Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Things to rejoice about

In my last blog post I suggested that Paul’s command to the Thessalonians – and to the Philippians, and basically part of his expectations of any church – rejoice always, was an essential approach to Christina living today as much as it was in the first century. So I’m asking the people in the benefice I have the privilege of leading to take a rejoicing attitude. I want us to resist the regular temptation to see the worst in things and to look for what is good. God is doing marvellous things amongst us, and so often we miss them. I’m just as likely to do that as anyone. When I feel stressed or tired, or got at, I can describe things as though they aren’t great at all. And when I do that, I’m wearing grey tinted specs and putting everyone else off while I’m at it. Not good. So I repent of that attitude and hope to do better in future, remembering the example of a great priest who lives very close to me and counts his blessings every day. So what have I got to rejoice about?

I’m not going to put personal things into tis blog, though I have a huge amount to rejoice in personally. Instead I want to celebrate the third anniversary of my licensing as priest in charge of what is now the Living Brook benefice by looking back at what God has done in this little place in this short time. Yes, alright hair-splitters, we’re still waiting for the final union document, but we’ve been living out this reality for some time now. And perhaps that is a starting point for the rejoicing. When I was licensed it was to four parishes, one of which had been part of a different benefice. One church was closed and that became official very rapidly, leading to the merger of two parishes to become one larger and much more lively parish than the two had been separately before. I came to parishes in a wilderness place, desperately needing change, affirmation and love. There was a small choir, PCC’s that needed direction, churchwardens who had laboured, in some cases for many years, and were tired and yet still working doggedly to turn things round.

As I went into retreat in November 2012, I remember well God’s command to me which was a variant on the theme of this blog. He told me to celebrate, to tell the wonderful people here what was obvious to me but not to them – that they are truly special, brilliant people, loved and worth loving. The theme verse for 2013 was to be John 10.10b:

I have come that they may have life, life in all its fullness.

And as the year went on celebrating wasn’t difficult because there is much to rejoice in. The people of this benefice are great and as they worked together they started to see change. The consecration of the Magdalene chapel in Piddington church was a symbol of a new family of God’s people coming together in his love.

In November 2013 the command as I prayed on retreat was about vision. Where 2013 had been a year of celebrating and rejoicing in that abundant life God gives us, 2014 was to be about vision – a vision that would help us to share our joy with others. The theme verse for the year was another set of Jesus’ words from John’s gospel, from John 7:38:

Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.

I came back to the licensing of our Lay Reader, and during 2014 saw a vision day bring people together with loads of fantastic ideas and a new energy for acting on them. I started calling people into leadership in new ways and challenged some people to take up new areas of service in the church – sacrificially in some cases.

In November 2014 the theme and direction for the coming year emerged out of the clergy conference. It was clear to me that in 2015 I had to draw together a new core leadership team as well as encouraging the benefices leaders in the wider, task oriented grouping that had come together the year before. That meant a change to a new way of leading for me. As 2015, a year focussed on building teams, began, the theme verse that has underpinned it all was drawn from Matthew 16: 18, again Jesus words, summarised on our benefice posters as:

Jesus says ‘I will build my church’.

Now, on retreat in November 2015, and preparing to introduce some words of Paul rather than Jesus as our theme verse in the coming year, I can look back and see just was Jesus has done in these three years as he has built his church. Because now I’m able to look and see around me a Living Brook Ministry team with not just me and my lay reader, but also three lay ministers who have studied for diocesan certificates, and also a stipendiary curate of very high calibre. And close around that team I see more teams and groups of people doing amazing things for God. There is a pastoral care team doing such loving work; a children’s and families team transforming our approach to the much larger number of service and events for children; a schools team going into our two primary schools and doing assemblies, lessons and big events in churches too; the choir is growing all the time, and attracting children; the bellringers may not be doing so well on the surface – but that’s because people can’t yet see the novice learners in action. Then there is the youth fellowship, a place where inspiriting leaders are emerging and making a difference to the life of the church, as well as transforming our fifth Sunday services. There is the new elevenses services at St Edmunds, and the growing sense that our open churches are a place not just for prayer but for really gathering community in harmony. There is the knit and natter group, the new handbell ringing group, the stunning regular transformation of St Edmunds by the Toddler Praise children and by the local school. There are church members making an impact as school governors and one of the loveliest church schools out there, and alongside that the beautiful relationship with the academy school in Hardingstone, and another very hardworking school governor who still somehow finds time to make an impact on the church. There are churchwardens, two of them now very new to the job, who deal with lead taken from roofs and the subsequent leaks and still come up smiling, and still understand that our priority is not a building, but the gospel.

In all of those things, and so, so many more, Jesus is building his church and through his people that living water is flowing. Congregations have people in them who wouldn’t have thought of going to church three years ago.  All of the time I am seeing fantastic things to rejoice about, and hearing great things from the amazing team that lead this benefice.

So, now in 2016, after this whirlwind of transforming activity that has brought this benefice from an arid place into the place where the living water flows, things will slow down a bit. I want to take time for all of us to drink the water, enjoy the green pasture, and deepen our roots in the church that Jesus is building us into. The new leaders and the established ones need time to get used to their roles and every one of us needs time to rest in God. There will be new things this year, and changes to existing things, but much less of it. The big focus of the year will be on prayer, on reminding ourselves that unless we are individually and together people of prayer we can’t do anything. So 2016 will include a wide selection of prayer opportunities of all sorts and styles. Over the last three years a fast pace was necessary, to move from the desert to the waterside, but now that we have arrived, we can enjoy it. As we do, we will focus on Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, and putting them into action. I hope that we can start by looking at the wonderful things God has done so far – marvelling at what he might yet do – and rejoicing.

