Wednesday, October 04, 2023

Howay The Lasses, Saturday 7 October at 7.30pm


Next up at St Nicholas' are Howay The Lasses on Saturday 7 October at 7.30pm. Telling and celebrating the achievements of amazing women of the North East of England in song, this talented group will give us a musical treat of an evening.

Tickets are £15 using the link below.

Tuesday, October 03, 2023

Parables Are Fiction

OK - I deliberately put it that way in a recent sermon to get people's attention. We have been looking at parables recently, which are often misunderstood - especially when the parable itself is expressed in a way that was designed to be provocative. So it is worthwhile reviewing what a parable actually is:

  1. They are fiction, or perhaps less provocatively, they are a construct. When Jesus tells a parable, he isn’t reporting an event; he is telling a story. The characters and situations he describes may well have rung very true with his listeners – as they do today. People may recognise the type of person he’s depicting, but the form of parable we have is a construct. 
  2. Jesus uses items and situations that are familiar to his audience – agriculture, keeping flocks, family disputes, a mugging. He features characters such as tax collectors, shepherds and farmers – to convey his point. He may well be drawing on actual events and encounters (what good author doesn't?), but the parable as delivered is not intended to be received as a report.
  3. We have little or no back story, and we don't find out what happened next. We are not told whether the jealous brother joined the party at the end of the Prodigal Son account, because the parable is designed to leave the hearer with questions to reflect on.
  4. Parables are not intended to be taking literally –  financial debt is used as a way of picturing forgiveness of sins, for example.
  5. They often have a sting in the tail designed to leave the audience with something to think about: The parable of the good Samaritan ends with a question as to which person showed the true qualities of a neighbour. Jesus asks this fully aware of the hostility and suspicion between Jews and Samaritans, which is reported elsewhere. It forces a reply “…the one who showed him kindness” which suggests that even saying "the Samaritan" was a bit too much for the respondent. Likewise in the Parable of the Talents, we want to be with the underdog, but it's the man with 1 talent who gets the hard time! It forces us to ask questions as to what is going on and what does it mean.
  6. Parables are reported as being delivered in a specific context (although Jesus probably reused material numerous times as he travelled around). There is sometimes a question that leads in, such as who is my neighbour? Sometimes Jesus has an audience in mind, such as the elite turning up their noses at him spending time with people seen as sinners and outcasts.
With all parables, Jesus is not directly reporting an actual event; he is inviting us to imagine a situation, be challenged by it, and let it evoke a response. It is a much more creative method of teaching than we sometimes appreciate, and parables are designed to leave us with more thinking and imagining to do. The real question is how does the telling and hearing of them change us - that is what they were designed for.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Rob Halligan. 29 Sep at 7-30pm, St Nicholas' Beverley.


We welcome back singer-songwriter Rob Halligan to St Nicholas', Beverley on Friday 29 September. Rob is touring again, playing a mix of new and established material, and sharing some of the stories that lie behind the songs. All that plus a warm St Nicholas' welcome, licensed bar, merch table and a great night out.

We'll be in for a great evening of music, which will no doubt include a lot of humour - as well as some serious and poignant moments. 

You can read more about Rob here Bio – Rob Halligan

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of the season of Lent for Christians. At some point today, many Christians will be going to their churches to share in a service of Holy Communion and to receive a symbolic cross made with ash on their forehead.

What a lot of people might not realise is that there was no official form of words for such a service in the Church of England until 1986 when Lent, Holy Week, Easter Services and Prayers was published. Until then all we had for Ash Wednesday was a normal communion service with collects and readings for that day. Of course, there were churches borrowing material from elsewhere for their services.

The result of this was that a lot of faithful Anglicans had no experience of the "Imposition of Ashes" in their churches until this new book became established. When I started training for the ministry in 1987 I had never witnessed it, despite attending C of E churches since I was 7. Initially I must admit to being a bit reluctant to take part, but it has come to have significance, reminding me of my mortality, my shortcomings and my dependence on God.

