Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Giving Garden - a good news story for a change!

I want to tell y'all about my Totally-Brilliant-Afternoon.  I was invited to attend the official opening of "The Giving Garden" and it's such an inspirational thing I want to share the joy.

Menzieshill church in the middle of a big housing scheme in Dundee (and their minister) had a vision of a useful purpose for a bit of waste ground behind their church.  It was completely overgrown and had rubble, trees, bushes and litter and was not very promising.  Yet they could see a use for it.  Dundee has a wonderful and very essential charity called Dundee Food Bank which distributes food to people in desperate need.  I know some of those involved and it's just fab.  Mostly they distribute tins and dried food but through the vision given to Menzieshill church and their minister they should be able to include fresh produce for at least some of the year now.

The vision, now on course for fulfilment, was for the waste ground to be made into a big allotment growing vegetables and fruit that could be donated to the food project.  The first crop is now planted and the first harvest is anticipated with excitement.

Prisoners from the local open prison were drafted in to clear the ground.  This has been great for them in lots of ways.  It's this part of the project of which I was a small, but very glad, link in the chain.  At least one individual from local homeless units has been involved in the work too.  Two of those "workers" are now attending the church and growing in faith.
The local primary school were willing participants, helping with some of the gardening.  A girl at the school came up with the logo and a boy at the school came up with the name ("The Giving Garden").  The reason they didn't go with "Menzieshill Giving Garden" and chose "The Giving Garden" is that they are really hoping that the idea will spread and that Giving Gardens will become a feature of many towns and cities, in just the way that food banks are, more and more so.  Many churches have unused ground that could be used in this way.  Incidentally, the girl and boy whose logo and name were chosen got a bike (and helmet, for H & S) as a prize, presented by the Lord Provost of Dundee - that was the point at which I nearly lost it and cried!

In the picture below, btw, if you look over the fence, the whitish head on the far left is moi!  Even my closest friends will have to take my word for it.  The prisoner who was there understandably was even more camera shy than me.  The minister of the church is holding the left hand side of the giant-cheque-thing and wearing a checked shirt.  The guy on the far left of the picture is one of the leaders of the Dundee Food Bank.  I am proud to know these guys.


Monday, 21 May 2012

The Ascension and Having the Full Picture..

It was lovely yesterday morning to conduct worship services in two rural Kinross-shire congregations, in beautiful settings on bright sunny days after the recent depressing weather.  The people in both places were lovely, radiant in their faith. 

We were thinking about the Ascension of Jesus and all that it means to us.  If you're not familiar with the story you can read it here.  Thursday just past was Ascension Day (40 days after Easter).

And this Sunday coming, churches the world over will be celebrating Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birthday of the Church.

I would argue that Christmas, Easter, the Ascension and Pentecost are all of pretty much equal importance in the Christian faith.  Not the festivals themselves.... what we DO to celebrate or even WHEN we celebrate them isn't fundamental.  But a Christian faith that only focusses on Christmas and Easter is not a proper faith at all, in my opinion.

The world and its wife celebrate Christmas.  It may be only May but behind the scenes the retail
business will already be making its plans for the Christmas bonanza.  Easter isn't such a big thing but is still quite commercialised, and there is a bank holiday and Easter eggs (the first promotion of Easter eggs for this year that I saw was on New Year's Day).  And of course, pre-Christianity there were festivals at those times of year anyway.

However, when it comes to Ascension Day and Pentecost, we in the Church are left to our own devices.  The card shops don't sell "Happy Ascension Day" or "Happy Pentecost" cards.  Sometimes I wonder if we take our cue from the world and largely ignore the two events ourselves.

It's not celebrating the festivals that I'm concerned about, though I'm all in favour, but it's remembering the other two corners that complete the square along with Christmas and Easter in the structure of our faith.

We need to believe in the Ascension, and focus on it sometimes, to remind ourselves of some key things:

1)  Jesus went into heaven in front of His friends' eyes and that's where He is now.
2)  In heaven one of the things He is doing is fulfilling His earthly promise to go and prepare a place for us!
3)  In heaven He is also interceding for (praying for) us.
4)  In heaven He is glorified and ruling along with the Father.

That last one is so important for us to remember and focus on, and explains why a faith based solely on Christmas and Easter will be a weak and ineffectual one.  The Christmas story is awesome - God becoming one of us, humbling Himself to come as a wee baby in a manger in a stable in a backwater place, is the "Incarnation".  The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus 33 years later mean the difference between being lost and found for us.  Through that first Easter, death and sin are defeated and it is now possible for us to be reconciled to God and adopted as His children and citizens of His kingdom.

