Friday, 30 December 2016

Happy New Year!

As we plunge into 2017 we bump into a few significant anniversaries.  Here are just four:
               100 years since the end of the Russian Royal Family with the abdication of Tsar Nicolas II
               30 years since the Church of England decided to ordain women priests
               20 years since the handover of Hong Kong
               20 years since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales

Perhaps, like me, (apart from the first one!) you are saying ‘seems like only yesterday’!!

Of course any year has particular anniversaries and some commemorate events which will have been a long time in the making with lots of struggle along the way.  In the above list the Ordination of Women to the Anglican Priesthood was just such a long term aspiration.  Many struggled hard to make that dream become a reality – as it did through a General Synod vote in 1987 – the year I myself was ordained as a Baptist Minister!
Yet other events come out of the blue and knock us sideways; they are neither planned nor anticipated and we can be left shocked and confused in their wake.  The death of Princess Diana twenty years ago this coming autumn was just such a moment.  It happened the night before our second son, Jonty, was to be ‘Dedicated’ and in the light of those sad events we spent a few hours before the service frantically changing both some of the hymns and the text of the sermon – but I don’t think he noticed too much!

Life is that stimulating, yet often challenging, mixture of the planned and unplanned; and 2017 will be no different in that respect from any other year.

‘Discerning’ the presence and activity of God in all that comes our way is an important part of our pilgrimage.  We’ll do that as we bring our experience, our prayers, our thinking and our hoping to the various experiences that lay before us as a church community and as individuals in the upcoming twelve months.

I’m ‘looking out’ for God in 2017 – and I hope you are too!



Monday, 26 December 2016

Christmas Day: The Saviour is Born by Valerie Anne Kelly

What is it that makes Christmas Morning so special?


We have pondered many themes on our Advent Journey and they culminate in today’s yearly celebration of the Christ-Child of Bethlehem.

Our artist for Christmas Day – Valerie Anne Kelly – has used an unusual technique and distinctive colours to portray the Holy Family.

It’s not meant to be ‘life’- like but it is surely meant to speak a message about life.

These deep colours portray a depth of meaning as Mary holds Jesus with Joseph looking on.  Here we meet such an intensity of emotion alongside a burst of joy.  In our painting today there is sunshine, light, warmth and love.

On Christmas morning we celebrate life and the new beginnings that every birth gives.  The birth of Jesus so changed our world that we even attempt to date our calendar from his arrival.

On Christmas morning we celebrate the potential found in something so ordinary as the birth of a baby.  That potential contained within it a life that showed us God in a way we could understand.

On Christmas morning we celebrate hope – for in Jesus, his life and message, we encounter the healing and wholeness that offers our world hope for today and tomorrow.

Yet, especially, on Christmas morning we celebrate Love.  Today’s painting shows great love between Mary and Joseph.  Today’s gospel speaks of God’s love for our world in the gift of the Christ-Child.

Love can and does change the world – it is both the character and the gift of God – and today we rejoice once more that Love Came Down at Christmas.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo


Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Christmas in Poetry: Candlelight Talk

AFC Carols by Candlelight 18th December 2016
I think Christmas is impossible to explain; at least in a detached, forensic way.

I remember having a go at that during my days in Theological College.  In fact my first essay was an attempt to explain The Virgin Birth.  Thirty years on I neither remember what I wrote nor the mark I received!

Since those days I’ve come to the conclusion that Christmas is best expressed in poetry rather than prose.  It’s the reason why there are seven carols at our Candlelight Service and just one sermon!

There really is no adequate explanation that could fully unpack the mind-blowing idea of the Incarnation.

Yet we sense the deep truth of it as we sing:
       Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
       hail the incarnate Deity,
       pleased as man with men to dwell,
       Jesus our Immanuel.

It seems to me that Christmas contains some very deep and lasting truths.

Only last week as I listened to Radio 4’s Today Programme us listeners were reminded that the summer sensation called Pok√©mon Go, all the rage six months ago, is already old hat!
We are often drawn to the new, yet at Christmas it is the old truths which hit the spot.

We read of Mary and Joseph struggling to come to terms with an unexpected pregnancy.  A young couple facing the sniggers of neighbours.  Yet they don’t give up on each other and teach us the truth that any loving partnership can grow through the lows as well as delight in the highs.

We read of shepherds and wise men kneeling at the manger.  Teaching us the truth that God’s presence among us is open to all, both the lowly born and the highly privileged.

We read of Mary whose real miracle wasn’t the Virgin Birth but the truth that a mother’s love stays true; for she is there by Jesus’ side not only at his cradle but also at his cross.

And, of course, we read that God comes to us not as an idea, not as a force but as a human being.  Teaching us the deep and enduring truth that God shares life with us – alongside us he shares his light, his light, his joy and his peace.

There is a lovely prayer on our notice sheet, it’s from John Bell of the Iona Community and called the Creeping of The Light:

Light looked down and saw darkness.  “I will go there,” said Light.
Peace looked down and saw war.  “I will go there,” said Peace.
Love looked down and saw hatred.  “I will go there,” said Love.
So he, the Lord of Light, the Prince of Peace, the King of Love,
came down and crept in beside us.

Christmas in Poetry, to me it’s the best way to express these deep and lasting truths.

Or as John Betjeman put it in what is probably the most famous Christmas poem after the Angel’s Gloria:

And is it true, and is it true:
No love that in a family dwells
No carolling in frosty air
Not all the steeple shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in bread and wine.

May God travel with us through these final days of Advent and when it comes, may we all know his blessing this coming Christmas

Monday, 19 December 2016

Fourth Sunday in Advent: The Annunciation to Joseph: Seiger Koder

This is the liturgical year of Matthew and in his gospel the Annunciation isn’t to Mary but to Joseph, in the mystery and assurance of a dream.

