Sunday, March 25, 2012

Malawi and our Mission Partnership

On Sunday morning we welcomed members of our Brownies, Guides, Beavers, Cubs and Scout groups and their families.

Our service began with a time of praise.

We moved on to share a time for friendship, celebrating the friendships our youth organisations have, and the friendships we have in church.  We welcomed Dorothy and Dina and their family into church membership.

We then welcomed Candi and Andrew and their family from our Congregational Church in Kingswood, Wooton under Edge.  Candi had been part of a group of seven people from Congregational Federation churches in the UK who had visited partner churches in Malawi.

We reflected on the way belonging to one church means that we belong to the one church of Jesus Christ world-wide.  Candi reflected on the experiences she had had and the impact those experiences had on her own Christian journey.

Our service finished with a time to share, as we shared our gifts not only for our own church but also for that mission partnership, and shared in prayers for one another and for the world.

After the service I interviewed Candi as she recapped some of what she had shared with us.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Warmth of a Welcoming Spirit

It was Carolyn who spotted it.

I hadn’t noticed.

When we looked through all the words people came up with to describe what’s special about Highbury someone noticed no one mentioned God and Jesus.

I had thought to myself that that was something to do with the way we asked the question.  What’s special to you about Highbury?

We then wondered whether you could actually ask the question differently.  And that would make for a very interesting time of reflection.]

What’s special to you about God?

What’s special to you about Jesus?

Then it was that Carolyn pointed out something she and Pete had spotted.

Actually, the words we came up with reflect the way we think about God.

Take all those words we came up with suggesting that Highbury is welcoming.

Accepting, Welcoming, exuding warmth, all are welcome, friendly, warm and friendly.

Those are all words you could apply to God.

We value this spirit of welcome because this is the God we believe in.  The God we believe in, made real to each of us in Jesus is an accepting God who accepts us as we are.

The God we believe in is a welcoming God who welcomes all no matter who they may be.

The God we believe in is friendly, speaking through Jesus, not only to those closest followers of his long ago, but also to us, I call you my friends.

And take one more of those words and phrases.  Warmth.  We thought of it as what for us makes this place, this fellowship special.  Warmth.  And I love the phrase someone came up with ‘exuding warmth’.

Where does the warmth come from?  Where does this welcoming spirit come from?  If we want to build on this warmth of welcome, if we seek to exude warmth, where does that warmth come from?

Today is a day when we have been invited to think about the wider fellowship of churches we are part of in the Congregational Federation.  One of the things that makes us special as a fellowship of churches is that there is no organisational structure to tell us what to do, to organise us, to instruct us.  We are a fellowship of churches sharing a passionate faith together, pooling resources together.

On Tuesday we had our usual team meeting and then welcomed a team of mission support workers who work in the different areas of our Congregational Federation.  They were meeting together to pool ideas, thinking, resources to help work at developing and building up our churches.

One initiative launched last year is to build up community work in our churches, and imaginative initiatives in mission and in outreach.     We have put forward Hy-Speed as just such an initiative to support.  Last night one of those folk who had been here on Tuesday visited Hy-Speed to report back.   It’s great to have been short-listed and to wait to see whether we gain an award.

Among the group of folk coming together on Tuesday was Brian Grist who has been this year’s President of the Congregational Federation.

As his year began he invited us to think of the Holy Spirit and the power and the strength of the Holy Spirit in our own lives and in the life of our churches.

With the help of a woodworker known to Jill Stephens from the Derby area a sculpture was put together in parts made up of flames.  Each flame has been sent to each of the Areas of our Congregational Federation and within our Area it has been journeying round the churches.

It arrived here from Frampton on Severn.  We are invited to remember that church in our prayers.  Set in the beautiful village of Frampton, our church has played a key part in the village community for many, many years, and for the last 21 years or so under the ministry and leadership of John Hunter and latterly also Nick Gleich.  Anticipating retirement, John trained on our training course and then took up the ministry of the church as he retired as Principal of one of the constituent colleges of what was then Glos Coll.  He has been chaplain at Ley Hill Open Prison for all that time.  The church itself has developed a community service.  Recently they have had to cope with a massive outbreak of dry rot and they are now building up their work once again with a newly re-furbished church building.  It’s great to remember that work in our prayers.

We pass the flame on to Longney.  A small chapel in the Severn Vale between the ship canal and the Severn, Longney keeps going with small congregations but very faithful people – it’s the church I support more than any other taking afternoon services there once or twice a term.  When I join them next Sunday afternoon they will be joined by friends from the Parish church in a joint service.  A rural community that 25 years ago had about a dozen farms around in the locality, it has changed beyond all recognition, now having a many-thousand acred farm, managed by a handful of people in place of the individual farms.  Tensions have been great as a farming community has changed into a commuting community.  Our prayers are with them in the changing face of the countryside communities around us.

In all three of those churches there would be a warmth of welcome.