However, there is one thing that has always bothered me about the Ash Wednesday service, and it is this. One of the set readings for today is a section from Matthew 6 (the Sermon on the Mount) including these words

16 ‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  (Mt 6:16-18 NRSV)

and I have always felt a discomfort about that. We walk out of the service with a very visible and obvious sign on our heads that we have just been there. Surely the text is suggesting we should be more discreet. I have quietly solved this dilemma by removing the cross quickly afterwards, but it doesn't quite seem in the spirit of things.

I was, therefore, very interested to come across this from Rev Bosco Peters, a priest in New Zealand, which echoed my own reservations. 

"There is an Ash Wednesday tradition quite different to the conspicuous cross of ash on the forehead – it is sprinkling ash on top of the head. Read more: "

Apparently it's good enough for Pope Francis, However, it will require a rethink. A lot of people mix oil with their ash to make a nice gloopy smear.

Whatever you decide to do today, I hope that you find space over the next few weeks of Lent to reflect on what you believe, your priorities, and perhaps to take some action or some steps to make a change you feel is needed in your life. You don't need ash to do that, although it can help to mark a boundary and a beginning.

Have a fruitful Lent.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

Blair Dunlop in Concert

We are delighted to be welcoming talented singer-songwriter Blair Dunlop to St Nicholas', Beverley.

Blair Dunlop, award-winning British singer-songwriter and guitarist, has now released 5 albums 2 EPs and toured the globe. Though a celebrated singer and guitarist, what sets Blair apart from his peers is the lyrical and musical maturity with which he writes. 

His third album ‘Gilded’ was released in May 2016 on his own label – Gilded Wings – and was widely acclaimed, gaining BBC Radio 2 Playlist status for the two single releases (‘The Egoist’ and ‘356’). Prior to this came 2014’s ‘House of Jacks’ and 2012 debut ‘Blight & Blossom’ (the quality of which contributed to his winning the BBC Radio 2 Horizon Award). 

Blair has now cemented his place as one of Britain’s most exciting songwriters and performers. 2018 Blair saw the release of his 4th album ‘Notes From An Island’ on his own label to rave reviews. Blair has toured extensively in Europe and Australia, appearing at festivals such as Glastonbury, Cambridge Folk Festival in the UK, and Port Fairy and Woodford in Australia. In 2021 he released his first live record, ‘Trails: Queensland’ which chronicled his ’19/’20 tour of Australia.

For a full list of gigs at St Nicholas', head over to our Eventbrite page.


Thursday, January 26, 2023

Live music in Beverley

We have a great line-up of live music coming up at St Nicholas', Beverley. For prices and to book tickets, visit our Eventbrite page.

All gigs will be at 7-30pm in church, and feature our reasonably-priced licensed bar. 


Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Christians and Climate Change

The other day I heard about some Christians who were sceptics about climate change. Not having had a chance to talk to them myself, I am not sure of the grounds for their objections, but I have come across it before and online. As I am teaching a course on ethics at the moment, it led me to wonder why the case for action on climate change isn't compelling for some people - and especially for those who describe themselves as Christians.

At the same time, I have seen plenty of negative comments on social media from the more right-wing accounts (which sometimes purport to represent the views of "Christian" England) about those protesting about climate change. It is also remarkable how often Greta Thunberg triggers white males of about my age into rage and abuse, but that's a different blog post.

If I was taking my students through this issue, we might consider some of the classic approaches to ethical questions and see how they might shed some light on all of this. Here goes.

Most green campaigners put the issue of climate change and global warming at the forefront of their campaigns, headlines and literature. If we don't act now on CO2 emissions, the result will be that the planet warms, the weather will change and it will have catastrophic effects, including sea levels rising, droughts, loss of food supply, habitable land and much more. This is, of course, based on the fact that the earth can sustain our life due to the "greenhouse effect"  - a blanket of CO2 which prevents temperature extremes both high and low. Shifting the balance of CO2 in the atmosphere through human activity will produce devastating results.

At this point we have to say that the overwhelming consensus of science is that this is a correct analysis. The exact outcomes still have some uncertainty, and the resulting weather may be counter-intuitive, such as more rain and even colder weather in some parts of the globe. However, the case has been made over and over again, and is very widely accepted.