Is this of God?  How many times in life is that a question upon our lips and in our hearts?  Is this of God?

In the BBC series Nativity Joseph is blown away by Mary’s news.  It, quite simply, fractures, their relationship.  He stays with her, but only just.

This is no fairy story but an unfolding nightmare for this young couple.

One unforgettable scene is that as she gives birth Joseph puts his hand into hers and grips it.  At last they are together and in the end they are united.

Seeing God – it takes time – like Joseph – it takes time.

and then in a moment, maybe in a painful action or a wordless event we see it clearly for the first time.  God at work in the pain, the chaos, the confusion and the joy.

And life is never the same again.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Brussels at Christmas!!!

Do you like Brussel Sprouts with your Christmas dinner?!

I’m not a fan!

Sarah Kennedy, when she presented her early morning breakfast show on Radio 2, used to talk about putting on the sprouts mid-October ready for Christmas Day!

Perhaps they will always be part of Christmas Dinner for some – I see there are 28 recipes for what to do with them on the BBC Food website!

The Good News – for me at least – is that there was a summer invasion of Diamondbacks this year, otherwise known as Cabbage moths – so in Lincolnshire, which supplies 2/3rds of all Britain’s sprouts, crops are down by 60% - hooray!!!!

For the second year running I’ve bought some chocolate sprouts from M&S!  I know it’s cheating – but it’s the best way to eat them – chocolate balls dressed in green!!  Sugar coated!

We sometimes do that with Christmas – we sugar coat it and try to make it nice – perhaps too nice.

The actual Christmas story is far from sugar coated.

Mary and Joseph’s was a tough engagement full of vicious rumours.

It was a tortuous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Birth in a stable couldn’t be on anyone’s wish list.

And once born, not everyone, especially Herod, welcomed the arrival of Jesus.

The Christmas story is anything but sugar coated.  It has struggle and confusion alongside joy and love.

Yet God comes in the struggle.

God comes in the confusion.

Just as much as he comes in the joy and the love.

Perhaps that’s one of the deepest meanings of Christmas – God touches our lives and lives alongside us in both good times and bad. 


That’s Immanuel – God with us

Monday, 12 December 2016

Third Sunday of Advent: St John the Baptist in Prison: Juan Fernadez Navarett 1538-79

Christmas is more than the Nativity Play with all its predictability and certainty.

We know the story well – perhaps too well?

Yet, because they didn’t know the ending: Mary is confused and Joseph is angry.

In his second appearance in our Advent journey John the Baptist is no longer the assured and thundering preacher by the Jordan.  By now he is downcast and vulnerable.  Alone in prison he starts to doubt his message and his trust in Jesus.  As his mind whiles away the hours he comes up with the question he asks his follows to present to Jesus: Are you the one – or should we look for another?

Doubt, questions, faith, trust – all part of the package.

Living with uncertainty, living with the questions, living with Jesus. John’s vulnerability and ours.


Monday, 5 December 2016

Second Sunday of Advent: John the Baptist: Icon in the Orthodox Tradition

Advent is a time of preparation and John the Baptist is the Forerunner in the Christmas story.

He is quite some ‘warm up’ act!  And in the lectionary he has not one but two Sundays allocated to him.

He’s quite a thespian with that clothing and life style, quite the extrovert in the style of an Old Testament prophet.  If he’d still been around I suspect I would be rather pleased if he went to my neighbour’s church rather than mine!

John called for a change of heart and a transformation of the national mindset.

The story of Jesus calls for us to look at life differently.  It begins with a humble birth as shepherds come with un-characteristic appreciation of a baby laid in a manger.  And this all happening to a peasant girl not a princess.

Jesus seems to break to rules from day one.  No wonder John said we need an open mind and a generous heart to receive his message, the upside down message of God’s Kingdom.

Christmas isn’t cute – it’s radical!

Thursday, 1 December 2016

An Advent Parable

Last weekend I travelled into deepest Worcestershire and attended a weekend Advent Retreat.

I can’t think of a better way to start this season of waiting and wondering than sharing in forty-eight hours of purposeful silence sustained by thoughtful spoken reflections and beautifully crafted liturgy – oh and the food was good too!

On the Saturday evening as it grew dusk we gathered in the chapel to be led through one of those reflections. It was all going so well until the CD player failed and a crucial piece of music couldn’t be played.  It was the hymn ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’, often sung at this time of year but the version she had chosen was a wonderfully evocative one played on the Saxophone by Christian Fawshore.

My heart went out to the person leading.  The moment felt a little ‘broken’.  Yet she tried to pick it all up and move on as seamlessly as she could. 

We all then began to notice a few folk stumbling around in the darkness at one end of the chapel searching for a hymn book.  Once found a retreatant asked our leader that, as the CD had failed, could she sing the hymn to the group instead.

It was a spine- tingling moment as her beautiful unaccompanied voice pierced the darkness.  She sang the hymn with such sensitive phrasing and interpretation that I suspect many of us left the chapel with tears in our eyes.

Of course none of this was planned; in fact, it was quite the opposite.  Yet what happened was one of the most moving moments of our time together.  It was almost ‘parabolic’ in that it contained in just a few short moments the essence of what this Advent Retreat was all about. Our lone singer, with such a generous and spontaneous reaction, really did redeem a broken situation.

And isn’t that the essence of the Advent message.  That God comes among us in Jesus to restore our fragile world with fresh hope, healing and vision.

Advent is a season full of hope.  For God is still at work bringing light out of darkness, confidence out of fear and love out of indifference.

And last Saturday, as our fellow retreatant sang those first few lines I think we all felt that hope and gave thanks to God for it.


