Thursday, 18 December 2014

The Mystery of Christmas

Every year I get out my ten or so Advent and Christmas CDs and perhaps play them a little too much!  One has the title: The Mystery of Christmas.

We've heard the story so often, watched a lifetime of nativity plays and perhaps sing our carols with a familiarity they don't deserve (many of them have highly complex points of theology!) - that we loose sight of just what a mystery Christmas is.  In its day it confounded the expectations of the temple authorities and the wise men from the east.  It's been doing it ever since!

I suppose that is why I told a 'monologue' about Mary at last Sunday morning's service rather than preach a sermon.  I can't really fathom out much of her story but somehow in simply retelling it we sense its profundity, even its relevance for us today.

'Worship' rather than 'explanation' is, I think, a more appropriate response to Christmas - and probably much else in the Christian narrative!

Like you, I suspect, we receive one or two 'round robbin' letters in with the cards each day now  One arrived this morning from our Baptist Regional Minister - he finished it with a prayer that went like this:

When the world was dark
and the city was quiet,
you came.

You crept in beside us.

And no-one knew,
only the few
who dared to believe
that God might do something different.

Next week I hope you have a happy and wonderfully 'mysterious' Christmas!  The blog returns in a fortnight's time.

Ian


Friday, 12 December 2014

But his angels here are human...

I've just returned from my first (but probably not my last!) Christmas meal of the season - at our Men's Luncheon Club.  As is the case every December we had a splendid meal followed by an AGM - at which the Minister gives a Christmas message - so today I felt rather like the Queen at 3pm on 25th December!

I gave the briefest of talks about angels.  They pop up regularly in the story we are about to celebrate. Gabriel is busy with 'breaking news' for both Zechariah and Mary and the shepherds hear the news of the nativity first from a solitary angel who is then joined later by a 'host'.

Angels, as described by the biblical writers, are 'God's messengers' and I love the way Gabriel describes himself to John the Baptist's father: 'I stand in the presence of God and I have been sent to speak to you and bring you this good news...'  Isn't that wonderful and couldn't it be a sort of description for every Christian.  We stand in God's presence - whether that's public worship or private prayer - and then we 'go' - we go out to share something of God's love, light and message in our everyday lives.

One of my very favourite Advent hymns is Henry Burton's There's a light upon the mountains and it has this utterly splendid and meaningful line:
'but his angels here are human,
not the shining hosts above,
for the drum beats of his army
are the heart-beats of our love.'
I just adore that sentiment and want this hymns at my funeral!  I love the lines because they 'ground' our faith and invite us all to participate in God's life in the here and now.

As I prepared tonight's supper the kitchen radio was on and I heard an interview on Radio Four with a British nurse who has volunteered to go out to Africa this Christmas and serve with an Ebola Task Force.  She was asked what she had packed and without making a big deal of it she casually mentioned she had included her bible.  Aah - I thought - I think I recognise where her motivation might be coming from.  She was asked if she had time to read it in her new surroundings -'every day' she replied, 'for fifteen minutes'.  I was so thrilled to hear this interview of a young British nurse speaking of her faith, speaking of her love for her fellow human beings and how she could combine the two.

Something verging on the 'angelic' in all of that - and my heart was glad as I cooked the sausages!

All good wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 4 December 2014

The value of small groups

On Tuesday we held our annual party and presentation evening for the small cells of our church community - a programme we call 'Life and Faith Groups'.  It's the one opportunity for these diverse groups to come together over a meal and share some of the activities which have characterised their life over the last twelve months.  I remembered half way through how inspired I'd been at this gathering last year and it was the same again on Tuesday.

We have three study groups - one seems to take a sideways look at the Lectionary readings and often expresses that discovery through craft work, another is led by our Associate Minister and amongst other techniques has studied various passages this year looking at say a dozen interpretations from commentators and the placed them in order of 'preference or relevance', and the other group has majored during one term looking at various biblical women and in another focusing on biblical men.

The three remaining groups are:  our 'Hands Together' group - knitting baby outfits for various charities, our Book Discussion Group, drawing together about a dozen people every other month to discuss a book and our 'Bring and Share Prayer Group' which meets every Friday either for led or silent prayer.

Tuesday was a wonderful evening when, after a shared meal, we listened to each group bring a presentation about its work and life together.  As I listened to these it was obvious that this side of church brings fellowship and a mutual sense of pilgrimage to participants.

Most of the groups take a break over Christmas and re-form in the New Year for what I hope and pray will be another stimulating year of fellowship and study.

Best wishes,
Ian

Thursday, 27 November 2014

A Good Read!

On Tuesday the AFC Book Discussion Group met for its bi-monthly chat.  We are a diverse group and we always seem to fill the hour we spend together with stimulating, encouraging and insightful discussion (not to blow our own trumpets too much you understand!).  This group has now been 'officially' drawn into our Life and Faith Groups programme - which I think is good!

In his play Shadowlands Williar Nicholson gives C.S.Lewis that wonderful line: 'We read to know we are not alone' - and I must say I feel like that at times.  It's a great moment when you come across something in a book and want to shout out loud: 'I feel that too!'.

So I'm deeply grateful for books.  In a way they offer a somewhat solitary pursuit and at times that suits me fine because there are moments when my best thinking, research and 'pondering' is done alone.  Yet I'm also - if this isn't too much of a contradiction - deeply grateful for book groups because it has often been my experience that in the discussion I either change my mind about a book or see things in a new light.  This has been especially the case with the last two books we've read in the Central Area Ministers' Book Group to which I also belong.

On Tuesday we were discussing The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen.  I read it back in 1990 and it was fascinating to see which part I underlined then and what I highlighted this time - not everything coincided - perhaps suggesting that as we grow older books begin to mean different things to us than when we read them in our younger years.

One of my new underlinings came towards the end when Nouwen reflects on the refusal of the older brother to rejoice in the return of the younger son.  He writes: Every moment of each day I have the chance to choose between cynicism and joy.  Every thought I have can be cynical or joyful. Every word I speak can be cynical or joyful.  Every action can be cynical or joyful.  Increasingly I am aware of all these possible choices, and increasingly I discover that every choice for joy in turn reveals more joy and offers more reason to make life a true celebration in the house of the Father.

Perhaps an appropriate thought for this fourth Thursday in November, celebrated by our friends from across the Pond as 'Thanksgiving'.

Best wishes,

Ian



Thursday, 20 November 2014

Order! Order!

I belong to an Order!

Not the Masons or Buffaloes but the 'Order for Baptist Ministry' (www.orderforbaptistministry.co.uk) and last week I went to its Convocation in Birmingham and yesterday I attended my 'local' Cell at Haddenham,  Perhaps I ought to explain....

The OBM was created about four years ago as an Order available for those ordained within the Baptist Union.  It's quite deliberately based on the sort of spiritual disciplines and practices of the monastic period yet it is a 'dispersed' community rather than a group of people living together.

At last year's Convocation I took my 'vows' and became a member. By doing so I promised to seek to be faithful in the following ways:

* To pray the Order's Daily Office regularly (we are actually using one of these prayers during The Confession at AFC this Sunday!)

