Wednesday, 23 April 2014

What to blog about?

There are weeks when I struggle to find a theme for this blog but maybe this week isn’t one of them.


I could have focused on St George as this is his day – a patron saint with whom the majority of us feel absolutely no connection at all!  Or maybe even the fact that it is Shakespeare’s birthday – he was born 450 years ago in 1564 and we do know he was baptised on 6th April that year (it was common to baptise your child in those days the very first Sunday after the birth) – but like pretty much all that we know of Shakespeare’s life the idea that he was born on April 23rd is a little spurious. I was fascinated to read recently that we only have six actual examples of Shakespeare’s signature and on each occasion he spells his name differently and never the way we form it today!


Or maybe I could have made a comment on the strange ‘mumblings’ that seem to be characterising the current BBC TV drama adaptation of Jamaica Inn resulting in over two million people declining to go back and watch episode two on Tuesday. I wonder if Uncle Joss will improve his Cornish diction this evening?!

Of course the subject I should be talking about is the firing of David Moyes from Manchester United.  Was this an unjustified and premature act on the part of a panicking Board or a sensible move that however hard had to be done?  Alas, as I’ve watched less than ten games of football in my whole life I really am not the one to pass any comment on this managerial hiccup what so ever.

Perhaps I’m a little more qualified when it comes to the debate stirred up by The Prime Minister last week as he referred to the UK as a ‘Christian Country’.  This has provoked a backlash from fifty academic and playwright types who collectively penned a letter to a national newspaper on Monday objecting to Mr Cameron’s remarks – one even went as far as saying he thought Christianity was such a negative and divisive factor in society that he viewed us as positively dangerous in a pluralist society. 

Such debate, using meaningless ‘broad brushstroke’ language, always depresses me.  For on the one hand I have some sympathy with the letter writers because although we have a Christian ‘tradition’ in Britain that isn’t actually reflected in the number of ‘practising’ Christians in the churches on a Sunday – standing as it does these days at around 5% of the total population.  Yet to talk of the faith that has nurtured and sustained me as ‘dangerous’ is equally preposterous.  Those of us inside the Church are aware that we have been ‘imperial’ in the past and that some factions today still pedal a hard ‘fundamentalist’ position which thinks in terms of ‘them and us’.  But the Christianity that has formed me and sustains me still is – I dare to hope – generous, open hearted, liberal (in the best sense of the word) and strives to be understanding and loving.  But – I didn’t intend to go on about this topic either!!


Instead what I really wanted to say in this blog was how grateful I was last weekend – as, like all preachers, I faced the challenge of being in the pulpit on yet another Easter Sunday – for the wonderful prayer/reflection that a ministerial colleague sent around by email to some of us.  I’ve printed it out below because I thought it was so encouraging and perceptive – well, it did me a lot of good anyway!  So here it is – and I hope, even if you’re not a preacher, that it will ring a few bells for you as well:

A prayer for pastors on Easter

Dear Lord, I pray for all the pastors today
Who will feel enormous pressure to have their sermon
Match the greatness of the subject
and will surely feel they have failed.
(I pray even more for those who think they have succeeded.)
Help them to know that it is enough
Simply and faithfully to tell the story
Of women in dawn hush ...
Of men running half-believing ...
Of rolled stones and folded grave-clothes ...
Of a supposed gardener saying the name of a crying woman ...
Of sad walkers encountering a stranger on the road home ...
Of an empty tomb and overflowing hearts.
Give them the wisdom to know that sincere humility and awe
Surpass all homiletic flourish

On this day of mysterious hope beyond all words.
Make them less conscious of their responsibility to preach,
And more confident of the Risen Christ
Who presence trumps all efforts to proclaim it.
Considering all the Easter choirs who will sing beautifully, and those who won't,
And all the Easter prayers that will soar in faith, and those that will stumble and flounder,
And all the Easter attendance numbers and offering numbers that will exceed expectations
And those that will disappoint ... 
I pray they all will be surpassed by the simple joy
Of women and men standing in the presence of women and men,
Daring to proclaim and echo the good news:
Risen indeed! Alleluia!
For death is not the last word.
Violence is not the last word.
Hate is not the last word.
Money is not the last word.
Intimidation is not the last word.
Political power is not the last word.
Condemnation is not the last word.
Betrayal and failure are not the last word.
No: each of them are left like rags in a tomb,
And from that tomb,
Arises Christ,
Alive.
Help the preachers feel it,
And if they don't feel it, help them
Preach it anyway, allowing themselves
To be the receivers as well as the bearers of the Easter
News.
Alleluia!
I think that’s great!


With best wishes,


Ian

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Evidence of Resurrection?

AFC at Spring Harvest
Yesterday we drove back south to Amersham after a week at Spring Harvest.  We spent this time in Skegness with a group from our church. 


It was only whilst packing that I realised my last visit to Spring Harvest was during my first Easter at Theological College way back in 1984.  After spending a few sessions in Big Top worship it was more than apparent that even if Spring Harvest hadn’t changed maybe I had!