Tuesday, 29 November 2016

1st Sunday in Advent: The Light of The World

It looks like a cold night maybe with the dawn about to break in midwinter.

It also looks as if Jesus isn’t too sure if this door will actually be opened – yet still he knocks.

Holman Hunt painted three versions of this painting, the original he donated to Keble College, Oxford but incredibly they didn’t want it in the Sanctuary and placed it instead in a side room charging people for the privilege of viewing it.  So he painted a second, life sized version which today hangs in St Paul’s Cathedral.

Jesus – God – seeking us out, looking for us, longing to greet us if only we would open the door.

I wonder what the story might be behind the door and the reason for the delay in opening?

In a season when we remember the Coming of God – I look at Hunt’s work and I am comforted, inspired and immensely grateful for the idea that God is seeking me out, longing and searching for me – wanting my company.  Mind blowingly wonderful that still The Light of the World knocks on our hearts door.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

The Adoration of the Magi: Peter Brueghel 1525-1569

Over the next few weeks my church in Amersham will once again be travelling through Advent with some wonderful paintings as our companions on this journey to Christmas.  These paintings will be shown at our services, displayed on our vestibule monitor and be on a special Advent leaflet given to the congregation, and shown on this Blog!! I think it’s a great way to help us along the way to Christmas.

The first painting is The Adoration of the Magi by Brueghel the Elder and it’s a chaotically crowded scene; I love the people on camels!

Is this a noisy or hushed crowd?

Here are people from all nations; it’s as if the whole world is coming to see the baby called Jesus.  Yet every crowd is made of individuals and Brueghel is a master at painting the details of so many different faces.

There is a momentum, from family expectation to the jingles played over and over in shops, that forces us to walk towards Christmas.  Yet I long for this year’s journey to be different from last year’s.  I’m a year older and the Road to Bethlehem, and maybe even the significance of what I’ll find there, is not quite the same as last year.  It’s a personal journey – I come as an individual.

Brueghel paints princes and paupers, all life is here.

Yet there are two characters with their backs to us and to Jesus who seem detached form what’s going on around them as they talk to each other and look at the river! 

And there are people at the back of the crowd who cannot possibly have a clue at what the front row people are looking at! 

Christmas has a chaos all its own.  Yet somewhere, and at some time, it holds the potential to thrill and amaze us and see life with a new wonder.

Maybe I’m on a camel, perhaps I’m looking at the river or possibly I’m still at the back of the crowd wondering what is going on.  I’m in there somewhere – perhaps you are too!

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Order! Order!

St Columba's, Woking
I belong to an Order!  It’s a religious one and it’s called The Order of Baptist Ministry and this afternoon I returned from its annual two-day Convocation, which this year was held at St Columba’s Conference and Retreat Centre in Woking.

This ‘Order’ has been in existence for some six years and I’ve been part of it since its inception.

It’s loosely based on groups like The 3rd Order Franciscans – that is we have certain ‘monastic’ principles which bind us together but we are a dispersed community rather than a residential one.

I suppose for some it might seem strange that a Free Church movement like the Baptists has such an Order – but I have to say that for me this recent initiative has been one of the most appropriate and nourishing to come out of my parent denomination.

To belong to the order – and two ministers took their vows today at our concluding Communion Service – you have to pledge yourself to five core activities – here they are:

1) To regularly use the Order’s Daily Office
2) To meet in Cell about once every six weeks with other members of the Order – to say the Office together and be ‘accountable’ to one another as to how one’s spiritual life is going
3) To meet in Convocation once a year with all the other members of the Order
4) To have a Spiritual Director with whom one meets regularly
5) To go on retreat once a year

I took my vows three years ago – but I was reminded at the Convocation that I have forgotten to pay this year’s membership fee!!

I have benefitted beyond words by the supportive and sustaining fellowship of my Cell Group and attendance at Convocation alongside like- minded colleagues is a real joy.

One of the most precious pieces of thinking to come out of the Order for Baptist Ministry is the ‘Foundation Document’ that we all sign up to.  We read it together at the beginning of our time in Woking on Wednesday afternoon – here it is – and I think in reading it you’ll get a flavour of this group to which I’m so happy to belong:


                                                                                            
We dream of an Order, a community of equals
                                                                                         
Where we are gathered and dispersed
journeying together even when alone
rooted within the Baptist story.

Where we hold a view of Baptist ministry
as a way of being that mediates the presence of Christ,
particularly expressed in word, sacrament, pastoral care and mission.

Where we seek to be attentive
to Word and Spirit
contemplating in silence and conversation
in stillness and in service
the Triune God -
known and unknown
mystery and revelation -
present in Christ
within us
between us
and around us.

Where we offer safe space 
cradling, nurturing and holding us
that we may risk and explore
think aloud
hear and be heard
value dissent and freedom of conscience
walk together and watch over one another.

Where we live within the disciplines of this Order
committed to prayer
committed to gather
following the rule of Christ
with hearts set on pilgrimage
makers of peace
pursuers of justice
lovers of mercy
bearing witness to Christ.

We dream of an Order
committed to the way of Christ
faithful to the call of Christ
discerning the mind of Christ
offering the welcome of Christ
growing in the likeness of Christ
engaging in the mission of Christ
in the world that belongs to Christ.

We dream...


Best wishes,

Ian


Words! Words!

Well what a week it’s been!  The election of the 45th President of the United States has been like something from the pages of fiction – but you can’t make this stuff up!

We join our prayers with our American friends as they prepare for Mr Trump’s Inauguration on 20th January 2017.

It has struck me over these last few months just how important words are in any political campaign. 

