Kingsley, Questions, Controversies and Children – a reflection for Trinity Sunday in Eversley

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The grave of Charles Kingsley, with flowers laid by the students of the school he founded, Eversley, June 2019

One of the two churches I serve, St. Mary’s Eversley, has the author of the ‘Water Babies’ buried in it’s churchyard; hardly surprising given Charles Kingsley was the Rector in this quiet corner of Hampshire for over 30 years! He also founded the local school that bears his name, and of which I happen to be a governor. 

The school are very good and every year they celebrate their Founders Day, laying flowers at his grave and remembering to root themselves in Kingsley’s work as a social reformer, natural scientist, and author. But this year, in fact last week, was the bicentenary of his birth, which meant some of the locals had also thought it worth celebrating Kingsley’s gifts, so they put on a ‘thing’ – a mini literary festival if you like.

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Clergy present and ‘past’… with Peter Duncan in the role of Charles Kingsley, outside St. Mary’s Eversley, June 2019 (Photo courtesy of the producer of a short play ‘resurrecting’ Kingsley, Denise Silvey)

Yes, I fully expected to attend particularly to support the school, but the little matter of my colleagues over-enthusiastic Pentecost children’s talk last Sunday (which landed him in plaster) meant that I was a busier than I had anticipated. This had downsides; I missed a talk by Rev’d Dr Giles Fraser I really wanted to hear. But also upsides; like the school children I met Charles Kingsley his very self – or more accurately Peter Duncan who I remember as a Blue Peter presenter in my teens! I also got to relive my Greenbelt visits in the Tiny Tea Tent, but that’s another story…

It also meant I had to preach this morning, and link the life of Charles Kingsley with the fact it is Trinity Sunday – giving me a chance to reflect on what I’d seen and heard in the previous couple of days. So here, for what little a fear it’s worth, is my stab at doing that… and no, I didn’t forget it was also Father’s Day – at the end of the service each gentleman attending got both chocolate and a sequoia cone! Read on, to find out why:

Readings: Psalm 8 (NIV rendering) and John 16:12-15

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The sequoia in the churchyard at St. Mary’s Everlsey, planted by Rose Kingsley from seed collected by Charles Kingsley. It has a ‘twin’ on The Mount adjacent where the Kingsley 200 Festival took place.

 

On Friday afternoon I shared in the joy of witnessing Charles Kingsley get very excited about the cones and seeds of a certain conifer, the sequoia. Our sequoia. No, his sequoia. Sorry, God’s sequoia, a tree that I humbly suggest like the moon and the stars, shows the majesty of God.

As he was with Tim (the churchwarden) and I, sharing a quiet cuppa after school ‘out of role’, Peter Duncan (who has been playing Charles Kingsley) read the display about Kingsley on the hall wall. He suddenly became very animated. It appears that a couple of years ago, Peter had visited the very same sequoia forests of western America that Kingsley visited. Like Kingsley, he had brought home a cone to dry. Like Rose Kingsley went on to do, he sowed the seeds, of which some germinated and one survives. Peter now has it growing in his garden. The producer Denise and I now have photos of Peter, or should that be Kingsley, excitedly scavenging for more cones under the sequoia here, so that he could take them home to keep alive the personal connection he’s made with Kingsley.

This weekend has been all about keeping connections alive, and specifically the connection between Charles Kingsley, this village and our school, between Kingsley, social reform and science. I was busy here, but Giles Fraser hopefully made some connection between Kingsley as a man of faith, called by God to serve this place and community and Kingsley as a polemicist, someone not averse to pushing the boundaries of what we as Christians believe, and therefore having to be comfortable with controversy.

Questions and controversies exist within the Christian community, because our faith is a living thing. Just as much as the sequoia outside, our Christian faith is a living thing because God has been revealed to and has a relationship with us in ways so complex that we struggle to find terminology, or a name, that does God full justice. The closest we’ve so far come is the name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the term Trinity. Yet, those in themselves still leave us with age-old controversies over which ‘person’ of the Trinity proceeds from which, and more modern questions over whether we should apply gender-specific identities to any element of our creator, redeemer and sanctifier in whose image each and everyone one of us is made.