As Brian wanted us to pass round this flame it was so that we could share in prayer together … but he also wanted us to think of something else.  The flame is symbolic of the flames of the Spirit as the disciples are touched by tongues of fire.

Brian wanted us in this year to think especially of the way in which the lives of each one of us, the lives of our churches together can be enriched, strangely ‘warmed’ by the presence of this power from beyond ourselves, unseen yet so very real, the power of the Holy Spirit.

I pricked my ears up  when I heard that was to be his theme.

It rings a bell for us here at Highbury.

It was exactly 150 years ago in 1862 that our own Andrew Moreton Brown, who gives his name to our Moreton Brown Room, wrote round to all the Ministers and Churches in the then Congregational Union.  He wanted people to unite in special prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

What difference does the Holy Spirit make?

Acts speaks of tongues of fire.  Fire gives off a warmth.  I want us to think for a  moment of warmth.

Think of those moments when you feel a warmth.  Not in the temperature of a building, but deep inside.  There are some occasions that leave you cold.  Somethings can send a chill down your spine.  But some things are strangely warming.  You warm to someone.  You are strangely warm deep inside.

The warmth of our welcome is not dependent on the warmth we can generate, any more than the love we share with others is something we can whip up inside us.

The warmth of our welcome will be such as to touch other people when it wells up inside us as God is at work deep within us.

The Methodist Church was founded by John Wesley, an Anglican Minister. Following a difficult and discouraging mission trip to America, he questioned his faith. In 1738, at the age of 34, John Wesley attended an evening worship service in London which moved him deeply. In his journal, Wesley described his "Aldersgate experience:" 

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans.  About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.  

How does such a heart-warming happen?

Let’s pray with expectation.  But then let’s claim the promise of God in Jesus.  This Holy Spirit is something given to us by Jesus Christ.

He makes those wonderful promises that appear in John 14.

Just as he is about to leave his disciples he promises that he will not leave them alone, but he will send another Advocate, another Counsellor, another Helper, another Comforter to be with them forever.  Even the Spirit of truth.

It is a wonderful promise.  And something for us to rest in.  To claim.  Not with a spirit of anxiety.  But with a warmth of welcome.

And then this Spirit that is such a power from beyond ourselves will help us in our groaning in prayer, be alongside us as Paul is convinced in Romans 8  – and ultimately it is that presence deep within that assures us of a love from God that nothing in all creation can separate us from.

As we receive this flame and pass it on.  May we feel the warmth of the Spirit deep within our hearts, may we welcome the warmth that it gives, and may others sense in us a warmth of welcome that comes from God himself, from the God who as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is love.

The Warmth of a Welcoming Spirit

I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.  

We hear again the words of Jesus and take to heart the promise he gives …

 ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Comforter, to be with you for ever.  This is the Spirit of truth, 

May my heart be strangely warmed.  May I trust in Christ alone.

The Comforter  will be with you for ever… he abides with you, and he will be in you.

May my heart be strangely warmed.  May I trust in Christ alone.

I will not leave you alone.   I am coming to you.  The Comforter, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

May my heart be strangely warmed.  May I trust in Christ alone.

The Comforter will remind you of all that I have said to you.  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 

May my heart be strangely warmed.  May I trust in Christ alone

I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.  

Sunday, March 4, 2012

What it takes to be a welcoming church

Actually, it’s what you would expect anywhere.

Though maybe there are some differences.

It’s those differences that really matter.

Let me explain …

Since the beginning of January we have started to take a look at what’s going on in our church so that we can build on what’s good, identify what needs to be developed and grow to the glory of God.

At our January Church meeting we asked people to come up with words and phrases that describe what’s special about Highbury.  At our February meeting the Deacons then stood round a set of tables in the Moreton Brown Room and had six sheets of different coloured paper and had the task of putting the slips of paper with those words on on to different sheets.

What was fascinating was the way they clustered together under six very clear headings.  One or two deacons took responsibility for each of those headings and prepared a display or a conversation for our annual meeting on Thursday.  At that meeting it was great not only to hear about the work of the church but see and talk about all that is going on.

Each month, my piece in Highbury News will focus on each group in turn, we will focus our Sunday morning services the same way.  In other settings we will home in on that aspect of the church’s life.  We will try to dig a little more deeply into what makes us tick as a church in that way.

Then over the very last weekend in September we are going to have a church weekend away at home.  We will have all the fun of our weekends away, but closer to home.  And we will think together about what we need to add in to the life of the church so that together we can develop and grow to the glory of God.

And so this month, we start with all those words people came up with to describe what’s special about Highbury that have to do with welcoming.

Accepting, welcoming, warmth, friendly, homely, sociable.
And that brings me back to where I began.

Actually, it’s what you would expect anywhere.

