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.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Circling the City

On Pentecost a group of about twenty of us from Amersham joined hunderds of others in London to 'Circle the City for Christian Aid.  We walked the six miles and visited over a dozen churches to get our booklet stamped!  It was a wonderful occasion, held in perfect weather.  The fellowship was nourishing, the churches inspiring and the cause worthwhile.  Can't think of a better way of spending the afternoon of Pentecost Sunday - the Church on the move - all seemed appropriate somehow!

Friday, 18 May 2018

Prayer - but not as we may know it!

This week our church, along with the two others in our Ecumenical Covenant, has been engaged in a Week of Accompanied Prayer.  Every day people from our congregations have been meeting members of The Team who have been accompanying them on what is basically a ‘retreat’ in everyday life.

Alongside this our church sanctuary has been turned into a sacred space full of ‘prayer stations’.  These have been beautifully and imaginatively prepared.  Each station invites us to spend time ‘praying’ in a multitude of ways.  It’s been a space open to all and some have called in a number of times.

I ‘visited’ a few of the stations on Sunday, Tuesday and today.  One was a Scrabble board, full now of words of faith made up each day by those who sat at that table and pondered what was important to them.  This morning I lingered at the ‘Spirit’ table and drank some of the fruit juice that represented the ‘Fruit of the Spirit’ I most longed for in my own life.  At another table, full of broken pieces, I learnt of the Japanese tradition of valuing a broken pot that had been lovingly put back together again – and in so doing, to appreciate that it’s often in our own ‘brokenness’ that we learn the most about God, others and ourselves.

These ‘stations’ have been a real blessing and a wonderful gift to many of us this week.  Just another example of the breadth of prayer in which we can all engage. 

There is no one way to pray – I realised that yet again as I moved from table to table in our Sanctuary this week – appreciating that each one was ‘holy ground’.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Ascension - at St Pauls!

On Monday, on one of the hottest days of the year so far, we climbed the three hundred steps up to the highest gallery of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.  It was our own ascension moment – come three days early! 

Now, our audio guide informed us by the time we were half way up, (at Whispering Gallery level) that by the time the cathedral was nearing completion, its architect, Sir Christopher Wren, was no longer able to climb the scaffolding and inspect the work.  Instead, he was hauled up to the dizzy heights of the dome in a basket!  It all seemed incredibly precarious!

I’ve tried to imagine the scene since. This wonderful architect, who had lived long enough to see his vision for the new St Paul’s become a reality, standing in the Whispering Gallery looking down.  What, I wonder, did he say now his job in its creation was almost complete?

I’d like to think he said something like:  Well, I’ve given you the framework, here’s your new House of God, now fill it with prayer and praise, fill it with music and service.

Now I know Jesus didn’t ascend in a basket but maybe the essence of what he said to his disciples just before being taken from their sight wasn’t so very different:  I’ve given you a framework and this is what the Kingdom of God looks like.  Remember the stories I’ve told you, the moments of compassion we’ve shared and the experiences that have bound us together.  This is what the Kingdom of God feels like – now continue to live it out.

Ascension, it’s both the break in the road and the continuation of the journey.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Funerals – maybe we are loved more than we know!?

Perhaps, like many churches, as winter ended we found ourselves having quite a number of funerals - five in quick succession.

We miss these dear friends as many were central people in our community. Yet we also rejoice in the faith they showed, recognising that we are called now to pick up the baton and show a similar commitment as we continue to run the race.

The overriding impression I have of the funeral services we held recently is the sheer number of people who have joined us on these occasions.

In the planning stages the families have often been quite conservative about the number of mourners they thought would show up - yet on the day itself I regularly spoke with stewards who anticipated running out of service sheets.

It’s been super to welcome so many people to these services as we have come to give thanks for a friend’s life and it’s a real testimony to the idea that ‘no man is an island’ and that all our lives are interconnected.

At the last service at which I officiated a granddaughter spoke of the positive world her grandma created. She said she always came away feeling better for being in grandma’s world. 

I thought that was a wonderful tribute.

These spring funerals have taught me that, just maybe, we are loved by far more people than any of us realise.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

On St George's Day - one of 353,000 new arrivals hits the headlines!

So, our country has a new prince – who seems to have arrived remarkably promptly on Monday morning just after 11 o’clock.  It’s lovely news for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and for the nation.

