Saturday, 28 February 2015

Faith was reckoned to him as righteousness. Romans Chapter 4 verse 22

What is St Paul getting at?
Clearly the person of Abraham is important to him as he dedicates a whole chapter to him in this letter to the Romans. Abraham is of course a great hero scripture and of the story of Gods dealing with humanity and is held in great reverence by all of his children who share his faith in God Jews first Christians next and Muslims last.

The words of St Paul in his 4th Chapter of his letter to the Christians in Rome are important to us too as this little phrase holds both the power to inspire and encourage us in our journey of faith, however it can also be misunderstood and this can too can inflict terrible harm to us and our relationship with God.

St Paul states that God reckons the faith of Abraham to him as righteousness.  what does this mean? Does it mean that faith itself is the kind of righteousness we perform and God counts that as good enough to make us right before him  - righteousness?

Such praise of Abraham can have the opposite affect of that to encourages us as we consider the great feats of faith that Abraham displayed in his life. For example what are you like in the presence of someone who is a hero to you or someone you hold with the greatest respect? Usually we find ourselves struck dumb, unable to think straight and if expected to hold a conversation we appear as a tongue tied youth on their first date! I remember when I met and shook the hand of Pope John Paul 11 I wanted to say something but when it came to the moment I just stood there grinning life a fool I fear! I relied on my friend beside me to speak for me as I was rather over whelmed with the encounter.

And here is one of the dangers of our reading of St Paul and the praise he heaps upon Abraham we feel unequal to the task and feel a failure. Have we shown such faith, such determination in the face of hopelessness? how can our few years of service or faith be placed alongside the one hundred and more years that Abraham showed his unwavering faith in God with out it seeming insignificant, insufficient and if so un deserving of the promise of righteousness with God that St Paul point to?

So such a reading of St Pauls words this morning are not going to help us but deflate us or turn our faith in to a competition, a race that we must strive by our own efforts to not just finish but win.

So what are we to make of these words of St Paul concerning Abraham and how his faith was reckoned, counted to him as righteousness?

Is it like a high street transaction, we have £10 but the suit we want costs £150? So God knowing that £10 is all we have, and knows how hard it was for us to come by that amount, and gives us a mangers discount and we are able to take the suit home because God has in his mercy said he will count my £10 as if it was £150 and cancels the missing £140?

The danger of this thinking is that it encourage us to see God being there to make my faith sufficient for the righteousness reckoned, necessary or needed we might say for me. The danger here is that we see the way to salvation as fulfilling duties, filling an otherwise empty balance sheet with good works. And with all this striving leaving me still as the one who is not worthy, the one whose efforts will never be enough and although it is good that God will ultimately grant me his righteousness it is a transaction that limits and diminishes me.

The consequence of this thinking is to either see the life of faith as an unfair test or one that encourages me to be a kind of self made millionaire that denies the truth that all I have is from the grace of God, and indeed I am incomplete without him in my life.

The Justification that St Paul is pointing to is something very different - not God's seeing any righteousness in me, but his reckoning to me his own righteousness, for you and me through Christ by faith.

If this is the case then What does it mean to say that faith is reckoned as righteousness?

To answer this I want to take you back to the writing of John Bunyan in the 17th century. In a prison cells he wrote a book called Grace abounding to the chief of sinners. Here is an extract:

One day as I was passing into the field . . . this sentence fell upon my soul. Thy righteousness is in heaven. And me thought, withal, I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God's right hand; there, I say, was my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was doing, God could not say of me, he wants [lacks] my righteousness, for that was just before [in front of] him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse, for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, "The same yesterday, today and, and forever"
Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed. I was loosed from my afflictions and irons; my temptations also fled away; so that from that time those dreadful scriptures of God left off to trouble me; now went I also home rejoicing for the grace and love of God.

What is at the heart of St Paul's writing is that it is Christ who is our righteousness, Christ is your righteousness, Christ is my righteousness and so that righteousness is not something to be earned, or even thought of as  "ours"  but Christ's.  It's the same yesterday today and forever. It doesn't get better when your faith is strong. It doesn't get worse when your faith is weak. It is perfect. It is Christ. Look away from yourself. Rest in him. Lean on him.

faith connects us with Christ who is our righteousness and, in that sense, faith is counted as righteousness. Faith sees and savours all that God is for us in Christ, especially his righteousness. That's what faith does.

During these days of Lent we have an opportunity to spent more time with one another than our usual allotted hour on a Sunday morning. This lent, beginning today we will meet again at 5.00pm to look together at our life together in this church, using the research of Bob Jackson in his course Everybody welcome to reflect together how welcoming we are? The sad truth Bob reveals is that 90% of people who try out our churches fail to join them. Making Welcome central to our life is necessary if we are to attract new members so the work of Christ can continue in the years to come.

