Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Spirit of Hope

It's good to be back home!  We have had a wonderful time in the States with friends from the National Association of Congregational Christian churches.  The theme for their conference is one that goes right to the heart of our faith:  The Lord your God is with you wherever you go.  It is echoed by Jesus in his final words to his followers:  And I will be with you always to the end of the age.

Reading the books of Joshua and Judges and other parts of the Old Testatment I find troubling at times, not least when reading passages describe what amounts to genocide:  my Bible lectures had been exploring a strategy for reading the Old Testament as Christians that seeks to read it through the eyes of Jesus.

How precious it is to claim that promise of his presence with us wherever we go.

It's something we found for ourselves as we visited friends in the conference and then went on to visit friends in four churches.  I have always felt that to belong to one local church is to belong to the one world-wide church of Jesus Christ.

Travelling to the mid-west of the States was a great experience as we found that in deed the Lord our God is with us wherever we go.

We visited Des Moines and Kay and Rich welcomed them to their Berwick Congregational Church.  I had been reading a fascinating book on the Underground Railroad that had enabled slaves to escape from the South to the North - it was in large measure as the inspiration from churches, not least our Congregational churches in New England moved to the West that they took with them a commitment to the gospel that sought to see it applied throughout life.  By contrast the Southern Baptists were touched by the same awakenning of the Spirit, but sought to express it in a renewed personal faith.

It was not insignicant to me to see what I would associate with a New England style of church architecture here on the outskirts of Des Moines in Iowa.

It was good last week to be welcomed by Tom and Wendy to the First Congregational Church of Spencer - three hours north of Des Moines.

It was great to meet up with their son and his wife, both active in the theatre world of Chicago, and to share in their Saturday evening and Sunday morning services where the theme of our conference played a large part in the message I shared - the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

I had not realised that we had a number of churches in New York.  We were delighted to make contact with Edith and Julie of the Plymoth Church in Brooklyn, not far from the hotel where we were staying.  Under the inspirational ministry of Henry Ward Beecher, it had played a part at the northern end of that Underground Railway.  A leading campaginere to end slavery Beecher had preached on two occasions to Abraham Lincoln who had been in the congregation, maybe helping to shape his commitment to the anti-slavery movement.   The wonderful sculptures in the church grounds depict Henry Ward Beecher with a slave woman and her daughter.  Beside them is a sculpture of Abraham  Lincoln by the sculptor who did the sculptures on Mount Rushmoor.

Ordained and a member at the Brooklyn church Julie is working as Minister for Education at the Riverside church in New York.

 The pulpit just behind Felicity was one that Martin Luther King used on five occasions: it was here that he launched his campaign against the Vietnam War.  A church that had been very much involved in the Civil Rights movement it was good to see the part they played today in shaping not just the community around them, we saw the food bank very much at work, but also in shaping the thinking of the nation as a whole.  It was Julie that directed us not only to Ground Zero and the memorial there, but also the African burial grounds, where four times the number of people are buried - slaves in unmarked graves.  A most moving memorial, but off the tourist trail ... and not nearly so accessible.

In all our travels we very much had that sense that the Lord our God is with us wherever we go.

That's a very strong sense to me as I have grown up with the close family connection between our Congregational Federation and the NACCC.  It was back in the 1960's and the 1970's that my father and his contemporaries over here made very real friendships with people in teh NACCC.  Our visit felt to me as if I were visiting members of my extended family.  The warmth of welcome was great.

Particularly so over coffee after the Sunday morning service in Spencer.  I noticed a picture on the wall that I recognised.

 When I was little that was a picture my father had had on the wall of his study.  When he died it remained on the wall in my  mother's house.  When she died I put it up on my study wall.

It's particularly precious to me as I always imagined as a child that the beloved disciple on whose shoulder Jesus's hand is resting was my father - there was a distinct likeness, as I imagined!

In the print on the wall of the Spencer church the inscription is from Mark 16, quite possibly adapted from the closing words of Jesus in Matthew:   And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.

When I got home I had a look at the picture that is on my study wall and indeed it was the same one.  But the text beside it was different.

Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.

Quite different.

I couldn't place it in the Bible so I googled it and found that it was from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice

It is when Portia is being wooed by the Prince of Morocco and invites him to choose from a gold, a silver and a lead casket, each with an inscription on.   If he chooses the one with her portrait on he gets to marry her.  TI's the lead one that bears these words.

How on earth did my father's version of the picture come to have that quotation on it?!!!

Maybe there is a significance - the promise is there, but a choice has to  be made as well.  We have to make the choice to go into all the world and to respond to Jesus's last command.

Making that choice can be difficult.  Carrying out that resolve even more difficult.

This is the point at which the message we are exploring in the Sundays after Pentecost comes into its own.  In our own strength it is not possible: but we have a strength from beyond ourselves to draw on that will make all the difference in the world.  We turn to Romans 5:1-5 and think today of the Spirit of Hope.

We gave copies of the booklet that had been produced by the Congregational Federation to those we stayed with.   It is a celebration of the Holy Spirit.

We looked first at the Power of the Holy Spirit, a power from beyond ourselves we can draw on in times of need and in times of weakness.

It is an enabling power that enables us to rise above and beyond our own capacity, not least together as a church.

It is the power of the Holy Spirit that lifts us when we are down.

The Spirit brings unity as we are tied into the vine and as we are the branches that together make up the vine.

And today we celebrate the way the Spirit brings hope even when we find ourselves swimming against the tide ... maybe particularly then.

I come back to that picture.

It hands in a particular place on the wall in my study.  It reminds me of the call Christ gives to go into all the world, of the choice I need to make to follow that call and of the promise of his presence with me wherever I go.

In my study that picture hangs in a particular place.

Our stay in the USA started in Omaha at our conference, a city built on the banks of the Missouri, the USA's longest river.  It was on its way towards the Mississippi and making its way there fast as it was in flood.

I regretted not having put on to my Kindle the complete works of Mark Twain - I could have dipped into Tom Sawyer, maybe!

Just above my father's picture is a picture given me by someone who visited the States twenty five years ago and more.  It has a prayer which I think is from Mark Twain.

That text from Romans speaks of endurance, and trouble and hardship and patience - we can only get through situations that bring that kind of thing our way and all too often overwhelm as we make this prayer our own.

Lord, help me to remember that nothing is going to happen to me today that you and I together can't handle.

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