UNICEF estimate that every day the world welcomes 353,000 new citizens, that's 4 babies born every minute!  Interesting to put that into context with the figure of 155,000 daily deaths.

At the Manse we have a new puppy and a member of our family commented this week that whilst she looks a bit like a teddy bear its amazing to realise she’s actually ALIVE!  It seemed to have come as something of a revelation!

Well, every new life feels a bit like a wonderful miracle.  I think the Sunday TV serial ‘Call the Midwife’ knows a thing or two about touching the heart strings and making even the most desperate situation seem just that little bit more bearable with the news of a new arrival in the family.

The bible charts the whole of life with ‘Hatches, Matches and Dispatches’ featuring in both Testaments.  Significant births include the longed for, yet slightly unexpected arrival of Isaac and Samuel, to the highly chronicled stories of John and Jesus’ entry into the world.

Over recent days, as we have anticipated, and then experienced,the arrival of this new royal child there has been a sort of inference in some reporting that as he is only fifth in line to the throne his arrival isn’t as important as that of Prince George’s in July 2013.

Well, in an historical context I suppose we understand that.  Yet in a family and personal sense the birth of this (at the time of writing) unnamed youngster is of equal and precious worth alongside that of his siblings.

Whether children are born into our lives, adopted, fostered, or befriended – whether we are a parent, aunt or uncle or a friendly and encouraging presence – we give thanks for them and value our limited role in their development.

As an old hymn puts it;

Father, in your presence kneeling,
All our heart’s desire revealing,
to your love, in faith, appealing –
For our children, Lord, we pray.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

The day I almost worked for Marks and Spencer!

This week I ventured over to Wycombe and popped into Marks and Spencer. 

I was having a ‘happy’ time just wandering around minding my own business when this man comes over to me with a shirt in hand complaining that it had a label indicating the chest size but not the neck measurements.  ‘Oh, is that right’, I said.  ‘Yes’, he replied, ‘So what do you think I should do?’ 

Well, as our acquaintance was less than a minute old I thought this rather odd being entrusted so soon in our unexpected friendship with his wardrobe requirements!

Eventually – well after another fifteen seconds – I had to put him out of his misery and tell him I too was a customer!  His remorse was instant as he apologised profusely telling me he thought I was staff.  I’m still trying to work out why!!

There are a couple of cases of mistaken identity to be found in the Easter story. 

On the Emmaus road the dejected followers of Jesus spent the entire journey thinking they were speaking to a stranger rather than their Lord.  And most strikingly, perhaps, is Mary at the Garden Tomb supposing that her early morning conversation was with the ‘gardener’.

Jesus turned up – but, for a time at least, wasn’t recognised.

Maybe it’s not too different today.  We look for God in cathedrals and chapels yet so often miss his incarnational presence in the so called ‘ordinary’ and ‘mundane’ aspects of our lives. 

So, if I see you in Marks and Spencer – I still don’t know the equivalent neck measurements to chest sizes – so its better if you ask someone else!


Thursday, 12 April 2018

Continuing Resurrection

Over the last few weeks, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4th 1968, many churches have been remembering the life and ministry of Martin Luther King.

This spell bindingly eloquent Baptist minister from the Deep South of the United States played a seminal role in the story of the advancement of civil rights in that country and during this 50th anniversary I’ve heard interviews with people who knew him and they have not only wanted to speak of the day he died but the life he lived.  They have wanted to help us understand his message and passion.  They have wanted to continue his work – of striving in a non-violent way – towards the goal of mutual respect and representation.

And that, it seems to me, is Luke’s agenda in the lectionary passage from Acts that is set for this coming Sunday – it’s the passage in which Peter and John healed a lame man at the temple and then went on to preach a sermon about Jesus and his death and resurrection.

This isn’t just plain reporting.  This is interpretation.

Luke gives Peter’s sermon an edge and fills in the dots. And that was an accepted way of writing history in those days.  You didn’t only tell the story of your hero, you gave them a speech that explained their passion and reasoning; that made them come alive.

I think there is no doubt that Peter isn’t just giving the crowd a history lesson about Jesus – he is proclaiming and then living out the message that the work of Jesus, his spirit and presence is still around.  Indeed, he says of himself and John: We are witnesses to all that has happened.

