A Minister's Blog
March 25 2020
The feast of the Annunciation; the power and possibility of "yes"
It's time to start getting ready for Christmas....
Well, maybe not, but today is the day when the Church at large commemorates the story of the angel telling Mary that there would be a child.
Now, there are all sorts of things to say about this story - most of which I am not going to touch on here.
All I want to do is notice one aspect of the story and two reflections on it...
Mary said yes.
It is the heart of the story really - whatever it is that happens, however this conception takes place, the point of this part of the story is that Mary says yes.
There is a long tradition of being grateful to Mary for saying yes, and that's a tradition I want to affirm. And today I want to expand it - and to express gratitude to all sorts of people for saying yes. In particular, for saying yes to things that look ridiculous, impossible, even shameful (as Mary's yes was) - and yet which change the world. And today, as we deal with what everybody tells me is unprecedented (I'm not convinced - but unprecedented in our time I'll allow!) to say thank you to those who say yes to serving, helping, taking risks, being there, going on being there...thanks seems too small, but without thanks nothing else gets said - things about proper equipment and proper pay, and on-going recongition, and no more of the nonsense about "unskilled labour"... So - a huge thank you to those who say yes.
And Mary said yes without knowing the consequences. The ultimate fulfilment of the promise is laid out; "he will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end". But there's not a lot in the way of details, and the path to this goal is unclear, its demands and delights yet invisble. And Mary still says yes.
We are on journeys now that we do not know the end of.
Of course, that is always true, but it is more felt at the moment than it often is.
Can we trust and obey in the same way?
March 18 2020
On being the church
Some years ago I co-wrote a book with that title (a statement on the royalties came in the other day - 76cents!) I wrote it because it is something that matters deeply to me; that we don't just "go to church", we are church. It is one of the reasons that being minister of Grove Lane Baptist Church is such a huge privilege - people who are this church don't just "go", they "are".
But - it is true that we also "go" - we have a habit, like Christians down the ages, of meeting together on the first day of the week to worship, and to share friendship - and coffee. (I have no proof that the early believers did that, but....)
And now, for an as yet indeterminate number of weeks, we will not be able to do that.
It is a sad thing, and a difficult thing.
It is also the loving thing to do. We are stopping meeting in part for each one of us to look after our self. But, and this is equally important epidemiologically, we are stopping meeting in order that infection is not passed on - that is, in order to care for one another, and for our wider community, and, long-term, to do our bit to ensure that the health service is not overwhelmed and therefore those who are ill are cared for.
One of our members is in a care home, and we are not able to visit her at the moment. Not going to see her hurts. And it is an act of love towards her and the others; it is to prevent us bringing any virus into a vulnerable situation.
Loving our neighbour is a very practical act of care - even if it looks like withdrawal.
We are looking at other ways to "meet" - we've got all this online stuff; let's use it. We are looking into all sorts of ways of sharing care for the wider community, in particular the Foodbanks...they are going to be under great pressure, and we are finding creative ways to support them (watch this space). This, of course, is another form of loving our neighbour.
This Ramble may happen more often (you have been warned) and other news and interaction will take place on this site and on our other online places (facebook, twitter and soundcloud)
The first Christians when they started meeting had to invent ways to do it, because they were doing a new thing. They didn't start from scratch, however; they used what was around them - models from other religions, and other social structures. And they took them over, adapted and worked them out.
We are worshipping the same God, following the same Jesus, depending on the same Spirit. We are as creative, inventive, committed and blessed. As my training minister used to tell me "God is good and the world still turns". We may not be able to "go" but we have not ceased to "be" the church. And once we are able to "go" again, we will return having loved our neighbour and been loved by our neighbour in ways that we might not have expected, but which will have been blessing to us and others.
In the words of the dismissal blessing we regularly use at Quiet Communion at the moment "From where we are to where you need us, Jesus, still lead on"
March 11 2020
I wrote last week about the joy of watching a child smile, and the way in which that symbolises for me what we are about as a church; delighting in and sharing the discovery that we are beloved children of God, and that the universe is a friendly place.
And that is true, that is something I will go on believing and preaching.
But it is not the whole of the truth.
For there is also that in our lives, in our world which is resistant to God's goodness and the coming Kingdom. Whether we want to call it evil, brokenness, sin, hurt...
And as well as sharing in the delight of the young lady discovering the fun of being alive, I have also had the huge privilege over the last week of listening as people have told stories of horror, distress, anger, pain; their own stories, and the stories of the people they care for.
I had a discussion with a friend during the week about the difference between optimism and hope...and we came to the conclusion that optimism based on a rational assessment of the world (we are both optimistic that, as healthy and handwashing people, we will avoid the worst effects of Covid-19, and we have reason for that optimism) is a healthy and appropriate way of living. Optimism based, however, on "everybody is nice, and it'll all be fine" is hard to maintain and justify in the face of our current humanitarian and environmental disasters, - and can be very damaging, since it can mean we choose to do nothing, and just hope for the best.
Hope on the other hand, for believers, is the conviction that the love of God is bigger than the horror, the distress and the hurt.
It doesn't take them away. But it is not destroyed by them.
And as we listen to some of the stories that people can tell us - of the cruelty inflicted on children, or the experience of living with depression or cancer, or the horrors of , and as we live with the truth of our own lives - we cannot be optimistic. But we can dare to be hopeful.
Hope is not blind. Hope can name evil when it sees it, can cry with the pain of the world, can confront and acknowledge our own sin and failure. And can do it without being destroyed, not because we are strong enough, or can "rise above" the distress. But because we dare to believe that above, beyond, behind, beneath, is a Love that has not avoided or opted out of the encounter with such pain, but confronts it and will, in the end, redeem it.
Lent is our journey towards Easter - dare we let it be a journey that takes us through the whole story, including the difficult and painful bits. Because only then can we truly encounter the possibility that Easter Day holds out to us.
March 4 2020
The delight of a smile...
I arrived at Toddlers' Group this morning just as everybody was leaving (good timing Ruth!) but there was still some lunch-eating going on. The young lady who was eating/being fed her meal is a serious-minded person. Life is, according to her expression, real and life is earnest, and she regards it as such. I sat on the floor beside her and wondered at the patience of the loving carer who was feeding her - and persuading her to go on eating even when she wanted to stop.
Then this amazing person went off to find the next part of the meal, and my serious young lady and I were left regarding one another. There were several moments of serious mutual reflection. And then my eye was caught by some of the attachments to the chair in which she was sitting. Among other distractions offered, there were two teddy-bears which could be visible or hidden, at the flip of a button. So, I flipped them - the bears appeared. I flipped them again - and the bears disappeared. My companion looked at them, at me, and back at them.
And so I repeated the activity...and she began to join in. We carried on.
And then - a smile!
Indeed, a very beautiful smile.
And one that continued for several moments as she explored the flip that produced a teddy and the flip that hid it, and as I took a turn, and she took a turn, and the teddies carried on behaving as they should.
There are many things a minister gets to do - one of the huge privileges of being a minister is being invited into lots of huge moments in peoples's lives, sharing joy and sorrow and significance.
But I have to tell you - not much over the next few weeks is going to top seeing that smile appear.
Because at the heart of all of what I am about, and what the church is about is discovering and sharing the delight at the heart of the universe, being the beloved children of God. And that's what I saw in her smile...
Feb 26 2020
As a congregation, we agreed to write to our MP to ask her to urge the PM to make the COP26 (the conference on Climate Chaos, happening in Glasgow later this year) a place at which our country announces a deep and creative response to the climate emergency facing us.
The letter that we sent is, I believe, is powerfully and effectively phrased, and I am grateful to those who drafted it. The other image is the response of one of our members, sending his own plea (suitably edited in this image to remove name and address).
Both approaches are needed - and it is delight to be able to access them both.
We seek to be a prophetic community - those who speak truth to power, who challenge oppressive systems and ask difficult questions. And our models are the prophets of Scripture, who spent enough time in God;s presence to begin to discern God's calling, and who responded by making both a strong case to the people to whom they are sent, and by actions, creative snd subversive - artistic, indeed.
Thanks be to God, that we have people among us who can help us to do both, and we pray for our leaders and those with power, that they will hear this urgent call.
Feb 19 2020
Sharing bread and wine
This is the picture that goes on the front of our order of service when we have our Quiet Communion on the fourth Sunday of the month - drawn by our very own member, George.
We are, I think, quite unusual as a Baptist Church in sharing bread and wine at more services than not. We are also unusual in the openness of our Table; our invitation is to "all who wish to receive what is offered here" and we ask no more of people than that they want to be there. Our theology for this is that Jesus ate with everybody who invited him, or who was in the crowd.
It could look, therefore, as if this is something trivial and insignificant. One of the arguments I grew up hearing to justify why Baptists had communion less often than some (and why the Presbyterians around us had it even less frequently) was that this was something "so special" that to celebrate it too often would lower its importance and impact.
And an argument for keeping people away if they are not part of the church in whatever way we define that is that otherwise it becomes less of a special mark for believers.
Well, perhaps there is something in each of these positions - though I remain to be convinced.
But more importantly than these possibilities is, I suggest, the conviction that when we share bread and wine and tell the story of Jesus' invitation and - as Paul reminds us, - death and resurrection, we are encountering the embodiment of the love of God in Jesus, and that love was not rationed in case we begin to take it for granted, nor limited to those who were part of however the community defined itself.
It may be only a small piece of bread and small sip of wine (and there may be a good argument for suggesting we are more extravagant in what we take - especially when there is more than enough to go around!) but it is a sign and symbol of a love not afraid to be involved in every part of our lives, that doesn't keep itself "for best", for "special occasions" and also that doesn't insist on a certain way of being or belonging before loving us utterly.
So, I will gladly go on offering bread and wine to anybody who wishes to receive it. And I will gladly go on offering it as often as you will let me.
Thank you for the privilege of leading our congregation in this activity. It is one of the highspots of my week.
Feb 12 2020
Our 615ers group - the club for youngsters betwen 5 and 9 - have been raising money for Toilet Twinning. One of the club evenings towards the end of last year focussed on the need for toilets for health, well-being and dignity, and also on the lack in various places. Then the youngsters were asked to raise money towards putting up a toilet somewhere where it is needed. They were invited to give a bit of their pocket money, or do jobs to raise money, or to think about how else they could help fund this work.
This week was the end of the appeal. Over the last few weeks, they have brought in pennies and more - several parents have been extremely generous and given money of the folding sort!, but most of the money has come from the children. They have tidied rooms, set tables, washed dishes, cleaned cars. They have cajoled, and have given from their pocket money.
And they have raised £155.45!!
To twin a toilet costs £60. So, with a small donation from club funds, these youngsters have funded the building of two toilets in places where this is badly needed. And, along the way, they have learned something about the world, about hygiene and about the interconnectedness of the world.
We are so proud of them! Soon, the plaques, acknowlegdng their donation will be here, and they will be proudly displayed in the entrance to the church.
The other youth groups are just starting their fund raising efforts. We are looking forward to adding their plaques too in due course!
If you would like to know more about this work, please check the website here; https://www.toilettwinning.org/
Feb 5 2020
There was a party in the church on Sunday afternoon. I am guessing that one of the things that went on was the enjoyment of balloons. Because now, when we go in, we have the delight of several balloons (orange with black markings) lurking near the ceiling. There was an attempt to get them down on Monday evening, but they proved somewhat recalcitrant!
And why not leave them there? They will come down eventually, I am sure. But at the moment, they are a talking point. I know - I've been talking about them. We discussed them at 615ers on Monday evening. We talked about them at Toddlers Group and at Day Centre lunch today. And, I suspect, if they are still there on Sunday, we will talk about them then.
As one who is not gifted with small talk, I am all for talking points - reasons to speak, neutral topics to generate a conversation.
And these are delightful because they are unusual, and indeed, attractive.
All of which makes me wonder what is unusual, attractive, and a helpful talking point about us as a faith community, that might give us ways of introducing ourselves, or saying something about our identity as a church - and might give people the idea that here is something about being a faith community and here is a way of living that faith within which it is possible they could find a home.
Jan 29 2020
A prophetic community??
At our reflective communion on the fourth Sunday of the month, at the moment, we have a series of reflections around the Baptist Union's 5 Core Values (see here....5 Core Values) Our church covenant is based on these, and they form our to-do list as a church.
On Sunday, we considered being "a prophetic community", and we thought about Jesus' words "if somebody strikes on one cheek, turn the other...if somebody demands you cloak, give your cloak, if somebody makes you go one mile, go a second..."
These are prophetic actions - refusal to accept the dehumanising actions of another and an insistence on asserting human dignity in the face of oppression. (Walter Wink. Turn the other cheek) And we went on from there to ask about what prophetic actions we might find...when a third of all food produced is wasted, thrown away and not used, while people around the world are starving.....when gardens are being concreted over and we are living with increasing flooding....when churches are better known for whom they exclude than for their welcome.
And we asked when our society more and more seeks people to blame when something goes wrong - what might it look like to be known as a community of mercy? We asked how do we further our capacity for welcome in a society which is increasingly unwelcoming?
We will go on asking these kind of questions and letting our imaginations play with possibility and gentle subversion...
Our capacity to be prophetic is rooted in our vision of a world that we do not yet see...the world of the Kingdom that we pray for each time we pray in the words Jesus taught; our prophetic actions, - creative, subversive, challenging, renewing - aren ways of living the Kingdom into being.
There's a to-do list to intrigue and challenge...
Jan 22 2020
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
This is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The theme this year is Unusual Kindness, drawing on the story of Paul and his travelling companions being cared for following a shipwreck. The material provided by the churches in Malta - where the wrecked ship fetched up. The "unusual kindness" is their history.
It is a wonderful theme for a reflection on what it means to be together, to recognise and affirm one another. There is a lovely image that floats around on the internet..."in a world in which you can be anything, be kind". What better motto, as we try to live, not just as fellow believers, but as fellow people in the world.
Mind you, as we reflect on church unity - the heart of this week's prayer - we might have some hard questions to ask about what kindness looks like.
It is very easy, in our generation and in our context to get on with people from other churches. We are all on the same journey, and we simly travel in slightly different ways, none of which really matter very much, and are just a question of taste.
Or is it?
That might be, at first sight, the kind way of considering one another; different traditions, but nothing that really signifies, and certainly nothing to argue about.
And there is a considerable truth in that position. It has been hard won, and should not be taken for granted or treated as unimportant.
But is it possible that we might go further. We might show "unusual" kindness by asking the hard questions, and listening, kindly and with faith, to the answers; questions about who is allowed to share at Communion, who is allowed to preside at Communion, who takes decisions about the life of the local and the wider church....?
And perhpas to go even further; what "unusual kindness" might it be to say that we are willing to let go of some of our traditions, ways of doing things, structures and assumptions, not in order to become part of some already existing church organisation, but, together with others, to move into something new and as yet unknown.
We would need deep and unusual kindness for that sort of mutual trust and exploration.