There were many good things on offer (although some in our group felt not quite as many as in previous years) – but two of the best were on the ‘after-hours’ programme rather than ‘main stage’.  The first was a late-night evening with Adrian Plass. The deep sincerity, poignant wisdom and gentle humour of this author and retreat house leader touched us all.  It’s remarkable how clear ‘truth’ and ‘wisdom’ can become when grounded in everyday funny stories.


The second event, one that also took us almost to midnight (sleep, I found out was rather in short supply at Spring Harvest!) was an hour with Graham Kendrick.  Once again I think we were all moved by the integrity and warmth of this servant of God –  whose music and song writing has been a real blessing to The Church for the last four decades.


As we left yesterday and made that journey south I reflected on what had been the highlights for me since arriving in Skegness of a sunny Monday afternoon.  The truth is they were not the main sessions in the Big Top but the time spent with the group from Amersham Free Church: the gentle, humorous banter as we ate together, the one to one conversations as we walked to the sessions, the ‘mock’ competitiveness of the hour we spent bowling, and the gentle ‘looking out for one another’ that became a heartening characteristic of our time together. In short it was just a joy and privilege to be with this group of people.


As we approach Easter Day perhaps many people ask the question: what proof do we have about resurrection?  Well I’m not sure if you could give anyone incontrovertible proof and I for one am happy that mystery, doubt, faith and trust all blend together in the pilgrimage I am on.  However, I do sense that one consequence of Jesus’ resurrection is the continuing presence and community of the Church that has continued to share in his ministry and mission ever since.  And this week, in the fellowship I have experienced with my sisters and brothers, I believe I’ve participated in something of this ‘resurrection life’.


Christ is Risen!  Hallelujah!



Ian

Friday, 11 April 2014

Down to earth service



On Monday of this week just over twenty folk from Amersham Free Church rolled up their sleeves and spent a really productive morning ‘Spring Cleaning’ our Sanctuary and side rooms.  This effort was prompted by the imminent conclusion of building works which have been going on since the beginning of February.  Now that we have a new vestibule it was time to dust, polish, throw out old furniture and varnish the wood block flooring. 


I know such mornings are common place in churches and community halls up and down the country but it never ceases to impress me just how uplifting and satisfying it is to work in such a dedicated team. 


At one point I found myself in the dry baptistery with Anne clearing out the creepy crawlies and their webs!  Later on I was clearing the vestry of old cupboards as Claire washed down the walls.  And more than once I was found propping up the kitchen counter as we all stopped for coffee and a chat!


By 1pm the building really did look as if some T.L.C. had been spent on it and I’m really grateful to everyone who both organised and supported such a worthwhile morning.


I guess you can measure commitment and faithfulness in many ways.  Sometime people commend a church because of its ‘prayerfulness’ or the generosity of its giving.  Another benchmark, in my mind at least, is a morning like last Monday – an example of down to earth service done with great generosity of spirit and a cheerful smile.


And it has struck me this week as I’ve prepared a little for the Easter services which are almost upon us just how ‘down to earth’ Jesus often was – even in the sacraments he left us.  After all the institution of communion happened not in the temple or synagogue but round a table in an upper room – as people ate.  And on the cross during the mystery of Good Friday our Lord has this practical yet loving thought that his mother must be looked after so he poignantly entrusts her into John’s protection and care.


There are times, I suspect, when we have all been very ‘spiritual’ about faith – and there is nothing wrong with that heartfelt longing for truth and meaning.  But maybe we do well to value that which is a practical and down to earth expression of Christianity as well – for dusters as well as prayer books have their place in our discipleship.


With best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Why are we doing this?

Behind the screens the new vestibule takes shape!
At AFC we are coming to the end of some significant building works.  The contractors have been on site since February and our weekday meetings have been held to the accompaniment of banging and drilling – so much so that I think most of us have got quite used to these ‘noises off’ and will perhaps miss them when they are gone!


It is the rear vestibule that has been re-designed and now includes a new cloakroom and kitchenette facilities.  Now the barriers have been taken down, the new lights installed and the repainting almost complete we are all beginning to get a sense of just how welcoming, modern and practical this new entrance space area will be.

Alongside all of this our fifty year old organ, which has never had a full M.O.T. is being rebuilt.  Some pipes have been cleaned in situ, some are being added (a ‘trumpet’ stop in memory of my predecessor Andrew) and lots of the internal wiring and mechanics are being upgraded. 


Of course none of this work comes cheap and together these projects will have cost around £120,000 – money raised by a very generous congregation.


But I suppose all of this begs a simple question: Why?  Why modernise the entrance vestibule and why rebuild an organ?  What do such actions say about us as a local community of faith?


Of course you could answer these questions with very reasonable practical responses.  But in this blog I would simply like to suggest we are doing all this work because we believe AFC has a future.  By God’s grace we dare to believe in that future and play our part in planning for it.  And in the days and years ahead we really do want our buildings to speak about ‘hospitality and welcome’ and for our organ to be have what it takes to lead us in both thoughtful and uplifting worship.


If we didn’t believe in such a future then we’d probably have left both projects on a list, at the bottom of the pile.  But the fact that we have talked about them for a long time, made sacrificial financial contributions towards them and then patiently worked around their implementation indicates something different – that we are looking forward to the future as a church and want, with God’s help, to play our part in making it as positive as possible.


With best wishes,

Ian

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