The supporters of Martin Luther King passionately want his work to carry on; the disciples of Jesus Christ want nothing less for their Lord and Master.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Easter Day: Running towards Resurrection

The Swiss painter, Eugene Burnand shows the disciples Peter and John running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of Resurrection.

If you want to see the real thing you’ll need to take a trip to Paris and visit the wonderful Musee d’Orsay on the bank of the Seine.

Peter is graphically portrayed by Burnand.  He’s the older disciple with furrowed brow and gnarled hands.  He has the eyes of a man who thinks with emotion and who has spent a lifetime acting on impulse.

I suspect that Peter is a much-loved disciple amongst us.  He’s all too human and we see ourselves in him.

Where does Peter find resurrection that first Easter?

Well, I’d like to think he encounters it in his mind and the way he thinks.

His journey thus far with Jesus hasn’t been the smoothest.

On the Mount of Transfiguration he misreads the sacredness of it all and wants to build tabernacles there to preserve the moment in aspic.

He once told Jesus he would not be a suffering Messiah and received the rebuke of his Lord in the severest tone with Jesus declaring: Get thee behind me Satan!

And, of course, in the early hours of Good Friday, around the fire in Pilate’s courtyard Peter denies Jesus three times before the cock crowed.

Yet this wizened and world weary character we see in our painting this morning got so much right.

He was the first to recognised Jesus as the Christ and he was the disciple who actually got out of the boat and joined Jesus on the water.

He, like so many of the male disciples, wasn’t at the cross.  Yet here he is running towards resurrection.  And if we could read his mind and hear his thoughts as he strains to arrive at the garden tomb, maybe we would hear a dialogue going on in his mind as he ponders that perhaps Good Friday wasn’t the end after all, and just maybe there is another chapter in the story of Jesus.

As the gospel unfolds Peter’s narrative develops too.  For him the resurrection brings a new beginning as he is re-instated.  He can begin afresh, he isn’t to be remembered solely as the disciple who denied his master, he will go down in history as a faithful servant of Christ, indeed one upon whom the church has been built.

Peter will still make mistakes.  Indeed, quite soon he’ll retreat into a certain exclusivity, a sort of mindset that over-emphasises a particular religious tradition.  Paul will come along and challenge him and once more he’ll change his mind and become more inclusive in his outlook.

But that, I suggest is the very essence of resurrection for Peter.  The living presence of Jesus constantly challenges his thinking and taking him to new places. 

This continuous revelation, these exciting ongoing discoveries about the breath of God’s love are Peter’s way of exploring faith and encountering the divine.

Perhaps they can be ours.

For it seems to me that one of the greatest experiences of resurrection for us today is the way that God is continually renewing our minds as we think through our questions, apply our faith to new situations, become eager to tease out more and more our understanding of the way spirituality touches the everyday – and in all this something of the life of God blossoms in us and in the church.

We too can meet resurrection in our thinking – just like Peter.

ps. Blog holiday this week!

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Holy Saturday: Is this how it ends?

Resolution is so attractive.

As we come to the end of a piece of music we long to hear a cadence that will bring it to a comfortable close – without that we are left in limbo, no que for applause, no sense of satisfaction that we can turn off the radio and get on with the next task.

Yet ‘Resolution’ is not what Holy Saturday is about.

Jesus’ body has been lovingly taken down and he is buried with quiet dignity in the tomb of Joseph of Aramathea.

And then – nothing.  The tomb is closed, sealed and guarded.

Is this how it all ends?  It looks like it. 

The narrative is in suspension.  We know of another ending, yet on Holy Saturday this seemed, to those who lived it, to be the ending.

Part of the gift to us every Easter weekend is that realisation of Saturday, in between Friday and Sunday.

Before the message of the angels dressed in dazzling attire, before the joy of running disciples or those who saw a different future as a stranger warmed their hearts and broke bread with them at sunset – before all that spoke and hinted of resolution – there is waiting, and wondering, and questioning, and silence, and waiting.

As there often is on a journey of faith. 

Friday, 30 March 2018

Good Friday: A Sacrament of Divine Love

I think we probably underestimate Pilate.

What happens with the crowd seems to absolve him.  His conversations with his wife make him into a puppet.  All in all he is not a lesson in decisive leadership.

