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.