Monday, 30 March 2015

Palm Sunday

Yesterday was Palm Sunday.  During Lent I have been reading Maggi Dawn's "Giving It Up".  I was particularly struck by some of what she said yesterday and how it described the challenge that Jesus places before us by not being what we expect.  The Palm Sunday people were looking for a conquering hero, but what they got was a vulnerable servant.

As Maggi Dawn puts it: "Jesus always turned people's expectations of him upside down.  They expected a dour John the Baptist figure in a hair shirt, but what they got was a man who went to parties and turned water into wine.  They expected a Messiah who would overthrow Rome, but what they got was a man who told them to put their weapons down."

Jesus does things, not the way we expect, but God's way.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Encounters (Part 3)

And the final three of the encounters readings and stories that I used in Vellore ......

Read John 4:7-15 – Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman beside a well, so breaking a whole bunch of taboos, but also having an interesting conversation, operating at a bunch of levels and with a fair degree of misunderstanding.

My sixth encounter story is about Joe (not his real name).  My first encounter with Joe was when I, literally, threw him out of the church service, I think the only time I have ejected somebody in such circumstances.  However, a young lady in our congregation was conducting her first ever service and a shouted interruption from the back needed to be addressed.  I told him to come back later, which he did, and got to know him over the coming weeks, months and (probably – I can’t quite remember the timescale) years.  If things could go wrong, they went wrong for Joe.  It just happened.  Eventually he got a new flat and we gathered some furniture which we took round in a van.  It was a first floor flat and we carried the sofa upstairs, only to discover it was just too wide to go through the front door.  ‘Let’s take the door off,’ I suggested.  Rather nervously Joe asked if I would be able to put the door back on.  With a confidence I didn’t really feel, D-I-Y not being amongst my skills, I assured him I would, and so we proceeded.  Happily, we both got the sofa into the flat and the front door safely back on!

Read Luke 7:37-39 – Jesus allows a “sinful” woman to anoint his feet.  How do we treat others?  How do we respond to others?

My seventh encounter story is about Arif (again not his real name).  Arif was an asylum seeker being held in Winson Green prison, where I used to go and visit him.  Originally from Angola, he was in trouble because he had claimed to be Portuguese and had used false paper – but without that claim and those papers would never have got to the point of being able to claim the asylum he needed.  Happily, in time, he was released and supported by friends of mine.

Read Luke 8:42b-48 – In the middle of an engagement with synagogue-leader Jairus, whose daughter is dangerously ill and dies, Jesus encounters a woman who needs healing and has the confidence to touch his coat in order to receive it.  ‘She only touched the hem of his garment’.

My eighth encounter is really a series of encounters.  During my first trip to Zimbabwe we visited a number of projects that Christian Aid then supported.  On one particular day we went to a Roman Catholic organisation that gave all sorts of help to the community.  A lorry loaded with masses of aid arrived just as we did.  We went off with a small group to a rather dilapidated hall where they were running a clinic.  They set up a table for registration, a second table as a consulting room area to see the nurse and a third table as a pharmacy.  They invited the few of us to sit in a fourth corner and just be available for conversation with anyone who wanted to talk to us.  It was interesting that nearly everybody came to speak to us and that the one of our group who, having medical experience, was with the nurse commented on how valuable that listening opportunity was.  Not all, but most, of the patients were women – and it was so moving to hear the frequently-told story: “My husband died, and then I went and got tested, and discovered I was HIV positive.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Encounters (Part 2)

And, following on from yesterday, my fourth and fifth encounters .....

Read John 3:1-9 – Nicodemus goes (by night) to see Jesus – and finds himself faced with some rather puzzling questions.

My fourth encounter story is about meeting Bishop Lesslie Newbigin.  Lesslie Newbigin spent many years as a missionary in India and was very much committed to the vision of the united Church that was the Church of South India.  He was one of its founding bishops, serving the Diocese of Madurai Ramnad.  Later he returned to India to serve as the Bishop of Madras.  (What is now the Diocese of Vellore was then part of the Diocese of Madras.)  In retirement he became minister of the tiny Winson Green United Reformed Church in Birmingham – commenting that evangelism in Birmingham was far more difficult that it had ever been in India.  Bishop Lesslie’s vision for Winson Green was of the Church of England and the United Reformed Church working together.  I was the next but one minister of Winson Green URC and, during my time as minister, Bishop Lesslie’s dream became a reality as the two churches formally united (just, as it happened, days before his death in January 1998.)  Exactly a year earlier Bishop Lesslie had been our guest preacher at the service where we signed the commitment to unite.

