Saturday, 28 December 2013

Remembering the wisest of mentors


Donald and I at Fuller Baptist Church, Kettering
I had not intended to write another Blog before New Year but I just feel I want to pay public tribute to an old friend who died the day before Christmas Eve – to me he was the very best of friends and wisest of mentors: The Revd Donald MacKenzie.

Way back in 1987 I was inducted as Donald’s assistant at Fuller Baptist Church Kettering – this was my ‘first’ church and it was to be the most beneficial of ‘curacies’. 

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that Donald MacKenzie was Scottish!  He was a brilliant academic, well trained at Edinburgh University, yet he never paraded his learning.  Instead he was a ‘story-teller’ preacher – and how I just loved his sermons!  I’ve never heard anyone preach with such warmth and grace as Donald – he was for me the Alistair Cooke of the pulpit.  He could take the most obscure passage and difficult theology and ‘ground’ it in an understandable way – bringing it to life with heart warming illustrations.  And in it all something of Donald’s quiet and deep integrity shone through.  I believe I had the great good fortune to be apprenticed to one of the best preachers in Britain (a title he would never have given himself in a million years!)

Donald and I spent hours talking.  He told me stories of ministerial life from the 60’s and 70’s – we chatted through church life and I learnt, just by listening, how to deal with tricky problems and people – and in it all during those five precious years there were so many times of smiling and laughter.

When I moved on to my first ‘solo’ pastorate in Hitchin in 1992 I cannot tell you how many times I thought: ‘What would Donald do?’ – In fact I’ve been asking myself that question on and off for the last twenty one years since leaving Fuller.

In life we sometimes are blest with walking alongside someone who reminds us of our Lord.  A person whose words, actions or just mere presence makes the deepest and most positive impression on our own journey.  I had that experience between 1987-1992 – five years that formed me as a Minister of Word and Sacrament – five years serving alongside the wisest mentor a young minister could ever have. 

As this year draws to a close I thank God for Donald – the best of colleagues who now dwells in the nearer presence of the Saviour he served with such grace and gentle eloquence.

My dear friend – may you rest in peace and rise in glory.

Ian

Friday, 20 December 2013

Here we come a caroling...

And so to my final Blog for 2013!

Carols are in the air – even in Tesco this morning at 8.15am Christmas Songs were being played – the checkout staff looked as if they’d heard it all a million times before! 

Other people ‘bag Munros’ (apparently hikers in Scotland can climb 282 such summits) whilst I, at this time of year, seem to ‘bag Carol Services’.  I’ve been to some super ones so far: The Albert Hall last week (on a church coach) to see John Rutter conduct a wonderful evening of music, and then on Sunday to a Service of Lessons and Carols at St Margaret’s next to Westminster Abbey.  This Friday we’ve been invited to the Carol Service at St Alban’s Abbey and on Sunday the best of all..our own Carols by Candlelight at AFC! 

My colleague has organised the service for the Sunday after Christmas and I have to confess I was relieved when I saw it in draft form - she hasn’t chosen a single carol for it!!

Yesterday evening Truro Cathedral reconstructed its carol service of 1880, devised by its then Bishop, Edward Benson, and later adopted and adapted all over the world, most famously at King’s College, Cambridge on Christmas Eve.  For non-conformists a service of hymns, prayers and readings seems to be common fare yet for Victorian Anglicans used to Matins and Evensong it obviously felt revolutionary.

Carols come in all shapes and sizes. This year I’ve been struck by the simplicity of a gentler one – composed by Christina Rossetti, who often used to visit her grandfather’s house at Holmer Green, just south of Amersham.  She wrote Love Came Down at Christmas in 1885 as a Christmas Poem for a Reading magazine:

            Love came down at Christmas,
            Love all lovely, Love Divine,
            Love was born at Christmas,
            Star and Angels gave the sign.

            Worship we the Godhead,
            Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
            Worship we our Jesus,
            But wherewith for sacred sign?

            Love shall be our token,
            Love shall be yours and love be mine,
            Love to God and all men,

            Love for plea and gift and sign.

Beautiful words.

Yet all of that seems a million miles away from the opening paragraph of a piece I read in The Evening Standard on the Tube whilst travelling home on Monday:  It went:

For some, Christmas is all about Jesus Christ, for some about Santa Claus.  For others, though, this time around, it’s all about Benedict Cumberbatch.  He’s everywhere at the moment – and on New Year’s Day he’s rising from the dead, in series three of Sherlock...

Well, call me old fashioned, (and I actually love watching Sherlock) but I’ll take the first of those three options and say this festival is about Jesus Christ and the mystery of ‘Love – which came down at Christmas’.

May God’s peace and love touch all our lives over the next few days.

Best wishes,


Ian


Thursday, 12 December 2013

Long Walk to Freedom


I was once part of a rebellion!  Really? Yes - it’s true – but I know you may find that hard to believe – so let me explain.

In the mid 80’s – with the Apartheid debate in full swing – a group of us at Theological College requested, and were refused, a lunch time Prayer Meeting in which we intended to remember before God the people of South Africa in their struggle for freedom and justice.  For reasons that still mystify me that proposal was simply deemed ‘inappropriate’.  Boy – did they get that wrong!

Yet, the truth is, we all get it wrong at times and history often teaches us that the ‘bad guys’ of one generation end up the ‘heroes’ of the next - and perhaps that’s true of Nelson Mandela.  His name at birth was ‘Rolihlahla’ which means ‘troublemaker’ and this week and next the world has been giving thanks for all this troublemaker taught us about the ‘unyielding grace’ of forgiveness.

Although from a different time the story of the BMS missionary to Jamaica William Knibb holds some similarities.  In campaigning so vigorously for the abolition of slavery on the island he was nicknamed ‘The Monster’ by many slave owners, most of whom would have had Anglican backgrounds.  Yet in the struggle for South Africa’s freedom no Church campaigned more in the 1980’s than the Anglican – focused here in Britain by St Martin in The Fields, next-door to the South African Embassy, and ‘at home’ by Mandela’s equal – The Archbishop of Cape Town - Desmond Tutu.

