Sunday, 1 July 2018

Free for All at the Point of Need

Yesterday I watched an inspiring TV programme entitled “To Provide All People: Celebrating the NHS 70 years On”.  The one-hour programme was produced for BBC Wales and was involved interweaving the story of the launch of the NHS, with contemporary stories in the form of a poem (but not a rhyme).  It involved some amazing actors providing excellent performances in a presentation that was brilliantly directed in every aspect.

I found it profoundly moving at times and very informative.  But I was left wondering how much it had cost and whether the producers had though through how to maximise the benefit provided by the programme.  It was aired at the same time on BBC One Wales and BBC Two. But if that was all it was a terrible waste as audience needs to have been multiplied many times.

The programme deliberately, though slightly subtly drew a comparison between the start of the NHS in the face of opposition and times of austerity, with the current situation, which is not entirely dissimilar.  It also asked some hard questions as to whether, with the changes brought about in recent years, the founding vision might have got lost.

They say of evangelists that (to paraphrase a hymn) “ten thousand, thousand are their tests but all their sermons one”.  In a similar vein, I found myself reflecting on how this TV programme provided commentary on church life for most churches in the UK.

It is almost certain that the majority of our churches came into being as a result of an evangelistic vision that believed that the good news of Jesus ought to be heard and enjoyed by all regardless of status in society, age or gender (much like the NHS).  They might also have been established at significant cost and sacrifice. They were not established because they could be afforded but because they were needed (much like the NHS).

Like the NHS much has changed since our churches began.  Generally we also face the challenge of limited and shrinking resources.  But the circumstances that brought our churches are unchanged. So what is wrong?  Why are so many churches declining and so few showing signs of genuine growth (rather than transfers from one church to another)?  What might be missing?

The film spoke about compassion; that responding to the needs of those who are unwell comes before all else.  We live in a society made sick by sin and sinful selfishness and individualism. We need compassionate churches.

The film spoke about confidence that there was a better way.  Have we lost the confidence to speak out about our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.  The Bible tells us that it is the message about Jesus that is the power of God to salvation.  We have a message that could change the lives of thousands of people for the better, including our neighbours.  Why are we silent when we are called to be witnesses - to speak out in evidence of the truth.

The film spoke about change, and the importance of responding to the world around us as it changes.  Are we still sitting in pews and running services almost exactly as our grandparents did? If so, no wonder people are voting with their feet and looking for something better!

The film spoke about passion.  Are we passionate about Jesus Christ.  Are we passionate in our worship? Are we passionate about the message that changes lives?  Would you describe your congregation as a people who are passionate about their faith? If not, why not?

Finally, the film spoke about vision.  It asked the hard question as to whether the founding vision still existed in the NHS or whether somehow it had been lost.  It suggested that if the vision had been lost then there was no future for the NHS as an institution that provided a free service for all at the point of need.  It suggested that if that vision is lost then those involved would be un-motivated.

All of these points were woven into a film which also told real stories of the impact that the NHS has on real people from birth to death.  But as it ended I was not only lft saying a “Wow” but also wondering how the message of this film with its encouragements and its challenges could reach those who did not see it when it was broadcast.  I also wonder, somewhat cynically, whether everything that went into this amazing programme would impact our society so that we will demonstrate by sacrifice and commitment just how much the NHS means to us.

My ministry through Rural Mission Solutions is committed to helping rural churches become effective in their mission, with congregations that passionately love Jesus and love their neighbours so much that they find appropriate ways of mission, and live out the same vision that brought them into being against much the same challenges that face us today.  But, like the makers of the film about the NHS, I wonder what the alternative will look like if we fail to get the message.

If you share our concern, please ensure that you find ways to partner with us through earnest prayer, or through financial support, or through doing what you can where you are to make a difference.  We know we cannot manage without more active help, and I’m sure the same will be true for you. Can we help one another?

