Saturday, 24 November 2012

Not of this world? How do we cope with loving this planet whilst following the one who says his kingdom is 'not of this world'?

John 18:33-37

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’

Not of this world?
In some ways, for me this reading from John’s Gospel is really difficult to hear and causes a tension in my soul. There is for me here, if you like, something I would refer to as cognitive dissonance. This is when you have two ideas which fundamentally disagree with each other, yet you think they’re both true.

For example, I confess for a while that like many young Christians I went through a fundamentalist period when I believed in a literal seven day interpretation of the creation story in Genesis 1 with a date of just a few thousand years BC. I believed this because I was told the Bible was literally true and therefore if it said something was true, then it must be.

But then, as I grew in my understanding of science I began to read a different story in which there was overwhelming evidence for a creation that began 13.7 billion years ago, and is still continuing. So that set me up with a cognitive dissonance.

The Bible, I thought, was true, but science also, I thought, was true, but they disagreed with each other, and when you hold strong beliefs about two opposing views you discover how psychologically uncomfortable cognitive dissonance can be! One or other had to be reinterpreted. I chose to re-examine the creation story from a mythic perspective and found there far deeper truths and the dissonance vanished, it was resolved.

Yet now as I read this passage I find another dissonance. We took the youth group for a night hike through the countryside on Friday night and it was wonderful. We spent time in silence, learning to exercise our spiritual muscles, sensing the presence of God. You see I am in love with this world. I walk amongst the trees, run my hands through the wet grass, listen to the sound of reality singing and this is my home. I find the presence of God here.

But in this Gospel Jesus tells me his kingdom is not of this world. And this is difficult because the presence of God feels real here, but Jesus seems to be affirming something else. Or is he? This is a cognitive dissonance that needs to be resolved for Christians who love nature and also love God.

What does Jesus mean? What does he mean when he says, ‘My kingdom is not of this world?’ Have I got to abandon my love of the natural world because Jesus says, ‘My kingdom is not of this world?’ Have I got to look afresh at the sense of God’s presence that I’ve had over and over again and say, ‘Well if Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world, then I must have been mistaken’? Were these experiences counterfeit?

No, I don’t think so. The first step to resolving this cognitive dissonance is to look at what Jesus says next; that will tell us what he really means. He says, ‘If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.’ It is that desire to fight on the part of the kingdoms of this world that puts the context on what he means.

You see I think we can resolve this dissonance because Jesus is talking in terms of power. In a few hours after saying these words he was going to lay down all the power of being the incarnate Son of God and submit to the powers of this world, and my intention is to say more about submission next week. What he’s therefore referring to is not the physicality of this world, but the attitudes of the rulers of this world.

What he’s talking about is that if he was going to be trying to establish a kingdom on earth as it is now, then his followers would be mounting a rescue attempt by force. The rebellion would already have started. Yet clearly they haven’t, and his intention was to let the powers of human government do with him as they chose. He would submit to them because he could only change things by doing so.

What Jesus is therefore primarily speaking about is a profoundly different attitude to life, one of service rather than ruling, in his kingdom. It’s all upside down where the first is the last. However, even though I believe that and hope that we can model that way of living here, it throws up another problem.

You see if Jesus’s kingdom is not of this world, that implies that he is the ruler of an other world. How do we feel about that? For those of us living in the Green and following the Christ, how do we feel when he talks about another world? We rather like this one! Does God mean to discard it as unimportant? No, I don’t think so, but we do have to be realistic too. I think we have to take the long perspective on this world.

The hard thing for us to take on board is that this universe, of which our beloved country is but a small part, is already past its creative best. Scientists estimate that 95% of the stars that will ever exist have already been born. There is only about enough hydrogen left over for another 5%. The slow decline towards the cold, dark stillness has already begun.

In about a billion years our sun will have begun to heat up, scorching the earth. All that is green will be blackened. We can love it for now, and we should certainly treasure and cherish it because the Christian life is about service, not exploitation, and that applies in our attitude to all things, not just people, but this place has a limited lifespan. And whilst I feel sad about this, I most definitely do not feel hopeless, and the reason for that is my hope for the Otherworld, where Christ is already King.

