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

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