Wednesday, 30 January 2013

When the mist falls...

By the end of tomorrow I will have conducted two funerals this week for ladies who lived to a great age and who spent their final years with dementia.

By one of those coincidences which no longer seems odd the Ministers’ Reading Group I belong to is currently working through Malcolm Goldsmith’s fine book entitled: In a Strange Land...People with Dementia and the Local Church.

Perhaps we are just more aware these days, but it seems as if greater numbers of us are living with this ‘falling mist’ – and it begs questions such as: How do we pastorally support carers and how much of our faith are we aware of as we journey into such a ‘Strange Land’?

In setting the scene Malcolm Goldsmith opens his book by quoting a beautiful prayer from the Church of England – it’s a prayer, I think, which offers hope to all who are living with, or alongside, dementia and goes like this:

In weakness or in strength
we bear your image.
We pray for those we love
who now live in a land of shadows,
where the light of memory is dimmed,
where the familiar lies unknown,
where the beloved become as strangers.
Hold them in your everlasting arms,
and grant to those who care
a strength to serve
a patience to persevere,
a love to last,
and a peace that passes human understanding.
Hold us in your everlasting arms,
today and for all eternity;
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sometimes – in fact quite often – relatives have the heart ache of letting their loved ones be looked after in a residential home.  Inevitably these homes become places of great security and support but initially it must be one of the hardest moments of life to carry through such a decision.  Yet, just like the Good Samaritan in the bible story who paid the Innkeeper to tend the injured Jew, we know that the very best we can offer the person we love is to let them receive professional care.

However, the term ‘dementia’ covers a variety of conditions each with varying symptoms – which means some people will stay at home for much longer.  Organisations like The Sycamore Club at Amersham Free Church provide day care which enables ‘carers’ to have a morning or afternoon free of responsibilities.

We can all feel so helpless in the face of dementia – is there a Christian response?  Probably not – apart from supporting that fundamental notion – one would like to think of it as a universal truth – that every human life is precious and worthy of respect.

When Jesus spent the night on the Mount of Olives he asked his disciples to ‘watch and pray’ – doesn’t sound much does it? And they fell asleep on the job.  Our pastoral care in churches is often ‘just’ watching and praying – standing alongside friends with dementia and their families – praying for them and never forgetting that they are a ‘child of God’.  And maybe St Paul’s words encourage all of us when he says: ‘For I am persuaded that neither height nor depth – nor anything else in the whole of creation, is able to separate us from the love of God’.

May God bless you and yours,


Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Topic of the week: Snow!

The Manse after the first 'light' snow fall last week - more - much more was to follow!
All the talk this week has been about the snow!

It looks so beautiful – I tell myself that every morning as I draw the bedroom curtains.  Even after a whole week since its arrival much of the snow still looks in crisp pristine condition.  It has transformed our neighbourhood with a sort of magic – perhaps because the light seems so different when snow is on the ground.

But before I become too lyrical it has to be said that in terms of travelling this episode of winter has been something of a disaster.  Last weekend I ‘stayed put’ and abandoned plans to travel down to Somerset because the prospect of getting snowed up en route at Stonehenge isn’t great!  So the car has had a week long sabbatical in the garage and that’s meant walking everywhere – and the strange thing is that when the paths are crunchy with snow and slippery with ice people seem to talk to each other as they walk – usual inhibitions are put to one side!

It’s struck me, however, just how resilient some folk are.  I, for one, wouldn’t blame anyone for staying at home keeping safe instead of coming to church last Sunday – yet half the congregation turned up!  Over sixty of us gathered.  The same was true of our Church Meeting last evening – reduced in number but ‘quorate’ nevertheless.

Of course you can talk too much about snow.  I remember the time I did that during a sermon after a hard week of everyday snowfall.  I banged on about snow and took it as the sermon’s theme.  The truth was that the congregation had had enough of the stuff and it was the very last thing they wanted to think about in church that day. So you can be topical in sermons – but sometimes it’s best not to be!

