Thursday, July 31, 2014

Walking Etiquette

On my birthday yesterday, we went to St. Ives (Cambridgeshire). Walking along the busy Market Street, past Oliver Cromwell's statue (he once lived there) I came to a green area beside the river. It is likely this is where John Wesley preached in 1774 where he noted in his journal he found hearers 'very well dressed yet well-behaved'.  I wondered about his past experiences with well-dressed people!

Moving on beyond the crowds milling around on the river bank,  I found a quiet path continuing on beside the river which eventually led into tranquility through ancient forests, meadows still rolling with medieval troughs and ridges from oxen ploughing, and glorious glimpses of sunlit countryside beyond. Occasionally, along my hour long walk I met walkers coming in the opposite direction.  Every time we approached each other, we looked each other in the eyes and greeted one another with a 'Hello' or 'Hi'.  The contrast with the crowds on Market Street could not have been greater.  I began looking out for exceptions. Surely not everyone walking that path would politely acknowledge me.  Well, true enough, several cyclists didn't ,and a group of young people ignored me.  But 99% of my journey was punctuated by smiles and cheery greetings.

It's something mysterious about country walking in Britain (and probably elsewhere too).  Begin to walk for the sake of enjoying a beautiful world and you seem to have more time for people too!  The very act of stepping out brings you into a world where people slow down enough to notice things...including other people slowing down to notice things. I resolved that I need to do some more of this mutual noticing!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Cambridge connections!

We always thought that being back in Cambridge for much of the year would bring us extra passing traffic.  So many people visit Cambridge for conferences and other events we hoped that old friends would pop by!   Yesterday looked a free day.  But out of the blue I received an email from my colleague at Northern Seminary - Cherith Fee-Nordling.  She was speaking at the CS Lewis Conference here in Cambridge.  Hurriedly, we found some free time in her schedule and invited her to our home for a meal.  Great conversation followed - all the more so because we had no idea she was down the road. What a surprise!

She invited us to the evening conference session in St. John's College Chapel which took the form of a two hour Choral Concert on the Christian Virtues.  This was based on the conference theme with spectacular singers belonging to the C.S. Lewis Summer Institute Chorale.  Only I could go with Cherith.  Looking through the glossy programme notes I discovered that the Founder of this Chorale and the Director is John Dickson.   Sitting next to Cherith in the (uncomfortable) choir stalls I looked at his photograph and blurted out: 'It's John Dickson!'  Back in the 1980's John and his family had been on sabbatical in Cambridge and attended my church.  Since then, I had met up some ten years ago at a church conference in New Mexico.  But we had lost contact.  I couldn't believe it as the choir processed down the aisle and this elegant man in black led us through the evening - could it really be him?

I told Cherith I just had to try and see him at the end!  But, of course, there were crowds surrounding him. Different groups demanded him in the centre of their photographs.  Patiently I waited. Then he turned and saw me, and immediately threw his arms around me, announcing to all and sundry that I had been his Cambridge pastor.  He was just as astonished to see me as I was him. And just as thrilled.  Quickly, his wife joined us and then a couple of friends from Louisville whom we visited over twenty years ago.  It was the most exciting reunion - all the more for being totally unexpected. Such joy!  We are determined not to lose contact again - yet the wonder of Christian fellowship is that we are going to be surprised over and over again in God's kingdom.  You really cannot get over the bonds that bind us in Christ. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A third question - family ties (2)

A bombshell question
When Jesus' mother and brothers arrive to take charge of him, the message reaches Jesus who is surrounded by a dense crowd that his mother and brothers are outside looking for him.  They invoke the natural family ties that bind them together.  It's as though they are saying: 'We're here for you'.

The question that Jesus then asks is so extraordinary we might guess something dramatic is going to happen.  There has to be some explanation. Who are my mother and my brothers? (verse 33). It seems bizarre with his family actually outside that he should question something so basic.  We are born into families - that's a given for better or worse.  Who would think to question such a fact of life. We don't know how noisy the crowd and how far outside Jesus' family is standing.  But,  perhaps they have heard him say this too.  Isn't it deeply offensive to your own flesh and blood?  If you have children, imagine your reaction if they asked this! Doesn't it really prove that he is 'out of his mind'.

The story informs us that after this question Jesus looked at those seated in a circle around him.  We don't often get told details like that.(Actually, I wish we had more descriptions of Jesus' voice and movements, don't you!)   It seems as though Jesus is slowing the pace down. This bombshell of a question hangs in the air.  Its shock sinks in!   Probably the immediate circle may be the disciples whom he has just called in the previous verses 13-19.

