Sunday, 13 July 2014

With us wherever we go

And one last blog!

This is the sermon I preached today on the Sunday after returning home!

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.

New York and back home!

We had an action packed few days in New York which left no time for blogging.

So here's a couple of blogs on the Sunday afternoon after our visit to round off this blog for the time being!


Julie picked us up at 9-00 and we headed into town via her own house where she got a much needed strap and some tape for Felicity's bag.  Then it was through the tunnel to Manhattan and Greenwich village.

We did the Dylan  Thomas walk which told the story of Dylan Thomas in New York.  Having found out that she is Dylan Thomas's third cousin once removed, Felicity has been doing Dylan Thomas this centenary year.

It was a great walk that took us round the streets of Greenwich village to the White Horse Tavern that was his second home in New York.  Kept deliberately as it would have been when he last visited, with pictures and memorabilia on the wall it made a great place for a meal at the end of our walk, and none too expensive at that.

We then took the subway to the end of the route and did the Staten Island ferry there and back to see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island close up ... and all for free!

We then made our way over to Ground Zero.  I had been in two minds whether to visit.  Having seen the memorial wall at the Brooklyn Cyclones Ball |Park and having shared in many a conversation that touched on 9/11, not least in the context of my third Bible Lecture, I now wanted to go.

It was moving ... and yet un-nerving.  Seeing the scale of all that had happened was very different from seeing it on TV .. the precision of the targetting too.

Moving, but it also left me feeling uneasy.  What lessons have we learned?

We decided to take the Bus up sixth avenue and found ourselves walking through Central Park at Dusk.  By now we needed to eat and found a Wendy's - next best thing to  Macdonald's but a great salad.

We hoped then to take a bus down Broadway ... but we couldn't find a bus stop and so ended up walking past all the theatres as they were emptying and walking through Times Square at its busiest!

We found a subway and it wasn't much before Midnight when we got back to our hotel!


Julie picked us up again and this time drove us over the Brooklyn Bridge to her Riverside Church.  Macy showed us round and we took in the pulpit where Martin Luther King had preached five times and launched his campaign against the Vietnam war, the wonderful Christ in Glory, a copy of the Llandaff Epstein, this time in a gold colour ... and the Epstein of the Mother and Child in the grounds.

We went to the top of the Rockefeller church tower for views of Manhattan, the Bronx and Haarlem, including the Yankees' stadium

We bought ourselves a picnic lunch and made our way by Subway back to Central Park where we enjoyed a picnic lunch.

We marvelled at the Manhattan Schist - outcrops of the rock on which Manhattan is built, saw a Ball Park in the Park and some park basket ball, watched chess being played in the chess and chequers house, visited the dairy and had lunch by the pond.

Then it was off to Bloomingdales to do some window shopping.  I wanted to get Felicity that 985 dollar leather jacket, she wanted the 300 dollar tee shirt, we ended up not buying anything.

Over a glasss of lemonade we saw Argentina take on Holland in the semifinal of the World Cup.

We then took the subway to the Grand Central  Station - and marvelled at the other end of the rail road.

Then we walked to the African Burial ground.  Ground Zero marked the place where 4,000 and more died.  The African Burial grounds contained the graves of upwards of 15,000 slaves, 450 of whose bodies had been dug up as an office block was being built.  The museum was closed, but the memorial was moving, just as moving, maybe more so than ground zero.  But not so accessible.  And not so much on the tourist route.

We walked past city hall where we had previously seen some great blitz chess.  

And then made our way over Brooklyn Bridge - spectacular views of Manhattan and the New York skyline once again.

We took the subway towards our hotel and stopped off at a lovely Italian restaurant.

That left one more mile to walk, passing a game of shuffle board going on in a club on the way home.

It wasn't much before 11-00 when we arrived back at our hotel.


Another early start as Julie picked us up and took us to join Edith at the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn.  It was great seeing around and being introduced to the Minister.

Here Henry Ward Beechher had been one of those to lead the anti-slavery movement.  We saw the pew where Abraham Lincoln had sat on one of two occasions when he went to listen to Beecher preach.

We had now reached the end of the Underground Railroad ... or at least another stop on the way to freedom.

It was great hearing the story again.

Julie then drove us over the bridge for one last glimpse of the Manhattan sky line and on to Penn Station, the other end of the Transcontinental railroad.