Read Luke 19:5-10 – Zacchaeus unexpectedly finds himself hosting Jesus and, perhaps even more unexpectedly, finds his life totally transformed.

My fifth encounter story is about meeting Ephraim Alphonse.  Ephraim Alphonse was one of my retired colleagues when I served in the Methodist Church in Panama.  He was very much the elder statesman of the Methodist Church at that point, and rightly so.  He had responded in early life to the challenge to take the Gospel to the remote western regions of the country which were inhabited by the indigenous Guyami people.  In an area where, even in the early 1990s when we spent a few weeks there, the only transport was boat or foot, Ephraim had introduced the Good News of Jesus – which led to the forming of the Valiente Circuit of the Methodist Church.  One of my great memories of my time in Panama is being part of a group accompanying Revd. Ephraim Alphonse back to his beloved Cusapin (where the main church of the Valiente Circuit is located) for a special celebration.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Encounters (Part 1)

When we were in Vellore, as group leader, I led prayers on several evenings.  As we were having all sorts of encounters, I used 'encounters' as the theme, each time reading the account of an encounter Jesus had, offering a minimal comment, then telling the story of an encounter I have had at some point in my ministry, but again really just letting the encounter speak for itself.

Here are the first three:

Read John 6:8-13 – Jesus encounters a small boy who was surprised at what happened to his picnic lunch!

My first encounter story – In early ministry in Scotland I used to go into the local primary school on a weekly basis.  On one particular occasion I went into an infant class to be greeted: “Mr. Whittle, we were so glad you were coming in today.  Can you tell us what an angel is?”  I really don’t remember how I answered, but I have never forgotten being asked the question!

Read Luke 8:26-33 – the story of a very unhappy pig farmer – but, of course, that is not the encounter which is of Jesus meeting a very disturbed young man at a place called Kursi.  Was this, by any chance, the real life prodigal son?

My second encounter story – When we lived in Panama, turning left out of our drive (rather than right and down to the main road) was something to do with care and never on foot.  On this particular occasion, my wife and I were in the car which was waved down by this rather unkempt individual.  Mary wondered what on earth was happening, but I recognised him as a “character” who occasionally came to our manse door looking for money.  (I usually gave him a quarter – about 15p.)  On this occasion he wasn’t even looking for money.  He just wanted to greet me as a friend he recognised.

Read John 5:2-9a – the story of Jesus’ healing the man at the pool of Bethzatha.  Before healing him, Jesus asked the man, “Do you want to get well?”  It seems a silly question – or was it?  Sometimes we are happy where we are, with all its difficulties.

My third encounter story – In the late 1980s, when I was ministering in Islington, we got involved, as did a number of churches in Hackney and Islington, in caring for Kurdish refugees from Turkey.  We had a changing group stay in our church for three months.  One particular Sunday one of the long-term residents, Halil, decided he would come into the service.  He came in, looked round our small congregation, and came to sit beside the one person he knew – me – even though I was the one facing everybody else! – and proceeded to spend much of the service asking me how to pronounce things in the hymn book.  That made for an interesting service for me.  It was all-age worship, and I was ‘making it up’ as I proceeded because I hadn’t prepared all-age.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Loving the World in God's Name

One of the challenges of our day, as for every age through Christian history, is the question of how to offer God's love and light in our day.  What are the things that dominate our living and thinking and have the potential to take us down the path to death rather than to life.  

One might be consumerism.  We live in a society where having things, and having them abundantly, is frequently portrayed as the way to happiness.  God wants us to enjoy the world, and having some nice things and opportunities can be part of that, but what should we be saying to those for whom that is constantly the be-all and end-all? 

Another potentially dominating force could be what we might sum up as domination.  We live in a society which works on a hierarchy of winners and losers.  Even if we don’t name it explicitly, there are those who are portrayed as winners and there are those who are portrayed as losers.  Such thinking perpetuates racism, sexism and such attitudes.  We would like to think that we are far from such perspectives, but is it not true that we can’t really declare ourselves entirely innocent?  Is it not true that prejudice creeps too easily into the edge of our thinking?