However, the two images of Jesus we have through these stories are weak images.  Jesus was weak and defenceless when He was a baby in a manger.  He was even weaker when He was hanging, broken, on the cross.  But He was only a baby for however long one is officially a baby (a year?) and He was only on the cross for a matter of hours.  Through the story of the Ascension we are powerfully reminded that for the best part of 2000 years, Jesus has not been weak and powerless and defenceless.  We pray not to a defenceless baby nor a dying man but to a risen, glorified king - indeed the King of Kings.  When John saw a vision of Jesus as He is now, described in Revelation 1:12-18, he quite understandably fainted! 

When I was a small kid in the playground, whenever there was an altercation between two children, you would hear, "I'll get my big brother on you!"  I think I probably said it myself even though I didn't have a big brother.  In heaven, Christians have the ultimate big brother - and he's rooting for us.

And then there's Pentecost - the other corner.  Jesus left the Earth and rose up into Heaven where He's at work on our behalf.  But He left us the Holy Spirit to empower us and counsel us and comfort us.  Without the Holy Spirit we'd be as much use as an electrical gadget without electricity.

A mature Christian faith has all four corners in place - the festivals are fine and fun, but the doctrines that they celebrate will make a world of difference to us if we fully grasp all four of them.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Prison Fellowship Scotland - well worth celebrating!

Prison Fellowship Scotland celebrated thirty years' existence this weekend.  It was a great privilege to go along and be part of their celebration.  Highlights for me definitely included taking three prisoners (legally, on licence!) with me and also meeting up with two much loved (by God and me and some others) former prisoners who are doing well and going on in their faith, in spite of difficulties along the way. 

I was reminded, yet again, of a recently and previously blogged-about retired Prison Fellowship volunteer at the prison I work in and her faithful service over many years.  A prisoner I knew well - let's call him John, though that's not his name - used to talk to me about her.  He didn't believe in God and wasn't interested in becoming a Christian ever.  He never attended a single service I conducted in the jail even though we spent a lot of time together and were on warm and friendly terms.  But "John" attended Prison Fellowship meetings in the prison every single week.  His reason?  He just came in order to wonder about our volunteer.  He knew that I get paid to be a prison chaplain but that she was a volunteer, not even getting her travel expenses even though she lived over 40 miles away and didn't even get expenses.  He was bowled over by her commitment over so many years to come into the prison every single week, rain, hail, snow or shine, just because she cared about the guys and, quite frankly, John wondered about that.  Our volunteer was of course "only" (wrong word) one of many over the years in our jail and lots of others across the globe.  When she retired others took her place.  The Christian church is (often rightly) criticised for her failings but when we apply truly our theology of grace we have really something amazing to offer!

Prison Fellowship is a wonderful international organisation which had its origins in the U.S. through the work of an American man called Chuck Colson, who died recently.

Chuck Colson was a politician who was implicated in the Watergate scandal.  He ended up going from a powerful respected wealthy political position to imprisonment.  In custody, he became a Christian, and on release founded the international organisation that is Prison Fellowship.  He said this: 
"...all my achievements meant nothing in God's economy. No, the real legacy of my life was my biggest failure -- that I was an ex-convict. My greatest humiliation -- being sent to prison -- was the beginning of God's greatest use of my life ... only when I lost everything I thought made Chuck Colson a great guy had I found the true self God intended me to be and the true purpose of my life. It is not what we do that matters, but what a sovereign God chooses to do through us. God doesn't want our success; He wants us. He doesn't demand our achievements; He demands our obedience..."

I was telling a long serving prisoner I know whose default setting in life (perhaps understandably) is a negative attitude to "the system" and who loves to see the cloud behind every silver lining about the recent death of Chuck Colson.  Predictably, I suppose, he started to say that, oh yes, Chuck Colson was a mere opportunist that thought he could salvage some power, coming out of prison, by founding Prison Fellowship.  I never said a word, but just listened.  Half way through his diatribe, though, he stopped himself and said, "Actually, he did so much more than I ever have for prisoners".  I love that prisoner but on this occasion I didn't argue!

Chuck Colson died a few weeks back on 21 April 2012, aged 80.  His legacy is priceless.  One of our ex prisoners who spoke at the Prison Fellowship Scotland conference/celebration on Saturday was interviewed on mic at the front.  What he had to say was great but when he was asked how he felt about Prison Fellowship he broke down as he replied, "Without them I'd be dead".  That spoke more powerfully than anything, especially to me because since I know him I know that he was not exaggerating.

Lord, thank you for the vision behind Prison Fellowship and all they do the world over, including Scotland.  And thank you that it is your message that brings hope where so much else is hopeless. 

It's just fab, whether a Prison Fellowship volunteer or a paid prison chaplain to know that we are engaged in helping our Lord Jesus with his own personal mission statement.