Thursday, 27 February 2014

An Interventionist God?


(Taken from AFC Family News March Edition)

All of us have been touched by the stories we have heard from the recent flooding in both the South West and closer to home in the Thames Valley.  My former church is very close to the Somerset Levels and we regularly visited the villages and beauty spots around Wells and Glastonbury which, as I write, are still under water.

With that in mind I was intrigued by the comments of a casual ‘customer’ at our Friday Coffee Break in The Alfred Ellis Hall the other week. As she was purchasing a home made cake she proclaimed in a rather loud voice that this year’s deluge was a direct result of people not praying enough and the government passing legislation for ‘gay marriage’ – I almost dropped my ginger biscuit!

I am sure (read that as I hope) you simply don’t believe in that kind of God – a vengeful and, quite frankly spiteful deity who indiscriminately dishes out punishment in a fit of temper.
Perhaps such a medieval way of thinking was grounded in an Old Testament paradigm that linked obedience to prosperity in the land and vice versa.  Yet surely since The Enlightenment we have needed to take a more nuanced view of God’s role in creation.

And perhaps issues such as wars and natural disasters always call us to question the idea of an ‘Interventionist God’ – or at least to ponder how the God of Love, revealed to us in Jesus Christ, touches our lives with goodness and hope at such times of crisis and suffering.

For most of us, I guess, that ‘intervention’ will not be in the sphere of the so-called ‘supernatural’ but through the ‘ordinary’ – and I, for one, think there’s nothing unspiritual about that.

In the two millennia since our Saviour walked the earth millions of people have been healed everyday through the ever developing medium of medicine.  As societies have struggled for political or religious freedom agencies such as Amnesty International or coalitions of Inter-faith pressure groups have campaigned on their behalf.  When earthquake or famine brings an already impoverished country to its knees Christian Aid, along with many other humanitarian organisations, will be one of the first on the scene offering resources often not just for the short but long term.

And maybe that is the point. We in the church often use the word ‘humanitarian’ in a slightly derisible way – to suggest that it’s ‘non-Christian.  However I like to think that whenever and whoever acts in a loving way to neighbour is actually the channel of God’s goodness in our world.  I suspect that’s why so many people have said to me as I’ve visited them in hospital – always in quiet tones as if telling me a state secret – ‘you know the nurses here are angels’ – well perhaps they really are!

The reality of suffering never goes away and no philosophical or religious argument really satisfies the ‘why’ question.  The truth is that bad things happen to good people.  And how does God intervene?  Well – the words of hymn by Henry Burton (one I must put on the order of service soon as it’s not in Rejoice and Sing) ring true for me:

‘...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.’

All of us have a wonderful calling – to be ‘channels’ through which the love and goodness of God can flow to those with whom we are sharing this journey through life. And all of us have a wonderful privilege too – to receive that love from another person and recognise it as the goodness of God touching our lives.

With best wishes,


Ian

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The organ has gone!

Last Sunday, for one of the first times in its fifty two year history, our organ at Amersham Free Church was silent.  Bit by bit it is being taken away, dusted down and polished up (I’m sure there are far more technical terms for all that’s going on!) and hopefully reinstalled by mid April.

We were left using our Technic keyboard with Eric, our bereft organist doing a brilliant job in making it sound (almost) like an organ.


The first church in which I served, Kettering –where I’ll be preaching in a few weeks time – has an enormous three manual organ which was rebuilt in the summer just before I arrived.  I had the privilege of organising the opening recital with the organist of Peterborough Cathedral as our guest musician.

My second church decided we couldn’t afford a rebuild so voted for the installation of a digital instrument which has served them well.  The congregation found a hundred and one imaginative uses for the old pipes!


At AFC, after consulting various specialist bodies, we took the decision last year to have our Willis organ rebuilt – and this has been made possible by many generous donations by the congregation.


Music is such a powerful, yet subjective medium and a distinctive about any church will be the type of music it uses in worship.  The ‘Organ vs Music Group’ is by now a rather too well rehearsed debate.


At the moment (because most things in church life are provisional) our style at AFC is predominantly ‘hymnic’ and our organ (especially with the skill and sensitivity of our current organist) suits that well.  Yet it’s also a great joy to hear drums, guitar, flutes and strings take part Sunday by Sunday – and in our case the organ joins in with the music group too.