Rejoice always,

pray without ceasing

give thanks to God at every moment.

This is the will of God, your vocation as Christians.

Rejoice always

Each year I choose a theme verse for Living Brook Benefice, and these verses emerge from my own prayer and time with God, and now from the sharing in prayer and listening that the Living Brook Ministry Team does with me. In 2016, the theme verse is 1 Thessalonians 5. 16-18, and posters around the benefice will show the translation from the Christian Community Bible:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing and give thanks to God at every moment. This is the will of God, your vocation as Christians.

Some may suggest that Paul’s command to rejoice always is not in keeping with the times. The news is full of fear, sorrow, tragedy, political vitriol, so what is there to rejoice about? It isn’t true that somehow the 21st century is less safe, more scary, more violent or more difficult than any of the history of the world before now. Ok, so terrorists have weapons that can do more damage in a short time, but so do the defence forces that stop the terrorists. There has always been warfare and brutality. In Paul’s day Roman soldiers or rebel zealots could come sweeping through a village using their swords indiscriminately and raping and looting on the way. False imprisonment and unjustified executions happened frequently. Paul himself was a victim. So when he tells us to rejoice always, he isn’t speaking from some golden age when everything was lovely and rejoicing was easy. He was speaking from days not so different from our own, because there are humans now who are as some humans always were – desperate for power and control, on their own terms only, and willing to take it by force.

But the rest of the humans are also as humans always were, in Paul’s day as now. We are loving, and supportive and generous. Most humans want the best for each other as well as for ourselves. That’s why in Paris, or Beirut, or Mali, or wherever terrorists show their masked faces, there are far more humans trying to help, to defend, to comfort and to heal. That’s why we react in communal prayer or with collections, or at the very least telling each other how sad that event was. We are good people, made in God’s own image.

Paul asks us to rejoice always. To look for the good around us, not to focus always on what is bad. He asks us to name and number the things that we can be glad in. Our partners, our children, our friends. A beautifully performed concert, a moving piece of writing, the tastiest meal we’ve had in a long time. A splendid view, a glorious sunset, the warmth of the sun on our faces. An event that we’ve arranged that lots of people attended and enjoyed, that warm feeling when a community comes together to help with a project, the comfort of a conversation with someone who really understands you. I could go on, and so could you – there is a great deal to be glad about, and once we start looking, a great deal more to be glad about than there is to fear or regret. And when we start to see what is good, the bad stuff is put into perspective. It’s still bad alright – it’s bad because it goes against the human instinct to be ad do all these good things. But there’s a lot more good than bad in this world, because God made it and God modelled us. So if we remember to rejoice we will not only feel better about it, but almost certainly we’ll be better equipped to cope with the bad and perhaps to create an atmosphere that will stop at least some of it happening in the first place.

Sunday, 8 November 2015


James Macefield was a quarryman, and his sons followed him to the quarry, all leaving school at the earliest opportunity to join their Dad. Three of his sons left the quarry to join the army. Arthur served and returned, but didn't speak of what he saw. James also said little of his experience, limiting his sharing to a teasing of the children of the family, inviting them to bang a stick against his leg and enjoying their surprise when they discovered it was wooden. He never told them how he lost his own leg, though. 'I lost it in the war', was as much as he said. Frank, the youngest, was only eleven when war broke out. He didn't serve then, and when another terrible war followed he was in a reserved occupation, and added to his support for his community by becoming a firewatcher, staying up night after night to watch over his city. Frank had three children. The eldest two didn't get on too well, and lost touch. Their children, who had played as little ones, didn't have a choice in this family division, and resigned themselves to having lost contact with their more distant family members for good. They moved on, had children of their own, and got on with life - sad that there were family members who seemed not to want contact, but that's families for you.

James had one other son. Benjamin, the third son, also worked in the quarry and served in the same regiment as his eldest brother. James had ensured his sons could read and write, but they were a working class family, so not people to write letters or diaries. And that means that there is very little record of Benjamin's life. No one now knows what his favourite dinner was, or whether he enjoyed sport. No one knows whether he was kind, or a bully; whether he was quiet or the life and soul of the party; whether he was a friend to many or to few. What we do know is that Benjamin died in March 1917, at the age of 21.

21. So very young. He may have had a sweetheart to miss him, but he was too young to have left a wife or children, and perhaps that is a good thing. War hurts too many of the people who are left behind. At least there was no one dependent on Benjamin. His father, brothers and sisters will have missed him, and perhaps his friends did. The local community grandees who sponsored war memorials did not consider his death of note. Ben did not die 'gloriously' on a  battlefield, but in a hospital in England. So he was placed in an unmarked grave and no memorial to him was left anywhere.

Almost a century later, today's leaders see the lost of war in a different way. They recognise that people like Ben would have survived the war if they had not been called up. That their death is just as important and worth valuing as any death on the battlefield. Ben died in the service of his country just as much as anyone. And so the Commonwealth War Graves Commission set out to right an old wrong and commissioned historians to seek out the stories of those not remembered. A list was made and can still be added to, and a new large memorial opened this week at Brookwood Military Cemetery, to finally ensure that the forgotten deaths become remembered ones. Although all too little of Benjamin Macefield's story is known, a historian found what there is, and ensured that his name was added to the list.

