Ash Wednesday signifies the start of Lent. Many churches around the world (including the church in Southern Africa, where I come from) mark the beginning of Lent with an Ash Wednesday service - where we receive the mark of the Cross in ash on our forehead.
Ashes are the product of burning something away. I remember when I was growing up and we had a fire place. It was my job to take the ashes out. They were useless so we would dispose of them as just so much trash.
So why do some Christians put this (for lack of a better word) garbage on their foreheads? Where did this strange tradition come from and what does it mean?
First of all these ashes are a reminder of who we are. The Bible tells us that we came from the dust and to the dust we shall return. I also suggests that the first human was formed out of the dust of the earth by God and then God breathed life into that dust. That is a powerful image. One that is meant to remind us that we are given worth by the life giving Spirit of God.
These ashes are also a sign of repentance. Lent is a time of mourning our own shortcomings and changing our ways. In Bible times it was common for people who were mourning to dress in sackcloth and put ashes on their heads - to show their repentance and to seek God’s forgiveness. These ashes are meant to be for us symbols of our repentance and signs that we truly seek to follow in God's path.
The people in the Biblical stories probably put the ashes on top of their heads - so why do we, instead of putting these ashes on our heads, put them in the sign of the cross on our foreheads?
We do so because it is a reminder of how we are sealed for Christ. In most churches when a baby is baptised the minister or priest uses oil to mark the child with the sign of the cross. This anointing, and the cross of ashes, are both reminders of the mark of the Lamb as it is described in the Revelation of John. The Book of Revelation tells of an angel marking the faithful before the tribulation. These faithful would then be protected.
The mark of the cross is a mark of ownership. These ashes remind us that we are Christ's that he died so that we might live.
It is also significant that we use palm branches to make these ashes. The palms are a symbol of victory. We are reminded of the events of Holy Week - and of how the victory of Jesus over sin was won for us on Good Friday.
I want to encourage you to find a church near you with an Ash Wednesday Service this year. Attend it if you can and mark the beginning of Lent in this way. And as we have the sign of the cross placed on our foreheads, let us repent of our self-reliance and self-seeking. And let us again accept the grace and forgiveness that marks us as redeemed children of God.
And as you do that, remember that there are three disciplines that are commonly practiced in the Lenten season - prayer, giving, and fasting. Each one connects with one of the big three temptations that we all face. Prayer confronts our temptation to power, since we can’t pray when we think we’re in control. Giving confronts our temptation to accumulate wealth for its own sake. Fasting confronts our temptation to allow our bodily appetites and addictions to control us.
During Lent, we are invited to focus more intentionally on confronting our temptations and learning, like Jesus, to overcome them and live with humility, simplicity and discipline - which, although it may not sound like it in today’s world, is actually the best and most abundant way to live.
Ash Wednesday is a good time to decide how you will observe the three Lenten practices in the next 40 days. Don’t just “give something up” for Lent - choose a fast that can take you deeper into God’s grace. Don’t just “put something in the collection” - choose a habit of giving that will lead you into greater appreciation for what you have. Don’t just “say a few prayers” - choose to practice prayer through a life lived in union with God at all times.
How will you mark the beginning of Lent and how will you embrace the Lenten practices this year?
Rev Romeo Pedro
“The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.”
It’s a well-known quotation attributed to various people in similar forms including William Gladstone, Mahatma Gandhi and Jimi Hendrix. It is very easy to say but less easy to put into practice and certainly as we look out into the world we see examples of the misuse of power in so many different ways.
As I write this there are millions of people displaced because of oppression and conflict in the countries that they call home. Struggles for political power continue at the expense of communities where there are already huge amounts of poverty and unrest which seems to go unnoticed by those who govern.
Sadly churches are not free from power struggles either. I can be very quick to justify an idea purely because it is my idea and quickly become upset if nobody seems to listen or take notice. Ambition is not a word we use very often in the church but Craig C. Hill in his book ‘Servant of All’ explores this in some detail and asks the interesting question: “Was Jesus ambitious?”
His answer to the question is a resounding no, in the sense that “Jesus did not curry favour, did not seek political power, and owned almost nothing.” But also a resounding yes, in the sense that “Jesus was audaciously ambitious, making extraordinary - and to many leading figures, offensive claims about himself and his messianic vocation”.
Certainly if we go on to explore more about Jesus we discover that he was ambitious to serve God as we recall the pattern of prayer he left his followers: “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”
Jesus’ disciples were slow to learn from him what the nature of this ambition was about. They often jostled for position wanting to reserve the best place in heaven alongside Jesus thus completely misunderstanding his teaching about status and the misuse of power.
There is nothing wrong with ambition – it is a human instinct but can be directed wrongly. Again in the words of Craig Hill “It is the fire that warms the house or, unchecked, burns it to the ground”
Perhaps the last word should be a reminder from the Methodist Worship book of those challenging words from the Covenant Service which so many people will be saying at this time of year as they recommit their lives to God’s work:
I am no longer my own but yours.
