Thursday, 24 December 2015

Christmas Night: The Birth of Jesus Christ

Tonight we conclude the journey we have been making together at AFC in Advent through Art.

Our final painting in this end of year series is by the Dutch artist Gerald von Honthorst painted in 1622.

Von Honthorst spent the early part of his career in Rome and much admired the work of Caravaggio and he completed a similar painting to this one two years previously in 1620.

This famous work of art wonderfully makes use of light.  It radiates from the Christchild and its source is the Christchild.

We are left in no doubt as to who is the centre of Christmas!

The promise of this Child is that He will bring light, that He is bathed in God's light and that He will enlighten our world with truth and kindness.

And one last observation from me - both the title of this inspired masterpiece and its stunning composition speak of The Adoration of The Shepherds .  Christmas is, I believe, a wonder-filled mystery and the 25th of December isn't really a day for theological debate but for worship.

For Jesus Christ still calls men and women to worship and be filled with wonder, love and praise.  This Christmas season we too can kneel at the manger and offer God our adoration and thanksgiving for the Christchild of Bethlehem.

Happy Christmas!

Ian

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Advent 4: Mary and Elizabeth

This year throughout Advent at AFC we've been looking at some paintings and today's shows us that wonderful moment when two cousins meet and share that special joy that both of them are to become mothers.

Mary and Elizabeth play a central role in our Christmases year by year.  Elizabeth is the mother of John the Baptist and Mary, of course, becomes the Mother of Jesus.  As Erna has written in our Art in Advent leaflet: At the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth and in the intimate sharing of their good news, the public scorn of barren-ness and the unexpected pregnancy outside wedlock fade away and joy becomes the dominant emotion'.

Well today's painting is one of my favourites in our Advent sequence - it's just an exuberant celebration of joy and friendship and expresses so much love and hope.  And surely that's what all the nativity plays and carol services this weekend are all about for we are celebrating a God of love who gives us so much hope.

The witness of John the Baptist and the message of Jesus of Bethlehem has changed the course of human history yet it all started with the obedience and faithfulness of two, well we might even call them, insignificant women.

Perhaps we should never under estimate the way God can use 'ordinary' yet committed people, the likes of Mary and Elizabeth, to bring about his loving purposes.

Reminds me a little of that lovely phrase from the pen of the American social commentator Margaret Mead who once wrote: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.

I love that - and I love the part played in the outworking of Christmas by these two cousins in today's painting.

Best wishes,


Ian

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Advent 3: John The Baptist

Our painting today is a modern interpretation of John the Baptist and it's by the wonderful British artist who now lives in Folkestone Dinah Roe Kendall.

She is a exciting new discovery for me and I just love her vibrant and colourful depictions of well known Bible stories in this irrepressible style of hers.  Her book 'Allegories of Heaven' is on my wish list for 2016!

She says the highlight of her career was an exhibition of her work in the chapel at Doncaster Prison.  Apparently it gave her so many opportunities for honest conversation with the prisoners.

Today she depicts John the Baptist pointing to the true light who is coming after him - yet in a sense that light - God's truth and love - has been around for ever.

Our leaflet quotes the German Karl Rahner talking of the 'imperfect messenger' - that was undoubtedly true of John - who even at one stage started to question Jesus' mission and tactics.  It also applies to us - the church - for, of course, we too are imperfect.  Yet, thank God, we can still be used by God to be a signpost pointing others to God's love.

On Thursday last I spoke at an interfaith gathering at the Quaker Meeting House here in Amersham on the subject of light.  A fellow seeker after truth, a Muslim Banker from Canary Wharf in London joined me on the 'platform' and gave a perspective on the subject from an Islamic point of view.  I was so touched by a phrase he used when he said:  When we move one pace towards God - he reaches out and moves ten paces towards us.

In these tense days when our Muslim friends are so terribly misrepresented it was good to share together that evening and what a super thought that God reaches out to us with such generosity of spirit.

John pointed to such a God and we - an imperfect church - seek to do the same.

Best wishes as we move ever closer to Christmas!

Ian

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Advent 2: Wilderness

This year at AFC we are journeying through Advent using a painting or photo each week. 

A number of folk have said how much they appreciate the Advent paintings down the side corridor and accompanying leaflet – which is great!

On this second Sunday in Advent the set readings of the day take us out to the Wilderness as we meet John the Baptist.

Liz’s photo was taken in the Negev Desert on a visit to the Holy Land in 2013.  She says being there cut her down to size and in that context only the big questions mattered.

We all go through desert phases in our lives – and although we may not feel this when we travel through those wilderness experiences – they can become very fruitful times for us.  Times when the big questions mattered and were faced.  Times when we gained a deeper perspective on ourselves, life and God.

John the Baptist wasn’t a priest and didn’t serve in the temple.  Yet God spoke through this firebrand of a preacher and the wilderness became his pulpit.

Interesting that – meeting God in wilderness.

Although I’d want to unpack this, C.S.Lewis said something similar when he wrote:
God seems to whisper to us in our joys but he shouts in our sorrows. 

 Prayer
Loving and Life giving God
You travel with us through the wilderness just as you came to your ancient people as a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night.
Sometimes you are silent and we are called to trust in your loving purposes.
Sometimes you speak to us in ways we could never expect and we are called to listen to you with discernment.
Lead us, we pray, through these days of Advent so that with both that sense of trust and discernment we may greet you in joy or sorrow and know that your presence always brings hope.

Through Jesus Christ our Lord – Emmanuel – God with us.

Amen

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Advent 1: The Fig Tree

This Sunday’s painting is a Byzantine Icon – the sort often used in Orthodox worship.  It’s said that you don’t look at an Icon, you read it!

This is an Icon showing Jesus and the Fig Tree which is our gospel reading for today from Luke 21.25-36.

Jesus is wearing both blue and red – Icon painters used those colours to symbolise both his human and divine nature – he’s surrounded by a yellowish gold representing the light of God.

And there’s the fig tree – blossoming – yet there is still room on its branches for more.  This tree shows potential – but isn’t yet at its full glory.

Jesus seems to be saying to us the blossom stands for God’s activity among us – signs of his presence.  And maybe we also see in this teaching that we too can be a sign of God’s activity as our lives produce the fruit of the Spirit.

How does this week's paintings – based on the stories of Jesus – speak to us in these opening days of Advent?


Prayer:

Loving and Life Giving God,
Your life is seen all around us in the life of your
Kingdom of justice and joy
May we bear your fruit of love in our lives and
May our world blossom with your life.
Help us this Advent to rejoice in all the ways
You come to us each day:
In the smile of a friend
The challenge of a task
in The comfort of scripture
The silence of prayer.
Come, Lord Jesus, and open our eyes to the signs of your Kingdom
Amen.


Art in Advent

This year at AFC we are journeying through Advent using a painting a week to help us on the way. 

The little group who’ve planned this journey for us have produced a leaflet that both contains each painting and a bit of background material to help us appreciate these works of art even more.

They have also selected some other Advent and Christmas paintings and they are being displayed in the Art in the Corridor space.

This week – just to get us in the mood – the vestibule monitor has been showing us Brueghel’s ‘Census at Bethlehem’ – maybe to British eyes it looks a little like a Lowry painting.