* To be part of a Cell - that is to meet every six weeks or so in a group with other OBM members when we say the Office, eat together and then go through the discipline of asking each other reflective questions about our ongoing ministry responsibilities.

* To attend Convocation once a year - the only time the whole Order comes together.

* To have a 'Spiritual Director' - that is some independent person to whom one goes about six times a year for a one to one conversation about how its all going.

*To go on retreat once a year.

I suppose this isn't every Baptist ministers 'cup of tea' but I have to say I have found it remarkably sustaining and inspiring to be part of the 'companionship' of this Order - journeying alongside like minded people in what is essential a really supportive network.

One of the foundational documents of the Order is a piece called The Dream - it is written in the form of a poem and outlines some of the aspirations we hold as a group as ministers - here it is -  I think it's rather beautiful .

We dream of an Order, a community of equals
Where we are gathered and dispersed
journeying together even when alone
rooted within the Baptist story.
Where we hold a view of Baptist ministry
as a way of being that mediates the presence of Christ,
particularly expressed in word, sacrament, pastoral care and mission.
Where we seek to be attentive
to Word and Spirit
contemplating in silence and conversation
in stillness and in service
the Triune God -
known and unknown
mystery and revelation -
present in Christ
within us
between us
and around us.
Where we offer safe space cradling, nurturing and holding us
that we may risk and explore
think aloud
hear and be heard
value dissent and freedom of conscience
walk together and watch over one another.
Where we live within the disciplines of this Order
committed to prayer
committed to gather
following the rule of Christ
with hearts set on pilgrimage
makers of peace
pursuers of justice
lovers of mercy
bearing witness to Christ.
We dream of an Order
committed to the way of Christ
faithful to the call of Christ
discerning the mind of Christ
offering the welcome of Christ
growing in the likeness of Christ
engaging in the mission of Christ
in the world that belongs to Christ.
We dream…
Not a bad thing....to dream!

All good wishes,

Ian

Friday, 14 November 2014

A couple of weeks ago we were fortunate to obtain some free tickets for the BBC Young Choristers of the Year 2014 final at St Paul's Cathedral - and it was a wonderful evening.

It left me very conscious that the 'voice' is actually an inspiring instrument - one that you don't need to put in a case or polish with the Brasso!

The cathedral was full that evening and all the 'contestants' were in their teens - four boys and four girls (interesting that whilst all the boys sung from sheet music all the girls opted instead to rely entirely, and successfully, on their memories!)  I admit I was enchanted from the start, especially because they sang some lovely hymns such as Christ Triumphant (to Guiting Power), My song is love unknown and Angel voices ever singing - and of course there wasn't a dud singer among them.  Alongside these hymns they also sang a 'religious' piece of music such as O rest in the Lord from Mendelssohn's Elijah or How beautiful are the feet by Handel.  It was utterly captivating from beginning to end - and I felt rather smug that I privately selected the winners (Luke McWatters and Laura Barraclough)!

As we left and made our way home on the Tube I think we were all still in the 'glow' that had come upon us through that evening of music.  It had been a sheer delight to see young people taking part in this competition with such skill, commitment and simple joy - that was it - we actually got the impression they 'enjoyed' singing!  And I've never ever heard such clapping and cheering in St Paul's before - it was quite a happy and vibrant audience.

I suspect I've said it more than once on this Blog - that for me they go together: music and the 'touch of God'.

All good wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 6 November 2014

The Parable of The Sat Nav

A number of years ago now we purchased a Sat Nav - they had become all the rage, everyone was buying them and over time I had become dependant on this little box of tricks whenever I made a journey.  It's not that I couldn't read a map - after all I had been a Cub Scout in my childhood - it's just that everyone has a Sat Nav these days and although everyone also seemed to moan about them and have a story about being sent on a fool's errand by this little box - 'everyone' still used them.

Then, about three weeks ago, our Sat Nav became permanently and irretrievably confused - it was a sad ending!  Wherever we were and whatever we wanted it to do - the only function it could now perform was to give us the directions home - which wasn't much good if you were already parked on the Manse driveway and really wanted to be told how to get to the COTHA Quiet Day at Bulstrode Park, Gerrard's Cross.

After the pressing of many buttons and the vain hope that a good night's sleep might cure our Sat Nav - we had to 'retire' it and it no longer lives in our car!

So what has taken its place?

Well, I have started, once again, to think for myself!  I use my own mind to explore routes, weigh up different options and look up suggested possibilities on Google Maps and my 2009 battered road map (which has lain in the glove compartment unused and unloved for years!). I even do something quite radical - I chat though the different road routes with my passenger and together we work out a way forward.

It's all become much more interactive, evolutionary and even scary - as opposed to comfortably dependent and rather mindlessly obedient.

Now I know no parable tells the whole truth and I also have to confess that a new Sat Nav is on its way from Amazon even as we speak.  But this interlude without such a device has made me think about how I choose the road ahead - do I do what 'everyone' does and take a 'prescribed' route via a Sat Nav or do I explore the options before me differently, take a risk, ask others, try out alternative possibilities and discover for myself that 'travelling hopefully' is an important part of the journey.

And in all of this might there just be some similarities with our journey of faith?

All good wishes,

Ian

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Poem What I Wrote...

On Sunday, for the first time in twenty eight years of preaching, I decided to finish my sermon by reading a poem - written by me during the week called 'Did I Glimpse the Face of God'.  I suppose I decided on this conclusion because the topic had seemed to me to be a bit tricky and somehow poetry rather than prose becomes a good vehicle at times for communicating complex or contradictory ideas - in a way it doesn't have to make quite the same sort of sense because what is being aimed for is the 'feel' of a concept rather than its scientific evaluation.

Well I was a little blown away by the reaction at the door to my attempt at poetry - it seemed to have struck a chord.  Don't get me wrong - I'm not going to do it every week because I know the encouragement came my way probably because of either the shock of it or the hint that it was a 'one off'!

Someone suggested I might put it in the blog so here goes - a poem exploring how the reality of God comes to us in daily life:

Did I glimpse the face of God this week?
...when I talked with a friend living with terminal cancer yet dealing with it showing such grace and courage.


Did I glimpse the face of God this week?
...when I chaired an Elders’ Meeting and heard my colleagues address complex issues with patience, courtesy and wisdom.

Did I glimpse the face of God this week?
...when I witnessed on the Tube a young man give up his seat for a partially sighted passenger and guide him to his place with such tenderness and sensitivity.

Did I glimpse the face of God this week?
...when I heard a gentleman at LunchBreak who is a remarkable 100years old tell me that event was the highlight of his week.


Did I glimpse the face of God this week?
...when I sat with fellow pilgrims at a Life and Faith Group, watched a film and we then talked about generosity.

Did I glimpse the face of God this week?
...when I shared meals around the family table and that time was as much about sharing and laughter as it ever was about eating.

I think I did
I saw the face of God this week
not just through scripture and prayer
but in people and encounter


The face of God
The face of love
With all good wishes,

Ian
Blog holiday next week!





