Monday, 30 April 2018

On Opportunities in Mission

Back in the days when call boxes were still commonplace, BT ran a poster campaign assuring the public that nine and a half out of ten British Telecom call boxes were in perfect working order. I was always a bit baffled by that claim; I could see how the nine phones might be working, but I couldn’t see how the remaining half a phone could be in perfect working order. I put BT’s claim to the test when waiting for a rather late train one day - wandered across to the nearest public telephone, picked up the receiver, and found it was out of order. Not a good start - but I discovered to my delight that whenever I lifted the receiver, a little message flashed on the receiver rest, to say ‘Telephone out of order – BT apologises’.

So for a while I amused myself by lifting the receiver then replacing it, then lifting it again. It helped pass the time as I waited for my train. Every time I lifted the receiver there was BT politely apologising. These days such apologies are commonplace, standard fare in our high tech world. But no real person is actually saying sorry, are they? It’s a digitally produced message; there may be a spoken voice, but how convincing can an anonymous apology be? Even back then, no-one at BT had really apologised - nor did they know the difference between a bored rail traveller passing away an idle couple of minutes and someone who might really have had some pressing reason for needing the phone to be in perfect working order.

In fact these days we seem to be surrounded by anonymous voices. I called on someone not long ago and even their fridge could talk! I don’t quite remember what it said, something to do with the production of ice cubes I think. This was a large and hi-tech fridge, American style; it wasn’t far off the size of some small kitchens - but did it really need to talk, I wondered?

Anonymity sort of features in our first reading this morning, in that the Ethiopian in his chariot reading the prophet Isaiah doesn’t know who the prophet is writing about. Philip does, though, and so begins the story of one of the very first black Christians. Philip knew Jesus, and he shared his knowledge of Jesus with the Ethiopian, who went on to be baptized. If we know Jesus we know God. That’s an astounding claim to make, for surely no mere mortal can possibly know God. But Jesus said to Philip the disciple (not the same Philip as the one in our story) ‘If you have seen me you have seen the Father.’ And he said to the disciples, ‘You know him because he abides with you and he will be in you.’

It may seem logically impossible for mortal human beings to know the immortal God, but Jesus tells us we can in fact have a close and intimate relationship with God. He did; and he spoke of God as Father, and taught his disciples to pray in those words. In Jesus God came to meet us and to walk beside us; in Jesus we see the beauty of divine love in the form of a human life. So we can say, “God is like Jesus” - four words which are a simple and profound statement of the heart of faith. Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles gives us one of the many stories we find there that speak of a lively evangelism that was beginning to happen. After the Day of Pentecost, God was no longer a remote and anonymous voice, and the deep desire of many to know him better was being fed.

But today a deep desire to know God better isn’t very obvious in the culture around us. Committed church membership is a minority pursuit. I think there’s more awareness of church and even affection for church around than sometimes we think, but I have to admit that most people are not only not searching to know God better, they’re not giving him much thought at all.

‘I shall not leave you as orphans,’ promised Jesus to his disciples, when he spoke to them about the gift of the Spirit. But it would seem that what used to think of itself as a Christian country has chosen to orphan itself from its heavenly Father.

At a college in Birmingham years ago I found myself talking to some newly arrived visitors from the Church of South India, who told me they were surprised how small a place religion has in our society. ‘In India everyone has the fear of God in their heart,’ one of them told me. I had to agree with them, and yet a lot of the people I meet do have a sense of spirituality and a desire for something beyond ourselves. It’s just that mostly they’re not looking in this direction to find it.

It might be Archbishop Desmond Tutu who once asked, “Have people abandoned the Church, or is it the Church that’s abandoned the people?” Yesterday at the cathedral I was talking to a reader from Truro Diocese who said that his bishop had told him and his fellow readers, “Take your faith into the pub, into the local drama group, into whatever’s going on in your community - don’t just lock it up in church.” If our impact on people’s lives is at about the same level as BT’s apology to me for their phone being out of order, automatic and impersonal, and sometimes that’s how it seems, it’s no surprise if we go unheard. The letters page in last week’s Church Times almost made me screw up the entire paper in despair - intense and churchy arguments that had little relevance even to me, and none at all to anyone who wasn’t a church insider. What good is that to the Gospel?