So much is going on in this painting – maybe a market day – ordinary people living an ordinary day in an ordinary town.  And into the hustle and bustle – perhaps with no one caring overmuch, comes Mary and Joseph – and it is the preamble to Christmas.

The essence of the Incarnation – of God amongst us – is that his presence is sometimes hardly noticed, is mediated through the ordinary – yet however he comes – he comes in love to bless us.


Friday, 20 November 2015

Prayer without Words

The Paris bombings have brought us once more to a place of shock and sadness as we witness the futility of 'man's inhumanity to man'.

Such astonishment and disbelief isn't limited to 'Christian' communities.  My church has been pleased to host a couple of gatherings recently attended by folk of various religious traditions and none and I know our Muslim friends from the Chesham Mosque are equally shocked by the evil carried out by organisations such as Islamic State.

How we respond and acknowledge these atrocities in church is a question I never feel properly prepared for.  Do we depart from the planned order of service, say something at the beginning of worship or the end? So I was grateful to a couple of members of my congregation for their guidance and contribution last Sunday.
One of our choir members asked if we might just have a moment of silence before the Call to Worship.  I'd already prepared a short prayer but hadn't anticipated a shared silence.  But we did as suggested and so many people afterwards thanked me for doing something that was, in fact, another person's suggestion. I'm really grateful for that sort of collaboration.

The other helpful 'contribution' came from the person who looks after our display monitors.  We have all been so impressed by his wonderful 'creativity' in making upcoming events and notices look so attractive over recent months!  Well on Sunday he uploaded the image on this page.  On the monitor it is actually an animated candle gently burning with a superimposed image of the Eiffel Tower.  As he showed it to me before the service he said - 'I didn't think it needed words'.  How true he was.  I felt the image was a real gift to our church community - in fact we've displayed it all week so that our user groups can see it to.  For me it is both an appropriate gesture of solidarity with our French cousins and a prayer in itself - that God's light will continue to shine through the darkness of tragedy eventually bring hope and new life - a beautiful and  heartfelt 'prayer without words'.

Best wishes,

Ian.

Friday, 13 November 2015

'Talking Jesus'

An article in last week's Church Times caught my eye under the headline 'Survey brings good and bad news for faith sharers'.  It detailed some of the results from a report entitles Talking Jesus commissioned by the Church of England, the Evangelical Alliance and Hope UK and is all about how Christians might share faith and the reactions people have to such conversations.  Perhaps the most significant line was this one:

...after a conversation with a Christian about his or her faith, 42 per cent of non-Christians said that they felt glad not to share the faith; and 30 per cent said that they felt more negatively about Jesus'.

This is a well researched and well balanced report that just highlights how difficult it can be to talk about faith with our friends and colleagues.

Ever since I've been in the ministry I've been conscious of a certain 'activist' mindset among both leaders and members of churches that lays guilt on us by saying mission is essentially about 'getting out there and telling people about Jesus'.  I've always been suspicious that if it was simply that easy why didn't it work whenever I've tried it!

I've often talked to family and friends about faith and by and large the response has generally been the same -  we have agreed to differ.

Words, I would suggest, are not enough.  So many other factors are also important such as the person's background, current situation or experience of local churches.  No ones pilgrimage is ever the same because don't we believe that God can communicate his love and light to us in all sorts of ways: through kindness, unexpected companionship, nature, struggle or simply a eureka moment!  When preachers tell us to 'get out there and share our faith' they are, perhaps, not being overly mindful of the contexts and stories of the people 'out there' to whom we are being sent.

I know none of this is easy.  I'm deeply grateful for people who find it natural to talk about faith and invite friends to church.  Yet I'm equally grateful for fellow pilgrims, perhaps introverts like me, who quietly yet faithfully seek to 'live out' faith among their families and friends.

I'm sure this report isn't intended to stop us talking about faith, rather it just recognises that 'mission' is so much bigger than simply 'one beggar telling another beggar where to buy bread'.  Faith sharing is surely living ones life alongside others in such a way that the presence that hopefully energises and motivates me becomes an integral part of my character and may, or may not, 'touch' others around me.  Surely it's not enough to simply 'gossip the gospel' - instead shouldn't we be striving to 'live the gospel'.

Best wishes,

Ian

Friday, 6 November 2015

I'm forever blowing bubbles.....

Yesterday I called in at the Sycamore Club - a group held at our church but 'staffed' by a collection wonderful ecumenical volunteers. This group has been running since 1978 and here's how it described on our website:

The aim of the Sycamore Club is twofold:
1. To aid older people with mental health problems by providing genuine care and stimulating activities one day per week
2. To offer relief to the families and neighbours who care for these individuals in the community

Well I was so inspired and impressed by what I saw yesterday.  I entered a room of 'members and volunteers just about to do some armchair arobics - of course I was invited to join in!  There was so much laughter as we did our exercises and even more when this activity was followed up by twenty minutes of singing.  The lady next to me was so enthusiastic as we sang 'Oh I do like to be beside the seaside' - it was lovely to sit next to her and just sense how much she was enjoying the company and stimulation of this weekly gathering.  One very moving moment was as we sang 'I'm forever blowing bubbles' - as two helpers went around the room gently blowing bubbles on those of us who were seated.  As these beautiful shiny spheres fell to the ground people smiled as we all tried to catch one.

The Sycamore Club is surely a double blessing in that it not only provides a day of companionship and activity for older folk who are now struggling mentally - but in doing so it also gives their faithful carers some free time - time to rest, shop or meet with others - precious time to recharge their batteries ready to receive their loved one back home at the end of the day.

Yesterday it was humbling to see the willingness of the volunteers who do so much to make the Sycamore Club such a positive place to be - their gentle care and compassion is exemplary - and it's wonderful that this is offered by a real mix of people from different churches in Amersham

There are times as a minister when I feel my church 'teaches' me valuable lessons and yesterday was such a day as I saw Christian love in action and thanked God that I belong to such a caring and compassionate community.

With best wishes,


Ian






Sunday, 1 November 2015

For all the Saints

Happy All Saints Day!  Or as Shakespeare would have possibly called it 'Hallowmass'

As it was November 1st we sang W.W.How's hymn 'For All The Saints' in church this morning to what has been described as one of the finest hymn tunes of the 20th century, Sine Nomine by Vaughan Williams.

This festival helps us make that connection between the Church Militant (us here on earth) and the Church Triumphant (those already in God's nearer presence).

Having taken the funeral of a dear friend just last Monday in Malvern I couldn't help but think of him as we sang this morning.

Today - on one of the warmest and sunniest November days ever recorded it feels right, as we enter the year's end, to remember folk we have loved who are no longer with us.

Yet in a sense they do stay with us - in our hearts and minds and in our gratitude.

I recall with particular affection my maternal grandmother.  On the very last time I saw her just hours before she died, she looked me in the eyes and managed to mouth the words 'Thank You' to me - that sad yet immensely beautiful encounter remains one of my most precious memories.

I confess I love How's hymn - he originally wrote no less that eleven verses - most hymn books cut it down to seven at most.  Here are three of them:

O blest communion, fellowship divine,
we feebly struggle, they in glory shine,
yet all are yours and all in praise combine.
Alleluia

The golden evening brightens in the west:
soon, soon to faithful warriers comes their rest,
the peaceful calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia

From earth's wide bounds, from dawn to setting sun,
through heaven's gates to God the three in one
they come, to sing the song on earth begun.
Alleluia


So may memories of the saints make your heart glad during this season of All Hallows.



