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?!

Thursday, 25 May 2017

'Circle the City' - we did it!!!

On Sunday a dozen of us from Amersham Free Church caught the tube after morning service and joined five hundred other sponsored walkers in circling the city for Christian Aid.  It was a wonderfully inspiring event and I was very proud of our group!

We walked from one city church to another – collecting ‘stamps’ on our programme en-route.  The fellowship and spirit of togetherness amongst us and the other walkers was tangible.

The thing that struck me time and time again was just how tiny these Wren churches appeared next to the towering sky scrapers like the Gurkin or Cheese Grater!  London is building higher and higher and it looks, at times, both intimidating and impersonal.  Yet these Wren churches stand their ground at the base of these huge financial tower blocks.  I liked their ‘smallness’ and humanity.  It felt comfortable and re-assuring walking into these places of worship and prayer and being enveloped by a deep sense of integrity and ‘connectedness’. 

In a world which at times seems so threatening – nowhere more so than in Manchester on Monday night – it’s good that small but vital beacons of love, community and hope, like these city churches in London, keep their doors open and try to welcome all who cross their threshold with the love and compassion of God.

Ian
ps I got it wrong – it’s Blog holiday next week!!

Friday, 19 May 2017

Nazareth Manifesto

This has been a week of manifestos.  The great unveiling of plans, ambitions and intentions by our political parties as they try to convince us that they deserve our vote.

Way back in 1983, when the wonderfully eccentric, yet deeply principled Michael Foot led the Labour Party, their manifesto for that election was called, by political commentators, ‘the longest suicide note in history’!  I suspect many essays have been written by students of politics as to why that may, or may not, have been true.

In Luke’s Gospel we have that pivotal moment in Jesus’ life as, one Saturday morning, he returns to his home synagogue and preaches.  Being handed the scroll he read words from Isaiah, all about: announcing good news, proclaiming release for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour.  Then Jesus says: Today in your hearing this text has come true.  It didn’t go down too well and I think he never got a preaching fee!!

I’m an incurable devotee of that one time American TV political drama ‘The West Wing’.  We’ve watched it right through, series after series, probably seven times now – I think we need therapy!!  The programme covers three Presidential elections and they always begin with the candidates usually returning to their home town where an inquisitive crowd has gathered outside the schoolhouse or town hall to hear the one time ‘local’ utter those wonderfully aspirational words: ‘And so today I declare my intention to run for the office of President of these United States’.

Luke, millennia before The West Wing, has Jesus do something similar! He places this ‘declaration of intent’ right at the start of Jesus’ ministry, just after The Temptations.  This was the moment in Nazareth, Luke is saying to us, when Jesus launched his manifesto and told us how he saw the future.

The next five years will reveal if the party given the keys to No.10 keep their manifesto promises.

Jesus gave his life keeping his.

(Blog holiday next week!)

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Induction Dynamics

Montacute Baptist Church - scene of last Saturday's Induction
Churches usually welcome a new pastor/priest/minister with an Induction Service followed by a large tea!  Well, I not only attended one last Saturday down in Somerset, I also had the privilege of preaching at it.  I think in thirty years I’ve only done this a couple of times (preached at an Induction) so I’m still a bit of a novice in trying to pass on any ‘wisdom’ to a colleague about to start a new Pastorate.

However, I’ve had five Inductions myself and I remember every one with surprising clarity!

The strange, yet wonderful, thing about them is the opportunity to invite and greet people from different ‘phases’ of the past.  It’s odd seeing friends from Pastorate No.2 sitting alongside friends from Pastorate No.4! (I wouldn’t want to push this comparison too far but maybe it feels a bit like attending one’s own funeral!)

I have to say on Saturday we were all very much alive!  Just under a hundred of us gathered in this country chapel and the singing was inspirational!  Stories were told, vows made and partnerships re-affirmed.  It had all the ingredients of a good and blessed beginning.

Years ago I had to write a piece for College on the significance of Induction Services; so, I deconstructed the liturgy, analysed the vows and generally ‘pulled’ the service apart!

I’m sure it was a helpful experience and gave me a greater awareness of what was going on.  I was particularly struck when interviewing one lady about the forthcoming Induction of her minister.  As it was scheduled for early September (a popular Induction ‘season’!) she couldn’t attend, having already booked a holiday.  ‘He’ll keep’ she said!  And I suppose there was a lot of truth in that!

All I can say about Saturday’s Induction is that it just seemed so ‘right’.  It was a time of natural and unforced ‘joy’.  In short there was a sense that we were all standing on ‘holy ground’ and God was in this place.

