Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Feast of the Nativity

I have just finished my last service for Christmas. Before I did anything else, I wanted to say Happy Christmas to all those who read this somewhat erratic blog. I appreciate your friendship and interest. I hope this Christmas will be a wonderful time for you and yours.

I will write more fully eventually.

Wherever you are, may the Babe of Bethlehem bless you.

Happy Christmas!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Saturday before Christmas

I woke up this morning with a real sense of panic. So much to do! Of course, much of the panic is self-induced. I hope it's for the right reasons - simply out of a desire to get it right. But there really is no need to panic. At least, that's what I keep telling myself.

My school services are now all over. I see these as so important. What we tell the children will - for good or ill - stay with them for the rest of their lives. At a time when schools in the Western World are abandoning the traditional Nativity in favour of seasonal plays, I keep reminding myself, when I am tempted to get fed up of yet another Nativity Play, of the incredible opportunity we have here.

You are soon brought down to earth, though. We have a burst pipe. Not that we knew about it until the water bill came. It is an underground leak and has been leaking water (and hence money) for a while. We have shut the water down, but it does create problems when there are so many people coming to Church. Have you any idea how often the first thing people say to you as a Vicar is, 'Where are the toilets?' I, personally, had no idea until I had to tell them they were out of use.

We have now rigged up a temporary supply, identified the problem, obtained quotes, and arranged for the work to be done early in the New Year - it's a big job! The headteacher of one of the Schools that come to Christ Church for their Christmas Service asked me how things were. I replied that they were fine apart from the leak. She said, 'Didn't you have a leak last year as well?' She was right, of course, we did have a leak last year.

It looks like a new tradition!

Hope you are all well and coping!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Hark! the Herald Angels Sing?

The weekend went smoothly - thankfully - and the Carol Service was surprisingly successful - not packed, but with a good feeling amongst those who were there.

I say 'surprisingly' because it has in past years felt a bit like this has been one service that was struggling to find its place in the diary against other services that were more popular.

Our Carol Service is a traditional 'nine lessons and carols service' (as in King's College traditional). In days gone by, it was very popular amongst the expats when, in the colonial period, Christ Church was half expat. It reminded people of home at a time of the year when we all get a bit nostalgic. As I have described in previous posts, Christ Church is now a local Church, that still welcomes expats, rather than being one that is dominated by them (with the exception ironically of the Vicar). The Carol Service has not been popular with many local people compared to our other Christmas services.

So why continue it? Well, it is a nice service, but, more importantly, I continue it for those who are expats like me and for those others who like it. But, and it is a big but, I dislike just doing services because people like the form of them. They can easily become simply performances rather than services. For example, when I mentioned on Sunday the sermon I was going to preach at it to one regular, he said, 'Oh you intend to preach then!' Well, I do every year, but it shows how for some this service is primarily about singing. Nothing wrong with singing, but is that all there is to it?

I have been trying to turn the service it into a form of outreach. Not by changing the form of the service, but by trying to find the right group of people to invite to it. After all, it is non-threatening in its format, and it does give people on the fringes of the Church a gentle way into the fellowship at Christmas.

The interesting thing this year, however, was the number of people who came with family members who are studying or working abroad, but who have come back to Hong Kong for Christmas. It may be that I have only just noticed this phenomenon and have missed it in the past, but I don't think so!

So I am going to think about whether this is the way we can go in the future. In other words, to keep the format, but to publicize it as a service to which it is good to fetch your youngish adult family and to which you can invite your more anglicized friends.

My goal is to provide at Christmas services that appeal to people from different backgrounds. Now, you are probably thinking, 'Shouldn't you being do that all year round?'

Well no, I don't think I, or we, should.

Christmas is a time when we should be taking advantage of secular behaviour to preach the good news: that is, to capitalize on the fact that this is a time of the year when non-churchgoers will come to Church. This is also true of times like harvest, albeit to a lesser degree.

Normally, that is, on regular Sundays, I happen to think that services should be about worshipping God in the company of believers, not about preaching to unbelievers.

Of course, we should welcome unbelievers to the Church in as friendly a way as possible in the hope that, as St Paul puts it, they will fall down and acknowledge that God is with us. I emphatically don't think that we should tailor our worship of God to those who don't (yet) believe in him. Sadly, compromising worship in the name of being relevant and reaching out to those outside the Church seems to have become the order of the day.

It raises the question of whom the Church is for: is it for God or for the world? Naturally, if it is for God, we will also want to find ways to save the world. But if it is for the world, what place for God in a world that does not know him or who consciously rejects him?

The Carol Services continue with more services tomorrow and on Friday.

I'll keep you informed!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Countdown to Christmas

This weekend is a full one in the Church!

We decided to have our Sunday School Nativity Presentation and Carol Service on the Sunday coming. Our suspicion was that next week a lot of our congregation will be going away with the schools having finished. On top of this, many organisations are having their Christmas events this weekend. So starting tonight, there is something every moment of the weekend.

I don't know how many of you have seen Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. It is my latest favourite series. Created by Aaron Sorkin, who created West Wing (a previous favourite), it stars Bradley Whitford from the West Wing and Matthew Perry, who played Chandler in Friends (another favourite!) It is about a television programme that does topical comedy, which is recorded live each week. Matthew Perry plays the programme's writer. In his office is a clock telling him how long he has until the next episode. That's pressure!

I sometimes feel a bit like this with sermons. It can be difficult coming up with a new sermon or two every week, especially sermons that actually say something and connect with the congregation. I always feel like it at Christmas. What to say that hasn't be said so much better by others so many times before? How to preach in a way that will mean something, especially to those on the fringes of the Church who only turn up at Christmas?

The pressure was getting to me last night as I still had no ideas, which was probably why I was awake at 4.00am in the morning trying to come up with something. Then suddenly out of the blue a few ideas came. I am not claiming divine inspiration for them - although I hope God had a part - or that they are particularly brilliant! I am just relieved that I have something to work with. With sermons, I find that once I have an idea, I am ok. There is still work to do researching and writing. But as long as the idea is there, I don't mind! Not, of course, that it guarantees a good sermon.

Last night, I was so worried that I would forget the ideas I had had that I got up and wrote them down! Now, of course, I feel relieved, but tired. At the risk of boring you, let me share them here and if you think them shallow or poor, please let me know. After all, Matthew Perry in Studio 60 has a whole team of writers to go over his ideas with!

For the Carol Service on Sunday, I am going to take up something that happened last week at the Girl Guide's Carol Service. I was giving a talk on the meaning of Christmas, when a little girl put her hand up and asked, 'What have Christmas trees to do with Christmas?' What indeed? Richard Dawkins, the celebrated atheist, has just described himself as a 'cultural Christian' who will be singing carols this Christmas. I think this should give me something to go on.

For the Sunday before Christmas, the fourth Sunday of Advent, we will be lighting the fourth candle on our Advent wreath: the pink one for the Blessed Virgin Mary. We have a Lady Chapel here at Christ Church. Sometimes people refer to it as the Ladies Chapel, thinking it has something to do with ladies in general, rather than Our Lady in particular. Is it any wonder? It just looks like a seating area at the moment. Apparently, it used to have a painting of Our Lady in it, but one Vicar, fearing the danger of too much reverence for Mary, took it down!

A parable perhaps of what we have done with Mary in the non- Roman Church? I will be taking up the verse: 'a sword shall pierce your own heart also' and talk about Mary's pain and ours.

Christmas night is always my favourite night of the year. Each year, however, I always feel I have not been able to do it justice. I doubt that this year will be an exception. Still, I am going to take up an article I read on the BBC news website, which described how companies, responding to consumer demand, are wanting to put pictures on radio. I know! Bizarre. But now we can watch anything, anywhere on our mobiles, it is perhaps to be expected. I love radio. The best Christmas present I ever got was a Bush radio on which I used to listen to the news each night before going to sleep.

You will know the old saying about 'radio having better pictures'. I think that's true, but we do need pictures. I think you can guess where I am going with this!

For the Christmas day Eucharist, I am still thinking. Any ideas out there would be gratefully received.

Anyway, to all those of you working hard in your preparation for communicating the good news: may God give you inspiration! And may you and I both be more concerned to be faithful rather than original. For after all has been said, it is the old, old story that we are trying to tell to a new audience. And for those of you who will be listening to us, spare a prayer for us that our ideas might be good ones.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Survived - I Think

Well, I am back from my Council meeting. I can never sleep after a Council meeting so a quick blog. I find Council meetings the most physically draining meetings of all meetings that I go to - and I go to a lot!

The Anglican Church is divided at the moment over the issue of homosexuality.

I'll do a swap.

