The Jesus we needed to hear about in 2020

I don’t often confess this to my musical friends, but one of my all-time favourite songwriters was neither a producer of commercial hits nor a writer of traditional folk songs. He was a former slave-trader who later became a Christian minister and one of the most prolific hymn writers of the 18th century. His name was John Newton.

Most people encounter Newton today without realising it, as he is the principal author of the popular hymn ‘Amazing Grace.’ But ‘Amazing Grace’ was far from the only hymn he wrote. In fact, when he was the pastor of the church in Olney in Buckinghamshire, he and the poet William Cowper committed themselves to writing a hymn a week, to be taught and sung at their weekly Tuesday night prayer meeting. Many of those who attended would have been illiterate, so Newton and Cowper taught them the lyrics verse by verse. And some of those hymns had a whole lot of verses!

Today is the Feast of the Naming of Jesus. As a Jewish boy, eight days after birth Jesus would have been circumcised as a sign of entering into God’s covenant people, and on this day he would also have been given his name.

Accordingly, the Gospel of Luke tells us that on the eighth day after his birth Mary’s son was circumcised and given the name ‘Jesus’, the name the angel had specified for him. ‘Jesus’ (or ‘Yeshua’, as it would almost certainly have been pronounced by Jewish people at the time) means ‘Yahweh Saves’ (or ‘God to the rescue,’ as I once heard it translated!). Before the time of Jesus, the most famous Israelite with that name would have been Joshua (it’s the same name in Hebrew), who led the Israelite military campaigns when they were occupying the promised land. Indeed, the words ‘save’, ‘salvation’ and ‘saviour’ are most often used in the Old Testament in a military sense.

But I’ve been thinking, on this feast on the Naming of Yeshua, about what his name means for Christians. And in this respect, I find myself thinking of the words of one of John Newton’s hymns. I give them as Newton originally wrote them; today we most often sing a slightly amended version.

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.

It makes the wounded spirit whole
And calms the troubled breast;
’Tis manna to the hungry soul,
And to the weary, rest.

Dear Name! the Rock on which I build,
My Shield and Hiding Place,
My never-failing Treasury, filled
With boundless stores of grace!

Jesus! my Shepherd, Husband, Friend,
My Prophet, Priest, and King;
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.

Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see Thee as Thou art,
I’ll praise Thee as I ought.

Till then I would Thy love proclaim
With every fleeting breath,
And may the music of Thy name
Refresh my soul in death.

These verses are a wonderful statement of Newton’s faith in Jesus. Newton was an 18th century evangelical, which meant among other things that he had a strong belief in the utter lostness of humanity apart from God, and of the need for atonement for human sin to be made on the Cross of Jesus. One of the sayings of Newton’s old age was ‘I have forgotten many things, but two things I have not forgotten: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.’

So the Jesus in whom Newton put his faith was not so much the wise teacher, the disciple maker who led his followers into a new way of life. This was not a strong emphasis of the 18th century evangelicals, who tended to get their ethical teaching from the epistles rather than the gospels. No—Newton’s Jesus was the Saviour, the one who died for his sins, the one who brought him forgiveness and strength and comfort and peace, the one who soothed his sorrows, healed his wounds, and drove away his fear.

In recent years I’ve often thought that this 18th century evangelical Christ is a severely truncated version of the New Testament original. He tells people to come to him when they are burdened, so that he can give them rest, but he doesn’t very often tell them to sell their possessions and give to the poor, or to love their enemies, or to avoid storing up for themselves treasures on earth. Evangelical Christianity talks about accepting Jesus as your Saviour and Lord, but to be honest, in most cases, the emphasis is on the ‘Saviour’ part.

This may be a weakness, but on the other hand, as we turn the page on 2020 , I find myself thinking that it may be exactly what we needed to hear in this year of pestilence and plague. Most of us went through our days in a constant state of fear. Most of us were carrying much heavier burdens than we were used to. Most of us, when we stopped and took internal stock, discovered a low-level sense of sadness and grief that had become our constant companion, even when we weren’t dominated by it. Many of us were familiar with sorrow, many were tired, and the thought of death was hard to ignore.

So maybe this could have been the evangelical movement’s big moment. Sadly, of course, much of the evangelical movement in North America was paralyzed by several decades of culture wars, leading up to the presidency of Donald Trump. They were obsessed with the appointment of right-wing judges, more restrictions on abortion, restoring school prayer, and the preservation of America’s so-called ‘Christian heritage’ in the face of ever-increasing immigration. There wasn’t much bandwidth left for Jesus the lifter of burdens, the provider of rest for the weary, the healer of wounds and the driver away of fear.

