Make room for the elephant!

A  plea for unnatural worship

Yesterday morning I issued a plea from the pulpit of Newbury Baptist Church. It was a plea to make church doors wide enough that people can bring their elephants into the room with them when they worship. I have often struggled with preachers who try to tell me that my elephant is in fact, a mouse – and that anyway I should be grateful to God for it. Sometimes they say that the nature of faith requires me to thank God for sickness, or loss, or calamity. I would suggest that it means thanking him despite those things. Faith does not maintain an awareness of God by ignoring circumstances.
Rather, faith chooses to see God and to worship him despite those things.It is in this way that the cracked and broken voices of the faithful are raised to God even in the midst of trial.

This is the worship of Jonah sitting in the gloom and smelling of whale-bile saying “I will worship him”. This is the worship of Job, with tattered clothes and scabby skin saying “yet in my flesh shall I see God”. This is the worship of Paul and Silas, singing their hearts out at midnight whilst chained to the wall in the inner cell of a locked prison. This is the worship of John “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day” at the start of Revelation – even though he is far from his friends and exhausted in a labour camp. This is the voice of Habbakuk the prophet, looking around at his meagre prospects, but somehow finding faith:

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord.

There’s a lot of courage in the three letters of that word “yet”.

If we can only worship God by creating a hermetic seal between the world and the church so that elephants are not allowed in the room – then I am not sure it is worthy of the name.

The book of Habakkuk is actually called the ‘burden of Habbakuk’ in the original. I have such admiration for this plucky prophet – hauling his burden (or maybe his elephant) up into the ramparts with him so that he can look God in the eye and wait for some answers.

So -here’s a question for you. If you go to church – do you take your elephant with you?

nellie

Thank you, nature!

The blessing and curse of the worship of nature

Was looking yesterday at the effortless ease with which creation worships its creator as described in Psalm 19. The heavens worship in a way which is constant, unabashed, untroubled by the complexity of words and visible/ accessible to all. To this extent, it functions as a lens to focus what Christian worship should be like. Consider the image below. It has not been enhanced in any way. You will notice, though, how the dark sky stands in stark contrast to the brightness of the boats. The photograph was taken just before a storm, and millions of little droplets of water suspended in the air acted like tiny lenses to focus the intensity of colour. The worship within the natural world functions in just such a way.

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

That worship can function like a mirror, too – showing us how different our worship is by comparison. Reflected in it, we may see that our worship is not constant, or unabashed or accessible to all. Lamenting this serves little purpose – since we cannot shed the trappings of free will to find some form of instinctive worship which we imagine to be there for the birds and beasts. That said, the worship which we choose to offer can be a beautiful thing – hand-crafted from folly and wisdom, faith and doubt, base instinct and high aspiration.

One of the most thought-provoking books I have read about the nature of nature, so to speak is A Sweet Wild Note by Richard Smyth, reviewed here.  Birds which fly high in the air have their shrill voice, which carries across the wide skies. Birds which fly in amongst trees or buildings have a lower, voice – which bounces across their environment.

For those who would worship their creator instinctively, the important thing is to find your voice.

Jam but no Jerusalem

Taking the lid off worship

Just started a preaching series at Newbury Baptist Church on worship, and wanted to start the whole thing by looking at first principles.

It is twenty-one centuries since the Roman governor of Turkey wrote to his boss and described Christians as those who “rise early in the morning and sing songs to Jesus as if he were a god”. The thing is – we are still doing it. We do it at different times and we do it in different ways. Some love liturgy and regard impromptu worship as undignified
Some love impromptu worship and see anything else as a straight-jacket. Some love old hymns for their dignity and depth. Some love new songs for freshness and life
Some struggle with the language of old hymns and find it obscure. Some struggle with language of new songs and find it vacuous. Some love the  familiarity of worship which takes same shape every week.Some love the surprise of finding it different every time.

To say what is ‘good’ worship is a bit like saying what is ‘good’ jam. Some like it very sharp and some like it very sweet. Some like it with big pieces of fruit and some like it with the fruit cut up so small it can barely be identified. Some like the colour to be natural and some like it to be enhanced. What we can do, though, is to say what is true jam. In order to be true jam it must contain fruit, it must contain some sweetener, it must be possible to spread it and it must keep.

Can we pin down such truth in worship, I wonder? My opening gambit was to say two things.

It must be personal – arising from the improbable goodness and indescribable generosity of God as experienced.

