Friday, 24 February 2017

Carpets of Welcome

This week a new blue carpet has been laid along the aisle at Amersham Free Church and it looks great.

This new addition to our church furnishings replaces the original carpet put down when the building opened in 1962.  I wonder how many soles have walked upon it?!

I was intrigued to read that the largest carpet in the world also resides in a religious building.  The one in the Abu Dhabi mosque is an astonishing 60,000 square feet and took the Iran Carpet Company two years to weave.

On Palm Sunday we are told the Jerusalem crowd greeted Jesus entering their city on a donkey by ‘carpeting’ his path with their cloaks. 

This all sounds rather similar to that piece of English myth about Sir Walter Raleigh laying down his cloak over a puddle so that Queen Elizabeth I didn’t get her shoes muddy.  It’s long been thought this incident never actually happened and is a piece of imaginative writing from the pen of the 17th century cleric cum historian Thomas Fuller.  It’s still a great story!

The use of a ‘red carpet’ for welcoming guests, especially important ones, is documented in literature going back four centuries before Christ .  However, the actual term, ‘rolling out the red carpet’ was first used in 1902 when the New York Central Railroad Company used a plush crimson carpet to direct passengers to the 20th Century Limited trains. 

Well at AFC we’ve chosen ‘church’ blue for our carpet!

I’d like to think, whatever the colour, that our new carpet remains a symbol of welcome – reflecting those Jerusalem crowds laying their garments before the entry of Jesus.  I also hope it offers a welcome to all who enter our building and come into the Sanctuary for worship.

Welcoming God and welcoming each other – laying out the red (blue) carpet for both is an important part of what we do Sunday by Sunday.


Saturday, 18 February 2017

'Like living on a film set...'

Venice on Wednesday with the Doge's Palace on the right
Yesterday we flew back to Britain after a week in Venice.  The lagoon sparkled in early spring sunshine and the city was gearing up for Carnival – a sort of last ‘fling’ before Lent!

One of the most interesting visits we made during our time in this Italian masterpiece was to the Doge’s Palace on the waterfront.

The Doge was the elected Head of the Republic of Venice – and over its thousand year history it had one hundred and twenty of them. They were elected for life, they couldn’t refuse the honour and neither could they step down from it. 

Their ‘life-long’ appointment was most unusual in that almost every other post in government was for a strictly limited time span: usually for three or six months or possibly a year.  After service for that specific period the holder of the office stood down for exactly the same period of time before the possibility of standing again came along.

All of this was Venice’s attempt to stamp out corruption.  If you didn’t serve overlong then, it was reckoned, you wouldn’t be in anyone’s pockets! 

The Doge wasn’t so fortunate.  He served for life, so was usually appointed around the age of 80.  He also served at his own expense.  He received no salary; quite the reverse, he had to pay for the upkeep of the palace and all the state entertaining out of his own fortune. Our guide thought that’s why one Doge died two days after a significant part of the palace burned down.  She thought he just couldn’t face the repair bill!

All this talk of power and its use and misuse touched a chord with me.  It reflects the constant struggle we humans have.  As the adage goes: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  We even experience that in religion and I couldn’t help but notice as we looked at many of the painting’s in Venice’s galleries how often Mary and Jesus were depicted not as a marginalised woman or wondering rabbi but with crowns upon their heads seated in thrones.  All too quickly we invest them with an earthly ‘power’ that is surely so foreign to the lives they lived or the message behind their story.

Power – it’s something all of us in the Church need to ‘handle with care’!

There is, however, another reason for this reflection about Venice.

At AFC we have just lost one of our central members, Mary.  The last time I saw her, just a day before she died, we talked of Venice.  She reflected on her visit there ten years ago and said: I felt for the first two days as if I were living on a film set.  I couldn’t get Mary out of my mind as we walked through Venice last week.  Mary was a great servant of God at AFC and her family go back almost to its inception.  We are sad she has left us and we will miss her gracious character, wise counsel and faithful example – but we rejoice that she dwells today upon another shore, in a greater light in the loving presence of the God she served so well.




Friday, 10 February 2017

Beyond Difference



I wasn’t really looking forward to going out on Tuesday evening.  It was a cold, damp night and it had been a full day at church.  Yet I came home from the meeting so glad I went.