But there’s still time. Vaccines are trickling in, but it will take many months for them to reach enough people to begin to provide herd immunity. There are many months of fear and loneliness and Covid protocols still ahead. So maybe, as we go into this year of our Lord 2021, my evangelical sisters and brothers might consider giving the culture wars a rest, and spending some time with the Gospel message that has historically been the heart of our tradition: that Jesus is the Saviour who soothes our sorrows, heals our wounds, and drives away our fear, and that the music of his name has the power even to refresh our souls in death.

So let’s sing with John Newton (see below for the very slightly amended words).

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes our sorrows, heals our wounds,
And drives away our fear.

It makes the wounded spirit whole
And calms the troubled breast;
’Tis manna to the hungry soul,
And to the weary, rest.

Dear Name! the Rock on which I build,
My Shield and Hiding Place,
My never-failing Treasury, filled
With boundless stores of grace!

Jesus! my Shepherd, Brother, Friend,
My Prophet, Priest, and King;
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.

Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see Thee as Thou art,
I’ll praise Thee as I ought.

Till then I would Thy love proclaim
With every fleeting breath,
And may the music of Thy name
Refresh my soul in death.

‘We follow the dead to their graves…’

I know I’ve posted this before, but this is one of my favourite poems by one of my favourite poets, Wendell Berry.


We follow the dead to their graves,
and our long love follows on
beyond, crying to them, not
“Come back!” but merely “Wait!”
In waking thoughts, in dreams
we follow after, calling, “Wait!
Listen! I am older now. I know
now how it was with you
when you were old and I
was only young. I am ready
now to accompany you
in your lonely fear.” And they
go on, one by one, as one
by one we go as they have gone.

And yet we all are gathered
in this leftover love,
this longing becomes the measure
of a joy all mourners know.
An old man’s mind is a graveyard
where the dead arise.

– Wendell Berry, This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems, 2000

The Hope of the Kingdom (a sermon on Matthew 5:1-10 for the funeral of Win Rees)

We’re gathered together today on a day that is full of significance. In the Christian year, this is All Souls Day, a day when many Christians reflect on the lives of those who have gone before them, and give thanks for all the blessings they’ve received from them. And of course, as many of us here know, today would also have been Win’s 97th birthday. She is undoubtedly the oldest member of our congregation, and the newest member of the company of the saints in light. So we gather today to give thanks for her life and for all the blessings we received through our friendship with her, and to commit her into the hands of the loving God in whom she believed and put her trust.

There are many memories for us, and David has shared a few this morning already. It would be presumptuous of me to add to the list, but I will say that I always got a lot of enjoyment out of Win’s obvious delight in foods that were bad for her – whether it was fish and chips coated in batter, or Kentucky Fried Chicken, or her love of chocolate bars – one of the many things that she and Marci had in common! Also, as someone married to a person of Welsh descent, I enjoyed her enjoyment of being Welsh and the fact that every year she liked having St. David’s Day recognized in the church, and she liked the fact that we often sang ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah’ on that day, using that great Welsh tune Cwm Rhonda.

But it’s not my role at the service this morning to offer a second eulogy, but rather to reflect on what God might want to say to us as we gather here this morning, thinking about Win’s life and death and our own life and death as well. We chose to read the Beatitudes as our gospel reading for today, and the message of the Beatitudes is a good one as we think about the future hope Christians share. So let me direct your attention for a few minutes to Matthew 5:1-10.

I think this passage is often misunderstood because it’s seen as a sort of checklist of Christian spirituality. What sort of person makes a good disciple of Jesus? What sort of person can be assured of eternal life? Well, it’s a person who’s ‘poor in spirit’, who’s a ‘mourner’, who’s ‘meek’, who’s ‘hungry and thirsty for righteousness’, who’s ‘merciful’, who’s ‘pure in heart’, who’s a ‘peacemaker’, and who’s ‘persecuted for righteousness’ sake’.

Does that strike you as a strange list? I know it does me. Some things make sense to me: ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ (v.6), or, in the much more helpful translation of the Revised English Bible, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail’: yes, I can see that. It’s a good and blessed thing to work for a better, more just and righteous world, and those who do so deserve to be rewarded. Likewise, the merciful, and the pure in heart.

But ‘those who mourn’? Is Jesus saying that we have to be sad all the time in order to enter the kingdom of heaven? And what about ‘those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake’? We in the western world hardly ever experience persecution; do we need to move to the middle east in order to qualify?

