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

Stanley
Stanley

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.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Taking Joseph's bones - a sermon at Newbiggin Chapel

On Wesley Day 2017 the Methodist Society at Newbiggin Chapel held their final act of worship in the building reputed to be the oldest Methodist chapel in continuous use.

This is the sermon I preached on that occasion:



Prayer:
At this time Lord,
In this place
May your spirit move among us
That we will be warmed by your love
And open our hearts and minds to you.
And now,
May the words of my mouth
And the meditations of our hearts
Be acceptable in your sight
Loving Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
Amen.

“The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph…”

It was Joseph of the coat of many colours who had brought his whole family into Egypt when he became a senior member of the government there. You may remember the story – how he was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers but rose from being a prisoner to being the man in charge of the grain stores in a time of famine.

 Joseph was a foreigner in the land, his family joined him there as refugees from famine, but after his death and a change of government the situation of the Hebrew people changed and they were made slaves. Eventually they were led out of slavery to freedom by Moses. On the night of the exodus, the night they left Egypt, they took with them the embalmed body of Joseph.

Why did they take Joseph’s bones?

You may, by now be asking, Why is she talking about this ‘out of the way’ text from the Old Testament?
Why focus on this text on this occasion, in this place?
I hope that as we answer the first questions the answer to the second will become very clear.

Evidently, the body of Joseph was important to Moses and the people.
In all the rush of that escape from Egypt; the haste of cooking unleavened bread, the desire for speed as they were bound to be chased by the Egyptian army, the uncertainty of their future and the direction they were to take - in the midst of all this, they obtained and carried with them Joseph’s bones. Those bones must have been special because they certainly were an encumbrance.

And they were special.
They were special because they reminded the people of their inheritance. They reminded them who they were and where they had come from.

Now, I expect there were other things that Moses and the Hebrew people would have liked to take with them when they left Egypt. One strand of the account in Exodus tells us that they were driven out of Egypt and could not take any provisions with them – but they took Joseph’s bones.

When the monks fled from Holy Island in fear of the Vikings, they left in a hurry but they took with them the body of St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels. They took them and they carried them all over the north of England before finally settling, 150 years later, in Durham. They took them because they were important symbols of the identity of that group of monks: the body of the abbot who had inspired them and brought peace and healing to their community and the scriptures on which they based their whole lives.

For many people this church building has been a place of peace, a place of beauty, a place of prayer. It has been the place where people have been baptized, married and where funeral services have been held. It has important links to the history of Methodism in Teesdale and has received visitors from all over the UK and all over the world.

A society of Methodist people has met here and worshipped here for over 250 years. But now, the time has come to move on and questions we might ask are: what should we take with us? What is our equivalent of Joseph’s bones?

Some of you may already have noticed that a direct answer to our question about Joseph’s bones is given in the passage we heard read from Exodus.
Moses took the bones because, on his death bed, Joseph had required a solemn oath from his descendants that when they left Egypt, they would take his embalmed body with them. Moses is being true to a solemn oath that had been made by his ancestors.

We might ask why was it so important to Joseph that his bones were taken with the people when they came to leave Egypt. And why, in any case, did he expect that they would move on from the country where he had become an honoured citizen and his people were welcome members of the community?

Listen to the account of Joseph’s death as it is written in the very last verses of Genesis:
24 Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am about to die; but God will surely come to you, and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.’ 25So Joseph made the Israelites swear, saying, ‘When God comes to you, you shall carry up my bones from here.’ 26And Joseph died, being one hundred and ten years old; he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.

Joseph is looking back and looking forward. As he looks back he remembers the promise God made to Abraham, a promise of land. History had shown that God was true to his promises, that had been so in the life of Joseph and of his ancestors and now Joseph is certain that God’s promise of land will be fulfilled. For Joseph, Egypt was a temporary dwelling place, it was a place where he had, ultimately, known good fortune, but it was not the final destination. His last words are words of hope for the future.

The Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, calls it hope for an exile-ending-intrusion of God in history. Joseph is sure that there will be a new beginning for the people, that God will be true to the promises made and they will go on to their proper destination. When Moses takes the bones of Joseph with him, it is an act of faith and trust, trust that God’s promises will not fail and that God will be with them.

So Joseph’s bones are a symbol of God’s faithfulness in the past, God’s presence now and of hope for the future. Much the same could be said of the body of Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne gospels, which together spoke of God’s faithfulness in the past, enduring presence and hope for the future.

This evening we look back with great thankfulness to God’s faithfulness in the past. When Mr Wesley came to Teesdale he found that his travelling preachers were already at work here. Jacob Rowell, Matthew Lowes and Christopher Hopper were among those who signed the indenture for the purchase of the land on which this chapel was built. Here, there was a thriving lead mining community and people open to hearing the gospel and responding to it.  The decision to build this meeting house was an act of faith and a commitment to serve the needs of that time in this place. It was a good decision, the society thrived and Mr Wesley preached here or nearby on a number of occasions.

