Tuesday, 24 December 2013

What if.....Day 24

I began this Advent blog of wondering  and questioning because of reading a book by Barbara Brown Taylor.  The blog has been an ante dote to the rather arrogant certainty around us today in some Christian circles. The certainty that judges against any other opinion than the one being expressed.  For me, I would rather live with the questions, because they lead me closer to an understanding of a God we cannot fathom and whose ways are as mysterious as that birth in Bethlehem.  I leave the last word to Barbara - from her book 'The Preaching Life'.

'.....chances are that the way true believers believe is the way most of us believe: valiantly on some days and pitifully on others, with faith enough to move mountains on some occasions and not enough to get us out of bed on others.  Since we believe in what we cannot know for sure, our belief tends to have a certain lightness to it, an openness to ambiguity and a willingness not to be sure about everything.  Our belief is less like certainty than like trust or hope.  We are betting our lives on something we cannot prove, and it is hard to be very smug about that.  Most of the time the best we can do is to live 'as of' it were all true and when we do, it becomes truer somehow.

Our belief tends to show up in our actions more than in our words.  Sometimes even we have to look at what we do to understand what we believe.  We are not, at heart, believers in an institution or an ideology but in a relationship that changes from day to day and year to year.  Just because we believe does not mean that we are not afraid of what might happen to us; it just means that we believe we know who will be with us when it does.  Some days we are as firm in our faith as apostles and some days we are like lost sheep, which means that we belong to the flock, not because we are certain of God but because God is certain of us, and no one is able to snatch us out of God's hands.'

May the eagerness of the shepherds
The joy of the angels
The perseverance of the wise men
And the peace of the Christchild
Be yours this Christmastime

Have a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Monday, 23 December 2013

What if.....? Day 23

Pre-carols Communion yesterday morning.  Interesting congregation, the committed who would be coming three times in one day (church wardens, organist and key laity), those going away who could make the morning but were going somewhere else after lunch, those who always come in the morning and were not bothered at all about the carol services and those for whom church was their lifeline.

It is this last group which made me reflect yesterday. I wrote a few days ago about creating community, and for at least seven people attending yesterday, all living alone, the local church was their community.  It was here they met their friends, shared their problems, gained some joy in their week.

I chatted to a group of three old ladies  about their Christmas - the first told me that her daughter had recently been diagnosed with cancer and had only a limited time to live.  With the in-laws staying at Christmas they had no room for her.  She had visited a couple of days ago - a journey of around 30 miles but without a car - 3 buses and a train each way - 3 hours travel.  Christmas Day would be spent at home.  The second lady told me that her son had recently had to downsize to live in a flat - again no room for anyone else at Christmas, she too was going to stay home alone.  The third was going to her neice's this year - she did not do anything last year, for Christmas was a sad time.  Her husband, son and brother had all died the year before one after another just before Christmas.

Loss, loneliness and the struggles of family life were all present in that short conversation.  It made me think, not only how for those three people (or those around them) Christmas would not be how our media and culture would like to portray it, but also if this was 3 out of 20 adults, how many others are there up and down our country.   It made me realise how how important for these three the message of God's love was, which I had feebily preached only half an hour earlier.

The Christian message of Hope, in the baby born in Bethlehem and who is Emmanuel - God with us, is ever more important today, for in a way all the wrapping, the glamorous present orgie, the bright coloured Christmas jumpers and the flashing fairy lights,  just masks much of the darkness around.   Yesterday I was not in prosperous Buckinghamshire - with its glazed ham, mulled wine and canap├ęs.  This was a place where the effects of hardship, struggle and isolation were felt on a daily basis.    Much forgotten in some places. It is encouraging that some of our larger churches are getting involved with food banks and credit unions, for it brings the gospel into focus.

I would like to say there is a welcome in every church for those seeking God's love and fellowship.  That is God's way, and for those who do not venture there - prayers nonetheless.  Let's all look outwards these next three days and see how, even in a small, way, we can bring some light into the darkness around.

What if..... we each gave away something to day ?

Sunday, 22 December 2013

What if....? Day 22

With all the preparations which propel us forward towards Christmas Day - both hospitality related (decorations, food, presents) and work related (sermons and visual aids and carol services) - and thenbeing caught up in the celebrations after, it is interesting to read reviews in some of the magazines and papers which look back at the year.