I think it’s important to recognize that in all eight of these Beatitudes, the blessing is in the second half of the verse, not the first. Let me explain what I mean. We need to remember that ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ does not mean ‘when they die, they’ll go to heaven’. That’s not what Jesus meant by ‘the kingdom of heaven’. Matthew uses that phrase in exactly the same way as Mark and Luke use ‘the kingdom of God’. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’. This prayer looks forward to a time in the future when God will heal the world of evil and sin and restore it to his original intention for it: a place of justice and compassion and love. This work has already begun through the ministry of Jesus and his people, but it is a long, long way from being complete.

Our hope as Christians is that one day, just as God raised Jesus from the dead, so he will raise us too, into a new earth where justice and righteousness prevail. This will not be a purely ghostly experience; it will involve physicality as well. And truly this will be a time of joy.

But when Jesus spoke the Beatitudes it was not such a time of joy. I imagine him looking out over the crowd; maybe there were people in it he had known since he was a boy. Maybe he recognized a mother whose son had been murdered by Roman soldiers; she was mourning, but he knew that in the kingdom of God she would receive the comfort she needed. Maybe he saw some little people, some helpless people, some people who were always getting trampled on and were afraid to stand up for their own rights. They were the meek, and too often in this world they get excluded from the positions of power. ‘You see those people?’ Jesus is saying; ‘They will inherit the earth!’ Them, not the politicians or the dictators or the corrupt CEOs of multinational corporations, but the meek!

And so it goes on as Jesus looks around. Those who are pure in heart, who long for God’s kingdom above all else – those who are poor in spirit, who fall short of what they should be and know it, and who cry out to God for forgiveness and strength to do better – those who are merciful to others, not angry and judgemental – all these and many more are represented in the crowd in front of Jesus. They all have a longing of some kind in their heart. One day, Jesus is telling them, that longing will be fulfilled. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”.

So this is not a list that’s meant to intimidate us. It’s a list that’s meant to include us and comfort us. Whatever the condition of our hearts, whatever we are, whatever we hope for, whatever we suffer, we will find what we’re looking for – we will find true blessing – in the kingdom of heaven. The poor in spirit aren’t blessed because they’re poor in spirit – they’re blessed because ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. The meek aren’t blessed because they’re meek – they’re blessed because ‘they will inherit the earth’. The mourners aren’t blessed because they’re mourning – they’re blessed because ‘they will be comforted’. And those who are persecuted aren’t blessed because of their sufferings, but because, again, ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’.

And this morning, as we gather together, we’re a group like that as well. We come from very different circumstances. Some of us are old and some are young, some are healthy and some are struggling with health issues. Some are full of faith, some are full of doubt. Some are full of joy, and some struggle with depression. Some are confident and bold, some are shy and fearful. Jesus welcomes us all, and assures us that whatever the deepest longings of our hearts, they will be fulfilled in the coming of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven. In that coming Reign of God, we will find the blessing we long for.

So today we rejoice because Win is a member of this company of the blessed. The last few years have not been easy for her, and it’s not been easy for us to watch as she struggled with the physical challenges of advancing age. But now we say to her – well, what do we say? The world says, ‘Rest in peace’, and certainly there’s truth in that. The New Testament talks about the faithful dead as having ‘fallen asleep in Jesus’, and there are weary days when I’m really looking forward to that sleep!

Nevertheless, there’s more to the Christian hope than that. Our wish for our sisters and brothers who have died is not just ‘Rest in Peace’, but ‘Rest in Peace and Rise in Glory!’ We believe that the God who made this earth has not abandoned it to suffering and despair, and that the God who made Win has not yet come to the end of his purposes for her. Paul talks in 1 Corinthians about ‘things beyond our seeing, things beyond our hearing, things beyond our imagination, all prepared by God for those who love him’ (1 Corinthians 2:9 REB). This is not just talking about floating around on clouds playing harps. This is a new heaven, and a new earth, and a restored creation, where ‘the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea’ (Habakkuk 2:14). This is what we look forward to, for Win and for ourselves. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! Amen.

The Souls of the Righteous are in the Hand of God (a sermon for All Saints’ Day on Wisdom 3:1-9)

Today on All Saints’ Day we’ve come together to remember with thanksgiving our loved ones who have died. We might feel a little awkward about the idea that the ones we knew and loved so well are remembered today with the ‘saints’; we loved them, of course, and we know they were good people, but ‘saints’? Isn’t that stretching it a bit?

No, it’s not. In the Bible the word ‘saint’ is related to words like ‘holy’ and it simply means ‘someone or something that belongs to God’. In the Book of Revelation the living creatures before the throne of God sing a song of praise to Christ the Lamb, and in it they say,

‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
For you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
Saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
You have made them to be a kingdom
and priests serving our God
and they will reign on earth’ (Revelation 5:9-10).

In other words, by dying for us Jesus has purchased us for God at the price of his own blood, and so he has made us his saints. Some of us are better saints than others, but we all belong to God. And on this day, we are thinking especially about the saints we knew, the ordinary people we loved, who have died and gone before us.