This year it feels, perhaps, that the snow has fallen a month late – more appropriate at a time of carols and mistletoe.  It reminds me of that line from the Narnian story ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’  describing the land under the control of the white witch as being ‘always winter – but never Christmas’. 

There are, of course, just a few references to snow in The Bible.  Passages talking about forgiveness describing our sins being turned as ‘white as snow’; or descriptions of dazzling heavenly beings using the same terminology.

And, apparently, it does snow in Israel – every year on the Golan Heights.

But if I’m honest the lesson I’ve learnt this week isn’t so much from the bible as from people.  It’s been just great to see how folk have kept going with such cheerfulness.  At Amersham Free Church people have gone the ‘extra mile’ to maintain the programme and I’m very grateful for all their efforts.

But...I’m SO looking forward to Saturday when the forecast is for rain and a ‘tropical’ 5 degrees celsius!

Best wishes,


Thursday, 17 January 2013

Changing Times

What a fortnight it’s been for hearing news of the demise of some pretty well-known names on our High Streets.  Last week the photo shop Jessops announced it was going into administration and just two days later closed every one of its stores.  Quick on the heels of that development came the news that HMV are struggling to survive,  immediately followed by a statement from the video store Blockbusters that they too have entered administration.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out the link between developing ‘on-line’ shopping trends and the tailing off of ‘foot-fall’ through traditional shops.  Technology is changing the face of every High Street in the country.

Actually the use of the computer, the iphone, the ipad, itunes....and so on....impacts the lives of most of us – especially if you have teenage sons!

Just the other day I mentioned to one of our boys that we’d have to wait until they had returned to school the next day and chatted to a friend about a mutually convenient date before we could make a certain arrangement.  They looked at me blank – as if I were from another planet – and said:  ‘Why?  We can Facebook him right now and see if he’s free that day’.  Stupid Dad – of course they could! As someone who still has problems texting I find myself never fully catching up with the technological ‘norms’ my sons just accept as their birthright!

It’s sometimes said that our responsibility as disciples of Jesus Christ in OUR day and age is to constantly seek to ‘forward the gospel to a new address’.  In other words whilst the essence of that gospel remains constant we need to be aware of how we present it and live it out.

Although we often readily accept such a way of thinking in relation to ‘youth work’ – it’s equally true in every area of church life.  Northing stands still forever.  What has to gospel to say to an increasing number of families in our church communities who have members living longer and struggling with dementia?  What has it to say to those struggling with issues of sexuality?  How might it help folk who can no longer just accept an entirely literal view of scripture?

None of these questions will go away if we just retreat into the Christianity of our childhood or even youth.  We all need a willingness to work at faith and make those connections between what we sing about in church and how we live in society.  I think that’s an exciting, if demanding,  journey.  It’s what our Life and Faith Groups are doing here at Amersham Free Church, it’s what the ‘Transforming Congregations’ evening was about at Chesham on Tuesday and it’s what we were talking about at Amersham Churches on The Hill council this week under Restoring Faith in Democracy.

‘Forwarding the Gospel to a new address’ – not a bad ‘strap line’ for mission.

Best wishes,


Thursday, 10 January 2013

Happy Birthday 'Tube'

Harry Beck's original 1933 Underground MapAdd caption
Living in a town connected to central London via ‘The Tube’ is a new experience for us.  Over the Christmas holidays we used our ‘Oyster’ cards quite a lot so I’m wondering when, and if,  the novelty of going ‘up to town’ will wear off!

Yesterday the London Underground celebrated 150 years since its completion and today, 10th January, back in 1863, was the first day it welcomed fare paying passengers.  The Amersham route into Baker Street is on the Metropolitan Line (deep purple – I’m trying to learn the colours!) – the oldest of the lines but one that didn’t arrive in our neck of the woods through extension until 1892.

I’ve been reading up on ‘The Tube’ and learnt it is the oldest underground in the world, now the fourth largest (those in Seoul and two in China are bigger) with 270 stations and 250 miles of track – interestingly of which only 45% is actually underground.

