Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Gloria in excelsis Deo

It's almost here - our Advent journey is drawing to an end and this weekend we knock on the door of Christmas.

December has been a busy and rewarding month at South Street with many special events and opportunities to welcome friends and neighbours to church.  The last two Sunday mornings have seen us running out of service sheets as two wonderful Nativity Plays have been performed by the GB and Junior Church.

Sunday evening saw our Carols by Candlelight - no problems this year, unlike last, with snow or ice.  The church looked beautiful and the singing was great.  Towards the end I mentioned that in January our book group will be discussing a novel with the intriguing title: When God was a Rabbit.  Here’s a line from the middle of the book:

Do you believe in God, Arthur?  I said, eating the last piece of sponge.
Do I believe in an old man in the clouds with a white beard judging us mortals with a moral code from one to ten?  Good Lord no, my sweet Elly, I do not!  I would have been cast out from this life years ago with my tatty history.  Do I believe in a mystery; the unexplained phenomenon that is life itself?  The greater something that illuminates inconsequence in our lives; that give us something to strive for as well as the humility to brush ourselves down and start all over again?  Then yes, I do.  It is the source of art, of beauty, of love, and proffers the ultimate goodness to mankind.  That to me is God.  That to me is life.  That is what I believe in.

The more I think about it the more I want to say that few Christians I've ever known  actually believe in an old man sitting on a cloud – we do however believe God showed himself in the face of Jesus Christ and that sounds to me remarkably like the beautiful mystery Arthur was talking about in that fascinating passage..

Last Thursday at Morning Prayers downstairs in the Chapel Lounge our leader that session talked of all the good things happening at this time of year.  The sharing of love, giving of presents, family reunions, acts of kindness to neighbours, the sound of laughter and the empathetic compassion of those united in grief – we sometimes call it, she reminded us: The Spirit of Christmas.  We could have left it there and that would have been good – but she challenged us with this thought and this was even better: that what we call the Spirit of Christmas is actually The Spirit of Christ.  Christ the star maker, the life giver, the pain bearer. A Spirit not for one season but for every season.
Bethlehem beckons and it's the Spirit of Christ that makes our coming celebration so very special.

Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Ian

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Raikes' Ragged Schools

Last week, after attending a day of lectures at King’s College I had an hour or so before the train back to Somerset left Waterloo, so I wandered along the Embankment and came across this statue of the founder of the Sunday School movement, Robert Raikes.  I’ve never seen it before and initially walked straight passed it, but then I doubled backed and lingered a while in front of it.  I think it’s great that such a person had been honoured in London this way.

Raikes was an Anglican born in Gloucester in 1736.  He inherited his father’s printing business and newspaper, The Gloucester Journal.  His practical concern was for the children from the poorest backgrounds who received no education; and he did something about it!  He started Sunday Schools, but not really as we know them today.  They were held on Sundays because the children (initially just boys) worked every other day of the week.  The first began in 1780 in the home of a Mrs Meredith; the children learnt to read, progressing on to a study of the Catechism and their textbook was The Bible.  The schools were advertised in Raikes’ newspaper.  By 1831 25% of children in England (1,250,000) attended Sunday Schools and historians usually point to them as the forerunners of the English State School system

Here’s how Raikes himself described a typical school:
The children were to come after ten in the morning, and stay till twelve; they were then to go home and return at one; and after reading a lesson, they were to be conducted to Church. After Church, they were to be employed in repeating the catechism till after five, and then dismissed, with an injunction to go home without making a noise.  Perhaps I should read this quote at the next Junior Church Teachers’ Meeting!

Well - standing in front of his statue on the banks of The Thames last week I just marveled at the positive contribution this Christian man has made to the life of our nation – there are times, you see, when I’m very proud to be a member of The Church, and last Wednesday, on the way to the train, was one of them!

I write about this because at South Street we are so fortunate in having a viable, vibrant and Christ-centered Sunday School; even if today we call it Junior Church and they don’t have to go home without making any noise!  About 25 children are on the books – and prayerfully in our hearts.  This weekend they will have a Christmas Party on Saturday and then on Sunday morning perform their Nativity Play and at the Carol Service in the evening Solid Rock will lead the intercessions.  We are so grateful to everyone who makes this happen: teachers, parents, helpers, and encouragers.  It’s hard to know how this coming Sunday in the Christian calendar would feel without the participation of children; yet we know in many churches today that is the sad reality.