Are we brave enough?
Jan 15 2020
On being a visitor
On Sunday, I am being a visitor. As part of our marking of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we have our annual pulpit swap; that event that sounds rather like architectural reorganisation, but is actually one minister going to preach in the church of another (which makes it sound like a game on I'm Sorry I Haven't a clue - perhaps a good analogy!)
I am going to preach at All Saints Parish Church, and Philip from Cheadle Hulme Methodist Church is coming to Grove Lane.
It's always an interesting experience being a visiting preacher, especially in an ecumenical context. I am aware of no longer in control - taking part in a tradition within which I am not "at home", and not having the right or authority to say "this is how we will do it", or even, "this is what we will do" - all the markers taken for granted of how to behave when preaching are taken away.
Churches are very good at making sure that I know what I need to do and how to do it, but still, I am in a strange place, I am not at home.
And surely, this is how ecumenism should make us feel, at least to some extent; to be in a context where we are not in control, and cannot say "this is how it will be" - invited into somebody else's world, where we might be very welcome, but where we are not in charge.
Actually, it is not a bad image for mission as well. All too often - and one of the reasons why we can be very suspicious of any idea of mission - the whole method and practice has been either to invite people into our space and place and expect them to behave as we do, fit in with us and become like us, or to go to other people's space and expect it to become moulded to fit our assumptions and practices.
But what if mission, what if exploring how to bring our faith into contact with parts of the world where faith is not named, is about being a visitor, being in somebody else's space not to change it, but to experience it, be welcomed into it, explore and visit, encounter and be changed ourselves?
I am looking forward to Sunday - it will be good make new friends, and I have already been made to feel very welcome. It is a lovely model of what building connections in a woder community might look like.
not in charge, not at home, open to n
Jan 9 2020
But I don't know how to....
I met a couple of people today whom I do not know. One had arranged to bring the other to see me. It was a lovely meeting, conversation, getting to know one another and sharing stories. Part way through, one of the people I was meeting said, "let's pray".
"I don't know how to" said the other person.
And I have been going back to that all day...I don't know how to pray.
I think it's one of the most profound comments I've heard in a long time.
We are sometimes so sure we know how to pray - or rather, that we should know how to pray, that there is a way to pray that is correct, and if we only knew how to do it, or worked harder at it, or had more determination or skill or something, then we'd be better at praying.
But what if the place we start is "I don't know how to do this"
And even more importantly, what if all we ever know is "I don't know how to do this"; that is, if we dare to trust that praying is not an exam we have to pass, or a hoop we have to jump through, or something we have to get right in order to impress God. What if prayer is something in which getting it "right" or "wrong" is a meaningless concept - if doing it "badly" is perhaps the point, for the point is doing it, not doing it properly....
And so I have been wondering - who taught us that we should pray in certain ways to the extent that people feel that they can't do it?
And even more importantly, how do we challenge that, and permit ourselves and each other to explore what prayer looks like when we are not judging ourselves, or feeling "wrong"?
Dec 18 2019
Food, fellowship and dancing....
The decorations were swinging at Day Centre Christmas lunch today; we shared turkey with all the trimmings, pudding and sauce, coffee and mince pies...and welcomed a singer whose voice got us up on our feet and dancing round the room.
It was a happy, well-fed, noisy, laughter-filled and well-managed event. Somewhere about 80 people were fed - all in good time, because there is a very skilled and disciplined serving regime, and it was joyous.
We have amazing volunteers, and today, all I want to say in this Ramble is HUGE thank you. The guests at Day Centre are a mixed group, with all sorts of needs and conditions, and each is cherished, cared for, honoured and supported. It was a delight to watch the affection in the faces of the clients and the volunteers as they said good-bye and happy Christmas.
If you have ever thought of coming along to Day Centre - to help, to chat, to share lunch...let me encourage you. It is well worth it.
Dec 11 2019
Ok, so it looks more like an arrow in this picutre, but good enough. Because that still make the point. During Advent, we are reflecting on what it means to say "God with us". And on Sunday we were considering the phrase "God is with Cheadle Hulme". As part of worship, we each had a tea-light, onto which we wrote the name of a place where we saw the Kingdom - a place where we could see the presence of God bringing life, flourishing, hope, renewal - in our community; places like the foodbank, the women's refuge, the youth groups, teachers providing for children who ar without basics, support for asylum seekers....and the list goes on.
We placed them on a paper to make a star shape. (The wonders of uploading photos means it has been turned round, but you get the idea). The notion is that it was the star whcih showed where Jesus was, and this was our way of recognising the places where "God is with Cheadle Hulme".
It was so encouraging and hopeful - while depressing at the same time. After all, we are delighted that people contribute to and make happen the foodbank, but horrified that in the 21st century, in an affluent society, people are dependent on such.
God is with Cheadle Hulme in all sorts of ways; the ways we recognised and acknowledged, and hidden ways too that we have not heard about, or don't recognise. As, with the people of God across geography and generation, we pray "thy kingdom come", it matters that we also give thanks for the places where the kingdom impacts lives.
As advent progresses, and as our country makes choices, we celebrate the promise of God and look for the kingdom - and we ask - what is my part?
Dec 4 2019
A Good Day
Saturday was our Christmas Fair. It was a great success - lots of people, lots of bacon butties eaten, lots of cakes sold and bottled won, lots of children's eyes wide as they met Santa, lots of money spent, and lots of energy expended.
A huge thanks to everybody who made it happen, and to those who came and supported us through it.
We do this every year, for several reasons. It is our only direct fundraising event in the year, and as such, it makes an important contribution to our ongoing life.
But even more than that, it is a time of welcome, and community. There are people who come every year, there are friendships renewed, and conversations caught up on at Christmas Fair, there is the renewing of links and the reinforcing of existing connections.
It raises our profile - reminds people that we are here, and that various things go on here.
It is also the opportunity for new connections - this year, there were several people who came for the first time....it is a time when folk can come into the building and see what it looks like with "no strings attached", and see beyond the mystery (we forget, I suspect, how unknown a church building can feel for those who rarely or never visit a church - especially one as non-traditional as ours!)
It takes effort, and it leaves (some of) us very tired. But thank you, thank you, thank you!
It is a good day - and its impact goes much further than we know.
Above all, it is fun! There is laughter, friendship and delight.
Nov 27 2019
There is a missing week in this blog, because last week I was attending a conference at which a group of us were charged by the Baptist Union to share in the process of discernment for some who are exploring a call to ministry among Baptists.
Which is a long and theologically detailed way of saying I spent several days talking with various people who, already in different forms of ministry, were wondering about being Baptist ministers.
It's a process I've had the chance to share in several times now, and it is always a huge privilege. Listening as people tell their stories, share their insights and experiences, and then, prayerfully and respectfully, talking with others on the selection board about how best we might encourage, support and enable these ministries to develop. It is always moving to hear the stories, encouraging to sit in the presence of the collective wisdom of the board, and a huge joy to be able to affirm - as we did on this occasion - a group of women and men in their onward journey. It was lovely to see the relationships develop among the group, encouraging to hear the accounts of people's journeys and explorations, and heartening to become aware of the variety of ways in which God calls people to service, and the variety of ways in which God calls and gifts people to serve.
There is much around to tell us that the church is in decline, and it is important that we are not complacent. For the church to continue, to grow, to maintain its life we need to find ways to engage people who currently see no need for church, and that may mean doing things differently, being a different kind of community. And that can feel threatening and disorientating.
But one thing I have definitely discerned over this process is that God is still at work in and through the church as well as more widely, and people are still called and gifted to serve. That gives us hope. If God is still working, we still get to join in, and see what it might look like.
As we head (rapidly!) into Advent, don't forget the Christmas Fair this Saturday, our Advent services, our Breathing Spaces, our Carol service and our Longest Night service. And above all, don't forget that the God who came in Christ, comes to us still, and through us comes to the wider world. And that is good news!
Nov 14th 2019
This week's bloglet is a little late not (for once!) because I wasn't organised, but because I wanted to wait until after last night.
For last night was our monthly church meeting and our AGM.
Actually, as we reflected at the beignning, it is a matter of joy...even if it doesn't necessarily feel like it on the way through... :)
Meetings get a bad name. They can feel boring, long, irritating, an excuse for those who like the sound of their own voice to just keep talking, a waste of time and stifling of creativity.
But Church Meeting for Baptists isn't - or at least, needn't - be any of these things.
Meeting can feel like a chore and nothing very exciting. But it is at the heart of the struggle historically to be Baptist - to worship God and exercise discipleship in ways that we believe to be true to the calling we encounter in Scripture. In a social context in which the democratic right to make our voice heard, to take part in decisions that affect us is - or at least should be - something we believe we can take for granted, it is easy to forget just how revolutionary Church Meeting was when the early Baptists started to explore it. They were part of - and leaving - a Church that was ordered hierarchically, had its worship , and the words to be used in worship, determined by government statute, had the minister of a local church decided by a bishop or a landowner (often the same person!) and had the control of its resources and the decisions about its regular life laid down by those who were not part of the weekly worshipping fellowship. Not to take part in that church was to run the risk - often realised - of fines and imprisonment.
The first Baptists, gripped by a conviction shaped by their reading of Scripture, believed that a congregation needed nothing more than the promise of Christ to be among "two or three, gathered in his name" to be a church; that the conduct and words of worship should emerge from within the congregation's own life, that the gathered congregation had the privilege of choosing its own minister, and, crucially, that it was the calling of each congregation to discern the mind of Christ together for their place and time.
This means that they did not consider church meeting as a kind of anticipatory democratic setting, with votes and the need to argue to convince people of one "side" or another. Rather, they acted from the conviction that God could and did speak through whoever God chose to - which need not match the social or economic hierarchy that they saw in the world around them, or indeed, the Church they were rejecting. For them, Church Meeting was the place where everybody's voice could be heard, not in order that some democratic process, similar to our contemporary one, could operate, but because, listening to each person - including those normally silenced - as they reflected on the questions and issues, was a way of listening out for the God who speaks.
We will soon be deep in our Advent preparations. We will be moving towards the celebration of the God who comes to us, not in power and domination, but as a helpless infant.
This is the kind of theology that leads to Church Meeting; that the voice of God, the call and the presence of God might just come from places we don't expect. And so it matters that we learn to pay attention.
Meetings can be boring or long-winded, or seemingly concerned with trivialities. But when we approach them as the place where God miught just surprise us, they take on a whole other dimension.
I want to thank everybody who took part last night, and through all our other meetings. At our best, we are participating with those who went before, in discerning together the mind of Christ.
What a privilege.
Nov 6th 2019
It's that time of year again....All Saints' Day, All Souls' Day, in those churches that follow a strictly liturgical calendar, Guy Fawkes Day to recall our history, Remembrance Day, as we wear our poppies....this time of year is deeply into remembering the past, those who have died, those we miss, those whose stories and histories affect who we are and how our community functions.
Remembering is always a very contested area; who remembers "properly", who remembers "fully"....any family conversation about last year, or ten years ago will quickly show how different our memories of shared events are - for we all remember from our own perspective, and we all remember the details that affect us most, and we all have faulty memories... and sometimes we can end up quarrelling about it.
For to remember is to claim ownership in some ways. If I remember that something happened in a certain way, and you tell me a different story, it can feel like you are denying my memory, taking from me my remembering, my possession of part of my own story and identity.
Such "ownership" of the memory is not just individual, but communal....communities are formed largely by a shared story, a shared memory. That's one of the reasons we teach history - to help develop a sense of communal identity; this is what it means to be part of this community - congregation, nation, family. Of coure, it can often be joyful, celebratory, inspiring. But it can also be divisive and exclusive. I am currently teaching a course on Reformation and the development of nonconformity in England. It's an interesting course to start (as we did) on Nov 5th.
Told from one perspective, the attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament is an act of terror by those who wanted to undermine the state and legitimate government.
Told from another, it is the desire of those who are being excluded and oppressed because of their religious position, to challenge an illegitimate regime. And to tell that story - as we are doing - not only to people who have grown up in this country, but also to those who have left home and country because of religious oppression makes it all the more poignant.
Remembering is a deep part of our faith - whenever we gather at the Table we use the words "Do this in memory of me" - every Sunday is for us a Remembering Sunday, as we remember acts and words of Jesus, the faithfulness of God, the presence of the Spirit. Each time we come into the building we remember those who are no longer with us, and whom we miss. And we remember good and bad times in our being together and trying to be a congregation.
Remembering is important. But it is not simple. Perhaps it is good at this time of year not only to remember, but to reflect on how we remember, and what we do with our memories.
Oct 30 2019
Depths of reconciliation
You may have noticed that there was no Ramble last week. This is because I was away. I had a 24 hour trip to Belfast, as part of the Board of Trustees for Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.
It was an amazing trip.
It started to be amazing when my taxi driver was reluctant to let me out....I had an address, but it wasn't immediately clear where I was going once we got to the street. I eventually guessed that the church building that is now clearly used for other things was where we were meeting (and so it proved - a former Presbyterian church now operates, under the care of a charity led by a Presbyterian minister, as a community centre, an arts centre, a cafe and all sorts of other things...) but still he was reluctant; "I don't want to let you out here, lass, until you're certain. This is not a safe area." A not-to-be-forgotten introduction to Belfast! Apparently, the area we were in is near an "interface" - a border between the two communities, still places of tension. (As we walked from there to our hotel that night, I was stuck by the way that I was recognising street names, because I had heard them on the news. The only other city I have ever known "at a distance" was London, before I went to live there...it's an odd kind of fame.)
Our 24 hours was filled with people coming to talk about reconcilation being lived out in various ways in the complexity of Northern Ireland and the Republic. It was challenging and moving and gave great food for thought. I have come home with all sorts of thoughts and things to follow up, ideas to explore and prayers to make.
For today, here are two comments that have been reverberating around in my head and will not leave me alone...
"There is always a danger of living with half the story, as if it is the whole story"
"You can never really know you've been involved in reconcilation until your own people think you have betrayed them"
Paul says we are called to a ministry of reconcilation. I wonder what that looks like for us?
Oct 16 2019
A new initiative
I had a lovely morning today, meeting with a skilled and enthusiastic group of people who are undertaking the task of getting together a new website for Churches Together in Cheadle Hulme. CTCH is a group of nine churches who look to do things together rather than apart, and that includes outreach and mission. And as part of that, we are looking at developing a website which will give details of our different churches and how to find us, but much more importantly, will express our common faith, and help others to explore it.
It takes time, energy, skill, and resources....but it is something that is really important. Doing such an activity together makes sense because it allows us to draw on a wide range of skill and insight. But more than that, it matters because we are sharing one gospel, and offering one invitation, to discover the depth of the love of God,
There are differences among us - we organise ourselves in different ways, we hold differing views about the meaning of baptism, or communion. There are other things where we don't agree.