Our Gospel today, makes it as clear as it’s ever going to be why such questions and controversies exist. Jesus was never meant to reveal to us during his earthly ministry, everything about God’s character and will for his people, because quite simply, we wouldn’t be able to bear it (John 16v12). They are only revealed to us on a need to know basis, through the power of the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit or sanctifier, that at all times will point us back to Jesus the redeemer, and thence to his creator, and ours. Individuals will only grow in faith, and communities will only grow in service to each other if they share a living faith that constantly turns over different questions and ideas in seeking a way forward that glorifies Jesus and his example.

For the same purpose, Psalm 8 (by far and away my favourite Psalm) reminds us that we have been made by God as creatures capable of awe, wonder, and humility before God. Awe, wonder and humility that is often proclaimed best by our young people, but they are not possible without questions, and children are always full of questions. Questions also by their very nature create controversy, because the answers and explanations are not always simple; and yes, questions and controversy create change, because change is life – if we are not changing and growing, we are not alive.

I have one sadness about this weekend, as I have experienced it. My sadness is that we have not adequately heard the voices of our children and our young people, the very people that Kingsley worked so hard to offer a future to. Yes, our children have been dressed up and paraded across a field to be photographed re-enacting the past. Yes they have created written reflections on elements of Kingsley’s story and ours, that their exhausted teachers have used for wonderful displays which only a few visiting dignitaries and parents will see – unless we can find a way to change that. But have we let the children speak? And have we listened?

The example of Greta Thunburg and Malala Yousafzai are surely showing the world, that as humanity struggles to combat the climate change it has inflicted on God’s creation, and in the area of human rights, God is using the children and young people of the world to silence the selfishness of humanity toward God’s creation, and establish a stronghold of justice, mercy and humility between and within communities. They may or may not be Christians but surely they are a living testimony to the God-given ability of young people to protect us from the enemy within ourselves (as Psalm 8 suggests), and create change; the sort of change that is in keeping with the Spirit of truth that is Jesus. And it’s just possible that we might be harbouring a Greta or Malala in Eversley, if we could build on the education principles Kingsley and others started, and hear our children speak for their future, rather than dwell on our past.

In Kingsley’s era, this community and society at large, needed to know that children of all sectors of society should be educated, that they shouldn’t be enslaved up chimneys, in fields or anywhere else for that matter, and that it is perfectly possible to be both a scientist that believes in evolution, and a Christian who believes God created the world. No, he wasn’t a child, but much of Kingsley’s attention was on children, and since he died at 56 he was younger than me when he did most of that work, indeed younger than many of us when he made his voice heard in the world.

We are reminded today by both our belief in a Trinitarian God, and by Charles Kingsley, that ours is a living faith, precisely because there is stuff we still don’t know and can’t explain about God and about the world around us. Recognising that should help us to be humble before God.  But awe and wonder at what we see, isn’t always a positive emotion, it can be one of horror, as we are reminded of the things in society that need changing because of the mess we’ve made of them up to now.

Like a sequoia tree, we need to be allowed to grow, and we need space to grow, however old we are. If we are to understand the purposes and nature of God better, we need to listen to our children, for in them God’s Spirit of Truth is revealed, and they might just have some answers that will change the world.

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A wonder of ‘festival season’ – and a great example of sustainable living!

Prayers for #Remembrance Day based around a sonnet by Malcolm Guite

I have been asked to do the prayers for the Remembrance Day service in one church of the parish in which I have recently started a two month placement. In an effort to both step away from standard forms of published prayers, and to feed my own need for creativity, I have written the following. The words of intercession are wrapped around the words of a sonnet written by the well-known poet-priest Malcolm Guite (published in his book ‘Sounding the Seasons’,) and conclude with more formal words from the Church of England’s, ‘New Patterns for Worship’.

I hope Malcolm will forgive me if he’s not sure his sonnet should have been used this way, or if my words don’t live up to his wordsmithery. I also hope that the parish in which they will be spoken can relate them their own feelings and emotions in the silences that will be offered, and that you, if you have need, might feel free to make use of them. [If you do, please let me know when and where via the ‘comments’ facility.]