2013 has been an interesting year - with news happening every moment of every day it is hard to analyse things.   There has been much to regret, the squeeze on welfare payments has left many caught between a rock and a hard place; where employment is not even providing enough, where many businesses have not been able to succeed, where dependence on help - be it cheap supermarket prices, food banks or payday loans - has become the norm for many.   This is a challenge for all of us in work to see whether we can do more, whether it is to give, support or protest.

We appear to live in an increasingly violent culture - on the global stage wars continue to rage, on the local, murder by someone know to the victim seems to happen frequently, and then there are the legal battles that get played out in court or on our newscreens.   How do we counter such trends?

But on the positive side - and it is easy to see the glass half empty - we have had the warmest summer for years, people were a bit more chilled as they enjoyed the sunshine, we have enjoyed the royal birth, and ratings appear to be up for both the new Pope and the new Archbishop of Canterbury.

Some of these recollections have happened already as annual Cheistmas letters appear through the letterbox.

As Advent draws us into Christmas, these last few days may give us a time to reflect, albeit briefly on the year we have had - and taking the advent themes, to voice regret over our own shortcomings, as well as give thanks for all the good that there has been.      That will set us in good stead to really enjoy 25th as we celebrate God coming amongst us and God continuing to be with us, whatever our circumstances.

What if..... we had the opportunity to rerun our year?

Saturday, 21 December 2013

What if....? Day 21

The thing I most miss from parish ministry is the sense of being part of a community.  It is particularly a loss during the seasons of Lent and Advent, when there is a feeling, as a parish priest, of walking alongside a community during a season of preparation - and then at Easter and Christmas celebrating with that same group of people the joy of arrival.

We all need community, however the more we move to different parts of the country, or into a different sphere of leadership, that community gets more and more dispersed.  It then becomes more of an effort to gather people, to keep in touch and to have any meaningful relationship with them.  Hence the use of Facebook for people to stay in contact and share the journey.

I often ask the question - where and who is my community, and it am often asked it.   The different congregation each Sunday is something, especially now I know people,; the sisters at Burnham Abbey are part of my extended community, as are the people I work with more regularly or live among.

Last nights attempt at building community gathered a number of people for mulled wine and mince pies at The Rectory.  In someway it was a disparate group of people, their only apparent connection was that they knew me.  However as they got chatting and shared stories and experiences there were numerous connections happening.  Clergy who did not know one another, those who lived in close proximity, those who only met occasionally and formally, those recently retired or had never met their spouses colleagues before.   It was a chance for busy clergy to attend something, rather than make it happen, for locals to meet people a bit further afield and for those who worked alone to meet others.

Whether we have a ready made one or not, all community building takes time and effort.  Investment in people and in bringing them together, for true community is not a self-serving thing, it is connecting others, creating the bigger picture and broadening the vision.  It is not being part of the sum that counts, but the sum of all the parts, whoever and wherever those parts may be.

What if...we all spent some time community building this Christmas?

Friday, 20 December 2013

What if...? Day 20

Suddenly I am caught up in a writing frenzy as I realise that 5 services are just around the corner.   It is always a challenge adding a new slant on the Christmas story, and somehow messages from the past do not quite fit.

A return visit to Bethlehem this year has helped, this time in February - when reflection on Christmas is not quite in tune with the year.  To think of Bethlehem out of context helps gain a better perspective on the ordinariness of the event, and it's extra ordinary impact.  The need to get the baby out of the manager and I to our lives and world.

With Syria and Egypt, Afghanistan and Iraq still very much in the news during 2013 and our own domestic scene of cost cutting, increasing reliance on food banks and a royal baby - the Holy land has been off the radar for a bit.  However the plight of the Palestinian Christians goes on, that small remnant amongst Jews and Muslims, trying to live as peaceably as possible with their neighbours.

I will never forget hearing gun fire, as I sat in the courtyard of a church on the site of Jacob's well, in the West Bank, hearing the confession of one of our tour party.  It brought home to me both the fragility and vulnerability of the world in which we live and the life we each occupy.   The fact that Christ came into a similar upside down world, and taught us about turning it the right way up.    That's what has been going on for the last 2000 years and still goes on.

As I rewrite my messages, there is still a need to realign the priorities and set a new course.  From hatred to love, from anger to reconciliation, from repression to confession and from doubt to faith. It's a complex world and there is no slick message.  The preacher in our own tentative steps towards enlightenment is as vulnerable as the tentative seeker coming to hear.

What if.......we admitted we do not have all the answers?

