Saturday, 29 December 2018

Shepherd Monologue: Christmas Day Talk

My name is Dan and I’ve been a Bethlehem shepherd ever since my bar mitzvah.  It’s the only life I’ve ever known.

Us shepherds are a predictable lot.  When you work with animals and the seasons you tend to get into a routine.

That night you Christians talk about, the night that changed my life for ever – well, it wasn’t in the winter.  You see we’re on the hills during the lambing season in the spring – that’s when it happened, a spring night at the height of the Roman occupation of our country.

I’m old now and rarely go up on the hills these days but I remember that night as if it were yesterday. We seemed to be at the centre of it all and that’s not really us.  Usually we live away from the action.  Every spring we take the flocks out of their winter corrals and they graze at will on the hills and the lambing starts.  We can be away from the village for days, even weeks.  It’s as if we live in the background, just remembered by our families but forgotten by the shopkeepers, merchants and civic authorities.

It’s not that we just become village outsiders, we’re temple outsiders too.  You see Jerusalem is just a stone throw from Bethlehem, yet we only ever go there to sell our lambs to the priests – never to worship.  They say our hands are unclean.

Odd then, really, to think God gave us ringside seats at the birth of his beloved son.  Suddenly that night we became insiders.  And from what I heard of Jesus later that seemed to me to be part of his message – that God draws us all in, draws us to his love and makes us feel as if we belong, no longer outsiders.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about recently is how it happened all so quickly.  We weren’t being religious that night, we weren’t even praying.  Just going about our ordinary jobs.  Somehow, I always used to think you met with God at Synagogue or on Shabbat.  That night was so ordinary.  We’d just finished making sure one of our sheep, who had been having trouble, safely delivered her young and then suddenly there was this piercing bright light – at first it was almost blinding, but then it became the warmest shining imaginable.  We were told not to be afraid.  We were told the promised one had been born.  There seemed to be the most joyful singing in the air.  It felt like a dream yet became for us the most real conviction any of us ever held.

Still thrills me really.  That announcement to us as we went about our every night lives.  I’m sure when your country has a new king the heralds will stand on the balcony of palaces and proclaim the start of a new reign.  That night the Herald Angels choose to announce the news to us.  But isn’t that part of the message too.  Jesus came for everyone just as God’s love is for all – so why not announce the incarnation to shepherds on a hillside.  That said I still smile at the audacity of God by passing the priests and choosing me and my mates!

And the next bit that happened just blows my mind away even all these years later.

Those angels asked us to go and worship.  That’s all.  We didn’t even have time for a wash!  We went as we were.  Grown men.  To be truthful most of us shepherds know more about lambs than babies.  But off we went.  We asked Jacob to stay behind and make sure the flock was OK.  The rest of us ran to Bethlehem.

It was as if we were guided to that family and the place where Jesus had been born.  We went around the back and looked in.  Joseph asked us if we’d like to look.

Mary appeared exhausted but blissfully happy.  It was all so ordinary, a scene so full of love and hope – yet the words of the angels rang in our ears – that this birth was special – that God was blessing our world with his presence in this child.

As I look back now the thing that strikes me most of all is that we didn’t have to say anything, we went just as we were – all we were asked to do was to welcome the child.  It felt to me then, as it does today, that we were welcoming God come amongst us.  We knelt, we bowed our heads – and then we touched his brow, smiled at Mary, shock Joseph’s hands and walked back up the hillside in a shared silence that went so deep.

In our hearts we knew things would never be the same again, God was with us to bless us and show us the way. 

Amazing really what can happen when you are just watching the flock by night – all seated on the ground.

Friday, 21 December 2018

Christmas in Community: Nativity Service Talk

AFC Nativity 16.12.18
Once again it’s been lovely to have our All Age Nativity with different age groups taking part.

Just seeing the story re-enacted has reminded me that the days surrounding the birth of Jesus were  anything but  private occasions.

That first Christmas was very much a community event. 
There’s the Holy Family of Mary, Joseph and their baby.  This young couple went through so much together from their long journey to Bethlehem, the chaos of the birth itself to their panic laden escape as refugees to Egypt.  But, maybe that’s the point, they did it together and found support in one another.

Then there’s the visitors without an appointment – shepherds and wise men.  Groups of people from either end of the social spectrum who all wanted to welcome the infant Jesus.