Your will, not mine, be done in all things,
wherever you may place me,
in all that I do and in all that I may endure;
when there is work for me and when there is none;
when I am troubled and when I am at peace.
Your will be done
when I am valued and when I am disregarded;
when I find fulfilment and when it is lacking;
when I have all things, and when I have nothing.
I willingly offer all I have and am
to serve you, as and where you choose.
Wishing you a happy and peaceful new year Deacon Richard Beckett
Christmas Letter December 2017
I am writing this just after ‘Black Friday’, the day when traditionally I avoid going anywhere near the shops! A ‘One-off’ event, it is a day when that nagging feeling sets in of, “If I don't buy this now, it may not be this cheap again for a whole year!” – Well maybe not until January anyway!
Of course the UK has imported the ‘tradition’ from the USA where in some states it is a day observed as a holiday following Thanksgiving Day, and for me, translates less well into our culture as a result but now marks the beginning of the biggest spending period of the commercial year.
Because we celebrate the birth of Christ every year and surround it with the more commercial aspects of consumerism we easily forget what a ‘ONE-OFF’ event it was.
We need to recall the event with that sense of perplexity, amazement and submission to God’s call that Mary felt when the angel announced she was to be the mother of the Christ child.
“Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word”
We need to capture again the commitment of Joseph who risked reputation, livelihood and so much more to ensure that the Christ child’s life would begin within the security of a family.
“When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel had commanded; he took Mary as his wife”
We need to recall the event with that sense of wondering fearfulness which the shepherds experienced following the appearance of the angels. The shepherds debated (But not for too long!) and then decided to go to the stable immediately to see for themselves.
“Let us go now to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us”
The birth of the Christ child was a ‘ONE-OFF’ event but there is a stark difference between the Black Friday message I began with and the one I finish with for the message of Christmas is this: “If I don’t do something about this now, the greatest gift of all still retains its everlasting value”
Which could sound like a message to do nothing and yet it is precisely because the everlasting gift of Jesus is given that we have to do something in response and: say ‘yes’ as Mary did; Listen to God as Joseph did and see for yourself with the shepherds who worshiped at the stable.
Every Blessing for Christmas and the New Year. Deacon Richard Beckett
Suppression or Expression?
I believe that the good people and the town of Northampton is well provided for in the many quality parks and recreational areas. During half term week I found myself in Abington Park and in particular a play area filled full of people of all ages, generations and cultures, complete with an ice cream van from Northampton's Premier Ice Cream maker, Gallone's.
When the weather is good, and people have some time for one another in such a number at a place like a park you will find an ice cream van. Where the gospel is preached and lived you will also find people. People are a key ingredient to the Christian faith in the world; this is God's design and plan.
I was observing people using what had been provided, you could hear and see the joy and fun that people could have together, sometimes when we become adult we lose the ability to play, perhaps we feel our time could be employed more productively doing something else? Play and playing is a spiritual activity that feeds into other areas of life, like learning and sharing.
Clearly this time people where spending was productive, what I saw and heard was something about expression, expression of character and personality. Life is full of expression in so many ways, from architecture, environmental planning, areas of distinct beauty, nature, education, health care, food, art and design the list is endless, this includes our Christian belief and faith, inside the Church and outside.
One of the best ways to reflect on expression and to value expression is to go to a place where it may be absent or not very apparent. As human beings each of us needs a safe place and safe space in which we can express our thoughts, experiences and feelings. The park was a good place to go and to be.
What was that time really all about? It was about human relationships and the interaction that takes place, perhaps they all felt it was a place of freedom and a greater openness that allowed them to participate and enjoy the experience.
I have sometimes been to countries and with people who have been suppressed and this has altered their whole persona and outlook on life, I would say to the detriment of human development and potential. It is a way of life that demands far more effort to live and direct, it is like keeping a lid on life.
It is ok to go to a place where just the basics of life are provided, but expression individual or collective is frowned on or stamped out diminishes character and expression of a full bodied nature.
In the living of the Christian faith, as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ in community God grants us through His grace the gift of expression, God doesn't work from the negative perspective of suppression but he does work from the positive perspective of expression.
Is God a great model for expression? The answer is profoundly, yes! Expression is always more vibrant set in the context of freedom.
People who come to God and live by faith, individually and collectively are given freedom through God's grace revealed to us all in the person of Jesus Christ and anointed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
People who embody the living Lord Jesus Christ and I see this on a regular basis in what appear to be the small things in life are "Free to be", just how God intended, it is when our will is aligned with God's will. Gentleness, sincerity, compassion and care, love, joy peace, contentment, patience and perseverance are all God values that can be expressed in us and through us.
Why is this so? It is because we are open to God and the possibilities through faith that God gives and offers, it is about quality of life, next strictly about length.