Thursday, 19 December 2013

What if...? Day 19

Beautiful Holy Communion yesterday with the sisters at Burnham Abbey.  A quiet oasis in the midst of a busy time and a busy season.  The chance to stop, and pray and share in Holy things.

I think one of the most important aspects of the work of the Anglican Church in Bucks is the praying presence of two communities.  The Sisters of Burnham Abbey at one end and the Well at Willen, in Milton Keynes at the other.   It seems significant that symbolically all we do, up and down the archdeaconry is sandwiched together by prayer.   The fact that not many people know that is even more striking.   Silently, regularly, rhymically the needs of the church and the world are brought before God.  That is so reassuring to me as I drive from one end to the other throughout the year.

Yesterday's reading at Holy Communion was the Birth of Jesus narrative from Mathew's gospel.  We were reminded that Christ was Emmanuel, God with us.  This one day event, now can be an everyday event if we acknowledge Christ in our lives.   That is made even more real to me as I connect occasionally with the praying presence that is Burnham Abbey, recognising its eternal significance for all that we do.

What if.. we all stopped for a moment today and put what concerns us into perspective?

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

What if......Day 18

A Chrismassie evening last night with those training to be Licenced Lay ministers and Priests in the archdeaconry, hosted by our Director of Ordinands.   It was very encouraging to see the variety in the room of age, gender and Christian tradition.  A group of people enthusiastic to serve God and God's Church.

Usually the group that the archdeacon has least to do with prior to ordination, it was also good to see last night people known to me as those who have been active in their local churches for many years.   As individuals are encouraged to use their gifts ministries develop.   The often used word when people describe their call to licenced ministry is 'surprise'.  That God uses ordinary people in the service of the world is hardly rocket science (who else can he use) but the fact that it is you and me somehow makes it even more unbelievable.

Participation in God's work has no barriers, just a willing heart is required.  Only by having men and women who say 'yes' can that important work be done - and what is that work?  Making disciples of all the nations, yes, but also feeding the hungry, visiting the lonely, clothing the naked, befriending the stranger.  In fact making the world a better place.  The fact that God continues to call people tells me that the work is far from complete and the mission of the Church will continue as it has done for two thousand years.

What if......we all did something for the Kingdom today?

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

What if....? Day 17

It's strange how some things can play on your mind.  I have had a bit of a sleepless night worrying about a decision I had to make yesterday.  I had not received the information I needed prior to a meeting, and so have refused to go ahead with the meeting.   Quite understandable, I hear some of you say, but the actual being up front, and assertive, and delaying a meeting until the new year was  very much against my nature.   Could I fit in doing the preparation before hand ? No.    But I do feel as thought I have let people down by cancelling a meeting!

I suppose it's where we all draw the line at being reasonable.  I had asked for information for the last month and it had not been forthcoming. Less than two days before a meeting was unreasonable.    If I was delaying a meeting that would be unreasonable, but we have time on our side, so that is reasonable.

Maybe I am far too conscientious, always giving the benefit of the doubt, to others and going along with it.  Yet by standing out I am the one who feels bad!   Maybe too the guilt is coupled with the fact that I have had a get days off recently?   Know harm in that anyway, but again I feel bad.

These are some of the dilemmas those in ministry feel quite often.   The Christian way of putting others first gets us into all sorts of knots.  We do not want to let people down, want to be always there, always responsive, always thought well of.   Most of us want to work hard, get good results, and help things along.  We want to work for good, even if it costs us.

And all of this is often at the expense of our friends and families, our work/life balance and our own health.  Clergy stress is high.

Today at bishop's staff we are addressing some of these issues as we discuss how we can better care for our clergy and how we can be an example to them.  Maybe, just maybe my own assertion that it is reasonable to cancel a meeting and the related feelings around it, with help us all encourage one another that reasonableness around a work/life balance is everyone's right and responsibility.

What if..... we all ceased to feel guilty about things that are unreasonable anyway?

Monday, 16 December 2013

What if.....day 16

Came third yesterday in a Christmas quiz!  Two friends and I - the three french hens - took part in a fun quiz.  Interesting questions, only one religious one out of 50, and the spelling of nearby teams of the word myrrh, was quite interesting.  Anyway, we did not know the number of reindeer - nor their names, or the year the Beatles had a Christmas number one with 'I wanna hold your hand'  but managed quite a few of the rest.

