Saturday, 28 December 2013

Remembering the wisest of mentors

Donald and I at Fuller Baptist Church, Kettering
I had not intended to write another Blog before New Year but I just feel I want to pay public tribute to an old friend who died the day before Christmas Eve – to me he was the very best of friends and wisest of mentors: The Revd Donald MacKenzie.

Way back in 1987 I was inducted as Donald’s assistant at Fuller Baptist Church Kettering – this was my ‘first’ church and it was to be the most beneficial of ‘curacies’. 

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that Donald MacKenzie was Scottish!  He was a brilliant academic, well trained at Edinburgh University, yet he never paraded his learning.  Instead he was a ‘story-teller’ preacher – and how I just loved his sermons!  I’ve never heard anyone preach with such warmth and grace as Donald – he was for me the Alistair Cooke of the pulpit.  He could take the most obscure passage and difficult theology and ‘ground’ it in an understandable way – bringing it to life with heart warming illustrations.  And in it all something of Donald’s quiet and deep integrity shone through.  I believe I had the great good fortune to be apprenticed to one of the best preachers in Britain (a title he would never have given himself in a million years!)

Donald and I spent hours talking.  He told me stories of ministerial life from the 60’s and 70’s – we chatted through church life and I learnt, just by listening, how to deal with tricky problems and people – and in it all during those five precious years there were so many times of smiling and laughter.

When I moved on to my first ‘solo’ pastorate in Hitchin in 1992 I cannot tell you how many times I thought: ‘What would Donald do?’ – In fact I’ve been asking myself that question on and off for the last twenty one years since leaving Fuller.

In life we sometimes are blest with walking alongside someone who reminds us of our Lord.  A person whose words, actions or just mere presence makes the deepest and most positive impression on our own journey.  I had that experience between 1987-1992 – five years that formed me as a Minister of Word and Sacrament – five years serving alongside the wisest mentor a young minister could ever have. 

As this year draws to a close I thank God for Donald – the best of colleagues who now dwells in the nearer presence of the Saviour he served with such grace and gentle eloquence.

My dear friend – may you rest in peace and rise in glory.


Friday, 20 December 2013

Here we come a caroling...

And so to my final Blog for 2013!

Carols are in the air – even in Tesco this morning at 8.15am Christmas Songs were being played – the checkout staff looked as if they’d heard it all a million times before! 

Other people ‘bag Munros’ (apparently hikers in Scotland can climb 282 such summits) whilst I, at this time of year, seem to ‘bag Carol Services’.  I’ve been to some super ones so far: The Albert Hall last week (on a church coach) to see John Rutter conduct a wonderful evening of music, and then on Sunday to a Service of Lessons and Carols at St Margaret’s next to Westminster Abbey.  This Friday we’ve been invited to the Carol Service at St Alban’s Abbey and on Sunday the best of all..our own Carols by Candlelight at AFC! 

My colleague has organised the service for the Sunday after Christmas and I have to confess I was relieved when I saw it in draft form - she hasn’t chosen a single carol for it!!

Yesterday evening Truro Cathedral reconstructed its carol service of 1880, devised by its then Bishop, Edward Benson, and later adopted and adapted all over the world, most famously at King’s College, Cambridge on Christmas Eve.  For non-conformists a service of hymns, prayers and readings seems to be common fare yet for Victorian Anglicans used to Matins and Evensong it obviously felt revolutionary.

Carols come in all shapes and sizes. This year I’ve been struck by the simplicity of a gentler one – composed by Christina Rossetti, who often used to visit her grandfather’s house at Holmer Green, just south of Amersham.  She wrote Love Came Down at Christmas in 1885 as a Christmas Poem for a Reading magazine:

            Love came down at Christmas,
            Love all lovely, Love Divine,
            Love was born at Christmas,
            Star and Angels gave the sign.

            Worship we the Godhead,
            Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
            Worship we our Jesus,
            But wherewith for sacred sign?

            Love shall be our token,
            Love shall be yours and love be mine,
            Love to God and all men,

            Love for plea and gift and sign.

Beautiful words.

Yet all of that seems a million miles away from the opening paragraph of a piece I read in The Evening Standard on the Tube whilst travelling home on Monday:  It went:

For some, Christmas is all about Jesus Christ, for some about Santa Claus.  For others, though, this time around, it’s all about Benedict Cumberbatch.  He’s everywhere at the moment – and on New Year’s Day he’s rising from the dead, in series three of Sherlock...

Well, call me old fashioned, (and I actually love watching Sherlock) but I’ll take the first of those three options and say this festival is about Jesus Christ and the mystery of ‘Love – which came down at Christmas’.