But we agree on this...Jesus prayed for those who are his people to be one. And when we deliberately refuse to be, then we are choosing to act out of line with the expressed desire of the one we call Lord. Our differences matter - they are not trivial, and they can form the basis of fruitful and significant discussion and even mutual growth.
And that is all good and worthwhile. But to refrain from doing things together until we agree on everything would be very sad. One of the strengths of Churches Together in Cheadle Hulme is that we do do things together - we worship together in Oak Meadow at Christmas and Easter, we share lunches over Lent, we share services once a quarter on a 5th Sunday evening, we exchange ministers during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we meet regularly for prayer and praise.....
And now we are building a website.
At one level, it looks like a (relatively!) simple technical and administrative task.
But in Kingdom terms, it is about mission, about unity, about community and relationship - indeed, it is about Kingdom. So, please pray for us as we work it out. And when it is up and running (in time for Christmas!) please look at it, please tell others about it - and please pray that it will be a further means of answering Jesus' prayer that we may be one people.
Oct 9 2019
A Wednesday is a day that I often spend all day in church...I visit Toddlers' Group, I have a long conversation elsewhere and then back to the church to share lunch with Day Centre guests. And later this evening, I will be in the same space again, as we share Church Meeting.
It's a wonderful space, our main room. I am always a little at a loss to know what to call it...it's where church meets, but it is also the toddler space, and a dining room. On Monday evening, it is always full of energy as 615ers run around. Some Fridays it's a cinema.
I am always amazed at what happens in this space. I love its flexibility, its capacity to hold toys, tables, people, laughter and silence. The banners are amazing, the Table is welcoming, the Cross is stunning...
I have long been used to single-use spaces. The luxury of a space which can do so much, welcome so many and offer all these possibilities is not something to take for granted. Let's give thanks for it, and let's invite the Spirit to lead us into ever new possibilities of using it.
Oct 2 2019
A fence in progress
There should be a photo here, but the tech is not playing, and frankly, I 've wasted enough time on it :) But what it would show if I were skilled enough is a new fence taking shape in the manse garden.
Which is wonderful, since the old one was getting embarrassing, falling down, landing in our lovely neighbour's garden, and not really doing what it is supposed to do.
In order to remove the damaged fence and put up the new one, there has also been some work in the borders - which has been lovely. The wonderful men fixing our fence have also taken away some of the ivy, brambles and bamboo that has been threatening to take over the garden.
And it has got me wondering about the impact on opening up barriers and welcoming in those who are normally on the outside; the opening up doesn't only let in those who have been outside. It can also help get rid of that which is choking life, that which is damaging and draining and that which is stifling our living. As we think about ways to help people feel at home within the community that is Grove Lane Baptist Church, in all its aspects, the letting down of barriers might not only welcome people in - it might also free up our lives and our life together....
Mind you - it is not all good news. Unintentionally, but sadly, our lovely rose bush took a bit of a battering - a piece of fencing fell on it and knocked it sideways. It has been propped up again, and I hope that with a bit of loving care, it may survive. But it may not. I am very attached to this rose; I have not needed to do anything to it, and yet it has flourished. And I am sad that it may now no longer be part of our garden.
Opening ourselves up, lowering barriers, discovering new forms of community and relationship may not always be comfortable, and may take from us things we have cherished and didn't plan on losing.
But you know what...if my rose bush is gone, then I have a flower bed to nourish, replant and discover something new....
Life and the love that sustains it may not always be what is planned, but it is God's good giving....
Sept 11 2019
A friendly visit
We had a friendly visit today; a very approachable young man (does it say that I am growing up, when police people look young!) who is our local police community support officer came to introduce himself. His name is Billy, and he is touring round the churches, partly so that we know who he is, partly so that he has contact details, should he ever need to be in touch with us, and partly just to see where we are and what kind of things are going on in our building...he arrived while lunch was going on, and is very impressed. He has gone away with info to pass on, and see if there are others who might enjoy coming in. He was also interested in the youth groups, and has taken away details of those...knowing some youngsters who have nothing to do, and who think there are not any youth groups around.
These kind of links matter; just knowing who is around, and knowing that they know we are around.
And though he didn't ask for it, I suggest that we pray for Billy and his colleagues, as they work to support our community, build links and keep us in touch with what we need to know.
Sept 4th 2019
Each year at this time, the church calendar marks what is known as "Creation Time", five weeks, from Sept 1st to Oct 4th, when we try to pay attention to creation, its celebration and our role in caring and sustaining it. The timing is partly drawn from the celebration of the feast of St Francis, whose day is kept on Oct 3rd. Francis' care and prayers are a reminder that Christians have a long tradition of care for and reverence of Creation.
But such a reminder is also the reminder that we have at times got it very wrong, and we also have a darker tradition of treating Creation as that which is there simply for us to use and even abuse - to squander and destroy. Fortunately, we, along with so many others in the world, have begun to waken up to the vital importance of caring for the resources on which we all depend, and of which we are a part.
The theme for this year's Creation Time is "The Web Of Life" - the interrelatedness of all that is, including us. We depend on the complexity of the whole of creation. And human flourishing through the world is interrelated; our wellbeing too often comes at the cost of others' suffering. So, it is a theme well worth reflecting on and praying through. If you would like to look at more resources and explore more thinking, you might enjoy this website;
As a Church, we have a pattern of looking at different aspects of our life together and how we are doing in terms of sustainability, using the materials from EcoChurch (You can see more about this here;Eco Churches .
One of the challenges of Eco Church is to include these thgemes in our worship, and we have been trying various ways to do that. On this coming Sunday morning, since it is our World And Worship, second Sunday service, we will be focussing on Creation, and exploring ways of praying and responding. I hope you are able to come along.
August 28th 2019
One of the greatest privileges of being a minister is that people talk to you. And not just talk - sometimes, it's not just small talk; sometimes it is a piece of themselves.
I mean, I'm sitting there, chatting away with somebody, over the table at Day Centre, or doing the washing up or exploring the garden...and suddenly, there is a moment when somebody says something and I think "wow! This is holy ground!"
For me, holy ground is when somebody offers me an insight into their life and experience, tells me something that I would not have guessed from knowing them superficially, sometimes wonderful, sometimes sad, sometimes weird.
And it is holy ground because here is a Presence, a possibility.
Incarnation is the affirmation that God meets us as human - and the story tells us that that is above all in the life and presence of Jesus. But I don't believe it is limited to Jesus. If we are made in the image of God, then it is possible to meet presences of God in human encounter.
Much of my time is spent sitting at a desk or with a book - and it needs to be, if I am to understand and offer in preaching, leading, organising. But, pleasant and stimulating as this is, the most precious times are encounters with people. Sometimes they are fun, sometimes they are informative, sometimes such conversations are uproarious....people around here laugh a lot! Sometimes the conversations are hard, sad, wondering.
But when such conversation offer me glimpses of a person's life - their struggle, their joy, their pain, their courage - then, above all, I am moved, I want to "take off my shoes". For then, in the presence of a person's real-ness, offered freely and willingly, then I am on Holy Ground.
It is such a privilege. Thank you.
August 21 2019
Day Centre has started again this week, and it is lovely to see everybody back - guests and volunteers. It is a happy experience to share in activities and lunch - lots of conversation and laughter. Today was chair exercises as well...and then a visit from a special little lady...Maizie Dog came to say hello. She has definitely graduated from Manse Dog to Church Dog. Manse Husband came along too.
It was a happy visit. One of the things we say about ourselves as a church is that we try to be inclusive and accessible. Well, today, we were able to welcome a dog into the building and the community. So, we did well on both counts - as far as Maizie is concerned.
Let's make sure we don't limit our welcome and our inclusion only to cute doggies - or others who make us feel as good as she does...we can really only say that we are inclusive and accessible when we are able to welcome those who are not cute and adorable - but are as demanding and complex as each of us is, and in different ways.
We do pretty well - but there's always more to do. As things begin to restart with the new term, let's keep going.
August 14 2019
Hello out there...
One of the fun things about writing something like this is that one has no idea who is reading it! Usually, when I write, I have some idea who I am writing for...people who read the kind of journal I am writing for, when I write on history, or my markers, when I was writing an essay, or students now, when I am writing a lecture. Even a congregation basically made up of people I know, when I am writing a sermon.
But this internet thingy - this is open to anybody who might pick it up for whatever reason...and I will never know.
These thoughts are prompted by hearing today about somebody who reads these ramblings on occasions, without having any contact with this or any other church. Which is a wonderful thought! Somebody who just reads out of interest.... so, hello!
Without in any way wanting to claim any sort of parity, it is kind of reminiscent of bits of the Bible, in particular the letters. We are so accustomed to reading them as texts to the church, ways in which we might expect to hear what God is saying to the people of God, it is easy to forget that, for example, the letters, were written as letters. That is, from a particular person, to a group of people and dealing with situations that they all knew about. And because they all knew about it, sometimes (often!) there is little in the way of explanation.
And now we are trying to read them and understand them in a world that is immeasurably different.
I can't imagine that when he sat down, for example, to write to the congregation in Rome or Corinth, Paul had any thought that anybody (except possibly somebody who was trying to get the congregations into trouble with the authorities and so wanted to find out about their correspondence) would ever be interested in or read these letters. Presumably as he wrote them, he had individuals in mind - maybe not very many of them, since these congregations were probably pretty small. Maybe he could imagine their faces, hear their voices...perhaps even picture the room they would be in as they read what he wrote.
It is easy for us to forget that these were letters written by a person to people...and when we read them we are, in effect, reading somebody else's correspondence.
And something similar is true for the gospels. The writers seem to have been writing for particular congregations or groups of congregations - who knew bits of the story, and who understood such a lot that we can't, so it didn't need to be explained. They knew, for example, how far it was from Jerusalem to Jericho, and what the road was like, so Jesus story of the man who was attacked and then looked after would have an immediate setting as they read it....
And again, it is easy for us to forget that these documents were not written for people of our time and context, but to and for there and then.
I am delighted that there are random readers of this blog. But I wonder what some of the local and specific allusions mean to you? And you presumably share much of my context, history, social setting and so on...
A government minister said recently that "public was getting tired of experts" - well, that may or may not be true. But it seems to me that if we are to read Scripture with anything like integrity, and to find any meaning in it for us, here and now, it matters that we listen to the experts; not to tell us what to think, but to help us understand context and structure, idiom and assumptions. Only then might we find that there is something worthwhile for us to listen to.
And that is why a significant part of my week is spent in my study working with commentaries and translations, trying to understand as much as I can texts that were not written directly for me.
Thank you to the congregation of Grove Lane for giving me space, time and resources to do this. And for paying me the honour of thinking that I might have something to report as a result of drawing on the work of such experts.
It is wonderful and humbling to know that random readers find it worthwhile to read these Ramblings. It is amazing to join in with so many others in being random readers of letters and reports written for another time and a different community - and still to find in these writings, challenge, hope, comfort and possibility.
August 10 2019
A suitable subject for consideration in worship?
This week's blog is rather late, for which I apologise! But it gives me the chance to reflect on what we will be doing tomorrow in worship. It is our monthly "World and Worship" service; a time when we hear stories from different contexts from our own, reflect on the nature and call of the Kingdom and expand our vision of what God is doing, and how we might be involved.
Tomorrow, we are considering the work of the charity Toilet Twinning. It does what it says on the tin; it exists to work with various partners in this country - individuals and organisations - and aid agencies and action groups in communities around the world to help provide basic sanitation and instruction in hygiene.
It's one of those ideas that takes somebody with great imagination to have - and then looks so obvious everybody else is left wondering why it took us so long to catch on! If you are able to be with us tomorrow morning there will be the chance to learn more about the organisation, and how we might be involved, as well as, I hope, to consider ways to think theologically and to pray about all sorts of things connected with the topic. If you can't be with us, you might want to check the website Toilet Twinning
The question of whether this is a suitable subject for a worship service is really a question about whether we consider the Kingdom of God to be something far removed from our current reality, with all the dangers of escapism and unreality - and indeed, undemandingness, or the presence and action of God's love interpenetrating our world, and coming into being through our activity.....?
I'm sure you can see what my conviction is.
What do you think?
July 31 2019
71 years ago today, Dr Ludwig Guttmann organised the first international athletic competition for people with physical impairments, based at Stoke Mandeville hospital. And thus was the Paralympic movement born, with all its current competitions and developments.
I bet Dr Guttmann didn't know what he had started. The movement has been part of a wider social development that has seen the more explicit involvement of those with physical, developmental, cognitive and communication impairments into society.
It's not all good news though. Only this week, somebody I know reported being shouted at when buying petrol, by a random passer-by "Boris is going to deal with all you ************ disabled scroungers". I regularly sit with somebody whose impairment has led to her being bullied, and to losing her job. There is yet a long path to walk.
We try to take issues of impairment and inclusion seriously. We say, regularly on social media, that we are an accessible church. Our building is designed for ease of access for wheelchair users, and others using walking aids. This includes access to the "front" not always remembered - one friend who uses a wheelchair and is a minister asked a church how those who couldn't walk could access the reading desk from which preaching took place "Why would they want to?" was the response. We have a sound loop for those who use hearing aids. We make provision for different needs regarding bread anf alcohol when we share communion.
But I wonder if there is more we could do. What about those with sight impairment, when much of our service material is made available via the screen? What about those whose emotional or cognitive life is complex - how comfortable would somebody feel in a service that is so very word based and fairly structured and ordered.
I am not suggesting that we should indulge in guilt over this. We have things we are doing right. But there may be more we can do. To that end, there will be discussions later in the year about how we present some of what we do, and how we do our services.
We might also like to think about how we can stand with and on behalf of those who face the kind of anger, discrimination and abuse that is the experience of many who are disabled or impaired.
When Scripture describes us as made in the image of God, this is in part a call and reminder to treat each other with honour and dignity appropriate to such an identity. We are made in the image of God who is known to us in Jesus. Jesus, who was known to his disciples because they recognised his wounds; his impairments and disabilities. This is how our God comes to us. This is the image in which we are made, and which we are called to honour.
Such an understanding might give us pause....
July 24 2019
As our new Prime Minister takes charge, many churches have undertaken to pray for him and for his government, and for our country at this demanding time.
In addition, JPIT, the Joint Public Issues Team, which works on behalf of the Baptist Union, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church, has written a letter to Mr Johnson. In it, they express concern about the impact of a No Deal Brexit on those in our country who are already dealing with the impact of poverty, and the letter asks the Prime Minister to take this issue seriously.
Various church leaders and others have been invited to sign the letter before it went public. I was one of these and have signed. The letter is now published, and you can see it, together with the press release here; JPIT Letter to PM
If you would like to sign it, you can do so here; JPIT Brexit Letter Sign-Up
And even as we write, protest and expect, so we undertake to pray for all involved in carrying the responsibility of governing our country.
July 10 2019
This is turning out to be a week of goodbyes.
