The sun was shining and it was a lovely day, I was back in Bristol in my former Parish of Kingswood, I had been asked to do a talk at a friend’s Church -Bourne Christian Centre- who were doing a sizzle in the car park, giving out free burgers and hot-dogs with plenty of fun fayre type events and things for all the family, there were puppets, choirs and face-painting to which they had invited the local community to come and join them.
They were reaching out with an extravagant generosity that was an expression of love from the people of Bourne Christian Centre, but more than that, was showing something of the love of God that reaches out and says “you are welcome and wanted by God”.
I thought about this wonderful Church, who sadly a few years early had been rocked by a painful split, which also saw their income greatly diminish too, they could have bemoaned their troubles, and focused more and more inwards developing a victim mentality, but instead, despite the numerous challenges, they are thriving as a community with a renewed passion for Christ and mission to their community.
There was a wonderful buzz, and great to see many faces I knew, both people from my friends Church (this neighbouring Church was often a real source of blessing and encouragement to me) familiar faces from the local community, and some friends from my previous Church too. I was given lots of hugs and felt very affirmed which was good as I felt a bit nervous about coming back, returning back to a place you previously served brings both the joyous memories of wonderful people and fruitful Kingdom action and also the sadness of disappointments and relationships that were painful.
It was great to chat to so many people, I began to wonder that although it is great to have an opportunity to preach a message, actually I sensed that God had already been at work in the conversations I was able to have with friends old and new already. It was lovely chatting to old friends and some of the conversations were faith related and others life related and that felt okay. The whole event had a bit of a carnival or party atmosphere and I thought “Christians should be good at throwing parties!”
Yet I remembered a similar event we did down the road at Holy Trinity where we gave out lots of freshly cooked burgers, again lots of opportunities to talk to people from the community, fringe Church members and the regular crowd. I got ranted at by one of the long standing members that she “didn’t give to this Church for her money to be wasted on burgers” (actually they had been donated by an ‘anonymous saint’ but she did not stop around long enough to listen to that bit).
I believe that generosity and hospitality are at the forefront of mission and this Church was generously blessing their community with a Christ-like extravagance that reminded me of the woman anointing Jesus’ feet cracking open a jar of pure nard worth about a years’ wages, or the Father who runs to meet his son, puts shoes on his feet, ring on his finger, a robe around his shoulders and killed the fatted calf. A decent party is not one that skimps and saves, waters down the orange squash until it is barely drinkable, no instead a party is a time for abundance and generosity (just think how much wine there would have been after Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana). Yet too often Christians have a poverty mindset and live out a scarcity narrative.
During my curacy in a place called Bemerton in Salisbury, I learned a lot about a previous Rector there called George Herbert, who wrote many amazing hymns and poems, one of them was called “love bade me welcome” which talk of God’s welcome extended to us (humanity), yet we and yet we draw back because of our sin and shame, but still being invited in to feast at the banquet of fine food.
“Okay Andy, you’re on after the puppets” said my friend Jon stirring me from my day-dream, I laughed and made a joke of “the puppet followed by the muppet!” I looked around, my stomach knotting a bit as hoping what I had prepared would resonate with the people here, I wanted them not only to feel loved and welcomed but wanted them to consider accepting Jesus and the message of the cross. Knowing Kingswood as an ‘old school’ working class, slightly old fashioned blue collar parish, where asking for help was not something that comes readily to people here. To illustrate this, I had two donuts on very long sticks with forks on the end which my volunteers had to try and eat. It is impossible, the sticks are too long, the only way it can work is if someone else feeds you their donut and you feed them yours! As expected the volunteers struggled on their own for ages before we admit that they could not manage, and needed some help!
“Are we trying to struggle through life on our own” I asked, I spoke simply that I believe we cannot save ourselves by our own efforts, we can’t managed to be good enough for God by our human ooomph, Rather than trying to reach up to a God beyond our grasp, Christianity is about a God who reaches down to us in Jesus who meets us in our mess. Jesus who does what we could not do on our own which is to restore our broken relationship with God, a free-gift for us all to accept, if we are willing to surrender and accept what Jesus has done for us.
It was a simple message but one I think people got, I left with the challenge of God there wanting to be invited to come into our lives, would we open our hearts and minds to God and receive him?
As I shared this message with all the passion I could, I was reminded of another time I did Church in the car park in Kingswood, this car park was on the edge of Southey Park, and was next door to where we were to plant our new Church, All Souls’, yet we did not manage to get the keys as early as we hoped so a few of us on the Sunday we had planned as our first Sunday, wandered around the area praying, feeling very daunted by the huge challenge of planting a new Church with a tiny team and barely any money (and some very real opposition from within the Church) -I know my prayer that Sunday was along the lines of “God, help us”- we gathered after our prayers around my battered old car, and on an old wall paper paste table, I (with slightly trembling hands) shared communion with the couple of friends who were standing with us in this venture, remembering the extravagance of God in giving of himself to step down into our world, to live, to suffer and to die upon the cross for us. Communion says to God we come with empty hands, no bargaining chips, totally dependent on God our only hope, but the amazing truth is we are also coming before our loving heavenly father, awesomely generous in all things -including salvation- that knows how to give good gifts to his children, when we come in faith to God we do not leave empty handed.
After the event had finished, I drove past another of my former Churches, and saw they were doing a BBQ for the new residents who had moved into the new development around the Church. I remembered with that pang of an unpleasant memory about how I couldn’t get anyone from the Church to go to the meeting about the potential new developments, clearly some within the congregation had had a change of heart, and for a second I felt a twinge of jealousy “why would they rally around and help with mission for a new vicar and yet didn’t help me?” The problem with returning to a place with mixed memories is that we do not just remember the joys, I have a bad habit of picking the scabs from past hurts too.
Perhaps I need to heed my own words about surrendering to Jesus and let him have the joys and the sorrows of the eight years I served as Pioneer Minister here, and allow him to use the bits I got right and trust his grace, love and goodness for the parts I got wrong; to allow him to encourage me with the blessings and trust him with my wounds too.
Interestingly God had taken me on this missional pilgrimage which involved going back to Bristol with him, sometimes we have to re-visit those places of pain with our loving heavenly parent to lay down at the foot of the cross the things that have hurt us and now are holding us back. A facebook meme appeared on my phone as I typed these words about not being able to pick what God has for us for today (and tomorrow) if our hands, head and heart are still full of the junk of yesterday.
I pulled the car over by the side of the road and prayed quietly.