Thursday, 16 October 2014

Sacred Spaces

On Monday evening we watched one of those travel programmes on TV (we are becoming very middle aged!!) - this one showed Simon Reeves travelling along The Ganges, part of his Sacred Rivers series.  I like this presenter because he has a certain 'sincerity' about him.

As we accompanied him through India it became increasingly obvious that Hindus hold this river in the highest esteem, indeed some want to be physically close to it when they die. One 'holy man' had even given up work to live in a cave all year round by its banks, never ceasing to draw inspiration from its flow.

This idea of holy places and sacred space came up at our Bible Teaching Day last Saturday as Ruth Gouldbourne ably led us through the subject of 'Church' and what it feels like to belong to it in ways we know, and ways 'still to be made known'. In one of the plenaries after some buzz groups we briefly considered our buildings and whether they were simply functional or purposeful; do they (even in our non-conformist tradition) have a sense of the sacred about them?

In the spring, on a wonderful visit to Rome, the most disappointing moment for me came in the Sistine Chapel.  We had queued up quite a time for entry and once in it felt to me as if we were simply being 'herded' - so even though I desperately tried to find meaning, transcendence and sacredness I simply couldn't!  I felt a bit of a heretic as I left but perhaps the pre-visit hype had simply been too much and the expectations too great.

The truth is that anywhere can become 'sacred' - and isn't that wonderfully liberating.  From a cathedral chancel to a forest clearing the reality is that God can be found because he is always and everywhere present.

This talk of ecclesiastical buildings has brought back a memory for me of travelling home from a holiday on the east coast.  Driving through Cromer I noticed that above the door, rather than naming the church it said - perhaps somewhat provocatively, 'Cromer Baptist Church Meets Here'.  In other words the 'church' was essentially the congregation.  Yet...I hope that building and congregation can blend and bless each other in some way; for it seems to me when that happens it really does become sacred space.

With best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Sola Scriptura?

I am a creature of habit as I arrive at church because the first place I go to whenever I enter the building is invariably my 'post' drawer.  It's here that members of the congregation leave me notes, letters and leaflets.  This week someone has left me the latest edition of WordinAction from Bible Society - always a well produced and interesting magazine.

The current edition made reference to the fact that 'the importance of biblical literacy among children and their parents has been raised in parliament'.  However I can't work out if I was either saddened or amused that the MP raising this question, rather than take on board any responsibility for this theme himself, simply asked what the Church of England is doing about it!  Strikes me it's always somebody else's problem!

Well in our own church we are trying to promote that sense of biblical literacy amongst our own children.  The new Junior Church Roundabout programme looks at one bible story a month and explores it on consecutive weeks using four different types of activity.  We are also supporting a new initiative called 'Open the Book' as we pray for the ecumenical team (including a number from our own church family) which has started taking weekly assemblies at one of our local schools - assemblies that have at their centre the retelling of a bible story.

And we don't just leave the idea of biblical literacy with children.  This 'term' one of our 'Life and Faith' groups has deliberately set itself the task of asking what place the Old Testament has in our on-going Christian spirituality and theology.  So some good stuff is happening!

I grew up in a church where scripture was genuinely cherished and taught with enthusiasm - for which I am still so grateful.  Yet it strikes me as significant that in Sunday School every year at 'Prize Giving' we received books about the life of missionaries - I still have them on my shelf!  Narratives about Mary Slessor, George Grenfell, David Livingstone and William Carey.

Now, years after my Sunday School days, I realise that this 'blending' of God's story and our story is vitally necessary. Indeed every preacher knows the value of illustration and application in any sermon.

Both the Baptist and URC traditions (the 'parent' denominations of AFC) belong to the 'Reformed' wing of the Church in which we often emphasise the idea of Sola Scriptora - the essential place of the bible in our life together.  Well - I want to say both a qualified 'yes' and 'no' to that.

The gift of scripture to us has also to be blended with our life experience - the one informs the other - and both, I would suggest (I hope not too heretically) are impoverished without the other.

Actually I'm much more likely to agree with the first minister of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church (from where our visiting preacher comes this weekend) - The Revd William Brock who said 'the bible and the Times newspaper are the best materials for the preacher'.

With best wishes,

Ian


Thursday, 2 October 2014

Complexity

Last weekend we were walking through the Great Court of the British Museum when I heard someone near me say: 'The thing is I don't actually like old things'.  Now that struck me, due to our present circumstances (i.e.in a museum) as a bit odd!

I have to say I'm rather taken with 'old things' and history has always been one of my favourite subjects. Because of that, and also its excellent acting, I really enjoyed re-watching Alan Bennett's play/film 'The History Boys' earlier in the week.  It charts the progress of some lads from a Sheffield Grammar School as they prepare for the Oxbridge entrance exam. The school, conscious that this was their brightest group of a generation, brings in a special tutor to coach them.  These boys knew the facts of history and wrote 'passable' essays.  The trouble was their work was 'dull' - that is instead of developing an interesting or unexpected line they simply churned out the fact as they saw them.  Their new tutor isn't so much interested in truth but interpretation.  He wanted their examiners to be startled by their work rather than become bored by its predictable content.

Well it makes for a good play but it also poses serious questions about what we do with knowledge, facts and the complexity of statistics.

Our guest preacher/lecturer on Sunday evening addressed some of these issues as he spoke to us on 'Ecology Matters'.  Bob, with a lifetime of research behind him, made us aware that no one should take the science of something so complex as climate change as a 'settled' given.  We can all too easily become either an advocate or sceptic based on false and lazy assumptions.

There is, I sense, (and always has been) a brand of Christianity that longs for simple, watertight answers. Yet the more I experience this pilgrimage the less 'obvious' some of those so called answers become.  Week by week I prepare sermons on lectionary passages that seem to me far from straight forward when it comes to interpretation or even application.

Yet none of this need either depress us or cause us to run away from the tough questions of faith.  Struggle seems to be a natural and often worthwhile part of any normal life.  In the struggle - as we pray, study and live this Christianity, I sense we eventually discover that which is of real worth.

Running away and taking refuge in easy, comfortable answers would mean us missing so much.  But we have to be 'up for it' and willing to live with that sense that maybe in the end we are actually searchers for truth rather than its guardians - as Brian McLaren, a modern theologian puts it:

'Does one have to be wrong and the other right?  I mean, it's right there in the Bible - the sons of Rechab in the Old Testament and John the Baptist in the New served God by being total abstainers from alcohol, and Jesus served God by turning water into wine.  Talk about complexity!'

All good wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Sausages don't grow on trees...

It's Harvest Festival season - well, we're having our Thanksgiving at AFC on Sunday at least - and a Harvest Social Evening the night before.

I got hooked on Thomas Hardy's novels when I was at school and had to study Far From The Madding Crowd for O Level English.  I love his description of rural Victorian life including characters like the obsessive Farmer Boldwood, disasters like a rain soaked harvest and comedic incidents such as the Gallery Choir sabotaging the new church harmonium!

