Thursday, 1 December 2016

An Advent Parable

Last weekend I travelled into deepest Worcestershire and attended a weekend Advent Retreat.

I can’t think of a better way to start this season of waiting and wondering than sharing in forty-eight hours of purposeful silence sustained by thoughtful spoken reflections and beautifully crafted liturgy – oh and the food was good too!

On the Saturday evening as it grew dusk we gathered in the chapel to be led through one of those reflections. It was all going so well until the CD player failed and a crucial piece of music couldn’t be played.  It was the hymn ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’, often sung at this time of year but the version she had chosen was a wonderfully evocative one played on the Saxophone by Christian Fawshore.

My heart went out to the person leading.  The moment felt a little ‘broken’.  Yet she tried to pick it all up and move on as seamlessly as she could. 

We all then began to notice a few folk stumbling around in the darkness at one end of the chapel searching for a hymn book.  Once found a retreatant asked our leader that, as the CD had failed, could she sing the hymn to the group instead.

It was a spine- tingling moment as her beautiful unaccompanied voice pierced the darkness.  She sang the hymn with such sensitive phrasing and interpretation that I suspect many of us left the chapel with tears in our eyes.

Of course none of this was planned; in fact, it was quite the opposite.  Yet what happened was one of the most moving moments of our time together.  It was almost ‘parabolic’ in that it contained in just a few short moments the essence of what this Advent Retreat was all about. Our lone singer, with such a generous and spontaneous reaction, really did redeem a broken situation.

And isn’t that the essence of the Advent message.  That God comes among us in Jesus to restore our fragile world with fresh hope, healing and vision.

Advent is a season full of hope.  For God is still at work bringing light out of darkness, confidence out of fear and love out of indifference.

And last Saturday, as our fellow retreatant sang those first few lines I think we all felt that hope and gave thanks to God for it.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

1st Sunday in Advent: The Light of The World

It looks like a cold night maybe with the dawn about to break in midwinter.

It also looks as if Jesus isn’t too sure if this door will actually be opened – yet still he knocks.

Holman Hunt painted three versions of this painting, the original he donated to Keble College, Oxford but incredibly they didn’t want it in the Sanctuary and placed it instead in a side room charging people for the privilege of viewing it.  So he painted a second, life sized version which today hangs in St Paul’s Cathedral.

Jesus – God – seeking us out, looking for us, longing to greet us if only we would open the door.

I wonder what the story might be behind the door and the reason for the delay in opening?

In a season when we remember the Coming of God – I look at Hunt’s work and I am comforted, inspired and immensely grateful for the idea that God is seeking me out, longing and searching for me – wanting my company.  Mind blowingly wonderful that still The Light of the World knocks on our hearts door.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

The Adoration of the Magi: Peter Brueghel 1525-1569

Over the next few weeks my church in Amersham will once again be travelling through Advent with some wonderful paintings as our companions on this journey to Christmas.  These paintings will be shown at our services, displayed on our vestibule monitor and be on a special Advent leaflet given to the congregation, and shown on this Blog!! I think it’s a great way to help us along the way to Christmas.

The first painting is The Adoration of the Magi by Brueghel the Elder and it’s a chaotically crowded scene; I love the people on camels!

Is this a noisy or hushed crowd?

Here are people from all nations; it’s as if the whole world is coming to see the baby called Jesus.  Yet every crowd is made of individuals and Brueghel is a master at painting the details of so many different faces.

There is a momentum, from family expectation to the jingles played over and over in shops, that forces us to walk towards Christmas.  Yet I long for this year’s journey to be different from last year’s.  I’m a year older and the Road to Bethlehem, and maybe even the significance of what I’ll find there, is not quite the same as last year.  It’s a personal journey – I come as an individual.

Brueghel paints princes and paupers, all life is here.

Yet there are two characters with their backs to us and to Jesus who seem detached form what’s going on around them as they talk to each other and look at the river! 

And there are people at the back of the crowd who cannot possibly have a clue at what the front row people are looking at! 

Christmas has a chaos all its own.  Yet somewhere, and at some time, it holds the potential to thrill and amaze us and see life with a new wonder.

Maybe I’m on a camel, perhaps I’m looking at the river or possibly I’m still at the back of the crowd wondering what is going on.  I’m in there somewhere – perhaps you are too!

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Order! Order!

St Columba's, Woking
I belong to an Order!  It’s a religious one and it’s called The Order of Baptist Ministry and this afternoon I returned from its annual two-day Convocation, which this year was held at St Columba’s Conference and Retreat Centre in Woking.