Ever since we began this annual service at St. Margaret’s back in 2009 I have been amazed by the response to it, and by the number of people who choose to bring a carnation forward in memory of a loved one and to offer their name in remembrance and prayer. Obviously many of us have been touched by the sobering reality of death, and so it’s good for us today to pause for a few minutes, lift our loved ones up in prayer, and think about our Christian hope.

In our Anglican funeral service, when I stand at a graveside, I say these words: ‘In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to almighty God our sister or brother’. I like that phrase, ‘In sure and certain hope’. The word ‘hope’ has a different meaning in the Bible than it does in popular culture today. If I were to say to you, “I hope it doesn’t get too cold during the night tonight”, you’d know exactly what I meant: “It would be nice if this happened, but it might not”. In other words, there’s no certainty about this kind of hope; we’re expressing a wish about the future, but we know our wishes don’t always come true.

But when the Bible uses the word ‘hope’, it’s talking about something different. ‘Christian hope’, in the Bible, means the future that God has promised, for the world and for us as individuals. We look around us now and see a world in which bad things happen to good people, in which people are oppressed and exploited and in which they die of deadly diseases. But the Bible promises us that things are not always going to be this way.

This is especially relevant for us in this service today. In many cases, our loved ones suffered a lot before they died, and as we get older and we approach our own death, many of us are going to suffer too. Is that the end of the story? Does human life inevitably end in pain and suffering, with no relief except extinction? Or is there a better hope, a better future, something that God has promised and that we can look forward to?

Our first reading, from the Book of Wisdom, examines these questions. As an aside, I need to say a couple of quick words about the Book of Wisdom. Some of you may notice, if you go home and look in the table of contents in your Bible, that this book doesn’t appear there. That’s because this book comes in a collection called ‘the Apocrypha’ – our Roman Catholic friends call it the ‘Deutero-canonical books’ – and not all Bibles contain them.

The process by which the books in what we now call ‘the Old Testament’ were recognized as authoritative scripture is a little obscure to historians. We know that Jewish people today recognize a canon of Scripture identical with our current Old Testament. But we also know that when the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek about a century before Christ, some additional books were included. There has always been a disagreement in the church about the status of these books. Catholics and Orthodox accept them as fully scriptural and include them in the Old Testament. Protestants don’t accept them as scriptural at all. The Anglican Church tends to like to hedge its bets, and so we include them in our readings from time to time, but we don’t see them as being on the same level as the rest of the Old Testament, and if there’s a doctrine that’s only taught in the Apocrypha and not in the rest of the Bible, we don’t feel obliged to accept it.

Nonetheless, these books contain a lot of wisdom and inspiration and personally I quite enjoy reading them. And this passage today from Wisdom is a well-loved one that is often used at funerals. It deals with the questions that we all ask: where are our loved ones now? Is there some sort of future for them? Will we see them again?

First, then, where are our loved ones now? They were alive with us, and now – in some cases, quite suddenly – they’re gone. It’s natural for us to ask, “When the body dies, what happens to the true self, to the true human being? Is it actually possible for me to survive the death of my brain? How does that work?”

The Bible of course doesn’t answer the question of how it works, because the Bible is not a textbook of science. But the reading from Wisdom leaves us in no doubt that death is not the end for us. Listen again to these words:

‘But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace’. (Wisdom 3:1-3).

Note that the text doesn’t answer questions of detail: “Where are they? How is it possible for them to have survived death?” When the Bible talks about the life of the world to come it uses many different kinds of symbolism, and we’d be wise not to push the symbols too far, because if we do, the details sometimes collide with each other. This text simply gives us three powerful and connected truths: one, the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God; two, they are safe, and three, they are at peace.

Think of that for a moment, in terms of our loved ones who have gone before us. The text says: ‘They are safe’. Maybe, in some cases, the years before they died were not easy ones for them. Maybe they had to deal with the increasing frailty of their bodies as they got older. Or maybe they died early, after an unexpected disease or an accident or tragedy of some kind. But now, says Wisdom, ‘no torment will ever touch them’, because ‘they are in the hand of God’. Certainly our loved ones are in no danger in the hands of God! As the Book of Revelation, puts it, ‘(God) will wipe away every tear from their eyes…mourning and crying and pain will be no more’ (Revelation 21:4).