Thursday, 15 October 2015

A Supportive Group

A picture from the Centenary Party for our Women's Own in 2013
Yesterday I was the speaker at our Women's Own Harvest.  This organisation has been in existence at Amersham Free Church for over a hundred years as the group celebrated its centenary back in 2013.

Like many such gatherings in churches our Women's Own caters primarily for 'senior' ladies.  Indeed many similar groups in neighbouring churches have now closed because older ladies can no longer attend and younger ones are busy elsewhere.

However, there was a good crowd yesterday afternoon and everyone seemed in fine form - well they laughed at my jokes - which was nice of them.

It was fascinating to see the dynamics of this group in action: the friendly way these twenty five ladies greeted each other when entering the room, the gentle and encouraging conversations that were had, the love of singing old hymns and the willingness to try some written in the 1980's! There was an almost tangible sense of companionship and support with lots of laughter thrown in.

At the end I was struck by just how many from the group came up and thanked me for the talk.

As they left the leader of our Women's Own turned to me and said 'these ladies are like family to me'.  I knew exactly what she meant and I feel it's partly her wonderful pastoral care that has kept the group strong for so long.

It's easy, among ministers of my generation to be a bit despondent when it comes to ministry with the elderly. It's youth work or outreach to young families that grabs the headlines and wins the cheers of others.  Yet I sense that is an out of balance perspective.

With a growing demographic - certainly in churches if not in society itself - weighted towards the elderly it would be foolish for us to dismiss their needs and think of work among them as 'second best'.

It's for that reason that in just a few weeks our church is having an Elders' Training Day on this very subject of how we might positively and optimistically view and value our ministry in a church where the majority of the congregation are predominantly beyond retirement age.

If my experience of a lively and supportive Women's Own yesterday was anything to go by that should be something we do enthusiastically.

Best wishes,

Ian


Friday, 9 October 2015

Another Point of View

I am currently devouring the 'historical' novels of Philippa Gregory. They are set at the time of The War of The Roses - that fragile time in English history as the cousins from the Houses of York and Lancaster jostled for the throne: Edward IV, Richard III, Henry VII and all that!

This all started with the TV series earlier in the year called 'The White Queen' - the story of Elizabeth Woodville's marriage to Edward IV.

I find all this interesting partly because I love history but also because Gregory's books are unusual in that they are written entirely from the 'woman's' viewpoint.  These are essentially novels not about the Kings of England but their consort Queens - women often discarded in history textbooks yet brought to life by these wonderfully written and well researched novels.

The other fascinating aspect to Philippa Gregory's writing is that she sometimes takes the same story or time period as covered by a previous book but this time writes it from the viewpoint of another character.  In this way the villain of a former novel becomes the heroine of the next!  She makes us see the same story and events from two vastly different viewpoints.

There is that old saying that you cannot really understand another person unless you've walked in their 'moccasins'!

Actually understanding another person's situation, problem or personality is a constant challenge for us all - yet a very necessary one.  We cannot just look at life from our own point of view and expect to have a fully rounded picture.

Part of 'carrying each others burdens' is to strive for this empathetic attitude which enables us to look at life from 'another point of view'.

Best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Anyone for Roast Preacher!!

What makes for a good sermon?

Surely there must be an answer other than 'short'!

This autumn one of our housegroups is using the sermons of the previous two Sundays as the basis for their reflection and study.  I'm intrigued as to how they are getting on - especially as one of the sermons they looked at yesterday was actually the Harvest Festival 'All Age Talk' at our Parade Service.

There is, of course, the old adage that we should 'preach about God and preach for twenty minutes'!

Over the last three years I've been introduced to the discipline of preaching from the set texts of the Lectionary.  I think that my sermons have probably changed as a result - whether they are better or worse is hard to say!

I strive to work within a few self imposed guidelines in my sermon preparation:

* Try to understand the theological significance of the text in its own background
* Let the text determine the theme and tone of the sermon
* Look at the text from a 'sideways' angle rather than just repeating the obvious - but don't be afraid of reinforcing core truths
* Use appropriate illustrations - these are often the moments when folk really connect with the preacher (well if the conversation at the door is anything to go by!)
* Apply the text to  everyday modern life - if we don't at least set the ball rolling with this our sermons morph into lectures

Philip Brooks, a former Massachusetts Bishop used to say 'Preaching is truth through personality' - I rather like that phrase and definitely believe preachers need to give something of their 'heart' whilst speaking - and our prayer is that the hearer too will receive the sermon not only with their minds but their hearts too.

For me preaching remains one of the greatest privileges of this calling as a Minister of Word and Sacrament.

Oh - and I'd dearly love to be a fly on the wall at that housegroup!

With best wishes,

Ian


Friday, 25 September 2015

All good gifts around us...

I guess like many churches we are celebrating Harvest this weekend.  As I left the building this morning folks were bringing in flowers and foliage to decorate the Sanctuary - creating a bit of the countryside in our worship space.

Amersham blends town and country rather well.  As a 'townie' I enjoy living here - a compact community at the end of a London Tube line!  Yet drive just a couple of miles outside of town and you are immediately in the rural context of 'leafy Bucks'.  I realised that more than ever on the Churches on the Hill walk one Sunday evening over the summer - we wandered through fields full of corn and it was simply beautiful!

Although I enjoy the countryside I'm not really sure that the quietness of a village would be my cup of tea.  That said I'm transfixed by Thomas Hardy's accounts of rural Dorset life in the middle of the 19th century.  He paints both the charm and the challenge of living at that pre-industrialised moment in history.

One of our folk at AFC has given me their own version of the Harvest hymn, We plough the fields and scatter - or at least verse one - and it goes like this:


Our food is grown by farmers
Who harvest all the crops
And most of us do little more
Than buy it in the shops
We take it all for granted
And rarely pause for thought
How seeds which have been planted
Become the food we've brought


Behind the humour there is the truth that most of us are quite divorced from how a harvest actually comes about.

This festival throws up many issues.

The Psalms often extol a Creator God as in Psalm 8.  And to many people they do feel 'closer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth'.  Yet it's also true that the natural world is  'red in tooth and claw' and not always the calm idly we pretend.  In fact sometimes the sheer force and seeming brutality of the natural order hardly seems to point to a benevolent God at all.

These are complex issues.  This week a quietly spoken Pope reminded a powerful President of the need for wise and careful stewardship of the planet.  And the unfolding human drama of the refugees isn't one with an easy or straightforward solution even if it is an issue that should begin with a spirit of compassion and generosity of spirit.

At this Harvest time it seems to me that we not only celebrate an abundant and beautiful world around us but we commit ourselves to sharing with God in its stewardship - even its 'recreation'.

All good wishes,


Ian


Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Carpe Diem

On Saturday evening we enjoyed a concert of Baroque music at St Martin in the Fields.  The programme included Pachelbel's Canon, Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring and Vivaldi's Four Seasons.  As well as being struck by the beauty of the music I was also intrigued by the biographical notes alongside each composer's name - in particular (for some reason that now escapes me!) how old, or young they were when they died.  It's hard to believe that Mozart - who seems to have composed a billion masterpieces - died aged 35. Pachelbel at 53, Vivaldi reaching 63 and Bach making it till 65.  None of them making the bible's 'three score years and ten' let along today's expectations of living well into our eighties and even nineties.

