Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Danger in Ticking Boxes

I’m writing this week’s blog on the train coming home from a study day in London; we’ve just passed Woking!

Today feels quite significant in that we have handed in our first essays.  Mine was on euthanasia; a moral dilemma much in the news earlier this month with the publication of the Commission on Assisted Dying.

This afternoon’s session was the final one on Theology and Ethics and it’s tempting to file away the notes, pack up the books and quickly move on to the next assignment.  Yet surely that’s not what it is all about.  Moral dilemmas regularly turn up, normally at inconvenient times, in the life of any minister and church.  I hope some of what I’ve learnt in recent weeks will be of help for the rest of my ministry.

It is, however, so easy to get into the habit of simply ticking the box.  We’ve just has The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and some of us (I know it’s a minority sport!) have attended services and meetings in other churches which will have delighted and challenged us, hopefully in equal measure.  But ecumenism can’t be done in a week! Relationship building takes time and truth-telling between Christians of different traditions only happens when we’re in it for the long haul.

In fact there’s no way that our faith pilgrimage, or life in general for that matter, can be lived simply by ticking boxes, superficially addressing the immediate, and then swiftly moving on having learnt little and be challenged by even less.

My Christmas present from the family last month (and this was very loving considering one of them absolutely hates casseroles!) was a slow cooker.  It’s great!  Cooking times are double or triple the norm – put in the food after breakfast, let it cook slowly all day and it’s ready by supper-time.

Much of our thinking and living cries out for the equivalent of a slow cooker rather than a quick stir fry in a wok!  Now I know I’m mixing my metaphors here but patient listening for God in prayer, open-minded struggling with ambiguous bible texts, ecumenical co-operation, sticking with a family member in trouble or holding the hand of a friend with a terminal illness are not issues that come anywhere close to simply that of ‘ticking a box’. It takes time – precious time.

Well, we’ve just pulled out of Basingstoke, maybe I ought to put down my pen and start reading up for the lecture in a fortnight’s time – or perhaps, rather than rush on,  I should practice what I preach and slowly linger over today’s lecture - at least until we get to Salisbury!
I thought last Sunday’s Joint Morning Service of Holy Communion at St John’s was super.  Tomorrow evening we have our first Church Meeting of 2012 and then it’s back to South Street for morning worship on Sunday – with a further opportunity to worship ecumenically at Vicarage Street Methodist Church on Sunday night at 6.30pm.
With best wishes,
Ian

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Two Funerals and a Conversation

Today I stood in the crematorium vestry before my first funeral of 2012.  It was there that I met up with the lady vicar from Sherborne who had just officiated at the service before mine.  We chatted and she told me that no family members had been in the congregation of the funeral she had just taken, only care workers.  The reason, apparently, was that the lady had suffered from dementia for years and everyone seems to have lost touch with her as she went through that ‘long goodbye’.  My clergy friend, however, said she was pleased to have had the opportunity to officiate and gave the best service she could for the lady who had died, recognising her as a daughter of God, made in his image and holding, even in her most fragile moments of living, that sacredness that belongs to every life.

I pondered her words and was moved by them – and wondered what might have been the story of that lady’s life before she slipped into dementia.

Then it was my turn.  My turn to do one of the most privileged tasks of this calling – to lead a funeral.

There was a fair number at this service, which was lovely as the lady we were remembering was over ninety.  I had been given some biographical notes by her son and I used them as the basis of the tribute.  I could almost hear a number in the congregation say, to themselves rather than out loud – ‘well we didn’t know that’, or ‘what a surprise she lived there’. We learnt a lot – much more than most of us knew during the last five years she has been worshipping with us. 

What I discovered was just how active she had been in various churches in her younger days and the fact that all through her life she has been a regular worshipper at her local Methodist church – until she moved here and attended our Baptist church because it was literally next door!  I was thrilled to discover such faithful loyalty to Christ and his gospel.

