Rob's message for October

Scrolling down my Facebook feed this morning, I see I am invited to buy train tickets; cook sea bass with cashew, coconut and kale salad; and go to some classical concerts in Montreal. And that’s just the first three adverts!

Sometimes, but less often than before, something I see on there really grabs me. Recently it was a little video of a preacher talking about the criminal on the cross. You might remember that two of them were crucified on either side of Jesus. One continued to mock him, but the other stopped him, saying that unlike them, who were being justly punished, Jesus had done no wrong and did not deserve it. He turned to Jesus and asked, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom”, and Jesus responded, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

The preacher imagined the scene (not described in the bible) as the criminal arrived at the gates of heaven and met the angel. The angel asks him repeatedly what he is doing there, and he replies each time that he doesn’t know. Frustrated, the angel goes to get his supervisor who questions the new arrival further. What does he think of the doctrine of salvation? He’s never heard of it. Or of the bible? No idea. Finally, exasperated, the supervisor-angel asks him on what basis he is standing there trying to get into heaven at all, and the criminal replies, “The man on the middle cross told me I could come.”

The bigger point that’s being made here is that if we wonder what it is that wins us eternal life with God, some of us might hope that it is through doing good – but what is good depends so much on one person’s definition, doesn’t it? I’ve always worried what will become of me if God’s definition of good enough is someone just ever so slightly better than me. Of course, those of us who call ourselves Christians might say something different, like, “Because I have faith”, or “Because I follow Jesus.” Now of course faith matters, and so this kind of answer isn’t untrue in a way, but there is a better place to start: not with “Because I”, but “Because he”. Because Jesus. Because the man on the middle cross told me I could come.

(Three crosses photo credit: Józef Kazimierz "Meaglin" Sokołowski)


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Rob's message for September

Recently I was away at a big Christian festival we go to most years with people from the church, and I heard one of the speakers, a vicar I have known for a long time, tell a story about someone who went to a vet he knew to get their Alsatian puppies immunised. They were very excited, having bought them for a discount price in a supermarket car park. The nurse had a first look at them, and felt she might need the vet to help with this one. He came in and peered in the box, and was quickly able to diagnose the problem as… being guinea pigs.

In our household we have recently got a pair of very cute guinea pigs. Apart from the fact that I find it almost impossible to imagine that anyone could mistake them for Alsatians, of all things, I have already noticed the change they have made to our lives. First of all, they have worked out that the tasty vegetables are in the fridge, so every time I even go to get the milk to make a cup of tea, they shout and scream until I fish them out a bit of cabbage or whatever. But more than that, we’ve become friends with them, and I hear the sound of various voices as we say hello to them, or tell them not to argue, or whatever it may be.

Having not had pets before, or at least not since I was a child when I wasn’t really responsible for them, I have been quite worried about them. Are they drinking enough water? Have I cleaned the cage out with the wrong chemicals? Is the run in part of the garden that contains deadly poisonous plants I’m unaware of (or even buttercups and daisies, which are both somewhere on a line from unsuitable in a large quantity to immediately deadly, depending on which website you look at).

It all reminds me a bit of the early days of parenthood, when you are given this baby and sent home with the expectation that you will know what to do with it. You are filled with this overwhelming love for this child, and don’t want any harm to come to it.

God’s love for us is better than the love of the best of parents. But God doesn’t have to learn how to take care of us, and feel his way. He knows instinctively, and perfectly, what we need. He knows what is good for us, and bad for us, which is especially important at the times when we don’t. He knows exactly who we are, is never confused or deceived, and he will never stop taking care of us. In Jesus he has given us everything we will ever need.


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Rob's message for August

Regular readers (hello again, nice to see you both) will remember that last month I shared a little bit about Peter and his best friend Jesus. We’ve been reading through one of Peter’s letters in the bible for the last month or so.

This period has coincided with one of my occasional catch-ups with one of my oldest friends. Predictably, and confusingly, his name is also Peter, but in this case he has taught me a lot more than I have taught him: for Peter and Jesus, it was very much the other way round.