What really struck me - especially about Mozart - was just how much they achieved in so short a time frame.

I suspect my mood might also have been influenced by the knowledge that this Saturday I'm preaching at the Memorial Service for a dear friend, The Revd Dr John Tattersall who was my 'mentor' whilst I was at Spurgeon's College and who died a few months ago out in the USA aged just 70.

None of us in our house speak Latin but we often use the aphorism from that language which goes Carpe Diem - Seize the Day!  We usually shout it trying to get the boys out of bed!

Although Woody Allen tried to make us all laugh by saying of his death that he'd prefer not to be there when it happened - the truth is we all have a finite amount of time and making the most of it - by seizing the day - seems to me to be a very positive way of approaching the days and hopefully years that are left to us - and also one that honours God who has given us this gift in the first place.

Life is precious - so Carpe Diem!

With best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Amazing Grace

We've spent part of the summer this year in The United States.  Firstly in Princeton - a small New Jersey township dominated by its prestigious Ivy League university.  There are lots of Presbyterians in Princeton!  In fact we were amazed at how full the Presbyterian church was on the Sunday we worshipped with this friendly and vibrant congregation on Nassau Street.

The last five days of the holiday saw us move up to New York and it's difficult to imagine a greater contrast with sleepy Princeton.  If Mum and Dad rather preferred the township our two sons reveled in the city!

On our last evening our youngest son treated us to a surprise - planned and paid for by him. We had no idea what was in store for us as we left our hotel off Broadway and walked up to Times Square.  Eventually we arrived outside the Nederlander Theatre - he had tickets for us to see a new show called 'Amazing Grace' - a musical about the life of the hymn writer John Newton!

Ever since I learnt about this Buckinghamshire cleric, Newton, in Sunday School as I was growing up he's been a hero of mine.  I love his story of being press ganged into the navy, living for a time as a slave himself before actually becoming a slave ship captain, of his 'encounter' with God in a fierce ocean storm, his time as tide-surveyor in Liverpool and then his two parishes as an Anglican priest, firstly in Olney alongside the English hymnwriter William Cowper and then opposite the Bank of England at St Mary's Woolnorth where he befriended the abolitionist Wilberforce.  Newton's was such a dramatic life and we are all the richer for having his hymns - such as Glorious things, and How sweet the name of Jesus sounds as well as Amazing Grace, in our books today.

The Nederlander Theatre on Broadway has a reputation for taking historical figures and working them into a musical.  The Wall Street Journal gave the thumbs up to this production saying it was 'One of the best looking musicals to reach New York in recent seasons'!

I loved it too - although I do recognise there was a certain amount of dramatic license with the plot!!

I loved the fact that in the middle of this most cosmopolitan of cities we were listening to songs and dialogue charting the life of a man who experienced the touch of God in his life so much that he turned full circle from slave ship captain to abolitionist.

There were some great songs in the show we saw but if the standing ovation at the end was anything to go by it was the last number that did it for most of us.  It started quietly with a lone African girl singing the first verse of Amazing Grace and one by one members of the cast joined her on stage until, by the time of the last verse, everyone was present singing the old sea captain's song about the love and grace of God that blesses and dignifies every human life on the planet.

It was a great message - with not a dry eye in the house!

best wishes,

Ian



Saturday, 1 August 2015

The Bluebird Cafe!

On one of the sunniest days of the year this week we drove down to Southampton to visit my brother and his family.  His son, a golfing pro working in China, was on holiday and spending time with them so we popped down to see him too.

I've not lived in that part of the world now for thirty years but I 'finished' my growing up there so my memories of the area come from one of the most formative periods of my life.

Two things struck me as we went through the day.

In the afternoon we walked by the coast at Lee On Solent - ice cream in hand.  We passed the Bluebird Cafe and immediately my mind went back to the days I would take my grandfather there.  He was living with us and was virtually blind so occasionally I'd drive him over to the Bluebird for coffee and a Danish pastry.  He loved those simple outings.  And there it was, this small seaside cafe, three decades on still thriving and serving up coffee and Danish to other grandads and sons!

We move on and even leave an area - but the story continues in the places we've left behind.  We experience that in towns we've lived in, churches we've been part of and even cafes we used to visit.  Our lives touch for a time but it is ultimately temporary.

The other thing that struck me is that with family it is different - there is a certain continuity.  This week I saw my brother again - we've known each other now for longer than we knew our parents! Decades come and go, our respective children grow up and leave home, yet still our stories interweave and are permanently connected.  A 'constant' to be valued and worked at - don't you think?

Best wishes,

Ian
Blog holiday now for a few weeks!

Friday, 24 July 2015

Who are Funerals for?

This morning as I met a 'parishioner' at The Crematorium she said to me with a gentle grin 'We must stop meeting like this'.  That's because some of my congregation have attended two services there this week as we've said 'farewell' to two dear friends of the church; one on Wednesday and another today.

I've spent some of this week asking myself the question 'Who are funerals for?' In truth I have quizzed myself on this topic before - I was simply reflecting on it again because of the prominence of this rite pf passage amongst us this week.

There's no doubt that the service is to honour and celebrate the departed.  We are there to remember that person - if we can, in a spirit of thanksgiving and gratitude.  Funerals become so much better when some thing of the one we are commending to God shines through making the service more personal and intimate.

Yet funerals are also most certainly for the living.  In our corporate grief we offer corporate encouragement. These services can be cathartic experiences bringing both a sense of closure and hope to the bereaved.

Sometimes the balance between the departed and the living has to be worked at in the preparation for a funeral service.  We cannot, for example, take it for granted that if it is for a person of faith that their relatives, left planing the liturgy, will themselves have faith or even realise its deep significance to the one we are remembering.

And in a way the service - like all acts of worship - is for God.  We come to him with our grief, our prayers, our confusion and longing - and through scripture and the framework of the rite we receive his comfort and hope - yet all of this is done as an offering of worship presented to God with faltering, hesitant yet real trust in our hearts.

At funeral services us ministers cannot answer all the questions we may have about why someone we are grieving for lost their battle with cancer or suffered a cruel accident - but we can speak of a loving and compassionate God who suffers alongside and travels the road with us.  This is the hope we proclaim at every funeral service - Jesus, the resurrection and the life.

This week as I recall two friends now in God's nearer presence my prayer for them is 'May they rest in peace and rise in glory.'

Best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Long Journeys

This week the New Horizons space craft took photos of Pluto during its historic flyby of this dwarf planet.  Apparently the images and data collected has exceeded the expectations of the scientists with one image of the surface showing a mountain range comparable in size to the Rockies!

The thing that struck me was the length of the voyage to get to this last planet in our Solar System - an incredibly long journey lasting nine years.

In a day and age when 'instant' has become the norm there is, I suspect, still much to be said for the speed of the tortoise as opposed to the hare!  I even see recipe books on the theme of 'Slow' food!

Spiritually most of us would consider ourselves on a long, and sometimes 'slow' journey of faith.  Perhaps we sometimes feel we're going round in circles and arriving back at the start once again! I often think our journeys take us through 'repeated' experiences yet we tackle these episodes as different people each time round.

I think there's great value in a long, slow journey - that's the journey of faith - one that takes a lifetime.