Barry Osborne - 1st July 2018

Sunday, 24 June 2018

A Fascinating Window

Shop window dressing is an art.  I live in a town with many high street shops, yet most seem to have either never heard of the art or just do not possess sufficient imagination.  Have you ever wondered why there is such a thing as window dressing?  If the purpose was merely to inform potential customers what is in stock, that could be done effectively with a printed list.  If the purpose is to display what is in stock, that would make more sense.  Clothing shops seem to presume this, so their shop windows have dummies variously dressed in the latest fashion (hopefully).  But the fact is that the purpose of window dressing is more than that.  It is about promoting sales.  Used intelligently, that space inside the window could be the secret of a successful business.

I grew up in Hastings and St Leonards-on-Sea where some shops knew a thing or two about window dressing.  One of my childhood delights was to stare into the window of a seaside toy shop.  It was full of toys and games, surrounded by a model railway.  There was a slot on one side of the window, and an old penny pressed into it would start the train with its various carriages and trucks running on a circuit around all the other items in the display.  It would have been interesting if the train ran all the time, but the fact that you could interact with the display – you could make it run – added enormous value. If there wasn’t already a small crowd at the window, one would begin to form as soon as someone inserted the coin.

The town also ran an annual competition on the best dressed window in its town centre shops.  And a strange competition where we would have to spot shop windows that included an item that was nothing to do with the shop.  For example, a potato in the window of a clothing store!

For many years I have been teaching that a key purpose for the existence of the Church, and each of our churches, is to be God’s shop window.  I was therefore intrigued to read J.B. Phillips’ translation of Colossians 3: 12-14, which appears under the heading, “The Expression of the New Life”.  It reads:

“As, therefore, God’s picked representatives of the new humanity, purified and beloved of God himself, be merciful in action, kindly in heart, humble in mind. Accept life, and be most patient and tolerant with one another, always ready to forgive if you have a difference with anyone. Forgive as freely as the Lord has forgiven you. And, above everything else, be truly loving, for love is the golden chain of all the virtues.”

The whole chapter is fantastic, but it was the word, “God’s picked representatives” that jumped out at me.  It seemed as if he was saying that we are what God has selected to put in his shop window.  The way we live and behave not only displays the work of God’s grace but, if we get it right, promotes the gospel and attracts people into ‘the store’.

I started this piece by stating that shop window dressing is an art.  A great shop window will have employed creativity to take the display to a higher level.  There is a Christmas film I have enjoyed over recent years, called Window Wonderland.  A young woman is given the opportunity to design a big store’s annual super-window.  As she struggles to come up with a good idea, life is further complicated by a competitor.  As I don’t want to spoil the story for those who have not seen it yet, I will only share two points from the story.  The first is that the window must present the traditional values of the store.  The second is that it must engage the interest of the contemporary public.

Similarly, our lives as Christians, both individually and corporately, must present the core values of the kingdom of God.  There needs to be holiness, integrity, and the beauty of love, worked out within an ungodly, often false and self-motivated world.  But if this is incorporated into a culture that belongs to a bygone age, it will be ineffective.  Those responsible for running the store on behalf of its owner could do with a great deal more creative imagination to ensure that there is a window that attracts because it effectively communicates the product to a contemporary world.

And, just in case the point has been missed, the ‘window’ is not Sunday church at 10.30 (or whenever), though it certainly should be part of it.  Church is a 24x7 living entity and needs to be something much more than a statement about the good news in Jesus.  It needs to be an honest display of the power and the qualities of the good news, lived out in a way that a passing world will stop and wonder and – hopefully – be attracted to come in.  And in that shop window, we would rather not have an object that is alien, like that potato in the clothing store.  Let there be nothing out of place.

Barry Osborne – 23 June 2018

Saturday, 5 May 2018

What would an effective missional rural church look like?

Our most recent webinar in Rural Mission Solutions was on the theme of how rural churches could become missional.  As usual, it attracted a lot of favourable comments from those who attended including one from a vicar who had watched it with his curate and plans to increase that circle.  It occurred to me that it might be helpful to reflect on what an effective missional rural church might look like.

Before I get into that, you can see the recording and find the supportive papers on the Rural Mission Solutions website.  It is not the actual recording, as the technology failed us.  It is a recording made afterwards when my voice was tired and dry, so excuse the coughs!

So, the webinar focuses on what would help a rural church to become effectively missional, but what might that look like?  Here I need to give a warning. In setting out an ‘ideal’ I run the risk of causing frustration to all that come short – including me!  But I take heart that the apostle Paul often set out an ideal in his letters and prayed that those to whom he was writing would try to attain to it.  So here goes.

