By Harry Popoff (The hunter of happiness) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Hunter of happiness (Harry Popoff) CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Take yourself back a little in time to a day when variety theatre was very much alive. For a number of years we spent a week of our holidays in Scarborough and, if I remember correctly, there were probably about four to choose from. An essential ingredient to the success of the week would be an evening, in fact several, relaxing in a quality show. What made it more interesting was the number of top class artists, big names in comedy, who made regular visits to the resort. They could fill the theatres easily. There was (is) one famous comedian forever reluctant to leave the stage and let staff and audience go home. The audience was not terribly concerned. They loved him and the star of the evening showed every sign of loving them. Eventually they would get home, tired and happy, looking forward to the next time. The artist is Ken Dodd and he gets special mention by this blogger for his warm, enthusiastic musical rendition of what might be his theme song. “Happiness, happiness“, he will sing with great gusto and sincerity. As promised by my last posting we are about to consider briefly something of our understanding of happiness.

Happiness: there are three things I want to highlight about happiness in this commentary. First, to be happy is to be good to ourselves. Of course, Christianity is about self-denial. This is how Jesus explains it: “If you do not take up your cross and follow me, you cannot be my apostles.” At the opening of a New Year those of us in Methodism engage in a service of worship that dates back to Wesley’s time and which we very much treasure – the Covenant Service, when we are invited to share with one another in the renewal of our personal commitment and relationship with God. It is a service that says the same thing as Jesus does in the quotation above. “Christ has many services to be done, in some we may please Him and in others we cannot please Christ except by denying ourselves.” Yes, I have read the Beatitudes, they are largely about attitudes and reactions to people. We will come to that shortly, but what point is there in commending values to others if we do not subscribe to them and treasure them ourselves? Unless we know how to care for ourselves, we reduce our capacity to care for others.

I want to inject here a brief and totally inadequate word of warning relating to a very large issue. We have witnessed in recent times how easy it has been for some in big business, for example, to do so well for themselves that caring for ‘number one’ converts to excess indulgence and a criminal record. However let us keep on track, back to where we diverged slightly.

To remind ourselves where we are, before we conclude, we turn to Rabbi Blue who said, “The kinder we are to ourselves, the more kind we are to others.” The Book of Proverbs has a saying which the Authorised Version of the Bible translates, “A merry heart makes a cheerful countenance but low spirits sap a man’s strength.” A verse which may be interpreted: to be happy is to be good to ourselves.

To be concluded……



A Methodist minister is ordained at the Church’s Annual Conference in June. It is a big day, a long day, a memorable day – although not quite as lengthy as in my day. First there is a lunch where the ordinands and their guests meet with the President of the Conference who talks to them informally and briefly, congratulating them on reaching Ordination and perhaps offering some practical advice gleaned from his/her experience in ministry. After lunch in a crowded conference auditorium they are received into what is known as ‘Full Connexion’, in my judgement of greater significance even than ordination. The President addresses them more formally about ministry. Come evening, at different venues, is the ordination by laying on of hands, the service itself always a wonderfully inspiring and humbling occasion. A Charge is given to those about to begin the work to which God has called them by an appropriate person on behalf of the whole church, a pertinent word of wise counsel and encouragement.

Three times that day an ordinand is challenged, as indeed is the entire gathering. But two things stick in my mind, neither of mind-boggling significance. At the informal session the President said, “Keep your desk tidy. It turns my stomach to see the mess in some ministers studies.” Good advice but not tremendously exciting or inspiring! At the ordination service all I remember is an extract from someone’s homily, a tit-bit of practical advice it being said, “In your ministry Saturday is the day you prepare yourself for Sunday. So, do not anything on Saturday that you ought not to be doing on Sunday.” I saw myself denied the pleasure of shouting encouragement and, now and then, (polite!) abuse at my favourite football team on a Saturday afternoon. I thought of some of the activities in which we participated at the youth club on a Saturday evening. I thought to myself – is this the code of practice to encourage and sustain in the years ahead? Am I doing the right thing? Subject to those restrictions I would certainly not be ‘a happy bunny.’