What has become clear in the last few days is just how big the shoes are which the man they call ‘Madiba’ left.  President Zuma, who received ‘boos’ from the crowd this week is struggling to overcome the culture of corruption that seems endemic in his society.

All of this just underlines that ‘freedom’ is not an easy panacea but a responsibility-filled opportunity.  It’s a ‘long walk’ that has to continue. The appointment of Black Presidents in either South Africa or the USA, along with the ‘just around the corner’ consecration of women bishops in the Church of England, all mark a shift towards greater equality but never the end of our journey together. That, I suspect, is what Mandela meant when he wrote: During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people.  I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.
 

This coming Sunday at Amersham Free Church we shall sing that Zulu freedom song: We are marching in the light of God.  It will be our way of praying ‘God bless Africa’ – and later in the service, at our intercessions, we'll remember the challenges that all freedom brings and the continuing strength we need to meet them.

The world is remembering one of its finest sons, who along with so many others had to take a 'Long Walk to Freedom' - we honour his memory best if we keep on walking.

With best wishes,

 Ian

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Mind your language!


Yesterday whilst travelling on the Tube I sat next to a women having three phone conversations during the time it took us to travel from Harrow to Baker Street – not an uncommon experience these days!  However, the thing that struck me was that, although she was speaking in a beautiful Arabic tongue, a number of standard English phrases or words keep popping into her conversation.  In mid-flow I heard:  BBC, OK, cashback, USB stick...I confess I sometimes felt a smile cross my face when they came up and at one point almost got the gist of what she was saying.  You understand I don’t usually make a deliberate habit of listening in to other people’s conversations – but at times it’s hard not to.

Language is so important.

Last week at our AFC Book Group we looked at Steindl-Rast’s Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer and in it he says: We should not talk as if it were perfectly clear what one means by God, by prayer, or even by religion.  Today these words mean different things to different people.

I think he’s right – and probably at no time of year is that more so than during these days leading up to Christmas. 

Last night I was at Amersham’s Community Carol Service at St Michael’s.  It was packed out with five local schools taking part, each  bringing much warmth and laughter to our time together.  Yet at one point I wondered what folk in the congregation – folk who don’t usually come along to church – made of the words of some carols such as ‘veiled in flesh the Godhead see’ – or even if it is right for us to put words such as ‘I love thee Lord Jesus..’ into the mouths of those who, in another context, wouldn’t want to say them at all.  I confess I didn’t ponder these questions over long as I recognise the value that ‘folk’ religion still holds at this special time of year. 

On a more personal level I’m constantly aware of the power of language and that it’s often not what we say in an email, conversation or set of minutes that matters as much as the ‘way’ we say or phrase it.  No wonder James urges us to beware of the tongue.

The opposite is, of course, also true.  When struggling to find the words to say to a bereaved or ill person it’s often just the fact we’ve bothered to say anything at all that is appreciated.

In a way our whole life ‘says’ something – whether that’s through the language of words, deeds or personality.  Something that we might ponder as we hear that most profound of statements over the next few weeks that ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’.

Best wishes,

 Ian

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Road Less Travelled

The M25 has once again become an inevitable component in our travel plans since moving to Amersham.  The Chorleywood junction is just about five miles from where we live and we use it regularly. 

A fortnight ago a group of us from church travelled by car to the URC Synod at Tottenham - via the M25.  Well that was the plan.  It took an hour and a half to get to Watford - a journey that might nbormally have taken just twenty minutes - and because of a major crash there the M25 shut down.  We took a 'road less travelled', made a detour and arrived for the morning coffee an hour late - but received the warmest of welcomes.

A week later we were back on London's orbital motorway, this time during the Monday morning rush hour driving down to Sussex where I was taking a family funeral.  It was a fraught and tense journey and we were glad to have factored in slow traffic because it took us twice as long as normal to get to Crawley.

It's been a similar tale told today by some of the participants attending the Order of Baptist Ministry Convocation here at the Quaker Conference Centre in Birmingham.  One of our number was held up on the Aston Freeway for over two hours - joining us way past the start time - but once again, I hope, receiving the warmest of welcomes.

The picture of a journey is, maybe, an over used analogy for life - yet it surely resonates with us.  For we all have hold ups and detours in life - our journeys, whether with family, in church or at work, rarely go to plan.  Yet in the twists and turns we come upon unexpected joys just as much as unwelcome difficulties.

A few years ago I attended the saddest of funerals of a friend of mine. He was the father of two young daughters and at the funeral his wife told the congregation what she had told her girls.  That their journey had taken an unexpected turn in the road - they had neither expected nor wanted it - but it was now the journey they were on.

Such grace and bravery made a deep impression upon us all.

So tomorrow, when we drive home from Birmingham back to Amersham,  at rush hour, who knows what the motorway signs will be telling us. 

Perhaps in all our journeying our constant prayer is that, whatever is before us, we might be people who are 'travelling hopefully'.

Happy Advent!

Ian

Thursday, 21 November 2013

We had a party...

 


On Tuesday night we had a party!  Held at church it gathered together the five groups which make up our ‘Life and Faith’ programme at AFC.  Our Associate Minister takes the lead with this part of church life and it was she who had planned the evening we were about to share.

We began with food, of course!  Conscious that each group might ‘stick’ together folk were given tickets to sit at numbered tables.  The food was delicious and table-talk stimulating.  After the main course and before pudding we paused and had a presentation from each group reflecting some aspect of their life together over this past year.

We began with one of the three ‘study’ groups – the one that seems to do it differently!  This group – as with the other two – has been looking at the lectionary readings.  However, they are up for more than discussion and often thoughtfully and deliberately include craft-making or game playing in their sessions.

Next came our Thursday evening group and they presented a charming ‘drama’ depicting what might have been if Saint Luke had actually joined them for one of their study sessions; what questions would they have posed and what answers, or lack of them, might he had offered.

Third on were members of our Friday ‘Bring and Share Prayer Group’.  They practised what they preached by leading us in some quiet moments of reflection using prayers based on the The Fruit of The Spirit – the theme they have taken on recent Fridays.