It must be global – much bigger than a collection of people each having a ‘private moment’ with God alongside each other. To worship is to join a crowd of people which stretches across centuries and continents.

What would your TWO vital ingredients be of the worship jam? Let me know via the comments box below. After all, jam is meant to be spread…

 

This book smells

A review of ‘Maria in the moon’ by Louise Beech

This is the third novel I have read by Louise, and each one underlines my belief in her as a truly exceptional writer. This book, however, should come with a health warning. It smells! It smells of houses drying out after the floodwaters have receded. It smells of uncomfortable childhood memories -lingering like the whiff of mothballs at the back of an old cupboard. It smells of smoke and coffee and perspiration with just a hint of despair. Above all, though, it smells of humanity.

Louise has a singular talent for depicting even the most unsympathetic character with enough sympathy to engage our attention. She never excuses cruelty or unkindness or selfishness, but she gives us pause to see the person displaying it so that we are less inclined to dismiss them with a self-righteous ‘tut’. Not only that, but for the characters who are more central to the book, there is a real love. To these characters, Louise is Geppetto to Pinocchio – depicting them with such warmth yet still almost bemused when they spring to life. I am still not sure whether this is Louise or one of her characters talking:

It occurred to me that we are all perfect in our imperfections, unique in our failings

When Louise talks about the most flawless love of all towards the end of the book she does so without a hint of idealism, but rather with a deep sense of realism. The smell of humanity is here and it draws us in. Years ago the staff trying to end a prison riot did so by wafting the smell of frying bacon and onions across the barricade. In the end it had more effect than many other approaches – smell can be so evocative.  Breathe deeply of Maria in the Moon and you will not be disappointed.

The book has humour, humanity and intrigue in abundance.  It also has a Christmas tree with the kind of decorations you are unlikely ever to find on mine, but you’ll have to read the book to find out what I mean!maria

Whale 3 ways

An encounter with Fuelcast

A few months ago, I was approached by Fuelcast, a new ministry aiming to bring a Bible-based, devotional video to subscribers’ inboxes every weekday. Prior readers of this blog will not be surprised that my mind went to Jonah as source material for three such films. The soggy prophet and I have a long shared history, and there was a certain puzzle which deserved rather more of an airing.

In the last week of June the small film crew of three arrived at Newbury Baptist  Church to film the videos with me. There were two things which struck me immediately about them. The first was their professionalism – in a new environment they set about the task of setting and lighting the shoot with a practised ease born of experience. The second was a deep- rooted sense of mission. These busy people add their work for Fuelcast on top of other commitments because they believe they have a calling to do so. As they set up the cameras, as they edit the footage, as they publish it to the library – heart and mind are set on the people who will watch the films. Those people might be in a messy kitchen, a minister’s office or on a busy train – but all may be in need of inspiration, and Fuelcast are there for them.

The three films below are my first venture before a camera, and I’ve a feeling I have a lot to learn.All the same, I hope you find some inspiration in them…

  1. No cardboard villains

2. A psalm is born

3. Worms and worries

Sixty nine reasons

To be thankful

On the 69th birthday of the NHS, here are sixty-nine reasons to be thankful:

