Previous Messages from the Minister

2 August 2020
Glorious sunshine?

As some parts of the UK bathe in glorious sunshine, many have been grateful that lockdown took place during an unusually sunny spring. And for a nation like ours, sunshine is seen as good news. But the ominous truth is that around the world, sunshine is the great enemy. Record temperatures are being reached to a level not seen on earth for thousands of years. Rarely reported in our media, cities in the Middle East last week have been hit with their highest temperatures ever, reaching above 50°C; two weeks ago, the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk experienced temperatures of 38°C and the Atlantic hurricane season has already started in July when the previous record of the earliest start recorded in 2005 was August 7th.

Suddenly we are seeing records tumble. We can't say we haven't been warned. But there are still many who deny global warming.

The Bible tells a story not on penetrating and destructive sunshine and heat, but of torrential, devastating rain in the story of Noah. It is clear that the destructive forces seen in our weather patterns are due to us humans acting selfishly, pillaging the earth and destroying so much of it while burning fossils and causing greenhouse gases. Churches have many calls on their time and energy but there is nothing more essential to the world's wellbeing than tackling global warming.

The United Reformed Church supports Operation Noah, their website states: "Operation Noah believes that the likelihood of runaway global warming raises questions that go to the heart of our Christian faith; that God's creation is a gift that we have a duty to care for and that the wellbeing of all creation matters to God; that climate change is about justice, because the poor of the world - those who have done the least to cause it - are already suffering the devastating consequences of the climate crisis. Acting on climate change is about loving our neighbours: that means those in other countries and future generations too."

25 July 2020
Jesus welcomes us home

There's a hymn Christians sing, about what the church is: it is where God is praised, where we are wanted and loved, where we try to live and to share out God's good news. In all its four verses it never talks about the church as a building. And yet for a great number of people, it is just that: a building. Or if its not just a building, it's the people who go to the building. One of my other favourite hymns is "The love of God is broad like beach and meadow" which talks about the wideness of God's love reaching out beyond our narrow horizons, and always reminds me of sunny summer holidays, walking the dog along the strand, building sandcastles in the sand or playing rounders or cricket with the incoming sea a constant threat to being bowled out.

Many of the older churches around are not very full these days; even at Christmas not all services or worship are as full as they once were.

You wouldn't have thought, six months ago that people are now seeking our church communities, and other communities of worship, and reaching out to the many websites, that have replaced our closed church buildings. Church is now on line, through websites, and on social media; whether it be Facebook, TikTok or Twitter, the need to keep in touch has been profound. Will the churches rise to the challenge and offer love, meaning and hope in these troubled times? I think failure will mean that the good news Christians want to talk about - by sharing, loving, giving meaning and significance to peoples' lives - will be an opportunity gone.

Jesus worshipped in synagogues and, at festival time, in the temple at Jerusalem; but more often than not, you'd find him in the streets and in people's homes, ministering in word and action. In the words of the hymn we started with, the church is where everyone is accepted, "whatever their background, whatever their past and whatever their pain." Jesus welcomes us home!

18 July 2020
The women around Jesus

The traditional view of Jesus has him carrying out his ministry surrounded by twelve male disciples. Less emphasis is put on the fact women also followed Jesus. As a man, it makes me uncomfortable to read that when Jesus was in danger, the men around him fled and denied they had anything to do with him. And yet, on the other hand, it was women who remained loyal and were there at the crucifixion and who went to the tomb on that first Sunday resurrection day to take care of his body. If you are prepared to look for them there are hints aplenty to indicate how important the women who followed Jesus were. Forty years ago, Elizabeth Moltmann-Wendel wrote an explosive book, "The Women Around Jesus", and I'm still not sure the church has caught up with her insights.

