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?

Is ‘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

It’s not Christmas without…

Now, I’m too young to remember this (sorry folks) but in the winter of 1964, a Clergy friend reliably informs me that the Go Go’s released a Christmas novelty record which opened with these words:

“I’m gonna spend my Christmas with a Dalek
and hug it underneath the mistletoe,
and if he’s very nice
I’ll feed him sugar spice,
and hang a Christmas stocking from his big left toe.”

You will be hard pressed to find this particular musical dog’s breakfast in the compilations of Christmas tunes that inevitably fill our shopping centres at this time of year. Even if the Pogues or Slade are not your cup of tea, I can assure you that having listened to the Go Go’s offering, we should be thankful they never made the cut. Small mercies and all that.

Not only does their song display a woeful lack of knowledge about the anatomy of a Dalek, it suggests that nothing says Christmas quite like the opportunity to celebrate it with a genetically engineered race of evil machine/being hybrids intent on galaxy-wide domination!

Indeed, over the next few weeks lots of companies will suggest to us in expensively put-together television adverts that nothing quite says Christmas like… well, you fill in the blank. Boxer dogs jumping on a trampoline? Soldiers exchanging chocolate in the 1914-18 war? A snowman fighting through a long and arduous journey to buy a scarf?

I’m sure plenty of us will also utter statements like ‘you can’t have Christmas without…’ and again, you can fill in the blank. A Christmas tree? Mistletoe? Carol singing? Babycham? Chestnuts roasting on the fire? Midnight Communion? The Queen’s Speech? Children in tea-towels and dressing gowns? A walk in the afternoon? Cold meat and pickles on Boxing Day?

Truth is every family, every person has their traditions and things that speak of Christmas to them. But I do hope that part of your tradition is to be in the company of Christian people in a service of worship. You may or may not be Christian yourself, but I promise that you will be welcome nonetheless. This ought to be a time for all people and, on that front, I was encouraged to hear the Muslim Council of Great Britain issue their own statement welcoming Christmas, pointing out that for them Jesus is a prophet too.

But I digress. At its core, I would say that you can’t have Christmas without a story of humble beginnings and unexpected blessings. A story of concern for the outcast, the refugee and stranger. A story about family and adversity. A story that involves the poor (shepherds) and the rich (kings). You can’t have Christmas without a story of peace and good will to all humankind. You can’t have Christmas without the story of God’s love.

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

Proclaiming afresh in every generation

My 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

Come together as one

Our nation goes to the polls this month to decide our future in Europe. I won’t get into the politics of the matter here. But what I am concerned about is what happens afterwards and how our nation reconciles in the wake of the decision.

With less than a month to go, the tone of much of the debate is pretty poor. I would imagine a great number of people have no idea how to vote because the leading voices are not offering much in the way of decent reasoning, statistics or debate. Instead, they just sling mud and ridicule the opposition. Any report examining the impact is described by opponents as ‘propaganda’. Appeals are made to our cynicism or fears instead of responding with considered answers to the questions raised.

We stand on the threshold of the most important decision we have faced in a generation. We don’t need a highly emotive and deeply personal public brawl. What we need is a respectful dialogue about our future. In the absence of a sensible discussion, I imagine most people will end up voting on the basis of who they trust. Not the worst method of voting, but on such a key decision for our nation, it’s not really the best method either.

What is crystal clear to me is that just under half of our nation are going to be deeply disappointed and terribly upset on 24 June. Many of us will be battered and bruised, not just because of the result, but because of the mud slinging. I’m not just thinking of the politicians. Already my Facebook feed is full of comments, video clips and links on both sides of the debate. A great deal of it comes from my closest family and good friends. Some of it I find pretty distasteful.

If we continue on this trajectory, and the discussion descends even further, on June 24 we are going to have to find ways to heal what will have become a divisive conflict, where disputes have opened up between family and friends, let alone within political parties and across the floor of the House of Commons.

What I hope is that whether your friends and family vote “in” or “out”, whether they vote in the same way as you or against you, that we can all agree that we love our country and want to see it flourish in the future; not only for ourselves, but for our children and our children’s children. I hope too that whichever side loses, everyone will accept the result and work hard together to build the future that the nation has chosen.

Jesus himself was a role model of reconciliation and forgiveness, he stretched out his hands in love, acceptance and healing to one and all. Christ’s example teaches me to respect and value all people, of whatever faith or none, whatever their opinion on Europe. I will need to forgive family and friends and, win or lose, embrace the future with them.