We spotted the post office building opposite and felt quite at home when on the cornice was an inscription telling of the origins of the post and a wonderful slogan celebrating its world-wide, go anywhere nature.  The inscription honoured our very own Emperor Nerva whose statue is on the streets of Gloucestter as he had given Glevym (Gloucester) the highest accolade of the Empire when he had made it a Colonia in about AD 95.

In inscriptions elsewhere Nerva is known as a Son of God and revered as divine.

It seemed a fitting way to end our visit to the States.

We got to Newark in good time.

I finished off the third of my books - Moneyball by Michael Lewis, a book all about Baseball.

On the flight home I then watched the movie!

Great fun!

But it's left me feeling even more tired than I need have been.

A great time in New York - a great time in the  States - and just great to know that The Lord our God is with us wherever we go!

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

New York

We made it!

We were on the road by 6-30 in the morning and in Omaha by 10-00.  More soya and corn fields, but also more rolling countryside as we approached Nebraska once more.  We tracked the transcontinental railroad once more, with long Union Pacific freight trains.  We travelled along the the Loess hills, an almost unique geological feature paralleled only in one place in China.   A line of hills not unlike the Cotswold escarpment, but glacial caused by deposits then whipped into hills that run alongside the Missouri river.

It felt  as if we were back in Omaha ... and as we crossed over the Missouri we realised we were.

But this time only to say farewell to Tom and Wendy as we thanked them for their wonderful hospitality over the weekend and got on our plane.

A delayed flight meant we arrived in New York and Manhattan at the height of the rush hour.  Quite some experience!

We successfully navigated the subway and arrived in our hotel at much the time we had anticipated!!

The briefest of turn-rounds and we were heading for the subway again.

This time we were going further through Brooklyn to Coney island.

We spotted the world's oldest wooden big dipper - the original dated back to 1864 ... but didn't go on it.

The biggest big wheel you could imagine ... and we didn't go on it!

A brand new roller coaster, the thunderbolt, a parachute jump, dodgems on a scale we hadn't seen before ... and we didn't go on any of them.

We spotted Nathan's, already counting down to the next Hot Dog eating competition on Indpendence Day next year - 361 days to go!

We did the Board Walk

And found our way to the MCU Park, home to the Brooklyn Cyclones.

It was time for our second taste of Baseball.

The first had been according to 1875 rules at the Living History Museum in Des Moines.

This time it was for real - albeit in one of the minor leagues.  Thnk Cheltenham Town!  We felt quite at home.

A great stadium - great company as two in the row in front explained the rules - and great fun.

We caught the start of the second game in a double header with the Hudson Valley Renegades.

With a hot dog combo, a pretzel and ice cream to follow it made for a great evening.

The Base ball was fun too.

We left as the sixth inning came to a close in a seven innings game - the Cyclones went into the lead scoring three runs with the last ball.  They went on to win 3-2: we made it home via a very late night subway and turned in at Midnight.

Quite some introduction to New York.

And now we are going to meet up with Julie who will drive us over Brooklyn Bridge to Greenwich Village for our Dylan Thomas trail.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Go and Tell what you See and Hear

It's great to bring greetings from Highbury Congregational Church in the UK, from the Congregational Federation and from the International Congregational Fellowship.

It's been great to see so much, do so much, meet so many and be part of the NACCC meetings.

In one of the many, many conversations we have had over the last days someone commented about that sense of 'anxiety' there is abroad at the moment.  There's an uncertainty about what's going on in the world, often people find it difficult facing life changing events in their own world.  There's a longing for meaning and purpose, and a wondering in many people's hearts.

It can come to us all.

How can you be sure?

There are so many different life-style options on offer!   Pick up any paper at the weekend and there will be no end of pundits advocating all sorts of views and touting for our support.

How can you be sure?

It feels as if there are so many things to choose from … and choice is of the essence.   But how do you choose?

Maybe, anything goes: it doesn’t really matter what you believe, so long as you believe in something.

I googled the meaning of life and came across an artist with a piece called ‘the meaning of life’  The very act of doing that is characteristic of our age!

Where’s meaning …

I came to a picture – thought provoking – title – meaning of life.

Looked up the blog – born 1973 studied fine art, exhibits a lot, got his own blog – works with children.  Interesting person.

Invites us simply to respond – from his blog – right at the end …

I am a painter exploring light, colour and form using mixed media; mainly oil and acrylic paint. My works are often abstract statements leaning toward the lyrical, poetic or spiritual in terms of inspiration and painterly tradition. I’m interested in the way ideas transcend the medium and how these are mediated through human dialogue.

