Saturday, 6 January 2018

Mystery of Epiphany

Today is the feast of the Epiphany, a day when we remember especially the visit of the magi, wise men or kings to the baby Jesus. We know the carols about the kings of orient who bear their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. We have given them names: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. Children have put on crowns and carried gifts in nativity plays. We see them riding or leading their camels on our Christmas cards. We allow them to arrive early and mingle with shepherds from another story.

The visitors from lands afar, those who followed the star, remind us of the obligation to welcome the stranger as one from whom we can learn and receive. They remind us not to underestimate the significance of the strangers who knock on our door but to welcome them in for we may be entertaining angels unaware.

The gifts that the strangers bring are gloriously inappropriate, extravagant and unexpected. The message carried in the gifts is no less a surprise - that this baby will be honoured as king and God and that his death is foreshadowed even in his birth.

The magi came, they brought their gifts, they followed their star and then returned another way avoiding Herod and perhaps delaying his response to the birth of a son to Mary and Joseph, ordinary folk blessed by God in God's complicated way.

The magi left, the family fled - I wonder what happened to the gold and the frankincense?

The myrrh could have been used many times over in the aftermath of that visit. As Herod's troops massacred the children, breaking their fragile, precious bodies, finding in their innocence a threat to grasped, snatched power. There were many small bodies to be anointed, many fathers and mothers left in despair, many children left alone as their young siblings died. The myrrh was useful all too soon, the gold and frankincense would have to wait their turn.

Epiphany, like Christmas, is a time when we can meet with God in our encounter with the baby whose birth brought joy, angel songs and extravagant gifts along with homelessness, flight and the slaughter of children.

In all these things God is with us.
This is a great mystery.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Christmas Eve 2017

It was on this night on the hills outside Bethlehem that shepherds were watching. They were wakeful when others slept. They were counting not to hold accountable but to make sure all were safe. They sat and told stories to one another, united by a common task and a need for warmth and companionship. This is how it was every night.

 Then,  suddenly predictable became unpredictable, ancient promise became present hope and in the darkness of the night the shepherds saw the light of the glory of God:
an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace, goodwill among all people! (Luke 2:9-14)

Good news; Great joy; Peace on earth. What a promise!

A promise for all people, heard that night by those who were held in little regard, little noticed. Heard by those who cared for the sheep night and day; those who would leave the 99 to seek the lost – the shepherd’s who lived and worked on the slopes outside Bethlehem, occupied land then, as now.
Tonight we hear again that promise of good news, great joy and peace on earth.

Can we believe it?  Can we believe it over 2000 years later? Has it been fulfilled or are we still waiting?

Can we believe the promise when North Korea has become increasingly provocative, the rhetoric of Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump is inflammatory and personal and the a threat of nuclear war seems more real than for many years?

Can we believe the promise when Jerusalem is a city of tension and conflict and the little town of Bethlehem is in occupied territory, loomed over and fenced in by a wall of concrete; just one example in a world where walls of separation are being built because we dare not listen to one another, to hear each other’s stories being told?

Can we believe the promise when storm Tembin has devastated communities in the Philippines where  hundreds have died and 70,000 have been displaced from homes which have been flooded or buried under the mud?

Can we believe the promise when, across the world people are fleeing from persecution, economic hardship and despair and finding no room in the inn?

And can we believe the promise when in our own community many suffer from food poverty? Some of you may have read the series in the Northern Echo this last week with reports of those who are living on £1 per week for food, reports of the inequality of provision across our region and the stark fact that in areas of County Durham where Universal Credit has been rolled out, there has been a 40 per cent rise in food bank use. Just think what that means for individuals.

Globally, nationally and for many individuals- for many reasons – the message of good news, great joy and peace on earth may seem far fetched. A delightful fairy story to take our minds off reality but no more than that.
And yet...
And yet we know it is true.

The watching, waiting shepherds heard the news and hurried to Bethlehem to see a child, a baby wrapped in cloths against the cold, feeding at the breast of his young mother, watched over by his father. An extraordinary, ordinary child born among us, to be with us and with us to change the world. 