On Monday at 615ers, notice was given and taken of those who will be moving up to The Net (the group for the next age group) next season; the same thing will, I assume, have taken place at The Net (I was not present at that meeting). School term is ending, and that involves goodbyes, and changes, and these are both exciting and complex.
And Day Centre has been saying goodbye; on Friday, we will have the funeral and thanksgiving centre for one of the long-time members of the church, who was central to the beginnings of the lunch at Day Centre, and who recently has been a regular to enjoy lunch. And this week we heard of the death of one of our regular members, who has been very poorly, but who was with us last Thursday.
It is a bit of a cliché to say that goodbyes are hard; but like most clichés it is one because it is a truth. Saying goodbye is rarely easy, nor is it straightforward. As youngsters move from one group to another, there is a sadness at seeing them go, coupled with a sense of gladness that they are growing and developing (together with a sense of relief that there is another group for them to move to, in which their developing needs and demands will be met!) As we say goodbye to some who have been unwell and lived with that frustration for some years, there is regret that we will miss them, together with thankfulness that, as the funeral prayer puts it "thank you that where frustration and disappointment have diminished their life, that is now past".
There can be the sense, also reflected in one of the funeral prayers that we did not have enough time to say it all; "if only there had been more time, to say thank you, sorry, I love you".
Above all, there is a sense of powerlessness; these changes happen and there is nothing we can do. We can work with medics to sustain life, but only for a while. We can suggest to a child that they are not ready to move on, but eventually they are and will.
And we ourselves move, change, face up to the reality of our dying....
The beginning of our funeral service includes the reminder that we gather to hear the great promises of our faith - and we don't only ned to hear them in those circumstances. Always, in all our contexts, changes, fears and hopes, we can listen to and depend on the words of promise; "I will never leave you or forsake you", "underneath are the everlasting arms", "the love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting".
As we let people go - into the joy and delight of the next stage in life, as the years pass, and classes and youth groups change, into the mystery of death, this is the context into which we commit them - and ourselves. A love that is more than we can name, and that we can trust with all that we are, and all those whom we love.
July 4th 2019
Over the last five weeks (last one is tonight) we have been using the Church Action on Poverty Dangerous Stories bible studies. These have helped us engage with some of the parables in a new way, taking seriously issues of poverty and powerlessness both in Jesus context and in our own.
One of the things we have reflected on is the importance of hearing people's own stories; not what official voices say, not even what well-meaning voices say, but what people themselves say about their situation and what they experience.
Church Action on Poverty helps this to happen through its series of blogs; Voices From the Margins (which you can access through the link), and we thought that part of our commitment to the truth telling to which the church is called is to make this link known through our own networks.
I hope you enjoy reading the blog on this website - and we hope even more that we can help to spread news of real stories and of how people are trying to make sense of life in and through poverty. We recognise that we are incredibly privileged in terms of resources and security....hearing these voices reminds us of the privilege and the responsibility that comes with it.
This is not an issue we will "finish" examining; we will revisit and re-engage in many ways. This is just one. But please, if you can, follow the link and engage as well.
June 27 2019
I just don't like it...
Each time I go to lunch at the Day Centre, I cause disconcertment. I am not a fussy person (shades of AA Milne's poem The King's Breakfast!) but the things I don't or can't take are the kind of things that are deeply "normal" - in that I drink neither tea nor coffee, and I don't like custard.
And since dessert at Day Centre Lunch normally involves custard to the great delight of most of the guests, and the meal ends with a cup or tea or coffee, my idiosyncrasies are rather on display.
Those who serve the meal are wonderful; they mostly remember my fussiness about custard, and bring me a dessert without. And for most of the guests, this is worrying..."you don't like custard?" is a regular enquiry, usually in tones of deep confusion, and sometimes "but how do you manage without custard?", in tones of deep concern...
It is lovely to be so cared for.
But the fact remains, I simply don't like it.
That people find this so difficult to believe, and that it causes worry for my well-being has got me thinking.
There are clearly those who cannot conceive of a "proper" meal without custard, or without finishing up with a cup of tea or coffee...it doesn't seem right, it breaks unspoken assumptions of "properness". Even when I make the assurance that this is how I prefer it, I occasionally meet looks of frank incredulity.
What seems to me perfectly normal strikes others as deeply weird.
And while it is not a moral issue by any means, it can carry some of the same overtones.
But on the whole, this idiosyncrasy is tolerated, and even regarded as rather endearing.
I wonder what a congregation, a community, a society would look like when our differences - even differences that seem so weird - are regarded not as threats or dangers, but as oddities, as, indeed, possibilities for rejoicing. My not eating custard is often greeted with "all the more for me!"
I know that not eating custard is trivial in terms of difference.
But how many of our so-called major differences really resolve into "I just don't like it"....?
June 19 2019
Discovering who we are
More on being a child in order to enter the Kingdom...this time, prompted by being at 615ers this week. This is the club for youngsters of about 5 to about 8...lots of running around, shouting, competing and generally exploring limits and having fun.
Part of the activity this week was dressing up in newspaper. Not the most obvious lace for theological reflection, but you'd be surprised.
The invitation was for each group to dress the smallest member in any sort of costume chosen, and to use newspaper and sellotape to do it. In the group I was accompanying, two small bodies were clad in paper...one of them one of the littlest and shyest of the little girls who comes. She is a brave and determined little soul, and clearly wants to be part of the group, and also clearly at times finds it overwhelming and noisy.
For reasons best known to themselves, the group decided to dress her as a pirate...possibly because one of them was very good at making pirates' hats. She didn't look particularly piratical by the end, but she did have a tunic, a spectacular cloak, a wonderful hat, and a sword. Indeed, a sword that was larger then her.
What fascinated me was her sheer delight; this shy child was running round the place, wielding her sword, and full of courage and joy. At the end, she kept her costume on, keen to show parents and siblings...who were all impressed, and not a little surprised. She had found a new part of herself, and it was good to see. The costume didn't fit, and was pretty ramshackle, the sword was way too big, the hat kept falling off - but it gave her something to explore and it delighted her. And everybody who saw her.
It strikes me that worship is our place to do that. We make huge statements in worship - about what we believe, about who we are, about what we are going to do. And, I believe we mean them. But they don't really fit our selves, our world, our experience. And there are times when worship is a bit messy, and it doesn't all go to plan, and bits fall off, and the promises we make, and the commitments we offer are way too big for us.
There, in wearing the costume and discovering what it felt like, that child discovered something new about herself, and a new possibility of interaction and delight; she tried it on, and discovered new possibilities.
And maybe that's what we are doing when we meet for worship - we are trying on this new identity and this new world. We are experimenting with what it feels like to be followers of Jesus, and we are trying out what the Kingdom might be.
Looking at the child, her costume was a few bits of paper and sellotape. But, for her, as she wore it, it was promise and possibility and beauty and strength. Sometimes our worship looks like a few scraps stuck together with transparent stickiness. But it can also be promise and possibility and beauty and strength.
And again, we glimpse the Kingdom, and are empowered to live it into being.
June 12 2019
Letting it all hang out...
I'm not sure exactly what had upset her, but she was devastated. She buried her face in her mother's arms and howled. And when that wasn't enough, she ran and stood against the door, resting her forehead on its coolness and wept like her heart would break.
She is about 3.
Her mother said "she's ok, she just needs a moment or two alone" and we all tactfully left her be, until Mum came and picked her up and cuddled her and it all quietened down.
An ordinary morning at Toddlers....
But I have been left thinking about the unrestrained nature, both of her grief, and of her recovery.
When Jesus told those around him that, in order to enter the Kingdom, the only requirement was to become a little child, lots of things are hidden in that statement.
And I wonder if one of the bits we miss, or would rather ignore, is the capacity of a young child to feel what they are feeling, and to feel it with full intensity and engagement. Whatever it was that had upset the little one this morning, she was not hiding it, she was not editing it for fear of offending the rest of us, she was not telling herself that she "shouldn't" feel like this, and so shutting down.
On the whole, I am grateful that most of us, most of the time are well enough in control that we do not howl whenever something isn't quite as we would wish. But I wonder if a little more expression of how we really feel - when we are grieving, when we are afraid, when we are frustrated - might enrich our fellowship and our worship.
After all, the more fully we are present as our whole selves, not just the edited-for-public-consumption highlights, both to one another and to God, the more real our relationships.
And there, in that kind of reality, is a glimpse of the Kingdom.
June 5 2019
Saying thank you
This is National Volunteers' Week.
So, I don't want to say much in this week's blog apart from a HUGE THANK YOU to all our amazing volunteers - for Day Centre, for Youth Groups, for Toddlers' Group, for the church working party, for those who keep the garden, for those who manage our donations to Well Spring and to the Food Bank, for those who play the piano Sunday by Sunday, for those who are there to let in people who come to mend things, for those who count the money and those who deal with the banking, and pay the bills, for those who write the letters and those who produce the notices, for those who visit and care, write letters and keep us up to date with campaigns.....
I've missed somebody, I know.
I'm still new enough to get away with - I'm sorry, I'm still bewildered about all that goes on. If I have missed you, I'm sorry. Know that you are thanked anyway!!
We could not be who we are without volunteers - we would not be who we are if we were not the people who volunteered. It is amazing and wonderful, challenging and comforting.
And we need more, especially drivers....
If you know of anybody, please encourage them....
May 29 2019
Making a home....
This is Maizie. She is the new manse dog and the latest addition to the ministry team here at Grove Lane. Don't worry - there won't be many mentions of her here on this blog (my own one, and my facebook and twitter are another matter altogether....!!)
Helping her settle in and watching her find her feet is lovely thing. And of course, has prompted theological thinking...especially as we approach Pentecost. Jesus spoke about the Holy Spirit coming to make a home with us, and indeed in us. It's one of those phrases that passes over because it is used so often in that context and so becomes part of our religious speak. But watching somebody I don't yet know "make a home" makes me think. It is not straightforward. It is not just a matter of walking in and settling down...it is about getting to know, about taking time, about understanding the rhythms, about adjustments and all sorts of little things.
It's wonderful, and delightful, and a bit of work.
And the Holy Spirit makes a home within us...and it takes time, and attention and adjustment - and that's what the Spirit does. The Spirit is God's activity of joining into our lives, our selves, our contexts. There is something we need to do...but the work is the Spirit's. We need to make a home for Maizie - let her have space and time and a place to settle. And we can do the same for the Spirit...let her have space and time and a place, and enjoy her making a home for the divine within us, in our lives and world.
I hope some of you will get the chance to meet Maizie (she's a little nervous, so let us take our time!). And the comfort is that the Spirit's commitment to making a home with us is absolute not affected by nerves or anxiety...
May 15 2019
Finding the Kingdom of God in marshmallows...
On a Monday evening, I get to play with the 615ers group, youngsters from the first few years of primary school. It is always noisy, high energy, exuberant and lots of fun.
This week, they were divided into four groups, sat around tables and presented with marshmallows and wooden sticks, in order to build towers.
That was the plan.
The reality was somewhat different. There were, to be fair, some attempts at towers.
There was also Dan's Man, a man made by one of the youngsters, Dan.
There was a lion on stilts, whose role was to attack the castle tower - which itself was adorned with a flag made of marshmallow, and protected by a cannon that fired, (you've guessed!), marshmallows. You can see one, above....and no, it wasn't built at that angle, nor yet photographed at that angle, but my tech skills cannot counter the site's insistence on producing it at that angle....
There was much stickiness, much laughter, a great deal of shouting, a surprising amount of attentive engineering, a wonderful exemplifying of imagination, and delight all round.
At the end of the evening, came the moment for judging; which of the four structures would be reckoned best. Well, one was recognised for being tallest (the original criterion!). One was recognised for demonstrating a significant commitment to marshmallowness, one was admired for its flexibility, and one was, in the words of the leader who helped to construct it, honoured for having gone a significant journey.
In other words, all won.
Alice-in-Wonderlandish, all have won and so all must have prizes?
Or an affirmation of the wonder of the Kingdom of God.
I am convinced it was the latter....there were no prizes, but everybody was honoured.
And we glimpsed the kingdom in which none are defeated or their work dishonoured. In which the same instructions lead to a wide and wonderful breadth of imaginative interpretation and the development of possibilities others might not have thought of. In which the individuality of each person was expressed, and yet, people also worked together, joined in, improvised around each others actions. In which joy, laughter, creativity, possibility, noise and energy were all expressed, and yet in which there were quiet moments as somebody worked at something, and got it to "come out right".
And yes, it was a good deal more sticky than I think the Kingdom will be....but even here, there was a commitment to wholehearted engagement with the material at hand, regardless of the mess it made. And I can think of few actions more illustrative of the Incarnation, God's engagement with our reality as human beings - regardless of the consequences to God's own self....
It was fun. That was the primary intention.
But also, hidden deep in it, like a peck of yeast in a bushel of flour, was the Kingdom, bursting out in ways we never expected....
I am grateful for what I have seen.
May 8th 2019
Let's be honest....
This is part of the logo on the van of the wonderful plumber who came today to sort out a leak that was threatening the lights... I know enough to know that electricity and water do not make a good combination, and it is reassuring that somebody has sorted this out. I only met him in passing, and he was friendly and focussed on the job, just as one would hope. But as I was walking back from Day Centre through the car park, I noticed this on the van.
I really like it!
In a world that is very full of hype, of "yes, we can" to whatever question is raised - even when we can't - it is a very reassuring, and refreshingly honest comment.
I would love to adopt something like this as part of our identity as a church. I think we are pretty realistic about what we can and cannot do - if anything, I suspect, if you are like me, you are more likely to underestimate than to overestimate what God is doing, and what it might look like.
But the fact remains, we live in a context and culture where overselling ourselves can happen.
Not deliberately. We are honest people.
But, in the words of the Bing Crosby song, we are taught, and we can easily come to believe that
"You've got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on the affirmative
Don't mess with Mister In-Between"
And as one who can all too easily look on the black side, it is good to be reminded of that.
But there is a value in being realistic. I sat with somebody some time ago, who suffered with various mental health issues, and who was cross that the church (as a whole, not us in particular) was not offering more in the way of support, help, healing. And I had to be honest and say that we could offer friendship, we could offer chances to volunteer, but no, with the best will in the world, and with prayer and encouragement, still we could not "promise" that she would get well. She might improve, she might find new possibilities and encouragement, I hoped she would find friendship and companionship - but "could I fix it?" No - I could, we could offer a change, but not a guaranteed cure-all.
I'm all for telling the good news. I am all in favour of helping people look at brightness instead of darkness. But I hope as we do it, we do it with the honesty of our plumber; can we make a difference - yes. Can we make everything perfect - probably not.
Will we do the best we can.....I hope so!
May 1st 2019
A day of celebration....
On Sunday, we had a baptismal service. Two members of our congregation "at their own request and on their profession of faith", as the service words put it, were baptised by immersion. They made statements, each in their own way, they answered questions, they got extremely wet, and the congregation blessed them in ancient words.
It was wonderful!