During the painting process I’m looking for an inner weight to begin to establish its presence; a weight which does not completely abandon reference to our sensual experience of space/time, yet also points elsewhere. Direction and resolution are found in an idea such as a personal or collective history, memory or narrative which launches the process or marks its completion i.e. I either begin with a concept or discover one which suggests itself to me.

At the same time I look for tension in the suggestiveness of what is seen by the viewer (as if the work is still evolving.) This tension between what is resolved and yet still being resolved, is the source of engagement that I try to achieve. Sometimes this emerges as a shifting middle ground between figuration and abstraction as if the images appear and then dissolve at the frontier between the two. For this reason my painting must become something to the viewer over time, as they engage in the process of constructing meaning.

Googled again …

What is the meaning of life?  Whatever you want it to be.

How can you be sure?

People come and people go … and they have an offer the thing that will make everything better.

How can you be sure?

Sometimes it can feel as if we are living in a particularly bewildering age – with instant communication, so many TV channels, the internet, globalisations – the old certainties are gone … and we live with so many things that make us feel uncertain.

How can you be sure of who you are, what you believe, what life is for?

Actually, the question is nothing new.

2000 years ago it was a time of great uncertainty.

The world of the Roman  Empire had taken an iron grip on Judea,  Samaria, Galilee – anyone living there was immersed in a world of massive choice – the Roman world with its pantheon of gods, with its cult of the Roman emperor.

It’s easy to imagine that Jewish people simply stood out against that world … but actually Jewish people were caught in a quandary – how do you live in that kind of world?

Some felt one thing, some felt another – some went along with it, accommodated it, some wanted to maintain a purity of race and ritual, some wanted to withdraw into a kind of monastic way of life, some wanted to take up arms against the powers that be.

Just occasionally people emerged who seemed to get it.   They offered a way of living in the world that was true to the faith of their Jewish roots and yet also was real in this world.

John the Baptist had been just such a person.

The thing to make sense of everything else as far as he was concerned involved having a whole new way of looking at the world that centred on recognising God’s rule in the world, God’s kingdom.

His message was simple.

Repent, have a whole new way of thinking, for the kingdom of heaven, God’s rule, has come near.

Jesus lined himself up with John the Baptist – went down into the Jordan and came back up into the wilderness – and once John was in prison took on the mantle of John – his message was just the same …

Repent, have a whole new way of thinking, for the kingdom of heaven, God’s rule, has come near.

Read on from Matthew 4 and you see how Jesus shared this with those fishermen disciples, and then with Matthew, one of those publicani who were caught in the extortionate system of taxation the Romans had imposed, and then the twelve are listed.

Jesus calls the first Disciples
Jesus ministers to crowds
Sermon on the Mount
            Love God                                            Love your neighbour   Love your enemy        Pray                                                  Act
Jesus cleanses a leper, heals a centurion’s servant,  many at Peter’s house, stills the storm, stills one deranged, one paralysed, girl who has died, woman in crowd, two blind men, one who cannot speak
Calls Matthew and the 12 and sends them out

It was as if these were the core of the kingdom.

Jesus sketched out what it took to live in that kingdom – in the Sermon on the Mount – love for God, love for neighbour, love for enemy too.  A life of prayer rooted in that most wonderful of prayers …

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.

Wherever he went that was the teaching that Jesus shared.

Wherever he went, he brought healing into troubled people’s lives.

It was not something he alone did.  He shared the task with those disciples he had called – and in Matthew 10 he sketches out what they should be engaged in as they went out in twos to proclaim the kingdom.

It wasn’t just that Jesus took up the mantle from John … more than that, John sensed he was the one who was to come – who would usher in the kingdom – who would be king in the kingdom of heaven.

But how can you be sure?

The longer John was in prison, the longer he was tormented by the question.

How can you be sure?

Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.

A new way of thinking – the kingdom of heaven has come near.  God’s rule breaking into our world.

This was a special message.

But how can you be sure.

2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’

This is the question that troubled so many people.  It was a question that troubled John.  It’s the very question that can trouble us.

How can you be sure that this is the One.

That it is in Jesus and this message that we can find something that will give meaning and shape to our lives?

The response Jesus gives is a response we can take to heart … and it is a response that speaks as much to us today as ever it did to John.

4Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

There are two things that it all hinges on

What you hear

And what you see

Weigh up the teaching of Jesus – the sermon on the mount – does it make sense to John – and it did!

Weigh up what you see - 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

And that’s exactly what was going on.