A website service I often tune into each week is from Washington Cathedral and it’s all filmed beautifully.  Interestingly throughout the service there are regular shots not just of the priests, readers and congregation but also the organist, acknowledging, I think, the immense contribution musicians bring to our worship.

So I’m grateful for all the musicians at Amersham Free Church because I really do believe that ‘Those who sing – pray twice’!

Best wishes,



Ian

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Generation 'A'

Over the last couple of weeks The Church Times has been giving The Anglican Church a ‘Health Check’.  So there have been fascinating and provocative articles about the current state of our country’s Parish Churches with more than a few predictions about how all this might pan out over the next few decades. 

One of the pieces that caught my eye was written by a sociologist and was entitled: Generation ‘A’.  It described and then analysed the enormous contribution to contemporary church life made by ladies born in the 1930’s and 1940’s. They are the mothers of the Baby Boomers and grandparents/great grandparents to the Generation ‘X’ of today.  These stalwarts of the church have brought a sense of hospitality and faithfulness to congregations up and down the country – and whilst the article had nothing but praise for this 75-85 year old age group it concluded that nowhere near the same numbers from succeeding generations are lining up to replace them.

Well this phenomenon isn’t unique to Anglicanism – it’s replicated in all traditions and is very apparent at AFC.  My only quibble with the article is that it didn’t make reference to men of the same generation – who in my experience have also given a huge amount of their retirement to the life of their local church.

Generation ‘A’ are leaving big shoes for my generation to fill – and I’m not sure that we’re doing it.  For the time being we are still benefiting from the ministry of Generation ‘A’ but things are beginning to change in significant ways.  Fewer of my generation are around in what some commentators call the ‘inherited churches’ – or what you and I might call ‘traditional’ churches - and it’s quite a challenge to predict what our life together might look like in twenty years time.

I think I owe a great debt to Generation ‘A’ – they encouraged me in the early days of my personal pilgrimage and have been the backbone of every church I’ve had the privilege of serving in. 

The psalmist writes that one generation to another will sing God’s praise – well here’s hoping and praying that us Baby Boomers will step up to the mark and continue the song!


With best wishes,


Ian

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Philomena

An early telephone call last Sunday morning – a generous church member ‘under the weather’ offering us two tickets for that afternoon’s showing of the much talked about film Philomena at Chesham.  So our Sunday plans changed – and more and more I’m valuing the joy of the unexpected!

This is a beautifully and movingly acted piece of cinema – and it’s wr
itten well.  Philomena is one of those films which is both reassuring and provocative at the same time. 
Without presenting you with a plot spoiler Philomena is forced to ‘give up’ her son whilst living with Catholic nuns in Ireland.  Fifty years later, and with the help of one time BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith, she tries to find him.  If you haven’t seen it yet be prepared for something of an emotional roller coaster ride.

Who, I wonder, are our ‘teachers’ in this film?  Perhaps that’s the wrong question to be asking – and maybe a film is just a film retelling events, presenting a narrative.  Actually I don’t believe that!  A film is slanted in a particular, or a series of contradictory ways.


Could the Roman Catholic Church teach us anything from Philomena?

Well there was enough ‘Catholic bashing’ around before this film – and with it, justifiably perhaps, they’ll be a lot more.  My Catholic friends, especially from The Retreat Association, are people of deep integrity with a passion for justice – but this film shows a different, harsher side of institutional religion with an emphasis on judgement instead of grace.  No – I’m not at all sure that the Roman Catholic Church teaches us much that’s positive in this film.

How about Martin Sixsmith?  He’s a journalist in search of a story who thaws out in the film into a human being helping a friend.  Maybe that’s a bit harsh – but I found it a very positive transformation.  It’s moving to see Sixsmith getting involved in a ‘human interest’ story and ‘feeling’ its pain rather than journalistically exploiting its tragedy.  So I think he has much to teach us.

And then there’s the mixed up yet deeply rooted, tentative yet courageous, ‘ordinary’ yet profound character of Philomena – so movingly played by Dame Judi Dench.  Forgiveness alongside a complex, yet liberating, acceptance of the past is what we might be taught by her – and I found it a deeply touching lesson.

So Sunday was different – different to what we had planned.  In the end it was Communion in the morning and a film in the afternoon – and I think God spoke to me through both. Once again a blurring of the sacred and the secular – but that, maybe, ought to be the theme of another blog – or at least the sermon I’m going to try to preach this Sunday!

With best wishes,


Ian

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