Sunday, June 29, 2014

Summer reflections

Next week I am involved in leading a morning's retreat to help people take time to reflect on life with God.  The group has been following a programme through the four seasons, and for me (unsurprisingly) the theme is 'Summer'.

I need only speak for two short sessions so that participants enjoy maximum time for personal reflection and engage in a variety of activities to help them focus prayerfully and develop spiritually.   For me, this is an unusual opportunity.  How do I best encourage people to spend the  morning reflecting on Summer in worthwhile ways?

Of all the seasons, I love Summer the best. There is so much to enjoy!  All kinds of thoughts come into mind don't they, with various key words.  Light, light days.  My old Dad used to say in Spring: ‘The days are getting longer.’  Of course they weren’t but when daylight extends through afternoon into mid evening it does seem we have much more day.  Warmth which I greatly treasure – short sleeves, shorts, the outdoor life without getting cold.  And with that summer holidays – the season for relaxation outdoors with swimming, beaches, children on holiday from school.

And all this adds up to a season of Fullness - of flowering and profusion in the garden.  Light, warmth, and a time of fullness when the world is at its lushest. Those of us who have gardens, even if they are tiny, marvel at how often the grass now needs to be cut and the amazing blooms everywhere that need to be deadheaded and irrepressible weeds to be dealt with.

But something odd may happen to spiritual life.  I heard last week of someone who runs spiritual retreats but who has taken the decision never to plan them from May to August.  Apparently, people just don’t come.  I wonder.  Do we find it easier to find time and be quiet when it’s darker and colder?  Are we actually so busy outdoors that giving time over to reflection just doesn’t happen.  I am grateful that being asked to do this retreat has stopped me from rushing through this season and hopefully you may stop and pause too.

Friday, June 27, 2014


By now a bewildering range of people, whose email trails happened to have crossed mine, have received a begging message from me (in tears) needing money urgently in Ukraine. Many of my contacts over the last nine years seem to have been besieged.
Yes, I have been well and truly hacked.  Somehow my account was accessed and the computer security system was compromised which then gave them free reign (even though I had only changed my password again last month!)
So, multiple apologies if you have been troubled.  My minister (an IT expert - how useful a pastoral gift is that?) and one of my sons (also with nerdish tendencies) came to my rescue to stop the rot and download a new protective system.  I have devised new passwords that are so cunning I have already forgotten them!
Carol intrigued me as she mentioned the kind of people I am likely to have mixed with over these last years.  We would expect them to be kind and compassionate (touched by my tears) but also very bright and not taken in by the scam for a second.
May your systems remain free of corruption and your passwords also be cunning yet memorable!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Now that's the church!

Thanks Paul for your comment on my last post: 'Now that's the church.'  In his book The Road to Missional (2011) Michael Frost writes about the role that film trailers play in cinema. When trailers are shown before the main feature they are tasters 'usually including the best special effects or the funniest scenes or the most romantic moments, depending on the film, of the forthcoming feature. Now, watch those around you in the theatre at the end of each trailer.  If it has done its job, usually one person will turn to the other and say, "I want to see that movie."

He goes on to write: This is a great metaphor for the missional church. If it does its job well, people will see what it does and say, "I want to see the world they come from." The church is to be like a trailer for the New Jerusalem, a taster, with all the best bits on full display. If we believe that the world to come is a place of love and mercy, we are to be a trailer of that love and mercy, a free sample for those looking to buy into the whole thing....our mission is to create foretastes of such this way we both demonstrate and announce the reign of God through Christ.

The inclusion of Russell and Jenny should be no big deal but often the world makes it so.  Yet, from our very first service Carol and I warmed to the way this church so lovingly embraced them, wonderfully overcoming awkwardness and complications. Trying to include a wide range of people always tends to make us uncomfortable - too often we prefer to worship in a personal comfort zone.   The paradox is that whenever a people step out with Jesus to welcome all others we experience a quality of togetherness with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit that is truly an experience of the reign of God.

I should love to hear similar stories from you when you could honestly say: 'Now that's the church!'

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Left hand of fellowship

In local Baptist churches when new members are welcomed in (generally during a Communion Service) the minister represents the whole fellowship by giving 'the right hand of fellowship'.  It's a public welcome into a very significant group of people who are not only your new church family but fellow ministers in 'the priesthood of believers'.

Today, Carol and I were received into membership at Histon Baptist Church, near where we now live. Together with another couple (from Canada) we were invited to stand at the front by the minister, Ron Day.  As we were getting to our feet there was a loud noise from a severely disabled young man in a wheel-chair near the front of the church.  The minister interpreted his interjection as an offer of help. 'Yes,' he said to Russell the wheel-chair bound man. 'You can help give a welcome to our new members.'  His carer carefully wheeled Russell alongside us at the front. Ron spoke to us and moved along the line with words for each as he shook hands. 'Now', he said, 'Russell who is one of our members would like to welcome you too.  You had better move to him'.  Russell, wracked by involuntary movements, offered his twisted left hand to each of us in turn.

It was a profoundly inclusive moment.  Russell and Jenny (also in a wheel chair) are there every Sunday. This one simple gesture with Russell ensured we all understood more of what it means to belong to a church family where everyone counts, and a priesthood where everyone can share in ministry.
I shall never forget his left hand of fellowship!  