Sermon on the Mount. Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sermon on the Mount. Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Turn to Matthew chapter five or Luke chapter six to what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, and which may be like an ordination charge, in this instance addressed to the twelve disciples. As I was given my charge on ordination day, likewise Jesus spoke to the disciples in similar vein, as they prepared to undertake their life’s work. My charge came in three sessions and it is virtually certain the Sermon on the Mount as it is presented in the gospel is not a single actual sermon but a summary of a number of talks given by Jesus on different occasions. The Sermon on the Mount begins with The Beatitudes – eight of them; each one begins with the words Blessed or in modern translations,’You are blessed or Happy are those’ (who) . . . .

When I first appeared in my royal blue cassock, gifted to me by family at a special time in my career, a lady in the congregation enquired if it was a new uniform for ministers! I was later to learn that a group of my colleagues actually participated in a discussion as to my motive in becoming so clad for worship. Was I trying to be different, a lookalike bishop? A sensitive subject for us! The Methodist church still refuses to countenance the appointment of some form of episcopacy into our system. Well, what was I getting up to? My friends need not have feared, I had no thoughts of grandeur, I was acting on the understanding that the Sermon on the Mount/Beatitudes consist of a promise of happiness, a call to happiness, an invitation to the happy life. Why did I choose to go blue? Ministers in the Church of Scotland dressed in the royal blue and I thought it looked well and bright – colourful. I wore it as a form of protest, an attempt to get away from the more familiar funereal black; a modest attempt to change the image of the church – to demonstrate that the party we attend on a Sunday is not a wake but a ball. So, be happy and be glad, is our Lord’s invitation and call.

To be continued . . . . . .

Christmas 2014

Gerard Van Honthorst: Adoration of the shepherds Image credit: Wikimedia

Adoration of the shepherds. Gerard van Honthorst [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Christmas comes but once a year. When it does it brings good cheer. Is it true?

I write one week before Christmas. Already I have heard it said more than once, Christmas has come too early, you get tired of it, not least the noisy music blasting out over the tannoy in shops and public places heralding the arrival of the new-born king. It is sad to hear it said, we will be glad when it is all over. Christmas is meant to be a time of great cheer. I have a certain sympathy with the point of view that questions the justification for anything resembling the Nativity event. For example, Christmas shopping promotions and bargain hunting aside, what Christmas are we celebrating in those weeks before with our trees and lights and parties, our scurrying around for presents for friends and family hoping we have got the right gift for everyone? How much does Jesus the babe in the manger, the Lord Jesus Christ, feature in it all?

While my mind was centred along those lines, I thought you might appreciate the message on a card that came to us from an American friend: Care deeply, think kindly, act gently. And be at peace in the world, for this is the spirit of Christmas.

On the evening before we broke up at the end of term, there was a tradition in my college for the students to visit each of our tutors to sing a couple of carols for them and to wish them a happy Christmas. The visit concluded with us singing the tutor’s favourite. Each of them, with one exception, requested a traditional carol. The one exception always chose one of the Advent hymns that are sometimes not given fair treatment in our acts of worship in the four weeks prior to the big event. The one who did not conform insisted, quite correctly, that he was right in the stance he took – Christmas began at twelve midnight on the 24th December. And he was right!

Be of good cheer …….

Be not afraid; I bring you good news; news of great joy for the whole nation. Today there has been born to you in the city of David a deliverer – the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2: 10-11)

Wishing you all Joy this Christmastide.

