Thursday, 14 December 2017

O Magnum Mysterium - and no, it's not an ice-cream!

An old hymn we sometimes sing in church has the line, ‘tis mystery all…’  I wonder if that really describes faith?

For me, much of Christianity has a sense of cohesion which I find inspiring.  I think it makes sense to have a faith in which ‘love’ is central, a love that moulds and sustains us.  It’s almost creedal to say that love is at the centre of:
                              every relationship
                              every community
                              every positive act
                                                            and surely one of the most foundational statements we have in our scriptures is the verse that proclaims with a simplicity that disguises its profundity: ‘God is love’.

And yet I would also want to willingly acknowledge and embrace that ‘mystery’ can both deepen our faith and free us from the need to have a full sheet of water tight answers to all those questions we’ve been asking since we were six.

Don’t get me wrong.  At AFC we are quite a ‘questioning’ church.  We like digging deep in our attempt to make an honest critique of life and faith.

Yet when it comes to Christmas I’ll happily settle for mystery.

The idea that God shared our life in Jesus, born at Bethlehem is as mind-blowing as it is inspirational.

At the centre of Christianity is an idea beyond explanation: that God comes alongside us.  Not a far away God, but one closer than our breathing.

Our Jewish cousins have a word for it: ‘Immanuel’ – meaning ‘God with us’.

That love of God is found in the new life of a baby, the faithful care of parents and the intuitive worship of the shepherds.

God comes close.

If Easter is the Christian festival of life, then Christmas is surely our festival of love.

One of the simplest carols puts it this way: ‘Love came down at Christmas…’

Over these coming days as Advent erupts into the joy of Christmas may God come close to you.  Maybe in the smile of a child, the flicker of a candle or even in the struggles that simply don’t go away.  Struggles which we can bear because of the love and support that surrounds us.

A verse from the Latin Mass for Christmas Day begins: ‘O Magnum Mysterium’ – ‘O Great Mystery’.

There is an implicit mystery to Christmas as there is to Love.  Yet all our lives are the better for it.

Better for the mystery which unfolded that night in Bethlehem when ’Love came down...'.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Avoiding Advent Adverts

As I was driving to Cambridge to meet up with a friend yesterday, I tuned in to Classic FM.  I couldn’t help but notice how prescriptive the adverts felt in between the music.  I was told that Raymond Brigg’s Snowman was an essential part of Christmas (so why not go out and buy a copy!!), and that shopping at Morrisons would make it a good Christmas!

Does anyone believe adverts anymore?!

So, as I drove up the M11 I made a decision that, essential or not, I can do without the Snowman this year, and just because it’s Christmas I won’t abandon our regular supermarket retailer in favour of one promising ‘good’ seasonal cheer.

It strikes me we all have choices to make at this time of year.  We don’t have to become a victim to other people’s agendas.

We even make choices about the story at the centre of this season.  We don’t have to take it all as historical fact, instead we can see the enduring value of ‘myth’ at its very centre.  We can choose not to get over concerned by the details but simply rejoice in the concept of Immanuel, an ‘alongside’ God, and just how mind-blowing that thought always is.  We can choose to balance a family celebration alongside a season of prayerful worship whilst seeing value in both.

And perhaps most of all we can choose to be open to the surprises of The Spirit and the joys of Advent without having too much of a prescribed plan; because living in the moment and valuing it is, I suspect, never more important than it is in December.

Actually I love the Snowman story and if Morrisons were local I’d happily shop there.  But I don’t believe either is essential to Christmas and that neither will inevitably make it good!

I make the choice to look elsewhere for a deeper meaning to the season.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Advent Blogs by the Baptist Union Retreat Group

During Advent the Baptist Union Retreat Group (BURG) are posting weekly Blog Reflections - they can be found at

Thursday, 30 November 2017

An Alternative Advent Blessing

I met two groups of people yesterday and, on both occasions, we ended up talking (and despairing) about the challenges of the next four weeks and the fraught planning of our family Christmas arrangements.

Don’t get me wrong, we normally have a really good time when it arrives, it’s the ‘build up’ that freaks me out.  I find it so oppressive.

In that respect I love the balance that a Church Advent brings.  We don’t sing carols until the week before Christmas and we linger with the rather stern lectionary themes rather than rushing into Christmas four weeks early.

So here’s an alternative Advent Blessing for those of us who find this one of the most challenging seasons of the year:

May God go with you as we enter into the craziness of these next four weeks.

May he gives us wisdom as we try to please too many friends and relatives as we make our arrangements.

May he stop us from being grumpy whenever we hear the song: It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

May he grant us the grace to be thankful for the twentieth mince pie and may we eat it as if it was our first and we actually liked them!

May he enter into this Advent so that we think deeply about its themes of judgement, the prophets, John the Baptist and Mary.

May we catch a glimpse of the wonder of light piercing the darkness and reflect on that message of hope that truly brings transformation into our lives.