And if we can hear the song of the angels; if we can go to Bethlehem and see the child; if we can welcome him among us, then in all the darkness, conflict and struggles of the world we will know that he is with us, that God is with us. Then we know the story is not a fairy tale to be taken out and wondered at once each year. This story is the beat of our hearts, the reason for being and the source of peace and joy. When we know God with us, then and only then, we can begin to know and be with one another; then and only then will we know peace and hope and joy even in the deepest darkness.

The baby wrapped in swaddling bands grew up and became a man who changed the world. The man was wrapped in swaddling bands again after he had been crucified and died, the swaddling bands that enfolded him and kept him under wraps. But the swaddling bands were broken and restored new life burst from them on Easter Day. Love had won the day, light had overcome darkness and true peace was offered to all the world.

So gaze on the child tonight, hear again the angels’ song and know that it is true – that amazing story of God with us yesterday, today and forever. Know that God will release us from the swaddling bands of our time, from the swaddling bands of time. That the travails we feel are those of the womb before birth and new life.

You might like to read the poem, written by Malcolm Guite which has partly inspired the reflection for today. You can find it here

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

More than crunchy jellyfish

Many of the facebook posts that I have published during the Conference of the World Federation of Chinese Methodist Churches have been about food or have been pictures of groups sharing meals together. The food has been wonderful and sometimes very interesting. Jellyfish was surprisingly crunchy, the whole roast pig was dramatic, crayfish balls were delicious, eating whole king size prawns with chopsticks was challenging.

Talking with Revd Lawrence Law(UK), Revd Boh Che Suan (Former President of MC in Malaysia) & his wife
The fellowship around the table has been important and stimulating. I have talked with delegates from Malaysia. Sarawak, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, America, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong.
With Dr Raymond Chung-I Chen, General Secretary of the 7th Mission Conference & Revd Lawrence Law
 Many of those conversations have been about mission, the theme of the conference. I have learned a lot and shared a lot. I have networked and made good contacts. I have been warmly and generously received, standing out as one of very few (I think only 2) who were clearly not Chinese and could not speak or understand Mandarin. I have written pages of notes which need to be written up, thought through and then shared as appropriate.

Bible Study, Monday
Every morning began at 8.15 with worship and a bible study. The bible studies were excellent and thought provoking and I especially enjoyed the one on the final day. I would love to be able to give you the names of the speakers but they are written in Mandarin on the programme and Google Translate is not at all helpful with names (Wan enrich Pastor and Bell Blog state professor don't make any sense!) I will try to find out but it will take time.

Following the Bible study and group discussion there was a tea break at 9.45. Friends, this was not tea, coffee and biscuits. This was a selection of hot and cold drinks and a wide and bountiful selection of pastries, fish balls and other delicious chinese food, it was a veritable feast - abundant generosity and generous hospitality.

The second session on each morning was the key note address. These three addresses were given by a Malaysian Professor of theology and his themes were:
  • Re-examining the holistic gospel
  • The clash of civilizations
  • The rise of China and its significance for the world mission of Chinese Christians
With Dorothy one of the translators
Our translators were Cantonese speakers translating from mandarin to English, they were excellent but the key note addresses were particularly difficult. The speaker was clearly superb, he also used quite a lot of humour much of which involved puns on Mandarin words and other Chinese dialects, translation was often impossible. I have a good idea of the content of the first lecture, absolutely no idea of the content of the second and my understanding of the third was hindered by my lack of knowledge of Chinese history.

We discovered on the cultural evening that the key note speaker also had a superb singing voice and he introduced the second and third lectures with song. It was wonderful to be able to join in on the third occasion as we sang, in English, "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?"

We had lunch in different places. On the first day we spent the first hour of the lunch break in prayer for those working as mission partners and then went for a "light lunch" of sandwiches, fruit, pastries, and ice creams. This was served in the Methodist college, opposite Kowloon Methodist Church where we were meeting for conference sessions. On the second and third days (excluding Sunday) we divided into two groups, each group having a Chinese buffet one day and Dim Sum on the other.