Live in hope : continue in faith

The Second Coming of Christ window at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in Charleston, SC. By Cadetgray (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Second Coming of Christ window at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Charleston, SC. By Cadetgray (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), via Wikimedia Commons

No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, not even the Son, no one but the Father alone. Matthew 24: 36

Horoscopes are, or were, a popular feature in magazines and tabloid press: popular with people who believe that the stars can tell them what is going to happen in the coming week, month or year. When I was but a lad there were known ladies who could tell your future by reading tea cups, empty ones of course, to allow the pattern of tea leaves sticking to the inside of the cup to take shape tell you the good news or the bad – mostly the bad! Popular and basically harmless, some church ladies considered they were of the devil and the advent of the tea bag may have put an end to it. You and I may not resort to the gypsy lady and her crystal ball in her caravan at the fairground. However, if we are honest with ourselves, we may have to admit at some time or another to ‘star gazing’, looking beyond and ahead of ourselves in the hope of being able to predict what the future has in store. In some religious circles there are people who claim to possess powers which enable them to tell when and how the world will end, the manner and the circumstance in which Jesus will come among us again. Present them with this judgement and they call on the authority of Scripture in support of their theories. The passages which they quote are among the more obscure, consisting of pictures and imagery that do not make easy or comfortable reading. The tendency of those self-acclaimed prophets is not to promise marvel or surprise but to herald doom and gloom. Our criticism calls for a certain amount of caution.

This reflection is headed by a quotation from the Gospel of Matthew (24:36) – we should be shaking in our shoes! It is from one of those passages with which a religious speculator or crank can have a field day. All the ingredients are there: nation making war with nations, famines, earthquakes, lawlessness, distress such as the world has never known, the sun and moon eclipsed, stars tumbling from the sky, lightning and vultures. It is an odd passage which leaves us ill at ease – we are in the company of those whose hobby is to match the signs of the times with the strange end of time sayings in the Bible; bits of Scripture that may be difficult for us but which did not present the same problem to the Hebrews in the first century AD. For generations, they looked forward to that final victory by God in the conquest of the wold and its people. They called it the Day of the Lord and their prophets assured them that before it happened there would be a great outburst of evil and the sun and the moon would be darkened. A fearsome prospect, a strange way to celebrate conquest and victory, demanding that questions be answered as to credibility, opening the way for speculation.

Let us remind ourselves again that we are looking at a passage which is concerned with our Lord’s return to earth to establish and complete God’s kingdom. A time we sing about in the hymn When Satan is vanquished and Jesus is King. Matthew knew nothing of other planets or worlds. But we have this knowledge and we are trying to accept that science fiction may not always comprise the impossible or make-believe. That may be ‘heretical’ perhaps, but back to Matthew. He quotes Jesus on the subject with all the ‘horrendous’ happenings He says will herald His Second Coming and the end of time as we know it. Not easy to take in, not a simple concept. Added to which the apparent contradiction where it says people will be able to recognise that great and glorious day of the Lord. But we are also told no one knows when Jesus will return to complete his unfinished business. The angels are not privy to it; surprisingly and puzzlingly Jesus does not know, God alone knows! And when it happens, it will come suddenly like a rain storm out of a clear blue sky. What is more, it will happen in Matthew’s lifetime. One explanation is that Matthew may have inserted it, or done a little embellishment of the text, as he was wont to do.

What does it say to us? We are on a familiar and well-trodden track so there is little need to tell the whole story. This slender synopsis of a difficult and disturbing Gospel passage will not answer all our questions about the unknown future. Does it matter? Whatever the future, today, tomorrow or beyond, does it matter when or how it all comes about? What does matter is the promise of Jesus that, come what may, ‘I will be with you always to the end of time.’ Or Paul’s testimony, ‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.’

Do not despair! Live in hope! Continue in faith!

Role models

When I was about to leave home for college I received a letter from a former minister of my home church in Greenock wishing me well, and offering a little helpful advice which I was to put to the test more than once over the years. There was no one quite like Rev Ivor P. Sealey so far as the lively members of the youth fellowship were concerned. I was one of them. He was equally popular with the older folk, although not all. There was the criticism that he spent too much of his time with the young people to the neglect of the older generation in the church. Well, as the saying goes, that one has hairs on it! It was not quite true, but I suspect many ministers of my generation have had to contend with this accusation. I had no thought of ministry when Mr Sealey was my pastor. Anyhow, I was too young – but what about Samuel the lad in the Temple (I hear you calling in the night). Nor had I any idea that I might be being groomed, quietly and carefully, to contemplate the irresistible challenge of becoming one of Mr Wesley’s preachers. Ivor did spend a considerable time with us ‘youngsters’. He took us on walks and outings in the summer and in the winter/spring a group of the lads gathered around him as we cheered and offered terrace advice to our favourite team. The referee also benefitted from our football wisdom. In time, I realised Mr Sealey had become a role model to me in the development and maintenance of my ministry.

Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland. By Sandra [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Sunderland.By Sandra [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) via Wikimedia Commons]

Allan Roberts was very different and, in my book, equally a role model. When I moved to Sunderland, three members of staff – I was one of them – resided on the same road and we saw a lot of each other. Allan, a senior minister about to retire, was more than a colleague of vast experience from which we benefitted. It was a privilege to have him as a friend. Allan would never have claimed to be more than a moderate performer in the pulpit, and he was probably right. That is not a criticism of the content of his sermons or his prayers. He followed faithfully the principles and practise of homiletics. In short, I think it can be said he would recognise his preaching as lacking in flair. In the time of our colleagueship, the fact is that Allan was able to hold together a fairly large and faithful congregation. No pretending it was his preaching that gathered them in. No – their minister simply radiated sincerity and humility, and how they loved him – as he loved them. And most importantly, he knew them and cared for them through thick and thin – a pastor with a big heart.

Lewis Allison and Wilf Simpson were as different as chalk from cheese. They exercised their ministry to many of the same people in the same churches. They were both to be my Superintendent in Sunderland. When Mr Allison moved Wilf Simpson succeeded him. What is more, we lived next door to them. I am now about to change my treatment of their stories. Different it may be, but it will tell us (I hope) something about them as ministers and colleagues, just a hint at what I may have learned from them. I certainly admired them and respected them and thank God for the privilege of working and sharing with them. Wilf Simpson was the man who said his prayers on his knees – not a position of devotion; he said prayers on his knees cleaning out and setting the fire in the grate before he served his wife with her ‘cuppa’. Lewis Allison was involved in a healing and counselling ministry. I think the work of Dr Wetherhead had an impact on what Lewis did, whereas Wilf’s service in China and internment by the Japanese contributed to the shape of his response to his calling. Different men; different styles – both with a lesson for me. On arrival in his new circuit, Wilf decided the manse needed rewiring and he was the one to do it. We had an arrangement! If he required assistance he would bang on the wall and I would dance attendance. ‘Knock, knock’, I was on my way to be met by my super appearing from under the floor-boards, cap askew, face needing a bath, etc., Wilf saying ‘guide the cable along when I shout from underneath!’

First lesson? Both our properties had awkward chimneys, two right-angled bends and a flat flue ledge. No sweep would tackle it. I was informed by my esteemed neighbour that we did the job ourselves. He had the appropriate brushes. I needed some old clothes and a pair of sandshoes. All one needed to do was to get on to the tiled roof of the rear premises, use the brushes and collect and dispose of the soot from the chimney’s three apertures. Good job Lewis taught me all about it. I must have fallen asleep when we were given this lecture in College. Second lesson? I have concluded that those two worthies were thereby quietly preparing me to be a good and useful superintendent minister.

Kenneth Waights and Mark Wesley Earl mean more to me as role models than they could ever imagine. When we became colleagues, and eventually friends, both were in their second appointments as Chairman of District. Each in turn was to be my Chairman, but two very different personalities. Of the ministerial encouragers and inspirers featured on this blog, those two may have made the greatest impact. I did not know it, they probably didn’t either, but their influence prepared me for a job that occupied the last fourteen years of my ministry. I needed all the help and encouragement there was to succeed Ken and Mark when they retired in a job I never expected to come my way. Kenneth Waights had flair, he was the loud and jolly one. This may be explained to some extent: he wanted to go on the stage before his call to become a minister like his father before him. Mark was quieter; contemplative; unassuming – a good sound preacher. For much of his ministry Ken was one of a group of ministers appointed to serve in Methodism’s great Central Halls with a reputation for popular preaching. On the other hand Mark, at great personal cost, saw his ministry in China and was interned for the duration by the Japanese. I was Assistant Secretary of the Synod in Ken’s time and Secretary in Mark’s day. So I was close to both and I watched, absorbed and learned.

