Sunday, October 21, 2012

So much to pass on

It was a very special day at Highbury today as we welcomed 101 year old Lawrence Squires back to church.

Lawrence had been minister at Highbury during the fifties and sixties and had helped plant the Congregational Church in Warden Hill in Cheltenham.

I had prepared a scroll with the words from the end of 1 Corinthians 13, These three remain, faith, hope and love; and the greatest of these is love.  It was bound with red ribbon.  We read words from 1 Corinthians 9 in which Paul spoke of approaching his Christian life with all the discipline an athlete brings to running a race - but we have before us a far greater prize.

I got the youngsters at church and those young at heart, twenty in all, to stand in a circle around the church.

We then timed how long it would take to pass the baton on.

The last to receive the baton was in church at Highbury for the first time, his name was Barnaby ... and he was just 11 months old.

With a big smile he passed the baton to me, I unrolled it and passed it to Lawrence.

An 11 month old passing the message on to a 100 year old.

Maybe it should have been the other way round!!!

No matter, it's a startling thought that it's just 20 people with a gap of 100 years in their ages that takes us right back to the time of Christ!

It's a quirk of mine that when I preside at communion I use the words of institution that I first heard when I received communion for the first time 45 years ago, from my father.  I know he had received those words fifty odd years  before from the Rev Ben Davies in Abersychan.  He had received those words something like 40 odd years before from someone else.   Back through the generations people have received what they have in turn passed on.   And someone received it from Paul.

And Paul says that he has received it, albeit at one remove, from the Lord Jesus Christ.

"I have received of the Lord that which also I have handed on to you."

It is a wonderful thought in communion that we stand in that chain.

Paul uses those words in 1 Corinthians 11.

In 1 Corinthians 15 he uses them again.

This time he says that he has received what he also passed on - that Christ Jesus died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that on the third day he rose again from the dead according to the Scriptures ... and appeared first to Peter, then to 500 then to a number of others and last of all, as to one untimely born, to Paul.  "I am who I am," Paul goes on to say simply by the grace of God.

Those two great statements of what Paul had received and what he passed on stand as bookends.  They go to the heart of the faith.

And what stands between those two bookends.

In the middle between chapters 11 and 15 of 1 Corinthians is chapter 13.

The great chapter on love.

And it ends with those wonderful words.

These three remain: faith, hope and love.  And the greatest of these is love.

That too is at the heart of the faith!

But that love is no good unless we put it into action.

It had been wonderful to welcome Lawrence's daughter, Rosamond, and her husband Ian, who as it happened had met at Highbury 50 years ago this year, and another daughter, Heather.

Rosamond had recently spent three months as an Ecumenical Accompanier with the Ecumenical Accompanier Programme in Palestine and Israel run by the World Council of Churches.

She spoke of her experiences in the hills around Hebron and of the call of the Palestinian churches in the Kairos Palestine document to the churches of the rest of the world to join them for justice and peace for the Palestinian people, and for an end to the occupation of their land.

Following the service, Rosamond spoke of her work and challenged us to do something to give our support to the people and the churches of Palestine, in pursuit of that peace that both the people of Israel and the people of Palestine long for.

It was good also to hear greetings once again from Lawrence.

At the end of the service we shared a prayer based on those words from 1 Corinthians.

So much we have received
So much there is to pass on

Faith the size of a grain of mustard seed
Faith to move mountains
Faith in Christ Jesus our Saviour and Lord

So much we have received
So much there is to pass on

Hope against hope
Hope that cannot be vanquished
Hope unseen yet so real in the Spirit of God

So much we have received
So much there is to pass on

Love for God and for neighbour
Love for enemy too
Love that is the very nature
            of the God who is love

So much we have received
So much there is to pass on

Faith, hope and love remain
And the greatest of these is love.

So much we have received
So much there is to pass on

For more information about the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme click here.

For more information about the Kairos Palestine Document click here.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Blessing Shared

Twelve years ago Stefan and Birgit joined us for three years at Highbury and did an immense amount of ministry work with us, helping us as we began our focus on work with families and children.  Stefan completed his PhD in Old Testament studies at the University with Gordon Wenham and he and Birgit returned home to Marburg in Germany.

