Monthly Archives: October 2017

Halloween and all that jazz…

It’s that time of year when lots of people want to engage me in earnest conversation about the dangers of Halloween.  I was engaged in such a conversation only yesterday which culminated in me being told:

“There’s witches on Dartmoor, you know.”

I don’t know if there are witches on Dartmoor or not – and, to be honest, if there are I have never perceived them to represent much of a threat.  There are many old tales of witches on Dartmoor – not least about Vixiana the Witch – you can read all about her here!

“She was an awesome sight, she stood at around 6 feet tall and was a thin as Devon shovel handle. Her nose was large and hooked like a buzzards bill. Her eyes were sunk deep into her head and as green as the moss in a featherbed (Dartmoor bog). She had only two rotten front teeth the shape of peat knives and these hung slightly over her bottom lip. Her skin was as wrinkled and cracked as a dry peat hag and her hair was long, limp and greasy. Those that were unfortunate to get close to her said she smelt of sheep’s urine.”

She sounds like quite a catch! 

The thing is, this is presented to me as if the very telling of it – “there’s witches on Dartmoor, you know” somehow proves that halloween is very, very bad and churches should get worked up about it and warn against its dangers (this despite the fact that I doubt real witches have any interest at all in halloween and are more likely to be active and engaged around lunar pagan festival times.)

What I CAN say with confidence is that there are REAL greedy people in Newton Abbot and REAL selfish people in Kingsteignton and REAL hard-hearted people in our churches.  The lifestyle modelled and displayed by these people is a FAR GREATER threat to the children and young people in our lives than Vixiania or any of her followers.

If we as churches are going to get steamed up about something – let’s choose the right place to start.

Thursday Music moments: The truly moving story behind Matthew West’s song "Forgiveness".

Preaching about forgiveness is a dangerous game, it can drag up all kinds of bitter and hurtful memories that people hold onto for years.  We should be very cautious about telling people they must forgive, healing can take a long time and any act of forgiveness is only part of that process of healing.

What I will always unashamedly do, though, is allow others to tell their own stories about their own journeys towards forgiveness.  These stories so often remind me in an intensely powerful way that if I do not find a way to forgive I am so often the one who is left trapped, mine is the life that is held back.

So, here’s such a story – the story that inspired the song.


and here’s the actual song in full:

May God bless you and wrap her arms around you if these words bring old bitterness or pain to the surface.

Tuesday News Roundup

Some reflections on some of the news stories that have done the rounds over this last week or so…

Jonathan Brady/ PA

Kate dances with Paddington.  

There have been a few stories about childbirth recently – the new breastfeeding emoji, a big phone-in on Radio 5 about the pain and trauma so many couples go through with the IVF process (especially if it is unsuccessful), adoption, and this one.  It’s not really a story about childbirth, but (inevitably) every story about the Duchess of Cambridge will ultimately be about childbirth until next April and beyond!

I have heard many curmudgeonly commentators protesting that this is NOT NEWS!  “Woman has baby – shock!”  And I have to admit I have been one of them – I have even shouted it at the radio!  Imagine!  🙂

But more sober reflection makes me more generous.  Of course it is news – it is glorious, joyful news worth celebrating when hopes and dreams about new life and new possibilities and new futures come true.  Soon you will be able to celebrate with the new breast feeding emoji right from your own phone!  🙂

Lord give us generous and open hearts which enable us truly to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.


New Saints.

These are Prelates attending a holy mass for the canonisation of 35 new saints in St Peter’s Square in Vatican City. The new saints include 30 martyrs murdered in Brazil in the 17th century by Dutch Calvinists, three Mexican children who died in the 16th Century and Italian Capuchin Angelo d’Acri. 

Most of these new saints were Martyrs – including the three Mexican children.  The children were martyred in the 1520s for refusing to renounce their Catholic faith and return to their ancient traditions.

“The saints who were canonised today, and especially the many martyrs, point the way. They did not say a fleeting ‘yes’ to love, they said ‘yes’ with their lives and to the very end,” Francis said on Sunday.

Sadly, the bulk of these new saints were martyred by others who also called themselves Christians.  

Lord, save us from the kind of faith that is so sure it is right that we are willing to silence the voices of others.

Danish Siddiqui/ Reuters

 Diwali Celebrations.

Diwali or Deepavali is the Hindu festival of lights celebrated every year in autumn in the northern hemisphere (also marked by Sikhs and Jains).  Here, a girl plays with firecrackers in Mumbai!

It’s a festival of LIGHT – the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair.  Yet every year curmudgeonly Brits moan that local councils announce celebrations of Diwali or that schools include it in their calendar.