One thing I learned as I reflected on the encouragement and inspiration of so many of the saints was that they were concerned and active not only with things spiritual but – a word to clergy and other clerical gentlefolk – were also ready and willing to roll up their sleeves and physically graft side by side with the saints who do not wear the clerical collar.

Words of encouragement that became a personal mantra for me from a senior minister who reminded me, “John, you are not Ken Waights, you are not Mark Earl – be yourself.”


In my recent posting (For All) I paid my personal tribute to the countless men and women to whom I shall be eternally grateful. By their encouragement, support and love, aware of it or not, they contributed in no small measure to the development and maturing of my 41 years of active ministry. As I concluded the piece, nostalgia refused to take a rest and pointed me in the direction of another group within the church of inspirers and encouragers – ministers appointed to an area of work with and alongside colleagues. My young daughter came home from school one day somewhat perturbed. She had been quizzed by the girls, “what does your Dad work at Monday to Saturday?” Or something similar! I can assure anyone who thinks of a minster of religion to be on to a good thing, as I was greeted once – “the one day in the week man”, it is not so. Believe me if that is the regard in which the ministry is held, God, forgive us! And In our situation active and honest colleagueship is absolutely vital.

Anne Burgess [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Findochty. Anne Burgess [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Again I must confess my heart-felt gratitude for the encouragement and support of our brothers and sisters in ministry. Within the bounds of confidentiality I am about to share with you snippets of my story in this regard. These will be in the main senior ministers in positions of responsibility, such as superintendent ministers (supers) and chairs of district. They are appointed and given a pastoral role, not least for those in the early stages of ministry. It is with some reluctance that this little story is told because it is partially one of minor criticism but criticism nonetheless. Given my situation in 1953 at the end of college days I was sent, a single man, to serve my three years’ probation prior to ordination, at Findochty and Cullen. A tough assignment for a student probationer – the kind of appointment where you may understandably expect the superintendent to feature in his role as mentor and pastor. Not so within the Methodist set-up on the Moray Firth. I scarcely saw my super save on his four or five annual visits to comply with ‘Standing Orders.’ Here I come to my criticism – it was a bad system despite it being the practise for around 25 years before I arrived on the scene. My landlady ‘collected’ probationer ministerial lodgers! I might criticise the system, but not the supers who preside over it. I served with two of them as one moved on another took his place. There was no suggestion of negligence on their part but they resided 63 miles from my patch and not many ministers had a car. What could you expect? I was not alone on the coast. I had two colleagues, one in Buckie, the other, the more senior at Portessie. There was little opportunity to establish a close relationship with the latter, a nice man but his wife was an invalid, he was in his final years of active ministry and was not a strong man himself. So it was to Buckie and George Howarth I turned for counsel and support. His faith was robust as was his ministry. He loved people, he challenged them, got on well with them, church members and non-members alike. He got a great response from within the community to his appeal to the able-bodied to join him late in an evening to build a schoolroom/hall at the back of the church. Not everyone in church shared his vision. Some folk did not believe in halls and schoolrooms – the devil got into the Kirk through those so-called amenities! George came to my rescue within days of my arrival – my first funeral and a tragic one. A young skipper of a fishing vessel, a husband and father, drowned in the harbour as he was going aboard. George was quickly at my side and saw me through those early, sad days and I remain grateful. He was a real character, much more could be told. George was the minister who called you ‘Pal.’

