Thursday, 29 September 2016

Here comes the bride....

Not one but two wedding celebrations will be happening at AFC this coming Sunday – which is great!

At our morning service a couple who have recently married overseas will be re-affirming their vows in a Blessing.  Then, after a quick sandwich, I go back to church for an afternoon wedding for a young couple who have strong family connections with the Free Church.

It’s a surprise to us that these two happy and joy-filled celebrations have come together on the same day – my task on Sunday will be to ensure I don’t get the names mixed up at either service!

The latest statistics we have for weddings in the UK is 2012 – and four years ago 262,240 weddings took place in Britain – down by half from the 1930s but an increase of 5.3% on the number making vows in 2011.  Just 30% of these weddings took place in churches.

The truth is I’m delighted when anyone asks to tie the knot in church.  So many other, perhaps even more convenient options are available today so to ask for a church wedding represents a great deal which I’m keen to honour.

I’m sure it is significant that Jesus’ first miracle was at the Wedding Feast in Cana of Galilee – that famous occasion when he turned water into wine!  We just get the impression that our Lord loved these moments of community celebration.

And that is one of the key features of a wedding – it becomes not only a personal moment for the bride and groom but also a collective one for the community. 

Perhaps it’s not widely known that it’s illegal for us to lock the doors of the church whilst the ceremony is going on – it has to be a public event.

More than that I know everyone at AFC who attends either the Blessing or the Wedding on Sunday will be praying for both couples – glad to share with them in these moments of dedication and glad to stand by them giving prayerful and practical support in coming days.

Best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Seeing God everywhere?

This coming Sunday we’ll be celebrating Harvest Festival.  Even though I’m a life-long suburban ‘townie’ I love singing ‘We plough the fields and scatter’.  To be truthful I cannot tell the difference between a field of wheat and barley – but I am aware that the food the Tesco van delivers to the Manse door every week doesn’t start its life pre-packaged!

In the liturgy of the Church Harvest Festival services are relative newcomers as they have only been around since 1843 – being the Church’s offering as an alternative, or at least an addition, to the more rowdy ‘Harvest Home’ held in village barns.

It is often said that many find it ‘easier’ to see God in nature than in a church.

Well, I suspect it’s sometimes difficult, or at least confusing, to see God at times in either.  For nature can be fiercely and frighteningly destructive (‘red in tooth and claw’ as the saying goes) and church can often present God using words and images which are steeped in an ecclesiastical culture that no longer resonates with a pre-dominantly secular society.

For me the nature vs church debate is pretty pointless because I suspect the ‘notion’ of God cannot be ‘contained’ or ‘explained’ exclusively in either.

God, I like to believe, is everywhere; an unlimited presence waiting and wanting to be explored and cherished.

So I’m glad that on Sunday some of us will sense the presence of God as we sing ‘All things bright and beautiful’. Others, as they sing that, will be transported to their gardens or a holiday memory and be grateful for that sense of the divine in nature. Whilst some will delight in our focus during the service on ‘Street Kids Direct’ and our church’s progress in raising £5,000 this year for the children sleeping rough in Guatemala, because for them God’s love is seen most clearly in acts of compassion and kindness.

Thomas Merton, an American monk, put it this way in August 1968:

We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.  This is not just a fable or a nice story, it is true.  And this is something we are not able to see. But if we abandon ourselves to Him and forget ourselves we see it maybe frequently – in people and in things and in nature and in events and so forth.  So that it becomes very obvious that he is everywhere, He is in everything, and we cannot be without Him.

With best wishes,

Ian

Saturday, 17 September 2016

A Shabbat Induction

I spent this morning as an ecumenical guest at the Shabbat Morning Service of the congregation of South Bucks Liberal Judaism.  It was for them a very special occasion because their new Rabbi, Charley Baginsky, was being welcomed and inducted.

Rabbi Charley is a young lady with a family and this branch of Judaism in which she serves is 10,000 strong with 40 congregations throughout the United Kingdom.

I loved the liturgy and the singing – those minor keys really get to me!  I loved to the welcome I received from the Synagogue leaders – many of whom I recognised from the times I have joined them for Passover in our own church hall.

The service – two hours long!! – included a few non-Biblical readings and these were fascinating.  One was from Isser Meltzer (1870-1953) on the theme of ‘leadership’:
The test of true leadership is to walk ahead of the people, not to conform to the inclinations and attitudes of the multitude….
I’d like to take that to one of our Life and Faith Groups with the word DISCUSS!

The other reading that caught my eye was about the value of community – part of it went like this
The modern emphasis in the individual has been a great advance, but we pay a heavy price for our individuality if we forget our need for community, and much of our feeling of alienation stems from that amnesia

The Induction of the new Rabbi was marked at the moment when she was presented with the Torah – this is how the service sheet described that moment:
Rabbi Rich will now hand the Torah over to Rabbi Baginsky, symbolically passing on to her the responsibility and privilege of transmitting its teaching to this congregation.

That felt like a very significant liturgical act – one that was rich in meaning and rather eloquently summed up the Rabbi’s prime role in the congregation as ‘Teacher’ of the Torah.

All of this was followed by a sermon preached by Rabbi Rich – Liberal Judaism’s senior cleric.  He was wonderfully informal, self-deprecating, welcoming of ecumenical and civic guests whist at the same time saying some really important truths – not least his desire that Jews should not only seek the renewal of their synagogues but also play a full and vibrant part in British society.  It’s not the first time I’ve heard Rabbi Rich preach and on this occasion, just like the previous one, I felt myself silently saying a strong ‘Amen’ to what he said.