Yet, maybe he knew exactly what he was doing and just maybe he had caught on to the essense of Jesus’ message.

Crucifixion was a mandatory Roman sentence for three classes of criminal: Pirate, rebellious slaves or enemies of the state.

Look at Jesus from Pilate’s point of view.  On his desk would be reports from those who spied on Jesus whilst he taught in the temple.  Rendering unto Caser that which is Ceaser’s was hardly a ringing endorsement of the Emperor’s authority and actually it was a dismissal of the idea that Cesar merited any concept of divinity. 

This was the Jesus who breaks social taboos and values those at the margins instead of discriminating against them.

This was the Jesus who preached not only about the love of God but also his justice.  That God expects the strong to look after the weak.

None of this was welcome to Pilate. It conflicted with his world view that power and might were the best weapons in calming the indigenous population and securing public order.

Pilate was right – Jesus was a subversive, he was an enemy of the state – he was deserving of crucifixion.

So Pilate sentences Jesus – but gives the impression such a judgement was forced on him by the crowd.

Jesus dies because his message of love and justice threatened the authorities and was rejected and misunderstood by the populous.

By not compromising that message of love and practical compassion Jesus suffered the brutality of crucifixion.

The cross is not there in order that God might change his mind about us, but that we might come to understand God. The God, who in Christ, never gives up on us, stands alongside us in love and justice.

In a hymn by Brian Wren it goes like this:

the love that freely entered
the pit of life’s despair
can name our hidden darkness
and suffer with us there.

The suffering of Jesus, on this day we call Good Friday, is a sacrament of divine love.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Maundy Thursday: Not so much an answer but a presence

After celebrating Passover and speaking of his death in bread and wine Jesus and the disciples move out of the city to the foot of the Mount of Olives to the fragrant, peaceful Garden of Gethsemane.

Sometimes our deepest thinking is done when we break away from routine or busyness.

With just a few disciples for company Jesus now moves away from the bigger group to pray.

Although the gospels are written in Greek some writers have him addressing God in Aramaic, as Abba – an unusual, but not totally uncommon, name meaning Father or Papa.  A respectful yet deeply intimate term.

Paul Gerhardt, in his hymn, O Sacred head, reflects this sense of intimacy with God in the verse that ends:
O make me thine for ever,
and, should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
outlive my love for thee.

Jesus has a crisis in Gethsemane.

He would have known what crucifixion meant and he knew it was coming his way.

The crisis boiled down to a question: Was this the only way?  Could there be another way?

In our painting Jesus is seen almost clinging to the rock in utter despair.

This isn’t quiet, gentle prayer.  This is raging, questioning, desperate prayer.

We are never honest if we only ever talk of prayer in serene and bright tones.

Of course it can bring comfort but there are times when its outcome is challenge – challenge to take the hard road.

Surely this account of Jesus is one of the most precious we have in scripture.  At his deepest point of need, when hardly anything seemed to make sense, when questions filled his mind and he felt so alone – Jesus does not walk away from God, but instead, turns to God and prays. 

The mystery of suffering, in all its forms, sometimes comes close to overwhelming us.

One way to see it and go through it is to believe God’s response to suffering isn’t so much an answer but a presence.  His presence, to stand alongside us, to hold us, and share the suffering with us.

There is just a hint at Gethsemane that Jesus found a certain equilibrium as he prayed – enough of one, at least, to end those angst filled intercessions with the words: Not my will, but yours be done.

Perhaps the battle of Good Friday was won on Maundy Thursday by Jesus in a garden called Gethsemane.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Palm Sunday: Crossing the Rubicon

Well it’s Palm Sunday this weekend and in the Jesus narrative things will never be the same again. 

I was watching the eccentric Classics Professor Mary Beard on TV this week as she chronicled the life of Julius Caesar.  She told that part of the narrative when he marched on Rome, a somewhat disgraced general from Gaul and turned his fortunes around by bearing elected Consul and then Dictator for five years, before his brutal end in the Senate.

The story goes that once he crossed the Rubicon river just outside Rome there was no going back.  He set his face to the city.

I may all be a myth, especially as no one really knows where the Rubicon river is, until Mussolini designated a small stream just outside the eternal city with the name in the 1920’s.