And so one sunny morning this week, as the new memorial was dedicated and Macefield B's name admired amongst the 267 formerly forgotten, James Macefield's grandson and his great grandson were amongst those present. The grandson is uncle to the great grandson, but didn't recognise his nephew because those family separations had meant it was thirty years since the two had last met. The nephew did not recognise the uncle either, but when the connection was discovered he was delighted. After so many years, a family came back together. Contact details could be shared, stories told, lives re-connected.

Benjamin, and millions like him in the Great War, and in wars before and since, died not for the sake of war, but for the sake of peace. Men like Arthur and James served and lived in the hope of the same peace. It was to defend their loved ones and keep them safe. For those of us who remember them, our remembering is not just about who the people were. That matters, of course it matters, but if who the people were was all it is about then we would stop remembering when living memory ended. We remember too - remember the men like Ben of whom we know so little -  because they stand for something more. They are a prompt, a symbol for us, of the vital importance of working for peace.

Peace isn't easy. It requires listening and it needs effort. It involves sacrificial giving and a choice to put up with people even when they don't agree or do things the way you want them to. The uncle and nephew who restored a family relationship were brought together by their desire to remember, and perhaps in remembering to apply the sort of values that are worth fighting for. Forgiveness, for example, and love. Even better, they're worth not fighting for, but living out. As Benjamin's last legacy, that restored - re-membered - family is a great gift.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

No sermons here!

According to the church noticesheet, this is the place to look to see the text of my sermons. Sometimes that works, but mostly it doesn't. Mainly because I rarely type up sermons and generally prefer to work from notes on card or nothing at all. The sermons are properly prepared, I promise - just not written in full text form. This is partly because the sermons that my congregations best remember are the more relaxed, interactive ones, the ones that address multiple learning styles and include objects or opportunities for the children to take part. That sort of sermon doesn't transfer well to a blog! This Sunday's sermon will be just such a one. It's still a work in progress, but I already
know that its going to involve a bit of instant drama, a money bag and a large cross. Maybe, if I'm really disciplined, I'll get the key points onto the blog but there'll be no full text. Sorry!

Monday, 18 May 2015

That was the week

Monday morning, my time for looking ahead at the week to come, doing some planning, some preparation; a routine that will change soon when my new colleague arrives and Monday mornings will become a time to review the preceding week before planning. Looking back now at the week I've just had, God's work is astonishing. In a full week, here are some highlights:
Monday, a PCC meeting at which a growing church with an active PCC restructured its working style in order to work more efficiently, effectively, and most important, missionally.
Tuesday, the sustaining communion service moved to the nave and tested out bringing back a nave altar, long since out of use. It was good. So was a challenging and restorative session with a mentor whose sharp questions and insight I am really coming to value. Oh, and at the school governors meeting I gave notice of resigning as a school governor. Vacancy: chair of governors at a fantastic C of E primary - apply here.
Wednesday: a funeral with burial, and the sun shone, bringing warmth into a day that in other ways at other times and places (not to be described here) was cold. The warmth of a good friend who was there at just the moment I needed her brought the same quality of warmth. God's love flows through and touches the hurting places.
Thursday: Surviving chairing my first (and I hope last) school finance meeting and getting things done that were needed, I went on to a CMD day of outstanding quality with inspiring people- trainers and fellow learners. There is always more to learn, always scope to change. And then in the evening the deanery ascension service. Not nearly enough people came. Shame, because the telly watchers who stayed home missed an excellent sermon. It was pleasant to listen to a sermon instead of delivering it, especially a sermon of such quality.
Friday, in the midst of a busy day, lunch in a café I'd never been to before with a dear friend. I think we'll be back. And in the evening, a family meal with a much loved uncle and aunt. Talking too long and late, but with family who are dear friends too, you just can't keep track of time!
Saturday, a wedding long awaited between two very special people which brought joy to a whole community. 'Now thank we all our God' really was an appropriate choice as the last hymn.
Sunday, and the nave altar was back in use for a poignant early service saying farewell to a church member leaving the area after over fifty years. Goodness, we'll miss him. And then a lively main service with the new children's activity for small children appreciated and the presence of primary age children involved in helping with the interactive address, which made the service more accessible - a need we didn't have when I first arrived. Praise God! Then in the afternoon a baptism for a just-two year old whose happy babble as she imitated me at the front of the church was joyous. And finally the wonderfully creative youth fellowship doing brilliant theology yet again as they planned the main service for Trinity Sunday. It's going to be such a great service.
What a week of blessings. There was a lot of other stuff too, a great deal more, and it didn't all feel like a blessing by any means, but without question God was blessing, in the challenges, the stresses, the celebrations and the acheivements. May our God be blessed, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Still, I won't be ungrateful if this week is a bit quieter...

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Witnesses of the risen Lord

This Sunday is one of those when to really benefit from the readings they would be better read in a longer form. The reading from Acts begins with people responding to something that has just happened: to really understand the reading, start from 3:1, rather than 3:12. Likewise the gospel reading opens with the disciples discussing something that has just happened. For a fuller reading, instead of starting at Luke 24:36, begin at verse 13 and read the encounter on the way to Emmaus.