So thank you South Street Junior Church for being a continuing expression of Robert Raikes’ Ragged Schools!

Last Saturday we had the Open Morning and a number of folk came in and looked over the church – perhaps the biggest impact was made by Hymneo singing a dozen carols from the church steps.  This Sunday it’s the Nativity Play in the morning and Carols by Candlelight in the evening – a lot to look forward to as our Advent journey continues.

With best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 8 December 2011

E pluribus unum

We have a mug in the kitchen cupboard decorated with the Presidential Seal of the United States; one of the many mementoes we brought home with us this summer.  The motto reads: E pluribus unum – meaning ‘out of the many one’ – an appropriate aspiration for such diverse a country as the USA.

Now I recognise this is a pretty big jump but that motto came to my mind as I reflected on last Friday evening’s Christmas Variety Show at South Street.  It was a great night full of surprise and laughter; everyone went home smiling! I judged it a success because on Sunday morning, at the door, more people spoke to me about Friday’s show than about the sermon I’d just preached!

So why link that great motto: E pluribus unum with our little variety show?  Well just this thought really: South Street can be a pretty diverse place and one of the biggest challenges we have is how a group of people so committed to such a variety of activities can find that sense of unity which needs to be the hallmark of every church.  We do it best on a Sunday morning at worship – but we also do it at playful moments like last Friday’s show.  ‘Out of the many –one’...that was surely happening as each group shared with us their ‘act’ – we laughed, not at each other, but with each other – there was an almost tangible sense of togetherness. 

One of the things that make such a gathering, be it Sunday morning or Friday evening, so precious is the coming together of various age groups.  This happens less and less in society but it is still a feature of church life and one reason we sometimes call our faith community a ‘Church Family’.  Families are cross generational, that’s their genius.  It’s the coming together of grandparents alongside toddlers, of retired uncles encouraging nephews drawing their first wage packet that makes families special.  That blending of the generations is one of the great strengths of any Church Family; and we saw it and felt it last Friday. To coin a phrase, but not a very well known one here, I think we achieved something like ‘E pluribus unum’.

This weekend, on Saturday, we have a Church Open Morning between 10am and Noon; our attempt to catch some Christmas Shoppers with a carol, mince pie and tour of the church –do join us if you can.  On Saturday afternoon The Revd Stella Hayton will be inducted at Princes Street United Reformed Church and I look forward to representing South Street at the service.  Sunday sees ADVENT 3 and the GB Nativity in the morning with Quiet Prayer and Holy Communion at 6.30pm.
With best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 1 December 2011

'Plan B'


This week has turned out to be very different from the one I pencilled into my dairy ten months ago.  For at the beginning of this year the Baptist Union Ministry Department wrote asking me to attend their winter Residential Selection Conference as preaching assessor. I said yes – why wouldn’t I, the food is particularly good at the centre they use!  So last week I started reading the sermons I’d been sent and on Sunday got the suitcase down from the loft ready for a quick getaway at 8am sharp Monday.

However, the best laid plans...  Rachel came back from Sunday evening youth group feeling quite unwell and that meant ‘Plan B’ was quickly adopted: I would be staying home.  Phone calls were made giving just a few hours for the Selection Team to reassign various responsibilities and my suitcase has been put back into the loft. I’ve no doubt, because of the way things have turned out, that calling off my trip was the absolutely the right decision.

We’ve all had ‘Plan B’ moments and maybe at the time, when hopes are dashed and expectations unfulfilled, they seem like an inconvenience; yet looking back they are sometimes more a cause for blessing than regret. 