Something is happening that the church should never forget.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A sad day...yet

Yesterday was a sad day.  I was back in the church where I once belonged as an older teenager - Arbury Rd. Baptist Church, Cambridge.  It was the funeral service for one of my fellow youth group members, Les Bowyer who died very suddenly aged 71.  The church was packed, for Les was deeply loved by so many - a laid-back character of humour and kindness who served his heart out in this same church for well over fifty years.  Rightly, the minister asked us to celebrate his life and we did.

But my mind also went back to my first funeral service in that church when one of my best friends died. I cannot remember the medical cause but I recall the shock news when his parents found him on the kitchen floor.  His name was Brin and he was Les' older brother.  I recall sitting there numbed by this first experience of sudden death's brutality.   Les was due to be married shortly afterwards and he asked me to step in as best-man instead of his brother. Oh, how poignant!  All this came flooding back.

Further, my last funeral service in this church had been at Christmas 1979 for my mother who died aged 57 falling down the stairs.  I confess that sitting there yesterday I was taken back to emotions of emptiness and sorrow in losing the most influential person in my life.  I remember giving a tribute to her.  Odd, isn't it how clusters like these come back so sharply to memory.

And there is no denying the deep sadness.  That's not to be suppressed. But what rang out so powerfully yesterday were words from 1 Pet.3-9 praising God for the 'living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead'.  The minister emphasized the last verses: although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice....   In this stirring of sadness, I hold on (and am held) by the one I do not see, and he makes all the difference, doesn't he?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A third question - family ties

I confess my dipping into different questions of Jesus has been spasmodic, with lengthy intervals between them - the last one was in May! But I think that's how they happened in the gospel story.  Those who would grow to know Jesus were on a long learning curve. Interestingly, he does not ask the crunch question: 'Who do you say that I am?' until much later (Mark 8:29).  Along the way, would-be followers have many other questions to face first. And so do we.  It's almost as though they are learning more and more about the implications of following Jesus before they are confronted by his ultimate challenge about declaring who he is.

One of the most radical implications that exploded in the faces of disciples on their learning curse concerned family ties.  Belonging to families is complex.  Rarely do relationships run smoothly as families develop.  We can idealize family life with mother, father and 2.5 children happily living ever after but too many have suffered horror stories of broken dysfunctional families.  We were given a rather cynical fridge magnet: Friends are the family we choose for ourselves.  We do not have choice about the family we are born into and family life for many is full of disappointment.

When Jesus is ministering, surrounded by so many people that he (and his disciples) have not even been able to eat, we read the story of Jesus' family coming to take charge of him. It provides one of the very few episodes when we hear about Jesus’ family dynamics.  The full story is found in Mark 3:20-35.  

Now it’s dangerous to psychologize Bible stories, read into them motives, and assess mood from the twentieth century. They are in Capernaum (maybe even Peter's house) and Jesus is under pressure when his family (probably back in Nazareth) hear of his situation. v21. When the family heard about this, they went to take charge of him for they said: He is out of his mind. Maybe they think he is so over-extended he is getting beside himself.  Such is his commitment to work, teaching, healing, and antagonizing powerful people, they fear that he will kill himself by neglect if they don’t take charge of him. The word take charge can be translated: arrest!  They want to protect him. Protect him from himself.  But maybe there are other tensions too.  Some members of his family are not sure about the state of his mental health. John 7:5 says that even the brothers of Jesus didn’t believe that he was the Messiah. Maybe they are going to get him before he makes a laughing-stock of himself.  After all, they have claims on him. They are family.

In the middle of this scene where there is intense hostility from certain teachers of the law who accuse Jesus of being possessed by Satan, we find his family coming to make their natural claims on him. What happens next opens us up to one of the greatest revolutions of Christian faith.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Retreat Prayer

A few people who attended the retreat I led have asked for a copy of a prayer I used.  It is written in the Celtic tradition by David Adam.  With simplicity and directness it asks God's help for all our senses to be alive to him.  Prayed slowly I have found it truly opens me up to sensing the world more clearly but, deeper than that, who God is now.

Give to me O God
A clear and watchful eye

Give to me O God
A firm but gentle touch

Give to me O God
              A good receptive ear

Give to me O God
A clean discerning taste

Give to me O God
A subtle sense of smell

Give to me O God
              An openness to others

Give to me O God
              An awareness now of you

Give to me O God
Each thing that is needful for my body

Give to me O God
That which will renew my mind

Give to me O God
That which will strengthen my spirit

Give to me O God
Healing for my sickness

Give to me O God
Repentance for my sin

Give to me O God
Yourself above all else

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Odd anecdote(5)

Many Baptist churches find their new pastor by a process which includes 'preaching with a view'.  The first time it may actually be preaching with a squint to be followed by interviews with prayer and a second more formal visit.  In my last year at seminary a church in Northampton invited me to preach with a squint.