On both Friday and Saturday afternoon we attended two workshops having chosen from an extensive list. I chose from those that had English translation available or were given in English:
  • How Chinese Methodist churches see homosexuality
  • The role of proclamation in mission
  • How Methodists see individual piety and social justice
  • Ministry among migrant workers (Indonesian and Filipino)
Dinner was served in a number of different venues and was always sumptuous and then, in the evening on Saturday and Sunday we heard reports from the different areas represented in the conference and from the various sub-committees. On Thursday evening the welcome dinner was in the context of a cultural evening, each area giving a performance. The performances included a traditional dragon dance, three operatic performances and a variety of other songs and dances.
Dancing by delegates from Taiwan

Some of the delegates from the UK, they sang for us.
Cantonese Opera

 On Sunday we went to different churches to worship. I went to the Methodist International Church where the senior pastor is Revd Eden Fletcher, he was stationed in Newcastle until recently. I will blog separately about the service. After lunch in the church I joined a city tour which was interesting as there was no translation! Fortunately I sat next to one of the other delegates from the UK and she was able to translate for me when I really needed to hear something. Here are some pictures from the tour:
View from the Peak
View from the Peak


The closing service
On Monday afternoon there were no workshops but we heard more about mission ventures by the Chinese churches. We then went to a fairly local restaurant for dinner and walked back to the church through a torrential sub-tropical downpour, I was soaked to the skin (literally), the umbrella had no chance! The conference then ended with a revival meeting and closing service.The President of the Methodist Church in Hong Kong preached, there was beautiful singing and prayer and a sending out and rededication after we shared communion. We left at 11.15pm and were given gifts of holding crosses and ice cream as we left.

The holding cross, engraved with Chinese characters for faith, hope and love

This has been a rich and varied experience. I am privileged to be here, I have talked with many people, prayed with many people and have a deeper understanding of aspects of Chinese culture.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Be upstanding for Mr Wesley

I have never been in an act of worship in the UK which included the congregation standing and reading words written by John Wesley before two minutes of silent prayer. I don't think I would ever have thought of doing it but this was the conclusion of the morning Bible Study and worship at the conference in Hong Kong. I found it very moving.
Standing to read a passagefrom John Wesley's "Advice to a people called Methodist"
On the previous evening, over 750 delegates gathered in Kowloon Methodist Church for the opening ceremony of the conference of the World Federation of Chinese Methodist Churches. We had eaten together, sharing a chinese barbecue including roast pok, duck, goose and chicken and then went into the church to worship.

The singing was beautiful, led by a robed choir and including some hynms I knew well and others that were completely new to me. The final hymn was sung to the tune of "The Ash Grove" the Welsh folk tune seeming entirely appropriate as a recessional hymn.

The sermon was preached by a Bishop from Thailand, the text was Acts 2:37-47 and again the references to Mr Wesley abounded. I reflected on the co-incidence or God-incidence of the text being that chosen by the President and Vice-President of the British Conference for their focus this year. As he preached about holistic mission the Bishop asked us,"If John Wesley were here today what would he say?"

I wonder if we would benefit from more attention to Mr Wesley?

We celebrated communion togetherand finally covenanted to learn, share and watch over one another as we actively participated in the conference.

The second day began at 8.15 with worship and Bible Study and included the first of 3 key note addresses on the theme (Holistic Mission), two workshops and an hour of prayer for those sent out on mission. In between I had lots of conversations with people from Malaysia, Singapore, USA, Australia and Taiwan. It was a packed programme before we were taken by coach to a celebration banquet and cultural evening which will be the subject of another blog.

For those who are interested in doctrine and liturgy:

We used a new version of he Nicene Creed in our worship. It has been produced to respond to some of the difficulties of translation into Chinese, going back to the original Greek text rather than a translation from English. The intention was also to produce a version that could be said by all Christians.

Some of you, like me, may have an immediate question - "What about the filioque clause?"
They have simply omitted it.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Hong Kong, a place of contrast - Tai O and Temple Market

 Tai O is a village on the west coast of Lantau Island, Hong Kong. It is relatively remote and is the home of the Tanka boat people. Fishing is the main occupation of the people in Tai O although now the village is also very popular with visitors, fascinated by this traditional way of life. The tourism provides welcme additional income.

