Going back to school

To be entirely honest and truthful, I was something of a tearaway in my teenage years. My mum was a teacher and the influence strong, but I seemed to swing between dutiful and studious son and rebellious, gobby and wayward oik.

However, one thing at school where I always seemed to excel was languages. I enjoyed learning French and carried on my German through A Level (got a B) and did a year at University too. It proved very useful in borrowing theological books. I had the shelf of German theologians like Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar pretty much all to myself!

In September the children go ‘back to school’, but this year I think I need to make more of a commitment to my own life-long learning. God gave each of us a brain and I think he would expect us to use it and cherish its incredible potential to continue learning, even when we’re old and grey.

When I was training for the ministry, I always thought to myself that such an amazing place as Cambridge University was wasted on teenagers. Most of them had no idea how good they had it. What a gift and privilege it is to learn and to grow. Not every human being in this world has been blessed as we have.

We had a holiday in France this Summer and while I can sort of get by, it’s not long before I’m starting to plaintively whimper parlez-vouz Anglais? Each year, I come back promising myself that I really must get studying… learn and revise the vocabulary, put myself in the way of some French conversations, maybe take a class. It’s such an incredible gift to communicate with people in their own language and idiom and I love the thought of actually being fluent.

I’m not sure that I will be able to use it much for communication and conversation, but I’ve enrolled on one of the Biblical Languages classes that St Augustine’s College will be running in West Malling this Autumn. I did quite a bit of biblical Hebrew at University as my part of my undergraduate degree but my New Testament Greek has always been a bit sketchy so I’m going to start at the beginning and see how far I can get. My goal is to read John’s Gospel and be able to understand it, in Greek. There’s a big target!

I’ve also been asked to teach a course this year – helping the new Lay Ministry candidates in the Diocesan centre at West Malling Abbey to consider ‘God’s Word and the World’ – an ethics course of sorts. So I will be a teacher this year, as well as a student.
The ancient wisdom of the Book of Proverbs advises that:

“the heart of the discerning acquires knowledge, for the ears of the wise seek it out.”

Perhaps this September, it’s time for all of us to think about how we might go ‘back to school’?

Rev David Green

The wisdom of the Beatitudes for today

An image from a recent movie depicting Jesus giving the Sermon on the MountWestminster, Manchester, London Bridge, Grenfell Tower, Finsbury Park. An election in which the winners feel like they lost, and the losers feel like they won. Oh, and a weakened Government must not enter the most important international negotiation we’ve had since the Second World War.

“Keep calm and carry on” doesn’t quite seem enough to me at the moment. “A nice cup of tea” helps, but only goes so far.

In the Lectionary this Summer, our focus will be in Matthew’s Gospel and in chapter 5, perhaps the most famous of them all, I find Jesus’ blessings giving wisdom for the current age.

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’. This is a time to acknowledge dependence from the place of prayer, rather than make pompous pronouncements. There are issues here that are way beyond trite or simplistic solutions.

‘Blessed are those who mourn’: we need to mourn with those who mourn for no other reason than because we stand with those who suffer.

‘Blessed are the meek’: a crisis can bring out both the best or the worst. Meekness has no agenda: it listens, seeks wisdom and neither shouts nor screams.

‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’: There are so many crying for justice at the moment, but legitimate demand for justice must not be diverted into revolt and disorder. Anger and revenge will help no-one.

‘Blessed are the merciful’: as J John has put it “to be merciful is the authentic and caring desire to put others first and seek their welfare.” I’m encouraged by every story of human kindness amidst the tragedies, but there needs to be more and it needs to persist when the cameras have gone.

‘Blessed are the pure in heart’: our motives when there is call for change can be complex. We must be sure that in what we say and do, we are truly seeking the welfare of others and not serving ourselves.

‘Blessed are the peacemakers’: perhaps the most distressing element of these times is the sense of disunity; of factions, of communities talking in increasingly bitter terms of ‘them’ and ‘us’. Our world needs brave, humble, meek peacemakers.

And finally ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.’ The last and longest of the Beatitudes is the sting in the tail. To do these things, Jesus says, is no easy path to popularity and acclaim. Putting yourself on this path will cause enemies to rise up; those who trying to solve our problems in a very different way.

To be a peacemaker is to be assured of being mistrusted, hated and attacked by both sides. Jesus, lived out what he taught. He knew what he was talking about.

Rev David Green

Hat-tip to J John, whose words inspired and gave shape to this article. Read more of his work at canonjjohn.com

Make sure love wins

Arian Grande singing live in ManchesterWe have suffered many terror attacks over many years, but the horrific and callous attack on the MEN Arena in Manchester on the evening of the 22nd of May has felt different to me, and I’ve been trying to work out why it has felt different.

