All roads lead to God?

One thing that I hear quite often stated is that all roads lead to God. It doesn’t matter which religion you believe in as long as you are sincere and tolerant. God, who is loving, will accept you. This idea comes from eastern religions in the main and is often illustrated by the blind men and the elephant. One feels the trunk and says it is a snake. Another felt the tusk and said it was a spear. Another felt the tail and said it was a rope. And so on. But actually, it is all an elephant. So, it is with religion.

However, sadly, I cannot go along with the idea. Firstly, there is such a thing as objective truth. We accept this for science, but not, for some reason, for religion. Secondly, in our elephant, the different parts do not directly contradict each other. But they do in religion; for example Christianity and Islam disagree directly about Jesus. Christians say he died and rose again; Muslims say he didn’t. And thirdly, sincere belief can still be evil. Look at Isis for example. No-one can say they aren’t sincere.

Another argument I hear very often is due to experience. We all know of people of different religions (and of no religion) who are lovely people. Surely God would not be so horrible as to reject those who may be mistaken? This is a very emotional and often personal argument. All I can say as a Christian is that God is just and will punish no-one undeservedly; yet at the same time truth is extremely important.

So how do we know what is true? Again, as a Christian I can only quote the one I follow. He said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” That is to say, if we wish to understand about these religious matters, he is the one to go to. To return to our blind men and the elephant, who is the one who can see if it is really an elephant or not? Only the one who opens the eyes of the blind.

John Chitham, Rector

New Year

Dear Friends

A happy New Year to you all!

New Year is traditionally a time for change. There is an old joke: how many vicars does it take to change a light bulb? To which the response is: CHANGE??? Nonetheless the church does change every now and again. Walk into any of our churches and you will see modern upgrades of kitchens and toilets, heating and doors, or plans to do something similar. Change is sometimes painfully slow but that is what happens in family life, as long as everyone is consulted so that we all stay together.

And so, after such consultation, there is a relatively small change in our benefice service pattern that begins from January. The service pattern was already working quite well but it needed a little tweaking. The most immediate, noticeable change is that our mid- morning services will all start at 10.30. This is easier to remember and less confusing than having different times. The second change on time is that the monthly choral evensong will be at 6.30, not 6.00. This is to make sure that there is no clash with the afternoon service, The Centre, which is at 4.30. The full list of our services can be found here.

Why make these changes? In essence it is to have a simpler pattern which can be remembered by those who go to church regularly, and also understood easily by those who come less frequently or are newcomers. The second reason is to ensure we have a spread of services in the Benefice. People find it easier to worship God in different ways; we are not all the same. So, the early morning service and the evensong are very traditional, the 10.30 services are in modern language but still using traditional hymns, and the afternoon service is very contemporary. Our main goal is to help everyone come to God, whatever their background. You are very welcome to try it out!

John Chitham, Rector

Christmas

Dear Friends

Christmas is coming: the election will be over; the school holidays will begin and the focus will shift to merry making.

And yet Christmas can be the hardest time of year. It can be a time when overstretched households get deeper into debt; a time when there are disputes within families; a time when loved ones are missed; and for many, a time of loneliness. Yet in our villages, where community is stronger than many other places, we still have the opportunity to go beyond this depressing scenario.

Christmas does indeed need to be about our communities. It is a time to visit neighbours, to go out to restaurants and pubs, to invite people around. It is a time when a little simple hospitality and care can set us up for the year to come. The original Christmas story, if read carefully, is actually not about “no room at the inn” but Mary and Joseph being given shelter at a time when there was no space for anyone.

Christmas still needs to be a time for families. Despite all the stresses that families can bring, if we work at it a bit, and do all we can to build bridges, family life can be renewed as we come together. Presents thoughtfully chosen, sacrificial visits and putting up with some irritations can go a very long way. The first Christmas was not easy for the family either. In all probability Joseph was visiting his family in Bethlehem who suddenly had to put up him and a very pregnant Mary when there was overcrowding for the census. Yet the reward was astonishing: the birth of the Christ-child himself.

And yes, Christmas should be a time of spiritual renewal. There is something magical about dark winter nights, the lights on in the church, the choir singing and songs of something beyond ourselves. That magic is intensely spiritual, a sense of wonder and other. The story of Christmas is of a birth. New birth is a miracle for all parents; this is a miracle in that it goes beyond the norms of nature. This is the story of God come to earth with a purpose, a purpose so important that angels sing, and wise men come running. God has come to live among us, not as a majestic king but as a small baby. It is good for us to spend a little time considering the baby: who he is, what he came to do, and what transpired. If we do, Christmas can be transformed into the most wonderful time of year.