May God’s peace and love touch all our lives over the next few days.

Best wishes,


Thursday, 12 December 2013

Long Walk to Freedom

I was once part of a rebellion!  Really? Yes - it’s true – but I know you may find that hard to believe – so let me explain.

In the mid 80’s – with the Apartheid debate in full swing – a group of us at Theological College requested, and were refused, a lunch time Prayer Meeting in which we intended to remember before God the people of South Africa in their struggle for freedom and justice.  For reasons that still mystify me that proposal was simply deemed ‘inappropriate’.  Boy – did they get that wrong!

Yet, the truth is, we all get it wrong at times and history often teaches us that the ‘bad guys’ of one generation end up the ‘heroes’ of the next - and perhaps that’s true of Nelson Mandela.  His name at birth was ‘Rolihlahla’ which means ‘troublemaker’ and this week and next the world has been giving thanks for all this troublemaker taught us about the ‘unyielding grace’ of forgiveness.

Although from a different time the story of the BMS missionary to Jamaica William Knibb holds some similarities.  In campaigning so vigorously for the abolition of slavery on the island he was nicknamed ‘The Monster’ by many slave owners, most of whom would have had Anglican backgrounds.  Yet in the struggle for South Africa’s freedom no Church campaigned more in the 1980’s than the Anglican – focused here in Britain by St Martin in The Fields, next-door to the South African Embassy, and ‘at home’ by Mandela’s equal – The Archbishop of Cape Town - Desmond Tutu.

What has become clear in the last few days is just how big the shoes are which the man they call ‘Madiba’ left.  President Zuma, who received ‘boos’ from the crowd this week is struggling to overcome the culture of corruption that seems endemic in his society.

All of this just underlines that ‘freedom’ is not an easy panacea but a responsibility-filled opportunity.  It’s a ‘long walk’ that has to continue. The appointment of Black Presidents in either South Africa or the USA, along with the ‘just around the corner’ consecration of women bishops in the Church of England, all mark a shift towards greater equality but never the end of our journey together. That, I suspect, is what Mandela meant when he wrote: During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people.  I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.

This coming Sunday at Amersham Free Church we shall sing that Zulu freedom song: We are marching in the light of God.  It will be our way of praying ‘God bless Africa’ – and later in the service, at our intercessions, we'll remember the challenges that all freedom brings and the continuing strength we need to meet them.

The world is remembering one of its finest sons, who along with so many others had to take a 'Long Walk to Freedom' - we honour his memory best if we keep on walking.

With best wishes,


Thursday, 5 December 2013

Mind your language!

Yesterday whilst travelling on the Tube I sat next to a women having three phone conversations during the time it took us to travel from Harrow to Baker Street – not an uncommon experience these days!  However, the thing that struck me was that, although she was speaking in a beautiful Arabic tongue, a number of standard English phrases or words keep popping into her conversation.  In mid-flow I heard:  BBC, OK, cashback, USB stick...I confess I sometimes felt a smile cross my face when they came up and at one point almost got the gist of what she was saying.  You understand I don’t usually make a deliberate habit of listening in to other people’s conversations – but at times it’s hard not to.

Language is so important.

Last week at our AFC Book Group we looked at Steindl-Rast’s Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer and in it he says: We should not talk as if it were perfectly clear what one means by God, by prayer, or even by religion.  Today these words mean different things to different people.

I think he’s right – and probably at no time of year is that more so than during these days leading up to Christmas. 

Last night I was at Amersham’s Community Carol Service at St Michael’s.  It was packed out with five local schools taking part, each  bringing much warmth and laughter to our time together.  Yet at one point I wondered what folk in the congregation – folk who don’t usually come along to church – made of the words of some carols such as ‘veiled in flesh the Godhead see’ – or even if it is right for us to put words such as ‘I love thee Lord Jesus..’ into the mouths of those who, in another context, wouldn’t want to say them at all.  I confess I didn’t ponder these questions over long as I recognise the value that ‘folk’ religion still holds at this special time of year. 

On a more personal level I’m constantly aware of the power of language and that it’s often not what we say in an email, conversation or set of minutes that matters as much as the ‘way’ we say or phrase it.  No wonder James urges us to beware of the tongue.

The opposite is, of course, also true.  When struggling to find the words to say to a bereaved or ill person it’s often just the fact we’ve bothered to say anything at all that is appreciated.

In a way our whole life ‘says’ something – whether that’s through the language of words, deeds or personality.  Something that we might ponder as we hear that most profound of statements over the next few weeks that ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’.

Best wishes,


One small step...

Exactly a month from now, on 20 th July 2019, we shall be commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landing. Apollo 11 ...