I think all our leaders have a responsibility to use words carefully and thoughtfully.  Trading insults and peddling fears is unworthy rhetoric from anyone seeking public office.  We look to those on the national and international stage to take the longer view yet inspire us with words of hope and speeches of encouragement for today.  Sometimes, in these panic stricken, soundbite crazed days, we hear our leaders trade insults with each other even as they seek our trust and confidence. Our hearts sink with such a blinkered methodology.

This week I had cause to visit Southend and the onetime church of my former ‘boss’ Donald MacKenzie.  I served my ‘curacy’ under Donald when I was Assistant Minister at Fuller Baptist Church in Kettering between 1987 and 1992. Donald served in this Essex church way back in the 60’s and 70’s.  Whilst visiting there this week I asked the current minister if anyone in the congregation might still remember my friend and senior colleague.  Yes, he said, we were only talking about him this morning in the Team Meeting and someone said: During Donald’s day, because so many loved his preaching, on visiting preacher Sundays the church would regularly be half full!

I just loved hearing that because Donald’s words from the pulpit during the five years I heard him preach were always profound words of loving encouragement, accessible scholarship, delightful story- telling and relevant, down to earth application.  This was a man who never ever used a snide comment or made a negative observation about a fellow human being – and this man’s sermons lifted our spirits and gave us hope week by week.

Words are precious – and our leaders have a responsibility to use them with grace – Donald taught me that!

All best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 3 November 2016

A Great Sermon!

Bishop Michael Curry - Presiding Bishop of  the Episcopal Church in the USA
What, I wonder, makes for a good sermon?  In my thirtieth year of being a minister you might have thought I would have worked that out by now!!

Whilst on holiday in the New Forest last week my mother-in-law (a licensed Anglican Lay Reader herself) and I talked about this.  She prepares for her sermons by writing out trigger notes – she genuinely doesn’t quite know how the sermon is going to proceed as she goes into the pulpit.  I, on the other hand, take ‘word for word’ notes with me. We didn't ask family members present whose sermons they preferred - that's not the best way of surviving a week long holiday together!

I seem to remember my Pastoral Studies tutor at College defined a good sermon as something to do with preaching for twenty minutes and preaching about God.

Well, I thought I’d take a risk this week and tell you of a sermon that I listened to recently which I thought was truly inspiring – I know it was about God but I can’t be sure if it made or overshot the twenty minute benchmark!

It was preached by the Presiding Bishop of the United States Episcopal Church, The Most Revd Michael Bruce Curry.  He was preaching on October 23rd this year at the installation of The Revd Randy Hollerith as Dean of Washington Cathedral.  And here’s the thing – you can listen to it to on You Tube!!! Here’s the address: www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8XEczAxB94

I was so touched by this message, it was:
Funny yet Serious
Full of wit yet Full of Pathos
Biblical yet Contemporary
Recognised the Church as it is yet Longed for the Church to be more Loving and Christ-like

I’m grateful for these internet sermons!  If you are able – why not check this one out?!

And now, talking of sermons, I have one to prepare for Sunday!

Best wishes,

Ian

Friday, 21 October 2016

Touching the Numinous

Last Saturday evening we attended a recording in the BBC Radio Theatre at Broadcasting House.  The show we ‘saw’ was Radio 4’s Museum of Curiosities in which three panellists ‘donate’ something which is important to them to this ‘virtual’ museum of the airways.  It was a fascinating night with lots of banter on stage with a recording that took 1 hour 45 mins – even though the programme is just 30 mins long – so a lot of the chat will end up on the cutting room floor!

Jo Band was participating and she was great fun – but the shining star of the evening was, for me, Sir Tony Robinson – otherwise known as the man with a ‘cunning plan’, Baldrick of the Black Adder programmes.

He was funny, quick witted, brilliant with words and had a presence that simply dominated the stage.

His ‘donation’ to the Museum of Curiosities was that final programme from ‘Black Adder Goes Forth’ – the episode that had Private Baldrick, Captains Darling and Blackadder going over the trenches of Flanders in WW1.  What was so moving was hearing from John Lloyd – that evening’s show host but, by coincidence, the onetime Producer of Blackadder – the story behind this sequence.

It was filmed in the days when the lighting crew had to be off set by 10pm.  The scenery was badly prepared and at times looked like the polystyrene it was.  That ‘over the top’ shoot was filmed at three minutes to ten and looked shambolic.

Well, what happened next transformed a piece of badly rehearsed and staged film into one of the iconic moments of 20th Century T.V.

In the cutting room John Lloyd and his colleagues tweaked the footage by turning it into black and white, slowing it down, overlaying music, freeze framing the soldiers just before they fell and then turning the mud of the battlefield into a field of red poppies.  If you have ever seen this piece of T.V. perhaps, like me, your response has been a profound, silent appreciation.

John Lloyd said as they watched the finished production for the first time the cutting room team also feel silent.  He said only three or four times as a T.V. Producer had he felt he had ‘touched the numinous’ – and this was such an occasion.

‘Touching the Numinous’ – what a great phrase!  Describing those moments when we intuitively know we are witnesses or participants in something immensely life affirming or life giving.

I guess in the bible such ‘Touching the Numinous’ moments happened as Moses ‘meets’ God in the burning bush or as Mary ‘meets’ the gardener on the morning of Easter Day and then realises he is Jesus.

When have we, I wonder, ‘touched the numinous’?  For some it’s in worship, for others it’s whilst out walking in the country.  For some it’s a time of prayer, whilst for others it’s during a time with family.

I think I had it once when singing Bach’s St Matthew Passion with the Malvern Festival Chorus.  We had a long ten-week rehearsal schedule as we practiced it in ‘bits’.  It only really came together at the last rehearsal on the Saturday afternoon of the concert, the first with the orchestra and boys’ choir.  I remember overwhelming moments that afternoon when I opened my mouth and nothing came out because I was so taken up with the beauty of what I was hearing all around me – a moment of touching the numinous.