Yet the term Crossing the Rubicon has entered our language.  A moment to make a life changing decision, a seminal incident in our journey that sets our course and from which we cannot turn back.

As Jesus made his way from Bethany to the city, riding on a donkey, he Crossed the Rubicon – there was no going back.

This coming week, together, we enter once more the sacred story of Holy Week. The week when everything seems to be turned upside down, yet this is also the week when, in the words of Desmond Tutu we affirm that:

Goodness is stronger than evil.
Love is stronger than hate.
Light is stronger than darkness.
And life is stronger than death.

All made possible, bearable and liveable because God is with us.

May we all have a blessed and meaningful Holy Week.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Our local 'ecumenical' cathedral

Hauke in The Lady Chapel at St Albans Cathedral
St Albans is just 17 miles from Amersham and its Cathedral contains the shrine of Britain’s first Christ martyr.

Back in the early 90’s, when we lived in Hitchin, its Refectory was one of the very first places we took our new born son – I remember the sense of triumph we felt at managing to have an outing that included baby, buggy, changing bag and coffee!!

During my time in Hitchin I sometimes drove over to the Cathedral and served as duty chaplain for the day.  On one such visit I bumped into a Canadian Baptist Minister, we exchanged addresses and about five years later actually organised a Manse Exchange with each other.  All of that as a result of some ‘holy hanging around’ – as one of my colleagues cheekily describes chaplaincy!

Well, last week I was back at St Albans Cathedral (I used to call it St Albans Abbey but I see that isn’t what they call it now!) and it’s just thrilling to see the ‘ecumenical’ aspect of its ministry.

It has a number of ecumenical chaplains: Free Church, Roman Catholic and Lutheran and runs services in the Lady Chapel for all these traditions.

Last Wednesday I had been invited to take the Free Church service in the Lady Chapel.  Hauke, our Time for God volunteer came along and read the lesson – with many people engaging him in conversation afterwards.

I think St Albans is exemplary in its ecumenical hospitality and it was really very special to lead a Free Church service in this sacred space which started life in the Catholic tradition, moved on at The Reformation to the Anglican and is now a place where all are welcomed with the hospitality of Christ.

At the end of our time last week we ended the service by gathering around the shrine and used the ‘Alban Prayer’ – it goes like this:

We thank you for this place built to your glory and in memory of Alban, our first martyr. Following his example in the fellowship of the saints, may we worship and adore the true and living God, and be faithful witnesses to the Christ, who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Risks - in the name of love

Yesterday was International Women’s Day and this coming weekend we celebrate Mothering Sunday.

We are looking at the story of Moses in the Bulrushes on Sunday and in preparing for this I’ve noticed afresh just how many women figure in that story.

There are the brave midwives who go against King Pharaoh’s orders and end up saving Israelite babies rather than destroying them.  Love wins!

There is Miriam, the elder sister of baby Moses who watches him sale down the Nile in his basket and then suddenly appears the moment he is picked up and suggests that she finds an Israelite woman to wet nurse him – and so, actually, brings him back home straight away to be looked after by their own mother.  Miriam shows such clever cunning!

Of course Moses’ mother is there in the story – in fact she might even have been one of the midwives, the one called Puah, a nickname meaning ‘Bubbles’ because she was famous for keeping the babies quiet by blowing bubbles to them!  The mother of Moses did everything in her power to protect children.

Lastly there is the Princess of Egypt who ends up fishing Moses out of the water and adopting him.  Such a plucky rebel!  Her father the King had issued a decree that such babies should be got rid of but this woman speaks truth to power, adopts one and brings him home to the palace to be brought up in the Royal Family. 

I think all these inspirational women are heroes in the early story of Moses – each one lived with the courage of their convictions and took risks in the name of love.

Friday, 2 March 2018


We sang a hymn all about the cross on Sunday and it was a good one: Lift high the cross.  It felt appropriate too as the sermon had been based on Jesus’ invitation for us to ‘take up our cross’ and follow him.

Lent is, in some ways, the season of the Cross, after all it’s the destination of Jesus as he travels south from Galilee towards Jerusalem with its ‘greenhill outside the city walls’.

In his book: Hanging by a Thread Sam Wells, the Vicar of St Martin in the Fields captures our attention with a provocative one liner: There was a time when the cross was an answer…Today the cross is a question.