How do we put things right? Whatever we do surely has to begin with prayer, which is why Archbishop Justin is asking us to use the ten days between Ascension and Pentecost prayerfully. That’s when the disciples prayed for the gift of the Spirit - we’re asked to pray for more people to turn to Jesus.

Those South Indian Christians told me how important prayer was for them. They would pray before going out in the morning, and they’d pray again when they got home. They prayed before every meal, and whenever they washed or bathed. This, they told me, was what Indians of any faith would do, part of the rhythm of their day. I was humbled to hear this, I don’t find prayer easy, and at best I fit it in around the edges of my day. And yet John Wesley once said he was too busy not to pray.

We live in a mission field these days, surrounded by people hardly touched by the Gospel. We don’t need to know everything or be expert preachers to bridge that gap, but we do need more than vague bits of niceness to be convincing. Like Philip on the desert road, we need to make the most of whatever opportunities come our way. But to begin with we need to be praying - for ourselves, for one another, and for our neighbours and our community and our world.

I remember years ago attending a service at Hereford Cathedral at which a priest from Singapore told us some inspiring stories about his time as a missionary in South Africa. One thing he said that stuck with me is:  “You can’t have a third-hand relationship with Jesus”. To do what he did he had first of all to work on his own relationship with Jesus. Without that, he’d have been sharing something second-hand which would have become third-hand to his hearers, no more convincing really than that message from BT on my broken phone. “You will receive the Spirit of truth,” is what Jesus promised his disciples. In other words he tells us that if we commit ourselves to the task he’ll make sure we have the means - the vision, the spiritual strength - to do it. First we have to seek him out ourselves. But where else will people come to find Jesus, other than here where we are, within his Church?

Saturday, 21 April 2018

On Explaining a Bishop

(I might have posted an earlier draft of this poem, but I've been working on it since . . .)

It’s a sunny August Tuesday, and
the cathedral is gently and quietly busy,
my task within it being to wander with intent,
seriously cassocked and wearing my chaplain’s badge.
I like my cathedral days; for one thing
I have to leave my work at home,
and it is nice, for a day,
not to have the weight of it.

I have people I’ve promised to pray for,
so I light a couple of candles near the shrine,
and pause a while, commend them each by name.
Then I stand back for a moment, for above me
is one of my favourite windows, joyously bright today.
“Excuse me?”  I turn, and smile at
a lady of about my own age, small boy in tow.
“Could you explain to my grandson
what a bishop does, please?”

The cathedral is full of recumbent bishops,
each decently robed in stone, crozier in hand;
some of them rest their feet on lions.
I talk for a while about shepherds, how they
lead and provide for the sheep.
The boy listens, nods, and then asks,
“Why does a bishop wear that funny hat?”
So I talk about Pentecost, and how the flames of fire
rested on the disciples’ heads. The bishop’s hat
is shaped like those flames, I tell him. He nods again.

“I think it looks more like a fish’s head,” he tells me.
After the boy and his granny have moved on,
I look around, and find it to be true.
All those many stone bishops lying in their niches,
feet resting on lions, and each one
wearing a fish’s head.

St George and the Shepherd

Today is often called “Good Shepherd Sunday”, because that’s the focus of our readings. Tomorrow is St George’s Day, patron of England (also the birth and death date of William Shakespeare, of course). Let’s begin with St George.

Only Wales out of the home countries has a patron saint actually born in that country; since St Patrick was probably also born in Wales, that means that half what you might call the “home patron saints” can be claimed by Wales. Scotland play it safe by having one of the apostles as their saint, though they do share St Andrew with a few other countries, including Russia; meanwhile, England have St George, who some people say never really existed. I’m not one of them, I’m quite sure St George was a real person; but he almost certainly didn’t do the one thing we all remember him for. Sorry, but the story of George and the dragon is not in fact true.

So who was George? He was probably a soldier in the Roman army, born in Palestine in the third century AD to Christian parents of fairly noble lineage. Like many young men of his class, George joined the army and became an officer, serving perhaps in the Emperor’s royal guard. That emperor was Diocletian, and at the beginning of the fourth century he launched a fierce persecution of Christians, aimed particularly at rooting them out from the army. Christian soldiers were happy to swear allegiance to the emperor as an earthly monarch, but there was no way they’d agree to worship the emperor as a god, nor would they make sacrifices to the gods of Rome. But that’s what Diocletian required of them, to prove their loyalty to the empire and to him.

