Thursday, 28 December 2017

The Innkeeper's Tale: A Story for Christmas

It’s been quite a night here in King David Street.

Bethlehem isn’t a big place.  We are really a dormitory town to Jerusalem.  Yet this year the month of Nisan has been bedlam.

You see the Romans (if they hadn’t got better things to do) ordered a census and everyone has had to go back to their home town to register.

Esther and I are fine.  We were born here and have been running this Inn all our married life.  And to be truthful this census has been great for business.

But the last few days have actually run us into the ground.  Every rooms been taken, but often only for the one night.  You should see the washing – it’s never ending. 

Still, when it’s all over I’ve promised Esther I’ll take her for a long weekend to the seaside at Joppa, one of our favourite places.

But I still can’t get my head round last night.  It was early evening when this young couple tried booking in.  They looked utterly exhausted and I could see she was near her time.  I’d have loved to have been more accommodating but we’ve only got four rooms to let and everyone had paid up front and gone for an early afternoon check in.

I was just about to turn this young couple away – of course I’d recommend some other place to them, when Esther came back from shopping and told me she’d heard every room in town had been booked out by mid-afternoon.

Now, Esther’s what you call the mothering kind.  Our kids are grown up now but she acts as the local midwife and everyone loves Esther. 

So, of course, she twisted my arm and we let this young couple have the storage room just above the stable.  It’s warm but we’ve never let it out before and I’ve no idea what would be its going rate! 

Esther made them comfortable.  But then Joseph (that was his name – he had a Bethlehem accent of course, but he said all his relatives had moved away from town years ago just after he took a job up north, place called Nazareth – I’ve never heard of it!), banged on the inn door around midnight.  Poor guy, he was in such a state, he looked terrified.

Esther took charge for the rest of the night.  I went over once and called up to the room above the stable to asked if she needed extra oil lamps, but she said no, the stable seemed unusually bright and sure enough as I looked up into the night sky the stars seemed to me to be brighter than I’d ever seen them before.

By about 5am as dawn was breaking I heard a baby’s cry and took over some bread, olives and pomegranate juice.  Joseph came down and had a bite to eat alongside the tethered donkeys and the few sheep, goats and hens we keep there.

His eyes were watery and he couldn’t stop smiling.

I said I needed to get back to the main house but he insisted I go up and see Mary.  But by now she was actually asleep.  Esther was holding the baby and Joseph told me he was to be called Yesuha – that’s a variant for us of the name Joshua, meaning deliverer.  It’s a good name, some of my own family have it too.

This all seemed so ordinary and yet a bit different.  That starlight and then as the sun started to rise a group of shepherd friends of mine, Ben, Samuel and Jacob turn up.  They regularly drink here and said they had been told about the birth of Yesuha.  I asked how they knew and they just grinned at me in a slightly gormless way and said – ‘we just know’ and then winked at each other.

Now Ben, Sam and Jake are just regular shepherd mates of mine so I was amazed that these three guys go up to the stable loft as quiet as Synagogue mice and spend ten minutes admiring Yesuha and congratulating this young couple – a conversation that seemed to go so deep even though they had just met – it’s as if my three mates and Mary and Joseph had known each other for years and something, some hope, some truth maybe bound them together.

As these three guys came down from there I saw them in a different light.  After a long night shift on the hills they left our stable as if they were walking on air!

By mid-morning it had all quietened down.

The three in the stable loft were asleep, as was Esther up in our room.

I started to open up for the lunchtime regulars and found myself inexplicably thrilled about all that had gone on the night before.  As if I had been part of a story that was important.

Think of that, Esther and I, just making a living with our little Inn on the corner of King David Street – part of someone’s bigger story.

Seemed important.

Seemed special.

Seemed like something worth celebrating.

Oh well, need to get back to work.  I wonder what I should charge them for the stable loft?  Perhaps I’ll give it to them as a present – never know it might start a tradition!




Thursday, 21 December 2017

A Christmas Thanksgiving

It’s almost here, and on the train to London today to visit a friend, I wrote this prayer for our midnight service on Christmas Eve:














On this holy night
we delight once more in
the song of the angels
the worship of the shepherds
and the adoration of the magi.

On this holy night
we rejoice
that light has pierced the darkness
hope has tempered our despair
and joy has touched our sorrow.

On this holy night
we give thanks and praise
that Love came down and
The Word became flesh.

So, on this most holy night
accept, we pray, our Christmas thanksgiving
for the gift of your Beloved Son
The Christ-child of Bethlehem
God, come among us.
Amen

Thursday, 14 December 2017

O Magnum Mysterium - and no, it's not an ice-cream!

An old hymn we sometimes sing in church has the line, ‘tis mystery all…’  I wonder if that really describes faith?

For me, much of Christianity has a sense of cohesion which I find inspiring.  I think it makes sense to have a faith in which ‘love’ is central, a love that moulds and sustains us.  It’s almost creedal to say that love is at the centre of:
                              every relationship
                              every community
                              every positive act
                                                            and surely one of the most foundational statements we have in our scriptures is the verse that proclaims with a simplicity that disguises its profundity: ‘God is love’.

And yet I would also want to willingly acknowledge and embrace that ‘mystery’ can both deepen our faith and free us from the need to have a full sheet of water tight answers to all those questions we’ve been asking since we were six.

Don’t get me wrong.  At AFC we are quite a ‘questioning’ church.  We like digging deep in our attempt to make an honest critique of life and faith.

Yet when it comes to Christmas I’ll happily settle for mystery.

The idea that God shared our life in Jesus, born at Bethlehem is as mind-blowing as it is inspirational.

At the centre of Christianity is an idea beyond explanation: that God comes alongside us.  Not a far away God, but one closer than our breathing.