Yet I suspect Hardy's Dorset is as much a myth as Walter Scott's tartanisation of life north of the border in the 1800's.  It's easy to paint a idealised picture of the countryside, a rural idyll when in fact life for the farm labourer was just hard, hard, hard.

Today's countryside issues revolve around the complexities of EU subsidies and GM food production as much as the Village Show or Farm Shop.

I have to admit that I'm a 'townie' at heart!  I love the countryside but always want to retreat back to well lit tarmac roads and shopping centres with everything located near a car park.  So I can fully understand the girl in one of my son's classes (years ago) who maintained sausages grew on trees.  I remember being shocked myself to discover, whilst visiting Australia, that pineapples actually grow on the ground.

So how do we approach Harvest Festivals - especially if you're a townie too?!

I think it's interesting to note they are a relatively 'new' church invention - just about a hundred and fifty years old.  We borrowed the idea from village 'Harvest Homes'.  When those celebration got a little rowdy we sanitised them by bringing the 'thanksgiving' into church - exchanging ale for hymns!

In our services this coming Sunday we have a split focus.  In the morning it's very much about 'thanksgiving' alongside opportunities to be generous through our offering to Operation Agri and our support through the giving of our harvest produce to the homelessness charity 'New Hope'.

Then in the evening we're asking one of our members, Dr Bob Bradnock to help us think about things 'ecological'.  All part of seeing the world as a whole - combining our faith and intellect.

Stewardship of the planet is never easy, but neither is it optional - so on Sunday we'll take both the opportunity to sing praise to God for creation and remind ourselves of our responsibility towards it.

With best wishes,

Ian


Thursday, 18 September 2014

Constant Transition

On Sunday we walked along the canal that runs by Regent's Park through to King's Cross.  It was a sparkling afternoon and people were just out enjoying themselves.

As we approached the King's Cross/St Pancras culmination of our walk we passed the newly restored gas holder located just by the canal.  Now disused it has been restored - at least its skeleton frame - the actual gas holding part is long gone.  The sign beside it said each section of the structure had been transported to Yorkshire to be sand blasted and restored to colour scheme twenty (apparently they discovered it had been repainted no less than twenty eight times!)  Now back in place it's an impressive structure - a landmark and a 'listed building' in its own right.  Beneath its lattice work a 'park' is evolving - a new life and function very different from its industrial past - a 'transformation'.

I think something similar is happening today with the Scottish vote.  When we wake up tomorrow we'll know the result - but in a way I think we already know that it will never be the same again.  This referendum has let some sort genie out of its bottle and a sort of transformation is now clearly focused and unstoppable.

The truth is that none of us stand still - we are all in the business of transformation.  Every experience and encounter moulds and changes us in some way.

This weekend I'm preaching at the Church Anniversary of a congregation where I used to be the minister.  In the years since I've left them they will have journeyed on and changed.  Part of me expects to find them as I left them! But that simply won't be the case.  They, like me, have been on a journey and for one service I join them to renew our friendship and wish them well for the next step.

Life, it seems, is about living in constant transition.

With best wishes,

Ian


Thursday, 11 September 2014

He who sings - prays twice

Organ and Choral Concert at AFC 6.9.14
Last Saturday we held an Organ and Choral concert at Amersham Free Church to celebrate the rebuild of our 1962 Willis Pipe Organ - it was a terrific evening.

We were celebrating the fact that over £42,000 has been raised to make this rebuild possible.  Churches and their projects are funded by incredibly generous people.

We were celebrating the technical skill of our organ builder and his team of tuners and voicers.  Part of our instrument now has the most up to date software which now drives it in place of miles of wires and cables.  It also has the addition of a trumpet stop in memory of my predecessor The Revd Andrew Busby.

We were most certainly celebrating the musicianship of all those who played or sang on Saturday.  Our in house and visiting organists put the instrument through its paces and the combined choirs just filled the church with such strong singing.

We were, I think, celebrating God.  And music seems such a natural medium through which we naturally seem to do this.

We were in many ways just celebrating life.  A life enhanced by rhythm, melody and sound.

I love music - be it in a concert hall, church or ipod!  And I fully understand that saying: 'He who sings - prays twice'! And I hope our newly rebuilt organ will help us continue to do that for another fifty years!

Best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Birthdays

Birthdays have been on my mind recently.

Earlier this year we celebrated a special one (that normally means one with a zero at the end!) with a big family party followed by a week in Rome.

Our sons' birthdays bookend the school summer holidays; one falling at the end of July, the other (celebrated just this week) at the beginning of September.

Then, on Sunday, we had lunch with a friend who was celebrating her 'name-day' - a tradition in some countries (often with a Roman Catholic tradition) which is as significant as one's birthday.

Of course we all know that The Queen has two birthdays - yet the UK isn't the only place where the birthdays of national leaders are celebrated.  In the US Washington's birthday is marked in February by the federal holiday called 'Presidents' Day' as is Martin Luther King's in January.  In India the anniversary of Gandhi's birthday is not only observed as a national holiday but all the liquor stores are closed out of respect for his tea total convictions.

The birthday we celebrated in our family this week was because one of our sons turned twenty (in Japan that would have meant he 'become of age').  Amid all the presents, singing of Happy Birthday, and a special meal in London I suppose his mum and I just marvelled that two decades have flown by since his arrival on a warm September day in 1994 - and I suspect it wasn't only his age that we were celebrating - we were also aware of our own advancing years too!

I'm always keen to celebrate birthdays because it seems to me they say something very special about our relationships.  There's nothing wrong, and much that's right, about marking a promotion at work or success in an exam.  These family celebrations value our achievements.  But that's not what birthdays are about.  They simply say: we are glad you were born and we feel privileged that you are sharing this journey of life alongside us.

So - whenever it's yours this year I hope you too either had or will have a Happy Birthday!

Best wishes,

Ian


Thursday, 28 August 2014

Ministry - from the other side

A few years back we exchanged manses with the minister of a church just outside of Washington D.C.  During those three weeks we got to know a few people in his church and I had the privilege of preaching there on our two middle Sundays. Since then I've followed this congregation from a distance by now and then browsing their website. My minister friend has now moved on to another appointment so this suburban Washington church has been in Pastoral Vacancy for about eighteen months - until last week when they announced a new minister who will be coming up to them from Texas.  What surprised me was the fact that during this settlement process they had received no less than two hundred applications for this post!

Although I've caused a few ministerial vacancies I've never actually lived through one - but all that is about to change.  Next week I attend my first meeting at a neighbouring church as their Moderator.  That is - they are in Vacancy (we used to call it 'Interregnum - meaning 'between reigns' - a term which is now going out of favour a little bit!) and I have been asked to support them through this process.  I've already seen the excellent work they have done on their Church Profile and eventually I'll travel with them as they select potential candidates, interview and consider the possibility of calling one of them to be their next minister.

I suspect church life looks different depending where you sit (metaphorically) within the life of that congregation.  For the first time I'll see the settlement process from 'the other side' - instead of waiting for the phone call from the church secretary to tell me the result of the appointment election, I'll be waiting with the church secretary to hear whether or not a prospective candidate wishes to accept the pastorate.