The small blot on the evening, came from a disagreement on the next table, which had been reserved for a particular team, but was occupied by another family oblivious of the quiz taking place.  Suddenly this escalated into a verbal exchange between the men, which threatened at one stage to spill over onto our table as feelings got a little over heated.  It was not great - and showed how much of a short fuse some people have, and how differences can quickly get out of control.  Everything became an issue rather than one person simply apologising and walking away.    It was not something, any of the three french hens experience very often.

Christmas for many is not a time for peace and harmony, but for stress and violence.  Internal pressures get exposed and, for those not used to turning the other cheek, competition and pride lead to aggression and anger.  It made us think of how in the heat of a moment lives can be change forever (as in the recent disagreement in a supermarket car park between pensioners), and how some people live with verbally aggressive people.   So at a time of Christmas joy, it was perhaps salutary to happen upon the other side of Christmas cheer and remember those caught up, often accidentally, in the discontent of those who desperately need some graciousness and peace.

What if........we shrugged and walked away each time we were wronged?

Sunday, 15 December 2013

What if.....Day 15

I am currently struck by the sophistication of Christmas decorations.  Everything possible to decorate a home inside and out, and huge moving models in shopping centres and elsewhere.  From polar bears to santa's, icebergs to singing reindeer.  Then occasionally it's possible to spot a nativity scene.  Simple and unadorned.   The Christmas wrapping has certainly eclipsed the Christmas meaning in many places.

There is quite a need for a retelling of the story year by year so it is passed on to our children's children.  To pay as much attention to the stable as the reindeer.   I am afraid the retailers won't do it for us.  There is so much magic and relevance in the Christmas story, and that annual visit of the local family to a church carol service gives us that opportunity.  Then the church comes into its own, once the presents are bought and wrapped, the expectation rises and the children cannot wait for Christmas morning.

Advent may have become the season for shopping, but Christmas Eve certainly belongs to the church, and we would be foolish to do anything more sophisticated than read that eternal story as has been told for 2000 years.

What if......we each told the Christmas story to one other person this year ?

Saturday, 14 December 2013

What if...? Day 14

There is always interest whenever league tables are published.  No matter what they reveal there is no doubt people are curious to see how the thing most familiar to them faired, be it a local town, person, team or in yesterday's case school.   Comparing tables is not easy, there is so much you do not know from the three statistics presented, and they give a very stilted image of school life in all it's fullness.

Yet from the tables local schools, known to me stood out.  These were not the elite category, or the ones you had to gain entry to or pay huge fees, but your ordinary village or town school.  It was good to see particularly some of the schools in my archdeaconry listed in places where there is good partnership between church and local school, and where both struggle with limited resources in the communities they serve.   From Waddesden in Bucks to Colnbrook in Slough, much hard work has gone on to gain the results listed in yesterday's paper.

Of course the humanist society made some comments again about faith schools and their entry requirements, but the truth is that many of these schools are THE local school and have open doors for everyone who lives locally to attend, from all faiths and none.   I do not agree with league tables, but there is a chance here for such schools, who have often struggled against the odds and worked hard to gain such results, to take lots of pride in their achievements.

What if.... We all chose to celebrate hard work rather than discredit it?

Friday, 13 December 2013

What if.....Day 13

Over the past few weeks, I have been keeping a watching eye on Masterchef - The Professionals, and thoroughly enjoyed the final last night.  It has been interesting to see a good chef becoming a great chef.   How does that happen?   I suppose during the series the chefs have learnt new skills, have been mentored by some great chefs themselves and been put in some pretty pressured situations.  But, the main thing is that they appear to have become more confident in their own abilities to be creative,  to play around with flavours and produce finally, almost a flawless 3 course meal.

The final included a piece about the 3 finalists own background, all had a different story to tell, but it became clear that it had not been education or university that led them to fulfil their passion, but a love of cooking and food.   When so many of us enjoy going out for a good meal it is helpful to be reminded that vocational training is of as much benefit to our society as academics, with a constant drive for educational standards and top grades, where would we be without bricklayers and hairdressers, beauty therapists and cooks?

I am looking forward in the new year to eating in the restaurent attached to our local college.  Maybe the next Masterchef champion will be cooking lunch?

What if......we paid more attention to passion than qualifications?

Thursday, 12 December 2013

What if...Day 12

Driving around the diocese it is possible to experience considerable variances in weather.  Yesterday driving first to Donnington and back, and then to Eton it was fog all the way, but returning home Slough deanery was 6 degrees colder than Aylesbury.   Snow is the interesting one, when you are almost snowed in on the edge of the Chilterns it is hard to be believed when the sun is shining Milton Keynes or Slough.

