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A VIEW FROM THE MANSE
At the recent church meeting I shared some initial reflections on my sabbatical. There is more to say, and on Sunday 8 October I will be offering a fuller outline of my experience and what it meant from 4pm in the chapel. The following extract from my report to the Association will give a flavour of what is to come:
One of the principal values of the Northumbria Community is vulnerability, a theme which captioned much of my experience. As my Bobbie and the girls dropped me at the airport at the start of an initial seven-week absence I felt very vulnerable. On the Camino de Santiago each day as I walked to an indeterminate destination in the hope of finding a bed in a dormitory full of strangers I felt vulnerable. Each morning when I awoke and left the security of a bed and roof over my head carrying only the barest of essentials I experienced vulnerability. However, the vulnerability arising from a lack of material possessions and uncertainty of where I would spend the night soon became normal, and generated a feeling of release as if being unburdened of responsibilities. Much of contemporary life seems to be about protecting ourselves from vulnerability, often through defensiveness which ultimately hardens and isolates us. Surprisingly by embracing vulnerability I experienced a new liberty to engage more deeply with God and more honestly with others.
Another feature of my sabbatical was the prevalence of patterns and symbols. Among the various Christian communities I visited patterns of worship are at the heart of community life. These activities provide a structure for intentional faith, so that the whole of life is organised around the worship of God and offered to God in worship. The worship involved symbols: sometimes symbolic acts such as repeated singing, or antiphonal reading; sometimes physical symbols, crosses, cards, pebbles, candles. Likewise on the Camino symbolism was everywhere: scallop shells identified us a pilgrims; credencials allowed access to albergues and refugios; the greeting of ‘Buen Camino!’ provided encouragement along the way. The symbols and patterns built community and bound us, as participants, together.
The honesty of vulnerability and the participation within a community of shared patterns and symbols also unlocked opportunities to share the good news of Jesus Christ. I found that vulnerability breeds a renewed sense of confidence in God as one lets go of misplaced self-confidence.
Confidence in God takes the pressure off the task of evangelism. Rather than testing the efficacy of evangelism in the response of the hearer, I was able to see it in the faithful, proclamation of God’s grace shown in the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; and, I was confident to leave the results to the work of God’s Holy Spirit, confident that he is at work.
This confidence in the work of the Holy Spirit rather, than my dogged persistence and persuasion, opened the way to engage with human curiosity. By hearing other people's stories and recognising that I am not right, but rather trusting that God is right, mutual conversations were able to take place where others were happy to listen to me because I had shown genuine interest in their stories, even where I disagreed with them.
The recurrent news stories of the day speak of defensiveness and protectionism, particularly in the rise of nationalistic politics. Sadly the church is not immune from this with calls for strong leadership and the struggle to maintain Christian freedoms and rights. Walking the old ways with the old saints offered me an experience of living in the freedom of honest self-acceptance – vulnerability – and a renewed confidence in the work of God, which offers freedom and hope. Since returning the challenge has been to hold on to this sense of confidence and vulnerability, and embrace the simplicity of coming before God empty-handed and open-hearted rather than accumulating unnecessary burdens.
Your friend and Pastor
Canta alleluia al Señor
I think it safe to say my expectations were not high. After all, the journey to Finisterre was something of an add-on; and the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the previous week, had been the destination of my journey. More to the point I had celebrated Pentecost at the cathedral and witnessed the Botafumeiro as part of the services. I had arrived in Finisterre with the intention of having a rest; some time to recover and reflect.
Most people do not bother walking the additional way to Finisterre, and so the is no specific chapel serving pilgrims with a blessing. The town is small and quiet, showing signs of its struggle with recent challenging economic conditions. The local churches were just that, local churches serving a small Spanish (or rather Galician) community. I think it safe to say I was a reluctant attendant, but felt I really ought to see this through and continue to turn up at the local church along the way.