So, my prayer for this new partnership between pastor and people is that something of the joy and hope-filled trust at the centre of Saturday’s service will characterise the days that lay ahead.

God bless you Pastor Heather and the good folk of Montacute Baptist Church.

Ian

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Puppy Sitting

I had a phone call this week from a friend who’d been called away on an overnight course desperately asking if we might ‘puppy sit’ for his Jack Russell, Jessie.

Now the closest the Green family have ever had to pets were hamsters and gold fish so having a puppy in the house for twenty-four hours was a novel, and as it turned out, very enjoyable experience!

There was a meeting – with fellow ministers – that I simply had to be at yesterday, and this took place before anyone in our house had returned home from work, so the puppy came too – a bit of a mistake!  It was all delightful until her excitement got the better of her and she left two damp patches on the Church Office floor!

After an evening of fun, taking her for a walk in the park and playing tug of war, I confess I was slightly relieved to hand her back this morning!

But the truth is in just that short period of time a certain bond of trust and loyalty grew up between us.  She was remarkably relaxed and happy to be around us all and seemed more than happy to trust me as her main ‘carer’ for twenty-four hours.

This reminded me of the film that our Lent Course group watched last week at an end of course ‘party’: A Street Cat named Bob.  This was all about the way an adopted cat helped a drug addict get his life back.

Someone in our group said afterwards as we were discussing the film that it always feels a great privilege whenever an animal willingly lets you into its life – be it a cat or dog, or that robin sitting watching you dig the garden in mid-winter!

Trust and loyalty are such wonderful qualities to encounter, whether between a dog and its owner or between two friends.  Trust and loyalty are at the centre of all relationships.  Trust and loyalty have a great deal to say in our journey of faith and our appreciation of God and concept of discipleship.

Oh, my friend has just phoned asking where Jessie’s lead is?  I promise I did take it back – but I now have a mental picture in my mind of him running after her in the park trying to keep up!  I think puppy sitting must be a little like being a grandparent – it’s nice to give them back!


Thursday, 27 April 2017

17-2

Late on Monday night our eldest son arrived back at The Manse after ‘running the line’ at a local football match.  It was a game between Amersham Town and the local Tesco Team.  Apparently, the town won by 17 goals to 2! 

He told us that by the end of the second half Amersham players were pleading with him, as a linesman, not to call off side just so Tesco could score a goal or two!!  Even though I’m not the greatest football fan I would have loved to have been there!

The truth is I was slightly put off of sport at school when the rugby coach told my class: ‘The taller they are, the harder they fall’.  As the tallest in my year I was the player one every one ‘felled’ for the rest of my time there!

For all that I have huge respect for the teamwork and camaraderie of the ‘sporting kind’!  I see similar qualities in every choir I have ever sung in – although it has to be said we have usually only been in competition with ourselves.

Last Sunday Rachel went into London to watch a colleague run the Marathon.  So many keen and enthusiastic runners, all doing their best to raise money for various charities – surely a wonderful example of humanity at its very best.

I joined her later in the day – in time for Evensong at St Paul’s (typical of the fact that music always wins over sport with me) and to join many of the runners, now limping, on their way home via the Tube.

This week many churches who use the Lectionary will be taking readings from Acts and 1 Peter.  It’s really ‘Peter Sunday’ as we hear part of his sermon from Acts 2 and a passage in which he talks about having ‘affection towards your fellow Christians and loving one another wholeheartedly’ in the reading from 1 Peter.

Peter is such a unique individual.  A ‘big’ character in the New Testament.  Yet he seems to recognise that Christianity and faith is something we do ‘together’ – as a united and co-operative team, with affection for one another.

I think that’s a super picture of The Church – at times maybe it’s aspirational, but when we do experience that ‘togetherness’ in our fellowship and service I think we come a little closer to being The Body of Christ we are meant to be.

Oh – I almost forgot!  Apparently, everyone went home happy from Monday night’s football match because of the buffet enjoyed afterwards – provided, of course, by Tesco!!

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Brenda isn't impressed!

So, this week our Prime Minister has called a General Election and Brenda wasn’t happy!!

I’m not too sure who Brenda is exactly!  She is the Vox Pops contribution to Radio 4’s ‘PM’ programme and her reaction to the news of an early plebiscite was broadcast on Tuesday afternoon.  She was horrified, exclaiming ‘oh no, not again’!  Clearly last year’s EU Referendum and the 2015 General Election were still fresh memories for her and she can’t stand the thought of a further fifty days of electioneering.

I doubt if she is alone!  Yet I’ve been wondering why? 