Pete has lived in Kenya for a long time, so we were comparing life in very different places, the way our kids have grown up in completely contrasting places, how it’s easier running in England than Kenya because he lives at 5,000 feet, all that stuff. But in our conversation we always come back to what it has been like trying to follow Jesus for the 25 years we have known each other.

Over the years we have sat and eaten and talked and prayed in lots of different places. For a year or so we met for breakfast at 7am, but we were younger then, so this time we had a pie and a pint in a pub in London.

I was telling him about how we were reading the Peter letters, and something really interesting I had noticed. Years before in their relationship, probably more than the 25 years I have known my friend Pete, but also over breakfast, Jesus had sat with his Peter and asked him to love people. He wanted Peter to say he would love them the same way as Jesus – with whatever it took – but Peter could only manage to say he would love them like a brother. Not bad, and gracious as ever, Jesus doesn’t keep pressing him on it. Maybe things will turn around, he thinks.

And they do. Because all these years later, when Peter writes his letter, he calls on the church to “love each other deeply, from the heart.” The word used for love here is like the one Jesus was trying to get Peter to use all those years ago. It’s the “give up everything” kind of love. The love of the best of parents, and partners and friends. The greater love of Jesus, who laid down his life for us.

I’m sure there are things Pete and I would say we have learned over 25 years, and other places where we seem very resistant to growing and changing. We don’t seem to have learned how to take selfies, for example. But we’d definitely both want to know better and better how to love other people deeply, from the heart, following the example of that other Peter, who finally came to understand what it meant that Jesus had given up everything for him.


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Rob's message for July

What’s the best thing about your best friend?

In our services for most of the next few months, we are reading the letters of Peter. Peter had a best friend, whom he had been with every day for 3 years. It had started on a day like any other, when Peter and his brother Andrew were getting ready to take their fishing boat out onto the Sea of Galilee. A man walked along the shore, and said to Peter and Andrew, and to two other fishermen-brothers, “Follow me.” And for reasons that are never quite clear, but we can guess at, they all got up, left everything behind, and followed him.

At the end of those three years, Peter’s best friend died. It was the worst thing that ever happened to Peter, but amazingly, just days later, Peter saw him again. And despite Peter abandoning his friend when he needed him most, Jesus took him back, and again said to him something like, “Follow me.”

Soon his friend was gone again, but this time it was different, because Peter knew he was alive, and that somehow he would always be with him. And so Peter went around doing the things his friend had done, and telling people everything he had taught him. A lot of what Peter remembered about life with his friend probably ended up in what we now call Mark’s gospel, but Peter also wrote two letters full of things Jesus had said and done.

I imagine your best friend has done some amazing things for you. Peter knew that Jesus had chosen him. He’d given him a special place in his heart. Peter felt he and Jesus belonged to each other, that he was in a better place because they were friends. He felt that he mattered, and that he was forgiven. That’s some best friend Peter had, isn’t it?

But the story gets better than that, because Peter realised those things weren’t just true for him: Jesus had done them for you and me, as well. To you and me, Peter offers all of the benefits of friendship with Jesus. To know that Jesus has chosen us; that we have a special place in his heart; that we belong to him; that we are in a better place because of him; that we matter to him; that he forgives us.

And we can be friends with Jesus. Speaking to Peter and everyone else who followed him, Jesus said that he called them his friends. I expect it’s an enormous privilege to have a best friend like yours, who has done the things for you that they have. But reading this, perhaps you can understand why Peter felt so blessed to have a best friend like Jesus, and maybe it makes you wonder about being friends with him too.


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Rob's message for June

How do you deal with disappointment?

You don’t have to be a pessimist to know there are times in life when all of us feel disappointed. Some of us struggle with it a lot, but it’s familiar to everyone. There are big, maybe crushing disappointments, and there are the little frustrations which are part of everyday life.

