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!

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Removing our crowns...

Our Three Kings at the Nativity Play in AFC last month
Tomorrow, on January 6th, The Church celebrates Epiphany – the visit of The Magi to the baby Jesus.

At AFC last month, as our All Age Nativity came to an end Three Kings walked down the aisle in stately procession.  One by one they knelt before the Crib and presented their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Yet this year, as has become an AFC tradition, they once again did something else.  As they knelt before Jesus they removed their crowns before presenting their gifts.  A profound moment.

What message, I wonder, was intended behind such beautiful symbolism?

Perhaps it was this. 

If Jesus is to us the epitome of love, the life and love of God as seen in the life and love of a human being – well as these kings kneel before LOVE they come not clothed in their earthly accolades but in an honest humility devoid of pomp or an inflated ego.

Love is a great unifier.  Love breaks down barriers.  Love reminds us of our shared humanity.  Love crosses boundaries and opens up shared partnerships.

Before LOVE we are all the same.  We are all blessed the same way when our lives are touched by the kiss of its presence.

When the Queen and Prince Philip were married in the splendour of Westminster Abbey 70 years ago this November, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Geoffrey Fisher, reminded them that despite the pomp and pageantry of this occasion the Marriage Service that day in the Abbey, the words used and the vows made, was essentially and deliberately the same as those used by any couple getting married at their local Parish Church.

Standing before LOVE none of us came as kings or chief executives!  As we kneel before God our accolades never guarantee us greater access, and our failings never close the door to God’s loving generosity and transforming grace.

This Epiphany then, I’ll remember the Kings in our Nativity Play – who not only presented their gifts but also, as they knelt, removed their crowns.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Happy New Year!

As we plunge into 2017 we bump into a few significant anniversaries.  Here are just four:
               100 years since the end of the Russian Royal Family with the abdication of Tsar Nicolas II
               30 years since the Church of England decided to ordain women priests
               20 years since the handover of Hong Kong
               20 years since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales

Perhaps, like me, (apart from the first one!) you are saying ‘seems like only yesterday’!!

Of course any year has particular anniversaries and some commemorate events which will have been a long time in the making with lots of struggle along the way.  In the above list the Ordination of Women to the Anglican Priesthood was just such a long term aspiration.  Many struggled hard to make that dream become a reality – as it did through a General Synod vote in 1987 – the year I myself was ordained as a Baptist Minister!
Yet other events come out of the blue and knock us sideways; they are neither planned nor anticipated and we can be left shocked and confused in their wake.  The death of Princess Diana twenty years ago this coming autumn was just such a moment.  It happened the night before our second son, Jonty, was to be ‘Dedicated’ and in the light of those sad events we spent a few hours before the service frantically changing both some of the hymns and the text of the sermon – but I don’t think he noticed too much!

Life is that stimulating, yet often challenging, mixture of the planned and unplanned; and 2017 will be no different in that respect from any other year.

‘Discerning’ the presence and activity of God in all that comes our way is an important part of our pilgrimage.  We’ll do that as we bring our experience, our prayers, our thinking and our hoping to the various experiences that lay before us as a church community and as individuals in the upcoming twelve months.

I’m ‘looking out’ for God in 2017 – and I hope you are too!

Monday, 26 December 2016

Christmas Day: The Saviour is Born by Valerie Anne Kelly

What is it that makes Christmas Morning so special?

We have pondered many themes on our Advent Journey and they culminate in today’s yearly celebration of the Christ-Child of Bethlehem.

Our artist for Christmas Day – Valerie Anne Kelly – has used an unusual technique and distinctive colours to portray the Holy Family.

It’s not meant to be ‘life’- like but it is surely meant to speak a message about life.

These deep colours portray a depth of meaning as Mary holds Jesus with Joseph looking on.  Here we meet such an intensity of emotion alongside a burst of joy.  In our painting today there is sunshine, light, warmth and love.

On Christmas morning we celebrate life and the new beginnings that every birth gives.  The birth of Jesus so changed our world that we even attempt to date our calendar from his arrival.

