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An Advent Meditation

December 13, 2015 Leave a comment

Still me Lord and calm me. You’ll be with me throughout today. I know it. Let peace rule in my heart. Let calmness rule in my soul. #Advent

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Enfold me Lord. You love me and you’ll love me all through today. I know it. Let love rage in my heart. Let God rule in my soul. #Advent

Forgive me Lord and cleanse me. You’ll be with me throughout today. I know it. Let forgiveness rule in my soul. You are in my soul. #Advent

You Lord are Mystery. I cannot know you fully. Yet you’ll be with me throughout today. I know it. Let me awaken to your glory all around. #Advent

You Lord are my strength. You’ll be with me throughout today. You are my joy. Lord you are my life. You are my salvation. I know it. #Advent

The Lord is my Light and my Salvation – Jesus Christ is the Light of the World.

 

Review: The Church in Madras (Rev Frank Penny) 1904-12

October 16, 2015 1 comment

‘The Church in Madras’

A 3-volume red hardback set (I.88.1) housed in Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, Wales.

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Written by Rev Frank Penny from 1904. Final volume published in 1912.

Frontispiece: Presented by the Secretary of State for India (1905, Vol 1-2), Presented by the Secretary of State for India in Council (1912, Vol 3).

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Vol 1    1640 – 1805     Inc. St Mary’s, Madras, page 81

Vol 2   1805 – 1835     Inc. St Stephen’s, Ooty, page 320

Vol 3    1835 – 1861     Inc. All Saint’s, Coonoor, page 169

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It was thrilling to see on page 196, the word ‘should’ written in pencil in the margin by William Gladstone replacing ‘shall’, proving that Gladstone himself read these volumes!

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The East India Company (EIC)

The EIC was neutral about Christianity and its work, but their Charter of 1698 (renewed in 1792 by William Wilberforce) required them to employ Chaplains. These, in turn, had to be approved by the Bishop of London and had to be from the Protestant Communion.

However, the EIC officially discouraged and sometimes prevented the work of missionaries and Christian mission. The Royal Danish Mission and the SPCK (mostly Germans) worked in the south of India for the ‘Great principle of the duty of promoting Christian Knowledge’. There was therefore a marked difference between the work of the EIC Chaplains and that of the SPCK missionaries.

Fifteen Churches were built within the bounds of the Madras Presidency by the Company and six or eight more were built privately.

By 1835-61, 41 Churches had been built in India.

See also – Bishop Stephen Neill, ‘The History of Christianity in India’.

Travel: San Thome Basilica, Madras (now Chennai)

October 14, 2015 Leave a comment

Just yards from the beach, south of Chennai, this Church is traditionally built near to or over the site where ‘Doubting’ Thomas, the Apostle to India, was reputedly martyred in AD72, having come to India in AD52.

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This large white Roman Catholic Cathedral dates from 1896, and was given the status of Basilica in 1956.

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It is one of only three churches worldwide said to contain the tomb of one of the twelve disciples of Jesus.

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Marco Polo recorded a chapel on the seashore during his travels in Asia in 1293. The original small church was built by the Portuguese in 1523. The Prelates on this brass plaque in the Basilica date back to 1600.

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Travel: All Saint’s Church, Coonoor, Tamil Nadu

October 13, 2015 6 comments

Coonoor was one of three Hill stations established by the British Raj in the Nilgiri Hills in Southern India. Elevation 1720m.

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The Church was dedicated in 1851 and opened in 1854. A distinctive cream-coloured English-style Church in India.

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‘A charming and restful spot of great natural beauty’ (The Church in Madras). 

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My journal entry (October 2014):

After lunch, we visited All Saints Church, next door to the Gateway Heritage Hotel. This was quite a revelation – a beautiful interior, well looked after and clearly still well used. It has a dark wood, vaulted roof space, lots of stained glass and is well painted both inside and out. Someone opened up for us. So glad that he did. The large and reasonably well tended graveyard contained the usual poignant memorials to those who died in India – from the military, the church and the planter community. All far from home’

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Travel: St Stephen’s Church, Ooty, Tamil Nadu, India

October 12, 2015 3 comments

Ooty or Ootacamund in the Nilgiri Hills was one of three Hill stations in the area favoured by the British Raj. Elevation 2240m.