Think about this. A restaurant has a high level of cuisine. You order a starter, generally this is only a small amount, very neatly arranged and looks and taste is of utmost importance, if the rest of our meal is going to be as good as this, we should be more than happy. The Starter is just the lead and an expression of what may follow, it is also an expression of a Chef's gifts and skills, and level of service, the objective of all of this is to give us a good memorable experience that we will recall to our friends.
So our Christian faith and experience is an expression of God in us and through us starting with Jesus and living in the stream of the Holy Spirit. So expression is purposeful and important, keep looking to do this following Jesus.
Rev John Marriott
I was fortunate to spend part of my sabbatical in Rome participating in a ‘Spirituality in Photography’ tour. We were guided around some of the significant and ancient sites with a view to looking at the world through the lens of the camera and reflecting spiritually on the photographs we took.
I would like to share one of those with you in this month’s letter.
Of all the photos taken, the scene seems an unlikely one to choose to reflect on spiritually but I enjoy exploring particularly how it is that God speaks through the ordinary and every day and this picture seems to express something of that.
For me, there is comedy in the image because of the apparent flaunting of health and safety issues but set alongside this is a calmness which the image of the sphinx seems to impose.
Phillip Richter in his book ‘Spirituality in Photography’, reminds me of the importance of grounding spirituality in the everyday:
“Sometimes we think that God can only be experienced in the extraordinary, the supremely beautiful, or the awesomely sublime – special rare moments that rarely punctuate our boring everyday lives”.
The scene speaks to me of things permanent and long lasting and yet temporary and fragile. The quietly smiling sphinx, albeit an artificial artefact, serves to remind me of how God must view the sometimes frantic work of humans. The words of Woody Allen come to mind:
“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”
The plans and schemes of humans are often based on temporal structures but we know that God invites us to aim for the things which will last:
“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (2 Corinthians 5:1)
There is something in the photograph here about teamwork too. There might be inherent danger if one member of the team removes a piece of scaffold which he or another team member is attached to! And while there is experience here, there is also communication and I recall the lively banter that was exchanged between the workmen as I watched.
We pray: Gracious and loving God, all creativity comes from you. Look kindly on our efforts and be patient with us as we attempt to shape the world in your image.
(You might take photographs yourself and want to explore further this opportunity for creativity and reflection. Have a look at Phillip J. Richter’s book ‘Spirituality in Photography’ or for some more examples of photographs you can use reflectively try www.spiritualityinphotography.com
Deacon Richard Beckett
I love playing with words.
Take remember. We usually understand it to mean recall, as in recall the story, or what you said or what you remember.
But what if it has another, meaning. What if it means to re- member, as in you are a member of something, a community, a family. To re member, or be remembered, is to claim once again your place, and identity with that community or family and engage, once again, with that communities narrative and story.
And maybe faith is both about recalling and re- membering.
Jesus witnessed to a people who lived in interesting times. They lived with illness and poverty, hunger and moral and ethical questions. And let us not forget that the Romans were occupying their homeland.
In John 7:37-39, Jesus asks them to remember
The festival is Sukkot. We know this because of the details about festival and water.
What do we know about Sukkot? In the festival of Sukkot, it was customary to bring a pitcher, made of gold, into the Temple. It was filled with water from the pool of Siloam to remind the people when God gave them water from the rock when they wandered in the desert. On each day of the festival, there was a procession, including prayers for deliverance, or Hosanna in Hebrew, and the final day of the festival was hosanna rabbah or the great hosanna, the culmination of all these prayers.
Jesus then is inviting the people to remember. Recall the hope we have for the messiah. Recall the hope of deliverance, of liberation, of freedom, of the new life that the messiah comes to bring to all people and indeed creation itself, for this water was for the livestock as well. Remember that when creation fractures, God sends the Holy Spirit to be about renewal, inspiration and hope. Accept God’s gracious invitation and be re-membered into such a community and family of grace and mercy and hope.
Remember the dreams and visions of the Holy Spirit who is ever about recall and re-membering, for it shapes and reshapes community. It’s winds ever witnesses to the grace and wonder of a God who continues to be about miracles of transformation and transcendence.
You remember the story. It’s the one in Numbers 20.
You recall it? Of course you do.
There was no water for the community and they united against Moses and Aaron. The people challenged Moses and said,” It would have been better if we had died when our relatives died in God’s presence! Why have you brought the community of YHWH into the desert to die here with our livestock? Why did you lead us out of Egypt, only to bring us to this wretched place that has no grains or figs or vines or pomegranates? There’s not even any water to drink!”
Moses and Aaron left the assembly and went to the door of the Tent of Meeting, where they feel prostrate. Then they saw the glory of the YHWH, and YHWH said to Moses,” Take your staff and assemble the community, you and Aaron, and in their presence, speak to this rock and order it to yield its water. You will make water flow for them, out of the rock, and provide drink for the community and their cattle.” Moses took the staff from its place before God, as directed. He and Aaron assembled the people in front of the rock and Moses said,” Listen now, you rebels! Must we bring water for you out of this rock?” Then, raising his hand, he struck the rock twice with the staff, and water gushed out in abundance, which the community and their livestock drank. (Numbers 20: 2-9)
God calls us to live in love one with another and indeed creation itself. Therefore, God gives us water. All of us. And from a rock. I mean, really. Everyone knows water does not come from rocks. But then, we believe that this is a God who rolls away stones.