Most people have heard of the two Marys and the one Martha; but what about Joanna? Moltmann-Wendel has an intriguing chapter on Joanna who, she writes, has been ignored by theologians and biblical scholars. A close reading of the Gospel of Luke uncovers that Joanne is the wife of a distinguished man whom she left - in that society, it was ok for a man to leave his wife but when it was the other way round, it was a scandal! She followed Jesus and cared for him and his disciples by making sure they had enough food and drink. And we read, on the Sunday after Jesus was crucified, this woman, Joanna, was again one of the women who went to the tomb to discover the body was gone.

Still today, when woman have to fight so hard to achieve a place in society, I have read a good number of articles reflecting on the different ways countries have responded to the pandemic. It doesn't take much to see countries with women in leadership positions have had greater success in beating the virus than those led by so called strong men, who have seen the numbers of people affected in their country escalate and out of control. Is there a common theme, I wonder?

11 July 2020
A Jew named Jesus

At the heart of Christianity is the figure of a Jew named Jesus. Over the centuries, he has become the focus of art and architecture, contemplation, debate, social concern, liberation, healing and martyrdom. Followers have given up their lives for him; some have gone to war over him. Some have related well to people of other faiths and religions; others have fought tooth and nail to keep Christianity powerful. It is a chequered history with good and bad springing from that single trust in Jesus.

Churches often play down the political dimension of Christianity, even though in the UK the church has held a position of significance in the running of the nations. Jesus was a great storyteller and someone who disrupted the peace of his times. His followers called him the Son of God, a title given to the Roman Emperor who ruled over most of the Mediterranean world. He was an affront to Roman rule and probably explains why Jesus was executed. Whereas the Emperor ruled with the power of an army and loyal local leaders, taxing the people whose land had been absorbed into the Roman Empire, Jesus spoke out for those who were the victims of the Empire: the poor, the sick, women and children.

I was in London yesterday and in Trafalgar Square, volunteers were serving a hot lunch and drink to anyone who asked for food, mainly the homeless and those who have come upon hard times. There was a sad long line of hungry people. The 'rugged individualism' of our world is here challenged by the sense of community, where we are each important in our own different ways, respected and loved. Jesus would have been both distributer and receiver of such humanitarian aid. In this way, Jesus lives today, not as some stone statue to be worshipped, but as a living experience, in and through the actions of those who share a vision of a just world and who seek to serve those we abandon.

4 July 2020
We need you!

Just as shops, pubs and hairdressers are opening up, there are calls for the church to open its doors too. In fact, the government has already given permission for some to allow private prayer and others to carefully make church buildings available once again. It's not an easy task; many members of congregations are vulnerable and the restrictions that are imposed to allow us to open are very…well, restrictive. So, for a while still, we are keeping our doors closed while busily working on risk assessments and making what are mostly older buildings ready for the rush. 😀

Over these past months, however, churches have experimented with all sorts of inventive ways to bring services into homes. Members have been worshipping through technology and this has attracted a lot of sympathetic views from people who have not recently attended church. It's a new beginning for many churches but is it where we want to be in future? We mustn't forget our buildings are a great resource for the community and all kinds of groups use them as their base. As numbers of worshippers have dropped over the years, churches have turned to all sorts of techniques to attract new members but overall, the church in the UK has continued to decline.

Why has it taken a national emergency to make the churches find new ways to be relevant? There is evidence that people of all ages are finding 2020 a time of heightened anxiety, loneliness and damaging of some community life. People have begun to understand their lives are not just shopping and spending money, even if there was plenty around; retail therapy still leaves gaps in our lives. They've been turning to places of quiet contemplation, to give their lives significance and a sense of direction. No matter what your background, the vision is to welcome everyone to church; we know we have not always been good at living out that vision. You may wish to attend on line or, when we are open again, in person. Whatever it is, we want your help in making meaningful changes to the way we do things and help us to be more relevant to you and the communities around us.

