Thursday, 16 March 2017

Twenty-four eyes

'Face to Face' by Seiger Koder
The second Sieger Koder painting currently hanging in our ‘Art Corridor’ at Amersham Free Church is one he entitled Face to Face.

During World War II Koder served as a soldier before being taken prisoner in France.  After the war, he trained as both a silversmith and painter.  He was a ‘multi-faceted’ priest!

This particular collection, from which today’s painting is taken, is entitled ‘The Folly of God’ and we are left in no doubt that those gathering around Jesus are sneering at him.

We only get partial images of those in the scene and, of course, Jesus isn’t painted at all because it’s as if we are looking out at the crowd through his eyes.

We glimpse a Roman soldier about to hammer in the nails – a truly gruesome moment.

Already the day has gone dark as through the circle made by the onlookers we see an eclipsed sun.

I counted eleven people looking on plus, surprisingly, one bull!; a total of twenty four pairs of eyes.  Although in actual fact at least one observer seems so overcome by the brutality of crucifixion that they cover theirs.

Koder has given us faces of intrigue, curiosity, horror and maybe indifference.  One character also seems to be giving a ‘thumbs up’.

What are we to make of this painting, what message lurks behind its fascinating composition?

I think for me it’s got something to do with the futility of having a dependant longing for the constant approval of others.  Of course, that may come our way at times, yet there will also be moments when integrity matters more than approval – and we in the Church often need to be aware of that.

We are called, from time to time, to live ‘counter culturally’ and that may mean others sneer at us. 

Whenever that happens perhaps we can find strength in knowing our Lord experienced that reaction too.

Friday, 10 March 2017

The things we do with our hands...!!!

'Surrender' by Sieger Koder
At Amersham Free Church during Lent 2017 we are looking at some of the paintings of Father Sieger Koder, a German Roman Catholic Priest/Artist who died in February 2015 just after his 90th birthday.  He liked to describe himself as a ‘Preacher with Images’.

Three characters from Holy Week are in today’s painting, Pilate, Caiaphas and Jesus.

I think we communicate a great deal with our hands; I noticed in Venice recently that Italians appear almost unable to speak without moving them.

In Koder’s painting Pilate is washing his hands and Caiaphas, the High Priest, is hugging the Torah.  They are busy – possibly busy doing the wrong things.

Pilate’s handwashing is surely his way of clinging onto power because in getting rid of Jesus he keeps his job.

Caiaphas’ hugging is probably a way of clinging on to tradition because in ignoring Jesus he keeps his holy book free of any different interpretation from his own.

What they both share, in being busy with their hands, is that neither of them seems to be actually SEEING who is before them.

They look above and through Jesus, virtually ignoring his presence.

For his part Jesus seems resigned to their indifference and maybe this is why Sieger Koder entitled this painting ‘Surrendered’.

Are we, I wonder, so busy with our hands that we too fail to see who or what is really before us and merits our attention?

Today’s painting calls us to notice the Jesus, the friend, the family member or the stranger who is before us and to stop what we are doing with our hands and give attention to both God and one another.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Lent begins...

Christ in The Wilderness by Ivan Kramskoi
As Lent begins we travel once more with Jesus into the Wilderness and that’s what this painting by the Russian artist Ivan Kramskoi depicts.

Kramskoi was self-taught and went to the Crimea to feel what it might be like living in a deserted mountainous region.  His painting now hangs in Moscow.

Originally he painted it without the background.  It shows Jesus marooned in the Judean Desert immediately after his baptism.  This was a Spirit led moment as Jesus contemplates the future and makes choices about the present.  It was painted in 1872 but it shows a timeless dilemma – how do we use our power, our choices and our lives for God and for neighbour?  How do we live the values of The Kingdom of God in our everyday routines?

Often when battling with these issues it feels as if they stubbornly remain unresolved. That’s why I’m glad that Kramskoi eventually changed his mind and added the background.

That’s because the light is breaking on the far horizon.  Against the desolation of the hard rock plateau that was the Judean Wilderness there is a gentle hint of dawn, of warmth, of the sun piercing the night and bringing the fresh prospect of a new day.

Faith is about believing, living and longing for God’s light to pierce our darkness.

Perhaps, for me at least, that feels like a fresh thought this Lent.

I’m so used to thinking of light as a theme for Advent and Christmas – yet Kramskoi’s painting and Isaiah’s words remind me at the start of our long Lent journey this year that the choices we make in the desert, in the darkness, are then to be lived through in the light of God’s love once we have come down from that wilderness plateau.