I'll sort out issues of human sexuality if someone can sort out what flooring we have in our hopefully soon to be renovated Committee Room.

Any takers?
A Real Council

Well, having written about a fictitious Church Council meeting in the last post, today is the day of my own Church Council meeting. I never particularly look forward to them. I know how even a seemingly innocent and uncontroversial agenda can suddenly become anything but. We have one or two issues tonight that have the potential to be, if not controversial exactly, then certainly the subject of disagreement. Handling disagreement is not something we always do very well as Christians.

I know some Vicars who rather like confrontation and controversy. I am not one of them. Paul tells us to stop quarrelling and to be of one mind. That's how I see my role as Chairman: to stop people quarrelling and to help everyone reach a common mind. What if they can't or won't though?

My fictional counter part in the Archers intends to deal with the disagreement on his Council by having a vote on the issue in question. Very democratic and all that, but it is not exactly reaching a common mind just giving into one side's mind. I can't help feeling that this is not the way Christians should decide things. I make a point to avoid votes whenever possible.

The trouble is that this can mean that sometimes decisions aren't taken and that the minority can hold things up.

I'll let you know how it goes tonight.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

A Postponed Decision

Well, they didn't decide after all (see previous post). Too many people sent their apologies so they did not have a quorum to take a vote. I have to say this seems very unlikely. The script writers have done well so far in capturing the opinions and feelings on both sides of this issue, but they simply do not get it in this episode. One thing I know for certain is that on an issue like this people will turn up to vote.

They may not come to a Bible Study or Prayer Meeting, but suggest change of this nature and they care passionately. To the outsider, indeed, to some insiders, it can seem very petty. One character in the programme last night expressed the views of many when he said, 'typical of the Church, there's war, disease, and starvation in the world and they worry about the pews'.

This is, of course, hypocrisy of the worse kind. I know of very few people who don't spend a great deal of time and money on their homes, decorating and furnishing them. Are they too to be blamed for not caring about world hunger? Businesses spend huge amounts of money on offices and showrooms and no-one bats an eyelid. Let's get real about this.

Churches, for all their faults, do care about world poverty, disease, and death, but that does not mean that we have to abandon all concern about the buildings we worship God in. Indeed, Alan, the Vicar in the Archers, although I don't agree with him, wants to remove the pews so he make his church more available to the local community. That's why the pew issue is important to him. I think there are other issues to take into consideration that's why it is important to me. But I will be doing all I can to help those around me who are in need this Christmas and so will the Church in general.

One thing I love doing on holiday is visiting church buildings and cathedrals. These often took hundreds of years and masses of resources to build. Was the Church wrong to build them?

I don't think so.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Tonight's the Night

Tonight's the night when the decision will be taken on the Ambridge pews. I'll let you know!

I am off to an early evening meeting, then I am taking the rest of the evening off before a busy weekend with various events taking place. While St Stephen's, Ambridge decides what to do with the pews, we have our own Church Council meeting on Monday: an important one when we will need to take some important decisions.

And, of course, Sunday is Advent Sunday. It's the start of my favourite time of the year and our Christmas tree arrives (hopefully) on Monday.

I have many requests for baptism at the moment. Everyone tells me it is because they love the Church and want to be part of it. It just so happens that it is the admission procedure time for the Schools. Deliver us from cynicism - or perhaps better - from the need for it.

Have a good weekend!

Monday, November 26, 2007

After the Feast

According to blogger, this will be my 150th post. I know I am not as regular as I should be, or indeed would like to be, but it is an achievement of sorts. Thank you to all who read the blog regularly and thank you to those who have emailed me directly as a result of reading. It is an encouragement to keep going! I must admit I would like to get the odd comment left on the blog itself, but I would am just glad you keep reading!

Archbishop Paul came yesterday and both he and the event were a great success. Planning for it is a bit like planning for a wedding: weeks of preparation and then all too quickly it is all over.

The Church was decorated on the Friday and Saturday and the house and garden prepared. The weather was good and a lot of people came back for lunch. People were very generous in providing food and everyone was able to have as much as they wanted, but there wasn't a lot left over.

Other Vicars and ministers will know what I mean when I say it's a bit strange having so many people in your home. For the Vicarage is your home as a Vicar. However, it is very much your official home in the sense that it is the place where you work and entertain guests as well as where you live. And being sensible about it there are security issues as well as anyone can come in and out and yesterday there were people here for the lunch that I have never seen before!

Anyway, Advent Sunday on Sunday and the run up to Christmas!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Feast of Christ the King

I am getting ready to go to our early morning communion.

Today is the Feast of Christ the King, the celebration of my church's birthday. Our Archbishop is coming for his first visit to us as Archbishop. After the service, as happens each year, everyone comes back here to the Vicarage for lunch and we are setting up even now. It is always a challenge having over 200 people to your house, but it is a long-standing tradition! We have been working hard all week to make sure everywhere looks good and that it is a good day. In some ways, it is like a wedding: lots to do beforehand, but over so quickly.

And then there is the challenge of putting it all back to normal!

I'll let you know how it goes.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

An Apology

I am sorry everyone, I know I should have posted this week, but it's been a tough one.

First, there have been a lot of meetings, and secondly, one or two have not gone too well.

I make it a point on this blog not to talk about individuals, unless I have something nice to say, so I can't say too much. Suffice it to say that Tuesday was not the best night I have ever had. As is typical in the Church, the problem is to do with the buildings - but I think we use what we understand as a means to tackle what we do not.

In the ministry, we have good days and bad days. As ministers, we need to remember that. After all, whichever it is, the other is around the corner.

I would appreciate your prayers.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Eve of the Sabbath

It's Saturday on a weekend of great variety! We have several special services this weekend and are hectically getting ready for our birthday celebration next week, the Feast of Christ the King! After this service, everyone comes back here for lunch - it's quite a logistical challenge.

This year our Archbishop is with us, his first visit with us since becoming Archbishop and a great honour for us. I am really looking forward to it!

These special occasions are a good opportunity to make sure everything looks good and is in full working order - except, of course, it never is. We have repairs going on to the Church and Vicarage and we need more seats than we have for the lunch. In other words, everything is perfectly normal at this stage in the game!

I hope you are all well! Thank you for continuing to visit this blog even though I don't always keep up as much as I would like.

Have a joyful Lord's Day!

Monday, November 12, 2007

A Pleasant Surprise

Sunday was a very special day for me, and I hadn't realized beforehand how special it was going to be.

In the afternoon, the Anglican Church here in Hong Kong had a service to dedicate the new buildings at the Provincial Theological College. This was a major project and a wonderful achievement. A project born out of vision and optimism. Qualities that you do not always associate with the Church!

Our theological college is known as Ming Hua and is served by very committed staff, all of whom give their services freely, without reward. You will know that I think theological training is the key to our future as a Church - wherever we live in the world.

I had hoped, I have to admit, when I first arrived in Hong Kong, 7 years ago, that I might be able to contribute something myself at Ming Hua. It never happened. I do not like pushy people and don't want to be one myself so I just let it go. To cut a long story short: after a chance conversation, at another service a few weeks ago, the Dean of the College, the Very Revd Ian Lam, asked me if I would be willing to tutor at the College in the areas of Christian Ethics and Philosophy of Religion. The question came as something of a surprise.

Readers of this blog will know my answer. 20 years ago, I lectured in Christian Ethics and the Philosophy of Religion at Bedford (follow the label, Personal Journey). They were exciting seminars, not because of anything to do with me, but because of the enthusiasm of the students.

After all, sex and suffering are a powerful combination!

Two of the main themes of these subjects.

Anyway, what moved me on Sunday was that the Dean had included me on the list of the Faculty of Ming Hua College, even though, as of yet, I haven't given a lecture or held a seminar. He probably does not know how much this gesture means to me. I just hope I don't let him down.

The service itself was conducted by our Archbishop, the Most Reverend Paul Kwong. Our Archbishop has just been awarded his doctorate (a real one, that he has earned) and is gracing (!) us by celebrating and preaching at our birthday celebration on the occasion of the Feast of Christ the King. I happen to know he is extremely busy this particular weekend, but he has never waivered in his commitment to come.

I hope the Church in Hong Kong appreciate how blessed they are to have an Archbishop who manages to combine a deep spiritual devotion with wisdom and learning. It's almost like being Anglican again!

I am not always positive about the way the Church behaves, but let credit be given where credit is due and especially to our Archbishop, who has a real vision for the Church in Hong Kong. May God give us more leaders like him!

Please pray for Archbishop Paul! It is not an easy task that faces him in the years ahead.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Lessons I have Learned: 1. The Importance of the Bible (Part 3)

I am determined to do better at posting than I have in the past so here is the next in the series about lessons I have learned and specifically lessons about the Bible!