Trying to find where to go added another layer of difficulty – my limited Spanish could not easily interpret the notice sheets around town. I managed to find where I needed to be, and turned up to patiently attend yet another Spanish mass: or, so I thought. God clearly had other ideas! It was Trinity Sunday, when we specifically celebrate God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and I reflected that I was in exactly the right place. When the service began I was overwhelmed by the sense of joy and life evident in the singing and participation of the regulars. More to the point I felt like I was being welcomed to be part of it. Yes, the service was in Spanish – mostly – but I recognised that this group of people with whom I found myself in a far-flung corner of Spain had something significant in common with me: we were all followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, and children of the living God.
I had arrived at Finisterre (literally the end of the world) to find the Spirit of God was there ahead of me, and worshipped him in a living community of his people. I was truly humbled as I was welcomed as one of the family. God is full of surprises: we even sang one song in English, a Taizé song which neatly squared the circle of my journey. One further song I recognised was the simple song I quote at the beginning of this article. Whilst it was written and sung in Spanish, it is a translation of a familiar English song:
Sing alleluia to the Lord!
Your friend and pastor,
JULY and AUGUST
“The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” Job 1:21
This quote from Job is one of the most used biblical quotes in the “secular” world. I might even say the most “mis-used”…… and not only in the secular world! We use it to shrug off loss; as a way of coping or maybe as a way to avoid responsibility. It is really easy to take phrases from God’s word to us and, out of context, make them say whatever we want them to say. In this way, we use the Bible to justify our perspective or shore up the structures of meaning that we have built around us and, in so doing, we miss out on all that God wants us to hear and receive. Sometimes our heads become so crowded with our own clever words and creations that we miss out on the real treasure that God’s word holds. The quote comes from the book of Job and, yes, Job does suffer incredible loss but the story does not end there; the story ends with restoration. All that was lost was restored along with so much more.
Martin gave me this section of Job as a theme for this edition of “A View from the Manse”. He has told me of many moments of loss on his journey through France and Spain. He admitted that there were times when he wondered how much more God would take away from him. But, as he travelled on, he came to realise that God takes away in order to fill us. Martin has come to know his complete dependence on God in a new and deep way these past 7 weeks and, with this awareness of dependency and sense of coming to God with empty hands, he has also become aware of the many gifts God has for him. Gifts not manufactured by our own sense of need or gilded by our own need for spiritual significance but gifts simply and gratefully received as and when God chooses to give them; gifts enjoyed in the moment; gifts that are not claimed as medals but enjoyed as a blessing.
I am sure Martin will find his own words to describe the joy of his journey of loss and restoration and that you will hear these in time. I have my own story to share on this theme. Martin returned from Spain on Friday 16th of June for a few days before setting off on the second leg of his sabbatical. I wanted to get him a gift to congratulate him on his journey so far and googled “gifts for returning pilgrims” for inspiration. I was, however, less than inspired by the “tut” that was advertised. I instinctively felt that he did not need a scallop shell bottle opener or a Camino keyring, so I abandoned the websites, cleared my mind and decided to wait for a better idea. This idea came in an unexpected way. Pam’s son-in-law, John Austin, has been mowing the lawns at the manse in Martin’s absence. His service has been a real blessing to me in itself, but one morning, Jennifer asked about a watch that was on our patio table outside. I brought it in and presumed it belonged to John, who had mowed the lawns the previous day, and that he would collect it later.
When I returned from work, I thought I would have another look at the watch and, on closer inspection, realised that it was the very same watch that Martin had been devastated to lose nearly two years ago whilst working in the garden. I had bought him the watch for Christmas a number of years after we were married and he loved it. It was a good quality watch, confirmed by the fact that despite lying in frost and snow and rain it was still working and still showing the correct time! A quick trip to Bonners, the jewellers in town, and the watch was restored and renewed with a new battery and a new strap. Maybe the challenge laid down in Job is not the shrug of acceptance that God gives and takes away but a call to recognise that, through a growing awareness of our dependency on God, we will begin to turn away from the facades of apparent joy that we hold onto, the meaningless “tut” of life and receive the abundance of perfect blessing that he longs to give us.