So what is that place likely to be like? Here we’re into the world of educated guesses, so let me make some. I think we can assume that Christ’s resurrection forms a pattern, not just for humanity but for all of creation.

I therefore think of that place as like here, only more so, in the same way that Christ’s resurrection body was like his ordinary human body, only more so; more real, more able, and no longer subject to entropy. I’ve always struggled with the ideas of a heaven that’s full of clouds and where everyone plays the harp. Having one harpist in the family is plenty!

For many years I have loved C.S. Lewis’s description of heaven in his book, ‘The Great Divorce’ in which heaven is more solid and more real than earth is. I know he’s drawing on Platonism there, but it seems to fit. Greener trees, a dew that’s even fresher and stars that shine brighter; everything that we love about this fertile ground, only more fertile. It seems to me that the best parts of the physical appearance of this world, those parts that are most welcoming to life, will be reawakened in the next.

But in case we get too sidetracked, it’s not just about physicality - it’s about attitude too. The character of those who wish to be a part of this new kingdom should echo Christ’s model of service rather than power. That’s the shape of the kingdom. Christ as monarch came to serve and so we should too. In fact I think that gives us a template for how we are to deal with the life on this planet. For too long we have exploited animal and plant life, yet if Christ came to serve, doesn’t that give us a template for an eco-sensitive spirituality?

And in exactly the same way, the character of the church should be the template for Christ’s kingdom to come. We should echo on earth what Christ’s kingdom to come will be like. The events in General Synod last week show how far short we’re still falling.

For Christians, Christ is King, and the kingdom of which he is monarch is not of this place but of the next. But the best of what is here forms the template for the age to come. I don’t believe resurrection is limited to humanity, but extends to all creation, so just as you, my sisters and brothers, are worthy of love, so is all life. And for me that resolves the cognitive dissonance.

So don’t be worried if you love the planet. Why should it not also be resurrected. If C. S. Lewis was correct then however transient this place is, we can learn a lot about service whilst we’re here and that will prepare us well for the next parts of our journey. In Christ’s kingdom the rulers serve, so let us learn to apply that here, serving not just each other but the other earthly residents with whom we participate in life.

Keep sacrificing - or not....


Mark 13:1-8
As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

Who makes you feel guilty?
I don’t buy many newspapers these days since I discovered I could look at them online for free, providing I don’t mind the adverts. The fun of that is, of course, that I can read the Daily Mail, a paper on which I wouldn’t waste my money, without having to pay for it. And what an eye-opener!

If you’ve never done it, have a look at the Daily Mail’s online paper. I was have going to say that it’s about the equivalent of the Beano, but the difference is that the Beano isn’t spiteful. The Daily Mail’s online page is split so that in the middle of the screen you get what passes for their idea of news, and then down the right hand side of the screen are links to pages about the rich, the famous and the celebrities.

And I have to say it makes for pretty dire reading, and is genuinely spiteful. It’s as if the worst excesses of playground meanness makes it into print. The editorial team take it upon themselves to be the public judges of what constitutes the correct clothes to wear and the correct toning of the body and then uses paparazzi shots to look down on just about everyone, either for how they look or for what they’re doing.

The trouble is, however much we may in principle refuse to condone it, this kind of press influence changes us; it inflicts guilt on us because we don’t match up to the impossible standards they set. We’re not tall enough or too tall. We’re not skinny enough or too skinny. For us men, our bodies are not well enough toned and muscled, or too toned and muscled. For women it’s all about having the right sized curves.

It’s as if there is some kind of identikit of the perfect human physique and dress code and none of us have quite got it according to the Daily Mail and others like it. And all of that conspires to make us think we need to spend more on clothes, more on getting down to the gym, more, more, more and still we never quite look right.