He’s asking us to re-examine the place of the cross in our faith.

I did that the other day talking to a friend who comes from the Roman Catholic tradition.  He, very genuinely, asked me why all the crosses in our church were empty?  I replied with what is probably a very usual answer for Protestants; something about us believing Jesus is no longer hanging there.  He understood my response but challenged me as he shared how important it is for him to see a bodily representation of Jesus upon the cross, reminding him that actually we don’t believe in an empty cross but Jesus physically dying upon it.

Well it made me think as he said it and I’ve been thinking about it ever since!

Later in his book Sam Wells says: On Good Friday Jesus doesn’t conquer.  He’s humiliated…

There’s so much truth in that statement.  Jesus shows us the heights of our humanity by dying with forgiveness, meeting violence with peace and laying down his life for a message of justice that was rejected by the power loving authorities.  He shows us another way.  A better way.  Yet it is a way of love that ultimately ends in personal suffering and humiliation. A tough way that even brings a cry of dereliction from his lips as he prays: My God, My God why have you forsaken me?

I think it was the Queen, in a message sent to the people of New York after 9/11 who said: Grief is the price you pay for love. 

Strikes me that if we seek to love like Jesus it will not be easy to go the distance and often it will appear foolish to those who look on. 

Some hymns we sing about the cross carry a sentiment that I’m not sure rings true with the awfulness of that first Good Friday.

Sir John Bowring was not only a Victorian Governor of Hong Kong but also a hymnwriter.  In the cross of Christ I glory is one of his and has this line: …from the cross the radiance streaming adds more lustre to the day.  I sort of get what he is saying but I don’t find it the most helpful interpretation of Calvary.

What happened at Golgotha was cruel, agonising, unjust and evil.  Jesus suffered because of love.  He was killed because his way of life threatened the status quo.

It’s mind blowing to then realise his invitation to us is ‘take up your cross and follow me’. 

Brian Wren’s hymn about the cross is one I find deeply disturbing, challenging and comforting all at the same time.

Here are a few verses:

Here hangs a man discarded,
a scarecrow hoisted high,
a nonsense pointing nowhere
to all who hurry by.

Yet here is help and comfort
for lives by comfort bound
when drums of dazzling progress
give strangely hollow sound.

Life, emptied of all meaning,
drained out in bleak distress,
can share in broken silence
our deepest emptiness.

And love that freely entered
the pit of life’s despair,
can name our hidden darkness
and suffer with us there.

Cross -words to make us think and ponder afresh the ‘one who hung and suffered there’.

Friday, 23 February 2018


Still at the start of Lent I’ve been pondering the story which comes at its end, that of Pilate washing his hands as he lets the mob decide the fate of Jesus.  In doing so he abdicates his responsibility and no amount of washing can absolve him of the charge that in the end he abandoned any sense of conviction and chooses instead the popular vote.

Churchill’s dictum is often quoted that democracy is a bad system until you consider the alternatives. Yet the rise of ‘popularism’ over recent months and years has achieved some questionable outcomes.  Perhaps I’m thinking this way having been given a copy of Fire and Fury: Inside the White House as a gift last week.

Leadership is tough and democracy is flawed yet in the end one has to temper the other.

I’m not sure the message of Jesus has ever really got the popular vote.  Take this weekend’s lectionary reading all about ‘taking up a cross and following Jesus’.  It’s an invitation to a life of tough choices, to be made at some personal cost.  Could you ever imagine a poster outside a church saying; Living a Christ-like life could be the biggest struggle of your life – join us at 10.30 Sundays to find out more!’.

Perhaps a central message of Lent is that a truly human life, one that reflects the life of Jesus, should be one lived with conviction, and that despite the siren voices of hedonistic popularism, selfless-love really does display the best of us, even if it involves cross-carrying.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Painting Creation

Our Junior Church take a monthly bible story and develop it over four weeks using a variety of different activities.  This month it’s been the Creation Poem of Genesis One and they have ‘painted’ it.  This week their efforts were put up in the church corridor.  The one opposite represents that moment when light came into being – it’s got great energy with a spiral of silver glitter at its centre.

I sometimes wonder if the Junior Church activities are far more interesting than the sermons I preach!  Perhaps soon I’ll have to stop people volunteering to be helpers!