Our Jewish cousins have a word for it: ‘Immanuel’ – meaning ‘God with us’.

That love of God is found in the new life of a baby, the faithful care of parents and the intuitive worship of the shepherds.

God comes close.

If Easter is the Christian festival of life, then Christmas is surely our festival of love.

One of the simplest carols puts it this way: ‘Love came down at Christmas…’

Over these coming days as Advent erupts into the joy of Christmas may God come close to you.  Maybe in the smile of a child, the flicker of a candle or even in the struggles that simply don’t go away.  Struggles which we can bear because of the love and support that surrounds us.

A verse from the Latin Mass for Christmas Day begins: ‘O Magnum Mysterium’ – ‘O Great Mystery’.

There is an implicit mystery to Christmas as there is to Love.  Yet all our lives are the better for it.

Better for the mystery which unfolded that night in Bethlehem when ’Love came down...'.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Avoiding Advent Adverts

As I was driving to Cambridge to meet up with a friend yesterday, I tuned in to Classic FM.  I couldn’t help but notice how prescriptive the adverts felt in between the music.  I was told that Raymond Brigg’s Snowman was an essential part of Christmas (so why not go out and buy a copy!!), and that shopping at Morrisons would make it a good Christmas!

Does anyone believe adverts anymore?!

So, as I drove up the M11 I made a decision that, essential or not, I can do without the Snowman this year, and just because it’s Christmas I won’t abandon our regular supermarket retailer in favour of one promising ‘good’ seasonal cheer.

It strikes me we all have choices to make at this time of year.  We don’t have to become a victim to other people’s agendas.

We even make choices about the story at the centre of this season.  We don’t have to take it all as historical fact, instead we can see the enduring value of ‘myth’ at its very centre.  We can choose not to get over concerned by the details but simply rejoice in the concept of Immanuel, an ‘alongside’ God, and just how mind-blowing that thought always is.  We can choose to balance a family celebration alongside a season of prayerful worship whilst seeing value in both.

And perhaps most of all we can choose to be open to the surprises of The Spirit and the joys of Advent without having too much of a prescribed plan; because living in the moment and valuing it is, I suspect, never more important than it is in December.

Actually I love the Snowman story and if Morrisons were local I’d happily shop there.  But I don’t believe either is essential to Christmas and that neither will inevitably make it good!

I make the choice to look elsewhere for a deeper meaning to the season.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Advent Blogs by the Baptist Union Retreat Group

During Advent the Baptist Union Retreat Group (BURG) are posting weekly Blog Reflections - they can be found at
https://baptistunionretreatgroup.blogspot.co.uk/

Thursday, 30 November 2017

An Alternative Advent Blessing

I met two groups of people yesterday and, on both occasions, we ended up talking (and despairing) about the challenges of the next four weeks and the fraught planning of our family Christmas arrangements.

Don’t get me wrong, we normally have a really good time when it arrives, it’s the ‘build up’ that freaks me out.  I find it so oppressive.

In that respect I love the balance that a Church Advent brings.  We don’t sing carols until the week before Christmas and we linger with the rather stern lectionary themes rather than rushing into Christmas four weeks early.

So here’s an alternative Advent Blessing for those of us who find this one of the most challenging seasons of the year:

May God go with you as we enter into the craziness of these next four weeks.

May he gives us wisdom as we try to please too many friends and relatives as we make our arrangements.

May he stop us from being grumpy whenever we hear the song: It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

May he grant us the grace to be thankful for the twentieth mince pie and may we eat it as if it was our first and we actually liked them!

May he enter into this Advent so that we think deeply about its themes of judgement, the prophets, John the Baptist and Mary.

May we catch a glimpse of the wonder of light piercing the darkness and reflect on that message of hope that truly brings transformation into our lives.

May God turn our Advent from a shopping fest into a prayerful fast – as we spend more time contemplating and sitting still rather than rushing around doing too much, and doing it badly.

And when all our good intentions get swallowed up in other people’s agendas – may we still be surprised by the touch of God upon our lives during the next four weeks.

And remind us, O Lord, that it wasn’t so very different the first time round: relations who couldn’t give Joseph a bed for the night, a town as crowded as Oxford Street with census visitors, and plans that  went so wrong that come the moment it was an emergency delivery in a stable.

So, perhaps the madness of this season isn’t so far from the truth of it all anyway!


Friday, 24 November 2017

The Poetry of Prayer

I think ‘prayer’ is a beautiful mystery. 

Over the last few weeks in Amersham we have been planning a Week of Accompanied Prayer for next spring.  It will be an opportunity for folk to have the ‘gift’ of a week prayerfully looking at scripture ‘alongside’ a guide and companion.

On Wednesday this week a number of friends gathered at AFC, from various churches in our district, who lead services week by week.  We explored together the constituent parts of our weekly worship and everyone was asked to name the three most important aspects of a service for them.  Time and again folk spoke of the importance of thoughtful led prayer.

Every week we print some Prayer Meditations on the back of our notice sheet and a recent one came from the pen of Jane Upchurch – here is part of it:

Believing in God is not
wearing rose-tinted glasses;
an easy option;
a certainty to silence questions;
a way of avoiding pain.

Believing in God is
recognising horror and choosing to forgive;
facing the music and choosing to dance;
feeling hurt and choosing to love;
being uncertain and choosing to trust;
knowing the downside and choosing life.

Now, as the person who often preaches the sermon, I have to say that sometimes the most important message I get from the service comes from these prayers on the weekly sheet (and not through my sermons!!) – and surely Jane Upchurch’s words are profoundly challenging and encouraging.

Once, when we were having a bit of a tricky health issue in our family, a lady at church passed me in the corridor, smiled and said: Just want you to know we are praying for you. 

I cannot tell you how much that meant to me and the difference it made to my day.