And then there are our lifestyles. The rich and famous always seem to have such glamour in their lives, but for us there is a different path. We try and say that we are content but the newspapers keep saying, ‘How can you possibly be content with such a boring lifestyle? Shouldn’t you be jetting off to sunnier climates? Why aren’t you investing in that second house on the coast with all the rich people?’

And it’s just.. not... real...

Except however hard we try, we can’t help being influenced by it. How many of us, for example, are honestly happy with our body shape and the possessions we have? How many of us are truly content?

Still, at least we can sit in church and not worry about it hey? Except, unfortunately, even if we don’t like the tabloids, the church often still plays the same guilt game; the same, ‘You’re not good enough’ game. A member of my family goes to a church in North London that has a new minister who has a particular thing about preaching salvation and hell... every week. Every single week....

And it’s the easiest thing in the world to do to make a congregation feel guilty. I could do it now. Give me ten minutes and I could make most of us feel like filthy rotten individuals, without any hope and in desperate need of salvation. And I know exactly what the result would be if I did that week after week. I would end up with a church full of guilt-laden people who were forever on their knees wishing that they were better people, and willing to do whatever it took to get right with God.

That is, those who stayed would feel like that. Everyone else would leave, which perhaps unsurprisingly is the kind of story I heard many times from some of my Pagan friends, that they went to churches that were so life denying and which made them feel so guilt-ridden that they left.

Thank good ness it’s not like that here eh! Only...

Only... how often do you feel that you’re not really good enough to be here? How often do you look around the congregation and think that someone else is a better person than you? How often do other people seem more worthy Christians than you are? And it’s the same for vicars too, if they’re honest. The number of times I find myself leading a service and thinking, ‘I shouldn’t be here, I’m not good enough.’

So what do we do about it? For some of us perhaps it leads us to spend much more time on our knees praying. For some of us we put lots more time into going to church or to supporting some particular charity. Maybe we put more into the collection than we can afford because we don’t feel we’re good enough. Some clergy overwork, putting in ludicrous numbers of hours. And we do all this because we don’t feel good enough and so somehow we feel that what we most need to do is to work much harder.

And what we’re really doing is making a sacrifice. We’re sacrificing our time. Or we’re sacrificing our money. Or maybe we’re sacrificing our family on the altar of spending lots of time trying to be good enough. And it’s time we looked long and hard at what the Good News about Jesus is, and it’s right there for us in the reading from Hebrews.

I don’t really need to say much about it but to repeat what the author wrote. ‘For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.’ This is not the time to go into the theology of sacrifice, or of the sacrificial elements of Jesus’s death. The important thing for us to take away is that his actions mean not that we are perfect, but that we are treated by God as if we are.

Let me repeat that because it’s of fundamental importance. The death of Christ doesn’t mean that you are perfect, but it does mean that God’s treats you as if you are.

Let’s be honest with ourselves. None of the self-sacrifices we do ever actually make us feel any better about ourselves. And there is nothing any of us can do to truly take away the guilt or shame that we might feel, either because we’ve done something wrong or because someone has convinced us that we are guilty of doing something wrong.

Jesus, in one action for all time, made it right between us and God, and it comes as a free gift because there is nothing we can ever do to earn it. Nothing.

So the church has no right to make you feel guilty. The church has no right to demand that you feel bad enough about yourself that you must make sacrifices the whole time. That’s Daily Mail level theology and it’s just wrong. The sacrifice has been made. The sacrifice to end all sacrifices. There is no need for any more.

What we do here or in some aspects of our own lives should flow out of gratitude that we don’t have to make self sacrifices. That means we should be moving towards lives in which our actions flow out of the love that’s growing in us rather than because someone is emotionally strong-arming us.

Look again at what Jesus says about the temple, perhaps the most amazingly beautiful and vast building dedicated to the worship of God ever. The disciples comment on it and he warns them that it will be destroyed, as indeed it was less than forty years later. Buildings, human edifices and institutions, all of them will crumble eventually.