And, of course, there’s the angel choir, maybe even big enough to have filled the Albert Hall, singing SATB, or whatever angels sing (!) to both honour and proclaim the birth of The Prince of Peace.

Christmas isn’t a private time for the original participants.  It’s struck me this year just how much it was a moment of community.

God has made us in such a way that we often find strength in community.  Even the Trinity itself is a picture of community in action as Father, Son and Spirit work co-operatively together.

When a group of us visited Hauke and his family in Germany in September we arrived for our stay at Bremen airport and were taken to look at the town.  We stood outside the cathedral beside the statue of four animals standing on top of each other – the Brothers Grim Fairy Tell entitled the Musicians of Bremen.

The story has a moral – each of the four animals was rather small by itself and not able to fend off its enemies.  But if they each stood on one another’s back, if they worked together and became one in their endeavour, then they would look really big and tall and maybe in the darkness frighten off those who wanted to do them harm.

By working together they became stronger.

So much of Christmas is about community.  In the Lord Jesus, God has shown us what a human life looks like when others are put first, when service is undertaken by a whole group or when a collection of individuals pull together and take note of the one going at the slowest pace.

God seems to delight in community and the birth of Jesus is surrounded by it from the Holy Family to the shepherds, angels and wise men.

May God’s blessing be yours this Christmas as you celebrate it amongst the communities you cherish, and may your part in those communities – be they church, family, neighbours or work continue to be a sphere of service and a source of inspiration throughout 2019.

In the name of that community of love and light, the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen

Monday, 17 December 2018

Carol Service Talk: Dickens' Christmas Carol

This evening we have enjoyed many Christmas carols, and this year Dicken’s book, A Christmas Carol, is 175 years old. 

Looking through the Radio Times there are, at least, four versions of it on TV over the next two weeks and it’s been revived at London’s Old Vic this winter with Stephen Tomkinson in the lead role.

Dickens wrote this ghost story back in 1843 in just six weeks.  It was published on December 19th that year and such was its rapturous reception that it was sold out by Christmas Eve.  In 1844 it was republished an astonishing thirteen times and has never been out of print since.

Of course, one reason for its runaway success was its timing  We might think that carolling, Christmas Trees and family parties have always been  around, but the truth is many only became firmly established early in Queen Victoria’s reign, around the exact time of the first edition of a Christmas Carol in 1843.

Claire Tomalin, Dickens’ biographer, says the story is an allegory of the Christian concept of redemption.  I think it has the feel of an extended bible parable.

Scrooge’s journey, accompanied by the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future, puts him in touch with his ‘better self’.

By the end of the story he’s a changed man, now much more sympathetically aware of the world around him and ready to meet its needs with a new found spirit of generosity.

I think the unsung heroes of the book are Scrooge’s nephew and his wife, who invited him to keep Christmas with them every year.  He never came yet they kept the door open and at last, after the dream that brings Scrooge redemption with that rediscovery of his better self, he accepts their invitation to Christmas lunch – once he has ensured Bob Cratchit and his family, including Tiny Tim, have a similarly good meal.

Jesus, whose birth we have celebrated this night with our own Christmas Carols, shows us God in a way we can understand.  A God who us new beginnings, who helps us grow into better people aware of the needs of others as we live in meaningful community. 

These themes are not just for Christmas but for every day of the forthcoming New Year, becoming for us living stories of love, justice and generosity of spirit – which just like Dickens’ masterpiece, never go out of print or fashion.

Thursday, 6 December 2018 it ever a linear process?

It’s ‘John the Baptist day’ this weekend, as it is every second Sunday of Advent.

His story is predominantly in the gospel pages after the birth narratives, yet the part he plays as the one who ‘prepares’ the people to welcome Jesus makes him an obvious choice for one of these Sundays during a month of preparation.

John seems to me to be a wonderfully complex and unfinished character; so he’s like most of us!

He’s a typical Jewish Scripture prophet in terms of style.  He’s an old school maverick who preaches from the side lines.  He’s the fly in the ointment who becomes a great irritant for both the religious and secular authorities.  He’s the wonderfully eccentric ‘other’ who wakes people up; in contrast to the calm and cultured Temple priest who dutifully kept the status quo and probably sent the congregation to sleep with their predictable sermons.