We are getting ready for Remembrance Sunday here at the moment. I always find sermons hard for this particular Sunday. I don't want to do the usual platitudes and I do want to respect the dead. I am just going to do what I normally try to do and stick to the set readings.

Liturgical Churches have some advantages!

Have a good Sunday.

Lessons I have Learned: 1. The Importance of the Bible (Part 3)

From the 1970s onwards, evangelical scholarship went from seeing its role as defending the status of the Bible as the Word of God against the attacks of liberals to interpreting and explaining the original meaning of the Bible in its historical and social context.

I personally have found much that has emerged as a result extremely helpful. I have many Biblical commentaries written by evangelicals that I particularly value. Indeed the resources that specifically evangelical scholarship has made available to the preacher and the wider church are invaluable. Furthermore, those scholars who have been prepared to combine scholarship with a wider ministry in the church have performed an invaluable service in helping Christians become more knowledgeable and informed about the Bible and their faith.

There are problems, however, and I would like to have a go here in explaining what I think they are.

Alongside the stress on the need for the Bible to be understood in its original context, seeing, that is, that it was originally written, not for us now, but for them then, has gone an increasing emphasis on the difficulties of taking a text from the past and applying it to today. The old approach was that once you had understood what a passage originally meant, you then just applied it directly to today without too much bother. Once you understood its meaning, everything else would follow.

Increasingly, the realisation of how different life was then has called into question the extent to which it can be applied to today. So even if you were able to grasp what it was, for example, that Paul was saying to the Romans doesn’t mean that you would know what he would have said had he been writing today or what God is saying to us through it today. Simply because that was what was said then, doesn’t mean it would be what God want said now. And this before you even begin to get into the whole issue of the philosophy of hermeneutics where even the possibility of understanding what an ancient text meant is called in to question.

The problem is made all the worse by the way even evangelical scholars cannot agree on what the text originally meant in the first place so that there are, for example, multiple versions of the ‘historical’ Jesus and many different interpretations of Paul. I don’t think there is any need for me to spell them out! If you cannot apply the Bible today unless you have understood what it meant then, our failure to be able to agree what it meant then, despite all the resources at our disposal, has severely called in to question any attempt to apply it now.

Ironically, evangelicals have achieved what the liberals failed to do. Liberal scholarship for much of the twentieth century called into question the authority of the Bible. This was defended by evangelicals, who used their scholarship to refute such charges. Evangelicals came to engage in academic scholarship because they believed in the Bible as the Word of God and wanted to use all the tools of scholarship to understand it. However, because they have been unable to understand it, or at least agree on an understanding of it, they have unwittingly undermined the authority of the Bible on a practical level. How can a text be authoritative if you do not know what it meant?

Theoretically, we may still believe the Bible to be the Word of God, but we have become so confused in our understanding of it that it is no longer possible for us to hear it as the Word of God.

At the root of the problem, I would suggest, is the way much academic Biblical interpretation takes place in the context of an academic environment rather than a worshipping Church. Bible Study is being done, not to build up believers, but to impress other scholars. This puts pressure on the scholar to be novel, original, and clever. Furthermore, the emphasis on getting PhDs with their requirement for originality, awarded as they are by the scholarly community, imposes an alien set of criteria on the Biblical interpreter.

Might it be that these words of St Paul are of some relevance here:

‘Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.’ (1 Corinthians 2:12-14)

Not only is much Biblical scholarship being undertaken away from the praying, worshipping life of the Church, it is being conducted in academic communities within secular universities whose values and beliefs are not only different to those of Christians, but are diametrically opposed to them.

Studying and interpreting the Bible is, or should be, a spiritual exercise, which is not about the gaining of a PhD, impressing other academics, or getting published, but about understanding the gifts of God and serving the Church. If along the way we get our degrees, impress other academics, or get published - all well and good, but surely this should not be the motivation for what we are doing?

Finally, I am very worried about the trend only to employ professional academics in theological colleges training people for the ministry. This may seem an unfair criticism, but the job descriptions I have seen call for people with PhDs, who have published academically, rather than people who have been engaged in interpreting and applying the Bible in the context of mission and ministry. It is worth remembering that Paul wrote Romans, not while a teacher in a college as an article for the Journal of New Testament Studies, but while as a missionary in order to teach other Christians.

My contention is simple. By concentrating on the historical study of the Bible and doing that in the context of the academy, we have lost sight of the Bible as a spiritual gift to the Church. The goal of all Bible Study should be to understand the Bible, and to do that we do indeed need to study the Bible in its original context, but the reason we do that is so we can hear God speak to us today. If we fail to hear God as a result of our study, we have failed in our study.

It is time to reclaim the Bible as a gift to the church so that we can have a Gospel to proclaim to the world.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Archers and the Ambridge Pews - Update

The Archers, a BBC radio soap in the UK and worldwide on the internet, about a fictional family in England continues with the issue of whether the pews should be removed from the local parish Church, as the Vicar wishes, or be kept as many in the local community feel.

It's quite funny as this is a real issue in many UK parish churches and the programme gets the arguments on either side exactly right. This may suggest that the script-writers are being scrupulously fair. Well not exactly. It is interesting which characters they have chosen to voice the different arguments. I would suggest that the characters that have been chosen to support removal are the characters that the audience is generally most sympathetic to.

Whatever, the issue has been taken up by a number of real-life societies, and it is provoking debate. The Victorian Society, for example, has a campaign to save the Ambridge pews. Ambridge is the fictional village where the Archers and their friends live. I am going to follow the debate on this blog as it is the sort of issue that people really care about and reveals much about how we think of the Church.

I will try to be fair, but I may as well declare that, at this stage in the plot, I am on the side of keeping the pews!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

A Deadly Affair

I have just returned from having taken a funeral. It was unusually early: 8.00am. I always worry about being late for funerals or missing them for some reason. I actually dreamt last night that I had forgotten it and woke in a panic trying to work out what to do. It was some time before I realised it was only 5.00am and I had been dreaming. I know clergy who have forgotten they had a funeral and for them it has been a real nightmare!

Funerals here are very different to how they are in the UK. The funeral parlours are quite crude and brash and there is little sense of dignity. There are also all sorts of traditional customs attached to the funeral that take a while to get used to as a westerner.

One thing that happens here a lot, and which used to happen in the UK, but does so rarely now, is that people go the night before to view the body. Often the coffin will be left open for the service and the congregation will be invited during the service to walk round the coffin as a mark of last respect. Frequently, I am asked to be there when the body is put into the coffin. It can be quite strange, especially when you did not know the deceased. Strange, that is, that the first time you meet someone is when they are dead!

Death is not something I am good at. I can cope with other people's - I have to - but the death of others brings you up against the fact of your own. I have never understood those Christians who make light of death. I hate, HATE, that Henry Scott-Holland piece about death being 'nothing at all'. 'What is death but a negligible accident?' the poem asks. If death is nothing at all, a mere negligible accident, why did Christ have to die? And why was God raising him from the dead such a big thing? And why must Christ now reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet? The last enemy, still to be destroyed, says Paul is death.

Don't misunderstand me, I believe that the love of God is stronger than death, but death is still horrible. I don't want to die, but I accept it as inevitable fact of life, a consequence of sin, and something that will destroy me and all that I am. I will not slip away, I will be consumed by a powerful enemy. And I for one will 'not go gentle into that good night', but will indeed 'rage, rage against the dying of the light'. I know it will take a miracle to save and bring me back, what the Bible calls salvation and resurrection. At death, I will trust myself to him, trembling and afraid, but hopeful that 'he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day'.

Tonight, it is the Diocesan Synod. I often quote the saying, 'No-one on their death bed wishes they had spent more time in the office.' On my death bed, I am sure I won't wish I had spent more time at Synod meetings!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Lessons I have Learned: 1. The Importance of the Bible (Part 2)

As I sit here, I have a group of workmen above me drilling and digging up part of the roof of the Vicarage. The roofs were redone a few years ago. During the rainy season some leaks appeared. Fortunately they are not serious and we still have a warranty for them. Now that the dry season has begun, they are being repaired. It is noisy, though. So if today's blog is not as clear as it should be, please blame the workmen.

The weather here is lovely at the moment. Not too humid, sunny, and warm without being hot. Someone said to me when I first came to Hong Kong that every summer they decided they could not take the heat any more and would leave. Then the 'winter' came and they decided it was worth staying another year - especially when they saw what the weather was like back in the UK! I know what they meant - at least about the heat. I do not like hot weather. The climate in Aberdeen in Scotland was perfect for me, even in winter, and I battle with the heat and humidity here. Sometimes, in the summer months, I feel that all energy has deserted me!