1.       It would be a church where the members are excited by and enthusiastic about the gospel story.  I note that Paul, writing to the Christians in Philippi, states that a characteristic of true Christians is that they glory in (or boast in or exult in) Jesus. In suggests being thrilled about Jesus.  If Jesus thrills us it would show in all we say, sing and do.  I have a Catholic friend whose excitement about Jesus spills over when she prays.  It’s lovely!

2.       It would be a church where there is genuine love for one another regardless of differences. This would be seen in the joy we find in each other’s company.  It would be seen in the interest we show in the lives of others.  It would be seen in the support and encouragement we gave to one another.  It would be seen in the way we put other people before ourselves.

3.       It would be a church integrated into all that is good about village life.  We have lost the plot if we are seen as something other than and different from the village community.  Of course, there will always be some things where our faith will make us distinct.  But we cannot show we love our neighbours if we separate ourselves from all that they find enjoyable.

4.       It would be a church that is demonstrably focused on being a blessing to others.  We should earnestly seek God’s blessing in our individual and shared lives, but only so that we can be a blessing to others.  If we appear self-interested, only doing things to promote our cause or take from the wider village community, we shall fail miserably.  Ideally, at least once a quarter we would invest our time, energy and money in doing things for the general good of the village.

5.       It would be a church known for caring.  We should be the first on the scene with an offer to help when anyone in the village has a crisis.  We should be sensitive to the needs of others and ready to act discreetly.  Older people without personal transport should be offered lifts into town or taken out for a treat.  People who might struggle financially might have some discreet support from a foodbank.

6.       It would be a hospitable church.  This is taking welcoming to a higher level.  Visitors should always be treated as guests and preferred before ourselves.  Far too often we want and expect people to fit into what we do and the way we do it.  Cherish the guests who call into church, consider their needs but don’t smother them.

7.       It would be a church with a clear sense of purpose.  If you haven’t yet seen the recording from the webinar on how rural churches can become missional, do see it soon as it has some key points about a shared vision for what we are and where we are going.  There is probably nothing more boring than a church that is drifting or showing no movement.  But a church that has a clear sense of direction and where every member knows how to play their part is a great witness.

8.       It would be a church that is clean and tidy.  Even historic buildings can look attractive.  They don’t all need to look as if they haven’t seen a lick of paint for more than a decade, and where books and magazines are musty and dog-eared.  Paths should be weeded and swept.  Stepping inside should be to a bright and warm (or cool on hot days) experience.

9.       It would be a church that engages with all five marks of mission (see the video of the webinar if you do not understand this).

10.    It would be a church where people are able to and comfortable with talking about their faith.  Not all will have had a sudden conversion experience, but all should have a faith that is real and be able to articulate this to others gently.

11.    It would be a church where the preaching/teaching is relevant to the lives of the people in the pew, where sermons are more about talking with people and less like preaching at them.  It would not sound churchy or use anachronistic language and style.

12.    It would be a church where no on and nothing takes pre-eminence.  There is little worse than dominant noisy people or organs!

13.    It would be comfortable.  If it is stuck with pews these would be well cushioned.

14.    It would be a church where change is understood and accepted.  After all, if new people join then their presence will change things.

15.    It will be a delight and probably growing through conversions.

Please feel free to add your own thought to the list.  How nearly ideal is your church?

Barry Osborne 5th May 2018

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Who is Really in Your Church?
What took place at Rephidim several thousands of years ago, is important for several reasons.  While the Children of Israel were journeying through the wilderness they were attacked by the Amalekites.  You can read the account in Exodus 17: 8- 16.  This incident has inspired artists and preachers over the years.  It was a formative experience for an emerging new leader of the Israelites.  It has been used as an illustration of the importance of intercessory prayer.  The occasion gave rise to a fresh understanding of God and one of the compound names of Jehovah.

I believe that there is another important lesson in this incident which is easily overlooked. It gives a powerful message to Christian churches today.  But you will not find it within the record in Exodus 17.  Instead you need to read 
Deuteronomy 25: 17,18.

Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. 