I thank God for both the mystery and poetry of prayer.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Laying foundations

I’ve spent part of this week in Devon, just outside Torquay, at Brunel Manor attending the annual Convocation of The Order of Baptist Ministry to which I belong.

This splendid manor house in which we stayed was designed by that great and prolific Victorian engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  It was to be his family home; a wonderful gothic pile perched majestically above Torquay.

Yet he lived only long enough to see the foundations laid before dying, leaving the final construction to others.

That all felt rather poignant on Thursday as we gathered for Morning Prayer and as a group tried out a new liturgy for the season of All Saints.  During the prayer time we were invited to name out loud someone from our past who helped lay the foundations of our faith.  I named Donald MacKenzie, my senior minister from the church in which as I served as assistant minister, he was a great mentor during those first five years after ordination.

That moment, hearing nothing but names, yet recognising that to everyone who spoke them these names meant the world, was deeply touching.

Tomorrow at Amersham we’ll be commissioning our Junior Church Teachers for another year of Christian service and I’m sure part of their ministry is to help lay a foundation for our children upon which faith can be built.  It’s an important task and we give thanks to God for those who have done it in our own lives.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

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 statues in the centre.  One, particularly caught my eye, opposite the railway station.

It was a bit like Trafalgar Square with a huge column at its centre and upon the top, so the inscription said below, was King Pedro IV of Portugal. Or is it?!

The story goes that at the time this column was being erected, a bronze cast of Maximillian of Mexico, by a French sculptor, was in Lisbon en route to South America.  This brief sojourn in its passage happened at exactly the moment when, back home, Maximillian was overthrown and instantly the cast, of the now deposed King, was redundant.

The shrewd city fathers of Lisbon saw an opportunity here.  They cancelled the order for a cast of Pedro IV, bought the one of Maximillian and put that on top of the column instead.  Their rationale?  They thought the two looked rather similar, it would cost less, and hey, only the pigeons would spot the difference!!!

Who knows if this is anything other than a good story – but I love it anyway!

All of us, I suspect, have occasional admired someone a little too much, put them on a pedestal they didn’t deserve and then later we have discovered their ‘feet of clay’.

This weekend, as we recall the horror of war and all that has taken us there in days gone by, many of the reasons behind conflict has been the willingness of large numbers of people to follow and give credence to the wrong leaders.

Human nature seems to crave heroes – just a walk around central London shows us how much we also love immortalising them in statues. 

Maximillian or Pedro?  Just a reminder to us of the danger of putting the wrong people on pedestals.



Thursday, 2 November 2017

Mind the gap!

Last week we spent half term in Portugal where the summer seems to be going on forever!  It was 30 degrees in Lisbon when we left on Saturday, 12 degrees here when we got off the plane at Luton!!

Somewhere, as we flew across France, we were ‘in transition’!

It feels a bit like that every time I walk out the door.  The apples are now all off the trees in the front garden and the acer leaves round the back have now turned golden or red.  There is a definite smell of autumn in the air because during these early November days nature is in transition too, moving us on to a new season.

Yet it feels a bit like we are still ‘in between’.  Some days the sun is strong and I wondered why I put on such a thick coat.  Yet earlier this week I was thankful for the gloves I found in my pocket and put them on for the first time since last April!

We all have to live the ‘gaps’ between things.

This weekend the lectionary readings include the Beatitudes and those words about the gentle inheriting the earth or the hungry being satisfied come across as ‘aspirational’.  It’s a new way of seeing things and it belongs to God’s Kingdom.  We live in days when the merciful are not always shown mercy and when a bereaved person may not feel fully comforted. 

We live in the gap between life as it is and life as it will be.

Yet, the gap is a good place to be!  It helps us cope with the here and now because we have a hope and a sense of goodness that is still before us.  We are not people who believe we are walking towards desolation.  Something of the ‘coming kingdom’ breaks into our present reality and gives us the ‘blessedness’ of which Matthew 5 speaks.

Rather than ‘minding the gap', I believe we can rejoice in it!

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Do this in remembrance of me...

All Souls on Sunday night
On Sunday it was my privilege to attend two Communion Services.  At one I presided and at the other I joined the queue alongside about eight hundred others.

In the morning I was at Amersham Free Church, and after I preached I stood behind the table and led our communion liturgy; it’s always a very precious experience.  I love nothing better than watching our Elders take the bread and wine to the congregation.  We do it ‘our’ way at AFC – although we are a Free Church we are firmly within the liturgical tradition and our twice monthly Communion Services have a rhythm all their own.

Then came Sunday evening and a trip into central London with my eldest son as we joined the congregation of All Souls, Langham Place.  The church was full, mostly of students and I felt slightly old.  The music wasn’t really my cup of tea but the welcome and sincerity we found at the service was terrific.  To be truthful Communion was slightly chaotic as eight hundred people made their way to various ‘serving stations’ – which meant we had to clamber down from the balcony!  Yet none of this mattered.  It was an immense joy to join the queue behind my son, cup my hands and receive bread, lift the cup and drink the wine alongside so many wonderful young people in central London.

I hardly know what makes Communion so special.  It’s all about the presence of God coming alongside us and it’s certainly about remembering love at its costliest.  I suspect it’s also about doing it ‘together’ – so much so that it sort of becomes a community proclamation of a truth that both binds us together and spurs us on in service.  Whatever it is, I felt I experienced a double Eucharistic blessing on Sunday – firstly as a Pastor leading my own people and secondly as an anonymous worshipper in a crowd of hundreds at the top of Regent Street.  These moments are precious and affirming – and for me, at least, moments when faith seems to come alive, and for that I give God grateful thanks.

Best wishes Ian

ps Blog holiday next week!

