Thursday, 13 September 2018

Dickens makes me laugh

Mr Pumblechook
It’s not just the wonderfully preposterous names in Dickens that make me laugh out loud, but they do help.  So, even when his stories are set in abject poverty or describe total degradation we want to continue reading because these intensely human characters have names like Mr Pumblechook, Herbert Pocket or Mr Jaggers – all from Great Expectations which is my current bedtime read!

Humour is one of the ways we cope with all that life throws up.

Last week I listened to some of the interviews Rachel Bland, the Radio 5 Live newsreader, gave in the year leading up to her death from breast cancer.  She cried only once in those interviews but laughed countless times.  It was humbling and inspirational to hear this young woman talk of her journey through this terminal illness and it was clear that, for her, one of the things that remained precious right up to the end was her sense of humour.

Whilst on holiday in East Africa last month our jeep broke down on the edge of the Serengeti wilderness.  I discovered I had two internal responses.  On the one hand I was busy in my mind writing a letter to the tour company pointing out the consequences of driving us around lion infested landscapes in an old jeep!  On the other, I was smiling and laughing with my fellow passengers as our wheel problem was fixed by a branch being cut down from the scrub by a machete, sawn in two and placed either side of the dislodged wheel to keep us on the road for a further two hours and back in time for lunch!

Sometimes, when there’s nothing more you can do, the only thing is to laugh.

Humour can so often bring things down to size, put them in perspective and stop us from thinking Armageddon is just around the corner – and perhaps, most importantly, it stops us taking ourselves too seriously.

Jesus, especially in his use of parables, often used the sort of cultural humour which may be lost on us today.  I suspect the fact that his message contained a ‘chuckle factor’ meant it was readily received and remembered because an amusing story is a great way to illustrate a deeper truth.  As Mr Dickens knew only too well!

Thursday, 6 September 2018

First Impressions

Walking into Usa village with Frank, our guide
We are just back from a fortnight in East Africa.  For the last two weeks of August we visited Tanzania; a country whose name is an amalgamation of Tanganyika and Zanzibar.

Such has been the assault on my senses over these last fourteen days that I’m still trying to process the jumble of images and experiences that we brought home with us as we flew back at the weekend.

Our second week in Tanzania was spent ‘on safari’. Our group occupied two four by four jeeps as we travelled between, and through, four National Parks.  On one level it’s relatively ‘easy’ to process these wonderful memories: the early morning game drives, breaking down on the edge of The Serengeti, waiting for a herd of elephants to cross the road and looking down from the window catching sight of a beautiful jackal looking after two cubs.  These memories are deeply appreciated, can easily be processed and in some senses were expected.

However, that isn’t the case with our first week.  For the initial six days we were by ourselves, booked into a lovely game lodge at the foot of Mount Meru, we were left to our own devices.  We visited a school, were taken round a Fairtrade Coffee Plantation, toured the local township called Usa (not to be confused with the country of the same name!) and visited the local town of Arusha.

What follows can only be described as my first impressions.  None of it really made total sense and I’m sure anyone would need to spend more time than our allotted two weeks to put the real jigsaw together.

In the village, and to a certain degree this was also true in the town, people live in single storey, breeze block units with a corrugated roof.  The front door was usually no more than a hanging piece of cloth.  These homes lead directly on to dirt roads and were surrounded by mud coloured vegetation. 

Wherever we went in Tanzania we were aware of a certain level of bureaucracy which surprised us.  Pristine uniformed police officers could be seen daily at the same point on the road that goes from Kilimanjaro to Arusha.  Apparently, even if you are not over the speed limit it’s just ‘normal’ to be stopped, fill in the paperwork and be faced with a fine.

Buying a drink also had its own well-worn procedure.  For our usual dinner order of a bottle of water and a glass of white wine I regularly had to sign twice and came away with no less than five pieces of paper as a receipt.  (I’m so looking forward to going into M&S and declining my receipt this weekend!)

Yet maybe, despite the poverty and bureaucracy, the deepest impression I came away with is the generous welcome and unfailing hospitality we received from the Tanzanians.

Alongside this we encountered an irrepressible sense of community.  People were obviously looking after each other and this always seemed a noisy affair, especially at the roadside markets!

Some people in Tanzania spoke to us of the hope they have for the country’s future.  Much of the land has rich, volcanic soil so could, in theory, become one of the bread baskets of Africa.  This, alongside mining for gold and tanzanite as well as tourism means there is potentially financial viability.  Even more so because Tanzania is at peace with itself and its neighbours and currently has a president who is fighting against internal corruption and seems on course to gain a second term.

And yet…perhaps the memory that will linger the longest with me is that tour of Usa village we made on our first afternoon: the dirt roads, the breeze block shacks, the crumbling shops alongside the smiling faces and crazy driving of the hundreds of scooters, each sounding their horns.