My “return of the pilgrim” gift was ready; a simple gift of restoration and renewal; a surprising gift; a gift received as a blessing in what we might call God’s perfect timing!
“The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” Genesis 12 vs1
The traditional greeting to pilgrims on the Camino is “Buen Camino”. Roughly translated, it means, “The Right way”. It seems an apt greeting to accompany the Bible verse that Martin suggested I use as I write my view from the manse. At the time of writing, Martin has just completed another “nearly” 20 mile walk across the Spanish Meseta which he describes as “not flat”! He is making up ground after infected blisters slowed him down at the start. But blisters are not the real challenge of this journey. The real challenge has been a very practical experience of our understanding that God calls us to follow him and to go where he leads; to trust him to take us to the land he has for us even when we do not know where that is. It seems that, from the start of his journey, God has stripped Martin of all chances of a retreat to the known and comfortable. He has called him away from his home and his family, from his routines and structures, onto a journey where he literally gets up each morning and walks, not knowing where he will be at the end of the day. Accommodation cannot be booked in advance and varies from bunk beds to mattresses on the floor, with strangers, men and women, all thrown together with just a 6ft by 3ft space that they can call their own for the night. Martin has no choice of companion, food or bed and no control of the weather or walking conditions. He just gets up each morning, puts on his boots and walks. Sometimes he doesn’t want to, but he is committed to the journey now and has no choice. He has nothing to cling to or hang on to. He has had to let everything go…and trust in God and God alone. It is a hard journey; physically and emotionally, but it is a good one because God is travelling with him and leading him where he needs to be.
I am also on a journey. I call it my “at home” pilgrimage. I don’t have the spectacular views that Martin has, but I don’t have the blisters either! I am having to rediscover who I am before God without my husband to hide behind. As I drove away from the airport after dropping Martin off, I was left with an overwhelming realisation that no-one loves me as he does and he would not be around for a long time; I felt a strange loneliness and, if I’m honest, a resentment that I had been thrust onto a journey that was unfamiliar and challenging. God is also leading me to a land that he is showing me. It is not a land I chose for myself. I do not know where I will end up. I don’t always want to get up and walk and sometimes I want to rush back to the comfort of the life I know and the marriage I know. It is a hard journey, but it is a good one, because God is travelling with me and is leading me where I need to be. (and, actually, he does love me more than Martin does!)
The church is also on a journey. We have been sent out to take the gospel to Alcester, to Warwickshire and to the ends of the Earth. We do not know where God will take us on this journey. We will be taken out of our comfort zone. We will have to let go of the things that are familiar to us; the things we depend on and rely on. We may lose our routines and be moved out of our safe hiding places. We may not always want to go. It is a hard journey, a scary and challenging journey, but it is a good one because God is travelling with us and leading us to the land he has for us.
The question we all have to answer is; do we want to stay where we are or, like Abram will we follow the call to go with God to the land he will show us? I wish you all a blessed journey and, of course; Buen Camino!
A man a plan a canal Panama
You may recognise the above phrase as a famous palindrome; it reads the same backward and forward. It provides a useful opener for the theme of my reflection this month: planning. The phrase makes reference to the planning employed in the construction of the Panama Canal; and, the composition of the phrase itself also demonstrates forethought and consideration – it has been planned.
Planning is at the forefront of my mind at present because by the time you are reading this I hope some of my plans of the past few years will be coming to fruition: specifically my sabbatical plans. What began as a simple idea has been considered, the preparations required to realise my idea have been thought through and put into place. I am confident that everything I could do to make it happen has been done, and so I am ready to go.
However, one of my plans gave me pause for thought recently. I am talking about the pilgrim blessing I received last Saturday. After explaining what I was doing I invited everyone who was there to follow my progress on facebook. As Father Paul went on to explain what this blessing was about he, quite rightly, pointed out that my pilgrimage was not about ‘my progress’ but rather about being led by the Lord Jesus Christ.