Who were the ones that were lagging behind?  It is most likely those who had difficulty keeping up.  This would be likely to include the more elderly and those with young children.  How many parents walking with young children have been frustrated by their offsprings’ slow pace and ease of distraction!  Apparently, all were weary from walking. I can image that the line of people gradually became increasingly drawn out.  The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has, “Every man for himself and the Devil take the hindmost" as a 16th century proverb.  Tragically, it describes the attitude of many today.  But what is the application from Rephidim for our churches today?

Last Sunday, on arriving at church, I found myself musing on the description of the early church as recorded in 
Acts 2:44 “All the believers were together and had everything in common.”  It was the image of a church that was inclusive and caring that I pondered, aware that you can find yourself excluded if you are too young or too old.  Imagine my surprise when my colleague leading the service took as the basis for his talk, Ezekiel 34: 17-19 “Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?”  The thrust of his message was how self-interest and selfishness spoil things for others and breaks down community.

The “Church in the Wilderness” was under attack by the Amalekites who were picking off the most vulnerable.  Something needed to be done.  Whatever is read into this account in Exodus 17 regarding Joshua leading the response, or what went on up the mountain, if we fail to recognise that God cares about the most vulnerable and that the whole people of God are not whole without them, we would have missed the point.  If our churches are weak about their approach to the needs of the young and the old (as well as those who care for them), or others marginalised, then we have missed the point of what it means to be church.

One of the benefits of congregationally ordered churches is their ability to adapt, free from denominational legislation.  While I was the pastor at Herstmonceux, we abandoned a traditional approach to church membership and opened the sense of belonging to anyone competent to sign a covenant of fellowship.  Immediately, many who had hesitated about becoming ‘members’ became happy to sign up, identifying themselves as ‘part of the church’.  But this included several younger members of our congregation, whose faith in Jesus Christ had already been recognised.

As one who holds a memorialist understanding of Communion (or Eucharist, or the Lord’s table), I also saw no reason why any believer should be excluded from partaking of the elements simply on the basis of age.  At first, I would state that any children who were believers were welcome to partake subject to the approval of their parents.  That ended when a Christian father asked me by what right I had to made him an arbiter or judge regarding the sincerity of faith of his sons!  While I realise that some reading this come from Christian traditions that have a ‘higher’ sacramental view, and I have no desire to offend, I have concluded that we are inappropriately precious about who may and who may not eat and drink.

What is memorialised was inaugurated at a meal that included a poor group of disciples including one who would betray him, another who would deny him, and many who would abandon and doubt him.  Writing on this subject to the church at Corinth 
on this subject,the apostle Paul takes them to task about their failing to be inclusive of the weaker members of the church.  He also stated that it is for each person to judge themselves before eating and drinking.  No reference here to any external restrictions.

After a few weeks, we became bold enough to invite some of the children to serve the bread and grape juice to the adults.  That was a profound moment.  What was it that Jesus said about allowing children to come to him, and the kingdom belonging to them? 
(Luke 18:16,17)

So, who is in and who is out when it comes to fellowship in your church?  Church is based on the concept of fellowship or community.  That only truly exists if everyone is valued, understood and included.  The lesson that Israel needed to learn, and especially Joshua, was not that the victory belonged to Joshua and the army, but to the Lord of Hosts, for whom the weak and the vulnerable are precious and whom he will defend.

We would all do well to examine our attitudes to the weaker or marginalised within our church, and to the structures that affect them.  It is all too easy to neglect, as the early church found regarding some of the widows that were part of the church at Jerusalem.  We need to consciously and deliberately address this issue if we are to be a model of community to the world around.
Barry Osborne – 21st April 2018

Friday, 13 April 2018

Who I AM

Microsoft has just taken me through a process to update the password that both opens my laptop and opens my Microsoft account including Windows 10.  It was a painstaking process of entering characters and codes sent by email and text.  This was particularly annoying as I have only this week sent password information to my executors and the Chair of trustees of Rural Mission Solutions.  I did this because a brother-in-law died without informing anyone of his password and nobody can get into his laptop!

I suspect that I probably have some twenty or so passwords on my computer covering various personal and work, to which can be added various pin numbers that relate to credit cards and entry systems. Some important applications require my fingerprints or facial recognition.  All of this is to prove that I really am who I say I am.