I think it’s great that the few young people we are privileged to have week by week do some really interesting things from making bread and putting on puppet shows to these wonderful paintings.  It makes the bible come alive and our prayer is that something of the fun and involvement it produces will enable the lessons learnt to go deep into their hearts.

Blog holiday next week!

Thursday, 1 February 2018

We read to know we are not alone

This week I’m attending two book groups – I must get a proper job!!!

The first was at AFC on Tuesday when we gathered after LunchBreak to consider Matthew Fox’s book A New Reformation.  Fox, a theologian, has been forced out of the Roman Catholic Church so his book is really one of protest, and at times it's quite a forceful cry from the heart. 

Tuesday’s book got mixed reviews from our group yet, in the process, prompted an excellent and lively discussion!

I love talking about books because that produces a conversation which breathes life and, sometimes, a new perspective into our reading.

In the film Shadowlands, about CS Lewis and his marriage to Joy Davidson, there is that beautiful line: We read to know we are not alone.

So, I’m pleased to be going to another book group tomorrow!  This time in Luton and one that draws together half a dozen ministers from our local Association. 

The book we’ll be discussing is John Swinton’s Raging with Compassion which seeks to address the issue of Theodicy, that is how we continue to believe in a God of love in the light of so much suffering in the world.

Swinton urges us to steer away from trite or traditional answers to the problem of suffering and believe instead that in the cross we encounter a God who doesn’t explain pain away, but one who shares pain with, and alongside us.  This is the God who partners us in suffering.

I find this just about the only response worth considering, that suffering doesn’t require an answer (which never really comes) but a presence.

One of Swinton’s most helpful quotes in this respect is from Henri Nouwen:

When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand.  The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not-knowing, not-curing, not-healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares…

Well, I love books and the wisdom they contain – and I enjoy book groups – even when two come along in the same week! And I really do understand the idea that ‘we read to know we are not alone’.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

The 'Big Society'

This week I sat in on our Partnership in Mission Committee as the issue of our Communion Offerings was discussed. It’s this committee’s responsibility to nominate the various charities we support on a monthly basis – and this forms an important part of our church’s ‘Mission Giving’.  I found it fascinating to look at the briefing papers and see the various organisations we’ve given to in recent years.  These are often small charities supported by our members and recommended by them.  On average we give to both the ‘parent’ denominations of our church, Christian Aid, eleven organisations through the Communion Offering and to three further charities through our Christmas Offerings.  All of that added up, last year, to just under £20,000 worth of support.

I want to suggest that this represents exemplary commitment by our congregation that flies in the face of what they call ‘compassion fatigue’.

In my experience churches are full of people whose faith and conviction makes them into communities of consistent generosity.
A few years ago I was at a Ministers’ Meeting addressed by our local MP who also happened to be a cabinet minister.  He arrived late having been detained at 10 Downing Street by the Prime Minister.  A little group of them had been called together following the announcement that the government believed in ‘The Big Society’.  This small cabinet group was being asked: what could the ‘Big Society’ look like?  It was a somewhat astonishing insight into the process of government policy: announce it first and work out what it really means afterwards!

Well our Ministers’ Meeting was in no such doubt as to what a ‘Big Society’ looks like – and we told the cabinet minister that we all stood in front of one every week!  For we stand before groups of worshippers who volunteer in both church and society, who have deep pockets of generosity and who embrace new projects with remarkable enthusiasm considering the routine commitments they already regularly maintain.  And part of this is represented by all those Communion Offerings we were discussing on Tuesday morning – as well as the 193 jobs/tasks that need doing in our church and are not only listed in our current directory but actually have names of people beside every one – volunteers who regularly step up to the mark.

‘Community’ is, I believe, a central theme in Christianity – and when it comes to the idea of the ‘Big Society’ I’m thrilled to say that in my experience churches really do ‘practice what they preach’!

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Better Together

After Christmas and Epiphany, just as we start allowing ourselves to get a touch excited about longer days, we bump into the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  It started today, 18th January and runs through until the 25th of this month.

To celebrate this Week of Prayer we’re holding a united service between the three town centre churches of Amersham on the Hill this coming Sunday at St John’s Methodist Church.