Easter is such a familiar story to us that we forget how shocking and frightening it was for the people who lived through it. First their Lord crucified, and then talk of seeing him alive! And yet, Jesus showed them, it should not have been a surprise at all, nor something to fear, because the Law and the Prophets had said what was to come. From Moses' encounter with God in the burning bush and the escape from slavery, to Isaiah's description of a suffering servant restored to life, Jesus was the absolute fulfilment of the Law - he was not something new, but the one long promised and expected. 

But those fearful disciples weren't thinking about the scriptures, they were thinking about the stories that people were telling them at the time. Jesus who was dead, had started appearing to people. A ghost then? The dead walking? This really did feel alarming. Which is why before Jesus opened their eyes to the scriptures, he ensured that they understood that he was definitely not a ghost. What ghost eats baked fish? No, Jesus was and is physically alive, able if he chooses to live in this world just as we do. But the resurrected body is not the same as the mortal one. Jesus, as he showed his disciples his solidity and life, also showed them a body which can pass between earth and heaven, a body glorified and able to be in the presence of God the Father. He showed us a body that for us is to come, when heaven and earth come together. 

Having explained to the disciples the connection between the scriptures and the events of the last few days, Jesus gave them a job to do, a job arising from those familiar scriptures: repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in Jesus' name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. And he told them that they were witnesses: in other words, they had a story to tell. They were to be the ones who started sharing the gospel. The reading from Acts shows us what this looked like in those earliest days. Peter explained the healing of the lame man using those terms of repentance and forgiveness of sin, telling his listeners to repent. Peter explained that faith in Jesus had brought strength to the lame man, and he called Jesus the Bringer of Life. Different translations use titles like Prince of Life or Author of Life - the point is that through Jesus comes a full, wonderful new kind of life which brings us, forgiven and full of grace, into the presence of the Father. This life is available to all who turn to Jesus in faith. Faith means believing and trusting in Jesus. Faith requires repentance of the sin that went before, but that is no difficulty for those who truly turn to Christ. Faith is more than a simple belief system, more than calling on the name of Jesus and expecting a magical thing to happen. Faith draws you into a relationship with Jesus, and in that is life.

Just as Peter followed the command and told people his experience of Jesus and how he had learned about the new life available to all people through repentance and faith in Jesus, so we are commanded to do the same. The job wasn't completed in one generation. For all people to know about Jesus' invitation to life, every generation of the faithful must continue with the task of being witnesses. Right now, that means that the baton is in our hands, and we must tell the world the great news. The church spends so much of its time in systems and routines. This week in my benefice, and I know in many others too, we have annual church meetings. There is a lot of value in these meetings. They are a chance to consider all that the Lord has done for us and in us, and to give thanks to God for his goodness. And they are a chance to remind ourselves, having remembered what God has done, of our shared calling to witness to our experience of the risen Lord, and to tell the world Jesus' message: repent and have faith in Jesus. 

It is very easy at this time of year to get bogged down in consideration of  buildings and committee numbers and rotas. I'm not suggesting that all that stuff should be chucked out, but I am suggesting that the daily business of running the institutional church only has relevance if the church is doing the job that Jesus called us to. If our buildings and committees and rotas genuinely help us in witnessing and sharing the gospel with the world, then by all means let's give them a little attention, but only as a means to facilitate the real purpose at the heart of the church. If our buildings fell down, our committees had the wrong numbers, our rotas had gaps or too many people or didn't exist at all, the gospel would still be all that matters. So as we consider the life of the church, let's put the emphasis where it matters - on growing our faith in Jesus, our risen and living Lord, and sharing that faith with others. Let's be people who share the message of life in all its fullness and show people what it means to live it.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

God's foolishness

God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength. At face value, this is obvious and easy. God is God, after all. But if we look deeper into Paul's statement, we see the challenge: our wisdom is useless to us, and living by our wisdom is reckless: God's foolishness - if there is any foolishness in God - is more use. We can not depend on our own wisdom or strength. Only that of God will do.

This is abundantly clear in the gospel reading. The leaders of the church - the equivalents of clergy, churchwardens and PCC's in our day- thought they had it sorted. To raise the great amounts of money required to maintain the vast and beautiful Temple they had money making schemes. They forbade Roman money in the temple as unclean, and required all visitors to change their Roman money for Temple shekels, charging an expensive exchange rate. The shekels were then needed to pay a temple tax - an admission fee, if you like - and to pay for the goods on sale in the temple courts. Birds and animals for the offerings were much more expensive here than in the market, but it was likely that the priests would not accept a market purchase as pure enough, so better to pay the extra than risk having to pay twice.

Now I'm not saying there was anything wrong in raising money to pay for the upkeep of the building. It is right to keep a place of worship in good condition, worthy of worship and glorifying God. But the problem lies in the transition between relying on God's wisdom and guidance for how to raise and manage the money, and thinking that we are wise enough to know for ourselves what is best. We begin to make choices based on human preference and very soon God's place of worship has become a human institution with human priorities. In the case of the Temple, these priorities had become selfish and exploitative. They were directed at raising money, not at enhancing worship. Raising money without focussing first and wholeheartedly on worshipping the Lord our God is folly. If worship is not our purpose then we are raising the money for ourselves and we've lost sight of what matters. This happened at the Temple and it hurt Jesus deeply. His own Fathers house was being managed by people who did not pay attention to his father! It was being managed by people who in their own human wisdom thought they were doing a great job. They were raising lots of money for God's temple in an effective way - it didn't occur to them that there could be anything wrong with that. But what Jesus saw was a group of people who were making their mark but not listening to God; a group of people committed to the care of the building but not paying proper attention to the Lord who dwelt there. Their priorities were all wrong. He was furious and showed them this, symbolically crashing their human money focussed priorities down to the ground. Did that look like a foolish act? Certainly, to the temple authorities. But God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.