Wisdom says that our loved ones are ‘in the hand of God’, and that is the safest place in the entire universe. It goes on to say that they are ‘at peace’; there is no more worry, no more anxiety, no more struggle and pain and suffering. This reminds me of the way the New Testament talks about death. In the New Testament, Christians who have died are said to have ‘fallen asleep’. I don’t know about you, but some days I really look forward to that sleep! When I was a teenager I had no problem sleeping ‘til noon on Saturdays, but these days I’m lucky to get three or four hours of unbroken sleep at night before I wake up and toss and turn for a while, and I often get up in the morning still feeling tired. Yes, I have to say that when people ask me what I’m looking forward to about life after death, I often say, “Well, I’m going to start with a few years of good solid sleep!”

So where are our loved ones now? Wisdom tells us that they are safe in the hand of God, and they are at peace. But it also goes on to say that there is a future for them, and perhaps that future is a little different from many popular ideas about ‘dying and going to heaven’. Listen again to verses 7-8:

‘In the time of their visitation they will shine forth,
and will run like sparks through the stubble.
They will govern nations and rule over peoples,
and the Lord will reign over them forever’.

A moment ago we talked about our loved ones being at peace in the hand of God, but these verses don’t sound very peaceful, do they? Governing nations and ruling over peoples sounds like a lot of work, and anyway, are there going to be nations and ‘peoples’ in heaven? What’s this all about?

The reason it sounds strange to us is that the author of the Book of Wisdom – like Jesus and his apostles – didn’t think that people who die ‘go away to a better place’ forever. He had a two-stage view of the life to come. He thought that at the moment, in the first stage, the souls of the righteous are safe in the hands of God, but he also thought that God has an exciting future for them in the second stage.

What is this second stage? Well, like most Jewish people in his time, Jesus believed in the coming of the kingdom of God and in the resurrection of the body. He did not believe that the purpose of life was to escape this world. He did not believe that God is going to abandon this poor suffering world and focus all his attention on a few people who have gone to ‘a better place’. No – God has a bigger plan than that.

At the moment, when we look around, we see war and injustice, poverty and disease and natural disaster and so on. But this was not God’s original plan when he created the world, and it isn’t going to be the last word. No – Jesus came to tell us that ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’ – in other words, that God is going to extend his loving rule over the whole earth and make it whole again. And when that day comes, God will raise the souls of the righteous from the dead, just as he raised Jesus from the dead, and we will finally enjoy this world as God intended when he created it at the beginning. What a day that will be!

This is hard for us to understand because it isn’t a very common idea about life after death these days. But listen to these words of Jesus himself:

“This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day… No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day” (John 6:40, 44).

And remember also his words to Martha at the grave of her brother Lazarus:

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live…” (John 12:25).

So there is indeed a future for our loved ones, and for us too! In the words of Wisdom: “In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble” (3:7). This is what the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer refers to as the ‘sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our mortal body, that it might be like unto his glorious body’. It is this sure and certain hope that gives me strength when I think about my own death.

Of course, the biblical writers use a lot of symbolism to describe that future resurrection, and we can’t take all of it literally, because some of the symbols contradict each other. Will there literally be thrones and nations in God’s future world, with the saints of God ruling over them? I have no idea. But I do know that God’s future world will be a glorious experience for all who participate in it, and I suspect that there are no words or images in any human language adequate to describe that glory.

So today, as we gather to give thanks for our loved ones who have gone before us, it’s natural that we should grieve for them, and it’s a necessary part of our healing. But St. Paul tells us in one of his letters that there is no need for us to ‘grieve as if we had no hope’. Our grief has a different character when we know and believe that our parting from our loved ones is only temporary. So let’s take comfort in the promise of the Book of Wisdom, that those who have died in the peace of Christ are safe in the hands of God, where no more suffering can touch them. But let’s also look forward to the day when God will finally heal and renew his creation, and when Jesus will raise his people from the dead. On that day we will indeed see our loved ones again, and we will share in a glorious future with them. And as C.S. Lewis writes, on that day we will realise that all that we have experienced so far is simply the first chapter of the great story of our life, the story God is writing, the story in which every chapter is better than the one that came before it!

Death and the Poets

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 – Dylan Thomas (1914 – 1953)

Mighty Trucks of Midnight, verse 3

I believe it’s a sin to try to make things last forever
Everything that exists in time runs out of time some day
Got to let go of the things that keep you tethered
Take your place with grace and then be on your way

 – Bruce Cockburn (1945 – )

Dylan may be the better poet (though Cockburn is no mean wordsmith either), but I think Cockburn has the better thought here.

Why would I want to imagine there’s no heaven? (part one of a series, I think…)


2Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky

 – John Lennon, ‘Imagine’



No thank you, John. I don’t think I will.