So why do some vociferous people reject it and try to seek out the scientists who might wish to cast doubt? One reason might be vested interest, of course. Decisive and effective action will be costly financially and possibly politically too. It also has to be said that there are some Christians with very particular views about the end of the world who don't see this world as worth worrying about, as it will all end soon and not be here, so its material welfare is irrelevant.

However, I think a big factor feeding into climate scepticism is that the arguments for action on climate change are, as we have seen, usually based on predictions of what is going to happen. In ethics, this kind of argument is referred to as a consequentialist approach. This is a way of thinking that decides the right or best course of action, based on the anticipated outcomes from various choices. Put simply you look at option A and B. Option A means X will happen; option B means Y will happen. X and Y are then compared as to which is expected to produce the most happiness / harmony / love  (depending on the version of this approach you are using) and the best anticipated outcome determines the best choice. As you might already suspect, this can lead to some debatable "means to an end" justifications for certain actions or choices. Just think about the reasons for using nuclear weapons in World War 2, which stated that however awful, they were better than the alternatives.

However, in everyday life, we make choices on this basis all of the time - probably without even thinking about it very much. But when it comes to big issues, you can start to see the difficulty. How do we know that the predictions of outcomes are accurate? Life is not a simple mechanical machine, where a force in one place produces a movement or action somewhere else in a predictable and repeatable way. The complexities of human societies, weather systems, economies, etc. mean that such arguments are always open to challenge. And so, social media continues to be full of people convinced that climate change generated by human activity is a hoax or even a conspiracy, whatever the much better-informed scientists say.

However, for me as a Christian, this kind of argument is not the only - or even the most compelling - argument to be concerned for the planet and to be taking action. I believe the scientific case for action on climate change has been completely convincing for years, but that isn't they key point here. Even if the scientists were wrong, Christians should still be deeply concerned about the planet and making choices to conserve, recycle, and consume less. 

The starting point for this is the notion of stewardship. There is a repeated theme throughout the Bible that human beings are not the 'owners' of the earth, but stewards. The resources we have are entrusted into our care. I don't believe the creation accounts in Genesis literally, but they give a sense and definition to the relationship that humanity should have with the rest of the created order. As a poet put it in Psalm 24:1 "The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it". As such we should have a sense of accountability for how creation has been treated at the hands of humanity, and a sense of responsibility to tend and nurture it, irrespective of what the graphs and thermometers say. (The ethics folks might suggest this is a deontological argument - deon is Greek for duty or obligation.)

Using the same kind of argument, Christians also have an obligation to their neighbour. The parable of the Good Samaritan shows Jesus giving the notion of neighbour a much wider definition than people who are like "us" or who are simply in close proximity relationally or socially. Many of our global neighbours are already experiencing climate change in ways we haven't seen first hand in the UK. Protecting the climate will protect some of the poorest and most vulnerable people. It is a sad irony that the very people who fulminate most about migration to the UK are also often those who question climate change or scorn those who protest about it, not realising that lack of action is highly likely to prompt huge migrations of people in future decades. But I'm drifting into consequences there, so I'll move on...

A second strand to consider is the notion of being a consumer. Living in a western society, it is very difficult not to be a large consumer of goods, energy and even food. A tension I have often discussed with Christian friends has been about finding the right balance between continuing to play a constructive part in society (rather than go completely off-grid) and yet somehow challenge the prevailing culture of ever-growing consumption. What are we being shaped into by the trends and expectations of our world if all we live for is to have more stuff? Surely there has to be an aspect of the Christian life which a the very least hankers after something more enduring - what Jesus in the Gospels calls treasure in heaven? I haven't resolved that for myself, but engaging with the question is important, as can help to stop us simply being carried by the tide. (Asking questions like this starts to bring us into an area called virtue ethics - what sort of people do we want to be or become? What choices, practices and lifestyle might continue to express, reinforce and embed that different set of priorities?)

Furthermore, for people with a religious perspective, the extinction of species and the decimation of habitat by human activity should always be a concern. If the diverse beauty and wonder of the universe is a manifestation of divine creativity, then anything that degrades it has to be challenged. It is not only a breach of the responsibility entrusted to us, but it is a kind of denial of the image of that infinitely creative God planted within us. 