Maybe it's always natural to think 'my view' of church is the only one, or the right one - especially so if we put a lot of effort into the life of a local fellowship.  Yet the truth is ours isn't the only viewpoint.  Others will see things differently depending on 'where they sit'.

Listening to one another and respecting each others viewpoints and experiences is a constant challenge to us church folk - one we must never give up on.

I'm looking forward to 'going over to the other side' (!) and walking with this neighbouring church as they look for a new minister - I have a feeling I won't only learn a lot about them and the process, but about myself as well.

Best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Swiss Chess

We have recently returned from a great family holiday in the Swiss mountains.  Every day we were thrilled by the stunning scenery of snow capped peaks, rushing waterfalls and sweeping meadows filled with Alpine flowers.  Yet...one of my most precious memories of the time we spent together is of a damp afternoon in the village where we stayed, Wengen, the day our train passes ran out as we tried to fill a few hours playing chess.

Chess became something of a feature of our time together - we played it at night in semi-serious family tournaments and there was a giant set next to the table tennis and volleyball in the centre of the village.  Last Friday we played it in full public view and soon a little crowd gathered.  Our family game came to an abrupt and humiliating end (it was parents verses teenagers - so you can guess which side was triumphant!)  As we went to walk away a Chinese girl, just eight years of age, indicated that she might like a game - so our youngest son, all six foot three inches of him, took her on!

For the next hour they thrashed it out - each time she moved a piece she made the most beautiful smile to her dotting dad as if to gain his approval and encouragement!  Although nine years separated them the truth was they were actually quite evenly matched and it was a great game.

Slowly other people gathered to watch so that by the end the crowd consisted of English, Chinese, Arab, Swiss and German onlookers - a truly wonderful international moment.

We didn't speak each others language - the only language being used was the game of chess and many smiles.  It was, in my view, a very beautiful moment - binding people together in friendly, peaceful competition - and a spirit of great fun and interaction.

At the end our two competitors (and the bidding of both their proud fathers!) shook hands and stood for a photo.  So on either side of the globe this moment of international chess is commemorated in a couple of photo albums!

We saw many wonderful things in Switzerland over those ten days but nothing inspired me more than watching these two young people engage together in a game of chess - something so small yet containing the essence of all we long for: a world in which different cultures and traditions live side by side in mutual respect, peace and friendship.

With all good wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Grateful for courage and still praying for peace

This and next week many nations are commemorating the outbreak of World War One.

If only it had been the 'war to end all wars' - instead it became the first act of a two part catastrophe.

Clergy at Washington Cathedral composed this litany to mark this one hundredth anniversary - I think it's worth reflecting on the words - challenging words.  This is a piece of liturgy they used in their morning service last week - at AFC we shall, this Sunday, be using something very similar, namely the Coventry Litany of Reconciliation.

Here is the Washington piece:

Presider:  One hundred years ago, an assassin’s bullet plunges the nations of the world into violence unlike any the world has ever seen. Self-justification and self-righteousness divides your people; divides your
world into opposing alliances; into enemies and friends. Forgive us!

Cantor:  For you, O God, seek to unify your people. Your word goes forth, calling us beyond self-
centeredness and self-certainty into the ways of humility and understanding.

Presider:The war to end all wars enlists 70 million people. 8 and a half million soldiers dead; 20 million
soldiers severely wounded; 7 million civilians will also die; showing us the futility of our ways;
the arrogance of our thoughts. How dare we imagine that by killing the sons and daughters of our
enemies, we become friends! Forgive us!

All sing: Holy God, Holy and mighty; Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us

Cantor: 
For you, O God, create our hearts in love: hearts to love our neighbors; hearts to love our enemies; hearts to love ourselves. To share in your heart means to seek shalom, not swords: that your loving
kindness may prevail among the community of all your people.

All sing: Holy God, Holy and mighty; Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us.

Presider:  From the fields of Flanders to the forests of Verdun to the peninsula of Gallipoli, the dead cry out: life and love interrupted; hope and promise laid waste; war, war, and more war. Forgive us!

Cantor:  For you, O God, receive them into your presence. And raise them by your grace to life eternal, where sorrowing and sighing will be no more.

All sing:  Holy God, Holy and mighty; Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us.

Presider: Mounted cavalry meets withering machine gun fire; lye burns the skin; mustard gas causes the
afflicted to drown on dry land. Our weapons of death exceed our moral preparation; squandering
the gifts of your grace; careless with your creation, the work of your hands. Forgive us!

Cantor: For your life, loving God, pulses through the universe; creating, redeeming, sustaining life. Your life:
animating our very instinct for life; countering our tendency to choose death; quickening in us our
every impulse to live.

All sing: Holy God, Holy and mighty; Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us.

Presider : Trench rot, shellshock, battle fatigue: the consequences of war; cruel, prolonged, ill-conceived war. Our jealousies, our rivalries, our animosities prove costly. Your vision for us; a peaceable reign; grows
dim. Forgive us!

Cantor : For you, O God, desire shalom. We do not fool you when we cry “peace, peace” when there is no peace. You seek the day when all your people live whole and free; in hope and in safety.

All sing:  Holy God, Holy and mighty; Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us.

Presider:  A League of Nations arises. Political hope for a peaceful future; nations committed to negotiation, arbitration and disarmament. This nation resists. Forgive us!

Cantor: For you, O God, give counsel to the nations of the earth: courage and political will to risk the way of reconciliation and redemption. Your vision breaks through by your Spirit moving in our midst; your
new heaven; your new earth; your global community made new.

All sing:  Holy God, Holy and mighty; Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us.

Presider: Merciful God: You who breaks the bow and shatters the spear: we know what you require of us.
You lead us to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with you. Give us discerning wisdom to
choose the things that make for peace; the capacity to resist evil and support the common good;
that we may never again stray from the ways of peace; neither shall we practice war anymore. Amen.

As the poster we have prepared for display outside our church at this time says:  We are grateful for courage and still praying for peace.

All good wishes,

Ian
ps Blog 'holiday' for the next two weeks

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

On 'being sent to Coventry'...

Sunday was a special day for us as we joined a dear friend at Coventry Cathedral to celebrate her 80th birthday and what would have been her Golden Wedding.  It was in this - at the time - rather new Cathedral that she and her husband were married fifty years ago. Sunday's service brought together many guests, some had been at the wedding, and together we enjoyed the Morning Eucharist and then a meal, complete with speeches, in one of the anti-rooms.

I've never visited this Cathedral before and it was a real treat to see it and participate in its worship on Sunday.  The juxtaposition between the old and new building is profoundly moving because the message Coventry has sent out to the world since the war is one of forgiveness and reconciliation - that ethos seems to be in the very DNA of the Cathedral community.

Two moments went deep with me during our day of celebration.

The first came as I looked up at the huge tapestry of Christ in Glory by Graham Sutherland.  We were told it was the size of Wimbledon's Centre Court!  It has become an iconic piece of work but the thing that struck me on Sunday was the young face of Christ.  He looked just like any recent graduate from University today. Reminding me that the Jesus of the Gospels really was a young man - a radical - a disturber of the status-quo.  Something of the life and energy of his message, I think, comes through in that Coventry tapestry.

