Saturday, 23 August 2014

ICED WATER AND NEW WINE

Two items have caught my eye in the news, which I will comment on. First the so called 'Ice Bucket Challenge' which seems to be everywhere just now. The idea is to raise money for worthwhile causes by having cold water poured over one. It is a combination of fun and idealism, and I find it simply gross silliness. Do I hear someone say 'Don't be a spoilsport, a killjoy'.With respect that itself would be even more silliness. And why? Because silly, inane behaviour and idealism over the raising of funds do not mix well. By all means enjoy being silly- I have often enjoyed being silly myself and it can be great fun. 

So why am I so critical of it ? I have a simple answer. It sets the very worthy business of raising money for people and causes in the context of having fun. Yes, we will make an effort for this and that but the condition is that we can be silly beggars at the same time. I recall in one of my past churches young people spending the night in rocking chairs(they called it a 'Rockathon') in order to raise some money (i.e. they had the fun and expected others to pay to the 'good cause'). So am I asking for people to give money without an imaginative input? Not necessarily. Can our feeble imaginations not find exciting ways of raising funds without silly behaviour? How about cleaning up a beach? PUshing old people who are wheelchair bound around their neighbourhood?

I noted that President Obama had refused but given a very generous gift to the charity named.

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The other subject was humour in the pulpit. Courses to teach preachers to add humour to increase the attraction. I have always added humour to sermons, especially to start them off, sometimes wondering whether there was too much. (Example: Minister arrives in pulpit with plaster on his chin, apologising. 'I was shaving and thinking about my sermon and cut my face. Later note deposited in collection plate from member of congregation; 'next time think about your face and cut your sermon'.) 

What makes me uneasy is the feeling that we need gimmicks, sideshows to make Christianity more attractive. The implication that it needs its dullness removing. It needs brightening up.Excuse me for insisting that true Christian Faith- not mere church belonging- is dynamic, electric, exciting. Why else does the Gospel tell us it is like bubbling, lifegiving new wine?

The issue here is, of course, one I have referred to before. It is about getting churchianity mixed up with Christianity. The dynamic, exciting churches across the world- and in our own country- need no gimmicks, just larger premises. Those who can only think 'church' probably need all the help they can get, with gimmicks, slogans, imported publicity. But I rush to admit that there are also many who live happily within the church and also live the dynamic new life that authentic Christianity offers to all.


Friday, 22 August 2014

CHANGING TIMES

September is drawing close and signifies a time of change for many, not least members of our family. One grandson embarks on a college course, following glittering success in GCSE's. One grandaughter and another grandson step out of Primary School into High School.Many young people will be preparing for university, and many Methodist Ministers, including our friend Melanie, will be ready to start in new churches. For many there will be sucess, but we should not forget all those who are disappointed. NOt only by examination results, but by other expectations and hopes that come to nothing.

Facing disappointment is a difficult business, as we all know. Sometimes it simply remains that, but at other times leads on to better things. Indeed sometimes failure can be the gateway to success, the opportunity to step into a new future.Like the Chinese farmer who suffered bad luck with a missing horse, then a son with a broken leg, it all ended with the accident preventing enlistment to a hopeless war. As the farmer said: 'Good luck...bad luck? Who can tell?'

And who can have failed to notice the shortening of the days? The onset of Autumn may bring that season Keats described as one of 'Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness' but for many the focus will be on the dying of the light, the shortening days. Just as squirrels are supposed to lay up their food pantries for winter's hardships, and the logs are piled up in the store for some wimter heat, we all need to take stock and find things in our lives and situations that allow us to deal with coming days more hopefully.New interests, new activities new resolutions.

But we are not there yet and many wonderful days lie ahead, maybe an Indian Summer? Every season has its blessings so I think the real call is to seek and enjoy them as they come to us. What we must not do is simply buckle under the circumstances that overcome us, but cheerfully work our way through in peacefulness and joy.
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Thursday, 21 August 2014

CHRISTIAN ACTIONS

I am not particularly a person who searches for bargains, whether shopping or investing money.I have never found it to be of importance to me to gain one quarter of a percent on money I am never likely to use. Having said that, I have to admit that this week I have kept my eye on the bargains that came my way, and like a child with spending money (!) have been counting them up. By dint of moving from one of our two supermarkets to the other (and neither huge) I have picked up a pound here and a pound there. Add to the fact that by paying £10 for three months of newspaper vouchers I am saving  £8 each week. So my total bargain over 4 days? £8.

This £8 makes me think. It turns my mind to what I might call a 'Sacrificial Theology'. Perhaps, because some of it arose from my effort, I should have a box into which some of it goes- an Oxfam Box for example.This is just one of those ideas....I will let it float around but keep on looking for bargains. It is a novel way of working for those less fortunate than I am.