It wasn't long before they felt they wanted to share their gifts in service to God in Brazil.  After a lot of heartache and a lot of hard work that included a short spell in southern Brazil, they eventually were able to settle in to a permanent post at the South Ameerican Theological Seminary in Rolandia in Brazil.  For the last four years Stefan has been teaching biblical studies and helping in the theological education of pastors and ministers from the churches of Brazil both in class and on the internet.  Birgit has been working in a drug rehabilitation project and as a language teacher too.

After four years they have returned home to Marburg for six months leave and this weekend have joined us at Highbury.  After the morning service was over I took the opportunity to share with Stefan some reflections  about our very special day together ...

Here are Stefan's notes ...

Topic: From the individual to the many

Purpose: Coming from the presentation of our work leading the listeners to recognise the divine possibility of using each and every small beginning they might be able to offer toward a concrete implementation of the Missio Dei (anticipation)

From the one to the many

From the one to the many - that is God's principle, when we start to observe how he is implementing his great project for humanity. To know about this principle is encouraging in all kinds of ways.

There once was a rabbi (Bereshit Rabbah about 300 AD.) writing a commentary on the biblical book Genesis. This Rabbi put the following words in God's mouth: "I will make Adam first, and if he goes wrong I'll send Abraham to sort it all out." This little phrase makes a very interesting point and reflects the biblical text quite well.

Obviously the thing that went wrong with Adam is mankind – God's plan with us went wrong. That Adam, that humanity did not work out well is so apparent that we can see it every day in our society, in our families, and – if we are honest – in ourselves. We humans are certainly not as God intended us to be or even imagined us to be at the beginning.

According to our Rabbi God's answer to this failure of Adam was Abraham. What this might imply for us today shall be the question for the next few minutes.

In Gen 12 we read : " 
1 Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Well, these are the words the biblical text chooses to describe how Abraham is chosen by God. This very act of choosing one singular person comes almost as a shock after the chapters just before our text in the Genesis story. There is the narrative of the Tower of Babel. There it was about all the earth, now it's about one family. There is the Table of Nations, a list of 70 nations (which clearly is the biblical number of fullness), now it is all about just one little family. From the international stage down to a single man.

Let us remember our rabbi: "I will make Adam first, and if he goes wrong I'll send Abraham to sort it all out."
Does this mean that God has hereby given up all the other nations? In fact, some people read the Old Testament that way: as if from now on everything would only focus on Israel. This would be the case until Jesus (or perhaps even until St. Paul) again widen the horizon to include non-Jews. Who reads the OT this way did not understand very much.

Even if the biblical text now completely focuses on one man and his immediate family, God never lost sight of all the other nations. However, it is not as with Noah, when his descendants replaced the entire world's population.

Read the text again: Abraham is called to bring blessing to all nations. When God singles someone out, when God blesses someone in a special way, he does it only for the benefit of others. Or perhaps one should rather say: when God blesses someone he does so for the benefit of all. God's blessing is never a bonus which I can enjoy in complete privacy. God's blessing is always linked to the fact, that God wants to bless others through me.

From now on blessing is the keyword for the unfolding story in Genesis. Especially Jacob was the one by whom the blessing of God to the nations began to take shape (Laban 30:27 and Potiphar 39:9). At the end of Jacob's life, it is none other than the Pharaoh who is blessed by the dying patriarch (47:7 "And Joseph brought in Jacob, his father, and had him stand before Pharaoh, and Jacob blessed Pharaoh.").

"I will make Adam first, and if he goes wrong I'll send Abraham to sort it all out." Abraham was just one, in fact quite an old man chosen by God, but he was called having in mind the huge horizon of all mankind.
If we now remember the subsequent history of the family of this man and the people, that came from him, we may be able to think of the odd glimmer of hope, but by and large this history of Israel bringing divine 
blessing to others was a failure. I think this has been summarised quite well by the book of Jonah: Israel is the chosen people but it is stubborn and selfish and is not even prepared to do as they have been asked. And in the end they are even offended when there is not enough shade to sit in.

Interestingly the Bible keeps repeating the same basic idea: God always begins with an individual or a small group while he has all of humanity in mind.

First it was Abraham, then it was the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, then it was Jesus of Nazareth. Or was it was the mother of Samuel, or Ruth and her mother in law, or queen Esther and her uncle, or the 12 disciples. Even the biblical examples are difficult to count.

God begins with an individual, while he has all of humanity in mind. Of course, the outstanding individual in the history was Jesus Christ - but who really knew this Jesus who lived in a remote, rural area of the Roman Empire? In this sense, Jesus was rather "insignificant" as a beginning.