Commuting short distances you hardly view floods or ice with any cause for concern, but not knowing what one will discover 30 or 40 miles from home, makes it necessary to put all manner of items in the car boot - just in case.

Driving to a short listing meeting in fog was not great, you get comfort in small things - the familiar sat nav, the lights of pubs and garages on the way, the lights on the car in front.  Much like life really, when all is blurred and muddled, it is the familiar  and mundane which gives that basic security.

I wish I could be a bit more laid back when it comes to travelling around - doing 12,000 miles a year I should be used to it, but each journey is made with a prayer and there is great relief when I am told I have reached my destination.  But again the same thing goes for life, if it were not such an adventure then we would have no need of faith.

What if.....we embraced the adventure rather than feared the road ahead?

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

What if...? Day 11

O wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High
Reaching from one end to the other
Mighty and sweetly ordering all things
Come and teach us the way of prudence

It is an extra-ordinary Advent so far this year, with the death of Nelson Mandela filling our news.  It is not our usual practice to reflect so much on a life and what it stood for.  Even more extra-ordinary was a stadium filled with a great spectrum of people at this memorial service yesterday.  Statesmen standing side by side ordinary Africans to celebrate his life.   Such a gathering bringing together global personalities (world leaders, singers, freedom fighters) would have seemed an impossible dream only a few years ago.  

That service seems to stand for the possible - not only what became within Mandela's lifetime, but a rainbow gathering from around the globe, inter-racial, inter-faith, inter-national.  Where differences were set aside or even deemed irrelevant.   When Desmond Tutu gave the blessing it seemed like the whole world kept silence to receive God's blessing on what was happening.

How our world needs that corporate togetherness, and when it happens God wants to bless it.  Advent is a time when the Church has remembered Christ who comes.  The traditional Advent antiphons, give voice to not only who Christ is, but a cry for what he brought and continues to bring.

How we need wisdom today, not only to make good and wise decisions, but to know when things more eternal (like the gathering yesterday) are far greater than things temporal.  A cry we need when so much time is taken up with our obsessions and differences which keep us apart, rather than those that bring us together.   We may then be able to stand in silence together and feel God's blessing.

What if.... We all had the grace to set our differences aside for the common good?

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

What if..? Day 10

Looking forward to an away day today with Bucks team colleagues - the bishop, parish development adviser, vocations adviser, chaplain and schools adviser.  A chance to chew the cud, and talk about the state of the archdeaconry.   We have been a team for around 5 years now so know how we each work and what gets us up in the morning.    There are common threads and then the different day to day things we are dealing with.

It is difficult to have a vision for Buckinghamshire, being part of a large diocese with its own vision and aims, however what we try and do is allow the local to flourish in an integrated way - to see the church and church school as prime sources of local vision and mission, and allow God's love, creativity and power to permeate individuals that come into contact with either.   To give our clergy the space to thrive and the resources and encouragement they need to do that; to give opportunity for vocations that have begun to germinate to be tested and nurtured, and to provide resources and a response when things get sticky or hard or toxic.

It may all be hands off, rather than hands on, but the challenge in a sense is tougher.  We, as leaders, need to be equipped for the emergency, the question, the difficult situation when it happens and confident enough that all those involved in parish life within our 300 churches have the right tools at their disposal and know that they are not alone, but completely backed up at the centre.  We need to know where things are at, without being interfering and to offer the right resource at the right time.  An attempt at servant ministry perhaps.

I do not pretend to know personally every church warden, but after 6 years I know pretty well the clergy, and those church wardens who are long serving, and it is always a challenge for me to divide up my time between them all, and the work of the diocese, so that trust and confidence between us can flourish.     Parish ministry is the heart beat of our national church and, having been there myself, deserves most of a bishop or archdeacon's care and attention (plus encouragement and support).  

At a time when our local clergy are rushed off their feet with carol services and our churches the focus of Christmas mission,  it seems appropriate to be meeting to think about how we can further support them.  It may not be radical but by setting time aside to ask how we can continued to be faithful to those we serve seems like a good idea.

What if... in some way we served those who serve today?

Monday, 9 December 2013

What if......? Day 9

Yesterday we were reminded again in our Gospel reading of the extraordinary way the coming of Christ was foretold.  John the Baptiser, down by the river, had quite a following - an early celebrity, known for his dress and his diet.   His message was as unpalatable - repent for the kingdom is close at hand - of course the religious people were quite uncomfortable.  But, John was already aware - more than anyone else (except of course his parents and cousin's family) that he was making way for another, who was the real thing.   John, in a way had the freedom to be himself - not honed like his father by regular worship in the temple, or the expectations placed upon a male Jewish boy.  He seems his own man, with its own message - simply baptising those who wished to have a changed life.

