Thursday, 7 July 2022

'Companions'

 

Yesterday we hosted an AGM and lunch at church for The Baptist Union Retreat Group.  The meal we provided for our guests was a corporate effort and I contributed by providing a few home-made lasagnes.  I’m not sure what came over me when I made that rather rash offer, but once made I had to come up with the goods!


As I sat through the morning AGM increasing self-doubt wafted over me as I could smell the lasagne cooking in the church kitchen.  What if it was a disaster?  What if I, single handedly, managed the bring down the whole Baptist Union Retreat Group with food poisoning!

So, my relief was almost palpable when I saw the guests not only tuck into the lasagne at lunchtime but also seemingly survive the afternoon.

Cooking for others might be something of a great responsibility but it can also be a great joy.

One of our relatives, when hosting friends for a meal, apologised to the guests that the pudding on that occasion wasn’t up to his wife’s usual standard.  He wondered why she kicked him under the table as he said this.  After they left she told him of her embarrassment at what he’d said because it was, in fact, the guests who had brought the pudding that night!  I wonder if they ever came back!

Judith Jones, the American editor best known for ‘discovering’ the Diaries of Anne Frank and promoting the food writer Julia Childs, spoke of cooking using ‘religious' language when she wrote:
Cooking demands attention, patience, and above all, a respect for the gifts of the earth. It is a form of worship, a way of giving thanks.

So, I suspect that yesterday I was rather like Martha (rather than Mary) in the Bible story.  As we were discussing the agenda my mind was actually in the kitchen with my lasagnes!

It seems both natural and good that sharing meals plays a part in our corporate life.  Our Jewish friends probably lead the way with many of their rituals actually based around the family table rather than the one in the synagogue.

Even the modern discipleship programme ALPHA made sharing a meal together an integral part of its ethos.

I’ve enjoyed countless times around the table with friends at church.  None more so than an exchange visit to Australia and preaching in a rather remote village chapel on the banks of the Murray River outside Adelaide.  After the service we went over to the church hall for lunch at which just about every lady in the congregation produced a home-made shepherds pie.  I’ve never seen such an array of the same dish, yet each one just a little different from the rest.

The very word companion means to share bread with another.  At AFC we might do that at LunchBreak, Tea at Three, Lunch Club, Men’s Breakfast or our occasional Church Lunches. I think even sharing a biscuit at After Service Coffee also counts! 

Perhaps we might even twist a well known proverb and say that  A church that eats together stays together.

Of course, the most important ‘meal’ Christians ever share is Communion.  Breaking bread and drinking wine in  remembrance is the meal that nourishes our souls and draws us to God.



Thursday, 30 June 2022

Three Score Years and Ten

 

Over recent weeks a couple of the Care Homes, in which we used to hold regular services, have got in contact with us asking us to return.  This will be a great joy as, during the Pandemic, these homes have been ‘off limits’ resulting in an increased sense of isolation for their residents.


Such services are an important part of AFC’s life as it’s our opportunity to share half an hour of worship and fellowship with folks who can no longer attend a service in their own church.

Over the last couple of years I’ve taken a number of funerals of some of the residents who used to attend such services, their families having contacted me because ‘Mum used to love the times when AFC visited and she could sing her hymns again’.  All very moving.

I was struck by the recent findings, published this week, from last year’s Census.  Apparently, there are now close to 59 million of us living in the UK with 11 million being over 65 years of age, and that’s an increase of about 4% on ten years ago, whilst the number of young adults under 35 has fallen by 5%.  I suppose, in colloquial terms, that means society is ‘getting older’.

I remember the first time someone asked if they could give up their seat for me on the Tube!  It happens quite regularly now, but it happened first in 2012 as we piled into a carriage on our way back from attending the Olympic Games in East London.  To be truthful I was rather taken aback and declined, these days I always accept!

In Psalm 90 we are told a life span equates to the legendary Three Score Years and Ten.  Yet the truth is that if you are a mere 70 years old in a church today you’ll almost certainly be considered one of our ‘younger ones’!

One of my favourite bible stories is the one about Simeon and Anna, two aged saints who advanced in years with faith burning bright in their hearts.

