The Extraordinary

This last weekend, Victoria Methodist Church filled up with a quite extraordinary collection of artworks. They are for the most part wood carvings by David Moore, inspired by biblical stories, and by the late Santiago Bell, whose work expresses something of his experience as a political prosoner in Pinochet’s Chile.

Pride of place in this Bible Month across the Methodist Connexion, goes to this wonderful and playful telling of the story of Jonah. Have you ever imagined what it looked like when the big fish vomited the disobedient prophet back onto dry land?

And is there a better reminder of the contrast between our narrow-minded and tight-fisted resentment and anger at hated ‘others’, and the open hearted and open handed generosity of God? You can see the full exhibition every weekday between 12-2pm, Saturdays 10am-2pm and around worship on Sundays (BS8 1NU).

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Practising the Presence

“As far as I can see, a labyrinth is a complex maze-like path,” explained Kenneth, who had been doing his research. “Furthermore, if you are suggesting that it’s like the journey of life, then it would need dead ends and bifurcations.” Of course, he is right. Yet the labyrinth which is now on the floor at Victoria Methodist Church provides an opportunity of practicing the presence of the God who is always with us, indeed ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’.

So, call in to the church. For the next 4 weeks we’re open Monday through Saturday 12-2pm, 5-7pm Wednesday evenings, and – of course – on Sundays around worship. And if you’re wondering what those amazing paintings are behind, the church is full of artwork, including 4 works from the Methodist Modern Art Collection. The whole exhibition is entitled ‘Identity as Resistance’ and includes work by an Iraqi refugee, an Egytian photographer and local schools.

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A Bristol Pilgrimage

One journey begins where another one ends. So it proved true for John and Charles Wesley. They returned in early 1738 from two years in America with their tails between their legs; having failed in evangelism, pastoral care and – in John’s case – in love. Yet this prepared their hearts to receive the deeper assurance of God’s love which they both lacked; John felt his heart ‘strangely warmed’ just a few months later in May. Yet it wasn’t until they accepted their friend George Whitefield’s invitation to come to Bristol that the Methodist movement really took off. For there, much against their natural inclinations, first John, and then Charles, began to preach outdoors, most famously at Hanham Mount.

Reflecting upon today’s walk my mind turned to the Book of Ruth. Ruth’s journey begins where her mother-in-law Naomi’s ends; in Moab, far from home for Naomi, where she had been triply bereaved. As for the Wesley brothers, out of this dead end, God’s love effects a new beginning; manifested through the steadfast love of Ruth who determines to leave her home and accompany Naomi back to Israel. 

“Where you go I will go; and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God will be my God.” (Ruth 1v16)

Hanham Mount lies some 4 miles East of Bristol city centre, and having tried out the pulpit for size we set off down Tabernacle Road (yes, it’s a bit like that in East Bristol), down Conham Vale, to pick up the path alongside the River Avon.

It was a brightening January day and we made good time, finding our way to Wesley’s New Room, nowadays in the heart of the city’s shopping quarter. With  ‘the Lord adding daily to those who were being saved’, Wesley needed a base for the growing work. The New Room was a preaching house and a place for two Methodist Societies to meet, but also a health clinic, a base for prison visiting, education and a food bank. Today, it was a place of refreshment in the beautiful new cafe.

Naomi and Ruth too found a welcome back in Israel. Through a mixture of hard work on Ruth’s part – gleaning around the fields after the harvesters – and God’s provision, they find support from Boaz, a wealthy relative of Naomi’s. Yet it took an act of courage and daring on Ruth’s part to secure their future.

From the New Room the second half of our day pilgrimage lay out along Bristol’s picturesque waterfront, under the soaring suspension bridge and most of the length of the Avon Gorge.

It took daring and courage to turn Methodism from a dimension of the evangelical revival in Britain into a world missionary movement. And it was from the quayside at Pill, 8 miles from Bristol, that many Methodist preachers set off; most famously Francis Asbury in 1771, and Thomas Coke in 1784. Ruth’s courage and steadfast love found a place within God’s saving purposes for Israel. For the story ends with the birth of a son to Ruth and Boaz, a grandson to the bitterly bereaved Naomi; none other than the great King David’s grandfather. 

The light was fading as we ended our journey. The walk was a trial for a day pilgrimare in the Summer. So watch this space.

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The New Man? 

This was the edition of the New Internationalist which changed my life. I read it in a time of emotional turmoil  and identity crisis in the midst of two years in Nigeria doing VSO. It all came flooding back to me as I read Grayson Perry’s ‘The descent of man’.

My oldest daughter Annie had included it on ‘Dad’s reading list’, before she returned to Uni. Then who should I find exhibiting in Bristol’s Arnofini Gallery, but Grayson Perry? It’s an amazing collection of tapestry, pottery, drawing and sculpture which explore the issue of masculinity together with his sharp and funny observations of contemporary British life. Go see it,  if you can; it’s on until Christmas. 

I found myself talking about it with two long-standing male friends I’ve had since school. We meet up every now and then for a walk. We just about manage to give each other a hug nowadays. As I came home on the train, two total strangers struck up an animated conversation in the seats behind (women), whilst I and my fellow passenger stared solidly at our ‘phone and book respectively. It made me smile, and I vowed to make more effort to sustain real male friendships.

