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 

Who is up there?!

We were in Lisbon over half term and enjoyed glorious sunny days throughout our visit. The city has many squares, almost all with statue...