I think the reason is to do with the intended targets. My children are now 12, 10 and 9 and they have grown up with Ariana Grande. She was a Nickelodeon children’s TV actor before she became a pop star and so, for my kids’ generation, she is a familiar and trusted face. As their Dad, I know of Ariana in a way that I couldn’t tell you about 101 other singers and pop groups currently in the charts.

It’s no wonder that major arenas in the UK have sold out and been filled by pre-teens, teens and their parents. Indeed, earlier this year, there was a time when it looked like my daughter might be getting a ticket to go to the o2 this week and watch Ariana on her big world tour.

Because I know a bit about Ariana and the kids that enjoy her acting and music, it’s been obvious to me that an Extemist, a Terrorist, choosing to attend that particular venue on that particular evening is a deliberate attempt to attack children.

I can’t think of a more cowardly act. It is a heinous crime against humanity, and against one’s own soul even, to think such little ones are legitimate targets.

It is also a crime that has got my children’s attention in a way that they might otherwise have noticed considerably less; particularly my daughter who could, if the fates had worked slightly differently, been one of those girls singing along in the crowd.

When I was my children’s age, the IRA were blowing up the Grand Brighton Hotel, Harrods, Airey Neave and members of the Household Cavalry. I remember being scared but also not really understanding. London felt a long way away somehow. Further than it feels in our modern world.

But what also strikes me now is that when the IRA carried out such atrocities, everyone knew that Irish Catholic people were not all monsters. No-one was suggesting Irish Priests should be arrested or lynched. We were able to differentiate between the radical extremism of a very small minority and the vast majority of law abiding people those extremists ‘claimed’ to represent.

Extremists like the one who blew himself up in Manchester have swallowed a bastardised version of Islam. They should not be allowed to claim to represent the vast majority of law abiding Muslim people who make their home in this country.

If we allow extremists to sow hatred and mistrust of Muslims in our nation, we give them a sickening victory.

Love your neighbour. Even those who look and sound different to you. Welcome the stranger. For in doing so, some have entertained angels without knowing it. Above all, forgive… and do your part to make sure love wins.

Rev David Green

A person for whom I want to vote

The recent Government decision to call a snap election has certainly excited the media.  Listening to the radio on the morning of Mrs May’s announcement, the various pundits and commentators sounded positively cockahoop at the prospect of six weeks of political debate, discussion and argument.

I think a good few of us are a little more like Brenda from Bristol. You may have seen the clip of her reaction on social media. When a BBC reporter told her that an election had been announced, she exclaimed “You’re joking! Not another one! I can’t stand this. Too much politics going on at the moment.”

 

I’m sometimes asked whether there is a ‘Christian’ way to vote and what should one prioritise as we carefully consider our options.

It’s sometimes been joked that the church tends to be ‘right wing congregations led by left wing ministers’. Meanwhile, the Church of England used to be called the ‘Tory Party at Prayer’ although recently I attended a conference where the speaker asked for a show of hands and in a room of hundreds less than five admitted to being Conservative Party members. He went on to ask who was a member of the National Trust and most of the room raised their hands! So perhaps we’re now the “National Trust at Prayer”!

The truth is that there are Christians who wear blue rosettes, red rosettes, yellow, green and purple. The concerns of Christian people and how they read Scripture will find resonance in policies across the political spectrum. There’s no one single way to vote.

Speaking personally, in different elections and in different places I’ve lived, I have voted red, blue and yellow at different times and for different reasons.

I do worry that this election might become Brexit 2.0. Not least because there are a number of other things we ought to be talking about as well – the economy, social care and the elderly, the NHS. As a School Governor, I’m concerned about school funding cuts. I hope those topics get properly aired and talked about.

But what I tend to find myself doing more is looking at the personality and character of the candidates in my constituency.

Ultimately, no one party will tick all my boxes so what I want to know is – when I write to my MP about something that concerns me, will they listen? Will they try to help? Do they turn up to things locally? Are they interested and keen to serve the common good? What’s their track record? Can I trust their word? Ultimately, do I consider them to be a person of integrity, of character, truthful and compassionate?

That’s a person for whom I want to vote. As a Christian, it is the character and quality of our leaders that I believe should concern us most.

Rev David Green

Westminster through the eyes of Easter

Barely a week has passed since five people died and 50 more were injured when a man attacked tourists and passers-by on Westminster Bridge, then drove on to the Houses of Parliament where he stabbed and killed a policeman before eventually being shot dead.