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Ootacamund became the summer headquarters of the Madras Presidency, nicknamed ‘Snooty Ooty’.

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The Church was dedicated in 1829, opened at Eastertide 1831 and is the oldest church in the Nilgiris.

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It has a beautiful dark wooden ceiling with huge beams hauled by elephant, following the capture of the city palace of the conquered and feared enemy of the British, Tipu Sultan, in Seringapatam over 100km away.

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My journal entry (October 2014):

We arrived at St Stephen’s Church, a cream-coloured, somewhat squat building dating from 1831. Climbing the steps, we entered the Church after first removing our shoes. It had a gorgeous dark wood interior with white paint and the usual array of brass memorial plaques. Outside, I wandered through yet another unkempt Anglican, colonial graveyard full of decaying tombs and headstones, now in the hands of CSI but utterly uncared for and overgrown. How many relatives know anything about any of these graves? There must be thousands of such spots all across India, gradually fading away into the past’.

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Travel: St Mary’s Church, Fort George, Madras (now Chennai)

October 11, 2015 1 comment

This is the first English Church built in India. It is the oldest English Church east of Suez.

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Clive of India was married in the church, as was Elihu Yale, an early founder of Yale University.

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The barracks were built in 1687 but St Mary’s was begun in 1678. It was consecrated (controversially) by Richard Portman in October 1680. The organ was installed in 1687. The spire was added in 1710.

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The walls are 4ft thick, it was built to withstand siege and cyclone and had a blast-proof roof of solid masonry. The brickwork is 2ft thick.

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The building could accommodate 500 people. The distinctive black granite baptismal font dates from 1680.

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My journal entry (October 2014):

St Mary’s – the oldest English church east of the Suez. So many similarities with St Andrew’s cathedral in Singapore, just not as big. So many brass memorial plaques to those who died, often of sickness and disease, many very young. We strolled in the heat of the beautiful sunlit church garden. A peaceful place. Butterflies. Odd how a mercantile and mercenary Raj took the Church with it as part and parcel of Empire. It was obvious you would think, wasn’t it? Well, as the years have unfolded, no – it was a bad idea!  Felt a little strange that Grandad would have known this church. Presumably as a bandsman, he may even have set foot inside. At the back of the building, I saw an old fading photo of George Town at the time (1905) he would have been there, so very different to today’s Chennai’.

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The great Lutheran Pietist missionary, exemplar and intermediary, Christian Friedrich Schwartz (born 1726) arrived in India in 1750. He is remembered in India fondly and in the stirring epitaph at the base of the large white marble sculpture in St Mary’s (by John Bacon Jr, 1807).

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Schwartz was truly the first Protestant missionary to India, not William Carey as often supposed. Carey arrived in India two years after Schwartz’s death at Tanjore in 1798. Schwartz died a rich man but he left all his wealth to the SPCK for its work in India.

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Reflection – Enjoy Today ….

September 13, 2015 1 comment

Like so many of us, I’m guilty of living way too much in the future – planning, thinking, dreaming, hurrying – and today somehow can seem far less significant. This attitude can be like; let’s just get through today as, in our heads, it’s already past, and move urgently onto the next thing!

Living like this means I have almost certainly missed some of the key events in the life of our family, something I now regret. Mother Teresa is quoted as saying, ‘Yesterday has gone, tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today’. 

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This is what the Bible has to say in James 4:

‘Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’.

It’s ‘WHO’ you are today that counts. It’s ‘WHAT’ you do today that matters.

Do enjoy TODAY.

Review – The Song of Songs: Exploring the Divine Romance

Charlie Cleverly is a fine devotional writer. As well as being Rector of the well-known St Aldates Church in Oxford, England, he is rapidly taking his rightful place among the best of our contemporary writers of faith. Every time Cleverly publishes a new book, I wait with some anticipation.