Jesus compounded this foolishness in his declaration that this temple could be destroyed and he would rebuild it in three days. The authorities saw only the building that they were so very committed to. They couldn't imagine that building coming down. For them it was unthinkable, unimaginable. They saw the temple as their point of stability and safety. It was all about the temple for them, but the temple was strong. It couldn't possibly be destroyed. They imagined it existing forever - or at least, beyond their lifetimes and that of their children, which is what most people really meant by forever. They had no concept, none at all, of God's business being separate from the building. They had created this beautiful human built edifice to contain God, and they expected to find God there. It was all about the building and they, by their human efforts, would keep that building safe. To speak of destruction sounded like nonsense. 

Of course, we approach that story with the benefit of hindsight. We know that the temple was not made to last, that indeed it only had another forty years before it would be destroyed - and not rebuilt. We also know that Jesus meant his own body when he referred to destroying this temple. The dwelling place of God was no longer in a building but in a man. To the human hearer, Jesus' assertion about his bodily destruction sounds like the greatest folly of all.  Paul wrote: "For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." By any human logic, the cross does not make sense. It only makes sense seen through the explanation God offers through the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. In the cross Jesus showed us how to accept death, defeat and destruction, and in the resurrection he shows us what lies beyond that destruction for those who truly worship him. 

Our priority must be to worship God. However odd it sounds to those who are aware of the need to fix roofs damaged by lead thieves, or organs, or to ensure that works generated by quinquennial inspections can be paid for, these things are not our first priority, not even second or third. If we manage our money with such things as priorities then we are acting according to human wisdom. That is not good enough. We are as deserving of Jesus turning the tables on us as the temple authorities were. Rather, we must seek first God's Kingdom, and worship Him. It is not for us to focus on buildings as though they matter to God. Jesus told Peter that he, Jesus, would build his church. Not us. Jesus is the builder and we are the workforce taking his directions. If we don't work according to his priorities then the edifices we try to build and preserve according to our own wisdom will crumble and fall as thoroughly as the temple did in AD70. Jesus' design for his church is not about buildings or institutions, not about committees, meetings or minutes, not about processes set out in rule books or having reserves of money in case the tower falls down. His design is not one that human wisdom would ever come up with. It is about people, living in grace, trusting God to provide for them, being obedient to his command to love him first before all else. 

God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength. 

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Passing on the light

I've mentioned Walter Smith and his sister Lena before, including in my last blog. In my mind they were always old, but I see them through the lenses of a nine year old, the age I was when I first met them, an age at which everyone over 25 is old. Actually, they were probably in their early sixties when I first met them. I was the new girl in the church choir, and they were choirmaster and church organist. There was a new baby as well as two other small children in my family home, so to help my Mum out the Smiths would time their walk to church so as to meet me at the point where I had to cross a main road, and after choir they'd see me safely over the road again. At choir, Walter introduced all the silly jokes about hymns 'most highly flavoured gravy' was a favourite, and allow us to sing them and get the joke out of our system before the service. He'd stop us as we practiced hymns and ask use what the hymn was about, and make sure we knew what the meaning of the singing was, as well as what the notes were. His gentle approach meant that we not only became capable choristers but also became worshippers. He quietly shared his faith with us, through teaching us hymns, psalms and anthems, and supported and encouraged us as we grew up to become people who could take a lead and share faith in our turn. Lena gave practical support and calm friendship. When as a teenager I ran a childrens music club, Lena was there when I needed her to play the piano or the organ to accompany the children's songs.

Luke's account of the presentation of Christ in the Temple bring together two remarkable older people who for me have the same sort of qualities as the brother and sister who were so helpful to me as a child. Simeon and Anna had reflected on their experiences and all that they had learned of God in their lives, and through prayer and experience were open to hear new and marvellous things from God. Their steadfastness and encouragement, even to face the hard things that might be ahead, were hugely important to the young couple and their 8 day old child. Mary remembered what the two people said to them, and considered their words, perhaps finding strength from their certainly about the baby's future calling in the hard days that followed.

Anna particularly is a wonder to me. Luke tells us that she had been in the temple constantly since becoming a widow many years before. This suggests that she had stayed in the temple area praying throughout a period when it was rebuilt on a massive scale. King Herod the Great, desperate to assert his right to be King of Israel (a right he didn't really have) chose rebuilding the Temple in its grandest ever form as the way to prove that he really was a good Jew and was loyal to the country. The building project lasted years, and Anna would have been watching the new Temple rise and Jewish rituals renew themselves in this grand setting throughout that time. And yet, it wasn't to the wonderful new building that she looked to see a glimpse of God, but to a child. She and Simeon understood that the light that would bring hope to all people, Jews and all the other nations, would not come from the large and impressive lamps in the Temple, but from a person, the Messiah, the Son of God.