This man was from Kent. He was a man with a history of violence and a string of criminal convictions. His nihilistic, despairing ambitions for death and destruction are a dastardly perversion of the Islamic faith he purported to believe.

But in this month when our churches will mark the Holy Week journey to the cross of Jesus Christ and celebrate his fabulous resurrection, I would rather our focus turns away from that man’s actions to others present that day.

Heroic stories have emerged. GB Boxing coach Tony Davis and Tobias Ellwood MP performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on PC Keith Palmer but were unable to save his life. Doctors and nurses rushed from the nearby St Thomas’ hospital to tend the wounded and dying on the bridge.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has spoken about one of his Lambeth Palace security guards, himself a Muslim and someone who had been narrowly missed by the speeding vehicle on the bridge, who spent time helping the injured before he insisted on continuing his journey into work. He completed his shift as normal, resolutely refusing to allow terrorists to disrupt his life or his commitments.

Perhaps most importantly, when armed police warned Khalid Masood (formerly Adrian Russell Ajao) and, when he ignored their warnings and they shot him dead, the next thing that happened was that within a few minutes, that same person was being treated on the ground by the very people he had sought to kill.

The Archbishop, speaking in the House of Lords two days after the attack, noted these acts of dignity and sacrificial love and talked of how they reflect a deep-seated narrative that is part of our national story, and has been part of our identity for nearly 2,000 years.

He said:

“At this time of year [when] we look forward to Holy Week and Easter – [these heroes’ actions speak] of a God who stands with the suffering, and brings justice, and whose resurrection has given to believer and unbeliever the sense that where we do what is right; where we behave properly; where that generosity and extraordinary sense of duty that leads people to treat a terrorist is shown; where that bravery of someone like PC Keith Palmer is demonstrated, [there is a victory] over what is evil, despairing and bad; that there is a victory for what is right and good.”

May you know the victory of Jesus Christ over sin, evil and death this Easter. May the Lord bless you, keep you and make his face to shine upon you. This day and always. Amen.

Rev David Green

The kind of fast God likes

“Here is the way I want you to fast.
‘Set free those who are held by chains without any reason. Untie the ropes that hold people as slaves. Set free those who are crushed. Break every evil chain. Share your food with hungry people. Provide homeless people with a place to stay. Give naked people clothes to wear. Provide for the needs of your own family.'”
Isaiah 58.6-7

Ash Wednesday graphicThese words were read this morning by one of the children in an act of Collective Worship that took place at West Malling School to mark Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent.

We spoke together about while we may give things up for Lent, or take something new on for Lent, there is something even more important – which is to measure ourselves against the standards God has set, and when we fail, to ask his forgiveness.

I knelt down so that one of the smaller children could draw an ash cross on my forehead and one of the older children read a child-friendly version of the traditional Ash Wednesday words:

“Remember that you are human,
and no-one lasts forever.
Turn away from the things
that you do wrong,
and be a faithful friend to Jesus.”

I found it deeply moving to be ministered to by the children. In turn I was privileged to ash the 60 odd children and teachers who wanted to stay behind, and give up part of their break-time, to take part and say their own prayer.

The reading from Isaiah 58 reminds us that we might give something up for Lent, but as always God is most interested in our hearts and whether we are prepared to work for justice in a broken and divided world.

Becky calls attention, in her magazine article this month, to the film I, Daniel Blake and it saddens me to tell you that there are people who live in our parishes who struggle in the same way that Daniel did. It’s not a story that’s been told with creative licence; it’s happening every day and not just in the North-East, but even here in West Malling, Offham and Kings Hill.

I give thanks to God that our forebears in West Malling had the wisdom to create Relief in Need as a vestry charity for St Mary’s. It gives me and the other Trustees the chance to respond with compassion when we’re alerted to a genuine need. Sometimes, perhaps oftentimes, it’s a need that arises because of situations like Daniel’s; a computerised and often face-less social-care system where people sometimes slip through the safety net.

We don’t all run big social systems, nor feel like we can influence them. But we can all show human kindness this Lent, recognise need, and do our bit to help those who find themselves in difficulty.

Rev David Green

Is fake news our own fault?

An image of Liar Liar headline on a newspaperIs ‘fake news’ the ultimate destination of post-modernism?

Now I know that as soon as someone mentions an ‘ism’ we all switch off, but please bear with me.

Post-modernism, the general cultural era that has guided Western Society since the 1960s, has put forward a view that helpfully embraces a broad range of ideas. But the other side of that culture’s coin means it is also highly sceptical of grand narratives and absolute truths.