A third damaging element in today’s world that needs to be firmly challenged by those of genuine faith is violence.  We live in a violent world.  Terrorism hits the news headlines week after week  And the story gets played out and ingrained.  It used to be Popeye eating his spinach, so that he could beat up Bluto.  Now it is an abundance of video games in which fighting and violence play a large part.  How are we speaking to and about the violence that is so prevalent in our world?  The Cross was a violent act, and yet became the place of redemption.  How do we love the world in God’s name – for that is surely what we are called to do.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Making A Difference in Vellore

One of the things that really impressed me was the way in which the Diocese tries to offer the love of Christ in very practical ways, because that surely is what we can do, what we are called to do.  So, for example, in a culture which still tends to undervalue girls there is an emphasis in their schools on good education for girls.  In an area where agricultural and environmental matters are particularly significant, the Diocese has an agricultural institute whose director, Alfie, is trying to address such matters in innovative ways.  There was (as mentioned in yesterday's blog) our visit to Anbu Illam, a school for children with cerebral palsy.  The poor equipment and facilities was, in a sense, heart-breaking, like the gym with elder and run-down equipment, but the commitment of the staff and the engagement of the children was a real encouragement as to what is possible.  The message of those experiences is the message of the power of love.  May the love of Christ surround us, enable us, inspire us and engage us!  The question is: what should we be doing in Christ's Name to make a needed difference in our community?

Friday, 20 March 2015

A Day in Vellore

Just interesting to read and reflect back - here are my musings on our first full weekday in Vellore, Monday 9th February:

Today started as a bit of a wildlife experience with a gecko, a frog and a spider all in the bathroom.  Breakfast was more "Indian" than yesterday, but enjoyable.  After breakfast we set off on visits, with the now usual hair-raising drive through busy traffic.  There really are loads of motorcycles of a range of varieties.

First we visited a special school where they care for children with cerebral palsy.  It is really remarkable what they achieve with minimal resources.  The children were all gathered in an assembly – at least those not out at ordinary school.  First, some explanation was given as to what happens in the school.  This was followed by a brief programme with a song, a recitation and a dance.  We then led an Assembly, with different members of our group reading, speaking and leading a song.  I then offered a prayer and the children went off to their classrooms while we had some light refreshments.  We then went to see them in their classrooms, though some of the staff came asking for blessing as we were leaving the main hall.  It is amazing what they achieve.  The teacher in the classroom I visited explained how they have individually tailored programmes.  So, for example, one girl who can’t use her hands draws and colours with her toes.  We then saw the treatment room (or gym).  The equipment is limited and old, but it is there and used – including parallel bars, a treadmill and an exercise bike.  In the activity room a range of things were going on, including match-box making and basket-weaving.

Next we went the short distance to visit an HIV Aids project where we met the staff and heard of the work they do, offering support to families whom this effects.  There were a few mothers making paper bags.

Next stop was the church offices, where we met Bishop Rajavelu.  We had formal greetings and were each presented with a garland and a shawl – a traditional welcome.  On to lunch – chicken monica for me.

We left there to go to a school that has been supported by one of the Norfolk schools in the Diocese of Ely.  We were greeted and sprinkled with petals as we walked across the grounds.  Inside we were greeted by all the children who both sang and danced as they offered a short and colourful cultural programme.  There were a number of speeches and introductions and one of our teachers spoke to the children on our behalf.

We then – and in groups by  now – returned to the guest house for a quick freshen up before going off to a wedding.  Three groups went to three different weddings.  Ours was at the church where I am preaching next Sunday.  We arrived late and sneaked in at the back – but were soon ushered to special chairs on the platform.  Despite what seemed to be an abundance of clergy – someone reckoned nine – Fiona was asked to put garlands on the bride and groom and I had to present their marriage certificate and give them a blessing. 

We then had a chat with the minister there – Sharma – who took us to see the newly opened church library and then on to his house for something to eat – my first experience of no cutlery!  We then returned to the guest-house for evening prayers which focussed on the encounter Jesus had with the man at Kursi and some further thinking about encounters.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Bus Stop Mission

Let’s not ignore the “e-word”, even though some love it and some are scared stiff by it.  In the material prepared for the United Reformed Church's evangelism year of Vision4Life we find a simple, but helpful, definition – “Evangelism is about people with a story tell … “  We have got a message.  Tell it!  

When we lived in Panama, the custom was not to answer the phone with a ‘hello’ or your name or number, but with the word ‘diga’.  It means ‘tell me’.  Let’s tell the story, our story – that is all evangelism is. 

Image result for bus stopWe can use imaginative initiatives to help us, and that’s great – but evangelism is so often what happened to Kathy.  I think she was over 80 when she started coming to one of the churches of which I was then minister.  And why did she come?  She came because Maud, one of our church members, started talking to her at the bus stop.  