So, on the banks of the Jordan river John preaches his heart out and people respond.  It’s a mini revival and a different sort of stirring emerges.  People do seem to have seen something more in John than just his odd way of dressing and eating.  They begin to see a need within themselves to become authentic as seekers after truth rather than stay with a religion that no longer seemed to speak with courage or honesty.

John points to Jesus, honours Jesus and promotes Jesus even as he baptises him.

And yet…..the truth is as we wind the tape on a few years with John now imprisoned, we meet someone who is no longer sure about the validity of his cousin’s mission.  John sends a message to the one he had baptised with such affirmation, it’s now a message of doubt and asks the question: are you the one, or should we be looking for someone else?

John started so well.  He is the one who knew what he was against, a real ‘non-conformist’ – hooray! He knew he was against dressed up religion, controlled by a powerful few, observed by a majority who’d lost the essence of who God is.  Into this context John shouted ‘repent’.

And they did, hundreds of them as they queued up for baptism.

Yet a few years after the arrival of Jesus it’s John who is now not really sure that his cousin is the real thing.  Too soft perhaps, certainly too nuanced. 

I’m glad John is part of our Advent journey because exploring faith is never a straightforward, linear process.  Life, events and experience gets in the way – fortunately.  And we are left wondering what to make of it all, we are left revisiting old questions we thought long since sorted.  We are left as seekers after truth who are always journeying, always discovering more and always unfinished.

ps…each week through Advent the Baptist Union Retreat Group is posting a blog – find out more at:

Friday, 30 November 2018

Advent begins...

Where did the autumn go?! 

Perhaps it’s because we’ve had so many sparkling blue-sky days in October and November that I really don’t feel it’s time to start the journey to Bethlehem.

So, to gear me up I’ve been pondering what Advent really means to me.

It’s certainly about waiting.  Advent pushes back Christmas ensuring we don’t get there too early.  Marks and Spencer’s may have had their trees up since before October half-term but some of us in the churches pull back from singing the carols too early.

Waiting is part of life and the patience it teaches us can make us slow down and live life with a ‘long view’ that can be really helpful. 

Waiting need not be a passive exercise.  Even as we ‘wait’ we can be active. 

I love that idea from the Jewish scriptures that even as the people were in exile in places like Egypt or Babylon waiting for a time when they could return home, they were encouraged to play their part in society, pray for country and make their mark in any way they could.

Waiting is about travelling hopefully.

And Advent is, I think, about preparing.  That’s part of its origins as a time of fasting in preparation for the feasting of Christmas.  Lent and Advent, in the medieval Church were very similar seasons and both share the liturgical colour purple today.

Yet isn’t our preparation only ever one side of the coin.  We may be making diligent preparations for Christmas lunch but in the end the guests around the table and the conversation and laughter they bring will be just as important as the food.

I’d like to think the same is true spiritually.  This Advent I hope I will spend time preparing.  I can’t promise I’ll do that by fasting as it’s normally about one special meal a week between now and December 25th, but I want to consciously acknowledge this season. My experience is that however much we prepare God can bless us with new insights and precious moments that come to us as something of a surprise. 

And lastly, Advent is certainly about revisiting.  Most of us will follow the pattern of previous years.  We’ll sing familiar carols and take part in well-worn customs.  We might even moan about the same things as last year!

There is a rhythm to any year.  The autumn is fading, winter is beginning, and our thoughts turn to Advent.  By Christmas the days will be at their shortest.  Into this rhythm the Church will turn our thoughts to the promise of life to come, the preaching of John the Baptist, the obedience of Mary and the coming of the Christ child.

We once visited some friends in Adelaide, Australia.  They had spent six months in Edinburgh, concluding their time there at Christmas.  I commiserated with them that they had had to miss a sunny Australian yuletide.  ‘Not a bit of it’ they said.  They told me how much they had loved Advent in Scotland and how precious it had become to them walking down Princes Street at dusk as the lights flickered in the shops as the mid-afternoon darkness closed in.  They said how spiritually renewed and uplifted they had felt spending this season away from home.

Well, on Sunday Advent begins and may it be for us too a season of light and hope.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

A different kind of majesty

Last Sunday we showed The Shack after morning service.  Some of us, at our church book group, had read the novel so it was interesting to see how well it had transferred to the reel.  I think the general opinion was a ‘thumbs up’!