A further dimension to my identity is who I am to various people.  One person knows me as her husband.  Another knows me as his foster father.  Some know me as a brother or uncle.  Still others know me as a pastor, or a preacher, or an author or lecturer.  Some only know me as a customer.  Everyone knows something about me, but each only knows me in part.  No one on earth, not even my wife, knows the complete me.

Over the recent Easter period, my ministry has focused on the identity of Jesus Christ.  Since we were not around at the time he walked the earth, we rely on the testimony of the four gospel writers to explain to us exactly who Jesus of Nazareth is.  We know that two of these, Matthew and John, spent three years travelling with Jesus so had first-hand knowledge.  Mark probably had some direct contact with Jesus, but his mother was a close follower of Jesus, and it is understood that he also gained much information from Peter.  This leaves Luke, a doctor, who tells us that he made diligent enquiries to ensure he got the facts right.  These four witnesses combine to provide testimony as to who exactly Jesus is.  They do so in company with other witnesses so that we can be confident that Jesus was a real person, living at a real time, and in a real location.

Each presents us with a paradox.  We see someone who is clearly human.  But we also see someone who, in personality and performance is clearly something other.  The fact that he is unique makes his identity something we cannot really get our heads around.  To many who lived in the area where he had grown up he was 
“the carpenter’s son”, leaving them baffled by the extent of his wisdom and knowledge. In the gospel accounts, time and again his actions leave people asking, “Who is this man?”

As one of my readers you will be able to glean something about who I am.  Some reading this, are related to me and know me in a different context, so will have a different view.  Still others have sat under my teaching or experienced pastoral care, so will have those experiences from which they can build a picture.  But if you really wanted to know me you would need to move in and follow me around for a few years.  Two of the gospel writers did just that with Jesus and share their testimony with us.  The other two writers pass on the testimony of others, but even this is supported from their own experiences.

Matthew is clearly concerned to present Jesus as the promised Messiah, and probably wrote with a Jewish readership in mind.  Mark seems to want to present Jesus as a person of extraordinary action. From the start of his account, Luke seems keen to set his story in a specific time, and presents Jesus as Saviour, and gives us insights into Jesus’ interaction with people, and his compassion.  John, who had the greatest direct contact with Jesus, introduces Jesus from start to finish in a different way.  He boldly starts by presenting Jesus as divine, the creator of the world and the source of life.

It is impossible to read these four accounts, I suggest, without seeing them as honest accounts.  The fact that at the time of their writing, many who had personal contact with Jesus were still alive, and that thousands of people were discovering that they could come to know Jesus through believing, with most becoming willing to risk all for his sake, and even to die rather than deny him, all adds credence to their testimony.

But none of the four hides from the fact that understanding who Jesus is was a challenge.  Matthew, Mark and Luke record a journey Jesus and his disciple took to Caesarea Philippi.  This was an area distinguished by idolatry.  Here Jesus asks his disciples how people were identifying him.  He asks, “Who do they say I am?”.  He then asks them, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answers, declaring him to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. 
(See Matthew 16:13-20)   It is from this time that Jesus confirms his identity to his disciples and begins to explain about his forthcoming suffering and resurrection.

But the gospel writers reveal that his disciples still struggle to understand.  Peter tries to instruct Jesus on what he can do!  James and John, failing at that time to grasp the fact that the Son of God had humbled himself and become a servant, implore Jesus to give them special status in the kingdom.  Even after his resurrection from the dead, the reality that Jesus walked out of his grave seems hard to grasp.  He had to show them the physical wounds suffered on the cross, to converse with them and even to eat with them to demonstrate that he was really the same person they had followed for three years.

It is John, wo starts his gospel by presenting Jesus as divine, who includes the account of Thomas’ struggle to believe.  He had not been there when the other disciples had seen the risen Jesus, examined his body, and satisfied themselves that it was indeed the same Jesus.  I imagine that Thomas must have come up with possible explanations.  Had they hallucinated?  Was it mere wishful thinking?  Was it a ghost?  It is only when he meets the risen Jesus for himself and discovers that Jesus knew the evidence he sought, that he identifies Jesus as both 
“Lord and God”.

