Friday, 31 January 2014

Approaching Candlemas

I’ve only recently discovered Candlemass!

 It occurs this Sunday – 2nd February and celebrates the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.  As Simeon takes the baby Jesus in his arms he prays that he may be a light to the nations – and so that theme of light has characterised this particular Sunday with some churches lighting many candles and processing around the church with them – hence the term ‘Candlemas’.


Well this account from Luke is one of the optional lectionary readings for this Sunday and I’ve decided to preach from it.


Candlemass comes exactly forty days after Christmas and is, in a sense, a last look back at it.  To some it represents the half way point of winter.  And connected as it is to Simeon’s beautiful prayer, the one we often call the Nunc Dimittis, it also looks forward to Lent and Passiontide as we remember his words to Mary about her heart being pierced by a sword – a hint of the cross.

So, in one temple encounter Christmas and Easter collide and I rather like that.  In a previous church in which I served our ‘flower lady’ always made sure some early daffodils graced the communion table on Christmas morning – that, I think, was her way of making the same connection.


This week I sat in St Martin in The Fields with an old college friend listening to a concert of sacred music on this very theme of Candlemass.  I was moved close to tears by the beauty of the singing and the way the choir and minister wove these themes of Christmas and Easter into a brief, yet profoundly moving, lunchtime half hour.


So I think Candlemas is fast becoming one of my favourite festivals!  That’s because we always, it seems to me, hold in tension the joy of faith – that celebration of light at the centre of Christmas with all the hope it offers – alongside the reality that Jesus’ message of love wasn’t universally popular and that his message of The Kingdom drove the authorities to order his crucifixion.


As his followers, then, surely it shouldn’t surprise us when the living out of this Kingdom brings us both joy and struggle.  It’s not only the way it’s always been – it’s the way it was for Jesus.  It is at one and the same time a path of joy and challenge.  I believe every step is worth taking and I’m thrilled that Candlemas encourages us on the journey.


With best wishes,


Ian

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

When 'sorry' is the hardest word

The difficulty of saying ‘sorry’ has somewhat saturated the news this week.  It’s not the most edifying thing to either read or hear and it’s always sad to see folk in public office score ‘own goals’.

Whatever the trials and tribulations of a certain Peer of the Realm and his party the whole episode has got me thinking about just how hard it sometimes is for any of us to say ‘sorry’.

To never say it, or want to say it would, I think, be to hold a rather arrogant view of life.  I’m never quite sure that the traditional advice given to The Royals to ‘never explain and never apologise’ quite fits The Gospel. 


Isn’t it simply a basic understanding of humanity that we all make mistakes.  At one level, and at certain stages of our development we actually value these moments as opportunities to lean important lessons about life and its relationships.  I suppose the problems come when we keep on making them, repeating them because we’ve never really heeded the valuable lessons such mistakes might have taught us.


The other day I was sitting around a committee table and the guy next to me shouted me down when I was in mid-sentence!  I was saying something like, ‘we need to have a generous spirit in the way we approach this issue’.  Well this didn’t go down too well with my fellow trustee.  He chimed in with a full frontal assault on ‘pietistic clergymen’ (his words – not mine!) who confuse the agenda with wishy washy phrases rather than fulfil their legal duties under Charity Commission law. So there – that put me in my place!

Why, you may rightly ask, am I retelling this brief encounter of a critical kind?!

Well it’s simply that I still believe we need to approach every area of life with a generous spirit and I think the friend on my right needs to understand that it’s a travesty to compartmentalise life into the ‘legal’ and ‘spiritual’.


Isn’t it about the way we think – the way we think about ourselves, others and God.  At times that means having the humility of spirit to accept we make mistakes and apologise.

Of course there are other issues here – issues about justice – yet I would hazard a guess that more problems are caused by people whose default position is ‘I’m never wrong’ than by those who accept their human fallibility and value the part that ‘grace’ plays in all our lives.

With best wishes,



Ian

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Living the Faith

Last Sunday morning at Amersham Free Church it was such a delight to welcome BMS Trainees Sergio and Liz to the 10.30am service along with their thoroughly charming toddler Chloe! During our worship together they told us something of their ‘call’ to serve God overseas and their specific preparation at this time in getting ready for Mozambique – where they will work with the Baptist Convention  in the training of youth pastors/workers and the provision of pre-school education.


As I stood with them by the door greeting people at the end of the service it was obvious that their presence among us had caused a very vibrant and positive ‘buzz’.  As the congregation said their ‘goodbyes’ most pre-fixed it by wishing them well, assuring them of prayers and just generally expressing admiration and respect for what they are about to do – that is go to live and serve overseas with a toddler for five years!


Now don’t get me wrong – Erna and I generally find the congregation very encouraging at the door week by week – but Sunday was different.  It’s as if Sergio’s and Liz’s presence confirmed in us all that faith can indeed by ‘lived out’ – that it is never complete in a merely  theoretical sense and that it has to be expressed in the daily offering of our lives to God and neighbour.


I’ve often sensed something similar at Baptist Assemblies as pastors or missionaries have been ‘commissioned’ – after all the words spoken and sung it was actually seeing folk offering the service of their lives that spoke the loudest with the clearest message.


However, it would surely be the most obvious of mistakes to put service in Mozambique on a higher pedestal than that offered day in and day out in Amersham (or wherever).  All our lives matter – to God and each other – and the call to us to live out our faith, this week and this year, will give us joy, delight, struggle and challenge – but isn’t that what discipleship is all about – wherever we live it?

With best wishes,


Ian

Thursday, 9 January 2014

The God in whom we don't believe

After a long day of meetings in London yesterday I flaked out on the sofa last evening and caught up with some pre-Christmas TV programmes I’d recorded. 

One of them was called ‘Cathedral’ and followed the staff of Southwark for a week last July.  It was a fascinating insight into their ministry south of the Thames and I was particularly taken by the eloquence and insight of their Canon Pastor and Sub Dean.  During an interview with him he made the point that so often people simply reject a God that actually we Christians don’t believe in.  He quoted the articles of the militant atheist Richard Dawkins who, in his mind, attacks a medieval notion of God that the church dispensed with years ago.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury says much the same in a recent book of his entitled Faith in the Public Square.  As he reflects on the dwindling numbers in churches, now down to 5% of the population on a Sunday, his analysis is that people haven’t so much  rejected Christianity but have  ‘parked’ it in a lay by without really understanding or investigating what it is they have so resolutely put to one side.

It’s as if the biggest difficulty for the church is simply that of being ignored. 

Simon Hoggart, the parliamentary sketch writer, died this week and Radio 4 interviewed some of the politicians he’d written about.  They all said the same – they would prefer to be noticed and caricatured in his column rather than left out and ignored!

For us who are trying to live a life of faith – one we think worth sharing – it’s frustrating to see a general trend in society which automatically rejects God.  What’s even more frustrating is that when pressed our family and friends often say this God they cannot worship is one of wrath and judgement, severity and unyielding condemnation – not the God I preach about and not the one we gather to worship week by week and try to serve day by day. 

So it’s a real challenge to us in a New Year to grasp every opportunity to speak of the grace of God and live in the love of God – the God we dare to believe in and the one who, we trust, believes in us.

With best wishes,


Ian

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