None of these things are what make us right with God. The only thing that matters in sacrificial terms is that Christ put an end to the need for them. The guilt we feel, the shame that binds us, the things that you may have had said to you in a church to make you feel you need to give more, all of those were dealt with by Christ.

You do not need to make a sacrifice of anything to be ok with God. Instead you’re free. It’s over. It’s all been dealt with. All any of us can do is respond with gratitude as the enormity of what has been done for us fills us. We can’t buy God’s love, and we don’t have to.

Friday, 23 November 2012

"Forgive us Father for we have Synod": Statement about Women Bishops

The Vicar’s Statement Concerning General Synod’s Vote on
The Consecration of Women Bishops

Dear All

I feel it is important to give my views regarding the events which took place at General Synod this last week. But before that I would like to offer my heartfelt apologies to the women of this parish who may feel that the institution of the Church of England views them as second class citizens. All I feel that I can say is to underline that this is not my view and it is also not the view of the majority of General Synod. In fact almost three quarters of those present voted in favour.

So what happened?

Let me put it this way. The House of Laity in General Synod, in my view, has disproportionately high numbers from the fundamentalist evangelical wing of the church working in concert with the conservative Anglo-catholic wing, neither of which, for totally different reasons, believe that women should be in positions of authority in the church. Let me underline that this is not a theologically supportable position. So how did it happen? When people across the country were asked to stand for the House of Laity in the General Synod there appears to have been a general apathy in response meaning that those with extremist views, and I do mean extremist, were able to gain power. The result is that they have dishonoured the Church of England, made us look as if we are fundamentally out of touch with modern culture, and hurt a huge number of women. In addition they have managed to undermine the calling of a number of senior female members of the church who should be being consecrated as Bishops in the near future. You can perhaps sense my anger at this, and I have yet to meet a Christian who believes any good can come of this.

So what can you do?

Two things. Write to Bishop David Urquhart, the Bishop of Birmingham, at Bishop’s Croft, Old Church Road, Harbourne, Birmingham, B17 0BG, expressing your feelings and urging him to use whatever influence he has to push for a rapid response by General Synod to reconsider the legislation swiftly and without delay.  (Readers from other dioceses, your Bishop's details will be available on-line on diocesan websites).

Secondly, visit this website:
Sign the petition and make your voice heard, and pass the information on for others to sign.

Please act. Apathy got us into this situation and apathy will keep us there.

Again, my sincere apologies for the way your Church has let you down. Let us work together and pray for a swift resolution.

Paul Cudby.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Learning Nature's Lessons: Growing Whiskers

The following was inspired by the excellent book, ‘Reclaiming the Sealskin’ by Annie Heppenstall-West. I kind of started with her thoughts and then it took on a life of its own...


Matthew 7:7-11
Jesus said, ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

Ever wondered what’s under the earth? I’m not talking about far down, just a few inches into the sacred ground filled with who knows what. To us earth is simply brown, but to others it’s their whole world. Who needs sun, moon and stars when everything is provided by the earth under the earth? I am thinking here about the mole.

When was the last time you actually saw a mole? Have you ever seen one except on TV? Yet living out here in rural England it’s pretty clear where they’ve been, as they leave their mounds of earth as evidence to remind us that at sometime, when we weren’t looking, they were there. So close, living cheek by jowl with humanity, yet always out of reach in a world we cannot comprehend.

Hidden, under the earth.

Most small furry animals in this country are pretty shy, retiring creatures, yet the aware will see rabbits, squirrels and mice wherever the searcher can be still for long enough. But moles? They’ve gone a step further, bypassing the dangerous surface and the hunters who lurk. He rarely needs to leave his safe haven because in the earth under the earth all his needs are met.

There he is safe and in charge of a world that few understand, but in order to survive and to grow he has to search deep in the hidden dark recesses of the earth.