I do believe the science - it's actually been around for several decades. I do think that we are on the brink of inflicting irreversible damage to the climate, and I support urgent action to address it here and around the world. But even if I'm wrong on that, there are strong theological and ethical arguments for making choices personally and communally to limit consumption, care for the environment, and make choices that reduce the impact and footprint we leave on the wonderful planet that has been entrusted to us. 

Saturday, January 07, 2023

An All-age script for Epiphany

This was written to be used in an all-age service as figures of the wise men are placed into the crib scene, and then the gifts are placed before the crib. A version of Matthew 2:1-12 has already been read. This imagines how it might have gone.

Three wise men - sometimes called Magi or even Kings - came to visit Jesus

Casper brought gold. [place a figure in the crib scene]

He wanted to show the new king how rich he was. He had done so well making money, and it made him feel important and a success. Now he wanted to make sure the new young king knew all about it. If the new king needed advice on how to get and make money, or if he needed a rich and powerful friend, Casper was his man. Of course he’d expect a few favours in return...

Balthasar brought frankincense. [place a figure in the crib scene]

This is a resin that burns to make smoke that smelled very special. Balthasar used this in his prayers and ceremonies. He believed he had worked out the secret of how to talk with God, and he used lots of words, chants and frankincense. Balthasar wanted to make sure the new king really understood this – that he, Balthasar, was the most religious of the wise men. If the new king wanted to understand things about God, well he’d better talk to him.

Melchior brought myrrh. [place a figure in the crib scene]

Myrrh is a perfume, but it’s got a very special use. Myrrh was used to put on people who had died, to stop their bodies being smelly until they were buried. Melchior brought this, because he wanted the new king to know that he – Melchior – was powerful. Sometimes he even decided who lived and who died. Some people were scared of him – really scared of him. Melchior didn’t want to frighten the new king, but he wanted him to know how big and strong he was.

Now those three wise men thought that they were very clever, rich and powerful. People were really impressed as they travelled through the towns, with their servants and animals following on. They had worked out the direction by looking at the stars, drawing maps and doing very complicated sums. 

And now they were here at the house where Mary, Joseph and the young boy Jesus were staying, and they got ready to present their gifts.

Casper went in first with his gold.  [a young person might carry a ‘gift’ and place it before the crib]

The new king they had come to find was just a toddler, and still lived in a humble home, so Casper was sure his parents would be impressed. Their eyes were wide at such a generous gift, and there next to them was the little boy. Casper put the gold on the floor in front of him. 

But he had a funny feeling when he let go of the gold. As he looked up into the child’s eyes, everything seemed different. Casper realised that though the young boy was grateful, the gold just didn’t seem so precious any more. Casper suddenly thought of the people he loved and cared for, and the people who cared for him and knew deep in his heart that they were much more precious than anything gold could buy. 

Balthasar was next with his frankincense [a young person might carry a ‘gift’ and place it before the crib]

The family welcomed Balthasar too. He gave them a precious container with frankincense inside. It was the same as the kind he used in his temple back home in his ceremonies and prayers. 

But he had a funny feeling when he let go of the frankincense and looked at the little boy. In all his years, in all his trying, in all his searching God had always seemed very far away, hidden behind all the frankincense smoke that he sent up before his altars and statues. However, when he caught the little boy Jesus’ eyes, he felt closer to God than he ever had. In all the busyness of his religion, and all the pride he had in how devout he was, he knew he had missed something, and now he had found what it was. In this little house, at last God was very close.

Melchior was last [a young person might carry a ‘gift’ and place it before the crib]

He liked being a bit scary – it actually made him feel less nervous when he was in a group of people. But when he walked in with his gift, things didn’t quite go to plan. Joseph and Mary looked at him nervously, but the little boy just stared at him, and then he smiled. To Melchior’s astonishment, the toddler then walked fearlessly over to him and touched his hand. Melchior was so surprised, he just quietly handed the flask of perfume to Mary. 

As he handed it over, he had a funny feeling. Melchior had practised something to say in the family’s own language, as he was from another country, but all his words failed him. He realised that there was something here much more powerful than anything he had – the power of love. More powerful than him, and more powerful even than death itself. This little boy's lack of fear, and unconditional welcome had shown him just how powerful that could be.