This comment gave me cause to reflect on the tension that exists within the life of discipleship (a tension which I would suggest can never be fully resolved) between passivity and activity. On the one hand we recognise that we are disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and as such follow his lead; this may lead us to adopt an approach of ‘let go and let God.’ On the other hand we have been called to service and bestowed with gifts; this may lead us to an overdeveloped sense of responsibility along the lines of the prayer of Teresa of Avila: ‘Christ has no body but yours’.
The reality is that we are both called to surrender and to action, and must somehow avoid adopting a position at one extreme or the other. We see something of how this tension functions in the ministry of the apostle Paul and his companions: ‘When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.’ (Acts 16:7) We plan for action, but must remember that our plans are subordinate to those of the Lord Jesus Christ.
So having made plans to go and do what I hope God is leading me to, I wait to see what the Lord has in store for me – always ready to be surprised by him. If you would like to see where God leads me, then please feel free to follow me (as the Lord leads me) on facebook; look for Martin Mills and my profile picture is a scallop shell - a traditional pilgrim badge – and together we will see not only where God is leading me, but where he is leading you too.
Your friend and pastor,
“Behold, I make all things new.” Revelation 21:5
As I write there is a feel of spring in the air; the daffodils are plentiful and in full bloom and the sun is shining – for the moment! This time of year is full of the promise of new life as we shake off the shackles of winter and look forward to a time of growth and warmth and flourishing. The season speaks of transformation, the bare trees are once again re-covered with leaves and blossom, the brown earth is re-coloured with pants and flowers. It is a time of year that brings a sense of relief – a lightness of spirit – and a smile to my face.
The coming of spring is linked with the celebration of Easter, and deliberately so. Easter Sunday is a moveable feast, but the timing is set so that Eater Sunday is celebrated after the Vernal (or Spring) Equinox which marks the first day of spring. The connection goes back to the Jewish festival of Passover, with its themes of rescue based on God’s faithfulness. The timing of Passover was determined in relation to the cycle of the moon and the coming of spring.
Spring provides several powerful metaphors that speak of the meaning of Easter. There is the obvious motif of new life, not just with the plants and flowers, but birthing cycles of animals – you may have noticed the proliferation of new-born lambs recently. Then there is the ascendency of light; after the equinox the length of the daylight begins to exceed the length of the night-time. Yet for all this life and light and relief, Easter is a time of paradox. The festival if the resurrection, when we celebrate the Lord Jesus Christ’s restoration to life, cannot be celebrated without the recollection of his humiliation and death. Easter Sunday is always preceded by Good Friday.
The quote at the opening of this piece comes from the end of the Bible, spoken by God from his throne at the end of time. In the 2004 film The Passion of the Christ these words are used by Jesus as he walks the way of the cross. The powerful pronouncement of God’s renewal of all things at the last day is juxtaposed with the image of the battered, beaten Jesus as he heads toward his imminent execution. It is a powerful image, such a grand claim in such hopeless circumstances.
The point is well made, that the humiliation and death of Jesus is not what it so graphically appears to be. The cross was not the moment of defeat, but the moment of victory. The joy of the resurrection helps us to interpret the pain and shame of the cross, not with despair but, with hope. It may be tempting at Easter to look forward to the joy of resurrection, to the celebration and the chocolate, and to quickly move past the pain of crucifixion. However it is important to remember that the sacrificial lamb who faced the pain of the cross is also the Lord who will renew all things.
Facing the cross as the way of victory allows us to hope, not just with the coming of spring, but also within the challenges and trials of life. The cross reminds us that the moment of pain and defeat can also be the moment of victory and triumph. The cross reminds us that he who faced the pain and humiliation of death by crucifixion is the same Lord who will one day make all things new. So while spring will come and go, the renewal of whatever difficulties and struggles we face will come and last for eternity, because it is promised by the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ.
Your friend and pastor,
The beginning of March marks the start of Lent this year, as we prepare ourselves for Easter. Each of the gospel writers has their own particular perspective on the build-up and events of Easter. I find myself drawn to the personal tone of the farewell discourse in John’s gospel: chapters 13-17 in which Jesus prepares his friends for what is to come. It has a very intimate feel to it: a gathering of friends around the table eating, drinking and talking. The intimacy is set at the beginning of the section, with the washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus.
