Thursday, 14 March 2019

Goodies and Baddies

There is a moment in Sunday’s lectionary reading when the Pharisees become the good guys because they warn Jesus of the dangers awaiting him in Jerusalem.  It’s all so confusing when the baddies become the goodies!

All of us can, and do, come to either premature or permanent judgements about people.  Thank God we can be wrong.

Currently the Church of England is celebrating the 25th year since women were admitted to the priesthood.  Time and again I hear stories of folk who were so against having a woman vicar – until they had one!  Once they experienced such ministry their preconceptions melted away.

‘Changing our minds’ is rarely a personality fault in my book; instead I believe it’s generally the mark of an honest maturity.

Prejudice based on blanket statements often poisons us and can infect the groups we belong to. 

Today at ‘Great Sacred Music’, in St Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, we heard some of the delightful and uplifting music of William Byrd.  In Medieval times Byrd sang as a chorister at St Paul’s and probably studied under Thomas Tallis.  Yet once he ‘defected’ and became a Roman Catholic he was immediately expelled from The Chapel Royal.   Ironic that today his music is probably heard in every Anglican Cathedral around the world.  Even the Church gets very confused at times as to who are the baddies and goodies!!

As Jesus made his way to Jerusalem and the cross we encounter him meeting and accepting all sorts of people.  He crossed the social divide and willingly, it seems, made time for the ‘wrong’ sort of people.  Of course, one’s definition of wrong is totally subjective and seen through the prism of our own prejudice.

So this Sunday, after the gospel reading perhaps we could have a different acclamation and shout: Three cheers for Pharisees!

Friday, 8 March 2019

A slow, yet deeper journey

Every Lent I get this stone out of the drawer and look at it again.  We picked it up from the Dorset coastline and it immediately reminded us of a freshly baked roll!

After spending forty days in The Wilderness Jesus decided not to turn stones into croissants.

I wonder if that first temptation wasn’t so much about satisfying hunger as much as overvaluing the ‘instantaneous’.  Jesus chose not to go down the ‘quick fix’ route.  Instead the stones stayed stones and he coped with his hunger for yet another day.

We live in an age in which so much can be done quickly; we can hardly keep up with the pace of it all.  Bit by bit we buy in to the idea that news can be obtained at the press of a button, meals are ready when the microwave pings and big political issues can all be solved with nothing more than a catchy and popular soundbite.  Yet quick news is rarely the whole picture, quick food is rarely a good and wholesome diet and quick solutions rarely stand up to the complexities which follow.

I grew up in a wing of the Church that emphasized ‘conversion’.  It was so important to the congregation of my youth whether you had been ‘converted’; could you name the date on which you ‘accepted Jesus Christ as your Saviour’?  Well, I can, but that’s not the point.  Although I will always feel a deep sense of gratitude for those days I’ve sinced realised that Jesus wasn’t so much interested in the day I became a Christian but the life I’ve lived as a Christian.  He asked those fishermen to ‘follow’ him.  It wasn’t a one-off event but a lifetime’s journey.

In that ‘lifetime’ we will all change, and that change can be good and positive.  We may barely notice it’s going on.  Our life experiences will change us and will change our theology; our view of God, faith and love.  It will happen naturally and inevitably.  It’s the growth of a person filled with the Spirit of God and I suspect it will rarely be quick.

Jesus, in The Wilderness, rejects the quick fix answers and decides to go on a slower route, one that embraces complexity and struggle, yet one that opens all sorts of unexpected possibilities.  It’s a slow yet deeper journey.

Friday, 1 March 2019

The Little Things

Happy St David’s Day!

A Welsh friend of mine emailed me this morning with such a greeting and, in preparation for March 1st, Radio 4’s Sunday Worship was broadcast last week from St David’s Cathedral in Wales.

My Welsh friend reminded me of those famous words by David about doing the ‘little things’ well.