Then there was a group of today unknown Christians in the 2nd century who took upon themselves the care of the sick in a small suburb of ancient Rome. Then there were the monks in the Middle Ages, who cared for the poor. Then there was Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Then there was an elderly lady called Ilse in our church who took care of the youth club in which I made my first conscious steps as a Christian.

Today there is you. Today there is this church here, Cheltenham Congregational Church.

God always begins with an individual or a small group while he has all of humanity in mind. We need to keep in mind that the kingdom of God is not an evolutionary, ever  growing project of getting this world to be a better place. In the end God's reign does not move forward to be a unifying mega church, in which we all sing the same songs (whether they are in Latin or English or Portuguese). Even using modern mass media such as television or Facebook, we cannot make a globalised church.

This is so mainly because a globalised mega church never was God's purpose.

It's true, God's blessing has a global direction, but it always starts out from an individual or a small group. God wants to reach all and bless all, but does not want to do so in an impersonal and nonspecific manner. God's global goal is not globalisation à la Coca-Cola, where at the end everyone is drinking the same. Because of this, every single one who is here today is so important in God's plan. Because of this every effort to be nice and helpful person is important. Because of this your commitment to justice is important. Or your prayers for this one wild teenager. God will always start on a small scale – we should leave it to him what he may make of it later on.

I am sure that all of us here today can remember the one or the other who had been a blessing for them. Or you may have tried to be a blessing for someone else, through prayer or a word of encouragement or a helping hand. Maybe this one person has now gone far away to live in another city. But there he lives with Jesus and is a bright light for many others. This would be just another one of these new beginnings. This would be another example of how God likes to work and pass on his blessing to others.

There was your little investment, only very small yet important. Who knows what God is going to develop from it? God has a global vision, but he needs our local and individual efforts, so someone else may be blessed.

He has called you, so that you, your ideas, your relationships may become the means by which God is moving one step further towards his goal of globalisation, namely that in Jesus God's blessing is available for all.

"I will make Adam first, and if he goes wrong I'll send Abraham to sort it all out." When things go wrong with the human race, then God calls an individual, someone like you.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Now and the Future at Highbury

As we identified the three areas for us to focus on in building up the church for now and the future here at Highbury many of the practical ideas we came up with were ones that we could simply act on.

The life of the church and all we share starts with each one of us and so we are going to have a focus on Personal Faith and Prayer.  One idea was to have an alpha course or similar looking at the basic things at the heart of our faith.

Well, we haven’t got an Alpha course planned at the moment – but we have set up a course stretching over five Tuesday evenings from the beginning of November through to the beginning of December.  Christ in all things looks at the way all we do individually and within the church family is rooted in Christ.  It is an excellent opportunity for those who are new to Highbury to get a feel for what is at the heart of Highbury and at the heart of the faith we share.  And also for those who would like to renew that sense deep in our hearts, our minds and in all we do that Christ is in all things.

Throughout the weekend it was encouraging to sense how much we have to celebrate in our church here at Highbury – it is a special place to belong.  One of those things that we need to be encouraged by is the centrality of prayer.  The prayer chain we have is a real source of strength and encouragement.  But we made an observation – a telling observation.  Our prayer is focused on people and their needs – rightly so.  But what about the needs of the church?  Maybe that is something we are not so strong on.

And specifically as well.

I was quite moved when Mary shared in a few moments a wonderful testimony about the power of Ephesians – that the God we believe in, the God we trust is the God of the universe, the God who raised Jesus from the dead – this is the God we believe in.  mary came up to me with a request I don’t know whether it came from her or from her group that we read Colossians 4:2-6.

I have been looking at it again this week … and it seems to me a wonderful passage that goes to the heart of so much we were thinking about.

It’s all about prayer.

Be persistent in prayer, and keep alert as you pray, giving thanks to God.

Those are generalised comments that are so very important.

But immediately Paul goes on to be quite specific, specific about his own circumstances and the need there is for prayer to support the task that he has to do.

At the same time pray also for us, so that God will give us a good opportunity to preach his message about the secret of Christ.

This wasn’t a generalised theoretical request for support.

It was specific to the circumstances he was in.