The ultimate post-modern statement is “I’m pleased it works for you.” It doesn’t matter if something is absolutely true or absolutely good or not. Whether it works for you is all that matters.

“If Christian faith ‘works for you’, well then I’m pleased for you. But what works for me is different, and that’s ok because we can all believe what we want to believe. Whatever works, right?”

“If Yoga, or Reiki, or Paracetamol, or Herbal Medicine, or Mindfulness, or long walks, or ‘cosy living’, or Feng Shui works for you, well then it’s true for you. You can have your truth and I’ll have mine.”

Some joke ironically that in a post-modern world there is no absolute truth. Presumably, apart from the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth!

Given this is the air we’ve been breathing for the last fifty years, I’m not really shocked that we’ve reached this destination of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’.

A photo of the Sun headline Freddie Starr ate my hamsterSocial media has made ‘fake news’ easier, but it’s not new. Anyone remember ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster’? The difference is simply that our post-modern minds are more ready to swallow it… the ‘fake news’ that is, not the hamster!

Our post-modern minds means our leaders can look at things we can all see and hear for ourselves and claim a different thing took place – ‘alternative facts’.

It reminded me of George Orwell’s 1984:

“the party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command”.

I do hope we’re starting to realise that when you build a culture without absolute truths, eventually the lack of justice will show. It lacks joy, it lacks love, it lacks care for one’s neighbour and for the Creation.

We reap what we sow. Hmm, that sounds familiar from somewhere. The Christian should certainly know this because the Christian follows someone who didn’t leave any room for a post-modern sense of relative truth.

Jesus said:

“I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14.6).

It’s a deeply inconvenient statement in a post-modern world because it’s pretty exclusive and pretty darn definite. It’s a claim that Absolute Truth does exist, and Jesus is the very personification of it.

Rev David Green

Jesus’ treatment of women

In an era and world where a common Jewish morning prayer involved men thanking God that they were not born as a gentile (i.e. a non-Jewish person), a slave, or a woman, Jesus of Nazareth’s attitude towards women is quite remarkable.

Jesus holds out a hand to a crippled womanThe most remarkable thing is simply that women are there. While the Gospels don’t contain any special saying or parable from Jesus that specifically repudiates misogynistic views of the day, the presence of women among his followers and Jesus’ willingness to encourage and support them in learning about God was a massive break with tradition and culture. It has been described as ‘without precedent’ in their culture of the time.

For example, it would not have been ‘the done thing’ to speak to women publicly and yet Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna accompany Jesus throughout his ministry. He sits down with an unnamed Samaritan woman at a well who, shock horror, has been married several times but then, further shock, he talks God with her and, fall off your chair, asks her for a drink from her ritually unclean Samaritan bucket! All deeply counter-cultural moves that, at root, gave value to that woman when her society gave her none.

Jesus and the woman caught in adulteryHe refuses to condemn the woman caught in adultery with his famous words ‘let he who is without sin, cast the first stone’. To the men, this woman was a worthless object only useful for trying to catch Jesus out. He restores her dignity and treats her like the child of God that she is with an encouragement to go ‘and sin no more’. And let’s just briefly remember that the man who must have been caught with her in flagrante is nowhere to be seen.

The story about Mary and Martha, where Martha ‘sits at the feet’ of Jesus and learns from him has been studied recently as proof that Christ welcomed female rabbinical students as well as men. It is a study used recently by those supporting women Bishops to argue that if Christ had women and men amongst his closest disciples and followers, why were they not present amongst our key leaders in the church today.

Finally, in a culture and legal system where women’s testimony or witness statements were not valid and could not be trusted, the first people to witness and testify to the resurrection are women. Mary, his mother, and Mary Magdalene amongst them.

The daughter of Jairus, the widow of Nain, the woman who touched Jesus’ garment and was healed of an ongoing 12 year long problem with her menstruation, Peter’s mother-in-law are all worthy stories from the Gospels. In Jesus’ teaching too, women are given honour, most notably the poor widow whose ‘mite’ of generosity is worth far more than the rich man’s wealth. Time and again, Jesus gives women value and dignity. He stands with considerable bravery against his culture and refuses to be cowed.

Political leaders who hold a Bible in their hand and claim Christian faith in order to win votes, and yet are alleged to treat women with the most abysmal and horrifying lack of dignity, need to stop waving that book around for others to see. Instead, they would do well to start reading it.