It was in community that Jesus said, do you not recall? Do you not remember that we are all members of God’s family, and that this family includes creation itself? These festivals which we celebrate are not mere inclinations, but witness to a deeper truth. In the face of all which denies it, God offers us all new life. And God being God, can and does so, even from rocks, life from non -life.
This is one of the reasons why we need the Holy Spirit. These are the things of God. The Holy Spirit, by God’s grace, empowers us to dreams God’s dreams and see he very visions of the divine.
The Holy spirt enables us to recall and re- member. It enables us to be a people of hope in the face of all which denies it. As Desmond Tutu said,
Hope is being able to see that there is light, despite all the darkness.
Hope is being able to believe that water comes from a rock and stones are rolled away.
In some ways, the issues that the people of Jesus’s day lived with resonate with our own. We too live with questions about illness, as in what do we do about the NHS. And hunger. Why are their food banks in the 21st century? And poverty? What is the role of the social safety net? We too face moral and ethical questions. How do I shop and vote and want others to live? And while a Roman legionnaire has not raised a sword in GB for many a year, we still live with violence, whether behind closed doors or in the public arena.
We need hope.
Therefore, Jesus says, in community, and to community, remember. Remember hope is your goal and your task, your mission. Remember God is with us. The Messiah comes. And we are not alone.
Recall our common narrative as believers and as members of the great human family. Recall and be re-membered.
Let us recall the story in the words we say and how we live, and daily be re-membered within it. For the wonder and glory and gift is this.
We are not alone. God is with us. In manger, cross and empty tomb, God is with us. God is with us, creator, redeemer sustainer. God is with us, Source, Truth, Inspiration. God is with us Father Son and Holy Spirit. God is with us the Three in One.
Rev Tina Swire
In October 2016, the circuit sent Vic Winchcombe and I to a conference. Now, I have been to many conferences in my life, but this one was life-changing for me. The theme was, “Reimagine: Nurturing Mission Shaped Churches and Circuits”. I was especially moved by one of the keynote speakers, Revd. Dr. Calvin Samuel. You can find his talk (and others) by following the link: http://www.methodist.org.uk/mission/reimagine/reimagine-conference-2016/keynote-speeches
I was especially challenged by his question: “Can anyone like Paul, say, ‘I give thanks for your work of faith, for your labour of love, for your endurance inspired by hope?’ Are other people able to talk about what this church is doing in this challenging society?”
In February around 25 of us from the Circuit attended a District "Reimagine” Forum at Daventry which inspired us to look at developing ideas in our own Circuit.
There had been prayerful consultation following the previous meeting to establish the main priorities people felt should be taken forward. These were:
The meeting also agreed the importance of underpinning everything with prayer.
Each group was then tasked to explore their designated area and to look at practical ways in which we could develop these priorities so that this could benefit the different churches in our circuit. I want to encourage you to contact me or the circuit office (we would then put you in contact with the convenors of these groups) – get involved so that together, we can reimagine a Church that is relevant to the time and the place that we find ourselves in.
I have similarly been involved in several processes across the circuit - where we have been looking at where we are at, what we’re doing well and not so well, as well as looking at what we need to see as focus areas over the next few years. These have been very encouraging. So many of you are involved in offering fresh ideas that will hopefully help us to be more intentional about being Mission Shaped Churches.
In her inaugural address made at Methodist Conference, the Revd Loraine N Mellor, the newly elected President of the Methodist Conference, asked: "How are we disturbing the present in the Church today?" as she shared her concerns with the current state of the Church and her vision for taking radical risks to change its culture.
Reflecting on her worries over the "declining Church”, Loraine took a sobering look at the current state of the Methodist Church (which is of course not just our story) and its dwindling membership. As a potential solution, Loraine implored Methodists to take radical steps to change the shape of the Church, through a renewed focus on God-centered worship, generous hospitality and being unafraid of failure in evangelism.
Well, it seems like God is leading us, not in isolation, but that what we’ve discerned in our Circuit Reimagine Group, and in our different churches, connects well with what God is saying to the wider church.
At the recent Conference we also learnt that The Methodist Church in Britain has revealed a 3.5% year-on-year decline in membership over the past decade, with membership now at 188,000, but continues to reach over half-a-million people each week.
I think that it is important that we embrace this good news. Yes, we seem to be declining in numbers, but we continue to touch the lives of many – and that this presents a real challenge and opportunity for us. The Revd Canon Gareth J Powell, Secretary of the Conference, said: "At the heart of this report is a challenge - not with the statistics, but with the very nature of our being. We must take seriously our responsibility for being an evangelistic community of love - a profound giving of attention to another person - which leads people to Christ."