Welcome and hospitality are central to the gospel and our Christian calling, let us aspire to gospel standards of welcome and hospitality and put them in to action. 

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Lent begins - the desert awaits

The Desert awaits                                                                         
Ready for those who come
Who come obedient to the Spirit’s leading
Or who are driven
Because they will not come any other way.

Those are the opening words of a poem by Ruth Burgess. It reminds us of what the desert has come to signify in some peoples writing and thinking.

What image comes to your mind when you think of a desert?
A dry and arid place
A place of extremes heat in the day cold in the night
A harsh and hostile place
A place of death
A place to be feared and not entered into.

Jesus immediately after his baptism, marking beginning of his public ministry, is driven out into the desert by the Spirit. It seems that he may have been unwilling, hence the way Mark uses the word “driven” where as the later gospel writers use the word “led”.

One of the ways in which Christian writers have used the image of the desert, is to associate the desert with those times of life when we seem to loose our faith or hope.

The times when life seems to be come unbearable.

It has been used to symbolise the “dark night of faith” when God seems far from us and we become uncertain of what lies ahead and whether or not we have the strength to go on.  

We live in a time of great fear and darkness. The fear and terror that stalks our collective and individual consciousness continues to add unease and results in paralysis and aloneness.

As time honoured and familiar markers that give meaning and direction in the landscape of our existence are being swept away it does indeed seem that we are encountering a wilderness in our modern life, shifting sands of subjective individual feeling.

One of those familiar landmarks that has been eroded by the advances of the modern urban life is that of relationship. The relationship between ourselves and the environment, ourselves as fellow citizens and between ourselves and God.

 The season of Lent offers us the opportunity to once again take stock and re-evaluate our Christian commitment, to God and one another as we begin next Sunday evening our lent course “Everybody Welcome” by Bob Jackson.  It is a time when we will journey with our Lord into the desert. It is a time in which we will face the same temptations that he faced –
To find ways to live without reference to God our father.
To find other ways for meaning and purpose in our lives that come at the expense of our relationship with God.

As we journey with Jesus this morning into the desert
As we mark this morning the beginning of our Lentern journey
we remember those who have travelled through the desert before us.

In our first reading we were reminded of Noah who in spite of the mocking  jibes and incredulity of those around him built an ark to protect all that was good in the world and preserve it for a new and better future.

He must have known something of the desert experience as he and his family looked out over the unbroken surface of water for 40 days and nights that had swept away all the familiar landmarks of their life and experience.

The sight of the rainbow, itself only possible in the interaction/the juxtaposition between those familiar opposites of rain and sunshine, dark cloud and clear sky, brought hope and promise into the life of a man on the brink of despair and sorrow.

There was Moses who lead the children of Israel through the desert. This  was a time of change and a time of hardship, a time when all the security of life in Egypt was left behind and a future, defined only by promise, was embraced.

But more importantly it was a time for learning how to be obedient to God. It was while the Israelites wandered, apparently lost, in the vastness of the desert, that God made his presence known to them by giving them the Law, the 10 commandments, by feeding them the manna, the bread from heaven, by sticking the rock so that water flowed for the people to drink God provided and ensured their survival.

You may remember Elijah who cried out in his “dark night of faith”  “It is enough O lord take my life”.

He was alone, the last of the prophets and as a wanted man was hiding in the mountains dejected, lost and at his wits end. His cry of despair is just one of many in the pages of scripture of those who long to understand the ways of God and his purposes in their lives, as indeed we in our time long for purpose and meaning in the seemingly random and cruel world of our making.

Then there is the cry of another prophet, Ezekiel who looking out at the seeming hopelessness of life cried out to God “Can these dry bones live?”

It is this cry that those of us who dare to come and stand at the foot of the cross on Good Friday will hear uttered by God in the voice of his own son at the end of the journey we begin today. “My God My God, Why have you forsaken me”.

If we are able to look upon this God forsaken man, we will be able to look into the god forsaken parts of our life and see the love of God the father and with it the possibility of new life being breathed into those dry and arid places; as he brought life and light into the broken and cold body of Jesus.

If we dare to journey into the desert, then we will find ourselves on a journey of self discovery and find that we are not alone, just as Jesus found in the desert, in the long cold nights, that he was himself in the company not just of wild beasts but angels too. 

As I look back over the events of my own life, I like so many of you see times of loneliness, brokenness, and loss. Times when it seems that all that I love most in this world slip from my grasp in a moment. It is then that
I am confronted with my own weakness, my inability to shape or control  events and this in itself is part of the test to be faithful to God and trust in his providence.