Next up was the ‘Hands Together’ groups.  This is a fellowship group that meets to knit and chat – their handiwork is then sent around the world helping our various charities.

Last on was the Wednesday evening group.  They finished their studies on the lectionary by the summer and during these autumn months have been looking at ‘Jesus The Jew’ – so they took the Lord’s Prayer as their presentation theme on Tuesday evening and prayed it in a variety of ways, including ‘signing’ for the deaf.

I sat there with a growing sense of respect and appreciation for these groups.  It’s wonderful that they represent such diverse styles and activities appealing to different sorts of members. Yet each expression is a worthy exploration and experience of Life and Faith in action.

A year ago at my Induction I hinted that in the lead up to my appointment I had glanced just a little of what God was already doing at AFC.  Tuesday evening was yet another confirmation that as a minister in this church I stand on ground which is already holy.

Our Life and Faith Groups are a real treasure – so I’m glad we had a party on Tuesday to celebrate them.

With best wishes,

Ian










Thursday, 14 November 2013

Farewell Poirot


I’ve just come in from a Ministers’ Breakfast and over the bacon rolls my part of the table was talking about a colleague who so loved films that he showed almost a clip a week during his sermons.  When his successor was called to that church the deacons, who’d had enough of illustrations from the silver screen, respectfully asked if he would refrain from showing film clips, at least for the next couple of years.

Well I’m going to be a little self-indulgent today and write not of the big but small screen and the demise last night on our TVs of one of my all time favourite characters, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.  Today I’m still in mourning – I even woke in the night feeling sad!!
This television adaptation played by the wonderful David Suchet has been with us for almost twenty five years and I’ve seen most of the seventy episodes at least three times (I know I should get out more!).

Of course it’s murder done with such finesse, respectability and implausibility as to make it, generally, totally unbelievable yet very enjoyable! 

In this quarter of a century we’ve got to know this funny Belgium sleuth with his penchant for spats, moustaches, and silver tipped walking canes.  Over the years his character has grown more melancholy and reflective.

I read the final book ‘Curtain’ whilst on a Boys and Girls Brigade camp in Devon a few years ago.  We bought it at Greenway, Christie’s house on the banks of the Dart.  I remember hiding in my tent avidly reading this ‘page turner’ chronicling Poirot’s last outing.  Ironically I’ve lent the book out, can’t remember to whom and need a detective to take up the case for its return!

I couldn’t watch last night’s final episode live as I was at a very well attended meeting of Churches Together in Amersham and Chesham Bois.  But I didn’t hang around afterwards returning home eager to see if the TV recorder had done its job.

Well either you share with me this love of Poirot or the preceding paragraphs have left you wandering if I need some sort of therapy!  And in a way the books and programmes are nothing more than entertainment. 

Yet...there is something about the integrity of Suchet’s acting that I find deeply touching.  That, combined with Christie’s writing, has given us a detective who is passionate for the truth, always keen to champion the wrongly accused even if the authorities and public want a quick prosecution – and most of all a man who hates murder with such a passion because he so obviously loves life.  So even though these programmes have never been intentional sermons, they have made something of a spiritual connection with my own ‘little grey cells’!

Farewell Poirot - and a thousand thanks to David Suchet!

Best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Perspiration as well as Inspiration




To round off half-term week last Friday we spent the morning at The British Library at St Pancras.  We visited one of the permanent exhibitions in The Sir John Ritblat Gallery where we saw treasures such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Codex Saniaticus, the oldest written copy of The Gospels.   

As spine tinglingly (is that a word?!) enthralling as these priceless artefacts were the display case that really caught my attention was the one full of music manuscripts.  The original copy of ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles was on display.  Paul McCartney says this lovely tune came to him in a dream one night and upon waking up he rushed to the piano to write it down.  To the likes of you and me I guess that sounds a bit like ‘Inspiration’ – a rare moment when something comes to us almost as a gift. 

However, that didn’t look to be the case with the display manuscripts of
Mendelssohn's Wedding March or Elgar’s sketch for the 3rd symphony.  Both these geniuses seem to have struggled to bring their works alive.  Bar after bar on the Mendelssohn manuscript was crossed out and Elgar seemed to have come to a dead halt and so gave up entirely using the remainder of the page to draw cartoon like animal characters!

I came away, I think, realising afresh that very little in life that is to be cherished and valued comes to us ‘pre-packaged’.  It’s sometimes easy to believe that as we listen to a completed piece of stirring music or look at a framed and varnished painting.  Yet the precious truth we need to remember is that probably everything that’s worthwhile in life takes time, naturally involves many ‘crossings out’ (‘Falling Upwards as Richard Rohr calls it) and even ‘starting again’.  That’s why these manuscripts from the great composers, in all their glorious scruffiness – showing as much perspiration as inspiration, seemed to me to be just as precious as listening to their completed and polished final work.

The same was true of a biography lent to me by a member of Amersham Free Church recently, written by her friend all about the Cholera pioneer doctor James Christie.  It was a book written in a refreshingly honest style giving us an account of this Scotsman’s downs as well as ups, rather than a hagiography simply charting his successes.

Almost a year ago I took up my post here in Amersham and part of that process was reading the profile of the congregation sent to me entitled: AFC – a Work in Progress.  Well, I don’t think there will ever be a ‘completion date’ (this side of eternity) that could be put on such a profile.  For in our church life, as well as our personal and professional ones, we are all in an ongoing ‘process’ with very few pages of our story written neatly.  Instead there are crossings out followed by bursts of inspiration recapitulating again to times of either valued or dulled routine. And that is fine, and that is good – and that, I guess is the way it’s always been – and in it all, we dare to believe, is God – at work in us, through us, and even sometimes, despite us.

With best wishes,

 

Ian

Thursday, 24 October 2013

The Workhouse


The former Amersham Workhouse
This week, on my way to visit a member of the congregation currently staying at Amersham Hospital, I passed the former Amersham Poor Law Institution – commonly known as ‘The Workhouse’.