A service in which baptism takes place is always a time of great rejoicing, great encouragement, and deep remembering. I have been struck by just how many people have told me that being present at the baptisms on Sunday has put them in mind of their own baptism - even, as several have mentioned, - if the pool was very different, the dress code much stricter and water significantly cooler...
It is only on very rare occasions that a Baptist congregation will recite a creed or statement of faith together in worship. There are all sorts of theological and historical reasons for this, but one thing it does is set us apart from most other forms of congregation. Of course, our faith is affirmed in the words we do share, of prayer, in hymns, and in a variety of other ways. But rarely do we make explicit statements of the content of our faith.
Baptism is one of the ways we do this - not only in words, but in vivid and dramatic action; we act out a commitment to living in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus by being buried in water and raised again, we experience being born of water and the Spirit by emerging from water in somebody else's grasp, we recapitulate the journey of the people of God out of exile through the parted sea by going into and coming out of the water, we are held safe through the flood and come out the other side....so much is present in baptism. And in the words said; our belief in God, Father, Son and Spirit, our trust in the saving grace of the Lord Jesus, our commitment to follow as disciples, and our willingness to work out that following in the life of a local community....all of that is promised and affirmed.
All this, and so much more...it would require a book, and I am writing a blog.
But all of this is part of what we do - and, therefore, of what we reconnect with when we are present at the baptism of another.
I am delighted that we celebrated the two baptisms on Sunday.
I am even more thrilled that the "confessions of faith" that were made by the two candidates were affirmed and reaffirmed in so many other people's experience, as so many of us reconnected with our own baptisms in memory and heart.
Our life of faith is a living out of our baptismal vows; it is wonderful to be brought back to them again, and have the opportunity to re-vow.
And we do it in the confidence that God honours what we offer, and brings the kingdom in, through, among and despite us, and in this is our life and our hope.
April 24 2019
It's still Easter!
A friend on Facebook posted on Monday this week "what do you mean, did I have a good Easter? Easter has only just started...."
He knew, I am sure, that people asking him "did you have a good Easter?" were asking how Sunday had gone. But his point remains valid. For the church calendar, Easter lasts from Easter Day until Pentecost - 50 days.
50 days of chocolate eggs, sweet cakes and - well, whatever else you enjoy as an Easter celebration.
6 weeks in which we can sing Easter hymns.
6 Sundays in which we concentrate on the Easter story...well, actually, we won't entirely do that. But there are, or have been, lectionaries that do have that shape.
I suspect my Easter eggs will not last 6 weeks, and I can promise that we won't be singing only Easter hymns for the next 6 Sundays (though some will appear over the next few weeks) But I think there is a truth here we need to hold on to....that Easter is not one day.
If this is true, if the tomb is empty, then this is not a one-day or even a nine-day wonder; it changes everything, and we will spend a lifetime and more working out what it means and how to live in response to it.
That is what we need each other for; to explore together how to live in this new world. And to remind one another that this is the world we now live in, for there will be much around to pull us back to the old world, dominated by death and tombs.
So, I wish you a happy Easter, a joyful celebration, and 50 days - at least, - to get used to the new idea of an empty tomb....and then a lifetime and more to explore what it all means!
April 17th 2019
Pictures and stories
I took one of the regular attenders of our Toddler Group into the church building yesterday, when there was nobody else there. For once, she was not having to pay attention to a little one, and there was no other noise or conversation to take her attention. She stopped in front of the picture in the entrance that George has put up; "That's wonderful" she said. "What is it?"
And I realised that she did not know the story of Palm Sunday, or its connection with Easter. And so we had a short, but fascinating conversation about what it is all about. The kind of conversation I don't often have, but which is always illuminating when I do.
It reminded me that there is a whole group of people who have not rejected our faith because they do not agree with its claims, or because of reasoned argument, but who have never actually had the chance to accept or reject, because they simply don't know. And for many of them, the question never arises, not because they think that what we are about is untrue, but it is irrelevant; it has no impact on the way that they live, there is no point of contact.
But the picture raised a question, an the question could be answered, and something new is understood; what connection, if any, it might make, I have no idea....and that's not really the point. the point is there was the possibility of a question, and the possibility of an answer.
I absolutely get not wanting to "shove religion down people's throats"; the last thing I want to do is choke people.
But what if it's not about "shoving". What if it's about raising possibilities, and telling stories that open new horizons? What if it's about making available new ways of considering things, and different accounts of interpreting experience?
I am so grateful for the various pictures and other signs and symbols around the building. Maybe we need to look again at what is there and how we might offer them as ways of helping those who might be interested if given the chance, to the opportunity to discover that as yet unknown Something Bigger that can lead us all into exploring more deeply the Love at the heart of it all.
April 11th 2019
I have never known such a church for boxes! We have boxes to collect for the Wood St Mission and for the Foodbank, to gather tops of milk containers for recycling, and for books, at Christmas for hats and scarves and for hampers.
To say nothing of the boxes and containers that live in the kitchen and are used to share out food whenever we don't (quite!) finish a meal. And boxes in the youth club cupboard that contain all sorts of wonders for craft and camping and exploring possibilities.
And boxes of dominoes and books for Day Centre. And boxes of toys for Toddlers.
And boxes that contain wafers for communion, and boxes that hold envelopes in which people bring offerings. Boxes that hold paper and card for copying, and the box that protects the projector that we use on a Sunday, to say nothing of the built in box that has all the sound equipment...
You get the picture I am sure...and I am also sure you could also add to the list.
There are contexts in which we are invited to "think outside the box" - and it makes an interesting Easter theme, and one we will revisit very soon. But today, I want to give thanks for those who think inside our various boxes...who fill them with resources to be shared, riches to be passed on, possibilities to be explored. There are moments when the boxes seem to take over! But I wouldn't have it any other way.
April 3 2019
Sharing food, and praying around the B-word...
I'm just in from sharing lunch with the Day Centre guests...always a good experience. Today's conversation ranged from the right ingredients for a Harvey Wallbanger cocktail, round the necessity for doctor's visit and the generosity of friends and neighbours - with much good humour, gentle teasing and laughter.
We have had some of these conversations before. Some of these with whom I have shared this conversation will probably not remember having had it next time I meet them.
That doesn't matter.
In that moment, for these minutes, in this conversation, we were all present with each other, and enjoying each other's company - as well as a delicious meal (even if I have to get my dessert served without custard...there are some sacrifices I am not prepared to make!)
One delight was the B-word was not mentioned. I accept that there is much discussion to have around the future of our country, much decision-making to do, and those who are trying to find a way through - both those about whom we hear on the news, and the ones working behind the scenes trying to make it make sense- need our prayers. But at this lunch, I was reminded that, at the heart of all the politicking and all the stress and distress is the desire for a community that works, a way of living together that allows people to flourish. There are so many competing views of how to achieve that, and we struggle to have conversations that enable it well.
But in the banter, the jollity, and the serious discussion and the careful listening - partly because people are aware they will forget or misunderstand, and are realistic about their limits - I was encouraged. People can talk together, people can listen, people can pay attention to one another. Sharing food definitely helps. As does the care offered by our amazing volunteers and the relaxed atmosphere that they create.
So, I have had fun.
But I have also found a new way to pray for those working to find a way forward for our country; that they might have time and space to talk person to person - preferably over food, and in those moments, meet one another as real people, and discover that there is much to treasure.
March 27 2019
Tonight, Churches Together in Cheadle Hulme is meeting at Grove Lane, for its regular "Prayer and Praise" evenings.
This is a good thing, and we love to get together.
Mind you, who will actually gather tonight is somewhat unclear.....I managed to muddle the dates, and as far as the Grove Lane congregation is concerned, we were due to meet - and indeed did meet - last week.
Every other church has been told that the meeting is tonight. And so, quite rightly, they are attending tonight.
So - it will be Churches Together...but only some of them!
Last week, and this week, we are praying together in the face of some of the distresses and pains of the world; massacres in mosques and knife crime in quiet streets and not so quiet streets, people anxious and afraid, and the political confusion of our nation.
Last week we did, and tonight we will float candles in water to symbolise our prayers in our tears.
And we did and will plant seeds...signs of hope and symbols of our conviction that life emerges even when it looks hopeless, when God is at work.
The dates may be wrong, muddled and confused.
But our prayers are the same; Lord, bring healing and reconciliation, and make us your instruments.
March 21 2019
My list of "things I must do to get through the week successfully" has a variety of things on it, most of them identified to various days. This includes - on Wednesdays - write this blog.
This is because I know, from bitter experience, that if I don't have a regular time to do this, lets face it rather fun task, I am always in danger of putting it off until I get through some of the more demanding or stretching things that await me each week I have discovered that something that can be done at any time will often end up not being done at al.
And now, for the second week, I have missed my own "deadline" and am writing the blog a day late.
The start of a slippery slope... :)
I'm not actually so convinced of the importance of these ramblings that I think catastrophe lurks if I am a day late - or even if I miss a few (though I will try not to!)
But realising today how easily I have slipped over yesterday's deadline, and how near I came to not bothering today has been a sharp reminder of just now easy it is to let things slip, and let bad habits - of neglect, of ignoring, of lack of attention become the norm.
As I say, I don't have an inflated opinion of this blog....but, Lent is a helpful time to just take notice. What things that we value have slipped from our notice, or are withering for lack of attention? What activities or responsibilities have inappropriately moved down the scale of our concern? What aspects of our care for one another, and our selves have taken a back seat while other matters have occupied us, unhelpfully.
It has been said that a bad habit is like a warm bed on a cold day; easy to get into and hard to get out of. Maybe Lent this year is a good time to review just how "habitual" things are going.
March 14 2019
I spent this morning at the Christian Resources Exhibition. It's always a worthwhile visit...where else can you find out about HR companies, audiovisual schemes, homes for Elders in Israel and buy socks with texts on - all under one roof!
Actually, I buy books...but that's my own private addiction!
It was an interesting morning, and I gained some useful information of where to look for certain things we need, or might need in the future.
And it got me thinking. I understand the title; it is a gathering together of all sorts of people who offer resources to churches and individuals in all sorts of aspects of living faithfully and creatively. But it has left me wondering about just what resources Christians have?
We, like many churches, do an amazing amount with not a lot in the way of visible resources. Our most important resources of course are our people - the church members and the wider community of volunteers and people who are involved which mean it is possible to run the youth groups, toddler group, day centre, to say nothing of the one-off events (there's a film night tomorrow, Friday 15th - 6.30 start. We're showing Ghandi!) that make our life in this congregation to rich and so full of service.
We also have the resource of a flexible building, which can be - and is - used for all sorts of things. And we have reserves in the bank, which means we have resources to take a few risks, try a few new things, buy some equipment that will help us serve more effectively, more extensively. To say nothing of the resource of generosity which is present among so many.
It's also true, I think, that there are times when we feel our resources are stretched a bit thin. When it feels a little fragile as we think ahead...how are we going to manage to continue caring for our building, running our various groups, doing our wide variety of things?
If I'm honest, at the moment I don't know. It may be, in years to come, that the shape of what we do will change as our resources take on different shapes. The way we do things now is not the way we were doing it 10 or 15 years ago....
What I am convinced of is that there will always be resources to do something...because we will always have a call to serve, and where there is a call, there is a way to answer it.
I am also convinced that the heart of any resources that we have - and that we use - is an unshakable, unending, unlimited love; love not just for us, but for all creation. And when we are acting in accord with that love, in service as a result of that love, surprising things will happen, and unexpected resources will turn up.
That's what makes the exploration of "Christian resources" so exciting!
Mar 6 2019
Not historically an important date for Baptists, yet still one that does offer us something important. During Lent this year, we are going to follow a series of studies devised by the environmental charity and campaigning organisation, A Rocha, which will help our thinking - and, we hope our acting - on issues to do with creation care.
It may not immediately seem the most obvious Lenten theme. But we think it is. Lent is a time when historically, believers have reflected on the temptations and the results of being distant from the will and intention of the Creator - the kind of choices that eventually led to Jesus being crucified. This year, we are reflecting on the kind of choices that are now leading to the destruction of our world.
Traditionally, people have "given something up" for Lent - a way of denying ourselves and reminding ourselves that much that we "want" we do not need - and freeing up time, energy and resources to serve others and to seek God. Our challenge this Lent is to look at ways we might "give up" some of the patterns of our day to day lives so that we can free up the resources of the world to be better cared for, to be better distributed and to be allowed to live. This will, if we take it seriously, involve us letting go of things we take for granted that we feel we "need" and discovering we can live without them.
Lent is a time to ask whether our ways of life truly match the profession of faith that we make. We are those who believe that "the Earth is the Lord's"...this Lent, we are asking ourselves and one another - do we live like that?
Our studies are on Thursdays at 7.00pm at church. Come and join us
Feb 13th 2019
Speaking of love...
I have started to help at 615ers for a bit; this is our group for youngsters from about 5-8. They meet at 6.15 (hence the name) and play games, tell stories of their week, undertake various activities - and scream a lot.
It is great fun and I was made very welcome.
And I had a good deal of fun. It was my first full week this week, and being the week in we celebrate St Valentine's Day, we were making cards. The picture above is the one I made. (And inside there is chocolate!)
As the youngsters were introduced to the idea, it was with the suggestion that the card could be made for anybody - a mother, father, brother, sister, friend....
We went step by step through the various messy activities of sticking and placing and generally making the card; then came the pencils and the moment of writing the message. "I'm writing to my sister" said my immediate (very noisy and wriggly neighbour). "What are you going to say?" I asked.
He knew immediately; "with love to my smelly and annoying sister!"
"Hmmm" was my rather inadequate response.
But then he took his pencil, and started to write.
I was allowed to peek as long as I didn't say.
So, I won't. Suffice to say, the adjectives with which he described his sister were not those he had spoken aloud with such bravado and energy.
So, I have been left wondering; what does it take to say "I love you" to people that our social structures tell us we shouldn't love. Little boys of 7 are not expected to affirm their affection for their sisters. Making a card and keeping it secret may be a useful tool for saying what might otherwise feel unsayable.
What other tools might church offer for the speaking of love - and the showing of love - to those to whom we might otherwise not be "allowed" to love.
For after all, right at the heart of our existence as church is the amazing truth that "while we were yet sinners, God showed his love for us on Christ Jesus....." If that is not loving the "wrong ones, what else is it?
Do we do it enough?
Feb 6th 2019
A new experiment
We have a new experiment running. We are going to put some of our sermons up online. It won't be the whole service...we're using a free service, and we are restricted to the length, while we experiment with how it works out. But it will include the readings, the sermon and the prayers of intercession.
Well, I can promise you, it's not because I love the idea of my voice being out there on the interweb! I find it very hard, for two reasons. One, the very common one, which is that I don't like the sound of my voice, and hate the thought of it being "out there"!