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Black Sheep and Prodigals

The book discussion group at AFC meets about six times a year and at our latest gathering we reflected on Dave Tomlinson’s book: Black Sheep and Prodigals.  It met with a divided response.  Some thought it may be a step too far in its departure from orthodoxy whilst others, like me, felt they had ‘come home’ as they read it.

Dave Tomlinson comes from a similar evangelical background to me.  Yet we both share a journey that, whilst still valuing that foundation, we have moved on to a different way of seeking and interpreting faith.  Unlike me our author has spent a lot of his ministry in pubs!  Pub Church has been a place where he has opened up numerous discussions and met so many people on a spiritual quest but whose footsteps have never taken them inside a church building. 

Yet none of this background means Dave Tomlinson has in any sense ‘dumbed down’ the Christian tradition.  He is obviously a widely read priest and now serves a north London parish.  However, this Pub Church background might explain the way he writes (in my view, so effectively) in colloquial rather than academic English.

You really only have to look at some of the chapter headings of Black Sheep and Prodigals to get a flavour of it:  They include:

I believe belief is overrated
I believe in original goodness
I don’t believe in an interventionist God
I believe in life before death


I don’t, for one moment, believe Dave Tomlinson destroys faith in this book, he rather asks us to look at traditional doctrines differently.  So, he ponders whether we have a workable definition of God, he re-assesses what we really mean by an ‘interventionist God’, he puts into everyday speech the most important contemporary theological issue of our day: a re-assessment of what was really happened on Good Friday, and he positively bubbles up with joy at the notion of resurrection, but once again in a non-orthodox way.

You could, I think, read this book and hate it!  That’s because it re-evaluates much of the tradition some of us have been familiar with since Sunday School.  Or you could read the book and end up shouting: Hallelujah! I’ve found someone who wants to ask the same questions as me – and even offer some provisional answers along the way.

Make no mistake though, Dave Tomlinson takes the bible very seriously, sees God everywhere and still believes that when it comes to ‘Liberal Evangelism’ Jesus is the answer!

I suspect, like Marmite, Black Sheep and Prodigals is something you’ll either love or hate.  For me – well, pass me another slice of toast as I spread on yet more for my breakfast!!

Thursday, 5 October 2017

What's in the box?

Here’s a confession.  Here at The Manse we have just finished watching four series of the rather ‘geeky’ Channel 4 comedy show The I.T.Crowd which aired on TV between 2006 to 2010. 

It’s set in the fictional London offices of Reynholm Industries and focuses on the haphazard I.T. department located in the basement. Moss and Roy are the geeks whose answer to almost any technical problem seemed to be, ‘Have you tried turning it off and on again’! (Which actually most of us find surprisingly effective!)  They are overseen by Jen who is technically illiterate but has the grand title ‘Relationship Manager’ which, in reality means she draws a salary for not doing very much at all.

We thought it was a fantastic comedy and loved every show. 

One episode has Jen having to give a seminar upstairs on behalf of the I.T. department.  She panics about this because, of course, she knows nothing at all about I.T.  So, Roy and Moss set her up with a shiny black box, about shoebox size, and convince her that the Internet is in it.  That’s right, the World Wide Web that touches just about everyone’s life, was locked away in Jen’s box! 

She believes them and presents this box to the seminar – where, surprisingly, she in turn is believed.

Moss and Roy cannot understand how gullible people are and how their ‘joke’ has delated because it was taken seriously.

Jen’s box, ‘housing’ the Internet, crops up periodically throughout the series, until at last the penny drops and even she realises the absurdity that the World Wide Web has its HQ in a box at her office!

This week the lectionary OT reading takes us to the 10 Commandments and I’ve once again been drawn to the first one about having no other gods or carved images, idols.

Since dawn began I suspect we human beings have been trying to put God in a box.  If we carve an idol we might control God and if we write a creed we can surely define him.

But isn’t that just as ludicrous as Jen thinking the Internet lived in her box.

God is more fluid than a carved piece of wood and no creedal statement could ever define him.

Of course we use words, images and ideas to describe God.  But we fool ourselves if we consider ourselves ‘Keepers of the Truth’ because we box God up in our favourite theological paradigms.  Surely better to be an ‘Explorer of Truth’, open up the box and throw away the key!


Thursday, 28 September 2017

Podcasting

I’ve only recently discovered the joy of Podcasts.  I’ve downloaded about fifty of them onto my smart phone which means I can now listen to my favourite Radio 4 programmes at a time which suits me – which is normally on the train travelling in or out of Marylebone!

So this week I listened to the Podcast of Gareth Malone on Desert Island Discs, first broadcast (but missed by me) on Christmas Day last year.  I think this was a ‘special’ interview for Kirsty Young and she seemed captivated by his charm, wit and sheer humanity. Time and again I found myself smiling as I tuned in – at one point I wondered what all the other passengers on the train were making of my broad grins.

Gareth Malone has become something of a National Treasure over the last ten years.  He has brought choirs and singing back onto prime-time TV.  He is so passionate about music and singing and that seems to become ‘infectious’.  I loved this Podcast.

Perhaps, for me, the most moving part of the interview came as he described the difficulty he had singing a solo at his Grandma’s funeral.  She obviously meant the world to him and he so wanted to sing for her one last time.  Yet, this man who has coached thousands to sing, couldn’t find his voice on that occasion.  He said, it felt for the first time as if he experienced in himself the fear, panic and inability to sing which he had so often before dismissed in others.

At that moment when he opened his mouth and nothing came out his dad joined in (which made things even worse!) and then his old music teacher made it into a trio.

Eventually he regained his nerve, the other two stood down, and Gareth Malone sang, as he so dearly wanted to, for his Granny.

Well, I just thought it was a beautiful story about family and about love.

And those things are about God and the way we sense and experience him in the here and now – even through our croaky singing!

