Thursday, 23 May 2013

Colliding crowds on Pentecost Sunday


One of my new found joys about living here in Amersham is the opportunity of popping into London on an occasional Sunday for evening service.  So after last Sunday’s Pentecost Communion at AFC and an afternoon trip to see the splendidly re-furbished Chesham URC I caught the tube to Baker Street en route to Westminster Abbey.
The Metropolitan Line runs through Wembley Park and as it was about 4.30pm when my train arrived there it was inevitable that we picked up hundreds of fans coming out of the stadium after the F.A. ‘Play Off’ match.  My near empty Sunday afternoon carriage suddenly became full of green and white football supporters all in good humour because their team had won and so earned promotion to the Championship League.  Now normally, because of my less than enthusiastic following of the ‘beautiful game’, such joy passes me by – but not on Sunday - because the winners of that crucial match were Yeovil!  Having lived there for six years, virtually next to the football ground, I know just how dedicated the town is to its team; indeed I’m told 25,000 Yeovilians (that’s out of a population of 40,000!) made their way to Wembley on Sunday.  So ‘well done’ to the ‘Glovers’ – I can imagine that parking near the Manse will be even more horrific come September!
Meeting up with these ‘green and white’ supporters on the train from Amersham was something of a weird collision between my two worlds – an odd juxtaposition between the recent past and only just beginning present.  It made me smile and realise the metaphor of life as a journey, although over used, is still relevant.


Once in London I went to Evening Service at The Abbey – quite a different sort of crowd this time!  About three hundred of us there from many different countries.  It was a simple service with the choir absent – I think they had sung at so many previous Abbey events that day they deserved time off.  The sermon was deeply theology and one I found helpful – just not sure it touched base with the large number of folk who obviously had English as their second language.  The organ was splendid yet the singing of the congregation virtually non-existent. Yet for all of this supposed ‘non-participation’ I suspect that just being in that ancient and ‘holy’ place was a moment of pilgrimage for most of us.  Indeed at the end I was struck by just how many people stayed to listen to the whole  organ voluntary and  gaze around  them at the sheer beauty of the place. As we walked down the aisle towards the West Door there was a sort of ‘hushed reverence’ being corporately shared.  Worship is about many things – and although we non-conformists only rarely admit it – a ‘sense of place’ often inspires our devotion and consciousness of God.

So – on Pentecost Sunday, when we remember the Jerusalem crowd witnessing ‘something of God’ breaking out – these were my two crowds.  A bunch of loud and happy football supporters – a congregation of silent, yet I think sincere, Abbey worshippers.  I dare to hope something of the spark of Pentecost was to be found in both.

With best wishes,


 

Ian

Ps a Blog holiday next week!

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Chapter Four!

This week I’ve been marvelling at those splendid photographs taken by the Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield from the International Space Station ttps://twitter.com/Cmdr_Hadfield).  They are simply stunning.  I love the one of the Isle of Wight – from space it actually looks the same shape as it does on the maps – how very reassuring!

In our evening sermon on Sunday David, our preacher, spoke of finding God in both the order and the chaos of life.  He spoke of God being bigger than, and not restricted to, the order we so dearly love as well as being found in the chaos of the universe that not even Commander Hadfield’s photos can fully explain. 

Isn’t it wonderfully ironic that we live in a big Cosmos that makes us feel small yet we trust in an infinite God who makes us feel valued?

All of this chimed in with the book I’m currently reading in preparation for next week’s Discussion Group at AFC – Richard Rohr’s ‘Falling Upwards’.  In chapter four he says:  ‘...life is characterized much more by exception and disorder than by total or perfect order’. 

The challenge for all of us, it seems to me, is to be open to God in those moments of dissonance when life is a struggle.  C.S.Lewis said: God whispers to us in our joys and shouts in our struggles.  I used to find that difficult to accept but I think I’m beginning to see its value.  That’s because, in reality, no one’s life, church, family or community is constantly lived on the sunny side of the street.  So what we all have to do is to actively be open to the loving, sustaining, disciplining and enlightening presence of God in those tough moments – just as much, if not more so, than when the sky is blue.

This is how Richard Rohr puts it in chapter four:  The Gospel was able to accept that life is tragic, but then graciously added that we can survive and will even grow from tragedy.  This is the great turnaround!  It all depends on whether we are willing to see down as up; or as Jung put it, that ‘when you stumble and fall, there you find pure gold’.

So my fellow readers in the Book Group – if you manage nothing else - read Chapter Four!

With best wishes,

Ian
ps – Let me do a bit of advertising.  Last year The Greens did a really enjoyable house swap with a manse family in Florida.  We made the connection through ChristianHomeExchange.com.  The idea of Christian Home Swap is being developed by the Lutheran pastor with whom we exchanged and I’m sure if this is something you want to explore a visit to their website would be worthwhile.  End of commercial!

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Church Identity


Happy Ascension Day!

Last week one website pointed me to another – let me explain.

I was reading the weekly update of the Baptist Times on-line and it recommended a glance at a blog written by David Murrow entitled: How a traditional church can grow again. (For techno wizards out there this is the web address: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/afewgrownmen/2013/04/how-a-traditional-church-can-grow-again/)

The author, David Murrow, described a situation which is increasingly familiar, namely that many Christians travel miles to a big church with a professional standard music group and informal style which ‘does’ so called contemporary worship well.  Such a journey will take them past dozens of smaller ‘traditional’ churches en route.

