How are your New Year's resolutions doing? What!? I hear you asking! Have the good intentions for positive life change considered at the turn of the year been pursued and fulfilled, or long since sunk guiltily beneath the chill waves of life and reality? Now is not a bad time to ask the question, particularly as the shocking realisation sinks in that a third of the New Year has already passed. Have things changed for the better by our intentions and actions? Yes, surely, in so many ways lots will have been achieved in the last four months: at work at home with friends and family, in our projects and interests. Perhaps also the lighter, kindlier, more generous, less selfish, addiction-free you might be the living proof of good intentions put into action.
A Bible verse in the book of Proverbs, says ‘As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another’. When we meet together, we are able to strengthen each other’s faith.
My own exploration of faith began by learning from others at my secondary school’s Christian Union. While I lived in various places through college years and work, different churches were my source of spiritual nourishment. I have also been able to study alongside others for a few months at a time on Christian residential training courses, and these have been some of the most enriching times of my spiritual journey. Over the years, faithful friends have been there for me, prayed for me and have demonstrated and explained how faith can be lived out.
Without that fellowship with others, our spiritual glow seems to weaken like the glow of a coal that goes out when it is taken out of the fire. The most obvious setting for meeting together is at Sunday services where we worship God together, hear Bible teaching and enjoy fellowship with one another. There are, however, also ways of supplementing this through the week. There may be a Christian group you can attend in your place of work, school or college. In our area, young people can get together at the Diversity group events. There are activities run by the churches for the younger children. Mid-week groups for adults also form a valuable asset to church life.
It is still dark when I get up at this time of year and I walk the bus with the stars still shining (a rarity, I do admit, at the moment) and join the company of travellers: going to work, to college and to school. We sit in much the same seats earch morning with our iPods or other devices, staring straight ahead, uncommunicative, lost in our own little musical worlds. One man, who is always sitting sideways at the front conducts to the music he hears. Who knows what each is listening to? As it is Winter, the windows in the bus are all opaque with condensation and, although we trust the driver to get us to our destination and we all know what we have paid for, we can't see where we are going or what is happenlllg around us. Content to trust to others, we sit, nod (or conduct) in a Cloud of Unknowing until someone can bear it no longer and wipes a little of the window next to him / her. There IS something beyond our existence!
Some people think we miss out on life, tucked away in rural Gloucestershire. The action is elsewhere: London, Manchester, New York or Shanghai. The Christian Gospels give us reason to think otherwise. They tell the story of the most significant human life ever. Jesus was born in a small territory on the periphery of the Roman Empire. He grew up in a small town and had little contact with the great and good of his day. Yet his words and deeds have been pivotal to world history for centuries after.
Many of the other people we meet in the Gospels are ordinary folk like us, who find themselves able to play a part in God's amazing plan of salvation. The opening chapters of Luke's Gospel are full of such references. Village people discover that God has chosen them to be part of the greatest faith adventure: the birth of the Messiah. As Mary's song of praise to God puts it:
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”
Howard and I were fellow Brits far from ‘home’ in central Saskatchewan. But Howard was no newcomer to Canada. He had spent 10 years in the far north of Baffin Island in the 1960s and 70s, as rector of an Inuit (‘Eskimo’ in old terminology) congregation. I was impressed by Howard’s readiness to serve God in such a remote place with such a forbidding climate. But Howard told me about a more remarkable character, Archibald Fleming, also known as Archibald of the Arctic.
Archibald felt called by God to serve as a missionary to the Inuit people in the Canadian Arctic. And around the time of the First World War, he went to Baffin Island. After four years there he had a spell of ministry elsewhere in Canada. Then he returned to the Arctic, and in 1933 he became the first bishop of the newly created Diocese of the Arctic.
The British abroad in times past had a reputation for taking as many of the comforts of the old country as they could with them. Archibald was not that kind of ex-pat. At a time when many bishops in England gave themselves to mingling with the great and the good, Archibald Fleming devoted his days to visiting the ordinary Inuit people and sharing their lives. He dressed as they did. He ate their food and slept with them in the traditional igloos. His willingness to come to them in humble service made a big impression on the local people. They loved him and saw him not as a white foreigner, but one of their own.
Jesus said that being his disciple is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom treasures new as well as old (Matthew 13:52). Jesus is alluding to the way in which his teaching is rooted in to old Hebrew Scriptures (our “Old Testament”) and yet brings fresh revelation from God and a new understanding of the old texts.
This ability to combine old and new reminds me of comments I heard in a recent television documentary about Fairport Convention. As some of you may know, Fairport Convention emerged from the underground music scene in the late sixties, an English rock band playing cover versions of West Coast American music, such as songs by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. They played some of their own compositions. Then in 1969 they started to include traditional English folk music in their repertoire. Not only was this the first time that such music had been played on the instruments of a rock band, but the songs themselves were infused with elements of rock composition. Something old and something new.
I was introduced to the music of Fairport Convention in 1970 by a student doing a summer job in the same factory as me. He lent me some to listen to and I was captivated by the beauty and energy of the music. I had given up listening to pop music several years earlier and only tuned into Radio 3. Fairport Convention opened the door into a new realm of music for me, and for many others. This year is the 45th anniversary of the group’s formation and they’re still going strong, with a fan base that crosses generations. The documentary I watched was a tribute to their music and its transforming impact on the folk music scene.