The book isn’t an easy read and the film is certainly one that may need the paper tissues.  Why wouldn’t it?  It deals with the most tragic of themes, namely the abduction and murder of a little girl from a campsite and the subsequent tortured journey made by her father. 

I think the theme of the book is that whilst God doesn’t cause suffering, he shares the pain alongside us.  That won’t answer all those questions we have about suffering, but it helps me.

We showed the film just a week before the end of the liturgical year (this Sunday) which is often referred to as ‘Christ the King’ Sunday.  My guess is there will be lots of triumphal hymns and anthems in churches this week proclaiming Jesus as The King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

I understand those biblical titles.  I would want to use them to express God’s greatness when it comes to his inexhaustible love or infinite faithfulness. 

What troubles me, though, is if we use them to describe an Almighty God who intervenes to stop suffering or, say, saps terrorists to prevent violence.  Reality teaches us it simply doesn’t work like this.  The result is that we often hear the cry: Why did God let this happen, why didn’t he stop it?

The Shack presents a very different kind of God because it portrays the Trinity in terms of a community – in this instance one manifested as two women and a man (yes, mind-blowing at first – but you get used to it!!)  This Trinity of love enfolds the grieving father and accompanies him through a process of grief.  They take his questions, absorb his pain and open new vistas of understanding.

This is a much gentler picture of an ‘Alongside’ God than one traditionally presented on Christ the King Sunday – it is a different kind of majesty.

Friday, 16 November 2018

Significance of the 'small'

We greet people in a number of ways.  Verbally we might say ‘hello’ – a younger generation than me usually opts for ‘Hi guys’!! Physically we might wave, smile, shake hands or even hug.

When people wore hats more regularly than they do now, one sign of respectful greeting was to ‘doff your cap’!

There is a story from South Africa that goes like this.

One day a white Anglican priest was walking through Soweto and upon passing a young boy out walking with his mother, the priest doffed his clerical hat to the lady.

The young lad was so impressed at such a show of respect to his mum that he subsequently joined the priest’s church and eventually submitted himself for ordination.

The priest was Trevor Huddleson and the young lad was Desmond Tutu.

History was changed because of this respectful greeting.  Small gestures go deep.

In our everyday lives we can offer those small words of encouragement and we can show routine acts of kindness.  Such a way of living, bit by bit, builds an atmosphere in a family, community or church, of trust and integrity in which life can flourish. There is, and always has been, a great significance in the ‘small’.  

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Remembering Together

One of the most precious memories I have of this year is from our visit to Hauke, our former Time for God volunteer, and his family in Lower Saxony during the late summer.

One of the many excursions planned for us was to the town of Ham
elin, famous for its Pied Piper.  We followed a modern day, story-telling Piper around the city and at one point in the tour Hauke’s father pulled me back to show me some brass squares embedded in the cobbled streets outside the ancient houses.  He told me, in a quiet, dignified and non-sentimental way, that these brass squares represented the Jewish families who once occupied the adjacent houses.  Families which had been taken to a concentration camp and eventually murdered in World War Two.  He said these brass squares of remembrance were now common throughout Germany, marking the homes of Jews who lost their lives in the Holocaust.  When he finished speaking, when no more words were necessary between us, he took my arm and I patted him on the back. We both knew we had spoken of deep things.

Hauke’s grandparents and parents have now spent over sixty years between them seeking to build friendship and mutual respect between our two nations – a process that continued throughout 2017 – 18 with Hauke’s time with us here at AFC. 

In Hamelin we ‘remembered together’ – such acts of friendship are precious beyond words, and pray God, make our world a more Christ-like place.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

Happy All Saints Day

There was a moment last night at the manse when we really didn’t know if we should answer the knock at the door.  It being Halloween we had already given out copious sweets to our Trick or Treaters and now we had hardly any left.  What if we opened the door to more children than we could treat?

However, we did let our next callers in as they were members of the Life and Faith Group meeting at our house last evening – and none of them thankfully asked for sweets!

So, yesterday’s All Souls Day is followed by today’s All Saints.  Combine that with Remembrance Sunday in just over a week and this season of the year really does feel like one of reflection and contemplation.