Obviously to be involved in an election is to cast a vote, and to do that is to be in the business of making choices.  Is that the issue?  Perhaps people feel they have little choice or they made the ‘wrong’ one last time round. 

Yet life is constantly about decision making.  Everyday we’ll make loads of them; put them altogether in a lifetime and we make tens of thousands.

As I’ve been thinking of Brenda this week I’ve pondered the idea that much of our faith is about making that purposeful and committed choice to follow the message of God found in Jesus and choose the path of love.  It’s not a one off choice but is something we need to consciously ‘sign up’ to every single day.  Discipleship is often about what choices we make and what roads in life we follow.  And, unlike Brenda, the option of just saying ‘oh no, not again’, isn’t one that either honours God or the name ‘Christian’.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Easter Day: Resurrection Encounter

We can experience Resurrection in so many ways - even through 'religious experience'!!

Oh I know they get a bad press: long sermons, stuffy services and overblown ritual.  Yet I still love coming to church! I still look forward to remembering through bread and wine.  I still cherish hymns of faith and prayers of hope.  And I do all of that because on hundreds of occasions as I’ve met with my sisters and brothers, and as we have covenanted together to be that Community of the Resurrection which is the hallmark of every church, I believe something of the life of God has touched my life and once again I’ve started to make those connections.

It happened that first Easter evening on the Road to Emmaus. 

A couple of deflated disciples were walking west towards the sunset and they were asking themselves big questions.  To their surprise their walking companion seemed to come up with some answers and their hearts burned within them.

Yet they made little real sense of it all until they invited him to share supper with them.  It was, we are told, as he said grace, as he broke the bread – that they recognised the risen Lord.

Through ritual, the breaking of bread, an action they must have experienced a thousand times before – at that moment they encountered the life of God.

That’s the definition of a sacrament:  An outward symbol that speaks of an inward grace.

Sacramental moments can be the deepest in life.  Prayers said by the bedside of a loved one, communion taken in church after a draining week, witnessing the baptism of a new life, singing Alleluia on Easter Morning in this Community of the Resurrection – all these can be moments when we encounter the living presence of God among us – and like those Emmaus disciples we too find our hearts strangely warmed.


In many ways today is a 'Defiant Day'.

This is the day when we say: Love Wins!

This is the day to believe in the power of hope and the supremacy of love which we find in the cross and empty tomb of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu goes some way in summing up Easter when he wrote:

Good is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than darkness and life is stronger than death.

And that, I believe, is the message of resurrection that we celebrate today with all our Alleluias.

May God's blessing of peace, hope and new life be yours this Easter Day and always.

Christ is Risen!
He is Risen indeed - Alleluia!!




Saturday, 15 April 2017

Holy Saturday: Maternal Womb

Maternal Womb: Sieger Koder
The thing about Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is that she stayed when others fled.

At his birth and death Mary was the constant in his life. 

In Koder’s painting Mary, hardly middle aged, cradles her son one last time – a painting which shows such touching love, lasting devotion and enduring affection.

Leaning against the cross with human skulls strewn upon the ground around her Mary’s presence brings warmth and humanity to a scene of carnage and brutality.

She caresses Jesus’ body which has been racked by pain and is now covered in blood.

There is surely an eternal truth in this poignant painting – that even in the toughest struggle love finds a way.

In the mystery of The Trinity – something of God finds a resting place within a mother’s arms as Mary lays her head upon Jesus one last time.

Love wins through not only at the empty tomb but also at the empty cross.

Maybe it has never been put better than in the words etched into the walls of a basement in Cologne during the Holocaust:

I believe in the sun
even when it isn't shining.
I believe in love
even when I am alone.
I believe in God
even when he is silent.


The body of our Lord will be taken down by Joseph of Arimathea and be buried before sundown with loving respect.

None of this negates or even reduces the sufferings of Jesus upon the cross.  Yet even in the face of such brutality love was not absent – a mother remains faithful and a friend offers a final resting place.

When suffering comes – to us, to those we love or those we hardly know yet with whom we share the common bond of humanity – there is surely just one response: love.  A love that never gives up.  Your love, my love, God’s love.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Good Friday: Amen

Amen: Sieger Koder
Jesus seems utterly crushed by the cross.

This work is entitled: Amen – meaning ‘so be it’.

Well, if it was a resolution then it was a commitment to a tough road.

This painting makes me realise that part of my journey this day is to linger with the tension of it all.  For in many ways everything, yet nothing was resolved at the cross.

There was no quick fix here. 

Good Friday and Calvary do not happen with us pressing the fast forward button.  Every hour and every minute and every second have to be endured. 

On Good Friday we have to stay here.

