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!

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Collegial Creativity

I spent the first half of this week at our annual Ministers’ Conference.  Within minutes of arrival I felt I was among good friends (some going back almost thirty years!) with an endless supply of conversation because we talked, and talked and talked!!

So much about these three days was positive and affirming; and nothing more so than the last presentation before the closing communion yesterday morning.

One of our colleagues took us through Psalm 55, a Psalm of Lament.  She reminded us of the different types of psalms in the bible: some upbeat and confident whilst others are like Psalm 55 expressing honest, even ‘complaining’ prayer, ‘naming’ life as it really is and asking ‘why’?  Yet every Psalm of Lament in the Jewish Psalter (apart from Psalm 88) finds faith in God by its concluding verses.

Well it was a great and perfectly pitched bible study and then came the ‘activity’!  We split into groups of about eight and together wrote our very own Psalm of Lament.  To be truthful I’m not much of a ‘small groups’ sort of person but I loved our time together yesterday morning.  Our group seemed to ‘click’ very easily and creativity flowed!  The Psalm we came up with is not to be taken too seriously – yet there is an honesty behind the humour.  We entitled it: ‘The Pastor’s Lament’ and I suppose it’s a reflection on our struggle with difficult members of the congregation- and it’s perhaps not surprising that all eight ministers in my group seemed to have the same issues though we serve in different congregations.

Well, we didn’t take ourselves too seriously (and I hope you won’t take this psalm over seriously either!) but I loved this collaborative process of composing a psalm and here’s what we came up with:

I know you’re really busy, but can you fit me in!
I feel tired Lord.
 My faith is challenged by your inaction.
I’m disappointed in you!
I did not want an absentee God!
Day and night my inbox swells with their petty complaints.
If  only they had something worthwhile to moan about.
Strike down the grumblers Lord.
Empower the spam filters.
And send the complainers off to the Anglicans!
But you Lord called me here.
Help me to be loving and gracious.
Give me, O Lord, your heart.
For you never tire in doing good.

Well – we only had fifteen minutes!!!

Best wishes,


Thursday, 6 October 2016

The salmon and the grizzly bear

Recently at AFC we sang what was for me a new song: Creation sings the Father’s song.  Just like the hymn I’ve chosen to sing at the start of this Sunday’s worship: All creatures of our God and King – it celebrates ‘experiencing’ God in nature.

Tomorrow I’ll be attending a Ministers’ Book Group and we’ll be discussing Places of Enchantment in which the author, like many people, is just so inspired by the beauty and wonder of the natural world that he finds no problem in singing with the psalmist ‘The heavens declare the glory of God’.

And, of course, we have just celebrated Harvest which, I suspect, is one of the most accessible festivals of the church year because for many it resonates with that popular maxim: One is closer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth.  So on Harvest Sunday church and garden combine and this blended spirituality rings true for lots of people.

All well and good – until I sit down yesterday evening and watch a wonderfully filmed and truly beautiful programme about Autumn and I just can’t get one scene out of my mind.  It showed the tenacious salmon swimming upstream to spawn – having to jump some two metres up the rapids.  There to greet them at this point, as they flung themselves into the air, were half a dozen grizzly bears who caught them in their jaws, instantly crushing them with their teeth.  After catching and eating around thirty salmon each these bears retired to the bank for an afternoon snooze!

I love the rolling hills and wooded glade as much as the next person – but I’m increasingly aware of the harshness of nature, ‘red in tooth and claw’ – that the only thing that really matters is ultimately the ‘survival of the fittest’.  And I’m left pondering – does ‘Creation sing the Father’s song’?  Is God just on the side of the winners?  Does God condone aggressive violence in order that one species becomes dominant over another?

Nature, it seems to me, sends out an ambiguous message if aligned too closely with the character of God and I need more than the heavens to see God’s glory.

For me God reveals himself most in the character and teaching of Jesus.  I am totally inspired by his stories – about looking out for neighbour, forgiving enemies, offering kindness to the marginalised – and serving others because in doing this we are serving God.  I’m totally inspired by the cross when Jesus broke the supremacy of the ideal that only the fittest and most powerful prosper – and instead offered humanity an alternative model of self-sacrificial love -  that of giving up your own supremacy for the sake of another.

I think I would have to say that for me faith finds its brightest star in Jesus Christ – not the night sky.

With best wishes,


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,


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,


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,


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,