In our hunger for book knowledge maybe we’re missing some of the greatest teachers, such as the mole. His search for food in the dark earth should inspire our search for God, however we understand that name, in the dark recesses of who we are and the lives we lead. Imagine what it’s like for the mole searching for food. He never knows when he’s going to come across a tasty worm or grub. He has to be ready and he has to keep searching, because if the mole doesn’t keep eating every few hours he will starve to death.

And it begs the question for me, for us, how deeply do we dig, and how much energy do we put into searching? Are we really searching with our whole heart? Is it as important to us as food is to the mole that we sense the loving presence of the Holy One, drawing us on and out? In fact maybe the harder question each of us has to ask ourselves is, ‘What am I actually searching for?’

What are you actually searching for? We need to be able to articulate that need for ourselves before we actually ask the Spirit to provide what it is we’re looking for. So, what am I, what are you actually searching for?


When the mole finds a worm, how does he know? After all, his vision is very limited and for some species it’s non-existent. The same can be said about his ears and his hearing. The mole has to rely on other senses. The difficulty with being a human is that we depend on our eyesight as our primary source of information. Most of what we know about the world we learn through our eyes, and most of the information we record about what we’ve seen is in words or images that we can see.

But religious visions are very rare and are not the primary means by which God speaks to us. So when Jesus says, ‘Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and door will be opened to you’, how do you process the ‘God’ information? How do we know when the Holy One is speaking? If you’re knocking on a door that you can’t see with knocks you can’t hear, how will you know when the door has been opened?

It is in the answer to this question that I think the mole has the greatest contribution to our understanding. With their long whiskers and many sensitive hairs around their noses, moles are very sensitive to touch. They know when something is nearby because they sense the vibrations. When something, or someone, is nearby they sense it brushing their surroundings.

And this, I think, is the key to discerning God’s voice. We need to grow, if you like, spiritual whiskers to become sensitive to God brushing against us, because I believe that actually God is continually brushing against us but we’ve allowed our ‘whiskers’ to become clogged, not taking care of them because we rely too much on our eyes and ears and on the continual flood of information in a technologically rabid civilisation.

Yes we can study, we can read, we can learn. But what we need is to grow whiskers. Theologians who tell you about God from their books are not nearly as enthralling as ones who tell you about God from the stories of their experiences. We want to experience God, but we don’t know how.

So if we have to grow whiskers, what might that feel like?  In some traditions people do what they call shape-shifting. This isn’t actually becoming the literal physical shape of an animal, but for some it involves going a number of steps beyond simply imagining yourself taking on the attributes of the animal and may become more of a spiritual and mystical engagement. But anyone can simply use their imagination and this can be helpful. In order to find new ways of discerning the sacred presence of God it could be a useful exercise to imagine what it must be like to take in information about the world without using your eyes or your ears. Imagine what it must be like to sense the world brushing past you, sending tiny vibrations that you pick up other than by your normal senses. Imagine the shape of a mole.

Sometimes this is how we can learn to hear God, by using the tools of imagination that take us outside of normal existence. Yes God can and does speak to us through our eyes and ears if we spend time in a quiet place, away from modern intrusions. But God also speaks to us silently. As the story of Elijah told us, (see last blog entry) after the violence of the storm, the earthquake and the fire there is the sound of sheer silence, and that is where the voice of God can be discerned.

But it’s not always heard; sometimes it is simply sensed in a way we find it hard to explain because it’s not sight or sound. So maybe we need to grow spiritual whiskers, attuned to the vibrations God makes, and let us learn to allow our whiskers to twitch as God brushes by.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Remembrance: Peace begins with who?

1 Kings 19:1-4, 9-13
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.’ Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’

At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’ He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’

What does this all mean for us?
At 11.00am on Sunday we keep two minutes of silence. I wonder where your mind goes during those two minutes. Some of you have fought in combat to preserve this country. In that silence maybe you remembered some of your fallen comrades, people who didn’t make it as far as the end of the war; people who haven’t been lucky enough to have lived long and full lives like you have.

Maybe some of you remember the faces of the people you killed, or the knowledge of what it must have been like for the families of those on the other side whose lives were changed by the actions your country demanded of you. Perhaps some of you were wondering with hope what will happen to world peace as a result of the US election.