The problem is – we’re British.  We don’t talk to people we don’t know at bus stops.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Hospitality in Vellore

One of the great experiences of Vellore was the wonderful hospitality that we received.  We were warmly welcomed wherever we went – and that was often demonstrated in traditional ways, as we were “garlanded”. “shawled”, or given other gifts.  We were also invariably given something to eat and drink, even when that provision must have been costly. 

For example, at the school at Gnanodayam, a rural school ‘right in the middle of nowhere’ we were offered cake, biscuits and soft drinks on arrival by the headteacher.  We were then taken out to meet the children who had all gathered on the school verandah – and garlanded with garlands of really fragrant flowers – see the photograph – but then given all sorts of individual presents by the children who had been encouraged to bring small gifts for the visitors from England.

When we were the missionaries, at the end of the session, I saw a couple of people walk in with two very large baskets of fruit, which I assumed were about to be shared – but, no, these were for my colleague, Anand, and myself to take away.

We all like to think that we are welcoming – but have we really caught on to the culture of hospitality as we ought? 

Henri Nouwen reminds us that “in the context of hospitality guest and host can reveal their most precious gifts and bring new life to each other” adding that the term hospitality “should not be limited to its literal sense of receiving a stranger in our house – although it is important never to forget or neglect that! – but as a fundamental attitude towards our fellow human being, which can be expressed in a variety of ways” (“Reaching Out”, Collins, 1976, 1980, p. 65.)

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Counting Elephants

I seem to have started collecting elephants.  I am not quite sure why.  I didn’t intend to - and, so far, I have only got two.  I got a stone elephant elephant in Zimbabwe and then a wooden one in India.  But they are both quite small and, if I stop now, two is hardly a collection – except that, actually, when I think about it I have got four – because I also got tempted to buy a Noah’s ark the last time I was in Zimbabwe – and one of the pairs of animals is elephants – but they are very small.  However, that reminds me that I think I have got another Noah’s ark somewhere in the garage – but I don’t know whether it has got elephants or not.  If I don’t look, maybe it is OK to ignore it.

It is interesting how things start, sometimes quite deliberately, and, other times, we just slip into it.  And then there are things that we just do.  They seem to come naturally.  And other things are a real struggle.

I don’t think there is anything wrong in any of that.  Accidental starts and deliberate starts both have their place.  Things that come naturally and things with which we have to struggle both also have their place.  It can be that the struggle needs to be persisted with and the ‘I didn’t even think about it’ needs to be dropped – or it can be the other way round.  

In Ephesians 3:17 and 18 Paul is focussing on the love of Christ and the centrality that it ought to have in our lives.  Sometimes doing the things that we know God wants us to do comes really easily – and sometimes it is a real struggle.  Whatever else we end up doing, let’s try and make sure we reflect God’s wonderful love, recognise how broad and long, how high and deep it is.

Text of brief reflection I offered as part of the opening worship at the Eastern Synod meeting on 14/3/15, following the reading of Ephesians 3:14-21.

PS - As someone from the floor helpfully and relevantly reminded us all, when we are talking about elephants we always need to remember the one in the room.  (Maybe that is why I started collecting them!)

Saturday, 14 March 2015

With the Missionaries in Vellore

On one of our days in Vellore, those of us who were not teaching spent time with various groups, the missionaries, the Bible women and the ordained women.  I was able to meet with the missionaries, a group of a dozen men – and they were all men as the female equivalents are the Bible women.  The Bible women do much the same as the missionaries, except that they additionally try to encourage basic hygiene and other domestic skills in order to enhance the lives of those they encounter,  The missionaries are lay leaders with the particular commission of going to villages where there is no church and trying to start one.  They meet monthly and showed pictures of how their work has recently been made easier as a group from Saudi Arabia provided each missionary with a bicycle and pump plus torch and umbrella.  They make contact by hanging around and offering bits of practical help.  It was encouraging to hear how these people are starting churches in such circumstances and each had prepared a map to illustrate how and where they worked.