We take such times and treasure them in our hearts – they give dignity to our humanity and whisper to us of the depth of the Divine.

Best wishes,

Ian
Ps. Blog holiday next week!

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Collegial Creativity

I spent the first half of this week at our annual Ministers’ Conference.  Within minutes of arrival I felt I was among good friends (some going back almost thirty years!) with an endless supply of conversation because we talked, and talked and talked!!

So much about these three days was positive and affirming; and nothing more so than the last presentation before the closing communion yesterday morning.

One of our colleagues took us through Psalm 55, a Psalm of Lament.  She reminded us of the different types of psalms in the bible: some upbeat and confident whilst others are like Psalm 55 expressing honest, even ‘complaining’ prayer, ‘naming’ life as it really is and asking ‘why’?  Yet every Psalm of Lament in the Jewish Psalter (apart from Psalm 88) finds faith in God by its concluding verses.

Well it was a great and perfectly pitched bible study and then came the ‘activity’!  We split into groups of about eight and together wrote our very own Psalm of Lament.  To be truthful I’m not much of a ‘small groups’ sort of person but I loved our time together yesterday morning.  Our group seemed to ‘click’ very easily and creativity flowed!  The Psalm we came up with is not to be taken too seriously – yet there is an honesty behind the humour.  We entitled it: ‘The Pastor’s Lament’ and I suppose it’s a reflection on our struggle with difficult members of the congregation- and it’s perhaps not surprising that all eight ministers in my group seemed to have the same issues though we serve in different congregations.

Well, we didn’t take ourselves too seriously (and I hope you won’t take this psalm over seriously either!) but I loved this collaborative process of composing a psalm and here’s what we came up with:

I know you’re really busy, but can you fit me in!
I feel tired Lord.
 My faith is challenged by your inaction.
I’m disappointed in you!
I did not want an absentee God!
Day and night my inbox swells with their petty complaints.
If  only they had something worthwhile to moan about.
Strike down the grumblers Lord.
Empower the spam filters.
And send the complainers off to the Anglicans!
But you Lord called me here.
Help me to be loving and gracious.
Give me, O Lord, your heart.
For you never tire in doing good.

Well – we only had fifteen minutes!!!

Best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 6 October 2016

The salmon and the grizzly bear

Recently at AFC we sang what was for me a new song: Creation sings the Father’s song.  Just like the hymn I’ve chosen to sing at the start of this Sunday’s worship: All creatures of our God and King – it celebrates ‘experiencing’ God in nature.

Tomorrow I’ll be attending a Ministers’ Book Group and we’ll be discussing Places of Enchantment in which the author, like many people, is just so inspired by the beauty and wonder of the natural world that he finds no problem in singing with the psalmist ‘The heavens declare the glory of God’.

And, of course, we have just celebrated Harvest which, I suspect, is one of the most accessible festivals of the church year because for many it resonates with that popular maxim: One is closer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth.  So on Harvest Sunday church and garden combine and this blended spirituality rings true for lots of people.

All well and good – until I sit down yesterday evening and watch a wonderfully filmed and truly beautiful programme about Autumn and I just can’t get one scene out of my mind.  It showed the tenacious salmon swimming upstream to spawn – having to jump some two metres up the rapids.  There to greet them at this point, as they flung themselves into the air, were half a dozen grizzly bears who caught them in their jaws, instantly crushing them with their teeth.  After catching and eating around thirty salmon each these bears retired to the bank for an afternoon snooze!

I love the rolling hills and wooded glade as much as the next person – but I’m increasingly aware of the harshness of nature, ‘red in tooth and claw’ – that the only thing that really matters is ultimately the ‘survival of the fittest’.  And I’m left pondering – does ‘Creation sing the Father’s song’?  Is God just on the side of the winners?  Does God condone aggressive violence in order that one species becomes dominant over another?

Nature, it seems to me, sends out an ambiguous message if aligned too closely with the character of God and I need more than the heavens to see God’s glory.

For me God reveals himself most in the character and teaching of Jesus.  I am totally inspired by his stories – about looking out for neighbour, forgiving enemies, offering kindness to the marginalised – and serving others because in doing this we are serving God.  I’m totally inspired by the cross when Jesus broke the supremacy of the ideal that only the fittest and most powerful prosper – and instead offered humanity an alternative model of self-sacrificial love -  that of giving up your own supremacy for the sake of another.

I think I would have to say that for me faith finds its brightest star in Jesus Christ – not the night sky.

With best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Here comes the bride....

Not one but two wedding celebrations will be happening at AFC this coming Sunday – which is great!

At our morning service a couple who have recently married overseas will be re-affirming their vows in a Blessing.  Then, after a quick sandwich, I go back to church for an afternoon wedding for a young couple who have strong family connections with the Free Church.

It’s a surprise to us that these two happy and joy-filled celebrations have come together on the same day – my task on Sunday will be to ensure I don’t get the names mixed up at either service!

The latest statistics we have for weddings in the UK is 2012 – and four years ago 262,240 weddings took place in Britain – down by half from the 1930s but an increase of 5.3% on the number making vows in 2011.  Just 30% of these weddings took place in churches.

The truth is I’m delighted when anyone asks to tie the knot in church.  So many other, perhaps even more convenient options are available today so to ask for a church wedding represents a great deal which I’m keen to honour.

I’m sure it is significant that Jesus’ first miracle was at the Wedding Feast in Cana of Galilee – that famous occasion when he turned water into wine!  We just get the impression that our Lord loved these moments of community celebration.

And that is one of the key features of a wedding – it becomes not only a personal moment for the bride and groom but also a collective one for the community. 

Perhaps it’s not widely known that it’s illegal for us to lock the doors of the church whilst the ceremony is going on – it has to be a public event.