One of my most frustrating ‘Plan B’ incidents happened as I was driving one December to a Students Union Conference in Blackpool. To be truthful I didn’t really want to go but nobody else had volunteered from my college.  En route on the M6 approaching Lancashire the car windscreen shattered.  I pulled into a service station and a company came out and replaced it.  Three hours later, and now hopelessly running out of time to get there for the opening session I pulled out onto the slip road. BANG!  The windscreen shattered again!  ‘I don’t believe it’ I cried in true Victor Meldrew style.  The repairers hadn’t done their job very well and had omitted to install some essential cushioning between glass and metal.  I reversed up the slip road, made another phone call, waited three more hours for another repair team to fix the screen (with cushioning this time) and finally turned the car round and drove home rather than to Blackpool!

Forgive the truism but life is rarely smooth.  Normality is much more about facing crisis and interruption than ‘quietly sitting by still waters’.  In other words ‘Plan Bs’ are commonplace rather than exceptions.

As I write this therapeutic blog I’m reminded of Mary and the way God so dramatically broke into her life – crashed into it really – with that visitation from Gabriel and the Advent news.  What, I wonder, were her plans?  Were they all laid out and just about to come to fruition?  Was she on the threshold of something exciting or just reassuringly mundane? Yet now...after hearing this news and consenting to it with such grace it was time for ‘Plan B’.

May I, Lord, greet such challenges and diversions with a similar openness of heart and generosity of spirit.

Happy Advent!

Last Sunday it was super to have a full church to hear The Park School Choir sing at morning service and Hymneo sang beautifully at St John’s on Sunday evening.  This weekend...well on Friday it’s the Church Christmas Variety Show – which will be fun and then on Sunday we have Advent Communion at 10.30am and the showing of the BBC film ‘Nativity’ on the big screen in The Sanctuary from 4.30pm onwards.
With best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Thanksgiving

It’s the fourth Thursday in November so, according to a proclamation issued by President Lincoln in 1863 during the Civil War, it’s a Day of Thanksgiving for our American friends.  A day when their nation owns a collective ‘memory’ of the 1621 feast held at The Plymouth Plantation to celebrate the first successful growing season by the European settlers in their ‘New World’.  I’m told it’s one of the major holidays of the year in the States and it’s been fun today sending off a few emails to friends we made there during August and receiving their replies wishing us Brits a good ‘Thanksgiving’ as well!

All of this connects with a conversation I had over coffee with a ministerial colleague yesterday.  We were discussing ‘spirituality’ and the constant searching which goes on after an authentic one.  He looked at me and said: If I had to define spirituality, my spirituality, it’s just about being ‘thankful’.  He made a great point.

You don’t have to be American to make this day one of Thanksgiving.  I too can be thankful – for family, friends, health, church and community.  I too could be grateful for a cup half full rather than half empty.  The bible says it plainly enough...Give thanks!

This weekend we have music...on Sunday morning The Park School Choir will be helping us in our Advent worship and in the evening, at St John’s, Hymneo take part in the Light Up a Life Service.

With best wishes,

Ian

Friday, 18 November 2011

Hello Dear Boy


‘Hello Dear Boy’...these were the words my uncle often used whenever I met him; and they were much in my mind yesterday as I attended his funeral in Suffolk.

I’ve done a few funerals in my time and each has been a huge privilege.  But there’s a world of difference from leading a funeral to simply being there as a member of the wider family. 

At the service in St John’s, Elmswell, near Bury St Edmunds there must have been around two hundred folks present and I sat up the front alongside my five girl cousins and their families.  In many ways I was representing my Father – my uncle’s brother - who died six years ago and always called him ‘Spud’. 

The Anglican vicar led, the Methodist Minister gave the address and I took part with a short tribute and reading – so we were certainly ecumenical.  My uncle was the treasurer of the Methodist Church and never missed – his funeral was simply at the Anglican church because the Methodist chapel wouldn’t have been big enough.

Yesterday was about so many things and one of the most important, for me, was that shared sense of history being told and held.  Sitting in church I heard the names of my grandparents being read out: Les and Daisy, of their children: Tony, Peter and Valerie and of the places where they grew up: Rickmansworth and Chorleywood in Hertfordshire.  After the service I swapped stories I’d heard from my own father (he used to love telling them after Sunday lunch on a weekly basis!) of his time as a boy, along with ‘Spud’ in those immediate post-war years in the Home Counties.