This latest book on Solomon’s Song of Songs is very good, but perhaps for me, not as impactful as his earlier, ‘Epiphanies of the Ordinary’, which to my mind was extra-ordinary – and a unique contribution to modern devotional writing.

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However, we should be grateful to Charlie for opening up again what, to so many, is an inaccessible book in the Bible. I was brought up on the poetry of the Song of Solomon. My father loved it, but in the tradition of his day, regarded it purely as an allegory describing Christ and His church. Of course, it’s far, far more than that and Cleverly cleverly brings allegory and reality together, ensuring that the book is once again made relevant to today’s church and to wider society.

For my part, I think I’ve always regarded the biblical book as far more than allegorical. As an adolescent growing up in a rather rigid church environment, the text of the Song of Solomon was often an exciting and (yes, I’ll admit it!) earthy distraction in an otherwise dull church service! It was possible to be seen reading the Bible, but to be enjoying it at the same time, perhaps for all the wrong reasons!

I read Charlie Cleverly’s new book on holiday whilst staying at a couple’s only resort. The upside of the many attractive qualities of human love was clearly evident around us! His celebration of human sexuality together with the divine romance as laid out in Solomon’s ancient song is very beautiful, as is the biblical text itself.

Cleverly’s writing is wise, clear, deep, evocative and contemplative, much as in the Song itself. One detects shades and hints of the Puritan Divine in his writing. Here are eighteen chapters covering the eight chapters of the Song of Solomon in some considerable depth. In strict terms, this is not really a commentary, but more a devotional exploration of the Divine Romance and the ‘Kiss of God’.

If anything, the book may be overly long, perhaps relying too much on quoting swathes of text from the Church Fathers. Cleverly is at his best here in his application of the Song of Songs to the Church in today’s culture. I valued his perceptive point that ‘society is obsessed by sex and the Church obsessed by marriage’– and that both such emphases are wrong! He is clear that true marriage is a ‘passionate monogamy’ and has ‘exclusive permanence’. However, he is sensitive to singleness and celibacy, but oddly silent on the persistent matter of homosexuality in human relationships.

Cleverly’s notion of the pressing need for ‘Finding your voice’ (or helping to express yourself intimately) in life and relationships is also powerful and telling, and worth the price of the book alone. He writes movingly of the winter of loss and bereavement, and of the ‘dark night of the absence of God’.

I appreciated his profound insight that churches may be better if ‘presence-led’ rather than ‘purpose-driven’! The final chapter is a wonderfully uplifting rehearsal of the truth of the Maranatha future return of Jesus Christ.

Could his book have been shorter? Possibly, but actually I’m glad that it isn’t as there is much to go over again in the future. Overall, a more than worthwhile book for anyone involved in the intricacy of life’s often complex relationships.

THE SONG OF SONGS: EXPLORING THE DIVINE ROMANCE

CHARLIE CLEVERLY (HODDER FAITH)

ISBN 978-1-444-70204-0

Review – Latest Spirituality Titles: 10 to Watch – Summer 2015

Here is a personal selection of my top ten ‘to watch’ Christian titles from the many hundreds published in the current sales period:

BLESSING 

To ‘bless’ someone is spiritually powerful, but what does it actually signify? In this accessible paperback (part of the Faith Going Deeper series), Andrew Davison lays out a comprehensive framework covering the theology and practicalities of Blessing. Superb – I loved it – if with a rather unimaginative jacket!

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DEEP CALLS TO DEEP – SPIRITUAL FORMATION IN THE HARD PLACES OF LIFE

Tony Horsfall is a past speaker at CRT, and an accomplished leader of spiritual retreats. This new book of reflections is based on the Jewish Psalms, and of particular help to anyone going through difficult times. It’s also a book for group use, with material and questions designed for this purpose.

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DELIGHTED IN GOD: GEORGE MULLER

Roger Steer’s biography of Muller is a classic. Published again as part of CFP’s HistoryMakers series, this book recounts the amazing story of this Victorian Christian who built five large orphanages in Bristol, relying on the scriptural principle of faith to raise the necessary funds.  A ‘must-read’.