For me, this suggests that it is almost always our subjective engagement with Jesus that precedes our ability to identify who he is.  If we try to believe intellectually and objectively, we are only likely to become confused.  But when we come to him, and seek to know him, only then do we begin to identify who he really is.  We will also find, like the apostle Paul, years after coming to know him we are still wanting to know him more and better.

The four witnesses present the Jesus they came to know.  Each does so in the light of that personal knowledge.  For two thousand years Christian men and women have also been proclaiming the Jesus they have come to know.  It is down to us to share our testimony, to be his witnesses, not by reciting objective facts (though these may be useful), but by declaring our personal subjective experiences of encounter with the one who lived, died, rose again and lives today. We need to speak about the Jesus we know rather than the Jesus we know about.  Believing is not about intellectual acceptance of facts, it is about contemporary and continuing experience.  Only then can we accurately identify Jesus as Saviour, Friend and Lord.
Barry Osborne – 13th April 2018

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Totally Unexpected

A few years ago someone gave my wife a potted primula.  It adorned a window cill for a while, then I planted it in the garden behind our house, hoping it might survive.
That winter, much to our surprise it suddenly burst into flower right through a deep layer of snow.  It continued to flower for a whole year and through another cold winter. The flowers disappeared late last year but as soon as the garden was covered with several inches of snow this winter, up it came in all its glory again.  Up it comes before the crocuses and other Spring plants. Its vibrant life is totally unexpected, but gives great joy.
A deep gloom had settled on the eleven surviving men.  Their leader had been a victim of an extremely painful form of capital punishment.  Not that he had done anything wrong. They were trumped up charges and it was a mockery of a trial.  Added to that one of their number had hanged himself. They had mixed feelings about that. After all he was the one who had betrayed the Master.  But now the adventure was over.
Among them, Peter seemed to be the most depressed as he sat with his head in his hands.  It had started out so well for him. Sure, he had often put his foot in his mouth, and his impetuosity had got him into difficulties.  But he had sworn undying faithfulness, only to throw away three years by three times denying that he even knew the Master. And he could not free himself from that memory of the look Jesus had given him as he emerged from the High Priest’s house. What was it?  Disappointment? No, it was something else: understanding? However you describe it, that look was enough to reduce a grown man to floods of bitter tears. He was a failure.
Only John made himself busy taking care of their Master’s bereaved mother, comforting her as best he could.  The rest sat in huddled silence, overwhelmed by the sudden dreadfulness that marked the end of their mission.
Suddenly the door burst open as some of the women came in shouting excitedly about a stone rolled away and an empty tomb, and talk of angels.  Their words broke through the pained silence like a sword. Peter leapt to his feet and rushed to the door. He had to see this for himself. How could things have gone from bad to worse.  He hurried as fast as could towards the place where the man who had changed his life had been hurriedly buried in a borrowed tomb. His friend had abandoned Mary, and now ran past Peter, reaching the tomb first.  Sure enough, the great stone was rolled to one side and he could see the body had gone. He fell to the ground in grief.
But Peter needed more and went inside.  For a few moments he stood alone in that empty space until he was joined by John.  What was really strange was that the strips of cloth that had wrapped his body and that which had been wrapped around his head were still lying separately there. Peter had no idea what to make of it.  Everything was so confusing.