The other moment came during the wonderful speech given by our host.  She reflected on the huge support she and her husband found at Coventry fifty years ago from the Canon who prepared them for marriage.  At that time so much was going on in their lives yet this servant of God brought a sense of peace, perspective and support - all remembered with thanksgiving half a century later.

It made me realise once more that what we value most about those who have gone before us are things like 'encouragement', 'support' and 'understanding'.  Such people live long in our memories and even fifty years on remain a cause for thanksgiving.

It was good to be sent to Coventry last weekend!  And in doing so be challenged by a young Christ, inspired by the ethos of reconciliation found in that holy place and be reminded again that the best memories we can leave behind are ones of encouragement.

With best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 17 July 2014

At last!

This week's Church of England's General Synod vote on women bishops was a landmark decision for our Anglican friends.  It comes after such a lengthy, and at times painful process of debate and discussion.  There have been moments when it seemed impossible to see a way forward and at such times I guess many involved in the 'behind the scenes' engagement must have felt like giving up.  But the point is they didn't - and this week our Church of England colleagues took a big step 'together'.

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said in conversation with Andrew Marr on the BBC this Sunday that the Church isn't to be thought of as a political party so much as a 'family'.

All families have quarrels from time to time - yet our deepest desire is that we work our way through these difficulties and stay together despite our differences.  That all takes time, patience and a willingness to see another person's point of view. We might say it takes love - but let's be clear what we are taking about here - it's 'tough' love rather than 'sentimental' affection.

Of course all analogies break down but I think there is value in thinking of the Church using this honest perception of 'family'- not least because of the enduring nature of it.  Whatever we do to our relationship we still remain a father, mother, son, daughter, brother or sister.  And however much I might take a different view to someone in my church they still remain a fellow pilgrim.

I think such an understanding simply encourages us not to give up or walk away from the ongoing desire to live in peace with each other - a peace based on mutual understanding.  And none of this will be passive or sentimental - instead it means honest and sometimes painful debate held always in the context of a covenanted community seeking peace.  And that, I suspect, is what the debate about women bishops has been about - of how those, united by so much yet divided on particular points of interpretation, can walk together in a relationship of integrity.

It's not easy being family.  It's not easy being Church.  But no one said it would be - and whenever was 'easy' the same as thing as 'worthwhile'.

With best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 10 July 2014

'An Easy Relationship'

The COTHA ministers before the service
On Sunday the three churches on the hill at Amersham (COTHA) held one of their twice yearly services, which this time happened to be at our place, AFC.  Of course not everybody goes to these events (which always somewhat saddens me) but, that said, we had a fine congregation last weekend and there was, I think a good spirit among us as we worshipped together.

During the meal we shared after the service one of my clergy colleagues said of COTHA that we have an 'easy' relationship.  It's a phrase that says a very great deal and one I think worth pondering, if for no other reason than to ask 'why' the relationship seems so straightforward.

Well here's my take:
- MUTUAL RESPECT: we represent a joint Baptist/URC church along with Anglican and Methodist congrgeations - we are 'in covenant' with a willingness to worship in the host church's tradition whenever we gather together.
- A LIGHT PROGRAMME: we have deliberately recognised that our main focus has to be our local congregations so we don't over plan the activities we feel called to do together.
- CLERGY/MINISTER FRIENDSHIP: we occasionally meet up for lunch and this makes all the 'formal' stuff so much easier because we have had those times of open and honest conversation.
INTERACTION OF CONGREGATIONAL MEMBERS: I suppose we have to admit that Amersham is the sort of place where a lot of people know each other really quite well - so members of our churches often build on the relationship they have in other organisations not just bumping into each other on Sundays - all of this, I think, is the sign of a healthy community.
JOINT PROJECTS: The days of 'committee ecumenism' have surely long gone, if our partnership with each other is to grow it has to be through 'task centred  ecumenism' - for COTHA that has meant projects like 'Get in The Picture', The Iona Pilgrimage this summer, serving together at LunchBreak and our support for the Chiltern Food Bank.
JUST SURVIVING! I mean that very positively!  Because it's an achievement that COTHA has 'survived' the comings and goings of ministers (all with their different personalities and priorities).  There must have been certain 'flash points' in the past yet we are still around and committed to a broader vision for The Church.

I remember in my first church in Kettering, during a meal with new friends, being asked that leading question: Are you an Ecumaniac?  Well I can't actually remember how I answered or even if I really understood the question!

I think a much better question for me now would be: Can I see Jesus Christ in my fellow Anglican and Methodist friends?  And to that I would repond with an unequivocal and deeply thankful 'yes'!

With best wishes,

Ian

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

'Love means nothing'?!

On Sunday morning it was a great delight for us at AFC to host an All Age service with included Church Parade for our Guides, Brownies and Rainbows – a service enhanced by the participation of our musicians forming a much larger music group than normal.  It all seemed to go well and at one stage we even had a light hearted quiz based on the scoring found in tennis. 

At the end of the service I was nudged by at least two people who, with a smile on their faces, quoted back to me a line I’d said in the quiz whilst explaining the scoring – they wondered if it had any theological significance – ‘Love means nothing’!

Actually whenever I go ‘off script’ whilst leading a service something like this tends to happen!  They are the sort of ‘howlers’ you find in those church joke books – rather like the secretary’s one liner in the notices: ‘Next week’s preacher is hanging up in the vestibule’!

Well I’m not sure any Blog that mentions tennis this afternoon is all that appropriate after just learning that Andy Murray has been knocked out of The Championships.

This talk about ‘love’ and what it means came back to me today in a chat with my Spiritual Director.  I know that sounds a grand term – in practice such a person can be a great ‘gift’ as a ‘listener’ and someone who reflects back what you are saying.  One of the requirements about belonging to The Order of Baptist Ministry is that you have a Spiritual Director and I’m always pleased to spend an hour with mine every other month and this morning she asked me what was the ‘foundation’ on which I was seeking to build faith.  ‘The love of God’ I replied – it strikes me that only takes a second to say but a lifetime to experience.  At times it feels to me that almost everything else about faith is fluid and evolving – the one constant is God’s love – so ‘no’ I absolutely didn’t mean on Sunday that ‘Love means nothing at all!

Oh - by the way - this morning my Spiritual Director left me with a piece of writing by Mother Theresa – I’ve been thinking about it all day and believe it’s worth passing on – goes like this:

People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered. Love them anyway.
If you do good, people may accuse you of selfish motives. Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you may win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway. People who really want help may attack you if you help them. Help them anyway.
Give the world the best you have and you may get hurt. Give the world your best anyway.”

I think that’s great!

Best wishes,


Ian

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Consider the birds of the air...

On recent summer mornings we’ve taken to having breakfast outside in the garden.  We never feel we’re truly alone there because so many birds seem to be at their chirpiest first thing in the morning.  So it’s a great way to start the day – toast and birdsong!