So – it was quite a Saturday morning for me – a delightful one that will linger in the memory as I sat amongst fellow seekers after truth whose love for God and each other was both sincere and obvious.

May God’s richest blessing – his SHALOM – rest upon this congregation as they begin a new partnership with Rabbi Charley.

Best wishes,

Ian


Thursday, 8 September 2016

Sportsman and Optimist

Last Saturday I drove over to Cores End URC for a meeting of the Steering Committee of our Local Area Group – yes , I know, life doesn’t get much more exciting than that on a Saturday morning does it!!

Actually it was a super time – made so by being surrounded by such sincere and lovely people.  So it all went well with, I think, good discussions and decision making.

At the end I made my way out of the church and caught a glimpse of one of those memorial tablets people used to erect to the saints of old – well, this one was put up in the 1920’s.

It was obviously remembering someone deeply loved and cherished but the wording that struck me was the very last thing it said about him – he was a sportsman and optimist!

Isn’t that great!  I’ve never read anything so ‘down to earth’ as that on a church memorial – an ‘opimist’.

Seems to me ‘hope’ is one of the greatest characteristics any of us can possess.  Hope in God, hope in each other and hope in ourselves.

‘Optimist’ – what a lovely thing to remember about anybody!

Best wishes,

Ian

Friday, 2 September 2016

Standing at the Counter since just after Breakfast!

Fresh back from holiday and one of my first tasks was to meet up with the Intern ‘gifted’ to AFC by Chiltern Youth Projects for the next year.

Rylie, from 1st Baptist, Dallas, will be at LunchBreak most weeks and sharing Morning Worship alongside us every other week.

So, our first encounter was basically a briefing meeting.  Rylie needed to know when to arrive every Tuesday and what has to be done.  With the full authority of my office (!!) I said: ‘Oh, just be available at noon’ – that’s a mere fifteen minutes before I normally breeze in most weeks.

I then asked the LunchBreak organisers to join us and fill in the gaps I might have left out of her ‘job description’ – and that’s where the fun started and when the slight smiles and raised eyebrows began!

They told her to arrive at 9.30am because it usually takes a full two and a half hours to get the show on the road!

You know often us ministers have a habit of turning up when the work is basically three quarters done.  The buffet has been prepared, the chairs and tables laid out, the service sheets printed, the choir rehearsed and the heating programmed.

In almost four years here I have never realised that LunchBreak basically takes all morning to get ready – and it is got ready fifty two weeks of the year – unless Christmas and New Year’s Day falls on a Tuesday!

I can only admire and applaud such ‘behind the scenes’ faithfulness and dedication and, of course, this scenario is replicated in so many areas of church life.

So as we enter the autumn and a new season of service I take my hat off to everyone in my own faith community who works away from the limelight.  You are the unsung heroes of our church and we simply couldn’t do without you.

And next time I breeze in at 12.20pm on a Tuesday I promise to express my thanks to those who have been standing the other side of the counter since just after breakfast!

Best wishes,

Ian

Friday, 12 August 2016

Villain to Hero

This week we completed a further stage of the Thames Path which included a brief visit to Tate Britain and a wander round the Victoria Gardens beside Parliament.  It was on this last stretch that we came across the statue to Emmeline Pankhurst located just under the Victoria Tower.

Isn’t it odd how so called villains can become national heroes – even in their own lifetime? 

Mrs Pankhurst’s achievements have just been immortalised in the excellent film Suffragette
a movie with a punch if ever there was one.

This formidable and visionary woman died in 1928 and the statue to her honour was unveiled by Stanley Baldwin in 1930.  The New York Times made this observation: While the transition from martyrdom to sculptured memorials is familiar, the process in Mrs Pankhurst's case has been unusually brief.


It’s happened to others of course – perhaps most notably to Nelson Mandela, transformed from reviled terrorist to revered President of a Rainbow Nation.

The truth is we can so easily get it wrong – linger with the status quo – and it takes a maverick and someone who thinks outside the box to show us that a different way is possible, even right.

Jesus was undoubtedly such a figure.  Loathed by those who longed for stability and political calm, he taught a way of compassion with a radical and cutting edge.  This is the Jesus who disturbs – he did that two thousand years ago and I think he does it still today!

With best wishes,

Ian
ps Blog holiday until September!

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Many hands...

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve had three ‘House Keeping Days’ at Amersham Free Church – the picture of the skip is just a reminder to us of how much ‘stuff’ we threw away on Monday! 

I was told around thirty people took part in the polishing, gardening, carpet cleaning and furniture moving!  And I think that is terrific!

The way the congregation at AFC has responded to this ‘call’ to get stuck in to some practical, down to earth work speaks volumes about the sense of commitment and identity people feel.

For many of us ‘church’ is our second home – we not only love being together with fellow pilgrims, the building too provides us with a sense of security – it is a welcoming space which seems to embrace us as we walk through the doors.  So keeping it looking good and functioning well – especially if we want visitors and user groups to also feel at home and welcome  - is very important.

I couldn’t help but feel on Monday that there was a great sense of ‘teamwork’ as we spent the morning together – a good spirit united that band of workers.  Fellowship is, I think, enhanced by working together at a project.

So, if you picked up a duster, wielded a carpet cleaner, banged nails in with a hammer, changed light bulbs twenty feet up in the sanctuary – if you helped out in any way – thank you!  And no doubt we’ll do it all over again sometime soon!

All good wishes,

Ian