This ‘Order’ has been in existence for some six years and I’ve been part of it since its inception.

It’s loosely based on groups like The 3rd Order Franciscans – that is we have certain ‘monastic’ principles which bind us together but we are a dispersed community rather than a residential one.

I suppose for some it might seem strange that a Free Church movement like the Baptists has such an Order – but I have to say that for me this recent initiative has been one of the most appropriate and nourishing to come out of my parent denomination.

To belong to the order – and two ministers took their vows today at our concluding Communion Service – you have to pledge yourself to five core activities – here they are:

1) To regularly use the Order’s Daily Office
2) To meet in Cell about once every six weeks with other members of the Order – to say the Office together and be ‘accountable’ to one another as to how one’s spiritual life is going
3) To meet in Convocation once a year with all the other members of the Order
4) To have a Spiritual Director with whom one meets regularly
5) To go on retreat once a year

I took my vows three years ago – but I was reminded at the Convocation that I have forgotten to pay this year’s membership fee!!

I have benefitted beyond words by the supportive and sustaining fellowship of my Cell Group and attendance at Convocation alongside like- minded colleagues is a real joy.

One of the most precious pieces of thinking to come out of the Order for Baptist Ministry is the ‘Foundation Document’ that we all sign up to.  We read it together at the beginning of our time in Woking on Wednesday afternoon – here it is – and I think in reading it you’ll get a flavour of this group to which I’m so happy to belong:

We dream of an Order, a community of equals
Where we are gathered and dispersed
journeying together even when alone
rooted within the Baptist story.

Where we hold a view of Baptist ministry
as a way of being that mediates the presence of Christ,
particularly expressed in word, sacrament, pastoral care and mission.

Where we seek to be attentive
to Word and Spirit
contemplating in silence and conversation
in stillness and in service
the Triune God -
known and unknown
mystery and revelation -
present in Christ
within us
between us
and around us.

Where we offer safe space 
cradling, nurturing and holding us
that we may risk and explore
think aloud
hear and be heard
value dissent and freedom of conscience
walk together and watch over one another.

Where we live within the disciplines of this Order
committed to prayer
committed to gather
following the rule of Christ
with hearts set on pilgrimage
makers of peace
pursuers of justice
lovers of mercy
bearing witness to Christ.

We dream of an Order
committed to the way of Christ
faithful to the call of Christ
discerning the mind of Christ
offering the welcome of Christ
growing in the likeness of Christ
engaging in the mission of Christ
in the world that belongs to Christ.

We dream...

Best wishes,


Words! Words!

Well what a week it’s been!  The election of the 45th President of the United States has been like something from the pages of fiction – but you can’t make this stuff up!

We join our prayers with our American friends as they prepare for Mr Trump’s Inauguration on 20th January 2017.

It has struck me over these last few months just how important words are in any political campaign. 

I think all our leaders have a responsibility to use words carefully and thoughtfully.  Trading insults and peddling fears is unworthy rhetoric from anyone seeking public office.  We look to those on the national and international stage to take the longer view yet inspire us with words of hope and speeches of encouragement for today.  Sometimes, in these panic stricken, soundbite crazed days, we hear our leaders trade insults with each other even as they seek our trust and confidence. Our hearts sink with such a blinkered methodology.

This week I had cause to visit Southend and the onetime church of my former ‘boss’ Donald MacKenzie.  I served my ‘curacy’ under Donald when I was Assistant Minister at Fuller Baptist Church in Kettering between 1987 and 1992. Donald served in this Essex church way back in the 60’s and 70’s.  Whilst visiting there this week I asked the current minister if anyone in the congregation might still remember my friend and senior colleague.  Yes, he said, we were only talking about him this morning in the Team Meeting and someone said: During Donald’s day, because so many loved his preaching, on visiting preacher Sundays the church would regularly be half full!

I just loved hearing that because Donald’s words from the pulpit during the five years I heard him preach were always profound words of loving encouragement, accessible scholarship, delightful story- telling and relevant, down to earth application.  This was a man who never ever used a snide comment or made a negative observation about a fellow human being – and this man’s sermons lifted our spirits and gave us hope week by week.

Words are precious – and our leaders have a responsibility to use them with grace – Donald taught me that!

All best wishes,


Thursday, 3 November 2016

A Great Sermon!

Bishop Michael Curry - Presiding Bishop of  the Episcopal Church in the USA
What, I wonder, makes for a good sermon?  In my thirtieth year of being a minister you might have thought I would have worked that out by now!!

