Welcome, New Year

 
We actually saw in the new year twice. My eldest daughter, who lives in Denmark, was here with us, together with her boyfriend. For the benefit of the Danes, at 11.00pm we found Danish Television on the internet and watched a live broadcast of the new year celebrations from the town hall in the heart of Copenhagen. Following the chimes of the town hall clock and the fireworks, a choir sang three songs: the Danish royal anthem, the national anthem and a hymn. It is tradition that these three are sung every year.
 
The hymn, written in 1849 by the highly influential Danish pastor and theologian N.F.S. Grundtvig, is,
Vær velkommen, Herrens år (Welcome to the Lord’s new year).
The hymn welcomes in the new year by reminding us that the year and the future belong to the Lord. It reminds us in turn that the Lord is the God of truth, the God of grace, the God of peace, and our Father God.
 
For me, listening to this beautiful Danish hymn struck the perfect note as we entered 2017, and its words and melody have been on my mind ever since. In the face of uncertainty, both globally and in our personal lives, it is good to be reminded that the new year is the Lord’s year. It is a great comfort and assurance to me to know that, whatever challenges I may face in 2017, the Lord who loves me, and each one of us, walks alongside me and ahead of me.

An English hymn by D.W. Whittle with a similar message based on the words of the Apostle Paul, puts it like this:

I know not what of good or ill
May be reserved for me,
Of weary ways or golden days,
Before His face I see.
 
But “I know Whom I have believed,
And am persuaded that He is able
To keep that which I’ve committed
Unto Him against that day.”

In other words, we do not know what the future holds, but we know the One who holds the future. And the One who holds the future is holding us. The new year is the Lord’s year.

God bless,

Rev. James



Putting the Bounce Back into Christmas

Christmas can fall a bit flat, if we are not careful.  Nothing depresses my yuletide mood more than navigating the crowded shops.
I’m not a happy shopper at the best of times! 
 
Having said that, I just love the current John Lewis Christmas advert, featuring a boxer dog and a trampoline. It reminds me of a photo I saw on Facebook recently. It showed half the members of the leadership team of my former church enjoying themselves with childlike abandon on a bouncy castle. It had been put up in the church for a children’s party, but the leaders got there first. Grow up, you lot! Then again, don’t. Embrace your inner child!
 
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Christmas is a time for unfettered joy. That joy comes from appreciating its true meaning. Matthew’s Gospel reminds us of the reaction of the Wisemen to seeing the star which pointed to where Jesus was:

When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. (Matthew 2:10)
 
Not just joy.  Not just great joy. But exceedingly great joy. Christmas joy is rooted in God’s gift to the world of his only Son, and the knowledge that we are deeply, deeply loved. So deck the halls.  ’Tis the season to be jolly.  And come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

Blessed Christmas,

James 


There But For the Grace of God

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When I was in prison, you came to visit me. (Matthew 25:36)
 
In January, I shall be taking up a new post as Free Church chaplain at the prison that will soon be opening in Wrexham, HMP Berwyn. I’ve been enjoying telling people over the last few weeks that I am “going to prison” and seeing the look on their faces, before going on to explain the circumstances. This appointment represents a new and exciting departure for me. I have served as a church minister for 20 years, 16 years in Cardiff and the last 4 years here in Leeswood. But I have not served in a prison context before. There will be lots of new information to absorb and new skills for me to acquire. The governor recently asked me if I was ‘up for a challenge’. Hopefully, I am.
 
 
Jesus spent a great deal of his time with people of ‘ill repute’, who had made wrong and selfish choices. His enemies called him ‘the friend of sinners’. They meant it as an insult. Jesus never excused wrongdoing or minimised its gravity; but he sought to communicate God’s redeeming love to everyone. He believed passionately in God’s ability to change lives. Reconciliation, restitution and renewal were important themes in his life and teaching. He also warned those of us who keep on the right side of the law, against hypocrisy and self-righteousness.
 