This is the One.

What do we hear?

The teaching and message of Jesus –

May we hear once more your Word for us,
A word of comfort,
a word of peace
A word of strengthening,
a word of challenge

What do we see?

May we see once more your love for us
In the love you had for others long ago
In the love you’ve had for others ever since
In the love you have for others in this place
In the love you have for others at this time

People being helped – sharing that healing, wholeness – the testimony of Alice who has just died at 101 – a quiet faith, full of questions, yet doing so much for other people, and sensing something very real of God.

Came as a child to our church, brought by another girl.  Went through the Sunday School, became a teacher in the Sunday School and went into teaching.  Alice turned away from the church and didn't have time for church until she was approaching 90 when her sister died.  She started coming to church again, was regularly there, except for the Sundays when she would be serving breakfasts in the local homeless shelter.

Then she had to go into a nursing home.

She sat in her chair, looked through her window and all she could see was the wall of the next house, a plain brick wall.

She spoke of her faith, of reading the Bible and of the importance of prayer.

I pray to God, she said wistfully, that that wall would be taken away.

She would pause, sadly.

And then she would cheer up.  And then I pray to God, thank you, God, that I can still see that wall.

Wonderful faith she bore testimony to.

How can we be sure?

The teaching remains all it has ever been.

The difference that God’s love makes in people’s lives.

Then there is also a task – I love the words of Matthew 11:4

Go and tell … what you hear and see

That’s our task – to go and tell.

The way that Jesus offers makes sense of life and the world and is something for us to share.

Go and tell.

What do we tell?

What we hear – of Chrsit in that teaching
What we see – the difference it makes in our lives in other people’s lives.

Lord Jesus Christ, send us from this place,
To go and tell what we hear and see

And one last thing remains.

Jesus goes on in chapter 11 to sing the praises of John the Baptist – the one Jesus had taken the mantle from –

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

There’s a real sense we are to take on the mantle John passed to Jesus and Jesus has passed on to us.

The consequences of not doing so  are grim – and are filled with destruction.

At the end of this chapter you come to a wonderful prayer Jesus prays to his father and then an invitation.

I wonder whether these words are addressed to John as he is asking this question?

I wonder whether when we are bowed down under the weight of this question, these are the words we should hear once again.

They are words of comfort.  But they are also words of challenge as they invite us in other words to take up the mantle, or to be yoked to Jesus and continue carrying out his work – they are wonderful words.

On Independence day we had visited the Living History farms in Des Moines and seen a yoke hanging on the wall.  One of the wooden pieces to fit round the ox was bigger than the other.  The younger, inexperienced beast would be yoked to the more experienced animal who would lead the way.

That's maybe the picture in Jesus' mind.

Wearied by the questioning,

Hear again the teaching of Jesus.
See again the difference he makes in people’s lives.

And may we always know deep in our hearts
That we may always come to you,
However weary and heavy laden
And you will give us rest

But most of all hear these words addressed to you …

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

Lord Jesus Christ
As we gather together in your name

May we hear once more your Word for us,
A word of comfort,
a word of peace
A word of strengthening,
a word of challenge

May we see once more your love for us
In the love you had for others long ago
In the love you’ve had for others ever since
In the love you have for others in this place
In the love you have for others at this time

Lord Jesus Christ, send us from this place,
To go and tell what we hear and see

And may we always know deep in our hearts
That we may always come to you,
However weary and heavy laden
And you will give us rest

Let us go and tell
what we have heard in the Word of God
what we have seen of the Love of God
sure in the knowledge
that the Lord our God is with us
wherever we go.

Sunday at Spencer

A lovely welcome at the 8-30 Bible study group led by Tom, the co-Pastor.  They had reached Genesis 39-41 reading through the Scripture union book through the Bible in 100 readings.  We spent quite a bit of time discussing the significance of Tamar and Genesis 38, reflecting on the way Tamar a woman ill treated is honoured in Matthew's genealogy of Jesus, but the issues raised by the story are avoided in the church.

We then went on to the 9-30 Communion service led by co-pastors Tom and Wendy.

It was great to have the opportunity to bring greetings from Highbury and from the CF and the ICF and then to preach.

Wendy and Tom took us for a brunch and then on the Great Lakes of Iowa - not so great as the really Great Lakes further north!

On a day when the temperatures topped 92 it was good to get out in the open air.