So George was martyred in 304, in Lydda, which was probably the city of his birth. We don’t know much about his life or his death for certain, but George was very quickly honoured in churches throughout the east as “the Great Martyr”. Within a few years, Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome, had begun his rise to the throne; and at some point in his reign a new church was built in Lydda in memory of George.

We know of churches dedicated to St George in England as far back as Saxon times; but it was soldiers returning from the crusades who made George popular. King Edward III made George the patron of the Order of the Garter, and that confirmed his position as England’s patron saint, in place of Edward the Confessor.

But what about that dragon? The story of George and the dragon also dates from Medieval times, long after the lifetime of George himself. George is generally depicted wearing a suit of armour, and his cult perhaps became confused with that of Michael the Archangel, also wearing armour, whose defeat of the great dragon is detailed in the book of Revelation. Other people think that because George came from Lydda, his story took on some features of the slaying of a great sea monster by Perseus, a Greek myth associated with Lydda. Those who wrote histories of the saints rarely let the truth get in the way of a good story, and the story of George and the dragon was told as an example of knightly chivalry and courtliness - so important in those days.

Dragons apart, though, George seems to have been courageously devoted to Christ; his devotion never wavered, not even in the face of death, and that made a huge impression on the Christian community that had known him well; and the cult of George spread across the whole region. Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd, and I lay down my life for the sheep.” We can remember George as one who took those words so completely to heart that his own life and death bore faithful witness to the sacrifice of Christ.

Not all Christians faced persecution with the same courage and fortitude. A burning issue for the early Church was what should be done with those who’d fallen away from the faith in times of persecution, but then wanted to come back. Should they be welcomed back, or had they ruled themselves out for ever? How genuine was their repentance? Could they ever be trusted again? What should the Church require of them, to prove they were truly penitent?

Now this was nothing less than a debate about the very nature of the Church itself. Was the Church a company of the faithful, so that those who proved themselves unworthy were excluded? Or was it a school for sinners, all of whose members had fallen short in some way or other, so that all were in need of the grace of God?

In our reading today, Jesus says, “I know my own, and my own know me.” That sounds a bit exclusive, though he did go on to speak about other sheep not of this fold whom he’d also be bringing in. But Jesus does also tell the story of the shepherd who goes and seeks out the sheep that’s lost. All heaven rejoices when even one sinner is returned to the fold, he said. So the mainstream of the Church has been that there’s a place for everyone here, and no-one should be excluded. Sheep in the days of Jesus followed their shepherd, recognising him and listening for his call; and Church is the place where the sheep can learn the ways of their Good Shepherd, and can learn to recognise his voice.

The great martyr George was honoured and remembered precisely because he did more than most of us could manage, and because his courage and faith didn’t fail when ours might well have done. In his death he became a beacon light for others, but there’s room in the flock for strays and failures too, so long as we’re truly doing our best to know God better and to devote our lives to him. “How many times must I forgive? As many as seven?” asked Peter once; Jesus replied, “Not seven, but seventy times seven” (by which he meant a number beyond reckoning). And that’s what God is like. However many times the lost sheep gets lost, the Shepherd will still search for it, will still want it back in the flock.

The persistent love of Jesus assures us that we’re known and treasured as his; and he sets an example for us to follow. It’s within the flock that we learn about the Shepherd, about his love, his protection, his guidance. How? By teaching, guiding and leading each other; by taking responsibility for one another; by ministering Christ the Good Shepherd to one another, with patience and encouragement, and with love and care, that reflect his.

Maintenance and Mission

This is one of the three sermons prepared for last Sunday (preached at Middleton-in-Chirbury) . I've just realised I forgot to post it . . .

You need to be watchful when you're looking after an old building, which is why our churches are inspected every five years, and a report made on the fabric each year to the Annual Meeting. At the quinquennial the architect sets out what's really urgent, and helps establish what our priorities should be for maintenance and repairs. If you miss something, even something quite small, it can work to bad effect unseen for years; and by the time you realise there’s something wrong, it is in fact very wrong indeed. There’s a guide to church mission I was looking at recently, and I was a bit surprised to find that it began not with, say, ideas for door to door visiting or tips on how to run a better youth club, but a piece about checking and clearing the church gutters and drains. Mission begins here, said the book: a tumbledown building may well be the sign of a tumbledown faith.