There but for the grace of God, go I’, is a phrase attributed to the Protestant clergyman John Bradford (1510-1555), who uttered the words when seeing criminals being led to the scaffold. For me, the Christian message of grace sits well with the ethos of HMP Berwyn, with its emphasis on rehabilitating offenders.
 
Please pray for me, as I take up this new role, that I may make a difference, together with the whole team at Berwyn, and help turn lives around. The following prayer was written for Prisons Week, which was held recently:
 

Lord, you offer freedom to all people.

We pray for those in prison.

Break the bonds of fear and isolation that exist.

Support with your love prisoners and their families and friends,

prison staff and all who care.

Heal those who have been wounded by the activities

of others, especially the victims of crime.

Help us to forgive one another.

To act justly, love mercy and walk humbly together with Christ in His strength

and in His Spirit, now and every day. Amen.

 

Love and God bless,

Rev. James



God v. Money

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I was very moved by an item I saw on The One Show a week or so ago. It was about a wealthy businessman, Brian Burnie, who sold off his £16 million mansion and auctioned his belongings in order to fund a cancer charity. The charity is called Daft as a Brush, and its aim is to help transport cancer patients to their hospital appointments. Speaking of his former home, he has said:  “We acquired the lifestyle in Doxford Hall, we lived very well, but nothing gave me as much pleasure as giving it all away.”
 
Jesus said: No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.’ (Luke 16:13)
 
The love of money and wealth can very easily displace the love of God in our hearts. We cannot serve two masters. The generous love of God must come first in our lives.  John Wesley said,  “Earn all you can, give all you can, save all you can.”  There is nothing wrong in being entrepreneurial and making money. But we must understand that whatever wealth we have is a gift from God. God wants us to be good stewards of what we have been given.  Above all, Jesus wants his followers to be generous:
 
Generous with our forgiveness.
Generous in our judgments
Generous with our friendship.
Generous with our time.
Generous with our hospitality.
Generous with our wealth.
 
God bless,
 
Rev. James


Long to Reign Over Us

Rio
The recent Olympic Games have been a magnificent spectacle and a huge success for British Sport. I tried to watch the opening ceremony live. They were doing this dramatic presentation of the history of Brazil and decided to go back to the beginning – I mean the very beginning. As amoeba emerged from the primordial soup and crossed the arena, I’m afraid I lost the will to live – or at least the will to watch – and went to bed. However, I did watch the highlights the following day, and actually found the whole thing very moving – even spiritual. I’ve been trying to work out why. I think it’s because the idea of a world united in a common cause resonates with a desire God has put deep in our hearts.
This is the vision of the Apostle John:
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. …And they cried out in a loud voice:Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb. (Revelation 7:9-10)
 
Ultimately all peoples will be united in worship. And every nation, tribe, people and language will bring their unique culture into the mix.
 
I remember watching a medal ceremony at the rowing venue in Rio, where Britain was being presented with another gold medal. The camera showed the winner with his medal on the podium, and the union flag was raised as the national anthem was being played. And just as the words “long to reign over us” were being sung, there was a shot of the statue of Christ the Redeemer in the background, which brought to my mind the eternal reign of the King of kings who watches over us in love. And the words of the hymn came to mind:
 
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun

Does his successive journeys run;

His kingdom stretch from shore to shore,

Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
 

However, Jesus does not impose his reign on the earth. The one who reigns and unites the world in worship according to John’s vision is also the Lamb. Jesus never imposed himself on anyone but became the servant of all. He loved his enemies and prayed for their forgiveness. He gave his life to set us free. If Christianity becomes intolerant and coercive, it ceases to be the Way of Jesus. Christianity isn’t about dominating the world; it’s about serving the world in Jesus’ name, in the hope that the world will freely accept him. In the words of another great hymn:

O that mankind might taste and see
The riches of His grace!
The arms of love that compass me
Would all the world embrace.
 
As well as remembering a great Olympics, the image of Christ the Redeemer offering his embrace to the whole world will remain with me.
 