Of course Kramskoi’s painting isn’t bathed in brilliant sunshine – there is just a hint of dawn and maybe light in Lent is essentially to be viewed in terms of longing.

On Good Friday there was darkness in the middle of the day for three hours.  Whether that’s a poetic or actual description the point is we all know the reality of the dark night of the soul. Yet we long for the dawn of Easter Day.

In fact, we learn again and again as we go through life that dawn follows night and light pierces gloom.

Yet often we are called to wait – to linger in the night even as we long for this dawn.  And to make that journey not with despair but with patience and hope – believing in the light, even when it is dark.

Can we hang on to the thrilling conviction that we are not moving towards the darkness but travelling towards the light? That, I think, for me is a goal for this Lent.

So Kramskoi paints a Jesus alone in the desert yet dawn about to break in the background.

The hymn writer puts it like this - Longing for light – we wait in darkness.

May we all 'travel well' through this year's Lent. 

Friday, 24 February 2017

Carpets of Welcome

This week a new blue carpet has been laid along the aisle at Amersham Free Church and it looks great.

This new addition to our church furnishings replaces the original carpet put down when the building opened in 1962.  I wonder how many soles have walked upon it?!

I was intrigued to read that the largest carpet in the world also resides in a religious building.  The one in the Abu Dhabi mosque is an astonishing 60,000 square feet and took the Iran Carpet Company two years to weave.

On Palm Sunday we are told the Jerusalem crowd greeted Jesus entering their city on a donkey by ‘carpeting’ his path with their cloaks. 

This all sounds rather similar to that piece of English myth about Sir Walter Raleigh laying down his cloak over a puddle so that Queen Elizabeth I didn’t get her shoes muddy.  It’s long been thought this incident never actually happened and is a piece of imaginative writing from the pen of the 17th century cleric cum historian Thomas Fuller.  It’s still a great story!

The use of a ‘red carpet’ for welcoming guests, especially important ones, is documented in literature going back four centuries before Christ .  However, the actual term, ‘rolling out the red carpet’ was first used in 1902 when the New York Central Railroad Company used a plush crimson carpet to direct passengers to the 20th Century Limited trains. 

Well at AFC we’ve chosen ‘church’ blue for our carpet!

I’d like to think, whatever the colour, that our new carpet remains a symbol of welcome – reflecting those Jerusalem crowds laying their garments before the entry of Jesus.  I also hope it offers a welcome to all who enter our building and come into the Sanctuary for worship.

Welcoming God and welcoming each other – laying out the red (blue) carpet for both is an important part of what we do Sunday by Sunday.


Saturday, 18 February 2017

'Like living on a film set...'

Venice on Wednesday with the Doge's Palace on the right
Yesterday we flew back to Britain after a week in Venice.  The lagoon sparkled in early spring sunshine and the city was gearing up for Carnival – a sort of last ‘fling’ before Lent!

One of the most interesting visits we made during our time in this Italian masterpiece was to the Doge’s Palace on the waterfront.

The Doge was the elected Head of the Republic of Venice – and over its thousand year history it had one hundred and twenty of them. They were elected for life, they couldn’t refuse the honour and neither could they step down from it. 

Their ‘life-long’ appointment was most unusual in that almost every other post in government was for a strictly limited time span: usually for three or six months or possibly a year.  After service for that specific period the holder of the office stood down for exactly the same period of time before the possibility of standing again came along.

All of this was Venice’s attempt to stamp out corruption.  If you didn’t serve overlong then, it was reckoned, you wouldn’t be in anyone’s pockets! 

The Doge wasn’t so fortunate.  He served for life, so was usually appointed around the age of 80.  He also served at his own expense.  He received no salary; quite the reverse, he had to pay for the upkeep of the palace and all the state entertaining out of his own fortune. Our guide thought that’s why one Doge died two days after a significant part of the palace burned down.  She thought he just couldn’t face the repair bill!

All this talk of power and its use and misuse touched a chord with me.  It reflects the constant struggle we humans have.  As the adage goes: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  We even experience that in religion and I couldn’t help but notice as we looked at many of the painting’s in Venice’s galleries how often Mary and Jesus were depicted not as a marginalised woman or wondering rabbi but with crowns upon their heads seated in thrones.  All too quickly we invest them with an earthly ‘power’ that is surely so foreign to the lives they lived or the message behind their story.

Power – it’s something all of us in the Church need to ‘handle with care’!

There is, however, another reason for this reflection about Venice.