But the confusion evaporated that evening. Peter and John had joined the others in the guest chamber of the house.  They had carefully locked the door. It would not surprise them if the religious leaders and soldiers came to arrest them.  And that was when it happened! Quite how they would never be able to explain, but he was there.  Right there, in the room despite the locked door.  It was really him, standing there and speaking words of peace, and showing them the wounds in his hands and his side. It was really him! Totally unexpected!  What was more, apparently the mission was to go on.
Something like that was hard to get your head around.  Peter had seen something like it three times before. There was that time in the house of Jairus when Jesus had brought his daughter back to life.  Before then, he had stopped a funeral procession outside Nain, grabbing hold of the bier and commanding the young man to get up. What a shock that was to the crowd as he sat up and started talking.  Then the most amazing time was at Bethany where his friend Lazarus had died four days before, and he came out of the tomb still wrapped in burial cloth when Jesus called him. But who walks out of his own tomb?
Maybe it was all too confusing.  Maybe it was his own uncertainty about his relationship to the man he had so vehemently denied.  He was like a broken chair that no one would ever comfortably trust again. Whatever the cause, Peter seemed to think that the answer was to go back to fishing.  So it was that he and some of the others spent a fruitless night on the lake. As the skies were just beginning to lighten they saw a man on the shore who called out to them and offered some advice.  As day breaks, fish that had been near the surface, swim deeper making catching them harder. But Peter had once before taken advice and had caught so many fish on that occasion that the boat nearly sank.  This time, again the advice was good and the nets were full. It was totally unexpected.
They had not recognised him at first, but John declared, “It is the Lord”.  As they neared the shore, Peter, impetuous as ever, jumped overboard and led the way up the beach.  They ate their breakfast in an awkward silence. Then Peter and Jesus had walked together along the shore.  It was not an easy conversation. Twice Jesus asked Peter if he really did deeply love him. Peter could only respond expressing a lesser kind of love.  The third time the question came, Jesus used the same expression Peter had been using. It had been bad enough to have sat round that fire, so similar to the one he had sat around that night he had denied the one he had professed to love to death.  Now it seemed that even the lesser expression of love Peter claimed he had, was being questioned.
That he deserved, but what he did not expect or deserve were the words Jesus also spoke recommissioning Peter.  If Peter’s faith had been found wanting, it seemed that Jesus still had faith in him. That was totally unexpected.
As someone who has tried to follow Jesus, and who has let the Lord down on occasions, I take comfort in reading of their relationship. The love of Jesus for me was expressed on Calvary. His patience with me is experienced day after day.  He is the great constant in a changing world and an inadequate discipleship.
On Easter Sunday 55 years ago I declared my faith in Jesus Christ before a packed church and stepped into the baptismal pool.  A burst pipe in the road nearby a few days before had resulted in a thin layer of clay on the tiled floor, and I skidded into the waiting arms of the man who had tricked me into giving a talk at a youth group in which I confessed openly for the first time that Jesus Christ was my Saviour.  
24 hours before that Easter Sunday Baptismal Service I had discovered that Jesus had endured the cross because he loved me, and there was no other good enough to pay the price of sin.
I went under the water for a brief moment, and rose to a new future.  It was not what I had planned. That had been yielded up on Hastings Pier the day before.  This was to be the future God had planned. It has sometimes been difficult, sometimes even painful, but I would not swap it for anything, for there is nothing better.  It has been a fantastic 55 years and totally unexpected! What is even more wonderful is that one day I will see Jesus face to face. Whatever awaits me after this earthly life is over is certainly beyond anything I could ever expect.