Murrow says he and his wife do this most Sundays in America and they enjoy it and are glad to be part of their regional church congregation.  But some Sundays they pop into their local Episcopalian church with a congregation of about a hundred, a set liturgy, thoughtful sermon and traditional hymns.  They have found such visits deeply stimulating, provoking and heart warming.  They have been refreshed by the sermon, touched by the ancient words of the hymns and stirred by the discipline of the liturgy.  All to the good.  For them that sense of contrast underlines the value in both styles of worship and instead of saying one was intrinsically ‘better’ than the other Murrow affirms the experience that God was honoured in both.

However,  the other Sunday he went to this smaller church and came away tremendously disappointed.  For that particular service the church had tried to adopt a contemporary style – so the liturgy had been dispensed with, hymns were not on the menu and a scratch band attempted, but failed, to cope with the syncopated rhythms of the latest worship songs.  It was all less than satisfying.

T
hat experience prompted David Murrow to write his blog article encouraging traditional churches to realise afresh the value of the liturgy, hymnody and sermons that fit so well into such a well honed structure and not ditch all of this for a style they cannot, in truth, adequately deliver.
‘Change’ has become something of a holy word amongst so many of my ministerial colleagues and I sometimes think it’s their only raison d’ĂȘtre for ministry.  Yet change isn’t a neutral word because it can either result in a better or worse outcome.  The issue is surely about what we’re moving away from, and then what we’re moving towards in that process.  I don’t think Murrow was advocating traditional churches shouldn’t ever change – but rather in that evolutionary process we need to value what has worked well in the past and continues to be a blessing in the present and not throw it all away because that bigger church twenty six miles down the road does it differently. 

I think there is rarely a short cut and easy  route to growth  - not one with honour anyway.

For me it’s all about ‘identity’.  When I read the profile of Amersham Free Church I was so impressed by the sense of identity that came through the document.  It wasn’t strident or unbending – indeed the sense of being open to new possibilities was peppered throughout – yet it made the point that AFC has thoughtfully, prayerfully and intentionally developed a particular liturgical style which has been, and is, much valued by those who come week by week.  The message was clear – come and join us, travel with us, develop and grow with us slowly – but if this style of worship isn’t your cup of tea - look elsewhere!

So, six months in, what do I think? 

Well I believe that sense of identity at AFC is a really significant part of our life together.  It doesn’t mean change won’t come – there will always be the need for us to constantly reassess what we do and how we do it. Indeed the introduction of new elements within worship is often both stimulating and refreshing.  Yet it can, I believe, all be accommodated within, and even shaped by, that enriching liturgical style which is central to our church’s life.

And in all of this – we pray – may God be honoured.

With best wishes,


 
Ian

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Singing the Faith



Last month The Royal School of Church Music published the results of its questionnaire ‘Church Music: Sound Ministry?’.  Over two hundred churches sent in their responses; some were unsurprising such as the growing lack of new organists alongside the increased use of music groups.  Perhaps one of the most enlightening sections dealt with the choice of music at funerals.  Requests included the theme tunes from Star Wars, Doctor Who and The Benny Hill Show!  However, clergy said they turned down the song ‘Combined Harvester’ by The Wurzels – seems to me that might have been appropriate for a Somerset farmer!

The music we share together in church is important.  It has the power to unite a congregation in a sublime moment of corporate worship.  It can also lead to division and heart ache with faithful members feeling disenfranchised as newer material sweeps away deeply cherished and formative hymns.  That search for balance between traditional and contemporary is a central task for anyone who leads worship now a days.

Only last week I had two comments about songs and hymns after the service.  One person told me she knew all the actions to the Sunday School song I quoted in the sermon and another shared her love of the hymn we had sung, ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’, because it had meant so much to her during her nursing days. 

So often the faith that has developed in our lives has found itself rooted and expressed in the hymns we sing.  For many of us they become our creedal statements.

The other week a small group of us at AFC devised a LunchBreak programme under the title ‘Sing a New Hymn or Song’.  For twenty minutes we sang five newish pieces – including a Peruvian Gloria and Townend’s lyrical version of Psalm 23.  There was a buzz afterwards as people talked about the ones they liked and didn’t – most seemed to go away with smiles on their faces glad to have shared together in song.

Three reactions from that LunchBreak programme have stayed with me – perhaps this is my equivalent to the RSCM survey! 

One – we sang a contemporary song with a great tune, in fact one of my favourites.  Yet it was pointed out to me that although written within the last decade and sang at events such as Spring Harvest the words had a real Victorian feel about them.  I wonder, do we like hymns and songs more for the tunes than the words?

Two – we used a super hymn expressing our longing for ‘inclusivity’ in the church – each verse ending with the statement ‘All are welcome’.  Afterwards in discussion it became clear that some of us felt this was too idealistic a statement and they felt uncomfortable singing something they sensed wasn’t entirely true.  I value such integrity.

Three – many commented on how much they appreciated an Iona hymn we sang.  The combination of a sing-able folk tune to new, provocative, beautiful and yet honest words seemed to encourage many of us.

I love hymns and songs and can’t imagine worship without them and am deeply grateful for hymn writers old and new for giving us such a wonderful tool with which we can express our faith. Long may we continue to sing both old and new songs together.

With best wishes,


 
Ian

 

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