The meeting in question is called; Beyond Difference.  It draws together folk who want to participate in inter-faith dialogue and usually has a speaker from both the Muslim and Christian traditions followed by an open discussion that often has a Jewish presence as well.  We’ve met at my church, the Chesham Mosque and on Tuesday a full house gathered at the Quaker Meeting House in Amersham.
Both speakers reflected on places and people who have influenced their journey of faith.  Irfan, our Muslim speaker who studied law at Cambridge and has just been called to the Bar aged 30, told us not only of his love for Pakistan but also his concerns for that ‘new’ nation.  He also unpacked for us the notion that Islam always has a cultural context and is never quite the same in any two countries.

The purpose of these Beyond Difference gatherings is that we LISTEN to each other.  And in the listening we learn and explore.  And in the exploring trust, respect and friendship grows.

I’m a big fan of this process because it seems to me that over the last quarter of a century, with so much ‘dumbing down’, Western Society has moved from an Age of Reason to an Age of Emotion.  That’s lead to one Democracy after another experiencing a massive blow to reasoned argument because of the knee jerk pressure of the Popular Vote.  This is the exact opposite of The Long View which values facts, history and the nuanced ability to calmly listen, analyse the complicated and come to a measured response.

This week the statistician Hans Rosling died.  He is the man who brought facts and figures to life as he pursued his passion to make our understanding of the world an informed one based on reason and not emotion.

Jesus did the same I believe.  He got behind the emotional smoke scenes of his day that were fuelled by prejudice and fear.  He talked to the sex workers, mentally ill, and terminally incurables of his society rather than shouting about them.  He took the long view and taught that forgiveness may be hard but ultimately it had to be explored and pursued throughout a lifetime. His views were never populist – his cross is a testimony to that.

It was dark, damp and cold on Tuesday evening – but in that gathering at Amersham’s Quaker Meeting House – as Muslims, Christians, Jews and people of no faith connection came together in mutual respect we experienced the light and warmth of our common humanity.  Surely a ‘God Moment’ if ever there was one.

Best wishes,

Ian



Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The God who Changes his Mind?

Salisbury Cathedral last night!
I’ve been spending a few days with The Baptist Union Retreat Group Committee at Sarum College and one of the ‘perks’ has been the wonderful opportunity of going to Choral Evensong across the road in the cathedral.

On Monday night as we sat in the Quire we heard the Old Testament reading from Jonah 3 of God changing his mind over the fate of Nineveh.  He had intended to punish the city but after the citizens there mended their ways we are told – and it came as a bit of a jolt to hear this in the cathedral – ‘God changed his mind’.

Jesus did the same thing in Matthew 15 as he meets with the Syrophoenician woman who wants him to do a healing for a family member.  At first he sort of ‘dismisses’ her, Matthew says because she was ‘foreign’.  Yet this brave woman keeps Jesus in dialogue and eventually he’s convinced of her sincerity, changes his mind and performs a miracle.

I guess like many others I was brought up with that rather fixed idea that God is ‘unchangeable’.  Well, I suppose that’s true in a way – in the sense that his character of love and justice is always faithful.  Yet ‘love’ – and the Bible tells us that ‘God is love’ – ‘love’ is always open, always generous, always willing to be convinced – I think true ‘love’ is open to change.

It’s not loving in the least to have a prejudiced idea of someone and make that the last word.  Such attitudes break families and cause wars.

True love listens and constantly returns, always hoping for the best.  True love is epitomised by the Father of The Prodigal longing every day for the return of his son and then running with open arms to meet him.

Personally I’m inspired that God changed his mind about Nineveh and that Jesus lingered long enough with the Syrophoenician woman to do an about face and heal her daughter.

I hope I am ‘loving’ enough to be that open, generous, and warm-hearted in my life.  Seems to me that at times ‘changing you mind’ is actually a ‘Godly’ thing to do!

Best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Cross Shaped Love

COTHA Clergy: St Michael's: 22nd January 2017
It was really good to worship with friends from Churches Together on The Hill (COTHA) last Sunday at St Michael’s.  Opposite is a picture of all us ministers who took part!

I was asked to preach and one of the lectionary readings was from 1 Corinthians 1 as Paul addresses the ‘divisions’ within the church at Corinth.  Here’s part of what I said – well, I believe in ‘re-cycling’!!


As Paul writes to the Corinthians in our epistle reading today he also urges them to hang on to their dreams and visions.  Yet he writes with a deep concern that they are looking for the wrong sort of light in their church life together.

I’m told that when the Keswick Convention descends upon that Lake District town, as it has done for over a hundred years as a sort of forerunner to Spring Harvest or Soul Survivor, it has a banner above its main tent with an aspirational text: All one in Christ Jesus.

Now that isn’t a banner you could ever have hoisted in Corinth.