David Green

In defence of Jerusalem

Did you know that the hymn Jerusalem is 100 years old this year? Although William Blake’s poem was originally written in 1804, March 10 2016 marked the centenary of Sir Hubert Parry setting the poem to the now famous tune. 100 years on, it remains one of our nation’s favourite hymns. I find it requested frequently at both funerals and at weddings and it has even been mentioned as a possible national anthem for England.

What you also may not know is that lots of Vicars can’t stand it!

The reason they don’t like it is because Blake’s poem is built around a mysterious legend that, as a boy, Jesus of Nazareth visited England in the company of Joseph of Arimathea, a sailor and trader. The ‘feet’ in the line ‘And did those feet in ancient time’ refers to those of Jesus.

Vicars that don’t like the hymn will say that the hymn has no Christian value because there is no hard evidence that Jesus ever visited English shores. To each rhetorical question in the first verse, they sit there quietly saying to themselves ‘No!’.

And did those feet in ancient time
walk upon England’s mountains green? (No!)
And was the holy Lamb of God
on England’s pleasant pastures seen? (No!)
And did the countenance divine
shine forth upon our clouded hills? (No!)

I’m not one of those Vicars.

Personally, I really enjoy singing Jerusalem. I like it because I like being able to give hymn singing plenty of welly (and singing Jerusalem certainly needs that)! But for me there is more to it than that.

The first verse for me is a set of questions that invite wonder and mystery? Asking whether Jesus ever set foot upon these shores opens the possibility for England to know and enjoy God’s love and the healing that comes as his Kingdom is seen among us. I would contend that Jesus walking the mountains and pleasant pastures of England is, if nothing else, an invitation for the Christian community to be, as Teresa of Avila described it, the hands and feet of Christ. Ours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out upon the earth, ours are the hands that bring Christ to the English people.

That notion is then brought home in the second verse that uses imagery from the story of Elijah and the angelic Chariots of Fire (2 Kings 2) to encourage us as singers to play our part in bringing God’s Kingdom to the lives of those around us. When I’m feeling down or a bit weary, it nevers fails to cheer my spirit when I sing with gusto:

I will not cease from mental fight,
nor shall my sword sleep in my hands,
till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land

It is an encouragement to me to keep going, to keep seeking God’s kingdom, to keep on trying to show God’s love to the wonderful people of England.

David Green

Listen to Jerusalem now using this video below
from the Royal Wedding of the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge.

Proclaiming afresh in every generation

RSC_MNDMy wife and I recently had the opportunity to visit Stratford-upon-Avon and, amongst other things, we booked tickets for the Royal Shakespeare Company and their current production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m not much of a theatre-goer but it felt like the thing you really ought to do if you’re going to visit Shakespeare’s home town.

The theatre was packed full of aficionados and first-timers, overseas tourists and Brits. The setting was reimagined for 1940s Britain and, of course, the words had to be given life by the interpretations of the actors and director, but I found it strangely moving that words written over 500 years ago could be performed faithfully and without any emendation to account for the modern world. People laughed in the right places (mostly) and while some present may not have understood every single word easily, they knew enough to be carried along and to enjoy their evening.

It was a reminder to me, once again, that just because something is old or traditional, it doesn’t mean it has no place in our contemporary world. Shakespeare’s stories, myths and metaphors have shaped our society and continue to offer reflections and answers to our troubles. Indeed, the resonances and phrases still resound in our contemporary language: ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’, ‘I have had a most rare vision’ and my daughter’s favourite ‘though she be but little, she is fierce!’.

The Church of the 21st Century certainly faces plenty of challenges, but it was a reminder to me once again that if we try to amend the good news of God’s grace to make it more palatable to modern ears, or abandon the stories, metaphors, words and phrases that have shaped our society and continue to offer reflections and answers in times of trouble, then we do something as unthinkable as re-writing Shakespeare. In a time of uncertainty for our nation, it is the Christian Church’s task to hold up our faith’s rhythm of death and resurrection so we can look beyond matters of broken-ness and endings and offer hope even when some feel hope-less. That has always has been the task, whether in good times or bad. I don’t want a fair-weather faith. I want depth in my knowledge of God’s love. If our faith can’t prove it’s worth when things are tough, then what use is it?

This is not a call to ensure nothing ever changes. Like the actors and director, we have to take the words we know, the unchanging story of Christ’s death and resurrection, familiar and theologically deep prayers, the good news of God’s love, and then reinterpret and reimagine those old words so that they continue to have life and convey their truth to this generation. Whether that puts bums on seats or not, I don’t know. Like the RSC, I hope so. But the task for any Christian minister, let alone any Christian, is not primarily to be successful. We are called simply to be faithful.

David Green

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