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Speaking of Sin

Tomorrow I’m attending a Ministers’ Book Discussion Group in Luton. We meet up three or four times a year over a packed lunch to discuss a book of theology.  On Friday, it’s Speaking of Sin by the American Episcopalian priest, Barbara Brown Taylor.

I like this book, and not just because it’s short!

As she begins her examination of words like sin and repentance, asking if they actually have any meaning outside of our Church culture, she says, rather playfully ‘I think it is safe to say Christians need never fear the commercialisation of Ash Wednesday’ – probably an understatement!

This book isn’t one that in any sense denies the reality of sin, even though it brought to my attention the fascinating revelation that our Jewish cousins actually have no doctrine of Original Sin – you learn something new every day!

Instead of denying the pain sin causes us and others, Taylor writes, ‘We really are free to make the most disastrous decisions.  Our choices really do have consequences.’

It’s the facing up to this challenge that is addressed by our book tomorrow.

Taylor is not convinced that the old Church vocabulary will do.  So, she has a stab at trying to define the essence of sin using other language. 

One of the most beautiful passages in the book, in my view, is a sort of alternative Confession:

Deep down in human existence, there is an experience of being cut off from life…
Deep down in human existence there is an experience of seeing the light and turning away from it…
Deep down in human existence there is an experience of reaching for forbidden fruit and pushing away loving arms…

For Taylor repentance is fundamentally about us positively and determinedly restoring broken relationships.  In that respect, she finds much overlap with the teaching of the Buddha who taught more about orthopraxis than orthodoxy.

Repentance, in Taylor’s view, is never simply a personal act of piety.  To repent is to DO something that brings about reconciliation.

For me that would be epitomised by the life of The Revd John Newton.  Yes, he wrote in Amazing Grace about the God who ‘saved a wretch like me’ and that’s because he wasn’t at all proud of his time as a Slave Ship Captain.  Yet, for Newton, repentance and salvation are not just words that describe a personal relationship with God.  No, he used all his power as an Anglican priest to support, encourage and mentor William Wilberforce as he put the Abolition Bill before Parliament.  Newton used his repentance to build a better community.

Speaking of Sin struck me initially as such a bleak title for a book, yet it turned out to be a very uplifting and positive read.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Just shut up and be grateful!

This week I attended a Ministers’ Breakfast.  Sixteen Baptist Ministers from all over Buckinghamshire were there, seated around a big table tucking into the granola and croissants!

There was lots of friendly banter and it was a lovely occasion.

After sipping my orange juice I was in full flow describing my holiday to a colleague I much respect when I found myself just being a touch negative about the accommodation.  ‘Oh Ian’, she said, with a smile upon her face, ‘Just shut up and be grateful!’

Now, you can only speak like that to a good friend!

She was right – absolutely right.  We had spent a super two weeks in a lovely part of Britain, in a very nice flat, with very reasonable weather.  It was 98% perfect – so why did I slip into moaning about that 2%!!

I suspect we all do it: ‘Lovely dinner, but what a shame they served instant coffee instead of filter afterwards!’

Call it ‘finding fault’ or simply ‘missing the point’ – the truth is that, by and large, most of us have far more to be thankful for than to grumble about.
Words matter.

Recently the Daily Telegraph published a blank page. It looks really odd – a page without words.  It was a protest really, a statement by the journalists saying they’d prefer to print no words than sentences of ‘fake news’.

Yesterday, at breakfast, I was gently and wisely reprimanded for using my words in complaint rather than gratitude.

Developing and sustaining a thankful, grateful heart is probably one of the keys to good, healthy living.

It’s one of the reasons the prayers after the sermon in our services begin with Thanksgiving before going on to Intercession.  It’s also why the Communion Service in some traditions is called ‘The Eucharist’, literally meaning ‘Thanksgiving’ or ‘Praise’.

This is the month of Harvest Festivals and they give us an opportunity to do many things – and one of the most important is simply to be grateful and express thanks.  Thanks to God, to farmers, to growers, scientists, fishermen and retailers.
Well this thought began its life at a Buckinghamshire Ministers’ Meeting – and way back in 1844 another Buckinghamshire Minister, The Revd Henry Alford, penned the opening line of a hymn we regularly use in our Harvest worship:  Come, ye THANKFUL people come!


Thursday, 7 September 2017

Fake News

I’ve only recently caught up with the idea of ‘fake news’ – even though, I guess, it’s been around forever. 

The idea that an event can be so misreported that it becomes obvious that the journalists or editors involved main intention was to mislead rather than inform their readers and hearers.

It’s about being manipulative and having an agenda rather than simply and straightforwardly reporting facts; and I can see why some think there’s more ‘fake news’ around now than ever before.

We all know the saying: ‘No news is good news’ and I wonder if we aren’t misreading that and then adding the follow up statement, ‘All news is bad news’.  That’s because so much of what we hear can leave us with the predominant impression that just about everything going on around us is negative, bad and inevitably getting worse.

Twenty years ago two women died.  One a princess, whose anniversary has had a great deal of coverage over the last few days, the other a nun: Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  They knew each other and both had very public funerals.

We may debate the merits of both women and inevitably we would discover their feet of clay, yet surely both were so admired because of their compassion and the way they used their position and influence for the benefit of others.  Strip away all the debates about the princess’ private life or the nun’s traditional Roman Catholic position on birth control, and you are still left with two individuals who inspired thousands of people with their concern for others; it motivated them and prompted others to show similar kindness.