1. For every hand held
2. For every restless researcher, in pursuit of an elusive cure
3. For every patient receptionist, calming the anxious arrival
4. For every porter, expert in negotiating emotions as well as corners
5. For every play therapist, busying imaginations whilst bodies rest
6. For every phlebotomist, extracting the stuff of life in order to give it back
7. For every cleaner, fighting a battle with the invisible enemy
8. For every medical student, eager to join the fray
9. For every GP, meeting whatever comes through the door with professionalism
10. For every nurse, working out the meaning of care by delivering it
11. For every anaesthetist, measuring life by breaths.
12. For every surgeon, wounding to heal
13. For every tea poured
14. For every chaplain, speaking volumes, sometimes with words
15. For every physiotherapist, moved by movement
16. For every pharmacist who regards precision as the best medicine
17. For every radiographer, looking hard at what cannot be seen
18. For every occupational therapist, paying extraordinary attention to the ordinary
19. For every paediatrician, with big patience for little patients
20. For every hand washed
21. For every paramedic, always quick, never rushed
22. For every midwife, treating each birth as if it were the only one
23. For every theatre technician, using tools and loving people
24. For every audiologist, savouring the sound of sound
25. For every breath monitored
26. For every oncologist, fighting a battle cell by cell
27. For every medical school lecturer, honing tomorrow’s talent
28. For every manager, balancing competing needs whilst life hangs in the balance
29. For every volunteer greeter, lowering the threshold for those who fear to step over it
30. For every immunologist helping each me to fight back
31. For every nurse practitioner – caring, advocating and communicating
32. For every endocrinologist, whose moans are hormones
33. For every psychologist, whose landscape is the mind
34. For every prosthetist, whose best limbs are not their own
35. For every brow furrowed
36. For every caretaker who takes care that others might deliver it
37. For every secretary who controls a diary to set its owner free
38. For every cardiologist, never missing a beat
39. For every volunteer driver, getting people to places
40. For every chiropodist, healing the heels
41. For every caterer, feeding those too tired to taste
42. For every geriatrician who believes getting old should be getting better
43. For every Community psychiatric nurse whose patch is people
44. For every bed manager who rarely sees their own
45. For every ward clerk who keeps track because they keep up
46. For every ward housekeeper who keeps house like it was home
47. For every opthalmologist who sees what seeing is
48. For every practice nurse jabbing flu in the arm
49. For every speech therapist, who wants all to have a voice.
50. For every dentist, by gum
51. For very heartbeat counted
52. For every dietitian , fed by a desire to help
53. For every staff nurse, professionally compassionate
54. For every ward sister, compassionately professional
55. For every dermatologist, whose care is more than skin deep
56. For every gastroenterologist, sick to the stomach at preventable illness
57. For every medical librarian, who wields information like a scalpel
58. For every first cry
59. For every Orthopaedist, bone tired but mending bones
60. For every neurologist, who minds
61. For every tear shed
62. For every counsellor whose door is open
63. For every pathologist, for whom the worst disease is inaction
64. For every obstetrician for whom every birth is a triumph
65. For every estates manager for whom the building is a medical instrument
66. For every unpaid minute worked
67. For every music therapist, for whom the sweetest notes are not on a patient’s file
68. For every last breath
69. For every day

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Time to talk

A big conversation begins in Newbury

In August last year, I was still finding my way around a new town. After 19 years in West London, I was starting to adjust to a new life in West Berkshire. My frequent forays into my new home town were navigated by landmarks and useful shops, rather than street names. One morning I bumped into a man staffing a very small stall outside the home-wares shop. Above him fluttered a banner all about ‘building community together’, and on his table were leaflets all about ‘community conversation’. Keen to find my way into the local community, I introduced myself as the Minister of the town’s Baptist Church, and suggested that we had a conversation.

One thing led to another, and two more conversations with that man and his colleagues at West Berkshire Council. A training course in restorative practice followed, which provided an introduction to some of the most motivated and compassionate providers of social care I have ever met. After that, a date was put in the diary, a registration completed with the Big Lunch and the Great Get Together, and plans launched with new friends at the Council.

Today sees a Community Conversation in Newbury Baptist Church some nine months after that first encounter. A collection of people drawn from the local community – of all ages, backgrounds and professions, will share their lunch and share their ideas for the town where they live. Like any other conversation, I know about its beginning but not its end. Outcomes may be as varied as the people who scribble their ideas on our table cloths – but it is good to talk.

convopic2

I have been considering the nature of conversation, and reflecting on how differently the phrases below play on the mind:

  • Talks are under way
  • Discussions are being held
  • There was a full and frank exchange of views
  • Negotiations have begun
  • We’re talking now

Although they should all mean similar things, it seems to me that each comes with its own ‘baggage’. In the language of translation methodology, each has ‘collocated meanings’, whether intentional or not. Today’s conversation really is just that. Hosted by a local church, supported by the local council, attended by local residents, it is a conversation – a start, a beginning. At the end of a week where anger has spilled onto the streets, that can only be a good thing.

Have always loved these pieces of coloured glass - hoping for lots of 'reflections' today

Have always loved these pieces of coloured glass – hoping for lots of ‘reflections’ today. CLICK for full size

 

An extended invitation

A review of ‘Home’ by Jo Swinney

Pictured below is Jo Swinney’s new book next to a hedgehog house in my garden. Please note that it is a hedgehog house and not a hedgehog home – since it cannot really be the latter until it has an occupant.Years ago, when I was new to both ministry and published writing, I wrote an article on small groups and insisted that the word ‘homegroup’ rather than ‘housegroup‘ should be used – since home was ‘more than a description of location’.

