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.


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...