In the Manse garden we have a couple of very assertive magpies!  I’ve been watching them throughout the Spring and I have to say their behaviour has gone rather downhill!  They seem to enjoy bullying the other birds just for the pleasure of it – swooping down to startle them, rushing up to them in the trees and forcing them off the branches or even pecking a somewhat dumb looking pigeon on the neck before pining him down completely! 

Now I know the magpie has great points – it is certainly an impressive looking bird and the ornithologists tell us it has the rare quality amongst our feathered friends of being able to recognise itself in the mirror.  But I think it’s a bit of a thug really!

The truth is, however many times we sing ‘All things bright and beautiful’, nature can also be ‘red in tooth and claw’.  And that, I think, makes it a somewhat complex prism through which we may or may not see and sense the presence and activity of God.

Many people say they feel close to God when they are close to nature – I suppose that’s the essence of a hymn like ‘How Great Thou Art’.  I can to some extent empathise with that view – and yet...! 

The antics of our garden magpies are examples of the territorial instinct of birds – in their world it really is the ‘survival of the fittest’. So I suppose I want to put a few caveats after that biblical phrase ‘The heavens declare the glory of God’. 

I believe that part of our God-given humanity is that we have something about us that does bring a sense of dignity to our species (homo sapiens) which is lacking in the ‘pica –pica’ (magpies) – and that is the ability to temper down our thuggish instincts and develop an understanding which values those who are ‘weaker’ than us. Now I know all of that, scientifically speaking, is probably because we are at the ‘top of the food’ chain – but theologically speaking it’s also got something to do with being ‘made in the image of God’. 

Well - if the sun is out tomorrow perhaps we’ll have breakfast outside again - and I’ll try to give thanks not only for a new day but also for the magpies – my theological teachers for the week!

With best wishes,


Ian

Thursday, 19 June 2014

A Tale of Two Evening Services

Last Sunday I toddled off to London and took part in two very different evening services.

My first port of call was Choral Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral.  Those attending the service were greeted by smart looking ushers in morning dress handing out the beautifully printed service booklet.  Their welcome and helpfulness was exemplary. 

As I took my seat underneath the dome I looked around to see who else had come.  There must have been between two to three hundred of us.  We stood as the choir and clergy entered – in fact Choral Evensong has a lot of standing up and sitting down – all marked up in italics in the service booklet!

The St Paul’s service lasted just over the hour and contained wonderful music, great formality and a ‘university’ like sermon.  In many ways I loved it – it felt like a good tradition worth hanging on to and participating in – and perhaps as a piece of ‘ecclesiastical theatre’ it couldn’t have been done better than in Wren’s church at the top of Ludgate Hill.

Yet...I’m just not sure of the reaction of my fellow worshippers – or even if they were actually worshippers at all.  In that largish congregation probably no more than six of us tried to sing the two hymns and join in with the various responses.  The rest, either because they didn’t want to or because English wasn’t their language, just kept silent – and that made it feel as if we were spectators watching a service rather than worshipers taking part in one.  I just wonder what the clergy must feel about all this non-participation?

So I left, grateful for the moment but asking a few questions about what was really going on.

Having walked along Fleet Street and The Strand I stopped off at Trafalgar Square and watched a huge Hindu Festival being celebrated with dancing and free food!  And then on to the ‘Informal Church’ evening service at Bloomsbury Central Baptist.

It was quite a contrast to St Paul’s.

Bloomsbury start their evening service with an open table of food and those attending find a plate, fill it and chat with each other whilst eating.  It’s such a  generous and warm-hearted way to begin a time of worship – a real attempt to show hospitality. 

The service itself was well planned and used provocative modern hymnody and liturgy from the Anabaptist tradition – yet it provided numerous spaces for the congregation to verbally participate: offering up a one sentence prayer of thanksgiving, taking part in the discussion, naming a place or person in the intercessions.  And this congregation did participate!  Silences were honoured but quite rare – because by and large it felt to me people wanted to contribute and be involved.  No time more so than in the discussion that was opened up around the theme of ‘hospitality’ based on a bible passage about guests at a banquet. 

As I walked to get the train home from Baker Street I started to  – as they say on exam papers – ‘compare and contrast’ these two services.  Both were excellent in their own way, beautifully put together by competent ministers.  Yet however much I loved the music of St Paul’s it was the ‘authenticity’ of Bloomsbury than struck me most last Sunday evening.

It was great to be part of a congregation that was generally much younger than me!!  Obviously this type of service rings true for the twenty and thirty year old age group especially.

It was great to be part of that ‘multi-voiced’ experience hearing God speak through my fellow worshippers.

It was great to be part of an evening service that wasn’t just a re-run of the morning but was genuinely ‘different’.  And most of all it just felt real – it was the integrity of it all that I liked best of all.

Don’t get me wrong – I suspect you have to ‘get used’ to Bloomsbury’s evening service – but for me on Trinity Sunday that was the place where I felt ‘my heart strangely warmed’!

With best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Singing the Faith

The other week at LunchBreak our planned speaker couldn’t make it so – panic (at least for 20 seconds!) - what were we to do?!  The answer (not for the first time) was to have twenty minutes of favourite hymns.  As people tucked into lunch I made the announcement that I was open for hymn suggestions.  What began as a trickle felt like a torrent at the end as more and more folk came up to me with a request.
The hymns we sang last week were these (all chosen by folk at LunchBreak)

Lord for the years
One more step
Be thou my vision
In heavenly love abiding
The old rugged cross
Love divine
All things bright and beautiful
Dear Lord and Father of mankind
How great thou art

It became our very own Songs of Praise and I suspect our list of top hymns is much the same as theirs. Many people said they had made their choice on the basis of a wedding or funeral – when the moment matters we often say or hear the important thing through this wonderful blending of music and words – the hymn.

I’m told that at my old college, during Wednesday Chapel, the students ‘learn’ a hymn a week.  That’s because most Baptist ordinands these days come from ‘Worship Song’ congregations rather than ‘Hymnic’ ones.

The great strength of a hymn is that it has space to build up a theme verse by verse – and also by its very nature, as each verse progresses, we get to know and relax into the tune.

I’m a great believer in hymns – not simply because I love singing them in the context of corporate worship but because I believe they often reflect back to us, in words we can remember, the foundational aspirations of faith.

The other week, after morning service, one of the congregation said ‘thank you’ for some of the ‘modern’ hymns that had been on the service sheet.  She was aware that not everyone might have shared her view, but told me she had enjoyed these hymns because they had been in ‘our’ language – using everyday words and phrases.
Thank God the art of hymn writing isn’t dead – indeed in church on Sunday we’re going to be singing a communion hymn from one of my favourite hymn writers, Martin Leckebusch – who I note is one year younger than me!

Best wishes,

Ian

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Happy Pentecost- a Festival to celebrate the 'ordinary'?

This coming Sunday , June 8th, The Church throughout the world celebrates what is sometimes thought of as its third most important festival, namely Pentecost – sometimes called Whitsun.