Now that the temperatures are in the low twenties rather than the high thirties, I feel human again! I just hope my work rate improves accordingly! This week, I have the Diocesan Synod to attend, which just goes to show that every silver lining has a cloud!

I hope your week is not too cloudy or too cold.

Lessons I have Learned: 1. The Importance of the Bible (Part 2)

London Bible College, where I went to study after sixth form, was committed to evangelical scholarship and to engaging with modern theologians. I don’t think I am being unfair in saying that much evangelical scholarship at this time was defensive, that is, much time was spent in showing why liberal scholarship was wrong and why the Bible could be trusted. This is not necessarily a criticism. Some scholarship did seem more about trying to show why the Bible could not be trusted than about a serious engagement with the text.

The trouble was that it was about two sides attacking and defending positions, which had been taken on theological grounds. It did not always lead to a greater understanding of what the Bible actually said.

There was, though, a discernible shift taking place. Evangelicals were beginning to use the tools that scholarship gave us to understand the Bible in its own historical context. They were studying the Bible and engaging in academic research, not simply to be able to refute the liberals, but to interpret the Bible on its own terms. At London Bible College, this approach was best typified for me by Max Turner, Douglas de Lacey, and Tony Lane. Attending their lectures and listening to them, I came out of the defensive camp, and saw the value of studying the Bible historically. I found my study stimulating, liberating, and exciting. I have written in previous blogs about the effect this all had on me so I will not repeat myself here!

Suffice it to say that by the time I had completed my degree, I was convinced of the need to read and understand the Bible in context, asking what the original writers meant and intended by what they wrote, and how it would have been understood by the first readers. This sort of approach seemed so natural and obvious. It involved work, hard work, but it was work that was required by the nature of the Bible itself. This was how God had chosen to communicate his word: through people who lived and wrote at a particular time in a particular place.

The only way then to hear the Word of God now, to know what the text means for us now, was by understanding what it meant then.

This point is vital. Academic study of the Bible wasn’t academic. We – I – wasn’t doing this just out of historical interest, but because we believed that this was the way to hear God speaking now. This was what God wanted us to do. Studying to learn about the background to a passage, to put it in context, was a prerequisite for applying the text today. Such study was important for all Christians, it was of even greater importance for those who interpreted the text Sunday by Sunday in the pulpit.

Consequently, when I left Bible College, there could be no question of leaving studying the Bible behind, and I went on to study for a masters degree in Biblical Studies. Again, the motivation wasn’t simply to get another degree, but to understand the Word of God and so be better at applying it and preaching it. I know that I was not alone in feeling like this. There was a real flowering of evangelical scholarship at this time. Out of this desire to understand the Word of God as God had given it and out of this period came evangelical scholars such as N T Wright, Don Carson, Ben Witherington, and many more, whose writings have been very influential both within evangelicalism and outside of it.

Evangelicals were no longer a small group defending the Bible in private; they had won the right to be heard within the scholarly community itself. Their scholarship stood up to critical scrutiny, and they were able to set the agenda as well as follow it and react to it.

Evangelicals now take all this for granted. Of course, we must engage in academic and scholarly study of the Bible. Of course, we must read the Bible historically and in context. It wasn’t taken for granted 30 or so years ago and those evangelicals who engaged in scholarly study were often accused of selling out!

So when I entered the ministry thanks to my background in the House Church Movement and evangelicalism and out of my time at Bible College, I was convinced:

1. that the Bible is the Word of God and is as relevant today as the day God inspired it.

2. that to understand that Word and to be able to preach and apply it, it must first be understood and interpreted in its original and historical context.

These two convictions have stayed with me, even when I have failed to live up to them. I am as convinced of them today as ever I have been. It is because of them that I try to continue my study, keep abreast of scholarship, and invest in a personal library as a resource for preaching. There have been great gains as a result of our engagement in scholarly study.

However, as I will try to explain next time, I also believe there have been losses and that in stressing the second, we have come in danger of losing sight of the first.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

All Saints Sunday

It's 7.30am on Sunday and I am about to go over to Church to take our early morning Communion service. Last Sunday, I was in the UK, which partially explains my absence from the blog recently!

At 10.00am, we have a confirmation service and our Bishop will be with us for it. Just four people this year being confirmed. I don't know how other Anglicans find it, but I find it hard to find people who want to be confirmed. Nowadays we stress baptism more and see it as the entry rite into the Church. Rightly in my view.

In the past, we used make people wait until confirmation before they could take communion, now we don't. Inevitably then, people don't always feel much need for confirmation. Does it matter? At one level, I suppose it doesn't. Nevertheless, my baptist background has left me with the feeling that it is still important to make an adult profession of faith. Anyway, best wishes to those being confirmed here this morning!

Have a good Sunday!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Looking Forward to a Long Weekend

Friday this week is a public holiday. The public holidays here can be on any day of the week. In the UK, they are always on a Monday so that you can have a long weekend. It is a very nice treat to get a long weekend here especially in October. There are still things to do, of course: the services on Sunday, for example, but the pace is different and that's good. It means there's more time to enjoy a leisurely dinner and a glass of wine.

I like food. I also like food writers. I love and adore Elizabeth David. No-one comes close to her. I like Jane Grigson, Elizabeth Luard, Claudia Roden, Madhur Jaffrey, and I quite like Delia Smith. I say quite like as she has produced so much that it is inevitable that there should be some variation in quality. Among other modern cookery writers, I rather like Nigel Slater.

One cookery writer I have not read until very recently is Rick Stein. I have seen some of his recipes, but have not been tempted to to try them. I have, however, just bought the DVD of his programme, a French Odyssey, and the book that goes with it. I did this in a moment of weakness as I rather enjoy classical French cookery. You know, the sort with loads of cream, garlic, and wine, and I fancied watching his programme which is based on his culinary trip through France.

I have now watched two episodes and I am hooked. It's a visual treat to watch his journey, but his descriptions of the food and the recipes he cooks make you want to rush out and try them. I have not been a big fan of eels in the past, but seeing him cook eels in cream and garlic has convinced me to give them a go.

Where, however, he scores maximum points was sitting in a French open-air market reading Elizabeth David's description of French markets from a well worn copy of one of her books. For an ED fan, there is little that is more moving than that. Well done, Rick!

I love the emphasis on eating and meals in the Gospels and the way Jesus is pictured as liking food and wine. There are still plenty of arguments and debates, but it sounds a much better way to conduct meetings than sitting around a table in a church hall.

Enjoy your weekend when it comes!
Lessons I have Learned: 1. The Importance of the Bible (Part 1)

Well, I didn't quite make it by the end of last week with the first post in this new series, itself a part of my Personal Journey Series. Part of the reason is that I wanted to finish reading the Summing Up by Somerset Maugham. In his own way he does in that book what I am trying to do in this series of blogs, although he writes much better than I do! He went on to live for the best part of thirty years after he wrote the Summing Up and I have to confess that I hope I do too. He spends a great deal of time talking about his life as a writer and his approach to writing. Not unreasonably given his career as a writer.

What I found particularly fascinating was that his attitude to being a writer was very similar to my own attitude to being a preacher and there is still a great deal of helpful advice in what he writes that I think a preacher could use today. Advice about getting out among people and living life so that you know your readership, for example. But I digress.

I have been thinking about this blog series, though, and preached on the Bible last Sunday. It's on the web-site for those motivated enough to listen to it. I will be preaching on the Bible again this coming week. How could I not with 2 Timothy 3:16 as part of the readings? I also have a confirmation class to lead tonight. You've guessed it. It's on the Bible!

Anyway, I certainly can't say all I want to say about the Bible in one blog, so I am afraid the account of this first lesson I have learned is going to be in several parts. How many parts I really don't know!

Lessons I have Learned: The Importance of the Bible (Part 1)

When I became a Christian one of the things that was most stressed to me was the importance and authority of the Bible. The Bible was the Word of God. It was without contradiction and could be relied on completely. It was infallible and inerrant. Indeed, so great was the emphasis on its divine inspiration and divine character that the role of the individual writers was rather lost sight of. The great enemies were those who failed to take the Bible seriously, that is, those who did not see the Bible in this way. They included liberal Christians, on the one hand, and Roman Catholics, on the other.

This view of Biblical authority was the position of both my friends in the House Church movement and of my Anglican Church on the Wirral. It was the view of my friends and of most of the people I mixed with.

Now before anyone smiles smugly and says that such people are naïve and misguided, it is worth saying that this conviction at least led us to read the Bible. In fact, we read it regularly, thoroughly, and enthusiastically. I still have my Bible from those days. It has no paragraph headings, drawings, or notes. It is just page after page of dense text, all in Shakespearean English, that is to say, it was the King James Version translation of the Bible.

