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.


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