I am currently disappointed. On Friday all was ready, and I settled down to watch the first leg of the League One playoff final between Peterborough and Sheffield Wednesday. It was going to be a great evening. Sheffield Wednesday had only missed an automatic spot by 2 points, and had scored the most points by any team ever not to go straight up. Across the season, Peterborough were 19 points worse. God’s favourite team (could the editor check this for me?) were sure to get a good result, to be followed by a thumping second leg win at Fortress Hillsborough.

And we nearly did. We nearly scored first. Except we didn’t, and then they did. They also scored second, and third. And also fourth. Only a last-minute save from our keeper prevented a splendid 5-0 thrashing.

Like last year, we seem almost certain to lose out in the playoffs, and are consigned to another 46 games next season attempting to drag ourselves out of the division. Worse still, a very insignificant rival team, Sh*ff**ld Un*t*d, have managed to get themselves back in the Premier League at only the second attempt. Sometimes comparing our disappointment with others’ success just makes it even worse.

But there is still hope. There is just the chance – the slightest chance – we might still do it. Two weeks later you are in a better position to know than I am writing now! We could get 4 goals and more to overturn the most overwhelming of deficits. It’s not quite impossible yet.

This all has the feel of Easter about it, to me. Looking back now, we can see why Good Friday was the first part of an amazing victory story, but that day, and the Saturday after, the disciples were staring into the face of a terrible defeat. Jesus was gone, and with it the last few years of their lives, and the sense of hope and purpose for the future. The disappointment was crushing. Two of the disciples meet the risen Jesus and, not realising who he is, they pour out what they are experiencing in one of the most haunting little phrases in the gospels: “We had hoped…”

Maybe for you, life at the moment, or for a long time now, feels that it could be summed up that way. Many things much worse than football might spring to mind to finish a sentence that begins “I had hoped…” We know that in this life some of those most painful disappointments might not be overturned. But the end of the story, Easter Sunday, reminds us that with Jesus, hope is not just for now: it’s forever. So I try to look at my disappointments from the perspective of eternity, and recognise that they will pass. Maybe you could deal with them that way too.


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Rob's message for May

As I write this we are in the run-up to the coronation of King Charles III on 6th May. Some of us will remember back to Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, but many of us have never seen a coronation before: some of us won’t experience one again.

Most articles I’ve read about the coronation have acknowledged some of the questions people have about it. They’ve noticed that other countries with monarchies don’t have a ceremony at all, or they’ve wondered who should be paying for it, or included statistics about how many people – and especially young people – say they won’t be watching. It might not surprise you that those aren’t arguments I’m very keen on getting into here!

Instead, following on so soon after Easter my attention was drawn to the fact that a new cross is to be carried at the head of the procession. It’s made of Welsh slate and wood, as well as silver from the Royal Mint in Llantrisant. It reminds us, of course, of Charles’s long apprenticeship as Prince of Wales.

Apparently (and again here you can make up your own mind) it also contains pieces of the True Cross, where Jesus was crucified on the first Good Friday. For me, whether or not that is where the relics come from is less significant than what the makers of this new cross are trying to represent. Having a long procession of people, some of the most powerful in our country and perhaps in the world, led by the cross of Jesus, says something important about what authority and leadership and influence look like. It says something important about what it means that Jesus goes first, and that Jesus is put first.

But what does it mean for you and me, watching (or not!) on our TV screens? Well, here we come back to the word apprenticeship, I think. Jesus’s disciples were apprentices themselves, following their master wherever he led them, and one of the things he taught them most clearly, with his words and in the end with his example, was to follow the way of the cross. It’s a way of service and sacrifice that Jesus walked in, and which led him not into palaces and parliaments and places of power, but along a dirty road to a place of execution where he gave himself up for all of us.

As an apprentice of Jesus, my experience and my expectation are that it will not be easy, and that I will often need to put service and sacrifice above my own comfort or self-interest. But I do it because I know that walking in the way of the cross is what it means to be a disciple, and it is what I am designed for, and I know that following in Jesus’s footsteps is where I want to be.


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