Here at AFC we held a packed service of thanksgiving for a much loved and highly regarded member of our church yesterday.  He was exemplary in doing the little things well.  His tribute finished with this story:

Perhaps it would be appropriate to end this tribute recalling the time when Dowling, driving through Great Missenden, offered a lift to a man who was a little worse for wear after a rough night with a bottle. 

Dowling insisted on driving him on to where he needed to be in order that he might arrive home safely in one piece.  As he went to get out of the car his passenger offered to contribute to the petrol.  Dowling wouldn’t hear of it and instead told the man to ‘pass it on’.  ‘What do you mean?’ said the man.  ‘Pass on the kindness to someone you meet one day’, replied Dowling.

Our friend was a Scot, but I think his life summed up the essence of the Welsh Saint David in doing the little things well.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Lunch with George IV!

Had lunch today with George IV!  Perhaps I need to explain that.

Before attending Great Sacred Music at St Martin in the Fields I picnicked in the balmy February sunshine at Trafalgar Square under the imposing and elegant statue of George IV.

He’s depicted on horseback in the style of a triumphant Roman emperor.  All very impressive but even with a modicum of history it’s clear to any onlooker that the statue is all too flattering!

George IV was the infamous Prince Regent before he acceded to the throne.  He was flamboyant and a lover of excess, famous for his appetite and womanising!  His statue in Trafalgar Square probably says more about how he’d like to be remembered  than the reality of his life.

I suppose he isn’t alone, but fortunately most of us won’t have the dilemma of having ourselves cast in bronze for eternity!

Last weekend a much loved and respected member of our congregation at AFC passed away.  His death was sudden and has rather shocked us all.  At evening service as the news was trickling through, our preacher began her sermon with a lovely tribute to him, saying that he and his wife would be remembered amongst us for their constant, generous and kind hospitality.

I suspect today, on Valentine’s Day, we are remembering such people.  Folk who have no physical memorial to them, but whose memory lives on in our minds and makes our hearts glad. 

One of my favourite hymns puts it like this:

For all the love that from our earliest days
has gladdened life and guarded all our ways,
we bring you, Lord, our song of grateful praise.

 A good day to sing such a hymn and remember such people.

ps: Blog holiday next week

Friday, 8 February 2019

William Carey - a rather modern missionary

Over recent weeks I’ve been revisiting the life of William Carey, the first BMS missionary who sailed for India just a year after the Baptist Missionary Society was founded in 1792.  That’s because I gave a talk on him at Women’s Own last month and tomorrow I’ll give a second at our Men’s Breakfast. I’ve partly chosen him for both occasions because we have a room named after him at Amersham Free Church and I want to make it clear it’s in honour of an historic Baptist minister rather than a recent Archbishop of Canterbury!

Carey was a remarkable man.  He came from the Particular Baptist tradition that believed in pre-destination to such a degree that many in his circle considered evangelism totally unnecessary, even sinful.  One senior minister is reported to have said to Carey at a Northamptonshire Baptist Ministers’ Meeting: ‘Sit down, young men, if God wants to save the heathen he’ll do it without your help!’.  Well, it might have been intended as a ‘put down’ but it had completely the opposite outcome!  Carey stepped up to the mark and immediately offered to go to India as the BMS’s first missionary in 1793.

He served there a full seven years before baptising his first convert.  He translated the Bible into local dialects only to have the printing shed burn down one night; so, he started all over again.  His son and wife died prematurely because of the climate. He worked hard at understanding local vegetation and working for increased crop yield, helping to form the Indian Horticultural Society En route.  He participated in setting up the first Theological College in India at Serampore, with a charter to award degrees from the King of Denmark.  And he campaigned for the abolition of ‘Sati’ – the tradition of burning the widow on her husband’s funeral pyre.

Carey was such an all-rounder. For him mission was about body, mind and soul.  In fact, the BMS have pretty much taken that as their template ever since.  He was a trail blazer – and although I guess it’s not his greatest honour, he is more than worthy to have a room named after him at AFC!