And the book went on to point out that regular maintenance is as vital for the church people as it is for the church building. In just the same way as a blocked gutter left uncleared can let damp into the fabric of the wall, so bad habits or foolish indulgences, if left unchecked, can begin to do serious damage to a person or to a congregation. And missing out on good practices like prayer, Bible study, or churchgoing, or even just checking to see how the neighbours are doing, can be just as damaging.

Because in the baptism service parents and godparents have to say that they repent of their sins, I always talk about sin when I make a baptism preparation visit. I find a lot of people inside and outside church have quite a narrow a view of what sin is. We tend to highlight the bad things we might do rather than the good things we miss out on doing: but to miss the opportunities we have to do good is just as sinful. And when it comes to bad things we do we may well tend to count some as more serious than others, like sexual misdemeanours, or flagrantly breaking the laws of the land - but should we, really?

The simple definition of sin is us going against God. The word in Greek is ‘amartia, and its original meaning has to do with falling short or missing the mark. Think of the dart that fails to lodge in the right place on the dart board. Maybe it hits another scoring section, so still counts for something; it might even hit the bull; or it might miss the board completely, or bounce off, or even lodge in the back of someone’s neck and cause some pain. Even if it still makes a score, it’s in the wrong place. And that’s sin - ‘amartia - us being in the wrong place: not being where God wants us to be, or doing what he would have us do. 

We haven’t read from the First Letter of John this morning, but the reading we could have used is in your readings sheet. John says that to sin is to break God's law. In that case, we should look at what that law at its simplest says: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.” Or as Jesus said to his disciples: 'I am giving you a new commandment, love one another, as I have loved you.' Sin happens when we lose touch with the love of our Lord.

In the first reading we did have, Peter and John are being challenged after having healed a lame man in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. We heard Peter’s reply to that challenge. Peter could well have simply condemned the Jewish leaders for having conspired to put Jesus to death, but he didn’t. Instead, he offered them a second chance. His words might have made them squirm a bit, but they’re positive words. I know you acted in ignorance, he says. And though you did wrong, the wrong things you did brought about the fulfilment of what God had always planned, and what the prophets of old foretold. It’s not too late, he says: turn back to God, repent of your wrongdoing, and know that God stands ready to wipe out your sins. God is granting you a time of refreshment and remaking, Peter tells them, so make the most of it. All sin condemns us, but no sin takes us beyond the reach of God’s love.

Let’s turn to the Gospel. ‘Look, I'm not a ghost,' Jesus assures his disciples. 'Touch me, see the wounds; share your food with me, and watch me eat. Believe that this is real.' We see how hard it was for these men to believe: hard enough to believe that their Lord was alive, despite the cross and the tomb, but they need also to understand that what they’d seen happen on Good Friday hadn’t been God’s plans being thwarted and everything going wrong, but the opposite of that - God’s plans being fulfilled, and everything being set right. Jesus needs to open their minds to understand what the scriptures had really said about him. But they do at last come to understand, which is how Peter was able to talk with such authority and passion to those who crowded round him in Jerusalem.

For us just as much as for Peter and the other disciples, Easter’s message is that love is both the right way to live, and the only way to life. That's why people built churches, and worship in them on a Sunday (as opposed to any other day). We’re supposed and called to be Easter people. And while we won't ever quite shake off, in this life, our tendency to sin, incompetence and an over-large concern for our own popularity and standing, the challenge of Easter is that we should do our best to rise above all that, as God gives us strength and vision. A phrase from one of the books on my study shelf puts it rather well, I think: ‘Sin may impose its company on us, but it has no claim on our hospitality.’