At AFC we have just lost one of our central members, Mary.  The last time I saw her, just a day before she died, we talked of Venice.  She reflected on her visit there ten years ago and said: I felt for the first two days as if I were living on a film set.  I couldn’t get Mary out of my mind as we walked through Venice last week.  Mary was a great servant of God at AFC and her family go back almost to its inception.  We are sad she has left us and we will miss her gracious character, wise counsel and faithful example – but we rejoice that she dwells today upon another shore, in a greater light in the loving presence of the God she served so well.




Friday, 10 February 2017

Beyond Difference



I wasn’t really looking forward to going out on Tuesday evening.  It was a cold, damp night and it had been a full day at church.  Yet I came home from the meeting so glad I went.

The meeting in question is called; Beyond Difference.  It draws together folk who want to participate in inter-faith dialogue and usually has a speaker from both the Muslim and Christian traditions followed by an open discussion that often has a Jewish presence as well.  We’ve met at my church, the Chesham Mosque and on Tuesday a full house gathered at the Quaker Meeting House in Amersham.
Both speakers reflected on places and people who have influenced their journey of faith.  Irfan, our Muslim speaker who studied law at Cambridge and has just been called to the Bar aged 30, told us not only of his love for Pakistan but also his concerns for that ‘new’ nation.  He also unpacked for us the notion that Islam always has a cultural context and is never quite the same in any two countries.

The purpose of these Beyond Difference gatherings is that we LISTEN to each other.  And in the listening we learn and explore.  And in the exploring trust, respect and friendship grows.

I’m a big fan of this process because it seems to me that over the last quarter of a century, with so much ‘dumbing down’, Western Society has moved from an Age of Reason to an Age of Emotion.  That’s lead to one Democracy after another experiencing a massive blow to reasoned argument because of the knee jerk pressure of the Popular Vote.  This is the exact opposite of The Long View which values facts, history and the nuanced ability to calmly listen, analyse the complicated and come to a measured response.

This week the statistician Hans Rosling died.  He is the man who brought facts and figures to life as he pursued his passion to make our understanding of the world an informed one based on reason and not emotion.

Jesus did the same I believe.  He got behind the emotional smoke scenes of his day that were fuelled by prejudice and fear.  He talked to the sex workers, mentally ill, and terminally incurables of his society rather than shouting about them.  He took the long view and taught that forgiveness may be hard but ultimately it had to be explored and pursued throughout a lifetime. His views were never populist – his cross is a testimony to that.

It was dark, damp and cold on Tuesday evening – but in that gathering at Amersham’s Quaker Meeting House – as Muslims, Christians, Jews and people of no faith connection came together in mutual respect we experienced the light and warmth of our common humanity.  Surely a ‘God Moment’ if ever there was one.

Best wishes,

Ian



Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The God who Changes his Mind?

Salisbury Cathedral last night!
I’ve been spending a few days with The Baptist Union Retreat Group Committee at Sarum College and one of the ‘perks’ has been the wonderful opportunity of going to Choral Evensong across the road in the cathedral.

On Monday night as we sat in the Quire we heard the Old Testament reading from Jonah 3 of God changing his mind over the fate of Nineveh.  He had intended to punish the city but after the citizens there mended their ways we are told – and it came as a bit of a jolt to hear this in the cathedral – ‘God changed his mind’.

Jesus did the same thing in Matthew 15 as he meets with the Syrophoenician woman who wants him to do a healing for a family member.  At first he sort of ‘dismisses’ her, Matthew says because she was ‘foreign’.  Yet this brave woman keeps Jesus in dialogue and eventually he’s convinced of her sincerity, changes his mind and performs a miracle.

I guess like many others I was brought up with that rather fixed idea that God is ‘unchangeable’.  Well, I suppose that’s true in a way – in the sense that his character of love and justice is always faithful.  Yet ‘love’ – and the Bible tells us that ‘God is love’ – ‘love’ is always open, always generous, always willing to be convinced – I think true ‘love’ is open to change.

It’s not loving in the least to have a prejudiced idea of someone and make that the last word.  Such attitudes break families and cause wars.

True love listens and constantly returns, always hoping for the best.  True love is epitomised by the Father of The Prodigal longing every day for the return of his son and then running with open arms to meet him.

Personally I’m inspired that God changed his mind about Nineveh and that Jesus lingered long enough with the Syrophoenician woman to do an about face and heal her daughter.

I hope I am ‘loving’ enough to be that open, generous, and warm-hearted in my life.  Seems to me that at times ‘changing you mind’ is actually a ‘Godly’ thing to do!

Best wishes,

Ian

Twenty-four eyes

'Face to Face' by Seiger Koder The second Sieger Koder painting currently hanging in our ‘Art Corridor’ at Amersham Free Church...