Anna and Simeon, in their years of experience and prayer also understood that God very often chose to reveal Himself in children. The greatest leaders of the Jewish people were identified when very young: Moses, saved from the death imposed by a jealous King by that kings own daughter, was set aside for leadership when only a baby. Samuel, the last and greatest of the judges of Israel and a great prophet of God, was dedicated like Jesus, to God's service as a baby, and began receiving the word of God at the age of seven. David was a little older, but still a child, when Samuel first anointed him as a future king. All of these children needed time to grow up and learn what their calling meant, but the call was clear as children and those children were to be listened to and taken seriously. Since that was how God called leaders before, Simeon and Anna had no trouble recognising that the greatest leader of them all, the messiah promised in huge scriptures, would be revealed to them as a baby. They were there for that wonderful moment when the child was dedicated to God's service, a calling he would grow to understand through childhood, and live out as an adult.

Each of those biblical children were guided by adults, sometimes - like Simeon and Anna- much older than themselves. Moses was returned to his birth family and always kept in touch with them, even when living in the King of Egypt's palace, (we know this because later in life when God asked
Moses to go and act on his call, Moses was in contact with his brother and sister, and able to get their help), and his mother and the other adults he would have known were important to him. Perhaps the adults in the King's palace were also influential, for example in showing him the qualities needed to lead a nation. Samuel, like Moses growing up away from his parents and only seeing them occasionally, was guided by the priest Eli, who enabled him to listen to God and become God's servant at a very young age. David was guided by Samuel, who became a guide to him as he grew up and learned what it would mean to be a king.

I think that pattern still holds good. God calls children into active service. They are not the church of the future, they are his chosen and called people right now. But if they are going to be able to live that calling out, they need to be guided, supported, prayed for and loved by the adults around them. So adults, we need to be able to make part of our service of God the job of looking for those children who God calls to be a part of his church, and to encourage, pray for and help them. Children, you need to know that you are called by God, and your call is real and important now. Listen to the adults who help you, and with their support get involved and do whatever God is calling you to do.

Adults, yours may be only a passing meeting with some children, as Simeon and Anna's was with Jesus. Use those moments and know that you may be as old as Anna - older - you could still be an important part of that persons story. Or you may see a child regularly, as their teacher or club leader or choirmaster - the influence that your prayer, word and example will have will help to shape and enable a servant of God.  So pass on the light that you have received from Christ and help the children to carry it forward.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Being Ananias.

Perhaps one of the most amazing miracles that God does is when He completely transforms a person's character. Never mind water into wine or healing leprosy- changing a person's fundamental beliefs and behaviour is a much greater challenge! We do tend to think that people can't change, but God really can do anything. This Sunday we remember the conversion of St Paul, an event which really shows what God can do! Saul, as he was at the beginning of the story, was legalistic and authoritarian. He studied hard under a very well respected rabbi, Gamaliel, and rose to a position of power in the faith. Saul used that power to hunt down and arrest and even have executed those he saw as opponents to the only true faith. Saul was acting from a position of deep and studied conviction, acting to defend the Lord his God from those who he saw as blasphemers. In some ways, there is a comparison to be made with those today who, out of real religious conviction, declare jihad against those who they believe to be blasphemers and bad influences to others against their faith. Saul would go to any length to purify Judaism and remove contagion. The revelation that he had got it wrong, and that his activities did not just persecute Jesus followers, but Jesus Himself, was an enormous shock to Saul.

In some ways, the more challenging person for us as we consider this story of Saul's transformation is Ananias. After all, conversions like the one that happened to Paul are rare, and those of us listening to the story in church pews are not likely to be candidates for this kind of conversion, because at the least we are already open to Jesus's message, and at best we are people who know and accept the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all aspects of our lives. But while Paul's example may not be one that most of us will follow, Ananias is an example that God is much more likely to ask us to follow. Ananias was not a great or famous leader (as far as we know), and what he did for Paul was quite simple, in a way. Paul was not eating or drinking, but was existing in a state of shocked reflection. Ananias did what Jesus asked him to do: he prayed for Paul, baptised him and made sure that he had something to eat and drink. Then he made sure Paul recovered his strength and introduced him to the rest of the fellowship. Like Ananias, we might be asked to help or support someone who has decided to change their lives and follow Jesus. Occasionally, supporting that person might feel as crazy and foolish as supporting Saul seemed for Ananias: a person whose life has been lived in such a way that spending time with them would seem risky to anyone other than a fellow disciple of Jesus.

More normally for us our Ananias role is to support people who have turned to Jesus in a much less dramatic way. Perhaps they have been gradually considering the faith all their lives, and are now realising that Jesus should play a more important part of their loves. Or they have had a moment of encounter. Not the blinding light of the road to Damascus, but significant to them: a request to become a godparent, perhaps, or the sense of hope and need of comfort found when dealing with a family funeral, or a need to make sense of life at a moment of midlife crisis. Whatever started the journey, each of us can only take the steps forward towards baptism and learning how to follow Jesus if we have an Ananias alongside us. Saul's new friend made sure he ate, and brought him into the company of the local church. All of us can care for another person in this way, looking out for their well being, inviting them to services and socials and coming with them to make it easier. Yes, Ananias also baptised Paul, and we don't do things quite that way these days, but you might well support someone who is preparing to baptism by prayer or even going to the Pilgrim course with them, or by introducing them to me!