Last evening, in one of those wonderful ‘coming together’ moments, we were looking at a chapter in Bishop John Pritchard’s book, Something More, all about the rites of passage: Hatches, Matches and Dispatches.

We talked a bit, at the bidding of our author, about how it has felt for people who have had ‘near death’ experiences – which, indeed, some in the group have had.  There seems to be a common experience that after such a close brush with death – life is cherished and valued as never before. 

On Sunday I’ll be preaching from that story of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus.  It’s from that narrative that we come across those great words of hope from our Lord when he said:  I am the resurrection and the life…

God is the life giver and his gift of life is for both sides of the grave.  
Those who have been to the edge of their own tomb seem to universally come away ‘changed’ and consequently seem to have a deeper appreciation of the daily joy of living.  We can surely learn much from their experience and join them in celebrating the life that is already ours, even as we give thanks, on a day such as this, for those we love who now dwell upon a distant shore living in the nearer presence of a God of love and life.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Rhythm of Life

We used to sing The Rhythm of Life in one of the choirs I once belonged to.  It was an easy start yet as we went on it became increasingly difficult keeping up with the pace and rhythm as it got faster and faster.  

This morning I drove out to a friend's church through the autumnal glory of the Buckinghamshire countryside on a sunny day.  This time of year the leaves are dying and as they do so give us a riot of colour; a final burst of glory before dropping to the ground. So, I found myself reflecting on this 'rhythm' of life.

I did that with even greater intent because I was meeting up with a minister friend on her last day on the 'job'.  Today she leaves her church after a faithful ministry and to 'celebrate' this moment two of us shared a meal with her in the beautiful church hall which acts as a splendid community cafe once a week.  It was an 'ending' and yet, as she leaves, the church community she has served so well will go on into another phase of its corporate life, even as she enters a new chapter of hers.  There's rhythm all around us.

Such reflecting was made even deeper as I listened to the car radio en route only to hear of a 100-year-old lady who got married yesterday to a bridegroom in his seventies.  The lady walked down the aisle to the Abba song Dancing Queen! At a time when most people might be thinking of endings here are a couple just beginning!

In a way I think of this time of year, autumn, not so much in terms of ending but resting.  The trees around us have come into bud and as the length of each day of spring and early summer grew longer so they blossomed and flourished.  For a long time these leaves remained green and soaked up valuable sunshine, feeding the trees on which they sat.  

And now, after a riot of colour announcing their farewell, these same leaves fall to the ground and it’s as if the spinneys, copses and forests are beginning their long annual 'rest'.  It's a rhythm which has been going on successfully and constantly for centuries and, although true biologists will be tearing their hair out reading such an unscientific description, I believe nature is a good teacher.

The rhythm of life and faith can never just be about blossoming and flourishing.  We need those reflective seasons when we think it through, ponder it afresh, take a step back and 'rest'.  Spring will come again but for now autumn is bidding.  

'Rhythm' - it's a hard word to spell and perhaps an even harder idea to practise .  Yet maybe, if we get better at the 'down time', the rhythm of life will teach us that 'autumn' moments are truly valuable and in the wider scheme of things will help us bear Spring blossom and Summer fruit.

Blog holiday next week!

Friday, 12 October 2018

Aerosol Words

This week I’ve attended my regional Ministers’ Conference – three days with forty Baptist pastors – it’s either been heaven or hell depending on your point of view!!

I loved the meal time conversations and the opportunity to catch up with colleagues and I really appreciate all the effort that goes in to making these occasions possible for us.

One of our speakers was the wonderful Ann Morisy.  Ann came to Amersham a few years ago and took our Elders’ Training Day on the theme of ‘Ministry to Seniors’ – she was as brilliant then as she was this week. She combines a gentle Liverpudlian humour with the sharp insights of a sociologist who works in a Christian context.  We learnt so much from her wise words.

One of her asides, however, will linger most in my mind.  She spoke of ‘Aerosol words’.  At first I was puzzled as to what she meant.

For her, aerosol words and phrases are used at those times when we want to spray around some warm feeling without really defining too much what we mean.  ‘Community’, said Ann, is an obvious ‘aerosol’ word – in the Church we use it all the time, yet maybe we are not too sure what it really means.  I guess ‘inclusivity’ might be another one, and probably those theological words like ‘Kingdom of God’ or ‘Eternal Life’ are also ones we spray around but would need to think hard about as to what they really mean.