Two things struck me as I walked along – both slightly ironic.  The first is that this building once set aside for those who were financially destitute is now a tremendously smart address with a price tag to match.  The second is hinted at by the Workhouse’s new name of ‘Gilbert Scott’ Court.  So even though this was the most functional of buildings its architect was the same man who designed the splendours of St Pancras Station, The Albert Memorial and The Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Maybe this isn’t so strange.  The Victorians had a high view of civic architecture which meant that even power stations and sewage plants ended up resembling either a mini cathedral or country house.

Amersham Work House was in this tradition.  It was completed in 1839 at a cost of £5,750 and was one of a number designed by Gilbert Scott at the beginning of his career. 

I wonder if there is a modern day equivalent? It would be rather like having Lord Rogers, designer of the Pompidou Centre and Lloyds building, cutting his architectural teeth on a social housing project.

Although the world has changed beyond recognition since Scott’s time we still have to make judgement calls about how much energy, enthusiasm and commitment we put into a project or relationship.  I suppose the vital question we ask in that respect maybe – ‘is it worth it?’

Is it worth turning out every Friday evening to run my Brownie Pack?  Is it worth keeping interested in the work of Christian Aid?  Is it worth staying on the Governing Body of my local school?  Is it worth keeping that appointment with God and my fellow pilgrims at church Sunday by Sunday?

Christ seemed to shock his community more than once by giving people the sort of value and respect which others thought was thoroughly misplaced  - be that in meeting a woman ‘with a past’ at the well, taking tea with a fraudulent tax-collector or helping ten lepers literally living on the margins of society.

We sometimes talk of the topsy-turvy values of The Kingdom of God – those inversions of expected norms such as the ‘last being first’. 

All of this makes Christianity potentially counter-intuitive and counter-cultural – a risky business some might even say.

So Gilbert Scott’s stunning Workhouse here in Amersham has prompted me once more to reflect that no task for God is too small and no act of love for my community is too insignificant to merit my best.

Such inspiration comes not only from a young Victorian architect but from the example of the wandering preacher from Nazareth who showed us what it really means to give our best.

Perhaps Steve Turner’s poem puts it as stunningly as Scott’s architecture:

Like your landlord becoming your lodger
Like your managing director up before you for an interview
Like Beethoven queuing up for a ticket to his own concert
Like a headmaster getting the cane
Like a good architect living in a slum built by a rival
Like Picasso painting by numbers -
God lived among us.

With best wishes,

 
Ian
p.s. Blog holiday next week!

Thursday, 17 October 2013

The View from the Pew


Until I came to Amersham I hadn’t spent much of my ministerial life in the pew – instead I’d be in the ‘pulpit’ most Sundays at most of the services.  That’s changed a little here.  Once a month I have the privilege of listening to our Associate Minister preach and on Sunday evenings I sometimes take the opportunity of sitting in the pew of some central London churches.  That means in the last twelve months it’s been a joy to attend services and listen to sermons at Bloomsbury Central Baptist, Westminster Abbey, St Martin in The Fields and All Souls, Langham Place.

However, over the last few days I’ve sat in pews closer to home.

On Wednesday last, along with about three hundred others, I sat in Chesham’s Broadway Baptist Church listening to the engaging ‘teller of stories’, Cardinal Cormack Murphy O’Conner – the emeritus Archbishop of Westminster.  He told us of his friendship with Pope Francis and the events, in which he took part, at the Vatican just prior to his election in the spring of this year.  You could have heard a pin drop as he spoke because something about his mix of gentle, respectful humour alongside profound spiritual insight caught all our imaginations that night and sent us home with that inner sense that we had been in the presence of God.

Then last Saturday my own church hosted a Bible Teaching Day as we looked at the Gospel of Matthew under the direction of Professor David Catchpole of Exeter University and Sarum College.  Once again it was great to be in the pew – or in this case sitting on a comfortable chair!  David’s extensive New Testament scholarship helped us appreciate many new insights into why Matthew put his gospel together in such a Jewish way and I suspect those of us preaching from Matthew next year will refer to David’s notes often.

And this ‘pew sitting’ of mine goes on -  because come Sunday evening I had the delight of listening to Liz preach at our monthly evening communion.  It’s a regular feature at AFC that we invite one of our seven ‘lay preachers’ to share in the evening services this way. 

On Sunday Liz took ‘pilgrimage’ as her theme and spoke of that ‘inner’ journey we all make with God and each other.  It was a delight to listen to such a well thought through and delivered sermon.

And my last ‘pew’ experience of the week?  Well, actually, it was neither in a pew nor a church but at least I was sitting – this time in front of my computer watching a clip from last Sunday’s Andrew Marr’s show – this clip: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-24511696

In it Malala Yousafzar, the sixteen year old girl from the Swat District of Pakistan, was being interviewed.  She spoke of that day, a year ago this month, when she was shot by the Taliban whilst travelling on the school bus.  This crime was carried out because Malala had ‘blogged’, under a pseudonym on the BBC, speaking out against the Taliban’s opposition to education for girls.  Malala was flown to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham where she recovered from her wounds and this year, as well as addressing The United Nations General Assembly, she was nominated for the South African Children’s Peace Prize by Desmond Tutu.  I was so moved by the grace and eloquence she showed during her interview with Marr and thank God for this young ‘prophetic’ voice to come out of such a bleak situation and episode.

So, even though I have the responsibility and privilege of speaking most Sundays from a pulpit – it’s been an equal privilege over these last few days to sit, listen and learn.

With best wishes,

 

Ian
Ps I heard on Sunday that my former church in Yeovil has appointed a new minister – my prayers and very best wishes go to Simon and the congregation at South Street as this new partnership in ministry begins.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Past is Another Country


Being still ‘newly’ arrived in Bucks we continue to be in something of a discovery mode taking opportunities, especially at the weekend, to go out exploring.  Last Saturday was no exception so we made our way over to Hughenden Manor, near High Wycombe, the one time home of Queen Victoria’s favourite Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.