I was taken to visit Tai O by Fu Ho, a good friend who was one of the lay workers in the Chinese Methodist churches in the Darlington and Newcastle Ditricts. Tai O has been home in Hong Kong for the last 3 years but has maintained friendships with people in Middlesbrough and it was very good to see him again. I doubt I would have ventured on the trip to Tai O without a guide.
With Fu Ho on the boat at Tai O

we walked into the village past stalls selling dried fish, puffer fish, star fish, shark, sea snails and many other varieties. We ate crayfish balls from a street stall and later some tofu desert.
 A speciality of the village is shrimp paste, often served in a wrap with green vegetables and minced pork. I simply didn't have enough room to try one after the fish balls and a late lunch.

 Houses in the village are built over the water on stilts - it is sometimes known as the Venice of Hong Kong. We took a boat ride up the waterway and then out into the bay in search of the Chinese pink dolphins, but they didn't come out to play with us. I always love a boat ride and this one was especially good in a small baot with only 4 passengers and a wonderful cooling wind.

Bamboo scaffolding is used for building in Hong Kong and it was being erected in the centre of Tai O. There were also flags going up, apparently for a forthcoming festival.

we returned to Kowloon from Tai O, driving back along the beautiful coastline which gave way to the phenomenal high rise buildings and lights of the city.

Back in Kowloon we met up with Joann, another of the former lay workers in the north east of England. We walked through Temple Market, a night market bustling with tourists and offering a huge variety of goods for sale - a real contrast with the traditional market in Tai O.
Looking back to the entranceto Temple Street

In the market

After a traditional Cantonese meal in which I was introduced to oyster omelette and duck fish I returned to the hotel, said goodbye to my friends until tomorrow and slept for 10 hours in the air conditioned room that is my home for the next week.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Peace in the City

I am in Hong Kong for a conference of the World Federation of Chinese Methodist Churches. The conference begins tonorrow so today has been a day to meet with friends and to explore.

Hong Kong is a busy, crowded, modern city. There is much to see and do but I was intrigued by the description in the guide book of a garden and a nunnery so I bought my Octopus Card, and set out on the MTR (tube) to Diamond Hill station. I had read about a peaceful garden and so I was very surprised to come out of the station onto a very busy interchange with traffic moving in may directions and at many levels. How could there possibly be peace here?

Nan Lian Garden is built in the Tang style, a modern representation of the timber structures and gardens of the Tang dynasty. The garden was designed and built by Chi Lin and opened in 2006. In a limited space the garden contains miniature versions of beautiful natural scenes. There is bird song, music and traffic noise, skyscrapers framed by foliage and temples, waterfalls and tranquil pools.

Visitors are asked to follow a prescribed route around the garden and it was a route full of surprises and unexpected delights. This truly is peace in the city, you are not taken out of the city which is very visibly and audibly the context for the garden. You are taken deep into the sights and sounds of the garden which complement and enrich those of the surrounding streets. Garden and city are as one and this felt like a peaceful heart of both.

The Pavilion Bridge - Nan Lian Garden

Whaer wheel - Nan Lian Garden

Leaving the garden
Next door to Nan Lian Garden is Chi Lin Nunnery, a Buddhist complex originally founded in the 1930s and rebuilt of wood in the 1930s in the Tang Dynasty style. The wood is joined without any nails and the structures represent the harmony of humans with creation. This is a living place of worship and when you enter the Hall of Celestial Kings and the Main Hall you are surrounded by others who are praying at the shrines. It is very evidently a place of prayer and of tranquility in the city. The noise of the traffic is complemented and transfoemed by the chanting of the Buddhists in the Main Hall.

It is (quite naturally) forbidden to take photographs in the Main Hall and Hall of Celestial Kings but these photographs give some idea of this place of peace in the city.

Monday, 19 June 2017

What next Lord? - Lament 2017

What next Lord?
How many more victims?
    Victims of terror
    Victims of neglect
    Victims of greed
    Victims of violence

What next Lord?
How many more grieving?
    Crying children
    Searching parents
    Devastated communities
    Broken bodies

What next Lord?
   Where can we go to hide?
   Where has safety gone?
   Where are the restful waters?
   Where are the quiet havens?

What next Lord?
Lord it is too much already.
    We are tired and numbed
    We cannot give much more
    Even the source of our tears runs dry

What next Lord?

Child, look next to me.
    Drink from my deep wells of compassion
    Bathe wounds with my waters
    Weep with my tears
    Wait in my garden
    Mourn at my tomb
    Look to the dawn.