Best wishes,

Ian

Friday, 10 July 2015

Are you an Ecumaniac?!

During my first few weeks as an ordained minister I was invited to supper with an older colleague whose opening gambit, as we tucked into the melon, was 'Are you an Ecumaniac'?  I didn't really know how to answer!  So I waffled on about how I believed in churches working together -  but how I also believed in churches maintaining a strong individual identity.  Anyway, it seemed to satisfy him and we progressed to the chicken casserole without further incident!

Almost thirty years on and I would probably still answer the same way.  So I'm really pleased to be working in Amersham where the three Churches on the Hill are in a meaningful Covenant - but I'm also thrilled that my own church, AFC, has a really strong and vibrant identity.

Ecumenism has figured strongly with us over the last week.  On Sunday we held a joint Churches on The Hill service at St Michael's and the photo above shows four relieved clergy afterwards - enjoying each others friendship and grateful that all had gone well!

Then on Wednesday we held our COTHA (Churches on The Hill Amersham) AGM.  We had two wonderful reports - firstly from The Chiltern Youth Projects (a wing of Youth For Christ) telling us what they do at the local youth centre, all in the name of the local churches. And a report from Open The Book telling us of their work at school assemblies using teams drawn from many churches in the district.

These wonderful and lively projects are not examples of 'committee' based ecumenism but 'task-centred' ecumenism - which I think is the best sort and a model that's always worth pursuing!

Best wishes,

Ian

Friday, 3 July 2015

Four Days in Derbyshire

Last week I was up in Derbyshire attending The Retreat Association's three yearly conference entitled 'Holding a Balance'.  We had great weather, inspiring speakers, good fellowship and creative worship - 'who could ask for anything more!'

As I chair the board of trustees I had something of an  'insiders' view of the goings-on behind the scenes!  I attended some of the planning meetings and took part in the discussions which focused on how to keep 270 participants happy!

Our main speaker was Iain McGilcrist, who is a psychiatrist, doctor, writer and former Oxford literary scholar.  He is particularly famous for his work on 'The Divided Brain'.  His talk was fascinating and the way he floated around the conference ever ready to engage in conversation during the breaks was so appreciated.

All our patrons attended: Rowan Williams, Christopher Jamison, Margaret Rizza and Graham Sparkes.  To catch a glimpse of a former Archbishop of Canterbury serving up the fruit salad on the table opposite one lunchtime was a slightly surreal moment!

The Retreat Association brings together various denominational retreat bodies under one umbrella and also provides a home for those exploring quiet prayer spirituality who don't have any denominational allegiance. One of the best things we do is publish an annual handbook listing pretty much every retreat house in the country and the various activities on offers.  I lent a copy to a minister colleague once and by the end of the evening he told me he'd planned his whole three month sabbatical using the info he'd found in the handbook.

I'm glad we held last week's conference.  It was super to sit at a different table every meal time and chat with Christian folk from right across the spectrum and hear about the way their church or group prays, explores faith and simply tries to 'hold a balance' between faith and life.

I'm deeply grateful to be travelling alongside such people and will look back at those four days in Derbyshire last week as one of the highlights of 2015.

Best wishes,

Ian




Saturday, 27 June 2015

Learning from each other

URC Ministers' Em2 Summer School at Westminster College, Cambridge
This time last week I was at Westminster College, Cambridge helping to lead, alongside my colleague from AFC, a weekend of reflection for ministers of The United Reformed Church who have just completed either two or three years of service since their ordination.

You might have thought this was a weekend of 'giving out' - of Erna and I sharing something of our experience of ministry with those who have not served quite as long as us in their pastorates.  Well if there was a bit of that it was also a weekend of us 'receiving'.  For these 'young' ministers gave us so much!

We had planned one session for them to review a current pastoral issue with the group.  These presentations went deep and drew out some wonderful and deeply thoughtful responses from their peers.  So much so that we had to rejig the programme and allow a second such session.

We arrived in Cambridge last Friday not knowing any of the ministers with whom we would spend this weekend conference - we left after lunch on Sunday feeling as if we were saying farewell to long established friends - such had been the depth of our encounter together.

We also travelled back to Amersham with a profound sense of gratitude that the work of ministry has been entrusted to such fine 'Ministers of Word and Sacrament'.

Best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 18 June 2015

'Catching' the music

Young musicians at Tuesday's LunchBreak Recital
One of the delights of working at Amersham Free Church is hearing great music at our LunchBreak recitals.  This week we enjoyed the final visit, for this academic year, of musicians from Dr Challoner's Boys' School.

It's not often that you would get the chance to look at an audience whilst the music is being played.  Well on Tuesday, sitting as I did on the side, I actually managed to 'see' the reaction of those listening.  It was during a piece by Telemann, played by the String Ensemble, that I glanced over at the boys from the choir, seated on the front two rows awaiting their turn on the programme (they were on last!).  It was a magical moment because these young lads looked utterly captivated by the beautiful music being played.  It was as if Telemann had 'caught' them - touched their soul and given them one of those profound moments that goes deep.

I love such moments and I think they come close to 'prayer' - moments when we connect to something beautiful and greater than ourselves.  Moments that lift the spirit giving fresh and inspiring perspectives.

For such moments 'thanks be to God'.

Ian

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Jambusters! A story of Community?

Over recent Sunday evenings we have been watching the ITV series Home Fires all about the comings and goings of a Cheshire village in World War Two focused on the tribal antics of the Women's Institute - all based on Julie Summers book Jambusters.  It's been a provocative series highlighting many social issues as well as providing some of the more conventional ingredients of Sunday night telly!

One aspect that always strikes me about memories of wartime is the sense of community and common purpose that seems to have been apparent.  Folks often look back with nostalgic eyes to a time of real austerity and rationing, international danger and family grief with a feeling that just maybe there was a greater sense of togetherness then than now.

In the years since the last war we have grown considerably richer and life has become increasingly more comfortable.  Yet it is perhaps also true that there is a greater sense of individualism now than ever before, along with the accompanying loneliness that it often brings.

Perhaps the equation runs like this:
Poverty and struggle = a community working together
Wealth and ease = a community somewhat fractured by individualism

I think one of the challenges for the church in these days of relative wealth and ease is to foster a spirit of community through worship and service.  Working together for a common purpose can be one of the most rewarding journeys life throws up and one we should cherish.

Best wishes,

Ian

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Death is Nothing at All???

Thursday night saw us in the BBC Radio Theatre at the top of Regent's Street watching the recording of this week's Radio 4's News Quiz.  All great fun!

It was hosted by the brilliant Sandi Toksvig who will be leaving the show after it completes its current series. All the panelists were wonderfully witty.  The recording lasted an hour and a half and then overnight the backroom technical people whittle it down to the half hour that is eventual broadcast over the weekend.

So, all was going well and we were coming to the final goodbyes when Sandi Toksvig had to announce that a much loved panelist on the show, Charles Kennedy, had died this week.  It just cut her up and for a few moments she was simply unable to continue.  All our hearts went out to her because it was obvious that this depth of emotion had caught her by surprise.  She thought her professionalism would see her through, yet when the moment came, announcing the news of a much loved friend was just too much.  After a brief pause there was a retake and that's the one that was broadcast.

Charles Kennedy was just a year older than me so I too feel his death in some way, but no where near the way that our host did.  She spoke of him with such warmth and admiration.