But the second one is more substantial. A sermon is not an essay, or a self-contained item. It is an event between preacher and congregation. It was there in the sermon from Sunday; the reading contained the phrase "this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing". That is, the sermon has its meaning not in the preaching, but in the hearing. And the hearing is part of the whole gathering in worship. It belongs in the context of praying and worshipping.
Therefore, I have an unease about a sermon detached from a congregational gathering.
But then I remember, that while a congregation gathered in the name of Jesus is fully church, and therefore does not need a validation from a hierarchy - it is not the whole of the church. The church is more than our gathering. And so, I trusting that there will be those who encounter these readings, sermons and prayers within that context - as part of that great community of the people of God, across space and indeed time.
So, now I'm really terrified.
Fortunately, I have been well taught! A student once remarked to one of my teaching colleagues, who was going to listen to said student preach; "I am terrified that you are coming to hear me." My colleague commented "But you always preach in the company of saints and the angels and before God. Why should I be frightening?"
So - there's the thing. We are putting some of our material out on the internet. But all of our worship, all of our praying, all of our gathering is company with the saints and angels and before God. That is our privilege and delight.
PS You can find the link here; Sermon; Feb 3rd
It will also appear on twitter and on our facebook page
Jan 30th 2019
Sitting with people
I was reading somebody today writing about the verse of Paul's letter to the Romans in which he comments that people in the church should "rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep". As part of the discussion, the writer commented that sometimes churches had taken that to extremes, and their only contact with some people was in the delight of weddings and the sadness of funerals....and perhaps we might want to develop our relationships a bit further.
A flippant comment, but one worth taking seriously. To share in people's lives - insofar as we are invited and welcomed - is a huge privilege. Sharing our ups and downs can be an important part of being involved in a congregation; getting to know people over the years so that we are each aware of each other's lives and can join in the delights and the sorrows. Such experiences shared take on a different aspect.
And, in the various things we do as a church, we have the opportunity to do this in even more contexts. As we share in lives by sharing lunch, or sharing playtime, or the various activities in the youth groups, we offer ourselves as those who will delight and mourn when people need us to. At church meeting earlier this month, we heard the annual report on the work of the youth groups, and as well as hearing a little about the various activities and achievements, it was important that we heard what else is offered by those who lead these groups; the stability offered, which can be important to youngsters whose home life is less than stable; a listening ear that does not judge, when other contexts are full of judgement - like school tests, and the pressures of social media; space to explore and so to feel happy or sad - particularly when there is no need to protect the adult, which is not always the case for a youngster in a home or school.
Weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice is to hold a non-judgemental and accepting position. It is to refuse to tell people how they should feel and to let them explore how they actually do feel - and such acceptance and such paying attention to the real feelings can be deeply healing and encouraging.
It is an work in imitation of Jesus, a way of being the presence of Jesus. As he encountered people feeling things deeply - happy or despairing - he did not question or challenge or deny. He sat with them, and by doing that, helped people understand more deeply what was happening, and assured them that the loving arms of God would never let go.
There is an act of ministry that we can all share, and that is wonderfully and unexpectedly transformative....
Jan 23rd 2019
Of kitchens and theology...
We are having the kitchens renewed, refreshed and restored. Part of the funding for this is coming from the Manchester Airport Community Fund, and is to support the work of the Day Centre - and very glad and grateful we are for this support.
Other money is coming from church funds and from direct gifts -and again, very glad and grateful describes how we feel.
And while we are very glad that the kitchens are being done, it would be fair to say that it is somewhat of a disruption (and that at rather short notice!) Our Day Centre and Toddler groups can't meet for two weeks, since they would normally meet at the times when the work is going on, and that's not a good idea....!
And though various other people will be using the building - including our gathering for worship on Sunday - while the work is happening, we can't have our normal refreshments.
Which has made me realise again just how central refreshments are to what we normally do. It's clearly part of Day Centre and of Toddlers and youth group gatherings....but it is also significant when we meet for a deacons' meeting, sometimes for a church meeting, and on a Sunday, after (or when it's café church, as) the service. When we have "occasional" meetings - the ones that don't happen regularly, but need to take place, coffee and biscuit, tea and cake usually happens. Our wonderful film night last week benefitted from a break in the middle to share hot drinks and home made cakes.
And there's nothing very special or insightful in recognising that when people get together, sharing refreshments, food often happens and matters - there isn't even anything particularly churchy in it.
In fact, I think it is the other way round. One of the very central acts that we do as a church is sharing bread and wine. As an act, it has particular words and actions that go with it, and we do it in a very particular way. But, basically, we are eating and drinking together - that most human of activities, and one which is not only important to individuals, but (as the temporary loss of the kitchen shows) at the heart of people being together.
It surely matters that one of our most sacred, most defining acts - sharing bread and wine - is also one of the most fundamentally human and most centrally communal.
For it tells us something really significant about our faith and about being people of faith; first and foremost it is about being people, being and fully embracing being human.
Which of course, should come as no surprise. For in our sharing of bread and wine, among other things, we are re-encountering the way to God most fully comes to us, to be with us; as a human being.
So, here's a theological thought as we await the ending of the building works; our kitchen is a sacramental space and gift. It is a place that witness to and enables the presence of grace among us and within us.
For all that goes on in and through our kitchens, thanks be to God.
Jan 16th 2019
This is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This year we are invited to pray for justice and to reflect on how the call to act justly is a rebuke to our positions of division and separation. The material comes from the churches of Indonesia - a community in which economic divisions and social tensions highlight the need for tools and skills to build a coherent community. Their claim and call is that this is one of the gifts of the church - but that we need to start by looking at our own life before we can be fully effective in a divided world.
In the light of this week's politics and politicking, we might say of our own nation that there are economic divisions and social tensions, and the need to find a way to build coherent community.
I wonder what we might offer?
I wonder what we need to learn first?
Jan 9th 2019
Moving into the new year
Last Sunday - the first Sunday of the year - we welcomed and commissioned our deacons and promised to pray for them, and we made our covenant statement and promises. We promised to walk and work together, to seek Christ among us and beyond us, and to serve in a whole variety of ways.
The making of covenant promises in this form is a relatively recent practice for Baptist churches. Covenants as the basis for fellowship as a church got started were a significant part of our early identity, but the connecting with, renewing of and articulating around such a set of promises is less common, though increasingly practiced.
As a practice though, it has long been part of Methodist spirituality and church habit. Methodism has offered many things to the wider church, but not the last is methodical approaches to discipleship. In their student days, both Wesley brothers were seeking ways to make their faith real and alive in their day to day living, and they were part of a group who took this seriously and had systems to ensure that each part of a life of faith was examined and paid attention to. They brought this with them as their movement grew and needed to take shape.
John Wesley in particular was effective at providing the "soundbite" that could sum up such an approach and give a way of encapsulating an aspect of faithful living. Part of this is shown in the Methodist covenant prayer, which is included in the service at the beginning of each year.
But he also had a phrase which seems to me a kind of new year exhortation and commitment that sums up much of what we have promised in our important but somewhat wordy covenant. So, as we walk into the new year, I offer you the words o John Wesley as a goal and an intention; Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.
To do this is to follow our Lord.
Jan 2nd 2019
Putting it all away?
Have you taken the tree down yet. Packed away the decorations and listed the cards?
There is always great debate about when the decorations should be put away. Traditionally, of course, it is 12th Night - after 12 days of celebration, the Christmas season is officially at an end. 12th Night liturgically, is kept as the festival of Epiphany; the celebration of the arrival of the Magi, and the time when church has remembered that Jesus is "revelation" of God's promise, presence and love - and that that revelation reaches all peoples.
So, it seems rather odd to mark it by putting away all the markers of Christmas celebration. On the day when we remember that God's love in Jesus cannot be hidden and will not be shut behind exclusive borders, we hide and shut away the lights and markers of our great festival.
After all, if the feast of epiphany has meaning for us, it is about Jesus being seen, being noticeable, being available. Why do we hide the signs of that coming.
I am sure there are all sorts of reasons why 12th Night signals the time for the decorations to be put away.
But, please and please God, let's not let the putting away of the lights and the tree be mirrored by any kind of hiding of our faith, our service - and indeed, our willingness to share it. The Magi found the Baby in ways that were unconventional for the faith community of the day. I wonder what unconventional means might be available today for people to discover the life of the Kingdom of Love.
Dec 26th 2018
...not just for Christmas
It is, I know, a cause of some disappointment that we are no longer able to serve Christmas lunch to folk who might otherwise be alone on Christmas day. After doing it for so many years, it is sad that, for various practical reasons, it was a something that had to be ended. I am wondering if, at some point in the summer next year, there is place for a discussion about what, if anything we might able to do....
And we have been made all the more aware of the loss when there has been so much on social media this year about just such events going on in various churches, cathedrals and other gathering places. To see something that we have done and been proud of - and more significantly, enjoyed - not happening in our place, but happening elsewhere is painful.
But I hope we will not let it overshadow the amazing amount of work that goes on all year round, as our Day Centre volunteers transport, feed, befriend and generally do amazing work with folk three days a week, almost every week.
Similarly, we might - and indeed, do - regret that we are not filled with children when we meet for worship on a Sunday. That is a loss, and one we feel keenly. But again, we must be careful not to forget the care, friendship and safe space that we offer children, and carers three days a week, almost every week, at Toddlers' Group, 615ers, the Net and the Youth Group.
We have just celebrated the festival of Incarnation; God with us, one of us, in Jesus. Which is to say, we have just started to celebrate it - as a festival, Christmas continues for some days yet.
An even more significantly, Jesus' coming as one of us, as Immanuel, God-With-Us is not just at Christmas. We rightly make a big fuss of it at this time of year. But if it only matters at this time of year, if we only notice it at this time of year, then we have missed the point. Emmanuel is not just for Christmas.
And so, while I would love us to find a way to share Christmas meals and friendship with those who might otherwise be alone, and would be delighted if the same number of children - or even more - who are with us on Christmas day were with us during the year....I am glad to recognise, give thanks for and celebrate the not-just-Christmas work that means we are feeding people, welcoming children, and generally being part of the Kingdom not only this week, but all year round.
And if you want to get involved with it, please let us know....
A mixed week
21 Dec 2018
It's been a mixed week for our congregation and community. On Monday, there was the 615ers party - and much fun was had by all (including, apparently, the longest pass-the-parcel game ever!) Tomorrow, there will be a Christmas lunch for somewhere between 50 and 80 people, as the Day Centre celebrates the festive season. And today, we were part of the funeral for one of our long-term volunteers.
Joy and sadness, laughter and tears, looking forward and remembering, eating and drinking with friends...
In fact, all human life is part of our life; and our life of faith is involved in the whole of life.
We are in the season of celebrating Incarnation; God in a human body, eating and drinking with friends, joining in with parties and fun, enjoying being alive, mourning for friends at their deaths, afraid of his own.
We embrace all of life, and meet one another in our wider community in all the moments of being alive, because in all of life, in all the experiences and all the wonderings, the questions and the delights, God is already there ahead of us. This is Incarnation and this is the faith and the life to which we are called and committed. Thank you for sharing in it.
Dec 12 2018
We're proud of this....but....
Youth Groups and Congregation spent time and energy (and resources) putting together these hampers - purchasing and donating the goods in them, wrapping them to be festive, packing them, and delivering them to a centre from where they will be distributed by social services to families who need them.
I am incredibly proud of the generosity, imagination, commitment and determination represented by these hampers, delighted that all parts of our church community have taken part in putting them together and making them available. I am thrilled to be part of a church community that takes this kind of generosity and care in its stride. A somebody said to me, when I commented on how great I thought it was; "Well, it's what we do, isn't it. It's the right thing to do." And, yes, very much yes.
And I am ashamed, and horrified, and angry that I am part of a society in which this is needed. As somebody commented, putting up similar pictures on our facebook page; we are the 5th richest country in the world.
So, why are we needing to do this?
I am delighted that we can....but something is badly wrong.
A week on Sunday, we will be listening to Mary's song. That includes the lines "He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away."
Feeding the hungry is a duty and I am glad to do it. But asking why they are hungry, addressing these issues and challenging these structures - that also matters, and is also gospel.
Lord, give us ears to hear, and will and imagination to act.
Dec 6 2018
A Community Event
Last Saturday was our Christmas Fair. I suppose a purist might want to call it an Advent Fair, but we have decorations, we have a tree, we have Santa; we know what we are doing.
And it was a delight!
I was, I confess, a little anxious. For various good reasons, our publicity this year has been less than before. I was concerned that the only people who would be there would be those who had heard about it in the Sunday notices.
O ye of little faith.
All sorts of people were there. They came to run the stalls, to buy from the stalls, to eat the delicious bacon butties, to visit Santa, to be with friends. People came who are part of the Sunday congregation, and who are part of the weekday community, the Day Centre, the Youth Groups, the Toddlers' Group, families, friends, neighbours.
Yes, we could have advertised it more, yes, we could have coped (just!) with more people. But it was a delight to see people together, to see people feeling at home, to know that all sorts of people know that this is a space where they belong and where we can all be together.
It is true that we could do with raising our profile more - and we will be looking at this in the new year. There are all sorts of people who already regard us as "their" place; but there are, I am sure, more who have time, energy and inclination to be part of the community through volunteering, through coming to Youth Groups, to Toddlers' Group, to Day Centre, if they only knew about it. There are, I am sure, those who would find in our Sunday gatherings, space and place to meet with a Love that can renew life.
Saturday was a delight. I learned a little more about what it is to be part of a church that is so rooted, so strongly connected to its community - I have more to learn, but it is good to be making a start.
As we look to find ways to let more people know about the amazing stuff going on here, please join me in prayer that we do it well, we do it appropriately, we do it honouringly to who we are and who we are called to be.
Nov 28 2018
It's not quite advent.
Which means it is definitely not Christmas.
But.....but, the lights are going up in various places, there are trees to be seen, the words "Christmas party" are appearing in the diary, and all my minister friends are either looking smug because everything is prepared, or panicked, because it isn't. (I'll leave you to guess where I am in that continuum!)
It is customary to complain that Christmas is starting earlier and earlier, and even too early. And in some ways, I want to agree, It is sad to miss Advent as a season, to lose the chance of reflection, prayer and preparation that it gives, (and if you want to engage with that, Breathing Space on Thursdays during December might suit) Taking time to be ready, not just by making sure all the food is bought, the journeys planned and the presents wrapped, but also relationships mended, quarrels forgiven, estrangement restored - yes, and justice addressed, repentance offered, forgiveness received....all of that deepens our faith and furthers the Kingdom.
But that said, on dark, driech days, I love the lights and the sparkle. A reason to get together is good, and the fun and the joy of sharing company can't but benefit us - and the more it happens, the better.
At the end of A Christmas Carol, the reborn Scrooge promises to keep Christmas in his heart every day. As those who live as followers of Emmanuel, God With Us, why should we confine celebrating that great promise of companionship and presence to just a few days at the end of the year....as somebody else once said, I wish, theologically at lease, that it could be Christmas every day...