Friday, 13 March 2015

At Punganoor

While in India, on our first Sunday, I was due to preach in a village called Punganoor.  We met up with Stanley, the young pastor, for the fairly long drive to the village.  He usually goes on his motorbike to whichever of his ten churches he is scheduled for leading worship.  The small group of us who went to that church found a church under construction.  There is a completed area, and that is where the worship was with about a hundred people crammed in and more standing outside.  The congregation was sitting on the floor.  There were just a few chairs at the front for us.  Stanley led worship.  I preached – and he translated.  There was some lively singing.  One of our group taught them a sung version of the Lord's Prayer (in English) with actions.  Stanley then led Communion during which he and I shared in the distribution of the bread and wine.   After the service there was lots of photos and lots of exchanging greetings (despite the language barrier) before we were rushed off to another of his congregations, who were waiting for us to come and give Communion.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Schools in Vellore

Arni School
Sipcot School
One of the interesting aspects of  my recent visit to Vellore was the opportunity to visit a number of schools.  Several of the group were teachers and they had the opportunity to spend a few days teaching, which they all found to be an interesting and enriching experience.  Wherever we went, we were given a warm welcome, often being 'shawled' or garlanded or receiving some other present.  Many of the schools put on a cultural programme, mostly of dance, but there was also some singing and, in one case, karate.  The Diocese is trying to place an emphasis on good education for girls.  There certainly seems to be lots of enthusiasm among the teachers we met.  Some of the schools we visited were in urban areas while others were very rural.  It was interesting that the school that most resembled a British one - in my view - was, admittedly, a very new school, but in a very rural location - Edayakuppam.  Some of the schools are Tamil medium - so teaching in Tamil - while others are English medium.  Resources are somewhat limited, though variable - and the layout seems to be traditional on the whole.  We also visited the Diocese's Teacher Training College.  The church is certainly making a difference in matters of education.  So, where should we be making a difference in the UK context?
Edayakuppam School

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Remembering Lesslie Newbigin

Introduction to at talk given while I was in Vellore to a group of ministers ......  I want to reflect with you on the theme of leadership.  As ministers of the gospel we are called to do and to be many things.  How do we create the vision that will inspire us to achieve the ministry to which God calls us?  We are called to be pastors – to care for our people.  We are called to preach the Word and to conduct the Sacraments.  We are called to be teachers, helping our people understand the depths of the Christian Way and what the Bible says to us.  We are called to engage in mission – to tell the good news to those who don’t know it.  In England we often talk of the role of a minister as a facilitator, enabling others to play a full part in the life of the church. 
But the word I would use to sum up all of these is the word ‘leadership’.  We are called to be leaders.
When we try to think of what it means to be a good leader, it is helpful to look for examples of people we might follow.  In a conversation I had yesterday evening, I was reminded of a link I have with this part of the world which goes back way before I had any involvement with the link between Cambridgeshire Ecumenical Coucil and the Diocese of Vellore.  Many, possibly all, of you will know the name of Bishop Lesslie Newbigin.  Some of you may have met him.  When Bishop Lesslie finally returned to England after all his service in South India, he became for a while the minister of a tiny inner city United Reformed Church in Birmingham, in an area called Winson Green.  They were going to close that church until Bishop Lesslie said it mustn’t happen.  He offered to become the minister and, despite advancing years, served there through much of the 1980s.  I was not the next, but the one after that, minister of that church, serving there from 1994 to 1998.  Bishop Lesslie, of course, loved the ideas of unity that he saw formed in the Church of South India – and his hope had long been for that congregation to unite with the local Church of England congregation to form a single church.  I am delighted to say that his vision became reality during my ministry.  In January 1997 Bishop Lesslie, then living in London, came back to Winson Green in Birmingham to preach at the service at which we signed a covenant to become one.  Exactly a year later, and just days before Bishop’s Lesslie death, we did exactly that.  We closed the United Reformed building and became one church, worshipping together, doing everything together.  Sometimes, as in that example, it takes a long time for the vision to become reality – but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep working on it.

Bishop Lesslie was a great pastor, a great preacher, a great teacher, a great evangelist – and so a great example for us.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Vellore Visit

It is ten days since we got back from Vellore.  Cambridgeshire Ecumenical Council, which I currently chair, has a long-established twinning link with the Diocese of Vellore within the Church of South India.  I spent the middle two weeks of February in India leading a group who were on a visit to the Diocese.  Schools were the main focus of this trip and so about half of the group of eighteen were teachers.  They each spent several days teaching in schools.  While there, we all visited schools, hospitals, churches and other projects.  It was fascinating to see how a growing church is functioning and making an important contribution in a culture that is very definitely not Christian.  How do we make the contribution that God calls us to make in our context?  How do we contribute to the infrastructure that supports society in a situation where many key things are state-funded and yet there are massive needs within large chunks of society?  What do we need to learn from different parts of the world?