May God turn our Advent from a shopping fest into a prayerful fast – as we spend more time contemplating and sitting still rather than rushing around doing too much, and doing it badly.

And when all our good intentions get swallowed up in other people’s agendas – may we still be surprised by the touch of God upon our lives during the next four weeks.

And remind us, O Lord, that it wasn’t so very different the first time round: relations who couldn’t give Joseph a bed for the night, a town as crowded as Oxford Street with census visitors, and plans that  went so wrong that come the moment it was an emergency delivery in a stable.

So, perhaps the madness of this season isn’t so far from the truth of it all anyway!

Friday, 24 November 2017

The Poetry of Prayer

I think ‘prayer’ is a beautiful mystery. 

Over the last few weeks in Amersham we have been planning a Week of Accompanied Prayer for next spring.  It will be an opportunity for folk to have the ‘gift’ of a week prayerfully looking at scripture ‘alongside’ a guide and companion.

On Wednesday this week a number of friends gathered at AFC, from various churches in our district, who lead services week by week.  We explored together the constituent parts of our weekly worship and everyone was asked to name the three most important aspects of a service for them.  Time and again folk spoke of the importance of thoughtful led prayer.

Every week we print some Prayer Meditations on the back of our notice sheet and a recent one came from the pen of Jane Upchurch – here is part of it:

Believing in God is not
wearing rose-tinted glasses;
an easy option;
a certainty to silence questions;
a way of avoiding pain.

Believing in God is
recognising horror and choosing to forgive;
facing the music and choosing to dance;
feeling hurt and choosing to love;
being uncertain and choosing to trust;
knowing the downside and choosing life.

Now, as the person who often preaches the sermon, I have to say that sometimes the most important message I get from the service comes from these prayers on the weekly sheet (and not through my sermons!!) – and surely Jane Upchurch’s words are profoundly challenging and encouraging.

Once, when we were having a bit of a tricky health issue in our family, a lady at church passed me in the corridor, smiled and said: Just want you to know we are praying for you. 

I cannot tell you how much that meant to me and the difference it made to my day.

I thank God for both the mystery and poetry of prayer.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Laying foundations

I’ve spent part of this week in Devon, just outside Torquay, at Brunel Manor attending the annual Convocation of The Order of Baptist Ministry to which I belong.

This splendid manor house in which we stayed was designed by that great and prolific Victorian engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  It was to be his family home; a wonderful gothic pile perched majestically above Torquay.

Yet he lived only long enough to see the foundations laid before dying, leaving the final construction to others.

That all felt rather poignant on Thursday as we gathered for Morning Prayer and as a group tried out a new liturgy for the season of All Saints.  During the prayer time we were invited to name out loud someone from our past who helped lay the foundations of our faith.  I named Donald MacKenzie, my senior minister from the church in which as I served as assistant minister, he was a great mentor during those first five years after ordination.

That moment, hearing nothing but names, yet recognising that to everyone who spoke them these names meant the world, was deeply touching.

Tomorrow at Amersham we’ll be commissioning our Junior Church Teachers for another year of Christian service and I’m sure part of their ministry is to help lay a foundation for our children upon which faith can be built.  It’s an important task and we give thanks to God for those who have done it in our own lives.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Who is up there?!

We were in Lisbon over half term and enjoyed glorious sunny days throughout our visit.

The city has many squares, almost all with statues in the centre.  One, particularly caught my eye, opposite the railway station.

It was a bit like Trafalgar Square with a huge column at its centre and upon the top, so the inscription said below, was King Pedro IV of Portugal. Or is it?!

The story goes that at the time this column was being erected, a bronze cast of Maximillian of Mexico, by a French sculptor, was in Lisbon en route to South America.  This brief sojourn in its passage happened at exactly the moment when, back home, Maximillian was overthrown and instantly the cast, of the now deposed King, was redundant.

The shrewd city fathers of Lisbon saw an opportunity here.  They cancelled the order for a cast of Pedro IV, bought the one of Maximillian and put that on top of the column instead.  Their rationale?  They thought the two looked rather similar, it would cost less, and hey, only the pigeons would spot the difference!!!

Who knows if this is anything other than a good story – but I love it anyway!

All of us, I suspect, have occasional admired someone a little too much, put them on a pedestal they didn’t deserve and then later we have discovered their ‘feet of clay’.

This weekend, as we recall the horror of war and all that has taken us there in days gone by, many of the reasons behind conflict has been the willingness of large numbers of people to follow and give credence to the wrong leaders.

Human nature seems to crave heroes – just a walk around central London shows us how much we also love immortalising them in statues. 

Maximillian or Pedro?  Just a reminder to us of the danger of putting the wrong people on pedestals.

O Magnum Mysterium - and no, it's not an ice-cream!

An old hymn we sometimes sing in church has the line, ‘tis mystery all…’  I wonder if that really describes faith? For me, much of Chris...