None of this bothered us precisely because we were convinced that the Bible was the Word of God, and, if it was the Word of God, why would it bother us? If this was a communication from God, what mattered was to get on and read it, understand it, and obey it.

Things have moved on since those days, and we all have modern translations that are clearly laid out with headings and paragraphs, and every conceivable aid to help us understand it. Of course, we place far more emphasis on the humanity of Scripture and the problems of interpretation now, so that even if – and it is a big if – we think we know what a passage says, we still have trouble working what it means today and even more of a problem obeying it.

Given a simple choice between the attitude we had back then of seeing the Bible as the divine Word of God and the contemporary view which, while seeing it as a divinely inspired text, sees so many problems with interpreting it that you are exhausted even before you have begun, I know which I would choose.

For all the advances we have made in understanding the Bible, do we now read the Bible more? I don’t think so? And even when we do read it, do we have a clue what to do with it? I am reading a book on the Bible by a leading evangelical at the moment. While helpful in many ways, it focuses on the problems in reading and understanding the Bible. This I suggest is how many preachers and teachers approach it. It’s hardly any wonder, then, that people are discouraged before they begin.

I am glad then, for all its problems, I began my Christian life with the view that the Bible is the Word of God to be listened to and obeyed. Simplistic maybe, but at least it meant I read the Bible, went to discussions about the Bible, attended conferences about the Bible, memorized the Bible, enjoyed sermons about the Bible, and bought books explaining the Bible. It was also why when the time came to decide what to do after sixth form, I decided to study for a degree, not at a University, but at a Bible College.

The College I decided to go to was London Bible College, now renamed as London Theological College. But what’s in a name? Quite a lot, I think.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

I have just acquired a copy of The Summing Up by Somerset Maugham. It is out of print and I needed to search for a copy second-hand. The nice people at Albris found one for me. It is older than me!

The Summing Up is a reflection by Somerset Maugham on his life and writing. It is not and was never intended to be an autobiography as some seem to think! It is written in 77 short chapters, which read much like blog entries. Somerset Maugham writes that the three principles he abides by in his writing are:

that it should be clear
that it should be simple and
that it should sound right

Admirable qualities for blogs!

It would also help if theologians adopted them. I read quite a lot of academic stuff and the writers of it seem to think that if their work isn't complicated and difficult, it won't sound academic enough. Being profound isn't the same as being incomprehensible.

One of the benefits of age is that I now have more confidence, when I don't easily understand what an academic writes, to blame him or her rather than myself!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Getting Rid of the Pews?

I am a big fan of the Archers a BBC radio soap opera about 'country folk'. Actually, it is the longest running drama of its type in the world. I have listened to it since I was a teenager. It was sad not to be able to hear it when I first came here, but thanks to the internet and the BBC, I have for some time been able to listen to it online.

It is set in Ambridge, a fictional village in middle England, with a pub, a village green, and a Church. The programme looks at modern life through the villagers' eyes. Ambridge has a Vicar and, to the credit of the programme writers, they include him in a serious way in the various programme plots.

Alan, the Vicar, has decided that it is wrong for St Stephens, a medieval Church building, to be empty six days a week, and wants to make it more of a community centre in use 7 days a week. To do this means, amongst other things, getting rid of the old pews. Inevitably, on the one hand, there are those who think that this is sacrilege and, on the other, those who think it is what Christianity is all about. Those most opposed to getting rid of the pews are those who don't come to Church!

I have just listened to last night's episode, which had as its main feature a discussion about the issue at the Church Council. It really is very good in the way it presents all the arguments and feelings about the issue. If you are interested you can listen for the next few days at the following link. It is the episode for Tuesday, October 9, 2007.


What I found surprising was how I found myself siding in the discussion, not with those who wanted to get rid of the pews, but with those who wanted to keep them! I wonder what you think?

Monday, October 08, 2007

Back to the Journey

I have written at length on this blog about my Personal Journey (see posts under the label, Personal Journey) from my time as a teenager in Liverpool to that as an Anglican priest here in Hong Kong. Before the summer, I wrote of Present Challenges, that is, of the challenges that I find facing me here. They were:

1. Baptism
2. The Schools
3. The Congregation
4. The Buildings
5. The Challenge of Inclusivity

Over the summer, the problems that I wrote about under the Challenge of the Schools were graphically illustrated when one of our teachers was arrested for alleged corruption. The Challenge of the Buildings has also been reinforced by the need and surprise of having scaffolding up inside the Church over Harvest!

After writing about these challenges, I wrote about Where I am Now and focused specifically on three areas:

1. Mission
2. Theologically Orthodox
3. Liturgy and the Eucharist

I also reflected a little on my 25 years as a priest under the post, Disappointed. This one did not go down too well. People either thought I was clinically depressed, in the wrong position, or more kindly, just getting old!

There is probably a bit of truth in all three. Getting older brings a realisation of dreams that have not come true, mistakes that have been made, and expectations that have not been fulfilled. This does lead to sadness, if not exactly depression, but hopefully there is hope as well. I do find my present job leaves little time and opportunity for what I believe to be my main strengths, assuming I have them, even if I still believe I am in the right place. In other words, there is the paradox that all Christians are called to live with in this world and which we feel more at sometimes than others.

With the arrival of summer, I thought it would be good to have a break from reflecting on my Personal Journey, but have also felt that it is incomplete as a reflection of the journey so far. So now with the arrival of autumn and the passing of another birthday, and at the risk of boring you, I am going to resume. This time I want to write about the Lessons I have Learned trying to relate them to what I have written about my life so far.

It is going to take a little time in writing the posts in this series, but I am looking forward to it. The first will be on the Bible. I have started work on it and hope it will be posted before the week ends.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Life on Mars: 5. To Save Us

The end of the week already! The work in Church is progressing well, but the scaffolding is still up, and will be up for harvest festival. I am bracing myself for all the complaints!

Today I post the last in my series 'Life on Mars'. I promise to shut up about the TV series - for a while, at least. It is very good, though.

Have a great weekend!

Life on Mars: 5. To Save Us

So why? If God went to so much trouble in sending Jesus and choosing precisely the time and place to do so, why did he do it? What was it all about? I have talked a bit about the BBC television drama, Life on Mars, and Sam Tyler, a detective from the present who, after an accident, wakes up in 1973. Sam thinks coming from the future that he knows best. After a while, he begins to realize that he does not have all the answers and that the he can learn from the past no matter how different it may be to the present.

It isn’t just in the world and in society in general that changes have occurred over the past two thousand years. The Church seeking to keep up with and adapt to the changes in the world has perhaps forgotten why Jesus came and why it was so important that he did.

St Paul says: ‘The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’. Christ came at a specific time for a specific purpose. It was not to be a moral example, not to leave behind a body of teaching or doctrine, not to create a community of people for us to belong to, but to save sinners. Sin, human sin, your sin and mine, brought him here. This idea pervades the pages of the New Testament.

It is there whether you turn to St Paul: ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’. Or St John: ‘if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’. Or in the words of Jesus himself: ‘the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost’. But all this means that there are the lost to be found and saved. All of the New Testament takes it as read that we, you and I, are lost sinners who have incurred God’s displeasure and that unless something is done about it, we too, as Jesus puts it, are going to perish.

This is a perspective in the Church that we are in danger of losing. We prefer to celebrate human goodness, not discuss human wrongdoing. We proclaim the love and acceptance of God, not his judgement. We offer the welcome Christ gives to all, not his demand that they repent. The Church following the lead of the world sees the concept of sin as primitive and outdated. Something that belongs to another world. Yes, we do go wrong as human beings, we are weak and make mistakes, but’s that because we are human, not because we are lost sinners.

We argue that we need to emphasize the positive, not the negative. We need to see the role that a person’s environment and upbringing play in what they become and do. Focussing on blame and responsibility are not what it’s about. We want a loving God who understands us and accepts us: just as we are.

We have to make our minds up whether Jesus and his followers got it right or not. Whether the way they looked at it was a revelation of God or just the product of a less enlightened age. Like our fictional detective, Sam Tyler, we have to overcome our sense of superiority, our pride, and our arrogance and listen to what these people have to say. Jesus could not help the Pharisees because they did not think they were sinners: on the contrary, they were the righteous. But a doctor cannot help someone who won’t accept they are ill. If we insist we are not sinners or that sin does not matter, that it’s not really sin, then he cannot help us either.

The message of the New Testament is that Jesus welcomes sinners. Welcomes, that is, those who realize their sin, admit to their sin, and knowing they are lost because of their sin, are prepared to swallow their pride and arrogance and throw themselves on the mercy of God.