You see, John, I’ve lived long enough to know that, although we human beings can have a good try at making the world a better place, our track record is, well, not all that great. People of good will have been trying to bring peace, love, and understanding to the world for centuries, but despite all their best efforts, the twentieth century was the most violent century in human history, and the twenty-first doesn’t seem like it’s going to lag behind, either. The inhumanity of people toward people seems to grow apace. A huge chunk of the world’s population lives in grinding poverty, and for many of them, all our efforts to make the world a better place aren’t going to come in time, because, well, they’re going to die of starvation tomorrow. Or tonight, even. And thousands of them will be little children.

You think it will make those children and their parents feel better to imagine that this life is all there is, John? Born in poverty, lived in starvation, died of an empty stomach. This is all the heaven you’re going to get, living for today. You think that’s good news, John? I mean, I know we can have a discussion about whether or not life after death is just wishful thinking, but thats not what you’re asking me to do, John. You’re asking me to imagine there’s no heaven, and then enjoy the thought. And when I look around me at all the suffering in the world, the only thing I can say in response, John, is “Are you out of your *%^*#@!! mind?”

Two years ago one of my best friends died of cancer at the age of forty-seven, leaving behind a young family. As a pastor, I know many people who deal with the scourge of cancer at a young age, and some of them die of it. I can tell you, John, from personal experience, that imagining there’s no heaven is not usually a great comfort to them. When a young family loses a father or a mother – when a husband loses a wife whose love he had hoped to enjoy for another thirty years – do you seriously think that imagining that they’ll never, ever see them again is something they’ll enjoy doing? All I can say, John, is that if you do, you need to get out a bit more and acquaint yourself with some real human suffering.

Come to think of it, you did, didn’t you? I wonder if it changed your mind?

Oh, and by the way, no intelligent religious person thinks that heaven is above us ‘in the sky’, and that hell is under the earth below us. People have known for a long time that this was metaphorical speech. Do you really think that old Dante thought that the devil was stuck head first in the ice at the centre of the earth, upside down, with his hairy shanks protruding? Come on, John – if you’re going to pick a quarrel with us, you could at least pay us the compliment of assuming that we can tell the difference between a metaphor and its meaning!

Let me tell you what ‘imagining there’s no heaven’ does for me, John. I think of a universe with no God, no objective standard of right and wrong, no morality and ethics except what the majority of human beings can agree on. I think of a universe where life happened by accident, where human beings are just highly developed animals, and where all the work we do to build loving marriages and lasting friendships comes to nothing in the end, because it’s all lost at the moment of death. I think of a world where the vast majority of human beings have been delusional, because they have believed that there’s more to it than that. I think of a world where the only sentiment that makes objective sense is ‘Let’s eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we’re going to die, and we won’t know a thing about it’. A world where one might admire unselfish people, but one can’t think of a single logical reason to be one of them, because this world is the only chance they’ve got for happiness, pleasure, and joy, and they’re giving it all up for others.

Well, John, every honest person of religious faith knows that there are no absolutely watertight arguments for the existence of God, of moral absolutes, or of life after death. I believe in all of those things, but my belief isn’t founded entirely on logic, and who knows? One day I might wake up to find out you were right after all (although how a dead person would find that out, if your view of the world is true, is perhaps a bit problematical – after all, after we die, we don’t know anything, because we’re gone, gone, gone!). But please don’t ask me to enjoy that thought, John! That makes no sense to me at all. I want to see my Dad again some day – and my grandparents – and dear friends like Joe and Ken who have gone before me. If I’m going to get joy out of ‘imagining’ anything, I’d much rather imagine what it will be like to see them again, and to enjoy their company in the presence of God forever. Now that’s something worth imagining!

(to be continued…)



The Big Questions

Some years ago I attended a clergy conference at which we were discussing a rather esoteric document produced by, I believe, the Primate’s Theological Commission (non-Anglican readers should note that in this context ‘primate’ refers to the presiding archbishop of the Anglican Church of Canada, not to a monkey).

I have no exact memory of what the subject matter was, but I think it was something along the lines of ‘What exactly is an Anglican?’ or ‘is it possible to draw a circle so that everyone inside that circle is seen to be Anglican?’ or ‘How do Anglicans actually do theology and ethics?’ All of it of course was an attempt to dance around the issue of whether being gay or lesbian is, in fact, A Good Thing in the Anglican Church.

A comment that I frequently heard at the conference, from my clergy colleagues, was that the members of our congregations ‘Don’t do theology’ and that it was hard to drum up any enthusiasm for this sort of theological reflection at the parish level.