Well – I put my hand up – no one is more guilty of aerosol words than me!

Yet I suspect that even if I might be hard pressed to come up with a comprehensive definition of words like ‘community’ or ‘compassion’ – the reality is I know what these words mean when I see love in action. 

I know it looks like:
-        Selfless giving
-        Dedicated service
-        Authentic living
-        Thoughtful commitment

Next week I’ll do my thinking without thirty- nine other colleagues around me – but for this week I give thanks for the fun we’ve had and all we learnt together.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Happy Birthday Sycamore Club

On Wednesday of this week we held a 40th Birthday Party for Sycamore Club. 

The club, sponsored by Churches Together on The Hill, Amersham (COTHA), provides one day a week when folk with dementia can attend – thus giving them a stimulating day and their carers a ‘day off’.  It’s staffed by very faithful and committed volunteers and this year celebrates its ‘Ruby’ anniversary.  To mark the occasion a service was held – led by The Revd Peter Binns, the club’s president from St Michael’s and a tea was hosted afterwards by Beverley (who has co-ordinated the club for a decade now) and her team.

It was a moving occasion, especially remembering those who had the vision for this activity forty years ago – in many ways they were ahead of their time.

On Wednesday, during the worship in church, we sang the hymn Loving Shepherd of thy sheep. I was especially struck by the appropriateness of the first verse which goes: keep thy lamb in safety, keep; nothing can thy power withstand, none can pluck me from thy hand.

Dementia, sometimes known as ‘the long goodbye’, can seem to us a cruel state of mind.  That hymn just reminded me that people we love who might at times seem ‘lost’ to us through this condition, are held in the love of God and nothing can pluck them from his hand.  Such a thought, I believe, gives continuing dignity and worth to them – to sense that they are honoured and valued by The Good Shepherd.

So Happy Birthday Sycamore Club, and thank you for your weekly work of loving, down to earth compassion these last forty years.

Friday, 28 September 2018

Songs of Praise

At church today I sat alongside a couple during the Coffee Morning who had come for the first time to the U3A choir.  It was a mother and daughter and the older lady told me she hadn’t sung for over twenty years so this morning she was rediscovering her vocal chords. 

I’ve loved singing for as long as I can remember.  Maybe it’s in the family as both my grandfathers were boy choristers, one at Christ Church, Chorleywood, the other at St Mary’s, Rickmansworth.

Whilst growing up a friend and I regularly sang at our town’s ‘Religious Festival’ and for a few years we wiped the board in the duet section!!!

A few years ago some of us from AFC went along to the Big Chorus Messiah at The Royal Albert Hall, an evening when the choir consists of 3,000 and the audience of 2,000!  Singing alongside about 500 bases (who had all sang Messiah a hundred times before) was a wonderful experience!

Last week some of us from church led a service of worship in a local residential home.  Once again, a mother and daughter were present.  At the end of the service, which included four hymns, the daughter told me that her mother, a resident who has basically lost the use of speech when it comes to conversing, sang every line of every hymn from memory.  She told me that with tears in her eyes – for her it was a very precious moment to realise just how much these much-loved hymns meant to her mum.

Music goes deep – and even deeper still when combined with words of faith.  And perhaps for those of us in the non-conformist tradition with our lack of creeds, it’s our hymns which contain the truths which have, over hundreds of years, fashioned our faith.

So this Sunday, as every week,  I’m looking forward to singing the faith with my fellow worshippers – in fact I simply couldn’t imagine morning worship without music and songs of praise!

Saturday, 22 September 2018

A big 'thank you' to the Vogel Family

Eight of us from AFC spent part of this last week visiting Hauke, our former Time for God volunteer, and his parents on their farm near Hanover, Lower Saxony, Germany.

The Vogel family showed us such kind-hearted and welcoming hospitality.  All the family has such a splendid grasp of English - which meant our conversation flowed with ease.

We enjoyed visits to cathedrals, farms, wind turbines and famous cities such as Hanover and Hameln, where a modern day Pied Piper took us on a walk and explored with us the various possibilities behind the folk tale which has made his city famous.

We cycled by the River Weser, saw Hauke's old school, shared an evening bbq and some of us even drove tractors!