None of us completely invents him or herself!  We are the product of our past and yesterday it felt good to hear some of the stories that came from my father’s side of the family – a sense of ‘connectedness’ – it’s probably why I wore my grandfather’s cufflinks to the service – it ‘meant’ something doing that as I stood beside his son’s, my uncle’s coffin.

So – today I’m in a reflective mood – perhaps because it’s November, maybe because of the quiet dignity I saw in my cousins yesterday as they bade farewell to their dad.  And forgive me for being just a touch sentimental but I had this thought - that maybe as my uncle entered God’s nearer presence perhaps God said to him: Hello Dear Boy...Welcome – my good and faithful servant. 

With best wishes,

Ian

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Diary Planning

It’s the Junior Church Teachers’ Meeting ‘that done it’! 

Our Church Meeting date has been altered and we’ll now gather on an evening that had been set aside for the Junior Church staff.  Our Co-ordinators accommodated this request with exemplary grace.  And then began the quest for the ‘holy grail’ – another date!  To my horror (if you exclude Friday and Saturday evenings when no one would really want to meet) I couldn’t make any other evening between now and Christmas.  That’s just ridiculous – my diary planning has gone down the pan and it’s prompted me to ask myself a few questions.

Now I know it’s difficult to understand why a person who ‘only works one day a week’ should have difficulty with his diary!  Well, I think it has something to do with your home being your office and the weekends containing that ‘one day a week’ when you work!  Alongside that there are the various committees and commitments one pencils in alongside all the routine stuff – and these are meetings and encounters that I value very much indeed and genuinely want to be part of. So you can imagine that when Rachel sat down the other evening and offered to highlight in red all the things I should stop attending – we had a robust discussion!

I, maybe like you, need to read ‘the signs’ of my own ‘busy-ness’ better.  I need to hear myself groan inwardly when someone suggests an extra gathering and I need to stop ‘fitting things in’ to an already overcrowded diary.

In all of this I’m very conscious of the words of the Bishop of Bath and Wells – some of you may remember his visit to us at the united service in St John’s last year. He began his sermon by talking about the delusion we can have that we are the ‘victims’ of a busy life.  He said that we are all as busy ‘as we want to be’.  Now ‘discuss’ that I thought! 

Of course there are many moments when it all runs away from us and we simply have to get through it.  Yet it can never be right to come to the end of a service, encounter or event with the idea that we can simply tick it off the list and move on.  Whatever happened to lingering in the glow of that moment or pondering the significance of our conversation together?  A friend of mine put to me like this the other day – I want to ‘capture’ more of these moments.

I’m a great fan of a now defunct TV series from the USA called The West Wing.  It chronicled, through seven wonderful series, the fictitious goings on at The White House under President Jed Bartlett.  And to give the impression of the immense pressure of this office the script writers gave Bartlett a saying, used at the end of every meeting or encounter throughout the day – he would say ‘What’s next?’

Such inevitable and exhausting momentum is not good, I believe, for the soul.  It means our minds rarely have the time to catch up with our bodies.

There is a blessing in a less crowded routine – and there can be precious God given surprises on a day when nothing much was in the diary.  All of this is medicine I need to start taking instead of advice on the prescription I give out to others.

Well – this blog has been something of a confessional – I’ve written it simply because I don’t believe I’m the only one who wants to keep a few more of the pages in next year’s diary clear.  And perhaps I can start, as we come to the last Sunday of the Church Year this week, by making upcoming Advent a time when I consciously take onboard the wisdom filled words of the Psalmist when he said: ‘Be still..........and know that I am God.

Last weekend was such a moving occasion as we shared worship together on Remembrance Sunday – probably our biggest congregation of the year– for fire precaution purposes we actually counted and 186 folks attended.  This weekend the Deacons gather to consider the wording of a possible Church Constitution – and on Sunday evening a group of 45 of us will be attending the ACM Gospel Concert at the Octagon Theatre.
With best wishes,

Ian

Friday, 11 November 2011

Tabletalk

A tale of two tables!