Maybe you read the same newspaper article that I did about how a group of senior Israelis conducted a war game to decide what would happen if they launched a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

But how many of you noticed peace? How many of you felt real, utter stillness? Because peace is what this is all about; the parades, the poppies, the uniforms, the medals, this is all about remembering the fallen and wanting there to be peace, and here we are, sixty seven years after the guns of world war two were silenced, and where’s the peace? Where’s the real peace? I want peace; you want peace; the politicians say they want peace, so where is it?

Tess Ward puts it like this:
We pray for peace in the world, but there can be none without peace in the nations.
We pray for peace in the nations, but there can be none without peace in the communities.
We pray for peace in the communities, but there can be none without peace between neighbours.
We pray for peace between neighbours, but there can be none without peace in the home.
We pray for peace in the home, but there can be none without peace in the heart.
When the fighting of this world overwhelms me, let me know that peace... begins... with... me.

Peace begins with me. It doesn’t start by me saying, ‘Peace begins with you.’ No. Every single one of us must first take responsibility for saying, ‘Peace begins with me.’ Forget everyone else. Forget how they live their lives. If we want peace in the world, if we want peace for our younger people, that they may inherit a world free of strife, then it will only begin if every one of us learns how to say, ‘Peace begins with me.’

So when was the last time you felt peaceful? Or let me put it another way. When was the last time that you felt that utter peace that comes from encountering the Divine, the Holy One? I’m beginning to lose track of the number of people who have said to me over the years, ‘God never speaks to me. I’ve never felt his peace.’ The question I have to ask, over and over again is, ‘How hard did you search for it?’

We live in a world of such technological noise that it is no wonder that we never hear God. We can barely hear ourselves think. Those of us who spend hours on the computer, playing games or whatever, are we aware that scientific studies have conclusively proved that we are physically altering our brains by doing so? If we are allowing ourselves to become a species that is better at communicating with machines than with each other, how on earth can we expect to communicate with God?! If peace begins with me, then it requires that I, every one of us, searches for peace.

The American Theologian, Rob Bell, has done some research on the level of technological noise that intrudes on our lives. He tells of a recording engineer called Bernie Krause, who records nature sounds for films and television. Apparently back in 1968, in order to get one hour of natural sound, with no aircraft or car noise, it took him fifteen hours of recording time.

That was in 1968. Now, in our current time, to get the same one hour of recorded natural sounds with no intrusions from technological sounds takes him two thousand hours of recording time. Two thousand hours!

If peace in the world begins with peace in me, in you, how often do we turn off our mobile phones? How many hours do we spend watching TV? How long into the night were we on Facebook? When was the last time you allowed your house to be completely silent; no TV, no radio, no stereo, no computer?

If peace begins with me, with each of us, do we actually look like people who search for peace?

In the above reading the prophet Elijah was in difficulty. He had been on the winning side of a great battle, but now he was struck with depression because the leader of the other side, a woman named Jezebel, said she was going to come and kill him for what he had done to them. So Elijah fled into the wilderness.

And there, in the depths of his depression, an angel speaks to him. ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ Why have you run away? Why are you so depressed? Why can’t you see how things really are rather than how you think they are? Those of you who have suffered with depression will know how hard it can be to see true reality through the sense of utter desperation you feel.

Elijah felt alone, threatened and worthless. What he needed was peace. And so the angel said to him, ‘Go and stand in a cave on the mountainside for the Lord God is about to pass by. Elijah did as he was told. As the Lord approaches there is a mighty wind, beyond hurricane force, but God is not in the wind. And as God draws nearer, the ground responds with a huge earthquake, such is the response of nature to the unhidden presence of God, but God is not in the earthquake.

Following the earthquake there is a fire, sweeping across the landscape before him. But the Lord is not in the fire. And then... what? Well actually it’s very difficult to translate the words from Hebrew of what happens next. But our translation comes very close. The sound of God was the sound of sheer silence. The sound of stillness. The sound of peace.