Hosted by Steve and Beth, farmers farming 2,400 acres of Soya and Corn, with hogs as well - four mile square sections in Iowa, in their weekend cottage by the lake, we were joined by neighbours on a 2 hour trip round the lake.  Choppy, windy, but a lovely way to spend our last afternoon in the mid west.

After dinner we made it back home and ready for an early night and an early start for our flight to New York in the morning.

Into God's hands

“The Bible is not some dry and dusty set of rules.  It is the story of how we are created good in God’s eyes, how that goodness was damaged, and how wholeness is ours with God.”

I like what Archbishop Desmond Tutu has to say about the Bible in his foreword to “Fresh from the Word” – the Bible for a change.

“Depravity,” he goes on to say, “came into the world through individual choices, drip by drip.  The Bible is an invitation to wholeness instead of brokenness.  We can choose wholeness and a life of beauty.  We can choose to work for peace in the small choices that face us each day.  Each ofus has the dignity of these choices, whether we are rich or poor, from the global Norht or South, in prison or not.  The Bible shows us how.  It is about peace and reconciliation.  It is about social justice in your neighbourhood.  It is about joy and laughter.”

I have been part of the International Bible Reading Association for almost as long as I can remember.  Some years I haven’t subscribed.  I have been a couple of years recently when I have followed different plans for reading the Bible.  But, perhaps, it’s because I was introduced to it when I was at Junior Church, I have been drawn back to it.

This year they have produced a new set of notes, but they keep the old traditions going strong.  There’s a sense of reading the Bible in copany with others … and the passages and the thoughts that accompany them prompt thought.  While written a long time before publication, they have a wonderful way of speaking into the situation you find yourself in at a particular time.

It's been great sharing with the NACCC in their meetings and conference.  Great meeting old friends and new and because of age-old family links with the NACCC and the partnership with our Congregational Federation through the International Congregational Fellowship feeling very much 'part of the family'.

Not that I wasn't apprehensive about doing the Bible lectures!

I had been emailing Harlan about the closing worship before getting to the conference and we had decided to meet up during the conference.  I bumped into him in the restroom on the first day and said I was a bit apprehensive.  He said with a smile that the whole atmosphere of the conference was simply to put things into God's hands.

We arranged to meet again ... but it got to 7-30 before the 7-45 start of the final worship and we hadn't managed it!

I knew the part I had to play but we hadn't planned anything else at all.

It was one of those occasions when everything came together in a way that seemed so appropriate for all there.  One of those special moments in worship that makes it what it is.

I had already chosen the theme for the service this evening, and prepared my sermon ... and I couldn't help but smile!   It was all about putting things into God's hands!

I drew on some of those Bible notes from the RENEW experience.

I smiled, the, as I saw the theme – God’s Hands and Ours – a set of readings from the Old Testament.

What made me smile was the way not a few people have observed I have of coming back to that image of ‘the hands of God’.   I often come back to that sense we need to have of putting things into God’s hands.  We can do what we can but there comes a point at which we need to put things into God’s hands.

His readings have intrigued me … they speak very much to us at the close of the NACCC meetings, very much to us in this church context too.

Hand in hand with God
we walk into the future with our hands in
the strong hand of God.

That image produces in me that thought that we are not alone, we are not doing things in our own strength …  but it is in the strength of God, the God, whose right hand is majestic in power that we are able to go forward.

The words of Minnie Louise Haskins come very much to my mind with an image of a small hand in a large hand … words I associate with a good friend and neighbbour who has just died, whose funeral I have missed while being away, and who had chosen these words for his lifelong friend and partner to read.

“Go out 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.

But what do we do with our hands?

Moving on through our readings, Simon Goddard takes us to Leviticus (9:22-24) and a moment when “Aaron lifts his hands towards the people and blessed them..  In that story Moses and Aaron then go into the tent of meeting, that place where  God’s presence is specially felt … and then when they came out, they blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people.”

As we gather together in a place which for us is a place where we seek to come to meet God let’s look to receive a blessing … but then let’s go out from this place and be a blessing to other people.  “Each one of us,” suggests Simon Goddard “can be used by God to bless others. … Our words are powerful especially when they are spoken in God’s name.”

We give thanks for
hands that bring a blessing and
for hands handing on the baton.

Whatever part we play in the life of our church, … all of us – our prayer is that we can receive the hand of  God’s blessing and then be a blessing to other people.

And then we have something to pass on.

That's what I sense in the NACCC and the Federation knowing the links from times past with my father and his generation.  We have received the baton from those who have gone before ... and now we are to pass it on.