This congregation may be seeking for the light but they are not all looking in the same place.  Factions had developed with some saying they belonged to Apollos, some to Cephas, others to Paul and, ironically, listed last of all, some to Christ!

It all sounds a little too uncomfortable to read this during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity as maybe a modern version would say:  I hear divisions have broken out amongst you, some say they are Methodists, others Anglicans whilst others who can’t seem to make up their minds, namely Baptists and URC’s, you muddy the waters even more by calling yourselves ‘Free’!!

Paul is saddened by these divisions and he seems frustrated by that very human activity of ours to make the leaders we like into ‘cult’ like figures bordering on idolatry as we give them an almost God like status.

So, instead of clinging to the cult of so called ‘spiritual’ celebrity, what does Paul suggest should have been the light to have guided the Corinthians and us?  At the end of today’s reading he says it is ‘the message of the cross’. 

Instead of boasting about the eloquence of Apollos or the careful logic of Cephas or even the baptismal successes of Paul – their focus and their unity should be located in what they believe about the cross.

As Jesus died upon it didn’t he show us and teach us something about the value of brokenness, failure, vulnerability and sacrifice.  Doesn’t he show and teach us a new way of living which isn’t about power, instead it’s about service.

Paul says it’s this defiant symbol of the cross that we Christians should gather around – not the cult of celebrity leadership.  It’s the cross that defines us because it’s that cross shaped love and grace that brings light into the darkness.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Dumbing Down

I think I first heard the phrase ‘Dumbing Down’ in the early 90’s when it was often used to describe the way TV was heading.  With our attention spans apparently getting shorter television producers were beginning to make programmes that demanded less of us!

Since then it seems to have been a process that is unstoppable. 

My generation thinks the exams we took were harder than those taken by my sons – the exam boards have ‘dumbed down’ the syllabus!  From news bulletins to sermons we are told people can only absorb so much information so make it snappy and short!

Well that’s OK until, because we are so used to a ‘dumbed down’ framework, we all start seeing life as inevitably simple and straightforward – which of course it isn’t.

Such a scenario exists when politicians bring simplistic or wildly unrealistic solutions to a campaign just to capture the ‘popular’ vote rather than be honest and upfront in acknowledging that most of the world’s problems are highly complex with no one easy solution.

It happens too in churches when preachers and members make out there is only one ‘real’ way to pray, worship or be Christian instead of honestly struggling with the fact that the bible contains genuinely difficult parts and all our traditions are flawed by power struggles.

When we ‘dumb down’ difficult issues we start lying to ourselves.

I was so impressed the other day to read a line from a piece by Richard Rohr that went: Remember, how you get there determines where you finally arrive!

All leaders, including politicians and pastors, need to journey honestly with the people they are leading.  Our task isn’t to give simplistic answers which then generates a false hope, but to struggle with the issues we are all facing and work hard to sift through the siren voices on all sides and bring a measured provisional response that is still open to the discovery and revelation of yet more truth in coming days.  Such leadership recognises the value of the journey, which may be a long one, rather than constantly being fixated on the arrival, which may be premature if achieved by a ‘dumbed down’ fast fix route.

Of course it must be obvious to you now that I’m writing these words with half an eye on what is happening in Washington tomorrow as a most unlikely man is inaugurated as America’s 45th President. 

All our leaders need ours prayers and all of us, I believe, need to take on board the words of my favourite Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr: Remember, how you get there determines where you finally arrive.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

The door to happiness...

Sara and Duncan - and the MBE cake she made for him - and us!
Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, has some brilliant one liners including this one: The door to happiness opens outwards…

In other words our lives are both enhanced and expanded as we think of others.  Or as Jesus put it: Love God and Love Neighbour.

These words seem so appropriate as I reflect on the service we held at Amersham Free Church last Sunday morning, during which we presented the founder of Street Kids Direct, Duncan Dyason (who was awarded the MBE in the recent New Year’s Honours List) with a cheque from our church community for £7,500.  When the final amounts of last year’s fund raising are gathered in that will rise to a wonderful £9,000 – well, I think it’s wonderful because we set out to raise £5,000 and ended up raising almost double.

These dry statistics represent a great deal of love, effort and prayerful concern from the folks at AFC as they have taken Street Kids Direct and all the work they do in Central America to their hearts.  We have, in Kierkegarrd’s words, tried to open the door outwards.  I am often very proud of my church (that isn’t a sin, is it?) and Sunday morning was just such an occasion.

I hope, as a community of faith, we continue to look outwards and as we do I’m sure we’ll go on being inspired by the way God is at work in our world as we jump in and join him!