Peace begins with me. Peace begins with you. But the sound of God is not found in the TV, on the radio, in the sound of traffic or computer games. The sound of silence is not to be found in the background noise of the daily lives that we have got so used to. If God is not in the earthquake, the wind or fire, but in the sound of sheer silence, is it any wonder that we don’t have peace? It’s simply because we have no silence, so we don’t hear the sound of God’s voice.

Because if we did, we might hear God say to us, ‘What are you doing.... here?’

It would be unfair of me to write this without telling you a story of what finding this peace can be like, so let me tell you a true story of something that happened to my wife, Ali, and I a few weeks back.

Over on the other side of Kidderminster from us there’s the Wyre Forest. Right back at the beginning of this year we went for a long walk there, and we just stumbled upon this amazing sight. In the midst of all the oaks there was a yew tree. That’s not hugely unusual. But what was strange was that there was an oak growing within the expanse of its branches.

Yews are sometimes called, ‘The Death Tree’ because it is so poisonous, yet here, remarkably, was this amazing phenomenon of a yew tree embracing an oak with her limbs, branches wrapped around each other as if in a lovers’ embrace. We subsequently found out that this almost unique pairing, this emblem of peace between two trees that would normally tolerate each other, was well known in the area. But there are no signs to it.

Three weeks ago we decided we wanted to go and find this remarkable pairing again. The way that God speaks in nature has become increasingly important to us in our spiritual journeys so we returned for another look. But the Wyre Forest is a big forest with lots of trees. It’s not so much like looking for a needle in a haystack, it’s more like looking for a specific piece of hay in a haystack. Nevertheless, off we went.

Not far into the trees we came to a place where the path branched at a crossroads. So we stood in silence, and by this time we were far enough away that it was that technological silence: no cars. And there were no people nearby. Just us. And we were silent, just listening. And we were silent for a while. And in the sound of sheer silence there was a beckoning... ‘This way.’

There were no words, no sounds, just a perception in the sheer silence of nature, which is not at all quiet. It was very gentle, and to me felt distinctly feminine, but the sound of sheer silence beckoned us in a definite direction. It was perceptible, but we had to listen very hard, and for some time.

And so we walked, and we walked, for some time, and just before we arrived in the right place, though we didn’t yet know it was the right place, a young black stag ran across our path, and we stopped. And sure enough, there to our left, off the path, we found the yew and the oak, still locked in their embrace, reminding us of how there can be peace, peace even where nature would normally expect death. Even there, there can be peace.

When we look at the life of Jesus we find that time after time he leaves everyone and goes away on his own up a mountain where he is silent. It is only when we are silent and listen that we hear God speak in the sound of sheer silence, just as Elijah did. Hearing that doesn’t make us any more special than anyone else. It doesn’t make us more holy, and we don’t have to be holy to listen. God knows I’m not, yet in the sound of sheer silence, there was the voice. ‘Come this way.’

And once Elijah heard the voice of God he was changed by it. He was able to return and start again, to be courageous in the face of adversity. When we hear God speak in the silence, we cannot help but be changed by it.

Peace begins with me. Peace begins with you. God wants to speak to each one of us. Look back at the story of Adam and Eve and you find God walking in the garden with them as the day drew to a close. One of God’s favourite things is walking with us, but we block him out continually with the noise we subject ourselves to.

If we want peace in this world, it doesn’t start with someone else. It doesn’t start with the politicians. It starts with each one of us taking responsibility for saying, ‘Peace begins with me’, and then doing something about it. That means getting off our backsides, switching off the phones, the tv, the radio, the iPod, the car, the DS, and simply getting away from the technological noise and learning how to listen to the sound of sheer silence.

And as we learn to hear the voice of God, so we will learn peace. And slowly, bit by bit, we can change the world. But first it starts with me and it starts with you. Simply learn to listen to the sound of sheer silence, and you will hear the voice of God. Amen.