What we have to learn, what we still need to learn, is that God is never far from us. That the silence of God can be terrifying and may seem as final as death.
But far from being absent God is in the silence,
He is in the “dark night of faith.”
He is in the wilderness and deserted places of our being
And he is there bringing together all things for his glory.

May you have a blessed Lent and use the time to draw closer to God and trusting in him place your hand in his and journey into the desert within.

The desert awaits……….

And whilst we fear, and rightly
The loneliness and emptiness and harshness,
We  forget the angels,
Whom we cannot see for our blindness
But who come when God decides
That we need their help;
When we are ready
For what they can give us.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Presence and Engagement - the Joy of Diversity

 Below is an article that appears on the Presence and Engagement website 
“The joy of diversity”

St John’s Church, Hendon, has an average Sunday attendance of around 50 people, representing around 12 different ethnic communities. Their heart is to work alongside their neighbours – sharing their concerns in the ‘nitty gritty’ of real life. Fr. John Hawkins tells me also of some of their more deliberate efforts at interfaith, cross cultural engagement in this diverse context.

With 15,000 people in the parish, statistics suggest that the area is nearly 50% Christian, with the rest constituting large Muslim and Hindu communities. A multicultural centre, housed next door to St. John’s Church, is reflective of this diversity. The building hosts three organisations of different faiths/cultures under the same roof: The Barnet African Caribbean Association, the Barnet Somali Community Group and the Barnet Asian Old Peoples Association. There is a sense in the area, Fr. John reflects, of ‘settledness’ within difference. He continues, this context is a source of great joy. In diversity, there is more commonality than difference to be found.

To be ‘Present and Engaged’ means having the confidence to be counted among a community; to be present in the building, in the schools, and alongside neighbours. In this particular area, this often means drawing alongside a Muslim community who have at times been subject to negative press, increasingly in the last decade. Community engagement, post 9/11, has emphasised social cohesion and trying to promote faith as one of the ways in which people can be brought together across difference, rather than a problem. ‘Engagement’ means not doing it alone, but working in partnership with people of all faiths. More generally, it means equipping the church community to manage an ever changing demographic in the area. Once a largely Hindu area, this parish is becoming increasingly Muslim.

As a Christian, Fr. John says, it is easy to lose faith as everything changes around you. He is encouraging St john’s church to not retreat, become aggressive, defensive, or make more noise. He sees new faces as a source of rejoicing, rather than despair. He emphasises commonality, rather than difference, and sees the ‘isms’ of life – sexism, racism etc. – to be things that hinder ‘life in abundance’, as promised in John 10:11. He explains that God enriches our life; we don’t have to live it defensively or fearfully in the face of difference.

To show in practice how different people can enrich each other’s lives, the church engages in numerous art-based, intergenerational projects. One example is of a project in which Year 5 children, along with elderly members of the church were encouraged to bring a piece of fabric that told a story about their life. A square of wedding dress, traditional fabric, and icons of faith were sewn together to make a quilt. 

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The Regeneration of West Hendon - hopes and fears

The Public enquiry over the Compulsory purchase orders for the first phase of the regeneration of the West Hendon estate has now drawn to a close, we now wait for the outcome of this process. What will change is hard to know, reinforced concrete is known for its rigidity and much has already been poured. Maybe what will have been achieved will in the long run be as long lasting as the reinforced cement concrete frames that are springing up in this green and pleasant borough of Barnet, and that is that the powerless and voiceless have been heard. Justice begins with the human voice crying out, a baby cries for milk and the demand to life, Adam cries out in his aloneness and God gives him a companion, Eve, the oppressed cry out and God answers by sending them an advocate, a prophet a leader to bring about change, Moses.
The people of West hendon, who for too long have not been listened to, whose human worth and value has been weighted in the scales of financial viability and political expedience and found wanting, who feel that promises entered into have not been honoured are demanding to be heard, and are finding a voice that will join with others to demand change and a fairer future for all our citizens.

Today, a resident and I were allowed a peek preview of G block, due to be completed in the Spring and look at the progress on E block and the future power plant that will provide heat for the flats being built on the estate:
From the top of G block one of the "brown roofs " that will compensate for the negative environmental impact of modern urban designs

The communal area for G Block, this will provide some play and recreational space for residents 

The under ground  car park for a very few cars and a cycle space for every resident 

measuring the main bedroom of this two bed flat

The kitchen, with a window

The main living space for a two bedroom flat, there is a balcony, this one of the few that will look east.

Block E starting to take form

The large concrete block is the central core of one of the must contested tower blocks