The first was the one I was privileged to sit behind last Sunday during Communion at our 356th Church Anniversary.  The deacons were distributing bread and wine and it had been a wonderfully full and diverse service with a great atmosphere of celebration and thanksgiving.  This was a moment of stillness and reflection.  As I waited my eyes fell on the basket of food under the Communion table.  Food, given by the congregation that morning and presented in the offering, for the Lord’s Larder – Yeovil Churches’ Food Bank.  I was struck by the basket’s presence there, under the table on which we had placed bread and wine.  The words of an Iona hymn came to mind, all about the ministry of Christ which described him as the one who ‘fed their mouths as well as preaching’.  Body and soul are important and the breaking in of God’s Kingdom is not only about the prospect of an eternity in heaven with Christ but also the striving for peace and wholeness – a freedom from war and a freedom from hunger – here and now on the earth below.  So I was grateful for the basket of food – just as I was grateful for the bread and wine – reminding me that the Church’s mission encompasses body, mind and spirit.

And the second table?  It was a round one at Sherborne Baptist Church that I sat at on Wednesday evening with representatives from the other churches in our local Baptist Cluster.  To be honest I had no enthusiasm as I drove to this meeting on a dark wet night – this week I’ve been to far too many meetings!  Yet I came away glad to have spent that time together because around the table I learnt how encouraged our friends at Montacute are with a steadily growing relationship with their Parish Church, how thrilled the people were at Sherborne with a recent baptism and how delighted the congregation at Crewkerne is with their newly refurbished building.  I too expressed my delight at how things have gone at South Street this autumn with good congregations and the inspiration of Kath’s baptism and our recent Church Anniversary.  Around that table I think we all sensed the gentle breath of the Holy Spirit in all our churches, giving us life and hope.

Table talk...table fellowship...meeting God and one another...around a table.
This weekend I’m looking forward to speaking at our Men’s Breakfast about Martin Luther King and then on Sunday we welcome our BB and GB to church for our Remembrance Service in the morning – and another table in the evening - Quiet Prayer and Communion.
With best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Happy Birthday South Street

Fuller Baptist Church in Kettering, where I was once the Assistant Minister and at which Rachel and I got married, sent me an invitation this week to the 315th Anniversary; for them, I sense, it feels like a special one worthy of celebration.  Although I cannot join them I sent my best wishes with the rather smug rider that this Sunday South Street is marking its 356th Anniversary – how about that for ecclesiastical one-upmanship!

Anglican congregations have Patronal Festivals – celebrating the life of their church on the Saints Day after which their church is named; Baptists have Church Anniversaries.  Some churches mark such occasions with festive balloons or visiting preachers of the well known type – we do it on a Sunday close to All Saints Day with Holy Communion and music from our Junior Church and Hymneo – along with some fascinating archive material from Tony Overd.

356 years is a staggeringly long time for a Baptist Church.  It means South Street was born in the Civil War years with Oliver Cromwell ruling as Lord Protector; it makes us one of the oldest Baptist Churches not only in Great Britain but in the world! At this time of year I love looking at the list of the nineteen ministers who have preceded me here (some of them have had exceedingly long pastorates!) and thinking again about the first, Thomas Miller who was personally offered an Anglican living by the new king, William III and turned it down in favour of remaining a Baptist Minister – good for him!

Of course, unlike our Anglican friends, nothing of our building dates back to the year of our foundation, 1655.  Some of The Sanctuary, such as the ceiling, probably dates from 1828 and the impressive portico and pillars on South Street from 1868 – the rest, we know, was wonderfully redeveloped in 2003 and provides us with such a usable and inviting space for the 21st century.

Today I’ve been putting a power-point display together which, photographically, records some of our work since last year’s Anniversary – if you’re with us on Sunday you’ll see it during the morning service. Pictures of: a Christmas barn dance, Easter Monday walk, children music group, reception of new members, baptism, weddings, GB leadership transfer, Burkina Faso Christian Aid fundraising, regular worship services, pulpit exchanges, the start of The Theology Group.  Now I know that being busy isn’t the same as being productive – yet I do rejoice in the rich and diverse activities in which we share and pray that God is being honoured by all of this sincere and faithful effort.