Within some Christian traditions foot-washing is a time honoured ritual, usually performed on Maundy Thursday to commemorate the Last Supper. I have never seen the point of this ceremonial foot-washing myself, although I have known Christians who really value the activity, both as recipients and as those doing the washing. I confess it all seems a little contrived for my liking, and so I have never partaken in a foot-washing ceremony.
It seems to me that Jesus washed the disciples’ feet partly as a symbolic action, to teach about humility and point forward to the cleansing that he would provide through his death; but, he seems to have chosen foot-washing because it was more than simply a symbol, it was a real act of service. In the first century middle-east where pedestrians tended to wear open-toed sandals and share the highways and byways with animal transport, the need for foot-washing is easily understood. Jesus washed the disciples’ feet because there was a real need for it.
This subject has come into sharp focus for me recently, as I have found myself in a position to do some foot-washing recently. Since Bobbie’s hip operation she has been unable to bend forward, and so needs someone to wash her feet for her – that someone being me. Now I am not for a moment trying to compare what I do for Bobbie with Jesus washing the disciples’ feet; Bobbie’s has not been walking in raw sewage for starters. All I am trying to say is that the act is not simply a gesture, but a necessary act of service.
For me it is a moment to lavish some care on Bobbie and let her know that her needs matter to me. It has become a nice time in our routine that we share: it is a moment of intimacy. It has cast a fresh light for my eyes on the action of Jesus: a picture of care and grace heavily laden with symbolism, but drawn from practical necessity.
It gives me a fresh understanding of something of Jesus’ deep love for us, which is demonstrated in the mundane as well as the grandiose.
I still struggle with the concept of ceremonial foot-washing, but the practicality of Jesus’ service has struck me afresh. It can be easier for us to accept the grace of God shown to all than to accept the abundance of grace shown to each of us personally. Do we believe that Jesus is concerned to wash our feet, when they need washing?
‘Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”’ John 13:8
Your friend and pastor,
‘God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform;’ – William Cowper
At our covenant service, a few weeks ago, I played a song during the sermon. We were thinking about discipleship, and the song was included to provoke us to consider what that means; by looking not at Jesus’ followers, but at Jesus himself. By request I have reproduced the words of the song here:
Strange way to start a revolution
Strange way to get a better tan
Strange way to hold a power breakfast
Strange way to show your business plan
Strange way to test if wood would splinter
Strange way to do performance art
Strange way to say ‘I’ll see you later’
Strange way to leave behind your heart
Strange dissident of meekness
And nurse of tangled souls
And so unlike the holy
To end up full of holes
It’s a strange way
Strange way to hang around for hours
Strange way to imitate a kite
Strange way to get a view of Auschwitz
Strange way to represent the light
Strange way to watch for stormy weather
Strange way to disprove gravity
Strange way to go around fund-raising
Strange way to sing ‘l am liberty’
Strange dissident of meekness
Strange way to test for haemophilia
Strange way to spend a happy hour
Strange way to down a bitter cocktail
Strange way to merchandise your power
Strange way to reassure your mother
Strange way to finish your world tour
Strange way to pose for countless paintings
Strange way to gather in the poor
Strange dissident of meekness
The world is too much with us
Could we not now just elope?
Strange way to hold us closer
Strange way to give us hope
Stewart Henderson, 1998
As we look at Jesus, what do we see? Do we treat him as a consumer product and choose the model which suits us best; selecting the options we like and rejecting those things which make us feel uncomfortable? Perhaps we like the idea of a powerful Lord who will defeat our enemies and improve our lot in life, so we focus on the miracles and his divinity. Perhaps we like the idea of a saviour who cares about me, understands my problems and soothes my worries, so we focus on his divinity and service. The problem with all this ‘pick and mix’ discipleship is that it is not following Jesus, but following a facsimile of Jesus created to our specification.