I invite you dear friends to be part of this creative and energizing focus of reimagining a community that continues to reach and touch the lives of the communities within which we are placed.
In the words of the President of Conference: "Because, you see… I don't believe that God is done with us just yet."
Rev Romeo Pedro
Travel Broadens the Mind.
Sometimes we think or are lead to believe that bigger is better. A simple illustration of this could be a sign outside a shop saying "All you can eat for £8.95".
On a recent visit to the city of Atlanta in Georgia I found the Coca Cola centre, and outside a statue of its founder a Mr Henderson, everybody visiting wanted to be photographed with this gentleman. Undoubtedly Coca Cola provides work for thousands or millions of people around the world making big contributions to the economies of many nations. That is good. What it did or does for the health of the world is another question?
In another part of the city is the CNN centre, filled with many visitors, it is one of the main news and media centres in the whole of the United States, holding great sway in all things connected with Media and has a big influence in what people receive and use.
Just across the spacious city of Atlanta is a very interesting street, Sweet Auburn Avenue, which is mostly empty except for Sweet Auburn Market and the home of Dr Martin Luther King Junior and his centre. He was the son of a Baptist Pastor. In later life he acted and spoke out but was assassinated, he was silenced but his message wasn't.
Sweet Auburn Market is a vibrant place of life, living and building community, people sharing together. The people there had freedom, true freedom. Auburn Avenue was one of the most vibrant streets in the whole of America where former slaves and their families worked at living, and living life as full as they could. This place was only small but it was beautiful, with a vast amount of history in that one street.
Why does such a small street hold such immense significance? It was where Dr Martin Luther King Junior was born, nurtured and grew up, his father's Manse is a museum to a great man, and just down the Avenue is the Dr Martin Luther King Junior Centre for learning, peace and justice.
This area of the city has its own Fire Station just down from the Manse, it is a place where Martin Luther as boy would go and play, perhaps to annoyance of the Fire Officers.
What he noticed was that the fire crews where all white and this left an impression on him and had great future influence on his life, why isn't there any of us doing this work? Since when does the colour of a person's skin influence the ability of a person to fight a fire or to save a life? The answer, is nothing. Providing a person is physically capable, competent and trained, then that's what is required.
Why should the makeup of the fire crews influence his thinking? When he was older and educated he researched this across a wider area. What was quite apparent was there was lack of equal opportunity for people of all colours and ethnicity to have the opportunity to contribute to shape of life and the world.
The fire station was only small, six crew per shift I do believe. Bigger was not better in this particular case, it was better and more beautiful for it contributed to the germination and the blossoming of a movement, for "Civil Rights and Justice".
Walking became a major feature of the movement and people would come and join in, rallies would be held and the small words of "I had a dream would become large, significant, important and memorable".
There is no doubt Dr Martin Luther King Junior was an inspirational speaker captivating people, trying to break into the hearing of people who control and influence the make up of life, the people who give opportunity and can resource life. He had to start somewhere to work for justice for all, irrespective of colour or ethnicity.
Dr martin Luther King Junior received a Christian upbringing and faith informed his life direction, work and purpose. In the gospels Jesus talks about faith as small a mustard seed, bigger is not always better, but sometimes the small significant things do grow to be bigger and better.
Our journey around the City of Atlanta was on public transport using the cities bus service, thoughts came to me about a small lady called Rosa Parks as I passed President Jimmy Carters Library, who tried to use a bus that also changed things, for the better, but that's a letter for another time.
Rev John Marriott
Have you ever heard of Julia? She is my best friend. We have been best friends since we have been four. She lives in Vancouver, now. We haven’t seen each other for about 20 years. We can go years without speaking to each other on the phone, and yet, when we do, we just pick up where we left off.
Friends like that are a gift. Deep, real, beyond even space and time, they are enduring and inspiring and comforting and altogether wonderful.
One of our friends in the faith is Prisca. Ever heard of her? She was a contemporary of Paul, one of his dearest friends and follower traveler in this journey of faith.
She is referenced only a few times in the Bible, however, the picture which comes across about her is one of courage, generosity, bravery, passion for Jesus and someone one not adverse to taking risks for the glory of God. She is warm and loyal. She teaches others about the faith. She runs a church from her home and in Romans 16, her group is the only one named as a church. Her deeds were well known in the early church .
Paul in his final letter, makes sure she is mentioned as one who is to receive his final greetings. Now there is a statement.
Maybe you have heard of her as Priscilla, which would have been her more informal, or nickname.
Perhaps you have not heard of her at all.
I believe Prisca is someone we should highlight more as a follower of Jesus and in whose example there is much to commend, if nothing else, because she highlights so much of our about discipleship. That is about being a friend of Jesus and one another.
Discipleship, being a friend, is about taking risks, about opening you heart, about being passionate, about being the church wherever , whenever and however you are. It is about being generous and sharing the story with others. It is about being passionate and compassionate.