How often we are shaped by who others think we should be, or who we think we should be to fit in with our environment, peers,  role or culture.  It is hard to shake that off and to find our true selves.

After the church service yesterday a young girl, aged about 9 sat down at the piano and began to play - no music, just a few modern songs she had learned to play.  When I asked her, she thought she might do Grade 1, but just liked playing.  She obviously had a real gift and comforming to the usual pattern of going through the grades in music did not much appeal.  In fact it would probably get in the way of the freedom she was experiencing of playing her own tune.

What if...we all were freed to be our true selves and play our own tune even just for one day?

Sunday, 8 December 2013

What if.......Day 8

Popped down to Slough briefly yesterday to join the people of St John's and St Michael's, Manor Park  in their 24 hour prayer for the parish.   Currently in vacancy, there is a local determination to discern what shape and type of ministry God wants for that part of the deanery.  It was great to be among them and to add my prayers to many.  There are currently two churches both in need of total refurbishment, an unsuitable incumbents house and much work to be done in a part of Slough where ecumenical and inter-faith relations are good and so necessary.   New creativity will be key to the next stage for ministry in that place.

As I assembled my nativity set yesterday afternoon I reflected how much creativity had been necessary in God's plan.  The choice of a person and place was surprising - young woman starting out with her man, David's city, at the time of a census.  The method was unheard of - tell the story of what's happening to those working in the fields, and astronomers from afar can work it out for themselves with the necessary signs. The nuances, connections, whole picture, could never have been second guessed.   We are all left to come to our own conclusions.

It may well be that some of our plans work out that way, but many do not through careful planning, and prudent resource deployment. Also we do not like lose ends, things not fully worked through.  Allowing 24 hours to pray seemed a good start to me, the next stage would be leaving time for God to speak - through the various people who care and the outsiders to see what emerges, and then to have the boldness and courage to creatively respond in whatever way emerges.

Desire as we might for it to be so, God's plan is often far from tidy, we just need that courage to live in the ambiguity and allow ourselves to be surprised when parts of it make human sense!

What if ....... we did not act as if we had to make sense of it all?

Saturday, 7 December 2013

What if......? Day 7

Last night I found myself at Quainton, pulling a ribbon to open the doors through a new screen to open up the base of the tower.  The church is large, with some large monuments to match.  Two monuments to members of the Dormer family have moved around the church over the years, and their current resting place is in the base of the tower, either side of the bell ropes.  They are extraordinary monuments - sentimental, melancholic and bold.  They have been admired by both Simon Jenkins and Pevsner !

Much in need of restoration, this small village has taken seriously the need to make the most of their listed building, opening it up more for worshippers and Dormer monument enthusiasts alike.  Hence, phase 1 a glass screen between the church and the monuments/ringing chamber allowing easy access to both.  Phase 2 will be tackling the damp at the base of the tower, and Phase 3 restoring the two monuments.   It was great to be part of this village occasion, where Priest in Charge, architect, church wardens and others were all visibly playing their important part in ensuring the country's heritage is preserved for future generations, and making what goes on inside our churches accessible to all.  Prayer, Pilgrimage and Preservation.

I am sure those who appreciate our museums, public buildings and places of interest, do not always realise that the total upkeep of our historic churches (many grade 1 and 2 listed) falls entirely onto our local communities, and very often those few who are regular attenders.  It is an amazing feat, even to fill in the grant applications, yet alone fund raise, deploy builders and architects and oversee the work, particularly as our prime call as Christians was not to do any of these things!

I get the privilege of pulling the ribbons on occasions and offer encouragement to these unsung heroes of our nations heritage.   The glass screen at Quainton illustrates the work of many, as they create an opening between the past and the present, which all can cross, and between sacred and secular in our lives.

What if many more gave themselves to altruistic work, not for the sake of themselves but for others?

Friday, 6 December 2013

What if..? Day 6

'For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.'  Nelson Mandela

Today the world mourns the death of one extraordinary man, someone whose courage and determination literally changed the face of the world.

