Third, we can share our story: we could pray that our thankfulness for God’s generosity to us will spill over into opportunities to share Jesus and something of how he is working in our lives. As family and friends enjoy time off at the end of a busy year, it can be the chance for them to reflect on what’s important and search for meaning. We can make sure we’re ready to answer someone’s questions, to say the right thing in a Christmas card or to invite someone to Carols by Candlelight, Messy Nativity, or the All Age Celebration on Christmas morning.

Fourth, we can ask what’s next: the opportunities mentioned above are just part of the big picture of what God is doing in us and the lives of those we know. As we head into 2017, are there ways we could commit afresh to seeking how God wants to work in and through us?

Wishing you a very Happy Christmas filled with the peace and joy of Jesus

Steve