‘My story’ didn’t begin the first time you met me – neither did yours the first time I bumped into you!  God has been at work in the narrative which is our past – and in those struggles and joys I, like you, have discovered something of his love and grace woven into what I did, who I met and where I went. Indeed, although I wouldn’t want to be captured by my past – and are not all of us grateful for new beginnings – it does belong to me and in many ways has shaped my present.

That’s what we were celebrating today at the funeral – the divine companionship and activity of God – present with from the cradle to the grave.

This weekend, as we’re in the middle of The Week of Prayer for Christian Unit, Sunday is a little different with a united service at St John’s at 10.30am – then at 6.30pm we’re having a Bible Study evening in The Chapel Lounge looking at The Epistle of James (Study Sheets on the Christian Education Leaflet page of our website – but rest assured there’s no exam!)
With best wishes,
Ian

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Fortissimo!

On Sunday I sat just in front of four wonderful singers!  It was our monthly Parade Service so the Girls’ Brigade was occupying the row near me with the youngest girls from the Explorer Group at the very front.  Some, I understand, have just learnt to read so at this service, especially during a couple of contemporary songs, they looked up, read the words on the screen and seemed to sing their hearts out – fortissimo!  It was a great sound full of enthusiasm and brought a lump to my throat.

Over Christmas we watched a compilation programme about the Military Wives choir under the baton of the indefatigable Gareth Malone.  It was heart-warming to see their progress from a group of untried and unconfident singers to a coherent choir able to sing in honour of their husbands at The Royal Albert Hall in front of The Queen.  Music can be a great force for good.

Christians have been singing the Good News for thousands of years and hymns have been particularly important to non-liturgical traditions like ours because they often contain some of our best cherished creedal statements.  Much of what we believe was probably first communicated to us through song!

So I’m a great believer in hymns (and good songs!).  A hymn can do so much: praise God, tell His worth, help us confess our frailty and need, spur us on to service and encourage our prayers and faith.  Actually I simply can’t imagine worship without hymns and hearty singing.  So thank you girls – those six and seven year olds – for praising God so enthusiastically in song last Sunday!
This Saturday we look forward to the first Men’s Breakfast with former Mayor of Yeovil and Chairman of The South Somerset Council Mr Ian Martin.

With best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 5 January 2012

What are you seeking?

Yesterday I went into school and led the Communion Service at the start of the teachers’ In Service Training Day;  it’s always a privilege to do this.  During our time together we had a short reflection on the Lectionary reading from John 1, the story of Andrew leaving behind his discipleship with John the Baptist and taking up with Jesus.  At one point in the passage Jesus asks Andrew that most penetrating of faith questions: What are you seeking?

That line of enquiry would be appropriate for a Career Advisor chatting to a young person but it’s also a relevant question for anyone reflecting on their personal pilgrimage.  What are we seeking?  What do we desire in our walk with Jesus Christ this New Year?

There is a much loved prayer by Bishop Richard of Chichester which goes a long way in answering that sort of question.  Richard was born in Worcestershire and was offered his family’s farm.  By accepting he would have become a man of means and influence.  Instead he decided to become a scholar and a priest, ending up as Bishop of Chichester in Sussex, he died in 1253.  It was wonderful that his prayer, from such a different age, should have been woven in so beautifully to the Godspell musical of the Glamour Rock seventies!

In its simplicity Bishop Richard’s prayer encapsulates the longing of any committed follower of Jesus Christ of whatever age or century.  It is, surely, a fitting answer to Jesus’ question: What are you seeking?

                                      Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother,
                                             may we
know you more clearly,   
                                             
love you more dearly,
                                            and
follow you more nearly,
                                                         day by day.
                                                             Amen.

With best wishes,
Ian
ps I wonder if you might be reading this on our new Church Website?  We are so grateful to Stuart Way for all his help over the last three years or so with the old one – he gave of his time and talents generously.  Our hope now is that our new site will be helpful to all who come across it deliberately or by accident!

Speaking of Sin

Tomorrow I’m attending a Ministers’ Book Discussion Group in Luton. We meet up three or four times a year over a packed lunch to discuss a...