This mercy is to be found in Jesus of Nazareth who lived and died 2,000 years ago, but who, Christians believe, rose from the dead and is alive today. By understanding what he did for us in the past, we can know him in the present. And knowing him brings the peace, purpose, and forgiveness that our world cannot give.

In other words, it saves us.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Life on Mars: 4. At the Right Time

A good National day here and a quiet birthday as befits one of my advancing years.

We are currently getting ready for our Church Harvest Festival at the moment, so you can imagine my surprise to find contractors erecting scaffolding inside the Church this afternoon.

I spotted a couple of weeks ago that paint was peeling on part of the interior wall of the Church. As we have recently repainted the interior of the Church - against my advice, let it be noted - I was not best pleased. To give them their due the firm concerned offered to put it right and asked if they could start today. I made arrangements for them to be let in and called to see how they were getting on. I expected a ladder and a bucket of a paint. Imagine my surprise to find a team of scaffolders erecting scaffold above the altar and to be told it will take a week!

To their credit, they are taking it seriously; on the down side, I was told it was a minor job that would take three days. Now I have to explain why we have scaffolding all round the altar at Harvest Festival.

These things take up so much time and energy!

Life on Mars: 4. At the Right Time

Christianity claims that in the person of Jesus and in the events surrounding his life and death, God revealed himself to us. I have been arguing, in the past few weeks, that this places an obligation on Christians to attempt something very difficult, that is, to travel back in time, in a historical sense, to see what these events were and whom they concerned.

Sometimes, we try to avoid doing this by reducing the Christian faith to a set of timeless truths or to a body of doctrine or to a code of ethics. Others make it about our relationships with each other here in the present. Others about using the idea of someone dying under an imperial power as incentive for changing the world around us. Sadly, often all these sincere approaches do is to avoid the problem.

St Paul sums up the preaching of the early Christian leaders in these words:

‘For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:21-22)

Elsewhere he writes:

‘But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.’ (Galatians 4:4-5)

When the ‘fullness of time had come’, in other words, ‘when the time was just right’, God sent his Son. We have been talking, in this short series, about the problems that Jesus being born 2,000 years ago cause us living as we do in a very different age. And it does cause problems. As we have observed the world was so different then. How can a message about a person who lived then have any relevance for us now. And again, we must stress that Christianity is first and foremost about a person who truly and really lived in a specific place at a particular time and not a creed, code of ethics, or community. These may follow, but they are secondary and subsidiary.

The early Christians acknowledged that this brought problems, but made the amazing claim that what must inevitably seem like foolishness and cause problems for humans was God’s deliberate choice and decision. The time that Jesus was born was neither coincidental nor accidental in any way: it happened in exactly the right place and at precisely the right time: the time, that is, God had decided it would happen.

This means that Jesus’ birth was not an accident of history or something that God decided to do when he thought the circumstances created a good opportunity. It means that Jesus could not have been born as an American in 2007, a Briton in 1807, an Indian in 1507, a Chinese in 1107, or as anyone else in any other place at any other time. This was the place, time, and person. And everything before it led up to it and prepared for it and everything since has proceeded from it. God decided in advance that this was the moment.

It didn’t just happen that Christ was ‘born of a woman’, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and was ‘crucified under Pontius Pilate’.

Carl Sagan said: ‘In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.’

St Paul said the same thing about what God was up to in Christ, albeit in different words: ‘With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.’ (Ephesians 1:8)

The Biblical writers claim that what God had in mind when he set about creating the universe was the coming of Christ at precisely the date and time he came.

We like to think it is our age that is wise, our age that is superior to all the rest, that we know more and can do more and, obviously, on one level this is true. I am glad that because of vaccinations I won’t catch diseases that people in the past routinely caught. But we need to have the humility to see that God decided that it was to be in this age, 2,000 years ago, that the decisive moment in history occurred.

After all, that is why our calendars work as they do.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Life On Mars: 3. And was made man

Today is National Day here in China so we get a day off! As it is my birthday tomorrow I get to celebrate today. I am also taking the opportunity to catch up on work in my study.

Here is the third in the Life on Mars series.

Life on Mars: 3: And was made man

In the same Creed in which we say that Jesus was ‘crucified under Pontius Pilate’, we also as Christians say:

‘For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven;
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.’

These words are part of the Nicene Creed, a Creed from the fourth century, accepted by all the Churches as expressing the central tenets of the Christian faith. This is as near the heart of the Christian faith as it is possible to get. Christianity with this statement has taken an incredible gamble. It has staked all on a person who lived at a precise moment in history. Let’s be clear about the claim. It is that the God who made everything there is, and who is above everything he made, and upon whom we all depend for our existence has chosen to reveal himself to us in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, who entered our world and lived as one of us at a particular point in history.

This means we see the face of God in the face of a first century Palestinian Jew. This is a breathtaking claim and while a source of wonder and worship for Christians, it does also create problems for those who believe it. First of all, Christians are gambling everything on the person of Jesus. Now you may say: ‘of course, what’s so strange about that?’ Well, it means the significance for the Christian of Jesus is not what he taught, not what he did, nor even how he lived, but who he was. It means, as a consequence, that being a Christian is not about what you believe, how you live, or where you go on Sunday, but about your relationship with this man, ‘born of the Virgin Mary’. It is the person of Jesus that counts more than anything else.

St Paul says to people who had stopped believing in the resurrection that if the resurrection is not true then Christians are of all people most to be pitied. In other words, that for Christianity to be true then Christ must be alive now. But it also means that he must have lived and that he was who his followers claimed he was. That is, that Jesus of Nazareth, who walked the streets of Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate, was the incarnate Son of God sent by God to reveal himself to us and to save us.

It also means that if either Jesus did not exist or was not who his followers said he was, but simply another mortal religious teacher, then Christianity is a fraud. Christians were first called Christians as a nickname in Antioch because they made so much of Christ. Everything stands or falls on what they claimed for him being true. Take away the existence of Jesus or make him just another teacher, then he has nothing to say to us. Yes, he might have said some nice things about how we should live and, doubtless, he said them in a very charismatic way, but what he says about himself and what his followers say about him is what matters.

St Luke records Jesus saying these words: ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’ (St Luke 14:26)

John records him saying these words: ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ (St John 14:6)

These are incredible demands and claims. The Biblical writers from a distance of two thousand years are asking us to stake our own lives on what happened at a particular moment of history: under Pontius Pilate. Christianity isn’t asking us to believe in abstract ideas, but in a historical person.

As I have been arguing in this series, if Luke and John are right in what they say of Jesus, it means that Christians are bound to history: bound to making the effort of going back in time no matter how hard and challenging it is, and it is hard and challenging, for in the past something happened that can change our lives in the present and give us hope for the future.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Life on Mars: 2. Crucified Under Pontius Pilate

Well, the installation went very well with a full Cathedral. The Cathedral in Hong Kong is not air-conditioned. Sitting, fully-robed in the Cathedral at midday is an interesting experience! I believe the Cathedral people are thinking about air-con - the sooner, the better!

Looking at my diary for the next couple of days, I see I have a School Council meeting tonight, three School assemblies tomorrow morning and then a PTA AGM followed by a PTA Annual dinner tomorrow evening. I think I had better get on with my sermon for Sunday this afternoon if only to remind myself that I am a Vicar!

Here is the next in my Life on Mars series!

Life on Mars: 2. Crucified Under Pontius Pilate

Last time, I wrote about Life on Mars, the BBC police drama series, in which a detective from the present wakes up in 1973 and what a shock life in 1973 is to him. Everything is very different to what he is used to. I know the feeling, I am just about to have a birthday and thinking back to 1973, when I was an older teenager, I am constantly amazed at just how much has changed. Obviously, technology has advanced – assuming you think kids being stuck on playstations for hours or chatting endlessly on Facebook is advancement. In addition to such changes, attitudes and outlooks have changed radically, too.

If this is true in my short lifetime, how much more true is it in the time since the events related in the Bible? How can what people wrote and wrote about 2,000 and more years ago have anything to say to us living in the 21st century. This really is an important issue and Christians are at fault for sometimes acting as if it isn’t. Let me put it another way:

Suppose we were to do a Life on Mars in reverse and transport a Christian leader from the New Testament era to the present and make him a leader of a Church now, how long would it be before he had a nervous breakdown? That’s assuming that the first passing motor car didn’t knock him down. A motor-car being something he would never have seen before and now may never see again! How we do Church, what we believe, how we live, how we relate, everything would be so very, very different. What this leader said to us in his preaching, assuming we gave him the ability to speak Chinese or English, would also sound very different to what we are used to. And this from someone who is a Christian like us. His world was different then, they were different then. If a Christian from the past would have trouble living with us now, why should what Christians wrote in the past be of any relevance to us now? They are not of our world and we are not of theirs.