On our final day we visited the Vogel's family church.  The Custos (verger) of 70 years showed us round.  As we left he said to Hauke's father how wonderful it was to see the bond between British and German Christians.

That was one of so many precious moments during our time in Germany this week.  In a sense it brought Hauke's year with us to a fitting conclusion.  He was able to offer us his family's hospitality and I know that meant so much to him and was a great blessing to us.  The truth is it felt like a 'family' visit - and for such kindness we give thanks.

As one of our party put it as we drove along the M25 after arriving back at Stanstead - 'Well, that was magic!'.  A sentiment I thoroughly agree with - and one that appropriately describes a week in which I both drove a tractor and followed a Pied Piper!!

We praise God for the Vogel family and say 'thank you' to them once more for letting us 'borrow' Hauke for a year!

Here are some pictures of our adventures this week!

We touch down in Germany at 10.20am after leaving Amersham at 4.00am!!
We arrive in time for morning coffee!

We see the 'Musicians of Bremen' statue

Hauke and his father welcome us so warmly to their lovely home

Erna drives the family's vintage 1949 tractor!

Hauke the expert tractor driver!!

Gathering  for breakfast in the farmhouse

The Union Jack was raised at the farm in our honour!

Enjoying a boat trip

Visiting Hanover - where Hauke will soon be at university

Matthew and Hauke climbing up inside the farm's wind turbine

Being shown around Hameln by a modern day Pied Piper!

Visiting one of the family's farms

Sharing breakfast with Hauke's Mum and Dad

Hauke and Matthew play a duet

Visiting Hauke's church

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Dickens makes me laugh

It’s not just the wonderfully preposterous names in Dickens that make me laugh out loud, but they do help.  So, even when his stories are set in abject poverty or describe total degradation we want to continue reading because these intensely human characters have names like Mr Pumblechook, Herbert Pocket or Mr Jaggers – all from Great Expectations which is my current bedtime read!

Humour is one of the ways we cope with all that life throws up.

Last week I listened to some of the interviews Rachel Bland, the Radio 5 Live newsreader, gave in the year leading up to her death from breast cancer.  She cried only once in those interviews but laughed countless times.  It was humbling and inspirational to hear this young woman talk of her journey through this terminal illness and it was clear that, for her, one of the things that remained precious right up to the end was her sense of humour.

Whilst on holiday in East Africa last month our jeep broke down on the edge of the Serengeti wilderness.  I discovered I had two internal responses.  On the one hand I was busy in my mind writing a letter to the tour company pointing out the consequences of driving us around lion infested landscapes in an old jeep!  On the other, I was smiling and laughing with my fellow passengers as our wheel problem was fixed by a branch being cut down from the scrub by a machete, sawn in two and placed either side of the dislodged wheel to keep us on the road for a further two hours and back in time for lunch!

Sometimes, when there’s nothing more you can do, the only thing is to laugh.

Humour can so often bring things down to size, put them in perspective and stop us from thinking Armageddon is just around the corner – and perhaps, most importantly, it stops us taking ourselves too seriously.

Jesus, especially in his use of parables, often used the sort of cultural humour which may be lost on us today.  I suspect the fact that his message contained a ‘chuckle factor’ meant it was readily received and remembered because an amusing story is a great way to illustrate a deeper truth.  As Mr Dickens knew only too well!

Thursday, 6 September 2018

First Impressions

Walking into Usa village with Frank, our guide
We are just back from a fortnight in East Africa.  For the last two weeks of August we visited Tanzania; a country whose name is an amalgamation of Tanganyika and Zanzibar.

Such has been the assault on my senses over these last fourteen days that I’m still trying to process the jumble of images and experiences that we brought home with us as we flew back at the weekend.

Our second week in Tanzania was spent ‘on safari’. Our group occupied two four by four jeeps as we travelled between, and through, four National Parks.  On one level it’s relatively ‘easy’ to process these wonderful memories: the early morning game drives, breaking down on the edge of The Serengeti, waiting for a herd of elephants to cross the road and looking down from the window catching sight of a beautiful jackal looking after two cubs.  These memories are deeply appreciated, can easily be processed and in some senses were expected.

However, that isn’t the case with our first week.  For the initial six days we were by ourselves, booked into a lovely game lodge at the foot of Mount Meru, we were left to our own devices.  We visited a school, were taken round a Fairtrade Coffee Plantation, toured the local township called Usa (not to be confused with the country of the same name!) and visited the local town of Arusha.