More than that I know everyone at AFC who attends either the Blessing or the Wedding on Sunday will be praying for both couples – glad to share with them in these moments of dedication and glad to stand by them giving prayerful and practical support in coming days.

Best wishes,

Ian

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Seeing God everywhere?

This coming Sunday we’ll be celebrating Harvest Festival.  Even though I’m a life-long suburban ‘townie’ I love singing ‘We plough the fields and scatter’.  To be truthful I cannot tell the difference between a field of wheat and barley – but I am aware that the food the Tesco van delivers to the Manse door every week doesn’t start its life pre-packaged!

In the liturgy of the Church Harvest Festival services are relative newcomers as they have only been around since 1843 – being the Church’s offering as an alternative, or at least an addition, to the more rowdy ‘Harvest Home’ held in village barns.

It is often said that many find it ‘easier’ to see God in nature than in a church.

Well, I suspect it’s sometimes difficult, or at least confusing, to see God at times in either.  For nature can be fiercely and frighteningly destructive (‘red in tooth and claw’ as the saying goes) and church can often present God using words and images which are steeped in an ecclesiastical culture that no longer resonates with a pre-dominantly secular society.

For me the nature vs church debate is pretty pointless because I suspect the ‘notion’ of God cannot be ‘contained’ or ‘explained’ exclusively in either.

God, I like to believe, is everywhere; an unlimited presence waiting and wanting to be explored and cherished.

So I’m glad that on Sunday some of us will sense the presence of God as we sing ‘All things bright and beautiful’. Others, as they sing that, will be transported to their gardens or a holiday memory and be grateful for that sense of the divine in nature. Whilst some will delight in our focus during the service on ‘Street Kids Direct’ and our church’s progress in raising £5,000 this year for the children sleeping rough in Guatemala, because for them God’s love is seen most clearly in acts of compassion and kindness.

Thomas Merton, an American monk, put it this way in August 1968:

We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.  This is not just a fable or a nice story, it is true.  And this is something we are not able to see. But if we abandon ourselves to Him and forget ourselves we see it maybe frequently – in people and in things and in nature and in events and so forth.  So that it becomes very obvious that he is everywhere, He is in everything, and we cannot be without Him.

With best wishes,

Ian

Saturday, 17 September 2016

A Shabbat Induction

I spent this morning as an ecumenical guest at the Shabbat Morning Service of the congregation of South Bucks Liberal Judaism.  It was for them a very special occasion because their new Rabbi, Charley Baginsky, was being welcomed and inducted.

Rabbi Charley is a young lady with a family and this branch of Judaism in which she serves is 10,000 strong with 40 congregations throughout the United Kingdom.

I loved the liturgy and the singing – those minor keys really get to me!  I loved to the welcome I received from the Synagogue leaders – many of whom I recognised from the times I have joined them for Passover in our own church hall.

The service – two hours long!! – included a few non-Biblical readings and these were fascinating.  One was from Isser Meltzer (1870-1953) on the theme of ‘leadership’:
The test of true leadership is to walk ahead of the people, not to conform to the inclinations and attitudes of the multitude….
I’d like to take that to one of our Life and Faith Groups with the word DISCUSS!

The other reading that caught my eye was about the value of community – part of it went like this
The modern emphasis in the individual has been a great advance, but we pay a heavy price for our individuality if we forget our need for community, and much of our feeling of alienation stems from that amnesia

The Induction of the new Rabbi was marked at the moment when she was presented with the Torah – this is how the service sheet described that moment:
Rabbi Rich will now hand the Torah over to Rabbi Baginsky, symbolically passing on to her the responsibility and privilege of transmitting its teaching to this congregation.

That felt like a very significant liturgical act – one that was rich in meaning and rather eloquently summed up the Rabbi’s prime role in the congregation as ‘Teacher’ of the Torah.

All of this was followed by a sermon preached by Rabbi Rich – Liberal Judaism’s senior cleric.  He was wonderfully informal, self-deprecating, welcoming of ecumenical and civic guests whist at the same time saying some really important truths – not least his desire that Jews should not only seek the renewal of their synagogues but also play a full and vibrant part in British society.  It’s not the first time I’ve heard Rabbi Rich preach and on this occasion, just like the previous one, I felt myself silently saying a strong ‘Amen’ to what he said.

So – it was quite a Saturday morning for me – a delightful one that will linger in the memory as I sat amongst fellow seekers after truth whose love for God and each other was both sincere and obvious.

May God’s richest blessing – his SHALOM – rest upon this congregation as they begin a new partnership with Rabbi Charley.

Best wishes,

Ian


Thursday, 8 September 2016

Sportsman and Optimist

Last Saturday I drove over to Cores End URC for a meeting of the Steering Committee of our Local Area Group – yes , I know, life doesn’t get much more exciting than that on a Saturday morning does it!!

Actually it was a super time – made so by being surrounded by such sincere and lovely people.  So it all went well with, I think, good discussions and decision making.

At the end I made my way out of the church and caught a glimpse of one of those memorial tablets people used to erect to the saints of old – well, this one was put up in the 1920’s.

It was obviously remembering someone deeply loved and cherished but the wording that struck me was the very last thing it said about him – he was a sportsman and optimist!

Isn’t that great!  I’ve never read anything so ‘down to earth’ as that on a church memorial – an ‘opimist’.

Seems to me ‘hope’ is one of the greatest characteristics any of us can possess.  Hope in God, hope in each other and hope in ourselves.

‘Optimist’ – what a lovely thing to remember about anybody!

Best wishes,

Ian

Friday, 2 September 2016

Standing at the Counter since just after Breakfast!

Fresh back from holiday and one of my first tasks was to meet up with the Intern ‘gifted’ to AFC by Chiltern Youth Projects for the next year.