I was struck listening to Women’s Hour last week on the car radio as a younger person said during a discussion about Diana that she felt no one had replaced her in the last two decades as a compassionate role model.
It’s interesting that – our desire for role models, and perhaps they are no longer on the national stage.  The age of celebrity seems vacuous and our politicians are so often hijacked by short term issues rather than big ideas.
However, I’m not sure that the public stage is always the best place to look for role models anyway. And that brings me back to the News.  There is, I think, a huge gulf between the world presented to us by the media and the one we really inhabit.  The real world, I suggest, can be a much kinder and more inspirational place than the one presented to us on News at Ten.  It’s in our families, schools, hospitals, churches and local communities that we will come across the sort of people who can become role models of compassion and dedication.
Joseph Hertz was born into a Hungarian Jewish family and eventually became Chief Rabbi here in Britain some seventy years ago and he put it like this: We are never nearer the divine than in our compassionate moments.
Or how about this conclusion reached by the Lakeland Poet William Wordsworth: the best portion of a life is not our fame and success, but those little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love. Fake news may be here to stay, but so too will be the kindnesses we come across, sometimes at the most unexpected times and in the most unusual places – such moments won’t make it into that evening’s new bulletins or the next day’s papers but they are part of the real world in which we live.


Sunday, 3 September 2017

Joining the Divine Dance

One of my favourite pieces of church choral music is David Ogden’s setting of a prayer attributed to Teresa of Avila: Christ has no body now but yours.  The choir were kind enough to sing it at my Induction at AFC.

The full text of that prayer goes like this:
Christ has no body now but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on the world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are the body.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

As September begins and many of our church organisations resume their activities after the summer break these are good words to pray.  They remind us of our ‘call’ to serve Christ.

Yet, maybe Teresa of Avila’s prayer also worries us in that it so emphasises our responsibility that it might just feel that God’s mission is now completely down to us; which is never the case.

In his book The Divine Dance (which the AFC Book Group have just read) Richard Rohr, describes the work of God in our world as a ‘dance’.  That dance, that activity of God is going on all the time, both inside and outside the Church.  We don’t have to start the dance, instead all we have to do is join in!

I love that idea.  The concept that God is already at work in a thousand and one ways in our world and my responsibility is to figure out what that looks and feels like and join in! 

That way of thinking makes the ‘restart’ of so much of our activity here at church in September feels not so much a burden that worries us but a joy that can delight us – as we seek to share in the work that God is already doing among us.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

No Internet!!

We came back from holiday to the news that the Internet has been disconnected from The Manse!

Now this is not because the church hasn’t paid the bill – but rather because our provider says a person, unknown to us, asked for the line to be cut!

So we have been without internet or telephone for just under a week.  We were all relieved when the new router arrived a few days ago – with second son deployed to connect it!!

Twenty years ago and none of this would have mattered because I wouldn’t have needed my wifi printer to crunch out my sermon or the order of service and we probably didn’t have a church website back then anyway.

But all of us at the Manse were going round starting things but then unable to finish them because we needed the internet.  We’ve even started talking to each other – it got that bad!!

It’s made me realise once again how easy it is to take things for-granted until they are gone.

I regularly speak to folk who tell me what they now think is really special in life isn’t the cruise they’d always wanted to go on but the ability to walk unaided by a stick or listen to a favourite piece of music and hear every note.

Others say that owning all the money you could ever think of wouldn’t be as special as having a loved one back.


Now the internet is back, hopefully the phone will be fixed this afternoon and all will be ‘back to normal’! – but all of this has taught me once again to be thankful for my family and friends, and for my health and strength – because it seems to me that it’s actually the ordinary things in life that turn out to be the most special.

Friday, 21 July 2017

As the Summer Holidays begin a pictorial review of some of the events that have filled the first half of 2017.
Blog holiday now until September!


8th January 2017: Street Kids Direct cheque presentation


22nd January 2017: COTHA United Service at St Michael's


21st January 2017: Leading Intercessions Training Evening


1st February 2017: Baptist Union Retreat Group Committee at Sarum College, Salisbury


14th February 2017: Venice


19th February 2017: Evening Service at All Souls, London


12th March 2017: Junior Church


26th March 2017: Mothering Sunday


26th March 2017: Mothering Sunday


13th April 2017: Maundy Thursday


19th April 2017: Lunch with the Ministers of our Link Church in Harlesden, North London


21st April 2017: Visiting Matthew in his office at The London School of Theology


5th May 2017: Preaching at a friend's Induction in Somerset


21st May 2017: Circle The City for Christian Aid


29th May 2017: The Greens visit their former church in Malvern


11th June 2017: 30th Anniversary of Ian's Ordination


25th June 2017: Toilet Twinning Afternoon


30th June 2017: Elders Social at The Manse


15th July 2017: Garden Party at Whitegates


17th July 2017: LunchBreak with Tom Torley

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Grab a Pew!

Our Breakfast Furniture!!
Last weekend we spent a night in Chichester.

We loved walking around the Bishop's Garden and spent Saturday morning sitting in the Cathedral listening to the organist practice for the next day's service.

We stayed overnight in a local pub and I couldn't help but notice the breakfast furniture!

The room was full of old pews and chapel chairs - the sort with hymn book holders on their back.

I thought it just a touch ironic (especially as I sat for ten years on The Baptist Union's Listed Buildings Advisory Committee) that the very furniture we often throw out - because it's not modern or comfortable enough and doesn't attract 'non-churchy' people, eventually finds its way into a pub, exactly the place where such people love to spend an evening with friends as they sit on 'our' pews!!!

It's an odd world at times!!

It made me ponder what it really means to be a 'welcoming Church'?  No doubt it may have something to do with the comfort of new chairs but I suspect it has far more to do with offering folk a warm-hearted, sincere and genuine greeting. It's integrity that makes the difference.

We often seem to tinker at the periphery and miss what's really important at the centre.

Ian



Thursday, 6 July 2017

Lord, I believe...