Now, as it happened, the conference was being held at Lakeland College in Lloydminster, so I had a fairly long drive through open prairie country to get there. It was a very dry summer; many of the sloughs had gone completely dry, and the crops were not in good shape at all. I remember looking at the parched ground I was driving through and thinking ‘some farmers are not going to make it through this season’. For some, I suspected, it would be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The next day, when I kept hearing at the conference that ‘lay people aren’t too enthusiastic about this sort of theological reflection’, I found myself wondering whether or not that was true. Could it be, perhaps, that we were just reflecting on the wrong subjects? How surprising was it that the lay people of eastern Alberta didn’t find discussions of ‘what constitutes a distinctively Anglican method of doing theology?’ particularly exciting? Their crops were dying in the fields around them, and those of them who considered themselves Christians were no doubt praying fervently for rain several times a day. That summer their prayers were not answered, and undoubtedly some of them lost their farms as a result. The luxury of a theological discussion about whether or not God was particularly interested in the evolution of a tiny theological tradition originating far away in the British Isles was something they literally did not have time for. Some of them, no doubt, were clinging to their Christian faith by their fingernails – any Christian faith, Anglican or not.

And I found myself wondering, is it in fact true that there’s no theological reflection going on in the coffee shops of Vermilion or Wainwright? What do Christian farmers talk about when they get together for coffee? And do they ever struggle with the ‘why?’ questions? You know the ones I mean. ‘Why doesn’t God answer my prayer and send me rain so that my farm can survive?’ ‘What does it mean to say that God is all-powerful and then to say that you can’t blame him for the drought?’ ‘How can you possibly believe that God is a God of love when he can’t even be bothered to help me feed my family by sending us a drop of rain?’ All of those questions, of course, are just ringing the changes on the perennial theological questions of evil; ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ ‘Where is God when it hurts?’ ‘Why is God silent?’ ‘Why doesn’t God do something?’

Why weren’t we gathering together as clergy to help our parishioners grapple with these questions, rather than ‘Anglican Identity’? Does God actually give a sh** about Anglican identity? What does it mean to be a pastor among people who are struggling to make sense of the silence and inaction of the heavens? And is it, in fact, the case that we don’t want to deal with these questions, or help our parishioners deal with them, because we are terrified that we don’t have any answers for them, and, as professional religionists, we desperately need to Have All The Answers?

Here’s what I know about the questions around the problem of pain and evil and the silence and inactivity of God. First, I don’t think there are any clear-cut answers to those questions – answers, that is, that dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’. I said to an agnostic friend last week that the problem of evil is the greatest challenge to faith for most believers. Most of us can’t find a coherent answer to it that actually satisfies us. We stay believers, because leaving God out of our world views raises even more difficult questions for us (more about that some other time, perhaps). But I have yet to hear a theological explanation for evil and the silence and inactivity of God that I find completely convincing.

So no, I don’t think there are any clear-cut answers to these questions, which may be why we pastors are so afraid of them. But the second thing I know is this: nevertheless, it is crucial for us to continue to acknowledge these questions and to keep exploring them and discussing them with people. If we don’t, people think they aren’t allowed to question God, and when they can no longer restrain themselves from questioning God, then they drop out of faith altogether. This is because their pastors have never taught them that praying the questioning and angry psalms is a Christian thing to do.

For the last two years I have watched from a distance as my Dad has gotten increasingly more frail through the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease. He lost more and more control over bodily functions as more and more parts of his body have declared independence from his brain. He lost most of his dignity and most of his sense of joy in his life. It would not surprise me to learn that he came close to losing his faith, though I don’t think he did; I do know that he struggled with the ‘why?’ questions just like any other Christian would. Eventually he almost lost his ability to swallow, and so more and more particles of food got stuck in his aesophagus. When he died, he was struggling to breathe, so my Mum tells me.

My Dad died on August 12th. It is now September 6th, and I am still waiting for a call from a Christian pastor or priest who will offer to get together with me and help me struggle with the theological issues raised by my Dad’s death. I do not expect to find answers to these questions, and I do not expect to lose my faith over them, but they are troubling me. I need to talk about them. During the past three weeks two friends – a lay member of my congregation, and a songwriter friend who is an agnostic – have taken the trouble to invite me to join them for coffee or lunch and give me space to talk about my Dad. Many people have left kind messages on Facebook, and I am grateful for their support and sympathy. But I am still waiting for the opportunity to have a theological conversation with a Christian pastor about the problem of pain and the seeming unresponsiveness of God. And I find myself wondering, would we really rather discuss ‘Anglican Identity’ and ‘Missional Theology’ than grapple with the biggest questions that ordinary Christians face in their lives?

Reflections inspired by mortality

So the day of my Dad’s funeral has come and gone. It seems strange, somehow; I’ve lived with the impending reality of this day for two or three years, since the day Dad asked me to preach at it, and now it is a past event. Somehow it seems as if it should be a permanent event, existing continually outside of time.