As we approached this grand, yet intimate National Trust house we were surprised by the number of cars having to use the overflow parking places and the queues at both the entrance reception and tea room.  We soon discovered last Saturday was not a ‘normal’ one for Hughenden but a ‘1940’s’ theme day.   This no doubt reflected its use during WWII as a special operations centre code named ‘Hillside’. 

So we wandered through a field of brown tents erected on the front lawn full of war time memorabilia, bumped into ‘Red Cross’ nurses, Wing Commanders, Chaplains, humble Corporals and swanky American Marines in full uniform.  I half expected Captain Mainwaring, from the Eastgate Home Guard,  to come round the corner ordering us to take up our places at the Novelty Rock Emporium ready for the invasion with our one machine gun!

Well we did the tour and that was fascinating and we wondered around the grounds and that was beautiful – and we lingered by the 1940’s fashion show and had tea sitting near a ‘General’ wearing his Home Staff red lapels and that was just plain bazaar!

I suppose we got a ‘feel’ of the 1940s – especially when we heard the gun practice starting on the south lawn – but it was fleeting and momentary – soon we were back in the car returning from the world of yesterday to the present.

None of us can go back – even if we’d like to.

I sometimes think I would – and if granted those imaginary three wishes I’d at least use one of them spending a day meeting my relatives of a hundred years ago and another travelling a hundred years into the future!

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of our life is the deliberate valuing of today rather than longing for yesterday or hoping for tomorrow.  There may be very good reasons for the later two yearnings but we don’t do today justice if we over romanticise the past and place unreasonable confidence in the future.  Spiritual writers call it ‘the sacrament of the present moment’ – the idea that here and now – today – God is present – offering us love, life and hope.  Being consciously aware of that reality comes close, for me, of what it means to pray.

Last weekend I enjoyed Hughenden and the colliding worlds of Disraeli and Churchill – but today beckons. For as L.P.Hartley said in his novel The Go-Between: The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

With best wishes,

 
Ian

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Life, Faith and Monopoly


With the autumn leaves beginning to fall here in Amersham our church’s housegroups (which we call Life and Faith Groups) have begun to reassemble for a new term.  Each group develops its own theme and even comes up with its own study material.  They are a great addition to our life together and it’s been a joy this week attending two of them.

The first one is revisiting the Lectionary passages we use on a Sunday morning – so having preached the sermon I thought it would be interesting to attend a group discussing it!  But I was in for something of a surprise for this group is one that likes to do things differently.  It’s led by folk who have super gifts of creativity – so one member told me as I left ‘every week we meet we do it differently’. So yesterday morning we played Monopoly!  We did so after reading the passage from Luke about the Dishonest Manager – a tricky passage which challenges our attitudes to money and its management.  Soon after we settled into the game it became apparent that our leader had doctored the Chance and Community Chest cards so that every time they came our way we had a financial/moral dilemma to discuss.  What ensued was great fun – gentle participants turned into unlikely capitalists, competitive players suffered early and swift bankruptcy whilst others with an open heart stayed in character throughout the game responding to any dilemma with exemplary generosity of spirit.  And amid the laughter there was much profound discussion about personal, national and international finance and the relation of faith to wealth. 

Now if the learning style of yesterday morning’s group was Kinesthetic – that is ‘by doing’, the group I attended in the evening was more Auditory – that is ‘by listening and conversation’.  This night time gathering have taken as their theme this term ‘Jesus The Jew’ and their sessions are based on a Bible Society booklet – yesterday we looked at Jesus and The Law – especially how it related in his day to divorce and wealth.  Once again we were ably led by folk who had done excellent preparation.  Although neither of these issues is easy the group batted around ideas and teased out the issues with each contribution being respectfully received and then developed.  I came away glad to have been in their company – sharing in this honest struggle for truth and insight.

Call them what you may: Housegroups, Study Groups, Life and Faith Groups, Fellowship Groups, Cell Groups or Bible Study Groups – they have the same characteristics of meeting together with a smallish number, often in homes so with a greater informality, to be led but also to participate and contribute and...and...to develop friendship as we have time over coffee to talk of those inconsequential things which actually mean the world to us.

So this week I thank God for Life, Faith and Monopoly!

With best wishes,

 
Ian

Thursday, 26 September 2013

The Sound of Silence


Well it may be one of my favourite Simon and Garfunkel tracts but this week as I reflect on the phrase ‘The Sound of Silence’ I’m not thinking of this 1964 classic, written in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination, but of a comment made to me at the serving hatch of our church hall one day this week. It was the day we received a number of welcome visitors from the Tuesday group at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church.  Instead of meeting in their church hall for lunch we were their final summer outing destination for 2013 so they joined us for lunch in ours.  One of their number said to me just how much he was enjoying the lack of background noise in Amersham compared to central London.  He said it was refreshing to hear the sound of silence!

After lunch that experience became even more intense as we gathered in The Sanctuary for a talk by Alison MacTier, Director of The Retreat Association, who actually concluded her time with us by leading a short – and silent – meditation.

We often long for silence when our lives are crowded and noisy. Whether we know what to do with it is another matter.

I, like many people, have tinnitus which means silent retreats are never totally so because there is always a high pitched ringing in my ears.  I remember being diagnosed and the rather down to earth consultant, after examining me, said ‘Well looks like you’ve got tinnitus, I’ve got it, my wife’s got it and now you’ve got it  – none of us can do anything about it so you’ve just got to live with it’.  I actually found that rather helpful!

The point of meditation in the Christian tradition isn’t just to find the silence.  That very process often brings lots of other thoughts and worries into our minds and maybe these are the current issues that we need to be addressing prayerfully.  To that end retreat leaders, when settling a group down for say half an hour of quiet or silent prayer, actively encourage retreatants to listen to the noises coming in from outside the building or the thoughts filling the empty space we’re trying to clear in our minds.  The idea is that slowly, and with a consciousness of God that can be all too absent from our usual rushed routine, we linger with these thoughts and tease out what they may be saying to us about our journey through faith and life.