I have a feeling Jo would agree. Jo has had, to coin a phrase, more ‘homes than I have had hot dinners’. Both during her childhood and since, she has moved far, wide and frequently. Along the way she has picked up not only the self-awareness and wisdom which infuses the book, but she has also caught on the wind the distant sound of a melody which we choose to call home. This book is really an extended invitation to join her on the quest for that elusive melody.

In the book, Jo will take you with her to Canada, Portugal, France, Africa and…Surbiton!  Don’t expect a travelogue, though – this is something far more profound. Jo writes with a disarming and, at times, uncomfortable candour – but the net result is a warm and engaging read. Ultimately the book is a call, in her own words, to ‘re-embrace where I am’, which will find a resonance for many. This may be especially so when, as Jo puts it ‘people are scattered like dandelion seeds in a gale, far from the soil they grew in and sick with longing to get back’. All of this is anchored with an analysis along the way of King David’s quest for home in the Biblical accounts.

Jo writes as a Christian, with faith stitched into her very words as it is woven into the fabric of her life. That said, it is a long time since I have read a Christian book with such an honest invitation to readers of other faiths or none to join her: ‘I hope you’ll stick with me and engage with the book and with me, even where we might see things differently‘. Well done to her for writing it, and to Hodder for printing it.

Jo writes that Christians look for, and find ‘the fingerprints of God’s provision, goodness and kindness in every aspect of their lives’. I trust that many will find this book to be a help in looking for them. I did.

HOME

Virtual but not virtuous?

Pixellated pilgrimage

When Simon Reed wrote the foreword to my book Journey earlier this year, he included the following:

Richard is himself the embodiment of what this book is all about. He admits that he has
never been on a pilgrimage himself and has only experienced it through others. The fact
that he can write about it so insightfully and in a way that is so rooted in the stu; of
everyday life is proof of what this book sets out to do – to help us all to journey with God,and to travel well.
In the light of that, you may not be surprised to find a new addition to my collection of apps. Look carefully, and you will see that it sits right there alongside others for neighbourhood news, local police alerts and local events: Camino 360:
The app is slickly produced, supported by Spanish Tourist Board, and makes the most of VR technology. I came across it through medieval spirituality scholar Lisa Deam However, I have to confess that it is likely to only a temporary resident on my home-screen. There is something slightly uncomfortable about an app which encourages the user to ‘put on interactive boots, put on virtual reality glasses, and put yourself in the shoes of a Pilgrim.’ As you can see from the screenshot below, it allows you to ‘choose your camino’ at the touch of an icon:
There is no doubt that this will introduce many people to what the Camino has to offer, and may encourage some to embark on it for real.  What if it does the opposite, though? What if a virtual pilgrimage becomes every bit as virtuous as a real one? My contention in Journey was not that we should choose between the extraordinary life of the pilgrimage and the ordinary life of the everyday, but rather than the one should become the other:
 CLICK for more information

CLICK for more information

In the week that the story has broken about Uluru appearing on Google Street View, maybe I should just accept the inevitable and click my way through the Camino. What do you think?

Specs not blinkers

Pentecost on the morning after

Today is Pentecost Day. Thousands of churches will mark today as the occasion when the Spirit of God is poured out on the faithful who turn their hearts and faces to God. Those who have read this blog for some years will remember that I like to associate Pentecost with an explosion of colour. I was fully intending to do so today. Inspired by a fellow Baptist Minister, I decided to go with the colour theme again, and conduct a little polychromatic experiment.

It seems to me that when the Spirit came, all the promise which was there in the prophets, all the anticipation which was there in John the Baptist, all the grace which was there in Christ came cascading down on the hopeful crowd. For the first time ever, all the rainbow colours of God’s grace could be seen in a way which was only monochrome in anticipation. The colours were there all along in the waiting – but nobody could see them.

Today I shall issue lenses from these glasses to the children and ask them to look at the light coming in through the church’s plain windows:

I shall then ask each child to find an adult and then ‘bring them in’ on the wonderful surprise:

CLICK for full size

CLICK for full size

On Pentecost day, a hope so often seen in bland monochrome is washed in glorious colour.

The big question, of course, is whether I should ‘change the script’ on the morning after another terrorist attack. I believe that I should not. After all, Pentecost is the day when the Christian church expresses the belief that ordinary people given extraordinary blessing have both mandate and capability to change the world. Pentecost is not the day when the church looks at the world not with blinkers to shield it from the nastiness. Rather, it is the day when it dons the spectacles of faith and sees the most glorious possibilities even in the darkest corner.