‘Belief’ is obviously very important when it comes to faith.  We even use it as a sort of code for whether a person sits comfortably in our church communities saying he or she is ‘a person of belief’.  Yet I suspect if you analysed an average congregation you’d find a multitude of ‘beliefs’.

Some ecclesiastical traditions ask us to affirm our beliefs weekly by bundling them into the creeds which nearly always begin with the phrase. ‘I believe…’.

This week I’ve been struck by Sir John Chilcot’s ‘revelation’ that he considers Mr Blair based much of his decision making leading up to the invasion of Iraq more on a deeply personal ‘belief’ that this was right rather than a conviction backed up by hard evidence.  Intense ‘feelings’ that such actions were right have since been proved inadequate for neither did Iraq possess weapons of mass destruction and nor was all out war the last resort option open to the West.  Chilcot makes for uncomfortable reading as it ultimately concludes that just because you passionately believe something is right – if there is insufficient evidence to back up your ‘feelings', however intense – your decisions, based on such subjectivity, are almost certainly wrong.

Andrew Marr, in his Monday morning radio show also considered this question of belief.  One of his guests was the scientist Richard Dawkins – not the best loved of academics in the eyes of The Church!  Dawkins made the very reasonable point that Darwinism and Natural Selection is a beautiful theory and pretty much the very best explanation we have for how life has developed on earth.  Of course, it cuts across Creationism and that is a problem for some Christians and some in other faiths, including Islam. 

So how does a modern-day disciple view Genesis 1 and 2 today?  Well, many of us have never really seen it as a scientific account but a poetic one.  It doesn’t intend to tell us how life began in a ‘matter of fact’ way, rather it celebrates the gift of life using images and painting word pictures.  It’s a song rather than a thesis!

Of course there are so many different kinds of belief.  We Christians hold on to a sort of tension when it comes to belief.  Many of us value ‘reason’ and want to read our scriptures with our minds as well as our hearts.  That means we want to put the words of The Bible in their historic context and understand the type, or genre of literature they represent.

Personally I can no longer really agree with the Reformation dictum ‘Sola Scripture’ – if by that we mean that our faith is entirely influenced and defined by scripture alone.

For me I have to put ‘experience’ into the frame as well.  It’s through countless ‘experiences’ in life that my faith is honed, tested and constantly redefined.  Of course, the bible remains a vital guide, but alongside that I believe in the ‘continuous revelation’ that comes through reason, discussion, and the hard knocks of life.

Yet, I willingly acknowledge that ‘belief’ is also about holding on to mystery, beauty and hope.  Maybe some will think I’m contradicting myself, but I want to hold a creative and, at times uncomfortable, tension between the mind and the heart.

For me that means I still ‘feel’ deeply moved by that verse etched into the walls of a concentration camp over seventy years ago:

I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining.
And I believe in love,
even when there's no one there.
And I believe in God,
even when he is silent.

The words of a character from a gospel bible story still ring true in my ears - I hear them in the King James version we used in Sunday School!

'Lord, I do believe, help thou my unbelief.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Why should the Devil have all the good tunes?

Our Training Evening on Tuesday!
On Tuesday evening members of our Worship Teams, who lead services locally, gathered at AFC for a training evening.  We took as our topic: hymns!

Now it has to be said that our church is somewhat going against the current trends in worship in that we remain in our liturgical style basically ‘hymnic’ rather than ‘song’ based.

I love the accusation made against Luther as he wrote hymn words to chorale melodies; his ‘enemies said he was ‘singing the people into Protestantism’.


Or how about Elizabeth I’s pithy dig at the emerging hymnody of her day which she dismissed as ‘Geneva Gigs’!!

The truth is that for many of us hymns have been wonderful companions in our pilgrimage of faith thus far.  We have delighted in their poetry, been inspired by their melodies and instructed through their theologies.

On Tuesday we reminded ourselves of the prolific output of hymn writers such as Charles Wesley.  Although only about thirty-five of his hymns are in our current book it is astonishing to realise that in all he composed around 7000!

As our evening drew to a close those assembled divided into three groups and selected hymns for either a Morning Communion Service, an All Age Service or one held at a Residential Home.  The groups, working collaboratively, came up with some great suggestions – which I may pocket and use at some forthcoming events!

I love hymns and I’m delighted that new ones continue to appear.  I think one of Fred Pratt Green’s, the Lancashire Methodist Minister, sums up how I feel:

When in our music God is glorified
and adoration leaves no room for pride
it is as though the whole creation cried
Alleluia!

or as the founder of the Salvation Army, General Booth once put it:

Why should the Devil have all the good tunes!


Thursday, 22 June 2017

Parable of The Loving Father

A ‘Father’s Day’ Monologue I composed and used in church last week:

Dairy entry: 18th June
Place: Capernaum by the shore of Lake Galilee

Yesterday will go down as one of the happiest days of my life.

I’m the father of two boys and, to be honest, one of them, the youngest, broke my heart six months ago.  He left home after one of those bright ideas of his.  He’s always been headstrong; well that’s what I call it, but his older brother dismisses him as arrogant!

But leaving our farm, where he had a solid future, wasn’t really the worst of it.  He came up with the idea of an early inheritance to fund this trip of a lifetime.  After I gave him the money my wife cried herself to sleep that night saying Reuben was treating us as if we were dead.

But I felt he needed his freedom and if I said ‘no’ he would have felt a prisoner here.

The morning I left I told him I loved him and asked him to stay in touch – but he never did.

We missed him at every meal.  Esther, my wife, even laid a place for him at table a couple of times.

Jacob, our eldest, isn’t much of a talker.  Reuben was the conversationalist, so mealtimes were now very quiet.

Reuben wanted to travel to Syria and we dealt with merchants there – they came and visited the farm about once a month.  They watched out for him.