Yesterday evening, I sat and watched the news and the tributes pouring in for Nelson Mandela with the Dean of Kimberley, two white people, with a connection to our brothers and sisters in South Africa.  As people who have looked on at the struggle of others to gain what we take for granted, growing up while the struggle to end apartheid was going on, thankfully knowing as adults that race should never be a divide.

Bishop John and I never made it to Rabben Island when we first visited South Africa in 2008.  We were in Cape Town for the inauguration of the new Archbishop, and had visited the Waterfront where Mandela's statute stands with Desmond Tuto and other heroes of the South African story, sadly though the timing did not work and we missed literally missed the boat.  However we did make it to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg another time and were gripped and moved by the story and the stories of courage, self sacrifice and then eventual graciousness and forgiveness.

Amongst the clergy in Kimberley and Kuruman there are many other stories of courage and hope, including some who have shared in Nelson Mandela's own story.   Our thoughts today are with the Africa people.  South Africa is a complex country and the struggle for equality in many spheres continues to go on.  Today we honour a man of deep conviction, who is an example to all of us of graceful determination.

I am reminded this morning of Christ's call to bring release to the prisoners and of all those around the world still enslaved.

What if.... we too all worked to bring others the freedom we so enjoy?

Thursday, 5 December 2013

What if.....? Day 5

One of the things I have done for the last twenty five years is to keep an index of all my sermons.  It's probably the only semi-exact organised filing system I have, but each is filed in date order, numbered and cross referenced Biblically on my computer.  I did once have a great Bible programme where I could footnote the appropriate numbered sermon, but that was lost a while ago as computers got upgraded.  Now I have a list, in Bible book order.

This system does mean that I can look at the readings for Sundays and see whether I have preached on that passage before.  Often it works and helps me to get a bit of inspiration, but I am still amazed by the passages I have not preached on - probably because that was the Sunday I took off from parish ministry, say after Easter or Christmas or when the curate preached.

This Sunday's passage is a case in point.  I used to use Advent as a time for a short sermon series in the parish, or to preach on the Advent themes.  The referenced sermon was Number 5!.   That was written well before I was ordained! well before any serious New Testament study had been undertaken, and only because an encouraging Vicar let me loose in the pulpit occasionally.

It made an interesting read.  Preached not for Advent, but at an evening baptism service (by immersion) held at our local Baptist Church in Billericay where two of the young people were baptised.  That encouraging Vicar must have had faith me in!     Well, two things struck me on re-reading that sermon.  Firstly how much content there was in it.  Not the length, but the depth - there were quotes, and Biblical references and what commentators had said.   In those days, there had been plenty of time to prepare - weeks rather than days, and so I had time to do all the reading around a text (almost too much!).  

Secondly I was struck by how much heart was in the sermon, it was quite raw and nicely naive in places.   Reflecting back I am aware of how context conscious I have become in my preaching style - not really cautious but aware of both audience and preacher in a different way, speaking to a particular group of people in a particular way.  The passion is still there, but differently expressed.  Maybe more head than heart - and perhaps necessarily so.

I have decided not to use much of my 5th sermon on Sunday, but will have to take a couple of hours on Saturday to write a new one.  It will not be so rich, and it will not be so innocently heartfelt.  I envy my earlier passion, that almost childlike faith that believed it could move mountains.  I still do, but in a different and more rational acceptable 'adult' way.

What if we all allowed our heart to express itself in some way today?

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

What if...? Day 4

For the last six years I have been involved with our diocesan link with the diocese of Kimberley and Kuruman in South Africa.  I have written extensively about the diocese on my blog in the past, particularly a few years ago when the World Cup was held in that country.  It has been a real privilege over the years to form some good friendships and work, particularly with clergy, across two continents and varied cultures.

Regrettably, due to other demands on my time, I shall soon be giving up as Chair of the Link Committee, however today we are meeting with Simon, Dean of Kimberley Cathedral, as he spends some time in the Oxford Diocese.  It will be important to look back as well as look forward, there are some exciting developments including the appointment of a Development Officer in K and K, supported by the Oxford Diocese working with parish across a huge geographical area and supporting their outreach work into communities with many needs.  Our partnership, as it has developed, has been built on trust and honesty, as well as real relationship.  There have been (and still are) many challenges and an equal partnership has taken both determination and humility.   We learn from one another and I have benefitted enormously from the privilege of walking with fellow brothers and sisters that path of shared faith in such different contexts.