With great excitement I prepared for this occasion knowing that it might result in a call to my first church.  I arrived on the Saturday and met some of the leaders and was shown around the church and its area, and was told much about the church family.  The more I heard the more enthusiastic I became.

On Sunday morning at their main service the church was packed to the seams.  It was a parade service and the church's Scouts and Guides processed to worship with their band leading the way.  At the beginning of the service the four standard bearers marched to the front. Once all the uniformed young people were in their place,  I had to take the flags and place them to the side of the front platform in specially designed holders.  With such a mixed age range I sought to lead and preach appropriately though I have no recollection of my theme.  I remember something else!

At the conclusion of the final hymn before the benediction was given, the standard bearers came to the front again for the flags to be returned.  In the silence I swung one of the flags out of its support through the air only to hit a china lampshade which I had totally failed to observe was in the flight path.  To my chagrin the contact sounded out loudly like an out of tune bell, though it had surprising resonance.  Dust that had lain undisturbed for years filtered down through the air.  Convulsions of laughter rippled through the ranks of Scouts and Guides into the congregation.  Only the most deaf were unaware.  I gave the benediction against a background of sniffles and sneezes caused by the dust.  I have never had so many smiles at the door afterwards.  As one person said: 'Nobody has ever done that before - it takes some skill to hit that one lamp!'

In spite of this the church was willing to give me another go though, in the end, the Lord led me to the North of England.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Belonging in the fabric

This last weekend was so full with several events in addition to the prayer retreat.  Often American friends have questioned what we have missed while away from the UK.  Apart from the obvious like our family, friends and health service (!) we have sometimes spoken about missing the sense of belonging that is so subtle, it's almost like being woven into fabric that you do not realize is part and parcel of your life stretching back for decades.

This weekend we enjoyed a great celebration of two friends' 40 years of marriage as they also hit 60 years. They invited 120 people to share in a magnificent hog roast lunch in a barn which was then cleared for an afternoon celidh, followed by cream tea.  I commented a few weeks ago about the thrill of sharing in a silver wedding celebration and discovering several couples there who I had married when minister in Cambridge, and whom I had not seen for over 20 years.  What memories came flooding back!

Well, on Saturday this memory rush happened again, in spades.  Our two friends have been embedded in the Cambridge church so it was no surprise that we knew many of the guests.  But what joy it was to re-connect with surprises on every hand.  I said to Carol that one of the greatest thrills of all was to see friendships that had begun at the church (which we had no idea had happened), but which have held strong through the years, with friendships crossing  generations.  As we drove home, we both gave thanks for the experience of belonging in the fabric of these friends lives. We hope never to take this 'fabric' for granted!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Summer reflection

The retreat last weekend gave me plenty of time to think, pray and wander around Fulbourn village and nature reserve, where the event was held. I had prepared some reflections on Matthew 6:28: Consider the lilies of the field, see how they grow.......  In the first session I focused on the need to stop and stare at the wonders around which show us our Creator. (In the second session we thought about what it means to 'consider how they grow').   As somebody has said: 'One can peer into the hand of God in this world by examining flowers'.  Their beauty (unmatched even by Solomon) with such extravagance, profusion, detail speak volumes about creation that God intended to be good (Gen 1) and which he reclaims in new Creation with Christ.

At one point I retold a personal story.  One of the English spiritual classics is a collection of Private Prayers by Lancelot Andrewes.  I took an abbreviated copy of these prayers when I was away speaking at a conference in Canada.  Afterwards, the organizers gave Carol and me a few days' quiet retreat in the mountains.  We stayed in a remote cottage on a lakeside. A canoe was tethered at the water's edge.  On the first morning I paddled the canoe some distance from shore for a quiet devotional time.  I took out my prayer book.  Many of the prayers are set out with spaces in between the words to stop you rushing through them.  I opened it on the Tuesday morning prayers with a section entitled 'Commemoration' :
O God, Thou art my God; early will I seek Thee.
Blessed art Thou, O Lord.
that didst gather together the water into sea,
that didst bring to light the earth,
that didst bring forth the shoots
of herbs and fruitbearing trees.
The depths, the sea, lakes, rivers, fountains.
Earth, islands, mountains, hills, valleys, arable, meadows, woods,
The green things, grass, herbs and flowers for food, pleasure, healing.
The trees bearing fruits, wine, oil, spices.

I shall never forget bobbing up and down on the water, with eyes wide open, looking all around me and marveling in God's creation all around me.  Especially, the green things.  Just so many different greens!  Hopefully, your eyes are open too.