27 June 2020
Fighting for a greener world!

If you think about Christianity at all, you will probably know that the Bible is the book most Christians turn to for comfort and ethical teachings. You may know that the Bible is read out loud in church on Sundays; that it was written centuries ago and very difficult to understand. Even people who have been going to church all their life may find parts of it challenging. It used to be said it is the top bestseller, yet rarely read. And still, many of its stories have become part of the western world's culture and heritage. Many phrases which we take as part of the English language originate in the Bible and the many characters you find there are part of our common heritage.

We use the name 'Jeremiah' to describe a person who is pessimistic about the present and foresees a calamitous future; a prophet of doom. But who was Jeremiah? Did you know he was a 6th century BCE mystic in the Jewish and Christian religions, a Hebrew prophet who said that Jerusalem would be defeated and the people thrown out of their own land. The Book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament of the Bible contains his prophecies.

His message was full of doom and defeat in the face of an invasion from other countries. He had many opponents, politicians and other prophets who denounced him for his pessimism; why not, they said, be more positive and get behind the nation - make Israel great again, instead of always running it down. But for Jeremiah it was better to see the world as it is; not through rose-tinted glasses. In the face of disaster, despite his prediction, he was still hopeful and invested in the land; but he was also realistic in his judgements and urged people to act before it was too late.

Today, we face global emergencies and yet politicians are always declaring that everything is good, look on the bright side, they say. Ignore the doomsayers, the scientists. Now more than ever, we need people to call for action. I believe that the Church can be such a voice and join today's campaigners for a greener world.

20 June 2020

Happy Father's Day

To the Fathers this weekend who have not seen their children since the beginning of lockdown, we hope you have a weekend of reunion and loving joy. To others, a chance for celebration of all that fatherhood can mean. Family life for many is the keystone for security and comfort. It is the place where children's characters and personalities can grow and be a force for good in the world. Here, we can learn how to relate to each other and here, amongst those intimacies, lifelong friendships and loyalties are fed and encouraged. The deep blood links are forged in the way we grow up and the way our parents tend and support us; and in later life, how children can care and love their parents. And isn't it a boon recently to have home schooling and time to relate to and treasure our children.

Of course, not all families are the sunny uplands we wish them to be. Tensions of living so closely and with competing demands, poverty and lack of work bring with them terrible pressures when raising children. For some it may even mean the father is no longer a presence within the family; single parenthood clash with other priorities and needs; the death of a father is sorely felt. Fast modern day living with little time for one another has its own pressures creating many casualties within our communities.

It may be a surprise to many that Jesus was rather ambiguous towards family life. Indeed the Bible is full of negative relationships: brother against brother, parents against their children. Here there are more stories of discord than of peace among families. Yet for Jesus, God is portrayed as the loving and forgiving father figure. When he prayed to God, Jesus called him "Abba" (daddy) and taught his disciples to pray "Our father, who is in heaven…" When the son, who had gone off and spent all his inheritance in wayward living, eventually returns to his father, full of shame, the father rushes out to meet him with love and forgiveness.

Our dads might not always live up to the great metaphor for God that Christians cherish but this weekend, as churches, we can wish fathers everywhere: Happy Father's Day!

13 June 2020

Healing the world

During his lifetime, Jesus was known as a great preacher, teacher and healer.
Perhaps in our minds we equate preaching and teaching with speech, and quite often boring speech, and we hive off healing to the medical profession. For Jesus however, the three activities feed off one another; so, his preaching and teaching were profound because he earthed them in action, in healing.

Jesus calls his church to be agents of healing. On the individual level, by walking alongside those who are sick and frightened. By respecting others and not judging them. By supporting them in their own choices of life. To welcoming them and being their friend.

And the church is also called to be healers of this world - to work with others in preventing further damage to the environment. To fighting poverty and bigotry, wherever it raises its ugly head. To seek for justice and fairness for everyone, not just for those who are rich and powerful.