Take the theatre – I caught Simon Callow doing an evening on Dickens at the Bacon Theatre  and Yes Prime Minister at the Everyman.  On both occasions the people who ‘welcomed’ us to the theatre were very welcoming.  There was a warmth of welcome on the part of everyone who greeted us, took our ticket stubbs and directed us to our seats.

Take a café or restaurant.  Tuesday of last week saw a lunch party at Richard’s invitation eating out at one of those bargain eateries Richard has such a knack of finding.– great company, but also, by all accounts a warmth of welcome by those working in that place – as you arrive and as you are waited on at table.

That lunch time Carolyn, Felicity and I had a working lunch with Joy Howells the Area Children’s and Youth worker who had joined us for the day to find out about children’s and youth work here at Highbury.  The folk at the small café on the Strand had joined their daughter as she sang a solo at the Pittville carol service here at Highbury and I made the connecton with them and they were so welcoming.

And that evening Hy-Speed had its Annual General Meeting at the Swan where, once again, the staff were as welcoming as could be.

It’s what you would expect anywhere.

Not that we can take it for granted.  It takes working at.  And I guess we have all had the experience of being put off by the lack of welcome at any number of different places.

We work at it. If you would like to join the welcoming rota then please have a word with Sue, or talk to Lorraine or Sharon.  To welcome people with a smile – and a sensitivity to the different needs people may have – it’s fascinating to look at the guidelines for welcoming that we have explored with disability issues in mind.

And it’s not something you get at every church – as we discovered to our shock at one church that shall remain nameless on holiday last year.

It’s what you would expect anywhere.

Though maybe there are some differences.

And it’s those differences that really matter.

The upholstered bench seats at the Bacon Theatre can be very intimate.  As I sat I was quite relieved to see a gap between me and the next person.  I nodded politely, but then chatted with as it happened it was Richard next to me.  Before and during the interval I found myself standing in a very busy foyer where it seemed as if everyone was talking to everyone else.  I spoke to no one.  And I wouldn’t expect to unless I recognised someone.

The same happened at the Everyman.  There may be arms to the seats in the gallery but you are squashed up against the person next to.  Again, the most cursory of nods.  And the conversation the whole evening was exclusively between Felicity and me.  And that’s what I would expect.  It is the convention in a public place.

There was a lovely warmth of fellowship among the Richard’s group, among the group I was with, among the Hy-Speed group at those eating houses …. But we didn’t engage with people on the tables around us, unless a cursory polite greeting.

That’s what’s different about church.

The warmth of welcome doesn’t stop with the people at the door.  That spirit of ‘welcoming’ is something that happens as much this side of the screen that separates us in here in church from the porch.

It’s good to have a spirit of welcome of one another.  That greets and is open to chat with others.  A sensitivity – it’s possible to be too over the top, to sense when people want to slip in, when they want not to be talking and chatting with everyone.  A sensitivity that is very important to be alert to, but nonetheless does not diminish that spirit of welcome.

For that spirit of open welcome goes to the heart of what we are about.  But it carries with it a challenge.

God so loved the world that he sent his one and only son … and Jesus had a love that reached out to all – from the Samaritan to the woman caught in adultery, from Matthew the tax collector to Zacchaeus the cheat.  One of the very last parables Jesus shared goes right to the heart of the matter:

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

“When was it that we saw you a stranger and we welcomed you?” 

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters you did it to me.”

It’s so obvious, we can so easily take it for granted.

At the time it wasn’t obvious at all.

James, the brother of Jesus, could well remember that time he and his brothers came to Jesus together with Mary, Jesus’s mother.  They just wanted a bit of family time together.  It was hard to take.  Jesus was with complete strangers … and they couldn’t get near him.  Word got through to Jesus, Your mother and your brothers are standing outside.  But he said to them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”

James never forgot that.

Jesus had time for strangers.  To welcome a stranger was to welcome Jesus.

He had been with the disciples in that upper room and seen the risen Jesus, sensed the power of God’s Holy Spirit and those words stuck with him.

“Be doers of the word.”  He wrote in a round robin letter to all Christians everywhere.  A letter that echoes down through the centuries to us as well.

And he was sure the welcome extends to all.  How wrong to show favouritism.

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

No favouritism – we would do well to fulfil the royal law according to the Scripture – the law of the kingdom – You shall love your neighbour as yourself.

A welcome at the door.

A welcome in the church family.

A welcome in the heart.

It goes without saying – are there limits to our welcome.

There is a twist in the tale.

Don’t imagine that the stranger who becomes a friend will simply want to be on the receiving end of our hospitality.  It may just be that that person will have a message for us to heed, a challenge for us to give, a word that will change the course of our lives too.

Are we open to hear the word of Christ for us?

Whoever welcomes one who comes with a word from Christ welcomes Christ himself.  Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you none of these will lose their reward.

It’s the writer to the Hebrews who puts it in a nutshell … in 13:12

Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

So much to pass on at Highbury

If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light