 

 


November pierces with its bleak remembrance

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Photograph by Graham Hartland from the Devonshire monument near Theipval, France, reminding us not only that this is 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, but that the Jews whose kin would die at the hands of the Nazis in the Second World War faught as an integral part of the Allied Forces in the First!

Of all the bitterness and waste of war;
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.

Lord God, as we remember with gratitude
the fallen of generations past,
The faces and wounds of those
still very much present in our living memory;
We beseech you again
as heirs of a conflicted humanity,
for that peace which passes all understanding,
And the faith that trusts in your unfailing love.

[Silence]

Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
For shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause.

Jesus Christ, who spoke calm to the storm,
Healing to the diseased and lame
And the assurance of a future to the hopeless;
Make your voice heard by the leaders of all nations and peoples,
That they, with us,
might act with true justice,
Love mercy,
and walk humbly with you our God.

[Silence]

In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth, and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries from every land.

Holy Spirit who stirs our hearts to compassion
In flickering images
That flow with the blood of careless inhumanity;
Let the sparks of our inadequacy and frustration,
Be ignited into the flames of action,
That together we might be prepared to be
Your answer to our fervent prayers.

[Silence]

One silence only might redeem that blood;
Only the silence of a dying God.

Blessed Trinity, who reached into your broken world,
Through the redeeming power of the cross and resurrection
To break the power of darkness;
In your endless grace,
Work in us to restore the knowledge that silence
contains not the seeds of apathy,
nor the truth of lies,
But the fruit of your Kingdom come,
And the hope of eternal life.

[Silence]

In darkness and in light,                                              NPW J6
in trouble and in joy,
help us, heavenly Father,
to trust your love,
to serve your purpose,
and to praise your name;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.      

 

 

Imitating God – a team event! Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2

I had worried that using an Olympic theme might be too much for some this morning, but apparently it wasn’t as I’ve lots of positive feedback. For many however, the image that spoke to them most was that of the spider crabs who shed their shells! Go on, read it, and tell me what you think!

I have done extensive research over the last couple of weeks, and I make no apologies – this sermon will have a distinctly Olympic flavour.

As we celebrate, I wonder how many of us have wished that we
● Had the breadth of skills and strength of Jess Ennis
● Could run as far and as fast as Mo Farah
● Or cycle with the speed and stamina of Wiggo or the highest achieving of them all, Sir Chris Hoy!

They are, the games organisers hope, an inspiration for generations to come; people who are now the ‘gold standard’ of what it means to be a British athlete. People to imitate and look up to.

But though some of their achievements are down to natural talent, the next generation of athletes can’t expect to roll up at a track and just win a medal! Despite protesting that he has a lackadaisical training regime, even the Bolt himself couldn’t do that and win two individual gold medals!

All of our sporting heroes would testify to what their Gold medals have cost them in blood, sweat and tears! They would also say that over time, and because of their total and utter commitment to what they wanted to achieve, their skills and abilities have improved by stages: sometimes almost imperceptibly; sometimes in unexpectedly large gains, like those who have gained new personal bests during the championships, even if they’ve not won a medal!

Before many of the British competitors have featured in their event, we’ve also probably seen and heard the stories of tough training regimes, early mornings circuit training, hours spent in the pool fitted round the school day, miles and miles clocked up pounding roads or pedals to develop stamina. These are the things that make them different, because what makes people stand out as Olympic Champions isn’t the winning a medal, but what has gone into it, their motivation and commitment to their sport.

After each event, and perhaps dreaded by more than just the competitors, the post-competition interviews have been a testimony to all those who have helped support each competitor – the behind-the-scenes team of coaches, health professionals and very often family members who have dedicated huge amounts of time, effort and often money to each Olympian’s success. For example the family of our Olympic Dressage Gold Medalist, Charlotte Dujardin, had spent their inheritance on a horse who they felt was worthy of a girl who (they said) “could make a donkey dance”!

If people are willing to make such massive sacrifices in an effort to achieve Olympic medals, and inspire a nation of would-be athletes, then this passage is surely challenging us to consider what we need, and the sacrifices that we must make, if we are going to be imitators of God!

When we become Christians, we are making a commitment to do our utmost to be moulded into a better and better likeness of God, to be changed from whatever we were, and recreated into something new and improved.