May you have a very happy Christmas!

John Chitham, Rector

We live in interesting times

An ancient Chinese curse is reported to be, “May you live in interesting times”. Well, there can be no doubt that we live in interesting times! There is division in our country unlike anything since, at least, the miners’ strikes in the 1980s. We see turmoil overseas as well, in Yemen, Congo, Libya and Iraq. The recent Turkish invasion has turned attention back to Syria and the civilian suffering there. (An ironic positive consequence is the long overdue US recognition of the Armenian genocide by the Turks a century ago, which was the model for Hitler for the Jewish holocaust. But I digress.) These nations are being ripped apart by disunity, with a loss of respect for government, and a loss of responsibility by government. Such political turmoil is described in the Bible as “The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord” (Acts 2:20). It is an image of shadow, darkness and conflict. Our country is not as disunited as those in civil war, but nonetheless we face great political and civil challenges. How should we, in our country and in our villages, respond to the coming days?

The answer, I believe, is as people of goodwill should always respond. In times of disagreement it is necessary to see the best of your opponent, and not the worst. It is a time, in particular, for kindliness and respect. It is a time to moderate speech and action, whilst holding fast to the principles in which we believe. We need to recognise that the loss of social cohesion is worse than any election result or any Brexit outcome. As a Christian, I see the attitude we need in the face of Christ, who “took the nature of a servant…and humbled himself” (Philippians 2:7-8). Jesus humbled himself so much that he came down from heaven to be our saviour (the Christmas story). And whether we believe this or not, the example is surely challenging. We need our politicians to serve us, not use us. And we need to serve others in our community, not just be self-seeking. In this way we begin to rebuild trust and that ultimate communal objective, love.

And so, may we, in our village communities, continue to do all we can to build up the values of service and love in our midst.

John Chitham, Rector

Jesus will return!

Dear Friends,

Will Brexit ever happen? Will the day dawn when we leave the EU? Or will there be some kind of half-way house, or even that we remain in the EU? At the time of writing, we have no idea. There may be an election, a referendum, a deal, no deal or a delay. We are left waiting, watching the events unfold before us.

In a way it reminds me of one of the great Christian beliefs, the return of Jesus. Christians have been waiting for his return, which he promised, ever since he first left us when he ascended into heaven. When will it be? We do not know. (Anyone who says they do are disregarding what he himself said, which is that he will come “like a thief in the night” and that only the Father knows the time.) Do we know how he will return? In this we know a little more: it will be in glory. Do we know the effect of his return? Here we know much more, and much more than the effects of Brexit. His return will herald final judgment: all that is evil will be destroyed, and all that is good magnified. This is a belief that brings great hope. We still need to work for justice in the world but ultimately God will have the last word. We still need to work for the restoration of creation but ultimately God will restore it. We still need to bring the message of the good news of Jesus but in the end every eye will see him.

The return of Jesus is marked by the season of Advent in the Christian calendar. This begins on the first Sunday of December and is marked in the benefice by a beautiful Advent carol service, one of my favourite services of the year. The rest of Advent is often overtaken by the services for Christmas, but we also get a flavour of it in the Remembrance service and in the Service of Memories for those who are bereaved, this year taking place in St Mary’s on Saturday 2nd November at 3pm.

These two services happen around All Saints; and All Saints time includes Halloween. Which brings us back to the advertised date for Brexit. Will it happen then? Who knows! What I do know is that one day Jesus will return. I may not know the date, but I do have his promise. And that is the most trustworthy promise I know.

John Chitham, Rector

What's the point? Where am I going? Is this it?

Dear Friends,

As I am writing, the summer is still upon us, but I am already beginning to think about the autumn. It is always a busy time for everyone: school is back and the holidays are over. It is just as busy in church life: we will be celebrating harvest, remembering those who died for their country and beginning to prepare for Christmas. The days of garden parties, barbecues and cream teas are drawing to an end and the nights will be drawing in.