Of course the Bible comes from a time when society had fewer ‘categories’.  The term ‘teenager’ hadn’t yet been invented so I suspect you were simply thought of as either young or old, with your ‘senior years’ almost certainly starting around your early fifties. 

We might also make the observation that Jesus only ‘experienced’ being a child and then young adulthood.  Dying at 33 meant he barely reached middle age.

Job says that wisdom and understanding belong to the old, whereas Joel, in a passage also quoted on the Day of Pentecost, declared that old men will dream dreams whilst young men will have their visions.

We need both, every community needs both, the dreamers and the vision see-ers, the young and the old.

A  modern hymn by David Mowbray, one time vicar in Watford just down the road, charts our lives with the first lines of each verse reading:
Lord of our growing years…
Lord of our strongest years…
… our middle years…
… our older years… and then
Lord of our closing years…

In some ways it’s a brave hymn because of its honesty, yet every verse has this wonderful refrain:
Your grace surround us all our days -
for all your gifts we bring our praise.

Thursday, 23 June 2022

View from the Pew: St James', Piccadilly

 


On Sunday, as part of my ongoing Sabbatical, we attended Morning Service at St James', Piccadilly.

You can read about it in the View From the Pew blog here.

Friday, 17 June 2022

Love Letters

 

Waking up to the newspaper headlines today feels again like ‘Armageddon’ is just around the corner.  This was frequently the case at the height of the Covid Pandemic and is now being repeated with prospects of 11% inflation being described this morning as ‘Welcome to Hell’.


No one would want to deny that we continue to live in challenging times with such enormous hikes in fuel and energy costs; something most of us never saw coming.

So I was cheered yesterday to read of the discovery of a bundle of letters, found in a wardrobe in Reading, between an airman and his sweetheart in Blackpool during World War Two.  Their discoverer hasn’t found a marriage certificate but would dearly love to pass them on to Ronnie and Frankie’s family.

These letters, one containing a pressed flower, are a testament to the triumph of love even during the bleakest days of war.  As the world battled these two young people found each other, fell in love and dreamt of better days.  Their letters are full of hope, tenderness and compassion.

Such a story has been told a million times.  It’s also at the centre of Christianity.  For, on a terrible day filled with injustice and violence, on a hill outside the city walls of Jerusalem, our Lord showed forgiveness in the face of aggression and responded with love after encountering hate.  The cross shows us there is another way to live. 

The other evening at church, the AFC Pastoral Team reflected on that phrase from Irenaeus of Lyons that The glory of God is a human person fully alive.  It’s a wonderful thought that reflects the gospel truth that God longs us to embrace life in all its fullness.

We have recently lived through a very desperate crisis (one that has not fully receded yet) and it’s becoming clear that we have emerged into another.  However, I do not share the newspapers’ sense of doom.  The cross teaches us that we are called to face our challenges with courage and integrity, and that bundle of letters from Ronnie and Frankie remind us that even in the darkest hour, love can triumph.

Friday, 10 June 2022

The Dance of The Trinity

 

Trinity Sunday, falling this week, is one of those when preachers, unadvisedly, attempt to do the impossible and explain God as one in three and three in one.


Perhaps, because lots of our faith is in poetry rather than prose, a wiser move is to describe the idea of Trinity rather than quantify it.  After all any definition of God always comes up short.

Our Jewish friends have always pictured God as both a great deity and a personal companion.  This is the God who both made the universe and settles upon kings, priests and prophets to empower them.  Theologians have two big words for that understanding calling God both transcendent and imminent.

Us Christians add yet another layer to that mystery by including Jesus.  Put in that last piece of the jigsaw and we end up with Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Conscious that I’m now about to do the very thing I counselled against just a moment ago, here are three descriptions of God for this Trinity season.

I’m grateful for the Breath of Creation and the touch of God’s hand in our planet’s DNA.  Nature, in both its magnificence and delicacy is comforting and overwhelming at the same time.  After all, during Lockdown many of us fell in love with our gardens again!  Although the edges are blurry and the message is complex, nature seems to teach us about God.

And there is Living Truth.  I’m a big fan of the stories of Jesus; not only the ones he told but also the narrative he lived.  This is grounded truth and it is the genius of the Gospel that God came and lived among us in a way we could understand, appreciate and, in the best sense of the word, imitate.