What follows can only be described as my first impressions.  None of it really made total sense and I’m sure anyone would need to spend more time than our allotted two weeks to put the real jigsaw together.

In the village, and to a certain degree this was also true in the town, people live in single storey, breeze block units with a corrugated roof.  The front door was usually no more than a hanging piece of cloth.  These homes lead directly on to dirt roads and were surrounded by mud coloured vegetation. 

Wherever we went in Tanzania we were aware of a certain level of bureaucracy which surprised us.  Pristine uniformed police officers could be seen daily at the same point on the road that goes from Kilimanjaro to Arusha.  Apparently, even if you are not over the speed limit it’s just ‘normal’ to be stopped, fill in the paperwork and be faced with a fine.

Buying a drink also had its own well-worn procedure.  For our usual dinner order of a bottle of water and a glass of white wine I regularly had to sign twice and came away with no less than five pieces of paper as a receipt.  (I’m so looking forward to going into M&S and declining my receipt this weekend!)

Yet maybe, despite the poverty and bureaucracy, the deepest impression I came away with is the generous welcome and unfailing hospitality we received from the Tanzanians.

Alongside this we encountered an irrepressible sense of community.  People were obviously looking after each other and this always seemed a noisy affair, especially at the roadside markets!

Some people in Tanzania spoke to us of the hope they have for the country’s future.  Much of the land has rich, volcanic soil so could, in theory, become one of the bread baskets of Africa.  This, alongside mining for gold and tanzanite as well as tourism means there is potentially financial viability.  Even more so because Tanzania is at peace with itself and its neighbours and currently has a president who is fighting against internal corruption and seems on course to gain a second term.

And yet…perhaps the memory that will linger the longest with me is that tour of Usa village we made on our first afternoon: the dirt roads, the breeze block shacks, the crumbling shops alongside the smiling faces and crazy driving of the hundreds of scooters, each sounding their horns.

Somehow all the Christian Aid videos and BMS presentations I’ve watched over these last five decades haven’t prepared me for what it actually feels like to be in the so called ‘Third World’. 

‘Feeling it’ is so very different from ‘reading about it’.

So, as I finish this piece, my train is pulling into Marylebone and I’m eating one of the biscuits I bought at Kilimanjaro airport on Friday night.  My mind is buzzing with so many yet unprocessed memories.  I can but simplify it down, lift up my eyes to heaven and pray just three heartfelt words: ‘God Bless Africa’.

Friday, 27 July 2018

Farewell Hauke

This weekend we say 'Farewell' to Hauke, our Time for God volunteer who has been with us at AFC since September last year.

We have all so enjoyed working with him over these months.  His warm personality, cheerful smile and willingness to help out has been a blessing to us all.  I think we all feel as if he is now a much loved member of our church family, so it's with a certain sadness   
that we'll say goodbye next week. 

There will always be a very warm welcome for him at AFC.

We wish him well as he returns home to his family and then on to university in October.

God bless you Hauke - for you have truly been a great blessing to     us.

So here are a few pictures.

Enjoy the summer - the Blog returns in September!


October 2017 Taking part in residential home service

November 2017 Christmas Shoe Boxes

November 2018 Art in Advent afternoon

November 2017 Serving at The at Three

December 2017 Snow Sunday!

December 2018 Cooking Shepherds Pie at The Manse!

December 2018 Carol Concert at The Royal Albert Hall

December 2017 Visiting London School of Theology

December 2017 Nativity Service

January 2018 Monthly Schedule Sheet

February 2018 Worshipping at All Souls, Langham Place

March 2018 Visit of Sisters!

March 2018 Reading the Lesson at The Free Church Service at St Alban's Cathedral

March 2018 Always helpful with anything 'technological'!

April 2018 Evensong at St Martin in The Fields

April 2018 Good Friday in Amersham

April 2018 Easter Day Evening Service at Westminster Abbey

May 2018 An Evening in London

May 2018 Taking part in Circle The City for Christian Aid

June 2018 Speaking at LunchBreak

June 2018 Part of The Manse Life and Faith Group

June 2018 Taking part in Morning Service

June 2018 With 'Mum and Dad'

July 2018 Anglo German Evening 

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 started 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!

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 ...