However, this autumn we are preparing for something else as well: a major Alpha course for anyone in our area. Some of you may have heard of the Alpha course, no doubt for others it is an unknown quantity. The purpose is to be an introduction to the Christian faith. We will be holding it over 12 weeks, for children, youth and adults (and therefore families) on Sunday afternoons at 4.30 pm for 12 weeks beginning on 29 September in Standon and Puckeridge Community Centre. An important part of the course is the time to discuss: to agree, disagree, put your point of view, or simply eat the cake! Each Sunday will begin with afternoon tea and I am delighted to say I have already found that our churches are famous for their cakes! This will be free for anyone who would like to come.

Why should anyone wish to know more about the Christian faith? I have discovered in recent years that there has been an increasing desire to be spiritual; not to be bound by rules and dogma but explore what it means to be spiritual. As human beings we all have a spiritual side that needs to be developed, just as we have physical and mental sides. Without it we feel incomplete somehow. It might or might not include a belief in God, but there is a need to understand that not everything is understood by what we see touch, see, smell or taste.

The Christian faith is one great way to do this (I would say the greatest!). Of course, Christianity does have rules (e.g. the 10 Commandments) but rather than rules at its heart is a relationship with God, whom we know as a God of love. When that relationship begins the rules simply become the house rules of any family, rather than a new kind of slavery. Jesus said he came to set us free! It is a way to a new life in the Spirit of God.

So if you are interested in any of this, please feel free to join us. Look for the publicity in our villages. Contact our administrator, Marion, using the info on the contact us page so that you are booked in.

In the meantime, enjoy the remainder of the summer.

John Chitham, Rector

Holidays

Dear Friends,

It that time of year when things tend to get relaxed, the days are long, the weather warm and there is time for socialising, garden parties, fairs and festivals. It is the time of the “lazy, hazy days of summer”, as the song puts it. It is a time, shortly, of school holidays and plans for summer holidays.

It was not always so. In our villages this was often the busiest time of year. The harvest was being brought in and all the village helped. Little Munden school has just celebrated its 200th year, a remarkable length of time. It was founded by the vicar at that time in the church and only later moved to the buildings we have today. Yet looking through the history of the first century of the school there is a constant difficulty for education in the summer term: the children were called upon to help with the harvest. Their education had to take second place to the need to provide food. The holiday came when the harvest was completed. Indeed, our present long school summer holiday was set to because of the need to work the land at that time. This link to the land is being rediscovered today, but in different ways. We know that the food produced needs to be done responsibly without damaging the environment, and we are increasingly aware of the need for the land to be “rested” to recover fertility.

As human beings, we too need our times of rest and relaxation. The Bible calls it the “Sabbath” and, in terms of Sunday being a day of rest for the whole country, very sadly it has been lost. However, there is a need for us all to have a sabbath mindset. We cannot just go on working all hours and all days. The fourth commandment says, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy”. (We get our word “holiday” from “holy day”.) If we cannot, for various reasons, always avoid work on a Sunday, we should at least aim to keep the spirit of the law, and schedule rest and downtime, to have “holy-days”. This is God’s plan for his whole creation. It is even better if, during these holy-days, we find time to reflect on him and his glory in nature all around us. The long days of summer are perfect for seeing him in the flash of a kingfisher, the bounding of a hare or the waves in a field of grain. I pray that we may all have some holy-days this summer.

John Chitham, Rector

Examination Season

Dear Friends,

At this time of year my heart always goes out to all those who are doing exams. I used to be a teacher (and teachers also suffer during, and after, exams) and saw close up how demanding and stressful examinations could be. The consolation that they would be over in due course and that a lovely, long, hot summer vacation loomed never seemed enough at the time. Nevertheless, we all know that they have to be done and even, some might just about admit, they could be useful for learning and the future. And, if we are talking about the examinations for those studying to become doctors or engineers, most of us would say that those examinations are not merely good but essential.

Examination season is a metaphor for life. Often, we wonder why we are going through trials and tribulations. We cannot see the point. And even when we can see the point, we would rather it wasn’t happening. No-one likes suffering and it is one of our duties as human beings to minimise sufferings. Many sufferings cannot be explained, let alone justified, and we weep in frustration when we see others suffer. And we may shout at God (or those nearest to us) and wonder what is going on.

Yet it is the Christian belief that this time of trial can be a preparation to make us ready for the life to come after death. The model is Jesus, who suffered willingly for others so that there can be new life. Just as the exam student finds it difficult to focus on the holidays in the midst of exams, so we often find it difficult to think about the life to come in the midst of suffering. Nevertheless, we can have hope because Jesus himself rose from the dead and shows that there is new life. The summer holidays will come in the end and by the time you read this the exams may well be over. The summer, with long days, warmth, BBQs, holidays and no more school: I cannot think of a better picture for the life to come in God.

