Thursday, 31 August 2017

Pray out the old, pray in the new

31st August… the last day of the meteorological summer (about the only sort of summer some of us have had this year!) and also the last day of the Methodist Connexional year… How do we feel as this date dawns?
Loraine and I are almost ten weeks into our new roles and have begun getting to know new parts of the Connexion and of the world.  Thank you for your prayers for us as we travel and share – those prayers make all the difference.  As we all say good bye to one year and hello to a new year, prayer seems to be the place to start… so here I share a few thoughts about where my prayers may take me in these days:
Confessing and letting go – perhaps, if I am honest, there are things about the past year which weren’t so great; upsets, disputes, disappointments, hasty words... Today seems like a good day to let go of anything which could fester or distract me from my own discipleship. 
Amongst people I meet in the wider Methodist church too I have encountered strained relationships, hurt and bitterness.  All of this is not surprising – we all “fall short of the glory of God” (as Paul puts it in Romans3:23) – but, as I always urge those who come with me on pilgrimage, heavy loads slow us down and grievance is a very heavy load.  Can we make today a day for putting down some of those loads and walking away, towards a shared goal of peace?
Tomorrow, 1st September, is being marked by many as a day of prayer and fasting.  There is plenty for which to pray…   
Hoping and picking up – A new Connexional year brings with it many signs of hope and new beginnings.  The Yorkshire districts have been reconfigured and launched in new shapes; the districts of London, Northampton and Yorkshire North & East have welcomed new chairs, on Monday Loraine and I will share in the induction of 8 young people who will be placed in all sorts of exciting locations as part of the ONE internship programme and on Tuesday and Wednesday we will take part in new year worship in Manchester with TMCP and in London with the Connexional Team.  Many circuits around the Connexion will be welcoming new ministers or reconfigured boundaries.  All of this is not mere formality, but happens in a context of worship and prayer which affirms that we are looking to God to work amongst us.  It is a day to listen to “what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Rev. 2:7)
Longing and looking out – Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer we express our longing for the Kingdom of God to come “on earth as it is in heaven”.  But every day the media open windows onto a world which is very far from that Kingdom.  Day by day we hear of natural disasters, catastrophes, violence, suffering.  The list of places in need of prayer grows all the time; Freetown, Barcelona, Houston, Mumbai, Pakistan, Bangladesh… and there are all the places we don’t hear about in the media too. Both Loraine and I have been moved and challenged by our visits to Uganda and Ethiopia respectively.   We spoke on the phone yesterday and grieved together over such a pain-filled world. 
Once again we invite the people called Methodist to join us in prayer, prayer for ourselves, prayer for the church and prayer for the world.  Prayer can be hard work – during a very long Ethiopian Orthodox service which I attended in Debre Birhan a few weeks ago we were given “prayer sticks” to lean upon as we stood and prayed; I would have liked to bring one home, but that wasn’t allowed.  However, we do have the new Methodist Prayer Handbook to help us!   This year it is entitled “Jesus the First and Last”, reminding us of where all our prayers begin and end.  If yours hasn’t arrived yet, I hope it soon will; meanwhile, from day 22, here is Loraine’s prayer which we may all lean upon as we offer our prayers today and tomorrow and beyond:
Holy God of the morning:  still our minds.
Holy God of creation:  create through us new life and vitality today.
Holy God of whispering gentle breeze:  come to us in sighs too deep for words.
Holy God of crashing thunder:  break into our lives and into our complacency.
Holy God of sun and warmth:  encourage us to reach out with love.
Holy God of the evening:  fill the fading light of this day with your awesome presence that we might worship you, honour you, glorify you , bless you , praise and adore you as we take our rest.  Amen.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Coming and going (or "planes in the night")

One of the great privileges of holding these offices of President or Vice-President of the Methodist Conference is the invitation to travel to different parts of the world.  In January/February this year I made a two-week visit to our Methodist sisters and brothers in Russia, which was an amazing experience with much warm hospitality offered in temperatures that reached -21C!  My full report can be read on the Mission pages of this website.

This week, Loraine has set off for her partnership visit to Hong Kong and Fiji and I look forward to hearing more about that in due course.

About 48 hours before she took to the airways, I landed at Heathrow following an extraordinary week in Ethiopia with our relief and development charity, All We Can (with whom Loraine recently went to Uganda; her reports are on the Presidential Facebook pages)

Ethiopia was a huge surprise to me - probably most of us think of Michael Buerk, Bob Geldof and Band Aid in 1984 or, if we are a bit older, of Jonathan Dimbleby revealing "The Hidden Famine" a decade earlier in 1973 and so we associate Ethiopia with desert, famine and drought.  Sadly, it is still a country of poverty, need and injustice, but it is a vast country and my visit was centred in Debre Birhan, about two hours' north of Addis Ababa in the Ethiopian Highlands (which are much higher than the Scottish Highlands!  We reached heights of around 3000 metres, where I found the altitude affected my breathing and ability to climb considerably!)  The rainy season is now underway - and farmers told us it has been a good rainy season so far, with plenty of rain, but without the excessive deluges which can do more harm than good - so everywhere was looking green and fertile.

I travelled with Claire Welch from All We Can and we were guided by two of All We Can's partner organisations, SUNARMA and ADEHNO, both NGOs working with local farmers and communities to find ways of increasing productivity and improving living conditions in mainly rural areas.  This method of working, with its emphasis on partnership, strikes me as extremely good practice.  We are not sending people into places to teach new methods but working on the ground with those who live there and who, day by day, are exploring how best to harness nature and, through soil and water conservation techniques, alleviate the effects of climate change and other environmental disasters.  

Amongst many others, we met shepherds rearing new strains of sheep; beekeepers with new design hives (I still managed to get stung!); women making a more efficient stove; an apple farmer discovering how this relatively new crop flourishes in the highlands (despite frost and hail - which we experienced on our visit!); a potato farmer having great success with Irish potatoes (now known locally as SUNARMA potatoes!), women breeding chickens (of course!)... and time and time again the farmers impressed upon us how their lives are being transformed, "Day by Day".  It was humbling and a huge privilege to enter the homes and lands of these generous, dignified people and to share around their tables in the ever-present "injera" (the local staple food) as well as huge loaves of celebratory bread, and, of course, the very special coffee ceremony.  (I politely declined the home-brewed beer and spirits, known to be very powerful!)

On the final day, as we were driving back to Debre Birhan and then on to Addis for our flight, I noticed a group of people gathering on the skyline, some 800 yards from the roadside.  Our driver slowed down and our hosts explained that they were a group of farmers waiting to see us and to thank us.  We walked along a low embankment through the mud to be warmly greeted (in the rain) by about 80 Ethiopian farmers from that plainland area.  Movingly they told us of how last winter the frost had devastated their crops.  They had had to go to the government for emergency food aid but even so many had had to eat leaves.  Their message was clear, however, they didn't want to be given food, they wanted to be supported in ways of making the land more fertile and protecting their crops from erosion and weather-damage.  Their gratitude to ADEHNO (and therefore All We Can) for working with them in this way was enormous.  It was a profoundly moving and humbling experience.

There is so much more I could write, and so much more I have to learn about the history of this amazing land and culture - with its proud ancient history of the origins of the human race, and its bloody recent history of the Derg Regime and the Red Terror of 1974-1991.  There is so much more I could write about the influence of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (which we attended from 5:30am - 7:15am last Sunday morning - and even then the service was not half-way through)...

I flew home with many faces, voices, prayers and hopes in my heart and mind and I am so grateful to All We Can and to the Methodist people for this life-changing encounter.  Please keep Ethiopia in your prayers.