It is about friendship. It is about being in a warm loving honest and real relationship with God, creation and the wider human family. It is about understanding that we are all called to be as sisters and brothers with one another, even if that comes at a cost and that cost is sometimes about reminding others of that truth.
This is real friendship; deep long lasting. Friendship with God and one another. It is the friendship which reconciles and makes all things new. It is the friendship of manger cross and empty tomb, which says I am with you always, even to the end of the age.
God ever calls us to be friends, especially to the strangers in our midst and to live real lasting friendship, trusting in Christ, our guide and our friend.
And let us draw inspiration from the friendship of those whose shoulders we stand on. They are there, waiting to listen and hear and tell their tale again, ready to pick up where we left off. For that is Christ’s way.
Rev Tina Swire
On the 25th of May, we celebrate Ascension Day. The “beam me up Scotty” moment in the Christian Calendar. Well actually not really. Ascension Day has more to do with theology than geography.
Ascension is not about Jesus defying gravity but rather defying and defeating the principalities and powers that weigh down on the shoulders of the marginalised poor and vulnerable of society with a force heavier than gravity.
Ascension Day is a radically subversive day; as the early disciples of Jesus reached the conviction to start singing that Jesus, and not Caesar, was Lord. It was a very distressing day for the political powers! And of course it was a very dangerous day for the followers of Jesus who were now deemed a great threat by these powers. But more than dangerous it was hope-full: full of a hope that was able to disperse their fear and despair and encourage them to face the danger. Their hope rested in trusting that Jesus reigns — that Jesus is the power above all other powers. The early disciples knew they were on the winning side and were released to imagine a new world and creatively live it out – finding expression in the life of the Early Church.
The Early Church were a group of people who had nothing else in common, but their love for Jesus. They were all there, their differences overcome, for the simple reason that they adored Him. Christians have been drawn together for the same reason ever since. Even in this Circuit – we are drawn together every Sunday in spite of our differences, because we remember Jesus.
There is something about the everlasting Christ that draws people together. And when people are drawn together in a Christian fellowship, they all share on an equal basis, to varying degrees the same experience.
Ascension also reminds us that Pentecost is coming! It is of course at Pentecost when this diverse, alternative community finds itself wonderfully expressed. Everyone understood each other at Pentecost, because they were talking about the same thing, the wondrous thing of God. We are drawn together by God’s love and when talking about this common experience, we should be able to share in a Spirit of unity, reconciliation and understanding.
As a result of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the disciples became aware of a new inward power which completely changed their whole outlook. They believed this because they were possessed by the Spirit of God. They became aware of the Spirit as a Power, because of the promise of Acts 1:8, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you”. It is in this spirit of power that they were to spread the gospel: “and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth”. It was this Spirit that made it possible for them to not just imagine a new world, but to live obediently and to proclaim the gospel courageously.
I was so encouraged at one of our churches, where they have started using name tags on a Sunday morning – encouraging their diverse congregation to get to know each other better. There is nothing as affirming as knowing that someone remembers your name (especially when you are new). This very simple exercise is an effort to build relationships and to create a loving, affirming and diverse community, where differences are respected and valued. Well done!
Many of you will also be involved with Christian Aid Week (starting on the 14th of May), doing your bit for the marginalised and the poor. In doing that, you will be living the message of the Ascension (hope for the hopeless).
At this very moment in our world’s history, we can create alternative communities of grace and love, where all feel welcome, care for and all are affirmed. In doing this, we become subversive – holding before the world a model that is so different from those powerful voices that encourage fear and hatred.
The God of the Ascension and of Pentecost empowers us to bring hope and to be (like the Early Church), that alternative reality. We know nothing can change this fragmented world, but only a power greater than anything, the Holy Spirit. And we can be the loving, inclusive community through which the Spirit can work to do that.
Rev Romeo Pedro
On Easter Sunday little Johnny listened as his Sunday school teacher told the class that the lesson would be about the meaning of Easter. “Can anyone tell us the Easter story?” she asked. When no one volunteered to speak, she called on Jimmy. “Umm, I don't think I know,” Jimmy said. The teacher reassured him that was okay and moved on to Betty. “I don't know how to tell it,” she responded.
Finally, little Johnny decided to raise his hand. He said he would tell the Easter story. The teacher was pleasantly surprised at his willingness, since he was usually the class clown. “On Easter,” said Johnny, “Jesus and his disciples were eating the Jewish Passover at the last supper, but later Jesus was deceived and turned over to the Romans by one of his disciples. He was accused of teaching he was the Messiah and when he confessed it, the Romans made him to wear a crown of thorns, took him to be crucified, and he was hung on a cross with nails through his hands and feet. He said ‘It is finished’ which means ‘Debt paid in full’ and died. He was definitely dead because the water was separated from his blood when they stabbed his side. So they buried him in a nearby cave on Friday which was sealed off by a large boulder.”
“Very good, Johnny!” the teacher gasped excitedly. “And what else happened that we celebrate on Easter?”