Nov 7th 2018
This week is the church’s AGM – it’s one of those dates reputedly guaranteed not to set the heart beating with anticipation and delight. It can be a very happy time, and one full of encouragement and excitement. But there is something about the very title Annual General Meeting that sounds heavy and portentous.
I wonder if we might serve ourselves well if we thought about renaming, or supplementing the name of the meeting? If we referred to this meeting as Our Gratitude Gathering, or Our Community Celebration, or even Our Ebenezer Event (do you remember the hymn; here I’ll raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy grace I’ve come…., a line in Come, Thou Fount of every blessing. Just in case you’re not up on the biblical references, 1 Sam 7;12; Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”)
OK, maybe not, and especially, maybe not the last. But it is, as well as the time to do the necessary legal work, a time to celebrate, give thanks, thank one another and look forward hopefully.
So, even though I am really not a meeting person, this week’s meeting is one in which I rejoice.
Nov 1st 2018
Yesterday, I had the privilege of sharing in a conference sort of thing, in which some churches in the area of Greater Manchester gathered to reflect on different aspects of being church today in our various contexts. Much of what was discussed, shared and explored will feed into our reflections over the next months, as I have listened and learned.
One of the significant themes that emerged was the importance of the word “with”; ways in which we are “with” one another, ways in which God is “with” us. The contrast was drawn between “with” and “for”. So, for example, very often, we think of God as doing things “for” us, or of us doing things “for” God.
So we pray to ask for things to happens, and we act and offer in order to do things that God needs done. And there is nothing wrong with that – much of prayer as we learn it from Jesus, see it modelled in the Psalms is asking God to do things. And our service is part of our discipleship, and a part of the Kingdom.
But, as we move towards Advent, and the celebration of Incarnation that is the heart of Christmas, so we are reminded that the Name given to the Baby was Emmanuel – God WITH us. And this is an important part of Incarnation…that God is not outside our lives, God is not over against our lives, but is in our world, and in our lives with us.
So, what might that call us to? Being “for” people is a thing we are good at, I think….we do a lot that helps, through our various activities, through collecting for the Foodbank and Wellspring and in so many informal ways. And wonderful they are.
We do a lot that is for those whom we serve – we give, we welcome, we support, we encourage, we resource…..we do good things for people.
I love that we are also looking for – and can always look for more – to be “with” people; not just to do things, to offer activity, but to be with – to meet, to listen, to share, to receive, to encounter and be alongside. Just as, in Incarnation, Jesus was vulnerable and changed, impacted by those whom he was with, so in our being with as well as doing for, we will be changed, we will receive, we will be vulnerable, and therefore all the more human.
Friends, let us never let go of the importance of being “with” and hide in the security of doing “for”; the more we can be with, the more we discover God with us.
24th Oct 2018
It’s half term week, and so Day Centre, Youth Groups and Toddler Group are not happening. So, since I had a long call to make using the computer, and since the wifi in the manse is not always dependable, I thought I would go over the church building and use the wifi there, since I wouldn’t be getting in anybody’s way, and could depend more on things working.
Turns out, of course, that while none of the groups may be meeting, still there are people coming and going from the building, undertaking various tasks, and dealing with various needs. This was great, since it meant that my sojourn in the building was not as lonely as I feared. It was also illuminating; I know that lots of people do lots of things in the background that I have not yet understood, nor even know need to be done. This time in the building means that I am no better informed. I still don’t know all that goes on, or all the responsibilities that people carry out – but I’ve filled in another small corner of the picture of life at Grove Lane.
No community is simple. Nothing happens without lots of stuff going on behind the scenes, unnoticed, unrecognised, sometimes unthanked.
So, this week, I want to say thank you to all sorts of people who do all sorts of things that we’d notice if they didn’t happen, but we don’t necessarily notice when they do. To folk who just get on with it, folk who see a need and fill it, folk who, week after week, do something in such a way that nobody really notices, but on which we depend for comfort, smooth running, snag-free living, for faithfulness, kindness, attentiveness, dependability and patience. Far be it from me to rewrite Scripture, but I have been struck again this week by how much these are fruits of the Spirit, gifts exercised for the well-being of the body and the community. So, I want to say thank you, to all of you, and to God for all of you.
17 Oct 2018
Walking in the dark
Last week, I had the chance to take a (very small) part in the youth group’s Night Walk Extreme. A route is mapped out for them, with staging points along the way, and they are set out to walk it in the dark. At each staging point, somebody meets them and gives them a task, and the direction to the next point. At one point, there is hot soup, and at the end, a place to sleep. (I was lucky; the task I was assigned to give was a taste test; I gave them blindfolds and then different things to taste and tell me what they were – since it was crisps and chocolate, I was popular!)
It was great fun, and the young people taking part clearly enjoyed it; the approached me over a hill, and I heard them long before I saw them, as the giggles and the shouts emerged, even through the wind (yes, it was the night of Storm Callum….) I’m sure for them it was a good experience, something that will remain with them as a time of adventure and fun, of stretching boundaries and discovering new capacities. That was my experience of doing such things in Guides some – many – years ago.
Now, as I reflect on the experience in the context of ministry and church life, it has resonances too. Walking in the dark, and only being able to see a short way ahead is very much what a lot of the life of a new minister feels like – and is, if we are honest, very often what a lot of life feels like; we may know what we plan, but planning and actually doing can turn out to be very different. Walking from stage to stage, trusting in the destination without actually knowing what it is…that is a good summary of life in general, and the life of faith in particular. And one of the joys of the life of faith is that we dare to trust that at each stage, there will be somebody there to support, encourage and point the way ahead; believers who are more experienced, others who have walked the journey in years and centuries before, friends with whom we have shared questions and the times of answers or not.
There are tasks and activities too; not always what we would expect, and sometimes asking from us things we didn’t know we could do. Sometimes they are delightful, sometimes they are more challenging – but they are part of the journey, and each contributes to the overall experience.
The soup stop is represented as well; those moments of encouragement, refreshment and rest that turn up, sometimes unexpectedly – when joy wells up within, when peace surrounds us, when we find strength to undertake what we thought was beyond us, when the companionship and love of those around reassures and renews us.
I don’t think those youngsters explicitly named what they were doing on Friday night as an exercise in faith. Yet that was what it was; they trusted that those who were organiisng things were indeed organising it, had gone ahead and knew the route, that those who said they would be at the various stages would be there, that the directions would get them from stage to stage – and that there would be somewhere to sleep at the end. Their confidence in undertaking this, and the care offered by those who made it happen has encouraged me in my exploration of faith in life; their fearlessness inspires me, and if those who care for them were so careful and supportive, dare I trust that the God whom I am convinced (on my good days) loves us with a love beyond imagining will be any less careful and supportive of our journey from day to day, task to task, moment to moment.
Thank you to the youth group leaders for letting me join in, to the youth group for accepting my presence….and please God, the insight that dark night gave me will continue to shape my ministry and my faith.
Oct 10th 2018
Fitting it all together....
I’ve spent a couple of happy mornings doing jigsaws at Toddlers’ Group – the kind of jigsaw that is made up of shapes with handles that fit neatly into slots with pictures in them. They are very popular with various of the tinies, and they show great skill in slotting pieces into place, often along with a fascinating commentary.
Indeed, when I say I have been doing the jigsaws, this is a bit of an exaggeration. Nobody needed me to help, so I simply sat and watched and admired.
And, since I can’t quite follow the commentary, I spend some time reflecting on the process. It struck me that it is immensely satisfying to fit the right piece in the right hole. The sense of fittingness, of security and fulfilment when the right shape goes in the right hole is wonderful. It is such a wonderful image of fitting into our called place; knowing who we are and what we are for, and just slipping in and filling it up. I recently quoted Frederick Buechner in our twitter stream: "God calls you to the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet”. Fitting into the jigsaw feels like that.
There was another thought as well. Sometimes, the piece does not slip in easily – it is the right piece, but the wrong way round, or just slightly squint…and usually, the little hand trying to manipulate it is in a hurry, is in danger of forcing rather than easing, begins to show frustration and irritation…
And again; how often are we doing the same thing? We know how things should be, the way it should go, how it all fits together….and we want it that way NOW. And so, instead of taking time, catching our breath and letting it all come together smoothly and without strain, we end up pushing, forcing and insisting on our own way. And what should be a joy turns out to be frustration and squint.
Lord, give me the grace to see the jigsaw of my life clearly and to take my time and trust the shapes.
Oct 3rd 2018
No ordinary people
Being a teenager in the 70s, one of my musical influences was Billy Joel. And it was through his song “Everybody has a dream” that I first came across the phrase “quiet desperation”, as he attempted to describe the experience of trying to make sense of life. I later discovered of course, that it is a phrase from Thoreau, and that appears in various other places, as poets, writers, thinkers all try to get to grips with this mystery of being alive – and the sense of frustration, sadness and loss that can afflict people, when the mystery is senseless., and above all, the smallness of living as people fail to find what they seek.
It is a phrase that haunts me. One of the privileges of my role is to spend time with people as they try to make sense of being alive, and living through wonder and joy, and also confusion, distress, loss and fear. And I find that often I expect to see “quiet desperation”.
But I don’t, not often. Instead, I see what I found the words for recently in a book I have been reading about being what the writer called “deep church” – that is, church rooted in faith, Scripture, prayer and the long tradition of the Christian community. As he discusses what it is to preach, he refers to another old phrase; the world of “giant souls and hearty sinners…those who know the soul’s despair and its breathless gratitude.” The writer goes on to argue that if we are taking church seriously, it is being aware of ourselves and each other as this; giant souls, living rich, amazing, deep and wide lives – not quiet desperation, but questioning, demanding, resisting, struggling, wondering, celebrating, rejoicing, loving, listening, crying and laughing.
It’s easy to write us off as being small; we are a small and on the whole elderly congregation. We do not make headlines, we don’t storm the gates of the powerful, we don’t grab attention or make waves. Nobody writes us up as case studies in how to achieve massive growth, or spectacular outreach or social programmes.
But we are not in quiet desperation – or anything quiet or insignificant; we are alive with the depth of the life of Christ himself. We are giant souls – and yes, hearty sinners at times. Which makes us deeply forgiven and so breathlessly grateful. There are times when we know the soul’s despair – and that is precisely the time when we meet the depth of reality that is what we call God.
I am loving the process of getting to know everybody in the fellowship. There are painful stories and joyful ones, there are situations of comfort and those of great demand. But what there is not is anything of “quiet desperation”; rather there are giant souls, with depth, capacity and potential for growth in God.
C S Lewis puts it far better, in a sermon preached in 1940, and published as The Weight of Glory:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations -these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner – no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat – the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself is truly hidden. God grant us the grace to recognise each other and all we meet in this way.
26 Sept 2018
Lipgloss and the gospel
I am discovering that perhaps I should not take my bag when I go to Toddler Group. Or at least, take a bag that I can fasten. I was there yesterday, and as always, it was a delight. And one of the little ones decided that my bag was worth investigating.
Which is fair enough. He found my lip gloss. Also fair enough. He opened my lipgloss, and dug in his fingers. It’s only Vaseline, he’ll come to no harm, and it will survive. But it does make a bit of a mess.
However, he enjoyed it. In fact he enjoyed it so much, that, after going away and doing something else, he came back, unnoticed by me, rooted around, found the lipgloss and smeared it not only on his own face, but that of various other toddlers in the area.
No harm done. A bit of fun and some soft skin.
And it has set me wondering. There he was, doing what toddlers do – exploring, experimenting, making a bit of a mess, but nothing that signifies. IN the middle of it all, he had a lovely smile, and a sense of delight and excitement.
In fact, he was exhibiting all the kind of traits I would love to think we, as believers, express as we explore faith; a willingness to search and to try things out, rummaging around to see what’s there and not just taking the first thing we see (he wasn’t interested in the first things he pulled out – receipts!), getting in a bit of a mess, involving others, not looking very dignified, but being extremely interested…….
And even more than traits of us as the settled congregation, I wonder if it is a space we can offer to others – come and find out, see what’s in here, try it out, get in a bit of a muddle and mess, make us slightly uncomfortable (I don’t normally welcome somebody rummaging through my bag)
Maybe, we might, rather than wait for others to come in and rummage about, find ways of offering what we have, so that others might discover the delights of the life rooted in endless Love that we are exploring.
My lipgloss is a bit messed up now. It’s got dips and lumps it didn’t have before, and the lid is a bit greasy. But the wee one has discovered something, and had moments of joy. That seems a good thing to me….
19 Sept 2018
Treasures of the Church
At church meeting last week, we started by thinking about the “treasures of the church”; the gifts that we know our congregation has, and on which we depend. We invited people to call out facets of church life we wanted to give thanks for, and wrote them up. Among those named were wisdom and experience.
Lots of other things were offered too, but these ones caught my attention in particular. For it seems to me that they belong together. Experience, coming through living through events – and, crucially, reflecting on them, prayerfully and gently - is a significant gift in a congregation. Such a experience and the wisdom gained from it is very helpful; knowing what has happened, thinking about why, and the impact, and considering the wider context. Sometimes we can get so immersed in the ongoing day to day life of our lives – our congregation or any other aspect of our life – that we have no context, no framework to make sense of it. Especially when things are tough, we can forget that we are part of a bigger story, and that we live in a tradition. And, in particular, that other, real people, have lived through similar issues, challenges and demands – and have wisdom and good practice, and warnings and bad examples, to pass on to us.
Experience; reflecting on our lives and understanding them in context, setting them in a wider story, letting the gospel accounts interact with what is happening to us – all of this leads to glimmerings of wisdom.
I was blessed by being taught church history by a deeply wise man – who encouraged us to work hard at understanding the first four centuries of the church’s story, on the basis that if we got to grips with that, nothing that happened in today’s church would ever surprise us! And I have to say that, in the thirty-five years since I sat in these classes, much has happened in the local and wider church that has been, shall we say, interesting; but nothing that I have not seen reflected just as he told me.
So, let’s give thanks for the experience among us. And learn to listen carefully to our whole story, our deep story and our wide story – and discover more of where God is leading us.
12 Sept 2018
Well, that was quite something! On Saturday, I was formally inducted to the ministry here at Grove Lane.
It was a grand occasion. Lots of amazing people worked very hard, travelled significant distances, came to pray, to worship, to bless – and to eat cake. So much cake! I am so grateful for all that was done to make it such a good time, and to all those whose care, imagination, commitment and baking skills went into all that happened on Saturday.
During the service, I was invited to make various promises, and the congregation here was also invited to make promises. We based the promises on those written for the Baptist Union of Great Britain Assembly this year, for use during the recognition of those entering ministry. Among other things, we promised this together;
As a church, will you commit yourselves to being a movement led by the Spirit of God?
We will seek God's will and purpose.
Will you celebrate diversity?
We will value, trust and respect one another in Christ.
Will you be serious about discipleship?
We will embrace adventure and risk-taking faith in our faithful God.