Paul had made it to  Rome not as part of a planned missmonary journey to Spain as he had hoped, but under arrest.  In Rome he found himself under house arrest – but with limited yet very real freedoms.  As Acts finishes we see Paul under arrest but able to welcome all who came to see him and abole to preach the Kingdom of God and teach about t he Lord Jesus Christ – indeed Acts tells us he spoke with all boldness and freedom!

But it was a scary situation to be in … and Paul felt he needed quite specific prayers.

At the same time pray also for us, so that God will give us a good opportunity to preach his message about the secret of Christ.

And then he goes on to say.  For that is why I am now in prison.  Pray, then, that I may speak, as I should in such a way as to make it clear.

The Good News Bible was translated primarily for people who use English as a second language and it tends to eliminate all metaphor.  Which is such a pity.  Not least here.

Paul is under arrest, albeit house arrest.  There would in all likelihood be a guard put over him.  What does he specifically need.  I think it’s more than a metaphor.  At least, it’s a very powerful image.

The NRSV keeps the picture language – but it’s more than a picture.

At the same time pray for us as well that God will open to us a door for the word

That’s it.  That’s specifically what Paul needs.  An open door of opportunity – but also an open door so people can come and hear his message, not just his message – but ‘the word’ – what is that – that we may declare the mystery of Christ, for  which I am in prison, so that I may reveal it clearly as I should.

Or as the GNB puts it

Pray then that I may speak, as I should in such a way as to make it clear.

So what can we be very specific about in our praying this week.

That takes us to the next of the things for us to home in on.

Mission and Outreach.

Once again, there are things that we can develop in the future, no doubt.  But there are also things that we can be encouraged by and develop and then build on.

It was great to see the way Adam and Matthew offered to lead one of the groups on Saturday afternoon – they did brilliantly, as everyone who was there commented and also fed back very effectively the thinking that had been shared.

One idea that emerged from their group, had already been shared by Shirley at Deacons meeting.  At school they had been sponsoring a child and they wondered if we could do something similar.  We have taken that forward through the Deacons meeting straight away and Carolyn is this morning sharing with M’Ocean plans for sponsoring a child through CHIKS, Children’s Homes in Kerala State.

One of the things we need to do is to build up those mission links we have as a church family.  CHIKS is one of those.  Let’s be quite specific in our praying for CHIKS and for the individual children we will be able to build up a link with.

Another is the partnership we have with Stefan and Birgit who have been in Brazil and are now home and joining us next weekend.  Let’s be on the look out for the specific prayers they want us to share with them and for them.  And this week – let’s pray for safe journeying, and that they can really not only enjoy the weekend next weekend but really be blessed by it.  That means praying that our bring and share lunch will go well and that we can have a good time in their company next week.

But one more thing mission wise.  On Saturday evening HySpeed meets again.  It is very much part of our mission and our outreach and a wonderful way of making very real contacts with men.  The idea is to provide a setting where men and their children can simply enjoy our company – but as they get to know us, they discover the love of God in Christ in a church family.  If you want a term for it, I guess it’s ‘relational evangelism’  Sharing the gospel, sharing the good news by simply building relationships with people.

So I would have a very specific prayer for Hy-Speed that we can huild up the relationships we have with each other and the relationship we have with those who come to join in the evening.

In any work of mission, wherever it may be Paul’s words are remarkably appropriate.

Pray then that I may speak as I should in such a way as to make it clear.  But then he goes on to say this again quite specifically …

Be wise in the way you act towards those who are not believers, making good use of every opportunity you have.  Your speech should always be pleasant and interesting, and you should know how to give the right answer to everyone.

In some way I prefer the NRSV – Conduct yourselves wisely towards outsiders, making the most of the time.  Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone.

It’s not so much that there is a ‘right’ answer – rather that the response we make be the right one – and one that points towards that remarkable mystery, that remarkable secret that is Christ.

There’s one more thing for us to focus on …

Renewal and Gifts.   It’s something we will be able to do in the context of our Sunday services when we review the gifts within the church congregation – we did it 8 years ago – but it needs updating.  And then the group who identified this challenged us to be prepared to be creative with gifts identified.

That brings us to Renewal.

Consider some pruning.  Do we need to continue everything we do in the way we do it currently?  Consider seeing where identification of new gifts takes us.

That’s something the Deacons have already started to look at and will bring to our next Church meetings a plan to take this forward.  Specific prayer – that we discern the way we can ‘re-imagine’ the way things work at Highbury, the way we organise to bring real renewal by God’s spirit into the life of our church.

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