This afternoon I sat alongside a friend who is probably spending her last few days in a hospice.  I held her hand and prayed as we both wept knowing that in all likelihood this was the last time we would meet  this side of heaven.  I'm always comforted that instead of presenting Jesus as a stoic, the gospels have him as the friend who wept outside of Lazarus' tomb.

Whilst Henry Scott Holland's poem, 'Death is Nothing at All' has some fine sentiments in its later lines, I confess I find its opening ones a little difficult to take.  Death - is, as someone once said, 'an awfully big adventure' and personally I would never want to reduce it to 'nothing at all'.

The simple truth is that most folk, like my good friend this afternoon, would so value a few more weeks or even days of life.  And no one, I believe, in Thursday's audience had anything other than the deepest sympathy for Sandi Toksvig who has lost a good friend far too early in both their journeys.

I sometimes use these words at the funerals I am privileged to take - they do not say it all but they do say something I hold on to and count as very dear when it comes to saying goodbye to people I love:

Where does the journey end?
Beyond where you can see.

Where do the years end?
That’s unknown to you or me.

Where does life end?
In love and eternity. 

With best wishes,

Ian

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Trinity - beyond words

Inside Barcelona's Cathedral of The Sacred Family on Wednesday
I think Celtic Christianity calls them ‘Thin Places’ – either actual locations or probably, more often, experiences when heaven seems to touch earth and we sense God.

Like waiting for a bus – you can go months without such an encounter and then, like it was for me this week, two come along all at once.

The first moment was attending Choral Evensong last Sunday at St Martin in The Fields and hearing the choir open the service with an unaccompanied introit by Tallis.  The closeness of the harmonies sung by these young musicians went straight to my heart and brought tears to my eyes – for the right reasons!

A few days later in Barcelona we went to the Cathedral of the Sacred Family.  It’s Gaudi’s bazaar masterpiece and is a riot of architectural styles on the outside.  But inside it has a unity and beauty that I found just overwhelmingly breathtaking.  The walls of stained glass create a great sense of warmth and life making this Spanish Roman Catholic Cathedral one of the most inspirational sacred space buildings I’ve ever experienced – jaw droppingly beautiful.

Even though I’ve tried to describe those two rather personal moments for me this week – they were, in fact, simply beyond words.  And often our deepest experiences are.

This weekend we celebrate Trinity Sunday.  The whole concept of Trinity is really beyond words and many of us preachers will find our sermons difficult to prepare!

Yet the experience of Trinity can be very real.

We worship God the Creator
We are inspired by the love and life of Jesus the Christ
We live each day in the strength of the Holy Spirit.


As a mathmatical formula Trinity doesn't really work - but as life lived in faith - it can.

Best wishes,


Ian


Thursday, 21 May 2015

Eric's Concert

Last Sunday afternoon we held one of those occasions which really brought people together.  We celebrated the life of our late organist, Mr Eric Williams.

This concert was quite a time in the planning as various singers and instrumentalists came together and compiled a programme of music which Eric would have enjoyed.

Around one hundred and eighty folk attended - representing many of the chapters of his life - some even telling me they went to primary school together.

We heard stirring anthems and majestic organ solos and somehow through it all we were reminded of just how much this faithful servant of God enhanced our worship at AFC for twenty five years.

Music and worship have always gone together in my book!  Indeed I'm not really sure I could envisage corporate worship without a hymn or two.

At the end we assembled in the hall to share our memories of Eric and I was struck by how much kind hearted laughter filled the atmosphere.  We really were remembering a true gentleman whose contribution to our worshipping life has simply been enormous and greatly appreciated.

I think he would have loved Sunday!

Best wishes,

Ian

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Listening to fellow Seekers after Truth

Last week at AFC one of our neighbouring ministers and a good friend of our church, The Revd Dr John Parry, organised a meeting in one of our rooms at which a young Muslim lawyer, Irfan Arif spoke.

Irfan's family are leaders at the Chesham Mosque and he describes himself as a 'man of faith'. His theme that evening was 'Terrorism'.  He spoke of it from a Muslim perspective with great eloquence and grace - defining it, analysing it and condemning it.  His conclusion was not of pat answers but a genuine attempt to explore the theme and do so with insight, compassion and understanding.

After presenting his paper Irfan took questions which kept coming and coming - as an audience made up of Muslim and Christians - and possibly those with no named faith - engaged with him on some of the burning issues of the day.  Time and again this young Cambridge graduate answered with a wisdom above his years and with exemplary grace.

I suspect we all came away grateful to John for organising the evening and to Irfan for being such a splendid speaker.  We had listened to each other, struggled with deep questions and glimpsed new insights into each others understanding of faith.

I think the evening was one of those seminal moments for me when I realised afresh how vital it is for seekers after truth to dialogue with one another - for out of these encounters and conversations so much good can flow built upon a foundation of mutual respect and friendship.

Thank you Irfan for sharing your journey with us.

Ian

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Marks of Civilization

What makes us civilized?  It must be more than eating with the right knife and folk!

On Bank Holiday Monday we spent some time in the British Museum.  I love looking at the vases and jewellery in the display cabinets charting the history of Ancient Greece – a place we often associate with the birthplace of civilization.  It’s breathtaking to contemplate that some of these exquisite pots and beautiful golden broaches were being used and worn 1400 years before the birth of Jesus – and here they are on display in central London. I’d love to touch them!

Maybe the voting we are engaged in today is also a mark of being a reasonable and civilized people belonging to an old and well established democracy.

Here are some random reflections of some marks of civilization that have come my way over recent weeks.

*  My church community launches an appeal for Christian Aid supporting Mother and Baby Care in Kenya – a project that will receive joint funding with the EU.  We aim for £5,000 over two years and through the generosity of AFC we reach £10,000 in one year.

* Two hundred folk attended a Hustings in Amersham last week put on by Churches Together and in actually listening to the candidates we learnt something!

* We are preparing to celebrate the life of a much loved friend of our church, our late organist, with a concert full of inspirational music that Eric would have loved – musicians and singers all working hard to make this a splendid occasion.

* Our Tuesdays at our church LunchBreak welcomes a big group of mentally handicapped friends every week and together, with other friends from church and community, over ninety of us enjoy food and company.

* At the farewell meal for our local vicar on Sunday I sat at the same table as some Iranian Christians and we talked of our different church traditions and concluded Jesus’ command to love God and neighbour was the motivational force in our faith.

* In the sermons I hope to preach and the hymns I want to sing we proclaim our belief in the God who loves us, constantly gives us a second chance and welcomes us ‘home’. So if God treats us like that shouldn’t we be generous and forgiving to each other as well?

All of these, I feel, are marks of civilization as precious as any of the stunning Greek vases I saw in the British Museum on Monday!

Best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 30 April 2015

The God who both goes and stays!

This weekend our local Parish Church, St Michael's, says 'farewell' to their priest after ten years of service.  The Revd Diana is retiring.

Actually we will all miss this much loved and appreciated servant of God.

Diana has been the best Anglican colleague I have had the privilege to work with in all of my twenty eight years of formal ministry.  Her warm hearted spirit and co-operative attitude has made relationships between our two churches a deep joy.  In COTHA (Churches Together on The Hill) we too will be saying goodbye to someone we have grown to deeply respect and value.