Stephen McKay [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Haltwhistle Market Square. Stephen McKay [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

I went south for my first post-ordination appointment, from one beautiful part of the country to another – from the invigorating Moray Firth to historic Northumberland. (Got past Hadrian’s wall without passport!) This was a rural appointment and the super, Walter Thyne, and I cared for 14 chapels between us. I was indeed fortunate to be a colleague under the supervision of Mr Thyne (one did not address supers by first name in those days). Alas the partnership was only to last for 12 months, brief but beneficial. Walter was the kind of minister who was the salt of the Methodist’s ground! From the first day, Walter, a father figure, cared about me and quietly and humbly set an example to me to last a lifetime. In my first week two bicycles were produced and Walter conducted for me an interesting and informative tour of the terrain I was to travel many times over the six years. We saw a lot of each other, colleagueship made easier by the fact that we lived round the corner from one another, separated by the Newcastle-Carlisle railway line. Walter was a somewhat shy man, a gentleman, an excellent minister and personally a kind and generous mentor and friend. His daughter, Irene, known on occasion to read my blog, may be surprised to find her Dad featuring here, but he is remembered with affection and respect.

To be continued . . . . . .

For all

In the early days of my ministry it was my privilege to live and work in Northumberland, a beautiful and interesting part of the North East of England. Our manse and my principle charge were situated in the small, friendly town of Haltwhistle nestling in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall, a good place for a young rookie minister, providing the learning experience so essential in shaping a long-term future pastoral ministry. There could not be a more friendly, helpful, encouraging and loving folk and their contribution to that learning experience is something for which I continue to be grateful. There was a lot to learn, in spite of three years in College and three years as a probationer minister. There was one thing I knew nothing about until I went to Haltwhistle, and it was a lesson I found difficult to execute throughout my forty-one years’ service.

Haltwhistle lies on one of the main routes between the City of Durham and the Scottish border – why highlight Durham? There is a prison in Durham and there are always guests of Her Majesty who are Scots. On release from their internment, some will head for Haltwhistle and some were chronic con men anxious to prove that their skills were not in need of repair. I never realised how many of the boys’ grannies were dying and the poor lad did not have enough money left to get to her quickly. Like some other discharges they had come out of jail the day before and spent the evening in a pub and, becoming a bit tipsy, they were robbed. They were begging for their fare, a story oft-repeated. Many a time I felt guilty when I thought of some of the Teachings of Jesus. There was another reason for stopping at Haltwhistle: two blocks up the street from our church there was a doss-house, used by some of the Durham men, but more so by men who had made a wreck of their lives, mainly from the abuse of alcohol. They lost their allowance chitty or their pension books. They had to go to Carlisle to sort things out but did not have their fare. As I think of this pastor’s dilemma I can only recall one occasion when, unwittingly, I turned down a genuine case of need. I did not sleep well for a bit!

By Sidney Paget (1860 - 1908) (Strand Magazine) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Sidney Paget (1860 – 1908) (Strand Magazine) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

He came into the church, bearded, dirty and dishevelled – a gentleman of the road. He bowed facing the communion table, genuflected and selected a pew. Brother, you have come to the wrong place, I thought to myself as I continued with my sermon. In all probability he had already visited the Roman Catholic chapel before he decided to present himself as a Methodist. Success at last, the missionary minded member of the congregation fondly imagined! Alas, before I had finished saying the benediction he was out of the door (he forgot to genuflect) and, as I imagined, I had misjudged his motive for the visit. However my imagining was short-lived. There he was standing outside by the door with cap in hand. Within minutes, the caretaker appeared on the scene holding a bucket of hot water with a liberal dash of disinfectant, and proceeded to wash the pew on which our visitor had sat. We do not want to have to mix with his kind again, the gesture seemed unmistakably to imply. He was like the disciples of Jesus who decided there were people who belonged to the wrong set and who were to be prevented from meeting Jesus, or from whom they must protect him – undesirable people. They had still to understand the purpose of Jesus’ mission; still to learn, as Charles Wesley did, that it is For all; for all, the Saviour died. People pointed at Jesus because of the company he kept – this man welcomes outcasts and even eats with sinners, they protested. To which Jesus replied, I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners. Search the Scriptures, and we will search in vain – we will not find any mention of hot water or disinfectant.

