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 stared 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.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Endings and Beginnings

Part of a minister’s responsibility is to take funerals.  You might think it one of the most difficult things we do; and, in a way, that’s true.  Yet, standing alongside folk at such times is also an immense privilege.

I took the funeral services of both my grandparents and parents.  My colleagues tell me you are not meant to do that – and I know why that’s the received wisdom!

It did feel lonely meeting their coffins at the entrance to the crematorium chapel but (I wonder if you can understand this) it was the last thing I could do for them as a son or grandson.  I know clergy colleagues would have led wonderful services for my folk, but the truth was, on the day, I wanted to ‘look after them’.  And all four services were fine and I’m unrepentantly glad I did it!

As I’ve heard the sad news this week of two church families at AFC going through personal loss I’ve been reflecting on those four funerals of my grandparents and parents and all that has followed.

I’ve known for some time that actually good things have happened to my family since their passing.  These four people occupied such a central place amongst us that, whilst they were alive, we simply couldn’t imagine the wider ‘Green Clan’ without them.  Yet, since their deaths my brothers and I have grown closer, and wider family gatherings still ring with laughter and companionship.

We have not forgotten them.  Indeed, we speak with much loving affection about them often.  Yet we have now grown together in different ways, and in doing so, I believe, we honour their memory and the wonderful foundations they laid for us.

The journey of love never ends.

The various phases of grief takes us on many twists and turns and no one follows exactly the same path.  Life without the people we have lost is different but, pray God, it still holds the potential to be good.  

Thursday, 14 June 2018

On this day...

Ordination Sunday 14th June 1987

Over breakfast I was listening to the radio this morning and I heard that ‘On this day…’ in 1777 the United States adopted the Stars and Stripes as their national flag.

Then I realised it was 14th June – which for me is a memorable date because it was ‘On this day…’ thirty one years ago that I was ordained.  It was Trinity Sunday 1987 and I was 26 years old!

I suppose in some ways it was a different age: No internet or emails so I actually read newspapers and made telephone calls.  No ‘cut and paste’ facility on my electric typewriter, so I wasn’t tempted to use the template for last week’s order of service and forget to change the date!  No Whatsapp, so I wrote letters and no Spotify so I listened to CDs!

It’s also true that back in the late 80’s Church life was different too.  There were more people around.  We were still the beneficiaries of what I sometimes think of as the ‘Billy Graham’ generation.  Those folk who had come to faith in the 50’s and 60’s – many of whom have now been ‘promoted to glory’.  A repeat ‘influx’ of new people has never really been repeated on quite the same scale.

I have had the privilege, over these last thirty-one years, of serving in five churches: in Northamptonshire, Worcestershire, the West Country and two in the Home Counties.

However, for me, today isn’t just about looking back but re-committing myself to those ordination vows I took in my late twenties – even as I now enter my late fifties!!

I think I am fortunate that I still have a sense of optimism and conviction about local church life, never more so than in serving amongst my present congregation for whom I have the deepest respect and admiration.

My prayer for coming days is that, with God’s help:

 I’ll continue to strive to make sermons as interesting and relevant as I can.

That our worship together will resonate with daily life.

That we’ll be an ‘encouraging’ congregation.

That we’ll seek not only a personal application for faith but a corporate/civic/ society understanding too.

That we’ll be a church, confident enough in God, that we go on asking questions.

I have no doubt they’ll be ups and downs in coming days, but I have every confidence that God will work beside us every step of the way and that ‘good’ things will develop.

On 14th June 1987 my prayer was that God would help me ‘make good my vow’ – and that prayer has never changed.

Friday, 8 June 2018

The 'Sound of Silence'

Last Sunday’s lectionary reading from the Jewish Scriptures was the story of Samuel’s call.  Part of the narrative is that the Lord’s voice had not been heard in recent years at Shiloh, the national shrine of Israel.  There had been silence.

Some people long for silence whilst others fear it.

In just over a week’s time I’ll be attending the Retreat Association conference in Derbyshire which this year has the intriguing title: ‘Sounding the Silence’.

I think I personally have a love/hate relationship with silence.

On the negative side I struggle a little with short periods of silence.  I never seem to settle down. Perhaps I need more practise!

On the positive side, I love silent weekend retreats.  After the welcome and first shared meal on Friday evening the group goes into a corporate silence until after communion on Sunday morning.  As I journey through these few days I actually feel myself ‘calming’ down and becoming more focussed, and I hope, open to God.  The lack of a need to talk, even in company with others, I find surprisingly liberating.  Come Sunday lunchtime and I’m slightly reluctant to leave the silence – but at least I know I take the fresh perspectives I’ve found within it away with me.

One of my favourite ‘modern’ hymns, by Christopher Idle, puts it like this:

Lord, you sometimes speak in silence
through our loud and noisy day.
We can know and trust you better
when we quietly wait and pray.

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 o...