This is what St Paul is referring to in the verses that proceed what was read just now. We are reminded that as Christians we should have a new attitude of mind, one that is different from those that prevail in the norms of non-Christian societies, one that puts away our old selves and enables us to be renewed to form a likeness of God.

But, when our friends, colleagues and the neighbours in our street look at us, do they in fact see a gold standard Christian, totally recognisable as such, known by our actions as a Christian, how we live, how we speak, and by our dealings with others? Or if we look through the eyes of others, are we showing signs of fatigue, a lack of match practice or race fitness perhaps due to the fact that we’re not necessarily putting time in on the basics of living up to our faith in God?!

So what do we need to focus on in our training programme as a Christian, and what sacrifices must we make, to be formed into something even faintly resembles the likeness of God that we commit to striving for by professing our faith in him?

The key thing here, is to remember, we’re not completely on our own, because in a very special way, it’s a team event!

Yes, as Ephesians stresses repeatedly, we are called to be faithful witnesses in our own special way, part of the living unified body Christ on earth, each created for specific tasks and gifted to fulfil them. That is indeed the team of which we are part, a national team if you like of people who are all different but belong in some way to the same place. It’s like people sort of joked last Saturday, when comments were passed that it’s wonderful to see the variety of Great Britains who have won us gold medals; not just the mixed-race, the white public school kids, past asylum seekers, the every-day Brits, but EVEN a ginger – a red-head!

But though that’s very important to remember, that’s not the team that we need to focus on when we’re planning our own individual training program as Christian’s. What we have that is special is the most elite support team available.
God has provided us, his dearly loved children, with exactly the raw talent, the family support and coaching staff that we need.

The raw talent we possess is of course that we have already been created in God’s image, which I think we can acknowledge gives us a head start in achieving our goal. The problem is how often do we actually remember that our natural talents and abilities, are God given, God created, and that therefore we have some responsibility to God for keeping them in good working order, and using them to the best of our abilities. If we aren’t or we don’t then we are dishonouring God, and the image of him that he wants for us.

Then there is our faith in Christ – the one perfect sacrifice, who gave up absolutely everything for God, and for us. Created by God in human form, Jesus is just as much a member of our family support team as our Father who made us. And of course, he made the ultimate sacrifice if we remember the cross is the place where he paid the price for our failures to honour the image of God that is placed in each of us. It’s what Jesus did that means that each time we realise a mistake we’ve made in our training programme, we can understand what it means to be forgiven, so that we can focus clearly again on what bits of God we are best suited to imaging in our lives.

And of course, if we struggle sometimes to see ourselves as an imitation of God, Jesus gives us the ultimate example of what we’re aiming at. Because that’s what we should be striving for; to be more like Christ; to imitate him as the example we have been given of what it means to be like enough to the character of God, for others to recognise that likeness as real and true. For as the beginning of Eph 5 tells us, we are to

“Be imitators of God, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph 5:1-2)

Just as Christ.
When we recognise that we have been created as children of God, and that Jesus is THE ‘gold standard’ of what we are called to be, we don’t want to be shown up as fakes or imposters, with no more likeness to God than wearing a set of false sideburns makes us a likeness of Bradley Wiggins! Surely we want to be as Christ-like as we can possibly be?

And yet, it’s such a tough call isn’t it? I guess we’d all admit, we’re hardly overnight success stories. The process is a gradual one, as we allow God to work in our lives, and as situations arise where we find new gifts, or new ways of making the best use of the way that we’ve been created.

That is why St Paul is reminding us in this passage that every detail of our behaviour has to have integrity with Christ’s example of what we’re called to be as imitators of God, on his national team.

Jesus got angry. He turned over the tables of the money changers in the Temple, he highlighted the mis-match between what the scribes and the pharisees taught and how they actually behaved. He brought healing that enabled people to look after themselves, setting an example of kindness, compassion and love that stood out in a world of bitterness and hatred. Jesus spoke truth, and indeed was truth, where there was none.