I’m struck by the description given to the Apostles as they stood up and spoke on that first Day of Pentecost – people were amazed that such ‘simple Galileans’ could sound so eloquent and convincing.  Luke, the author of Acts in which this report is found, is in no doubt – they spoke like this because God’s Spirit enabled them.  It’s been happening ever since!

We sometimes look for the spectacular at Pentecost and that’s perhaps quite natural with all the talk about flaming tongues of fire and speaking in different languages.  However, I think that’s rather to miss the real relevance of it all.

Isn’t the wonderful truth of Pentecost located in that description of The Apostles – they were, by and large, ‘simple Galileans’ – yet.... Filled with God’s love and assisted by God’s Spirit they ‘lived’ out Christianity in such a way that it became established enough to be passed on to the next generation – not bad for a few fishermen assisted by a tax collector!

In an age of vacuous celebrity adulation or the ever present specialist and highly paid consultant I think it’s wonderfully refreshing that churches and congregations are not looking for superstars or experts but ‘simple Galileans’ who, through prayer and service, live lives dependent on God’s Spirit.  Such Spirit-filled folk have changed history, made loving families, been the best of citizens, the most faithful of colleagues and become truly ‘fulfilled’ as well-rounded human beings. 

I think God loves the ‘ordinary’ – and into this pours his Spirit.

Happy Pentecost!

Ian 

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

When in Rome...!

 
Rome is rather a crazy place to be!

We've been here since Monday, staying at the Guest House of a religious order of 'teaching' monks - a beautiful oasis of tranquility just a ten minute ride from the city centre by Metro.

If you think London is busy, frantic and full of tourists - try Rome!

The driving is a sort of 'sport' in itself - to a Brit like me it just looks like organised chaos with lots of horns being blown with scooters everywhere. 

Having visited the Colosseum and Roman Forum yesterday it was 'Pope' day today.  We travelled in early with a Canadian Catholic we've got to know back at the Guest House.  We joined the huge crowd in front of St Peter's and waited for the arrival of the 'Papa'.  When he appeared on screen, and then in the distance on his 'pope-mobile' everyone got on their chairs to take photos and cheer (so I joined in!).  There was just a wave of loving enthusiasm and respect that seem to ripple through the crowd - this was 'their pastor' and they were greeting him and he them.  The Pope seemed to relish this time moving through the vast crowd regularly stopping to kiss and bless babies - and that touched me really.  A world leader, technically a 'Sovereign', taking time to bless children - it seemed to me to be a deeply 'human' yet 'godly' act of love and compassion.

Once he'd been round the square a few times he ascended the podium with bishops on his left and lay guests on his right.  It was fascinating that this 'formal' time in the General Audience started with scripture as the reading for the day was delivered by five priests each in a different language.  The Pope then spoke for about 15mins reflecting on his recent visit to Israel and his longing for peace and reconciliation between Jews and Palestinians.  Once again I was touched that this world leader was speaking about such vital issues as these - regularly going 'off script' and becoming animated.

The event came to an end with the singing of the Lord's Prayer in Latin and the Pope's blessing.  Throughout all this a crowd, which had been in carnival mood at the beginning, sat in respectful silence as if in church.  There was such an obvious 'bond' between the thousands in St Peter's Square and this smiling Pontifex Maximus (Pope) on the podium.

As he spoke a pigeon landed in front of him - gloriously unaware of security and church ceremony.  I thought it a lovely picture - maybe of the Holy Spirit, often likened to a bird, coming and blessing this man's words as he blessed us with God's love.

I know why I'm not a Roman Catholic (and this isn't the Blog to discuss that!) - but today, in this truly international arena I think I saw a servant of God show and speak of nothing but love, compassion, reconciliation and peace - and that was something beautiful to have been part of.

With best wishes from sunny,crazy, inspirational Rome!,

Ian

Thursday, 22 May 2014

A Good Read

The AFC Book Group met on Tuesday to discuss Marcus Borg’s ‘Speaking Christian’.  Borg is fast becoming one of my favourite writers.  His clarity and insight make for a very stimulating read.

I have a friend who used to say whenever he read Shakespeare – ‘How did he know I felt like that’.  The idea being that somehow across the centuries the Stratford Bard ‘communicated’ in a timeless way that still touches the heart even in this age of ipads and YouTube! 

I feel the same about Borg.  In this book he takes words most of us in church have been using for years – like ‘God’, ‘Jesus’, ‘Heaven’, ‘Bible’ and ‘Eucharist’ and he explores them.  He does this by putting them in context and so brings to light many often neglected connotations around them.  In many ways Borg follows a long line of ‘liberal’ theologians in de-mythologising the bible – thus making it, in my view, something that is more relevant (not less) for today’s society.

Maybe you can tell I simply loved this book (as, I have to say did the rest of the group) – and it would certainly be one of the ones I’d take to my desert island!  Of everything I’ve read recently ‘Speaking Christian’ sums up for me best the place I currently occupy on the theological spectrum. 
This book uses clear language and is brilliantly written – why not borrow a copy from a member of the Book Group and give it a read!

With best wishes,

Ian


Thursday, 15 May 2014

A sad story about orange juice - and other things....

I had one of those days earlier this week when it felt like some invisible ‘techno’ forces had all conspired to focus on me for a few hours – and what fun they had!  The first inkling I had about this was at the weekend when it dawned on me that this message I received about three months ago telling me that my email account was being dropped by BT wasn’t a fake missive but the real McCoy!  However, it’s really advantageous having teenagers in the house at times because that problem was almost instantly solved by one of them setting up a new account for me and then transferring all my 34,000 (yes, that’s right 34,000!) archived emails from one account to the other. 

But then a ‘virus’ attacked and everyone on my address book was informed I was stranded in Italy or somewhere needing the bus fare home!  That evening we had about fifteen phone calls at the manse – some even offering to pay!

To cap it all the Tesco delivery man knocked on the door with a grin on his face saying here was our weekly order – just one carton of orange juice – yes, we had booked the delivery slot and held it open with the juice selection but then forgot to fill in all the other things we needed!!  It was kind of him to say he would try to get the delivery charge refunded – otherwise what we are drinking now is the most expensive box of orange juice in Christendom!

I then set off for an evening meeting and realised I’d left my diary in the vestry of the Crematorium Chapel where I’d been earlier in the day.  I ‘winged’ my way through the meeting not entirely in control of all we were deciding together – ‘what’s new’ I hear some of you say!

I expect we all get days like these!

Part of my understanding of faith is that it would be a mistake to only think we might experience and encounter God in the serene and peaceful moments of life.  I think I once held that view – but no longer.  Although I still believe that faith can bring a certain sense of ‘order’ out of chaos – making those all important ‘connections’ in our lives - I now recognise that it’s often in the crisis, struggle or confusion that we especially need faith and actually ‘find’ God.

Of course nothing I went through earlier this week was anything other than mildly irritating – but the fact that even these ‘minor’ things got my blood pressure up makes me realise just how much I need to be aware that God isn’t absent in the bigger challenges of life, instead he is waiting to meet me there.

I’m off now to complete next week’s Tesco order!

With best wishes,


Ian

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