As L. P. Hartley said: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ All this applies to any religion that looks to a founder who lived in the past. But it applies even more to Christianity. For central to Christianity is the belief that God himself in the person of Jesus entered our space-time existence at a specific point in our history. Every week in my Church, we recite the Nicene Creed in which we say of Jesus that ‘he was crucified under Pontius Pilate’.

I think we forget the significance of this. Pontius Pilate was a minor Roman official in a relatively minor part of the Empire, and yet he is remembered every week at the most holy service of the Church’s worship. This is because our faith is centred on something that happened at a particular moment in history. For many Christians, this is rather embarrassing and inconvenient. We want a God who speaks now, not a God who spoke then. History isn’t everyone’s favourite subject and to make history, that is, what happened, 2000 years ago, so central and important seems to create more problems than it solves.

This is, perhaps, one of the reasons why Christians emphasize the resurrection and why the Charismatic movement has been so popular. By emphasizing that Jesus is alive today, there is the possibility that we don’t have to worry quite so much about yesterday. For if he is alive today and can speak to us in the way that many Christians believe he can and does, then we don’t have to worry so much about understanding what went on all those years ago. Jesus can speak directly to us. We don’t need to go through Christians in the past with all their difference and strangeness.

Unfortunately, by claiming that the Jesus we worship today, who we believe speaks to us today, is the same as the man who was ‘crucified under Pontius Pilate’ – as we do – week by week, we are committing ourselves to the importance of history and what happened in the past. We can only know the Jesus who is alive today if we can discover something of the man Pilate crucified. We need to know what it was he said and did then, otherwise what we hear when he speaks to us now, may turn out to be no more than our imagination and wistful thinking.

Time travel may not be a possibility, but historical study, for the Christian at least, is a necessity.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Mid-Autumn Festival

Today it is the Mid-Autumn Festival here in China and other parts of Asia and tomorrow is a public holiday. Tonight families will be gathering for family meals, to eat moon-cakes, and to light lanterns. Well, we'll try to light them, it is still very wet here! Moon-cakes I am not particularly partial to, but the lanterns and family gatherings are fun.

Tomorrow, it is the installation of our new Archbishop, Archbishop Paul Kwong. Archbishop Paul, as you will know if you are a regular to this blog, has actually been Archbishop for some time, but this is the official event followed by lunch.

Archbishop Paul has already thrown himself in to his new role and is an inspiring leader. I am so grateful that I get to serve under him. His job is a daunting one with many challenges around the corner. If you remember tomorrow, say a prayer for him at 11.00am Hong Kong time!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Life on Mars

As promised (see I can keep them promises about posting - well sometimes at least!) here is the first in a series. As I mentioned in the last post, the series was inspired by Life on Mars, the BBC police drama series, which I watched on DVD over the summer. It made me think seriously about how life has changed. We talk about this all the time in Church circles: about how we can apply the Bible to our own day. In other words, the problem of hermeneutics. Where the series really succeeded for me was in getting under the skin of the problem and illustrating how great the problem really is. Anyway, have a read and let me know what you think!

It is a dull, rainy day here, but it is still very hot! Whatever the weather where you are, I hope you have a good week!

Life on Mars

A British television police drama was recently released on DVD, and I have just finished watching it. It won many awards. I don’t know if you have seen it at all. It is called Life on Mars. The story centres around Sam Tyler who is a detective in Manchester, England. He has an accident and wakes up in 1973. At the start of each episode he asks the question: ‘am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever’s happened, he says, it’s like I have landed on a different planet’.

Sam wakes up to discover that he is now a detective in 1973 Manchester who has just been transferred to a new department. The reason it is like a different planet is because everything is so different to what he is used to. There are the obvious things like the fashions and the clothes that people wear and the fact that there are no mobile phones or computers. But there are many other differences, not least the difference in attitudes and what is considered acceptable and what not. For example, attitudes to women and their role are very different. There are no women in the CID, which is considered a male domain. Jokes which would be considered racist, sexist and offensive today are seen as perfectly normal.

Much of the drama centres on the relationship between Sam and his new boss, Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt. Gene is an unreconstructed whisky swilling male who believes in gut instinct and is suspicious of forensics and the like. Sam says to him: ‘You’re an overweight, over the hill, nicotine-stained, borderline alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding.’ To which Gene replies: ‘You make it sound like a bad thing!’ At first Sam takes a superior attitude to and is very critical of his new colleagues. Gradually, however, he begins to realize that he has some thing to learn from them, and he starts to enjoy his new life.

I was a teenager in the 1970s and what is more came from a police family in the north of England. For me, and those like me, who remember the 1970s, it is a real nostalgia trip. Great attention has been given by the programme makers to getting the historical details right. But it is great drama too with some brilliant writing and acting. Where the programme really succeeds is in getting across how society has changed. It really does look and sound like a different world.

But this is only 35 years ago. A mere generation. If the world has changed so much in so short a time, how much more has it changed since the events of the Bible? Sam finds it hard to understand life 35 years ago. What hope, then, for us to understand the world of the Bible? It is very easy for us to forget just how great the change has been. The things that matter to us and dominate our lives just were not issues.

There was no electricity. There were no cars, trains, or plains. The population was much less and towns and cities much smaller. And, of course, there were no televisions, radios, computers, telephones, and other means of mass communication. Medical science was very primitive and some of the discoveries that have changed our world were still a long way off: vaccinations, for example. I could go on, but I hope you get the point. If Manchester, England in 1973 is a different world for the fictional Sam looking at it from the perspective of the 21st century, how much more the world of the Bible?

This raises the question of what possible relevance the Bible and the events it relates can have to us? What can the Biblical writers possibly have to say that is of any use to us?

It is an issue. Bultmann, in a famous statement, said this:

‘It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.’

Christians believe that while indeed the world may change and change radically almost beyond recognition that God himself does not change. We believe that Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever and that he can speak to our generation as he has spoken to successive generations in the past.

But what of the past and the relevance of the events we read of in the Bible?

More about that next.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I am Still Here!

Just caught up in events at the beginning of term. And settling into the routine of things.

Last week was dominated by organizing a Thanksgiving Service here at Christ Church for our former Vicar, Michael Simpson. Michael died earlier this year in the UK and we wanted to have a service for him here in Hong Kong. His wife and family members came and many who knew Michael took part. It was, I think, a fitting tribute to Michael.

Some of you have asked if there has been any follow-up to the events of the Summer at DPS. Not yet, is the answer though we expect to hear something soon. The effects of the case continue to reverberate. Our own feeling, for what it is worth, is that parents who try to bribe teachers to gain advantage are at least as guilty as the teachers who accept such bribes. Sadly, this does not seem to be the position of either parents, in general, or of the authorities.

I have even come in for criticism personally for thinking that the case should have been reported in the first place. Many parents want to be able to use bribery for advantage for their children and don't appreciate attempts to stop it. It reaches into the Church as parents send their children to Church so that they can claim a religious affiliation with the Anglican Church and so secure more points towards admission.

It is hard being a parent, but it is also hard being a Christian. And being a Christian surely means that we should attempt to be honest in how we behave?

On a positive note: at a meeting of the body responsible yesterday my contract was officially renewed from September next year. So it looks like I will have to deal with these issues for a bit longer.

Have you watched or heard of Life On Mars - the BBC television series? I will be blogging about that next. I watched it on DVD over the Summer and it is currently my favourite drama series.

Thanks for keeping reading.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Runaway Slave went over the Hill

Tomorrow I am preaching on Luke 14 and Philemon, the set readings for the day. I couldn’t quite believe that Philemon had come up in the lectionary again as it feels like only a few weeks ago that it last came up and I preached on it! I dug out the sermon and found that it was three years ago - as it would be. Quite scary! As someone quoted to me recently: ‘The days are long, but the years are short’!

The standard understanding of Philemon is that it was written by Paul when he was in prison in Rome. Onesimus, a runaway slave, who belongs, coincidentally, to a friend of Paul’s, meets up with Paul and is converted. The letter to Philemon is Paul writing to his friend on behalf of his convert seeking mercy for him.

I have never been entirely happy with this explanation.

The idea of Onesimus leaving Colossae, running all the way to Rome, and then bumping into Paul, who is in prison there, just seems a little bit too coincidental. Strange coincidences do happen and God can make the strangest happen, but this still feels a bit unreal. It is for this reason that some scholars have suggested that the imprisonment was in Ephesus, which is much nearer to Colossae than is Rome. The problem is that we don’t know for sure that Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus and, in any case, it still seems a bit of a coincidence.