We are one

The preaching of St Paul at Ephesus. Eustache Le Sueur [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The preaching of St Paul at Ephesus. Eustache Le Sueur [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Letter to the Church at Ephesus circulated at a time when the world of the day was divided. There were divisions that separated people from people; class from class, nation from nation, ideology from ideology, Gentile from Jew, male from female. What was true of the world was also true of human nature. The Apostle Paul is very much aware of the Jekyll and Hyde personality. In the letter he describes the unity to be found in Christ. The keynote message is the gathering together of all things in Christ. (Ephesians 4: 1–16)

In Chapter 4, we are at the beginning of the second part of Paul’s letter. In the earlier chapters he deals with the great and central truths of the Christian faith and with the role God intends for the church. We are reminded of the diversity of character within the church. We are different because we have been given different gifts. The great truth which Paul underlines and one which we are slow to learn, resides in the possibility that in Christ we may have unity in diversity. Our suspicion of those to whom we attach labels which differ from our own does not survive scrutiny before Christ.

He speaks of the ministry of the whole people of God, something about which we must be convinced and must accept in order that the church may be more effective in its mission. It means that whatever our office in the church, or if we have no particular office, we share one ministry. There are no boss people, only partners.


An apostle’s prayer

Lord, if the choice was left to us to call people to follow you, we should be so fussy and high-minded we would probably find that the criteria we set excluded ourselves. Unless there is room for all in the kingdom, there is no room for us. Lord, except your love is a many splendoured thing it would not embrace us. We are humbled and thankful. Forgive us if we do not represent you fairly and do people an injustice by our failure to live a life that tells the true story of your love. Amen

No argument

Albrecht Dürer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Albrecht Dürer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Master, teach us how to pray. When the disciples of Jesus confront him with their request that he teach them how to pray, we are told that they had just emerged from a certain place where Jesus engaged in prayer. Luke may have been content to leave it like that, but I do wish that in setting the scene he had been a little more specific. What kind of meeting place was it – a sacred place, a synagogue perhaps, or maybe a cell group meeting in someone’s house, or a garden even? One wonders, apart from their encounter with John the Baptist’s group, what prompted them to ask this particular question at this particular time. Might it have been something said in that time of prayer, something that pierced the heart and exposed the poverty of their own prayer life? Or, might it be more likely the sight of the Master at prayer? That is, if they were actually within that certain place alongside Jesus; another minor point of interest to the enquiring mind. At first sight, the question may have been asked spontaneously. On the other hand, it was the regular practice of a religious leader to teach his disciples a simple prayer that they might habitually use. Perhaps Luke is reporting a teaching moment and the question is one disciple’s response to a teaching session on the subject of prayer. The Gospel record of the event does not enlighten.

We are taking a brief look at the prayer life of Jesus, and there are one or two other points that are worthy of notice. For instance, there is the striking fact that Jesus never argued for the validity of prayer any more than he argued for the existence of God. You do not prove the existence of God by argument. God is simply there, the beginning and end of experience. Just as we cannot prove God by argument, likewise prayer is not proved by argument. We may not understand it but to quote the hymn-writer, James Montgomery – Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath, The Christian’s native air. Defined by one commentator, prayer was our instinctive tendency, wrought into the very constitution of our nature. Hence Jesus never argued the matter. There was no need to argue, the praying Christ is the supreme argument for prayer. Prayer was not only an important part of his life, it was his life, the very breath of his being. This would possibly have stirred the conscience of the disciples, more than anything else, and prompted the enquiring mind to ask – Lord, teach us. And he did, superbly (an understatement) in the first great prayer he taught the disciples, Jesus said to them, when you pray say this, Our Father …. The first two words of the prayer we still pray more than any other and love, the Lord’s Prayer (often misnaming it the family prayer.) Jesus deliberately encourages us to use it.

< < < > > >

A prayer when grieving

Jesus, stand among us in your risen power

When the storms of life threaten to overcome us

When the angry waves rage and our little boat is small

When the crowds are overcast and dark

Be with us, Lord

When we journey on a desert path

When the way is weary and unending

When our strength is weak

Stand with us, Lord

When death comes

Like a thief in the night

To rob us of ones we love

Come to us, Lord

When we demand a reason

When no words can explain

In our anger

Speak your word of peace.