“You are to be witnesses to all this,” says Jesus to the disciples in this morning’s Gospel - witnesses to all the world. There are no limits to the love whose sign is the cross. There’s no sin so small and trivial that it doesn’t condemn us: all sin counts against us, and on our own, we’re lost. But there’s no sin so big and nasty that it can’t be healed and cancelled out by the cross. We’re sinful folk, even though I hope we’re trying hard not to be, but we’re longer imprisoned by sin. For the Lord is risen, he is risen indeed, and he’s calling each one of us to bear faithful witness to the power and wonder of his saving love.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Sunset Thoughts

The sun is softly setting: red and orange streaks the sky,
and swifts scream imprecations as on flashing wings they fly.
The gentle evening deepens, and the dew forms on the grass,
rooks jostle in the treetops as the hours of daylight pass.
I’ll take some twilight moments, here within these ivied gates,
to sit in contemplation, as the world draws breath and waits,
and one by one across the sky the first pale stars appear,
and hunting owls begin to call, and air is fresh and clear.
The scent of honeysuckle borne upon the faintest breeze
conveys both hope and promise - there’ll be other days like these.

Praise be for Gardeners

Praise be for gardeners, for theirs is the true life of faith:
faith expressed in the turning of the soil, and the planting of the seed,
faith in the goodness of the earth, composted and prepared,
faith that the sun will be warm, and the winds easy,
faith in the soft clouds with their promise of rain,
faith even when things go wrong, that they can be made right again,
faith in the growing, the changing, the flowering of living plants,
and faith that they will be fruitful in their season.
In such a living faith they work
to bend Creation to their own creative will.

An April Stroll

My nature notes column -

Spring has struggled to assert itself this year, but I did manage an early evening walk along the canal towpath a week or two back, when the weather was managing to be like it’s supposed to be. The new growth of Spring was well behind where it’s been the last few years, but there were celandines, primroses and, here and there, a few coltsfoots brightly in flower. An exotic flash of bright purple turned out to be red dead-nettle, a weed I suppose, but when it first opens in Spring, quite delightful.

Moorhens crossed the canal ahead of me, blue and great tits flitted through the trees and a skein of Canada geese passed overhead. The chiffchaffs I wrote about last month were shouting loudly from the tree tops. I passed a rookery: rooks are well into nesting by now, and these were busy and noisy. Twenty or thirty of their smaller cousins the jackdaws swept over. Last year I’d have been watching the first swallows, but there were none around on this walk. On its huge nest under some willows, a female mute swan (pen) was incubating. She didn’t move a muscle as I walked past.

As a diversion from the towpath I ventured across to Llyn Coed y Dinas nature reserve, and walked the little pathway there is there. The noise from the nesting black-headed gulls was almost deafening, rising to fever pitch when a lesser black-backed gull flew lazily over - regarded, rightly, as a threat by the smaller gulls. I watched a coot for a while, foraging along the edge of the pool, then made my way back to the canal.

On this particular stretch I expect to hear sedge warblers in the early Spring, issuing their scratchy collection of notes from within the high hedges there: nothing this year, though. A group of mallard crashed in - four males and one female. This was not going to be a pretty sight: a boisterous group of males like this will all compete to mate with the single female, who is almost always forced under the water, with some records of her actually drowning. It looked very much as this was going to happen here, as the female disappeared under a scrum of three brightly plumaged males (while the remaining male looked on). I couldn’t resist clapping my hands to alert them to my presence. That stopped the melee. It became clear that this wasn’t in fact four males homing in on one lonely female, so much as three males trying to muscle in on a mated pair, as the duck and one drake stayed close together, while the other three dispersed.

Here and there the hawthorn was beginning to burst its buds. I couldn’t resist taking and eating one or two of the new leaves. They have a not unpleasant, slightly nutty taste, especially when new and young, and I used to pluck and eat a leaf or two on my way to school, I recall. The leaves were sometimes called “bread and cheese”, but if that’s supposed to be descriptive of the taste, it’s a bit fanciful! As the towpath took me back into Welshpool, a song thrush was singing loudly, repeating all its best notes, as they do. A slow and uncertain Spring, but we’re there, at last.

Doubting . . .

A longer version of my sermon for last Sunday :-

The readings set for today in the Common Lectionary focus on Thomas, doubting Thomas, as we often call him. When told the good news, “We have seen the Lord!” he refused to believe. In fact he got quite belligerent about it. Unless I touch the scars, unless I know for myself that the person you say you’ve seen isn’t an impostor or a ghost, I will not believe. It’s worth noting those words - “I will not believe.” However much Thomas may have wanted to believe, he very deliberately refused to believe.