In my last sermon three years ago, I still stuck with the 'runaway slave' idea. The main point is, after all, about him being a slave and Philemon being a master and the difference Christ makes. How Onesimus came to meet Paul is not a crucial issue. Re-reading Philemon this time around, however, I became conscious just how much of a guess it is that Onesimus was a 'runaway slave'. So I decided to spend some time on the commentaries seeing what light, if any, they could shed.

I was quite encouraged that while most do still take the ‘runaway slave’ position, one major commentary, at least, does not, namely that by J D G Dunn. Dunn suggests that Onesimus might have deliberately sought Paul’s help, knowing that Paul was a friend of his master. Perhaps Onesimus had done something wrong and was worried about the consequences, perhaps it was just an argument. Whatever, I think this explanation makes better sense of the letter, wherever it was that Paul was in prison.

As I say, it is not a crucial issue, but what it does demonstrate to me is how much we take for granted when we study the Bible and how easy it is to accept something as true when the Biblical evidence for it is actually quite little. I believe that it is vital to take seriously what the Bible says, but it is just as important to make sure that it is what the Bible says and not just our assumptions about what it says. It also underlines how much we don’t know and that ought to lead us to greater humility when we express our opinions.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A Revelation

The lectures went extremely well!

Ben lectured on Friday and Saturday evenings, then on Monday afternoon and evening. The auditorium was full for all of them. I wasn't surprised it was full for the evening sessions, but I was surprised and impressed that so many turned out for the Monday afternoon, which must have meant that people took time off work. The level of commitment and enthusiasm of those who turned up was also impressive with a queue before the doors opened half an hour before the session began.

Ben certainly did not disappoint them. His lectures were lively, stimulating, informative, and thoughtful. He didn't dodge the controversial issues, such as the 'Rapture' and the Left Behind books, but tackled them with grace and humour.

Congratulations to the organizers for having the vision to invite Ben and arrange such an event. They even arranged for Ben's commentary on Revelation to be translated and published in Chinese - very exciting. Coming back home on the train last night there were people standing in the subway and sitting on the train reading his commentary. Now that's something you don't often see!

Ben was with us at Christ Church for our morning service on Sunday and preached on Christ the Trailblazer and Finisher of Faith. We were honoured to have him and again benefited greatly from an inspiring sermon.

Given everything else that was going on, I wouldn't exactly describe it as a relaxing weekend. It was though certainly very profitable spiritually and stimualting. I was very sorry when the series came to an end. I have been going back over some of the references that Ben gave in his talks. Any talk that sends you back to the Bible and makes you think again is doing what it should!

Pray for Ben in his ministry. The Church needs more people like him.

Friday, August 31, 2007

It's Friday!

I am just getting ready for what is going to be a busy, but exciting weekend. Dr Ben Witherington, who many of you will know from his books, is in Hong Kong to give a series of Bible lectures on the book of Revelation. They start tonight. I am very honoured that Ben has agreed to preach here at Christ Church on Sunday on a passage from Hebrews. We hope that you will be able to hear the sermon on the Church web-site as usual.

I am a big Ben fan and have been using his commentaries especially for some years now. I always turn to his commentary on a book of the New Testament if I am studying a passage or preparing one for a sermon. Ben has written a commentary on nearly every book of the New Testament and intends eventually to cover them all. I think his commentary on Acts remains my favourite, although his recent one on St Matthew looks interesting and innovative. St Matthew is the set Gospel for the next liturgical year, year A, in the lectionary cycle so it is going to be getting quite a bit of use.

It just so happens that it is also the weekend before the start of the new academic year, and we have a series of parents' meetings that I am involved in - that and a whole lot more! So a weekend of contrasts.

The school meetings, of course, take place against the background of the events of the summer. The teacher concerned has resigned from the School, which was the honourable thing to do, although I was surprised when they did. The teacher has not yet been charged and we are braced for a lot of publicity if and when they are. Please let it not be this weekend!

Have a good weekend and I'll let you know how the lectures go!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Last of the Summer Wine

Well, the summer season is now drawing to a close - whatever the weather may be doing. It's a bit crazy here as all the shops are stocking European winter fashions including leather boots and coats and that despite a temperature in the high 30s. That's fashion for you.

I imagine it is the same for many of you, this time of year is a real deluge with everything starting up after the summer break. For me, being on my own, with the several schools that I am involved with, it can be a bit overwhelming. I am trying very hard to be well-planned and prepared and am working on the calendar for the coming (academic) year.

Did you know that Easter can't occur earlier than March 22 or later than April 25? This means that Easter, falling as it does on March 23 next year, is one of the earliest. In fact, it is the earliest I can remember it being and it won't be as early for many more years. I think actually I prefer it when Easter is a bit later! Because we have a big break for Chinese New Year, it means that a lot of events are scheduled for this term as next term will be a bit hit and miss. No sooner than we are back after Christmas and people will be getting ready for CNY. No sooner than we are back after CNY and we will be getting ready for Easter!

No wonder then that this term looks like being one event or meeting after another. Nothing to be done about that, but it does make it hard to do anything new or different. It's more a case of hanging on for the rollercoaster ride and hoping you don't fall off! The good thing is that it will soon be Christmas - my favourite time of the year. I reckon it's just 117 days to Christmas! How long before the shops start stocking Christmas goods, I wonder. Please remember to buy real Christmas Cards this Christmas. Apart from anything else it does help the charities who benefit from them.

Anyway, if you are getting ready to go back to school, in whatever capacity, or are preparing start up after the summer, then I hope that all goes well and that the year ahead is a good one!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Then and Now

Somerset Maugham begins the fourth Volume of his collected short stories with this preface:


In this final volume I have placed the rest of my stories the scene of which is set in Malaya. They were written long before the Second World War and I should tell the reader that the sort of life with which they deal no longer exists. When I first visited those countries the lives the white men and their wives led there differed but little from what they had been twenty-five years before. They got home leave once in five years. They had besides a few weeks leave every year. If they lived where the climate was exhausting they sought the fresh air of some hill- station not too far away; if, like some of the government servants, they lived where they might not see another white man for weeks on end, they went to Singapore so that they might consort for a time with their kind. The Times when it arrived at a station up-country, in Borneo for instance, was six weeks old, and they were lucky if they received the Singapore paper in a fortnight.

Aviation has changed all that. Even before the war people who could afford it were able to spend even their short leave at home. Papers, illustrated weeklies, magazines reached them fresh from the press. In the old days Sarawak, say, or Selangor were where they expected to spend their lives till it was time for them to retire on a pension; England was very far away and when at long intervals they went back was increasingly strange to them; their real home, their intimate friends, were in the land in which the better part of their lives was spent. But with the rapidity of communication it remained an alien land, a temporary rather than a permanent habitation, which circumstances obliged them for a spell to occupy; it was a longish halt in a life that had its roots in the Sussex downs or on the moors of Yorkshire. Their ties with the homeland, which before had insensibly loosened and sometimes broke asunder, remained fast. England, so to speak, was round the corner. They no longer felt cut off. It changed their whole outlook.

The countries of which I wrote were then at peace. It may be that some of those peoples, Malays, Dyaks, Chinese, were restive under the British rule, but there was no outward sign of it. The British gave them justice, provided them with hospitals and schools, and encouraged their industries. There was no more crime than anywhere else. An unarmed man could wander through the length of the Federated Malay States in perfect safety. The only real trouble was the low price of rubber.

(W Somerset Maugham, Collected Short Stories, Volume Four)

I am a big fan of Somerset Maugham. I have always loved his stories and since coming out here have liked them even more. So many are set in this part of the world. Living as I do now, as an expatriate, I am interested in how expats in the past have lived. What he writes here in this preface is true now only more so. Aviation, so to speak, has taken off even more in recent years. There are many direct flights from Hong Kong to London each day, all full. Then there is the telephone and the internet and all the other means of mass communication.

During my recent holiday home to visit family the School situation exploded. I was able to talk with everyone I needed to on my mobile standing in a forest in Scotland and deal with letters, read reports, answer the Press, etc, etc, all from hotel room as if I was in my study back here. The time difference was a little inconvenient, and it was not how I would have chosen to spend the holiday, but geographical distance made little difference.

It’s the same now I am back. I can phone family for less than it used to cost me to phone from Scotland and email is always there. I am a child of this global village no less than anyone else, but reading these stories of an age now gone does make me wonder if we are any happier and fulfilled. There is a charm about the life they lived. It was slower, but I wonder how much more we achieve with all our rushing around and constant communications.

One thing is for sure though, it’s not going to get any slower any time soon!