Friday, 1 February 2019

150 - not out!

Although some folks live a settled life in the same location for years ministers can, potentially at least, live quite mobile lives.  Since my ordination in 1987 we’ve had the privilege of serving in five churches in different parts of the UK; each has been a ‘chapter’ in its own right.

Last Sunday I revisited one of these churches, Walsworth Road Baptist in Hitchin, as a guest preacher at the start of their 150th anniversary year. It was super to be back and learn of all the exciting and imaginative projects the congregation are involved in.

I always enjoy meeting up with college friends occasionally and that’s usually on a one to one basis in London.  Sunday was different.  I found myself in a building I knew intimately and after the service, over coffee, a queue started to form around me of people who had known me when I was the church’s minister.  I served at Hitchin between 1992 to 1999 and our children were born there. Last weekend every handshake seemed like a ‘time machine’ back to the 1990’s.  Each conversation recalling some event or person from the past and in that process making it ‘come alive’ again.

I am only too aware that some issues from our past are difficult to deal with and that ‘living’ in bygone days is not the best way to cope with the present.  However, Sunday made me realise again that the past is very ‘real’ and has formed us into the people we are.  Fortunately for us our trip down ‘memory lane’ to Hitchin last Sunday reminded us of some very happy and positive days.

We wish our old church God’s richest blessing during this very special anniversary year.

Friday, 25 January 2019

The heavens are's snowing!

Tuesday saw Amersham and district grind to a miserable halt because it was snowing.  Folks leaving Tea at Three and the Property and Finance Committee (we do have fun on Tuesdays!!) endured road journeys home lasting between 3 to 4 hours; trips that normally take 20 to 25 mins.  It was a difficult rush/slow hour full of angst and frustration. 

I left church on Tuesday evening with just a walk back home to the Manse and to be truthful the ‘whiteout’ looked quite beautiful with one little schoolgirl in front of me singing ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ as she skipped home; it felt like the return of Christmas.

Yet for those drivers anxious to arrive home without accident or injury there was no sense of celebration, just struggle.

Last week our Life and Faith homegroup looked at Psalm 19 which begins with those wonderful words: The heaven are telling the glory of God.  Well yes, but on Tuesday as the snow fell from those heavens I guess very few drivers looked heavenward and sang alleluia.

Of course, many of the Psalms use the poetry of praise as they ponder the wonder of creation.  Somehow the majesty and grandeur of creation, along with the rhythm of the seasons, drew these temple songwriters to worship and thanksgiving.  Even today many people would still say they feel ‘nearer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth’.

Yet there is another, more dangerous and demanding side to the natural world which is ‘red in tooth and claw’.  Those ‘heavens’ described in Psalm 19 also bring hurricanes or scorching heat; on Tuesday it was disruptive snow.

I don’t think the Old Testament writers were unaware of this seeming contradiction.  Just think of the story of Joseph overseeing the Egyptian famine in the book of Genesis.  Seven years of plenty were followed by seven lean years.  The point of the story is that the management of Joseph, his foresight and planning, saved the day.  He worked with nature in both the good times and bad.

Psalm 19, and other ‘creation songs’ are poetry.  They rejoice in the earth’s great potential and made a link between that sustaining provision and the faithfulness of God.  But the Bible doesn’t blandly look out on nature in a sentimental way. The writers of both Testaments knew the terror of tempest, storm and wind alongside the life-threatening horror of the noontide heat in The Wilderness.

The natural world can be frightening as well as inspiring.  It draws us to wonder even as it demands from us a certain respect and deep understanding.  We are both ‘stewards’ and ‘worshippers’, working with creation even as we give thanks for it.

Goodies and Baddies

There is a moment in Sunday’s lectionary reading when the Pharisees become the good guys because they warn Jesus of the dangers awaiting h...