Over the years retreats, quiet days and silent prayer have given me tools to hone down what I believe to be the really important things in life.  They have been the tools I’ve often used to separate the dross from the gold and begin to see with a greater clarity what matters.  They are, I believe, effective tools in our pilgrimage with Christ – giving him the space to speak into the silence.

A lady I once knew, now in God’s nearer presence, called Phyllis used to come along to Thursday Morning Prayers every week without fail.  She was a very, very quiet lady whose main ‘ministry’ was, I think, essentially that of praying for our church.  One morning after the prayer group the only ones left were Phyllis, myself and another lady and we got on to the subject of favourite hymns.  I was touched when she suddenly, and I thought uncharacteristically, burst into song singing with a lovely sweet voice her favourite hymn.  All the words she knew by heart and the middle verse went like this:

Ev’ry day, ev’ry hour, ev’ry moment
have been blessed by the strength of God’s love.
At the turn of each tide he is there by my side,
and his touch is as gentle as silence.

Now that, I reckon, is as good as any Simon and Garfunkel number!

With best wishes,
 
Ian

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Buildings that Speak


The new Bishop Edward King Chapel at Cuddesdon Theological College
I don’t entirely buy into the idea that Church isn’t a building.  Of course I understand the point that’s being made – that essentially the Body of Christ is a community – but to those ‘outside’ such a community the church building is often their first contact.  So what our buildings feel like and the message they convey is, in effect, an extension of us and of our limited understanding of God.  In my view church buildings are important signposts.

This year’s Royal Institute of British Architecture’s Stirling Prize (the Building Community’s equivalent of Literature’s Booker prize) has the new Bishop Edward King Chapel at Ripon College, Cuddesdon on its shortlist – hurray!  (The BBC website featured it this week at
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-24045643 )

This new chapel costing over £2m has been made possible because the Anglican Sisters of Begbrook in Oxford have recently sold their property and moved into Ripon College.  This small religious community of nuns brought with them the finances that have made this architectural masterpiece possible. 

I became interested in this story because about three years ago the Baptist Union Retreat Group stayed at Begbrook with the sisters and they were just beginning to contemplate a different future having put their extensive Priory up for sale – so it was fascinating to catch up with this stage of their journey.

So what, I wonder, have the five church buildings I’ve had the privilege of working in had to say to both worshippers and passersby? 


Fuller Baptist in Kettering where I began is an imposing Victorian non-conformist ‘preaching station’ able to seat a thousand.  It has a ten foot high pulpit which means the preacher is at eye level with folks sitting in the gallery.  In many ways it’s a challenging Sanctuary today simply because it is so vast and was built for a different time.  I wish the congregation all the best as they apply for the necessary permission to re-fashion parts of the worship space to suit a more contemporary style.

 
Walsworth Road Baptist Church in Hitchin just had the most wonderful location. It grew out of a
Railway Mission Chapel into an imposing neo-gothic building situated at a cross-roads just off the centre of the town.  With its beautifully kept garden I always thought it made a very positive statement to the town – enhanced by the recent addition of an imaginative vestibule connecting church and hall.


Possibly the most beautiful church I’ve served in has been Malvern Baptist in Worcestershire.
It was built in a liturgical crucifix form once again in the neo-gothic style.  With its timber roof and stained glass I always felt ‘enveloped’ whenever I entered it – there is a very special atmosphere at Malvern.  However, this beautiful church building had one great disadvantage – Lady Foley, the lady of the manor and a staunch Anglican, agreed for it to be built as long as it was constructed up a long drive away from the road – it’s almost as if she wanted it hidden! Her Christian generosity only went so far!


 
Yeovil Baptist couldn’t have been more different, occupying as it does a central position in the town for over three hundred and fifty years.

Ten years ago it was completely rebuilt.  However, its ‘Listed’ status meant the Georgian roof and Victorian frontage had to stay in place.  What resulted is something of an architectural curiosity in that one side of the church is nineteenth century and the other is twenty first century – when I was there none of us had really worked out what was the front and what was the back!  Yet it works and I well remember talking to one of our Boys’ Brigade fathers from the community one Wednesday evening and he said to me he thought our church was the most spectacular building in town – praise indeed!

 
And now it’s Amersham Free Church – a building that owes a great deal to The Revd Neville Clark’s ministry – a pastor/theologian who wanted this building, constructed in 1962 at the height of the Free Church Liturgical Renewal Movement, to say something about what we believe.
The soaring beams in the Sanctuary pointing upwards, the splendid space around the communion table dedicated to the celebration of The Lord’s Supper, the gold band on the floor that encircles table, baptistery and font – emphasising the Sacraments of the Church, and the pulpit and prayer desk still in use every Sunday fifty one years after the opening .  Along with our newly refurbished church hall this is a building that ‘lives’ and ‘speaks’ of welcome and worship.

So ‘well done’ to the architects and sponsors of Bishop Edward King Chapel at Cuddesdon – not just for being shortlisted for the Stirling Prize but for continuing that worthy tradition of striving to fashion space we might dare to call sacred.

With best wishes,

Ian










 

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Church in The Market Place


George Carey didn’t get much of a good press during his time as Archbishop of Canterbury but he did, in my book, have one advantage over some others who have held that office in that he had actually served as the minister of a local church before his ‘elevation’.  In particular he pastored St Nicholas’ Parish Church in the centre of Durham in the 1970’s.  These became significant years for this congregation – years of growth with a developing sense of identity in being a ‘Church in The Market Place’.  George Carey even published a book under that title detailing something of their journey together.

Some rather exclusive theologies have historically advocated that The Church should be separate from ‘The World’.  Although I would understand that in terms of having a different agenda and set of core values – I’m more and more convinced that the only way we can live out our calling to be ‘salt’ and ‘light’ is if we fully accept the concept of being a ‘Church in The Market Place.

Last Sunday Amersham held its Town Show on the King George V field opposite the civic offices.  From what I saw it was a success.  On stage it drew together singers and choirs from across the area and along the ‘corridor’ of gazebos one charity organisation after another rubbed shoulders. During the afternoon I bumped into so many people from our congregation involved in all these different organisations - and that's a healthy sign for any church - to have people involved in the community.