I believe that most of us, if we think about it, would be able to name a collection of Ananias figures who have helped us in our own faith journeys. Even those of you who, like me, have attended church all of our lives, will have people who influenced and cared for us. In my case, my Ananias's include Walter Smith, the choirmaster in the church where I grew up, who saw me safely to church and told me stories about what the hymns meant, and teased me with a funny nickname; then there was Jean Liddicoat, who prayed for me as a teenager, listened to my youthful angst while she did her ironing, and gave me the confidence to go to the youth fellowship meetings; and Fen Strange who when I was learning about leadership in student days helped me to understand and support a student older than me with mental health problems. The list could go on. Like Ananias, these people came into my life for a while, and then were gone as I moved on in my discipleship.

So who were your Ananias people? As we pray today, perhaps you might give thanks for them. And here's today's challenge: who is God sending you to, to be an Ananias? Who needs you to pray for them, to encourage them, to believe in them even if no one else will, to help them have the courage to be disciples in a world where following Jesus goes against the grain? God might send you to help someone you don't know, maybe even - as Ananias to Saul - someone you fear or dislike. But a bit of practical support, prayer and some kind words will help that person become a follower of Jesus. And no one is too old or too young for this ministry! We can all offer prayer and encouragement. Let's pray that Jesus will show us who he wants us to support today. It might just be the next apostle Paul!

Saturday, 10 January 2015

The news headlines

When God created the universe, breathing life into it all by his Holy Spirit, there was no preference for one nation over another. He made all with the same care, the same love. When he called Abram out of Ur to settle in Canaan and become father of a chosen people, that was not a rejection of the rest of the planet's inhabitants, but a message for them. God revealed himself through Israel with the intention that all nations would learn of him through Israel, and respond to him. This intention came to fruition in the person of Jesus. John the Baptist pointed everyone he met towards Jesus, the Son of God, present at the creation of the universe and bringer of God's saving love to every people. So the Jews baptised in the Jordan by John were part of Gods family, but the Greeks baptised in Ephesus by Paul were just as equally valued by Jesus and included in God's love.

This last week - Wednesday especially- seems to have been particularly violent and difficult, a week in which people with their own agendas have attacked innocent and undefended people. I have found myself concerned with the way that these events have been reported. The Jews of first century Israel would have been largely unconcerned with goings on in Greece, and would not have been willing to consider 12 people from Ephesus as worth their attention, and would not have wanted to include them in their care. St Paul was going very much against the prevailing mood - even amongst followers of Jesus- in working with Greeks. A first century Jewish news service would not have given much space to news from Ephesus, unless it somehow affected or attacked them.

Our news services seem to behave in much the same way. Now, I don't want to give the wrong impression. The events in France this week, the attack at Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent attacks and deaths, are sad, unnecessary, evil. To remember those who have been hurt, to stand by them in prayer and support, is important. But the priorities in reporting, especially on radio and tv, have been biased by our tendency to prioritise the local and the celebrity. We've been told the names of cartoonists who died in headlines, but I wonder how many of you would recognise the name of Frederic Boisseau? I had to search for his name, so I don't blame you if you don't recognise it. Frederic was 42, married with two children. You didn't hear about him in the headlines because he was the caretaker. I am grateful that at least one journalist considered him important enough to find out about. I believe that God values Frederic's life just as much (no more, no less) as the famous satirists and cartoonists who died, and his innocence in death is in some ways even harder to bear, because he did nothing to provoke a gunman to take his life.

While all this was dominating our locally focussed, Eurocentric news, and our Twitter feeds were filling with comments and 'je suis Charlie' statements (I understand that even the Arc de Triomphe is carrying that phrase in lights now), Islamic terrorists were killing others elsewhere in the world. If you rely on tv or radio you won't have heard much, if anything, of the other events, and that is sad. Because every life matters, and the betrayal of God and community by terrorists working in the name of Islam is just as bad whether it happens on our doorstep or somewhere far away.

On Wednesday 37 people were killed and 66 injured in a bomb attack using a minibus parked near a queue of people waiting to enrol at a Police Academy at Sunaa in Yemen. Did this news pass so many people by because it happened further away? Because the victims were mostly Muslim, so not like us? In offices in London editors were deciding that Charlie Hebdo's victims were of greater significance than Sunaa's, but I don't think God will have seen them as less important. The church issued prayers for France. Did it not write prayers for Yemen because violence happens more often there? The grief at loss of mother, brother, daughter, uncle is no less wherever you are. These two events happened on the same day. If you look at the Church of England website you will find prayers for Paris - and quite right too. But nothing for Yemen.

And also on Wednesday another group who claim to operate in the name of Islam, Boko Haram, went on a killing spree in Nigeria. The town of Baga, population 10000, has been razed to the ground, along with a number of nearby villages. At least 2000 people were killed, bodies strewn on the ground like litter. Thousands more, going wherever they could to save themselves, were stranded on nearby islands without any kind of supplies. Help cannot be got to them because of the forces of Boko Haram preventing others getting into the area. Many, many more might die before the crisis is over, and many many people are not accounted for. About 10000 people are believed to have got into neighbouring Chad, facing lives as refugees, having lost everything bar their lives. Perhaps you heard or read something of this, but it happened on the same day as the attack on Charlie Hebdo, and anyway, we are used to hearing news of Boko Haram's outrages : they aren't a novelty, so somehow they don't grab the attention. So perhaps you didn't hear. The prayer writers for the Church of England's website certainly seem to have missed it. The website headlines only offer prayer for Paris. Nothing for Nigeria, despite the severity of its situation. And yet, I believe that Jesus values every one of those 2000 people just as much (no more, no less) as the 17 killed in Paris.