Rylie, from 1st Baptist, Dallas, will be at LunchBreak most weeks and sharing Morning Worship alongside us every other week.

So, our first encounter was basically a briefing meeting.  Rylie needed to know when to arrive every Tuesday and what has to be done.  With the full authority of my office (!!) I said: ‘Oh, just be available at noon’ – that’s a mere fifteen minutes before I normally breeze in most weeks.

I then asked the LunchBreak organisers to join us and fill in the gaps I might have left out of her ‘job description’ – and that’s where the fun started and when the slight smiles and raised eyebrows began!

They told her to arrive at 9.30am because it usually takes a full two and a half hours to get the show on the road!

You know often us ministers have a habit of turning up when the work is basically three quarters done.  The buffet has been prepared, the chairs and tables laid out, the service sheets printed, the choir rehearsed and the heating programmed.

In almost four years here I have never realised that LunchBreak basically takes all morning to get ready – and it is got ready fifty two weeks of the year – unless Christmas and New Year’s Day falls on a Tuesday!

I can only admire and applaud such ‘behind the scenes’ faithfulness and dedication and, of course, this scenario is replicated in so many areas of church life.

So as we enter the autumn and a new season of service I take my hat off to everyone in my own faith community who works away from the limelight.  You are the unsung heroes of our church and we simply couldn’t do without you.

And next time I breeze in at 12.20pm on a Tuesday I promise to express my thanks to those who have been standing the other side of the counter since just after breakfast!

Best wishes,

Ian

Friday, 12 August 2016

Villain to Hero

This week we completed a further stage of the Thames Path which included a brief visit to Tate Britain and a wander round the Victoria Gardens beside Parliament.  It was on this last stretch that we came across the statue to Emmeline Pankhurst located just under the Victoria Tower.

Isn’t it odd how so called villains can become national heroes – even in their own lifetime? 

Mrs Pankhurst’s achievements have just been immortalised in the excellent film Suffragette
a movie with a punch if ever there was one.

This formidable and visionary woman died in 1928 and the statue to her honour was unveiled by Stanley Baldwin in 1930.  The New York Times made this observation: While the transition from martyrdom to sculptured memorials is familiar, the process in Mrs Pankhurst's case has been unusually brief.


It’s happened to others of course – perhaps most notably to Nelson Mandela, transformed from reviled terrorist to revered President of a Rainbow Nation.

The truth is we can so easily get it wrong – linger with the status quo – and it takes a maverick and someone who thinks outside the box to show us that a different way is possible, even right.

Jesus was undoubtedly such a figure.  Loathed by those who longed for stability and political calm, he taught a way of compassion with a radical and cutting edge.  This is the Jesus who disturbs – he did that two thousand years ago and I think he does it still today!

With best wishes,

Ian
ps Blog holiday until September!

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Many hands...

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve had three ‘House Keeping Days’ at Amersham Free Church – the picture of the skip is just a reminder to us of how much ‘stuff’ we threw away on Monday! 

I was told around thirty people took part in the polishing, gardening, carpet cleaning and furniture moving!  And I think that is terrific!

The way the congregation at AFC has responded to this ‘call’ to get stuck in to some practical, down to earth work speaks volumes about the sense of commitment and identity people feel.

For many of us ‘church’ is our second home – we not only love being together with fellow pilgrims, the building too provides us with a sense of security – it is a welcoming space which seems to embrace us as we walk through the doors.  So keeping it looking good and functioning well – especially if we want visitors and user groups to also feel at home and welcome  - is very important.

I couldn’t help but feel on Monday that there was a great sense of ‘teamwork’ as we spent the morning together – a good spirit united that band of workers.  Fellowship is, I think, enhanced by working together at a project.

So, if you picked up a duster, wielded a carpet cleaner, banged nails in with a hammer, changed light bulbs twenty feet up in the sanctuary – if you helped out in any way – thank you!  And no doubt we’ll do it all over again sometime soon!

All good wishes,

Ian

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

View of Self

A summer treat this week has been a trip to The Globe theatre on the South Bank to watch a performance of the ‘Scottish Play’!

Macbeth isn’t exactly a laugh a minute!  However, it was a super occasion in a packed auditorium with a brilliant performance.

On the train home I couldn’t help but reflect that in the plot, so early on – Scene One in fact - Macbeth is totally taken in by those sinister and beguiling witches.  They dangle before him a meteoric rise to power; first he will add Thane of Cawdor to his honours and ultimately the crown of Scotland will be within his reach.

It’s been a long summer watching individuals, both here and the other side of the Atlantic, struggle for the top jobs – Trump and Boris to name just two!

Well in Shakespeare’s play, written in 1606, Macbeth becomes besotted with this prediction from the three witches.  He is consumed by this myth of self and he makes it become a reality by usurping the throne after killing the king.  It’s a great tragedy in which all too late our anti-hero realises what is ‘done cannot be undone’! 

I wonder how we view ourselves?  It’s a fine balance this understanding of self.

We neither want to believe all the compliments our loving grandmothers paid us – nor give in to the negative self doubts that all too often come from deep within. 

The accompaniment of good friends alongside us on the journey of life and a prayerful spirit can help us achieve that healthy and workable balance which can enhance all our lives - a balanced view of ourselves in God's world.

Best wishes,
Ian

 p.s. Might also be best, if you come across three witches standing by the roadside, to take absolutely no notice of them – whatever they promise you in the ‘hurlyburly’ of life!!


Thursday, 21 July 2016

'Stuff Happens'

Last week’s horrific events in Nice as a lorry driver deliberately ploughed his vehicle into the crowd in a pointless and cowardly act of terrorism was truly shocking.  As on so many occasions we are left asking the question ‘why’?  An inquiry we make not only of the man who drove the truck but maybe also of God?  Why did God let this terrible thing happen?  Why didn’t God step in and stop it?