This morning I find myself remembering the words of an old Bruce Cockburn song from the 1980s:

I don’t mean to cling to you my friends
It’s just I hate the day to have to end
Never enough time to spend
I haven’t done enough for this to be the end

There must be more… more…
More songs more warmth
More love more life
Not more fear not more fame
Not more money not more games

That’s the way I felt yesterday. I was the preacher at the service, so I had the best view of who was there. Many, but not all, of the faces were familiar to me. Mum and Dad returned to England from Canada in 1978, and from that day on their circle of acquaintance diverged from mine; I know some of the friends they’ve made since then (especially over the past twenty or so years in Oakham and Ketton), but not all. Still, there were lots of extended family members there, and friends going all the way back to our Southminster days. We had the service at St. Mary’s, Ketton, which was Dad and Mum’s home church for the past few years, and the vicar, Andrew Rayment, did a fine job with the service and the prayers. We sang some fine hymns that Dad loved – ‘How Great Thou Art’, ‘To God be the Glory’, and my personal favourite, ‘Thine be the Glory’, with those great lines:

Make us more than conquerors through thy deathless love;
Bring us safe through Jordan to thy home above.

My brother Mike read the reading Dad had selected, 1 Peter 1:3-9, and my niece Ellie read the gospel, John 14:1-6. I preached, and people were kind enough to tell me that they had appreciated it afterwards. When the service was over we went to Grantham Crematorium for the cremation, and then back to Oakham for a reception.

That was when I had my Cockburn ‘It’s just I hate the day to have to end’ feeling. The love of people was palpable in that room – their affection for Dad, and their affection for Mum, and Mike and me. It’s funny, but I haven’t really felt of myself as being a ‘mourner’ yet. I’ve officiated at so many funerals and tried to provide support and comfort to the bereaved, but until yesterday it hadn’t really sunk in that I was in that category. I guess people seem to feel that clergy are somehow above all that; I don’t know why, but I know it’s true. But yesterday at the reception in Ketton I was in the midst of cousins and aunts and uncles and friends I’d known since long before I had any idea of being a clergy person, and they were united in love for Dad and Mum and in wanting to provide support for us. And it was all the more poignant in that some of them were the family of my Uncle John, who died three days after my Dad, and whose funeral is tomorrow.

‘Cling onto these relationships’, I found myself thinking. ‘Make no excuses for not keeping in touch with them. Do all you can to let them know you love them and appreciate them. These are the most important things in life. The gospel of Jesus Christ – which gives my life meaning and gives me hope for the future as well as strength for the present – and the love that human beings share with each other – in the end, this is what matters’.

I said to my old friend Steve Palmer afterwards that since Dad died I find that my patience with the bullshit that often happens in churchland has been at an all time low. That may not be a good thing – impatience is rarely a good thing – but I find myself thinking about things in the light of my Dad’s death and wondering why we’re bothering with so much that isn’t really important in the light of eternity. I’m not pointing fingers at my congregation or diocese, or even myself; I’m just making a general observation about the tendency of Christians to get worked up about the latest fad or fashion in ‘church health’ or ‘congregational development’ or whatever the latest trend is (I’ve been around long enough to be seeing most of them come around for the second time now), all the time doing our best to avoid the thought of actually asking someone how they are doing, and really wanting an answer, or actually talking about Jesus with a non-Christian friend.

My Dad’s life counted; that was obvious yesterday. There were people in that church who became Christians through his ministry, and at least two people who are in ordained ministry because of him. Dad was far from perfect, but he knew how to share the gospel, how to love people, and how to encourage people in their Christian calling. He and Mum also did a pretty good job of bringing up Christian sons, and that wasn’t just luck, it was also prayer and hard work and, at times, sheer cussedness!

I really hope that I will remember, from now on, to major on the things that will really count, and not to get caught up in fascinating side roads and the latest fads and fashions. This blog post is my reminder to myself: make your life count, and refuse to allow either other people’s opinions or your own laziness and inertia to cause you to settle for less than that.

Many years ago I was out walking one day beside the Peel River in Aklavik. I was pondering what it was that God wanted me to do, and I got an answer. It wasn’t an audible voice, but somehow three words impressed themselves firmly on my mind, and I have never doubted from that day to this that they were God’s guidance to me (and I very, very rarely experience what I believe to be clear, unambiguous guidance from God). The three words were ‘prayer’, ‘love’, and ‘evangelism’. Ever since then, I have felt most at peace with myself when I have made these three things the centre of my life and ministry. When I’ve gotten diverted from these things, I’ve felt that my life was off centre and everything was somehow out of place.

So, as old Thomas Ken put it,

Redeem thy misspent time that’s past
Live each day as if ’twere thy last.

This I will do, The Lord being my helper.