The truth is, I think, that ecumenism - for all the reports and schemes that surround it - ultimately depends on relationships; and clergy relationships are crucial.  Diana has been a great friend to us at The Free Church and we wish miss her very much.

I'm always struck on these occasions by Abraham Lincoln's words as he bade farewell to his home town and made his way to Washington DC for his first inauguration.  Speaking to the crowds at the railway station he said 'The God who goes with me...is the God who stays with you.'  I think we rejoice in that truth.  The God who will be with The Revd Diana as she takes this next step on her journey is the same God who mysteriously and wonderfully stays with us here in Amersham, at St Michael's and in COTHA.  We are all held, cherished and sustained in God's hands.

So 'thank you' Diana for living the life of faith along side us and so wonderfully embodying the love and light of Christ among us.  And we rejoice that the God who goes with you stays with us and continues to bind us all together.

All good wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Where's the dragon?

I took the car in for a service this morning and on the walk back passed a local primary school.  The children arriving in a constant stream were in fancy dress - but then I noticed that, in fact, they were only representing two characters.  The girls were dressed as a Princess and the boys as St George!  Oh, there were also one or two dragons!!

It reminded me, being April 23rd, that  today is St George's Day and the school I was passing is, in fact, called St George's!  I suspect by the end of the day their teachers will have had just enough of that pesky dragon!!

The truth is that until 1552 Edward The Confessor was England's patron saint.  Eventually he was displaced by St George - a saint with a dragon myth story attached - a story probably brought back by the Crusaders.

Historians tell us that George is an historical figure.  That he was a Christian in the military service of the Emperor but that when Diocletian ordered every soldier to burn incense to him, George refused and maintained his Christian faith.  As a result he was beheaded on 23rd April 303.

I wonder how much the 'man on the Clapham omnibus' knows about St George?  Perhaps not too much.

For myself, I think I would have preferred it if we had kept Edward the Confessor, but George's story is surely inspirational too - not the story about the dragon (which probably never happened!) but his martyrdom for Jesus Christ.  One of the many in Roman society who resolutely stood firm in their beliefs and paid the ultimate sacrifice.

So on this St George's Day I thank God for all who are guided by integrity and conviction - especially for those Christian saints who put serving God and loving their fellows higher than their own comfort or lives.

In a few moments I shall retrace my steps and go back to collect the car - replete with two new front tyres - and being the end of the school day I expect to meet with some grumpy and exhausted looking dragons!

Best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Going Back

On Sunday I preached at the church where I served between 1987-1992. It was my first appointment after ordination and was basically a five year curacy/apprenticeship working alongside a much loved and experienced older minister.  I remember Fuller Baptist Church in Kettering as a large, vibrant and loving congregation.  These were early days for me and I was constantly overawed by the tasks given to me.  Preaching to over two hundred at morning service seemed an enormous responsibility, as did being given overall charge of not one but two youth groups.

I've been back to Fuller quite a few times since moving on.  On every occasion I've been welcomed with a deep friendship that seems to melt away the years in between and last Sunday was no exception.

As the offering was received on Sunday I sat on the platform and looked out on a sanctuary I know well.  For a moment my mind went back to those days in the late eighties - ghosts of the past seemed everywhere. I remembered where people who are no longer with us used to sit - and I missed them being there!

My old church in Kettering has changed!  And that shouldn't surprise anyone!  It has continued its journey with committed people supporting it and ministers serving it.  On Sunday I was thrilled to hear a talented music group in the morning accompany our worship and a splendid organ and choir enhance our evening praise.  I met people who were once in our youth group who now bring their own children to Junior Church.  I saw on the notice sheet the figures for the previous week's offering and noted just how generous this congregation is.  I heard of exciting plans for the refurbishment of the Victorian sanctuary and the fact that the Coffee House we established twenty five years ago is still opening its doors to the Kettering public each weekday.

Us ministers often worry about our churches when we leave them!  But the truth is ministers only ever journey with a particular church for a limited period of time.  Members of churches, on the other hand, often stay around for generations.

My colleague at Amersham often reminds me, wisely, that it isn't just down to us and that we need to 'leave room for the Holy Spirit'!  On Sunday I rejoiced at the many good things I detected are happening at a church I used to serve and now watch, prayerfully, from a distance - and I'm grateful that although I was called elsewhere the Holy Spirit stayed and their story continues.

With best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 9 April 2015

A 'God Moment' last weekend?

Last Saturday we had the privilege of being guests at a Passover meal (Seder) hosted by the South Bucks Liberal Jewish Community and in a strange way it was one of my highlights this Easter.

We were made to feel so welcome from the word go with so many people coming up to us and introducing themselves.  Rabbi Rachel guided us through the service giving us background information as we went along.

One or two aspects of the evening live in my memory:

* This particular Community (being Liberal Jews) had an orange on the Seder plate.  It's there because a rather reactionary Rabbi once said it would be as incongruous to have it as to have women worshipping in a synagogue alongside men.  Well that did it for some Communities - and to show that they believe in non-discrimination they proudly put the orange alongside the bitter herbs!  Just one example of the way this branch of Judaism isn't shackled to the past but is constantly evolving.

*  When the unleavened bread was passed round - being a good Baptist I broke off a tiny bit - rather like I would at communion.  The lady opposite smiled and said I needed a much bigger chunk - so I had to have a second go!  I was so touched by the open-hearted informality that characterised this Passover.

*  As is customary a Cup for Elijah was on the table - the one who will come one day and 'answer our questions' - yet this Community constantly seems to be developing and deepening their rituals so on Saturday Elijah's empty cup was passed to everyone - who then poured a little of their own wine into it - by the end the cup was full representing that everyone has a part to play in bringing about the Messianic Kingdom.

*  Much was made of the Shank bone on the Seder Plate - representing that last Passover Meal eaten in Egypt before freedom.  Yet today, it seems, many Jews are vegetarians so a great discussion ensued about what they would have on their plate instead.  The family opposite us said they just placed a plastic sheep!  Rabbi Rachel said she'd heard of Paschal 'Yams'!  This just sums up the atmosphere of the evening - one of sharing, often in a light hearted way, some very deep truths.  There was simply no forced air of solemnity - and in a sense that's a very different atmosphere from our own at communion.

*  There was a raffle - so that felt very human!

*  Perhaps for me the most precious moment came as we were about to leave.  It had been a splendid evening, one in which I sensed we shared so much in common.  On my way out two men, an older and younger guy, independently yet consecutively grabbed my hand, shook it, looked into my eyes and smiled saying 'Happy Easter'.  To be given that greeting, at that event by those people was a profoundly humbling moment - one that showed so much mutual respect for our different faiths.

So, you see, in a strange way my Easter was deepened by this event and I thank God for it.

All good wishes,

Ian




Thursday, 2 April 2015

Holy Week Reflection: Disappointments

They fled from the city - or if they stayed it was more to do with betrayal and denial than support.

Disappointment was in the air.  These friends of Jesus must have disappointed him. They were his travelling companions with whom he had shared more than anyone else, both behind the scenes sharing and the up front stage presentations.  But now many of them were no where to be seen.

But he was probably their biggest disappointment.   The cross seems so messy and final.  A humiliating end to what they thought was a new era.  Not for them the knowledge that Easter would eventually have a Sunday as well as a Friday.