God bless,
 
Rev. James


Getting in Touch with our Inner Monk

23844-St-Benedict_WI recently attended a day retreat at Chester Cathedral.  The speaker was Father Christopher Jamison, the former Abbott of Worth Abbey in West Sussex who featured in the 2005 BBC television series The Monastery, where five laymen experienced Christian spirituality in a Benedictine monastery.  I remember being fascinated by the series at the time.  In fact, I have always been interested in monasticism.  Some children dream of running away to join the circus; I dreamt of joining the monks on Caldey Island.  That is a strange admission for a Baptist minister to make!
 
I suppose I am drawn to monasticism for three reasons: Firstly its emphasis on PRAYER.  At the retreat Father Jamison spoke of the many wants that dominate our lives, and contrasted these with our deeper longings – the longing for meaning and purpose and a connection with God.   Prayer, he said, puts us in touch with these deeper longings. In prayer our longing for God meets God’s longing for us.  Secondly, monasticism places an emphasis on COMMUNITY. Our search for individual fulfilment can only be realised in relationship with others.  Thirdly, monasticism places an emphasis on SUSTAINABILITY.  Monks have always been committed to simple living, providing for themselves through farming and craft making.  The Belgian Trappists are famous for producing the finest beer in the world (I am particularly attracted to that way of life!).
 
Father Jamison has written a book entitled Finding Happiness: Monastic Steps For A Fulfilling Life. I believe that the monastic tradition has a great deal to teach us.  Could it be that prayer, community and sustainable living are key to our quest to lead happy and fulfilled lives?  I think so.
 
God bless,

Rev. James



Where Do We Find God?

I have had a deep sense of the reality and presence of God since early childhood. The wonder and beauty of nature, in particular, has been a channel through which God has revealed himself to me: whether watching dolphins swimming next to a boat, or spending a couple of hours in the back garden observing a meteor shower. I have met many people who have said something similar to me about finding God in nature. Some of them have gone on to say: ‘I don’t need church. Nature is my cathedral.’ I certainly understand where they are coming from.

As a young teenager, I discovered God in another kind of beauty. The moral beauty and awesome presence of Jesus Christ captivated me as a read the New Testament for myself for the first time. At that age, I made the life choice to centre my life on Jesus. I firmly believe that decision has made my life more joyful, more purposeful, and it has seen me through seem really tough times too.

Being a Christian means being a follower of Jesus, but not in the sense of a solitary religious quest. From the outset, people have followed Jesus as part of a community – a band of brothers and sisters. In Bethania we have recently ordered a new sign for our church. The sign refers to us as a ‘church community’. A local church is a community, a family. Like any family, it is certainly not perfect. But my experience is that the love and goodness of God is to be found there too, in community.

God bless,

Rev. James



A River Reborn

k5326308I think my favourite TV channel has to be BBC Four. Its schedule is full of interesting little gems. One such little gem I have been enjoying recently is The River Taff presented by writer and fisherman Will Millard. He traces the journey of the river from its source – a mountain spring in the Brecon Beacons – to its end as it flows into Cardiff Bay, and out into The Bristol Channel.
 
On the way the river passes through some beautiful landscapes as well as the industrial heartland of South Wales. Historically, the course of the river led to it becoming polluted and biologically dead.
 
When I was a boy growing up in Cardiff, my parents warned me that if I fell into the Taff I would more than likely die of poisoning than by drowning.  But since the 1980s the Taff has undergone a massive transformation and regeneration. The pollution has been halted, debris and detritus has been removed, and Oxygen levels have gradually risen. The river has been restocked with fish, and nowadays salmon pass through a fish gate in Cardiff Bay and swim up the Taff. The highlight of the TV series was watching Will Millard catching a salmon in a stretch of the Taff passing through the centre of Cardiff – amazing. Having given the fish a little kiss (yuk) he released it to continue its journey upstream.
 