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THE GOOD SHEPHERD: A THOUSAND YEAR JOURNEY FROM PSALM 23 TO THE NEW TESTAMENT

Magisterial – the only word to describe Kenneth Bailey’s books. Now this very welcome addition. Bailey writes in a unique way looking at scripture through Middle Eastern eyes. He’s one of those few authors who, in whatever they write, are always worth reading. Simply wonderful. I loved it.

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HILDA OF WHITBY – A SPIRITUALITY FOR NOW

The North Yorkshire fishing port of Whitby rates as one of my favourite UK places. I’ve long been fascinated by the haunting ruins of its vast cliff-top Abbey. Nearly 1400 years ago, St Hilda, a Celtic nun, established the northern centre of Christianity here. This is Hilda’s inspiring story, expertly told and a pleasure to read.

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JESUS WITHOUT BORDERS

I enjoyed this book although it’s terribly American.  However, that’s the point. This is a collection of travel stories as the author journeys from the USA Bible belt to a dozen different countries, looking at Church life and meeting with Christians. The chapter on his visit to England will make you smile!

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POPE FRANCIS: THE AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY

Jorge Bergoglio or Pope Francis has been in office for two years. The only authorised biography to date, this book fleshes out the man and his ministry in a series of revealing conversations. Written by two journalists, it provides a clear and comprehensive picture of this most unconventional of Popes.

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THE THIRD TARGET

Written by a New York Times best-selling author, and in the style of Spooks and Homeland, this novel pushes all the buttons for a gripping read. Highly topical; ISIS, Al Qaeda, Israel, America and Syria are all in the story. There is not that much fiction on our shelves that appeals to men, but this is one such novel that can be recommended with confidence.

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THE THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE MAN

2015 marks the 70th anniversary of TTTE. Who doesn’t love these stories and who cannot recite the names of most of the engines? Yet we know a lot less about Thomas’s creator, Reverend W Awdry. Here Brian Sibley, the best-selling biographer of C.S. Lewis, unlocks Awdry; train enthusiast, storyteller, family man, eccentric, pacifist and pastor.

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WHERE IS GOD AT WORK?

Has the Church given the world of work short shrift over the years? This book explores the importance, indeed the imperative, of taking your faith to work with you. The author, an ordained C of E priest, is also a tax specialist in a major corporation. He reflects on the challenges and opportunities provided to Christians by their working environment. Innovative and practical.

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Metadata for these titles: Author ISBN
Blessing (Faith Going Deeper) Andrew Davison 978-1-84825-642-2
Deep Calls to Deep Tony Horsfall 978-1-84101-731-0
George Muller: Delighted in God Roger Steer 978-1-84550-120-4
Hilda of Whitby: A Spirituality for Now Ray Simpson 978-1-84101-728-0
Jesus without Borders Chad Gibbs 978-0-310-32554-3
Pope Francis: The Authorised Biography Rubin / Ambrogetti 978-1-444-75251-9
The Good Shepherd: from Psalm 23 to NT Kenneth Bailey 978-0-281-07350-4
The Third Target Joel C. Rosenberg 978-1-4964-0531-9
The Thomas the Tank Engine Man Brian Sibley 978-0-7459-7027-1
Where is God at Work? William Morris 978-0-85721-628-1

This article was written in March for publication in Together Magazine (May to June 2015).

These titles can be purchased via any good Bookshop or from clcbookshops.com

The Parable of the Four Soils – Mark 4: 1-20

May 24, 2015 1 comment

V1Jesus began to teach beside the Sea of Galilee’.

Galilee was an inland lake. The crowds were so big that Jesus had to get into a boat and teach from it. The boat was his pulpit. It doesn’t matter where you speak from. Buildings are not that necessary! Look at John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who like Jesus preached to the crowds wherever he went. Don’t get hung up on buildings, they are not the Church. We are the church – the people, not the buildings.

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Jesus made much use of ‘parables’: ‘Earthly stories with Heavenly meanings’ or a simple story that holds a spiritual truth. Note: Mark records fewer parables than Matthew.