Yesterday I wrote about my reflecting on  the notion of a return to simple dramas.I realise that my real aim is rather wider than these simple dramas; I try to be honest with myself and admit that what I am really after is non-church based Christian Actions. Do not read too much into 'non-church' but understand that sometimes it is good to find adventures that are not arising from a church situation. In the first place it is a very powerful message to some 'on the edge' that 'This business of being a Christian today' must not be identified by church attendance and belonging(although for many this is what it happily involves). 

In the second place it liberates us from church programmes, personalities and conflicting financial demands. In the third place it entails the possibility of great adventures in a group of like minded idealists. I hope this doesn't sound too vague, but it is real to me because I can think of people who might love to do Christian actions in the world without belonging to a church.

I have greatly admired an organisation- now wound up- called 'Christian Action'. Over 50 years it drew people together who desired to be involved in Christian actions of various sorts.For most of those years- perhaps all of them- its Director was Canon Eric James, and I have in front of me the final address he gave at the formal end to this wonderful organisation (whose purposes went well beyond simply fund raising. In his address he made some moving and trenchant remarks which I quote from below.

There's a church in France with a whole window of stained  glass of several panels, each of which depicts a scene from the parable of the Good Samaritan. You can immediately tell who's the good samaritan, because in each panel he has a halo over his head. But that window contains a surprise. In one panel it's the victim- mugged on the Jerusalem/Jericho Road- who wears the halo. The glass of the  window is old; but the truth it is trying to convey is older.

St Augustine said that the victim on the Jerusalem/Jericho Road should speak to us of him who fell victim to Pilate, to Caiaphas, to the High Priests, to Judas, and to the people, and who suffered and died at their hands outside Jerusalem.

But Augustine says rather more about this parable than I have quoted him as saying. He says that the figure lying wounded is man; our wounded humanity, so knocked about. But Augustine doesn't separate the Christ- figure from all of this. He says Christ takes on, he embraces, our wounded humanity....

He has taken on, embraced, accepted our wounded humanity.And his work he has said is our work; our work his. And thus we have been bold to call it Christian Action. And it's for that work that we now say: Thanks be to God!

And that was it- the end of 50 years of glorious independent Christian service. But the example and the ideal can live on.




Wednesday, 20 August 2014

CHANGING

Two days ago I directed a question at myself; given that it is 40 years since I first ventured into the work of Methodist Ministry what changes have taken place in me? That is, I now realise, an impossible question and one which I think you would find difficult to answer about yourself.

I do think that I now have more questions than all those years ago.But the result is fewer answers, and a greater sense of mystery at the end of those questions. The trouble with me all those years ago, and perhaps with certain sections of the church today, is that we do not like mystery. We  like having measurements, definitions for everything. I think that there is something sublime about the mystery of God. Is not the mystery of music a way of getting to that even greater mystery. The things I am sure about grow less and less, but when I am sure there is greater and greater certainty.

Another change might surprise you. There is a part of me that would like to settle down into a pie and slippers retirement with Horlicks by the fireside. But I cannot be like that, because I cannot be who I am not. When the time came for us to move on in Ministry we would await the arrival of what was then a yellow A4 (thick) booklet. In it were profiles of ministers moving on( I still have the 50 words I wrote in 1998) and that of churches seeking a replacement. These were great adventures and we visited many places stretching from the Midlands, Cheshire, Northumberland, Cumbria.Sometimes I still say to Janet 'Is the yellow book due soon?' Yes at the age of 74 too!

The reason for that particular question: my desire to continue the loving work of ministry. I know that I could not do it now, but it leaves behind the challenge, the new horizons, the dreamings. So what do I do about this? Two 'plans' come to mind. First- the more certain one and almost ready- is to present a book with about 100 blogs in it , mainly to sell through the Coffee shop here. It will be quite a choice- 100 from 400 plus!

The other plan- just in its trial period- is to revive the  group we had back in 2009. It's emphasis was on short  dramas for small audiences. I think it worked well, but sadly I became discouraged (when I should not have done). I day dream that we might call it 'Blue Moon Drama' because its presentations would be occasional, and-like the moon- reflect realities greater than ourselves.(The words of Pope Francis haunt me, spoken to the Cardinals before his election: The church is supposed to be the mysterium lunae- the mystery of the moon in that it has no light of its own but simply reflects the light of the sun. The church must not fool itself that it has a light of its own.) 

So two ways in which I might come to terms with part of me that has not changed.

But the question of changes for Christian people is even bigger than these shifts in attitudes.Are we any richer within? This is the hardest question and one where I count my failures again and again. Have we grown in the Grace and love of God? That once famous Methodist leader- Dr W E Sangster- asked ministers in his Presidential address a question for himself and them. " I have been comparing the man who knelt down in York" (at his Ordination) " With the man I am now am. Am I 24 years more humble, more devoted...Do you feel as I do how  you fell short? Lord have mercy upon us"

I think that is the best place to end for today, don't you?