Regeneration – death being overtaken by new life – is the great theme of the Christian season of Easter. Christians believe that the physical body of Jesus was given new life. Death is not the end and does not have the final word. Not only that – God is able to bring transforming new life into our lives, our relationships and our communities.
 
As we say, in Cardiff, ‘That’s tidy’.
 
God bless and Happy Easter,
Rev James.


The Revenant

SPOILER ALERT
 
revenant-leoIt is not often that the title of a Hollywood film gets me scurrying for the dictionary, but that was the case with Leonardo DiCaprio’s latest, The Revenant.  The word, I discovered, comes from the French ‘revenir’ meaning ‘to come back’. In English ‘revenant’ can be used of one who returns from a long journey, or a spirit coming back from the dead – a ghost.
 
In the film DiCaprio plays a man who returns from the brink of death. Fur Trapper Hugh Glass is severely mauled by a bear whilst on a hunting expedition on the American frontier in the 1820s. One member of the hunting party, John Travers (played by Tom Hardy), not wanting to be encumbered by the injured man on their journey back to civilisation, leaves Glass for dead in a shallow grave, and murders his half-Indian son, Hawk. In spite of his terrible injuries Glass manages to escape the grave, and so begins his arduous journey to find Travers and have his revenge. The subtitle of the novel by Michael Punke on which the film is based is – A Novel of Revenge.
 
 
My brother and I were able to watch the film on the IMAX screen in Broughton. The cinematography was as breathtakingly beautiful as the action sequences and storyline were gruesome.  I can understand why The Revenant has been nominated for a host of Oscar awards.
 
There are a number of religious motifs in the film, particularly the theme of death and rebirth. Jesus Christ is, so Christians believe, the ultimate revenant. Following his ghastly execution he is laid in a tomb. On the first Easter Sunday he emerges from the grave, not as a revived casualty nor as a ghost, but as one who has undergone bodily resurrection, and he appears to his followers. However, the mission of the risen Lord Jesus is not one of revenge but of grace and mercy.  He had prayed for those who crucified him, ‘Father, forgive them’. He now greets the disciples who had abandoned him and denied him in his hour of greatest need with the words, ‘Peace, be with you.’  He commissioned them to go into all the world with his message of forgiveness and grace.
 
The Revenant is a powerful film about revenge. The story of Jesus, the greatest story ever told, is about the triumph of mercy over revenge, love over hatred and life over death.
 
God bless,
Rev. James


New Year. New Life

Happy new year, everyone!

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Over the Christmas period, I read a bizarre newspaper story about a Russian man who was at a party in a flat in Moscow. He drank so much vodka that he passed out. [Obviously he hadn’t read the government’s new guidelines!] In fact, he was so pickled that his vital signs dropped so much that he was pronounced dead, and was taken to the morgue. A few hours later he woke up – I would have loved to see the faces on those morgue assistants! But the amazing twist in this newspaper story was that he apparently got up and went back to the party where he had got blind drunk in the first place!

New year is often a time for making resolutions. But so often we find ourselves going back to patterns of behaviour that we recognize to be bad for us, or even downright destructive. Recently, I came across a passage of the Bible that grabbed my attention. It is from 1 Peter chapter 1 and

The Message translation –

So roll up your sleeves, put your mind in gear, be totally ready to receive the gift that’s coming when Jesus arrives. Don’t lazily slip back into those old grooves of evil, doing just what you feel like doing. You didn’t know any better then; you do now. As obedient children, let yourselves be pulled into a way of life shaped by God’s life, a life energetic and blazing with holiness. God said, “I am holy; you be holy.” (1 Peter 1:13 MSG)

The organisation Alcoholics Anonymous have been saying since they introduced the Twelve Step Programme in 1939, that we need to depend on a ‘Higher Power’ for inspiration and help. ‘Holiness’ is a much misunderstood word. We often associate it with prudishness and self-righteouness. But, for Christians, true holiness is defined by the life of Jesus: a life of joy and laughter, a life of fierce love and compassion, a life of purpose and fulfillment.

May we be drawn into that way of life.

God bless,

Rev. James