Whilst on holiday in the New Forest last week my mother-in-law (a licensed Anglican Lay Reader herself) and I talked about this.  She prepares for her sermons by writing out trigger notes – she genuinely doesn’t quite know how the sermon is going to proceed as she goes into the pulpit.  I, on the other hand, take ‘word for word’ notes with me. We didn't ask family members present whose sermons they preferred - that's not the best way of surviving a week long holiday together!

I seem to remember my Pastoral Studies tutor at College defined a good sermon as something to do with preaching for twenty minutes and preaching about God.

Well, I thought I’d take a risk this week and tell you of a sermon that I listened to recently which I thought was truly inspiring – I know it was about God but I can’t be sure if it made or overshot the twenty minute benchmark!

It was preached by the Presiding Bishop of the United States Episcopal Church, The Most Revd Michael Bruce Curry.  He was preaching on October 23rd this year at the installation of The Revd Randy Hollerith as Dean of Washington Cathedral.  And here’s the thing – you can listen to it to on You Tube!!! Here’s the address:

I was so touched by this message, it was:
Funny yet Serious
Full of wit yet Full of Pathos
Biblical yet Contemporary
Recognised the Church as it is yet Longed for the Church to be more Loving and Christ-like

I’m grateful for these internet sermons!  If you are able – why not check this one out?!

And now, talking of sermons, I have one to prepare for Sunday!

Best wishes,


Friday, 21 October 2016

Touching the Numinous

Last Saturday evening we attended a recording in the BBC Radio Theatre at Broadcasting House.  The show we ‘saw’ was Radio 4’s Museum of Curiosities in which three panellists ‘donate’ something which is important to them to this ‘virtual’ museum of the airways.  It was a fascinating night with lots of banter on stage with a recording that took 1 hour 45 mins – even though the programme is just 30 mins long – so a lot of the chat will end up on the cutting room floor!

Jo Band was participating and she was great fun – but the shining star of the evening was, for me, Sir Tony Robinson – otherwise known as the man with a ‘cunning plan’, Baldrick of the Black Adder programmes.

He was funny, quick witted, brilliant with words and had a presence that simply dominated the stage.

His ‘donation’ to the Museum of Curiosities was that final programme from ‘Black Adder Goes Forth’ – the episode that had Private Baldrick, Captains Darling and Blackadder going over the trenches of Flanders in WW1.  What was so moving was hearing from John Lloyd – that evening’s show host but, by coincidence, the onetime Producer of Blackadder – the story behind this sequence.

It was filmed in the days when the lighting crew had to be off set by 10pm.  The scenery was badly prepared and at times looked like the polystyrene it was.  That ‘over the top’ shoot was filmed at three minutes to ten and looked shambolic.

Well, what happened next transformed a piece of badly rehearsed and staged film into one of the iconic moments of 20th Century T.V.

In the cutting room John Lloyd and his colleagues tweaked the footage by turning it into black and white, slowing it down, overlaying music, freeze framing the soldiers just before they fell and then turning the mud of the battlefield into a field of red poppies.  If you have ever seen this piece of T.V. perhaps, like me, your response has been a profound, silent appreciation.

John Lloyd said as they watched the finished production for the first time the cutting room team also feel silent.  He said only three or four times as a T.V. Producer had he felt he had ‘touched the numinous’ – and this was such an occasion.

‘Touching the Numinous’ – what a great phrase!  Describing those moments when we intuitively know we are witnesses or participants in something immensely life affirming or life giving.

I guess in the bible such ‘Touching the Numinous’ moments happened as Moses ‘meets’ God in the burning bush or as Mary ‘meets’ the gardener on the morning of Easter Day and then realises he is Jesus.

When have we, I wonder, ‘touched the numinous’?  For some it’s in worship, for others it’s whilst out walking in the country.  For some it’s a time of prayer, whilst for others it’s during a time with family.

I think I had it once when singing Bach’s St Matthew Passion with the Malvern Festival Chorus.  We had a long ten-week rehearsal schedule as we practiced it in ‘bits’.  It only really came together at the last rehearsal on the Saturday afternoon of the concert, the first with the orchestra and boys’ choir.  I remember overwhelming moments that afternoon when I opened my mouth and nothing came out because I was so taken up with the beauty of what I was hearing all around me – a moment of touching the numinous.

We take such times and treasure them in our hearts – they give dignity to our humanity and whisper to us of the depth of the Divine.

Best wishes,

Ps. Blog holiday next week!