Somehow all the Christian Aid videos and BMS presentations I’ve watched over these last five decades haven’t prepared me for what it actually feels like to be in the so called ‘Third World’. 

‘Feeling it’ is so very different from ‘reading about it’.

So, as I finish this piece, my train is pulling into Marylebone and I’m eating one of the biscuits I bought at Kilimanjaro airport on Friday night.  My mind is buzzing with so many yet unprocessed memories.  I can but simplify it down, lift up my eyes to heaven and pray just three heartfelt words: ‘God Bless Africa’.

Friday, 27 July 2018

Farewell Hauke

This weekend we say 'Farewell' to Hauke, our Time for God volunteer who has been with us at AFC since September last year.

We have all so enjoyed working with him over these months.  His warm personality, cheerful smile and willingness to help out has been a blessing to us all.  I think we all feel as if he is now a much loved member of our church family, so it's with a certain sadness   
that we'll say goodbye next week. 

There will always be a very warm welcome for him at AFC.

We wish him well as he returns home to his family and then on to university in October.

God bless you Hauke - for you have truly been a great blessing to     us.

So here are a few pictures.

Enjoy the summer - the Blog returns in September!


October 2017 Taking part in residential home service

November 2017 Christmas Shoe Boxes

November 2018 Art in Advent afternoon

November 2017 Serving at The at Three

December 2017 Snow Sunday!

December 2018 Cooking Shepherds Pie at The Manse!

December 2018 Carol Concert at The Royal Albert Hall

December 2017 Visiting London School of Theology

December 2017 Nativity Service

January 2018 Monthly Schedule Sheet

February 2018 Worshipping at All Souls, Langham Place

March 2018 Visit of Sisters!

March 2018 Reading the Lesson at The Free Church Service at St Alban's Cathedral

March 2018 Always helpful with anything 'technological'!

April 2018 Evensong at St Martin in The Fields

April 2018 Good Friday in Amersham

April 2018 Easter Day Evening Service at Westminster Abbey

May 2018 An Evening in London

May 2018 Taking part in Circle The City for Christian Aid

June 2018 Speaking at LunchBreak

June 2018 Part of The Manse Life and Faith Group

June 2018 Taking part in Morning Service

June 2018 With 'Mum and Dad'

July 2018 Anglo German Evening 

Monday, 23 July 2018

Finding our place

Last week we hosted a ‘tea party’ for some of Rachel’s colleagues from school.  It was a lovely occasion but I definitely felt something of a welcomed ‘outsider’.  I was the only non-teacher in the room and I happily took on the role of ‘butler’ filling up the plates of sandwiches and ‘refreshing’ the pot – anything to avoid talking about maths!

All of this felt quite new to me.  Normally I’m the one trying to put others at their ease as I welcome folks to ‘my’ world – the world of ‘church’ where I’ve basically felt ‘at home’ all my life.  On Friday I caught a glimpse of another world, the world of teaching, and the dedicated and talented people who occupy it.

They say people make up their minds whether or not to return to a church within three minutes of arriving at a service.  It’s the welcome they receive at the door and pew that sets the scene.

The other Sunday during the coffee time after the service I was in the church hall and noticed a relatively new couple sitting in glorious isolation by themselves.  I started to make a move towards their table at exactly the same time as one of our pastorally sensitive Elders who had spotted them from the other side of the room.  She smiled at me as if to say: you go first!  So, I sat at the table and chatted with these new friends and she came in at the end of the conversation and took over.

It’s simple stuff, but I believe it makes a world of difference.

Finding our place and having that sense of belonging varies from person to person.  Some want anonymity and for them the back pew is the most comfortable.  Others long for conversation and friendship and see it as an essential part of what it means to be Church.

The welcome we give is part of the message we are seeking to proclaim.

Friday, 13 July 2018

We're Out!

As I caught the train yesterday morning the newspapers at the station said it all.  One, reflecting on England’s defeat on Wednesday, had the headline: World’s End!

To escape from the tension of it all we took the dog out for a walk on The Common during the first half of the game.  We drove there and it felt like Christmas Day morning with the roads utterly deserted.  Dog owners must be football fans because, for the first time ever, we met not one other dog during the walk.

We got back home for the second half, so I was able to join in the group chat with my brothers on WhatsApp, sharing the joys and sorrows with short and often funny (by them!) observations about the game.

Like so many others I was disappointed it ended the way it did, although it did strike me that those churches who still have evening services now know they’ll have a congregation this Sunday – unless they are full of tennis fans!

Over recent years I’ve been helped by the Franciscan, Richard Rohr, and in particular his wonderful book: Falling Upwards.  In it he basically says one of the most important tasks for us all, especially during the second half of life, is learning to cope with failure, disillusionment and disappointment; hence that intriguing title: Falling Upwards.  We all fall down, it’s how we get up that counts.  Indeed, he goes even further and says life’s greatest and deepest lessons are generally learnt during episodes of disappointment. 