Four types of soil described in this ‘Parable of the Sower’

  1. Hard soil on the path edge. Seed remains on the surface
  2. Rocky ground without much soil – little depth for growth
  3. Thorny ground – good soil but infested with weeds
  4. Good soil – fruitful and yielding a variable harvest

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V10 – Jesus was now alone with his disciples. They were confused and didn’t understand his words to them. He speaks of the ‘mystery’ of the Kingdom: The powerful manifestation of the reign of God in human lives, often attended by mighty works. This is Good News – the Gospel.

V13f – Jesus explains the parable to his disciples:  It’s about the sower, it’s about the seed and it’s about the soil.

Seed is the promise of a future harvest. This was an agricultural economy. Life itself depended on the seed that was sown. The sower depicted here is Jesus himself. The seed is the Word of God – the gospel, the message of the good news from God himself. The ground described here is people – you and I – our hearts and our lives. Jesus is asking how we receive the word of God into our lives.

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V15 Hard path = Unresponsive person – someone guilty of being frivolous with God’s word. Treating it lightly and of little value. A spirit of indifference, and sometimes of hostility to God.

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V16-17 Rocky soil = Impulsive person – acting on the spur of the moment without fully thinking through the implications. Note the word ‘immediately’. Their enthusiasm soon wanes. The presence of trouble and persecution badly affects them. Tom Wright translates this as ‘short-term enthusiasts’ or fair-weather folk, unwilling to suffer and persevere. It’s striking how trials and hardships can confirm the faith of some but then dent that of others?

NB: Plants need the sun to grow but that same sun can kill if they have very shallow roots.

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V18-19 Thorny ground = Preoccupied person – Good but infested soil is a danger to plants and to the harvest. The same is true of our hearts and lives. Worries and wealth can thwart the impact of the gospel message. Notethe desire for other things’. Addiction – some things in our lives are entirely legitimate but the ‘desire’ for them can be at the expense of everything else. Thorns choke. We all struggle at some level with this issue. Possessions, prestige and pleasure can all choke us spiritually.

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V20 Responsive person – good fertile soil, well prepared hearts. Neither shallow, hard or preoccupied, but receptive. These people hear because they want to hear. They reflect on what they hear. They put the gospel into practice and bear fruit. Gradually, the Kingdom of God comes in their lives. Spiritual fruit-bearing is the mark of a true believer in Jesus. Do note there are differences in the degree of fruitfulness here. We are not all equally patient, caring, loving, loyal, courageous and prayerful. We are all different.

Do not put pressure on yourself to produce more than you are able. You cannot be another Christian. You are you. You are accepted in God for who you are. He loves you – very much. Be fruitful and you will grow deeper into God. Spirituality is a journey we are all on. Be unwavering to the cause of Christ. Desire to grow.

The growth in fruitfulness – 30x, 60x, 100x – is all about maturity. As we develop in God, so we grow spiritually. You will not be the same tomorrow as you are today. Yes, there is the probability of going backwards as well, but if we stick close to Jesus, we will continue to grow in Him. You cannot see yourself developing Christianly, but others see it in you.

A farmer friend of mine said that he stores enough seed potatoes in his barns in NE Scotland – without planting them – to feed his whole family and his local community for a year, but if he plants them, he is then a major supplier of salad potatoes to the major supermarkets – and thus can help feed a nation!  It’s like that with us. We must sow the seed of the word of God in order to feed our nation. It needs to hear the word of God and to understand more about Jesus and his Kingdom.

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Not everyone we speak to will respond positively, but do not keep the message of the Kingdom to yourself.

In Isaiah 55:11God says … so is my word that goes out from of my mouth. It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it’.

This passage is not just about people outside of the church. This passage is about all of us. Every time we hear the word of God – or read the scriptures – we each have these same four options. What kind of soil will God’s word find in our lives? This is a daily choice for every one of us here today. We must face the fact that keeping our faith alive is a matter of clearing the weeds and tending the soil – every day.

Let’s pray for grace – and for God to help us to grow daily.

This sermon was given on Sunday 24th May 2015 at the Church Centre, Liphook in Hampshire. 

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