Yet, even when angry Jesus didn’t allow his anger to get out of control, nor the monumental task ahead of him to stop him from what he was doing. In the Wilderness, and the Garden of Gethsemane, the work of the devil against God’s mission in the world wasn’t given a foothold, but was pushed aside so that Jesus could focus on his chief task – to make it possible for each of us to have a personal relationship with God that has no boundaries.

Except of course that we often construct our own protective shells, as a barrier that protects us from the world around us, enabling us to feel safe from the pain that others can cause us, which we might think has the added benefit of making us feel like we’re tough enough and strong enough to cope in the world on our own.

The preacher, beachcombing on Rhossili Beach, 2nd August 2012 (photographed by her husband)

For all those suffering Olympic fatigue, let me take you to the beach for a few moments. We’ve recently had our holiday on The Gower, and been introduced to the wonderful and sometimes huge beaches there, particularly to Rhossili.

One of our favourite activities on a beach is beach-combing; walking the tide-line armed with a carrier bag and a camera, finding things of interest. It might be a bit of drift wood, the skeleton of a seabird, a range of interesting seashells. On Rhossili we came across probably hundreds of spider crab shells, just the bit that covers the main body of the crab. Some were quite tiny, others were bigger and often encrusted with little barnacles or the little wiggly lines of ‘shell’ made by keel worms.

The reason that there were so many of them, was because crabs shed their shells as they grow. The shells being hard limit the size of the crab inside them, so as they get bigger they shed the shell, with whatever is hitching a free ride on the outside of it, and a new shell forms and hardens to fit the new contours of the crab. If you are a spider crab it must feel good to get rid of the constriction and the extra weight of those lodgers living on your shell, and instead have the freedom to grow and do the new things that your extra size allows. And yet, at the points in its’ life where it sheds it’s current shell before forming a new one, it is both at it most vulnerable, and presumably growing at the fastest rate.

I thought of these spider crabs when I was considering how we train, grow and develop as Christian’s towards the ‘gold standard’ of who we are called to be in God’s image.

We shouldn’t be trying to be more like Christ, by ourselves, or in our own strength, protected by the shell of things that make us feel safe, but which tend to allow bad habits to get a foothold and make a rather noticeable home in our lives, which then hides our faith in God, and what we’re really meant to be like.

To go back to the idea of our own Olympic training support team, what we are in effect trying to do is trying to fulfil our God given potential, and live up the example set by Christ, without making use of the coach we’ve been provided with!

We lie to the world, and are not authentic in our desire to be like God, if we try to follow him without relying on the guidance and direction of our coach, the Holy Spirit, who after all has been given us by God as his means of communicating with us.

In The Message version of the Bible, Eph 4 v30 is written like this:

Don’t grieve God. Don’t break his heart. His Holy Spirit, moving and breathing in you, is the most intimate part of your life, making you fit for himself. Don’t take such a gift for granted.

We have to shed the protective casing that can often form almost imperceptibly around us, and take the risk of making ourselves vulnerable, if we are to continue growing into the imitation of God that we are capable of. Only without that protective casing can our God-given coach really help us grow, because the Holy Spirit needs the freedom to work with who we are on the inside.

If we want to honour the example Christ has set us, and be the best imitators of God we possibly can be, then we have to give him the freedom to coach us, to let him have his way with us, so that we can be the best we possibly can be. We aren’t on our own, this is a team event, and we have the best chance possible of winning with the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit on our support team.

Sunset from Rhossili Beach, 24th July 2012

The Holy Spirit and the Power of the Most High

I’m currently working on the famous Annunciation passage: Luke 1:26-38 and something is bothering me…
In v35 the text says (TNIV)
“The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you..”

Now are there one or two things at work here?
I have one commentary that says the two phrases “Holy Spirit” and “power of the Most High” are synonyms i.e. the same thing. On first reading this seems OK, but why are the two things identified seperately?
My ‘Luke for Everyone’ by Tom Wright suggests they are two separate things, the Holy Spirit acting internally within Mary, and the power of the Most High (God) acting externally as a creator, surrounding Mary with his sovereign power…which would lead me to lovely Trinitarian thoughts given that we’re at the point of Jesus entering the world! But for some this may deny that the Holy Spirit can not act externally and physically?

What does anyone else think?

What does our experience tell us?

Should we say both/and or otherwise fall into the trap of limiting God?