Come to our hearts, possess them, liberate them…….

To set us free to serve and praise you

At all times . . . . . In every way . . . . . . . For your love’s sake

Lord, to you be the glory


Novel counsel

Albrecht Dürer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Albrecht Dürer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I do not understand prayer – the admission of a columnist writing in the denominational newspaper I receive weekly. Some of my readers will recognise the journal to which I refer, and his is not a lone voice. And here I am daring to add my name to the list of those who find prayer to be a mystery. Checking the records of my many sermons I am a bit surprised how few there are on the theme of prayer. I obviously did not consider it to be of importance, or that on this matter I felt theologically and spiritually insecure. Perhaps I should say immature. So, in search of a solution to my dilemma, I spent a fifteen week sabbatical reading and writing on “Spirituality with an emphasis on Prayer”. Rabbi Blue, whose writing rings a bell with me, argues that prayer should be simple, realistic and part of life’s normal routine; a statement I readily and happily endorse. He gives the picture of being at prayer relaxing in an armchair with a glass of port – a novel counsel! (Not meant to be taken literally, or is it?) The fifteen books I read and the twenty-one I consulted, not to mention the Bible or any of the great classics, reveal the complexity of the subject before us. It is highly unlikely that the disciples had any idea of what they were asking in their request to Jesus: Lord, teach us to pray – so many views and so many ways, visions, testimonies and unanswered questions. Prayer, the opening of ourselves to God, enables us to find our true self. Our true self opens the heart of God to God’s transforming grace. Despite our many words and great variety of theories prayer is not a fruitless exercise – it works (Harry A. Williams). As many of us can testify it is a large part in the rich tapestry of life.

I cannot understand prayer – there is more to the quote: I do not understand electricity but I do not stop using it until I do understand.

Prayer is the burden of a sigh; The falling of a tear; The upward glancing of an eye; When none but God is near.

 < < < < > > >

Let us pray . . . .

Lord, your will be done! How rich we would be if we were to gain financially every time we said, Lord, have your own way. Put us on oath in the witness-box and we would say, we mean it, every word. Yet how easily it falls from our lips. We forget how often we have not tried to understand or conform to your will. We like our own way; always have done ever since we had to be chastised as little children for our stubborn tantrums. We want to give a good account of ourselves on the day of judgement, not to look good or to be patted on the head, but because we bless the day it became possible for us to say: Take my will and make it thine; It shall be no longer mine; Take my heart – It is thine own, It shall be thy royal throne. Lord give us grace to keep our word, especially when our view is a minority one and we must abide by the majority, when we do not understand the way you are leading, when you lead us along a path we resent having to take. May the God who gives endurance and encouragement, give us the spirit of unity among ourselves as we follow Christ Jesus. Amen.

Eternal and ever-blessed God, Lord of all life, below, above, you have the whole world in your hand. Is it true? It must be true. You are its Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer! It is what we believe – we believe in God, Creator of heaven and earth. It is not the whole truth – we believe in God the Father. Father God, may the love you had for Jesus be in us too. Lord, we believe there is nothing love cannot bear, there is no limit to its faith, its hope, its endurance. May love make us strong, imaginative and courageous in the service for which you have chosen us. Open our hearts and kindle within them the flame of your inexhaustible compassion that we may give ourselves anew to the needs of the community in order that the world may know you and the one you sent. Grant us in all our loving, our sharing, our doing, joy in full measure. Amen.

Lord God, greater than our highest thoughts and our fondest dreams, our little minds cannot comprehend the majesty of your Being, the grandeur of your power, the wonder of your grace. You are God! God from the beginning to the end of time – and beyond. Time for us is measured in minutes, days and years. Time for you stretches into eternity. We are earth-bound. We live one day at a time. We may dream of tomorrow but tomorrow lies ahead – unknown and unexplored. We cling to life, your gift to us, to cherish and to enjoy. Enlarge our vision and strengthen our commitment to the challenges life brings as we continue on our onward way discovering and embracing life’s future for us.

Eternal and Ever Blessed God, we worship and adore you. Amen.