Of course, none of this is easy.  Yet, just maybe, after we have fallen and then struggled to get up we begin to sense the value of second chances, forgiving partners, fresh opportunities and the discovery of new strength.

There is a rather lovely Japanese tradition of valuing a cracked dish.  Sometimes a damaged one will be repaired by a golden resin which then holds it together in an overtly obvious way.  There is no attempt to hide the damage, indeed, this dish is now highly prized, faults and all!  It has ‘gone through the mill’ and survived.

Whilst none of us go looking for disappointments, rejection, health scares or a crisis of faith, Richard Rohr encourages us to see them with something of the hope filled, optimistic and deep life of God.

So…. hats off to the cheerful taxi driver I saw yesterday in Oxford Street still proudly flying two St George’s flags – now that’s ‘Falling Upwards’ in style!

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Now for the Good News....

One evening this week I actually watched a news bulletin on TV; something I haven’t done for years!  Normally I glean what’s going on in the world from the BBC News website. 

This particular ITN broadcast began with the words: ‘Tonight we begin with some good news…’  It then went on to say the Thai youngsters had been found safe and well in a cave.

Of course, ITN and BBC bulletins could, if they wanted, begin every evening’s broadcast with some good news; instead, in these days of ‘half glass’ empty journalism the editorial preference is to skew the news to the negative, thus giving the impression of a ‘bad world’ view.  It simply need not be this way and it baffles me why only ‘bad news’ is deemed to sell papers and boost ratings.

Well, this week I’ve come across a number of ‘good news’ stories locally.

On Monday I was taken to lunch by an AFC church member to her Livery Company in the City of London.  These ancient institutions do so much good in terms of training, education and support of their various skills and interests.  On a recent ‘Circle the City Walk’ we popped into St Paul’s Cathedral and learnt that it has recently been renovated throughout without a general public appeal simply because the Livery Companies in the City each made generous donations.

On Tuesday I attended the AGM of The Chiltern Child Contact Centre.  This organisation meets at AFC two Saturdays each month and creates safe, welcoming space for children to meet up with ‘non-resident’ parents.  I was so impressed by the commitment of the volunteers who make these Saturdays such a positive experience for those involved.  This organisation brings stability and hope to many fragile families and is such a ‘good news’ expression of society at its best.

This evening I’m attending another AGM, this time of The Sycamore Club.  This is another organisation holding its weekly gathering at AFC, offering a day of activities for those suffering with dementia so that their full-time carers can have some well-deserved time for those other activities that help ‘balance’ life.

I think these three events say so much about that which is ‘good’ in our world.

A few years ago I attended a clergy lunch at which our guest was the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury; he also happened to be our local MP.  He was a little late and upon arrival told us he had been detained at No.10 because the Prime Minister had called in a few cabinet colleagues to thrash out what it really meant to be a ‘Big Society’.  It didn’t pass us by, the irony of announcing an idea and then trying to define it afterwards!!

Well, as you might imagine, us clergy that lunchtime were quite vocal in our discussions with the poor cabinet minister.  We collectively expressed our view that, in our experience, the ‘Big Society’ could be found in almost any church!  Groups of dedicated, self-giving and compassionate people volunteering each week to enable supportive clubs and societies to function. 

It’s a ‘Good News’ story in every sense of the word!  Worthy of top billing after the bongs of Big Ben at the 10 o'clock daily news bulletin!

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Love doesn't watch the clock

This Sunday’s gospel reading has two healings: The Woman who touches Jesus and Jairus’ Daughter.

On both occasions Jesus shows practical compassion even if one is characterised by confusion and the other by delay.

A 19th century saying from enslaved African Americans goes: God may not come when you call him, but he’ll be there right on time!

There’s a lot to ponder in that seemingly contradictory statement, one borne out of a real experience for how faith can meet adversity yet still get through.

Perhaps we could add a further thought to St Paul’s litany all about love in 1 Corinthians 13 and say: Love doesn’t look at the clock. 

That is, love has time for people, makes time, finds time – even willingly ‘wastes’ time in loving others.

These healings in Sunday’s lectionary just remind us yet again that Jesus chooses to leave people in a better condition than he finds them.  In other words, no matter how hard pressed or time restricted, love finds a way.

A couple of friends of mine took a long train journey down to Devon last week to visit a sick relative – they hardly knew how appropriate this act of kindness was.  They deliberately and compassionately made that time to be with someone they loved.  Just a minute upon arriving back home they received the telephone call that their relative has just passed away.

When we make the time, when we stay to listen, when we drive a loved one to Casualty in the middle of the night, when we visit a relative lost in dementia – that’s the way ‘God turns up’.  Or as those 19th century African Americans said:  God may not come when you call him, but he’ll be there right on time’.

Love, it does what it can, without looking at the clock.

Dickens makes me laugh

Mr Pumblechook It’s not just the wonderfully preposterous names in Dickens that make me laugh out loud, but they do help.  So, even when...