I encourage all of you to read and pray more widely than the radio and TV headlines might direct. Look for the wider news of the places that might matter less to ordinary British people and to editors in their news offices trying to guess what British people will be interested in. Jesus cares about every single life and death, no matter what the nationality or religion or political stance of the person. He cares as much about the plight of the victims in Nigeria and the refugees of Boko Haram as he does about the people of Paris. He cares as much about the victims of the Yemen, and the people I have not mentioned because the length of this sermon would be just too long - those freezing in unusually cold weather in the Middle East, for example, where tens of thousands of people living under canvas having been driven room their homes in Syria, having already lost loved ones to terrorist violence, are now having to deal with freezing rain and low temperatures in situations where they don't necessarily have coats, jumpers or proper footwear. That hasn't made the top headlines this week either, and it would take a very slow news week for it to get there.

Read as widely as you can. Pray widely - you don't need the Church of England to write a prayer for you. I have every confidence that our leaders in the church are praying for all these places, and I hope that you will too. If you are not sure how to pray, keep it simple. Name the places and ask God to have mercy or to give his help - like a personal verse and response - I'll lead you in the sort of thing in a moment. If you are able to write letters of support or take other action, do that too. Charities like World Vision or the Foundation for Relief in the Middle East are working to get warm blankets, food and clothing to the Syrian refugees, and help to those in Chad. As followers of the Son of God, we are called to take an interest in the whole world, not just our bit of it; in all people, not just the celebrities. There are journalists out there reporting the news that we need to hear about, but we may have to dig deeper to find it, and to open our hearts purposefully in order to see the whole world, made and loved by God, and not just the bit of it that we most enjoy.

Prayer response: Lord, please help them and comfort them.

All those hurt or grieving by the attacks in France this week
All those hurt or grieving by the attack in Sunaa this week
All those hurt or grieving by the attacks in and around Baga this week
Those made refugee by the attacks in Baga this week
Those refugees suffering in the cold in the Middle East
Those suffering who we don't know because their news has not reached us, but are known to you, Jesus.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Twelfth Night

Sermon for Sunday 28th December 2014 Christmas 1
Revd Alan Horner was a Methodist minister who inspired many people during his time as a circuit minister, superintendent and district chair (including chairing the Methodist church in Scotland). I was privileged to know him in his retirement when he lived in Milton Keynes and was involved with the Living Spirituality Network. Over the Christmas period I have chosen some poems written by Alan to share with you as we consider together the wonder of Christ’s coming among us. Today, I would like to share with you a poem called

Twelfth night

Now is the ebbing, now:
the cards collapse;
the bald tree lies shorn of baubles;
the lights laid low in their unbright box;
candles are cold; figures
no longer in focus return to rest.
Only the gifts remain.

The angels are 'gone away';
the shepherds 'returned';
the Magi 'departed another way';
and Joseph with Mary fled.
She must not mind, but mind
her son, pondering these things.
Only this gift remains.

Alan Horner

Only one gift matters. Not the gold, frankincense or myrrh. Only the child in which the presence of God is with us. Jesus, the man who showed us what God's love looks like by his words and actions, his dying and his rising; He is the only gift who lasts beyond time and is given to all of humanity. He came not only for Mary, for Bethlehem shepherds, for Eastern Magi, but for us, right here and right now.

Mary pondered these things, and we continue to do so. Pondering isn't enough though. Mary followed her son, supported him, prayed and joined the church that continued his task of showing God's love to the world. We succeed to her task. But what does that mean for us?

At this time of year one of the most popular Christmas carols is 'In the bleak midwinter'. I confess, I'm not a fan myself - the historian in me objects to the transplanting of the nativity into a British setting, the insistence on treating historical inaccuracies as truth. But I will forgive all of this for the sentiment of the last couple of lines. What can I give him? Give my heart. The gift of Jesus remains, and that gift demands nothing but wants the best that we can offer in return. God loves us and wants us to love Him. God wants our hearts.

As we live out our love for Jesus, we can do that by seeking to follow Him, and there are many ways that we can do this and encourage others to do so too. You do it by prioritising worship and prayer - just as you are now by being here today - and encouraging others to do the same. You do it by serving others. I am very aware of the love that is shown amongst members of the church communities here in Living Brook, and I'm glad of it. I was talking to Iris just after Christmas, and she told me how very thankful she is to all the people who show her kindness by helping with practical things and by checking to make sure that she is ok. I am thankful to, to everyone who shows such kindness to Iris and all of our community. Keep on doing all that you are doing. Some of you may feel able to develop this caring approach, and be supported as you do so, by joining the Pastoral Support Group.

Following Jesus, and living a life that gives him our hearts, is not always an easy matter. Today we are going to join in a tradition established by our Methodist sisters and brothers, and included in Church of England liturgies as part of Common Worship. It is called the Renewal of the Covenant, and gives us an opportunity to reiterate that giving of the heart, setting out what it means for us to offer that gift in response to the great gift that Jesus has given to us.