And that, I think, was because he really couldn’t stand the thought of believing, and then it not being true after all. He’d have been completely destroyed by the disappointment. For Thomas was a man of courage and commitment. It was Thomas who said, when Jesus told them he must go to Jerusalem, and to his friend Lazarus, “Let’s go with him, even if we must die there.”

Personally, I think the courage of Thomas was probably the reason why he wasn’t there when Jesus first appeared. The disciples were lying low. Jerusalem was a dangerous place for them just then, and they were best behind locked doors. But I think of Thomas as the one with the guts to get out onto the streets to see what was going on, maybe also to buy in some of the supplies they would need.

For whatever reason, though, he wasn’t in the room with the others. It distresses modern secularists, who had predicted the death of religion by the end of the last century, to think that if anything, religion is a growing force in our world today. But it also distresses me a bit, because I don’t like the look or the sound of some of the religion I see growing around me. It feels too strident, too sure of itself, and too demanding of power. And I don’t mean just militant Islam, by the way. Good religion needs a bit of Thomas in it; good religion needs a healthy relationship between faith and doubt. And good religion needs truly to know and to follow and to accept as its own, the mind of its God.

With respect to Mr Donald Trump and his comments about fake news, there’s a lot of fake religion in the world today, and some of it supports him. And Thomas, doubting Thomas, is for me the antidote to fake religion. Mr Trump, it would appear, listens to the news he approves of, which is generally broadcast on the Fox News Channel, and then he tweets copiously about what he hears there without checking any of the facts. That’s what the President’s advisers are there to help him do, but of course he’s sacked most of them.

Fake religion also involves people listening and repeating without checking; it can happen anywhere - charismatic preachers or imams of ministers consciously or unconsciously push their own agendas and the credulous accept it and repeat it, because it’s spoken in such a way that it has to be the truth. And if someone comes along with a different truth, then, rather than listen to them you stone them or burn them or shoot them or blow them up. It’s happened enough through Christian history.

That’s why for me Thomas is always a faith hero rather than a faith villain. Actually the first church I had care of was dedicated to St Thomas, so I’ve always taken a special interest in the man; but he is also where I stand, really. I think I’m not a particularly credulous person, and I certainly don’t believe everything I hear on first hearing it. But I’m not an out and out cynic either; I don’t disbelieve things just for the sake of it, and I don’t think Thomas did that, either. I like to check things. I’m one of those annoying people who’ll check what you re-post on Facebook, and either confirm it as true, or, more likely, tell you you’ve fallen for yet another scam. If you don’t use Facebook and didn’t understand any of that, frankly you’ve not missed a great deal; but an awful lot of stuff on social media sort of becomes true when it’s not, by being re-posted again and again. Religious creeds can also sort of become true when lots of people repeat them, even if those people don’t actually understand what they’re saying.

Thomas was a man who could see the alternatives. So what were those alternatives? A ghost, perhaps; a sort of group delusion, where people persuade each other they’ve seen something they haven’t; an impostor, which is why he wanted to see and touch the actual scars in the hand and the side of Jesus. I need to check this out, says Thomas - it’s too big a thing, too good a thing, too scary a thing, to just believe without checking.

So he’s given his own personal revelation of the risen Christ. Again, on the first day of the week - and I’m sure we’re being encouraged by John in his telling of the story to relate this to the practice of the early Church meeting to break bread on the first day of the week: Jesus will be with you whenever you do this in remembrance of him, we are being told. In fact, the word anamnesis, which we translate as “remembrance”, means rather more than just looking back and remembering - it has a sense of bringing into the present, bringing into the place where you are, the person remembered.

And Jesus certainly was present that day for Thomas. See my wounds, he tells Thomas, put your finger into the marks of the nails, put your hand into the wound in my side. Don’t doubt, but believe. Thomas doesn’t need to touch Jesus; he’s full of faith straight away. “My Lord and my God!” he declares - the first time in scripture that Jesus is explicitly identified as God.

So I’m prepared to praise Thomas for doubting, or, at least, for being honest about where he stood. Better that, than to just repeat what you’re told to say without really testing it. Bad religion seeks to brainwash its adherents; bad religion won’t admit to questions and challenges. Thomas stands for those who will question and challenge, not for the sake of it, not in order to oppose or damage the faith, but because to commit themselves heart and soul, they need a sure base, a clear understanding. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who do not see, and yet believe.” That could be an open door to take dubious things on trust, but it’s not.