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Science, Faith and Christian Ministry

On Thursday I was back at Spurgeon's College for my first College Conference in 14 years.  Conference is the fellowship of Spurgeon alumni, faculty and significant others which meets annually to induct a President from among their number, who chooses the theme for a day's lectures.  This year the President is Mike Elcome (a friend and neighbour) who was a science teacher before becoming a Baptist minister.  So, bravely, he took the theme science and faith.  I say bravely because many with non-scientific backgrounds find the subject intimidating and, sadly, the subject often descends into battles between evolution and faith - a contemporary phenomenon.

Unfortunately. Carol's rush into A&E for 10 hours meant I only shared in half the day. (I gladly report she is making progress, though slow, from a serious allergic reaction).  But I was there long enough to rejoice in renewed friendships and expressive worship which happily reminded me of my service in the college in the 90's.  However, many issues hit me as worthy of further thought including:
  • Celebrate Science.  I heard this plea at the end of Mike's address which encouraged us to see science and faith working in partnership.  Yes, big expected themes sounded out such as the rejection of 'The God of the gaps' and the complementary 'narratives' of science describing the 'how' and theology the 'why'.   Evolution was carefully considered with Denis Alexander of the Faraday Institute.  But the overriding theme called for renewed willingness to integrate science into life.  Mike made several proposals including turning the old 'Harvest Festival' into celebrating local projects like water treatment plans or even hospitals and research establishments.
  • Beware naivety.  The challenge to pastors was acute as we heard how sometimes our 'church mindset' makes the world seem so small.  Too often we cause confusion with little meaningful response to a markedly changing world and simplistic reading of Scripture
  • Tell stories. Mike mentioned giving a children's talk the week after the Higgs-Boson, the God particle was in the news.  He asked if anyone in the church could explain what this was all about. A diffident man eventually got to his feet and proceeded (to everyone's surprise) to give a brilliant, understandable and succinct explanation which Mike says he could never have managed to do!  Apparently, this man was a research scientist who worked at Cerne, Switzerland.  Mike wondered whether he had ever been noticed in church before?  How much this resonated with me in my concern for more collaborative preaching that incorporates the mission of congregational members so that the church mindset becomes a 'kingdom mindset'.
I was reminded of Torrance's: Preaching Christ Today: the gospel and scientific thinking (1994), written by a scientist/philosopher/theologian before aggressive new atheism.  He praised the impact of Einstein's special/general relativism with its overthrow of dualism, bringing the conceptual and empirical together.  How he exults in Science's discarding of the rationalistic, historical scientific method opening up ways to view Jesus' humanity and deity and the power of the cross! Oh, how big our world is and how glorious the gospel.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Botox Hallelujahs

Occasionally this blog is interrupted by medical bulletins (alas, a sign of increasing age!)  But I just have to post good news today.  Since returning to the UK I have been in trouble with my three-monthly injections because my local hospital could only use a medicine called Dysport instead of Botox which has greatly helped through my US years.  Unfortunately, my two treatments with disport only allowed problems and pain to increase.
Last time my consultant told me that she would try and negotiate with the Hospital Trust to see whether I could be made an exception, with an authorization for her to use botox.  Dire mutterings were heard about the difficulties of securing this drug.  A friend in high places (on the Trust's Board) promised to add support though warned how difficult this might be.
As you can already guess, when I went for my next injections this morning...the beaming consultant told me that she had been successful on my behalf.  Because I was treated successfully with botox outside the hospital trust and dysport proved to be less effective I have been declared AN EXCEPTION.  That's the kind of exception I am glad to be!
As soon as Carol heard she rightly said: 'This is another answer to prayer. Thank you, Lord.'  So many friends have been praying for me and my discomfort had become very visible at times! Thank you so much for supporting me through this difficult time.  I am truly grateful.

Monday, June 2, 2014

1662 in Yorkshire

I have just returned from another of those memorable ministry vignettes.  In 1662 the Baptist cause began in Oakworth, Yorkshire, and I was invited to preach the 195th anniversary of one of the churches that emerged from this beginning.  Slack Lane Baptist Church boasts a magnificent view.  It is set on the brow of a hill, looking over its own immaculate graveyard.  Beyond lies a glorious rolling landscape of farms, field, woods and moorland.  Dappled sunlight from patchy cloud cover brought spectacular bursts of moving colour as Carol and I stood and marveled.

The impressive stone building now houses a smaller congregation though at its peak it had 436 members.  I was handed a copy of its history where its beginnings described how weavers and farmers made up its community.  It was situated near spinning mills.  Children as young as five years old could be woken up as early as 5:00 am in order to work in these mills (a practice which continued until an Act of Parliament in 1833).  Life was hard in countless ways.  Yet, they met to worship with such convictions in God's grace that held them through life-times for succeeding generations right up to the present.

I asked the secretary how long he had been at the church. ' 79 years', he said.  That just sums up the solid faithfulness and commitment that I experienced as I led worship and preached. (There was a good tea between the services too which held high the Yorkshire tradition for good hospitality!)  I challenged them to make this anniversary a 50/50 event, to look back with gratitude and celebrate God's goodness over yet another year but, in equal measure, to look ahead with willingness to be the people of God joining in God's mission for Oakworth.

I guess 50/50 is not a bad way of ensuring every day a measure of reflection and thankfulness but never at the expense of living in God's kingdom right now!