Lord, show us how to work in partnership with anyone who celebrates the victory of light of over darkness and longs for the victory of hope over despair.  For you are the Light that came into the world – the Light that darkness cannot overcome.

Paula Bronstein/ Getty Images

Rohingya refugees.

Thousands of Rohingya refugees fleeing from Myanmar wait for hours in the sun to enter the refugee camps on a rice field near Palang Khali, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Rohingya refugees have fled into Bangladesh since late August during the violence in Rakhine state, causing a humanitarian crisis in the region. 

When refugees are glibly mentioned in arguments about Brexit in the UK – let us consciously keep pictures like this one at the forefront of our minds.

O God, who art the unsearchable abyss of peace,
the ineffable sea of love, the fountain of blessings
and the bestower of affection,
who sendest peace to those that receive it;

Open to us this day the sea of thy love
and water us with plenteous streams
from the riches of thy grace
and from the most sweet springs of thy kindness.

Make us children of quietness and heirs of peace,
enkindle in us the fire of thy love;
sow in us thy fear;
strengthen our weakness by thy power;
bind us closely to thee and to each other
in our firm and indissoluble bond of unity:

(Syrian Clementine Liturgy)

Shannon Stapleton/ Reuters

Racist hatred in America. 

A white supremacist is met by demonstrators near the site of a planned speech by white nationalist Richard Spencer, on the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Christians in America cannot stand by quietly, or (worse) tacitly support such bigotry as many do in the hope that it will further some of their own narrow-minded causes. Neither can we, their brothers and sisters in Christ turn a blind eye – for we are not immune from this and our own Brexit arguments have already led to an increase in hate-crime in the UK.

I read about a fabulous response to the planned speech by Richard Spencer.  Alligator Brewing, a tiny brewery in Gainesville, mounted its own protest to Spencer by promising that anyone got tickets his appearance could exchange them for a draft beer at Alligator. Alligator, in return, disposed of the tickets so they couldn’t be used. 

“We unfortunately can’t stop him from bringing his hate to Gainesville,” the brewery posted on Facebook and Instagram. “But we can empty the room so his disgusting message goes unheard.”

Other bars joined in – a fantastic example of commited, non-violent, principled protest!

Alligator Brewing received DEATH THREATS because of their peaceful protest.   (Click here for more)

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

(Pastor Martin Niemöller)

Taxis for Jesus!

That’s a denarius featuring Tiberius. The inscription on the other side reads Ti[berivs] Caesar Divi Avg[vsti] F[ilivs] Avgvstvs (“Caesar Augustus Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus”).  It’s a coin with a picture of Caesar on it describing him as the son of God.  That’s the coin that the People of Israel have to pay their annual poll tax to the Romans with (you can see why it seems like a blasphemous slap in the face to them!)
The tax was started after a census taken around A.D.6 – quite probably the one organised by Quirinius that Luke weaves his birth narrative for Jesus around.  The Jews can remember the census – it was designed to determine their wealth and resources so that such a tax could be imposed.  For Luke to set this as the backdrop to the story of Jesus’ birth is quite a political statement!  But maybe that’s a story for another day…  (Christmas is just a few shopping days away!)
The Jews resented the tax and they resented having to pay it with this particular blasphemous coin.
Soon after the tax was established, Judas of Galilee led a revolt against it – it’s mentioned as a cautionary tale in the book of Acts:
Later, when the people of our nation were being counted, Judas from Galilee showed up. A lot of people followed him, but he was killed, and all his followers were scattered.  (Acts 5:37)

It is a dangerous thing to challenge the Roman poll tax.  It is a life-or-death thing.

So – we have this encounter between Jesus and a strange alliance of Herodians and Pharisees:

The Pharisees got together and planned how they could trick Jesus into saying something wrong. They sent some of their followers and some of Herod’s followers to say to him, “Teacher, we know that you are honest. You teach the truth about what God wants people to do. And you treat everyone with the same respect, no matter who they are. Tell us what you think! Should we pay taxes to the Emperor or not?”
Jesus knew their evil thoughts and said, “Why are you trying to test me? You show-offs! Let me see one of the coins used for paying taxes.” They brought him a silver coin, and he asked, “Whose picture and name are on it?”
“The Emperor’s,” they answered.
Then Jesus told them, “Give the Emperor what belongs to him and give God what belongs to God.” His answer surprised them so much that they walked away.  (Matthew 22:15-22)

They start with flattery…  ha!  how pathetically obvious is that!   

“Teacher, we know that you are honest. You teach the truth about what God wants people to do. And you treat everyone with the same respect, no matter who they are.”

