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.

Living in the story

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