We still don't like too much mess in the Church.  Perhaps we've never been good at coping with mistakes and picking up from failure.  The worst response is to spiritualise everything rather than face our stories with honesty.

And in this Easter story isn't there also a hint of 'Disappointment with God'.  It comes closest in that heart felt plea from the cross, Jesus' cry of dereliction: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

In the tradition of 'The Stations of The Cross' there are two entitled: Jesus falls.  In other words his burden, the crossbeam, is too much - the first time round prompting the ordering of Simon of Cyrene to lend assistance.

Do we remember our first and second falls? Do we remember when first we were conscious of disillusionment?  Of waking up to the real me, the real Church, the real God, the real life.  Politicians call it: Managing expectations!

Maybe too it's part of any celebration with a zero.  20 years at work, 40 years of marriage, 80 years of age - they all prompt the question: how did we manage our disillusionments?  Did they crush us, inform us or mold us?

So looking to the cross this day I recall that in being surrounded by so many disappointments Jesus:
...responds to violence with peace
...cries dereliction with honesty
...finds strength to forgive and go on loving.

In that I hear the whisper of God and pray that my disappointments will lead, bit by bit, not to me falling over and staying on the ground but 'falling upwards'- so that I keep on walking despite and, maybe even because of, the disillusionment I discover along the way.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Holy Week Reflection: Crown of Thorns

We slipped into the Jewel House around lunchtime whilst everyone else was tucking into their sandwiches.  An hour later and the wait would have been endless.

They glistened - these Imperial Royal Crowns - smothered in rubies and diamonds.  They had adorned the heads of good kings, bad kings, monarchs with real power and now sovereigns, who in a modern democracy, have just the power of example and influence. After all the shining gold we emerged into a dull, grey London June day feeling we had left the sparkle and fairy tale behind.

On that first Jerusalem Good Friday the crown was of thorns not diamonds given in mockery never homage.

Ironic then that the one who wore it with such resilient patience never asked for an earthly coronation.  Never sought a palace.  He called his subjects 'friends' and rather than be served he was the one who served.

Today what crown do we try to place upon the brow of Jesus?

A crown of power maybe?  Yet he still says that he suffers alongside us, carrying our burdens and serves us with the love that is surely at the epicentre of the universe.

How small they look now - the ones who crowned him that day and put upon his shoulders a purple robe.
How small they look in their cowardly sarcasm.
How small they look in their temporary and abusive power.
How small they look in their mistaken superiority.

This Servant King looks into their eyes knowingly.
This Servant King washes feet, touches lepers and gives us, the fallen, a second chance.

On Good Friday the one who proclaims and embodies this Kingdom of God wears a crown not of diamonds but of thorns and we see a strange and majestic beauty that confuses, challenges and combines our stumbling ideas of kingship and service.


Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Holy Week Reflection: Choices

This week I've made so many choices - and so, probably, have you.  We make them all the time without even realising and from time to time we have to make really big ones.

The narrative of Good Friday is a story full of choices.

Jesus chooses to remain silent when accused.  He seems to embrace the cross rather than argue pedantics with Pilate.  It's not easy to know when to speak and when to refrain from speaking.  But there are moments when lifestyle, acts of compassion and justice, or even just an encouraging smile are worth a thousand words filling up a heated debate in which no one is listening.

Pilate chooses to probe and then pass the buck.  Is he a crowd pleaser?  Maybe he is just doing the obvious political thing, getting the job done by upsetting as few a people as possible.  To even begin to square a circle and attempt the seemingly impossible - find justice and truth even when a baying crowd is in the forecourt - would have taken enormous courage and leadership.

And the crowd chooses - Barabbas over Jesus, the obvious over the nuanced, the easy answer rather than the difficult question - but that, I suppose, is generally the nature of crowds and peer group pressure.

I, of course, also have a choice.

I can choose to:
...come to faith as a Seeker after Truth, open to change, willing to move on and to greet each new day with its joys and challenges as a fresh expression of truth and exploration.

I'm in the crowd today.

I can call for Barabbas - for the spectacular choice.
I can pass the buck and say it's always down to someone else.

Or I can:
...grasp the complexity of life lived faithfully with pain
...battle on with the confusion and lack of answers that faith sometimes brings
...feel with heartfelt passion what is just and hopeful and live out that passion in my actions
...walk with faith, make the road of faith, live a life of faith - and in the doing learn what it means to be a person of faith.

I could call for Barabbas or...
I can call for Jesus.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

What kind of King...?

Tomorrow, at Leicester Cathedral, a King will be laid to rest.  Richard III has had something of a dubious reputation up to now but over recent months this seems to have been somewhat reassessed.

It's been remarkable to see just how many people have turned out to 'honour' this King on his last journey to the cathedral.  His death at Bosworth  in 1485 not only signalled the end of the House of York but effectively brought to an end the Battle of the Roses. Five hundred and thirty years is a long time to wait for a proper burial.

This re-appraisal of Richard III's life will, we are told, be further enhanced tomorrow as an appreciative message from the Queen is read out at his funeral.

I wonder what kind of King he really was?  'History', my teacher used to say, 'is always written by the victors', so in a sense we never really know the true nature of the characters who fill the narrative of our nation's story.

Palm Sunday, just a few days away, poses a similar question: What kind of King was Jesus?

As he rides into Jerusalem he seems to be greeted by an enthusiasm that all but evaporates by Good Friday. To many of his day, and perhaps even in ours, Jesus was a King who disappointed.  He embraced his death with dignity rather than retaliation and violence.

Our Lent journey is ending but our questions continue as to who this Jesus really was and what kind of King would suffer as his did upon a cross?

One bible commentator I read this week puts it like this: 'The failure of Jesus is his success' - I think I need another Lent to think that one through!

Best wishes,

Ian

Friday, 20 March 2015

He played the commas!

Having flown into Heathrow last night after attending a week long conference in Bangkok, Thailand I had intended to have a blog holiday this week - but something has changed all that.

Whilst away I heard the sad news that Eric, AFC's organist for the last twenty five years (and Kenton URC's organist for twenty five years before that) has died.  Our loving thoughts and prayers go out to Eric's family.

Eric was such a big part of our life together at Amersham and every service owed so much to him with his choice of music and the empathetic way he played the hymns.  I have a private little benchmark in my mind when it comes to organists - and if they play the commas - that is make a short break in the music at that point, then I know they are reading the words as well as playing the notes - and it makes a world of difference.  Eric was a comma reader!

So often his voluntaries would suit the mood of the day.  When I preached 'with a view' he played 'Nearer my God to thee' because it was the centenary that Sunday of the sinking of the Titanic!  When a friend of mine from Florida was visiting he weaved in the American National Anthem throughout the offering!

Eric was one of the best 'friends' that AFC or any church could have wished for and he was such a humble, co-operative and gifted organists to have around - we have been so very fortunate!

He last played for us on Christmas Day morning.

I visited him just days before flying off to Thailand and it was clear he was very poorly.  This Sunday Sara Autton, who worked alongside him for so many years as choir mistress will say a few words and we'll place a red rose on the organ console - in memory of the man who played the commas because for him playing the organ was his way of worshipping God.

Eric, our much loved friend - may you rest in peace and rise in glory and may the music of heaven be greatly enhanced by your presence amongst the angels.

All good wishes,

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...