I was also pleased to see COTHA (Churches on the Hill Amersham) and CTACB (Churches Together in Amersham and Chesham Bois) have stalls next to each other playing a full and much appreciated part in this community day event.  It’s where we need to be – out in society – as a Church in The Market Place. So ‘well done’ to everyone who helped make it happen.

However, that concept of being ‘part’ of the community isn’t limited to a town show – it’s part of our everyday ministry.

Whilst on holiday in the Austrian Tyrol recently I was struck by the ornate onion shape domed church in the village of Kitzbuhel where we were staying.  It was just off centre and surrounded by a fascinating and large graveyard.  Walking through this hallowed space was a salutary and, I think, slightly overwhelming experience.  In keeping with local custom most gravestones had pictures of the departed on them – spending fifteen minutes reading the inscriptions and looking at the photographs was enough for me.

Our church at Amersham – like most in which I’ve served – isn’t quite as ‘pretty’ as the one in Austria and is surrounded not by a well kept graveyard but by a well used car park.  I confess I prefer the later!  I like the sense that around our building cars come and go bringing people to our services and meetings and those put on by our user groups.  There is something about that sense of momentum which chimes in with an understanding of ourselves as a ‘Church in The Market Place’.

Best wishes,

 
Ian


Thursday, 5 September 2013

Meetings Meetings Meetings!


After almost a month’s absence from the world of blogging and spending the last fortnight on a family holiday in Austria it’s well and truly time to ‘come down from the mountain’ and return to the world of routine which September always beckons.

To ease me into that pattern yesterday I attended a training day for Trustees of The Retreat Association at St Philomena’s Convent, Euston Square in London.  Fitting the ecumenical nature of the day our trainer was a wonderfully engaging Jewish lady – who promptly finished our time together mid afternoon so she could join with others at her local synagogue to celebrate Jewish New Year.
Our day was organised because as Trustees we have to be increasingly aware of our corporate responsibility and the manner in which we should strive to conduct our meetings – the phrase ‘cabinet responsibility’ kept cropping up yesterday.

In August there is something of a moratorium on meetings at church but in September our diaries often bulge with them.  People either seem to love ‘em or hate ‘em! I cannot work out whether it was a compliment or criticism when a lady from a previous church once described me as a ‘Committee Man’ – not actually a title I would readily award myself!

It’s been more than a little familiar to observe the process by which governments have recently made decisions about Syria.  This ongoing tragedy which has so far produced thousands of needless deaths and two million refugees hasn’t been an easy one for national leaders to respond to – and in any case each leader operates within a different protocol in their countries.  So the American and French Presidents can authorise military action without consulting their democratic institutions because that power is retained in their office.  The British Prime Minister, whatever his personal views, had to allow Parliament a vote.  That seems to have made President Obama think twice – so now, although it’s not strictly necessary, a vote will be taken in Congress next week.

All of this, it seems to me, isn’t just pedantic bureaucracy but a recognition that corporate responsibility is usually preferable to idiosyncratic personal leadership.

The truth is that building consensus and giving opportunity for dissenting voices to be heard is just as much a mark of strong leadership as riding off on a white stallion crying ‘For England and St George’.

The reason this recent debate about the need for parliamentary approval seems so familiar to me is that it rings true in church life also.

Amersham Free Church has a combined Baptist and URC tradition (all be it with a good dollop of Church of Scotland thrown in for good measure!).  All of these traditions – in their Church, Elders’ and Deacons’ Meetings hold to the idea that church life isn’t about being directed by a Bishop, Synod or even Minister – but by the people of God gathered prayerfully together seeking the mind of Christ – the technical term for that (but not one that I think the Charity Commission are too aware of in their advice to Trustees!) is ‘Congregational Government’. 

So I’m pleased it’s September and the return of ‘The Meetings’ – it’s not just about minutes and agendas – but travelling together, listening to one another, sharing the burden and, pray God, hearing Christ speak to me through my fellow Trustees, Elders, Church Members and friends.

Oh, and to our lovely trainer yesterday and her Jewish Community at this time of Rosh Hashanah ‘Shanah Tovah’ – have a good new year!

With best wishes,

Ian

 

Thursday, 8 August 2013

The language of Faith and Art


On my day off this week we went into London and enjoyed two very different experiences. 

The first was a visit to the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea, housed at the old Duke of York barracks.  The current exhibition is on the theme of ‘paper’ and so we strolled through gallery after gallery of conceptual art trying to connect it to the theme – or at times just wondering what these pieces were trying to say to us.  Of course ‘modern art’ has a very different language from its ‘fine art’ cousin and in a way every piece we saw yesterday had an intrinsically ‘elastic’ breadth of interpretation. 

We finished our Saatchi experience with a visit to the print room where originals could be purchased.  A work by Damien Hirst comprising of four dots placed around the edge of a white canvas had an asking price of £4,600 – over a thousand pounds per dot!  We didn’t buy it.

I surprised myself – because I’m a Philistine when it comes to conceptual art – by being more inspired by some of the pieces I saw yesterday than I thought I might. 

We continued on something of a cultural pathway in the evening with a visit to Sadler’s Wells and the first night of their new production of West Side Story.  Now this was a medium whose language resonated with me.  The dancing and singing was simply stunning and the heartbreaking story of Romeo and Juliet set in New York with the Jets and Sharks seemed to touch every member of the audience. 

West Side Story contains so much which is, in essence, the contradiction of our humanity: a love match that crosses the divide but is unable to thrive because of the tragedy of suspicion and self-destructive conflict.  I understood this language and instantly appreciated it means of communication.

I suspect that art and faith have always been intimately connected and it is often the case that sometimes the deepest part of our spirituality finds its best expression through painting or music.

Yet the truth is I had a very different experience of two types of art yesterday.  At the gallery I battled with the language and came out confused – which may have been good.  In the theatre I seemed to understand instantly what Bernstein was trying to do with every tune I heard.

This issue of language (in its broadest sense) is important in our understanding of Church too. 