From here the gospel was preached and people were brought to Christ.

John Wesley wrote:
“You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work. And go not only to those that need you, but to those that need you most. It is not your business to preach so many times, and to take care of this or that society; but to save as many souls as you can; to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance.”

By building a chapel here those ancestors of ours were going to those who needed them most and were being spent in the work of saving souls.

In more recent times we can give thanks for the faithful friends who have continued to strive for a vision of this place as a centre of worship, a place of pilgrimage, and a community and visitor resource. You have done well, you have been faithful and this place has served its purpose on the way to the final destination.

When the Hebrew people left Egypt they were promised that God would go before them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God would guide them to their final destination.

For the Celtic Christian monks travelling around the north of England, the presence of the Lindisfarne Gospels was a sure reminder that God was present with them. They did not know where they were going but they knew that God was always with them.

Earlier this evening we heard the words of the great commission from the end of Matthew’s gospel.  In Jesus, we see the ultimate exile-ending- intrusion of God in history. Those who had been separated from God were brought close again and Jesus promised, “I will be with you always.”

We can be sure that the risen Christ is always with us and his presence is not linked to any particular place or time, God cannot be confined by walls of stone or brick. God continually breaks out with resurrection power. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

As we sing our final hymn this evening, the doors of the chapel will be thrown open and, after the blessing we will leave without delay certain that God goes with us, and in that is our confidence and strength.

This is not the end of the story, this is a new beginning. This is another exile-ending-intrusion of God. This is full of promise and hope, this is exciting!

Joseph and the Hebrew people could not remain in Egypt, it had become a place of slavery and they were called elsewhere.

The community in which this chapel is set has changed and this is no longer a place of growth and hope and promise. The miners are long gone, there are few people here and they do not look to this place and what it offers for sustenance. It is still a beautiful setting but now people want to travel here by car and not on foot and the roads are simply not adequate for that.

Jesus said, “Go therefore making disciples of all, baptizing them and teaching them” That is our calling and this is no longer the right place to be a focus of that calling. To remain here now would be to make this place the centre of all that we do and are. We are followers of Jesus and Christ must be the centre. To remain here now would be unfaithful to those who have gone before us and engaged in mission among the miners and others in this part of Teesdale.

Mr Wesley wrote these words in his notes on the Bible and in relation to the passage we have read this evening from the book of Exodus:

They need not fear missing their way who were thus led, nor being lost who were thus directed; they need not fear being benighted, who were thus illuminated, nor being robbed, who were thus protected. And they who make the glory of God their end, and the word of God their rule, the spirit of God the guide of their affections, and the providence of God the guide of their affairs, may be confident that the Lord goes before them, as truly as he went before Israel in the wilderness
(Wesley J Notes 13:21)

It is time to move on from this place and we take Joseph’s bones with us. We take with us the commission of Jesus that was the reason for establishing a chapel here in 1759. We take with us the certainty that God is with us wherever we go, and we take with us the hope of making disciples of all and the hope of new life in Christ.

We go without fear of missing our way, we make the glory of God our end and we are confident that God goes before us.

The best of all is God is with us!

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Starting at the beginning

When I was deciding what Biblical text to read and study during Lent I realised that I wanted to go back to the beginning. Not the beginning of the Bible (wherever that is), not the beginning of the Christian story, not the beginning of my life or of my Christian faith, but the beginning of my love of theology. I am going back to the text which excited me as an A level student, which challenged me intellectually and also strengthened my faith.

I was doing A level religious studies because I was neither enjoying nor progressing well in A level maths. I took the wise decision to drop maths and then needed a third A level subject. I was studying English and history, I didn't like geography (then), didn't want to do biology and was not a linguist - so I fell into religious studies. I wasn't expecting to fall in love with a subject I had dropped before O Level.
The A level syllabus was the whole bible! There were some specific set texts including the Epistles to the Thessalonians and Corinthians. One of our teachers, Mr Gilmore, decided that we should study another epistle in depth - the epistle to the Romans. Mr Gilmore said that if we understood Romans we would understand the other Pauline epistles, so we were introduced to Romans and I fell in love with theology. I was really enthusiastic. I spent time after the lessons asking questions and discussing the text with Mr Gilmore. One day when I had sought him out in the staff room, he gave me a book (possibly to stop me haunting him!). The book was "Paul" by Martin Dibelius and W G Kummel and I read it with great enthusiasm.

I still have that book (as you see in the photograph). It is old and outdated. "L. Gilmore" is written inside and he bought it second-hand for 2/6 before passing it on to me. I am grateful to him because he set me on a path that I have never regretted.

This morning I read Romans 1:1-7 and studied the verses with the help of commentaries, I went back to the beginning.

"Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God..." Called and set apart for a particular work, called to proclaim "Jesus Christ our Lord". This is a calling to bring others to faith, a calling in which we all share. We are called to belong to Jesus Christ.

During Lent I will continue to read Romans and occasionally share some thoughts in this blog. Today I begin at the beginning.

"Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." (Romans 1:7)