Tuesday, 19 August 2014

COUNTESS ALBIBA DU BOISROUVRAY

How many of you have heard of this lady before? I hadn't until recently. She is 73 years old,grand- daughter of one of the richest men in the world in his time, a miner of Bolivian tin.She is cousin to Prince Rainier of Monaco, God parent to his daughter. And in her youth she hung around with the Jackie Kennedy set. In turn she has been model, actress, journalist, protester. Her life changed when tragedy overcame her. Her 24 year old son, a helicopter rescue pilot was killed in an accident, in 1986 causing her to set up the FXB (her son's initials) International, a foundation dedicated to lifting some of the world's poorest people out of poverty  .

She sold her film production company, her jewellery, art collection and properties and pumped 100 million dollars (£66m) into the new holistic enterprise. . I do not know what that is in today's terms but it is rather a lot of money. All these years later   the FXB work continues, employing 400 staff and working in 20 countries. The aim is to help the hopeless, and policies included the Global Aids Policy Coalition and the building of FXB Centre in Harvard, the aim to help those with Aids and poverty generally. The Village Programme gives 100 per cent to an individual to start a business in year one, the second year 75 per cent, 50 per cent in the third year. After that they are on their own. A comment from some women in the Congo said: "Thank you. Because it lasts three years we can sleep soundly at night." There is much satisfaction that there will be food for the children, healthcare and information to run a business.

Inspiring! Why do I say that? First because such stories will not carry much currency in this selfish, un-idealistic modern society. Yet to some, like me, it will be enormously inspiring. This is particularly true because it came out of money richness which was replaced by unselfishness. And not a small amount either. Someone asked once what God thinks about the love of money. The reply was incisive- just look at those he gave it to. 

The other aspect is how this woman used a terrible tragedy to make good. The death of her beloved son, of whom she was so rightly proud. Not bitterness or anger, but a vast gesture that has brought so much good. It makes me think that in even our tiny' disasters 'we can make something  good, something worthwhile, something lovely.

This has not answered my promise to share how I thought 40 years have changed me.I shall certainly do that soon, but my piece above gives a tiny clue; a hatred of selfishness and a soaring admiration for idealism.

Monday, 18 August 2014

60 years? 40 years?

My colleague and his wife were delighted with the short ceremony of celebration after the church's morning Service. They had not planned it, but some ladies from the church did so. The cake was unexpected and the two tier iced cake was a surprise to them and a delight to us all. I reckon about 80 people shared in the celebration. The couple had enjoyed a family celebration on the actual day, but they described this as a further celebration with their second family- the church. After 60 years of marriage and ministry I think they got what they deserved.

Part of the preparation for my short speech was researching the years of ministry my colleague had served. It brought to my a memory that I might have easily overlooked. It is all of 40 years next week that I arrived in St Annes on Sea to begin my time in the Methodist Ministry. Although we went to live in St Annes, the plan was to purchase a house in the small town of Kirkham close to the two churches I would mainly serve.Part of my responsibility was to assist in the ministry of a large church in St Annes; it proved to be an exciting time because in that October,i.e. 1974, the church was opening a Day Care Centre, one of the first in the country. I recall Lord Soper (i.e. the famous Rev Dr Donald Soper) coming to open it.

I recall too driving to Kirkham on a boiling hot July day to meet the Superintendent and members of the church. It was our third 'try' because (having indicated to my college principle that I would like to work near the sea) the first notification was that we would be going to Bridlington. Before we could visit the word came that it was not a suitable appointment given certain circumstances to do with time scales involved. Then we were told we would be going to Neston in Wirral ( by coincidence very close to my last appointment in Heswall). We went to have an unofficial look and saw a small two bedroomed bungalow, totally unfit for a family of five. So it was we ended up at Kirkham.

40 years ago! Looking back I have cause to ask all sorts of questions I should not ask. Was I right to say I was 'called' to Ministry ( Methodist terminology for what is perceived to be a necessary 'push' from outside ourselves)? Uprooting a family happily living in a lovely house, 200 hundred metres from my father, in a most attractive part of the town? The question becomes even more pressing given my safe job as a Senior Lecturer at what is now Bolton University. And already there was the deadly shadow of a horrible illness. Was that right?

Yet had I not entered ministry I could not have met my dear beloved  wife, Janet, one whose presence in a family broken by death, brought incredible wholeness, happiness and healing.Looking back down the years I know that there never was a greater sign of a Providence than that. It was all so surreal. But the questions still come, intensified in me because of my propensity to self criticism. Then looking back over the years it has been a mixed life of teaching and ministry.I have to say that the really great adventures have been through ministry. Even there, is an irony. The highlights have been almost extramural endeavours- Just Connections, Coffee Shops, 1738 (Young adult activity).

So was it right that 40 years ago I started out in a new way, despite the pains that followed. I think it was, but in all our lives these questions arise. And you know how I summarise all these loose ends and sometimes foolish ways? We have arrived where we are, and must rejoice and be glad in it. Had we chosen other ways we may not be here and living out our happy lives.

I was going to write about me (hate doing that really) and the changes the 40 years have brought. But that will have to wait a day or two.The above is quite enough for one day!!