We reflected a little on this at the Bucks Baptist Ministers’ Breakfast at Great Missenden yesterday.  As we tucked into our bacon rolls we talked together of those pastoral situations we all have when our members come to us and say they are losing faith because of a personal disappointment or a national tragedy – so after years of trying to pray or struggling with belief they are calling it a day.

Personally I came to an understanding in my own faith journey about a decade ago when I stopped believing in an ‘Interventionist God’ – and I suppose that phrase takes some unpacking.

I cannot quite square the idea that God will intervene and give me a parking space yet he stood idly by and let millions of Jews be slaughtered in the Holocaust.  And once I honestly named that dilemma in my theology I had to reassess what I thought of prayer.

For me God is not ‘All powerful’ – because he is a God of love.  That means he simply could not ‘force’ that lorry driver to stop doing evil – just as he could not stop Hitler building the gas chambers.  As a loving parent I cannot force my children to do anything – I can teach them, guide them, support them and when they make mistakes or have to endure hardship I can be there for them.  Love makes me a vulnerable parent – but it also means I will do everything I possibly can to always be there for my children.

I believe God loves us like that – because God is LOVE. And love is, I believe, the strongest force in the universe. 

After the bigger gathering yesterday I stayed on for a coffee with a minister friend of mine.  She has gone through so much personal tragedy in her life yet she serves in a local church which such grace, hope and faithfulness.  We reflected on the morning’s theme and she looked at me and said: ‘stuff happens’. 

In a way no answers came yesterday – but in sharing a cappuccino with a friend – whose life and words seemed so real and authentic I was reminded once more that even in the midst of pain - God is Love.

I believe it’s possible to go on believing, to go on worshipping and to go on serving if our trust is in such a God.

Ian

Thursday, 14 July 2016

The M and M sisters

My name is Martha and I suppose I’ve become famous because of my busy-ness.

We just loved having Jesus come over – Bethany is a really lovely place to live – we’re just close enough to Jerusalem to feel we are at the centre of things, but far enough away to live in peace and quiet rather than amongst the constant throng of pilgrims in the city.

The point is this – Jesus didn’t often come alone – normally it meant an extra thirteen for dinner and that’s not always easy at shortnotice! Not that I minded – in fact I sort of had a private pact with myself to make every one of his visits better than the last.  I suppose you could say I just wanted to be the perfect host.

But that isn’t so bad is it?  Our Greek neighbours two doors down tell me that Zeus – the king of all their gods is also the one that represents hospitality – that’s how important sharing meals and giving a welcome is to us Mediterranean people.

Well Jesus came down one evening – typically without much warning and we welcomed him with open arms – as we always do. But after greeting each other with Shalom I just had to get a wiggle on.  I did my best, you understand, for him – my very best – but that evening nothing seemed to go right.  Perhaps I wasn’t in the best frame of mind and truth be told my sister Mary was really getting to me.

We’ve always been close but different and that night things seemed just to come to a head.  I didn’t mean it to – but perhaps it had been building for a couple of weeks – I want so much to make everything special when we have guests and I just can’t get my head around Mary’s more laid back attitude – I mean wouldn’t you want to serve fresh olives rather than yesterday’s?

Well that evening I went indoors to prepare the food and I really thought for once she might have followed me and lent a hand, couldn’t she understand for a change the pressure I was under – but no – she lingered outside with the men!  When I went to offer Jesus and the other guests some lemon water there was Mary sitting at his feet just listening to him speak.  It all seemed so intense – so important – as if this was the place to be that evening – not getting the meal ready, not putting your back into it – but to sit and listen.  That’s what Lazarus does when he visits the local rabbi – sits at his feet and listens  - it’s not the way Dad, rest his soul, brought us girls up.  After Mum died I knew what I had to do – I had to run our home, that’s me – that’ what I do.  But Mary – she doesn’t get it!

Now, on reflection – because I’ve calmed down since all this happened last week – perhaps I was just a little jealous of her that evening – well, who wouldn’t be.  For two hours she sat with Jesus – talking, laughing and listening – for two hours I was fuming but couldn’t say anything in front of the guests – just rehearsing in my mind over and over what I’d say to her once everyone was gone.

It really got to me –her behaviour.  As I stirred the stew and sliced the pomegranates my mind was all over the place.

He must have noticed because with such firmness yet gentleness Jesus just said to me as I called everyone round the table for dinner: ‘Martha, Martha...’  I think he had to say it twice!  Once to break through my distraction and the second time to enter my mind.

He quietly said to me that Mary’s way was neither disrespectful nor uncaring – he thanked me for all the effort I’d put in at such short notice – but didn’t I realise that Bethany for him was special not just because of my freshly baked bread but because our house was the closest thing he’d got to a home.

Suddenly my heart melted at his words and his appreciation.  I think people have taken his words to me since as a sort of stinging rebuke – but I never heard them like that.  It was the way he said ‘Martha Martha’ – with such compassion. 

Maybe I have to deal with this jealously thing with Mary.  I think I need to realise that neither of us has a better temperament than the other – we’re just different – and different is good!  And I will admit this – that sometimes I get so worked up about everything being just right that I can forget what really matters at a meal is not just the food but the table talk, the togetherness of it all. 

I sometimes think we do that with faith too – so much emphasis on getting the ritual right that we forget what we are really here for.

So – I suppose it wasn’t the best comment left in anyone’s visitor book – but it’s the one everyone remembers about the day Jesus came for a meal at our house in Bethany.

You know I think Jesus really loved being around us and that night I – well maybe I could have served up yesterday’s olives – he wouldn’t have minded!

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...