So, last but never least, there is the Power of Love, that contemporary and everyday activity of love when life is infused by the divine Spirit, found in us all.

Wherever and whenever love touches our lives, God is near.

Describing God is as frustrating as a child thinking they could ever capture the ocean in a sand castle’s moat!  It keeps running away and escaping.

Yet it’s good that we don’t give up because in seeking to get to grips with The Trinity there is just the possibility that its mystery will both amaze and inspire us that little bit more.

And, perhaps, it wasn’t for nothing that in the Jewish Scriptures God chooses to announce himself with an economy of words in the tantalisingly ambiguous: I am who I am.

Happy Trinity!


Friday, 27 May 2022

The Elizabeth Line

 

It must be quite something to have a railway line named after you!  And whilst opening the Elizabeth Line last week I suspect the iconic photograph from the visit will be that of Her Majesty being shown how to ‘top up’ an Oyster Card!  You might have thought you could travel for free on your own line!


As this is my ‘Jubilee Blog’ (we’re on holiday next week) I just note how fitting it is to think of ‘journeys’ at this national time of rejoicing.  Since 1952 our Queen has, as it were, accompanied us on so many.  Our nation, and The Commonwealth, has been on a journey from the old to the new, from post-war to post-pandemic.  The Sovereign has not led these journeys, that’s been down to the Prime Ministers, but it feels as if she has travelled with us, alongside us and always there.

In any family or community having a constant travelling companion brings security and comfort.  I think I felt like that in April 2020 when the Queen made her now famous speech about ‘meeting again’ during the opening weeks of the pandemic.  Afterwards her image was beamed up on those huge boards overlooking a deserted Piccadilly Circus.

Our long serving monarch has been travelling with our nation on her own ‘Elizabeth Line’ now for over 70 years.  And this Jubilee we give thanks to God for her quiet inspiration and exemplary faithfulness, shown at every step of the journey.

Thursday, 19 May 2022

Rules are Rules?

 

Lovable Rogues are often popular and occupy central roles in books and films.


Denis Waterman’s death last week prompted the news outlets to recall his role in the TV series ‘Minder’, alongside that loveable cockney, cigar smoking rogue, Arthur Daley, played by George Cole.

One of the best film releases I’ve enjoyed this year has been ‘The Duke’, staring Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren. Broadbent plays Kempton Bunton, from Newcastle who in 1961 stole (or was it him?) a painting of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery as part of his one-man campaign to get free TV licences for pensioners.  All through the film I found myself routing for the supposed ‘criminal’!

Of course, the rule of law matters, and we are grateful for it.  But there are times when the mantra ‘Rules are Rules’ just doesn’t work.

Just before Prince George’s birth the word went out that parliament had changed the rules of succession.  For over a thousand years it had been the tradition that the eldest son succeeded the king.  Girls could only sit on the throne if there were no male candidates in front of them.  Yet that rule was torn up and has been replaced by one that says the King or Queen’s first born child, male or female, shall succeed.

I’m not sure Jesus comes under the description of a ‘loveable rogue’, but certainly many around him viewed him as a blatant law breaker.  One Saturday, walking through a field he crushed some wheat and offered it, snack like, to his disciples, only to be accused by on lookers as breaking the rules and working on a Holy Day.  His intriguing response was: The Sabbath was made for us, we were not made for the Sabbath’.

History teaches us that when rules are broken with the best of intentions often good outcomes, eventually, (and sometimes it takes years or decades for this) follow.

Just think of that day when Rosa Parks sat, quite deliberately, thoughtfully, and bravely, in a white person’s seat on the bus.  Her rule breaking, in the name of equality, rippled out from Montgomery, Alabama and kick started the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.

The Rule of Law is about society seeking to respect all, rich, and poor, women and men and people of all faith traditions and none. If it unfairly favours one against another, then we need to recall the image of Jesus in the wheatfield, rather than just repeat the mantra: rules are rules.

'Companions'

  Yesterday we hosted an AGM and lunch at church for The Baptist Union Retreat Group.   The meal we provided for our guests was a corporate ...