The key to this new life is Jesus himself who offers the gift of new life. When I took up that offer myself, the trials and difficulties did not go away. But they were put in perspective and a new hope was born: the summer holidays are coming!

John Chitham, Rector

Settling in

Although we have only been here a short time it already seems like this is “home”. The common question is “how are you settling in?” and I have to say, as far as we are concerned, wonderfully. It is such a lovely place to be with such friendly people. It always helps to arrive in spring to wonderful weather (although, of course, we need more rain…), to see the blossom everywhere, hare in the fields, bluebells appearing in the woods and the Martins returning. One particular surprise is the sheer quantity of deer. I managed to count a herd of 150 Fallow deer on one occasion, as well as regular Muntjac.

Meanwhile people have been so welcoming. There is patience over procedures I take time to learn and many names to remember. There is an overwhelming kindliness and generosity in so many areas that it is difficult pick one out. At the same time there is a spiritual appetite which is stimulating and challenging. All in all, it is like a refreshment to the soul, and Basma and I are grateful to everyone and to God.

Of course, it is the “day job” that counts and I have already seen the consolation that a church funeral can bring in the countryside and the joy in preparing for a church wedding. However, the highlight in church life so far has been Easter. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday were all special in different ways. The Maundy Thursday service in Sacombe was enchanting with a large congregation, a full choir and going out in silence into the dusk just as Jesus and the disciples did long ago in Jerusalem as they went to the Garden of Gethsemane. Similarly, the two services for Good Friday were very moving. The service at Little Munden, with the dramatic rendition of the crucifixion, brought home to me yet again the horror and wonder of the crucifixion, of how Jesus was prepared to die for me personally. And then on Easter Sunday St. Mary’s Standon was packed as we sang about and read about the wonders of the resurrection. The Easter story is truly amazing and something that can bring hope to us all.

As we go on and get more established, I hope that I can meet more and more of you. The Vicarage door is always open. I hope that we can start courses soon for anyone interested in exploring the Christian faith. Please feel free to ask if you are interested. In the meantime, if you see me at the school gate or walking the dog, please feel free to say hello.

John Chitham, Rector

An Introduction

Dear Friends,

it is a great delight to be able to write to you to introduce ourselves. We are looking forward greatly to being with you.

A little about ourselves. I became a Christian as a teenager and have found that being with Jesus has been the sure guide for the whole of my life. After university I worked as a teacher in York and then went to Jordan as a teacher for 5 years as part of the Church Mission Society. There I met and married Basma who is a Jordanian Christian.

Basma was brought up as a Christian from a Christian family. Although Greek Orthodox by birth she has been influenced by a number of different churches and came afresh to Jesus in her twenties. She worked as a Child Psychologist and now as an interpreter.

I was called to ordained ministry and we spent time in Syria and Lebanon, where I was vicar of Beirut. After coming to England from the Middle East we spent 18 years in churches in Worthing, where I was vicar, and for the last two and a half years in Blackburn where I have been the Chaplain to the Diocesan Bishop. We have one son, Jack, who is now 28 and who often works overseas.

But what makes us tick? For Basma it is all about relationships. She comes from a “tribe” in Jordan with many offshoots and this is how she sees the church as a big family with its strengths and weaknesses. She loves entertaining and being with people and is excited to be living n a vicarage in a village exactly like Miss Marple in St Mary Mead. For myself, I have various hobbies: watching rugby, motor-cycling, birding and scuba-diving being the chief. We both love the Middle East, have a deep interest in the politics and spiritual life there. And, of course, we both love Jesus and desire, as much as possible, to be like him to those around us.

What are the plans and aspirations for the Benefice? I can honestly say that there is no pre-conceived or fixed plan. We need to get to know people first, to see what gifts there are, and to see where God is leading us all. Nonetheless, some things remain constant: the need to be like Jesus, to worship him, love him and follow him in what he says, to build a community of faith that loves one another and is attractive to those outside the faith, and to be witness to all he has done. In short, it is to build the Kingdom of God in Standon, the Mundens and Sacombe, based on the foundation of his birth, death and resurrection. We look forward to sharing this great adventure with you!

With much love and anticipation

John and Basma

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