As Jesus said, reading in the synagogue:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour."
And Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

6 June 2020
Jesus didn't have much time for those self-righteous people who thought they were better than anyone else

Matthew's gospel opens what Christian's name the New Testament of the Bible. It's a retelling of the story of Jesus and, for many, the basis of what they believe about Jesus. In the very first chapter, and after a list of descendants, Matthew tells the Christmas story of the angel announcing the birth of Jesus, a birth signifying the saving of the people and the sign that "God is with us". The reading for this week in June, closes Matthew's gospel with confirmation that Jesus is still with us, 'to the end of the age' and a demand for his small band of disciples to go out into the world and tell others about this creative love.

What does this mean for us today? Christians believe that in the story of Jesus we see a person who through his actions reveals something about the love streaming through the universe and the way we should act in the light of that love. But it is not just in his actions, but also in his very being. And so this story connects every person with that creative and loving spirit that is foundational to life not just on earth but throughout the galaxies. It's a brave and bold assertion.

Jesus didn't have much time for those self-righteous people who thought they were better than anyone else. He was about healing and reconciling communities with those at the edge of society; he'd rather eat a meal with tax collectors and prostitutes than with those who claimed to be holy and pious. It's a challenge for us all; to live lovingly with everyone else, to respect people who are very different from ourselves, to build up our communities with a bridge of love, not a wall of separation.

In response to the scenes from the USA recently, the United Reformed Church published a statement, expressing our solidarity with Black Americans. "…As Christians, we heed Christ's call that we should be one, we reaffirm our unity with all people through the love of our one parent-God, and we declare that it is meaningless to claim that "all lives matter" until Black Lives Matter.
We offer this prayer, bringing to God the pain and concern of our fractured world, condemning all violence and yearning for change:

Eternal God,
deeply troubled by what is happening following George Floyd's death,
and by too much other inhumanity that doesn't reach the headlines,
we cry to you as the one
whose love was the victor at Easter and
who pours it into our hearts at Pentecost.
As we observe the pain of a fractured world,
use your love to drive us from sadness to compassion;
as we watch the pain of the bereaved,
use your love to move us from pity to companionship;
as we are faced with the pain of marginalised people,
use your love to point us from complacency to your commonwealth.
In our praying,
let us not just talk to you,
but yield to your love;
in our anger,
let us not just rail against injustice,
but manifest your love;
in our actions,
let us not just flail about aimlessly,
but build the civilisation of love.
Until none of us are disregarded for who we are
nor any diminished by what we fail to be,
we keep on praying in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen."
(from the URC's statement published on 3 June 2020)

30 May 2020
Good to talk

This weekend, the Church celebrates with thanksgiving the feast of Pentecost. Sadly not in its buildings but still church together. We remember the story set out in the Bible in the book of Acts, of the coming of the Spirit in a wild wind and in burning flames, resting on the heads of the believers assembled in Jerusalem. As the gift is given, the gathered group is pushed out into the streets and there to preach. I suspect, like me, you might find street preachers a little embarrassing; you give them a wide berth, eager not to be seen to be associated with them. I, too, like the bystanders hearing this group of enthusiasts, ask questions and make conclusions: what does this mean? And, they must be drunk!

I am a preacher. Admitting that feels rather strange. Preachers don't have a very good reputation. We are seen as people who tell others what to do, how to behave, as if we have the key to life and our job is to make everyone else feel small and inadequate. I don't see it that way, you might be pleased to hear. I claim no special insight, no special position. I can behave well; I can behave badly. I am no more moral than anyone else and often confused about what is right and what is wrong. I am a normal person struggling with life and struggling with how to deal with life. I try, I fail.