© Barry Osborne 2018

Saturday, 31 March 2018

The woman who worked with strippers

Her name was Sylvia and I met her on Hastings Pier.  It was Easter Saturday in 1963 and I was 17 at that time.  Once a month a group of Christian people took over the restaurant area.  Tables were cleared away and seating was laid out in theatre style. Each month a special speaker was invited and the event advertised.
It had been announced at our church youth group:  “Sylvia Smith will be talking about her work in Soho among prostitutes and strippers”.  Unsurprisingly, the topic sounded attractive to an adolescent male.  Several of us from the youth group turned up. I had been shopping at Freeman Hardy and Willis shortly before meeting up with my friends at a local coffee bar and still had my new plimsolls with me.  In those days, coffee bars were where teenager hung out.
We made our way across to the pier.  The room was already full but we found some space near the back.  Sylvia was a young and attractive woman with a voice that was pleasant to listen to.  These days I cannot remember a thing she said about her work as an evangelist in Soho, but I remember it sounded pretty exciting.  What I do remember is that she slipped seamlessly from talking about her work into a talk about the betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus.  I had never heard a talk like it.
Sure, I knew the story pretty well.  In the fifties almost every kid in the UK was taken to a church Sunday School and I was typical.  However, as soon as I hit my teens I managed to break free by joining Sea Cadets. I hadn’t given up on God exactly; just abandoned church for something more interesting.  After all, my church seemed to have been run by a group of dusty old men, some of whom, in my opinion, were not that Christian. Church - the grown up version - contrasted to the more engaging Sunday School.  But I was free of it; free from moral constraints. Over the next four years my lifestyle became increasingly profligate, carefully hidden from my parents.
An incident at a drunken party followed by a trip to A&E at a local hospital provided a wake-up call.  But my best efforts at reforming my life were ineffective. Then a man I didn't know and who didn’t know me passed on a gospel leaflet to me in the street near my home and then went away and prayed every day for me.  That leaflet could have been written specifically for me at that time. It contained just one scripture reference: Jesus saying that whoever came to him he would never turn away. Reading it in my bedroom some time later, I said a short prayer asking if I could be accepted.
In the months that followed, my attitude began to change.  I joined a youth group at the church I had abandoned. There I made friends and fell in love (well, I thought I had) with Rosemary.  After I had attended for a few weeks, the church Minister announced that the following week I would be speaking on my favourite Psalm.  There had been no consultation about that, but sitting next to Rosemary (whose dad was also a Minister), I didn’t want to lose face. With the help of an inherited Study Bible, the following week I spoke on Psalm 23 referencing the imagery of sheep that had strayed and a shepherd who gave his life for the sheep.  It was sincere and wasn’t a bad talk. Unfortunately, Rosemary was not there to be impressed.
Afterwards, when I went to ride home, my bicycle seemed rooted to the spot.  I discovered the Minister had hold on the back of the saddle. “Now I know where you stand, when can I baptise you?” he asked.  Unable to come up with a decent excuse, I found myself enrolled in a series of pre-baptism session alongside Rosemary’s two brothers.  But, frankly, my faith was very weak so when it came to a final interview to see if I was a fit person to be baptised and admitted to church membership, one of the deacons, Rosemary’s dad, declared me unfit.  Fortunately the other interviewing deacon said that God had told him that I should be received even though my faith was weak.
Baptism in my church was by total immersion and the newly plimsolls I was carrying that evening on Hastings Pier had been purchased for the occasion which was due to take place the following day.  My baptism was meant to be a sign and declaration of faith, but it was a faith with many holes and somewhat uncertain. But as Sylvia moved into her Easter message things were about to change once more.
One by one, she focused on each person significant in the story.  We considered Judas who professed to be a disciple, but who for personal reasons betrayed Jesus with a kiss.  We considered Peter who had professed undying loyalty but under pressure denied even knowing Jesus. We considered Herod whose only interest in Jesu seemed to be to satisfy a personal whim.  We considered Pilate who, rather than do what he knew to be right, washed his hands of responsibility. We considered the soldiers who had carried out the death sentence, nailing an innocent man to a cruel cross.  After each description, Sylvia quoted the words that Jesus had prayed, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”.
Two things hit me during that talk.  The first was how much my life showed similar weaknesses to each of the characters sending Jesus to the cross.  The second was the amazing love that Jesus demonstrated. Before that meeting if you had asked me why did Jesus die on a cross, my baptismal classes would have ensured that I could explain that he died for the sin of the world.  After the meeting, asked the same question I would answer, “because he loved me, undeserving as I was”.
The talk ended and a hymn was announced.  It was a hymn I knew so well I could recite the words of each verse.  As people began to sing I found myself struggling as I contemplated the final verse. It was Isaac Watts’ famous hymn, When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died…  It took on a fresh and personal meaning in the light of all I had heard that evening.  As we sang “See from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down.  Did e’er such love and sorrow meet or thorns compose so rich a crown?” it was almost as if I was there watching this man die and hearing those amazing words of loving forgiveness.
But I knew the words of the final verse, and knew my weakness was such that I dared not sing them.  I could not sing them unless God enabled me to really mean what I was coming. As that verse began, I found myself singing with an absolute sincerity.  “Love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life,my all”  I had felt the love of God that evening and knew that I had to surrender all I was and all my hopes and ambitions at the pierced feet of the man who surrendered everything for me.
Clutching the plimsolls firmly in my hand I walked home with a new eagerness as I looked forward to the next day; Easter Sunday and my baptism.  What it would be symbolising was now burning in my heart.

© Barry Osborne 2018