To help us get around all of us depend on Harry Beck’s diagrammatic, and now iconic, map – first published in 1933.  The map, rather than reflect true geographical distances, was designed to give equal space between stations thus making it clearer to read and easier to use.  It’s based on an electronic circuit board – not a bad template as the underground is fundamentally there to help us make ‘connections’.

I suppose it’s that sense of being ‘joined up’ to London as well as being close to the Bucks countryside that makes Amersham such an attractive and convenient place to live.

I walk by the station here almost every day – cutting through by crossing the red bridge over the tracks is the quickest way to get to the church and the shops.  This week as I’ve made that journey I’ve been thinking of the importance of ‘connections’ in our lives.

Modern parlance might call it ‘networking’ whilst church-speak would say ‘fellowship’ – whatever we call it simply being with others enhances life and deepens it.  I confess I could never become a hermit!  I love my own company for limited periods of time but any day is made brighter, for me at least, by sharing it with others.

On Tuesday our LunchBreak programme recommenced after the Christmas recess and there was a wonderful buzz in The Alfred Ellis Hall as folk shared lunch together (special food this week as it was LunchBreak’s 7th birthday!) – there was a sense that folks were really pleased to become ‘re-connected’ after a few weeks off.

Then yesterday I attended my first URC Ministers’ lunch at Burnham.  This was an opportunity to meet up with colleagues and get to know other ministers in the area – and it was great!  Such gatherings are all about feeling ‘connected’ – a sense of mutually supportive belonging.

In a day and age of misjudged individualism a central message of The Gospel is that ‘community’, ‘connectedness’, ‘networking’ –whatever we call it – is fundamental to what it means to be a human being.  It’s the reason Jesus gave us ‘the church’ because he knew that the journey of faith is better walked together.

With best wishes,

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Studio 8

To round off the holiday season we took a trip this week for a tour of the BBC’s Television Centre in West London.  Much of its activity has recently been transferred to Media City in Salford and New Broadcasting House at the top end of Regent’s Street.  The site has been sold for £200,000 and will soon be closed for refurbishment as a hotel.  Three studios are, however, being retained so the BBC presence will remain at this iconic building in White City.

It was a fascinating tour.  We were told of how the building’s architect, Graham Dawbarn, came up with the circular design (it actually resembles an enormous question mark - ? – from the air) on the back of an envelope whilst sitting in a pub in 1949!  Much of the interior furnishings reminded me of bits of Amersham Free Church – hardly surprising in a way as both were opened in the very early 1960’s.

The ‘holy ground’ moment of the tour probably came as we entered Studio 8.  It’s not the largest in Television Centre but it was still cavernous.  Studio 8 was used for the filming of those BBC sitcoms which have become part of our national heritage.  We were standing on the very spot where ‘Faulty Towers’, ‘The Two Ronnies’ and even (my favourite!) ‘Only Fools and Horses’ were filmed.  Yet this studio, apart from the hundreds of numbered lights on the ceiling gantries, was completely empty.  We were told studios at the BBC are rarely permanent sets, instead they are empty shells filled with props and backdrops for each session of filming.  So, for example, the carpet in the Faulty Towers’ reception was painted (yes, actually painted) onto the concrete studio floor every time a recording was made.

Studio 8 is just a building, a shell.  It’s what filled it that made us laugh.

You might say the same about any building, including churches.  I know we might more readily ascribe intrinsic worth to our ecclesiastical arenas – for churches and cathedrals do seem to have their own particular aura of something ‘other’ – yet their true worth is to be experienced in the worship that fills their walls week by week.  We make much the same sort of statement when we say it is love that turns a house into a home.  And it’s certainly the case that all those empty 2013 diaries and calendars we were given at Christmas represent days just waiting to be filled – filled with struggles, achievements, sorrows and joys.

The structures of our buildings and lives are just contexts – what matters in 2013 is how we fill them.

The Victorian Scottish hymn writer, Horatius Bonar put it like this:

Fill thou my life, O Lord my God,
in every part with praise.
That my whole being may proclaim
thy being and thy ways.

So here’s to a truly ‘fulfilled’ 2013,


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