Johnny thought for a moment before continuing. “Now, on Easter Sunday each year, we move the boulder aside so that Jesus can come out. And if he sees his shadow, then we know there will be six more weeks of winter!”
… and he was doing so well!
In some ways it is much easier to speak of the great sacrifice and death of Jesus. It is extraordinary, but it need not be seen as supernatural if you really don’t want to. People will probably listen if you want to talk about Jesus as a good, even a great moral teacher and may even be persuaded to acknowledge a sad and horrible, yet sacrificial death. But that is not the end of the story, there is a very definite “to be continued” attached to the end of Good Friday.
On the third day, God raised Jesus from the dead, and the resurrection changes everything! Jesus being raised from the dead cannot be anything else but supernatural and miraculous. Jesus was raised bodily, he wasn’t just a spirit; they touched him; he ate with them; the physical nature of it is what makes it resurrection and it changes defeat into victory. The resurrection is the heart of Christian belief and our faith makes no sense without it. The resurrection changes everything.
As they journeyed toward Jerusalem I think the disciples felt an increasing confusion and Jesus’ own heaviness of heart. Then with Jesus having been executed they must have been very fearful and grief stricken. And before they really had a chance to come to terms with all of that, first Mary, and then Peter and John discover that the tomb is empty. The disciples left, but Mary waited at the tomb and Jesus appeared to her in her grief and then you can see it, hear it, feel it; what a difference! She will not be swayed in her testimony to the risen Lord.
The resurrection changes everything!
The disciples all found this as Jesus appeared to them and their utter conviction of the truth of the resurrection, empowered by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, changed the world. No one could change their minds. They were totally convinced. Too easily we allow Christianity and ourselves to be pressed back into the good moral teaching, “one faith among many”, that our culture would very much prefer. We need to talk far more often about the resurrection, about our own experience of the risen, living Lord Jesus and seek to live with the conviction that knowing Jesus and the empowering of his Holy Spirit brings in our hearts. Let’s celebrate this Easter with joy and conviction, the wonder of Jesus’ loving sacrifice on the cross and the glorious fact of the resurrection that changes everything!
Have a blessed Easter,
Rev Phil Snelson
Emmanuel Local Ecumenical Partnership
As I write this I have just heard Donald Trump repeat the phrase “America First” again and emphasise the need for building the economy through creating jobs and revitalising home-grown industry and productivity.
There are many issues raised by this new presidency which for me are completely at odds with the message of the Christian Gospel perhaps most importantly the nature of the campaign and subsequent legislation which seems to set out to divide race, faith groups and ethnicity.
Perhaps equally importantly the issue of putting one’s own priorities first fit least comfortably with The Gospel passage (Matthew 19:16-22) in which Jesus says
“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
This is primarily about following Jesus but also challenges us about how Christians should view possessions and money.
I am particularly interested in how the passage from Matthew reflects on the current world stage and whether it is possible for a country’s economy to reflect this also. A good book to read on the subject is ‘Just Living’ by Ruth Valerio in which she explores the whole issue of ‘Faith and Community in an age of Consumerism’ and raises some important points about what productivity and creativity are for. God himself has been involved in creation and has given that same gift of creativity to humankind. It is natural that we should want to use and encourage others to use these same gifts to explore, to make things, to develop and refine.
But I am saddened by the inward looking way in which we can justify creativity. I am a great fan of the TV series ‘The Apprentice’, in which young business entrepreneurs compete for Alan Sugar’s backing. Of course I am very aware that significant editing produces a programme which highlights confrontation and competition thus making it more watchable! The disappointing part is that very rarely do the competitors propose a business which is anything other than relatively trivial as happened in the last series where one of the finalists was seeking support for his business of making novelty goods.
And we can begin to see instances in the wider world where large civil projects such as HS2 are often justified by the number of jobs they will create regardless it seems of the actual need of the project.
We are all consumers and we easily justify the need to upgrade to the latest phone or TV or tablet thus encouraging the disposability that seems to be at the heart of the need for higher productivity. But there are other ways of doing things. You may be aware of Sweden’s proposed legislation which gives tax breaks on repairs for everything from washing machines to bicycles. Now I am not an economist and it might appeal to my (sometimes annoying habit – ask my wife!) principal of ‘repair first, replace second’ but there has to be something here worth considering which could actually create work.
There is of course so much more to say and as always I am happy to explore the issues further with those interested but to sum up I want to ask what, or who, comes first for you?
For me it is following Jesus and the recognition that having made that decision, it should a affect all aspects of life and living, giving and generosity, productivity and creativity.
Deacon Richard Beckett
Ministers Letter February 2017 : Time for a change?
Writing is always a challenge for me because as you know I hardly write anything down or it is just very minimal. If I have to write I like it to be inspired, it to be topical or appropriate for a time, space, people or context.
Often things come to you in the most strange of places, times of the day or even night. Sometimes it is good to go and do something completely different from the normal routine and then in those moments perhaps while we are subconsciously thinking something will come along.