If Jesus wasn’t on his guard before, he certainly is now!   Flattery is like chewing gum. Enjoy it but don’t swallow it!

He’d probably also have been on his guard because this is an odd alliance – Herodians and Pharisees.  The Herodians were a pro-tax party – the Pharisees were rabidly anti-tax, they had to be – the coin itself is blaspemous!  To see them approach Jesus together to ask about this tax and this coin of all things would have seemed very odd – perhaps an early example of a common enemy uniting enemies?  My enemy’s enemy is my friend?

So here we have odd bedfellows approaching Jesus with cringeworthily cheesy and patently insincere flattery pretending to ask Jesus to settle a question about the Roman poll tax.


But Jesus isn’t deceived by the cheese!

He sees the trap.  If he says “Yeah – always pay the tax, it is your civic duty” then the Pharisees will stoke up the Jews (who hate the tax) against him… but if he says “No – it is an oppressors tax – you should refuse to pay it” – then the Herodians will run off and tell the authorites and he’ll be dragged off in chains like Judas of Galilee…  it’s a neat trap!

I’d imagine there was a bit of a pause – a bit like when they dragged that woman caught in adultery before Jesus and asked if they should get on and stone her to death – Jesus scratched about in the dirt for a bit.  It’s no bad thing to pause – measure your words – maybe build a little expectation!

And then he blindsides them.

Let me see one of the coins used for paying taxes.” They brought him a silver coin…”

Doh!  They had one!!  they had one of the hated coins!!  Why did they have one?  It certainly shoots the Pharisees’ fox!  Jesus doesn’t even need to make a big deal of it – he has already shown them up as hypocrites – they are already trading in this hated coin – they are already paying Caesar – they are fully bought in to Caesar – what grounds have they now to challenge him.

The crowd is loving this – they move in closer, perhaps trapping the Pharisees and the Herodians – they can’t escape or beat a hasty retreat and Jesus isn’t finished with them yet!

“Whose picture and name are on this coin you have given me?”
“The Emperor’s,” they answered.
Then Jesus told them, “Give the Emperor what belongs to him and give God what belongs to God.” His answer surprised them so much that they walked away.

 And there it is – he has turned it back on them and they have no answer – they slink off.

Incidentally, don’t think this is over.  It isn’t.  You can see every day in our own democracy, politicians repeating things that they KNOW to be lies – things which have been proven and shown to be lies – but they repeat them anyway – and the more they are repeated, the more they are believed as truth.  Conservative politicians – every week still – repeat the lie that Jeremy Corbyn promised in the election campaign to scrap all student debt.  We know he didn’t – it has been proved he didn’t – they know he didn’t – yet every single week they repeat it with the result that journalists have got tired of challenging it as they did at the start and they just let it go – and it then becomes accepted truth.

The same thing happened with Jesus.  During his trial at the Sanhedrin:

“They started accusing him and said, “We caught this man trying to get our people to riot and to stop paying taxes to the Emperor.”  (Luke 23:2)

That’s nonsense!  But you can imagine that it has been said and repeated so many times that Jesus is fed up of trying to deny it.  A lie becomes accepted truth.  Nothing changes, eh?

The Pharisees and the Herodians slink off – but their lies return to dog his steps.  But what are we left with?

Jesus’ answer is clever – it gets him out of a trap – but it is more than that.

“Give the Emperor what belongs to him and give God what belongs to God.”

People have taken this away and interpreted in wildly divergent ways!

There are those who have taken this to mean that there are two kingdoms – Caesar’s Kingdom (the world) and God’s Kingdom (some other-worldly concept) and that the two do not intersect.  We have responsibilities in both – we owe stuff to Caesar and we owe stuff to God – simple – our faith and the rest of our life are separate things to be treated separately.  We live a kind of double life as citizens in two places but that’s fine because they are separate.

Now that’s exaggerating and oversimplifying the idea for effect – of course it is – there is more nuance than that, but you get the idea!  There are people in the world who say that Jesus has instructed us to obey the civic authorities – pretty much without question – and they can be heard saying “render to Caesar” every time someone suggests opposing the goverment as if “Render to Caesar” means we must always obey government.

That, of course is patent nonsense.  If you are a member here – or soon to become one – then this is very real to you.  The URC Statement of Nature, Faith and Order which is read at membership services says this:

We believe that
Christ gives his Church a government
distinct from the government of the state.
In things that affect obedience to God
the Church is not subordinate to the state,
but must serve the Lord Jesus Christ,
its only Ruler and Head.
Civil authorities are called
to serve God’s will of justice and peace for all humankind,
and to respect the rights of conscience and belief.
While we ourselves
are servants in the world
as citizens of God’s eternal kingdom.