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A Tale of Two Cities

A community buzzing with life, creativity, community… a church mostly closed and unconnected with the world around it? That at least is my impression, formed after just a few weeks as minister at Parkway Methodist Church situated in St.Werburgh’s, here in Bristol. Yet today the two cities, the two worlds,  have wonderfully overlapped. It is the weekend of the 12th St.Werburgh’s Art Trail. Local artists exhibiting work across a range of venues; community centre, pub, city farm, studios, homes, a railway tunnel and.. the Methodist Church.

Biddy and I arrived at the church to find the place humming with people, but on this occasion all people not usually found in the church! Alleluia! But how to bridge the gap? Maybe next year we serve the teas and coffees, be around to welcome, offer some hands-on crafty activity… 

Well, with the sun shining and our Arts Trail map clutched in our hands, we set off to explore some other venues whilst their doors were open too. I’d noticed the new Islamic Cultural Centre as I cycled by earlier in the week and, with the door open, I popped my head in and introduced myself. Before long I was exchanging contact details with the Centre manager, and we left with our evening meal in our rucksack.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We headed up to the City Farm, underneath the tunnel where graffiti artists were at work, past sheep in a fold and sunflowers leaning over the fence, and into ‘The Farm’. This is a pub, with adjoining coffee shop, today full of people of all ages enjoying some live music.

A community which in so many ways is living and celebrating the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus, yet without acknowledging the King. Possibly a community which feels the church to be at best an irrelevance and at worst part of the problem.  A church which at best is tolerant of the alternative, lefty community around it, and at worst is suspicious of it. How to bridge the gap?   

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Opening a Door of Faith

This has been our prayer as we have made this pilgrimage; that it might be part of ‘opening a door of faith’ (Acts 14v27) for the people of Caia Park and for those at HMP Berwyn.  And what did it take in the case of Paul and Barnabus’ mission? A costly ‘setting apart’ on the part of the church, an openness on the part of the recipients of the gospel, a message confirmed by ‘signs and wonders’ (Acts 14v3), a willingness to suffer hardships for the kingdom (Acts 14v22), and – above all – the grace of God (Acts 14v26).

We began where we left off – with prayers by the River Dee. Then, crossing over the historic bridge, 13 pilgrims made our way across farmland towards, around the periphery and finally to the front gate of HMP Berwyn. There we set up camp in the middle of the roundabout.

The prison is still being built, but we listened to Lynne’s experience of having shared in worship there. She described just how grateful the men were for the presence of ‘ordinary’ people, how humbled she’d been made to feel, and how moved she was by the testimony and prayer of one young man.

There remained only two rather difficult miles – nettle beds, overgrown paths and single file tractor tracks through cornfields – and then we popped out right by St Mark’s. It is surprising how close, and yet how ‘hidden’, the industrial estate and prison are to this side of the town. We were met not just with tea and cakes, but with a cheer! We prayed God’s blessing on the congregation and ministries now flowing from the church; a food bank and holiday feeding scheme, children’s work, prayer and Prison Fellowship meetings. Our numbers swelled by others, Jonathan then led us down to pray and sing first in the middle of Kingsley Circle, and then opposite St Anne’s.


Let me finish this short blog with the words of a prayer written on the North Wales Pilgrim Way, in honour of that great missionary saint, St Beuno:

O God, who gave to your servant Beuno a passion to root the gospel in North Wales, and blessed him with gifts of vision, strength and courage; grant, we pray, a like spirit to your church even at this present time. May we ever grow in unity and trust, one for another, and if it be your will, grant that a fresh outpouring of your Spirit may make our churches colonies of heaven, whose leavening of earth is the vision you have set before us, through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

 

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Pilgrims Together

It was the morning after election day. Whether locally or nationally, some of us were disappointed with the results, others delighted. Yet, for all our political as well of our church differences, we would walk together. One of the things we could all agree upon is how good it was that the turn-out was up (nearly 70% in Wrexham), especially among young people.

Our turn-out was also up – we were 20 pilgrims – with a group of young adults from YWAM. We sang ‘There is a redeemer’ as Tesco customers and bus travellers wandered past, and then we were off.

The route took us out onto the canal and up to the staircase of locks at Grindley Brook, cutting away West and following Wych Brook which constitutes the border between England and Wales. Some of us had walked the route in the opposite direction 3-4 years ago on the Wrexham Pilgrimage.

“Why pilgrimage?” I was asked. “For a start it gets church out of the building, which has got to be good. Then it enables people with differences to walk together which leads them to work better together. In the way I have sought to express pilgrimage, it has made us attentive to the stories of the places through which we walk, or where we live. And I really do believe that we have a special blessing to give as pilgrims.”

We were a weary, strung out group of pilgrims that arrived later than planned at the Methodist Chapel at Tallarn Green. And – God bless them – the good folk of the chapel refreshed us with tea and cake. Little more than 30 minutes later, having shared in a brief time of prayer with them, we were off again; 7 by car and 13 on foot. Looking back at the table, it looked as if an army of locusts had come – and gone. The story today related how ‘the women of high standing and the leading men’ turned against Paul and Barnabus (Acts 13v49). I wonder why?  We are not told, but I rather suspect it may had something to do with the realisation that this ‘good news’ about Jesus might not be such good news for those who wanted ‘business as usual’.
We made such good progress over the last 5 miles that there was time for a drink by the riverside in Bangor-on-Dee before catching the bus back to Wrexham. And how good was that!

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