And in that struggle with life, I am asked to speak. And I try to share in everything I feel and see and hear. And in doing so, I hope that people, whoever they are, will join me in that struggle. I understand in the story of Jesus that he met people where they were, challenged the self righteous and welcomed the excluded. In biblical language, he raised the lowly and put down the mighty. Unconventionally, he eat with people who were regarded as lower than low, he healed the discounted; when others wanted to put him up on a pedestal, he knelt down and washed their feet! He surrounded himself with people who were unimportant, who made mistakes, who betrayed him and hungered after recognition - his merry band of ordinary people. That, for me, is Church and at Pentecost we celebrate its birthday, a new beginning.

Challenging God, stir us up to fight for justice,
to stand alongside the unwanted in our society;
to confront those who 'lord' it over others;
to seek to bring people together, reconciling the world;
to forgive;
and, most of all, to love, in Jesu's name. Amen.

23 May 2020

Through this weekend, churches reflect over the story in Luke when Jesus ascends to heaven. As an image today, it can be confusing as we have for some decades soared into space. In earlier days, the image of a pair of feet disappearing into the clouds was the way they expressed this story; we on the other hand, find this comical and unreal. Perhaps we are more comfortable with images of thresholds and locked doors, as illustrating the gap between the hope and vision Jesus set before us, and our own lives as we live them. During a time when isolation is the experience of many, the way of Jesus tells another story bringing us together even as we are apart.
"As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world" John 17:18

you spoke to those
we find difficult to approach;
you opened doors to new possibilities for them.

you opened the door,
between earth and heaven,
and invited us in
to a fresh relationship with God,
a new understanding of who God is.

Jesus, you crossed the threshold
between heaven and earth.
Breaking down the slammed door,
ignoring the no entry sign,
you smashed the way through
for everyone to come to God.

And so invite us again
to go through your door of new possibilities
whatever our state of mind or health or spirit.

And encourage us to show others the way
through the open door of your love.

©2013 Martin Hazell

16 May 2020

As the world struggles to emerge from lockdown, the Church remembers the confusion of the disciples of Jesus as they face life without him after the crucifixion. Jesus is dead yet risen; how is that? During his life Jesus promised his disciples that he would always be with him and after that first Easter, they knew his presence and yet they were confused about what to do next. It was the promise that Jesus made that helped these lost men and women face a world with courage and not a little determination. The promise was for an advocate, a guide and an encourager. The disciples believed that when they gather, Jesus was with them. It is our heartfelt wish that the church will once again gather, and we look forward in future days to doing that.

But we also believe that God's Spirit of love will be experienced among us at all times.

If you saw the BBC programme, Hospital, you would have seen the daily miracles of love in action. Putting their own lives in danger, nurses, doctors and hospital staff - ambulance workers, porters and cleaners amongst them - all giving of their best under such stressful circumstances. Here are stories from within our community of great love and service. Of course, we saw that not everyone survived in their fight but we also saw the passion and grief each loss meant to the medical team. For everyone mattered and was important. It was inspiring and heart breaking.

We applaud them, not just on a Thursday night, but every moment of the week. They are heroes! And for Christians and all people of faith, we see in these stories of bravery and dedication, the God of love in action. Something of love shines out from their tired and struggling faces. We hope and pray that they will gain strength from their successes in order to help them through their losses.

Please listen on Sunday to the URC service, found below, where along with Christians throughout the nation you can pray and worship. For your own personal prayers please use this prayer:
Communicating God,
who speaks through story and people,
we thank you for the gift of the Spirit
who treasures and honours us,
is always with us
offering direction and meaning to our lives;
and so building us up
to offer our gifts and skills to our communities.

We give thanks that, by your Spirit,
we are in communion with you;
that, by the same Spirit,
we are strengthened and encouraged,
shaped by you into keen disciples,
filled with the energy to spread the Good News.

We give thanks for the gift of peace -
the peace which calms the heart
and grows the spirit;
that makes us whole and beautiful
in your eyes.

We give thanks for the medical staff
dedicating their skills and expertise,
to the service of everyone who needs them.
We give thanks for their courage and strength
and pray that they will find they are loved and honoured.

Communicating God,
speak through us and through our story.