England may have been out of the World Cup way before USA, Andy Murray may have been out of Wimbledon, but we have the Grand Prix this weekend, the Tour de France starting, and the Commonwealth games in store.   There will be quite a lot of passing the baton on again.

We move on to Numbers 27:15-23 and the point when the Lord said to Moses, “Take Joshua … lay your hand on him … and commission him”  in the presence of all the people.

That resonates with the keynote verse at the heart of the conference, made into such a wonderful picture - The Lord your God is with you wherever you go!

There is a real sense of receiving something that we pass on – as we share a ministry in this place.  It is not something we invent – but something we pass on.  There is a very powerful symbolism in the  laying on of hands.

The imagery of hands has, however a dark side to it.

As our readings this last ten days moved on we reached 1 Samuel and Job where we encountered ‘the heavy hand of God’ and dark times – and then it was that we arrived at 1  Chronicles and a very real sense that everything comes from God and all we give, we give only what comes from God’s hand, the big hands of God  (1 Chronicles 129:12-14)

In the dark times when we sense
the heavy hand of God
we put ourselves and all we love into
the big hands of God.

We touched on Nehemiah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the way the gracious hand of  God is on us prompting us to serve other people, on that conviction Job had in the middle of the darkness when he said, I know that my redeemer lives’. We touched on the words of Isaiah that speak of the way our names are engraved on the hands of God and the assurance that comes from sensing that; we touched on the image of ourselves as clay in the hands of God to be moulded and renewed and remoulded in his hands.

May our hands be
hands used in the service of God always
holding on to the hands of hope.

May we know God’s hands always to be
guiding hands, engraved hands
transforming hands.

When you google pictures of hands in the way I have done you can just copy the images – but one sculpture caught my eye and I explored further.  I can see myself getting enthusiastic about the work of Lorenzo Quinn – son of the mid 20th Century actor, Anthony Quinn.

His work ‘hand of God’ has been exhibited in many places, most recently at the Royal Exchange in London – in 2011 it was exhibited in a major exhibition at the Hermitage in St Petersburg.

It is one of those sculptures that invites you to see yourself in the hand of God.  A wonderful thought that is powerful for us to remember as we celebrate different forms of service and ministry within the life of our church today.

But what struck me was the way two of his sculptures were put side by side in that exhibition.  The other one was called ‘Leap of Faith’.

He says of his inspiration behind Leap of Faith, “The past is set in stone, the present is carving itself in wood, and the future is an empty goblet to fill with dreams.  This is a sculpture that prompts reflection on the need to be positive, even in the darkest moments, because there is always hope.”

“Life is a wonderful journey … if you know how to live it.”

For me that sculpture was all the more powerful for being put together with the Hand of God.   We can take such a leap of faith into the future and sense that we are on the most wonderful of journeys  and find that even in the darkest moments there is hope BECAUSE we start by realising that we are in the Hand of God.

And as Desdond Tutu says in that foreword to Fresh from the Word we are created by God to be a blessing … and we need one another to become such a blessing.

Hand in Hand

Hand in hand with God
we walk into the future with our hands in
the strong hand of God.
We give thanks for
hands that bring a blessing and
for hands handing on the baton.
In the dark times when we sense
the heavy hand of God
we put ourselves and all we love into
the big hands of God.
May our hands be
hands used in the service of God always
holding on to the hands of hope.
May we know God’s hands always to be
guiding hands, engraved hands

transforming hands.                Amen

On to Spencer

We've made it!

A three hour drive past endless fields of corn and soya bean brought us to Spencer.

After lunch we said good bye to Kay and Rich and joined Wendy and Tom.

After a short tour of the town, starting with a wonderful ceramic sculpture telling the story of Spencer and a drive past the Community Theatre that Tom and Wendy do so much at we joined their Saturday evening congregation for a Communion service.

It was good to see the things going on in the church, and interesting to see that they too host a Narcotics Anonymous group as we do.  Very much involved in the community they had great rooms for young people's activity and lots going on.

Tom and Wendy led the service and I preached making connections with the conference.  It was good to see a number of people from the NACCC meetings there at the service.

The service over it was back to Tom and Wendy's home to have dinner that included Sweet Corn for the first time!!!  It was good meeting their son, Eric and his wife Katie - both involved in theatre in Chicago.  Great to see Eric's wonderful collection of Star War things and to compare notes on the West Wing.  The episode in Series 2 on Shibboleth I want to look at again!