Gardening, walking, painting, cycling, driving, visiting can be such activities that promote thinking in a parallel way or give totally new direction, people use the term "thinking outside of the box".
My mum Eleanor who was a thoughtful, loving and a caring lady would say, "a change is as good as a rest". She would obediently follow my dad in virtually everything, very diligently and dutifully, but it didn't stop her thinking for herself.
My mum and dad for half their working lives were shop keepers, "Open all hours". They rarely went way and if they did it was not for long. Mum and dad never retired, their little business was their life and they had little room or activity time for reflection. However mum would always say "a change is as good as a rest".
I find myself in a strange and unusual place. I can't remember having anymore than about two weeks off at any one, sickness or holiday. Even when I was unemployed I was walking the streets looking for work. So one month's holiday followed by three months Sabbatical needs a little bit of reprogramming and new thinking on my part, having all this space and time that I have never had before could go to my head or just be frittered away. God would not be pleased about either of those.
Time is a precious and rare commodity that is finite while we inhabit this remarkable planet. So my mum's words of wisdom come to mind, "a change is as good as a rest". I have guarded against people trying to fill it for me. I want to shape it and I want to use it from my own resourcefulness.
Often when we have space we want, and are inclined, to fill it, perhaps not thinking what we are filling it with.
Most things are better with having a little bit of structure and purpose. For me I have known for a long time that my body needs refreshment, to be good, healthy and fit otherwise life can be limited. Health is one of the most important things we have and possess, mental, physical and spiritual, and often cannot be bought with money.
I firmly believe we are very three dimensional. I base this upon the life of Jesus, his mental capacity, to think on his feet, his physical ability to endure hard and long days and the agony of the Cross and his spiritual energy from God in the form of the Holy Spirit.
I also see this time as a season similar to that of Spring. The things I want to see and like about Spring are the daylight hours increasing in both length and brightness, the temperature rising and the warmth in the sun.
Signs of new life in plants and the birds, more activity in nature with a coming vibrancy, I also look for colour to return well exemplified in Snowdrops and Blue Bells. I look forward to planting seeds and raising plants. I should feel more connected to the earth, closer to creation.
At sometime in our history we were more connected to the seasons. Winter could be long and hard, little activity, but activity in a different way. Summer brings the bloom of creation and autumn the industrious harvesting.
I believe that the way our world and society is structured and driven along some important aspects have been weaned out or lost completely and we as people are missing out on some important life giving aspects.
One thing for me needs to go alongside all of these is a good Spring clean, both materially and spiritually. Jesus refers to this in the image of the Vine, pruning and clearing unhelpful stuff, restoring the image and fitness of the vine to produce better quality of fruit.
It is easy to accumulate but much more difficult to clear things out, wanting to keep things even though they have not been used at all.
World travellers have a saying "travel light, travel simple". A dose of rigour, discipline and perhaps ruthlessness will be needed in this different time. This will enable restoration, new life, life with colour and with vibrancy and then the words of Jesus will come true.
Jesus said “I have come to give you life and life in all its fullness!”
Every blessing in Jesus,
Rev John Marriott
Minnie Louise Haskins is not a poet that many of us know. She was a woman with a long and varied career . During her life she worked in India and the East End, industrial welfare and academia. She wrote books and poetry. Her life was about service .
We see this early on. In 1903, she worked for the Springfield Hall Wesleyan Methodist mission and in 1907 she went to Madras with the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society to serve in the Zenana mission to women.
To help fund this mission, she wrote a book of poetry entitled The Desert which included the poem God knows. This poem touched a chord with many, becoming a favorite of both many people, including King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.
The poem includes these lines:
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”.
And he replied:
“Go into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.:
So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.
The statement of faith and hope and trust sustained her during her missionary years, two world wars, and a life in academia in days when few women lived such a life.
Minnie understood that at the core of our faith is an embracing of mystery, of the unknown. She had no idea of what missionary life would look like at home or abroad, but on she went. Nor could she have known how radically the world would change in her lifetime, but she still served and trusted. She still put her hand in the hand of God, this mysterious, wondrous, surprising God, who creates, redeems and makes all things new, this God who comes to us in Jesus Christ, in the mystery and wonder and surprise of manger cross and empty tomb. This God who asks of us only, take my hand. I am with you. Embrace your liberation and see what wonders there are. I will never leave you. I am with you always.
We stand at the beginning of a new year. We do not know what will come. The world will change. We will be asked to embrace the hand of God who changes everything, but who is changeless. Our Circuit will change, so too our churches. The world as well. Nothing stays the same.
But what does stay the same, is this extended and extending hand of God and the gracious invitation to take it and be set free.
“ And remember. I am with you. Always.”
These words of Christ in Matthew 28 come in the context of the resurrection. He tells them everything has changed now. All things are new. The possibilities are now endless. Embrace your life and live your faith.
As we enter a new year, let us reflect on Christ’s words: Remember. Always.
And embrace the hand of God .
Blessings and Peace,
Rev Tina Swire