It is at this time of year also that my parents receive their annual parcel from Germany.  After the Second World War, at my mothers school, British schoolchildren were encouraged to have a pen friend in West Germany.  A friendship was certainly born and for the last sixty years my parents have kept in touch with Maria and Jochen, and their family.  Regular correspondence has been interspersed with visits, and throughout those years world events have been part of a shared friendship, including the fall of the Berlin Wall - never thought possible in those early days - and very important as Jochen escaped with his mother as a children from East Germany.   That friendship, now marked by the regular Christmas parcel in both directions, has deepened  understanding, far more than I am sure those early teachers ever thought.

Walking as friends in one another's shoes across divides, whether geographical, cultural, gender or race, changes lives and makes for a better world, as differences fade because what is shared is far more precious.

What if....we all tried walking in another person's shoes, even for one day ?

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

What if...? Day 3

These past few sunny weeks I have been thrilled by the extraordinary autumn colours.  Driving around Bucks there are certain places where the blends of gold, copper and yellow are wonderful.  No trips to New England needed here!   It is as if the trees are clinging to their leaves for as long as possible, although my lawn tells a different story.   It is so easy when racing from one thing to another, to ignore natures picture around us, but just the briefest acknowledgement that colour, texture and form are freely available in God's natural world, puts man-made life into perspective.  We don't have to do it all........

What if each of us stopped for a moment today and smiled at the autumn trees?

Monday, 2 December 2013

What if....? Day 2

There is much talk in the diocese of Oxford at the moment about Parish Share. We are introducing a new scheme in 2014. I think, after a great deal of hard work, what we have is as transparent and fair as any scheme can be. We are offering a rural subsidy as well as an urban one, to those deaneries who juggle different financial priorities; we are calculating ministry cost (the cost of our clergy) in exact terms - stipend, pension, housing and NI; fee income is being deducted from deanery totals and central costs have been pruned. At this time deaneries have the rather more complex task of agreeing how their share will be divided between parishes, and benefices likewise.

 There is no doubt about it, for Oxford, most of the share goes into paying our hard working clergy; therefore it saddens me when churches do not reach their target. I know money is an issue and, as I have mentioned there are many other priorities - the new scheme to build a loo, the costly repairs, the accumulated fabric fund in case the boiler breaks down. However for most of our parishes what is being asked in parish share is being used to give their Vicar (and curate) something to live on and in. I am not sure how other institutions would function, were there not regularly paid employees - the NHS, the police, the local supermarket. There is no doubt that parishes do value their parish priest, so many people speak to me about how concerned they are about how hard the vicar works, and thank you cards often demonstrate the effect of a particular ministry.  A fair parish share scheme too should reflect that value, therefore the challenge is whether the true local costs will be paid locally.

As an archdeacon I have the current figures of paid share for 2013.  I pray the new scheme gets better results, because if we did not have generous parishes which enables the stipend bills to be paid, we would have a lot of very poor clergy this Christmas.  There is a challenge to all of us who attend our local church, even just once a year, or like to have our name on the electoral roll, to contribute toward the well being of the person who willingly marries our children, buries our grandparents, visits our neighbour, brings a smile to our children in school, holds the local community regularly in prayer and is always there for us.  That holy person who gives us both security and faith.  The person who fills our grade 1 listed building with light and love.

What if all our parish churches considered the shortfall on their share this week, publicised the amount and asked for people to make up the difference, so by Christmas we can celebrate together the value we all have in being a member of the Body of Christ?

Sunday, 1 December 2013

What if ...... ?

I have become increasingly concerned about how stuck we as Christians can get, with our own traditions, with our own view of God, with our own interpretation of Scripture. At times this strikes me as arrogant, as if we know everything, or even the mind of Christ. I have just finished reading Barbara Brown Taylor's book 'Leaving Church'. It charters her own decision to leave full time Christian ministry after 20 years to pursue God outside the institution. For one who has given her life to a similar path it is deeply challenging, particularly as now it is 25 years since I gave up the normal world of work for serving in the church. The challenge is however interspersed with insights which resonate with me, discoveries I too have made - particularly that God cannot be found in a box or Christian experience, at any one time held up as the definitive answer. Life is but a journey of exploration, when we think we have found something that deepens our spirituality in one direction, by keeping looking we find something else somewhere else. Advent is a time of looking, searching for meaning once again in the incarnation, that profound yet simple story of God coming to us. An intrusion that the religious did not welcome. So my Advent pondering this year take the form of 'What if....' I will challenge myself as I ponder and pray on these and hope I will challenge others too. Day 1 - what if there had been room in the inn?