These words of Stewart challenge us to look at Jesus in uncomfortable and bewildering circumstances, and not to dismiss them or look away but think about what that means. The words focus on the historical event of the cross, but the imagery of the phrases is contemporary, or at least recent. The cross can be brushed over as an unfortunate necessity which we would rather not think too much about; or, can be sentimentalised as some noble, almost romantic, gesture. Either way it can be safely relegated to the past as we get on with our chosen path of discipleship and pat ourselves on the back for our wisdom or goodness. Stewart Henderson’s words attempt to remind us that the cross make a difference today.
The cross of Christ does not immunise us from the problems of the world, rather it is a call to bring the good news of Jesus into any pain and hardship we encounter, even our own. The concluding verse interprets the piece: just as God did not insulate himself from the sin and pain of the world but entered into it in Jesus, so we should not look to escape but dare to hope, dare to follow, dare to pick up our crosses and follow him; dare to die to self and strangely, mysteriously discover the joy of life. Discipleship is not something that makes sense as we look at it from the outside, it only makes sense as we participate – as we look to Jesus and follow him.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Your friend and pastor,
DECEMBER 16 / JANUARY 17
What a picture!
As 2016 draws to a close and we enter the season of Advent, as we look forward to Christmas our thoughts turn to Jesus. Jesus, whose birth we celebrate after more than 2,000 years, is the reason for the season. Yet I wonder what picture Christmas conjures up in your mind. When I look at the variety of Christmas cards around each year and what decorates the front cover I am intrigued by the range of images associated with Christmas.
My personal favourite designs on Christmas cards would have some particular reference to Jesus, whether that be a traditional nativity scene, something more abstract or even just beautifully written words naming Jesus or quoting from the Bible. For others the preferred images may be different: perhaps focussing on the festivities – trees, decorations, food, gifts or partying; for others its personal a family picture or a beautiful winter scene. I have to admit though I struggle with cards depicting fluffy animals (and find myself immediately worrying that my last comment will consign me to receiving an deluge of Christmas cards decorated with kittens in Santa hats to teach me a lesson on being a grumpy old man.) Whatever image we associate with Christmas will inevitably say something about ourselves and what we see as important about the season.
Pictures, visual images, are powerful means of both expression and impression. Images can say a lot about us, what we think and feel and who we are. Images can also influence us in ways that we do not fully understand or appreciate; they somehow get under our skin. Think about the last time you saw a picture that made you laugh or cry or angry. I mentioned in my November article the power of the Familiar Faces exhibition in September; viewing the simple images of faces from around the town was a very moving experience.
As a result I have chosen to reflect on pictures this year during Advent and Christmas (see the service below.) I would like to invite you to come along to one of the services, not to be manipulated, but to stop and think about the meaning of Christmas personally, experientially. On St Nicholas Night we will be inviting you to literally 'get in the picture' as we set up a large scale nativity on the High Street along with dressing up clothes. Everyone is invited to enter the scene to have your photograph taken for a personalised Christmas card from the church to you; I hope you can make it.
This may all sound like a bit of fun (and I hope it is) but a bit contrived as a theme for Christmas. However, I would like to suggest that pictures, presenting something visible, is at the heart of what Christmas is about. At Christmas God chose to make himself visible, revealing himself in a way we could recognise and understand, by coming as a human being. Jesus is God's picture of himself for us, so we can see and know him. The invitation this Christmas is to look to Jesus to see God, to see what God has done and is doing, and for each of us to get in the picture too.
'He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.' Colossians 1:15
Your friend and pastor,
Sunday 27 Nov
10.30 am – Advent Sunday
A picture paints a thousand words
Sunday 4 Dec
10.30am – Toy service
Let me paint you a picture
Tuesday 6 Dec
St Nicholas Night
Get in the picture
Sunday 11 Dec
10.30am – Cafe service
Sunday 18 Dec
10.30am – Family Carols
Sunday 18 Dec
4.00pm – Carols by candlelight
See the big picture
Sunday 25 Dec
9.30am – Christmas Day
A picture of you
- Church Street
- B49 5AJ