The first few months we heard good reports, but recently it’s only ever been bad news.  I sent him messages, telling him we thought of him every day and he’d always be welcome back – but I never got a response.

Last month was the worst.  The Syrian corn merchant told us Reuben had obviously run out of money because he was working for a pig farmer.  He’d sunk as low as he could and his dream trip had turned into a nightmare.

I’ve developed a daily routine after supper.  I leave Ester and Jacob in the house and I go and sit on the rooftop watching the sunset – longing for my boy.

And then yesterday it happened!

As the sun was finally dipping behind the olive grove a mile away, sending out its mellow, warm, golden rays.  I made out a figure in silhouette, limping down the lane.

I couldn’t take my eyes off this approaching stranger, walking head down, clutching a stick, limping, slowly and painfully along the path that led nowhere but to the gates of our farm.

As he approached I felt I knew the gait of his walk.  I thought, I hardly dare thought, could it be, could this really be Reuben?

My heart began to beat faster as the figure before me grew larger – until at last he lifted his face and looked for a brief moment at the house.  It was my son!!! And I burst into tears.

I got myself in check and went downstairs.  I told Esther and Jacob I’d seen Reuben heading down the lane.  Jacob froze, Esther, like me seconds earlier, wept with joy.

I left the house with the biggest smile that has ever visited my face.  I walked at first, but ended up running – well, with my age that’s more like jogging, down the road.

Reuben seemed rooted to the spot.  I could see the sorrow, confusion and apprehension on his face.

I ran up to him with open arms and hugged him. ‘My son, my son’ I said, and we both wept as we hugged each other.

My son, my lively, irrepressible, headstrong son had come home.  Esther and I welcomed him with a party – Jacob was not so happy.

Dear Diary – I wonder where this sort of love comes from?  Perhaps it’s but a reflection of the way God loves us.  A Loving Father, a Generous Parent.  All I know is – it’s real, it’s beautiful and it’s the most import thing in life.

Happy Father’s Day!

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Made in the Image of God?

It's the season of Pentecost in which we rejoice that God’s love and compassion can be ministered by ordinary people.

We’ve seen that this week in North Kensington,  as, indeed, we saw it on the evenings of both the London Bridge and Manchester Arena attacks.

However, someone asked me this week:  'Are we really made in the image of God?'  I understood where they were coming from. 

Yet even after so much sadness during these early summer days I still want to say ‘yes’.

I say ‘yes’ as I hear stories of taxi drivers going back to the attack site to see if they can help.

I say ‘yes’ when I read of people around Southwalk opening up their homes and taking frightened strangers in for the night.

I say ‘yes’ as I hear the public of Kensington dropping off food and clothing at church and community halls as their way of standing alongside bereaved and homeless fellow citizens.

I say ‘yes’ when I hear of doctors and nurses saving lives and emergency personnel alongside policemen and women risking their lives because deep down we know the value of a human life. 

These are ordinary people who have blessed our communities in extra-ordinary ways and by living with such courage, decency and compassion I believe they have have shown us what it really means to live in the image of God.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Free Church Liberals?

The Revd Dr John Clifford of Paddington
‘And so the conclusion is irresistible that, in this conflict, all the hopes of the Free Churches and, we believe, of the nation as a whole, are bound up with the triumphant return to power of the Liberal Party.’

So wrote the editor of the Baptist Times in his newspaper on the occasion of the second election held in 1910.  It is, perhaps, unthinkable, a hundred and seven years later, that a denominational publication would offer up such partisan instructions today!

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is fond of saying that ‘whoever thinks politics and faith don’t mix has never read the bible’.  That’s a sentiment that The Revd Dr John Clifford, minister of the Baptist congregation in Paddington in 1910 certainly believed. He considered that something of the essence of the Kingdom of God, its compassion and equality, was actively being advanced by the reforming legislation of Asquith’s Liberal government in the form of: Old Age Pensions, National Insurance and the fight against privilege being waged with The House of Lords.

On Election Day 2017 I like to cast a nod back through history to John Clifford and his belief in democracy – along with his view that all Free Church people should vote Liberal!!!

Yet I also wonder if, at this current time, we don’t put too heavy a burden of expectation on our politicians.

I spoke to our local Member of Parliament as she was ‘out and about’, on the streets of Amersham, a few weeks ago.  I enjoyed our encounter.  She listened respectfully as I raised a few issues.  I know too that she is a woman of principle, even resigning her Cabinet position because of a local issue upon which she felt she needed to make a stand.

Yet no one who walks through No.10 tomorrow, no Cabinet sitting around that famous table and no Parliament gathering together at Westminster has all the answers, and indeed none have claimed a magic wand in their manifestos.

That’s why I am sometimes frustrated by the somewhat self-righteous tone of many political commentators and interviewers, giving the impression that our politicians have missed the comfortable and obvious answers to the problems of our age, because surely there simply are no easy answers.

I think we need to put ourselves back in the picture.  WE THE PEOPLE, to coin a phrase from a well-known political document across The Pond, can be part of the answer.

The communities we build in our families, localities, workplaces and churches can be part of the solution to our world’s problems too.

Surely it’s not just down to the politicians, for although we expect a great deal from them, they can often only ‘manage’ events rather than generate all-encompassing solutions.

As we approach Trinity Sunday this weekend we are reminded that at the heart of God is the idea of ‘community’, within the Godhead mysteriously expressed as Father, Son and Spirit.

Politicians, families, businesses, churches, schools and individuals all have a part to play in community and WE THE PEOPLE, individually and together, have the gifts, talents and insights to make a positive difference, and we might start by talking a little less about ‘them’ and more about ‘us’!

Happy Election Day!  Anyone staying up all night?!

Better Together

After Christmas and Epiphany, just as we start allowing ourselves to get a touch excited about longer days, we bump into the Week of Praye...