And our Good Fridays don’t resolve quickly either.  The pain of bereavement stays long, the sorrow of a broken relationship lingers, the injustice of a living in the theatre of civil war must seem endless, the pointlessness of a terrorist’s suicide bomb will probably never make sense to the maimed and injured.

Jesus died.  Crushed and broken.  He was forced to be silent and his way of love mixed with justice was so forcibly rejected by the state that his life was cruelly and prematurely snuffed out.

If I were a disciple I suspect I too would have stood a long way off, weeping for the three years we had spent together – now at an end.  A wasted three years?  A mistaken three years? 

If there seemed to be no success at the cross, there appeared to be no affirmation either – once Jesus heard that voice from heaven declaring him to be a beloved son – yet on the cross his cry of dereliction was: My God, why have you forsaken me?

Linger at the cross today and take seriously how love must travel so slowly at times.  Love is patient.  Love is kind, but love is also vulnerable.

It was – and often is today – a long Good Friday.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Maundy Thursday: Unison

Sieger Koder: Unison
Throughout Lent we have been travelling with some of Sieger Koder’s paintings and over the next three days of Holy Week we look at three centred upon the cross.

Two men hold a section of it resting upon their heads, bowed, but undefeated by its weight, they hold each other up by the waist – no wonder Father Koder entitles his work ‘Unison’ meaning ‘together.

So much about this day was solitary for Jesus.  And so much about suffering today is often to be faced alone.

Simon of Cyrene is Jesus’ helper, a character who appears, as it were, from nowhere, out of the mist.

He’s described using the place he came from, Cyrene, a Jewish stronghold at the time based in North Africa, today Cyrene is in Libya.

He’s become something of a patron saint of all those who help us carry a cross – he stands for the supporters, the encouragers and the cross bearers.

Yet in truth he’s a mystery.  The only reference we have for him says he was conscripted, rather than volunteered, for the task – and we simply do not know how he took such co-ersion.

When it was all over, and perhaps in an understandable attempt to make sense of it, tradition has it that Alexander and Rufus, Simon’s sons, became early missionaries of the 1st century church. 

The truth is Good Friday is chaotic and contained both the well-orchestrated and spontaneous.  It was a jumble of emotions with panic and fear being the natural consequences of such brutal and unrelenting state imposed aggression.  No one would have felt safe, valued or respected.  We sing of a Green Hill Far Away and it has the touch of poetry about it – yet on that first Good Friday is would have been a place of bitter, terrifying and unabating pain – a hellish cauldron with just one purpose, to forcefully crush life.

So much about suffering and pain-bearing makes little or no sense and simply has to be got through.

Looking back at it the human spirit tries to pull the threads together - and Simon of Cyrene , the cross carrier might well have been so touch by the dignity shown by our Lord that he and his family did indeed become committed and evangelistic Christians.

And thank God it can happen like that today.  Dignity, hope and love can rise from the ashes of pain and suffering.  None of that takes away the chilling reality of Golgotha, it remains The Place of The Skull rather than a Green Hill Far Away – yet it can transform the pain and go some way towards redeeming it.

This week, as we remember the cross, let us be inspired by Simon of Cyrene, the cross bearer and let us give thanks for all pain-bearers who have walked with us at moments of suffering as our companions and encouragers upon life’s often challenging path.


Thursday, 6 April 2017

Palm Sunday: Donkey and Side Car!


This coming Palm Sunday the Gospel Reading is set from Matthew and he, more than any of the other Evangelists, clearly wants to make the point that Jesus fulfilled the Zechariah prophesy of the Triumphal Entry even to the last detail.

So he includes the idea that Jesus’ disciples requisitioned not simply a donkey but also its foal, and that both (as in Zechariah) were in that first Palm Sunday procession into Jerusalem.  One commentator I read this week rather playfully describes it as ‘Donkey and Side Car’!

The scene is captured by the French artist Jean-Hippolyte Flandrin, who spent almost all his life in churches painting frescos – he died in 1864 aged just 55 years.

We’ll look at this painting in church on Sunday and here’s a prayer I’ve written to go with it:

What do we expect as you ride on, ride on in majesty?
Did we ever really understand your message of love?
We bow down to gods made in our own image and too often fail to heed your call to embrace sacrificial service.
As once more we hold a palm cross in our hand and Holy Week begins,
as once more we sing Hosanna and welcome you among us,
help us to greet you as The Prince of Peace and The One for Others –
humble and riding on a donkey.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Whose?

This week at AFC we are looking at the Sieger Koder painting entitled: ‘Whose?’

It’s an intriguing interpretation of the gospel incident when we are told in John 19: They took Jesus’ clothing and divided it into four shares.