I have no problems singing 18th Century hymns and, most of the time, understanding theological sermons – but that’s because it’s what I’ve been doing now for over five decades!  But I sense fewer and fewer people in society speak this sort of language or appreciate this type of culture anymore.  Just the other day someone said to me with disarming honesty ‘I love the people at your church I’m just bored whenever I go to the services’ – I appreciated their honesty – really!

To counteract this ‘language/cultural gap’ some newer church groups are currently experimenting with what it means to be ‘church’.  So they don’t meet in gothic buildings, sing hymns, listen to sermons and take up an offering.  They gather in homes or coffee shops, discuss a home grown theme, pray without words and form an ongoing community without rigid structures or obvious leadership.

Although this seems to appeal to many I readily confess such a way ‘of being’ scares me silly!  But perhaps that’s the point – I have found a way that appeals to me and that’s ‘traditional church’ and I believe there is still a future for such an expression – but I’m deeply interested in alternative, or what are sometimes called, ‘fresh expressions’ because the truth is the ‘one size’ model of church doesn’t, and probably never has, fitted all. 

In all of this I suspect the core values are the same but the language is different – rather reminiscent of yesterday’s experience of Saatchi Gallery alongside Sadler’s Well Theatre!

With best wishes,

Ian
(Blog holiday now until September!!)

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Wonga and The Archbishop


I have to admit that until last week, even after seeing their rather charming TV advert many times before,  I hadn’t really grasped the reality that Wonga is a ‘Payday Loan’ company.  Not so the Archbishop of Canterbury who, with his financial background in the oil industry, has made this attack on the ‘loan shark’ industry one of his opening gambits at Canterbury.

However, as Jenny McCartney wrote in the Daily Telegraph, ‘no good intention goes unpunished’.  So just a few days after this foray into the complex world of finance Justin Welby had to face the music over revelations that C of E pensions funds had indirectly been invested in Wonga.  I think many of us felt he dealt with this criticism in an adult and intelligent way.

So is it worth national church leaders getting their hands dirty over socio-economic involvement or should they stick to just the ‘hatches, matches and despatches’ of regular church life?

Well – in my view Archbishop Welby has my admiration and respect both for what he said last week and the way he said it. 

One of the joys I have as minister of Amersham Free Church is a once a month opportunity of listening to a sermon preached by the Associate Minister.  I have not spent time ‘in the pew’ this way for over twenty years!  Last Sunday Erna challenged us in our understanding of ‘The Kingdom of God’ by emphasising it as a ‘process’ – a way of life in which Godly values of love and justice are to the fore in our thinking and ambition. 

I sense Justin Welby believes our society should strive for justice at every level and that includes the moral and ethical standards behind our huge financial institutions.  On a positive note he was advocating and supporting an alternative way of assisting those who are struggling through the creation of more Credit Unions.

Yet what of the stones that were then thrown, as it were, at the door of his glass cathedral?  Isn’t it too risky a thing these days to make any ‘grand’ statement for fear that a journalist ‘hack’ will bring you down?  I don’t think so.  In fact I believe that living as part of this ‘Kingdom of God’ means that we need to display the humility that openly admits that nothing about us is a ‘Counsel of Perfection’.  We in the Church try hard to do our research and get our facts right but we make mistakes.  Living in ‘The Kingdom’ should mean we readily acknowledge these – and that’s exactly what the Archbishop did with such good grace and wisdom last week.  In doing so I think he acted as an inspirational role model for us all and the way we ‘do’ church. How refreshing to hear any one in public life these days actually admit to making a mistake.

Of course Jesus never ever said that living with authentic faith in the real world was ever going to be easy – even for Archbishops!

With best wishes,


 
Ian

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Tuesday Church


LunchBreak in June at AFC
I love Tuesdays at Amersham Free Church because it is such a busy yet vibrant day in our community’s life – and yesterday was no different.

Around mid-day people start to gather for LunchBreak.  Every week we welcome up to ninety people to the church hall for a snack lunch.  Recently our gatherings have been enhanced by groups from local homes for mentally handicapped people attending.  We demand nothing of our guests at LunchBreak – they sign up to no creedal statement!  Tuesday lunchtime is just the way our church seeks to offer a ministry of hospitality and welcome.  Then at 1.10pm every week the second and optional part of LunchBreak is a talk or recital held in the Sanctuary of AFC. Later in the afternoon a different team then takes over the kitchen and sets out a delicious array of home- made cakes for ‘Tea at Three’.  So it’s possible to spend almost all of Tuesday at church eating – and I frequently do!

Yesterday, however, also saw two additional events and in a way they couldn’t have been more different – and yet both are vital to our life together. Let me explain:

In the afternoon we held our bi-monthly Book Reading Circle.  A small group of us discussed Bishop John Robinson’s ‘classic’ tome Honest to God. Fifty years ago the publication of this small book caused an ecclesiastical storm.  Many believed Robinson was undermining the essential orthodoxy of Christianity.  Yesterday’s group was far more sympathetic to the book and appreciated its honesty in asking questions about God, religion, faith and language which seemed to us to be as relevant today as in 1963.  Indeed we concluded that there needs to be space in every church for seekers after truth to have the un-pressurised opportunity to explore with others what faith In God might look like. My former church in Somerset tried to do this at a weekly Thursday lunchtime Theology Group and yesterday’s Reading Circle is a similar event here in Amersham.

The day concluded yesterday with yet another expression of our life together – our Church Meeting – what a busy day!  It was so encouraging to have the church hall full, even on such a hot and humid evening, as we came together and made important decisions about the next stage of our premises ‘upgrade’ and organ ‘refurbishment’.  I came away thrilled to be part of a church which could debate such issues with generous hearted courtesy and be served so well by people behind the scenes who had prepared  excellent briefing papers upon which we could base our discussions.

Yesterday was a good day!  Of course in our weekly rhythm of worship and work Sunday is a special, perhaps unique, day – but I reckon ‘Tuesday Church’ comes a close second!

With best wishes,

 
Ian

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...