That’s just a much more long-winded way of saying “Give the Emperor what belongs to him and give God what belongs to God.”

We do not live lives where for some things we are in God’s Kingdom and for other things we are in Caesar’s Kingdom – the whole of life – every tiny part of it is within God’s Kingdom – there is nothing you say or do or are involved in that God is not interested in – even if it’s model trains!

We live lives where there are claims made on us by the world and by God.

The coin that Jesus borrows from his accusers has Tiberias’ image stamped on it.  By stamping his image on that coin he has laid a claim to parts of your life – and he backs that up with force, with the power of the law, with penal consequences.

Yet you know that there is already an image stamped on your life.  You are made in the image of God.  God has already staked his claim to your life.  And he backs that up with love that took flesh and blood and walked all the way to the cross and beyond.

That’s the world we live in – a world with competing claims on our lives – and Jesus will have us choose.  Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.

So – should I pay my taxes, Phil?  I’m not going to tell you anymore than Jesus did!  Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.  Jesus wants you to wrestle with this and think it through and make serious choices about your life and whose it is – whose claims on your life you acknowledge.

But I will say this..

  • When you unthinkingly allow the Daily Mail or any other newspaper to determine your view on just about any political issue – then you are rendering your mind to Caesar;
  • When you follow the crowd or the mob or a few popular peers into mistreating or abusing or freezing out or dehumanising another person in order to keep your place – then you are rendering your heart to Caesar;
  • When you find yourself spending more and more on stuff and gadgets and shiney new toys, when you insist on having the very latest car or laptop or iphone and find you have less and less to spare for the hungriest people in the world – then you are rendering your wallet to Caesar;
  • When you vote for a political party primarily because you think that it will benefit you, that you will be better off even if many others are not – then your are rendering your choices to Caesar;
  • When you use other people in relationships or in friendships primarily for your benefit or your advancement or your pleasure rather than for theirs – then you are rendering your soul to Caesar;
  • If you fail to stand up and speak up when injustice reigns, if you fail to act in the face of oppression and prejudice, if you shut the door and hide away when the poor and the lonely and the grieving come calling – then you have rendered your conscience to Caesar;
  • If you come to church to be entertained and to be fed a comforting spiritual takeaway and to complain when it is not to your taste; if you have become a consumer of church rather than a servant of Christ – never getting your hands dirty and offering your life as a living sacrifice to be a blessing to others – then you have rendered your church to Caesar.

Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s – but render unto God what is God’s.

Amen, let it be.

Wait for the queen!

Anyone dining together with the Queen, including the members of the royal family, must keep this simple rule: one must always follow Her Majesty’s every move and do what she does. So if she stops eating, everyone else at the table must also stop.  There’s a glorious scene in the recent film “Victoria & Abdul” where Victoria is depressed but has to sit through yet another formal dinner.  She guzzles and slurps her way through the courses barely able to see over the top of the table – and the table is so long that the guests at the other end have hardly been served their soup before they have to stop eating it as she has finished!

It is said that the current queen – not as miserable as Victoria was back then – reserves a little morsel on her plate to push around in order to let others finish their meals! 

Meals are miserable when they are formal occasions, you don’t really know anyone else and you are petrified of breaking some unspoken rule of etiquette…

Jesus found himself at such a miserable meal:

Luke 11:37-41 (CEV)

Jesus Condemns the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law of Moses

When Jesus finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him home for a meal. Jesus went and sat down to eat.  The Pharisee was surprised that he did not wash his hands before eating.  So the Lord said to him:

You Pharisees clean the outside of cups and dishes, but on the inside you are greedy and evil.  You fools! Didn’t God make both the outside and the inside?  If you would only give what you have to the poor, everything you do would please God.

 Oh no!!!  He’d forgotten to wash his hands – and it is pointed out to him and everyone else by the snooty, smarmy, smug (and rude!) host.  Or did Jesus do this on purpose – did he set up this situation – luring them into a trap he was ready to spring?

Something tells me that most toddlers would NOT get away with Jesus’ comeback!

Now little Sammy, have you washed your hands?
You know you should always wash them before sitting down for your dinner, don’t you?
Here, let me have a look…  STREWTH, they’re filthy! Go and wash them at once!
Well, dad – you clean the outside of cups and dishes, but on the inside you are greedy and evil.  You fool! Didn’t God make both the outside and the inside?  If you would only give what you have to the poor, everything you do would please God.

 We get the point, though, whether it was a Jesus set-up or not.  We are all fools if we worry more about “appearances” than the fundamentals of who we are and who motivates and drives our hearts – the outside, not the inside.  Our insides are clean if we give to the poor…