Yet my mind wanders back to 1655...to turbulent times when men and women dreamed of greater religious freedom and tolerance...a king had been beheaded in Whitehall and no one knew how our island’s future would develop, not even Cromwell.  In such days, and for such a time, a group of committed Christians, convinced of the value of Believer’s Baptism and Congregational Church Government covenanted together to form Yeovil Baptist Church.  Such a coming together took courage and conviction. 

One of my prayerful longings for South Street is that we might continue on that journey, into year 357, with a real sense of identity; that we too might have beliefs which are expressed with courage and conviction.  Courage to continue this tradition of faith and conviction to see it through in a way that honours Christ. 

Thinking through our identity wouldn’t be a bad way to celebrate Church Anniversary – it’s an important issue to prayerfully think about: why am I a Baptist, why do I go to South Street, what do I value in our Fellowship, what can I contribute, what do I long for in our shared life, how do I meet Jesus in my sisters and brothers?  When we’re addressing these questions we move a long way from simply being a ‘club’ to becoming a ‘church’.

With best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 20 October 2011

On Retreating

I am deeply indebted to the Retreat Movement for the way it has enhanced and deepened my own spiritual journey over these last twenty years.

Baptists can be a noisey people - and the formation of the Baptist Union Retreat Group (BURG) in 1988 brought something fresh to many of us - an opportunity to share, along with other Baptist friends, Quiet Days and Retreats where silence rather than worship songs became the norm.  If Baptists brought anything to 'the table' when it came to Quiet Prayer it has been our love of scripture. 

I joined BURG soon after its formation and have served on its Committee now for a number of years and currently have the privilege of being its Chair. 

A number of 'threads' have come together in my own mind on the theme of 'retreating' over recent weeks.

...Brian Howden, the Secretary of The Baptist Union Retreat Group, has written a brilliant article in our current Journal about his experience of leading, alongside a team of others, a week of Guided Prayer in a prison.  His article offers a wonderful insight into the way God can speak through Quiet Prayer in what, for us, may be the most unusual of contexts.

...The Yeovil team offering Accompanied Prayer spent last week at Hillfield Friary in Dorset offering Guided Prayer to over fifteen people - I'm told it was a demanding and thrilling week.




All Saints Pastoral Centre
   ...The Baptist Order - an embryonic group of Baptist Ministers came together last week at All Saints Pastoral Centre near St Albans for a Convocation.  At that gathering we committed ourselves to: praying a Daily Office, going on Retreat once a year, engaging with a Spiritual Director and meeting in regional Cell Groups four to six times a year.  Such an order - still in 'draft' format - were it to become established - would be in the stream of 'New Monastacism' which is proving to be a significant development in the world church.



So a lot is going on, quietly and sincerely - people wanting to stand before God not with a shopping list of requests but with an open heart - seeking the humility to listen in prayer before speaking.

And I suppose I'm retreating next week - to the New Forest for a family hoiliday!

With best wishes,

Ian

ps We had a wonderful Sunday Evening with The Redmans telling us about their Ugandan summer last week.  This week we have 'in house' preachers at both services - I'm grateful to them and I hope you will enjoy and be encouraged through their ministry.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Moments of Grace

Moments of grace – those times when there is a sensing of God’s presence among us – come at unexpected times.

Two such moments dawned on me during the service last Sunday.

The first was at the presentation of shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child. As members of the church family made their way up the aisle smiling and carrying a box it felt as if a wave of love and compassion was gently flowing through us.

The second moment came during the intercessions, led last Sunday by members of Junior Church. One of the youngsters stumbled over a word. He bravely battled on and eventually got it right, to be rewarded by a spontaneous round of applause by a grateful congregation. Clapping during prayers! Why not – we are meant to be a fellowship of encouragement and that’s exactly what was going on. I felt it was a touching moment.I do thank God for moments like these – especially in the context of worship. I think they gladden our hearts – and I dare to believe they make God smile too.

This weekend we look forward to the evening service and hearing from Chris, Roger and Joshua about their summer expedition with Mission Direct in Uganda.

With best wishes,

Ian

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 statue...