So picture yourself entering that house. What would you be bringing and why? What would you be hoping would happen? Do you think you might be surprised, just as the wise men were?

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Trace the Line: Music and Loss


We had a brilliant evening of music at St Nicholas', Beverley with Yvonne Lyon, Gareth Davies-Jones and David Lyon touring their new album Trace The Line. It was hard to believe that I last met up with Yvonne and David in 2017 when they were touring their previous collaboration The Space Between.

I was so pleased to bring them to Beverley, and they now have some new fans. One of the tracks on the new album is a beautiful songs about loss, which Yvonne has addressed in songs before. Knowing how much Yvonne's music meant to Debbie, it was a very poignant moment. 

Take a listen here - and even better buy it!

Monday, July 25, 2022

The Parable of the Rich fool (Luke 12:13-21)

The following is an edited down version of the section in my MA dissertation on this week's reading from Luke's gospel. I had forgotten what I had written, and it was quite helpful as I began to think towards Sunday. I thought I would post a shorter and more readable version here, in case anyone found it useful.

The Rich fool (Luke 12:13-21).

13Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (NRSV)

The parable is introduced with an exchange between Jesus and a man in the crowd who is in dispute with his brother, concerning their inheritance. Jesus declines to intervene, phrasing his answer to echo the story of Moses’ intervention in the fight between two Hebrews. In the Exodus story, one of the men asks Moses, “who made you a prince and a judge over us?” (Ex. 2:14); in this text, Jesus asks the man “who made me a judge or divider over you?” (12:14b)  Rather than issue a direct judgment, Jesus answers in the form of a parable, framed by two sayings, which furnish some further interpretation. A parallel to the core of the parable is also to be found in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas (log. 63), which may suggest it was in circulation in the early church, separate from the interpretive sayings in verses 15 & 21.

The term ‘rich’ in Luke has a negative connotation, which conflicts with the society within which the Gospel is set, where wealth was a sign of blessing, and a consequence of belonging to the inner elite of the community. Here a rich man is depicted as being fortunate enough to enjoy a bumper harvest (12:16). He asks, “What shall I do” (v.17), which in Luke’s gospel is a question of salvation. His choice is to multiply his wealth by building bigger barns to store his wealth, and to rest in his complacency, which has echoes in wisdom literature (e.g. Psalm 49 & Sirach 11:14-28).

God’s response is to describe him as a “fool” (12:20). Foolishness is comprehensively defined in Proverbs (e.g. Pr. 10:18, 10:23, 11:29, 12:15, 12:16, 13:16, 14:3), and in the Psalms it is the fool that denies the existence of God. (Psalm 14:1). The rich man sees his wealth as his security and not his God, and in doing so effectively denies his existence. Furthermore, he only makes provision for himself; no-one else is mentioned.

But in Luke, it is not simply that the man has a lot of money or assets; it is that in his context being rich would have carried with it power, responsibility and even a basis for assuming piety in the one who has been 'blessed' by wealth. The parable targets these assumptions and contradicts them. This man abdicates his responsibilities and fails to use his power to improve the lot of others. He even lacks the one remaining virtue of possessing a piety, albeit one which finds no expression in action.

Introducing the parable, Jesus states that abundance of possessions are not the means to measure the value of a human life (12:15) A valuation of life, based on possessions, inevitably results in the pursuit of material gain as the goal of life. 

In the same way, the core story of the parable is rounded off with the saying about being rich towards God (v. 21). In the wider context of chapter 12, we can understand this to refer to generosity. A little further on, Jesus' command is simple, “sell your possessions and give alms” (v.33) and they must pursue “treasure in heaven”. This is concluded by the summary challenge “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (v.34)

The overarching message of this section is clearly the folly of lives that have material and financial gain as their goal. This pursuit is, of course, vulnerable to disaster, since these treasures are easily lost, stolen or destroyed. Furthermore, they eat away at the commitment of the disciple. Seeking the kingdom (v.31) becomes less of a priority as concern for material well-being grows. It may be that this was becoming a concern within the Christian community that Luke was seeking to address, and so it was a priority for him to include material from the communal recollections about Jesus that directly tackled the issue.