There seems to be something of a scrum in the painting as Jesus’ garment is tugged and fought over.

It's as if everyone wants a bit of Jesus, which I suppose in one way is fine.  However, that all too quickly becomes a problem when we start thinking that Jesus ‘belongs’ exclusively to us: to my tradition, to my understanding, my theology and my lifestyle.

So Koder has provocatively painted religious leaders and possibly a freedom fighter as the ones who have a tug of war over Jesus’ shirt. 

I guess it’s the easiest – and in some ways laziest – thing in the world to make God in our own image.  It’s like pulling on Jesus’ garment and saying ‘I’ve got him’!

Well, isn’t Jesus actually bigger than that?  The Cosmic Christ is free and not bound by us or our conventions or expectations, in fact he continually exceeds these.  That’s because God is surely to be found anywhere and everywhere, in surprising people and places, both inside and outside the Church. 

If dividing his garment is simply about ‘owning’ Jesus – it won’t be the most important thing any of us could do this coming Easter!

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Sic Transit

‘Sic transit’ was the title of a brilliant talk given by Tom Shakespeare on Radio 4’s Point of View programme last Sunday.  It’s part of the longer Latin phrase, ‘sic transit Gloria mundi’, meaning: Thus passes the glory of the world.

Point of View occupies the one time slot of my all-time favourite radio programme, Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America and is really a well-argued and consistently interesting ‘secular’ sermon, and Tom Shakespeare’s offering last week was no exception.

He reflected on the word ‘nostalgia’ with its Latin roots of ‘nostos’ meaning return and ‘algos’ meaning suffering – so the word implies that any attempt to return to the past inevitably brings us suffering or disappointment.

Tom Shakespeare told us listeners that the ‘bad times don’t last but neither do the good ones either’!  Well I suppose that’s true in that most things we go through, whether they are highs or lows, are time limited.  Apparently, the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, put it rather more eloquently when he said: You can’t stand in the same river twice.  In other words, change really does govern the universe and it’s simply impossible to return to yesterday, so it's much better to accept today is the nostalgia we’ll be talking about tomorrow!

I suppose I’m reflecting on that a bit because although I left theological college and was ordained thirty years ago this June I still meet up (as I have done twice this month) with good friends from three decades ago.  And in a sense, I love standing in the same river twice!  OK, so it’s not the same water flowing by, yet these encounters do, in a way, put me in touch with my former self and I find it tremendously reaffirming and reassuring that the friendships and ideas that inspired and challenged the young me still have a certain potency over the middle age version which is the current me!

Yet, it also has to be acknowledged that neither I, nor my friends, are the same people we were when studying together in South London all those years ago.  We have been moulded and fashioned by all that water which has flowed along our rivers of life.

Ecclesiastes, in the Jewish Scriptures, says: There is a time for everything under heaven and we need to live in the ‘sacrament of the present moment’ conscious that the God who thrilled and inspired us in our ‘salad days’ is still able to do a ‘new thing’ among us and through us in 2017.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Twenty-four eyes

'Face to Face' by Seiger Koder
The second Sieger Koder painting currently hanging in our ‘Art Corridor’ at Amersham Free Church is one he entitled Face to Face.

During World War II Koder served as a soldier before being taken prisoner in France.  After the war, he trained as both a silversmith and painter.  He was a ‘multi-faceted’ priest!

This particular collection, from which today’s painting is taken, is entitled ‘The Folly of God’ and we are left in no doubt that those gathering around Jesus are sneering at him.

We only get partial images of those in the scene and, of course, Jesus isn’t painted at all because it’s as if we are looking out at the crowd through his eyes.

We glimpse a Roman soldier about to hammer in the nails – a truly gruesome moment.

Already the day has gone dark as through the circle made by the onlookers we see an eclipsed sun.

I counted eleven people looking on plus, surprisingly, one bull!; a total of twenty four pairs of eyes.  Although in actual fact at least one observer seems so overcome by the brutality of crucifixion that they cover theirs.

Koder has given us faces of intrigue, curiosity, horror and maybe indifference.  One character also seems to be giving a ‘thumbs up’.

What are we to make of this painting, what message lurks behind its fascinating composition?

I think for me it’s got something to do with the futility of having a dependant longing for the constant approval of others.  Of course, that may come our way at times, yet there will also be moments when integrity matters more than approval – and we in the Church often need to be aware of that.

We are called, from time to time, to live ‘counter culturally’ and that may mean others sneer at us. 

Whenever that happens perhaps we can find strength in knowing our Lord experienced that reaction too.

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...