I was interested to learn that Amersham Free Church, set up as intentionally ecumenical with the Baptist and Congregational Unions as its original parent bodies, came into being in 1907 closely followed by The Week of Prayer that was first held in January 1908.

I’ve always valued, and usually enjoyed, ecumenical involvement.

One of my first experiences came during my ordination training.  I was invited to be the Evensong preacher at a rather grand parish church.  The Rector and I met up thirty minutes before the service to walk me through the logistics.  I admit I was nervous as taking part in processions isn’t something we Baptists do very often.  ‘You sit there’ – he said, pointing to a chair one side of the altar.

Well, I processed in behind the choir, but when I got to the chancel the chair, previously pointed out to me, had been removed!  What was I to do and where was I to sit?

To my embarrassment my next move wasn’t the smartest in my life.  In full view of giggling choir boys, I tried moving a seat the other side of the altar to the place originally pointed out to me.

I got halfway across, from one side of the altar to the other, when I realised I could go no further because this rather grand looking chair (more like a throne really) was actually chained and could go no further.  By now I was resembling Frank Spencer in ‘Some Mothers do have’em’!  So, I retreated back to the chair’s original position and there with my head down until called upon to preach.

The Rector was very understanding afterwards – apologized that someone had removed the original chair and commented, with a glint in his eye, that the one I actually sat on was usually reserved for the bishop!

Since then my ecumenical encounters have been rather tame by comparison.

There are, I believe, lots of advantages in serving alongside other Christians and some of our best work is done when we do it together. 

On Tuesday at AFC we had a great talk about Bible Society which is supported, just like Christian Aid, by all the mainline churches in Britain. And locally we have a great project called ‘Open the Book’ which works in schools taking assemblies in a fun way – and is ‘staffed’ by volunteers from a variety of Amersham churches.

So, I’m looking forward to Sunday because I believe in ecumenism – but I will be careful as to which chair I sit in!

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Hauke's Prayer

Hauke, from Germany, is our Time for God volunteer and is serving at Amersham Free Church for this academic year.  We’ve loved getting to know him over recent months and most weeks he takes part in Morning Service, anything from leading the Opening Responses and setting up the Data Projector to playing the piano during the offering.  Last week he did something different – he wrote the opening prayer of adoration and confession – something he’d never done before and in English too! 

His prayer comes across with a certain freshness and deep sincerity – so I thought it would be great to have it on the Blog this week!

Prayer of Adoration
Before you, O God, we are able to calm down.  We don’t have to say great words.  We can just be the person we are.
Before you, O God, we are able to come to rest.  We don’t have to walk around desperately looking for answers.
Before you, O God, we can gather our thoughts and find our way through your guidance.
God, we thank you for filling us with peace and love.

Prayer of Confession
God, you know us and our sins, our way of life and our objectives.
In our daily life we are often only thinking about our own goals and wishes, and tend to forget our surroundings.
Please help us to see the needs of others around us and give us strength to help them.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Christmas Clearance

Popped into Tesco over the weekend and almost the first shelf I bumped into was labelled ‘Christmas Clearance’.

Items, highly prized and priced just days ago, were now on offer at knock down prices!  Somehow the crackers and chocolate Santas loose their sparkle remarkably quickly after the 25th.

Then on New Year’s Day, in search of milk, I breeze into Waitrose and find a whole shelf of Easter Bunnies!  All felt a bit like ‘indecent haste’!

In 1973, as a twelve-year-old, the band Wizzard had a hit entitled ‘I wish it could be Christmas everyday’ – now that’s not a sentiment I readily ascribe to, yet I fully understand frustration of the Narnian creatures in C.S.Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe who bemoan the fact that, under the rule of the white witch, it was ‘always winter yet never Christmas’.

So, is Christmas date sensitive?  Does it have a ‘best before’ stamp?!

I think one of the deepest ideas Christians celebrate in this Feast of Christ’s Birth is that of the transformative Presence of God – that ‘alongsideness’ which is encapsulated in the name Immanuel -God is with us.

This week folk will have returned to work, getting back into routine, having operations, facing challenges-  and God is with us as much now, at the beginning of 2018 as when we sang Silent Night in church on Christmas Eve.

We may soon be boxing up the decorations and recycling the cards, yet the essence of Christmas – that presence of love and light is surely to be welcomed and cherished every day of the year.

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...