This is even more important than whether we vote in or out. Our nation will have no future if we can’t come together as one.

David Green

The truth shall set you free

Earlier this week, after a long 27 years of battling, the grieving families of the 96 victims of the Hillsborough Disaster finally saw justice. After several inquests, various enquiries and continued campaigning they finally heard the words they had sought so long. Yes, your loved ones had unlawfully killed and, most importantly to many of them, no, the football fans were not the ones to blame. Finally, despite all the attempted cover-ups and lies, the truth was out and their hearts and minds could find rest.

My mind instantly turned to Scripture and something Jesus said. In John 8.32, it is recorded that he said “Then you will know the truth. And the truth shall set you free.”

It’s a phrase that resounds in human experience time and again, and one I encounter frequently. When a person sits with me to confess sin, I think that one of the most important aspects of what is taking place is that they are finally being honest with themselves (and sometimes with others). The admission of the truth means a freedom can be found.

As St Bernard put it “God removes the sin of the one who makes humble confession, and thereby the devil loses the sovereignty he had gained over the human heart.” The ties are loosened as the truth is spoken and all manner of cords that wrap us up in knots finally get undone.

I think the same is also true when someone forgives another for sins sins committed against them. The Anglican Vicar and Poet George Herbert once wrote that “the person who cannot forgive dismantles the bridge over which they must pass.” I often find that when a person can bring themselves to forgive, they find that the prisoner they have released from such a grudge is not the one who sinned against them. They were the prisoner all along.

Such forgiveness is, in a way, also an admission of truth. It pronounces what has happened honestly, but then refuses to allow it to continue to cause damage. It’s a declaration of strength and trust in honesty and reality.

So such truth and freedom works at an individual level with confession and forgiveness. But then, of course, there are things like Hillsborough where the truth becomes a fight for justice. The original sin is compounded by the lies and cover-ups and accusations that follow in an attempt to obscure the truth, escape punishment and deflect blame.

Locally, we have our own fight for justice still going on. In St Mary’s Churchyard, Lauren Patterson rests in the arms of God. Her family continue to fight for justice in Qatar, where she was cruelly killed in 2013, and they struggle not only with the defendants’ attempts to cover-up and deny, but also wrestle with a legal system unlike our own and in a foreign tongue to boot. You may have seen her story on BBC and ITV news. I encourage you to find out more by visiting their website on Facebook to learn more and see if you can support her friends and family in their hunger to see the truth made public and justice done.

David Green

Precious Easter tears

As I sit down to write this article, I have just completed the journey of Holy Week. Having started with the joyous entry of the King of Kings on Palm Sunday, we’ve descended to the depths on Maundy Thursday and known the desolation of Good Friday and the death of Jesus. Now, in four very different services today, I’ve led God’s people in the celebration of Easter joy.

Maurice Mikkers, tears under a microscopeAs I came home after the last service, my son showed me a picture from his National Geographic: Kids magazine (see picture). Dutch photographer Maurice Mikkers has made a study of what tears look like under a microscope. As they crystallised, imagine his surprise as he discovered that each tear is unique and different. ‘Reflex tears’, for example from chopping onions, look different to ‘basal tears’, for example from a cold wind blowing in your face. Emotional tears and tears of pain look different again.

With the emotions of Good Friday and Easter Sunday fresh in my mind, the photograph showing the amazing delicacy of God’s creation as it is to be found in human beings, has reminded me of a verse from the Psalms:

“You have written down my poem of sadness,
you have put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your record, O Lord.” Psalm 56.8

The Easter story is one of great joy and triumph, but it’s a triumph borne out of suffering and brokenness. As I said in my sermon today, we live with that question “what’s wrong with the world?” on a daily basis. Recent events in Belgium and before that in France, ongoing conflict in Syria, our own individual troubles and frailties, stories of abuse and power mis-used, relationships in difficulty and pain in our bodies. It’s all there and tears of all kinds are all too frequently shed.

But the thought that each tear is unique can, perhaps, encourage us. It was for those tears and brokenness that God entered into our world in the person of Jesus. Each tear is gathered into his bottle and not lost. He sees our pain in the broken world we have created for ourselves, and He loves us from all eternity in such a way that it drove him to take action and make that journey from the cross to the empty tomb and beyond.

It means that there are some more words we can say with the Psalmist:

“Those who go out sobbing as they carry seeds to plant
will come back singing. They will come home with shouts of joy.” Psalm 126.5-6

David Green