Will you follow the Servant King?
We will be generous of spirit, encouraging and inspiring one another to be all that God created us to be.
Will you seek God's kingdom?
We will hunger and thirst after his righteousness, confronting evil and praying for the grace to seek to live the life of God's coming Kingdom now.
These are our hopes and these are our clear intentions.
Lord Jesus, head of the church make us your people for this time and place, and by your Spirit, make your Kingdom come among us .Amen
These are big promises.
We will fail. And we will let each other down, annoy, hurt and frustrate each other.
But, in the determination of these promises, and depending on the grace that holds, renews and sustains us, we will also, please God, forgive one another, bear with one another, allow one another to grow and change – and discover just what God is doing among us, and will do among us for the blessing of our community and the glimpsing of the Kingdom in this place at this time.
Thank you to all for making the day.
Even more, thank you to everybody who made such promises, and committed themselves to taking these risks.
Jesus, now lead on….
5 Sept 2018
Knowing what is going on….
On occasions I get to attend committees – and this morning was one of them. It was a meeting I had not been to before, and so fitted very well into the experience of these months; sitting there with a vague idea, but not really knowing what is going on, feeling like everybody else understands (which they do) because they know the story that has led to wherever it is we are now, and so can make sense of the comments aside, or the quick allusions.
Now, don’t get me wrong; people here have been great at explaining things to me, filling me in on details, making sure I know what is going on enough to know what to do and how to respond.
But there is nothing the familiarity that simply comes with time and involvement to deepen understanding.
All of which has got me thinking about communication. Somebody was talking to me about it last night, so it was already on my mind. But the committee meeting this morning has taken my thoughts further. I was sent all the papers for the meeting – but without the context, even that didn’t really give me enough to be able to make sense of it all.
As we talk about what we do and why we do it – face to face, or through the various poster, electronic and online media that we use to publicise our activities (and indeed, our values, faith and identity) what is it we need to explain in order to ensure that what we are talking about makes sense?
I, all too often, since my sense of direction is seriously compromised, find myself getting very lost as I try to follow signposts. And my theory is that the people who put up the signs already know the road very well, and so don’t always know where the signs need to be for those of us who don’t. And I suspect the same thing is true for any organisation – and, in our case, for our church. With the best will in the world, and I believe we have that, and all sorts of good intentions, yet still, we forget what it is like not to know at all what is going on, and therefore what needs to be explained.
Thank you to all of you who bear with my on-going bewilderment, and have the patience and gentleness to explain things to me. Can I invite you to join me in considering what we need to “explain” to help people find us, understand us, join us, feel at home with us…..
Aug 29, 2018
Things are starting up again….the Day Centre reopened this week, and the Toddler Group restarts soon, as do the various young people’s groups. The building, which has never been exactly empty or quiet, is getting back to its busy and well-inhabited self. It’s a lovely feeling.
From my study window, I see the door; I can see people coming and going, the bus drawing up bringing in folk for lunch, the youngsters playing in the garden as they wait to go in, or as they come out on the way home. I love to see the building so busy, so open and welcoming.
And it makes me a little uneasy; all this activity provokes my sense of “I should be out there doing stuff, I should be busy”….without necessarily having thought through either what I should be doing, or whether I should be doing it.
It’s the time of year when one set of rhythms changes to another – when the slightly more leisurely spaces of summer give way to the busy and satisfying activity of autumn.
As we move from one to the other, it is helpful to take a moment’s reflection. Am I doing this because it is what is needed from me right here, right now, or because I simply fall in line with expectations – mine or other people’s about what I “ought” to be doing? Is this where and I how I can serve and thrive best, or is this about making me feel good and satisfying a system that has taken on a life of its own?
There isn’t always time to ask these kind of questions. They can be uncomfortable. But this time of year, as we move from one set of activities to another, it can be useful to reflect. And then, as we take up our tasks again, we do so with renewed commitment, with real commitment and not “just because”…a position that might not be healthy.
We are deeply grateful to all those who “do stuff” to make our church function in all the ways it does. It is good to see the building so well used. It is even better to know – as I trust we do – that we are doing all this because we know that this is what we are called to as this people of God, for this place at this time.
Aug 22 2018
Changing the world, one step at a time....
It was one letter wrong in the email address. But, instead of simply bouncing back as “undeliverable”, it actually landed in somebody’s inbox. I was trying to tell one of our folk news about somebody else….not a crucial email, but something that I wanted to do.
Fortunately, the person who wrongly received the email was gracious enough to contact me and say that he thought I should know it had gone to the wrong person. I am glad, because it would have been easy for him simply to ignore it, put it down to a crank, or even get irritated.
It was a simple gesture of taking seriously the life of another person, unknown and probably never to be met – recognising their need and responding to it, in circumstances in which not doing anything would have been both easier and not noticed.
It was both respectful and kind.
It is a little sad that one finds oneself sometimes surprised by such care – but salutary; if it is surprising, then it is even more important to do it.
The call of the gospel is to subversive living; living not the way that might be assumed, but in line with the values and practices of the Kingdom of God. And it can feel like a huge thing. In a world of violence, it is hard how to know to be a peacemaker, because it all seems so complex and far outside our sphere. In a world of economic injustice, it is really hard to know how to engage in ways that actually make a difference. In a world in which people live with such demanding and chaotic needs that are far beyond what most of us will ever experience, it is hard to know how to make a difference.
But a simple answer to an email that could just have been ignored made a difference. The organisation Amnesty International has demonstrated how letters – and now emails - can change things. Food banks, organized around collecting tins and packets, a few at a time, have made life better for countless folk. A phone call to a grieving widower can offer a smile and a change of scene…and we could go on.
The things that change the world are indeed huge. But they start really small; doing what needs to be done in that moment, for that person.
It can then develop, it can take on a life of its own, as other people get involved, as new possibilities open, as new challenges emerge.
Or not – sometimes, all it is is that one action. And that’s enough.
Doing what’s in front of us; the small thing that doesn’t fit the assumed pattern…that can be all it needs to be, and that is open to us all.
I am grateful to the unknown person who took the time to answer my mis-sent email. I hope I can learn the lesson from it.
Aug 17, 2018
It’s the time of year when holidays alter our routines; things don’t happen when they usually do, things don’t happen at all, other things happen….and usually, it’s great. We get to have time off, time away, to see people we don’t often see, to indulge ourselves, to have different kinds of fun.
The term holiday, of course, derives from the Holy Day – times when the church calendar disrupted the work calendar, and time out was taken to celebrate a saint or a festival.
The link between the two ideas can lead to all sorts of helpful (and occasionally over-pious!) thoughts…that spending time with God is a good thing, that such a practice refreshes our souls and our lives, that changing the rhythm of work and responsibility is necessary for our well-being.
And it is also worth remembering that such “disruption” is not always easy or pleasant. Holidays can be disorientating – where are we, where are my familiar things and routine? What am I supposed to do if not my normal activities? Where are the people I know? My family used to joke that I was the only person they knew who could get homesick when away with her family…(I am better at holidays now!)
Sometimes changes to routine and rhythm are uncomfortable and difficult to handle.
Sometimes, especially when routine can be hard work, we feel moved to invite God to change things, to act and move.
And when we invite this, God listens and takes us seriously.
And sometimes, it is not a holiday, but demanding disruption, difficult transition, awkward changes.
However, our faith is that even in the toughest of these transitions, Love is at the heart of it, and we are not alone, or abandoned. We may feel that we are taken to a far away land where nothing is easy and sense is hard to find.
But in the end, we come home – to discover we are loved and held and sustained.
I hope you are enjoying you holiday, here or travelling. And I pray for you, for me, and for us, Holy Days, that, even if they are disorientating, will also be filled with life, love and promise.
Aug 11 2018
Welcoming in those who are passing by
We are just getting used to having a garden, now that we have moved into the manse. We have lived in flats for all of our married life, and this is a very new experience. In some ways, we are not doing very well – anybody know how to mend the cut cable of a motor lawnmower?
But one of the things we are loving is the wildlife – the birds, the squirrels and even the fox. We sit for ages and just watch them come and go. We have got hold of books to learn who we are seeing, and we are discovering how to keep very still so as not to disturb our shyest visitors.
We have also been learning how to entice them into the garden; water, seeds, nuts, fatballs – each bringing in different visitors.
It seems to me that we do something very similar as a church; we offer different things to different visitors to our building – space to play for the tinies and their carers who come to Toddler Group; companionship and good food – and help with transport – to those who come to Day Centre; stimulation, adventure and friendship for those who come to the Youth Groups.
And for those who come on Sundays? I hope that what is on offer is community and relationship, refreshment, challenge and encouragement. Above all, I hope that what we offer is space, time and context to seek and deepen encounters with our God who is the root and ground of our being.
But one of the things I have noticed with the visitors to the garden is that when some are present, others are not; once the fox turns up, everybody else scarpers. When certain of the larger birds arrive, some of the smaller ones retreat to the trees. Of course, I don’t think we are in the habit of scaring one another off when we come to worship. But I wonder if we can take it a stage further; I wonder how we might offer one another invitation and encouragement to go even deeper in our encounter with God.
And, I wonder how we might discover ways of making that possibility available to others who, as yet, have not found a home with us on Sundays?
As always, I would love to hear ideas.
Aug 4th 2018
“Food tastes so much nicer when you eat it in company”.
It was the statement of one of the regular attenders at the Day Centre earlier this week. She was tucking in – as we all were – to a lovely meal of gammon, sauce, roasties and broccoli. The food was great, the care in serving it wonderful, the conversation pausing as we all enjoyed the food. And she was right – it tasted good, but it tasted better because we were eating it together.
Our Day Centre exists to give people “companionship” – literally, “eating bread with”….company, food, some activity, and a place to come to that is a break from home, especially when home has nobody else in it.
It is a wonderful institution, and the people who make it work in all sorts of ways; driving, cooking, serving, washing up, entertaining….they are great and a gift to us.
And at the heart is this truth; food tastes better when it is shared.
This coming Sunday, as on most Sundays, we will share bread and wine as part of our gathering to worship. One of the distinctives of Baptists is that we do not have “private” communion. It is always a congregational activity – even when we share communion in somebody’s home, because they are not able to come to gathered worship, it is on the basis of “two or three gathered in His name” – it is not solitary. When we share bread and wine, we are expecting to encounter the Risen Christ. And central to our theology is the conviction that such an encounter happens (not only, but significantly) in community with other believers. That’s why church meeting is what it is; we listen together to seek to discern the leading of Christ, because together we are less likely to wander off on a path dominated by “my” interests, insights, or desires. Together, we can hear a wider sounding voice, and have more chance of hearing an invitation from the Living God – especially if it is an invitation that takes us to places that might make us uncomfortable.
To eat together is to build community. To share bread and wine together is to encounter the Risen Christ. To listen together is to trust in the possibility of God’s leading.
It happens as we build a life together.
Here is good news embodied in our Day Centre; companionship is a key to the Kingdom.
July 25 2018
Dominos as a welcome!
This week, I have been playing dominos! (I love my work!) I was at the Day Centre, and various people thought that dominos would be a good use of time, and I was invited to join in.
It was the invitation that struck me. I’ve been to Day Centre a couple of times, and folk are beginning to recognise me. But being invited to join in – that’s another level. That means I am not just a figure who sort of looms up and says hello and has no context, no reality. Rather, it means that I am recognised as a person with whom a relationship might be possible….I might even become a friend.
There is so much privilege in getting involved in a church community; and at the heart of the privilege is the assumption of relationship. Just because I have turned up and been invited to be minister, it is assumed that I am “part of the family”, invited and involved in what is going on. It can be confusing as I get to know names, and work out stories, discover who is related to who, how far back the relationships go, and what the history is that I am being wrapped up into. (And my apologies when I get it wrong). But it never ceases to amaze, delight and humble me just how easily people welcome me in.
And it raises a question. It is easy for a minister (and the minister’s family!) to come in; we are expected, plans are made for us, it is assumed we will get involved and will fit in. But what about when others come to visit, to wonder whether they might fit in, to have a look and try to see if they could have a home here. We aim to be welcoming, of course we do. But there are always ways to up our game.
Any thoughts – please let us know….
July 18th 2018
She looked at me with that direct stare that only a three year-old can manage and said "where are your children?"
Which was a fair question, since I was in the middle of her space, in the Toddler Group. All the adults present were there as carers for the various children - parents, grandparents, child-minders....and my introductory remark as I try to get to know people and introduce myself is often "which of the children are you with?"
So when I said to her "I don't have children" she looked suitably disapproving and said "then why are you here?"
I managed to put together an answer about coming to hang around and get to know people and to chat didn't seem to satisfy her - though when I stopped talking and paid attention to the trike she driving and which had a technical fault that I could put right, I was much more satisfactory.
Her question was a good one though - both with regard to the Toddler Group, and in general terms as minister of the church; why am I here?
Hanging around is in fact central to what I think I am about.....loitering with intent might be another way of describing it. Being around when folk come in to Toddler Group and day centre at least once a week for each, and getting to know people, sharing news, catching up on stories, listening to people's lives....dropping in to see people, especially if they are unwell or unable to get about much, not with any agenda except hearing what people want to say....and hanging around other voices - in books, in Scripture, to hear what we might want to say together in worship, in our prayers, our reflections, our preaching.
I confess to feel slightly out of place at the Toddler Group when I turn up with no child....and slightly out of place in all the other settings too, because I come without answers, solutions, visions. My understanding of being a minister centres on this out of place-ness, that my role is to be slightly on the edge, hanging around, noticing, listening, waiting.
So above all, I am grateful to all those who talk to me, who tell me their stories, who invite me to what is going on...and I pray that, as I listen, and reflect what I hear, we may together hear more deeply God's word to us of love, hope and life.
July 11th 2018
Well, I made it; here I am, duly starting work as minister of Grove Lane Baptist Church. And pretty bewildering it is too!
Not that people have set out to make it so, by any means. Folk have been incredibly welcoming, and patient, and attentive to what I need to know what is going on and to start to feel at home
But arriving somewhere new, and starting new tasks and roles is always going to have a certain flavour. No matter how well prepared one is, no matter how careful everybody is to explain and welcome and ensure you know where things are, to arrive in a community like this is to join in an on-going life, with its own story and patterns, history and assumptions.
And the only way to become at home in all of that is to join in, live through the bewilderment, make the mistakes....and hope it comes right.
It's good practice. Because it is just what we are all doing as we seek to join in with what God is doing in the world. Sometimes we can see it clearly, and know exactly what we are being called to do. But more often than not, it is to do with joining in an on-going story of which we only know our part. So, sometimes we are confused, sometimes we are uncertain, sometimes we are plain wrong - and very often we are bewildered.
And that's ok. As I am discovering, bewilderment is the way into discovery.
So, if I walk past you in the street without greeting you, or as a question that is really stupid, thank you in advance for your patience. I offer you my bewilderment as a model - of openness and of wondering; what might God do next?