On Christmas morning we celebrate the potential found in something so ordinary as the birth of a baby.  That potential contained within it a life that showed us God in a way we could understand.

On Christmas morning we celebrate hope – for in Jesus, his life and message, we encounter the healing and wholeness that offers our world hope for today and tomorrow.

Yet, especially, on Christmas morning we celebrate Love.  Today’s painting shows great love between Mary and Joseph.  Today’s gospel speaks of God’s love for our world in the gift of the Christ-Child.

Love can and does change the world – it is both the character and the gift of God – and today we rejoice once more that Love Came Down at Christmas.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Christmas in Poetry: Candlelight Talk

AFC Carols by Candlelight 18th December 2016
I think Christmas is impossible to explain; at least in a detached, forensic way.

I remember having a go at that during my days in Theological College.  In fact my first essay was an attempt to explain The Virgin Birth.  Thirty years on I neither remember what I wrote nor the mark I received!

Since those days I’ve come to the conclusion that Christmas is best expressed in poetry rather than prose.  It’s the reason why there are seven carols at our Candlelight Service and just one sermon!

There really is no adequate explanation that could fully unpack the mind-blowing idea of the Incarnation.

Yet we sense the deep truth of it as we sing:
       Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
       hail the incarnate Deity,
       pleased as man with men to dwell,
       Jesus our Immanuel.

It seems to me that Christmas contains some very deep and lasting truths.

Only last week as I listened to Radio 4’s Today Programme us listeners were reminded that the summer sensation called Pok√©mon Go, all the rage six months ago, is already old hat!
We are often drawn to the new, yet at Christmas it is the old truths which hit the spot.

We read of Mary and Joseph struggling to come to terms with an unexpected pregnancy.  A young couple facing the sniggers of neighbours.  Yet they don’t give up on each other and teach us the truth that any loving partnership can grow through the lows as well as delight in the highs.

We read of shepherds and wise men kneeling at the manger.  Teaching us the truth that God’s presence among us is open to all, both the lowly born and the highly privileged.

We read of Mary whose real miracle wasn’t the Virgin Birth but the truth that a mother’s love stays true; for she is there by Jesus’ side not only at his cradle but also at his cross.

And, of course, we read that God comes to us not as an idea, not as a force but as a human being.  Teaching us the deep and enduring truth that God shares life with us – alongside us he shares his light, his light, his joy and his peace.

There is a lovely prayer on our notice sheet, it’s from John Bell of the Iona Community and called the Creeping of The Light:

Light looked down and saw darkness.  “I will go there,” said Light.
Peace looked down and saw war.  “I will go there,” said Peace.
Love looked down and saw hatred.  “I will go there,” said Love.
So he, the Lord of Light, the Prince of Peace, the King of Love,
came down and crept in beside us.

Christmas in Poetry, to me it’s the best way to express these deep and lasting truths.

Or as John Betjeman put it in what is probably the most famous Christmas poem after the Angel’s Gloria:

And is it true, and is it true:
No love that in a family dwells
No carolling in frosty air
Not all the steeple shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in bread and wine.

May God travel with us through these final days of Advent and when it comes, may we all know his blessing this coming Christmas

Monday, 19 December 2016

Fourth Sunday in Advent: The Annunciation to Joseph: Seiger Koder

This is the liturgical year of Matthew and in his gospel the Annunciation isn’t to Mary but to Joseph, in the mystery and assurance of a dream.

Is this of God?  How many times in life is that a question upon our lips and in our hearts?  Is this of God?

In the BBC series Nativity Joseph is blown away by Mary’s news.  It, quite simply, fractures, their relationship.  He stays with her, but only just.

This is no fairy story but an unfolding nightmare for this young couple.

One unforgettable scene is that as she gives birth Joseph puts his hand into hers and grips it.  At last they are together and in the end they are united.

Seeing God – it takes time – like Joseph – it takes time.

and then in a moment, maybe in a painful action or a wordless event we see it clearly for the first time.  God at work in the pain, the chaos, the confusion and the joy.

And life is never the same again.