It’s about discerning the genuine presence of Jesus in the group to which we belong. Not seeing the man, but finding the Spirit. Paul writes that we have the mind of Christ. Are we truly meeting with Jesus, allowing him to guide and direct us, when we meet together? If we are, then in how we live, how we care, how we love we’ll reflect his mind. And again, Thomas shows us the way.

Sometimes it’s the one who really struggles to find faith who, once they’ve grasped it, shines out most brightly in commitment and service and courage. When Thomas met with the risen Jesus, he offered everything of himself to him. And I’m sure it was that all or nothing approach in Thomas that led him initially not to be sceptical so much as to consciously refuse to believe. Once I do believe, he’s saying, my Lord will have all of me, everything I can give, everything I can do; so I do have to be sure, if I’m really going to give that much of me.

So that’s Thomas; and what about me, since I’m prepared to identify as a Thomas fan? Well, for me, doubt and faith go hand in hand. So much so that I once wrote a poem in which I described myself as a natural atheist. I find theology a bit on the tedious side, but when I’m told that as a Christian I have to believe this (whatever this may be), my instinct is always to look at the alternatives. And on the whole I’m more influenced by first hand stories than I am by reasoned argument; not always persuaded, any more than Thomas was persuaded by what his fellow disciples told him, but when people have a story I do want to hear it.

Doubts and questions are the natural result of our having a working brain, and since God gave us that brain I reckon he does want us to use it. Any religion that tells me I need to leave my brain behind isn’t going to get me as a member. But, like Thomas, I want to believe, and that’s the essential starting point. And belief in the end isn’t about persuasive argument - I can’t prove the existence of God any more than my atheist friend John can disprove it.

No, as we discover in Thomas’s experience and in the words Jesus spoke afterwards, belief has to do with discerning the presence of Christ. My poem, “Natural Atheist”, includes these lines -
“I don’t need you,
I tell God, I can do this on my own; trouble is,
God insists on loving me, that’s the sense I have.”

And as I look back over my life, that is the sense I have. The risen Christ hasn’t risen in order to slope off and leave me to it; he continues to be an active and often a disturbing presence and in my life, and in his Church. In Thomas, too, who may have gone on to be martyred in Persia; and may before that have travelled to India, there to found the church that bears his name - the Mar Thoma Church of South India.

Thomas seems like the kind of man who finds it tough to start believing, but having made that start was totally committed, and courageous with it. Thomas remained Christ’s man to the end of his earthly journey. And so shall I, despite a few gaps in my faith, and the doubts that will keep springing up. And I’ll go on testing, questioning, challenging the stuff I’m told to believe, because I want to be part of a real religion, in which just believing is never enough. In real religion belief leads to action - building a better world, in the name of Christ, and  according to the mind of Christ; and saying: “My Lord, and my God.”

I’d like to close with a few words that I found in a quote from a Christian minister on the BBC website yesterday, part of a whole series of quotes about aspects of spirituality, from people, mostly a good deal younger than me, some of them religious, some of them not. But this one chimed in a lot with what I think: “Doubt is important to personal development. It’s doubt that keeps you asking questions, and broadens your beliefs. Certainty closes doors. Doubt deepens faith.”

Monday, 2 April 2018

This year's Easter poem


In the new day dawning garden fresh with dew,
where the hills rise up behind, I’ll wait for you,
I’ll hear the rush of wings, the catch of song,
the breeze that stirs the wood from ages long,
the sparrows as they chirrup in the eaves,
the soft rain’s patter on the shining leaves.

And I shall know that Spring is life re-born,
in scented air, the mystic light of morn
as sun shines through the mist, the bell that calls
the faithful to their prayers, the stream that falls
through mossy dells new starred with celandines:
God’s love revealed, renewed in sights and signs.

And Easter hymns are sung from stall and pew,
with splintered sun in stained glass shining through,
to light the church in red and green and gold,
the colours of the Spring in field and fold.
Our Christ has conquered death! Far though we roam,
the journey of our life’s a journey home.